Monday, October 23, 2017

Fear itself

If blogging has seemed rather light in this space of late, I agree. After a month in Spain, mostly walking on pilgrimage, and a quick week in rural Nicaragua meeting hopeful people working with El Porvenir to bring clean water to their communities, I'm having trouble re-acclimatizing myself to the shit-show that is the Trump/GOP United States.

That's not surprising. When people ask me what I learned while walking, the first thing I mention is that I realized I hadn't had a restful night's sleep since a year ago November 8. I am sure I am not alone in this. Rage at my fellow citizens for trashing the country's hope and heritage, shame that hope and heritage proved such a feeble bulwark against hate and authoritarianism, and terror of hate compounding into war at home and abroad -- all these unquiet emotions preclude tranquil dreams.

I wouldn't have enjoyed or trusted a Democratic presidency, but I wouldn't have had to worry about active government enthusiasm for polluting air and water, about seeing Puerto Rico strangled by willful neglect after the storm, or, probably, about nuclear war.

But here we are. And I am not alone. Rage and fear are rational responses to escalating cruelty and insanity. Researchers have been asking a broad sample of us the question "what keeps you up at night?" They have created a fascinating snapshot of our current anxieties as reported at We used to worry about (largely over-hyped) crime and terrorism; at this moment, we seem more frightened by corruption in government, environmental degradation, and economic unease often related to health care.
I suspect that "corruption" is a kind of stand in for a general sense that the government is not doing its job, as well as a call out of theft by political leaders, though the article does not explore this. The researchers do warn that their findings tend to mirror what's prominent in the news -- if they had run the survey soon after the Las Vegas massacre, they'd have expected fear of mass shooting to rank highly.

They will continue to have plenty to study. If there is anything the regime of the Orange Cheato reliably offers, it is unceasing alarms about the dangers of the day.

As usual, the only remedy I know for fear and impotent rage is action. Resistance keeps us human and as sane as we can be in a world gone mad. Resist and protect much.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

A suspicion confirmed

In Santiago de Compostela we marked completing our pilgrimage by taking a tour of the roof of the Cathedral of St. James. We noticed that several of the towers looked like this one, a 15th century improvement on a Romanesque original. This did not seem to accord with the usual architectural style of the period; where might the Spanish architect have gotten his inspiration? Our guide suggested he might have been influenced by Spain's new world conquests in Mesoamerica.

At the Teotihuacan: City of Water, City of Fire exposition at the DeYoung Museum in San Francisco, we encountered this artifact. The similarity of decorative form leaps out to me.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Man-made hazards

Before wildfires slip down the memory hole among those lucky enough not to have suffered direct losses ...
This story from Grist contextualizes what those of us who live in drought prone areas are facing.

Portugal’s wildfires this year have brought sharp focus on the escalating risk of these blazes — and what little officials have done to prevent them. Popular backlash prompted the resignation of a senior government minister and a formal request for a vote of no confidence in the ruling party. But they have also brought a lesson for the rest of the world: As climate change escalates, wildfires are a problem without an easy solution. (Just ask California.)

In a struggling post-recession Portugal, suppliers to its huge paper industry have accelerated a switchover from native species to faster-growing eucalyptus. Since trees consumed by fire can now be replaced more quickly, fire prevention — simple actions like trimming branches and clearing underbrush that could greatly reduce the country’s fire risk — has fallen by the wayside due to cost cutting. Add to that, more and more people are fleeing Portugal’s rural areas — leaving an aging population behind — it’s not clear who will be able to do that work even if resources were available to fund it.

“It really is a textbook example of wildfire as a socio-natural hazard,” José Miguel Pereira, a forest ecologist at the University of Lisbon tells Grist via email. Or to put it another way, human activity is making wildfires worse. These infernos are a product of our disregard for the fact that nature is now almost entirely something we’ve created — these disasters aren’t natural.

And as you know, our influence goes beyond simply neglecting tree management. There’s a growing consensus that the most important reason behind the recent surge in megafires is weather. September was the driest month in Portugal for at least 87 years, and this summer was among the hottest ever measured. All that’s led to a wildfire season that’s 525 percent worse than normal.

