The Book Started Here

People have been asking me, “How did you end up writing a book?” Like a number of insane people, I have always wanted to write a book. Since I was a kid, walking into a library or a bookstore always sent a little electrical shot down my spine. First, excitement then a soft blanket of calm. I would look up at the stacks and think, “I want to do that.”

Most directly, it was my essay site, Noclock.org, that told me that I could write a book. The rules I set for my essays are simple: 

  • Grab an idea. (Showers, movie theaers and gardening seem to wake the muse.)
  • Let my subconscious work on it for a while.
  • Write it fast in one sitting (somehow about 1,000 words always feels right).
  • Do one pass of editing. I want the most direct connection to my original words, flaws be damned.
  • Find a piece of art and publish.

From the moment I sit down to write, it generally takes about 90 minutes beginning to end.

About a year into my essay writing experiment, I realized I had written almost 50,000 words across 40 essays. A real book can land in about 50,000 words. Damn, I thought, that’s a book. Accidentally, just for the joy of writing, I had written enough words to be a book. Suddenly, the impossible seemed reasonable. And isn’t that how many of the most important things in life work? We stare up at the hill and shake our heads in defeat only to one day find ourselves standing on the hill.

I am proud of my first book, Am I Cured Yet: My Wonderful Life with Panic Disorder and PTSD. I have had heartfelt and touching feedback from readers. But the truth is that my memoir would not exist except for this little essay site and my reader’s patience and curiosity as I bounce from subject to subject, sometimes making solid contact and other times whiffing at the ball. So, I will continue to toss out essays for your enjoyment and annoyance. But beware, while I continue to write here, a second project is already underway.

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How I Fell in Love with the Deep State

My first day working in Portland City Hall, I became the commissioner’s liaison to one of the largest bureaus in the city, Portland Parks and Recreation. In our curious system, commissioners directly manage bureaus. That meant that I now had a strange new status every time I met with employees from Parks. I didn’t fully understand that status until in an early “get to know you” meeting where I made an offhand comment about one of the many parts of my new assignment I didn’t understand. The next morning in my email, unsolicited, was a long, well written memo that filled the gap on my knowledge. “Oh shit,” I thought, “I really need to think before I speak around those folks.”

During my time in public service, I spent hundreds of hours with city employees from the director to the guy who did garbage pickup on the parks. I quickly realized that, after a career in the private sector, I could understand a huge bureau like it was a small company. Almost everything I knew from before applied. Well, except for one enormous difference, I would always be temporary in the lives of those city workers. Sure enough, at the point where I had really figured out the bureau, I got a new assignment.

We have been hearing a lot about the “deep state.” It is characterized as the evil structure of non-elected bureaucrats whole wield unchecked power thwarting the will of the voter. (Did I get that one right?) 

What I discovered is the deep state is actually the reason we have a government at all. Those are the people who get up day after day to maintain all of those things we take for granted: social security checks arriving on time; people on the other end of the line when you dial 911; people who make sure we have water, roads to drive on and parks to play in. The deep state is the glue, at every level of government, that keeps our democracy together. 

As an appointee of an elected official, I was just passing through. Many of the folks I worked with had seen 3 … 6 … 10 different elected officials come and go. They had weathered awful politicians who used the bureaucracy to maintain power and stroke ambition. They rejoiced when their new boss actually understood that they mostly existed to serve the public and implement projects that had timelines decades long. The time horizon of a political appointee was no farther than the next election.

Oh sure, the fabled ugly bureaucrat is a real thing. I met them too. The incompetent apparatchik sheltered by public employee union rules is a real thing. During my service we had to get rid of some senior managers who had been in power so long they started to believe they were more important than the public they served. Here’s a secret, when we did take out the dead weight in a bureau, the other people there quietly rejoiced. Just like most of us, the loyal, hardworking souls had no use for the venal or lazy. We were doing them a big favor. Almost daily, I was amazed at the dedication of the people in the deep state and their willingness to put in insanely long hours and sweat the details to serve the public.

This takes me to Trump and his deep state fantasy. The thing about people who chose to do public service is that they have pride in their work, and in the case of federal employees, they are very serious about their oaths to the constitution and protecting the system bequeathed to all of us by our nation’s founders. They too have seen presidents and political appointees come and go. They have experienced committed appointees who haven given up other careers to serve for a time in government. And, as is the case now, they have seen grifters who only showed up to take from government as much as they can on the way out the door. 

Trump will never understand that there are people serving government because they believe in our system and to a soul see themselves as custodians of a something special. Trump only serves himself. And, it was inevitable that there would finally be a point where some of those people would rise up, put their lives and careers on the line to protect our government and nation from a man who is more comfortable with dictators than democrats. You can only shit on good people so long before they have had enough.

In the next few days, we are going to finally see testimony about impeachable offenses by the president. Congress is doing what the founders intended when the executive has exceeded its authority or committed illegal acts. Congress is exercising their duty to be a check and balance. Genuine, patriotic servants will be attacked mercilessly by politicians and pundits. Keep in mind when you see these deep state members raise their right hand that they are risking everything to protect our liberal democracy. Those attacking them risk nothing. Oh, they will say privately that they detest Trump but they will not risk their little piece of the power pie to tell the truth.

I fell in love with the deep state because I realized that the real heroes of a functioning democracy are people you will never hear about. They suffer the intents of politicians with a steadfastness that accumulates over years and decades. And … with any luck … it will be those patriots in the deep state who save our teetering democracy.

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The Man Who Saw Babe Ruth Hit a Homer

Roland Springborn always wore a suit to the office. It draped scarecrow like off of his tall, slight frame. The elbows of the coat and back of the trousers were worn shinny and thin. Under the coat, which he took off and carefully put on the back of his chair, he wore 3, sometimes 4, layers of pastel colored t-shirts. I never asked him why. That was something I could never ask Mr. Springborn. For the best part of a year, one morning a week, he was the oldest intern in the office of Senator S. I. Hayakawa. 

