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Posts Tagged ‘America’

Resurfacing

Rain cloud over Taos

Mountains outside Taos, New Mexico

Oh blog, and blog readers, I’ve ignored you for so long. My apologies for the long break between posts. The last couple of months have gone by in a flash, a nearly-hallucinatory slideshow of people, places, goodbyes, hellos, endings, beginnings and movement, always movement. Until finally I stopped.

I’ve been in San Francisco for three weeks and feel myself slowly settling in. K and I have been enjoying a really simple life these last few weeks: pottering around the house, working from home, shopping for bulk goods and cooking every healthy meals at home, barely eating out. We really needed this slower time after a fun but relentless and at-times spectacularly stressful previous three months which involved 3 countries, ten states, six flights and one epic drive.

The last couple of months we spent in DC were a constant countdown to departure and we pushed ourselves to be endlessly social as we strove to pack in time with all the people we loved. Finishing a job and packing up a house made work and home time equally busy. Taking a break to Costa Rica, where we originally planned to renew our visas, sounded like a good idea when we booked the ticket, and was certainly very beautiful, but became just another thing that needed organizing and nowhere near enough time to really relax. (And we weren’t even able to get our visas, requiring another trip overseas, this time to good ‘ol Australia.)

Then a final week in DC, party party party pack pack pack, and we were on the road, driving South through Virginia at first and spending our first night in the George Washington National Forest, part of the ancient Appalachian Mountains that run down the East coast. Staring up at the stars that night I felt the thrill of freedom that everyone must feel when they set out on a cross-country adventure.

We took eleven days to cross the continent, enough time to do things other than drive. Twice we took days off, first in the bohemian Taos in New Mexico and then in the Eastern Sierra Nevadas in California. We spent two days driving due West across Tennessee, arriving at all our chosen attractions just after closing time or on their day off, then spend across Arkansas, Oklahoma and Texas. In Little Rock we picked up a traveling companion, our friend James, and in Clinton, OK. we spent the night in the perfect old-school roadside dive motel. We were in awe of the Taos gorge and then had our minds blown by the Grand Canyon over which we saw the sun rise after three hours of sleep. In Death Valley we experienced 119 Fahrenheit (38.5 Celsius). (That was particularly amazing, the hottest temperature I’ve encountered, a genuinely new feeling.) We plunged into a freezing-cold stream of ice-melt pouring down off the Sierra Nevadas and saw the highest and lowest points in mainland USA within 2 hours drive of each other. I saw five animals I had never seen in the wild before: a hummingbird, coyote, elk, praire dogs and beavers.

America is a spectacularly large and diverse country. Mainland USA is as spread out as Australia but with a staggering degree of geographic diversity. Ancient mountain ranges (the Appalachians) and much more recent upheavals (the Rockies), huge plains and vast canyons cut into plateaus four thousand feet high. America is a relatively new continent, the land subject to the repeated trauma of tectonic collisions, volcanic instability, ice-age glaciers and resulting floods. It was thrilling to see the land morph so dramatically around us, often in the space of a few hours.

All in all, an amazing drive. We arrived in San Francisco around 2pm, had time to visit a friends house and have a shower and then left the car in long-term parking and caught a flight back to Australia, whereupon landing we dashed immediately to the US Consulate for our visa interview, arriving with seven minutes to spare. Stressful. But new visas we did receive, allowing us to work in the US for another two years, and we were both deeply relieved despite our outward (and well-deserved) confidence. The rest of the week was spent focused on family and some very special friends. Then back to San Fran, landing at 10am and seeing our first apartment at 12pm, the first of ten we would see over the weekend before I flew out on an overnight flight back to DC to start my work for Small Act at the Virginia HQ.

Naturally it was the eleventh house K saw, the morning after I left, that she fell in love with and so when I returned that Friday night it was to our new place in the Mission, which was pretty cool. And the house was every bit as great as described, cozy, large and filled with character, not to mention exactly where we wanted to live, in the Mission near SOMA (where I’ll be working).

And that brings us roughly back to now, thanks for sticking with me. Having got you up-to-date I’m going to return to the irregular-but-somewhat-frequent-updates-on-whatever-I’m-thinking-about that constitute the usual programming around here.

Photo by Jim Nix, flickr.

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Photo by Scott Ableman, flickr

My Dad always used to say to me, “Tom”, he’d say, “America is ungovernable.” Dad’s talking nonsense again I would think to myself, of course America is governable. I mean, it’s being governed isn’t it?

