Posts Tagged ‘public life’


My friend Leslie called yesterday:  “I’m worried about Hillary’s health.”  I talked over her: “Jeez, don’t worry about it. It’s walking pneumonia. The rest is just right wing blather to make her look old and doddery and frail. They gave her a big-ass dose of antibiotics. She’ll be fine.”

Leslie pressed on:  “Well I mean, last year when I had pneumonia, I had to go to bed for two weeks. I would wake up in the morning and make breakfast for the kids, and then I had to go back to bed.” I snapped back: “Well, that’s not an option.”

Then I took a breath. Oh.  When Leslie said she was worried about Clinton’s health, she didn’t mean she was politically worried.  She meant she was worried about her as a person. She was worried about the fact that Hillary Clinton must feel horrible—weak, thirsty, feverish, ready to cough up a lung—and yet she has to get up before the sun, make speeches at the top of her voice, and embrace thousands of strangers like second cousins on Thanksgiving Day. That must suck. How is it even possible?

Right. Leslie was worried about Hillary in the way that compassion dictates—concern for your fellow human.

Well, that was unimpressive. That I blew right past the suffering of this poor, overstretched woman and went right to counting votes in North Carolina. Later, after the dinner dishes were washed, I snuck a peek at the news. The CNN headline: “Hillary Clinton Stumbles–Will Her Campaign Follow?” The Washington Post led with: “Hillary Clinton’s health just became a real issue in the presidential campaign.”

Let’s set aside for a moment the crassness of overshadowing the fifteenth anniversary of the nation-stopping tragedy of 9/11 with a breathless account of a respiratory illness and consider this: Just last week, the headlines were things like:  “Clinton Campaign Wants to Humanize Hillary” and “Hillary Clinton: Campaign Attempts to Humanize Her Again.” The worst of this batch came during the Democratic Convention: “Bill Clinton Praises His Wife’s Feminine Side.” Ok, ick. And from the New York Times no less.

But here’s a news flash for all of us—members of press and members of the public alike—humans live in bodies. Humans are bodies. There is nothing more humanizing than having a head cold. No matter how hard we struggle and argue that we “don’t have time to be sick,” we don’t have a choice. We shiver and sneeze and cough until the coronaviruses run their course and decide they are done with us.

These presidential campaigns are brutal. They are inhumane. They are—indeed—unhuman in some very fundamental and creepy way. And we hate them for it. We hate the poll-tested messages, the spin rooms, the inaccessibility and craven manipulation of the electorate. We hate the size, the scale. We hate the money and the advertising. We hate the glitz and the confetti and the phony carnival of the balloon drop.

And we should. Somehow, in the deep recesses of our cynical hearts, we do know that a government of the people, by the people, for the people requires actual people. And people come with all the inconvenient frailties of the mortal, animal bodies that we’re born into. That includes head colds and menstrual cramps and poor eyesight and foggy thinking when we’re exhausted.

Of course, we can’t talk about this without taking note of the skin-crawingly gendered nature this conversation. We love to use women’s bodies—in all their glorious humanness—to question and marginalize and cast doubt on the competence of their (our) minds.(I’m thinking about Hillary Clinton’s dash to the podium after using the ladies room in an otherwise all-male debate.)

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve watched enough West Wing to know that it’s a bad idea for presidential candidates to cover up major, chronic health issues. But Hillary Clinton’s pneumonia is a chance—among many—for us to take a breath and re-set. We say we want authentic candidates—and elected officials—who represent us and who understand what we’re going through out here in the provinces as we muddle through our days sleep-deprived and rumpled and plagued by head colds. That said, though, we have to grow up. We can’t have it all. We can’t have the perfectly polished, elegantly coiffed, gaffe-less candidate who is also authentic and empathetic and real.  Real is real. And sometimes real gets a nasty case of pneumonia.

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I am sure you are very nice person. But I think we must have neglected to fill you in on a little custom we practice here in Portland because you didn’t show any signs of knowing a thing about it when we met at the crosswalk this morning. The fact that our customs are unfamiliar and eccentric is as much our fault as yours as we obviously should have some kind of orientation for such things. But let me clear it up now: When we pass another human on the sidewalk here in Portland, we say “hello” or “hi” or “what’s up?” or at least give a nod of acknowledgment, one sentient being to another.


Of course all of us fall into a personal dream state now and again and fail to even see the person before us, but luckily we are snapped out of it when the other human says “hey” to us, giving us a chance to recover and offer the return greeting of our choice. There are also times where the protocol can be confusing, like when we are walking around the loop in the park and run across the same person three times. Then it’s hard to know whether to repeat the ritual each time we pass or just figure the “hi” we exchanged on the east side of the loop carries us all the way to the western edge where we meet again. And I think it’s probably fine to walk silently by somebody who is meditating on top of a picnic table or practicing qigong on the grass. I also personally avoid eye contact with couples who seem to be in a relationship-ending fight. And I get it, sometimes the pall of worry and despair can just be too great to shake off even for a moment. I also know that some personal or cultural trauma might make it just too hard to connect with a stranger in even the smallest of ways. But I will tell you this: The guys that have lived in the park for going on three seasons now, they are enthusiastic observers of this custom, offering a warm “good morning” or “God bless you” several times a day.

