Executive Order 9066

The Writer’s Almanac notes today is the anniversary of the date in 1942 that President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, ordering more than 110,000 Japanese Americans into internment camps. It’s an event we all know in the sense we’ve heard of it. Having heard about it, most of us have an opinion about it; the prevailing view, embraced eventually even by a president as conservative and all-American as Ronald Reagan, is that it was a tragic mistake.

In another way, it’s a history we know little about. Especially in a place like Berkeley where more than 1,000 residents (the official number, published in the Berkeley Gazette in April 1942, was 1,319) were forced to leave. Several older Japanese-American couples lived in our neighborhood when we moved in 17 years ago. They were of a certain age — my parents’ age — that made me wonder not whether their families had been interned but what their internment experiences had been. I never talked to them to find out. But you realize that on this street, or the next one over, and all over town, families were sent packing. To the California deserts, Utah, Wyoming, wherever the camps could be set up quickly.

In San Francisco, the Chronicle ran a story marking the departure of the last “Japanese” from the city.

“For the first time in 81 years, not a single Japanese is walking the streets of San Francisco. The last group, 274 of them, were moved yesterday to the Tanforan assembly center. Only a scant half dozen are left, all seriously ill in San Francisco hospitals. ”

At University of California’s commencement, campus president Robert Gordon Sproul announced that the senior class’s top student “cannot be here today because his country has called him elsewhere.” Three weeks earlier, the student, Harvey Akio Itano, had been sent to the Tule Lake camp in northeastern California. Among the other UC seniors forced out of school before graduation was Yoshiko Uchida, who lived with her family on Stuart Street near Shattuck Avenue and kept a scrapbook (online through the University of California) of her new life (and later wrote many books about it).

You can go looking for scraps of the internment history, and sometimes they find you. In October, I was driving back to the Bay Area from Mojave and decided to take the long way, up U.S. 395, at the foot of the Sierra Nevada’s eastern flank. Late in the afternoon, speeding north up the dry floor of the Owens Valley, I passed a sign saying Manzanar was just ahead. I knew the name, that it was one of the camps, that it was out in the middle of the desert someplace, but not much more than that. Suddenly, here it was. So I turned off and spent a while driving around what is now a national historic site.

Sagebrush has claimed most of the camp, though you can see come of its streets leading off into the desert, and there’s an effort under way to rebuild (or recreate) one of the barracks buildings. The most-frequented place at Manzanar — not counting the visitor center — is the cemetery. The bordering fence is heavily festooned with origami cranes, and lots of impromptu memorial offerings have been left behind.

On the Bike

Storm

It rained hard early Friday, then cleared throughout the morning and turned into a nice day. I got out on my bike late in the afternoon and rode up Grizzly Peak Boulevardto the top of the hills, then stayed up there, riding south toward the Oakland hills. The weather had turned threatening, but the filtered light through the gathering storm clouds was muted and striking. Within about 10 minutes of this shot, a heavy shower passed over. I got to my turnaround point and started riding back north. By this time, a big area of rain was sweeping across the bay. I realized I probably wouldn’t get back home before it came over. On the last hill before the long coast back into town, it really started coming down. I was wet already, but not soaked through, so I stood under some eucalyptus trees (not on the top of the ridge, so safe from lightning, I was pretty sure) and watched as the rain, with a little hail mixed in, poured down harder and harder. After five or ten minutes, the rain slackened and I continued up the hill. Water was sheeting across the road all the way up the hill and on most of the streets during the six-mile-plus descent. I was wet through by the time I got home.

TV Is Very, Very Bad

Television will rot your mind. Really it will. I say that knowing that it’s too late for me. But go on — save yourself.

With that public-service message out of the way, let me just say that life has finally regained a bit of its equilibrium. I’m working some, everyone in the family is healthy and happy as can be expected in the age of Bush, the Sequel, and the new season of “Survivor” has begun.

This installment is set in Palau. The producers are playing up the area’s heritage as scene of a bitter struggle between the United States and Japan during world War II — including a long, savage and perhaps needless battle on the island of Peleliu (the subject of Eugene B. Sledge’s memorable “With the Old Breed“). Lots of striking video of shot-down planes and wrecked ships. It’ll be interesting to see whether they talk about how awful the fighting really was. Probably not.

