Monthly Archives: May 2006

Dawson, Goin, and Webb: A Doubtful River

[Another older review salvaged from Faultline. The book is still in print, still compelling, and still about the Truckee River, which I still haven’t been to this year.]

A Doubtful River
Robert Dawson, Peter Goin, Mary Webb
(Reno, University of Nevada Press, 2000).

The Truckee River watershed has been called one of the most intensely regulated in North America. This may be hyperbole. Take the Missouri for example, so hemmed in by dams and levees that it resembles a chain of aquatic link sausages more than it does a living river. Or the Mississippi, which for a century has been kept from leaving New Orleans dry (if not exactly high) and flowing to its inevitable outlet in the Atchafalaya Basin,  by the Army Corps of Engineers. Or the Colorado, or the Snake, whose fisheries face extinction due to poorly-planned dams.

But if you’re looking for a typical western river, it’s hard to think of a better candidate than the Truckee. Flowing from alpine wilderness in the Sierra Nevada to saline Pyramid Lake north of Reno, the Truckee rolls past a physical litany of western river issues. This steep, swift river encounters non-point-source pollution from vacation home sprawl, runoff from logging and fire, illegal dumping, diversions for drinking water and agriculture, and the thousand daily violations done to any river that flows through a major urban area; in the Truckee’s case, the burgeoning metropolis of Reno and Sparks. From the main stem’s source in Tahoe City, you can head downstream past homeless encampments, major freeways and leaking mines to the Derby Dam, linchpin of the century-old Newlands project. Derby diverts as much as 95 percent of instream flow for irrigation in Fallon, the garden (and leukemia capital) of the Great Basin.

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Mierda de La Esquina

Admitted ephebophiliac and former Kung-Fu movie villain John Derbyshire weighs in at The Corner with one of the most interesting posts I have seen in some time. I quote it below in its entirety:

A nearby family has a sweet little girl aged 6 or 7, currently attending kindergarten or 1st grade (I’m not sure) in the local elementary school.  She’s taking all her lessons (except English) in Spanish.  It’s an option the school offers.  Her parents are pleased:  “She can already speak a lot of Spanish!”

No offense to anyone, but I think this is awful.  I wouldn’t mind if it were being done with some other language—-Latin, say, or Hungarian, or Sumerian, or Chinese.  Since it’s being done — and ONLY being done — in Spanish, it’s hard to resist the conclusion that this is part of a deliberate program of Hispanicization on the part of our political and bureaucratic elites.

The logical end-point of this path will be the situation in Quebec, where a person not bilingual — in our case, in English and Spanish — will be at a disadvantage in the job market.  Is this a thing Americans actually want?  Did anyone ask us?

When stuff like this is seeping in even to drowsy middle-class outer suburbs like mine, bilingual America is well on its way.  Our masters are sick or our boring, unimaginative monolingualism, and they mean to do something about it, whether we like it or not.

I use the word “interesting,” of course, in the sense in which one would use the same word to describe a plot to loot widows’ pension funds to subsidize free heroin for kindergarteners, smuggled into the classroom in the bodies of stolen house pets, and the heroin is cut with Drano. The post is a rat’s nest of depravity, and it’s hard to know where to start in addressing the fractally complex dickheadedness Derbyshire exhibits therein.

What do I mean by that? Well, for one thing, given Derbyshire’s recent essays on such oppressive social institutions as the age of consent — the opening sentence qualifies as the creepiest ever to grace the constipated pages of The Corner. The notion that there is a bureaucratopolitical conspiracy to “Hispanicize” the United States only ramps up the nausea. Then there’s the Big Lie:

I wouldn’t mind if it were being done with some other language—-Latin, say, or Hungarian, or Sumerian, or Chinese.  Since it’s being done — and ONLY being done — in Spanish,

Because there are no Cantonese bilingual programs in US elementary schools, nor Vietnamese, nor Arabic (though I imagine Derbyshire might come up with an objection or two to that notion on separate grounds), nor any other language. Just Spanish.

