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RAGBRAI 2022

August 2, 2022

My annual travels back to Iowa continued in July of 2022 as I joined the week-long RAGBRAI ride across Iowa. My fifth time.

Again we were blessed with unseasonably mild weather, even though our time on the road was bookended by dreadfully humid heat in the previous and following weeks. Again, the fellowship of my cycling teams, the NPR riders and Team Groucho, provided laughter and wit that made time fly by.

On our first night of RAGBRAI we slept in a veritable mansion, owned by a Sioux City factory owner who was gone on vacation but left us with his residence, a large collection of liquor (which we did not use) and a heated swimming pool (which we did).

The next night some of us slept in a huge country shed on a local farm that doubled as an antique store and a collection of curiosities, which included rusting farm tools, store signs and road signs and useful machine parts. As far as I could tell, it was all for sale. It was a scene straight out of the TV show American Pickers.

The farm family that hosted us was white and Laotian, the latter group having become Iowans as two and three generations have set down roots and their offspring were scattered to the nearby towns. They spoke in the same Midwestern accent as the German and Scandinavian descendants.

In Floyd County our host was an eccentric farmer/politician. He served for many years in the state legislature and also served on a tennis court that was one of a kind. His love of the game, and the Wimbledon tournament, was seen in the flawless grass court he maintained on his property. I borrowed a racket and hit the ball on that organic carpet with our host and with my RAGBRAI buddy Megan Danforth, who played pretty well although she played in bare feet and claimed to have not swung a racket in 20 years.

This was a new twist on my childhood experience of traveling from one place to the other in Iowa to take part in junior tennis tournaments. I learned to play tennis in Iowa and here I was, playing on some guy’s private grass court right next to a corn field!

RAGBRAI is a magnet for people from around the country and the culture of the event suggests a return to small town life and values. Nobody… I mean nobody locks their bike on RAGBRAI. Doing so would violate an article of faith.

But the reality of rural life was seen alongside the one we imagined. Iowa has changed since I lived there as a kid but it has not kept up, and this has become apparent to me over the years that I have been a visitor from the California coast. The small towns we rode through looked empty. Their people looked old and obesity was a common problem. Once a swing state, politically, Iowa has become a reliably Red state where the GOP controls all the powers of state government. It’s a state with lots of conservative white folks that Donald Trump flatters and who must resent the well-heeled smart asses who live in big cities.

Riding on RAGBRAI, I’ll admit, you can be like the blind man feeling the elephant and so maybe what you see can be misleading. So don’t let me tell you that Iowa is only one thing, since it is full of people and stories that contradict what I just described.

It’s funny when I hear myself say Iowa used to be a swing state or, as we’d say today, a Purple state. Didn’t all states use to be swing states? How else could a presidential candidate like Ronald Reagan win nearly every state on election day. We used to think more alike and agree on more things.

Sadly we’re now a country of people going our separate ways, and after five visits I think I know better which way my former home state is headed.

 

Did Republicans REALLY Want ‘Roe’ Overturned?

June 24, 2022

Be careful what you ask for.

It’s a handy old saying and one that I think Republicans are thinking about right now. Maybe they should have been more careful.

This morning the US Supreme Court released its decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. It effectively overturned Roe v. Wade, the precedent that guaranteed the right to an abortion. That means outlawing abortion or keeping it legal will be up to the legislative branch. It becomes a matter of state politics, not constitutional law.

So where does political support for abortion stand in the USA?

Lots of polling has been done on this, and responses on the issue depend on how you asked the question. A Pew Research Center survey asked the respondents if abolition should be legal in all or most cases: 61 percent said yes. Only 37 percent said abortion should be illegal in all or most cases.

A Gallop poll asked people if they think abortion should be legal under some circumstances(50 percent said yes), legal in all circumstances(35 percent), or illegal in all circumstances(13 percent).

What the polls have in common is evidence of strong political support for legal abortion. And Republicans want abortion left to the political process? Really??

Like I said. Be careful what you ask for.

Let me tell you another story about something Republicans claimed they wanted: Defunding the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB).  I’ve worked in public radio for a long time and, for a long time, I’ve seen Republicans in Congress propose and sometimes pass bills to pull all government funding from public radio and TV stations.

Over the years, you’d see one chamber of Congress, controlled by the GOP, pass a bill to defund the CPB. Democrats who controlled the other chamber would refuse to pass it.  When there was a Democratic president, everyone was pretty sure he would veto any such bill that came to his desk.

