Il Papa

Briefly: Just happened to look at The New York Times site, and see reports there and elsewhere that the pope is near death. No surprise there — he’s been very sick for a long time. But still: The pope is dying. What’s odd is that, despite not having gone to Mass or taken any of the sacraments except on very rare occasions for nearly 40 years, I can be so quickly carried back to Catholic school days and the sense of gravity surrounding the death of a pope.

I’m thinking of Pope John XXIII (I can probably thank him for my early knowledge of Roman numerals) when I write that. He was a sort of kindly old guy who came after Pius XII, who was a cipher in my pre-school appreciation of matters ecclesiastical. I remember Mom liked J23, and thought he was doing good things in the church. I didn’t really understand what things he was doing, but there was the feeling he was a little looser and less formal than people were used to. The Wikipedia article on him has a great anecdote:

“When the First Lady of the United States, Jacqueline Kennedy, arrived in the Vatican to see him, he began nervously rehearsing the two methods of address he had been advised to use when she entered: ‘Mrs. Kennedy, Madame’ or ‘Madame, Mrs. Kennedy’. When she did arrive, however, to the amusement of the press corps, he abandoned both and rushed to her saying, ‘Jackie!’

Then he died, in 1963, in the summer between third and fourth grade for me. In Chicago, Catholic as it is — or was then, anyway — it was a big deal, and I remember a big black headline on the Daily News, which has, like all the popes except one, expired, too.

Over There

Iraq — let us not forget Iraq.

Is the news good or bad? Well, it depends. In March 2005, fewer U.S. troops have been killed (32, 35, as of this writing) than in any month since February 2004, when 20 died. That’s good, and I list it first only because the impression one gets is that there are few hard, dependable facts in the Land Between Two Rivers. Our casualty list is one.

Most days, I still scan the headlines on the Iraq Coalition Casualties site. Maybe that’s part of the reason I have an ongoing unease about what’s happening over there even as the war has been pushed into the background here. The current lineup of items starts with this news from the Pentagon:

DoD Identifies Army Casualty

“Pfc. Samuel S. Lee, 19, of Anaheim, Calif., died March 28 in Ar Ramadi, Iraq, from non-combat related injuries. Lee was assigned to 1st Battalion, 506th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division, Camp Greaves, Korea.”

The rest of today’s headlines from the page:

