Tuesday, August 09, 2016

Little Boats and Hatch Chiles--Letter #87

Dear Governor Ducey,

            On Sunday, Erik and the kids and I stopped by the grocery store to buy ingredients for chili verde. Hatch chiles are at the Farmer’s Market Store, as they are every August. I could write a whole letter about the Farmer’s Market Store—how it’s the place where you can ask the owners when the Utah Peaches are coming in and she’ll give you an hour by hour play and even invite you to call her to see if they’ve made it. It’s the kind of place that sells pinto beans in bulk and cantaloupe for a dollar. The Farmer’s Market store provides an excellent slice of Flagstaffian demographics. Navajo, Hispanic, Hopi, Korean, and white customers all line up to buy cases of roasted Hatch Green Chiles.
            When we were at the not-Farmer’s Market Store (Whole Foods. Farmer’s Market does not sell fish or pork, cage free or otherwise), I saw the Arizona Daily Sun headline: “Flagstaff Charters Lacking in Diversity.” I read the article. I choked a little. My daughter is going to go to a charter school this year. I’m already struggling a bit with this idea. My dearest friends and one of my sisters are public school teachers. I am conflicted about the way charter schools have more flexibility in the students they admit. They don’t have to teach everyone. They don’t have to provide buses or lunches. And, they aren’t subject to charges to desegregate. Flagstaff Unified School District is working to desegregate their schools in an attempt to bring equal opportunity to every student.
            My daughter is moving from one of the most diverse schools, Puente de Hozho, to one of the least. 80% of the students at her new school will be white. On the one hand, this goes against the grain of what public education should provide. An equal opportunity to learn. On the other hand, when the FUSD schools developed programs to retain students who they had been losing to the charters, those programs filled with also white people.
            Unequal access to education is entrenched. I work at NAU. I have colleagues who reminded me of when I needed to get on the charter school list. I have time to make my kids’ lunches. My husband has time to drive them to school. I can pick them up. My privilege makes it possible for my daughter (and later son), to go on to greater privilege. This privilege hands its misery onto the next generation.

According to key findings of a new study of the racial wealth gap released this week by the sponsor of Economic Hardship Reporting Project, Institute for Policy Studies, and the Corporation for Economic Development- If current economic trends continue, the average black household will need 228 years to accumulate as much wealth as their white counterparts hold today. For the average Latino family, it will take 84 years.

There’s no necessary correlation between being minority and poverty—except that the United States is built upon the backs of that inequality. My daughter, at Puente, worked with students who did not have all the advantages she does. In so doing, she learned that not everyone learns the same way or thinks the same learning system is the only learning system. She wants to go to a charter not because she doesn’t want to learn alongside these students. She wants to go to a charter because this particular charter sets the bar very high.

What I want is that very high bar be made available to everyone. I don’t think Charters make it impossible but I don’t think Charters make that the primary priority. They can’t, I guess, to do what every school should be able to do: maintain small classes, focus on academics rather than sports, prepare students for a wildly changing global economy. The small academies within FUSD, like the one my daughter would have entered if she had stayed at FUSD, have those opportunities as well.
I think all schools should be as small as the charters. I think everyone should have access to them. So my daughter and I agreed that we would work at the charter to find ways to make it more accessible to people who don’t already have her economic privilege.

The first plan? Maybe I’ll make an additional lunch and send it with her every day. Maybe I’ll offer to pick someone up from school. But obviously, the change needs to be a fundamental one. An acknoleggement that a rising tide raises all the boats. To make it possible for her Latino counterparts to accumulate as much wealth as she in fewer than 84 years, we’ll have to be the flood.

