Sunday, February 01, 2015

This week in the legislature: Magna Carta Day and mandatory neon outfits for cyclists

This summer, we're going to party like it's 1890.

Doesn't it always seem like 1890 around here, especially when the legislature comes to town? But this summer is special because we're celebrating the 125th anniversary of Wyoming statehood. On July 10, 1890, a bunch of guys sat down in Cheyenne and agreed to join the union, a move they've been regretting ever since.

Darn federal gubment! Freedom!

We may also be partying 1215-style on June 15 with Magna Carta Day. House Resolution 10 introduced this week by Rep. Jaggi (he's one busy bee)  and other forward-thinking legislators think it's high time we recognize those ticked-off English barons that drafted and signed this historic document.
Be it resolved… That Wyoming celebrate June 15, 2015, the 800th anniversary of the day the Barons of England accosted King John at Runnymede in the defense of their Liberties, as Magna Carta Day. That Wyoming encourage the teaching of the lessons of Magna Carta within and outside the schools of the state. That Wyoming defend its Liberties with the same fierce steadfast determination that the Barons of England showed at Runnymede.
I'm as supportive of due process and as against taxation without representation as the next guy. But these feudal barons and their offspring were the same genocidal madmen who attempted to wipe out my Irish forebears. So excuse me if I don't wish everyone a Happy Magna Carta Day on June 15.

I also have to wonder about teaching the lessons of the Magna Carta in the same schools that forbid the teaching of evolution and climate change, and -- if Republican legislators have their way -- kindergartners soon will be packing heat. And what about legislative time management? Is a Magna Carta bill the best use of time during a 40-day legislative session?

Since I vote and work to elect legislators I can believe in, I earn the right the criticize. Conservatives might argue that bills calling for bicycle safety, marijuana decriminalization and workplace protections for the LGBTQ community are a waste of time. And don't get us started on Medicaid expansion!

Those bills are have one thing in common -- they look to the future rather than the past. The bipartisan bike safety bill (SB103) was introduced by Casper Republican Rep. Tim Stubson, someone whom I have criticized on these pages in the past. A bicyclist was killed by a motorist in downtown Casper last year. Other Casper cyclists have been injured while commuting or just taking a ride around town. We also hear reports from around the state of cyclists being targeted by disgruntled motorists in coal rollers.

Take a minute to ponder this. More people than ever ride bikes. The world celebrates the era of alternative transportation: Cycling, mass transit, electric cars. I saw an online ad for the Storm electric bike (ebike) the other day. Ebikes run on pedal power and, when you're tired or need an extra push, battery power. Top speed is 20 mph, which is much better than this cyclist can do on a flat surface. A Storm ebike costs $500, which is twice my car payment and equal to the cost paid by many truck owners. And just think of the fuel savings.

Wyoming draws cycling tourists. No surprise, with all of the cool scenery one can encounter across the state. I can't take a summer car trip without encountering a cyclist or a group of them. If those cyclists had the feeling that Wyoming was a particularly dangerous place for them, they would take their cycling and their money to some other scenic Rocky Mountain state. To Colorado, for instance, which deserves its bike-friendly reputation. Remember that tourism is a huge economic generator for Wyoming. Teton County and the national parks are the number one destination. My home of Laramie County is number two. Most tourists travel by car/truck/RV. Teton County is studying ways to draw tourists that don't want to be burdened with driving their car from Des Moines or renting one on site. We should be doing the same in Laramie County.

Thanks to Rep. Stubson for SB103. And to co-sponsors Sen. Charlie Scott (R-Casper) and Laramie Democrats Sen. Rothfuss and Rep. Pelkey.

Unfortunately, another bill was introduced this week. It has to do with cycling, but it's really an anti-cycling bill. It stipulates that all cyclists must wear 200 square inches of reflective neon and have flashing lights at the rear of their bikes. The strangest part is this: cyclists must carry a government ID card with them at all times. The bill is another attempt by conservatives to paint Wyoming as a crazy place. Not surprisingly, it was sponsored by House Reps. David Northrup, Donald Burkhart, Hans Hunt, Allen Jaggi (him again), Jerry Paxton and Cheri Steinmetz -- all rural Republicans. I have a feeling that these House Repubs picked up this gem from those Koch Brothers-funded confabs where lawmakers are wined and dined and programmed with loony legislation.

