Emptying The Boxes

Bodhi and Luna

The two small boxes could not have been more different. One was a neat, glossy, rectangular wooden box. Simple, but nicely made. The other was tin metal with a paisley flower pattern on the outside. In another life, it would have made a good tea container. Since January 2112, they had sat together, first on a shelf in our kitchen, then on a shelf in the basement above the dog’s kennel area. Sally had moved them. I don’t know when. But it was Sally who finally said it was time to scatter the ashes of our much-loved dogs on Mt. Tabor. I agreed.

I devoted a tear-soaked chapter to the passing of Bodhi and Luna in my memoir. It was there that I thought I had worked this all out, the sudden death of our dogs in the same week. When Sally brought the boxes up from the basement and put them on the dining room table, I mused on how strange it was we hadn’t done this sooner. How had we lived with the ashes for so long? Part of me thought it unkind to have not completed this circle. It turned out the act of omission was a conspiracy between the two of us.

Sunday morning, I took the wooden box down to my workbench to remove the screws that held it together. When I turned it over, I saw the printed label. Whoever did the label had misspelled Bodhi into Budhi. That evoked a flash of anger. Not annoyance. It pissed me off. Had I not seen this error before? Inside the opened box was a compressed grey cube of remains in a plastic bag. I had an odd thought. Do bigger dogs get bigger boxes or is this one size fits all? I put the Bodhi cube and the Luna tin in a Walgreens paper bag, and we got in my car to go up to a spot of Sally’s choosing.

Sally is the morning dog walker, has been since our first to dog Ziggy, whose ashes we spread on the little cinder cone hill a long time ago. I have never seen the morning dog walk. I hear about it. It’s an almost sacred time for Sally and the dogs. They roam the park in all weather. During winter, it is still dark when they get up there. The meticulous “doggie mama” puts blinking lights on the dog’s collars so that even off leash in the fog and growing light she can track them. I have heard tales of remarkable sunrise moments on bitter frosty mornings, just Sal and her dogs. So, naturally, Sally chose the ultimate resting place for Bo and Lu on the south side of the hill, facing the sun, just outside the large dog park. She told it was there she sometimes let them off leash to sniff and play.

Sal was emotional all morning. I was not. We walked up, and I pointed out a small tree that seemed the right place. There was a breeze. I reminded Sal to stay upwind lest we become a scene from the Big Lebowski and coat ourselves in the dogs. I took Bodhi, who was my constant companion. Sally removed Luna, the dog that stole her heart. Sally, in tears, said we should each spread half the ashes. Sal is wise like that. Ignoring my Lebowski caution, Sal began pouring the ashes standing in the wind. I eased her to turn as the first grey puff was already on her shoes. We both said how we liked that the inseparable pair of girls were mingling on the ground. It troubled me that the swath of remains seemed so large. Grey dust, speckled with shiny white bits of crushed bone, extended out from the tree trunk in the wind’s direction. I put the empty plastic bags into the paper sack, and we embraced. We said words over the grey swath, reminisced a bit. Then, as we departed, I became uncomfortable about how visible the ashes were. I am not sure why, but I kicked over some covering leaves. The futility of effort was immediately clear, and I returned to walking out with Sal.

Still near the tree, I looked over and emotion hit me like a thunderclap. You see, I made a mistake the day we lost my big dog Bo. I’ll not retell the entire story here, as I did it better in my book, but there was a point when it was clear she was dying and I decided we needed to go home to get Luna, so Bodhi’s companion knew what happened. I should have stayed with Bo while Sally got Luna. I didn’t. That regret washed over me as I looked at the grey line in the bright sunshine. We both walked in tears back to the car.

Blackwood men talk most freely while sitting in their cars. It turned out so do Blackwood women. Sally and I both had secrets we had held from each other for almost 10 years. Sally was alone when the cancer burst in Bodhi’s gut, causing her to bleed out internally. Sal called me away from an evening event I was at with the commissioner. I rushed to the emergency veterinarian. I always thought Bo’s crash had been fast. What Sally had spared me was how it was slow. That night, she had called the vet twice for advice and given her pain medication. Bodhi, the athlete, was always spraining something so that what we did all the time. But Sally had believed the drugs were the problem. Sally had spent hours watching and panicking over Bodhi’s decline. She never told me to spare me that pain, that image. She also said she should have forced me to stay with Bo while she got Luna.

While I had written in the past that I should have stayed that night, sitting in the car, I finally revealed the lingering depth of my shame. That awful night, I was having panic attacks and getting away from that pet hospital was, insanely, a relief, a chance to collect myself. My longtime mental health issue, not my love of my big dog, was calling the shots. And there was one more secret I kept. Luna had mouth cancer, but it was slow illness. A few days after Bodhi died, I woke to find Luna alone upstairs, in the middle of the floor, panting. We went to the same emergency clinic, same damn vet, and she coldly said Luna was dying. Sally and Luna shared a heart. What I didn’t tell Sally was that I never believed it was the cancer. I was sure that Luna died of a broken heart. Without her rambunctious mate, she just gave up. I never wanted to burden my wife with that thought.

Now, parked in the garage, Sally and I unburdened ourselves. She said she always thought it was best for Luna to be with her sister. Her immediate passing had given Sally comfort. I told Sally that it was all my decision not to stay with Bodhi. I was too deep in shock, and more afraid of Sally not being there with me. I told her she did her best that night. She told me the same. And then we looked at each other and knew. We finally understood why those two boxes had sat on shelves for so long. We both had secrets and lovingly avoided what would surely come if we opened those two boxes and set our dogs free. When we had exhausted the life of our secrets, we had another realization. Those boxes, symbols of pain and love, had become a silent anchor, holding us in this house and this place. Now, Bodhi and Luna are where they should have been all the time, and we, well, we are now also free to leave this place and make something new.

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Have you ever been to a show with a band you love and about halfway through the set you are done? Maybe the line-up changed. Perhaps the new album was an awful dance-beat nightmare? Or maybe, to your surprise, your tastes had changed, and the old songs didn’t give you the former buzz. About three quarters through the set, you think about what’s in the refrigerator at home. When the leftover lasagna calls, you take one last look at the stage and walk out. Well, that is how Sally and I feel about Portland now.

There are parts of my memoir that are a love letter to Portland. Or, are those sections a peon to a certain version of the city? I met Sally here, so I can’t argue with that. But about a year ago, we looked around and asked each other, “Why are we still here?” I think my big revelation was that as I roamed the city taking photographs during the depths of the lockdown, I realized that what I really liked was that all the people were gone. The quiet streets were seductive. The lack of traffic created a certain ease. The endless stream of hipsters dressed in black had disappeared. Stripped down, Portland became a list of things I didn’t need anymore. And, what remained, the grime, the homelessness, the narcissistic graffiti bubbled to the top. Covid meant that Sally no longer had to be here to work. The stars aligned.

I can’t live in a place without being well informed. I read online news, formerly newspapers, and stay plugged into the ebb and flow of politics and power. I was so committed to the city that I switched careers and devoted long hours to a job in city hall. However, it was in the last year there that I saw the city’s philosophy move away from me. A classic liberal with a streak of economic conservatism, I saw the first wave of dogmatic progressivism crash into city hall. Slowly, and now completely, thought became governed by a series of progressive litmus tests. I love to challenge narratives, question authorities, and encourage broad thinking in policy discussions. Merely having that mindset has become a problem in Portland. Viewpoint diversity evaporated in a new group think with its sanctions for violating the emerging dogma. Comity and negotiation, the search for balanced solutions, has been replaced with the certainty of the advocate. If I have learned anything in my years, it is that such absolute certainty is cutting the trail for hubris. It now pains me to read about our city’s government.