Tuesday, August 02, 2016

Letter #86: Picture Canyon Redux

Dear Governor Ducey,

            The city called. After my last letter about getting lost in Picture Canyon, my editor at Flag Live said someone from the city was trying to reach me. I knew I was in trouble. I imagined they were going to say, “Nicole. Please stop saying bad things about city property. We need good support for our city, not your complaining ways.” But that isn’t what they said! They were worried! “We are getting new signs in just a couple weeks. We know it can be confusing.”
            What’s this? They didn’t blame me for not checking my compass better? They didn’t tease me for my lack of bad-sign reading ways? Thank you, City of Flagstaff, for worrying about me.
            I was so grateful that I took my kids out to the canyon. I was going to try this again. We parked in the shade, got out of the car. I told them to look around. It was 9:00 a.m.
            “Which was is east?” They each pointed to the sun.
            “Which way is west?”
            Zoe, ten, sang her “Never Eat Soggy Waffles song. I sang my Never Eat Slimy Worms song.             Max, six, said, “What waffles? Are we having waffles? I don’t like worms.”
            Zoe and I looked at each other. We’d keep an eye on Max and his directional ways.
            I showed them my iPhone compass and said, “This is a good tool but batteries run out. It’s probably better to have a real phone but today, we aren’t going to leave the river, so it will be hard to get lost.”
            We walked to the sign that said, “You are here” which pointed out the water treatment plant was to the right and the outdoor classroom was just a few feet ahead. This is the exact same sign on the other side of the trail that reads “you are here” in the same spot. This news, combined with the kind call from the city, made me think really that maybe I wasn’t an idiot. All the more confidence to march on! The kids complained a little about the smell from the water treatment plant but I told them how hard the city worked to make the water as clean as possible, raking the solids, aerating the fluids, mixing good microbes in with the bad to do what rocks and silt and clouds do. By the time we made it to the first bridge, the smell had abated and the water looked as clear as a bell.
            We looked at another sign that read, 1.0 mile to Arizona Trail. “Oh, that’s where I went wrong too. I thought the whole loop was one mile.”
            “We were just on the Arizona Trail,” Zoe reminded me. Her museum of Northern Arizona camp this year was called Climate Games. They measured bugs and carbon output and miles of AZ trail.
            “It goes all the way from Mexico to Utah,” I told Max who may not know.
            “We just got back from Mexico. And we’re going to Utah. But I don’t want to walk there,” he said.
            “No. I don’t so much either.”
            “How long would that take?” Zoe asked.
            “I don’t know. Maybe fifteen days? If you walked ten miles a day. Almost as long as I got lost last time.”
            “Well, and last time it rained.”
            It was too early for monsoon and the storms seemed to have abandon us this week. We hiked along the trail, looked at the waterfall, and then, instead of following the Arizona Trail/Loop signs, we turned down a small path the followed along the river. I told the kids to note how Mount Elden was now to our right, the river to our left. They got it. We saw a huge hawk washing himself in the river. The hide of a deer that might have gotten caught on a fence. We hiked up toward the rocks where we found the thing I had been looking for the week before: spiral petroglyphs. Max and Zoe climbed through yucca and sticky thorns to see them. Scratched but satisfied, we climbed up the rest of the hill and followed a path above the river back to the car.

            The happy news is that you can re-do most everything. If you make a mistake, like taking 100 million dollars from the Higher Ed budget, you can undo that. Flagstaff has continaully worked to improve Picture Canyon that they recently won the Governor's 2016 Archaeology Commission Award. The award recognizes the work done to protect, preserve and interpret resources within the Picture Canyon National and Cultural Preserve. Even you reward revision and revamping. There is nothing stopping anyone from rethinking past thoughts and revising past ideas. Thanks to the city, and my intrepid kids, I now think Picture Canyon is pretty awesome.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Money Hoarding--Letter #85

