Oil Prices, Small Diners, and my Uncle Barton Wade Ratliff

wellTulsa        With the price of gas moving towards $2.50 per gallon in the oil and gas states of Louisiana, Texas, and Oklahoma, consumers are ecstatic, but that doesn’t mean that everyone is happy. State budgets and countless oil company deals are all built on the assumptions of what a barrel of sweet crude sells for in the market, and where recently the price was $130 per barrel and some are saying it may hit as low as $70 per barrel, that means big time trouble for thousands of finance people re-calculating their numbers. Halliburton, the huge oil services company that used to be headquartered in Duncan, Oklahoma about 90 miles outside of Oklahoma City, almost immediately started trying to see if it could work out a merger with the #3 services outfit to see if they could both survive the price collapse.

I find myself following all of this closely for lots of reasons. I live in a part of the country where we will see the aftershocks in terms of public services. I’m also in Tulsa with members of my family to celebrate the life of one of my uncles on my mother’s side of the family, Barton Wade Ratliff, who had been a petroleum engineer based in places like Duncan and many other spots around oil country. He had recently passed away at 88. We shared our middle name and probably a lot more than that. After working for big companies,  he had bought and consolidated drilling companies into Ratliff Drilling in the 1970s and was publicly listed on the stock exchange for a while. He had drilling rigs in Texas, Oklahoma, the Dakotas, and Canada, but when the price of oil dropped precipitously during the early 1980’s oil glut to as low as $10 per barrel, which would be about $60 per barrel in today’s prices, he lost his shirt and everything else fairly quickly.

It didn’t matter how good you were at finding oil in the ground, the world was out of your control. States, countries, and big companies will talk big now about how they can still be productive as low as $68 per barrel, which is what Halliburton, now headquartered in Houston claims these days, but smaller fish, like my uncle Barton Wade’s outfit 30 odd years ago won’t make it.

My memories of my uncle are most vivid from the summer of 1966 when I worked as a roustabout or oil field jack-of-all-trades for Hooper Construction providing contract labor on the Skelly Oil properties outside of Velma, Oklahoma. My uncle was superintendent for the Velma fields then and put the word in for me to get the job, so I could raise money for college expenses. I would work from 7am to 3pm and then go into the office and do bookkeeping for extra hours and dollars. There wasn’t much else to do but work in a small oil field town, and my family had known many of them before ending up in New Orleans, so that’s what I did. Incidentally don’t ever think that fracking is a new thing. I was processing invoices for fracking in the mid-1960s in Velma. In a lot of older fields in Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Oklahoma, and Texas injecting water and whatnot was used to juice up some wells to increase production and yield. I was staying with my aunt and uncle and their blended family of cousins, so it was quite a tribe and a great experience.

Uncle Barton Wade was a character, known as Bart around the fields. He drove big cars and he drove them fast. He was loud and garrulous, and filled up a room with a cigar in his mouth and a giant laugh and lightning quick, firm opinions about everything. A couple of Saturdays during that summer, I went with him at dawn to a small café where he stopped for the same breakfast six days a week filled with oil hands, local businessmen, anyone and everyone because this was the small town social and information network in Velma, and we strode in like he owned the place, which given how important the oil industry was there, my uncle almost did. My daughter and I found a similar place for breakfast in Tulsa today. She looked through the plate glass window before we walked in and turned to me and said, “I wonder if they allow women in here,” which of course they did, but she would be the only one and this was decidedly part of the men’s world culture of the west still alive and kicking in cowboy country filled with mounds of hash browns and country patty sausage unknown elsewhere.

My uncle was to the right of conservative. He used to give me pamphlets to read from Garner Ted Armstrong and various rightwing political groups that saw oil men as their own sweet crude ready to be pumped. But that was politics and I was family, and that made politics a distant second to him. It didn’t matter whether in a normal conversation ACORN and everything I did and worked for might be seen as the antichrist and wreck and ruin for everything he held sacred, I was family, and family was first, and he was proud as a peacock of everything I ever did with ACORN.

