Tom was a down-to-earth, “good ole boy” who grew up on a farm in central California. We don’t think about California as a rural state, but even today 56% of its land area remains rural.
Like many of us, Tom moved to the city to find work. When I met him, he was night supervisor at an industrial plant. At the time, I worked the loading docks. I was 20 years old.
Tom was a genius, but not in the conventional sense. He was functionally illiterate, could barely read, and wrote at a second-grade level. But he had a gift for machinery, and could make any piece of equipment run.
This was an important skill at the plant, which used a number of types of complex machinery from forklifts and yard goats to packaging and painting equipment. The most challenging was an acetylene production and bottling system, which took up about 25% of the plant and was the only facility like it in all of southern California. Acetylene is a relatively unstable gas used for welding, and the process of producing it and dissolving it into acetone in cylinders is not at all simple. The system broke down a lot. Tom, the night shift supervisor, could keep it running better than the plant’s engineer.
But Tom was not well liked by the management. The corporate culture thrived on reporting, and Tom, who couldn’t write, was unable to provide the copious and lengthy reports required. This was the other reason he was moved to night shift: he was an embarrassment to a culture of college-educated management. But they needed him. The plant wouldn’t run through the night without him. They knew this because the weeks Tom took for vacation each year were nightmares for management– and for those of us who worked at night.
No one could make that plant run like Tom could. Yet he was the least-respected member of management. In a culture that valued correspondence, Tom’s gift for machinery was essential but not respected. Most managers considered him stupid. He was uneducated, but he was far from stupid. If you wanted life advice, his was better than any of his college-educated superiors.
I can tell Tom’s story because he’s gone now, and so is the company we worked for. I tell it because it illustrates one of the fundamental issues of the polarization in our nation. But let me illustrate it from the other side.
Someone I know well, a self-described liberal, recently told me, “There’s no excuse for whining about low paying jobs. Anyone can get a college degree and get a better job if they just put their mind to it.” Education, she claimed, was the answer to the economic woes of the working class.
There is some truth to this. Many are capable of educating themselves and getting better jobs. But as a blanket statement, this just isn’t true. First of all, it defies the laws of economics. If everyone had a college degree, wages for skilled jobs would go down and required qualifications for advancement would go up. That’s the law of supply and demand. Just look at India, where you need a college degree to become a clerk!
But let’s return to Tom, who never learned to read and write functionally. He’s not alone. Some reports claim that 44 million American adults cannot read a simple story, and 50% cannot read a book written at an 8th grade level. This is not exclusively a rural-urban issue, but it’s related. In a rural economy, what matters is getting the job done. Whether that’s construction or farming, driving truck or repairing equipment, skills are of much more value than literacy. And that’s been true for hundreds of years. It is not just a statistic, it is a cultural reality.
I remember when the Foxfire books debuted in the 1970s. It was as if people suddenly realized that there was wisdom in the Appalachians. The books became bestsellers. The life (and generational) experience of mountain people spoke to “the rest of us.” Perhaps there was an element of romanticism in this embrace. Or perhaps we realized that we had forgotten to value wisdom from other times and places.
Today, those same people are often considered uneducated and unworthy of making their own decisions. It seems we cannot imagine any reality other than our own. We expect everyone to agree with us–and this is true across the political spectrum– as if everyone has had the same experience and faces the same realities.
How can someone who struggles to raise thousands of dollars for a tiny apartment in an urban community relate to someone else whose livelihood depends on maintaining acreage on which to farm, and vice versa? How can someone whose livelihood relies on a corporation providing cheap goods relate to a small producer who needs a better price to survive, and vice versa? And how can an educated urbanite relate to a rural person whose family never valued education because it didn’t put food on the table? (Remember my mention of the deer poacher in my last post? Where there are no skilled jobs, education isn’t a priority.)
But, conversely, without farmers and truck drivers what will you eat? And without urban economies, who would employ farmers and truck drivers?
Like Tom and the company he worked for, we need each other. Like Tom and the company, we have different values and experiences. Do we vilify each other, or do we try to understand where the other is coming from?
The answer has gotten more difficult since the 1980s when I worked with Tom. No longer do people from diverse backgrounds sit around and chat. Instead, we trade memes on social media. No longer do we listen to each others’ stories. Instead, we trade sound bites.
It’s a lot like giving just the punchline of a joke. “So he says, ‘Bring me my brown pants.'” How do you know if it’s funny without the back story?
I worked with Tom for a decade. I listened to his stories, and talked with him about life. He died some 30 years ago. I’m sure his fellow managers, wherever they are, have long forgotten him. But his memory lives on in me because I knew him as a wise man.
I grew up in northern New England in a town of 800 people spread out in four villages. Our school district served eight towns. It had a better graduation rate than most, but few went on to college. This was a town of families who’d been there for hundreds of years. I was born in the same hospital as my father. We can track his line back to 1799 in rural Maine. My mother’s line goes back to the Mayflower.
There were no jobs to speak of back then. The interstate wasn’t constructed until the late 1970s, so we were pretty isolated. It took over an hour on winding state highways to get to the state capitol. (Now it takes about 25 minutes.) Most residents tried to make a living doing what they could: selling and fixing chainsaws, or fishing and hunting equipment, or lawnmowers, plowing driveways, or working in local restaurants. These did not provide much of a living. In 1959, our state had one of the highest poverty rates in the nation. My dad was a CPA whose clients did all those things. He often received payment in barter because cash was scarce. I remember my mom complaining, “I can’t take that new lawnmower to the grocery store!”
Occasionally, someone would get an idea for a new business, like manufacturing RVs. These usually went bankrupt fairly quickly, often taking with them the already-scarce wealth of residents who dared to believe something better was possible.
