A little bit about Common Core

A lot of people I’ve talked to lately can’t stand the idea of the Common Core State Standards getting into their kids’ education. Very few of them live in the area where I volunteer in schools, but they include family and friends from all over the United States.

When I encounter someone who objects to the Standards, it’s usually because of a math worksheet like this one.


The problem with the objection is that the Common Core State Standards don’t require that worksheet. They require a specific skill and outcome without ever once defining things like that worksheet. That’s up to states and schools to get to. So, for that matter, are the book lists and other details of curriculum.

But the larger issue is that you will see things like that no matter what the standards are, unless the standards are to teach exactly what was taught in the 1970s. Since the ubiquity of computing automation (that is, iPhones) became a thing, arithmetic is just not a useful academic skill in the early grades.

I will offer my private-citizen expertise about this, because as a software developer working in commercial physics simulations, a problem solver, and a parent, I understand what it means when it comes time to “do the math”.

Frustrated Parent, if he’s anything like me, was taught 35 years ago to “do math” by lining numbers up as he did and adding them.

There is one problem with that: It isn’t math. It’s arithmetic. If he’s anything like me, he discarded what was taught after having studied mathematics at the college level, for better approaches which are now so ingrained that it looks like the teachers are complicating things. There are specific and significant differences between math and arithmetic which deserve a treatment. There are reasons why it’s different today in the lower grades.

The first is social. Basically, arithmetic is boring and math is not. Do you remember math education 35 years ago? That’s when I encountered it in my elementary school experience. We were taught to line up numbers and add them using a specific algorithm that contained terminology like “carry the one” and “borrow”. We were shown one way to do each kind of problem and drilled on it, committing “facts” to memory and speed-drilling them until we knew ‘em cold. The problem with it was that it was dead boring, stifled creativity, and created generations of Americans whose picture of mathematics makes real mathematicians cry themselves to sleep from loneliness every night, because nobody can comprehend the beauty they see in it.

The second is economic. Employers like mine have no use for people who can do a sum. Anyone can do a sum with a calculator; we want people who can do math, that is, who can see a tough problem and program a computer to help solve it. We have machines that do arithmetic so well that nobody needs to ever use those algorithms again. Ever, until the sun goes out. Go ahead: Ask your kids sometime the last time they had to wind a watch. If they look up from their smartphones long enough to hear the question, they still won’t understand it. The same is basically true for ledger accounting in a book. The last time I maintained a ledger for someone was on a temp job at a car dealership in 1988. After that, $5 calculators and Microsoft Excel took over and nobody with an interest in business ever looked back. If you haven’t got ledgers to maintain, why bother with arithmetic?

Your kids don’t need arithmetic. It’s why the schools have evolved. They need number sense and problem solving skills if any employer will want them. The great advantage to that is simple: Arithmetic “in your head” arises from having number sense, and applying it to each new restaurant tip you calculate. The sooner you develop number sense, the better off the rest of your maths education will be.

So, let’s do the worksheet in those terms, by applying an academic skill and actually reading the question. Paraphrased, it asks, “How can you help Jack understand how he did the math wrong?” It did not ask the student to work the sum and reassure Jack that it’s not his fault, and that the teaching was stupid. (In any other context, your typical conservative would be decrying that approach to things; would he not be telling the hapless child that he needs to buck up and follow directions?)

A correct answer could read, “Dear Jack, when you did your subtraction, you got the hundreds and the ones part of the problem right, but you forgot to think about the subtraction in the tens part. This is why you arrived at 121 instead of 111.”

Kids using this curriculum move on to obtain number sense. They will immediately see that “427″ is one more than “316″ in each decimal place value, and intuitively arrive at 111 for the solution. They will also be able to take apart the problem and write “427 – 316 = (400 – 300) + (20 – 10) + (7 – 6) = 111″, preparing them for moments when they see equations like “2x2 + 6x + 3″.

So that’s what’s going on, Frustrated Parent. I hope you live in an area where your teachers are like the ones my kids have, who will enthusiastically explain what’s going on in the classroom and give you the tools you need to help you help your kids, and take time to show you, a fellow college grad, why they’re doing it that way.

Good luck.

