December 28, 2018

The best gift of 2018

As 2018 winds to a close, I'm thankful for a lesson it taught me: that unexpected good fortune can come when things seem pretty dark. I'm thinking particularly of the great and victorious WV 2018 Teachers' Strike (technically the teachers' and school support workers' work stoppage, but let's not be  picky).

That historic struggle inspired other successful strikes in several states and gave hope to those who believe in the labor movement and public education. And it just resulted in another victory of sorts, a year of coverage under the Public Employees Insurance Agency without benefit cuts or premium increases. This wasn't a perfect or even a long term solution but it was a clear win.

Charleston Gazette-Mail statehouse reporter Phil Kabler, who has been doing his kind of work for about as long as I've been doing mine, summed it up beautifully:

...What was most remarkable was that this was a grassroots effort. It wasn’t, as critics unsuccessfully tried to portray it, as labor bosses directing their minions. It was teachers fed up with low pay and benefits and a general sense of being unappreciated banding together to let leaders in Charleston know they weren’t going to take it anymore.
Also remarkable was the spirit. Despite the seriousness of the issues at hand, the rallies at the Capitol were joyous affairs, with singing, chanting, dancing, and featuring colorful (and clever) signs. This was a celebration....

Wearing red, teachers in 2018 paid homage to the state’s proud labor heritage, and when the governor and legislative leadership tried to use the strategy of divide and conquer, trying to pit school boards against teachers, then parents against teachers, and then state employees against teachers, the teachers stood united.
Early on, when leadership contended that students would suffer, particularly those needy students who depend on school lunches, teachers and others did the noble thing, rising before dawn each day to pack lunches for their students before heading to Charleston, not only putting their students first, but assuming the moral high ground in the fight.
Most importantly, West Virginia teachers started a movement that spread, so far, to Arizona, Colorado, Oklahoma, and Kentucky, showing that while organized labor may be a shadow of its former self, the ability of working people to fight for their rights may not be lost.
I can still see plenty of hard fights on the horizon in the coming year--including further assaults on public education in the legislature--but these will take place on a completely different landscape.

So thanks, teachers and school workers, for many things, including reminding me that we live in an open universe in which all kinds of wild and unexpected things can occur, some of which may be better than anyone could have expected.

December 27, 2018

On the border

Recently, more than 400 clergy and people of faith took part in a nonviolent direct action at the border in San Diego as part of the “Love Knows No Borders” Moral Call for Migrant Justice campaign.

Closer to home, here in West Virginia, Saint John’s Episcopal Church in Charleston opened their doors to a multi-faith vigil to express solidarity with migrants, refugees, and particularly with those now trying to exercise their legal right to apply for asylum in the United States at the US-Mexico border.

At the event, my colleague at American Friends Service Committee, Rick Wilson, led everyone in a thought experiment: Imagine your house, and everything in it. Imagine your neighborhood, your community, and everything that is familiar to you.

That part is easy to imagine, right? What is impossible for us to imagine is what degree of desperation would compel anyone to embark on a dangerous journey, for thousands of miles, knowing that the outcome is entirely uncertain, that you may not be welcomed, and worse you will be regarded as a criminal, or an invader, and treated accordingly with tear gas, separation from your children or incarceration.

Jackie Lozano, a young mother living here in Charleston, shared how, as an infant in Mexico City, she had life-threatening health problems. Her mother, desperate to pay for the medicine Jackie needed to live, made the treacherous journey from Mexico to the United States.

Her story reminds us that we cannot know the multitude of reasons people are seeking asylum or a life here in our country, but that all monotheistic faith traditions give us clear instruction about how we should regard the stranger.

Rabbi Urecki of B’Nai Jacob told the crowd gathered at St. John’s that, “You shall love the stranger in your midst” is repeated 36 times, more than any other commandment, in the Torah.

The rabbi went on to say, “To be a Jew means we do not see asylum seekers; we see the face of our ancestors. We don’t see migrants, we see us. We do not see ‘them,’ we see God’s children.”

The Christian faith also demonstrates how to regard people at our borders seeking a better life for themselves and their children. In Matthew 25:35 it says, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”

In Islamic tradition, according to Ibtesam Barazi with the Islamic Association of West Virginia, “We are taught to care for poor immigrants who are forced out of their homes and their properties.”

In stark opposition to any of these teachings, we instead see racist, nativist violence at the border today, all being committed by our government, in our name.

Whether these atrocious acts of violence continue in our name, or whether the “better angels of our nature” prevail, is up to each of us and the degree to which we are willing to speak out.

(This op-ed by Lida Shepherd of the American Friends Service Committee WV Economic Justice Project ran in the Charleston Gazette-Mail.)

December 24, 2018

Annual Christmas Hamlet quote


That's right, it's that time of year again, which means it's time to quote the sentry Marcellus as he stands on the battlements of the castle of Elsinore in Act 1 Scene 1 of Hamlet.

The tone of the scene is pretty ominous. Marcellus and Bernardo have invited the student Horatio to join them in their lonely night vigil where for some nights past a ghost has appeared resembling the late King Hamlet, father of the prince who is the main character of the story.

Horatio represents a prototype of modernity, an intellectual familiar with the tradition but skeptical of it. Yet even he must concede the power of the unknown after witnessing the phantom, which he takes as a portent of bad things to come.

Marcellus then points out that there are also sometimes portents of good, particularly at this season of the year:

Some say that ever 'gainst that season comes
Wherein our Saviour's birth is celebrated,
The bird of dawning singeth all night long:
And then, they say, no spirit dares stir abroad;
The nights are wholesome; then no planets strike,
No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallow'd and so gracious is the time.
At this point, all I can do is say with Horatio, "So have I heard and do in part believe it."

Would that it were so this holiday season and beyond.

December 22, 2018

Speaking of the Grinch...

The big news lately is Prince Joffrey's President Trump's government shutdown temper tantrum. But that's not the worst thing he's done this week. That honor would have to go to his decision to bypass congress and impose restrictions on basic SNAP food assistance to low income Americans.

Congress debated such measures for a good part of this year and wound up doing the right thing. Apparently, the president and his cronies couldn't let that good deed go unspoiled. You can read more about what that means here and here.

It's not over by any means. There are likely to be political as well as legal challenges. It's a good idea now to prepare to flood USDA inboxes when the proposed changes are up for public comment. Things might have to get a bit more interesting down the road.

IN A RELATED STORY...spiders could at least theoretically eat all humans on earth in one year.

December 18, 2018

Getting the band together again

Mission accomplished: winning the 2018 WV teachers' strike

As we gear up for the 2019 legislative session, I have trouble wrapping my head around the fact that this time last year the great WV teachers' and school support workers' strike wasn't much more than an angry gleam in a few peoples' eyes. It was a real reminder to me that hope can come when least expected.

Still, there are unresolved issues. Last year's raise still isn't what these workers deserve. PEIA funding in unresolved. Worse, Senate Majority Leader Mitch Carmichael wants to eliminate the business inventory tax, which currently brings in $140 million per year, most of which goes to local school districts.

The promise apparently is that this cut, which mostly benefits out of state corporations, will create jobs and won't hurt funding for education....kind of like the last round of business tax cuts would create jobs and pay for themselves. 

Except they didn't.

History doesn't repeat itself, but it's good to know that West Virginia can still go West Virginia on itself.

December 12, 2018

A disaster averted

In case you missed it, Congress actually got something right this week. For real. After an epic months-long back and forth between the House and Senate, a compromise was reached that leaves the SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program basically intact.

The version initially considered by the House include requirements and restrictions that would have cut off many low income Americans. As Robert Greenstein of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities wrote back in May,

It would have reversed years of progress under Presidents of both parties by making SNAP less effective in reducing food insecurity and supporting families. It would have taken food assistance away from more than 1 million households including 2 million people and would have harmed children, people with serious health conditions, older workers, veterans, caregivers, and parents.
Fortunately, and thanks to a lot of work by a lot of people across the country, that didn't happen. Here's Greenstein on the latest version.  The latest and apparently final version of the bill reflects a rare bipartisan approach.

