Mozy is Blind

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“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?

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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

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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

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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

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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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Who Are These Kids? #neveragain

 

NENIAULOEFCSBG67N26AOPS3RYAfter the Parkland Valentine’s Day massacre, the first time I knew this was going to be different was when I saw those kids on television. I kept saying out loud, “Who are these kids?” Poised. Articulate. Smart. Grieving and fed up with the status quo, they are unwilling to accept that they can be randomly killed for the crime of coming to school. After I asked who those kids are, my second thought was, “These poor fucking kids. The evil that is coming their way. God, I hope they can survive it.”

The questions about them came immediately. But thanks to the Washington Post, we now know were those questions came from. It wasn’t just people being incredulous that they were so calm and well-spoken. No, the Post went deep into the internet and discovered a well orchestrated attack:

Forty-seven minutes after news broke of a high school shooting in Parkland, Fla., the posters on the anonymous chat board 8chan had devised a plan to bend the public narrative to their own designs: “Start looking for [Jewish] numerology and crisis actors.”
The voices from this dark corner of the Internet quickly coalesced around a plan of attack: Use details gleaned from news reports and other sources to push false information about one of America’s deadliest school shootings.
The posters on anonymous forums, a cauldron of far-right extremist politics… began crafting false explanations about the massacre, including that actors were posing as students, in hopes of blunting what they correctly guessed would be a revived interest in gun control.

That’s right. 47 minutes. Children were still bleeding out and the plan to discredit them was underway.

I worked on the early internet, when it was still a mostly academic idea. One of the happy concepts was that this new technology would allow people across the planet to come together to do great things. We were hopeful…maybe we still are…but we did not anticipate the evil that this new medium would enable. The trolls. The bots. The corruption of democracy. And especially, the desire to attack innocent kids.

Still, the high school kids kept at it. What the evil guys, the NRA and the politicians didn’t understand was that this event was playing out in their world, not ours. From their earliest days, these kids were handed devices connected to the internet. They live by and in front of their phones. They have been on camera for years, of course they are comfortable being interviewed. When attacked on Twitter their response is quick and devastating. After days of unbalanced Twitter warfare between sharpe witted kids and adults one Boston Globe reporter said, “Y’all don’t understand. This is their turf.”

The more I thought about the Florida kids and their talents and persistence it finally came to me that decades apart, I am them. My high school friends are them. Early on, I fearlessly debated adults. I gained more skills debating at the Model United Nations. My best friends were the editor of the school newspaper, the head of the debate team and a guy who wrote the most amazing biting satire. Put 21st century tools in our hands, kill our classmates and you think we wouldn’t be on CNN or organizing marches? Come on. Those kids are us.

The skinny, tanned kid who is a leader showed up on television is his debate team t-shirt. He is a reporter on the school television station and during the shooting, like a war reporter, used his phone to interview his classmates as they hid. He wanted a record if they didn’t make it. His buddy is a lead actor in the drama department. Does anybody really think, given the speed of their reaction to the murder of their classmates they needed to be coached? Oh sure, sometimes they say things that are completely over the top. They are just kids. But they are doing way better in this moment than many adults. Have you watched NRA TV lately? Talk about over the top.

I saw a vicious series of adult attacks on 3 of the kids were smiling and laughing in a video. The attackers asked, how could they be happy? Grief is funny sometimes. I joined 5 men in carrying my best friend to his grave. His grave is at the top of a hill. We were given the coffin to carry up that hill. Half-way up we were faltering. It was so heavy. Alone on our journey tip that hill, I turned to my compatriots and cracked a joke, “Damn it, I told John to lay off the pasta.” We all laughed and I know that is what got us up that hill. Grieving children get to smile now and again.

Have organizations who share their cause and goals now jumped in with money and support. Fuck yes! It is a crisis of the highest order that kids are dying in schools. Like any crisis, Americans are generous and supportive.

Unlike previous shootings, weeks after, the conversation continues to echo. Corporate America has seen the polling. Their customers want simple measures to restrict access to assault weapons. Suddenly, they too are unafraid of the gun manufacturers lobby. The Republicans will slow walk this and pray they have to do nothing. The president talks out of both sides of his mouth. Bottomline, these kids are not going away.

