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The View From the Alley

South Minneapolis Alley

As puns go, Write Up My Alley may call forth a groan or two, but I’m okay with that. The metaphor of “the alley” suggests a point-of-view as well as a physical space. It is not the front we present to the street; nor, the tree-lined boulevard.  It’s the back, where we keep the trash cans. It’s where we come and go from back doors, back yards, garages, and driveways. It’s not formal.  It’s where we cook out, play with the kids, and curse the old lawn mower within sight and hearing of our neighbors. In the inner city, you may see your alley neighbors more, and know them better than the people who live across the street.

Why do I write “from the alley”? Who wants to write from the enclosed front porch of a suburban McMansion? I don’t have access to one, anyway. I’m a city person, and when I lived in Minneapolis, the alleys of my neighborhood, Powderhorn Park, brought me many friends and stories that have informed and influenced my writing, especially my young adult novel Paris Thibideaux & the World of Lost Things.

For me, the alley is a state-of-mind that is diverse, informal, inclusive, multicultural, edgy, family-friendly, artsy, organic and green. From here you can observe the back end of the cycle of life: trash, garbage cans, dumpsters, litter and defunct appliances. It’s where scrap metal and junk go to die in the city–out of sight and out of mind except to those who live in the neighborhood. It may be littered with abandoned cars and the viscera of cars: old tires, hubcaps, drive trains, and mufflers, but there it goes through cycles of renewal with each new generation or new wave of immigrants.  City kids navigate the alleys like river systems, and scavenge in them like archaeologists. And out of the alley comes the raw material of junk art and political expression that sometimes erupts on to front lawns and dances down the street and into the park with a neighborhood parade.



The Best Things in Life Are Free Unless You’re Rich–Then You Need Money $$

It’s Christmastime, and most of us are celebrating what Mr. Scrooge learned the hard way: the most important things in life are NON-MONETARY. It’s a good thing ordinary Americans (the poor, the working and middle classes) have always known this spiritual Truth (see “It’s A Wonderful Life”) because “family values” are pretty much all that’s left us after the Republican tax bill passes. It’s the “cake” that the Republicans (those merry Marie Antoinette’s) are telling us to eat while they and their patrons (corporations and the very rich) keep raking in all the cash.  What does a productive work force need money for, anyway? We’re not investors. We’re not job-makers. We don’t seem to understand “family values.”

Apparently to rich people, family values mean living luxuriously and then passing on unearned wealth to your leisure-class, privileged children, tax-free. To gain perspective, pretend you’re a semi-retired college professor, and your children will be paying off educational debt for decades with no ability to renegotiate those loans. Talk about economically crippling the next generation. Anyway, pretend you’ve worked hard for your meager legacy (a little house with some property in the Rust Belt, say). Well, excuse you if  you don’t get a boner over the stock market’s record highs this year, or the thirteen-hundred-or-so dollars some families of four will “save” from their tax bill under the new tax code. Meanwhile, bridges are failing, trains are derailing, and too many Americans don’t want to pay for “civic” or “public” anything, including those pesky “entitlements” that most ordinary folk benefit from–Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security. The best way to fool the masses, it seems, is to get them to fool themselves.

But what about the rich? What about the shareholders? Don’t they deserve something for their money? Doesn’t their faith in business deserve a reward? Yes! And they’re getting it thanks to the Republicans: more, more, and ever more MONEY. Generously, they are leaving the best “free” stuff to us sentimental Bob Cratchets.

Humbug! As for the rest of us, don’t be mad, but don’t be meek, either. It’s Christmas, Jesus’s birthday. The best things in life are free, but we still have to work for them, maybe harder than we work for money. Let’s start with Justice.

When Fear & Arrogance Come Together

It is a deadly combination when fear and arrogance come together in America. Thomas Merton, the great Catholic theologian, said that “Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether they are worthy.” This particular thread of Christian thought has been buried in an avalanche of judgment and division coming from people who call themselves Christians but behave like Pharisees toward anyone who is not of the same faith or does not follow the rules as they set and practice them. Merton’s words address one of the greatest sins of humanity: judging and demonizing others. No “side” of any argument, no party, and certainly no religious community is right to do that, but people forget (or never learn from) the atrocities of history that result when fear and arrogance gain a political platform. Donald Trump today tweeted something to the effect that the NFL should “force” players to stand for the anthem. That word “force” ought to give us pause when uttered by the leader of the free world. Sadly, I don’t see much evidence in history that a society’s being “forewarned” is enough to avoid carnage and catastrophe.

