Postscript

Back in February, the San Francisco Chronicle ran a series on violent cops on the city’s police force. In the series’ leadoff story, the paper ran an oversize picture of what it said was one of the San Francisco Police Department’s most fearsome offenders, Sergeant John Hackett. The merits of the story aside, a series of miscommunications among editors, reporters and a photographer led the Chron to print a picture of a private citizen and mistakenly identify it as Haggett.

The paper readily acknowledged the mistake — after the police chief gleefully pointed it out at a press conference — and ran a typically opaque correction that included the boilerplate “we regret the error” wording. Mea minima culpa. In due time, the man who was pictured as the rogue and perhaps racist cop sued the paper. On Thursday, the paper settled the suit out of court.

That’s that, except for this note in the story: “The Chronicle has not explained how the error occurred.” Immediately after printing the wrong picture, Phil Bronstein, the paper’s executive editor, said he was (to quote the Chron’s “readers’ representative”) “disposed toward telling whatever he can.” The readers’ rep himself said he agreed with Bronstein but was wary of a rush to judgment.

The point of telling the public how such a goof occurred isn’t merely to rub salt in the wounds or to hand over some hapless editor or photographer to a lynch mob, but to give readers an honest look at how the paper is run, even when things don’t look so good. At a time when online media offer more and more opportunities for audience engagement, it’s only smart for news organizations to be as transparent as they can be.

Now, four months have passed, and the Chron has stonewalled. Disappointing, but not surprising.

Heroes and Hoopleheads

Deadwood” begins its third season tonight, a cause for division in our household. I love the show, with all its profanity and violence; for the same reasons, Kate can’t tolerate it.

It has become commonplace to equate the show’s fine scriptwriting with the work of Shakespeare (just Google shakespeare deadwood and you’ll see what I mean). We create cliches because there’s some truth in them, and that one’s no exception. I’ve been tempted to stop episodes and transcribe characters’ speeches just for the language. There’s more to the show than the writing, though: It’s beautifully acted. It’s beautifully filmed. It’s violent and tense as hell.

It’s also conventional wisdom to think of “Deadwood” and the post-modern westerns dating back to “The Wild Bunch” as a new and better breed of drama: More frank about the blood and injustice and cynicism that older westerns soft-peddled. If you think so — and I incline to that way of thinking myself — check out A.O. Scott’s long, long piece in today’s New York Times on the DVD re-release of some of the John Wayne/John Ford westerns. He touches on how thoroughly Ford’s visual sense, especially in “The Searchers,” affected later filmmakers and films. But the heart of Scott’s essay has to do with Ford’s vision of the West and its settlement:

“The Indian wars of the post-Civil War era form a tragic backdrop in most of Ford’s post-World War II westerns, much as the earlier conflicts between settlers and natives did in the novels of James Fenimore Cooper. That the Indians are defending their land, and enacting their own vengeance for earlier attacks, is widely acknowledged, even insisted upon. The real subject, though, is not how the West was conquered, but how — according to what codes, values and customs — it will be governed. The real battles are internal, and they turn on the character of the society being forged, in violence, by the settlers. Where, in this new society, will the frontier be drawn between vengeance and justice? Between loyalty to one’s kind and the more abstract obligations of human decency? Between the rule of law and the law of the jungle? Between virtue and power? Between — to paraphrase one of Ford’s best-known and most controversial formulations — truth and legend?

“Ford’s way of posing these questions seems more urgent — and more subtle — now than it may have at the time, precisely because his films are so overtly concerned with the kind of moral argument that is, or should be, at the center of American political discourse at a time of war and terrorism. He is concerned not as much with the conflict between good and evil as with contradictory notions of right, with the contradictory tensions that bedevil people who are, in the larger scheme, on the same side. When should we fight? How should we conduct ourselves when we must? In ‘Fort Apache,’ for example, the elaborate codes of military duty, without which the intricate and closely observed society of the isolated fort would fall apart, are exactly what lead it toward catastrophe. Wayne, as a savvy and moderate-tempered officer, has no choice but to obey his headstrong and vainglorious commander, played by Henry Fonda, who provokes an unnecessary and disastrous confrontation with the Apaches. In the end, Wayne, smiling mysteriously, tells a group of eager journalists that Fonda’s character was a brave and brilliant military tactician. It’s a lie, but apparently the public does not require — or can’t handle — the truth.

