Monthly Archives: October 2011

Back-Porch Visitor Weekly Update

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The spider: still there, and captured just before a late afternoon repast of unidentified bug.  

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‘It Is Money We Have, and Peace We Lack’

Noted: A story in today's New York Time's sports section on how the couple who own the Iowa farm where "Field of Dreams" was filmed are selling it. Selling it for several millions dollars to an investment group from Chicago that will preserve the field shown in the movie and, elsewhere on the 193-acre property, create a baseball complex with a dozen fields and an indoor training center for youth baseball and softball competitions. One of the sellers says "we really have been aware all these years that the field needs to grow in some capacity." And one of the buyers says of the movie that it "has this sort of bucolic, magical sense to it. It seems to transport you. It has a certain sensibility about it that we'd like to raise more."

Not to judge the sellers or the buyers, but I don't think the the way to enhance the "bucolic sensibility" of the place is to turn it into a commercial enterprise. There's something a little grasping, not to say cynical, in putting up a large for-profit enterprise to trade on the gently anti-establishment, gently anti-materialist tone of "Field of Dreams" and "Shoeless Joe," the book that was the source for the film.

On one level, the novel extols the magic of baseball and suggests that it carries the power to heal the deepest hurt. On another level, the book is about the power and the cost of an ordinary person pursuing a vision even when (or especially when) it defies logic, the expectations of others, and financial reality. In the book and movie, the villains are bankers and their cohorts waving demands for payment as the hero tries to make sense of seemingly ruinous mystical imperatives. The bankers want an asset to perform; the hero and his family are struggling to understand the value of what appears to others to be only a farm.

Late in the novel and movie, one character (J.D. Salinger in the book, "Terence Mann" in the film) relates a dream in which the farm's future has been revealed.

Late in the game, Salinger suddenly taps me on the arm. "I've had a dream," he says when I turn to look at him. "I know how things are going to turn out."

"Things?" I say.

"The farm. Listen! It will be like this …" He moved down and sits in front of us, so he can deliver a lecture, like a professor with five graduate students who has been assigned an amphitheater for a classroom.

"It will be almost a fraternity, like one of those tiny, exclusive French restaurants that have no sign. You find it almost by instinct.

"The people will who come here will be drawn…" He stops, searching for words. "Have you ever been walking down the street and stopped in midstride and turned in at a bookstore or a gallery you never knew existed? People will decide to holiday in the Midwest for reasons they can't fathom or express.

"They'll turn off I-80 at the Iowa City exit, drive around the campus, get out and stroll across the lawns, look at the while columns of the Old Capitol Building, have supper at one of the tidy little restaurants, then decide to drive east for a while on a secondary highway. They'll watch the hawks soaring like Chinese kites in the early evening air. They'll slow down when they see you house, and they'll ooh and aah at the whiteness of it, the way it sits in the cornfield like a splotch of porcelain. They'll say how beautiful it is, and comment on how the flags snap in the breeze. At this point they won't even realize that the flags fly over a centerfield. They'll be hypnotized by the way the corn sways in the breeze.

"They'll turn up your driveway, not knowing for sure why they're doing it, and arrive at your door, innocent as children, longing for the gentility of the past, for home, canned preserves, ice cream made in a wooden freezer, gingham dresses, and black-and-silver stoves with high warming ovens and cast-iron reservoirs.

" 'Of course, we don't mind if you look around,' you'll say. 'It's only twenty dollars per person.' And they'll pass over the money without even looking at it–for it is money they have, and peace they lack."

"I don't have to tell you that the one constant through all the years has been baseball," Salinger also says. "America has been erased like a blackboard only to be rebuilt and then erased again. But baseball has marked time while America has rolled by like a procession of steamrollers."

A succession of steamrollers has trundled across Iowa and the rest of the country since the late '80s, when the movie came out. Farming has become more industrialized than ever, and the financial pressure to turn the landscape into a performing asset is greater than ever, too. The most recent steamrolling we've gotten involves bankers, property, and demands for payment. But this isn't "Field of Dreams." The struggle for many people is not about the loss of something mystical, but about something immediate and concrete. For many, the struggle is for survival. For now it's both peace and money we  lack.