Now that I’m living here I can say: only barely. Dad was right, America is an incredibly difficult country to govern. Their three “separate but equal” branches of government, one of them split into two houses, and dominated by a two-party system at once rigid and chaotic, makes meaningful progress on difficult issues the exception rather than the rule, a product of circumstances which occur infrequently.

The Democratic and Republican parties dominate American politics to an even greater extent than any two parties in Australian, England, France, Germany or Canada. But they are generally, despite impressive Republican unity in opposing everything lately, a unruly bunch, and only periodically vote along party lines.

I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, I appreciate very much the greater diversity of opinion this allows. The health care debate has been a nightmare to watch up close but on the Democratic side at least there has been a robust debate about which model to pursue in what why. One the other  hand, they couldn’t get the bloody thing done.

It’s been an amazing and dispiriting experience to observe (initially from afar, then up close) a seemingly-endless election campaign fought on a variety of issues, one of which was healthcare reform, and a landslide victory for the progressive in that election, only for the country to tear itself apart for a year following that election over the same issue they had been debating for the previous two years.

Despite my intense frustrations with the political dynamic in Australia when one party wins in a landslide campaigning on a set of policy reforms most of those reforms generally happen. Mandates are real. And if we hate these changes once implemented (or resent the delay in implementing them) we vote them out next time around. The cycle of (political) life. But here winning an election is no guarantee of anything. The president has only limited control over domestic policy – legislation must be introduced and passed in houses of Congress, and now, absurdly, both parties seem to accept the notion that it takes 60 votes in the Senate to get anything meaningful done.

Which is why America is generally ungovernable. Legislators put themselves above the parties. The process is unwieldy and prone to delay and obfuscation. The American political system seems designed to make it exceedingly hard to get difficult things done. It requires a rare combination of factors to allow changes on any scale to be affected, and it is beginning to look like the present moment, as hopeful as it seemed a year ago, might lack one or more of these factors.

Thinking back over the past 100 years of American history I can think of only two presidents who passed significant progressive domestic reforms: FDR with the establishment of the welfare state and LBJ with civil rights. (Clearly the fact BHO doesn’t roll off the tongue is part of what is holding Obama back). In both cases there was a society under stress, from the Great Depression and the ructions  of the 60′s and assassination of Kennedy. In both cases America had significant external challengers, being at war or on the brink of war. In both cases there was passionate opposition from the right, who warned of ruin and socialism. So far so familiar. But also in both cases there was an equally-passionate and organized mass movement pushing from the left, advocating and demanding needed reforms. It’s this last factor that is missing from Barack Obama’s America.

This might be, in part, a product of the success of the Obama campaign itself. To an unprecedented degree it dominated the debate, monopolizing donations, volunteers and attention. This helped create a historic campaign but it also left the left wing groups outside government weaker than they would otherwise have been. Without an effective-enough or large-enough left flank to push him and perhaps more importantly the Congressional Democrats the perceived “center” of the health care debate has moved relentless rightwards, to the point where what eventually became a center-right reform is still being discussed as being “too far left.”

Ironically success at campaigning has created a weakness for Obama in governing. Not that it was easy to begin with. It’s not designed to be.

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My first-ever pumpkin!

My first-ever pumpkin!

This weekend I experienced my second Halloween, or my third if you count accompanying my host-sisters as they went trick-or-treating when I was on exchange in Spokane, Washington, when I was 16. And,  indeed, until moving here last year that was what I thought Halloween was: kids systematically hitting strangers up for candy, in violation of the rule we’re all taught when we’re young.

But it turns out it’s much, much more than that. In fact, it’s possibly the biggest party night of the year, up there with New Years Eve. And it’s certainly not just kids – big kids of all ages get dressed up and boogie down. You see superheros and fairies and Spartans and ninja’s and computers walking down the street, or rocking out on the dance floor at every bar in town. An entire country attending one big costume party.

Now admitedly my perspective might be skewered here by the fact that the two Halloweens I’ve been here have fallen on Friday and Saturday. If I’m here in a year or two I’ll be able to see how much of the manic energy carried into Sunday and Monday nights, or transfers to the nearest weekend night. But there’s something adorable and exciting about so many adults dressing up; it creates a sense of fun and play which is very immersive.

The Burning Man community figured this out a long time ago of course, so I find myself dressing thematically on an unusually-common basis currently. The weekend was a kaleidoscopic blur of people, colour, music and movement, filled with smiling faces and, of course, a spectacular variety of outfits. It was, as they say, a good time, with an energy in the air way beyond an average weekend, a sense of performative abandon which is perhaps only possible when you are wearing a costume.

You can see photos from TechArts: A Spooky Union, the party we attended on Saturday night, here.

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