The long awaited appearance of the Washington Nationals in the World Series turned my thoughts to Mr. Springborn. A native of the district, he would have been immensely proud. But his team was the Washington Senators, and his players were the icons of the game. You see, in 1980, Mr. Springborn was the same age as the Twentieth Century.

In the office at 8 AM sharp, before me, he always perked up when I arrived. His desk was directly across from mine, so we mostly faced each other. He was a talker and while his stories quickly wore thin on the others in the office, I didn’t mind listening and learning from him. I marveled that he had lived in the district the first 65 years of the century and probed him for the history he witnessed. Like my grandpa Blackwood, he was born before human powered flight. With all the questions I asked both of them, I never asked what they thought when the first time he saw an airplane. I thought of Mr. Springborn when I read the Wright Brothers flew exhibitions over the Potomac. A man with a lively curiosity at 80, I am sure he didn’t miss that opportunity.

Mr. Springborn lived in Arlington and took the bus to the city for his assorted internships. He had retired in the last 60’s from a job in the bureaucracy. His age and retired government employee status somehow allowed him to use public transportation cheaply. I soon learned that there was a very specific reason he only worked the morning shift. He was all about lunch. He had a voluminous knowledge about the different cafeterias in the various federal buildings. He had a weekly schedule that got him to a different cafeteria every day based on their specials of the day. The soup on Tuesday at Treasury. The spaghetti at State on Thursday. Precisely at noon, with a smile and a wave, he put on his coat and headed out so that he didn’t miss the specials. Lunch done, he headed back home across Potomac. A nap and then time to listen to the Baltimore Orioles on the radio. Having outlived most of his peers, this was his life, seemingly full with his assorted office mates as regular players in his each day.

While I knew he was a fan of the original Washington Senators and he had often gone to games at old Griffith Stadium, the door to his love of the game flew wide open one day when I showed up at work with my O’s hat. I was off to a game in Baltimore after work that day.

“Oh, they almost won that Series last year. I like them but they are not as good as the old Senators.”

The Senators and baseball left DC in 1961 a fact that still pained Mr. Springborn. From childhood he had gone to games. 

“My favorite player was Walter “Big Train” Johnson. Boy he could throw a fastball.”

If you are a baseball fan having someone say such a thing in an offhand way is startling. Johnson is a Hall of Famer who played all 21 years of his career in DC starting in 1907 … 1907. Of course, he was a DC boy’s hero. I looked it up. Johnson still has the all-time career shutout record, 110. 

Mr. Springborn knew what it was like to go to Griffith Stadium before any baseball park had lights. He talked about seeing the players outside the park on the trolleys and how during the games the players would talk to people in the stands. And then it hit me. Good lord, I thought, did he see the 1927 Yankees, possibly the most iconic team in the history of the game. I broke into his stream of conscious baseball recitation and asked.

“Mr. Springborn, did you see the 1927 Yankees … Ruth … Gehrig?”

“Oh sure,” he said, “saw Babe Ruth hit a home run off the Big Train.”

For a time, I just fell back into my chair as he continued on with the description of the day and the homer. I honestly don’t remember what he said. I remember him smiling at me and pointing out in a direction with his left arm like he was gesturing to the outfield wall at Griffith Stadium. I was conscious that that was exactly what he was doing. He was seeing it, reliving it, transmitting the moment to me. There was no film. No picture. This was it. It was something real in the memory of an 80-year-old baseball fan telling a story to another baseball fan. Generations apart, I was now the keeper of the day the Babe hit the homer off of the Big Train.

When I left DC, Mr. Springborn was still our intern. The longer he was there the more he became sort of the great grandpa for the entire office. We fretted when he called in sick and rejoiced when he came back to work. Some stories I heard a dozen times, but I took each one in as if it was discovering a hidden treasure. On my last day with him, Mr. Springborn and I exchanged addresses. I wrote him a few times from my various addresses and he always responded with a nice update in his shaky scrawl. 

As such things go, eventually the letters stopped. I could guess that time finally caught up with my baseball pal. Thing is, I knew in the moment they happened that every conversation with Mr. Springborn was something special, something I would always hold close. For that I am grateful.

So, tonight when I turn on the World Series from Mr. Springborn’s beloved Washington DC, I will sip a cold beer and again recall my time with the guy who saw Babe Ruth hit a homer.

Play ball! Mr. Springborn.

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Jimbo Watches a Debate: We are So Screwed Edition

Bucking up my courage, mescal with a red beer chaser and the Nationals game on my iPad, I committed to watch all 2 hours (though I am sure I fell into a worm hole) of the Democratic Debate. Unable to swallow the whole apple, I had sliced pieces of previous debates, but things are getting serious now and as a non-affiliated voter I need to see just who the Democrats are bringing me to consider. Luckily, CNN put a camera in West Virginia to create enough distance for me to see all of the debaters on the Ohio stage. Quantity and quality …I hoped. Let’s see what we have here.

Tulsi Gabbard – They said she had been the congress person from a district in Hawaii for 7 years. No doubt the region known for its fine Maui Wowie. Evidently, she is trying to keep us out of wars that we have been fighting for a decade by giving a wink and a nod to dictators. Showing impeccable timing, she decided to take over the role of moderator. Alas, when she looked down at her, I am sure “spicy” questions, CNN went to commercial. Kind of made me really want to meet her constituents and give them a hug.

Andrew Yang – Seems he made few bucks in high tech. Good for him. And he wants to give everyone 1,000 bucks, you say. Before or after taxes and withholding? So, you are living a good and productive life but sitting in your hot tube one day the ego guards decide to abandon the closely monitored perimeter in your bean and you decide you need to be president. Better yet, you have ideas and, instead of the rational act of creating a blog, you decide you need to be on the TV. His sane claim that “it’s the automation stupid” should have been a billboard on the highway to the debate site.

