Friday, May 16, 2008

Loving Couples

The California Supreme Court ruled that same-sex marriage is legal under state law yesterday.

If you click on the headline to this post, you can find a link to the pdf version of the court's ruling.

As a news junkie, and one who enjoys studying public records, this document is a joy to read.

It is a perfect case study for law school professors. Everybody remembers the joyful images of loving couples a few years back (one full national election cycle, to be precise) when San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom declared same-sex marriage legal in our city.

There are those who claim that those images, and the reaction they set off among social conservatives, helped an otherwise incompetent President defeat the much-more qualified war hero, John Kerry.

Could history repeat itself this year? I hope not. Somehow, the supposed "public" outrage over same-sex couples getting married seems to be running out of steam in America. Maybe it's a person by person thing? You know, you know someone who knows someone. Or, perhaps you've tired of the sanctimonious preaching of hypocrites who shout loudly against homosexuals only to turn out to have, shall we say, sexual issues of their own.

Or maybe you've observed that when it comes to truly loving another person, sexual preference has nothing to do with it.

Of course, I am probably too idealistic, too naive. Even as I write these words, there are people whose saliva smells like rotten meat as they prepare propositions that will overturn the court's decision. Conventional wisdom is this window of opportunity for those whose partner happens to be of the same sex will close less than half a year after it has opened.

If so, that will be sad. But this story will not end until those opposing same-sex marriage give up. You can fight all you want, but you cannot hold back history. On a planet with such mammoth problems, the trivial focus of social conservatives never ceases to amaze me.

All they need is a bit of therapy, in order to resolve their own, obvious sexual identity confusion. No one else would bother to wage this silly battle. But, of course, like their pathetic poster boy, Sen. Larry Craig, they will be the last ones to seek help.


Many Sides to Every Story

As a journalist, I've long been aware of the low regard the public affords my profession. As a media critic myself, and one who launches many verbal attacks on the companies that control the traditional mainstream media, I probably add in some small way to general perception that journalism in our time is flawed.

So, it may seem counter-intuitive that I continue to think of my trade as a noble one. So many special interests maintain that they see a "liberal bias" in the press, or a "conservative bias." Conspiracy theorists invariably group "the media" into their fantasies, regardless of which other elements make up their story.

I am told, variously, that media are controlled by "multinational corporations," "MBA's," "Jews," "puppets," "sellouts," and "wannabe politicians." Trouble is, none of that rings true with my experience. The best evidence available suggests in fact that nobody controls the media.

Start with the people who actually do the work -- reporters. Anyone who thinks it is easy to tell a reporter what to do has never tried to. Inside our craft, those of us who produce original reporting are notoriously cranky and resistant to authority. Our training is at the core of our nature -- we seriously seek to root out every aspect of whatever story we cover.

The most critical aspect of journalistic methodology is learning how to become your own worst devil's advocate, i.e., how to be self-conscious enough about your own set of biases and unexamined assumptions to prevent them from coloring your work. This isn't easy (try it sometime), and most of us, being mere mortals, fail more often than we succeed.

But what is noble about the profession is that most of us try to be fair.


In this context, I recently read an article from The New York Times Sunday Magazine that demonstrated some of the values described above. I rarely find anything to read in the current iteration of that particular magazine; it seems to be edited for people unlike me or anyone I know.

But in the case of Ronald Lowenstein"s "Entitled to What?" (May 4, 2008), I discovered a gem. It's a very short story, less than one page of text. In it, Lowenstein analyzed the three major Presidential candidates' views on one of most important (if least mentioned) issues facing the nation: The future of social security and Medicare.

John McCain wants to reduce entitlement spending, including the possibility of cutting social security benefits. He has proposed offering a universal health credit but then make employer health plans taxable.

Clinton has proposed a national 401(k) plan, with the government matching the first $500-1,000 a worker sets aside. The idea is to provide incentive to lower income people to save for their retirement.

Obama also wants to require employers to enroll employees in 401(k) plans, and withhold 3 percent of their salaries in order to stimulate the equivalent of a national retirement system. Employees could still opt out, or choose a higher savings rate.

None of these three is proposing the traditional "New Deal" of a bygone era. All favor using market incentives to change people's behavior. McCain wants to contain costs, and end the fiction that health care is "free." The two Democrats want to persuade more people to become savers in this nation of debtors.

Elements of all three plans have merit. Yet you almost never hear any of this discussed on the campaign trail. Try as I might, I can find no trace of obvious bias in Lowenstein's article; he is respectful toward all three plans.

