Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Fire Escape

The map of the Tea Fire shows our home (at the intersection of Stanwood Drive and Sycamore Canyon Road) surrounded. In every direction, the fire raged, flames up to two hundred feet, winds up to 70 mph.

The fire claimed 210 houses. Ours is less than 100 feet from the power lines in this photo. But it survived. I can stand in my driveway and see destroyed homes, hillsides scorched, burnt brush as close as across the street. But not a single leaf on our property was damaged.

We benefited from the firefighters' expertise and courage, from being low in the canyon so that the wind wasn't as bad, from the neighbors who cleared brush, and from pure luck.

That's not to say it's been fun. It hasn't. Still isn't. Robin has suffered, is suffering the brunt of it. She was working downtown, saw the fire in the hills, and rushed home. Good thing. If she hesitated a few minutes, she would never have made it through to pick up the cats and a few odd treasures. She was there for half an hour of Armageddon, the wind whipping embers through night sky above her, emergency vehicles in full siren mode, the cats freaked out, and her own flight instinct working in high gear.

I was teaching. I heard the phone buzz in silent mode a couple of times, but didn't answer it, keeping to my policy when teaching even though Robin had called me before she went home. Bad decision on my part. When class was over, I listened to the messages. In one, she said in a stern voice to call her immediately. In the second, which she later told me came after twenty attempts that all failed since so many were using the system, she screamed in panic and frustration: "PATRICK, PICK UP THE PHONE." I had to call several times before I could get through to her, just as she was leaving.

We met at George and Amy's house (though they were at--where else would they be?--a wine dinner). Hugs. Deep sighs. Relief. Safety. Though our ordeal had hardly begun, the worst was over, at least for us. I looked up at the hills and I could see the towering flames seven or eight miles away, advancing a hundred yards in thirty seconds.

We spent the night at Larry and Sue's, whose house, among the many offerings of help from our great friends, had the best situation for the cats. They gave us food and drink as we watched the fire coverage on tv and constantly checked Edhat for the latest local perspective. We went to bed that night with those images in our minds, not knowing whether anything we owned would survive.

I was optimistic. In fact, I said to Robin as we went to sleep that night that I was 75% sure our house would survive. She wasn't particularly reassured. She didn't sleep much and by 7AM was on the phone with the landlord, who had talked with "crazy Tom," a neighbor who stayed to fight the fire. That's how we learned that the house survived.

I went to K-Mart to buy some underwear and toothbrushes and then on campus to work for a while. I got back about 2:00. Robin had spent the time mostly on the phone, seeking more information and reassuring family and friends that we were relatively, remarkably unscathed. She was overwhelmed by the emotional support, frazzled by the anxiety, and exhausted beyond her limits. It was all over her drawn face, her slowed speech, even her unsure movement. Somehow we managed to grab some borrowed t-shirts, the cats, and head over to the empty condo of Jim and Martha, who were back east for a death in the family. I put Robin to bed about 3:00 and, except for an hour or so in the evening, she slept until Saturday morning.

During a long walk on the Elwood bluffs and beach with my old friend Pete, the Golden Retriever, I decided I'd try to get to the house on bicycle. So I borrowed one from George, parked the car near the Five Points circle, and pedaled up toward Sycamore Canyon Road, which is closed to traffic between Five Points and our house due to a landslide a few years ago (ah, California), but normally passable on a bike. I approached the cop at the roadblock and asked if I could go up and see if my house was still there. He said, "Go for it."

Bicycling up Sycamore Canyon Road, I saw the fire-damaged hillsides on both sides, especially the west side up toward the Riviera, which was mostly toast. But dozens of houses saved, many with scorching all around. One man I met said he lost half his orchard, but not his house. "Fair trade," I said. He agreed.

Closer to our house, starting about fifty yards from our driveway, along Conejo Road and its side streets, folks were not so lucky as us.

We returned to our house on Sunday afternoon. Since then, we've been cleaning up the ash and suffering the poor air quality inside and outside the house, again Robin bearing the brunt of it since I'm apparently too insensitive to be be affected much. Plus the neighbor hood has been swarming with heavy vehicles, utility companies, refuse collection, public works, you name it. Chain saws fill the air. Helicopters still frequent overhead. No doubt the construction companies will soon follow in mass numbers. We'll be ground zero for months.

That's how we know we're lucky.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Dolphins Blowing Air Rings

This video is of dolphins playing with rings they compose out of their own breath. It isn't known how they learn this, or if they're born with the ability. It's a lot like McQing, the talent among males in my family to demonstrate excellence in reasoning with or without possession of actual knowledge.