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Mormons, Civil Disobedience

Thoreau begins “Civil Disobedience” by “heartily [accepting] the motto, ‘That government is best which governs least… Carried out, it amounts to… ‘That government is best which governs not at all.’” With that ideal staked out as context, he calls “at once for better government. Let every man make known” what kind of government would suit each individual, as a first step towards his ideal.

A modern reader will instantly recognize those sentiments as operative in today’s political discourse. Just as “less Government!” is there for the TEA Party Patriots’ consumption, “A corporation has no conscience!” is extant, kindling for the Occupy Wall Street movement’s fire. Drug legalization activists can use, “Law never made men a whit more just,” in support of the claim that drug wars don’t work. Mario Savio used metaphors of machinery in a similar way while leading Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement. At least indirectly, Thoreau’s ideas are embedded into all the thinking Americans do about the relationship of a citizen to the State. However, for those committed to modern LDS notions of government and right action, Thoreau was wrong. A Mormon cannot use the tactics of “Civil Disobedience.” Mormonism’s canon denies him those tools, in favor of something that takes a much longer, more communitarian view.

The LDS Doctrine and Covenants presents a description of the nature of government itself which is plainly dissonant to Thoreau’s ideas. Thoreau insists that a vanishing government is better; again, one that “governs not at all” describes its ideal role. Mormon sentiment about governments is recorded in Section 134: “Governments were instituted of God for the benefit of man; and that he holds men accountable for their acts in relation to them… Men should appeal to the civil law for redress of all wrongs and grievances.” While declaring elsewhere, and on the same subject of Abolition, that “it is not right that any man should be in bondage one to another,” (D&C 101:79) the Church staked out a position with respect to slavery which Abolitionists like Thoreau rejected: “We do not believe it right to interfere with bond-servants.” Unlike Thoreau, Joseph Smith advised expediency over ideal, and non-interference over disruption, appearing to be more aligned with the people Thoreau criticized in his speech. But that is a superficial picture. Smith apparently trusted that God would eventually “suffer” to abolish slavery in His own way. Meantime, sections 101 and 134 instructed Abolitionist Mormons who had moved to Missouri, a slave state, to get along with non-Abolitionist settlers, reassuring those other settlers that, politically, the Mormons were innocuous. Building Zion was more important than pyrrhic passive grandstanding. The fact that the effort failed with their expulsion and Lilburn Boggs’ Extermination Order did not remove it from the LDS canon, where it is still operative today, guiding Mormons to a very different picture of government than Thoreau used.

To a Mormon, Thoreau also had dissonant things to say about the nature of man. He declined to participate in “the ways the State has provided for remedying the evil… they take too much time, and a man’s life will be gone.” Thus, to him, legislating or petitioning for redress is not effective action; it exerts its force too slowly. But a bracketing of life between birth and death is a narrower perspective than Mormonism imparts. An LDS reader will perhaps remember instead, as the Book of Mormon points out, “this life is a time for men to prepare to meet God,” (Alma 34:32) elevating any act which demonstrates faith in Christian ideals to at least personal efficacy. That perspective supplements the shared Mormon conviction that Christ has obviated death and hell, an idea that pervades the Book of Mormon. This changes the horizon of time, making it possible for an individual to positively contribute to the public good through precisely the institutional means that Thoreau denies have enough value. Mormons are thus permitted to see the good in gradual social action, and to allow public good whether or not it is tainted by one or two flaws which enable something atrocious to persist for a short time.

Thoreau even appears to deny men any value at all, if they do what he doesn’t want. While it is certainly effective to paint an “us versus them” picture, whereby anyone who isn’t actively supporting Abolition must therefore be passively supporting slavery, in order to do it he had to reduce the near full population of the United States to well-meaning “Odd Fellows” and mindless machine-cogs. The Mormon Battalion of 1847 is thus swept up in that criticism. Rather than pay the tax, Thoreau spent a night in a town jail and went free when a friend paid it for him. The Mormons chose to draw down the Treasury Thoreau wouldn’t fund, to promote a much more expansive, much longer-viewed civilization-building ideal, all while relying on their faith to avoid fighting in that war. They used the proceeds from the Battalion’s march to buy supplies to colonize part of the West.

