News Omen

Does this happen where you live? You see or hear a helicopter in the distance. You watch for a few seconds and realize it’s not going anywhere. It’s just hovering. And then you know something like news is happening nearby. Much of the summer, the appearance of helicopters over the UC-Berkeley campus signaled some new hijinks related to a group of tree-sitters trying to stop a construction project at the football stadium. Last spring, a chopper appeared in the dawn skies just a few blocks east of us and just sat there. Turned out a local guy had committed suicide by ramming his car into a line of parked vehicles at 100 mph.

This morning’s case in point this morning: While walking The Dog, we spotted a helicopter just hanging up there to the west, near I-80, the Eastshore Freeway. Two possibilities: a horrific traffic jam, possibly involving major roadway carnage, or some other photogenic event. When we got back to the house, we turned on KCBS, the AM all-“news” channel. The first traffic report comes on. No, nothing about a backup on the freeway down there. What then? During the local news segment, there’s an item about a body discovered burning on the frontage road adjacent to the freeway. Police are investigating. Choppers are hovering.

Odious, Ludicrous, and Legal

A friend points out a piece in yesterday’s edition of The New York Times Magazine. It’s the annual “The Lives They Lived” issue marking the passage of remarkable people. The story to which I was directed is titled, “Mildred.” It’s the story of Mildred and Richard Loving, the black woman and white man whose marriage in the late 1950s led the U.S. Supreme Court to strike down state laws that prohibited interracial marriage.

Of course, one reason the remembrance of Mildred Loving strikes with particular poignancy is its appearance in the midst of the battle over gay marriage. Sure enough, the story touches on that fact, explaining that late in her life, activists approached Mildred Loving (her husband died decades ago) to see if she would endorse the gay-marriage cause. The story recounts:

“ ‘I just don’t know,” Loving told them. She hadn’t given it much thought. She listened sympathetically, a worn Bible on her end table, as the group’s founder, the furniture entrepreneur Mitchell Gold, told her of his own struggles as a teenager to accept that society would never let him marry someone he loved. She was undecided when the group left a few hours later, but told Ashley Etienne, a young woman who consulted for the group, that they could continue to chat about the subject over the phone.”

Eventually, Loving did make a statement. She wrote, in part: “Not a day goes by that I don’t think of Richard and our love, our right to marry, and how much it meant to me to have that freedom to marry the person precious to me, even if others thought he was the ‘wrong kind of person’ for me to marry. I believe that all Americans, no matter their race, no matter their sex, no matter their sexual orientation, should have that same freedom to marry. Government has no business imposing some people’s religious beliefs over others. Especially if it denies people’s civil rights.”

She mentions “religious beliefs,” which also play such a big part in the fight over gay marriage. Why? To get a hint, it’s helpful to take a look at the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Loving v. Virginia. In summarizing the facts, Chief Justice Earl Warren noted the trial court’s sentence against the Lovings for violating Virginia’s laws against race-mixing–a year in jail suspended on condition the Lovings not visit Virginia together for 25 years–and quoted Judge Leon M. Bazile’s opinion in the case:

“Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.”

Mind you, that’s a statement from the bench, not from the pulpit (though based on this, I’m guessing the judge, who served 24 years in his circuit court seat, didn’t make too fine a distinction between one and the other.) Lest one think we’re dealing with a rogue jurist with some fringe, antique beliefs, consider the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals’ explanation of why it was ruling against the Lovings: “the State’s legitimate purposes were ‘to preserve the racial integrity of its citizens,’ and to prevent ‘the corruption of blood,’ ‘a mongrel breed of citizens,’ and ‘the obliteration of racial pride.’ ” The religious language has been replaced by what the plaintiffs’ attorneys called “ludicrous” arguments in support of “odious” laws that had just one object: white supremacy. (Audio of the oral arguments, all two hours and 15 minutes’ worth, is at

“Odious” and “ludicrous,” yes. They were also the law in Virginia and 15 other states at the time Loving was argued. The United States was still emerging — not in some ancient time filled with Civil War battle smoke, but within many of our own lifetimes — from a regime in which is was thought proper for the state to subject part of its population to systematic humiliation, to rob citizens of their dignity by erecting daily reminders of their legal inferiority and otherness.

That brings me to Proposition 8 and all the other campaigns to “safeguard traditional marriage.” At bottom, they come back to the same effort to impose a certain religious and cultural viewpoint and to maintain a sense of superiority among one group — we straights, who are free to enjoy the privileges and rights attendant to marriage — over the other and to maintain the distinctions between the privileged and the other. The Prop. 8 proponents teach that God’s law proscribes marriage between members of the same sex; what’s more, if the alleged divine injunction is ignored, the collapse of society looms.

