The Privateer Lynx


At Jack London Square in Oakland: The Lynx, an “interpretation” of an 1812 Baltimore clipper-type schooner built in Maryland near the outset of the War of 1812. We saw it while on the Oakland ferry and went over to its berth to check it out. It was commissioned by a Baltimore merchant syndicate and was intended to be a raider of British shipping (remember “letters of marque and reprisal“?). The Lynx was captured in April 1813, despite having fled up the Rappahannock River from Chesapeake Bay to escape larger British warships. The British were so bent on taking the Lynx they sent boats to follow it upriver where they did indeed capture it. The Brits took the boat to Halifax, Nova Scotia, and pressed it into service for the duration of the war. They were so impressed with the boats speed and maneuverability that they brought it to England after the war and studied and recorded every detail of its design and construction so that it could be reproduced (a process that today we call “reverse engineering”).

The current Lynx was built in Maine and completed in 2001 and is used by a private foundation as a sort of floating classroom. It’s staffed by professional sailors who teach schoolkids the basics of how sailing gear works, how the ship’s guns work, and what role the boat and similar ones played in U.S. history. I went out on the Lynx on Sunday afternoon for a cruise out past Alcatraz. Great trip, and one that I’m doing a radio story on. Oh, the ship’s motto: “Be excellent to each other and to your ship.”

(The mini-narrative above is from Craig Chipman, captain of the Lynx, and Richard Conlan, a crew member).

More here: Lynx, America’s Privateer.

Berkeleyana: The Kenney Cottage


Last Sunday, we walked a little farther down University Avenue than usual (in search of a mailbox to drop a Netflix disc into; seems like we have many fewer mailboxes than in olden times, and the ones that have survived here are covered with grafitti and in general so trashy-looking that make you wonder whether they’re in use anymore). I’ve probably been by this spot at least 100 times in the last five years, and never noticed this building. The banner is a plea from the Berkeley Archtectural Heritage Association for someone to give this house a home. As my dad would say, all it needs is a little TLC. The association had the structure, which apparently dates back to the 1880s and is of a unique (and patented) portable design, moved to this lot in 2004 from a spot about five blocks up University; prior to that, it had been a further five blocks east and south. Now, nature and the neighborhood are having their way with the place.

Read more about the house on the BAHA site (which includes some cool pictures of the cottage’s earlier moves and what the place looked like when it was first planted on this lot):

Berkeley Observed: Kenney cottage serves as rare example of early prefabricated architecture

Kenney cottage needs a home!

Shootout at the Blog-Post Corral

It’s been a slow week here at the blog corral, at least when it comes to posts. My friend Pete has been in town from Portland, and though I’m not offering his visit as an excuse to neglect blog kith and Web kin, I’d hardly feel right sitting here with my face in the ancient iBook screen when I have an old comrade on the premises. Pete, though, has made some sort of commitment to blog every day leading up to his next Ironman triathlon, in Idaho next month, and he’s blogged something like 146 days in a row. Quality stuff, too. You can read his training tales here.

And for me, tonight, that’s -30-

Guest Observation: John Cheever

For my birthday, I got a $50 gift card to a local bookstore. I just used it. I got Cormac McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian,” even though I wasn’t crazy about the last thing I read of his (“All the Pretty Horses.” My complaint? I simply didn’t care for the prose, which seemed seemed dense and layered on and self-consciously flowery with no particular purpose. There’s no accounting for taste, and so on.) I also got a Library of America collection of John Cheever’s stories and esays. I haven’t read much by Cheever, but what I’ve read I’ve loved. Sometime in the last year or so, we heard the story “Goodbye, My Brother” featured on the dependably absorbing “Selected Shorts,” which plays here Saturday night on NPR. The story is the first in the collection. I imagine this is working on more than one level. Superficially, it’s the story of a brother who has set his face against the rest of his family and perhaps all of humanity, and the irritation, anguish, and rage he provokes. On another level, let’s just say there’s a lot of references to the ancient Greeks, their gods and their demigods; that bears further consideration. In any case, here’s the conclusion of the story:

