06 December 2012

Things I've learned with a broken foot

Click to enlarge. And if you're qualified to read it, diagnose away!  My doc is "busy"
I broke my foot while on O'ahu a few weeks back, and as I've been hobbling around my house and trying to drive and staring longingly up flights of stairs, I've had a few realizations.

  1. Crutches suck.  The technology involved, if you can believe every production of a Christmas Carol ever, has not evolved since Dickens' time.  You need a lateral piece of something onto which you can put your hand so you can support your upper body, and you  need a lateral piece of something to jam into your armpit when your tris and delts give out from hauling your gimpy ass around.  Your tris and delts get sore.  You give in and drop onto the armpit body-weight-supporting bit.  Then your arm pit gets sore.  So you hoist yourself back up off the armpit bit and your arms and delts get sore.  And so it goes. 
  2. Crutches suck, 2: You need a lot of lateral space to crutch with any efficiency at all.  Plant the crutches, bring your good leg as far forward as you dare, allow injured limb to hang loosely in the air because "you're not supposed to put any weight on it," swing the crutches in a half circle out and forward, and repeat.  You'll want to make sure the crutches move the same distance forward, or you'll be crutching yourself around in a circle before long.   
  3. Crutches suck, 3:  How do you carry anything?  You can't - well, not in your hands, you can't.  Not the morning paper.  Not a CD of the Xrays of the injured limb.  Not a bottle of vicodin.  Nothing.  So wear cargo shorts. 
  4. Despite 1, 2 and 3, getting around on crutches is almost always preferable to hopping unless it's over a very short distance.  Hopping... it's as efficient as it is elegant, which means: "in-".  You can get a decent head of steam, but if you're on hardwood floors, how do you stop?  You carom into walls, furniture, people, and doors is how.  You can't carry, well, anything, really.  Theoretically you have both hands free, but go ahead, try to hop - on one leg! - and move forward doing it, and see what your hands do.  And if you have something in both hands, how are you going to balance yourself when you arrive?  There are any number of engineering problems involved here.  So again, I assert that you can't carry anything.  Certainly not a beverage in a container that isn't sealed, for sure.  (I don't recommend trying this - take my word for it.)  Hopping does keep the muscles of the non-injured leg from atrophying, sure, but there are significant risks of new injury through collision, re-injury through missteps and panic, or both through humiliation.  Stick with the crutches unless it's a very short distance.  And there is no one at home with you.
  5. Doorknobs are not load bearing.  Just... don't. When you're sick of using your crutches and you're hopping around the house, resist the urge to fling yourself toward the nearest door to use the doorknob as some sort of cane.  They aren't designed for it.  Best case?  You realize this in the half second you feel the doorknob sag southward and you pull up and put your hand on the door to steady yourself instead. Though in this case the door bangs backwards into the door stop (or the wall, in all probability, since the doorstop may not have been engineered to support the weight of a gimpy adult biped in addition to the door), makes a racket, and inspires your friends and family to holler in from the next room to see if you're okay. (You can holler back "Yup! Fine!" or "...ow..." or the always popular "I was never IN aisle 7!") And yes, that's the best case.  The worst case is when the damn doorknob snaps off in your hand, suddenly and unexpectedly, as your mind and your weight is still counting on something on that side of your body to support you, and you suddenly lurch forward and downward anyway, scraping your arm on the metal entrails of the doorknob's axle as you careen into the door, slamming it against the door stop (or, again, the wall), and you crumple to the ground, whimpering.  Why whimpering?  Well, the indignity of it, for one, but more for the now-bloody gash on your arm, the new bump on your head, and the fact that in all of the flail-age you've re-injured the limb you were trying to protect by hopping around in the first place because in your inglorious descent you put weight on it.  A lot of weight on it.  In roughly the same motion as how you broke it.  Again, see item 2, above: when you are crutching around, you don't need doorknobs. (And see item 4 - make sure no one else is home if you're going to insist on hopping.)
  6. Stairs.  Bloody stairs.  Just... just don't.  Okay, you're going to want to try to do it.  If there is no one around, then maybe.  As you face the stair, do some geometry.  Put the foot of the crutch in the MIDDLE of the step, y axis, making sure you're away from both edges, x axis; put both crutches down at the same time; and slowly and consciously put your tris into it.  (If it helps, pretend it's the tri dip machine at the gym.)  And repeat, for the 17 times or so you need to get up the stairs.  If there are people around, forget about it.  Even if there are only three stairs, don't do it. Let them go first.  Pretend you left something in the car and turn around.  Suddenly grab your cell phone in your cargo shorts and stand and have a conversation.  Inevitably, people will try to help, you will want to encourage them in their well meaningness, and there will be flail-age.  Take the lift. Or, come back in 6-8 weeks.   
  7. Backpacks are your friends.  Put everything in there - your chargers, your laptop, your checkbook, your Cup o Ramen, your flask, everything.  You don't want to have to hop back into the kitchen to retrieve something once you sit down.  You will learn that you really don't need anything in your life that you can't fit into your backpack. 
  8. Drive thru's, misspelled though they are, are also your friends.  You don't have to get out of the car!  Oh my god, that's been a revelation.  Of course when you get wherever you're going you need to eat whatever it is you've just purchased, because, let's face it, you don't want the odor of that "food" in your backpack forever, and that 24 oz Diet Coke you just bought is not in a sealed container so you can't hop with it.  And it won't all fit in the bag that they served you in; and even it will, and you fold the top of the bag over so it will go over the crutch hand part, crutching is not a smooth action - the grease and / or the condensation from your 24 ounces of Diet Coke will, pretty rapidly, with the herky-jerky motion of your forward movement, destroy the structural integrity of the Arby's bag.  And then you'll have curly fries, Diet Coke and skin graft (a/k/a Arby's Roast Beef) sandwich all over the parking lot.  And you can't move quickly enough to flee or pretend that it's someone else's mess.  So just sit in the car and "dine."  It ain't worth it. 
  9. You are going to get fat. You just are.  You are going to hate getting up for anything once you're ensconced wherever you settle; you wait til the last possible minute to go take a leak, for feck's sake, you sure as hell aren't doing cardio and burning up the calories.  And you're hungry because you're sitting around all the time watching TV with your foot elevated on a pillow on your coffee table and your backpack of snacks.  How are you supposed to burn off those calories?  You could crutch around the block, I guess.  But nah, not really. See item 1.   
  10. That rotator cuff tear that's been bugging you since April?  Yeah.  You probably should have had that looked at before you needed to crutch around everywhere.  Because it's clearing right up now. 
  11. Make up a cover story.  It's a great conversation starter, a bandaged foot and crutches, and people who have passed you in the hallway for months will stop and ask what happened.  Make up a story, because "Hungover, walking down stairs, rushing, carrying too much stuff, friends' dog, missed step..." kinda sucks as a story.  "Hiking on lava" is credible, short, tells people you were just in Hawai'i, and will move the conversation forward.  Especially if it's the guy at the end of the hall who always wears scent and fitted shirts and doesn't seem to do anything but a trap-and-lat workout - he doesn't need to know about the stairs. 

I'm sure I've learned more.  Like about two footed driving, for example.  And how jealous you can get of people who walk around without any seeming trouble, they just walk!  And how picking up a package at the Post Office turns into a 23 minute nightmare (thank god the meters go 24 minutes on a quarter). But that's it for now. I've waited to the last possible minute again...
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24 September 2012

Belichick upset refs misapplied the rules? Too bad...

As reported in the LA Times and elsewhere, Bill Belichick, coach of the New England Patriots, grabbed a referee by the arm after the game to yell at him about what he felt was poor officiating - though he has now said it was to get "a clarification" which likely no one west of Amherst believes.  After the game, Belichick was quoted as saying "You saw the game. What did we have, 30 penalties called in that game?” Actually there were 24 penalties called, Bill, and more penalties for more yards were called on the opposing Baltimore Ravens (14 for 133 yards) than on your Patriots (10 for 83 yards). The whining sore loser inflated the total penalties called on him by three times (coincidentally roughly the ratio his talent is inflated by most of the media), and was so outraged that he felt the need to grab a ref - which is strictly verboten in the NFL, though of course Belichick plays by different rules that everyone else.
From LarryBrownSports.com
And that's the point: Belichick wants to have it both ways.  He can't.  He can't like rules when they work in his favor and blatantly disregard them when they don't.  You can't cheat - and get caught cheating, and get fined $500,000 for cheating in what was a gross display of contempt for the rules - and then complain when the rules are applied in a way that you feel is arbitrary.

