August 28, 1968. Chicago. The Democratic National Convention. The Chicago Police Riots:
Inside the convention hall:
Abraham Ribicoff pisses off Mayor Daley:
The Democrats nominated Hubert Humphrey.
What to write? Things have gotten so bad in Ferguson, Missouri, which is to say things are as bad as ever for all oppressed Americans, particularly African-Americans, particularly African-American males, that I find myself speechless when it comes to writing here. And I know I speak from a privileged position … I’m an upper-middle-class white man with a great wife and family, living for 40 years in a place that, for better and worse, I am proud of. This weekend, I got to spend some time with the grandson, and this photo pretty much sums up how that went:
I spent Sunday afternoon with an old friend I hadn’t seen for awhile. The weather was great, the company was great, the event was great:
But all the while, this is happening (I first saw this photo on the Twitter account of Darwin Bond Graham):
How do I come up with blog posts to reflect life at the moment?
Thursday, President Obama finally decided to say something about events in Ferguson, Missouri. Among his comments: “I’d like us all to take a step back” … “now is the time for all of us to reflect on what’s happened” … “There is never an excuse for violence against police” … “we’re all part of one American family. We are united in common values” … “now is the time for healing. Now is the time for peace and calm on the streets of Ferguson.”
Yes, I am being selective with my choice of quotes. No, I don’t give a fuck about that. Michael Brown was murdered on Saturday. Ferguson has been under siege for several days … I can’t precisely say we’re seeing the implementation of a police state, when “police” seems inadequate to describe the militarization of so-called peace officers. Five days after the murder, our President pops up to ask us to “take a step back”. It’s a bit late for that, don’t ya think, Prez?
The Clash, “The Guns of Brixton”.
Tom Robinson Band, “Winter of ‘79”.
The Avengers, “The American in Me”.
Nina Simone, “Mississippi Goddam”.
Public Enemy, “Welcome to the Terrordome”.
Body Count, “Cop Killer”.
The thing about the musical selections for this post is that they are un-centered, even unhinged. There may be a rational way to get to the same place, but for the moment of these tracks, rationality is irrelevant. The time comes when a different response is required. In “Guns of Brixton”, the singer says that yes, “the money feels good and your life you like it well”, but as with everyone, “surely your time will come”. Meanwhile, that time has already come for many, and decisions must be made. There is little time for reason when you’re looking down the barrel of a gun. “When the law break in, how you gonna go? Shot down on the pavement, or waiting on death row?”
“Winter of ‘79” describes a time in the future from when the song was written, from the perspective of someone further in the future looking back at the past. The narrator drips nostalgia at first, chastising the “kids who sit and whine”, telling them they “shoulda been there in back in ‘79”. But that fantasy soon gives way to a history lesson, a fake history where someone from the future tells us about 1979, but which is meant to speak to listeners in 1978, and which still rings true today:
That was the year Nan Harris died
And Charlie Jones committed suicide
The world we knew busted open wide
In the winter of '79 …
It was us poor bastards took the chop
When the tubes gone up and the buses stopped
The top folks still come out on top
The government never resigned
The Carib Club was petrol bombed
The National Front was getting awful strong
They done in Dave and Dagenham Ron
In the winter of '79
When all the gay geezers was put inside
And coloured kids was getting crucified
Finally, the singer returns to what amounts to a lesson to those whining kids: “A few of us fought and a few of us died in the winter of '79.”
“Winter of ‘79” came during the late-70s British punk era. “The American in Me” comes from the other side of the Atlantic. The singer here understands what is happening to us: “Ask not what you can do for your country, what's your country been doing to you?” But the country has already succeeded … “It's the American in me that makes me says it's an honor to die in a war that's just a politician’s lie.” To be an American is to already be brainwashed.
Those songs all come from white punks, 1978-80. Whatever privileges they think they had are gone. For African-Americans, the privileges never arrived. Nina Simone begins her classic “Mississippi Goddam” by informing us that she means “every word of it”, and as the song progresses, she stops at one point and remarks, “you thought I was kiddin’ … Everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam.” She goes from “I can't stand the pressure much longer, somebody say a prayer” to “I don't belong here, I don't belong there, I've even stopped believing in prayer”. She points her finger at those who encourage her to “go slow”, replying with anger, “This whole country is full of lies. You're all gonna die and die like flies. I don't trust you any more.”