Last summer, in bed with the windows open, I heard the sound of attacks on the police office about 15 blocks from our house. Now, occasionally, I hear gunfire. There is a new game on NextDoor: Was that fireworks or gunfire? Streets I walked at all hours in our neighborhood, and even downtown, are dangerous. I am a city guy who loves to get a slice of pizza at 1AM after a show. I have a well-developed street radar to avoid trouble. I have seen a stabbing, fights, drunken stupidity and macho posturing but at no time did I think I didn’t want to be there in the clarifying flow of the night. No more. Being in the heart of this city, the chance to be in the wrong place at the wrong time is much higher. Formerly transitory homeless camps are now locked down mini sidewalk cities. Systems have failed. I look down to make sure you are avoiding human excrement and up to gauge the intentions of the violent mentally ill. Moments after a building vacant, graffiti locusts descend, adding to the dystopia. Even the attempts to bring downtown back to life seem forced and fanciful. Oh, it may come back, but no time soon.

When Sally and I drive around the city, we kvetch, sometimes in sadness, other times in frustration. A few days ago, we wanted to pop into a fast-food joint on Hawthorne. Sitting at the lights, we looked out at a spaghetti of lines drawn on the street. Red zones, green zones, dashed sections, solid blocks, lights for cars, lights for bikes, new humps in the street for busses and pylons poking up from the tarmac. Sally’s question was simple, “How do I turn right?” I began to complain, but stopped and we both looked at each other and said, “Drake.”

There is a scene in Aliens where the troops are desperately firing and running from the alien creatures. The troops are being slaughtered. Finally, the combat tank arrives and the doors open. Corporal Hicks, wounded, yells at the last guy in the fight, the rear guard. “Drake! We are leaving!!!” Moments later, the creatures kill the last guy standing, and the survivors escape just in time. Sally and I have taken that scene as our mantra. When frustrated and about to fall into another rant, we say, “Drake.”

We have requirements. To age in place (lord willing and the creek don’t rise) we want a single level home. I want a newer house. Almost 100-year-old homes are charming, but I am tired of keeping this one from falling down. We will not be within the Portland city limits. I don’t want to think about this place. However, we have agreed that we want to be 30 minutes to downtown. That is the outer limit of reasonableness to catch a show or a movie at the Hollywood Theatre. That also puts the Pickles and Hops in easy striking distance for medicinal baseball. Sally must replace Mt Tabor Park. Nature that close is soothing. Little things, room for my dahlias, light streaming into the kitchen, a covered patio eventually. We have the list.

For months, we have been throwing stuff away and making trips to Goodwill. We have a ‘not going’ list too. The new place will be smaller. But, for all our preparation and my grieving for what I will lose, Covid and a housing bubble have made it nearly impossible to find a new place. It’s crazy. Like everyone else, the wacky times capture our life change. For months, there is nothing to buy. We have gotten Zen about it, mostly. We have the happy problem of trading in one nice place for another when the right thing comes along. We have worked hard and been frugal, but we know we are fortunate. So, for the time being, here we are, anchored to our past and present, anticipating the future. There’s a word for that. DRAKE!!!

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Thoughts On: “How Democracies Die”

I instinctually avoided this book until I could arrive at my own conclusions. Once I posted “The End of America,” I dove into this frightening little tome. The credits are funny. The authors are academics who thank their editor for stopping them from sounding like the college professors they are. I think the editor mostly won that battle. The book is readable and in sections feels like the scariest thriller you have ever picked up. It is important to keep telling oneself that they wrote this book after Trump won and published in 2018. Even these prescient authors could not expect what would happen next.

The first surprise was the about 50 pages that relate the history of political and social polarization in America. I have studied and written about the topic since I saw the Reagan revolution up close in DC in 1980. If you genuinely want to understand the deep roots of our current crisis, that history alone makes the book worth the price. They rightly trace our current divide to two pieces of legislation that began to right the greatest American flaw: The 1964 Civil Rights Act and The Voting Rights Act of 1965. That legislation flipped the South from Democrat to Republican and turned Black voters into Democrats thus turning the party into an urban entity. Add the politics of the Vietnam War and the lasting division of the two parties was set in stone.

The authors compare America to several countries that have slipped into authoritarian regimes. They don’t merely focus on Germany of the 1930s. They spend most of their time with Central and South America. Yes, it is now simple to compare us to the classic “banana republic.” There is a predictable pattern to how democracies fail. In a clear 4-part chart, the authors create check boxes for authoritarianism. 1. Rejection of (or weak commitment to) democratic rules of the game. 2. Denial of the legitimacy of political opponents. 3. Toleration or encouragement of violence. 4. Readiness to curtail civil liberties of opponents, including media. If that list didn’t put a chill down your spine, then you are not paying attention.

History tells us that democracies rarely die in a single dramatic event. More likely, is the relentless erosion of norms. Our constitution has always depended on unwritten rules, what the authors call “guardrails,” that act as the glue to keep the system running. How many times have you heard the media say, “Trump is defying all norms?” Authoritarians save the direct assault on the written constitution for last. First comes the erosion of the rules that make government work. And the most important, maybe final assault: removing public faith in the results of elections. Remember, they wrote this in 2018. The authors still believed, or hoped, that we could keep this last boundary intact. They were wrong.

One guardrail is the actions of the political parties. They assumed that, given history, the Republicans would eventually turn on Trump and reject the path to authoritarian government. What we know now is that Republicans looked down into the abyss and said, “Okay, that’s fine by me.” Democrats do not have a partner to stop the end of democracy. They have a dedicated foe.

While the book captures the importance of the right-wing media sphere in keeping the Republican base angry, it completely miss the power of the internet and social media. I made this the core of my previous essay. Remarkably, these academics seemed to miss this one as Trump’s Twitter was raging for years before he was elected. A piece struck me this week in the Oregonian about the “Greater Idaho” movement to divide Oregon by ideology. Even in that article people were quoted as saying the real problem was when folks went home and spent the night staring at  Facebook groups and YouTube videos. We are sealed into thought worlds now.

This is an important book. If you love America, it is a frightening book. But if you are already concerned, knowing what exactly to look for is essential. What is happening now for most Americans is the classic frog boil. Raise the temperature of the pot slowly enough and lull the frog to death.

The book ends with 3 possible outcomes. I am not sure I completely agree, but I think they could have nailed the possibilities. First, Trump fails and is rejected. We know this is not the case. With a willing Republican party, one with a goal of a permanent minority rule, Trump is mostly unscathed. Second, Trump and the Republican win outright. They take congress again and Trump runs and wins a second term. If that happens, it is game over. However, I don’t think they go far enough here. The mini-Trumps waiting in the wings are smarter and more committed to the cause of authoritarianism that Trump. As bad as he is, we escape some of the worst outcomes because he is lazy and a narcissist. The next Trumpist won’t have those flaws. Finally, we live in a democracy without guardrails. The tribal warfare of the polarized parties and electorate is relentless. We bounce from one set of governing principles to another. The frog boil.

How Democracies Die tries to end with some encouragement. It makes a call to restore the norms, our essential guardrails. They call on Democrats to deal with the economic inequity to regain the trust of part of white, blue collar America. Biden was seen with a dogeared copy of this book. He gets it. They caution against doing what many Democrats want now and be just as evil and tough as McConnell and his henchmen. History tells us that road only hardens the opposition. Get rid of the filibuster now and when the power flips, it’s game over. I wondered if the authors had painted themselves into a logical corner and realized that they had no way out. My take is that we have one shot. Republicans continue to build structural ways to maintain power at the state level. Democrats lost the last election. That’s right. Biden’s victory was lipstick on a pig, as was the victory of 2 senators in Georgia. Don’t be fooled. Voter suppression can be defeated. Hard to vote still means that everyone can vote. The only way to give our democracy a fighting chance is to crush the Republicans at the polls in 2020 and 2022. Top to bottom, from the local school board to the White House. Democrats need to be ruthless in ignoring all distractions. They are not good at this. To save our democracy, they have to stop playing internal games and focus only on those actions that lead to total electoral victory. In this, they must become Republican-like. To govern, first win.

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The End of America

I doubt that the middle can hold. Circumstances the founders could not have expected are unleashed and what we know of as America hangs by a precarious thread.

The founders knew this form of government was an unlikely concoction. In fact, they collectively had a deep fear of democracy. Historically, attempts to form democratic governments had been unmitigated failures. The Roman Republic was their worst case. So, James Madison, and he was the primary author, created a constitution that explicitly seeks to parcel out power via interlocking checks and balances. It is a bit of a kludge that has mostly served us well. While it didn’t fix everything immediately, slavery and women voting for example, it was constructed in a way that even those onerous flaws were mitigated. We move toward justice.

