Farewell November

Several nights ago, I wrote a short thing about Thanksgiving. Who was here (our kids and their inamorata), what we did (cooked, hang out, ate, took time out to watch the space station and space shuttle chase each other), what other significance the day had for me (Thursday, the 26th, would have been my mom’s 80th birthday). But then, just as I got ready to post those reflections, my little blog word-processor ate my homework. Damn! On other occasions, I have sat and tried to recapture the fine stylings I’m sure have been crashed out of existence. This time, I didn’t have it in me. It was getting late. I was not in my finest fettle. I’ve made an undertaking not to stay up until all hours committing the moment’s musings to posterity (I may have to make room for writing in the morning, usually taken up by sundry and diverse necessities such as The New York Times crossword). I went to bed, and haven’t really tried to write since. It wasn’t until tonight that I noticed I’ve let a whole week elapse since last I wrote here.

So for tonight, just this: I’ll get back to Mom’s 80th sometime soon. As to the rest: Farewell to a warm, dry November. December awaits, just eight minutes ahead.


We’ve been having a string of clear evenings in the Bay Area, perfect for watching the nightly fly-by of the International Space Station and the shuttle Atlantis. When the shuttle and the station are docked, they appear as a single, bright star moving from (roughly) west to east. The Atlantis undocked early this morning and rapidly moved away from the station. This evening one of the ships appeared in the northwest, then the other–the space station trailed by the shuttle, I think. From San Francisco, they seemed to move nearly straight overhead, then rapidly vanished into the Earth’s shadow when they were still high above the horizon.

It always surprises me a little not to see others out staring at these objects as they pass over, or that passers-by don’t ask what I’m looking at. A big-city rule, I guess: avoid the harmless-looking guy staring into the sky just in case he’s a lunatic. One time, a co-worker happened upon me watching the space station go over a nearby park. “What happened?” she asked. “Did a bird shit on you?” I told her about the space station and pointed at it. She glanced toward the sky, gave me a look that said she didn’t quite believe anything like that was up there at the moment, and moved on.

Tonight in Berkeley, meantime: Kate knew the twin apparitions of space station and shuttle would become visible at 6:22. She called several neighbors to alert them. While I watched from the lower western edge of Potrero Hill, she had nearly a dozen people out in the street here in our neighborhood for the three-minute show. That’s just one of the things I love about this block: that people will come out to see a night-time sky display–lunar eclipses, comets, meteor showers, whatever’s on tap–and just hang out for a few minutes.

There’s another double-viewing Thanksgiving night. Check your local listings on NASA’s Satellite Sightings Information page.

Who Are These Goons?


A handbill posted on a lightpole at 16th and South Van Ness. The list of suspicious circumstances got me.

Have you recently experienced any of the following:

  • “Lost” mail? “Wrong numbers”?
  • Dust bunnies? Flies on the windowsill ? Dead moths?
  • Tooth aches? Interrupted sleep? Invalid passwords?
  • Rearranged possessions? (Your belongings not where you left them?)
  • Mismatched socks? Zippers not working properly?
  • Odd damage or small stains around your house?
  • Theft and sabotage of your food or kitchenware? Appliances behaving strangely?
  • Cabinet and drawer handles held on by screws repeatedly loosened ARTIFICIALLY?
  • Opened caps on items such as deodorant & food containers being retightened excessively?
  • Do you hear sirens? Customers in a store filing into line just as you’re about to check out?
  • Itching?

A reader notes (thanks, reader!) that it’s worth visiting the site of The Jejune Institute, noted on the poster as the suspected perpetrator of this harassment. (And if you’re thirsting for further Jejune knowledge, see the Yelp reviews.)

Journal of Self-Promotion


Friday morning, I heard on KCBS, the local all-news AM station, that some students had “taken over” Wheeler Hall, a building on the UC-Berkeley campus. As I wrote our morning news team a note about that, the phone rang. It was one of the morning news team asking whether I could go out and cover the Wheeler Hall story. I said I would.  

When I went out to get in the car, I realized I had a flat tire. I thought of riding my bike, but knew it would be hard to find a secure place to lock it up. As I walked back inside the house to ponder my next move — if I walked or took the bus or BART, I’d miss the air time for the upcoming newscast — I heard the neighbors’ dog barking outside. One of the neighbors in question works for the university–in the news office, actually. I ran outside hoping I could catch a ride to campus with him. I did.

