Sticks and Stones…

IMG_4223Today, George W. Bush made the case against the rise of Trumpism. I don’t doubt the fact that Bush is a genuine patriot deeply concerned about the state of our republic. While I could go into a “lying sack of shit” rant about the Iraq War, I’ll let that one go and focus on the rest of his conservative critique, especially one paragraph from the speech that is getting a great deal of attention.

“Our identity as a nation, unlike other nations, is not determined by geography or ethnicity, by soil or blood. This means that people from every race, religion, ethnicity can be full and equally American. It means that bigotry and white supremacy, in any form, is blasphemy against the American creed.”

These are sentiments that I share. I further believe that tribalism is deep in our genetic code as a survival mechanism. As our oldest ancestors roamed the African savannah, affinity with a group meant food, protection and procreation. America is an experiment in seeking to overcome our most base instincts and unify diverse peoples under an aspirational creed. The founders knew this and above all feared what they called faction. American institutions are designed to suppress faction by creating interdependent layers of power.

However, Bush, from the isolation of his home in Texas, has missed an emerging threat to the creed. It is right there in his choice of language. His understanding of the term “white supremacy” is dated. In the current swirl of the leftist academy, and raging on the Internet, is a virulent attempt to redefine “white supremacy” as an inherent evil based on the pigment of one’s skin. With no irony, many younger Americans see white supremacy as the inherent source of bigotry and the American creed as the institutionalization of oppression.

First, let’s be clear, any attempt on anyone’s part, especially a white man, to critique this semantic shift will be instantly discounted and declared as racism by advocates. The word racist, once reserved for the vilest creatures, is now tossed off with an amazing ease. At first, as a tactic, the use of the word to shock and instantly put an unassuming target on the defensive was effective. In my public service, I was told I was a racist both publicly and privately. In was meant to intimidate. It worked…briefly.

But a funny thing happens when a powerful word is used commonly. It loses its power. I have seen it applied in so many different ways directed at so many different people that now I am almost completely inured to its use. Remember the first time you heard the word fuck uttered in public? It caught you off guard. Now? I bet you barely notice. In fact, it seems weird when people don’t use the word.

For many Americans, those of us with accidental white skin pigment are now all white supremacists. That feels strange, doesn’t it? Until recently, everyone could agree that white supremacists are NAZIs or hooded Klu Klux Klan members. Nope, sorry George, I know whom you were trying to condemn but you are now one of them. I know you meant people like the “white nationalist” ass-wipe who is speaking on a Florida campus today. I know you mean Donald Trump and his henchmen.

So what happens when we can’t collectively agree on the terms used to identify the bad guys? We may have seen one of the possible outcomes. When you throw too wide a net, the fish rebel. How many swing voters identified with some of what Trump was selling but couldn’t get there until their neighbors, fellow church goers and friends were called “deplorables?” While “white supremacy” and “whiteness” are now a critique that has not yet peaked, the inflammatory ultimately becomes mundane. Anyone seen Marilyn Manson lately?

America has always been about the aspiration to very high ideas and the painfully slow striving to reach our goals. I hope we don’t give up.

George W. Bush gave an important speech. He is afraid. Me too. Division and tribalism when treated with religious fervor are genuine threats to our experiment. But I expect those who need to hear this message most will find comfortable excuses to ignore everything he said. Still….

“Bullying and prejudice in our public life sets a national tone, provides permission for cruelty and bigotry, and compromises the moral education of children, the only way to pass along civic values is to first live up to them.”

He ain’t wrong.

 

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The Road Taken — My Second Act

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When I take breaks from playing and working outdoors, I find myself streaming The West Wing on Netflix. Besides my fantasy of living in an Aaron Sorkin world where everyone is wicked smart and funny with heads brimming with useful facts, that series was iconic for me in a strange, ultimately unsurprising, way.

As I have written here in the past, my life has zigged and zagged with the limits and possibilities of Panic Disorder. The disease manifested in the midst of my first real job as a low-level staff aide to a US Senator in Washington DC. I had been there for a year and was offered a serious entry policy position. It was the sort of political career path job that seemed beyond the dreams of a kid from Indio, California.

I couldn’t take the job. The disease was beginning to dominate my life, and with no real treatment available, I ended up leaving DC altogether. That unfinished business was the ghost in my machine.

