29 July 2009

Missed story of the week

Here's the missed story of the week: Nigeria. (Link to the latest in the LA Times here.)

One reason Afghanistan was a near perfect harbor for Al Qaeda in the 1990's was that it was a failed state - central authority was nonexistent, the regions were largely autonomous, corruption was rampant, and a well-funded militia and training base or bases could be set up with impunity. More formally, a state is defined as failed if:

  • a government can't physically control its territory;
  • has no, or only a limited, monopoly on the legitimate use of force;
  • cannot adopt and enforce decisions binding for the whole country;
  • is unable to provide basic public services; and
  • cannot represent the whole country in the international community
(Above from Radio Free Europe post here; below are some of the 12 Indicators of a Failed State found here.)

Mounting Demographic Pressures
Uneven Economic Development along Group Lines
Sharp and/or Severe Economic Decline
Progressive Deterioration of Public Services
Arbitrary Application of the Rule of Law and Widespread Violation of Human Rights
For nearly every indicator, Nigeria is foundering.

That Nigeria is under mounting demographic pressure is clear just by looking at this population pyramid. It's shocking. As I mentioned in a previous post, Nigeria is projected to add 118 million people - the equivalent of the population of Mexico - over the next 20 years. It simply does not have the carrying capacity to feed, clothe, provide fresh water, educate and provide health care for its current population, let alone its current population PLUS Mexico.

On a gini coefficient of inequality scale Nigeria isn't the worst, but the trend is in the wrong direction - inequality is growing. Oil wealth may not help - it has already lead to increased internal strife, sabotage of oil production facilities, and violence, and there is not enough central government authority to ensure that it is equitably distributed. Out of a population of 150 million people, there are 2.6 million infected with HIV/AIDS, the 2nd worst in the world. There are 250 ethnic groups in Nigeria, and the population is 50% Islamic, regionally centered in the north, and 40% Christian, mostly centered in the south. It is Africa's most populous nation, and it is in very real danger of falling apart.

Why does this matter?

To be simplistic, do we really need another failed state of Islamic extremists with access to oil reserves?

Beyond that, Nigeria is our fifth largest supplier of imported oil, and the disruption of that supply would put significant pressure on oil and gas prices here.

And more than that, Nigeria was a relatively stable, democratic nation which had been able to create material improvements in the lives of many of its people over the past three decades. So, in humanitarian terms, if Nigeria were to continue fracturing it would likely to do so along religious lines, with much bloodshed, internal and external displacement of local populations with resulting refugee crises like in Chad and Sudan, increased disease, collapse of what little social safety net there is, and starvation. In the Christian south there would likely be a rump Anglophonic state - failed like Liberia of the 90's or Zimbabwe today - with mineral resources but inadequate means of feeding its people or maintaining a "monopoly on the legitimate use of force." In the north there would be an Islamic national state with Sharia law as the basis for jurisprudence, which would likely be a natural harbor for enemies of the 20th and 21st centuries of the type that have attacked the U.S. in the past.

The potential disintegration of Nigeria would lead to death and hardship for literally millions of Africans, but it also has the potential to have implications for the United States and our security. And from what I saw in the paper and heard on the radio, it just wasn't very well covered.

(See more about the militants attacks and the state's attempts to respond here, and more about the attacks a few weeks back here, both from NPR.)

28 July 2009

Benton County (series)

I was the only one in my family who was from Benton County - I was born there and it was the only home I knew until we moved to Lafayette in 1981, when I was 13. My dad would occasionally comment that I was the only one of the ten of us kids who had his baptism and first communion (roughly birth and 2nd grade) in the same parish - in this case, Sacred Heart, Fowler. He would say this with an almost wistful air, with the implication that I was lucky, that others had made sacrifices and moved around and I hadn't been asked to do that.

And he was right. I was lucky. I loved Benton County - maybe because it's all I knew and I'd've loved anywhere, but maybe there was something about the gentle landscape and wide open spaces and the seasons that I loved, too.
(Above right - looking south down US 52 towards Fowler from Earl Park.)

My brothers and sisters had a different opinion - and it seemed to be that the older the sibling the less he or she liked it. We little kids got the message early that Benton County was beneath us, that there had been other places that had been better, that it was a back water, a hicksville with bad schools, no culture, no doctor and no dentist. (There was a dentist, but my ma had a fight with him because he wouldn't provide dental care to the migrant farm workers in town, and so we drove to Kentland in the next county, 14 miles away.)