(For WV folks, this happened no thanks to our House delegation but with the support of Senators Manchin and Capito.)
 

December 06, 2018

Cat picture time

Allow me to introduce the latest member of the Goat Rope Farm menagerie, a one-eyed stray female kitten named Willie (actually  her full name One Eyed Willie after the pirate in the movie Goonies).

Willie came into our life almost immediately after a certain person with whom I have a spousal connection issued a ruling that went something like "No more cats!"

It was her idea...

The missing eye hasn't slowed her down. Willie is a holy terror around the house. Our much larger dogs and older cat are traumatized by her ceaseless kitty rages.

It reminds me of a positive and comforting fact: when properly concentrated, a small force can overcome much larger opponents.

November 30, 2018

But what did they eat?

Folks who weren't aware of or involved in the great WV teachers strike of 2018 probably aren't aware of the huge role food played in it.

(Of course, one might point out that given the huge role food plays in keeping living things alive this shouldn't be a huge surprise...)

During the strike, enemies of the teachers spread the lie that teachers were "striking against feeding the kids," since many WV children rely on school food for a big chunk of their daily nutrition.

Obviously, such people didn't know, or pretended not to know, that teachers routinely feed kids and do all kinds of other things to help them survive. Or that teachers and community members went to great lengths during the struggle to prepare meals for kids while schools were closed.

The other side of the food story was the solidarity shown by others from all over in sending tacos, pizza and such to teachers and school service workers while they were raising hell in the capitol. I'm sure similar things happened at local picket lines.

It's hard to think of a more basic way than food to show solidarity.

Anyhow, from Bon Appetit,, here's an account by Berkeley teacher Jessica Salfia on food and the good fight.

November 27, 2018

Harm reduction done right

In case you missed it, there was an interesting NY Times article about how Dayton Ohio and its county of Montgomery dramatically reduced opioid overdose deaths from last year to this.

Lots of things seemed to come together to make this possible. The most obvious of these was Gov. Kasich's decision to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. Dayton mayor Nan Whaley claimed it was the basis for everything they've been able to accomplish, saying

“If you’re a state that does not have Medicaid expansion, you can’t build a system for addressing this disease.”
That's sad but really true. Some of the states that need it most haven't done it year, although that number is fortunately diminishing.

Other factors were harm reduction programs, support groups, a strong program to distribute Naloxone to reverse the effects of overdoses, and, importantly, the growing cooperation between Dayton police and public health workers.

Unfortunately, Charleston WV has been going in the opposite direction, as this WV Public Broadcasting story relates. 

The Times article quotes Sam Quinones, author of “Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic,”who told a congressional hearing that "the more cops and public health nurses go out for a beer, bridge that cultural chasm between them," the better the US will be able to deal with the problem.


November 26, 2018

Saving power



"Nations are saved if there is a small minority, a group of people, who represent what the nation is called to be. They may be defeated, but their spirit will be a power of resistance against the evil spirits who are detrimental to the nation. The question of saving power in the nation is the question of whether there is a minority, even a small one, which is willing to resist the anxiety produced by propaganda, the conformity enforced by threat, the hatred stimulated by ignorance. The future of this country and its spiritual values is not dependent as much on atomic defense as on the influence such groups will have on the spirit in which the nation will think and act."--Paul Tillich, theologian, The Eternal Now, 1959

November 21, 2018

Annual Thanksgiving possum recipe

In an ever changing world, this blog respects tradition. Specifically, it respects its own traditions, which includes publishing a possum recipe on Thanksgiving.

(Note: I do not personally eat possums nor do I think you should, so this is for informational purposes only. But still...)

So here, for your dining and possum-eating pleasure, is a great website with not only possum recipes but also musings on the whole hillbilly/possum thing. Click here and enjoy!\

p.s. Since we are vacationing in Florida at this moment, be sure to add shrimp to each recipe.

November 16, 2018

Ending the SNAP ban: the time has come

Some of us are gearing up for another food fight in the West Virginia legislature. In case you missed it this story from the WV News Service lays out the case for ending the lifetime ban on SNAP benefits for people with felony drug convictions:

CHARLESTON, W. Va. – Reformed drug felons in West Virginia are blocked from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and some want the Legislature to fix that. 
West Virginia is one of only three states that has a lifetime SNAP ban for anyone convicted of a drug-related felony. 
That applies to Debbie Kolbe of Huntington, even though she has finished her sentence and broke her addiction to methamphetamine more than two years ago. 
Kolbe says it's unfair that no matter how long she stays clean, or how long she keeps her job, she can't get the help any other kind of felon can the day he or she leaves prison.
"Murder and armed robberies and all that stuff, and you can get help all day long,” she points out. “If I needed help with food, they absolutely will not. Even if I had young children, I could not get food stamps. They could, but I can't."
The lifetime ban was put in place as one of several measures designed to get tough on drug crime. 
Kolbe says she and other reformed felons want the Legislature to reconsider it in the next session.
Advocates say the ban may actually be counter-productive, forcing people back into crime just when the state should be helping them get their lives back together. 
Kolbe says it's enough of a struggle to become an ordinary taxpaying citizen again – hard to get work or an apartment and extremely difficult to build up any kind of financial security.
"You've already suffered the consequences to your actions, which I have,” she stresses. “And you've got numerous years of clean time and you're doing everything you're supposed to do. 
“I just don't think it's fair that drug-convicted felons are labeled like we are."
In recent years, the state has expanded drug courts and day reporting centers, making it easier for offenders to avoid prison time. Lawmakers also have made it easier for nonviolent felons to clean up their record, to make them more appealing to employers. 
Advocates say ending the benefit ban would add to that.

November 14, 2018

Camino dreams

It's kind of hard for me to fathom that less than two weeks ago I was slogging along on the last legs of my pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago Compostela in Spain. To be specific, I was slogging back towards Santiago on a rainy and chilly day after walking to "the ends of the earth" at Finisterre and Muxia.

I think it's literally the case that I've dreamed about the Camino, more or less realistically, every night since returning. One dream involved laying out extensions of the path to the frozen north. Another involved walking endlessly uphill towards a destination on it...wait a minute...that could be a memory not a dream.

Anyhow, by coincidence, NPR ran a feature about the Camino this past weekend (thanks to a friend for the heads up).

I'm still trying to consciously process what that 640 mile trek meant to me--and it looks like my unconscious mind is doing the same.

Looking back, I kind of wish I was more grateful and less grumpy some days. On the other hand, that evil water bird backpack/torture device was really nasty. And those endless hills...

Good though.

November 12, 2018

Stating the obvious

It's been five and a half years since then Governor Tomblin (where are you when we need you?) decided to expand Medicaid coverage for low income working West Virginians under the Affordable Care Act. A recent study by the Georgetown University Center for Children and Families found what you might expect: it was a good idea, one that literally changed and saved lives.

As I mentioned in the last post, the recent election not only strengthens the position of those states that have expanded the program--it opens the way for Medicaid expansion in several holdout states. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities,

"If all remaining non-expansion states (including Idaho, Nebraska, and Utah) adopted the expansion in 2019, more than 4.5 million uninsured people would gain coverage and uninsurance rates in these states would fall by a quarter, according to Urban Institute projections."
Let's hope we get there.

November 08, 2018

Safe at last?

The recent election has been dissected many times, but I’d like to share a different take on it.

For literally decades of my career with the American Friends Service Committee, health care has been a—maybe the—main focus, all the way back to the 1989-90 Pittston coal strike.

Before the Affordable Care Act was a dream I worked with friends in WV on enacting and expanding the Children’s Health Insurance Program and fighting over the traditional Medicaid program.

When the ACA was in play, I was all over it with many of the same friends.

The biggest social justice victory of my life was working with friends to persuade then Governor Tomblin to expand Medicaid under the ACA, which opened up the road to health care and recovery to over 200,000 low income working West Virginians in any given year.

After the 2016 election, it was all hands on deck to preserve it from repeal, which looked inevitable at the time but miraculously didn’t happen.

With the recent election, three more states (Utah, Nebraska and Idaho) voted to expand Medicaid, joining the 33 states and District of Columbia and opening coverage to hundreds of thousands.

