Sizing Him Up

“You have to take off your shirt.” She said.
“Your shirt.  You have to take it off.”

He pulled his T-Shirt over his head and looked at his naked torso in the mirror.  The creases that had lined his stomach in college had melted together into a shapeless blob that made him wish he’d stuck to his resolution of doing sit ups every morning.

“Arms up” she said.

She leaned in, reaching around him to pass the measuring tape behind his back.  He tightened his stomach.

“Stop sucking in,” she said, slapping his side.  The cold sting of her hand excited him.

As she leaned in to pass the measuring tape behind his back, her cheek came up close next to his, almost brushing.  He could smell her hair, the expensive, salon shampoo that she used.  He’d once spent fifteen minutes in a beauty supply store deciding whether or not to buy a bottle of it.  He’d only glanced the bottle in her bathroom once and he wasn’t one hundred percent positive that this was the right one, plus it might be weird for her if she came over and saw that he had a bottle of the same shampoo she did, but the idea of having the scent of her in a bottle…

Her hands were cold on his skin.  He thought about how she always complained about that.  She put her hands on his hips, steadying him.

“Hold still,” she said “you’d think I’m trying to give you a physical examination!”

She continued her measurements, sizing him up.  He stopped breathing each time her fingers touched him.  The length of his arm, the width of his chest, shoulders, back.  She was standing behind him, measuring around hist chest.  He closed his eyes and imagined that when she stepped back around to measure his neck he would kiss her.  He saw the scene play out in his head, like the scene from a movie.  The end to a romantic comedy where the cute but soft spoken young actor finally works up enough courage to make his advance on the witty yet elusive young actress.

He felt her move.  Felt the tape drape around his neck and he wanted, wanted oh so badly to open his eyes.  But he was paralyzed.


I just finished working on a story for KQED about a local Filipino World War II veteran named Regino A. Nacua.

Regino A. Nacua is a Veterano, a Filipino national who fought on behalf of the United States against Japan in the pacific during World War Two.  The Filipino soldiers had expected to be treated as full American veterans like other foreign nationals fighting under the US flag.  Instead, in 1946 congress passed the recision which stripped them of their status.  So began a 63 year campaign these veterans and activists to reinstate their status and entitlement to veterans benefits. I met Regino in 2006 while working a documentary on the subject and I met a lot of men like him; men who came to the US on the remnants of a 50 year old promise in search of a dream.

In 1992 he came to the US and lived with a friend on Silver ave before moving to the city of Richmond.  He spent about 4 years out there, working with other veterans new to the country, helping them get their paperwork in order to apply for citizenship.  It was during this time that he also was able to bring over his two youngest children who were still under 18.

In 1996 Regino moved back to the city, taking an apartment near downtown and selling the San Francisco Chronicle on the street to supplement his Social Security income.  He lived there until 2004 when he moved into a senior residence building on Arguello in the Richmod district of San Francisco.  Throughout this time, he’s bee an active member of the American Coalition for Filipino Veterans, lobbying congress for access to health-care, pensions, and Veterans status.

In 2009, Senator Inouye and Congressman Daniel Akaka successfully attached a provision to the stimulus bill rescinding the 1946 Recision Act and granting the Filipinos a one time $15,000 payment ($9000 for those outside of the US.)  Regino said that he is saving this money to bring over his remaining sons once the Family Re-unification bill, for which he and the other members of the ACFV are lobbying, is passed.  He is traveling back to the Philippines this month to see them for the first time in 15 years.

What strikes me most about Regino’s story, is how closely it parallels that of my own family. Both my Grandfathers, one a Chinese immigrant, the other the son of an Irish butcher enlisted during World War II. Both shipped out to California where they saw themselves receive engineering degrees bestowed upon them thanks to the generosity of the United States government which turned out to be the first rung on their way up the ladder towards a comfortable middle class existence. When I think about this, the fact that, simply by virtue of the country in which they lived, the fates of these three men – my Grandfathers and Regino – so severely diverged at one crucial point, I can understand why some say it’s not enough. Ultimately how can you put a price on that? What amount of money could balance that debt?

That’s not to say that he’s let these dissapointments stop him from living.  Regino, who will be 82 years old Sept 7th, has just gotten re-married to his second wife.  The two of them attend church every Thursday and Sunday and are, according to him, very happy.

Six Hours in Shanghai

The Taxi Pulled up in front of a dark building.
“Is this the hospital?”
“Looks like it”
Michael paid the driver and got out.
He was on the phone with our guide, Hui-Zhong, trying to find out
where my grandmother was.
“On the left? Fifth floor down the hall? OK.”

