Jan. 18th, ’10: CRESCENT CITY
Alicia and I hit the road the weekend of Jan 15th. Just outside Crescent City we stopped to check out the Redwood Hostel. I noted a print on the wall describing the logging industry in the area. And Ryan the desk clerk was kind enough to read me his children’s book.
We also had some interesting conversations with some of the guests about politics, good practice for the trip. I got into a heated discussion with a Vietnam war veteran about the rationality of pursuing a war with yet another noun, this time the ephemeral threat of “terror.” I talked to a young guy from the east coast who was on his way to work on a 200 acre organic farm outside Davis. And I watched a group of visitors play a galaxy-themed monopoly game like they were extended family, complete with threats to quit because no one ever really finishes a full game of monopoly.
An interesting conversation ensued between the adults about Crescent City. Apparently some of them had driven through the town and described it like a ghost town. They talked about how it might be due to poor planning and the aftermath of a devastating flood in the 60’s. I had a suspicion that there was more to the story, that it had something to do with the boom and bust of the logging industry. Before everyone retired for the night, Ryan offered the group office supplies from the hostel. They were being shut down after Sunday, the building needed retrofitting and there was a lack of funding. A couple teachers in the group clamored over sticky notes, apparently these are hot commodities when you have to pay for extra classroom supplies out of your pocket.
We went to sleep that Sunday night excited about our adventure. I had a lead on an author who’s book I had just read and hoped to interview. Plus, I already had some clues to what was going on in Crescent City. We definitely wouldn’t do any one city justice in a day, but patterns should emerge over the course of the trip. And Monday was the beginning of the story.
Our day began at the Good Harvest Cafe, a restaurant across from a harbor with exposed wood and Indian art adorning the walls. We did our best “young intrepid reporter” impersonations with laptops set up between coffee cups and Eggs Florentine. But where was the story? What was Crescent City all about?
I began by delegating a couple tasks to Alicia: while she researched local politicians and places of interest, I would catch up on the local news. There was a write-up about a local hero: a mixed martial arts fighter managed by a guy who owned a local cannabis club. That sounded interesting. I found out that there are 3 medical marijuana collectives in Del Norte county. There were also a couple insightful quotes by the county law enforcement.
But the weed story seemed too easy. Alicia sent me an email overflowing with good information: city hall contacts, real estate highs and lows, schools, churches, and local artists. Plus, there was a supermax state prison just outside town. It could have filled a week’s itinerary and was more than enough to get us started. We decided to hit up the artists first and try to end up at the prison before nightfall.
The first stop was a warehouse surrounded by amazing wooden sculptures. For a first interview, it didn’t go too bad. Marshall was really accommodating and had an interesting story. The sound was bad, the conversation rambling, but someone wanted to talk to us!
He gave us insight on simpler times, when it was a “one stoplight town” and he had just come here to help build cement breakers at the mouth of the bay. He said that he had stayed for the quality of life, but admitted that lately it had been tough. If you can hear in the video, he talks about how years ago he sold more art with half the inventory. He was planning on retiring but a potential buyer was having problems securing financing.
Alicia and I thanked him for his time and poked around the store. Maybe if the book idea takes off we’ll be hauling off one of these life-size redwood grizzly bears to a loft in San Francisco someday. It was already getting into the afternoon, but we felt proud enough to pat ourselves on the back: Alicia was officially a Videographer, and I was officially a Reporter/Candidate/Organizer…whatever it was I was doing I had just done it.
Our next lead was a coffee shop slash bookstore named “The Bookcomber.” Alicia and I poked around the store and finally purchased a songbook by Ray LaMontagne before we had enough courage to ask for an interview. Patti didn’t want to do anything on camera, but recommended her brother Dale. Turns out Dale had a lot to say and we spent the rest of the afternoon hanging out.
Although Patti didn’t want to be filmed, she was very receptive to our project and we had an interesting discussion later about the danger of army recruiting in high schools. It is so much more poignant to hear a mother’s take on the military, I wish she had consented to an interview. Her concern impacted me personally. By the end of the day Patti and her brother had made us feel like family: I was reading excerpts from 100 Years of Solitude aloud in Dale’s office one minute while he explained Leonard Cohen‘s borrowing from Garcia Lorca the next, with Patti walking Alicia through the stories behind the family photos lining the walls.
It was after 7pm before we left The Bookcomber. Our schedule had been thrown out the window, but it was just as well since everyone was probably at home thanks to a certain anti-war activist. But it was OK. There would be more cities with more prisons. We’ve started, and we’ve made friends. I think we’re headed in the right direction.
PUBLISHED: October 5, 2010
Jan. 19th, ’10: ARCATA
We woke up early Tuesday on a dorm room floor at “Hills & Stairs University.” My original concept for the trip was for us to meet people in each city and have them invite us into their homes. It was to be a social experiment to prove the innate compassion of society. But so far we’d only proven our own pride and timidity, sleeping a few nights in the car and once in a hostel. Luckily, I knew someone at Humboldt State so we were good for another day.
Free Wifi in the City Square
Settling into a cafe within reach of the free wifi blanketing downtown, I was ready to put a little time into the website. All I knew was that I had registered a “domain” and signed up for a “wordpress.” While Alicia worked on another lead list, I prepared to create my blogsite masterpiece. 3 hours and as many saucer-sized cups of coffee later, I still couldn’t change my “header” or find an appropriate “theme.”
The waiter was a great guy though, explained how he moved up north from Newport Beach. I talked about my family there, we commiserated over Orange County traffic, I shared a couple general curses toward technology, and we were off, to wash up and learn from Arcata.
One quick lesson: the police here are very friendly. You go down a one-way street in the wrong direction and almost crash headlong into a cruiser, he lets you off with a warning. Maybe it’s the ‘stache, maybe it’s the gubernatorial air I’m now exuding. Either way, thanks!
We planned to hit up the city hall, but wanted to find a bathroom first. We had rushed off campus early that morning without washing up. It’s funny the things you don’t notice until you’re in need.
After a pit-stop at a gas station, we found ourselves down the street from the Arcata Chamber of Commerce. So we decided to stop by for some quick info. Bill was really helpful in giving us a background on Humboldt county, including giving us a lead on explaining where the ““increase of homeless” originated.
Hitting the Streets
After talking with Bill, we realized we probably weren’t going to make it to city hall in time. So we decided to hit the high and low ends of the real estate market instead.
