Five months into our pandemic crisis, I was starved to recall what leadership looked like. Not just leaders in our day to day world, but in our most dire collective moments of crisis. In all my historical reading, I mostly knew Winston Churchill as a sort of an empty icon. I had seen the movies and pictures. He was a key figure in the World War II histories I love but at no point did I pause to focus singularly on Churchill as a leader. I fixed that problem and just finished “The Splendid and the Vile” by Erik Larson. Larson is a favorite author and was well up to the task. After closing the book for the final time last time, my overall feeling is one of longing. Longing for leadership.
The book begins the moment that Churchill met with the king to become prime minister. There could be no more dire moment. Hitler’s Blitz was rolling across the low countries, the French army was in collapse and the British Expeditionary Force was in full retreat to Dunkirk. Churchill knew two things on the day he took office. The bombers would be coming for his cities and a German invasion would soon follow. I thought about the idea of unwanted peril. President Trump endlessly complains that no one knew the virus was coming and that everything was going great except for the virus. But history is something that happens to everyone. No one gets to choose the flow of events. All we can do is look for evidence of what is coming and respond when the worse happens. The remarkable thing about Churchill is that he was eager to stand in the path of history. He had anticipated the tyranny of Hitler and was delighted, yes delighted, to be at the center of history in that awful moment. He never once declared himself a victim. No self-pity. No recrimination. Just action and focus.
Trump set the terms of how he would lead in the pandemic by looking away. He told himself, and all of us, that it would go away and given warnings, he ignored them. Beyond the needed infrastructure to confront Covid-19, the greatest failing of Trump in this crisis was to not prepare the American people for what he was being told would come next. A nation leader knows that turning a nation to face a crisis is first about setting expectations and creating a common understanding of the problem. That becomes the place from which a leader unifies a people to confront the onrushing crisis. What is remarkable is that both Churchill and Trump were bathed in privilege, but Churchill saw that privilege as a duty to the whole, not the preservation of the one.
Three days, just three days, after becoming prime minster, Churchill addressed the nation from Parliament. You may be aware of his famous line from that speech, “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.” But it is what followed that line that leaves me most in awe:
We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering. You ask, what is our policy? I can say: It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy. You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: It is victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival.
What we see here is an enormous trust. Churchill trusted that he was the person who could lead his country in a crisis, but more importantly, he trusted that if he told the British people the truth, they were strong enough to hear it. Trump has no faith in the American people. He fears their judgement and lives in terror of taking responsibility. There was a moment, early in this crisis, where a leader could have unified us all by telling us the brutal truth. Americans have always been divided in one way or another. FDR was attacked mightily in his third reelection campaign. In his wartime tenure, twice Churchill invited votes of no confidence and crushed both efforts with will and brutal honesty. An American public, treated with respect, told the unvarnished truth, would not be troubled by increasingly shaggy hair or missing bacon and eggs at their local greasy spoon. A leader lifts a nation above triviality.
We have never been challenged with a national goal in this crisis. As someone who has done a little political messaging, the goal is just lying there to be picked up. I dream of a national campaign built around a simple number, the R0 (R naught). If the data tells us that every infected person is only infecting 1 or fewer people, we are winning. It’s stunningly simple. Imagine if 2 months ago President Trump had said that our national goal was “Below One.” Posters, commercials, every public statement could have reinforced the simple message. Consider a country having a such a national purpose, the equivalent of the famed “stiff upper lip” of the Brits under the nightly bombing of the blitz.
Churchill had the same problem as Trump. His industrial base was not ready for the German bombers that were coming. The manufacturing of those fabled Spitfire and Hurricane fighters was uncoordinated, adrift in a bureaucratic malaise. From the moment he was installed, Churchill unleashed a torrent of what they called “minutes” or memos, using the power of his office to unleash the private sector to meet the new challenges. He installed an old friend, an irascible and stubborn man, called Lord Beaverbrook, to rip up how they built fighters and within months the British were outproducing the Germans. Beaverbrook was no family lackey like the Boy Prince Kushner. No, Beaverbrook and Churchill had such a contentious relationship that the Lord resigned 14 times, only to have Churchill say no. Imagine the trust it took to keep up that dance between friends. Churchill knew he had the best man, not the easiest one. At no point in our current crisis have we unleashed the power of American innovation and industry. Even today, in Oregon, we lack swabs to do testing.
Most of us have seen the pictures of Londoners in the underground Tube stations, avoiding the bombing above. What I never knew was that only 15% of civilians had access to those stations. Everyone else stayed above. People slept in slit trenches in their gardens. The argument of the day was whether it was better to sleep in your basement and be crushed in a collapse or sleep on the upper floors and risk shrapnel coming through the walls. The blitz went on for a year, the war 4 more years after the blitz subsided. We complain about not being able to buy a cocktail or go to the beach. How did they do it? Simple: Churchill.
From the first bombing, even before the bombs stopped falling, Churchill was in the neighborhoods, taking to survivors, shouting encouragement. Over and over, he went into all the bombed cities in England. People would shout, “Look, Winnie is here for us!” Ever seen Trump at a hospital or at a virus testing station. 10 Downing Street had elaborate bunkers and Churchill used them, but he didn’t stay safe there all the time. He drove his security crazy by being out in the streets of bombed cities across the nation. He once, had his train halt just outside of a city at night as it was being bombed so he could be first in at the morning light. The people of England knew that their leader knew their suffering firsthand. When it got most bleak, that alone gave them faith, but more than that, he had the ability to transmute their suffering into joyful, stubborn faith. There is no greater evidence than that by the end of the blitz, people stayed outside to douse the flames of incendiary devices with buckets of water, dirt and extinguishers. The called it “getting a bomb.” Unlike, our president, cowering in the White House, behind his private testing devices, Churchill was able to inspire fearlessness. Fear begets fear. Churchill knew that to his core. Each time he went out into the destruction, he did so with predetermined purpose.
I read this book to remember what is possible in leadership. It inspired and saddened me. America is adrift now. Trump has led us to the worst of all possible outcomes, the sacrifice of a haphazard lock down without a national goal and an unplanned opening that will put is right back where we began, except millions more Americans will be in food lines. Deprived of national leadership, we are more divided than ever, subject to the self-serving whims of a man who is clearly afraid and over-matched by history. In spite of his endless, jingoistic bluster, he doesn’t trust us. He doesn’t believe in us. We are merely extensions of his need for approval, and the ultimate approval, reelection.
It is good for us to remind ourselves what is possible with good leadership and national goals. Churchill was a deeply flawed human being in so many ways but that too is a good reminder. We don’t need perfect people to lead us, but we do need our presidents to have courage and focus. I fear the last three years have eroded our understanding of what good leadership looks and feels like. I recommend you spend some time with “The Splendid and the Vile” to reinvigorate your picture of what a leader can and should be. It will help you recognize the real leaders all around you, and perhaps, see what is possible in yourself.
People who know me well will be surprised by this statement: I am an optimist. I try to believe that rational people gather information and make decisions to support themselves and their community. I am a child of the Enlightenment. In a crisis, I start by assuming that people will generally rise to the occasion, look out for their neighbors and make small sacrifices for the whole. I believe that a well-run government can have lasting positive effects on the lives of everyone. I am often disappointed, but my default position is to assume good intentions.