Our democratic republic is like a steady middle infielder who never bats above.245. (Of course, a baseball metaphor) Such a player is essential because they grind out at bats with the occasional home-run and play defense that consistently saves runs. Any given day, they can dazzle, but most are the core of any excellent team. I think the problem with current perception about America is that we expect it to be a phenom, the star. Kind of silly that. The founders were audacious, but they weren’t idiots.

There is an old word at the core of Madison’s assumptions: comity. Here’s one definition: a state or atmosphere of harmony or mutual civility and respect. America was playing hardball, 2-party politics as early as 1800. Vicious attacks and outrageous claims were in newspapers and pamphlets. Still, when the dust settled, even the worst political enemies shared a baseline loyalty to the system, Enlightenment liberalism, and most importantly, the constitution. Differences existed under a single name: American. I have studied political polarization for decades and have remained an optimist about the resilience of the American experiment, but now I must admit that I may have been wrong.

The Internet is killing us. I was one of the earliest adopters of internet. A bit of a nerd, I was part of a small group who hacked our ancestral home PCs to behave like the UNIX systems in universities. After days of tinkering with an unbelievably slow modem, I recall the rush of seeing my screen slowly paint a web page from Switzerland. I yelled for Sally to come look. “Look… Look I am in Switzerland now!!” To which I believe she responded, “I don’t know what that means.” We few nerds rambled on endlessly about sewing the world together over one big internet. Veterans of dial up Bulletin Board Systems, we already understood virtual communities, but this was going to be different, free, universal. We were fools.

I am now sure the single most important factor in the coming dissolution of our republic is the internet. Social media is a collection of isolated cells of festering malice. We don’t use the tool to expand our personal universe and challenge our own assumptions. No, aided by the social media companies and malign actors (are those the same) people gather to confirm what they believe. “Believe” is the key word. The internet has vast wells of empirical knowledge, but our current internet exists to aggregate misinformation and support new religiosity. To believe is to commit to articles of faith. On the right, that is the cult of Donald Trump. Remarkably, Evangelical Christians have found in this swindler a new messiah. On the left, as critical theory has exploded into universities, what has emerged under the label “woke” is a secular religion where founding beliefs can’t be questioned. Both extremes define heretics then hunt them down on the internet, and increasingly, with violence on our streets. What both share is the resolute rejection of the single most important characteristic of our founding, the emergence of the independent, liberal human.

Quoting Andrew Sullivan:

The genius of liberalism in unleashing human freedom and the human mind changed us more in centuries than we had changed in hundreds of millennia. And at its core, there is the model of the single, interchangeable, equal citizen, using reason to deliberate the common good with fellow citizens. No ultimate authority; just inquiry and provisional truth. No final answer: an endless conversation. No single power, but many in competition.

Simply, the internet has made us all more stupid. Social media exists in the world of primal stimulation. The best way to keep your eyeballs on the screen is to tell you what you want to hear and poke at the basest emotion: anger. Love can motivate, anger keeps us clicking and clicks are money. The economic incentive of the internet alone is enough to dismantle over 200 years of comity.

The current version of the Republican party sprang to life in about 1980 with the election of Ronald Reagan. The Democratic party was the midwife of that birth. Reagan Democrats. That’s what we called those blue-collar voters who abandoned the Democratic party. The welfare state wasn’t helping them and all those promises of the Great Society had left them behind. Democrats abandoned God and started building ideological bastions in the big cities. Smart Republican operatives immediately understood the new game. Democrats, as usual, not so much. The victim and anger machine cranked into high-gear. AM radio, Rush Limbaugh and soon Fox News, took up the message. And election after election, Republicans pumped up the rubes in time to vote. Make no mistake, the smart Republicans always saw those would become Trump voters as rubes. Both parties looked down on them but the Republicans believed they could manage the mob with inter-splicing red meat issues like guns and abortion. But like the day that the Frankenstein monster left the lab, there came a point where the monster was hungry and angry at both parties. Toss in a black president to externalize white race anxiety and soon the call was, Fuck them all!!! And Trump responded, “Yea, fuck them all!” To fight Trump, the always clueless Democrats sent forth one of the most hated politicians in history. The coronation of Hillary became a revolution. Only Trump could embody the race fear of the mob so completely. At last, someone had their backs. And here we are.

I was waiting for a single event before I came to this horrifying conclusion. It wasn’t the January 6, 2021 insurrection. That one didn’t surprise me. They had telegraphed the attack for months. No, the single event that has now confirmed, for me, the unraveling of our democratic republic was today’s vote by the Republicans in the senate to kill the January 6 Commission. It is the refined essential oil of everything that has preceded it. Recall that the Republican votes in the 2 impeachments were couched in process. Those were not up and down votes on the core of the matter. There were long arguments about “jurisdiction” and “standing.” Republicans stood behind those thin ramparts. This time it was different. This time they had been personal witnesses to the crimes. They had run for their lives. This time the vote was achingly simple: Truth or Lie.

The audacity of the vote against the Commission was pure and clarifying. This was a vote to secure and maintain power. They didn’t hide the fact. Senator McConnell, who will be seen as the most powerful politician of the first part of the 21st Century, told us, told his caucus, told anyone who was listen. This vote was about the 2022 midterms and taking back the House and Senate. Truth sought by a majority of Americans would be an impediment to regaining full control of Congress. Truth would upset Trump, and more importantly, Trump is the essential filter through which almost all money for the Republican Party flows. Small donations from Trumpists are the lifeblood of the party now. McConnell, offended that he may have been on January 6, is above all the perfect transactional manager of power. I admire his singular focus, like I admire the ruthlessness of the Roman Emperors. He understands the inherent weaknesses of the Democratic leadership and is running the country as the minority leader of the Senate. It is a monumental accomplishment.

Here is what you are not hearing in the media now. So, what is the Republican plan? Trump lost them the Congress and the White House. Why stick with him? Democracies die when a minority party takes power and governs beyond the will of the majority of the governed. Almost nothing in the thin agenda of Republicans has majority support. They know they are a demographically shrinking and localized party now. It is only getting worse. But they also understand the greatest flaw of Madison’s design is that he never completely considered a threat to the nation would originate from within. His mechanisms to balance power assumed comity, the ultimate allegiance to the experiment itself, over the narrow interests of a single group or party. Madison didn’t know about how tight information bubbles, impermeable to facts or reason, could be wrapped around a motivated minority of Americans. Madison and the founders wrote about their fear of the tyranny of the majority. It never occurred to them that there could be a tyranny of the minority.

The Republicans are moving to rewire the voting process. Their greatest success in 2020 and 2021 has been to convince a minority that elections are all corrupt. Do you think that should a Democrat be elected president in 2024 that a Republican majority in Congress would affirm that election? When Putin injected himself to get Trump elected in 2016, he did not know how he was setting the predicate for Americas to destroy their own Republic.

I am bereft of optimism now. Sedition, and this is what is happening, requires ruthless toughness from an opposition to suppress it. Democrats have much of their own party who explicitly reject the American experiment as an existing failure. The progressive left are ambivalent about the current threat. They naively, arrogantly, believe they have a better way. But, have you ever asked a woke advocate what system lives at the end of their deconstruction rainbow? They don’t have a clue.

Fools like Manchin are still looking for 10 good Republicans. Oh stop. Do you think that once in power McConnell would hesitate to kill the filibuster? He baited the Democrats to remove the filibuster for court nominees and they fell for it. The right now controls the courts.

To paraphrase Orwell, the most important thing is to see what is right in front of one’s eyes. Don’t rationalize. Don’t equivocate. The Republican party is now a populist, authoritarian, minority power regime in waiting. With the Commission vote, they admitted it. We are on the edge of a battle over power that could become a real civil war. At the very least, this moment is as close to the bombing of Fort Sumter by Confederate cannons as we have been since that day. The evil is clear. All the authoritarians need is complacency and distraction for them to complete their quest. I fear we have gone too far; the impediments are too institutionalized for the middle to hold.