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Web Billiards: Alfred, Lord Tennyson Edition

Kate (the Redoubtable One) related the following:

A teacher colleague of hers, a published poet, has started a poetry blog. On said blog, her colleague had written a post on Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “Ulysses.” It’s a well-known and widely quoted work, and I’ll lay odds that you’ve encountered this conclusion somewhere before:

“Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are—
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

Kate encountered one line she was wondering about: “… To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths of all the western stars. …” What exactly does “baths” mean in this context? Like so many of us do for so many hours of the day, she went looking for an answer online. One of the potential answers returned in her search was the following, on a site called Cruiser Log. I kind of think Odysseus would have taken this guy on as a crewman:

Title: To Sail Beyond The Sunset, And The Baths Of All The Western Stars (Or the other way, that’s cool too)

Home Port:Venice Beach, CA
Location Now:United States
Posted 15 August 2011 – 01:21 AM

I’m looking to crew on any boat going any place. Deliveries/passages/cruising/shakedowns/adventures/surveys/secret missions/artistic escapes/jail breaks are all copacetic.

I’ve sailed across the Pacific, in the Caribbean, and all over North America. I can stand watch, tie a bowline, converse pleasantly, get the job done, and grill. My (non-grill) cooking leaves much to be desired (but not my cleaning).

I sail for free, unless you are a commercial operation or a paid delivery. (Don’t ask me to crew for experience on a paid delivery, please.) I can’t contribute to food costs, generally.

I’m based in California. I’m 21. I’m blond. I can fly anywhere to meet you (miles, baby). I’m experienced, and free. I’m resourceful, and listen to how you want to run your boat, regardless of my previous experience. My schedule can be tossed overboard: your’s is what matters. Talk to me. …

Harry

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Back-Porch Visitor: The Meal

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As reported earlier, recent human activity at our address discommoded a spider that has taken up temporary quarters on our back porch. Its web was trashed.

Less than 24 hours later, the spider had spun a new web and was ready for business. In fact, just a few hours after we spotted the new web, our outdoor housemate had secured its first meal–apparently a honey bee. Kate mentioned this morning that these (and other) spiders weave patterns into their webs with silk that are highly reflective of ultraviolet light; the patterns mimic ultraviolet reflections from flowers. The theory, reported in 1990, is that the patterns trick prey, which expect a nice cool sip of nectar, into entering the web, whose proprietor has a different notion of refreshment.

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Oakland Occupied

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Friday night at Frank Ogawa Plaza outside City Hall in downtown Oakland. I stopped very briefly on my way down to the Jack London Square ferry slip. The city had served notice a few hours before that it considered the occupation/encampment illegal and wanted Occupy Oakland to vacate the premises. Since the city considers the space “closed” from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.–a closed park at any hour, especially at city center, is an odd concept to me, but also not a new one–the city each day for several days has issued a “notice of violations and demand to cease violations” to the folks in the plaza. Today’s notice, like previous ones, says in part:

You do not have permission to lodge overnight in Frank Ogawa Plaza. You must remove all tents, sleeping bags, tarps, cooking facilities and equipment and any other lodging material from the Plaza immediately. Your continued use of the Plaza for overnight lodging will subject you to arrest.

For the past week, the city has issued more specific complaints, too, citing the occupiers/campers for everything from fighting, open-air sex, open fires, dogs, illegal drugs, public urination, improper storage of food blocking access for paramedics and firefighters, delivering soil to the site, graffiti and vandalism, trespassing in city buildings, and loud music. The notices have been posted on the web and apparently posted at the plaza, too.

The Occupy Oakland response? In essence, “We’re not going anywhere.” Well, that, and some preparation. The group has set up an emergency text system to try to rally supporters if and when the police show up and say 1,000 have signed up so far. An item before the camp’s nightly General Assembly on Saturday urged participants to “have a plan in place for yourself when the police come (lock arms and make inside/outside circles, film officers, evac. plan, outside mobilization). Think about it before you sleep tonight.”