First, the history.

Bill Belichick got caught cheating - in front of God (a/k/a the Commish, Roger Goodell) and everybody - and got away with it.  There are no asterisks on their "wins".  No coming clean. No reckoning to the rest of the league just what all they did despite a senior US Senator getting involved. Just a surrendering of six tapes that were immediately destroyed by the league, and a cool $500,000 fine on the Nixonian coach.  But unlike Nixon he's still coaching, and he's still complaining about the rules being applied unfairly. Sorry, Bill, you don't get to do that.

In the first game of the season in 2007, the Belichick-coached New England Patriots were caught filming the play calls of the opposing sideline.  What's the big deal?  Well, for one, this is explicitly prohibited by the NFL, and the Cheatriots KNEW it.  How do I know they knew it?  Because they had been caught doing it before, in Green Bay against the Packers, in 2006.  They were warned about doing it. They did it again. They did it AGAIN

Apologists will scoff and say things like "So what? It didn't really help." Despite the fact that such an attitude shows tremendous disregard for the game, it's patently untrue.  Yes, it did.  It's common sense: why would they continue to do it if after getting caught doing it when they didn't think there was advantage to be gained by doing it? It does give you an advantage.  If you know what the opposing coaches are calling, what formations the opposing players will be in, and where the ball is going to go, all in real time, then you can respond - in real time.  It's a tremendous advantage. 

Apologists for the franchise and for the coach bleat things like, "Well, everyone does it." Well, everyone doesn't do it. No other team has been caught filming. Ever. Except one: the Denver Broncos. Their coach at the time? Josh McDaniels. And where had he been before coming to Denver? Go on, guess. If you said "New England under Belichick" then you win. And again, why do it if it didn't give you an advantage? The answer is, you don't. It does give you an advantage. Just like Belichick's cheating on use of the Injured Reserve, explained by a former Patriot player here. The salient quote? "Belichick will do anything he can to get an advantage." Anything he can, and rules be damned.

To quote Jayson Braddock in his excellent and exhaustive post "New England Patriots Can't Seem to Win a Super Bowl Without Cheating," worth reading in its entirety, here:
Like I said, I think he (Belichick)’s a great coach but we can’t look past his flaws. His most effective decision was to video tape the defensive signals. It provided him with three Super Bowl wins and has people asking if he’s the best coach ever. If he knew he could cheat, get caught, and still be held in high opinion, why wouldn’t he cheat? He also knew that if he understood the divisional team’s signals, that he could take that path to the playoffs yearly. It was brilliant… cheating, but obviously no one cares, so it was brilliant.  
When did the Cheatriots win* their Super Bowls? In 2002, against the heavily favored Rams. In 2004 against the Carolina Panthers. And in 2005 against the Philadelphia Eagles.

When were they filming opposing sidelines? 2000 to 2007, according to an ESPN report (timeline here - see Feb 13, 2008)

When the cheating scandal went down, Bob Ryan, a sports writer for the Boston Globe, the hometown paper, wrote in his column titled "With Belichick, the coverup is most revealing":
Here is what Bill Belichick has done: He has placed Patriots fans on the defensive for the rest of their lives...  In fifty years... (the Patriots) will be, in the eyes of many, the reverse Black Sox. They will be the team that broke the rules. Their three Super Bowls will be regarded as ill-gotten gain.
Right there with you, Mr. Ryan. Except your fans have no shame.  Like much of the rest of Americans, their side won so who cares?  So what?  No big deal. 

Since 2007, how have the Patriots done?  Very, very well, over all - in the regular season.  But they play in a weak division.  And they haven't won a Super Bowl.  They've lost twice, to the Giants both times, who were underdogs both times.  The NFL is built for parity, and every advantage - no matter how small - is significant.

I am not going to pretend I'm unbiased here. Football unhinges me in ways that nothing else, not even politics, seems to do. And I hate the Patriots*. But the facts are there: Belichick is a cheater, consistently (IR lists, taping). And once you cheat - systematically, deliberately, to give yourself an unfair advantage outside of the rules against the other team and to do something that no one else in the league is doing - then you no longer get to whine like a three year old coming up out of nap time when the calls go against you. 

There is no active coach or franchise who has so disrespected the game, the rules and the league like Belichick and the Patriots*.  They are very, very good again this year.  Despite the two losses they may well still end up in the Super Bowl again this year thanks to a very soft schedule and unquestionable talent.

But they cheat.  In the past, they cheated consistently for a significant advantage.  They won* razor thin football games in the playoffs and in the Super Bowls, so every advantage helped. 
And once you cheat, Coach Belichick, it would be a good rule of thumb not to complain when the refs blow a call and one doesn't go your way.  Be a man.  Learn how to take defeat.  Learn to respect the game. 

And until that time, I guess you'll just have to keep trying to cheat to win. 
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22 September 2012

Home stretch?

Look, I'm a sports fan.  Ain't nothing over til it's over.  You don't do things like buy a plane ticket to Indy for Super Bowl weekend and get a hotel on the Circle so you can celebrate with your people when your team wins because your team might not win.  (Yes, that game - and Reggie Wayne phoning it in on that awful, awful pick late in the 4th, and that inexplicable drop by Garcon in the 1st half - that's all on me.)

Ain't no one at BLC sayin' anything is over.  There are the debates.  There are many, many millionaires out there who have become millionaires by having deregulated industries, dirty air, and no tax burden to speak of who are giddily taking advantage of the Citizen's United Supreme Court decision and who are spending whatever the heck they want to drive down the President's numbers.  There is the Middle East. 

But trends are heading in the right direction.  Despite the deeply racist nature of the American electorate (more on that later), a sluggish economy and foreign policy being, uh, interesting, trends are headed in the right direction.  Mr. Romney seems to be short on cash (say it with me "Awwww..."), Mr. Obama seems to be doing okay in that regard, and it's looking like, with the modelling I've seen and played with and done myself (and in my context "modelling" means playing with interactive election maps, just to be clear), if - IF - the election were held today, then the President would win from 247 Electoral Votes if everything breaks against him to 347 Electoral Votes if everything breaks his way.   (You don't really need me to tell you the battleground states.  Early on election night look for how quickly they call Indiana, and how big the margin is in New Hampshire.  But I'm getting ahead of myself.)

Whether we do or we don't re-elect the black guy (and again, I'm not saying we will, I'm just saying that things are trending in the right direction), here are some other races and issues to watch.

1. The queers are here, finally? In 2004, GOP'ers put gay marriage on a number of state ballots in swing states to help deliver the vote to President Bush, the thinking being that anti-gay animus would get those most likely to be the President's supporters (Evangelical Christian white voters) off their couches and into the polling booths.  Well... this time, it's looking like, in three of the four states with gay marriage on the ballot statewide - Maryland, Maine, and Washington, but not Minnesota - that the gay marriage issue is driving Democratic and younger turnout.  Let's be clear - there might still be some Bradley effect going on with voters telling pollsters what they think is the socially acceptable response and thinking that they will get in the voting booth and prevent the damn queers from getting their nuptials - but the numbers look good.  To this point in our history on state wide ballots, gay marriage is a 1993-Colts-esque 0-32 loser.  No statewide electorate has ever chosen to affirm that separate isn't equal in favor of their gay and lesbian neighbors.  So it ain't over by any stretch.  But - in a great, thoughtful, analytical piece (like the kind you read and think "wish I could do that" and then you think "hold on, wish I could get paid to do that") by Harry Enten in the Guardian, here - things are looking good.

