Archive for December, 2010

2010 Senses (Non-virtual)

Posted: 31 December 2010 in Uncategorized

I saw the mountains descend into the sea

I smelled the sweat of five days clinging to my skin

I tasted trout, fished from a lake 15 minutes before

I heard the rumbles in the distance and wondered at the power of a Sierra storm

I felt the softness of my grandson’s hair

I felt the sting of torn flesh–falling from my bike in Masanutten

I heard the wind stream by on the long descent from Tioga

I tasted a crafted wine put down 17 years before

I smelled the street on the clothes of the man next to me on the bus

I saw a road stretch to nowhere with a dead town at my back

I saw a people coming together to re-vision their city

I smelled a sage desert from 500 feet above–the intoxication of a primal plant

I tasted a tomato plucked from the vine on a cool morning–the juice as sacred as the Eucharist cup

I heard a man weep at the loss of the woman with whom he had shared underpasses and “holes in the ground”

I felt the lips of the woman I love-soft as 28 years ago

I felt flower petals in a riotous patch of color at 7000 feet

I heard words of anger explode from my mouth–the death of passion, the birth of petulance

I tasted the fruit of the labor of my own hands for the first time–and I licked my fingers

I smelled dirt–living soil from which springs life

I saw the engines of death hover, dive, dart and wondered how I would feel if…

I smelled a city, an orchard and a charcoal fire (transported to Africa on its scent)

I saw hateful glares, confused eyes, grins that just could not be stopped and the open mouths of uncontainable laughter

I tasted blackberries, the leather of my gloves, meade and coffee, coffee, coffee

I felt the tread of my bike tire, the scab on my knee and the satin inside of a dog’s ear

I heard music played on a lute, the story of birthright sold and conversations with family, friends and many people whom I love


Posted: 28 December 2010 in Faith and Life
Tags: ,

The local paper said that “(t)he woman whose body was found Monday along a highway has been identified…” It went on to say that she “had family in Montana but had been living (here) as a transient for the past few years…”

Living here for several years… a transient.

From the dictionary in our local library: transient n. a person or thing who is transient.

Guess I better check the adjective…

Here we are: adj. not lasting, existing briefly, staying but a short time.

Who knew that our local newspaper was apt to wax so philosophical in its straight news reporting!

Is this what the story really meant to say?  “A human being was found.  A human being who, like all of us, was here but a short time.  A human being, who, in the bigger scheme of things existed only briefly.  Her life was among us but like a breath she came and was gone.”

Sadly, I don’t think so.  What the story meant to say is “Everything is okay.  Go back to what you were doing.  Something dead was found along a highway but don’t worry yourself about it.  It was just a transient.  These kind of things happen to transients–they die along lonely stretches of highway.  They are found and no one can know (or really need to care) about how they lived or how they died.  They might have family somewhere but they checked out of our world some time ago.  You may have seen this one here but she was not us.  Oh, by the way, another transient found this one.  Case closed.  They take care of their own kind.  Don’t they?

Her friends called her “Little Feather”.  Her companion of a dozen years wept and told us that she loved to dance, that she liked puppies, and the colors pink and purple.  He said they slept under bridges and in holes in the ground.  A friend told of how they bantered for weeks after she asked him for money and he refused.  Another told about how she had hid (protected) his backpack then gave it back.

The stories were told as we gathered as a group of transients–in the truest sense of the word–to remember this human person and to release her spirit in the Indian way.  This mother. This daughter. This… transient.

We met in a café downtown.  An old friend.  The kind with whom you don’t have to skirt around the real issues. Very little small talk.  Like me he was aging.  Grandchild. Change the only constant.


I could see he was anxious, distracted.  But, as always he focused in pretty quickly and, again, as always drove pretty quickly right to the heart of where his thinking was.  I mostly listened but pretty much knew where he was going (like I said, an old friend).