In the picture above, there’s a banner on the left that says, “The Corporate Media Puts the Masses to Sleep.” Occupy Oakland has developed a bit of a reputation for being touchy with the local media. In one incident, a protester’s fairly mean-and menacing-looking dog grabbed the sleeve of reporter Ken Pritchett from Oakland’s KTVU (that link is from KPIX, another Bay Area station; the Occupy Oakland report starts at about 3:00 of the five-minute video; the brief view of the Pritchett incident starts at 3:51). On Friday, a KTVU camera operator and reporter were followed around the encampment and their attempts to shoot video and interview people on the site were blocked by members of the encampment.

Today, a statement purporting to have been approved by Occupy Oakland’s General Assembly appeared on the web. It sets the ground rules for media coverage in the plaza (which the occupiers call Oscar Grant Plaza, named after an unarmed black train passenger killed by a white transit officer on New Year’s Day 2009). The statement:

We agree with Occupy Wall Street that corporations “purposefully keep people misinformed and fearful through their control of the media.”

The mainstream media’s inextricable ties to corporate interests drive them to lie to protect profits. This undermines the discourse we have begun in occupations across the country and the world.

Due to this conflict of interest, we have set the following requirements for all media.

  • All media and those with professional recording equipment will check in at the Media Tent, located in the Southeast corner of Oscar Grant Plaza.
  • Do not photograph or film people who are sleeping, receiving medical treatment, or have requested that you refrain from recording them.
  • Do not enter the kitchen, kid zone, or medic spaces as this disrupts their function.
  • Do not recording personal conversations and meetings without the express permission of those involved.
  • We encourage you to document the General Assembly, the primary stage for public gathering and discourse, held daily at 7pm in the amphitheater.
  • Make an effort to report on a diversity of voices and opinions; the media team is happy to help.

OK–there’s something more than a little creepy about attempts to physically restrain reporters from doing their jobs. The guy with the dog in the video seems like he’s into a moment of ugly macho thuggery. And it’s disingenuous for the protesters to declare a right to occupy a public space and then declare it a semi-private zone where they, and only they, have a say in what will be reported from there. But there’s something disingenuous, too, about some of the local news operations and their pious tsk-tsking about the media-unfriendly behavior of Occupy Oakland.occupyoakland102111b.jpg

As someone who’s worked in news for a while, let me offer an observation: The media give credence almost without fail to statements from official government sources. These reports are generally accorded an initial assumption of credibility that virtually no one else enjoys. We often can’t help ourselves: We need to know what happened so we can tell our readers, listeners, and viewers, and we need to do it now. The official word on a crime, a police shooting, our nation going to war–it’s gold. Until it’s not. Until it turns out that maybe the whole truth wasn’t on offer for some reason. But that’s part of a future we’ll deal with then, part of tomorrow’s news cycle.

What does that have to do with Occupy Oakland?

Well, look what happened when the city started to issue its alarming communiques about fighting in the encampment, about rats, poor sanitary conditions, and all the rest. Without doing much independent verification, as far as I can tell, the local media went with the city’s complaints as gospel. The standard approach is taking that stance is pretty simple: As a reporter or editor, you don’t say Occupy Oakland is causing a rat problem; you say “the city says” Occupy Oakland is causing a rat problem. The media’s issues with public trust aside, many if not most in the audience conflate what they read and hear with what’s true. As Virginia O’Hanlon’s dad once said, “If you see it in the Sun, it’s so.”

And so, the occupiers’ preoccupation with trying to control what the world sees. A Chronicle reporter who talked with protesters asks the right question:

The real issue here is whether the stance is smart. The chief goal of a public demonstration, after all, is to bring attention to a cause. Some protest organizers seemed to appreciate the dilemma at a camp meeting Tuesday, with one saying, “When we get raided (by the police), we’re going to look to the media to get our word out. … Let’s stay on the good side. … Don’t scream at them like a madman or mad woman.”