Driving past Arcata High School towards the “wrong side of the tracks,” I saw a teenager walking down the street who might have something interesting to say. He turned out to be so articulate and mature for his age, I was a little intimidated; I definitely think he came off better than me in the interview ?
It was getting late before we found the most expensive house on the Arcata real estate market. It happened to be a large building split into rental units. Richard opened the door and invited us into the communal kitchen, where we set up shop and had an extended conversation with first him, and then other residents who literally walked into the filming.
My biggest take-away for the day was that people aren’t easily classified. Our “typical” Humboldt County high school teenager didn’t fit the stereotype I was expecting. Our “rich house” was full of students. And the discussions revolved more around disappointment in Obama than criticisms of an opposition.
The idea is to approach each city with an open mind, and we are definitely learning. Maybe we won’t be the perfect travel writers, but if we stay humble and sincere we should learn a couple things before our trip is over.
PUBLISHED: October 7, 2010
Jan. 20th, ’10: UKIAH
Of Buddhas and Peacocks
We drove through Ukiah singing Willie Nelson’s “Mendocino County Line” and looking for Buddhas. We had read about a “City of 10,000 Buddhas” and it sounded interesting. We didn’t find any Buddhists by the time we got there, it was a 3 1/2 hour drive from Arcata, but we did make some peacock friends.
As you might have noticed if you’ve read the entries for the last two days, we aren’t exactly succeeding at talking to local government officials in each city. Ukiah was no different. By the time we finished chasing peacocks, it was close to 5pm.
But I did find an interesting local blog which offered a wealth of information regarding questions I didn’t even know I should be asking. For example: is the best solution to our current economic malaise simply a new deal for local economies?
The Forest Club Lounge
We ended up hanging out at a bar with both free wifi and a cigarette machine. I made conversation with an older guy (50’s?) guarding some battered luggage and nursing a beer. He mentioned that he was on his way to San Francisco, and then to southern California, just waiting for a social security check. I told him we might be able to give him a lift, if he didn’t mind passing through Lakeport first. His eyes lit up as he described an estranged rich brother that I couldn’t tell would be happy to see him/us or not. We were interrupted by a bartender, who passed by to threaten the traveler into buying another beer. He gave me his number and I told him I’d call tomorrow morning.
As Alicia and I left the bar for the night, we still hadn’t interviewed anyone. I walked up to a girl with dreadlocks having a conversation with her boyfriend on the street. She looked through me with red eyes as her boyfriend(?) politely said now wasn’t a good time. We walked back to the car and I spotted a sleeping bundle under the awning of a vacant storefront. “Yeah, I crashed in an alley the other night. Just passing through, waiting for my check to come in. I’m going to sell cars in San Diego.”
Saved by a Burner
Luckily, we got a response to a couchsurfing email just as we were consigning ourselves to another night in the car. Hillel was a really cool guy; he taught woodshop to high school kids and went to Burning Man last year. His dad was a freedom rider in the 60’s and we had a great conversation trying to challenge assumptions; my trying to discredit his “benevolent king” predilections and his trying to get me to be more pragmatic. After all, idealists like me lose elections for the more deserving.
But I couldn’t argue with his success. He had a beautiful house that he’d personally remodeled, a fulfilling (if sometimes frustrating) career, a great personality, and he lived in a beautiful city. Plus, he had pulled his money out of the market before the great recession, reading the writing on the wall.
The Wet Road Ahead
Is the world simply what it is? Do the non-industrious “have no place in it?” What does it mean to be productive? It was drizzling when we left Ukiah Thursday morning. Hillel had already gone to work. Someone has to teach those kids how to build stuff. And someone has to ask the questions. At least that’s what I told myself as we pulled over, sheltering my camera to photograph a bend in the river.
PUBLISHED: October 18, 2010
Jan. 21st, ’10: LAKEPORT
Alicia and I flew into Lakeport around noon, in one end and out the other down main street. With a population of around 5k people, we expected it to be a small sleepy town. It was overcast and still sprinkling but we were on a mission: find a public servant to interview. I was wearing my “Impeach Bush” t-shirt and I didn’t know if that would help or hurt my cause. I picked it up from an anti-war meeting I had attended in Berkeley a couple years ago. A lady explained how her 7 year old daughter came up with the concept: a drawing of a little red devil, or “imp;” a “peach;” and a scraggly green “bush.” I bought two.
We picked a local coffee shop with kids running around and the owners serving coffee behind the counter. Seemed like a good place to start our day. It just so happened that a county health official stopped by for an inspection, and luckily she had an opinion to share.
And then we hit the jackpot. A self described “budget geek,” a Deputy Administrative Officer for Lake County, happened to be in the coffee shop and said he’d give us a couple minutes of his time. It was an amazing conversation: short, informative, and affirming that we were on the right track. In his view, it was a question of politicians “doing the right thing.”
At the end of the video, I draw the conclusion that “we incentivize corruption to the point that we’re constantly making choices between the human value and profit, or personal value…By the time you get to the end, you might have been a good person when you started but…what you do is who you are.” He commented “perfectly well put.”
Who Do You Serve?
Before leaving Lakeport I took this photo because it reminded me of a song I learned in church growing up. After looking up the verse, I saw that they had changed it a little for the inscription. I also found another version online.
In one version, wait upon is a phrasal verb meaning “to serve.” Who are you “of use” to? In the other version they inserted the word hope, meaning “expectation and desire.” This seems like a rather large difference in meaning.
Regardless of ideology, if you seek out wisdom you should be able to find it. I couldn’t have framed the contrast any better: politicians who “wait” for their personal good fortune instead of “waiting upon” their constituents.
Ahead of us was an icy mountain road through a petrified forest, a mudslide that would delay us for an hour, and no idea where we were going to sleep that night (well, some idea, and we were driving in it). But pulling out of Lakeport we felt good.
This “Citizens Audit” might just be onto something…
PUBLISHED: October 18, 2010
Jan. 22nd, ’10: SANTA ROSA
Our day in Santa Rosa started out with a Hail Mary: an email to this guy for an interview. The way I explained it to Alicia, since we would be in Sonoma County for the weekend, maybe he would find some free time and drop us a line if he was in town. Our trip was supposed to be about the common citizen, but a celebrity or two couldn’t hurt the cause.
