About Erik Dolson

Erik Dolson is a writer living in Oregon

Socked in

By Erik Dolson

The two-cycle Yamaha outboard on the dinghy used to start on first pull, but had recently become balky. Of course, this morning it did not start despite careful attention to our ritual: key, choke, throttle, pull.

That meant it might take five pulls, or 20, or that I would have to wait for a few minutes for the combustion chamber to clear, the spark plug to dry. The motor had acquired an attitude, possibly bad intent. Timing seemed malevolent. It was a little after 7 a.m., and I had a ferry to catch.

Fog lay close to the water, too. I couldn’t see more than a couple hundred feet. I’d need to take special care when crossing the ferry route from my sailboat to the dock where I get off the dinghy to walk to the ferry terminal.

The Yamaha came to life on about the tenth pull, then ran without a sputter just like there was no problem at all, like it had just been waiting for me to ask.

“Bastard,” I said, then realizing my ongoing dependence quickly added, “Just kidding!”

I wanted to crank the throttle wide open and scoot across the channel, but the water was glassy smooth and full of sticks and seaweed at a minus low tide. I imagined what it would be like to hit something, kill the motor or worse, have to limber the oars and row across with a ferry bearing down in the fog.

I resisted the temptation and motored carefully across. The early start meant there was still plenty of time.

More than I knew.

After getting coffee and slice of “egg pie” with ham, bacon, and cheese from The Bean, my favorite café (unasked, Holly reheated the quiche when I told her I needed it to go), I wandered down to the ferry dock. Between bites, I tracked the ferry online. It was late.

Of course it was late.  The ferry wasn’t going to steam at full speed, possibly running over inattentive boaters, some without radar or tracking devices of their own, or those in a dinghy recklessly thinking they could cross in front of a ferry hidden in the fog. The Samish blew its horn from the other side of Brown Island, warning boaters of its presence before easing into the harbor.

This is August in the San Juan Islands. Warmish moist air settles down onto 55 degree water, causing fog. The month is nicknamed “Fogust” by locals.

The ferry bellowed about every 20 or 30 seconds. It’s a huge sound, felt as much as heard. Normally you see the ferry approach, becoming larger as it comes closer. But this morning the Samish suddenly appeared out of the fog, already huge, towering and heavy, and slid into its berth.

We loaded and departed, 40 minutes late. Fog clung to the water for the entire trip over to Anacortes. The Samish bellowed to alert those who cannot see, who cannot be seen.

Owning our own time

By Erik Dolson

Just now on channel 16  a man said, “White sailboat with blue stripe near the entrance to Roche Harbor, you are approaching a pod of orca. Stop your boat.”

After about 20 seconds, a woman came on the radio and said, “Thank you for the alert. Our engines are off.” Or something similar. It’s nice hearing sailors (power or sail) sharing respect for these truly magical creatures.

Since I left the entrance to Roche Harbor about four hours ago, I was disappointed not to have been there to see the orca. But I’ve seen them up close in Alaska and will treasure that memory until I create another.

Arrived in Blind Bay about noon or so, I really don’t keep track of time when on the boat. Okay, I don’t really keep track of time at all, anymore. There’s a certain timelessness at this age I didn’t have for most of my life. I was born impatient. Glad I’ve mostly recovered.

Jimmy told me once, when we were on his boat in Panama, that one of the things he treasured most about cruising with Leslee on their boat was that “I own my own time.”

Incredibly able and creative, he may have been the only person I ever knew who was born even more impatient than me. He hid it better though, behind a habit of being just a little late for whatever was most important on his schedule. I named  the inevitable chaos that resulted after them, which I don’t think he appreciated partly because it was so spot on.

Leslee said we were brothers of different mothers. I miss him every day. There’s a certain timelessness to that, too.

There’s no reason to put down the crab pot. The season won’t open again until Thursday, when I’ll be back in the truck heading south to Oregon, to tasks and paperwork, clocks and calendars, and smoke from forest fires.

Maybe I should drop the dinghy back into the water regardless, but I don’t know that I’ll need to go anywhere. That depends on what Karen and Joe want to do when they get here in their wonderful Swedish boat, Zephyr.