From the Thomas Merton Center web site:

Thomas Merton (1915-1968) was a writer and Trappist monk at Our Lady of Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky. His writings include such classics as The Seven Storey MountainNew Seeds of Contemplation, and Zen and the Birds of Appetite. Merton is the author of more than seventy books that include poetry, personal journals, collections of letters, social criticism, and writings on peace, justice, and ecumenism.


Oligarchy is the New Democracy

We have a problem in America. A handful of powerful people, exemplified by Donald Trump, have decided that the nation is best preserved by serving them. They have taken practically all of the profit of a massive labor force for themselves, and under Donald Trump, they continue to gain freedoms to pollute the environment, cut the benefits of working people (including health care and full-time jobs), and evade taxation to keep the basic infrastructure and social safety net of this country viable. And when the social fabric begins to fray, and the protests begin, they will inevitably blame black people, poor people, immigrants, and the first black President Barack Obama. Sadly, desperate people who don’t follow the news cycle and investigative reporting will probably go along with this creeping tyranny. It has happened before. Ask Europeans.

When corporate earnings are strong, as they are now, but the “economy” is sluggish in terms of the number and quality of jobs created, what does that tell us? Stockholders of this new oligarchy in America are thriving because they are not reinvesting in workers or worker security. In fact, profit and stockholder confidence are directly tied to how cheaply corporations can get away with the payroll. No one is working to turn the tide of part-time jobs with no benefits as a model for the marketplace. In fact, the economy is sluggish and working people are demoralized because jobs that provide benefits like leave, health care, and pensions (so common after WWII) are rare for the average worker. Unemployment is not just about the need for job creation; it’s about the need for quality working and middle class job creation. You can’t do that without giving up some of the enormous profits our American oligarchs are raking in.

This might have gone on for years without being exposed for what it really is–the rise of an American oligarchy disguised as nationalism and working class simple values–a turd wrapped in a Republican cloth coat. I never would have put the words “oligarch” and “American” together if Donald Trump was not demonstrating every day that Vladimir Putin is his mentor and likely puppet master. Clearly, Trump is using the Presidency to advance his family’s financial and political power, and he is drawn to Putin as a model for how to make Democracy a profit center for a handful of individuals, especially himself, and how to pardon his family and himself for criminal and treasonous acts. An oligarchy is a small group of people having control of a country, organization, or institution. A turd by any other name is still a turd.

The question is: will the American people and our elected leaders eat it?

American prosperity should create the healthiest and most humane nation in the world

Republicans have no public service agenda except tax relief, which doesn’t build anything except more luxury for those who receive it, and Democrats only weakly advocate for what used to be the American ideal: that the more prosperous our businesses become, the more substantial the contribution should be to the common goods of infrastructure, safety, and the health of as many Americans as possible. Taxation is not punishment; it is investment. The United States Government, for years before the great lie of  Ronald Regan’s “trickle down economics” fooled a generation and blinded the next, that far from being inept, it can deliver infrastructure, health, and national security IF it can collect the taxes necessary to fund them. Without adequate contributions from the greatest profit-makers, the government’s effectiveness is indeed limited and its power ultimately destroyed, leaving most Americans unrepresented and unprotected from ruthless “gouging” in all marketplaces, including health care. Isn’t it beginning to feel like that already for most middle and low income Americans?

ObamaCare was rare, broad-based public service legislation. It was about making health care available for the largest number of Americans, with attendant benefits outweighing the costs. The latest Republican Health Care bill is not for the benefit of the American people. Instead, its primary constituency is insurance companies. It proposes to make it easier for insurance companies to offer less coverage or no coverage to older, sicker, and lower income Americans while providing tax cuts that allow rich taxpayers to continue resisting a fair “tithe” (in Christian terms) for the benefit of the community, and to serve none but their own interests.

