A “Homecalling”

 

 

 

 

Paris, January 1986

The damp and wind of February always made Diallo feel furthest from home. Back there, the sun was warming the earth as the first plantings pushed through the sandy soil. Here it was dark before 9:00 and after 4:00, and the sun might appear, but usually did not.

He was selling “a la sauvette”–selling “ready to run”–from a meter and a half square tarp upon which he arranged his trinkets and cheap plastic wind-up toys. A la sauvette because when the cops swooped in, you gathered up the four corners and ran. They never chased. Couldn’t be bothered. But if someone were too slow, they would snatch up the goods and, laughing, pass them out to the tourists wandering by.

Three years. He never lost his goods though he got grabbed by two of them one time and hauled off to a station. His “papers,” purchased from a “specialist” back home, were clearly fake. And that day he thought his time was up–to a cell, then a plane–expelled. But there had been a robbery somewhere, the police had left, and after a while he had just walked out. No-one stopped him. Why bother?

He had learned early. In making his way from the boat in Marseille to Paris, after he hooked up with a “cousin” who was going to set him up in the business. The cops did not care. The smallest bribe was sufficient to move the human traffic forward to its inevitable place on the streets.

Three years.

He had left with hope: hope of success and a quick return. Though the “grande secheresse”–the big dryness–was officially over, there was nothing there. Nothing. He had offered to go, and with the word from his “cousin” that opportunities were abundant in the new regime socialist, they all, his mom included, decided he had nothing to lose.

Now he slept in an HLM in Romainville with ten others from “home.” Moving frequently into newly abandoned units until they turned off the water or electricity. Lately, they seemed to have forgotten, and so the ten had been at peace for almost three months.

At first mom had written–the handwriting not hers, she was illiterate. Spending her money to pay the shiftless schoolteacher in the village grated on him.

“We have nothing; we are hungry; the roof has a leak…”

He wrote two letters back, full of hope, empty of truth. But he moved so much that the letters soon lost their way. That was two years ago.

Khadija had written only one, but he kept it in a small plastic bag in the bottom of the backpack that never left his back (he tied a rope to it and his arm when he showered). In it, she addressed him as cousin, but the truth of it was contained in the final sentence: “I miss you.”

The wind increased outside the metro at Pigalle. In summer he fought for the best spots at Trocadero or Concorde, but in the winter, with the tourists mostly gone, he came to the strip club and peep show streets where a few tourists still sauntered and where even Parisian regulars might buy a few things for their kids to assuage their guilt.

Diallo worked, as did the ten, for Brahim. He sold them the goods, and they kept whatever they could earn–a handful of francs each day. Brahim, in turn, got his junk from up the ladder, and so on. Diallo did not know how high it went, but some of the ten got pulled into extra activities that Brahim arranged. These sometimes left them bloody and crying. They paid better. Diallo never joined

He was lucky. Even back home, he could fix anything–anything. And so he added to his pay by repairing boomboxes and electric appliances of any type. He was also known as the “cassette doctor,” able to rescue any torn, or stretched, or mangled cherished music for a modest price.

But, now, three years in, he still had less than 3,000 francs–a lot of money if he had been sitting on a mattress in his mom’s house, but nothing here.

Two in the afternoon and already getting dark. Inshallah, he would get a break and find a real repair job in a real shop.

God willing, but he did not really believe that about God. From a long time ago, when the worst of the drought years were killing everything, and the only food was “Kennedy” rice from far away, he had assumed that God had abandoned the Sahel for Europe, or America, or the Gulf. God was not present along the Senegal River.

And his supposed intermediaries–the “petit marabouts” who represented his beneficence and mercy–were useless grifters, who reported up their own ladder.

The grigris–little leather pouches with obscure verses from the blessed Qur’an sown inside–that they sold to people who buried them in the corners of their fields to ward off pests and roving camels and cows were fucking useless.

The amulets they sold to desperate moms–like his own–made no difference at all. He had taken note. Two cousins, one nephew, and his own little brother Hamidou–so weighted down by the grigris his mom had bought and hung around his neck that he could’nt even lift his head. Two weeks of ever-mounting numbers of this trash did not save him from the diarrhea that drained his life away.

And even the “grand marabout”–Djibril, who lived hard against the river inside 3-meter high concrete (concrete!) walls–walls that could not hide his three-story home or the sound of his generator that gave the only electricity within 50 kilometers–even Djibril was a fraud.

They said he was a shapeshifter. Turning into a wolf–that is how he got his meat. Turning into a fly–that is how he gathered his information (the man knew everything about everyone and trafficked in that knowledge).

Impotent men swore he could turn their flaccid members to “bars of steel” for hours. Diallo believed non of it. Hopeless people seeking to control a world that was out of their control.

Djibril’s biggest “money maker” was his purported ability to bring people home. The droughts had led men (mostly) everywhere to abandon their dead fields and flocks and head to the cities. Dakar, Nouakchott, Abidjan, maybe the Gulf, rarely Paris. And when they left, many never returned. Angry wives told stories of how they had moved on, started new families in those new places, and left them for dead. But Diallo now suspected that most just got lost, never made anything of anything, and were simply too ashamed to come back.

Empathy born out of his own shame.

But all it took was for one person from two or three villages over to come back, and all the talk was “Djibril did that.” And Djibril grew fat. And whether Diallo liked it or not, Djibril was a “tres grand marabout” indeed.

All bullshit.

But the dreams had started about six months after Khadija’s first and last letter. They were always the same. He stands at the entry to his village, coming from the north. It is late in the day, the home sounds of women preparing meals. He knows he has unfinished business, and someone always meets him.

His aunt needing help with a broken door. His mom needing that roof fixed. His uncle seeking help with a tape player that eats up batteries too fast. The widow next door asking him to mend the fence where the goats got in and ate her garden–no carrots this year, no lettuce this year.

At first, they came sparsely–the dreams. One every so often. Then, each month. So vivid. He remembered each one, unlike the other jumbled mass of confusion that passed through his head each night.

And then every week. Always the same. Unfinished business. Going home to finish it.

And then every week. Always someone new needing him to finish something.

And then every night.

But never Khadija.

