The Common Good

One of the central skills needed for a democratic society is the ability to imagine what it might be like to be in the shoes of a person different from oneself.                                                                                                                                                 Rabindranath Tagore

In the early 90s, before I went crazy and became a teacher, I worked at Denver Regional Council of Governments, which serves the eighteen or so local jurisdictions in the metro area. I staffed meetings of fire chiefs, police chiefs, inspection services and city managers. Unlike elected mayors of the big entities like Denver, city managers are professional career staff, hired by city councils. For the most part, those I knew were competent men who read the handouts before the meeting, had formulated their questions and knew what their city’s position would be on the matter. Utilities, roads—all manner of services cross city limits, from Littleton to Englewood, from Thornton to Westminster. Inter-jurisdictional cooperation happens daily on the local level.

While I was staffing this group, a manager of one of the larger suburban cities resigned to take an executive position with a private company. The following year we asked him to speak to his former colleagues about the differences in private and public sector administration. His presentation made an impression on me. I am paraphrasing, but this is the substance of what he said.

“When you work for citizens, with taxpayer money, you are subject to restraints,” he told them. “Everything you do is in the public eye, apt to be reported in the local newspaper and you are always answerable to your city council. I know many of you work more than 40 hours most weeks. Bob, when your town had that flooding last spring, you were out there 15 hours a day for ten days straight.”

The audience beamed approval in Bob’s (not his real name) direction. He flushed over the unexpected recognition and gave a shrug that said, “you do what you got to do.”

“You work a full day and come back for council meetings at night. I did the same. And when you travel on city business you fly coach and stay at hotels in an approved price range, am I right?”

City mangers in their grey suits and ties nodded agreement around the room.

“I can tell you this about the private sector: I worked a lot harder as a city manager. I now have a virtually unlimited expense account. I fly first class, stay at the best hotels, take people to lunch and buy drinks—as a city manager I could never buy someone a drink.”

Heads were nodding vigorously now and a responsoral murmuring had begun. That gathering of white middle-aged men seemed on the verge of shouting “amen!”

“Because,” our guest continued, “the private sector doesn’t answer to taxpayers, isn’t in the public eye. You can do much you’d never dream of doing in government. Few are watching.”

Our speaker tactfully didn’t add what we all knew: that his private sector salary was considerably above what he’d earned as a city manager.

I don’t remember the speaker’s name or any other particulars from that day—it was nearly 30 years ago—but the memory of his speech has returned to me often since 45 came into office. Besides 45’s other failings, I think a major obstacle to his being successful as president is the fact that he’s a businessman. The very thing his supporters named as the reason to vote for him, I thought was a reason not to do so.

He didn’t know he had to hire a whole new White House staff. He thought the staff came with the position, like a private sector takeover. He didn’t realize his life was no longer private and we millions of taxpayers would be counting his trips to Mar-a-Lago, monitoring his every tweet. He didn’t know a president couldn’t necessarily pressure other branches of government into doing his bidding; that other readings of the law might prevail. If he wanted to fire the FBI director, he didn’t know he ought to look at historical precedents for or against such a move and likely repercussions before deciding.

In the private sector, he never had to consider any of those things. In your own business, you go to Mar-a-Lago whenever you want and nobody cares. 45 had never worn public sector shoes, couldn’t imagine what the government world was like. Tagore, quoted above from his 1917 Personality: Lectures Delivered in America, thought the ability to imagine such a thing was what “motivates us to act for the common good.”

It was clear that day with the city managers that acting for the common good was on their side of the room. And working for the common good is what keeps a democracy alive.




Posted in Memoir, Politics | 4 Comments

Writerly Routines

Oak tree in winter

I’m staring into the fridge. It’s like staring into the paucity of life. There are three eggs, the makings of a green salad, half a broiled chicken thigh, and a slice of roast beef Phil brought home from a dinner out. I regard the last with hostility, do not believe beef should be in the same fridge with food. I pinch the foil to be sure its beefness is not contaminating everything else.

It’s Thursday and I’m now four days from my blog deadline with not a clue what it will be. This thing with the blog deadline is serious. I stake my writerhood on it. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday: four days of researching book markets, grading student papers, eating leftovers for lunch, cooking dinner. I already looked at all the bright blog ideas I have on file: they stink.

There’s also enough fajitas left for maybe one taco. The fridge beeps at me. I’m holding the door open too long. I tell it to shut up. Assorted condiments. And a small bottle half full of sour milk. I wrinkle my nose and dump it down the sink.

I have an idea, close the fridge and approach my husband warily. “There’s nothing to eat for lunch.”

Phil looks up from his coffee break reading, a story about George Herriman. I’m not sure yet if the look is “hell-no-I-got-work-to-do,” or “tell me more.”

“Yes? And did you have something in mind?” His face is still noncommittal.

I propose lunch out, stipulating that it should be quick, we’d come home and get right back to work, because we have to go to the gym at 3 and an art opening at 7.

