Time to Ask. Why Are We Still Marching?

I was channel surfing local Portland news last night watching the protest and the riot. They were happening at the same time on different streets. The protest left downtown and ended up where it started, Revolution Hall in inner SE. There were still thousands of people listening to the presumed leaders. Finally, I heard one young man with a bullhorn say, “We will be back tomorrow?” As I watched the cheering crowd, I said out loud, “Why?”

I like to ask “why.” It’s the hard question, the one that gets you to philosophy, purpose and outcomes. The brutal murder of George Floyd has presented America our oldest and most important question, “Why has America never fully addressed the deal with the devil it made to shunt aside slavery at its founding?” Intellectually, I understand why the founders punted on that one. It was the only route to unify and separate from the shackles of a monarchy. The men who lead our rebellion made a choice to break one set of shackles while keeping another. I think theirs’s was a reasonable, if immoral, choice given the times. The nation almost buckled during a civil war fought over slavery. And still, there was George Floyd, and too many others, dying because we have yet to figure out how to address the results of the awful founding compromise.

The vortex that concentrated all the factors that led to the world-wide protests is spinning faster and faster. We had 3 months of kinetic human energy stored by the Covid-19 lock down. There are two new generations raised on a steady diet of social justice narratives. For the first time, we can see injustice 24 hours a day because it can’t hide from ubiquitous cell phone cameras. This means that everyone who pays attention can call out 100 George Floyds. And, for so many people around the world, the grinding injustice of Trump and everyone around him has taken us to the breaking point. I get it.  I really do. How long can people scream alone in the dark at the forces of evil? Eventually, the magnetic attraction, the sense of collective power, of a crowd of the like-minded, the exhausted, the angry and those seeking hope was going to bring people to the streets. My first march, in high school, was the very first Earth Day. You never forget that feeling of gathered power and no longer being alone. It is one of life’s great endorphin highs. In setting after setting, sports events, churches and choirs we seek that wonderful sensation. It is a basic human impulse.

But last night when I asked “why” another part of me was bubbling up. Maybe it’s just my particular nervous system, but I when I come down from the high, I want to know what is going to happen next. Catharsis and catalyst without action leading to permanent change is just so much wasted time and emotion. I fear that now, after a week of protest, we have reached a frightening moment where no one seems to have considered outcomes. The rhetoric about people being tired and ending systemic racism is shopworn. Anyone with a lick of knowledge of not just American history has heard that one before. The steps after the marches are mind-numbingly dull. They take place not on the streets but in conference rooms, committee rooms and in night after night of contentious public meetings. I have been part of that work. It is frustrating and at no point does one feel anything like what you feel in a crowd of thousands of people, shouting and marching.

Let me be way too white and cite Martin Luther King, but not for the reason you may think. People easily grab the inspirational King out of the air. The one who marched and spoke to large crowds. But the civil rights activists of that generation strike me most as brilliant tacticians. Every march, each speech was crafted to mobilize tangible action. Do you recall why King was killed in Memphis? He was there to support the demands of striking garbage workers. He had an outcome, a life changing one, in mind. King also knew the late-night calls, the conference rooms and private offices were where the wheels of the greatest civil rights changes in American history were set in motion. And, MLK knew he would ultimately be a failure if he didn’t work with a sometimes racist, southern president Lyndon Baines Johnson. What distinguished MLK in his work with LBJ was not purity in effort but a laser focus on life altering outcomes.

I would argue that the current marches are perilously close to being co-opted by the forces they have unleashed. Trump has seen them as an opportunity to invoke the 1968 law and order campaign of Richard Nixon. He is also bounding toward the dictatorship he craves by pulling the military into domestic affairs. I don’t think he will succeed with this new plan because he lacks the single-minded discipline of Nixon. But that doesn’t mean he won’t try. Nightly, the peaceful marches have been co-opted by 2 other forces. I got to see the mostly white anarchists up close. They have rebranded under the label Antifa but it’s the same people. They are dedicated nihilists who see the destruction of the capitalist republic as a worthy goal. Their animus towards law enforcement is genetic. The pattern is this: declare cops evil, provoke cops with direct action, declare themselves victims of cops; rinse and repeat. They are utterly predicable and don’t really give a damn about Mr. Lloyd. The other group are thoroughgoing capitalists. This second group is largely people of color who exploit the fact that the police are busy elsewhere to destroy and loot. They are organized and in it for the money. That too is a powerful motivation to an oppressed underclass. I marveled last night to see an organized gang of looters in California break into a car dealership, get the keys to all the new cars on the lot and drive off with 70 new cars. Mr. Lloyd was just and opportunity. The endless marches are increasing the symbiosis of Trump, Anarchists and Thieves. The protesters are very close to losing the narrative.

