Why Live Music Keeps Me Alive


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.


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!


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


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.


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



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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The Road Taken — My Second Act


When I take breaks from playing and working outdoors, I find myself streaming The West Wing on Netflix. Besides my fantasy of living in an Aaron Sorkin world where everyone is wicked smart and funny with heads brimming with useful facts, that series was iconic for me in a strange, ultimately unsurprising, way.

As I have written here in the past, my life has zigged and zagged with the limits and possibilities of Panic Disorder. The disease manifested in the midst of my first real job as a low-level staff aide to a US Senator in Washington DC. I had been there for a year and was offered a serious entry policy position. It was the sort of political career path job that seemed beyond the dreams of a kid from Indio, California.

I couldn’t take the job. The disease was beginning to dominate my life, and with no real treatment available, I ended up leaving DC altogether. That unfinished business was the ghost in my machine.

Around the turn of the last century, the television show The West Wing appeared. It only took a couple of episodes for me to latch onto the character of the Deputy Chief of Staff, Josh. What he did in that show and who he was became the iconography of a life I was never able to live. I was jealous. I was sad. I was pissed off. Mostly, I wondered if I could have done what Josh was doing in politics. Not in the White House, just in politics of some sort.

I left my career in IT to see if I could finish an incomplete act. A deep part of me knew that if I never gave it a try, I would have this horrible question mark on my gravestone. There are many people with these sort of incomplete pieces in their lives. In this one respect, I was determined not to be part of that cohort.

Hard work, luck and chutzpah resulted in my working on the Nick Fish campaign and almost eight years in Portland City Hall. I left abruptly earlier this year. Here is where The West Wing comes in.

Having done the work in City Hall and politics, I still wasn’t sure I had achieved what I set out to do. Episode by episode, watching what my iconic Josh character did, I was sure I was, in fact, done when I left City Hall. I had lived my dream.

The show is amazingly accurate in the little things that happen working for an elected. I have come up with ideas and nursed them to fruition through the agency of my commissioner. I have written phrases in speeches and talking points only to see them on television later that night. I was the silent one in the room who slid notes in front of the boss that changed the conversation or informed him of important events.

Then there are the goofy little things. The TV show accurately portrays what it is like to join the boss complaining about the people in the meeting room, looking at each other in exasperation, then pulling the door open, smiling and treating those same people like the most important meeting that day.

The dealings with reporters on the West Wing are spot on. I have engaged in the wonderful exercise of talking to a reporter in a game of three-dimensional chess. What do I want them to know? What do they really want to know? When do we go off or on the record? How far can I reveal what I know to give them a story while concealing what we don’t want them reporting? Who can I leak a story to today? Honestly, this complex dance was some of the most fun I had in my old job. It was endlessly challenging and you got immediate feedback on your success or failure by reading the story online minutes or hours later. I miss that…a lot.

The show does a very good job portraying the exasperation of politics, the compromises, the risks not assumed, and the problems left unsolved. And it captures what is like to pitch ideas, things you are passionate about, only to have the boss go a completely different direction making it your job to promote and defend decisions you personally may not love…and sometimes…not respect. But in the end, you didn’t take the risk for running for office, he did, and that’s the job.

Watching the West Wing reminded me that I did complete a sentence left dangling in Washington DC decades ago. Episode after episode, I laugh or choke up when I tell myself, yea, I did that too. And, I remember how lucky I was to live a little dream by doing public service…actually good things for people I will never meet. As corny, or improbable, as it sounds in the current ocean of disdain for government, it is still possible to make people’s lives a little better in public service.

If I every need to remind myself that I actually did what I set out to do the cure is simple. I get in my car and go out to East Portland to hidden little park called East Holladay. I then watch kids, closely monitored by their parents, playing in the children’s play area on variety equipment. I call those tangible things the “but fors.” But for my public service, that playground wouldn’t have existed. Josh was a fiction. That playground, and many other things in Portland I accomplished are real. For that opportunity I will always be thankful to the sometimes exasperating, always hyper-kinetic, deeply committed public servant, Nick Fish.

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An Evening in Pickleandia


If you are ever a little down because so much about Portland has become big and confusing, head out to Lents Park, out beyond 82nd Avenue, to a sweet little place called Walker Stadium.

The demise of the Portland Beavers left me a bitter old man. On the night of the last baseball game at PGE Park, I joined mourners down on the field and scooped up a handful of dirt from around home plate. As I walked out of the ballpark, I turned one last time to see the field and vowed I would never set foot there again. I am still true to my word.

In City Hall, I was in the room for the final negotiations that booted baseball out of Portland. I lost track of how many times I had to fake a half-smile for the Timbers owner and the politicians drooling over soccer. That experience made me both determined and deeply fatalistic to bring baseball back to Portland.


