Friday, August 31, 2007

Urban Meditation

Today I've been reading Kip Tiernan and Fran Froelich's Urban Meditations, a collection of testimonials and other writing by Kip and those who have given inspiration during her more than forty years as a Boston urban minister. I was happily surprised to find this 1998 poem by Norma Laurenzi, a woman I knew in the late-80s and early-90s as a core activist in our Homes Not Bombs homeless direct-action organizing group. Norma was a front-line staff at Pine Street Inn, and was one of those extraordinary people whose passion for the poor derives from equal parts love and anger.
Easter, 1998

In Search of God,
No, no, not high above the alter,
but way below in the subway.
Not in the church
But behind it,
Bent over the heating grate.
No, not Sunday mass
But the mass that rises
In cement fields
With dirty dawn:
Climbing out of dumpsters.
Peeling from the pavement
Worming out of
Torched car windows.

I saw him.
His legs are lost in Korean landmines
And Boston snow banks.
His fingers ground
In factory machinery
Or green and thrown out
In hospital trash.
His lungs are eaten
Away with T.B., holes the size
Of nickels and dimes.
His jaw is sunken —
The teeth dropped out —
He sucks stone crusts till soft
Enough to swallow.

Go ahead,
Keep climbing mountains,
Examining sunsets,
Waiting for wind
To whisper answers.
I tell you he's here where:
One wooden foot keeps stepping
In front of the other, where
Fingerless palms
Balance cups in food lines,
Where tattered veils of lungs
Inhale and exhale,
And tongues keep finding
Nourishment in garbage.
He's most beautiful here
In this shrunken, aching mass of stumps
That keeps rising, rising, rising
Every dirty-rose dawn
To start all over again.

— Norma Laurenzi

Thursday, August 30, 2007

The Owl of Minerva Flies at Midnight

The owl drawing above was my submission for the STPEC program sweatshirt when I was in college at UMass-Amherst. It's a dadaist Hegel joke. Get it? Owl of Minerva? Duck? Quack? I still think it's pretty damn funny, even if no one else does.

Social Thought and Political Economy was an interdisciplinary major designed to teach critical thinking and offer a well-rounded progressive education. We got red stars pinned on us during our graduation picnic. Seriously.

We were obnoxious little lefty know it alls who were drunk on political theory that often verged on the incomprehensible. Ever try reading Habermas? Can't say I recommend it.

I understood just enough Hegel to be dangerous, although one of my better papers was on the usage of dialectic by Simone deBeauvoir and Franz Fanon. Then as now, I was a bit of a contrarian. I alienated one of my more doctrinaire Marxist professors my arguing that the seeds of Stalinism were there with Lenin, and that the Kronstadt Massacre signaled the end of the true revolution. I also outraged my anarchist professors by arguing that the ends of the revolution in Spain were corrupted by the means of violence.

I've since come to understand that this was a ridiculous argument, even though at some level it might be true. They were leftists up against fascists before fascism was even a dirty word, and most of the western world would have happily seen them annihilated without a fight.

Still, it wasn't like I really knew anything. I recall being halfway through a course on the Spanish Civil War before realizing that the Republicans were the good guys. Similarly, I was well into a critical theory survey course — struggling through Marcuse, Lukacs, Benjamin, Horkheimer, and Adorno — before I got the difference between "form" and "content." But I knew how to pronounce Loo-kotch and Ben-ya-meen, and that, apparently, was enough.

While I'm sure all of this shaped my thinking more than I know, the stuff that made me who I am happened mostly outside of class. As a student activist I learned all about pulling off "actions," and discovered I could be a leader. I found my voice as a writer through a weekly column in the Daily Collegian, which was one of the better student newspapers in the country. I got the publishing bug when, in my junior year, I used the access to equipment at my typesetting job to start critical times, a collectively edited leftist monthly newspaper.

Weirdly, I got A's in most of my theory courses. I credit grade inflation with getting me through college with undiagnosed ADHD. My final critical theory project was a Brechtian theater piece that I don't remember much about. Yet, I clearly recall another student's project. It was a piece on racism performed with potatoes. The hero was named Masha, and the central conflict came when her kid wanted to go to summer camp with his friend Jimmy, the peach.

Speaking of incomprehensible, the owl cartoon comes from Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit. "The owl of Minerva flies only at midnight" means something to the effect of "Wisdom is inspired by crisis." So ... Duck!

Maybe it loses something in the explanation.

See also:
The Beginnings
Young, Gifted, and Miserable
Everybody Must Get Stoned
Life Begins at Seventeen
The Year of Living Dangerously
The Air Force Years: Part One
The Air Force Years: Part Two
The Air Force Years: Part Three
The Air Force Years: Part Four
The Air Force Years: Part Five
Working Poor In Waltham: Part One
Working Poor In Waltham: Part Two
Birth of a Student Radical
Harvest of Shame
The Owl of Minerva Flies at Midnight
The Road to Street
The Street Years: Part One
The Street Years: Part Two

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Northwesterners United Against Panhandling

Crosscut had one of their interns compare and contrast approaches to homelessness in Vancouver, Portland, Seattle, and Spokane, and here's his conclusion:
The new consensus on dealing with homelessness appears to be a major step forward, and governments across the Northwest are providing funding and making concerted efforts, with varying degrees of success. All of these efforts, however, are in jeopardy due to the continually rising real estate market and rental rates. Unfortunately, in most cases the governmental attempts to provide housing for homeless people has not led to a net gain of low-income housing. Governments are currently pursuing courses of policy that are insufficient to address the growing crisis of affordability for renters. Until there is a solution to the structural problems that are eating up low-income stock, homelessness will not go away.
The full article is worth looking at. While he takes the Ten Year Plan approach at face value and completely misses the trend toward criminalizing the poor, he gets that federal actions don't match their rhetoric, and that the market is killing us. Not bad at all for a dilettante.

Amazingly, a quick search turned up recent articles about new anti-panhandling legislation in Portland and Tacoma, the ugliest anti-panhandling flier in the history of the world from Salem, OR, an anti-panhandling op-ed in Vancouver, plans for a panhandling education campaign in Spokane, a new panhandling ordinance in god-forsaken Billings, Montana, and an anti-panhandling campaign in Denver. And, of course, the Seattle campaign. Is there something in the water? What is this telling us?

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Quick! Hide the Poor. The Rich Are Coming.

Ask most people if public begging is a problem in Seattle and they'll say no. Compared to most cities, they'll say, the panhandlers are low key, polite, and not especially numerous. I admit to drawing from a sample of less than ten here, so this isn't exactly science, but for normal people, the panhandling "problem" isn't really a big issue.

And yet the Downtown Seattle Association can't stop talking about it. Why? While press flak Anita Woo talks about how panhandling drives away convention center business, this can't be the whole story. Business downtown is booming. Ask anyone.

So what's really going on here?

The DSA being a forward looking group of folks, I'd say the answer lies in the future. We need to look at what's being built.

