Devoted to A Fault

The following was reported in late 2007 and early 2008.
Phil Stoffer squinted through the glass to see a sign of the past and, almost certainly, the future of this part of California. He knew what he was looking for and grinned when he found it. It was a crack, a big one. Stoffer held a hand near his wire-rimmed glasses to block the glare and traced the path of the crack as it ran along the high ceiling, then down a sea-green wall. Smaller cracks fractured the wall farther down and along a sweeping flight of stairs to the floor.

We were in Hayward, California, a small city across the bay from San Francisco, south of Oakland, north of San Jose. We stood in a little alcove pressing our noses against the outside of a modest side door. We were looking into what was, once upon a time, Hayward City Hall. It looked the part. It was an imposing concrete structure painted a sandy beige. It had a cornerstone inscribed MCMXXX and was decorated with geometric art deco flourishes and cornices shaped like the heads of cattle and goats. On one side of the building was busy Mission Boulevard, where Stoffer’s car was parked, and some landscaped grounds. Near its southern corner was a shiny, new playground where children swung back and forth through the air. There were a few other buildings on the block, but this one was abandoned, full of broken windows and old office equipment. Stoffer pointed out more cracks.

They were evidence of a much larger crack in the ground underneath. That crack is the Hayward Fault. Though the nearby San Andreas Fault is more famous, and much bigger, scientists like Phil Stoffer believe the Hayward poses a more imminent threat to northern California. Stoffer is a geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey who works from an office in Menlo Park, one of the small cities that make up Silicon Valley. Much of Stoffer’s current work entails mapping the remoter parts of Arizona’s Navajo reservations, where the geology is not overlain by development. But Stoffer had also been assembling a layman’s guide called “Where’s the Hayward Fault?

The answer to that question is unsettling: the Hayward Fault is under one town after another along the eastern edge of San Francisco Bay. In his guide, Stoffer describes sites along the fault that are of historical or geological interest. He also highlights locations where locals can reach the fault by bicycle, foot, or mass transit (but not by car—it’s subtitled “A Green Guide to the Fault.”). The day we visited Hayward, we were going to add a few more sites to his guide.

This project is part of a larger effort this year to highlight the Hayward Fault. A group called the 1868 Hayward Earthquake Alliance is commemorating the 140th anniversary of a big earthquake on the fault. The alliance’s chairman is Tom Brocher, a senior USGS seismologist. If 140 is an unusual number for an anniversary, Brocher has his reason: “The Hayward Fault takes about 140 years to accumulate strain for a big earthquake. And that time has pretty well come and gone.”

sidewalk_shift_tel_mg_1711Stoffer set off past the expansive set of concrete steps at the city hall’s main entrance and ambled along a cement sidewalk around the corner of the building. He carried a coffee cup and wore blue jeans and a plain gray sweatshirt with the initials USGS printed in small letters on the front. I followed him around the corner. Several feet in, the sidewalk on that side of the city hall abruptly shifted to the right, putting a kink into the straight ribbon of cement. It looked as if the workers who laid it down realized, after planting a few squares of cement, that they had misread the plans by a couple of inches.

curbcrop_tel_mg_1724 In a parking lot full of cars north of the old city hall, Stoffer pointed to a red brick building with dozens of metal plates screwed into the walls. “Classic retrofit,” he said. He continued north and admired several curbs that had been either cracked or warped severely, each one veering to the right and then straightening again, as if correcting course. We stopped in another parking lot and Stoffer paced back and forth along a series of cracks in the asphalt, each about a foot long. The cracks were parallel to each other and scudded along an invisible line through the parking lot, like the wrinkles at the corner of a smile or a string of Christmas lights.

“These are en echelon cracks,” Stoffer said. They had formed because the Hayward Fault was directly underneath the parking lot. As the chunks of earth on either side of the fault crept past each other, the moving earth tugged at the asphalt above, cracking it. The fault also created the kink in the sidewalk, and the bent curbs; it’s the reason the old city hall was cracked and abandoned.

Stoffer swung his arm roughly northwest to southeast, indicating the trend of the en echelon cracks. They emanated from a small shop next to the lot, On Time Signs. Stoffer opened the door, a little bell rang, and soon a young woman appeared at the counter, asking if she could help us. Stoffer needed information: “Do you make neon signs?”

They did. He asked how much it might cost to make a little green dinosaur. He had been toying with an idea for another project, which he declined to describe. He asked how much neon lettering costs. The woman told him that the price depends on the number of bends it takes to make each letter. He asked her what she thought of working on top of a fault.

A couple of weeks earlier, an earthquake occurred near San Jose, on yet another Bay Area fault, the Calaveras. The Bay Area took notice—it had a magnitude of 5.6 and was felt throughout the region. The next day, the San Francisco Chronicle warned that this quake increased the chances of earthquakes “along the much more dangerous Hayward Fault.” Stoffer thought of it as the “perfect” earthquake. Perfect because it did so little damage, yet was big enough to be widely felt and covered by all the local media. It reminded locals that they live among active faults. And it gave Stoffer and his colleagues an opportunity to talk about the threat posed by the Hayward Fault, as well as the need to be prepared.

“It’s a concern,” the woman behind the counter answered. “But what are you going to do?”

Lake Temescal
Stoffer wanted to visit Lake Temescal to take some photos for his guide. He had some trouble getting there. Most of that trouble came from other cars. It was a long drive from Hayward to this little corner of a long valley tucked into the exclusive hill neighborhoods of Oakland. He drove a red Subaru wagon with a Darwin fish affixed to the back. Stoffer had to swerve mightily to avoid being sideswiped by a truck as he drove onto highway 254, then got caught in a jam on interstate 880, surrounded by rumbling tractor trailers bound for the nearby Port of Oakland. He negotiated the traffic and switched onto the 980. “Look at this tangle of freeways,” he said as he passed under a knot of freeway interchanges that rose two, three, and four stories into the air. Here the 980 met the 580 and became state highway 24. “Would you want to be here during a major earthquake? I assume it’s built to code.”

The exit for Lake Temescal was poorly marked. Stoffer’s first glimpse of it was at 40 miles per hour as he zipped past, consequently merging from highway 24 onto the Warren Freeway. He took the nearest exit and hooked onto a street called Broadway Terrace; it shunted us up a steep hill and into the affluent upper Rockridge section of Oakland. Far below were Lake Temescal and the fault.

Stoffer drove down the other side of the hill, passing huge homes. He followed the road through a golf course and stopped at a crosswalk to let a golf cart cross to the next hole. As he circled back to Lake Temescal, he craned his head over the dash to better examine the pavement ahead of him. “Gosh, those cracks running down here are pretty suspect.”

After a few more turns, Stoffer pulled into the parking lot at Lake Temescal. One side of the lot was hemmed in by a steep hillside—the same hill Stoffer had just crested. At the very top was a house that looked like it was built on the crowns of the trees below it. A little push, it seemed, and the house might tumble into the lot.

Stoffer rummaged in the back seat and pulled out a tripod and a pair of small digital cameras, which he screwed onto a metal bar on the top of the tripod. As part of his field guide, he was also including 3-D photographs of cracks, buildings, or the scenery—thus the twin cameras, which, like a pair of eyes, would produce a stereoscopic view. He walked over a green, manicured knoll to get a better view of the lake.
Temescal is a sag pond , dammed at one end to hold water, that formed in a depression in the ground—a sag—created by the Hayward Fault. During hot summer days, it is a popular swimming spot. On its northeast shore is a small stretch of beach and nearby is a stone house built by the Works Progress Administration.  But that November morning, the kids who might otherwise be found there were in school at nearby Chabot Elementary and College Prep. The lake was quiet, its surface interrupted only by a few ducks. A light fog hung overhead, and the leaves on some of the trees had turned. It looked like a Hudson River School painting.