It didn’t matter if he was high rolling or flat broke, he worshiped my brother and me. When he passed away, I asked my son, if he remember my Uncle Barton Wade, and he said, “Sure, he used to call Uncle Dale and ask for the answers while he was watching Jeopardy sometimes.” As he got older he used to call and talk to my companera for hours sometimes about psychic, spiritual things he felt, that would have been unimaginable to me when I was working for him in Velma at 17. He would call me trying to figure out how to connect to someone in Chad or India, because he was convinced he could find water or oil there. My daughter remembered those calls and thought of my uncle as “eccentric,” and he was in his own way, but with total conviction I can assure you that he was one of a kind.

And, come hell or high water, there were two things he taught me that I’ll never forget. One is how to read while driving so every minute mattered, which many might not think was the best lesson in the world, but is a skill nonetheless that I mastered after a fashion. I once read hundreds of pages of T. Harry Williams’ great biography of Huey Long driving back and forth from Little Rock to New Orleans in the early 1970s. The other thing he taught me, undoubtedly more valuable, is that the importance of family is foremost, good times or bad, and that’s a lesson I’ll never forget.

We Need a New Universal Salute or Sign

Tommie Smith and John Carlos during the National Anthem. An iconic, wondrous moment of protest during the 1968 Olympics in Mexico when the superstars won the gold and bronze medal in the 200-metre race.

Tommie Smith and John Carlos during the National Anthem. An iconic, wondrous moment of protest during the 1968 Olympics in Mexico when the superstars won the gold and bronze medal in the 200-metre race.

New Orleans     This may be a little be low on your list of important needs for the progressive forces, but regardless of your reservations, work with me on this, please! Our salutes and signals to friendly forces are getting tired and so widely appropriated that many have lost meaning and “critical content,” as the political philosopher Herbert Marcuse used to say.

Take the well-established and time tested power salute, originally a signifier for black power, but over the years used widely by movements of all stripes and colors to great effect. Reading that Bill Cosby raised his fist in that salute to a recent audience in Florida to express his silent response to his numerous accusers currently coming forward with charges of being raped by the comedian speaks to the commodification of movement symbols. It didn’t make me happy.

Protestors of the military regime in Thailand were recently arrested for making the lip kiss and three fingered salute popularized by the Hunger Games books and movies as a sign of resistance against authoritarian governments. The arm may be pointed straight ahead rather than crooked at the elbow, but at least in the United States, it would be hard not to confuse this as a call to the troops, meaning the Boy Scout troops who have used the 3-fingers for over a century.

The signals from the Occupy movement were interesting, but are not going to be confused with a symbol for power, since too many of them come off as nervous conditions. The Star Trek thing is too hard for many of us who are less flexible, little fingers up along with the thumb will always mean “surfs up,” pointing finger and small finger is “hook ‘em, horns,” and few are unclear about the meaning or unpracticed in flipping the bird. Thumbs-up has been so completely squatted by Facebook, that I almost feel foolish when I find my thumb going that way, just as the symbol for OK, will always mean OK regardless of the language, and one finger held high means “we’re number one,” whether we are or not.

What can we do?

How about we start thinking past the glad one-hand, and start putting both of our hands together? We might have a future there just as we have found with various handshakes. Clasping two hands together over our chests or with our arms extended above our heads might work. There’s power there. Putting both hands together lends itself to some real symbolism for the strength of our forces and pulling the pieces closer collectively.

I’m open to any and all ideas, but I’m crystal clear, we need to step up our game. The flesh-eating machine of media and appropriation is in full-flower. We need something new and now.

Let’s put our heads together or put our hands together

Why Won’t Senator Mary Landrieu Lose with Pride and Dignity?


Senator Mary Landrieu at Tailgate Party before LSU Game

Senator Mary Landrieu at LSU Game

New Orleans       The last race of the USA’s mid-term elections is winding to a close in Louisiana.  Mary Landrieu has been a US Senator for three terms totaling 18 years.  We have a sign for her in our front yard as do several of our neighbors.  Sometime during Thanksgiving week, I will go vote for her, as I have in all of her previous elections, on an absentee ballot because I’ll be working in Birmingham, England on Election Day.  When I push the button to seal the vote into the machine, I’ll walk away with a heavy step, not because I know she’s losing, but because I will be embarrassed by my vote and by my Senator.