Until last night. She was there, and she said dinner was waiting.

He awoke in the dark. His mouth filled with the residue of fat from the goat–a morsel still in between two teeth. His unwashed hands held to his face with the grains of couscous still clinging. His shirt smelling of the charcoal fire. His shoes filled with sand.

He had nothing to return with, and all his money would be needed to get there. But he knew. He knew. And he was ready to run.

She had called him home.

Community Health Workers: What They Could be Doing Now

 

 

 

 

 

This article is the second of three reflections on community health workers. The first post is here, and it introduced the general concept of what health workers can do. It generally drew on  The WHO guideline on health policy and system support to optimize community health worker programs.

This post imagines what might be happening in our community today, if we had community health workers already in place to work with individuals who have been living without housing.

The following diagram from the WHO guidelines lays out the variety of primary healthcare services for which there is some evidence of community health worker effectiveness.

 

Note how varied they are. They include mental health–something that afflicts 50% or more of chronically homeless individuals. They also include communicable diseases and the idea of acting as “cultural brokers” to facilitate care for underserved groups. Finally, they include behavior change efforts to encourage people to adopt healthier behaviors.

Now imagine we had already put into place, before the current COVID-19 crisis, a system of community health workers, let’s call them community navigators, whose job was to build relationships with homeless individuals, help them connect to legal, and social services, and become people of trust with them.

Such workers would already be a vital connecting point to encourage people struggling to find housing to enter our local temporary voucher program until they could find permanent housing. They would assure that homeless individuals with chronic illnesses would have access to and use medications. They could ensure they kept appointments for legal or other issues. The navigators could be general “connectors” to help bring homeless people back into the community. These individuals would be trusted people.

In such a situation, when COVID-19 strikes, these people would provide rapid feedback on the needs and likely risk factors of the people with whom they have been working.

In the case of California and Yolo County, which have implemented temporary emergency housing for at-risk homeless people in hotels, they could help determine which of their contacts met risk criteria and rapidly connect them to the program. Further, they could visit (by phone or at a safe distance), these people every day or so and encourage them to protect themselves, provide needed medication, and be friends in a lonely time.

If one of their contacts contracted, or was a contact of a person who contracted the virus, they could reach out to them, help them move into isolation or quarantine, and then support them to maintain that status until it was safe to leave.

I raise this example because we have talked about implementing a “navigator” program in Davis. We believe that we have the volunteers who would participate, and we have discussed a recruitment and training strategy.

The point is that once we invest in community health workers for particular purposes, we can mobilize them in times of crisis, or for other related needs in the community. They become a permanent community asset–not just essential components of our social capital, but also critical rapid action resources within our healthcare infrastructure.

In the next and final installment on community health workers, I will examine their role in the movement to “defund the police.”

The “Why” of Yolo

 

 

 

 

Yesterday I critiqued a conservative piece that, among other things, decried a loss of “the why of America.” The writer argued that we had lost a sense of the ends to which we are, collectively, committed.

I criticized them for not offering any sense of what the “why of America” should be but also because they appeared to be describing an American response to COVID-19 that is petty, laden with public shaming, and unconcerned about the well-being of neighbors.

I noted that public shaming does happen but asked, “Do they characterize how we collectively and overwhelmingly deal with this crisis in real communities where most of us live? Not at all.”

I said that because of my experience in Yolo, my home county, at the outbreak of the epidemic. My story is an important one and indicates that there is a shared “why of Yolo” in these challenging times.

At the same time that our governor was issuing shelter in place orders, the Yolo Food Bank undertook to deliver food to the doorsteps of vulnerable people: those over age 65 or with a medical condition that increased their risk of adverse outcomes should they contract the virus.

I helped organize volunteers for this effort and, if you forget everything else, remember this statistic: 1 for every 4. As people began to sign up to have food delivered to their door, we simultaneously accepted sign-ups for volunteers who would deliver it.

Over the six weeks I was involved (the program ran for more than two months), we also had approximately one volunteer for every four people that signed up for the service. Over 900 signed up to deliver food to just over 3,000 total households (over 6,000 people).

Volunteers for the Yolo Food Bank in the parking lot of Davis High School (photos thanks to Karin Higgins, UC Davis).

Pause to consider the statement of the “why of Yolo” that these numbers represent.

And the volunteers did not merely deliver food. Dozens helped to correct data that recipients incorrectly entered into a GIS-based database. This enabled those doing the deliveries to be much more efficient in their work.

One Saturday afternoon, I realized we needed Spanish, Russian, and possibly other language translations. Within an hour of requesting help via social media, I had translation support for each and a UC Davis student group’s commitment to identify translations for a dozen more languages as needed.

These translators worked in real-time when drivers were out making deliveries, contacting people while drivers waited to identify the precise location for deliveries.

Other volunteers made daily phone calls to people to respond to needs, collect corrected information, and assure that volunteers had what they needed to do their work.

A church, a small business, and various community service groups offered larger trucks and vans to deliver to sizeable senior apartment complexes. Community leaders in one town adopted a senior complex in their town and did all deliveries in that location.

Others packed boxes, and one company helped transport boxes to a distribution site so that volunteers could deliver them from that site.

Volunteers did address troubleshooting on the spot and found out of the way addresses to assure deliveries.

Many of those doing deliveries begged to keep the same recipients week to week because they were building relationships of trust with the recipients and wanted to make sure that all their needs were met.

When recipients requested additional support, local church groups stepped in to provide it.

A local produce company offered its drivers to make 150 deliveries every week.

At each delivery site, other volunteers ensured that drivers maintained safe distancing and got answers to questions.

And this went on day after day, week after week, for three months.

Maybe America has lost its “why”–its raison d’etre, its sense of shared purpose. But during six weeks starting in March 2020, I was privileged to see firsthand the “why of Yolo”:

  • reducing the spread of a deadly disease
  • protecting the most vulnerable in our community
  • meeting the basic needs of neighbors.

These are the “whys of Yolo.