Around the turn of the last century, the television show The West Wing appeared. It only took a couple of episodes for me to latch onto the character of the Deputy Chief of Staff, Josh. What he did in that show and who he was became the iconography of a life I was never able to live. I was jealous. I was sad. I was pissed off. Mostly, I wondered if I could have done what Josh was doing in politics. Not in the White House, just in politics of some sort.

I left my career in IT to see if I could finish an incomplete act. A deep part of me knew that if I never gave it a try, I would have this horrible question mark on my gravestone. There are many people with these sort of incomplete pieces in their lives. In this one respect, I was determined not to be part of that cohort.

Hard work, luck and chutzpah resulted in my working on the Nick Fish campaign and almost eight years in Portland City Hall. I left abruptly earlier this year. Here is where The West Wing comes in.

Having done the work in City Hall and politics, I still wasn’t sure I had achieved what I set out to do. Episode by episode, watching what my iconic Josh character did, I was sure I was, in fact, done when I left City Hall. I had lived my dream.

The show is amazingly accurate in the little things that happen working for an elected. I have come up with ideas and nursed them to fruition through the agency of my commissioner. I have written phrases in speeches and talking points only to see them on television later that night. I was the silent one in the room who slid notes in front of the boss that changed the conversation or informed him of important events.

Then there are the goofy little things. The TV show accurately portrays what it is like to join the boss complaining about the people in the meeting room, looking at each other in exasperation, then pulling the door open, smiling and treating those same people like the most important meeting that day.

The dealings with reporters on the West Wing are spot on. I have engaged in the wonderful exercise of talking to a reporter in a game of three-dimensional chess. What do I want them to know? What do they really want to know? When do we go off or on the record? How far can I reveal what I know to give them a story while concealing what we don’t want them reporting? Who can I leak a story to today? Honestly, this complex dance was some of the most fun I had in my old job. It was endlessly challenging and you got immediate feedback on your success or failure by reading the story online minutes or hours later. I miss that…a lot.

The show does a very good job portraying the exasperation of politics, the compromises, the risks not assumed, and the problems left unsolved. And it captures what is like to pitch ideas, things you are passionate about, only to have the boss go a completely different direction making it your job to promote and defend decisions you personally may not love…and sometimes…not respect. But in the end, you didn’t take the risk for running for office, he did, and that’s the job.

Watching the West Wing reminded me that I did complete a sentence left dangling in Washington DC decades ago. Episode after episode, I laugh or choke up when I tell myself, yea, I did that too. And, I remember how lucky I was to live a little dream by doing public service…actually good things for people I will never meet. As corny, or improbable, as it sounds in the current ocean of disdain for government, it is still possible to make people’s lives a little better in public service.

If I every need to remind myself that I actually did what I set out to do the cure is simple. I get in my car and go out to East Portland to hidden little park called East Holladay. I then watch kids, closely monitored by their parents, playing in the children’s play area on variety equipment. I call those tangible things the “but fors.” But for my public service, that playground wouldn’t have existed. Josh was a fiction. That playground, and many other things in Portland I accomplished are real. For that opportunity I will always be thankful to the sometimes exasperating, always hyper-kinetic, deeply committed public servant, Nick Fish.

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An Evening in Pickleandia

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If you are ever a little down because so much about Portland has become big and confusing, head out to Lents Park, out beyond 82nd Avenue, to a sweet little place called Walker Stadium.

The demise of the Portland Beavers left me a bitter old man. On the night of the last baseball game at PGE Park, I joined mourners down on the field and scooped up a handful of dirt from around home plate. As I walked out of the ballpark, I turned one last time to see the field and vowed I would never set foot there again. I am still true to my word.

In City Hall, I was in the room for the final negotiations that booted baseball out of Portland. I lost track of how many times I had to fake a half-smile for the Timbers owner and the politicians drooling over soccer. That experience made me both determined and deeply fatalistic to bring baseball back to Portland.

Still…..

A couple years later, as liaison to the Parks Bureau, an enthusiastic guy named Ken Wilson came to meet pitching the idea to use a decrepit 1950’s era ballpark in Lents Park as the home for a wooden bat, college player, independent league team. There are several of these leagues across America. They give young players a place to get better, use wooden bats for the first time and even nurture the dream of becoming a Major League star. (Impossible? Giants All-star, 3 time World Series Champion, Buster Posey was scouted in just such a league.) To my delight, I became the political mid-wife for a baseball team…the Portland Pickles.

