ReFresh

-March-

A grey and cracked concrete box

half-filled with frozen dirt and drifts of dirty snow.

It must have been a planter, I decide,

though that seems too genteel a term

for this rough and broken nursery.

But against all odds two early stems rise.

And I do not know what they are. Not yet.

Because this planter – and the house to which

it was once tightly cemented – are new, to me.

Quite old, really, and long empty.

But now I’m here,

and both are new to me.

 

-April-

Day by day – or perhaps it’s night by night

the stems build up, cautiously, quietly,

And just a few mornings ago,

as I backed down the drive,

always by that grey box,

I saw their budding had at last begun.

But budding with reserve, ever so slow,

as if they were not sure, not yet agreed

to form full buds, let alone to flower.

 

-May-

Ah, tulips! Of course they would be tulips.

Though just barely. They did not bloom quite right;

With faded colors and missing petals,

the stems too tall and the flowers too small.

Perhaps the bulbs were old or the dirt too thin.

 

-June-

I dug it up and started again.

Old roots pulled out, some fancy soil raked around,

Rows and riots of bold color planted.

With all this fresh life bursting forth above,

I expect people will hardly notice

the broken box below.

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‘Dev’

‘Dev’ is from Sri Lanka. He has dark brown hair and light brown skin with thick, perfectly level eyebrows. The eyebrows threaten to overwhelm his deep-set, emerald eyes which are never at rest and which have an intensity that is not always comfortable. He is built mid-sized and thick, a soccer-player build, and he does like his soccer. He also likes a couple games of pool on a Saturday night, which is what he was doing when I met him.

Dev taught high school math for his ‘Gap Year’ back in Sri Lanka before he moved to the US in 2012 to start college. He now has a Bachelor Degree in Computer Science and a Graduate Degree in Information / Business Systems. The first degree he completed in three years, the second he finished in one, at night school, while he worked full time during the day. No doubt about it, Dev is intelligent and he is driven; but he is not staying in the US and building a life or career here.

“This place is not worth my prime time,” he says, which is not quite how a native English speaker might phrase it but is nonetheless a perfect expression of what he means. “With everything that’s going on now? They don’t want us here. That’s clear.” That’s clear is one of his favorite phrases. “Why should I give this country the best years of my life? They don’t want me here, they don’t want people like me.” When he says “people like me” he could be talking about smart people or educated people or driven people but he is also definitely talking about people with brown skin.

While Dev was working fulltime during the day and finishing his graduate degree at night he also started a business with a high school friend from back home. They met at a rather exclusive and rigorous boarding school they both attended. The two of them now have a Sri Lankan- based company with a few dozen full-time programmers working for them. “We’re not going to get a lot larger,” Dev says, “I just don’t think we should get bigger than that. Too hard to manage. That’s clear.”

The entire business was built and now operates without Dev travelling back home. “We just skype and call and text, we’re pretty much talking all the time.” In fact he hasn’t been back to Sri Lanka since he finished his undergraduate degree. Not because he doesn’t want to go visit but because he is on a student visa. Student visas come with a three year allowance to stay and work after school is completed. If the holder leaves the US at any time during those three years – for a summer vacation, say, or maybe a sister’s wedding, or a grand parents’ funeral – the worker might not be allowed back. So Dev just didn’t take the risk of leaving. We so often have such little knowledge of what people sacrifice to start building their ‘American’ dream.

We tend to think of Donald Trump’s racist, xenophobic, anti-immigrant propaganda as all about Mexicans coming across the southern border or Muslim refugees being potential terrorists. Those inaccuracies are bad enough. But a lot of additional collateral damage is being done as well. Most all immigrants, regardless of where they’re from or why they wanted to come here, are getting the message that they are not welcome. It’s not just rhetoric either, even without passing legislation the Trump administration is setting policies and re-writing regulations to make it tougher to get just about any category of immigrant visa.

Each year more than a million foreign college students and highly-trained temporary workers who want to stay in the US vie for just 120,000 permanent visas. The temporary worker program is larger, granting about 750,000 visas each year. Or at least they were. The US Citizenship and Immigration Service is using regulations and bureaucracy to make it more difficult for employers to get these visas. Also, under the ‘Buy American, Hire American’ initiative, the administration is decreasing the number of years foreign workers are allowed to stay and the number of extensions for which they can file.

“I have four friends from home who were working in high tech in the Bay area, they all went back, too,” Dev told me. “No one wants to stay, now. But the people at home… they’re moving to Germany and France, and Australia. Those countries want us.”

