Thursday, February 25, 2010

Childhood Solitude

The latest edition of Smithsonian magazine has a fascinating article by Joyce Carol Oates, entitled Joyce Carol Oates Goes Home Again, in which she reminisces about her childhood in upstate New York, next to the Erie Canal.  I read it with increasing interest as I realized how much my own childhood had in common with hers.  She's eight years older than I am, so her childhood was in the 1940s while mine was in the 1950s, but our experience was very similar, although she grew up on a working farm in New York state and I grew up in a small California town, Napa.  It's a fascinating article and I won't try to quote it in depth - go read it yourself, it's worth your time.  But something struck me that I want to talk about.

She spoke of all the time she was able to be alone, to explore the woods and fields near her home, and of walking alone to school.  For some years she actually rode a Greyhound bus seven miles to school in a nearby town, standing alone by the highway to wait for it. 

I too remember walking alone to school, even to elementary school:  up the long block of E Street, past York Street to the short blocks of Georgia and Spencer Streets, across Jefferson (a major street, I was to be very careful and look both ways as there was no stop sign), up long kitty-cornered Legion Avenue, then left on Brown Street, past the winery warehouse, and over to Lincoln School.  No one thought anything of a ten year old child walking to school alone in 1956, a point Ms. Oates also makes.  The only time I had to take a bus to school (NOT a Greyhound!) was to junior high; I attended two different junior highs, both too far across town to walk to.  I don't remember why I had to change junior high schools.  But the high school, again, was within walking distance, six blocks down York Street.

I'm sure some parents now allow their children time to go out alone and discover who they are and what they can do; but the children attending the elementary school in my neighborhood are only rarely alone.  Usually they have Mom or Dad or both; often the entire family.  And many of them don't walk; the cars clog my neighborhood streets as parents drop children off or pick them up, and the parking spaces fill up with SUVs and minivans. 

I always liked to go out and walk along the railroad track, looking at the unbuilt world, more than I liked walking on the sidewalks.  I walked on the sidewalks to get places; I walked on the railroad track to think.  I spent as much time as I could around "the creek," another good place to think - I learned much later that it was Napa Creek, a major tributary of the Napa River.  It's built up now, and the railroad track is a 4 lane street, but the area I lived in, south of the old High School, was semi-rural then; I remember before the sidewalks went in, when the entire area was bisected by an active railroad, that ran freight cars past our house; the tracks crossed the creek on a wooden trestle, massive wooden supports dripping congealed black tar.  Of course we put pennies on the tracks to see them mashed flat, but after a few pennies it loses its fascination. 

The creek was across an alley and a field; in the first 10 years or so of my life there, the field was actually farmed by a man called Mr. Massa (or Massey?), who plowed it with a horse, a big black mare (if I remember right) with a white blaze.  The horse lived in a pen next to a big fig tree, and we used to go and feed it figs, although we weren't supposed to go on Mr. Massa's property.  I don't know if feeding the horse convinced me that figs weren't "people food" or if I subconsciously thought that figs belonged to Mr. Massa, but it was forty years before I tasted them and realized that I love figs! 

Behind Mr. Massa's field was the creek, which my dad pronounced "crick."  The creek fascinated me because it was wild.  No houses faced on it where I lived.  It was screened by a row of trees and blackberry bushes, and when you scrambled down into its 20 foot deep bed, you were alone.  Of course we weren't supposed to go there, especially alone.  It was the resort, we were told, of "tramps," although I never saw anyone but an occasional neighborhood kid.  There was a rope swing on one of the big old trees, over the only really deep pool.  The later in the year, the lower ran the creek, until September or October when it was down to a few stagnant, scummy pools.  In a rainy winter, those 20 foot banks ran brimful of muddy, fast-moving water, and it was dangerous; we didn't go there in winter.  Farther downstream, people had built houses next to the creek, and winter storms undercut some of them badly - I don't recall if one ever actually washed away, but I've seen some that had to be abandoned or moved.

I envy Ms. Oates her Erie Canal.  I would have loved to have an actual canal to look at, with real boats on it, when I was a child.  But I made do with "the creek."  Unlike Ms. Oates, I didn't explore the town, but I had my own little patch of wild at the creek, to go and be alone in.  I wonder how a child can grow up today with no chance to spend time alone, thinking.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

The February garden

The early tulips are up.  In fact, the winter garden looks pretty nice right now. I took a few photos of some of what's blooming right around the patio. Click on the photo to go to the full gallery.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Keeping the City Going

Oakland, like many cities, is broke.  The outgo is bigger than the income, and what do we do about it, especially when we have contracts with the city workers' unions that guarantee high salaries, benefits, and pensions?