2.  The Senate just might stay blue - for this Congress, anyway.  Six months ago it was looking grim for the home team, but thanks to, well, incompetence, Romney's hoof-in-mouth disease, Missouri's challenger showing that he was from the 17th Century (though that race is distressingly competitive right now), and generally good economic news, it's looking like the Democrats will hold on to their majority, which is surprising considering that 23 of the 33 seats being contested are currently Democratic (we'll worry about 2014 later...).  The seven Senate races that are going to be most competitive are Massachusetts and Nevada (GOP held by incumbents Scott Brown and Dean Heller, respectively), and those held by Democratic incumbents in Missouri (Claire McCaskill), Montana (Jon Tester), Florida (Bill Nelson), Virginia (for the retiring Jim Webb), Wisconsin (for the retiring Herb Kohl) - and let's add Connecticut (surprisingly competitive, for the retiring Joe Lieberman). According to Richard Dunham in the Houston Chronicle blog here, Romney's drop in Virginia is helping Tim Kaine, the Democratic former governor, pull ahead.  Best case scenario for the Democrats?  The wheels really fall off the Romney Range Rover and candidates in striking distance but stuck behind in the polls in Nebraska and Indiana eke out a win.  For the Republicans, pickups that seemed safe in the summer - North Dakota, Nebraska, Montana - come through and they win control of the Senate.

3. Despite Rep. Pelosi's assertions to the contrary, the Dems do not win control of the House this election.  Roll Call lists 27 competitive races - watch NH-2 to see if the Democratic challenger, Ann McLane Custer, can unseat GOP incumbent Charlie Bass, and that will come in relatively early in the night.  Also, Indiana 2, where departing Democrat Joe Donnelly is running for Senate, is "Likely Republican" at this point but polls close early in Indiana and we if this one is tight that may be a good sign for Democrats nationally.  (If West Point alumnus Brendan Mullen gets the upset here over former Indiana House member Jackie Walorski, it could be a long night for the GOP.)  Of the 27 contested seats, 10 are in the Eastern Time Zone, so we'll know a lot pretty early this year.

4. If you wanted to make a donation to an election beyond that of our president, may I recommend a few (click on the link to be taken to the campaign page):
  1. Tammy Baldwin for Senate in Wisconsin vs former Governor Tommy Thompson.  Tammy is an out and proud lesbian from Madison who is the hardest working woman in Washington and who will finally give Wisconsin the representation they deserve after Herb Kohl (D-WI)'s lackluster years of service. 
  2. Mazie Hirono for Senate in Hawai`i vs. former GOP Governor Linda Lingle.  I gotta be honest, I don't love me some Mazie.  She's not a great candidate, she's not an intellectual power, but she's steady and reliable and she's likely to be a good Democratic vote for the next 20 years in the US Senate.  Voters in Hawai`i do not throw out incumbents.  She will be Hawai`i's Herb Kohl, but better that than voting in Hawai`i's Olympia Snowe and giving the GOP another Senate vote. 
  3. Claire McCaskill for Senate vs. GOP State Representative Todd Akin.  Because no one should serve in the US Senate who uses the term "Legitimate Rape." 
  4. Minnesotans for all Families, the group leading the way against the proposed ban of same sex marriage in that state and who are running ads like this featuring former Governor Jesse "the Body" Ventura and like this featuring "John and Kim. Catholics. Republicans." And because this is looking like the closest of the gay marriage votes.  And because Vikings Punter Chris Kluwe is freakin' awesome. 
  5. Feel like a longshot?  Take a flier on unseating Jon Kyl (R-AZ) by donating to Richard Carmona's campaign; or keep another another Tea Party nutbar out of the Senate (because if Rand Paul isn't the worst thing to happen to that August body since they approved Clarence Thomas to the Court than I'll move to OH-8 and run against Boehner next time) and give a little to Joe Donnelly's campaign for Senate in his race against Mourdock.  (And I've never linked to the Kokomo newspaper before - red letter day for BLC.)
All for now.  Lots could change.  Six weeks until the election - register if you haven't and vote like you mean it!
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21 September 2012

One of "those people"


First, two quotes:
All right, there are 47 percent who are with (the President), who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. ... My job is is not to worry about those people. I'll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.
Governor Mitt Romney, GOP Candidate for President of the United States
And in response:
When you express an attitude that half the country considers itself victims, that somehow they want to be dependent on government, my thinking is, maybe you haven’t gotten around a lot.
President Obama
I have to agree with the President's assessment here. This week I did get around a lot, on the train in Los Angeles.  I saw a lot of people on the Blue Line and Green Line in LA and Long Beach and Compton and Willowbrook, including some LA County communities where likely (based on US Census data) more than "47%" do not pay Federal Income tax and certainly far more than 47% are "with the President" (as evidenced by the mural on Compton City Hall, right, found here).  And I saw a lot of people who sure looked like they were taking great personal responsibility and care for their lives. 

Including, from when I boarded at 5:50 AM:
  1. African American male, mid twenties, bright orange vest, back weight belt open at the front, work gloves
  2. African American female, pharmacy tech student, holder of two part time jobs (I know this because we talked a little.  She told me how to save 50 cents on the bus/ train fare combination)
  3. Latino male, 50's; wheeled his bike into the corner and promptly fell asleep with his head on his cooler
  4. Asian American male, over 60, sitting across from me, poring over a textbook
  5. Cambodian woman (I recognized the script in the flyer in her hands that she started to read), mid 70's, walking with a pronounced roll to her gait
  6. (It's now just after 6 AM) Outside the train, three 20-something Latino males squatting in a semi-circle near the carwash, waiting for it to open so they could go to work
  7. The 50'ish African American woman walking in her maid uniform into the Long Beach Best Western on Long Beach Boulevard
  8. Outside the train, the young Latino man with a tool box standing near a locked metal gate just north of the Iglesia Evangelica Rosa de Sharona (spelling? The Blue Line moves fast and they're not on the web)
  9. The junior high and high school students of every shade in their uniforms, carrying their art projects, with their creatively gelled and coiffed hair
  10. The parents walking with their children on the way to school
Unlike my usual head-down-headphones-in approach to mass transit, I really observed my fellow passengers yesterday and today. I cannot know what's going on in their lives without asking them, of course, and I didn't conduct rolling interviews during the morning commute.  But the demographics of the neighborhoods we rolled through are knowable. And what I saw were many, many people who struck me as incredibly hard working - people who work harder than I have ever worked my whole life with very brief exceptions. I would posit that they have worked a hell of a lot harder than Mr. Romney over the last twelve years, though that's not provable.  I would argue that they are taking great "personal responsibility and care" for their lives, though that is not provable. 

What is provable is that many, many working folks - including, inevitably, some of those around me - pay MORE in taxes than Mr. Romney. 

Ezra Klein in the Washington Post does the math
Among the Americans who paid no federal income taxes in 2011, 61 percent paid payroll taxes — which means they have jobs and, when you account for both sides of the payroll tax, they paid 15.3 percent of their income in taxes, which is higher than the 13.9 percent that Romney paid.
It's outrageous that Mr. Romney riffs off of the odious (but "Christian") Governor Perry (R-TX) who talks of a making class and a taking class when Romney himself is contributing less to the common good through his taxes than someone in that train car with me whom he is vilifying for "not paying Federal Income Tax." 

And what's more, if you look at who the "takers" are and how they vote, Mr. Romney will carry the "taker states."  As pointed out by Dylan Matthews in the Washington Post, here, "All told, Obama gets 50 electoral votes from the 'maker' states to Romney’s 9 — 17 are tossups — while Romney gets 96 electoral votes from the 'taker' states to Obama’s 5, with 29 as tossups."

Mr. Romney told a group of millionaires that he'll never be able to convince the 61% of the working poor, among others, that "They should take personal responsibility for their lives."  I'm sure they'd love to hear about it - maybe just after they get up in the 4:00's to get their kids ready for a before-school program and before they go work two jobs, they'd love to hear Mr. Romney talk about personal responsibility. Even though he pays less in taxes than they do, I'm sure they'd love to hear how they are "takers". 

Except Mr. Romney told the same group of millionaires that "my job is not to worry about those people." 

Perhaps Mr. Romney would like to read some of what's written on all of that money he's squirreled away in the Caymans - you know, the part where it reads "E Pluribus Unum." 

How dare he?  How can he get away with such dismissive, corrosive posturing?  How can he so brazenly lie about who contributes to the wealth in this country?   

I have some ideas, but that's for another post.
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19 September 2012

The phone's ringing - for all of us


In Fowler we had two phones in the house, one upstairs and one downstairs. Since the one upstairs was in my parents’ room – a room which I really only entered twice in 13 years – really we had one phone. For ten kids. And that one phone sat at the far end of the kitchen table against the wall, and if you wanted a private conversation the cord was long enough that you could take it into the family room, sit on the top step, shut the door behind you, and no one in the kitchen would hear.