Too early to come to any conclusions about the new crop of people, although the producers did throw in a couple of mean tricks right from the top. They sent 20 people out to the islands instead of the customary 16 (or 18 who have appeared on the last two installments). Then they devised a way to choose up sides after everyone had been there a day or so, with a provision that only 18 of the 20 would get chosen; two people would get sent home right then and there. So, if anyone had been getting on the group’s nerves, they were gone. Of course, there was one middle-aged woman who, apparently to show her individuality and mettle, had shown a predilection for bursting into tuneless, self-composed “Survivor”-related arias. She was eliminated, along with one young guy who just seemed like a cipher. Bye!

An immunity challenge wound up with a third person sent packing. Again, it was a woman who all but campaigned to get voted off by assuming the role of her tribe’s boss. I sympathize. The idea of competing on “Survivor” is actually attractive to me — just for the show biz, not the million bucks. I’m just afraid I’d get spotted as the biggest jerk on Day One and voted off first, too.

A Midday Stroll

Cimg3539I had a few errands to run early this afternoon. A package to mail, a check to deposit at an ATM, and a drug store and grocery stop. After I was done, I decided to make a little loop up past Indian Rock, then down to Solano for a bakery indulgence, then back home. On one of the streets along my way, I saw a couple of kids go into a driveway that was partially shrouded by a bush; then one of them stuck his head out and looked up and down the street — almost like he was doing charades for the phrase “furtive ne’er-do-well.”

I had my digital camera, and my first impulse was to take it out and snap their picture. But I thought better of it. The furtive-looking kid had a cellphone out and looked like he was talking. Maybe he and his buddy were just hiding out while cutting school or something. I avoided eye contact as I walked past, having decided I didn’t want to do anything confrontational since I didn’t like my odds for taking on one kid, let alone two. I continued up to the end of the block, then looked back. I could still see the guys at the end of the driveway. Then a guy who was working on a neighboring house came out onto the sidewalk and looked their way; they started walking up the street, past the worker and toward me. My gut feeling was that something didn’t look right, so I took my digital camera out, set the telephoto magnification to its 10x maximum. I was pretty sure the shot would come too fuzzy to make out their faces, but I took a shot anyway (it’s the one above; click it to see a large version).

Then I continued on and looked back after a minute or so. Strange. I didn’t see the two guys. I walked a few more steps and looked back again. No, they weren’t there. A car passed while I was looking back and pulled into the curb about 50 yards ahead of me. When I turned and continued up the street, the two guys I saw were climbing out of the car with a third guy who’d been driving. Not sure whether the driver had seen me take the first picture and they were going to try to intercept me, but they started walking away from me — the driver across the street, the two guys I’d seen earlier on the sidewalk ahead of me. There was something casual but purposeful about the way they were leaving the car that made me wonder whether it was stolen and they were ditching it. So I took a shot of the car (below), with the trio retreating in the background. I followed them around the corner just to see which way they were going, then decided to go with my gut instinct and call the police.

Cimg3540 I called the Berkeley police non-emergency number and told the dispatcher I had seen three guys who appeared to be casing the neighborhood. She asked why I thought that; when she heard the details, she was convinced enough that she sent some officers to the neighborhood. Since I had kept my distance from the group and couldn’t see where they were any longer, I went on my way to Indian Rock.

Long story made short, an officer called me later to ask whether I could identify the guys I saw “if we showed them to you.” I told him I just wasn’t confident I could make a positive ID since I’d avoided really staring them down. The officer said the car I’d seen them get out of was, in fact, stolen and that  two of the three guys I saw were seen walking behind a house down the street from where I last them; the police had caught up with them. So something really was up, though it turned out there was nothing to arrest them for (the officer told me the only one who’d be criminally liable for the car theft was the person driving; since I couldn’t say for sure who it was, they couldn’t bust anyone). The officer also told me there has been a string of burglaries in the neighborhood and “now I feel like I know who two of the burglars are.”

Significance

I guess we’re at the height of Academy Awards voting time, because The New York Times (and the L.A. Times, too, I imagine) is full of big ads for nominated pictures. I usually skip over them, but an ad for “Sideways” today includes a funny piece of dialogue in which the self-pitying would-be writer protagonist states his brutal view of his insignificance:

“Half of my life is over, and I have nothing to show for it. I’m a thumbprint on the window of a skyscraper. I’m a smudge of excrement on a tissue surging out to the sea with a million tons of raw sewage.”

It’s actually a funny moment. And it reminds me of other dramatic statements of the triviality of our existence and efforts in the universe. Particularly, formulations like “that’s not even a fart in a windstorm” and “so-and-so is just a pimple on the ass of progress.” Perhaps not as high flown as the “Sideways” example, but still — cherished outbursts from the past.