As downtown Seattle becomes an enclave of urban affluence, with new developments sprouting up like forty story mushrooms beneath the biggest wettest cow pie you've ever seen, price tags range from expensive to stratospheric. And as the well-to-do discover urban living, they bring their suburban comfort zones along for the ride.

One barrier to downtown living is the perception that it might not be safe. With big money betting on the idea that the super rich — along with the merely affluent — will make the downtown their home, the DSA's preoccupation with squelching visible poverty makes a bit more sense.

A quick look at the new downtown reveals what's at stake.

There’s the Escala at 4th and Virginia, slated to open in 2009. "Anticipate perfection. Embrace elegance. Experience grandeur," says their website. This 30 story glass tower at 4th and Virginia has 275 condos for sale, going for a million dollars or more each. Amenities include a 24,000 foot members-only club, with a private theater, fitness area, restaurants, and wine caves where residents might store their private collections in convenient locked cases. The website's virtual tour seems to indicate that each unit comes with its own trophy wife at no extra charge.

The Cristalla, just a half a block down the street from our office, has units that go for over $3.5 million. In these, a column of water drops from the ceiling to fill the generously sized bath tub. When Real Change moved in back in '94, Belltown was pleasantly seedy. Now, the seedy have been priced out by the greedy, and we're hanging on by our fingernails, possessed of the sure knowledge that our very excellent deal will one day come to an end.

The Four Seasons, going in at 1st and Union, bills itself as "Seattle's Signature Address," and will feature 36 private residences above a luxury hotel. Condos are priced from $2.5 million to more than $10 million. Ironically, the proximity of the Pike Place Market, the preservation of which was considered a victory for the little guy, is listed along with the Seattle Art Museum as a key amenity for the uber-rich urban dweller.

Nearby, at the Fifteen Twenty One Second Avenue Building ("designed exclusively for the confident few"), units are selling for an average of $1.8 million each. Obscenely enough, this 143-unit development is sited where the Green Tortoise Youth Hostel once was, where bunks without amenities could be had for a few dollars a night. The "confident few" are slated to begin moving in sometime around December 2008. While most high end downtown living is mixed in with condos for the merely affluent, this project distinguishes itself as an island of extreme wealth unto itself, where only the rich need apply.

You get the idea. With all this wealth comes a vision for the sort of downtown where no one ever has to feel uncomfortable. No one who’s rich, that is.

It'll be sort of like New York. But without the diversity or the people.

While prognostication is always a tricky business, some things we know. The DSA will drive toward the criminalization of panhandling, the elimination of outdoor feeding, and the removal of public toilets. While the political will for such steps does not yet exist, they're working on it.

Meanwhile, the priority for "ending homelessness" will focus on that ten percent or so of homeless people who constitute the visible urban poor, otherwise known as the "chronic homeless." This, being the federal policy priority, is where the money is, and the "advocates" have lined up to cooperate.

No matter what the issue — homelessness, education, the environment, whatever — federal funding levels are a precise calibration of maximal cooptation at minimal price. Homelessness goes for around $1.6 billion right now. Cheap.

Sadly, the philanthropic and religious communities don't seem to have discerned that the Bush administration, with their Ten Year Plans to End Homelessness, may not simply have the best interests of poor folk in mind.

If federal policy on homelessness didn't align with the interests of wealthy real estate developers, it would be a bit surprising, wouldn't it?

But that's not a comfortable thought. Better to bask in our own righteousness than to ask who benefits. Questions like that don't sit well with the folks who hand out the money.

When the DSA inevitably makes their move to criminalize panhandling in Seattle with time, place, and manner restrictions similar to those passed in Tacoma, it'll be revealing to see which side some people are on.

Silence is complicity, and having nothing to say while poor people are being further criminalized will not be a comfortable option. Not if I can help it.

Monday, August 27, 2007

God and the Little Guy

To bring my blog almost up to date, I thought I'd repost this column that I wrote seven years ago during our annual pilgrimage to Lake Crescent. If you like this sort of thing, you should check out my Classics Corner archive blog, which I'm still in the process of completing.
From time to time, each of us needs to stand back, look ourselves in the eye, and ask, “What has the Protestant work ethic done for us lately.”

We at Classics Corner hid out at a mountain resort last week to do just this. For fun, we brought along Hesiod, a seventh or eighth century BC farmer-poet from the backwaters of Greece. As it turns out, Hesiod is one of history’s first workaholics, but even he says to rest in August, when work is done, the sun is hot, and “women’s lust knows no bounds.”

“Then,” he says, “ah then, I wish you a shady ledge and your choice wine.” He also recommends thick goat’s milk, freshly baked bread, the meat of a free-range heifer, and sparkling wine mixed with three parts water. Having none of these essentials on hand, we substituted scotch and tried to avoid fried foods.

While we did not find Hesiod’s remarks upon the habits of women to be particularly accurate, we were still obsessively drawn to Works and Days, his 829 line poem on how to work hard, marry well, lead an honest life, have good crops, and avoid drowning at sea or blaspheming the gods.

Hesiod’s poem is addressed to his lazy brother Perses, who bribed the local “gift-devouring kings” to lawyer the poet out of his inheritance. Perses is exhorted to end his scheming, get off his butt, and “Work!”

Ever since Prometheus egged the gods into hiding the “means of livelihood” in the earth, most of us poor humans have had to scratch out our precarious existence with constant toil. This, says Hesiod, is the way of the world. Life is struggle, he says. Get used to it.

From the perspective of our lakeside adirondack chair, we found all of this quite bracing indeed.

But we were drawn most to Hesiod’s obsession with justice. Having recently survived the prayer-soaked public coronations of Bush and Gore, we found the poet’s idea of a people’s god immensely appealing.

Belief in justice, says Hesiod, transcends the individual to concern the entire community. In an immoral world where might makes right, “grief and pain will find us defenseless,” and “evil doers and scoundrels will be honored.”

Hesiod believes there are spirits who function as the ethics police, invisibly roaming the earth and seeing that justice is served. When corruption is allowed to spread, he says, the entire community is punished, so everyone has an immediate interest in behaving morally.

Even Hesiod, however, has his moments of bitterness and doubt. “As matters stand,” he says, “may neither I nor my son be just men in this world, because it is a bad thing to be just if wrongdoers win the court decisions.”

In Hesiod’s world, god looks out for the little guy, and his faith in this keeps him an honest man. Hesiod’s practical mind would see a god of the rich, powerful, and corrupt as worse than no god at all. His is a useful belief, and 2,800 years later, with god half-dead, it still rings true.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Ten from the Tide Pool

On Sunday morning, low tide was at 6:05 a.m., and, improbably, promised to be -.8 feet below sea level, nearly four feet lower than the late afternoon low tide the previous day. When we arose at 5:30 to prepare, the sky offered only the barest hint of a sunrise. Not enough to arouse the birds, but sufficient to allow hope. By the time we hit the beach, the pre-dawn light made flashlights unnecessary.

The green anemones were the first thing we all noticed. Some were 3-4 inches across when open, and there were spots where they piled in on top of each other. There were also smaller orange anemones. These were the size of quarters and half-dollars, and blended more with the rocks. The larger ones struck me as a bizarre life form. When I saw them grouped in a thick circular pattern, they seemed to say, "Take me to your leader."

