Voting from the Middle

New Hampshire: Home To the "First In The Nation" Presidential Primary

The mailman just delivered our property tax bill and mail-in ballots.  With my larger project well underway, this inspires me to take a pause and consider the mid-term elections.  

A few years into my time working in Portland City Hall, I chose to change my registration from Democrat to Non-affiliated.  While nominally non-partisan, the politics and policy in City Hall is hard left liberal Democrat.  Having called myself a Democrat for most of my life, I was initially fine with that even when I have never voted the party line.  But I am also someone who has spent a couple of decades studying political polarization independently and as the focus of my MA.  Turns out that once I found myself in the belly of the political left beast, I found it oppressive.  Moderation was immediately suspect.  In creating policy and law, Portland’s city government feeds only from one ideological trough.  Reasonable arguments out of the left’s orthodoxy are rejected out of hand.

To be sure, this experience would have been the same if I was working in say the city hall of Tulsa, Oklahoma.  Every idea would be based in a monoculture of right wing, conservative thinking.  Given who I am, I think my reaction would have been the same.  Reject the orthodoxy and seek middle ground.

A great liberation happens when you are no longer affiliated with a political party.  You are now a genuine consumer of ideas and candidates.  The source of those candidates has no bearing on who you chose to support.  In a two-party system, it then becomes the job of both parties to bring me ballot measures and candidates for consideration.  Voting becomes a wonderfully engaged act.  I have to pay close attention to the details.  No longer am I free to lazily cast a party line vote.  I am not either team.  I am on team good governance.  Still, it takes a certain willful stubbornness to not be on one of the two teams.  

In keeping with my beliefs, I have chosen to support the genuinely moderate Republican Knute Buehler for governor of Oregon.  I know that with 30 years of one party domination Oregon is leaving good ideas on the table in favor of partisan solutions.  And, with a solidly Democrat legislature, this is a pretty easy choice.  The Founders built into our system the active mechanism of divided government to force compromise.  They feared above all, faction, the domination of single interest parties.  I get pretty excited when I think about the possibilities of divided government here.  In fact, Sally and I have given to 9 different Democrat House candidates in order to create the same sort of checks and balances of divided government in Washington DC.  

Advocating for my candidate has revealed the nature of polarization.  I have friends who believe any vote for a Republican is a betrayal.  Even when they agree that Governor Brown is at best a lackluster choice, the idea of breaking from their team is repugnant.  Brown’s campaign is now running ads that morph Buehler into Trump.  That is likely to work here, but it is also an admission that she has nothing positive to offer, just more partisan bickering.  That makes me very sad.  I want us to be better than this.

Political monoculture also has the effect of reducing the quality of candidates.  This is true of the Portland City Council race this year.  I have seen both candidates close-up and know the insider stories of their politics.  Neither one is a good choice.  They operate in a very narrow band of the existing liberal Portland politics.  And, the city council will swing further left.  This may make many in the city happy.  I doubt that it will make city government better or more responsive to all Portlanders.  You should see what happens to moderates who chose to testify in front of city council now.  It ain’t pretty.

Looking at my property tax, I see a huge portion is for bonds from several different public entities.  I like paying my taxes.  I think it is part of my duty as a citizen.  But when I look at the ballot, I see even more bond measures and taxes in front of us.  A touchstone issue for the liberal parts of Oregon is the need to somehow punish evil corporations.  Year after year, driven by the Democrats and public labor unions, there have been measures to tax corporations.  Mostly, those measures fail statewide, but now there is a miniature version of this sort of tax just in Portland.  We have a very bad habit of creating one-off taxes here to benefit “good” special interests.  Of course, the response of corporations, constantly under attack, is to try to pass constitutional amendments to prevent any corporate taxes.  Altering the state constitution for tax measures is pure madness.  The endless back and forth gets us nowhere.  Well, it does make political consultants wealthy.

Some corporations are venal.  But I worked in the private sector for 25 years.  I have seen thousands of employees create good lives working for corporations.  And, it is naive to think that when taxed, those public corporations will not simply pass the tax back to consumers in higher costs.  Retailers operate on thin margins, the money has to come from somewhere.  There is no magic pile of money.  

We have a bond measure for affordable housing from our regional government.  People tell me that it is only $60 a year.  Yet, when you line up all of the indebtedness on our property tax bill it creeps into the $1,000 range.  I wonder about people on fixed incomes who have to pay that bill.  I also wonder about the wisdom of a regional government with no housing experience being put into that new business.  We need the housing but why would we create a new bureaucracy with its new overhead to address this problem?  Silly, but most renters don’t consider that those raised property taxes are passed on in their next rent increase.  No magic pile of money.

As a voter from the middle, I don’t have a reflexive vote.  And in Oregon, non-affiliated voters outnumber registered Republicans and are getting close to Democrats in registration.  There is something happening here.  Voting based on my team and not their team is facing an emerging national trend to back away from both parties.  I am encouraged by this trend.  If you too think that political polarization is the defining flaw in our current politics, try backing away from the two parties.  It’s a challenging decision, but it really feels good to know your vote isn’t a given and that you will only be swayed by the quality of the ideas and people on your ballot.

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Many Nights at the Ballpark


I have seen 21 live baseball games this season.  16 Pickles games.  4 Major League games and 1 minor league game.  The season isn’t over but I have most likely seen my last live game for the summer.  The local season is winding down.

Last night we were with friends watching the Salem-Kaiser Volcanoes.  The Volcanoes are the short season A ball farm team for my beloved San Francisco Giants.  We always make it down for a game so I can “scout” Giants prospects.  I have seen several current major leaguers play with the Volcanoes.  There is only one level of professional baseball lower than the Northwest League but not being in a major league town I have developed a lasting affection for the minor leagues.  These kids are often just out of college, or in the case of foreign born players, this is their first taste of the United States.  What they have in common is that this is the first time someone is actually paying them to play baseball.  There is a joy, a purity in that fact that permeates the low minor leagues.

We went down to Kaiser last night with a very specific purpose.  My Giants were so awful last year that they got the number 2 player in this year’s draft.  For the uninitiated, this is a big deal and means huge signing bonuses.  Joey Bart is a catcher from University of Georgia.  His signing bonus?  $7 Million.  Shocking isn’t it.  He is on a team with players making a tiny salaries, no bonus, surviving on fast food. But his talent warrants that much money.  That’s the market.

The levels of baseball are unlike any other sport.  Major League teams have 5 levels of teams below them.  It is not unusual for bonus babies like Joey Bart to never make the major leagues.  All that money is often a losing bet.  It is more likely an unknown kid from the Dominican Republic will be a star at the highest level.  Baseball is hard.  Even with all the talent in the world, Joey Bart was sent to the lowest levels to learn a game he has already been playing since he was 6 years old.  The Darwinian culling of players as they work up the ladder is cruel.

Joey was introduced before the game.  He was given a plague as the league player of the month for July.  A little speech.  Then back into his catcher’s crouch.  He was 0-4 for at the plate last night but threw out 3 runners trying to steal second.  What a freaking arm.  