COVID-19 and the Unveiling of American “Conservatism”

 

 

 

 

I try to read insights from conservative perspectives on several issues: policing, war, and so-called cultural conflicts. I do not consult sites that are mere propaganda machines for the Trump administration. Still, I check out The American ConservativeThe Wall Street Journal opinion pages, and The National Review. And I used to read First Things also, but in the Post-9/11 period, I became so enraged with their war-mongering that I stopped.

There are times I find the opinion and commentary enlightening, and on some occasions, like this recent piece on policing in The American Conservative, I agree with the writers.

Over the months of the COVID-19 pandemic, I have seen a framing of the issues around the US response that has bothered me, and today I found a prime example in this piece by Tony Woodlief entitled “A Masked Consensus,” so I thought I would jot some notes about it.

I have been struck, increasingly in recent years, by what masquerades as “conservatism” but is, in fact, libertarianism and, in the worst cases, a crude objectivism a la Ayn Rand.

Patrick Deneen has done a much better job teasing out the historical meanings of liberalism, libertarianism, and conservatism than I ever could, but if conservatism is anything, it is about place, community, the value of traditions, and the need to learn from history. Also, a more Burkean understanding of conservatism would include a suspicion about building public actions around abstract ideas (Burke critiqued the French Revolution on these grounds).

In much of what I am reading these days from conservatives, I see few appeals to these ideals. Instead, I see straw-man arguments, and a dishonest framing of issues that makes, in the case of COVID-19, public health practitioners out as bent on social control, and “conservatives” as the guarantors of the sincere commitments of the Republic.

Woodlief claims his piece is about ultimate ends and the lack of attention to them that characterizes Americans at this point in our history. This is a critique I have made in this blog, and so, on the face of it, I would agree with Woodlief.

However, Woodlief provides no real evidence that people are unconcerned about ends. Instead, he seems to scour social media and what passes as the news for outrageous stories of people abused for not wearing masks or outed for inappropriately visiting elderly relatives in nursing homes. Do these things happen? Yes. Do they characterize how we collectively and overwhelmingly deal with this crisis in real communities where most of us live? Not at all.

The first problem with Woodlief’s piece is that, while decrying the loss of the “why”–the American “why”–he never once proposes a meaningful end of his own. One can infer it in his call for a return to liturgies and acknowledgments of things more significant than ourselves. I assume that Woodlief is referring to the need to return to faith traditions of a particular kind. And while I value the contribution that people of faith make to solving the real challenges in my community, I am not naive enough to believe that a return to an imagined past of shared faith values will ever come to define the “why” of America; simply because it never did.

This is common in what I am reading in “conservative” publications these days: lots of decrying what others are doing wrong and very little proposing about how to make it right.

And then there are the “straw-men,” or perhaps I should say “straw-man” because, on the right, there is only one “man” one bogeyman–Tony Fauci. Woodlief lumps him in with “overweening governors… and the various other busybody puritans” who make everybody feel bad about not wearing a mask.

But the straw-man is even worse than that.  Woodlief decries an imagined “technocratic sleight of hand whereby our nation’s chief epidemiologist has become our chief ethicist.”

Wrong and wrong. Dr. Tony Fauci presents evidence, makes recommendations, and prepares us for what will happen if we don’t follow them. His power is in his ability to articulate an end we can, together, achieve (sounds like a conservative), and point the way to get there.

He neither collects and disseminates spicy takedowns of those nasty eschewers of facemasks, nor scolds the American people for not following his recommendations.

And finally, there is the dishonest framing of what Fauci, and public health officials, and the whole liberal project (I suppose) are all about. I have seen this framing before–the claim that those who want to take vigorous actions to stem the spread of a novel coronavirus 6-10 times more deadly than flu are merely “worshippers of the body,” obsessed with preserving the lives of those who are near death, or as Woodlief puts it: “extending man’s years and pleasure.”

How about this: the end that those of us who recommend and support actions such as physical distancing, wearing masks, and well-run programs to test, trace and isolate sick people seek is to avoid unnecessary suffering and death.  Sounds like a great end.  Sounds pro-life, actually. Sounds conservative.

It is time for the “conservatives” following this script to step up and be honest about their project. They are not conservative; they are Randist. They do not want ends; they want to be left alone. They want what Joan Didion referred to as the “dream we won’t admit”–autonomy.

They do not want well-reasoned plans built upon proven historical strategies to solve an actual (not an abstract) problem: COVID-19. They want to go about their lives without anyone telling them what to do. They don’t care about the community; they care about themselves.

Here is the “why of America” they pursue: personal autonomy. And they are willing to shorten life unnecessarily to achieve it.

Preface to “Local Governance when all Politics is National and Global”

 

 

 

 

I may regret this but… I have been trying (on and off, mostly off) to write a short book about my experiences on the City Council in Davis, CA.  It is meant to be a reflection on a number of the things I experienced while in office that I never expected.  It is also about the ways that “the local” is connected to the “global.”  What follows is a re-write of the preface I wrote several months ago.  Still not happy with it but it will stand for now.  Chapters in this book will include (at this point):

  1. Introduction: Confessions of a Globe-Trotting Cosmopolite
  2. Sustainability: Environmental, Fiscal, and Social
  3. Privilege Means Never Having to Accept “No”
  4. Housing I: Our University Town Would be Great if it weren’t for the Students
  5. Housing II: “Your Job is to Make Our City as Inhospitable as Possible for Homeless People”
  6. Welcome to Davis Mr. Gandhi
  7. When Hate is Local
  8. Justice that Restores: We all Want it Until we Don’t
  9. Sanctuary During the Return of the Nativist
  10. Our Police, Ourselves: Oversight of the Police we Have Demanded and Militarized
  11. A Localist Vision: Identifying Giftedness and Giving Thanks

Preface

Her voice shook with anger (fear?) as she addressed us:

“You… you will be responsible. You have GOT to do something. Now. You have got to do something before someone else gets killed.”

She was one of a dozen who spoke during public comment about a police use-of-force incident in our town. They had been coming to Council chambers for weeks—and would return for many weeks more. Their anger palpable, their accusations of wrongdoing surprisingly personal, their demands clear: we needed to fire the police chief, the City Manager, and anyone else who stood in the way of justice for the young people involved in the incident.