Phil sighs. “A shame about the gym. If it weren’t for that, we could go to lunch and then see The Lost City of Z.” He pauses, contemplating the sadness of it all. “I know,” he shrugs, “there’s some theory that going to the gym will lengthen our lives…”

“But by how much?” I pounce, liking where this might be going. “And we did promise to see The Lost City of Z this week, didn’t we? We talked about it on Sunday.”

On Sunday, you see, the entire new week spread virginally before us, untouched by aborted ideas, unsullied by a sudden power outage causing us to lose whatever we were working on, unlimited by an enjoyable, but time-eating birthday celebration with my sweet daughter. On Sunday the week ahead was an empty plain waiting to be peopled with brilliant accomplishments. On Sunday, we looked over that vast space and said, “Sure. We can do that. Let’s go see a movie.”

Here’s the thing about having your own work—I don’t like to say “being self-employed,” because that implies we earn money. Having your own work means the days run away like wild horses over the hills. Bukowski said that. You talk to those who still have jobs, and they tell you about the three movies they saw in the last two weeks, and you ask, how the hell do they do that? Because here it is Thursday—Thursday!—and we haven’t done half what we proposed in our eternally optimistic day minders.

Nonetheless, Warren-like, we persist. We did promise ourselves a movie. Our show’s at 4, so we revise our plans. Movie, dinner, the art opening. No time for the gym. How much sooner does that mean we’ll die? If it’s five minutes, I’m O.K. with that.

One speck of spoiling guilt in this emerging indulgence plan. I confess that I haven’t a clue about the next blog. Phil knows this thing about the blog deadline is serious. “Output, output, output, that’s all you’ve been doing,” he exclaims. “You need to take things in.”

This, I reflect, is exactly the problem with standardized testing, but that’s another story. “Good advice,” I decide. “Let’s do it.” I feel daring and young for about thirty seconds.

Then I’m faced with having to figure out lunch from the available options after all.


Postscript: The opening, which included our friends Sylvia Montero and Tony Ortega, was at the Art Gym, a huge former grocery store supplied with Adobe Suite large screen computers for photographers and designers, a full range of printing presses and a coffee shop. It’s shared, not co-op. For $100/month you get to pull your prints or whatever. Writers join too, bring their laptops. “The writers,” a member tells me, “are the most disciplined, come at 9, go to lunch, come back and work till 4 or 5.” It was news to me. I am a writer, but I’m not familiar with that behavior.


Posted in Humor, Writing | 5 Comments

I Think I Can

I own a stripped-spine copy of The Little Engine That Could. I’m not sure how I came by it, but with its soiled cloth cover rubbed bare at the corners, it could be the very book I had as a child. I read it in my grandparents’ house in Queens, where I lived from age six to eight. It was a good book for learning how to read, with all those good little boys and girls on the other side of the mountain being repeated every time the funny little clown asks the next engine who comes along for help. It is also an inspirational story. Those for whom the task would have been easy decline; an old engine sighs, “I can not, I can not.” Finally the Little Blue Engine offers, “I think I can—I think I can,” but says it many more times than twice.

The copy of the book that might have been mine

It was my favorite book. I must have loved the repetition. Maybe the message too. That someone little could climb mountains. That good children would get their food and toys because the Little Blue Engine practiced positive thinking.

When 45 was elected, I resolved to Do Something. The Women’s March, calling congress, sending postcards, posting political bits on Facebook. But marching in the streets is a young person’s game. I knew I wouldn’t keep doing it. So I also resolved to volunteer in an area this administration threatened. So many choices: our precious national parks, the environment, travel bans, opposing walls, health care. But I’m a teacher, went with my skill set and became an in-home tutor for a refugee learning English. Just me, helping just one young woman.

F— is 25, had only been married a few months when her husband M—’s application was approved and he came here. Already pregnant, she joined him two months later, when he had the tiny apartment and the night shift maintenance job. She took English classes until the baby came. When we met, she had been here nine months and the baby was three months old. “She is lucky,” M— said, holding his daughter, “she’s an American citizen.”

F— confused dimes and nickels, kept thinking the larger coin should be worth more. She mixed up question words: where and when and why. We worked on those things and the basic grammar and speaking lessons the program gave us. She catches on quickly, does her homework.

Their rectangular four-story apartment building is in the middle of a row of four-story apartment buildings. In the minute foyer I should have to buzz them, but there’s almost always a stone holding the inside door open. I climb narrow stairs, a smell of cooking oil wafting down the hall, the sound of several languages coming through nearby doors, a baby crying. Taking off my shoes, I have learned to say, “Salaam aalaik,” which makes them smile, and they respond, “Aalaik Salaam.” Peace be with you. And with you also.

At first F— was quiet, but now she says, confidently, “How are you? Come in.” The tea set she brought with her from Afghanistan is always on the cof—excuse me, the tea table—usually with a small plate of muffins she’s made. In deference to me, we sit on the couch. Once I arrived as they were finishing a meal, a quilted cloth spread over the carpet by the floor cushions, their dishes arranged on it. I imagine it keeps the hips and knees flexible if you do that all your life. Alas. Too late for mine.