Tom Steyer – “In case you didn’t notice, I’m a billionaire who bought my way onto this stage.” Did anyone else feel a little icky inside at the idea of genuinely sincere billionaire? It was kind of like seeing a beat-up white Ford Econoline van parked outside of an elementary school. You just know something isn’t right.

Julian Castro – He needed a placard in front of the podium that said, “I don’t get it. I check all the boxes. Why don’t you like me?” Later I saw, unironically on Twitter, that his attempted take down of the police was the most trending quote on, of course, Twitter. I feel good about his chances to be president of Twitter.

Cory Booker – It hadn’t occurred to me that what any debate needs is someone to break in every 10 minutes and yell, “We are having the wrong debate!!  Be nicer!!” I like nice people too and if what we needed was more nice in the world, I would just sit in a room with a continuous loop of Mr. Rogers reruns. I honestly want him to find the right place for his message. If I was him I would run for a seat in the US Senate. He could be useful there. I hear he is a vegan.

Kamala Harris – How is it possible, so early in the process, for someone to give off the vibe that she once played to sold out arenas but now she is doing the Indian Casino circuit to pay the bills? She mostly made me feel sad. Turns out she was once a tough prosecutor but feels kind of bad about it. But she needs perk up. How she is going to feel about this squandered opportunity will blot out everything else, kind of like a gal on a street corner complaining about the rain when a tsunami washes her away.

Beto O’Rouke – I knew he was off to a flying start in this campaign when he made it clear that his biggest credential was that he almost beat Ted Cruz. Nothing says a winner like losing. Personally, I am all about a DIY punk rocker candidate, but his punk mostly consists of coming up with positions to pander to different 3 percent blocks of voters who in turn hate each other. With his deeply serious voice and waving arms, he reminds me of a Southern Baptist preacher giving it his all on a Sunday morning to 11 people in the pews.

Amy Klobuchar – Man, she was really rocking the “non-socialist” world for a few minutes there. A few minutes. But then she seemed to rapidly get tired of being one of the cool kids and began spouting lines that sound so good in the staff meetings the week before. I spit up my mescal shot when she sheepishly waved at her daughter somewhere out in the crowd. Evidently, when you are falling it is her family tradition to wave goodbye with an ironic smile. I waved back in case her kid didn’t see her.

Pete Buttigieg – Of course I loved him. What aging, intellectual can resist a whip-smart, patriot with more than a little self-awareness and compassion? But Mayor Pete is running against a dirty little secret of Democratic politics, something you will never hear from the Twitter Woke-O-Sphere. Black voters don’t like married gay people. It’s the one characteristic that the extensive evangelical black community shares with white evangelicals. Black voters and Mormons joined hands to kill California’s first attempt at gay marriage. He isn’t too young, or too inexperienced, he’s too gay.

Bernie Sanders – We seemed to be celebrating how good he looked after his heart attack and stents. Hey, I have family members who are alive today because of stents. I just don’t want have that thought when I see a President. Bernie is an actual fanatic, in all the most awful paint your team name on your belly and get drunk at the game ways. He will run for President over and over just to remind you that, you know, you are wrong and he’s right. And like with Hilary, he and his cohort of fanatics will stay in this to the end just to monkey wrench the primaries and prove they have better souls than all of the rest of us.

Joe Biden – Here was the moment I feared all night. He was going to begin an answer by saying, “I have 4 things to say.” Two things in I was sure he was going to lose his place. Unlike many of the others, he gets it. Trump is a republic extinction event. Screw all the big plans and great leaps, if nobody beats Trump its game over for our democracy. I can even forgive his mangled syntax and old dude references. But the guy is just too damned old. There are jobs beyond the rational capabilities of 80-year-olds and president is one of those. It kills me to write this because he gets the real problem like no one else in this field.

Elizabeth Warren – All her “live wire” 70-year-old routine is as distracting as an angry wasp at a summer picnic. She thinks America is just chomping at the bit for structural changes. She is wrong. Worse than having plans is having ones with magic trillions of dollars appearing like the aurora borealis in Texas. It just isn’t going to happen. Nothing she proposes will pass in congress. This makes her beyond delusional. It makes her a liar to all those real people she keeps talking about. The getable voters in the critical Midwest states just bought snake oil from a liar and are wondering why nothing is different. Gimme a quarter of the money Trump has to run commercials telling people how a Harvard Professor Socialist is going to take away your guns and company/union health insurance. She’s toast. Yea, you get the picture.

What in the world are the Democrats thinking? Trump is a malignant narcissist who has begun to do his best imitation of Hitler in the Berlin bunker moving invisible armies and screaming that if the people don’t love him, they all deserve to die. I am a student of our democracy and have concluded we won’t survive another 4 years of Trump. Game over. We have always been an experiment in governance and we now have the perfect catalyst to end the experiment. Oh, he will be impeached. He’s a con man and a criminal and will take down everyone around him, but he is also that damn fungus on the floor of your shower, those sugar ants that keep coming back. 

I am a centrist, who believes in the power of the republic’s design to self-correct. But now we have reached the founder’s absolute worst case scenario, an executive with no moral core seeking foreign help to maintain power. This is the big one. They saw it coming. You have to be kidding me. THIS is the field of candidates the Democrats have brought to save the republic. I am down to hoping to be proven wrong. Not a place I ever thought I would experience in America.

Photo from NY Post

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When a Poison Idea is No Longer Lethal

In downtown Portland, around midnight, at the corner of 3rd and Burnside, the apocalypse is upon us.  OK, not all of us, but maybe for a few hundred souls wearing all manner of inscribed black t-shirts.