I don’t really say this to scold you, though your mother might be glad if I did. But I raise it because it’s become a kind of diagnostic for me to distinguish between newcomers and old timers here on the streets of Portland, and though there are Portland practices and customs that I am happy to see go, I think we should fight to keep this one alive. I’m in favor of tiny graces, of miniscule sparks of connection. Lord knows our days are hard enough, and a smile coupled with a friendly “hello” gives us a moment’s respite.

But even more than that, small greetings amongst strangers blow a little oxygen onto our civic flame. After all, sidewalks and streets and parks are quintessentially public spaces. They are not places for private envelopment or for purely individual purposes.  Sure, as we walk the sidewalks of our neighborhoods, each of us drags our personal biosphere of worry and private obsession and inner dialogue.  But meanwhile, we have a chance to encounter neighbors and fellow Portlanders and visitors and to acknowledge with a practically imperceptible nod that we are visible to one another and that we are all in this together.

These are the spaces where citizenship is practiced, with habits great and small. Of course, I don’t have any illusion that we are going to stop what we are doing and discuss the city budget or reach consensus on the presidential election, but even small gestures of hello are minute civic ceremonies that I don’t want to see go the way of daily newspapers and voting booths.

So next time you see the middle aged lady with the big white dog, let’s try it again.  Let’s look each other in the eye and say “hey.” Then we can put our headphones back in and go our separate ways.


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Dearly Beloved


I just got in from driving 250 miles. I cried for about 190 of them. I woke up in Pendleton, in Northeast, Oregon, worked out, did a little writing with the plan that I would leave late morning to drive to Bend—in Central, Oregon—where I’ll be on a panel tomorrow. Before I left, I saw a Tweet that said “Prince, 57, has died.” I prayed to Good God that it was a hoax like the one I fell for when everyone was saying Jon Bon Jovi had died (not that I have any real personal investment in Jon Bon Jovi beyond the fact that he is a fellow human and seems like a perfectly lovely person and the fact that my sister has a major long-term crush on him and I would feel really sad for her). But today, I was annoyed.  What kind of craven fool spreads rumors about Prince—or anyone else—for his own pleasure? (Never mind. Don’t answer that. We are in the hot middle of a presidential campaign.)

Soon it became too widely reported to deny, and when I started to drive, I turned my internet radio to “The Current,” a station in Minneapolis I had never heard of but was playing Prince albums in chronological order interspersed with call-in remembrances. I got about halfway through Purple Rain before I was deep into Sherman County and out of cell range.  Despite the fact that I was born and raised in Oregon, I have never driven Highway 97 from Biggs Junction to Bend. It must be among the epic roads of the West. It goes from the drama of the Columbia River Gorge through the wheat fields of Sherman County—fully peppered with tremendous white windmills—to the distant views of the Cascades to the high desert of Central Oregon. As I drove, it was like the middle of that wide map of Oregon suddenly became vivid and topographical. It made me feel I am a bit of an imposter in my own state. How could it be that I smugly label myself “Oregonian” when I hadn’t even driven that highway at 70 miles an hour—let alone stopped and breathed it in—until today?

After I lost connection with my radio friends in Minneapolis, I started flipping through AM stations hoping to find someone somewhere in middle Oregon who wanted to play Prince and keep me company in my grief. Mostly I found pop country and some very friendly sounding preachers, but no Prince.

What in the world has gotten into me? Because I am a woman of a certain age, these things have happened.  Lennon, Jackson, Bowie. But this hit me right in the center of the body, and I could not stop myself from bawling—alone in a car—for about four hours.

Truth is: I am not a joyful person. From the time I was a tiny child, I spent my emotional energy worrying and fretting over whether I was doing the right thing (I recently found a note from my kindergarten teacher to my mother—Maybe if you dressed Wendy in pants more often she would be less nervous.).

I spent middle school and high school and most of college making myself half-sick over all manner of things, some important, some just insecure and self-indulgent. What if Russia launches the bomb first? Was I rude to Mr. McMahon when he said he lost my social studies paper? Did my friends decide they hated me while I was home sick with mono? Is it wrong to drop Calc III because it makes me feel like I am about to have a seizure? What is my responsibility for American imperialism in Central America? Why was I so weak as to eat that muffin?

I was never one of those girls who commanded a room with wittiness or rippled confidence in my body. I was too tall too soon and fussy and introverted and easily annoyed. I was—and am—serious and apocalyptic. But I am also warm blooded. I want to be near my fellow mammals and to take part in celebration and debauchery and unhinged joy. And that’s what Prince offered me.

I will never forget days and nights of those fraught middle years when—for a moment, or a few hours, or the length of an album—I could set down my backpack of rocks and dance and laugh and rattle my hips to suggest more than I was willing to follow through on. And Prince—more than any other artist—offered that up to me and I suspect millions of other awkward, serious girls of my generation. There was just something about the bikini underwear and thigh high boots combined with relentless percussion and morbid shyness that said: you are welcome here.

So today, as I drove relentless miles across the state I love, I fell fully into grief. I grieved for a singular artist who is gone too soon.  In ways it never has before, 57 seems like the prime of life. But I also grieved for the loss of those few years—those few hours all told—when Prince invited me to the party, and I accepted the invitation.