I could feel F— tiring of the book exercises after a month. Our conversation choices are restricted by her limited vocabulary. When I taught Spanish, I collected children’s books in Spanish and my high school classes read from them every week. “Oh, Sra. Dubrava, it’s Good Night Moon!” a girl would exclaim, and hug the book to her chest. Buenas noches Luna. Books we loved when small evoke misty memories, even at sixteen.

The next class I brought The Hungry Caterpillar. F— was delighted, could read it to me almost fluently. There were only five new words. “Lollipop” was one. I brought her a lollipop next time, a large round red and white one like the illustration. She added the new words to her vocabulary list, writing the elegant Dari-Persian translations after them.

For one class, the baby was fussy. We spent most of our time taking turns holding her. Another was cancelled for a medical appointment. More than a week later, I came again. F— was excited. “I go shopping,” she said, and I made a note to work on past tenses. She pulled a shiny new book out of a plastic bag. The Little Engine That Could. I hugged it to my chest. I read it to her. She read it to me. When she came to, “I think I can,” she laughed over the repetition and said, “I think I can learn English.”

Posted in Education, Translation | 12 Comments

My Complaints (as of April)

Number One: Climate Change. March was named after the God of War for good reason. March is evil and cold. In Colorado March is the snowiest month. So it was wrong that I knelt in the yard, weeding around blooming tulips and daffodils with a mist of sweat moistening my back. It was March. I should have been huddled over the glow of my laptop, watching snow swirl down, making a pot of stew. If this blog post is late, it is climate change’s fault.

Daffodils & Tulips in the yard

Number Two: Time. Where does it go? How did it get to be 4:30 p.m.? I got up. I just had breakfast—no, wait—I had lunch too. How did that happen? Why haven’t I accomplished anything I meant to do today, like getting my taxes organized? And now I have to think about making dinner?

Number Two Explained, Number Three Embedded: It was Sunday, I slept in. There was the Sunday paper to read, the latest Prez 45 outrages. He’s at Mar-a-Lago again, like every weekend. Do you know what that costs us? Thirteen golf games in his first 70 days, as opposed to Obama’s ZERO games in the same period. Email, Facebook, weeding flowerbeds in unusual warmth. That’s how 4:30 happened. Zip.

Number Four: Money. Our tax appointment is tomorrow. Because we hate everything to do with money unless it drops into our hands with no effort on our part, we put off dealing with it as long as possible. I at least reconcile my checking, so that part of the tax record is download ready. Phil does not, so for the week before doomsday I endure his grumbling and we can’t go to the movies because he’s buried in tax prep. He does this every year, says he must like the stress.

I also scramble for records of this or that deductible, because I don’t track such things. Is it about money? My mind wanders to an Agustín Cadena quote I want to translate. We’re artists, for goodness sake. We don’t have the skills to deal with money. Someone should handle that for us so we can concentrate on our art.

Number Five: Sleeplessness. The inability to stop listening to my mind is worse than the not sleeping. When it comes to your own head, earplugs are useless. Normally, after lights out, within minutes that seem like seconds, Phil starts snoring. Usually it’s a quiet snore and I go to sleep anyway, even though I resent how quickly he goes to sleep. I fall asleep after tossing and turning, changing the pillows, discovering an odd lump on my leg, remembering several things I meant to do, and attempting to regulate my inhale/exhale cycle to a count of five to eight. This takes twenty minutes to an hour. Then I go to sleep. Normally.

The sleepless night isn’t like that. My eyes keep popping open. There are sharp objects in the bed and invisible things crawling on my arm. If it’s winter my feet are frozen; if it’s summer, I can’t cool off. I’m thinking about building a garage and suddenly realize the side of the yard I’ve always thought it should be on is where the sewer pipes are. My eyes widen again. Is that a problem? I envision sewers having to be accessed through the floor of my garage.

Phil’s snoring accelerates from the purring stage to a Harley Davidson rumble. I snore too, and loudly, I’m told, but I can’t hear it, so who cares? I’ve been lying here for eternity. Don’t look at the clock. It makes it worse. Noise. What was that? Someone’s on the roof.

I squeeze the extra roll of flesh at my belly. My hands are obsessed with it, can’t stay away. Should never have eaten that cake, how can I get rid of this belly if I keep eating cake. And exercise. When’d I go to the gym? I skipped Tuesday and never took the walk I was supposed to take and—just feel this gut—it’s huge.

Number One, Two, Three and Five:

April opens with a hint of snow—back to normal, however briefly.

The passage of time is a nightmare of a different color when you’re listening to your idiot brain at one a.m.

Prez 45 seeks to destroy our environment, promote ethnic and religious hatred, allow corporations to do as they will, take from the poor and give to the rich. At two a.m. I composed a furious message to send to my senators.

Number Four? I can’t remember what that was about. Oh, the quote. In reply to the question why write in these times, Agustín Cadena said:

“Times of crisis are when writing is most needed. To write is a kind of activism, an action, a political act, even if one doesn’t want to be conscious of that. Just the testament to life that writing represents is already a declaration of principles.”


Posted in Humor, Politics | 5 Comments