The fact that 12 percent of people in the United States speak Spanish already can’t be the reason for this, of course. Nor the fact that the US’s trading partners in the Western Hemisphere are predominantly Spanish-speaking nations. Or the fact that Spanish is rapidly becoming the second language of choice (after English) throughout the European Union. Or the fact that Spanish is the fourth-most-commonly spoken language in the world, and the two more popular non-English languages, Hindustani and Mandarin, would be significantly more difficult for English-speaking grade school students to learn, Hindustani being more a swarm of dialects than a language and Mandarin a tonal language whose nuances are often lost on native English speakers. And then there’s the little matter of the different alphabets. The fact that it just utterly makes sense for US elementary school students to learn Spanish cannot possibly be the reason so many kids are studying it. It must be a conspiracy of — how does Derbyshire put it?

part of a deliberate program of Hispanicization on the part of our political and bureaucratic elites.

The part of this increiblemente stupid post I found funniest, however, was this:

The logical end-point of this path will be the situation in Quebec, where a person not bilingual — in our case, in English and Spanish — will be at a disadvantage in the job market.  Is this a thing Americans actually want?  Did anyone ask us?

First off: We cannot, of course, allow ourselves to become more like Quebec. Why, any right thinking American certainly shudders in horror at the thought of being forced to endure the better food, the higher literacy (in both languages), the more active and enthusiastic political engagement, and the general I-Don’t-Know-What to be found in Montreal. Give us Bethesda! Dubuque! Provo!

Anyhow. Does Derbyshire honestly think that knowing Spanish doesn’t already confer an advantage to the job seeker? N.B. the reference to trade partners in the preceding text. Is this preference for people with actual communication skills a thing Americans actually want?  ¿Que carajo quieres, pajero? Life handed to you on a silver platter? Conservatives once claimed to reward hard work and study and sacrifice. Here Americans are rising to the occasion, ready to ensure their kids’ place in the anticipated new global economy by helping them learn a crucial skill, and Derbyshire? Derbyshire gimotea como un cochinillo sobre las conspiraciónes.

Because Derbyshire es un hipócrita. Jamas nunca estaba sobre el trabajo duro. Ha estado siempre sobre sembrar las semillas del odio. Y la cosa peor: tantos Americanos son ignorantes, y entonces lo creerán.

Que lástima.

Que maravillosa ese ensayo: tan mucho odio cabe en solamente doscientas palabras.

Today in the forest preserve

I look up from recording this interesting entomological event:

new clothes

to see this.

why, hello

I see deer in the winter frequently, but less often in the summer. There are a lot more people, and dogs, out walking this time of year. There’s more food available deep in the woods, and so less incentive to come close to dangerous predators. This one is startlingly unafraid of me. Perhaps she’s young and hasn’t learned. Perhaps she’s hungry. I can see ribs clearly under the glossy coat. Except for her weight, she doesn’t look sick, though-the healthy fur; the precise, graceful steps; the huge, mobile ears swivelling alertly at every sound speak of a creature fit and whole. She watches me as she nibbles her way across the path. She is very, very close, and she comes closer. I watch her back. I am drawing her shape, the sculpture of her bones, her shining endless eyes and narrow prey-face, on my memory, because when am I going to be this close again?

not a telephoto

Finally, I take a long deliberate step back onto the path. She flicks past me in an instant, white tail flagging.

West Grand Avenue

OAKLAND — Eba Walker and Marina Guzman do not know each other, but Friday they both shared inconsolable grief. Each mother’s 14-year-old son was gunned down, victims of the city’s raging gang violence.
Michael Walker was killed Thursday night on West Grand Avenue; William Guzman died six hours earlier, miles away in East Oakland.

Michael Walker was with two relatives and a family friend, walking home from a fishing trip at a canal near Laney College. Longmire said one of them was a Latino gang member — not Walker — but did not identify him.  Longmire said a car pulled alongside them and someone inside opened fire, hitting only Walker, who was able to run a short distance before collapsing. He died at Highland Hospital at 11:58 p.m. Thursday.

Becky was Michael’s second-grade teacher.

De mortuis nil nisi bonum dicendum est.


I never hiked much when I lived in New York. A mile through sugar maple and hemlock here, two miles there up cobbled creek beds, but walking was my main mode of transportation in those days. Three miles each way between my house and a girlfriend’s, or four miles to work and back, and hiking seemed too much like commuting, albeit through pin oaks.

