The epic silence of Iron Dad

Promotional art for The Invincible Iron Man vol. 5, #25 (second printing) (June 2010) by Salvador Larroca. From Wikipedia.

My thirteen-year-old daughter and I like action movies. Lately we’ve been into superheroes — Captain America, Thor, the Hulk, Iron Man (1 and 2), and the Avengers.

Thanks to Marvel Entertainment for reinforcing a father-daughter bond. We’ve talked about which hero we like best, and second best. We’ve discussed how their back-stories are interwoven in the scripts so people who aren’t comic-book geeks can get a sense of each hero’s persona. Except for Thor, who claims to be a god, they are mortals who’ve enhanced their fighting skills with martial arts, bio-chemical agents, gamma-radiation, or futuristic hardware.

Hero stories have been around for ages, and I bet they do more than entertain us. They boost our morale and might help to dispel our fears. Maybe they raise our resolve to kick ass when some herculean hardship comes to town.

I’d like to see Marvel turn an average dad into a superhero. He could be watching a movie, say, and eats some supernatural popcorn grown by shamans. Suddenly, BAMM, he’s the embodiment of paternal power!

Just think what Iron Dad could do. He would know exactly what to say to kids in every situation, no matter how hard. Goofball snafus would be replaced with laser-beam humor. His storytelling would never cease to amaze. Young audiences would be cheered by the knowledge that his wisdom could banish any bogeyman.

Of course Iron Dad’s awesomeness would be anchored in the fact that he’s the world’s best listener. Rather than talk over kids, he would help them find their own words to make sense of whatever troubles come their way.

Sound like a blockbuster? Probably not. Needs more peril. The strength of every superhero is measured against the enormity of his adversary.

How about this: let’s say Iron Dad must face an unthinkable terror — one no Marvel hero has ever confronted.

He must deal with the suicide of a beloved teenage girl — a cherished comrade of his daughters and sole child of close friends.

If ever we needed a superhero, it would be then.

the real thing, we make do with what’s at hand. I’m grateful for movie stars in cool suits surrounded by special effects.

People respond differently to tragedy. Some talk, others are quiet. One thing we share, in the wake of suicide, is the need to connect in life-affirming ways. Sometimes all a dad can do is engage in seemingly mundane diversions. Pass the popcorn, play catch.

For several nights straight we watched superhero movies I rented from Nehalem Bay Video. It was good to exchange a few words with the owner, Larry Gresham, on my way home from work. Larry likes superheroes, especially Captain America, and always takes time to help me choose movies depending on which family members are watching.

The culmination of my Marvel experience was taking the whole household to see The Avengers in Portland. First time at a 3D theater. Overwhelming.

As it happened, this re-connected us with another dad in a family of close friends in California. J.R. Grubbs assisted in the making of many of those movies and was listed as the first sound editor for The Avengers. Seeing his name in the credits was a highlight of the experience (especially for Jennifer, who prefers romantic comedies).

Last time we were at his home J.R. took us into his little backyard studio hut and showed us clips he worked on from Iron Man 2. We saw a first scene, cut from the movie, where the hero and leading lady sport their chemistry before she kisses his helmet and he jumps off a plane to go wow a crowd of fans at a high-tech convention.

J.R. explained what he did to bring that crowd to life. It isn’t simply a matter of overlaying pre-recorded applause. To make the cheering feel real he timed the sounds of singular claps to coincide with the hand motions of individuals. The task looked as tediously daunting as any I’ve seen — reconstructing a whole acoustic world in minute detail to surround the dialogue (usually the only sound recorded when the scenes are filmed).

As I write these words I’m suddenly aware of the familiar ritual of my daughter making an omelet. I listen to her crack the eggs, scrape the pan, and clink utensils. She chews and swallows then realizes her dad has stopped clicking at the keyboard and is staring at her spellbound.