Before moving to Fowler, my family had lived outside Niagara Falls, New York (birthplace of #1); then Honolulu, when Dad was drafted for Korea (birthplace of #2); back to Niagara Falls (#'s 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7); then Memphis (#8); Adrian, Michigan, (#9); and then finally Benton County in time for me, #10, to be born a Hoosier.

I can see why Dad picked Benton County - and it was just Dad, Mom+9 came later, sight unseen - but it wasn't inevitable. Dad worked in West Lafayette, a considerably larger city, next to Purdue University, in the next county over.

But with nine kids Benton County made more sense economically - for one thing, there were lots of jobs for teenagers in the fields and the canning company across the road, and there was a free Catholic Elementary school, Sacred Heart. Yup, free. Well, it was $30 a year for books, but that was it - no tuition fees. Since my parents were adamant that all ten of us go to Catholic school, no tuition fees saved them, literally, thousands of dollars. Housing costs in Fowler were lower than just about anywhere else (even today, a four bedroom house can go for $50K), and everything else was pretty cheap, too. We had a gas tank out back so we were able to get gas in bulk, and the Co-Op fuel delivery man went to our church, so he'd let things slide when we needed. Which was good, because it was needed not infrequently. We heated our house with fuel oil, and that we got in bulk too. From the Co-op.

I can also see why my older siblings actively hated it - or at least badmouthed it. The relative shortcomings of Benton County are pretty evident. In 1990 and 2000, Benton County was the third least populous in the state of Indiana. The current population density of 22 people / square mile is 2nd lowest of all Indiana counties (the Indiana state mean is 178/sq mile). There's not much there. In 1970, just after we moved there, the population for the whole county was 11,262, It would have been a little livelier, but there was still only one high school and one stop-and-go light, and it usually was flashing red one way and yellow the other.

Compared to the counties my families had lived in previously, Benton County was country. Even Lenawee County, in Michigan, the most rural of all previous locations, had over ten times as many people as Benton County, and my family had lived in a town with nearly 20,000 people, at least eight times Fowler's total.

In Benton County, there wasn't much to do, especially for teenagers.

In the summer, there was the Fowler Park pool, at which we could get a "family pass" which gave us unlimited use of the pool all summer long for a flat fee. (They've removed the high dive, which is too bad.)

There was a movie theater, open intermittently during my 13 years in Benton County. It had a great Art Deco facade which, I'll admit, I appreciated not at all as a kid. (They've fixed it up and are showing first run movies there these days. There are a ton of pictures here and a website on the history and restoration efforts of the Fowler by the Prairie Restoration Guild here.)

But to be fair, one movie theater doesn't really make an entertainment district. My older siblings must have been bored stupid, and likely were broke much of the time without the means to get to more exciting places. Me? I was young, and a little odd, and entertained myself by playing in our driveway.

Another huge difference in our Fowler experience - mine and that of my older siblings - was that I was born in Benton County, and grew up with a peer group. I didn't have to make friends, the kids I grew up with had always been my friends. I was accepted. I'd given nothing up to come to Fowler; there was no past in which I had been athletic, popular, smart, well-known - which were all things my siblings had left behind, again, with the move to what was the only town I'd ever known. 

Of course it sucked for them. Lafayette would have sucked; Indy would have sucked; Chicago or Seattle or Montreal would not have been where their friends were, or where their favorite teachers taught, or near where their favorite sports teams played. The fact that Benton County was an extremely rural and disconnected place to be - remember, it was 1968, after all - meant that my older siblings had some entirely understandable and well-placed grievances.

But I didn't understand any of this context as a five- or 10- or 12-year old, and I resented how my hometown wasn't as good as others they'd known. (And let's be honest - Adrian, Michigan, might have been nice, but I've driven by the address on my hand-me-down ball glove and it wasn't Paris.)

I resented being shut out of that common experience, too, and not being able to share in the collective family memory. I also knew that part of what was beneath my older siblings was me - I was beneath them. I wasn't "cool" like they were or the way they aspired to be.  I was a local, after all. I really, really liked Jell-o. I said, like my peers, "mayzhure" and "warsh".  I wore, like we all did, all my friends, the same pair of hand-me-down jeans every day for a week.

But perhaps worst of all, there was part of this family mythology - the mythology that we were from someplace better, and thus that we were better than Benton County - seeped in, and I am deeply embarrassed to say part of me believed it.

I found it beautiful, and when we moved into Lafayette when I was 13 I missed it, nearly viscerally. I am deeply nostalgic about the place. Don't misunderstand me - I have no interest in going back to Benton County to live, and you can even read my Urban Dictionary entry for Fowler if you don't believe me (and if you want embarrassing evidence of my condescension too, I'm afraid). But we all have to come from somewhere. And I thought Benton County was beautiful, and it was all I knew and all I needed, and I loved it.