The Virus Doesn’t Care
Having spent time learning about it, I admire the ruthless simplicity of the coronavirus. It exists to exist. It rapidly creates variants to hide. Without consciousness, it has a plan. Once infecting someone, it holds back on the individual’s symptoms to build a high viral load that can be transmitted more easily. It kills some of its hosts, but as the body dies the ability of the virus to jump to helpers is actually enhanced. If someone does survive the virus, they often suffer lung damage making them more susceptible to a future variant. It preys on the innate complacency of human nature to flourish. Yea, I have to admire something designed to live and survive.
The Virus Doesn’t Care
Last night, I was monitoring how social distancing was working. It isn’t. Tweets from the beaches of Spring Break Florida are jammed. People in Nashville put up pictures of crowded bars and concerts with taglines proudly proclaiming they are defying the virus. In Portland, and around the country, people are jamming bars to celebrate St. Paddy’s day. (Ireland cancelled all celebrations. And when did this become a 3-day event here?) In spite of new evidence from South Korea that 20somethings are efficient carriers, a generational divide is clear on social media. The indestructability of youth flourishes. Bringing home the virus to mom, dad or grandma and grandpa is not a thing. Not just youth, the Republican governor of Oklahoma, tweeted a picture of him and his family in a crowded restaurant saying people should join him, everyone is going to be fine.
The Virus Doesn’t Care
I don’t have to generalize the denial. Sadly, it lives in my own family. People are traveling and making more plans to travel in the next couple months. One member is putting false information on Facebook. Two nieces flew from 2 different locations to meet for a weekend in the hot zone … Seattle. One of them an RN, relative moments from being a frontline warrior in her workplace, a hospital. While Sally and I are hunkered down, taking all the CDC recommendations seriously, our own family is a microcosm of why social distancing messaging isn’t working.
The Virus Doesn’t Care
This morning brought us the first polls on how America is seeing the threat of Covid – 19. The optimist in me hoped to see a national coalescing around the crisis. Instead, we see the same 60-40 nation as every poll on Trump. The right has succeeded in creating a large group of Americans who will no longer believe any news. Yesterday, I listened to right-wing talker Lars Larson get attacked by his own audience for agreeing with the social distancing policies of the Democratic governors of OR and WA. He seemed befuddled that the monster he created was turning on him, not for supporting a rational policy, but for having the audacity to ever support a liberal, no matter the reason. Today, Trump is swarm tweeting about the fake news, Hillary’s emails and pardoning a loyalist. The crisis? Not so much.
The Virus Doesn’t Care
I just watched everybody’s favorite and most reliable CDC doctor, Anthony Fauci. He was making the rounds of all the Sunday news shows. He is clearly in a pickle because this morning he was spinning us, creeping up to the edge of the abyss and backing away. He says he wouldn’t go to a restaurant but can’t say nobody should hoping people get his message. He talks about bending the pandemic curve and doing the right things, but he works for Trump and can’t say we should order people to do the right things. He can’t commit to when we will have ubiquitous testing and only hopes it will be available in a week. He is serving 2 masters: Trump and us. He has to bow to the first to stay in the game and we need him in the game. Please stay in the game.
The Virus Doesn’t Care
I turned a corner this morning. Maybe I have become a nihilist. I hope not. But given our current tribes, some are choosing to treat this crisis as another time to choose sides, standing in a crowded bar chatting USA! USA! USA! Covid -19 and how we approach it has become yet another signifier, a way that many of us can express our beliefs. Oh, I don’t underestimate the general human code. We are awful at looking ahead and acting. Denial is built into the genetic code. Maybe that is how we are optimistic at all. Most people aren’t information junkies like I am, digging deep for the truth moment by moment. I think we stand at the edge of a purge of both an enormous number of humans and of the last stronghold of belief: being sure. Sure of who we are and what we think we know. Fake anything is about to disappear.
The Virus Doesn’t Care
America is a geographically big country. I think the most salient thing I heard today was from a former FDA chairman, someone who now has no masters to please. He said, given the progress of the virus and the inability to fence in and direct Americans like China, we will end up having multiple Wuhans across the country. That sounds right, the density of the virus in the population now varies by big city and region. It will come in waves and last for months. This morning, Andrew Cuomo almost begged the president to authorize the military to immediately start building field hospitals across the country so that we have more capacity. Almost begged.
I was getting very shaggy, so I scheduled a haircut for this afternoon. Never in my life have I spent so much time thinking about a simple haircut. I thought of the chair and the people rotating through it. I thought about how many times my barber touches people day after day, week after week. I thought about if I would shake his hand coming and going. Mostly, I thought, is this safe or a completely dumb idea?
My longtime barber, and all his peers, look like a Punk-a-Billy band. In fact, many of them are in those kinds of bands. Lots of tattoos, slicked back hair. Chains dropped from wallets. Biker boots. Nice collection of old-school Harleys neatly parked on the street outside. The Rock-a-Billy station is streaming all the time with barbers occasionally making remarks on the songs. I like the place. We talk cars and punk rock. I have gone out to see my guy and his band at punk shows. It’s my kind of place. I suppose I do get a little credibility as the old dude who is always telling them what punk shows I have seen lately. And, it’s hard to slide a car reference by me.
Thinking about this haircut, I have never, in my life, been so conscious of the fact that I am 64 years old. I live the life I have led for most of adulthood, many of the same interests, and now without an annoying job, doing the things I have always loved doing, only more. But now COVID-19 has me hyper-conscious that I am above the “greatest risk” 60 and up line. Here I thought that age would just be about wisdom and free time. Silly me.
I decided to go ahead and get the haircut, a little shorter than usual so I won’t need one so soon. In the door, as usual, my guy offered me a beer or a whiskey (yea, it’s that kind of place) and his hand. I stepped back and looked him in the eye. Not sharing a firm handshake with these men and women is an insult.
I said, “Good to see you man. You know, I am over 60, kind of the danger zone for this virus thing, so for the duration I am not shaking hands. OK?”
Eric held his hand out in the air, then dropped it as a serious look crossed his face. “Yea man I get that.”
The folks there talked about the hysteria of the virus and the craziness of hoarding toilet paper. Eric said he uses a lot of bleach wipes and can’t find any. I was being careful. I didn’t want to get political, but I wanted to impart some of what I learned in the last week. These folks respect their elders, so I to stay what they respected. I told them I mostly blew off the cable news and went looking for scientists and epidemiologists to follow. I got them up to date on what is happening in Seattle. We talked about rock shows that wouldn’t go on and basketball being played in empty arenas. Now on the same page, I told them the stories of the doctors in Italy. Brutal, life and death triage and not enough hospital beds. Then one of the toughest in the bunch said, quietly, “Yea, I am not sure what to do with my kid if schools shut down.”
Just in the shot time I was in the barber’s chair, the NCAA announced that March Madness will not have crowds. WHO declared an official pandemic. The stock markets dropped into a Bear market. The SF Giants killed the bay series with Oakland. Seattle closed all schools. And, Trump was once again on television trying to wish it all away.
Eric finished the cut. Standing up I said, “You guys do know that all of you are going to have to shave your beards to wear masks, right?”
“What?” said Eric.
“I heard that,” said the tough guy, “the whiskers collect the virus.”
“Maybe put a sign in the window offering to shave all the hipsters at a discount,” I said as everyone laughed.
“Wash those hands, stay safe,” I said as I put on my coat to leave.
When I got back to my car, I washed my hands with sanitizer then went home to do the rest of my Coronavirus haircut plan. I took off all my clothes and put them in the wash. Then I took a long, hot shower. Out of the shower, there was more news from Italy. The prime minister just closed all shops but pharmacies and food marts. Barbershops too, I thought.