“In telling it, Wayne is writing himself out of history, which is also his fate in ‘The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance’ (not, unfortunately, one of the discs in the Warner box). That film — which contains the famous line ‘When legend becomes fact, print the legend!’ —throws Wayne’s man of action and James Stewart’s man of principle into a wary, rivalrous alliance. Their common enemy is an almost cartoonish thug played by Lee Marvin, but the real conflict is between Stewart’s lawyer and Wayne’s mysterious gunman, one of whom will be remembered as the man who shot Liberty Valance.

“What we learn, in the course of the film’s long flashbacks, is that the triumph of civilization over barbarism is founded on a necessary lie, and that underneath its polished procedures and high-minded institutions is a buried legacy of bloodshed. The idea that virtue can exist without violence is as untenable, as unrealistic, as the belief — central to the revisionist tradition, and advanced with particular fervor in HBO’s ‘Deadwood’ — that human society is defined by gradations of brutality, raw power, cynicism and greed.

“If only things were that simple. But everywhere you look in Ford’s world — certainly in ‘Fort Apache,’ in ‘The Searchers,’ in ‘The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance’ — you see truth shading into lie, righteousness into brutality, high honor into blind obedience. You also see, in the boisterous emoting of the secondary characters, the society that these confused ideals and complicated heroes exist to preserve: a place where people can dance (frequently), drink (constantly), flirt (occasionally) and act silly.

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Coffee

Overheard by Kate at the Solano Avenue Peet’s:

Clerk: Would you like a complimentary cup of coffee with that purchase?

Customer: Nah, I’ve had enough coffee today. If I have any more I’m going to pull my lower lip up over my head.

Kate: It’s a good thing to know your limits.

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Post-Election Voter’s Guide

Ivoted-1California held its primary four days ago. Twenty-eight percent of eligible voters, an all-time low for a statewide election, appeared at the polls. Despite the ghost-town turnout, the votes are still being tallied in my county, Alameda. That’s because its Diebold voting machines were decertified — among other real and perceived shortcomings, they don’t produce a receipt or any kind of “paper trail” documenting votes cast — and elections officials decided to give the people what they said they wanted: supposedly unhackable paper ballots. In turning back the clock on election technology, the registrar of voters leapfrogged over the system the Diebold machines replaced: punch-cards. To avoid awakening bad chad memories, the county adopted a ballot that required voters to bubble in their choices in black ink. The ballots are machine readable, but the automation only goes so far: All week on the news, we got to see pictures of bored election workers feeding ballots one at a time into the readers. The registrar’s latest press release says 8,000 absentee ballots still need to be counted. And after that, 11,000 “provisional” ballots cast by people who had some sort of problem at the polls. And after that, a smaller but unknown number of damaged or machine-unreadable ballots.

I kind of wonder whether I’m one of the people whose ballot wound up in the provisional or damaged piles. What happened was this: When Kate and I went to the polls Tuesday night, all she had to do was turn in her filled-out absentee ballot. I still like to go through the exercise of going to the polls, so I went through the routine: Giving my name and address to the poll workers, signing the register, and getting my Democratic Party ballot. This time, it came in a legal-size manila folder. The voting booth — it’s really more of a spindly, collapsible lectern — was equipped with a pen on a string. I pulled out the ballot and started to bubble it in.

Several of the races had candidates running unopposed; and several of those involved officeholders who are trying to move into new posts because term limits are forcing them to move on; for instance: Cruz Bustamante, the lieutenant governor, who was the only Democratic candidate on offer for state insurance commissioner (the old insurance commissioner, John Garamendi, was running for lieutenant governor against two term-limited state legislators). There’s something tired and dispiriting about seeing these guys — mostly guys — swap seats with little more to recommend them than the fact hardly anyone can remember a time they weren’t haunting some committee room in Sacramento.

It’s not the first time the thought has occurred to me. Usually, I’d just pass on the uncontested races. But I don’t usually vote with a pen in my hand. With the punch-card and touchscreen voting systems, it was possible, but painful, to cast a write-in vote. With the paper ballot and the nice black felt-tip pen in the booth, confronted with the bland nothingness of an unopposed Cruz Bustamante, a write-in suddenly seemed appealing. So for every uncontested, or feebly contested, office, I cast a write-in vote. I was stumped at first about who I might vote for, but then I thought about some of my smarter and more conscientious friends. So Piero and Jill, across the street, got votes for the state Legislature; I voted for Bill for U.S. Senate (time for Feinstein to go); Larry was my choice for state insurance commissioner, and Kate got the nod for state schools superintendent. I was aware when I turned in my ballot that some poor elections worker would be forced to try to make sense of my impaired-looking block printing.