There’s really no doubt that she will lose.  In the primary, she led by a hair with 42% and her two Republican opponents, one more rightwing than the other, polled 58%.  She’s toast.  There’s no way she doesn’t know it.

Flip a few pages of the newspaper any day from the front pages with politics, war, and whatnot past the metro pages with traffic, killings, and you will end up on the sports pages where most of the stories revolve around winning and losing.  There is a world of advice on how to win, but for regular readers there are also always lessons taught and lessons to be learned about losing and how to do so with some grace, some pride, and some dignity.  The coach from the University of Florida was fired, and rather than blaming anyone, refreshingly thanked everyone for the opportunity and said simply, “we just didn’t win enough games.”   The seasons inevitably end for all athletes no matter how great and the celebration for leaving well, like a Mariano Rivera or a Derek Jeter, rather than limping out or cashing one last check are as heralded and legendary as these athletic icons themselves.

I sure wish Mary Landrieu read the sports pages.

Over the last week in a humiliating move, she went to Washington to join with the Republicans to force a vote on the controversial Keystone XL pipeline even knowing that it would be vetoed and probably suspecting how awful the consequences of the line might be.  Not surprisingly she lost in the Senate by one vote, displaying not only her bad judgment, but her powerlessness.  Meanwhile her opponent in Congress put forward a similar bill that passed the Republican-dominated House of Representatives.  Was Senator Landrieu trying to win a Louisiana-election or lobbying for a job with the oil, gas, and energy companies that have pretty much owned her for the last 18 years anyway?  Regardless, it was sad and pathetic to watch.

In today’s paper, she professed to disagree with the President on his executive order on immigration.  A moment ago one of my neighbors a well-known businessman in the city stopped walking his dog when he saw me, nodded at our “Vote for Mary” sign, which he also displays at his place, and said, “Why is she just running her campaign for white Republicans?”  Good question!  He claimed to have written the campaign and told the Senator that since she was losing why didn’t she go out swinging, invite President Obama down to hit the trail with her in Shreveport, Lake Charles, and Baton Rouge?  He didn’t get a reply.

At the end of her career as an elected official, Senator Landrieu, like many politicians, seems to have learned little about character, loyalty, convictions, and other things like that from the process.  One of the highlights of her campaign had been her ability to hang with the tailgaters in front of LSU Tiger Stadium to the horror of her opponent, proving that she was still a Louisiana-girl deep down, not a Washington DC piece of statuary.  I wish she had actually learned more about what happens on the field inside the stadium, where despite the fact that winning is often claimed to be everything, the best coaches and the best players, also teach life lessons worth learning about the fact that no matter how much winning may matter, losing is also a fundamental part of the game, and losing with pride and dignity is essential to the process.

Obama Immigration Action is a Band-Aid, Not a Cure


(Photo: Drew Angerer Getty Images)

New Orleans   Make no mistake, President Obama’s immigration news is good news for everyone but rightwing ideologues. They are winning the air war perhaps for a hot minute by framing the action in a lie, and once again the administration is not doing well at explaining itself, but once the first wave of reaction settles, the wisdom of this action will be clearer.

Here are some important things to understand.

This is not amnesty. Far from it! This is a maximum three year Band-Aid being applied on a gaping national wound with no cure still in sight. All some immigrants are getting from this executive order is a chance to apply, after paying any owed taxes and new fees and proving they do not have criminal records, for a three-year work permit and a social security number. These workers are not even going to be allowed to qualify for benefits like those offered with subsidies under the Affordable Care Act. Frankly, some may not chance this opportunity because it is temporary, but hopefully many will.

Remember as well that the only immigrants being given this opportunity are those that are the parents of American citizens or permanent residents born here. This program unites families. How bad could that possibly be? The order also added another 250,000 DREAMers to the list of those who can walk in public without fear by extending the protection from 2007 in his earlier order to 2010 in this new action.

President Obama is also right. If Republicans and the far right don’t like this, they can finally join in the process of taking the heat from folks they are stirring up now, and pass a bill making something permanent. Or, they can win the Presidency by a democratic vote of the people, and make a different judgment.