Stoffer took a couple of snapshots and then strode across the grass in search of signs of the fault. He studied several cracks in a paved hiking path, but didn’t think they showed anything. He wandered closer to the highway and sized up several ruptures in the pavement. Tree roots, he decided.

The Hayward Fault runs along the length of this valley. It’s believed to be the reason the valley exists, its motion enabling the forces of erosion to carve the valley out more easily.  But Stoffer was searching for signs of creep. He wasn’t having any luck.

The blocks of earth along the three miles of the fault just below the surface tend to move past each other slowly, on the order of a few millimeters per year.  That motion, or creep, can often be detected as it damages all the stuff people build above the fault—like downtown Hayward. (Unsatisfied with our initial survey, Stoffer went back to Lake Temescal and found en echelon cracks and an old rail tunnel that had been offset by creep at the lake’s southern end.)

“The little effects,” Stoffer said, “aren’t anything tremendous. But it’s an amazing story.” Still, those little effects are only the faintest harbingers of the fury buried miles below the surface. The fault extends about eight miles below ground,  and the sections of earth along the fault below the three-mile mark—the part that’s not creeping—are stuck to each other. Because they aren’t moving, they are building up the stress that fuels a big earthquake.

Tom Brocher, the USGS seismologist, visualizes the earth on either side of that deep section of the fault as a pair of metal sheets similar to those seen on roads. They lie flat, and are pressed together along their thin edges. At a few places, those sheets are welded together—in geological terms, those spot welds are called asperities. “And somebody has grabbed these plates and tried to rip them apart,” Brocher said in an interview in his office. His hands pantomimed someone struggling to open a stuck drawer. “For a while, those welds will hold. But eventually they break. And that’s the earthquake.”

A recent USGS map shows many of the fault’s active surface traces, a series of bold red lines that underlie homes and offices and roads.  But in some places, like Lake Temescal, the line peters out, replaced by a timid little thread showing where the trace of the fault probably is.  Stoffer wouldn’t be making that red line any bolder the day he visited.

“This would be a good place to come after a major earthquake,” he said, as he walked back to his car. “At least you’d have water.”

* * *

Hayward House knocked over in 1868
Photo from Bancroft Library and the Online Archive of California.
The Hayward Fault
At 7:53 in the morning on October 21, 1868, a major earthquake struck the Bay Area. It had a magnitude of about 7, scientists believe. It occurred on the Hayward Fault. The shaking lasted for more than 40 seconds and damaged property throughout the Bay Area. Thirty people died. It was known as the “great quake” until the 1906 earthquake supplanted it. Most of the buildings in Hayward suffered severe damage or were destroyed. As one USGS publication notes, “few places have paid so dearly to have an earthquake fault named after them.” This is the earthquake that Tom Brocher and his 1868 Hayward Earthquake Alliance want people to know about.

Tom Brocher looks at a bookOn a bookshelf in Brocher’s office at the USGS campus in Menlo Park sits an empty box of novelty earthquake cake (“My wife gave it to me. But I ate it,” he admitted). Next to it is a small toy globe with a little string dangling from it. Brocher pulled the string and the planet trembled in his hand. He considered an Arnold Schwarzenegger bobble-head doll on another shelf. “I haven’t taken it out of the box,” he said, “but it would be a good earthquake detector.”

The alliance is a coalition of public and private bodies dedicated to raising awareness of, and promoting preparation for, the threat posed by the Hayward Fault. (Stoffer told me that it was Brocher who asked him to put together the Hayward Fault guide.) The Bay Area has a 63 percent chance of a major earthquake in the next three decades, and the Hayward Fault is the likeliest to rupture. “We tell people there’s a two-thirds chance,” Brocher said. “Somehow it’s not as compelling as telling the 140-year story.”

Brocher does not look forward to another earthquake. He remembered the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, the last major quake to hit the area.

“Generally when you feel an earthquake, you feel it at its maximum and it kind of decays,” he said. “That earthquake, every new wave was bigger than the one before. They just kept getting bigger and bigger and bigger, and I wondered, ‘When is it going to stop getting bigger?’”

But he cautioned against using the Loma Prieta as an indication of what to expect from a Hayward earthquake. For one thing, that quake was too far away. “The Hayward Fault—when it ruptures, it’s going to be in people’s back yards. That’s the reality we need to prepare for. It’s no good preparing for Loma Prieta.”

It’s an 1868-style earthquake that worries Brocher and the alliance. The Bay Area was far less developed in 1868. Hayward was a town of about 500 people; San Francisco had 150,000 residents. More than five million people would feel a Hayward quake today. A trillion-and-a-half dollars worth of property would be at risk.

Those figures come from a company called Risk Management Solutions, headquartered in a corporate office park in Newark, south of Hayward, along the edge of the bay. Its specialty is modeling catastrophes and quantifying their risks for insurance companies—whether earthquakes, hurricanes, terrorism, or plagues. A portrait of Tetsuya Fujita, whose name puts the “F” in the F-scale of tornado strength, hangs in one hallway. In the lobby, display cases hold free reports on China’s 1976 Tangshan earthquake and the threat of a flu pandemic.

RMS predicts losses of about $165 billion worth of property. Of that, $75 billion would be commercial; the remaining $90 billion would be residential property. “They’re staggering numbers,” said Mary Lou Zoback, vice president of earthquake risk applications at the company and a geophysicist. Only a fraction of that is covered by insurance, and, after deductibles and limits to coverage, insurance companies are only on the hook to pay about $4.5 billion to homeowners affected by a quake.

“In insurance terms, we call it a super catastrophe, or super cat,” she said. The effects ripple beyond the immediate losses, as people have difficulty getting to work and utilities—water, power, gas—take time to come back on line, resulting in lost business and wages. “People come from other countries and say, ‘We’re in America, the most advanced country in the world. Surely it’s better prepared than, say, Guatemala.’ Well, it may not be.”

The 1995 earthquake in Kobe, Japan, helps put the potential damage from a Hayward quake in perspective. Kobe is sited along the Osaka Bay, and its Nojima Fault is the same kind and roughly the same length as the Hayward Fault. It is a major population center bound by mountains on one side, water on the other, and heavily populated flat land in between. In Kobe, a phenomenon called liquefaction was a major source of damage. When liquefaction occurs, the ground loses stability because it is saturated with water. As a result, buildings, sidewalks, roads, and other structures can sink or tip over. Geologists expect similar damage along the margins of San Francisco Bay, as well as strong shaking throughout the flatlands. The Oakland and San Francisco airports, as well as all port facilities, may be severely affected.

Much of the major infrastructure of the region has been, or is in the process of being, retrofitted to improve its ability to withstand earthquake. But homes and businesses are another thing. In 1996, the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute released a report on the possible effects of a Hayward quake. One chapter is entitled “Commercial and Residential Buildings Affected by Ground Motions.” It was written by a structural engineer who traveled along the fault, highlighting buildings that he expected would be damaged or destroyed. Twelve years later, he doesn’t think much has changed.