In my new book, I tell the story of how in 1993 my late friend John introduced me to the local punk band Poison Idea (PI) on the occasion of their last ever show. Last night, I went to what was billed as the “Last Ever Portland Show” of Poison Idea at the former Mongolian Grill called Dante’s. Jerry A., hair graying, weight down, a waddle now under his chin, the front man of Poison Idea even joked as he took the mike, “Oh hell, we are going to play forever!”  Given that I have now been at 2 last shows, I tend to believe the man. But there is something else going on that even this phoenix-like band won’t be able to escape, a wave of new development is rolling through the heart of the rock scene in Portland. Land will soon be too valuable for punk rock.

I have roamed the downtown rock scene for decades. Last night started with an extended look for parking. Once lousy with surface parking lots and secret places to deposit my car, the neighborhood now requires joining a samba line of cars snaking through an endless confusion of green painted streets and ersatz barriers marking the new territory of bicycles. One can never be absolutely sure just where a car can legally exist. Reassuringly, I didn’t see a bike in those new lanes all night, so assume that whatever is happening with that spaghetti of white lines is a success. I finally found parking a few blocks away. On the way to the club I passed a hulking, half-finished new apartment building rising from an old surface parking lot. Looming over the skinny Ash Street, I am sure it will herald this vibrance I hear so much about. I walked up Ash, careful not to disturb the guy in sleeping bag shooting up, to see what had become of the once mighty and dingy, Ash Street Saloon, a place where I enjoyed shows by friends in bands. It seems the new cheery white painted and sliced up space will become another restaurant. I crossed back over 3rd street and looked through frosted glass at Mothers to see 50. Oblivious to the decline of western civilization, I am sure some of the them will drink unironic cocktails at the new place when it opens.

The first band was playing as I reached the club. Old punk rockers smoke … a lot cigarettes. I have never seen so many people smoking outside of the little club. Between acts, about 1/3 of the crowd poured outside to re-dose their nicotine. There was a time when all that smoke stayed in the clubs. The acts played in the midst of a blue haze and the morning after shows my shower revived the cigarette smell as the water hit my hair. Beer in hand, I happily roamed the merch tables and parked myself near the edge of the stage. I started to recognize faces and uniforms, people who I have seen in and out of shows for decades. Hair now grey or missing, I saw guys in the same leather jackets and punkish vests with hand sewn badges of venues and bands. They bounced from warm greeting to greeting. Then I saw a dapper, younger guy who just made me sad. He had the required badged vest, but it was a fake, something he bought at an upscale, trendy store. Under one arm, in a tiny, black square box, was a sticker knock-off that said, “Ramones.” In another time, before the moderation of age, I am pretty sure he would have been justly beaten up for such an affront. But rounded middles under black t-shirts and essential day jobs have all but eliminated that tribal instinct.

Bathing in my own irony, I bought a lovely “last show” poster from Toody Cole, the queen of all things punk in Portland. She had gavin a benediction at the start of the show that I missed. Long grey hair waving over her red cowboy shirt, with matching pants and boots, every time I saw her, she was smiling. Her smile reminded me to smile. Later, on the sidewalk as I left the show, I saw her and felt compelled to say, “Thank you.” She caught my eye and said, “You bet!” and rushed down the sidewalk followed by what passes for an entourage in Portland.

I caught a couple of songs by the thrashing second act, then decided to walk my poster back to my car. The block was vibrating. Punk rockers milled about. Overpowering clouds of perfume and cologne wafted off of dance club partiers. Women, of all shapes and sizes perched on impossible high heels and squeezed into uncomfortable looking tube-like dresses moved in packs eying young men who had pomaded down every strand of their hair into a tight, well considered, formation. All of them seemed self-consciously sexy, about to engage in the extended, alcohol fueled foreplay of an evening leading to the inevitable hook-ups where they would have to peel away their carefully chosen layers of now perspiration soaked clothes, the tired chosen scents now unable to push back the stench of hours on the dance floor.

I happened upon a man, standing in the street, brushing the coat of a white Great Pyrenees. From a distance, he looked like a guy standing next to a polar bear. I siddled next to a young Black woman admiring the dog. We kept looking at each other, mouths agape, asking, “Have you ever…” “No, me either.” The owner a middle-aged dude, well dressed, with thinning hair and a light black leather jacket, was happy to tell us the dog weighed 220 pounds and was 9 years old. We could see the age of the dog up close, coat a little thin in spots, docile but still charming. I now understood that the man was about to march the dog in a circuit through the night streets. It was something they did together. I know that when I attach my introverted self to my dogs, strangers become instant friends. Carrie Brownstein once walked off a set of Portlandia to say hello to me and my dog Mozy. I get it. Later, I saw him just two blocks further along, surrounded by women, chatting them up, while the giant beast stood in the middle of the circle. I think that dog has done many favors for that dude over the years.

Jerry A. and this variation of the always mutating Poison Idea hit the stage. His enormous friend and lead guitarist, Tom “Pig Champion” died a few years ago. I once chatted with Pig on the sidewalk outside a show that was much delayed because Tom was waiting for “the man.” He needed a fix to do the show. Problem solved; the band roared through a great set. Tonight, Jerry A. was clutching a crumpled set list that he kept looking at over and over during the sound check. He seemed a little lost but then the first bass notes of the opening song blasted out and he was transformed. I have seen this before. Aging rockers come to life as if hit with a lightning bolt when the band cranks it up. I once saw a 70-something Iggy Pop writhe like his 20-year-old self on a wave of throbbing decibels. The same spirit infuses the crowd. Music has the power to strip away years and transport you through time. Two songs in, it was just another PI show. We were along for the ride.

But I was there being almost too self-consciously nostalgic. For me, that band, that scene, is about John. As I often do at shows, I looked up in the rafters for him. Raised my glass and toasted him. Scanned the faces and thought of him.  After a few more songs, I was done. I had had the experience I came out to enjoy. Absorbed in the right dose, melancholy can actually bring you happiness.