But while I was watching the Volcanoes in that lovely stadium in Kaiser (note to the file, for the 11th time Sally said we ARE NOT moving to Kaiser so I can go to all the games), I was looking at on my phone.  The advent of steaming means I see or listen to about 150 Giants games a season.  I do it everywhere.  At the movies, in the car, while I am writing, while I walk the dog…everywhere.  As I was watching Joey and his mates, I was also watching my Giants blow themselves out of the playoff chase.  So, I switched the broadcast to the M’s to see if they were still in the hunt.  At games, I also follow all the beat writers for my teams on twitter.  (Wow, writing it down, I feel like a junkie admitting a drug problem.  But the high is so good….)

Why do I do this?  As a kid, I followed baseball.  I was desperate to play but as a gangly, uncoordinated kid who was afraid of the ball, that was never going to happen.  Still, I grew up a Giants kid in SoCal Dodger country.  Two reasons.  I once saw all of the greatest Giants at a Palm Springs spring training game.  I waved to Willie Mays in the parking lot.  He waved back.  And, there is the artifact. In 1962, my Granddad Kerby once played golf with the owner of the Giants.  After the round, the owner took my papa to the locker room and told the team to all sign some balls for his friend’s grandkids.  In a safe, I have that perfectly preserved ball.  Five Hall of Famers, Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Juan Marichal, Ozzie Virgil and Gaylord Perry.  How could I not be a lifelong Giants fan?


Gaylord Perry, he of the spitball, was at the Volcanoes game last night.  This is a minor league thing.  Players show up and sign 2 things for each person in long lines.  Hundreds of people stood in line last night.  Older players were paid peanuts, so this is part of their retirement income.  Once at a Portland Beavers game, I got a signature from Cleveland legend fireballer Bob Feller.  I didn’t get a signature last night.  Perry’s signature on my ball was his rookie year, so there’s that.  I was also a little sad for him.  But as you walk around the line of supplicants you hear old men telling stories about their hero to young men and younger boys.  Transmitting tribal lore.  When Perry came out to throw out the first pitch, players, kids, many of whom who had to be told who he was, gathered on the dugout steps to applaud the Hall of Famer.  I realized they were saluting a shared dream as much as Perry.

If you haven’t figured it out yet, this blog is called No Clock because of my love of baseball.  When you are able to move beyond the causal fan, it’s the long spaces in the game you appreciate as much as the action.  A hundred little things happen between every pitch.  Infielders move, pitcher and catcher strategize on the next pitch.  Hitters adjust based on the count.  Once they see what the pitcher has thrown, infielders and outfielders shift their weight to anticipate how that kind of pitch will come off the bat.  And when runners are on, no game builds drama like baseball.  Slowly.  Relentlessly.  Especially in extra innings.  Why?  Because there is no clock.  You play until each team has all its outs and one team wins.  

I like to go games alone to just absorb the play, but I always end up talking to some other fan.  If you get to go with a friend, the game allows the space to talk about a thousand different things.  You weave your friendship in and out of the play on the field.  While owners have to create between action distractions for the modern fan, you don’t have to pay any attention to the silliness.  The relative quiet in the breaks in the game are a godsend.  No singing, no drumming, no dancing, no clock, just the time to hang out in the stands with a friend.

When I was in City Hall, I was in the room for the negotiations that ended the 100 year run of the AAA Portland Beavers ball club.  It was agony and deeply personal.  From my first year in Portland in the mid-80’s, I was a regular at Civic Stadium.  Broke for the first couple of years, I could afford a 10 ticket General Admission pack for AAA ball.  Add 1 beer and 1 dog and I was in heaven.  During the AAA hiatus when we had the single A little Rockies, I was I high roller with 2 season tickets 3 rows back from third base and paid parking across the street.  In all that time in the ballpark, I had a jealous eye on a few people.  Every game, sitting in the same seats were a few old guys and one elderly woman.  At their feet was a beer and in their lap was a scorecard.  They were my icons.  That was who I wanted to be in retirement.  I was pretty angry when that dream was taken away.

Still, one of the things I did do in City Hall was take the first meeting with a wild eyed guy who wanted to bring a wooden bat college league to Portland in a park in East Portland.  I became a politically connected handmaiden to bringing baseball back to Portland.  A couple of weeks ago, my dad came to visit.  I surprised him the day he drove into town.  I fed him and told him to take a nap, we were going to see the Portland Pickles.  So on a warm summer night, I was one of those retired guys at the ballpark, beer in hand, sitting with an even older retired guy.  Even better than the dream.


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Where Are You From? Two Houses



While the memory of such things can be tricky, I have lived in 14 different places.  West coast to east coast.  Up and down the Pacific coast.  I think this fluidity of movement is a very American thing.  I have moved towards opportunities, great, life changing choices.  And I have moved away from small disasters.  Even if I rested my head there briefly, each of these places has helped mould the person I am today.

I keep 2 pictures of houses on my desk.  The photos have always felt like keystones in the bridge of my life.  One is a little pink house in Indio, California.  It was my home from almost zero to 19 years.  The other is a home in Timbo, Arkansas, a place I only saw from a distance.  It was my father’s childhood home.

I keep those pictures close as an act of humility.  I have been mostly fortunate in my life but like many people I am prone to let my head swell now and again.  Those pictures are the ballast to pull me back to the ground.  

I was 12 the last time we went to Arkansas on a family trip.  My great Papa Cothron led us on a tour of the old family homes.  (Still linked to our hillbilly roots, Papa and Mawma are what we call grandparents in the family.)  The Blackwoods and the Cothrons lived near each other in the Ozark hills for generations then joined by marriage.

I had my own camera and took that shot of my Dad’s home.  Decades later I found the picture and framed it.  I had remembered we went to 2 homes, the Blackwood house with the over a creek and up a hill and the Cothron family home on a little piece of bottom land in a hollow.  I was sure that porch was on the house in the hollow.  It wasn’t.

My Dad came to visit last week and when I put the picture of the front porch in front of him he told me I had mixed-up the two houses up.  His hilltop family home was the one I had on my desk.  One generation apart. This is how family mythology happens.

My dad was born in a slip of a town called Happy Hollow.  Born at home, tended by a doctor who arrived on horseback.  The town burned down one night and simply disappeared forever.  I think we found a ghostly remnant of the town in an overgrown house foundation.

The picture of that house in Timbo reminds me of stories of surviving the Great Depression with toughness, love and hard work.  Dad tells stories of felling trees at the age of 10 with his 2 year older Uncle Jake on the other end of a cross-cut saw.  I went to work with my dad at his service station, co-owned by the same uncle Jake, at about the same age as my dad was when he was on the end of that saw.  The thing about those stories, sometimes of privation, is that across the generations they are told with a smile and great pride.  The family wanted for nothing that they didn’t really need.  You simply did what was necessary.  I try to hold the lessons of that house close.


The little pink house was our home in the desert.  It is where my little brother Mike and I grew up.  I took that picture on my first trip back to show my wife where I grew up.  There was no fence back then.  More trees in the yard.  It was the first home Dad and Mom bought.  It didn’t seem small but it was.  About 1200 square feet.  Just big enough for a room each boy and the folks. 

My folks who kept expanding the little house.  The garage became a pool room with a bench at one end for projects.  I remember the pool table was a big draw for my friends.  I have never been a game player.  Don’t know how to play any card games.  A room was added out back for the laundry and a little elbow room when you were at the kitchen table.  There was a new patio for the bikes and motorcycles that always had a layer of sand on it from the desert dust storms.  