Public Enemy takes the situation and makes it their own: “Black to the bone my home is your home, so welcome to the Terrordome”. “How to fight the power?,” they ask, knowing we “cannot run and hide, but it shouldn’t be suicide”. PE gives us their art, give us “something that cha never had”. It’s a “brain game” with a lesson: “Move as a team, never move alone”. But make it your own: “Welcome to the Terrordome”.
Body Count, or more accurately, Ice-T, goes all cartoon on us, as if cartoons are the only way to explain what reality is like. The chorus would be funny, if it wasn’t so true in its ludicrous way:
I'm a cop killer, better you than me
Cop killer, fuck police brutality!
Cop killer, I know your family's grieving
Cop killer, but tonight we get even!
I leave you with Robin Harris in House Party:
I sleep with the radio on. I’ve done this my whole life. Since my wife isn’t cursed this way, I use a “pillow speaker”, which allows me to hear the radio without bothering anyone else in the room. My bedroom radio is a Squeezebox Internet radio that gets stations and podcasts from around the world, along with Pandora and Spotify and such. There are a half-dozen preset buttons on the front that I use so I can reach up in the middle of the night and switch to a favored station. I’ve got a couple of sports stations, BBC World Service, a comedy channel … no music, using the radio and the pillow speakers together means I miss one channel of the stereo output, so music sounds goofy while talking usually works OK.
When I went to bed last night, I thought I’d turn on the replay of the Giants game from earlier in the day. The Giants had won, and it felt like a nice way to drift into the sleep zone, catching an inning. It’s never more than that … I fall asleep before things get rolling. But when I lay my head on the pillow speaker, I found that the replay had reached the point where starter Ryan Vogelsong was knocked out of the game, and that wasn’t what I needed to go to sleep, so I started hitting the preset buttons. Which is how I ended up on NBC Sports Radio. I have them on my presets because I enjoy Brian Kenny, who has a morning show during the week.
The host of the show at that early hour of the morning was someone named Jason Page. I admit I hadn’t heard of him … outside of Kenny, the hosts all run together for me. I figured to let him jabber … I think it was the beginning of his nightly stint … while I fell asleep.
Then Page got my attention.
You can listen to the first ten minutes or so of last night’s show here.
Page said he wanted to talk about a quote from former NFL coach Tony Dungy, regarding Michael Sam, the recently-drafted member of the St. Louis Rams, who is gay. Dungy was one of the best coaches ever (he’s a TV analyst now), and was the first African-American coach to win the Super Bowl. In an interview, speaking about drafting Sam, Dungy said “I wouldn’t have taken him … Not because I don’t believe Michael Sam should have a chance to play, but I wouldn’t want to deal with all of it. It’s not going to be totally smooth … things will happen.”
Page then said he wanted to tell two stories. The first was about football player Michael Vick, who did just under two years for his participation in illegal dog fighting. Page detailed some of the things done to the dogs … I admit I was close to dozing off, the story was interesting but to me, it was just part of my nighttime ritual of falling asleep. But I was awake enough to hear the connection Page was making … when Vick got out of prison, Tony Dungy worked hard on Vick’s rehabilitation and reintegration into society and the NFL.
Then Page began telling the story of another person, a person he knew well, who, some years before, was a closeted gay man who struggled to find a place for himself. The internal conflicts that came with living in the closet eventually overwhelmed the man, and one night, he put together a package of pills and prepared to take them all at once. He prepared to take his life. Just before he took the step, he got a phone call from a friend who convinced him not to do it, that it was time to come out of the closet, which he proceeded to do over the course of the next couple of weeks.
Page had my attention. He was being an effective storyteller … he had also moved the story beyond what I’d expect from a late-night sports-talk show.
And then came the punch line: that suicidal young man was Page. “That person was me.”
He spent the next few minutes talking about why comments like Dungy’s could be harmful, but again, I wasn’t being the best audience member. The points Page was making had less of an impact on me than the fact that the sports-talk host had slipped into a personal mode … things had turned “real”.
I don’t suppose I need to mention that this is not the kind of thing I usually hear when I happen upon sports talk radio.