I realize this article might seem "boring" to many people, accustomed as they are to the infotainment that often passes for journalism in this era. But to me it represents the best journalists have to offer -- a concise, fair analysis of a critical issue that affects all of us, our children and grandchildren, free from bias or agenda.

And if that isn't noble in these troubles times, I'm at a loss to identify something that is.


Thursday, May 15, 2008

What About Bob?*

Photo by Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

Every art lover has their own Robert Rauschenberg story; after all, in so many ways we are living in the Age of Rauschenberg. From my own humble perspective, it's simply a feeling of gratitude to the man who really opened my eyes to the connections between the Abstract Expressionist era (think Jackson Pollock) to the Pop era (think Andy Warhol).

Rauschenberg was truly amazing. I guess I identify with his habit of collecting castoff urban junk and capturing its essential beauty. Maybe the most dramatic example of this for me was his passion for old straight-backed wooden chairs. I've heard about times he tried to buy some old Southern restaurant's entire inventory. Sometimes, he would attach one of these beloved chairs to one of his oversized prints.

Last night, as I was absorbing news of his death on Monday, we were experiencing a rare tropical sunset here in the scorched Bay Area. It was so beautiful that I snapped photo after photo, much as I did down on Bob's beloved Captiva Island on the nights just before my own father died, also at age 82, just like Bob.

I also thought back to 1987, when my oldest daughter asked to be able to quit school on the mainland, across from Sanibel, because who would want to go to a school where kids had to be warned to not bring their guns to class?

So, her mother and I agreed she would "home-school." She soon met the one other child on the island homeschooling, a delightful girl around her age named Jessie.

Jessie's parents, Gus and Sue, were building contractors. They ran their business out of their home. Our families became good friends.

A few years later, when one of the many hurricanes that churn their way through the Gulf of Mexico each year inflicted a glancing but destructive blow to Sanibel and Captiva, Gus did what islanders always do in a time of trouble. He took his truck out on the road to help neighbors clear fallen trees, repair damage to their houses, and get back to normal.

One of the people he ran into was Bob. Gus had absolutely no idea who Bob was, but true to his spirit, he helped this stranger clear his lot and repair his damage. Gus never asked for a fee; that's not what this kind of thing is about, as anyone surviving a natural disaster easily understands.

When it turned out that Bob was a world famous artist, Gus was pleased to accept Bob's request that he build his (now legendary) studio on Captiva. If you read the Times' lovely obit (which you can access by clicking on the title of this post), you'll get some idea of the unprecedented scale of this building project for a guy like Gus.

I remember touring the half-finished studio with Gus and our kids one night. It was mind-boggling.

Suffice it to say Gus did a great job, and Bob paid him with a combination of cash and paintings. As to what to do with the latter, Gus turned to me. Thus, for a short time, I became an art dealer. Eventually, I was able to place three of the paintings for aound $400,000, if memory serves (always a question around here.)

Gus himself wrapped and accompanied the first two paintings out here to the Bay Area in order to deliver them to our buyer, who was a friend of mine. (The other sale I made was in Paris.)

My friend later told me that the value of the paintings was nowhere near the price she paid, and I felt sad for her. She told me this as I toured her house and admired others in her collection, including early Jackson Pollocks.

She dumped them for about a third of what she paid, and who knows where those pieces are tonight. But now Bob is dead, I suspect whoever owns them will be able to claim a nice return on the investment. Hell, if I had the cash, I'd buy them myself, just for the memory.

Rest in peace, Bob Rauschenberg!


*Apologies to whoever wrote the title to director Frank Oz's excellent Bill Murray/Richard Dreyfuss comedy.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Success! (Plus The Death of An Artist)

My driving student aced her driving test today! After 23 lessons over the past two-and-a-half months, today she took the DMV test and made no mistakes.

That's the big news here in the Mission, where we are experiencing a heat wave. The temperature reached 90 degrees, and tomorrow, it's supposed to go over 100!

All around, I see the beauty crafted by the mixture of sun and rain this season.

So many different colors! No artist could duplicate this loveliness.

But then again, today my heart is heavy due to the news of the passing of the great artist Robert Rauschenberg, at his home on Captiva Island in Florida.

I will have more to say about his art and his life tomorrow. But, for now, all I can say is we have lost a master and a teacher, not just about art but about the art of living.

My own connection to "Bob" was marginal -- I sold several of his paintings during my brief career as a part-time art dealer, and never actually met him. But, I did meet his partner, Darryl, and tonight I am feeling sad for him. Also, as a witness to Bob's art in the '90s, when he was not necessarily at the top of his game, I can attest to how wonderful it felt to have his paintings in the house.

