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

lloyd center

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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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?


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


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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