Saturday, September 15, 2007

The commons doesn’t have to be a tragedy

We were driven to the train station by my wonderful in-laws (a privilege, as they seldom drive any more), and made our way onto the Amtrak Surfliner, expecting to get home around three o’clock the next day, i.e. two hours late.

Didn’t happen. We got home about seven. So, five hours late both ways. What did happen? A. there was a freight derailment that took two days to clean up. B. Another suicide, this time in front of the Coast Starlight previous to our own). These incidents, besides the desultory and endless track repair work being done on Union Pacific rails, good enough to keep freight moving, but often not good enough for passenger trains, which need to be able to do eighty miles an hour sometimes in order to meet schedules, put all the dispatching in disarray, leaving us stranded for hours at a time between boring weed-infested embankments -- and the weeds were spindly from repeated doses of Roundup, and therefore not at all pretty.

We were bracketed the whole way by screaming infants whose mothers seemed not to have gone to infant-care school (and all the babies were going to Seattle), and the train attendants seemed to have shorter and shorter fuses as we crept through the night.

But there were pluses.

For one thing, the Santa Barbara shore from the train is a once-in-a-lifetime treat; I would brave the horrors of much worse trains to see it. On this trip there were many dolphins and a few whales as a spectacular bonus.

"Look! Whales!"

The area around Mount Shasta is all it’s cracked up to be in the brochures.

Going north from Dunsmuir to Klamath Falls

The Willamette Pass and the gorge of Salt Creek (The Middle Fork of the Willamette doesn’t turn up until you are almost in the valley) is one of the truly great mountain railroad vistas on the planet.

Why can’t this journey be as unstressed as most other Amtrak routes, such as the (horribly named) Empire Builder, where they apologize for pulling into your destination five minutes after the posted schedule?

Well, there are social, political and economic issues. Engineering ones, too, but those could be managed with a little foresight.

Socially, we’re ill adapted to train travel in this country. We’re rude to our passenger trains and their passengers by diving under them with our expensive cars whenever we’re crossed in love, but I’ll leave that for another post.

I’m thinking about the politics and how it’s been driven by the needs of large corporations, but while noting the pressure from the corporations in their ubiquitous promotion of advertising/consumer culture, we have to remember that what they are pandering to is a focus on self that comes natural to human beings. We’ve, as a people and as individuals, earned our overstuffed Wal-Marts.

Consumer Choices Destroy Downtowns and Family Wages could be a title, on the model of “guns don’t kill people, people do.” I’m acknowledging there is some truth to that...

Our collective obesity, to give but one instance, is an outward sign of an ongoing illness that has no end in sight.

This is the point at which my progressivist friends who believe in spiritual evolution may say, “but...” Unh-unh. There is no such thing as a free lunch. And human nature is to spend nearly all of our time looking for a free lunch. (the large corporations know this; and this to some extent why there are large corporations).

This is known, over on the right, as “the tragedy of the commons” and is used as a basis for much head-nodding over the mutilated body of the commons as the pie is divided up by corporatist CEOs and their cronies. Conservatism this is not. But I’m starting to digress. More about that another time, God willing and the crick don’t rise. Or maybe I’ll try to do it all here, this once; have patience, though. It all takes time to say.

Suffice it to say, right now, that people are a mess and Amtrak, especially in the far west, gets to be an expression of that mess. We want whatever we want, such as to get from point A to point B, now, not tomorrow, and without screaming, toy-throwing, mother-punching, mother-punched babies.

So we go by car (much more resource consuming per capita) and skip the babies, or by plane, putting up with the screaming but for much less time (but again consuming, relatively massive amounts of planetary capital).

And here my other friends (how is it I have so many of these? I’m a bleeding heart, fer crying out loud. have they no taste?) will say, perhaps: Well, you worked hard, you’ve earned the privacy and the speed because you can afford it.

But the middle/upper class privilege game has its limitations too. On a finite, crowded earth, when I travel (and this includes travel by train, and, yes, I’m aware that I’m a hairsplitting white liberal -- so sue me -- ) I take from others. Some of whom might fit the “well, they were lazier, that’s why you have and they are the have nots” argument.

But not very many. The moms with the screaming babies on the train, for example, didn’t have much of a clue (in my all-judging view) but they both had labored mightily (one overhears these things) for minimum wage at two jobs at a time for years and had little prospect of more. Some of that is race and gender barriers, along with the stigma that STILL attaches to single moms. Yes, Virginia, racial and feminist analysis does have some valid things to say.

And even dolphins and whales could have better water and air prospects than they’re getting right now. I'm, just all for that. I just am.

The commons doesn’t have to be a tragedy. But there’s that digression, almost, again.


The discretionary dollars have, for decades now, stayed away from trains, and the corporatists, who make better short-term money on freight, trucking and auto infrastructure, cars, gasoline sold to individuals, airports and their attendant hotel and ground transport industries, aircraft, and jet fuel than they do on trains, and blame the discretionary dollars for it, thus driving both discretionary and indiscretionary dollars to themselves, and to be sure all this is self-fulfilling, lobby Federal, state, and local governments to keep it that way.

