18. Five Lists of Five

Posted: 23 September 2017 in Uncategorized

Five Unique Events in Which I Have Participated.

  1. Hearing a griot perform “songs to order” on a three-stringed instrument on a moonless night in the African Sahel.
  2. Standing next to Jackson Browne at Outside Lands, taking in the same songs,  tapping our feet to the same beat—and shaking his hand.
  3. Eating a monkey harvested fresh from the bush and served up to honor a guest in Guinea Bissau.
  4. Dancing to exhaustion on the slopes of Kilimanjaro.
  5. Thronging with tens of thousands at Place de la Concorde to shout the imperative “touche pas mon pote”


Five Largely Useless (to me) Things I Spent Hours Learning

  1. Econometrics
  2. How to mount a camel without serious injury
  3. How to shoot a layup right handed (I am left-handed and never did learn)
  4. Matrix algebra (see number 1 above)
  5. Doing a full tune up on my car.


Five Rather Small Things I Treasure

  1. The silky hair of a newborn
  2. My bike lock key
  3. My multi-tool
  4. My wife’s earrings (all of them)
  5. Contact lenses


Five Things I Remember about Bowmansville (my hometown)

  1. The old broken-down delivery truck in which we illicitly played by the hour
  2. The pine tree in the backyard that I climbed to its peak—swaying with it and the wind
  3. The “diamond” where all that baseball magic started
  4. The Sesquicentennial Celebration that Lasted all Summer in 1970
  5. Agnes Bowman, whom I believed to be a witch, until she saved me from ignominy in the winter mud


Five Things I Think About Every Single Day

  1. Restorative justice
  2. My mom
  3. How to help people stop being so angry about everything all the time
  4. What leadership means
  5. What I will do next

17. Pro(to)-Life

Posted: 22 September 2017 in Uncategorized

It is where the tail-end of the Bible belt dangles north above the Mason-Dixon into Amish country.  Not that the Amish have anything to do with it–this is fundamentalist Christian territory (that toxic Gnosticism that eschews the body for the spirit). A county that went GOP for many decades before the Reagan revolution, and dallied with Wallace at one point.  A place that went for Trump and is not ashamed.  Its residents are traditional marriage, pro-life folks who bought the Republican schtick about “family values” and never looked back.

It is the county in which she–my daughter–works in child protective services.  A county service that reveals everything for what it truly is.

She texted today:

“Today was the agency-wide retreat. Very concerning messages…”

I ask: “Concerning messages?”

And it pours forth…

There is no state budget yet. New laws mean more investigations more kids in care. But we get no budget increases. So exec director needs us to use FEWER services for clients. Less money for everything, but by the way, expect caseloads to keep rising. Fewer referrals for evals. No more helping with rent and daycare. No more paying for therapy or counseling. Cut back on drug screens. Etc etc.

Also, bad news all of our judges are retiring in December.  Two of our new judges are known to be very anti-child services so expect more battles in court, direct calls on petitions from judges, etc…  Do more work with fewer supports and resources with less accommodating judges. We didn’t get approved for any case aides, any extra visitation worker contracts, nothing. But yet we are expected to offer more visitation. It’s unreasonable. I’m discouraged. I have a case that just fell apart this week. Mom has nuero damage from domestic violence. Sorry, can’t refer her for any further services. Meanwhile, I have another mom in prison for contact with her husband she had a no-contact order with. Domestic violence victim. Glad we are paying for her to be in prison. Really helpful. I have a mom who told me she’s going to go take her kid (baby) back by force. Exec director today offers this advice to us: if you’re feeling like you’re in a dangerous situation, um, call 911…

Call 911?  That’s all you got?

Let us pause.  This young woman tells me that this is her calling, that she loves her job.  She has a degree from a very good school.  Award winner. Smart.  Yes, I am proud of her.

So we are left with this.  She visits a father in jail who pimped his children (if I told you the ages you would not believe it).  She goes to a trailer without heat or running water and finds meth addicts “raising” children.  She calls the cops because the teenage kid in her car at 9:30 pm threatens her (this at an hour when my daughter should be home with her three little ones).