–Reuters: U.S. Citizen Kidnapped in Iraq with Three Romanians

–AP: Mississippi soldier loses legs, three others wounded in Iraq

–Ark City Traveler: Winfield soldier still recovering

–DOD: Troop-Strength Assessment in Iraq Expected This Summer

–KUNA: U.S. questions UN conclusions on malnutrition among Iraqi children


–KUNA: Four killed, three wounded in booby-trapped car in Mosul

–MEMRI: Kirkuk: Between Kurdish Separatism and Iraqi Federalism


–AP: Accused Soldier Has Hearing Postponed

–KUNA: Two Iraqis killed in separate incidents

–DOD: Joint Repair Facility Extends Robot Lives

–Reuters: Syria demands Iraq release two accused of spying

–Reuters: Six Iraqis killed as insurgents battle US troops

–DemocracyNow: Halliburton Employee Says He Was Gang-Beaten By Co-Workers

–Anatolia: 36 Iraqis In Baghdad have AIDS – Health Ministry

–Stars and Stripes: 31st MEU arriving in Okinawa Saturday

–KUNA: Two Iraqis killed in blast

–AP: Nearly twice as many Iraqi children going hungry since Saddam’s ouster

–MOD: British soldier was found dead

–AP: Car bomb in Baghdad kills one; attackers fire on Shiite pilgrims

–National Guard and Reserve Mobilized as of March 30, 2005

–USA TODAY: Tanks take a beating in Iraq

–AP: Number of prisoners held by U-S in Iraq doubled in five months

–AFP: Seven Iraqis killed in attacks

–Beacon News: Wounded GI gets much-needed help

–aljazeerah: One American, Three Romanians Kidnapped

–WorldNow: Local Soldier Severely Injured

–KUNA: Up to 2,000 soldiers join Iraqi army in Khout

–irib: US Forces Wound Iraqi Basketball Federation Head

–newstandardnews: Rise of Extremism, Islamic Law Threaten Iraqi Women

–RFE: Iraqi Army More Visible On Baghdad Streets

–iribnews: Iraq closes border checkpoint

Whatever the reality is, all that accounts for just a fragment. Not a comforting fragment, though. (And, of all the stories above, here’s the one I’d check out first: The tale of the Halliburton worker from New Mexico who was reportedly beaten so badly by fellow employees that he’ll need to be evacuated to an Army facility in Germany for treatment. The story suggests the motive was racial — the victim is Latino, the assailants are part of a group from Louisiana that the story refers to as a “redneck Mafia.”)

View from the Back of the Pack

It’s late, and I’m being lazy. Specifically, I’m “repurposing” (now there is a great word) a little piece I wrote for a local bike club newsletter, the Grizzly Peak Cyclists. It may be too cute by half; if so, I plead guilty and promise to get back to my usual hard-bitten prose right after I copy and paste this little gem:

An Early-Season Brevet

It’s brevet season. “Brevet” is a French word meaning “ride till you hurt.” Brevet-season participants start the year with a 200-kilometer ride (125 miles or so), then graduate to distances of 300, 400, and 600 kilometers (roughly 187.5, 250 and 375 miles, respectively), all ridden in a time limit that ranges from 13.5 hours for the 200 to 40 hours for the 600 . The grand prize for completing the four brevets is qualifying to ride an even longer one: a 1,200-kilometer event, which comes with a slightly more generous time limit of 90 hours. Since all that sounds like a worthy undertaking to some of your fellow Grizzlies, several of whom have declared their intent to ride the 1,200-kilometer Gold Rush Randonee this July, you can spot them headed out of town before dawn on certain Saturday mornings. One of the favorite destinations for these “brevet-heads,” as they style themselves, is Davis.

The flatland town has a thing about riding until it hurts; gas stations there have been replaced by roadside dispensaries for Chamois Butt’r, bag balm, and other cycling salves and unguents. The local bicycle cult, organized under the name “Davis Bike Club,” has fashioned the town the Brevet Capital of Everywhere That’s Not France. To establish and maintain that claim, the club has for years sponsored a series of spring brevets (they’re not the only ones, though: locally, series are also offered through similarly inclined groups in San Francisco, Santa Cruz, and Santa Rosa). Among non-French clubs, the DBC has in recent years boasted the largest number of affiliated riders in the Mother of All Brevets, the quadrennial Paris-Brest-Paris.

This year’s DBC brevet season opened March 5 with a 200-kilometer jaunt (with 5,500 feet or so of climbing) from Davis, naturally, to the Grange Hall in beautiful Pope Valley and back. Weather’s always a factor on long rides, and the day was beautiful — so clear that the high peaks of the Sierra were outlined against the dawn sky, with a light to moderate westerly breeze that would swing to the north and east just in time to make sure the slower riders could have a headwind both out and back.

The Davis 200, following the same route year after year, has a certain rhythm: A fast tempo for the first 25 or 30 miles with lots of pacelines as you roar across the western edge of the Central Valley and begin the gentle and lovely climb up Highway 128 along Putah Creek as it flows down from Monticello Dam and Lake Berryessa; then 35 miles or so of small climbs and rollers through ranches and vineyards all the way to Pope Valley. The return is, well, similar, but in reverse, with a final swooping descent from the dam to dump you back into the lowlands. On the final stretch back to Davis, the packs of riders, thinned out by the hills, are much smaller.

