Archive for the 'Oregon' Category

The Appealing Poison of Unmanned Aircraft

This opinion piece was published in The Oregonian on Sunday, August 21st.

My family tells the story of war with two voices. The first is the voice of my grandfather, who started working as a typist at the Portland recruiting office, volunteered to enlist in the Army Air Corps a week before Pearl Harbor, and would eventually lead a group of C47 airplanes dropping paratroopers on D-Day. He talks about the exhilaration of flying, the people he evacuated from concentration camps, and the men with whom he made the sharpest memories of his life.

The second voice is of my grandmother, who took the train from Portland to Missouri to marry her young lover before sending him off to Europe. Worry like a thick blanket, woven with pride. Of miscarrying while he was away and being afraid to tell him.

War is wrenching. In small towns you know which families have sons in the service. You see mom at the grocery store, she looks OK, but you wonder if she loses sleep. She’s weary of people feeling sorry for her. The child of a high school teacher comes home with limbs missing. On Aug. 20 our governor ordered that Oregon flags be flown at half-staff in memory of Ryley Gallinger-Long of Cornelius, who died in Afghanistan.

What if we never had to fly the flag at half-staff? I doubt the Prince of Peace will end all wars in my lifetime. I’m talking about a new era with drones fighting in place of people — soldiers strafing bad guys in Afghanistan and making it home in time to tuck in the kids and host poker night. Will we fly our flags at half-staff when we lose another machine? When we kill the bad guys? When we kill children who were too close to the bad guys?

War establishes its moral significance in the stories of people we know. My buddy was pulled out of a full-tuition merit scholarship to college to serve an unlooked-for second tour in the Middle East, and I thought “Good God, are we doing the right thing over there?” War became real to me then, and in 2008, I spoke against war at the ballot box. Fighting with drones could take away opportunities for civilians like me to wake up to carnage 10,000 miles away. It could take away my grandmother’s voice and the role of civilians who experience war personally even though they never enlist.

Professional soldiers already bear enough burdens on our behalf. Asking them to judge whether their leaders are acting prudently is unfair because it feels disloyal. Every rank-and-file soldier I’ve ever met thinks such restraint is above his pay grade.

The voice of restraint needs to come from civilians, from public servants and ordinary voters. Making war means a lot of short-term jobs for soldiers and companies that make guns, planes and bombs. How many needless wars will we fight if civilians’ only personal experience with war is a comfortable job building machines?

I don’t think we should stop or even cut back the role of drones. In the long run of history, the censor and the Luddite have always lost; technology is too appealing. The only remedy for dangerous ideas is better ideas.

Civilian casualties, which happen with or without drones, are just a distraction from the greatest question facing public servants who stand for peace: In a world where Americans can make war without ever flying the flag at half-staff, how will we make ourselves care enough to exercise restraint?

The public sector’s fair share of risk

This opinion piece was published in The Oregonian on Tuesday, May 31st.

Risk is the fundamental difference between working in the private sector and working in the public sector. Two recent editorials in the Oregonian (Running a business is hard work, Oregon’s fiscal crisis: a budget built on illusions) point out that the public sector does not know these risks and is not restructuring to accommodate the elastic economy, glossing over the fact that the public sector treats risk differently in good times as well as bad.

My business partner and I run a nine-employee tech startup and know the stress of coming up with payroll every single month. I pay several of my employees more than I make in order to attract the right talent, and I will be the first to go without a salary if the money does not add up at the end of the month. I also know that if I work very hard, make good decisions and build an exceptional team, my company can grow without limits and my salary will grow with it. Financial opportunity and potential for failure are two sides of the same coin: risk. I am a daring entrepreneur. Much of the day-to-day work is mundane, but occasionally I sit down with my team and we make a decision that will make or break our organization. The risks are stressful, the opportunities are enormous; this is the exhilarating private sector.

My parents, on the other hand, chose to be public school teachers, and they always knew that their only opportunity to become rich was to change careers. We always had food on the table, and we always had health care. My parents knew that they would be taken care of in retirement. They chose a career with fewer risks and fewer financial opportunities so that they could enjoy a secure lifestyle focused on family, the outdoors and athletics, as well as doing something for community in The Dalles.

Nearing retirement now, they have lived through several economic booms that made many Oregonians rich, but as public employees my parents did not get to say, “Hey, school board, Oregon’s economy grew by 7 percent this year. Do you think you could put a large Christmas bonus in my retirement account?” It simply does not work that way in the public sector. They get paid the same when a class is unusually large or difficult, no matter how strong the economy is that year.

Many in the private sector will say, “I also lived through boom times and my business did not expand,” or “I did not receive a bonus from my employer.” I can just as well tell you that my organization is growing right now, despite the tough economic climate. The fact that specific individuals and organizations in the private sector are or are not able to take advantage of opportunity or insulate themselves from risk says nothing about the fact that those opportunities and risks did exist in a way that they simply do not exist in the public sector.

