Berkeley Softball, Revisited Briefly


Last Monday night, a book group came over to the house. Not my book group, though. So I made myself scarce with plans for a wild night out on the town. First stop: CVS, where I purchased some glucosamine and chondroitin among other supplies needed for my middle-aged lifestyle. That errand completed, I sought even more fun. A movie? “The Ghost Writer” sounded appealing, but I had missed the early showing at the only nearby theater running the film, and the second show, just before 10, was too late for the my middle-aged lifestyle. I had a book with me and thought about going over to a restaurant that serves good small salads and what they call a Portuguese sandwich–salt cod and some tasty tomato-based spread on thick toast. I could sit there, have a glass or red wine and modest dinner and read. I drove by, but the place is closed on Mondays. I rolled past a couple other restaurants but was not tempted to stop.  

By that time, I was near San Pablo Park where I used to play night softball games. I thought I’d drive by and see if I knew any of the teams that were out there playing. I checked out one game on a baseball-sized diamond. I recognized the umpire–someone who had been a decent player and who was OK when he started calling games–but no one else. I’ve thought about going back and playing sometimes, and I saw nothing in the play on the field–there were lots of balls hit in the air–that made me think I’d be too physically out of place. But I have to admit it didn’t look like a whole lot of fun. It was the late game of the evening and the plate umpire was running everybody in and out of the dugouts pretty fast and calling strikes that looked strange even given the weird strike zone in slow-pitch softball. He was just moving the game along. I took a few pictures, then strolled across the park to the next diamond.

At first glance, I didn’t recognize anyone in the second game, either. But at a distance something about one of the pitchers seemed familiar. And was: He turned out to be one of my teammates from the very first Berkeley team I played on, back in 1979. I hung around an inning or two and watched him pitch and hit. He did OK, even though I didn’t entirely approve of his team’s uniform shirts, which carried the players’ names on the back, a fussy and over-serious touch for a Berkeley league game. It was getting cold at the park, and I got a call that the book group had hit the road. I almost said hi to my old teammate, and then I headed home.


Up There

A nice little piece in The New York Times a few days ago: “Tweaking a Camera to Suit a Hobby.” The hobby in question is launching balloons with point-and-shoot cameras attached and, as far as I can tell, letting them go where they will go. The folks featured in the article, who go by the handle North Iowa Experimental High-Altitude Ballooning (NIXHAB), use balloons that have reached heights around 100,000 feet. That’s far enough up there to give the impression you’re on the edge of space. (My first question: Do these guys need to file flight plans or consult with the FAA?).

The Times story focuses on the software hacks that allow the balloonists and other hobbyists to set up Canon point-and-shoot cameras to record their images. Here’s one from the NIXHAB site (also used in the Times piece):

Safe Surrender


Firehouse on Bluxome Alley, just off Fourth Street, in San Francisco, during my Friday night walk to the ferry.

Bluxome runs parallel to and between Brannan and Townsend, well south of Market. I had never heard of it until the night of the 1989 earthquake. The quake caused a wall to collapse into the street at the corner of Sixth and Bluxome, less than two blocks from this spot, killing five people. I never actually walked along Bluxome Alley until 2001, when I went to work in an office at Eighth and Townsend. Occasionally I’d ride the casual carpool to First and Fremont, or somewhere in the vicinity, and walk over to Eighth. By the time I first strolled down the alley, the building that had partially collapsed was gone and a condominium building had gone up in its place.

(And what’s a Safe Surrender Site? Under a California law enacted in ’01, “a parent or person with lawful custody can safely surrender a baby confidentially and without fear of prosecution within 72 hours of birth.” The law “requires the baby be taken to a public or private hospital, designated fire station or other safe surrender site. No questions will be asked.” People who give up babies this way have 14 days to change their minds. The state says 348 babies have been surrendered in California in this manner since the law went into effect. Also: 46 other states have similar laws.)

Streetcorner Interlude

Walking to work early this afternoon, east on 16th. At Harrison the light is green. A white pickup makes a left turn as a fixed-gear rider comes down the hill toward the intersection. No problem–the fixie guy slows himself down and eases past the truck. I’m halfway through the crossing now, and I hear a voice, a male voice, say, “What a beautiful day!” It is. It’s cloudless and blue, sunwashed. The man who says this looks at me from behind the wheel of a blue Corolla.”Beautiful!” He repeats. “I can’t believe it.”

