Does Having a Bigger House Make You a Better Person?

I have in the past blogged about our attitude towards the poor. This post is about our attitude towards the rich.

Several months ago I met a couple for the first time. Their son had asked my daughter to the prom and I immediately checked out their family through mutual friends. The entire family got rave reviews. When I met the parents I was not disappointed. This was a funny, educated, and socially active couple who volunteered extensively in the community. Exactly the type whose son you might reluctantly agree wouldn’t necessary be a bad person for your daughter to know (still getting used to the whole dating thing here).

The couple asked us over to their house to see the prom “afterparty” setup. At a joint driveway I was confused as to which house had which number. To the right was a small log cabin, in front of me was what we call in our area a “McMansion.” I began walking toward the McMansion when the couple called to me from the back door of the log cabin.

It was about twenty minutes later, as we were in the house talking, that I realized I was disappointed with their house. As soon as I was aware of this feeling I was mortified by my unreasonable reaction. These were two people who had given more back to the community than my husband or I could ever hope to. I won’t even get into the list of their son’s accomplishments. Yet somewhere in the back of my head parasitical thoughts were judging this excellent family based on the size of their home.

Meeting this family made me face my unhealthy attitude towards the rich. Somewhere along the line I have begun to equate wealth with accomplishment and character.

A certain narrow type of accomplishment does create wealth. Most great accomplishments have nothing to do with money. I’m thinking of pastors and teachers here, and also volunteer coaches and food bank workers.

What’s more, character and wealth have no direct causal relationship. There is plenty of historical proof and religious cautions that the opposite may be true.

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I was shocked that I had to remind myself of this basic fact of life: your value as a person is determined by how many people you help and influence in a positive way. Period.

Where was I getting this insane idea that I could equate someone’s character to the size of their house?

Societies, just like books, have themes. If you look at almost any TV show or listen to the radio you see an orchestrated worship of wealth and the rich in this country. I thought I had avoided it, but we humans are pack animals. We pay attention to the attitudes and actions of others and then, even subconsciously, try to fit in.

I am very nervous about discussing this ugly pro-wealth bias that has nested in my head. It is embarrassing and reveals a shallowness that I’d rather not publically disclose.

But I have to discuss this because, unfortunately, I’m not alone.

Our failure to feed children in this country is intrinsically linked to our acceptance of the growing gap between rich and poor.

We are confusing what really matters — character and accomplishment — with wealth. This has allowed unscrupulous individuals to hijack our country. They siphon money from schools, eliminate living-wage jobs, and bankrupt social programs, all to feed the insatiable appetite of the rich.

Twice in the past two years we have cut food stamps, a lifeline not only for children but also for the elderly.

How could we be so stupid?

I can only hope that my daughter’s prom date and his family don’t think less of my daughter because her mother is a ditz.

Humbled — Maddi’s Fridge Wins a 2015 Christopher Award

So you’re writing a story and the protagonist wins an award. She gets up on stage — maybe you have her trip on the stairs for humor’s sake or to break up the pacing — and then she begins her big speech. The only thing she can blurt out is, “I’m totally humbled by this award.”

This is first draft stuff, where clichés rule. You need to cut that dialog and have the protagonist thank her cat (hmm, that might be cliché too) or, I don’t know, do jumping jacks. Anything but say the overused “humbled.”

Maddi’s Fridge has won a 2015 Christopher Award in the Books for Young People category.

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The only word that I can think of, even a week later, is…humbled.

Humbled because I don’t know where my friend Liz, whose empty refrigerator was the tear in my heart that began this story, ended up in adulthood.

Humbled because the manuscript for Maddi’s Fridge somehow landed in exactly the right place: the talented and competent hands of my editor, Shari Dash Greenspan at Flashlight Press.

Humbled by the incredibly fun and beautiful illustrations drawn by Vin Vogel.

Humbled by all of the great books published in 2014 that also “affirm the highest values of the human spirit.” They are out there lighting the darkness. Find them.

Especially humbled by all of the volunteers in food banks across the United States. No one is throwing them a party or giving them a medal. They lug heavy boxes and sometimes search nearly empty shelves. They hold hope in their hearts while working to feed hungry kids and the elderly. They help families that have no where else to turn.