One, ahem, explanation involves "air-core vortex rings." With the tip of its dorsal fin when it is moving rapidly and turning, a dolphin creates invisible, spinning vortexes in the water. The higher velocity fluid around the core of the vortex is at a lower pressure than the fluid circulating farther away. Dolphins take advantage of this difference in pressure and inject air into the rings through their blow hole. The energy of the water vortex is enough to keep the bubbles from rising for a few seconds of play time.

But the main thing is that creating rings of air to play with is a lot more fun than simple transparency.

Monday, June 23, 2008

The Other Side of the Celtics' Victory

I'm a Celtic fan, but I live in Santa Barbara and have many friends who are Laker fans. I sympathize with them. They are uniformly disappointed, frustrated, even disgusted with the Lakers for the way they lost the finals. If I were a Laker fan, I'd feel the same, and I'd be particularly upset with the lack of team play.

Witness game four, the key to the series, in which the Lakers surrendered a 24 point lead, a "Collapse for the Ages" according to the LA Times headline. The Lakers dominated the Celtics in the first half, even though Kobe, the regular season MVP and by all accounts the most gifted player in the league, had missed all his shots save for three free throws. Some--Laker fans, members of the media, even Celtic fans--saw that scenario as a good thing for the Lakers: They were up big and Kobe hadn't even got going yet. But the Celtics had a different thought: Kobe would come out in the second half looking to get his.

The Lakers' predictability and Kobe's predictable selfishness keyed Boston's historic comeback. Knowing what was coming, Paul Pierce asked to guard Kobe, and he did a fantastic job of contesting Kobe's jump shots. In one particularly memorable play in the middle of the Celtics' big 21-3 run, Pierce blocked Kobe's shot, retrieved the carom, and ignited a Boston fast break.

Pierce's defense was just part of the overall team effort to stop Kobe. Pierce and Kobe both knew that, if Kobe drove past Pierce, the Celtics were all waiting to swarm Kobe, swallow him up, not allow a decent pass let alone a shot close to the basket. As it was the entire series, if Kobe were to get his, it would be through jump shots, which he kept jacking up over the taller Pierce. The rest of the Lakers stood around and watched as the Celtics took the third quarter, the game, and the Lakers' heart.

The next day, Jackson pointedly said that Bryant would be motivated by something Boston's Kevin Garnett said. When asked to elaborate, Jackson said, check the transcripts.

If you've paid attention to them (the Lakers) all year, usually the first half is team ball, second half is usually Kobe takes over the games. They weren't nearly as aggressive as they were the first half. It just looks like they wanted to get the ball to Kobe and him sort of finish it off.... We were giving Kobe every look we've got in the book, from different matchups to trapping him, to a guy on the bottom. We were just making other guys make plays.

Garnett's words certainly struck a chord with the coach, and Kobe's play down the stretch in game five suggests that he also heard them and heeded them. He deferred to Gasol, even directing the ball away from himself to Gasol, since that is where the Celtics' defense was weakest.

The Lakers managed to win game five, but not convincingly. With Kobe out of the offense except to draw defenders away from the basket and give room for Gasol to operate, the Lakers looked and acted strange, out of character, desperate. Without a dynamic Kobe, the team was lost. Only the most die-hard Laker fans expected them to win even one game of the final two in Boston. A rout in game six was hardly surprising.

The problem isn't so much Kobe's need to be the star; the problem is that the Lakers are built around Kobe's need to be the star. It's one thing to make Kobe's unsurpassed talent the center of a team; it's another to make Kobe's narrative of greatness the center of the team. It's a Hollywood formula, eagerly embraced by the NBA and the media: Kobe's the hero on a quest to carry a team to a championship and everyone else is the supporting cast. This formula has informed the Lakers' organizational strategy for the last four or five years. Every organizational decision fits this overall formula.

In contrast to the Celtics' corny and profound but nonetheless appealing--and victorious--"ubuntu" ethos, "I am what I am because of who we all are," the Lakers are what they are because of who Kobe is. His scolding and scowling at his teammates and at his coach tell the tale of what "team" means to the Lakers. They don't have the opportunity to do things for the benefit of the team; they do things for the benefit of Kobe.

This depressing drama is, of course, not new to Lakers' fans, except that Kobe's selfishness was supposed to be a thing he'd outgrown in his transformation into a leader on and off the court, the heir to Michael Jordan's championship passion, demanding of his teammates only as much as he demanded of himself. The collapse in the second half of game four proved that to be all public relations, in the end a cruel fraud. The 2008 Lakers were about Kobe getting his. Or failing to get his.

The future holds some promise for Laker fans. Bynum will come back from injury to give the Lakers the toughness inside that they lacked in the finals. Bynum's presence also allows Gasol and Odom to play to their strengths, which are marvelous basketball skills (rather than vilified for their weakness, lack of physical strength). Vuyacic and Farmer will have more experience. Radmanovich will have more time on the bench. Kobe may even finally figure out how to lead a team.