’24’: Week in Review

“24” continues to amaze: In a stunning display of self-discipline, the show’s creators are keeping the soap operatics on the back burner while allowing action to drive the plot. Yes, sometimes the action seems a little heavy on the deus ex machina element (case in point: how in the world did there happen to be a terrorist sniper in place to kill the guy responsible for the nuclear-plant takeovers before he could be questioned?).

But my quibbles aside — and they should be put aside, because we’re talking about a prime-time network action drama here, not a complex entertainment like “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” — there’s actually something akin to real tension developing in the story line. One nuclear plant is already melting down and more might do so at any time. We’ve already gotten to see the heroic control-room workers who got radiation-toasted while trying to avert catastrophe. Elsewhere, Jack is getting ready to go mano a mano with the super-nasty Turkish Terrorist Dad, who just offed his credulous pharmacist brother-in-law. The Terrorist Mom, meantime, has let it be known that unless Jack can save her son, the Terrorist Teen, from the very upset Terrorist Dad, she won’t lift a finger to stop the imminent deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. Mommy dearest!

Other crucial “24” matters:

Best new character: Edgar. He’s a nebbish. He’s a mensch. Never mind the his lisping and whining and Brooklyn mama’s boy exterior. So far, he’s averted the meltdown of 100 nuclear reactors, exposed the enemy mole and tried to abandon his post to rescue his mom from the fallout cloud.

Whatever happened to: Paul, the soon to be ex-husband of Jack’s girlfriend, Audrey. I think he went to the bathroom two episodes ago and hasn’t come out. When he does, get ready for trouble!

Chloe: As a key Jack ally, who can believe she’s really gone for the whole season? Maybe she’ll come back with her baby and they’ll take on the terrorists together, “Lone Wolf and Cub” style.

Intriguing: Erin Driscoll, the putative CTU boss (putative, because it’s clear Jack was, is, and will always be The Man; and if he’s not, there’s always Tony), alternates between something like sensitive nobility (as when she talks Edgar out of his well-meaning but sort of dumb mom rescue), callous cruelty (as when she oversees the torture of one of her employees), and continuing blind stupidity (as when she agrees with a subaltern that they should cover up evidence they helped the enemy mole get a high security clearance). Conclusion: She’s nuts, just like her schizo daughter, Maya.

Lincoln and Bush

Still thinking about Lincoln and the current Bush and whether they would have been on the same side during the current or former unpleasantness. I figured the White House must have had a Lincoln’s Birthday event that might shed some light on the question. Checking the White House site, sure enough: George and Laura hosted a performance of “Lincoln Seen and Heard,” a dramatic presentation of some of the 16th president’s speeches and writings. Sam Waterston, who was Lincoln’s voice for Ken Burns’s Civil War series, presented the Gettysburg Address and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. The latter was delivered about five weeks before Lee surrendered at Appomattox; it had finally become clear which way the way would go. Yet Lincoln’s words, which he knew would be read in the South, are entirely without a sense of triumph. Bush could have learned something from that before he put the flight suit on and flew out to that carrier. But of course, if he was liable to learn a lesson like that, he wouldn’t be our George.

At the end of the evening, Bush talked briefly about what he had heard. He said Lincoln was our greatest president. And he hinted, of course, that Lincoln’s words bolster his program to shock and awe the world’s evildoers out of existence with high explosives and the wonders of democracy:

“The Civil War was decided on the battlefield; the larger fight for America’s soul was waged with Lincoln’s words. In his own day, Lincoln set himself squarely against a culture that held that some human beings were not intended by their Maker for freedom. And as President, he acted in the conviction that holding the Union together was the only way to hold America true to the founding promise of freedom and equality for all. And that is why, in my judgment, he was America’s greatest President.

“We’re familiar with the words of the Gettysburg Address, and the Second Inaugural, so eloquently read by Sam. And this performance reminds us that Lincoln wrote his words to be spoken aloud — to persuade, to challenge, and to inspire. Abraham Lincoln was a master of the English language, but his true mother tongue was liberty.

“I hope that every American might have the experience we had here tonight, to hear Lincoln’s words delivered with Lincoln’s passion, and to leave with a greater appreciation for what these words of freedom mean in our own time.”

Lincoln’s Birthday

Yesterday, I neglected the traditional Abe Lincoln birthday greeting. Of course, I don’t think he’s complaining much. Anyway, happy birthday, Abe.

