where life's not empty, it's restless.

Archive for the tag “politics”

How Trump Made Me Love My Day Job

th-3       As I write, Donald Trump supporters are lining up outside a stadium about thirty miles north of here for a rally that begins many hours from now. This is confusing to me. Lining up for Trump? Who are they?

Yesterday, my husband and I met an immigrant family of nine and talked to them about how a local non-profit is helping them through their grief over the death of their baby girl. Last week, we visited an Adult Day Health Center that serves people who have dementia or have suffered brain trauma. We talked to a woman in her fifties whose face lit up with joy as she described how the time she spent at the center had given her the courage to go back to work after a stroke. The week before that, we interviewed a Seattle teacher who found an affordable apartment for herself and her son, with the help of a housing non-profit.

This is our day job: making short films for non-profits to help them raise money and spread the word about what they do. August is always a busy time for us, as our clients get ready for their fall events.

We feel very lucky that we get to do this work for a living. That we get to hear, and tell, stories about people helping people. Stories that debunk, over and over again, the American myth of rugged individualism; that show how much we Americans can do, when we pay attention to one another’s needs. When we are able to truly see each other, and recognize that we are all connected.

Which is why it is so hard for me to understand the Trump supporters who are standing in that line. I wonder who they are, and how it is they came to actually support this candidate who stands for slammed doors and high walls and connections based only on hate and fear.

The people I meet in my work are not the West Coast bubble-dwelling limousine liberals Trump loves to disparage. They are people who have rolled up their sleeves to actually find solutions to the toughest problems we face: homelessness, affordable housing, how to help vulnerable people weather trauma, loss, illness. How to make our schools better. How to protect our wild places for the next generation. If I dwell in a bubble, it is one in which compassion and inclusion are the norm. It is one in which people are allowed to be poor, or new to this country, or different in abilities, and dignified at the same time.

The interviews we do are my favorite part of the job. I love to listen to peoples’ stories. I love it when they surprise me, which they nearly always do. What’s much harder is what comes next: going back through those interviews, selecting the very best bits, and laying them out in an order that makes sense. It’s so important to me to get their stories right, especially during a year when slandering whole groups of people has become the Trumpian norm.

So I’m going to get back to work now. Thanks, Trump, for inspiring me to appreciate my day job even more. And I think we all know your rally is not going to make a difference in how our state votes. Because not very many of us live in your bubble. Thank God.

Here’s some inspiration to put on your calendar: A reading by writers who have experienced homelessness, September 12 at 7pm at the University Branch of the Seattle Public Library. Check out  Nicole Brodeur’s Seattle Times column about the Mary’s Place writers and their writing group leader, Julie Gardner.





th          You know how it is. You don’t want to feel numb. You know that numbness is just pain postponed. Novocained. You know that, in order to get through this, you’ve got to feel.

And so you go about your day. You get in the car. You turn on the radio. Some of the speakers are inspiring, Donald Trump is horrible, but none of them are quite breaking through your numbed skin.

It’s the victims and those who grieve them, of course, who finally do break through. It’s the young man talking about frantically texting his 20-year-old best friend. It’s the front-page grid of faces: so many beautiful young people, smiling, being silly, being their young selves. It’s the story that writer Dan Savage told on the radio, choking up as he told it, of Brenda Marquez McCool, a single mother of 11 and cancer survivor, who died because she stood between the Orlando killer and her son Isaiah. At 2 in the morning at a gay nightclub, she saved the life of her son: as Savage pointed out, a previous generation would have found it stunning that she was even there, with her gay son, his adult life just beginning and hers beginning again after cancer. Or so they had hoped.

And then it was the two Sandy Hook parents on the radio, a mom and a dad, each of whom lost a child in the Newtown, CT school massacre on December 14, 2012. For more than three years, Nicole Hockley, who lost her son Dylan, and Mark Barden, who lost his son Daniel, have been on the radio, on the stump, online, in the papers and on TV, trying to get assault weapons banned.