How do we move on when the most precious vibrations of sound and light are suddenly absent from our senses? What is the sound of no hand clapping? What did heroes look like before they were born?

home from work I pull into the parking lot of Nehalem Bay Video. A man named Gordon Hempton is being interviewed on the radio. He is an “acoustic ecologist” who records the quietest places on earth. His life bears witness to natural soundscapes that haven’t been drowned out by man’s metal drone.

The interviewer paraphrases a profound finding he’s made that is summarized in a quote from his book.

“Silence is not the absence of something but the presence of everything.”

Over the radio Hempton shares a recording he made at one of the quietest spots in North America — the Hoh Rain Forest on the Olympic Peninsula. As I listen to that soft symphony in my car, sitting in the video store parking lot, I’m comforted beyond words.

We are all children in a society that often feels like its bound for self-annihilation. All I know to shift course is tune in more fully to family, community, and the creation that surrounds us. Cheer with a good crowd, yet remember everything contained in quietude. In this way I hope to help cultivate what a bereaved father-friend calls a “culture of kindness.”

Grief reminds us to nurture what’s beneath our hard exterior, the only thing that can absorb the silence.


A Tale of Two Canoes and a media slip

Two Canoes
As a freelance columnist I weigh in on many issues that are covered by the press. Sometimes the coverage itself merits comment, as evidenced by a local Indian story.

For me this story began six years ago when I was asked to participate in a potlatch – the traditional gifting celebration that anchors the indigenous culture of our region. This particular potlatch coincided with the Lewis & Clark bicentennial, and was hosted by descendents of the people who greeted the explorers here at the Pacific.

Why was a pale-skinned pup asked to stand beside Northwest Indian elders, overwhelmed with humility in front of 250 people? Because the Clatsop-Nehalem Confederated Tribes wanted a member of the local press to serve in the formal role of witness.
The historical context of that role humbles me. Conquest of this continent was often scouted by my kind — scribes who tell stories on paper. It can be argued that Lewis and Clark were journalists, dispatched to gather written intelligence for empire builders.

By contrast, indigenous people of the Northwest cleave to oral traditions. Though it surprised me at the time, I now understand why ten minutes into the potlatch I was asked to put away my pad and pen. My challenge was to watch and listen, with pure attention, then give an honest account from memory.

Since then I’ve written a number of columns in local newspapers about what I witnessed at that event. I’ve described how gifts were given in a ritual way, to join together people and tribes in a web of generosity.

At the center of those gifts was an old-growth cedar, gifted by the Quinault Indian Nation. Many Clatsop-Nehalem people who were displaced from their homeland went to live with the Quinault, who welcomed them. The gift tree was carved into a 32-foot seaworthy canoe, with guidance from a master carver trained in traditional native canoe making. This was made possible in part through federal grant funding.

The ceremonial presentation of that tribal canoe was a centerpiece of the potlatch. Everything about it was carefully thought out, including the timing to coincide with the bicentennial. For the Clatsop-Nehalem, their new canoe was reparation for one that was stolen from them by the Lewis and Clark expedition.
The vessel’s significance to the recovery of Indian heritage was newsworthy, especially in light of the timing. Yet despite sweeping press coverage of the bicentennial, the canoe was barely mentioned beyond my local columns. As often happens, truth was buried beneath a mainstream narrative. The cross-country adventures of famed white explorers, re-enacted by men in costume, brushed over the fact that those celebrities were also thieves.
So it goes, as it has for hundreds of years. The people who have lived here for millennia continue their work of cultural reclamation, undaunted by the gap between what’s written and what’s done. Like returning salmon, the Clatsop-Nehalem are determined to regenerate their relationship with their homeland.

This was clear during the past year. The tribes published a beautiful and informative book titled “The Journey of the Clatsop-Nehalem Canoe,” written by local artist Roberta Basch. Last July, Clatsop-Nehalem and Warm Springs families joined together to participate in a canoe gathering located in Swinomish, Washington. They paddled 407 miles and camped 22 nights in order to celebrate their culture with other native people.