For two years I have had season tickets behind home plate for the Pickles. When I advised the owners on how to make the deal happen, I said make it all about East Portland. Make it about families who rarely venture downtown. Honor Lents, yea the old “felony flats.” Baseball with its predictable spaces in between innings means you can make it about fun. By any measure the Portland Pickles are a huge, largely hidden, success.

Every time I walk into the ballpark I get a little emotional that it even exists. I fight back tears at the home openers. I always walk across the park to the stadium. Even before you get to game, you hear it. Corny music, the announcer, the pop of the mitt as the starting pitcher warms up in the bullpen. (This year they put some tape to mark off the bullpen so they didn’t have to shoo kids off of the mounds to warm up relievers.) As I get closer, I smell the hotdogs on the grill and through the fence see the lines for cold beer.

Sold out, the park has room for about 2,400 people. There are several sellouts. Even on a Monday night, 1,500 people come to the games. Along the foul lines there are long raised, grass covered mounds called The Berms. People of all ages lounge on the grass or bring their beach chairs. Families with youngsters are Berm people because the kids can run and play behind the berms. “Meet me at The Berm” is an actual thing in Pickleandia.

Walker Stadium and the Pickles are about the rest of Portland, the part only given lip service downtown. The outfield wall is close, 335 feet, little league sized. They could not push the fence back because of a row of magnificent tall Incense Cedars and deciduous Maples. So the outfield fence is tall, covered with signs, and when homeruns are smashed deep the ball disappears into the trees like a scene out of Field of Dreams.

Seemingly removed from the rest of the world by the wall of trees, you stare out at advertisement signs that remind you where you are. Buster’s Barbeque, Epic Auto Body, Skull and Bones Chiropractic, Sayler’s Country Kitchen, D&F Plumbing, The Shriners, Northside Ford, Burgerville, and in a curious eastside twist a big sponsor is Warner Pacific College. While there is no shortage of craft beers, I always lean toward sipping Hamms on tap as I watch the games.

Listen to the conversations. People talking about their days at work. The electricians arguing over wiring a house. The old guys in front of me talking about what they lost at the horses that day. The guy jumping with his phone because he is on call…software…nope…PGE…power outage. Behind me a couple celebrated their 60th anniversary at the ballpark. On the loud speakers, you are as likely to hear a shout out to a soldier back from deployment as you are to hear the breaking glass sound effect every time a foul ball flies into the parking lot.

Walker Stadium welcomes a diverse crowd. There’s a well-known loud guy who heckles the umpire and sometimes the players. He only stops to go get a cigarette every other inning. I wish he’d lay off the kids on the field. They are just out there for the love of the game, but he bought his ticket.

One evening, a classic PDX hipster couple was sitting behind me in the field seats. The man-bun dude started yelling at the heckler. “Shut up,” “we are sick of you,” “you’re an idiot.” I knew this would be trouble. The heckler yelled back, “oh, is the millennial unhappy?,” “poor millennial” and then the best one, “no crying in baseball!” (Cross-reference a line from a baseball movie and I am all in) When he yelled that, half the bleacher began to chant in unison, “no crying in baseball…no crying in baseball” The clueless and thoroughly defeated girlfriend of man-bun flipped them all off.

Man-bun and his girl were not smart enough to know they were no longer in their Portland. They were in Lents…Pickleandia. While I would have been perfectly serene with him getting a well-deserved whoop’n, there was a security guy who knew the code of the east side and quietly put himself between man-bun and heckler. I just laughed and turned back to see the game. Another great night at Walker Stadium.

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The season is now over. I am a little sad. The games are full of the kind of surprises you only get with widely varied talent. And this year, there were major league scouts in the stands. I know the two kids they have their eyes on. Sign the Aussie pitcher and the big guy from UCLA now.

Having real baseball, with good east side people has been one of the great joys of my last two summers. The fans love the kids on the field. Players live with local families who come to see them at every game. In fact, for a few hours, 15 times a year, I get to be with my other family, the good baseball fans of East Portland. Can’t wait for opening day 2018.

 

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The 65th Anniversary Celebration

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Today is my parents’ 65th wedding anniversary. I wish I could say it was a day of unfettered celebration but for my family it is a day of reflection and some sadness. You see, my mother is in the final stage of Alzheimer’s Disease.

I have discovered than when I speak honestly about Alzheimer’s people join the conversation knowingly. With the aging of the baby boomers, it’s devastation visits more and more people. It is a shared experience with an evil and relentless disease.