I have fresh mussels and clams to steam up for appetizers. regardless. I hope they have butter. Maybe I should drop the dinghy and motor over to the tiny store at the ferry landing on Shaw Island. I could get a bottle of Talking Rain while I’m there.

Ah, I have to drop the dinghy in any case, it blocks the only easy way to get on board. As good as reason as any. Maybe I’ll motor over to see that catamaran a couple hundred yards away.

Portland’s been dying for decades

By Erik Dolson

I spent my first 18 years of life in the Portland area, and seven years after that until my early thirties when I came to Sisters, Oregon to publish the local newspaper.

I loved Portland. For years I said Portland was like a well-worn leather jacket I could slip into any time and it still fit just fine.

That hasn’t been true for more than a decade, and certainly not in the 2020s. At the beginning of June I visited the city, taking 405 downtown and exiting at Everett Street, close to where I used to live in Northwest Portland when I waited tables at a couple of the finest restaurants in town, The Ringside and Jakes Famous Crawfish.

The scene at the Everett Street exit hit me like a bucket of water thrown from a second floor window. The tents, the trash, the squalor were like nothing I’d seen in person since I travelled through India. Portland had become a third world experience. I was devastated.

I started to write a letter to the Willamette Week newspaper that began, “Seriously, Portland?” But I didn’t finish it because I didn’t have anything to offer beyond my shock and disappointment, really. I had no solution, besides, “Don’t do this to yourself! You’re beautiful! You have a future!” The same advice I’d give a friend sliding back into addiction, sores on her face and angry, dripping lesions in her arm.

Then came the death of George Floyd, and more than 50 days of protests, what some call riots, and the abdication of leadership by city managers that has been taken advantage of by punks. And now, that has been followed by the invasion of Portland by federal agents using what are probably illegal tactics, pulling innocent people off the street without cause and beyond the stated mission to protect federal buildings.

But I’ll let others, who know far more than I about the law, debate the constitutionality of those actions. I think sending in federal agents, whether Trump’s idea or Barr’s, is a bad move for other reasons, and they should clear out and let Portland be Portland, let the city find its own level, let the policies of the mayor and city council play out to their conclusion.

Like any addict, eventually the city will hit bottom. Those in charge at that time will have to make hard decisions about what to do about homelessness, loss of opportunity, eratic law enforcement, financial ruin and finally, whether to look up, buck up, or give up. Portland is not healthy, and will soon be on life support.

A friend of mine was once powerful in the Portland area financial scene, and later a major developer of the Pearl District. The last time we met, he was lamenting the anti-business bias in Oregon in general and especially the city he called home, and said there would eventually be an exodus of investment and talent.

More than 50 days of protests, what some have called riots, have likely accelerated that process. It does not matter if the vandals, arsonists, and thugs are merely a small minority creating chaos within a legitimate protest movement. In a free society, those who can move eventually will move to places where streets are safe, where stores don’t board up windows or shut down in bankruptcy.

Yes, the death of George Floyd should be a catalyst for change. Yes, police brutality is a fact and the culture of Portland Police could use a thorough cleaning. That might more quickly be solved by pay raises, higher standards and accountability, as opposed to defunding the police. We’ll leave that conversation to another day.

But violence is not the answer to any social discord, whether in protest or counter protest. Violence and destruction are too damn easy, not sustainable, and turns people you need against your cause.

Trump sending in federal troops in anonymous uniforms and unmarked vans will end in failure and they should leave, by court order if necessary and damn soon, hopefully before death and more destruction. Protesters need to focus on their message, learn from Martin Luther King and Gandhi, and show responsibility to the community whose attention they are trying to attract.

The 50 days of protest, what some have called riots, is Portland’s problem in the final analysis, and fittingly a liberal’s problem, in my opinion. But Portland has sores that have been festering for a number of years. We now simply see a bit of gangrene that could have been prevented by better interventions a long time ago.

Hopefully it’s not a fatal condition for a city I still want to love.

Don’t want to mask?

By Erik Dolson

This is how a Republican shows he is morally bankrupt:

“Mask-wearing has become a totem, a secular religious symbol,” one Republican strategist told The Washington Post. “Christians wear crosses, Muslims wear a hijab, and members of the Church of Secular Science bow to the Gods of Data by wearing a mask as their symbol, demonstrating that they are the elite; smarter, more rational, and morally superior to everyone else.”

