20 Aug

In 2017, a solar eclipse in a new atmosphere

In Oregon, we don’t typically have major events focused around the sun; too frequently the guest of honor won’t show up, finding that he has another appointment behind some hospitable clouds. But right now, an estimated million people are expected to be streaming into the state, drawn just by the prospect of the sun being blocked.

Clearly, when it comes to obscuring the sun, the moon has a much better public relations person than clouds do.

Monday morning, huge numbers of visitors will be in a belt across the middle of Oregon called the Path of Totality, which we previously thought was a new marijuana shop. While some states will have the darkness just cutting across a border or a turnpike exit, the total eclipse will be traveling the entire width of the state of Oregon, like a Republican primary candidate.

After it leaves Oregon, the eclipse will be traveling almost entirely over red states, which might give the sun and moon a somewhat distorted impression. For the first time in American history, the total eclipse will be visible only in the United States, for which Donald Trump will shortly be claiming credit.

Any time now, President Trump will be asked his thoughts on the eclipse, and will explain that he’s considering all options, including military action.

Or he might say that between the sun and moon, there are faults on both sides, and we need to take a balanced view.

In Oregon, the state is forecasting major gridlock on stretches of Interstate 5, although there are already parts of I-5 that have been motionless since around 2007. The Oregon Department of Transportation is forecasting the greatest traffic event in the history of Oregon, another example of technological capacity not available for earlier eclipses. Traffic problems actually began Wednesday, meaning that by Monday morning, the entire state may be motionless.

Already, Kate Brown is the first governor of Oregon to have an eclipse policy.

Once, total eclipses created concerns about God being angry and the possible end of the world. Today, we’re worried about cell phone overload and insufficient Port-a-Potties.

Progress is always a struggle.

Motel rooms and Airbnb locations are reportedly costing $500 a night, which would be a monthly rate of $15,000, or just slightly more than the price of a Portland two-bedroom apartment. State campgrounds went for prices not seen since the last time Bigfoot held a cookout.

Fortuitously located Oregon wineries are holding large eclipse events, answering the question of whether a massive cosmic phenomenon goes with red or white. (Since we’re talking 10 o’clock in the morning, maybe the answer is beer, although it’s hard to match a mega-event with a microbrew.) The benefit of a winery-based eclipse event – another resource not available before modern astronomy – is that even if western Oregon’s skies are cloudy, the occasion won’t be a total loss.

This being Oregon, we have a number of questions about the eclipse. When will it happen again? Is the eclipse a good preparation for the massive Cascadia earthquake? Do the glasses make us look cool?

And most important, where are we going to eat after it

This is not an insignificant concern. Unlike the rest of the country, we’ve scheduled totality between nine and 11 a.m., so as not to interfere with lunch.

One more bit of advice, to the expected hundreds of thousands of people, from California and around the world, expected to visit Oregon for the eclipse:

Don’t try moving in while it’s dark.

We know everyone who lives here.

Besides, your moving truck will never make it up I-5.

Oregon last saw a total eclipse in 1979, when it was a much more limited occasion. For one thing, it was raining in Portland – being February in Portland – and the whole thing was a matter of the sky going from gray to grayer, which won’t get you on the network news. (Although getting on the network news was a much bigger thing in 1979, before cable TV. This time, the eclipse will get coast-to-coast live coverage and have its own news logo, just like a medium-strength hurricane or a celebrity divorce trial.)

But another difference was that in 1979, the eclipse just involved a few thousand people moving around the country, not millions elbowing each other for camping sites and lining up to take selfies with the sun. (Astrophysicists’ tip: Have a really long selfie stick.) Back then, a cosmic realignment hadn’t yet risen to the level of a media occasion.

Now, experienced eclipse chasers tell us that seeing a total eclipse will change your life, and maybe it will. But it’s another sign of how this time is different.

Once, we thought change and enlightenment came by focusing light on reality.

It’s a sign of where we are now that this time we’re trying darkness.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Sunday Oregonian, 8/20/17.

20 Aug

Two Northwest backgrounds unite to defend food stamps

Two stories about growing up in the Pacific Northwest:

When Oregon’s U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley was student body president at David Douglas High School in east Portland, he ran a food drive. Collecting in a low-income neighborhood, he found that every door he knocked on produced a can of something, or a box of spaghetti. Moving his efforts to a more prosperous area, his expectations were high.

But in the new area, “I collected very little food,” Merkley remembers. “People didn’t believe that hard-working families were out there struggling.”
Jen Hamilton, a new volunteer coordinator at the Oregon Food Bank, was a child in a small Eastern Washington town. “When I was little, I understood what hunger was,” she remembers. “Sometimes my mother would say, ‘For the next few weeks, we’ll be eating out of the pantry,’” because there was no money to buy any more food.

Now, the two stories run together.

Hamilton, with a new graduate degree from Oregon Health Sciences University as a dietitian, was just hired by OFB after spending nine months drawing food stamps, which for an able-bodied adult without children carries a work requirement – an obligation she met by volunteering for 20 hours a week at the food bank. She salvaged usable food, packed cherries and helped teach a “Cooking Matters” class – and the food stamps she drew, less than $200 a month, helped her get by.

Now, like many food stamp clients, she’s employed and no longer drawing benefits, but appreciates the help she received at a tough time.
Jen’s story now runs into the daily efforts of Jeff Merkley, who’s trying to defend food stamps against a massive assault coming from several directions. Both the proposed budget from the Trump administration and the document from the House Budget Committee call for deep cuts in the program, and for years a particular target for slashing has been its assistance for able-bodied adults, no matter how hard they’re trying to find work.

“That’s where Republicans have gone for the money,” says Merkley. “The Budget Committee proposal would take 171 million meals from the most vulnerable Oregonians.”

Food stamps also have a direct effect on the local economy; hungry people don’t stockpile them. They tend to spend them at the supermarket immediately, turning them into tuna and macaroni, sending the money along.

Any cuts in food stamps – now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP – particularly hits Oregon. For years, the state has made major outreach efforts to get eligible Oregonians signed up for the program, and now has one of the highest participation rates in the country.

Over those years, Oregon’s hunger rate, as calculated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, has not coincidentally declined. The program helps
support unemployed able-bodied adults – generally on a short-term basis – as well as the children, elderly and disabled Americans who draw most of the SNAP benefits.

During the Great Recession, when millions of Americans were teetering on the edge of desperation, SNAP covered more people, just the way it was intended. As the economy has recovered in recent years, SNAP’s case load has declined, just the way it was intended.
But not fast enough for the House of Representatives.
That’s where Jeff Merkley’s story comes in. A member of the Senate Budget Committee, like his senior colleague Ron Wyden, Merkley is also the ranking Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Agriculture subcommittee, which approves the money for SNAP. Efforts to slash food stamps have come up before, and as Merkley says, “We protected the program on the Senate side.”

This isn’t entirely a Democratic effort; Republican senators from agricultural states often see the benefits of SNAP from the supply side.

Then, especially in the House, there are those who don’t. That’s when Merkley remembers the wealthier neighborhood that yielded less than the poorer neighborhood.

“I think that many Republicans,” says Merkley, “don’t think that there is hunger.”

And Jen Hamilton remember something about a child being hungry in a small Eastern Washington town:

People would help each other.

NOTE: This column appeared on the Oregon Food Bank website, August 2017.