The small white barnacles were very much alive. If you put your ear alongside where they massed on the rocks, they hissed and popped like an alien shortwave receiving signals from outer space. There were also thick patches of black mussel-like shells that were about the size of a small child's fingernail. Every once in a while, you'd come across a fat purple sea star. This one was at least six inches across.

As the sun came up over the horizon, two things occurred. The first was the turning of the tide. As the water came rushing back in, slowly at first, but then with real conviction, many small fish became stranded on the sand, where they patiently awaited water or death. There being obvious threats about, the girls and I went into rescue mode, flipping them back into the ocean as we could. There was a cosmic ridiculousness to my task, and I knew it. Somehow, though, it felt familiar.

The morning sun, when unobscured by clouds, bathed the area in a gorgeous golden light and made Twin A glow as if she were holy.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Nine on the Beach

Today I realized that photography is a lot like writing in that one must cull ruthlessly. I took 330 photos over a few hours time at Kalaloch Beach in the Olympic National Forest, and then narrowed them to what felt like the best. When I was done, there were nine. I put them together in a little two-minute slide show thing, and, in the spirit of less is more, cut a guitar solo out of an eight minute live version of the Dead's "Loser." Enjoy.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Home Again Home Again Jiggety-jig

Who knew they wouldn't have WiFi at Kalaloch? Cel phones didn't work so great either. I kept panic at bay while was off-line for two days by bonding with my digital camera and drinking lots of scotch.

So, I'm going to try to keep up the pretense of daily posts, and play a little catch up. Here's the first one.

I was just at YouTube and only 19 of you have even watched my Moments in Time video! ANd so I'm posting it again below. Fucking watch it! Even better, pop it open and get that E Minor thing going and open it again in another browser so it plays over itself. Do that as many times as you like. Do this when you are stoned and it will be even better.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

A Metaphor for Something

I seem to have hit the record button on my video camera by accident as I was falling backwards onto my ass the other day. Hence, this 20-second version of Wipe Out, by The Cubs.

Blue Skies


Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Moments in Time

Today, in my ongoing series of posts of no consequence, I bring you a mossy montage of images from the half-mile Moments in Time kiddie trail that starts a few hundred yards from our cabin. I’ve been pretty much laid out with a cold since the day I arrived, although it seems to be getting better.

So, this is about my speed.

We are, however, sitting in the middle of a mountain rainforest, so even the lame trails are pretty amazing. Lots of crazy moss and ferns and big-ass trees. I went out with a digital camera and my little cheap-o Canon home video recorder and stitched this together in iMovie today with a nice little thing in E minor behind it. Seasoned nature photographer that I am, I only fell on my ass twice as I was backing up to get a better shot.

Near the beginning is a picture of a bench on a rocky little beach with a spectacular view, even on a cloudy morning. That’s where I phoned into Dave Ross’ Show on KIRO 710 this morning to talk about panhandling. Like everyone else, I always think of the stuff I should of said later on, but I think it was fine. My main goal was to call out the Downtown Seattle Association’s love affair with Tacoma’s panhandling laws and their stealth campaign to bring this to Seattle. If you listen to the broadcast, (2nd hour, Dave Ross Show, 8/22) you’ll notice that DSA press flak Anita Woo doesn’t deny this is where they’re heading.

They’re being very, very circumspect about this. Maybe they’re thinking two-to-three year campaign. Start with panhandling education. Keep landing press hits every three to four months to create the impression that panhandling in Seattle is actually a major issue. Wait for the City Council elections and look for five toadies to push the thing through. City Attorney Tom Carr already sounds like he’s on board.

Whenever they get around to it, I think they’ll find that Seattle ain’t Tacoma. Downtown Seattle is succeeding fabulously. If they think they need to beat up on poor people to broaden that profit margin a bit more, I’m more than happy to give them a run for their money, the greedy fucks.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007


Kate Elston: Fair Reporter or Tool of the Elite?

I interrupt my vacation week of postings of no consequence to comment on today's story in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Begging the Question: How is the Money You Give Panhandlers Actually Spent. As slam dunk set-ups go, I've seen worse, but this is one of those articles that make me want to tell the next reporter I talk to that I'm recording the conversation.

"To give or not?," reads the intro in today's on-line edition. "Downtown advocates urge Seattleites to pass beggars by while others bristle at a compassion-less 'war on poor.'"

The "war on poor" quote is mine. I also have a B section Page 1 pull quote where I say, "There's this thought that because people are poor they need to be under a judgmental microscope. They should be able to spend the money however they want."

This sets me up, of course, as the idiot liberal who supports the local crack trade through my undiscerning largess. The question was, does Real Change control how our vendors spend their money? Not the more complicated, "Should people be concerned about what panhandlers will do with the money you give them?"

Reporter Kate Elston, who seemed honorable enough, may not see the difference, but I do.

She does, however, quote me accurately when I say that the self-esteem people find in selling Real Change often leads to positive lifestyle changes. I thank her for that.

The "war on the poor quote" was out of context as well.

I described the DSA's anti-panhandling campaign as part of a pattern, wherein cities in general are becoming these dense enclaves of concentrated wealth as suburbanites go urban and bring their precious comfort zones along with them. This is the context of both the Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness's obsession with chronic homelessness (read visible urban poor), and the heightened policing and criminalization of visible poverty that we're seeing everywhere.

All of this, apparently, didn't fit Elway's advocates versus critics of panhandling frame, so she choose instead to make me look like some sort of a reactive nut case by employing the "war on poor" quote without all that bothersome context.

I do find it interesting though, that nowhere in the article is DSA's often-made assertion that panhandling is up by 38 percent this year alone, despite the efforts of their panhandling education campaign. This omission makes them come off as the reasonable ones.

As I've said before, I was neutral on the campaign itself. It's the DSA's recent "drive the bastards into the sea" escalation that pisses me off.

Where they're heading with this was obvious earlier this year, when they landed an article in the Puget Sound Business Journal. The Downtown Seattle Association will push for restrictions of panhandling similar to Tacoma's, which are some of the strongest in the nation.

The evidence of this comes in paragraphs 14-15.
Other cities have taken more extreme measures. This year Tacoma made it a misdemeanor to panhandle in certain places — near ATMs, bus stops, building entrances, and other public areas. The city also outlaws panhandling before sunrise and after sunset.

Seattle City Attorney Tom Carr said people have a constitutional right to beg on city streets. Buit establishing time place and manner restrictions — as Tacoma did — is a way to protect free speech while combating undesirable behaviors."
This is how the DSA works. Keep it in the media. Beat a steady drumbeat of horror stories, half-truths, and pseudo-concern for the poor, and when the timing is right, push for repressive measures against those who have nothing. Punish the poor right out of the downtown so that we don't have to see them anymore.

New York's Giuliani showed us the way, and all those who would like to disappear the poor need only follow his example. It's a predictable formula, and we don't have to guess about anyone's intentions. The writing is on the wall and it's in the P-I.