Here's more from an article in the Jackson Hole News & Guide:
“This is a deeply concerning bill,” Wyoming Pathways Executive Director Tim Young said. “We will not be in support of this. 
"Generally speaking, this is an inappropriate way to look at bike legislation in Wyoming,” he said.
Young said he wondered whether legislators would also force pedestrians to carry identification and wear neon clothing while on public thoroughfares.
One doesn't see many pedestrians walking along the state's rural highways. One doesn't see many pedestrians walking city streets. But maybe we would if neon clothing became a Wyoming fashion statement.

I look forward to walking The Neon Streets of Cheyenne. There might even be a song in there somewhere.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Ireland's Great Hunger lives on

"Skibbereen 1847" by Cork artist James Mahony (1810–1879), commissioned by The Illustrated London News, 1847
I have never been hungry enough to eat grass or old shoe leather.

Ireland's Great Hunger starved a million Irish and sent many packing for America. Some starved and sickened along the way in the so-called coffin ships. Those left at home ate anything they could find. Many starved anyway.

Our English overlords stood by and did nothing. They did import corn to Ireland but none of the starvelings could afford it. Some relief came from unexpected sources. Knowing what it was like to starve on "The Trail of Tears," Cherokees in Oklahoma sent food to the Irish. The Turks did too.

A mythology builds up around any earth-shaking event that causes the diaspora of hundreds of thousands of people. The Irish have immortalized the Great Hunger in song and story and art. Family stories, too. My own Shay relatives left Ireland for the U.S. in 1847. They farmed in New England and then moved to Iowa, where they prospered. They may have hungered and thirsted through the years, when drought and pestilence visited the Iowa City area. But they were never threatened with starvation of the type they faced in Ireland.

Even amidst prosperity, does the Great Hunger linger within us?

According to an article on the Irish Central web site:
Irish historian Oonagh Walsh believes that the Great Hunger triggered a higher rate of mental illness among later generations, including both those who stayed in Ireland and those who emigrated. 
She believes that severe nutritional deprivation between 1845-1850 caused "epigenetic change." Here's more:
Epigenetics is the study of changes in gene expression. These do not necessarily involve changes to the genetic code, but the effects may persist for several generations. Walsh estimated that the impact from epigenetic change from the Great Hunger lasted for a century and a half.  
Walsh’s research is still at an early stage, but she expects to see a correlation between the high rates of mental illness and the effects of maternal starvation. She also thinks there may be a connection between the Great Hunger and cardiovascular and other diseases.
Just think about this a bit. We all know that mental and physical traits can "run in a family." Red hair, height, odd behavior. Remember Aunt Clara? We had to keep her in the attic -- she thought she was the Queen of Sheba.

What if our genes, damaged by cataclysmic hunger, contributed to Aunt Clara's delusions?

Researchers have been busily studying the causes of mental illness for generations. Genetics play a role. Trauma, too, as in PTSD. And what is starvation if not a major trauma, as important as war or torture or physical abuse?

Walsh has also researched the dramatic growth in Irish lunatic asylums in the 19th century. The first was built a dozen years before the potato famine. But it continued well into the latter part of the century, along with increased patient populations. They included those with behavior problems as well as "lunatics at large." Families stashed their problem children in the asylums; Aunt Clara too. Husbands stashed inconvenient wives in asylums, freeing them to marry a newfound love interest.

The U.S. built asylums, too. Many are now closed, the sites of horrendous treatment of patients, torture and murder. Others grew up as medications and treatment options improved.

The Wyoming State Hospital in Evanston opened in 1887, three years before statehood, and was first called the Wyoming Insane Asylum. I don't have to imagine "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" scenes or strait jackets and padded rooms and lobotomies -- I'm sure all of that happened there as it did at other asylums, from Ken Kesey's Oregon State Hospital to the notorious Trenton State Hospital in New Jersey. Society's cast-offs are always treated badly.