Finally, the trauma. It is so real for them. The Times made that point:

This is the reality that confronts students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School when the cameras turn off and the day’s rallies are over. They have won praise for their strength and eloquence on the world’s stage. But even as they raise millions of dollars and plan nationwide rallies, parse the details of assault-weapons laws and spar with politicians and conservative critics, the young survivors of the massacre are struggling with the loss of their friends and educators, and the nightmares that flood back in moments of stillness.

In trauma, you find the things you can control and you hold them as tightly as possible. The reason they have not been manipulated is because their words and their actions are the ultimate thing they can control. I can’t imagine anyone being able to take that thin tread of basic human survival from them. These are our kids, maybe the best we will every have the privilege to see and I stand with them.

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Are you a White Supremacist too?

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The big, heavy blunt instrument feels so good. Anyone who has swung a sledgehammer knows how productive it feels. But that same person knows that the sledgehammer is indiscriminate. It destroys and often misses the mark. To build and finish the job you have to put it down. Finer tools are slow and tedious. If you are tired and angry and impatient, justly impatient, the sledge hammer of indiscriminate language feels right…no…righteous. But the lack of care will most likely result in more damage than was needed to do the job.

I scribbled down that paragraph on a piece of paper that has been shoved aside on my desk for months. It was a response to a communication from the City that talked in certain, breezy terms about “white supremacy.”

Anyone who has worked for a public entity, and many private companies , has attended mandatory training about the subtle trap of “white privilege.” Basically, it is the current popular sociological construct that if you are born white in America you have built in edge in society, work, safety and economics. Training in that area is helpful to raise consciousness about all the subtle, and not so subtle, ways people of color are continually shoved to the end of the line, aspirations suppressed, by white people’s conscious and unconscious identification with race.

Sociological and biological analysts tells us that our brains are wired for the quick identification of our tribe. As primal beings, that is how we survived. Those genes don’t just disappear. Physical appearance, skin color, is probably the first filter. Fortunately, as with much of our biological coding, our big brains can overcome the wiring that kept us alive on the ancient Savannah.

Unfortunately, the useful concept of white privilege has now been coupled with a new, broad definition of white supremacy. Basically, if you are a beneficiary of white privilege you are a white supremacist. That use of the phrase strike anyone else as odd? For millions of Americans, a white supremacist is easy to recognize. They are evil, racist Klan members or Neo-NAZIs. This was something we could once all agree on. The phrase set boundaries in society and labeled clear and present dangers.

The movement that is promoting the broader use of white supremacy is first generational. If you went to college in the last 5 years, you know what it means. It is part of a current trend toward linguistic judo. Take a term with an accepted definition, redefine it, and use that new definition to throw a monkey wrench in the power dynamic. This isn’t a new concept.

Oh, I totally get it. If I was a 20 year old college student, sick and tired of the existing inequities and power structure I’d be right there doing my part to practice linguistic hammer locks. In the past, cops became pigs and “the man” became not an admired figure but the enemy. Ever hear two young women greet each other with a cheery “bitch!” Yea, word meanings are fluid.

Here is my concern. There was a very recent time when the word “racist” had a powerful and direct meaning. That label could stop someone dead in their tracks. You looked up if someone used that word in a conversation. The label was hard and meaningful. Now, I sense a dilution in the meaning of the word. Over my 8 years in City Hall it went from a rare, powerful indictment to commonplace description. It gets tossed around for any variety of real or perceived reasons. In fact, I have stopped trusting the label at all. If I hear it or read it, I may use it as a signifier to warrant a further look at an incident or person, but the word doesn’t stop me cold. That’s awful. I preferred the former clarity.

Broad definitions of white supremacy also create barriers to change. My fear is that someone who could be reached, even challenged in their belief system, will become lazy in the face of being tossed into the sauce with people they see as being genuinely evil. I think they will be pushed over the divide themselves and simply give up on the hard work of developing compassion. Given no opening, they will stubbornly acquiesce to ideas and actions of the hate mongers and demagogues. I believe this is the case with some meaningful portion of Trump supporters. “Oh, yea, if that’s what you think then, fuck you!” How often did we hear that in surprising quarters?

Is this what was intended with the easy use of loaded language? After the feel good expression, did you intend to cut off all possibility of a simple conversation that, with luck, could lead to hard conversations? After the heady buzz of empowerment that comes from turning language on its head, what’s next? What do you really want?

