A Family History — In Cars


I am a gearhead.  I love cars.  I like to drive fun cars.  I like to read about cars.  I have subscriptions to 2 car magazines.  (Actual magazines.)  I like to see cars go fast.  I love the sound of an engine at high RPM’s.  I discover new places by driving around.  Standing on a busy street corner, I can pick out the sound of a 10 cylinder super car blocks away and will stop in my tracks to see it drive by.  It makes me happy.

I come by this honestly.  In my family, cars are historical markers of lives lived.  As a child, and well into adulthood, whenever the men (and a few women) in my family gathered around to tell stories about the knots in our family tree the telling included a car.  It went like this, “When your Granddad (Blackie) went to work in Helena, Arkansas he drove a 1940 Chevy Sedan.”  The car is critical to the memory.  People may talk about their first car but my family remembers all the cars in between. 

How do I know the story about Blackie and the 1940 Chevy Sedan?  In 2000, I asked my Dad if he could just write down the history of our family in cars.  He did.  In detail.  On two sheets of a yellow legal pad I have a family history beginning with my Grandad’s 1931 Model A Roadster.  In all, my father told our family history across 46 different cars and linked every car to a place, a trip or a family member.  Oh, and don’t think the stream of cars stopped in 2000.  There is an addendum possible with many more vehicles in the 21st century.

Dad and his Uncle Jake were close in age.  They owned a service station together.  Uncle Jake built race cars.  At first go carts, then drag racers and stock cars.  They both put in 12-14 hour days almost every day of the week, but on Saturday nights we all went racing.  Uncle Jake’s race cars always had number 24. The stock car was hooked to the back of a tow-truck and hauled up to the 1/4 mile track in San Bernardino. The fender banging racing was a kind of church for us.  As it is still for many people.

My first car was a 1972 Pontiac Ventura Sprint, an orange muscle car with white racing stripes and raised letter tires.  I bought it almost new.  People don’t get handed cars in my family.  I had been working and saving money since I was 11.  My folks bought the car then collected the down payment from me.  Dad made a little payment book and I paid them back with monthly payments.  I was responsible for all upkeep and insurance.  No insurance…it would sit parked on the street.  It always had insurance.  Dad wasn’t kidding.

For a skinny, geek of a kid (before geek was a word) my car was a statement.  Settled into that high-back bucket seat I had a whiff of power I didn’t feel much in my day to day life.  I fought anger and depression by driving high up a switchback road into the mountains during my lunch breaks.  I’d park up there and look out to the desert.  The clear-sky infinite view made me feel small, my problems even smaller.

And then my car life went haywire.  I was up until the early morning one Saturday night putting a new quad 8-track stereo in my car.  Damn it rocked.  On my way to work the next morning a car ran a stoplight at about 45 MPH.  I saw it just quickly enough to gun my car and turn hard to the right, hoping the other car would avoid me.  It didn’t.  The big car hit at an angle right at my door handle.  The metal wrapped around my legs and the steering wheel, with my hands on it, ended up toward the front window.  I walked away with a bruise on my leg from the door speaker I had just installed.  Horsepower and turning that wheel probably saved me.  If he had hit me flush, I was a goner.  My beautiful orange car was totaled.

From that moment until 2008, I lived in a strange purgatory of practical cars.  I replaced the Pontiac with a 1975 Toyota Corolla Deluxe.  There was nothing deluxe about it but it got me across country.  I, or Sally and I, had a Toyota Pick-up, Camray, Ford Pick-up, VW Passat, VW Passat Wagon (two dogs) and Honda CRV.  Kept the Ford for a decade.

During all this time I went to see car races, became a Formula One fanatic, drooled over sports cars I saw on the street and just kept driving practical cars.  You see, I was raised by Great Depression era parents and Sally grew up poor.  As a pair, we are cautious and, well, cheap.  For most of our time together we have had a problem convincing ourselves we deserved what we thought of as luxuries.  Even now, we look at each other when we spend money on something we don’t need.  Sally is still a thrift store savant. It isn’t an awful characteristic.  I retired early.  What we have, we own.  But for people who have always worked hard, we always had a strangely inexpensive version of fun.

Our recovery from un-fun began when I left Standard Insurance.  I think that was the point Sally and I agreed we deserved to play.  For me it was a master’s degree and a 2008 Mini Cooper S.  For Sally, it was a trip by herself to Europe.  Mostly, in my case, it was my wife looking at me and saying, “You love cars so much, you really should just always have one you love.”  Seriously, how many people get that kind of permission in life?

In the Mini, I felt like I finally was back in the fold as a Blackwood car guy.  For the first time in my life, I got speeding tickets.  I took it on the race track several times and did high performance driving training.  I bought goodies to make it handle better.  Straight-line speed is for wimps.  Late braking into a fast corner is a real drivers game.

I think because I am an avowed car guy people like to tell me that the future of the car is dim.  Soon we will all be sitting in car-like pods without drivers, staring at our smart phones and impatiently waiting to just be somewhere…anywhere…but inside that humming pod.  I have done plenty of reading and I think that will be a truth for some folks, especially in urban areas.  A lot of people see cars as a utility.  Good on them.  There’s a Prius for you and an Uber app on your phone.  

Still, even the new arrivals to Portland are not who you think they are.  Just down from our house an old church was replaced by 20 townhouses each with its own garage.  Based on how the street filled up with cars and SUV’s with out-of-state plates, it is pretty clear the majority of those new residents own 2 cars.  Kids still have to get to soccer practice, and the dentist, and the store and to the beach.  And…Ford just announced that they are no longer making sedans.  It’s trucks and SUV’s America wants.  

Our fossil fuel dilemma may depend on how efficiently we burn fuel in those vehicles.  Hey, Formula One cars are now all hybrids.  Soon, it will be natural for a Ford F150 pick-up to run like a Prius.  It’s coming.

America is big.  So big.  You really don’t understand that until you drive across it.  A car crossing miles can be a mystical thing.  There is something deep in the human psyche about controlling your movement independently.  Look at the pictures of Saudi women getting their driver’s license and tell me that isn’t a striking a blow for freedom.  

My Mini was a gateway drug to a BMW.  I haven’t gotten a ticket in it…yet.  When I got my first car, my Dad told me that when I got a speeding ticket I should just thank the officer and smile.  “You will have earned that ticket a thousand times before.”  Seems my old man was teaching me Buddhist equanimity before either of us knew what that was.

My Dad is 85 and still talks about cars.  More importantly, he talks about what he would like for his next car.  There is something happy and optimistic about that fact.  Don’t tell Sally, but I have been thinking about my next car for a couple of years now.

Over my shoulder as I sit here today is a picture.  My Grandpa Blackwood, Blackie, is sitting at the wheel of his big brown Buick.  He has a huge smile on his face and is about to head off in some direction.  When the Blackwood’s talk about my grandad we say he’s somewhere up in heaven behind the wheel of that car…going for a ride…and keeping an eye on all of us

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Anthony Bourdain: The Traveling Brother I Never Met


I don’t do celebrity but I did Anthony Bourdain.  His death by suicide this morning was a gut punch.  