The privilege of being Americans will not let us escape this virus. It is coming hard and fast. As I roam around, in spite of the warnings, Americans remain mostly clueless. I listened to right wing radio on the way home. The talker was calling it the Wuhan Flu. Nice propaganda, I thought, make it foreign and just like the flu. Except, testifying before Congress this morning, one of those hero CDC doctors said that the absolute best case is that the mortality of COVID-19 will be 10 times that of the flu. Estimates of 500,000 to 1 million deaths are perfectly reasonable. Nope, it isn’t the flu.
So, I got a haircut today. Home, seemingly safe again, I am thinking about the future of my buddies at the puck rock barbershop. How will they make a living, pay the rent and care for their kids when the virus cloud now enveloping Seattle shifts south. I just don’t know. But I got a haircut.
I am a contributor to the public health web site The Mighty. Here is an essay they published a few days ago.
As a boss, I must have interviewed over 100 people for job openings. Because my engineering teams were composed of the most experienced people, the interview process was tough. I was the final interview after a series of peer technical reviews. Many of the candidates were exhausted by the experience. All that nervous energy was wearing them down. When I met each person, I handed them a cold bottle of water and asked them to take a little break.
Every team has a personality. My job was to figure out how the candidate would fit with my team. My goal was to slow the day down for the last hour and see if they could relax and recover. There is much to be learned by watching how people recover from stressful situations while still under pressure.
Truth be told, that is the nature of life. We seldom get entirely stress-free moments, no matter how hard we try to create them. Think of how many times you have gone on vacation to relax only to discover you have been thwarted by the vacation itself: the place, the food, the people, the time zone … we have all been there.
The trick is to become friends with your body, your nervous system, so you know difference between high stress and simple discomfort. The difference isn’t subtle. Take a moment and think about how different your body feels. It’s huge, isn’t it? When you understand the difference, merely being a bit uncomfortable is kind of nice. It is manageable, a place to rest and recover, not scary at all.
In all my interviews, there is one question I used near the end. It is a bit of a Zen riddle. I wanted to better understand how the person reacted to the inevitable confusion of an intense job, or life in general. I was conscious of my aspect when I asked my favorite question. I wanted the person to see me as friendly, maybe just a little bit curious. And then I would ask, “What do you do when you don’t know what to do?”
The body language responses I got to that question were almost like the physical startle you feel when you step off a curb that you didn’t know was there. People’s bodies moved, sometimes with a tilted head or a shift in their hands. Other times, they completely reordered their body position. “What? Can you say that again?” “What do you mean?” I never clarified the question. I calmly repeated it and let it lay there on the table between us.
The question comes from a deeply personal place. As someone who manages the anxiety that comes with my post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), I am most comfortable when my life is predictable. I have a hair-trigger nervous response that can set my fight-or-flight systems galloping in an instant. The most frightening place is what I call the “I don’t know” place. That place can freeze me, lock me into self-destructive anxiety patterns and in the worst instances, trigger a dissociative event from deep within my PTSD.
One of the greatest tricks of my recovery has been nurturing my ability to recognize when I am approaching the “I don’t know” place. I then turn it on its head with a different phrase: “Decide, plan and act.” Even if my first decision isn’t the correct one, the process of cutting off the spinning internal debate has immense power. When I choose, my attention shifts to planning. And when I have a plan, my feet are again firmly on the ground. I have taken control. Having an inner sense of control makes me feel just little bit more powerful and ready to act. I have created a positive cascade of thoughts and actions that explode the “I don’t know” place.
I suppose when I asked the candidates, “What do you do when you don’t know what to do?” I was seeing if they too had an “I don’t know” place. The remarkable thing I discovered is every one of them figured out what to do. Some said they would reach out to someone else for advice. Others told me they would take a few moments, step away and slow everything down to see the problem from a different angle. I even had people laugh and say with complete confidence, “Oh, there is always something do to next.” What I discovered is deep in human nature is remarkable resilience. An on-demand superpower. We all have it. You have it. Decide, plan and act.
Last October I watched my first Democratic debate and handicapped the candidates. It wasn’t pretty. After the New Hampshire (NH) primary, it’s time to look at my predictions and look again into my political geek crystal ball. I will leave bit of my former analysis in italics, so you know where we have been.
Coffee? Check. Dogs sleeping behind me? Check. Tool cranked up on Spotify? Check. Here we go.
Tulsi Gabbard –Evidently, she is trying to keep us out of wars that we have been fighting for a decade by giving a wink and a nod to dictators.
Good lord she is still here. There is something strange about this white suited cyborg. She is a FoxNews favorite and is cozying up to the Libertarian Party. I can’t shake the notion that she wants to be a third- party spoiler.
Andrew Yang –His sane claim that “it’s the automation stupid” should have been a billboard on the highway to the debate site.
This guy was fun, and we need more jokes in national politics. The things he is right about will plague us for generations. “Yang Gang” Best supporter name ever.
Tom Steyer– “In case you didn’t notice, I’m a billionaire who bought my way onto this stage.”
I suppose he proves a billionaire can be earnest. He is going to make a little trouble in South Carolina (SC). For the life of me, I still can’t figure out why he is doing this. He may be too rich to wise up and leave.
Julian Castro – “I don’t get it. I check all the boxes. Why don’t you like me?”
If you put a Tweet on a scale it has no weight, pretty much like Castro.
Cory Booker – “We are having the wrong debate!! Be nicer!!”
These are angry times. People don’t want to be talked out of their seemingly righteous anger. Mostly, America said that we don’t want vegan president. Rational choice.
Kamala Harris –Turns out she was once a tough prosecutor but feels kind of bad about it.
She a black woman who went to SC over and over, but nobody noticed. Someone handed her the keys to the car and she immediately lost them. Still, she is my favorite for Vice President. She would hold the Woke Left at bay with a white guy at the top of the ticket and is a vicious political elbow thrower. Her and Pence on a stage would be glorious television.
Beto O’Rouke –Nothing says a winner like losing.
I see that Beto has opened up a chain of Texas burger joints called: Hubris r’ Us
Amy Klobuchar – Man, she was really rocking the “non-socialist” world for a few minutes there.
She’s still here? OK, I didn’t predict she would be a spoiler in NH … for Mayor Pete. There is a planet where her personal story and ideas are a winner. But women don’t vote for women for president and she has no national organization. NH is probably the apex of her campaign. Pity.
Pete Buttigieg –Black voters don’t like married gay people.
Damn he has the campaign chops. His ability to create broad based campaigns in Iowa and NH is a potential national template but nothing has changed the way black people feel about gay people. It may be the only thing that the Sunday morning hat ladies share with white evangelicals. I’d love it if this weren’t the case. He is about to hit a wall in the south.
Bernie Sanders –Bernie is an actual fanatic, in all the most awful paint your team name on your belly and get drunk at the game ways.
I highly recommend Rick Wilson’s book “Running Against the Devil.” Bernie is the Trump of the left. He is surrounded by a cadre of fanatics who would rather destroy the republic to make a point than win the White House. Many of them never really liked America anyhow. I run for the hills when political candidates yell about “revolutions” or “movements.” That is cult talk. He looks good in Trump head to head polls now but wait until the Trump machine drops a billion dollars of attack ads on his head. Sorry kids, America doesn’t want to be socialist and you don’t vote. The voter profile in swing states skews over 40 years old. Trump wins going away with 45 states. Bernie would have reverse coattails taking down Democrat control of the House with him. In the end, he is a nihilist.
Joe Biden –I can even forgive his mangled syntax and old dude references. But the guy is just too damned old.