His life had not reached a dead end per se but he had this growing sense that he had worked his “last real job” and that he would spend considerable time from here on out “on the shelf” or sniffing around for opportunities to “stay relevant”.  He hesitated with that latter admission: being “relevant” was not something he felt was critical but… he also admitted that, as a white male he had long ago been socialized to believe that relevance was critical in one’s work… in one’s life.  He didn’t like it, but he couldn’t shake it.


I asked how he was managing this new found reality and that question really got us down to the heart of it all.  He leaned forward, almost as if he was worried that someone might hear.  Almost as if he was afraid I might hear.  Almost as if he was afraid he might hear.  This was an admission of something that had danced around in his mind for a long time.  I inched closer.  Our heads almost touching.


“Frankly, I am dealing with it the way I always have.  I am building a case for why it is the greatest thing ever.  I am spinning it so I look pretty responsible, forward looking, intelligent.  I am finding writings that justify (in rather glowing terms) every decision I am making.  Just like I used to.


I mean, when the arc of my career was heading up—and it did for a long time—I harbored doubts.  I often wondered if my noble acts were all that noble.  But it was easy to find lots of people who supported everything I did.”


I stopped him with a wave.  “You are being too hard on yourself.”


He gave a “yeah really” smirk and waved me away.


“No, no… I know myself pretty well by now” (I knew he did—knew all too well).  “I have been doing it for years—hiding the misgivings while I collected the evidence I needed to keep moving in the direction I wanted to go.  It was not evil but it did silence (or drown out) the alarm bells clanging in the back of my head.


Now… well, I have not got much.  No real opportunities.  No big plans. No big ideas. Nothing to defend.  Except my own sense of importance.  And so I am doing the same old same old.  Digging up a bunch of writers, a bunch of thinkers, who justify my newly found anti-institutional rhetoric.  Finding others who support my new spirit of “giving back”, living locally, being aware of limits… All that stuff I am just so passionate about now.  Can’t help but thinking it is all so much post-hoc justification.”


We sat in silence for a long moment.  Then we both leaned back at the same time—sighing together.  Conspiring, I suppose.


Truth was on the table.  Not much more to do with it at that point.  We started gathering our things.  We had “important” things to do.  Shook hands.  Knowing we would meet again soon.  Pretty certain of that in fact.


FYI: If you are not a believer in college football (and its “heavenly father” pro-football) you may want to skip this one. 

Auburn Wins National Title over Oregon*


This: * is an asterisk (see title).  It is with an * that I begin my prediction about this BCS season and most notably the title game.  My “bold” prediction:


In 2, 3 or 5 years if you turn to the section on BCS Championship games in the College Football Encyclopedia you will find an * next to the score with a note at the bottom saying that Auburn, while having won the game, was subsequently stripped of the title due to evidence of player misconduct in a “pay to play” scheme.  Turn over a few pages to the Heisman Trophy winners’ section in the same encyclopedia and you will find another * next to the 2010 winner, Cam Newton.  Another footnote will inform you that he was forced to relinquish the trophy due to misconduct in said pay to play scheme.  This will be the second such relinquishment in 6 years (Reggie Bush being the first in 2005).


There you have it: Auburn wins. And in the next year or so the “truth” comes out.  Football fans will sigh.  The NCAA will wring its collective hands.  Cam Newton—having signed a gazillion dollar contract after the 2010 season—will express regret (but flash his well known smile as he leaves the press conference 10 minutes later).  His dad will claim he was a victim of the rapacious advances of sports agent even as he puts the finishing touches on his new multi-million dollar church building.  And… the players on the current Auburn team will wonder why they are being punished for things they honestly knew nothing about.