The only major industry was tourism. Every summer, every foliage season, and every ski season, the state would get deluged with rich folks from Boston, New York, and Montreal. Many were rude in both their interactions and their driving, so we had a love-hate relationship with the tourists. Most people looked at them as simply a source of income. Some in my generation discovered the benefits of stealing from them, because they had much more portable wealth than we did. My first job was as a dishwasher in a local restaurant, where for 90 cents an hour I washed plates from meals that cost $10-$25 each.
There were no minorities in our town. With no jobs and brutal winters, why would there be? There were plenty of better places to live. There was one local TV station, if by local you mean in the same state. Most of our media came from Boston, and we were deluged with stories about urban problems: gangs, violence, and white flight. As a child, I most remember that they cancelled school in Boston for a half inch of snow, but we had to wait for the bus in the dark in up to a foot. The news impacted adults much differently than it did me. When, in the 1970s, the government opened a research facility not far away, the first black family moved to town. This was an upper-middle-class family, wealthier than most of us. But I remember adults whispering concerns about accompanying gangs, violence, and white flight. They only knew about Blacks what they’d heard on the urban news. The narratives we hear are the narratives we know.
Not surprisingly, in this environment of poverty, everyone sought to feel better about themselves. Those of us who were different got bullied on the school bus and at school. I was one: my parents were marginally better off, and I was too smart (and socially inept) for my own good. The two sons of the black family were also targets, as was the son of a Japanese-American family that also moved there to work at the research center. Sameness was important.
Education was less so. Those whose parents had professions were likely to go to college; those whose parents didn’t were far less likely. Generations of “just getting by” leave their imprint, and you don’t need a college degree to sell chainsaws or work at the local ski area.
Alcoholism was rampant. There wasn’t much to do after work besides drink. When I later joined a Twelve Step program, it was filled with people I knew: some peers my age, my seventh grade teacher, my dad’s former business partner, and the owner of a local restaurant. (The latter’s sons, my peers, would also benefit from such a program. Alcoholism, too, seems to be a generational phenomenon.)
Not surprisingly, I and most of my peers left as soon as we were old enough. I don’t know where most of them went. I went to Los Angeles. When I return home now, it’s rare to meet anyone I grew up with. And things have changed. Many urban folks have moved there for its lower tax rates, and they commute to jobs in the city. The population of my hometown has become somewhat more ethnically diverse, which is to say you might see a person of color once in a while. It’s funny to observe how gangs and white flight never materialized…
The state now boasts one of the lowest poverty rates in the nation, and unemployment is low. But these statistics are deceiving. Because of the brutal winters, the cost of living is high, and even the many who live slightly above the federal poverty line struggle to make ends meet. Most of the new jobs created locally are minimum wage jobs. There remains a division between locals and skilled urban workers, just as there remains a division between locals and tourists.
When I was a child, our family was friends with a family whose head of household poached deer. This wasn’t something he was proud of. He had to, or his kids wouldn’t eat. I have no doubt such things still go on in the woods of New England.
Think about how an anti-gun, pro-environment, hunter-shaming message plays to someone who did, does, or might need to poach deer to feed their family.
Think about the divide that grows up between that native and their urban-liberal neighbor who built a McMansion on the hill, figuratively looking down on everyone around them (and who perhaps complains that these rural roads have neither street lights nor sidewalks).
Think about a diet of urban news conditioning a population of rural people, who now see what they thought were urban problems like drugs and crime invading their rural communities. Who do they blame? On the urban news, it’s often people who look different. While that may be simply because urban communities have people who look different, unless you’ve lived there you don’t really get that. (Trust me on this. My move to Los Angeles caused major culture shock.)
I’m not saying any of this is right. But perhaps it can be understandable. Until we realize that there are bridges of understanding that need to be crossed, we can’t even begin to cross them. And without understanding, without a common frame of reference, communication isn’t possible.
The Bundy Ranch standoff that occurred in Bunkerville, NV, in April, 2014  offers a clear view into two very different Americas: the urban liberal reality now experienced by a majority of Americans, and the reality of rural America which has little in common. I offer this case study in the hope that we as a nation can begin to understand that our experience, whether rural or urban, is not the experience of many other people, each of whom makes decisions– including political decisions– based on their own experience of reality. Only when we begin to acknowledge that difference can we possibly bridge the divide that has polarized the nation and brought us to the political state in which we find ourselves.
Rancher Cliven Bundy had been grazing cattle on federal lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) for many years, but had not paid his grazing fees. The fees and related fines eventually totaled over a million dollars. After a series of legal battles, heavily-armed BLM agents were dispatched to impound hundreds of Bundy’s cattle. When videos circulated of Bundy family members being physically assaulted by BLM agents, hundreds of supporters streamed to the ranch. These included a few dozen militia members from Idaho, and hundreds of ranchers and other supporters from Nevada, Utah, and other western states.
Ranchers, farmers, and other interested parties supported Bundy because of ongoing, widespread problems with federal land management. It is little recognized outside the West that 81% of the land in Nevada, 67% of Utah, and 62% of Idaho are owned by the federal government—the majority of it managed by the BLM. While these federally-owned lands are seen by many Americans as wilderness to be protected, they are also an important source of livelihood for the people who live in those states. Land use issues affect livelihoods, and therefore survival and identity.
On the final day of the standoff, according to eyewitness Symbria Patterson, 40 unarmed men and women on horseback gathered under a freeway bridge and approached the BLM command post southwest of I-15. “They stopped and said a prayer, and talked about whether they would survive this. Some of them discussed who they wanted their horses to go to if they died,” she told me. As they exited the cover of the bridge, hundreds of protesters on foot streamed across the freeway in support. The BLM sent an agent to negotiate, and the protesters demanded that jurisdiction be turned over to the Clark County Sheriff, where (according to the protesters) it belonged. Sheriff’s deputies took control, the cattle were released from their pens, and the standoff ended. Supporters also documented the BLM’s abusive handling of the impounded cattle.
