Wednesday, August 29, 2007

The Resource Center of the Americas

Five and a half years ago, I left a small nonprofit. It should have been a fine organization, since the people there said all the right things and did some genuinely good work. But there were serious conflicts among the staff. What finally drove me out was the sense that a fair amount of prejudice -- racism, antisemitism and homophobia -- bubbled under the surface, in spite of all the good things the organization said and did. The prejudice was one reason for the staff conflicts.

My parting with the job was not entirely nice, since I raised the issue of prejudice before I left; and I decided that I needed a new job quickly. I didn't want to use the old job as a reference; and I wanted to put a good experience between me and a bad experience. I ended at the Resource Center of the Americas. The pay was $6,000 less than I had been getting and not really enough to make my life comfortable; and I ended moving on to another job after a year.

But I liked the Resource Center. It grew out of three solidarity with Central America committees which merged in the 1980s; and it was devoted to peace and justice issues in the Americas. It had a fine bookstore, a neat cafe, an excellent website full of news about the Americas, and programs that worked on labor and immigration issues. Unlike my previous job, the people at the Resource Center genuinely believed in equality and the fair treatment of all people. Was the job perfect? Were the people perfect? No, but it and they were pretty good.

The Resource Center board just closed the organization down and laid off all the staff, due to unfixable financial problems. I was the bookkeeper when I was there. I knew they had financial problems; a big grant from a big national foundation had not been renewed; and I would have been making cuts then, if I'd had the ability. But their problems seemed to be the usual ones that small nonprofits have. It never occurred to me that they wouldn't make it through. I feel stunned and unhappy. They did good work. Per one comment I read in a news story, there isn't another organization like the Resource Center in the country.

The board says the organization will continue on the volunteer basis. So it is back to where it was 20 years ago, after two decades of hard work by many people. I intend to keep my membership and hope for the best.

Hearth World

I finished rereading the sequel to Ring of Swords last Monday. It's going to take two revisions. There is a lot that needs fixing. There are structural problems, which are not going to be hard to fix. More important, I don't entirely like the mood of the novel. It's a bit too dark, maybe because it takes place almost entirely in cities and inside buildings. It needs a feeling of freedom and joy, not all the time, but there as an alternative to the problems that people in the novel have; and for me -- often -- freedom and joy are associated with being outside and away from urban areas. It's not that I require pristine nature. I am happy looking at ore boats arriving at Duluth or huge open pit iron mines. But I like water, especially big stretches of water, Lake Superior and the Mississippi; and I like forest and prairie and sky. It's probably time for Patrick and me to drive west and look at the Badlands and the Black Hills.

Saturday, August 25, 2007


Per Tim Susman, Bruce Schneier -- the expert I quote in my post on security -- has a blog and blogs on squid. Several years ago I wrote a story which involved an squid-like alien and did research on squid. I discovered that (a) they are fascinating and (b) there is a lot we don't know about them, especially about their behavior. Anyway, I love squid. I will have to check the blog.

My favorite anecdote is from Jacques Cousteau and is about an octopus, not a squid. This guy had an octopus in a tank. One day he noticed the glass plate on top of the tank had been pushed off, and the octopus had escaped. He hunted through his house and finally found the octopus in his library, pulling books off a bottom shelf and leafing through them.

Octopoi can live out of water from some time; and Cousteau did not claim the octopus was reading.

Friday, August 24, 2007


Today is sunny, after days of rain. Once again Minnesota is on the national news, this time with floods in the southeast corner of state. That is nice country down there, rolling hills and wooded bluffs and lots of little rivers, the kind of places you'd expect to find trout. It's not as nice when the rivers rise and rip out roads and bridges and houses. Most of the people down there did not have flood insurance. I can't fault them. They didn't live on a flood plain. They lived next to -- or down the street from -- a creek or stream.