Like most folks, I met him via his book Kitchen Confidential.  He immediately seemed like a fellow traveler.  Punk as an ethic.  Not afraid of hard work.  In fact he loved it.  Dark, smart, honorable with a wicked sense of humor.  We were about the same age.  He graduated high school the year I did.  When I saw him on television, I thought, “We are both aging well, aren’t we dude?”

I could give a fuck about food.  It’s fuel.  But I love edgy cooking shows.  I like the effort and the passion it takes to make fine food.  If some fine food appears in front of me I eat it and enjoy it.  I never go looking for it.  Never.  Bourdain gave me that appreciation and, most importantly, he traveled.

My own illness has meant I don’t travel much.  For a time, not at all.  Bourdain became  my traveling doppelgänger.  I could watch his shows and imagine I was there.  In great part because his eye, his sensibility and ability to write about what he saw was something we shared.  And then there was his walk.

Tall like me, Bourdain had a tall man’s walk.  Loping is the best way to describe it.  The way he moved said both I am here, just passing through and, by the way, don’t fuck with me.  Yea, and it was cool.  

When I am agitated, I speed up and dart about.  The unwanted energy in my body is looking for a way out.  I stole Anthony Bourdain’s walk.  For years, when I am beginning to disconnect from my movement I tell myself, “Just walk like Bourdain.”  Slow down.  Look around.  Tell the nerves to fuck off.  Keep moving forward.

My bookshelves are my biography.  I can see where I was and what I was thinking by the books I chose to keep.  The shelves seem random to everyone but me.  Just off my right shoulder when I sit to meditate every night is Kitchen Confidential.  It came out in 2000.  I crashed in 2000.  That was a book I read for “fun” in the middle of my depression tornado.

I went home for Thanksgiving vacation that year and didn’t return to work for around 6 months.  Life ganged up on me and I was anxious and deeply depressed.  When I heard Bourdain had committed suicide, I walked about just saying “Fuck” over and over.  I was angry but I understood.  In the depth of depression, suicide is medicinal.  It’s a cure.  He both didn’t care, and cared too much, about his 11 year old daughter and others he loved.  He had to know his friend would find him dead.  It’s a disease that can make all connections meaningless.  

I lost a favorite Aunt to suicide.  Her name was Joy.  She was her name.  But in the depths of disease it didn’t make any difference.

I was saved by connections.  Sally gave up much to keep me going.  Therapy.  Drugs.  Family.  John.  And…ultimately…I am just fucking stubborn.  Fighting depression is exhausting.  A physical battle.  But I was willing to fight until I was out of energy.  Rest.  Then wake up punching again.  And on the other side, much that I love about myself is the result of that battle.

With depression, silence is the killer.  I saw a tweet this morning that said that depression does its best work when people are alone in hotel rooms.  That’s where they found Bourdain.  

Even if you are alone, there are total strangers sitting in rooms 24 hours a day just waiting to listen to you.  If you don’t feel like there is an ounce of fight left in you, admit it.  Let someone help you find the strength.  It takes just one act of will, of self-preservation, to unleash another act…and another.

Anthony Boudain’s world-weary joy in the company of others will always stick with me.  He was genuinely interested in people.  His puck rock DIY ethic made him a voice for people who we would have never known.  I will mostly miss knowing he was out there somewhere, doing things I can’t and likely seeing them much like I would. 

And, fuck off Tony, I am keeping the walk.  A memory of a stranger still alive with every step.

Note: I was asked.  That is punk legend Iggy Pop with Bourdain in the picture.  Iggy kind of invented punk.

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Mozy Revisited: Learning From Our Blind Dog


Sally and I were crushed when our golden collie mix Mozy lost her sight.  It was a strange process from thinking she had a problem with her legs to realizing her eyes were failing.  There is more than a little helplessness to see an animal you love become slow and walk into things.  With animals, the inability to tell them what is happening is deeply frustrating.

I get to spend a lot of time with our dogs.  This means I get to see Mozy adapt to blindness.  What I have seen borders strangely on miraculous.  Already keen senses of hearing and smell seem to have become a new radar.  I doubt any human could have made this transition with such speed.

Right this moment, it is sunny in our backyard.  Mozy has always loved to bake in the sun to the point of panting and then move to the shade to cool off.  She will do this cycle for hours.  If you didn’t know she was blind, there would be no way to tell anything is different for her. 

Both inside and out, she has a mental map of her world.  She walks through the middle of doorways and around chairs.  We do have to be conscious when adding new things to the map.  On a warm day, I put a fan in my office in her usual path to the back door.  She bumped it once, but in every other trip in and out she arched around that spot.  She does that now fan or not.

The old wood basement stairs to their pen and feeding spot were tricky.  She slipped and Sally was scared for her.  I simply nailed down a carpet runner to each step and she goes up and down with no problem.  She even hurries down when there is food in the offing.  The dog loves to eat.

The most funny adaptation is that we call the “goose step.”  You’ve seen the pictures of Germans marching?  Well, when see is looking for a step she raises and drops her paws to find it.  She goose steps to curbs and stairs.

Walks?  Sure.  At first she was very slow and cautious.  Now that she trusts we are watching out for her she walks at speed.  We just call out the curbs so she can goose step.  Bringing her back home one evening she got excited.  Smell, sound…I have no idea how she knew she was home, but she wanted to jog down the sidewalk and then up the driveway.  We jogged together.  Seriously, I jogged with a blind dog.

Sometimes she just forgets she is blind.  One of the dog rituals is to run up the stairs to the little window and bench seat at the front of the house when Sal leaves for work.  I sometimes hear the sound of Mozy and Zoom running up the stairs.  When I look up, there they both are “looking” out the window at Sally.  

Our back fence is a squirrel highway.  Three generations of dogs have tried to chase those damn squirrels.  Mozy was sleeping on the back stoop.  I heard a commotion and a bang, then her barking.  She had jumped off the stoop and run right into the garage.  Undeterred she adjusted the map and when up the steps to the back wall to bark at the squirrel.  But here’s the freaky part.  Now she runs to chase the squirrels behind Zoom and on her own and doesn’t miss a step.  How is that even possible?  Try closing your eyes and running down one set of steps and up another then stopping perfectly in front of a fence.

Our friend Bob loves Mozy.  He came over a few days ago and she was just Mozy.  She immediately recognized his voice and smell and came to him once he stepped inside the door.  You wouldn’t know she couldn’t see him.

For Sally, the most important thing is that after a short time Mozy got her personality back.  She jumps and makes Wookiee noises she Sal comes home.  She seeks affection like always.  And she can hear the crinkle of a potato chip bag at 100 yards.

Living with a blind dog is like getting to see little miracles all the time.  Oh sure, she is slower and sometimes gets a little lost in corners.  Sally has coined the description “bonking” for when she runs into things.  We are having a little success with the command “stop!” to warn her away from another bonk.  But unlike a human, she has no judgement when she bonks.  She just adjusts and moves on.  