Not long after that journey, the canoe story took a very strange turn. Members of the Clatsop-Nehalem Confederated Tribes were surprised by an article in the Daily Astorian (September 21, 2011). The press announced that the family of explorer William Clark was making a public gift of a new canoe to replace the one that was stolen by their ancestor’s expedition. Five days later a second article reported on this gifting.
Here’s the stunner: the Clark family gave it to the Chinook, a neighboring people who did not own the original canoe that was stolen. Moreover, news coverage advanced the claim that both the canoe and the story of its theft belonged to the Chinook. The press even referred to the Clatsop chief who suffered the theft as “Chinook” Chief Coboway.
Stories are a core part of human identity, as integral to the people of the Pacific Northwest as potlatches, cedar, salmon, and seagoing canoes. Understandably, a strong corrective action was requested by the Clatsop-Nehalem.

To date, that appeal has gone unanswered. Instead, the Associated Press spread the fallacious story to news outlets around the country. The impact of this coverage has been conveyed to me in writing by tribal member David Stowe, a 7th generation descendent of Clatsop Chief Coboway.

“It was shocking, surreal, and disturbing to me personally to see a member of my family, Chief Coboway, being referred to as a member of another tribe with no mention of the Clatsop tribe he belonged to,” writes Stowe. “The entire tribe is very unhappy with this effort to erase our tribal heritage, and is determined to put an end to this misinformation and get the true story published.”

Who among us would not be equally offended if our cultural heritage were displaced in this manner?

The situation grieves me, but not because I feel sorry for anybody. The more I learn about the Clatsop-Nehalem, the more assured I am of their resilience. The expropriated story of a stolen tribal canoe will not weaken their cultural revival.

What’s less certain is the future of a tribe we call the American press. Our integrity as witnesses is in need of repair, as evidenced by this and other stories. Can we reclaim our role as truth-tellers?

If so, part of our upstream journey involves a special canoe, gifted in a traditional way at a Clatsop-Nehalem potlatch.


Data processing with Janus in southern France

Watt in Paris
Photo: Willa Childress

“Be kind to strangers, lest they’re angels in disguise.”
– verse from Shakespeare and Company song

Offbeat questions arise while minding my bookshop in winter on the Oregon coast. Like — why does our calendar year begin with a month named after a double-headed deity who looks backward and forward at the same time?

I met Janus online, at Wikipedia. Few folks worship him, yet each year we summon his likeness to re-assess events and assure ourselves that man’s toehold on the future is sound. We do this in part by affirming the legacies of climbers who’ve died.

Steve Jobs, for example. Count me among the toastmasters of Janus who salute the late silicon-slinger who built Model Ts for the information highway. What do his contributions tell us about ours?

I first heard of Jobs in the 1980s, while waiting in line to use the computer lab at college. There, massive machines munched on data I’d gathered and spit back graphs correlating declines in species of winged creatures with human crowding.

It felt quantitatively cool, just saying the word “data” around the biology department. Paired with objectivist text those computer-generated graphs made my papers look as credible as George Will’s baseball columns.

Jobs replaced those IBM-sized beasts with portable critters that help us correlate data while sitting at home. I’ve spent much of my life communing with those critters, sharing bites of knowledge in leisure environments.

What does Jobs’ death at age 56 tell us about our tour of creation? The question inspires me to compute in a different light.

Consider the following data. The morning I learned of Jobs’ death I was traveling in Le Luberon massif, a small mountainous area in southern France. My family and I had awoken to an agrarian view from the window of a bed-and-breakfast in a 1,000-year-old abbey.

Our host Christophe shared the news of Jobs’ death by way of a little white cross he cut out and taped to one of the delicious apples he offered us for breakfast.

“Were you a fan?” I asked.

“Not really,” he replied with soft-spoken frankness. “To me he was just another big capitalist. But his death is all they are talking about on the radio this morning.”

“Here are some of my favorite American authors,” he said, handing me a cup of coffee. On a nearby counter he had erected a pyramid of books by Kurt Vonnegut, Philip K. Dick, and John Kennedy Toole, all in French translation. The sight of Toole’s “A Confederacy of Dunces” quickly prompted a soul handshake.

