Ubiquitous Forces

March 19, 2017

031317

During the last week of her life
she stops eating, recoiling at the offer of any food.
She follows me friskily around the house, into the shower, even
dropping her usual annoyance at the threat of water.
Still, she does not eat.
During the last days of her life, she feels the unquenchable thirst.
During the last days of her life, I sit beside her and cry.
Still, she purrs readily when I pet her
slipping back into sleep within moments of my touch.
During the last day of her life, I watch while she makes her rounds
through every room of the house, visiting every favorite spot.
During the last day of her life, she stops purring.
I can no longer give her love.
Not like this.
She seems restless, yet moves less and less.
Progressively heavy, weary and weak.
Having barely broken through my fear and doubt
Having only barely begun to let go
I fetch the case, crying.
I lay it softly by the front door.
She awakens (not having moved for hours)
to collapse unconscious next to the case.
Still, ready to go.
During the last hours of her life, I cannot see her breathe
but I can clearly hear the struggle of each breath.
During the last hour of her life
I step outside into the mist of the day to dig her grave
knowing I would not have the strength later…
I want to be ready.
During the last hour of her life, she awakens
to the flow of fresh air, and slips outside through the front door.
She musters great effort to make her way through the gentle damp
around the house, to the back patio, where she lays
exhausted, recovering her strength.
Still, I watch with spading shovel in hand as she floats
down the path, by the blueberries
to sit resting on the steps leading to the creek.
I break the surface of the soil underneath her favorite fig tree.
The shovel catches on a sprinkler head.  The handle breaks.
I feel doubt swell within me, and check on her.
During the last minutes of her life, with the last of her strength
she basks in the muddy shallows of the creek
unpurturbed anymore by muck or fear of falling in.
A conspicuous line of five wild waterfowl hover before her
so close, the honorary flottila almost grounds itself ashore
disinterested in and unpurturbed by my presence.
I find comfort in this, and follow their lead.
I find another shovel, and return to my task.
When finished, I fetch the case from inside the house,
set it on the patio
and rejoin her in the muddy shallows
a few feet south along the bank
upstream, past the infamous Gate to Nowhere
(a gift of beavers to mark the return of life to the stream).
Smaller and shorter steps
Smaller and shorter breaths
before collapse
before the current takes her
and delivers her into the ready hands of Entropy.
I wish it could happen here, in the mist, among the birds
in the water, with neither suspicion nor interruption.
Lacking sufficient courage, I wish others of my species could understand.
Instead, I scoop her up.  She does not complain.
I hug her securely to my chest as I walk against gravity
up the steps to the path
past the blueberries, past the fig tree, shovel and grave
to the patio.  I lay her in the case, sad and satisfied
she has said her goodbyes.
During the last minutes of her life, we drive together to an office:
White rooms, hard corners, harsh lights.
During the last seconds of her life, I hope something smells familiar to her.
“It’s like falling asleep,” professional strangers reassure me with confidence.
I know this.  Except now she sleeps with her eyes open
and part of “how” means “where,” and I can’t help but wonder,
“What is the last scene she wants to feel?”
But I know.
She already told me.
This moment always feels like a long time coming.
I take her limp body back with me
wrapped in cloth
clutching it tight
as the colonies and communities and individuals
who had once warmly cooperated and collaborated and schemed and dreamed
to create her
cool and disintegrate and return to the earth
perhaps to pursue some other form.
This final work comes easy
aided by the ubiquitous forces of entropy, gravity, currents
I feel no struggle in death
As I walk downhill to the grave.
I cover her gently with familiar dirt.

It takes me thirty three years to grasp the relentless weight
anything but subtle as it gives meaning to the exceptional role
emerging, for a little while to move playfully
against the gradients and inevitable tendencies
always at the margins, poking, prodding, testing.
I feel the final vestige of fear dissipate.
The end no longer exists — only origin and context.
In this, I find and embrace my own death.
In this, I find and embrace my own life.

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8 lessons in handling large insurance claims

March 1, 2017

Background

A year ago to this day, a tree fell on my house.  It also smashed up my life pretty thoroughly, too.  The developer to the north cut its north-facing “anchor” roots.  Trees grow southwardly.  Lots of rain softens the soil.  Lots of wind loosens the roots.  It almost fell directly on me and some arborists as we were assessing how best to remove it before it fell.

What constitutes a “large claim” for you probably differs from me.  Insurance companies handle multi-million dollar claims.  Mine came in well-under half-a-grand.  It was still the largest single lump sum or concentrated stream of money I’ve ever handled in my life.  I’ve never written checks that big before, whereas I know that others (the 1%) deal with similarly-sized sums on a daily basis, like it’s candy.  Although this experience focuses on house insurance, many (if not all) the lessons probably apply in some form to other (e.g., car, health, etc) insurance.

I’m actually still in the middle of my claim.  I am naively posting this advice now in hopes that by doing so it will confirm that don’t have any more mistakes to make or lessons to learn.  Sadly, that’s probably not true.

The Lessons

Here is what I learned from the insurance part of the experience, consisting of mistakes I made as well as things I actually maybe did right (you guess which is which):

1. Don’t go with a low bid.  That doesn’t mean “don’t go with a low bidder” — go with whomever appears most appropriate for your situation.  But bump the bid up to somewhere near the highest bidder.  Expect and budget for contingencies and extra expenses that occur or get discovered along the way.  This will drastically reduce the number and severity of fights in request for additional money you will need to make.  Insurance companies use two metrics:  first is an absolute maximum reasonable figure, and then an “estimate creep” percentage.  They then use the adjuster and line-item assessments to determine whether to hand out more money.  They always try to hand out less money, whenever possible.  So by submitting a low estimate, you are setting yourself up for a fight later when you inevitably need more money.  Get at least three estimates, and then bump the estimate of whomever you go with up to something close to the highest estimate.

2.  Figure out your priorities.  Do you want the place “back to normal” ASAP?  Or do you want a bit more involvement and control over a more personal and slower process?  This will determine whether to go with the big insurance-based contractors or a smaller (e.g., one or two person) remodeling outfit.  The big “ambulance chaser” contractors primarily only do insurance work.  They fly in, get the job done, and fly out.  It’s a short, intensive, well-coordinated process.  Insurance companies can’t legally admit it, but they prefer such companies, because these companies pamper them, and do their work for them and show them everything they want to see and nothing more (even to the point of using the same software), drastically allowing them to cut their own labor expenses for each claim.  They are often much higher in their estimates.  Expect to do more work to coordinate between insurance and a smaller contractor for the benefit of more control over the project.  You can cut down on that work drastically by asking the contractor to make their initial estimate more in line with a higher estimate.