Dear Governor Ducey,
            I assume you are rich. Poor people aren’t governors. You ran Cold Stone Creamery, albeit I understood, not that well. But still, you were an exec. You have wealthy friends. You must be doing fine.
            Most of these letters have been about money—how I am begging you, please, to restore the budget cuts you made to Higher Education in March of 2015. And, while you’re at it, why not fund K-12 at an amount that gives the dollar-per-kid-in-Arizona funding situation a bump out of last place?
            I have my own money situation. I’ve also been trying to get out of credit card debt for ten years now. Grad school is expensive and grad students are as good with money as undergrads—I’ll pay off those loans when I get a job! But then, you get a job and it pays less than you thought and everything costs more than it was supposed to, and while you are lucky lucky to have a job and to be paying off those debts, you still wonder, how is it that you are still not saving money? It’s like running on sand—you’re going forward but so slowly and my thighs are burning.
            I just don’t get how people amass so much wealth. Maybe they work at places that give raises?
            Thanks to my job, I have good health insurance (I guess I can thank you for that! Please don’t take that away), I have a house with relatively comfortable beds, good food—I’m making Orecciette with Kale and Breadcrumbs. Last night I made grilled turkey breast with buerre blanc sauce. Tomorrow, tofu Pad Thai—I mean, that’s good right? My car runs, my kids have piano lesson, my dogs get their shots, I have books to read, a computer that, although you can’t see the ‘n’ key anymore, still types. With what would I do more money (except pay off those loans?)
            But you, extra-wealthy one, must know something I don’t. That having extra money must let you feel freer? That, if you wanted, you could stop being governor tomorrow and move to Costa Rica? But you couldn’t take your whole family with you? You couldn’t take your comfortable bed with you. You couldn’t take your house with you. I mean sure, there’d be houses and beds there too but they’d be lonely. Even if you wife and kids came with you, it would be so expensive to fly home to see your mom. What about your friends who got you elected? I guess you can always make new friends. Maybe Costa Rica has a good and strong educational system you could gut?
            But really, people who have so much money, have thousands upon thousands of dollars coming in a month, all loans and mortgages paid off, with bedrooms they don’t sleep in and cars they don’t drive, what are they amassing for?
            One of your colleagues and party-affiliates, state legislator Steve Yarborough, called the recent legislation allowing public tax-dollars to be used as vouchers to pay private tuition a great success. It is a great success, especially to him. According to Laurie Roberts, writing for The Republic writes, “In all, Yarbrough's Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization has siphoned more than $116 million from the state treasury via individual tax-credit donations since 1998, according to the non-profit's latest IRS filing, covering the 2013-14 school year.” That money, that once went to all kids, now goes to a few kids. But not only those kids. Roberts continues, “By law, STOs get to keep 10 percent of what they raise in tax-credit donations. This, to administer the program. In 2013-14, Yarbrough's Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization collected roughly $17 million in tax-credit donations. That's a sweet $1.7 million for overhead….Of that, Yarbrough collected nearly $146,000 in compensation, according to his latest IRS filing.” So a legislator who is in charge of the public’s money not only diverts public money toward private enterprise but also to his own bank account.”
            In my understanding of wealth, the main reason to collect money was to provide for one’s family. As the state’s surplus grows and grows, I wonder why you’re hoarding instead of providing? What is the point of the money, why have a government at all, if not to help all the kids build a fruitful future? The kids are the ones who grow up to sustain the whole system but if the money to teach them how to build is tied up in your bank account and empty houses, from where will they get the tools?


Thursday, July 14, 2016

A two-parter letter to Governor Ducey--now here in one location

The Good Part of Getting Lost—Letter #84 to Governor Ducey

I have hiked a lot around Flagstaff. Remember the Sandys Canyon trail lettter—where I told you how Zoe and I made it from nearly Lake Mary to nearly our house? The metaphor then was sand—how some people/governments are destructive and some destructive and how the attempt to outlaw cities from making their own ordinances—like prohibiting plastic bags—can, by acting like a stranglehold, backfire.
            Unlike that hike, the hike I took yesterday backfired fully. I’d heard Picture Canyon was fantastic. A waterfall made completely from treated wastewater. The only perennial stream in Flagstaff is that which is made by effluent. Still, it’s beautiful. Grade A+. I’ve interviewed the manager at the Wildcat facility. He said he would almost drink the water straight from the facility, they did such a good job purifying it. He didn’t drink it, but he said it was almost good enough. It’s better if it runs through the natural filtration system of river, ocean, clouds, rain, treatment, tap but this waste water? He’s pretty proud of the work he’s done.
            I parked by the treatment plant and started off with my two dogs, on leash. A collection of informational kiosks told me about volcanoes and the Sinagua Indians and water treatment and what birds I could expect to find in the man-made marshes. I marched forward. Two signs pointed—one to the left, one to the right. The Loop Trail. I swear it said it was a mile long. A mile was just right for a short walk. Then, I’d go to the library to study prairie dogs and bubonic plague and communication systems for my next project.
            I hiked to the waterfall. I hiked behind the waterfall. I hiked down the once-volcano, along the cinder cone hill. I walked under the trees and crossed a bridge. I ended up by some guy’s house and another sign that read, “Picture Canyon Loop Trail.” But this wasn’t the end of the loop. I was pretty sure I’d gone one mile. No matter. I’ll keep heading back around. I have a good sense of direction.
            I walked for a while. A lot of while. I didn’t see any more signs. I didn’t see anymore houses. The dogs were thirsty. I was thirsty. I didn’t bring any water for a well-marked mile-long hike. I wouldn’t let the dogs drink the mostly-perfect water in case the most wasn’t mostly good enough for dogs. The storm clouds were gathering. (Side note—the monsoon has begun but, again, they’re unpredictable. My neighbor says in the olden days, the monsoons came at 1:00 p.m. and were over by 2:00 p.m. Not these climate changing days.) I walked and walked. I climbed a hill and tried to see where I was. I got out my phone to see if I could see where the Wildcat Water Treatment facility was. I got a map to the mall. I got a map to I-40. I wasn’t lost lost but I was not where I wanted to be.
            I retraced my steps back the bridge and saw where I’d gone wrong. A hidden-ish sign for the loop trail! Well, then. I’ll go forward, I told myself. I must be close! A mile is not this far.
            I hiked on. The dogs followed. We watched for signs more closely this time. It seemed like we were on the right path. But the path was long. And it started to rain. Just a little at first. And then more. Zora the dog sat under a tree, trying to stay dry. Bear the Dog kept looking at me to say, “You know I don’t like the rain, right?” I remembered the last podcast I’d heard about being struck by lightning. I tried to stay near a copse of trees. I heard thunder. I jumped. It rained harder. Then it started to hail. I still saw signs but they didn’t say Loop Trail anymore, now they just read Arizona Trail. Great, I thought the Arizona Trail goes all the way from Mexico to Utah. I love Mexico. I love Utah. Heck, I’m from Utah. But as much as I love it, I do not want to walk all the way there.