Within three months of arriving in Berkeley, I had moved into an apartment at the corner of Dwight Way and Piedmont, the last little vestige of what you might call flatlands at the base of the Berkeley Hills. Three blocks toward the hills, sloping upward the whole way, and the pavement ended. The climb began from there in earnest: a thousand feet climbed in a mile of steep trail, up the west face of Panoramic Hill. A thousand feet in that short a distance was more relief than you could find within a day’s drive of Buffalo. From the first moment I moved into the place, I eyed that climb. It took me perhaps a week to find myself with both the time and energy at once.

I was a weak little thing then, bone and a bit of sinew, and yet I walked up that hill once every couple weeks, the first dozen or so times in those flat-soled black canvas shoes you can buy in Chinatown. There was a row of aged Monterey Pines at the ridgeline that overlooked Strawberry Canyon, and I hiked up there one day with Shannon, a co-worker at the cafe off Telegraph Avenue where Matthew and I worked. We sat beneath the pines and shared an orange and some cheese, and she talked about her troubles with her boyfriend, an insanely jealous Peruvian expatriate, a veteran of that country’s air force. I don’t recall his name. Luis? Call him Luis. Luis heard about our little hike and was enraged, despite its utter outward innocence. He was civilized about it, after a fashion. A few days later he met Elissa and me on the deck of the cafe. Elissa and I were eating a late breakfast, and Shannon had taken a break to sit with us. Luis saw us, walked over, took an empty chair and turned his attention to Elissa.

“You look beautiful today, Elissa,” he said.
“Thank you?” said Elissa.
“Today is a very pretty day, don’t you think? It would be a great day to go to the beach.”
“It sure would,” said Elissa.
“We should go,” said Luis. “Are you busy today? Yes? Well, we should go sometime, together.”

His point made, Luis turned to address me. “It doesn’t feel very good, does it?”

I shrugged. I turned to Elissa. “Do you want to go to the beach? You’d have fun, and I have to work this afternoon.”
Elissa smirked subtly. “Some other time, maybe.”

Shannon told me later that Luis had apologized, regretted making even a minor, defused scene, swore that he trusted her, understood that I was just a friend, agreed that his response was condescending and sexist.

Though his behavior was obnoxious, Luis was not precisely wrong. He had seen into my heart. The hike was, in fact, innocent. Neither of us had any other intention on setting out up that steep trail. But I would have liked to have had that intention. I loved her. She was thoughtful, striking, and a little sad. She was taller than me. Her voice was deep, a contralto. Even in her early twenties she had a bold stripe of gray hair, the same color as her eyes if a bit lighter. At work she was quiet and relatively efficient. But when we hiked, for those few hours, she told me stories. Growing up, coming to the Bay Area to escape her small town origins, friends and school, and always I felt her shift when her stories would reach a certain point, as though some large part of her life, intertwined and connected and wound in upon itself, was still off-limits to her hiking partner. Perhaps even to herself. I wanted, more than anything, to unwind her.

Despite Luis’ apology, we never hiked again. Having extracted her admission of guilt from Luis, she conceded her friendship with me in return. Nothing was spoken, no sorrowful decisions relayed, but that sadness rolled in to cover her. After some weeks she quit the cafe.

I saw her five years later, the summer Elissa and I moved back from Washington. She was on the street in Berkeley. She was glad to see me, and told me about motherhood, and how Luis was behaving much better now. Her voice — how I had missed her voice — betrayed not a trace of restlessness. And though it seemed to me her eyes flitted nervously for the ten minutes we talked, and that her spine tilted slightly and familiarly with that same sad weight, a sigh of nothing can be done, I may merely have seen the reflection of my own seared soul in her gray eyes.

Outgoing mail

I’m dropping a letter to Kat in the mailbox tomorrow morning. Leave a comment here for her if you like, and I’ll print it out and send it along.


The hill at the front of my usual Briones hike once caused me to gasp for breath. It felt near level yesterday. The road was full of horses, and I felt my left thumb ache. Ten years ago I foolishly wrapped reins around my left hand on an easy stretch of fire road in the Berkeley Hills. My ride, an Appaloosa mare, took advantage of my inattention to break into a gallop and jump a small creek. Becky’s mount was walking abreast of us and would not be denied his share of the fun. It is a pretty memory, the four of us gaining speed and leaping across the ditch like that, and so I minded the dislocated thumb a bit less and the chronic low ache makes me grin, a little.