We are now enlightened. We have super-drugs for the mentally ill. Our treatment has gone beyond shock therapy and mind-numbing drugs. We are stardust. We are golden.

If only that were true.

Anyone with a mentally ill family member knows the challenges of finding the right treatments. This isn't a problem faced only by rural states such as Wyoming. It is a problem everywhere.

It is refreshing to see researchers such as Oonagh Walsh dig deeper into the origins of mental illness. Perhaps my grandfathers' depression was due to being shell-shocked in World War I. Perhaps it was part of the epigenetic change inflicted on his Irish forebears. That doesn't help him, as he's long gone. But it might help me, an aging Irish-American who also suffers from depression.

It may also help my daughter, who's had major struggles with her mental illness since she was 14. She now is a patient as the place formerly known as the Wyoming Insane Asylum. Her parents are now trying to help her in any way we can. Some of that is practical parental involvement. We are strong advocates for our daughter. Knowledge is part of that. We more we know, the better.

And this is what feeds my imagination: the vision of a starving mother in 1847 scouring the fields of County Cork for a few grains of barley. Her future depends on it. She may starve, but the memory of it will last for generations.    

Saturday, January 24, 2015

I know what kind of state I want to live in

One of the highlights of Gov. Matt Mead’s State of the State speech on Jan. 13 was his proposed initiative called Wyoming Grown. It was prompted by the fact that Wyoming is “losing 60 percent of our greatest talent” when young people educated in Wyoming move elsewhere after graduation. Gov. Mead wants to “keep kids in Wyoming after graduation.” So, Wyoming Grown will recruit those “who have left the state and bring them back."

He was skimpy on the details, which I’m sure he supplied those in his budget request for this program. But it will include a new web page by the Tourism Office. It will strengthen businesses that will be able to hire these young people in Cheyenne and Casper, Lusk and Meeteetse.

Concluded the Governor: “Let’s open the door to get our young people home.”

Kudos to Gov. Mead. This goes along with his description of Wyomingites as builders, not hoarders. We all want to build the state, not see it wither away. The state is aging rapidly and we need new blood desperately. This Republican Governor is big on technology and infrastructure and new jobs. He promotes local economic development, which has led to a downtown resurgence in Rawlins, Casper, Rock Springs, Lander and many other communities. He’s also a supporter of the arts and creativity. 

I cannot speak for young people as I’m not young myself. I am a parent of two Millennials, one of whom – my son Kevin -- lives and works elsewhere, namely Tucson, Arizona. What would lure him back to Wyoming? Well, he likes the outdoors. He was a Boy Scout and is a dedicated camper and rock climber. His parents and sister live in Wyoming and we would like to see him more often.
But Tucson is a city with a lively arts and cultural scene. Kevin is involved in theatre and music and also is a dedicated gamer. He’s a big fan of public transportation due to the fact that he’s never had a very reliable car and, well, insurance and car payments really add up. Tucson has light rail and a marvelous bus system. A university with lots of cultural offerings. It’s warm, too. His first summer there he described as “hotter than the surface of the sun.” But he’s acclimated and, like most Tucsonans, ventures out in July only under cover of darkness. But January, well, that’s when his Wyoming family visits.

Wyoming really can’t compete with the lights of the big city. How you gonna keep ‘em down on the ranch after they’ve seen Portland and Austin and Nashville?  See, we’re not even talking about huge metropolises such as New York and L.A. It’s the urban mix that draws young people. If they aren’t progressive when they arrive, they tend to get that way by mixing with folks that aren’t like them. Different genders. Sometimes people who are bending the genders and shattering the status quo. Different ethnicities. People from different parts of the country – different parts of the world. To be a part of the urban mix, you need tolerance and flexibility. Curiosity, too, a sense that you’d like to know what makes your neighbors tick. Sure, you can say the same thing about city folks coming to Wyoming. They have to be flexible and respectful when living and working in a more conservative climate. Some are better with that than others.

Wyoming has one big problem that won’t go away anytime soon. Some of its residents think that they exist in a “Wyoming is what America was” bubble. Right-wing loonies air their prejudices and grievances as if it were 1915 rather than 2015. We live in a world when the dumbest ideas hit the airwaves with lightning speed. Witness how much fun the talk show hosts had with all of the many nonsensical Republican responses to Pres. Obama’s recent SOTU speech.

