Monday, May 09, 2016

Dear Governor Ducey--What to Do about Prop 123? Letter #80

Dear Governor Ducey,

            When I lived in Portland, I had a VW Jetta. It wasn’t like my ex-boyfriends’ Volkswagen round microbuses and beetles. The Jetta was square and gray and perfect. And then I moved myself and the Jetta to Portland where the stereo was ripped straight out of the dash. The thieves broke the window too. This whole smash and grab led to me and my best friend Misty riding our bikes to Fred Meyer rather than drive because we would not let some hooligans stop our dream of buying a kiddie swimming pool to fill with hot water so we could manufacture a hot tub-like situation in our college dorm. We went into Fred Meyer hoping to find an inflatable tub but could only find the fully formed plastic blue kind with pictures of orange fish painted on the bottom. We bought it. And then we went back to the parking lot. And then we thought. Hmm. How can we get this home?
            Misty is intrepid. “We’ll carry it,” she said. And she did, pedaling down 40th Avenue (39th was too busy) with a swimming pool for a hat. Not to be out intrepided, I said, “I’ll take a turn.” But then the wind kicked up. It lifted the pool like wind lifted Mary Poppins’ umbrella. The wind and the pool took me with them. For a bit. And then deposited me where I more likely belonged, on the ground. Elbow broken.
            Later, Misty successfully installed the hot tub but I could never partake because I wasn’t allowed to get my cast wet.
            By the end of the year, the painted orange fish had turned green with mildew. It took twelve people to throw it off the dorm room balcony. Look out below. Falling swimming pools. Falling mildew. Unseeable-orange fish.
            Also in Portland, the Jetta’s fuel injectors got stolen. I’d replace them. They’d get stolen again. I’d replace them. $1500 worth of fuel injectors later, I finally got a new car.
            Prop 123 is like this Jetta. This is a car we the people own clear out. But the legislature stole our car stereo and would like to sell us a new one. The legislature stole our fuel injectors and would like to sell us some new ones. They stole them again and again even though the courts have told them to give us our damn fuel injectors back. They won’t. Now, they’d like us to borrow some money against a car we already own.
            The State Trust Land is not the legislature’s. It is the land of the state. That means us, not them. It is our car. We shouldn’t need to borrow against it to raise the amount of money for education, especially since a) there is a 600 million dollar budget surplus and b) especially since the money we need already exists as long as we stop giving business tax breaks which do no good since no business except the prison business wants to do business where education ranks at the very bottom of investment and c) we already own the car, the fuel injectors and the stereo. We shouldn’t have to buy them again. Just stop taking them away.
            But listen. It’s tricky, I know. It is our car but if we don’t replace the fuel injectors, we can’t drive the thing. Teachers and students need money now. And, how will it look to the legislature if we abandon our car on the side of the road just to make a statement that says, look, you already owe us this money? The courts say you have to pay it!
            The thieves who stole the Jetta’s fuel injectors didn’t care what the courts had to say either.
            My ballot sits on the counter. I already sent it in once but I forgot to sign the envelope. I am so conflicted. I want students to have more money. Lots more money. But Prop 123 has these horrible triggers that say if in a recession, no money, if unemployment goes up, no money, and triggers permanent amendments to the constitution that says we’ll never spend more than 48% of the budget on education.
            The triggers scare me. They’re like saying you will own this Jetta forever. The thieves know how to crack the hood, pull the plugs. The triggers are like saying, we’ll give you this car you already own and let you borrow money against it and then if we want, we’ll take the car away. We can leave you carless, fuel injectorless, broken elbowed, with nothing but a mildewed old hot tub with fish on the bottom you can’t even see.  
            I know I have to decide soon but I’m having a hard time. I really do love that car.

Monday, May 02, 2016

Wolves are People Too--Letter #79

Dear Governor Ducey, 

When I was a kid, I loved the TV show “Kids Are People Too.” The program advanced the revolutionary idea that kids had brains and ideas for what they wanted, usually in the form of playing an accordion, but still, the kids had direction. Volition! I hated being told what to do. I was a righteous fifth-grader. My best friend, Jeff Whiting, who is now a director on Broadway, and I protested boys and girls being separated for everything: sports, maturation programs, lining up for recess or to sit in rows at assemblies. “This discrimination must end!” we claimed although I don’t think we used the word “discrimination” and I don’t think the justice we were looking for was entirely self-less. Jeff and I wanted to sit by each other. Still, we felt the injustice deeply. We wanted things to be less categorical, less divided.