Not only does this “Republican strategist” denigrate religion, by comparing the wearing of a COVID mask to a Christian Cross or Muslim hijab and, one assumes, also a Star of David; he (I just think women are smarter than this) misrepresents the reason why most of us who wear masks do so.

Let’s make this personal. He claims I belong to “the Church of Secular Science” without a clue as to my faith or affiliation. Then, claiming I “bow to the Gods of Data” proves he does not believe in science nor in data. In other words, he prefers ignorance and being uninformed.

Then Republican Strategist claims I wear a mask to show I am “the elite; smarter, more rational, and morally superior to everyone else.”

This is utter bullshit, but similar bullshit pours from the mouths of other Republicans eager to reflect the ugliness of Trump, giving us a pandemic of president pandering. I am sick and tired of this divisiveness, of men like this spreading lies about what I think, about what I think about my neighbors.

So let me clear this up. Here are the reasons I wear a COVID mask:

I wear a mask to save American lives, maybe of a loved one, maybe my own, and maybe yours. I wear a mask to save my business, which depends on healthy customers. I wear a mask because I am a citizen of the United States who shares the air with my fellow Americans when we are out together trying to feed our families.

It’s not socialism, nor dictatorship, nor about being superior. It’s just good citizenship based on good medical advice. Got that?

To the Republican Strategist who demeaned me, my faith, the various faiths of my fellow citizens, my integrity, and my morals, I extend this invitation: Take your greasy, manipulative lies about me and my intentions, wrap them in the COVID mask you obviously don’t use for its intended purpose, and shove the whole wad up your ass.

Your flatulent ethics are poisoning America.

(Photo by NYT)

I’m out of ideas

By Erik Dolson

Often I wonder if this country’s ailments can be cured. Each of the major issues sometimes appear … just too hard.

Some even thrive on the processes we would use to solve them. What do you do when medicine causes a disease it was supposed to cure?

Laws are to minimize conflict between our different values, to guide interactions while allowing each maximum freedom. Still, there are many areas where values interact. Industries exist that maximize friction between us, businesses that have freedom to fan the flames of hatred.

I have no idea how to fix that.

I used to argue with a friend, a conservative from a military and law enforcement family, about police brutality. She felt police do an incredible job in very dangerous circumstances. I agreed with that, but also said some police departments had institutionalized a “cop culture” that pitted police against citizens, and had unions that gave them immunity from accountability. We could not agree on what should be done.

I have no idea how to fix that.

I have friends who say America has become the land of inequality. I respond that inequality is a fact of life, and the fight is against loss of opportunity. But money flows to oligopolists and oligarchs here in the U.S., and power follows the money, which is then used to concentrate even more money needed to provide the poorer a “pursuit of happiness.” But money means power and power won’t give up its money.

I have no idea how to fix that.

After a career as a journalist and a writer, of course I’m a passionate believer in free speech, and freedom of the press. I was there when “the press” was destroyed by the Internet. While I initially believed this “freedom of expression” would give rise to more liberty across the world, instead this revolution resulted in sophisticated tools of manipulation, and a wildfire of freely expressed and unaccountable hatred.

I have no idea how to fix that.

At one time I believed the trend line of humanity was upward, that we would achieve more as a species. Instead, I see striving for lowest cost, maximum consumption, and capitalist inspired growth leading to the strip mining of fish from the ocean, wildfires scorching forests from the land, seas rising to consume coastal cities and homes, plastics polluting the biology of every human being on earth. There are too many damn people, our planet is under great stress, and humanity has become a carcinogen.

I have no idea how to fix that.

Hidden assumptions

by Erik Dolson

The other evening over dinner, my daughter K.C. asked why all the sailing magazines scatted around my house showed “older white people” in ads for boats.

“Is that because those are the people who have jobs where they can afford those boats? Would it be good to show people with brown skin like me (she is of East Indian heritage) in the ads?”

Since I published a small newspaper for most of my adult life, I explained that advertising costs money, advertisers wanted to aim their ads at those most likely to buy the product. Yes, demographically, older white people are more likely to have the income to buy boats. It’s just business.

It took a few days, but I have a lot of barnacles to grind off. K.C. supplied the grit.