A couple years later, as liaison to the Parks Bureau, an enthusiastic guy named Ken Wilson came to meet pitching the idea to use a decrepit 1950’s era ballpark in Lents Park as the home for a wooden bat, college player, independent league team. There are several of these leagues across America. They give young players a place to get better, use wooden bats for the first time and even nurture the dream of becoming a Major League star. (Impossible? Giants All-star, 3 time World Series Champion, Buster Posey was scouted in just such a league.) To my delight, I became the political mid-wife for a baseball team…the Portland Pickles.

For two years I have had season tickets behind home plate for the Pickles. When I advised the owners on how to make the deal happen, I said make it all about East Portland. Make it about families who rarely venture downtown. Honor Lents, yea the old “felony flats.” Baseball with its predictable spaces in between innings means you can make it about fun. By any measure the Portland Pickles are a huge, largely hidden, success.

Every time I walk into the ballpark I get a little emotional that it even exists. I fight back tears at the home openers. I always walk across the park to the stadium. Even before you get to game, you hear it. Corny music, the announcer, the pop of the mitt as the starting pitcher warms up in the bullpen. (This year they put some tape to mark off the bullpen so they didn’t have to shoo kids off of the mounds to warm up relievers.) As I get closer, I smell the hotdogs on the grill and through the fence see the lines for cold beer.

Sold out, the park has room for about 2,400 people. There are several sellouts. Even on a Monday night, 1,500 people come to the games. Along the foul lines there are long raised, grass covered mounds called The Berms. People of all ages lounge on the grass or bring their beach chairs. Families with youngsters are Berm people because the kids can run and play behind the berms. “Meet me at The Berm” is an actual thing in Pickleandia.

Walker Stadium and the Pickles are about the rest of Portland, the part only given lip service downtown. The outfield wall is close, 335 feet, little league sized. They could not push the fence back because of a row of magnificent tall Incense Cedars and deciduous Maples. So the outfield fence is tall, covered with signs, and when homeruns are smashed deep the ball disappears into the trees like a scene out of Field of Dreams.

Seemingly removed from the rest of the world by the wall of trees, you stare out at advertisement signs that remind you where you are. Buster’s Barbeque, Epic Auto Body, Skull and Bones Chiropractic, Sayler’s Country Kitchen, D&F Plumbing, The Shriners, Northside Ford, Burgerville, and in a curious eastside twist a big sponsor is Warner Pacific College. While there is no shortage of craft beers, I always lean toward sipping Hamms on tap as I watch the games.

Listen to the conversations. People talking about their days at work. The electricians arguing over wiring a house. The old guys in front of me talking about what they lost at the horses that day. The guy jumping with his phone because he is on call…software…nope…PGE…power outage. Behind me a couple celebrated their 60th anniversary at the ballpark. On the loud speakers, you are as likely to hear a shout out to a soldier back from deployment as you are to hear the breaking glass sound effect every time a foul ball flies into the parking lot.

Walker Stadium welcomes a diverse crowd. There’s a well-known loud guy who heckles the umpire and sometimes the players. He only stops to go get a cigarette every other inning. I wish he’d lay off the kids on the field. They are just out there for the love of the game, but he bought his ticket.

One evening, a classic PDX hipster couple was sitting behind me in the field seats. The man-bun dude started yelling at the heckler. “Shut up,” “we are sick of you,” “you’re an idiot.” I knew this would be trouble. The heckler yelled back, “oh, is the millennial unhappy?,” “poor millennial” and then the best one, “no crying in baseball!” (Cross-reference a line from a baseball movie and I am all in) When he yelled that, half the bleacher began to chant in unison, “no crying in baseball…no crying in baseball” The clueless and thoroughly defeated girlfriend of man-bun flipped them all off.

Man-bun and his girl were not smart enough to know they were no longer in their Portland. They were in Lents…Pickleandia. While I would have been perfectly serene with him getting a well-deserved whoop’n, there was a security guy who knew the code of the east side and quietly put himself between man-bun and heckler. I just laughed and turned back to see the game. Another great night at Walker Stadium.


The season is now over. I am a little sad. The games are full of the kind of surprises you only get with widely varied talent. And this year, there were major league scouts in the stands. I know the two kids they have their eyes on. Sign the Aussie pitcher and the big guy from UCLA now.

Having real baseball, with good east side people has been one of the great joys of my last two summers. The fans love the kids on the field. Players live with local families who come to see them at every game. In fact, for a few hours, 15 times a year, I get to be with my other family, the good baseball fans of East Portland. Can’t wait for opening day 2018.


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The 65th Anniversary Celebration


Today is my parents’ 65th wedding anniversary. I wish I could say it was a day of unfettered celebration but for my family it is a day of reflection and some sadness. You see, my mother is in the final stage of Alzheimer’s Disease.