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Back-Porch Visitor

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Around these parts, this is the time of year for cross orb weavers (AKA garden spiders or pumpkin spiders). They seem to be everywhere. For the past two or three weeks, it seems you can’t you out at night without walking through a cross-sidewalk web (at head height). This one’s been hanging out on the back porch for a week or so–that is, I first noticed it about a week ago. We were moving some stuff back there today, and that was going to necessitate shifting a bag of charcoal that its web was anchored to. It must not have liked the nearby activity, because it scurried off somewhere before we actually touched anything. Didn’t go back and look later, but I’m sure it’s well on the way to spinning a new web.

Earlier spider-related posts from the burgeoning Infospigot archives:
Spidermania (10/7/2005)
Actual Spider (11/17/2005)

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‘Curious Abrupt Questionings’

“…I too felt the curious abrupt questionings stir within me,
In the day, among crowds of people, sometimes they came upon me,
In my walks home late at night, or as I lay in my bed, they came upon me.”

–Walt Whitman, “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry

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Only on KTVU: ‘Catching Up’ with Ron Dellums

Only on Infospigot today, new revelations of a local TV news story that was broadcast as an exclusive without any apparent reporting. That’s right. You’ll only read this exclusive coverage of that pseudo-exclusive right here on this blog you’re looking at now. Only on Infospigot, your exclusive source today of these previously unreported revelations.

What’s up here?

Well, last night, after I got home from the public radio news factory where I work, Kate wanted me to see a story that KTVU, a once-proud purveyor of Bay Area news, had aired at 10 p.m. It was about Ron Dellums, our former congressman (meaning: he was really liberal) and former mayor of Oakland. He exited that second job with his reputation in tatters and about a quarter-million dollars in debt to the Internal Revenue Service. He left office in January, and it was a little surprising though not entirely shocking when the news broke in March that he was taking a job with a Washington, D.C., consulting firm founded and run by J.C. Watts, a former Republican congressman from Oklahoma. The surprising part was that Watts is a Republican and was once promoted by the party as one of its leading African-American voices. The not-shocking part was that Dellums, who was in the House for decades and served as chairman of the Armed Services Committee, is connected and no doubt needs the money. And it’s also significant that the Watts firm touts itself as “the largest African-American-owned lobbying company in Washington.” Watts and Dellums (who is also African-American, for you non-Bay Area readers) might seem like strange bedfellows in the Republican-Democratic sense, but they clearly may have other interests in common.

Anyway–why is Dellums’s position with J.C. Watts, made public seven and a half months ago, news now? Because KTVU-Channel 2 made it the subject of an exclusive “Only on 2” report last night. The version of the story posted on the station’s website–“Longtime Democrat Dellums working for Republicans“– follows the script pretty closely. The piece led the hourlong broadcast in what is now the familiar and very tired KTVU formula for its “excloos”:

A surprising revelation about Ron Dellums. Only on Two, we discover what he’s been up to since leaving office.

Good evening everyone. I’m Frank Somerville.

And I’m Julie Haener. He is a lifelong Democrat, but now he’s working with Republicans. A stunning change of allegiance for Ron Dellums that has one supporter telling us the former mayor and congressman has quote “sold his soul.” Only on Two tonight, KTVU’s Ken Wayne is live at the Dellms Federal Building in Oakland with the likely reason for Dellums’ new job. Ken …

Julie, during his three decades in Congress, Dellums was so far to the left he described himself as a socialist. So it’s raising eyebrows to learn he’s now working as a lobbyist for an influential Republican firm.

From there, the report “discovers” what everyone who might have been interested knew months ago–the “stunning” news that Dellums was rubbing elbows with actual Republicans and trying to earn a living doing it. A couple of “Democratic party activists” are brought on camera to denounce Dellums as a turncoat. (The story manages to misspell the name of one of the activists, Nancy Sidebotham, both on screen and online.) Dellums’s tax problems, first reported nearly two years ago, are rehashed. The story doesn’t say a word about who J.C. Watts might represent and on what issues or what Dellums’s role in the outfit might be.

