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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Portland City Hall: It’s the System Stupid

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Portland City government is badly broken but not in the way that some people think. The public servants in City Hall work hard in a world of constraints, endless demands and never enough money or time to meet outsized expectations. That is the nature of the public sector. You can’t make everyone happy.

It’s funny that so many liberals think that the problem with Portland government is the money spent on elections by corporations and bigwigs writing checks. While political systems always favor an incumbent’s ability to raise cash, that isn’t where the corruption lies. Sure, deep pocketed developers write checks and have access but the final decisions are out in the open subject to public scrutiny. Lunch with a commissioner rarely overcomes the grind of Portland’s bureaucracy and endless public process. I heard a hundred pitches from the business insiders that were mostly greeted with smiles and little action. If anything, Council members play the role of contrarians with business interests. That is better politics in Portland.

The real inside game is with the public employee unions. They write some of the biggest political checks and can supply phone banks and political leverage. The unions are on the inside far more than any other interest group. They are the mother’s milk of liberal politics in Oregon, especially Portland. A single call from a union political representative was more likely to effect the final wording of a law than any collection of lunches with fat cats. It always amuses me when the unions spend big money in campaigns demonizing corporations. Pot meet the kettle.

And, don’t underestimate the power of mission specific non-profits in Portland. Proportionally, I spent more time in meetings with representatives of non-profits than any other group. Portland creates non-profits at an alarming rate. People trying to do good things, or just create jobs for themselves, parse issue areas into small slices and end up competing for the same charity or public dollars. And, unknown to most Portlanders, the endless events and fundraisers are actually the most powerful political networking apparatus in the city. Many of the same activists, check writers and powerbrokers can be found at event after event. Do you really think they are just there for the rubber chicken? There are events that local politicians simply cannot miss. People would notice and remember.

No, the problem with Portland’s government is structural. The commission form of government turns out to be the most weird part of what keeps Portland weird. It is a form of local government that has almost completely died out in America…for good reason. Almost every other city has a strong mayor, city manager and commissioners representing districts. We have made runs at correcting this problem, however, it is almost impossible for an outsider to properly diagnose the problem because the biggest problems with our system are mostly invisible to the average resident. As a former insider, I have seen the flaws up close.

First, here’s how it works now. The 5 members of council are elected at large, everyone gets to vote for them. The mayor is merely a member of the council who has 2 big powers. They get to create the City budget and hand out leadership of the various bureaus to the other 4 commissioners and themselves. That’s it. Oh, the mayor, for political reasons, has to be in charge of the police. No fun there.

Flaw Number 1. Everyone on council gets to think of themselves as a mini-mayor. They don’t have a district. At times the “mini-mayor” complex blends with already healthy egos. City-wide elections also mean that candidates need to run more expensive city-wide campaigns. It’s a good thing that a commissioner needs to know the city but it also means that people in parts of the city get lost in the shuffle of mini-mayorness.

Here is a real-world example. In the last few months there has been a contentious transportation issue in my neighborhood. In public settings constituents are left to puzzle out who in City Hall is their advocate. In reality, they don’t have one. The Commission-in-Charge (CinC) of transportation is all about his bureau. In a district system, everyone has an advocate, or at least listener, on council.

Right now 4 council members live on the west side. While some work hard to get out to other neighborhoods and communities, there is really no substitute for living in your district. You learn more on your daily commute and shopping where you live than you ever will in staged events or forums.

Flaw Number 2. I mentioned the idea of the CinC. This is a little mysterious to the outsider but may be the most important feature of city government. The mayor has the power to name the CinC of the city bureaus. This power has been used to both punish and reward commissioners. Commissioners judged as “lightweights” by the mayor get portfolios to match. Commissioners judged as a political threat get bureaus that are difficult and tie them down. Great system…right?

In great part, the identity of a commissioner is linked to their bureau. It is the one place an elected official’s performance can be measured. But think of it, we have a registered nurse in charge of Parks, a lawyer in charge of our public utilities and a book store owner running our development bureau. Really? Some, like my old boss, learn the ropes, get good bureau teams in place and get better at the job of running bureaus. Some never figure it out. Other commissioners are hands off, sometimes to their detriment.