Then comes 2016, and for two years Republicans controlled the House and the Senate and they had a Republican president, Donald Trump. Suddenly, Republicans weren’t passing bills to defund the CPB. They had the votes. They had a sympathetic president. In fact, Trump proposed a budget in 2017 that would have cut all funding to the CPB. But the push to defund in Congress just kinda went away.

To me it’s pretty clear that Republicans never wanted to eliminate funding for public broadcasting. Because if they did, all of those public TV and radio stations in sparsely populated red states would fold. Those rural stations don’t raise enough money to get by without the government subsidy. That means all of that public radio news, all of that children’s programming on TV would disappear.

It was fine for the GOP to act like they wanted to stop the government subsidy and get rid of that “left leaning” NPR and PBS programming* — when they knew it wasn’t going to happen. No one suffered from their tirades and they had an issue they could use to fire up their conservative base. But when it came time to actually DO IT, they found other things to talk about.

Returning to Roe v. Wade, I think we’ve been seeing the same political theater. Abortion is terrible, they said, and if only we had a Supreme Court that would throw out abortion rights. Well, you got it!

Some southern red states will probably outlaw abortion. But in other states that have large numbers of educated women, Republican state legislatures and governors will find some way to change the subject. We’re talking about a country where up to 85 percent of people want legal abortions under at least some circumstances, if not all circumstances.

I take no position on how the Supreme Court should have ruled as it affects on Roe v. Wade; no opinion, at least, that I would share on this public blog. But if you think GOP-controlled legislatures and governors are going to get right to work banning abortion, let’s wait and see. You might be surprised.

* Years ago, as a reporter in Minnesota, I did an on-the-spot interview with the now deceased Senator Bob Dole from Kansas, a leading Republican for many years. He found out I was from public radio, which he then described as “left leaning.” He was talking about in the way NPR covered the testimony of Anita Hill, who accused Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment. 

My mother’s birthday

June 15, 2022

She is five years from one hundred

And a puzzle that she is still alive

But the women in her family take a long time to die.

My cousin said that once with a smile and his sympathy.

She held me when I was an infant

When I could not be fed but with her hands

And could not pass shit that she would not clean up

And now she is like a child who cannot learn

Because life is inexplicable.

Its stories and its laughter and what it relates

Make no sense. They are not of her world

And her world is gone though she’s still here.

I can’t wish her a long life because she’s had a long life.

I can only hope for her death that will rest her pain and tedium.

I missed her birthday lunch because I had to work.

That’s what I told her when I called later that night

As I wondered how many more times I will call

How many more times I will call hear her faltering voice.

Easter Mass

April 23, 2022

Sophie and I drove to San Francisco the day before Easter, and that meant we’d go to Easter Mass at St. Ignatius church. It’s on the campus of the University of San Francisco, where my daughter plans to go to college.

We got there about 40 minutes early because we assumed it would be packed and it would be hard to find a place to sit. It was packed, by the time mass started, but we hadn’t realized how big the place was. All those pews provided plenty of seats for all.

The church is gorgeous. It’s like one of those cathedrals you would tour in Europe except it’s newer and in better condition. It has a dome and twin spires on a street strung with electric bus cables. The stained glass windows showed the stations of the cross and, on that day, Easter lilies were placed on the alter and flower arrangements were hung along the aisle side of the pews.

Inside the church had a bunch of those rounded arches. Romanesque? I’m not sure what style they were. Not an expert.

The San Francisco culture was on display at this place. It’s a culture that’s unique among California cities. The city was well established and a fairly civilized when San Diego and LA were still the wild west. In the church we saw people well dressed. The music was good and the priests were poised and polished.

The service was pretty long for Catholics. It was not a “tight hour” as my daughter put it. Well, it was Easter and they did have a baptism, which can stretch things out.

At the end the priest said there would be an Easter Egg hunt on the lawn, though he said it would be more of an Easter Egg grab. The eggs were not hidden, just sitting on the lawn.

My journey of faith has been a rewarding part of my life as an adult. But religious faith is even better when you can celebrate it in a really cool church.

Hyde Street, SF

April 20, 2022

At the backend of the Tenderloin

They are lost in the Sparkling City

With sagging breasts and sagging faces

Where we help them to hide

Because we don’t even see them

Because they walk with a jerk in their stride

Because they shout at all the fucking bastards

In voices that shatter the air.

So what is their story?

It’s the gravity of life that gives you no breaks

While your mind is screaming

And you just want a feeling

That you’re someplace else but there’s no other place.