I showed up outside Wheeler to find yellow police tape around the building — it might have taken a quarter mile of tape to do put up that line — and several dozen students with banners who had parked themselves across the main north-south path through campus. In a few minutes, I’d sized up what was happening and had lined up a young woman who said she was one of the protest organizers. She wouldn’t give her name, but said it was OK to call her Jane Doe or Emma Goldman. Yeah, she really said that. We put her on the air. I was on, too–both for one of the newscasts and our longer “Forum” discussion show. One observation: I say “um” and “ahhhhh” a lot.

Here are the links to the audio of these immortal radio (and associated) appearances:

The California Report: UC Students Protest Fee Hike

Forum: Students Occupy UC Berkeley Building

Photo slide show: Wheeler Hall protest

And in other self-promotion news: November 22 marks this blog’s sixth anniversary.

Health Care: Good Deficits, Bad Deficits

“There are no solutions, Bernstein–only the rearrangement of problems.”
David Mamet, ‘November’

Is the health-care debate a mess? It is. By which I mean it’s sure hard to keep up with the competing claims about what the pending legislation will do or won’t do. Yes, our leaders try to make things easy for us by declaring one set of ideas (theirs) good and another set (someone else’s) bad; the “someone else” in this equation returns fire in the same terms. It’s only certain at this point that nothing about the health-care system or the bills that may effect some changes in it is simply “good” or “bad.”

For me, “good” consists of two things: First, make health coverage universal. In a nation as wealthy as ours, no one should be without medical care. Second, ensure that health coverage is affordable for all. The devil, as they say, is in the details. The bill headed to the Senate floor is about 2,000 pages long. What all do you think is in there?

Rank speculation aside, one concern that lies outside my list of “good” or “bad” attributes of health-care legislation is the deficits they’d cause. This may be uncaring of me. I don’t want my kids and their kids to be paying for my colonoscopies, or for yours either. But I have to say that when I hear the opponents of the health-care bills screaming about deficits, it’s hard to take them seriously. Right down the line, these are the very same folks who thought nothing of committing the nation’s wealth to the Iraq war, deficits be damned. Some economists say that that little project will wind up costing us $1 trillion–the low estimate–before it’s all over. And although I think we can rest assured that the investment has been worthwhile for most Iraqis who survived our good intentions, I don’t think all that money has done a thing to make life better for the tens of millions of people here — a group double the population of Iraq, by the way — who make do without medical care.

So let’s see where the health-care legislation takes us. It may be far from perfect. but improvement, not perfection, is our goal. And if we mess it up on the first round, gee, it won’t be the first time. We’ll just have to go back and try to to better. That seems to be the only way this system of ours work.

Pac 10 Football

We’ve expended exactly zero words in this space on this year’s football season, college or pro. There is a local team worthy of regular comment–or ridicule–and that’s the Oakland Raiders. But enough about them. The two teams most avidly followed under this Berkeley roof are California, of the NCAA’s Pacific 10 conference, and Chicago, a founding club of the National Football League. Both perform their gridiron labors under the sobriquet “Bears.”

We don’t lose a lot of sleep over either Bears squad. They’re just not good enough to cause that or to merit it. But emotional attachments are hard to sunder and occasionally the teams are entertaining. Cal is a more immediate experience, seeing they play a couple miles from our house, close enough that when the stadium cannon is fired to celebrate a touchdown it’s clearly audible here.

The conceit for any fan of a decent college football program is that the team they follow is on the threshold or at least capable of greatness (some people root for teams that actually are great–such as the quasi-pro squads at schools like Florida, Texas, and the University of Southern California. I don’t know have any idea what it would be like to root for such a team, though a certain infuriating smugness seems to come with that rarefied territory).

California, at any rate, is a school with a consistently decent football program, a program good enough and rich enough that its coach is a millionaire and fans enjoy a week or two every season thinking that, “Gee, this year these guys are for real.” But Cal, millionaire coach and all, is also a consistently inconsistent team, capable of spectacular performances, weird lapses and blind stupidity–sometimes on the same play. The team won its first three games this year, badly abusing a collection of overmatched squads. Then it began its conference schedule with a game against Oregon in Eugene. Cal looked helpless and scored a single field goal while the Ducks ran riot. Cal made an identical impression against USC in Berkeley: a lone field goal while the Trojans cruised up and down the field at will. Since then, freed of expectations, the Bears have had an OK season. They lost to a good Oregon State team. They beat UCLA, Washington State, Arizona State and Arizona. Today they played Stanford.