Monday, August 20, 2007


Pickin' n' Grinnin'

What better time to annoy people with amateur banjo playing than while on vacation at a mountain resort with a bunch of in-laws? In today's posting of no consequence, I embrace my hick roots by sitting around in an adirondack chair all morning perfecting my repertoire of Twinkle Twinkle, Itsy Bitsy Spider, and You Are My Sunshine, and a couple of other things that don't have names.

Bluegrass banjo playing has the virtue of having just a few basic maneuvers. The hammer-on. The pull-off. The slide. And the pinch. You put those together with a good rolling picking style, and yer off to the dog races. Yee haw!

Good bluegrass banjo players are basically these tremendous nerds who know how to put together clever variations on picking patterns, play fast and clean, and work the thing up and down the neck with key changes and everything, making this the perfect past-time for the quick-witted but unambitious. To outsiders, all banjo playing sounds more or less the same. To the initiate, it's layer upon layer of subtlety with lots of inside jokes.

The all time masters were Flatt & Scruggs. The video below is one of their appearances on the Beverly Hillbillies.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Excerpts from the Guest Information Binder

Welcome to day two of postings of no consequence. Look at how the clouds hug the top of that mountain. This is one of those places where the overwhelming bigness of things can be humbling, particularly on a clear night, when the Milky Way looks like it's just over in Forks and the brilliant vastness of the universe imposes its inescapable perspective on the meaning of human existence.

For those of you who care, pictured above, from right to left, are my sneaker, Grandma Bonnie, and Bradley, my five year old nephew.

And now for some fun facts from the Guest Information binder that was in our cabin.

Deep, Clear, Cold
"Lake Crescent, a cold, clear, glacially carved lake, owes its existence to ice. Its azure depths, which plummet to 624 feet, were gouged by huge ice sheets thousands of years ago." Thousands of years ago? Can we have a little more geological precision here? I guess, as American perspectives on history go, "thousands of years ago" is enough to stand in for the concept of a really, really, long time. Anything prior to when we stole the land, which, in geological time, is about when I started typing this sentence, doesn't really matter.

Obligatory Indian Legend
Ancient disagreements between local tribes "escalated into a great battle that lasted three days. The mountain spirit became very upset at the foolish fighting. He hurled a giant boulder down at them, killing all of the warriors." This, of course, was the boulder that dammed things up to form the lake. Here's the interesting thing though. This is another one of those angry, judgmental Gods who get pissed off at the behavior of humanity and wind up doing far more damage than we could have ever managed on our own. Except that now we have nuclear weapons. Shit. Maybe it's time for God to launch a preemptive strike.

Vocabulary Word of the Day: Saponification
In 1937, Lake Crescent Tavern waitress Hallie Illinworth disappeared, but she popped back up in 1940 when a fisherman discovered a body floating on the lake. "The face was unrecognizable, but the female body itself had been preserved by the cold water and had been saponificated (turned into a waxy substance) due to a chemical reaction between the alkali in the water and the fat in the body." Is that cool or what?

They Make It Sound So Fun
"In compliance with President Bush's HealthierUS Initiative, we have charted a convenient walking tour around the Moments in Time Trail and returning to the lodge via the Barnes Creek Trail through the meadow behind the Singer Tavern Cottages. Walking two times around this loop should take approximately thirty minutes, which is what is recommended as the minimum daily activity necessary for fitness maintenance. Improve your fitness, have fun and enjoy the beautiful scenery around Lake Crescent Lodge."

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Pearl Moskowitz' Last Stand's the end of August and we're off to our annual family pilgrimage to Lake Crescent on the Olympic Peninsula. This year we're going to mix things up and spend a few days at Kalaloch as well.

Nearly everyone else in the world has checked out through Memorial Day weekend as well. I'm way too obsessive about this blog to abandon it altogether, but I have a plan, which occurred to me about ten minutes ago. For the next week, you may look forward to a series of postings of no consequence.

So, if you're looking for another diatribe regarding the Satanic essence of Phil Mangano, or my latest take on the dark slimy underbelly of ten year plans to end homelessness, you'll have to wait. While I might surprise myself and have a thoughtful moment, the odds, frankly, are against it.

So, for my first posting of no consequence, I thought I'd publish this beautiful watercolor from Pearl Moskowitz's Last Stand, which our friend Alison brought as a gift for Kay and Mica when she came visiting last night. Below is a gratuitously adorable photo of the girls, as Alison reads to them from Babar. Alison didn't bring Babar, which tends to reinforce colonialist attitudes and almost always ends with someone getting a medal. No. Alison brought them an out of print children's story about an activist Jewish mom who saves a tree from developers by engaging the enemy with kugel. She picks this book up used whenever she sees it to eventually give away.

It's an awesome kids book.

I do that too. Here's my list of books I buy used whenever I see them to give away to the next person I deem to be both worthy and in need: Lawrence Boadt's Reading the Old Testament study guide, Carolyn Forche's Against Forgetting anthology of war poetry; and Elliot Liebow's brilliant and moving ethnography of homeless women Tell Them Who I Am. I have also been known to do this with John Hersey's The Wall and Ignazio Silone's Bread and Wine, two very different fictionalizations of underground resistance to fascism during World War II that everyone on the planet should really read sometime. More embarrassingly, I also give away copies of 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

Friday, August 17, 2007

And Now For Something Completely Different

My father-in-law, the retired hydrologist who lives in Florida, pointed out this treasure that was produced right here by the Water and Land Resources Division of King County. It's the story of groundwater, relayed through a bluesy little R&B number sung by chipmunks, or groundhogs, or something. It makes me proud to be from Seattle.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Harvest of Shame

By the fall of 1984, I'd settled in at UMass-Amherst. Life as a student radical agreed with me. The collectively run house I'd moved into lived on vegetables, tofu, and whole grains, which were purchased at the Belchertown Coop and kept in large jars beneath the kitchen counter. We had a chore wheel and decided things in house meetings. I'd joined the puritanical left. Nobody smoked, drank to excess, or took drugs. Sex was OK, but we didn't much talk about it.

During my first year, I was placed on academic probation after flunking French and balancing my one A in Marxist American History with a few Cs. As someone who had skipped most of high school, I was poorly prepared for college. I didn't really know how to study, and the undiagnosed ADHD didn't help either. I wouldn't figure that one out for another twenty years. As long as my coursework mostly involved reading and writing, I was fine. I decided to major in Social Thought and Political Economy and minor in journalism.

My girlfriend Kathleen had a job as a typesetter, and taught me her trade on some funky little terminal that used cassette tapes for memory. I soon landed a job on a Varityper making posters and brochures for student organizations. This was a computer terminal that saved jobs to big floppy disks and printed text to photographic paper. I'd cut out the lines and columns with a metal ruler and exacto blade and use a waxer, light table, and border tape to make things all nice and balanced.

The Radical Student Union was homebase between classes, and the Student Communications Office, which housed my beloved Varityper, was just downstairs. I was happy. Overwrought, but happy.