Things could have been different. The NCAA had its chance.  It chose “brand” integrity over, well… integrity, when it declared: “Based on the information available to the reinstatement staff at this time, we do not have sufficient evidence that Cam Newton or anyone from Auburn was aware of this activity, which led to his reinstatement.”  More on the “brand integrity” in a moment. But let’s get this straight.  Do they really believe that Cam Newton was not “aware” of what his dad was doing? I guess I just must agree.  I also believe firmly that Floyd always rode clean, that Ben was framed in those (multiple) forced sex cases, that Gaylord did not even know what Vaseline was (look it up all you youngsters), that Diego’s goal really WAS scored by God Almighty himself… Please, we are talking about adults here.  Cam was not some child asked to leave the kitchen while daddy talked to the big, bad agent.


(Oh and note to “Reverend” Newton: Did you miss the memo?  You know, the one from the Big Guy (delivered via his son) about camels, eyes of needles, riches and heaven and all that stuff?  I suggest you look it up (Gospel of St Matthew, Chapter 19).  Ah, but I am being uncharitable to my Brother Newton.  Okay Rev, I forgive you… Unconditionally.  Seriously.  Now, would you please go on national TV as soon as possible and confess your sin in this thing?  Good for the soul and you will save everyone a lot of pain later.)


You and I know what the NCAA is doing here.  Just doing business.  ESPN is carrying the game and they, and the NCAA, simply cannot resist the potential draw of an amazingly gifted, handsome athlete for their “championship” game. Now its true that Ad Week says that ESPN garners relatively little of its overall revenue from TV advertisements of the BCS Championship game (most are generated by fees it chargers to carriers of its feed).  But, getting the right kind of match-ups (and the viewership they provide) is important in future negotiations (see the whole revenue story here:  Arguably it is more important for the NCAA itself to guarantee a “marquee” match-up.  After all it is the NCAA brand being sold to ESPN and the networks and the NCAA’s refusal to go with a championship format in the FBS means it needs to “manage” outcomes to get the highest profile teams and players into the “big game”.


So in two (or three or five) years when the NCAA sadly acknowledges that new evidence suggests that Auburn must be placed on probation and/or stripped of its title, it will have little (really) to worry about.  The revenue from 2010 will already be in the bank.  The NCAA’s “product” will survive and will flourish—no doubt at all.  After all, by then the next great phenom will have been created, pimped and sent forth to conquer our hearts.  And have no doubt, our hearts will be conquered.


But in these pre-* times Auburn will win by 3 touchdowns (49-28).  Cam will account for 5 of these directly: two on the ground three through the air.  Oregon will commit 3 turnovers and mostly get pushed around.  Don’t get me wrong here—I want Oregon to win.  I love their style and I love the fact that lots of small guys can fly around the field so fast that the bigger guys can’t catch them.  I like their coach (for now). Their uniforms do baffle me.  I mean what’s with the off-white names on white jerseys?  Give me something I can read or just go “cold-Paterno” please.  Anyway, I digress.  Oregon is too small. Auburn defense is too athletic (they suck at technique but they are big and fast).


BTW, you may be wondering, given my cynicism about this situation, whether I am actually going to watch the game.  After all, doesn’t that make me complicit in this whole thing and kind of a hypocrite?  Maybe.  But for me there are well over 100 other players involved in this game the vast majority (all?) of whom play by the rules.  I played team sport at the college level (small college, long time ago) but I can tell you that team sports really do have lessons that play out in broader life issues.  These guys love each other and, whether some people want to acknowledge it or not, they have given up some things because of their commitment to the team. They deserve our support and, dare I say it, our admiration.


