Saturday, November 28, 2009

'Wicked' - new view of Wizard of Oz - and the wicked

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif., USA - The stage show/musical Wicked is fabulous for a dozen reasons.  Ironically the music might not be among them.

True, there are some catchy tunes, but except for Defying Gravity, none seems to have latched onto the collective musical consciousness like tunes from some musicals or the latest Susan Boyle CD. Maybe that's a good thing. How many tunes like Over the Rainbow (from the 1939 movie) can there be?

But musical likes aside, the tale told in Wicked is actually incredibly uplifting - in a different way from the movie starring Judy Garland. In that film, one lesson is 'there's no place like home.' Another, perhaps, is check to see if you are wearing magic shoes.

But the lesson in Wicked is, well, hold on just a minute ...

Right here I have to offer a disclaimer that this is a spoiler review. If you believe you are going to see Wicked in the theatre, read no further. Read no further because the punchline to the whole movie, is, well, a punchline and shocker/surprise. And I would hate to spoil it. So stop here.


Still reading? Okay, proceed at your own risk through this enchanted forest, er, review.

Teal Wicks
Teal Wicks - as the 'Wicked' Witch of the West

Wicked is the tale of the Wicked Witch of the West from birth until the time Dorothy tosses a bucket of water on her, mistakenly believing she was putting out a fire, when in fact, she was melting the witch down to nothingness.

Or so you have thought ever since seeing Judy Garland and her little dog Toto taking on Margaret Hamilton (in the role of the witch) in that film.

In Wicked, the witch has a name - Elphaba - and a family, including a younger sister, a father and mother. And in Wicked, Elphaba grows up and goes away to school, where she has a roommate named Glinda - who is destined to be a good witch.

In Wicked, it becomes clear early in the play that distinguishing between good and evil can be complicated.

But complications aside, what was uncomplicated was a stunning singing and acting performance by Teal Wicks as Elphaba, who even though painted green - and wearing odd-looking glasses - was still drop-dead gorgeous from 20 rows back. Perhaps that shade of green might become the new tan for young women of the non-Oz set.

Teal Wicks
Elphaba at school

We are getting really close to the major spoiler part, so if you ignored earlier warnings, stop now.

Still there? Okay. This really is the point to turn back.

In the 1939 film, the climatic scene in the movie is when Margaret Hamilton gets hit full-on with a bucket of water and melts right down in front of Dorothy's eyes. "I'm melting, I'm melting," Hamilton shrieks. How many times when someone says they don't want to get wet, do people shoot off the rejoinder: Afraid you will melt? Har, Har!

Indeed, my pretty, indeed.

But in Wicked, it turns out the Wicked Witch of the West isn't wicked at all. In fact, she and her boyfriend (A witch with a boyfriend? What kind of play is this?), turn out to be the most virtuous people in the whole show, with the possible exception of Glinda, who learns late about honesty after getting caught up in some evil machinations. A good deal of those evil machinations were the work of the Wizard of Oz himself. In Wicked, he is not always the lovable, bumbling fellow from the 1939 film.

And the Wizard of Oz has a press secretary. Do I need to elaborate on that?

Patty Duke
Patty Duke playing the Wizard's press secretary

Wicked Witch Elphaba, who as noted is really not wicked at all, gets labeled wicked as part of a Oz-style political plot. A fall guy - in this case, fall-witch - was needed and Elphaba was convenient. And being green, well, you just can't trust those people can you?

Fear and fear of 'the other,' was played convincingly enough that from the audience some parts were as painful to watch as the 6 o'clock news on any television station.

And yes, at the very end of the play, Dorothy makes a cameo guest appearance complete with water, and Elphaba appears to melt away after being doused.

But wait! She doesn't melt at all. It was trick. Witches don't melt when hit with water. That just an old witches' tale to make people feel less threatened.

Instead, Elphaba reappears and reunites with her boyfriend/love to head off, away from Oz, presumably to live happily ever after.

And the Wizard and his press secretary?

Well, it turns out Glinda the Good Witch could be good - but also mete out some good justice.

Glinda the good witch

Wicked is a stage play that I might want to see again - even knowing the punchline and how the story progresses over two music-filled acts.

It's like watching the 1942 film Casablanca (with Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman) over and over and over.

In Casablanca, I keep waiting for a different ending. (I want Rick to get on the plane with Ilsa and run away.)

In Wicked, the ending - watching Elphaba head off to somewhere over the rainbow - is arguably the best part of the entire experience.

Teal Wicks
Elphaba sans 
green makeup

Friday, November 20, 2009

Sometimes it takes Jimmy Buffett to get things done

SACRAMENTO, Calif., USA - Writing inspiration for me comes from lots of different places. And for most of my adult life, I have been what pros in the writing bizz call a 'facile' writer.

The short definition is, if I want to write, I generally just starting banging away on the keyboard.

Just like this.


But this fall, the writing hasn't been coming just like this much of the time.  In fact, for the last two months, I thought I was afflicted by the dreaded writer's block, a syndrome most professional writers will tell you is, well, total crap. They also are the same writers who have never faced it.

Even though for months I have been outraged at the lunacy of ideologues like Glenn Beck, the lack of caring (and arrogance) of the people entrusted with running the two public university systems in California, and the seeming inability of Americans to have rational discourse, writing about these issues (and corollary matters) has seemed, well, sooooo daunting.

Daunting and frankly just plain old depressing.

Enter Jimmy Buffett.

Jimmy Buffett
Jimmy Buffett on stage

It wasn't actually Jimmy Buffett himself who got mixed up in my writing, it was a book by Buffett, A Salty Piece of Land,  mailed to me by my nephew Tony Fitzgerald.

Tony had read the book, and while he admitted the prose wasn't exactly 'Homer,' he said it had certain style to it and that he thought I would enjoy it.

If it had been Homer, I doubt it would have been as effective.

The tale is about a cowboy/sailor from Wyoming who ends up in the tropics tending to the rebuilding of a lighthouse. That's about all I'll reveal today, because I am about halfway through reading the book and suspect that I will be recommending it later on in a longer review.

But even if I didn't read another page, A Salty Piece of Land, has helped me crack the formation of a writer's block.

While reading about the odyssey of Tully Mars (the main character), I suddenly envisioned myself writing about (and living in) sub-tropical Mexico - the very place Admiral Fox and I will be as soon as the fall semester at the university ends. And the thought of that writing - as opposed to spilling words about the idiocies of a Glenn Beck, for example - made my fingers positively twitch to get to a keyboard.

Is the writer's block gone? Will I never write again about loons like Glenn Beck or the trustees of the California State University system?

No to the first, and probably no to the second, too.

But thanks to Jimmy Buffett and Tully Mars, I think I understand what was blocking the words, and keeping the blood pressure up.

Get the lighthouse back on line Tully, please. I have things to write.

A Salty Piece of Land

Thursday, November 19, 2009

George Orwell would love these security cameras

TIBURON, Calif., USA - The City of Tiburon is getting ready to install surveillance cameras so that every car, truck, motorcycle and horse going in - or out - will be photographed.

Yup, every single one.