My punk rock buddy got sick at the last minute, so I was on my own. I was actually fine with that. I was in my much documented “lone wolf mode.” I could move about the streets, seeing what I wanted, on my time. Leaning against fences and walls, I could quietly absorb the energy of the streets. Junkies stumbled by asking for cash. Homeless people bedded down in the sidewalk in front of the Salvation Army. Uber and Lyft cars came and went. Buskers plied their trade as gawkers surrounded them. For some reason, there was no line at Voodoo Donuts. These days, a donut, what I have always called god’s favorite food, is a rare treat. In the short line in front of me where two couples, achingly suburban, with acne that no fake ID could hide. I got my favorite chocolate coconut donut and walked back across the street to the back of Dante’s.

The east side of the squat building has always been a problem for the owners. From the back corner to the pizza door, the long wall has been a place for drug dealing and crime. I have seen junkies shoot up there and walked up on a fight and stabbing. For a time, the owners ran at pipe along the top of the building that summer and winter dripped water to keep people away.  Now, the solution is a long rail divider that makes a shoulder width path, not wide enough a space for someone to lay down or big enough to comfortably congregate.  It seems a good solution. On the back corner, facing the street is a locked heavy barred door. The band load-in door. Looking through the bars, I had a view of the backs of the bands and a pretty good taste of the music.

Leaning against a tree, I was eating a donut, listening to the band. Two rockers were right next to the door head-banging. One guy mouthed PI lyrics along with Jerry A. I remembered I had in my pocket an unused ticket to the sold-out show. I pull it out, held it between the two guys and said, “Who wants to see the rest of the show inside?” The guy leaning on the door nodded his head to his buddy and said, “He does.”  The other guy saw the ticket, looked at me and kind of squealed. He took the ticket and yelled, “Oh man…Oh man…Oh man!” as he ran down the sidewalk and around the corner to the front door.

I popped the last bite of the donut in my mouth, gave the remaining dude a thumbs up and headed down the street to my car.  My work there was done. After standing for hours, I folded my aching legs into my car. All good things come to an end.

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Meet the New Climate Change Celebrity — Greta Thunberg

I got into a fun little Twitter beef with a Silicon Valley type who was extolling the virtues of Greta Thunberg the teenager heartthrob of the new climate change generation. He loved that she took a sailboat to New York. 

From the Washington Post:

After voyaging thousands of miles across the Atlantic Ocean, climate activist Greta Thunberg arrived in the United States on Wednesday morning. The 16-year-old began the journey two weeks ago to reach the United Nations climate summit in New York without producing any carbon…. The Swedish activist, who reached worldwide fame after encouraging young people worldwide to strike from school and raise awareness about climate change, set sail in mid-August. She declined to fly because of the levels of emissions released during air travel.

[Keep reading.  I believe climate change is real and existential threat to the planet. Hell, I was preaching Small is Beautiful in the 1970’s. Go Jerry Brown!]

Without question, the first climate change celebrity was Al Gore. He was annoying and he was right. The poor guy was an easy target for climate change deniers because he was … well … Al Gore.

I think that Greta’s whole, I sailed to New York , thing was a stunt. The jets didn’t stop flying. Her seat in First Class was still in the air above her. I was told her act drew attention to the climate crisis. Really? At this point are there some sentient beings who have not heard about the crisis or been whipsawed by the fact that science has been turned into a punchline by goofballs who think ignoring the problem will make it disappear?

I think there is something more insidious about Greta and her handlers. For many people, the dire facts of what is coming are just too much to handle.  Greta and her youth movement offers hope and the anxiety relief of saying to one’s self, “Yes! The kids. They get it. Hooray. They will save us!” I get it. When reality is bleak it is human to reach for a thrown rope of future hope. But here’s the real deal, it is just as human to ignore a crisis until the incontrovertible effects are literally ocean waves lapping at your front door.

Greta is also a privileged child talking to privileged people. She doesn’t come from a country where billions of poor people are praying for just one more coal fired power plant so that they can have a single lightbulb or maybe access to this Internet they have heard so much about. What I don’t hear Greta saying to her peers is, “Throw away your cell phones. Turn off your air conditioners. Refuse that ride to soccer practice or the play date. Don’t have any more energy sucking developed world babies.” No, Greta took a boat ride, documented by a film crew so that she could make a grand entrance to the United Nations climate summit.  She will be the most talked about, most written about and most photographed person at the summit.  She will say all the right things in an attempt to shame us to a better planet and her celebrity will be guaranteed.

My buddy in the Twitter beef actually sent me an article that said Sweden will meet its renewable energy goals 12 years early. Yippie! A tiny, mostly wealthy and homogenous country is leading the way. More false hope. I am guessing that this month China and India built new coal fired energy plants to power their economies, make cheap goods for us and bring something resembling above subsistence living to a small part of their population. 

The planet adds about 82 million people a year and that increases geometrically. They all need and deserve clean water, electricity, access to the Internet, jobs and safe places to live. That isn’t going to happen. Climate change is a numbers game and we are losing. Oh, as a techy geek, I still hold out hope for a new carbon neutral energy source. But even if we discover that new source, it is likely that it will be deployed first to Greta and her people, the privileged few.

So here’s what I wish Greta would do. Make maps. Figure out the new coastline after the melt of the Greenland ice sheet has disappeared and added 25 feet of water to the oceans. Map the new coastlines and start building infrastructure for the human retreat from the current coasts. Map inland temperature changes to available clean water so that we are prepared to move entire farming areas to new parts of the globe. And while we are at it, develop new food sources that are not so temperature sensitive. Humans are almost infinitely adaptable. Because earth is an interdependent system with unchangeable momentum, we need to figure out how we adapt. That’s right. I think Greta is being to kind, too gentle and more than a little delusional. She needs to advocate for turning us all into a bunch of disaster prep fanatics.