“Gun violence is preventable,” Hockley and Barden both said, several times in several different ways. Gun violence is preventable, I repeated to myself as I went for a tearful walk. It’s not cancer. It’s not Alzheimer’s disease, which took my mom, too young. We can’t ban plaques and tangles from our brains. We can’t bar cancerous cells from invading our bodies. But we can ban assault weapons. Here’s the Sandy Hook Promise website. Give what you can to help them. Send an encouraging tweet or note to Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy, who as I write is filibustering the Senate in support of gun control. Tell your senators to join him. (Mine is: Hats off to tireless WA Senator Patty Murray!)

A few months ago, I rented a car at San Francisco International Airport. I was assigned a stop-sign red VW bug, which made me feel happy and confident as I drove down to my friend’s house in Palo Alto. The next day, wearing a red dress that matched the car—pure coincidence! So Californian, so karmic!—I drove a few miles more to meet another friend. When I returned to the car, it wouldn’t start. I tried everything I could think of. Finally, desperately, I called my husband back in Seattle to see if he had any last-minute ideas, before I called a tow truck.

“Did you try putting your foot on the brake while you turned the key?” he asked.

Had not occurred to me. Not for a second.

I put my foot on the brake, and the car started right up.

Sometimes you just have to put your foot on the brake.

Just stop fearing people who aren’t like you, so you can start getting to know them.

Just stop the Senate down for a filibuster, like Senator Murphy: so that we can start getting assault weapons out of the hands of would-be murderers.

Just. Stop.

Upcoming reading: June 23, 7pm, with Hollis Giammatteo at King’s Books in Tacoma. And an upcoming screening too: our documentary film, Zona Intangible, premieres June 26, 6pm at the Rainier Arts Center in Seattle.


My Viet Nam

DSC00865Forty years ago this week, the Selective Service announced there would be no further draft calls. My brother, then a college student, had a dangerously low draft number. He and his peers hated and protested the Viet Nam war with a fervor that frightened me as much as the TV images of the war itself.

But we who were young children in the 1960s grew up hating the war in a different way. We hated it the way children hate watching their parents fight. We hated it selfishly, because it was robbing our families, and therefore us, of playfulness, joy, innocence.

Our older brothers and sisters had fifties childhoods; all Kick the Can and Leave it to Beaver. We tried to. But we’d seen things on television the Beav would never have been forced to see: kids our age aflame in napalm. Soldiers bleeding and screaming. By the time we were of protesting age, we were sick of it all: war and protest; fighting and shouting and political posturing. We turned away from community, from engagement. Remember the “me generation?” That was us. Isolationist, pacifist, devotees of meditation and marijuana; avoiders of meetings and causes.

Most of us came out of our shells when we became parents. Having children of our own gave war a whole new meaning.  When the United States went to war against Iraq in 1991, my husband and I carried our baby daughter in a march for peace on Capitol Hill. It was the first time I’d ever marched for anything.

But thanks to that early Viet Nam-on-TV conditioning, I have never pushed  myself to understand war. To move past my knee-jerk pacifism.

Recently, a young Iraq veteran I know suggested I read a book called What it is Like to Go to War by Karl Marlantes.

For me, the war-avoider, this was such a difficult book to read. But all along, I felt that Marlantes was writing it for me and people like me.  A decorated Viet Nam veteran and author of an acclaimed novel about Viet Nam called Matterhorn, Marlantes sincerely wants those of us who have spent our lives reflexively turning away from war to understand why, as human beings, we must not turn away. He prefers the word “warrior” to “soldier.” He invokes mythology, literature, history, biology in explaining why we have and have always had wars and warriors. In the end, he is cautiously hopeful that globalization will help break down many of the fears and divisions that cause wars. But Marlantes believes there will always be humans who will give in to the temptations of aggression, which means there will always be a need for humans—warriors—to defend us from the aggressors. Therefore, he argues, it is hypocritical for us to condemn warriors. And war. Although Marlantes also argues going to war for the wrong reasons is the most disastrous thing we can do.