While I am my own worse timekeeper, I am pretty sure that my mother has not known who I am for 3 years or more. I can recall the first hints that the disease was visiting her almost a decade ago. The changes in my mom with each of my visits were shocking. Each time I saw her she had disappeared more.

I have not lived close to my family since I was 19 years old. My brother, who raised a terrific family in the desert, lives close by our parents. Dad and Mike are the ones who have taken the brunt of the caretaking. Our folks worked hard and were frugal, so they have means for mom to have the best care available. I know that for my dad making sure that Dot always had the best care is something that has given him great solace. And, I know that our ability to do that is relatively rare. The impact of dementia on families of less means is shattering.

Jim and Dot Blackwood fell in love in high school and married soon after graduating. They had my brother and I young, which is why both Mike and I can be retired with parents in their early 80’s. It also means that, should your parents stay healthy, you get to know them for a long time. Mike and I have been blessed in this.

Couples don’t get to 65 years of marriage without trials. The great couples weather the awful moments in life and flourish. Our folks travelled widely and shared a thousand experiences. But with each visit what always amazed me the most about my parents is the almost coded language they shared until my mom’s mind faded away. The shared looks. The funny way they tolerated each other’s weaknesses with knowing eye-rolls. And the gentle celebrations in the way they touched each other or shared mischievous laughs.

And here’s the most remarkable thing. My dad has maintained all of that for both of them over the last few years. From the caretaking while she was still at home to the twice daily trips down the road to see her for both lunch and dinner he has never given up on them, the two of them as one. Oh, certainly there is melancholy and loss, but he comes to her each day faithfully believing that small parts of her are still in there somewhere and he will honor that until she is no longer with us.

My dad said last week that, Lord willing the creek don’t rise, maybe it’s mom’s plan to be here for their 65th anniversary and that he would bring her a cake decorated with their names and 65th on it. Well, that’s what he and my brother did today. Today, we celebrated. I am so proud the genetic lottery gave me these parents. Their steadfastness in life and in the dimming of life sets a very high bar for the rest us.

Mom and Dad, I love you.       Happy Anniversary…..Jimmy

 

 

 

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The Mental Illness All Around You

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For most of my adult life I have lived with Panic Disorder. It’s natural for folks who hear that to immediately cross-reference to their own lives. They think of a time they were very afraid or very anxious and, bless their hearts, they think they understand.

While I knew there was something was wrong as a kid, the disease didn’t manifest completely until I was in my mid-twenties. In 1980, there were almost no resources available to diagnose my problem, let alone treat it. Professionals gave me Rorschach tests, which my creative mind loved, and had me sit down for lots of talking therapy. For a time, I spent good money deep in the world of Jungian psychology. Fascinating but useless. I became agoraphobic as habits of mind and body solidified without useful treatment.

A decade later, as science and treatment advanced, I found myself in a program with a room full of fellow sufferers. I knew the enormous effort it took me to get to NW Portland and the shear will it took to remain seated in that room. I knew everyone sitting in that circle of chairs shared my story in some unique way. But here’s the thing that has always stayed with me about that moment. Looking around the room, everyone looked calm. Oh, there were little tells, fidgeting and reaching for water bottles, but an outsider would not have been able to tell how much desperation and struggle was happening in front of their eyes.

The first decade of my affliction I survived and sometimes thrived. I depended on the love of a few people and the confused tolerance of a few more. I self-medicated with moderate use of booze and pot. Panic Disorder people are unlikely to abuse either as controlling oneself and the world around you is perceived as essential to survival. That’s the biggest difference between someone who has an anxiety episode and someone living with a disease. My people, we absolutely know that what we are thinking and feeling is a very real threat to our survival. Repeat…survival.

Like other sufferers with mental health issues, the disease punches huge holes in one’s life. I could not fly for 20 years. My family lives 1,000 miles away. Think about it. I am a baseball fanatic who didn’t see a Major League game for 20 years. Seattle was out of reach. And when I did make it up there, it took 2 tries. The first time I stood outside of the empty stadium in the middle of the night. Months later, I saw an actual game. Sally took a picture of me in the stadium. I look at it now and think, “That’s me at a real game. That’s me in ecstasy.”