That too is clear, crystal clear. Other countries are making a play for the immigrants we are pushing away. France has just started a new high tech visa program, expanding it’s immigration in this area, they intend to become a high-tech hotbed. Last year, when the US said it would stop processing premium H-1B visas for six months, Canada announced it would expedite them.

Donald Trump and his administration are intentionally sending away a segment of the very people who have made America great. Immigrants are just 12% of the American population yet they founded or co-founded half of all Silicon Valley start-ups. One-quarter of US global patents are awarded to technology created or co-created by immigrants. Half the people working in science or engineering with PhD’s are immigrants.

Dev has already bought his one-way ticket home. He’s spending the next two months travelling the US, visiting those places he hasn’t yet seen. Then he’s taking his intelligence, his drive, and his start-up, and going home. Brain drain, that’s what Trump’s war on immigration has brought us. We won’t see the extent of the damage to the United States until he is long gone and long after Dev and his friends have also left. So when the next Google (co-founded by Russian immigrant Sergey Brin) starts up in France or China or Sri Lanka, we’ll know why.

The interview and the essay are mine, the statistics and background information come from:
Reuters, Sept 20, 2017
McClatchy Dec 31, 2017
Pew research Center, Feb 26, 2018
CNBC Website, April 9, 2018
Vivek Wadhwa, “America’s Loss is the World’s Gain”.
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‘Alberto’

‘Alberto’ is from Honduras. He looks to be about 40 years old. He works full-time and he also works part-time. I caught up with him at his part-time job, cutting grass and doing yard work. It was hot and humid, 90 degrees with a dewpoint of 61. The sweat was beading just above his heavy dark eyebrows and slowly trickling down around his thick nose. “I love it,” he said, “I love this hot weather. My brother hates it, but I love it.” He pushed the sweat off his forehead as he said this, wiping it back into his thick, short, salt-and-pepper hair.

It was a late Sunday morning on Memorial Day weekend and he was mowing a suburban lawn when he took a break to talk with me. “I really appreciate it. That people hire me to do their lawn work, it really helps,” he said. Alberto’s fulltime job used to be working at a hardware store, that’s where I first met him. He’s the guy you wanted to talk to because he could help you equally well whether you had a question about leaky toilets or designer plant soil.

“I’ve been in America 22 years now, and I have three children. All born here. Ages two to 18. They can stay, but I have to leave. How am I gonna do that?” he asks, rhetorically.

Alberto didn’t come here illegally. Nor did he overstay his visa. In fact, he’s done everything legally, above board. In 1999 nearly 90,000 Hondurans were allowed into the US under Temporary Protective Status in the aftermath of Hurricane Mitch, which devastated the country and left 10,000 people dead across Central America. That protective status has been in place ever since. But now the Trump administration says it will revoke that status as of January, 2020. Alberto, and the other 50,000 Hondurans who still rely on TPS have 18 months to somehow get citizenship or they will be deported.

In fact Trump’s Department of Homeland Security, under Secretary Kerstjen Nielson, is revoking TPS not just for those 50,000 Hondurans but for about 300,000 other people from Sudan, Nepal, Haiti, Nicaragua, and El Salvador.

If you seem to recall that Honduran immigrants have been in the news a lot lately, you’re right. Many of the folks who were part of the immigrant caravan that pushed Trump into a Twitter tirade were from Honduras. It’s not hurricanes driving them out now but rather a country in crisis. Their last election was contested, the outcome was probably illegitimate; violent, deadly protests resulted.

Honduras also has a drug trade that controls most of the cocaine distributed in the United States. And let’s be honest about this, the Central American drug trade is driven by demand here in the USA. If we weren’t buying they wouldn’t be selling.

Of course with the drug trade come gangs and violence. The MS-13 gang has a presence in Honduras – though it is by no means the largest or most violent gang there. In 2012 Honduras had the highest murder rate in the world for countries not at war. It is supposedly better now; only 14 people are killed, on average, each day, down from 20 people a day in 2012. But the current rate is still more than 10 times the murder rate in the United States and still one of the highest murder rates in the world. A total of 4 percent of these murders end in conviction; the police and military are widely corrupt and believed to be frequently working in concert with the gangs.