Dad was right. I was lucky.

20 July 2009

Christine, the Cursed Car (addendum)

I think this is going to be a regular feature of Bren's Left Coast - how my car is cursed. Regular readers (and you both know who you are) might remember from Parts 1 of 2 and 2 of 2 (which are now inaccurately labeled, of course), that I've had trouble with Christine from the moment I brought her.

Wellll... I took it in to the Dealership (NO, absolutely NOT the one I bought it from, and everyone should avoid Grenier Pontiac in Poway, California, like the plague - unless that is in fact what you're in the market to buy: a plague) for an oil change, and so they could look at it and see if it has the technology for keyless entry, and so they could reset the "Change Oil Soon" message I was getting on my instrument panel. (I change the oil every 3-4k miles, but the folks at E-Z lube on Genesee in San Diego didn't know how to reset the "oil life" on the ship's on-board computer. Why didn't I look in the owner's manual, you may ask? BECAUSE SHE DIDN'T COME WITH AN OWNER'S MANUAL! When it was stolen - or, in fairness, perhaps when it was recovered, but the salient point is that at some stage - the owner's manual was jacked along with the car.) (And, in fairness, this is absolutely something I should have noticed and remedied with the original dealer, the one that you should never use, Grenier Pontiac in Poway, California.)

The good folks at Pearson Pontiac in Sunnyvale this morning recommended a tire rotation so I thought "Sure, let's do that," and then they showed me where there had been irregular tire wear indicating that the alignment was outta whack. (And what do I know from cars, so that seemed like a reasonable technical term. I went with it. I do know enough to recognize uneven tire wear, however, and this wasn't a subtle example for two year old car with 26,000 miles.) What causes that? Well, funny you should ask - I did - and I was told that "there might be some undercarriage damage, or maybe whoever had it before you drove onto or over something throwing the alignment out."


Everyone who is surprised by this, please raise your hand.

I think when Christine was hanging out in Baja California she mighta just mighta been driven by people (and I don't know why, but I see two joyriders, and let's face it, they very likely were dudes, like an all-male couple on board a boosted four seater Noah's Ark) people who felt the need - the need for speed, yes, most definitely (and hence my need for a new catalytic converter the day after I bought her?) - but also perhaps the need for driving over obstacles instead of driving around them. The person or persons who stole her prolly thought, rightly, that their relationship with her was going to be shorter than, say, what I have planned. So, c'mon, why swerve? They were busy dudes. "Let's drive over that berm!" they mighta shouted to each other. "Life is to be lived, we don't have time to steer around crap in the road/ path/ darkened beach just to keep it in alignment!"

So. I'll be going back to the dealership (and again, NOT back to Grenier Pontiac in Poway, California, I hardly need to mention) for an alignment. "Why didn't you do it today?" C'mon, have you been paying ANY attention? Do you really need to ask? Like everything with Christine, nothing is easy. "My alignment guy is out today or I'd take care of it now."


And the keyless entry? Shockingly, not just a missing remote transmitter key fob; Christine is incapable of being fitted with remote/ keyless entry. Which is super handy since there's no external key lock on the passenger side, and the only way to unlock the passenger's door is to unlock the driver's door and then hit the power unlock button. (On the plus side here, it saves my boyfriend the embarrassment of me unlocking the door for him - I'm from Indiana, I can't help it - but on the minus side when I'm giving my Dad a ride, say, and yes that has happened once, or driving female friends, I have to make them stand there while I open my door first. Manually. And then unlock theirs. It just kinda bugs. And it makes it hard for me to sell anyone on buying a Pontiac, though that ship that was Pontiac has pretty much sailed.) (And how is having on lock on the passenger side, especially without keyless entry automatically built into every car, even a thing? Look at the pics - it's not just my G6, there's no keyhole on the passenger side of this one, either. I mean... who sat in on that meeting and said "Hey, we could save 37.5 cents on each G6 if we don't put a lock in on the passenger side! They'll have keyless entry, who needs it?" If only he or she were also in the meeting where they said "Hey, I know! We can save 48.pi cents a unit on the G6 if we don't outfit all of them with the capacity to have keyless entry!" Just because only one former Hoosier loves him some Pontiac, is that a reason to cut corners like this? It's a beautiful car design - now outfit it!)

Maybe when I go back for that alignment I'll look around the lot, just to see. 0% financing on another Pontiac G6, maybe one with cruise, remote entry, a cooler radio, and an owner's manual? I could be persuaded.

13 July 2009

Planning for loss

(Ed. note: As with my other post on demographics, this was inspired by a Sporcle quiz.)