Why is this even called a Health Care Bill? Its main objective, as Republicans have been saying all along, is not to use American prosperity to create the healthiest and most humane nation in the world, but to create and protect profit for corporations and very rich individuals. The quest to eliminate regulation and taxation from every major profit center in the American economy has been the Republican agenda for decades. Therefore, this is only a “health care bill” because it addresses the health industry profit center–not the legitimate health care needs of Americans living in one of the wealthiest nations in the world. Sadly, our leaders and their prosperous and powerful masters, seem unmoved by the fact that going cheap on health care hurts the greatest number of Americans the most. Whatever happened to the notion of a nation’s riches benefitting the most (rather than the fewest) people?

And why can’t the Democratic Party effectively turn the tide on this stingy, luxurious deception of the American people?  As much as I admire and appreciate the few individuals in Congress who are speaking out passionately from time to time, I can’t help wondering why Democrats can’t get past the outrage to articulate an alternative rhetoric that harkens back to what we accomplished after WWII in terms of social welfare and education, but also looks forward to what is even more possible with the resources and technology we have today.  Don’t rail against Donald Trump. He doesn’t need the name recognition. Rail against the Republican Party’s exclusive service to a fraction of the American public they are elected to represent.

The Founding Fathers tried to build a government structure that would not allow “factions” to rule the majority, but that is exactly what the Republicans have allowed to happen. They serve a right-wing minority and a tiny but powerful constituency of the wealthiest individuals and corporations, and the rest of us are just so many wealth-generating units whose “entitlements” to benefits like sick leave, vacation leave, parental leave, child care, health care, and pensions need to be eliminated as much as possible to maximize the profits of the top one percent.  Look at the Republican legislative and regulatory agenda over the past thirty years, and then look at the quality of life for middle and lower-income workers in this country, and it seems obvious that our interests are nowhere on the Republican radar.

That doesn’t mean that the Democrats are ready to save the day, unfortunately. I’m hoping for a Democratic Renaissance of public service ideals–not holding my breath, though.


Now that the White House and the Cabinet are full of Billionaires looking to reform the tax code, hmmmmm . . .

Now that the White House and the Cabinet are full of Billionaires looking to reform the tax code, hmmmmm . . .

Why don’t Billionaires and Corporate Giants come out of the closet? Why do they use the working and middle classes as their human shields when going into battle with Congress to get more of the American economic pie? What don’t they just come out and say, “We deserve 99% of the wealth produced in this country, and we don’t want to share it with people who are not like us and are not capable of creating jobs. The 99% should just be content with wages and tighten their appetites, and if they have mental and physical disabilities–that’s what charity is for, not government. Billionaires are an endangered species, far outnumbered by the rest of the population, and we need protection and special treatment.”

Instead, these self-described “job-creators” use the working stiff, the veteran, and the traditional Mom and her apple pie as their foils. They pretend, and we let them, that all the tax cuts and profit protections that they have purposefully carved out of the economy are essential to the survival of us all. They argue, and too many believe them, that American workers’ wages, pensions, government services, and infrastructure must be sacrificed so that they can do their jobs of “creating jobs.” And yet the jobs they create are not living wage jobs or, more truthfully, are not created at all. Benefits like paid leave, health insurance, and pensions have gone the way of the Dodo bird except for executives and top management in this country. And when Americans are thwarted and angry at their dwindling opportunities and benefits, our friends, the Billionaires, tell us to blame government regulation, immigrants, minorities, gays, abortion–anything and anyone but them. And many people do.

My mother had a phrase when she wanted to warn me about friends who might take advantage of me. I think a paraphrase of her wisdom applies here:

With “friends” like these Billionaires, us working stiffs don’t need enemies.


View from the Alley: Let’s Make Congress Part-Time & Cut Their Benefits!

Why not? They seem to have no idea what it’s like for a substantial portion of the American workforce. We do full-time, professional quality work (I’m thinking of adjunct professors because I am one, but also administrative and clerical, blue-collar and service workers –well, that covers just about all of us who are not Congressmen or Senators, doesn’t it?

We do full-time, professional quality work, but our job descriptions limit us to just under the number of hours it takes to qualify for benefits like leave, health insurance, life insurance, pensions, and overtime (because they DO expect us to put in those extra hours out of “professionalism” if a crisis arises). This is what American workers have settled for to do our duty for “the economy.” And yet, statistically, the economy is only profiting the 1% at the top.