Climate models show that a warmer world will mean a drier southern Europe, and increasing ocean temperatures will likely bring more hurricanes further northward. That combination will boost the frequency of massive wildfires in Europe, especially in places like Portugal. On our current warming track, recent research shows the Mediterranean will cross a threshold into megadrought in the next few decades. Many of the trees in the region will likely go up in flames before next century.

What we can make, we can work to prevent.

Resist and protect much.

On freedom from unwarranted search and seizure while traveling

Back in the dim, distant days when I started this blog (2005!) I wrote a lot about the TSA and government watch lists. (After all, the E.P. and I were told we were on the no fly list for awhile, enough to offer a chance for the ACLU to try to find out what the government was up to.) This topic has been less a priority lately, but given everything else, it is not too surprising that it seems once again current.

We've all learned a lot since those days; there's an excellent, thorough, book on the history of the U.S. government using our desire to travel to constrain and control citizens they take to be troublemakers. (The picture is of Mrs. Ruth Shipley who did the dirty work for Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and FBI chief J.Edgar Hoover in the 1950s.)

Once again, the ACLU has taken up a "freedom to travel" case, this one of what seems a novel sort because it involves involuntary (short) detention of people who have not only passed through all the security theater that dominates our airports, but also have already completed their journey.

On February 22, 2017, Delta Airlines Flight 1583 departed San Francisco and headed for John F. Kennedy Airport in New York. As the plane was landing, passengers heard a strange announcement.

Speaking over the intercom, a flight attendant announced that everyone would have to show their documents in order to get off the plane. After passengers expressed their consternation, the flight attendant repeated her announcement, stating that officers would be meeting the plane and every passenger would have to show government-issued ID to deplane.

... the government does not have this authority. The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution requires government agents to have individualized suspicion to conduct even a brief investigatory stop. Despite this, two Customs and Border Protection agents met Flight 1583 and stood immediately outside the aircraft door, blocking the exit into the jetway. The officers wore uniforms emblazoned with the words, “POLICE/CUSTOMS AND BORDER PROTECTION,” and carried guns visible in their holsters.

Passengers were naturally intimidated; some interactions with these apparent Homeland Security spooks seemed racially tinged to some passengers.

The ACLU's filing contains other notable details:

Despite the focus on the identification documents, DOE 1 and DOE 2 [officers] carried no clipboard, photograph, or list of names and did not appear to check the passengers’ identification against any list.

.... Plaintiffs did not consent to any search or seizure as they were attempting to deplane Flight 1583. Instead, they understood from the circumstances, as set forth above, that the stop and search was mandatory and that they were not free to deplane without submitting to the officers. The coercive circumstances included the announcements made by the flight crew at CBP’s direction, the presence of two large armed CBP officers obstructing the only means of egress from the plane, and the words and actions of those officers, as described above.

I recognize that last condition. When we were stopped at the San Francisco airport in 2002, we were surrounded by three urgently summoned police officers who told us that, "no" -- we might not go get a drink of water until they figured out what to do with us.

Liberty survives when people speak up against government infringements on our freedoms. It will likely be a long haul, but props to these plaintiffs for stepping up to the fight.

Friday, October 20, 2017

The Justice exercises

If Ruth Bader Ginsburg can do this stuff, so can I. After a lovely September on pilgrimage when all I had to do was get up in the morning and walk 15 to 27 kilometers, getting back in the exercise groove is a stiff and sore business.

But we all need our strength for the journey ...

H/t Time Goes By.

Friday cat blogging: street cat

This wary critter lives on the streets of San Francisco. Here, he's waiting alongside his person's possessions while his human gets a cup of coffee. He showed no interest in a dog that walked by (on a leash.) But he did carefully follow the movements of a pigeon which intelligently stayed well away.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Seasonal obligation to the herd: get your flu shot

Yesterday I presented my arm and came away with a button and a band-aid.

