Out Here in the Middle

PHOTO CREDIT: Flickr – Adrian

New Orleans  Eventually no matter how much work you do on vacation, the clock on vacation itself winds down, and real life, real work comes crashing through the different days and unique ordering of experiences and tasks we assign to our so-called “free time.” The big task of my own vacation this year was a 4000 mile road trip with my son, Chaco, where the main objective was taking our 20 year old Suburban, long retired from long hauls, and moving our old Airstream Katrina trailer from 22 miles up Rock Creek in Montana about 50 odd miles in a direction no crow flies from Missoula south to the back acres of a friend’s property between her garage and the Nowood Creek in the small town of Manderson in central Wyoming on the back side of the Big Horn Mountains. It all worked out, and that’s the good news, and we both loved our time in Wyoming exploring, fishing, and acclimating, so that we look forward to the next trip.

My last few annual western vacations have been mixed between fishing, working to finish a decades-old book project, and reading. This year, the book had been edited finally before I left, so I could rationalize finishing the last pieces when I returned, and the reading list was thinner. I read Shattered, the volume on Hillary Clinton’s miscalculations and defeat in the middle of deep red Wyoming, where there were still one or two Trump-Pence bumper stickers on cars, but no other evidence of the election. I knocked a dent in Lincoln Steffens classic biography of the Progressive era and muckraking. I though a lot about the country and our people while reading One Another’s Equal: The Basis of Human Equality by the philosopher Jeremy Waldron exploring the issues of equality of course and Sum of Small Things: A Theory of the Aspirational Class by Elizabeth Currid-Halkett about the efforts to create less equality through cultural signals of conspicuous consumption that may become impossible to bridge in the creation of ever widening class distinctions in America.

All the while, we watched the rest of world through the internet, while we observed people in Wyoming ignoring it all, feeling every bit the same as when I’m immersed with our organizers in a foreign country, except more comfortable with the language, and more invisible, more from here, than from there. There were no daily papers. News was filtering through CNN and the Weather Channel where we would stop. People worked and went about their lives with their families and communities. They had ambitions to go to Colorado or the West Coast. They kept to themselves, and didn’t pry into our business. There was no, “hey, what are you doing up here from Louisiana?” They stopped and offered to help, if we seemed stuck, but if we said we were good, they went on. The ultra-rich enclave of Jackson, Wyoming and its annual meetings for tech moguls and others would be as foreign to most folks as New York City, Paris, or London.

But, these are good people. How do we bind the country together to what speaks to the best of our people and the wide diversity of their lives with this galloping chasm of inequality?

Yesterday, back home again, I had to reset Alexa on the other side of the bridge between my birth in Wyoming oil fields and my life now. I asked Alexa to play alternative-country, and a soon listened to a song that spoke to the cultural signals of another class, rather than the “aspirational class.” It was “Out Here in the Middle” written and sung by Texas singer and songwriter, James McMurty. Here’s part of it:

we got justification for wealth and greed~
Amber waves of grain and bathtub speed
We even got Starbucks
what else you need?


Out here in the middle
Where the center's on the right
And the ghost of William Jennings Bryan preaches every night
To save the lonely souls
in the dashboard lights
Wish you were here my love
Wish you were here my love


Out here in the middle
Where the buffalo roam
We're putting up towers for your cell phones
And we screen all applicants
With a fine tooth comb
Wish you were here my love
Wish you were here my love
	As Waldron argues, we need to do more equality “work.”

Lesson from New Orleans Flooding: Money Matters

August 5th, 2017

New Orleans    Rolling from the dry of central Wyoming to the humid of New Orleans always takes a little climatic adjustment, but it’s not a bad thing. The weather forecast says rain and thunderstorms are expected daily throughout the week. The same prediction has been largely fulfilled over the last week. In New Orleans, this rainy season in the near tropics is called, “summer.”

Thoughtful people and friends ask, “how’s the flooding,” given the constant Weather Channel and news reports of the 9 or 10 inches of rain that fell within hours a week ago inundating parts of the city, especially the center of the bowl that defines New Orleans geography around the Mid-City section, close to where our main Fair Grinds Coffeehouse is located off Esplanade. Really, the local response is more shrug than a sigh, because from all local reports, it wasn’t that bad, though it is hugely worrisome for other reasons as we fear the storm next time. An estimated two hundred houses flooded. That’s terrible and tragic for the families involved, but, frankly, it’s a long way from “call out the lifeboats.”

Heads have rolled, but understand this clearly, they have rolled because of something rare in government anywhere today. These Sewerage & Water Board and Public Works officials were forced to resign or fired not because of the flooding or the inability of the drainage system to handle the deluge, but because they were not transparent: they didn’t tell the truth. They claimed the system was working at full capacity, and it was not. It was working at about 56% capacity. Of some 200 odd pumps about 15% were inactive, which isn’t good, but neither would have normally been catastrophic, but, welcome to climate change, this was an unusual rain event. The drainage system is New Orleans, when it’s working a full tilt, is amazing and, frankly, world class. It can handle almost 3 inches of rain an hour. Storms that would shut down other cities, are routine in New Orleans, and the system has been designed historically to deal with a lot of water.

Perhaps the usual strength of the operation has lured too many New Orleanians into a false security from city hall to stoop steps though, and that has been the current awakening. The horror is that the deluge revealed that three of the five turbines that run the drainage system were offline, two since an early downpour this summer and one for almost four years. For that to be allowed to happen without preparations during hurricane season is unconscionable, and has to be addressed.

A high ranking board member resigned in protest, blaming the city officials for not having produced cash to improve the system and claiming S&WB was being unfairly singled out. Once again, they fell – or were pushed – on their swords, as they should have been, because they were not forthright with the citizens, not because of a big rain and some flooding. Brickbats are being thrown at a couple of million that has been stuck in planning and unspent to clear out storm drains, and that’s a valid beef, but most of that was for drains in common spaces. There’s a drain across the street on my block. I’m not confused though. It’s my responsibility to get shovel in hand every couple of months and clean it out. Why would I take a chance?

Some of the system, including the corkscrew apparatus, that sucks the water out of the drains is more than 100 years old. There are estimates that it could take $1 billion dollars to totally upgrade and modernize the drainage system, which is a pretty steep price tag for a lower income city. This is part of the national crisis that Trump and others like to talk about, but few are willing to pay for.

We are close to the 12th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. Daily we read about the dangers of climate change on challenging environments like those of our precious wetlands and coastal areas in Louisiana.

We really don’t need too many more wake-up calls. We need everyone up and down the line to start putting their money where their mouths are.