From as soon as I could stand behind a mower, my brother and I had the job of taking care of the lawn and gardens.  There was a lot more green in front of the little house then.  I hated working out in the desert heat.  While I still love the desert as a place, even an attitude, my ultimate move to the Pacific NW was a reaction to my disdain for the heat.  One of the strangest features of that front yard was my mom’s love of a dichondra lawn.

Seems in the 50’s and 60’s it was a very Southern California thing to replace your grass with this little broad leaf creeper lawn.  It makes absolutely no sense because this is a water loving plant.  My folks put in a sprinkler system to keep it alive.  The southwest’s relationship with water has always been absurd.  Deserts always win in the end.  But my mom wanted it, so that is what she got.  I think of it mostly as always cool under foot.  As kids, we mostly went barefoot with calluses thick enough to walk across an asphalt street on a 110 degree day. Desert kid tough.

Mom also wanted roses and a bougainvillea in the garden at the front of the house.  My room window was the one in the middle of the picture.  I hated that bougainvillea.  It had long spiky thorns that raked back and forth on the wall outside my window.  It sounded like the claws of a creature trying to get through that wall.  Yea, I could have done just fine without that plant.  For the sake of any kids who live there now I was happy to see it gone.

It’s a rare soul who moves through life living in the moment.  I have met a few.  But most of us spend our time building the picture of who we are on a growing collection of places and moments.  The luck of genetic roulette means that some folks spend their lives running away from where they came from.  I get that.  I am one of those.  Survival and growth means cutting the cord sometimes.  Other people stick close to their roots.  It’s like distance would deprive them of vital nutrients.  That too makes sense.

The house on that hill in Arkansas pumped life into my value system.  If you are lucky enough to come from hill folks you take pride in the label hillbilly.  Besides the strong sense of loyalty and no fear of hard work, you keep a little Scots-Irish chip on your shoulder all the time…don’t mess with me and mine.  It’s the edge that will both get you into and out of trouble.

For someone who has always liked to pause to mark beginning and endings, my departure from that little pink house was strange.  One fall I loaded up my car and went away to university.  In the midst of my finals the folks moved across town.  I left my home and came back to a place that would never be home.  

Maybe its better that way.  The home where I grew up will aways be just that.  My childhood and coming of age is contained in a near sacred place uncontaminated with the excitement and pain of becoming an adult.  The little house is my own time capsule of memories sealed by the simple act of backing out of the driveway.  While I was back in the desert for a time after graduating from college, I always tell people I left for good at the age of 19.  I know that every time I look at that picture.



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Why Helsinki Will End Trump’s Long Con


Watching Trump’s news conference with Putin yesterday the last lines of Hunter S. Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” came to mind.

“…you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.”

I’ll admit it.  I am addicted to the news.  Blame it on a misspent childhood where I could never quite wash the newsprint stains off my elbows.  I love information.  In this time especially, probably to an unhealthy extent.

In the frenzy of the daily news cycle, a couple of weeks ago I arrived at a conclusion.  We have reached “peak Trump.”  By that I mean America has reached a saturation point where Trumps daily pokes and prods to the American psyche will have a diminishing effect.  

Anyone who knows me knows that I am a hardened skeptic.  I don’t spend much time looking for sunshine and rainbows.  Nope.  Not my thing.  So even I was surprised.  I felt myself relaxing into the day, confident that America will survive this current crisis of leadership.  What was my clue?  The man himself.

I tend to check in on the Trump rallies.  A few weeks ago I noticed something had changed.  Trump was doing his usual recitation but he seemed less comfortable.  His delivery was more rushed, more desperate.  He was pumping the crowd more quickly for the reassurance of applause and yelling.  Then it hit me.  He was afraid.

I also watch the faces of the people they put behind him.  The vast majority were enthralled and enthusiastic.  But in the crowd there was a new look.  People looked confused if not bored.  The news told me that, strangely, though they had stood in line to get into the event, some people began to drift away half way through his remarks.

Think of the best sporting event you have ever been too.  You were hyped and yelling and totally engaged.  Then be honest.  There was a point where you just had to pull back in and collect yourself for little bit.  You may have finished strong, but you couldn’t sustain the fever.  It is starting to happen with Trump.  The fever breaks.  It has to recede because as a human you know if it doesn’t, you die.

We can never forget that even after he was censured by the Senate, Joseph McCarthy was polling at 35 percent support.  So Trumpism will never disappear.  It is hard coded into America.  What will ebb and fade is its power to control events.

In my work life I knew two sociopathic liars and one thoroughgoing narcissist.  The liars were both charming and able to weave tales to take me in.  They fooled everyone.  They assumed positions of power and trust.  I went head to head with one of them when I realized what he was.  But I lost because he was still fooling people who had power.  However, both of these sociopaths ultimately failed and disappeared, not just from the company, from the city.

You see, it is impossible for anyone to sustain the long con forever.  The lies intersect in ways they can’t control.  Donald Trump is the product of a fabric of lies.  He is America’s ultimate con man.  But even he can’t sustain his con.  No one can.  Trump is especially vulnerable to the collapse of his own narrative because of his other dominant personal feature.  He is a ninja level narcissist.  

I worked closely with a relatively benign narcissist.  He damaged others with his fragility.  Constantly seeking approval, the last person in the room with praise was the most trusted…for the moment.  Yesterday Trump didn’t confront Putin because he psychologically couldn’t.  

For a narcissist, everyone around them is failing them is some way.  My experience is that complaint about others was a constant, but that complaint and approbation was never directed to the subject of the current tirade.  Overriding the anger was the absolute need to be liked.  Trump could not criticize Putin face to face because he simply can’t do that in person.  To do so would mean that Putin wouldn’t like him.  

Yes, it is really that simple.  Think of what he did on this most recent trip.  Trash a world leader before he arrives then melt face to face.  

When I realized we had reached peak Trump, I had no idea how quickly we would reach the high-water mark.  It happened yesterday at the Putin news conference.  Every flaw in Trump the man was on display.  He physically cowered away from a stronger man.  He complemented Putin and laughed nervously.  He deflected and rolled out his fabric of cover stories.  Most importantly to some of his supporters, politicians on the right and the world Trump looked weak.  His favorite word is “strong.”  That is what he called Putin on his Hannity post-conference interview.

There is a segment of FoxNews state television and his 35 percent of supporters that will go down with the ship.  But politically Trump’s support among the right is a mile wide and an inch deep.  Politicians who only complain about him off the record are just waiting for the moment to turn on him.  What they fear is not Trump the man, but his tenuous control of a voting block.  Voters change their minds.  The moment there is a crack in power facade, they will bolt away from him.  That started yesterday.

I spent most of the day watching FoxNews after the news conference.  That is where you have to go to see the real impact of Helsinki.  Individual news readers and commentators turned on Trump.  They are patriots and he looked weak in front of an enemy.  Most importantly, hard right military analysts on FoxNews were apoplectic.  The military is part of Trump’s base.  He lost the thought leaders in that base yesterday.  Soldiers can’t afford to have a weak leader especially one who wavers in the face of the enemy.

Another important part of his base are older white people.  As we know, they always vote.  They also remember Reagan and the cold war.  They know what a leader facing down an evil Russian looks like.  They never stopped thinking that Russia is the enemy.  Trump’s inability to confront a dictator a few feet from him will stick with them.  Why?

