Mount Tamalpais at twilight, seen from the Berkeley shoreline Tuesday night. We had just blown back into town from a quick trip down to the mountains east of Fresno. Yes, we covered a lot of territory fast--and it's just what I needed, even though I would love to go to any one of several places I've seen over the last few days and just park myself there indefinitely. Since this is my furlough week from my public radio job--yes, it's the best of times and worst of times in public broadcasting--more lightning forays into the hinterlands may be in store.
June 22: Among other things, it's the anniversary of the Germans' invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 and the birthdays of a couple good friends, Dan and George, whom I haven't seen in a long time. I always think of those three things on this date.
It's also the date that, up here in the Northern Hemisphere, daylight starts bleeding away after the summer solstice. At my latitude (a bit below the 38th Parallel), one rather complete reference, timeanddate.com, reports that we'll have about two seconds less daylight today than yesterday (the daily shrinkage is greater the farther north you go). Tomorrow, six seconds less; a week from tomorrow, 29 seconds less, a week after than, 50 seconds less. Here, the sun will set after 8 p.m. until mid-August. It's about then, when the daylight is shrinking by two minutes a day, that I always feel that I start to notice it.
Some of the math that goes into determining the length of daylight is here, a 1998 post at the Ask Dr. Math forum. And a very cool-looking Java applet that spits out daylight data for any point on the Earth's surface is here: Daylight Applet (it takes a while to calculate your data; there's also a paid, dowloadable version that gives you a lot more numbers and tables).
To catch up with something I started to write about just after the California primary on June 8: Our state ballot included an initiative to change the way primary elections are conducted. Up through this election, California primaries worked the way they do in most states: Each party put up candidates for elective offices, and each party’s registered voters went to the polls to decide which of their candidates will go on to the general election.
Under Proposition 14, which passed with a healthy majority among the one-third of registered voters who cast ballots, the exercise changes. Primary voters can now vote for any candidate in any party; and instead of the winner in each party advancing to the general election, now the top two vote-getters, regardless of party, will appear on the general election ballot.
The theory behind this “reform” is the same as the thinking behind an open-primary scheme the state enacted (as Proposition 198) in 1996. First, voters get a more meaningful choice. Second, the top-two system is supposed to empower independent voters (the fastest-growing bloc in the state) and thus moderate the positions taken by party candidates (one article of California's current conventional wisdom is that extreme partisanship by both parties has crippled the Legislature's ability or even inclination to govern).
By the way--what happened to Proposition 198, which set up open primaries? Predictably, the major parties didn't like it. The Democrats sued the state on the grounds the system violated their First Amendment right of freedom of association. In essence, they argued that as groups organized around certain principles and beliefs, they ought to be able to say who represented them in elections and in office; open primaries crippled their ability to express themselves in that manner. The Supreme Court agreed in a 7-2 majority decision written by Associate Justice Antonin Scalia, and the open primary system was thrown out.
Proponents of Proposition 14 say it's different somehow. Thanks to a similar "top-two" system approved by voters in Washington state, that issue has already been to the Supreme Court once (see Washington State Grange v. Washington State Republican Party) and is likely to begin wending its way through the federal courts again this fall. The Washington Republicans argue that the top-two system also interferes with freedom of association. In California, the chief complaint levied against the system is that it virtually guarantees that the host of small parties that have won the right to appear on statewide ballots--Green, Peace and Freedom, Libertarian, and American Independent, among others--will never place candidates on the general election ballots. Again, that's something that will likely be fought out in court.
It's significant that voters keep trying to enact these schemes, though. They seem to be saying they want some sort of change. But do they really want the kind of change the top-two primary will bring? We'll see, I guess. But for now, it's possible to get a glimpse of how Prop. 14 would affect some elections in the state. If the initiative had been in effect on June 8, the general election slate for eight races would have changed. In two congressional districts--the 19th and 42nd--the top two vote-getters were Republicans, meaning they, and no one else, would appear on the November ballot; in a third district, the 36th, two Democrats ranked one-two. Five Assembly results would also have ben affected: the 9th, 20th, 28th, 47th, and 50th; in all five instances, the top two vote-getters were Democrats, and they'd be the only ones listed on the November ballot if Prop. 14 were already the law of the land. (Here's a spreadsheet with the details.)