“They left for the mainland the next morning, taking the six-o’clock boat. Mother got up to say goodbye, but she was the only one, and it is a harsh and an easy scene to imagine—the matriarch and the changeling, looking at each other with a dismay that would seem like the powers of love reversed. I heard the children’s voices and the car go down the drive, and I got up and went to the window, and what a morning that was! Jesus, what a morning! The wind was northerly. The air was clear. In the early heat, the roses in the garden smelled like strawberry jam. While I was dressing, I heard the boat whistle, first the warning signal and then the double blast, and I could see the good people on the top deck drinking coffee out of fragile paper cups, and Lawrence at the bow, saying to the sea, “Thalassa, thalassa,”* while his timid and unhappy children watched the creation from the encirclement of their mother’s arms. The buoys would toll mournfully for Lawrence, and while the grace of the light would make it an exertion not to throw out your arms and swear exultantly, Lawrence’s eyes would trace the black sea as if fell astern; he would think of the bottom, dark and strange, where full fathom five our father lies.

“Oh, what can you do with a man like that? What can you do? How can you dissuade his eye in a crowd from seeking out the cheek with acne, the infirm hand; how can you teach him to respond to the inestimable greatness of the race, the harsh surface beauty of life; how can you put his finger for him on the obdurate truths before which fear and horror are powerless? The sea that morning was iridescent and dark. My wife and my sister were swimming – Diana and Helen – and I saw their uncovered heads, black and gold in the dark water. I saw them come out and I saw that they were naked, unshy, beautiful, and full of grace, and I watched the naked women walk out of the sea.”

*Thalassa is Greek for “the sea.”

Places on a Map

Mexican Hat, Utah: “To start a trip at Mexican Hat, Utah, is to start off into empty space from the end of the world. The space that surrounds Mexican Hat is filled only with what the natives describe as ‘a lot of rocks, a lot of sand, more rocks, more sand, and wind enough to blow it away.’ “

–Wallace Stegner, from “The Sound of Mountain Water,” 1969

News from the Road: Grants, New Mexico


We stopped overnight in Grants, New Mexico, our third night on the road from Chicago to Berkeley last month. I have vague recollections of the place from a hitchhiking trip in December 1974 (I was headed to Berkeley that time, too). I got dropped off on I-40 on the west end of town about 7 in the morning, and it was very cold; about 10 below zero is how I remember it. But I had only been out on the highway for a few minutes when a new-looking Chevy pull ed over. I noticed the car had California plates, and I was thinking that at the worst I’d get a ride all the way across Arizona, anyway. As we pulled back onto the highway, the driver asked where I was going. When he heard where I was going, he said I was in luck because he was headed to Oakland. He dropped me right at my friends’ house near College and Ashby avenues. I remember the driver stopping for gas soon after he picked me up, in Gallup, at a point where I believe the interstate still might have been under construction and you had to take the old Route 66 through town. The morning was still intensely cold, but I remember seeing several men–Navajo, I guessed, since we were very close to the Navajo Nation–stumbling very drunk along the street; farther on, a couple more were lying on a sidewalk passed out. It was a little scary and disturbing, and I was glad not to hang around.

On this trip, we got to town right at sunset and pulled into the first motel we saw, which happened to be a Comfort Inn. My brother Chris went out and found trunks for us at Wal-mart, and we all went swimming. We ate Domino’s Pizza, then crashed for the night. Next morning we stopped at cafe on the other side of town and picked up the local paper, the Cibola Beacon The cafe wasn’t great–the milk my nephew Liam ordered was curdled and the food was just sort of thrown at us. The paper wasn’t terrific, either (here’s a sample from a more recent issue, under the headline, “Wildlife Found Near Residence:”

“A bobcat was seen at a home in Grants near Mount Taylor Elementary School on Monday. Ida Ortiz, wife of former mayor Ronald Ortiz, was gardening at her home and noticed a small cat in the yard, which at the time, didn’t realize it was a bobcat. Ortiz called her husband and described the animal to him and he called public safety officials. Officials found bobcat foot prints in the yard and took all safety precautions from there especially considering a elementary school was right across the street. The bobcat was never found.”