If Kobe does mature, however, I still wouldn't root for him. Other petulant and selfish players who mature in the public eye are far more sympathetic. Paul Pierce's ghetto-to-Finals glory story, for example, includes overcoming genuine obstacles, like poverty and stab wounds and a career spent on the same bad team.

Kobe's story? On and off the court, he needs to overcome his sense of entitlement.

Rooting for Kobe is like rooting for the rich kid with all the tutors and advisers and insider legacy tracks, like rooting for corporate America, the Evil Empire, or George Steinbrenner.

I wouldn't want to be a Laker fan.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Discovering Place

A friend gave us the “Best House Award” not really knowing what’s best about the house, because the best becomes apparent only while living here. It’s discovered; it’s the process of discovery. For example, the birds.

Robin gave me a great pair of binoculars and a whimsical book (first edition, she would have you know) by a local writer from the 1960s, Margaret Millar, who wrote about birding in Santa Barbara. It’s full of birding adventures, local color, prominently featuring the Natural History Museum, and perhaps too much whimsy for me; but I enjoyed it immensely because it inspired my bird watching. A new world has opened to me (or reopened).

This week’s hot weather, fortuitous because it arrived just when I’ve a got a break from teaching, has me sitting in the yard in the afternoon writing. For me, the writing process involves a lot of brooding with a pen and paper, which then gets cleaned up as I sit at the computer. I’ve been at the computer in the morning, but it’s too hot by afternoon, so I sit in the Adirondack chair in the yard under the oak tree and alternately write furiously and stare off into the sky. In short, I’ve given myself an excellent opportunity to watch birds. So I keep the binoculars close by and learn about what goes on around me in between Great Thoughts about Great Things.

Among the many birds I’ve learned to identify with the help of Whatbird.com and Google images (I’m still waiting for the bird identification book Kate’s getting me for my birthday) is the lesser goldfinch. I saw him one afternoon earlier this week, quite dapper in his breeding plumage—bright yellow coat and distinctive black cap. He impressed me with the way he hangs horizontally to the thinnest green branch or flower stem, bending it toward the flower or seed he wants. He especially liked the cosmos I planted, but also the grass gone to seed under the lemon tree.

The goldfinch came by again the next afternoon with a couple of paler companions, probably his mate and an offspring. They spent a few minutes flitting around the cosmos, then settled on the giant sunflower, which is still growing, not yet any flowers or seeds, and they proceeded to eat the leaves, peck away and eat them. Green stuff disappearing into their beaks. Big holes in the sunflower leaves. Birds eat greens? Who knew?

That evening sitting on the porch in one of the big Adirondack chairs, I identified the sound of the dark-eyed junco, a sparrow that wears a pronounced executioner’s hood, the only kind of sparrow I can distinguish, a feat of birding I accomplished the day before. So the little guy was foraging in the oak tree and would jump up to answer a call coming from across the canyon, his close call matching the distant one off to my left. The sound is like a circus whistle that starts out slow and vigorous, then gets faster and higher as it fades. Or maybe it’s like a high-speed high-pitched baby’s wail—waaaa-aaa-aa-aa-aa-a-a-a-a-a. Now I hear it all the time, distinct from all the other sounds. How cool. Do birders know all the sounds they hear in the back yard? How cool is that?

I’ve also identified a kestrel, a red-shouldered hawk, house finches galore, scrub jays, towhees California and spotted, a huge flock of cedar wax wings, and much more beyond the crows and pigeons. But rather than go too far down the nature boy path all at once, I’ll just reiterate that birding is part of the deeper pleasure of getting to know the place and its inhabitants. What’s better than discovering a great place, my great place, and its inhabitants?

As I said to Jenna yesterday, “It must be a great place if the worst thing about it is that the dishwasher leaves spots on the glasses.”

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Meme member memorabilia memoir memorial memo

Here are the rules to be broken:
A) The rules of the game get twisted at the beginning.
B) Each player questions the questions about himself or herself.
C) At the end of the post, the post ends

1) Ten years ago I was...
Searching for grit in paradise.

2) Five things on today's to-do list:
Sour some dough
Catch an express bus and then bike uphill all the way home, weeee
Remember that gophers eat too
Empty my head of planning details about an event next Tuesday
Fish, perhaps grilled or pan seared

3) Things I'd do if I were a billionaire:
Move to Mars
Buy a unicorn
Establish an ethos of equality on Wall Street

4) Three bad habits:
Breaking silly rules
Watching to much b-ball
Annoying Robin (by breaking silly rules and watching too much b-ball)

5) Four places I've lived on the 42nd parallel:
Boston Amherst Binghamton Ames, BABA, then, of course Santa Baba

6) Six jobs I've had in my life:
Husband father friend brother son and part-time drinker

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Now That's a Great Speech

The Obama speech responding to the first serious right-wing smear campaign against him is just brilliant, especially if you watch it, but even if you read it. It's extremely intelligent in providing, insisting really, on the historical context of the anger that gets expressed virulently, weirdly perhaps, in the black community. He dares speak the truth. Yet the speech is extremely savvy in speaking to the concerns of black and white communities, perfectly exemplifying his politics of reconciliation and hope. It's as if he and his campaign have been waiting for this opportunity to turn smear into inspiration.

