Give Me Appropriation with a side of Beans and Rice


The absolute truth is that none of us can get through a day without a little cultural appropriation. Humans are creatures of infinite adaptation and co-optation.  The folks who are most scary believe in racial and cultural purity.  Yea, I am taking to you Aryan Brotherhood.  Yet, given the Darwinian absolute of genetic and cultural blending, there are a committed collection of liberals who live to “call out” cultural appropriation.  Being Portland, the cultural warriors are now taking on tortillas and spring rolls.

“This week in white nonsense, two white women—Kali Wilgus and Liz “LC” Connely—decided it would be cute to open a food truck after a fateful excursion to Mexico. There’s really nothing special about opening a Mexican restaurant—it’s probably something that happens everyday. But the owners of Kooks Burritos all but admitted in an interview with Willamette Week that they colonized this style of food….”

Oh, it didn’t stop with poor Kooks which has been shut down by the backlash. There is now “don’t buy” list of restaurants in Portland who committed the sin of falling in love with a cuisine and adapting it in ways that resulted in, heaven forbid, success. Pok Pok…Por Que No… sinners all.

I totally get being proud of one’s culture. I come from deep Scots-Irish roots. My people were tossed out of both Scotland and Ireland by religious persecution. We ended up in Appalachia and the Ozarks. I did the genetics test and discovered my genes are the result of cultural inbreeding. My people didn’t get far from the hills until my Grandfather lit out for California after the second world war. Turns out my stubbornness, loyalty, insularity and “don’t fuck with me” chip on my shoulder are all defining cultural traits.

However, at this very moment, my gene pool has a wonderful new feature. My family now has an African-American niece and a mixed-race great nephew. (And yes, if someone messed with that little I guy, in good Scots-Irish tradition, I would fuck them up.) The millennial vanguard of the cultural appropriation police may be missing the point. As a generation, they are also coupling up without regard to race and cultural lines. The inevitable result will be a world where the label “white” will mostly be a confused reference to pigment having no cultural meaning.

Love your roots, don’t fetishize them. Appropriation is good. Imagine a world where field calls didn’t become the Blues that didn’t become Rock and Roll. What of the cultural streams that became Jazz in all its incarnations. White punk kids in England understood that their music would not have a soul without its Reggae backbeat. And food? Look in your kitchen, subtract all the cultural appropriation and you have one really crappy dinner.

Last Summer, at the last Pickles game I shared the closing innings with two Latinos while we downed hot dogs and microbrewery beers. We discovered that we all came here from Southern California, they escaped poverty in Mexico, my people the same story in the Ozarks.  Still, we easily recognized each other at a ballgame, laughed and told stories with the pop of the catcher’s mitt as our timekeeper.  The cultural cross currents in that little moment are dizzying.

Cultures, entire civilizations, come and go. Revel in your roots while they exist but don’t for a moment think you can stop appropriation any more than you can stop evolution. We live in a place made strong by its blending, borrowing and adapting. Thinking you can change that natural process will just leave you frustrated and ultimately irrelevant.


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Caught In Our Own Thought Bubbles

Americans are sorting. Regionally and ideologically. It’s natural to seek your tribe…your clan…your kind. But it is dangerous too. Unchallenged thinking is an insidious toxin to personal and societal growth. If I learned anything from 8 years in Portland City Hall, it’s that Portland is an ideological bubble and our political leadership is trapped in an even smaller bubble.

I have always considered myself a political liberal. I have never voted a Democratic Party line but that party aligns with many of my values. Initially, City Hall was more a political place for me than an ideological one. Sure, the lefties ruled, but there were no real litmus tests. Randy Leonard and Sam Adams were transactional politicians. Deal making, the essence of the compromises needed to govern effectively, was the rule.

With the change of faces in City Hall, the politics became more and more left leaning. It is useful to understand that Portland politics is a very small game. I saw the same faces in City Hall over and over, both lobbying us and in council meetings. I used to say that about 200 people, both professional lobbyists and citizen activists, ran Portland. There are traditional business lobbies but in Portland there are a dozen politically potent non-profits for each business interest. We even fund such interests in the form of narrowly drawn, deeply entrenched neighborhood associations.

While I can comfortably say that I saw no overt corruption in my time in government, what was true is that a limited number of people and organizations have instant access. And, with very few exceptions, the voices heard are flavors of liberal.