Prop. 16, Slate Mailers, and Voting ‘Green’

For the most part, California politics don’t rise to (or sink to, depending on your perspective) the corrupt heights (sleazy depths) that they do in, say, Illinois or New York. Which is to say, while California may have produced its share of rascals, bums, and incompetents over the years, I can’t think of a single governor here who’s been indicted in the past half-century or who’s been outed as a John.

Still, we have our moments, such as those provided every election season by slate mailers. What’s a slate mailer, you ask? They’re cleverly crafted direct-mail pieces that endorse a list of candidates and issues. If you don’t look at them hard, you might think you’re looking at the official word from your party about who and what it endorses. That’s because you’ll see well-known party figures in their predictable spots at the head of the ticket listed with both statewide initiatives and local candidates and measures. Since voter registration rolls are public information, slate cards go out to voters who have declared a party affiliation. So Democratic voters get slate cards listing Democratic candidates and issues, and Republicans get the GOP cards.

But rarely are the parties actually speaking through the slate mailers. Instead, they’re the work of political pros who have turned slate mailers into an industry; a lucrative one, apparently, given the persistence of the practice. They may list statewide candidates who are unopposed or virtually so–Jerry Brown, for instance, who’s running for the Democratic nomination for governor in next month’s primary. That makes the piece look like a party slate. Alongside those names, they’ll list candidates in contested races who have paid to appear on the same list with the big names.

votegreen.pngOver the weekend, we got one of the all-time best (sleaziest) mailers I’ve ever seen. It bears the legend “Californians Vote Green” and urges recipients to “Vote for a Greener California.” It depicts a scene from one of our fast-vanishing primeval woodlands. The question I had when I first saw it was whether it was from the Green Party. Then I looked inside. Yep, a list of candidates. Most had asterisks next to their names, and the fine print explained that meant they had paid their way onto the list.

But the real surprise was in the list of ballot propositions the mailer suggested “Californians Vote Green” endorsed–particularly Proposition 16. That’s a constitutional amendment bought and paid for by Pacific Gas & Electric Company that aims to make it virtually impossible for local communities to set up competing power districts. PG&E actually supported the 2002 law that permitted communities to create their own utility districts. But with the law’s concept becoming reality–Marin County has managed to get a community power district up and running this year despite PG&E’s efforts to undermine it–the utility has had a change of heart about competition. It not only wrote the new constitutional language in Prop. 16 and paid for the petition drive that got it on the ballot, it’s spending more than $30 million to get it passed.

In fact, a vast majority of environmental groups that have anything to say about Prop. 16 say they’re against it. The California Democratic Party has recommended a no vote. Many liberal (read “green”) Democratic legislators have condemned PG&E’s campaign. And voters who want a “greener California” ought to know that in fighting the Marin power district, PG&E is actively trying to scuttle a competitor set up expressly to provide cleaner electricity (using more renewable sources like wind and solar) than PG&E sells. But none of that prevented PG&E or its Prop. 16 cronies from buying a spot on the “green” mailer.

The California Secretary of State records say the PG&E-financed Yes on 16 committee paid $40,000 to Californians Vote Green for its spot on the slate card. To put that in perspective, the No on 16 side has raised a total of about $50,000 for its entire campaign. (That having been said, $40,000 is a cheap date for the Yes on 16 campaign. To date, it’s spent $630,000 for slate mailers targeting voters of both parties, including $200,000 to California Voter Guide, which has been churning out slate cards since 1986).

Let’s not drop “Californians Vote Green” matter without a tip of the hat to those responsible. If you check out the CVG website, it advises that if you want to purchase placement, you ought to contact rtaylor@californiansvotegreencom. “rtaylor” is Rick Taylor, a long-time Los Angeles hired gun who is now a partner in a firm called Dakota Communications. Check out the pictures of prominent clients on the site. I’d call the outfit connected.