But that isn’t going to happen. Planet advocates are going to gush over the insight of young Gretta and with a tear in their eye feel like things are just going to get better. Kids will make signs and walk out of schools, mostly unconscious of the deep privilege they are expressing because other kids around the world don’t have electricity to watch those inspirational YouTube clips. Gretta will grow-up and when she’s not so cute she will be replaced by a new climate celebrity. But hey, at least she went on a cool boat ride. I am guessing she will catch a flight home.

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If It Isn’t On MY Phone . . . It Didn’t Happen

I have become a true aficionado of Portland street violence. No really, I savor every riot, every confrontation and each unpermitted march like a vintage of fine wine.  Each clash is an expression of the Portland terroir. 

I won’t critique the street politics. No, long ago I concluded that is a waste of time. The magnetic attraction of the two sides has become tedious. That’s right . . . attraction.  They are the couple who you can never figure out why they got married. By all outward appearances, the spouses have nothing common, argue all the time and god forbid they actually have kids. Nonetheless, something in the nightmare of a relationship just seems to work for them. They can’t get enough of each other.

This latest street embarrassment served to magnify the unifying defining feature of street theater: it must be recorded on a cell phone. Deprived of a thrilling clash of the main bodies of protesters, the event devolved into a series of skirmishes between individuals and roving bands of vigilantes. The script was always the same. Bathed in their own flavor of righteousness, groups gave themselves permission to harass and physically attack people whose main offense seemed to be not wearing the right uniform. Yelling, pushing, punching and running. Wash rinse and repeat.

As an aficionado, I watched several of the videos. And that is the thing, everything is on video. When I looked closely, I saw that that the actors are relatively few but the number of people holding up phones and cameras is legion.  The videos themselves became surreal as I realized that in what I mostly saw was the view of someone recording other people recording. When the action turned into people running, the vast majority were running in what has become a modern salute, arm outstretched in front of them trying to hold their phone steady. 

Every now and then the budding videographers performed a modern pirouette, spinning in a quick circle to record those around them, and no doubt, try to discover themselves as an individual in the moment. The move always seems a little desperate, this searching for self. I get the feeling that they would like to turn the camera on themselves for a second, but that would be breaking the 4thwall and would make them uncomfortable. Seldom is narration part of these videos.

Video clips have become an Internet staple. YouTube has taken up the role of helping to define our collective consciousness. During any pause in the action, clips are immediately uploaded to social media. And here may be the pathology. Every upload begins with the need to show that something important happened and “I” was there. With millions of clips hitting the web every day, the video taker is praying that their effort will be the viral video, the one that defines a moment, and that they will thus be validated.

No doubt, we have all seen culture changing moments caught in a moment on a phone. That’s the heroin hit for anyone holding a phone aloft. You never know, you could be famous for a few minutes. You could change the world. Mostly, that never happens, but like buying the lottery ticket when the prize is huge, you have to be in it to win it.

What frightens me is that now that the preponderance of people at an event are now recording it, they changing the moment itself. It’s the old Heisenberg problem. Observing changes what is being observed. Awash in celebrity culture, that actors quickly separate from the watchers. As I watched the men and women throwing punches and yelling at mostly outnumbered and hapless targets, I wondered if anything I was seeing was real. Would it be happening at all except for the presence of all those phone cameras?

Poor prescient George Orwell didn’t have an imagination big enough to describe the ubiquity of watchers beyond a device hanging on the wall of every room and looming over every public street. He couldn’t contemplate a dystopia were every person is a watcher, an eager watcher. Though, I do think, confronted with the current reality he would still see the same tyranny.

Having watched Portland protests up close, in person, I soon began to see beyond the earnestness of the actors and understand each instance as a new sort of social narcissism. There have always been protesters who engage in street theater with costumes and thoughtful metaphors. God bless them for originality. But in general, what I saw was people constantly looking for and reaching for cameras. It is as if nothing really mattered without it being recorded so that later they could look at it over and over reveling in their existence in that place and time. Taken collectively, it is about mass self-soothing, a grasping for relevance.

No one video I saw captured the essence of this needy self-awareness better than a brief clip from one attack. The camera turns to a young man who has been hit in the face with pepper or bear spray. You can hear man on the other side of the camera ask if the victim if he is OK. He then turns the camera and yells for one of several self-defined “medics.” A masked young woman runs up and hands the victim what looks like a plastic bottle of cooking oil. She offers directions, “Don’t rub it. Water won’t help. Use the oil.” The near blinded young man takes the plastic bottle but is clearly confused. He doesn’t understand want to do. The young woman doesn’t react to his confusion. She moves directly in front of the victim, pulls out her phone and begins filming the guy’s reddened face. At that moment, as if completing a handoff, the original camera guy turns away and runs down the street.

I realized that what I was watching was the remnant of compassion. There were these little stubs of words and actions that hinted at caring for another human but those were just part of the play, lines in a script. Care would or wouldn’t be a byproduct of their actions but the video was the priority. The revolution must be streamed.

Photo by KOIN.com

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Racist!!! Whatever Dude

I chose to hover somewhere just left of center in the American political drama. What was I thinking? Some days I live I a vertiginous nightmare spinning from one political extreme to the other. It must be nice to live on the extreme left or right, free from ambiguity and loaded with the talking points of your tribe. Wake up and just turn on the TV and nod in agreement. Just think how relaxing that must be.

We are now over a week into the president announcing his 2020 election strategy by dragging everyone into his own little,1950’s master race fantasy. I fear we will not escape this awful place until he loses the election or finally succumbs to his 9,003rdBig Mac. This latest outburst was different for me. Not that I ever excused his nationalistic, endangered white man rantings, but in going for the “go back to where your came from” and “love it or leave it” tropes directed at women from different ethnic roots, I was ready to unleash the word “racist.” And, for the first time advancing beyond the label, I was now ready to say with absolute comfort that anyone who echoed or defended his racism was also a racist. You are what you blissfully eat. 

