Sunday, January 24, 2016

Eggs for All--Letter # 70

Dear Governor Ducey,

            I think I told you I’m writing a book about egg for a series of books called “Object Lessons” by Bloomsbury. “Hood,” “Hotel,” and “Remote” are some of the other titles. Each author writes about the object from whatever angle they see fit. I’m writing from a creative/destructive point of view. I try to incorporate as many clichés as possible: “You can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs.” “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.” And, this one is for you: “I always feel like I’m walking on eggshells.”
            For part of the book, I asked people to tell me their first memory of eggs, their moms’ stories about eggs, what idiomatic expressions they used. I had people from China, India, Ukraine, Argentina, Korea contribute stories.
            I asked one of my former students for stories about eggs. She is Diné and had been in my poetry courses. After she graduated, she got a job in Navajo, New Mexico where there was only one store. The produce aisle was half an aisle long. “Did they only have bananas?” I asked. She said, “Not even that, sometimes.” She was last hired so first fired when the budget cuts hit. I asked her, “It’s as bad in New Mexico as in Arizona?” “No,” she said. “Just for Diné.”
            Now she’s back in Flagstaff. She said she didn’t have that many egg stories—just one about how her grandpa wouldn’t eat chickens because they were related to dinosaurs, which are monsters in the Navajo creation stories, similar to the snake in Garden of Eden stories. There’s evil in the snake. You don’t want it inside you. “The Warrior Twins fought monsters, which we’ve come to think of as dinosaurs.” She said, “He was kind of right. Chickens are related to dinosaurs.”
            She had one other egg story that she heard while on The Walk. One of her fellow walker’s grandfather also didn’t eat chicken or eggs because he too thought “dinosaur.” I asked her what The Walk was. She told me she and other Diné people her age walked from sacred mountain to sacred mountain to call attention to resource extraction across the reservation. The four monsters of our time: fracking, copper mining, oil drilling, uranium mining. “We’re kind of fighting dinosaurs ourselves. Dead, fossilized dinosaurs.”
            They hiked for 200 miles between some of these mountains. There are four sacred, cardinal point mountains to the Diné: East, Tsisnaasjini' (Mount Blanca) near Alamosa in San Luis Valley, Colorado, South, Tsoodzil, (Mount Taylor) near of Laguna, New Mexico, West, Doko'oosliid (San Francisco Peaks) near Flagstaff, Arizona and North, Dibé Nitsaa (Mount Hesperus) near La Plata Mountains, Colorado. Lyncia and her group trekked four separate Walks. MTV wanted to broadcast the walk but the Walkers would need to agree to let NIKE sponsor. Some people thought that would be selling out. Lyncia and I agree that sometimes, you need to sell out a bit to get the word out about your cause.
            Post Walk, post teaching, Lyncia’s new job is to develop Food Sovereignty Curriculum. I told her about a Navajo student of mine who is farming on the reservation.           “Where does he get the water?” I wondered. “The Little Colorado?”
            She said, “Where does anyone get anything? I think we’re at the breaking point.”   “There are just not enough resources. No access to water. To the Internet. To education,” I said.
            “Or food.” Lyncia reminds me how on the very edge of subsistence some of her people live. “I used to think,” she said, “that I would go to high school, then college, then get a job, with, you know, dental care. But now that seems impossible.” The gap between those with resources and those without widens. She’s so brilliant and yet she feels like things are getting worse, not better.
            Here’s the thing: I want her to come back to school. I want her to get her MFA. Her MFA will help her teach. It will help her write. It will help her broadcast the troubles on the reservation: The resource extraction. The lack of resources. I told her there may be support for Navajo students but with the budget cuts, the support for students who need it most is drying up. I feel like I should be able to help people achieve their goals, to find resources for them, to support their teaching and their writing but the resources are becoming as scarce as water in the Little Colorado.  


