Roadside Attraction


Spotted on Highway 25, an otherwise gorgeous slice of California, just south of the east entrance to Pinnacles National Monument. I think it may be the first time I’ve seen the anti-illegal-immigrant cause married to the sacrifices of the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

A couple of things come to mind looking at the signs. It’s tempting to look at how many of the war dead–in these and other wars–arrived in the United States without their engraved invites or are the children of parents who came without papers. I’m thinking their sacrifices are still worthy.

It’s also tempting to come up with a list of all the other things the troops may or may not have died for besides “open borders.” Maybe some other night.

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I feel like I’ve been hearing about California condors all my life. When I was a kid back on the other side of the Mississippi, the story was about the imminent extinction of a giant bird in a faraway place. In the ’80s, the story was about the capture of the last 20 or so wild birds and the beginning of a captive breeding program in Southern California designed to save them. Since then, most of the news has seemed remote and mixed: the condors have reproduced fairly readily in captivity. They’ve been reintroduced to areas in Southern and Central California as well as Arizona and Baja California. According to the San Diego Zoo, which launched the captive breeding effort, the California condor population stands at 348, which 187 birds in the wild. On the other hand, much of what we hear about the wild condors is bad news: birds that have been shot, killed by power lines, or died of lead poisoning after ingesting lead shot or bullets in carcasses they’ve dined on.

Bottom line, the birds have seemed remote to me. Part of another world, for all the effort that’s gone into saving them. That was how I felt before today, anyway.

Yesterday, we drove down to Pinnacles National Monument after hearing earlier in the week that a pair of condors nesting are incubating an egg in the back country there. I hadn’t realized until then that maybe a couple dozen condors have been released in the area, and at least one other pair has produced an egg. The drive is about 130 miles from our place, through San Jose and the towns south of there, then down a road that follows the San Andreas fault into a remote part of San Benito County. We got there too late to see any birds, but stayed in King City, about 30 miles away in the Salinas Valley, so we could go back again.

I wasn’t worried about getting there early because I had been told that condors “keep a teenager’s hours”–since they don’t fly until the day has warmed up a little, you generally don’t see them in the sky until mid- or late morning. We got back to the park at 11 or so, only to discover we couldn’t take Scout, The Dog, on any of the trails. While we stood in the parking lot outside the visitors center, Kate pointed and said, “Look!” Big bird overhead. Didn’t look like a vulture; bigger body and heavier wings. Didn’t look like an eagle; heavier wings with those splayed-out feathers at the tips. We grabbed the binoculars and each looked. No doubt about it: a California condor. In two or three minutes it was joined by one, then four, then five others: six condors wheeling upward–directly above the visitors center. One-thirtieth of the wild population, circling overhead.

There were about 40 people standing in line to catch a shuttle bus to a trailhead higher up, and not one of them was looking up or seemed aware of what was happening above them. I couldn’t resist calling out, “Look up, everyone,” and Kate walked over to point out what we were seeing. Binoculars and spotting scopes came up. I had my radio sound kit with me and talked to a few people about the condors. I found two people in line who had close encounters with them in Big Sur. One of the people was a volunteer condor guide and knew all about the birds, the other had managed a construction project that the condors visited. The endangered birds pulled stunts like pulling out a 50-pound box of nails and strewing it around the site. The condors apparently love to dig into things and would rip out insulation when they could get at it; on one occasion, a bird ripped out the seat from a bulldozer.

In the course of the day, and after having seen the birds myself, they suddenly seem real. Check out the video below, one of the first things I came across when looking for condor information this evening. (And here’s a link to a sort of hammy video with some good shots of the condors at the Pinnacles.) That’s it–except for our bonus sighting of the day: a golden eagle that appeared above the road on our way home and circled for awhile after we pulled into a church parking lot to watch it.



Yesterday’s walk to the Friday Night Ferry took me across the top of Potrero Hill along 20th Street, where I happened upon this scene The hill is an interesting place, and I may have already said that if I were to live anywhere in San Francisco, I’d try to find a place up there. It really feels like an island, with its own neighborhoods and feel, complete with amazing views in every direction.