People ask if Zoom knows Mozy is blind.  I don’t think so.  But she does key off of his movements sometimes following him.  They are still mostly likely to be found sleeping curled around each other.  

There is much we miss about sighted Mozy.  She could look quite majestic running off leash.  She also loved to bark and harass Zoom to get him to play.  I miss tossing her popcorn.  But even that is funny.  She sometimes tries to anticipate me throwing it and opens her mouth to catch the invisible kernel.  Still best to tap her on the nose with treats.

But like Mozy, we adapt.  We have learned to take joy in little, simpler things. Now, we celebrate the amazing things our blind dog can do with the ironic phrase, “Did you see what she just did?”  

The sun is out.  Time for Mo to get some rays.

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Nostalgia and the Typewriter


Nostalgia is tricky. You can bath in it or just feel it as a gentle rain. It can hold you and put lead in your shoes or awaken you and set you running out the door. As with any memory, it can rise from all of your senses. An aroma on a street corner is as likely to stop you short as the feel of a certain fabric between thumb and forefinger. And always, there is that moment of decision. Hold the memory or just let it go. Yea. It’s tricky that way. 

Nostalgia isn’t the sole domain of the old.  Ever hear a child wish for something they once had?  No, from the moment a soul can know past, present and future, nostalgia is a fact in that life.  A wish can be a memory.

Currently, I have the freedom to access life randomly.  I know how special that is.  This is how I stumbled upon a documentary called, “California Typewriter.”  The title alone intrigues.  It is about the relationship between the proprietor of one of the few remaining typewriter repair shops and sculptor who dismantles typewriters to create his art.  Most importantly, it explores a small but persistent collection of people who own and use typewriters.  Analog revolutionaries. 

In the course of one interview, the typewriter repairman talked about the quality of Olympia portable typewriters.  Made in Cold War West Germany, they are still considered the Mercedes Benz of typewriters: solid, reliable and timeless in design.  What? I thought.  I have one of those in my basement.  

At first, out of curiosity, I went to my basement and dug out the leather covered case.  Heavy.  Very heavy.  Once in my hand, I remembered all the times I had moved with this typewriter.  Nostalgia creeps in from every sense.

I pulled the typewriter from its case and put it on my basement workbench.  Ah… above the carriage it says De Luxe, whatever that means.  Above keys the Olympia brand is sandwiched between two labels.  The one above says in red and green script, “Stockwell and Binney – Complete Office Products.”  Below, “Hawken Office Equipment” with a full address in Redlands, California.  The first was the place my parents must have bought the typewriter in Indio, the second is where I had it serviced when I was at the University of Redlands.  Reference points.  Road markers.

I recall the typewriter was a gift for the first kid on either side of our family to go to a University.  1974?  What strikes the most about it now, is that it must have been an expensive choice.  In a family that values and respects cars, gadgets and all sorts of mechanical devices, it would have been my folks choice to get the best they could afford.  I didn’t know that then, but knowing it now humbles me.  

I am a bit of a packrat.  I box my history for future reference.  When I bought my first home in 1990, my dad and Uncle Jim (that’s right, Uncle Jim, Father Jim, Grandfather Jim.  A family tree littered with Jims) brought up all the boxes of my stuff, a pick-up full, for my new basement.  But the typewriter, it was always with me.  Up and down the west coast, to the east coast and back.  It was ballast for all my moves.

Right there on my workbench, I slid in a piece a paper and started to type.  The action of everything was mushy and slow.  I went to my computer and found the two remaining typewriter repair shops in Portland.  The nostalgia door open, I jumped in with both feet.

As I sit here quickly banging out words on an IMac, an admission, I can’t type.  I took a class in high school.  I was awful.  I tried to practice on the Olympia, no dice.  Early papers were slowly, painfully typed on a special paper that allowed you to erase mistakes.  I couldn’t type a line without a mistake.  Mostly, my girlfriend in college, Megan, typed my papers.  Compensation was arranged.  And, I had a buddy, a strange genius from wealth who actually brought an IBM Executive typewriter to his dorm room.  It was the most expensive, proportional font typewriter on the planet.  He typed 100 words a minute and was paid in cash.  

When I worked in Washington DC, I had an IBM on my desk.  One of those types with the letters on a ball.  The speed of the keys made me even worse.  I only began to type well enough with the advent of the personal computer.  God Bless the backspace key.

When you open the door of a typewriter repair shop you are overwhelmed with the smell of solvent.  It’s a reminder that these are mechanical devices.  The owner opened the case and nodded approvingly.  Confirmation, it’s an iconic portable, worth saving.  I spent a half-hour talking with Sam.  He has been fixing typewriters for 52 years.  “This one,” he said, “needs a bath…maybe two baths.”  He took me in the back to see two tubs full of solvent.  “Oh, yea, mechanical…of course,” I thought.

I am pretty sure that the last time I sat down to type a full page on the Olympia was about the time I first came to Portland, 1983.  In other boxes in the basement are stacks of paper from the typewriter.  Journal entries, short stories, poems, essays.  I have always fancied myself some sort of writer, that is why the Olympia always travelled with me.  In 1985, finally employed, I used all of my extra money to buy one of the first IBM clone computers.  The Olympia lost its purpose.

Revived and loved again, I brought the Olympia home, opened the case and put the typewriter on my desk.  The solvent had spared the two stickers.  I would have been crushed if they had been lost.  As I typed, the oil on the strikers and carriage was activated.  Words have a smell, the musty smell of an old book store, and now, I remembered they also smelled of oil and ink as they appeared on the paper in front of me.  Words have a sound.  Clack…Clack…Clack.  One letter at a time.

Writing is hard.  Typing is harder.  I am marginally better now, but my fingers have not known such effort for decades.  And the bell.  Left hand up.  Push.  Slide.  Back to the keys.  Damn…two strikers at once…unstick them.  In a digital world, where speed is both real and an illusion, actual typing is deliberate and strangely rewarding.  I typed random thoughts about my random life and when the page was full, I pulled the paper from the carriage.  There it is, laying on the desk.  Solid…messy…real.

Did I first type this essay on my lovely, smelly Olympia De Luxe portable typewriter?  Of course not.  I think faster than I can type on it.  But that isn’t what nostalgia is about.  In the week that it has been on my desk, within reach, it has been a time machine.  I can look at it and see it on desks, kitchen tables, on a door sitting on sawhorses, floating with me on a houseboat, shoved in the back of a pick-up moving again.  It has been a constant companion, an old friend I ignored for a very long time.  And, I now wonder whose hands will embrace it when I am gone.

Nostalgia is tricky.  It is a summoning.  It is very personal and sometimes shared.  Enjoy a revery now and again.  Let your senses lead you.  And when you are done, if you can, tell a story or two before moving on.