The more states that do it, the safer it is and the greater is the pressure on the holdout states to do the same. And, with the change in the composition of the US House, it looks like the program is safe for the foreseeable future.

I can’t express how much of a relief that is

Obviously our health care system is still a hot mess and not what it should be, but now it covers millions more Americans. I’m a firm believer in taking the ground you can and then fighting for more.

One other game changer this time around was Florida’s decision to restore voting rights to former prisoners, which could enfranchise 1.4 million people. That should put some swing into a swing state.
Without even considering other changes, those are pretty positive outcomes.

(Note: blogging on my phone with thumbs so please excuse the typos.)

November 06, 2018

Annals of hypocrisy: shafting coal miners

If you've been following the news in West Virginia over the last few months, you are no doubt aware of the legislative coup that shook up the state supreme court. Two of the justices appointed to fill....uhhh...vacancies were former legislator and congressman Evan Jenkins and former state house speaker Tim Armstead.

Over the years, both men, especially Jenkins, made much hay about their alleged love for coal miners and their heroic stance against the "war on coal."

Well, their most recent decision will actually make it harder for coal miners to qualify for black lung benefits.

I mean, golly, who could have seen that coming?

November 05, 2018

Rethinking the drug war

Maybe this has happened to you. As you walk up to a convenience store, some kids, probably boys, saunter over and ask you to buy them beer or cigarettes.

(At a certain point in my life, I may have been one of them, but I can’t remember for sure.)

That’s a huge irony hidden in plain sight. It’s not easy for kids to buy beer or cigarettes. That’s true not because they’re illegal — it’s because they’re legal and regulated.

Dealers in illegal drugs, on the other hand, don’t generally ask for IDs.

And they’re not regulated. The illegal substance people buy may or may not be what they think it is. The cocaine or heroin could be cut with any and all kinds of nasty substances, some of which are poisonous and disease causing. One could overdose, get nowhere, or just be poisoned.

What are you going to do then: call the cops?

It’s an unregulated market with a lot of what economists call “information asymmetries,” meaning the seller knows more than the buyer and isn’t about to tell.

Sticking to the language of economics, this is also an example of inelastic demand. Elastic demand is what it sounds like, i.e. something that goes up and down depending on market changes. An example might be people who buy more chicken when the price of beef goes up.

Inelastic demand, on the other hand, tends to remain fairly constant, even while prices change. A spike in gasoline prices may reduce Sunday driving, but, without public transportation, people still need to get to work, to health care, to the store, etc.

Addiction is a classic example of inelastic demand. It remains constant whether a product is scarce or plentiful, legal or illegal.

It’s hard to imagine now, but in the early 20th century opium products were legal and inexpensive. One could buy medicines containing them at the local pharmacy.

Most people who used them legally didn’t become addicted, but some did. That was unfortunate for themselves and their loved ones, but, usually, they stayed at home and led normal lives, like many people with drinking problems today. They generally didn’t have to resort to theft, violence, dealing or prostitution to meet their cravings.

Prohibition reduced the size of the supply, but not the demand. People who couldn’t get their fix legally had to rely on criminals, who benefited by increased profitability of the trade in scarce commodities.

The criminals cashing in on prohibition were another group that couldn’t rely on courts or cops to secure compliance with contracts or enhance market share. For them, violence or the threat of violence were necessary.

In fact, those who were crueler or who at least had a credible reputation for cruelty had a comparative advantage over competitors. That’s as true of the Al Capone mob days as it is of drug cartels today.

The economics of the drug war also led to what economist Richard Cowen called “the iron law of prohibition.” He describes it with remarkable brevity like this: “the harder the enforcement, the harder the drugs.”

Johan Hari, author of “Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs,” put it this way: “When you ban a drug, it’s very risky to transport it — so dealers will always choose the drug that packs the strongest possible kick into the smallest possible space. That means that, under prohibition, you can only get the most hard-core form of a drug.”

For example, before the ban on alcohol in 1920, beer was the most popular drink. After it went into effect, the hard stuff was more popular. After it was repealed in 1933, beer bounced back to the top spot.

This critique of the drug war isn’t a matter of ideology. Conservative economist Milton Friedman, who is cherished by many Republican politicians, had a lot to say about this. Here are some samples:

“See, if you look at the drug war from a purely economic point of view, the role of the government is to protect the drug cartel. That’s literally true.”

And

“Most of the harm that comes from drugs is because they are illegal.”

And

“Every friend of freedom must be as revolted as I am by the prospect of turning the United States into an armed camp, by the vision of jails filled with casual drug users and of an army of enforcers empowered to invade the liberty of citizens on slight evidence.”

I don’t usually see eye to eye with Friedman, but I’m with him on this.

It’s almost a law of nature that the unintelligent application of force leads to resistance and unforeseen consequences. Natural selection responds to challenges in the environment. When we overprescribe antibiotics, they stop working. When one group acquires a military advantage over another, an arms race often ensues. Push someone, and they’re likely to push back — harder. Pull someone toward you, and they’ll try to pull away. Hit a nail, and it goes in deeper.

So it goes.

The war on drugs is the textbook example of all this. It’s been around for over 100 years and the patterns haven’t changed — but the problems have gotten worse.

It might be time to try something different.

(Note: this appeared as an op-ed in the Charleston Gazette-Mail a while back.)

November 01, 2018

The end of the line 



It seems like I’ve been walking the Camino forever. Feels like it too, especially on my shoulders.

Today was the last day, around 20 miles with a steady rain for the last hour. Yesterday was even longer. Let’s just say that after around 640 miles I feel done.

It would be hard to come up with a coherent answer yet  to the question about what I learned. It would sound pretty dumb, like “shit is deep” or “I need to talk less and not react as much to stuff” or “archetypes have their own reality beyond the literal,” or “shut up and walk “

Anyhow, that is not the kind of essay one can compose with thumbs on a phone.

The last three days did make me think about losing my way. The walk back from Muxía isn’t marked well and I lost miles, energy and time I didn’t have to spare.

It reminded me of the first line in Dante’s Inferno: “in the middle of our life’s journey I awoke to find myself in a dark wood, having lost the true path.”

Rural and even small town Spain seems like a series of ghost towns, with plenty of nothing in between. Plenty of cats but very few people.

The weather can go south really fast. The dialect is tough for my limited Spanish. And I didn’t have a lot of life force to spare at the moment. It wasn’t quite scary but it was way on the other side of fun.
At times I almost felt like flagging down a car and begging for a ride to where I could catch a taxi or a bus. But that would have broken my hard ass Camino code.

A classic line from A Streetcar Named Desire has often been in my mind this trip. It was Blanche saying “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.”

It worked. A friendly woman working in a pharmacy pointed me in the right direction. And an angel of a bartender drew me a precise map that got me to shelter from the storm.

And it was such a relief to get to a place where, as Dylan said, “I can follow the path, I can read the signs, I can stay right with it as the road unwinds.”

It would be nice-but maybe too much to ask-to keep that feeling

I’ll close with a quote from a book of true survival stories (it’s shown up here before): “what saves a man [sic] is to take a step. Then another step. It is always the same step, but you have to take it.”

October 28, 2018

Camino magic 


People who hike the Appalachian Trail or the Long Trail in Vermont often talk about trail magic. I believe in it though I’ve not experienced it there. I have had more than my share of Camino magic over the last month.

A recent example is what I originally called “the little albergue of horrors.”

I had been walking 18 miles or so and was soooo done when I came to a bar/restaurant that advertised itself as the last food or drink for 15 kilometers. And 15 k more just wasn’t going to happen that day. They also had an albergue or hostel off site

I was relieved to find my walking friend had already checked in. I did the same but had to wait for a ride to the albergue, a confusing distance away.

When I first got there, things seemed pretty crappy. There were six strangers from six countries (Canada , Germany, Switzerland, Australia, Israel and the USA) in a tiny room crowded with all kinds of gear.

Nothing electrical beyond lights seemed to work, including WiFi. The shower seemed designed to spread water as far as possible.

We were told we’d be picked up for dinner by 6:30 but no one came till nearly seven. Then an absurd number of us had to fit into the car like circus clowns in a VW beetle. For dinner, we were crowded around two small tables.