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The Colonization Game

After the 21st time I saw “land back” spray painted on buildings and toppled monuments in Portland, I mused on this popular notion of rethinking colonization. There are folks who are now decolonizing almost everything. Decolonize mathematics. Decolonize science. I have spent much of my life studying history both on my own and in various university settings. Of course, I understand the human catastrophes that can occur when one culture with advanced technology meets another who may be sociologically and spiritually sophisticated but haven’t turned the corner to develop contemporary technology. (News flash: Tech wins.) Look at the number of science fiction stories based on advanced aliens showing up on earth to herd and eat the backward humans with a fine chianti. But, as I studied the current advocates of critical theory views of colonization, it occurred to me that there are gaping holes in their premise. As is often case: time and context. So, let’s try something different, an idea that I, a retired dude in the wind with no need to please an employer, can do with abandon. Let’s build the Colonization Game. I will base this on what I think I know. I am not citing sources… okay.

In the dusty past of my undergraduate years, the sociology department did a two-day exercise called: Simulated Society. Scattered around an academic building, we gave teams the basics of an imagined world. They then had to grow their society and interact with the other societies (folks in other rooms) in increasingly stressful circumstances. The controller of the scenarios was a skinny, bearded, acid infused, speed freak, Dead Head, senior who was wound way too tight. He, of course, anointed himself “God.” (BTW he never completed his senior project after a psychotic break while staying awake for 5 days on speed. But I think that makes the “God” name even more apt.) Still, he probably ended up making a pile of dough and is currently ensconced in a luxurious condo on a golf course in Florida.

Baring the chaos of speed and acid, what if we were to design a college class where the students divided into competing groups of colonizers from about the 14th to 18th centuries? Then we put them in imaginary sail boats and have them set off for Africa and the Americas. Much of the term would have to be spent setting the historical context of both the existing cultures of the target lands and the full range of historical characteristics of the soon to be colonizers. The game would require the students to make all choices based solely on the moral, ethical, economic, political, scientific and religious knowledge of the empires they represent. Monarchies of various flavors were universal. The guiding question is: If colonization is de facto evil, then students, given the historical context, what would you do differently? No cheating. No 21st century knowledge allowed. When you stepped ashore, what would you do?

I have concluded that the most important missing part of the current critique of colonization is religion. Pick a tribe. Islam, Christianity, even animistic belief systems, religion is both an essential motivating factor and provides the basis on which colonists would judge the (shall we call them natives?). Native, as in native to a place and time. Religions, in part, exist to define the other. Heathens or infidels, anyone who was not associated with the dominant religion was, by definition, inferior. A native could only hope to attain any status by submission and conversion. Their existing religious beliefs? Meaningless. That’s the context. Much is made in the 21st century that natives, either as individuals or communities, were not seen as human. Yes! Students, your only choice in the Colonialization Game is to see every native person you meet as inferior, if not evil, as they do not understand monotheism. Much colonial brutality begins in religion.

It is easy to forget that all life in those historical periods was short and brutal. Even in their countries of origin, other believers were subject to institutional dehumanization. It was common to punish humans in the most grotesque ways. Boiling alive, skinning alive, impalement, slow death by dismemberment. In the old-world, life was cheap, and the degradation of humans was a happy public spectacle. Even before they set foot on the boats, the intrepid explorers were a scary bunch. However, based our understanding of native cultures so where the peoples on other continents. Human sacrifice was a common activity. As was conquest and slavery. The game would teach students to let go of the native paradise myth. Alas, humans were human everywhere.

What of disease? Both in the old and new worlds, no one understood how disease worked. Cures comprised incantations, herbs, and bleeding out the evil. Often in the discussion of colonization, a key point is the genocide of the natives. But we now understand that the death of native civilizations was first, and foremost, an accident of biology followed by conscious destruction. Native Americans were already dying in plagues before the first Europeans set foot on the now eastern American coast. Northern east coast tribes were exposed to fatal diseases that worked down from current day Canada. Disease essentially eliminated the Caribbean natives. But this was always going to be the case… right? At some point, immune cultures were going to travel and meet immunocompromised people. Plague was always coming. It was just a matter of when. The natives had a good run, 10,000+ years, but their immune systems were a ticking death clock. Students, how do you as a colonizer deal with disease and the sudden disappearance of the native population? Remember, wars back home in your Europe are expensive and your charter, your sworn holy duty, is to ship back anything of value that will keep your monarch afloat in the many European wars. Given your job, your religion, and the disappearing labor pools, what do you do?

Well, slavery, of course. Students let’s consider that at this moment on the planet there are about 40 million slaves and indentured servants. Our collective ability to look away from that data is remarkable and consistent. It’s a practice virtually eliminated in the former colonial powers. Now the centers are in Northern Africa, the Middle East, Indian sub-continent, and Asia. Slavery was, and is, a labor multiplier. Conquest always had as a benefit, free labor. Water-powered mills were function specific. Before the invention of the steam engine, there was no way to concentrate labor except slaves in concert with draft animals. (Disclaimer: Slavery always bad.)

In the Americas, slavery was common. Our Pacific Northwest tribes had slaves along the Willamette. They disfigured the slave bodies so there would be no confusion as to the person’s status. The Native Americans who were marched east on the Trail of Tears took their black slaves with them. Only recently have those descendants in Oklahoma resolved legal claims to the wealth that tribal leaders tried to take away from them. Besides working any diseased survivors to death, the economic imperative of the colonizers was to replace that labor, thus the slave trade with Africa. The slave trade was well established in Africa before colonization. In fact, Europeans quickly learned that the most effective way to collect humans was to use the existing human trafficking system. So, imaginary Conquistadors and Virginia settlers, with the tools and morals of the time, what do you do about slavery? Was there any chance that a higher, or different morality, could have affected such well-established economic practices?

Few intellectual exercises are more flaccid than applying 21st century morals and ethics to the past. To be sure, one can draw winding and direct lines from the processes of colonization to the current world. Exploring the discrete outcomes is a useful endeavor. However, painting the world with the banner of all colonialization bad is not a useful path. It’s a meat cleaver when a scalpel needed. And, if one insists on applying the label of colonization then I think there is an obligation to broaden the lens and recognize the commonality of the practice. Humans have always expanded geographically and politically. There is nothing unique about the European experience. Spend some time looking at empires, the Romans, the Greeks, the Ottomans, the Visigoths, the Egyptians, the Carthaginians, Imperial China, and you will discover patterns in the application of power that are not unique to any culture or time. Colonization is an inevitable and natural human social process.

I believe the Colonization Game would challenge students in 2 ways. First, it would force them to reckon with progress. Cultural encounters are often defined by technical advantages. The power of the Roman army was its ability to build roads and military tactics based on the short sword and shield. Arguably, their invention of concrete was a pillar of their empire. It is most useful to examine the juncture of technology and cultural clashes beyond implying those who possess the advanced technology are morally bankrupt.

The second challenge would be for students to grapple with colonialization as a natural human process. Yes, I am going there. As I have played the game with myself; I have discovered that in context what happened was always going to happen. I can’t account for individual cruelties. If anyone has an idea how to do that, then let me know because there is genocide and organized rape happening today in northern Africa. We saw the same in the break-up of Yugoslavia in Europe just miles from the great European capitols of the world. And that was an event with direct connections to the Muslim colonization of parts of Eastern Europe. To dehumanize the Bosnian Muslims, the Serbs called them “Turks.” All colonization echoes.

Waving the flag of “colonialization” in our current context is rarely helpful. I think it feels good for some. It’s a rhetorical tactic with some effect. The problem is that it also seems that making colonialization the enabling narrative is another way to stay stuck. We have gained much in western Enlightenment. Most importantly, empowering the individual over the tribe. We need better enriching and layering of all historical narratives. We need more history, not less.

The process of cultural expansion is often brutal and murderous. Try this thought experiment. If the Aztecs, at the height of their civilization, had discovered metal forging, shipbuilding, the chemistry of gunpowder, and used their considerable understanding of the heavens to fill those ships and sail to Europe, would we have had the colonization in reverse? If they could have been expansionist, why would the outcome have been any different?