I wanted him to be better but every time I see his now translucent skin under the TV lights I cringe. He knows how to go right at Trump but as a candidate he is a dead man walking. He knows it. He isn’t stupid. If there had been a way to save face and drop out last night, he would have pulled the rip cord. My heart always sinks when I see a formerly great ball player stay one season too long and embarrass themselves at the plate when they can’t catch up to a fastball. Whiff….
Elizabeth Warren – All her “live wire” 70-year-old routine is as distracting as an angry wasp at a summer picnic.
Turns out when you offer the Woke Left Bernie-light they say no thanks and pull the full strength original out of the cupboard. She has a 1,000-person unionized national campaign staff. You are about to hear about layoffs as the money dries up, the hospice care of a campaign. She is from the state next to NH, spent more time there than any other candidate and got creamed. In a normal year, she drops out last night. A week ago, she replaced yelling “fighter” with whispering “unity.” Rejecting your core message to save your campaign is always a loser.
And the “new” guy.
Mike Bloomberg –
You will know what he is all about when he shares a debate stage for the first time. That first TV impression is make or break. Word is he has the best campaign money can buy. We don’t how hard he is hitting the airwaves everywhere else because Oregon isn’t important. I don’t have a problem with him being a billionaire. He started with nothing, had a world beating idea and executed perfectly. That is exactly how that is supposed to work. Nobody else, almost reflexively, gets in Trump’s head better than this guy. There is something to that New York toughness. Bloomberg is everything Trump only claims to be. Trump has the very best Republican political machine with a billion bucks now. Bloomberg can actually say, “Fuck off … me too.” He has a boatload of baggage with women and criminal justice that the left is going to unload on him. They actually HATE the guy. Can they get over themselves and vote for him in a general election? He may be the Democrats last hope, they just don’t know it yet.
So, there it is, Jimbo’s state of the race. After the inevitable failure of the impeachment trial, I wake up most days feeling like we are on the edge of losing our democratic republic. Just in the last week Trump is talking and acting more and more like a dictator. He and Barr are putting a thousand cuts into the rule of law. In terror of his Twitter account and bathing in the graft, the Republican party no longer exists. They are Trumpists now and have signed on to sail that ship into more power or all die in the storm. They have made the binary choice. Their survival is now completely in Trump’s hands.
Spend some time watching the cable business channels. Business is all in on Trump and now has to protect their investment and quarterly profits. If the Democrats nominate an actual socialist, they will unleash a furious tsunami of money to kill the opposition. No one seems to be hedging their bets. My take is that, whether Trump wins or loses, we are in for an economic reckoning after the November election. Retired folks get defensive in those portfolios.
I am a tear in the eye patriot and a believer in the aspirational goals of American founding. I tossed aside a successful career to finish my working life with a decade of public service. Second best thing I have ever done. (Sally #1) From childhood, I live and breathe American history and politics. I wrote a damn MA thesis on the resiliency of American institutions. But there were two things I could not anticipate. Social media and the emergence of a ruler who is a narcissistic sociopath. I am in shock how quickly an opposition party would abandon core principles. Just didn’t see that one coming.
Every day, I work to keep my psyche above water, focus on what is real around me, what I can try to control. I mostly succeed. Becoming an exhausted, demoralized opposition is what a tyrant covets the most. Stay in the damn game!!!
Today my overriding fear is the Democrats are going to find a way to fuck this up again. They have yet to prove me wrong.
The picture. It was late. Nick had been invited to the opening of a new exhibit at Pittock Mansion. As his Parks guy, I went with him. We got an amazing tour of the things the public don’t see, hidden doors, third floor rooms, the basement cast iron elevator motor. We viewed the exhibit, and as always happened, people sort of lined-up to talk to the commissioner. Pittock had their own photographer. I went to extricate Nick. The woman in the picture would not take a clue. When they sent me all the pictures to pick the ones we wanted, I said, “And print me a copy of this one.” This picture still makes me laugh because it is so damn honest. I framed it for my home office.
I hate writing these essays, these memorials, celebrations and lamentations. But I have to do it. When I suffer a great loss, like the passing of my friend Commissioner Nick Fish, I am frozen, standing on the ground at the edge of a spinning carrousel of stories and thoughts and emotions. The only way I can free my feet and heart is reach up, grab some of the passing memories and pull them onto a screen or a piece of paper. So now, if you are reading this, you are caught in how I try to make sense of absence.
I spent the best part of a decade working with Nick. I could write endlessly about his dedication to public service, a commitment exceeded only by that of watching his family grow and change. But let me tell a few little things about my friend, the pieces of Nick that will stay with me.
Nick was a New Yorker with all that implies. He walked impossibly fast and drove the same way. He covered thousands of miles back and forth across the city in his little car. He loved a good road trip. I rode with him a few times and let’s just say he quickly and loudly critiqued other drivers.
During the day, TeamFish members staffing the commissioner drove. It gave him time to read the talking points and talk on his cell phone. Nick would have had no issues if someone Crazy Glued that phone to his hand. More than once, the driver of the day came back swearing they would never do that again. Nick’s detailed driving critiques could be harrowing.
I am a car guy. My greatest discovery when I took over as the Parks Bureau liaison was that the Portland International Raceway (PIR) was a city park. Who knew!? I had a track modified Mini Cooper S and did full-speed track days at PIR. I arranged for Nick to speak at the official opening of the track season. On cold Saturday morning, we met at the paddock with a about 100 car geeks and their hot cars. I knew the organizers from my track days. They were very excited that I had arranged for the commissioner to be there.
As Nick was speaking, Gary Bockman, the president of the Friends of PIR, came over and put his hand on my shoulder.
“We have surprise for the commissioner. Got get your Mini and bring it around to the starting line. When he is done, I will bring him to you and the track is all yours for 3 laps.”
I was psyched. This was going to be fun. When Nick walked up to my car, he started to go to the driver’s side. Gary led him to the other side of the car.
“Oh no, Jim knows what he is doing. You are the passenger.”
Nick got in and buckled up. When Nick was nervous his mouth fell open, a goofy look of mock surprise.
Gary leaned into my window, “OK Jim, it’s all yours. Remember, the track is cold. Your tires are cold. Be smart out there and don’t put it into a wall. We don’t have any emergency gear here today.”
I laughed and turned to look at Nick, “You ready?”
Before he could respond I grabbed gear and squealed the tires. I did the first lap like a tour guide. Talking about the racing line, pointing out my favorite corners and the geese in the infield. Nick’s head was on a swivel. He didn’t say much but he seemed to be having fun. As we came back to the long front straight, I said, “Hang on. Now let’s have some fun.”
On a track day, my little car would hit 105 MPH before breaking into the first corner. I knew better and kept it at about 80 and braked gingerly into every corner. Still, I had to concentrate so as not to spin my boss into the infield. At speed, turn 6 feels like you are going to fly out of the passenger window. It felt slow to me but when I looked at Nick his left hand was dug deep into the seat bolster. His right hand was crushing the door handle. As we dropped down into the back straight and gained speed, I heard a little high-pitched whimper of some sort.
“Isn’t this great? You good?” I asked as I grabbed a gear.
“Oh yea,” Nick said his voice an octave too high.
As we came around to the stands, people were standing and waving at us. Ever the man of the people, Nick waved back. I slowed the car to do a final cool down lap. When we pulled back to the starting line, it was clear that Nick was a mess. I think he mostly wanted to throw up, but gamely held it together, wobbled out of the car and started shaking hands.