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When Your Heroes Die

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As a kid, I didn’t read comic books.  I loved words and all those pictures meant there were fewer words.  That also meant I didn’t have any connection to the heroes and superheroes that today roar though our popular culture with such resonance.  

Still, I was a precocious reader.  I consumed books, especially history books.  In grade school I recall a large collection of biographies.  Each book was about 200 pages, though the type was larger.  I read all of them.  By 5th grade, I had moved beyond children’s books.  You have to be a strange kid to read William Shirer’s, “The Rise and
Fall of the Third Reich” at ten years old.  I was that kid.  At night, I had to force myself to stop reading and go to sleep.  I didn’t always succeed and just read until my eyes hurt too much to continue.

One of the great gifts from my parents was their subscription to both a morning and afternoon newspaper.  Dad read the morning paper first as he left early for work. I read it at the kitchen table before going to school.  Devout Muslims can get a bump on their foreheads called a zebihah, or prayer bump, from bowing to pray 5 times a day.  My childhood mark of devotion to newspapers was perpetually black elbows from the printers ink.

I can’t recall a time I wasn’t consumed by the news of the day.  I loved watching the nightly news broadcasts on our huge record player/black and white TV.  Ours was a Walter Cronkrite house.  All times are turbulent, not all are transformative.  My childhood news obsession was full of civil rights, riots and the Vietnam War.  The thread that connected them all was politics.  That I knew early on.

Cataclysmic national events played in my daily life.  A much anticipated family vacation to the coast was cancelled by the 1965 Watts riots.  We watched the riot on TV.

The older kids on my block joined the military and went to Viet Nam.  At school, we made gift boxes for solders.  They dutifully sent us letters back.  Years later I found those letters and with trepidation checked the names on the memorial wall in DC.  My correspondents were not on the list.  I guess they made it home.  

One morning, I opened my bedroom windows to see men sliding a red velvet covered body into a hearse.  The oldest of the Villalobos family was wounded in the war and died in his bed soon after making it home.  I was in the house of my best friend when we heard his oldest sister scream.  She had just gotten the notification that her new husband was killed in action.  The serving, wounded and killed young men of our little town were recorded in a front page box of our afternoon paper, the Indio Daily News.  History was all around me.

In grammar school, I was always running for class something-or-other. In Junior High, I was student body president.  I loved politics and began to truly understand it at a national level.  I remember seeing Lyndon Johnson tell us he would not run for president.  That decision opened the door for my very first hero.  I had spent 4 days with my mom on the couch watching the country mourn the death of his brother.  Now, it was Bobby’s turn to make up for that tragedy.  I now had my first candidate.

Netflix has a new 4 part documentary on Bobby Kennedy.  I remember seeing many of the speeches on the nightly news.  I remember many of the headlines.  Back then you built loyalty to a candidate like a mosaic.  There was no way to immerse yourself in news.  He was going to end the war that was killing my neighbors.  He cared about poor people.  What he said the night that King was killed haunts me still.  He quoted Aeschylus.  I had no idea who that was but the poetry shook me.  He came to California to meet with Caesar Chavez.  That confused me.

You see, the Coachella Valley grows grapes and citrus fruit.  My maternal grandfather managed a huge ranch (we can farms ranches in Southern California.)  I heard the anger at Chavez and his strikers first hand from my grandpa and uncle.  I knew about the Teamsters and police there to stop them.  I didn’t really understand.  Later in life I read more about Chavez.  I get it now.  He was a flawed person.  But at the time, in my child’s mind, the fact that Bobby was with Chavez caused me to question what members of my family were saying.  Consciousness flows from doubt.

I followed Bobby’s campaign within the piecemeal limits of the day.  Indio always seemed far away, from everything.  Victories meant he actually had a chance.  I knew that the California primary was the whole ballgame.  I was crushed when he didn’t win Oregon.  “What’s wrong with those people up there?”, I thought.  Some days I think that still.

The films in the documentary are mostly local California newsreels.  They are the same reporter’s stories I saw in my living room.  Those images hit me like hammer blows.  

In that early summer of 1968, I was enthralled.  He had a chance.  He was going to do it.  The night of the primary I watched the returns come in.  It was going to be a long night.  I watched local LA station.  All our local news came for LA.  Eventually, the rest of my family went to bed.  I don’t recall asking permission to stay up late.  I am pretty sure my folks knew they couldn’t make me go to bed.  

Finally, the news.  He won.  And there he was live in the ballroom of the Ambassador Hotel.  It was me and Bobby in my living room.  My hero, my first hero ever, had won.  Can a 12 year-old experience bliss?  Sure.  And then he said, “And it’s on to Chicago and let’s win there.”  He walked off the stage and because there was no more news the local station immediately signed off.  Back then the TV became a fixed image called a test pattern.  I remember sitting on the couch and staring at that image for the longest time.  Happy, tired, content, excited.  Then I turned the TV off and went to bed.  Seconds after I turned the TV off, that local station came back on the air.

I woke up excited to tell my folks that I had seen Bobby win.  I came to the kitchen table and I think it was my dad who told me Bobby had been shot.  Mom and dad were both sad but I was having none of that nonsense.  “No, he won.”  But there it was, on the table, the newspaper.  Headline: Bobby Kennedy Shot.  That granny picture of him laying on a kitchen floor.  The newspaper.

There was hope.  He was still alive.  I clung to that.  Looked at the news.  This couldn’t be happening again.  School, then the afternoon newspaper.  On the front page was a macabre diagram of the angle of the bullets.  Lines drawn through the outline of his head.  It was bad.  That made real.  Who shot him?  A Palestinian angry about Israel?  I couldn’t begin to understand what that could possibly mean.  What?  Bobby didn’t talk about Israel.  What?

And then Bobby was gone.

The crucible of my political awakening was 1968.  I watched all of the conventions.  The riots.  The weekly casualty totals from Viet Nam kept coming.  I was 12 years-old and America was coming apart.  And mostly, my Bobby wasn’t there to fix it.

I suppose I had every right to simply walk away from politics and hope but transformation is a funny thing.  My first hero told me what was possible when leaders and people of good will came together.  And isn’t that the essence of hope?  And haven’t we seen hope manifest itself as change…over and over again?

America isn’t ever done because our shared creed is aspirational.  The death of my first hero caused me to double down on trying to understand how America works and doesn’t.  My childhood obsession became a lifelong quest.  A couple of times I got to work in the boiler room of politics and governing.  It was both thrilling and a cold bucket of water over my head.

The depth of my skepticism is almost legendary, but still, as someone who scraped hope from one of America’s worst days I remain a believer in what is possible.  I am chastened by the current state of the American experiment.  But I also understand resilience. 

Bobby’s last words laying on the floor of that kitchen were whispered into the ear of a Latino dishwasher, “Is everyone OK?”  Yea, I think we are.

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Mozy is Blind


“She’s so beautiful.”  That is how every conversation begins when someone meets our 8 year-old Collie/Sheppard mix Mozy.  From the first time we took her to the vet to every person who stops to talk with us on the street, they are compelled to lean to pet her and tell us she is a beauty.  It is so common that now when it happens Sally and I just look at each other and smile.