But no one had died. The incident in question (which led to the creation of a new police oversight system and a public accounting of the inappropriate actions by the police) had left officers with a few cuts and bruises and the young people with whom they had the altercation, with no known injuries. The young people were charged with felony assaults and resisting arrest–charges that were later dropped. But no one had died, at least not in our city.

I cast a sidelong glance at my colleagues after her statement, and it was clear that we were all wondering what she meant by “before someone else gets killed.” People had died at the hands of the police, of course—in Ferguson, New York, North Carolina, and elsewhere. But not here.

That is when the message came home to me. What happens “out there” is felt profoundly “here.” People’s sense of connection to broader national and global issues conditioned their reactions to what was happening in their city. It was a profound realization and explained a great deal of what I had experienced as the Mayor of this small city of 70,000.

By the time I decided to run for local office (City Council, Davis, California), I had a pretty good sense of the significant challenges ahead if I were to be elected. Our city’s fiscal situation, like most cities in California, faced significant challenges related to years of inattention to necessary infrastructure, lack of affordable housing, budgetary instability caused by underfunded pensions, and a variety of so-called “social” challenges—led by homelessness (a syndrome with widely misunderstood causes).

I knew that I would be dealing with these and all their attendant issues—painful budget cuts and priority setting, contentious land-use decisions, employee negotiations, tax proposals, social services planning, etc. I spoke about my understanding of and proposed approach to dealing with each of them in my campaign literature, small group meetings, and public debates and forums. I prepared carefully to address them in all their complexity. I expected them to take up most of my time.

I was not wrong to have so prepared, and collectively, they took up most of my time. Local government is very pedestrian, and its focus will always be on creating a sustainable, safe, and livable community by looking after the essential mundane.  

This book is not (primarily) about any of these things. They indeed form the backdrop of what I share here, but this book is about things I never expected, never consciously prepared for, and never anticipated spending time on. In the end, these other things consumed hours, days, and whole weeks of my life, and at times felt all-consuming.  

That I did not anticipate them does not imply that they are not vital. In their way, each of them is as critical to creating a thriving community as budgets, water and sanitation, and firefighting. As I hope to demonstrate, responding to them and walking with the community through them constituted some of the most important work I did over my four-year term.

The aphorism “all politics is local” is undoubtedly true. I would say that all politics is hyper-local. People rarely write about “community” concerns or “city” concerns. Instead, they want help with their park, their neighborhood, their street, their tree.

But in another sense, all politics is linked to broader social, political, and economic forces. All politics is regional, all politics is national, and all politics is, in certain ways, global. I mean this in a precise way—how we react locally to the world beyond our city’s borders. One feature of our networked world is that what happens “out there” elicits reactions here. Only that could explain the comments of the woman who addressed us, and it pushed me to believe that, potentially, every national and global issue of concern would find its way into our Council meetings on Tuesday nights. Many did.

Global terror showed up in the form of local imam’s sermon. Police brutality and militarization in a “mine-resistant armored protected” vehicle and the use of force incident. The consolidation of economic power and income inequality in calls to disinvest from Wells Fargo. Global retrenchment and xenophobia in hate crimes and calls to stand against white supremacy and create sanctuary. And the list goes on. From global climate change to Indian politics (yes, even that), from criminal justice reform to white flight in the form of “NIMBYism,” issues playing out around the world played out in my hometown.

What follows is simply about how I, as one city council member and, for a time, Mayor, perceived these global/local issues and how I tried to respond. The response is what still matters to me most.  

I entered office (and left it!) as a localist. What I mean is that I believed then and believe now that we can face many of the most challenging issues of our time effectively ONLY at the local level. Despite the constraints imposed by state or federal statute or limited resources, I still believe that local communities are where resilience starts and where we find human solutions to our challenges. Because of this, I thought it was my job to help create a more resilient community—one able to face the inevitable shock related to climate change, recessions, disasters, and changing legal requirements. And so, I viewed my response to these global/local issues as critical to strengthening my community. 

 

I felt (and feel) that they were not merely issues to be “managed” but rather opportunities to help build the social infrastructure to make us better able to withstand the challenges each community must face. This book reflects how I tried to respond to a variety of these global/local issues. I will leave it to others to decide whether these efforts accomplish the hoped-for goal of greater resilience.

I want to thank the four other members of the City Council who served with me during those four years: four members but five committed and thoughtful community members who gave up large chunks of their lives for the often thankless job of trying to lead our city—our home. 

I want to thank the dedicated but too-often-maligned City staff who does the day to day work of running this town. 

I would like to thank the dozens and dozens of community members who faithfully served on a variety of city commissions, task forces, and working groups. These groups provide input, act as sounding boards, and do a high-level technical review of thousands of pages of reports and other documents. Their dedication adds a layer of transparency to our public processes that should be the envy of every city. 

I will avoid using any of these people’s names (or any names for that matter) throughout this book. Their identities may not be hard to figure out in some cases, but this story is not about holding them to account or holding up their failings for public review. They will go unnamed. Finally, I want to thank my wife, who agreed to let me run and serve but told me I “better never bring any of that stuff home.” I honored her command (for the most part).

Four Lists of Four: Travel Edition

 

 

 

 

Back when I did my 20 minutes of writing for 20 days, I offered one edition of “Five Lists of Five.” I realized then that I liked making lists, that I “think” in lists, and that lists provide a neat way to summarize life events.

So here are four lists of four things, travel edition. The only thing that unites them is that they all concern stuff I like or that happened to me outside my home country.

Four Side Trips I Took for Fun While Working Abroad

I rarely had time to take trips to visit exciting things while I was working around the world. Thus, I missed the Taj Mahal, Timbuktu, and Angkor Wat when setting aside a single day at the end of a trip would have allowed me to see them. The truth was, after weeks away, I was usually in a hurry to get home. But, here are four times and places where I took advantage of being close to something cool.