Here’s the deal. What Nick never told me was that he gets car sick. Our fun 3 laps were about his worst nightmare. At the Monday staff meeting, he went on and on about his time on the track with me. Well, I also think he said, “Jim tried to kill me.”
Always a gamer, Nick still rode with me to events. I made him car sick again on the little winding road up to PIttock Mansion. When I switched the Mini for a BMW sports coup, he walked up to it the first time and said, “Jesus Jim.” Turns out Nick Fish was a closet car guy too, just for the fancy cars. One day on a freeway onramp, I reached down, punched the sport button and slammed him back in his seat as I accelerated. That got a happy, “Wow!” He was much better in a straight line.
One day, back from an event with Nick, a team member asked me, “Does he just drive you nuts as a passenger?”
“No, actually, he never says a word about my driving.”
“Yea, the trick is that he is scared I will actually DRIVE my car, so we are good.”
In my memoir, I write extensively about Nick’s winning 2008 campaign for Portland City Council. I met Nick at a luncheon and few weeks later he called to ask me to join him on the campaign. After a month of writing responses to endorsement questionnaires, unsolicited, I went to see his first public forum. Afterwards, I told him I had many notes and he said, “Let’s get sushi and talk about it.” What I didn’t write about in the book was how Nick Fish ate. Watching him eat was just plain frightening.
That day, I first noted his considerable dexterity with chop sticks. With the precision of a surgeon he tugged, grabbed and dipped the tuna and California rolls then tossed them into his open mouth. “This man loves to eat,” I thought. And, he never stopped talking … not for a second. Chops sticks down, long gulp of icy soda and right back to the sticks and rolls. He was in continuous motion, reaching out with his other hand to point at something in my notes, “Tell me more about this.” Nervous, I had barely touched my noodles. He was done and scanning the room for our waitress to order more food.
Nick is the only adult man I had ever seen construct a bib at a table. Paper napkin, or cloth, if he was wearing a tie, he took the napkin, flopped it wide open then turned on the diagonal. Almost daintily, he tucked one corner behind the knot in his tie and spread the rest to get maximum coverage of his chest. Give him credit for being self-aware. Food flew in every direction as he worked his way through a plate. I am guessing there had been “accidents” to a number if ties.
In City Hall, we most often ate at our desks or in the conference room. I was a sack lunch guy. Nick sent someone out for sustenance, often a sandwich, chips and yogurt. None of us really wanted to see what happened next. With barely any interruption to his stream of consciousness talking, Nick took enormous bites of the sandwich. Chewing and talking the internals of the sandwich flew out onto the desk in front of him and on the floor. Before I had opened my bag of chips, his sandwich was gone. I began to wonder if it was possible to actually eat a sandwich in six bites. On to the yogurt. Can one call a living, milk-based sludge a victim? Somehow Nick turned the small white plastic spoon into a ladle, a continuous feeding conveyor to his mouth. The yogurt didn’t have a chance.
The endearing thing about this spectacle was just how little he cared about how he looked scarfing down his sustenance. He treated us like family, and he was merely fueling for the next thing. Generally, we tried to shelter the public from feeding time in the Commissioner’s office. I call that good staff work.
Even in public, if you knew the code, Nick never stopped communicating the subtext of what he was really thinking. One of Nick’s greatest political talents was his ability to completely change his emotional and physical aspect in front of the public. He had one of the most incisive minds I have ever seen in action. We could be behind the door in his office and he could be absolutely ballistic about something, often to do with our bureaus or someone not meeting his very high standards. Senior staff learned that he had to have a safe way to blow off steam. We all do it, but for a politician it’s essential to know when and where.
Now the magic trick. In the walk from his corner office to the door of our conference room Nick transformed. He fired questions: who is at the table; why am I having this meeting; how long; what do we need; what do they want. Every staffer had to be able to relay that information in short bursts. He was changing gears on the fly. Reaching the door before me he would sometimes put his hand on the knob, turn to me, smile with his eyes and take a breath. Door open, he ushered me in and began greeting the room before he sat down, sometimes making his way around the table shaking hands. From that instant on, the people in the room believed that they were the most important meeting he was having that day. In a long day, that could happen a dozen times. I never stopped being awed at that skill.
Generally, I sat at Nick’s right elbow. Nick, always the lawyer, could be an intense questioner, not so much intimidating as conveying rapt attention. For some people this would be their only City Hall meeting. He made sure they got what they wanted most, his attention. For bureau staff, this was their one chance to make their briefing count. You got to see people, nervous, but at their best.
Now the other part of the meeting began, the hidden fun part. As the meetings went on, Nick was narrating his thoughts to me, and those of us who knew, in real time. With a quick glance, subtle adjustments of his mouth and eyes, the parting or closing of his lips and even the outright change of his face directed only to me as he changed postures, Nick told a story.
Variously he communicated: What am I really doing here? I really like this person. What an idiot. How much time? This is fun. I am tired. I am not happy. Did you hear that? What are they talking about? You need to jump in now. I got that right … yes? But the one silent message I got most often was a slight widening of his eyes. That is the one I always thought of as “How am I doing?”
Even holding court, looking and sounding supremely confident, Nick sought reassurance. Most of us have our underlying insecurities. But we don’t get to test them all day long like he did. My response was always: eyes raised in return with the slightest nod. “Yea, you are fine.”
The subtext didn’t stop there. Our conference room office windows faced the stairs to the mayor’s office. We always had an eye on who was going up to, or coming down from, meetings with the mayor. Certain people meant movement on issues completely disconnected from the meeting we were in. Quick glances between us confirmed we both just saw who was in the building.
Some of the most fun ever was watching Nick do a stand-up outside our office door with a local TV reporters. Most of those reporters come and go so are really clueless about local issues. Inevitably, while someone else ushered the reporter and videographer out to the hall, we would linger in Nick’s office doing a rundown of what he wanted to communicate.
Nick liked to try out answers out loud. He’d toss out a sentence and look for a reaction. It was our job to say: Good or No. Try this word. You need more on that. Don’t go there. You have it now. With each critique, he edited in his head, and said the new version. I had seen him do this on the 2008 campaign when we worked in his law office. He dictated his speeches for his admin to type. Even before we had anything on paper, I would say, “No that sentence doesn’t work and you need to start the paragraph differently.” He would rewind in his head, give it back to me using the same words making the substitutions. I had never seen anything like it.
Out the door, gracious with his small talk, Nick cleverly set the reporter up with the questions we wanted to answer. I leaned against the wall an angle where only Nick could see me. As the interview progressed, he would catch my eyes for confirmation he was hitting his points. Eye shift from him. Head shift from me. If he needed more or forgot something, slight motion with my eyes off to the distance. Slight raise of his eyebrows and away he went. It was a thing of beauty. You had to know the code.
Nick Fish was serious about writing. To work in our office, the candidates had to do a writing test. They were handed a one-page ordnance, placed in front of a computer and told they had 20 minutes to write the commissioner’s talking points. Good lord, I felt so sorry for those young people. But that was how important the writing was to Nick, thus, all of TeamFish.
I wrote many of the large, set-piece speeches with him. It could be an excruciating process, starting with our tools of choice. Nick and I were both eccentrics about our writing implements. I favor a fat, mechanical pencil with a double hard lead. He was very old school, using a yellow, ink cartridge loaded fountain pen. We did this little ballet were occasionally we registered gentle concern about each other’s implement choices. We were unified in our abysmal penmanship.