The almost year-long budget process is simply crazy. Commissioners get territorial about their budgets and the internal friction is not about the city budget as a whole but often hand to hand combat over protecting “their” bureaus. Quietly, out of public view, that wrangling goes on for months.

When I say “run” a bureau, I mean right down into the details. The CinC has free rein to get into the details. This can make the professional staff crazy as they chase the momentary ambitions of their CinC. Bureaus often become the political base for a commissioner or mayor. Sam Adams was genius at using the Bureau of Transportation as a headline driving career maker.

I had decades working in a large company and treated the bureaus like small companies. It was a fairly easy translation. But for most elected officials and many in their staff, the day to day management of those small companies is like watching an aardvark play the piano. Amusing, but it just doesn’t make sense.

Flaw Number 3. Let me try Websters: Deference implies a yielding or submitting to the judgment of a recognized superior, out of respect or reverence.

There is a tradition in City Hall of respecting the right of a commissioner to run their bureau. “Their” bureau. The boundaries can blur and become contentious at Council meetings but on day to day basis you simply do not fuck with someone else’s bureau. As a liaison to a bureau I was sometimes an enforcer of those boundaries. At the staff level, you are not even supposed to call someone in another bureau without permission from your peer in another office peer. A commissioner meeting with a director of a bureau not in their portfolio is a territorial five-alarm fire.

Consider this dynamic. We elect commissioners city-wide then limit their oversight in all sorts of ways based on arbitrary bureau assignments. The number of, frankly, dumb things that are done in the name of deference is mind numbing. When bureaus get reassigned to different commissioners the new person gets to clean-up the messes left by the former CinC. In 7.5 years in City Hall, I spent of lot of time taking out the garbage left for us. You pray that if you get a new bureau it comes to you from someone who didn’t screw it up.

Flaw Number 4. Some of the most powerful, longest serving, people in the city are bureau directors. In some cases, they are responsible for hundreds of employees and billions of dollars of infrastructure.

I am proud of how we handled our bureau directors. We replaced directors who where running entrenched little fiefdoms. We did far reaching national searches for the best candidates using community driven panels of interviewers. We had mandatory, detailed yearly reviews of their performance. We wrote yearly expectation letters. And when we were done, our choices became new powerhouse leaders in city government.

Now here’s the hook, a CinC does not have to do any of that. Directors are appointed with no national search. Generally acknowledged awful performers are left in their jobs for years. Some appointees are simply political hacks who represent the personal philosophy of their CinC. They don’t get yearly reviews and if they do it’s simply a rubber stamp. Like I said, good CinC’s get to clean up the messes left for them.

Flaw Number 5. Public bodies, elected and unelected are a tough gig. Driving to consensus is hard work. Portland City Council makes the job harder by design. A system that anoints all members as being elected by the entire city then divides them bureaucratically results in flawed collective oversight and policymaking. Battles over fake turf take up way too much of the days.

To my old boss’s credit, several of our initiatives focused on trying to make the city more strategic. (Insert Fish upstream metaphor.) One of the biggest wins of my career was being the catalyst behind restoring the Chief Financial Officer for the city so council could get strategic financial advice. That’s right. A mayor had decided to get rid of that office. Astounding.

When you have a tradition of deference, battles occur as part of the budget process. The entire council has to arrive at a final budget and they always do and they always congratulate each other endlessly. For me, it was hard to tell if we were actually ever getting any strategic thinking and real oversight. Sometimes, it felt as though we were just eager to be done with the lengthy process and happy to have it out of the way.

Cynic?

Did my dream job in government and politics make me more cynical? I had this discussion with a buddy with whom I got to share some time in the trenches. I ended the conversation this way. Cynicism has a home at the crossroads of hope and monumental impatience. That’s me.