California Water: Facts Just Roll Right Off

Even when we don't have all the water we want in California, we never suffer a shortage of detailed, interesting information about our water. If you need an example, go and check the California Data Exchange Center, an encyclopedia of constantly updated water statistics maintained by the state Department of Water Resources. If your thirst for water numbers isn't slaked there, go next to the Central Valley Project's operations page, produced by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. Even bathed in all that data, though, you're just getting started. If you want to go into advanced studies, you can pore over the California Water Plan, the bible for state water issues.

You get the picture. We're not hurting for water facts. And you'd think with all that data floating around, at least some would sink in when people talk about water. But when we fight over water, we, or our brains, seem to become impermeable. You can shower them with all the facts and fancy reasoning you want, but it all beads up and runs right off.

What am I talking about? Check the flyer below, distributed in advance of this weekend's California Republican convention. It banners the inflammatory and fact-free claim that the state is in the middle of a government-created drought. But the beautiful part comes at the bottom of the announcement (original punctuation preserved):

Ecological primitivists seek to return California to the 18th century Great Desert and the federal government is an accomplice.

Cutting off water supply to people while wasting that water to the ocean for the sake of declining fish species, is decimating Central Valley agriculture, causing the loss of thousands of jobs, imposing hardship on hundreds of thousands of residents- including many Latinos, and will contribute to worldwide food shortages.

As pure fantasy, it's actually a fun piece of writing. "Ecological primitivists"? I can see the bumper sticker. It's kind of amazing to see all those words bumping around there together and not produce anything that resembles the situation in the real world.

The event has been put together by a right-wing talk radio person, Martha Montelongo, I've never heard of. It ought to be a fun meeting. 



I’ve gotten to the point in my journalism career where people I once worked with are showing up in the obits. One appeared there yesterday: Malcolm Glover, late cops reporter and rewrite man for The San Francisco Examiner. Here’s the story, which made print more than a week after his death. I didn’t know Malcolm well. I was usually in the position of sweating him on deadline for a short breaking story on something or other. But he went way back and did, as his obit suggests, seem to know everyone in the Police Department (we won’t go into the mixed blessing of that). His nickname was Scoop, though I never knew anyone in the newsroom to actually use that when addressing him.

How far back did he go. Again, as the obit says, back to the days when the paper was owned by William Randolph Hearst. Part of his legend and charm was the tale, which Malcolm didn’t need a lot of prompting to repeat, that his relationship with Hearst dated back to his childhood in the Northern California mill town of McCloud. As Malcolm told it, Hearst was at a general store in town. Malcolm, then a lad of 10 or so, held the door open for him. “The Chief” was so impressed with the lad’s good manners that he asked his name and, one thing leading to another, put him to work on the Hearst’s nearby estate, Wintoon. When Malcolm wanted to try working at one of Hearst’s papers, the old man got him a job as a photographer at The Monarch of the Dailies. Later, he switched to reporting, and outlasted scores of whipper-snappers and young hotshots. Includiing me.

I’m sure some of The Examiner people who worked with him longer have some great stories about him. I’d still love to hear them sometime.

Modern Marketing, March 2010 Edition

One of my private convictions, or delusions, is that I’d be a great marketing writer given the right outlet. The right outlet would have no rules: no house style, no retail “voice,” no lifestyle image to promote. In fact, it probably wouldn’t have merchandise except for the stuff you’re trying to get out of the house; stuff that might not be fun but that could be fun to sell. It turns out I’m talking about Craigslist. We’ve managed to sell stray household items there for years, and writing the item descriptions is always the most engaging part of the process.

Here’s the current item on offer (as posted on Craigslist):

Ikea Henrik student desk, with chair

An Ikea classic that may or may not have been named after a famous Scandinavian literary figure. This desk played a prominent role in a student’s career at Berkeley High School and may even be partly responsible for his successful completion of studies at the University of Oregon.