For 7 years, I wrote the speeches for the “We the People” high school Constitution competition. Nick was always a judge and gave the closing speech in front of an enormous audience of kids, parents and educators. I started coming up with ideas and a first draft 2 months in advance. Nick gave me free reign to pick a topic and link it to the Constitution and what was awash in the zeitgeist. The speeches got longer and longer every year.
Nick had awful eyesight. He would brag about the prisms in his glasses. Anything he edited had to be in a 22-point font, triple spaced. We went through reams of paper. The font for the final copy got even bigger. There was always someone on TeamFish with the honored title of “formatter.”
I have a fondness for the rounded paragraph, metaphors, tangential wit and the sprinkling of emotion. Nick was the master of the lean, clean, precise declarative sentence. Always the lawyer, he was a communicator. My first drafts were a bloodbath of his changes. I knew that the words had to come out of his mouth. He had to be comfortable with the language. Still, for the next 15 or 20 drafts (that’s right … 15 drafts was nothing) my goal was often to keep little bits of soul in the text.
It went like this. We each got printed copies of the draft. Nick would read the text and mark up his copy. Either sitting on his couch or at our conference table, I would track along with him capturing some of his changes but mostly making notes on what was working and what wasn’t. He would try out parts of the text aloud and we would both let the words hover in the air above us as we considered them. When we finished, I would take both copies back to my office, lay them side by side and start editing. Well, not quite. Nick’s skinny, linear fountain pen scrawl was mostly indecipherable. I could figure out maybe half of what he wrote. The rest I took to the Nick whisperers.
Always, there were at least two people on TeamFish who could read his writing. Sonia, the longest on the team, was first among equals. I would write what I thought he wrote and show it to her. Somehow, I have no idea how, she would quickly read his scratches. More often than not, I had completely mistranslated every word. Oh, my version had a reasonable contextual meaning, it was just completely wrong.
Consider that several people were writing for Nick every day, talking points, vote statements, media announcements, op eds. Paper drafts flowed in and out on Nick’s office all day long. He took drafts to council meetings and edited while listening to testimony. He took drafts home. He read drafts while being driven to events. There were few points in his public service where he was not editing something.
TeamFish had a joke about the final copy. Nothing was final until it was final … final. Maybe even final … final … final. Even if he loved a final draft and we locked it down, when he handed us back the copy, he had used to deliver the speech, there were hand written changes in the text. I would stand in the back of the room and watch him make changes siting at the dais right up until the moment he was introduced. Nick had a vision of the perfect speech he was always chasing, and he relentlessly challenged himself to reach that untouchable star.
We had this thing, Nick and I, where we would complement each other’s writing back and forth. He would read a sentence and look up and say, “Yea, this is good.” Or, he would make a change and read it back to me and I would say, “Yea, that’s better.” But it was when we were cutting out each other’s writing where it got funny.
Can you keep a secret? I think that many times I had better sense of what words or descriptions would touch an audience. Nick was a little reluctant to go there. Sometimes, a draft would come back to me with one of those paragraphs crossed out. I would note the change and send back a draft with the wording deleted. Then, on the next version, I would put it back. Without fail, he said, “I like this part,” to something he had once deleted.
Curiously, I never saw Nick deliver one of the “We the People” speeches. Held in the huge auditorium at Lake Oswego High School, the closing speech started at different times based on the competition and there was barely enough room for all the parents and students. On the day after, we all waited for his review. I only needed to hear one word, “Homerun!!”
For the last speech I wrote in 2017, I wanted Nick to be the one to reassure the students and their parents that the competition had equipped them to handle whatever came in the age of Trump. From graduate school, I am a bit of a wonk on the election of 1800 so I equipped Nick with the invective Adams and Jefferson threw at each other to establish for the audience what we have survived in the past. Nick then took the audience through a journey of the resilience of American institutions amidst chaos. I thought it was our best work.
The next day, Nick didn’t say “Homerun!!” He looked at me and said, “Jim, a dad came up to me after with tears in his eyes to say thank you.”
I wish I would have seen Nick deliver that speech.
The Parting Ritual
I was a project leader and manager in high tech for almost 20 years. There was one important part of leadership where I woefully weak, offering praise to my team members. I worked in a world of eccentrics and perfectionists. Mostly, we were all harder on ourselves that anyone else could ever be. I, especially, had trouble giving myself a compliment and that bled over to how I treated others. But I wanted to be better. So, consciously, slowly I worked to master the little moments of praise for individuals and the grander gestures of celebration for teams. The more I did it, letting go of self, the more I enjoyed it. By time I left management, how my team members felt appreciated and supported was a hallmark of my leadership style.
As far as I could tell, Nick had never had a staff like TeamFish. He worked in groups, served on boards, did campaigns but didn’t have the experience of being the boss of his own team over time. From the start, Nick was pretty good at recognizing hard work. He was quick to poke his head in a doorway and say, “Good work” or “Nice Job.” If he caught your eye from the dais or down a hallway, he gave you a thumbs up. TeamFish is a high functioning team, always buried under too much work, so those quick hits of praise were important.
Nick also loved to honor people and organizations in public. He was forever bringing proclamations to Council or calling out people in the audience for recognition. Some would say he was effusive. OK, others said he could be over-the-top with his almost nineteen century formality when praising others. But there is one special ritual that only a few of us saw.
Every day, especially on Fridays, there was a flurry of activity on the run-up to the commissioner leaving for the evening. We assembled a package with briefing papers, memos, talking points for events, maps and staffing assignments. And, inevitably, some of us had one more thing to tell him before he parted. The call would come out from our scheduler, “Nick is about to leave!” People would drift out to our common office area and Nick would emerge from his office, coat on, holding his hopelessly overstuffed, ratty looking briefcase. He would stop somewhere around the center of the office and look around the room. He often looked exhausted as he was already 12 hours into his day and was needing the energy boost of a crowd at his evening event.
The parting ritual began like this:
“I think we had a good day,” he would say to no one in particular.
Then Nick would work his way around the room recalling something that each of us had done. Acts big and small were assembled, often with his version of self-deprecating humor, into a picture of the collective accomplishments of the team.
If someone had an especially big part in the successes of the day or week, Nick would face them, raise both hands in the air toward them and almost yell, “Ladies and gentlemen!”
And then he would say that person’s name loudly several times like they were a world championship fighter entering the ring. He started the applause, hands in the air and everyone joined in, adding whoops and hollers. The honored soul sometimes nodded or bowed or responded with a wave. When it happened to me, I felt a cool chill go down my body. Better that than a tear that wanted to find my eye.
And with that, Nick swept out of the room and to the front door, calls of “Have a good night! Thanks commissioner!” at his back. I sometimes watched him through the glass doors, marveling at his long strides. He was off out into the night, to the next thing, as happy about it as when he walked in the door that morning.
This wasn’t a one-off. In some variation of the form, it happened all the time. One night my wife came to pick me up. Sitting in our waiting area she was one of the rare outsiders to see the parting ritual.
As we walked out that evening she said, “That was amazing. I have never had a boss that did anything like that.”
Nick never lacked for people complimenting him on his work. In politics, some of that was sincere, some strategic. When I thought Nick did something especially well, or took a position on policy that was contrary and hard, something he struggled with for days, I wanted him to know it counted. Politics is a world of constant handshakes, but in my blue-collar upbringing, offering your hand to another man was a special thing, especially between men of a certain age.
I would wait until Nick was in his office alone, walk in and interrupt whatever he was doing. I walked up and offered my hand across his desk. He always seemed a little startled but then clicked in and locked eyes with me.
Shaking his hand, I said, “Good job Commissioner.” He held the handshake a little longer and said, “Thank you.”