None of this was reported in the mainstream media, and the narrative of violent uprising continued in coverage of the legal aftermath. Associated Press quoted the prosecutor in the criminal case as saying, “[The Bundys] got what they wanted that day. They got it at the end of a gun.” Meg Dalton writes that Bundy “and an armed militia held off the feds from rounding up his cattle.” To the mainstream media, this incident represented a bizarre confrontation contributing to the belief that rural, white Americans are irrational and violent. The most noteworthy image is that of a militia sniper on a bridge with his rifle aimed at federal agents. (The photo of a BLM sniper posted outside the Bundy ranch before supporters arrived, which inflamed many people in the West, was never seen in the mainstream media.) The land was portrayed as pristine wilderness, the habitat of the desert tortoise. The narrative, for much of the country, was that a racist, domestic terrorist was defying federal jurisdiction—and his supporters were just like him. Yet we can also hear a narrative of structural violence as described by Elaine Enns and Ched Myers: “Criminals or rebels using guns are wrong, but officers or soldiers using the same guns are justified, even heroic.”
The local narrative was much different. A local editorial contrasted this, stating,
Since 9/11, we’ve seen our federal government intensify its focus on national security to the point where it is actively eliminating our freedoms… Whether boarding a plane or purchasing a firearm, the federal government views every citizen as a potential criminal or terrorist until they have submitted to its screening. Its agencies are arming themselves at an unprecedented rate.
Dalton acknowledges that the national media failed to cover this issue well. She quotes Ryan Haas: “To just dismiss [the Bundys] because their trial is over is sticking our heads in the sand about something that is really important to Western people.” And indeed, government officials are quoted as saying, before the standoff, “Mr. Bundy believes the BLM’s actions have nothing to do with cattle or the desert tortoise, but rather that it is an attempt by the federal government to take land from the state and the citizens who live there. This sentiment is held by almost every individual who was interviewed.” Symbria Patterson adds, “You should have heard the stories being told around the campfire at night. So many people, especially older people, thought they had a right to land their grandparents had homesteaded. Then the government took it away. One man in his 70s said he’d been fighting for his land since 1946.”
Two distinct narratives are evident. Outside the intermountain West, the incident at the Bundy ranch was seen as irrational lawlessness or rebellion against federal jurisdiction. The presence of militia members bolstered this perception; the fact that these represented a minority of the participants was not reported. Even the need expressed by the ranchers was in some circles dismissed as unimportant. One man in Los Angeles commented to me, “No one makes a living ranching anymore.”
Those involved saw it quite differently, particularly in Utah where cultural memory includes the so-called Utah War of 1857 between settlers and federal troops. The memory of the intermountain West also includes the Downwinders, tens of thousands of residents in Utah and other western states who were intentionally exposed to radiation from nuclear tests beginning in 1951 to assess the impact of nuclear weapons on civilian populations, and the later Divine Strake bomb test proposed in 2007. Combined with massive federal land ownership and lingering resentment over lost homestead claims, the belief that the federal government stands ready to do violence against them is not difficult to understand.
This narrative informs other social issues as well. For example, ranchers regularly use guns as tools of their trade, protecting livestock from predators. With a narrative of federal animosity, along with incidents like the recorded video of BLM’s manhandling of Bundy’s 57-year-old sister, it should not surprise us that some westerners actually do believe that guns might be necessary to protect themselves against the government. Typically living in states with high gun ownership and low gun violence, the narrative of gun control threatens not only their livelihood but their perception of safety from an institution that appears adversarial to their way of life and even their existence.
It’s easy to paint Cliven Bundy as a fanatic. It is less easy to explain away the broad support he received from across the rural intermountain West, unless we believe that the majority of rural residents are irrational fanatics. It’s not uncommon to see this as an underlying assumption by urban liberals. However, as this analysis shows, there is another side to the story, as there always is. Human beings are, at the root, rational creatures; there is nearly always a reason for our actions, however invisible that reason may seem. Some of us may not want to hear about the historically-adversarial relationship between government and the rural West. We may not understand how people can cling to what to urban people is an outdated way of life, even dismissed as “cowboy culture.” We may not realize that thousands of Americans still make their living ranching.
We dismiss these realities as fiction at our peril. When we dismiss the experience of a minority– any minority– we drive a wedge that cannot easily be removed. A person whose lament goes unheard may seek to be heard by any means, even destructive means. That their actions may also be self-destructive becomes irrelevant.
Conversely, one of the most radical actions we can take is to listen to the narratives of those who disagree with us. This doesn;t mean to take their sound bites at face value, any more than they take ours at face value. It means, rather, to listen deeply to life experiences, generational histories, and most importantly woundings.
This is not an easy thing to do. It means risking the notion that we may have had some part in those woundings. It means risking our pride and our self-image of righteousness. Yet that is the risk required for healing. And without healing, we face a dark national future.
 This analysis is less interested in rancher Cliven Bundy and his interactions with the legal system, and the government’s failure to heed internal advice that might have avoided the standoff, but rather with the standoff itself and the hundreds of supporters who became involved.
 When I visited the site of the standoff on April 11, 2014, a participant who identified himself as a rancher from Utah told me, “They [the militia members] keep to themselves… They’re a little scary; we don’t mind that they stay away from us.”
 On outside attitudes toward these lands, see for example, Cassidy Randall, “Trump condemned over plans to allow drilling near national parks,” Guardian, Sep 14, 2018 (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/sep/14/conservatives-democrats-trump-drilling-national-parks, accessed October 31, 2019). Note that these leases are not in the national parks; there are surely issues to be confronted here, but I would venture to suggest that the majority of Americans who unilaterally oppose commercial use of these lands have never been to them.
 Symbria Patterson and Sara Patterson, personal interview, April 17, 2014, documented by D. J. Mitchell, “Portrait of a Protester: Not What You’d Expect,” Notes from D.J., Apr 18, 2014 (http://djmitchellauthor.com/portait-of-a-protester-not-what-youd-expect/, accessed November 3, 2019). Patterson and her daughter, Sara, then age 19, are organic farmers in Cedar City, UT.