Many people don’t survive mental illness. I have been close to that point. But for reasons that still escape me, perhaps grounded in my blue-collar work ethic and stubbornness, I am relentlessly hopeful about recovery. I never stop working the problem. That strange will power, some amazing professionals, and the love and support of my wife, means that I have a wonderful life. When I get whinny, I wish it wasn’t so hard on some days. But those are the cards I was dealt. And, entire parts of my life I cherish would not exist except for the powerful urge to not be owned by my illness.

People who I have been around for years have little idea that this is my real story. Like the other people in that circle of chairs, I am a great actor. I have run high stress meetings while having panic attacks. I have adjusted my work activities and personal life in subtle ways to keep moving forward. What looks eccentric is sometimes simply a survival tactic. Though, honestly, sometimes it’s just because I am eccentric. I have been at this so long I have lost track.

Here’s the deal. This essay isn’t about me. It’s about all the people around us who are also great actors. When I have shared my experience, “normal” people have told me, “Me too.” This missive is about cultivating compassion and understanding. While some mental health issues are apparent, far more are essentially invisible. Pause before you judge too harshly. Wonder why things seem harder for some people. When someone reveals something hard to you, know there is more and be honored with trust bestowed.  I couldn’t have built the life I have without little bits of understanding by others along the way. Simply…be that person. It can make all the difference in the world.

 

(If what I have described rings a bell. Email me via the website and I can suggest where to get help.)

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The Problem with Portland’s Lawn Sign

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Dog walking around my neighborhood I see dozens of Portland’s favorite lawn sign. It must have a generic, shorthand name known but to a few. I ain’t the few.

There was a time when I was a Unitarian. I enjoyed their spirituality but ultimately was driven away by their politics. There’s a joke about Unitarians that not much gets done because it takes too long to organize the committee and once assembled no one can agree. I think of this joke every time I see one of these lawn signs.

Here’s how I think the committee created the lawn sign:

IN OUR COUNTRY

Immediately, the committee decided to take a divisive approach and redefine their ideology as a separate country. It’s the sort of “feel good” affirmation that mostly works because it excludes broad swaths of America. There is no separate country. We only have one. It’s a geographic republic conceived as a liberal democracy.

ALL PEOPLE ARE EQUAL

The committee could have stopped there but we have to believe that this line isn’t so much an affirmation as it is an accusation. The Founders made this point repeatedly but they were not fools. They knew this idea was aspirational. With no little irony, slaveholders joined abolitionists in embracing the idea. The context was not lost on them. There is both hope and hard work in this statement.

LOVE WINS  

Aging hippies in the room no doubt. Evidently, this imaginary country is a place were love is the overriding value. However, would they love their neighbor if they had a Trump sign in their front yard? Really?

BLACK LIVES MATTER

Certainly. This is the slogan of a movement, a historically important movement. But now the sign is begins to veer into the tricky narratives of identity politics. And this is just the start.

IMMIGRANTS AND REFUGEES ARE WELCOME

This idea is certainly topical. It reminds me of the long list of grievances in the Declaration of Independence. When you read that document now, there are parts that soar and sing. The lists? Not so much. America has always had a love/hate relationship with immigration. Last one off the boat…or jet…or truck…is always the problem for someone. I am reminded that 25% of Latinos voted for Trump. Welcome!

DISABILITIES ARE RESPECTED

Does anyone else find this language particularly numbing and strange? Don’t we want to respect and empower the person and not the disability? And, what about the invisible disabilities like mental health issues? You can almost feel the committee straining to find a way to include another group.

WOMEN ARE IN CHARGE OF THEIR OWN BODIES

I read somewhere that the original concept for this sign came from women. As a second wave feminist, I couldn’t agree more but this line continues the parsing of the population of this imaginary country. If in this mythical place everyone were equal why would you need to make this point? As the bubble of identity expands the walls get thinner and thinner. We know what happens to bubbles.

PEOPLE & PLANET ARE VALUED OVER PROFIT

They had to go to the ampersand to get that one in. Any good Unitarian committee has to have a few socialists. My dog walk sample of the location of these signs tells me that some of the folks expressing this sentiment may have more than a passing relationship with good old capitalism. The truth is that almost ALL of us have looked the other way to live a first world existence. But by all means keep the ampersand line in mind while boarding any jet to a sustainability conference in India.