The College Republicans had a strong- well-funded chapter and offered a convenient nemesis. The Contra War in Nicaragua was in full swing and there were US-funded horror shows in El Salvador and Guatemala as well. Nuclear proliferation and star wars threatened the planet, and apartheid was just beginning to surface as a campus issue.

The night Ronald Reagan was re-elected, a farmhouse party in Belchertown culminated in a solemn flag burning ceremony as we held hands in a circle and sang We Shall Overcome.

That was just the sort of thing we did back then.

Reaganomics, which was characterized by heightened military spending, tax cuts for the wealthy and the middle-class, and large cuts in government spending, especially that directed toward the poor, was bringing homelessness back on a scale that hadn't been seen since prior to World War II.

The call went out from Mitch Snyder's Community for Creative Non-Violence (CCNV) that protesters were needed in Washington, DC for their month long Harvest of Shame action. We rented a van on the RSU's dime and drove the 400 miles to get ourselves good and arrested. Our English anarchist friend Fiona taught us a song from her homeland that we sang every chance we got:
Trash trash, trash all the nation
We are the anarchist generation,
We're gonna find a new direction
We're gonna have an insurrection.

BOLTCUTTERS! Devolution,
We're gonna have a, revolution
Something, something something,
Something something, something
As our group of baby radicals broke into song at the slightest excuse, the older and clearly exhausted activists from DC would look at us in wonder, and then be happy that we were leaving after the weekend.

When we arrived, Mitch Snyder was in the 43rd or 44th day of a fast that had come to the point of being seriously life-threatening. At issue was $5 million dollars that the CCNV wanted from DC to renovate their famous shelter for 800. This was where we came for our CD training and orientation. This was my first real brush with homeless activism. Hundreds of people had arrived for the climactic end to the month of action and around 80 of us would be arrested in front of the Capitol the next day.

The CD itself was one of those highly choreographed things that involve groups of people going limp and being flexi-cuffed and carted — with various degrees of delicacy — off to jail. Our group went to DC Central Cell Block. Most of the arrestees posted $80 in bail and were free. We, on the other hand, were prepared to gum up the system with our bodies.

The system pretty much took it in stride. We were placed two to a cell in four by eight rooms that had steel plates suspended from the walls as beds and a toilet and small sink. Three times a day they would trundle a laundry cart down the aisle that was filled with paper bags. Each held a baloney, mayonnaise and white bread sandwich and a plain donut. The donuts tasted like baloney. There was also coffee, which was terrible.

Some of us took this as an opportunity to fast. We devised a game that used sandwiches in baggies as a sort of a hockey puck. The goal was to get it through the feeding slot of the opposite cell. Opponents were allowed to block the hole with their hands, but not from the inside. Periodically we'd fish the sandwiches from the hallway using a belt.

The lights were on constantly. It was a long, three day weekend. We lost sense of time. The highlight for all of us was when Todd, who had all of Alice's Restaurant memorized down to the slightest inflection, performed the whole thing at 3 am. The real prisoners down the hall yelled for him to "shut the fuck up."

Eventually, we were taken to court where a judge dismissed our charges and were reunited with the women radicals who had gone to a different jail. They complained of mushy broccoli and scratchy blankets. We, on the other hand, had done hard time, with nothing but baloney and donuts.

I broke my glasses by rolling over them as they laid on the steel plate of my bed. My cell mate was a gay friend named Matthew. We amused ourselves by telling people my glasses were smashed in an attempted jail rape.

Snyder ended his fast on the 49th day when the District of Columbia capitulated to the CCNV's demands. He had lost fifty-seven pounds. When asked if he was afraid to die, Snyder said, "No. It's painful, but I have a greater fear of allowing people to languish like animals, and sometimes I'm afraid I'm not doing enough."

See also:
The Beginnings
Young, Gifted, and Miserable
Everybody Must Get Stoned
Life Begins at Seventeen
The Year of Living Dangerously
The Air Force Years: Part One
The Air Force Years: Part Two
The Air Force Years: Part Three
The Air Force Years: Part Four
The Air Force Years: Part Five
Working Poor In Waltham: Part One
Working Poor In Waltham: Part Two
Birth of a Student Radical
Harvest of Shame
The Owl of Minerva Flies at Midnight
The Road to Street
The Street Years: Part One
The Street Years: Part Two

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Lets Pick On Someone Our Own Size

Seattle, having distinguished itself for several years running as Forbes Magazine’s “Most Overpriced City in America,” has now made their top ten Least Affordable Real Estate Markets list as well. This should surprise no one.

In recent months, the attention of many has been held by the Lora Lake drama that has unfolded in Burien. An agreement reached several years ago with the Port of Seattle during negotiations over the Airport’s third runway slates the 162-units of affordable family housing for demolition to make way for commercial development. To housing advocates, Lora Lake has come to symbolize the three steps back that we take for every hard won step or two forward. For the City of Burien, in which the vast majority of housing is affordable, Lora Lake is about economic development and having the autonomy to plan their own city.

We need our neighboring communities to be our allies in the fight against homelessness. This is why, in the fight against Burien, even if we win, we lose. Our affordability problem is right here in Seattle, where those who profit excessively from the loss of affordability, for the most part, have not even been named. Outfits like Clise Properties, Touchstone Corporation, Harbor Properties, Vulcan Real Estate, Samis, and even outside investment corporations like The Blackstone Group use their enormous influence to drive development in Seattle, and are too seldom called upon to reconcile their profit-taking with our broader interests as a community.

But we're not seeing any interfaith vigils at their offices are we?

Have we made Burien our affordable housing whipping boy because it’s easier than taking on the rich and powerful right here in Seattle? We can make our problem Burien's, to their great resentment, or we can take a closer look at why they have enough affordable housing and we do not.

It's great to see people finally get worked up over something, and a little bureaucratic hardball never hurt anyone. But if we're going to take a fight all the way, let's be sure that it's the right fight. Burien, for many reasons, makes a convenient target that everyone from the church to the state can get behind. But that, in itself, should make us wonder what's really going on.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Full Employment My Ass

Last night, pathetically enough, I entertained myself by poking around on the Bureau of Labor Statistics website. The national unemployment rate in July was just 4.6%. This is what we call full employment.

During the Reagan administration the definition of unemployed was changed to only reflect those who actually receive unemployment benefits. When the benefits run out, you no longer count. So even Flint, Michigan, a city that has become the poster child for economic desolation, has just 8.6% unemployment. Not bad at all.

If you include, says the BLS, the marginally attached (those who say they want work but aren't looking very hard) and discouraged workers (a subset of the marginally attached who give a job market-related reason for not currently seeking work), then the 4.6% national average rockets right on up to 5.5%

These are numbers that seek to hide the obvious, and for the most part they work as intended. Structural unemployment, which is usually defined as the mismatch between available jobs and skills brought about by shifts in markets and economies, isn't something we talk about much.

If you look at unemployment rankings by city, you'll see that in my hometown of Sioux Falls, SD, just 2.3% are looking for work. Sioux Falls is a low-wage town in a right-to-work state that has so many lousy jobs that people can work two or three of them at a time and still have plenty of work for everyone.