At this point, the city says it will be taking photos of license plates, just to keep track of possible felons, and perhaps to grab pix of stolen vehicles. The cameras will be tied to a data base that will flag cars - and, of course, their drivers.

  • LINK: Orwell would be proud

  • Perhaps.

    But suppose this system gets used for other purposes? Suppose the system gets used by the city's merchants to figure out who is driving in and out of town and uses it to target them for some sales pitches.

    A good hacker might use the system to figure out when people are not home.

    All the ramblings of a paranoid, one might suppose.

    And considering all the data that grocery stores, banks, credit card companies and universities collect, perhaps one more intrusion into what passes for privacy in 2009 isn't that great.

    But this time - these cameras - seem to be such an obvious affront, it's amazing that the city is willing to sell itself out so cheaply.

    And what city will be next?

    Wednesday, November 11, 2009

    So what is it about revolutions?

    (NOTE: This entry was originally written and posted at a website called The Red Room, a website for writers and editor.)

    There is a song making the rounds of many places in California these days called 'Union Maid,' a rousing tune that was written by Woody Guthrie in 1940.

    There once was a union maid, she never was afraid
    Of goons and ginks and company finks and the deputy sheriffs who made the raid.
    She went to the union hall when a meeting it was called,
    And when the Legion boys come 'round
    She always stood her ground.

    It's the kind of song that gets people stomping their feet and clapping their hands and the kind of song that sociologists like to point to as beacons that bring people together and cement social units - units that will promote social activism and change.

    Well, that may be true, to a degree. I've even learned to play the tune on the ukulele at meetings and gatherings to get the crowd fired up when some of that social activism and change is called for as the U.S. economy continues to melt quicker than an iceberg off the coast of Greenland.(Economic recovery my ass...)

    But it has been my experience - as a journalist and a university professor - that real change, Revolutions, occur not because of group think, but because someone steps up to the plate and takes a solid swing. And those people I have always thought of as champions, champions in the sense that they were willing to stand up for what they believed was right, and take the hits for doing so.

    It's not a popular way of looking at leadership and social change. My sociologist amigos tell me I am naive. They tell others (out of my earshot) that I am romantic and don't understand the research and data on the topic about revolutions.

    I may be romantic and naive - and, OK, sociologist-collected data doesn't impress me that much. Champions and heroes do.

    My sociologist friends might be averse to the theory because, frankly it's hard to ever be that champion, hard to stand up alone and hard to take the hits. I have been called Don Quixote more than once by journalism and academic colleagues.

    There are worse sobriquets.

    Perhaps the hardest thing about all this, is that all-too-frequently when a champion steps aside, (having won whatever victory was sought) the ground gained is lost, perhaps completely.

    Still, two feet forward, one foot back is a better way to live than studying the data, I believe.

    Today we often seek champions and at the same time immediately try to discount their courage (or claim self-interest or any number of sins). We can blame media for this, but media in many ways is as reflective of us as it is a force itself.

    You say you want a revolution? Look for a champion to arise. Better yet, play Don Quixote yourself and grab a lance.

    Without a champion, you might get some good harmonies, but you won't get change.

    Oh, you can't scare me, I'm sticking to the union,
    I'm sticking to the union, I'm sticking to the union.
    Oh, you can't scare me, I'm sticking to the union,
    I'm sticking to the union 'til the day I die.

    Sunday, November 08, 2009

    Taking a trip to Ireland - via the book 'Shannon'

    SACRAMENTO, Calif., USA - As a sucker for most books about Ireland, it was a no-brainer to pick up a copy of Shannon, a book by Frank Delany.

    But this book is no travelogue, though the river Shannon is one device that Delany uses to move along the main character in the book - a shell-shocked Catholic priest named Robert Shannon.

    And the book is set in 1922, the countryside roiling in a civil war.

    shannon cover
    The novel, Shannon

    Without giving away the whole plot, Shannon travels from the U.S. to Ireland and travels the length of the river looking for his family roots. But he has a lot stalking him, real and spiritual.

    The book is also revealing about the politics of the Catholic Church at that time.

    Catholic priests, bishops, cardinals, a civil war, and the aftermath of World War I. A great palette for an excellent book.

    And, at least in my opinion, a book worth picking up.

    Friday, November 06, 2009

    'A Night at the Roxbury' with the Butabi Brothers

    SACRAMENTO, Calif., USA - So what if disco is dead and the movie is a lampoon? And an old lampoon at that. Watching A Night at the Roxbury with Chris Kattan and Will Ferrell is funny - and oddly compelling.

    No, I am not on any medications right now. And cocktails don't start until 6 p.m. (Four hours and two minutes, but who is counting?)

    The 'oddly compelling' aspects are why I got a copy from Netflix and laughed my way through the movie one night this week. The Admiral, however, is not amused at my movie-induced dance moves around the house, wearing my IPod on my belt.

    If you have been living in Tibet for the last 20 years or so and missed this 1998 gem of a film, it's worth picking up. And if the story of Doug and Steve Butabi doesn't really float your boat, the music should. In fact, the music is probably be the best part of the film.

    Naw, the jokes are great, too.

    The Butabi Brothers
    Doug and Steve Butabi, brothers idiotus

    The girls
    Would be dates

    The whole movie is topical in its satire, not surprising because the characters are based on what had been a running gag and skit on Saturday Night Live at the time.

    Cell phones, parent grown-child squabbles, business, the night club scene and relationships between the sexes all take plenty of heat in this comedy.

    And at the end, there is a scene stolen almost directly from The Graduate, sans Dustin Hoffman and Katherine Ross, of course.

    The Butabi Brothers - they would be a lot of fun to go out clubbing with, if I ever went clubbing, of course.

    But, first, I would have to get one of those wild-color suits to wear.

    Here's a trailer for the movie:

    At the club entrance, yes, we are brothers...

    Saturday, October 31, 2009

    Is website 'Christwire' serious? Kee-rist, who knows?

    SACRAMENTO, Calif., USA - Many novelists have commented in the last 20 years or so that writing novels has become really hard.

    Really hard?

    It's become really hard because real life has become so incredibly bizarre, it's hard to write fiction that isn't topped by that day's headlines.

    And so it was today, I was forwarded a link to a website called Christwire that reinforced the idea..
  • • Link to Christwire

  • The link was to a reportedly serious column that makes the claim that the late 1980s and early 1990s sitcom, The Golden Girls turned many American male viewers gay.

    See? How can a novelist compete with that?

    But after doing some research into the site, it's still unclear if the site is a spoof (I lean in that direction) or one that is arguably real.

    If the people who are posting things on it are, well, serious, I am going to have to find a new term. Wing nut doesn't even come close. In fact, it would be an insult to wing nuts everywhere to be linked to what is posted on the site.

    Check it out, but not this moment. The site seems to be crashing a lot.

    Amen to that.

    Golden Girls - gay magnets?

    Sunday, October 18, 2009

    Columnist Dan Weintraub leaves The Sacramento Bee

    SACRAMENTO, Calif., USA - Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Weintraub published his farewell column in today's newspaper, ending a nine-year run as a writer and most recently as the interim editor of the editorial pages since the departure of editorial pages editor David Holwerk.