In fact, a view upon distant “futurity,” as Joseph Smith put it, is integral to Mormonism’s canonized picture of the relationship of citizen and State. In guiding persecuted Mormons after the loss of their homes in Missouri in 1839, the Church’s leaders reiterated the “parable” of Section 101 in a more formal sense and instructed them to, in essence, merely write affidavits and publish them, enshrining their experiences in history. The clear sense of these passages of LDS canon is Smith’s support of enduring institutions to carry the Church’s positions past the end of its founders’ suffering. The fact that all that suffering far exceeded a single night in a relatively comfortable Massachusetts jailhouse merely punctuates the difference: One need only think of the winter Church leaders spent in Liberty, Missouri’s jail to establish a poignant counterpoint. Remembering that that part of the Church’s position relating to civil authority was written there is enough to drive it home.

Time has driven these points of view further home. Nobody can fail to acknowledge that Thoreau’s ideas permeated the thinking of civil rights activists like Gandhi and King; they said as much themselves as they described what led them to the non-violent approaches they used to protest racist and discriminatory policies their cultures had arrayed against them. Thoreau’s ideas were probably instrumental in removing violent action from the quiver of civil rights activists everywhere. But those leaders brought more than mere disobedience to their plans for activism. As leaders, they also used wider cultural ideals, legislatures, courts, and the dissonances between constitutional ideals and discriminatory statutes to make their cases clear. We would not otherwise be able to cite “Brown v.
Board of Education”, identify with “I Have a Dream,” or recognize the morality of satyagraha. In short, they considered the same kind of futurity and respect for God-given self-governing institutions which Mormons today ought to naturally acknowledge and respect. It’s with that irony, perhaps, that we can unify the use of Thoreau with the flaws in his ideas: By appealing more to expedience than ideal, “Civil Disobedience” actually takes its proper place, and becomes effective at making government better, while the rest of his ideas languish on the margins or the scrap heap or the literature departments of the American culture he hoped to improve.


On Popularity Contests

A number of months ago I expressed distaste about the way political campaigns are run in front of Russell A. Fox, a Political Science professor at a distant liberal arts university, and a good friend. I got to watch him do what he does best: He explained in clear and simple detail why things are the way they are.

I thought about that tonight as I watched myself lose my first campaign for public office. I was running for a nonpartisan “Freeholder” position, membership an ad-hoc committee convened by the County to review government and decide whether to draft a new County charter.

My run, this time around, was disadvantaged from the beginning. More influential forces were at work weeks before the candidate slots were open for registration. In our county we have a liberal/moderate coalition called “ClarkForward”, which slightly crosses party lines, pitted against a wealthy, sincere, and principled populist who has effectively purchased the support of the county Republican Party. Each group lined up one candidate for each of the fifteen Freeholder positions.

In my county, the operation of government has been a hot-button controversy for a number of years. We’re structured with three County Commissioners who hold executive and legislative powers. When your county is only a few dozen thousands of people, that’s convenient. When you’re pushing half a million, the center cannot hold. When power shifted in the last election and the populist took a Commissioner office, he began to fulfill his campaign promises and acted out his ideals. Because his ideals include a some additional micro-control in the name of “shaking up government,” the adjustments and appointments have created a predictable level of outrage.

There is also a need to replace a very large, very expensive, very Interstate-highway bridge that connects our biggest city to the neighboring state, and many of the decisions about that bridge have left about half of the County residents feeling very disadvantaged and ignored. Tolls are planned for the replacement bridge and half the people who live here have to cross that bridge to get to work. They don’t feel happy about extra de-facto taxes. A mass transit extension of Portland’s light rail system is also planned, and fully half the county is against that.

The outrage and the populism combined to inspire the Commissioners to Let the People Decide. In Washington, that means advisory votes, and it means convening “Freeholders”, basically long-time residents of the County, to propose change the structure of County government. (“Freeholder” is an old term that used to mean “land owner”. Contrast with “Leaseholder” and it makes sense. Today, it just means that you registered to vote and have lived in the county for five years.)

They proposed a 15-seat board of Charter Review Freeholders, and I signed up to be one. In my race I was not one of the people invited by either large group or any party to run. In fact, I filed a candidacy thinking that because it was an unpaid and technically oriented position, I would have one or zero opponents.

I drew six opponents, none noxious nor all that controversial. A former mayor of the largest city in the position’s district got the ClarkForward nod, one strict constructionist with a strong sense of fairness stepped up for the populist’s slate, the County Democratic Party Secretary stepped in and got the party nod, the director of the County 911 system applied, and two others. Some of the positions drew twelve candidates. Over 105 people applied for the 15 positions on this committee.