No mater the spin today coming out of the White House, we have the pictures.  Oh, Trump and his allies will talk tough but Americans know actual toughness when they see it.  Yesterday they saw a wimp.  And, if they are smart, the opposition will not let them forget.  The political commercials write themselves.  Imagine what a creative ad maker can do with a clip of Putin handing Trump the ball or him turning to wink at the dictator.  Do you really think a video clip of Trump winking at Putin isn’t being going to be part of the next campaign?

The real resistance to Trump is deep in the design of our constitution and the institutions created to defend it.  There are patriots in the FBI and in the Justice Department.  The Intelligence Community exists to be sure that America isn’t attacked again on their watch.  Make no mistake.  We were attacked.  The indictment of the 12 Russian attackers was released before Trump met Putin for a reason.  Mueller knows everything.  That other person who also knows everything is Trump.  That is why Trump seems even more afraid as the walls come in on him.

I watched the Peter Strzok House hearing.  What struck me most was not the circus atmosphere, or the stridency of the attacks against the flawed FBI agent, no, it was what they could not understand.  Every day in America people wake up, get dressed and work with people of all types and opinions.  They accomplish their goals for the day, are civil and encouraging to their work partners and team members, then go home at the end of the day to their families.

The representatives who attacked Strzok were genuinely mystified that a professional could put aside deeply held political beliefs and simply do their job.  Surrounded every moment with partisans, the politicians had no filter to understand what the vast majority Americans do.  When there are jobs and goals to meet, challenges to conquer, we put aside our personal beliefs and work together.  

This unwinding of Trumpism will be painful.  Some people will man the barricades to the bitter end to defend him.  But I now believe the tide has begun to ebb.  When a bully is shown to be a coward the aura of invincibility disappears very rapidly.  

 When a con man is revealed, he is the first to know he has to leave town.  Yesterday, in Trumps land of OZ, Toto pulled back the curtain.  The Great and Mighty Trump was caught pulling levers and shouting.  Americans won’t forget.

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The Chair — How We Decide Our Politics


IMG_5113Tell me where someone gets their information and I can tell you what they think.   Well, maybe not what they think, but how they think.  When you turn on the radio, what station comes on?  When you fire up your browser on your phone or other device, what have you bookmarked?  What sites are in your newsreader?  If you get news bulletins on your phone, from what sources?  Older, or just old school, what newspaper gets delivered on your porch or what magazines are you liable to pick up?  Most likely, all of your favorite sources of information feed your confirmation bias.

We all have a confirmation bias.  People are most likely to take in information that confirms what they believe and what they think they know.  Think they know.  The human need to have one’s beliefs validated is primal.  It’s how we identify the safety of our tribe.  And most simply, it’s how we feel good.  Yea, hearing what you believe reinforced has the same effect as an aerobic workout or a hit of coke.  It just makes you feel better.

I think my obsession with political and social polarization began in 1980.  I was a low level staffer on the Senate side in Washington DC.  In 1980, I experienced the Reagan Revolution.  On the east coast, we all went to bed knowing that Reagan beat Carter.  But we woke up to find that the Democrats has lost the Senate.  Most people don’t know that when that happens hundreds of people are instantly unemployed.  My building was full of Senate Committee staff.  The party that controls the legislative body dictates the professional staff for that committee.  In my building, I walked by lobbies where people were crying.  Their careers had ended while they were sleeping.

On my way to work that day, I walked by a little office in a townhouse.  On the post facing the street was a well shined brass name plate that said, Heritage Foundation.  They were dancing in the halls that morning.  The conservative think-tank had finally come to power.  That’s the thing about conservatives, they play the long game.  38 years later the Heritage Foundation has a giant new building and its policy papers and conferences are the beating heart of every retrograde change in the public sector since Trump was elected.  Trump is just their deal with the devil.  They play to win.  End of story.  Oh, and they gave Trump the approved list of Supreme Court Candidates.  Democrats have no equivalent long-term committed think tank. Democrats mostly exist to make each other miserable.  Winning is merely an occasional outcome not a goal.

For a time, I worked with a guy who had spent time working for Richard Viguerie.  He was the first one to build conservative direct mailing lists from a nondescript building in northern Virginia.  My buddy stole the manual for their operation and shared it with me.  It was the blueprint for every targeted campaign run since.  And…until Obama…the democrats had nothing like it.  The Viguerie operation was also the first real consolidation of institutionalized political polarization.  It’s amazing how so many people no-one knows change American forever.

I have never voted a party ticket.  I am not a joiner.  The stronger the identification with a group (other than my sacred SF Giants) the more likely I am going to be heading for the door.  Liberal on most social issues, conservative on economics, smaller government is fine, I am the rare voter who looks at the candidate.  I look at the two political parties as functionaries to provide me with reasonable choices.  Good job on Obama.  Are you fucking kidding me on Clinton?

If you are serious about claiming the social and political middle-ground, it is hard work.  Most information and media is packaged to stroke the needs of partisans.  To genuinely confront polarization, you have to build your own viewing and reading habits.

I spent years studying polarization.  It got so bad that I decided I needed to go get a Master’s Degree and write my thesis on the topic.  I had read that brain scans showed that when people were shown material that violated their confirmation bias, the cognitive centers in the brain receded and the emotional centers lit up like a 4th of July night.  Makes sense, right?  Ever hear this, “If I accidentally tuned to Rush Limbaugh, I have to turn away fast because I get so angry.” Or. “How can anyone watch the Rachel Maddow.  She is soooo condescending.”  

I decided that in order to honestly research and write about political polarization, I needed to overcome my own confirmation bias.  So, every day I looked at the newspaper, then listened to Rush Limbaugh.  It was hard at first.  But the discipline was to predict what 3 topics Rush would tackle and how he would frame them.  I got very good at it.  3 for 3 day after day.  I could read conservative blogs and listen to Lars Larson without falling off of an emotional cliff.  I was able to convert emotion into rationality.  It really is possible to cultivate objectivity.

I began my work in Portland City Hall as a moderate.  I changed my registration to non-affiliated.  There was a time when professional political staff didn’t have to be a glazed-eyed acolyte of a political belief system.  I knew democrats who worked for republicans and vice versa.  It’s called being a professional.  That was me.  Because I have worked hard to detach from dogma, I can pretty much make any sort of an argument.  In fact, the challenge of advocating for things I had no use for became one of the fun parts of the job.  I can carry a pretty good poker face in the room.

So what does my media day look like?  In a single day I will touch all 3 of the main cable news networks.  I know which presenters are merely political hacks and which ones still do news.  (Note: watch Shepard Smith’s noon show on Fox News.  I have no idea how he keeps his job.  A gay, former Marine from Mississippi who regular calls out the nonsense on his network and only interviews other legitimate news people.  It’s bizarre.)  I bounce from The Daily Beast to Brietbart.  I knew how screwed any immigration legislation was by seeing Breitbart go full “Amnesty” attacks.  I read local news by bouncing around the papers and websites.  Best newspaper in town?  Probably the Tribune.  I know.  How odd.  But there are some good reporters there.