In fact, the only thing in the paper that made much of an impression was the ad above, featuring the future rifle-toting toddler. I can’t think of anything to add to that at all.

Boat Ride


Walked from KQED over to the Ferry Building and met Kate, who had ridden the 7:55 ferry from Oakland. We got right back on and rode back as the dusk deepened. This was the view from the Alameda ferry terminal, before we made the short hop back to Jack London Square. Calm, nearly warm night. Beautiful on the water.   

Former Bike Rider Reminisces

As a former bike rider, I still remember how to balance a two-wheeler and sometimes venture out into the world to remind myself what it feels like to roll along the local pavements.

This morning I had an appointment over on Solano Avenue, a couple miles from home. I rode over. Then afterward, I rode up Solano and wound my way into the hills. Just to remind myself what that uphill trudge feels like.

I got to the top of Los Angeles Avenue, which is short and no big deal though it has a semi-steep pitch at the end. I was taking it very easy and riding in my lowest low gear.

Turning uphill on Spruce, perhaps the most popular way into the hills on the north end of Berkeley, another rider appeared alongside me. He was going faster than I and was visibly fitter, too. We said hi and wished each other a good ride, and within a few seconds he was pulling away. As I got ready to turn uphill on Keith Avenue, a quiet and steepish side street, the Other Cyclist was maybe 100 feet ahead of me.

I stayed in my low gear up Keith and crossed Euclid Avenue. Then I started a sort of side-step up the ridge toward Grizzly Peak Boulevard. From Keith, which has a gentle grade east of Euclid, I turned on to Bret Harte Way, which probably has a 16 or 17 percent grade (and grade is a measure of a road’s slope: 10 percent means a 10-unit vertical change for every 100 linear units; 10 feet in 100 feet, or 10 meters in 100 meters. Given my out-of-shape linebacker physique, which my legs have to carry up these hills, I regard 10 percent as pretty steep. In Berkeley, Marin Avenue climbs into the hills with gradients of roughly 20 to 30 percent, and the steepest street I’ve heard of in town is said to be 31 percent. That’s another way of saying darn near impossible for mere mortals and former bike riders).

At each corner, I tried to turn uphill. The way it worked out, I alternated between steep eastbound pitches like Bret Harte Way and flatter south-trending pieces like Cragmont. And so it went, up Bret Harte Road (steep again, and different from B.H. Way), Keeler Avenue (flattish), Twain Avenue (steep), Sterling (gentle), Whitaker (steep), Miller (easy), and Stevenson, a short street that I knew topped out at Grizzly Peak. And that was as far up as I intended to go.

I finished the climb and turned left on Grizzly Peak. As it happened, I was about 100 feet or so in front of the guy who had just passed me down below. We waved at each other, and I called out that he could have taken the short cut, and he laughed. It was a lovely piece of symmetry in a short ride into the hills, but the neatness of the coincidence made me want to try to account for it.

So here’s some arithmetic. The corner of Keith Avenue, roughly where the Other Cyclist passed me, is at an elevation of 499 feet if online sources are to be believed. The corner where we met again is at 1,082 feet. So both of us climbed 583 feet. Now, how far did we ride in linear distance? Again using an online tool–Gmaps Pedometer, which you ought to try if you haven’t already–my ride was 1.21 miles. His: 2.47. That’s another neat coincidence: His route being twice as long and the net climb being the same, his net grade (4.5 percent) is half of mine (9.2 percent). He also had to maintain an average speed roughly double mine, which would have been no problem since I was probably poking along at about 5 mph or less when the road got steep.

So those are the numbers. Interesting, but they don’t quite sum up that moment of delight when I saw the Other Rider again.

News from the Road: Chase County, Kansas


On the recent Chicago-Berkeley peregrination, we stopped in Cottonwood Falls, Kansas. One draw is the nearby Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, in the Kansas Flint Hills. It’s beautiful country. The town itself has a reputation as a well-preserved prairie village. It’s the county seat, and the courthouse is said to be the oldest still in use in Kansas (or west of the Mississippi, depending on who you believe). Broadway, the main street stretching north from the courthouse, is brick-paved. It is bordered by some handsome old buildings, including a hotel said to have a decent restaurant. We stopped for lunch at the Emma Chase Cafe and had burgers and fries; sweet-potato fries, in my case; never had them before.  