It’s not a deliberate conspiracy, except on the part of a relatively few particularly astute pirates, but the effect is the same. Pay attention, now: where self-interest is assumed to be the greater good, social, economic and political practice tends to feed on that assumption, draining the public good to the eventual detriment of that self-interest.

Again? Okay. Where self-interest is assumed to be the greater good, social, economic and political practice tends to feed on that assumption, draining the public good to the eventual detriment of that self-interest.

This is why Amtrak seems to perform poorly overall, and more poorly on the West Coast than throughout the system (partly because the Union Pacific is rather hostile to Amtrak and partly because U.P. has let its infrastructure fall into disarray through corporatist raids on the till).
But we’re going to need the trains. They use much less oil than planes and cars, and, leaving aside for the moment arguments about global warming (where I do think my “side” has the edge), the stuff just went to eighty dollars a barrel and this is a trend that will continue, as the flow of blood in the Near East attests.

Trains are also more easily converted to electricity. Electricity does not HAVE to run on coal, which is pretty much irredeemable stuff from all angles.

Trains can run fast. The tracks we have now were not given to us by God, as tracks in Europe and Asia make very clear.

There’s a need. And the inaction re that need is generally expressed as “market forces.”

So, what exactly is at issue here?

Where there is a need, but market forces do not adequately address the need, create a government and pay taxes.

SOME things, that’s how you do it. You nationalize the rails you need to have passenger traffic, or, if that’s too distasteful, you build a national system without harassing the private entities for access to their dilapidated resource. Hire them to build it, if you wish, but build it and maintain it and don’t take “big government can’t run a business” as an answer.

Because, well, it just isn’t. Our fire stations are expensive and don’t turn a profit so we don’t turn them over to private industry (no money in it and they might insist on putting out only the fires they can make money on). So we maintain them with tax dollars.

It’s not business. It’s service. You could run it cheaper -- no one really needs to make sixty thousand dollars a year running a train (but no one really needs sixty thousand dollars a year -- to live with food, a roof, and education and health care for the kids -- in the first place, for providing a SERVICE, mister CEO). But there’s no requirement that the results be shoddy.

I’ve seen good government-run trains. On-time trains. Clean trains. Without seat assignment right by the screamers. Tax supported.

All it takes is the will, in the community, that the commons shall not be raided for short-term profit ... Elect the representatives, make the laws, close the loopholes, assess the taxes, build the system, keep it as simple as you can, and pay a family wage to keep it running on time and clean.

If you can do it with firehouses you can do it with trains. Yes, really you can.


And oh, hey -- market forces: Eighty dollars a barrel? Ridership is up. Way up. And Amtrak is hiring.


Thursday, September 06, 2007

Death in the cornfield

We were headed south on the Coast Starlight, only 53 minutes behind schedule, between and Vacaville and Dixon, California, when I noticed two very slightly separated thumps, after which the train rapidly decelerated. We were suddenly parked across an intersection in the middle of nowhere, with a square mile of corn on one side and a square mile of (corn? sorghum?) on the other; a place that resembled, to me, nothing so much as the Illinois cornfield in North by Northwest. I suspected the worst, but hoped it was not so, and awaited some announcement but none was forthcoming for some time.

At length, after nearly an hour, one of the crew came onto the intercom.

"Folks, we've had a vehicle strike, and there is a fatality. I'm sorry, but we'll be here for some time."

People began craning their necks out the windows, or running to the front of the train with their digital cameras, a behavior which I felt I could avoid, though I felt the same morbid curiosity. I think this curiosity may be inborn. We can train ourselves, but only with some difficulty, to sit still and show a bit of decorum, as if it were to honor the dead, not that the dead know anything about it.

Conversations sprung up, that had about them the hum of a kind of elation, as when the lightning has struck elsewhere and spared us. Speculation: farmworkers en route to the fields? Kids from high school on their way to opening day?

An ambulance arrived, followed by a fire truck, about eight police cars from all the jurisdictions, three pickup trucks that turned out to be local reporters, two wrecker trucks, five highway safety trucks, and several railroad inspectors, whose job was to make sure the engine could continue its journey and that the rails had not been twisted enough to stop trains (including ours) coming through.

I watched a young EMT return to the ambulance with his defibrillator, clean the wires rather dejectedly, and slam the back door of the ambulance. The slam had a finality that told, more than any words, how the incident had ended.

Firemen came through the train, stopping every four seats or so, and asked each of us whether we were injured. The train backed up about 100 yards and this gave the wrecking crew a chance to tug the wreckage from the tracks.

Eventually an Amtrak crew member came through the cars and shed some possible light on what had happened. A young man had waited in his pickup, alone, for the train to approach the crossing at sixty miles per hour. At the last moment, it seemed, when the engineer could not possibly have stopped, he dodged his vehicle around the crossing bar and waited to die. It had been, so far as anyone could tell, deliberate.