I only received two main kinds of questions from voters: “What the hell is a freeloader?” and “Are you for or against TOLLING ON THE BRIDGE?” Note the mistaken noun in the first question and the irrelevancy of the second. That’s how crabbed this whole thing was.

But with that slate I felt myself outclassed. I got three donors, totaling $85, and a $100 Facebook ad coupon landed in my lap. With that monstrous war chest and no endorsements, I ran a two-week Facebook-only ad campaign with no physical yard signs and it looks like I came in fourth, behind all the endorsed candidates, ahead of the others. The former mayor was first past the post tonight in an unofficial result but with a commanding plurality.

Still and all, over 1700 people colored the box next to my name, about 13%. I am slightly less popular than the constructionist candidate (14%, a good guy overall, I’m told), who certainly committed more than ten times as much money to the campaign. He had the big signs all over the place.

1700 is more than the number of adults active in my Church in the area, and it means that had the 911 director and the constructionist patriot not registered, I would still have come in third. But it also means that I crossed tribal boundaries and convinced some people.

And I’m thinking some things:

– Not bad for an outclassed candidate with no money and no significant connections, wouldn’t you say?

– Receiving one vote and having a non-family member say, “I voted for you!” is very, very flattering. I can almost understand now why Mitt Romney thought he was going to win, the whole time that the numbers showed he wasn’t ever actually going to win.

– Receiving over 1700 votes blows me away. That is more than I can count on two hands. Two! It’s over 300 hands!

– Everyone close to me is probably afraid because I actually had some fun doing it. They are likely concerned I might do it again.

– It is a realm of revelation to do something as real and as public as this. To end up with a few strangers calling me asking questions. To fill out the public disclosure forms and discover the technical issues of a campaign. To learn just how much it isn’t for everyone to seek public office.

– Chris Henrichsen, (who is an Internet friend who lost office at a national level last year), I salute you.

– Nan Henriksen, who won office in my race, I salute you as well. Our county will be well-represented by your efforts.

More generally, the election signals that the local populist’s issues are relevant; as Commissioner he had placed six advisory questions on the ballot, most to do with the tolling issue, and most of those questions went his way. Ironically, none of the candidates he funded won their elections this time. The issues are relevant but the issue champions are not in the majority. Democracy is complicated.

But one thing’s for sure: Russell was right when he explained it. Campaigns are all about emotion, tribe, and name recognition. What a ride. If I ever do it again it will have to be with more money, fewer opponents, and a different position that people can actually understand. Maybe school board. That’s a thankless job; someone has to do it. Maybe I won’t draw any opponents.





A wistful song entitled “I.G.Y”,[1] by singer-songwriter Donald Fagen got a lot of airplay on radio stations in my area in the mid 1980’s. The song’s title is an abbreviation for “International Geophysical Year,” a span of 17 months in 1957 and 1958 when scientists and their institutions collaborated across national boundaries, based on earlier “International Polar Years,” efforts to collaborate internationally on scientific research at the Earth’s poles. Using a pop music verse-chorus form and the tonal rules of jazz music adapted to it, “I.G.Y.” depicts the optimism of scientists during the late 1950s. Much of the lyric of the song centers around an enumeration of modern infrastructure projects, leisure opportunities, and consumer products, such as fast trains to Europe, spandex, and satellite casinos in space, all things which were either available or considered to be shortly available to “artists everywhere.” In its description of that near future, the song’s chorus sings with that optimism: “What a beautiful world this will be! / What a glorious time to be free!” And in doing so, successfully captured the imagination and appeal of American consumer culture near the end of the postwar period after World War II. Fagen might just as well have been writing about the 1920s as the 1950s; similar trends were active during both postwar periods, which, when seen in broad strokes, resembled each other more than the surface differences commonly drawn between the two eras.

It is fair to call either time an age of affluence. Very large companies keen to grow internationally exploited a postwar climate where the United States was really the only Great Power or Superpower with any significant economic might. Americans eager to be free of the rationing and other depravations of a total national war war footing desired a return to “normalcy,” as Warren Harding put it during his 1920 candidacy: a time when they could work for themselves and their own prosperity after having secured for their country a measure of safety from imperialism or fascism. Domestically, they elected Harding, and in the 50’s they “liked Ike”, and worked in those large companies applied their ingenuity and energy to consumer products, and in both time periods the economy experienced a sharp postwar money shock before recovering for a period of sustained growth.