Mozy is the reason I got to meet my Sleater-Kinney rock-star hero, Carrie Brownstein.  One day I was walking her a few blocks from our house and turned the corner to see a set for Portlandia.  They were in the midst of one of their endless set-ups for a scene.  Fred and Carrie were in costume, waiting at their starting marks.  Mozy and I were just off to the side watching.  Carrie kept looking at Mozy.  Finally, she walked over and began petting her.  “She is just so beautiful.”  I told her Mozy was a rescue and gushed some fanboy gibberish.  Later, I read that Carie was once volunteer of the year at the Oregon Humane Society.  Small doggie world.

I have had 7 dogs in my life.  Sally and I together have had 5 of those, all rescue dogs.  For reasons we have never understood, Sal and I fall in love with the hard cases.  My first dog, Dobbsie, survived Distemper and had grand mal seizures every couple of weeks.  Our Border Collie, Ziggy was a shivering mess at the Humane Society.  It took a year to stop her from running to the back of the house when cars drove by.  Luna had been returned as unmanageable.  Bodhi, was a puppy about to be abandoned in the parking lot of a Fred Meyer.  Zoom, Mozy’s brother and my first little boy dog, was a second chance stray from Ashland.  It took me a full day to help him go up and down a staircase.  He had never seen one before and was terrified.

We lost Bodhi and Luna in the same horrible week.  After at time, we rescued Mozy.  She was skinny, the police had taken her from a drug house in Klamath Falls.  Sweet and easily spooked she was my biggest doggie challenge.  She quickly took to Sally.  She is really Sally’s dog as Zoom is mine.  You never really know the real story of a rescue dog but it was clear Mozy was hurt by a man.  She always had to have a quick exit at her back to escape and would never let me share a doorway with her.  She would not come to me.  She would not chase any toys.  All of my actions around her had to be in slow motion.  A study in Zen.  This was my life with Mozy.  Not for weeks…for years.

Sally left for a trip and I had to figure out how to get Mozy in from the backyard.  If I walked out, she would run to the farthest corner of the dog run and eye me through the fence slats.  The only way I could get her to come in was to buy the super sized Milk Bones and show one to her from the door. I would then walk back into the house out of sight.  She’s a chow hound.  Eventually, cautiously, she would come in the house.  I would maneuver behind her, shut the door and give her the bone.  I am a dog guy.  It so disheartening.  In fact, Zoom’s appearance in our lives was for me to have a dog that was not afraid of me and a sibling who would eventually teach her some courage.

One night, years on, there was a break though.  I had taught Mozy to catch tossed popcorn.  When we were done with that little game she surprised me and came to the side of my reading chair, pawed the arm and wanted me to pet her.  I was so excited.  I looked at Sally and whispered, “Look…look…look!”  Over the next year, Mozy and I became friends.  No tricks to come back in the house.  No dodging away when I came in the room.  Mozy and I could just hang out.  We had done it.

A couple of months ago something changed with Mozy.  It seemed like she was favoring a back leg.  She slowed down.  We took her to the vet and all the tests were fine.  Maybe a little arthritis?  But when I tossed her popcorn now, she didn’t see them.  The popcorn just bounced off her head.  We went to a veterinary opthamalogist.  (Just leave your credit card at the front desk.)  After many tests, she said that Mozy just had some age-related vision loss.  Nothing to worry about.  That was April 1.  There was no April Fools.

Within 2 weeks it was clear that Mozy was losing her eye sight.  It is hard to tell what blindness means to a dog.  Because I am home a lot, I speculate endlessly.  I watch her move in the world and tell myself stories. 

I am sure she still see light and dark?  Are things at a distance just blurry or completely gone?  Is everything blackness?  No, it seems like she sees.something.

She must have the house and yard mapped in her head.  Don’t change anything.  Sally says she “bonks” herself when she runs into things, but look how ofter she doesn’t bonk.  But she just got trapped in the corner.  I’ll help her out.

The basement stairs are open and too slick.  No more basement for both dogs.  Too dangerous for Mozy.  The food dishes need to come upstairs.  That’s confusing too.

Is she keying off of Zoom?  Does he understand she is blind?  She seems to follow him sometimes.  Is that what is happening?  

Wait.  She just ran up the stairs with Zoom to the window seat.  They are both on the seat looking out the window to see Sal get out of the car.  Is she looking too, or is that all just acting out a happy part of her day?  Can see see a car in the distance or does she hear it?

Dogs have amazing senses of smell and hearing.  It seems like she has turned up those skills.  She adjusts if you are standing in her way.  She finds her food and water dishes.  The more we watch her, the more her life now seems like a series of little miracles.  

But it’s hard not to think about what she is missing.  We humans become the subconscious for our animals.  We overlay our sense of loss on their doggie lives.  I am trying not to do that.  I don’t really think she has such judgement.  She feels our love in our touches and soothing voices.  She roams in from the backyard at the crinkle of a potato chip bag.  The last few sunny days she did what she always does.  She goes to her spot at the top of the small garden wall and suns herself.  When she gets hot, she moves to the shade and cools off.  That cycle goes on all day, interrupted only by the occasional trip to the water bowl.

Mozy is blind.  On sunny days she sits regally, eyes closed, feeling the sun her face.  She is beautiful.


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The Starbucks Incident — What Do You Want?


I will readily admit I don’t know a ton about what happened in that Starbucks in Philadelphia.  I’ve seen the videos of the incident and the Police Chief.  I saw some television reports and an article or two.  Seen some twitter action.  But like most of America, I have no idea what really happened.  That’s correct  America.  You don’t have a clue.

Good on Starbucks for reacting and shutting down their stores for bias training.  It’s something.  However, I have been through such training.  It can be useful if you are ready to listen and meaningless if you treat it as a check box so you can get back to work.  I am innately distrustful of institutional training on social issues.  As a manager for years in corporate America, I spent days in such training and saw theories come and go.  I don’t trust that going big ever really changes minds.

I have been trying to understand the incident in small pieces.  The Internet is not good at this.  Small things become big themes and agendas in micro-seconds.  People are attached to grandiosity.

It seems clear that the incident began with fear.  The manager saw two young black men and reacted.  I wonder about her.  Manager at Starbucks is what now passes for a great job in America.  Benefits, stability, a working wage.  Maybe she supports a family.  Much at stake in how she does that job.  Why was she afraid?  What had her boss told her was “policy?”

I have seen some ridicule of the idea of “white fear.”  I get it.  But our minds don’t.   Fear, no matter the source, is processed quickly, often beyond intellect.  In general, much that we see as bias is rooted in a fear of the other.  Any other.  Could that manager have been a raging racist?  It’s possible.  Philadelphia can be a tough town, no shortage of interracial tension there.  Or did she have a more personal fear.