They are lost where nobody wants to find them

Where there’s too many dead ends on Hyde Street.

Best to be Gentlemen

February 17, 2022

Back in the old days there was a lot of segregation of the sexes. There were tasks, professions, sports, and social events where it was just you and the boys, or just you and the girls. We see that less and less. In fact the law now demands sexual integration of the workplace.

How’s it going? Based on the many stories and lawsuits about gender harassment and discrimination, I’d say not so good. But there are new demands on our behaviors.

Here’s one example. I was texting with a female friend of mine who’s in the army reserve, and the subject of ‘Fuckin-A’ came up. Lemme explain. My dad served in WWII and he told me that when he was in the Navy, everything was Fuckin-A.

You going to get that done? Fuckin-A.  Everything go OK with that thing?  Fuckin-A. It was an affirmative term that was used all the time. And I jokingly told my friend they must do the same thing in the Army.

‘I’ve never heard that,’ she said. And she added that swearing like that was not considered appropriate. Well, of course! There are women in the military today. Did I blow it by bringing up Fuckin-A with a woman?

I’ve been involved in some discussions about discrimination in the workplace. A serious matter to be sure. But one example given, as a form of discrimination, is “micro-aggressions.” This is defined as aggressive language and put-downs that are presented as humorous remarks.

In my experience, the condemnation of this behavior has come from women. Don’t they realize that this is how men communicate with each other?

We have names for it too. We call it ‘giving you shit’ or ‘trash talk.’ I don’t know if it’s micro or macro but men put each other down all the time. Typically we have a laugh and it’s over… until the next time comes around.

I’m not saying that use of profanity or putting down your fellow male co-worker can never get out of hand. When it goes too far it becomes bullying, and we should know a bully when we see one. But in the old days of gender-segregated job sites, at least those dominated by men, the cussing and the put downs happened and they were expected.

The question: How do we solve the problem of friction between the sexes in the modern workplace? I don’t think the answer lies in some modern sensibility. It lies in something old fashioned. Men need to try to be gentlemen when women are present.

Men used to think there were things that were too rough or rude to mention around the ladies. And even today, anyone with half a brain knows that there are still some thoughts and speech that are best kept between men. This is true for women too. Trust me. Some stuff women talk about… I just don’t want to hear it!

My view on this may be influenced by the fact that both my son and my daughter attended single-sex Catholic high schools. Will my kids turn out better or worse for it? I’ll never know for sure. But they both loved their schools. And I think men and women both need some time when they can say whatever they want, and they don’t have to worry about impressing the other sex.

I can hear people argue that any move to resegregate the sexes will make it hard for some people to get opportunities if they create old boys clubs or, maybe, old girls clubs. But we have got to find a balance. And if men have to be gentlemen a little more often these days, thanks to sex-integrated employment, they’ll just have to find other ways and places to hang out with other guys.

There will always be a frat house somewhere. You just need to know when you’re in one and when you’re not.

All the Cats

February 8, 2022

In honor of Ray Manzarek, of the Doors

All the cats. They’re gone.

Ray said it at the piano.

Was it a poem or just one thing he said?

He meant all the jazz cats who played the in the 50s and 60s

Who made the music art.

Playing late nights, dressing in suits and ties.

The Blue Note cats. The Village Gate cats.

I got a poster called a Great Day in Harlem and there they are.

Dizzy with his tongue hanging out.

Count sitting on the curb with the neighborhood kids.

Monk in a white jacket!

Ray was in a rock and roll band but he was one of them.

And he talked to me, and played the piano.

He played the blues.

But now he’s gone too.

He and all the cats.

Christmas 2021

January 2, 2022

It was a wet Christmas this year in San Diego, which is our version of a White Christmas. Not much happened this year so there’s not a lot to say. But our newest family member Enecko enjoyed the holidays in Texas. My nephew Ian visited us after New Year’s Day, taking a flight in from Bloomington, Indiana.

My niece’s baby Enecko enjoyed the holidays in San Antonio. The hat says it.

Sophie and her friends got together a few days before the 25th to make gingerbread houses. The heartwarming holiday event was marred by the brutal murder of Mr. Marshmallow, who was found stabbed to death just outside Sophie’s gingerbread house. We hope your Christmas was less gory. One observer suggested they won’t have to move Mr. Marshmallow until the spring thaw sets in. Happy Holidays! We’ll stay in touch.

Mr. Marshmallow lies dead outside Sophie’s gingerbread house.

