Red Car

On the way back home from a short bike ride yesterday, I passed the home of a family friend. Someone who has had a major influence on our lives in a number of ways–through great personal generosity, mostly–but not someone I'd say we are very close to.

This person has a red car to which he has always seemed attached. It's a little European sports job, something of a classic. I think the car has been refurbished–new paint, new interior, maybe new engine and power train–at least twice since this person became an acquaintance in the mid-1980s. More than anything, I think his attachment to the car bespeaks a critical love of fine things. He shows the same appreciation for books, for art, for music, for furniture, for food and drink, for baseball. And for people, too, though his critical appraisal can be uncomfortable. I have on occasion felt I didn't quite measure up to standards, and I know of plenty of refined people whom this person has sent away muttering about what a curmudgeon he is, except they weren't saying "curmudgeon."

Passing this person's home yesterday, I noticed the red car, parked as usual at the front curb. I noticed, too, that a couple of women were stopped on the sidewalk, reading a piece of paper taped to one of the car windows. I thought I saw a for-sale sign on the back. I didn't stop myself, but the scene made an impression. I know this person has had some health problems, and I thought maybe they had decided to let the car go. Not a decision he would make lightly. I thought I'd mention this at home later, but it slipped my mind.

But later Sunday, we chanced to drive past the house again. I said, "Hey, it looks like there's a for-sale sign on the red car." I slowed to a stop, and we looked at the car and this person's home, which was dark. Well, it turned out that my driving partner had news. She'd heard earlier in the day that this person is very ill. Very ill.

I can't presume to know what this person or his family are thinking. And I don't want to eulogize: it's a sunny day, and life is as good, as difficult, and as provocative as ever, with plenty to feed and sate the critical eye. But from afar–from a distance respectful but not too respectful–I'd like to say thanks, thanks so much, for all you've done for us and for the parts of your life that you have shared.

Winter Oak


Kate and I went on a walk (sans dog!) in Briones Regional Park yesterday. The park is part of what was once a big Spanish land-grant ranch, east of the Berkeley Hills. It was cloudy, foggy, sunny, and gorgeous out there.  

California Water: Hearts and Minds

I saw an interesting story last night from the Sacramento Bee’s Matt Weiser: “Underground Tunnel Gets Closer Look for Shipping Water Through Delta.” The piece deals with the latest twist on a long-talked-about fix for the plumbing in the state and federal systems that move water from Northern to Southern California. Back in 1982, Governor Jerry Brown promoted a ballot initiative for a massive new waterway–dubbed the Peripheral Canal–that would iron out some kinks in the current system of pumps and canals. Seen in the north as a Southern California water grab and almost everywhere as an overpriced boondoggle, the initiative went down with a 62.7 percent “no” vote.

But because the need and competition for water has only increased since then, the idea has never gone away. It’s back this year as part of the debate over the $11.1 billion bond measure on this November’s ballot. The initiative doesn’t specifically set aside money for a Peripheral Canal, but everyone assumes that at least some of billions in the initiatives uncommitted funds will go to what’s now called a “conveyance” project.

The canal is still the object of fear and loathing in the Delta and elsewhere in Northern California–just another act in the endless plot to take the region’s most precious resource. But one thing different from past years, though: Some major environmental groups have signed on to both the bond and plans for some sort of Peripheral Canal. Why the change of heart? I think it comes down to the widespread recognition that the tortuous method of channeling water from the Sacramento River into the Delta and then into the aqueducts is broken and is a prime suspect in the collapse of the Central Valley’s once-magnificent chinook salmon runs and other environmental problems. The thinking is that if you straighten out the plumbing, you take care of the major hazards to the fish and to the Delta ecosystem.

Once you have the new canal or tunnel, all you have to do is manage the water flowing through it to the benefit of everyone involved.