Throw-away votes? Maybe, though I feel I’d trust my choices in office at least as much as I’d trust the party retreads.I admit if I had felt anything was on the line, my friends would have lost out. Still, I walked away from the polling place feeling better about my vote than I have in a long time.

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Today’s Best Names

Nominated from the pharmaceutical category: Cephalexin and Cefoxatin, members of the cephalosporin antibotic family. The former is oral, the latter injected. I’m taking the former for 10 days after having a rear-end shot of the latter following some complications from the late unpleasantness between me and a local road. Complications? Well, I got four pretty good-sized abrasions when I fell off my bike last week. Three of them are healing just about as well as you could expect. The fourth, a big patch on my left shoulder, has been trouble; I may have suffered an allergic reaction to some antibiotic ointment I tried, from the adhesive on some high-tech dressings I tried, or maybe the thing was just infected from the start. In any case, it blew up into an angry, ugly mess that took on a life of its own (“I am not an animal! I am a human being!”). My whole left arm swoll up, as we used to say in the south suburbs. I went back to Kaiser twice. The first time, on Sunday, the doctor was unalarmed. The second time, today, the doctor blanched and said, “That’s cellulitis.” In a rare show of good taste and non-exhibitionist restraint, I’m suppressing the pictures. A day into the treatment, the thing seems to be responding, though.

Again with the baseball: Dan Uggla, rookie second baseman for the Florida Marlins. The South Florida Sun-Sentinel described his Wednesday exploits thus:

“Uggla became the first second baseman in franchise history with a multihomer game and knocked in a career-high five runs. … With the Marlins up 2-1 in the fifth, Uggla hit the first of his homers as part of four-run inning. His three-run blast to left knocked out starter Jamey Wright (5-5). In the ninth, Uggla sent another pitch into the left-field bleachers, this one from Tim Worrell with two outs and a man on.

” ‘I got lucky twice,” Uggla said. ‘I don’t even think my other at-bats were very good. A couple of balls, I guess I saw them pretty good and put good swings on them.’ ”

Uggla. Apparently it’s a Norwegian and Swedish name.

When the Bodies Don’t Want to Be Shown

The New York Times’s David Carr had a column yesterday — “Show Me the Bodies” — noting the relative rarity of pictures of U.S. soldiers slain in combat in Iraq. He discusses the factors involved, including squeamishness among media organizations and the many layers of difficulty, from danger to simple logistics, that conspire against such pictures being taken in the first place. He also mentions a notable exception to the general rule: A picture from the November 2004 battle in Fallujah, when Stefan Zaklin, a photographer with the European Pressphoto Agency embedded with an Army company during the fighting. Carr recounts that Zaklin “took a gritty, horrific portrait” of the company commander after he had been shot and killed by insurgent fighters — a picture widely printed at the time in Germany and France but not in the United States until long afterward (as part of stories about unpublished graphic war images.

Without going into the merits of publishing such a picture — I agree entirely with Zaklin’s argument (the picture he shot is at that link) that the image was important both for him to shoot and for viewers to see — I think Carr has missed the principal reason there aren’t more pictures like the one from Fallujah: The soldiers themselves won’t stand for it. Zaklin mentions this in his discussion of the picture:

“I stayed behind with the two men tasked with guarding the body.

One of the men was clearly on the verge of snapping; he was muttering to himself, trying to keep himself calm. It was dark, and my shutter speed was below what you would normally be comfortable using to get a sharp frame with a digital SLR. I focused the camera, and put it down from my eye. I leaned against a doorjamb, and fired two horizontal frames.

“I looked at the two soldiers, trying to gauge their reaction. One looked at me and then went back to watching the doorway he was guarding. The other kept muttering. I checked to see if the frame was sharp. It was. I rotated the camera, and shot two vertical frames. The mutterer stopped muttering, and shot me a look that sent chills down my spine. I didn’t know him as well as the other soldier, and decided to wait until the soldiers I knew better returned.

“In the end, I wasn’t ever able to take another picture of the dead captain.

“I waited two days, well after the captain’s family was notified, before I put the picture out for the world to see. I knew his family had been told because two colleagues had already interviewed the dead captain’s father about his son’s death. Despite the delay and a scrupulous reading of the embed rules, the military was furious that I sent the images at all. Nothing really came of it, I was essentially a convenient target for unfocused grief.”

Zaklin actually downplays the on-the-scene reaction to the incident. Toby Harnden, a British reporter for The Telegraph embedded with the same unit Zaklin was covering, reported on Zaklin’s ejection. After noting how well he got along with the Americans, Harnden wrote:

“But relations did sour towards the end, when a photograph of a dead soldier — whom I had been speaking to minutes before he was killed — appeared in a German newspaper.