If you feel like sharing your opinion of his handiwork with Californians Vote Green, you might give him a call at 310 815 8444.

Blank Pages

notebook051610.jpgLet me ask you this: What is it about a nice, new, unwritten-in notebook? I mean: What is it that’s so attractive about the neat, pristine, unopened notebook? My leading theory, being one who thinks a lot about what I might scribble some day, what I might jot down when I grow up, is that all those empty, unspoiled pages represent possibility: Just think of what could be written there. Whole worlds.

I have lots of notebooks from over the years. A handful from long ago–big ones, small ones, steno books, tiny topbound spiral pads, full-sized college-ruled notebooks. Some of them contain actual sequential journal entries. More recent notebooks are filled with to-do lists, project notes, summaries of work hours, the occasional looking-out-the-airliner window notes. (I also have a small collection of reporter’s notebooks filled with a mostly unintelligible scrawl detailing interviews for past stories; reporter’s notebooks are in a separate category.

Most of these notebooks are humble and strictly utilitarian. I picked them up at drugstores and filled them up slowly over months or years. No big deal. However, during the last several years I came across mentions of Moleskine notebooks. Pricey and highly prized items. I think I bought some as Christmas presents a few years ago, and I got one for myself, too. It’s on my desk now, having temporarily found a place atop the surface clutter, within easy reach of my left hand. It’s got a hard black leather cover, lined cream-colored pages, a thin woven black ribbon to mark one’s place, and a black elastic band to hold it closed. But there’s something about this notebook: I’ve never made a mark in it. There’s something about it that seems too–what?–refined and important, maybe, for random jottings. I keep thinking the day will come when I’ll find the words that belong in that book, but so far it hasn’t happened.

Meantime, blank new notebooks maintain their odd attraction. I was reminded today of a Chicago-based design website I used to visit occasionally, Right there on the front page of the site is a come-on for a cool-looking line of mini-notebooks they’re peddling (called Field Notes) Wow! You can get a yearlong subscription to seasonally colored packs of these things, 24 little notebooks in all, for $129. I’m almost ready to go for that deal when the Moleskine comes to mind. OK–that’s one impulse buy I’m not making. For now, anyway.

[Later: One thing leading to another: Rhodia notebooks (they’re from France). Also: musical guest Traffic, with “Empty Pages.” And guess what? The National Stationery Show started today in New York.]

Arnold’s Choice

We had a little bit of a debate the last few days at work (a public radio newsroom) about how much importance in our newscasts we should give Governor Schwarzenegger’s “May revise” — the adjustments to the state budget he first released in February. I took the position that since we all know that the situation is bad, that the revision would include some new, but predictable, cuts, and that the revision release itself amounts to little more than a political ritual, we shouldn’t waste a lot of time on the event. On the other hand, if we wanted to devote some resources to talking about the real impacts the state’s budget calamity have already had–effects on people and institutions, effects that might tell us something about where the state’s headed with the next round of cuts–that might be worth something to our listeners. My view didn’t sway anyone, and in the event, we wound up doing a smart and well-informed take on the story, though one that focuses almost entirely on the political chess game behind the budget.

As It happened, I was off work yesterday when the governor made his announcement. I caught just a snippet of it–but it was a provocative snippet. The governor appeared before the media, while outside the state Capitol protesters decried more cuts to programs to the poor and sick and to the state’s public schools. Solemnly, Schwarzenegger detaied his bad news and talked about how those around him had failed to heed his cals for budget reform. But one phrase stood out from the rest: “no choice.”

“I now have no choice,” the governor said, “but to stand here today and to call for the elimination of some very important programs.” In fact, Schwarzenegger called his decisions about cuts a “Sophie’s Choice.” He sounds tormented. How tormented? Here’s a glimpse, courtesy of The New York Times Magazine, from last year’s budget crisis (a.k.a., “Sophie’s Choice 2009”): “Schwarzenegger reclined deeply in his chair, lighted an eight-inch cigar and declared himself ‘perfectly fine,’ despite the fiscal debacle and personal heartsickness all around him. ‘Someone else might walk out of here every day depressed, but I don’t walk out of here depressed,’ Schwarzenegger said. Whatever happens, ‘I will sit down in my Jacuzzi tonight,’ he said. ‘I’m going to lay back with a stogie.’ ”

“No choice”? Well, one of the governor’s fellow citizens begs to disagree.