Over two days we discussed a myriad of topics — from archeological finds in the nearby fields to dry stone masonry, the Arab Spring, homeless kittens, and visual art we coaxed Christophe to bring out despite his claim that he’s no longer an artist. I was captivated by the web of code woven into his work titled “Saint George and the Dragon.”

“I am the dragon,” he confessed in a humble learned tone, like something a janitor might mutter to himself while fixing the hinges on the door to the school library.

Our exchange of information in Christophe’s kitchen will be treasured for the rest of my life. And it happened, in part, because we learned about his lodgings on our little computer.

So here’s to Steve Jobs, who dove into capitalism’s belly and personalized the big blue beast.

Wait, there’s more. I’m compelled by love of beauty and truth to toast a lesser-known legend who lived Apple’s “think different” slogan long before its founders were born.

I raise my glass to George Whitman, the late proprietor of a bookshop in Paris named Shakespeare and Company. My family would not have even heard of Le Luberon had it not been for an exchange with new friends at Whitman’s labyrinthine store of knowledge.

The files were downloaded at a gently mad tea party that started in his apartment above the shop. Whitman didn’t feel up to an appearance that day, yet he set the stage for a spirited salon of language arts aficionados. I sat beside a toppling stack of tomes crowned with an early edition of “A Moveable Feast.” On the other side perched John Kirby Abraham, an English expatriate who knew Josephine Baker and wrote a biography of the cultural icon.

That social flurry at Shakespeare and Company is now lodged in my mind, along with the exchange in Christophe’s kitchen. My synapses are upgraded by the interactions.

Not long after our visit, Whitman celebrated his 98th birthday and then died in that same apartment. In his wake he leaves six decades of info-connoisseurism and an un-graphable influence on visitors, many of them free-radical scribes. By Whitman’s own estimate, he provided transient lodging to 40,000 writers who slept among his shelves in exchange for work and tolerating his notoriously bad pancakes.

In an organic light, Whitman’s shop stands as an exquisite living computer rivaling anything made in Silicon Valley.

Still recreating in France, Janus assures me this mainframe view of life offers future apps for all travel destinations.

He predicts 2012 won’t bring a Mayan cataclysm here to the north coast of Oregon. It will, however, mark the end of public trust in top-down methods of data processing. As the wealth chasm widens people will realize the numbers we’ve used to quantify growth aren’t as cool as we figured — meaning they don’t correlate with median incomes.

Mass faith in the syndicated press will falter. More people will explore alternative means of processing news and opinion. The art of conversation will be revived and integrated into online social networks. A renaissance of readers will unfold as folks realize that writing is as fun as texting on those glowing screen-toys.

There may be blood. Some oil tankers of intel won’t navigate as swiftly amid the flood of freelance communication. In some quarters the deluge of democratized data may look like the end of the world. Let’s hope George Will maintains his composure by thinking about baseball.

For my part I’ll surf the flow of shared ideas here in my bookshop on the Oregon coast. I’ll correspond with bohemian friends and encourage them to visit Le Clatsop-Nehalem massif. We need to make sure tourism in our part of paradise is as compelling as it is in Le Luberon.

Humans are adept at language innovation when faced with dead-end programming. Put our heads together we might meet anonymous angels, keepers of Eden who suddenly know it’s time to open the door.


The Tortoise and the Euro

Turtoise and EuroNear the center of Athens you can walk through large tracts of public land covered in rocks, ruins, wooded areas, and dry-land vegetation. Go in one direction and you’ll find the Hill of the Muses. It’s a cool place to take a break from news of global economic decay.

My family wandered there one afternoon during a recent trip to Europe. On the hillside facing the Parthenon we could hear the roar of 100,000 citizens outside the parliament building, protesting cuts in worker pensions, reductions in the minimum wage, increases in taxes, and other bloodletting demanded by eurozone financiers.