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I am a baby of the first order. I can’t watch violent movies. I am repelled by songs that are woman-hating and threatening. In fact, we had to walk out of Slumdog Millionaire because I couldn’t handle the first few scenes. Once I get those images—or lyrics—into my head, I can’t get them out. It’s as if they become part of my makeup, and Robocop and RiFF RAFF are not what I want to be made up of.

Our pediatrician once suggested that I read a book called The Highly Sensitive Child for some help in raising my daughters. After I read it, I thought “My daughter probably isn’t a highly sensitive child, but I’m pretty sure I am.” As a result, I have developed a habit of protecting myself. If content gets too intense, I turn away. I shut it off. I excise it from my consciousness.

This is a week where I have sorely wanted to do that – to just turn it off. Along with the rest of America, we spent Monday evening anxiously awaiting the outcome of the Ferguson grand jury, knowing that no matter what happened, it would partially define us as a country. We listened to the tortured nine-minute statement by County Attorney Robert McCullough as he indicted everyone—the media, the public, Michael Brown—except the officer who shot and killed an unarmed teenager.

I took a big deep breath, and then I turned it off. I spent the rest of the night heart-sick and worried, but relatively cut off from the rest of the world. Tuesday, though, we were barraged with images and evidence and testimonials. We were inundated with outrage on one hand and celebration on the other. It seemed as if the whole nation took to Twitter and Facebook, and the collective impact was overwhelming. It was—bar none—the worst Facebook day I have ever had, and boy did I want to shut it off.

But I decided I could not. That it would be irresponsible and inhumane to turn away from what my neighbors were telling me. Young black men were pouring out their fear of walking down the street in their own neighborhoods. African American moms were sharing their anguish at having to warn their sons about the life-threatening possibilities of an encounter with the police. And you know what? Friends and family members were also spewing racial vitriol, calling Michael Brown a thug, and celebrating the failure to indict. I needed to see that with clear eyes, too.

And it doesn’t stop at Ferguson either. I can’t turn my face from the gang-rape of an 18-year-old freshman at the University of Virginia. Or the suffering of Peter Lanza, the father of the Sandyhook shooter, who decided he was ready to tell his story to the New Yorker.  I can’t ignore actress Diane Guerrero whose parents were whisked away by immigration officers while she was at school, leaving her to fend for herself at 14 years old.

In all this, I am reminded of Garrett Hongo’s masterful and heartbreaking poem about a shooting he saw callously reported on television. Here it is in full:

The Legend

 In memory of Jay Kashiwamura

In Chicago, it is snowing softly

and a man has just done his wash for the week.

He steps into the twilight of early evening,

carrying a wrinkled shopping bag

full of neatly folded clothes,

and, for a moment, enjoys

the feel of warm laundry and crinkled paper,

flannellike against his gloveless hands.

There’s a Rembrandt glow on his face,

a triangle of orange in the hollow of his cheek

as a last flash of sunset

blazes the storefronts and lit windows of the street.


He is Asian, Thai or Vietnamese,

and very skinny, dressed as one of the poor

in rumpled suit pants and a plaid mackinaw,

dingy and too large.

He negotiates the slick of ice

on the sidewalk by his car,

opens the Fairlane’s back door,

leans to place the laundry in,

and turns, for an instant,

toward the flurry of footsteps

and cries of pedestrians

as a boy–that’s all he was–

backs from the corner package store

shooting a pistol, firing it,

once, at the dumbfounded man

who falls forward,

grabbing at his chest.


A few sounds escape from his mouth,

a babbling no one understands

as people surround him

bewildered at his speech.

The noises he makes are nothing to them.

The boy has gone, lost

in the light array of foot traffic

dappling the snow with fresh prints.


Tonight, I read about Descartes’

grand courage to doubt everything

except his own miraculous existence

and I feel so distinct

from the wounded man lying on the concrete

I am ashamed


Let the night sky cover him as he dies.

Let the weaver girl cross the bridge of heaven

and take up his cold hands.


No. I can’t hide behind the preciousness of sensitivity, though I want to mightily. As Hongo says—I feel so distinct, and I am ashamed. These stories of anguish and suffering are the stories of my neighbors, yes. And I am obligated to really hear what it is they have to tell. But they are also stories of my country and my culture, they are the stories that I help create—over and over—by turning a blind eye and refusing to examine the rot in the systems we perpetuate and submit ourselves and our children to. Even as I write this, I feel sick to my stomach. I know these are stories I have taken into my body and that they have become part of my DNA. But the thing is, they were already there. I am already implicated in the shooting of unarmed children and gang rape and the isolation of mental illness. And it is my responsibility to keep my eyes clear and my heart open. That’s the least I can do.

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I have borne witness to an awful lot of handwringing lately.  Handwringing about the fighting in Gaza and the fact that a mob of Russian separatists can lay their mitts on enough firepower to shoot a commercial airliner out of the sky and about the fact that it is a good 10 degrees warmer here than usual (fossil fuels, hello) and about an Ebola outbreak moving faster than the speed of human intervention and about the fact that the world—the entire world—cannot seem to rescue nearly 200 beautiful school girls from a band of thugs.  And those are just the things I am handwringing—and lamenting and praying—about every day.  But the handwringing I am actually puzzled by is the handwringing about, yes, potato salad.