So, when a conservative legislator proposes an anti-gay piece of legislation, the news travels far and wide. Young people, the heaviest users of smart phones and social media, are privy to the news immediately and spread the word about those dumbbells in Wyoming. I don’t like it when the legislators in my adopted state get painted as wackos.

But if the shoe (or boot) fits….

So, our Republican legislators promote a “right to discriminate against people we don’t like” (HB83) bill and an “Agenda 21 is a U.N. commie plot” (HB133) bill. Rep. Jaggi from Uinta County speaks like a bit player in an old Hollywood western when he refers to Native Americans as “Injuns” in a public meeting. This makes me wonder if Republicans really care about bringing our young people back to the state. Maybe they are angling for a certain type of young person, one who is already a diehard Republican, watches only Fox News and already believes that it is OK to discriminate against those who don’t think/act/look like you do.

I don’t think that’s what Governor Mead has in mind. He is a college graduate, earning everything up to his J.D. His wife, our First Lady, is a college graduate and a strong supporter of education. They have two children who will go to college and may be the future leaders of the state just as Gov. Mead’s mother and grandfather were leaders. I think that Gov. Mead is thinking ahead to the kind of Wyoming he wants to leave to his children. That’s not the regressive version of the state that the extremist members of his own party envision, if it’s appropriate to use that term. To envision, you need a vision, not just a tendency to dig in your heels and say no to all change and all progress.   

I don’t know if my children or grandchildren will live and work in Wyoming.

I do know what kind of state I want to live in.   

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Dear Florida: Sorry we burned all of that coal but it couldn't be helped

The February issue of National Geographic features an excellent -- and scary -- article about the effects of global warming on south Florida. As the planet warms and sea levels rise, Miami is destined to be either 1. A floating city; 2. nonexistent. Some are planning for the inevitable. Many are not.

National Geographic maps show one of the worst-case scenarios for sea level rise. In 2100, a five-foot rise is expected, which would inundate most coastal areas.
If sea levels rise five feet, nearly one million of the current homes near the coast will be below the average day’s high tide.
In total, some $390 billion worth of property could be damaged or lost—a sum fives times as great as Florida’s state budget.
I grew up in one of those sea-level homes a half block from "The World's Most Famous Beach." It's possible I learned my love of hyperbole from Daytona Beach boosters. I did learn to surf and love the ocean. At one time, I was thinking of becoming a marine biologist. My brothers and I arose every morning with dreams of good surf. Often we were disappointed. But we usually spent a part of every day in salt water -- or on it. I wasn't big on fishing but some of my brothers were. We were water people.  

I now live on an ancient seabed in Wyoming. Sometimes, when the wind blows from the southeast, I smell salt water. Sometimes I also smell the refinery, but that's another story. Parts of Wyoming's ancient seabed contain seams of coal produced by flora and fauna from those ancient seas and seashores. For a hundred years or so, we've been digging up the coal to burn in power plants that add pollutants to the air and warm the climate. In this way. we contribute to the sea gobbling up my old Florida home and, one day in the far future, providing some bitchin' surfing in Cheyenne, Wyoming.

In Gov. Mead's State of the State speech this week, he received applause and enthusiastic huzzahs from legislators when he said this:
“In coming years, I will continue to work with bulldog determination on coal initiatives, port expansion, new technology, and value-added products. And in coming years, we don’t need to let up, we need to double down. We must assure coal’s continuity.”
Surf's up!

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Avid baseball fan (and political organizer) Christine Pelosi to speak at Dems' dinner

Political organizer Christine Pelosi will be the special guest for the 2015 Nellie Tayloe Ross Gala put on by the Wyoming Democratic Party on Feb. 7 at the Holiday Inn in Cheyenne. Get your tix here.

I read Christine Pelosi's bio on Huffington Post, where she's a columnist. I absorbed all of the stuff about her famous mom, political organizing, the books she's written, and so on. But then I got to the important stuff: "An avid baseball fan, she lives within walking distance of her beloved World Champion San Francisco Giants."