It’s a pain in the ass to be a centrist.  No one source of information fills your needs.  Every day I have to make judgements and use my highly tuned bullshit filters to assemble opinions I can support.  Since I retired I have too much time to work up my thinking on the issues of the day.  In some ways, I know what it is like to live as liberal in Oklahoma.  Portland is fairly radically left wing, so a moderate is pretty much an apostate.  True believers of any persuasion hate to have someone in the room attempting to reason through a conversation.  Still, I can’t see any other way to function.

If you can genuinely stand in the middle, what you see is how closely the 30% of people on the both edges of the national polity resemble each other.  I admire hard core conservatives because they seem more honest.  If they disagree the simply say, fuck off.  Liberals suffer from what I have named the “liberal conceit.”  Polling confirms that the left like to think of themselves as open minded.  It’s the other guy who is biased.  When you live as a moderate, you don’t have to do anything more difficult that turn on NPR to have this confirmed.  Ah, the velvet hammer of soft bias.

I get how simple and reassuring it is to have an uncompromising value system.  In our current hyper-polarized state, I also am genuinely afraid divided certainty is a real threat to our republic.  I am holding out for those self-identified independents to rise to the occasion.  Across our history, the middle has been written off again and again.  Still, I think the real revolutionaries are the ones you just can’t buy with what the polarized left and right are selling.

Oh…the chair.  Thought needs a place.  I think it would fair to say I may have read a million pages sitting in that old, gold La-Z-Boy recliner.  I was a kid when my dad got it.  It wound up in Oregon when I bought my first little house in 1990.  It has always been the first place I go to read.  It is in that chair that I solidified my understanding of myself as a mostly Buddhist and as a political centrist.  Putting it on a hand truck and taking it to the street was strange.  Like killing an old friend.  A couple hours after I put it out, I looked out the window and it was gone.  I hope whoever has it now has a good book. 

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A Family History — In Cars


I am a gearhead.  I love cars.  I like to drive fun cars.  I like to read about cars.  I have subscriptions to 2 car magazines.  (Actual magazines.)  I like to see cars go fast.  I love the sound of an engine at high RPM’s.  I discover new places by driving around.  Standing on a busy street corner, I can pick out the sound of a 10 cylinder super car blocks away and will stop in my tracks to see it drive by.  It makes me happy.

I come by this honestly.  In my family, cars are historical markers of lives lived.  As a child, and well into adulthood, whenever the men (and a few women) in my family gathered around to tell stories about the knots in our family tree the telling included a car.  It went like this, “When your Granddad (Blackie) went to work in Helena, Arkansas he drove a 1940 Chevy Sedan.”  The car is critical to the memory.  People may talk about their first car but my family remembers all the cars in between. 

How do I know the story about Blackie and the 1940 Chevy Sedan?  In 2000, I asked my Dad if he could just write down the history of our family in cars.  He did.  In detail.  On two sheets of a yellow legal pad I have a family history beginning with my Grandad’s 1931 Model A Roadster.  In all, my father told our family history across 46 different cars and linked every car to a place, a trip or a family member.  Oh, and don’t think the stream of cars stopped in 2000.  There is an addendum possible with many more vehicles in the 21st century.

Dad and his Uncle Jake were close in age.  They owned a service station together.  Uncle Jake built race cars.  At first go carts, then drag racers and stock cars.  They both put in 12-14 hour days almost every day of the week, but on Saturday nights we all went racing.  Uncle Jake’s race cars always had number 24. The stock car was hooked to the back of a tow-truck and hauled up to the 1/4 mile track in San Bernardino. The fender banging racing was a kind of church for us.  As it is still for many people.

My first car was a 1972 Pontiac Ventura Sprint, an orange muscle car with white racing stripes and raised letter tires.  I bought it almost new.  People don’t get handed cars in my family.  I had been working and saving money since I was 11.  My folks bought the car then collected the down payment from me.  Dad made a little payment book and I paid them back with monthly payments.  I was responsible for all upkeep and insurance.  No insurance…it would sit parked on the street.  It always had insurance.  Dad wasn’t kidding.

For a skinny, geek of a kid (before geek was a word) my car was a statement.  Settled into that high-back bucket seat I had a whiff of power I didn’t feel much in my day to day life.  I fought anger and depression by driving high up a switchback road into the mountains during my lunch breaks.  I’d park up there and look out to the desert.  The clear-sky infinite view made me feel small, my problems even smaller.

And then my car life went haywire.  I was up until the early morning one Saturday night putting a new quad 8-track stereo in my car.  Damn it rocked.  On my way to work the next morning a car ran a stoplight at about 45 MPH.  I saw it just quickly enough to gun my car and turn hard to the right, hoping the other car would avoid me.  It didn’t.  The big car hit at an angle right at my door handle.  The metal wrapped around my legs and the steering wheel, with my hands on it, ended up toward the front window.  I walked away with a bruise on my leg from the door speaker I had just installed.  Horsepower and turning that wheel probably saved me.  If he had hit me flush, I was a goner.  My beautiful orange car was totaled.

From that moment until 2008, I lived in a strange purgatory of practical cars.  I replaced the Pontiac with a 1975 Toyota Corolla Deluxe.  There was nothing deluxe about it but it got me across country.  I, or Sally and I, had a Toyota Pick-up, Camray, Ford Pick-up, VW Passat, VW Passat Wagon (two dogs) and Honda CRV.  Kept the Ford for a decade.

During all this time I went to see car races, became a Formula One fanatic, drooled over sports cars I saw on the street and just kept driving practical cars.  You see, I was raised by Great Depression era parents and Sally grew up poor.  As a pair, we are cautious and, well, cheap.  For most of our time together we have had a problem convincing ourselves we deserved what we thought of as luxuries.  Even now, we look at each other when we spend money on something we don’t need.  Sally is still a thrift store savant. It isn’t an awful characteristic.  I retired early.  What we have, we own.  But for people who have always worked hard, we always had a strangely inexpensive version of fun.

Our recovery from un-fun began when I left Standard Insurance.  I think that was the point Sally and I agreed we deserved to play.  For me it was a master’s degree and a 2008 Mini Cooper S.  For Sally, it was a trip by herself to Europe.  Mostly, in my case, it was my wife looking at me and saying, “You love cars so much, you really should just always have one you love.”  Seriously, how many people get that kind of permission in life?

In the Mini, I felt like I finally was back in the fold as a Blackwood car guy.  For the first time in my life, I got speeding tickets.  I took it on the race track several times and did high performance driving training.  I bought goodies to make it handle better.  Straight-line speed is for wimps.  Late braking into a fast corner is a real drivers game.

I think because I am an avowed car guy people like to tell me that the future of the car is dim.  Soon we will all be sitting in car-like pods without drivers, staring at our smart phones and impatiently waiting to just be somewhere…anywhere…but inside that humming pod.  I have done plenty of reading and I think that will be a truth for some folks, especially in urban areas.  A lot of people see cars as a utility.  Good on them.  There’s a Prius for you and an Uber app on your phone.  

Still, even the new arrivals to Portland are not who you think they are.  Just down from our house an old church was replaced by 20 townhouses each with its own garage.  Based on how the street filled up with cars and SUV’s with out-of-state plates, it is pretty clear the majority of those new residents own 2 cars.  Kids still have to get to soccer practice, and the dentist, and the store and to the beach.  And…Ford just announced that they are no longer making sedans.  It’s trucks and SUV’s America wants.  