            I was soaked through to my underwear which I knew because I tried to stash my phone in my pants to try to keep it from getting wet. The screen blurred. The battery went from 80% to 15% . If I was going to call Erik to get me home by using Find My Phone, I had better hurry. I had to pick Zoe up from camp at 3:00. My hopes of writing about Prairie Dogs had turned to hopes of burrowing in with them to keep dry.

Next week, in Part 2, we find out if Nicole made it back from Picture Canyon or if she’s still out there, looping and looping in a corkscrew kind of path, never quite completing here mission. Somewhat like her letter’s to Governor Ducey.

Part II 

In Part I, Nicole is lost in Picture Canyon on the East Side of Flagstaff. She thinks it’s east, anyway, but even with her compass, isn’t quite so sure.

            I heard a ruckus. Big trucks. Maybe I was close to the Treatment plant which is close to the quarry where I’d bought rocks for my yard that’s right nearby where they drive big trucks. I rushed to sound, ran up the hill to see not a bunch of dump trucks but a bunch of regular trucks. I’d found the freeway. No no no. That’s not right.

            I went back to the last sign I’d seen. This one I thought had said go forward but instead it said go west to the Wildcat Treatment Plant. I hadn’t even seen the sign or the map. It also said go east to the outdoor classroom. Maybe I was between the treatment plant and the kiosk that told me which way to go. I should go toward the treatment plant. I walked that way. No. Wait. This isn’t the way. I just came from here. How could I walk the way I came? Did I miss the water treatment plant? I went back to the sign. Maybe I should go the other way, toward the outdoor classroom. I looked at my compass. It said go west. Oh, duh. West is THIS way. I started walking. I walked and walked and was back at the Freeway. There was no Wildcat Water Treatment plant. The outdoor classroom was not the row of kiosks. I did not see a row of desks or a chalkboard. All I saw was I-40. I was not that lost. Obviously, I wasn’t going to die except of hypothermia and embarrassment. But I was so frustrated that I couldn’t figure this out. Where the hell did the river go?
            I tried to get it together. I tested the compass. Now west was the other way. I must have read it wrong. Or was reading it wrong now. Who knew? Compasses aren’t so helpful in gauging the spin of the poles when you’re spinning in circles yourself. I started running. The dogs were ahead of me, in the bushes. I was moving moving moving and then across the trail. Is that a…? I’m already leaping. The snake hissed and struck at me. I made it over his head before he could strike again. I started to panic. I might have called out for my mom. Here I am stuck between I-40 and a rattlesnake and no way to get home.