In any case, the state Republicans are trying to decide if the flooding plus the 35W bridge collapse is enough to justify a special legislative session and a new gas tax. I think, because it's sunny today, and the Minneapolis skyscrapers -- all dozen or so of them -- are reflecting the blue sky, and sunflowers and goldenrod are blooming along the freeway, I will say nothing more about Republicans.

But I guess I have to point out that we need to spend money on infrastructure. Patrick and I have two favorite day trips -- one up to Duluth and the other down along the Mississippi, through some of the towns that are currently unreachable by road. There are lots of eagles along the river in the winter. In spring and fall there are all the migrating waterfowl; and summer has vultures, hawks, gulls and herons. I think I once saw a peregrine falcon fly along the bluffs, going really fast the way they do. I forgot to mention the wild turkeys. They are in the bluff country year around. We need the roads so Pat and I (among others) can go down the river and through the little towns and look at birds and towboats pushing barges on the Mississippi and sailboats on Lake Pepin on a sunny day like today.

In case you are curious, Lake Pepin is a wide place in the Mississippi: a long, narrow body of water edged by bluffs. Eagles hang out there in the winter, because there are open places where they can fish.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Harry Potter

I bought the last book several days ago and have started it. But I having trouble getting into it, mostly because it is the last book. What happens when I finish it? And how can it be good enough to justify all the expectation? Ruth tells me she likes the entire series. She thinks Rowling has done a good job.

I keep wondering if I should try writing a YA fantasy. The great thing about YAs is -- they are mostly quite short, about 200 pages, though Rowling got long after the third Harry book. I would like to write a short book, and I think I would enjoy writing for young adults.

Surely there is always room for another book about growing up to be a wizard.

Moon Poem

The moon isn't full right now, but it was when I wrote this poem about a month ago. Right now it looks to be three quarters full, riding in a sky of clearing storm clouds. The poem is for John Calvin Rezmerski, who told me that there were too many poems comparing the full moon to a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

Too many poems have been written
comparing the full moon
to a scoop of vanilla ice cream,
which means I cannot write a poem
comparing the full moon
to a scoop of vanilla ice cream,
even though it looks --
rising round and yellow in the evening sky
over St. Paul, Minnesota --
like a scoop of vanilla ice cream.


The cover story in the current issue of City Pages is on airline security, and the headline says, "Everything we know about security is wrong."

The guy being interviewed, who is a security expert, says that three things have improved airplane security: reinforcing the cockpit door, telling people to fight if there is an attempt to take over the plane and -- maybe, the guy isn't entirely sure -- having marshals on board.

Everything else -- the removal of shoes, the seizing of liquids and lighters and fingernail clippers -- does not make it safer to fly. At best it makes people feel safer. But it may aggravate them and make them reluctant to fly, at least in the US; or it may make them more fearful and willing to do whatever authority tells them to do, even if it's as weird was walking through a security check point in stocking feet.

(The expert did not say this last. It's my contribution. Air New Zealand is routing its flights to Europe through Canada now, because passengers going to Europe hated dealing with US security when the planes stopped in LA.)

(What the expert did say was, "We are one terrorist attack away from becoming a police state.")

I had figured out most of the security stuff from common sense and listening to Patrick, who spent many years working in locked psych wards. One of his jobs was searching people's luggage when they came onto the unit and removing anything that might be used as a weapon. This, plus the experience of seeing people turn unusual objects into weapons, has given him an acute sense of what can and can not be used for harm. He says the TSA is a bunch of amateurs. "They let people onto planes with pencils."

In any case, the article got me thinking about security. What is security to me?

A decent place to live, a job that pays a living wage, health care, a pension, the assurance that I will be cared for if I become disabled, a society with a working infrastructure and public amenities. Libraries and parks and decent public schools make me feel safe, along with mowed lawns, clean streets, good hospitals, every kind of evidence that people care for their community and their neighbors.

I am a lot more worried about old age, poverty, the fraying of the social fabric and war than I am of being on a plane that gets hijacked.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Cost of Living

I moved back to Minnesota in 1974. The first job I got paid $600 a month, $7,200 a year. I quit after a year. By that time I had saved $1,000.

