In defense of government

There was a magical moment the other day when my son smiled up at me with bright eyes, complete trust, and unfettered happiness. I’d do anything and everything to defend that smile.

I am one of the many women who ran for local office in 2018. I ran because I am a mother. The best thing I could do for my children, I knew, to ensure their way of life, their happiness, was to show them that running for office was worth doing and that regular people could do it. Then, hopefully, my children would inhale my exhales about participatory democracy, exemplify those ideals, and pass them on like stories.

I believe in government. As a current member of the Lake County Board and throughout my previous work as an aide in the Minnesota State Senate, one thing has held true—government is full of civil servants. Hired, appointed, or elected, it is dominated by people who want to do the work, even when the circus swirls around them.

The circus does exist, of course. But government is far more defined by people who enjoy connecting dots and solving problems. They coordinate traffic signals to decrease congestion, find ice melt that keeps drivers safe while reducing harm to the environment, and research groundbreaking ways to allow a creek to flow around a beaver dam, preventing flooding of farm fields while letting the beaver colony remain part of the ecosystem. They build trails, coordinate services for abused children, and help those in need find food and shelter. They do this largely out of public view, because so few pay attention.

The Reagan mentality that government is the problem has done as much to damage our democracy as anything. Cynicism, as comic Steven Colbert says, only masquerades as wisdom. But cynicism is powerful—as long as people distrust government, government can get away with anything. The more people look away, the worse it gets, reinforcing their false notions, and the cycle of distrust continues until you have an oligarchy in power, a president who encourages the overthrow of an election, and a political party that lets him.

We currently face blinding truths that showcase our country’s imperfections and there are many, many worthwhile reforms to consider. But government itself is not the problem. Not in America. The problem is that too many people don’t know that.

One of the most important things we can do right now is re-ignite a sense of civic pride. Not easy, flag-pin-wearing pride but pride hard won—off the sidelines and into the fray.

We need to:

1.     Provide robust and participatory civics education at all grade levels that includes internships, city council meetings, town halls, and teachers passionate about the subject. Treat civics as importantly as we do S.T.E.M. Encourage discussion of campaigns and elections in grade school classrooms. Stop writing angry emails to teachers who dare try.

2.     Teach all of our history. We cannot feel pride at having overcome obstacles—we cannot overcome them—if we pretend they don’t exist. Calls for unity above all else exemplify a longstanding and pervasive tradition of moving on instead of understanding. To love America, you have to know America. This will make many people, particularly white people, uncomfortable. We can handle it.

3.     Learn how to talk politics. Stop teaching children that “politics” is a dirty word. Embrace intelligent debate. The exchange of ideas, whether on the Senate floor or at the dinner table, is not rude—it’s how great nations are made and kept.

There is no law of the universe that I will always be able to send my children to public school or speak openly to the newspaper or travel to the west side of town to meet friends for coffee. There is no Fairness Doctrine that says I will always be able to contemplate my son’s smile on a January morning.

These freedoms were planned, fought for, and carried out by people over generations who believed in our American ideals. Maintaining our democratic republic is up to us, eyes wide open—regular people doing for our country, whether by running for office, attending a city council meeting, or simply refuting the claim that government is the problem. Having enough hope to continue on, and enough wisdom to know why.

Wisdom with hope. That is who we can be.

Refuse to Play the Game

“Words are all we got.” Dean Baquet, December 8

Remember when, “Don’t let the terrorists win,” was the refrain of the moment and we were urged to get out and go shopping after 9/11? Most people, of course, knew it was about more than shopping — that we didn’t need to simply resume our daily habits; we needed to overcome our fears because the terrorists’ goal was to make us so afraid we’d turn on each other.

Then it became about shoe bombers, waterboarding, and recession. Underwater mortgages, the Boston Marathon, and Newtown. Somewhere along the way we forgot to not be afraid. We forgot to not turn on each other.

Of course, social media makes it worse by providing anonymity to people who confuse ranting with cogent thought. But social media is also a chance for real discussion and while I find it there every day, it’s also been disappointing to see how many people try to tamp down any talk of anything worthwhile.