            Eventually, I made it. I gave up on the “loop” signs and followed the sign that said Wildcat west. I reorganized my compass and my brain and said to myself, don’t stop going southwest. Follow your compass. Don’t think just because it’s not over the hill that you’re not going the right way.
            In the distance, I saw a greenhouse. Maybe it was just someone’s greenhouse, but, I thought I recalled seeing a greenhouse from my tour with the city manager.  And then a pipe from the methane recapturing system. And then some more pipes and then the Rio de Flag—which I thought I should have been following all along. The tanks. The filters. The kiosks noting types of birds, volcanic history, human history. I saw my car. My pants were almost dry.
            I told my friend Jon that I was going to write you a letter about this and blame you. I was joking. It’s totally not your fault I got lost. I mean, it would be nice if you could foot the bill for a little better signage but truly, this was all my fault. I thought I knew where I was going. I thought I saw a sign that said one mile. I thought the compass pointed west. I thought the outdoor classroom might have been the kiosks. I thought I was closer than I was. I had to calm down and keep walking.
            The point of writing the letter to you is this: It’s a good thing, although scary and full of snakes, to get lost. It makes you reconsider your suppositions, your prejudices, your assumptions. What I wouldn’t give for you to spin around, mentally, as I did, when you look at the funding situation in our state—when you look at the kids who want to come to NAU from out of state and who would be twenty-thousand a year to attend. Look at the kids from in state who will pay more than ten. Forty thousand dollars is so much money. Prohibitive for so many. The idea that maybe everyone should have the opportunity to have the same as others is a disorienting one to you. But just think of the things the world could accomplish if everyone could write well and speak well and argue well, and, with practiced deductive reasoning, learn to find their way back to the water treatment plant well and learn to treat the water well and knew how to be sure they read their compasses right.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Dear Gov. Ducey: I Am You

The literary journal “Creative Nonfiction” just came out with a book, “Show Me All Your Scars: True Stories of Living with Mental Illness” and I thought, why don’t I have an essay in this book?
Here, I admit to a little narcissism as well as a little mental illness.
I do not in anyway want to undermine the seriousness of mental illness in this country. The depth and breadth of suffering of those dealing with severe mental illness cracks my heart. The healthcare industry that neglects those with diagnosed mental industry cracks my heart. The fact that there is an extreme narcissist running for president also cracks my heart. But, there are degrees: severe and extreme seek to distinguish “us from them” but there is no us and no them. 
After the domestic terrorism, the massacre, the 998th mass shooting since Sandy Hook, we must realize that even those of us who decry the deaths, the bigotry, the hatred, have become inured. It takes some number of days for us to recover: four people killed, we get over it in half a day. 50 people killed, might take us a week, but no matter, we rage on Facebook and like each other’s enragements and then go to the pool and swim laps or the park and swing on swings or back to work where, at any of these places, a man with a machine gun could walk in and blow us to bits. We watch shootings on TV. We can picture Al Pacino waving his machine gun at us saying, “Say hello to my little friend.” We think we know what it means to be at the wrong end of the gun. Maybe we also think we know what it’s like to be on the “good” end of the gun. We’ve pictured ourselves shooting the guy who cut us off at the intersection of Fourth and 22nd Street. Maybe we can see ourselves as the “good” guy, who, with his gun, takes out the “bad guy” with our ever-faster bullets or better targeting scope.
            This ability to picture ourselves on the big screen, at the center of the battle, is a kind of narcissism. Thin and pure mirror. Two dimensional.
            The flipside of narcissism is empathy. Picture yourself on the ground, the police trying to identify your body. Picture yourself with a bullet shot through your spine.  Picture your mother getting the phone call that you were in the club that night. Picture your mother’s cheeks, the way they collapse into wrinkle. Picture your mother’s eyes, clouded. Picture your kid waiting for the kind neighbor to pick him up from school because you’re no longer around to pick him up. Or take him to taekwondo. Or make him lunch. Or sing him to sleep.
            Narcissism is like watching yourself on a picture screen. You get labels like Good Guy and Bad Guy and Hero. With empathy, things aren’t so two-dimensional. Even the police hero who shoots the shooter is still the shooter. At night, you don’t sleep, seeing the surprise in the eyes of the man who was the shooter but, in the moment that you shot him, became a shocked kid who wondered what the hell he was thinking. Shot out of his craziness for the moment. Shot out of himself into the momentary empathy, now that he has been shot, that he too is just like them. A victim of a bullet.
            We all must be a little crazy—still able to go swimming, go to the movies, to the park to the club—in the aftermath of this bigger craziness. Maybe we think by writing our senators and congress people we have built a kind of prophylactic. “I wrote my representative,” as kind of bullet proof vest.
            It is the provenance of the truly mentally ill to walk around as if they are someone else: schizophrenia, Messiah complex. Maybe the devastatingly mentally ill have something to teach us. Maybe, like reading books and learning history, extended periods of imagining yourself in someone else’s shoes isn’t only crazy but is a kind of crazy that can get us out of this mess to learn there is no us versus them. There is us in Kindergarten and us in the movie theater and us on campus and us at the gay bar. We are simultaneously pulling the trigger and in the line of fire. Only we, by recognizing we are an ‘us’ and not a they, can put the gun down.