It seemed awkward at first but then over dinner—yes, and wine and such—we bonded into a tight little community.

Deep conversations happened fast and were continued over the next few hours and days as the miles went by. I have a feeling I’m going to stay in touch.

The Little Albergue of Horrors turned out to be the Little Albergue from Heaven.

I suspect the difference between hell and heaven has more to do with how the inhabitants treat each other than external circumstances.

October 25, 2018

Breaking a Camino fast

My Facebook friends know I finished the Camino de Santiago yesterday. It was 799 kilometers or 480 miles over 30 days.

During that time I set some pretty strict rules for myself, like not reading or listening to audiobooks or music, which is a big deal for me.

It was kind of a Zen thing. When walking, just walk.

Conversation was ok, but mostly it was the sounds of boots and trekking poles along with those of nature and some traffic.

Today, starting the Camino de Finisterre to the Atlantic , I decided to break that fast with Bob Dylan, who provides the soundtrack of my life.

(I’m not sure that’s a good thing...)

Still, hearing Bob was like rain on dry ground. I listened to the collection on Biograph. So many songs hit home, but the one that hit the hardest was Every Grain of Sand.
Sample quote:

“Then onward in my journey I come to understand that every hair is numbered, like every grain of sand.”

Let’s just say Bob got me up some serious hills today.

(Note: I just lost a much cooler version of this post.)

October 23, 2018

Missing out


There is sometimes a fine line between concentration and tunnel vision and I crossed it the other day on the Camino.

Not in a good way.

The walk between Portomarin and Palas de Rei was up and up and up.

As I may have mentioned, I am not a fan of walking up big ass hills/mountains with a pack. Or without.

Not in a boat. Not with a goat (although I do miss our goats back in WV...ish).

The path took another major upward turn near Castromaior. I got so caught up in just dragging myself up that I completely missed out on some ancient Ibero-Celtic (Spanish proto-hillbilly) ruins dating back to the 4th or 5th century BC, when the Romans began to occupy the area.

These are known as artifacts of the Castro culture, the Latin term castrum being the source of our word castle. They were basically hill fortresses and villages.

Luckily a Camino friend got some pictures. I’m still kicking myself in the rear for missing it.

As the saying goes, you snooze you lose.

October 22, 2018

Hillbilly meets octopus


Pulpo or octopus is considered a delicacy in much of Spain, especially near saltwater. I have always considered octopi to be magical creatures in an underwater but outer space kind of way.

The thought of eating one has always seemed gross to me. I’ve been giving octopus eating people hell on the Camino.

I mean eating tentacles.,.really?

Today early on we passed by a pulperia, a store/restaurant specializing in octopus. A woman was giving away tiny slices.

It was clear that this particular octopus was beyond my ability to help. And I knew I’d never actually order     one. But, in the spirit of Green Eggs and Ham I decided to try.

And, yes there was some prompting from the peanut gallery.

I took a sample and tried to eat it..,for a nanosecond.

I tried to smile at the woman and bow in thanks—then I ran for the nearest trash can.
It tasted like That. Which. Should. Never. Be. Consumed. By. Humans.

I need some beans and cornbread. Fast.

October 21, 2018

Reenacting a Camino legend...almost 

In the Middle Ages, the legend goes that a pilgrim on the way to Santiago was about to die of thirst near Zariquiegui. The devil then appeared and offered to give him water in exchange for his soul.

He refused and at the last moment Santiago—Saint James—appeared and quenched his thirst from a scallop shell.

(As an observant Jew, the real James probably never had much to do with scallops or other shellfish, but let’s not be too literal here.)

I nearly re-enacted that scene at the same place on day 3 of my pilgrimage, minus the supernatural parts.

I was trying to make up time for what I thought was a slow start. It was a long hot slog through Pamplona but I wanted to go farther.

I thought I had enough water, but the path was long, hot and dry. Every time I thought I was getting closer to the village, it seemed to recede like the horizon.

It was dry and I had a sleeping bag and trail mix, but without water none of that mattered.
By the time I “came in through the wilderness, a creature void of form” (Dylan), I was pretty close to being in serious trouble.

Sad to say I made the same mistake three days later from just being lazy about taking off my backpack/torture devise to refill one hot afternoon. Shame on me.

Since then I’ve learned my lesson. Each day, water is the top priority in the morning.

I don’t want to reach the point of the pilgrim in the legend. I’m not sure I trust Santiago that much. Or myself.

October 19, 2018

A moment with Dionysus

In Greek mythology, Dionysus is the god not just of wine but of green and growing things and collective joy.

Sometimes that collective joy can turn to murderous frenzy when the god is provoked (see Euripides’ tragedy The Bacchants), but generally he is seen as the god who brings joy.

The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche contrasted Apollonian with Dionysian experiences. Apollo was the god of reason, measure, control and individuality. With Dionysus, all these go out the window and we can forget ourselves for a while as we become one with others and everything that is.

(Imagine a perfect rock concert where everyone is totally caught up in the music.)

Last night I had a Dionysian moment—and I wasn’t the only one. It doesn’t work that way.

It started in Apollonian fashion, with many pilgrims gathered around a table enjoying good food and wine and making the kind of polite conversation one does when speaking with kind strangers from around the world.

Then a woman asked our hospitalera or hostess to make a traditional Galician special drink. Many of us joined in.

Our hostess was a bit witchy (in the best sense) and it didn’t take a lot of persuasion. She brought out a huge bowl (cauldron?) and added spirits, seeds and spices while talking, laughing and singing. It was quite a performance.

Then, as the lights dimmed, she struck a match and set it on fire. We began to laugh and chant “o lume!”-to light!

Those who wanted were invited to stir the cauldron with a ladle and pour the flaming liquid back into the bowl.

Then, with a flourish, she covered the flame and quenched the fire. Glasses materialized and those who chose could draw near and drink the brew.

It was a different kind of communion—with no disrespect to the other one.

It was hot, strong, spicy and-for want of a better word—botanical, rich with the flavors of the field. We drank and savored the heat.

Then, as the lights came on again, we blinked and looked at each other, knowing that somehow something special had just happened.

I think I know what it was. The god walked near us that night. And smiled.

October 17, 2018

Just say yes


I hate it when I have to take my own advice, but sometimes it happens.

It happened today. I was starting to notice that my grumpiness over various pains was again crowding out my gratitude for the chance to walk the Camino.

I then remembered my vow to try to say yes to everything that happens on this journey. That goes for pain and discomfort too. After all, nobody goes on a 500-600 mile walk to experience pleasant sensations 24/7.

There’s an ancient Buddhist practice called vipassana, which is to simply observe what’s going on with one’s body and mind without reacting to it. I tried that today and it worked pretty well. At least as well as snarling at it.

I also drew on two things I read in the past. On was Albert Camus’ essay The Myth of Sisyphus, about the person who was punished by Zeus to eternally push a rock up a hill only to have it roll down again.

Camus imagines that Sisyphus accepts it: “His rock is his thing... One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” I decided to follow his example and try to make whatever comes my thing.

The other story is about the Tibetan Buddhist poet Milarepa. It’s said that he once settled in a cave for an extended period. It was full of demons. First, he tried to exorcise them. That didn’t work. Then he tried to preach the dharma to them. That didn’t work either.

He finally stopped fighting them, saying something like “Okay guys. You can knock yours out doing the demon thing, but I’m gonna be here doing mine.”

Eventually they worked things out. I’m hoping to do something similar with my demons.

October 16, 2018

Mandatory mindfulness 


There is all kind of medical and psychological evidence about the benefits of the ancient practice of mindfulness in dealing with stress, anxiety, pain, athletic performance, trauma and-the big one-everyday life.

I’m a big fan, abstractly, but must admit I’ve never been very good at the basic mindfulness practice of just sitting and maintaining awareness. I seem to do better with active ways of trying to sustain it, like karate, tai chi, running, yoga and such.

(I think this is why meditation is much more fun to read about than to actually do.)

The idea of attending a ten day sitting mindfulness retreat scares me way more than trying to walk 500-600 miles across Spain.