The handful of Grizzlies spotted on their machines this day included Peter Morrissey, who was seen chasing the lead pack about 10 miles after the turnaround; Bruce Berg, who started out fast and stayed that way (finishing the 125.6 miles in 7 hours and 27 minutes, including stops); Rob Hawks, who finished in about 7:55; Jim Bradbury, smiling as usual; and your correspondent, who clocked in at 8:39 and was glad to be done. This is by no means an authoritative list; my apologies to any Grizzlies I’ve omitted.

(If this kind of event is for you, or you want to get someone out of the house for days at a time, brevet schedules and details are available at the Randonneurs USA site:


Our son Tom is a senior at Berkeley High, and as documented in these pages last fall (from Yreka and Eugene), decided the place he’d really like to go to college is the University of Oregon (home of the Ducks). He’s been pretty low key about it, but last Saturday, he came out of his room and said, “I’m going to Oregon.” He had been checking the U of O Web site and just seen that he’d been admitted (as a “pre-journalism” student).

Well done, I say. And all of a sudden, his departure for the next big chapter in his life is a lot — a lot — more tangible.

The Things I Think About

Here’s a pointless exercise I spend time on nearly every morning. The Chronicle has a weather page. Not up to the standard of the Chicago Tribune’s page, which is the best I’ve seen; its overseer, Tom Skilling of WGN, has apparently worked with people at the paper to give the page real dimension and depth; they actually make an effort to tell readers something meaningful about the science of weather, they pore over the record books to put the current weather in some sort of meaningful context, and they highlight interesting weather happenings outside the Chicago metro area.

But back to the Chronicle’s weather page. It’s full of numbers, and it features a giant Bay Area map. But it’s really narrow and dull when you get down to it. One feature it has presented presented since I started reading the paper regularly, back in 1976, is a list of a dozen California cities and their current seasonal rainfall. From Crescent City in the north to San Diego in the south, the list reports precipitation in the last 24 hours, how much rain has fallen since the start of the current season (which runs from July 1 through June 30), how much fell in the same period last year, the “normal” seasonal rainfall to date (an average taken over the last 30 years), and the “normal” total for the entire season. Doesn’t that all sound interesting?

I have a daily habit of checking the precipitation numbers if it’s been raining. I have a minor, ongoing fixation about one particular fact: how Oakland’s rainfall stacks up against San Francisco’s. As a resident of the East Bay, it’s a source of pride that humble Oakland has been, on average, a little more rainy than its vainglorious cousin across the Bay Bridge — Oakland’s season normal is 22.94 inches versus San Francisco’s 22.28. But a worrying trend has developed: In several recent years, San Francisco has wound up ahead in the rain race; this year, Oakland is nearly two full inches behind, 25.22 to 27.21.

It makes you wonder whether the fix is in — maybe West Bay meteorologists are doctoring the results to claim Bay Area Rain Capital honors. It makes you wonder what the penalty is for tampering with an Official Government Rain-Measuring Instrument.

On the Bike


I’ve been out cycling more this month and last than I have for a while, and a new thought about riding — new for me, I mean — bubbled up while I was going through my usual bout of bike procrastination this morning. Just this: There’s a certain story that forms in your head during every ride about the ride. Everything you see and hear and feel, all the conditions, builds into a narrative about the experience. Maybe this is true to some extent of everything we do. But I realized when I started thinking about it that the story is especially focused and intense during a ride.

Today’s story: Tired legs after two short-ish but hilly and fairly intense rides Friday and Saturday. I started out with no fixed destination or route or purpose, except to get back home ahead of the storm that was just off the coast. I wound up heading up onto the main road through the Berkeley Hills (Grizzly Peak Boulevard), trying not to push too hard while keeping my pedaling smooth and (for me) reasonably fast. As I chugged along, another cyclist blew by, standing on the long gradual ascent, moving away so fast that it seemed like he was out of sight in about 30 seconds. Over the top of Grizzly Peak –about a 1,500-foot climb from home in about six and a half miles — the winds were picking up. There are big eucalyptus groves up there; you think about them in a high wind — about a branch getting dropped on you, or in the road in front of you, as you ride by. Big banks of dark clouds were blowing in over the Bay; but the Golden Gate Bridge and all of Marin County were still visible, so no rain was falling over there yet.