I have discovered than when I speak honestly about Alzheimer’s people join the conversation knowingly. With the aging of the baby boomers, it’s devastation visits more and more people. It is a shared experience with an evil and relentless disease.

While I am my own worse timekeeper, I am pretty sure that my mother has not known who I am for 3 years or more. I can recall the first hints that the disease was visiting her almost a decade ago. The changes in my mom with each of my visits were shocking. Each time I saw her she had disappeared more.

I have not lived close to my family since I was 19 years old. My brother, who raised a terrific family in the desert, lives close by our parents. Dad and Mike are the ones who have taken the brunt of the caretaking. Our folks worked hard and were frugal, so they have means for mom to have the best care available. I know that for my dad making sure that Dot always had the best care is something that has given him great solace. And, I know that our ability to do that is relatively rare. The impact of dementia on families of less means is shattering.

Jim and Dot Blackwood fell in love in high school and married soon after graduating. They had my brother and I young, which is why both Mike and I can be retired with parents in their early 80’s. It also means that, should your parents stay healthy, you get to know them for a long time. Mike and I have been blessed in this.

Couples don’t get to 65 years of marriage without trials. The great couples weather the awful moments in life and flourish. Our folks travelled widely and shared a thousand experiences. But with each visit what always amazed me the most about my parents is the almost coded language they shared until my mom’s mind faded away. The shared looks. The funny way they tolerated each other’s weaknesses with knowing eye-rolls. And the gentle celebrations in the way they touched each other or shared mischievous laughs.

And here’s the most remarkable thing. My dad has maintained all of that for both of them over the last few years. From the caretaking while she was still at home to the twice daily trips down the road to see her for both lunch and dinner he has never given up on them, the two of them as one. Oh, certainly there is melancholy and loss, but he comes to her each day faithfully believing that small parts of her are still in there somewhere and he will honor that until she is no longer with us.

My dad said last week that, Lord willing the creek don’t rise, maybe it’s mom’s plan to be here for their 65th anniversary and that he would bring her a cake decorated with their names and 65th on it. Well, that’s what he and my brother did today. Today, we celebrated. I am so proud the genetic lottery gave me these parents. Their steadfastness in life and in the dimming of life sets a very high bar for the rest us.

Mom and Dad, I love you.       Happy Anniversary…..Jimmy




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The Mental Illness All Around You


For most of my adult life I have lived with Panic Disorder. It’s natural for folks who hear that to immediately cross-reference to their own lives. They think of a time they were very afraid or very anxious and, bless their hearts, they think they understand.

While I knew there was something was wrong as a kid, the disease didn’t manifest completely until I was in my mid-twenties. In 1980, there were almost no resources available to diagnose my problem, let alone treat it. Professionals gave me Rorschach tests, which my creative mind loved, and had me sit down for lots of talking therapy. For a time, I spent good money deep in the world of Jungian psychology. Fascinating but useless. I became agoraphobic as habits of mind and body solidified without useful treatment.

A decade later, as science and treatment advanced, I found myself in a program with a room full of fellow sufferers. I knew the enormous effort it took me to get to NW Portland and the shear will it took to remain seated in that room. I knew everyone sitting in that circle of chairs shared my story in some unique way. But here’s the thing that has always stayed with me about that moment. Looking around the room, everyone looked calm. Oh, there were little tells, fidgeting and reaching for water bottles, but an outsider would not have been able to tell how much desperation and struggle was happening in front of their eyes.

The first decade of my affliction I survived and sometimes thrived. I depended on the love of a few people and the confused tolerance of a few more. I self-medicated with moderate use of booze and pot. Panic Disorder people are unlikely to abuse either as controlling oneself and the world around you is perceived as essential to survival. That’s the biggest difference between someone who has an anxiety episode and someone living with a disease. My people, we absolutely know that what we are thinking and feeling is a very real threat to our survival. Repeat…survival.

Like other sufferers with mental health issues, the disease punches huge holes in one’s life. I could not fly for 20 years. My family lives 1,000 miles away. Think about it. I am a baseball fanatic who didn’t see a Major League game for 20 years. Seattle was out of reach. And when I did make it up there, it took 2 tries. The first time I stood outside of the empty stadium in the middle of the night. Months later, I saw an actual game. Sally took a picture of me in the stadium. I look at it now and think, “That’s me at a real game. That’s me in ecstasy.”

Many people don’t survive mental illness. I have been close to that point. But for reasons that still escape me, perhaps grounded in my blue-collar work ethic and stubbornness, I am relentlessly hopeful about recovery. I never stop working the problem. That strange will power, some amazing professionals, and the love and support of my wife, means that I have a wonderful life. When I get whinny, I wish it wasn’t so hard on some days. But those are the cards I was dealt. And, entire parts of my life I cherish would not exist except for the powerful urge to not be owned by my illness.