Well, now we have an example of what we might do about it.  Colorado Springs, it seems, has the same problem Oakland does, only smaller - a $28 million shortfall in its budget. Oakland's deficit is $100 million, but then, we're a bigger town.  Colorado Springs citizens resoundingly voted down a proposed tax increase to cover the deficit, so Colorado Springs is - shutting down.  According to a recent article in the National Post, the city is:
  • Turning off every 3rd streetlight.
  • Cancelling bus service at night and on weekends.
  • Stopping park maintenance, draining municipal pools, closing city recreation centers and museums.  (Not that you could swim in Colorado Springs right now anyway, but you get the picture.)  These facilities will have to find private support to stay open.  They're asking citizens to bring lawn mowers and mow the grass in public areas.
  • Removing trash bins from local parks.  Haul your picnic garbage back home, slobs.
  • Offering police helicopters for sale on the Internet (from the Denver Post).
  • Laying off firefighters, beat cops, the vice squad, the burglary investigators.
  • Stopping payment for street paving, relying on a regional authority.
You know, I always thought that you lived in a city because you liked the amenities - the paved streets, the parks, the rec centers, the museums.  And because you liked the public safety - the street lights, the police and fire protection.  If a city isn't going to provide any services, why should you live there??  What do you get?  The residents of Colorado Springs are still paying property taxes, you bet your bippy.  In fact, while the city is doing all this, it's also spending millions to keep the U.S. Olympic Committee's headquarters in Colorado Springs, which is not sitting well with some residents.  At least Oakland isn't doing that - no, wait, Ron Dellums just started angling to keep the A's, that's our equivalent of the Olympic Committee HQ.

I don't know what the answer is here.  Cities, like a lot of people, have developed the habit of spending the money they think they ought to have, instead of the money they have, which is almost always a smaller amount.  Somehow we have to break that habit, and go back to more frugal practices; but nobody wants to hear that they can't have all the perks they're used to.  Come to think of it, Oakland is now doing some of what Colorado Springs is - cutting park maintenance, for example.  And OPD is already understaffed.

If you live in Oakland, there's a city budget meeting next Tuesday, Feb. 16.  You have an interest in this.  If you're interested in some possible solutions from other citizens, take a look at the letter Make Oakland Better Now! sent to Jane Brunner as city council president - you'll find it here.  We have to solve this.  I just don't know how.

Monday, February 08, 2010

Men in Pants

Dockers has been running an ad campaign, which culminated at the SuperBowl in a field full of chanting barelegged men, urging men to "put the pants back on."  Context clearly implies that this means, "Become more manly.  Get back in charge."

Considering that most men in most places throughout history have not worn pants (the pants we now know were invented a little after 1800), this is just silly.  The warriors of early medieval Scotland were feared all over the island; they wore long tunics, a form of skirt.  A few centuries later, the Highland regiments in the British army had a reputation similar to the U.S. Marines today - the Highlanders wore kilts, a form of skirt.  For that matter, ever seen a picture of a Roman warrior?  Knee-length tunics, with an overskirt made of leather flaps with bronze armor attached with studs.  The Roman army conquered its world, and held it for centuries, and they did it in skirts.  

If you want to argue about masculinity, self-esteem, and being in charge, then argue about it; but it has absolutely nothing to do with who wears the pants.

Friday, February 05, 2010

The Geek's Lament

Or, why are things so hard with Microsoft? (People whose eyes cross at the sound of geek can stop reading here; I just want to vent.)

I've been having a little trouble with my laptop - I decided to buy a faster wireless card, and in the process of installing it, I managed to turn off all wireless connectivity on my laptop.  The built-in card that came with the laptop, which has worked flawlessly for 2 1/2 years including through the upgrade to Windows 7, simply stopped detecting wireless networks.  Any wireless networks, including mine.

In case you want to avoid this nefarious product, it was a TrendNet TEW-642 EC, an N-class wireless express card adapter.  It came with a "wireless utility client" which TrendNet support swore would never leave my system broken like this after uninstall.  As a matter of fact, I think the TrendNet card I received was defective, and I've returned it for a refund; but I don't see how plugging in a defective adapter could shut down a working adapter.  I'm deeply suspicious of that utility software.  But what do I know? 

I've literally worked on this daily, or almost daily, since January 26 - since today is February 5, that's 10 days.  I've busted my brains, tried everything I could think of, researched arcane Windows system commands.  I was reasonably sure that I could get things working again if I could successfully do a system restore to Jan. 22 - the last restore point before I started messing with the new adapter.  System restore rolls your system back to an earlier configuration without touching your data.  I've tried this at least once a day; and every day (until today) the restore failed "because a file is in use."  I learned to turn off the stuff that loads at startup; I tried shutting down ZoneAlarm Internet Security Suite; I tried shutting down ZA and telling it not to restart when the system restarts.  Every restore failed with the "file in use" error, and no wireless.  

I finally found, on an Internet bulletin board, a warning that I might have to uninstall ZA to make system restore work, so today I tried that.  And it worked.  The restore succeeded, and my wireless card leapt back to life.  Now, I like ZA because it tells me what it's doing.  But this one has me wondering if I should give Norton another try.

Monday, February 01, 2010


As far as I'm concerned, President Obama's high point last week wasn't the State of the Union address, competent but not his best work.  It was that little confabulation he had with the Republicans, where he sat down and talked to them as if they were rational human beings.  (Which has to be an example of "hope springs eternal.")

Now he needs to have the same conversation with the Democrats.  Because the problems afflicting political discourse in this country come from both parties.