I knew I couldn’t sleep until I made some small effort. So I climbed out of bed, went to Twitter, and sent a tweet to Page: “just heard your story, connected to the Dungy quote. Had to get out of bed to tweet support.”
A small effort, to be sure. But Page had broken through my attempt to fall asleep, and I had to thank him.
I was called for jury duty on Monday.
Sometimes the U.S. legal system can be mundane, at least from the outside. I got up early and my kind wife drove me to the courthouse around 8:30 in the morning. I sat in the jury waiting room until around 9:45, at which point we were told to come back at 1:45. Which meant I had three hours to kill, since I didn’t have the car and getting home and back would have been a bit much (not to mention a burden on my wife, who was working all of this time). So I left and walked seven blocks down to Jack London Square, wandered around, walked back to the courthouse, went through the metal detector for the second time, bought a couple of plain old-fashioned donuts, and went back to the waiting room, prepared to wait for the more than two hours it would take for 1:45 to arrive. I’d started reading Nelson George’s book on Soul Train, and figured I’d just go back to it.
The waiting room was empty except for the guy behind the counter, and I had this bizarre feeling that I was the only person among the 120 or so folks who had been called, who had nothing better to do than return to the room and sit around.
Good news finally arrived: the judge had postponed everything until Tuesday, which meant us Monday jurors could go home, with our jury obligation served for another year.
I’ve been on a couple of juries, and I’ve been thanked for my time and turned away a couple of times. To be honest, I prefer the latter. The first jury on which I served was a purse-snatch … trial lasted six days including two days of deliberations before we found him guilty. The second jury was ended in the middle when one side agreed to pay money to the other side … it was a fight between two guys during a pickup basketball game, and I still don’t know why the tax payers’ money was wasted on the case.
When I am questioned by the judge and/or attorneys, I can tell a truthful story that makes me sound like a good or bad potential juror. Mostly, I can turn myself “bad” by mentioning certain things, like that my dad did time as an embezzler. But in recent years, after a long time teaching critical thinking classes, I feel like I’d be paralyzed on a jury, because my standards of truthful evidence are much stricter than they used to be. For one trial, I told this to the judge … explained that I had a hard time accepting basic stuff like eyewitness testimony, even though I said I could follow the judge’s instructions. I was thanked and dismissed by one of the lawyers.
I don’t know … in some ways, I’m a perfect choice for a jury. I’m smart enough, I’m good at analyzing material, and I’m at least semi-retired. Yet I can’t get rid of the notion that any jury I sat on nowadays would end up a hung jury, with 11 votes one way and me saying “I don’t know”.
I had the pleasure today of taking in Rick Prelinger’s latest “lost landscape” production, “Lost Landscapes of Oakland”. Prelinger is one of the most fascinating people you’ll ever meet, and with his wife, Megan (also fascinating), has given us the Prelinger Library and the Prelinger Archives. His lost landscapes offer compilations of archival footage to tell a part of the story of a time and place that might have been lost to us. So, in Lost Landscapes of Oakland, we got home movies, newsreels, industrial films, and the like, showing Oakland through the first 70 or so years of the 20th century.
The word is out regarding these showings (he has previously done them in San Francisco and Detroit). The Oakland Museum of California had to turn people away … we were glad we’d decided to arrive early. Rick invites the audience to participate as the films are showing … in particular, he’s looking for information about places that he doesn’t yet know. So there’d be footage of Oakland in the 1920s, and someone would shout out the name of the street, or tell us what theater that was. When we saw the Oakland Oaks of the Pacific Coast League at Oaks Park for the opener of the 1918 season, someone wondered aloud what now stood in the Park’s location. Someone else shouted out, “PIXAR!”
I found a couple of items to be particularly interesting. There was footage of a big fire in Berkeley in 1923, and I wondered if we’d get anything more recent (my mom, a Berkeley native, having been born in 1928). Sure enough, there was a bit from the late 30s, and I could imagine my mom as a young girl.
There was also quite a bit about the Key System, which transported people between San Francisco and the East Bay. I had mentioned on the ride to the showing that I wondered if we’d see anything about the Key System … I don’t remember it, myself, but I do remember people of my parents’ age talking about it in the past tense.