West Side Story

December 15, 2021

I was preparing to watch a movie on Prime Video when the trailer for the remake of West Side Story came on, and it sent my mind wondering about that story and that show.

I don’t really know New York, but I wondered about the West Side of Manhattan today. Is it still a haven for tough kids or has it gone the way of most of coastal urban America?  Gentrifying to the point where your greatest fear, entering those neighborhoods, is being attacked by a small yappy dog or being dangerously scratched by somebody’s jewelry.

A scene from the 1961 movie West Side Story

Mostly, the trailer made me think about how West Side Story has been a part of my life. It started many decades ago. I directed a high school production of West Side Story while a high-school student myself in my home town in Iowa. I also got to play the role of the hot-headed Jet named Action. We were a bunch of small-town kids pretending to be New York gang members but we had fun, and the audience seemed to like it. So what the hell.

I was also in an amateur production of West Side Story later in Saint Paul Minnesota. It was actually staged outdoors, on the street, alongside a downtown building with a fire escape. Perfect for the romantic scenes between Tony and Maria!

My best story from the production of that show: We were rehearsing the rumble between the Jets and the Sharks, which culminates with two guys pulling knives, when a cop car pulled up onto the parking lot that doubled as our stage. The car knocked over a barricade and screeched to a halt as the cop warned us to disperse or face arrest.

We actually got the neighbors, who called the cops, to buy into the whole scene! When it comes to performing a drama, it doesn’t get better than that.

But let me tell you about one other thing. This one is from my high-school West Side Story. If you know the show you know the character Lieutenant Shrank, a cruel, burned-out New York cop patrolling the neighborhood where the kids lived. 

The actor who played that role in our show was an interesting guy. His parents were well-known in the school district for being conservative Christians who were trying to ban “indecent” books from the school libraries. It so happens their son was an outgoing, likeable kid. In fact he was a good actor.

In one scene, Lt. Shrank is mocking the Jets whom he considers pathetic white trash. And he says to the character I played, “How’s the action on your mother’s mattress, Action?”

Our guy playing Lt. Shrank approached me, since I was the director, and asked if he could say instead, “How’s your mother, Action?” I didn’t like it but I said OK, not wanting him to get in trouble with his parents. Then came the performance, and Shrank’s scene with the Jets.

“How’s the action on your mother’s mattress, Action?”

He said the line. The way it was written.

This was a long time ago and I can’t remember if I thanked him. Doing what he did — when his parents clearly didn’t want him to — took some courage and integrity.

The story of West Side Story comes from Romeo and Juliet, which tells us that politics don’t stand a chance when up against the power of young love. The story is also VERY relevant to the America of Donald Trump, where poor whites resent Latino immigrants who they believe have come to take what’s theirs and to mess up their lives. 

The new movie, the remake of the ’61 version, is directed by Steve Spielberg. I hope they get it right.

Roundabouts

December 7, 2021

The city where I live, San Diego, has begun using roundabouts to channel car traffic and to slow it down. I’ve spoken with people who don’t like them because they think they reduce parking spaces. Around here, eliminating any place to park is an assault on our way of life, though I’m not convinced roundabouts really do make it harder to park.

I think roundabouts are kind of fun. I like driving in circles and figuring out which exit to take. And they do slow traffic, which makes me feel a lot safer when I’m biking on Meade Avenue, where they just created what look like about a dozen roundabouts.

One of the new roundabouts on Meade Avenue.

The problem in the U.S. is people don’t really know how to use them. I’ve noticed this riding my bike.

When I’m in a roundabout cars seem like they want to barge right into them even if there’s somebody in the circle already. Of course, they’re used to just barreling ahead whenever they’re traveling on a through street. The only impediment. they think, should be a stop sign or a stop light.

So I did a Google search of the phrase “traffic rules for roundabouts.” Here’s what I found, and it sums up the main point pretty well.

Give way: the most important rule – when entering a roundabout, give way to traffic on the roundabout, unless road markings or signs say otherwise. If the way is clear keep moving. Stopping at a clear roundabout slows traffic and can cause frustrating delays.

It’s funny that I found this very helpful advice on a British website, http://www.nidirect.gov.uk. It’s a government site that has tips about motoring, crime and justice, property and housing… among other things.

I was on vacation once when I rented a car in the UK and had to navigate their roundabouts, which was pretty tricky when you’re driving on the wrong side of the road and shifting with your left hand.

Let me just say I am a supporter of roundabouts in America but I understand if people here think they’re a little too foreign. Just give it some time.