I find it particularly emotional, I suspect, because I've been waiting way too many years for someone, anyone, on a national stage to speak the truth.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

A Car That Runs on Air, Literally

Why have I just heard about this news? The real green future in cars is not hybrid electrics or even electrics, but compressed air vehicles. The advantage: No batteries, no nasty battery acids or metals. Rather, energy storage is in the compression. Check out this longish (9 minute) clip for details.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Stars from Music of the Night

Jenna Tico, Co-Director of the student production at Santa Barbara High School, "Music of the Night," brought the house down with Cole Patterson and their version of "Stud and a Babe."

Jenna also directed and sings in "Mama Who Bore Me," featuring Karlin Trexler and some passionate daughters.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Why Greening the Grid Comes First

In the US, coal, the dirtiest of fossil fuels, provides 50% of electricity, with all fossil fuels fuels providing 72%. Globally, coal provides 40% and all fossil fuels around 66% of the world's electrical power.

This reality suggest that we should first green the grid, then plug into it for transportation and other energy needs.

(Click the image to go to the original website and see a clearer image. It is also, of course, a vivid record of population, wealth, and probably other distributions.)

Monday, February 11, 2008

Our New Place

We leased a fabulous place in Mission Canyon: Craftsman styling with redwood everywhere, island and ocean views, huge yard with vegetable garden and chicken coop. It's a 2 bedroom, 2 bath, large kitchen, huge fire-placed living room, hardwood floors, well-kept funky place from the 1880s. Oh and a pool too.

We might even be able to afford it if we live off the chickens and vegetables.

Friday, January 25, 2008

The End of Economic Fetishism

I laughed at Barbara Ehrenreich's comment on the bipartisan politicos' effort to stave off recession:
With all the talk about how to stimulate it, you’d think that the economy is a giant clitoris.... The immediate challenge...is how best to get the economy engorged and throbbing again.

The joke works, too, if the economy were a giant penis. Either way, politicians' desire to stimulate our economic lives is the politics of the pimp, a $1200 come-on from the Wall Street john. For most of us struggling in the middle classes, all this economic stimulation will produce at best fleeting pleasure, consumerist titillation, climaxed at the cash register, and usually ending there. To be sure, $1200 is not nothing, which is what we would otherwise get, what we usually get. But is that what we really want? Will such consumerist titillation change anyone's lives?

Even if this stimulation works and gets the economy throbbing again, the politicos' obsession with the consumerist fetish doesn't begin to address deeper questions:
  1. Does economic growth really make us wealthier?
  2. Does it make our world better?
  3. Does it make us happier?
1) The much ballyhooed economic growth in recent decades serves mainly to create a huge and increasing gap between rich and the rest of us, who try to keep up by working too hard, 350 hours a year longer than Europeans or Japanese. Much of that enforced workaholism is economically ephemeral, except for those who own a home. No surprise, then, that the bursting housing market bubble is the reason the politicos decided to get together and throw a $1200 sop to us middle class saps. Santa Barbara is perhaps a great example of this class dynamic of comfortable wealth, invisible poor, and struggling, over-worked, middle class DINS (double-income no sex), except that the middle class in Santa Barbara hasn't been able to purchase a home since maybe 1998.

2) Even if our politicians won't connect the economy to the environment, many people, especially in places like Santa Barbara, are now beginning to realize that a stimulated, throbbing economy predicated largely on the dizzying production and consumption of stuff ain't natural. Global economic growth, especially in China and India, is stretching resources and stressing the planet. Choose your Armageddon: peak oil or global warming. Rather than addressing the question of sustainability, politicians can only think to provoke our consumerist fetish in order to stimulate unsustainable economic growth.

3) Finally, fortunately, is the question of happiness. As Bill McKibben argues with grace and hope, "the more we nurture the essential humanity of our economy, the more we will recapture our own." He advocates sustainable, local economies, that value connections to people rather than wealth as the source of human happiness. Why work so hard for money if it doesn't make us happy? Why destroy the environment if there's no happiness in it? Why do we focus on our consumerist fetish when what we really want is so much bigger and more human?

I'm not advocating that our leaders do nothing to prevent recession or depression. I also have to struggle to feel the hope promised by local economies in some murky, idealistic, post-apocalyptic future. I'm not sure what the answers are. But I'm not turned on by stimulating economic growth or tricked by the john's promise of $1200.
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