Hermaphrodites & Me

Kate’s got her book group over tonight, so I have absented myself from the premises. The reason is that, you know, it’s kind of her thing. We cooked dinner — some “Greek” pizzas (pesto, eggplant, kalamata olives, red onion, and feta cheese) — and then the group started showng up to discuss the most recent reading, “Middlesex.’ It’s a novel about hermaphrotism. I left to walk up to a cafe on Shattuck Avenue that has a free wireless connection set up; when I departed, there was a discussion of genitalia and hormones and such (I wonder what they’re talking about in the swing states tonight).

Anyway, to the cafe. As I said, the WiFi here is free. And ever since it’s been offered, this place has been jammed with people working on laptops. I wonder how it works out for the owners, because it never seemed to me like they had trouble getting people to come in here. I’d think that people would be tempted to do just what I’m doing now: Buy a coffee, then park yourself and do your online stuff, and do it and do it and do it until long after you’re down to the fine, flavorful grounds at the bottom of your grande cappucino. Tonight — I took the picture through the window with my phone from the one free table I found, on the sidewak — there’s lots of computing going on.

Rainy Season

Cimg2358Earlier this week, it was smoky and hot. And now, suddenly, the dry season is over and the rains have started. Today was the first of several days of predicted on-an-off rain. Not so dramatic, weatherwise, for people used to tornadoes and typhoons or big seasonal variations with snow and bitter cold in the dark end of the year (you all know who you are). But here — this is it, the big change, when the weather starts coming in from the Pacific. John Adams and I were up hiking in the Sierra last weekend, and it’s just about certain that at least the highest place we reached, the Sierra Buttes, at 8,500 feet, has got a foot or two of snow on the ground tonight. (Took the picture from a doorway at St. Ambrose Catholic Church, where I ducked in to get out of a heavy shower this afternoon.)

Out There in the World

What am I doing sitting inside instead of doing things like, for instance, riding in the Davis Bike Club’s fall century (looking at the site, I had the first twinge of regret that I’m not out there on my bike). Well, here are a couple of things:

–Listening to a great edition of “This American Life” from Chicago. This week, it’s all about a Chicago Public School that, with leadership from a great principal and imaginative work from a bunch of great teachers, turned around a failing school on the West Side, and how the arrival of new top-down thinking in the district has been killing the progress that’s been made. Heartbreaking stuff, and so similar to what Kate is going through in Oakland right now.

–Marveling at the spectacle, which led one of the local news shows here last night and is on the Chronicle’s front page this morning, of hundreds and hundreds of senior citizens lining up to get flu shots. So, yes, one of the manufacturers screwed up. But even so, how is it that the Number One wealthiest nation in the world (thanks, Visa and MasterCard and bond buyers in Japan and China!) forces its citizens to beg for such a basic treatment. The big local scandal, as the TV news reported, was the death of an older woman who fell and hit her head after waiting in line outside a drugstore for hours the other day. I also liked this bit: A credit-union manager in Fergus Falls, Minnesota, who had to turn seniors away after flu vaccine ran out handed out cans of chicken soup and packs of Kleenex instead.

Local Politics

Cimg2329Just before Labor Day, I think, Kate and I drove up to Calaveras County to spend a night with our friends Jill and Piero at their cabin. Along the road, we saw a sign for a candidate to the county board: “Studley for Supervisor.” I would have taken a picture for my own amusement, but hadn’t brought my camera. I asked Jill if she’d take a picture when she and Piero were on her way back down here. She did, but it got erased before she could send it to me. Then last weekend, this sign appeared on our front lawn, courtesy of Piero, who grabbed one from the roadside. Now the ethical dilemma: Should we return it to restore the roadside political ecology of Calaveras County to its natural state? Or should we keep it? (So far, it’s still in front of our house, and no one in the neighborhood has asked us who in the world this Studley guy is.)

Our Deer Friends

When I walk at night, I usually go out sometime after nine o’clock and head up toward the hills. If I have time, there are a couple fairly long, steep routes I’ll take. It’s quiet in most of the neighborhoods around here, and even moreso as you head uphill. Every once in a while you’ll see something in the local paper about some street robberies up there at night, and occasionally that’s made me nervous. The only untoward thing I’ve ever encountered myself is the kind of stuff that would hardly be noticed in a really big city — kids goofing off in some park or other, drinking, maybe breaking bottles if they’re really obstreperous. So, not too much excitement. Often, if I walk down one midblock path late at night, I’ll see the very same guy sitting in the very same spot at the foot of it, wearing a parka, with his backpack beside him. I’ve never seen him during the day; he’s always there at night, sitting up. I’m tempted to go out there at three or four in the morning and see if he’s there.

Another regular but startling occurrence, and it just happened when I was out about an hour ago, is meeting up with large four-legged creatures. It’s the damnedest thing to turn a corner and run into a couple full-size deer, facing you in the middle of the street, maybe 20 or 30 feet away. I remember when seeing a deer, back in Illinois, out near Crete, was like a visitation from the wild. You’d see them at a graceful distance, and they always seemed to be at a full run or clearing a fence in one bound the moment you saw them. It was probably that way here 30 or 40 years ago, too. But now, they’re everywhere, and I’ve even run into them down here around our house, which has got lots of nice flowers to eat, probably, but is a long way from any place a deer could go to get away from us humans. What seems odd, and unwild, is how unperturbed they seem to be when you meet them. The pair I ran into tonight took a long look at me before they started to trot, slowly, right down the middle of the street. They stopped to look back and only kept moving when they saw I was still coming. This went on for a block. I could see one of them as a silhouette, a small set of antlers outlined against kitchen lights down the way. Finally, they got to a corner and split up, the buck going into a garden between two houses.