In the past year, I visited his tomb for the first time, discovered that he made his last speech in Illinois in Tolono (the day before his birthday, in 1861), and that, for whatever reason, he liked to sleep with guys. Abe, we hardly knew you.

One thing I find myself wondering about in the age of George W. Bush, the Great Emancipator of Iraq, is whether Lincoln and Bush would be in the same party — either now or back in Lincoln’s day. Perhaps it’s an empty game to play, and I don’t pretend to know where Lincoln would stand on issues such as the war on terrorism or Iraq (though he didn’t hesitate to suspend rights in the midst of the nation’s emergency; so there’s some interesting evidence you might pursue).

On the other hand, it’s extraordinarily difficult to imagine Bush taking Lincoln’s path. I can much more easily imagine Bush as a defender of the South’s rights to pursue liberty the way it saw fit — for whites only — than see him as someone who would have risen to defense of the Union. It’s much easier to see him standing up for the rights of property owners — slaveowners — than recognize the human rights of their property. I think he’s the first president in my lifetime I’ve felt this way about, though he’s hardly the first president elected from the former Confederacy in our time.

The Pumped Fist

Michael Sokolove, The New York Times Magazine’s apparent writer-on-sports, has a story today on the decline of U.S. hoops, or at least the overall quality of play in the National Basketball Association. The villain in the piece is the slam dunk, which he finds emblematic of the selfish, highlight-reel style of so many NBA players, stars and would-be stars alike. He also indicts the dunk and selfish play as a symptom of something deeper: the decline in basic individual and team skills among today’s players. His prescription for a quick fix: Ban the dunk. His fallback, realizing the league will never ban the dunk: Ban the dunk in college and high school, and maybe do something to stop kids from jumping directly to the pros from high school.

His argument is interesting as far as it goes. He points out that scoring is down and free-throw shooting is bad. The U.S. squad’s losses in the Olympics show the selfish American style’s vulnerability to sides well-versed in team skills. Can’t deny any of that, but I think Sokolove skips over another development that has led the pro game to where it is:

the sanctioning of rugby-style play on both ends of the floor. Basketball could always be rough — the Jerry Sloan-Norm Van Lier Bulls come to mind, and the Detroit Pistons of the late ’80s — but what makes those teams stand out was that their defensive approach was exceptional as well as effective. Now it seems like every team defends the basket and attacks it like they were trained for the job in the National Football League. Those tactics keep scores down, too, and they may have helped encourage the offensive philosophy of going for the sure score by slamming the ball through the hoop or, as the chief alternative, going for three-pointers from areas of the floor that are less fiercely defended.

You also have to wonder whether the selfish, “look at me!” kind of play that typifies not just high-level hoops but college and pro football and baseball, too, is really just a mirror of the kind of society we are: Just as for Donald Trump it’s proven more valuable to play the part of a hard-nosed successful business mogul than to actually be one, you’re only really somebody in what you do in a series brief triumphs. Sack the quarterback. Make a big sale. Cut someone off on the highway in your Hummer. Something, anything to pump our fists about.

Dead, Dead Hero

BoingBoing points to the story of a Colorado woman who concocted a fabulous whopper about her husband’s heroism in Iraq: Over a half-year or so, “Amber” made regular calls to a local radio talk show, first talking about how she was in basic training, then disclosing that her husband “Jonathan” had been deployed to Iraq. Finally, Amber announced that her husband had been killed in action. She was left all alone, a military widow with one young child and, she said, another on the way. Tragic.

But the heroic nature of her husband’s death didn’t come out until Amber talked to a group set up to help military families in western Colorado. Jonathan had been killed trying to save the life of a little Iraqi girl. The story was full of other details, too, about the couple’s life and military service and everything. Media throughout the state, including the hometown paper, lapped up the story, which quickly unraveled. No Amber. No Jonathan. No dead hero. No one ever checked before issuing press releases or printing stories.

Wow.

Now, everyone, including Oprah, wants to know why “Amber” pulled the hoax. The consensus: Something is wrong with her. “Sometimes people have such a deep emptiness inside that when they get attention, they’re the recipients of well-wishers, the center of attention, they get a sense of importance and comfort,” one expert is quoted as saying.

Focusing all the attention on “Amber” and her obvious lack of balance (or incredibly well-developed, gutsy ability to pull pranks) leaves out the other side of the equation in this hoax and others: What is it about the rest of us — the emptiness in our own lives? — that we’re so ready to believe stories like this?