Still, I have found one infallible way to practice moment by moment awareness: trail running or hiking on uneven, hilly and rocky surfaces like the one I had to go down today on the Camino.
It’s not optional: it’s mandatory. One lapse of attention, one false step or placement of your trekking poles and it could be game over.

I guess the hardest part for someone like me is to get better at doing it voluntarily when I’m not doing something crazy.

Question: how do you deal with it?

October 15, 2018

What makes a place sacred?

I think it has something to do with history and what people have done, felt, believed, practiced, experienced and worshipped over long—and intense— periods of time.

By that standard, the Cruz de Ferro or cross of iron on the Camino qualifies. Some believe it was the site of a shrine to Hermès (Mercury for Romans’) in ancient times.

It is said that the cross was first erected in the 11th century. Over time the custom has been for pilgrims to place or throw a stone from home or throw one over one’s shoulders there. A decent size mound has grown over time.

People also place prayers, pictures, sacred objects and such there. As I mentioned in a Facebook post, I put a rock from West Virginia there along with a medallionof the Virgin given to me by a waiter from Ecuador.

Not that I’m a card carrying pagan or anything, but Hermès has always been a big one for me, especially when it comes to travel, borders, boundaries and interpretation.

Obviously I’m down with Jesus too. This trip I try to honor the divine in whatever form.

October 14, 2018

Santiago in legend 

Santiago is the Spanish name for St James, brother of John and one of Jesus ‘ closest disciples, though—or because—he was a bit of a screwup at times.

In yesterday’s post, I looked at what the New Testament had to say about him. His life in legend is even weirder.

Somehow this Palestinian Jewish fisherman wound up as the patron saint of Spain, which is about as likely as me becoming the patron saint of the moon.

The legend goes that after the Resurrection, James undertook missionary work in the Iberian peninsula, possibly with the miraculous help of the Virgin Mary. Being a bit of a grump, he only got a few converts before deciding to return to Palestine, where he was martyred.

His remains were then miraculously conveyed back to Spain, where they had another miraculous escape from hostile pagans. They were eventually buried at what is now Santiago, where they were “discovered” by a pious hermit in the 8th century.

Once the Catholic Church signed on, it was game on. Over the ages, millions of pilgrims have made their trek to pay respect to the holy (if occasional screwup) apostle.
It was probably the most effective tourism/public relations coup in history, still paying dividends today.

There may be a lesson for West Virginia in this. Maybe we should “discover” some sacred relics there, like maybe St Peter’s laptop or Mary Magdalene’s yoga mat, and do likewise.

Hey, it worked in Spain—and I’m living proof.

October 13, 2018

Who was Santiago anyway?

The Camino de Santiago means the way of Saint James, but there are three of them in the New Testament.

Our guy is sometimes referred to as James the Greater. He was the son of Zebedee the fisherman and brother of John. According to one tradition, his mother was Salome, one of Jesus’ women followers and supporters.

There was also among the Twelve James son of Alphaeus, sometimes unflatteringly know as James the Less.

More interesting was James “the brother of the Lord,” also know as James the Just, who is referred to in Acts and Galatians. He was a leader of the Jerusalem congregation. The contemporary Jewish historian Josephus refers to him as “brother of Jesus who was called Christ.”

He was said to have been stoned to death in the AD 60s during the Jewish rebellion against Rome. (Jesus’ followers during that time and place were total outsiders, neither supporting Rome nor the violent rebellion against it.)

Back to our guy. When Jesus called James and John to follow him, they left Zebedee holding the bag-or in this case the nets.

In the first three gospels, James, along with John and Peter, were in Jesus’ inner circle and were there for key events, including the Transfiguration.

No disrespect intended, but James was a bit of a screwup at times. He and his brother stirred up controversy among the Twelve by wanting front row seats in the Kingdom. They also wanted Jesus to call down a fire from heaven when they were hassled by Samaritans. For that, Jesus called them “sons of thunder.” He also snoozed with John and Peter while Jesus prayed in Gesthamene even though Jesus asked them to stay awake with him.

I find it comforting to think that Jesus had/has a soft spot for screwups.

James shows up again in Acts, where he is beheaded by Herod (probably Herod Agrippa around  44 AD). He wasn’t the first Christian martyr—that honor belongs to Stephen—but he seems to have been the first among the Twelve to die for the faith.

(Herod later gets his, being “eaten by worms” apparently before his death. Yuk.)

If that wasn’t eventful enough, Santiago’s story gets even weirder after his death.

More about that next time.

October 11, 2018

Templars


A couple nights ago, I stayed in a village called Terradillo de los Templarios, which translates as little field of the Templars.

The Knights Templar was a medieval monastic/ military order founded during the Crusades ostensibly to project  sites sacred to western Christians. They also eventually became protectors of pilgrims, in Palestine as well as places like the Camino in Spain. In fact, due to military reversals in Palestine, they shifted more of their attention elsewhere.

They developed a very sophisticated financial system and became incredibly wealthy, which proved to be their undoing.

One of their debtors was King Philip of France, who trumped up incredible accusations alleging blasphemy, idolatry and other practices among the Templars.

(Note: they probably did get a little weird with their rituals, as guys tend to do when left to themselves too long, but nothing as weird as what they were accused of.)

Philip moved on the Templars under his power on Friday the 13th of October 1307. Some say this is why that’s considered an unlucky day. Many were tortured and burned at the stake, including the order’s leader Jacques de Molay. The order was dissolved in 1312, although Templars fared better in other places.

The order lives on in folklore and even conspiracy theories. Some think the survivors hid the Holy Grail, the cup used by Christ at the last supper. Others believe the Templars continued secretly and were involved with the Freemasons and other secret societies.

It’s the kind of thing that keeps Dan Brown and others cranking out thrillers. For a more literary fictional take, check out Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum.

A bit farther west, the Camino leads to and old Templar castle I’m eager to check it out.
If I find the grail I’ll let you know.

Temptation 

One of the many books I’ve read about the Camino in the last few months (I think it was fiction) divided the French Way into three parts.

From Roncesvalles to Burgos signified life, Burgos to León was death, and León to Santiago was rebirth.

I’m not sure about that but I did hit a low point in the middle of the death part a couple days ago. It wasn’t my feet; I’ve been pretty lucky with them so far. It was my shoulders, both of which have old injuries that felt like spikes before I ever thought of the Camino.

I think I got them while nearly getting my arms torn off doing judo and ju jutsu. Thanks, guys...

My pack isn’t that heavy by wilderness or military standards. Probably 25 pounds at most. But lugging it all day every day caused major pain to those old injuries that kept getting worse no matter how I adjusted it. So much so that it almost drowned out everything else.

My neck was so stiff I could hardly move my head. I was really down.

Metaphorically speaking, I was tempted by the devil. In the wee hours, he whispered “ship your pack.”

People do. It costs 4 or 5 Euros a day. I don’t judge those who do, but it didn’t feel right for me. I almost did, but in the last moment I decided to try one more day.

It got a little better. Today I felt great lugging it over 20 miles. I’m so glad I didn’t.

Why make a deal of this? In the yoga school I’m connected with, we have a crude saying: “Own your shit.” As in acknowledge what you’re carrying.

I think if I brought stuff across the Atlantic for this pilgrimage , I should carry it.

It increases the physical challenge, but it also is a good metaphorical way to acknowledge the baggage we all carry, the heavy karma and burden of sin, original and individual.

If my body holds up, I hope to carry it to Santiago and beyond.

But I do look forward to laying the burden down, literally and metaphorically.

(Last thought: we’re often tempted to give up when something gets hard. Interval training, marathons, martial arts bouts, or—hardest—real life. But sometimes, not always, if we just hang on a just a little bit more things change and we can go on. Jesus said “those who hold out to the end will be saved.”)

October 10, 2018

The Camino field of stars

I’ve been in lots of churches since I started walking the Camino, but until a couple nights ago not when a service was going on.

After checking into an albergue run by kind but strict nuns (the kind with which one does not mess) I saw there was a nightly mass and blessing of the pilgrims at the church of Santa Maria.