3.  More transparency is not always better.  Insurance companies operate heavy caseloads.  Keep communications simple, to four items: how much we think it will cost, how much it actually cost, new expenses encountered, and a new total summary estimate.  Document everything on your end, but don’t show them any additional paperwork unless the situation requires it, because your claim rep is already handling a few dozen other cases and is buried in paperwork.  Show them what they want to see:  figures matching up.  They get suspicious when things turn out “too high” (why wasn’t the money we gave you sufficient?) or “too low” (what did you do with that extra money we gave you?).  The Big Contractor software does this automatically.  You and a small contractor will have to do this sort of thing by hand.  If you are doing extra non-insurance work or repairs at the same time, there’s no need to send that documentation to insurance.  That might just confuse them and raise questions that no one really wants to ask in the first place.

4. Adjusters have a lot of discretionary power.  The claim reps in the office do not.  The adjuster is the “eyes and ears” verifying that you are being honest and that the money you need for repairs really is reasonable and appropriate to the situation.  The people in the office have to use simple formulas and can only approve small adjustments.  Be nice to everyone.  They all play important roles in getting you money to get your life back in order.  Being mean or taking frustrations on on them will only hurt that process.  Regardless, if your claim, for whatever reasons, falls outside their internal calculations, rules and discretionary power, you might have to lawyer up to get it resolved.  Just like the “insurance chasing” contractors, there’s an entire industry of “insurance chasing lawyers” who do that sort of work, because it’s such an unfortunately-common need.

5. Get the house stabilized, then decompress and take your time before jumping into the repair process.  It might sound wrong to let the momentum subside. It might make sense to “do it all in one fell swoop.”  By rushing, you risk picking a bad contractor, or a good contractor who’s not a good fit for you or the project.  Assess their honesty.  A mistake in choosing a contractor will set you up for a lot more hurt down the road.  Get estimates from only well-established, highly-recommended contractors.  If anything “feels off,” then trust your feeling and keep looking.  Choose between three solid options (ideally, a high, low and mid).  Decompressing also gives you time to do a thorough job discovering and thus ensuring that all the damage gets repaired.  Yes, technically, you can open reopen a claim within two years for additional discoveries, but it’s a lot easier for them and you if you can cover everything in a single process.

6. Ask the insurance rep or adjuster to keep emergency funds separate from the repair estimate.  Otherwise the insurance company will fold them into the estimate, effectively eating into the startup money that your contractor actually gets, unless your contractor also factors them in.  Likewise, emergency funds can go to you directly, and don’t need to be co-signed by your mortgage company, making it easier to get the repairs done and paid off so you can focus on the bigger project with a calm, clear mind.  Less work for everyone.

7. Work out cash flow expectations with your contractor on the front end.  It can take several months for the next insurance check to arrive.  Several weeks to process it, then send it out to you, then you have to send it to your mortgage company for endorsement, then you have to get it back, deposit it, and wait for the hold on funds to release.  An initial high estimate gives you some additional leeway, but make sure your contractor is prepared to stretch initial funds or work on a delayed payment.  The worst case scenario involves your contractor needing funds to continue work, whereas the insurance company needs work to complete before they hand out more money!  It’s like insurance gridlock.  Break down the project into phases.  You should have enough startup money for the first two or three phases, and should update the insurance company on actual and additional expenses before your startup money runs out, so you can get the next check before the last bunch ran out.  The higher your initial estimate, the fewer times you will need to go through this process.

8.  Be proactive.  Keep your own records in order.  Insurance companies design their record keeping to err on the conservative side.  If you don’t keep your own records in order, you might be leaving money on the table and paying much more out of pocket for repairs.  Track emergency funds separately from repair funds.  Tally all money coming in and going out.  Your contractor should account for all money spent.  Claim early, claim often.  This doesn’t mean submit multiple reports per claim event (e.g., windstorm or falling tree).  Instead, take your time and submit everything all at once per event.  Open the claim and document the damage fairly quickly.  You need to keep proof.  Then submit an addendum after a thorough search for other damage.  Maybe the fence mortally wounded a sapling you planted.  Expect at least two addendums to the initial claim.  Don’t wait for an incident to happen if you can prevent or mitigate it.  $4,000 might sound like a lot to take down a tree that’s leaning, but it’s nothing compared to the emotional and logistical (and often financial) disruption of the tree falling on your house.  Alas, in spite of our most proactive efforts, trees still fall on houses.  That, ostensibly, is why we have insurance.

Lastly, since I’m a tree-huggin’ earth muffin, proactivity means also leaving things on good terms.  I feel thankful that I had a chance to say goodbye to the tree the moment I noticed it leaning.


The Rhetoric of Love

February 28, 2017

The rhetoric of love is as hurtful as the rhetoric of hate.  Trump populism, for example, uses the rhetoric of fear and hate, targeting women and people of color.  But the empty positive, loving rhetoric on the part of a pro-establishment “progressive” liberal left does at least as much harm.

Domestic violence abusers and stalkers regularly use the phrase, “I love you” to both justify and distract from actions and impact that embody considerable hatred of themselves and others.  It is designed to break consent.  If we agree to do something, and then I use that agreement to do something else entirely, it breaks consent.  Usually, the break in consent exists strategically to extract something from or otherwise exploit another party against their will.  Malicious lawyers use this “bait and switch” tactic all the time, by getting people to “agree” to things entirely different than what they believed they were agreeing to.

If you ask me to do the dishes before you get home, and I say, “Sure thing.”  That’s a positive, affirmative response.  Then I think about doing the dishes.  Then I talk about doing the dishes.  Maybe I even study the issue with diligent rigor.  When I use an affirmational, positive and loving response as a strategy to shut you up so you stop asking me to do things, then I am exploiting and breaking consent using the “bait and switch” rhetoric of love. That amounts to a lie that I told you.  Moreso than this, it amounts to an act of manipulation and abuse.  In exploiting language and trust, I cause harm to our ability to communicate and relate to one another and our relationship.  It is a form of social control — controlling violence, and results in alienation, trauma and suspicion.

Rhetoric of the Political Establishment Left

The establishment left — which includes many self-styled liberals and progressives — often uses the rhetoric of love to protect rather than improve the status quo.  For example, as Ellen Mavrich points out, many self-styled leftists and progressives hide their passive conservatism or even active animosity toward contemporary social justice movements using the rhetoric of love.  We use the rhetoric of social justice to support the status quo, deny contemporary issues, or even criticize and undermine liberatory struggles. Mavrich acknowledges that progressives “love to emphasize [their] radical past”, and challenges us if we “pretend to be a community leading the future while we actually slink around the sidelines hiding from the bully, [then] we need to stop aligning ourselves with the truly brave people who came before. That is also an injustice.”(1)

More locally, we have cities that adopt “progressive” stances that have no real-world impact, such as “sustainability commissions,” that have no authority nor scope of work beyond doing unnecessary “research” and creating non-binding “recommendations” for decision-makers to ignore even as they trumpet their “green credentials” in reference to such commissions.  We have politicians who express empty “concern” for an issue or feigned “outrage” over systematic police brutality, but who do little or no crusading to back up their words.

