Meet the New Climate Change Celebrity — Greta Thunberg

I got into a fun little Twitter beef with a Silicon Valley type who was extolling the virtues of Greta Thunberg the teenager heartthrob of the new climate change generation. He loved that she took a sailboat to New York. 

From the Washington Post:

After voyaging thousands of miles across the Atlantic Ocean, climate activist Greta Thunberg arrived in the United States on Wednesday morning. The 16-year-old began the journey two weeks ago to reach the United Nations climate summit in New York without producing any carbon…. The Swedish activist, who reached worldwide fame after encouraging young people worldwide to strike from school and raise awareness about climate change, set sail in mid-August. She declined to fly because of the levels of emissions released during air travel.

[Keep reading.  I believe climate change is real and existential threat to the planet. Hell, I was preaching Small is Beautiful in the 1970’s. Go Jerry Brown!]

Without question, the first climate change celebrity was Al Gore. He was annoying and he was right. The poor guy was an easy target for climate change deniers because he was … well … Al Gore.

I think that Greta’s whole, I sailed to New York , thing was a stunt. The jets didn’t stop flying. Her seat in First Class was still in the air above her. I was told her act drew attention to the climate crisis. Really? At this point are there some sentient beings who have not heard about the crisis or been whipsawed by the fact that science has been turned into a punchline by goofballs who think ignoring the problem will make it disappear?

I think there is something more insidious about Greta and her handlers. For many people, the dire facts of what is coming are just too much to handle.  Greta and her youth movement offers hope and the anxiety relief of saying to one’s self, “Yes! The kids. They get it. Hooray. They will save us!” I get it. When reality is bleak it is human to reach for a thrown rope of future hope. But here’s the real deal, it is just as human to ignore a crisis until the incontrovertible effects are literally ocean waves lapping at your front door.

Greta is also a privileged child talking to privileged people. She doesn’t come from a country where billions of poor people are praying for just more coal fired power plant so that they can have a single lightbulb or maybe access to this Internet they have heard so much about. What I don’t hear Greta saying to her peers is, “Throw away your cell phones. Turn off your air conditioners. Refuse that ride to soccer practice or the play date. Don’t have any more energy sucking developed world babies.” No, Greta took a boat ride, documented by a film crew so that she could make a grand entrance to the United Nations climate summit.  She will be the most talked about, most written about and most photographed person at the summit.  She will say all the right things in an attempt to shame us to a better planet and her celebrity will be guaranteed.

My buddy in the Twitter beef actually sent me an article that said Sweden will meet its renewable energy goals 12 years early. Yippie! A tiny, mostly wealthy and homogenous country is leading the way. More false hope. I am guessing that this month China and India built new coal fired energy plants to power their economies, make cheap goods for us and bring something resembling above subsistence living to a small part of their population. 

The planet adds about 82 million people a year and that increases geometrically. They all need and deserve clean water, electricity, access to the Internet, jobs and safe places to live. That isn’t going to happen. Climate change is a numbers game and we are losing. Oh, as a techy geek, I still hold out hope for a new carbon neutral energy source. But even if we discover that new source, it is likely that it will be deployed first to Greta and her people, the privileged few.

So here’s what I wish Greta would do. Make maps. Figure out the new coastline after the melt of the Greenland ice sheet has disappeared and added 25 feet of water to the oceans. Map the new coastlines and start building infrastructure for the human retreat from the current coasts. Map inland temperature changes to available clean water so that we are prepared to move entire farming areas to new parts of the globe. And while we are at it, develop new food sources that are not so temperature sensitive. Humans are almost infinitely adaptable. Because earth is an interdependent system with unchangeable momentum, we need to figure out how we adapt. That’s right. I think Greta is being to kind, too gentle and more than a little delusional. She needs to advocate for turning us all into a bunch of disaster prep fanatics.

But that isn’t going to happen. Planet advocates are going to gush over the insight of young Gretta and with a tear in their eye feel like things are just going to get better. Kids will make signs and walk out of schools, mostly unconscious of the deep privilege they are expressing because other kids around the world don’t have electricity to watch those inspirational YouTube clips. Gretta will grow-up and when she’s not so cute she will be replaced by a new climate celebrity. But hey, at least she went on a cool boat ride. I am guessing she will catch a flight home.

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If It Isn’t On MY Phone . . . It Didn’t Happen

I have become a true aficionado of Portland street violence. No really, I savor every riot, every confrontation and each unpermitted march like a vintage of fine wine.  Each clash is an expression of the Portland terroir. 