And that’s the problem. To believe a canal will fix an environmental disaster, one must believe that the demand for new water and the machinations to get it by any means possible will suddenly just evaporate. Letting high river flows sweep through the Delta and out to sea–part of what’s necessary to aid salmon migrate to the Pacific–is condemned as a waste by those who want to put that water to work in the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California. That belief just won’t disappear overnight.

Today’s outstanding exhibit of that mindset is a move from Senator Dianne Feinstein to essentially suspend the Endangered Species Act to guarantee increased federal water deliveries to the valley (apparently no one has told her that the main reason less water has been going down there is California’s three-year drought; maybe she could write a bill to outlaw below-average rainfall, too). Feinstein says she’s concerned about farm jobs–the areas worst-hit by the drought have been prone to cycles of high unemployment for decades. But the first thing that comes to mind when you hear about her plan is her eager readiness to go to bat for big campaign donors in the valley who are unhappy with federal plans to protect salmon and other endangered species (see “Corporate Farmer Calls Upon Feinstein to Influence Environmental Dispute” by Lance Williams of the Center for Investigative Reporting).

That’s the way the game is played. New ground rules about how water is handled might change that. A new tunnel or canal won’t

Guest Observation: The Comma

A friend passes these on:

“And what does a comma do, a comma does nothing but make easy a thing that if you like it enough is easy enough without the comma. A long complicated sentence should force itself upon you, make you know yourself knowing it and the comma, well at the most a comma is a poor period that lets you stop and take a breath but if you want to take a breath you ought to know yourself that you want to take a breath. It is not like stopping altogether has something to do with going on, but taking a breath well you are always taking a breath and why emphasize one breath rather than another breath. Anyway that is the way I felt about it and I felt that about it very very strongly. And so I almost never used a comma. The longer, the more complicated the sentence the greater the number of the same kinds of words I had following one after another, the more the very more I had of them the more I felt the passionate need of their taking care of themselves by themselves and not helping them, and thereby enfeebling them by putting in a comma.

“So that is the way I felt about punctuation in prose, in poetry it is a little different but more so …”

— Gertrude Stein

And Oscar Wilde has this to say on the subject:

“I have spent most of the day putting in a comma and the rest of the day taking it out.”

California Water: Face of the Drought

It’s California Water Saturday in these parts. Let’s see if I can keep it simple:

Continued wet weather means most of the state’s reservoirs are filling up. But if your definition of drought means all reservoirs brim-full, no, we’re not out of the woods yet. (My KQED Radio News colleague Amy Standen just finished a story that will air Monday: “Is the Drought Over?” (I have a starring role in her accompanying blog post.) Another take on our drought status comes from the U.S. Drought Monitor. Over the last couple of weeks, this report has shown a dramatic contraction of the area of the state affected by drought.

The face of the drought: At the end of January, the state Department of Water Resources issued its latest drought update (18-page PDF). The most interesting aspect of the document is the way it adopts the Westlands Water District as a proxy for the drought’s impact on agriculture throughout the state. It’s not a subtle touch, either: the front and back covers of the drought report contain dramatic photographs, courtesy of Westlands, of dead orchards. We’re to understand from the context that drought has killed these productive groves. Inside the report, there’s a writeup on Westlands, complete with a table on page 12 showing the reduction in planted acreage since 2006–a little misleading to use as an index year since it was a decidedly wet year when no one had to worry about water supplies. The table does show that virtually all field, seed, and truck crops have experienced dramatic reductions since ’06 (exception: wheat, for which acreage grew by 53.4 percent, and garbanzo beans, which had a 42.5 percent increase in acreage). At the same time, though, the Westlands table shows that the acreage in tree and vine crops–remember the dead orchards?–has increased by 20 percent since the drought began. Most of that jump has been in almonds, which grew from 55,000 acres in 2006 to 70,000 acres in 2008 before falling back to 67,000 acres last year.