Knocking On Doors
Not wanting to just hold out for a call back from Tom, Alicia directed me to the rich part of town. With over 160k people, Santa Rosa has it’s share of non-singing millionaires. We found ourselves on a winding path climbing higher above the city, with wrought iron gates and towering houses on either side. The address we were looking for looked vacant, which wasn’t a surprise because it was listed for $3.7mm. But figuring one deep pocket was as good as the next, we picked a “house” with a couple of cars in the driveway and decided to see if anyone was home.
A woman answered the door and, although demurring from an interview, suggested that we talk to her husband. While waiting outside for him, she shared insights about the neighborhood (sheep graze the hill as a “green alternative” to normal landscaping) and local gossip (everyone knows the $3.7mm house is overpriced, but she’s a widower with little experience with the market).
Her husband, Mike “the incubator,” came to the door. He runs a non-profit that advises start-ups for a 20% equity cut. He couldn’t talk on camera because engaging in politics (civics?) could endanger their 501k status. I reflected on this as he handed me, among other cards, his one for the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce. I gave him my old insurance business card; I didn’t want to appear rude.
After politely almost inviting us in for a cup of coffee, they referred us down the street to an artist who might be into our kind of thing. We knocked on his door, but I was openly intimidated by his Mastiff-sized dog and the words NASDAQ on his fleece pullover. I felt myself trailing off as he quickly said no thanks and swung the heavy door shut.
I’m sure we learned something in Muirfield, but I wasn’t sure what it was. I pulled over across from the golf course to take a picture of the street signs in case it came to me, and to capture the clouds sponging the sunset over the horizon.
Towards the middle of the real estate market we had better luck, although it did take us a half hour to find someone to interview in the $300k price range. There was that guy who’s wife was sick, the contractor who was in the middle of dinner, and a big shirtless man with tattoos who first asked me if I noticed his “no soliciting” sign and then explained his theories on “protest-by-non-participation,” with his wife expounding loudly from somewhere behind the metal screen door.
We eventually found a young guy packing for a friend’s wedding in Tahoe who spared us a couple minutes of his time.
Late in the evening we wandered into a church near downtown looking for a book group Alicia had read about online. We didn’t find the group, but we found a Unitarian Pastor who shared with me an insightful discussion on values. He said that he’d joined the Unitarian Universalist congregation because back in his day they were a breath of fresh air- “talking about human needs rather than who should we kill first.”
It was definitely an interesting church: art exhibition on the walls, ESL flyers on the message boards, Yellowtail wine set out on tables, and an interpretive dance troupe gearing up for a live practice. We were tourists in someone else’s busy Friday night. Hungry tourists.
Of Grandmas and Colonels
I suggested pizza. Our budget couldn’t really afford it, but I figured we had pulled a day out of the garbage and it was the end of our first week, we should celebrate. Plus, any day now the blog would be up and the book money would start rolling in.
Between bites Alicia and I talked about what we’d learned so far this week. There was a pattern of centralization, in politics and economics. Bigness vs. smallness. But what constituted either category? Tom was probably going to blow me off, did that mean that he was too big of a star? Alicia graciously reminded me that, in all fairness, I wasn’t even on the map.
She pointed out the family pictures all over the restaurant walls and the kitsch style: colanders for light fixtures, bright primary colors. I suggested that this was clearly a chain or at least one of many. But then In-N-Out Burger, a veritable California state treasure, has 240 locations and yet is still family owned. Can you call a $450mm revenue company small? Alicia thought their burgers were over-rated and the conversation digressed.
At that moment I remembered an interesting anecdote regarding an explosive magazine from the Vietnam War era. They published a photo essay that turned MLK against the war so it seems like a good coda for the end of the week. For people who don’t like clicking the links I’ll give a brief recap: a reporter is covering the democratic national convention and sees a Rolls Royce pull up. Out steps an old man with a cane. The old man tips the shoe-shine boys. The old man is Col. Sanders.
When you’re showing up to the political convention in a Rolls Royce and tipping the shoe-shine boys, when you have the gravity to disproportionally effect society around you, maybe that’s when you’re big.
Is there such a thing as “a world within which many worlds fit?” Is it as simple as getting people involved, creating that space for ourselves? Whatever the next step is, I’m going to a friends house in San Francisco to think it over for the weekend. Because if there’s one place that Alicia and I don’t fit well, it’s in back of a Honda Civic.
PUBLISHED: October 18, 2010
Jan. 25th, ’10: YUBA CITY
If you click on the Yuba City wiki link, you’ll find a couple interesting facts:
Sunsweet Inc., the largest dried fruit processing plant in the world, is headquartered there.
Yuba is home to one of the largest Sikh communities outside of the Punjab state of India
On March 14, 1961, a B-52 Stratofortress carrying nuclear weapons crashed near the city. Two thermonuclear bombs were destroyed on impact without exploding or releasing radioactive material.
So we had a couple options: fruit, Sikhs, or nukes. We were hungry and we heard the Sikhs offered free food so we headed to the temple first.
God, Work, and Charity
Alicia and I are not the most cultured travelers, and admittedly we had no idea what to do inside a Sikh Temple. As we removed our shoes and Alicia wrapped her head (per written instruction in the entrance hall) we ran into an older couple exiting the main room. There was a definite communication gap, but after much smiling and some bowing (?) they poured a fragrant flower/nut mixture into our cupped hands. We carried this into the main carpeted room and almost deposited it into the offering box before being intercepted by an attendant who led us into the kitchen.
Here we found out that the flower and nuts were for eating, not offering, and we experienced first hand one of the 3 tenets of Sikhism: charity. The man offered us heaping portions of food we couldn’t refuse and then called a cleric and scheduled us an interview for the following day.
The next day the cleric filled us in on the two other tenets: believe in God and be industrious. He had played soccer in college (“left out” position) and had been accepted to join the police in India. But a saint he followed told him to serve God instead. He applied for a US Visa in ’91 and has been here working with various temples ever since.
He was very generous with his time, even though we were late, and after the interview he sat down and had a more intimate conversation over tea. Some of the comments that struck me:
Man is measured by his good deeds not by age. The oak leads a long life but we value the lily.
God created man, man created religion; all are paths to same goal.
This is the type of humility and wisdom that endears me to people of faith, and gives me hope that religion isn’t all bad.