“It was a haunting image of the body lying in a dusty kitchen, blood seeping from a bullet wound to the head. For me it summed up much of what had happened in Fallujah and was also a memorial to a brave American who died for his country.

“In the pain of the moment, Task Force 2-2 saw it differently.

” ‘Grab your stuff, asshole, and come with me,’ was how a captain addressed Stefan Zaklin, of the European Picture Agency, when news of the picture reached the unit.

“Zaklin was placed under armed guard and told he had violated the rules of propriety. Nothing in the rules had been broken. The soldiers had seen Zaklin snapping away in the kitchen — but it seemed that this was where the military and the media parted company.”

Carr mentions the frankness of the images that came out of Vietnam, when it became commonplace to see at least a slice of the grisly reality of the fighting. It’s widely observed that the military establishment, which allowed the media virtually free access to combat units, has crafted the current regime of rules for “media embeds” to avoid that kind of access and the uncontrolled flow of disturbing images and observations to the folks at home. The brass has succeeded to the point where it now takes a freedom of information request for us to get to see pictures of flag-draped coffins arriving back in the United States.

But there’s something deeper at work. I’m sure there was an us-and-them feeling at work between soldiers and journalists in Vietnam. But I wonder whether it was so deep as it is now. On one hand, the widely felt antipathy among many toward the media, especially in its connection to this war and its fancied failure to present the “real” (meaning “positive”) news about what we’re sacrificing so much blood and money for. On the other hand, the rank-and-file soldier has changed. In Vietnam, the troops a reporter or photographer encountered were nearly certain to be draftees, people who had landed in the military and sent into combat by happenstance; journalists might have been a nuisance to them, but they weren’t radically different by nature or mission. The soldiers we’re sending to Iraq may never have dreamed they’d find themselves fighting insurgents in the desert, but they’ve all chosen the armed forces, and they’re part of an institution that in many ways views itself as separate from civil society. Journalists are outsiders to this group and bound to be particularly unwelcome when they intrude too far on the lives and sensitivities of the troops. Thus the anger and outrage when a picture of a fallen warrior is run.

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Dump

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I don’t have the exact statistics at the ready, but something like 35 or 40 percent of San Francisco Bay has been filled since the region was settled in the 19th century. About 95 percent of the wetlands surrounding the bay have been diked, drained and developed. Berkeley’s most visible modern contribution to the great, undeclared bay transformation project is its old garbage dump, part of a complex of old fill projects that stretch more than a mile along the waterfront and extend more than three-quarters of a mile into the water from the old shoreline (which itself is at least one-third of a mile west of where the European interlopers found the water’s edge).

The dump was a great place. Noisy, smelly, full of garbage and construction debris, seagulls and big graders. I worked as a construction laborer for a while after I moved out here, and every once in a while was sent on a dump run to unload a pile of old shingles or lumber or fractured plaster and splintered lath. A cashier took your fee, then sent you on your way, out the potholed road to the mountain of discards. A worker out there directed you to the edge of a live pit, and you added your stuff to all the household garbage, old tires, unwanted furniture, lawn clippings and miscellaneous unidentifiable sweepings from all over the city. I would always feel a little exhilarated to see it all and to throw mine, whatever it was, in on top. The graders and other heavy equipment were constantly at work crushing the trash, packing it down, making room for more; once a pit was full, it would be covered with dirt and the garbage would go to a new one. The old pits would settle over time and be reopened to take on more refuse. This went on for years.

About two decades ago, the dump reached capacity. So much garbage had been packed in that at one point it had been squeezed out in the Bay under the dikes built to contain the fill. The city built a “transfer station,” a big open warehouse-like structure where all the trash would go to be sorted and re-transported, if it wasn’t recyclable or compostable. The old dump was covered with dirt, lots of dirt. Part of it was landscaped and turned into a manicured city park and named after Cesar Chavez, the late farmworkers’ labor leader. Most of the fill was planted with native flora and studded with pipes to vent the methane and other gases from the old buried trash. Roads and trails were built. Part of the semi-wild-looking area at the center of the old dump has been opened up as a park for off-leash canines.

So, at the end of this environmentally unfriendly epic (a story line shared with many great city parks, like Grant Park in Chicago), we’ve got a beautiful piece of waterfront property with staggering views across the bay and back toward the hills, filled with bike riders, hikers, dog-walkers, picnickers and kite-flyers. Our garbage? It’s headed someplace else, where it’s unlikely to grow into something similar.

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Found in Translation

"Returning alive sows the seeds for future distinguishments."