Our fossil fuel dilemma may depend on how efficiently we burn fuel in those vehicles.  Hey, Formula One cars are now all hybrids.  Soon, it will be natural for a Ford F150 pick-up to run like a Prius.  It’s coming.

America is big.  So big.  You really don’t understand that until you drive across it.  A car crossing miles can be a mystical thing.  There is something deep in the human psyche about controlling your movement independently.  Look at the pictures of Saudi women getting their driver’s license and tell me that isn’t a striking a blow for freedom.  

My Mini was a gateway drug to a BMW.  I haven’t gotten a ticket in it…yet.  When I got my first car, my Dad told me that when I got a speeding ticket I should just thank the officer and smile.  “You will have earned that ticket a thousand times before.”  Seems my old man was teaching me Buddhist equanimity before either of us knew what that was.

My Dad is 85 and still talks about cars.  More importantly, he talks about what he would like for his next car.  There is something happy and optimistic about that fact.  Don’t tell Sally, but I have been thinking about my next car for a couple of years now.

Over my shoulder as I sit here today is a picture.  My Grandpa Blackwood, Blackie, is sitting at the wheel of his big brown Buick.  He has a huge smile on his face and is about to head off in some direction.  When the Blackwood’s talk about my grandad we say he’s somewhere up in heaven behind the wheel of that car…going for a ride…and keeping an eye on all of us

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Anthony Bourdain: The Traveling Brother I Never Met


I don’t do celebrity but I did Anthony Bourdain.  His death by suicide this morning was a gut punch.  

Like most folks, I met him via his book Kitchen Confidential.  He immediately seemed like a fellow traveler.  Punk as an ethic.  Not afraid of hard work.  In fact he loved it.  Dark, smart, honorable with a wicked sense of humor.  We were about the same age.  He graduated high school the year I did.  When I saw him on television, I thought, “We are both aging well, aren’t we dude?”

I could give a fuck about food.  It’s fuel.  But I love edgy cooking shows.  I like the effort and the passion it takes to make fine food.  If some fine food appears in front of me I eat it and enjoy it.  I never go looking for it.  Never.  Bourdain gave me that appreciation and, most importantly, he traveled.

My own illness has meant I don’t travel much.  For a time, not at all.  Bourdain became  my traveling doppelgänger.  I could watch his shows and imagine I was there.  In great part because his eye, his sensibility and ability to write about what he saw was something we shared.  And then there was his walk.

Tall like me, Bourdain had a tall man’s walk.  Loping is the best way to describe it.  The way he moved said both I am here, just passing through and, by the way, don’t fuck with me.  Yea, and it was cool.  

When I am agitated, I speed up and dart about.  The unwanted energy in my body is looking for a way out.  I stole Anthony Bourdain’s walk.  For years, when I am beginning to disconnect from my movement I tell myself, “Just walk like Bourdain.”  Slow down.  Look around.  Tell the nerves to fuck off.  Keep moving forward.

My bookshelves are my biography.  I can see where I was and what I was thinking by the books I chose to keep.  The shelves seem random to everyone but me.  Just off my right shoulder when I sit to meditate every night is Kitchen Confidential.  It came out in 2000.  I crashed in 2000.  That was a book I read for “fun” in the middle of my depression tornado.

I went home for Thanksgiving vacation that year and didn’t return to work for around 6 months.  Life ganged up on me and I was anxious and deeply depressed.  When I heard Bourdain had committed suicide, I walked about just saying “Fuck” over and over.  I was angry but I understood.  In the depth of depression, suicide is medicinal.  It’s a cure.  He both didn’t care, and cared too much, about his 11 year old daughter and others he loved.  He had to know his friend would find him dead.  It’s a disease that can make all connections meaningless.  

I lost a favorite Aunt to suicide.  Her name was Joy.  She was her name.  But in the depths of disease it didn’t make any difference.

I was saved by connections.  Sally gave up much to keep me going.  Therapy.  Drugs.  Family.  John.  And…ultimately…I am just fucking stubborn.  Fighting depression is exhausting.  A physical battle.  But I was willing to fight until I was out of energy.  Rest.  Then wake up punching again.  And on the other side, much that I love about myself is the result of that battle.

With depression, silence is the killer.  I saw a tweet this morning that said that depression does its best work when people are alone in hotel rooms.  That’s where they found Bourdain.  

Even if you are alone, there are total strangers sitting in rooms 24 hours a day just waiting to listen to you.  If you don’t feel like there is an ounce of fight left in you, admit it.  Let someone help you find the strength.  It takes just one act of will, of self-preservation, to unleash another act…and another.

Anthony Boudain’s world-weary joy in the company of others will always stick with me.  He was genuinely interested in people.  His puck rock DIY ethic made him a voice for people who we would have never known.  I will mostly miss knowing he was out there somewhere, doing things I can’t and likely seeing them much like I would. 

And, fuck off Tony, I am keeping the walk.  A memory of a stranger still alive with every step.

Note: I was asked.  That is punk legend Iggy Pop with Bourdain in the picture.  Iggy kind of invented punk.

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Mozy Revisited: Learning From Our Blind Dog


Sally and I were crushed when our golden collie mix Mozy lost her sight.  It was a strange process from thinking she had a problem with her legs to realizing her eyes were failing.  There is more than a little helplessness to see an animal you love become slow and walk into things.  With animals, the inability to tell them what is happening is deeply frustrating.

I get to spend a lot of time with our dogs.  This means I get to see Mozy adapt to blindness.  What I have seen borders strangely on miraculous.  Already keen senses of hearing and smell seem to have become a new radar.  I doubt any human could have made this transition with such speed.

Right this moment, it is sunny in our backyard.  Mozy has always loved to bake in the sun to the point of panting and then move to the shade to cool off.  She will do this cycle for hours.  If you didn’t know she was blind, there would be no way to tell anything is different for her. 

Both inside and out, she has a mental map of her world.  She walks through the middle of doorways and around chairs.  We do have to be conscious when adding new things to the map.  On a warm day, I put a fan in my office in her usual path to the back door.  She bumped it once, but in every other trip in and out she arched around that spot.  She does that now fan or not.

The old wood basement stairs to their pen and feeding spot were tricky.  She slipped and Sally was scared for her.  I simply nailed down a carpet runner to each step and she goes up and down with no problem.  She even hurries down when there is food in the offing.  The dog loves to eat.

The most funny adaptation is that we call the “goose step.”  You’ve seen the pictures of Germans marching?  Well, when see is looking for a step she raises and drops her paws to find it.  She goose steps to curbs and stairs.

Walks?  Sure.  At first she was very slow and cautious.  Now that she trusts we are watching out for her she walks at speed.  We just call out the curbs so she can goose step.  Bringing her back home one evening she got excited.  Smell, sound…I have no idea how she knew she was home, but she wanted to jog down the sidewalk and then up the driveway.  We jogged together.  Seriously, I jogged with a blind dog.

Sometimes she just forgets she is blind.  One of the dog rituals is to run up the stairs to the little window and bench seat at the front of the house when Sal leaves for work.  I sometimes hear the sound of Mozy and Zoom running up the stairs.  When I look up, there they both are “looking” out the window at Sally.  