His work always inspired the rest of us to think bigger, try harder, and not stop caring. He once said something that everyone, including those in business, art, parenting, or any other worthwhile pursuit should ponder:

"Being correct is never the point...Being right can stop all the momentum of a very interesting idea."

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Home Cooking and the Life of a Judge

A school project by my youngest involves the character pictured above.

Here we sit in the land of money. There was a time, not so long ago, that a handful of $100 bills equated to at least a modicum of wealth, in the global context. No longer. Ten of these won't take you far in most places around the world nowadays.

It is axiomatic that middle class Americans are struggling right now, but why? As I have noted before, all of us have much more money than the great majority of others around this world.

IMHO, what we lack is impulse control. Why buy something just to feel better about yourself in the moment? Our federal government is gambling on your inability to resist that kind of impulse. That's why you are getting rebate checks this spring. The idea is that you are so clueless as to your actual economic status that you'll spend money you really should be saving, or using to pay down any debts you may have.


If you've read this far, you must be wondering what the hell the title of this post has to do with its content. Here you go: I spent three hours this afternoon cooking a version of Afghan lamb pilau. Of course, I had no rogan, so the taste was not quite right.

Meanwhile, I've been reading more than 100 articles this spring by journalists all over the country, in my capacity as a judge in three national competitions. It is a sobering experience reading these pieces. Even as the headlines declare that journalism is dying in this country, my living room is filled with evidence to the contrary.

So long as there are people willing to tell it as it actually is, journalism will not die. But, thinking back to Plato's Cave, maybe in fact all of the messengers will eventually be killed. If so, consumers will actually buy the bullshit when their government sends them a rebate check and urges them to waste it on more junk they do not need.

I hope not.


Monday, May 12, 2008

You Say Hello to Summer; I Say Good-Bye

Lovely little Reina, a friend's daughter, at 22 months, moves around so quickly that most photos of her surely must be blurred. She loves the kid shows on Japanese TV, as well as rice balls with salmon, seaweed, potato salad and cold asparagus. But she is afraid of strange men, not necessarily a bad way to be.

Many adults, especially men, are relatively clueless how to relate to children. Maybe
they forget that in an infant's eyes, we are monstrously huge and loud. Looming in on them is never a good idea. Maybe you're going to eat them!

Far above a ridge in San Mateo yesterday, from the deck of Reina's parents' home, I watched a huge hawk glide over the wooded hills, seeking prey. To have the eyesight of a hawk! At times I've witnessed their sudden dives, streaking toward earth like a meteor, only to swoop back up, never having touched the ground, but now with a mouse squirming in their beak.

That reminds me of the story the owner of a building in the Haight told me recently. Behind the building is a small atrium, that from above, must only fleetingly be visible to anything flying over the neighborhood. She has a pool in the atrium, and she used to have koi in the pool.

Then, one day, she was horrified to witness a pelican dive straight into her pool, its huge jaws scooping up all the fish in the process. We're talking needle-in-the-haystack predation here. How can anyone consider Nature benign? Have they never been out in Nature?

For most people, summer is coming soon. For me, this is the last week of "summer," i.e., the past eight months of working from my home, consulting, blogging, and taking life relatively easy. Next Monday, I start a new job (more about that another time), and I am excited to be going back to work in the Valle d' Silicon.

Nature has decided to visit us with a sunny, hot spell this week -- supposedly the temp will reach the 90s. If so, maybe I'll go to the beach and collect more seaglass for my large (though lately neglected) collection...


p.s. Numbers Report: In other news, the El Matate Burritos are in first place and the Mud Lake Mafia are in second place. These fantasy baseball teams are generating by far the best statistics of any of my teams over the years.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Mother's Day

For many years, I enjoyed sending my mother flowers and gifts on this day. I did so right up until her last year on earth, 2002.

All of my kids do things for their Moms on this day. JuJu is particularly attentive, spending care and time as she creates a card.

She also knows the perfect gift. "A son's a son until he takes a wife; a daughter's a daughter all of your life." That's the way the folk saying goes. But it isn't necessarily true. I know daughters so alienated from their mothers that they never speak to them.

I know sons so devoted that they never leave home.

Whatever. I think the greatest wisdom a parent can acquire is how to let go. Let your kids be free, when they are ready to be. That way, they'll come back some day, and you'll be thrilled to see them.

It's not for a parent to control, but to guide, and ultimately, to step aside. Happy Mother's Day to all of you who are mothers. Whether your kids call or not, you are most probably in their minds...