To what extent do visual images in ads not just attract the target audience, but also create a negative landscape for others? Do ads aimed at upper income whites also convey the message, “This is not for you” to lower income, non-whites? How deep does it go? “You can’t achieve this?”

I’m not suggesting government dictate what advertising should look like, nor how companies spend their advertising dollars. But K.C.s question prompted a raft of my own questions about how social assumptions affect business, and how that in turn might affect social assumptions.

I think what K.C. was getting at is that there are many thumbs on the scale of injustice, some of which we don’t even see, at least if we have no reason to look.

Capitalist conundrum

By Erik Dolson

Office Depot put my local stationary store out of business, then the men’s store downtown that carried shirts I liked closed their doors because of the new mall. And there is always Walmart. Capitalism may be efficient and creative, but has some serious side effects.

I think of myself as a capitalist (and a liberal, but those are not really incompatible). But I worry that unintended consequences of unfettered capitalism may harm “we the people” it ostensibly serves. Since we’ve given the rights of “personhood” to corporations, perhaps we’re the servants.

Lower costs certainly benefit consumers. The savings may come from efficiency gains and purchasing power. I love Costco, but it’s instructive to listen to companies that sell to that big-box giant. Walmart sells t-shirts made so cheaply in China that consumers in America, at least those who still have jobs, can buy new ones whenever they want. That does not include out-of-work textile workers in Alabama.

Amazon sells for less by eliminating the cost of brick and mortar stores. Of course, I can no longer go in and feel if a product is well made, but I can always return it with the cost carried by the seller. They may lose money, but they have no choice because Amazon has become the market place. If a seller is not there, they’re nowhere.

Wealth and profit are driving forces of capitalism, and are not dirty words. But when profit is the primary motive of company leaders, and a higher stock price rewards executives who cut costs by stepping on workers and buying back shares, then capitalism can lead to wide-scale destruction of value, and often of corporate values. See Boeing, 737 Max.

Why does VISA own our money, charging the businesses we buy from a couple of percent off the top and setting us up to fail so they can charge usurious interest on underpayments when we get in a jam? Of course credit cards are convenient, and possibly cleaner as we consider coronavirus, but what is the true cost of VISA to national productivity? Would it be wise to bring money back under national control?

The “free market” does not serve us well when it comes to health care.  Proof is easily found by anyone who cares. I won’t waste effort defending the statement.

These trends will accelerate, and hardship become worse, when Amazon buys Tesla robot semi trucks to move goods, further reducing Amazon’s cost by eliminating truckers, one of the last sorta kinda well-paying jobs for the undereducated. Then all those truck stop cafes will close, putting all the Serving Shirley’s and Grillin’ Gary’s out of work, too. Then the companies that provide the pre-prepared chicken fried steaks, and frozen blackberry pies.

Car manufacturing is increasingly done by robots, as recent photos of factory floors and employment numbers from Michigan have shown. It’s not just that jobs are going to Mexico, though they have, but it will be even worse when we start importing electric cars from China made by robots built in Germany. Even logging in my home town uses huge cutter/buncher machines that do the work of seven or nine men with only a crew of three.

Capitalism makes companies more efficient, they make more profit, and can compete more effectively in the “free market.”

So capitalism may lowers costs (unless there’s a monopoly, or collusion in the market to keep prices high — see AT&T, Verizon), but when the primary cost is labor, that means jobs are lost. Politicians owned by corporations sell it as “freedom” in the “free market” and giving people the “freedom to choose.” Capitalists say, “… the unemployed should retrain for jobs that are in demand.”

Okay, maybe some of those unemployed loggers will retrain and get a comparable job writing software. Maybe they can go into real estate. By the way, thanks for cutting funds for their education and health care while they’re out of work, and for making student loans unassailable so those with dreams can live in servitude for decades after getting a worthless degree from Trump Chump U.

Of course many give up. Change is happening so quickly now, retraining for most is a pipe dream. So pass that pipe, because “worrying about all this shit aint getting me nowhere when there aren’t no jobs in the first place, and big business has bought all the companies that used to pay a living wage.”

So perhaps there’s an element of self destruction in the creative destruction of capitalism. After all, workers who are getting squeezed are also consumers that power 60 percent of the economy. At some point, would it be wise to consider the total impact of individual decisions, and protect the system that supports all of us? Might that be the role of government?