    In his farewell remarks, he mentions columns upcoming with the New York Times and plans for a website where his work will be featured.

  • LINK: Weintraub says adios to The Bee

  • Dan will be missed by many of his faithful readers. He was known for doing a tremendous amount of reporting before ever touching the keyboard to write his column. And most of his columns were well thought out and analytical. High-pitched emotions were not a part of his regular repertoire. If anything, his critics complained that they wanted him to inject more opinion and/or outrage into his writing.

    Dan Weintraub
    Dan Weintraub

    I met Dan Weintraub on the day he came to work for The Sacramento Bee. He took over the office of the late Bee writer John Jacobs, his job to write about politics and policy matters. At the time, I was working as fill-in editor for Bill Moore, then editor of the Bee's Forum section.

    Over the years, when I was filling in at various times for Bill Moore or Jewel Reilly (editor of the op-ed pages), Dan and I talked a lot. On occasion, I edited Dan's column before it went to press.

    We didn't always agree on political matters. And our discussions about the politics of universities and university education - and university professors - were a lot of fun. Probably more for me than Dan.

    Dan's role at the newspaper changed in the last year or so, as the Bee management struggled with the financial free fall that has affected most media companies. His columns became rare as he took over other duties and the number of staff members in the editorial section of the newspaper kept shrinking.

    And for a brief time, he found himself at the helm of the newspaper's editorial section, a duty he just relinquished in the last few weeks, when Stuart Leavenworth was promoted to the editor's position.

    Dan Weintraub's departure adds his name to a long list of talented writers and editors who have left The Bee in the last few years, some voluntarily, some taking a buyout, some laid off (or pushed not-too-gently out the door): Bill Moore, John Hughes, Dorothy Korber, Mike Dunne, Lisa Heyamoto and Rachel Leibrock, to name just a few.

    It will be interesting to see if The Bee opts to replace Dan, or absorb his position (and salary) into the bottom line of the corporation.

    Either way, it will more interesting to follow the next adventures of Dan Weintraub as he becomes an 'independent journalist.'

    Tuesday, October 13, 2009

    CSUS rally draws a small - but enthusiastic crowd

    SACRAMENTO, Calif., USA - A crowd of approximately 150 students, faculty and staff came into the Library Quad Monday afternoon at CSU, Sacramento for a hastily called rally over budget cuts to the CSU and a bill that would tax oil companies - with the tax proceeds going to higher education.

    The rally was sponsored by the California Faculty Association and Associated Students, Inc. to also talk about AB 656, a measure by state Assemblyman Alberto Torrico (D-Newark) that would tax oil companies on the oil that extract out of the state's oilfields.

    And the lion's share of that funding would go to the CSU.

    ASI president with Alberto Torrico
    Alberto Torrico (right) with ASI President Roberto Torres

    A firebrand speech by ASI President Torres led off the event. Torres exhorted students to get involved and support the bill.

    Later, Assemblyman Torrico told the rally that oil companies have been posting incredible profits year after year and that California is the only state in the union that doesn't have a tax on oil as it is pulled from the ground.

    "The governor is going around the state selling off state property but giving away the oil," Torrico said. "Even Sarah Palin has a tax in Alaska."

    Professor Joe Palermo talks to crowd
    CSU, Sacramento Professor Joseph Palermo

    Also speaking was CSU, Sacramento Professor Joe Palermo who told the students that they are not being served well by the trustees of the CSU - or by the university system's chancellor, Charles Reed.

    Reed and the trustees have said they are not supporting AB 656. But Palermo pointed out they haven't suggested how to solve the university's budget woes.

    "AB 656 is the only game in town," he said. "What is Reed doing for his salary?"
  • San Francisco Chronicle story on AB 656

  • Audience at Sacramento State rally
    Audience at Monday's rally

    CSUS officials confer with person handing out information
    CSUS officials confer with student handing out literature

    Thursday, August 20, 2009

    'Rocky Balboa' gets another viewing, and another

    VALOIS, New York, USA - It's hard to say exactly why the saga of Rocky Balboa seems soooo compelling to me. I suppose it's because I saw the original film one summer night in 1977, just before I started my job as news editor at The Union newspaper in Grass Valley - a job I took full well knowing it was so far over my head, I couldn't even see the surface.

    But, like Rocky, I had trained hard (at another newspaper) and was as ready as I ever would be.

    We both survived our respective tests, though not without different sorts of cuts and bruises.

    Fast-forwarding to 2009, I decided to watch the 2006 film, Rocky Balboa, for a second time, a film that is really not about boxing, but about relationships and how an aging man decides that he needs to not retire into himself and the past, but move forward. It's a great capstone movie to the entire Rocky series of films and in some ways, I think the best of all the Rocky films.

    Not all the critics agree, but let them wallow in their myopia.

    Rocky & Son
    Rocky with his son

    Rocky and Little Marie
    Rocky and Little Marie

    In Rocky's words in the film, he still has 'some stuff in the basement,' bothering him, haunting him, as he is no-longer a prize fighter, but now a widowed restaurant owner. He's years out of the ring and his son is an adult, though with issues of his own, living in what he calls 'a big shadow,' cast by his larger-than-life father.

    Earlier this summer, somewhere between cutting a tree down with a chainsaw, digging a posthole and fixing the dock down at the lake, I realized that I still have some 'stuff in the basement' - not stuff that compels me to climb into a boxing ring, but stuff that seems compel me to get back at writing.

    Isn't this writing?

    Sure. And writing about adventures on several of my other blogs, or ranting here about a variety of topics, seems to deal with that stuff in the basement, but only to a degree.

    It's not the same as writing about a terrorism trial (as I did for Reuters), the corruption and nonsense in education (as I did for Education Beat) or even the byzantine world of health care regulation (Bureau of National Affairs, Inc.).

    Stuff in the basement. What to do about it?

    Maybe the answer is somewhere in a flickering screening of Rocky Balboa. Maybe I'll view it one more time, before I send it back to Netflix.

    Rocky finale
    No more stuff in the basement

    Monday, July 27, 2009

    Faculty approve furlough idea; Perfect Storm brewing

    SACRAMENTO, Calif., USA - Members of the California Faculty Association approved the notion of furloughs (and a concomitant 9.75 percent pay reduction) in voting last week.

    They also voted that they have about as much confidence in CSU Chancellor Charles Reed as England did in the late Neville Chamberlain, the British Prime Minister whose policy of appeasement with Adolph Hitler managed to make World War II more complicated. (Somewhat of an understatement, but keep reading, please...)

    But stop trying to see if Neville Chamberlain is an anagram for Charles Reed. It isn't, even if the appeasement parallels are very interesting.

    Neville Chamberlain
    Neville Chamberlain
    Chancellor Charles Reed
    Charles Reed

    The details of how the 2 days per month faculty furloughs will work have to be negotiated between the California Faculty Association and Reed. But if earlier negotiations this summer are any indication, he won't negotiate anything.