As far as I could make out, the words of the mass were almost identical to the Episcopal service. After, pilgrims were invited to come forward to receive a prayer and blessing from the priest and the leading sister.

We were then given a little star made of colored paper to remind us of the light in darkness.
At the end, the nuns sang a hymn to Mary, the Virgin of the Camino, accompanied by guitar.

The word Compostela in the Camino is believed to be derived from “field of stars.” I hadn’t seen too many this trip, mostly because we have to be in bed by 10 lest we turn into albergue pumpkins. But in the darkness before dawn I looked out the window above my albergue bed and saw some brilliant stars.

I was reminded that Dante ended each section of his Divine Comedy with the word “stars.”
Inferno: “and we stood once more beneath the stars”

Purgatory: “eager now to rise, ready for the stars”

Paradise “like a wheel in perfect balance turning, I felt my mind and my desires impelled by the love that moves the sun and the other stars.”






October 08, 2018

Not reading on the Camino 

The weird thing for me about walking the Camino—aside from the daily 15-20 miles with a pack and sharing bedrooms, showers and toilets with total strangers every night—is not reading books
.
At home I like to start the day with 30-45 minutes of reading and coffee. I listen to books while driving, running, mowing, etc. and steal other moments as I can.

I made the decision to leave books, real and recorded, behind during the Camino (quick glances at the guidebook and phone don’t count). I also make it a point not to listen to music while here.

Instead I hear the wind, the sound of boots and trekking poles, my internal chatter, birds, sometimes traffic and the occasional conversation. It’s a bit of a reset for my brain.

I did bring an Anthony Bourdain book for getting here but had to leave it half read at St Jean Pied de Port in southern France because there was no room in the inn of my backpack on that first brutal day over the Pyrenees.
Whatever changes in me, if anything, after this trip, that’s one habit I look forward to resuming.

October 07, 2018

“Peregrino no turisa”

I had a conversation with a one night roommate from Madrid, between his English and my Spanish. He was insistent (and I agreed) that a pilgrim isn’t a tourist.

Don’t get me wrong- I love being a tourist, visiting places, looking around and just enjoying new places. But a pilgrimage like the Camino is all about work, about just walking to the destination with a purpose in mind.

It’s really hard, for me anyhow. My body hurts. I look around all the time, but every step that doesn’t lead to the next destination is wasted effort when you don’t have any effort to waste. Nothing is more demoralizing than missing a turn and having to backtrack.

An example: I was walking through Burgos. I know it’s a great city with lots to do, but I just wanted to get on with it. After all, as a peregino, I look even scarier than usual. I’ve been switching two sets of hand washed clothes for two weeks. And the last thing I wanted to do was walk around pointlessly with that damn pack on my back.

If I get through this before I have to catch the return flight, I’ll gladly revert to tourist mode.
But for now, peregrino no tourista.

October 06, 2018

Boots on the ground 

First, a shoutout to all my friends fighting the good fight in West Virginia. It’s weird to be so fat away with everything going on. Eight years or so ago I was out of the country when Upper Big Branch happened.

Must be my uncanny sense of timing.

Back to the Camino (since im here) ...

A friend asked about footwear on the Camino....tender subject.
At first I planned to go in trail running shoes, but reading suggested these would get eaten fast. I decided to take some hiking boots that seemed broken in but not too far gone....
They died on Day 2.

Good news: it happened near a shoe store in Zubiri. Bad news: they only had three pairs to pick from I my size.. and I have a ginormous big toe joint from an old karate injury. I went with a Columbia boot.

Any runner knows it’s not cool to do even a short race with new shoes, let alone a 500 mile walk.
Since Day 2 my boot and toe have been fighting it out. Sometimes the pain is really bad but they seem to be working things out.

Bottom line: if you’re going to try something like this, and I’m not sure I’d recommend it, wear some hiking boots that are broken in...but not too broken in.

The Camino is long. And rough.





October 05, 2018

News from home 

First, I got some great news from West Virginia today. First my friend Ken Ward from the Charleston Gazette-Mail won a well deserved genius award from the MacArthur Foundation.https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.ehn.org/west-virginia-reporter-ken-ward-jr-wins-prestigious-macarthur-genius-grant-2610042271.amp.html
Also receiving the award was the Rev. William Barber, leader of the Moral Monday movement and the Poor Peoples Campaign.

https://www.google.com/amp/amp.newsobserver.com/news/local/article219483790.html


Finally, my dear friend Jennifer Wells just accepted the position as director of the WV Healthy Kids and Families Coalition. She succeeds another dear friend Stephen Smith, who we’ll hear more from in the future.

I’m so proud of all of them.

https://www.facebook.com/292954794164615/posts/1714399512020129/
More about the Camino tomorrow inshallah.

October 04, 2018

Church of the holy chicken

There are all kinds of legends about the Camino de Santiago. One of the most colorful is set in Santo Domingo de Calzada (two days or so back).
It goes like this: two pious German parents and their teen son were walking the Camino. They stopped at an inn in Santo Domingo. A woman at the tavern made sexual advances on the son, which he rejected.
In revenge, she put a goblet in his pack and framed him for theft. He was hanged.
The parents went on to Santiago and prayed. When they came back , they went to a magistrate to say the son was innocent and that he would be raised.
The magistrate, who was eating at the time, said that was as likely as the rooster on his plate coming back to life. It did, and it’s decedents are honored in the cathedral to this day.
And yes, I believe every word of it.

October 03, 2018

Camino nuts and bolts

A friend asked for some of the practical parts of walking the Camino de Santiago. Here’s one installment.
You need a credencial or pilgrim’s passport. It gives you the right to stay in low cost hostels called albergues. These are dorms with bunk beds for all sexes. The showers and bathrooms are often that way too.
It seemed a little weird at first but I got used to it really quickly. It’s actually kind of sweet. The hardest part is probably trying to go through your stuff in a small space.
The passport needs to get a sello or stamp each day and twice a day for the last 100 km in order to receive a Compostela or certificate of completion when you get to Santiago.
More to come.
(It’s hard to blog on an iPhone with limited WiFi here. More on Facebook.)


October 01, 2018

Distance matters

Day 7 Camino: Important geographic discovery. European kilometers are way longer than American kilometers (not that we care much for kilometers there).

In US a km is like 10 football fields or 21/2 laps on a track. Nothing. In Spain it is an incalculable distance mostly uphill.

So if a sign here says your destination is 4.9 km, it’s probably 17 vertical miles. That’s how it feels anyway.

September 30, 2018

An apology to the dead

I remember reading about how some Unions troops in the western theatre of the war threw away their blankets and gear during a warm spell...just in time for the weather to turn freezing cold.

I thought “how dumb. And how bad could it be to carry a standard pack?

I stand corrected and apologize to the Union dead. I’ve been carrying about half what they did, 25 pounds or so with water and I’m tempted to chuck mine or ship it through. I also remember reading that Román soldiers  carried 60-80 pounds, without the fancy packs we have today.

Teo songs have been going through my head: Comrade Paul Robeson singing about beating the burden in the heat of the day and The Band singing The Weight (especially the part about pulling into Nazareth and feeling about half past dead.

Good though!

September 28, 2018

Ring them bells



One of my favorite Dylan songs is Ring Them Bells, a spiritual and prophetic  song from Oh Mercy. I had a Ring Them Bells moment on day 3 of the Camino de Santiago in Spain. About 40 some miles from St. Jean Pied de Port on a hot day, the arrow marking the trail led straight up a nasty hill. The place was Zabaldika.

At that point my legs screamed in protest at the slightest incline. But I came here to follow the Way so up I went.

At the top of a hard climb was a church built in the 13th century, before Dante penned the Divine Comedy.

An elderly woman there beckoned me to enter. It was like she was waiting just for me. I tied to refuse but she wasn’t having it. She led me in the empty church and played recordings of medieval chants. Then she guided me to a seat and gave me a laminated sheet with the history of the church and a page I could keep of Camino prayers and blessings.

I intended to attend to the spiritual aspects off the Camino but had been too rushed up to that point. This was a bit of a reset.