Mortgage or Marriage
Our second interview in Yuba City was an accident. Alicia and I were trying to avoid another night in the car by calling Craiglist ads and asking people who were renting out rooms if they’d let us stay the night. It was a long shot, but one lady was kind enough to at least consent to an interview the next day.
Tisha and John were gracious enough to invite us into their home and give us a couple hours of their time. You can see in the interview that it was just an honest conversation about a couple discussing things they are dealing with in this recession economy. John lets Tisha describe their hardships and stresses on their marriage, but he later chokes up while describing what friendship means to him: a friend driving hours in the middle of the night to help him winch his truck out of the mud, no questions asked.
Later he shows me his office with assorted NASCAR memorabilia. He describes how his stepdaughter is also a fan: “I told her someone gave me tickets and she says, ‘I’ll take the day off, you know you can’t go without me.’” She is going to college. He’s been laid off, but they might bring him back if there’s work. They let him still keep his company truck, otherwise the family would be down to just the minivan.
John is selling the thunderbird for $1500, in a better time he might have gotten $4500 (pictured above). The dirt bike is going too. I bring up safety nets, 401k, etc. He said they had one at work, but he pulled his money out a long time ago. He wanted to put it in more safe investments but ran into problems and just stopped participating.
We didn’t have time left in Yuba City to poke around for fruit or nukes. But I think that we learned something about values in society.
Maybe government shouldn’t be run like a religion, where you hold charity as a main principle. And maybe we don’t have to in a society as diverse and giving as ours.
But then we shouldn’t ignore hard working people who need a break, perhaps more so than the banking industry. The bailout wasn’t the only solution available.
Perhaps this is still the “Wild West,” every panhandler for himself. But how much control does the average citizen have over these capital markets? How much control do we have over any large institution that can make or break economies?
I think of this as we drive past naked trees lined up in rows like soldiers waiting for orders. Maybe things become too big when the people are forgotten.
PUBLISHED: October 18, 2010
Jan. 26th, ’10: COLUSA
The picture above has an interesting story behind it. We were at a local-owned coffee shop in Colusa that had great reviews on Yelp, Twisted River Cafe, chatting with the counter person, when we found out MTV was in town. We stayed to watch the film crew come and go and right before we got up to leave I overheard a conversation to my left: it’s becoming like radar, as soon as I hear a political opinion my ears perk up. We meekly asked for a couple minutes of this man’s time and it turns out he is a regional rep for Chevron.
This interview shows that demonizing people or corporations doesn’t do any good. Because he goes on to talk about his kids and family like anyone else with human values. And he was kind enough to give me a little sincere “citizen to citizen” time on camera, which is what we need if we’re going to fix our state. Although he is retiring out of state ?
And some would argue that the company he works for has a track record of exactly the opposite.
My take-away from him: don’t believe everything I read in the papers.
What I hope is his take-away from me: maybe when a corporation destroys lives, its charter should be revoked.
Truth, Liberty, Toleration
I’m not sure what to make of this plaque we found on an old high school building in Colusa. From what I’ve found, “The Native Sons of the Golden West” weren’t very truthful or tolerant, and were quick to deny you liberty if you weren’t white. Kind of like a California-only KKK. One of their tolerance quotes:
“California was given by God to a white people, and with God’s strength we want to keep it as He gave it to us”
Speaking of which, Colusa has a Chinatown district dating to the 1800’s that has supposed underground tunnels where people gambled, smoked opium, and generally stayed out of the way of the “Native Sons.”
Downtown, Alicia and I found Melodie, a farmer’s wife. She was very eager to tell her story. She has first hand experience dealing with immigrant labor, health insurance, and the agriculture markets. What surprises me is that she has as many questions as I do about where the extra productivity goes in the market. Because the way she explains it, they’re growing more than ever before and still only just getting by. As the pie grows, why does it seem that the working family’s slice is staying the same or even shrinking? Well, I guess the first place to look would be the folks with stains on their faces.
And that brings us to our last picture to close out Colusa. In the past, I would imagine that a small town like this would be the epitome of “4-H” type values:
“I Pledge my Head to clearer thinking,
my Heart to greater loyalty,
my Hands to larger service,
and my Health to better living,
for my club, my community, my country, and my world.”
Self-improvement for the sake of a better citizen and a better society. After witnessing the following contrasts…
MTV storming the local coffee shop
an employee of the world’s 5th largest corporation making his rounds
a wife of a farmer who works to provide her husband with health insurance
I started to question whether there was still such a thing as small town values.
There should be a saying: you know it ain’t real anymore when they put it in a reality t.v. show.
PUBLISHED: October 18, 2010
Jan. 27th, ’10: WILLOWS
Wednesday was the night of the President’s State of the Union speech, so we thought it would be a good time to go door to door and talk to people. Maybe we’d get lucky and someone would invite us in to watch the president with them.
After canvassing a neighborhood we didn’t have any luck. Maybe people aren’t as friendly after dark, maybe a town with stickers like the one above posted in restaurant windows doesn’t trust mustachioed strangers on their porch in the dark.
Either way, we did convince this one guy to break from ‘Bo for a couple minutes of conversation. He was very nice and encouraging on and off the camera, it’s the little things that keep us going on the road.
Since it was a slow day in a small town, I’ll sign off with a full text of Obama’s speech. I’ll hopefully get around to commenting on it soon and then re-post with links.
Btw, they always told us that athletes “play” other sports, whereas wrestlers don’t play, they “wrestle.” That’s right Bam, I’d mop the mat with that brillo pad…eh, it’s late.
State of the Union: President Obama’s Speech
PUBLISHED: October 18, 2010
Jan. 28th, ’10: RED BLUFF
Guess which of the following has been hardest to find on the road so far:
a good night’s sleep
Surprisingly… we never have to travel far before we find someone with an interesting point of view. And either the Honda’s getting more comfortable or my back’s curving to it’s efficient Japanese ergonomics. But it seems that a shower is hard to come by unless you want to sneak into state parks or community gyms.
In Red Bluff, we decided to get smart and just hit up the trailer park. As luck would have it, the manager was a wonderful person more than willing to share her stories in the park. I mention to her in the video that we’ve talked to a couple people so far on our trip and not one has defended the government. Some might see that as a negative, but I am inspired by a feeling that we have a lot of room for improvement. So there should be plenty of answers out there waiting to be applied.