I’m still taking this all in.

It was much on my mind as I watched Kathryn Bigelow’s film, Zero Dark Thirty, which has been criticized for justifying, even glorifying the United States’ use of torture to procure information about Al Qaeda. The first ten minutes of the film are very hard to watch. I was tempted to leave. But Marlantes would say: the United States did this and we need to ask ourselves why. How it came to this.

For forty years, we’ve managed not to conscript young people. This is good. But we’ve used it as an excuse to turn away from thinking about war, which has led us to a place where our warriors operate with too much hubris and too little oversight. Films like Zero Dark Thirty are making us talk about it. And that is good.

Check out the Restless Critic’s review of Zero Dark Thirty.

Radio lovers: you can hear the Restless Nest commentaries every Tuesday at 7:50 a.m., Thursdays at 4:54 p.m. and Fridays at 4:55 p.m. on KBCS, streaming online at and on the air at 91.3 in the Seattle area.  Podcasts available.

Here’s nest artist Kim Groff-Harrington’s website.

Connoisseurs of Light

In January, we in the Northwest become connoisseurs of light. Gourmets who savor every spoonful. As the sun rises behind clouds on a Saturday morning, I lie in bed and study the bare branches of the old red oak in the park across the street and conclude: yes, they do look ever so slightly fuller. It’s the light, plumping the tiny buds inside each twig, like an artist going over his pencil marks with a black felt-tip marker.

Later, we walk out of a matinee at 4:30 and are surprised to see streaks of light still in the sky. The next day, there will be a few more minutes of light. And each day after that. Every single day from now til the 21st of June!

We who live nearer the poles love light the way babies love mothers’ milk. In winter, we turn our faces to the sun whenever and wherever we encounter it. This year, our New Year’s Day was dazzling, as drenched in light as Jan One can be in Seattle. My husband and I went for a walk at Alki Beach and everyone, everyone was smiling their most carefree, I’m-letting-my-inner-happy-baby-show kind of smile. It was as if the sun was granting us eight golden hours on the edge of the prism between the dark, exhausted old year and the beckoning light of the new. Talk and walk, the sun said; smile, breathe, drink in this light. You know it won’t last because this is the Northwest. But you live here, so you know to treasure it.

I was born in January. I’m a natural Janus. That lesser, restless, Roman gatekeeper god, always depicted in a double profile, looking forward and back? That’s me. I don’t want to forget the past; I want to mull it and sift it and puzzle over what it might mean. But I’m just as fascinated by the future. I strain to see ahead; I’m so curious to know what’s around the next curve. What adventures the new year might bring.

Sometimes, that looking back that I so love to do enhances the forward view in unexpected ways. For example: Last January, I was looking forward to, of all things, the end of Newt Gingrich’s primary campaign, which was imminent. This January, we are celebrating President Obama’s second inauguration. What a difference a year makes!

Last January, I praised outgoing Governor Gregoire for her public support of gay marriage and her explanation of why, as a Catholic, she finally changed her mind. This January, the gay couples who got married as soon it was legal in our state are celebrating their one-month anniversaries. And there are rumors that Obama will ask Gregoire to head the Environmental Protection Agency.

Every year, I do have to face the one-year-older part of my January equation. But I try to think of one of my mom’s favorite quips about aging, which was, “Hey, consider the alternative!” When she was my age and said it, I thought it was spunky and charming. Now, I’ve lost enough friends and colleagues to really understand the poignance of what she meant. To understand that it’s a blessing to be a Janus, because the pause between past and future is where we live. We look back, we look forward, then we stand still, turn our faces to the sun and drink this moment deeply.

Movies on your restless mind? Check out The Restless Critic.

Radio lovers: you can hear the Restless Nest commentaries every Tuesday at 7:50 a.m., Thursdays at 4:54 p.m. and Fridays at 4:55 p.m. on KBCS, streaming online at and on the air at 91.3 in the Seattle area.  Podcasts available.