In my corporate and public service careers what made me the most insane was bad systems. I redesign check out lines at the grocery store when I see how they could be more efficient. I can’t help myself. Living the belly of the beast showed me that Portland City Government is a deeply flawed system. Because the design is in the City Charter, it’s also a very high bar to change it. Someday, there will be a serious run at making the changes needed. When that happens don’t believe the defenders of the status quo. Make the change.

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It Was My Hand

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We flew down on my birthday. The funeral was the next morning.

There are few things as consistently lovely as the Southern California weather in November. We had to be at the staging area at exactly 11:31 AM. Not 11:30…11:31. National Cemeteries are both beautiful and run with military precision. It had taken weeks to secure this time. The rapid pace of the passing of the greatest generation makes a National Cemetery a busy place.

The current Blackwoods have a tenuous relationship with our various religions. There would be no church service, just a small commitment ceremony in one of the many concrete gathering places scattered around the cemetery. Mom wanted it that way.

I come from a long line of storytellers. Hillbilly roots easily blend the taciturn and talkative. Long ago, I decided that we are all just our collection of stories. In the weeks between my mother’s passing and the family gathering, four different stories about my Mom played in rotation in my head. In the shower, as I meditated, sitting at stop lights and every night as I tried to sleep, I told those stories to myself. Honing those stories became the quiet work of each day. I never wrote them down, just a few prompts on a piece of paper lest emotion overwhelm me.

Two days before we departed I threw out one of the stories. Three was all I needed to honor my Mom. I wanted to help people laugh. Describe my folks as a couple. Give people an intimate picture of my relationship with my Mom.

My Dad was very much the paternal master of the day. His steadfastness in meeting my Mom’s wishes and embodying his deep love were our guiding light. I will admit that as I sat there looking at the polished wooden coffin that my brother and I had just helped roll into place I had a hard time following his words. My brother had typed the pages for Dad’s script he read but what was most striking was how he broke from that reassuring script to tell the story of his great grandson running to meet him the day before. This story telling thing is deep in the genes.

He turned to me. I stood next to the coffin, not sure if I was next to Mom’s head or feet. I think I laid my crib sheet on the coffin. Strange that. First I thanked my Dad and brother for the loving care they provided for years. Barely got that part out. And then the stories came. In the telling I realized I was calm. I watched people, especially my nieces, laugh and well up with tears as I spoke. One of the most unnatural things I have ever done felt natural…right.

The last story was tough to start.

My Mother called me her space boy. I was born at the right time to grow up with the American space program. I knew everything a kid could know about the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo space capsules. I had a poster of a Saturn 5 rocket, the one that would take us to the moon, on my bedroom wall. Besides Willie Mays my other childhood hero was Ed White the first man to walk in space. I can still summon sadness thinking about him dying in a fire on the pad in Apollo One.

Mom was right there with me about space and the race to the moon. It was this shared love that gave us a ritual…our ritual.

The rockets mostly launched in the early morning from Cape Canaveral in Florida. On launch days, it was often still dark on the west coast. Mom would wake me and we would turn on our black and white TV to watch the launch. For me, this experience always smelled like my Mom’s fresh brewed Yuban coffee.

We’d sit next to each other on the couch and hang on every minute of the countdown. I dreaded halts to the count as I still had to go to school, launch or not. Then the NASA launch control announcer would count down from 10. Mom always stood leaning toward the TV, hands tensely balled in front of her.

Lift off! The bright light from the rockets blurred the television image. Then it happened. She would say, “Go…Go…Go…Go…” I would then join her in the chant. She often made this high pitch sound, that of joy like what you hear when girls gather on a playground. We chanted until the rocket became a small white dot on the TV screen.

When I told that part of the story, I first told everyone what I had felt for the last years of my Mom’s decline with dementia. For me, it felt like she was trapped here on earth and that now she was free. In the story I told, I wanted to say the word “Go” three times. Without thinking, I slapped my hand on the casket with the first “Go.”

Suddenly, I was brought back to earth by the loud sound of my wedding ring hitting the casket. I was shocked at the sound. Solid. Metal on wood. I turned to look at my hand on the casket like it was a foreign body making that noise. “Did I do that?”