“How can I bring my children there?” asks Alberto, again rhetorically. “I’m scared to go there myself, I don’t want to go there. I don’t know how to live there.” Yet he has gone there. “The first lawyer we hired, he said to go back there and start over again, because maybe I could get asylum. So we took his advice but that didn’t work. The second lawyer we hired just took our money and didn’t do anything. Nothing. Now we’re on our third lawyer, maybe he’ll know what to do.”

Alberto’s current fulltime job is detailing cars. “They don’t pay me a lot but they are good to me,” he says. He works for a very large used-car dealership. “After two weeks of working there they asked me to manage the detailing department. I’m not the fastest but I am the best,” he says, a proud smile playing across his face. “Of course, now that I am manager, some of the other guys get mad at me. It’s not always fun to manage.” He’s a manager and he makes not much more than $10 an hour. And he’s had to hire three lawyers to fight the Trump administration’s plans for him.

These are the people we need here, the people we want here. And we do need them here. The US fertility rate is at its lowest rate ever. Ever. We are not having enough babies to even maintain a steady population, let alone to grow it. The only way we can maintain or grow the population now is through immigration. Yet the Trump administration is dead set on deporting able-bodied workers and their children even though the net inflow of immigrants per 1000 people is at it’s lowest rate since 1820. Since 1820!

“After all the taxes I’ve paid, for 22 years, working full-time for 22 years … and I don’t even have a speeding ticket! Never, not one!” He’s gesturing with his hands now, as if imploring me to understand. “And the social security tax too”, he says, “if I leave they don’t give that back to me, they just keep it.” And this is true. Even illegal immigrants who get paychecks pay all federal taxes and FICA – the social security tax. But they’ll never see their social security payments returned as monthly retirement checks if they are using a fake social security number or working under an assumed name.  Or if they are deported before they retire. It’s not like we send them back with a nice fat check – we just keep that money, and use it for the rest of us. This is clearly wrong.

“I love America, I really do,” said Alberto, and smiled again as he said it. “I still think it is the greatest country, or at least it can be. The Greatest Country!” He smiled even wider as he wiped more sweat back into his hair. ”But I don’t understand why they’re doing this to me.”

His oldest daughter, now in high school, plays hockey. Women’s high school hockey, in Minnesota. That’s about as far, metaphorically speaking, as you can get from Honduras. And now Alberto’s supposed to go back there. And he can resettle his children in one of the most dangerous countries in the world or he can leave his family here and go by himself to a place where he has no job, no security, no family.

I agree with Alberto. I love this country, I really do. But I don’t understand why we are doing this to him, and to 400,000 other people like him. Deporting law-abiding, hard-working people will, in the long-run, only harm our economy and our strength. But beyond that, it is just immoral. I can find no other explanation for our current immigration policies except that they are based in fear, prejudice and ignorance. And in the Trump Administration’s case, a willful ignorance, as in ignoring the truth. They know better. They know these stats and they know the long-term consequences of what they are doing. But they also know that by appealing to people’s fear and prejudice they can secure the support of a solid 40% of the American population. It shouldn’t be that easy for this great country to be this foolish, and this cruel. We need to be better than this.

References / Information and details found in,

The Guardian, May 4, 2018

The Washington Post, May 4, 2018

The Washington Post, Dec 4 2017

US News and World Report, July 31, 2017

Wikipedia (crime stats)

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Interstate Communion

Driving down the Interstate,
in the West,
on an early Summer evening,
my dreams speed out ahead of me,
showing me a life
not nearly finished.
While at the next slowly-curving turn,
my memories flood out behind me,
overwhelming the road back there,
forcing me to remember the places I've been
seconds, and minutes, and years ago.

 

Out here, in the West, on the Interstate,
for long hours,
as darkness takes its time descending,
I can almost feel
that it is not the sun which sets,
but rather it is the earth rolling me back,
and down,
and away from the light.

 

Out here, in the Summer,
on the Interstate, at night,
when the darkness is done descending,
it is not quite complete.
Down to the left, caught in my headlights,
painted road stripes flash by.
Over to the right
reflective mile markers rise and fall.
But these quick moments of light,
only add counterpoint,
only reinforce,
the vast, empty darkness.

 

Out here, in the West, on the high plains of the night,
there might be nothing between me and the stars;
no velvety dark clouds, no moon ready to roll up,
not even a sky that I know to be up there but which I cannot see.
I might be in outer space, 
on a dark, timeless journey between distant worlds;
only my illuminated dash 
and the steady white flash
to keep me moving forward, 
to keep me company.