Step back a moment from the Cal particulars. The rest of the conference has been pretty interesting.

Oregon demolished Cal, then went on to smash USC, the perennial conference power. It was Oregon’s year, until they played Stanford a couple weeks ago. Stanford whipped them.

USC lost an early game to Washington–continuing a string of seasons during which it has lost a close game to a weaker conference opponent (other upsets in recent years came by way of Oregon State and Stanford). Then the Trojans seemed to get back on track by dominating California. But USC didn’t really flatten anyone else. In fact, they got steamrolled themselves by Oregon in Eugene. And last week, Stanford not only beat them but racked up more points against them than any team in history. It couldn’t have happened to a nicer bunch of guys (by which I really mean: a more entitled-seeming group of fans).

So Cal vs. Stanford. The Cardinal took down Oregon immediately after the Ducks’ big win against USC, and then it simply overpowered USC. Both Oregon and USC stomped Cal. What chance could the Bears possibly have? Naturally, the Bears beat them. Not just beat them, dominated them — the 34-28 score hid the fact Cal held the ball for nearly 40 minutes out of 60 and got 31 first downs to Stanford’s 16.

Elsewhere, Oregon came from behind to beat Arizona and keep the inside track for the conference championship and Rose Bowl berth. But to get there, they need to beat Oregon State on December 3. It’s a home game for the U of O. I’ll give the edge to the Ducks over the Beavers.

But this is the Pac 10, so don’t bet on anything.

‘… Wednesday’s Worse and Thursday’s Oh So Sad…’

We’ve all thought about time travel and what we’d do with the gift to move backward or forward along the fourth dimension. I think the wish to be able to go back and undo a mistake came to me long before I ever encountered science fiction. I can’t tell you how many times I looked back on some rash action–usually from the perspective of a few seconds after the act–and wished I could have a do-over. Then at some point the notion of time travel came to me by way of Ray Bradbury, “The Twilight Zone,” elementary description of Einstein’s theories, and the Firesign Theatre. “Nancy! Nancy! I’ve just returned from ancient Greece! Look at this grape!”

I think time-shift fantasies fall into two obvious major categories: the visit to the future–either to check in on your future self or to visit the world we’re begetting with our blunders; or the visit to the past. The visit to the past hardly ever seems to be cast as a casual return to the olden days. It’s usually a trip back to an incident we see as crucial. A battle. An assassination. Any incident famous or infamous that we’d like to see firsthand or try to arrest with our knowledge of the consequences. What might happen if you could introduce Gavrilo Princip or persuade him to forego watching the archduke’s Sarajevo appearance for a nice raspberry gelato?

I was thinking about all this yesterday as I found myself listening, for maybe the 10.000th time, to the “Allman Brothers at Fillmore East” recording of “Stormy Monday.” I wore out a couple copies of the LP listening to that track and that side of the album. “While we’re doing that blues thing, we’re gonna play this old Bobby Bland song for you–actually, it’s a T-Bone Walker song”–is that Dwayne Allman introducing it?–and then the band rolls into the song’s first chords, followed by Greg Allman’s vocal: “They call it stormy Monday, but Tuesday’s just as bad. …

I could fit everything I know about music on a postage stamp; and not one of the big rectangular kinds, either. But I do know what I like. There’s not a note in the 8-plus minutes of that track I don’t savor. The vocals. The dual percussion. The bass. And especially the guitars, the way the Dwayne Allman and Dickie Betts trade licks and leads and complement each other through the entire piece. They’re so good it hurts to think of how short a time they played together.

So: My time-machine wish list? I think I’d skip Sarajevo to attend that one show.

East Bay Hipster Gulch: The Motel


The Temescal district, the neighborhood surrounding Telegraph Avenue and 51st Street in North Oakland, has become a contender for the title of East Bay Hipster Gulch. By which I mean the area is characterized by lots of young folks hanging out, sporting the latest in fashion and barely rideable bicycles. In fact, the first Friday of the month is a phenomenon all the way up Telegraph from downtown to 51st. Galleries are open late, clubs are thronged, and except for the very wide well-paved street you might think you were in non-colonial Williamsburg–the one in Brooklyn.  