 According to Sara Patterson, who was also present, agents had destroyed waterholes in the desert to encourage cows into corrals. “The conditions in the corrals were disgusting. There was no water. There were dozens of dogie calves separated from their mothers. The cows were all full of milk because they had been separated from the calves. Two cows had died, and two more had been crippled and had to be killed.” Bulls had been shot rather than impounded. Patterson.
 Bundy himself alludes to it in Sotille. No other report I have seen mentions the conclusion of the standoff.
 Ibid.: “The majority of Bundy supporters aren’t ranchers or farmers or cowboys, but militiamen, anti-government agitators, and white supremacists—the kind of people who flocked to Charlottesville last summer.”
 To be fair, Cliven Bundy has been in the spotlight for making remarks considered racist. Brett LoGuirato, “Nevada Rancher Cliven Bundy Makes Ridiculously Racist Comments, Says Blacks Might Have Been ‘Better Off’ As Slaves,” Business Insider, Apr 24, 2014 (https://www.businessinsider.com/cliven-bundy-racist-comments-slaves-ranch-2014-4, accessed November 1, 2019). The standoff had nothing to do with racial issues, and to extend Bundy’s personal belief on an unrelated issue to all those who supported his protest against federal land use policies represents a guilt-by-association fallacy. While most ranchers are white—and indeed the majority of non-reservation residents of the rural, intermountain West are white—there are many exceptions, including my former neighbor, cattle rancher Reyes Carballo who, like his neighbors, grazes his cattle on federal lands each summer. But compare Bundy’s criticism of the effect of the Welfare State on Blacks, though worded inappropriately, to comments made by Haitian farmers with respect to subsidized rice imports from the U.S. that were supposed to help their economy but instead put local farmers out of work. Michael Matheson Miller, “Poverty Inc.,” Acton Institute, (2014).
 Elaine Enns and Ched Myers, Ambassadors of Reconciliation: Diverse Christian Practices of Restorative Justice and Peacemaking Vol II (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2009), 8.
 This comment was made on a FaceBook post in 2014. I am unable to locate it. But note the statistics on small cattle producers cited above—many people do make a living ranching, though most of the beef we eat does come from large, factory “farms.”
 History.net describes this intervention as “a collision of territorial self-determination against [the] federal government…” The primary issue appears to have been the Mormon practice of polygamy in violation of federal law. Donna G. Ramos, “Utah War: U.S. Government Versus Mormon Settlers,” History.net (https://www.historynet.com/utah-war-us-government-versus-mormon-settlers.htm, accessed November 3, 2019).
 The issue of rates of gun ownership versus gun violence has been clouded recently by a tendency to include suicide in gun “crime” rates. German Lopez notes, “Most gun deaths are suicides,” and states with lower gun ownership rates tend to have lower gun suicide rates. German Lopez, “America’s unique gun violence problem, explained in 16 maps and charts,” Vox, Aug 13, 2019 (https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2017/10/2/16399418/us-gun-violence-statistics-maps-charts, accessed November 3, 2019). However, according to FBI statistics CO, ID, MT, ND, SD, WY, and UT all rank in the lowest 20 states for rate of gun murder; UT ranks 5th lowest in the nation. “Table 20: Murder by State, Types of Weapons,” Federal Bureau of Investigation (https://ucr.fbi.gov/crime-in-the-u.s/2015/crime-in-the-u.s.-2015/tables/table-20, accessed November 3, 2019). These states do rank higher in suicide rates. For comparison, CA, which ranks 34th lowest in gun murder, ranks 7th lowest in overall gun mortality when suicides are included. But note that nationally only 51% of suicides are committed with a firearm, and there are also questions of contributing factors such as the generally-higher rates of poverty in the intermountain west and other rural states, suggesting that combining suicide with gun crime obscures the causes of divergent problems in favor of a symptom-oriented approach, namely regulating guns.
Let me start with a disclaimer: I’m not a conservative. In fact, I sympathize with many of the goals of modern American liberals. But there’s a problem. It’s not the social goals, though I do disagree with some of them. Nor is it the candidates they run, though some of them are abominable. No, it’s something far deeper, and something that few people, left or right, seem to recognize.
In his book The Next Evangelicalism, Soong-Chan Rah refers to primary and secondary cultures. Primary culture is that group with whom we have direct, personal relationships. It’s the people we look in the eye, the family, extended family, and community we trust because we know them.
Secondary culture, in contrast, relies on systems and structures. It is the roads we drive on, and the market we shop at where we don’t know any of the employees. It’s the schools we send our kids to, trusting in a system rather than in the people, whom we don’t have time to know, and it’s FaceBook, where we accumulate “friends” we have never met, and with whom we share a carefully-edited version of ourselves that portrays us in our best light. They’ll never know any different because they don’t know really us.
What does this mean for how we live? Rah describes the impact of primary and secondary culture on our childcare:
Formalized child care in a primary cultural system doesn’t exist. Children are allowed to play out in the village because extended family liver nearby and they would ensure that our children would be safe. They know and trust all of their neighbors, who are likely related to them… In a secondary cultural system, we cannot trust our neighbor to not harm our kids, much less look out and care for them. Child care is obtained through agencies found in the Yellow Pages or a nanny webpage. We trust our most precious gift into the hands of total strangers who have received a seal of approval from other total strangers. (p. 101)
If you live in a city, perhaps you can’t even imagine a primary cultural system. It sounds like a fantasy. It can’t really exist, right?
Wrong. I grew up in a primary cultural system. My mom knew she could rely on our neighbors to keep me safe, just as she would keep their kids safe. Later, I spent 12 years in rural Utah, where it was much the same. We never locked our doors. We left our keys in the car. Some folks left their car running when they went into the post office or grocery store. Our neighbors wouldn’t care if we went into their house for an egg or a cup of flour, even if they weren’t home.