We figured answers and justice went together, and we wanted to include as many public figures as possible, so we went over to the Tehama County courthouse. But we encountered a usual problem: public officials didn’t want to appear on camera. Bill the veteran’s service officer was a great guy though. He talked with us for a little bit, asking us about our trip and what we hoped to accomplish.
Now that’s always a tough question for me to answer: what do we hope to accomplish? We got the same question later in the day from a chamber of commerce official who changed his mind about an interview. Personally, I see this as an organic project, where by doing it we are learning what we should be doing. My ideal is that this is how politics should be; politicians seeking wisdom from their constituents and then synthesizing it for the common good. You look at any major candidate and they’re telling you what they believe: what’s good for you, what’s good for America. I have a suspicion that you don’t have to memorize the truth, you don’t have to dress it in millions and beat people over the head with it. If you just start the right discussion it should spread like wildfire. But then, propaganda also spreads like wildfire. Come to think of it, wildfire seems kind of destructive…
But Bill, he humors us and eventually admits that he’s over 70 years old and doesn’t expect much change from an entrenched system. But the fact that he took the time gave me hope. They say in sales: as long as they’re talking they’re interested. You get a string of no’s before that final yes, if they’re saying no then you’re doing your job. The only objection you can’t overcome is when they stop talking. And it seems like everyone is at least talking, if only to say no.
This Train is Bound for Glory
This picture of a Red Bluff church seems fitting in remembrance of Howard Zinn, who once said, “You can’t be neutral on a moving train.” I remember when I finally read/heard “A People’s History.” A friend of mine had downloaded it to an ipod, and I decided to listen to it while I went camping one weekend. So my memory of Howard Zinn is hiking for 3 hours into the Big Sur wilderness with the moon on my path and Matt Damon in my ear introducing me to our labor history, our Indian slaughters, our prison slaughters, the multi-facets of the civil rights movements and hours of other stories that make up a history.
Whether it’s a long hike or a half hour before bed, if people know their own history they will become better citizens. I could always tell a good historian when I was left with a sense of possibility rather than determinism; as in, wow, we’re allowed to do stuff like that?
PUBLISHED: October 18, 2010
Jan. 29th, ’10: WEAVERVILLE
Naked Happy People
My folks still have rabbit ears on their t.v., very basic local channels. So when I’m visiting I find them watching a lot of PBS. There’s this one show, Northern Exposure, that ran from 1990-95, really an amazing show. And I’m pretty sure that Weaverville is the real life Cicely, Alaska. Just check out these pics below (you can friend me on facebook to see all the pics, but these are too good to miss)
Maybe this is what Sacramento needs to bring the Dems and Repubs together ?
Alicia and I got the pictures above from a complimentary calendar, given to us by a sweet lady who volunteers at the chamber of commerce. I don’t know whether to be wary of the chamber of commerce or use it as a reliable resource. On one hand, they’re suicidal corporate profiteers. On the other, this lady just gave me cookies and a naked people calendar.
I was so amazed at how picturesque this little town was, every detail. I asked the pizza guy about it and he explained how the community was in the middle of gorgeous mountains that developers didn’t have access to. So you get unspoiled paradisiac settings (alpine rivers, lakes, woods) combined with an escapee community.
It’s too bad that I didn’t record our first conversation, because Johnny really gave some great reasons why he escaped the Bay Area. He shares the opinion I encountered in Colusa, that the efficiency the average worker doesn’t see a return on is being siphoned out of markets at the top. I don’t think that everyone can run away to make pizza in the mountains, but you could do a lot worse.
One last detail: a lumber mill burned down recently, and the community gathered together to form a dinner drive for the workers. The owner of the destroyed mill was able to rent one down the road and hire back some of the guys, but they’re still struggling.
Who knows if there are black and white answers to legislative problems. But if we can foster this type of civic community, our problems will solve themselves. Or more precisely, our neighbors will help solve our problems.
This park sign reads (roughly):
Wintu lived in the Shasta area for thousands of years
Gold was discovered and the miners came
Mining destroyed the salmon, and the miners called for the genocide of the Indians
In spite of all this, the Wintu survived
I’m immediately reminded of Howard Zinn from yesterday’s post, “You can’t stay neutral on a moving train.” What is the cost of this pseudo-neutrality? Where is the defense of human dignity? Things just happen, without responsible actors, aggressors or victims, and that’s supposed to be a historical tidbit.
It’s purposeful forgetting.
In a “friendship feast” in 1850, whites served poisoned food to the Indians.
John Frémont, presidential candidate, explorer, and all-around bad-ass, oversaw the revenge killing of 175 Indians.
Our nation has a barbaric past. And if you look close enough, you’ll realize it has a barbaric present as well. The future? All the naked calendars in the world aren’t going to slow down the “Pathfinders” of the future.
We need to stop them from being created.
PUBLISHED: October 18, 2010
Feb. 1st, ’10: REDDING
Clint the Couch Surfer
It’s the start of the 3rd week and we’re a little winded. The first weekend we were within driving distance of Santa Cruz, so we were able to stay with friends, play some music, and recharge our batteries for the road. But Weaverville was too close to Redding to go all the way back to the Bay Area.
Luckily, Couchsurfing turned what could have been a stressful weekend into a vacation. Clint has a beautiful Spanish style home with exposed beams and adobe walls. He also has a couple crazy stories: like the pigs his dad kept on the adjacent property that the Laotians would purchase: killing and draining them on-site. Now Clint’s family has Emu’s, apparently they were supposed to be the next big thing (emu bubble pdf)
He also told me how he’d cruise pawnshops in Las Vegas and pick up expensive construction equipment for pennies on the dollar. His buddies tell him he should be ashamed because the serial numbers are filed off the tools.
“It’s ok, my stuff has been stolen in the past too.”
And then one of the tools he bought in Vegas was actually stolen from a job site.
“It’s ok then, right? Like kharma, pay it forward?”
“Naw, they actually caught that guy, I think he’s in jail now.”
Joey the Anarchist
Actually, I think Joey would describe himself as an anarcho-syndicalist. I don’t think I’ll do it justice, but from what I gather it’s a couple questions rolled into one:
-how necessary is government?
-how much ownership can labor have?
-and how much freedom/efficiency can we squeeze out of this whole thing?
Being that there are a couple famous heavy hitters in the field, I hope I don’t make too much of a fool out of myself. But it can’t be any worse than these videos, where I do my worse “talking over the interviewee” to date. But I blame it on the coffee and excitement. I really liked their idea about setting up anarchist book collectives in local stores.