The leaders of those companies worked with government to grow their businesses worldwide, at times wielding the military power of the United States to open or maintain trade routes. In the first postwar period the Kellogg-Briand Pact and the occupations of Caribbean and Philippine islands, the Panama Canal, and parts of Mexico, all served to clear the way for American-branded trade. Most of those areas remained under American hegemony during the second postwar period, either through direct occupation, as in Guam or Puerto Rico, or through basing agreements which persisted after Philippine and Cuban independence, and in places like occupied Germany or South Korea. And after World War II, the United States led the United Nations in “peacekeeping” policy, reified a stance of “containment” toward Soviet expansion, and helped rebuild Europe through the Marshall Plan, as it did with commercial and investment banking arrangements in the 1920’s to help Europe pay war reparations and recover from the first World War. Among other effects, this in turn opened markets for American companies and directly or indirectly created millions of jobs for its people. At their height, both postwar cultures looked forward, through commerce, for the “streamlined world” from Fagen’s song, with “perfect weather” in which the people would be “eternally free, yes, and eternally young.”

But Fagen started by singing, “Standing tough under stars and stripes,” an attitude any Cold Warrior would instantly recognize. The idea of uniting under the American flag is not unique to any particular decade of American history, but during the two postwar periods, it took a form that receives almost nothing but hindsight criticism, if it’s examined at all. While lacking a real wartime enemy, some politicians felt to invent or exaggerate real threats into unreal panics. The 1920s had A. Mitchell Palmer, the 50s had Senator Joseph McCarthy. Both regarded Socialism and Communism as imminent threats to American culture. Each overstated his case: Palmer’s Red Scare “predicted that on May Day 1920 an unnamed radical conspiracy would attempt to overthrow the U.S. Government,” (700) a warning that turned out to be meritless. McCarthy’s Great Fear swept up Hollywood and other media producers grilled by the House Un-American Activities Committee. He claimed to know the names of “57… card-carrying members or certainly loyal to the Communist Party.” (817) As with Palmer, McCarthy escalated his accusations until he overreached, when he disingenuously accused the Army of disloyalty on a television broadcast of his hearings.

That Americans in peacetime would direct suspicion at Socialist and Communist ideas after wartime is not surprising. Communist ideas may have originally come from German philosophers like Marx and Engels, but the people bringing them to American shores were immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe for whom socialist ideas had the greatest appeal, in part because they had become an underclass in American cities rivaled in size only by the almost permanently segregated African American minority. “Senator William Bruce of Maryland branded them ‘indigestible lumps’ in the ‘national stomach,’ implying that they might never be absorbed into the dominant culture.” (718) These groups tended to organize into labor unions which utilized socialist ideas within their organizations, and called for the kinds of social reform which they hoped could set them on equal footing with established, more privileged Whites in the nation. These were people whose experience was a little outside the depiction in “I.G.Y.,” but as they repudiated Communism, their place in America became more assured.

In short, they integrated themselves. The unions were in the way of the ambitions of corporate oligarchs unwilling to submit quietly to a labor union’s demands, who in both eras chose instead to try and obviate them. Collective bargaining, especially if it meant dealing with the ascendency of Socialists, Communists, or agitators for greater racial equality, went against the sense of the populace and restrained what the CIO, IWW, or AFL could claim. And in a way, the need for labor unions abated somewhat during both periods, as the country drew back from wartime employment levels and rising prosperity permitted companies the resources they needed to negotiate with individuals in good faith, implementing what has come to be known as “welfare capitalism.” Neither era saw the elimination of labor unions whose ranks and influence swelled in wartime, but the promises of pensions and healthcare for vital employees often kept unions from getting a foothold in a company in the first place. Instead, where unions survived, companies negotiated accords which balanced their interests, a tension that still exists today where labor or trade unions exist.