No one wants to pay.  They are pro-life (yes, I am going to say “They” here–that undifferentiated mass of souls who vote, and complain about taxes, and go to church, and pray to their middle-class god).  THEY believe in the sanctity of life as long it is a hypothetical thing without a name.  Once it is born then it is all about bad people and, “the parents need to be responsible,” and “they are all welfare cheats,” and…

Meanwhile, they seem to forget that those parents were children once.  Children they fought to bring into this world.  Children that they abandoned once they were here.  And the cycle of trauma perpetuates itself and this year’s pimped kids become tomorrow’s pimps.  Today’s beaten and abused children become tomorrow’s  beaters and abusers.

And they stand wringing their hands about how awful it is that people turn out this way, and they refuse to see a line, a straight line, a painfully traced line between their meanness and the abandon that lurks at the door.  I am tired of this shit–and not just because of my daughter.  They care about “first life”–the life they claim exists before life begins.  But they care not a whit about life at all.

My daughter stands in the breach between the uncaring proto-lifers and the children whose lives drain away into the fertile farmland of the piedmont.  She is my hero.  She is a lonely pro-lifer fighting in the outlands of death.

16. From the Train Southbound–February 2010

Posted: 21 September 2017 in Uncategorized

Note: This is the second (and last) post of the 20/20 that is a reworking of an older script.  This one a poem.  Recognize the risk that this non-poet takes in sharing a poem publicly.  Be gentle.


Tule (fog) hugs the contours while contrails etch the sky.

Dried blood sun slides in and out of the mist on its way up to kiss the dome

(It will crest orange before returning to ochre on its way back down)

Further south, sun retreats

Bested for now by Tule


Draped over the sprawl of another valley town that swallowed the earth

And spit out postage stamp size plots of pipe, concrete and pressed wood

From boreal forests far away

Back yards digesting the detritus of lives

No green to hide it

“Round up ready” orchards and fields

Producing “on demand”

Forced to bind up the nutrition in the dirt

So we can “feed the world” and

Throw away nearly half of what we grow.


Below the Delta all is yellow

As the Tule/sun battle continues


Sun will win come summer but tule holds sway in this season

Until noon or until all the tomorrows of winter have ended their reign


Fenced pens of beasts

Who elsewhere might be bovine

But here are shit-caked parts of the machine

That we hide here


(They live in their excrement

Their “cowness gone”)

The TV tells us how happy these machine parts are.

Can a replacement part be “happy”

Strictly speaking?


And then faux clouds (Tule playing at being real “weather”)

Break down and the land begins to be revealed



For what we have imposed upon it.


Twine- and wire-bound-bumper-cars

Create traffic jams on field edge

Signs in Spanish

Reveal the origin of the drivers

Longing to go back

Unable to go back

Damned for not going back

Bound by the dream-turned-drudgery

That the fields and orchards and pens devise.

The drivers also part of the machine


Sun, now bone white

Stands behind Tule

A final warning that his time is almost up

Soon enough sun

Will win


And will batter this earth

(The hammer of heaven,

Pounding the anvil of summer ground)

We, meanwhile, wait for redemption of the whole scene

Seen from the train.

15. Smoking

Posted: 20 September 2017 in Uncategorized

Back then everyone smoked–even around the dining room table, out in the yard–in the kitchen for God’s sake.  Mom let them at that time but after we moved to our new house that all stopped.  Actually, they all stopped, eventually.  A couple uncles got emphysema, a few others heart disease, at least one lung cancer. The younger ones quit earlier and seem to be doing fine.  This was my extended family.  No booze but lots of smoke.

I remember when I saw my brother, two years older, smoking with some friends.  Made me feel sick to my stomach.  Smoking was okay for Uncle Don, but not for kids, like us.

There used to be a guy at the Reading Phillies baseball games (Double AA baseball, we had season tickets).  He was a very large man who would smoke these humungous cigars during the whole game.  I kind of liked the smell but as the evening wore on–long about the 7th inning–I always felt a bit sick.

I remember the last night they allowed cigarette advertisements on TV.  Sometime in the late 60s, I am going to say.  We stayed up late watching a movie and every commercial was for cigarettes.  I went to bed at 11:00 (it was a special treat to stay up that late).  My older brother stayed up until midnight when the test pattern came on.  He said after I went to bed it was one solid hour of cigarette ads.

The TV shows and most movies when I was a kid featured smoking.

The only time I really smoked in a semi-serious way was when I was doing my research in the Mauritanian desert.  It was exhausting work and all my research team members smoked and they convinced me that smoking would give me energy.  It did give me a buzz and a couple of times I threw up.  But… I did stay up later and get my field notes sorted out.