“Since 1906, the Bay Area’s only experienced one big earthquake: Loma Prieta in 1989,” said Brocher. “So in the last hundred years, we’ve only had 15, 20 seconds of strong shaking. That’s not much over a hundred years.”

During that century, much of the infrastructure of the Bay Area was built: the freeways, the bridges, the skyscrapers in San Francisco, the continuous band of homes and businesses along the Hayward Fault. Brocher contrasted this with the half-century before 1906, when earthquakes measuring in the magnitude five to six range occurred every two or three years. Brocher thought that if these kinds of earthquakes happened more often, it would spur greater preparedness.

tombstone_fig06Brocher opened a drawer in his desk and pulled out a booklet called “Putting Down Roots in Earthquake Country,” a guide describing the region’s seismic situation and how residents can strengthen their homes. He flipped to a chart showing the number of known earthquakes higher than magnitude 5.5 since 1836. Each earthquake was represented by a rectangle that indicated its size. The largest rectangle was in 1906. The 1868 and 1989 earthquakes also figured prominently. From 1928 to 1968, there were no notable earthquakes at all. The timeline stretched into the future, showing a 62 percent probability of at least one earthquake of magnitude 6.7 or higher by 2032.

“We call this the tombstone diagram,” Brocher said.

tel_mg_1743The Claremont
“Any reason I can’t park here?” Stoffer asked as he stopped his car in what was clearly not a parking spot. The Claremont Hotel and Spa nudges against the fault for about a fifth of a mile and he wanted some pictures of the building. He had navigated through a couple of small lots on the Claremont property, but all were full. He ended up on a triangular wedge of asphalt on one of the hillside lots overlooking the building.

Stoffer stepped out of his car to a commanding view of the shimmering white hotel: white walls, white roof, white tower. He set up his tripod with the dual cameras and leaned back, squinting at each of the cameras. He snapped a pair of photos for his field guide. I asked him if he had made the camera rig himself. “Oh, yeah,” he answered. Then joked, “Boredom.” Stoffer has been shooting 3-D photographs for years. One of his biggest projects is a web site highlighting the geology of the Southwest’s national parks. His office is like a museum of fossils and crystals he’s collected over the years. On one wall, over his desk, is a mounted jackalope head. It wears a pair of red and blue 3D glasses.

Stoffer headed down the hill to the entrance. Valets scurried under a green awning, helping new arrivals with their luggage and their cars. A stylish young woman hurried out of the building, talking into her cell phone about a spa appointment. Stoffer walked past the valet station to what looked to be a small maintenance passage. According to his map, a known trace of the fault was less than a hundred feet away. He noticed some cracks in the wall, then leaned close and looked along the plane of the wall. It was slightly warped. A nearby cement planter appeared to be pulled apart. And, in the valet parking lot, between a pair of late-model Mercedes sedans, Stoffer spotted what he called a pull-apart offset, creating a tiny rift in the fresh blue-black asphalt. None of this was definitive, but all of it, as far as Stoffer was concerned, was highly suspect.

“It’s a tough game to find creep movement,” a geologist named Jim Lienkaemper said one afternoon in his office at the USGS. The evidence around the Claremont, for example, has always been “kind of iffy stuff.” Lienkaemper has been studying the Hayward Fault for 20 years. A fresh printout was taped to his door. It was a graph covered with little hieroglyphics, the product of his latest Hayward Fault survey. Each fall he maps it again, surveying the infinitesimal distances that different sections of the fault crept during the previous year.

Over the last few millennia, the earth along the fault has moved an average of about nine millimeters every year, almost four inches. That number is the combined movement from both the gradual creep and the abrupt slip along the fault from a quake. Measuring the amount of creep at a given segment of the fault gives an idea of how much movement might occur in an earthquake. In other words, if Lienkaemper measured nine millimeters of creep each year along some segment of the fault, he wouldn’t expect major slip there during an earthquake because all of the tectonic energy was being released. But the average creep rate along the Hayward is about 4.5 millimeters each year, not far enough to release all that stress. In a big earthquake, he speculated that sudden ground movement of a meter or more might be seen on the surface.

The crack Stoffer found at the Claremont could be another, unmapped trace of the fault. Lienkaemper acknowledged that he can only map the traces he knows about. There are always undiscovered traces. “We’ll know when the Big One comes,” he said. “We’ll have a lot of new stuff to map.”

Back in the Claremont parking lot, Stoffer approached the valet station. An attendant asked if he could be of assistance.

“Do you know where the Hayward Fault is?” he asked the valet.

The valet looked puzzled and thought for a moment. He scratched his head. “Doesn’t it run through Cal Stadium?” he asked.

Stoffer grinned and swung his arm toward a spot beyond the Mercedes sedans. “It’s right there!” he said. The valet smiled politely, but didn’t say anything else.

“It’s classic,” Stoffer told me soon after. “He works there and he doesn’t even know.”

* * *

Getting Ready
The 1868 Earthquake Alliance held its April 2008 meeting in an Oakland building undergoing a seismic retrofit. In the lobby, plywood and plastic sheeting was scattered along the walls. Inside of a conference room, thirty people had gathered to talk about the Hayward Fault. There were several geologists in attendance, including Tom Brocher, Jim Lienkaemper, and Phil Stoffer. Some people were from local businesses, others from local governments. One was a newspaper reporter. Mary Lou Zoback, from Risk Management Solutions, talked about the property loss figures from a hypothetical quake. She added that the worst damages were likely to occur in the among the poorest populations, and that disaster planning needs to account for the numerous languages spoken by the people who live in these areas.

Brocher, as chair of the alliance, discussed plans for the October 2008 commemoration of the 1868 earthquake. The event would take place at the Mission San Jose in Fremont, at the southern end of the fault. Exactly 140 years earlier, the morning earthquake destroyed the mission’s church. The anniversary would be marked at the precise day, hour, and minute that the quake struck. “And of course,” Brocher said with a grin, “we expect every member of the alliance to show up at 7:50.”

“Ouch,” said one of the attendees. “It’s better than 5:12,” countered Zoback, to laughter. She was referring to the annual 1906 commemoration in downtown San Francisco—timed to coincide with the early morning moment of the 1906 quake. In 2006, Zoback, then at the USGS, held the same regional coordinator position that Brocher has now, and was a leader of the 1906 Earthquake Centennial Alliance, established for the same reason as the 1868 Alliance.

Brocher declared that he wanted to try educating the public about preparation in new ways. He wanted awareness events to be more fun. He floated the possibility of hiring an airplane to fly above the fault, pulling a banner that said, “Drop, Cover, and Hold.” These are the instructions for what someone should do during an earthquake: drop to the floor, take cover under something like a table, and hold on until the shaking stops.

One of the businessmen said that Brocher would have to make it clear this was an educational message, not a warning. Otherwise, he worried, people would expect something to drop out of the plane.

Brocher grinned again. “Obviously we haven’t thought this all through yet.”

According to a 2007 Bay Area Red Cross survey, 83 percent of the region’s population is not prepared for an emergency. While government and large institutions like the University of California have been working to upgrade facilities and infrastructure to ride out a big quake, Zoback and others point out that while this may sound reassuring, the projects aren’t complete. The most visible example is the new eastern span of the Bay Bridge, which is scheduled to open in 2013—24 years after the Loma Prieta quake exposed its vulnerability.

Meanwhile, Ronald Hamburger, the structural engineer who wrote about which buildings might fall in the 1996 scenario, cautions that the situation among privately owned buildings is far from ideal. He admitted that his own home, two thousand yards from the San Andreas Fault, hadn’t been upgraded for a large earthquake. When he bought the house, he decided at the time that the risk of having an earthquake while he owned it, and with the amount of money he had at the time, didn’t warrant the expenditure.