Then without another word, I would smile, turn for the door and slip away.
Everything is true. Tapping on a phone, or keyboard, you can find the facts to support almost any claim. That is because facts can be synthesized too. Once pushed out into the Internet, any idea, no matter how absurd, will find a believer. Believers will gather virtually into an audience then form a tribe. And once you are part of a tribe, you are never alone. When you let go of truth, there is freedom in every direction. Liberty means that you can live in a world where all thoughts are confirmed and the blessed buzz of dopamine flows through your brain like the mighty Mississippi. As I considered all the possibilities of joy that a conspiracy theory can engender, I asked, why not me? I want to be validated. I want to be part of a tribe. I want my own conspiracy theory.
Any good conspiracy theory, and all effective propaganda, starts with the nub of a fact. We saw a few conspiracy theories tossed out during the impeachment hearings. They all started with facts. Ukraine exists. There were people who didn’t like Trump in Ukraine. There is corruption in Ukraine. People don’t like corruption. You see what I mean? It is possible to string together a series of general truths that are simple to understand and provide a platform for a good conspiracy theory.
Next, you need to have a goal. What is your conspiracy theory trying to accomplish? Let’s take one. It is vital to the president to prove that Ukraine is hostile to Trump. How do you do that? Turn a few people into a country. There were commentators and a handful of politicians in Ukraine who opposed Trump in 2016. Why? Because in public remarks he had conceded part of their invaded country to Russia. Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, said that Crimea was still part of Ukraine. So, naturally, people who didn’t like to be invaded preferred Clinton.
Next, say the false thing over and over, and have other seemingly smart people validate what you are saying. In this case, the big lie is: There are people in Ukraine who hate Trump, so Ukraine worked with the Democrats to defeat Trump. And there it is. Take a few facts, manufacture a few new ones and you have a conspiracy theory. Just yesterday, a US senator was on a Sunday morning talk show stating this conspiracy was a fact. You are going to hear this one a lot in the next couple of months. It is the basis for Trump’s non-defense, defense.
But what about me? I want my own conspiracy theory. OK … here goes:
I follow the stock market and the economy closely. Like millions of Americans, my retirement is now dependent on the stock and bond markets. So, a few facts. We have been in a bull market since Obama kept us out of another Great Depression in 2009. While the job mix is not working for all Americans, the job numbers are terrific. Across the board, businesses big and small are doing well. The GDP, while not going gangbusters, has been constantly above 2 per cent. Oil production is high, keeping gas prices low. Trump’s deregulation has been a boon for many business sectors. The tax cut meant that corporations can recover cash and do stock buy backs to keep their own stock prices high. The Fed, in response to Trump and Wall Street, has lowered interest rates and restarted Quantitative Easing (large scale buying of government bonds basically throwing money into the economy). Sentiment surveys consistently say people feel good about the economy. Finally, and this is the key to my conspiracy theory, the single biggest predictor of the reelection of a president is a humming economy. Like it or not, the president is the economy. People will ignore almost anything if they feel economically secure.
That’s an impressive collection of facts, isn’t it? Without a doubt, the single biggest factor to the Republicans and Trump retaining power is the economy. Trump is very good for big business. Given that, why would you believe the economy is not being manipulated to make sure Trump is reelected?
Let me be clear … I am sure the American economy is being manipulated to reelect Trump and that once he is reelected all of the economic influencers will take their hand off the scale and the markets/economy will revert to the normal business cycle. We will have a recession.
I watch CNBC and Fox Business Network. In the last year, the market gurus have begun to sound like cult members. “The markets will keep going up because they have been going up.” What? We have been in a 10-year bull market. That has never happened before. The world economy has been shaky for a while. American stands alone. That isn’t a good thing. The Fed is throwing every tool they have at keeping the economy pumped up. But in doing so, they are violating their mandate to keep some tools on the sidelines for an inevitable downturn. They are all-in on keeping this aging bull market alive. Why?
Unless you watch and read business news, you cannot begin to understand the terror that Democratic candidates like Bernie and Warren have unleashed. I don’t agree with their policies but that doesn’t matter. For big business, stopping them is an imperative. And, they have come to see the moderate Democrats as unreliable. So, the most important thing they can do is manage their companies for the election. Not for stockholders, the election. It may be the only way they are thinking beyond the next quarter’s numbers. Keeping Trump in power is essential to their bottom line.
Trump will also use all of his tools to keep the markets and economy right where they are. Billions of borrowed Chinese money to farmers to cover for the insane tariffs … you bet. And the Chinese this week said that they like having Trump around because in his simple-minded economic understanding he is absolutely predictable and easy to manipulate by tossing him a bone. Wait for it. There will be a trade deal before the election. It serves long-term Chinese interests.
The core to my conspiracy theory is simple: who benefits? There are entirely too many ways that big business and Trump are dependent upon each other for both to resist manipulating the economy over the next year. I think we are already seeing it. You just have to pay close attention. As always, “It’s the economy stupid!”
Please share this essay because, you know, that’s how a good conspiracy theory works.
People have been asking me, “How did you end up writing a book?” Like a number of insane people, I have always wanted to write a book. Since I was a kid, walking into a library or a bookstore always sent a little electrical shot down my spine. First, excitement then a soft blanket of calm. I would look up at the stacks and think, “I want to do that.”
Most directly, it was my essay site, Noclock.org, that told me that I could write a book. The rules I set for my essays are simple:
Grab an idea. (Showers, movie theaers and gardening seem to wake the muse.)
Let my subconscious work on it for a while.
Write it fast in one sitting (somehow about 1,000 words always feels right).
Do one pass of editing. I want the most direct connection to my original words, flaws be damned.
Find a piece of art and publish.
From the moment I sit down to write, it generally takes about 90 minutes beginning to end.
About a year into my essay writing experiment, I realized I had written almost 50,000 words across 40 essays. A real book can land in about 50,000 words. Damn, I thought, that’s a book. Accidentally, just for the joy of writing, I had written enough words to be a book. Suddenly, the impossible seemed reasonable. And isn’t that how many of the most important things in life work? We stare up at the hill and shake our heads in defeat only to one day find ourselves standing on the hill.
I am proud of my first book, Am I Cured Yet: My Wonderful Life with Panic Disorder and PTSD. I have had heartfelt and touching feedback from readers. But the truth is that my memoir would not exist except for this little essay site and my reader’s patience and curiosity as I bounce from subject to subject, sometimes making solid contact and other times whiffing at the ball. So, I will continue to toss out essays for your enjoyment and annoyance. But beware, while I continue to write here, a second project is already underway.
My first day working in Portland City Hall, I became the commissioner’s liaison to one of the largest bureaus in the city, Portland Parks and Recreation. In our curious system, commissioners directly manage bureaus. That meant that I now had a strange new status every time I met with employees from Parks. I didn’t fully understand that status until in an early “get to know you” meeting where I made an offhand comment about one of the many parts of my new assignment I didn’t understand. The next morning in my email, unsolicited, was a long, well written memo that filled the gap on my knowledge. “Oh shit,” I thought, “I really need to think before I speak around those folks.”
During my time in public service, I spent hundreds of hours with city employees from the director to the guy who did garbage pickup on the parks. I quickly realized that, after a career in the private sector, I could understand a huge bureau like it was a small company. Almost everything I knew from before applied. Well, except for one enormous difference, I would always be temporary in the lives of those city workers. Sure enough, at the point where I had really figured out the bureau, I got a new assignment.