The other side was quieter, facing the Mediterranean. There I scanned the ground requesting some sign to mark our presence, a practice I acquired as a boy while hunting for flint arrowheads. What was the significance of our being there at a time when world news outlets were focused on Greece?

That’s when I found the baby turtle – a χελώνα, or “chelōna” in modern Greek. Smaller than my palm, the creature was so tucked into the rocks that she could have easily gone unnoticed.

Since our first day in Europe I’d been thinking of my family as turtles. Living out of our backpacks brought to mind the claim that turtles carry their homes wherever they go. Like all creatures, of course, a turtle’s home is her natural habitat. Regardless of how self-contained we feel, all of us depend on the sharing of resources and the hospitality of strangers.

Greek folks are as generous as any people I’ve met. You appreciate this when you’re traveling on a fixed budget with a family for five weeks. Hoteliers gave us discounts. Restaurateurs brought us complimentary starters or desserts. Retailers added bonuses to our purchases. People gave us information, ideas, good advice, and more than a little good humor.

I’ve heard jokes are going around about Greek generosity, linking it with laziness or inefficiency. Such tales always reflect on the tellers. I saw no evidence of those other traits while visiting Greece. The businesses were well-organized; the restrooms were clean; the trains ran on time.

It was noteworthy that our being there coincided with Greece’s Independence Day, an occasion that marks the country’s resistance to fascist occupation during World War II. Greece paid dearly in blood and resources for that decision. Fascists invaded, killed, and plundered; but it took them much longer to occupy Greece than elsewhere. In part because of Greek resistance, Hitler missed his timeline for invading Russia and thus fell prey to winter.

The world owes Greece our gratitude for that historic sacrifice, which was never fully repaid. It appears that old debt never factored into the accounting of financiers who drive current economic deals. The so-called “haircut” agreed to by European lenders hinges on radical policy changes that will transfer Greece’s public assets into the hands of private speculators (like selling off public land to real estate developers, for example).

Returning from our walk, it made some Athenians smile to hear how much an American family loved their native turtles. This was a welcome shift from the topic of global money problems, which some would have us think stem from generosity rather than greed. Pay no attention to those who’ve made killings off individuals and governments, encouraging both to borrow and consume beyond our means.

Hailed as the earth’s oldest democracy, Greece also has a primal place in the history of money. I met a shop-owner near the Acropolis who informed me that some of world’s first coins — known as “mna” — were minted in her country around the late seventh century B.C. They were stamped with the images of turtles, creatures apparently held in high esteem.

“Our ancestors made the first coins heavy,” she said. “That way, one person could only carry as much as they needed. We had real philosophers back then.”

She asked me what the first money looked like in America. I told her shell beads were used by the original inhabitants of my homeland, which some natives called “Turtle Island.” But as I understood it, they didn’t think of them in the same way Europeans thought of money.

“Shells were exchanged to memorialize a collective bond or obligation,” I said. “But the economy of the first people was based on giving rather than profit-taking. A person’s social position was judged by their ability to distribute wealth, not hoard it for themselves.”

The woman’s eyes lit up when I described an American Indian potlatch — the traditional giveaway ceremony that anchored the economy of many native people.

“We have a special word in Greece that cannot be fully translated into any other language,” she said. “It is ‘filotimo.’”

She wrote it out in Greek and English along with the words “friend of your honor,” an approximate meaning. As she handed me the slip of paper, I gave her a coin that will some day be as widely used as mna is now (the destiny of all such trinkets in human history).

“This will be for good luck,” she smiled, putting the euro aside.

The little exchange was a beautiful blend of philosophy, faith, goodwill, and wit, like many I experienced in Greece. It made me feel good about the hard-earned cash I spent there. Better than I do about most of the transactions that define the habitat of today’s global commerce.

Perhaps a word for this feeling still rocks in the cradle of western civilization. If so, “filotimo” points to an ancient wisdom that’s been ignored in pursuit of quick growth, yet is essential to civic trust and our shared obligation to steward resources.

Moneylenders who think they hold Greece in the palms of their hands might benefit from a walk to the Hill of the Muses. If they go quietly, they may encounter something there that reminds them how humans with a long-view of community behave.