            It turns out that the Colonization Game is about empathy. What? To truly understand history, one needs to empathize with both the conquered and the conqueror. Embrace their collective ignorance, the limits of their times. That’s a tough one, but humans are resoundingly confusing. We should overlay more complexity on geopolitics. I think the Colonization Game would help us better understand that complexity by forcing students to spend some time in the boots and boats of the explorers.

As usual, I welcome dissenting views.

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Finding Your Team

I have tried to isolate the first moment I knew I was going to stand in the middle of life. There had to be something profound in my life that left me so suspicious of seeming consensus, of being a follower. What gear in this clock of my mind so intently refuses to join anyone or anything without asking: Why? Surely, it was be a far simpler, cleaner path to follow along. All one has to do is find a crowd, step into the middle of it and walk or think or emote. Gangs exist for a reason. There is enormous power and validation in knowing that the person to each compass direction around you are your unwavering peers. I imagine how my body and mind would finally fully relax if I just stopped asking questions, accepted, bathed in the soothing pond of unrippled confirmation bias. Surely, there has to be an easier way to live.

One day, while watching a crew lay a new concrete, I was enjoying the well-oiled team. Every member of the crew knew where to be at the right time. And each person knew where not to be lest they create a minute diversion from the job at hand. When you watch such a crew, it is easy to see the leader, and tumble down the hierarchy of experience. Here, as is often true with construction crews here, the only language spoken was Spanish. Most remarkable, as a cement truck slurried its load at the feet of the patron, el jefe, the boss, was how little talking occurred at all. I could not even discern gestures exchanged except with the youngest member of the team who had the least important tasks but whose actual job was to watch and learn. The most important task, the micro leveling of the final surface to follow a slopping line, was the single hands-on task of the leader. When he pulled up his rubber boots and stepped into the unformed concrete, everyone else existed only to expect his needs. It was that crew that flipped open a long ignored synaptic connection to my first memory of being both a leader and in the middle.

Second grade, 1962. I had been daydreaming when the class left the room for an assembly. I liked assemblies, the breaks in the day’s rhythm, the white noise of a couple hundred children murmuring in the high ceilinged multi-purpose room. But this day, as I walked out the door, I did not know we were going to an assembly. I thought it was time for recess, maybe lunch. I jumped out of the line from the sidewalk to the grass and yelled, “ALL MY MEN!” I waved my hand in the air above my head in a circle so that my men knew to gather around me. But no one else moved. Instead, all the children started laughing, some pointing at me. The teacher simply shook her head and pointed me back in line. Sheepishly, I obeyed.

What in the world was that outburst all about?

Lunchtime playgrounds evolve their activities. The Lord of the Flies world of early 1960s boys would be utterly unrecognizable to any current child or teacher. It was the heart of the cold war. Several times a year, bells rang, and we pushed our desks together in an ersatz shelter. Huddled underneath the desks, we practiced what we were told was an earthquake drill. Fair enough, the San Andreas fault was visible a few miles away. But children across the country knew different. We were assuming the position to take when warned the Russian nuclear missiles were inbound. The apocalypse was on its way. Maybe it will surprise some that active shooter drills always existed. Ours were merely bigger guns. Still, the offhand references to the cold war were everywhere. Even my small town had mostly useless fall-out shelters. And, from the veterans of WWII or Korean or Viet Nam among us to the young men leaving for basic training, war was an easy theme to grasp.

Our little boy war happened daily on the lunchtime playground. Battle strategy (god only knows) was planned on the shorter breaks. It went like this. Boys would divide up into two large groups at opposite ends of the playground. We didn’t have defined fields, just a large expanse of lumpy, patchy grass. The two armies, yes, that is what we called them, formed around two opposing leaders. (For anyone dying to put this strangeness in a pointless 21st century context, the school was about half Latino and well blended. Race on that playground wasn’t a thing.) Leaders were always the most promising athletes, and as I recall, the correlation between athlete and bully was very close. After much whooping and hollering, the two amassed armies ran toward each other to do battle. Worried teachers, whoever was stuck with playground duty, watched at a distance, though blown whistles were rare. What happened in the battle was oddly non-violent. Oh, there was some bumping and pushing, but kids didn’t get hurt. Most of the duels were entirely imaginary. At some point, getting tired and close to the bell, one side declared victory with a chorus of yelling and arm waving. The winner seemed to be determined by which leader had the most followers. Yea, it turned into a popularity contest. For the teachers, this expunging was so much little boy energy was a blessing for the afternoon classes. Girls? I was a little boy and didn’t notice or care but they seemed to own the area around the parallel bars.

I was part of an army, but I didn’t like it. I suppose this is the nature, not nurture, part. I wanted to lead but wasn’t popular or athletic. But I had discovered the Civil War and was captivated by the stories of the cavalry troops who moved independently of the enormous armies raiding and constantly on the move. I decided that what I needed was my little army, one that could swing the battle. This seems like bizarrely sophisticated thinking for a second grader, but there it is. I started with my closest friends and carved the outcasts from the larger armies. Twenty-five, or slightly more, boys. I would rally them at the Juniper bushes at the back of the playground to watch the battle unfold and decide who we would rush to join. Yea, we were the cavalry arriving to save the day. I may have named the little band of rebels, but those synapses are not available.

My life now as a centrist, a sort of iconoclast, formed on that playground. I was both a leader and a politician. I had to recruit other boys to a non-mainstream cause. Mostly, I think there are people who are inspired by a simple thing. They don’t want to be them. Pick the them. The leaders of the two armies came to me, wanting to form an alliance. I don’t think I ever did that because it would have violated the essential nature of our little band. From that young age, I had an innate desire to stand in the middle, create a different path and make the case to others that ours was the rational choice. Don’t follow the assumed leaders and lend your energy to tipping the balance to something you have observed and consider right.

I don’t understand why I was that little boy, who was inherently suspicious of default paths, those routes with the least resistance. But, over my life, that desire has proven to be my most consistent philosophical and political identifier. I proudly started voting at 18 and only a few of my choices came from the two parties. I fear dogma more than the little chaos of assembling independent opinions. Extremism, when applied to anything but baseball, is abhorrent. In a time dominated by the consolidation under orthodoxy, I am resolutely heterodox. What could have been more fitting than my choice to focus my graduate work on social and political polarization?

The middle way can be lonely. Generally, people pick a side and stay there. I dip into writers and thinkers on both sides of our current political dilemma and do so with a mostly open mind. (When I tell people here that I also watch FoxNews, they often say, “Oh, I can’t do that.”) People don’t like to have core beliefs questioned, so my love of the word ‘why’ can get me into trouble. Still, I am glad that seeing that crew working concrete broke loose a memory of a little boy raider and his band of outcasts. When it gets windy above, in the swaying branches, knowing the depth of one’s roots is mighty reassuring.

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Finding an Old Friend in My Car’s Trunk

There is one book I own that has never been on my bookshelf. Since 1984, it has been under the seat or in the trunk of every vehicle I have owned. In sequence, that includes: Toyota Pickup, Toyota Camry, Ford Ranger pickup, VW Passat, Honda CRV, Mini Cooper S, BMW 2 Series and my current VW GTI. (Clearly, I moved on from practical to happy cars after the Honda.) Every time I bought a new car, I dutifully moved the book to the new vehicle. It is worn, pages brittle and yellowed. I recall crushing it once sliding my seat forward. At some point, it got a little wet. Maybe because it was stored close to the rear hatch of the Mini Cooper, notorious for dumping water inside when opened. At some point, I think soon after I bought the tome; I read some of the essays. I don’t remember doing that but there are my typical vertical pencil marks in the margins. There is one note too “wcw.” That is not cryptic at to me. It means that a sentence reminded me of the poet William Carlos Williams. What in the world was the book doing in all those cars, and why has it made an appearance now?