It’s hard to tell which is worse: the utter disingenuousness of passing this off as an exclusive report or the manufactured outrage at the phony disclosures. It’s as if the people reporting the story had never heard of lobbyists before or that people from different parties actually work together occasionally. But I’m guessing all that stuff–looking at what Dellums actually does for J.C. Watts, for instance, and who he might be representing and lobbying–was beside the point for KTVU. What seems to have really driven the story was a piece of video the station got when a producer and cameraperson “caught up with” Dellums outside a San Jose courtroom, where he was dealing with some of the wreckage of his mayoral administration.

Dellums has never been particularly patient with reporters, and he loses his composure on camera. The video captures him sitting down on a bench and muttering, “Oh, man. when am I ever going to get out from under this? I hate this. I hate this shit, man. I don’t like it.” The “shit” was bleeped out on the air. The KTVU report said Dellums “almost seemed despondent when a KTVU producer asked him to talk.”

Don’t get me wrong. I think there might well be a story in what’s become of Dellums’s career. There’s something bordering on tragic in his situation. He’s pushing 76 years old, and he still needs to be out there hustling. And there is a good story, probably, in finding out how the Watts firm is using Dellums’s connections both in Congress and with industry. Watts lists the “ACLU Voting Rights Coalition” as a current or past client; that certainly doesn’t seem to fit the conservative Republican mold. Other clients range from the University of Arkansas to AT&T to the Bowl Championship Series. Looking at what the specifics of what Dellums is doing might shed some light on how lobbying works and, incidentally, whether he’s betraying his former liberal constituents.

But of course, a story like that is beyond the scope of an embarrassing–to both sides–hit-and-run interview. Always mindful of suggesting ways a story could be made better, my advice here would have been to have never done this one at all if this is all you’re capable of or aspire to.

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Oversight of the Month

Confronted by all sorts of anniversaries this month: the centennial of California’s much-overexercised initiative system; the centennial of women’s suffrage in California; the twentieth anniversary of the Oakland-Berkeley Hills fire disaster; the twenty-second anniversary of the Loma Prieta earthquake; the twenty-fifth of Bill Buckner’s Error; the eighth of Steve Bartman catching hell; the five hundred ninety-sixth of the Battle of Agincourt (despite what Henry V said, I don’t feel accursed or hold my manhood cheap for not being there).

But there’s one I overlook every year: the birthday on October 5 of Brian O’Nolan, better known to many as Flann O’Brien or Myles na gCopaleen (that last name, O’Nolan’s Irish pseudonym for his long-running Irish Times column, is pronounced GAHP-a-lean, and the pseudonym is supposed to mean “Myles of the Little Horses.” Why “the Little Horses”? I cannot tell you).

It’s especially annoying to have missed his birth this time around: O’Nolan/O’Brien was born one hundred years ago this month. I have not time now to indulge in offering a passage of his work. My favorite has long been “At Swim-Two-Birds,” which has been featured at many a St. Patrick’s Day reading; I’d also recommend his collected newspaper columns (reprinted in “The Best of Myles” and other volumes) and the nightmarish “The Third Policeman” as well. Here are a couple decent posts that give some insight into his work and who he was:

Slate: “Why Flann O’Brien Is So Funny

A fan’s blog post: “Flann O’Brien Centennial

BBC Radio 4: “The Man with Many Names

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Rooftop Clouds

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A cool-down today from a warm week–highs in the low 80s the last couple days, in the low 60s today. A little bit of a breeze from the coast. And then in the afternoon, clouds. A species of altocumulus, I think. (Which species? Well, that looks like it might be complicated to work say.) I went up on the house to get a clear shot to the west over the houses across the street. I observed the clouds and also the very pronounced undulations of our 91-year-old rooftop.

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