OK, so I'm a Rockies fan and it may be decades before the Rox knock off the Giants for National League West dominance. But still -- walking distance of an MLB ballpark? Color me jealous. 

Here's the rest of the bio:
Attorney, author, and activist Christine Pelosi has a lifetime of grassroots organizing and public policy experience. She conducts leadership boot camps based on her books Campaign Boot Camp: Basic Training for Future Leaders (2007) and Campaign Boot Camp 2.0 (2012). Both books emerged from her years of grassroots activism and service with the AFSCME P.E.O.P.L.E. Congressional Candidates Boot Camp, which worked with approximately 120 challengers from 2006 to 2012, 33 of whom were elected to Congress. Her trainings with candidates, volunteers, and NGO leaders span over thirty American states and three foreign countries. She appears regularly on national television and radio. Her blog postings at the Huffington Post focus on current events as well as the role of social media networks, technology in politics and the unique leadership challenges for women candidates. Her next book, Women on the Run, will be released in 2014.
Christine holds a JD from the University of California Hastings College of the Law and a BSFS from Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. She has served as a prosecutor in San Francisco, a special counsel in the Clinton-Gore administration, and a chief of staff on Capitol Hill. A former executive director of the CA Democratic Party, Christine chairs the CA Democratic Party Women's Caucus, led the CA Democratic Party Platform Committee for thirteen years, has been elected five times to the Democratic National Committee, where she cofounded the DNC Veterans and Military Families Council and serves as a vice chair, and serves on the Stakeholder Board of the Young Democrats of America. 
An avid baseball fan, she lives within walking distance of her beloved World Champion San Francisco Giants and serves on the Giants Community Fund board of directors. She is married to Emmy-nominated filmmaker Peter Kaufman; their daughter Isabella was born in 2009. An advocate for working moms, Christine traveled with her infant daughter to 21 states and 3 foreign countries performing campaign boot camps to advance Democrats and democracy.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Thinking about extremists close to home

I've been offline for several days. Some gremlin in my Charter cable service. I called for assistance. The woman at Charter was very nice. She promised to send a repair crew to my house sometime in 2016.

During my down time, magazine cartoonists and editors at a satiric journal in Paris were massacred by jihadis. A liberal blogger was flogged in Saudi Arabia for "insulting Islam." A bomb went off outside NAACP headquarters in Colorado Springs. 

Just another eventful few days on Planet Earth.

Hard to tell who planted the NAACP bomb. The FBI is offering a $10,000 award for information on a guy seen lurking around the building prior to the explosion. If it was 50 years ago, I would guess the KKK or similar racist organization was behind it. The Klan has a long history in Colorado, mostly in Denver. Ben Stapleton was the successful KKK candidate for mayor in 1923 and stacked city offices with Klan members. When I lived in Denver in the 1980s, it was a pleasure to drive down Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard into Stapleton International Airport. 

The Klan still exists. In June 2013, KKK recruitment flyers were distributed in Colorado Springs. Voters in the Springs recently elected a right-winger to the legislature, Gordon Klingenschmitt. He's the head of the Pray in Jesus Name Project, listed as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Known mostly for his anti-LGBT screeds, he's also an Obama hater - he once wrote that Pres. Obama was ruled by at least 50 evil spirits. Just 50? He's a hater of Democrats in general. Here's a Klingenschmitt quote:
“Democrats like [openly gay Colorado congressman Jared] Polis want to bankrupt Christians who refuse to worship and endorse his sodomy. Next he’ll join ISIS in beheading Christians, but not just in Syria, right here in America.” 

There's no shortage of loonies right here in the U.S. We may have inept bombers, but at least we don't have France's problems -- not yet, anyway. 

And we're not flogging liberal bloggers, not even in Wyoming.

I have a right to speak my mind. Jihadis have a right to speak their minds, but not execute those who do likewise. Klingenschmitt has a right to speak his mind.

I have a right to ridicule your writings and utterings. You have a right to ridicule my attempts at satire, lampooning and humor.


And so are you.