I lived in Washington DC in the early 80’s.  The city was 80% black.  (Now, it less than 50% black.  The waves of immigration and gentrification are at work there too.)  I was a liberal from a small town, with all the naiveté that implies.  In rapid succession, in a 100 yard radius from our rented townhouse, I was robbed on the street, stopped a young man from breaking into our house, escaped a second robbery by talking and moving fast and saw someone break an Orange Soda bottle in the face of a Korean store owner across the street over a stollen donut.  All of the actors were young black men. 

Moments like that create a powerful street radar.  Young black men made me afraid. Some people like to believe that stereotypes can always be overwhelmed by our big brains.  But stereotyping, profiling, is a lizard brain survival mechanism.  The amygdala responds with fight or flight.  I am sure that when cops walked toward them the young black men felt that little rush of adrenaline.  It’s how humans survive.  When I hear about the reaction of the manager, I wonder, what else was going on for that person? 

[And still…when I moved to Portland in the mid 80’s, I felt most comfortable in the Albina/Killingsworth neighborhood.  I got my unemployment checks there and hung out at the Killingsworth library.  Fear or not, it felt like the place I had recently known.  Humans are strange that way.  Later, when I met some West Side types, I was questioned about hanging out in the “wrong” part of town.  Yea, there it is again, ignorance and fear.]

What strikes me the most about the Starbucks incident is the number of times fear could have been defused then transformed.  

There are two Starbucks across from City Hall.  It was THE offsite meeting place.  All day long people sit in those stores drinking nothing…white people.  If I am the young black men, I am pissed off when I start getting treated differently.  I can be dogmatic and a bit of a hothead.  I have a sensitive trigger for injustice.  

Still, here was the first moment to begin to understand and defuse.  What if, once the manager’s fear was apparent, one of the men had tossed down $2.25 for a small coffee?  What would have changed?  Blaming the victim some would yell!  What about refusing the victim narrative and assuming a different position of power?  Use the restroom, talk to the manager, try to connect on a small human level.  By taking the money issue (the Starbucks corporate issue) off the table, there would be time for the men to ask the manager, and themselves, “What do you want?”

I have come to realize that that small question is vital in human interactions.  We are all seeking something, in each breathing moment.  If you accept that as true, then paths suddenly open.  As we fall into the social interaction traps of tribalism and big ideas, all catalyzed by the Internet, I often find it difficult to figure out what people really want.  What human scale outcome would satisfy us?

Once the men sat back down, and didn’t leave, the police were called.  The police were stuck in the middle.  They didn’t wake up that morning thinking they wanted this moment in Starbucks to be their day.  I am not surprised 6 cops came.  If they have backup available, safety in numbers. The manager, speaking as the property has the  legal right to control who is in the store.  Having been asked to enforce that right, the police asked the men to leave. 

I asked myself, if I was angry and felt disrespected, would I want to push the envelope and make the incident bigger.  Make a point.  Maybe so.  In one respect the young men still had the power.  Again, what do you want? However, at this point, no doubt they too were afraid.  I don’t believe the police wanted to cuff them, but I assume it was the only way they could legally and safely compel the men to leave the store.  Now we have the anger, legality, policy and momentum in control.  Is that what everyone wanted?  No doubt at this point the men know knew that everything was being filmed, a different route to power.

What about the police?  By all accounts they were professional.  But here was another point in the episode where civil human interaction could have changed the outcome.  The man the young men were meeting with had arrived.  What if, once outside, the police took off the cuffs and just talked to the 3 men?  Once out of the store, the manager’s fear is addressed.  Here was an opportunity for the police to talk to all the parties.  You don’t need 6 cops for that.  A couple of cops, in community policing mode, could have worked with all parties, opened a safe dialogue.  Hell, they could have bought coffee.  They were in the right place.  That’s a lot to put on beat officers.  They aren’t social workers but they are street smart and know the power of conversation.  It would have taken less time to talk about what happened than doing the arrest paperwork.

This few moments in a Starbucks was littered with opportunities squandered.

While I don’t think big trainings do much good, I do know that changing one mind, face  to face, has a lasting impact.  There was no way any of the people in that store could resolve societal bias, fear or racism.  Those goals are simply beyond their collective power in that moment.   But there was a way for at least 3 people to lower fear and create new understanding.  A single mind, a single fear, challenged and changed has a lasting impact.  That person’s new understanding echoes in their life as a what Christians call “a Witness.”  Connections made with risk and compassion have a lasting and multiplying impact.

How we answer the question, “What do you want?” is important. If your answer is a big themed, I want the kind of archetypal change in collective consciousness that will change the world…then you best get over yourself.  You only control your thoughts, your actions and your emotions.  If at…say…Starbucks, you ask “What do you want?” and realize that in that moment you have a chance to have an effect on just one person, then you are probably on the right path.

Update 4/21/18:  (I have listened to the police calls and seen other video.)  It turns out that the female manager was operating under instructions to call the police if someone didn’t buy anything and refused to leave.  She actually went to the table of the two men, asked if she could get them something.  She doesn’t seem to have taken any effort to explain the policy and went right to the phone.  There was no mention of race in her call nor the police radio traffic.  The police asked the men to just leave and they refused.  They had agency until they were cuffed.  Fear and surprise may have prevented action.  So many chances to have a different outcome.

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The Commissioner and The Baseball


What is the strangest relationship you have ever had?  Was it in your family, so you had no choice?  Did you have a lover that whose very existence in your life now baffles you?  Did you have a boss who you are now sure was a sociopath?  No one gets through life without a strange relationship or ten.

When I jumped careers and got into politics, I sampled candidates for Portland city council.  I met Nick Fish at a leadership lunch.  He was funny, engaged and energetic.  People I barely knew, but respected, said he was a good guy.  When, a couple of weeks later, he asked me to work with him on his campaign I was all in.  That was it.  Just that simple.

I just showed up at his first public forum at the Unitarian Church. I watched, listened and took notes.  Little details: like how he sat at the table, where he looked when other candidates spoke and of course the content of his answers.  He had run a tough race before so he was no rookie, but to my eyes he was clearly rusty.  After the event ended, I told him I had notes.  His response was, “Great, let me buy you some sushi.”  As he woofed  down California rolls, we went over my critique in great detail.  So began an almost 8-year collaboration.

I have a healthy ego and am also a ninja level introvert.  Nick has a robust ego and is a black belt extrovert.  I quickly discovered my favorite place at his political events was leaning against the back wall.  Nick has both the need and skill to somehow connect with almost anyone in a room.  I am a wreck if I anticipate any public speaking.  Nick gets antsy when he isn’t on the dais.  This social interaction yin and yang made us almost a perfect match as elected and staffer.  My homer runs were watching words I had written cause a palpable impact on a room when they were coming out of his mouth.

Nick and I are about the same age.  Our life story roots could not be more different. Big city and small town.  White collar and blue collar. Jazz and punk rock.  Fine dining and take-out.  True blue liberal and a mostly moderate.  But we had lived the same American history.  The two of us were a decade, or decades, older than the rest of the team.  And, as the staff changed, we were the last ones who had been there for his first winning campaign.