The report, “City Rights in an Era of Preemption,” says 24 states have preempted local minimum wage increases; 17 have stopped paid sick or family leave; three have voided anti-discrimination protections for LGBT individuals; three have stopped laws aimed at home sharing (like AirBnB that has tightened affordable housing options); 37 have blocked local regulation of ride sharing (that compete with the more heavily licensed taxis); 17 have blocked municipal broadband (challenging telecom monopolies); and 42 have limited local taxation and spending.

http://www.alternet.org/activism/other-right-wing-tidal-wave-sweeping-america-federal-and-state-preemption-local-progressive

The result?  Pre-emption crushes social innovation. “Progressive change” gets funneled into increasingly-narrow and tightly-choreographed, heavily-scripted and regulated pro-establishment lobby theater.  Such change strategies take it as a given that they must “collaborate” with and accept institutions and interests of dominant culture at the table and take into account or even give them precedent and priority, rendering results meaningless and empty — change in name only (CHINO, if that).

Meanwhile, the participating activists have spent countless (often-unpaid) hours of labor to help make this happen, becoming, in effect, willing corporate slaves or stool-pigeons who drain precious resources from, marginalize and hide more effectual organizing strategies designed to circumvent, short-circuit or call-out this process.  Such establishment leftism does immense harm toward actual liberatory struggle, and it will continue either until the establishment crumbles or someone disrupts it.   For this reason, the pro-establishment left may constitute a higher strategic priority for direct action work than the corporate or other authoritarian institutions of dominant culture they claim to oppose, precisely because they so-effectively “run interference” as a vanguard of pro-establishment defense processes.

A Way Out and Forward

It often takes considerable courage — especially in this brave new world — to enact love beyond disposable and disingenuous rhetoric.  In contrast, using the rhetoric of love as a strategy to avoid enacting love is an act of cowardice and manipulation.  Many of us are so deeply programmed this way by our enculturation that we can’t even tell the difference in our own or others’ actions.  Whenever and wherever we can, we must stand firm to enact and embody love in spite of considerable opposition from the fear and hatred of others.  Unfortunately, it often means taking a path of more resistance.  It means holding ourselves and others accountable whenever our rhetoric diverges from our embodied actions.  This must occur not only on individual and relational levels, but institutional levels.

On deeply personal level, we can feel overwhelmed as soon as we engage in an accountability process that exposes empty rhetoric we or others around us use.  It means slowing down, scaling back and getting a more solid personal and relational foundation beneath us.  It means not promising things we can’t deliver, no matter how “well-intentioned.”  It means having a clear and honest understanding of our capacities, and holding others to account for their promises.  It can mean shifting allegiances away from behaviors, attitudes and institutions that remain unwilling or unable to remain accountable, or even actively oppose or undermine accountability itself.  Only then do we know what we actually have to work with, and only then can we plan and execute effective, sustained social change strategies that move beyond personal and relational work to target society’s institutions.

A Community Bill of Rights is one important tool among many for us to use in such processes of accountability and integrity, by helping us recognize and hold both individuals and institutions to locally-enforceable, legally-binding account when their rhetoric and “intentions” diverge from their behavior and impact.  Moreso than this, Community Bills of Rights are useful tools to help the intention and rhetoric of love re-engage with our behavior and impact, in three important ways:
1.  They allow us (we, the people) to enforce already-recognized rights locally when non-local (e.g., state or federal) institutions that supposedly recognized those rights refuse to enforce them (passive violations), or even actively violate them.
2. They allow us to recognize and elevate previously-unrecognized rights fundamental to the health, safety and welfare of natural and human communities, such as the Rights of Nature, or the right of every person to a safe shelter, or a life free from relationship violence.(2)  It allows us to bring our actions and impact closer to our intentions and rhetoric without asking distant and unaccountable authority figures for permission.
3. Community Bills of Rights allow us to address several outstanding issues of fundamental rights violations.  In a single Bill of Rights we can address workers’ and immigrants’ rights, the Rights of Nature, women’s right to body sovereignty, and other important issues of fundamental integrity.  By addressing many different issues on a single structural platform, we can create greater solidarity by building broad coalitions of support for the Community Bill of Rights.  People of privilege can use their privilege to truly listen to and address the needs of the community and lead for progressive change, which in turn creates greater community.

Footnote
(1)http://oberlinreview.org/12315/opinions/oberlin-must-stand-by-community-bill-of-rights/
(2)This was a right that existed briefly on the federal level, but was struck down by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional in the early 2000’s.  It depends on the Federal government’s authority to enforce such rights through the Commerce Clause, which treats everyone and everything in the world as a dollar value and ironically also allows the government considerable control over human behavior.  Regardless, if the powers that be can’t slap a dollar sign on it, they can’t enforce it.  This is how they enforce the EPA and civil rights laws:  by converting humans and nature into corporate profit and loss figures.  Is that right?  Read more: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1FsgPwZQtlIQDnOCDoMhZiBW1598ccSOYEELwlkHwp7M/pub#h.k8ugw2yjpmty


Trump, social institutions and the bystander effect

February 26, 2017

This is a strategic framework for surviving or even progressing in the midst of repressive political regimes, focusing on bystander organizing.

Overview

My partner is currently helping someone apply for US citizenship.  I can imagine that process feels pretty harrowing normally, let alone in today’s climate, with a xenophobic predator in chief at the figurative head of the government.  Trump has already threatened to pull federal funding from cities who act as sanctuaries for the people he intends to persecute.

Our society has a lot of active xenophobes and misogynists.  Such people worked hard to elect someone like Trump in the first place.  They have already started acting more boldly.  A lot of xenophobes and misogynists work in public and private institutions, which magnifies their potential destructive influence.  They may start to feel empowered with a mandate from above in what people perceive as the “highest political office of the nation” (more accurately it is a symbolic position that has as much power as we delegate to or allow it).  The xenophobes and misogynists are coming out of the woodwork.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  It’s a form of social and cultural honesty manifesting itself.  We know who — and what — we are working with.  They don’t have to hide.  They don’t police themselves and hide behind political correctness, because the social norms have changed.  We know how bad things truly are, and how much work we have to do to create a democratic culture of love, courage and respect.