Now, people will be looking at those results and trying to figure out what they mean in terms of party strategy and voter impact. For instance, maybe parties will discourage large fields that could split votes and thus deny all participants from getting on the November ballot. Less choice in a field of primary candidates doesn't seem like an enhancement of the democratic experience. Seeing your party simply eliminated from the general election doesn't seem like a magnet for more voter participation, either.
Father's Day: I talked to my own dad, briefly--back in Chicago, which once upon a time didn't seem like so far a distance. But he sounded good, and then Kate talked to him while we drove over to a brunch we'd been invited to.
The brunch: Our friends and neighbors Piero and Jill invited us out to Piero's laundromat in East Oakland. The building has an enormous lot behind it, and Piero has turned it into an urban farm: olive trees, tomatoes, potatoes, corn, beans, peppers, zucchini, and some more exotic stuff. A few Lombardy poplars. Jill and Piero's kids were there, and some other Berkeley friends and neighbors, and some of Jill's family.
We were out there at least a couple of hours, then headed back to shop. Our son Eamon and his wife Sakura were coming up from the South Bay. The plan was a Father's Day barbecue, preceded by a viewing of the last episode of the second season of "Lost." We stuck to the plan. Our younger son Thom showed up after he was done at work, and just as I was starting to talk about coffee. That prompted Eamon and Sakura to tell me I ought to open the box wrapped in "Happy Holidays" gift paper that they had brought.
It was an espresso machine. Wow. I have thought of these as only slightly less exotic and difficult to operate than a nuclear reactor. But after a trip to buy some beans, I fired the machine up and actually managed to make some cappuccinos. Then we sat around and talked for awhile. Eamon and Sakura left on their drive back down toward San Jose. And I got ready to ride my bike with Thom back to his apartment in North Oakland. He had ridden over, and I grabbed the opportunity to go for a ride I wouldn't have done myself this evening.
So we rode, mostly without any tangles with traffic. I'll admit I rode partly because I'm still nervous about my grown-up kids contending with the streets of the big city. I saw Thom to his front gate. We talked for a couple minutes, then I turned my wheels back north to Berkeley. A couple minutes after I got in the door, the phone rang. It was Eamon, calling to say he and Sakura were back home. After we hung up, Kate and I took the dog out for his late-night walk.
Coming in just now, I had what I wanted most but would never have known to ask for on Father's Day: the feeling that everyone I care about is happy and home safe.
Just an oddity spotted while shuffling toward work the other day: "banana men" painted in an inconspicuous spot on one of the many residential vehicles in the greater Mission/Potrero Hill border area (the vehicle in question is in the smaller picture at left; click for larger image).
These crabby-looking dwarfish faces seem familiar for some reason. Should they?
It turns out the worst thing about this edition of the World Cup is not the vuvuzelas--and by the way, if you're suffering from that affliction, various hucksters and hustlers are offering cures.
The worst thing turns out to be a referee who takes away a goal--a great goal, a game-deciding goal, an end-of-game goal--with no plausible explanation. Wait--forget "plausible." The referee in the U.S.-Slovenia game nullified the Americans' go-ahead goal with no explanation at all. It kind of makes you miss Jim Joyce, the umpire who blew a big call earlier this month but was man enough to admit it and cry about it, too.
But the really damaging part of the bad call at the Cup is the impression it leaves among Americans who aren't really soccer fans but were watching the game out of curiosity or some sort of patriotic fetish. Imagine them watching Friday morning's contest and seeing it so arbitrarily and so wrongly decided, based on what looks like the referee's whim. Why would they come back to watch again?
Definition: The South African version of the familiar plastic ballpark horns that the casual inebriate or wayward child uses to call attention to themselves with periodic un-poignant blats. But that's a perhaps culturally insensitive view.