Our back fence is a squirrel highway.  Three generations of dogs have tried to chase those damn squirrels.  Mozy was sleeping on the back stoop.  I heard a commotion and a bang, then her barking.  She had jumped off the stoop and run right into the garage.  Undeterred she adjusted the map and when up the steps to the back wall to bark at the squirrel.  But here’s the freaky part.  Now she runs to chase the squirrels behind Zoom and on her own and doesn’t miss a step.  How is that even possible?  Try closing your eyes and running down one set of steps and up another then stopping perfectly in front of a fence.

Our friend Bob loves Mozy.  He came over a few days ago and she was just Mozy.  She immediately recognized his voice and smell and came to him once he stepped inside the door.  You wouldn’t know she couldn’t see him.

For Sally, the most important thing is that after a short time Mozy got her personality back.  She jumps and makes Wookiee noises she Sal comes home.  She seeks affection like always.  And she can hear the crinkle of a potato chip bag at 100 yards.

Living with a blind dog is like getting to see little miracles all the time.  Oh sure, she is slower and sometimes gets a little lost in corners.  Sally has coined the description “bonking” for when she runs into things.  We are having a little success with the command “stop!” to warn her away from another bonk.  But unlike a human, she has no judgement when she bonks.  She just adjusts and moves on.  

People ask if Zoom knows Mozy is blind.  I don’t think so.  But she does key off of his movements sometimes following him.  They are still mostly likely to be found sleeping curled around each other.  

There is much we miss about sighted Mozy.  She could look quite majestic running off leash.  She also loved to bark and harass Zoom to get him to play.  I miss tossing her popcorn.  But even that is funny.  She sometimes tries to anticipate me throwing it and opens her mouth to catch the invisible kernel.  Still best to tap her on the nose with treats.

But like Mozy, we adapt.  We have learned to take joy in little, simpler things. Now, we celebrate the amazing things our blind dog can do with the ironic phrase, “Did you see what she just did?”  

The sun is out.  Time for Mo to get some rays.

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Nostalgia and the Typewriter


Nostalgia is tricky. You can bath in it or just feel it as a gentle rain. It can hold you and put lead in your shoes or awaken you and set you running out the door. As with any memory, it can rise from all of your senses. An aroma on a street corner is as likely to stop you short as the feel of a certain fabric between thumb and forefinger. And always, there is that moment of decision. Hold the memory or just let it go. Yea. It’s tricky that way. 

Nostalgia isn’t the sole domain of the old.  Ever hear a child wish for something they once had?  No, from the moment a soul can know past, present and future, nostalgia is a fact in that life.  A wish can be a memory.

Currently, I have the freedom to access life randomly.  I know how special that is.  This is how I stumbled upon a documentary called, “California Typewriter.”  The title alone intrigues.  It is about the relationship between the proprietor of one of the few remaining typewriter repair shops and sculptor who dismantles typewriters to create his art.  Most importantly, it explores a small but persistent collection of people who own and use typewriters.  Analog revolutionaries. 

In the course of one interview, the typewriter repairman talked about the quality of Olympia portable typewriters.  Made in Cold War West Germany, they are still considered the Mercedes Benz of typewriters: solid, reliable and timeless in design.  What? I thought.  I have one of those in my basement.  

At first, out of curiosity, I went to my basement and dug out the leather covered case.  Heavy.  Very heavy.  Once in my hand, I remembered all the times I had moved with this typewriter.  Nostalgia creeps in from every sense.

I pulled the typewriter from its case and put it on my basement workbench.  Ah… above the carriage it says De Luxe, whatever that means.  Above keys the Olympia brand is sandwiched between two labels.  The one above says in red and green script, “Stockwell and Binney – Complete Office Products.”  Below, “Hawken Office Equipment” with a full address in Redlands, California.  The first was the place my parents must have bought the typewriter in Indio, the second is where I had it serviced when I was at the University of Redlands.  Reference points.  Road markers.

I recall the typewriter was a gift for the first kid on either side of our family to go to a University.  1974?  What strikes the most about it now, is that it must have been an expensive choice.  In a family that values and respects cars, gadgets and all sorts of mechanical devices, it would have been my folks choice to get the best they could afford.  I didn’t know that then, but knowing it now humbles me.  

I am a bit of a packrat.  I box my history for future reference.  When I bought my first home in 1990, my dad and Uncle Jim (that’s right, Uncle Jim, Father Jim, Grandfather Jim.  A family tree littered with Jims) brought up all the boxes of my stuff, a pick-up full, for my new basement.  But the typewriter, it was always with me.  Up and down the west coast, to the east coast and back.  It was ballast for all my moves.

Right there on my workbench, I slid in a piece a paper and started to type.  The action of everything was mushy and slow.  I went to my computer and found the two remaining typewriter repair shops in Portland.  The nostalgia door open, I jumped in with both feet.

As I sit here quickly banging out words on an IMac, an admission, I can’t type.  I took a class in high school.  I was awful.  I tried to practice on the Olympia, no dice.  Early papers were slowly, painfully typed on a special paper that allowed you to erase mistakes.  I couldn’t type a line without a mistake.  Mostly, my girlfriend in college, Megan, typed my papers.  Compensation was arranged.  And, I had a buddy, a strange genius from wealth who actually brought an IBM Executive typewriter to his dorm room.  It was the most expensive, proportional font typewriter on the planet.  He typed 100 words a minute and was paid in cash.  

When I worked in Washington DC, I had an IBM on my desk.  One of those types with the letters on a ball.  The speed of the keys made me even worse.  I only began to type well enough with the advent of the personal computer.  God Bless the backspace key.

When you open the door of a typewriter repair shop you are overwhelmed with the smell of solvent.  It’s a reminder that these are mechanical devices.  The owner opened the case and nodded approvingly.  Confirmation, it’s an iconic portable, worth saving.  I spent a half-hour talking with Sam.  He has been fixing typewriters for 52 years.  “This one,” he said, “needs a bath…maybe two baths.”  He took me in the back to see two tubs full of solvent.  “Oh, yea, mechanical…of course,” I thought.

I am pretty sure that the last time I sat down to type a full page on the Olympia was about the time I first came to Portland, 1983.  In other boxes in the basement are stacks of paper from the typewriter.  Journal entries, short stories, poems, essays.  I have always fancied myself some sort of writer, that is why the Olympia always travelled with me.  In 1985, finally employed, I used all of my extra money to buy one of the first IBM clone computers.  The Olympia lost its purpose.

Revived and loved again, I brought the Olympia home, opened the case and put the typewriter on my desk.  The solvent had spared the two stickers.  I would have been crushed if they had been lost.  As I typed, the oil on the strikers and carriage was activated.  Words have a smell, the musty smell of an old book store, and now, I remembered they also smelled of oil and ink as they appeared on the paper in front of me.  Words have a sound.  Clack…Clack…Clack.  One letter at a time.

Writing is hard.  Typing is harder.  I am marginally better now, but my fingers have not known such effort for decades.  And the bell.  Left hand up.  Push.  Slide.  Back to the keys.  Damn…two strikers at once…unstick them.  In a digital world, where speed is both real and an illusion, actual typing is deliberate and strangely rewarding.  I typed random thoughts about my random life and when the page was full, I pulled the paper from the carriage.  There it is, laying on the desk.  Solid…messy…real.