However, the shift in the balance of power also means that many otherwise-non-misogynist and non-xenophobic people will start to silence themselves and passively “go along” with whatever tendencies emerge.  As the xenophobes and misogynists emerge and many other, competing value systems go into hiding, a progressive institution can seem to shift rather abruptly to a regressive and repressive institution, seemingly-overnight.  This happens first through a collective change in social affect, where xenophobia and misogyny become dominant norms.  Shifts in norms then create a silence amongst a passive majority, or even draw them into compliance as they seek to maintain social harmony.   Then actual shifts in policies, rules and directives occur, further marginalizing and mitigating the remaining people who refuse to remain silent.

This shift can do lots of damage.  We can prevent that damage.

Bystander Organizing

The remaining people who refuse to remain silent have the simple, albeit very difficult, task to slow, stop and even reverse these institutional shifts through strategic action.  Whether and how such people act in this shifting climate will determine in large part the extent and quality of the damage that the xenophobes and misogynists are able to do with their growing institutional power.  Strategically, we can act to limit the damage, viewing this as a “temporary shift in climate” while ignoring its roots in our culture. We can call this the “Tough out the four years” strategy.  It is a strategy that both assumes and facilitates failure.  More fundamentally, we can work to awaken and activate bystanders from their state of passive silence and compliance.  The more proactive we are with this, the easier our task of limiting damage and holding a line against authoritarian regression will become.  The longer we wait, the harder the task will become, up to the point of becoming impossible.

Bystander activation itself becomes much more effective through a strategic process of triage.  We can call strategically-focused bystander activation “bystander organizing.”  We target and activate those most sensitive and courageous first (before we get bound, gagged and dragged off to the gallows), and then use our growing numbers to increasingly activate others in turn and normalize a culture, first of resistance, and then prevention.  When bystander activation and organizing occurs promptly, an institution can effectively hold a line against social regression, or even continue progress making — even leaps and bounds of progress (albeit in the midst of a lot more conflict) — during an authoritarian regime.

Isolated institutions, when transparent and public about their activation, can in turn inspire and agitate others, transforming pockets of resistance to a unified solidarity network.  So anyone in a position of public or private institutional influence can use their institutional power responsibly, act strategically.  We have work to do to make this land more just, more free, more inclusive.  We have people (such as xenophobes and misogynists) to identify and hold to account, including, but not anywhere-near limited to, the new predator-in-chief.  Including friends, family and coworkers.  Our bosses and employees.  Trump emerged from US mainstream culture.  Until we change the culture, the threat he symbolizes will remain:  his supporters, those who comply, and those who consider him an alien rather than emergent threat.

Indicators of Institutional Shifts

Indicators of shifts in institutional culture include both informal and formal factors, such as memos, new “policies,” personnel behavior, and enforcement of accountability for professional, ethical behavior, and institutional mission or focus.  Examples of shifts in sexism include increased harassment of women, male coworkers or employees behaving in oppositional or defiant ways to female coworkers or bosses (which can include more gender-based “jokes” about female authority), and bosses silencing or exploiting female employees.  Gender minorities may also receive similar treatment.  Similarly racist or classist behaviors may start to occur.

The adoption of discriminatory policies (let alone behaviors and attitudes), even when technically-illegal or unconstitutional, may appear (or actually) have the support of the President of the US.  Such policies can focus inward, on the management of the institution itself (e.g., stripping female employees of paid maternity leave, or claiming to “recognize white genocide” or “reverse racism” or “reverse sexism” as a real issue requiring affirmative action or equal opportunity or “increased accountability”).  Likewise, such policies can project outward, toward the people whom the institution should ostensibly serve (such as in the administration of health care or insurance, or work training and placement programs, or with immigrants applying for US citizenship).

Initial shifts can occur more subtly, with a “testing of the waters,” occurring through increased frequency of racially- or sexually-charged “joking,” a vanguard of indicator and agent of shifting cultural norms.  These initial shifts can easily and disable any extant accountability structures, policies or processes that were probably overwhelmed and under-responsive to begin with.  Those who have already faced such challenges in their work life may notice an increase in both frequency or intensity of behavior or other indicators of a cultural shift into line with the repressive regime.  Regardless of the level of formality, these shifts occur due to a perceived (and often real) sense of support or even mandate from those higher in the social hierarchy, and a perceived lack of consequences for abandoning what was previously the politically-correct behavior.  In fact, such people are simply adopting (sometimes passively, sometimes willingly and actively) the new politically-correct behavior, which happens to include misogyny and xenophobia.

The fact of the matter is, though, that enough caring people exist, generally-speaking, in every institution for that institution to hold a line against slipping toward repressive culture or policy.  What matters is whether we act strategically in a manner to amplify our impact and influence.


An ode to old white liberals (OWLs)

February 25, 2017

020317

dedication:
for David Rakoff (I ask that the reader channel the gentle cadence his voice humming softly in their ear)
and Phil Ochs (for obvious reasons)
to honor the youth (that they may one day similarly smote my mole hill of praise upon the mountain of their triumph)
in memory of Toby Hemenway’s beautiful vision of direct action toward collective liberatory struggle.

Ye Olde Whyte Liberals
the literally self-appointed gatekeepers of progress
the practice of Deep Green Navel Gazing, or
the weighty philosophy of the Practicality Police
(choose either one to)
sandwich yourself between:

a Salem Sustainability Circle Jerk
(not even the courtesy of a reach-around)
i crash the celebration of mediocrity
(how’s your relationship?  sustainable? meh…
but even still, mediocrity is a better goal than what we currently have, so)
I’m glad you all agree, what do you plan to do about it, though?

while comfortable, pampered straight middle class white men
tell me what “we” can get (who is “we?”)
without any discussion of what we, the people, need
because justice for the homeless, and
clean, breathable air, and drinkable water are impractical.
Sanctuary and respect for the rights of (migrant) workers is impractical
(someone might slap our wrists).
Women who want the vote are impractical.  They got their wrists slapped.
Abolishing slavery is impractical.  Sorry, are “we” being too uppity?

Are? Were?  I fail to see the distinction between
Yesterday and today’s guardians of the status quo
self-styled “allies,” the first enemies of justice,
and the first to (pro)claim victory whenever it prevails.
In spite of, not because of their participation.
But not according to history, as they write it:
white-washed, man-washed, class-washed
clean and pure
in a rich, soapy lather of unexamined privilege.

Liberal?  conservative, with a small “c.”  But only if “we” are (were?) lucky.
Otherwise, reactionary.  Like the rest of the establishment types:

I pledge allegiance
To the Status Quo, and
the injustice for which it stands.
One Pyramid Scheme
Under Fraud
With Liberty and Justice
For OWLs
In the State of Denial.

“State of denial?”
their reproachful echo arrives on-time
almost gasping with well-practiced confusion
at the mere suggestion of imperfection
yet the condescending correction inevitably comes with dough-eyed precision:
“Dearheart…this is Oregon.”