Sunday, January 04, 2015

It's 1939 in Cheyenne, Wyoming -- what side are you on?

I'm working on a short story set in 1939 Cheyenne. I rarely venture this far back in time. Two stories in my first collection were set in post-World War II Wyoming and Colorado. I have gone far into the future with some of my sci-fi. But never back to the 1930s. I wasn't around then, but my parents were, both young people struggling through the Great Depression with their working-class families. I've read fiction set in the thirties. Nelson Algren, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Dorothy Parker, Steinbeck, Eudora Welty, Irwin Shaw. The twenties and thirties may have been the golden age of the American short story. I've read hundreds of them. Big Blonde. How Beautiful with Shoes. A Rose for Emily. A Bottle of Milk for Mother. The Killers. Flowering Judas.

One of my favorites is Irwin Shaw's "Sailor Off the Bremen." Shaw is best known for his post-war novels such as "The Young Lions" and "Rich Man, Poor Man." But it's his stories that I've read and studied. They were collected into a volume, "Five Decades."

"Sailor Off the Bremen," published in The New Yorker in February 1939, is about international politics and revenge. In New York Harbor, communists stage an anti-Nazi demonstration aboard the German ship Bremen. A Nazi steward beats up a demonstrator, whose family and friends believe that the Nazi should pay. They find out who the steward is, trap and beat the crap out of him.

When I first read that story decades ago, I knew little about the years leading up to World War II. I was a student of the war. As was the case with many Baby Boomer boys, we watched movies and TV shows about the war our fathers fought in. Some of us read books, too, as my father had a great library. We knew war as boys know war. Names of battles, famous generals, types of airplanes and tanks.

What caused the war? Hitler and the damn Nazis. Tojo and the stinkin' Japs. Excuse my use of the term "Japs" -- that's how Americans spoke about residents of the Empire of Japan during the war and after it. That's about as far as it went until I got older and began reading about it. America was dragged kicking and screaming into it. I don't mean after Pearl Harbor, but before it, when many Americans had no reason to care what happened to French farmers and Chinese peasants. We'd been dragged into another European war in 1917, and many wondered why we had to bail out the French and the Brits once again. Isolationism was rampant, especially among those in the individualist-minded Rocky Mountain West. Many of the leading isolationists in Congress were from Montana and Idaho and South Dakota. Probably Wyoming, too, although I haven't done any research on the matter.

I am reading a book on the subject. "Those Angry Days: Roosevelt, Lindbergh, and America's fight over World War II, 1939-1941," by Lynne Olson.  I just finished a section about the very close Congressional vote to extend the conscription act, a vote held four months before Dec. 7, 1941. Conscription had been passed a year before in which young men were drafted into the army for a year. That year was up and many of those young men wanted to go back home. They spent their time digging ditches and marching around with fake rifles and didn't see the point as the U.S. wasn't at war. So when Roosevelt and his interventionist allies tried to extend the draft, many in Congress weren't eager to sign on, including ,many Democrats. The final vote was 203 aye and 202 nays. And some of the ayes were about to change their votes when Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn closed the vote with an arcane procedural move. It took the U.S. a long time to mobilize after the Dec. 8 declaration of war. Imagine how long it would have taken if the draft had been abandoned? History can turn on a single vote.

One thing is clear -- even four months before we entered the war, isolationism was strong in this country. I wondered what it was like for the average joe, the guy who became G.I. Joe in the war years. The economy had picked up once we got into the 1940s, but problems of the Great Depression hadn't gone away. What made you an interventionist and what made you an isolationist? in 1941, there wasn't a bomber or missile that could reach the U.S. from potential enemies. But what would happen if Hitler took over the world and eventually threatened us? And what about all of those rumors of Nazis murdering Jews?

As always, I tried to put myself in that era in the form of a fictional character. And so goes my story and along with it, hours of research. Research can be addictive, especially in this age of unlimited accessibility to online sources. But I stopped myself and wrote the story. It's called "Ras Tafari in Cheyenne." I'm excerpting it on my blog because I don't know what else to do with it. If you have any ideas for markets, let me know. The excerpts will begin in mid-January -- I'll keep you posted.