The longer I was in the job, the clearer it became that my more centrist view of government and politics was an outlier. I have spent a good portion of my intellectual life studying political polarization. I wrote a MA thesis in the topic. In order to do that honestly, I had to be familiar with conservative ideology and media. Political extremes repel me. I even changed my voter registration to non-affiliated. In meeting after meeting with outside parties, I never heard anyone question liberal tropes on social, financial, environmental, racial and political issues. It just wasn’t done. To out oneself as having questions came with a political cost.

I found myself needing to begin to draw personal lines in the sand against the dominant dogma. I spoke up for fiscal responsibility when the public’s money was being tossed around. I defended law enforcement officers in an environment where reflexive cop bashing has no real downside. From the first day in City Hall, I believed it was my job to make sure my elected had a spectrum of advice to consider when making decisions. Even when I am not in agreement with a position, I can speak fluent conservative. I know hearing a different perspectives made for more refined policy positions.

In a subsequent essay, I will consider the most powerful lobbyists in the City, the bureaucrats. Even in cases were I knew, folks from the bureaus had different political views, they kept their heads down. Career survival depends in fidelity to the dominant dogma or silence.

Even if you are a liberal, happily in what you define as a liberal city, you should be worried about homogeneous thinking. I lost track of the times I heard people criticize conservatives as close-minded. They simply didn’t see the irony that at both ends of the political spectrum contrary views are ignored, if not discriminated against. The hypocrisy of knowing without doubt is rarely visible to the extremes.

While they would lose every vote 4-1, I always fanaticized about how the decision making would be different on City Council would be different if there was only one moderate voice. Look at your news feed about what is happening in Washington today. How is that always preaching to one’s respective choir working out for us now? Bubbles are mostly great echo chambers.




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How Hillary Clinton Shattered America

I just read Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign.  For anyone who is, like me, a political junkie, it is mandatory reading.  Two good reporters, Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes, set out to tell the inside story of how Hillary Clinton became America’s first female president.  They had amazing access and interviewed over 100 people after the campaign. This was going to be their 21st century version of Theodore White’s classic about Kennedy, The Making of the President. Instead, they wrote the much-needed autopsy of one of the greatest failures in American electoral politics.

The book is a meticulous timeline of the entire campaign. For them, it started with the stunning realization that the campaign was a mess from the beginning and didn’t get better. Most importantly, from the before the primaries even began they identified the reason that it would fail. Hilary Clinton did not know why she was running for president.

Let that sink in…. The Clintons had been running since Obama defeated them in 2008. For 8 years they had conducted a relentless infanticide of the Democratic leadership bench. And from beginning to end of the campaign, Hilary could not clearly communicate why she wanted to be president. In fact, she continually raged at her staff to tell her why she was running.

I have been a relentless Clinton critic. My old blog in 2007 was full of my complaints about dynastic presidencies and the relentless, incestuous drama of Clintonland. I too saw this train coming down the track.

Allen and Parnes, write in detail how Hilary and her clan were determined not to make the mistakes of 2008. They were going to use what worked for Obama, detailed analytics of the electorate. But as one interviewee said, what they forgot was that behind the Obama machine was a great candidate who always knew why he wanted to be president. No matter how they overcompensated with technique, the Clinton campaign had one of the worst candidates ever to mouth a talking point.

Hillary and her campaign staff make the points that Bernie was a surprise, the Russians had it in for her, Trump got almost all of the free media, misogyny is real, their voter models were wrong…. I’ll stop. Valid? Sure. But here is why you have heard these points. This was the excuse messaging created in the empty Clinton campaign headquarters immediately after the campaign. What almost no one talked about was the candidate herself. Even now, Hillary briefly takes responsibility and moves quickly to the talking points. The hubris is strong with this one.

The inside the bubble tales in the book are wonderful. There was constant infighting between the millennial wonks and the old guard Clintonistas. Hillary was afraid of firing anyone on the campaign so just kept creating shadow power centers each with a different view of decision-making. We also see Bill, the aging, hobbled lion whose political radar was always just a bit off except when it came to the need to do more in the rustbelt states. (She didn’t go to Wisconsin…AT ALL!)

I am glad that Hillary isn’t president. She simply has awful judgment and no vision as a leader. As with my own vote, all that saves her in context is the frightening reality of Donald Trump. As an independent, I depend on the simple competence of the party whose values more closely align with mine. What we are seeing now is a collection of old, out of touch leaders sending out a declared independent, Bernie Sanders, to unify them.

With the Clintons finally gone, America needs a refreshed Democratic party. Color me skeptical and deeply worried about the future of our liberal democracy.