Why the Salem Food Co-op failed

February 24, 2017

Ten Lessons from a founding member (steering committee and founding board member 2010 – 2014)

INTRODUCTION
This piece results from reflection on several factors that ultimately contributed to the demise of the Salem Food Co-op (SFC) project. I wrote it first and foremost for myself, to help articulate and clarify my pathway forward. I share it in hopes that it will help others in their community development work, by aiding in the identification and avoidance of red flags to fight self-sabotaging project failure and individuals’ unwitting participation in such self-sabotaging processes, ultimately to better respect and render effective time and energy spent toward building a better community.

10 RED FLAGS

1) First, the food co-op started with limited outreach to white godless middle class liberals. Note that I don’t use the phrase “white godless middle class liberals” as a pejorative. Rather, it is only a very limited demographic group (one that includes me). We might more accurately substitute “secular” for “godless,” as, the initial outreach did not include churches, nor did it include minority or marginalized populations and related local organizations (SKCE, NAACP, SLF, etc).

Such a narrow initial frame for the project compounded later problems. Project leaders assumed that whoever showed up as a result was “the community” and thus (yet again) erased people of color, ESL speakers, and others from the possibility of engagement and participation unless it was completely on the terms of the narrow white, middle class godless liberal frame. I fit that same narrow demographic group (which is probably why I became a founding member), and even I found the space to be unnecessarily conservative and restrictive — to the point of being claustrophobic, with constant subtle and passive-aggressive social norming to separate outliers from the “in-group.”

See Julie Guthman’s “Unbearable Whiteness of the Alternative Food Movement” for more on this topic. De facto discrimination and segregation can look more like passivity than active prejudice. For example, by putting all outreach materials in English only, by reaching out to primarily-white institutions and groups, this projects a coded message to community members who don’t fit that demographic that, “this is another white people project.” It also projects a coded message to white supremacist community members and institutions that the status quo supports their prejudice, which intensifies racism, etc in the community as a result.

2) Second, the core founding group (which later became part of the steering committee and the founding board) started and stuck with a very narrow, naive and inflexible idea of what a food co-op was. They were stuck in the romanticization of the food cooperative movement of the 70s, and wanted to transplant that through time and space into the contemporary Salem economy. They did not do research into the full breadth of cooperative possibilities, and thus could not imagine — let alone communicate — anything beyond, “I want a member-owned version of LifeSource” [the local privately-owned friendly, well-staffed and well-managed “natural foods” store] to the community, which sounded redundant to most folks. LifeSource already effectively fills that economic niche, and does a solid job at it.

In contrast, the founding group did not care to learn what other problems, needs and thus opportunities existed in the community around food issues. They did group work to move the project forward, but their participation in part served to retain control of this narrow vision and prevent broadening of possibilities. Some even said they would leave if the group even considered other possibilities than what they wanted (a brick and mortar granola store). The presence of such manipulative and threatening behavior in the early group formation itself is a huge red flag that I ignored — especially because many of these people stayed on-board!

3) Third, the board did not listen to or follow the advice of experts — such as the Food Cooperative Development Initiative and the NW Cooperative Development Center and local seasoned business owners and the local SBDC. The few cooperative projects that withstand the test of time treat the strategic planning, research and outreach process seriously, whereas key members of the SFC board just dismissed the process as redundant or even threatening to their vision. They payed lip-service to these fantastic (and freely-available) expert resources, but did not actually want to follow through with the planning process, for example, treating the business planning process as a mere “formality.” As a steering committee and board, we did not take the time to understand what the actual community (and all its participants) really wanted or needed, and where, when and how a co-op project might meet those needs, let alone whether it could at all. Other participants did not seem able to see through their narrow blinders in interpreting the information offered (so everything became about building a “brick and mortar” store).

Starting a co-op is a lot like building an intentional community, and it takes a lot of time and energy building and solidifying the (often-invisible) foundations for success. Most successful co-ops (and intentional communities) don’t start operations until several (often 5-7) years of intensive development and planning work, which includes lots of research and evolution and even complete reboots and changes in direction.

4) Fourth, we prematurely started and expanded operations (vs intensive planning and development, which the above factors short-circuited). Unwilling to give the development process the time, energy and respect it deserved, the founding members jumped at the opportunity to just “start doing it,” nevermind that we did not yet have a clear vision of what “it” meant, and that most of Salem did not share the specific implementation of the larger vision that certain members of the board insisted on. This lead to SFC naively taking over a private bulk food buying club (a very different operation than — albeit potentially part of — a cooperative effort), whose founding leaders wanted to step back. Seeing this only as an opportunity (rather than a more complex situation that included significant threats to the project), we just “started doing it” without having a clear understanding of what it is we were doing, or how we were doing it, or what the risks were. The project soon found itself in a vicious operational cycle of paying off its increasing liabilities via operations that reaffirmed the existence of those liabilities. Planning and development work all but stalled.

5) Fifth, we imposed ourselves on the community. Unwilling and unable to research and understand the full scope and potential of this project, we tried to shoehorn a narrow and exclusive vision into the Salem economy, ignoring available economic niches while trying to establish ourselves in highly competitive, well-developed ones. When we took over the buying club, we destroyed it. The buying club emerged to fill a need. Rather than letting it continue or fade on its own terms, we tried to co-opt its membership for our purposes. The SFC board forced the change from a buying club to a co-op, raised the prices, made the process more complicated, and then said it was all “for the best” without even first developing a relationship with the club’s members. It resembled a hostile takeover. Lo and behold, member participation dropped off sharply in a few buying cycles, leaving SFC with a bad public reputation (from people who might otherwise have been our core supporters and membership, no less!) and an operational burden. Such tactics only work with virtual monopolies — and besides, is that really what SFC was going for?

6) Sixth, we exploited participants. By prematurely jumping into operations, we struggled to perform even basic operational tasks. Management each order cycle was a frantic, stressful mess. There weren’t enough volunteers to help, in part because of an over-reliance on volunteers. Board members vetoed any serious consideration of hiring paid staff (at any level), even when we finally had the budget for it. Similarly, board members mired in endless operational obligations every order cycle began questioning the motives and commitment of the few board members trying to stay focused on overall project management, planning, research and development in order to pressure them to “help out more,” as if the development even of operational policies and procedures and critical path planning wasn’t “helping out.” This created more internal board tension. We misused the resources available to us, then ironically wondered why we didn’t have “enough.” The project started to become a black hole for time and energy. Overwhelmed board members began co-opting the time of friends and family.  Cue the burnout!

7) Seventh, we got sucked into pettiness. Rather than fostering partnerships and mutual development with other local and artisan food projects, we saw other local markets and producers as competitors for the same small demographic group of people who buy their food from local producers and markets (or even a small subsection of that demographic group). The local and artisan food movements compete mostly against the industrial food system. Through our passive contribution to and participation in petty infighting instead of active leadership, we undermined our ability to compete and intensified the competition over a small sliver of the overall potential market. This is another reason why SFC struggled financially, and the stress and desperation of the volunteers began to show. In the end, the food co-op even placed blame on the community with a backhanded comment about them not “embracing this opportunity.”