I won’t critique the street politics. No, long ago I concluded that is a waste of time. The magnetic attraction of the two sides has become tedious. That’s right . . . attraction.  They are the couple who you can never figure out why they got married. By all outward appearances, the spouses have nothing common, argue all the time and god forbid they actually have kids. Nonetheless, something in the nightmare of a relationship just seems to work for them. They can’t get enough of each other.

This latest street embarrassment served to magnify the unifying defining feature of street theater: it must be recorded on a cell phone. Deprived of a thrilling clash of the main bodies of protesters, the event devolved into a series of skirmishes between individuals and roving bands of vigilantes. The script was always the same. Bathed in their own flavor of righteousness, groups gave themselves permission to harass and physically attack people whose main offense seemed to be not wearing the right uniform. Yelling, pushing, punching and running. Wash rinse and repeat.

As an aficionado, I watched several of the videos. And that is the thing, everything is on video. When I looked closely, I saw that that the actors are relatively few but the number of people holding up phones and cameras is legion.  The videos themselves became surreal as I realized that in what I mostly saw was the view of someone recording other people recording. When the action turned into people running, the vast majority were running in what has become a modern salute, arm outstretched in front of them trying to hold their phone steady. 

Every now and then the budding videographers performed a modern pirouette, spinning in a quick circle to record those around them, and no doubt, try to discover themselves as an individual in the moment. The move always seems a little desperate, this searching for self. I get the feeling that they would like to turn the camera on themselves for a second, but that would be breaking the 4thwall and would make them uncomfortable. Seldom is narration part of these videos.

Video clips have become an Internet staple. YouTube has taken up the role of helping to define our collective consciousness. During any pause in the action, clips are immediately uploaded to social media. And here may be the pathology. Every upload begins with the need to show that something important happened and “I” was there. With millions of clips hitting the web every day, the video taker is praying that their effort will be the viral video, the one that defines a moment, and that they will thus be validated.

No doubt, we have all seen culture changing moments caught in a moment on a phone. That’s the heroin hit for anyone holding a phone aloft. You never know, you could be famous for a few minutes. You could change the world. Mostly, that never happens, but like buying the lottery ticket when the prize is huge, you have to be in it to win it.

What frightens me is that now that the preponderance of people at an event are now recording it, they changing the moment itself. It’s the old Heisenberg problem. Observing changes what is being observed. Awash in celebrity culture, that actors quickly separate from the watchers. As I watched the men and women throwing punches and yelling at mostly outnumbered and hapless targets, I wondered if anything I was seeing was real. Would it be happening at all except for the presence of all those phone cameras?

Poor prescient George Orwell didn’t have an imagination big enough to describe the ubiquity of watchers beyond a device hanging on the wall of every room and looming over every public street. He couldn’t contemplate a dystopia were every person is a watcher, an eager watcher. Though, I do think, confronted with the current reality he would still see the same tyranny.

Having watched Portland protests up close, in person, I soon began to see beyond the earnestness of the actors and understand each instance as a new sort of social narcissism. There have always been protesters who engage in street theater with costumes and thoughtful metaphors. God bless them for originality. But in general, what I saw was people constantly looking for and reaching for cameras. It is as if nothing really mattered without it being recorded so that later they could look at it over and over reveling in their existence in that place and time. Taken collectively, it is about mass self-soothing, a grasping for relevance.

No one video I saw captured the essence of this needy self-awareness better than a brief clip from one attack. The camera turns to a young man who has been hit in the face with pepper or bear spray. You can hear man on the other side of the camera ask if the victim if he is OK. He then turns the camera and yells for one of several self-defined “medics.” A masked young woman runs up and hands the victim what looks like a plastic bottle of cooking oil. She offers directions, “Don’t rub it. Water won’t help. Use the oil.” The near blinded young man takes the plastic bottle but is clearly confused. He doesn’t understand want to do. The young woman doesn’t react to his confusion. She moves directly in front of the victim, pulls out her phone and begins filming the guy’s reddened face. At that moment, as if completing a handoff, the original camera guy turns away and runs down the street.

I realized that what I was watching was the remnant of compassion. There were these little stubs of words and actions that hinted at caring for another human but those were just part of the play, lines in a script. Care would or wouldn’t be a byproduct of their actions but the video was the priority. The revolution must be streamed.