The book in the background of the video is written by a psychiatrist who had a crazy idea that if you push a human being hard enough, their mental health will depend on creating an identity that pushes back. Thus you have your broken societies that are subjugated, and your freedom fighters who retain their dignity and sense of self at the cost of, well, a bomb from a droning toy in the sky.
Lesson: you can’t fight asymmetrical warriors/terrorists/freedom fighters with a gun. Their identity feeds off of antagonism.
“Hello fire, I’d like you to meet my friend gasoline…”
Mike the Sergeant
At the same coffee shop where I later met Joey, I ran into a couple of cops who referred me to a “Sgt. Mike.” Alicia and I thought for sure Mike blew us off and were about to skip town for the night when he called.
I can’t say enough good things about Mike. Maybe it’s because I just came from the other end of the spectrum, maybe it’s just because I thought he wasn’t going to call back and so I was already creating a stereotype in my head. But Mike was very generous with his time, finally having to excuse himself after my promised 5 minutes snowballed into 45.
Some people don’t understand how I could question authority one minute and then rave about an authority figure the next. What I like about Mike is that he has a peace about him, a satisfaction of knowing that he is doing what he thinks is right. I might not agree with him, I might even go as far as to say that he’s contradicting himself on certain issues. But he’s sincere. And either I’m going to learn something or he is; hopefully we both are.
The best part of the conversation, I think this happened off camera, is when we were talking about the constitution and how it was supposed to decentralize power, with the states and people retaining the lions share. It’s a weird feeling when you find yourself learning about the 9th amendment and Constitutional law from a police officer.
Let me include a quote here for those of you who don’t click on the links (and for a certain friend of mine who attends San Francisco University):
“a universe of rights, possessed by the people — latent rights, still to be evoked and enacted into law….a reservoir of other, unenumerated rights that the people retain, which in time may be enacted into law.” – Harvard historian Bernard Bailyn
Harvard trumps SFU, case closed.
But seriously, when you open your eyes and assert yourself, the world is a blank sheet of paper and you’re holding the pencil, the marker, the right to create to the limits of your imagination, which can be a blessing or a curse.
Some imaginations stop at Emus markets.
PUBLISHED: October 18, 2010
Feb. 2nd, ’10: YREKA
The coldest night on the road so far: huddled up in a car in Yreka with clothes wrapped around my head, falling in and out of Eskimo dreams. You know you shouldn’t be sleeping outdoors when you wake up and instead of dew there’s ice on the ground.
But other than the night, Yreka was wonderful to us. We went to the city hall and landed a great interview with the Mayor pro-tempore. He reinforced the idea of our pattern of underfunding local governments. I asked if we could maybe have a CA public works project to provide jobs for his community and also rebuild aging infrastructure. He didn’t seem to be holding out for that option.
Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Poets
While walking downtown, Alicia and I stumbled into a community art center. They are a non-profit that provides a space for the arts in their community.
A worker there gave us an overview of their mission and her two cents on what was wrong with politics in CA and where we could apply our efforts. I’ve always held that we as a society tuck away our highest values in the arts. We’re going to have to keep visiting that well if we want to imagine a better world.
After all, if poetry was good enough for cowboys it should be good enough for the rest of us.
We also stumbled across a very sincere web designer who gave us not only an interview but also some good criticism about our nascent website. It’s surprising the amount of help that’s out there if you’re willing to ask.
The people at the art center referred us to a man named Ralph Starritt, a salvage metal sculptor on the border of town. Ralph wasn’t at his studio, but we took a tour of his work and I was amazed at what he’s able to construct from disparate scraps of discarded junk.
Some of his most famous works are a “Moodonna,” a larger than life rusted cow that overlooks the highway south of Yreka, and an even bigger dragon that is lit up at night just north of town, to the surprise of passing motorists. The cow kind of fits the landscape, but the dragon definitely causes a double take.
The metal structure above is one of the many Starritt creations that are sprinkled throughout the city. If our lives are mostly a constant evasion of ourselves, the artist functions as the town crier screaming our names.
I’ve used that metaphor before, not the town crier but of the fireman. Maybe some people are the firefighters, who come in to save the day. Although a case could be made that our politicians create as many fires as they put out.
But maybe first we need someone to yell “FIRE!” Because as Alicia and I pass through small town after small town, we witness the embers of local economies smoldering. And for all the faith I put in art, a metal firefighter can’t ring the bell. He can only inspire you to do it yourself.
PUBLISHED: October 18, 2010
Feb. 17th, ’10: Sacramento
Between Feb. 3rd and 17th, Alicia and I took some time off to regroup. We were getting overwhelmed with the amount of content we were creating and we needed some time to get the content up.
This meant cutting 2 weeks out of our itinerary, in the hope that we can add them on the end. So thanks to a great CS guy with a taste for nostalgia (see above photo), we were positioned in Sacramento on the 17th, ready to get to the bottom of things.
It’s a little intimidating walking into the big white round building where laws are made. We weren’t sure where to start. I followed a tour guide for a bit while she explained to her gaggle of children why they wouldn’t be able to see the governor today.
One of the kids, he might have been around 7 years old, is explaining how “Arnold” can cut off the head of anyone he wants.
They all gather around the bear that is licking Alicia in the photo and snap cell pics of people hustling in and out of the double doors.
As one of the doors swings wide, I catch a glimpse of Arnold and Maria, framed and hanging on the wall. And I tell Alicia we need to go upstairs, we’re getting no where with the children. Plus, I’m jealous that they have better camera phones than I do…
We started with the office of Loni Hancock. She represents Berkeley, we used to live in Berkeley, this should work.
After sheepishly explaining our project about civics, I found myself sitting across from a staffer for Loni. Apparently she was not there. This happened to be the busiest week in the legislature, with all bills for the upcoming year having to be introduced by Friday (a pdf of the legislative calendar, in case you misplaced yours).
The cliff notes of our conversation:
Loni chairs the election committee, nothing like a “juice committee”
There’s something called a “Big Five” that handles “roadblocks”
Loni has two issues: simple majority vote to pass budget and term limits revised
Her bill wouldn’t deal with tax increases, but she was consulting a “tax messaging group”
Prop 13 underfunded local governments and made them overly dependent on the state for revenue
1 and 2 sounded interesting but more like jargon than wisdom. Number 3 was tricky, because her simple majority wouldn’t have the power to raise taxes. And I never really liked dynasties.