For a few decades, I read little fiction or poetry. I think I decided that reality was strange enough, so why read things people made up. My academic writing, a memoir, dozens of essays and my newest book, a collection of essays, firmly entrenched me in reality. But I threw some internal switch after publishing the essay collection. You see, my first foray as a writer, decades ago was almost entirely focused on short stories and poetry. When I got a big career, I stopped writing those forms and mostly journaled. Three months ago, maybe because our real world is so vexing, I moved back to fiction. I knew I needed to break the linearity of my nonfiction mind, so I dove into Burroughs’ Naked Lunch and old science fiction by Ray Bradbury and Philip K. Dick. I read the freestyle prose of Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson. It worked. Short stories now appear on my computer screen. Each one a muscle building experiment in style. Now, I spend my time making up worlds and attempting to report out what I find.

This all led me back to where I started as a writer. Way back in the previous century, I was taken with the work of Raymond Carver. I absorbed all of his works, short stories and poetry. His minimalist style grabbed me by the throat. His stories are like prose poetry about genuine people. The works are sad and vexing in that they leave you to fill in the picture he has sketched for you. My most common reaction to reading his work is to finish and say, “but…but…but…” because he did not tie up all the loose ends, much like life. With all the boldness of youth, I tried to write his style resulting in horrid experiments. Only now do I understand one must have enough scars and still oozing wounds in the psyche to mine the minimalist form.

Sometime in 1984, I bought his book, “Fires: Essays, Poems, Stories.” I have a vague memory of taking the new book to the coast for the weekend, just me and my epileptic Labrador. I read a few pieces, but it was the decision I made when I got home that is most curious. I didn’t take the book up to my apartment and finish it. I shoved it under the seat of my Toyota pickup where it became a car book. I actually know why I did that. Living with panic disorder litters one’s life with protecting talisman. One thing I most feared was being stuck somewhere, in snarled traffic or just broke down. Safety was all about my ability to move freely. I told myself that if that ever happened, my cars would always have a book I could read to distract and calm myself. The little paperback with a tattered cover was my mental escape hatch. Complex and absurd reasoning is something we all do to get through our days. For me, this idea made good sense.

It’s not surprising that when I returned to writing short stories I would return to my most loved mentor, Carver. He died suddenly at age 50 in 1988. I remember the shock. I have much of his small canon on my shelves and have reread most of those books. Looking for more Carver, in the early morning hours a couple nights ago, I paged through his publication list and there was “Fires” the book that had been my travelling companion for decades. I dressed, went outside and opened the hatch of the GTI. Buried next to the spare tire was an old friend. Reading it now, what had I forgotten is that the first essay is Carver explaining “why minimalism.” I got a shiver as he opened a small window into his mind.

There’s a notion, to which I generally don’t subscribe, that things appear in your life just when you need them. I have missed to many needed things in moments past to give that idea much purchase. Still, this book has been there all along and only came to mind when I needed, or was ready, for it. A guy has to wonder, but when I have what I need from this book, it is going right back into the car where it belongs.

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Christmas — Ego Te Absolvo

The bar is too high for a single day. No day should ever have such demanding intentions thrown upon it. Humans should never rely on any day, by its title, to change so much in their lives. Year after year, the crap shoot of daily existence demands we halt and pledge fidelity to an idea surrounding one day a year. No, it’s too much. Doomed at its inception in Christianity, the day of the return of the sun, not son, was better left to its pagan rituals and meaning, divorced of the syrupy incantations of Victorian writers setting impossible standards for the behavior of mere mortals with our stumbling about and thick minds conjuring up emotional connections that don’t exist in any world but that single day. Let’s just drop it and try to find meaning in every other day. Let’s leave this poor winter day alone to fend for itself. It has been, and will forever be, safer without us.

On this day, I vow to set the day free and let it return to its symbolism of pagan hope for the return on the sun. I will universalize the day and unfetter it from the chains of family expectation and conjured emotions of closeness and brotherhood. Let it be special only in its scientific significance. Be gone personal and collective rituals. Death to nostalgia with its icy fingers perpetually grasping at the throat of the moment to drag it into the past. Drop the shopping and gathering and the perpetual wasteland of how things once were and should be. I absolve myself of all previous thoughts, expectations, and sins. My self-directive is to hijack from the social milieu only the compassionate and fun bits so they can take residence in any other day of the year. I will have a hundred returns of the sun so that when the anointed day arrives, I have fulfilled all the expectations in advance and am psychologically and emotionally a free man, someone who, having engaged, is free to disengage and observe others flitting about to achieve what I have already done.

Mine is not so much a war on Christmas as giving absolution to the day, in a very Catholic sense. One day, I forgive you for all the broken promises and overwrought dreams. I forgive you for the expectations you can never meet. Where there was once an anvil weight on your shoulders, I grant you the power to toss the burden aside and leap with unfettered joy if you so desire. And should you desire to pull in your minutes in deep despair, there will be no judgement. Christmas day. You are forever free. Be whatever you want to be. And thanks for the extra minutes of sunshine.

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Faint Echoes of Pearl Harbor

How Pearl Harbor Shaped the Modern World - The New York Times
NY Times

Before I went outside to rake the last of the fallen leaves, I heard a little story about Pearl Harbor Day. As is often the case, as I pulled the leaves to the street, I mused about what I know about that day 79 years ago today. Oh, I have read many articles and tomes about World War II history but what did I know first-hand.

If you yell into the right canyon, the echo of your voice comes back, loud at first, then more faintly until it disappears. Today we live in a world of barely perceptible echoes of the Pearl Harbor attack. In fact, there may be a couple of new generations who have no idea why we consider this anniversary at all. When I was young, the echo was that first loud return. Men and women who responded to Pearl Harbor surrounded me. Both of my grandpas were in combat. Walls and mantles of the homes of my friends were dotted with mementoes of the war. Still, I can’t imagine any of the men I knew ever willingly calling themselves “the greatest generation.” They did their service and came home to make a new world. Remembering their war was mostly reserved for the clubby bastions of Elk’s halls and VFW bars… if they said anything at all.

For three years during college, I had a summer job in the sprawling warehouse of our valley irrigation district. I was the oddity, the college kid who showed up every summer. The work was dull, but the warehouse was air-conditioned, so I did what I was told to stay out of the desert heat. It was there that I heard a loud echo of Pearl Harbor.

One veteran on the crew was a gruff Texan named Joe Smith. If there was anyone who inhabited that so American name, it was Joe. Short, shaved head with an aging body that was once completely one muscle, Joe was a guy who hovered on the edge of anger every minute of his life. No telling where that enormous chip on his shoulder originated, but we all learned that Joe didn’t have a brain wired for kidding. When he was confused, he turned red and puffed his chest, ready for action. I learned a lot about how not to spend my life from Joe. He could take the smallest, mindless task and stretch it to fill a day. One day, I saw him spending hours standing at a workbench honing the edges of a stack of machetes that the field workers used to clear small irrigation ditches. I had done that entire job in about an hour before. I cautiously approached Joe at the bench and remarked.

“Hey Joe, how are you doing today. Getting a good edge on those machetes?”

Barely looking up, Joe turned his head and replied, “Make’n eight boy—make’n eight.”

With that, he turned back to his work. I had nothing more to say and walked away, sure that I never wanted to be that guy, the sad soul who treated a job as nothing more than a time marker in eight-hour increments. Not all work is noble, a good thing to learn early.

My first year in the job, the manager and the foreman were both war veterans who were very proud of their service. The big boss, Charlie, always wore a white shirt and dress pants. He had been a pilot. Bob, the foreman, had a light grey uniform that showed his rank.  All us workers had dark grey uniforms. Bob’s voice was so quiet, almost shy, that we had to pay close attention when he spoke. For hours each day, Charlie and Bob would be down in the office, doing something. We workers were never sure. Bob appeared and walked the floor. A tall man, I was pretty sure that in his youth his nickname had to be Slim. To me, he appeared to be a bit lazy, but his encyclopedic recall of every part in the warehouse was vital. When the buzzer went off and we went up to the counter to meet the field workers who needed a part, even the most obscure one, Bob knew exactly what they meant and where to find it.