DIVERSITY IS CELEBRATED

And there it is. In the final statement the committee embraces the big. I worked in the engine room of liberal Portland and it did not take long for me to realize just how narrowly diversity was defined. If you acted and thought in the approved fashion, you were everyone’s buddy. Challenge the dominant dogma in the slightest way and you were glad tarring and feathering was no longer a thing. Though the social sanctions could be just as painful. Try this. Most City Councils in the nation, and Congress for that matter, begin with a prayer. Can you imagine the backlash if a religious person proposed that here?

SIGN…SIGH

Since I left the world of local politics, I have been reminded what a small planet that world is. While most of Portland isn’t paying attention the politics here are very much identity politics. This is a road to hell littered with good intentions. A couple of years into my service, I coined the phrase “liberal conceit” to describe how most liberals absolutely believe they are open-minded and welcoming. Certainly, nothing like those conservative cretins. Couldn’t be farther from the truth. Judgment knows no political persuasion. Tribalism is deep in the DNA. It takes determination and compassion to overcome what is deeply human about us all.

Portland’s favorite lawn sign is about identity. It is shorthand for telling everyone around you that we are not one of “them.” It’s a little smug and a lot about the tribe. It does not attempt to reach out and embrace people with legitimate social, religious or political differences. It might as well be the other sign I just saw on my walk: BEWARE OF DOG. That’s the sort of crisp, clear message that the left seems incapable of doing.

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The Joy of the Broken Urinal Blues

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Half the world has no idea what it is like for a guy to piss in a rock and roll club.  Women are better for it.

Last week I went out to see my buddies in the band Volcker.  (Yea, the former Fed Chair.  They sling their rock with intellectual asides.)  The venue was the soon to be torn down Ash Street Saloon.  As what passes for civilization marches through Portland, one great club after another it being replaced by expensive housing.  Two whiskies in I needed to use the facilities.  Mid-stream I realized that when these clubs go, so do the unique men’s restrooms.  So, being a 21st century man I recorded the passing of a classic rock club men’s room.

As such restrooms go, the Ash Street wasn’t bad.  All the plumbing worked.  There was no line.  The floor was mostly dry.  The art work and graffiti were generally non-offensive.  I have seen worse.

The much lamented punk club Satyricon featured a device known to regulars as the “piss trough.”  Don’t ask.  For reasons I have never understood, some drunk men decide to work out their anger in club restrooms.  Some dude took the cover off the toilet at the old Mt. Tabor and used it to pulverize the rest of the plumbing.  This would have been a passing strangeness but for years after the broken porcelain remaining in service, more or less.  At my 90’s favorite La Luna, the doors were ripped off the stalls and not replaced.  Once in awhile the staff painted over the walls with deep red paint allowing another layer of graffiti to appear.  Note, I believe that site is now a restaurant.

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The penis is a sketchy fluid delivery device. Generally dependable but lacking in accuracy.  Compound that with a wall lined with uninals, a few hundred men and a few thousand beers and…well…you get the picture.  A common feature of men’s restrooms in clubs is a layer of urine and water on the floor.  Roseland is especially known for this phenomenon.  Ever notice the wet trail from the restroom.  Now you will.  I sometimes look at women leaving their facilities with dry feet and sigh.

Once at a Marshall Tucker Band show in a park in Southern Maryland when the line finally let me in the room I discovered that creative drunk souls had adapted all the sinks as uninals.  I wish I could say that this was an outlier of male behavior, but it wasn’t the last time I saw such creativity in the the face of “having to go so bad!”  Yea, men are barbarians.

I am not really sure why the men’s restroom has long existed at the junction of artistic expression and aggression.  Possibly the reigning king in Portland is Dante’s.  Besides the art and broken fixtures there is an amazing series of improvised fixes.  A replacement wooden door to a stall seemingly gnawed by giant termites gives one pause.  As each new chuck of the door disappears, a new coat of black paint is slathered to salve the wound.

There is a massive upside to all this degradation.  Be honest, sometimes, after a few beers  there is a visceral satisfaction to a long, closed-eyed piss.  Many times in the midst of just such a moment I pause to consider what I am hearing all around me.  My “moment of zen” is realizing that I have the joy of relieving myself with some of the best artists in the world playing live behind me.  How often to you get to go to the restroom with Buddy Guy or BB King or Sleater-Kinney or the Foo Fighters as background music.  Honestly, for such a mundane bodily function does it ever get any better?

Just watch your step on the way out.

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Life Among the “NIMBY Racists”

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More people are coming.  How many times have we heard that?  When I drive around Portland I sometimes get a little lost because my memory landmarks are gone, replaced by a monoculture of 5 story apartment buildings.