This was a big deal for me. As a writer, I value language, each word’s meaning and context. I don’t use the most powerful words gratuitously. I know that once you cross the Rubicon, and fire the big semantic guns, you can’t go back. So, when I put the word racist in a Facebook post or in a Tweet, that meant I felt like I could make my statement with absolute clarity. I had looked at all the evidence and could no longer avoid the call. I looked to the right at the president and his chanting supporters and said racist. Then I turned to the left and thought, “well that sucks.”

You see, in the rarified air of the Woke Left, the word racist flows like rain on a late November day in Portland. Twittercrats stare at their news feeds all day just waiting for the glorious moment they can call someone a racist. The Tweets that follow are gleeful, unrestrained and torrential. Early on in the emergence of the Woke Left, the word racist had real power. It hurt the chosen offender and shut them up. The word had shock value. If someone had earned the epithet, so much the better. Nailed it, and them. But then the word was everywhere. It became the go to insult, for some even surpassing the always perfect “asshole.” And, it was a righteous virtue signal indicating Wokeness solidarity.

Seemingly in tandem, another phrase became part of the Woke lexicon, “white supremacist.” Now, I had done the training and had embraced the phrase “white privilege” After some nervous shifting in my seat, I got it. Many, not all, white people in America have an edge merely based on the genetic roulette that gave them light skin pigment. Yea, that made sense. It was something to be aware of in life and good work to own that fact in order to call yourself out when you were assuming power in relation to a person with a different skin pigment and life experience.  But then, someone, somewhere decided to go further and make it clear that just by being white, you enjoyed white supremacy and were a white supremacist. What? Hold it!

Here’s the problem. When powerful, generally understood descriptive words and phrases become ubiquitous, the power they once had shrivels away. For most people, white supremacist was easy. Oh, you mean a fucking Nazi, a skinhead, those smug boys with kaki pants and torches. You mean the fanatics my grandfather killed in the second world war. Damn straight. Fuck those guys. There are even a handful of people alive in your neighborhoods who fought those white supremacists and saved us from tyranny. But now, I get emails from the city agencies inviting me to understand why my neighborhood is an example of white supremacy. There are people who now make a living reeducating us white folks on our problem. And when the real Nazi wannabes show up? They too are called white supremacists. You see the problem? Once a word loses a specific meaning, it becomes meaningless.

This new reality befuddled me when I decided to call the president a racist. In my personal lexicon, it was the lowest form of scum, a sick human being with no redeeming qualities. I was angry and it was time to clearly express it.  But the president’s defenders pointed out that the week before, the Woke Left called the current Speaker of the House a racist too. And, in the Democrat debate, they were suddenly arguing over busing in the 70’s and whether what you thought then made you a racist now. If it did, then goody … goody, I can call you are racist today and get a bump in the polls.

Come on! I need that word! Confronted by an existential threat to our liberal democracy, a man who by any definition is a racist, his opponents are beating each other over the heads with the same accusation. Good grief, what’s a rational centrist to do?

I am pretty sure that if I just stand still and continue to hold opposing thoughts in my head, I will see the far left and right circle back around and become one. They have both adopted the characteristics of a religion. Their ideas are infallible. Their sources of information firmly locked in the doublespeak of infinite certainty.  Their causes are just and no challenges to their dogma will be tolerated. And their leaders are not just elected, they are anointed. Most dangerously, they both have permanently deleted the irony gene and can’t see how alike they have become.

Meanwhile, I guess I am left to thumb through my Webster’s Dictionary (yes people, a book, heavy, occupying space) looking for words that haven’t been abused and corrupted yet. I really need something better, more refined, to say beyond just calling the president a dick.

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How Right Wing Talk Radio Works — A Challenge

It occurs to me that few people I know understand how right-wing radio really works because our information bubbles are close to hermetically sealed. I hear people say, “How can those Trump supporters think that?” Let’s see how it works.

The lead story for hour one of the Lars Larson yesterday was an oldie but a goodie for his listeners.  He recounted how recently an illegal alien brutally attacked and raped a woman in a Seattle suburb. The attack was especially awful because the criminal had to toss the woman out of her wheelchair first. It was a stranger on stranger attack. Captured, tried, the criminal was given less than a year sentence. The now felon assured the “liberal” judge he would immediately return to Mexico. When released to do so, he hunted down his victim and attacked her again as retribution.

I don’t know all the facts of the case, but everything about it sounds plausible. It has all the elements Lars needs for his listeners. It has the merit of being mostly true. Lars has to fill 20 hours of radio a week. He only needs about 10 of these types of stories to be supplemented with regularly available pieces on government waste and liberal overreach. That is a deep, constantly replenishing well.

He doesn’t have to make anything up. Across America, there are stories like this every day. His show is not just him making stuff up like others radio talkers. He dips into the news of the day then riffs and lets callers fill in the outrage. When Lars says, but for a working immigration system and better border controls that woman would have been safe, he isn’t wrong. When he criticizes “politicians” and “courts” for the plight of that woman, he is has real evidence to make his case.

Everyone choses where they get their information. It is an American right. I see the FoxNews complex as a sophisticated propaganda operation. There is maybe 15% actual news in any day. No news from the left or center is as intentional, or as pervasive, in its relentless agenda driven approach. Even though that is true, I have to fight the urge to reject the right-wing media consumers.  Here’s why….

Do you know what an “Angel Mom” is? If you listen to Lars you do. If you view FoxNews you do. Angel Moms are women who have had family members murdered by criminals who are illegally in this country. Trump brings them to the White House and trots them out at rallies. Their suffering is real. Their stories should never be rejected out of hand. The “but for” is the failed immigration system. For conservatives, no story of murder and rape in a central American country outweighs the suffering of those moms. For them, those American victims were, in effect, killed by our government.