Halfway up the hill I heard hoofbeats: Three riders, their horses running uphill and lathering. They were two chestnuts with an Appaloosa between them, and the spotted horse — an even coat of black pepper on a field of pale gray — stopped short in a spray of stones to examine me, near throwing his rider. A full Nalgene fell from the rider’s backpack. I picked it up, went to hand it to him, but the spotted boy blocked my arm with his face. He would not be denied his forehead-skritching.

“Nice horse,” I said, and the woman on the second chestnut grinned. “He’s a mustang, actually,” she said, and I skritched a bit more firmly mourning his old life in the sagebrush, before the breaking and the saddle blanket and the endless fences. And then they were off at a gallop. When I caught up with them at the top of the hill they were astonished to see me so soon, but yesterday my feet were wings.

And I got home to a letter from a monastery.


Editor, Marie Claire Magazine

Dear Madam or Sir;

I have noticed the recent criticism you have received for publishing articles with too much of a left-wing slant. I am an acclaimed San Francisco Bay Area-based freelance writer with two decades of experience in writing consumer-friendly copy, and I would like to aid your magazine in correcting this imbalance by writing any or all of the following stories for you.

Fit and Foxy At Fifty
But less than fifty percent of the electorate! After Katherine Harris’ “high-profile” interview with Alan Colmes fore-eyeshadowed a big electoral letdown, can the Florida GOP Rodeo Queen lasso a lucrative Lancome endorsement?

Ethnic Pore Cleansing
In this modern age when Condoleezza Rice and Michelle Malkin command as much attention as Jackie O did forty years ago, are normal facials enough? Fifteen tips for making your ethnic skin as close to beautiful as possible.

Seven Ways To Gitmo Slender
Intern those problem areas indefinitely! You can banish that ugly cellulite and those love handles to undisclosed locations, never to be seen again!
Side Material: Your Summer At Camp X-Ray: Director of hot new spa says “ribs are back in for Bikini Season 2006!”

Is Your Manicurist Here Legally?
Or is she taking a job an American could be doing for $6.85 an hour? Top ten warning signs.
Side material: How I got free manicures for life! One reader’s story.

Kicky New Camo Designs for Summer
Support our troops by looking vaguely like you’re in the military, without all the mess and hassle of actually signing up.
Side material: Hello, Kitty! Five cute ways to accessorize your gun.

Lose Weight the Objectivist Way With the Ayn Rand Diet
What, you want to be told what the Ayn Rand Diet is? Get off your butt and find out for yourself, you nanny-state culture-of-dependency slacker! Enough hand-holding!

I Had A Dream Date With Dennis Miller!
That could be what you tell your friends if you enter our Dream Date With Dennis Miller Contest. Come on, won’t someone enter? Three issues we’ve been asking. Really, you’re almost guaranteed to win if you send your name in. Doesn’t anyone want the thousand bucks?

Spice Up Your Covenant Marriage
Five exciting ways to give head… of household the authority he craves!
Side material: How To Suggest A Threesome… With Jesus.

Ten Ways To Get Your Man To Strip You With His Eyes — Of Your Rights

Lawrence Hogue: All The Wild And Lonely Places

I’ve been meaning to review a book or three here for some time, partly because there are a lot of good and under-publicized books out there, and partly because I could use the occasional twenty-five cents in affiliate earnings. And it occurs to me that this review has been languishing since Faultline went under. So here’s the first in a series of occasional reviews of books I find worthwhile and perhaps even important.

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You can tell the wind is out of my writing sails when, for lack of anything else worthwhile to post, I dig up and edit a story I wrote as an email to Kat a few months back. I am uninspired. The 29th is CRN’s third anniversary, and I am beginning to wonder if I have run out of things to say.

It’s odd. Sometimes I’ll toss up a post out of a sheer dull feeling of obligation to put something up here, just sit down for twenty minutes and hammer something out, and if I’m lucky the mere act of typing becomes at least a little inspiring and my twenty minutes of writing becomes something I later appreciate.