I watched a young woman on a quarter horse or thoroughbred approach the scene, her face a study in speculative interest.

She approached the area where the wreckage lay, turned her horse immediately, and disappeared in the direction from which she had come, at an urgent, insistent canter, throwing clouds of dust and earth clods. Was the dead man someone whom she'd known? Did the policemen know him? Was his story one the end of which had been half expected? Everyone not from the train seemed terribly resigned, as if this death in the cornfield had been known to them all beforehand.

The golden corn rattled on in the stout breeze.

We left the scene after another four hours, and though the mood in the Coast Starlight might seem a little subdued, returned one and all to our admiration for the light on the distant hills.

risa b


Sunday, September 02, 2007


Over at One Tenacious Baby Mama darkdaughta is having a carnival of submitted blog reposts chosen by the bloggers as some of their own writing that they like. If I understand this properly, I'm to post the resulting link list here, which I'm happy to do. I don't know about my repost, but these others are powerful stuff and bear thinking about... multiple readings ... time well spent.

A thing she's said that I read over and over: "
I don't believe that writing is powerful enough to change the world. The majority of people would have to be willing to think deeply about what they read, brave enough to acknowledge what comes when they think and adventurous enough to allow their feelings about what they acknowledge to transform them from the inside out."
Sunday [Sept.] 2, 2007

Red Jenny's "The Good Life and The Economy"

Mommy On The Floor's "The City On The Hill"

Second Waver's
"The Male Gaze, postscript"

Universal Plume's "It's Blog For Loving Yourself Day"

Seminalson's "I'm A Fragile Being: Touch In My Men's Group"

Risa's "You Want Cream In That?"

All About My Vagina's
"Please call it 'Sex Safety'"

Darkdaughta's "Race, Class and Everyday Shite", "Western Civilization...A History of Emotional Dysfunction", "My Daughter Wants A Barbie", "Mission Not Accomplished...Sort of" and "Does He Wipe His Track Makin' Ass With Moist Towelettes?"

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Rough and ready pepper bread

I baked today, for a wedding up north. Hmm, turned on the bread machine, set it for MIX ONLY, and then cut up very small: 1 jalapeno pepper, throwing away the seeds; 1 clove elephant garlic; 1 hank of chives with a few leaves of lavender; about 10 cherry tomatoes -- these were from Beloved's garden -- Romas are better for this but they are still green -- in September! --

-- and threw on about 1/8 teaspoon dried basil and some thyme.

Dumped all that into the bread machine.

Two handfuls of oatmeal.

Four dripits of virgin olive oil (a "dripit" [my word] is, you tilt the bottle. Some comes out. Tilt it back up right away. Should be about an eighth of a teaspoon per dripit) in the four corners of the mixing pan.

One scoop (I think it's a quarter cup scoop) of brown sugar, spread evenly over the heap.

1/4 packet of yeast.
16 oz. of warm (in cold weather) or lukewarm (in warm weather) water, vegetable stock, or whey as available (today, about half tofu whey and half well water).

Went away for half an hour and let the heap grumble a bit.

Came back and added a smallish handful of salt to one corner (about half of what the sugar was).

Fired up the mixer.

Took a small bowl, about 12 oz. size, and shook three scoops of whole wheat flour over the whirling stuff.

Let it rise up and make a sticky rotating ball.

Opened some white high gluten flour and took a bowlful and slowly shook it all over the ball until the ball was not sticky to the touch. The less sticky, the taller it will rise in the low-sided dish it is destined for. Though there is a limit to this -- experience will guide.

I then let the mixer finish its cycle (1 hr 20 minutes on my machine). Went to find the ironstone platter with vertical sides, shaped like a low, round cake pan, that I like best for this (I think we had a place setting of these once, and these were the plates. This is my last one, and I treasure it). Greased it up with vegetable shortening.

With my (CLEAN) hands well greased, I picked up the mixing pan from the bread machine, held it upside down over a well floured bread board, listened to the satisfying plop, set down the pan, and worked the loaf a bit, keeping the ball shape. Turned it right side up (the smooth balloon like surface that was the down side on the board) and set it in the center of the platter. Grabbed a steak knife and swiped three little canyons in the top, about 3/8" deep and 4" long (I don't know what these are for but they look good!).

Set aside to rise in a warm place under a sheet of vegetable-oiled plastic (so it won't stick to the loaf and let the air out when it's pulled away).

In my oven, I set two racks so that one would be about 3" above the other, with room for the loaf to rise in baking (at least three inches of headroom).

On the lower shelf, I put a pizza pan as a deflector, so as not to burn the bottom of the loaf when the middle isn't done yet.

On the upper shelf, the loaf platter, centered above the pizza pan.

Baked it one hour at 325° F., checking at fifty minutes (by tipping the loaf out and thumping its belly. A drum sound means done. I'm too deaf to go by sound, but I know the look and feel).

I set it on a drying rack to cool. Will bag later.

Ready for the wedding!