Friday, January 15, 2016

Dear Governor Ducey--We Got New Dogs, Letter #69

Dear Governor Ducey,

            I think I wrote you about this before. Our dog Cleo died last April. She was a big German Shepherd/Malamute mix who had hip dysplasia when she was a puppy. She had surgery on each hip, readjusting it, lifting the socket so the joint fit inside properly, pinning the bones together so she could walk. The veterinarians weren’t sure she would avoid arthritis. They weren’t even sure she would live to be three years old. But she lived for thirteen and half years, and, until the last year or so, lived pretty happily. Eventually, she didn’t have enough strength her hips to stand up. We had to carry her outside every morning. She lay on her dog bed and ate biscuits until she wouldn’t even eat those anymore.
            I have missed her a lot. I imagined her coming around the corner of the house or hear waiting at the back door or scratching at the front. I told Erik that I couldn’t get another dog until I stopped seeing visions of Cleo. A month or so ago, Erik started sending me pictures of dogs at the Humane Society. Those visions began to layer in my brain. I would ask him, why this dog instead of all the rest?
            When he finally convinced me to go to the shelter I said, How could we choose just one?
            So we didn’t. We chose two. A German Shepherd-mix puppy (oh my god, who gets a puppy?) and a sweet one-year old German Shepherd-mx. Apparently, German Shepherds speak to me. Or the visions of Cleo have turned imaginary to real.
            I am still a little resistant to this idea. I have three books to finish! I don’t have time to let a puppy outside every 6 minutes. I don’t have time to carry the mad cats over the dogs so they can get to their litterbox and food.
            But Erik says, we have enough love for more and I said, yes, that is true.
            So, two dogs, two cats, two kids, and two saps live together in our three-bedroom house and yard with no fence.
            To keep the dogs from bugging the cats and from peeing in the house all day, I’ve been snowshoeing in the forest behind our house. This forest is State Trust Land. It is well-loved in that there are probably too many trails and we run into many other dog-walkers and snowshoers but it’s the greatest thing about Flagstaff—that out my door and over one block is the beginning of the largest contiguous pine forest in the United States. In the forest, redtail hawks eye you from branches. I think I saw an owl yesterday. An osprey-like creature hangs out in a big snag close to the little man made lakes. One morning, I smelled something musky. I looked up and a heard of elk hung their heads in the early morning mist. Deer, rabbits, squirrels, and yes, humans and their dogs. I could walk to the Wupatki ruins in Walnut Canyon in just 10 miles. I could walk nearly forever, in this large, contiguous pine forest.
            State trust land is a weird thing. Unlike Forest Service land, it’s saleable. Every time I see a tractor or a dumptruck parked at the end of the street, I get nervous. Who did they sell the land to? I begin to wonder. Why would they destroy this best thing? This is why I live here. If they start digging to put in more student housing, well, there would be no point in staying here.

            Puppies are saleable too but, as indicated by the Humane Society, there are enough puppies already. And, it seems that the State actually has enough money in its Rainy Day Fund and its Surplus to restore the Budget Cuts of 2015 to Higher Ed, to commit to raising the salaries of public school teachers and lower the classroom size without selling any of this state trust land. Selling land to pay for education is shortsighted. There is only so much land. Like puppy populations, human populations continue to grow. There has to be a more sustainable model, like perhaps raising taxes just a little on this ever-expanding cohort of humans, than selling something that is rare and only as valuable as it remains contiguous and vast and available, not just to a single developer but to every single person who would like to snowshoe and dog-walk on State Trust land.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

A Collective Goal--Governor Ducey letter #68

A Collective Goal

Each of these letters assumes one thing that I realize I cannot assume: that prosperity for all is a collective good. There would be some truly cynical people (or times when even an optimist such as I becomes cynical) who would argue that perhaps you do not want the whole of the population to prosper. At the darkest times, I sometimes wonder if there is something to be gained from keeping people under-educated and in poverty. In poverty, you do whatever you have to to get by—mine for minerals, dig ditches, clean public bathrooms, work the graveyard shift. To “economic minded individuals,” you must rely on poverty. Someone has to clean the grease traps, so goes the argument. Jesus said, there will be poor always. But this is a pretty parasitic view of the economy. The rich sit in comfortable leather office chairs, spinning toward the full-length windows to look out across the horizon as the street-level workers scrub and sell and dig.
And I suppose, even in my most idealistic brain, that there will always be “levels” of work. I am embarrassed to ask the student workers in the office to print letters of recommendation for me, but I do it because I have fifty more letters to write. Some division of labor is necessary. However, I do think that there should be fluidity between these divisions. That if someone doesn’t want to work the graveyard shift anymore, there is a way for them to quit. That the swiveling leather chair isn’t guaranteed to the man who sits in it and certainly isn’t guaranteed for his son to claim. That there should be some kind of symbiotic relationship between industries and its workers. That maybe you put some time in mopping floors but that time in counts towards a goal. When companies pay workers to go to college, there is symbiosis. You work doing a less-great job. We’ll pay you to go to school so you can get a better job. Raising people up isn’t just socialism, it’s good business sense. When you have employees with a strong liberal arts background, they are more inventive, more creative, more communicative. As Loretta Jackson Hayes, associate professor of chemistry at Rhodes College in Memphis, wrote in The Washington Post in an article called “We Don’t Need More Stem Majors, We Need More STEM Majors with Liberal Arts Training.”
To innovate is to introduce change. While STEM workers can certainly drive innovation through science alone, imagine how much more innovative students and employees could be if the pool of knowledge from which they draw is wider and deeper. That occurs as the result of a liberal arts education.

