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Thu Mar 26, 2015 at 08:09 AM PDT

A Letter to Addy

by mftalbot

THERE IS NO WORD FOR FEELING NOSTALGIC about the future, but that’s what a parent’s tears often are: a nostalgia for something that has not yet occurred. They are the pain of hope, the helplessness of hope, and finally, the surrender to hope. — Comedian Michael Ian Black
My grand-niece, Addy, just celebrated her first birthday at a nice gathering at the City Park this last Sunday.

Addy will be graduating from college in June of 2037, and I would like to address the rest of this diary to her, to read on that day. I will print out a hard copy of this diary and give it to Addy's Mom for safekeeping.

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In the Senate, 2014 was always going to be a tough map for the Democratic Party because many more Democratic than Republican seats were up for re-election, with many of the Democrats having been elected in the Democratic wave year of 2008. Those seats in more conservative states that tend otherwise to vote Republican were always going to be vulnerable.

This does not, however, fully explain the scope of the Democrats’ defeat on Nov. 4. Reuters’ bleak summary from a few months ago:

The Republican wave that hit the U.S. Congress in Tuesday’s midterm election also boosted the party in state races, where it gained control of 10 chambers and could be on track to holding the largest number of legislative seats since before the Great Depression.

Democrats lost their majorities in the West Virginia House, Nevada Assembly and Senate, New Hampshire House, Minnesota House, New York Senate, Maine Senate, Colorado Senate, Washington Senate and New Mexico House to Republicans, who also won enough seats to tie control of the West Virginia Senate, the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) reported on Wednesday.

‘Everyone knew it was a Republican year, but they really blew away expectations at the state legislative level,’ said Tim Storey, the bipartisan group’s election analyst.

With Tuesday’s vote, Republicans took over the U.S. Senate, beefed up their majority in the U.S. House and won the governor’s office in several key states. The vote also increased the number of state legislative chambers with Republican majorities to 67 from 57.

A similar pattern obtained during the presidency of the last two-term Democratic president, Bill Clinton.
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Thu Dec 04, 2014 at 09:31 AM PST

Redefining "Affordable Housing"

by mftalbot

A FRIEND OF MINE IS LOOKING TO MOVE closer to the heart of the San Francisco Bay Area — to Berkeley, specifically — and called me the other day to bring me up to date on his progress.

“It’s insane, Matt,” he said. “One-bedroom apartments start at around $2,000 per month!” My friend makes around the average salary in the Bay Area (currently around $65,000 per year) and still can’t really afford a basic, no-frills apartment in a no-frills neighborhood.

I did some back-of-an-envelope calculations to determine what the average salary would get you in terms of a lifestyle.

A gross salary of $65,000 nets out, after taxes and other deductions, to around $42,000 per year, or $3,520 per month. An old rule of thumb dictates you should spend no more than 1/3 of your income on shelter — which means, for our median Bay Area earner, about $1,200 per month, or slightly more than half the rent for a reasonably nice one-bedroom apartment in the East Bay.

The Bay Area is becoming like Manhattan — a great place to live if you’re making, say, $150,000 a year or more. For everyone else, life is anywhere from economically challenging to a more or less constant emergency — and that’s if you’re by yourself. I can’t even imagine trying to raise a family on the median income.

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Fri Nov 14, 2014 at 07:49 AM PST

Great Jazz

by mftalbot

I’VE MENTIONED BEFORE IN THIS SPACE that I’m a jazz fan. In part, I love jazz for the endless possibilities for expressiveness to which it lends itself, and for the communitarian and collaborative ethic that has always characterized the music.

Wynton Marsalis has said regarding jazz:

“As long as there is democracy, there will be people wanting to play jazz because nothing else will ever so perfectly capture the democratic process in sound. Jazz means working things out musically with other people. You have to listen to other musicians and play with them even if you don’t agree with what they’re playing. It teaches you the very opposite of racism and anti-Semitism. It teaches you that the world is big enough to accommodate us all.”