Charlie mostly made appearances at our shared lunch time near the foreman’s desk in the warehouse. He pulled out a chair and faced us, regaling us with profane tales from his sex life and dirty jokes. The warehouse was a men’s club, and no perversity was off limits. Charlie had once been a traveling salesman and fancied himself a woman’s man. Wizened, with irregular features, I couldn’t squint my eyes enough to figure out what any woman had ever seen in him.

My second summer, there was someone new in the warehouse who also wore the light grey uniform of power. Sam Hirakata had taken over one desk in the office next to Bob. I liked him immediately. Unlike everyone else, he was interested in what I was studying at school and seemed to respect that I worked several jobs every summer to help pay my way. Very quickly, when he was on the floor, we gravitated toward each other. Sam had owned a small grocery store for many years but needed to have a job now that had medical benefits.  His kids were not interested in the family business, so he had closed shop and come to work at the water district. This was the last act of his work life. Sam’s family had once been farmers in the valley, with extensive holdings. His war was very different. Second generation Japanese American, nisei, Pearl Harbor meant that his family had been deported to the interior and interned for the duration, their lands given up and sold for pennies on the dollar to Caucasian owners, ironically, Armenian immigrants. His family spent the war in camp outside the tiny town of Poston, Arizona. The highway marking the Japanese exclusion zone ran in front of the camp. Funny thing about his telling me these stories. I didn’t detect any bitterness. I found that strange as I would have harbored a Joe Smith size chip on my shoulder.

There was new tension in the warehouse. Away from everyone, at what he now considered his bench, Joe engaged in passive aggressive rants, always in a lowered voice about the “Jap” being a boss now. Oh, he would do what he was told and screw on a public smile, toothy false flag, but he was not happy. The genuine change was in Bob. He had always assumed that he was next in line for Charlie’s job, a wish and assumption that he had nurtured for over a decade. Now, his lifetime goal was in doubt. He had become almost robotic in his job. Sam was attuned to Bob’s reaction. He tried to maneuver around it. He didn’t react to the slight affronts, and too strident questioning about his decisions. Sometimes, when Bob was sloughing off his anger with Sam in the area, Sam would quickly catch my eye.

One time, when we were alone in the office, he said, “Jim, I have seen this many times before. It is better to just do my job and let go.”

My last summer in the warehouse, everything had changed. Charlie was gone. Bob was gone. Joe was gone. Sam now had the white shirt and grey pants. The workers seemed happy about the change. Sam came up from the office regularly and even pitched in at the counter when we got slammed with requests. Sam seemed thrilled to have me back and gave me a good firm handshake the first time I came up from the locker room.

One day, I asked one of the old timers, the guy who drove the loader in the pipe yard, what happened. He took off his hard hat and shook his head.

“It wasn’t good,” he said, looking at the floor, “Bob blew up.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, I don’t know if you heard this, but Bob had a pretty bad time in the Marines. I didn’t serve but I guess because I am about his age, he told me about it.”

“I knew he was there, but I never asked,” I replied.

“Yea, when they announced that Sam was taking over, Bob stood up in front of everyone and yelled that he would never work for a dirty Jap. Then he quit.”

            My last summer there was a good one, mostly because I knew I wasn’t coming back. I worked hard and tried not to be so much the annoying college kid that I was the first two summers. Sam and I talked often. His kids had gone to college, and he loved to talk about them and ask me questions about what I wanted to do after I graduated. Sam never mentioned how Bob left. It seemed like he had built a special box for anything related to the war, a place he stored the anger and the slights. When he talked about Bob at all, it was kindness. Knowing the truth, I thought that remarkable.

The leaves are all raked and the garden tools stored in the garage for winter. Another season come and gone. I think I am that second echo now, the one that is a little fainter but clear still. Anyhow, that’s what it feels like on this Pearl Harbor day.

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When Essays Become a Book

For some time now, I have not written many essays on this site . Now you get to know why. I have been using the COVID-19 quarantine to write a new book composed of 24 essays. It was the years of writing here that gave me the confidence to move forward with the book. In a handful of cases, the book includes essays that began as thoughts right here on No Clock. Now I have given them them time to grow and evolve. For the readers here, I think it only fair that you have a sample from the new book. I hope you will take a chance on the new collection. I believe it is my full expression of what is possible with the essay form. Every essay has a single word title. I call this one Waiting.

Find the book at http://www.jimblackwoodjr.com

Everything looks the same. The trees. The sky. The streets. The houses. The stores. Color hasn’t changed. The greens are still green. The grey skies still feel dreary. The sun is still warm. People move the same. Dogs still bark. Now, if in those first few moments of the day, stirring from my pillow, I could only remember what day it was.

I have read about times past when events had conspired to turn the world on its head. Wars, earthquakes, plagues, tsunamis. Twirling a pencil in my fingers, I wondered how I would behave in such disasters. Would I rise to the occasion, be brave for myself and others? Would events conspire to overwhelm me? How would I prepare for the unknowable? Would I survive? Every world changing crisis I studied required greatness in leadership and steadfastness in the people who endured the disruption to daily life for weeks, months, and years. What I had not anticipated was that my test, a test for the entire world, would mostly be about waiting.

My fascination with the coronavirus began with the earliest reports out of China. I poked around the internet for reports. Central China seemed very far away and what was happening there seemed unique. Millions of people isolated in Wuhan by a military cordon. Hospitals appearing almost overnight. Stories of confusion and courage. And … the masks. In every report, every picture people were in masks, from a simple face covering to elaborate virus blocking rigs. Where did they get all of those masks so fast?

It is easy to watch a disaster at a distance. Truth be told, at a distance is almost always how most of us experience a disaster. We are all crisis voyeurs. Oh, we text the right numbers to send money, are sad at the stories of individual loss, happy at the stories of courage and persistence, but mostly, if we pay attention at all, another person’s crisis is simply how we fill a few minutes a day. I am more than guilty. I love to watch hurricanes come onshore on cable news to see those little funnel maps of where the hurricane may land. I stay up late to heckle the silly reporters who stand in the wind and the rain when they could have just as easily stepped behind the protection of a wall. I watch the aftermath, all that water, boats, and people in hip waders. For a couple of days, I am a hurricane response expert.

Something about watching Wuhan lock down and all those people in masks struck me as different. In early February, well before most people were paying attention, I ordered face masks. I felt a little silly and when they arrived slid them into a drawer thinking they would be a curious artifact. My wife, always the ‘big one’ earthquake prepper, said that unknown to me, she had put a few masks in our earthquake kit years ago. At least with her, I felt less like an alarmist goofball. We made one last unmasked trip to the grocery store to buy things we never buy: powdered milk, a stack of chicken soup cans, powdered Gatorade, saltine crackers for when the bread disappeared off shelves, and toilet paper. We didn’t need the toilet paper but the crowd on that aisle inspired a little panic. Already, for a few in the checkout line, there was a palpable sense of caution. When people are not sure what to do, they still do something. Then the virus did what millions of people do every day; it flew around the world.

I started waiting. I knew it was coming. There was no way to know what that would mean, but I was so convinced this event would be important that on Leap Day, February 29, I started an pandemic blog. (Of course, I did.) That rhyme in old The Knack song, “My Sharona,” was stuck in my head so I called it My Corona Log: People Pandemics Politics. Even then, with a sense of irony, I grabbed a dust mask from my toolbox, pulled a black hoodie over my head, cinched the mask to my face, and had my wife take a picture of me in front of my computer. (I couldn’t wait to get the mask off as it was so uncomfortable. Ignorance was still bliss.) Now I had a banner page for the new website. I was in a mask. Another silly artifact, I thought, as I made the site live. I would wait with everyone else … on the internet.

Most sane people limit their doses of bad news. It’s too upsetting. I become a sponge, taking in all the information I can find in a futile attempt to manage my anxiety with knowledge. People tell me, “Oh, that would depress me.” It doesn’t bring me down. The more I know the easier it is to become an observer, create a space between me and what is going on around me. The observer then becomes the communicator, as I write my way through things. While most people were still unaware, I was searching the internet for epidemiologists and clinicians. I read papers where I was lucky to understand every fourth sentence. I looked at models. Now everyone looks at models. Like my hurricane expertise, I became the worst sort of dilettante, an internet virus expert. You know those people, right? Yeah, I was that insufferable guy. Still, the actual virus was beyond arm’s length. It was somewhere else. But I knew it was coming.