Perhaps the most impressive words in Earl Warren’s opinion in Loving v. Virginia are the final ones: “These convictions must be reversed,” he wrote. “It is so ordered.”

If only prejudice were so easily abolished.

Polysemy Sunday

NPR broadcast a story this morning reporting that retailers will “pull out all the stops” to move merchandise in this doleful shopping season. The report also assured us that sellers “aren’t pulling any punches” in their attempts to unload inventory.

What sort of stunt is NPR pulling here? The story could have gone much further:

–Merchants will not pull a fast one on customers.
–They are trying to pull a rabbit out of a hat. Or maybe a hippopotamus.
–They are not, however, pulling our leg. Times are tough.
–We’re all pulling for nour favorite shops to make it through the downturn. Wal-mart does not count as “a shop.”
–They will not pull the wool over anyone’s eyes. Except maybe in the hat and scarf department.
–They are trying their hardest to pull this shopping season out of the fire. Those Christmas chestnuts are getting charred.
–You don’t need to have any pull with store employees to get a good deal. Although when did it ever hurt?
–Who can resist the pull of a good sale? I’m stocking up on the buy-one, get-one-free lard bricks.
–Maybe the president will pull rank and order us all to shop. That made our problems go away after 9/11.

Pull yourself together. And once you’ve done that, remember we need to pull. Together. To help the economy pull through.

Keep spending!


From The Council on Foreign Relations:

What is the doctrine of proportionality?

“The doctrine originated with the 1907 Hague Conventions, which govern the laws of war, and was later codified in Article 49 of the International Law Commission’s 1980 Draft Articles on State Responsibility (PDF). The doctrine is also referred to indirectly in the 1977 Additional Protocols of the Geneva Conventions. Regardless of whether states are party to the treaties above, experts say the principle is part of what is known as customary international law. According to the doctrine, a state is legally allowed to unilaterally defend itself and right a wrong provided the response is proportional to the injury suffered. The response must also be immediate and necessary, refrain from targeting civilians, and require only enough force to reinstate the status quo ante. That said, experts say the proportionality principle is open to interpretation and depends on the context. ‘It’s always a subjective test,’ says Michael Newton, associate clinical professor of law at Vanderbilt University Law School. ‘But if someone punches you in the nose, you don’t burn their house down.’ ”

From The New York Times:

Israeli Gaza Strikes Kill More Than 200

GAZA — Waves of Israeli aircraft swooped over the Gaza Strip on Saturday, firing missiles at Hamas’s security headquarters and killing more than 200 people, bringing the highest death toll in Gaza in years in a crushing response to rocket fire by Hamas against Israeli towns.

After the initial airstrikes, which also wounded about 600 Palestinians, dozens of rockets struck southern Israel. Thousands of Israelis hurried into bomb shelters amid the hail of rockets, including some longer-range models that reached farther north than ever before. One Israeli man was killed in the town of Netivot and four were wounded, one seriously.

A military operation against Hamas, the militant group that controls Gaza, had been forecast and demanded by Israeli officials for weeks, ever since a rocky cease-fire between Israel and Hamas broke down completely in early November and rocket attacks began in large numbers against Israel. Still, there was a shocking quality to Saturday’s attacks, in broad daylight on about 100 sites, as police cadets were graduating, women were shopping at the outdoor market and children were emerging from school.

The center of Gaza City instantly became a scene of chaotic horror, with rubble everywhere, sirens wailing, and women shrieking as dozens of mutilated bodies were laid out on the pavement and in the lobby of Shifa Hospital so that family members could identify them. The vast majority of those killed were Hamas police officers and security men, including two senior commanders, but the dead included several construction workers and at least two children in school uniforms.

Guest Observation: Dylan Thomas

The closing lines of “A Child’s Christmas in Wales.” My favorite part of one of my favorite poems. Merry Christmas, wherever you are on this Christmas night.

“… Always on Christmas night there was music.

An uncle played the fiddle, a cousin sang

‘Cherry Ripe,’ and another uncle sang ‘Drake’s Drum.’

It was very warm in the little house.

Auntie Hannah, who had got on to the parsnip

wine, sang a song about Bleeding Hearts and Death,

and then another in which she said her heart

was like a Bird’s Nest; and then everybody

laughed again; and then I went to bed.

“Looking out my bedroom window, out into

the moonlight and the unending smoke-colored snow,

I could see the lights in the windows

of all the other houses on our hill and hear

the music rising from them up the long, steadily

falling night. I turned the gas down, I got

into bed. I said some words to the close and

holy darkness, and then I slept.”