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Snakes and Rats and Tyranny

I am not one to immediately run to NAZI comparisons when thinking about President Trump. I thought it was crazy when the left started in on NAZI jabs during the George Bush administration. On Saturday I watched Trump’s speech at his rally in Pennsylvania. Yes, I do that. I watched parts of several of his rallies during the campaign. It is good to know what he is saying to his most engaged followers.

During his speech on Saturday, I noticed that several times he reached toward his inside coat pocket. He reached, looked out at the crowd, and then changed his mind. Trump is a showman. He reads crowds like most people read a menu at the drive-thru. Finally, he saw he moment was right and here is what he read:

“On her way to work one morning

Down the path alongside the lake

A tenderhearted woman saw a poor half-frozen snake

His pretty colored skin had been all frosted with the dew

“Oh well,” she cried, “I’ll take you in and I’ll take care of you”

Now she clutched him to her bosom, “You’re so beautiful,” she cried

“But if I hadn’t brought you in by now you might have died”

Now she stroked his pretty skin and then she kissed and held him tight 

But instead of saying thanks, that snake gave her a vicious bite”

As we realized what he was reading, Sally and I became more and more horrified. Here was Trump’s metaphor for immigrants. The crowd was not just eating it up, as I looked at the people sitting behind him I realized that they knew this poem. They smiling and reciting it along with him. Trump read the lines with relish, growling and sneering for emphasis. In am my viewings of Trump speeches I had never see this part of the act. Evidently, it was a regular part of his stump speech.

Poetry, in this case a lyric, is a direct route to the heart. It is how you take an idea make it stick. The happy crowd members knew the poem by heart and repeated it without thinking. There is not doubt this wasn’t originally Trump’s idea. At some point, someone smarter than him handed him this poem and he immediately saw its power. He knows how to manipulate a mob.

If you went to the movies in Germany in the 30’s and early 40’s you saw newsreels prepared by the Ministry of Propaganda. Some of Joseph Goebbels’ best work. For the first time Goebbels used the technique of morphing faces into vermin. Over and over again. The faces were Jews. The vermin rats. From there, he showed hordes of rats running though homes and streets. The propaganda was, as we know, frighteningly effective.

On Saturday last, that wasn’t a candidate morphing immigrants into snakes, that was the President of the United States. Snakes and rats. What are we becoming?

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Rush and Rachel Walk Into a Bar….

I am a centrist. That means I am always looking for the middle ground between political extremes. Probably the only place I have unyielding dogma is my view of the American League’s designated hitter rule. It’s an abomination.

I am fiscally conservative and liberal on most social positions. I read, watch and listen by dipping into both extremes in American political thought. When I tell my liberal friends that I always watch Fox News Sunday or listen to Lars Larson when I am driving around they shudder and say, “I just can’t think of doing that.” Yea, I know.

Early in my graduate work I ran across an academic piece where researchers looked at the brains of persons who were being exposed to political positions different than their personal beliefs. Hearing or reading such materials, the volunteer’s brains lit up the emotional parts of their brains. When people say it is impossible to hear different opinions, they are, in large part, physiologically right.

As my academic work depended on being able to overcome my innate liberalism, I knew I had to expose myself to ideas that made me uncomfortable. My solution? I listened to Rush Limbaugh every morning until I stopped reacting emotionally. Eventually, I would look at the morning paper and try to coolly predict Rush’s talking points for the day. I got good at it and since that time I can listen to positions vastly different from my own without wanting to throw things.

The stranger result of my pursuit of middle ground is that I have developed a different sort of intolerance for people who can only live in, and preach to, their own choir. As polarization has become more and more deep in our society I am pretty much annoyed at everyone. My 8 years in the City Hall liberal echo chamber probably made me more conservative. How’s that for reactionary?

What is true at both edges is that, though they would not admit it, the attachment to victimization is universal. On the right, it is essential to be angry at something all the time. The government is victimizing you. The bureaucrats are taking away your rights. Oh if we could just get back to the good old days. The left spends just as much time looking for outrage in traditional power structures and privilege. Semantic bear traps are baited daily so that the innocent bungler can be proven ethically or morally inadequate.

I wear my contempt for both extremes on my sleeves because I don’t think either pole in our national debate as an end game. Listening to Rush all day or participating in yet another daylong conference on agreeing with each other is not the way out of this current dilemma. I know it literally hurts but try to connect with ideas that make you crazy. If you can, you may discover that beyond the anger and talking points each side occasionally makes sense. No…really…do.