Why suggest that this is not just to protect my personal aging body from the flu, that getting the shot also had a community benefit? If we are able to get the shot, we contribute to "herd immunity."

... vaccinating yourself vastly increases the odds that you won't get sick with flu this season, but it also protects everyone you come into contact with: your parents, your sister's new baby, the stranger on the bus who can't get vaccinated because of an egg allergy, and everyone who isn't able to weather an infection as well as you.

The idea of herd immunity is like a moat around a castle or the natural behavior of herd animals when threatened by a predator. The strong surround the weak to protect them from attack; in this case the vaccinated protect those who can't be vaccinated or those with low immunity from contact with the flu by halting the spread of the virus.

Cleveland Plain Dealer

At the risk of reading like an ad for the Kaiser Permanente system, I also have to say the HMO makes the annual flu vaccination incredibly smooth. They situate ranks of nursing students in the lobby who check your age and whether you've had past bad reactions and then give you a quick stick. This takes less than 3 minutes. So much personal and community benefit for so little time and angst ...

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Rage in two kinds

It's not hard to find descriptions of the rage of Donald Trump's "base" -- those white, often rural, older, and predominantly male citizens whose disaffection stuck the rest of us with this vicious, blustering idiot. Here's an articulate sample from the National Review (via Kevin Drum):

Trump is stoking a particularly destructive form of rage — and his followers don’t just allow themselves to be stoked, they attack Trump’s targets with glee. Contrary to the stereotype of journalists who live in the Beltway and spend their nights at those allegedly omnipresent “cocktail parties,” I live in rural Tennessee, deep in the heart of Trump country. My travels mainly take me to other parts of Trump country, where I engage with Trump voters all the time.

If I live in a bubble, it’s the Trump bubble. I know it intimately. And I have never in my adult life seen such anger. There is a near-universal hatred of the media. There is a near-universal hatred of the so-called “elite.” If a person finds out that I didn’t support Trump, I’ll often watch their face transform into a mask of rage. Partisans are so primed to fight — and they so clearly define whom they’re fighting against — that they often don’t care whom or what they’re fighting for. It’s as if millions of Christians have forgotten a basic biblical admonition: “Be angry and do not sin.” ...

The Harvey Weinstein story ("revelations" only to those not placed to look or to see) is a unleashing a righteous rage just as deep, more wide, though not nearly so empowered. Here's Lindy West:

When [Woody] Allen and other men warn of “a witch hunt atmosphere, a Salem atmosphere” what they mean is an atmosphere in which they’re expected to comport themselves with the care, consideration and fear of consequences that the rest of us call basic professionalism and respect for shared humanity. On some level, to some men — and you can call me a hysteric but I am done mincing words on this — there is no injustice quite so unnaturally, viscerally grotesque as a white man being fired.

Donald Trump, our predator in chief, seems to view the election of Barack Obama as a white man being fired. He and his supporters are willing to burn the world in revenge. This whole catastrophic cultural moment was born of that same entitlement, of Trump’s paws and Weinstein’s unbelted bathrobe, of the ancient cycles of abuse that ghostwrote the Trump campaign’s real slogan: If I can’t have you, no one will.

Setting aside the gendered power differential inherent in real historical witch hunts (pretty sure it wasn’t all the rape victims in Salem getting together to burn the mayor), and the pathetic gall of men feeling hunted after millenniums of treating women like prey, I will let you guys have this one. Sure, if you insist, it’s a witch hunt. I’m a witch, and I’m hunting you. ...

West is certainly not alone; anyone who has looked at a Facebook feed full of "me too" over the last few days knows that.

The moment feels much akin to the heady times in the 1960s and 70s when 20th century U.S. feminism lurched awkwardly out of the lineage of previous freedom struggles. Only this time, the witches may indeed represent a broader swath of humanity (one that even includes a lot of well-raised men!) Time will tell; we women are good at endurance. The slogan from the South African freedom struggle seems on point.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Dangerous trees

Northern California isn't the only region experiencing perilous wildfires in this season of weather disasters. Four people have died in scattered forest fires in Galicia and Asturias in Spain in the last few days. (That's where we walked on pilgrimage during September.) Thirty-five more people are reported killed further south in Portugal. Persistent drought fueled the outbreak. Politicians want to blame arsonists. But might there be an additional factor?