As long as the storm still had a way to come, I kept on south, onto Skyline Boulevard in Oakland, which rolls up and down a series of little ridges before making a long fast descent — the same place I knocked out my front teeth in 1991 — to a junction with a street that plummets back down to the city. I turned around there and headed back up; cresting the first climb and rounding a curve, I could see that the storm was finally near — a big curtain of rain was sliding across the Mount Tamalpais in Marin.

So now I had a race — could I get back across the hills and down before things got wet? I decided to stay on the top of the ridge as long as I could because turning that earlier six-and-a-half mile climb into a descent is a local riding highlight for me. Every time I came to a road where I could bail out and head down from the hills, I decided I could still make it. So I wound up riding north to Kensington, taking the narrow and precipitous streets that drop down to another major hills boulevard called The Arlington (yes, "the). The Berkeley portion has just been repaved; the downhill stretch from Kensignton is like a raceway; a Subaru Outback passed me, even though I was going faster than the speed limit, and I managed to draft behind it most of the way down; possibly foolish, but definitely fun. The first rain started to fall when I was about four blocks from home.

Family Business

It’s Ann’s birthday. That’s significant because she’s my sister, and the only one of my four siblings whose day of birth I clearly remember. The one recollection I’ve shared in the family to the point of bored weeping is seeing the family car, a red-and-white 1958 Ford station wagon, going around the corner of Monee Road and Indianwood in Park Forest as my brothers and I walked home from school at St. Mary’s.

We’d been home for lunch, and I remember what might have been a routine for my mom and dad, who were waiting for their fifth kid. Dad did accounting-type work at Spiegel’s, and I think he’s always had the habit of recording numbers that might be significant. At lunch, Mom was having contractions; when she had one, she’d tell Dad, who would look at his watch and write down the time on the back of an envelope. He’d been writing the times down since after we left for St. Mary’s earlier in the day, seeing how close the contractions were getting. I remember seeing the times and thinking something exciting was happened, though I wasn’t entirely sure what it involved beyond the expectation we’d have a new brother or sister at the end of it.

Dad drove Mom to Ingalls Hospital in Harvey. Chris, John, and I were having dinner with our neighbors, the Lehmanns, when Dad called about 5:30 to say we had a sister. Boy, did she have a treat in store. Somehow, she survived.

Happy Birthday, Ann. I won’t mention the exact year you were born, only that according to Popstrology, you were born in the Year of the Four Seasons, and your birth star is Connie Francis.


Thanks to Kate, who actually looks at The New Yorker that arrives at our home each week, I know about popstrology. To quote the item in the magazine:

“Popstrology is a system for achieving self-awareness through the study of the pop-music charts—specifically, by determining which pop song was No. 1 on the day of your birth. If, for example, you happen to have been hatched during that brief, blissful period in October, 1976, when the airwaves were ruled by ‘Disco Duck,’ you may have inherited from its creators, the opportunistic d.j. Rick Dees and His Cast of Idiots, an ability ‘to parlay simple needs and even modest gifts into the precise degree of greatness to which you aspire.’ (As it happens, 1976 was the Year of Rod Stewart.) Popstrology is no parlor game; its methodology is elaborate and broad—the book is almost four hundred pages long. [Popstrology creator Ian] Van Tuyl identifies forty-five constellations (Lite & White, Mustache Rock, Shaking Booty), and, for each No. 1 artist (or ‘birthstar’), he provides a chart, which maps the birthstar’s signature qualities on a matrix of sexiness, soulfulness, and durability, among other variables. (Van Tuyl has no truck with coolness; popstrologically, there are no bad pop songs.) In the introduction, he writes, ‘Popstrology is a powerful and flexible science, and where its adherents take it in the years ahead is anyone’s guess.’ ”

The piece goes on to give Van Tuyl’s popstrological analysis of several names in the news, including the current president of the United States, Condoleezza Rice, Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, Michael Eisner, and Robert Iger. He had to do special readings for these people since the formal borders of popstrology cover only the era from April 1956 (the First Year of Elvis Presley) through August 1989 (the Year of Paul Abdul).