    What he has is cash to get through the fall semester, and now enough time to begin the process of faculty layoffs. I suspect he would have liked to have started the layoffs at the beginning of the summer, but figured it wouldn't fly politically.

    Word of advice to young, untenured faculty: Tune up your resume quick - and consider what else you might do besides teach in the CSU.

    Faculty reactions should be very interesting. Because a traditional furlough won't work (the result of having teaching schedules that are all over the place, timewise.), it could be that faculty will just figure out how to do 9.75 percent less work.

    One formula might be easy: Faculty teaching four classes - and who also have three office hours per week - could reduce their class time (12 hours per week) and office hours (3 hours per week) and their prep time (as much as one hour of prep per class hour) by 9.75 percent.

    In a 15-week semester, that would mean cutting out about 40 hours of work (class time, office hours and prep time) during the semester. (Trust me on the math, please.)

    Will faculty consider something like this? Some will, some won't.

    Regardless, with students paying 30 percent more in tuition this semester and faculty getting paid nearly 10 percent less, we have a near perfect storm in the California State University brewing and ready to hit.

    California furlough sign
    California furlough sign

    Thursday, July 23, 2009

    California public employees and the 'envy' factor

    SACRAMENTO, Calif., USA - It's a tough time to be a state worker in California. In addition to being forced to take three days off per month without pay (a 15 percent pay cut), public respect seems to have slipped even lower than it was before the current budget crisis.

    And to read The Sacramento Bee newspaper, it seems as if the pensions paid to most state employees (through the California Public Employees Retirement System) represent an evil as least as threatening as global warming, or perhaps a temper tantrum by Korea's Kim Jong-Il.

    At the heart of all this is a tremendous shift in thinking, resulting in an envy that is devouring some people. Certainly more than a few people at The Sacramento Bee newspaper, a likely candidate for bankruptcy later this year.
  • McClatchy Heads for the Cliff

  • Just a few years ago, friends of mine who were heavily invested in the stock market and/or 401K plans crowed about their early retirement plans, how wealthy they were (or would be) and what chumps those of us sticking it out in the public sector were with our defined-benefit retirement plans.

    Fast forward to this year, and those same people are scrambling to cover the costs of their health care (doubled and tripled in some cases). They are also trying to get back into the workforce because their earnings from the stock market and/or 401K plans have tanked so incredibly they can't get by on what they are paid out. (Not a good time to be 60-plus and looking for a job by the way.)

    And who are these folks mad at? Their financial advisors who said everything would be fine, leave the money in the market? The folks who helped create the house-price crash through shaky mortgages? The U.S. corporations who have been sending jobs offshore for years?

    Nope. The problem is public workers and their damned pensions.

    In The Sacramento Bee, the favorite adjective lately when public employee pensions are mentioned is 'lavish.' Public pensions are always portrayed as lavish, though The Bee doesn't bother to publish any numbers supporting the contention.

    What is published is usually dollar figures for a high-profile case, where it can be argued a person has gamed the system and gotten a public pension that seems extreme. What The Bee always fails to mention is that the employee had been contributing significantly to that retirement while working. What The Bee does is give the impression that every dime some fire captain gets in retirement is stealing money from current taxpayers' pockets.

    Envy is such an ugly thing.

    It's certainly an arguable point that public monies have been mismanaged in recent years (as have the monies of the McClatchy Corporation), but to keep trying to make out public employee pensions as the root of all evil - without bothering to prove it with numbers - is unconscionable.

    State workers stick around despite the public's abuse (and now a pay cut) because there is some security and a relatively secure pension at the end of their employment.

    Take that away, and what's left of deteriorating public service in the state is likely to start getting even worse.

    But in the meantime, if you have to visit a Department of Motor Vehicles office (or the offices of another state agency), leave a little extra time. Between the furlough/pay cut, the public's incessant hammering and most recently all the talk about going after pensions, the workers just might be a little touchy.

    With good reason.

    Sunday, July 12, 2009

    CSU faculty vote on pay cut proposal a lose-lose proposition

    SACRAMENTO, Calif., USA - Members of the California Faculty Association will start voting Monday (July 13) on a proposal from the California State University Chancellor to take two-day per month furloughs, beginning with the fall semester.

    The two-days-per-month furloughs have been suggested/recommended/demanded (pick your verb) by the chancellor as a way to lessen the impact of the $583.8 million budget cut Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) is saying the 23-campuses of the system must take this year. The $583.8 million represents the university system's share of the current state-budget meltdown with a savings of about $147 million if faculty agree to the furloughs.

    And the idea of CSU faculty furlough falls ever-so-neatly in line with the governor's furloughs of state workers. The governor has ordered three furlough days per month for almost all state workers and would really like to implement a fourth as the legislature and he debate how to deal with the $27 billion state budget deficit.

    In the CSU, perhaps the major problem is although the chancellor is calling his suggested/recommended/demanded furlough, a furlough, these furloughs will simply result in open-ended pay reductions of nearly 10 percent, with no guarantees about, well, anything, including how many years they might continue.

    To date, the chancellor - and the trustees of the California State University - have declined to say if these proposed furloughs could result in a concomitant reduction in workload (which furloughs do for state workers who are given days off). And perhaps more disingenuously, the chancellor and trustees have also declined - some would say obstinately refused - to say what the effects of the furlough will likely be.

    They will not say how many faculty jobs will be saved (if any), how many faculty might still be laid off, and how the furlough/pay cut will impact how many classes can be offered.

    In California politics, as a general rule of thumb, if voters are unsure what a ballot measure means, they simply vote no.

    And that is a highly likely outcome of the faculty vote on the chancellor's suggested/recommended/demanded furloughs, because he and the trustees have opted to keep whatever data they have amassed secret, sowing only confusion, anger, and more than a touch of resentment at all levels of faculty.

    On campuses around the system, faculty are debating what the two-day-per-month furlough will mean if faculty vote to approve it.

    Optimists spout that it is obvious that the chancellor will use the saved monies so he doesn't have to order faculty layoffs on campuses.

    The less-optimistic think he will use the money to lessen the blow, but that there will still be a significant number of layoffs, perhaps gnawing almost into the ranks of tenured professors.

    And the truly pessimistic wonder if the chancellor is using the budget problem as a wedge to get senior and junior faculty at each other's throats as they debate his vague furlough proposal. The truly pessimistic are also fearful that the chancellor doesn't really have any plan at all, but is throwing out the furlough proposal like a Hail Mary pass in a high school football game.

    Hail Marys may be in order for everyone before this budget crisis is passed.

    How easy it would have been for the chancellor and trustees to do the right thing here.

    What right thing?

    The right approach would have been to ask faculty to consider a pay reduction. A pay reduction, perhaps on a sliding scale, could help ensure that junior faculty could keep their teaching posts, that classes could be maintained, that the entire system could pull together to survive this latest crisis.

    If faculty were voting on that question - with supporting data about what a yes vote would actually mean in numbers of jobs saved - CSU faculty could have an above-board discussion about the future of the institution.

    And most senior faculty would probably suck it up and vote yes, even if reluctantly. (Who wants their salary reduced?)