  1. Visiting a lemur preserve while in Madagascar.  This short trip to an island off the east coast of that country would never have happened had not my colleague Ann insisted. I am glad she did. Lemurs are native to Madagascar, and seeing such a variety in one place in their natural habitat was a real treat.
  2. “Trekking” the 30 miles cross country from the edge of the Anapurna range back to Kathmandu.  Another thing I would not have done had it been for my friend Lisa who suggested we take the bus up to the edge of the range, spend the night and walk back. It was a spectacular evening followed by a long hike downhill on a kind of mountain spine through small villages back to the city edge.
  3. Visiting Robben Island, off the coast of Capetown, visiting Mandela’s cell and Robert Sobukwe’s solitary confinement house and hearing of the torture prisoners underwent, from a former prisoner.  I was teaching in Stellenbosch, and this trip came just before I left the country. I had never heard of Sobukwe before visiting the island, but the story of how he nearly lost his mind due to strict enforcement of solitary–no one ever spoke to him for years.
  4. Visiting the slave “castle” of El Mina in Ghana.  I visited Ghana over a dozen times in the 80s, 90s, and Naughts but visited this historical site on my final trip. To see where slavery originated and learn how prisoners were held, rekindled an interest in better understanding the history and impacts of slavery in the US.

Four Terrifying or Troubling Experiences from the Road

When you travel as much as I did at once, you are bound to experience and see lots of challenging and scary things. This list could easily be ten or more.

  1. One hundred kilometers east of Mazar Esh Sharif.I was in Afghanistan to train community health workers in participatory methods, and we were driving up a dry riverbed to a remote village when two young men with machine guns stopped us. Though our vehicle had a “no guns” sticker in the window, they pointed them at us and demanded a ride. They were young–maybe 17 or so. One sat next to me and promptly fell asleep, and his gun, between his legs, slid out of his sleeping hands and stopped pointing directly at my face.
  2. The road between Islamabad and Peshawar.  Sick with flu, I was the last person to enter a micro-bus for the 2-hour (as I recall) trip to Peshawar. The seat left to me was in the very rear on the right (they drive on the left in Pakistan). The road then was two lanes wide, and our driver passed recklessly pulling back in at the last minute as all manner of vehicles approached from the other direction horns blaring. Each time I stared dead-on into the eyes of a driver of the other vehicle whose brazen laughter EACH time is seared into my brain.
  3. A mosque in the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camp.  When I was a young person, the massacre in these camps changed my view of the Middle East forever. And then, there I was, standing in a mosque with a man who described the entire thing for an hour without stopping. At the end, he pointed to the floor of the mosque and said, “we dug into the floor and buried the bodies here. They are still here, below us. We pray upstairs now. I was in the pit, and they handed the bodies to me. One of the dead bodies was a huge man, and when we got him into the pit, his arm twitched somehow involuntarily. Everyone fled, and I was left in the pit by myself for almost a day. Going through something like that will change you forever.” Indeed.
  4. A remote village in south-central Mauritania (east of Kankossa). We sat around a large mat, drinking tea and telling stories in the Mauritanian way. It was full dark, no stars, and I casually put my hand behind me to change positions. Scorpion. One of the most painful experiences of my life. My hand swelled slightly, but the numbness began to spread up my arm, even as the pain translated into my elbow and shoulder. Hours later, the numbness was to my neck, and I thought about death. Too far from anything to do anything. A nurse on the trip with us checked me hourly, and I prayed. By morning the pain was still intense, but the numbness had receded.

Four Meals I Had the Pleasure of Eating

It may be trite to say that the best part of leaving home is learning of new food, but discovering all the fantastic ways that people take simple ingredients to create stunning dishes is truly a benefit of the many lonely days on the road. I ate none of these in fancy restaurants and most of them without utensils.

  1. Thieboudienne (Senegal and Mauritania–coastal). This was not just one meal but meals–meals that I ate as often as I could during long workdays in Nouakchott. Local women sold this fish dish by the side of the road, and I preferred the rice scraped from the bottom of the pot and plenty of habanero-like peppers that made me sweat. “Bien roffee” as we used to say: the spices stuffed into the fish were the best part.
  2. Breakfast thali in Hyderabad and environs.  This is another meal that was an ongoing treat every morning while I was training on Hyderabad’s outskirts. With rice as the base of various staple preparations, the chutneys, dahls, and spices made for discovery each day. The first time I ate this kind of food, I thought I had never known what food was before that moment.
  3. Gumbo fish sauce in Accra, Ghana.  Although I could have put “Red Red” for my Ghana favorite, the spicey fish sauce made with okra and eaten with “pate” made of fermented corn was the messiest, tastiest, hottest dish I had the pleasure of eating.
  4. Steak-frite, table wine, and tomato and cucumber salad at Chartier, Paris. Basic French food served in a turn of the 19th Century bistro, where you sit tightly packed with strangers, waiters are stereotypically grouchy old French guys, and orders scribbled on paper tablecloths may not sound like a great experience. But you would be wrong. The food’s simplicity cannot be confused with its taste, and one consumes the ambiance as much as the endless baskets of fresh bread.

My Four Favorite Metro Stations in Paris. 

Huh? Favorite metro stations? Yes! Living in Paris after growing up in a tiny town without a single form of public transportation was a discovery.

I just loved riding the metro (talk to my wife about this; she does not get it either).

  1. Gare de l’est.  More than a metro stop (served by several lines), the various stations were grubby, smelly, and crowded. But they all led to the promise of long train trips to Europe’s heart, including the Orient Express, which left the gare every day. Leaving the metro station at the Gare de l’est meant an adventure was in the offing.
  2. Trocadero. Always a clean and bright spot that delivered you almost instantaneously to the “Place” of the same name and the Tour Eiffel. What is not to love?
  3. Saint Michel. Not unlike Trocadero, St Michel brought you to the depth of old Paris, just across the river from Notre Dame and the labyrinth of the Quartier Latin. So many choices from there!
  4. Jardin Luxembourg. Only one line, the regional rail line, serves this quiet but large reserve in the middle of the city. Bring Le Monde, find a chair, put your feet up and read. Bring your wine, baguette, and cheese and make an afternoon of it.

This happened… No, I really mean it.

 

 

 

We were idiots.

Little fish in a minuscule pond, in some backwater Bible belt (the end part of the belt that dangles after you buckle it), but the smallness of the pond made us feel large. But we weren’t.