Or, even if employees just get advanced degrees for jobs they already occupy, the new insight and new skills attained make way for new inventions, plans, and models.

            If you are convinced that government should be run like a business, perhaps think of this symbiotic business model. Even if you still need, say, window washers so that you can look out the windows of your high rise, don’t you think that some certain number of years put in washing windows should allow for enough money to pay tuition to go to college so that you don’t have to wash windows forever? Don’t you think that your business-state would benefit from having someone who once washed windows invent a solar-gathering window device? If you think of the government as a separate entity from the people (as a business is from its employees), perhaps you can think of it as a symbiotic one.
            Sometimes businesses/governments like to make metaphors from nature. Think, Wolf of Wall Street. But in the real forest, symbiosis is the underlying structure. Lichen, fungi, berries, ant, nurse trees all serve to help the forest grow. Even wolves, who in the movies need nothing or no one, appear have a symbiotic relationship with ravens. The ravens spot potential food for the ravens. The wolves tear open tough hides for the birds.
Go ahead and run your business like a real wolf. Tear open the expensive hides of Higher Ed by returning state funding to the universities. Let the ravens eat. They’ll signal more food for you later.

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

Happy Birthday Max--I made your birthday note a Letter to Governor Ducey!

Dear Governor Ducey,
            Tomorrow, my son Max turns six. Six is so old. I can still pick him up because he’s kind of small for six but soon I will not be able to. I don’t want to be one of those mom’s who constantly feels nostalgic for the times the kids were little. I don’t believe in nostalgia. I don’t believe times were better then or that the past was more idyllic than these present, modern, smoggy, warm-climating, huge income-gap, gun-ridden times. I believe things will get better.
            I believe that Max and Zoe will go forward into a future that figures out how to power our luxurious refrigerators and furnaces and cars with the power of the sun. I have felt the sun on my back when I’m wearing a black jacket and even with snow on the ground and the temperature hovering around 14, I can still feel the sun’s heat. I believe in the sun the way I believe that sowing a seed in black soil will, eventually, produce a sprout. I believe in the magic of clouds pulling oceans into them and carrying those oceans like upside down aircraft carriers inland and letting go their cargo, bringing the ocean onto my roof, into my gutters, into my rain barrels where I will open the spigot and fill the bucket and carry that one-time-ocean to my now-sprout.
            To have kids, you have to believe in that kind of magic. The kind of magic that allows a President to issue an executive order that might protect one small kid from getting shot—maybe my kid. The kind of magic that suggests that the studies that show that students with liberal arts degrees are the students most wanted by industries as diverse as medicine and marketing, hedge fund management and non-profits because these people know how to analyze, to distill, to construct, to communicate. Maybe Max will be a doctor. Maybe a solar power engineer. Maybe he will be a teacher in a place where teachers are valued for the social work and emotional work and the making-sure-the-kid-has-gloves work as well as the math work and the reading work. Maybe Max will be a professor in a university where he can show his students the slow, hard work of understanding how the grammatical structure of a story underpins the meaning of the story. Maybe he will be a professor with tenure who can speak without too much fear (some fear, but not enough to stop him) from speaking up for his students and his colleagues. Maybe he will be a governor who will pride himself on turning his state’s near-to-last-place in test scores and in funding into first place and this will attract solar power engineers and hydrologists and farmers and social workers to this state to work with the forward-thinking graduates from this state’s education system and they will find a way, in Arizona, waterless, sun-filled, to make a place where everyone has access to a reasonable house kept at a reasonable temperature and enough water to drink and wash their hands and water their garden, even as the population grows. It is a kind of magic—taking so many people from so many backgrounds, some with so much and some with so little, moving them into the desert, and saying to each of them, you deserve a great education so you can build a great environment in a state that requires a big kind of magic to support so many humans. I’m pretty sure education is that magic.