Over the past year, I have had the chance to learn a good deal about crowdfunding.  In fact I love crowdfunding.  I think it is an opportunity for us—the citizens (and by that I don’t mean citizens who are anointed by legal status but citizens inducted by heart and soul and action)—to say “Yes, in my back yard.  Please.” It is a chance for us to express preferences and push creative projects.  It is an amazing thing how $5 means a lot more to the powers-that-be than a signature on a petition.

But for the last few weeks, there has been drama in the crowdfunding world. In case you haven’t heard, a crazy character named Zack Danger Brown from Columbus, Ohio, persuaded nearly 7,000 citizens of the internet to give him $55,492 to make potato salad.  He was asking for $10.  (Favorite fact:  His middle name is Danger. Seriously.)  But in the civic crowdfunding world, this kicked off a whole lot of the aforementioned hand-wringing– “How can someone raise $55,000 for potato salad when there are [suffering children, homeless dogs, under-appreciated marmots].  Few of the campaigns to address these injustices raise anywhere near $55,000.  What is wrong with people?  Seriously, potato salad? Think of the children, the dogs, the marmots!” It is a symbol of all that is wrong with America.

Of course, they’re right.  But truth be told I find myself loving Zack and his potato salad, even if I’m afraid to say it in hand-wringing company.  Yes, I love the campaign for its pitch-perfect irony.  (“Will it change the world?” Head nod. “Probably.”) And I love it because it makes fun of Kickstarter and its rewards and its ducktailed hipsterness. And who doesn’t love that?

But really that’s more like a crush.  I love it because it invites us to something real, to something human.  I love it because its basic impulse is one of simplicity and nostalgia. It invokes grandmothers and church potlucks and bacon bits.  It is, as I keep telling people, a subversion of modernity.  It is the human hand versus the machine, recalling the central anxiety of the industrial and post-industrial age.

But I also think it runs deeper than that.  At the end of the day, even with all our crowd-funded empowerment, we suspect we can’t do a thing about neighbors bombing the living daylights out of each other or the suffering of children and animals. We fear it’s too late for the planet and for the cherished girls in the Nigerian forest.  We fear Ebola could wipe out entire continents while we watch in horror.

But we are pretty certain we can make potato salad.  Or at least that Zack Danger Brown can.  Or that he can try to make it with a huge smile on his face, and he can invite us to join in. We find solace in the fact that we can sustain one another with picnic food and laughter.  We are comforted by the simplicity, the ease, the hospitality.  We are relieved that we still locate sources of pleasure and generosity.  So, it is for those reasons that I love Zack Danger Brown, and it is for those reasons I can actually pause—for a moment—and stop wringing my hands.


p.s. – But here’s another confession: I loathe mayonnaise potato salad. I prefer a vinaigrette. My family, not that into potato salad either way.  But they’ll tolerate it once a year in honor of the birth of the nation. So here’s the recipe for my Independence Day Potato Salad:


Independence Day Potato Salad



1 sweet onion

4 cloves of garlic

2 small handfuls of tender green beans

8-10 new potatoes

a generous scoop of cherry tomatoes

½ cup of olive oil

Juice of 1 lemon

¼ cup of balsamic vinegar

Basil, oregano, salt & pepper to taste



Bring a big pot of salted water to a boil

Dice potatoes and boil until soft

Meanwhile, snip green beans and blanch for 2 minutes

In a splash of olive oil, cook onions until clear and soft

Add garlic and beans to onions;; sautee until gold but not brown

Drain potatoes and add to garlic/onion/bean mixture

Make vinaigrette with remaining olive oil, lemon, vinegar, and spices

Toss all ingredients in a bowl with fresh cherry tomatoes

Serve chilled or at room temperature


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On Memorials

Oregon's Blanch Osborn

Oregon’s Blanch Osborn

Over the past few months, I’ve had the opportunity to work with a group of incredible volunteers here in Oregon who are working to build a memorial to honor veterans of World War II who served both at home and overseas. Shockingly, Oregon doesn’t have a World War II memorial even though 150,000 Oregonians served in the military and countless others contributed to the war effort by working in factories and shipyards, by planting victory gardens, by making good use of every last scrap.  In fact when you think about it, it would be hard to be a citizen of this country—or any country really—and not have some connection to World War II.  So, it is odd that Oregon has never built a memorial to honor those who served.

I have been really happy to work on the project for a bunch of reasons—it has statewide importance, it recognizes selfless sacrifice, it’s about time.  But temperamentally, I feel edgy about the possibility of glorifying war, and I’m not even that into memorials.  I mean, I’ve visited them.  I think they’re a good idea generally, but I just haven’t thought that much about what memorials mean to a community, to a country.