The cases Palmer and McCarthy had made against Communist radicalism were not entirely without merit in either time period. Although their approaches to fighting it poisoned their efforts and eventually turned the tide of public opinion against total support for all they did, each postwar era still contained nativist cultural elements more modern Americans are apparently proud to reject, at least insofar as such impulses today have been redirected to groupings of political party membership, national origin, or level of education, instead of race. In the 1920’s the Ku Klux Klan, known then and now for its white supremacist stances, resurged in popularity and operated in the open, capturing state and local governments around the country, and in conspiracy also combined to suppress Black activism through raw, violent intimidation, in the North as well as the South. In the 1950s, segregated racism, especially for African Americans, imposed a superficially genteel kind of oppression which denied Blacks any opportunities to lay hold on very much of the new prosperity at all, disingenuously claiming segregated equality without actual equality.

In the South, these minority groups suffered oppression under Jim Crow laws and the remnants of prewar Klan activity, including secretive lynchings. In places where they migrated in the North and West, they were denied entrance into circles of prosperity by real estate covenants attached to the sale of homes in the new suburbs, and in the 1920s, by Klan threats. No non-Whites could live in any Levittown. People like Malcolm X or Rosa Parks, whose families suffered oppression throughout both postwar periods and the times of turmoil after and between them, could never have had a wistful reaction to the lyrics of “I.G.Y.” Instead their activism was focused on a “beautiful world” of social and economic parity or equity, not perfection through consumer products and leisure, and throughout both eras the tides of nativism and willful ignorance of the disparity combined to keep them down. A full national conversation about race relations would not come until the 1960s. Malcolm X decried this condition, and Parks permitted her own persecution on a bus in order to start that conversation.

“I.G.Y.” omits from its lines those depravations. In his album liner for “The Nightfly”, where “I.G.Y.” is the first track, Fagen wrote, “The songs on this album represent certain fantasies that might have been entertained by a young man growing up in the remote suburbs of a northeastern city during the late fifties and early sixties, i.e., one of my general height, weight and build.” Such a young man would have had a life like like that of my own parents from Salt Lake City or southern Idaho, where no minorities were in their neighborhoods at all. Even as late as 1981, when rumors flew around my Vancouver, Washington suburban neighborhood that a “colored teacher” had been hired by the school, I and my sixth grade friends wondered to each other why and whether that had any significance, even though it had never happened there before then.

That 1981 date itself is telling: Fagen recorded the song that year, during what is known now as the second-worst economic drawback since the Great Depression, a sharp contraction caused by very high interest rates. By that time the country had changed, singing of a near-future time when “fellows with compassion and vision” would program the perfect future drips with irony and not a little bit of nostalgia for what might have been, had Americans noticed: All ages of affluence in America have ended. “I.G.Y.,” lives on today as enjoyable and perfectly recorded studio pop music, but is also useful as a way to showcase the things Americans always see and, by omission, miss, when times are very good.

[1] I.G.Y — by Donald Fagen
Standing tough under stars and stripes
We can tell
This dream’s in sight
You’ve got to admit it
At this point in time that it’s clear
The future looks bright
On that train all graphite and glitter
Undersea by rail
Ninety minutes from new york to paris
Well by seventy-six we’ll be a.o.k.

What a beautiful world this will be
What a glorious time to be free
Get your ticket to that wheel in space
While there’s time
The fix is in
You’ll be a witness to that game of chance in the sky
You know we’ve got to win
Here at home we’ll play in the city
Powered by the sun
Perfect weather for a streamlined world
There’ll be spandex jackets one for everyone

What a beautiful world this will be
What a glorious time to be free

On that train all graphite and glitter
Undersea by rail
Ninety minutes from new york to paris
(more leisure for artists everywhere)
A just machine to make big decisions
Programmed by fellows with compassion and vision
We’ll be clean when their work is done
We’ll be eternally free yes and eternally young

What a beautiful world this will be
What a glorious time to be free
Works Cited

Page numbers inserted refer to Henretta, James A., David Brody, and Lynn Dumeinil, America’s History, Volume Two: Since 1865. Sixth Edition, Boston, New York: Bedford / St. Martin’s, 2008.

“I.G.Y. Lyrics – Steely Dan.” Lyrics, Song Lyrics – LyricsFreak.com. http://www.lyricsfreak.com/s/steely+dan/igy_20469426.html (accessed October 7, 2012).

“The Nightfly.” The Nightfly. http://aln2.albumlinernotes.com/The_Nightfly.html (accessed October 7, 2012).