My own tastes are pretty eclectic — I’ve listened to and enjoyed most of the sub-genres of the art form, from ragtime to swing, through the beginnings of “cool jazz” and bop to the modal brilliance of Miles Davis and John Coltrane and the more experimental sounds of Ornette Coleman and Sun Ra. I’ve lately taken to Stan Getz and Paul Desmond, who made the most perfect rainy day music ever put on vinyl.

Among my favorite jazz musicians was a man named Von Freeman, better known as “Vonski” to his fans.

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Sun Nov 02, 2014 at 11:29 AM PST

Some Thoughts From Omaha Beach

by mftalbot

Part of a series I've been doing on my travels in Europe.

ON THE MORNING of our last full day in France, we took an intercity train from Paris out to Normandy. For this journey, we were not on the TGV, France’s futuristic high-speed train system. We were on an intercity express train, which, despite not being a proper bullet train, still moved with dispatch out of Paris and into the sylvan and achingly beautiful French countryside.

We arrived in Caen about two hours after we started, and rented a car for the day. We drove out to the site of Omaha Beach, and parked in a little town called Vierville-sur-Mer situated on the bluffs directly above the sector of the beach portrayed in the opening minutes of Steven Spielberg’s landmark 1998 film, “Saving Private Ryan.”

We walked out onto the sand, and after examining a few remnant bunkers and other structures, we walked out to the edge of the surf. Then I turned around and looked up at what the first waves of men ashore saw on that terrible June morning just over 70 years ago.

Stunned by what I saw, I turned to my travel companion and said, “My God — those poor men.”

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Fri Oct 31, 2014 at 01:13 PM PDT

More Notes From Europe

by mftalbot

Part of a series of diaries about my recent travels in Europe

ON OUR LAST NIGHT IN ROME, we went over to St. Peter’s Basilica to see it in the evening light. I have fallen in love with this city, its people, its beauty. I will be back.

My time in Europe impresses upon me the most striking difference between here and the United States: Europe has an abundance of time; America has an abundance of space.

European cities use space very differently than in the American cities. European cities are far more densely built, with most buildings meeting the sidewalk at grade. Shops are on the ground floor and apartments or offices are built above.

Romans have been using this pattern for a very long time. There are relics here and there in the older part of Rome of the old Insulae, the four and five story apartment buildings where most Roman citizens lived in the days of the Empire. It struck me how similar they were, in terms of their basic layout and appearance, to the buildings that most Romans live in today.

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DATELINE: ROME. I’ve always wanted to start a column like that, and now, at last, my dream has been realized.

Rome, the Eternal City, has me bewitched. Our first full day here, we awoke early and started at St. Peter’s Square, basically getting the lay of the land before we went there for real on Sunday for Mass. Then we took a walk in the general direction of the Pantheon, stopping practically every other block as a result of a recurring conversation that went like this:

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REGULARLY IN THIS SPACE I REFER TO PEOPLE AND EVENTS FROM CLASSICAL ANTIQUITY, roughly the period from the time of Homer in the 8th century B.C. to the decline and fall of the western half of the Roman Empire in the late 5th century A.D. My purpose is to demonstrate that, despite the sophisticated tools at our disposal in the present world — computers, advanced material science, space travel and all the rest — there is very little of consequence in the present that is genuinely new, particularly when it comes to social movements and theories of governance.

For example, our system of laws draws heavily from Roman law, which is one reason that technical points of law are so often discussed in classical Latin. Court rooms and judges’ chambers would go silent without lawyers using phrases like res ipsa loquitor (“it speaks for itself”) or habeus corpus (“produce the body”), or suspects presenting investigators with an alibi (literally “elsewhere,” as in where the suspect claims he was in relation to the scene of the crime.)

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Thu Jul 03, 2014 at 12:14 PM PDT

Land That I Love

by mftalbot

AMERICA IS A COMPELLING PLACE TO BEHOLD, in both the literal and more figurative uses of that word “behold.”

Sometimes I love America as a child loves a father. This kind of love is the very etymology of the term “patriotism,” from patris, “father(land).”