I-40 is a dividing line for the Mexican Gray Wolf. None are allowed to cross it. If they do, they will be removed and taken back to “their” area in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest and White Mountain Apache Reservation, in the White Mountains. This wolf, one of just 97 Mexican Gray Wolves, is having a hard time reestablishing his species. The pickings for females are low. He’s related to most of them. Confined to this smallish, space means his chances for ever being anything but a representative of a dwindling species whose genetic variation is so small that, eventually, the species will die out.

I know you hate being told what to do. I get it. So do I. The US Fish and Wildlife Service has been court ordered to develop a recovery plan. You sent a letter saying you would not allow wolves on to cross I-40. But the problem is, it’s not really up to you. While some people still fear and hate wolves, many others see them as amazing creatures, able to withstand near eradication, form social bonds, use elegant forms of communication to maintain those bonds. The people who love wolves aren’t in charge either. It’s not a boy/girl, pro-wolf/anti-wolf kind of situation. It’s a situation where the will of one side can be balanced with the will of another side. Ranchers can be compensated for lost livestock. Farmers can be taught how to keep wolves off their property. Some wolves may be removed or killed. But that’s the point of government. To address the needs of the many individuals and try to find a way to understand how wolves are part of the wilderness and part of what we mean by “the west.”

The principal told Jeff and me that we would have to abide by the boy and girl divisions but he didn’t dismiss our concerns. He explained that it’s just an easy way to organize the class and get students to quiet down. Our gender didn’t really matter in the line. In fact, he whispered, if you plan ahead, you can line up so you’re right next to each other. We weren’t thrilled. We’d still sometimes be divided by what was to us as arbitrary a distinction as a freeway running through Coconino County, but we took his advice and managed to line up near each other and, when we got to recess, played four-square with an uneven number of girls and boys.

The wolf, after centuries of being reviled, now enjoys a sliver of hope that his point of view will be addressed. A metaphor for the loner, the alpha, the killer has morphed into a metaphor for the family man, the communicator, the wild order itself. The idea that wilderness can live beside civilization, can in fact make us be more civil, is the a revolutionary idea that isn’t really that revolutionary. People and wolves have lived together for a very long time. Supposedly, humans are smart. They should be able to stand in two lines peacefully next to each other.

But, my fear is, like the way you have defied the order by the court to pay the schools the amount of money they are owed, you will defy the order, if it comes, to allow the wolf on this side of I-40. My fear is, like the way you want state trust land to give the schools money that is already owned by the schools in replace of money you already owe them, you will sell the land upon which the wolf is meant to recover and kill two wolves with one stone. No land. No wolves. No justice.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

On Reconsideration--Letter #78


            We don’t have a microwave in our kitchen. It’s not because I believe microwaves irradiate our food with nuclear particles. I’m a slightly better scientist than that. But it does take up space on my counter and microwaves do encourage me to cook more processed foods like frozen burritos and Hungry Man Fried Chicken dinners. At least if I have to cook those things in the oven, I usually realize it takes just about as much time to make them from scratch. But it does suck not to be able to defrost frozen foods. I’m OK at planning for dinner around noon the day of. Not so much the day before. But recent research has shown that contrary to earlier guidelines that you should only thaw food in the refrigerator, which takes forever, or in a cold water bath, which isn’t much faster, that now you can defrost small cuts of meat in a warm 100 degree water bath, at least according to Harold McGee, a food scientist featured on A Splendid Table.
            I am currently defrosting a small steak for dinner. It took five minutes to defrost it most of the way.
            Once, I asked my students to write an essay about something they were sure was true but found, using Google, the facts to show the opposite. The best reconsideration? Eating your boogers is actually good for you. Scott Napper, a scientist at the University of Saskatchewan, found that introducing pathogens from your own mucus can help build your body’s natural defenses.
            I love the idea that with an open mind, we can ask questions that we wouldn’t have even thought to ask—that received knowledge was the only knowledge.
            This American Life broadcast a show about a research study showed that a particular kind of political canvasser when going door-to-door, if they sat down with their door-opener, they could get them to change their minds by telling their personal story. One woman changed her door-answerers mind about abortion by telling the woman about her own abortion and how hard it had been to tell her family about it but how it was right for her. The door-answerer went from 100% against abortion to 100% for abortion in the span of an 18 minute conversation. Sadly, this study, was summarily dismissed. The abortion story is on record but other evidence of these amazing canvassers couldn’t be verified. The researcher invented the data. But then, two new researchers tried to replicate the study and found that the actual findings from the first study had been accurate at least, in some cases. People’s minds could be changed, even permanently. Talking one on one to people in Florida about transgender issues about transgender rights changed their minds when researchers told them personal stories.
            I can only tell you my story, and maybe the story of my kids, my fellow teachers, my students, and hope that you will listen. I’m willing to listen to you. I would be willing to sit down and hear how you think public education isn’t necessary for Arizona. I would listen as carefully and open-mindedly as I could if you would do me the same favor. If I could tell you about the students who won’t be joining the MFA program this year because the cost of out-of-state tuition is too high or the students who won’t be able to join us because the number of teaching assistantships is so low or the undergraduate who had to drop out because his parents couldn’t afford to send him anymore or the student who can’t continue her studies because she has maxed out her student loans.