The Street Corner In My Hometown

Today it’s raining on and off, and it’s about 50 degrees. It’s my birthday. On my birthday I go for a drive. I strike out on my own for awhile just to have a quiet time to think. Last year I took a circuit around the county and saw some countryside. My region boasts verdant, green, gorgeous countryside.

This year I saw something different. On a busy street corner near the freeway entrance next to a gas station I saw a woman, clearly seven months pregnant, holding a sign. It read “Please help me. Seven Months Pregnant,” asking for money “to sleep indoors tonight.” I rolled down the window and emptied the car’s change box into her hand. It had about $1.75 in quarters in it. She thanked me and the green light forced me to go on.

Now, I’m politically engaged. Those who know me best know that I’m fond of pointing out the ironies of the American market economy. I will gladly tell you about how you’re being fleeced by a phone or cable company, and how little power you have to negotiate prices with them. I can explain the dynamics of education politics to you. Why you should care about whether there are charter schools and where the tax money is going.

But I’m the crazy uncle. The one whose opinions don’t jibe with the rest of the family. It’s an appalling insult to be patted on the head repeatedly by family who don’t think I can see clearly, but whatever, y’know? I’m used to that, and I love those people. I’m required to take it, and in the name of family peace and harmony, my tongue has molar indentations a quarter inch deep. If I speak instead of mutilating myself, I have been ordered to stop speaking. This year that dynamic has extended beyond the immediate family, as I’ve watched fellow Mormons around me accuse the sitting President and all his cohort of everything from misguided policy positions to outright infanticide. In such a climate it is difficult not to speak.

But driving through my hometown, you can find a pregnant woman standing in 50 degree rain begging on the street for two hours’ wages. Well, two hours for me. Maybe ten for her, if anyone would hire her, which nobody has and probably nobody will.

And I’m sick of it; the problem with political discourse isn’t the positions the politicians hold. It’s that there is no discourse. Many of us watched and enjoyed a political debate between Romney and Obama, where they mostly bit at each others’ ankles. Later, Jon Stewart got some funny jokes out of it and there was a lot of arguing on the Internet about whether the moderator was fair. I found myself locked out of a debate about charter schools, with my words removed and the whole Facebook conversation re-contextualized into something that made the proponents of the issue seem fair-minded and victorious. I have spent the last few days in shock about that bit of Orwellian campaigning. I’d never been blocked on Facebook before.

But today, for my birthday, I got to see a pregnant woman begging for spare change in the rain.

Nobody stands in 50 degree rain begging for money, if there are any other options left. As I pulled away from that street corner and compared the size of my problems with the size of the country’s problems. They now stood in contrast to a young woman reduced to begging for change and as I drove away my heart broke. In two weeks, the election will be over. Maybe there will be a fight somewhere about votes and recounts. Someone will accuse a county or two of fixing the election. A few weeks later there will be an inauguration and the most likely result will be that 51 legislatures will remain steadfastly deadlocked, with no changes in policies. We’ll tip over the “fiscal cliff” and my taxes will go up a little bit. I probably won’t even notice it except as a more slowly decreasing credit card balance.

In two weeks that woman will likely still be homeless and most definitely still pregnant. By inauguration day a baby will be born to a homeless woman. This is happening down the road from where I live. I pulled onto the freeway and thought about all of that. I crossed a bridge made possible by Glenn Jackson, arguably the most fiscally responsible Transportation Secretary the State of Oregon has ever had. He’s dead and gone now and his replacements have not filled his shoes. Neither Romney nor Obama approach him for character. I thought about that, too. I thought of being slighted by an initiative campaign and feeling like the outsider at family gatherings.

And none of it mattered any more. None of it means a thing, unless young pregnant women can sleep in a warm place at night. I went back to the gas station and saw that there was a man standing with her. I filled my tank and thought about it. I walked a little closer to the sign to read it. It named the amount of money they wanted. And then walked up to the man holding it and asked, “That sign is true?”

“Yes,” he said. His face was ravaged. Her teeth looked like that of a recovering meth addict. At their feet was a cat carrier in a plastic shopping bag and another sign. There was nothing in the carrier.

“And this is the amount you need?”

“Yes, that’s right.”

I walked away, pulled some money I’ll never miss from an ATM, returned and pressed it into the woman’s hands. “Please, go get warm.”

I walked off before she could count it and heard him call, “God bless you!” as they packed up the sign.

“You too!” I called back. But I thought, “Why should He?” as we parted ways.