Gregory Travis

November 5, 2006

My good friend, Don Moore, taught me the three essential parts of any successful narrative: the victim, the villain and the hero. The narrative needs someone who ends the suffering of one, to whom something bad is being done, by someone else.

All a writer needs to do, to promote his or her frame, is identify who will play the role of each of those actors. Once that's done, the rest falls into place.

Well, it's not that easy. You have to figure out the personage of each. Me? I like reluctant and accidental heroes. I like tragic heroes. I like damaged heroes.

I like real heroes. Sophocles' Oedipus, Richard Condon's Raymond Shaw.

October 22, 2006

Local government exists for one reason and one reason only: to decide how land gets used. Everything, and I mean everything, that local government does deconstructs to a decision about which landowners will win, and which will lose.

Who gets rich, and who doesn't.

The process is inherently political, and it's why local politics is pregnant with burlesque. It's why people spend tens of thousands of dollars to get elected to positions that pay almost nothing at all.

Because it's about access. It's about getting your way. It's about enabling the bigger picture, for you and your cronies. It's about payback for the people who gave you the money to get elected in the first place.

October 7, 2006

It's 2:33 p.m. on Saturday, and we just started rolling out of Chicago, 18 minutes late, on the Empire Builder. This train, the eponymous benefactor of the Great Northern railway's founder James Hill, has traveled between Chicago and the West Coast for the past 77 years. For much of its history, it simply was the link between the Pacific Northwest and the rest of the country.

By Monday morning, when the train arrives at the Pacific Ocean, I will have journeyed some 2,200 miles. Our route takes us from Chicago, through Milwaukee and Minneapolis, then to Fargo and places ever northward. We'll spend all of Sunday skimming along just below the Canadian border before turning slightly southwards into the Cascade mountains and down to the sea.

Although the Empire Builder originated with the Great Northern railway, it's no longer a product of it. The Great Northern ceased to exist in the early 1970s, merged into the Burlington Railroad to become the Burlington Northern and then, as railroad merger mania continued, into its present form, the Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF), one of the last remaining Class I railroad powerhouses.

September 23, 2006

Several years ago, the City of Bloomington, along with Monroe County and the state, embarked on a new-era experiment in command-and-control economics. With a "build-it-and-they-will-come" attitude, they designated a greenfield — between second and third streets, hard against the western edge of SR37 and owned by a developer influential at that time in the Democratic Party — as the "Bloomington Technology Park."

Spurred on by a "future's-so-bright-we-gotta-wear-shades" optimism, the city and other government factions poured a million or so public dollars into infrastructure for the private parcel. The excuse? That the "technology park" would source the blooming of a thousand points of new-economy light and bridge the gap between the old bricks-and-mortar world and the brave new world of Web sites and lab coats.

It failed, spectacularly. A to-be suburban warren of what Joel Kotkin called "the nerdistan," a campus of high-tech office parks, lean manufacturing and Starbucks instead morphed into a suburban shit hole of big-box retail, strip malls, an automobile dealership and Starbucks.

September 10, 2006

In What's the matter with Kansas? Thomas Frank describes the economic disconnect between some voters and their own self-interests. That is to say, what's the matter with voters who vote for candidates with platforms that are hostile to the voter's well-being?

Why does labor vote for anti-union, low-wage, corporate-friendly candidates? Why do those on the lowest rungs of the socioeconomic ladder vote for candidates who pledge to cut education, health care and social services for those most in need — i.e them?

I got an e-mail yesterday that made me think: "Kansas? Hell, what's the matter with Monroe County?"

August 27, 2006

It's not that I like to worry. I'm just very good at it. It's genetic. I come from a long line of semi-professional worriers.

I realized that a few years ago while at a retrospective on my grandfather's artwork. Smack-dab in the middle of his usual heart-of-darkness African jungle scenes was a painting I'd never before seen.

I later described the work, depicting the advancement and application of technology to the battlefield, as kind of a poor-man's Guernica. But what caught my attention wasn't really the painting itself, it was the descriptive note attached to it by the show's curator.

In the note, the curator explained that my grandfather (who I knew only when I was quite young) had always viewed progress if not in a negative light then at least with a jaundiced eye. The double-edged sword of technologic progression: the fact that our industry and science had made it possible to kill more with less. Less effort, less attachment, and less money.

August 13, 2006

Let's invent a waitress, let's call her "Monroe." Monroe works for a restaurant called "Indiana," managed by a guy named "Indianapolis."

Monroe doesn't have a lot of money, so she spends much of her time planning and working to make sure that what she does have goes as far as it can. After all, she's been burned in the past, she's worked at low-cost restaurants, she's worked during economic downturns.

And she knows the tips aren't always there.

Monroe has responsibilities. She has children, she has a mortgage payment, and she's committed to give her church a certain amount every month.

Speaking of her church: Monroe's strict and deeply-held religious beliefs preclude her from borrowing any money, except for money for her house.

July 30, 2006

I had an email exchange earlier this week, an exchange about a column I wrote over a year ago titled "Induced to carrying the latently obvious" (available, as always, on the Bloomington Alternative's Web page).

The premise was that all systems, man-made and natural, have an inherent quality called "carrying capacity." That is, the capacity at which the system can sustainably keep on keepin' on.

For instance, the carrying capacity of a lake is the number of people who can drink from it without affecting the lake's water quality or level.

Inherent in the concept of carrying capacity is the concept of overshoot. That is, although all systems have inherently sustainable carrying capacities, it is possible to draw down those systems at a rate beyond their carrying capacity. When that's done, the system is said to be in overshoot.

July 16, 2006

Polanski's Chinatown. Could there be a greater classic in the annals of real-estate-grifting cum pulp fiction? I don't think so.

A grand conspiracy, involving corrupt government, mendacious land speculators and a municipal waterworks in the service of both. A giant growth machine, buying arid land at rock-bottom-prices and, after the waterworks ran their pipes where they'd been told to run them, flipping it for a fantastic premium.

A premium so rich that nobody hesitated to whack a guy or two if they posed the slightest threat to the machine. Ahh, only in the movies could such a fantastic plot be found.

July 2, 2006

I flew out East last week to present a paper in New York and then spend some personal time with family in Massachusetts. As I always am when I go back, I was struck again by how different the fabric of community is in New England (and New York) versus that of my home here in the Midwest.

In most things, the Northeast precedes the Midwest. What happens here today already happened a couple of decades ago some thousand miles to our east. That's been true since our nation came into being. Traveling east is like stepping into a time-machine to the future. Sorta. By doing so, one can inform oneself of what the future holds.

Sorta.

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