Did I first type this essay on my lovely, smelly Olympia De Luxe portable typewriter?  Of course not.  I think faster than I can type on it.  But that isn’t what nostalgia is about.  In the week that it has been on my desk, within reach, it has been a time machine.  I can look at it and see it on desks, kitchen tables, on a door sitting on sawhorses, floating with me on a houseboat, shoved in the back of a pick-up moving again.  It has been a constant companion, an old friend I ignored for a very long time.  And, I now wonder whose hands will embrace it when I am gone.

Nostalgia is tricky.  It is a summoning.  It is very personal and sometimes shared.  Enjoy a revery now and again.  Let your senses lead you.  And when you are done, if you can, tell a story or two before moving on.

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When Your Heroes Die

lloyd center

As a kid, I didn’t read comic books.  I loved words and all those pictures meant there were fewer words.  That also meant I didn’t have any connection to the heroes and superheroes that today roar though our popular culture with such resonance.  

Still, I was a precocious reader.  I consumed books, especially history books.  In grade school I recall a large collection of biographies.  Each book was about 200 pages, though the type was larger.  I read all of them.  By 5th grade, I had moved beyond children’s books.  You have to be a strange kid to read William Shirer’s, “The Rise and
Fall of the Third Reich” at ten years old.  I was that kid.  At night, I had to force myself to stop reading and go to sleep.  I didn’t always succeed and just read until my eyes hurt too much to continue.

One of the great gifts from my parents was their subscription to both a morning and afternoon newspaper.  Dad read the morning paper first as he left early for work. I read it at the kitchen table before going to school.  Devout Muslims can get a bump on their foreheads called a zebihah, or prayer bump, from bowing to pray 5 times a day.  My childhood mark of devotion to newspapers was perpetually black elbows from the printers ink.

I can’t recall a time I wasn’t consumed by the news of the day.  I loved watching the nightly news broadcasts on our huge record player/black and white TV.  Ours was a Walter Cronkrite house.  All times are turbulent, not all are transformative.  My childhood news obsession was full of civil rights, riots and the Vietnam War.  The thread that connected them all was politics.  That I knew early on.

Cataclysmic national events played in my daily life.  A much anticipated family vacation to the coast was cancelled by the 1965 Watts riots.  We watched the riot on TV.

The older kids on my block joined the military and went to Viet Nam.  At school, we made gift boxes for solders.  They dutifully sent us letters back.  Years later I found those letters and with trepidation checked the names on the memorial wall in DC.  My correspondents were not on the list.  I guess they made it home.  

One morning, I opened my bedroom windows to see men sliding a red velvet covered body into a hearse.  The oldest of the Villalobos family was wounded in the war and died in his bed soon after making it home.  I was in the house of my best friend when we heard his oldest sister scream.  She had just gotten the notification that her new husband was killed in action.  The serving, wounded and killed young men of our little town were recorded in a front page box of our afternoon paper, the Indio Daily News.  History was all around me.

In grammar school, I was always running for class something-or-other. In Junior High, I was student body president.  I loved politics and began to truly understand it at a national level.  I remember seeing Lyndon Johnson tell us he would not run for president.  That decision opened the door for my very first hero.  I had spent 4 days with my mom on the couch watching the country mourn the death of his brother.  Now, it was Bobby’s turn to make up for that tragedy.  I now had my first candidate.

Netflix has a new 4 part documentary on Bobby Kennedy.  I remember seeing many of the speeches on the nightly news.  I remember many of the headlines.  Back then you built loyalty to a candidate like a mosaic.  There was no way to immerse yourself in news.  He was going to end the war that was killing my neighbors.  He cared about poor people.  What he said the night that King was killed haunts me still.  He quoted Aeschylus.  I had no idea who that was but the poetry shook me.  He came to California to meet with Caesar Chavez.  That confused me.

You see, the Coachella Valley grows grapes and citrus fruit.  My maternal grandfather managed a huge ranch (we can farms ranches in Southern California.)  I heard the anger at Chavez and his strikers first hand from my grandpa and uncle.  I knew about the Teamsters and police there to stop them.  I didn’t really understand.  Later in life I read more about Chavez.  I get it now.  He was a flawed person.  But at the time, in my child’s mind, the fact that Bobby was with Chavez caused me to question what members of my family were saying.  Consciousness flows from doubt.

I followed Bobby’s campaign within the piecemeal limits of the day.  Indio always seemed far away, from everything.  Victories meant he actually had a chance.  I knew that the California primary was the whole ballgame.  I was crushed when he didn’t win Oregon.  “What’s wrong with those people up there?”, I thought.  Some days I think that still.

The films in the documentary are mostly local California newsreels.  They are the same reporter’s stories I saw in my living room.  Those images hit me like hammer blows.  

In that early summer of 1968, I was enthralled.  He had a chance.  He was going to do it.  The night of the primary I watched the returns come in.  It was going to be a long night.  I watched local LA station.  All our local news came for LA.  Eventually, the rest of my family went to bed.  I don’t recall asking permission to stay up late.  I am pretty sure my folks knew they couldn’t make me go to bed.  

Finally, the news.  He won.  And there he was live in the ballroom of the Ambassador Hotel.  It was me and Bobby in my living room.  My hero, my first hero ever, had won.  Can a 12 year-old experience bliss?  Sure.  And then he said, “And it’s on to Chicago and let’s win there.”  He walked off the stage and because there was no more news the local station immediately signed off.  Back then the TV became a fixed image called a test pattern.  I remember sitting on the couch and staring at that image for the longest time.  Happy, tired, content, excited.  Then I turned the TV off and went to bed.  Seconds after I turned the TV off, that local station came back on the air.

I woke up excited to tell my folks that I had seen Bobby win.  I came to the kitchen table and I think it was my dad who told me Bobby had been shot.  Mom and dad were both sad but I was having none of that nonsense.  “No, he won.”  But there it was, on the table, the newspaper.  Headline: Bobby Kennedy Shot.  That granny picture of him laying on a kitchen floor.  The newspaper.

There was hope.  He was still alive.  I clung to that.  Looked at the news.  This couldn’t be happening again.  School, then the afternoon newspaper.  On the front page was a macabre diagram of the angle of the bullets.  Lines drawn through the outline of his head.  It was bad.  That made real.  Who shot him?  A Palestinian angry about Israel?  I couldn’t begin to understand what that could possibly mean.  What?  Bobby didn’t talk about Israel.  What?

And then Bobby was gone.

The crucible of my political awakening was 1968.  I watched all of the conventions.  The riots.  The weekly casualty totals from Viet Nam kept coming.  I was 12 years-old and America was coming apart.  And mostly, my Bobby wasn’t there to fix it.

I suppose I had every right to simply walk away from politics and hope but transformation is a funny thing.  My first hero told me what was possible when leaders and people of good will came together.  And isn’t that the essence of hope?  And haven’t we seen hope manifest itself as change…over and over again?

America isn’t ever done because our shared creed is aspirational.  The death of my first hero caused me to double down on trying to understand how America works and doesn’t.  My childhood obsession became a lifelong quest.  A couple of times I got to work in the boiler room of politics and governing.  It was both thrilling and a cold bucket of water over my head.

The depth of my skepticism is almost legendary, but still, as someone who scraped hope from one of America’s worst days I remain a believer in what is possible.  I am chastened by the current state of the American experiment.  But I also understand resilience. 

Bobby’s last words laying on the floor of that kitchen were whispered into the ear of a Latino dishwasher, “Is everyone OK?”  Yea, I think we are.

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