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How You Remember

All of our senses trigger memories. I was just driving home and Boston’s “More That A Feeling” came on the oldies radio. That song immediately triggered a memory of a lovely afternoon in my college dorm just after that song came out. From the second floor of the dorm you could go out of a window to the roof. It was our beach. Standing there, More Than a Feeling was playing out of several open dorm windows. I was a little high and when the song came to the part where the guitars soar, so did I.

So why do I remember that moment. I believe it’s because, well before I knew anything about Zen, I had decided to pay special attention to moments that mattered. You know the ones. Out loud, or to yourself, you say, “it doesn’t get any better than this.” We all do this but often without the commitment to truly know that is true. If you can do that, your memory becomes a personal story, triggered and told for a lifetime.

I come from storytellers. I have deep Scots-Irish roots from both gene pools. I heard stories from my great grandparents and on down the line to my generation. I love this oral tradition and take some joy in passing on stories that have been handed to me for safekeeping. No doubt, time and memory, and the simple truth that the fish always gets bigger, have altered the details of these stories. But their core of truth remains intact. The lesson or joke or joy or sadness is all still there for the taking. I think the lasting stories are the products of knowing when you in the midst of something special.

I am not sure why, but at a young age I decided it was important to recognize and savor some moments. Now, I know that this habit is actually an essential part of Buddhist thought. I recognized both impermanence (we won’t go this way again) and mindfulness (know this moment) were somehow essential. In each experience I put down a marker, emotional and intellectual. I build in a tiny pause to appreciate.

Many of my moments are like the dorm story. What could be more mundane than Sally and I lounging in chairs, sleeping dogs our feet, looking out at the ocean with a perfect temperature breeze in our face. But in that moment I paused to know this was special. Some memories are obvious like standing on as street corner looking, really looking, at the U.S. Capital for the first time. Others involve the completion of long lifetime circles. For much of my adult life I couldn’t fly. I had always wanted to go to Spring Training to see my Giants. For every real fan there is a special moment when you step out of the concourse and see the green of the field for the first time. That time I stopped in my tracks and felt that moment in every part of my body knowing it was a hard earned memory.

As I sit here, I am awash in times I knew I had only one chance, that moment, to know the completeness of an act, a place, or a person. It is far too easy to rush through life and thoughtlessly pile up memories. And no, the easy access to a phone camera is not a friend here. Images without mindfulness scroll by as thought triggers not memory makers. I am happy to know that driving down the road I can put myself in a moment that at the time I recognized as singular, ephemeral and essential. The next time you have the thought, “it doesn’t get any better than this” take that as sign that the moment deserves your full attention. If only for a few seconds, take everything in because one day that moment will become a your story. Something essential that you can share.

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The Whitest City In America…Duh

During my public service I heard and read about Portland’s “whiteness” over and over again. The observation was most often made as a pejorative or with great sadness by an apparently broken-hearted white person. The Atlantic even did a feature about racist Portland.
What I could not say then inside the far left bubble was that I had a pretty good idea that the reality of Portland’s racial mix was mostly about geography. Undoubtedly, like almost every city of size in America, systematic racism was, and is, a fact. And, the economic boom is now destroying the remnants of both black and blue collar inner Portland.
But as Professor Sriram Khe points out in an Oregonian Op-ed today,  Portland was simply not on any of the southern migration patterns. We are a relatively isolated river town off the beaten path, and except for WWII, we didn’t have the industrial jobs to drive in migration of southern blacks.
Inside the liberal bubble I didn’t dare bring up this point about geography.  And I am sure that Professor Sriram Khe will now be attacked for making a factual observation.  It saddens me that on both political extremes there are thought police, hands hovering over keyboards, ready to put down uncomfortable facts.  Worse, they are highly motivated to limit conversations beyond the carefully crafted dogma of their peer groups.
Having grown up in a place where one still hears as much Spanish as English, I know what a more culturally diverse home looks and feels like.  I still warm quickly to the sound of spoken Spanish because it feels like home.  But my world of Latinos was also about geography.  90 miles from the Mexican border, it made sense.  So does Portland.
So, instead of raging about Portland’s whiteness, how about noticing how it is changing.  Maybe 15 years ago I dropped in to grab a six-pack at my local 7-ll.  The two clerks were speaking Spanish, a first for that location.  I can still understand more Spanish than I can speak.  I murdered the syntax of a couple of sentences with them and we laughed.  When I got back to the car I said to my wife, “Most of Portland has no idea what is coming.”  Patience Portland…patience.
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It’s Not About A Timepiece

No Clock? What?