Maybe one or two would even have a change of heart, look around them and see more than real estate.

Op Ed

Surfing Without A Pair

Surfer Girl
Justin Floyd

A young surfer recently stopped by my shop to buy an out-of-print book about her passion. During the exchange she used a familiar word to praise a sister wave-rider.

“She really has the ‘cojones’ to surf the big ones,” said the woman.

Most of us have heard some version of this cross-cultural cliché. Language spreads the virulent notion that human courage and strength are rooted in male sex glands. We claim it takes testicles (“cojones” in Spanish) to excel at sports, business, and politics.

Being the sole male in a four-person household, I know this notion is nuts. Our family is fortified by a partnership that transcends gender. Often our daughters ride life’s waves better than Jennifer and I do.

So as husband and dad I’m compelled to speak out for the inherent strength of women. Call it uterine affirmation, in honor of one of the most powerful muscles in the human body. I was compelled to testify on this point with the young surfer in my shop, who patiently nodded at the middle-aged bookseller before dashing off to hit the water.

The next day I learned that 56-year-old Congressman David Wu was accused of sexually molesting the 18-year-old daughter of one of his friends. He has since become the fourth person in Congress to resign this year because of sex scandals. Two Democrats, two Republicans, and four mighty pairs of cajones.

Last spring I defended Wu in the press when Oregon newspapers called for his resignation. At the time the call seemed rash to me, given what had been reported. Several weeks after my column ran, his staff invited me to meet with him during a visit to Seaside. I took my daughters along, thinking it would be a civics lesson.

Having never spoken directly with Wu, I began the meeting by thanking him for his stand on American trade policy with China. From the onset of his service in Washington, Wu advocated that our nation’s commerce with the communist regime should advance human rights and uphold our democratic values.

Wu’s stand earned him flak from some free traders in his district. Yet he held firm, saying: “If the voters of Oregon decide to send me home for [my position on trade with China], I’ll have to live with that. But I’d rather turn my back on the office than turn my back on my principles.”

I read that quote to my daughters, in Wu’s presence, because I wanted them to know they were meeting a leader with strong convictions. If the recent allegations prompting his resignation are true, we’ve also learned such leadership can be sacrificed to those male gonads (“gaowan” in Chinese) that people pretend are the font of valor.

The betrayal of trust reminds me of another family story.

During Jennifer’s first year in college, her sister Jeanne (then 16-years-old) flew down to visit her in California. The adventure began when Jeanne got bumped up to first class, where she enjoyed the company of a charismatic man who accompanied her off the plane to meet Jennifer.

Thankfully, the two young women had the sense to decline when their new 40-something friend, Neil Goldschmidt, suggested that they all go out for drinks. They could tell something was amiss, so they passed up the chance to party with Oregon’s big-balled surfer of political power (now tragically renowned as the perpetrator in a long term sexual abuse case).

That’s “groyse beytsim” in Yiddish, by the way.

From what I’ve seen, the cross-cultural truth about cajones is that they often cause serious wipe outs. Yet for some reason people talk as if they’re essential to success, even for women. When a union leader endorsed Hillary Clinton for president in 2008, he famously described her as being the right person for the job because of her “testicular fortitude.”

Was that what equipped her husband Bill for success in the Oval Office? Did it fortify the public leadership of John Edwards and Arnold Schwarzenegger?

There’s been plenty of debate over where society should draw the line between private life and civic duty. Yet the best comment I’ve heard regarding the testicular exploits of leaders came from my mom, who asked “where do they find the time?”

Presumably such distractions aren’t a problem for most men. Yet for all too many, those “family jewels” are tools of destruction.

Changing caveman notions about success will help counter this failure. Few women in positions of power become embroiled in sex scandals. We need more leaders with uterine fortitude surfing the big waves of society.


Editor’s sudden exit raises questions

WHEN I DIE, it would be great if Michael Burkett were still around these parts and would say something at my funeral. If that happens, I hope he talks about our common passion for words.