An ugly fight has emerged over density in the old R5 zoned neighborhoods.  My neighborhood.  There are people, like me, who some time ago made the biggest investment of their lives in a single family home.  On the other side of the argument is the curious coalition of  low income housing advocates and developers.  I was in City Hall for the planning battle between those two sides.  In many cases the division was between younger apartment dwellers and people like me.  It got nasty.  The agist rhetoric flowed freely.

So where are the adults in this policy argument?  Evidently, not in Salem. The Speaker of the House, Tina Kotek referred to home owners as NIMBY racists.  Well that’s helpful.  The use of the word “racist” a now a liberal trope.  It’s how you marginalize even the most rational opposition to public policy.  The policy discussion then becomes an attempt to refute the claim.  I saw the term used like this in City Hall over and over.

Historical racism in real estate is a fact all across America.  Portland is not unique.  When   the Portland Development Commission started to remove “blight” they started downtown knocking down entire Italian and Jewish neighborhoods, then crossed the river and went at historically black neighborhoods.  Then it was all about location and money.  Racism is woven in that story but for developers cultural context is secondary to the dough.

The clue about what is really happening here is that fact that developers are part of the housing coalition.  There is money to be made and if playing the role of housing advocate gets that done, so be it.  Tearing down a small starter homes has been very profitable for some time now.  Building duplexes would be even better.  Buy a home for $350,000, tear it down the foundation, double the square feet and you have an $800,000 home.  Better yet…turn that same footprint into a duplex and you have two $600,000 homes.  You tell me.  Are developers building “affordable housing” or are they systematically eliminating the affordable housing in R5 neighborhoods to make a buck?

Who are the NIMBY racists?  Is it the Asian woman across the street whose father built a home on that lot a decade ago?  How about the other neighbor (retired public union employee Tina) in the little 1920’s house who bought it in 1980 for $20,000?  Are the racists the two teachers with kids who live next door and bought a small house just before the latest boom?  What about my neighbor on the other side, the other retired state worker and his wife?  Many of us bought the houses we live in for prices the seem impossible for newcomers to imagine.  For the most part, post-redlining in what were once almost entirely working class neighborhoods

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Right now, I can hear construction noise on my block.  A family from California is gutting a nice house to upgrade it.  They bought it for $800,000.  Another 1906 house is on a double lot.  The software guy is moving it to the second lot and building a entire new home on the now vacant lot.  A little further down, a nice starter house has been gutted and a second story is being added.  It will fetch $700,000 when they are done.  My longtime neighbors and I stand in our front yards shaking our heads.  Where is all this money coming from?

When I got my first apartment in an old house in inner SE in 1983, I roamed around amazed at how lovely and cheap the houses were in these close-in neighborhoods.  People I met from the west side turned up their noses to crossing the river and buying a home there.  I dreamed of owning one of those houses and 10 years later, having scrimped and saved, I bought a tiny starter home.  It is just the kind of home that is being eliminated.  No matter how you carve up these neighborhoods with duplexes and four-plexes these neighborhoods will never be affordable again.

I saw a METRO survey that said that when asked over 60% of Portland millennials aspired to a home with a yard when they paired up and had kids.  Of course.  We have not revoked the American dream.  But I’m sorry.  In Portland, you missed it.  Every political decision we have made in the last 30 years has led us to this outcome.  Yea!  We did it to ourselves.

 

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Death on the Eastbound MAX

 

What’s going on here?  Like so many people I had to stop to ponder the vicious attacks on humanity at the Hollywood MAX station.  As I read about the reactions to the violence, things just keep getting more complicated.  Grief, anger, nobility, politics, factions, unity, exploitation…the sparks fly into like consciousness like a spinning pinwheel on the 4th of July.

While there was terror on that train, I am not sure what happened was terrorism.  Someone seems to be trying to make a point when you put the ism on terror.  I am not convinced there was a point to this violence.  The perpetrator is clearly mentally ill.  He organized his mental illness around a vile ideology.  With 8 years in a maximum security penitentiary he had plenty of white power mentors.  He also learned that with a blade the best way to kill was to slash throats not stab.  Useful knowledge in a prison.  Devastating on the streets.