Pat and I rented a one bedroom apartment that cost $165 a month, if I remember correctly. We moved during the year to another one-bedroom in a complex that was half a block off Lake Calhoun in Minneapolis. There was a playing field across the street. We could look out our living room windows and see the lake on the other side of the field. That apartment cost $200 a month.

Two bags of groceries cost $10 and lasted a week.

Now, we spend $50 or more when we go to the grocery story. We get more bags, mostly because we always buy two six packs of water. The food still lasts a week.

The rent for the last one-bedroom apartment I had (in 2006) was $950.

The first time I bought health insurance for myself, back in the late 1970s, it was $30 a month. I was in my late 20s. It would cost about $250 a month to cover a person of that age on my current job's medical plan. That's an 8 fold increase over 30 years.

If I use groceries to estimate the increase in cost of living, it has gone up 5 fold. If I use rent, it has gone up 4.75 times. I just checked a government website to see if my estimates are correct. The table I found said the cost of living has gone up five times since 1974.

To make as much as I did in 1974, I would have to make $36,000 now. To live the way Patrick and I did in 1974, we would need a household income of $72,000. I was a miserable clerical worker in those days. Patrick was a psych tech working in a hospital locked unit. I would call us working class and not union working class. We were not getting the good union money.

According to Wikipedia, 63% of American households make less than $60,000 a year. So they are living less well than Pat and I did as a pair of working people in our 20s in 1974. We really did not think we were living all that well. If we had to, we could live on minimum wage jobs. That put our standard of living pretty low, as we saw it.

In 1976 the minimum wage in Minnesota was $1.80 an hour. It's now $6.15 for large employers and $5.85 for small employers. To cover the cost of living increase I have seen over the past 30 years, it would have to be $9.00.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

More Bridge

I have trying to avoid national coverage of the bridge collapse. But what I have seen has struck me as interesting in one way. The stories seem to be mostly positive: the tough and hardy and disciplined people of Minnesota deal with a tragedy with their usual competence.

Compare this with the stories -- pretty much all untrue -- about the people of New Orleans going out of control, looting and shooting.

Now there are many differences between Katrina and the bridge. Katrina was a much, much bigger disaster; and Louisiana and New Orleans are much poorer than Minnesota and Minneapolis and have much less in the way of public service resources.

But I wonder if one difference in the stories is race. The New Orleans coverage was about black people going out of control. The Minneapolis stories are about white people getting the job done.

Minneapolis is 35% nonwhite. According to Sherman Alexie, we are the urban Native American community for the whole country. We have significant African American and Hispanic communities. Our immigrant groups include Vietnamese, Hmong, Somalian, Ethiopian and Tibetan. The cops and firefighters and paramedics and ordinary citizens who have been dealing with the bridge collapse come in all colors.

Maybe I am reading in to the media stories. Not everything is America is about race.

But it's something to think about; and when you think of the Twin Cities, if you do, think of us as a place with a lot of different kinds of people. Assimilating new groups has not been easy, after decades where the main ethnic distinctions were between Minneapolis Norwegians and Swedes and St. Paul Irish; but it has made life more interesting. And Lake Street, always the dreariest street in Minneapolis, is now lined with terrific new restaurants and markets and shops.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

The Bridge

One of my coworkers had a party at his house yesterday evening. I rode there with two other coworkers. We took the river road on the east side of the Mississippi, north of the bridge that fell. The flats near the U of M have a parking lot; and it was full of TV vans with huge antennae. The last time I saw anything like this was in Ely, after the Wellstone plane went down.

I don't much like national media attention. They came down like vultures after the Wellstones and their party died; and then they lied about the Wellstone memorial. It would be nice if they went away and let us get on with taking care of survivors and the families of the dead and dealing with the huge problem of clearing away debris.

Of course, if no one showed, we'd be thinking, "No one ever pays attention to people in the Midwest." And the publicity is good, if it means people will finally start paying attention to infrastructure, which is bad throughout the country.