8) Eighth, the board participated in chauvinistic magical thinking. We believed for the most part that if we just started offering a few local products from local farmers and mostly bulk options (creating a market penetration redundant to LifeSource and existing farmer’s markets) that people would just “flock” to the co-op and ask to become members. We thought that the co-op would boom without years of careful planning and outreach and niche research and strategy. Without a carefully-crafted vision that was well-communicated to — let alone shared by — the community. We just assumed that the vision was shared, the need for it “obvious,” and ultimately that the community wanted or needed whatever SFC felt they wanted or needed. We did not even listen to ourselves when “the brick and mortar board members” said they really just wanted “a community space” — something very different than a food co-op (although some overlap can exist). We had no concern for developing management and operating policies and practices and procedures, expecting those to “just arise” out of the process. We also thought that a new software system or website would solve many of these problems and more.

9) Ninth, the project evolved from being passively classist and racist into being actively-discriminatory. Several people who became central founding members of the board even openly expressed insecure animosity toward religion and churches at board meetings, as if open animosity toward and exclusion of religious participation was necessary to maintain the co-op project as a secular space. They even did this when new potential board members showed up, as if to “vet” such potential members. The fundamental fear and insecurity behind such practices also led toward a patronizing and negative attitude toward the Salem community they ostensibly sought to serve.  I believe that much of this happened because those of us who disagreed nonetheless chose to remain silent while others publicly spouted strong negative opinions.

10) Tenth, we did not accept accountability or feedback. We failed to recognize all the myriad red flags and question whether we were doing anything wrong, or whether we had gotten our priorities mixed up. Desperate and disorganized operational concerns for current order cycles pervaded and co-opted board planning and retreat spaces, increasing internal tension. When the project inevitably shattered and broke, the remaining members were so burnt out that we could not even consider a reboot or a change in strategy or direction. We lacked flexibility and adaptability in pursing the vision and mission we claimed to represent. Whatever we did was “right” and “correct” and if it didn’t work, then it wasn’t because we did things wrong or poorly, but because “Salem didn’t step up to this opportunity.” We blamed others for our mistakes — even, ironically, the very people we claimed to be “serving,” e.g., for not “buying enough.”

This isn’t to say that the board did everything wrong, or that there weren’t other external mitigating factors. There were. But those factors always exist — the difference between success and failure falls with whether and how people acknowledge and address those factors, or whether they ignore or dismiss them. Although we can never guarantee success, we can guarantee failure by sabotaging ourselves (regardless of the reason or motives for doing so). While the above list is not exhaustive, it does unfortunately comprise a solid recipe for failure.

CONCLUSION
I had a lot of hope for this project, which is why I began participation early in the steering committee and became a founding board member. Participation in this project ultimate became very stressful and time consuming, which I shrugged off as an inherent aspect of project work. But I refused to ignore many red flags, perhaps due to the sunk cost fallacy (I’ve already committed countless hours, I can’t back out now!). The other red flags I only addressed as isolated issues rather than seeing them as part of a larger pattern of attitudes and behaviors sabotaging the integrity of the project. It’s always difficult to evaluate such circumstances when you are immersed in them, especially when you really want things to go well and you’ve already invested hundreds and hundreds of hours.

Ultimately, I learned a lot from my participation. In addition to the lessons above, I conducted a lot of research, and developed considerable expertise on cooperative structures (even compiling a resource used by NWCDC). Still, I wish I had the clarity of mind to step back earlier than I did. My sin was not in failing to see red flags, but failing to connect them together. My own wishful thinking kept me captive to the belief that I could make a difference if I just tried harder, put in a few more hours, etc. Instead, my continued participation only further enabled the pathological process and delayed the inevitable demise of the project.

Cooperatives are interesting structures. They aim for the best, but can ironically bring out the worst. I still believe they have a lot of potential for community building and economic empowerment, but only in recognizing and addressing two large challenges of our society:

  1. The fact that our legal and economic and cultural systems often exhibit open hostility toward — let alone near-complete lack of support for — such projects, and
  2. We all bring baggage into cooperative project spaces — both individual and institutional (e.g., colonizing processes and participation in imperialist structures of the larger society).

If the participants can’t acknowledge and deal with that baggage, then it sabotages the project, which can even provide a platform for and amplify the impact of pathological process and behavior. This baggage looks like both structural and internalized oppression: classism, racism, sexism, dogma (including secular dogma!), etc. In the very least, such baggage, left unaddressed, impedes our ability to overcome or navigate the first challenge (lack of support from a hostile establishment). If this becomes people’s experience with cooperatives, then they might actually start seeing cooperatives as a “bad thing,” which is unfair both to the cooperative movement and to them inasmuch as cooperatives, when well-executed, can be fantastic forces of community building and economic empowerment.

I’m not the only one soured on cooperatives.  Austrian agroforestry expert Sepp Holzer wonders out loud of farmers emprisoned in cooperative contracts that hold the market hostage, force financial losses, and prevent both farm and market innovation and evolution in his book, Sepp Holzer’s Permaculture:

How long will it take for farmers to free themselves of the shackles of cooperatives and make their way to independence?

Cooperatives are not inherently good or revolutionary, but are socioeconomic tools.  Like any tool they can be used to exploit others.  Or, ideally, we can use them to create the beautiful human economy of the sort that luminaries such as EF Schumacher envisioned.

I still think there’s room (even need and demand) for an entire network of cooperatives in the Salem economy that truly help people meet currently-unmet or poorly-met needs: childcare, urban food production, affordable housing, food distribution (esp. to food deserts), time banking. But such projects need to start with a fundamentally-different ethic than the status quo: open-minded, inclusive, exploratory, responsive, accountable. Until then I have promised myself the integrity to abstain from participation in projects that exhibit any (especially several) of the above red flags, because doing so ultimately wastes time and energy, enables more oppressive pathology, and harms the participants and the larger community.


Salem, the awkward middle child of urban Oregon

February 22, 2017

An alienated insider’s guide for those who have never been, those who will never be, and those who will never leave.

written 082915, dedicated to the memory of David Rakoff

Geographically, the desertifying lump of civil concrete we call Salem sits in between Portland and Eugene, the other two largest concrete lumps of capital accumulation in the once-lush Willamette River Valley of the Pacific Northwest. Neither the largest nor the smallest, Salem seems to disappear comfortably somewhere in the cozy middle of nowhere. People arrive in Salem for two main reasons: 1. They are passing through on their way north or south along the I-5 transportation corridor, and perhaps hope to find a serviceable gas station bathroom and sandwich shop that doesn’t serve as a front for a child sex trafficking operation or 2. They have economic or political business with the State or its minions.