Increasingly, what I hear is that people just want to be heard. Fair enough. Who doesn’t want to be heard and respected. Long silenced and misunderstood voices down front! Let’s hear you. But in any listening process there comes a moment when you have been heard. The listener then takes over. They get chose or challenge what you have said. They get to demand next steps or walk away. Comprehension is not an end result. It is merely a potential catalyst. Time doesn’t stop. Endless “conversation” becomes tedious to even the most committed participant. This is precisely what we saw happen to the Occupy Movement.

When I wrote that first paragraph, I was breaking up an old sidewalk. The sledge bounced off a piece of concrete and hit me in the thumb. That was back in May of 2017. Looking down at that thumb now, the last of the blood under my nail is finally at the tip of my thumb. Blunt instruments are great right up until they aren’t and it takes a long time to heal.

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Coward? You May Never Know

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I can’t stop thinking about the case of Scott Peterson, the school resource officer at Stoneman Douglas High School. For 5 minutes, as shots rang out in a school building, he chose to wait outside. After 33 years as a cop, he has retired. The one word that has to be echoing in his ears is “coward.”

We all like to think that if he had acted lives would have been saved. Some say, rightly, that it was his duty. He chose to be a police officer and swore an oath to protect the innocent. Still, I wonder about the place where oaths and duty meet reality.

I read once that during the Civil War soldiers survived heated battles with muskets that had never been fired. Stranger still were tales of weapons that had ball after ball jammed down the muzzle until there was no more space to put them. The soldier had simply and robotically loaded and loaded without ever firing. From other wars, we know of accounts of men who fired their weapons but never at another human being.

A cop with that long on the force undoubtedly knew the sound of an AR15. He knew what he was up against. Outgunned. He knew what was happening in that building. And it seems pretty clear that he froze. We may discover it was fear. We may find out that he was waiting for backup, against protocol. But there it is again. Oath…Duty…Protocol. Those are abstractions, far removed from reality.

Cadet Bone Spurs, he of the 5 deferments to keep him from Viet Nam, said that Scott Peterson didn’t act because he didn’t love the kids. Nonsense. He was a commended cop who had been selected as school resource officer of the year. At the end of his career, he chose to work with kids. His commendations say he had great interpersonal skills. In short, he was exactly the type of officer that parents would be thankful to have in their kids’ school.

And when the president puffs his chest and yells “coward,” I only see a bully. It is too easy to kick a man who is prostrate on the ground. The toy soldier Cadet is man of privilege, who avoided his moment to be tested. He lost his right to judge Scott Peterson.

There is a difference between a protector and a warrior. That’s something we should keep in mind with all this talk of armed teachers. It seems clear that Peterson, based on his choices, saw himself as a protector. He was good at it. But it is entirely different to be a warrior, the type of person who is willing to give their life for another and kill another human being. Most police officers can go an entire career without using their weapon. But for the grace of god, they will never have to know what they would have done in Scott Peterson’s 5 minutes outside that building.

Fear is tricky. Sometimes people take the mental strain and physical effects of fear and rise to heights of action and courage. Other people do seemingly stupid things that in the moment they thought were essential self-preservation. We are designed to survive.  Fear is the great equalizer. None of us know for sure how we would act when faced by the final sacrifice. We’d like to think we would rise to the occasion. History tells us that isn’t how it works out for many people.

Was Scott Peterson a coward? I can’t be that judge. He seems like a man who has lived a good life and will now have to live the horror of a fatal decision. His fate is a very human one. For that I can only have compassion.

 

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Why Live Music Keeps Me Alive

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I saw my first live rock show at 13 years old. In 1968, my mom dropped my buddy Gregg and I at the fair grounds so we could see Iron Butterfly. The opening act, from San Francisco, was called Floating Bridge. I remember almost everything about that show. We were two skinny kids sitting amongst real hippies. I smelled marijuana for the first time and recall the bizarre detail that a roadie came out and lit two pans of lighter fluid at the feet of the lead guitarist during the closing song, In A Gadda Da Vida. I knew then that I was in love for the first time.