Life was very different during my 25 years in Los Angeles. I didn’t know my neighbors, and I locked my home and my car. I didn’t trust people I didn’t know, which was most of the 10 million people living in the L.A. basin. My safety and security were provided not by relationships, but by structures: locks, police, rules, and routines. Those friends I did have I chose because of shared interests and culture, not geography. There was really no sense of community, and what I thought was community was artificial.
Think about that when we talk about gun control. Many of those who favor it live in fear, because they don’t have much if any primary cultural system. Many who oppose it think it’s ridiculous because the chances of their neighbor shooting them are pretty slim. Both are true– in their cultural context. The fallacy is that one answer can apply to both situations. (That’s a liberal idea, too, though today’s conservatives have jumped on the bandwagon.)
Think about the food you eat today. How much of it was grown by someone you know? How much of it was prepared by someone you know? If you’re a typical city dweller, chances are, not much. That may also be true if you live in a small town, though it’s easier there to eat more food that was grown locally by someone you know simply because there are more farmers. Most of us rely instead on faceless systems and inspectors to ensure there’s no nasty bacteria on our lettuce. And, as we learned again recently, that’s not always reliable.
Why does it matter? Because relationships build trust. Without relationships, we can’t have much trust in our lives. That’s sad. It’s also not good for us. We begin to see systems as more important than people. Perhaps you’re familiar with Bob Seeger’s lament, “I Feel Like a Number.” Elevating systems over people is dehumanizing. If you have any doubt, try conducting a transaction at the DMV in Santa Monica or calling the California Franchise Tax Board.
When liberals call for racial equality, I see that as a good thing. But trying to do it solely through systems is a faulty approach. We are (all of us) human beings, not cogs in a machine. Tuning the machine cannot fix the very real human problems we face. I wonder how many of my white liberal friends who support racial equality would actually make friends with someone of another race, eat together, and have their kids play together regularly? If not, that’s not racial equality. (Remember “Separate but equal“? The Supreme Court declared it wasn’t equal at all!)
So let’s apply this to another problem everyone recognizes: school shootings. The liberal answer is gun control. If they didn’t have access to guns, they wouldn’t shoot anyone, right? Let’s assume for a moment that gun control could work. Heroin control isn’t working, but maybe gun control will. So Nikolas Cruz can’t get a gun, and that’s the answer to the problem. This autistic kid was bullied his whole school career, had just lost his only surviving parent, and had dropped through the cracks in the system. But the liberal answer says it’s not his suffering that’s the problem, it’s the gun he uses to lash out.
It’s not systems that keep us healthy, safe, and included. It’s people.
Certainly there’s a role for systems. We can’t live without them. But putting our emphasis on systems over people dehumanizes us just as much as it dehumanizes everyone else. As Rah says, God created us in community, in relationship (81, ref. Genesis 1:28). Without relationships, we are less than human.
Sometimes skeptics ask me if I believe in the literal Resurrection– that Jesus’ body actually came back to life on the third day after he was executed. Here’s the honest truth: I’m autistic, and I have trouble believing things I haven’t seen. I used to look at the Resurrection as figurative, symbolic of the idea that death is not the end, and that the Spirit of Christ is still among us even after his death. (Why did the people who had traveled with Jesus for three years fail to recognize him at the tomb, John 20:14, and on the road to Emmaus, Luke 24:15-16, for example?)
Lately, though, I’m inclined to take the Resurrection more literally. Why? Let me tell you a story…
About ten years ago, when we were raising goats and making cheese, we had a goat named Wind. She was one of the first two goats we bought, and she was a real character. But because of her breeding (part Nigerian), she tended to have kids that were too big for her. The first year, she threw a kid we named Luna, who was born with her front legs all curled up. She started life walking on her elbows. We splinted her, and her legs straightened out, and she grew up to be the strongest goat in the yard.
The second year, Wind got toxemia. Her legs swelled up to where she couldn’t even stand. We made a sling to keep her from having to lie on the ground all the time, but it was clear she wasn’t doing well. As her due date approached, in consultation with our vet, we decided to induce labor so she could (hopefully) deliver her kids and get healthy again. She went into labor, but she didn’t dilate. The contractions weakened her, and we finally decided we had to take stronger measures. About midnight one night, I began massaging her cervix according to directions my wife found on the internet. By 4:00 am my fingers were exhausted, but her cervix had finally dilated enough for the first kid to come out. It was a boy, and he was born alive and breathing, but died within minutes. This was our first loss, and it hurt–especially before dawn after several sleepless nights.
The second kid was born soon after, a girl, but she wasn’t breathing. Something came over me, and I somehow knew “This one will live.” I rubbed her down, swung her around by her feet to clear her lungs, and then breathed into her nose and mouth.
She began breathing.
We “bumped” Wind to see if she had any more kids in her, but didn’t feel any. Wind wasn’t producing milk, so we put one of the other recent mothers in the milking stand so the baby could nurse and get colostrum. Then we went to bed.
The next night, Wind developed a high fever. The vet came out and discovered that she did indeed have one more kid in her, but it was dead and had gone septic. She removed the dead kid– our second loss– and treated Wind for infection. We tended Wind night and day, but she was just too weak to recover. As her body temperature dropped, I lay down next to her with a blanket over us both, but there was nothing to be done. At about 3:00 am, we called the vet and told her, “We’re losing her!” Ten minutes later, we called the vet and told her to go back t sleep. Wind was gone, having died in our arms.
But her one kid, the one born not breathing, survived. We named her Brisa (“little wind”). She grew up to be the best milker we ever had, producing twice as much as our next best milker. At eight years old, she’s still going strong, and is now living at Red Acre Farm, where I’m told she delivered two healthy kids this year. (Luna is also there with her.)
What does this have to do with the Resurrection?
Any goat farmer will tell you that a kid not breathing isn’t going to survive. But Brisa did.
One day it occurred to me: If God can do that through my hands, who am I to say what he can’t do?