It was a sentiment that Zoback had discussed with me. Preparation means thinking through a kind of cost-benefit analysis. “There’s a lot of upper middle class folks who have put in granite countertops and say, ‘Yeah, I’ll invest in retrofitting. Oftentimes what it costs to upgrade your structure is the same as what it costs to put in granite countertops.”

Two decades after buying his home, Ronald Hamburger changed his mind and decided to install seismic upgrades in his home. Hamburger was remodeling his kitchen and in the process would install shear walls to strengthen his house against shaking. I asked him if he might also be installing granite countertops.

“We are,” he answered. “A couple hundred bucks a foot.” I mentioned Zoback’s analogy. “Could be done for about the price of granite countertops,” he repeated, thinking it over. “Probably true. I am planning to do both.”

But even basic preparations are out of reach for some. Said Zoback: “There are a lot of people who have trouble putting food on the table, so when you talk about making kits that include food and water, some people may say, ‘We need that food now.’”

So one size does not necessarily fit all in terms of disaster preparation. (When I asked Zoback what the ultimate preparation would be, she thought for a moment, then wryly responded, “A second home in the Sierras.”) To someone like Ana-Marie Jones, that is the elephant in the room. She keeps a little pink plastic elephant stuck to the window of her office as a reminder.

Jones is the director of an Oakland organization called Collaborating Agencies Responding to Disasters. Despite the name, she has chosen not to participate in the 1868 Alliance.

She helps educate what she refers to as vulnerable populations. Her long list of the vulnerable includes people with physical and mental disabilities, immigrants, single parents, the elderly, the homeless, pregnant women, even tourists. Jones believes most advice is tailored for stable families who own their own homes. It doesn’t take the full range of populations into account.

Jones credited Brocher and Zoback, in particular, with trying to make the alliance’s education campaign appeal to more people. But one problem, she said, is that the message is coming from people who are expert in the threat. “It comes off as a high fear-based campaign,” she said. “Here we are after 1868, the time span is 140 years between great big earthquakes, this year is 140. It’s that kind of thing.”

Fear, to Jones, is bad strategy. It shuts people down. She keeps extra copies of a study by the American Red Cross published 16 years ago that concludes that using photos of destruction increases avoidance and denial behavior, keeping people from preparing for future disasters.

“I don’t believe you could come here, invest in a home, buy a car, fall in love, and have a happy, happy life, if, every moment of that life, you had to be sitting here thinking, ‘Any minute now, the earth could open up. I could lose my home. My friends could die.’ I just don’t believe we can sustain that,” Jones said. She started working full-time in preparedness education after the 1989 earthquake. Before that, she spent a decade in advertising and market research. That’s the approach she believes will work.

“How would you sell this sucker? You would never try to sell fear,” she told me. “You would never try to scare people into doing something that they have the right to say no to.” She cited a fear-based campaign that works—the push to get people to wear safety belts in order to avoid injury in a car crash. It works, she said, because if you aren’t wearing one, you can get a ticket. You’re punished. “What can I do to you if you don’t take on preparedness? Nothing.”

She is convinced that awareness campaigns should separate preparation from the threat of disaster. In the process, it should make preparation appealing. She compares this to advertisements designed to get you to brush and floss your teeth. “They don’t show you rotting teeth. They show beautiful people with beautiful teeth.” Her message is “prepare to prosper.”

She encourages people to start small and build on decisions that leave them feeling more confident right away. She distributes tiny flashlights and whistles that can be attached to key chains or backpacks. She wore a necklace with a whorled green and white globe hanging from it. When I asked her about it, she took it off and opened the globe. It was a locket made from silver and glass. Inside was a $100 bill.

Still, it is difficult to divorce the preparation from the disaster. Pam Grossman is a compact grandmother who lives in the Berkeley hills. One afternoon, she unlatched a couple of padlocks on the gray plastic shed near her garage. Her husband, Elmer, sat on a porch nearby, eating a sandwich and reading a copy of the New York Review of Books. She opened the doors and began to shuffle through its contents. “You can’t have enough masks, goggles, and gloves,” she said. Grossman picked up a nozzle that, attached to a garden hose, would create a high-pressure flow to fight the fires that flare up after a quake. “But the problem in Berkeley,” she said, “is the pipes are more than 100 years old. So they’ll probably disintegrate.” Mylar blankets, hard hats, and a medical kit sat on the shelves. On the ground, there was a 10-horsepower generator as well as some water containers. Grossman hefted a tool called a “come along,” which she expects will be used to lift large objects like tree branches or fallen beams. She put that down and picked up a Reliance brand “luggable loo”—a plastic toilet seat that can be fixed to a five-gallon bucket.

Grossman received most of these supplies from the city of Berkeley because she manages her neighborhood’s emergency response team. It includes 45 households and has been active for 20 years. They are organized under the premise that emergency crews will be too overwhelmed after a quake, and so the neighbors will have to step in. Grossman and her husband, a retired pediatrician, make up the medical team.

While Grossman has made it her mission to visit other neighborhoods and help them organize, she isn’t sure that’s enough. I asked her what she thought would motivate people to take preparation seriously.

“I think it’s gonna take a serious earthquake,” she said. Then she acknowledged that this would be too late.

Nearly every person I talked with echoed that sentiment. It would take a good-sized shaker up here to wake people up. Or a really strong one that, one expert hoped, would be far away in Southern California. And consistent, the way they were in the 1800s. Otherwise? “What I’ve experienced over thirty-odd years of practicing in this area,” said Ronald Hamburger, “is that people tend to become very concerned and focused for a period of 12 to 18 months after a significant event. Then their interest falls away exponentially with time. It’s now been 20 years since the last earthquake in the Bay Area and peoples’ interest is pretty low.”

But Jones bristles at the fatalism built into this perspective. “They say that all the time,” said Jones. “We said that after Loma Prieta, too. That’s a reason why a lot of people don’t want to hang around with the disaster folks. Because they say, ‘Oh, what we need is a really good earthquake to shake things up. What we really need is a little earthquake that happens every eight months or so to keep people moving around.’ Do you know how creepy that sounds to many people? And that’s what they say, all the time.”

As for neighborhood emergency response teams, Jones acknowledged that they can be useful, but difficult to sustain. “It’s hard to get people wanting to think about disasters,” she said.

Grossman seemed to acknowledge as much as she stood in her doorway, seeing me off. “If I weren’t around,” Grossman said, “people would slack off. I’ve got to keep lighting fires under them. Every neighborhood needs one of us. Or preferably two.”

* * *

Phil Stoffer in the stadium
Cal Stadium
Phil Stoffer entered the Berkeley campus with a trick up his sleeve. He pulled his car up to the lot attendant just outside of the university’s Memorial Stadium. “I’m a geologist,” he told the attendant, who shrugged and waved him in.

Stoffer walked into the northern end of the stadium, pausing to admire (and photograph) a vicious crack that cascaded down an interior wall. He continued onto the field, where he took a photo behind the goalpost, then walked to the southern end of the stadium. At section KK, he began to climb the bleachers.