It might sound boring, watching this stuff for a little more than an hour, but it was nothing of the sort. In a Q&A session after the showing, one person asked Rick what movies we might shoot now that would be good for a future Lost Landscape. He encouraged us to document our neighborhoods.
I recently finished reading a truly superb article in ESPN The Magazine, and the only reason I haven’t mentioned it before this is that I couldn’t find it online to share with others. Well, I’ve found it now, and as far as I can tell, it is not behind a paywall. It’s called “Generation June” and is written by Wright Thompson. The subtitle reads, “Fury, anarchy, martyrdom: Why the youth of Brazil are (forever) protesting, and how their anger may consume the World Cup.” ESPN deals with sports, and the World Cup is probably the only reason they ran the piece. But the World Cup is almost tangential to what Thompson describes, which is more accurately summarized by “why the youth of Brazil are forever protesting”. Thompson takes us inside the world of the youth, along the way providing some historical context while connecting such protests and the culture surrounding them to similar actions in other parts of the globe. I highly recommend the article:
Here is a brief excerpt from near the end of the essay:
A 53-year-old photographer, Fernando Costa Netto, looked around at the young men and women in the cafe. An idea worked inside of him. Past midnight, the young photographers talked about changing the world, and the older photographers talked about being young.
"They think they are immortal," Fernando said.
He smiled, happy to feel the secondhand energy of the things they believe, melancholy he can no longer believe in those things himself. Long ago, he took his camera to Bosnia and the world he saw through his lens showed him the limits of both youth and his art. The heavy wheels of history roll over anything in their way, without pity or nostalgia.
"I thought I was immortal, too," he said. "Not anymore."
I suppose I should bring this discussion to the blog.
I have never been a fan of the Kennedys. I never thought JFK was a good president. And I’ve long resisted the notion that Kennedy deserved a special place in our hearts, beyond the obvious point that he was killed while in office. That is a big point, one that impacted a generation. But I don’t see why we need to elevate his reputation as a president, just because he was taken from us too soon.
And so, I wasn’t looking forward to this long weekend of remembrances about the 50th anniversary of the assassination. I thought I’d keep my mouth shut … people should deal with these things however they see fit. My own thoughts tended towards the sacrilegious … I liked Sarah Hedgecock’s Gawker piece, “15 Women JFK Fucked”, which many found to be in poor taste.
Still, there was no avoiding the damn thing, and so I posted the following on Facebook:
Reason #1 why I'm trying to avoid talking about that event from 50 years ago:
I am a self-hating Baby Boomer.
The primary response Boomers have to Kennedy's assassination is to tell you where they were when they heard the news, as if their personal experience of the moment mattered more than the fact that the President of the United States had been killed. You might say that the Baby Boomer Era began that day, when Boomers began to elevate individual navel-gazing over all else.
The key phrase here is “self-hating Baby Boomer”. I have many critiques of Baby Boomers. I also recognize that I am a Boomer, in fact a fairly typical one. Which means I participate in many Boomer notions. Hence, self-hating.
Of course, my concept of Baby Boomer behavior is stereotypical, so I’m off-base before I even get started. I also have a starry-eyed feel for the 60s, and in some ways never got over the collapse of whatever “the 60s” meant. In music, I identified the problem being personified by the singer/songwriter genre, with that genre personified by James Taylor, who I am sure is a fine fellow, but I’m going by the music:
I've seen fire, and I've seen rain.
I've seen sunny days that I thought would never end.
I've seen lonely times when I could not find a friend,
But I always thought that I'd see you again.
(One of the refreshing things about Bruce Springsteen in his early years was that he largely avoided this. He wrote about “Madman drummers bummers and Indians in the summer with a teenage diplomat”, told Wild Billy’s Circus Story, related the tale of Scooter and the Big Man. When he used the word “I”, it was part of a tall tale … “I'm coming to lend a hand, I'm coming to liberate you, confiscate you, I want to be your man!”)
For all of the above, I mistrust the whole “where were you when Kennedy died” enterprise. What people really mean when they ask that is, “hurry up and answer so I can tell you where I was”. But there is slippage in what I wrote on Facebook, a way in which I confuse myself in order to obscure my own complicity. I do believe Boomers’ tendency to turn everything into a story about themselves is one of our least appealing qualities. But I also believe personal experience matters.