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Luminaria Rainout

Our night-before-Xmas luminaria extravaganza has been going on since 1992. In the 16 Christmas Eves during that run, we had one almost-rainout, in 2003. Another year, the wind was blowing so hard that we doubted at first that we could get the candles lit. But both times we managed to set the lights out.

The forecast for the past week has been pointing to rain today and tonight. The only variation in the predictions has been just how much rain and wind and when the storm would peak. And sure enough, it spit down drizzle all day, just enough so that we decided to postpone our luminaria till next week, New Year’s Eve.

The drizzle almost quit completely just after dark, and many blocks around us put out their luminaria despite the sogginess. But the rain has been just heavy enough to turn all those bags into sodden little heaps and to put out most of the candles. And in the last hour, the hour we’d usually be placing all the bags and candles on our street and lighting them up, the showers increased.

It’s official — a rainout.

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Liten Julaften

My dad called last night to wish us "happy liten julaften"–approximately "happy little Christmas Eve" in Norwegian, or at least in his mother's Norwegian. When he was eight or nine years old, his mother placated his mounting impatience to open something, anything, among the gifts accumulating under the Christmas tree in their home on the South Side of Chicago. His mom came up with "liten julaften" on the 23rd (note, the Norway Norwegian actually do observe a "lille julaften" then, too; traditionally, I read on the Internet, that's the occasion for decorating the tree). Anyway, in my dad's Chicago Norwegian household, he was allowed to open one present on the 23rd.

Happy liten julaften to you, too, Pop.

And in other news: Had another piece on the radio this morning. This time it was a short, featury piece on holiday lights. Before I jump to the critique (some other day), here's the lead paragraph for the story as it aired on KQED this morning, and the audio, too:

Host intro: Nothing this time of year is as fun as a holiday light display. But like everything else in a world concerned with climate change, the lights we love come with a cost–and a possible solution. KQED's Dan Brekke reports.

Solstice Day

Solstice Day — the sun standing still and low in the sky, not that you can tell with the clouds. We had a dry interlude early this morning to take the dog out, grab a cup of to-go coffee, and walk up the abandoned Santa Fe right-of-way that runs through the middle of town. It started raining just after we got home, but not hard. So we ran out to the Delancey Street Foundation lot and bought a Christmas tree. By the time we got home, the drizzling onset of the storm had turned into a slow cold rain.

So that was our solstice weather. For the last couple of weeks, the climate here has behaved as if we’re not in a drought, acting like enough rain and snow may fall this season to give us a reprieve from water rationing and the accelerating sense that this piece of the world is going somehow irreversibly wrong.

That was our solstice weather, and it was mild compared to virtually everyplace I have friends and family. Chicago right now: one below, with blowing snow. It’s 2 in Springfield, Illinois. Portland, Oregon: After days of snow and ice, more snow tonight and more storms for days to come. New York: the wind is howling as a storm accelerates away out over the Atlantic; the temperature is supposed to be in the mid-teens tonight. The National Weather Service site for Fort Worth says it’s the coldest night of the season.

Stay warm, all, and watch for that sun to come back.

National Debut

Last night before leaving the station — KQED in San Francisco — the news desk at NPR in Washington called to ask for a “spot” — a brief story (45 to 60 seconds) for the network’s hourly newscast. They wanted something on our governor ordering a furlough for most state workers — two days a month starting the 1st of February — and a 10 percent pay cut for managers. The order runs through June 30, 2010, and was imposed because the state faces a $42 billion budget deficit between now and then. (Unfortunately, California doesn’t own a printing press to help bail itself out of trouble, and lots of people and institutions are going to pay for the problem we’ve got.)

No one else was available to do the story, so I did it. It consisted of a lead for the NPR anchor to read, a script for me to read, and a soundbite. My understanding was that the 45-second limit was close to absolute. I wrote something that timed at over a minute (the timing was done with me reading the script with a stopwatch running). I hacked 15 or 20 seconds off of that, went to a sound booth, called the NPR editor and read it to him, then recorded myself, added the soundbite, and sent it off to the network.

And that was that. I listened to the newscasts last evening, imagining my little piece would be ringing out over the airwaves. Nothing. I figured other stuff had gotten in ahead of that and put the episode into the valuable experience column.

Then this morning, while we were walking the dog, my sister called from Chicago. “Hey, you have your first groupie,” she said. One of her friends had just called to see if she had some relative who might have had occasion to be on NPR news. As Bozo the clown said once — no, many times — “Hey, that’s me.” So sometime this morning, I made my national debut. Stay tuned for the collectible DVD of the occasion, complete with bonus features, including “The Making of the December 20, 2008, News Brief on California State Employee Furloughs: The True Story.” Autographed, individually numbered, and guaranteed suitable for investment purposes (compared to whatever that Madoff fella sold you.)