Mike Burkett
Michael Burkett

Personally, I would be honored if Michael would come to the gathering dressed in the same duds he wore at the first human Be-in at Golden Gate Park — the opening event for the Summer of Love. Hopefully my funeral would recycle some of that living color that’s been drained from today’s whitewashed world.

It may seem strange that I’m musing about my death in the wake of Michael’s untimely passing from the North Coast Citizen. Yet the event prods my sense that America’s press is becoming a lifeless shell of what it once was. The march of today’s media makes it easy to imagine that columnists like me won’t be around much longer.

In his own words, Michael was “forced to resign” from his position as editor of the North Coast Citizen. That statement is firmly disputed by the newspaper’s owner, Steve Forrester, whose family also owns the Daily Astorian and other news outlets. Both men could be correct, in my opinion, depending on how the word “forced” is used.

It bears noting that Michael’s resignation occurred amidst a heated local election. Days before Michael’s departure, a Manzanita-area Tea Party organizer singled out Michael as the reason why the North Coast Citizen fails to meet the political standards for a small-town newspaper. This opinion was posted by Jim Welsh, a candidate for local office, on a popular email list serve called the “BBQ.”

Welsh explained that the Citizen’s editorial content prompted his son Jon – also a candidate for local office — to stop stocking the local newspaper of record for customers at his business (Manzanita’s largest grocery store). For the past several months, shoppers have had to go elsewhere to buy the Citizen in order to read local news articles, commentary, and public notices.

The heat of this drama is turned up by the broader political context. Both Jim and Jon Welsh and their allied local candidates have upped the ante with anti-incumbent rhetoric. This mirrors the Tea Party insurgency against public officials that has been broadcast by the media at the state and federal levels.

In other words, the timing of Michael’s departure couldn’t have been worse. It makes it look as if the long arm of the Tea Party was successful in getting rid of him. Or, more specifically, that one of this newspaper’s [the Citizen] former advertisers – a business closely associated with the Tea Party — complained to the paper’s owners, who then somehow forced Michael to leave.

A different impression emerges from my conversation with Dave Fisher, who is serving as the Citizen’s interim editor. It appears the newspaper’s owners may have taken Michael to task for his colorful and sometimes biting efforts to tell the truth. Was that done to help restore calm to a community that’s become too inflamed for the common good? Or, was it done to mend relations with a former advertiser?

The answer to those questions could be “some of both.” It could be a blend of these things plus other factors I’m not privy to.

Regardless, this little drama prompts me to ponder bigger questions about our society. What happens when the loudest voices in the room are able to stifle communication? What happens when those voices treat the idea of “common good” as if it were communist hogwash, professing that most if not all public services should be either eliminated or controlled by private interests?

From what I’ve observed, that’s the gist of the Tea Party’s influence on public discourse in America, since it took the stage to disrupt town hall meetings on health care two years ago. At every turn, the idea of discussing and resolving problems by public or collective means has been torpedoed by this well-promoted group.

Does that kind of anti-public influence have any bearing – direct or indirect — on what happened to Michael Burkett? I want to believe it did not, but I don’t know.

In any event, the timing of this drama helps fuel the appearance that we are living in a corporate state. On the broader front, a collusion of business and government has depleted our limited resources. Rather than band together to counter this dynamic, citizens fight amongst ourselves while remaining resources are diverted from public needs into the hands of a private few.

What troubles me most is that I can picture a future where Americans are unable to freely discuss this concern in small-town newspapers. “Use your words,” we’ve told our children since they were toddlers. This column records my effort to model that advice as a grown-up.

I hope to see such efforts make a difference before I die. Maybe readers will be moved to think, debate, and try to integrate various viewpoints into greater truths. Perhaps all media outlets and businesses will become more supportive of open public discourse in our community.

At a minimum, it would be nice to know my family can pick up copies of my obituary at the local store that sells our favorite orange juice. Such things should foster common ground for the civil exchange of ideas, opinions and news.