My friend Phil called me on this, commenting, “??!! You keep a blog called ‘Steven Rubio's Online Life,’ where you filter all experience through Steven Rubio's Life and Steven Rubio's Memory and Steven Rubio's Everything”. I think he’s on to something. I did say in response that “I do more navel-gazing than anyone I know, but I'm not nostalgic about it. I'm just self-absorbed.” And it is true, I think about myself all the time. I usually ascribe this to my self-absorption, but perhaps it is a manifestation of my Boomerness. I have seen the enemy and it is me. (I said I was self-hating.)
Having admitted that, I’d add that my blog is filled with roundabout ways of talking about my personal experiences, and I do it that way on purpose. I think it is important, when talking about a movie or a song or whatever, that we admit to the ways our personal experiences affect our responses, and I do indeed talk about Steven Rubio in those cases. But the purpose isn’t to use the movie to explain Steven Rubio, it’s to use Steven Rubio to explain the movie. I am not 100% on this, but I try very hard not to expose too much of myself in a literal sense. I want people to know me by my artifacts. I am willing to expose myself only by talking about Bonnie and Clyde. (Which means I really am using the movie to explain Steven Rubio. I’ve outed myself!)
All of this loops around itself, and ultimately, I have no idea what it means, except that I am fooling myself a lot more often than I’d like to admit.
Another friend, Scott, disagreed with my central premise, writing, “Events like these are measured by their impact, and that includes their impact on people's personal lives, and to me it's an honest way to reflect on such events, and collectively it does provide one very accurate measure of the event's impact, no? Isn't this just what people do?” I’m not particularly happy with my reply: “There is no denying the personal impact. But in this case, I think our collective experience (where I was when it happened) leads to our identifying the personal impact, 50 years later, as the actual news story. This means we think of that date in nostalgic terms, and use the assassination as a marker of where things went from good to bad. This lets JFK off the hook. A mediocre president becomes enshrined as the King of Camelot, leading to the deluded notion that everything would have been better if only our beloved King had lived. For me, this is connected somehow to the way we think primarily of ‘where I was’.”
I think I’m just blabbing here, trying to cover my tracks. The reality lies in the second sentence of this post: I have never been a fan of the Kennedys. Everything I’ve said here grows more out of that statement than anything else. I hear the name “Kennedy”, and my anti-Kennedy alarm clock goes off, and I blather away at the same old stuff.
I spend a lot of time telling students not to trust anecdotal evidence, and here I’m going to offer a second-hand anecdote. When I was a kid, my maternal grandmother used to talk to me a lot about politics and social issues. Her great hero was FDR. Now, I’m relying on my memory of my grandmother’s memories, which means I’m so far removed from reality I shouldn’t even be mentioning this. But I don’t recall her talking about the day Roosevelt died. I know from the history books that it hit the nation very hard, even though it was nowhere near as unexpected as Kennedy’s death. I just remember her talking about what Roosevelt did as president, and to a lesser extent, what Truman did with the aftermath. The memories were not “where I was when I heard the news”, but rather, “looking back, I am reminded of why I thought FDR was a great president”. And he would have been dead around 20 years at that point.
It’s a different story from the one that Boomers tell about November 22, 1963. I can’t use memory-of-memories as actual evidence … this is very hazy at best. But it may help explain why a self-hating Baby Boomer would wish the Kennedys weren’t so symbolic. The more we talk about the meaning of the assassination, the less we talk about Kennedy’s actual accomplishments.
We’ve had the panels running for about ten days now, and have eight days of data to work with.
So we’ve taken roughly 70% off our electrical usage from a year ago, and more than 50% off our usage from the period just before the solar panels kicked in.
The website that monitors our panel usage includes tidbits like this:
Keep in mind, it’s November in Berkeley. The daily power produced varies according to the amount of sun we get (i.e. how much fog there is). We’ll make more power in the summer time.
The PG&E bill will be lower by more than 50%, since they use a tiered system where you pay more for energy you use over a certain baseline. Our solar system is constructed to reduce our usage to approximately the baseline, so the 50% or more that we don’t use will reduce the bill by a lot more than 50%.