Here’s nest artist Kim Groff-Harrington’s website.

Goodbye, Oh-Twelve

DSC00865What if our New Year’s Resolutions looked like this? One: Be kind to yourself. Two: Be kind to others. The end. That’s it. Saved again, by the Golden Rule!

You could add a little fine print. For example, re being kind to yourself: you could vow to truly ban all trash talk, especially the real F-words: fat and failure.

Re being kind to others, that tends to be a whole lot easier once you’re being kind to yourself. Although I have often found this to work the other way round: doing something kind for someone else can be the quickest way to distract yourself from self-trashing.

Once you’ve enacted your Golden Rule two-resolution package, you’ll have so much more time to reflect on the ways in which 2013 is going to be way, way better than 2012. Not that Oh-Twelve didn’t have its high points. Election night, anyone? But with apologies to Republicans—especially those who might be feeling that their party has been hijacked by a loud and deluded minority—the biggest way in which 2013 is going to be dramatically different from 2012 is that there will be no election night hanging over our heads for ten out of the twelve months. I know, the Republican primaries had a certain amount of entertainment value, as did Clint Eastwood and the chair, but WOW: however you may have voted, aren’t you glad it’s all over?

I am. Especially after traveling to France and Finland last spring, a trip that was one of the highlights of my year. Granted, I visited but a small European subset of the world—but I felt first-hand the love and respect people in other countries feel for President Obama. I could see what a setback it would have been to lose all that good will, when we have so much work to do on so many fronts. Global warming being by far the most urgent front: and though I’m not happy with Obama’s lack of forceful leadership on climate change, I can’t imagine where we’d be if the candidate backed by the climate deniers had won.

In 2011, TIME Magazine’s Person of the Year was the Protester, a moving shout-out to the Occupy movement and to the Arab Spring. In oh-Twelve, TIME picked President Obama: for, as managing editor Richard Stengel wrote, “finding and forging a new majority, for turning weakness into opportunity and for seeking, amid great adversity, to create a more perfect union.” TIME makes a persuasive case for Obama, noting that “we are in the midst of historic cultural and demographic changes, and Obama is both the symbol and in some ways the architect of this new America.”

I couldn’t agree more. I’m a great fan of our president. But if I got to choose, I would have declared 2012 the Year of the Voter. Or the year of the young voter, 60 percent of whom voted for Obama. And then there were the female, Asian, Hispanic, African-American and GLBT voters. The point is, Oh-Twelve was the year voters of every description decisively ended the white, straight, male chokehold on the American presidency. You might say: didn’t we do that in 2008? Yes, but. In 2012 we gave history the gift of ensuring that oh-eight could never be viewed as an aberrance, a fluke, a blip.

In 2012, voters said: Thank you, oh-‘leven Occupy protesters; thank you, Arab Spring, for reminding us that Every. Vote. Counts. Every voice counts. Every human counts. The Golden Rule counts.

Goodbye, Oh-Twelve. I’ll miss the election-year excitement, a little. But I won’t miss the nail-biting. And I’ll be grateful, as 2013 gets going, that 2012, the year of the Voter, paved the way.

Radio lovers: you can hear the Restless Nest commentaries every Tuesday at 7:50 a.m., Thursdays at 4:54 p.m. and Fridays at 4:55 p.m. on KBCS, streaming online at and on the air at 91.3 in the Seattle area.  Podcasts available.

Our films, The Church on Dauphine Street, 30 Frames a Second: The WTO in Seattle and Quick Brown Fox: an Alzheimer’s Story are now available on Hulu, Amazon and other digital sites.

Here’s nest artist Kim Groff-Harrington’s website.