Every day Oregon’s private sector steps up to the plate, swinging for the stars. In the most recent fiscal crisis, an awful lot of us struck out — that failure is why we had to tighten our belts and restructure our companies. Seeking profits too great, we took risks too great, and the chickens came home to roost. The public sector never took imprudent risks because it did not have the potential for payoff anyhow. Asking those public sector workers now to take their fair share of cuts overlooks the fact that they already did; they forfeited their opportunity to create a large private nest egg when they chose to serve the public.

Memoriam Betty Lou Holeman

Betty Raft
Grandma Betty, Granddad Emile, and my dad Mike raft the Deschutes River, from a set of family photos on Flickr.

My grandmother Betty Lou Holeman died on April 2nd, 2011. She passed peacefully, surrounded by four generations of her family at St. Anthony’s Hospital in Pendleton Oregon, a few miles from where she was born. I wrote this requiem for her and for my own piece of mind. After reading it at a family gathering the night before her funeral, I decided to post it here for the rest of my family.

I am the youngest son of Betty Lou’s oldest son, and as one of the grandchildren I am in many ways unprepared to speak about her life. We grandchildren rarely appreciate how our grandparents have changed over time. For so many of Betty Lou’s stories we simply were not around, and we struggle to see the accomplishments of a lifetime, what was tough and what came naturally when she was younger. Instead of countless stories that paint a trajectory of progress, we see a more fixed identity. To a young enough eye, grandma and grandpa’s role feels as dependable as heaven and earth and I am convinced that is why we kids put down our own roots there.

When a stranger asks me about myself, I think of where I come from, and sometimes I think of Betty Lou. More frequently I call on a general sense of belonging that is an almost physical sensation, like the way I can choose to cover my arms with goosebumps if I concentrate. I tell stories about Christmas, Thanksgiving, going to the cabin, picking huckleberries, cooking and eating together, splitting firewood, hunting and fishing, training as an athlete and supporting the home team. I tell how parts of my family walked here before Oregon was an American state, and we have made do by any number of ordinary and honorable vocations since then. But the belonging doesn’t really come from the activities, as much as I value them. The belonging emanates from the people I do these things with, especially Betty Lou. She collected the family history to share with us and more importantly she also presides over it, she presides over our stories. She and Granddad are the quiet masters of ceremony for our whole family experience when we get together. Betty Lou has gone but she left that sense of belonging behind for us; this is the first way that she lives with us still.

Feeling my roots is especially important for me when I am far from Oregon, and sometimes I feel like I am kept close to this family by forces greater than I understand. The night Betty Lou passed away I was working at a Catholic mission hospital called St Gabriel’s in rural Malawi, in eastern Africa. After dinner I sat around the table with seven new friends from medical schools in Kansas and Maryland, and someone suggested a game to play. According to my new friend’s rules we went in turns around the table; all the young men said the names of their grandmothers and the women said the names of their grandfathers. For each person the group chose one of the two names. For me they chose Betty Lou and all night long anyone who called me anything other than Betty Lou had to take a drink from their cup. Maybe you’ve never tried it, but it is actually hilarious to have near strangers call you only by your grandmother’s name, more so after a few drinks. I didn’t know Grandma’s health was taking a turn for the worse, but circumstances mainly beyond my control had decided that she would be on the minds of our entire family that Saturday night, and being ten thousand miles away with no news from home just was not going to stop me from taking part. I thought of her all night in a happy, chuckling way. When I awoke in the morning I saw an email from my mom that Grandma Betty’s blood pressure had dropped and she’d been taken to the hospital again. When my mom wrote that mail she hadn’t yet known how the night would end, but I just kind of knew when I read it. Due to the time difference I didn’t call my mom until 4pm, which was 7am Sunday back in Oregon.

I was on the next flight home, five minutes after 3pm Monday. Thinking of Grandma Betty as the plane left the ground, wishing her soul a swift and beautiful journey as I made my own way up through the first wispy clouds. The plane continued to rise up over Lake Malawi, such an enormous stretch of water it is like an inland sea. Then far below I saw something unlike anything I had seen before, which is uncommon given how much I fly for work (I’ve filled eleven pages of my passport since August). Some trick of the sunlight on tiny rhythmic wave patterns below, perhaps wind and just the right altitude made a broad patch of the water begin to look like a great crowd, very far away, clapping its hands. With a muted smile I thought that perhaps God had heard me and responded by sending Grandma off to an extraordinary round of applause. But then I felt more strongly that she was close there with me, that perhaps it was Betty Lou down in the surface of the sea, clapping for me. Wishing me a safe journey home, typically quiet and proud without fail, this time because of how closely I carried her in my heart. As if to say If you are willing to live your life in view of eternity, Isaac, you’ll know my support whenever you need it. Growing up not going to Church, I would say this is the recourse nearest to prayer that my family taught me, and by this second means Grandma Betty will live with me as long as I carry her close.

Hours later I am somewhere over the Atlantic as I type this. I’m looking forward to seeing my family, I know we’ll all be strong for each other’s sake. And whenever we rally together for our family’s needs or celebrations, we can say for a third reason that Betty Lou’s story continues and probably will continue on for an awfully long time.




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