It wasn’t a comfortable perch there on the top step, but it was worth it for the relative quiet. The family room used to be a garage that my dad and brothers converted into living space.  It wasn’t hooked onto the furnace so it didn’t have heat.  Not that the rest of that house was balmy, given the cost of heating oil and the shape of the house (my bedroom window would often have ice on the pane in the morning), but the living room was especially cold.  We used it for cold storage in the winter months, putting things there that didn’t need freezing, necessarily, but it was at least as cold as the fridge.  I never thought anything about it as a kid – you could bundle up in a few sweaters, stretch the phone cord and go out there for a personal conversation. 

Fowler only had one phone exchange, 884, so all you had to do to memorize your friends’ phone numbers was remember the last four digits.  I still remember my friends’ numbers – Susan and Doug and Alan and Eugene and Bill – all these years later I could dial them all. Indiana only had three area codes then and we were in the one with Lafayette and Indianapolis, but the dentist and some of my friends were in the 219 area code which started in Earl Park just north of us, and calling them was strictly verboten.  The other towns in the county all had one exchange as well - Boswell was 869, Oxford was 385, Otterbein was 583.  They were all local calls, and they were all free and unlimited, and I was on the phone a lot. Hours and hours. And there was no call waiting, it was just busy until someone hung up. 

 Sharing anything ten ways isn’t easy, and while at any given time it was more likely to be 8 or 7 since Ray was in the Army and Dave was in Illinois and Therese was down in Texas, it still presented logistical challenges.  I got to be on the phone a lot, and most of my friends were local calls since I was from Benton County, so I never got yelled at for the duration of my calls. There were some conversations about polite phone conversation (didn’t matter if your friend’s parents told you to call them Gene and Myrtle, you didn’t over the phone) and some boundaries (never call anyone after 9 PM, no calls during dinner), but pretty much I had free reign. My older siblings resented some of the latitude that I got, and I can understand it – in this I was unquestionably spoiled – but what was I supposed to do, tell ma to kick me off the phone?  Not likely. Looking back I’m most surprised by the indulgence of my two sisters, four and five years older. Why did they put up with it?  I don’t remember them yelling at me for I, but then they were great to me all the time growing up. My older brothers were rough, but my sisters were really amazing. 

At the end of 6th grade we moved from that sprawling two story farm house in the country to what was to my eyes a very modern one story ranch house with a basement in the city. We had a phone in the kitchen, a dark brown slimline model that had a truly amazing cord.  Because the base of the phone was mounted to the wall, the only way to have a private conversation was to stretch the cord long enough to get to the basement stairs five feet away – and then down to the third one so you could swing the door shut.  In warmer months you could take it other direction, through the living room six feet to the front door where you could sit on the porch and have some privacy.  I don’t know what that cord was made of but it was remarkable.  It never broke despite the stretching, despite the flipping and twirling as it was subjected structurally to some of the teenaged angst that it was carrying internally, despite the crushing by closed doors. 

We did it so we could have some privacy. We wanted someplace we could talk without our conversations being overheard by our parents and siblings. (Overheard and remarked upon, which I remember as being particularly infuriating to one sister, perhaps because it destroyed the fiction that conversations held in common areas were to some extent private?) For me it was important to have a space where I could stretch mentally.  I don’t remember any specific content from those conversations, just a general sense of talking about friends’ breakups, history fair projects, and plans for Friday nights, but I remember sitting on the step – in the cold living room in Fowler, in the gaudy yellow stairwell in town – treasuring my privacy.

I think of this sometimes when I sit next to someone on the train sharing the most intimate details of a relationship’s end, or when I, unwillingly, listen to a drama playing out for a coffee shop neighbor who is on the phone.  I wonder – did people change because of the technology?  Is that why there doesn’t seem to be a line between public and private lives?  Since we no longer need to be tethered to the wall through a cord to a phone that, as Lewis Black as has said, “Was so big, if a puma was charging at me I could hit it over the head and kill it!” – since we can connect with anyone from anywhere and since our private conversations can now happen in public, has that been the impetus for this erosion?  Or does privacy mean something different now?  Maybe it’s simply that I am extrapolating too broadly from my own experience? 

 At the risk of being the guy that yells at those damn kids to get out of his yard, I miss privacy, mine and others.  Maybe I just need to get them all a stretchy phone cord. 

 

14 September 2012

Missed stories of the week

It was a tough news week and most of the reading is grim, but there was more happening than events in North Africa and inside Governor Romney's coterie might lead you to believe. 

1. Stories datelined in Somalia aren't often good news, but this week there were real signs of progress.  This war ravaged nation elected a new president on Monday, the first "fair and free elections in 40 years." From the Guardian: "Somalia chooses new leader in Presidential elections."  Why care?  Because it's good news for the people there, if nothing else.  They have endured a LOT.  And their newly elected President survived a suicide bombing attempt on his life after just two days in office by al-Shabaab, the Islamic military extremists in his country, probably because he was clear and direct in his assessment of them: "Al-Shabaab targets everybody who is doing something against them– a woman in civil society, a traditional elder, a businessman, a religious leader."  And now himself as well. 

2. The nations with the 2nd, 4th and 19th largest economies in the world are playing a dangerous game of chicken in the South China Sea.  There are some islands southwest of Okinawa called the Senkakus in Japanese, the Diaoyu Islands in Mainland China, and the Tiaoyutai Islands in Taiwan (map right, from the Guardian) that are the subject of a territorial dispute.  China didn't really care about them until 1968 when there were suggestions that there might be oil beneath them.  Since then, they've started to care. A lot.  A private Japanese landowner this week sold them to the National Government of Japan, and China doesn't like it.  The Chinese government media organs have orchestrated street protests against the Japanese and then tried to tamp them down; the Japanese national government is being goaded by the nutbar nationalist mayor of Tokyo, the nutbar nationalist mayor of Osaka has formed a new political party and is suggesting that Japan should exercise its military right of engagement, and China is sending naval vessels to patrol the waters in the area. 

A war could break out if the navies and coast guards of all three nations make even a small mistake given how high nerves are on either side of this dispute.  Cultural events around Japan were being cancelled - a cartoon show in Aichi, a cruise ship welcoming in Kobe, and pop stars are cancelling concerts in each others' countries.  We have military assets in Okinawa, Guam and South Korea that are all within shouting distance.  This is unlikely to end well.

3. Honestly, Uganda, methinks thou dost protest too much.  It's like you are that homophobic bully in high school that sees and talks about queers everywhere, perhaps in the hopes of finding one yourself?  You may remember Uganda as the place where - with the help of US "Christian" missionaries - they proposed a bill that would criminalise homosexuality and make certain practices punishable by death.  Because, you know, that would stop homosexuality. Most recently they've jailed a British producer, David Cecil, for staging a play in two theatres in the capital about queerness in the country.  If convicted, he faces two years in prison.  Brave man.

4. As reported in La Presse, here (in French) (more prominently than in the Japan Times, where I had to go look for it after reading it in La Presse) Japan will follow Germany and Switzerland and has made it a policy goal to be nuclear free by 2030.  Honestly, I don't know how they are going to do it - they rely on nuclear energy for 30% of their electricity consumption, and eighteen years is not very long to bring online that much additional non-nuclear capacity.  If anyone can do it the Japanese can, but I'm sceptical.  Still, given their complex and traumatic history with nuclear power one can understand the impulse. 

5. And because this week was especially brutal I wanted to find a good news story to close on.  The Bangkok Post reported here that a fisherman from the Pacific Island nation of Kiribati survived adrift in the Pacific for 106 days.  He was in a 15m boat with a friend and colleague when they had engine trouble.  His friend didn't make it, but Toakai Teitoi survived on rain water and fish.  His first request?  A smoke. 

Have a good weekend, all!  

13 September 2012

Cairo, Benghazi, lies and disgrace


In addition to the tragic loss of our ambassador in Libya, J. Christopher Stevens - who has been remembered as a good man and a great representative of the United States to the Libyan people and one who led a life of service to his country - and three other Americans who served with him in Benghazi, there was another tragic loss this week: the truth. 

That has seemed to happen a lot in this presidential campaign cycle.  It happens in every cycle, but they seem particularly egregious in this one, with Representative Ryan leading the way. 