Ambivalent Politics: Guest Post

Readers: I am honored to share with you this Election Week guest post by novelist, book critic and wise friend Isla McKetta:

Why I’m Afraid to Talk Politics in a Free Society

Election season 2012 is nearly over. Do you have any Facebook friends left? Regardless of where you live, I’ll bet there is a contentious race that is causing heated debate and if you haven’t unfriended someone for their beliefs (or been unfriended for yours), you know someone who has. Suddenly I’m afraid to share my political beliefs with my friends.

Is this what democracy looks like?

We hold these truths to be self-evident

“…that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

As a child in the US, I learned these words from The Declaration of Independence and to be proud of the men who stood up against tyranny to endow our nation with the freedoms of a democratic government. Hearing those words recited by teachers and parents, my young ears thought the world was a wonderful and free place.

And then I moved to Chile. I was seven and Pinochet was in power. I learned that people can be rounded up and killed for their beliefs. As Americans, my family and I were safe during the year we lived there, but every American history lesson thereafter reminded me how privileged I was.

I believe all men (and women) are created equal. Our two-party system does polarize us and I can understand why every year many of us are more afraid that our freedoms will be taken away from us. But we cannot protect our freedoms by taking away the freedom of others.

Congress shall make no law

“…respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Congress is not allowed to infringe on our freedom of speech, but as citizens we are not held to the same standard. We have the right to banish people from our Facebook walls if we don’t like what they say. Where does that get us? Being exposed to a different point of view should make our understanding of the world richer, not poorer. By censoring our friends and friendships, we make our minds narrower.

I spent a year in Poland after the fall of the Berlin Wall. I met people whom I had been taught were my enemies and the enemies of freedom. But they were just humans, and even under fear of being sent away to a gulag, my new friends had actively fought off the tyranny of the Soviet Union. Our governments held us apart just as today in the US our political parties hold us apart. My life is fuller because I was exposed to these people I did not think I would agree with.

We the People of the United States

“…in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

One of the things I love most about the Preamble to the Constitution is those words, “We the People.” We Americans are a diverse people with a wide variety of viewpoints, but we share this country, this constitution, and (I hope) this commitment to forming a more perfect union.

Reading the Preamble now, I see the words “secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.” I bless the liberty that you have to say things that make my skin crawl. I hope you will bless my liberty too. Your vote carries equal weight to mine and we are both doing what we think is best for this country.

How to talk to your friends about politics

Endowing ourselves with the authority to tell someone else they are wrong is getting us nowhere. The America I believe in is a place where we have the freedom to speak our myriad truths and to disagree. There are no stadium roundups and we will not be sent to a gulag.

Throw off the tyranny of peer pressure. When you see someone post a viewpoint you cannot abide, try asking them about it instead of harassing them. Really listen to where their beliefs come from. You will both grow from the experience. When we have multifaceted conversations about issues, we can create new ways of understanding and maybe even solving the issues. We can become one people of these United States and we might even find out we have more in common than we thought.

I voted for Obama four years ago because I believed in his ability to have these complex conversations and to find new ground for compromise. I am angry with the Republican Party for holding hostage President Obama’s attempts to create that middle ground. I am disappointed in Obama for not having a superhuman ability to transcend the system.

Unfriend me if you want, but I believe in the right to choose and the right to bear arms. I will vote for Obama this year because I believe in the necessity of always trying to have the important conversation, no matter what.

Now tell me about your beliefs. I am listening and I want to learn from you.

Isla McKetta, MFA is a novelist with socialist tendencies. She reviews books at A Geography of Reading.

Noise Equals Hope

Recently, a bulldozer showed up outside our house at seven a.m. and began backing up onto the vacant lot next door. I was trying to read. The noise was hard to tune out, especially when the bulldozer got to work and the whole house started to shake. I looked outside. Clouds of dust were rolling through the neighborhood. When one of the construction guys knocked on the door and asked if he could borrow our hose to keep the dust down until the water truck arrived, I was only too happy to say yes.