            Max is at school right now. He wanted to impress his teachers by finishing his homework due on January 31st, by his birthday. He woke up early to write three words that begin with snow. Snowplow. Snowshoes. Snowman. Then he drew a snowman. He’s lucky that he has teachers who will find him some more homework if he finishes this. He’s lucky that he has a sister who will help him with his Spanish. He’s lucky that he loves to play piano. He’s lucky that he will get ever-more Lego’s for his birthday tomorrow. But his future won’t to rely on luck. It will rely on magic. And that magic will only be possible if there is magic enough for everyone.

Tuesday, January 05, 2016

Optimistic numbers--Letter #66

Dear Governor Ducey,

            Generally, I’m an optimist. I can even be pretty naïve about the current trends of events when I want to be, when I think of my kids, when I think of my friends and my family and even spend time on Facebook I say, “Look at this good news. These people are doing good things. The world must indeed be getting better.” But then I leave my cloister of Facebook and the generally positive world of my friends and family and see signs of things getting worse. I was watching Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food on PBS where a chart showed diabetes in children doubling over the last 10 years. The rate of childhood diabetes was something like 3.2 percent in 2005. Now, 10 years later, it’s nearly 7.5 percent. More than double. The number of police shootings in LA alone has doubled in the last year. In the atmosphere, the particulates per million surpassed 400. 350 was the original make-or-break point for irreversible global warming.
            My kids and I watched “Life” on BBC. Orca whales tracked and surrounded a crab seal. Using only a tiny iceberg as its shield, the seal deflected the whale’s attempts to eat him. At one point, an orca lunged. The seal submerged. My daughter hid her eyes. We knew he was a goner. But then he popped up. Alive. The whales moved on to easier prey. The other seals looked on from their ice floe. I resisted saying to Zoe, in a couple of years, there will be no icebergs for the seal to use as deflection. No ice floes for the seals to watch from. No ice floes as refuge. No ice floes, no seals. No seals, no orcas.
            I read while watching TV in the paper the AZ Merit Test results. 25 percent passage rate in some districts in Arizona! How proud you must be! I turned to Zoe and said, “I know you did well on the Arizona Merit test but that doesn’t mean anything unless everyone does well. If your fellow students don’t do well, the world is getting worse, not better. You can’t make the world better on your own. It will take all of you.” I get preachy when I read news headlines about test scores while simultaneously watch ice floes shrink.
            It has been 10 years since I started writing letters to the editor. My first was published about the wanton shooting of cougars, treed with dogs no less, in the state of Utah. I wrote my first letter here a few years ago about wolves. The wolf population has increased so much that they’re on the verge of being delisted as an endangered species. Delisted, they will be subject to the same statistics that chart childhood diabetes and police shootings. The threats to the wolves becomes greater their number.
            I do think that I am getting better at recognizing the world is getting worse. I have memorized the names: Sandra Bland. Tamir Rice. Michael Brown. I have memorized the stats. 50%. 25%. I have counted the wolves. I have counted the cougars. I understand there are two tax codes. One for the wealthy, who can hire tax attorneys and find loopholes in ways to stash their money in the Bahamas. I understand that the 150 men who just invaded the National Wildlife Refuge in Malheur, Oregon believe they are patriots for a country that does not exist. If they were Muslim, they would be called terrorists. If they were black, they would be dead already. I understand these letters are just word, just numbers but, back in my idealistic mode, I believe that perhaps before change, there must be an accounting.

            I am still an optimist even in the face of dismal numbers. I believe that some police will be held accountable. I believe that the wolves will make a comeback. I didn’t say anything to my kids about the melting ice and the numbered days of the crab seal while we watched the show because maybe my kids will be the ones to reverse global warming having remembered seeing the show about the seals and the orcas. Maybe seeing that the test scores are what they are might stoke some people to say, perhaps 40 students per classroom isn’t the way to go. Maybe the letters won’t make it to you but maybe they’ll make it to a lot of people, which might be the way accounting works.