Democrat politicos take note. About 25% of Latinos went for Trump. More than that are horrified at the stories like the one Lars gave yesterday. They consider it an evil mark on everyone who has come to America legally and built a life. The more stories like this penetrate the conscious of many legal immigrants the higher that percent for Trump will be. Slogans like “open borders” and “ban ICE” are not helpful because they do not seek a real solution. They don’t stop the creation of more Angel Moms.

If we really want to build a consensus around a solution for the immigration crisis then we have to be able to hold two ideas in our collective conscious, two different kinds of victims in our hearts. 

And this goes back to Lars and his listeners. They are not crazy. Much of what they hear is based in different truths that every day confirm a belief system and genuine emotions. I wish, deeply wish, that we all had shared facts but until we do, it is incumbent on us to understand both world views in the hope that when we meet someone with fundamental differences we understand where those beliefs originate. That small bit of shared humanity may be what is needed to create little slices of common ground.

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Talk Radio. It’s All the Same Show

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Button number 1 on by car radio is Oregon Public Broadcast (OPB).  Button number 4 is KXL Talk Radio. When I am driving in the Portland area, I compulsively bounce from one station to the other. In the noon hour that means I get to hear and compare two versions of reality that track very closely to the political divisions in America. This is a habit I recommend to everyone. It’s good to escape your narrow view of the world and challenge one’s confirmation bias.

On OPB, I hear a show called “Think Out Loud” and its host Dave Miller. I know many people in Portland who love that show. It covers a wide range of topics and issues, mostly about Portland, but they also take the show out to cover state-wide issues. To their credit, OBP has bureaus in Salem and in Eastern Oregon. Miller has exactly the type of voice one has come to expect on public radio. He is calm, with that hushed, almost urgent tone that is so easy to parody. Everything that comes out his mouth is slathered with sincerity. He generally sounds like he is not just thinking out loud but thinking hard during every interview.

Over on KXL, noon is time for Lars Larson. Lars is the northwest version of Rush Limbaugh. He does his show standing up with his pistol always tucked into the small of his back. I used to see him in City Hall, his handgun at the ready. The show started locally but now has affiliates across the country. Larson’s voice is booming and invariably friendly. It is the sort of voice you hear greet an old friend across the bar on a Saturday night. His has the same schtick as any right-wing talker. Four hours a day, he delivers monologues sure to be red meat for his core listeners then goes to the phones. He is always polite to callers, especially “naysayers.”  They, he says over and over, go to the head of the line. Larson is wicked smart and can turn even the most dedicated lefty caller into a helpless foil. Larson does remote shows too, at gun retailers and farm equipment sales companies.

Depending on which side of the political spectrum floats your boat, I am sure you have the same question, “How can you listen to that crap?” As I have written before, I am a centrist with an enduring fascination with political polarization. I long ago cultivated an ability to watch, read and listen to diametrically opposed commentary to help me understand the fault lines, and most importantly, what Americans have in common.

After years of flipping back and forth between Miller and Larson, I have come to the conclusion that they are the same show. THE EXACT SAME SHOW.

First, let’s start with the two groups of listeners. Neither group can stand to even hear the voice of the opposite host. OPB listeners, more than KXL listeners, are sure that they are open minded, willing to consider all sides of an issue. I call this the liberal conceit. At no point do they concede an inch of their dogma, but they need to feel like they are just better people for their approach to contrary ideas. On the other side, I kind of admire Lars’ core audience. The don’t like liberals and don’t hold back on their contempt. Basically, the other side can go fuck themselves. Liberals in the Twitterverse are getting there but for right-wing radio listeners that unvarnished honesty comes easily.

Both stations perform an important function for their listeners. After a few minutes of hearing what they think repeated back to them, they just feel better about themselves and the world. Unmitigated agreement is soothing. And, when a contrary idea appears, both groups get that gut level “Yea!” as Lars and Dave put the opposition in their place. This is a formula as old as ancient storytellers around a roaring fire. Our tribe feels good to us. Our tribe is right. We would go to war for our tribe.

Lars and Dave do the same things when they are discussing social and political issues with the opposition. They are mostly polite. Lars has all of his arguments down solid. He never moves an inch. They both get a little Socratic in their challenges. Dave layers his questions with liberal trope blind alleys to see if his guest can trap themselves in error of their ways. Lars is a bit more confrontational. His questions challenge, leaving little room for escape. For their listeners, the reaction is the same, “Ha! Well that showed them!”

Both shows try to cultivate outrage but in very different ways. It is always the goal of right-wing radio to make sure the listener is aggrieved to the point of anger. Anger is the coin of the realm in all right-wing media. In every show, Lars layers seeming outrage after outrage and makes no bones that it‘s the liberals, media or government who is at fault. This is a propaganda technique as old as the moon. The trick that Lars has mastered, unlike some other talkers, is that he stays just at the edges of being preachy to his listeners. He riles them up and confirms what they were thinking when they tuned in. He knows that conservatives, especially Trumpists, don’t like to be told what to do. So, he polishes the golden path of anger, turns up the lights and gets out of the way.

Dave has many of the same goals, but he knows that his audience doesn’t need its outrage served up bloody rare. His plan is to lay out his arguments with seeming pristine logic and clarity. His is the thinking person’s outrage machine. He knows when to turn up the urgency knob on his voice, so the audience knows he is genuinely on their side. Getting a little preachy with his audience is fine. Liberals don’t mind being told what to do. In fact, they feel a little cheated if Dave doesn’t offer a useful outlet for their now heightened concern. If his guest isn’t buying what he is selling, then he is the master of expressing the slightest tone of disappointment.  Mouths pursed, eyes narrowed, his listeners shake their heads in disapproval. Letter to the editor to follow.

Almost nobody listens to the arguments of polarization like I do. I’ll admit that sometimes it is exhausting. Both sides drive me nuts. But the fact that I do listen to both Dave and Lars ultimately means that I get twice as many opportunities to yell at my radio, “Oh…Fuck Off!” Catharsis times two.

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