Behind me, on my office wall, is a big poster I made of a time slice of ticket stubs. For decades, I would come home from shows and toss the night’s ticket stub in a desk drawer. Not all the stubs made it home, but almost a couple hundred did. (Some shows are just 5 bucks and a stamp on the hand and I hate tickets on my phone for this reason.) The first one is The Who from Washington DC in 1979. The last one is David Bowie in Portland in 2004.

The poster is my live music archeological dig. Rock followed by the 80’s where I was obsessed to find and see every living Delta and Chicago blues artist. (Yea, I saw Muddy Waters, BB King, Frank Frost, Robert Jr. Lockwood, James Cotton, Buddy Guy, Koko Taylor…I could keep going.) The 90’s I was back to rock with Riot Girls and Grunge bands. There was a new savageness in the post-punk artists that I still love. I wasn’t a Satyricon guy. I hung at Pine Street and La Luna. I loaded up on bands from the Pacific NW. Especially Portland bands.

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This could be just another fucking old man telling stories about the past essay, but it’s not. I long ago realized that live music is what feeds my soul. I knew that at 13. Most people who go out to clubs stop in their late 20’s. I have seen 4 generations of twenty-somethings come and go. Most think they are too old for that live music scene, which is often synonymous with having kids. I am my kid. I never stopped going to shows. I can’t imagine life without live music. When I am cranky and being a jerk, my wife orders me to go to a show and clear my head.

My two oldest nieces are exceptions to the stop seeing live music rule. I like to think I had a hand in that. When the oldest was 13, I took her to a Pond show at La Luna. She was adorable, dressed up on a party dress, a stark contrast to the local kids dressed in black and smoking clove cigarettes. The next niece I took to an X and Supersuckers show at the Starry Night (now Roseland). It was so hot that my glasses fogged up when we walked up the stairs and I think we both marveled that in a black leather jacket Billy Zoom did not sweat. I told her I was sure he was actually a lizard.

There are moments at shows were I get to leave my mind and body. The always present background hum of anxiety suddenly melts away. A chill starts in my legs and goes to the top of my head. I feel the base notes and drums pounding into my chest. The lead guitar massages my body in waves. And, with no thought, I am smiling, even laughing out loud. If I was a mystic, I would say I was having a moment of ecstasy. No drugs. All welling up from the experience, a truly Zen moment.

Earlier this week, joined by my partner in crime Bob, I was at a Mary Timony show at Mississippi Studios. She is from DC and has an amazing lineage in independent rock. I saw her once in the shot-lived Riot Girl supergroup Wild Flag playing next to Carie Brownstein. From the first song, Bob and I looked at each other wide-eyed, both knowing we were seeing something special. Three songs in I got that chill sensation. I wasn’t the only one. Unlike a lot of shows these days, there was no sea of cell phones filming and taking pictures in front of me. People were just there, in the moment.

You have to know music to know what she and her amazing band were doing. Forehead to forehead with her rhythm guitar bandmate doing duet that was a spot on imitation of Duane Allman and Dickie Betts. Later, neck trapping like Eddie Van Halen. A cover of a song from a Joe Walsh album that 13 year old Jim had in his collection. (Uh, still does.) And, just to show her DC roots, a punk version of one of her Helium songs that would have made Minor Threat proud. Sometimes being an old dude watching a great artist is pretty cool when you have all those music references in your head.

I once violated what my love of music was trying to tell me. I decided to do my 40th birthday at La Luna seeing the all woman hurricane called Babes in Toy Land. I invited everyone from my first batch of Portland friends. I later learned that most of them got to the door, heard the band and didn’t come in. They were already too old for that. I should have dumped them then, not years later.

The two people who did come in for the show are a woman who is still one of my wife’s closest friends and my dear departed John. He was late, as usual. He found me upstairs and handed me a ballpoint pen and said, “Happy Birthday.” Uh…what? “Open it,” he said. Inside was a joint replacing the ink. He pulled out a lighter and we got high while watching the Babes. (No time here for the full tale about how he got the joint from Gus Van Sant after giving him a ride up to his house.)

If you have something that you love, then love it. Other people’s perceptions about how to age and what you should be doing are simply nonsense. See you at a show. I’ll be in the back drinking Irish whiskey and waiting for the wave.

Don’t forget your ear plugs.

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What Congress Can Do About Guns…Now!