But taken all in all, I'd prefer to not see my home state on the front page of the New York Times, unless it's for innovative social programming or maybe a really great play at the Guthrie.

I think of two stories about Minnesotans and grief. One is by Howard Mohr and fictional, as far as I know; but it could be true. There is nothing unlikely about it.

This tornado hits a farm outstate, and one of the stations in the Twin Cities sends out a TV crew. The farm is entirely gone, except for the silo, which has a tractor sitting on top of it. The reporter is describing the extent of the damage, getting more and more emotional, while the farmer stands there quietly. Finally the reporter turns to the farmer to get his response to this terrible situation; and the farmer says, "We'd offer you coffee, but we can't find the coffee maker."

The other story isn't a story, it's the letter Louise Erdrich wrote to the Star Tribune after her husband Michael Dorris committed suicide. Suicide is always terrible, but this was especially bad. Dorris died in the middle of some not at all nice publicity about his treatment of his and Erdrich's children.

As far as I know, the truth of the stories was never established. But they were public; and Dorris died in the middle of an ugly situation.

As I remember the letter, Louise Erdrich said she and her family would like be left alone to deal with their grief; and she also thanked her neighbors -- this is the part of the letter I remember clearly -- for leaving hot dishes (casseroles to you outside the Upper Midwest) on her front porch without comment.

A silent hot dish is always appropriate. In this case, a hot dish in the form of 250 million dollars from the federal government would be taken with gratitude. Jim Oberstar, the DFL congressman from northern Minnesota is working for that; and he has the Democrats backing him. Clearing out the river will be expensive; and it is -- after all -- the nation's river, draining the entire huge center of the country.

The Army Corps of Engineers said it's lucky the river is running at 15% of normal. (We have drought conditions at the moment.) If it had been running normally, water would be backing up. And we sure as heck have to have the river running freely before spring.

I am sure, since our coffeemakers have not been blown away, that our officials are offering coffee to our visitors.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Favorite Quote Thus Far About the Bridge

Coming from the Minnesota Monitor, an on line paper.

John Hinderaker of Power Line (the well-known rightwing blogger) expressing shock and surprise:

This is the kind of disaster that just doesn't happen in the United States--a bridge spontaneously collapsing, apparently, into a river. It is hard to convey to those who don't live here the astonishment of this sort of catastrophe happening on our most traveled highway.

I was going to comment on this, but I got as far as "what does he think held the bridge up, Adam Smith's invisible hand?" and I realized the quote needs no comment.


I had a dream a few nights back. I was with a group of aging New York lefties, the kind of people I knew in the peace movement 30 or 40 years ago. Che Guevara was there, young and happy, joking and fooling around. I knew he was going to be arrested and killed, and I was trying to save him. At one point, I was trying to hold a door shut. There are people on the other side trying to get in and get Che. But I couldn't hold the door. It was opening in spite of all my efforts. I told the dream to Patrick. He said, "Che would be 90 now. He's as alive as ever. You didn't have to save him."

A Joe Hill dream, as in "I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night." I wonder what it means -- not about Che. About me.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Gay Men and SF

Tim S. suggests that my complaints about male SF might need to be limited to straight male SF. As far as I know, we don't have enough gay men writing SF, though I know many wonderful fans who are gay men. Maybe the writers are here, but I'm not finding them. Are there gay men writing good SF? Who are they?

For some reason that I don't entirely understand, male gayness is a threat to the power structure in this society. It need not be. Ancient Greece was able to combine gayness with oppression of women, class oppression and slavery. But here and now, the patriarchy sees gayness -- at least when it's out of the closet -- as a terrible threat to its existence.

Out gay men are living in a society where prejudice, social oppression and violence are not abstractions which they can safely ignore. If they are true to themselves when they write, they are going to be challenging the status quo.