Surrounding the events in the Mideast this week there were some shocking missteps and some decidedly un-presidential statements.  Here are the facts, as I understand them - and as inconvenient as they are. 

1. Someone made a very amateurish (think high school - fake beards and all) film that bashes Islam. We don't yet know who made it, but the LA Times is leading the investigation. From their article in this morning's print edition:
A man who identified himself as an Israeli American filmmaker claimed in telephone calls to news outlets Tuesday that he made the movie with backing from wealthy Jewish donors, but there were indications Wednesday that the name and story he gave were false and that the movie was tied to a group of Middle Eastern Christians who live in the U.S. and hold extreme anti-Islamic views.
Okay, a couple of things.  If true, that is disturbing - a Christian person or group posing as Jews to provoke and inflame Muslim sentiment even more than if they acted on their own behalf (though Christians blaming Jews for things for which they aren't responsible isn't exactly new [remember the Bubonic Plague?]).  Also, actors and crew members involved in making the movie were lied to - they were told it was a film called "Desert Warrior," and after a week of shooting was wrapped whole stretches of it were re-dubbed to give it its inflammatory narrative.  
*Update - 13-Sep-2012, 19:45 PT: " Christian Charity, ex-convict linked to film ".

2. Eventually a fourteen minute trailer was made of this dreck, translated into Arabic and uploaded onto YouTube. 

3. The trailer slowly gets disseminated, word spreads, tensions rise.  In what he surely must have known was a vain attempt to diffuse the tension that was growing on the streets of Cairo, Senior Public Affairs Officer Larry Schwartz in the US Embassy drafted a statement, got local approval from a supervisor in Cairo to release it and then sent it to DC for final approval.  That approval was explicitly denied.  Schwartz "...ignored explicit State Department instructions not to issue the statement," according to Josh Rogan in a must read article on this affair in Foreign Policy, and yet Schwartz released it anyway early Tuesday (06:16 ET / 12:18 Cairo local time). It read in part:
"The Embassy of the United States in Cairo condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims – as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions."
Officials in the US State Department in DC immediately - and Secretary Clinton and President Obama subsequently - strenuously disavowed the statement for, among other things, not carrying a full throated defense of freedom of speech and denunciation of violence. 

4. As the day passed, people in Cairo and the rest of the Arab world grew more agitated by this "film" and its offensive stereotyping of their religion and its founding prophet. Many were inspired to - or used this as cover to - riot in the streets and burn American flags.  (To be clear, I am a free speech absolutist, and have written about this before on BLC, here. Religious extremism is always disgusting, and violence incited by "blasphemy" is simply baffling.  Never excusable or warranted.)

5. Throughout the afternoon the Cairo embassy re-releases part of its statement on its Twitter feed.

6. Late in the evening the US Embassy in Benghazi is attacked, and overnight and into the early morning four people are killed. 

7. It's now 20:00 ET / 02:00 Cairo local time, and Governor Romney's camp learns about the attach in Benghazi and about the first casualties in Libya.  There is no word yet as to who the casualties are, or what exactly has happened as the situation is still unfolding. At that moment, the US Embassy in Benghazi was still under attack. Governor Romney's advisers press him to make a statement - while the US Embassy in Benghazi was still under attack. Top Policy Advisor Mr. Lanhee Chen released a statement - while the US Embassy was still under attack - saying "It's disgraceful that the Obama Administration's first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks" in response to the Cairo embassy statement.

You know what's disgraceful? It's disgraceful that while people who have dedicated their lives in service to our nation were under attack Governor Romney elected to politicize it. 

If you've been paying attention here, you'll note that a.) the statement issued by the Cairo embassy PRECEDED the attack on both the embassy in Benghazi that resulted in American casualties and the  attack on the Cairo embassy itself, so calling it "the Obama Administration's first response is factually wrong, and b.) that the Cairo statement was NOT approved of by the administration and was in fact denied approval by supervisors in Washington, so again, factually wrong. 

Or again from Foreign Affairs:
Romney has said, wrongly, that the statement was the administration's first response to the protests, but the official said that the demonstrations did not begin until 4 p.m. Cairo time and protesters breached the wall about 2 hours later. 
How did this happen?  According Greg Sargent in a Washington Post piece, here, Mr Romney's senior advisor, Mr. Chen, said: "We've had this consistent critique and narrative on Obama's foreign policy, and we felt this was a situation that met our critique."

Never mind that our sovereignty was under attack or that Americans were being killed, this fits our narrative and therefore we should make political hay.  Never mind that we don't know all the facts.  Never mind that the "consistent critique and narrative" of President Obama as an apologist gets "Four Pinnochios" for being factually incorrect to start with - the Romney campaign will do anything to score political points regardless of the dictates of the national interest, regardless of facts, regardless of common human decency. 

When the facts became apparent later, what did Mr. Romney do?  Did he walk back his statement, or apologize?  No.  He repeated the statement and lied some more. 

That a presidential challenger should inject himself into an unfolding international crisis in which Americans are underfire is unprecedented.  As pointed out in an article in the Atlantic online, Ronald Reagan showed sober restraint in 1980 when the mission directed by President Carter to free our hostages in Iran failed, saying: "This is the time for us as a nation and a people to stand united." Compare that to:
I also believe the administration was wrong to stand by a statement sympathizing with those who had breached our embassy in Egypt, instead of condemning their actions. It’s never too early for the United States government to condemn attacks on Americans and to defend our values.
(Full statement here.) That is Mr Romney speaking the morning AFTER, when the facts of the timeline outlined above was more or less known.  He repeated the lie, and went further.

Disgusting.  Deceitful.  Designed to reinforce the "Big Lie" - President Obama apologizes for America - and repeat it over and over and over, so that people who want to believe it will believe it.
It's also un-American to use a national loss to try and score political points.

Mr. Chen asserted that Mr. Obama has had a "feckless" foreign policy.  Mr. Romney's campaign released a false statement saying that Mr. Obama's "first response" was "disgraceful". 

There are disgraceful acts and words in this episode, but they are not Mr. Obama's. 

12 September 2012

Home at home?

A few years ago when living in Honolulu, my ex Arnold would come out to stay with me from time to time.  At first we'd do the tourist things but after a while his visits became less about seeing stuff and more about experiencing O'ahu like the locals - going to my favorite haunts, hanging out with some grad school friends, hitting the beach, going holoholo in town. 

Arnold is Filipino, and one night out at the club a real lokal bruddah comes up and starts talking to us.  Well, to him.  In pretty full-on pidgin. Arnold had no idea what bruddah was saying, so he looked at me.  I translated and responded, looking at bruddah.  Bruddah looked at me, confused, faced Arnold, and asked another question.  Arnold, confused, looked at me.  I translated and responded looking back at bruddah.  Bruddah, confused, nodded and turned again to Arnold and said something else.  It just didn't compute that me, one ha`ole, was in this context the "local" and was the one who could understand a little pidgin; or that Arnold, by now very tan and local looking, couldn't speak or understand a word. 

As that visit was winding down I asked Arnold how it had gone and how he was liking Honolulu. He loved it, of course - most people do - but then he added something that I've thought of often over the intervening years: "I've never felt so comfortable in my own skin." 

He had shared with me some stories of being bussed growing up, from his very diverse West Long Beach neighborhood to very white Wilson HS on the east side. He had told me about being called "Cambo" at school, meant pejoratively and as a reference to the thousands of Cambodians who had settled in Long Beach after the "boat people" exodus from Indochina of the mid 70's.  He never said these things with any particular rancor or bitterness but it had been part of his experience, and now when he told me that being in Hawai`i was comfortable in a way that he'd never experienced before, I remembered them. 

The following year I spent a summer in Thailand for work with a couple of professors from UH.  We were in Chiang Mai and I was taking full advantage of being there - we worked in a hermetically sealed, over-air-conditioned conference room every day from 8 to 5 (or 7 to 7 by the end of the workshop), but we had weekends off and I some time to go exploring.  I fell in love with the food, the pace of life, the people, the steamy climate, pretty much everything, and I contemplated arranging my life so I could live in Asia - feasible? Worth pursuing? As I was idly thinking about it out loud over dinner one night, one of my professors counseled against it.  She was of Indonesian descent, and said that she always loved coming back home to Hawai`i, to the familiar, to a place where she didn't stand out and where she could really be at home.  She asked if I wouldn't get fatigued always being the outsider in places where my appearance meant I wasn't a local and never could be.  I made a comment about how it didn't bother me the two years that I lived in Japan, but how I'd never really thought about it like that. 