We knew way back that these things can kill you and I always wondered who invented this.  My dad said Indians did–they had peace pipes. But that still never explained how THEY got started.  Who thinks about inhaling smoke deeply into the lungs using a pipe or other means as a delivery system?

I used to think that people with cigarettes looked suave–successful marketing?

When we first moved to CA I remember billboards saying “Welcome to America’s Non-Smoking Section.”  Now it seems more people smoke everywhere.  They banned it at UC Davis, so people cross the street and stub out their butts on city sidewalks (Thanks UCD!)

Richie Allen once lit up a cigarette in the Philadelphia Phillies dugout.  I saw that and felt ashamed.  I knew Bob Gibson would never do that.  Athletes were supposed to be clean.

A propos to which, my mom always said that smoking was a dirty habit.

I have never bought a pack of cigarettes (though I purchased a “beedi” in India once for about a penny).  Yup, every cigarette I have ever smoked (about 50 I would say) was bummed off someone else.  I am not proud of that.

I can’t believe cigarettes are still around after all these years and everything we know. After the warnings on packs, the death of the Marlboro Man, and those awful ads showing very sick people telling us they wished they had never started.  I guess smoking will be around for the duration…

14. Anatomy of a Meeting

Posted: 20 September 2017 in Uncategorized

This 20/20 addition is different from the others.  Last night I did not have time to sit down and write my daily essay because I was chairing a meeting of the Davis City Council.  Even though this was not dedicated writing time, I actually spend a LOT of time over the 5-plus hours of any meeting writing.  I am taking notes on what staff says in reports (those I may not directly in my computer), but then when it is time for public comment on an item (and there is ALWAYS public comment in our town!), and when it is time for my colleagues to weigh in, I take summary notes that enable me to capture the sense of what is going on. 

My job, at the end of the day is to take in the public comments and analyze them in light of what I believe is best for the community.  My job is also to take the many comments from my colleagues and provde points of divergence, consensus and try to find a way forward to provide staff with guidance.

The summarizing of these views goes to the heart of what a mayor in our form of governance is supposed to do.  Yes, I get to speak my own thoughts, but they must be woven together with those of my colleagues to provide a coherent decision and pathway forward.

And so I offer you my notes from the meeting on an item related to oversight of police surveillance technology.  Every item on the agenda follows the same format.  Notes in red point out what you ae seeing.  This is all public.



13. Immigrant

Posted: 18 September 2017 in Uncategorized

Nothing puzzles me more–more genuinely confuses me–than the way US citizens, over many generations and places, have denigrated immigrants.  Nativist streams of thought ebb and flow throughout our history and the anti-immigrant fever is quite high in these days.  I do not know why.

Though I could be accused of being a liberal cosmopolite–rootless and therefore not valuing rootedness and “place”–I am actually a committed localist who believes one can only love that with which one interacts on a daily basis.  As such, I am not disdainful of the small town in which I was raised nor the small city in which I now live. And it is because I am a localist, I would argue, that I care so deeply about the immigrant.

I have not arrived at an understanding of the urge to “move” from studying the history of my own nation–though that is certainly instructive as we think about the role of the immigrant in shaping a place.  Rather, I understand it because I lived in a region of the world in which borders really can’t matter and people move across them in all directions, here seeking a better life, there finding a second chance, here joining a friend, there doing the work that locals somehow refuse to do.  In the economically-poor Sahel of West Africa movement is constant, little noted, and, from all appearances offering those on the move options they could not find at home.

I have traveled to the tiniest villages on the desert’s edge and found immigrants from many hundreds of miles away making their home there.  From those same villages (it might be hard to imagine how small and isolated they are, but trust me, you have never seen anything like it), stream others wandering far and wide to find their lives.

We are restless upon this planet and it is typically those most willing to take risks and the most entrepreneurial who choose to leave family and friends to wander into the unknown.  Beyond these are the talented many who are sent, proactively, from their villages to provide income streams or “premium” payments used for all manner of local “insurance” schemes that keep people alive in the most marginal spaces of the planet.

People move with intent.

And when they arrive they either fill or create and fill niches that were either empty or worthy of being created. My overwhelming experience of immigrants is that they enter a space and find opportunities in things that the locals either do not know how to do or will not stoop to do.