I’ll name names. Dean, Smokey (as he was known then), and me: we saw ourselves as “ladies’ men,” and we had that 70s hair to prove it. But we weren’t. We were just three scared guys facing adulthood and meeting it with a swagger that hid all the gnawing uncertainties we only brought out at night to examine.

I was never sure, and I never asked, but it was pretty clear that Dean and maybe Smokey were using. Dean had a “friend” named… I can’t remember, but let’s call him Art. But that friend appeared to own a jet (or at least a plane), committed vague acts of violence, and, I always assumed, was a dealer.

I never used drugs, and that is the truth. I could not stand to think about the consequences that would inevitably follow if I ever tried. So I did not ask about Art–ever. I did not want to know, and I did not want to go in that plane, though Dean seemed to offer a trip to Florida if I wanted to go.

We sat around dissing each other most of the time–friendly banter, listened to Blue Oyster Cult and Dan Fogelberg, and talked about the young women we had or wished we had in our lives.

Dean had dated, on and off, a beautiful local co-ed who I adored from a distance but dared not approach. I was happy to leave him to it but knew it was always a precarious situation. The relationship was a mystery, but Dean held her like a trophy, and we felt he was pretty lucky but brazen to aim so high. As we used to say, “out of his league.”

And he did aim too high because all at once she told him it was over (short-lived as it was) and I was not surprised. But he was angry and nursed that anger for some time, making strange threats about her “regretting” it but never getting specific about why. He had a long planning horizon and knew he would be rich one day, so I always thought he meant she would miss out on all the celebrity that was flowing his way.

Time went on until that Saturday afternoon in Smokey’s room. Dean was there with the two of us, and a newish friend named Clark stopped by to hang out, eat peanuts and pepperoni, and listen to Jon Klemer (as I recall).

Clark was new and a bit more religious than us, so we held back on the vulgarity and had that typical conversation for that time, which included cars, and sports, and music, and whatever was happening on campus, which was never much.

We got around to girls eventually. We all updated one another on our latest ideas about whom to date, who was available, and who to stay away from to avoid entanglements with larger, older, or stronger boyfriends.

It was then that Clark told us about his new girlfriend and I knew trouble was coming. Yes, it was Dean’s “she’ll regret it” main squeeze (as we used to call girlfriends), and Clark had no clue. There were choices to be made–all by Dean–and I predicted an adverse outcome to his new relationship with Clark.

Dean turned red (color matters here), which meant anger, and he just kept getting brighter. Smokey and I eyed each other. Clark just got quiet. He didn’t know, but he did. Nothing was said for a pretty long time, and I wanted out of there.

Then Dean jumped up. This was it. Clark was not a small guy, and I think he could have taken Dean had he tried anything. But he didn’t. He just said, “I gotta get out of here. I am going to Art’s.”

And he stormed out, and we heard his glass-packed Camaro for a long time as it careened away from the dorm.

We sat in an even longer silence and then started parsing his parting words: going to Art’s. What did that mean? Was he going to Art’s to get stoned? Was he going to Art’s to bring Art back to bust Clark’s head? Anything was possible. We were anxious. Going to Art’s was never going to be a good thing for Dean, and possibly for Clark, and maybe for all of us.

Klemer played on. We sat.

Then the door opened quietly, and Dean re-entered. No Art (not that I would have known what he looked like). He was alone. And he was shaking, and he was white–as white as the white painter pants he was wearing that day.

He sat down, still shaking, and put his head in his hands. He sat for a long while. We said nothing.

“What just happened,” he asked.

“Heading down Eden Road, a hitchhiker” (common back then).

Silence for a moment.

“I mean, I stopped. I always stop. I mean, he needed a ride, right? you always stop.”

More silence–the silence probed Dean.

“And he opened the door and looked in, and I said ‘where you headed man,’ and he said ‘where you heading man'”? And I said ‘I’m headed to Art’s'”

Like the guy knew who Art was???

“And then he said, ‘well then, you better go back to Smokey’s room,’ and he closed the door and walked off into the cornfield by the road.”

And Dean got up, went over and hugged Clark, and sat down. And we all listened to Klemer and stayed quiet for a long time.

That happened one Saturday afternoon.

Crowdsourcing: Looking for Case Studies!

 

 

 

One of my responsibilities at the University of California, Davis, is to develop ways to engage students in “global learning.” Global Learning is a concept that may seem intuitive, and what might come to mind is “study abroad.” While study abroad may be a means of helping students to engage in global learning, it is far from the only approach.

Global Learning, as we define it at UC Davis, is a process of “helping students develop their capacity to be informed, open-minded, and responsible people, who are responsive to diverse perspectives. Global learning prepares us to address the world’s most pressing issues collaboratively, equitably, and sustainably. Global learning helps students understand that pressing issues must be faced in an interdisciplinary way given the complexity of environments and competing needs and interests.”

Teasing that out a bit it includes

  • helping students appreciate diverse perspectives;
  • preparing students to participate in addressing global challenges; and
  • helping them problem-solve in interdisciplinary ways with an appreciation of the complexity of environments in which they develop solutions. 

As you can see, global learning involves building intercultural learning skills and reflection processes and preparing them to solve global challenges.  

Our global learning goals for students are: 

  1. Global Awareness – Students examine actions and relationships that influence global systems from multiple perspectives, analyzing how complex systems impact self and others.
  2. Global Diversity – Students explore complex dimensions of diversity, equity, and inclusion around the world, including language, culture, and identity. 
  3. Global Action – Students create strategies to apply knowledge, skills, and abilities to collaboratively and equitably foster global well-being and resilience. 

A useful way to introduce students to global challenges and global actions is through the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The 17 goals are a concise summary of responses that communities and nations can take to create a more sustainable world. The SDGs are attractive to students because they can connect their interests, majors, and research and internship interests to them and feel connected to efforts that are “bigger” than themselves.

As educators, one challenge is to help connect students to the reality that the SDGs are not merely problems “out there” somewhere in the world but are relevant to their local communities–here in Davis and at home, wherever home might be.

Another challenge is to help students not approach the SDGs as technical problems to be solved via narrow disciplinary approaches. Further, we want them to consider the full historical and social environment in which they develop and offer solutions. 