    Instead, faculty are confronted with a muddle of confusion, anger, and more than a touch of resentment as they begin voting in what looks like a lose-lose election.

    Of course, the chancellor and trustees could unveil any grand plans they have this week (sooner rather than later) to help faculty in the decision-making process as they vote on the chancellor's proposal for a furlough/pay cut.

    It's not too late to get back in the game Chancellor Reed, even if it is to throw a Hail Mary pass.

    Saturday, July 04, 2009

    A lot of questions about university furloughs

    SACRAMENTO, Calif., USA - The downward spiral of the finances of the state of California have come to the California State University in the form of a $583.8 million cut to the overall 23- campus system budget for the coming year.

    After years of cutting the budgets of these 23 campuses over and over, this one has pushed the university administration to jump on the furlough bandwagon, made popular by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) as he struggles with a struggling state legislature and a whopping $26 billion state budget problem.

    Schwarzenegger just added a third monthly furlough day for state workers, giving them an effective 15-percent pay cut in total.

    In the CSU, a sketchy proposal has been floated by the central administration for two furlough days per month - about a 10.78 pay cut for all CSU employees. But because the CSU has binding agreements with the three unions representing the employees, each unit must vote to accept the furlough idea.

    Two unions have voted to accept the idea of tw0-day per month furloughs, but the faculty - and its bargaining unit The California Faculty Association - have questions. A lot of questions.

    The furlough proposal would reduce the proposed deficit, but leave as much as $309 million yet to be cut. That's $309 million out of a $583.8 reduction in funds. And at this point, Chancellor Charles Reed and the CSU Trustees are not saying how they would cut the budget sufficiently to cover this $309 million. In fact, through spokesmen, they have given the definite impression they haven't pondered it fully yet.


    And when faculty have asked if agreeing to the furloughs would guarantee there would be no faculty layoffs - just for this academic year - the response has been that the administration won't guarantee anything.

    Uh-oh, redux...

    With $309 million not accounted for, it's easy to see why the administration wants to keep its options open. This total $583.8 million cut is unprecedented and will likely damage the university system in ways hard to imagine.

    Still, before faculty vote to voluntarily reduce their salaries, the CSU Trustees should come clean about how they are planning to deal with the balance of the $309 million budget reduction.

    If it is layoffs - in addition to the furloughs - the trustees need to say so. And they should be honest and put some numbers with the announcement.

    If it is massive student fee hikes (30-percent fee hikes and higher are reportedly under discussion), those numbers should announced sooner rather than later.

    And if the CSU Trustees and administration are planning both? Well, school starts in just seven weeks.

    Wednesday, June 17, 2009

    Whatever you do, don't throw a kiss to your mother...

    ALOIS, New York, USSA
    - While everyone in the U.S. has been so concerned about swine flu, up in a metropolis called Standish, Maine, a different kind of illness has taken over school authorities: adultus ridiculosos.

    There is some evidence that this maturity induced dementia is related to a more serious malady, seen largely in authoritarian societies.

    But that discussion can wait for another day.

    Here is the story, filed by the Associated Press:

    Maine student who blew kiss to mom denied diploma

    Tuesday, June 16, 2009

    (06-16) 21:26 PDT Portland, Maine (AP) --

    A Maine high school senior says he was denied his diploma because he bowed during graduation and blew a kiss to his mother.

    Justin Denney was about to receive his Bonny Eagle High School diploma Friday when he pointed at friends and relatives.

    Schools Superintendent Suzanne Lukas ordered him back to his seat. She tells the Portland Press Herald newspaper she was enforcing behavior rules.

    Justin's mother, Mary Denney, says her son's showboating didn't break any rules. She tells WMTW-TV "a kiss to your mom is not misbehavior." She wants an apology — and a diploma for her son.

    The commencement at the Cumberland County Civic Center also was disrupted when a giant inflatable rubber duck and beach balls were thrown. One student was ejected.

    Some parents want a review of commencement policies.

    Justin Denney

    Justin Denney


    Without putting too fine a point on it, What the hell?

    I suppose that it is important for school authorities to control these about-to-be adults. After all, that's what all those years of loud bells, arbitrary time periods for study (called classes), whistles (and rules) were all about, right? Had this graduating class been at a Catholic high school, one click from a clacker wielded by a 4-foot-tall nun would have dropped that kiss in its tracks.

    I've attended more graduations than I like to even think about. And yes, there is a modicum of rowdy behavior, a few beach balls, and a lot of shouting. A lot of shouting. But it's joyous activity, activity that comes after years of study and effort and following those damned loud bells and arbitrary time periods for study, whistles and rules.

    In Standish, Maine, school authorities might take a lesson from their students on this one and lighten up.

    Whether they do or not, these same school officials are definitely getting a lesson on what it feels like to look ridiculous in a national spotlight. The joke writers for Letterman and O'Brien and a huge cadre of comedians are busy at work, making Standish, Maine the new punchboard for humor.

    Plus, what a great advertisement for home-school advocates. A few kisses tossed in the direction of moms there is normal behavior.

    For another take on what happened in Standish, here is a longer story, with a second link to a video. The video of the actual incident, is revealing.

  • Diploma denied for a kiss
  • Video of grad incident
  • Tuesday, June 02, 2009

    One of the good guys passes away - Bill Kearney

    HEWLETT, New York, USA - My brother-in-law Bill Kearney died Monday, after a valiant battle with cancer. I'm not sure I would have the courage to handle all the treatments, procedures, chemicals and various indignities that went along with that fight.

    When I saw Bill last summer, he was still in good spirits, despite pain, and was fun to be with in a short visit. At a restaurant, while perusing the healthy side of the menu, he finally opted for a seafood dish that would make a cardiologist weak in the knees.

    "I'm a cancer patient," he said. "I think I get to eat what I want."

    Bill Kearney - Summer 2008
    Bill Kearney, summer 2008

    There are brother-in-laws and there are brother-in-laws, but Bill was the best. When I was in college at Villanova in the mid-60s, he put up with my unannounced, drop-in visits to visit with he and my sister Anne (and escape my dorm room). It was during one of those visits that he offered up a nugget about education that set me on a course I stayed with, the course that made my life what it is.

    I was on the verge of dropping out of Villanova University and while he understood why I wanted to leave, he told me - as only a older brother-in-law can do - that whatever I did, I had to get a four-year college degree. Where it was from, what major I took were irrelevant.

    "Get the degree. It's what you need to open the door for a job."

    And five or six years later, when I was in California, married with one child and struggling to get my four-year college degree, out of the blue he and Anne sent me a check for $100 for books. At the time, $100 was more than I could make in two weeks of working part time at the Napa Register newspaper. It kept our fragile home economy going - and gave an incredible boost to my resolve to finish up at Sonoma State University.

    Michael, Anne & Bill
    With Anne and Bill last summer

    The memories of all the years - all the visits - are like a flood today.