We picked up the local paper, the Chase County Leader-News, which ran the following story at the bottom of the front page on April 9. The story never says so–the locals must just know it–but the R3 Energy plant at the center of this incident is using chicken fat (among other things) as a raw material for biodiesel fuel. I had never thought of chicken fat that way before (a story earlier this week in the Arkansas Daily Gazette mentions that Tyson Foods, a big chicken processor, has a renewable energy group and is building a plant in Louisiana “to make high-grade biodiesel and jet fuels from Tyson-produced nonfoodgrade animal fats such as beef tallow, pork lard, chicken fat and greases.” I am way behind on my alternative energy news).

Six months before the incident, the Emporia Gazette ran a rather long article on the new biofuels plant in Cottonwood Falls. It was put up by a local family looking to get into a new business. It was a win for everyone–until the chicken fat spill.

R3 cleaning up spill

City Utility Supervisor
informs council of
chicken fat spill at R3

Jerry Schwilling
Chase County Leader-News

City Utility Supervisor Ron Lake informed the Cottonwood Falls City Council at its Monday, April 6, meeting that he had discovered a large amount of chicken fat at the city’s sewer lagoons Friday, April 3.

The chicken fat had run through the sewer line from R3 Energy to a lift station and from there onto the ground around the lift station.

Lake said when he discovered the chicken fat he asked R3’s Mike Swartz about it and Swartz said it was chicken fat that had been spilled at R3.

Swartz said Tuesday, April 7, that the spill had occurred when a truck was off-loading at the plant. The truck’s equipment, Swartz said, had malfunctioned spilling the chicken fat on the ground in the plans off-loading catchment area.

That area is designed to catch any spill and divert it either to the plant’s lagoon or the city’s lagoon. The decision was made to divert the spill to the city’s lagoon, Swartz said.

However, the lift station on the sewer line malfunctioned and the chicken fat spread on the ground around the lift station instead of going into the lagoon.

Swartz said the chicken fat was biodegradable and posed no ecological threat.

Lake told the council that he was required by the state to report the spill and to have it cleaned up.

Lake said that Swartz told him the spill had occurred on March 26. R3 did not report the spill to the city, Lake said.

Swartz said he reported the spill to two city employees the day it occurred and was told that Lake was not available.

R3, Swartz said, was having the lift station steam cleaned Tuesday, April 7, and had contracted a skid loader to pick up and dispose of the chicken fat on the ground at the city’s lagoons. He said he expected the clean up to be completed by the end of the day, Tuesday, April 7.

The council directed [city attorney?] North to send R3 a letter asking R3 to clean up the spill in the next seven days or the city would contract to have it cleaned up and bill R3.

The council also asked North to look into the creation of an ordinance to deal with any future spill.

Watching Water

I’ve become preoccupied the last two or three months with the level of water in California’s reservoirs. If you’re inclined to, here’s where you can join in the fun: The state Department of Water Resources’ California Data Exchange Center. The cliche to describe a collection of information like this is “treasure trove.” For example, here’s one report that I’ve taken to taking a look at just about every morning: The Sacramento/San Joaquin Daily Reservoir Storage Summary. It’s a quick look at about three dozen state’s biggest storage facilities: how much water they’re holding, how many acre feet have flowed in or out in the past day, and–especially interesting–how much water they hold compared both to the average for this date and to the amount held a year ago.

There’s a story in the numbers, though I’m still puzzling out what it is. For instance, the state’s current drought is not a drought everywhere. Although rainfall and the mountain snowpack are generally below average, some reservoirs hold more than average for this time of year and much more than they did a year ago (which was an even worse year, precipitation-wise). But the numbers are just one dimension of a complicated picture. All that water has a lot of work to do. We count on it not just for irrigating the Central Valley farms and bringing drinking and lawn water to the citiies and suburbs, but for providing electricity, too. And in recent decades, the state and federal water managers have even been made conscious of another function the water might perform: preserving wildlife–especially the once-magnificent salmon runs in the Sacramento and San Joaquin watersheds.