I’ve travelled extensively in the interior West, and every time I do the beauty of the landscape takes my breath away. The beauty is not mannered and settled in the way that other continents are — the quaintness of rural England, for example. The American West has by contrast a wild, elemental, almost careless loveliness, and traveling through it I always get the humbling sense that it doesn’t care whether there are any witnesses to gasp in awe. John Ford, the great director of American Westerns, loved shooting long shots of his characters making their way through Monument Valley or the Canyonlands of southern Utah, and once remarked that he used the scenery as a sort of silent character in his films.

Sometimes I love America like a lover loves his beloved.

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Thu Jun 12, 2014 at 07:30 AM PDT

"They" and "Us"

by mftalbot

MY FAMILY MOVED TO BENICIA, CALIFORNIA FROM THE NEARBY CITY OF RICHMOND when I was 13 ½ years old, on March 11, 1976. Benicia was a much smaller town then — the suburban growth boom that marked the era in the Bay Area had just reached my new town, and the Southampton development to the north of town existed, but only a couple blocks up from Southampton Road had been built out, and even in the older part of town, my parents’ house up on M Street had almost nothing but fields and horses to its north, all the way to the freeway. Sheep still grazed on the west side of town, where a Taco Bell is now.

We had moved from Richmond. Richmond, California. The city consists of The Flats — that portion west of Interstate 80 on the coastal plain next to San Francisco Bay, where the poorer people live — and The Hills, which overlook the flats. The Flats were (and still are) beset by violence and crime, and were dangerous enough that I have struggled for years with PTSD from my time there.

I remember a few weeks after we moved into our new house, my sister and older brother and I walked across M Street and into fields high with dry early-summer weeds and thickets of rattling anise stalks. We ran through the fields like the children we barely still were, laughing and playing silly games. Looking back I can see we were very much like prisoners released. Moving to Benicia from the mean streets of Richmond was like the end of a war.

Late that afternoon I ran with my face turned up to the sun, my arms out like wings, deep into the fields, and at some point I found myself alone, surrounded by thick brush, my only companions the sounds of buzzing insects and warbling birds, and I was covered in the pungent licorice scent that came from a trail of broken anise weed. I stopped, felt an odd weight in my chest and sat down. The world seemed to lose color, and I put my hand to my face — and suddenly I was weeping in great, gusting sobs.

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Tue Jun 10, 2014 at 12:16 PM PDT

Technology and Utopianism

by mftalbot

I’VE BEEN ENJOYING A NEW SERIES ON HBO, “Silicon Valley.” It is produced by Mike Judge, the man who made the 1999 cult hit “Office Space.”

A running gag on the show is the conceit among the titans of tech that their inventions are “making the world a better place.” This idea ought to resonate not just with techies, but with all of us. The idea that technological progress is synonymous with human progress pervades American discourse — but while this idea can be (and is) taken to absurd and even utopian extremes, it is also not exactly nonsense.

Consider: In the last 100 years, electricity has transformed domestic life. In the days of washboards, wringers and clotheslines, doing laundry could mean hours of work. Add to that the task of cleaning a house without the benefit of modern appliances like vacuum cleaners, electric floor buffers and automatic dishwashers, and pretty quickly you are looking at more hours of daily work.

The invention and, after the disruptions of the Great Depression and World War II, wide availability of those previously mentioned appliances meant that tasks that once took hours of work by (usually) women — housewives or the domestic servants of the wealthy — were now done in a matter of minutes.

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Thu May 22, 2014 at 11:32 AM PDT

Empire and Democracy

by mftalbot

IS THE UNITED STATES AN IMPERIAL POWER? I would say that it is, and that the evidence for this view is overwhelming. We spend more on our military than all of our main rivals — combined. Our troops garrison the world, we have bases on every continent, our Navy rules the waves, and so on. We are not the world’s most powerful country just by some accidental circumstance, but by design.

Here is Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ron Suskind describing a 2002 conversation he had with a “senior adviser to President Bush” (who is widely believed to be Karl Rove, though Suskind has not confirmed this):

“The aide said that guys like me were ‘in what we call the reality-based community,’ which he defined as people who ‘believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.’ I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ‘That’s not the way the world really works anymore,’ he continued. ‘We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.’”
Putting aside the glaring hubris of that official’s remarks, I would say he was wrong to use the descriptor “now.”
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