Looking out across America, I believe it is time to stop marching and start organizing. I have 5 generations of law enforcement in my family. My loyalty to the good intentions of the people who decide to take up law enforcement is unbroken. Unfortunately, what IS broken is the system cops live inside. The dichotomy is astounding. Almost everyone who takes up that profession does so because they have a powerful instinct to serve others. But once inside, the daily trauma of the job changes them. In any one week, they see more evil, neglect and societal breakdown that anyone else sees in a year. The trauma is shared. Every policy failure, each funding cut, all the bad choices of the powerful end up at the end of the line where cops are all that is left to deal with the mess. Even as a family member, I only ever got the top line of the stories from my brother. Only their peers can truly understand what they do and see. The psychological bunker, the tribe becomes the daily salvation. They become us and we become them. Good cops always know who the bad cops are but they build a system where every cop is a brother or sister and must be protected. Almost anyone in their position would do what that are doing. Yes … you would.

What to do. We have a structural problem in Portland. The force is about 200 empty positions down. Training and community engagement won’t happen if all officers are doing is going from 911 to 911. Some here want to eliminate the police. Silly. To fix the system you have to fill out the roster and hire wisely. There needs to be time for cops to interact with the community when they are not adrenalized. There is actually a desire among law enforcement to be seen as just other humans. The phrase “community policing” has been tossed around forever. What we really need is community connection. That takes creating the time to connect. Part of that would be making it easier for cops to live in the neighborhoods they serve. A rookie with a new family can’t afford to live in Portland. We provide all sorts of carrots in public policy. Let’s bring our cops home. With all the housing needs, this may seem absurd, but think of the benefits. It would actually be cost effective.

Police chiefs need the almost unquestioned power to fire bad cops. There seems to be a good police chief in Minneapolis who immediately fired the 4 officers. Guess what? I bet the police union will fight those firings. Via contract negotiations, it is time to reign in the police unions and associations. In my old job, I was liaison to public safety. I had monthly meetings with command staff and the union representative. Part of the barrier between the public and the cops is the union’s institutional maintenance of the “thin blue line.” Bad cops are protected by unions. Good cops won’t risk being outcast if the union always comes to the rescue of bad cops. I was amazed at the immediate condemnation of the murder by the Portland Police union. That is not a normal reflex but even the union saw things were out of hand. If you want to bring the cops home, then work on the institution that builds and maintains the bunker they live in. Reign in the unions.

For activists and police both, the way to break down institutional racism and improve policing is going to be very difficult. It will require that like MLK and LBJ they drop what seem like fundamental values. But this is a specific problem that can be addressed. There is an abundance of magical thinking, engendered by the woke left, that what needs to happen next is the elimination of racism in America. No single moment is going to do that. No pattern of moments will do that either. Live in the world we have and chip away at its evils. One good result of the marches is a recognition, across many institutions, that we have work to do. In that, the marches have already succeeded. Protesters should take a moment and consider then consolidate their gains.

I know those “storm trooper” suits that cops wear are intimidating, but they are also protective. As someone who worried about my brother when he was on patrol, I always wanted him to come home at the end of shift. Those suits protect the cops from flying bottles and bats (like the ones thrown at them in Portland last night.) But here’s the deal, they are hot and heavy and exhausting. Locked down in City Hall during protests, I talked to cops who rotated inside to cool off and get water and food. We are making a big mistake to keep cops in a defensive posture day after day. They are on duty before the marches begin and well after they have broken up. People wear down. Imagine standing quietly, hour after hour, with people hurling verbal abuse at you. No human is designed to sustain that. I get that this is how Black people feel each day. Maybe there is an inflection point for empathy here. I am deeply afraid that with each passing day, across the country, the likelihood of even a good cop making a bad mistake increases.

I try to be heartened by the cops who are taking a knee and marching with protesters. This is not a solution, but it is an opening. When I hear radical protesters and rioters reject such acts out of hand my heart sinks. Think of the world the two sides come from and open up just a little to the courage it takes to kneel together or shake hands across a line of conflict. Posturing in the face of an opportunity will just keep us all caught in this vicious circle.

I believe it is time to stop marching and ask “why.” Discord, even righteous discord, is in time a breeding ground for evil. There are agents on the internet who are reveling in this opportunity to use us against ourselves. The extremes see dysfunction as opportunity. We are still in a pandemic. Gathering in large groups is an invitation to the virus that we can’t afford. To come out of the pandemic, and our crisis of trust, the first job is not opening the doors of businesses, no, it is to lower fear. Americans are afraid now. We have never needed each other as much as we do now. The good work of protest is done. If you ask “why” you will see that. Now the real work begins. It is far harder than walking a few miles and carrying a sign or yelling at the top of your lungs at strangers across a divide. This new work will be quiet, frustrating and demand every ounce of steadfast courage we can muster. But here’s the deal. We have no other choice.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Portland’s Dangerous Street Plaza Idea

Alone and masked, during the lock down I have walked many of the business districts in Portland. I set out to record a history of the closing of small businesses, restaurants and bars by photographing every closed sign I could see. I now have over 500 of those pictures. The signs are heartbreaking, especially the handwritten ones that speak to customers and friends in a most personal way. Some analysts say we could lose 40% of those small businesses.  Worse yet, if we are not careful about how we reopen, a second wave could result in losing 80%.