Alicia summed up 4 perfectly: “wait, so they’re consulting a group to sell the public on the legislator’s agenda? Sounds backwards…”
5 sounded interesting. Maybe we’d investigate this “unlucky prop 13.” I was wary though, about not being able to understand a mature legislative perspective of governance. But the staffer gave us free oranges, and it’s hard to not feel confident when you’re enjoying citrus.
I don’t know how often you look up your assemblyman’s website, but here’s the representative who’s staffer we talked to down the hall from Loni.
And here’s another Republican. And another. Fighting for everything except individuality.
Insincerity and xerox-like quality is antithetical to what we’re trying to do with our “Citizens Audit,” I’d expect people who make over $100k to be able to design an original website.
And we got more of that mob mentality from Emmerson’s staffer. Although to be fair, I did introduce myself with overconfident, orange-sticky hands. So maybe she didn’t take us seriously. But when she pointed to a compulsory dental hygene bill framed on the wall as Bill’s greatest accomplishment (Bill’s a dentist btw), I knew we’d hit a wall.
While setting up the day, I had found some information on CalPERS. At first I confused it for a citizens advocacy group that I canvassed for a couple years ago, but this is much different.
This is the headquarters to the largest pension fund in the US and one of America’s most powerful shareholding bodies.
If it sounds like I’m quoting straight from wikipedia you’re right, because I have no idea how to wrap my mind around this conglomerated instrument. I just know that money has gravity. I have a suspicion about power structures and here I’m staring at billions of dollars in fancy glass. And here’s a security guard running across the street at me because I’m taking pictures of “his building.”
This institution will probably come up again later on our trip I’m sure.
In order to process the different conversations we had at the capitol, I wanted to split this day into two posts. But let me just end this with the observation that so far, I’m feeling more inclined to trust the judgment of the citizenship over their elected leaders…
PUBLISHED: October 18, 2010
Feb. 17th, ’10: Sacramen-two
In the California state capitol building, the inscription above the assembly chamber is as follows:
legislatorum est iustas leges condere
I guess they wrote it in Latin so they could have an excuse.
Picking up where the last post left off, we scampered off down the legislative halls looking for more elected officials, or at least people who worked for them.
I chose Nancy Skinner because we wanted to stay in the Bay Area circle. And to our good fortune we found a Fullbright scholar with time, energy, and a private office to talk shop.
I stepped up my game and wiped the orange juice on my pants before shaking hands.
He explained to us how Nancy chairs the Natural Resources Committee and is very proud of her work in green jobs and womyn’s issues. He also was kind enough to break down the Friday bill deadline: each legislator gets 40 bills to introduce over a two year span. Their office had 14 bills left plus a couple 2 year guys to tweak this year.
He gave a couple examples of “juice committees” that went over my head, explained how each rep is usually on 3-5 committees, and generally gloated over the democratic majority in all sectors of the legislature at about a 2 to 1 ratio. Which is understandable: the young ones are usually on the pep squad
He even agreed that prop 13 was indeed unlucky, and prop 140 (term limits) was just as bad.
His words: “140 knee-capped legislature”
Unfortunately also his words: “lobbyists are absolutely essential to functioning democracy”
Hmmm…I’m going to have to sleep on that one.
I’m surprised at how nice the old governors look in their photos. Maybe I shouldn’t believe all the hype in the political ads. I like Pete. It looks like he’s wearing pleated pants. He seems harmless.
I have a couple recollections about his term: there was a walk out in my middle school because of prop 187, and then this guy claimed that Wilson wanted to see everyone broke.
But the reason I bring him up is to try and recognize the patterns. Jerry Brown is back, and now Wilson is back as well, as a campaign manager for Whitman. Are lobbyists are essential for democracy, and should the same handful of politicians control the levers at the top? I’m starting to lose track of where the citizen fits in…
There we go, that’s more like it. Would people be better citizens if they imagined they were at the top? I’ve always thought so, but then maybe that’s just me assuaging my ego.
But there is definitely a connection here. Let’s see:
underfund local governments
let the lobbyists spread like mold…
It sounds like a government run by special interests. The only saving grace is that the citizen can be a special interest, if we can get the fund raising and messaging groups together.
Two things concerned me most during our jaunt through the capitol. The first was how what seemed common sense to me seemed like alien concepts to the people I spoke with. And the second was how confident they were that they were doing the right thing.
If you can’t take a step back and realize that there is a systemic problem that needs addressing, if instead you hang your hat on “womyn” or your carbon-copy “Repubican identity,” then you shouldn’t be there. Because the reality is that representatives shouldn’t have to rely on lobbyists to shape their world view, to do the “heavy lifting.”
I am left doubting whether you can be a good politician in a corrupt system, where you must go along to get along.
I asked a staffer how I’d be able to get records of meetings with lobbyists. I know that the money trail is public record, but now that he’s opened my eyes on how heavily the legislature relies on lobbyist info, it would make sense to track this exchange.
“Oh, we can’t tell you who we meet with. That would be a breach of confidence.”
There’s that mature legislator’s perspective. I hear it pays well.
For whatever storied reasons, our government has an obsession with ancient Greek and Roman culture. Or maybe just Greek. I don’t know, I’ve never served in government or took an ancient history class.
But Alicia and I thought that this sign was interesting, so we took a pictures, laughing and tripping over the word “Lacedaemonian.”
It turns out this is a tombstone of sorts for the Spartans (or as they called themselves, Lacedaemonians) who died at Thermopylae.
Things can be complicated or they can be simple, erudite or low brow. The greatest philosopher can praise the idea of a benevolent king while the filthiest clown laments the loss of democracy.
But I think, well I hope, that anyone should be able to acknowledge that which is in our interests as citizens, and that which is tearing apart our society.
Whether you work in a big round white building or the real world.
PUBLISHED: October 18, 2010
Feb. 18th, ’10: Jackson
The American Dream
Jackson was known for a natural spring that refreshed travelers as they headed for the gold mines. Chilean miners encountered so many discarded bottles next to the spring they gave the town it’s former name, “Botilleas.” Alicia and I had access to water, but it would be nice to leave Jackson with a little gold to keep this trip going…
It looks like people having been using “socialism” to scare people into investing in gold for a while, and I thought this was just a recent trend.