 

Out here, at night, alone,
speeding smoothly along,
I feel alive, and singular,
and comfortably a part,
of this anonymous universe.
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Norway 2017

Simple, intentional and slightly surprising; that is Norwegian design. Take, by way of example, the chairs at the City Hall in Hamar, Norway. I wish I’d gotten more video of these chairs, or even better I wish I’d shot some stills- but these screen grabs will have to do.  I was at the City Hall for the opening draw of the 2017 World All-Around Speedskating Championships so I had other things on my mind.

Nevertheless I did get a bit of the chairs before I put the phone away. They are made entirely of  wood, gently curved wood. Nothing is ornate or elaborate, just carefully and gracefully curved wood. They are rather tall. A light varnish shows off the natural color and grain of the wood. The wool cushioning is a deep grey, almost black in color, yet it contrasts in tonal perfection with the light wood. Then there’s the engraving on the back of each chair. It’s not even outlined or highlighted – at first glance you might not even notice it, but when you do, you will soon realize that every chair is engraved, every chair is marked as belonging to Hamar, to Norway. Each chair is a tribute to Hamar’s long history and to Norway’s contemporary 21st century craftsmanship.

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These are just chairs, something for the public to sit on during a boring council meeting – or a speed skating draw. You could easily overlook them since you expect nothing special in a public meeting hall. They do not call attention to themselves.  Their function could be fulfilled just as easily with a set of cheap folding chairs. But then you sit down in one and after a moment you realize it is ridiculously comfortable. Then you begin to think of  how this is exactly the opposite of what you expect in a government building. Then you start to notice why, and you begin to see just how special these chairs are, how everything about them is intentional and refined. Airports and museums should be filled with such chairs.

Once I started to pay attention I saw this design aesthetic everywhere; the police headquarters which looks outward rather than inward, with slightly skewed vertical lines separating the two story windows.  The curving lines of the local mall, yes, the local mall;  irregular windows and cut outs make you think the roof line is sloping down while the rounded edge of the building turns away to infinity. No right angles here! In the interior and on the exterior of City Hall arcing curves are cut off by righteous angles. Or the reverse, rectangular blocks are set in to curved lines. What could be boring, functional, ‘cheapest bid’ public architecture becomes instead a statement of values, of outlook, of shared communal aesthetics. Yet none of these buildings look costly or wasteful, they only look like someone spent time, put in careful thought, used creativity.

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This doesn’t mean the people are without light-heartedness; see the photos of the decorated bus stop. It happens to be about half way between the police station and city hall. This metaphorically and literally frigid bus stop is decorated as if it were the inside of someone’s warm and welcoming home. Such an unexpected and humorous juxtaposition. Every time I went by I smiled.

Perhaps my appreciation for Nordic design is simply bred into my DNA. I am mostly Scandinavian, after all, although it is mostly Swedish rather than Norwegian, apparently. Or perhaps it’s because we’re most comfortable with what we know well. I grew up going to a small Lutheran church which beautifully exemplified this quiet, stark aesthetic.  As did so much of the way my mom decorated our home, down to the thought she put into table cloths and dish ware.  Of course there was that bi-level shag rug explosion in 1976. But that’s to be expected – it was the 70’s.

Most definitely though we are strongly, if subconsciously, influenced by the landscape that surrounds us – or the lack thereof. This is where I think the Scandinavians have an advantage over much of the rest of the world. The landscape here is rugged and dramatic, yet somehow also clean, uncluttered and approachable. Endless miles of white snow, not quite covering hills and small mountains of dark granite and grey rock, all sliding down into frigid blue fjords. It’s not unlike the Minnesota landscape in which I grew up. Perhaps that is why I feel so at home here. Yet the Norwegian horizon holds more vertical interest and the colors here seem  more saturated; if Minnesota is a painting done in watercolors, Norway is a portrait done in oil.

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The stark landscape of Norway is so clearly echoed in the simple, quiet, and strong designs  of the people who live here. Embellishment and ostentation have their place, certainly, but simple, clean, intentional design will always call me home.

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Equal to the Task

Trees reach up
in a pale, winter sky,
leaves gone,
only branches and bark remain.
The branches divide,
divide again,
ever smaller dark fingers
grab at cold sunlight.

Trees dive down,
below frozen ground.
Blind roots
push out,
search cold water,
weave a woody anchor.

The dark branches reach up
as the blind net spreads down.
Each half required,
and each equal to the task,
of reaching out,
and pulling in life.

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