Baseball, of course. To be sure I enjoy other sports defined by time and distance. College basketball. Formula One. Track. But baseball is different. For me, it is a constant, a touchstone, and even a spiritual experience.

If she is with me at a game, my wife lives in abject fear of the words “extra innings.” I find those words reassuring. Baseball has to resolve itself in the context of the game. In a game where failure is the rule, nothing changes to decide a winner and loser. There are no concessions to merely make the game end.

I have seen games that were less than 2 hours and more than 5 hours. The game was beautifully the same. What changes in extra innings is the urgency of every play. And still, no clock. For the duration of the game a baseball fan gets to escape the tyranny of time and simply live inside the experience.

No Clock?

For about 20 years, almost every day, I have had a Zen mediation practice. I received my instruction on how to meditate from a Soto Zen Monk. As someone eager to find some calm in my life, I asked the 6’ 4” tall monk, “How do I learn how to meditate?” His response introduced me to the abiding humor and irony in Zen Buddhism. He look down and said, with no change his expression, “Just sit.” He then turned away. Instruction complete.

I adopted his most severe form of mediation as a practice. I just sit, follow my breath and stare into the empty space between a wall and me. With time, meditation does not become easier. It becomes a good habit. Sometimes, when thoughts are a blizzard and the session is a struggle, something surprising happens. Ending the practice in frustration, I look back over my shoulder at a clock. I am sure I have only been sitting for 10 minutes. Often, I have actually been there for over 30 minutes. In the space between my thoughts, no clock.

No Clock?

One cannot retire without knowing you are nearer the end than the beginning. But that’s a thought, a false construct. No one is given a bucket of time that one day runs out. What we have is this moment. I learned this most clearly one morning.

One night I worked late with a dear friend. He was a coworker and then I was his boss. He was brilliant and insane. He introduced me to punk rock and my wife. He was the best man at my wedding. That night, in the bowels of the data center, he was still staring at a computer screen when I left saying simply, “Later dude.” The next morning his fiancé called to tell me that he died in his sleep. His giant brain, raging with amazing thoughts, had turned on him. An aneurism.

We had talked about retiring and going to shows or sitting on his porch drinking a beer just making shit up. That never happened. I had learned with jolting certainty that there is no clock.

So, that is why I call this little thought/communication experiment No Clock. It’s a reminder of 3 of my great loves. It’s a warning that complex things end when they are done, not when I am done. And, in the spirit of Zen it’s an inside joke that comes to you when you make the effort to notice that you are breathing.


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Welcome Back

This was inevitable.  A few years ago I had a blog.  I loved it.  But as a public official I was self-limited on what I could say in public.  For someone who generates an opinion a minute this discipline was very hard.  I enjoy taking in the world and thinking about what I am seeing and reading.  Probably more than that I enjoy the resulting analysis and synthesis.  And, when I have gone through that process, I want to share.  In my former life that meant you mostly had to be in a room to hear me bloviate on what I think and feel.  Retirement has freed me from that constraint.

I had an epiphany in the shower a couple of weeks ago.  (My old IT staff dreaded it when I told them I had a thought in the shower that morning.)  If I were to publicly participate in any future campaigns, I would still need to be careful about what I wrote.  I realized that was absurd.  Why would I begin a new phase of my life constrained by what I used to do for a living?  So, I made the decision not to be a public participant in future campaigns.  Oh, I will support people and causes, but I won’t put myself in a position to officially speak on behalf of anyone.  It was liberating to realize I was back in control of my opinions.

Writing a blog is a funny experience.  Potentially, anyone in the world can read it.  In reality you are writing for yourself.  I will publish what I write to the little group of family and friends on Facebook.  If anyone wants to share…that’s cool.  I have an ego like everyone else.  But the point of what I want to do here is to force myself to think clearly about the world.  For me writing is the final step in the refining process.  I like to be forced to challenge the randomness of all those tiny electrical currents in my head.

My posts will be random.  I have a list of ideas already.  If I run out of ideas, I will let you know.  I am almost incapable of final proofing my own writing.  My too quick brain just put in what is missing.  So, what is posted is what it is.

Oh and so you don’t think this is an utterly isolating activity, here is what my new staff was doing yesterday.  It’s one view from this keyboard.



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