Whereas returning on fire sows the seeds for future extinguishments.

(Happened across this, on a Japanese TV period drama, while sowing the seeds for drooling viewerment on Saturday night.)

How Not to Get Off a Bike

Late Thursday afternoon, I went out for a short ride through the Berkeley and Oakland hills; just a way to wake up my body for a planned 600-kilometer (387.5-mile) ride this weekend. I also wanted to see how my “new” bike — a beautifully painted old Bridgestone RB-1 frame I just had built up with parts from my old RB-1 — handled on a course I know pretty well. The route took me south along Skyline Boulevard past the place where I had a pretty bad crash in January 1991. Whenever I ride past the spot, I remember the fall and the aftermath. It all came back Thursday, too: How quickly I hit the road, the ambulance ride to the hospital, the gruesome picture I took of my face when I got back home.

I turned around, rode back up the hill I had just come down, and headed back toward Berkeley. The road is rolling, with a few short, curving descents and a couple of short climbs. The downhill sections are a little tricky, with some bad pavement. I rounded one right-hand turn, skirted some badly patched asphalt and picked up speed as I headed for a left-hand turn. I was probably going 20 to 25 mph. Just before I got to the curve, I hit a hole in the road and fell hard on my left side. I struck the pavement with enough force that my glasses flew off, lost their lenses, and went skidding down the road. I thought I heard my helmet hit the ground, too, but it didn’t show any signs of damage.

I’m OK. I came out of the crash with road rash on my left knee, hip, hand, elbow and shoulder and a pulled muscle (I think) in my upper back or left shoulder. Oddly, my right elbow also got a pretty good scrape, too, and I had a tennis-ball-sized knot on the inside of my right leg just above the ankle. I wound up going down to Kaiser Hospital in Oakland in an ambulance and spending about four hours there, mostly waiting and watching what was happening with people who were a lot worse off than me. About half an hour after I was rolled into the emergency room, a “Code 3” ambulance (one transporting an urgent case, operating with lights and siren) arrived with a woman in the midst of some sort of seizure; she died about 20 minutes later, about 30 feet from where I was lying. Eventually, a couple of nurses had enough of a breather from the more dire cases that they could spend some time scrubbing out and dressing my abrasions so Kate and I could leave.

What’s shakes me is how quickly and decisively something like this can happen. One second: spinning along, nurturing a picture of middle-aged bike rider as road ace. Next second: lying in the road, groaning, feeling a mixture of shock, fear, pain, and foolishness and wondering, What did I hit? Is there a car behind me? Am I going to get run over? How badly am I hurt? Is the bike trashed? What are my glasses doing over there?

After maybe half a minute or so, I untangled myself from the bike and stood up. A driver coming the other way stopped and asked whether I was OK. I think I told him, or her, that I’d see whether I was or wasn’t. That car moved on. Another came down the hill, the same direction I had been riding. The woman driving, Sylvia, stopped and got out and got me to sit down. I reaized my neck hurt. A cyclist named Dave came down the hill and hit the same hole I did and nearly fell. He cursed and then stopped to help, observing that it was the second time he’d hit that spot and that it was all but invisible because it was in a shady spot. Another rider, Doug, stopped as he rolled up the hill. The three of them convinced me it was a good idea to call 911; Dave made the call, then gave me his phone to try to call Kate; Doug, who lives nearby, agreed to hang onto my bike since I couldn’t take it to the hospital.

After another 20 or 30 minutes, the Oakland Fire Department and paramedics and police showed up. I was put in a neck brace and strapped to a backboard. I warned the paramedics, Elise and Dawn, that I weighed 215 pounds; they hefted me onto their gurney and told me I was the lightest person they’d had to lift all day. Then they drove me down the hill to the hospital. Eventually, I got hold of Kate, and she waited with me until I got cleaned up. When we left, several doctors and nurses, including the young guy who had attempted CPR on the woman who had died, told me to get well and made a point of telling me I needed to get a new bike helmet since I had probably damaged the one I had been wearing.

Friday afternoon, Kate and I went up to Doug’s house to pick up my bike. I was surprised to find that there doesn’t appear to be even a nick in the beautiful paint job (the handlebars are trashed, though). We loaded up the bike and then drove to where I fell. Doug had gone out and spraypainted the rim of the hole, which surrounds a manhole cover. Even though it was about an hour and 45 minutes before the time of day when I hit the spot, the shade was already crossing the road, and, even with the warning paint, I could see how close to invisible the hole was. A foot or so to the right or left, and I would have ridden home without incident (or run into some other obstacle). And I’d be out riding today instead of explaining why I’m not.

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