People who I have been around for years have little idea that this is my real story. Like the other people in that circle of chairs, I am a great actor. I have run high stress meetings while having panic attacks. I have adjusted my work activities and personal life in subtle ways to keep moving forward. What looks eccentric is sometimes simply a survival tactic. Though, honestly, sometimes it’s just because I am eccentric. I have been at this so long I have lost track.

Here’s the deal. This essay isn’t about me. It’s about all the people around us who are also great actors. When I have shared my experience, “normal” people have told me, “Me too.” This missive is about cultivating compassion and understanding. While some mental health issues are apparent, far more are essentially invisible. Pause before you judge too harshly. Wonder why things seem harder for some people. When someone reveals something hard to you, know there is more and be honored with trust bestowed.  I couldn’t have built the life I have without little bits of understanding by others along the way. Simply…be that person. It can make all the difference in the world.


(If what I have described rings a bell. Email me via the website and I can suggest where to get help.)

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The Problem with Portland’s Lawn Sign


Dog walking around my neighborhood I see dozens of Portland’s favorite lawn sign. It must have a generic, shorthand name known but to a few. I ain’t the few.

There was a time when I was a Unitarian. I enjoyed their spirituality but ultimately was driven away by their politics. There’s a joke about Unitarians that not much gets done because it takes too long to organize the committee and once assembled no one can agree. I think of this joke every time I see one of these lawn signs.

Here’s how I think the committee created the lawn sign:


Immediately, the committee decided to take a divisive approach and redefine their ideology as a separate country. It’s the sort of “feel good” affirmation that mostly works because it excludes broad swaths of America. There is no separate country. We only have one. It’s a geographic republic conceived as a liberal democracy.


The committee could have stopped there but we have to believe that this line isn’t so much an affirmation as it is an accusation. The Founders made this point repeatedly but they were not fools. They knew this idea was aspirational. With no little irony, slaveholders joined abolitionists in embracing the idea. The context was not lost on them. There is both hope and hard work in this statement.


Aging hippies in the room no doubt. Evidently, this imaginary country is a place were love is the overriding value. However, would they love their neighbor if they had a Trump sign in their front yard? Really?


Certainly. This is the slogan of a movement, a historically important movement. But now the sign is begins to veer into the tricky narratives of identity politics. And this is just the start.


This idea is certainly topical. It reminds me of the long list of grievances in the Declaration of Independence. When you read that document now, there are parts that soar and sing. The lists? Not so much. America has always had a love/hate relationship with immigration. Last one off the boat…or jet…or truck…is always the problem for someone. I am reminded that 25% of Latinos voted for Trump. Welcome!


Does anyone else find this language particularly numbing and strange? Don’t we want to respect and empower the person and not the disability? And, what about the invisible disabilities like mental health issues? You can almost feel the committee straining to find a way to include another group.


I read somewhere that the original concept for this sign came from women. As a second wave feminist, I couldn’t agree more but this line continues the parsing of the population of this imaginary country. If in this mythical place everyone were equal why would you need to make this point? As the bubble of identity expands the walls get thinner and thinner. We know what happens to bubbles.


They had to go to the ampersand to get that one in. Any good Unitarian committee has to have a few socialists. My dog walk sample of the location of these signs tells me that some of the folks expressing this sentiment may have more than a passing relationship with good old capitalism. The truth is that almost ALL of us have looked the other way to live a first world existence. But by all means keep the ampersand line in mind while boarding any jet to a sustainability conference in India.


And there it is. In the final statement the committee embraces the big. I worked in the engine room of liberal Portland and it did not take long for me to realize just how narrowly diversity was defined. If you acted and thought in the approved fashion, you were everyone’s buddy. Challenge the dominant dogma in the slightest way and you were glad tarring and feathering was no longer a thing. Though the social sanctions could be just as painful. Try this. Most City Councils in the nation, and Congress for that matter, begin with a prayer. Can you imagine the backlash if a religious person proposed that here?


Since I left the world of local politics, I have been reminded what a small planet that world is. While most of Portland isn’t paying attention, the politics here are very much identity politics. This is a road to hell littered with good intentions. A couple of years into my service, I coined the phrase “liberal conceit” to describe how most liberals absolutely believe they are open-minded and welcoming. Certainly, nothing like those conservative cretins. Couldn’t be farther from the truth. Judgment knows no political persuasion. Tribalism is deep in the DNA. It takes determination and compassion to overcome what is deeply human about us all.

Portland’s favorite lawn sign is about identity. It is shorthand for telling everyone around you that we are not one of “them.” It’s a little smug and a lot about the tribe. It does not attempt to reach out and embrace people with legitimate social, religious or political differences. It might as well be the other sign I just saw on my walk: BEWARE OF DOG. That’s the sort of crisp, clear message that the left seems incapable of doing.

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