While clichés may not work in literature, in the real world some still have deep meaning. (“Hearts of gold” comes to mind when I think of the volunteers at food banks.)

I’m totally humbled by this award.

If you’d like to help your friends and neighbors who might have empty refrigerators, here’s a link to Feeding America.

A Shout-Out for the Girl Scouts

They are in front of every store this weekend, but good cookies are just a tip of the iceberg.

In January I got to read Maddi’s Fridge to a local Brownie and Daisy troop. They were about to launch a food drive for their school’s food pantry.

I spoke to them about how Maddi’s Fridge was based on something that happened to me. After reading Maddi’s Fridge I asked the girls, about 20 of them, to write or draw their own stories. It could be about something that happened, or it could be fiction. These were pretty young kids, but for the next twenty minutes the room was absolutely silent as they created stories.

Brownies and Daisies working on their stories

Some were drawing their stories, some writing, all were pouring their hearts out onto a page. And yes, there were talking cat stories. And even though there have been thousands of talking cat stories (one or two of them my own), each writer was bringing her own hopes and experiences to the story, making it unique.

Kids need a safe place to feel valued and know their stories are important. The Girl Scouts provides that place. Their Girl Scout Law, said at the beginning of the meeting, almost brought tears to my eyes.

Visiting this group of Brownies and Daisies was a great moment and I cherish it.

And then, of course, I kicked myself.

When my son James was much younger (he’s in college now), he was a Cub Scout and I was a den mother (do they still use that term?). At the time, the Boy Scouts of America strengthened their policy of denying membership to boys who were gay and questioning. And even though my children identify as straight, I didn’t want them to belong to a group that excluded children because of who they were. We finished the year and left scouting.

I assumed, without checking, that the Girl Scouts had the same policy. When my daughter asked to become a Girl Scout, I said no. That decision was not one of my finer moments as a parent. Girl Scouts are incredibly inclusive.

Oh well. I suppose this is why grandparents are so brilliant. They know firsthand the mistakes to avoid.

If you have a young daughter and have not considered joining the Girl Scouts, please do. They will help you in molding a strong, independent, and self-confident member of our society.

And the group of Daisies and Brownies I visited? They collected 1,621 items during their food drive. Theirs are the small powerful hands that will shape our future world. Wouldn’t it be great if all girls could join them?

Girl Scout Troops 44098 and 45370 with author Lois Brandt

The Dancing Girl and Life’s Lottery

I was very frustrated with my cat, Simba, this morning. Despite a shut door, a squirt bottle, and a German Shepherd for a guard, Simba snuck into my office and attacked a copy of Maddi’s Fridge.

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That is his third copy this week. I now have a three picture books that I can’t sell or give away because of teeth and claw punctures in Vin Vogel’s beautifully illustrated dust jacket.

I was feeling pretty sorry for myself, then I drove past the Issaquah Food Bank. A three-year-old girl was dancing in the line forming outside. She doesn’t comprehend the hardship her family is going through to get to this point. She is happy to be with her mother, to be in a line, and to be going in with a bag to get food.

Despite living with a neurotic cat, I have won life’s jackpot. I was born into a large, boisterous, book loving, church going, and socially involved family. We never had a surplus of money, but we never lacked for food either. And even though we have different football teams (they are 49’ers fans) and political opinions, I love them all.

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Others, as we know, don’t win the lottery. They are born into poverty or tough family situations. I have never been able to explain or understand these great inequalities. Yes, personal decisions do make a huge difference, but we also play the hand we are dealt.

My dad had a phrase to sum things up, “There but for the grace of God go I.” He said it when volunteering with prisoners at San Quentin, he said it as he gave his tithe to the church, and he said it while helping those who stopped by his business.

Some of where we land in life is beyond our control.

So today I’m taking a break from work to remind myself how very fortunate I am. I have a great family, a supportive writing community, and am not worried about food for myself or my children.

And I am being led to this thankfulness by a three-year-old girl dancing outside of a food bank.

What are her prospects? Some families dip into poverty. Some face disaster after disaster and can’t climb their way out.

When she starts school will she arrive with a full belly, ready to learn?

Will her parents have read to her?

Are there books in her house?

When she begins to realize how little her family has, will she give up or will she study harder?

Will she still be dancing?

That, in part, will depend on those of us who won the lottery.

Issaquah Food Bank

Feeding America