I tried to cup my fingers for the second “Go.” Still, that jarring sound. I kind of looked up at everyone, thinking, “Are you hearing that.”

“Don’t do that again,” I thought. I almost didn’t but in the infinite the speed of a racing mind I knew I had no choice. “No. Go ahead. This is what this is. That is your hand. This is Mom’s coffin.” I slapped the wood one more time and finished what I had come there to do.

 

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Sticks and Stones…

IMG_4223Today, George W. Bush made the case against the rise of Trumpism. I don’t doubt the fact that Bush is a genuine patriot deeply concerned about the state of our republic. While I could go into a “lying sack of shit” rant about the Iraq War, I’ll let that one go and focus on the rest of his conservative critique, especially one paragraph from the speech that is getting a great deal of attention.

“Our identity as a nation, unlike other nations, is not determined by geography or ethnicity, by soil or blood. This means that people from every race, religion, ethnicity can be full and equally American. It means that bigotry and white supremacy, in any form, is blasphemy against the American creed.”

These are sentiments that I share. I further believe that tribalism is deep in our genetic code as a survival mechanism. As our oldest ancestors roamed the African savannah, affinity with a group meant food, protection and procreation. America is an experiment in seeking to overcome our most base instincts and unify diverse peoples under an aspirational creed. The founders knew this and above all feared what they called faction. American institutions are designed to suppress faction by creating interdependent layers of power.

However, Bush, from the isolation of his home in Texas, has missed an emerging threat to the creed. It is right there in his choice of language. His understanding of the term “white supremacy” is dated. In the current swirl of the leftist academy, and raging on the Internet, is a virulent attempt to redefine “white supremacy” as an inherent evil based on the pigment of one’s skin. With no irony, many younger Americans see white supremacy as the inherent source of bigotry and the American creed as the institutionalization of oppression.

First, let’s be clear, any attempt on anyone’s part, especially a white man, to critique this semantic shift will be instantly discounted and declared as racism by advocates. The word racist, once reserved for the vilest creatures, is now tossed off with an amazing ease. At first, as a tactic, the use of the word to shock and instantly put an unassuming target on the defensive was effective. In my public service, I was told I was a racist both publicly and privately. In was meant to intimidate. It worked…briefly.

But a funny thing happens when a powerful word is used commonly. It loses its power. I have seen it applied in so many different ways directed at so many different people that now I am almost completely inured to its use. Remember the first time you heard the word fuck uttered in public? It caught you off guard. Now? I bet you barely notice. In fact, it seems weird when people don’t use the word.

For many Americans, those of us with accidental white skin pigment are now all white supremacists. That feels strange, doesn’t it? Until recently, everyone could agree that white supremacists are NAZIs or hooded Klu Klux Klan members. Nope, sorry George, I know whom you were trying to condemn but you are now one of them. I know you meant people like the “white nationalist” ass-wipe who is speaking on a Florida campus today. I know you mean Donald Trump and his henchmen.

So what happens when we can’t collectively agree on the terms used to identify the bad guys? We may have seen one of the possible outcomes. When you throw too wide a net, the fish rebel. How many swing voters identified with some of what Trump was selling but couldn’t get there until their neighbors, fellow church goers and friends were called “deplorables?” While “white supremacy” and “whiteness” are now a critique that has not yet peaked, the inflammatory ultimately becomes mundane. Anyone seen Marilyn Manson lately?

America has always been about the aspiration to very high ideas and the painfully slow striving to reach our goals. I hope we don’t give up.

George W. Bush gave an important speech. He is afraid. Me too. Division and tribalism when treated with religious fervor are genuine threats to our experiment. But I expect those who need to hear this message most will find comfortable excuses to ignore everything he said. Still….

“Bullying and prejudice in our public life sets a national tone, provides permission for cruelty and bigotry, and compromises the moral education of children, the only way to pass along civic values is to first live up to them.”

He ain’t wrong.

 

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