While my name is only on one City ordinance, I can look at the list of Nick’s most important accomplishments and know that several of them started as a scribble on one of my note pads.  That’s the job.  Mostly invisible.  Getting to the finish line on some of those accomplishments was not easy.  I’m a contrarian.  As political operative I am naturally combative.  Nick is a consensus guy.  Sometimes I turned the volume to 10 knowing he would turn it down to 7.  The entire time I was just trying to avoid the dull, imperceptible hum of 5.

The differences between us could be explosive.  Our idiosyncrasies could annoy the hell out of each other.  There were a few times we were more like angry brothers in a fight.  We yelled at each other behind his closed door.  Sometimes, I was wrong.  Sometimes, he was wrong.  Most often we were both wrong.  But like brothers, once the dust settled, we were fine.  

I remember one time, after a loud, vigorous discussion, I walked out his office door feeling fine.  I looked around the office to see a collection of horrified faces.  Not one of the other team members could even imaging yelling at “The Commissioner.”  I smiled and reassured them we were fine.  “Good meeting.”

The last Christmas I worked with Nick, he invited us all up to his apartment for a “holiday” party.  What no-one but Sally knew is that I almost drove away.  My nervous system was on high alert all the time by that point.  I willed myself into that elevator and made a beeline to the wine glasses when we arrived.   At one point, I went down the hall to the bathroom.  Just inside one of the rooms was a small table with a baseball in a protective cover.  I didn’t touch it but leaned down to see who had signed it.  Sometime later in the evening, I said to Nick in passing something like, “Very cool baseball.”

How I start things and end things is very important to me.  I was angry for a long time about how my time in City Hall ended.  A few months after I left, out of the blue, I got a message from Nick that he wanted to give me something.  I couldn’t meet him then…for a lot of reasons.

Soon after his cancer diagnosis, I went down to the office to meet with him.  I didn’t want to walk into City Hall but it was more important that he know that I was still there for him and his new challenge.  He said he forgot to bring in what he had for me.  It remained a mystery.

With Nick, you are sometimes unsure if you have left a lasting impact on him.  He is restless and tends to focus on who and what is right in front of him.  A few weeks ago, I went to see one of his reelection forums.  I stood in the back of the room as usual.  Afterwards, he made a big deal about having some things for me.  I went down to City Hall a couple days later.

One of the first things I did for Nick was staff the discussions that pushed my beloved Portland Beavers, and baseball, out of town and brought in the Timbers.  I was mortified and angered.  I haven’t ever recovered.  When I used to go to games at Civic Stadium and see old guys keeping score, I would tell friends, “Look at those guys.  That is my retirement.”  Endless “celebrations” of soccer in City Hall were fingernails on my baseball blackboard.  I have not set foot in the stadium since the Beavers left.   What would be the point?  A handful of the dirt from around home plate from the last game is in a plastic bag on my desk.  A relic in my personal baseball shrine.

I sat across from Nick on his Ikea couch and he brought out a bag.  First, he handed me a signed first edition of a book called “Slide!”. (Nick collects first editions…so this was a big deal.)  He then told me that he knew I would never recover from losing the Beavers but he had found some things in his book store rambles that might help.  First, he gave me a written and pictorial history of the Beavers (very cool) and, I have no idea where he found this, an official 2002 Portland Beavers program.  Funny thing is, I was so poor when I started to go to Beavers games that I didn’t buy the program. I could afford just the lineup/scorecard for 50 cents.  The program had me on the edge of tears.

As we talked about the books he kept one hand in the bag.  Then he said, “I have a family of soccer fans and I wanted this to be with someone who would appreciate it and take good care of it.”  Out came the baseball I had seen in his apartment.  Mounted on a dark wood stand, it is a ball signed to his father, the congressman, “For Cong. Fish   With Best Wishes   Fay Vincent.”  Vincent was the commissioner of baseball.  What I hadn’t seen the first time is that the ball was stamped “OFFICIAL BALL 1991 ALL-STAR GAME.” And, real baseball fans will get the importance of this.  The ball was rubbed in and appears to be game used. 

My relationship with Nick is one of the strangest of my life.  But don’t confuse strange with bad.  From his journey to Portland politics to my dumping a long career to chase a political dream, almost everything about our time together was improbable.  Still, somehow we managed to leave indelible marks on each other’s lives.  As I parted, I did something that had never happened between us before.  I gave the Commissioner a hug.


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Signifiers — Thoughts From the Coast


Signifier: a symbol, sound, or image (such as a word) that represents an underlying concept or meaning.

Admittedly, this is a damn strange word to have stuck in my head for months. When I obsess over a word the bubble usually bursts fairly quickly. A second cup of tea or a first glass of wine and it is gone. But this word signifier haunts me. It is thrust upon me every day. It has a life of its own. And this morning it came rushing at me in my Twitter feed.

CNN posted a conversation (there’s a word I have grown to despise) with a, now standardized, group of Trump supporters. I could best describe them as “church ladies.” I don’t use that description lightly or in a sneering way. These are the women I grew up with in the pews of a Southern Baptist church. Kind, loving, the first at your door with food when someone has died or to call and say they are praying for you when a relative is in the hospital. No sweeter folks on the planet.

The topic, of course, was the Stormy Daniels interview. Simply put, they weren’t having any of it. Their president had been redeemed and the porn star was…well…a porn star. Ten women in a room and not an ounce of doubt. Try though she might to tease out a scintilla of hesitation, the interviewer was a ship on the rocks against the uniform support of the president. They wrapped him in God and country. We shall not be moved. Why?

And here’s that word: signifier. For his supporters, Trump has become a symbol, a collection of meanings that has become unified whole. You simply cannot challenge any part of Trump as signifier. To do so challenges belief and belief is the product of faith. If you were to apply the fact of an affair with a porn star to any other individual who is not a signifier, the moral compass of these women would swing to true north. Talk of forgiveness would be tempered with some good Old Testament judgement.

But you understand the power of a signifier, right? Each of us gathers a collection of things, places, ideas and people that become our whole world view. I have a German sports coupe, a small, snooty library in my reading nook, have no use for movies based on comic books, only drink my liquor straight up, meditate every night and will never be found in a church. We all can make that list. You can paint the picture of me. You can see my signifiers.

I once saw a picture of the parking lot of the Texas Rangers. For as far as you could see the lot was full of big pick-ups and SUV’s. Looking at the cars in a parking lot tells you a great deal about the people around you. Next time you pull into a parking lot in Portland, look around you. We aren’t in Texas, hell we are not even in Eastern Oregon. Our transportation choice is part of our signifier package.

Perhaps one the greatest signifiers in America is the semi-automatic, military-style long rifle. For many owners, it represents freedom and security. Part of the reason they see that weapon in that light is the brilliant marketing of the NRA. When you can link a thing to a thought and then to an emotion it takes on a life of its own. Any good sales person, any good ad copy writer, any political hack and any good carnival barker knows this as a fact. When the thing is no longer a thing, emotion, not rationality becomes the decider.