What Trump responsible?  Maybe.  In any society there are evil forces lurking just below the thin layer of order.  History is replete with the repeated stories of seemingly happy neighbors turning on each other.  Rwanda, Germany, Yugoslavia.  The beast is always lurking.  Trump came to power by lifting the lid on some of America’s most mutated genes.  Given the freedom to act out, the power of the mob takes hold.  And in every mob there are damaged people who don’t know the difference between being played for power and empowering their personal evils.

I was struck by the compassion at the first memorial.  A memorial is a sacred ritual.  From the family of one of the victims we received a benediction that flowed like their tears.  Who are these folks who are so fluent in the language of compassion?  How did they create a son whose last words were a blessing?

Unfortunately, even that moment became too Portland.  Narrow factions used the moment to attack leaders.  Justifiable anger, an emotion for after the ritual, poured forth.  Even in a brief moment where unity seemed possible, our culture of unrestrained narcissism had its moment.

For days I have tried to boil down this tragedy to an essence.  I need a touchstone beyond  myself and the inevitable momentum of entanglement in a thousand agendas.  Sitting in my backyard yesterday, I wrote at sentence in the margins of a book.  For me, it comes down to this:

People confronted evil and practiced compassion.

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That Time With Gregg Allman in Atlanta

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Have you ever had a waking dream? I got to see the Allman Brothers Band a couple of times. The second time I saw them play their music.

The passing of Gregg Allman reminded me of the first time I saw the band. In 1978 I was just out of college and living with my girlfriend in Salem, Oregon. To say I was aimless would be generous. I was working graveyard shift at an Interstate 5 gas station and trying my hand at growing pot in bedroom closet. I had a vague idea that I wanted to work in politics and government. A friend of mine was doing graduate work at Willamette University and said I should try Salem.

Well, government in Salem was a tiny closed system then and pretty much now. So, we were hanging out at a park on the Willamette a lot and living the small town life. My best friend from college was living in Washington DC and landed a job on a Senate staff. He called and said I should come to DC and check it out. I had only flown once before in my life, so this was going to be a real adventure.

Here is how not to get from Salem, Oregon to Washington DC. Drive to Portland and catch a plane to Seattle. Wait for a couple of hours and fly to St. Louis. Sit on the runway in St. Louis as a connecting flight for an hour, and then fly to Atlanta. Hang in Atlanta for 3 hours to catch a flight to DC. (Anyone remember Eastern Airlines?) All totaled, a 14-hour trip to DC. Like I said, I knew nothing about flying.

It was May; I left Portland in kind of dress pants and a wool sweater. I never left the planes or airports so I had no idea I was flying to the south and no one was wearing wool there.

I was exhausted by time I got to Atlanta and found the gate. There was no one there yet so I treated myself to one of America’s great newspapers, the Atlanta Constitution. Soon enough I was sprawled in the chair, sound asleep with the newspaper over my face. I don’t know how long I had been sleeping but when I pulled the paper off my face I was sitting in the middle of a collection of sort of typical 70’s post-hippie looking dudes.

The black guy across from me had a cast on his foot and he was talking to the longhaired guy next to him about how he was going to play the bass drum with the cast. Seems he had tried parachuting from a plane during their collective vacation and it didn’t work out so well.

Listening to them talk it was as if my brain suddenly clicked back on. Drums? A band. Did that guy just call him Jai? Really. I know that name. That would be “Jaimoe” a drummer for the Allman Brothers. The guy offering that they could tape Jaimoe’s foot to the bass drum pedal was, of course, Dickey Betts. I looked around me and realized I was sitting in the middle of the album cover.  I had woken up in the middle of the Allman Brothers Band.

In the exact moment my befuddled brain had the thought “Where’s Gregg,” I looked to my left and there he was in the signature leather coat with sheep shin trim. He sat down by me. You could have hit me with a cattle prod and I would not have notced. I could not think of anything to say. Sign my newspaper? Lame. Then I realized I was invisible to then. I was in the middle of the band and they were talking like friends do. How did you spend the vacation? Jai really fucked up but we have it figured out. Where are we going now?

I realized that moment was not going to get any better by outing myself. And most bizarrely, Gregg’s big jacket made me feel better about the wool sweater. I was a stoner from Oregon but looked sooooo straight in their midst. I just soaked it in and after a while they all left. I wanted to run down the concourse and tell someone, but the waiting area was empty again. And I still had to finish the trip that would completely alter my life.

The second time I saw the Allman Brothers Band they played. They were great. Thanks Gregg. It was terrific to almost meet you.

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