Meanwhile, many of the tired, angry workers of this country have spent several decades  now in a systematically controlled exercise in distraction from who is really screwing whom–trying to get government to control gay people, birth control generally,women’s bodies specifically, and where people pee. This has yielded a “denial script” for Republican leaders about stopping people from doing things that they consider should not be their right to do, taking something away from people that Republicans think they don’t deserve, and cutting taxes for the rich so-called “job-makers.”

While the Democrats failed to counter this juggernaut of negativity in the last Presidential election, that is not to say that they don’t have what it takes to do so. I’d like more of them to argue (much as Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have done) that these are not the best pursuits (or even the legitimate pursuits in some cases) of government. In a country as rich as ours, we ought to be thinking about how to keep the poorest, most vulnerable people among us (children, elders, and the physically and mentally disabled) from destitution–not how to judge them like we are all God at the Gate of Heaven. We should not want to cut them off.  First of all, we are paying for them anyway! Those who choose to go uninsured, for example– either because they don’t want to pay or can’t afford to pay for health insurance–still get sick and still get old and still end up getting medical care that the insured pay for. So, how is their “freedom” from health insurance so great for the economy? It’s only great for the health care providers and the prescription drug companies.

The idea that in a powerful and economically strong nation, we should all accept some “pain” to take care of each other, is not a radical notion. It is fundamental to just about every religion, and yet there is little evidence of it in our political rhetoric, especially not in the so-called religious right wing of the Republican party. So much judgment and so little humility . . . and over the past several years an astonishing evangelical promotion of Right Wing “values”that amounts to “social engineering,” a term Republicans like to reserve for Democratic programs and policies but view with a blind eye when it comes to their own.

Meanwhile, look at our jobs . . . and look at our leaders’ jobs. And while we’re at it, look at the jobs of CEOs and the super rich, and the benefits including freedom from taxation, that they enjoy. Are they ever in danger of losing income, hours, or benefits? And yet they wield the axe over the rest of us like there’s no tomorrow! This is what I’ve been thinking about as I watched the repeal of Obamacare sour and curdle like very old milk. In the end, not even Paul Ryan wanted to drink it–at least not in public. So, I suggest that Congress socially engineer itself into a part-time workforce without benefits. And, by the way, I don’t care which bathroom they use as long as they behave decently. So, no need for legislation on that.


What’s New in the Alley_March 2017

Looking out over the urban landscape in these days of political division and inertia, I have a literary reaction.

My book Paris Thibideaux & the World of Lost Things is about a boy with a knack for making something out of nothing, and the great “junk horse” he creates for the Powderhorn Parade is a metaphor for the power of a child’s love and imagination to make something beautiful out of other people’s trash. But there is more being “recycled” than the debris that accumulates in the dumpsters and alleys of Powderhorn Park.

I tried to suggest this with my original title for the book: The City of Paris. My beta readers didn’t find my play on words as clear or engaging as I did, so I gave it up. I think, however, that with the recent rise in negative public discourse around immigration and diversity, I’d like to share what that title meant to me and what I was trying to get across.

This narrative is more than a coming-of-age novel about the individual identity quest of a young boy. It has always been equally important to me that this story represents the dynamic and essential, ever-changing face(s) of a community—specifically an urban American community. The Powderhorn neighborhoods and the “Parises” who live in them are not unique to my imagination or to Minneapolis; and, that is why I wanted to feature “the city” in my title. In my opinion, “the city” suffers from a negative stereotype that I wanted to challenge. I also hoped that readers would see Paris and children like him more clearly and empathetically, and recognize that it is they who make the cities of America hopeful places, full of creativity, resourcefulness, and families created not necessarily through blood but through need and empathy.

Based on responses from my readers of all ages, the message gets through regardless of the title—so I’m not going to change it! But I think it’s important in light of today’s divisive political climate to stand up for the array of ideals embodied in America—not only individualism but also community; not only America first ahead of all others, but America first to be humane. Paris Thibideaux & the World of Lost Things is about the challenges facing all of us, to make something out of nothing—a “coat of many colors” for Lady Liberty woven from the threads most of us should remember with humility that we have carried from someplace else to these shores.