But more often, lately, it’s just a pedestrian rant that emerges from that metaphorical peristalsis. Or snide joking. Stuff the world would be better off without. I look at it and I’m embarrassed to have it displayed here.

And that’s the stuff that gets linked, most often. I’m not complaining, mind: the fact that people find my writing worthwhile is one of the chief joys of this brief life. But I feel utterly out of touch with my readers. The writing of mine I like most rarely engenders so much as a single comment.

I’m not about to hang this up. This too shall pass, and this sort of uninspired malaise is often just an eddy in the aching floods that propel some of my best writing. In any event, I have an intriguing guest-blogging possibility coming up next month that might prove restorative.

Besides. There are others who have passed this way before. Norbizness is celebrating his own three-year blogging anniversary today, and I feel like a little whiner talking about my own lack of inspiration on his big day. He’s a bit of a role model for me in this respect. Having read his blog for a couple years now, I have watched him fight his own obvious battles with long, long bouts of complete lack of inspiration. But does he let that yawning void of nothing worthwhile to say keep him from posting, day after day, like clockwork? Not on your life. My hat is off to you, Norbiz, and I only hope that someday you might find a little of that inspiration in my own uninspired, rote plodding.

My life as a born-again Christian

(In which our hero gravely hurts someone who loves him deeply, takes advantage of others’ kindnesses, betrays his heart, and only realizes years later that none of that was OK.)

I used to be a born again Christian. It didn’t take. I converted under duress: Laura, the first woman who was ever really interested in me, was one of those born-again hippie types that were prevalent in the 1970s. She was beautiful: long, wavy hair, sparkling eyes the color of cinnamon. She wrote me letters with long, drippy calligraphy, sketches of snowy Vermont hillsides and moons a half-day new. We dated for a couple months and then realized the religious difference was going to get in the way. Neither of us wanted to hurt the other, and so we agreed it was best to end things.

I got a mile away from her room and felt desolate. “Fine,” I said. “If this is what it takes, then come into my heart, Jesus.” I said it as a dare. I suddenly felt lighter. I went back and told Laura what had happened: she and her prayer partner had been praying fervently that I would see the light on my walk home.

And then my mind came back. My problem was I actually read the Bible. The thing that was the breaking point for me, as I recall, was the delineation of the roles of a Christian husband and wife. The inequity repelled me viscerally.

I saved myself: I fell away from Christianity, came to a tearful agreement with Laura, and decided what to do next. Laura left school and moved home to Schenectady. Self-centered, insensitive person that I am, I didn’t realize until a few years later that she’d done so because of me. As for me, California suggested itself. I took forty bucks from my mother’s hoard of cash and headed for the interstate, wearing a canvas knapsack with one change of clothes, a tent and thin cloth sleeping bag, and nothing else to my name.

I got to Medina, Ohio the first night. I walked into the police station, said I was heading to California looking for work, and asked if there was any place in town I might spend the night without bothering anyone. The police chief of Medina, Ohio was a very nice young woman who called the local homeless charity — which was apparently sitting around waiting for someone to be homeless — and they put me up in a motel. The police chief kept asking whether I wanted pie.

I was, back then, 5’9” and weighed 120 pounds soaking wet. I probably looked like I needed pie.

The next morning I was on the Interstate again, thumb out. Someone offered me a ride a little ways: he was turning off just ahead to head to southern Ohio, to visit a hippie herb farm in the Appalachians. I decided that sounded fun and tagged along. A mistake, kind of. First rule of cross-country hitchhiking: don’t forget where you want to go. I didn’t get to California for another five years.

I was terrified. Alone and on my own, a runaway, unused to doing anything for myself other than sulking, and heading who knew where. The Christianity seeped back into me.

The herb farmers were very nice, Ron and Ann, and a baby, Dylan, who would be 29 now. (Fuck, I’m old.) They offered to let me camp on their land, and then when it got down to about 20 degrees Ann insisted I sleep on their couch.

I lay there and realized that as the infectious tendrils of Christianity had once again metastasized though my heart, the obstacle to my engagement to Laura had gone away. I decided to head for Schenectady.