People are comfortable in the status quo, especially when it is blissful ignorance. Disrupting the status quo is uncomfortable. I’m uncomfortable every time I post on Facebook or publish an essay like this.

But, as the daughter of a woman who once went running into the middle of a fight outside Walgreens, I am also uncomfortable in the role of bystander on the playground watching a bully at work, hoping he’ll calm down and leave the poor kid alone. There are a whole slew of rationalizers who keep pressing the “wait and see” button but for me, for many, that time has passed. The lip is bloodied, enough damage done. I don’t want to wait quietly to see if he goes for the throat.

It is purely, unabashedly, American to speak out against leaders who threaten liberties, who keep a hand over our mouths.

Much has been said about the need to understand Trump voters. I agree. I’ve sought them out, read their words and talked with them face to face. I’ve listened as they speak about industry, health care, and welfare reform and growing up around racism — growing calloused to words that, to them, were just words. I’ve listened as they said this election season the news was too overwhelming so they didn’t pay much attention and then simply voted the way they always do.

Listening to them does not threaten my beliefs but it does help me understand, a little, theirs. I can start to separate Trump the voter from Trump the man.

And I want nothing to do with dividing this country further. I refuse to be a pawn in Trump’s game.

The same should be asked of Trump voters: Listen. Believe us when we say it’s different this time. Believe us when we say it is about dignity, equality, and patriotism. Trump represents everything we feel threatens our democracy — he uses his words in anger to divide us. He has continued this rhetoric after the campaign, as president-elect. And he pushes us steadily backward instead of moving us forward on matters like climate change, human rights, and even the notion of truth.

I suspect there are many Trump voters who are concerned but want to see their vote vindicated. The problem is, the man we have elected is such a master of marketing and sparkle and colorful balloons, that it will be even harder these next four years to get at the nugget of truth in the middle.

But we must, and we can’t do it divided. The truth will lose.

He says he hates newspapers and accuses them of lying but that is because he wants to control the message. That is why he loves Twitter. By controlling the message, he controls us. Don’t let him. Some of what he says in the next four years will be true and good, and we should talk about that. I hope he helps small businesses and the working class. But we shouldn’t let it silence us during the moments he will lie. He has, by many accounts, nominated a knowledgeable general in Mattis. But that shouldn’t silence us on the fact that he has also appointed a racist in Bannon, or insulted China on Twitter.

Scrutiny is good.

Donald Trump is the worst of the dividers, but he’s not the only one. They are on both sides, in both parties. They say “all” and “always,” painting us with the broadest of brushes and taking away our faces, our humanity. They rely on the things we are angry about, the things we are scared of, and that’s their main message. These politicians and pundits are afraid, too — that we’ll vote them out of office or turn off the television — so they coddle anger and the attention it gets them like a newborn baby. Or like a crack addiction.

They think we’ll read a headline and maybe the first paragraph, we’ll listen to the screaming heads on cable news, and we’ll become enraged. It doesn’t matter whether a bill is good policy. It doesn’t matter whether this country was founded on the very idea of compromise.

Or they play games, attaching controversial language about abortion to a bill about roads because they know we aren’t paying attention, and they think we like the game.

I wish their assumptions had no merit, but the problem lies with us. We — you and I — have a responsibility and we are shirking it. A small fraction of voters put Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton on the general election ballot. We have power but we give it up. We forget that we are the parties, from the school board on up to president.

When did it become too hard to be an informed citizen? It isn’t easy, but when did it become too hard?

What happened to thoughtful conversations about government? When did that become an eye-roller?

We don’t talk politics with friends because we’ve been taught it’s a taboo subject. But that is accepting the notion that everything has to be a fight. We’ve accepted the idea that to disagree with someone is to insult them. To have an opinion is obnoxious.

But to be angry — boy, that is acceptable. That feels good. We’re so damn afraid, we indulge in anger like children. Even those of us who did not vote for Trump read about him and feel almost happy in our anger, righteous even. He invites our anger, deserves it, and we hand it over gladly.

This line from the movie Glory comes to mind lately: “We all covered up in it. Ain’t nobody clean.”

Politics is personal. But we have to be able and willing to express our ideas with respect and base them in fact. Anger can be good, useful even. But we have to know when to kick it out the door.