Photo by KOIN.com

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Racist!!! Whatever Dude

I chose to hover somewhere just left of center in the American political drama. What was I thinking? Some days I live I a vertiginous nightmare spinning from one political extreme to the other. It must be nice to live on the extreme left or right, free from ambiguity and loaded with the talking points of your tribe. Wake up and just turn on the TV and nod in agreement. Just think how relaxing that must be.

We are now over a week into the president announcing his 2020 election strategy by dragging everyone into his own little,1950’s master race fantasy. I fear we will not escape this awful place until he loses the election or finally succumbs to his 9,003rdBig Mac. This latest outburst was different for me. Not that I ever excused his nationalistic, endangered white man rantings, but in going for the “go back to where your came from” and “love it or leave it” tropes directed at women from different ethnic roots, I was ready to unleash the word “racist.” And, for the first time advancing beyond the label, I was now ready to say with absolute comfort that anyone who echoed or defended his racism was also a racist. You are what you blissfully eat. 

This was a big deal for me. As a writer, I value language, each word’s meaning and context. I don’t use the most powerful words gratuitously. I know that once you cross the Rubicon, and fire the big semantic guns, you can’t go back. So, when I put the word racist in a Facebook post or in a Tweet, that meant I felt like I could make my statement with absolute clarity. I had looked at all the evidence and could no longer avoid the call. I looked to the right at the president and his chanting supporters and said racist. Then I turned to the left and thought, “well that sucks.”

You see, in the rarified air of the Woke Left, the word racist flows like rain on a late November day in Portland. Twittercrats stare at their news feeds all day just waiting for the glorious moment they can call someone a racist. The Tweets that follow are gleeful, unrestrained and torrential. Early on in the emergence of the Woke Left, the word racist had real power. It hurt the chosen offender and shut them up. The word had shock value. If someone had earned the epithet, so much the better. Nailed it, and them. But then the word was everywhere. It became the go to insult, for some even surpassing the always perfect “asshole.” And, it was a righteous virtue signal indicating Wokeness solidarity.

Seemingly in tandem, another phrase became part of the Woke lexicon, “white supremacist.” Now, I had done the training and had embraced the phrase “white privilege” After some nervous shifting in my seat, I got it. Many, not all, white people in America have an edge merely based on the genetic roulette that gave them light skin pigment. Yea, that made sense. It was something to be aware of in life and good work to own that fact in order to call yourself out when you were assuming power in relation to a person with a different skin pigment and life experience.  But then, someone, somewhere decided to go further and make it clear that just by being white, you enjoyed white supremacy and were a white supremacist. What? Hold it!

Here’s the problem. When powerful, generally understood descriptive words and phrases become ubiquitous, the power they once had shrivels away. For most people, white supremacist was easy. Oh, you mean a fucking Nazi, a skinhead, those smug boys with kaki pants and torches. You mean the fanatics my grandfather killed in the second world war. Damn straight. Fuck those guys. There are even a handful of people alive in your neighborhoods who fought those white supremacists and saved us from tyranny. But now, I get emails from the city agencies inviting me to understand why my neighborhood is an example of white supremacy. There are people who now make a living reeducating us white folks on our problem. And when the real Nazi wannabes show up? They too are called white supremacists. You see the problem? Once a word loses a specific meaning, it becomes meaningless.

This new reality befuddled me when I decided to call the president a racist. In my personal lexicon, it was the lowest form of scum, a sick human being with no redeeming qualities. I was angry and it was time to clearly express it.  But the president’s defenders pointed out that the week before, the Woke Left called the current Speaker of the House a racist too. And, in the Democrat debate, they were suddenly arguing over busing in the 70’s and whether what you thought then made you a racist now. If it did, then goody … goody, I can call you are racist today and get a bump in the polls.

Come on! I need that word! Confronted by an existential threat to our liberal democracy, a man who by any definition is a racist, his opponents are beating each other over the heads with the same accusation. Good grief, what’s a rational centrist to do?

I am pretty sure that if I just stand still and continue to hold opposing thoughts in my head, I will see the far left and right circle back around and become one. They have both adopted the characteristics of a religion. Their ideas are infallible. Their sources of information firmly locked in the doublespeak of infinite certainty.  Their causes are just and no challenges to their dogma will be tolerated. And their leaders are not just elected, they are anointed. Most dangerously, they both have permanently deleted the irony gene and can’t see how alike they have become.

Meanwhile, I guess I am left to thumb through my Webster’s Dictionary (yes people, a book, heavy, occupying space) looking for words that haven’t been abused and corrupted yet. I really need something better, more refined, to say beyond just calling the president a dick.

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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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