And, believe it or not, I am thrilled this is all happening. This next-door project was one of those recession-reminder blank spots, another project that ground to a halt and left a gaping, weedy wound on our block; an everyday reminder that the economy remained in critical condition. The owners—who also built our townhome, right before they temporarily ran out of cash—finally sold the lot to another builder with a great reputation, and she (yes, she!) is breaking ground. Four more homes in south Seattle are on their way.

And now the September job numbers are in: 114 thousand new jobs last month, the 24th consecutive month we added to, rather than subtracted from, the total number of people working. The unemployment rate is now below eight percent for the first time since President Obama was elected.

Noise next door equals jobs equals hope. I know there are going to be times when the hammering gets maddening. But I’m going to try to remember: noise equals hope.

And I’ll remember what it was like four years ago, when candidate Obama made hope his word, our word, at a time when most of us were consumed by fear. Remember what that felt like? I sure do. Our clients stopped calling. Our savings and home equity were amputated overnight. Friends lost jobs. Other friends lost their entire nest eggs, just as they thought they were nearing retirement. Younger friends couldn’t find work at all.  Nonprofit organizations lost donors and foundation grants, even as record numbers of people knocked on their doors for help.

For many, if not most, Americans, life is still a lot harder than it was before the recession. But there are noisy glimmers of hope. Bulldozers. Jobs.

In this election year, we are faced not with the economic terror of four years ago but with fragile signs of economic recovery, tiny seedlings that are going to need a lot of nurturing. And as we contemplate who we would like to have leading us through this careful, cautiously hopeful time, we have two very different choices. We have a president on whose watch we have gone from losing 600 thousand jobs in January 2009 to 24 straight months of growth. And we have a candidate who thinks it makes more sense to shrink the safety net—at a time when so many are still so vulnerable—than it does to ask the top one percent to kick in one more dime.

The house is shaking right now. The bulldozer next door is rumbling away. I’m remembering four years ago, when the silence on construction sites all over America was deafening. I’m OK with the noisy sound of hope.

Have you met the Restless Critic? Be warned: he could change your movie viewing habits forever. I know: I speak from 25 years (as of Wed, Oct 10, 2012) of experience! 

Radio lovers: you can hear the Restless Nest commentaries every Tuesday at 7:50 a.m., Thursdays at 4:54 p.m. and Fridays at 4:55 p.m. on KBCS, streaming online at and on the air at 91.3 in the Seattle area.  Podcasts available.

Here’s nest artist Kim Groff-Harrington’s website.


Becoming Obama

Barack Obama was 33 years old when he published his memoir, a fact often noted with the kind of wink that says, “Clearly, the man knew he was destined for greatness.”  But that’s not at all how the book reads. Dreams from my Father is written with humor and humility.  Graceful, fluent writing abounds, but so do the frankly self-conscious moments of a young writer who knows he’s still got a long way to go towards wisdom.

Dreams from my Father is subtitled “A Story of Race and Inheritance,” and it is, but intimately so.  When Obama describes arriving in Indonesia as a little boy, he resists the scholarly urge to set the scene and instead reveals the country as it was revealed to him, from the back seat of a taxi, recalling the “brown and green uninterrupted, villages falling back into forest, the smell of diesel oil and wood smoke.”

It is in Indonesia, a country where almost no one is black or white, that Obama has his first realization of the deep racism of America when he comes across an article in Life magazine about black people who have tried to dye their skin white.

Back in Hawaii, an adolescent at the fancy Punahou prep school, Obama quickly understands that in America, he is and will always be black.  Through his high school and college years, he self-consciously plays the part he knows everyone in his life expects him to play, excelling as the young black man making it in the world of white privilege.  But he begins to feel more and more unsatisfied with his hothouse identity. And so he makes what was, in the Greed-is-Good Eighties and in his Ivy League universe, an utterly counter-cultural move: to the far south side of Chicago.

When I read the book in the first weeks of Obama’s presidency, it was the Chicago chapters that moved me most of all. I lived in Chicago for two years, reporting crime stories and other local news all over the city, so I can picture the sagging bungalows and public housing apartments that were his turf.  When he talks about how he changed during those years, he calls it “the sort of change that’s important not because it alters your concrete circumstances in some way—wealth, security, fame—but because it hints at what might be possible and therefore spurs you on.” In a line like that, I hear the future president. I also hear how good it feels, when you’re young, to let go of the cynicism you feel you have to cultivate just in case you never get to do anything truly meaningful.

Dreams from my Father is a young man’s story of yearning for just that, meaning: for the why of his namesake father who left and then died; for the place in America that would call out to him: You belong here. The book is a claiming, a stitching together of all the threads of his complicated identity: African, white American and the African-American that he became.

I can’t help but believe that the act of writing Dreams from my Father helped prepare Obama to be president, because it enabled him to plunge ahead into his most ambitious years with a full understanding of where he had come from and why he was who he was.  Writing helped him to make sense of his experiences.

I’m glad I waited to read Dreams from my Father, which was written in 1995.  It was such a pleasure to read it after the election. But now’s a good time, too: to take a break from polls, pundits and debates and sit down with the story of how Obama became Obama.

Radio lovers: you can hear the Restless Nest commentaries every Tuesday at 7:50 a.m., Thursdays at 4:54 p.m. and Fridays at 4:55 p.m. on KBCS, streaming online at and on the air at 91.3 in the Seattle area.  Podcasts available.

Here’s nest artist Kim Groff-Harrington’s website.


When you get up in the morning, do you EVER think, “Ah, what a great day it is to be an American consumer?” Who wants to be a consumer? Since when were we stuck with this label?  Does what we ingest, what we purchase, what we acquire really define us? And if it does, how deeply sad is that?

In his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, President Obama used a different word, one that’s come to sound a bit old-fashioned: Citizen. Try that on. “Ah, what a great day it is to be an American citizen.” Maybe you don’t feel that way every morning of your life. But wouldn’t you rather wear the label, “Citizen,” with all it implies?

A citizen sounds like someone worthy of respect. A consumer sounds like an appetite housed in a body.

A citizen sounds like someone who cares what happens to our country. A consumer sounds like someone who cares what happens to him or her self.

To be a citizen is to be a citizen OF a specific place. To care about a community larger than yourself. To live the belief that investing in the common good enriches our individual lives, too.

It’s pretty simple. Citizens vote; consumers buy stuff.

In his convention speech, President Obama called citizenship, quote, “a word at the very heart of our founding, at the very essence of our democracy; the idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another, and to future generations.”

The “heart of our founding,” the “essence of our democracy,” is not just about us, it’s about ALL of us. I like that Obama said this out loud. I am glad we are not just consumers to him, we are citizens who care about making this country a better place.

We Americans like to trumpet individuality, entrepreneurship, freedom, gumption, the myth of the self-made man or woman. We grow up wanting to be cowboys and cowgirls. But then we do grow up. And we acknowledge we might need help with a few basics, like roads to drive on, police to protect us, electric power, running water, emergency rooms, firefighters, public parks.  Oh: and an education.

One of the Democratic Convention warm-up speakers was Costco co-founder Jim Sinegal, who said in his speech, quote, “we did not build our company in a vacuum, we built it in the greatest country on earth.”

A country where citizens have rights and responsibilities that go far beyond shopping at Costco or any other store.

Take Lilly Ledbetter. Best known as the woman whose name became the title of the law signed by President Obama that finally guarantees women equal pay for equal work, Ledbetter brought down the house in Charlotte with the story of her fight for fair wages at the Alabama tire plant where she worked for 19 years.  But as she said, quote, “This cause, which bears my name, is bigger than me. It’s as big as all of you. This fight, which began as my own, is now our fight.” Ledbetter never collected back wages. But she made the future brighter for our daughters and granddaughters. Ledbetter is a citizen, not a mere consumer.

The stirring speeches of the conventions are over. Now, the long slog to Election Day in November begins. There will be robo-calls; there will be inflammatory ads; there will be constant media coverage. But if we can think of ourselves not as passive, mindless consumers but as citizens who care about the future, maybe we can get through this fall without going crazy.

There are still some seats available in my Intro to Memoir Writing class, which starts September 26. 6:30-8pm, SCCC campus. Join us!

Radio lovers: you can hear the Restless Nest commentaries every Tuesday at 7:50 a.m., Thursdays at 4:54 p.m. and Fridays at 4:55 p.m. on KBCS, streaming online at and on the air at 91.3 in the Seattle area.  Podcasts available. 

Here’s nest artist Kim Groff-Harrington’s website.

Across the Fence

  Just as we have Mad Men to thank for reminding us of how casually men in power exuded sexism, racism, classism, anti-semitism and homophobia fifty years ago, now we have Rush Limbaugh to thank for reminding us: we still have a lot of work to do. But I’m thankful to Limbaugh.  Really. Because that outrageous statement he made weeks ago—“If we’re gonna pay for your contraceptives and thus pay for you to have sex, we want you to post the videos online so we can all watch”—well, it’s just not going away. And that may be bad for his show’s ad revenues, but in terms of getting people talking? It is good. Tricky, risky, sometimes inflammatory. But good.

Have you seen that MoveOn ad in which five women repeat, simply and straight to the camera, Limbaugh’s notorious words, along with several statements by Rick Santorum and other conservatives regarding contraception? It’s in my email inbox and I expect it’ll show up a few more times, right along with the news about how our state’s proposed budget calls for cuts in funding for contraception and counseling.  Also in the in-box: my friend Liza Bean’s insightful blog post about why conservative women believe liberal women don’t like them.

There’s a conversation going on here. People are talking across the fence. The MoveOn ad is getting buzz not just on MSNBC, but on Fox News, where two Republican commentators, both women, tried in vain to explain to Bill O’Reilly why this all matters: why women across the political spectrum reacted with revulsion to, for example, Presidential candidate Rick Santorum’s statement that “a woman impregnated thru rape should accept that horribly created gift. The gift of human life.”

Meanwhile, liberal blogger Liza and her conservative mom are finally having that long-avoided conversation about Michelle Bachman and Sarah Palin. Liza’s mom thinks liberal women only want to see liberal women succeed in politics, even though they pay lip service to the notion of diverse views. Liza concedes she may be on to something.

I have to agree. I will never forget the chill I felt when I saw Sarah Palin on TV for the first time, standing next to John McCain, commanding the stage with absolute confidence.

“She’s got the magic,” I thought. “My God, McCain’s going to win and then she’ll run and win and she’ll be our Margaret Thatcher!”

I’ve never been so relieved to be so wrong. And yet what stayed with me were the conversations I had with Republican women who were thrilled by her: by the thought of a woman whose views they shared zooming up the political ladder the way Palin did in 2008.

Ultimately, I believe Palin was a polarizer of women, not a uniter. She did not talk across the fence in 2008, nor has she since, in her role as a TV commentator.

What’s going on now is different. Limbaugh, Santorum and the Virginia and Texas state lawmakers who recently enacted mandatory pre-abortion ultrasounds went so far with their intrusive and offensive words that women, whether they call themselves pro-choice or pro-life, had to respond. Had to at least try to talk, like Liza and her mom.

Just as, fifty years ago, women began to look around the Mad Men world and say: excuse me, guys, but what about us? They didn’t all say it in the same way or for the same reasons. But the conversations began. At the water cooler, over martinis or milk and cookies.  Sometimes, across fences: still the hardest place for us to talk.

Radio lovers: you can hear the Restless Nest commentaries every Tuesday at 7:50 a.m., Thursdays at 4:54 p.m. and Fridays at 4:55 p.m. on KBCS, streaming online at and on the air at 91.3 in the Seattle area.  Podcasts available.

Here’s nest artist Kim Groff-Harrington’s website.

Post Navigation