But traces of the avenue’s up-and-down history persist. Smack in the middle of a block that features an odd but cool gallery (it featured a live Halloween display with a young woman making like Norman Bates’s mother and spooking some visitors), a Burmese restaurant, and a good pizza-and-beer joint, you’ll find a rent-by-the-week motel. But like the rest of the area, it’s going through changes. I prefer to think of it as the Maya, but that’s because I formed my impression facing north. South-facing viewers see the Telegraph-Shattuck (those two streets meet, or diverge, a block away).




There’s a Saturday morning routine that takes us by a restaurant for coffee and pastries followed by a pause at the King Middle School garden (so the dog can watch the chickens) and a stop at the schoolyard to sit and consume previously mentioned food items.

Then there’s a Sunday morning routine: different direction, different cafe, no pastries, and no stops. But we do walk along the old Santa Fe right-of-way, and our path takes us past an old storefront on Hearst Street that has been turned into a gallery.

The picture above: the gallery a couple Sundays ago. I’m a sucker for artfully arranged miscellany, I guess.

California Water: ‘Crumbling Infrastructure’?

Sparse posts of late. The reasons are many. Let me toll off some of them: Facebook. Twitter. Another absorbing online project having to do with the future of California water. Work. Non-Internet recreations. Sleep. Dog-walking.

But about the water stuff: the current distraction was triggered by the Legislature’s recent passage of five bills, including an $11.14 billion bond measure, intended to refocus water policy and “rebuild California’s crumbling water infrastructure”–our governor’s preferred formulation and one widely parroted by politicos, pundits, and journalists alike.

Yes, I question the “crumbling infrastructure” line. Why? The system of levees in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta–an area drained and diked more than a century ago–is known to be in need of constant attention. Some of the levees may even be said to crumble. But the description doesn’t apply elsewhere. The state, federal government, and water districts have invested billions over the past couple of decades to keep their facilities from deteriorating.

“Crumbling water infrastructure” has become the early campaign slogan for the bond campaign. The phrase is standing in for a more complex reality, and one that has nothing to do with the condition of physical facilities. It’s true California’s water system seems broken. But the stress is the result of growing population, an ancient and unresolved battle for water between urban and agricultural interests, and the arrival over the past few decades of a new interest that demands water: environmentalists and fishery groups arguing on behalf of salmon and other species that have been extirpated or brought to the brink of extinction. And add one more factor: Schemes to divert Canadian rivers or the Great Lakes aside, there’s only so much water to go around in California.

One thing that’s struck me as I’ve pored paragraph by paragraph through the bond measure is that we’ve been here before. Just one for-instance. Back in the 1990s, there was a grand negotiation involving the state and federal government and all the interests, including environmentalists. Eventually, the process became known as CALFED–that’s pronounced “cal-fed” and has nothing to do with newborn beeves. In August 2000 CALFED produced a behemoth set of agreements, principles, legislation and environmental studies, all designed to do the same thing the governor and Legislature say they’re doing now. CALFED was to enhance the state’s water system by building more reservoirs, better managing groundwater, and figuring out better ways of moving water from north to south without killing the Delta.

But the consensus that built CALFED disintegrated. Neither the federal nor state governments delivered promised support. The parties to the deal backed out as prospects for progress on any of the basic issues dimmed. The new state legislation specifically supersedes CALFED. Except for that act–killing a moribund program–you wonder how much the new laws will accomplish. Important components are widely denounced, the state’s in no shape to take on the increased debt, and neither are the voters in a mood to write big checks to bureaucrats. And the political climate for the water bills seems simply poisonous: the bills were written virtually in secret, the bond has been faulted for being chock-full of earmarks, and only a small minority of voters express approval of the Legislature or the governor.

What’s next, then? It would be nice to believe some sort of open process could result in solutions that could win support from most of those affected, that would be feasible, and that would be investments in the state’s future. There’s talk of an alternative bond measure that would be much more precisely targeted than the one the Legislature approved. That could be a start, because I would guess that that’s the only way the voters approve a water bond in 2010. And if no money is approved, then California’s looking at another still-born attempt at tackling its water problems.