–Classic Ikea design: a Scandinavian thought this up. ‘Nuff said.
–Classic Ikea construction: manufacture of this item caused minimal rain forest destruction
–Conforms fully to U.S. and international safety standards, including Newton’s laws of motion

And check out these extras:
–Recently dusted
–Family friendly
–Desk chair may be comfortable for hours on end

We got three responses within an hour. Since no one commented on the brilliance of the sales pitch, I have to conclude they were moved by price ($60, with vague offer of delivery).

Reinvigorating the Haiku Economy

Robert Hass’s introduction to “The Essential Haiku” includes a short, unfussy description of where haiku came from and a brief explanation of some of what’s going on behind the scenes in these 17-syllable miniatures. Here’s part of what he says:

“The insistence on time and place was crucial for writers of haiku. The seasonal reference was called a kigo and a haiku was thought to be incomplete without it. … For example, the phrase, ‘deep autumn’ or ‘autumn deepens,’ is traditional and accumulated references and associations from earlier poetry as well as from the Japanese way of thinking about time and change. … [In Buson’s poems] the reference to snow–yuki, which can also mean ‘snowfall’– … is always connected to a sense of exposure to the elements, for which there is also a traditional phrase, fuyuzare, which means ‘winter bareness.’ The practice was sufficiently codified and there was even a rule that the seasonal reference should always appear in the first or third unit of the three phrase poem.

“… These references were conventional and widely available. They were the first way readers of the poems had of locating themselves in the haiku. Its traditional themes–deep autumn, a sudden summer shower, the images of rice seedlings and plum blossoms, of spring and summer migrants like the mountain cuckoo and the bush warbler, of the cormorant-fishermen in summer, and the apprentices on holiday in the spring–gave a powerful sense of a human place in the ritual and cyclical movement of the world.”

Reading the several hundred poems Hass chose for the book, you intuit the importance of season and nature. Here’s just one, having opened the book at random:

Mosquito at my ear–
does it think
I’m deaf?

All of which got me thinking that what we very badly need to revivify the American haiku industry is an updated list of seasonal references–urban, rural, whatever works–that evoke season and nature and reflect the way we think about change. This would work best as a group exercise, and I’m just one would-be haiku apprentice. But anyway, I’ll go first:

Slushy shoes
Icy sidewalk
Frozen socks
Stinging snowball
Fingers numb
Grimy snowbank
Deserted luge track
Oil-drum fire
Catchers and pitchers
Spring ahead
March Madness
Smart-ass robin
Ants again
Termites swarm
Yellow Peeps
Tinactin time
Prom queen pimple
Unharvested prune

After Christmas, Calaveras Road


A couple days after Christmas, we were driving up I-880, the Nimitz Freeway, from San Jose back to Berkeley. The Nimitz is a grind. Lots of traffic; lots of fast traffic; lots of trucks; long stretches of heavily built-up suburbs, malls, strip malls, big-box centers, and auto rows. But even from the Nimitz, you glimpse what a gorgeous piece of territory we’ve converted into a metropolis. A long line of hills runs parallel to the highway. High hills, up to about 2,500 feet. When it’s clear, they’re beautiful. They’re beautiful in the winter, when they’re green. After a storm–they’re beautiful then, too, with a backdrop of towering, dramatically lit clouds.  

So, a couple days after Christmas. We were driving north, and little gray shreds of cloud were hanging onto the top of the ridge to the east. It was late in the afternoon. I asked Kate whether she’d ever been up in those hills. No, she hadn’t. There’s a road up there I’ve cycled on long rides–Calaveras Road. Among other times: some other riders and I ended up out there, going from Berkeley down to the edge of San Jose, then back up to Fremont to catch BART home. I asked Kate whether she’d like to see the place if I could find it. She was game, so we got off at the Montague Expressway in Milpitas, then headed east, toward the hills, until we couldn’t go any farther, the intersection of Piedmont Road. Then we went left, north, until we hit Calaveras, then went right and up hill for a long time. Eventually we hit a steep uphill left into a steep, narrow ravine–still on Calaveras–and shortly popped up on the east side of a ridge above Calaveras Reservoir.

The light was fading, but we found a place to get out and walk. Oaks were silhouetted on the hillsides, and cold-looking gray clouds were starting to slide down the ridge across the lake.