About Wolfowitz, Van Tuyl says: ‘He’s a Mills Brother. “Paper Doll.” ‘ He began to recite from the song: ‘ “I’d rather have a paper doll to call my own than have a fickle-minded real live girl.” ‘ A meaningful look. ‘Reality can be complicated. Real life can be sticky. On the other hand, two-dimensional representations of reality never change. They never betray you. Commitment to beliefs, whatever those beliefs may be, is probably common among Mills Brothers.’ ”

If you’re a true child of the popstrology era, look up your sign here. If you weren’t born in the magic years, you have to look up your own Number One. Here’s a good place to do it: the Wikipedia’s “Years in Music.” In my year, Elvis had his first recording session and Bill Haley released “Rock Around the Clock.” But those were just the faintest glimmers of the rock-and-roll dawn. The Number One song when I was born, it turns out, was “Make Love to Me,” by Jo Stafford. Hmmm. I’ll have to find that somewhere.

Making Up for Good Intentions

I, and many other bloggers, wrote earlier this year about an incident in which a U.S. Army patrol fired on a car in Iraq that carried a mother, father, and six children. The parents were killed and one of the kids was badly wounded. What made this incident different from many other accidental (or reckless) shootings during the course of the war was the presence of a press photographer, Chris Hondros of Getty Images, who recorded the horror of the scene. Newsweek has a story in its current issue on the shooting’s extraordinarily unhappy aftermath.

I see this evening, by way of Mark Frauenfelder on BoingBoing, that a group of people in the Seattle area has set up a relief fund for the family, the Hassans (the parents left nine children behind; the boy wounded in the attack suffered spinal injuries and could be permanently paralyzed unless he gets access to expensive medical treatment unavailable in Iraq). The fund has been organized under the auspices of an Anglican church group and a tech consulting firm, and is taking donations by mail or via PayPal. Check out the relief fund page for yourself.

Perhaps the fund is just our typical Yank gesture: We’re so sorry we killed your parents; let us give you some cash. On the other hand, it’s a small way of trying to set right the damage wrought by all our highly principled, well-intentioned violence.

Making Friends, Influencing People: Iraq Edition

A friend and fellow Land of Lincoln native, Ayla Jean Yackley (she hails from Ottawa, on the banks of the mighty Illinois River), has been working as a correspondent for Reuters in Turkey (her mom’s family is Turkish, I think, and Ayla speaks the language) for several years. She passed on a press release yesterday from the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists about an ugly incident involving U.S. soldiers, three Reuters employees, and an NBC photographer near Fallujah last year. According to the release (and Reuters offers a similar account, too):

“The three Reuters employees, along with Ali Mohammed Hussein al-Badrani, a cameraman working for NBC, were covering the aftermath of the downing of a U.S. helicopter when they were detained by U.S. troops on Jan. 2, 2004. The four were taken to a U.S. base near Fallujah and released three days later without charge.

“The Reuters employees allege that while detained, they were beaten and deprived of sleep. They said they were forced to make demeaning gestures as soldiers laughed, taunted them, and took photographs, Reuters has reported. Two alleged they were forced to put shoes in their mouths, and to insert a finger into their anus and then lick it.”

The news from both Reuters and the CPJ release was that the Pentagon, which never interviewed the men who made the allegations, has decided that it’s satisfied with its investigation and is dropping the matter.

Now, in a place where so many have died such awful deaths, this is not an example of the worst savagery of the Iraq war. But what’s just as disturbing as the original allegations is the Pentagon’s apparent complacency about this kind of behavior in the ranks.