While walking through this region we made a surprising observation: where farmers had until recently grown pines in wood lots meant for paper and pulp production, they are now planting eucalyptus trees. They explained that these exotics would mature in 25 years while pines required 50.

Importing eucalyptus was evidently controversial. The Australian native species can be a hazard waiting to ignite as Californians have discovered.

... eucalyptus trees can exacerbate deadly fires. Their sap is flammable, and so is their bark, which flies off when burned, igniting new fires up to 100 yards away.

L.A. Times

In Spain we saw signs of vocal opposition to imports:
These trees may be more a part of the problem than part of a solution to rural areas' economic stagnation.

Monday, October 16, 2017

We must learn to hold more than one idea at a time

What kind of world are we living in? I mean, here's the New York Times passing along strategic advice that speaks to what has all my life seemed the necessary but impossible condition for successful left projects. David Leonhardt writing about defending gains in health care access from the Trump bulldozer:

Just as Trump has both short-term and long-term goals, so should his opponents. For now, the priority is minimizing coverage losses, through outreach, lawsuits and lobbying. Doing so will also help the larger priority: preventing repeal, which would cause far more people to lose insurance than Trump can on his own.

“This stuff is really bad,” the health care expert Aviva Aron-Dine said, referring to last week’s announcements, “but it’s not nearly as bad as repeal. People should be able to hold both of those ideas in their head at the same time. Nobody should despair.”

This is in support of Get America Covered, an activist effort to mobilize people to do the job that the GOPer government refuses to do: get eligible people enrolled in subsided insurance plans. Trump can make it hard to get in and more expensive to the government, but the law continues to require subsidies that make insurance relatively affordable to many people.

Read about Get America Covered, and pass the word on.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Over 26 years ago ... she spoke out

As women today, AGAIN, struggle to demand that powerful male sexual predators JUST STOP, watch the courageous woman who forced this near-universal female experience out into the light.

Anita Hill deserves credit for putting truth before the world.

Elders amid the California fires

My friend Ronni Bennett at Time Goes By highlighted the particular sufferings of Puerto Rican old people in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. Even if their houses survived, elders are particularly vulnerable in a prolonged period without electricity, or easy access to clean water, and to stocked food stores. The weak response from the Trump administration and from too many mainlanders has made a perilous situation worse.

Bennett's post led me to take a particular look at how Northern California media is covering the plight of elders in our current siege of firestorms around Santa Rosa, Calistoga, Napa, Sonoma, and surroundings. There seem to be two notable themes.

Elders are particularly at risk when electricity and modern means of communication fail. This is not just about elders being not perhaps so decisive or fast moving in an emergency as younger people. According to an account in the Mercury News:

For the hundreds who remain missing, their families are holding out hope that their loved ones are also safe but simply unable to communicate.

That turned out to be the happy case for Nanette Williams, whose 96-year-old aunt Nora Hennings was found alive by sheriff’s deputies in her Santa Rosa home just feet from fire-scorched earth. With no cellphone, no computer, no email and no car, she’d had no way to get in touch but had come through the fire relatively unscathed. ...

[Carmen] McReynolds, like Hennings and a number of people her age, doesn’t have a cellphone, computer or email address. The telephone at her home isn’t working, and authorities won’t let the family friends who have volunteered to drive by her house close enough to investigate.

Volunteers with the Timber Cove Fire Department stopped by McReynolds’ cabin near the Russian River on Friday afternoon. Family hoped she had fled to the cabin, which she’s owned since the 1960s. But she wasn’t there. A neighbor in Santa Rosa told the family that police and firefighters had been in the area when the fire broke out, urging residents to evacuate. “We hope she got rounded up,” said Coke. “But there’s no sign of her.” ...

To be old in a rapidly changing world can amount to falling out of connection in times of extreme societal stress. There may be few practical remedies beyond applied neighborliness, but that seems a scary truth.