Now, there is no question at all that the district, which includes about 1,000 square miles along the western fringe of the mid-San Joaquin Valley, has been hit hard by the shortage of water. It’s dry country and because the district was formed relatively recently (in the 1950s), it’s near the bottom of the totem pole for getting a share of the water pumped into the valley from up north. Yes, land has been fallowed and fieldworkers have lost jobs–pretty much the same way that’s happened during every dry cycle. The question is whether Westlands really represents the face of the drought across the state. Reading about the plight of the district, one would hardly guess that the state’s harvest of processing tomatoes–by acreage the biggest vegetable crop in California–hit an all-time high in 2009 (data by way of the U.S.D.A.’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, in its latest “California Vegetable Review“).

Of course, the processing-tomato harvest doesn’t tell you much, either–by itself. And neither does Westlands, if your interest is understanding the wide impact of California’s water challenges. Of course, if your interest is putting the grimmest possible face on the drought to scare up support for a new round of dam- and canal-building–which is exactly what many environmentalists say the Department of Water Resources is doing–then Westlands will do just fine as a poster child.

Delta pumps–turn up the volume: The biggest water news of the week came out of the Fresno courtroom of U.S. District Court Judge Oliver W. Wanger (W. is for Winston, not Wendell; and those who know say his last name rhymes with “ranger”) in a case featuring Central Valley chinook salmon, federal fishery and water managers, and (again) the Westlands Water District. On Friday, Wanger issued a temporary restraining order that blocks a federal plan to protect endangered chinook salmon that migrate back and forth through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. The plan limits, but does not halt, exports from the Delta to avoid sucking fish into the pumps that send water south. Westlands and other water districts argued that pumping limits are letting hundreds of thousands of acre feet of water escape into the ocean instead of being shipped to San Luis Reservoir, the main storehouse for San Joaquin Valley irrigation supplies. Letting the water flow out to sea would amount to irreparable harm to communities depending on it for growing crops and providing jobs.

Wanger agreed, issuing a 23-page decision that sets aside the federal protection plan for two weeks, pending a permanent ruling. He found a) that recent pumping in the Delta hasn’t killed enough endangered winter-run chinook to threaten the species’ survival; b) that our wet weather has caused flows that ought to be captured now; and c) that the federal defendants have brought this ruling on themselves by failing to assess the impact of their salmon plan on people. A portion of the ruling that’s gone generally unnoticed, as far as I can tell, acknowledges that it’s unknown what effect increased pumping will have on migrating juvenile winter-run salmon. That being the case, “the temporary restraining order … shall initially be for a period of fourteen days, subject to renewal by plaintiffs upon an affirmative showing that neither the species’ nor their critical habitat will be jeopardized by continued injunction” of the pumping limits (emphasis mine). In other words, Westlands and company will need to prove that the increased flow of water they’re getting hasn’t caused a big jump in the number of salmon killed off at the pumps. (You can follow the dead salmon count at home, if you’re inclined: the federal Central Valley Project, which runs one set of the pumps in question, publishes a daily report, Chinook Salmon Loss Data.)

The key piece of Wanger’s decision, though, is not really about the amount of water being pumped out of the Delta. It’s about the winning legal strategy (in this court, anyway) used by Westlands and its allies in arguing that the agencies trying to enforce the Endangered Species Act must weigh their actions’ impact on human communities. The judge seems to be saying, “Yes, you can protect plants and animals that we humans have driven to the edge of extinction–but only if protecting them doesn’t harm us humans.” Wanger made a similar ruling last year in a case involving endangered species protection for the delta smelt. Legal Planet, an environmental law blog from UC-Berkeley and UCLA, called his findings “curious” and said, “Judge Wanger is asking the agency to balance on an absolute knife edge, ensuring that it doesn’t deny farmers a single drop of water that the fish don’t critically require.”