I thought about it after she asked me, though, and I thought about not having needed to have thought about it before.  When Arnold first told me about being a bussed-in minority kid in high school I was sympathetic but I didn't get it; when he told me that he felt comfortable in his own skin in Hawai`i I thought smugly, for a split second, that I was above that feeling or awareness of race.

I shouldn't have, because I'm not. At all. I'd been aware of race in Japan - I wasn't being totally honest when I said that "it didn't bother me" when I lived there.  I was a guest in a foreign country on a contract for a finite amount of time, so of course it was very different to what Arnold may have felt as a 9th grader on a school bus being driven across town, but I felt it. Like the time on the train, exhausted and stinky after 14 hours of travel back home to Nagoya from Thailand, when a Japanese business man in a suit sat across from me in the carriage and made no pretense of not openly staring at me. I watched him watch me for a few minutes and then I made a big show of taking out a borrowed old school 35mm camera and squeezing off a couple of shots.

I'd been aware of race in Hawai'i, knowing that no matter how long I stayed or how much language or culture I learned I would never be as local as Arnold would be just by stepping off the plane; that bruddah would speak pidgin to Arnold even though he didn't understand and even though I was standing right next to him, replying. 

And then I thought about white privilege: I'd never had to feel or been made to feel a sense of displacement in my hometown like Arnold had, but more than that, growing up white in Benton County, Indiana, meant that I got to think about race differently than my friends of color, of whatever color. How that meant that I didn't have to think about race at all. I remembered watching my ex Gabriel be stalked around a store in the mall in downtown Columbus and think "Holy shit, that really happens!" How I would hear a jackass in a bar tell my Wisconsin-born Asian friend that his English is really good and think, "Holy shit, people really say that!"  How my ex- Joe, after asking about a restaurant shortly after moving to Georgia, was told by a black neighbor that, "No, 'we' don't go there," as she rubbed an index finger over the skin of her arm.  

So I don't get to be smug - or to be anything - about how someone else feels in his or her own skin, and I'm embarrassed that I was.

But I've thought of Arnold's comment in another way since I've moved from the Bay Area back to SoCal. I hadn't realized that I'd never felt as comfortable in my own skin as when I lived in San Francisco until I'd left it. I was queer in a place where queerness was unremarkable and nothing that needed be commented on - queerness just was. Perhaps like being Asian just was for Arnold in Hawai`i. Like being white in Benton County just was, or being Japanese in Nagoya. I hated the weather in San Francisco, and the prices, and the insufferable smugness that techies can mount. (Yes, we get it, you're really, really special.) I hated walking over that goddamn cliff every night to go to the gym. I hated running my furnace every night in June, July and August. (And careful BLC readers may remember how I hated Palo Alto.) 

But even though I only lived in The City for a year, I grew accustomed to a baseline of queerness. I didn't have to do the work that needs to be done in other places; I didn't need to do the daily coming out, educating and revealing straight privilege that other places may require. I got very comfortable. Not everywhere in The City - I have queer friends who won't go to the Marina, and I was gay bashed by two guys in SoMa and had the bruised ribs to show for it, so I am not saying it's perfect, by any stretch. But in my daily life I was surrounded by queerness and I was the beneficiary of the consciousness-raising of all of the brave queer folk who came before me, and of the commitment to real equality by innumerable allies. I grew to love San Francisco as a special place that felt queerly homey that I didn't fully appreciate until I'd left. 

So I'm sorry that it took me a while, Arnold, but all these years later I'm finally starting to get it - what that feeling of being at home in your skin feels like. And I'll look forward to getting it back.
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11 September 2012

So Who's Next?

It's election and campaign season (though season isn't really accurate, anymore, is it, for a Bataan Death March-like two years of campaigning) and I've said nothing about the race.  I've been thinking about it, though, and I read something today that got me thinking even more: "Clinton's 1992 victory in Illinois [was] the first time that a Democratic Presidential nominee had won the state since 1964."

Wait, was that possible?  Could it really be that reliably blue Illinois was once reliably (or at least regularly) red?  I read it in the New Yorker, one of the most rigorously fact-checked publications going today, so I knew it was true, and my own curiosity was sated at www.270towin.com.

Bush (père) - '88; Reagan - '80 and '84; Ford - '76; Nixon - '68 and '72. 

Since President Clinton won the Land of Lincoln in 1992, no Democratic nominee has failed to carry it: Clinton again in 1996; Gore - 2000; Kerry - 2004; President Obama in 2008.  I remember as a kid that "Big Jim" Thompson was the unassailably popular Republican governor of Illinois for four terms and Illinois still occasionally sends GOPers to the Senate (though, really, Mark Kirk should thank Rod Blagojevich for so badly bungling the appointment to President Obama's seat that he was able to win it in 2010.  My money is on him either retiring or being defeated in 2016), but Illinois is a reliably Democratic haul of 20 Electoral Votes.

Which all got me thinking.  Who's next?  Which state, if any, went Republican in six or more consecutive presidential elections that is likely to become reliably Democratic? 

After the devastating Supreme Court election of 2000, when Vice President Gore "lost" to President Bush (fils), I stared at the electoral results and realized that Democrats had to change the map. They could not rely on the west coast, upper midwest, and northeast and hope to get one other state to cobble together 270 - if they tried that, they would be outspent by the GOP in their base states as the Republicans would need to peel off only one - Iowa, Ohio, Wisconsin, New Mexico - to win.  If the Democrats had to spend money to defend Minnesota's 10 Electoral Votes, for example, there would be no way for them to win a general election.  They had to put other states in play so that the Republicans had to play defense somewhere else - anywhere else! - so the Republicans did not bank on winning all but 15 or so states.  Republicans looked at the Traitor States - really they looked at everything between DC and California, including all of the Great Plains and Mountain states, and they knew they didn't have to spend money in ANY of it except Florida. 

How do you change that?

It reminds me of Peyton Manning talking about coming to the Colts, and saying that "players look at the schedule at the start of the season, and players on other teams would see Indy on there and think 'Well, that's a win.'  We had to change that culture and be competitive."  That's what the Dems had to do, and what Howard Dean recognized that when he implemented his "50 State Strategy" - the much maligned but foresighted plan to make the Democrats competitive again.

My argument for voting for then Senator Obama over then Senator Clinton was that Obama could change the map - he could bring states into play that Senator Clinton was, in my estimation, too polarizing to win. I thought Obama was a transformative candidate; at the time I was thinking particularly of Missouri (which President Obama lost by 0.4%), Colorado, Nevada, Florida, Virginia and if things went right, Georgia. 

I was dead wrong about Georgia - even with the growth of the Hispanic vote there, it's difficult to see it flipping to a Democratic candidate in the near future. 

I have since argued in this space that Arizona was a likely candidate even though it has only gone Democratic once since 1948 - when Clinton carried it in 1996 (thank you H Ross Perot) - but that is probably one election away from being really competitive and Governor Romney can count on those 11 Electoral Votes. (I still think in 2016 it will be interesting, especially if the GOP continues its immigrant bashing.)

For a state that could make the kind of permanent flip from the GOP to the Democrats similar to Illinois, I think the best candidate is Virginia. Before President Obama carried it in 2008, Virginia had voted Republican in the previous ten elections, even resisting the charms of Democratic fellow southerners President Clinton and President Carter. Virginia had last voted for a Democrat in President Johnson's landslide in 1964 until they chose the black guy in 2008. 

So what's changed?  Take a look at the Census Data: the counties that have population loss are in the most Republican in the state, and those experiencing growth are the most Democratic.  What's intersting is who is moving to those growing counties, and it's not old, high school educated white folks, the GOPs most reliable demographic.  It's college educated white folks, who together with a more diverse electorate that includes 630,000 Hispanics and a million and half blacks who are reliably Democratic (even more so for President Obama, of course - in this election, Governor Romney is polling at 0% among African American likely voters.  Really.), well, Virginia is looking like it could be in play for a while, and perhaps even premanently break the GOPs hold on the former Traitor States that Nixon created with his racist Southern Strategy - at last.