One thing that softened me to the potential for memorials is Yusef Komunyakaa’s heart-ripping poem “Facing It” that exquisitely captures a visit—a pilgrimage?—to the Vietnam yusef komunyakaaMemorial in Washington D.C.   Komunyakaa, who earned a Bronze Star for his service in Vietnam, reminds us that wars don’t really end and ennobles the whole idea of creating a place to remember what was sacrificed and what was lost.  He doesn’t flinch from injustice or death or fear.  And yet, in the end, there is a mother brushing her boy’s hair.  Here is the poem in entirety:

“Facing It”

My black face fades,   

hiding inside the black granite.   

I said I wouldn’t  

dammit: No tears.   

I’m stone. I’m flesh.   

My clouded reflection eyes me   

like a bird of prey, the profile of night   

slanted against morning. I turn   

this way—the stone lets me go.   

I turn that way—I’m inside   

the Vietnam Veterans Memorial 

again, depending on the light   

to make a difference.   

I go down the 58,022 names 

half-expecting to find   

my own in letters like smoke.   

I touch the name Andrew Johnson; 

I see the booby trap’s white flash.   

Names shimmer on a woman’s blouse   

but when she walks away   

the names stay on the wall.   

Brushstrokes flash, a red bird’s   

wings cutting across my stare.   

The sky. A plane in the sky.   

A white vet’s image floats   

closer to me, then his pale eyes   

look through mine. I’m a window.   

He’s lost his right arm   

inside the stone. In the black mirror   

a woman’s trying to erase names:   

No, she’s brushing a boy’s hair.   


Right, right.  Thank you for the reminder, Yusef Komunyakaa.  It is our hearts’ work to remember, to truth tell, to not look away.  And after having played a small part in this project for the past few months, I actually feel the commitment to that work in a whole new way.  Or maybe I feel it rather than just understand it. 

Over the past few months, I’ve heard stories of people who enlisted at 16 years old to fight for their country.  I’ve heard stories of life at Vanport, where shipyard workers from all over America came together to build the mighty Liberty ships.  And then the stories of the African American workers who lost everything when the dyke broke and Vanport flooded.  I have heard stories of women making guitars and munitions and men leaving their farms never to return.  I have also heard the stories of Americans—Japanese Americans—who were ripped from their homes and sent to internment camps by their own government.  Yet, they signed up anyway and served their country with distinction in all branches of the service.

I’ve had the chance to hear those stories because I worked on this project, and I cherish them.  But now I want to make sure we don’t lose them.  I want to make sure that my daughters and their daughters and the daughters that follow hear these stories.  And I want them to be inspired, to believe that we can work together for a common purpose when we need to, when history calls on us. I want them to ask: what can I do?

So I guess that’s it.  I’m still not that into war.  But I’ve changed my position on memorials.  I am into them.  I think they’re important and beautiful and heart-wrenching.  I think they’re a hearth we can gather around to remember the past and inspire the future.  And I’m going to work shoulder to shoulder with all these other Oregonians to make sure this memorial gets built, so we can say: We did it together.

Check it out.  Give what you can over at Indiegogo.  Tell your friends.




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President Lincoln's Cottage at Soldiers Home

President Lincoln’s Cottage at Soldiers Home

I spent the first part of the week in a class-A stew.  Congress can’t pass a budget.  Everyone’s blaming everybody else.  House members are yelling at hapless park rangers for enforcing the shut-down that the members themselves precipitated.  To top it off, my state’s paper of record stopped daily delivery, laid off 35 reporters, and then spent the week talking about record growth in advertising.

I told everyone who would listen that democracy is going to hell in a handbasket, that the institutions we rely on to govern ourselves are collapsing under their own weight, that the end is neigh. And I can still make a pretty persuasive case in favor of that dark and despotic future.

But it was another kind of week as well.  Under the headlines of shutdowns and name-calling and the careening fourth estate, other things were also happening. Extraordinary things.  I spent the morning at the National Press Club, where we unveiled a new organization–Voice of the People—which launched its campaign to create a Citizen Cabinet.  Without going into all the details, the theory is that we have to get more informed citizen voices up on Capitol Hill.  The American people are pretty smart, and they have a lot to offer.  Maybe it would be a good idea for members of Congress to have a better way to listen to them.

And to top it off, an incredible team of citizens, volunteers, and staff are celebrating the success of Oregon’s first major civic crowdfunding project.  Today, we surpassed the $100,000 goal for Build Gateway Green.  Gateway Green is unused parcel  of land between two freeways in East Portland.  Two incredibly visionary Portlanders imagined it could be repurposed—recycled (excuse the pun)—into a world-class bike park with amenities for everyone, cyclist or not.  After eight years of labor and love, they brought it to us, and we gave crowdfunding a whirl.  And, it worked!  Nearly 700 people have given so far, and it has been one of the most inspiring teams I have ever worked with.

It just goes to show you that regular citizens not involved in a power struggle can bring real change to the public sphere and can keep doing good even while top-drawer politicians can’t figure it out.  But, there’s more too.  David and three other friends published books this week, keeping faith with the impossible—that humans have something to say to each other and that we can teach each other stuff.  That we can step into the experience of others and become more whole.

David’s book, Charming Gardeners—if I may brag for a moment—is full of civic sensibility and wisdom.  There are outright political poems like “To Buckley from Berkeley”:

“Dear Bill—

Maybe you’d like the first hundred names

From the New York City phone book to run the government,

But I’d prefer the names came from out here in the West

Among the bare-assed and tan and with a bitchin’ view of the Bay”


Or “To Conda from Anaconda”:

“That’s America, too,

Eight miles from the Continental Divide

Where no one leaves for work

And everyone returns to bed,

And not God or animal, man or child

Knows what to do about it.