            My six-year-old, Max, sits in front of me, reading Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing. My ten-year-old daughter Zoe just finished a book report on slavery. These kids, not just mine, all these kids, should have access to small classrooms and well-supported teachers and the promise of a college education that won’t leave them with debt as big as a mortgage on a house. I will tell you. Person by person. Individually. If you would listen, maybe you would reconsider.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Letter #77--Micrograms

Dear Governor Ducey,

            My book Micrograms, a short book of microessays about micro things, was just published by New Michigan Press. The micro essays include stories about microsoccer and microchips and microbursts and microclimates. This little book is part of a larger book about climate change and other environmental catastrophes and how little things can make big changes. For instance, at ASU’s Center for Biodesign, researchers there study how microorganisms can repair polluted water. Example: Run-off from fertilizer used in agriculture sometimes results in nitrates in waterways, leading to overstimulation of algae, depriving fish of oxygen. At the Center for Biodesign, they have found a microorganism that chemically reduces nitrates back into simple nitrogen. I write about Eric Glomski of Page Springs who, in building his vineyard, had to study the microclimates of Oak Creek and the air masses moving down from the mountains and swirling around the river to figure out where to grow his Chardonnay grapes best. By studying tiny organisms and making small manipulations, researchers and vintners can discover ways to rise to these big challenges.
            I take heart in the tiny things. The way my son tucks my hair behind my ear. The way my daughter scares me with her zombie walk. The way my husband builds a fire in the wood stove. The small owl pellet I find at the bottom of tree. The quick look to see, ah ha, there is an owl, or maybe just the wind, but either way, my eyes have been lifted up: The sky an embracing blue. Even goofy things, like a ball rolling down the sidewalk and stopping in a crack or the sound of a rock kerplunking in a lake, these little things, these tiny delights, accumulate to make the difficult or the bad manageable, even, potentially, hopefully, fixable.
            But then, there are days when the small things get me down. We did another road-side clean up on Huntington by Walmart. Cigarette butts, plastic Walmart bag, Styrofoam coffee cups, plastic bottle, plastic bag, hamburger wrappers, mini-bottles, plastic bags, plastic bottle, CDs, plastic lids, plastic bag, plastic bag. So many little things that are discarded, never thought about by the person letting them go out their car window. How can we make big changes when we’re still at a seventies level of environmental awareness, Give a Hoot, Don’t pollute? Or not even there yet?  with people tossing their cigarette butts on the ground, dropping their coffee cups, letting fly their plastic bags, plastic bags, I swear if you spent two hours cleaning up the road side you would, instead of prohibiting Flagstaff from banning them, ban the plastic bags from all the land, or at least all of Arizona. I said to Zoe, “If there were no plastic bottles, plastic bags, or cigarette butts, there would be almost nothing for us to clean up. No more orphaned highways in need of adoption.”
            I think of the accumulation of plastic—that plastic patch in the ocean the size of Texas, the way the plastic turns particulate but never disappears. The way the tiny plankton eat it, the tuna eat it, the whales eat it. The plastification not only of the streets and fields and sidewalks but the whole planet, wrapped in plastic. Preserved, maybe, but, like a 2-liter 7-Up bottle lying in the sun, getting ever-hotter.
            Accumulation is a neutral term. Things accumulate for the better and for the worse. I guess the whole system is one of balance. Someone pollutes the water, someone finds a microorganism to eat the pollutant. Someone tosses a water bottle out the window, someone else picks it up. Balance, in itself, doesn’t necessarily register as good or bad, either, and yet, as the legislation has been so against the many in favor of the few of late, I am hoping the individual actor, though small, will begin to act, to accumulate, to add up, and tip the scale.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Letter #76--Sandys Canyon to Fisher Point