    Just last week, I was telling my amigo Chon (in Arroyo Seco Mexico), about Bill. Chon was marveling at how tightly I was able to pack my bodega (garage) with surfboards, stoves, tools, and everything else. I relayed to Chon (as best I could in Spanish) that my brother-in-law Bill had taught me how to pack 40 years ago, when I arrived in his driveway in a old VW van, a wife, baby and black cat, all stuffed in. We were headed for California and barely had room to sit in the van.

    By the time Bill got done, we could sleep inside comfortably.

    So many memories. But only one regret comes to mind this morning, thought doubtless others are likely to surface.

    I have always loved to go to the ocean, and as a young teen, whenever I visited in the summer, it frequently fell to Bill to be my chauffeur and companion to head to Rockaway Beach or one of the other spots near Hewlett. On one visit, Bill had made some arrangements to go out fishing on a tour boat, but he said I had my choice: we could go fishing or swimming at the beach.

    Like any indulged young teenage child, I chose the beach and to this day, I can remember that I knew Bill really wanted to go fishing and that the crowds and sand and salt were a distant second choice, for him.

    But he did not let on at all that he was disappointed. Instead, we had a rollicking day in the surf. I remember the sunburn from that day, too.

    Bill died with much of his family around him and I think will be remembered fondly by all who ever knew him.

    And there's no doubt he zipped straight to heaven, where with any luck there is great fishing, golf, and he can watch major league baseball and NY Giants football, while eating all the seafood he wants, without concern.

    RIP Bill Kearney, you are missed already.

    Thursday, May 14, 2009

    Chico State colleague Richard Ek dies

    CHICO, Calif., USA - I received word today that a colleague of mine from my teaching days at Chico State, Richard Ek, died of a gunshot wound yesterday. The story was published in the Chico Enterprise-Record and is a little sketchy (read: incomplete). Perhaps more details will be forthcoming.

  • Story from Chico Enterprise Record

  • Richard Ek
    Richard Ek

    I taught with Dick Ek for four years at Chico State in the 1980s, where he was a senior professor and I was as junior a professor as a junior could be. We both came from strong journalism practitioner backgrounds and so had a lot in common.

    We were never really close, Dick was too much of a curmudgeon for me. And I was too busy advising the campus newspaper, The Orion, and trying to figure out university politics enough to get a tenured professor's slot.

    But Dick was a big help at those times when The Orion, would put its foot into it - which it did with amazing frequency. He once came into my office after the newspaper had skewered then-university president Robin Wilson for, oh, probably the fourth or fifth week in a row. He offered that if the newspaper kept giving Wilson hell, that I would not be much of a candidate for tenure - or even getting a position leading to tenure.

    I still remember the look on his face when I told him that after my 10 years in the newspaper business - where tenure is basically two-weeks-severance pay and a kick in the ass - the rumblings of university presidents really didn't scare me.

    Dick played a lot of tennis and stayed in good physical shape most of his life. I heard from a friend that his health was slipping and that might have been a contributing factor to what happened.

    Whatever the case, thousands of journalism students across the U.S. owe Richard Ek a debt of gratitude for holding their feet to the fire in various journalism classes.

    And I'll lift a glass to him tonight, wishing him Godspeed to some tennis match in heaven. With luck, he's already there, beating the snot out of former Chico State unversity president Robin Wilson with drives to the baseline.

    Friday, May 08, 2009

    California's public universities go to the deep pocket

    SACRAMENTO, Calif. USA - That California's two major university systems have voted in recent weeks to raise student tuition for next year at all of their campuses should not be a surprise to the public or students or university faculty. Especially university faculty.

    While both systems have been dealing with declining revenues from the state year after year, neither has made any secret that they would be looking to the students to keep the funds flowing, and budgets nicely topped off.

    In the CSU, its trustees have adopted long term plans to raise fees - and also raise administrative salaries so as to be competitive. Those plans started back in the mid 1990s with former Chancellor Barry Munitz, who in 1997 went on to fame with the Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

    Barry Munitz
    Barry Munitz

    It might be more accurate to refer to Munitz's time with the Getty as infamous, as the link below explains.

  • What happened, Barry?

  • I won't bother to revisit all the baloney thrown out by both university systems about the need to hike administrative salaries so they systems can be competitive. I'm not sure even the CSU Trustees or the UC Regents really believe that hogwash.

    But students ! Ah, the students are ideal onto which to push the burden. They are not organized politically. They have relatively short time at each institution. And for the most part they are busy doing what they went to college for - racking up units to get a degree.

    And those few students who do decide to ask questions and get vocal either find themselves in hot water (politically) on their campuses - or get co-opted by their respective administrations. Watch most student government meetings and you get the eerie sense that the students have been coached - and not by a faculty member.

    But non-university critics of the two systems, who routinely argue that the universities are profligate in their spending, miss one major point.

    The systems do spend waaaaaay too much on administration. (And also love to create new administrative positions to fill with overpaid staff.) But as a percentage of their total budgets, it's not as startling as it might seem on the surface. Much more important is that the two systems are slowly killing their academic programs through starvation.

    And the regents and trustees don't really care.

    It much more fun to encourage the universities to divert funds to things like marketing and public relations (and maybe sports). Finding funds for more classes for students is infinitely less amusing.

    The major objective of CSU Trustees - and UC Regents - would seem to be to ensure well-paid administrations and to be obnoxiously supportive of their campus presidents, chancellors and top staff.

    "Students? Who are students?" they might ask, if ever pressed.

    When CSU Sacramento faculty held a vote of no-confidence in the leadership abilities of CSU, Sacramento President Alexander Gonzalez several years ago (which was a landslide against him) the CSU Trustees went out of their way to ignore all the fiscal issues raised.

    Alexander Gonzalez

    But the trustees have continued to keep raising students fees at about 10 percent per year- and will continue to do so.

    How else will they have the money to keep their 23-campus administrations happy?

    Oops! I meant to say competitive.

    Tuesday, April 28, 2009

    Watching the swine flu circus from Mexico

    ARROYO SECO, Jalisco, Mexico - The day the story broke about the outbreak of swine flu in Mexico City, news media immediately began using the word 'pandemic.'

    It is a powerful word, laden with frightening implications, especially as it is usually pronounced in television broadcasts with the same gravity as saying 'nuclear war.' In this case, certainly four days ago, it was also a wild overstatement. I trust it is still an overstatement as you read this. But it did keep people glued to television sets - and advertisers smiling.

    Here on the west coast of Mexico, in the very southern portion of the subtropical state of Jalisco, children are out of school and playing in the streets (part of the nationwide alert and school closures). People who have coughs are seeking doctors, when they might not have otherwise. Pigs are eyed somewhat suspiciously, though not avoided. But because there are very few televisions in the village, life simply continues without CNN's Wolf Blitzer's bulletins reporting, well, not that much.

    Whaddya you lookin' at
    I'm innocent, I tell you! I'm innocent!

    This is not to diminish the genuine concerns people have about their health, and the health of their families and friends. But the hammering away on 24-hour news channels by hyperventilating newscasters (with non-news flu updates) isn't helping.

    Washing your hands more often might, especially after handling money.