The next day I walked five miles down Ron and Ann’s driveway to the road, then another two to town. I bought a couple packs of cigarettes and some matches and hitched south. I crossed the Ohio River into Kentucky at Portsmouth, walking across on a long silver bridge. A few rides in succession took me to Ashland, into West Virginia at Huntington, and to Charleston. I stood at the interchange of Interstates 64 and 77 in Charleston, thumb out, and after half an hour a bearded guy in a pickup offered me a ride north on 77.

“Don’t you get scared doing that?” he asked. “Sometimes,” I said, “but I just pray for strength.” And he started digging frantically in the cardboard box he had next to him on the bench seat. I thought to myself “He’s either gonna pull out a gun or a Bible.” It was a Bible. He pressed it on me, told me he’d wanted to give it away. He dropped me off in Ripley. I stood there hitching for an hour. A school bus full of kids drove by a block away. One of the kids yelled out the window. “Hi, hippie!” I waved.

In Caldwell, Ohio that night — yes, I know it sounds aimless: the meandering route made sense to me at the time — I again walked into the local police station to ask where I could stay. The chief was not a friendly, pie-offering young woman, but rather a lanky guy with a cop mustache and a Stetson hat who asked me to wait in the lobby for a moment. The door to the back failed to shut all the way, and I overheard the discussion he was having. I heard the words “runaway,” “marijuana,” and “run a computer check.” I was a runaway, and I knew my mother would have filed a missing persons report on me within hours of my leaving.

I opened up the Bible, started reading.

The chief came out and sat down across the room from me. He asked me a few questions. I would look up from my book at him, answer the question brightly and politely, and then look back down to the book again. After a few iterations of this he got impatient. “What’s that you’re reading, son?” His voice was noticeably sharper, annoyed at my rude behavior in continuing to read a book while a duly sworn officer of the law was asking me questions.

I handed him the Bible. He looked at it for a second. He handed it back.  He got up, went to the back for a moment, came back with a slip of paper, folded. “Give this to the woman who runs the hotel across the street,” he said.

I walked out of the police station, went around the corner and read the note. It said “Ruth; please find this young man a bed for the night. He is OK.” Signed the Chief of Police, Caldwell Ohio.

I ate at a diner in the center of town, which center of town was about two blocks long in either direction. The waitress, who was about 19, opined that I was crazy to hitchhike. I slept in a flophouse room with eight empty beds crammed into it, a hissing steam radiator in the corner, bathtub down the hall and television in the common area.

I got stuck the next day in Pennsylvania. I was dropped off at a rural interchange between Interstates 70 and 79. It was a high-speed interchange. No one was stopping for me. I decided, after an hour, to walk to the next exit along country roads I saw in the distance.

One of them took me several miles to a dead end at the edge of a field. I tried to be upset. I failed. I went into the woods, sat on a log and read Ecclesiastes.

That night in Youngwood I decided to try the YMCA before the cops. They wanted seventy bucks for a room. The cops suggested a park near downtown. “Just sleep in the picnic area,” the cop said on the phone. “If you see a black and white coming up to you during the night, don’t worry. I’ll just ask the night officers to keep an eye on you.”

I slept atop a picnic table, shivering.

The next morning a cop pulled up, asked me how I’d slept, waited while I rolled up the sleeping bag and gave me a ride to the edge of town. At the edge of town was a restaurant. “I’ll buy you breakfast,” said the cop. After we ate he handed me ten bucks. He wouldn’t budge until I took it. The bus station was two miles away, in downtown Greensburg. I walked there through a downpour.

The bus from Greensburg stopped at the downtown Pittsburgh Greyhound station. I went to the counter, asked how much a ticket to Schenectady was. It was five dollars more than I had. I bought a ticket to Buffalo. By the time the bus crossed the line into New York that Christianity had oozed out of me again, and it never came back.

A year later, melancholy, I found Laura’s phone number in Schenectady and dialed it. Her father answered. “She’s not here, who’s this?” I said it was Chris, and wondered if she’d call me back. “I’m sure she will, Chris!” “Let me give you my number.” “Well, goodness, I think she’d have your number, Chris! She’d sure as heck have her fiancé‘s phone number, wouldn’t she?”

Laura had gone back home and gotten engaged to a guy named Chris.