Well, almost everyone. Just 265 miles to the west on the Rosebud Reservation, actual unemployment is estimated at 82%. Over at Pine Ridge, things are even worse. Maybe they should all move to Sioux Falls.

Just kidding. They hate Indians there.

Consider this, from a NYT article on unemployment rates among black men, which says that even when the economy does great, some people still fall behind:

¶The share of young black men without jobs has climbed relentlessly, with only a slight pause during the economic peak of the late 1990's. In 2000, 65 percent of black male high school dropouts in their 20's were jobless — that is, unable to find work, not seeking it or incarcerated. By 2004, the share had grown to 72 percent, compared with 34 percent of white and 19 percent of Hispanic dropouts. Even when high school graduates were included, half of black men in their 20's were jobless in 2004, up from 46 percent in 2000.

¶Incarceration rates climbed in the 1990's and reached historic highs in the past few years. In 1995, 16 percent of black men in their 20's who did not attend college were in jail or prison; by 2004, 21 percent were incarcerated. By their mid-30's, 6 in 10 black men who had dropped out of school had spent time in prison.

¶In the inner cities, more than half of all black men do not finish high school.

But just because people have been disappeared doesn't mean they totally stop looking for work. This helps to explain why, when it comes to low-wage work, the laws of supply and demand are suspended. No matter how low unemployment rates get, wages on the bottom rarely rise. That's how the system works, and it's working perfectly.

Monday, August 13, 2007

My Toastmasters Debut

Today I went to a Toastmasters meeting. One of the better speakers I know, the always inspiring Anitra Freeman, was a member for years. She suggested once that our homeless speakers bureau should open our own Toastmasters chapter. "That's the problem when you middle-class people become homeless," I said. "You always want to bring your damn culture with you."

People say I'm a good speaker. I've had my moments I suppose. But I'd like to be a really good speaker. The sort of speaker who knows how to bring audiences up and down at will until they finally throw money to make me stop. I don't know that this is the way to get there, but it's a start.

I met someone last week who told me that Toastmasters isn't the hopelessly square sort of activity I think it is. I'm unconvinced, but I went anyway. It'll do until I find something better.

So today, at my first meeting, I stepped up to the table talk challenge and delivered a one-minute and twenty-second improvised speech on the topic of what a friend should make or avoid in a birthday lunch for yours truly.
Thank you madame table talk captain, fellow toastmasters, and honored guests. Today I am honored to hold forth before you on a topic that is very dear to me. We are speaking of lunch. Were you to make me a very special sort of lunch, you would of necessity gravitate toward the um, fried food group. This would include the potato, and um, the Snickers Bar, and what else? Oh yes. Cheese. One would want to avoid any foods on the, waddyacallit, the, um, vegetarian end of the spectrum. These would include anything, um, green, and um, anything that would possibly decompose in a worm bin. Thank you for this opportunity to speak, and I'm delighted to be here today.
Sort of Kennedyesque, I thought, but it didn't exactly win any awards. I think that next time I'll deliver my speech in a bad French accent, just to mix things up a bit.

This has actually been coming on for awhile.

The picture up top is one that Rachael took with her cel phone last January when an arts group did a dance installation at Westlake Center. People were invited to get up and soapbox to a small crowd while interpretive dancers did their thing as a backdrop. I find it astonishing that anyone could resist this opportunity, but most did.

If I had any guts, I'd say screw Toastmasters and just do the soapbox thing down at the Market on Mondays instead. Now that's public speaking.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Patti Smith and Duende

The poet Lorca has spoken of duende, a word sometimes translated as "primal earth magic" that has only recently begun it's migration northward to enter our language. I've always understood it to mean the experience one has of a performer who seems somehow rooted in the earth itself, who seems to channel the power and groundedness of the universal through themselves so as to somehow have it resemble a fucking freight train as it hits you between the eyes and sends chills up the back of your spine.

Patti Smith, last night at the Showbox, had duende to spare. The first few songs were knocked out nicely. I thought, based on her Redondo Beach warm up, that this might just be a night of familiar tunes delivered with professionalism and polish. I'd have been OK with that. I mean, anyone born in 1946 who can still hop up on stage and be a credibly sexy rock & roller deserves respect. Looking around the crowd last night, at 46 I may easily have represented the statistical mean.

But Patti Smith is nobody's fucking nostalgia act.

The moment of lift-off arrived three songs into the set, when she picked up a soprano clarinet and started honking waves of gorgeous dissonance into the microphone as the band launched into Hendrix's Are You Experienced. From there, the show never came back down, and I don't recall the last time I saw a crowd so completely slain by anyone. She was transcendent.

For a moment, as hundreds of forty and fifty somethings stomped their way with Patti through Gloria, I thought the floor was going to give way and that's how I was going to die. It would have been a stupid but happy ending to a short, charmed life.

Other highlights for me included an absolutely gorgeous version of We Three, and her scorching close with Rock & Roll Nigger, the outsider rock anthem of all time.

The sweetest moment came with the Nirvana cover, off her new album Twelve, which was simply beautiful and, again, delivered with great duende. The video from a show last April gives a sense — especially in its last few minutes — of last night, but you also have to imagine a more rocked up band, joined by REM's Peter Buck, and the crowd screaming back "hello, hello, hello, hello" loud enough to match.

Smith, whose remarkable life includes a relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe that extended through his tragic death from AIDS, was a great admirer of Kurt Cobain and was angered by his suicide. She told a reporter from Rolling Stone, "When you watch someone you care for fight so hard to hold onto their life, then see another person just throw their life away, I guess I had less patience for that."

Below is a clip from the 70s that I love, wherein Patti pogoes. Ask the Angels.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Radio Logorrhea

Rich Lang sobered me up yesterday just long enough to get me onto his weekly radio show Living Faith Now. The cocktail he gave me on the way over (black coffee, Methadone, and Demerol — it's an old Methodist trick) acted like a truth serum, and I babbled on the air like some sort of a snake handling Pentacostal.

There were a couple of moments of lucidity, but my preceding hell week and the insomnia that went with it turned the show into more of a monologue than a conversation, and there are times, when I listen to the recording, where I wish I'd just shut the fuck up.

I coherently discuss Real Change, and get in some great stuff about structural unemployment and homelessness, and I probably manage to piss off ninety-percent of my allies by talking about how Lora Lake is a diversion from the larger problem we have in Seattle, but I get all vague and spaced out when I try to recall why the left is pathetic on class and I ramble and repeat myself when I talk about the problem with Ten Year plans and why I hate Philip Mangano so much.

In all seriousness, it wasn't my finest hour. I wish I'd done more to prepare.

Rich, however, charitable soul that he is, seemed to think it was OK, and bills me as "one of Seattle's finest provocative minds." Well, provocative anyway.

You can stream the show from the website. Rich's line-up up of previous usual suspects also includes the Interfaith Task Force on Homelessness' Bill Kirlin-Hackett, the effectively low-key Michael Ramos, the irrepressible Alice Woldt, and Cecile Andrews, who, to my great delight, seems to cross my path every twenty minutes or so these days.