This means that they must contend with historical forces of exclusion, local power dynamics, questions of equity, and the role of policies shaping people’s ability to benefit from the solutions they offer. 

All of this is a pretty big task, but it is possible by sharing real-world examples to students–case studies.

So, here is my “ask” of you. I want to collect case studies of real-world problem solving around the SDGs (broadly) in a local context you know or about which you have heard. Here are the criteria:

Case studies should

  1. be about addressing one or more global challenges as articulated by the SDGs;
  2. offer a solution or solutions–ideally arrived at through interdisciplinary problem-solving; and
  3. demonstrate a complex social or historical context that affects the solution’s effects on people, how it is targeted, or how people respond to it.

Here is an example from a recent graduate student (simplified):

An engineer seeks solutions to the problem of small community wells drying up in the Central Valley of California. An answer she considers involves diverting seasonal rainwater to locations that will promote recharge. In the process of her research, she discovers that the communities most affected are non-native language speakers–farmworkers primarily. Further analysis shows that wealthy landowners control the fields over which the water must flow to recharge the ground. Finally, she learns that these same communities have been, by policy, excluded from obtaining sustainable water supplies by connecting to nearby municipal water systems.

Notice that this case study does not require proof that the solution will work, but it addresses the sixth UN SDG: Clean Water and Sanitation. Notice also that there is both a social and historical context that affects the solution. The setting determines whether it is feasible, and history demonstrates why other solutions have not worked. Finally, it brings in social science as well as engineering tools to offer a targeted solution.

So, my request to you is to get creative and provide me with some ideas. I can work with them and develop them further as case studies for use in classes and trainings I will conduct this fall and beyond.

I look forward to hearing your ideas!

 

Preparing

For weeks I have been trying to define how I feel about my daily work, my regular engagements with family, and my routine volunteerism that spans several different domains. They have all seemed to take on a “sameness”: a sense of everything flowing the same way, at the same pace, towards the same place. 

Of course, they are NOT all flowing to the same place, real or metaphorical, but I have not been able to define the overarching sense of what is happening now all the time.

Until today.

Today it finally came to me that everything I do is “preparing.” It feels like there is no ultimate doing, just getting ready to do something else. Now I know that life is like that. I tell people I train to design better workshops that the time spent preparing the event is what counts. With proper preparation and sound design, the workshop will take care of itself. I believe and have proven it throughout my career.

We don’t just get up on any given day and take a trip. We prepare. We don’t simply get married, or get a college degree, or buy a house. We prepare, sometimes for years, to get to the place where the ultimate “doing” occurs.

So preparing is part of everything. But now, I feel like that is all that is left.  

Maybe every summer feels like this, but I just never noticed. After all, I work in higher education, and summers are supposed to be about preparing. We prepare for new student arrivals, for classes we will teach in the fall, for new activities.  

But this year, life has an aura of being about a preparation that may never lead to anything. I am not morbid (I don’t think). My mind is not drifting to my demise. The feeling is not about me getting older and starting to look for my mortality.

But it is about a road that has no clear endpoint. It is about developing a course I may never give, about contacting students I may never meet, or presentations with no audience. 

It is not just the changes we have experienced. Change is a constant. It is not only the uncertainty of these times.

It is the continually changing uncertainty.  

Even uncertainty has a certain rhythm if you think about it. We know we will live with it for some undefined time but the nature of the uncertainty–will I get the job, will this project be of sufficient quality, will my choices trap me–is predictable. Yes, I said that uncertainty is predictable.

But not this year. The uncertainty has taken on a random quality that suggests that almost anything might happen. Uncertainty has come loose of its moorings in the routine and is adrift in currents that could send it crashing away. And then what?

Uncertainty gone–replaced only by a randomness that makes you fear to peak out the door?

I think it is a particular feature of privilege that says we do not have to stand for the randomness and that we are entitled to our predictable (and therefore controllable) uncertainty.  

I think most people on the planet live with the randomness, not the uncertainty they can control. Further, it is my experience that they spend most of their time preparing

  • preparing the fields,
  • preparing for the harvest,
  • preparing to fend off disease,
  • preparing to face the inevitable losses that will come,
  • preparing for a tomorrow that is too far over the horizon ever to imagine. 

I will get up tomorrow and prepare and, perhaps, be thankful that I will have food in my stomach, health in my body, and a place to sleep when my preparations are all done.

Five Amazing Bike Rides in Northern CA

img_0499

One of the great delights of my life–that thing, I say, that no one can ever take away–is to have lived, and ridden my bike, in Northern California. When I was young, I loved to bike and dreamed of crossing great distances on my ten-speed. But my meditations never brought me to this place. I could not have imagined it. But now I have had a chance to see it, to ride it, to experience a fantastic beauty that I wish more people could experience.

So, without further comment, here are five of my favorite rides in Northern California. Three of them are done best on road bikes, one is best by mountain bike, and the third is your choice (I have done both but prefer a mountain bike).

Click on the ride name to get “Ride with GPS” route instructions

Delta Loop 

Right off the bat, I must apologize for the starting places of these rides.  Some start from my house or my friend Andy’s house in the Outer Sunset neighborhood of San Francisco.  You should be able to figure out your own start.  This one starts at my house.

Except for the ride to West Sacramento, this is one of the most interesting and beautiful rides in the County.  While the River Road just south of West Sacramento can be busy at times, if you do this ride on a Sunday you are likely to have only four or five cars pass you by the time you reach Clarksburg, and then you will have 20 miles of almost no traffic at all.

I would check with the wind speed and direction before heading out because a southern wind over about 15 miles per hour can make this a tough ride until you head north and the wind will only build the further south you go.

This ride has a ferry crossing!

Delta
South of Clarksburg

 

The 20+ miles from Clarksburg to the ferry on SR84 are among the most beautiful anywhere, passing vineyards, and row crop fields for miles.  Summer can be a great time to do this but fall is amazing.

If someone picks you up in Rio Vista you have had a great ride.  But if you head back north you will go through what I think of as the heart of the agricultural delta, and, if the wind is behind you, you will fly home.