These deer — they’re just getting to know us a little too well.

Small Expectations

By now, everyone agrees that the presidential debates, as well as just about everything else about the race for the White House and other high-profile political contests, are a matter of expectations. A candidate does well, or “wins,” if he or she meets or exceeds expectations; they lose if they fail to live up to what the world expects. In 2000, Bush triumphed in his public meetings with Gore because the world — the media, especially — badly “misunderestimated” him. He didn’t fall down or throw up or start barking while the camera was on him. He thus exceeded expectations. He won.

A key tactic in the contest of expectations is to put a damper on what people might hope for in a debate or campaign. “Our candidate — hell, we’ve tried to stop him from humping the other guy’s leg, but we just can’t get him to quit.” So when the candidate somehow makes it through the televised debate without exhibiting the previously advertised weakness for leg humping, it’s a triumph of character. Expectations: Exceeded! Debate: Won!

None of this is news and maybe it’s not even worth saying anymore. But the really troubling thing is the way we all come to buy into it and accept it. Reading some of the blog coverage of the Alan Keyes-Barack Obama coverage the other night (such as on Archpundit, expectations were a major theme (Keyes scored points by dropping his usual combative, hyper-righteous stance on everything while on the air). I’ve found myself doing it, trying to guess how the Cheney-Edwards debate would be viewed.

I was discussing this (online) with my brother John last night. The game is troubling because the process of diminishing expectations plays to people’s most cynical (or at least disappointed, resigned) feelings about the way the world works. “You know, they say this thing is supposed to get 25 miles to the gallon. Figures that it gets just 16.” So even people who. like me, feel it’s desperately important to try to steer the country in a different direction from the one Bush and company are headed, start looking at Kerry with low expectations, just hoping they’ll hear something, anything, to make them feel good about their vote.

Bottom line, I guess I say, ‘Screw that.’ Refuse to play the game. If we don’t demand the best from the people we’re giving our votes to, we’re not going to get it. It’s healthy to want more from the people leading us and to be disappointed when you don’t get it. But don’t expect less. Expect more and make noise about it.

So that’s my well-meaning screedlet for today.

More Smoke

SatellitefireIt’s Day Three of the big smoke. The sunlight this morning is a dull, hazy grey-yellow. A little worse than a typical day in Los Angeles; definitely atypical for these parts. The latest from the fire, up north on the border of Napa and Yolo counties, is that crews have cut lines about halfway around the blaze. The Chronicle ran a remarkable picture this morning — a satellite photo that shows the smoke plume. Impressive how far it stretches.

Desert Wireless

Cimg2195_1I’ve got a story on Wired News today about a company in Montreal that wants to mobile wireless hotspot setup. The hardware, including satellite dish and a diesel generator, is built into a trailer that you can drag almost anywhere to provide Wi-Fi for disaster workers, film crews, or itinerant journalists and bloggers.


Cimg2331Monday: A beautiful, clear, hot north-central California autumn day. The wind was up all day, coming over the hills from the northeast. About an hour or so before sunset, I was walking down to the store and saw this striking arc of thin cloud, billowing out to the southwest; almost an illustration of what the wind seemed to be doing on the ground. It was breezy well into the night. I went for another walk after 10 o’clock, and the warm breeze seemed to be gusting down the western face of the hills. This is the kind of condition — Diablo winds, the local cousin of Southern California’s Santa Anas and a variation on what meteorologists call foehn winds — that makes you think about fire in these parts (the hottest, driest, windiest episode of Diablo winds that I can remember since I moved here in the mid-70s kicked up the morning of the big Oakland Hills fire in October 1991). High pressure centers, usually well to the north and east of the Bay Area, help set up a wind from California’s interior out over the coast. The winds start out warm and dry, and as they rush over the various spurs of the coast ranges and descend the leeward side, they get even hotter and drier.

Cimg2346_1_3Tuesday: There was word late Monday that a fire had started earlier in the day up on the border of Yolo and Napa counties, a lightly populated area a good 70 miles or so north-northeast of here. Though the acreage wasn’t large when I heard about it — a few thousand acres — what got my attention was the number of tanker planes and helicopters the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection had already assigned to it — something like a half dozen planes and 10 choppers. That’s major. Those dry winds, which calmed down here overnight, apparently kept going up there, and now the fire has burned about 30,000 acres (almost 50 square miles, about the same area as San Francisco, if you’re wondering). By early afternoon, the air in the central Bay Area turned murky (the picture’s looking across to Treasure Island from the Ferry Building). Everything smelled lightly of smoke. It’s not expected to get better tomorrow.

(And before signing off, just want to acknowledge one of the best Web information resources I’ve ever encountered: the American Meteorological Society’s Glossary of Meteorology. Amazing.)

Athletic Notes

Forget the Cardinals, Braves, Yankees, and Red Sox and all the baseball playoff heroics. Forget the Patriots and their winning streak. The truly memorable sports event of the weekend was the Bizz Johnson Trail Marathon, up in northeastern California, near where the Sierra Nevada give way to the Cascades and the mountain country opens into the Great Basin. Pete Danko, my friend and one of my athletic inspirations, ran. And he did pretty darn well. Way to go, Pete!