Only two of the largest fifteen cities in Ohio have gained population between 1980 and 2007, and they are #1, Columbus, and #15, Mentor. All of the other cities in the state have lost.

Cincinnati lost the equivalent of the entire population of Springfield, Ohio, falling from 385,000 to 332,000. Toledo had less to lose and lost it anyway, dropping from 354,000 to 295,000.

Youngstown lost a third of its population, from 115,000 people in 1980 to just 74,000 in 2007.

And Cleveland? The City of Cleveland alone lost the equivalent of a city nearly the size of Dayton, 135,000 people, in falling from 573,000 to 438,000 in 17 years.

How do you apply urban planning principles when a city is shrinking? How do you still keep the streets plowed when you have 25% fewer people paying taxes? The surface areas that need plowing don't shrink by 25%, of course; it's not like a house where you can shut the door to the room of a kid who's moved out, tape up the vent and not heat it in the winter - you need to provide services. In Youngstown, one of every third person is gone. Think of that. When you are on your way to work tomorrow, count every third house and imagine it empty, and think how that would look, first of all, with houses unkempt, falling down, overgrown, vandalized.

And then think about how the neighbors who are left would feel.

And then think about that city trying to educate its children, or trying to fill its potholes, or trying to run a Parks and Rec department.

Flint has an idea for how to plan for loss - shrink. In a New York Times article and story on NPR, some city leaders, including Dan Kildee, a native and the Genesee County Treasurer, want to physically contract the footprint of the city to save it, as the City is simply stretched too thin to service.
Empty houses and vacant lots can be seen on block after block. The numbers tell the story of a dying city. At its peak, Flint was home to General Motors, with a growing population of some 200,000 people and 80,000 auto industry jobs. Today, the population is about half what it once was, and only a few thousand auto jobs remain. More than one-third of the homes in Flint have been abandoned.
Read that last line again, and then think of the lost revenue and additional outlays needed in that context - or of sitting in on that budget meeting.

It will be interesting to see if there's the political will to make this happen, and if other cities - and the list of dying cities isn't limited to Michigan and Ohio (hello, Birmingham [-60,000, or 19%] or Mobile [-9,000 or 5%] Alabama? Or Jackson [-29,000 or 14%] Mississippi?) - find this severe remedy the right one for their own circumstances. The reality is that something has to be done in shrinking cities - just as Tampa, Florida, couldn't pretend that it's population didn't grow by 30% and plan accordingly, Cincy and Toledo and Dayton all can't pretend that shrinking populations will come back, or that there aren't planning implications. There are no good solutions, but shrinking the footprint might be one that's less bad than others. Like the retired electrician-turned-community gardner says:

I look at it like this: Something has to be done with this abandoned land. So, I think, [in] every transition there are going to be negatives, but look at the positives. This was a junk pile, now people are eating from it. I know there are complaints, but we [Flint] do not have the 230,000 people [anymore].
And it never will again.

12 July 2009

Reflections on Moving (again...)

I have moved a lot. I wasn't sure how much, exactly, so I counted how many (first column is #/ given calendar year):

1 - 1982, Fowler to Lafayette (with family)
2 - 1987, Lafayette (to Germany for the summer, then back home) to Milwaukee (Marquette)
3 - 1988, Milwaukee, home for the summer, back to Milwaukee
3 - 1989, Milwaukee, to Farleys in the suburbs, to first apt downtown
1 - 1990, to second apt downtown
1 - 1991, to third apt downtown
3 - 1992, Milwaukee to Regis campus to apartment in Downtown Denver
0 - 1993, Denver, no moves
3 - 1994, Denver to Tom and Liz's to Wrigleyville
3 - 1995, Wrigleyville to Wellington to Roger's Park
3 - 1996, Roger's Park to Monticello to Nagoya, Japan
2 - 1997, Nagoya to Issha
4 - 1998, Issha to Milwaukee (2) to Los Angeles
1 - 1999, Los Angeles to Long Beach
0 - 2000, Long Beach, no moves
4 - 2001, Long Beach to Milwaukee (2) to Honolulu to Manoa
0 - 2002, Manoa, no moves
1 - 2003, Manoa to Honolulu
0 - 2004, Honolulu, no moves
2 - 2005, Honolulu to Los Angeles (2)
0 - 2006, Los Angeles, no moves
0 - 2007, Los Angeles
1 - 2008, Los Angeles to San Diego
1 (and counting) - 2009, San Diego to NorCal

Yipes. When you write it down, it's really a lot. That's 39 times, and since I'm housesitting/ couch surfing this summer, that means at least 40 by the end of the year. 40 moves in 22 years. And this is the first move that I didn't choose to make, and maybe that's why it feels so different - but I'm getting ahead of myself.