Stoffer next to the expansion jointStoffer stopped on the very top, at a long yellow bench. Row 74, section KK. Behind the bench was a five-foot cement wall, the outer rim of the stadium. It was split vertically into two pieces. This wasn’t a crack, though there were cracks running alongside. It was an expansion joint built into the stadium structure. The Hayward Fault, above which the stadium is built, had taken full advantage. Since the stadium opened in 1923, the fault had slowly pulled it apart and opened a gap wide enough for a fist. The top was capped by a piece of rusty metal attached with rusty bolts to the concrete. A spectator could look through the wall, past the concrete and a naked piece of rebar, and see Oakland to the south. Stoffer paused to catch his breath after the climb up. He was excited, and seemed genuinely happy.

“That,” Stoffer said, “is probably the most famous spot on the Hayward fault.” He chuckled. “It’s just a ragged, broken gash.”

And he took a picture.

money, technology

Business As Usual, Three Months On

When the economy started its downward spiral in mid-September, the Chronicle asked some Bay Area businesspeople and economists for their perspectives on what was happening. Most struck a note of caution, the wait-and-see stance typical of that moment, since nobody really had any idea of what was happening.

A couple of sources seemed less worried. One, in particular, stood out by virtue of his prominence.

Eric Schmidt CEO, Google Inc., Mountain View

“If as a result of this debacle there is some huge change in the economic situation, that could affect us. My guess is the drama is in (Wall Street) and not here. It’s business as usual at Google.”

Fair enough. The drama was, to a great extent, on Wall Street. The ramifications, though, appear to be global.

Whatever business at usual may be at Google, with the benefit of hindsight, I’d say the economy’s recent state isn’t helping. Here is a chart of Google’s stock value, from June 30 to December 26, 2008:
google stock value from june to december 2008

beach, energy, environment, journalism, San Francisco, unfortunate

Bunker Fuel? What?

In my last post, I mentioned that the spill isn’t just oil, but bunker fuel. What’s bunker fuel?

It’s the stuff that runs big engines, like in an oil tanker or cargo ship. And it’s cheap, which is why these high volume users use it.

Last year, I interviewed Dave Culp, an engineer who designs ship sails (he started Kiteship), and we talked a little about bunker fuel. According to him, this is residual fuel–stuff that’s “left over after everything’s distilled out of crude. So sulfur, palladium, iron, even sand stays in the stuff that gets sold and burned in these ships. There’s 900 times as much sulfur in a gallon of residual fuel than in gasoline.”

“But ships don’t really have a choice because the industry is built around this cheap, plentiful fuel source,” he added.

It’s highly viscous. Imagine this thick, black, grainy shit. That’s what’s out there, in addition to the lighter gas or oil that’s slicking on the surface and covering the birds. Sfist is doing a good job of updating what’s happening on the beaches, where I’ve not made it yet. But I figure that’s what has washed up on shore, as seen in this photo from Sfist:

clump of oil

articles, beach, dissipation, energy, environment, journalism, language, really?

Newspapers Say the Darndest Things

Chronicle front page 8 november“Crunch!”? Really? 

A huge cargo ship bumps into the Bay Bridge and spills 58,000 gallons of bunker fuel–not just oil, but bunker fuel–and this is the Chronicle’s headline? Is it supposed to be a joke? 

When I looked at my copy this morning, I originally thought this was a feature recapping some little disaster that I hadn’t heard about. But, no. This is breaking news.

crime, dissipation, journalism, life, San Francisco, talent, unfortunate


In June, the Chronicle ran a good story about a woman who discovered—and pursued—the person who had stolen her identity. It is engaging to read and a lucky score for the Chronicle, a story like that, one that unfolds cinematically and neatly. There are advantages to being the only show in town, as far as full-fledged newspapers are concerned. Where else might we have heard this story, if not the Chronicle? The Examiner wouldn’t set aside the column space to do the story justice; local television wouldn’t have the minutes to spare; the blogs have to deal with the dumb rule that everything has to be short; and, frankly, there are no magazines in town that would have managed to fit the story into their pages–it’s not “big” enough to warrant a feature, but too long to cram into a short front-of-the-book piece (although, if following the trail of the identity thief meant you stopped at The City’s 10 Best Places to Eat/Shop/Fall in Love, things might be different).

Maybe there’s room for some other kind of publication that could produce stories like this.

It was written by Mike Weiss. Three months earlier, Weiss wrote about a waitress and bartender who stopped a man from drugging his date. But Weiss doesn’t only write about regular people outwitting the criminal element. He’s one of the best features writers at the Chronicle, possibly the best. He certainly seemed to have free reign for a reporter. His beat covered a little of everything in the Bay Area: San Francisco General Hospital, Gavin Newsom, passion, unsolved crime, solved crime, ash scattering, casualty notification officers, intelligent design, and Duarte’s olallieberry pies, among other things.  In short, he wrote what we vaguely call human interest stories, what editors even more vaguely call enterprise reporting, but what anyone who wants to be a reporter and actually likes to write dreams of getting paid to do–the closest thing around to the old Joseph Mitchell kind of reporting, the closest to the full-steam-ahead Talk of the Town piece.

So should it have come as a surprise that he’s part of the Chronicle‘s Summertime 2007 housecleaning?  Maybe not, but it’s too bad for those who bother to read what’s left of the Chronicle.

Frances Dinkelspiel posted a list of what appears to be all the staff who are leaving the Chronicle this summer. Besides Weiss, some of the others who I’m disappointed to see go include Anna Badkhen (now at the Globe), David Lazarus (going to the LA Times), Keay Davidson, Edward Epstein, Glen Martin, and what looks to be a significant chunk of the photo staff.

Only Catherine Bigelow and David Lazarus really got to say goodbye to their readers, through their columns. Mike Weiss used to have a column, too. And for that, he wrote his own farewell, six years ago. But there was an earlier column, on the 10th anniversary of the 1989 earthquake. He was in Candlestick Park when it struck. He wrote that all in attendance cheered when it was over. It was about close calls and survival.

“We had an opportunity to show what we were made of,” he wrote, “and we did. San Francisco survived to bicker another day. You and I are alive. It doesn’t get any better.”

The whole list after the jump. Continue reading

articles, journalism

Article Round-Up Fall 2006: KiteShips, Foot Patrols, Old Mint

Photomontage from the New York Times Magazine by Horacio Salinas

This has been a busy fall. Fortunately, I have a few things to show for it.

One published clip, for example.* It’s in this weekend’s New York Times Magazine (December 10, 2006), the “Ideas Issue.” It’s a short little idea entitled “Sailing an Oil Tanker,” and it describes a California-based company named KiteShip, which designs kite sails that they hope will one day pull big ships.

I’ve also written a few other articles, all on deadline, a mix of short feature and breaking stories:

  • A trio of articles on the now-failed Proposition 87, which would have taxed oil production in California to fund alternative energy research: the advance, the election night update, and the wrap-up.
  • I followed Phil Angelides as he took a turn through Chinatown during the last days of his campaign for governor against Arnold Schwarzenegger. It can be a challenge to portray political circus in a straight breaking news article.
  • I profiled a homicide victim named Sonia Ilustre, who was killed in San Leandro last September. I give great credit to my colleague Sonya Hubbard, who was able to score a key interview because the subject refused to speak to me.
  • I went out to “the corner” in West Oakland to see how residents were dealing with Oakland’s incredible murder rate. West Oakland, I should add, has been relatively quiet on the homicide front in comparison to East Oakland/Fruitvale and Deep East Oakland/Elmhurst.
  • Also in West Oakland, I reported on the unveiling of an anti-violence plan hatched by State Senate Presdient pro Tem Don Perata.
  • One of the most contentious issues in San Francisco city politics this fall has been the foot patrols proposed by District 5 Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi. This article was written after Supervisor Daly’s initial amendment to expand the patrols, but before the final expansion to cover the entire city, passage by the board, the mayor’s veto, and the board’s override.
  • Across 5th Street from the San Francisco Shopping Center and across Mission from the Chronicle Building is a stately, boarded up granite building. It’s the Old Mint, and it’s on its way to a new life as a museum.
  • In one of the first articles I wrote this fall, I roamed around the Tenderloin looking for a story. while everyone outside the Tenderloin proclaimed that it wouldn’t be hard to find a story, referring to its reputation for crime, the people who lived and worked there resented that perception.
  • And in September, I wrote a news article on the passage of a Board of Supervisors resolution opposing the Department of Homeland Security’s No-match letter policy. For some reason, this was not posted on North Gate, so I posted it here.