And, the talk about filing suit either at the state or national level to stop this is not going to work in court either. Using the concept of “prosecutorial discretion,” the President is prioritizing going after criminals rather than families, and that’s the right thing to do. There will be injustice in that push still. There will be deportations of immigrants arrested for minor slip-ups but still seen as criminals, but this is still better than the ridiculous situation currently. Thankfully, there will be fewer of these kinds of minor abuses because very importantly, the President is also terminating the Secure Communities program that has made junior immigration agents out of local police departments giving rise to the abuses of Maricopa County’s Sheriff Joe Arpaio and many others who have accurately been accused of creating a new apartheid and arresting people for the crime of “being brown,” and criminalizing the fact that they are in the country illegally.

Once the temperature cools on some of the political mischief, it is also clear who is really worried about some of Obama’s action, and that’s low wage employers practicing wage theft on undocumented immigrants and farmers depending on such labor for the same reason. The Wall Street Journal was crystal clear in their report that a big part of the burn is all about the money:

By giving work papers to millions of illegal workers, Mr. Obama’s plan could affect businesses in unexpected ways, enabling workers to seek new jobs and higher wages to the benefit of some business sectors more than others. Some in agriculture, for example, worried that affected workers would leave for other sectors.

Finally, in this executive order no one is really happy. The techsters didn’t get unlimited visas for big brains they wanted. Reformers didn’t get the real solutions advocated during this administration and the last. Heck, on the progressive left we even bear the burden of having gone for comprehensive reform over the last six years when we always knew we had the best chance of winning a piecemeal package that united families right from Obama’s inauguration day, if we had been willing to settle for it. Six year later we have only won a temporary solution on something that might have been a slam dunk in the first 100-days.

There will be time for cold facts evaluation, but right now it’s all about looking forward and Obama’s action, and his inspiring framing of his order, presents a new challenge and opportunity for us to make the best of this moment.


Please enjoy Earthquake Driver by Counting Crows, Thanks to KABF.

Life on the Road: Munich Airport Chapter

IMG_2550Munich       In the curious way that the regional government of Puglia, Italy was reimbursing the Scuola di Bollenti Spiriti for my ticket, the rigid, sometimes almost irrational, rules meant to stop corruption that if the traveler, that would be me, left before Saturday, which was both the earliest time allowable and the latest possible departure time possible, or after Wednesday, which was the latest possible departure, and the only one available given the new daily nonstop flight from Munich to Houston, this lucky traveler ended up in the Munich Airport for about 13 hours or would only be reimbursed for 50% of the cost of the ticket.  The hot spirited students and David Tozzo of ACORN Italy all believed that my best course was jumping the metro from the airport to town, but more travel without an intended purpose had no appeal, so to me the airport itself seemed a better alternative.  The one cardinal rule in my home is never, and I mean never, miss a flight home!

And, it could have been much worse.  I had landed and would depart from the new Munich Terminal 2 Satellite, as it was called.  Believe me, I had more than enough time to inspect the model along the concourse.  Landing at 830 PM, my first lucky break was charming my way into the Lufthansa business lounge, though in all truth it was less charm than the charity of the attendant for my hopeless situation, who nodded me in.  The scene was sort of what one might expect of German rathskeller, except very well lit and almost all men, but that may be how German rathskeller’s work.  Free wi-fi, beer, and pretzels?  How bad could that be?  A too short hour later, and I looked around and I was one of less than 10 people.  Ten minutes later there was one woman and myself there.  By 10 pm, they had rolled up the sidewalks in this airport to my surprise, and we were in for a long night.

Drifting down the concourse trying to look nonchalant as the pair of police walked by, I saw a German sign for a McDonalds that perhaps in German was saying it might be open for 24 hours and was 5 minutes away.  Who knows?  I never found it.  It might be an urban airport myth or sly German humor.  I did find something better perhaps.  The Munich airport had allowed a furniture design company to turn a space into a haven for the lost and damned of sorts with hard lounge chairs, some desks, and what not.  These were my people it seemed.  At the high point there were 7 of us and at the low point only 5.  One couple for a while, but then they disappeared.  Two floor sleepers.  A young man with jogging pants that read “NYATHLETE” in capital letters.  And, then two light sleepers, myself and an in-transit passenger from Africa.  Later,  I found there were even sleeping “cabins” for 10 euros an hour not far away past the giant Camel Smoking Lounge, which seemed strangely inappropriate in the modern, clean setting, and totally unused.