I still have trouble believing in what I haven’t seen. But I’m no longer going to say it didn’t happen.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?And if you greet only your brothers and sisters,[a] what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? (Matthew 5:43-47)
The current political situation has become even bitterer than before. A lot of people are angry. A few are asking, “What can we do to find solutions?” Fewer still are asking, “What went wrong?”
I think I have an advantage here. I’ve lived in a major city, and I understand why Trump terrifies people. I’ve lived in rural communities, and I understand why so many people would never vote for Hillary and the status quo. (I think we need to get honest about the fact that we were given two lousy candidates to choose from, but that’s another story.)
Do we accept the premise that people voted for Trump because they’re racists? Then how do we explain that Hillary won the fewest counties of any Democrat since 1984? Counties that voted for a black president suddenly became racist and voted for Trump? That makes no sense. We have to look for a better reason that rural voters chose Trump despite his racist remarks.
Are liberals willing to listen to the litany of complaints about how the federal government has mistreated rural areas over the past sixteen years? It’s not about Obama’s birth certificate, though that became an easy tagline. It’s about the militarization and overreach of government agencies, the failure of rural economies to recover, and the erosion of rural values. And yes, many of these can be laid at the feet of President Bush. It’s also about how ACA screwed many small business owners, and there’s a higher percentage of small businesses in rural areas. It’s about how home-cooked school lunches were discontinued under Obama, and standard cafeteria lunches (i.e. junk food) imposed. I doubt that change had much impact in urban settings, but in Parowan, UT it was a dramatic shift for the worse, and was seen as gross government interference. And yes, it’s about the loss of control, and the perception that cities are getting favorable treatment, and that no one is listening to the vast rural areas of this country. Some of the worst poverty in this country is in rural areas, but it’s far less noticed and discussed.
Are conservatives willing to listen to the complaints of liberals? Cities are by nature diverse. They want to get along with their neighbors of various cultural and ethnic backgrounds. (No one wants a repeat of Los Angeles in 1992!) They want more equity, and better access to health care in places where the cost of living may be twice as high, or more. They want education so they have access to the better quality jobs the city makes available. They want better infrastructure, because they have more infrastructure. And they want to see limits on weapons that can so easily kill large numbers of people– because there are large numbers of people.
The concerns of rural people are quite different. Their crime rates are typically lower, and for a rancher a gun is a tool. They react to gun control the way a carpenter might react if someone proposed banning “just the biggest hammers.”
Not all of these concerns are mutually exclusive, but some are. We cannot simultaneously have both more guns and fewer guns. That’s the flaw in a system that proposes a “one size fits all” solution. One size does not fit all. And whoever tries, half the country is going to hate. (And seriously, when urban people point to California as a model for gun control, and rural people see that California’s crime rate is still higher than theirs, why would they want that?)
When we live in our own little bubble (as most of us do), it’s hard to understand why the “other side” thinks the way they do. They must be ignorant. Or crazy. Or evil. Or racist.
They aren’t. I didn’t vote for Trump. He scares me. But so did Clinton. And that doesn’t make the people who voted for either of them evil. It shows they have different concerns, which apparently are so divergent neither side can understand (or even hear) the other.
Evil happens when we stop trying to understand. Evil happens when we make the “other side” the enemy. Even if we think they made us the enemy first!
Sure, we can react with anger and violence. Especially if we think they’ve already reacted to us with anger and violence. But what does that solve?
Instead, we might take a more Christian approach: Love our neighbor, even when he or she disagrees with us. Try to understand. Seek compromise. To paraphrase Jesus, if we wait for our enemy to come to us and ask for peace, what more are we doing than they are?
“What’cha doing?” Gracie asks me, catching me off guard.
I glance up at her quickly. I’m sure I look guilty. I’m supposed to be doing bookkeeping, not browsing the news. I briefly consider closing my browser so she doesn’t know I’ve been goofing off, but I have five windows open with various news reports and financial analyses. It’s obvious I haven’t been doing the books.
“The news says that California is about to go bankrupt, and that New York and Illinois aren’t far behind.”
“That doesn’t sound good,” she says.
“No,” I agree. “And there’s a report that says there are 32 states in all that are technically bankrupt.”
“Is Utah one of them?” she asks.
“No,” I say. “Actually, we’re one of the 18 that isn’t.”
“That’s something,” she observes. “But I suppose we ought to review our preparedness supplies.”
Ordinary World is about preparedness, but it’s much more than that. From its initial conception as a series of blog entries, I envisioned it as not just a story about facing a possible future, but about a family like mine having to face that future together. The characters are loosely based on my wife, my stepson, and me. The life they lead going into the crisis is much like ours was when we were still making cheese. I wanted the story to emphasize the family as much or more than the crisis itself.
[A]s we change our clothes together, we take advantage of a rare moment alone. I’ve pulled off my hay-covered clothes when Gracie comes up behind me and puts her arms around me. I turn and put mine around her.
“I love you so much,” I tell her. “You are a remarkable woman.”
She laughs. “I think you are a remarkable man,” she says.
Then she turns pale.
“What?” I ask, thinking that she may be afraid of the dangerous baggage I’ve unwittingly brought with me.
“I’m sorry,” she says. She breaks her embrace and runs for the bathroom. A moment later, I hear her retching, then the water running.
When she emerges, she still looks pale.
“Are you okay?” I ask her.
“I think so,” she says. “This has been happening a lot lately.”
“Jeez,” I mutter. I’ve been so busy doing other things that I didn’t even know my wife was sick.
“Do we need to get you to a doctor?” I ask.
“I don’t think so,” she says. “I’m pretty sure I know what it is.”
“It will pass, then?” I ask.
“It will,” she says. “In about nine months.”
I stare at her, trying to grasp the meaning in her words. Nine months? What kind of a disease…
“Oh, holy hell,” I say, finally. “Are you pregnant?”
“I think so,” she says, and smiles tentatively. “Are you happy?”
“Happy?” I ask. I’m still trying to process this. Gracie is pregnant? “Of course I’m happy,” I tell her.