What would you do with your theories

Composed by Jack Kemp?”

But, there are also quieter poems that take into account the sweep and fragility and perils of the Republic, of the whole enterprise of self-governance.  My personal favorite is “To C.D. from D.C.”  You really should read the whole poem, but here is one of its must heart-ripping bits:

“Can you imagine the Great Emancipator

Standing on his back porch among the dead

As he listened to the diggers graveling the graves,

Chipping the soil, lifting in the bodies,

From Rochester and Groton and Poolesville

And King of Prussia, lifting in the bodies

With the steam rising from their skins

Into the insect-mating womb of the light

Around the city, the utterly still bodies


It’s hard for me not to cry, even as I type that.  Because of the detail, yes.  But also because of the deep awareness of the sacrifice of those who came before  us who struggled to protect this crazy nation that we keep abusing.  And, yet, yet.  We’re still here.  So even as members of Congress hurl insults across the Rotunda and push each other down to cast blame before the cameras, I guess it behooves us to remember, we are a resilient people.  A foolish one, for sure.  But resilient and wise and hardy.  So, while I still want to knock some Congressional heads and carry a picket sign outside the soon-to-be-empty headquarters of the Oregonian, I am buoyed by being in such great company.  In the company of believers and dreamers and poets.  And we’re the Republic too.  So I think we might be OK.

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The Carnival Breeze

I just returned from an eight-day Caribbean cruise with my family.  And when I say my family, I mean my whole family. David and I had the great pleasure of traveling with my parents, our three kids, my sister, and my niece and nephew to celebrate my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary.  My mom and dad had been planning the trip for years, and it was an amazing time to be there together, relaxing and celebrating.

That is not to say I didn’t have my fears and trepidations. I am a horrible swimmer and—truth be told—am basically afraid of water.  A psychic once told me it was because I had drowned in three previous lives.  And all I can say is that I don’t want to go that way in a fourth.  Also, I am an over-protective mother and get wildly anxious when I don’t know where everyone is at all times.  Plus I am super-sensitive to loud music and over- stimulation.  It makes me grumpy. Sometimes really grumpy.  All in all, maybe I was not the ideal candidate for a cruise.

But I adore my family and I am so proud of my parents, so two Fridays ago, I boarded the gigantic Carnival Breeze in Miami.  And believe me,  I mean really gigantic.  The Breeze has a half-mile promenade and weighs 128,500 gross tons.  It sleeps 3,690 passengers and 1,386 crew members.  That’s 5,076 strangers cooped up in a ship for 8 days, all determined to have the vacation of a lifetime.  Or—in the crew’s case—to cater to the every whim of nearly 4,000 “cruisers” who are determined to have the vacation of a lifetime.

But what could have been a nightmare of close-quarters and crabby, self-centered petulance turned out to be an inspirational demonstration of self-governance.  Given what flying is like in 2013, I expected sailing to be equally rife with rules, regulations, policies, enforcement codes, along with a finger-wagging purser making sure that people’s seat belts are fastened and that – God forbid– no one gets in the wrong line or takes a drink outside of a pre-marked, Coast Guard-approved area.

But it wasn’t like that at all.  In fact, there seemed to be very few rules and even fewer crew members who relished in their enforcement.  It was basically:  don’t light anything on fire, don’t run on slippery decks, and make sure you know where to go in the case of an abandon-ship-order.  Other than that, folks were left to make good decisions on their own.

And here’s the thing—it worked beautifully.  I rarely heard cross words amongst strangers.  (Families—on the other hand—well, that’s another matter).  People introduced themselves in the elevator, opened doors for one another, smiled and waved as they passed.  They checked in with kids who seemed to be on their own and shared drinks with strangers.  It was stunning really.

I did come off the ship thinking that Carnival must be the most disciplined company in the world.  To a person, the crew was friendly, helpful, and gracious.  Butch Begovich–the Breeze’s cruise director—is a force of nature.  But not in the creepy way you might imagine.  Now, he does do a mean version of Gangnam Style and hosts everything from a board-game based game show to an updated version of the newlywed game.  But despite all the trappings, Butch and the entire staff virtually brimmed over with kindness and generosity.  Every time Butch addressed the assembled masses—in person or over the loud speaker—he referred to us as “the Carnival Breeze family.”

And in that environment, people rose to the occasion.  They didn’t snap at each other or rush to go first.  They didn’t push in line or make loud demands.  They didn’t bark at the crew.  They just had a good time and tried not to interfere with anyone else having a good time.

Of course, maybe that’s just it. Maybe it is that no one is in a hurry, everyone’s in a good mood. There’s nothing to do except relax, so of course people were on their best behavior.

But, let’s be honest.  It’s not always like that, is it?  In fact, sometimes the pressure to maximize pleasure actually brings out the worst in people.  It makes them more—rather than less—willing to trample on other people’s feelings in order to get what they want.  So, I don’t think it was just the vacation factor.