Relevance: South African football (soccer) fans deploy vuvuzelas by the tens of thousands and blow them incessantly. If you've watched (and listened) to even a minute of the World Cup so far, you know what that sounds like). Enthusiasts celebrate their presence at the games. “This is our culture,” one former member of South Africa's national team says. This is how we create our national rhythm and dance.” Others see them as an annoyance, a hindrance to fair play, and a threat to hearing (there was a pretty good write-up of the vuvuzela issue last week in The New York Times: "Celebrating, and Berating, the Horn of South Africa."
Use "vuvuzela" in a sentence: Would you please, please, please shut that thing up?"
Last summer, we visited Kate's family in New Jersey, where one of her nieces was getting married. The family is scattered mostly along the Highway 36 corridor, which runs east along the shore of Raritan and Sandy Hook bays. As you drive out toward Sandy Hook, you'll see signs that say "Fluke" or "Half-Day Fluke," with maybe a telephone number and reference to one of the shore towns. We've been going out along Highway 36 since the late '80s, and I don't remember seeing the fluke signs before, and I had no idea what the reference was (As opposed to the signs for Bahr's, a seafood-and-beer place right at the bridge over the Navesink River; we took note of those a few years ago and try to go out there every time we visit).
A fluke, it turns out, is something like a flounder (one nickname for it is "doormat," for its flounder-esque habit of lying flat on the sea floor). And a half-day fluke is a half-day fishing trip to catch one. You can also sign on for a three-quarter day fluke. According to a sign at one of the harbors we visited, Atlantic Highlands, the limit is eight fluke, minimum 18 inches long. The catch isn't the only thing that's regulated in the fluke fleet. A sign on the gangway to one boat read, "You are permitted 4 cans of beer per person. Absolutely no drinking permitted prior to departure. Strictly enforced."
When I turned 18, one of the birthday presents I got was a book-length poem called "The Donner Party." I sold the book during a no-income period in my mid-20s, but as soon as I had some cash I went back to the used-book store that had taken it off my hands. It was still on the shelves, along with another book I'd sold, a picture biography of Yeats. I bought them back, though I was unable to find a third book I'd parted with--"Twenty Years A-Growing," by Maurice O'Sullivan, which my Uncle Dick had given me. I found a copy of that eventually, but not mine. I still look for it.
Back to "The Donner Party," which is right here beside me. It's a retelling of a story of which everyone knows the shorthand version: pioneers, wagons, mountains, snow, death, cannibals. The book's by a California poet named George Keithley, who taught (maybe still teaches) up at Chico State. The poetry is mostly blank-verse. It feels plain and authentic and sounds like it was transcribed by firelight.
Here's one passage that has always stayed with me from a chapter called "Land Logic." It takes place after the party's disastrous crossing of Utah, with all of Nevada to cross before the ascent of the Sierra Nevada and hoped-for arrival in California's Sacramento Valley
We wanted only to rest, at this juncture.
Seeing the snows, no one wished to look back
on our bad luck or talk of it anymore.
Reflection only led us to deplore
the sudden end of summer and lament
the time we wasted in this trap. Whole days
spent unloading. Stupid disputes. Delays
caused by the cattle roaming or Hastings' wrong
advice ... We were warned that to survive
we must lay up grass and water for a dry drive
of two days. Which means at worst we might
travel a day and a night—where we instead
wandered a week in the desert and left dead
a third of our herd of cattle. Add a third
of the wagons abandoned, still it doesn't explain
all the destruction done. We could never regain
the time taken, or our goods or livestock left
on the salt. But this was not the only cost.
There is a land logic which we lost ...
A sense of the likelihood of new terrain
to sustain us. The same logic that lives
in our blood, telling us that bottomland gives
promise for planting. Or for example
the simple certainty that we would find
spring water among rocks when the sun reclined
on green slopes gleaming like good pasture.
But we hurried out only to discover
a prickly patch of greasewood growing over
the dry soil, white with alkali...
Nothing in nature was what it might seem!
The promise of finding forage by a stream
proved false as well—both banks were bare
although the current there cut swift and deep.
We lost the last advantage which could keep
our company from harm. It was this sense
of the land that had departed in a dream
while we went on like souls that are still asleep.