To myself, I think: I’m going to be a father? My God, that’s what I have hoped for so long… and feared… what if I can’t do it? What if I’m a lousy father? What if I fail Gracie?
“Are you sure you’re okay with this?” Gracie asks. “You seem upset.”
I’m going to be a father? With Gracie?
Finally the reality begins to get through. I throw my arms around her and kiss her.
“It’s taking a minute to sink in,” I whisper into her ear. “But you are making me the happiest man on earth.”
“You’re afraid,” she observes.
“Of course I’m afraid,” I reply. “I’ve never done this before. I’m terrified I won’t be good at it!”
“You’ve been pretty good at everything so far,” she says.
I’m not sure if it’s a double entendre or not, so I let it slide.
“I will do my best,” I tell her.
“I know you will,” she says. “You already are. You are a great dad to Joe, and I know you will be to your own child.”
It’s tough to write about characters that are so close to your heart. It was tough reading it to my family, too. As bad things happened, and at one point one of the family members got severely wounded, my wife warned me that if I let them die, she was going to kill me! I have to admit that I cried as I reread what I wrote, and some days I still cry when I read it. I hope that level of emotion comes through to readers outside my family.
Lack of protein and the lack of Vitamin C have combined to make us all feel weary and slow-witted. I’m not confident of my ability to make good decisions. And our family meetings suggest that no one else is, either. There’s a lot of “I don’t know” being spoken.
So here I am, ten miles or more from home, determined not to come back empty-handed. I’m carrying the 30-30, which is a bit big for rabbits, but which is the most flexible rifle I have. I can shoot anything up to the size of a deer with it. Including coyotes, should they decide to try to make a meal out of me.
If I see a rabbit, I’m just going to have to hit him square in the head so there’s something left to bring home.
But I haven’t seen a rabbit, not even in the distance.
I’m not going back empty-handed. In my pack, I have a down sleeping bag, a tent, and some supplies. I’m prepared to spend the night out here if I have to. Even two nights.
Gracie is pissed at me for that. She doesn’t want me camping in cold weather. I’ve done it before. Heck, I grew up in cold weather, and winter camping was one of the things we learned. But Gracie is scared.
“Why don’t you at least take the truck?” she pleaded.
“I’m not taking the truck,” I replied, sternly. “If anything goes wrong here, if anything happens with Kendra, you’ll need the truck. There’s no other way to get into town in a hurry.”
“This is crazy,” Gracie said.
“These are crazy times,” I said back. “Weylan and I have been combing the valley for days, and we haven’t seen anything we can eat. I’ve got to go to the hills.”
“And what if you don’t come back?” she asks, a note of panic in her voice.
“I’ll come back,” I insist. “Everything has to be wintering somewhere. I’m going to search the canyons until I find something, and I’m going to bring it home.”
“Look at you,” she said. “You’re tired, you’re weak, and I don’t think you’re quite rational.”
“None of us are,” I replied. “And it’s only going to get worse. We’re starving. If I don’t go now, I may not be able to go at all.”
There were harsh words spoken, words I now regret. I closed the discussion with the words, “I’m going, so get over it,” and the slam of the front door.
If I don’t come back, that’s not the way I want her to remember me.
But I’m going to come back. Just not empty-handed.
When I wrote Ordinary World, I didn’t have a child of my own. My wife and I lost a baby a year earlier, and we talked about trying again, but hadn’t yet been successful. I wrote about the birth of Bill and Gracie’s child from my imagination. Now, with a 17-month-old son of my own, I look back and think I did pretty well. My son Sam was born in a hospital, which contrasts markedly with the home birth scene in the story, but from the birthing itself to the emotions I felt for my brand new child, I wasn’t far off. One of Bill’s great loves is his daughter, Kendra. He would do anything to protect her– and does. Now I feel the same way about my own son.
[In the bottom of the freezer we find] a bag of rice, which is perhaps symbolic of our times. I bought the twenty-five pound bag of high-quality Basmati rice down in Las Vegas a couple of years back at an Asian store. When I got it home and opened it, I found that the rice had weevils in it. Having traveled overseas, I know that almost any culture in the world would have washed away the weevils and eaten the rice. But we’re not just any culture, we’re Americans, and we don’t eat food with bugs in it. So I put the rice in the bottom of the freezer to kill the weevils and to keep until I decided what to do with it.
Now, a couple of years and an economic meltdown later, we have no problem washing the weevils out of the rice. Throwing it away would be unconscionable. Just like most other places in the world.
Is this desperation, or practicality? Was the convenience-filled world we were so accustomed to the real world? Or is this one?
I’ve seen too much of how people live outside our sheltered boundaries to think of this as anything other than an ordinary world. At least half the world’s population would look at our current circumstances with envy. Even without phones and internet and gasoline and utilities, we own our own land and home and business. And we have physical security. That’s something many folks in the world can’t even dream of.
At night, our daughter Kendra sleeps between Gracie and me. We don’t have a crib, but we do have cloth diapers and rubber pants. Gracie feeds her a couple of times a night. Neither of us sleeps as much as we used to. And, as I look at the two of them lying next to me, I am overcome with love. My wife and my daughter. Family.
Of all the things I thought I wanted in life, I never knew that the most satisfying would be the simplest and most universal.
But the chemistry that makes the family work is Bill and Gracie. He couldn’t survive without her, and she wouldn’t want to survive without him. As Bill says,
I know Gracie as the hardest, softest, most naïve, most jaded, most practical dreamer I have ever met. That may make her sound like an enigma, but she isn’t at all. At least, not more than any other woman. She’s just, well, Gracie. She’s hard when she needs to be, and soft when she can afford to be. She can be the most compassionate person I’ve ever known, and then she can shoot a deer or tell me it’s okay to steal wood. This woman who will beg me not to kill a spider in the cheese room, but to put him outside instead, can kill and dress out a chicken, or point a rifle at the chest of a biker who might be threatening our family. I’ve now seen her point a rifle at a man and pull the trigger.