The church was dedicated to St. Stephen. Above the altar were statues of Christ, the Virgin, Stephen, and assorted saints. I just went with it.

After a period of silence, I prepared to leave, but she wasn’t having that either. She pointed to the stairs of the bell tower and told me to climb it and ring the bell two times and really hear and feel it.

It was a spiral stone staircase built like a screw that I had to craw up on my hands and knees. At the top was a huge iron bell. I rang it once and gave myself to the sound (Buddhists, yogis and meditators will know something about this).

It was a beautiful moment, but she wasn’t done with me. She took me to a statue of the crucified Christ and showed me where hundreds of others had posted their thoughts and prayers, I did the same.

By then she was ready to let me go. I thanked her and left with tears in my eyes.If I wasn’t so shut down, I would have cried for a hour or so,

For Alanis fans and viewers of the movie The Way, it was a “Thank You”moment..

(Note: I had to pay for that with several hours of heat and pain and bad food and thirst. But as Dylan said, ‘pay for your ticket and don’t complain.)

September 26, 2018

Ups and downs

Ever since I got bit by the Camino bug I imagined and dreaded what day over the Pyrenees from France to Spain. Let’s  just say I’ve done five marathons, eight distance runs, several long trail runs and some pretty intense martial arts stuff. This was the toughest by far.
 The up was endless and the down almost made me miss the up. Day 2 to Zubiri was more manageable,although my boots were a casualty..
Whose whack idea was this, anyway?

September 24, 2018

This is it




(St Jean Pied de Port in southern France. I don’t like the look of those mountains. They’re pretty and all but going up is gonna be a drag.)
I remember a cartoon about two Buddhist monks sitting in a meditation hall. The younger monk asks what happens next and the older one says “what do you mean? This is it!”
I think that’s a pretty good metaphor for life. We often act like we’re waiting for it to happen at some point in the future, but the older monk was right.
This is it.
I thought of that during the 24 hour or so period I’ve spent getting to starting point of the French Way or path along the Camino de Santiago in Spain (St Jean Pied de Port in the Pyrenees Mountains in southern France, where this branch of the 480 mile walk begins).
It occurred to me that the “real” pilgrimage doesn’t start in a cool Romantic place. It starts when you step outside the normal door.
The hassles of driving, scrambling thr“”gough airports, delays, lines, sleeplessness, etc. aren’t just preliminaries any more than daily life is different from our real life.
This is it.

September 21, 2018

Taking a stroll



Santiago, here I come. I hope.

A while back I got bit by the Camino bug and it won't let go. The Camino de Santiago Compostela is a pilgrimage route across northern Spain to a cathedral devoted to St. James the Greater, brother of John and one of the 12 disciples. There are many routes but the one that bit me begins in southern France and crosses the Pyrenees.

(In reality, the one place where one is NOT likely to find relics associated with James is probably northern Spain, but reality should never get in the way of a good pilgrimage.)

Anyhow it's a walk of around 480 miles, mostly through rural areas and I'm hoping to start this coming Tuesday. I'll post some from the road if tech and time permit. I'll be back before election day. Being gone during all that will probably mean dodging a few hundred robo-calls anyhow.

 Meanwhile, here's one of my favorite travel poems, which has shown up here before when road trips beckon. It's a sample from Walt Whitman's Song of the Open Road:

AFOOT and light-hearted, I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me, leading wherever I choose.

Henceforth I ask not good-fortune—I myself am good fortune;
Henceforth I whimper no more, postpone no more, need nothing,
Strong and content, I travel the open road.

The earth—that is sufficient;
I do not want the constellations any nearer;
I know they are very well where they are;
I know they suffice for those who belong to them...

I think heroic deeds were all conceiv’d in the open air, and all great poems also; I think I could stop here myself, and do miracles;
(My judgments, thoughts, I henceforth try by the open air, the road;)
I think whatever I shall meet on the road I shall like, and whoever beholds me shall like me;
I think whoever I see must be happy.

From this hour, freedom!
From this hour I ordain myself loos’d of limits and imaginary lines,
Going where I list, my own master, total and absolute,
Listening to others, and considering well what they say,
Pausing, searching, receiving, contemplating,
Gently, but with undeniable will, divesting myself of the holds that would hold me.

I inhale great draughts of space;
The east and the west are mine, and the north and the south are mine.

I am larger, better than I thought;
I did not know I held so much goodness...
From "Song of the Open Road," Walt Whitman

September 19, 2018

Tough times to come of age


Growing up is never easy, but these are particularly tough times for young people in West Virginia, given the opioid crisis, the ballooning foster care population, hard economic times, trauma and all that. As we've argued many times in the past, state bureaucracies seem more comfortable disciplining or confining young people than finding out what's really going on.

That's one of the reasons the two American Friends Service Committee projects in WV teamed up to work on a listening project. Over the last year, we surveyed and interviewed over 100 high school students and people who work closely with them. The results are summarized in this report, including many quotes by those we interviewed.

Some themes were loud and clear (buy you'll have to click the link to see them).

The title came from a moving interview we did with some young men in a day report center in Boone County. One of them said "This could really be a beautiful state if we fix it." Can't sum it up any better than that.

A little background.... A couple years ago, the legislature considered passing a Mental Health Matters bill. The idea was to put together a task force on juvenile mental health to see what we have and, most importantly, what we don't.

It was a kittens, angels and puppies bill that would have cost the state little or nothing but might have eventually helped a lot of kids. Guess what? It died, probably because union busting seemed like more of a priority to the legislative majority.

As we argued in a report we released last fall, the next step in juvenile justice reform in WV would be assessing the mental health needs of young people facing suspension or out of home placement and whenever possible referring them to treatment rather than punishment.

September 16, 2018

Groan

(This is what libraries looked like when I started working in them.)

All we need these days is another embarrassing story about West Virginia. Well, guess what? We got one. This one hit a little close to home.

First a digression. By an accident of fate, I spent 10 years working in public libraries in WV. I started out as a part time janitor after high school. In fact, I got some of my best reading done when I was supposed to be cleaning the little library in my home town.

After the big flood of 1978 trashed my town, including the library, there was a lot of extra work. Eventually I started working with the public. I really loved bantering with people, waiting on kids, helping people find the information they needed (even if they weren't very clear on it sometimes) and putting on programs people wanted to come to.

Aside from the whole poverty thing, it was a good gig.

Libraries are like little liberated areas carved out in the midst of the reign of greed. They are refuges for people of all ages and passports of the mind.They are places where people can make a fresh start on education, careers, and personal development. They are places that provide a venue for many diverse viewpoints.

They're also outposts of free speech and bulwarks against book banning. Or were meant to be.

That's where the groan comes in. A national news story recently broke about the library director in Berkeley Springs who tried to keep a copy of Bob Woodward's Fear off the shelves. Fortunately, the library board lost no time in reversing the decision.

I'm hoping that the exposure this incident has gotten sends a loud and clear message that this kind of **** is not to be tolerated.

The distance between book banning and book burning isn't that far.

September 12, 2018

Time to end the SNAP ban

Some things that seem like a good idea at the time really aren’t.

Or, if you want to get biblical about it, “There is a way that seemeth right unto a man, the end thereof are the ways of death.” (Proverbs 14:12)

As is the case with most individuals, I think the U.S. has taken a wrong turn or two over the course of its history. One example that comes to mind is Prohibition, the nationwide ban on the production, importation, transportation and sale of alcoholic beverages that lasted from 1920 to 1933.

It didn’t stop the drinking (there were memories of “bathtub gin” in my family), but it was the best thing that ever happened to organized crime.

The “war on drugs” was another such misstep. While it may have given some politicians a racially tinged road to power, it devastated many communities, destroyed many lives and sucked up untold resources. Without getting rid of drugs.

Fortunately, it looks like more people across the political spectrum are beginning to question the policies of over-incarceration and of criminalizing public health problems.

There seems to be a growing awareness that punishment isn’t the best way to deal with addiction, and of the fact that the vast majority of people who get sucked into the prison-industrial complex are going to come out some day.

There is a growing interest in issues of recovery and re-entry, probably because the opioid crisis has touched so many families.