Ultimately, we’ll also have to confront the question of our indvidual value in this brave new world. Traditionally our value, to ourselves, to our families, to our society, was measured at least partially in terms of our work. That’s different than our value to the market, defined by capitalists who manipulate our consumption, which is primarily as a consumer.

What happens to our “value” when we no longer have a job, and not enough money to consume?

End anonymity on social media

by Erik Dolson

Years ago when I published a small town weekly newspaper, on occasion we covered controversial issues. There were differences of opinion, and sometimes bitterness. Letters to the editor were occasionally “difficult.”

We strove to publish every letter, though at times we had to give writers a second chance to moderate their language. On very rare occasions, we fulfilled our responsibility to the community and refused to spread bile. Importantly, when doing so we acted in our role as journalists and mindful of responsibilities conferred by the First Amendment to the Constitution. Of course, not everyone agreed with our interpretation.

But there was one rule that was not bent, let alone broken: Opinions had to be signed. Our philosophy was that if one wanted to speak up, one had to own their speech.

I personally believe that guideline would greatly benefit social media, and in fact, American politics.

I believe each post on Facebook and Twitter and every other platform should be linked to its author, which should be a verified individual. Every political contribution should be linked to its contributor. If the Supreme Court wants to grant “personhood” to corporations (a decision I disagree with, by the way) then that corporate “person” should be identified when entering into the political area with vast sums of money.

The free market, to the extent it exists, depends on transparency. The “marketplace of ideas,” in the words of Jefferson, is no different.

Eliminating anonymity in the American conversation would go a long way toward improving our dialogue.

Rain on water

By Erik Dolson

At 6 a.m. I stretched tarp over hatches to keep out rain that had been falling for hours and found its way within, waking and alerting me the weather had changed with “tap, tap, tap” as drops hit the wood sole of the cabin.

Clouds heavy with rain snag in the low conifers of Brown Island, muffle the world.

Silence on board is so intense I hear clouds rip free from the overcast. Occasionally a soft veil tears loose with a small cry, pretends to be fog and drifts by at eye level, then sinks softly seeking to reunite with the ocean here, in this harbor.

A man across the marina drops a tool, it hits a ladder with metallic cymballic percussion followed by kettle drum boom as it strikes the deck.

Farther away, a single gull keens lonely disappointments. No one answers.

Tomorrow I leave the boat to a soft lapping of waves evenly punctuated by massive rumbles from green and white ferries serving the islands and emitting an occasional low bellow felt more than heard as inattentive are warned: commerce approaches and has a schedule to keep.

This boat rocks as they pass, fenders squealing in compression between boat and dock; latches and blocks knock as they adjust to tackle new angles.

Tomorrow, I reimmerse in a cacophony of demands, traffic, disputes and discussion.

Tomorrow. Today there is cloud, and rain tapping gently on canvas stretched tight overhead.

 

This is NOT a drill

by Erik Dolson

Another day lost to the coronavirus, another week gone by.  We’re in a row boat, Republicans have the only oar. They row on their side only and around, around we go.

“The states will do testing,” Trump says (on Monday, could change any time). Mitch McConnell says “blue” states should be punished for past spending by withholding money needed to pay cops, nurses, firefighters. “Let them go bankrupt,” he says.

It’s one thing if McConnell’s Kentucky opens up for business today or tomorrow. Agreed, that’s up to their governor. But then, do we restrict travelers from Kentucky because they can’t afford to test? How do we know if Kentucky is a hotbed of virus? If some states test and others do not, do we build walls between them?

Once again: The coronavirus is a national problem, affecting national health and the national economy, and requires a coherent national response. Here is a minimum national strategy, suggested by someone who knows, Paul Romer, a 2018 Nobel laureate in economics and former chief economist for the World Bank, as reported in the Washington Post:

“… federal government should test every American once every two weeks to reestablish national confidence and jump-start the economy — an effort he estimated at $100 billion, all told.

That cost, he said, pales in comparison to the amount of lost economic activity the pandemic has caused. Romer, an expert in economic modeling, estimates that the United States is losing at least $500 billion a month in domestic production; other economists have suggested the figure is larger still.

‘Every month of delay makes the recovery slower — and take longer,’ Romer said.”

This is not a drill. As Trump flounders, American’s die and prospects for the future grow dim.