When you move as much as I've moved, stuff can make you nervous, and even the most thoughtful, perfect gift will - not may, but will - at some point need to be wrapped in a dishtowel, or bubble wrap, or newspaper, and stuck in a box, and put in the trunk of a car, or on a truck bed, or in the back of a U-Haul, and moved.

I've moved by U-Haul, car, pickup truck, plane, taxi, and subway (and those last two modes I can't recommend). More often than not, I've moved in stages - some boxes here, some stuff in the car, some boxes there, lots and lots of stuff given away. For at least three of my moves, I distinctly remember standing in a mostly empty apartment and pretty much just losing it, saying "anything that's not now on the truck isn't going. Grab what you want."

I've given away a futon, chairs, a heavy wooden desk, a microwave, lamps, bookcases, CD's, clothes, wine glasses, maps, a coffee table, a surfboard, a bicycle, and lots and lots of books. I've purchased at least 5 ironing boards, including the one in my storage unit now in San Diego; I've had multiple sets of pots and pans, and dishes, and silverware; I've had more kitchen towels than I care to think about. Sometimes I will go look for something that I gave away two or three moves ago, and sometimes things turn up - mugs from a biergarten in Germany that I see in a friend's freezer door, a Holstein coaster turns up on another friend's home office, a picture frame is sitting on a former colleague's desk - but I don't ask for them back. I'm glad they are being used, and I'm sure as hell glad I don't have to move any of them again.

So this summer I moved again. I left an apartment I could afford in a city I enjoyed when I was transferred to a place I could have moved in the past - twice - and I've declined. Housing costs are nearly twice as much here in the Bay Area than San Diego, but my work load will nearly double, too, so at least there's some symmetry there.

I know, I've heard it all: "You can't really be whining about moving to Northern California, can you?!" and "You're going to love it here!" and "You'll wonder why you didn't live here before." Well, to which I can only say "Yes," "We'll see," and "unlikely."

Yes, my brother and his wife live here; yes, my awesome cousins and Uncle and Aunt live just over the hill in Santa Cruz and Monterey; yes, I have a lot of friends here, including some who I've known since 1987, and some who were good enough to put me up for the summer (while I look after their cats); yes, it's liberal and beautiful and civilized and "everybody loves it," I get it - but it's not home, and it's not where I want to be.

It's significant to know that SoCal IS home and IS where I wanna be, and I'm grateful for that. I thought I was done moving for a while, or done moving cities, anyway, and I thought that maybe San Diego was the solution for a year or two or five. But circumstances overtook me, as they have for millions, to much worse effect.

I can't control the transfer, or the crappy economy, or the consolidations in SoCal, so here I am in NorCal. Wasn't easy getting here, though. This was my worst move in years.

I didn't schedule a moving truck; my roommate did. I didn't get any boxes until my roommate lit a fire under my ass about it. I didn't start packing until I had to. I didn't schedule the walk through by the previous apartment managers until my roommate lit a fire under my ass about it. (Are you noticing a pattern?) I really didn't want to move. Not that I have wanted to move every other time I've had to do it. Friends can talk about arriving at my doorstep in Silverlake to help load the truck and finding a room that still needed to be boxed up, and housemates in Hawai'i can talk about me not getting things done until the last minute, but this was different.

Of course moving is inherently stressful - the logistics, uncertainty and expense are all demanding - and seeing all of your stuff in one spot, again, is deflating and humbling. We're taught to acquire stuff in this culture - perhaps more so as males, as a way of showing our success in the marketplace and thus the world? - and when you see all your stuff in a few boxes, well... it can give one pause. Of course stuff isn't a proxy for success, whatever that means, but it does take some deliberate reframing to feel good about a move under the best of circumstances, which this wasn't.

I've been telling myself all of this for months. I know I should feel more grateful - that I have a job in this economy; that I've been asked to move to a place I don't hate where I have loving family and friends; that Dianne and Barbara are still my two Senators; that I've landed on my feet despite the terrible economic conditions - and I'll get there, I will.

In the meantime, I am kind of hoping for a terrible fire to sweep through my storage unit in San Diego, in the middle of the night so no one would get hurt of course. I'd miss my bike, and some of my books and pictures, but there's nothing there I couldn't live without. Nothing.

And maybe that's the point I need to get to - that the difficulty of this move had nothing to do with stuff, or what I was going to keep, donate, or set back by the curb from whence it came. Maybe the point is that it's time to be home, and where my stuff is has nothing to do with that.