I salute Portland city government’s effort to find ways for restaurants and bars to survive in the new world of masks and social distancing. We should explore ways to better use sidewalks and parking zones to maximize social distancing. However, under no circumstances should we create destination plazas by completely closing streets. Still deep on the midst of a pandemic such a decision would be both foolhardy and dangerous. Here’s why:

Portland knows what happens when we close streets for food and drink. The drawings provided by the advocate Zack Katz are naïve at best because they show open spaces with few people. We know better. Portlanders flock to those places, especially on lovely summer nights. Think of what you have seen when we close Mississippi Avenue or Alberta. People come in droves, walking and standing shoulder to shoulder. The city rightly cancelled Sunday Parkways to avoid such gatherings and those events cover miles. I often attend evening live music shows and visit the closed SW Ankeny St. It’s fun, drinking, eating, meandering. But it tells us what will happen if we create destination plazas throughout the city. People will gather and social distancing will be erratic at best. And, how do we enforce mask wearing when the activities revolve around eat and drinking?

Worldwide, we already have examples where cities and countries have opened up bars and restaurants then had to close them again. Science has revealed that about half of COVID-19 infections are asymptomatic. One super spreader hitting the bars in South Korea unleashed over 100 new Covid-19 cases. It will be the death knell for our local businesses if in some people’s enthusiasm to reclaim our streets a new outbreak linked to a plaza shuts down businesses again.

From around the country we have evidence of danger of mixing alcohol, food and enclosed outdoor spaces. It isn’t shocking that the people least likely to observe social distancing or masks are younger. I too was a more careless person at 25. There still prevails in America the sad notion that COVID-19 is only dangerous to old people. Sure, the deadliest outcomes skews to older people but the virus knows no age limits. Portlanders have to seriously consider who will be the biggest evening users of closed street plazas. Equity and fairness, which guides so much our policy, would say any public facility should be for everyone. But the reality is that people over 60, the obese, people with conditions like diabetes or asthma and many other Portlanders with comorbid conditions would be effectively excluded from destination plazas on closed city streets. That includes neighbors where the plazas are being considered.

When the city decides to close streets and create plazas, it is making a calculation to pick winners and losers among our small businesses. That is not the proper function of our Transportation Bureau. Good policy will put our local businesses on an equal footing and give them an equal shot to survive the crisis. A plan to use sidewalks and parking zones does that while street closures to create plazas does not. And, looking at the maps, one plan to close 28th Avenue results in a 16-block detour. Thousands of inner NE and SE residents use that street to get to Hollywood Fred Meyer. Has anyone considered the cost of making cars drive farther to shop for groceries. Seems pennywise and pound foolish. The other concept closes a direct approach to the Morrison Bridge just as people are driving more.

Finally, and sadly, there may be something else afoot here. There is a cynical political nostrum, “never waste a good crisis.” From my years in City Hall, I know that advocates are very effective at cultivating relationships with politicians and planners. The COVID-19 crisis gives a committed few an extraordinary opportunity to craft policy when everyone else is absorbed with living in the most stressful time of our lives. We are in a world where open process loving Portlanders cannot gather together to discuss, support or challenge policy initiatives. We are using Zoom to work and reach out to friends and family. Calling randomly scheduled Zoom public meetings the equivalent of a robust public process is at best a thin soup, at worst, a way to circumvent the general public altogether.

Everyone has the freedom to choose their form of transportation based on their needs, physical ability, financial means and personal philosophy. We should not be making judgements on people’s character or intentions based on how they chose to get from one place to another. I was especially concerned to see this statement in a popular bicycling advocacy blog as part of an analysis of PBOT supplied diagrams.

“The presence of drivers and their cars in this image is troubling. PBOT might underestimate how incompatible these human-centric street uses are with the presence of loud, smelly, anti-social and scary motorized vehicles are.”

Advocates will be advocates, but this is precisely the divisive characterization of people by their transportation choice that is toxic to reasoned public discourse. Someone choosing to drive somewhere is a “human-centric” use of publicly funded streets.

We have an opportunity to use public policy to help as many small businesses as possible survive. But the virus is still in charge. Since it is impossible to enforce 100% masks in an area where people are eating and drinking, it is reckless to have public policy that introduces unacceptable risk. Policy decisions that create plazas we already know attract crowds is something best left to a time when we have solved the health crisis and Portlanders can once again gather to talk about alternatives.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Looking for a Leader

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.

Posted in Essays | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

While America Plays — The Virus Doesn’t Care

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.

The Virus Doesn’t Care

Be Smart. Be Compassionate. Wash those hands.

Posted in Essays | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

My Coronavirus Haircut

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.

Posted in Essays | Tagged , | Leave a comment

What Do You Do When You Don’t Know What to Do?

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. 

Posted in Essays | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Jimbo Watched the NH Primary — Emptying the Clown Car

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.

Posted in Essays | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Pieces of Nick

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.

Driving

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.”

“What?”

“Yea, the trick is that he is scared I will actually DRIVE my car, so we are good.”

Eating

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.

Eye Contact

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.

Writing

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.

Posted in Essays | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

My Conspiracy Theory About the 2020 Election

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.

Posted in Essays | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Book Started Here

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Essays | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment