How Right Wing Talk Radio Works — A Challenge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Talk Radio. It’s All the Same Show

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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So Many Words

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When I finished my 40th noclock.org essay, I did the math. Authors work in word counts not pages. I had written a total of almost 50,000 words. Yikes, that’s a lot of words. I wondered what that really meant. Google told me that a pile of 60,000 words, or more, is a book. What? I have always wanted to write a book.

My essays were a freeform exploration of any topic. At first, the writing was an exercise to free me of the tyranny of writing for someone else. In City Hall, the writing trick was to bury my voice enough to make every piece sound like the commissioner. Besides him, there were other editors. Writing for someone is a fun challenge but I needed to rediscover my voice. When I looked across the essays, what distinguished them was a conscious effort to be authentic.

For almost 6 months, I wrote almost every day. When I wasn’t writing I was in our basement sorting and reading hundreds of pages of my writings and correspondence. I am a packrat. I kept everything. What I didn’t do was date all my writing, so I had to use the correspondence to figure out when and where I wrote those journal entries or notes or little vignettes on the back of napkins. Part of my personal archeology was a few hundred computer files from generations of computers and word processors. I recovered the files, then found an outside service to translate the old word processor files into something I could read. Finally, for the last 17 years, I have dated journal notebooks that I read and chopped into the most meaningful pieces. Like a graduate student, I took notes on myself.

I loved every minute of the work. Always a writer, I reveled in having the time to write day after day. Still, it wasn’t all fun. I discovered that some stories I had been telling myself and others for years were wrong. And in the darkest parts of my life or riding the highs, the emotions sometimes overwhelmed me. I wrote and cried, wrote and laughed. I paused to collect myself, see some live music, spend time away from my little home office and recharge before tackling the next chapter. Committing to honesty comes with a price but as I added layer after layer to my story, I felt my self-understanding grow. I found I was both a better and worse person than I believed. That was hard won enlightenment.

My life story is one of living well with a mental illness. From childhood, there hasn’t been a day that my nervous system hasn’t been a factor. The trick for me was to tell the reader what that was like and the life choices I made, and with grace, allow someone who also suffers mental illness to discover hope. My most important discovery was that I have lived a life seeking a cure to my illness. Relentlessly, sometimes before the science existed, I tried to overcome my limitations. Limits that came only from my own mind. As I wrote, I saw that the word cure was the pivot for the entire memoir.

I write fast. Some days, lost in the clicking of my keyboard, I looked up hours later to see I had just written 3,000 words. The words poured out of me. The old stories gained details and depth.

I wear a Fitbit. One day I looked down after a long blast at the keyboard and saw that my heartrate was down in the same range it is when I sleep or meditate. Sitting or standing at the computer, my body relaxed, and my breathing slowed. Could there be a better sign that I was doing what I was meant to do?

When I typed the last sentence of the 33rdchapter, I looked up and saw I had typed 144,000 words. What? I told a book editor friend of mine and she said I had just written the cathartic draft but now I had to cut away the equivalent of an entire book’s worth of words. Because every bit of the now manuscript was my story, I had to decide what parts of my life to delete. I called it deciding which babies to toss out of the lifeboat. Truly, it sometimes felt that way. Stories I had always seen as essential simply didn’t serve the narrative. Mechanical pencil in hand, I slashed and cut. As an editor, I reveled in the falling word count.

I also discovered something unexpected in my rookie author endeavor. When you write with months between chapters it is hard to remember what you have already written. When I returned to early chapters it was like reading something written by someone else. I simply couldn’t comprehend the work as a whole, keep it in my head. Finally, the 3rd time through, I could see the writing as a coherent whole. For the first time I saw a book.

I love to learn new things and this entire adventure has been one of the Zen beginners mind. People who knew I was writing asked, “How are you going to publish it?” Good question, but never during the writing did I allow myself to divert my attention from the writing itself. Using my freaky discipline, I was able to stay happily focused on the words and the story.

Now, I am learning the intricate mechanics turning a manuscript into a book. I am discovering entire new worlds of editors, Kindle Direct Publishing, cover design, marketing and book layout. When I did open the door on what came next, I crashed a little. It was overwhelming, and unlike the writing, I was now going to have to depend on other people. But I got over that and now I am excited.

Somewhere out there a few trusted souls are reading a very rough draft. Beta readers. It’s a little freaky to let The Beast, as I call it, run. But that is what it was meant to do. I am interviewing editors and designers. Did you know there is a whole subculture of freelance editors hiding out among us? This next phase will take months. I think it reasonable to publish in the fall. However, I was missing just writing, so I will be doing some essays while working on the book. I am also contemplating what larger project may appear next. This work is addictive.

In the midst of the second slash and burn edit, I finally arrived at a title for the tome. Everything just clicked.  And, with a title, the editing got more focused. I look forward to the day when I can finally share: Am I Cured Yet?  My Wonderful Life with PTSD and Panic Disorder.  Stay tuned.

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The Chief

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The tiny round table was already overloaded with 6 empty beer bottles.  She had waved away the offer of glasses.  We met at the little bar beneath the office tower where I was currently robbing an insurance company as a consultant.  I beat her there.  She peddled up on her bike, shook my hand and hung her helmet from the back of the spindly chair. 

“Hi Jim, I’m Betsy,” she said, “IPAs?”

I first heard about Betsy as one of the “big 4” on Nick Fish’s first, heartbreaking run for Portland City Council.  As a rookie and one of the “big 3” on Nick’s later 2008 campaign, I was looking for help wherever I could get it.  But I quickly learned that the loss the first time around had been so surprising and devastating that, while supportive, the former crew was going to sit this one out.  

After winning his election, Nick had chosen to bring in more experienced people for his City Hall staff.  I was crushed not to be there, but quickly used my old IT connections to land a gig and refill the bank account.  Truth was, I hated the work but cashed the checks anyhow.

By all accounts, Nick’s first year as a commissioner was chaotic.  He has the scary ability to go at the same speed in 10 different directions at the same time and the first team simply couldn’t contain or harness all that boundless energy.  A second version of his team was forming and Betsy would lead it as Chief of Staff.

I was pretty nervous waiting for Betsy.  Not knowing the protocol I held off ordering a drink.  When I left my long IT career, it was my intent to fulfill two lifelong dreams.  First, be on the inside of a winning political campaign, and second, be the invisible guy in the back of the room, part of a team governing.  Sitting there on a lovely night, I knew this was pretty much my last shot to fulfill my little dream.

The first beer calmed me.  I told the already tiresome to me tale of why I had abandoned a 24 year career to change my life.  She told me stories from the first Fish campaign and about her jobs at the City.  We both shared about our obsessive love for our dogs.  That night, Betsy was funny, in a curiously restrained way.  Her laugh could boom but then she sort of caught it in her throat lest it go too far.  Her face turned deep red when she shared insider stories about the first Fish campaign or when what she was saying anything the least bit conspiratorial.  No poker player she.  But’s here’s the thing, one beer in, we were already a team.  What we were doing wasn’t an interview at all.  We were just two kind of nerds hanging out, telling tales.

Finally, as the 4th round arrived and I was getting a little tipsy, I said, “So…Betsy…what are we doing here?”

Her laugh boomed and she turned red again.

“Oh.  Oh, I forgot to ask you.  Do you want to come to City Hall with me and work for Nick?”

I laughed with her.

“I am having a good time here but I was hoping that was the point.  Of course!” I said as an electric shot went though my body and I fought to contain a crack in my voice.  She offered 1/3 of the salary I had made in my old job and I was delighted.

In my work life, I have had bosses, peers and teams working for me.  But my 2 years with Betsy in City Hall was different.  In the political world, almost all relationships are transactional.  I quickly got annoyed by how often the word “friend” gets tossed about and how little it actually means.  When, after two years, Betsy moved on to anther job at the city, I thought about what our work together had been.  While I hesitated to say it out loud because it sounded so strange, I arrived at the conclusion that ours was the most intimate working relationship I have ever had.

What was immediately clear was that Betsy (I called her Bets) and I shared an important skill and a preference.  We were both systems people, her from her city work and me from decades in a big corporation.  We both could look at a tangled mess of bureaucracy and policy then, mostly in our heads, deconstruct it in ways that would help our boss the commissioner who, for all his considerable skills, had no experience or understanding of big systems.  Behind closed doors, back and forth in each other’s offices, we strategized and schemed, always focused on how to help our boss be better at his job.  

The preference was an agreement that mornings sucked.  Her with her coffee, me with my tea, we merely tolerated all that horrible morning energy around us until our brains caught up with our bodies.  But on the backend of the day, we both reveled in the quiet hours when everyone else was gone and it was just the two of us.  Our conversations slowed down, mixing both the personal and and professional. Still, no matter how long I stayed, she was still at her desk when I waved goodbye.

We had great fun trying to provide a semblance of order to the team.  Gradually, sometimes subversively, we succeeded.  Whether in shifting the organization or creating a policy initiative, there was always the moment when we had to pitch the idea to Nick.  Back behind a closed door again, almost always in my office as it didn’t adjoin the Commissioner’s, we set up our tag team.  I am a natural antagonist, so often made the pitch followed quickly by Betsy as the deeply experienced, wise insider.  When my change agent routine began to wear thin with Nick, we would switch roles.  Nick mostly knew he was being played but I think he gave us more space to push hard because both Betsy and I had been in the trenches for his campaigns.  In politics, shared scars count for something.

I was in my happy place.  Almost every morning as I walked into the building, I looked up at the little brass sign that said City Hall and smiled.  But after two years, Betsy, mission accomplished, was ready to disconnect from the endless demands of being our Chief of Staff.  For a parting gift, I gave her an actual travel case for her beloved iPad to replace the ratty sack she used.  Then, I did something that I knew was hard for her to take those days. 

I said, “OK, now you are just going to have to endure this.”

I gave her a hug.

Betsy returned to her most natural environment, the complex wheels and cogs of the actual city government.  In meetings, I have never seen anyone take notes with such fervor.  And after, she would turn her almost transcription into action.  If you have the right eyes, it is impossible to live in Portland without seeing something Betsy made.  She is everywhere around us.  

Betsy lived to travel.  She had her office walls remade as giant cork boards where she stuck hundreds of pictures of the places she visited.  The entire time I knew her there was never a moment were she was not planning the next trip.  Even when the cancer appeared, she didn’t let up, arranging chemo in Mexico, crossing North Africa off her itinerary list.  

And then there was her blog about her cancer.  I read the long, detailed posts with a sense of awe and wonder.  She applied her remarkable eye for detail to every nuance of her body, medical care and the loving people around her.  I want to say the writing was courageous but that isn’t it.  It was as if she was using all of her consider powers of observation and organization in an attempt to write the cancer into submission.  

Two weeks ago today there was a retirement celebration in City Hall for Betsy.  She had taken a year-long leave of absence but finally knew she had to retire.  I still have a little trouble walking into City Hall these days.  But I needed to be there.  I slipped in early and just as she was getting settled snuck up front said, “Hi Boss,” and gave he a hug.  She didn’t smile, just kept moving forward.  It was clear that her being there was both an act of will and love.  The speeches were lovely and there was a concerted attempt to bring joy to the tall atrium.  Still, I was struck that what I was seeing was not unlike a memorial service with the person being remembered in the room.  I don’t think that as so much morbid as remarkable.  Few people get to have that moment.  Her determination, pure Betsy, had put her in that room.

At the end, Betsy took the microphone.  Seated, clearly exhausted, the medication robbing her of continuity of thought, she made it clear to all us that this was a “disability retirement.”  She did not want to go.  She talked about time, the time she had, which she haltingly measured in years “one…two or three.”  But knowing Betsy, she wasn’t fooling herself at all.  I think she said that for all of us.  Then, in one line, she was completely there for us to see.  She looked across the room at her longtime partner David.

“He may be an asshole…but he’s my asshole.”

We laughed.  That was Betsy expressing love.

As I have grown older and lost people in my life, I keep looking for solace, finding it occasionally.  Last night, as I read the message from her sister that I knew was coming, I once again fell upon the Jewish blessing: May her memory be a blessing.

Bets, I am blessed.

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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

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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 MLB.com 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?

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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

 

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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.

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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

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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

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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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