By now, most Lora Lake watchers know that an injunction was issued yesterday that will probably prevent the demolition of Lora Lake until after a March hearing. This legal maneuver comes out of the little discussed King County Housing Authority eminent domain threat that was issued a few weeks ago. Sandy Brown of the Church Council is quoted in the PI saying, "When I heard, I couldn't help but jump for joy."

There's a visual. Sandy pogoing in his office like Joey Ramone in a suit.

Speaking of seventies punk icons, Carolyn and I are going to see Patti Smith at the Showbox tonight. To commemorate the occasion, I found this highly unlikely clip on YouTube: Patti Smith in 1979, on ABC's Kids are People Too, belting out Debbie Boone's You Light Up My life with Joe Brooks on Piano.

It's a little embarrassing, but she's very sweet as she answers questions from girls in the audience and talks about kids taking back Rock and Roll from the corporate exec's. This was the year that Todd Rundgren produced Wave, Patti's final album before her period of professional retirement. Wave featured the brilliant but then unnoticed Dancing Barefoot, which was described by Rolling Stone as,
her mystical ode to sexual rapture. "I think sex is one of the five highest sensations one can experience," she said in 1978. "A very high orgasm is a way of communion with our creator." She added that she masturbated to her own album cover photo, as well as to the Bible.

Friday, August 10, 2007

A Lora Lake elegy and a rock laureate

Jennifer Langston's Lora Lake elegy and awaiting the arrival of Patti. It's in the PI.

Radical Transparency, Part Two

So. Let me tell you what's going on at Real Change these days.

Things are awesome. And they suck. But both at the same time, so it's OK, and the work is happening. It's just there's a lot to do and only so many of us doing it.

Brooke Kempner, our longtime volunteer turned staff person who manages our volunteers and keeps the computers running and knows how the server works and shit just left to pursue some media studies grad school thing in New York that I should be able to remember but can't 'cuz I still can't get over the fact that's she's gone tho I just saw her yesterday or the day before when she dropped in to help us for about three hours because the person who was going to take over her job now can't, so we're kinda screwed.

About 260 vendors are out every month all over the place, selling quality independent journalism and doing something to change their lives while they help us all to change the world. This is the time of year when we need to feel your love.

Our Annual Breakfast is at 7:30 on October 24 at the Westin and you have to come because if you don't I'm going to have to assume that you're one of the people I've pissed off this year because ever since I've started keeping this blog I've been having a harder time than ever keeping my mouth shut about anything. I've become immoderate and unsafe.

Cecile Andrews is our keynote. She came to my wife's Quaker meeting last winter to talk about her new book and it was like this conversation between ourselves because these other people, apparently because they're Quakers, just weren't really saying much. She was a volunteer here like ten years ago at the front desk and did a column for us briefly until Wes made fun of her in his column and then she stopped. And as we were talking it dawned on me that the kind of authentic community she says drives social movements is the stuff that we make every day with our newspaper and the vendors. And that she's funny and smart and mad and knows what's wrong with things and what we need to be doing. And I like having lunch with her. Especially when she pays.

And we'll give someone an award and honor the vendors and be glad to see each other and know that we are strong. And the food won't suck this year because after three years we finally figured out that Bell Harbor can't serve a decent breakfast to save their lives and the Westin is just better.

I think tickets are sixty bucks. I'm not sure. I'll have to ask Joe. Tables are in tens. We'd love for you to be a Captain. Email me. Or Joe. Or call 206-441-3247 x202.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Feeling sad about Elliott Smith tonight. 34. fuck.

The Demolition Men Cometh

Today the Port of Seattle will meet to decide the fate of the Lora Lake apartments, and unless the moon turns to cheese Commissioners Bob Edwards and Alec Fisken will fail to carry the day and the Port will hold fast to their demolition decision.

An opinion piece by Port CEO Tay Yoshitani in Tuesday's PI sums up their reasoning succinctly.
  • Burien fought the third runway tooth and nail, and in the course of things agreements were made. If the Port does not honor these, they will lose credibility.
  • Seattle has an affordable housing problem and a condo conversion issue, but Burien does not. Most housing in Burien is affordable. This is not their problem.
  • An agreement is an agreement. A contract is a contract.
King County Housing Authority has used both the carrot and the stick, offering $18 million to buy the property and threatening the use of eminent domain should that fail. Additional legal action has been brought in the form of a lawsuit from Citizens to Defend Affordable Housing. Seattle clergy almost committed civil disobedience, and SHARE/WHEEL actually did it and no one cared.

Seattle Housing Authority CEO Tom Tierney has also called upon the Port to preserve the units, but has also said that should they decide otherwise, they should take responsibility for the lost housing and rebuild elsewhere.

The Lutheran Public Policy Office sent out an alert that articulated this position a bit more fully:
Although LPPO has consistently advocated for the preservation of the Lora Lake apartments, political realities have made this option difficult to work out. Instead, LPPO and many others working on this issue are in favor of a $30 million package funded jointly by the Port, King County, and the King County Housing authority which would fund the building of replacement units for the 162 units of affordable housing which would disappear with the demolition of Lora Lake.
This position has been challenged by some, who point out the obvious: Were we to spend $30 million on housing AND keep the apartments, we'd be getting ahead and not just staying even. Who wants to spend $30 million to stay even?

It's been suggested that the strategy here is to offer the Port an alternative that is so unattractive, it makes reneging on Burien look great by comparison. Clever.

Too bad it won't work.

Lora Lake has shown us that Ten Year Plan targets for housing development can't end homelessness if we're losing units on the other end. The visual of perfectly good housing being torn down to make way for a big box retailer makes for great symbolism, and Burien and the Port Authority are, for politicians in Seattle, relatively safe targets.

Sooner or later, however, Lora Lake will be behind us, and we'll still have the same issue to contend with. And we'll have to face that the real problems, and the real targets, are right here in Seattle. Developers are making a killing at the expense of affordability, and our corporate liberal political class is, for the most part, too weak-kneed to get in their way.

Some real hardball has been played against the Port Authority and Burien to preserve this housing, but the 162 units in Burien are a drop in the bucket to the 3000 or so units lost locally to condo conversion.

House Speaker Frank Chopp, who allowed a condo conversion bill to die in committee last spring, has pledged his support for addressing this during next year's legislative session. We need to marshal the outrage we've mustered over events in Burien to ensure that this legislation offers a meaningful market intervention, and doesn't just settle for some relocation assistance that masquerades as a victory while the core problem remains untouched.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Class Warfare's a Bitch

This from The Stranger's SLOG. Creighton's email came three days after the premature declaration of victory at Lora Lake a few weeks back. When these guys push pack, they basically shove you through a plate glass window and then piss on you while you bleed.