I don't think women write better SF because of hormones. I think it's because women are looking at society critically, questioning the status quo and arguing for a better world; and they are doing this because of their history of experiencing oppression and fighting against oppression.

(I rewrote this after I posted it, and it's mostly new from this point on. I felt it was too much like a manifesto. It's hard to talk about modern America without sounding like a manifesto.)

Gay writers and minority writers are in the same situation as women. Some members of oppressed groups identify with the oppressor and believe -- strange as it seems to me -- that there is a place set for them at the great, white, straight, Christian, rich folks' table. Or, as a gay friend of Patrick's told him, they believe if they are very good and well behaved and obedient, they will be forgiven for being gay.

But the people I admire realize that they cannot tell the stories they want to tell -- and express the feelings they want to express -- if they are obedient. Their truth is not the same as the oppressor's truth. When I wrote this post originally I mentioned James Baldwin and Samuel R. Delany as writers who spoke their own, personal truth. I can mention them again.

For me, the truths of people who are in conflict with the status quo are more interesting than the truths of people who fit in. Which I guess is why I'm interested in seeing more science fiction by gay men. Though the straight guys who are fascinated by very large, hard equipment and neat ideas based on contemporary physics should -- of course -- keep writing. Let a hundred schools contend, and a thousand flowers bloom.


According to the morning paper, 4 people have been killed; 79 have been injured; and 20 to 30 are missing. The numbers change hour to hour. But it looks as if the total dead will be 20+.

The bridge was inspected in 2005 and found "structurally deficient," which means (I guess) that it wasn't up to the load it was carrying, but not likely to fall down. There were signs of stress cracking then.

The American Society of Civil Engineers does a report card on America's infrastructure every two years. They gave American bridges a grade of C in 2005, which was better than roads and schools, both of which got D. No kind of infrastructure got a grade better than C+. According to the ASCE, 27% of the country's bridges are "structurally deficient or functionally obsolete."

The weather has been in the 90s, so heat stress may have been a factor. There was construction on the bridge, which means vibration; and a train was going under the bridge when it collapsed, which means more vibration; and it was rush hour, which means the bridge was carrying a lot of weight.

As far as I can tell, the public safety response was excellent; and most of the injured people ended at Hennepin Country Medical Center, a superb facility with the best trauma unit in the region. HCMC and a small hospital up north were the only public hospitals left in Minnesota the last time I checked. Hennepin County talks of selling the hospital from time to time. Much of the burden of caring for poor people in the state falls on HCMC, because it's a public hospital, and this means it's expensive to run.

I grew up in a family where politics was the normal form of discussion; so my response to everything is political. I was also raised to always move to the next step. When needs to be done now? We need to get the bridge out of the river, which is a working river. The Port of Minneapolis is north of 35W and is now blocked off from the rest of the Mississippi, all the way to New Orleans. Most river traffic stops at St. Paul, but there is a little blue and white tow boat that moves gravel between St. Paul and Minneapolis. Every time I cross the river, I look for it; and I often see it, cute as a button, pushing its two loaded barges north.

I checked on line and could not find the Port of Minneapolis. But I found a state report that says 1,000,000 tons of cargo goes through the Minneapolis river docks.

Getting the old bridge out of the river is a huge job; and a new bridge needs to be built. That usually takes years. In the mean time, 100,000+ cars a day will have to find a new route to work. And maybe we could inspect the rest of the bridges in the state and sink more money into bridge work and other kinds of infrastructure repair; and maybe we could fund public safety and public health better. They have shown us how useful they are.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007


Patrick's brother Al called a half hour ago to find out if we are okay. The 35-W bridge over the Mississippi in downtown Minneapolis just collapsed. It looks, from the photos online, as if it fell straight down and is lying across the river like a dam. There is no report yet how many people have been hurt. But it was rush hour, and people were driving to the Twins game. There was bridge work going on at the time, and we are in the middle of a hot spell. Patrick just said he was thinking it was time for the roads to start buckling, but he wasn't expecting this.

A very unsettling evening.