If that happens, that could be a huge legacy that Obama leaves to his party (not the only one, of course, but we're talking electoral politics here).  If the GOP can no longer assume that they have those 13 electoral votes then, worst case scenario, they have to spend some of the Koch brothers' money there; best case, Democrats are far more likely to be able to build a combination that gets them to 270.

Virginia isn't the only one.  I'm keeping an eye on Colorado and Montana, too. 

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12 March 2012

Expansion

When I finished college I kicked around a few temp jobs in Milwaukee, and then I got lucky - I got a job in admissions at Regis College in Denver, Colorado in May, 1992. I loaded up my meager possessions into the Caprice Classic (thanks, Dad!) and drove west.

I didn't know anyone in the whole timezone, and didn't know much about those huge, square states between the Midwest and California. They weren't interesting geographically, so I hadn’t taken the time to learn much about them. On my mental map, the space between Lincoln, Nebraska (in my world, decidedly Midwest) and Sacramento (West) was blank.

I was confronted by my own ignorance, and was surprised in waves at what I found "out there" - mountains, yes, but space. So much space. I drove 18 hours to cover the 1100 miles from Milwaukee to Denver, which made some sense to me because Denver was in the West. California was in the West. What shocked me was that after all that driving I was not quite halfway to San Francisco. In my mind's geography, the rest of Colorado, Utah and Nevada simply weren't that big, and Denver was, oh, a seven or eight hour's drive from the west coast. (It’s 19 or so.) It's not quite as bad in degree as the error that Christopher Columbus made when he got to the Caribbean and thought he was in the South China Sea, but it was bad. This was precisely the type of thing I was supposed to know. How did I not realize this, I wondered?

As I lived in Denver, I learned a lot about the West - what mountains do to weather and roads and accessibility and culture; how water, a resource that is so bountiful in the Midwest as to be wholly ignored, was scarce and precious; what urban sprawl does, irrevocably, to natural beauty.

As I sat in Denver, broke, I'd think about weekend roadtrips to Cheyenne and the Rocky Mountain National Park and, yeah, on occasion, Milwaukee, and that required logistics and planning and thought while looking at maps. I'd then drive the roads that I saw on the map and I learned their beauty or desolation or both. I'd find a restaurant with taciturn locals and improbably good steaks for ridiculously low prices. I'd find a replica Statue of Liberty in Kansas, moonscapes along I-76, and good fry bread in Native American land. I got to know it. From Denver I explored to the Four Corners and over to Vegas (for Christmas one year for a Marquette-UNLV game), down to Albuquerque, up to Boise and Pullman, WA, and laterally from San Francisco and SoCal to Milwaukee and Chicago and St Louis at different times. I filled in the spaces in my mental map of "the west" with data.

As I looked out my 8th story window in Denver to the mountains and thought about and planned and tried to impose some sense of all of that space, all of that space was imposing a sense on me.

The same thing happened as I looked out my 8th story window in Dhaka. Before my trip to Bangladesh, when asked if I'd been there or to that part of the world before, my standard response was "No - nothing between Singapore and Venice." I knew what countries were there, just like I knew that Utah and Nevada were between Denver and the Pacific, but that's very slim knowledge on which to - well, on which to base anything.

Being in Dhaka filled in my mental map of a region that had been tabula rasa. What I learned from being there gave me insight into a whole region of billions of people. Not that I know what life is like there, but I can conceptualize it in a way that was impossible for me in January.

It's an imperfect analogy, but what I'm most reminded of is when a felt tip pen has extended contact with a cloth surface: the ink spreads out from one point to fill a growing space, and the longer the contact the broader the circle. Usually, that ink is indelible.

When I moved back to Chicago from Denver, my perspective had changed, indelibly, and I had a new lens through which to see things that were familiar. I loved - LOVED - Lake Michigan and treasured it in a way I hadn't - couldn't have – done before I realized what an amazing and beautiful natural resource it was. I loved the fact that I could get on a train in Chicago and in ninety minutes be in a whole other city, unlike Denver's isolation that required a 500 mile drive to be in Omaha (Omaha!) or a 600 mile drive to be in Kansas City. I loved the trees in the Midwest that I'd never really noticed before, and that deep green that fields and grass get in the summer that you don't get west of the Missouri River.

I was in Denver about 28 months; I was only in Dhaka about 28 days. I don't want to overstate the case.

I do know, however, that even though the tip of the pen might not have been left on the cloth that long, an indelible mark was made. I won't forget what I saw. I only wonder how it will shape what I see in the future.
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22 February 2012

Photos from Dhaka

Here are some photos from my month in Bangladesh. All photos were taken in February 2012, and are the author's unless otherwise noted. All can be clicked to enlarge.

Below: Unintended irony. For the building next door or for the wiring, I wonder?















Below: Typical street view, from what I saw.















Below: spot I passed everyday. Note the wires.


















Below: typical side street. Right behind me is where the child was breaking bricks.














Below: Building a highway overpass by hand.

















Below: another street view.



















Below - trying to give a sense of the density of the place. It just goes on, and on, and on...














Below - a loaded rickshaw van. I couldn't help but wonder every time I saw one: how much does that load weigh? And next, how many calories does this driver need a day to be able to peddle that load around town?














Below: Pollution made for dramatic sunsets - didn't really capture it here.


















Below, Newmarket - one of the shopping centers in Dhaka.














Below, city bus on Airport Road.













Dhaka Int'l Airport on the way out of town. Honestly, it felt like a clear day. I was a little surprised when I saw the photo...










Sayonara, Dhaka!

21 February 2012

Week 4 - What I've learned

Last week in Bangladesh. Great month, and was consistently humbled by the generosity and kindness of people - but Bangladeshis were among the first to admit that it's not the easiest place to travel. Last installment of what I've learned.
  1. Green grapes are not seedless. Careful readers will already know not to try to get the seeds out of your mouth with your left hand.
  2. Internal flights in Bangladesh - wait, let me back up. Bangladesh is roughly Wisconsin. We were flying from, say, Oshkosh to Madison, so we wouldn't have a seven hour drive on crappy roads (no bridges, and the ferries are less than reliable in terms of schedule). And then we were driving the geographic equivalent of Madison to Beloit, which is 121 km/ 75 miles, which takes three hours. (See above re: roads.) To get from roughly Oshkosh to Beloit takes a flight and a three hour drive. That should tell you all you need to know about the infrastructure here.
  3. For internal flights in Bangladesh you do NOT need to be there two hours before departure. Take on all the liquids you want. And if you're white, evidently, and you set off the metal detector on your way through, no worries - just carry on, they won't stop you. And if you stop yourself because you're obviously the cause of some beeping, they'll keep waving you through.
  4. Planes can make u-turns. On the ground. At least in Jessore they can. And it's fair enough, why take up more land for another runway? I was surprised by the proximity of farmers - not farms, but farmers - to the runway, but again, land is at a premium here.
  5. Despite all of the challenges of road travel, going by bus or by road in general still takes LESS time than going by train. Trains here are slow, uncomfortable, and expensive. Which means that the British left Bangladesh with mind numbing bureaucracy (and tea breaks and cricket) but NOT with a functioning train system. Wha...? Why get colonized by the British if you're not going to get rail out of the deal? (Don't get colonised, of course, but if you do, the British are awful but not the worst. Bangladesh may as well have been colonised by the French so they'd've gotten some interesting fusion food, at least.) (But still, never, ever, get colonised by the Spanish. Oof. World's first concentration camps? In Guam, thanks to his "Most Christian Majesty" Philip II [at least according to Pope Paul IV] in the 1570s... Okay, I'm getting far afield.)
  6. If you don't take seconds you will offend your hosts. Taking a little something, however small, is a compliment to the chef. Never mind that you're the slowest eater at the table, take some more.
  7. Sunrise or sunset on a paddy field is stunningly beautiful. (above right- click to enlarge.)
  8. Turmeric and eggplant are saline resistant. Remember the old tale that Rome salted the fields of Carthage so that the Carthagians would never again be able to rise to challenge them? Well, people in southern Bangladesh are trying to find some work-arounds. They have to. Cyclone Aila and its concomitant storm surge salted fields across southern Bangladesh. (Left - click to enlarge, though even from this view you can see the salt rime between the stubble of the rice plants.) What do you do? You hope for rain, as that will eventually wash the salt back into the sea. That takes time. In the interim, you try to figure what crops are saline resistant. Across the road from this salted field, the gentleman below was growing eggplant, and doing it well. (Photo courtesy of Bryan Bushley; click to enlarge.) Turmeric is also saline resistant, but the price of turmeric has fallen through the floor in the last few months. Not sure what these farmers are going to do, though some NGO have stepped in to provide storage facilities in the hopes that they can ride out the bust and hopefully sell when prices have rebounded a little bit. What do they do for revenue in the meantime? These are subsistence farmers. It's going to be tough.
  9. Bangladesh is 90% Muslim, but it's still the third most populous Hindu nation in the world just by virtue of its colossal population base. There are many Hindu villages all over the country, but particularly in the southwest, where we were doing site visits. Besides the bindi, you will see an absence of gender separation in these villages and while there are still gender roles, of course, they seem to be less rigid. One village meeting I attended in a Hindi village had all the men to the left of the speaker and all of the women to the right, but the women and men both spoke, the women were not veiled or covered, and they were part of the decision making process of the village in terms of planting strategies for crops and investments.
  10. Indigenous people in Bangladesh, unfortunately like indigenous people nearly the world over, are lower in nearly every socioeconomic indicator than Bangladeshis.
  11. Mutton is not sheep. It's goat. And not unlike the chickens, the goats in Bangladesh are not particularly well fed. I defy you to eat it with only your right hand without making a complete mess. If you have the option, go with the fish.
  12. Nearly every car in Dhaka has a DVD player - below left, that's not a rearview mirror, that's a DVD player (playing, in this case, a Bangla movie from the early 60's). Given the time you sit in traffic, honestly it seems fair enough.
Off to Thailand and home soon. What a month!
I'll continue to think about it for a while. More pics and posts to come.