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We have all seen this before. Right? Predictable violence against innocents followed by thoughts and prayers. Grieving people build shrines of flowers and balloons and painted signs. All of the news networks put their anchors on sleek Gulfstream 5 jets and get them to the scene of the crime. Time for the standup in front of the new shrines, endlessly looping blurry cell phone video of terrorized people with a pop…pop…pop gunfire soundtrack. Always calm emergency room doctors talking about how they practice triage for days like this. Mass casualty events. Events. If the story stays hot the networks may be there for…oh…2 days. Grave faced politicians weigh in on the TV. Flags lowered. Flags back up. The clock is already ticking on the next shooting. Dare I say it? It is getting kind of boring, the whole pattern, isn’t it?

Heart broken lefties start talking about gun control and righties say, “Too Soon.” Except…. Yesterday I happened to be in my car at exactly noon. I decided to see what Lars Larson was saying was important on February 14. He opened saying there was early news of a possible…possible…shooting at a school in Florida. His next sentence? Florida, like Oregon and Washington doesn’t allow teachers concealed carry of guns in schools. Too soon for politics? In City Hall I saw Lars and the gun he always carries. Yea, in City Hall. As he was making his point, first responders were doing chest compressions on a child in the front yard of an American high school. Too soon…just too soon to talk about the politics of guns.

Today, the right is suddenly concerned about mental health, and surprise, the competence of the FBI. It’s a total dodge. There was nothing, repeat, nothing that could have stopped this. An 18 year-old, legally bought an AR15 military style assault rifle. He passed all checks. Done. We can’t do universal health care so now we are going to have mental health police taking potential shooters off the streets? Las Vegas shooter? Same. Same. He legally built an arsenal including rapid fire enabling bump stocks. Remember them? Yea, you can still order on online today. When righties are talking about mental health you know it is to avoid talking about guns. “Whataboutism” isn’t just for Trump and the Russians. It works on any topic you want to avoid.

I am a gun owner. In my family, guns get handed down generation to generation. Given that, there is no reason to own an AR15 or AK47 style gun. People buy them because they shoot fast and look cool. That’s it. With over 8 million in sales they are the most popular gun in American. They are the very beating heart of the gun industry. When I was a kid, the NRA taught you how to handle guns, now they are simply the lobbying arm of the gun industry. They don’t buy politicians to make better hunters. The buy them to sell more guns.

Need an AR15 for home protection? High velocity rounds were designed for the military to kill with one shot. A round fired in your home will penetrate a wall, even your neighbor’s wall and kill the kid sleeping in the next room or next door. If you need home protection, there is no more intimidating gun than a pump action 12 gauge shotgun. If you bought an AR15 to fight the evil federal government come the revolution, please see your Republican legislator today. They are focusing on mental health issues.

If any military style rifle owner tells you they use it to hunt deer, feel free to tell them they are not actually a hunter. A real deer hunter uses a bolt action rifle. One shot…one kill is the sacred trust of a real hunter. To even think you need a banana clip with 30 rounds to hunt means you don’t trust your skill as a hunter and you need to get to a range with a bolt action rifle and make your shot count. Unleashing a clip at a deer or other animal just means you like shooting fast and looking cool.

When James Madison added the 2nd amendment to the Constitution, I am sure he never considered that someone would take a musket to the local school house and start killing kids…slowly…one at a time. If there had been rapid fire arms in the his time, I am also sure there would have been more detail in the clause that says “well regulated militia.” Advocates for military style rifles are merely hiding behind an amendment written for a different world of technology. What they really want is to shoot fast and look cool. That’s it.

As a political operative, I was always looking for the world of the possible when I advocated for legislation. You need to have the votes to make changes. I think there is one initiative that has the votes.

Today I propose the Bury the Children Free Act. Parents who each day send their kids to school in the sure belief that they will come home at the end of the day should not be burdened with the cost of burying them. When political will, national sanity, compassion and common sense fail, grieving parents should not have to start a Go Fund Me page. That is not the American way.

This bill will have the votes it needs because it isn’t about burying gay people killed in night clubs or tipsy country music fans at a concert. It has no religious constraints as it does not cover people killed in churches. As everyone with any sense always says, “It’s for the children, our hope for the future.” Write or call your member of Congress now and remind them: It’s not about the guns. Nope, it’s never about the guns.

 

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