We are a nation of people who refuse to know each other, to read the news and have thoughtful dialogue with people we disagree with, and that is dangerous.

Because when we lack connection with each other, we elect people who work hard to divide us further. Donald Trump is working very, very hard to divide us.

Great leaders use their platform to rally people around a common cause for good. They help us feel the possibility of what we can be, and they remind us of our humanity, our sameness.

True policymaking and real governing are the hard things in all this. We need to quit voting for the clowns who put on a good show. We need to look for the guy who people make fun of for being a policy wonk. Vote for the woman who doesn’t end her statements with exclamation marks and who doesn’t use bombastic language to freak us out. Vote for the people who compromise.

We can still tune out much of the news. Paying attention and finding truth is easier than it seems.

The current situation is exactly what terrorists wanted back in 2001 and it’s what they want today: that we are so afraid and angry we forget who we are.

We have forgotten there are stories behind each of us. We have forgotten what our purpose is and where the meaning lies.

We need to remember. We have got to work together to hold on to America’s common cause, together. It doesn’t mean we stay silent in our corners and it doesn’t mean we don’t write the truth out of fear of making people uncomfortable. It certainly doesn’t mean we’ll always agree. It means we keep talking, and reading and listening and writing our stories, because that’s all there is to do.

There’s a reason this blog is called True STORIES. There’s a reason I put a quote by Colum McCann on the masthead. “Through our stories, we survive.” I believe that.

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Meet: My Mom

I saw my mother today and then came upon this old post. It gives a pretty good summation–though nowhere near exhaustive–of who she is.

Three years later, three more years of being a mother myself, and now I can add some important things to it, things I recognize as so very mothering:

–She dove fearlessly into the world of BRCA surgeries, going last (after me and my sister) so she could care for us through our difficult recoveries.
–She once waved a cheerful goodbye to me and my sister as we drove off on a three-week road trip across the country by ourselves, and only told us once we got home that it was the worst three weeks of her life.
–She is the first person my sister calls when there’s a rabid raccoon in her yard, the first person my brother calls when he is sick, and the first person I call when one of my children is sick and I’m unsure what to do.

Happy Mother’s Day, every day.

True STORIES.

For Mother’s Day, an early Monday Morning Meeting:

My mom…

  • Was born and raised on the northwest side of Chicago and attended Catholic school there. (She will forever say the word “nun” with some disdain.)
  • Lost her mother to pancreatic cancer when she was a freshman in college; afterward, she dropped out to help at home with her younger siblings.
  • Became the first flight attendant instructor without a college degree at United Airlines by walking into her boss’s office and insisting she could do it, back when female employees were weighed and had to be single.
  • Earned her Bachelor’s and Master’s in Psychology while raising three children. She now works with mentally disabled adults and runs her own consulting business.
  • Forced us to sit and wait on the stairs Christmas morning until she’d made her first cup of coffee.
  • Loves ham. And also Red Hots.
  • Let us take one “mental…

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8 Years Later: Why I’m Voting for Hillary This Time

Eight years ago, I read an essay by Gloria Steinem urging young women to vote for Hillary Clinton. At the time, young people overwhelmingly supported Barack Obama. Steinem wrote something along the lines of: If young women knew better, they’d vote for Hillary. If they’d been around forty years ago and really understood the women’s movement, they’d be making the right choice.

It made me angry. I was an Obama supporter. I liked his message. I didn’t like the way Clinton ran her primary campaign. And I wasn’t going to vote for someone just because she was a woman—wasn’t that the opposite of equality? Talking down to people is never a good idea, especially if you’re trying to persuade them, and Gloria Steinem should have known that. If anything, she alienated me from the women’s movement. For a time.

This election season, I filled out one of those questionnaires about government policy that supposedly matches you with the candidate you’re most aligned with. I am in 99% agreement with Bernie Sanders. I like him. And yet, I think I’ll vote for Clinton. Why?

It’s a serious question. I’ve been a bit stumped. Admittedly, I’ve paid little attention outside of the headlines this campaign season. Something about hearing or reading the name, “Trump,” in almost every campaign story has turned me off. I decided awhile ago to ignore it all until it started to really matter.

imgres Yet, one thing has been clear to me: I feel a strong urge to vote for Hillary. What has happened in the last eight years to change my mind?