That is how I see those who toil in the fields, front lawns, hotels, and office buildings of Northern CA.  They take nothing from the locals but do keep prices down by their willingness to work long hours for low wages, little to no health insurance, and no other benefits.  They become parts of who we are–just like in every location in which I have found them around the world–they work their way into communities and become us.

As I listen to the rhetoric of those who see them as a threat in this time I wonder what is really driving the anger and disdain expressed towards them.  The angry ones hide behind dubious studies purporting to show the negative impact of immigrants. They speak of crime as if immigrants are an organized band of land pirates sweeping across the landscape to rape and pillage the land and the people.  They speak of the loss of cultural identity as if culture is an immutable good that is too fragile to rub up against difference.

When I hear their arguments I always wonder what exactly I am hearing.  But I think I know.  The words we hear in these days are a continuation of an ancient xenophobia. I focus on “phobia” here because I think there is a genuine fear of the “other” at play here.  Perhaps it is a fear of not knowing how to act around the other.  Perhaps it is a fear that their language hides threats that the native cannot decipher.  Maybe it is the fear the other really is more robust, more resilient, more capable than they.  It might be they fear the sheer stubbornness, the silent suffering under burdens of work, the spartan lifestyles, and the amazing grit they see in the faces of the immigrant.  Maybe they fear they are not made of that stuff.

I don’t know for sure.  I will forever speculate and wonder at these fears. To know an immigrant is to know someone who has taken a chance to move beyond the known to sow a seed in an unknown soil.  They are welcome in my home because they have helped enrich the place I call home.

12. What Stephen King Taught Me

Posted: 17 September 2017 in Uncategorized

Should I be ashamed to admit that I love the work of Stephen King?
I came to King late and, for many years hid my enjoyment of his work.  Why?  Well, I mean, is it really considered good taste to enjoy the purveyor of the horror genre?  But King is a masterful storyteller and when my niece, who teaches English and writing, proclaimed her admiration for his work, I decided I need not hide my guilty pleasure any further.

The truth is, King surprised me in so many ways when I really started spending time with him that I found my preconceived notions of what he was about–these largely informed by watching movies made from his books, Carrie and The Shining notably–shaken from the first read.

I started with his short stories written under the name of Richard Bachmann when he was a much younger man but my true introduction to King was when I read It. I consumed it over the course of a longish weekend and, another admission, I found my throat shrinking and my eyes watering when I read the last 10 pages.

I won’t run through the story at all because you should find it yourself (or just go watch the new movie based on it–haven’t seen it myself and can’t decide if I should), but I will say that it shares a theme or themes found in many of King’s books: themes that make one yearn for simpler things but also remember the joy of being a child, before life got too complicated, and friends WERE the center of everything.

King returns again and again to ideas of friendship in which love is discovered and expressed.  He sides with the misfits and the neglected.  The greatest horror in King’s writings on these things is the true, non-supernatural, violence done to our protagonists’ parents, school bullies, or power-wielding teachers or cops.

Horror may find its home in the face of a clown for the purposes of the story but we know it stands in for the very real horror that lurks relentlessly in schoolyards, bedrooms, and streets.  These pedestrian horrors–including simple neglect, the dehumanization that comes from adults who simply do not care about their children and from people who ignore those in closest proximity to them–dominate King’s narratives.

And, driven out by the neglect, King’s characters end up on the edges, on the borderlands, where, as King will tell you, a different kind of evil lurks.  The edges, both metaphorical and real in King’s work are where things break down, passageways to unimaginable hurt lie and people slip into other worlds from which many never return.

His characters find themselves in these spaces but… not alone.  Invariably, whether in a prison exercise yard (harder to get further out to the edge than that), an abandoned building, an unused sandlot, an inaccessible hotel, or a creekside hideout, they find others.  These others are beautiful in their own tragic stories and as they come together the true magic of King shines through. It does so because they always find love, and acceptance and they discover what it means to matter to someone else.

King’s stories are love stories.

I like the movie better than the short story upon which it is based partly because of the last words spoken by Red in The Shawshank Redemption.  They capture perfectly the lesson King sees in these shattered lives that find another or others and their lives gain a meaning they could never have believed they had.  King teaches me hope.

I find I’m so excited I can barely sit still or hold a thought in my head. I think it is the excitement only a free man can feel, a free man at the start of a long journey whose conclusion is uncertain. I hope I can make it across the border. I hope to see my friend, and shake his hand. I hope the Pacific is as blue as it has been in my dreams. I hope.