Stand Up, Stand Up for Health

Yesterday, I had a random online encounter with a news headline suggesting that some researchers somewhere say that sitting is bad for your health. I didn’t click on any links, but the idea stayed with me. I went looking for the story today, and discovered that the research isn’t exactly new. Science Daily carried an item in June 2008 headlined “Physiologists and Microbiologists Find Link Between Sitting and Poor Health” (that story was based on University of Missouri research reported in November 2007). A similar item, based on similar research, appeared in the news a couple weeks ago. For instance, on Discovery News: “Too Much Sitting Creates a Health Hazard.” The gist: Long periods of sitting lead the body to shut down certain metabolic processes, and that can lead to weight gain, a higher risk of diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

Ah, the power of suggestion. I’m painfully aware–really: painfully–of how much I sit in the course of my work and in various recreational noodling such as this blog. This morning, I contrived to bring the laptop out into the kitchen to a place where I can stand and work. I’m wondering whether I can get my workstation at KQED set up for standing, too (we had a guy in the office who had a standing desk; maybe his stuff is still around). Stand-up desks: not a new idea.

Guest Observation: Henry David Thoreau

“The greater part of what my neighbors call good I believe in my soul to be bad, and if I repent of anything, it is very likely to be my good behavior. What demon possessed me that I behaved so well ? You may say the wisest thing you can, old man, — you who have lived seventy years, not without honor of a kind, — I hear an irresistible voice which invites me away from all that.One generation abandons the enterprises of another like stranded vessels.”

2 February, FYI

Happy James Joyce’s Birthday (born 1882).

Happy Groundhog Day. I arose before dawn and saw the International Space Station cross the southern sky. Not sure what that means in terms of how many weeks of winter we have left.

Happy Halfway from Winter Solstice to Spring Equinox Day.

There — that’s enough to celebrate for one day.


Here’s one I was only a spectator at: About 10:30 this morning, a small delivery van is parallel parking into a space at 17th and Bryant streets, on the seam between Potrero Hill and the Mission. The space the driver is trying to get into is one of those tight ones. Maybe 6 inches longer than the van is. At the back end of the space, a car is parked with the driver at the wheel. She’s got maybe 18 inches or 2 feet between her and the corner red zone behind her. Now think carefully about what you’d do if you were the driver of that car and see how closely it matches what happened.

The van driver, apparently committed to wedging his vehicle into the space, does a couple back-and-forths. On his second pass, inevitably, he bumps the front end of the car, the one sitting there with the driver at the wheel. She has not backed up even an inch. But when the van makes contact with her car, a Toyota Yaris or similar (as the rental companies would style it), she leans on the horn. The van pulls up. The Toyota driver honks some more. The van driver honks, then backs up and bumps the Toyota again — lightly, I thought. The van is in its space, and the driver, a pony-tailed middle-age guy of medium stature and build, gets out and walks back to the Toyota, whose driver has finally been stirred to move, though not to back up. Instead, she gets out of the car to inspect the non-existant damage to her front bumper. The van driver is angry and is raising his voice, but I can’t hear any of what he’s saying. The woman gets in the car.

At this point, a passing cyclist enters the scene. He’s about four or five inches taller than the van driver and maybe 25 years younger. I didn’t see how he first became engaged, but he’s shouting and draws attention. “That’s a lady, you piece of shit! A lady!” The intensity of his rage seems unconnected to the events that have just transpired, but he’s seen or heard something that offends him deeply. His tirade about the van driver’s transgressions against “the lady” driving the Toyota quickly escalates. He swings the back end of his bike toward the van driver to back him up, then pushes the bike against the older man, and finally throws the bike down and sort of slap-punches the van driver once, maybe twice. At this point, the van man looks unnerved and is trying to back away, and the cyclist picks up his bike and swings it at the van guy again.

(I should say at this point that none of the dozen or so people near the corner, including me, made a move to intervene. If a full-on beating had gotten started, I would have tried to stop it. But the thought of getting into a dispute with the crazy bike rider made me keep my distance.)

That’s as far as things go. The van driver pulls out his phone and makes a call–undoubtedly to the police. The bike rider tells him that if he doesn’t leave, he’s going to fuck him up. Then the bike rider walks his bike slowly away. The Toyota driver watches what she helped wreak, then pulls out of her piece of curb space and drives away. I don’t wait to see if the police show up.