Other BCS predictions (no *es here)
The Rose Bowl, No. 3 TCU (12-0) vs. No. 4 Wisconsin (11-1):  Wisconsin 42-10
The Fiesta Bowl, No. 25 Connecticut (8-4) vs. No. 9 Oklahoma (11-2):  Oklahoma 24-3
The Orange Bowl, No. 5 Stanford (11-1) vs. No. 12 Virginia Tech (11-2): Stanford 28-24
The Sugar Bowl, No. 6 Ohio State (11-1) vs. No. 8 Arkansas (10-2): Ohio State 24-21



My town exists, some would say, because of the railroad. Built to link San Francisco and the newer ports to the rest of the nation, the city grew up around it starting over a century ago. Then the interstate came (essentially paralleling it). Sandwiched in between is Olive Drive. Olive Drive has changed in recent years and is now home to over a thousand people. Students, low income laborers, homeless individuals, recently homeless individuals and disabled people (due to a low income housing unit built there several years–our city is sorely lacking in low income housing options). Olive Drive is cut off from the rest of the city in many ways but the most salient and visible is its geographical isolation. Ironic. If you have a good pitching arm you can throw a rock from Olive Drive into our commercial district, but you can’t easily follow the trajectory of the ball into downtown.
The railroad tracks…

People cross anyway–at the Amtrak station–on foot, on bike, hauling strollers, toting kids, carrying groceries. It is illegal and potentially dangerous. I say potentially because actually very few people have been hit or killed there in living memory. Of the dozen or so deaths along the tracks in town in recent years only one occurred where people typically cross. Still, it is dangerous because freights and a busy commuter line run through the station on a regular basis (you can hear the whistles from just about anywhere in town).

Union Pacific, the owner of the line had, for years, kind of turned a blind eye to the crossings, even building a concrete walkway between tracks to make it “safer” to cross. They asked the city to work on a better solution. The city sought funding. Projects went nowhere. Lawyers got nervous. So now, apparently, time has run out. The lawyers went from nervous to table pounding (I am guessing) and so UP is going to build a wall, a fence, a barrier. Three thousand eight hundred feet long, eight feet high. Impenetrable.

The folks on Olive Drive are, understandably upset. Their options for “crossing over” are very limited and not very safe. Again, ironically, UP calls it a safety fix. But all it really is is a liability fix. It pushes the safety issue off UP onto the city and the residents of Olive Drive. There is no space to get into specific problems here, but one scenario has kids crossing the tracks at the end of the proposed fence at a place where the freeway empties into town. Cars streaming off the interstate at 60 mph meeting kids crossing a street to cross the tracks. Makes me kind of anxious just thinking about it.

So we held a “protest” on Sunday at the depot (Amtrak Station). Two things–which are really the point of what I am writing–struck me during the meeting (the meeting was actually quite good–informative, respectful and kind of sad).

1. As I stood with my neighbors from Olive Drive it struck me that if this wall were being built in another part of town the city would have found a solution long ago. We have found money to build a variety of over and underpasses at dangerous crossing points in town. True, these pieces of infrastructure potentially serve more people, but they were built to provide safe access to critical parts of town. Olive Drive is a small place but a significant (and growing) population lives there. I could not help but think that too many of those who live on Olive Drive simply don’t have a voice in this city. Interestingly, most people are avoiding turning this into a class issue. It seems that everyone–even the oh-so-progressive types in our university town–are fearful of being labeled class warriors. In fact, we never really talk about class anywhere in this land do we? Well, let me stake a claim here: One reason that this problem was not solved long ago is because poor, low income and disabled people are the main people who would benefit from a safer and more convenient crossing. There, I said it and I will stand by it. Take this fence to any other small part of our city and the well off and empowered ones (I put myself in this category) would flood city council demanding a fix. And we would get it.