*Only one? Hmm. Good hustle—ed.

journalism, politics, San Francisco

Even If You Aren’t Interested In Sports

Who said that even if you aren’t interested in sports, you should still read Ray Ratto’s sports column for the San Francisco Chronicle? Because that person is probably right. Ratto’s columns are articulate, sharply observed, and appropriately sarcastic. Today’s column, for example:

Newsom indulges stadium delusion” stands as evidence that when we talk about sports, it’s all politics (see also: World Cup). Yesterday, the Chronicle‘s Matier & Ross reported that Mayor Newsom wants San Francisco to be the site of the 2016 Olympics. The big promise in the current iteration of this plan–the Bay Area always seems to be angling for the US Olympic Committee’s choice as candidate site–is a new stadium that would eventually host the 49ers at Candlestick Point. (I think one reason our last Olympics bid failed was because almost all the events would be held at the Stanford Stadium, which has since been torn down. Didn’t a previous Olympic bid promise a BART system encompassing the entire Bay Area?)

“Remember, children,” writes Ratto, “this is San Francisco, where the best politicians do nothing more strenuous than talk the walk.” He points out that by 2016, Denise and John York will likely have transferred ownership of the 49ers (who would probably prefer a new stadium in less than ten years, anyway). And by 2016, Newsom will either have moved on to higher office as most suspect, or to greener pastures–what Ratto calls the “life of the mildly indolent rich.” Ratto writes:

Thus, [Newsom] is mostly gasbagging this issue, because it doesn’t cost him anything, whereas actually trying to make it happen would cost him plenty. There is no political will for such an audacious (read: expensive) plan, and there is even less for helping out the Yorks, whose work on the 49ers’ brand name makes slumlords everywhere whistle in admiration.Of course, Newsom is framing this little make-work plan through the prism of Anne Cribbs, head of the Bay Area Sports Organizing Committee, known mostly by its acronym, CLEARLY NUTS. . . .

But that, according to Ratto, is not even the real take-away message. Read the rest here. Maybe you’ll like it.

environment, publictransport, San Francisco

Who Says the Bay Area is Any Different From the Rest of the Country?

Today may be the hottest day of the year. The hot weather wreaks havoc with our air quality, and a few friends have remarked on the thick layer of smog that settled over San Francisco yesterday (imagine the view in this photo, but browner). Normally, Pacific winds keep us cool and blow all of our pollution into the East Bay and the Central Valley, home to some of the nation’s worst air.

And so the Bay Area Air Quality Management District has declared today the first “Spare the Air” day of the year. That means commuters can ride any of 25 regional public transportation systems for free today and tomorrow (another Spare the Air day), in an effort to encourage people to leave their cars at home. The question is, will they?

One of the San Francisco Chronicle‘s more entertaining sections is 2 ¢ents, a forum in which a pool of readers answer a question posed by the newspaper. I’ve never lived in a place where the local paper had one of these features, and when I first saw it, I thought it was a joke like The Onion‘s “American Voices.”

Today’s question: “What would get you to use public transportation for your commute?” A good question, since that’s the point of the free rides on a Spare the Air day like today. As a daily public transportation rider for the last four-and-a-half years, I believe higher ridership would help prompt our transportation administrators to improve services. (Of course, if they improved services first, ridership would probably go up as a result. Chicken or egg, you know?) Some people made good points (e.g., “People shouldn’t have to use sites like just to figure out how off-schedule our buses and trains really are.”). Nearly all of them complained about public transit and gave reasons why they still would not ride it. One of my favorites was this guy:

What would it take to get you to use public transit? My daily transit history is as follows:

  • February 2002–December 2003: Muni and Caltrain
  • January 2004–Present: Muni
  • August 2006–June 2008 (anticipated): Muni and BART
art, education, food, music

This Week in Tim: February 26 to March 3

I don’t have much patience for those blogs that dwell on the minutiae of their authors’ lives, so I will probably hate this post. But, I can take some satisfaction in the fact that this post is about one of my favorite subjects: Tim. And Tim had an interesting week, so I’m calling this “This Week in Tim.” Tim’s agreed to go along with this, but isn’t sure if it will go over all that well. He thinks that if you don’t like reading about authors’ lives you should skip to another post.

Sunday, February 26: Tim decided he’d better get off his ass and go to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. How many people can say that? This, in many ways, was one of his grand exercises in procrastination, and it allowed Tim to put off working on his financial aid applications (the federal application—FAFSA—and the Columbia Journalism School’s aid applications), which were due March 2. But he really wanted to see the Chuck Close self-portrait exhibition, which was scheduled to close February 28. March 2, February 28, museum exhibit, financial aid—here’s where “urgency” and “priority” become muddled in Tim’s world.

Tim eventually made it to the exhibit, which he enjoyed. He was accompanied by his friend Katia and her family. It was a rainy day, but warm: San Francisco had been struck by a winter storm from Hawaii, the so-called “Pineapple Express” that brought rain up to 9,000 feet in the Sierras.

Tim had dinner with several friends later that night. He was able to put his latent puppeteering skills to use when he gave Katia’s daughter, Isabel, a little bear-in-a-sleeping-bag puppet. Isabel originally thought it was a backpack and all the rest thought it was an oven mitt. She promptly named the bear “Angelina.” Everyone was most satisfied with the evening, and when Tim discovered that his friend Vera had briefly been a mime in Bulgaria (and had gotten tips from Marcel Marceau), he thought this was a good start to what might be a promising Week in Tim. Plus, he realized that no matter how daunting all of that financial paperwork might be, on March 3, he would be free of it. Probably.

Monday, February 27: Tim arrived home from work at about 7.30 p.m—early for him. That is, he thought he was arriving home. A garbled message from his roommate Pablo indicated a tree near his house was blown over by high winds during a storm that evening. Upon arrival, Tim found his block blocked off by a firetruck and yellow tape and three firemen keeping people back.

A firefighter named Shane, dispatched from Station 5, apprised Tim of the situation.When the wind picked up (in some places, it picked up to 100 mph), said Shane, the phones all lit up. The tree in front of Tim’s house was a high priority site because the falling limbs pulled down a 1,500 kilowatt power line. The wire happened to touch down directly in front of Tim’s door. The firemen had to reroute traffic and watch the site until PG&E workers turned off the power. Then city workers would take care of the broken limbs. While Tim described the scene to Pablo on the phone, a nearby car rear-ended another car. A cameraman from the local CBS affiliate showed up to shoot some B-roll for the news. Because it would take hours to sort all of this out, Shane suggested that Tim should go get some dinner, or at least a few beers. Tim thought that was a pretty good idea.