We might call Portland the eldest of three siblings. While New Yorkers call Portland a “quaint little town,” Oregonians know it as the Big City of Oregon. Rose City, Rip City, P-town, Stumptown, PDX, Pornland, it has more nicknames than some of the most renowned narcissists in the annals of history, and wears them with ironic — if solid — pride. Eugene, the southernmost of the metropolitan siblings, serves well as the youngest of the three, right on down to its liberally-entrenched sense of baseless entitlement to everything Portland has and more.

Eugene is the seat of the University of Oregon, the second-largest of six state universities. Eugene finds much of its cultural and economic footing in the College Town trope. Hip, cool, perpetually young. Likewise, Portland houses the most-populous Portland State University, while Corvallis (a fourth, adopted child of Oregon we will not concern ourselves with in this essay) houses third-largest Oregon State University and as such will forever play second fiddle to Eugene.

In contrast, Salem itself has no large university. A malnourished Western Oregon University cools its heels rather quietly on the inconspicuous outskirts of the Salem Metropolitan area, in a suburb known as Monmouth. Instead, Salem houses Willamette University, a small private liberal arts college that every year attracts into the crystal clear waters of its cozy little pond a new school of well-funded (if deliberately under-dressed) “middle class” Big Fish who, as a general rule, throw four years’-worth of their parents’ ample money and misguided attitude at Salem before they inevitably migrate north to the cooler waters of Portland, whereupon they find that they fit in better with others who share their dialectical mix of disaffected optimism disguising a deep-seeded sense of personal discomfort (for all their feigned classlessness, Willamette graduates don’t dare stay in Salem, with its affordable rent, for as every trendy new Portlander surely knows, if you can afford to live there, it’s probably not worth it).

Who can blame them? Whatever the bottomless soul of the consumer-citizen desires, Portland claims to have it (as the kombucha capitol of the country, in some parts of the city you can spy small gentrifying neighborhood collectives cooperatively raising goats and chickens in lieu of children). Portland, in its manic-depressive attempt to be Everything to Everyone(1), sprouts coffee shops at densities approaching one per caffeine-addicted resident (this much-romanticized colonial drug commodity trade manages to avoid a clash with Portland’s self-styled counter-culture couture in large part through enthusiastically ubiquitous ejaculations of signage everywhere proclaiming, “local brew!” which, if we take in their sum totality at face value, apparently means that the coffee plant somehow now grows somewhere in the the Pacific Northwest! Why aren’t there more people talking about this revolutionary breakthrough in plant breeding and post-colonial economic practice?). This constant flood of caffeine mixes with tattoos and irony to provide ample chemical and social fuel for arm-chair politiking and micro-entrepreneurial efforts to further subdivide already severely-dissected market niches: If enough people continually throw themselves at bad ideas, then those of us outsiders who watch with an air of overwhelmed confusion will inevitably miss their stale crash and burn after a few months (normally) or years (for the relatively successful ones), buried somewhere amidst the endless incoming torrent of newly-minted bright-eyed, bushy-tailed micro-entrepreneurs fresh off the printing press. Collective failure starts looking like a grand success in the apparent-absence of unexamined attrition rates. Suddenly, someone’s childhood dream (from three weeks ago, fueled in equal parts by caffeine and disaffected desparation) of opening a Micronesian Tex-Mex “ethnic fusion” grocer catering specifically to smartphone app-wielding ride-thru bicyclists might not seem like such a bad idea after all…A specialty store focusing specifically on salts and chocolates? Sure! What the casual, outside observer might call a grab-bag collective of random mishmash specialty trends, the Portlander affectionately refers to as, “inspiration!”

Portland contains PDX, that is to say, the Portland International Airport (whose abbreviated name the city took for itself during a period of narcissistic identity acquisition). If you, Dear Oregonian, want to fly anywhere else of “significance,” you have to go through PDX first. The bus and train run through Salem, though. Economically, Salem is neither really rural agricultural nor mercantile nor based on the presence of a large education institution nor culturally hip. Not even Burgerville, a local staple of the northwest fast food landscape with the odd outpost in rural Monmouth(!) and Albany(!), will bother with Salem-proper. Instead, Salem possesses the unique political burden of housing the State capitol of Oregon, including many of its State administrative offices (the rest reside deferentially in Portland because…well, “it’s Portland”). That is to say, Salem’s economy depends almost entirely upon the State administrative class, that is to say, upon pedantic rules, their robotic followers, their eery enforcers and the bureaucratic hives they inhabit for the exact equivalent of eight hours five days a week minus vacation and sick days. Lobbyists of both well-funded private and unfunded public interests also play a vital role in the nested parasitism of the State political economy.

While Salem may lack the “higher” (than thou) educational institutions of its younger and bigger siblings, it does not generally lack in the presence of state-run educational institutions per se. Salem serves as the bed and breakfast for nearly half of Oregon’s euphemistically-labeled “correctional” facilities (Mill Creek Correctional [sic] Facility, Oregon State Correctional [sic] Institution, Oregon State Penitentiary, Santiam Correctional [sic] Institution, Hillcrest Youth Correctional [sic] Facility, and Oak Creek Correctional [sic] Facility) as well as the Oregon State (psychiatric) Hospital, housing well over a quarter (27%) of Oregon’s total inmate population.(3) When the convicts and mental patients get released, they find their way into Salem first and foremost, alongside its similarly-disproportionate slice of the growing homeless and discarded veteran populations. Strategic on their part as social outcasts, for in the shadow of the government, they will forever remain the lesser of two evils in the eyes of the general populace.

The anglicized word “Salem” comes from Hebrew/Arabic “Shalom”/”Salaam,” meaning “peace.” So we might accurately (and redundantly) call Salem the “City of Peace.” While I don’t dispute this label, I will probably quibble with the exact vision of “peace” that Salem supposedly pursues.

On the one hand, the municipal corporation of Salem itself exists in the shadow of the State capitol, creating a perennial “mini-me” Napolean Complex for those who, if we wish to believe the bumper stickers, “give a shit about Salem,” and want to “Make Salem Awesome.” If we see the cities as siblings, and the State as their parents, then Salem and her inhabitants become the pitiful Offspring Who Never Left The Nest, remaining intimately mired in all the familiar baggage that drives the other siblings to keep their distance. In return, Salem residents receive the dubiously over-funded services of eerily-reliable, empowered Meter Maids and enthusiastically-zealous Code Compliance Officers who role out of bed every morning with a smile on their face as they start another day of diligent and rewarding work to make the City of Peace the “most compliant place on earth.” The host City, after all, must remain friendly to the State parasite.