An airport official came by once seemingly to count heads.  No police problems.  At 1AM a skateboarder made the entire concourse, and I wonder if he had planned the escapade forever.  I nodded to the occasional cleaners with their sturdy 8-wheel carts.  At 5 AM a worker in a Segway turned on coffee machines.   I couldn’t help but remember flying regularly on the last available night flight in my brief collegiate career from New Orleans to New York City’s Kennedy Airport and catching Carey Transportation to New York Port Authority in order to wait overnight for the first bus to western Massachusetts in the morning.  I would often wander around 42nd Avenue, maybe watch a movie to kill time in the smoking balcony available in that century, and then later sleep on the benches at the terminal in between thumps from the police batons as they ordered me to move until the bus rolled out.  I can’t imagine ever allowing my own children to have done that knowingly, and I wonder at how different the times were then in the mid-1960s where my parents would have booked the flight simply assuming this was part of my life’s experience, as it certainly was.

I’m not recommending this as the preferred way to travel, but as life on the road goes, it could have been worse, and I’ve been there and done that, and though I’m many hours short of sleep waiting for my plane from Germany to Texas to New Orleans, this was actually OK in its own way.




No Al Carbone

LOGOVELENIBari, Italy      Everywhere we look these days the discussion and activity is heating up around the impact of coal and climate change. One of the students at the Scuola di Bollenti Spiriti was Daniele Pomes, who is a key organizer in No Al Carbone, the No Coal campaign in Brindisi, Italy in the Puglia region. Visiting at some length with Daniel over several days, it was clear that he had a tiger by the tail.

With the help of a United Kingdom based nonprofit, Environmental Resistance , they had published a powerful booklet for the campaign which featured impressive photography developed from UK working with Daniele in Brindisi. Daniele couldn’t help pointing out to me that it involved the photographer and him going out at 5 AM every morning for over a week in order to be able to collect the photos.

According to the AssocCarboni,

Italy imports via sea about 90% of its coal demand, on a fleet composed by 60 ships with a carrying capacity of 4,6 million of tons. Import countries are different: the main ones are the USA, South Africa, Australia, Indonesia and Colombia, but there are also Canada, Cina, Russia and Venezuela.

Daniele believes that most of the coal coming into Brindisi is coming from China. There are two power plants, ENEL Brindisi South and EDIPower Brindisi North that are largely coal-powered. They stand out among a collection of plastic, petrochemical, and other plants that have made Brindisi, a city of over 200,000, an area classified “at High Risk of Environmental Crisis.” Within a mile of the petrochemical plant cancer rates are double the normal levels.

No Al Carbon is small but sustainable. 50 supportors pay10 euros per month in donations, dues, or whatever you might call it to support the campaign. They sell t-shirts, black of course, and other paraphernalia as you might imagine to help out as well. They are in a tough campaign because they believe that 30,000 workers in Brindisi are employed by the coal fired plants and coal dependent industries representing a sizable portion of the local population, so they are trying to build awareness and desperately searching for allies.

The booklet should help, though right now the first edition was only 50 copies, so they have to plant each one of those seeds very carefully.

A bigger breakthrough for them might be the coming “Poison Tour,” as they call it. They have rented a bus and are filling it with supporters, media, and others and planning to hit five “hot” spots, where the impact of the coal and the environmental damage is most obvious. Poignantly, they will be stopping as well near two protected wildlife areas in the northern and southern borders of the city where the impact of pollution is also extreme.

Daniele told me that one of the things he had learned from the organizing workshops I ran at the School of Hot Spirits was how to better research leverage points by looking at both the sources of the coal and the customers for the surplus energy produced by the plants. He’s going to need some help, but fortunately he’s putting together the tools, base, and allies that might help them win this fight in the future.