With both Democratic and Republican legislative majorities, West Virginia has taken some steps in a positive direction:

*In 2013, the Legislature passed the Justice Reinvestment Act, which aimed at reducing incarceration rates while protecting public safety.

*The same year, then-Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin expanded Medicaid coverage under the Affordable Care Act, which opened the gates of treatment and recovery for thousands of West Virginians dealing with addiction issues.

*In 2015, the Republican-led Legislature passed reforms in truancy and juvenile justice aimed at reducing the number of children kept in out-of-home confinement.

*In 2016, the Legislature passed a bill aimed at making it easier for people to regain driver’s licenses.

*In 2017, the Legislature passed the Second Chance for Employment Act, which allows people with nonviolent felony convictions to petition the courts to have the offense reduced to a misdemeanor.
Some of these steps could have been strengthened, but the trend shows movement in the right direction.

One big step West Virginia needs to take is to remove the lifetime ban on SNAP benefits (formerly known as food stamps) for people with felony drug convictions.

That arbitrary ban — which doesn’t apply to any other category of offender — is an ill-thought-out legacy of 1990s federal welfare reform legislation.

According to Marc Mauer, of the D.C.-based Sentencing Project, that measure received about two minutes of debate at the time it was passed.

It shows.

Since then, all but three states, including some of the most conservative, have modified or removed the ban.

Guess who’s one of the three? The others are South Carolina and Mississippi.

As Elizabeth Lower-Basch, of the Center for Law and Social Policy, put it: “I think most states have, over time, recognized this isn’t helpful for the goal of reducing drug use.”

According to a report by Molly Born, of West Virginia Public Broadcasting, in 2016, more than 2,100 people with felony drug convictions were denied SNAP benefits after they had served their time. That number doesn’t include people who didn’t bother to apply at all or those who were denied in other years.

An analysis of overdose fatalities in 2016 found that 56 percent of those who died from overdoses had been incarcerated. Further, “Of male decedents that were incarcerated within 12 months of death, 28% died within a month after release, compared to 21% of females. Nearly half, (46%) of individuals with only some high school education died within 30 days of their release.”

To state the obvious, when people have served their time for drug convictions, they often have little or no assets. Jobs are hard to find. Family and community connections may have eroded over time. Relapse is a possibility, especially if there seems to be no hope.

And they still need to eat.

The road to recovery is hard, but we have a lot of people on it. They don’t need another roadblock.

It’s time to end the ban.

September 06, 2018

Room for (real) populism in West Virginia

Say what you want about the political attitudes of West Virginians. Everyone else has, including me. But things are complicated here.

Earlier this week, WV MetroNews and the Dominion Post released a poll about the attitudes of West Virginians towards big business. It might surprise some people. Among the findings:

*58 percent of respondents believed that government regulation of business is necessary to protect the public. Guess that means we haven't forgotten all the for-profit disasters that have killed or maimed so many state residents over the years;

*88 percent believed that too much power was concentrated in the hands of a few corporations;

*72 percent believed that corporations were making too much in profit.

All of these numbers are up significantly from a similar 2014 poll. The poll surveyed 404 West Virginians from all counties and has a 4.9 percent margin of error.

The upshot seems to me to be that people here are open to a real populist message and agenda if there's a willingness to put one forward.

If we don't, to paraphrase Shakespeare, the fault is not in our stars but in ourselves, that we are underlings.

September 04, 2018

Boom to bubble?

Wetzel County WV, vintage 2012

Interesting news about natural gas lately. First, there was this item from the NY Times about how despite all the hoopla, fracking may turn out to be more of a financial bubble rather than a boom. This won't come as a shock to industry critics and those concerned about its environmental impact. Or to anyone familiar with the history of extractive industries in Appalachia for the last 100 years.

Then there's this: Wetzel County WV has been ground zero for the new gas boom for the last several years, with tons of economic activity and hotel rooms full of gas workers with out of state plates. The latest is that Wetzel has been added to the Appalachian Regional Commission's list of distressed counties.

Golly, could that mean industry promises of universal prosperity might not come true? Holy Appalachian resource curse, Batman!

September 02, 2018

Labor Day...for real

"My friends, it is solidarity of labor we want. We do not want to find fault with each other, but to solidify our forces and say to each other: we must be together; our masters are joined together and we must do the same thing." Mary Harris "Mother" Jones, union organizer and hell raiser, 1830?-1930.

August 28, 2018

Why we fight

 "I am, somehow, less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops.”--Stephen Jay Gould, 1941-2002/

That pretty much sums the answer to "why we fight" for me.

August 26, 2018

A profile in courage

The internet is full of tributes to the late Arizona Senator John McCain. While I disagreed with him on many issues, I'd like to note four specific things about him that I appreciate.

*First, he put his body on the line. I'm not a fan of wars and I think the one in Vietnam was one of the worst ideas of the second half of the 20th century, but in this age of cheap and jingoistic "patriotism" as promoted by rich chicken-hawks who never took a risk (those who have ears, let them hear), McCain stands out.

*Second, he had a moral core, which isn't something you see a lot of in politics today.

*Third, at times he really was a maverick. One time when he went against the stream that really mattered was in the vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act last summer, which I discussed in this blog post at the time. He had this to say about the rush to repeal:

“I’ve stated time and time again that one of the major failures of Obamacare was that it was rammed through Congress by Democrats on a strict-party line basis without a single Republican vote. We should not make the mistakes of the past that has led to Obamacare’s collapse... We must now return to the correct way of legislating and send the bill back to committee, hold hearings, receive input from both sides of aisle, heed the recommendations of nation’s governors, and produce a bill that finally delivers affordable health care for the American people. We must do the hard work our citizens expect of us and deserve."
 By that one vote, he helped to preserve health care, including recovery treatment, for millions of Americans, at least for the time being, infuriating many of his supporters in the process.

*Fourth, he faced death with courage and dignity. Not for the first time.

To quote from Hamlet, "He was a man, take him for all in all, I shall not look upon his like again."

August 16, 2018

Thoughts on WV's supreme court mess

If you live in West Virginia and are in regular contact with people from out of state, there's a pretty good chance someone may have asked you "what the (fill in the blank) is going on with the whole state supreme court goat rope?"

(In case you've been frying other fish, the Republican majority in the WV House of Delegates voted to impeach all remaining members of the court, in effect blowing up an entire branch of state government. This could potentially let Republican Governor Jim Justice stack the deck until 2020.)

If you don't want to recap the whole thing blow by blow, there's a pretty good summary in Slate that doesn't get in the weeds. Of course, there is a lot of great local journalism going on by reporters like the Gazette-Mail's Jack Zuckerman and Lacie Peterson and MetroNews' Brad McIlhenny if you want the whole rundown.

My short take is that while all the remaining justices (one resigned and another retired during the mess) have been lavish in spending, only one really calls out for impeachment, to wit Allen Loughry of $32,000 couchgate fame, who is facing federal charges. The one who resigned, Menis Ketchum, has pleaded guilty to wire fraud.

Here's the lead from the Slate piece:
What the hell is going on in West Virginia? On Monday, the House of Delegates impeached the entire state Supreme Court on charges focusing on the justices’ lavish spending on office refurbishments. Republicans, who led the drive to oust the whole bench, insisted the court was irredeemably corrupt. Many Democrats countered that GOP legislators were staging a coup to seize control of the judiciary. One justice, Robin Davis, resigned rather than allow herself to be removed, proclaiming that the impeachment push was a “disaster for the rule of law” and an attempt by the legislature “to dismantle a separate branch of government.”
While Davis isn’t wrong, the court isn’t wholly blameless either. Republicans are attempting to stack it—but the justices made that task easy by engaging in conduct ranging from questionable to certainly illegal. Republicans are citing the serious allegations against two justices to justify removing all four, and they have timed their attacks to ensure that Republican Gov. Jim Justice, rather than West Virginia voters, will be able to select their replacements, thereby dragging the court far to the right.
At last count, nine people have applied for interim seats on the court. The next stop for impeachment proceedings is the state senate, where the games will presumably begin next month.

All of which is yet another reason to change the state motto from "Mountaineers are always free" to "You can't make this **** up."