On the other hand, when the State collapses, so will Salem’s economy. Call it a co-dependent, love-hate relationship, and you might be right. Nevermind its independent history before the rise of the state — Salem now exists, in large part, as an empty shell, a host for the bureaucratic parasite, although sometimes I question exactly who parasitizes whom.

Both Portland and Eugene have well-established and well-hyped reputations and identities. They have branded themselves: hip(ster), young, trendy, green(washed). “Sustainable.” “Progressive.” Tattoo’d. Spectacled. Unwashed. Gentrifying. Bereft of Adult Supervision. This branding has infected the minds of their youngest, whitest, trendiest inhabitants, many of whom brought the infection with them in the first place. Both cities have proudly developed proprietary rebrands of pseudo-radical politics, something they seem to pull off quite effectively given the glows of admiration and glares of derision they receive from the political left and right, respectively. The ruralites tend to stay away from these places, except to do reluctant business with them, giving only occasional pause to wonder where the money of their more cosmopolitan counterparts actually comes from (nevermind legality or inflation — is it hip and trendy enough for Portlanders to print their own?).

Many people in Salem reject these trends in conflicting fits of ironic jealousy. “We want those things…we just don’t want to work for it.” In all fairness, trendiness entails an awful lot of work — more weekly work than most of us want to do, already exhausted from six days’ worth of oiling creaky gears and hinges and servicing the stiff pistons of the State apparatus all the while feeding its busy (if not necessarily productive) worker bots and bees. The willful self-exploitation of micro-enterprise is sexy right now, and Salem is simply not hot enough to pass muster after a hard day’s work. Instead, Salem’s philosophy of “peace” may rest more in a spiritually-cynical faith than raw, material sex appeal. Those trends that Salem finds unavoidable, thanks to an endemic “Me, too!” chorus of Napoleonic Mini-Me’s, receive a particularly half-assed implementation of the “too little, too late” variety. Food carts? Sure, we’ll do those. Days late and dollars short, Salem and the suckling State will milk a few food carts for all they are worth (or maybe it’s vice-versa) before the trend (and perhaps the economy itself) collapses completely.

A peculiar pathology of a more mundane sort infects the minds of Salem residents, encapsulated in the Krishnamurti quote, “It is no measure of health to be well-adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” Many of us exist mired in and subservient to myriad State bureaucracies and their municipal minions and Mini-Me’s. Others want to (sort-of) do the awkward “me too’s” of trendy Portland and Eugene. And a well-trained semi-professional militia of yawning mouths stands ever-ready to meet, patronize and sabotage any earnest effort (no matter how small or slight) toward optimistic change, even those of the “too little, too late” sort. Mental patients and convicts take note: the inmates run the asylum. It seems salient that I found some solace in a famous sociology study entitled, “On being sane in insane places,”(2) upon moving to Salem so many sleepy years ago.

Cities entice us through a Mumfordian Magnificent Bribe. As centers of accumulation (in Portland’s case, specifically the accumulation of trends), they offer us the potential of access to copious resources (people and stuff), but only if we accept the myriad shitty downsides as well. The City looks down at us, folds its arms and says, “All or nothing.” When we see cities as bodies of sorts, then we might recognize the Religion of Urbanism as a particularly repressive form of Catholicism treating “that icky stuff coming out the other end” with fear, shame, loathing and disgust. Yes, everybody poops. Cities like Portland and Eugene ignore, minimize and externalize their shit (City of Roses, you say?). Deep Green Navel Gazing and other so-called “sustainability” practices help as cities pimp themselves into positions of ever-greater accumulation in their willing pursuit of All. Show me a city that offers you All the benefits yet None of the drawbacks, and I will show you a perfect marketing lie immersed in the inverse magic of low expectations (How’s your marriage? Is it “sustainable,” as well?). This strategy works for a time but, as every good Catholic knows, it catches up with us eventually. Things seem great, then suddenly you find yourself neck-deep in the mountains of shit (yours and others’) that you can no longer ignore and should have dealt with years ago. While Portland and Eugene make vain-but-valiant Johnny-come-lately efforts to hold their nose and compost their new-found (and growing) backlog of excremental output, Salem takes a different approach to this same problem: As realistics, we take the All or Nothing resolution for granted, and err on the side of Nothing. We don’t want to deal with the shit, so we just won’t eat. Less accumulation, less opportunity, but also, in the long run, less icky stuff comes out the other end for us to deal with down the road. Nutrient cycling be-damned.

A small-but-committed group of Salem residents seem to see opportunity and resilience within this self-imposed austerity. This phenomenon manifests as a mutual refusal to feel well-adjusted to the profoundly sick urbanizing rat race. Many of these people seem to have strong spiritual foundations grounded in the material realities of everyday life. And therein lies the realist promise of Salem: less shit than Portland and Eugene. Salem’s promise lies not in its race toward utopia, but toward the potential it has to avoid dystopia (inasmuch as we can find any meaningful difference between the two). Salem lives not with a longing gaze toward the Heavens of Unlimited Possibility akin to ambitious sister cities Portland and Eugene, but in an abject aversion to Hell, perhaps because those who live here feel like we’re already there. Whether Salem will live up (or down, as it were) to this potential remains to be seen…but if cities must exist, I like the apathetic odds of Salem better than the even fates of Portland and Eugene, cities that thrive in denial even as they drown in the shit they produce while trying to keep their heads above the rising tide of shit (that they produce).

“Salem” may mean “less awesome” when projected through the insecure eyes of her more ambitious siblings, but it also means, “less shitty.” I propose a new bumper sticker for Salem, more suitable to the city’s tendencies: Keep Salem Sleepy. To Hell with Municipal Ambition. I say, abandon the rat race, coddle the state parasite if we must, embrace the awkward self-conscious confusion and get rid of the self-imposed Napolean Complex confining Salem to the lumpy whims of Portland, Eugene and the predictable grind of the State machinery. Salem will survive in some manner and find its salvation in a special form of sloth representing its strategically-cynical resistance to the shitty pathology of Urban Optimism. When cities the world over finally fall apart in the coming years of the apocalyptic collapse of pretense that eventually consumes every civilization, Salem will yawn, pull the covers up and promptly return to the pleasant dream it was enjoying before something so rudely disturbed its peaceful slumber. Salem will not fall into the abyss and break, because it’s already at the bottom. Salem, like The Dude(3), abides.

The author resides in an unremarkable place approximately 45 miles south of Portland, where they enjoy spending time outdoors burning large stacks of Portland Monthly magazines in effigy as part of their small effort to make the world slightly less disgusting.

FOOTNOTES
(1) Except black people, homeless people, or especially, homeless black people, of course
(2) Rosenhan, “On Being Sane in Insane Places,” Science, 1973
(3) data from Wikipedia
(4) (of the Cohen Brothers’ eponymous Big Lebowski)