I think some of it was the tremendous generosity of the crew.  It would be hard to be nasty in the face of such goodness.  But I also think some of it is the trust that Carnival put in its own passengers, crew, and guests. They didn’t impose millions of rules and subrules and enforcement strategies. They just set a standard of kindness, led by example, and expected people to rise to the occasion.  And they did.

Of all things, a cruise ship carrying 5,076 souls around the Eastern Caribbean gave me new hope for our ability to govern ourselves.  It gave me hope that we can give and receive kindness freely and that we can live in close quarters with strangers. It inspired me to think maybe we should relax the rules just a tiny bit, share a pina colada with a person we would never ordinarily speak to, and trust in each other’s essential goodwill and impulse toward kindness.

Hey, what do you think? Maybe we can pitch in and send the House of Representatives out for a spin on the Breeze. . .

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Are you Listening?



I’ve been fighting with my friends a lot lately.  And my family members.  And, well, my husband, too.  The subject of the fights is the surveillance of Americans by their own government.  The basic fight goes something like this. . .

Me:  “This is not ok.  The government should not be indiscriminately—and secretly—spying on hapless Americans.”

The friends:  “Seriously, what difference does it make?  Google and Facebook already know everything about us.  There is no privacy anymore.”

Me: “Well, that’s a problem too.  And there are things we can do about that, like say, regulation.  But, there is qualitative difference when the government—who can arrest and prosecute you—gets into the act.”

Friends:  “But I trust the government a lot more than I trust Verizon. Besides, I don’t have anything to hide.”

And on and on like this . . .

Honestly, this is an argument that pre-dates the Republic.  In 1755, Benjamin Franklin famously wrote: “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”  And the balance between freedom and security is central to the Bill of Rights and to the pursuit of criminal justice in this country.  But, the argument goes, the digital age has ushered in a brave new world.  Citizens—myself included—announce our breakfast preferences, our vacation schedules, and the condition of our marriages to anyone who happens to be listening, NSA or not.  On television, we watch “real people” argue with roommates, wrestle alligators, and cook blowfish at all hours of day and night.  I get it.  So why should I—who  have porous boundaries between the private and the public—really care if Barack Obama or Dick Cheney or Vladimir Putin is paying attention.  Why should I have the right to anything to say about it?

Of course, in response, we can toss around names like Brandon Mayfield—a suburban lawyer who was hauled into jail and wrongfully accused of the Madrid train bombing—and poor Richard Jewell, who was accused of bombing the Atlanta Olympic village after he reported a suspicious package to the police. And how about Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, who spent 19 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit?

In other words, the government has a lot of power and a track record of not always using it wisely.  So our shield of “I don’t have anything to hide” might not protect us from the potentially life-destroying threat of arrest and prosecution.

And umm, writers and artists,  listen up.  In 2012, PEN International reported that 878 writers were arrested by their governments and either detained, imprisoned or killed.  Yes, last year 45 writers were killed and 9 were “disappeared.” Need I mention Osip Maldestam, who was arrested and sent to Siberia for privately reading an unflattering poem about Stalin (“His thick fingers are bulky and fat like live-baits/And his accurate words are as heavy as weights./Cucaracha’s moustaches are screaming,/And his boot-tops are shining and gleaming”) or Ai Weiwei, the Chinese sculptor and filmmaker who was arrested and still lives under a travel ban.  Hey artists and writers and journalists, shouldn’t we all just be a little more careful before we toss our lot in with those who can suppress, arrest, and execute?

So for all those reasons, I believe to my core that we need to be more vigilant about guarding our privacy and our liberty from a potentially capricious government.  But, truth be told, I personally don’t feel particularly threatened by Barack Obama and Keith Alexander.  I find it unlikely that they have time to prosecute middle-aged poets who write mostly about baking pies, raising daughters, and an overwrought preoccupation with Thomas Jefferson.  But, I still don’t like it.  Even though I announce to the world what is growing in my garden and the score of the Portland Timbers’ games, I don’t want the government creeping into my kitchen and keeping watch over my domestic life, as uninteresting as it might be.  This morning, I ran across a poem by Barbara Kingsolver called “On the Morning I Discovered my Phone Was Tapped.” According to the notes, it was written in response to an FBI investigation in the early 1980s that targeted 300 American human rights organizations “alleging links with international terrorism.”  The poem, referring to the phone, says:


“I counted every time in a month

it had touched my mouth:

to talk to my mother, my sister

the doctor who knows my uterus,

a friend with cancer,

the man whose hands

touch me when I sleep.”


And this:


“If I am to live in a house where even my skull

has windows, and men probe

the soft parts of my brain for potential crimes,

I would rather give my secrets

Than have them stolen.”


In the thirty years since that FBI surveillance operation, the windows in our skulls have become barn doors, haven’t they?  But I don’t think that’s a reason to let the FBI or the NSA or the State Police come right in without knocking.  No, in fact just the opposite.  I think the thing that bothers me the most about the NSA program and the arguments surrounding  it is that we have so little privacy left that we had better hang on to it for dear life.  The space where we can argue and grieve and be silly and imperfect and romantic and goofy and joyous and ugly and graceful is so small.  It is the pool of light in a kitchen, the length of a phone call with a best friend, the size of a ribald text a wife sends to her husband.  While we put a half-private face out into the public space, each one of us guards and protects an ember—however small—of an intimate interior life that is none of the government’s business. Facebook or no Facebook.  So, I guess that’s what I’m trying to save.  That’s why I’m arguing with my friends and my family and my husband.  Whether the NSA is listening or not.