You could step up, governor, and show a little moral leadership and talk about how to raise money while we’re in the crisis. Yes, I mean taxes, which many Californians pay without flinching as part of the cost of living here. Of course, you’ve never been one to tell the voters they might need to pay a little for some of the privileges they enjoy. When the last governor and Legislature reinstated a motor vehicle tax during a crisis, you chose to pander to the anti-taxers who threw a tantrum. That tax alone–which had been suspended during boom times with an explicit provision it could be reimposed if the state’s finances unraveled–would have prevented much of the budget crisis we’re facing today.

So, there are choices, governor. Pretending there are none simply avoids responsibility for finding a way through the mess we’re in.

In Theory, I Hate TV

I see a note from my sister on Facebook: “I HATE CABLE TV.” In theory, I’m with her. The cruelest part of getting more channels than you can count is the joke whose punchline we all know: Now you get to watch 500 channels of garbage.

Why then, do I have a satellite dish installer on the roof right now, replacing our old DirecTV dish with a brand-new dish that will enable us to receive a high-definition signal? I think it’s got to be more complicated than we want to see the garbage more clearly.

sLet me catalog the reasons.

–Curiosity: I’ve wanted to see whether HD television really is better–especially for the Tour de France in July.

–Weakness: I know that changing to HD isn’t going to improve the quality of the programming. I know it’s probably not worth whatever extra amount DirecTV will charge us. But we’ve been talking about getting new service for awhile and now I’m just giving in.

–Distractability: I’m as willing as anyone to slough off my chores and responsibilities in favor of a nice “Seinfeld” episode. (Do I still read? That seems to be the culturally correct alternative to watching the tube–as opposed to gardening, cooking, paying the bills, or going to work. Yes, I try to, though sometimes it takes me forever to get through stuff. Right now I’m reading two nonfiction works: a biography of John Brown and a first-person account of Robert Falcon Scott’s last Antarctic expedition.)

–Keeping in Touch with the People: Here’s a self-justification that often pops up in my brain: “I work in the media, so I need to know what’s going on out there with the culture and with media consumers.” That’s partly true; but only partly. If this were really an exercise in keeping current with popular tastes and the concerns and fascinations of my fellow citizens, I’d be watching a lot more “American Idol,” and I’d regularly check in with the crowd-baiters on Fox News. (In practice, I find about 15 minutes of “Idol” fulfills my annual requirement, and I’m so enraged and depressed by Fox News that the only way I can deal with its spew is the occasional Glen Beck deconstruction on “The Daily Show.” Speaking of “The Daily Show,” though, and “The Colbert Report”–I find I can live without them. Rachel Maddow and Keith Olbermann on MSNBC? Turns out I don’t like left-directed pandering any more than I can stand the right-directed ravings on Fox.)

–The Love that Dare Not Speak Its Name: Well, maybe it’s time for me to come out. It turns out I actually like television. I think there’s plenty of inventive storytelling on the tube. Some of it can be deep, compelling, and memorable. -“Lonesome Dove,” anyone? Or “Band of Brothers”? “The Wire”? “Deadwood”? (I could go on.) A lot of the programming is superficial beyond a catchy gimmick–“24.” Some shows are based on formula and gimmicky, but work the formulas and gimmicks well: the whole “CSI” and “Law and Order” franchises. But the point is: on occasion, there’s real content out there that is–I hope this doesn’t set off a sacrilege alarm anywhere–on the same level of all the popular entertainments of the past, from “The Iliad” to “King Lear” to “Wuthering Heights”–that we have been taught to think of as classics.

Enough said on that. The dish guy is still on the roof.

Still Here Somewhere

Memo to my small but faithful group of readers (and to myself): I haven't abandoned the blog. But I am distracted by some other things and haven't managed to write anything fit to post for a full week. The 2,000-some posts I have managed to write over the past six-some years—the good, bad, and indifferent ones—would seem to testify that I haven't gone too many weeks without putting something up here. But there you have it. I'll be back soon.