The other theme in coverage of elders' vulnerability is the casualty report as tear-jerker. Perhaps I'm being unfair to reporters here. In the midst of a vast, terrifying, ongoing disaster, pulling out human interest stories from the chaos seems an obvious journalistic device. And stunned, grieving relatives make appealing sources. Still these accounts feel over-saccharin and a little too canned. Two specimens of the genre from the San Francisco Chronicle:

Charles and Sara Rippey were the first casualties to be identified. They were also the oldest — he was 100 and she was 98. They had been married for 75 years and they died together during the first night of the fires as flames engulfed their condominium at Napa’s Silverado Country Club. They met in grade school in Wisconsin and married on March 20, 1942. They were so well known in the Napa community that the Napa County Register carried an announcement of their diamond wedding anniversary this past spring. ... Mark Rippey, one of their sons, was interviewed on KPIX television and said Charles died trying to save his wife. “From where they found his body, he was trying to get from his room to her room,” he said. “He never made it.”

... Carmen [Berriz] met Armando in Cuba, when they were 12 years old. They both left Cuba after Castro came to power and met again in Florida. They were married in Miami in 1962 and moved to Southern California the next day.

After 55 years of marriage, she died in his arms. Mrs. Berriz was 75. When the fire came, the Berrizes were unable to escape, so they held hands and jumped into the swimming pool of their rented house. They hoped to outlast the fire. He held onto her, but she died. He was badly injured.

All the deaths (and injuries) in the fires are tragedies. But all deserve to have their stories recounted with as few maudlin cliches as possible. And elder deaths are particularly subject to the temptation among overwhelmed journalists to have recourse to vapid banalities.
Meanwhile, my bank is urging me to contribute to the Red Cross. Before I took off for Nicaragua last week, the message was about Hurricane Irma. This week it is fires. I'm skeptical. Journalist Jonathan Katz makes the case that earnest Red Cross appeals may even do more harm than good.

The problem, as Katz sees it, is that the Red Cross is a dysfunctional organization that excels at raising money but has shown little evidence of its ability to spend that money wisely or meaningfully. The Red Cross takes in close to 3 billion annually, refuses to open its books to the public, and, according to Katz, has consistently failed to produce a useful breakdown of its spending after major disaster efforts.

... Red Cross perpetuates a tendency we all have to see disasters as opportunities for charity. As a result, we spend far less time thinking about how to prevent disasters in the first place. “It’s always about relief, always about helping people after it’s too late,” Katz said.

“No one makes the world a worse place when they donate to the Red Cross,” Katz told me, “but if they do donate and assume that’s enough, we’ll keep repeating this cycle over and over again.”

Obviously people need immediate help: shelter, food, clothes and the like. And perhaps the Red Cross is good at this sort of aid. But these horrible fires should also be forcing us to think about patterns of urban/rural development and land use, all in the context of a radically warming climate.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

They know

In Waslala, Nicaragua, on the edge of what we might call civilization, they know. Climate is changing and how humans live in the only world we've got has to change. This sign hangs in the office of El Porvenir in the town. This non-governmental organization, on whose board I have the honor and responsibility to serve, collaborates with rural communities to build water and sanitation facilities while protecting and preserving the health of forests, watersheds, and the land itself. In the Anthropocene age, we're all responsible, for worse and possibly for better.

How's this for a lovely site for a water tank, 1.5 kilometers from most of the clump of 65 families this little system serves -- and another several kilometers from the spring water source on the hill in the distance?

Intrepid members of the board had to scramble down muddy roads and ford a flooding stream on local horses. I'm sure our kindly Nicaraguan hosts thought many of us pretty inept!

Here's a San Francisco-based engineer from the board mugging with the Nicaraguan engineer who is supervising this project. There is joy in this work.

Of course the real payoff will be when the system is hooked up and taps like this one begin to provide water to each household.

Water does not remain clean and available without our cooperation; that's a message for our time. The good people touched by El Porvenir remind themselves and their communities of this every day. There are no days-off. But there is much we can do, together.
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