We have been hearing a lot about the “deep state.” It is characterized as the evil structure of non-elected bureaucrats whole wield unchecked power thwarting the will of the voter. (Did I get that one right?)
What I discovered is the deep state is actually the reason we have a government at all. Those are the people who get up day after day to maintain all of those things we take for granted: social security checks arriving on time; people on the other end of the line when you dial 911; people who make sure we have water, roads to drive on and parks to play in. The deep state is the glue, at every level of government, that keeps our democracy together.
As an appointee of an elected official, I was just passing through. Many of the folks I worked with had seen 3 … 6 … 10 different elected officials come and go. They had weathered awful politicians who used the bureaucracy to maintain power and stroke ambition. They rejoiced when their new boss actually understood that they mostly existed to serve the public and implement projects that had timelines decades long. The time horizon of a political appointee was no farther than the next election.
Oh sure, the fabled ugly bureaucrat is a real thing. I met them too. The incompetent apparatchik sheltered by public employee union rules is a real thing. During my service we had to get rid of some senior managers who had been in power so long they started to believe they were more important than the public they served. Here’s a secret, when we did take out the dead weight in a bureau, the other people there quietly rejoiced. Just like most of us, the loyal, hardworking souls had no use for the venal or lazy. We were doing them a big favor. Almost daily, I was amazed at the dedication of the people in the deep state and their willingness to put in insanely long hours and sweat the details to serve the public.
This takes me to Trump and his deep state fantasy. The thing about people who chose to do public service is that they have pride in their work, and in the case of federal employees, they are very serious about their oaths to the constitution and protecting the system bequeathed to all of us by our nation’s founders. They too have seen presidents and political appointees come and go. They have experienced committed appointees who haven given up other careers to serve for a time in government. And, as is the case now, they have seen grifters who only showed up to take from government as much as they can on the way out the door.
Trump will never understand that there are people serving government because they believe in our system and to a soul see themselves as custodians of a something special. Trump only serves himself. And, it was inevitable that there would finally be a point where some of those people would rise up, put their lives and careers on the line to protect our government and nation from a man who is more comfortable with dictators than democrats. You can only shit on good people so long before they have had enough.
In the next few days, we are going to finally see testimony about impeachable offenses by the president. Congress is doing what the founders intended when the executive has exceeded its authority or committed illegal acts. Congress is exercising their duty to be a check and balance. Genuine, patriotic servants will be attacked mercilessly by politicians and pundits. Keep in mind when you see these deep state members raise their right hand that they are risking everything to protect our liberal democracy. Those attacking them risk nothing. Oh, they will say privately that they detest Trump but they will not risk their little piece of the power pie to tell the truth.
I fell in love with the deep state because I realized that the real heroes of a functioning democracy are people you will never hear about. They suffer the intents of politicians with a steadfastness that accumulates over years and decades. And … with any luck … it will be those patriots in the deep state who save our teetering democracy.
Roland Springborn always wore a suit to the office. It draped scarecrow like off of his tall, slight frame. The elbows of the coat and back of the trousers were worn shinny and thin. Under the coat, which he took off and carefully put on the back of his chair, he wore 3, sometimes 4, layers of pastel colored t-shirts. I never asked him why. That was something I could never ask Mr. Springborn. For the best part of a year, one morning a week, he was the oldest intern in the office of Senator S. I. Hayakawa.
The long awaited appearance of the Washington Nationals in the World Series turned my thoughts to Mr. Springborn. A native of the district, he would have been immensely proud. But his team was the Washington Senators, and his players were the icons of the game. You see, in 1980, Mr. Springborn was the same age as the Twentieth Century.
In the office at 8 AM sharp, before me, he always perked up when I arrived. His desk was directly across from mine, so we mostly faced each other. He was a talker and while his stories quickly wore thin on the others in the office, I didn’t mind listening and learning from him. I marveled that he had lived in the district the first 65 years of the century and probed him for the history he witnessed. Like my grandpa Blackwood, he was born before human powered flight. With all the questions I asked both of them, I never asked what they thought when the first time he saw an airplane. I thought of Mr. Springborn when I read the Wright Brothers flew exhibitions over the Potomac. A man with a lively curiosity at 80, I am sure he didn’t miss that opportunity.
Mr. Springborn lived in Arlington and took the bus to the city for his assorted internships. He had retired in the last 60’s from a job in the bureaucracy. His age and retired government employee status somehow allowed him to use public transportation cheaply. I soon learned that there was a very specific reason he only worked the morning shift. He was all about lunch. He had a voluminous knowledge about the different cafeterias in the various federal buildings. He had a weekly schedule that got him to a different cafeteria every day based on their specials of the day. The soup on Tuesday at Treasury. The spaghetti at State on Thursday. Precisely at noon, with a smile and a wave, he put on his coat and headed out so that he didn’t miss the specials. Lunch done, he headed back home across Potomac. A nap and then time to listen to the Baltimore Orioles on the radio. Having outlived most of his peers, this was his life, seemingly full with his assorted office mates as regular players in his each day.
While I knew he was a fan of the original Washington Senators and he had often gone to games at old Griffith Stadium, the door to his love of the game flew wide open one day when I showed up at work with my O’s hat. I was off to a game in Baltimore after work that day.
“Oh, they almost won that Series last year. I like them but they are not as good as the old Senators.”
The Senators and baseball left DC in 1961 a fact that still pained Mr. Springborn. From childhood he had gone to games.
“My favorite player was Walter “Big Train” Johnson. Boy he could throw a fastball.”
If you are a baseball fan having someone say such a thing in an offhand way is startling. Johnson is a Hall of Famer who played all 21 years of his career in DC starting in 1907 … 1907. Of course, he was a DC boy’s hero. I looked it up. Johnson still has the all-time career shutout record, 110.
Mr. Springborn knew what it was like to go to Griffith Stadium before any baseball park had lights. He talked about seeing the players outside the park on the trolleys and how during the games the players would talk to people in the stands. And then it hit me. Good lord, I thought, did he see the 1927 Yankees, possibly the most iconic team in the history of the game. I broke into his stream of conscious baseball recitation and asked.
“Mr. Springborn, did you see the 1927 Yankees … Ruth … Gehrig?”
“Oh sure,” he said, “saw Babe Ruth hit a home run off the Big Train.”
For a time, I just fell back into my chair as he continued on with the description of the day and the homer. I honestly don’t remember what he said. I remember him smiling at me and pointing out in a direction with his left arm like he was gesturing to the outfield wall at Griffith Stadium. I was conscious that that was exactly what he was doing. He was seeing it, reliving it, transmitting the moment to me. There was no film. No picture. This was it. It was something real in the memory of an 80-year-old baseball fan telling a story to another baseball fan. Generations apart, I was now the keeper of the day the Babe hit the homer off of the Big Train.
When I left DC, Mr. Springborn was still our intern. The longer he was there the more he became sort of the great grandpa for the entire office. We fretted when he called in sick and rejoiced when he came back to work. Some stories I heard a dozen times, but I took each one in as if it was discovering a hidden treasure. On my last day with him, Mr. Springborn and I exchanged addresses. I wrote him a few times from my various addresses and he always responded with a nice update in his shaky scrawl.
As such things go, eventually the letters stopped. I could guess that time finally caught up with my baseball pal. Thing is, I knew in the moment they happened that every conversation with Mr. Springborn was something special, something I would always hold close. For that I am grateful.
So, tonight when I turn on the World Series from Mr. Springborn’s beloved Washington DC, I will sip a cold beer and again recall my time with the guy who saw Babe Ruth hit a homer.