Tuesday, February 28: Tim went to the Chuck Close show again at lunch and discovered that the new special exhibit at SFMOMA would be work by Alexander Calder. Tim was excited. That night, Tim finished his taxes, his FAFSA, and his Columbia forms. Two days early? Amazing! He stayed late at work to finish and left a little after 9 p.m. As he walked toward his subway stop, he noticed a large white van with its doors thrown open and a small storage trailer attached. Spraypainted on the door was “!” Tim suspected it was a band.

A tall man with shaggy brown hair, thick brown earlobe tunnels, and a shaggy brown fur jacket stepped out from the small group clustered near the van and said to Tim, “Excuse me. Do you know any cool bars around here?” The tall man was polite and exuded a sort of rock star charisma. His friends, an assortment of young men in black leather or hooded sweatshirts and scruffy beards, all seemed excited to be in San Francisco, but had no idea where to go.

“What kind of a scene are you looking for?” Tim asked, suspecting he knew the answer based solely on the style choices of his interlocutor. But before the tall man could respond, a shorter, high-strung man dressed all in black leather, with massive mutton chops and clenched fists interjected, “Anywhere where there’s no fuckin’ rich pricks!”

“Fair enough,” Tim said. He was tempted to tell them, “You’re in the wrong neighborhood for that, if not the wrong city.” But Tim didn’t want them to be discouraged. He suggest they go to Zeitgeist, in the Mission. Tim was probably right on with that suggestion: the Mission is more their style, though it, too, is full of rich pricks (just dressed differently). But they wanted to go somewhere within walking distance. Tim eventually suggested the 21st Amendment Brewery, five or six long blocks away, and their eyes lit up at the word “brewery.” They seemed like decent guys, so Tim felt bad that he couldn’t make a better suggestion.

When Tim got home, he went to and listened to what this band describes as hardcore/punk/rock music. It was sort of like Gwar and Rollins Band and unintelligible. Their band was called Mich!gan, and they were from Salt Lake City, unsigned, on their own little tour of the West Coast.

Wednesday, March 1: Nothing much happened today.

Thursday, March 2: Just kidding! Something happened on Wednesday. OK, let’s go back to Wednesday.

Wednesday, March 1: Really?

Thursday, March 2: Yes. Go ahead.

Wednesday, March 1: Tim went to lunch with Mike, the Sierra Club’s Webmaster. As they walked through the Financial District, they noticed a man walking parallel to them across the street. He wore headphones and, when not vaulting over fire hydrants, trying to climb over street signs, or jumping into the window recesses of buildings, he danced in place. Mike was entertained by the acrobatics and Tim speculated that the man was on drugs. At one corner, Tim tried to get a picture of him from across the street. Unfortunately, the photo came out blurry. The man noticed Tim taking the picture, but since Tim was fiddling with his camera, he failed to notice the man scowling and giving him the middle finger.

After a block or two, the man crossed to Tim and Mike’s side of the street. He pretended to walk in front of them for a short distance, then turned to face them. He slouched backward and yelled, “Why don’t you take a fucking picture? It’ll last longer.” He had a discernible Scottish accent, which meant he said “fooking.”

He also said, “It’s just a lark,” which Mike interpreted to mean the man was not high or drunk, simply very enthusiastic. In any case, Tim didn’t take his picture, though he now wishes he had. At lunch, Mike and Tim talked about corruption. Later that day, Tim wrote an embittered blog post about tilt-shift photomanipulation.


On the eastern side of the eastern block of Union Square, on Stockton Street, there is a tall man with dyed blonde spiky hair. He wears slick suits and wraparound sunglasses and stalks up and down the street. His job, apparently, is to hand out brochures and to direct people to an upscale men’s clothing store. He used to be somewhat massive, but in the last year and a half, he appears to have lost at least forty pounds. Tim sees the suited man as an enigmatic figure, tense and aggressive.

Tim thought it was strange to see the suited man out of his element later that night. Stranger that he saw him at Tim’s gym, and stranger still that the suited man wore to the gym a fine black turtleneck sweater, black dress slacks, and shiny Italian-looking black leather shoes. Alas, no suit. But he also carried a black and white tartan scarf to wipe down the equipment. Tim was profoundly embarrassed, because this is also his gym outfit, yet he still managed to grin and gleefully whisper to himself, “How bizarre!”

After pacing around agitatedly for several minutes, the suited man settled on the lateral pull-down, and yelled at a nearby person in an effort to ask if the equipment was available. Apparently, he was unable talk to anyone in a normal tone at the gym; the atmosphere inspired him to speak with loud-mouthed gruffness. Tim remembered that this is how the suited man always talks. On the machine, the suited man leaned far backwards and jerked the bar toward him with as much force as he could muster. He did this for about 20 repetitions, with audible exertion. After a short pause, he did another set of 20 reps. And then a third. During those breaks, Tim says the suited man tried to “pick conversations” with people, which Tim describes as being like picking a fight, except that it is aggressive engagement in conversation, not aggressive engagement in physical combat. Sometimes, Tim adds, the man tempered his aggressiveness with a dose of amiability. For example: “Not as easy as it used to be,” barked the suited man at one unwitting bystander. The bystander just nodded in agreement. “It’s not like when I was these guys’ age,” he added, indicating the other men at the gym. He sat back at the lat pull-down. “When I was 25, it was a lot different.” The suited man’s self-consciousness overwhelmed his coherency, and he half-barked, half-mumbled, “I’m just starting. I haven’t been doing this long. When I was younger, this was a lot easier.” And then, with special emphasis as he re-commenced pull-downs, he proclaimed, “I was huge.”

Thursday, March 2: Tim no longer works in the Conservation Department, but he still attends SNAX, the weekly Conservation Department ritual of eating sweets provided by a rotating host. The hosting had rotated to Tim, so he was a little on edge. Every SNAX host worries about the reception of his or her snacks, and that said reception will determine the participants’ perception of the host. No SNAX host gets to enjoy his or her own snacks. Of course, the participants almost never judge.

In an effort to allay his own concern, Tim decided that SNAX should be a tool to be wielded, not an obligation to be feared. The realization crystallized in his mind that he could view this SNAX as an opportunity to impose his dessert aesthetic on a ritual marked by rampant chocolate partisanship. He also realized he could view SNAX as performance. He notified the department of his intentions:

E-mail from Tim. 12.19 p.m.
Subject: SNAX: An opportunity for change
Brothers and Sisters,IT IS REVOLUTION!

We are overthrowing the TYRANNY of Chocolate!

Too LONG HAVE WE SUFFERED under the sweet, GOOEY thumb of Chocolate. It has grown corrupt and lazy with its homogenous corporate taste and insipid
style while we are left to chew mindlessly through the AGONY of its banality. We see through its DARK sometimes SEMI-SWEET curtain. We know the TRUTH.

No, Chocolate, no, you WON’T FOOL the Children of the Revolution.

JOIN ME! Our staging area is the Yellowstone Room at 3 PM. Bring any tool at hand to help us achieve this dream: your shovels and hoes and pitchforks and regular forks and plates and hearts (and/or minds), or possibly just your hands if you want the Paul Newman vegan-friendly GINGER-CREME OPTION.


*Note: There will be no caramelized snacks at Snax. However, we will not be swayed from our plan to subvert the dominant chocolate paradigm.