    The swine flu presents a health threat, certainly. So do a plethora of other communicable diseases all over the globe, currently dormant. Read Richard Preston's book The Hot Zone for a terrifying look at how close the world came to have a major outbreak of ebola nearly 30 years ago. (You can watch the movie based on his book titled Outbreak, though the film is not as compelling.)

  • The Hot Zone excerpt

  • But there is another threat to be aware of in all this, the threat posed by fearful people. How many cases of swine flu will it take before some zealots carrying highpowered rifles on the U.S. Mexico border decide that anyone trying to cross in the U.S. poses a clear and present danger to them - and their families?

    In Sacramento, Calif., three school-aged children have been diagnosed with the flu, though their cases appear to be, well, simply a flu and not in any way life threatening. But there is likely a lot of free-floating anxiety around St. Mel's school and it's hard to say whether the first child diagnosed will become a pariah to his classmates when he recovers and school reopens.

    Let's hope not.

    Let's also hope that this swine flu burns itself out quickly - as many viruses do - and that we don't have hear the word pandemic mispronounced again for a long time.

    Now please go wash you hands. Who knows who might have been using your computer keyboard?

    Tuesday, April 14, 2009

    Asking tough questions is part of journalism

    SACRAMENTO, Calif., USA - The shooting in Folsom, Calif a few days ago - the shooting in which a 23-year-old man with a knife was shot and killed by three Folsom police officers - is a good example of a kind of journalism to which readers should object.
  • Shooting story

  • While The Sacramento Bee is congratulating itself on its investigative work on a Child Protective Services' story - and the resignation of the CPS chief - it is letting lesser stories slip through without forcing issues, asking the tough questions.

    What's wrong with the shooting story?

    From the outset, the story takes on a clearly subservient tone to the Folsom Police.
    "Folsom police have released few details..." And later, " Beattie did not name the three officers involved in the shooting."

    Well, that may be so. Police departments are usually quite secretive about their actions and inner workings.

    But please! Three police officers apparently blasted a 23-year-old man with a knife, after unsuccessfully using a taser on him. Is it too much to know who the three officers are?

    Credit should be given to The Bee for following up on the sketchy story that was originally published.

    But now it's time to turn up the heat on the Folsom Police and let readers know what happened. Perhaps instead of saying, "Folsom police have released few details..." The Bee could say that the Folsom Police are REFUSING to release details, REFUSING to say what police were involved in the shooting.

    And maybe the reporters and editors who did the tough work on the CPS story can put those investigative skills back to work before the three unnamed Folsom Police officers have trouble getting their tasers to work properly again - and shoot another resident with their service weapons.

    Thursday, April 02, 2009

    Another Sacramento Bee column bites the dust

    SACRAMENTO, Calif., USA - Although I kicked my television addiction some years back, thanks to a 12-step program I found out about by watching late-night TV, I have always enjoyed Rick Kushman's sometimes annoying, but always interesting, columns on television shows, trends in television, and entertainment.

    His coverage of what was coming up was the closest thing to must-read stuff in The Sacramento Bee, right after the editorials of course. The editorials were/are must read because...well, let's make this a nice column, ok?

    Rick speaking at a convention

    I used Rick's columns as a way to keep track of things, to see if new programs were, well, worth watching. I trusted/trust his judgment on a lot of such matters.

    Most of all, I observed over the years that in his writing he was always brutally honest, even at times when maybe it wasn't easy to be. That's hard when you get paid to write for a living - and have corporate bosses who are worried about advertisers and advertising dollars.

    Now Rick Kushman has been quantum shifted, like many Bee staff members who have survived the latest round of layoffs and cutbacks. I'm sure there is some logic in cutting out the TV column, but I don't understand it. A local take on television, from a local guy who was/is well-known in the community, was a draw for many readers.

    This one, for sure.

    And The Good Life column? Well, it may have its devotees, but it doesn't hold my attention the same way Rick's analysis of The Sopranos did.

    The Sopranos

    I have invited Rick to speak in my classes at CSU, Sacramento on many occasions. And he has almost always been able to squeeze my students in, despite a schedule that defies description. He has an open invite for this fall to tell us about The Good Life - and maybe all those insider tidbits about television he doesn't get to write about anymore.

    Tuesday, March 31, 2009

    Crash with a wild pig nets motorcyclist $8.6 million

    MONTEREY, Calif., USA - This story is one of those that late night comedians will likely have some fun with, for some time.

  • Wild pig crash

  • But it isn't really funny, for any of the injured parties. (The motorcyclist, the wild pig and the taxpayers of the State of California.)

    I have a great deal of sympathy for the motorcyclist who was hurt in the crash. He is in a wheelchair and is unlikely to walk again.

    But how the state of California came to be found responsible for the accident is beyond me.

    Wild pig
    Wild pig, acting pretty tame

    It's true, state highway officials were (and are) aware that wild pigs - as well as other creatures like humans, pheasants, rabbits, raccoons, snakes and the occasional coastal deer - sometimes wander across that stretch of state Highway 1.

    They still do. (The animals, not the state officials, though they are free to do so...)

    But what exactly should state officials do to ensure the safety of people riding motorcycles at night along dark stretches of rural highways? Close highways after dark? Shepherd all wild animals to special animal crossings with guards wearing bright yellow uniforms to hold up traffic?

    A few years ago, a good friend of mine had to swerve to miss a deer on a highway in Northern California. In the process of dumping his bike on the road, he racked his ankle sufficiently to put him in a wheelchair for months, then more months on crutches and finally some physical therapy. He also has several metal pins holding his ankle together.

    He didn't file a lawsuit against the deer - or the state of California for not issuing enough hunting licenses to keep those dangerous does off the highways. He spent a lot of time recovering, paid his medical bills (with the limited assistance of his insurance company) and rode on, making him luckier than the motorcyclist who hit the wild pig.

    Perhaps I need to read the transcripts of the trial to see how the jury came to its conclusion in awarding the $8.6 million in this cyclist vs. pig case.

    Might make fascinating - and/or disturbing - reading.

    Sunday, March 29, 2009

    Living in 'The Long Emergency' - horrible at best

    UERTO VALLARTA, Jalisco, Mexico
    - A friend of mine - familiar with what we are doing in Mexico - recommended a book to me called The Long Emergency, by James Howard Kunstler.

    Thanks a lot, Randy... As if I needed more material for nightmares.

    It's not a novel, or a work of fiction. But it is more frightening than anything Stephen King or Dean Koontz has pumped out. And it's unlikely they will be able to top it, unless they spin off what Kunstler has written.

    Why? Well, because much of what he predicted is already happening, just a few years after the book was published.

    Cover of The Long Emergency

    The book's major premise is that we are running out of oil (no duh...) and that as that happens, most of what we know will either completely disappear or have to be transformed in ways that are not pretty. I've read some of this before, but not with such dramatic, clear analysis and portraits of what life is likely to be like for the balance of the century.

    (Good luck my children and grandchildren.)

    Take the suburbs. If there isn't enough oil to make gasoline - and gasoline for cars - how will people commute to work? Or shop. Or get to the doctor? Or? (Forget trains and buses, at least in the U.S. Our systems can't handle the few people who want to use they now.)