2. As I listened to one person describe the deaths that had occurred along the tracks in recent years I was struck by the “categories” into which they were placed. (Note: I am NOT impugning this person’s motives or sensitivity–he was merely describing things the way the newspapers and news channels had reported them). Among the deaths were several suicides. One person was drunk. People knew the names of these people and several shook their heads knowingly, offering words like “yes, I worked with him/her”. Then there were the “transients”. When the word came out of his mouth I did what I expect other people in the crowd did: I made a mental “check” in my mind. Oh yes, the transients. Who can fathom their motives? Who can understand their lives? Who even knows their names? No real solution is going to keep the transients from engaging in bad behavior. They are a thing we simply cannot plan for. They are a faceless wildcard and, since they clearly hangout where the rolling stock rolls, well, it is not surprising that they get killed by that stock from time to time. The speaker did not say any of those things but the category “transient” made them the “other” in ways that put them in a place none of us had to go. The only problem is… the “transients” were no more transient than most of the folks who live in my town. Most of us are transients. We call this place “home” in some vague way, but spend large chunks of time away from here. I did some research on the “transients” struck and/or killed by the trains in recent years and it turns out they were not transients at all. They were residents of our city. They were homeless residents of our city but they were probably more stable than most of us.

They had names, families and possessions. Needs, dreams and friends. One of the “transients” killed had battled severe mental illness for years. In the weeks leading up to his death he had come by the belief that he was invincible–that destructive things like speeding trains and cars would pass right through his body. His friends tried to protect him. Social service providers had sought those limited moments of lucidity he experienced to encourage him to get on his meds. He had family who tried to do the same. He was (as a former homeless friend of mine said), caught in a spiral. Long ago he had confronted the reality that he had no place to go but that was only the first step in the “marble rolling down the vortex” (as my friend said). On the days leading up to of his death he had (according to another homeless friend) continued to boast of his invincibility. Tired of the rant one of his friends said something like “Okay, if you are invincible then why don’t you go jump in front of the train that is coming…” He did just that. The driver of the train (apparently) told the man’s mom sometime later that at the last moment the young man wavered, started to leave the tracks and then jumped back on.

If the community of concern is poor, homeless, disabled or just plain crazy, my experience is that no one is going to do much to make their lives more secure. Does that sound bitter? Does it sound cynical? No apologies here. UP will get its wall, I predict. The lawyers will check that liability off their list and go and find the next one to check off. Olive Drive residents will face the consequences. The rest of us will wring our hands and shake our collective fist at the railroad. And we will head home–glad that we are not cut off from our jobs, our shopping and the life of our progressive little city.


Press release October 2010.

Union Pacific Corp. said Thursday its third-quarter net income rose to $778 million, or $1.56 a share, from $514 million, or $1.01 a share, in the year-ago period. Revenue increased by 20% to $4.4 billion, from $3.7 billion. The Omaha, Neb. railroad giant was expected to earn $1.46 a share on revenue of $4.35 billion, according to a survey of Wall Street analysts by FactSet Research. “Strong volume growth, pricing gains and operating efficiency combined to produce another record quarter for our company,” said Jim Young, Union Pacific chairman and chief executive officer. Automotive freight led the quarter with a rise of 36%, followed by a 25% rise in industrial products.

That’s right—revenue increased by 20% to $4.4 billion (that is a “B” not an “M”)…

Scorched Earth Economics

Posted: 4 December 2010 in Uncategorized
Look me in the eye and tell me, honestly, that those earning over $250,000 per year will suffer if the tax cut granted to them 10 years ago is left to expire. Tell me that it will stall the recovery (No republican I know has made that kind of Keynesian argument since before the Reagan era). Tell me it is unfair or unjust (keep looking me in the eye as I remind you how favored they are in Social Security Taxes). Hold my gaze as you add that we can’t afford safe water, air, and food programs; that safety nets must be done away with; that teachers and firemen will have to find other work because we can’t afford them. Don’t look away as I suggest that those earning over $250,000 per year could help pay for those things. Don’t avert your eyes when I remind you that the top 1% of the population in this “land of opportunity” holds nearly a quarter of the wealth. Then look around and see the scorched earth created by policies that deny the humanity of those who are poor. Look at the earth scorched by a generation of lies that blame the poor for their poverty; policies that have called for ever lower taxes, ever increasing spending on things like the military and the “security” state, and ever angrier cries for “less government”. See the burnt fields and hope that something will grow from the ashes…