The Port will vote on whether to demolish the Lora Lake Apartments this Thursday. While the Burien building has become an important symbol for the loss of affordable housing in the region, it's still just a symbol. The actual problem is much larger than the 162 units at stake here.
From: “Creighton, John”
To: “Edwards, Bob”
Sent: 7/27/2007 5:13pm
Subject: Lora Lake motion


I want to touch base on our next meeting. I agree with Lloyd that your actions in bringing up the Lora Lake matter without notifying your colleagues (even Alec who supports your position) were disrespectful and contrary to any sense of collegiality or building trust with your fellow commissioners.

In the last two years, you have at different points criticized each one of your fellow commissioners for allegedly keeping information from you or blindsiding you. In my opinion, your actions are of an exponential magnitude worse than anything any other commissioner has done to blindside the commission in the last two years. Unlike other instances, your actions were blatantly premeditated to embarrass the Port and to embarrass your colleagues, all for selfish personal gain at our expense. If you truly had cared about building a coalition to save the Lora Lake apartments, you would have gone about it in a much different way.

Lloyd is a very patient, forgiving and tolerant soul, much more than I am. I want to assure you that I will be back in town on 8/9 and very much in full control of commission meetings. I am the chair of the commission, and will remain chair until replaced by a majority vote of my colleagues. Until that time, I am in charge of the meetings and will not tolerate any bullshit, neither from you or any other commissioner.

It will be my perogative as chair (1) whether we hear any sort of motion on Lora Lake, (2) in what form and language any such motion will take, and (3) whether or not we have any public testimony. If you object to any of that, you are free to form a coalition with 2 of your fellow commissioners to replace me as chair. If you are disruptive in the meeting, I will not be afraid to either gavel you down or take other action.

I hope that I am making myself crystal clear, but if not, I am happy to follow up with you in person.

I believe that your blatant political grandstanding has done a huge amount of damage to the Port at a time when we were moving beyond all the bullshit and scandal of the last half year. I am looking forward to January, when I hope that we will have a new commissioner in position 2 who has the maturity and the integrity to help move the port forward on the important issues of competitiveness that we really need to be focusing on. But, alas, that is the subject for a separate email.

Sincerely, John

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Birth of a Student Radical

For awhile, it seemed like I was destined to reinvent myself every four years or so. After I left home at seventeen, I went from a fucked-up and abusive family to finding freedom as a semi-employed pothead. I starved much of the time and went through seven addresses in fourteen months, but none of that mattered. I was deliriously happy. It was as though my previous life had ceased to exist.

For a long time, I remembered nothing from before.

Then came the Air Force, and another reinvention as, midway through, I began to shed the doper persona I'd adopted up as a teenager. My drug years, I think, were a way to shut down and fit in. I became an awkward stoner because, in the mid-seventies, that was easier and more socially acceptable than being an awkward nerd.

When, during my Air Force Years, the pothead thing stopped working for me, I slowly started to reconnect with the curiosity I'd left behind somewhere in grade school. By my summer in Waltham, I was reading Thoreau, Emerson, and Camus for fun. I'd also quit smoking to save money.

Then came college, where I remade myself once again, this time as a student activist. My new more-radical-than-thou lifestyle gave me somewhere new to put the anger that had been simmering all along.

Within the first year, I began to remember things. It made me spacey. Sometimes there would be dreams. Other times, pieces of my former life would just pop in out of the blue, like a long lost relative looking for some couch space. Other than the occasional joint or beer, I was more sober than I'd been in seven or eight years. I turned twenty-three a month into my first semester at UMass-Amherst.

My two Travel Pay buddies from the Air Force and I shared an apartment in Sunderland, a rural community to the north of Amherst between Leverett and Deerfield. I bought my food at a farm stand that was two blocks from our building. Across the parking lot from my window was a corn field. I'd take the bus or hitch to campus. Sometimes, I'd just walk the four miles.

I had no idea, really, who I was. My apartment mates, on the other hand, were a couple of regular guys. Keith was a business major, and was losing weight by eating a bowl of cereal for breakfast and a big salad for dinner. John was going into law enforcement. They'd study, watch Letterman at night and sports on the weekend, and go to school. I didn't get Letterman at all, and kept a bit to myself. I was less than socially adept. I read compulsively and felt that I needed to make up for lost time. I thought I might become a journalist.

Before long, I found the Radical Student Union.

The RSU was on the second floor of the Student Union Building and had a desk, a phone, two chairs, a file cabinet, and a couch. There was also a lit rack filled with publications like The Nation, In These Times, The Progressive, and Off Our Backs. Just behind the office was the Gay Lesbian Bisexual Alliance, and next door were the Radical Feminists. Down the hall one way were the Central America Solidarity people, and in the other direction, past the Student Government Association office, was my future wife, who spent much of her free time getting arrested with the anti-nuclear Peacemakers group.

The RSU began in 1969 as a chapter of Students for a Democratic Society, and several years before I arrived — after most of the old guard Leninist-Maoist leadership had moved on — had changed its name from the Revolutionary Student Brigade in an attempt to be more appealing to the masses. There was a tiny budget for attending conferences and printing and such, and a handful of people for whom the small organization offered a ready made community.

Two things happened that first semester that would change my life forever.

The first was that, on October 25th, 1983, Ronald Reagan invaded Grenada. At the time I was reading Todd Gitlin's The Whole World is Watching for a media studies class. I was also taking a Contemporary US History course that billed itself as having a Marxist perspective, and had been introduced to Howard Zinn's People's History. Zinn's book was a revelation, and with Grenada, I felt as if — for the first time — I was seeing the world for what it really is. It was my political awakening, and I was enraged.

The more I became involved in the RSU, the less I had in common with my Air Force friends. I had become an angry alien. Looking back, I'm sure I was insufferable. Radical politics was a new identity that was ripe for the adoption. I threw myself into it completely and ditched my big dorky plastic aviator style glasses for small rimless lenses. The transformation was underway.

A few weeks later, I rode in a van to a leftist student conference in Madison, Wisconsin, where I sat through various workshops and plenaries on gender identity, racism, Central America, consensus decision-making, and other staples of the early-eighties student left. There was a math major there named Kathleen who I thought was cool. We talked. On the way back, we spent most of the ride underneath a blanket.

Kathleen was bisexual and lived in a vegetarian coop house on Main Street, about a half mile past Emily Dickinson's place. Her household lived collectively and were all engaged in radical politics of one stripe or another. This was a world I had never seen. For seventy bucks a month I moved into a space behind the kitchen that had once been a laundry area. There was room enough for a bed and little else.

I was a quick study. By winter break, I was heading toward academic probation, but my new life as a student radical had begun.

See also:
The Beginnings
Young, Gifted, and Miserable
Everybody Must Get Stoned
Life Begins at Seventeen
The Year of Living Dangerously
The Air Force Years: Part One
The Air Force Years: Part Two
The Air Force Years: Part Three
The Air Force Years: Part Four
The Air Force Years: Part Five
Working Poor In Waltham: Part One
Working Poor In Waltham: Part Two
Birth of a Student Radical
Harvest of Shame
The Owl of Minerva Flies at Midnight
The Road to Street
The Street Years: Part One
The Street Years: Part Two