As I have written here before, we are deep in the genetic code tribal creatures. Creating and maintaining signifiers is a survival mechanism. At its mostly harmless level, we become fanatics for a sports team. In its most frightening manifestation, we are all capable of genocide if we genuinely believe our tribe with its signifiers is threatened.

We should not be baffled that the church ladies have no problem with a president so fundamentally out of their carefully molded moral comfort zone. To question his acts breaks their stronger covenant with their tribe…their team. It takes both an immense courage and a contrarian nature to detach a signafier from your broader collection of those acts, people and ideas which define you.

I think we are in a unique and precarious moment. What is new is the depth and persistence of signifier reinforcement. Social media is designed to keep you engaged by showing you what you want to see. The commerce engine of the web is maintained by thousands of brilliant masters of information manipulation. Even news that seems to appear in front of you spontaneously is the result of careful analysis of your habits. What you see confirms what you think, and when you make choices on where to get information away from the web you seek that same happy sensation the web does so well.

The power of signifiers is universal. I cringe when I see someone roll, without taking a breath, from an angry critique of one person’s signifier to a lusty defense of their own signifier. The path out of this madness is a tough one. It requires a willingness to isolate any one signifier and challenge it. Is that person, that idea or that thing really helpful to who you would like to be? Note, I said who you would like to be, not who you think you are. The ultimate escape from the trap of the signifier is to know none of us are immutable. Inevitably, time and circumstance will change us or we can chose to change ourselves.

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Portland’s Jefferson High — Why the Name is Essential



Over the years, the nascent movement to rename Portland’s Thomas Jefferson High School has bubbled just under the surface. Sometimes the heat gets turned up and the discussion breaks out again. We are, once again, in one of those moments.

I get it, don’t you? Some of America’s Founders were slave holders, Jefferson and Washington chief among them. Why would we want children, especially African-American children to have to attend a school named after a slave holder?

Across the country, especially after Charlottesville, civic leaders are confronted with the question of what to do with statues of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. Almost instinctively, I thought they should be taken down. It’s a tough decision for elected leaders. As an amateur historian, I have to pause a moment to consider what we will lose if we willy-nilly start removing monuments and names of buildings that some find offensive. Consider Thomas Jefferson.

As a graduate student, I spent considerable time looking deeply at the Declaration of Independence. I remember standing mouth agape when I got to see it in person in Washington DC. My study was focused on the references to God in the document. The language just didn’t seem to square with what I knew about Jefferson’s Diest/Enlightenment philosophy. Many people don’t realize that we can actually look at the “Rough Draft” of the Declaration.

The Continental Congress assigned 5 members to write the Declaration. While Jefferson was the primary author, and extremely protective of his text, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin offered important edits. You can see them on the Rough Draft, in their hand. Still, the draft went to the entire Congress (the committee of the whole) almost completely with Jefferson’s original text.

Here’s one reason renaming Jefferson High School would do such a disservice to generation of students. In Jefferson’s original text he condemned slavery:

…(King George III) has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating it’s most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. this piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the CHRISTIAN king of Great Britain. determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce….”

That’s right, Jefferson, the slaveholder, wrote a condemnation of slave trade. This passage is ripe for discussion as he didn’t condemn slave ownership and referred to the white southern fear of slave revolt. However, his moral compass swung wildly, challenging the entire system in a draft of one of our founding documents.

The Committee of the Whole deleted all of Jefferson’s language on slavery and inserted references to God that he never contemplated. Why?

Walking into a school named after Jefferson presents the delicious opportunity to teach children critical thinking. By critical thinking I mean the challenge of holding two opposing thoughts in one’s head at the same time and drawing conclusions about what that tension means. Every building name, every monument, presents everyone with this opportunity. Excising building names and monuments is simply the sugar high of intellectual avoidance. “Safe spaces” are places where truly difficult conversations are suppressed. When these kids become adults (and before as we have seen in the actions against gun violence) there will be no place to hide from things that induce discomfort. We do them no favors by setting avoidance down in concrete.

A recent episode of 60 Minutes on Civil War monuments offered one of the most interesting takes on this issue I have seen. Richmond Virginia, the capital of the Confederacy, has a long monument boulevard anchored with huge statues of Confederate icons. The city’s black mayor has put together a committee to decide what to do with the statues. A member of that committee is an African-American professor from the University of Richmond, Julian Hayter.

Dr. Hayter makes the point that most of the confederate statues were erected at the height of Jim Crow laws in the south. The nation-wide explosion of Klu Klux Klan activity in the 1920’s also brought a surge of monument making.

Dr. Hayter said, “The Lost Cause, quite frankly, is just the Confederate reinterpretation of the Civil War. It’s created almost immediately after the war ends by Confederate leadership. it was hard for a lot of people, in my estimation, to believe that their ancestors died and– and fought for an ignoble cause. 600-and-some-odd-thousand people died in the Civil War. Which is more Americans than died in the second World War. And people had to make sense of that. Believers in the Lost Cause who raised money to build monuments in town and cities across the country were often veterans or their widows and children. Lost Cause ideology portrayed Confederate soldiers as heroes defending states’ rights against northern aggression, and downplayed slavery’s role in causing the war.”

Then Dr. Hayter took a turn that caught me by surprise. As a historian he wants the statues to stay.

“There are 75 million people in the south who are the descendants of– Confederate soldiers. And who I am to tell them that– they cannot celebrate their ancestor in a particular way? But I also have ancestors who were the victims of the slave system, and I see no reason why we can’t find a usable way to tell two stories, or tell multiple stories.”

There it is, critical thinking. He continued:

“I’m suggesting we do a little bit of historical jujutsu. I’m– right? I’m suggesting we use the scale and grandeur of those monuments against themselves. I think we lack imagination when we talk about memorials. It’s all or nothin’. It’s leave ’em this way, or tear ’em down. As if there’s nothin’ in between that we could do to tell a more enriching story about American history.

Historians call it recontextualization, the addition of signs or markers with information about when and why the statues were built to help people see old monuments in a new light.”

He is advocating for using our collective discomfort as a moment to pursue the truth of these monuments in a clear-eyed way, to destroy the myth-making with facts and turn the existence of labels and moments into perpetual teaching moments. He then came to the crux of what I think is the case to keep the name of Thomas Jefferson High.

“…the critical difference between Washington and Jefferson and Lee, and men like Lee, is that while Washington and Jefferson were com– complicated individuals– and by our standards– thought about ideas in– in an entirely anachronistic way– they also baked in the Constitution the components that allowed people to dismantle– the slave system. They built as much as they destroyed. I cannot say the same thing for the Confederacy.”

Dr. Hayter challenges us all to go into our anger and fear in order to seek the truth of a things as they were and are. This is rich, rewarding ground if we have the courage to walk it.

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