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.

20/20 (20 minutes of writing for 20 days): 11. The Voices I Hear

Posted: 17 September 2017 in Uncategorized

I am going to write this one as an elected official: the identity that will follow me for a few more months and then be gone.

This is about the voices I hear, and how they affect my decisions.  I don’t often reflect on this but recent events have caused me to wonder about the decisions I make and who influences them.  Ours is a representative democracy. We DO have direct democracy options for just about anything that people will put their minds to make happen, but the normal course of decision-making means that five elected officials collectively make decisions that will affect the lives of 70,000 others.  As one of my colleagues notes: the power is not in one person but in the collective voice of five people.

In that sense, the decisions I make have very little force.  But in putting forth my ideas, my perspectives, and my arguments for a given course of action, I am seeking to influence the direction of a decision. In that sense, the voices I hear, and how they influence my decisions do matter.  So, to whom do I listen and how do I use that information?

Answering that is not as easy as it might appear.  But let me try to name the sources–the voices I hear.

  1. I hear the voices from my past–especially those that have brought me to this point.  I hear the voice of my mom, first and foremost. Her exhortation to be fair, to be wary of the powerful, to be honest… Her voice is in my head every day on these and other matters.  But there are other voices from my past who speak to my mind: my friends from West Africa who tell me about the importance of taking time with people; my Ph.D. advisor who tells me to give time to students–to keep learning from those who are experiencing the full joy of learning; my colleagues in the field of maternal and child health who tell me to seek evidence for the effects of programs and policies I support… And there are many others whose words remain in my mind and heart.  I listen to them.
  2. I hear the voices of columnists and writers I admire and seek to emulate.  Ellul is a constant voice, as is Howard Zehr, Dean Baker, Wendell Berry and Andrew Bacevich.  These voices continue to inform and shape that thing called “world view” and there are many others that would require more space.  Each of these adds an element to how I approach the framing of what I see and how I choose to act.
  3. I hear the voices of City staff.  These are the people most closely associated with the decisions I am asked to make and I rely on them to help me understand the issues and the options for dealing with them.  These folks have a thankless job because there is rarely agreement from all quarters on the recommendations they make.  But they continue to make them and when I push and probe and prod them they always come through with their best, considered, opinion on the matter at hand.  I don’t always agree–but their voices matter a great deal to me.
  4. I hear the voices of passion from people across this community on nearly all the major issues that come my way.  I have never, in my three-plus years in office, refused to meet with someone who wanted to share a perspective with me.  I have never deleted an email without first reading it and considering its import.  These voices are as varied as the issues and they can be cacophonous as well. There is no way to arrive at a place of consensus among them but they provide a FULL array of perspectives that force me to consider where I stand.
  5. I hear the voices of my colleagues on the City Council who share the responsibility to decide with me.  Each brings his/her own voice to the dais and together we seek–in that very public space–to come together to make decisions. Laws limit how many of their voices I can hear outside the meetings on any given issue.  And so I often only get to hear these voices moments before a decision is made.  But I value these voices because they come from people who are walking a very unique path with me.
  6. I hear the voice of my life partner–my wife.  She does not get into the policy issues but she does provide me with a perspective on what matters most.  She is a voice that reminds me that I have not failed just because the latest angry email says I have.  Her voice tells me to stick with it, stop being such a baby, and, most importantly that she loves me.

I am sure there are others I have not named here.  I am sure there are others who influence me in ways of which I am not even aware.  I am sure that I favor some voices over others.  But when I pause to consider any decision I make, I realize that the voices I hear are varied and provide the grist that turns thoughts into actions.

These are musings.  Random thoughts that have flitted through my mind today, just like yesterday.

The idea of restorative justice has been around for many years but five years ago it was barely discussed in this town.  Today we talk about it a great deal but I doubt that many understand it.  Part of that is because we are so deeply bound by the precepts of our punitive system that even when we say we want justice–true justice–we usually mean that someone “has to pay.”  Who has to pay becomes a matter of perspective–of which side of the political or other “fence” you sit on.  We want restoration for us. We want punishment for them.

We have a long way to walk before we can shed the skin of our punitive system, the outcome of which is really a belief (deeply ingrained) that if we can just remove “them” from our midst, then true justice will prevail.  But restorative justice means just that: we restore people.  We restore them to their families, to their community, to their lives.  This does not mean that we restore them without some change or correction being made.  But, we seek restoration because we realize that if we send them all away we will end up with shattered and broken communities.

Yes, restorative justice does demand certain things: acknowledgment of harms, statements committing to change, and actions that demonstrate that change.  Restorative justice is rigorous in its defense of truth and truth-telling.  It is unrelenting in its search for harms and making those harms right (as much as possible).  It is rigid in its commitment to change on the part of those who have created the injustice–the broken relationships. But it fundamentally does not accept that driving people out will lead to a healthier and safer community.

Yes, we have a long way to go.

Restorative justice requires repentance but it does not need forgiveness.  This might seem odd: repentance but no forgiveness.  The equation seems so unbalanced.  I confess and you forgive… Isn’t that the way it should work?

Perhaps restorative justice is more pragmatic than we think.  When I say it requires repentance I use repentance in the sense of turning around or turning away from that which is wrong and turning to a new path–a new way of being in the world.  That is repentance: accepting to go in a new direction away from that which is hurtful.  Repentance is what offenders do in restorative justice.  They acknowledge that the path they have taken has led to harm and they seek a way, with the input of the one they have offended, to take a new path, a different path, a path the end of which will not lead to further harms to others.

But forgiveness is NOT what victims do in restorative justice.  Forgiveness is a result that may come, but it is not required of those who participate in this form of justice.  There is, perhaps, some confusion about this point.  The victim or victims in a restorative process–and can we acknowledge that in some cases one can be both victim and offender–or is our thinking simply too binary on this point?–the victim names what they need from the offender.  They name what hurt them. They ask questions.  They seek answers.  Above all, they search for a way beyond the fear and doubt, common to all victims, that maybe, just maybe it was something THEY did that led to all of this.  They seek escape from the fear that they will be victims again. They seek assurances, from the offender, that the offender will NOT inflict the same horror on others.

But they do not forgive.  Or, rather, they are not expected to forgive.  But like anything else when humans rub up against each other in pain and discomfort, they tend to do what humans seem programmed to do: they cast a lifeline into the sea of their pain and their deepest fears and they rescue the offender from their own inhumanity.

Does this always happen?  Perhaps not.  Does it happen often?  Yes.

For we all know–intuitively perhaps–that in our hearts there is an evil that dwells.  A hatred.  A malice.  A destructive force of anger.  And we know that if ever we were to flounder in someone else’s sea of fear and pain, that we, too, would want a lifeline.