Warning: Crossing the Hastings Island Bridge is trespassing.  I did it, got away with it… but I can’t guarantee you won’t have problems.  My experience is that most people give cyclists a pass.  No promises.

Huffmaster 

The name of this one comes from a club ride (the club is from San Rafael I think), that I got to go to with my friend Dave Reynolds.  This particular configuration is not the actual Huffmaster route but pretty close.  This is the ride you can do with a road bike (700×30 tires please) but might be more fun on a mountain bike.

If you have not been over to this part of the coastal hills not too far from Clear Lake, CA, and not too far from Williams, CA, I highly recommend it.  The valley is secluded, there is no traffic on the roads and you get to ride through the open range for parts of it.

Unlike the perfectly flat Delta Ride, this one has a fair amount of climbing–about 3000 feet–but it also has a long descent.

Leaving Leesville you are on gravel for about 10 miles and then nicely paved roads as you climb to your first summit.  Then is a mostly downhill section that goes on for about 9 more.

Huffmaster
Near Leesville

 

There are eagles and wildlife in this section.  You bottom out in Sites, the location of a future reservoir that will close this area off from biking if it is ever built.  You then began a long “fire-road-like” climb through pastures, rangeland, and typical coastal hills forest.  The fire road is not too bad.

Do this ride in fall.  In summer it can get pretty hot and most of it is out in the open.  In spring the climb out of Sites is muddy and may be impassable.  Autumn is perfect because there are lots of colors and the air is clear.

This is one of the most beautiful, never heard of rides in Northern California, but you do have to drive to get to the start.

Four Bay Bridges 

Ride with GPS has added this ride to their “Great Community Route Celebration” list!  If you want to see the Bay–actually the “Bays” Grizzly to San Pablo to San Francisco–this is your route.  It crosses these bays four times on interstates and Highway 101, with great views at every crossing. In between, you get to view the coastal hills and Mount Tam (see below).  The crossing of the San Rafael bridge (bridge 3) affords amazing views of San Francisco.

 

San Rafael
From the San Rafael Bridge

You have to get to Martinez, CA to start this one but a train is an option.  All the crossings are via dedicated and separated bike lanes, which makes for low-stress riding and plenty of opportunities to look around.

 

My favorite crossing is the Carquinez Bridge (bridge 2) because it provides great views of Mount Tamalpais and a large swath of the Bay.  Amtrak trains pass under the bridge.

Four Bay Bridges
From the Carquinez Bridge

Besides the bridges themselves, the ride from Pinole to Richmond is one of the most beautiful.  It passes mostly right along the bay at water level on dedicated bike paths and then out to Pinole Regional Park.

 

It is a bit tricky to find your way after you leave the San Rafael bridge but once you do you have to navigate some urban spaces before getting on bike paths that take you all the way to Sausilito.  This ride is challenging at 4000 feet of climbing but the hills are spaced out.

I recommend a weekday for this ride in any season.  Get out early and enjoy the varied microclimates as you go.

Tiburon Loop 

This one starts and ends at my friend Andy’s house so… figure it out.  You can leave from anywhere in San Francisco.  Now I realize that this ride shares some things in common with the Four Bay Bridges ride but, well, I kept it because 1) I love the Bay area; and 2) it has the most fun stretch of riding in Northern California.

Let me explain.  I am from back east and rolling hills are the norm.  Believe it or not they are hard to find in Northern California.  It is either flat or quite hilly, but there are few stretches where it consistently goes up and down for miles.  This ride has rolling hills!

When you leave Tiburon to head north along the Bay you have about 9 miles of sharp turns that rise and fall at a rhythm that make you feel like you are flying.  I love this section through wooded hillsides.  The views are not great but so what?  You are flying!

Mt Tam
Tiburon Peninsula (west side)

 

The ride out along the west side of the Tiburon peninsula is pretty nice with, again, great views of San Francisco, and you can interrupt the trip and take your bike on a ferry out to Angel Island for a ride if you want (recommended!).

Finally, if you want a bit more of a challenge, when you get back to Mill Valley on the return, head up Evergreen to Panorama Drive and then down into Muir Woods and then back up Route 1 and back to Mill Valley.  That is a hard stretch but it adds the Pacific ocean and great biking.  I know lots of people do not like Route 1 but the climb up from Muir Beach is challenging, beautiful and the cars that do pass you are going very slowly.  Trust me, and take the plunge.

Mountain Bike to Tam Fire Road and Back 

This is a VERY tiring ride. This is 5000 feet of climbing in four steep sections (the third is the steepest), with the final LONG climb on a single track with lots of ruts.  It takes you to the shoulder of Mt Tam and is the most amazing ride of the group.  It is a kind of “once-a-year ride that you do on Wednesday morning if you can.  If you do it on a weekend you will meet avid (young) mountain bikers screaming down at you from Tam and it will not be fun.

I have this one starting and ending at the waterfront near the Transbay Terminal. This ride is all about the Marin Headlands.  It has amazing views EVERYWHERE–EVERYWHERE.  The ride up from the Golden Gate seems challenging but it turns out to be the easiest climb.  Once you get to the Coastal Trail you are off-road for  most of the rest of the way.  You split time between fire roads and some non-technical singletrack.

Marin
Marin Headlands

Riding across this part of Marin can make you feel like you are on a lonely Irish coast. 

The ride takes you over several hills until you reach Tennessee Beach and then you get the steep climb up to Coyote Ridge.  I have done most of this ride without a mountain bike but you will not make this climb without it.  You cannot stand on your pedals here because you will lose traction and over you will go.

Expect to ride about 3 miles per hour up this climb but you will be rewarded by any hikers who will look at you with awe (or perhaps they will think you are crazy).

IMG_0054Once you get up, you have to head down to Muir Beach and this is no easy task.  But then you get to climb again all the way to the shoulder of Mt Tam.  This is a long hard climb but… did I mention views?  Mountains and seashore and open pasture and you get to see it all from your bike.  And by the time you get West Point Inn on the shoulder, before heading back, you get views of Mt Diablo, San Francisco and the entire bay.

This ride is so challenging, so tiring, but so achingly beautiful that you will never forget it.  And you will be able to say, like me, no one can take that away from me.

Enjoy the ride.