I found this Mining Journal in a vintage store on Jackson’s historic main street. It’s a town of about 4,000 people, so there’s not much there. But the store owner explained to me how the few family businesses left are struggling. We had an interesting conversation about the concepts of thrift and value, big box stores vs small local owned businesses.
I helped her clean up a mess and she gave me some WWII era Life magazines, very cool. Walmart doesn’t give me stuff if I help a cleanup on isle 200, another example of why shopping local pays.
While rummaging around the vintage store some more, I found an old Cal yearbook from 1922-’23. I took 20-30 pics that might be interesting to share when we pass through Berkeley.
But this particular page seemed poignant for today’s trip. I liked the idealism expressed in Dr. Campbell’s definition of a university’s purpose:
“The development of greater reverence for the truth and the search for good in all things.”
It reminds me of a T.S. Eliot response to the bias of history; that what comes later is necessarily better. If we are constructing something useful while learning from the past (to paraphrase Eliot: knowing what came before) then I can see the point. But instead I’m seeing a pattern of deconstruction: cannibalizing the fabric of our communities while forgetting our traditions.
Compare Dr. Campbell’s essay above to the Wall St. Journal criticism of idealism (the non-subscription blurb and title should be enough to indicate where the WSJ is going).
The protests over fee hikes in CA aren’t a generational protest. If anything they are a return to tradition, to values that sophists like the WSJ and “multi-millionaires with little or no experience in education” have forgotten.
Yes, the “California Dream” was an individual chasing a gold rush. But it also was a dream of a new society that offered unparalleled opportunity.
I found this painting in the Jackson vintage shop as well, we never really made it out of that store ?
Art Nouveau is an interesting movement that began around the turn of the 20th century. It was an declaration that “artists should work on everything from architecture to furniture, making art part of everyday life.“
A refrain of mine over the course of this trip is that we store our human values in art, and if we are to redeem our society we are going to have to go back to this well. That is why I post my art and that of others on my blog. Like Frost’s “lump in the throat,” the creative process connects us with our human dignity.
In this society of throw-away consumer goods and throw-away people, you could do worse for a guiding principle. We had a great tradition, or more optimistically, we have a great tradition.
It’s just a matter of digging it up.
PUBLISHED: October 18, 2010
Feb. 19th, ’10: Martinez
Of Beavers and Men
Martinez CA: home to John Muir, “Joltin’ Joe“, a Shell Oil refinery, and more recently a much-loved community of beavers.
Looking up local news, I came across a story regarding beavers who built a dam and threatened to flood downtown. The citizens of Martinez rallied together and eventually mitigated the danger while still being able to keep their new local mascots in Alhambra Creek.
Why don’t people rally together to tackle bigger threats, like the War in Iraq, which will cost their city $180m and counting? Maybe it’s because peace isn’t a tangible, cute, dam-building semi-aquatic rodent.
Alicia and I were taking pictures of “new deal buildings” when the guy above approached us asking if we needed anything. I jumped on the chance for an interview and we spent the next couple hours eating bundt cake and talking, one veteran to another.
White Elephants for Sale
David was extremely gracious with his time. He’s a sincere guy giving back to his community by trying to save the VFW 1351 post. His background is in business, Bank of America for 30 years, while his wife used to organize trade shows. When we walked into the hall, they had a white elephant sale going on where people donate items to be sold for charity.
The phrase “white elephant” always brings to my mind a short story by Ernest Hemingway. Traditionally, the phrase refers to a gift that costs more than it’s worth.
It’s funny, but I feel this way sometimes about my short uneventful military career. I entered an E-2 and left an E-1; the equivalent would be like starting 2nd grade, spending 2 years in school, and leaving a 1st grader.
A veteran is eligible for a fair amount of benefits, especially since they recently upped the GI bill. David spent a little time trying to talk me into getting my share. But I never made it through my AIT (army lingo for job training, it takes 1-2 yrs to train a linguist). I like the idea of the Army not owing me anything and me not owing them anything.
I don’t want anything I don’t deserve, and luckily I decided I didn’t want to pay the price for what they were offering.
That might sound like blasphemy, but I was able to carry on a completely civilized conversation with David for more than an hour without a loss of respect on either side. I tried to explain that people need educations and jobs, not the military. I even went as far as suggesting that we should convince people not to join, instead offering them scholarships to junior/four year colleges or create apprentice programs with local and even remote businesses.
It’s a lot more efficient to give the money to those in need directly, rather than to create a war and then make poor people fight in that war in order to be qualified for aid.
But then, if you value the military tradition, the flag, and your idealized concept of “America” above everything else, war makes perfect sense. Luckily, David has a beautiful wife whom he still takes on dates at least once a week (this weekend it’s San Francisco). In other words, he isn’t a sociopath, he is a human being capable of empathy. He had human values higher than “honor, duty, country.” And we were able to disagree while still assuming that we both shared those values. In fact, our disagreement would probably come down to his believing that war is a necessary evil and my believing that war has always been it’s own justification to mask a redistribution of wealth in society (we pay for war in blood and taxes while corporations reap the profits).
I’m not saying that the concepts of honor or duty don’t have their place. But war is a narcotic, a self-propagating disease. America’s constitutional genius was supposed to be in placing a civilian in charge of the military in times of war to reign in this cancer.
I suspect this is because the drafters of the constitution knew that there are higher values than those displayed on the battlefield. Like the appreciation of a good wine-infused bundt cake, or a local citizen’s desire to revitalize a historic building in his community. Or date-night.
Of Elephants and Watches
Like I said, David was very receptive to our Citizens Audit, he even asked when the eventual book would come out (you hear that would-be publishers?)
This is a picture of his watch that he received for 30 yrs service with Bank of America. He made an interesting comment on the reason for his lengthy tenure that culminated as “VP in charge of technology for the Latin American Division.” Or more specifically, his lack of reason for staying so long with B of A.
He didn’t find it fulfilling, he explains as he shows me the 3 diamonds each indicating a decade of his life. And so now he encourages his daughter to follow her passion because that’s the only life worth living. As he smiles and jokes and gives me relationship advice, I like him a lot.
And I wish he’d followed his heart sooner.
If it’s good enough advice for David’s daughter, it’s good enough advice for the rest of us. Life is too short to chase superficial symbols, whether they be watches, flags, or those proverbial elephants.
PUBLISHED: October 18, 2010