    Kunstler's grim world is one in which we all will end up going back to the basics of agriculture and subsistence living. The job openings - maybe in just 20 or 30 years - will be for farm hands, not public relations practitioners.

    American Gothic - in 2030?

    More to the point, he also talks in detail about the entire house of cards built by most of the world in which we have been depleting resources at a rate so fast it makes you dizzy. He also talks about the U.S. housing situation that tipped the scale so neatly, catapulting the U.S. into its current downward spiral and recession.

    Before you dismiss all of this with a wave of that magic wand that says 'alternative energy and new technologies will save us,' read his analysis of why that magic wand won't be nearly enough to save billions of people in the world from starving to death.

    And for anyone who thinks government - that of the U.S. or any nation - will be able to keep life as we know it afloat, perhaps a listen to the short interview might convince you otherwise.

    In case the book seems, well, a little too much to chew on, Kunstler also wrote a sort piece for Rolling Stone that sums up most of the themes of his book.

    Sweet dreams, y'all

    Here's the link to Rolling Stone:
  • Rolling Stone article
  • Tuesday, March 24, 2009

    NY Times puts Mexico's troubles into perspective

    Just a few days ago, I wrote about CSU, Sacramento and UC Davis telling students to avoid Mexico for spring break, out of fear that the violence in some border towns somehow threatened their vacations in places a thousand miles south of the border.

    A New York Times article published Monday, puts much of hysteria about Mexico and safety into perspective.

    I won't repeat it here, but it well worth reading to get some balance to the hyperbole being pumped out by media outlets - and apparently even California universities who should know better.

    Here is the link:

  • NY Times on Mexico
  • Wednesday, March 18, 2009

    Puzzling out how dangerous Mexico travel might be

    SACRAMENTO, Calif., USA - I wondered how long it would be before fears about safety in Mexico would reach Central California.

    Sacramento is almost always somewhat behind the curve on this stuff.

    But in response to some U.S. State Department travel advisories about dangers in border towns, CSU Sacramento and UC Davis have jumped on the fear bandwagon, urging students to skip spring break in Mexico because of the situation in some of the border towns.

    The border towns.

    One more time?

    The border towns.

    Nogales border
    Downtown Nogales border fence

    Now I don't mean to suggest that these students - or me either - should go hang out on a street corner in Ciudad Juarez or Nogales, or even Tijuana. Maybe especially Tijuana.

    I would also advise these same students to stay out of parts of Oakland, Calif. at any time of day, thank you very much. Ditto for New York, Boston, Washington D.C. and most other U.S. metropolitan cities, all with their own safety issues - at least at certain times of the night.

    But, please! Mexico is a huge nation, full of interesting places to visit. Many safe places, I might add. I've been to many and expect to go to many more.

    In the meantime, in addition to Sacramento-area colleges urging students to avoid heading south, one area church was highlighted in a Sacramento Bee article published today. Its leaders are pulling the plug on a 13-year-old help project for a Mexican city in which about 700 young people - young people who annually have helped build houses and do various good-will projects in Guadalupe Victoria, Mexico. Instead, a contingent will travel to Fresno to help the needy there.

    Good for them for donating their spring break time to do good works.

    But, as they say in Mexico: Cuidado! (Watch out!)

    There are parts of Fresno that might have their own drug cartels and wars going on.

    Downtown Fresno
    Downtown Fresno by day

    Wednesday, March 11, 2009

    Labor union releases names of staff let go from Bee

    SACRAMENTO, Calif., USA - While I haven't heard back from the editor of the Sacramento Bee about my request for the release of the names of the persons most recently laid off, I did discovered that the Guild, the labor union representing most of the people, has published a list.

    It's available at:
    Guild Website

    Many of the names on the list are familiar to me, but one hit particularly hard, a woman named Debbie Meredith.

    Debbie and I worked together when I was a consultant at the Bee, working as fill-in editor of the Forum section, taking over from Bill Moore.

    Bill Moore left last year, just ahead of the tsunami in the first wave of buyouts and layoff. He is having a ball writing and working as a freelancer.

    Debbie kept a lot of wheels spinning smoothly in the editorial pages section, and no doubt will be missed. I hope the next chapter of her professional life turns out as well as Bill's has.

    My first official post to The Sacramento Bee's 'Street Talk'

    The Sacramento Bee started a new feature - today - in which it has asked some readers to comment on what's going on in the community.

    I used my first posting to ask Sacramento Bee editor Melanie Sill to release the names of the people who have been laid off by the newspaper - a list she has refused to let loose, citing privacy concerns of the people involved.

    I have sympathy. But for those folks whose names have appeared on the front page of the newspaper (in their bylines), I think readers have the right to know.

    But that's what I said below:


    his new Sacramento Bee feature called Street Talk – the one you are reading – is supposed to help prompt dialogue about the city.

    So I apologize - in advance - for making my first comments about The Sacramento Bee itself, and for publicly asking editor Melanie Sill for a favor, on behalf of the community.

    No, I am not going to go off on the newspaper for being either liberal or conservative. (I would not characterize it as either.) And really, The Sacramento Bee is a huge part of the community, in good part because it helps define the city and its people.

    That’s why the travails of the plummeting advertising revenues – which has now translated into layoffs and buyouts of longtime news employees - is such a tragedy. The reporters and editors of the newspaper represent a collective historical record that is immediately lost when they head out the door.

    In my years as a journalist in Northern California, whenever I moved to a new newspaper in a new town (which I did frequently, much to the chagrin of my children and wife) the first person I sought out was the police reporter. I wanted to know what areas of the city or town were safest.

    Since last summer, the Bee has been hemorrhaging staff, including news reporters and editors who are taking valuable knowledge with them. More to the point, these are people who regular readers of the newspaper have come to know through their bylines in the newspaper and come to trust (mostly).

    And though editor Melanie Sill has done a fair job of reporting about changes in the newspaper, the only way readers know that a staff member has left (either voluntarily or through a layoff) is their name disappears.

    In my case, I usually figure it out when I ship off an email and bounces back, telling me the person does not exist.

    So, in this first Street Talk posting, I want to send a message directly to editor Melanie Sill: please tell us who is leaving. These staff are more than just employees of your newspaper and the corporation. They are our neighbors, often friends, and certainly people about whom we are as curious as the endless doings of the state legislature.

    I did receive one comment from Dan Weintraub, who is the editor/controller of this feature.


    Mike--Melanie has her hands full this week so I am not sure she is going to respond here. In case she does not, let me tell you what she has said both publicly and privately about this issue: Some people who are laid off want their names to be public, and some don't. Some think it will help them get new jobs, others don't care about that or simply don't want their job status to be broadcast in public. Also, many of the people who have lost their jobs are not public figures at all. They work in circulation or production or advertising. Would you suggest we post their names as well? Finally, being a resourceful journalist yourself, I bet if you googled long enough you just might come up with the list you are looking for.


    News staff whose bylines have been published in recent years, certainly. Why deny the Legislators - who have been skewered - the knowledge that their most vigilant observers are headed to the unemployment lines? Ditto for photographers...