When the quarantine finally came, I was relieved. This was the only way we were going to keep our hospitals from being overrun. For days I had been yelling at my television screen for governors to act fast. When our governor did finally lock us down, I felt like a winner for about five minutes before I thought, “what now?” I had been waiting for the virus to get here, waiting for the government to act, waiting for the states to all lock down. I realized that what I had actually been wishing for was more waiting.

Once I walk out the door of my home, everything I do requires waiting. I wait until I think the lines at the grocery store will be social distanced and shorter. Before I get out of my car, I wait to put on my mask. I reach into my pocket and press the button to open the truck lock, so I don’t have touch my keys when I get back to the car. Once in the store, I look down aisles and wait patiently for the other shoppers to clear the space in front of what I need. Every step I take is a calculation of how to maintain my safe distance. The simplest acts now require a slow-motion ballet. Once home, the refrigerated goods have to be cleaned on the back porch. Dry goods wait for a day in the garage. The Cheerios detox cheerlessly.

A walk to the park is almost exactly the same as it ever was, which makes it all the stranger when I see someone in the distance about to meet me at the same street corner. When our individual radars ping each other a new waiting negotiation begins. Who will take the intersection first? Who will pause or slow down or speed up? Maybe a quick nod. And then, negotiation complete, space defined. As our safety bubbles touch, if we are maskless, we offer flat-mouthed smiles under quick eye connections. When we have masks, then every bit of humanity has to be communicated with the eyes alone. But that’s fine. Humans adapt surprisingly fast from reading an entire face to reading the eyes alone. The flat smile muscles move the eyes enough so that we both know what we just did.

Underlying the newly elaborate ballet of the now mind-numbingly repeated cycle of daily life is the big wait. Consciously and unconsciously, we are waiting to get sick. Spring pollen, the scratchy cough of allergies take on a new meaning. Cough. Is this it? What is the quality of that cough? Dry cough? Did I cough like this last allergy season? Hand to face. Am I warm? What was the last time I came into contact with someone or something that may have had the virus? How many days? Four or five? As a nervous person, a practicing hypochondriac, I have always been a highly tuned body monitor. But now, with each possible COVID-19 symptom, I run an overused check list. I am waiting to get sick.

When the waves of illness hit hardest in Italy, I read how people there lived with COVID-19. I wondered how they knew when to go to the hospital. Hospitals now seemed like dangerous places to be avoided until the last, maybe the actual last, minute. Everywhere I looked people talked about oxygen in the blood. Don’t let it get below 95 percent. Not completely sure what that meant, I joined millions of people looking on the internet for a pulse oximeter. Herd fear. I finally found one at an inflated price and ordered it. It, too, waits in a drawer. Chicken soup and a pulse oximeter. What a strange crisis.

If I am not waiting to get sick, then I am waiting for those I love to succumb to the illness. Greetings, almost always electronic these days, have subtly moved from to “hello” to “feeling okay?” There is an old Chinese greeting of “have you eaten today?” I wonder if this will go on long enough to change how we greet one another. I actually like the idea of saying hello by asking about someone’s health. It seems both more intimate and, well, too intimate.

Our home has become Upstairs/Downstairs. Eight years younger, my wife is not retired. A couple of years into my retirement I had built a happy collection of patterns around my passions. Write, think, play with the dogs, baseball in the summer, live music in small clubs, and film study (well … beer, pizza, and a movie) at my favorite non-profit theater. Very rapidly, we had to convert our upstairs space into a home office for my wife. We retire to our levels during the day, meeting in the kitchen for coffee or lunch. The two dogs divide their loyalties up and down the stairs based on mysterious factors that only clarify with the crinkle of a potato chip bag. Of all my happiest out-of-home diversions, only gardening still exists.

My wife’s work hours have been reduced and we both wait to see if her job survives. This means that, like millions of Americans, we are waiting to see what our financial future becomes. We have worked hard and have some means. Many in the grip of the COVID-19 economic meltdown are far worse off. I think about my barber and my favorite bartender. We used to give money to a collection of good causes. Now Sally and I divert our gifts to food banks and small businesses we love. There is some satisfaction in that effort. However, while we wait for financial clarity, too many people are waiting to see when they will once again have a job, a business, a place to live, a bag of groceries to survive another week. We will have to figure out the virus before we restore the economy. I wonder, are we now waiting for another Great Depression?

In my international disaster playbook was the emergence of a great, unifying national leader. As if there was a cosmic waiting room filled with the right people, I was thinking that folks like Churchill or Roosevelt or Lincoln were always going to show up right when we needed them. Those are leaders who faced years long crises and found a way to motivate their populations by neatly layering hope and fear in a way that engendered a spirit of ‘we are all in this together.’ If any situation was ready-made for such a leader, it is COVID-19. The pandemic knows no ethnicity or philosophical boundaries. In its relentless spread, this is the great egalitarian crisis. Boy, was I wrong. This one was a gimme and yet here we are still waiting for a national plan and … what’s that called … a president.

I suppose in a world where everything is outsourced from dinner to your Uber ride to see Aunt Jean, I should have known that this president would outsource responding to a pandemic to fifty governors with disparate understandings of their role and completely different constituencies. Of course, that makes perfect sense. I remember a time when in order to go in and out of California every car was stopped at the border for the ominous question, “Are you carrying fruits or vegetables?” Stutter when saying “no” and you got the finger, the point to the canopy where the car was dismantled looking for a scary contraband orange or apple. The border agents were looking for bugs. Now at national borders and state lines we recreate the border bug hunts. To move about the country and the world, now we wait.

On a daily basis, unless you are Woody Allen, it is possible to not think about death. If you are more religious, you get to visit death more regularly as one of the big reasons to have religion at all. Of course, everyone gets to know the death of others and grieve. But think about it; beyond those times, we get off pretty easy. We get large blocks of time where we don’t even think about our demise. It’s kind of nice. Well … not anymore. There on the right of almost every cable channel screen are two counters. At the top we have the ‘Damn, that’s a huge number of sick people’ tally and below we see dead people. Most alarming is that between the morning shows and the nightly news both counters are spinning up. So now, turn on the news and you get a relentless reminder that the most fundamental human problem underlies the pandemic. We are waiting to die. And, to double down on the terror, we now all know that once sick, we die alone. No family. No friends. Overworked strangers, each one living in peril, in masks, who hope you are not their future, too. Oh, and those funeral plans, all neatly written down or told with solemnity to family; forget about it. Body out the door to the freezer trailer and maybe a Zoom grief session. But those, too, will have to wait until everyone can get connected to the internet.

Some of us are going to be waiting for a long time. I am a guy in his 60s with a family history of heart disease. In fact, about seventy million people in America are over 60, in the cohort of folks for whom COVID-19 is exceedingly dangerous. Those immortal young people are learning lessons, too. Anxious to party as things reopened, they went too far and now line up for ICU beds. The virus doesn’t count birthdays. It doesn’t care if you are bored. But for us older folks to return to slices of normal we wait for a vaccine. Old enough to recall how a sugar cube once cured polio, we are relegated to the role of observers. Every day we will look at what used to be the mindless actions of life and ask ourselves, “Is it safe?” And, as a guy whose greatest joys were settling into a seat with popcorn at a movie and pressing up front to get a closer look at the band at a club show, I can’t begin to think when I will be at either of those places once more. I have no choice but to wait.

All this waiting is not the crisis I had planned on. It feels like a growing series of incomplete acts. Spring without a beer at a game. Friday at the movies without the actual movie theater. A cocktail and dinner with friends without the friends. If we do nothing as well as we possibly can, the reward is that nothing happens. Oh, like many, I try to take solace that it’s the waiting that saves other people’s lives. I am willing to outwait many people. Most of the things I miss the most are things I can actually live without. Too many people have had their waiting ended with a zipped-up body bag. There are doctors and nurses who wait for a moment away from the beeping life support machines. For a guy notorious for his impatience, learning to wait isn’t such an awful thing. But truth be told, I can’t wait for this to be over.

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