            You have to drive around most of the city to get to Lake Mary Road from our house. I’ve spent a lot of time riding my bike between my house and campus to know Lake Mary is closer by trail than by road, but still not that close. Erik and I took Max and Zoe and the news dogs, Bear and Zora, to Sandys Canyon Trail. It was late February. The trail dropping into the canyon was covered in ice. Zoe skated down. Max and I climbed up and around off trail, apologizing to the grass as we swung above the trail.
            A couple of miles in, we arrived at a sign that said Fisher Point. I remembered it from the time I’d come down, maybe exactly a year ago—although there had been no ice then. That year there had barely been any snow.
            “We should walk all the way home, we could get the other car.” Erik looked at six year old Max and 12 week old Bear.
            “I don’t think they’ll make it,” Erik said.
            “I want to do it,” Zoe said.
            “Is that cool? I’ll take Zoe and Zora? You take Bear and Max back to the car?”
            “You know the way?”
            “Two miles from here to Fisher point. About two miles from there to Lake Elaine, then two miles home. We can do it. My phone works out here.”
            So we were off. We had lots of water, a map on an iPhone, and a dog that probably needs to run 30 miles a day anyway.

            The trail is sandy, the canyons sides are substantial, with cliffs of Kaibab Limestone and Coconino Sandstone. We walked deeper, toward Walnut Canyon. I can imagine how water had cut this channel. The Sinagua lived here, because of that water. The river is dammed now, making Lake Mary and supplying Flagstaff. There used to be walnut trees down here but, without the river, the trees are long gone. Not as long gone as the Sinagua, but just as gone.
            Zoe and I don’t follow the Walnut Canyon trail but turn left and hike up toward Fisher Point. From there it’s a straight shot, although a long slog, through Ponderosa Pine forest, which is still here, but, as the snow pack diminishes every year, may not be much longer.
            We hit forest road 301B so I know where we are. Erik calls. He’s worried about us. Zoe and I admit, six miles in, that we wouldn’t mind a ride home.

            I’m reading Craig Childs’ House of Rain. He traces the migration and the disappearance of people living in the southwest in the 1300, 1400s, and 1500s. He wonders if maybe they who left early had a hint of what was coming. Although many anthropologists think people left primarily because of drought, Childs thinks it was a combination of drought and too many people drawing on too few resources. He wonders if people from brought too-different, possibly too-violent, social practices together, unweaving once-stable social fabrics.
            While Erik was at the Bernie Sanders rally, I was reading how you signed into law, House Bill 1487. The one that forbids local cities from passing ordinances of which the state doesn’t approve. This reeks of hypocrisy: Aren’t you members of the government that doesn’t like the federal government telling states what to do? If Flagstaff wants to ban plastic bags, how does that hurt you (Oh yeah, you have campaign donors in the plastic industry).       Ironically, I feel the way you must sometimes when the federal government insists you spend money on children and the homeless. Shackled. Hobbled. I feel saying to you what Princess Leia says to Darth Vader, “The more you tighten your grip, the more star systems will slip through your fingers,” but then I look at the star systems: they’re really just sand. I pick up some sand that was once Kaibab sandstone and think, everything falls apart. Entire cultures living in Walnut Canyon. Entire copses of trees. Entire climate systems. (Where is the snow?) You and I just see things so differently. A government that helps versus a government that hinders. I do feel the hand of your government constricting around my throat. I don’t know if this might be the end of our social fabric as we know it or just this particularly hypocritical one. I do know when I look out at the Ponderosas, I see needles turning brown, plastic bags hanging in branches like tattered rags.