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The Honorable Tammy Duckworth

The Honorable Tammy Duckworth

Yesterday, I flew across the country for the first time in—what for me has been—a long time.  The last three years have been a travel marathon, but since I was called home for a family emergency two and half months ago, I’ve stayed close to the nest.  And gladly so.  But, recently things have evened out, so I took the plunge.  I decided to come to Washington, D.C, for 48 hours to attend a conference where I knew I would see friends and mentors and provocateurs.  Plus, I would get the chance to present some exciting preliminary research with some of my very favorite compagnons d’armes.  All good.

But, despite my travel hiatus and tremendous gratitude for peace and well-being at home, I still fly like I fly.  I am fundamentally—very fundamentally—an introvert.  For a four-hour flight, I pull out six times the reading material that Howard Berg—the epic speed reader—could skim in a week.  I hypnotize myself into an anxiety-sick sleep during takeoff and then bury myself in books, magazines and work until I stand up at the arrival gate.   Essentially, I tuck myself under Frodo’s cloak of invisibility and pray that I don’t get stuck in inextricable small talk.

Of course, there are times when my best efforts don’t work.  There was the middle-aged woman whose cat mewed incessantly until I let him curl up in my lap and the elderly Welsh grandmother who was going “home” for the first time in 40 years.  There have been long flights full of boorish, drunken business travelers and anxious mothers with whom I have cried and swapped stories.  But mostly not.  Mostly, I hunker down and people leave me alone.  And I, them.

Yesterday, between Portland and Chicago, I  finished reading Barbara Brown Taylor’s An Altar in the World.   I admired it for its unflinching tightrope walk between faith and doubt, I cried when Taylor described her husband kneeling to seek her father’s blessing in the last hours of his life.  But, more than any of that, I was moved by her idea that it is our right—and obligation—to bless that which appears before us, by her stance that none of us is too unholy to raise up the broken world.

It was under that spell that I ran across the Chicago airport and boarded my ORD – DCA flight at the last minute. I rushed on to the plane to find myself assigned a middle seat, and –naturally—my seat mates were already on settled in, seat belts fastened, final sections of the Times  spread wide.  I apologized profusely, made myself tiny, pulled out two books of essays, a new book of poetry, a magazine, and my laptop so that I could power it up as soon as the little bell chimed.  The man sitting on the aisle was about my father’s age—bird-boned, wire-spectacled, professor emeritusish.

The woman next to the window was younger, roughly my age, wearing combat fatigues, hair pulled back in a short ponytail.  Hi, hi,  I mumbled.  The professor emeritus and I fell asleep during takeoff, but I roused myself to make sure I got my Diet Coke before I turned to my insane to-do list.

I made a little small talk with the woman in the fatigues.  She was reading Time magazine.  The steward stopped by and said:  Thank you for your service, young lady.   She smiled back and replied, Thank you.  I kept my head down but made a little small talk with her about the turbulence and the flight delay.  I kept wanting to say thank you to her, too, but I was too shy, and I wasn’t even sure I agreed with unexamined gratitude to those in uniform.  Because while there is much to be grateful for, there are also things to question in a free society.  But I did practice what I had read about in the first leg of my flight—I practiced silent gratitude and the blessing of strangers.   Inside, I awkwardly prayed for the dapper professor and the lovely young soldier. Outside, I smiled and murmured inanely as we lurched toward the nation’s Capitol.

Just as we were descending into Washington, a man across the aisle leaned over and said Tammy, are your bags in the overhead? He was wearing a Congressional pin.  And, while I did not recognize him and still do not know who he was, I suddenly recognized her.  The woman sitting next to me was Tammy Duckworth,  the freshman Congresswoman from Illinois- 8, the Army Lieutenant Colonel who lost both legs in a helicopter crash in Iraq, the brave candidate who won her seat after defeating an incumbent who accused her of “politicizing” her service , her bravery, and her sacrifice.  Yes, that Tammy Duckworth.   The Lieutenant Colonel Duckworth to whom I do owe a tremendous debt of gratitude for her service as a brave warrior, as a trailblazer for women, as a fearless candidate, as a member of Congress.

And yet, yet.  I was still me.  I didn’t thank her.  I didn’t even acknowledge I knew who she was, what she sacrificed, what she means to me and my daughters.  I kept my head down, immersed in my tangled silent prayers and awkward self-consciousness.  All I could manage as I packed up my stack of books and papers was a stilted, Have a good week.

But thankfully, writers have do-overs.  Here, I can say this: I have thought of you, Congresswoman Duckworth, many times since yesterday.  I admire your bravery, your risk-taking, your strength.  I am indebted to the country we both love, and I am inspired.   I am inspired to utter my gratitude and my blessings aloud.  I am inspired to look up from my book next time, clear my shaky voice, and say:  Ladda Tammy Duckworth—and all those like you—thank you for your service.

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