Beside the aforemention Newman-O’s, Tim also brought a box of mandarin oranges and a mixed fruit shortcake from Tart to Tart. It was an astounding success, much to Tim’s satisfaction. People actually came up to him and said things like, “I’m at SNAX today because you don’t always get a call to arms like that.” Others said they were there to support the revolution. Nobody seemed to mind that Tim had asked his friend at the bakery to write “Down With Chocolate” on the cake in yellow frosting. It was all lustily eaten by the assembled.

Tim was prepared for an uproar, if not a full-scale counter-revolution, provoked by his criticism of chocolate. So uncertain was he of the reception and the viability of his revolution that he snuck a can of Hershey’s chocolate syrup into SNAX. He was prepared to sarcastically drench everything in syrup if the complaining got too loud. Not wanting to tip anyone off, he disguised the can like so:

And he prepared a statement to be read in case of popular dissatisfaction:

Even the most zealous revolutionary eventually learns to sacrifice principle for the sake of politicial expediency. Which is to say he’ll do whatever he can to keep his job. Even though one form of chocolatey tyranny may be deposed, another, simply in a different form, may rise to take it’s place.And since I can see the natives are getting restless, I have this….

Brothers and sisters, eat it and weep.

Here is another view of the label. The expression on Tim’s face was a point of much discussion. It was merely a file photo that he had on hand.

Friday, March 3:
As I write this, it is Friday morning, and I’m not sure if anything interesting enough to warrant bloggging has happened. But something will probably come along. Maybe at the airport—I’m going to see Alisa in San Diego. We’ll see. But in the meantime, I have posted what one successful blogger has termed “too much content.” So we will leave it at that.

journalism, poetry

Today Is The Day After Robert Hass’s Birthday

Yesterday was Robert Hass’s birthday. When I heard it was his birthday, I remembered all the unpublished material I have from my interview with the Berkeley professor and former U.S. Poet Laureate, which I dug up today.

I interviewed Hass in early May of 2005. We talked for a little more than half an hour, so the interview came to about 4,500 words; we could only publish about 800 in the Planet. We cut a lot of good stuff. Towards the end, Hass ended up interviewing me about my life and work experiences, and then invited me to speak to his Berkeley class. But he forgot to make time for me when he was planning the course, so that all fell through. Nevertheless, he was a good interview and I’m glad I could talk with him.

Robert Hass is also a great believer in encouraging people to write poetry. In this respect, he reminds me of Kenneth Koch, a favorite poet who also wrote a terrific book entitled Making Your Own Days that helped make poetry less intimidating and opaque to me. (I’ve found many people are intimidated by poetry, and I suspect it’s because we are very bad, in the culture and the schools, about introducing people to it.) Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac quotes Hass: “Everyone … wants to say in their own terms what it means to be alive. Poetry is the most common way, because the material of poetry is the stream of language that is constantly going on in our heads. It’s very low tech. Anyone can do it.” Hass is one of the drivers behind River of Words, a non-profit that encourages children to write and create art about their perceptions of nature.

What follows are some edited questions and answers from that interview. Even this is only a fraction of a fraction of our conversation. By the way, The Writer’s Almanac also quotes Hass as saying, “Take the time to write. You can do your life’s work in half an hour a day.” Of which some people could stand reminding.

Q: You’ve written “Art hardly ever does seem to come to us at first as something connected to our own world; it always seems, in fact, to announce the existence of another, different one…” How do you link those worlds?

Hass: I think different artists link them different ways. An artist like Magritte is always playing with the difference. An artist like Gary Snyder is always saying, “Here. Here, here, here. The two can be one: the world of the mind and the heart, and the world of lived experience.” And I think I’m more in Gary Snyder’s camp. But I think all artists play with the difference.

Q: What are you working on now? [Remember, this is 5 May 2005.]

Hass: Gosh, I’m working on two things. One is—I’m just finishing up a book of poems. And I was supposed to have it off May 1st. Actually, the last poem I’m working on—I have two poems I’m working on that I can’t get right, and they’re both ones that have to do with the natural world. And one of them is kind of a public poem and one a private one, and I’m struggling with both of them in ways that I hope will be fruitful.

And the other thing I’m doing at the moment, I’m trying to finish up a book of essays and I have to go next week to Seoul, Korea, with Gary Snyder. We’re both to give talks, and he’s going to talk about poetry and the environment, and I’m supposed to talk about war poetry and the environment. These kind of big-think topics that daunt you when you have to write about them. That’s what I’m working on at the moment.

Q: Any particular reason that of all places you’re going to is South Korea?

Hass: I’m going because Seoul has an international literary festival. This is a new set of them. But I’ve spent some time there and I love the place. And I’m very interested in Korean literature. So that’s why I’m going. And I just finished writing an introduction to the translation of a sensational book of Korean poems by a writer named Ko Un, who was imprisoned in the Park dictatorship. And while he was imprisoned and in solitary confinement—I think he was in jail three or four times, he was really a jailbird—and he decided that if he ever got out—he was a Buddhist monk for a while and he kept himself amused while he was in solitary by trying to methodically picture everyone he’d ever known in his life. And when he got out, he decided he was going to write a book of poems about every person he’d ever known in his life. And he did it, it’s called 10,000 Lives and it makes, portrait by portrait, a little social history of Korea from the time of the war to the present.

Q: That’s amazing. Who’s going to publish that?

Hass: His work is just being discovered in this country, and there are two or three books, translations of his poems, coming out, he’s very prolific. But this one, 10,000 Lives, is coming from a press called Green Integer.

Q: A follow-up to what you said a couple minutes ago when you said you’re working on a public and a private poem—when you say private, do you mean for yourself, not for publication?

Hass: No. [The Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University] had this big colloquium on the state of the planet, and they got all these earth scientists and climatologists together. And they asked me to write a poem on the state of the planet. So I wrote this poem and I had to finish it on time, and I was not very happy with it, though it was published in the New York Times science thing, so I’ve been trying to find a way—you know, this is kind of the question of what is poetry for, after all?—to rewrite it so that it made sense. It’s the kind of poem that has large general themes, tries to talk about climate. Public in that sense.

And then you might, say, come away from the summer with the image of your granddaughter chasing a California turquoise butterfly through a field of corn lilies in a Sierra meadow with her hair streaming, while you’re thinking of time, life, love, and death, and how much time you have left, and what nature is, and, you know, trying to get all of that into a poem. And that’s what I mean by private.

energy, environment, journalism

Bay Area Weather: Mea Culpa?

So much for La Niña? Not sure. But after record-high temperatures last week, tonight may be the coldest of the year, with lows dipping into the 20s in some spots around here, the result of cold air rolling in from Alaska and the Pacific Northwest.

PG&E must be breathing a corporate sigh of relief with the onset of cold temperatures. This winter, it’s offering customers a 20 percent rebate on their home heating bills if they reduce their natural gas consumption by 10 percent. Continously warm weather might have wreaked havoc with Pacific Gas & Electric’s billing department.

In an effort to find a related news story to link to, I noticed KRON 4 has put up a page devoted to sports reporter Gary Radnich’s ad-libbing last week when a fire alarm went off during his live broadcast. Radnich, who basically ad libs his daily sports segment, anyway (and does a good job: funny, sometimes bullying, with a Hemingway-style shockproof bullshit detector), struck a nice balance between exasperation and amusement as he talked with the anchors and the remaining crew. I found it entertaining, and was hoping others could see it in a low-quality Windows Media Player stream. Turns out you can! Right here.
Below: Radnich photographed for a Chronicle article about his 20 years on the air.