20 February 2012

The other elephant in the room

Writing about life here and not writing about poverty is dishonest.
Link
People here are poor, and many, many people here are very, very poor. You can’t really wrap your head around the numbers. To define what we’re talking about, the poverty line is set at 80 taka / person/ day, or about a dollar a day, and 49% of Bangladeshis are at or below the poverty line. That's 71,000,000 people, or slightly more than the entire populations of Argentina and Peru, in an area smaller than the state of Illinois, living on less than a dollar a day.

And yes, of course, the cost of living here is much cheaper. Eighty taka can buy you some rice. It won't buy you rice and oil to cook it with, but maybe you can get some water to boil it. But it won't buy you rice and a heating source. Eighty taka is not enough.

About 20% of rural households (which equals almost 23 million people, since Bangladesh is 85% rural and has a population of about 142,000,000 - so we are talking about more people than in all of Australia, or about 2.5 times the number of people living in Haiti) live in what's called "extreme poverty" which means, a.) that they suffer from food insecurity (they go to bed hungry frequently, much of their days are spent trying to acquire food, they often do not know from where their next meal will come, or of what it will consist); b.) that they have no access to land; c.) that they have no access to means of production or assets (like a bicycle powered rickshaw, say, or a goat). Many fishers are in this category, which another reason why the depletion of freshwater aquatic resources is so critical, and so alarming. Within this country slightly larger than Iowa you've got the equivalent of Australia's entire population in extreme poverty.

Alongside them, in the same physical space, there are another 33,000,000 people, w
hich roughly equals the entire population of Canada (the whole country), who are considered "moderately poor" meaning that a.) they may own or be able to lease a small plot of land, or some livestock, and that for most months of the year they have enough to eat, but their diet lacks the necessary protein (see above re: declining fish stocks) and variety to be considered healthy. In other words, they are one setback away from disaster. And this is a country with 80% of its land at 10m above sea level or lower; you can see population density by elevation here. Dhaka and its 15 million people (or the equivalent of the entire population of Guatemala, that is relatively poorer than Guatemala, in one city) has an average elevation of 4 meters. So one setback could be a typhoon. Or another few years of global change. Not that those are discrete categories.

So you've got the population equivalent of Australia plus Canada who are the rural poor or the rural very poor, PLUS another 81,000,000 people, or roughly between the entire population of Germany (82,000,000) in a country smaller than Iowa.

As I said, it is hard to wrap your head around the situation.

The poor are not hidden or segregated, simply because they can't be. There are too many of them.

Last weekend, I visited three rural villages. This (right - click to enlarge) is one of the best homes that I saw, provided in part through an NGO to this villager who is now a shrimp farmer. You can tell it's one of the nicest homes because it has both a cement foundation and a tin roof - both of which are rare, but to have the combination in the same home is a local signifier of wealth. According to the community surveys that were conducted by the workshop participants, these two factors put this household in the wealthiest 7% of residents of his village. He's doing well. (Another view, below.) He has a steady source of income from the shrimp farm, a few chickens (which were in the house, so I kn
ew they were his), a water catchment tank (to the right of the house in the picture above, provided, like thousands of others in this district, by USAID) for "sweetwater", and relative protection from storm surges based on the home's elevation.

Many, many people are doing far less well. They spend hours a day trying to get water, to start, and then hours more trying to get food. If they have a goat, they may have to walk miles to find a bit of pasture land. If they don't have a goat or a cow, maybe they can try fishing but fish stocks have plummeted dramatically due to overfishing, destruction of habitats (dams, bridges, canals), and due to pollution - toxic water run off - from garment manufacturers. (One of the workshop participants found that in Baikka Beel, one of the most productive and critical of Bangladesh's freshwater wetlands, there was up to a 50% loss in fish production due to effluent. When you buy clothes made in Bangladesh, that low price might be due to the manufacturer skirting pollution laws. Or paying its employees nearly nothing. Or both.)

Do you catch brood fish - i.e., fish that are about to spawn - knowing that doing so will affect the long term health of the small lake that you were born next to? Well, if you are hungry and your family is hungry, you probably would.

The poor are not limited to rural areas. Many in Dhaka and other major cities - Chittagong (3 million), Khulna (2 million), Sylhet (1 million) - are extremely poor as well. Walking home from dinner the other night I tried a short cut through one of the narrow alleys that are webbed through Dhaka, and I saw, at ten at night, a boy who couldn't have been more than five, impossibly skinny, breaking bricks. He was literally breaking bricks. To what purpose I don't really know, but when I walked down the same alley a few days later, during the day, an emaciated women and two girls were in the same spot doing the same thing. I had my camera both times but I didn't take their pictures - I couldn't.

People in the rural areas know that the standard of living is higher in the cities, of course, and there is a lot of internal migration. Millions of people move from land that is exhausted, or polluted, or unprofitable, or salted by storm surge, or which has been divided up among family members until it is too small to farm, and move to the city - where they are homeless, where they can't get clean water or access to education for their children. There was a photo in the paper recently describing as "lucky" a kid growing up on the sidewalk around the corner from my dorm because his mom - an internal migrant from the country - was insisting he learned how to read and write. (Photo and caption here.)

The beggars can be quite persistent, which I understand. There are children, men and women - with emaciated or deformed limbs - legs the size of sticks, literally no more than six inches around from foot to hip - eye sockets permanently blinded and shut with scarification, and thousands and hundreds of thousands of homeless. It's a beautiful country, but it's also a country of dire poverty and what can only be described as ugliness. And the juxtaposition can be shocking.

Bangladeshis are to some extent inured to this. It's their normal, part of their experience. Many of them give to beggars, and undoubtedly this support keeps recipients alive. The state - moribund, weak, hopelessly corrupt, and destitute itself - is incapable of the structural changes necessary to break the structural poverty and to redress this on any significant scale.

The shocking thing is that much progress has been made on poverty in this country. The rate had dropped from 69% two decades ago to today's 49%. In part that is due to remittances (over a billion dollars a year and climbing); in part it's due to international aid (two billion a year); in part, yes, it's due to exports, led by the garment industry.

I can't imagine it a third worse than it is right now, like it was in 1990, but then I can barely imagine it now. And the projections are for a lot more people to join those already there by 2050. Bangladesh is one of the south Asian countries with its population under control, but there are still going to be 80,000,000 more people in 2050 than there are now, which would bring the total to 233,000,000 or so. Which is over two thirds of the current U.S. population.

Which is adding the current population of Germany (or Spain AND Peru AND Taiwan) to who is already there.

In a country slightly larger than Wisconsin.

As I said before - it's getting crowded. I wish them luck.