Sure, Clinton has gained even more experience. This didn’t use to matter to me as much. I think probably eight years and two children later, with a 40th birthday looming, I now value life and work experience all the more. But Sanders is experienced, too. They’re both intelligent and capable public servants.

It’s not about the issues—I’ve never been a one-issue person. I won’t cut off my nose to spite my face, and both Clinton and Sanders represent my basic ideals. I might be in 99% agreement with Sanders, but I’m in 97% agreement with Clinton. I do think Clinton has a stronger chance of putting her policies into place, of “getting things done,” as they say.

As far as I can tell, my affinity toward Clinton these eight years later comes down to two things:

  1. Someone close to me was raped.
  2. I had a daughter.

I now see the world differently. The women’s movement used to be intellectual for me. Now it’s personal.

I have new eyes, so when they see women ignored or shamed because they were raped, it stays with me. I have new ears, so when they hear a man talk to me about house maintenance issues like I’m a kindergartner and then ask me, “Can you remember what I said so you can tell your husband when he gets home?,” I file that away in my brain.

I can remember. Oh, yes I can.

The world hasn’t changed; I have. Women are still objectified, vilified, paid less, patronized, underestimated, raped, assaulted, and beaten simply because they are women. We are still told to “Be quiet” and “Be nice.” It is still assumed that having boys means you’ll have an energetic household but having girls means you’ll have a quiet one. A woman news anchor can still be called a bimbo by a presidential candidate and people will adore him. I still have to fold my body in and look around me when I walk alone at night, anywhere. The world hasn’t changed—now it all just means more to me.

Actually, let me be honest. It means more to me sometimes. But other times—when, for instance, a man gives me a proverbial pat on the head and tells me, “You’re alright, kid,” after he finds out I know how to use a shovel to dig a trench, I feel pride mixed with my anger. A part of me still likes those pats on the head.

Electing a woman has become a priority for me and I’m not ashamed to say it. Too often, I think, women cower to the finger-pointers and respond with, “I support her because she’s qualified, not because she’s a woman.” Why can’t it be both?

Now, would Sanders help women? Sure. Maybe. I can’t know for sure. Does Clinton being a woman mean she’ll always do right by women? Sure. Maybe. I can’t know for sure.

But I do know that figureheads are important. I do know it’s high time we elect a qualified, dedicated woman to the top office. And I do know I don’t want my daughter to like having her head patted—not by a handyman, not even by Gloria Steinem.

So the bigger question isn’t, Why not Bernie? The bigger questions are: What took me so long to put a woman first and what is the women’s movement going to do to recruit my daughter, not alienate her?

10 Things I’m Learning About Selling a House

It’s spring and that means three things: spring is in the air, days are longer, and houses are popping up for sale all over the place. My house is one of them and I’ve discovered a few things that might help you if you’re about to be in the same boat:

  1. You don’t need a huge “For Sale” sign in your front yard.
  2. Your son might, for the first time in his seven years of living, start peeling the dining room wallpaper on the morning your house goes on the market. This won’t be the worst thing that happens.
  3. Keeping mirrors spotless will become an obsession. Stop rinsing and spitting like an imbecile!
  4. You won’t remember what you boxed up and stored away and you should just donate it all. Except for family photos, maybe.
  5. Having friends or family nearby where you can store your children for a while will save your sanity.
  6. When that same family will not, under any circumstances, take care of your cat, chill out. No buyer cares if you have a cat. Unless, of course, he’s a giant hairball. (The cat.) In which case, accidentally let him outside before showings.
  7. Yes, you really do think your house is worth more than it is worth.
  8. On the one weekend morning in six weeks that you decide to just let your kids play and make a mess, someone will call and request a showing in one hour.
  9. You’ll fall in love with your house again; it’s never looked better. You might even get annoyed when someone wants to buy it.

And finally:

  1. Negotiating with a buyer (or seller) is like a mini-war that reaffirms the truth that women should rule the world. The following is part of a conversation that recently took place in my house:

Me: “Well, I do see both sides.”

My husband: “Stop doing that.”

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