And she is my wife.
Ordinary World was my first novel, but it seems to me to be the best writing I’ve ever done. What makes it work is the family. And I hope my readers feel the same.
“I love to can fresh vegetables and fruits. When winter comes, I’d much rather eat our own tomato sauce, for example, than something out of a can or jar. Pickles, apple sauce, chutney, and more spice up our winter diet. Gracie likes it, too. But the weeks of produce-covered counters, stacks of pots and pans, and spills on the stove sometimes combine to make her grumpy. She loves the result, but hates the process. So this time of year, there’s tension between wanting to can, and not having enough time.”
So writes Bill in my novel, Ordinary World. And it’s true! I love to can, and my wife Carrie dreads the mess in the kitchen.
This week, we found a box of locally-grown peaches at a really good price. Last night, I washed and sliced them, sanitized jars and lids, and filled ten quart jars with peaches and “syrup.” My syrup contains very little sugar, since I make it with fructose and coconut sugar, and I reduce the comparative amounts of those, too.
I’m an author, accountant, and until recently, a cheesemaker. So why am I so passionate about the Bible?
In 1995, I arrived in Chiang Mai, Thailand, having recently spent 18 months in Sri Lanka and two more in India. I had been studying Buddhism for several years, and had mostly given up on Christianity as nonsensical to me. Many self-described Christians had tried to convert me. One of those would-be evangelists also tried to sleep with me. Another warned me that attending AA meetings would send me to Hell. But my biggest problem with Christianity was, it didn’t seem to make any sense. At the time, I understood the Old Testament to describe a vengeful and arbitrary God, while the New Testament described a man got killed for doing good deeds so that his followers could go to heaven simply by claiming His name.
Enter Father Niphot Thienvihan, a Thai priest who was humble in character and generous in spirit. Much of his ministry consisted of teaching young people about AIDS, which in 1995 was nearing its apogee in Thailand. Children there got eight years of schooling, and then went from their villages to the cities to earn enough money to start families and take care of their aging parents. Except there weren’t enough jobs, so many of them ended up working in the sex trade. Having only an eighth-grade education, they had no idea how AIDS was contracted. They caught it, and brought it back to the villages with them. In 1995, an entire generation of young people was dying.
Fr. Niphot sought to change that – even the the vast majority of these village children were Buddhists, which 98% of Thais are.
Fr. Niphot also ran the novitiate program for priests and nuns. He insisted that every novitiate spend time in the villages. “This is not to convert the villagers, but to be converted by them,” he told me. Fr. Niphot had a great respect for the innate knowledge of God found in those whose life relies on the cycle and connection with the land – regardless of their religion.
I could mention how Fr. Niphot liked frog curry – literally, a whole frog floating in a bowl of curry sauce. I could mention how he comforted a female novitiate from the city when we dropped her to stay at a farmhouse in a village (which, as Thai farmhouses go, was fairly upscale), and the young woman began screaming (in Thai), “I can’t stay here! I can’t stay here!”
But the point is, in my weeks of working and traveling with Fr. Niphot, I came to understand the life of Jesus in a way that was meaningful to my own life experience. I finally felt that, in Fr. Niphot’s work, I had caught a glimpse of the God I had sought.
The following year, I began my studies at Loyola Marymount University, a Catholic school. My major: Theology. I was not yet converted, but I wanted to follow the path that began at Fr. Niphot’s door.
In the process, I began to read the Bible in a new way. It began to make sense to me. I began to love it and immerse myself in it.
These days, I see the Bible as a a guide for living that, though I may never live up to, I must strive to emulate. It’s not just a bunch of mumbo-jumbo, as I once thought. It is the heartfelt experience of three millennia of writers about their own experience of God.
If you object to the Bible itself, maybe my writing will give you new insight into it. Or, just skip those posts. If you object to my interpretation, please pray for me. If God wants me to believe something else, that will become clear.
I love living in the country. People care about each other here, and they help each other. This is different from the city. I know: I lived in Los Angeles for 25 years. Down there, people don’t know their neighbors, and they don’t really want to. If your car breaks down, you’re as likely to get mugged as helped by a passerby, but you’re more likely to be ignored.
Over the past few days, I got to see the country way of life in action. There are several ranchers who graze cows in my neighborhood. “Neighborhood” may be a bit of an overstatement – it’s mostly empty fields growing a mixture of sagebrush and native grasses. It’s a good place to graze cattle in the spring before the ranchers move the cows up to the mountain for the summer.
Wednesday night about dusk, a herd of cows broke through a fence and were wandering the neighborhood. I didn’t know whose cows they were, but I know Reyes grazes cows out here, so I called him.
“Do they have tags on them?” he asked me.
“They do,” I told him. “They’re green and yellow.”
“Well, they’re not mine,” he replied. “They might belong to Kim. But I’ll come out and take a look.”
Reyes drove out and checked out the cows, and found that they belonged to Coy. He called Coy, and together they rounded up the cows and put them back in the pasture where they belonged.
Reyes would do that because he knows Coy would do the same for him. Or Kim, or any of the other ranchers. In fact, last night, a bunch of cows got out again. This time, I called Coy.
“I don’t think they’re mine,” Coy told me. “I think they probably belong to Reyes. But I’ll come out and take a look.”
It turns out that they did belong to Coy, and he and one of his sons rounded them up, finishing up about midnight. But if they’d been Reyes’s cows, Coy would have been there helping.
This morning, Reyes and some other men on horses started moving their cows to the mountain. Coy was there, helping.
That’s the kind of community I grew up in back in New Hampshire. Decades in Los Angeles made me think that such communities no longer exist. But they do. This is the kind of community spirit in which people know and respect each other. They help each other. And crime rates are lower, especially violent crime. It seems that crime by definition requires a lack of respect for other people, which is why there’s more of it in the city than in the country.
This is the America I loved as a child. I’m grateful that it hasn’t disappeared.