I was proud of him, surprised at how he’d stepped up in a crisis.
Usually, the only thing I heard out of him were complaints about food and boredom; this was a new side to him.
“This one?” called Dave from around the corner. We all rushed to the entrance.
“No, This building only has three floors.”
“Where is it?”
“She said on the left, the fifth floor.”
“Here, this?”
“Maybe. No.”
“Wait! Here, five floors.”

We were rushing around with that sense of urgency that impotence brings; as though our efficacy was somehow related to the speed at which we moved. Cramming into an elevator that smelled like piss, we rode up.

Out into the hall and we were lost again. None of us could read any of the signs. Michael started walking down a long corridor, trying to get Hui-Zhong on the phone again. If we were keeping our feet moving at least we were doing something.
“Here! ICU!”
“Is that where she is?” I asked. Upon my arrival we’d simply rushed to the hospital to; I didn’t know any of the details.

We hurried down another hall, past a sign that – judging by the
stack of shoes by the door – asked us to put on slippers, and into a
large room where we were met by a group of confused looking doctors in
plastic sandals.

“Doris Duncan” my mom said. “Doris Duncan, we’re looking for Doris Duncan.”

The doctors exchanged confused glances followed by disgusted looks at
our feet. I could tell they had no idea what we were saying but figured there was only one person we were here to see.

“Wait-uh herle” one of the doctors said.
She disappeared down the hall for a moment and came back holding a lab coat and booties and handed them to us. My mom put them on and a nurse led her away while we tried to explain that we wanted to go in too.

We followed the doctor into another room where she told us to wait.
There were several metal desk crammed into one corner that had probably been there since 1966 and the tile on the walls was a sea foam green that looked to be about the same vintage. Overhead, classical music crackled out of a broken speaker.

They could only find enough gowns for two of us so Michael and I went in first. Her hair is thinner than I remember, her eyes sunken. She has this look of defeated exhaustion on her face. Thank god for the face mask, I only hope she couldn’t read it in my eyes. I steel myself with my biggest smile and pull down my mask.
“Hi Pau Pau”
Her face lights up at the sight of me. “Kevin!” She stretches out her arms. I lean in and kiss her on the forehead. She’s clammy.

The three of us struggle to find words until I ask the question you always ask someone in the hospital and never should.
“How are you feeling?” I say.
“Oh,” she says, she sounds like she’s in another room behind that
oxygen mask, “I’ve been better.”
“You look better” my mom offers.

She is lying.

It is obvious.

I remind myself again to control my eyebrows. I reach down and pinch my grandmothers toe, trying to lighten the mood. She smiles then turns to my mom
“How am I ever going to walk out of here?”
We trip over ourselves trying to answer her.
“You can use a wheel chair.” I offer.
“There’ll be people to help you out.” My brother.
“I’m sure you’ll be fine.” Mom.
“I’m glad I got to see you,” I say. I’m trying to change the subject
but quickly realize how this sounds, “though… different
circumstances…” I trail off.

I can tell by the look on my mother’s face and by the way she’s clutching the side of the bed that she needs an arm around her shoulder. I sort of balance on my toes for a minute, shift my weight towards her, then stop. It’s been a while since my mother and I have been on the best of terms. I’ve not been that arm for some time.
“I’ll go see what happened to Dave” I say. I give my grandmother a hug, turn, and leave.

Dave is waiting in the room crammed with desks. He still doesn’t
have a gown and the doctor is nowhere in sight. “Here” I say, handing him my gown.
“Are you sure?” he says.
“No, it’s ok. My Mom.”
He takes the gown and face mask from me and heads down the hall.

A Chinese opera is now playing overhead. I imagine I am in a film by Wong Kar-Wai. The camera dollies backwards, down the hall, the white door-jam framing me sitting in the sea foam room. I stare seriously into the distance, smoke from my cigarette moodily dancing upwards in slow motion.

Six hours in Shanghai and I’m wondering if my grandmother will die here.

Frank Sbotka, Motorcycles and America’s Soul

 I recently started watching The Wire, and HBO show about the Baltimore city police department and one of my favorite characters from the show is Frank Sbotka, the head of the longshoreman’s union from season 2. There’s a quote from him that I really like; one episode. fed up with the labbyists he’s been paying to try and save the pier he says “We used to make shit in this country… build shit. Now we just got our hand in the next guy’s pockets.” I really like the sentiment of this quote. I think it speaks right to many of the problems we have in the United States today.

I was reminded of the quote when I heard Matthew B. Crawford, the author of Shop Class as Soulcraft talking about his book on NPR. Now I haven’t read the book ( though I intend to) but the cover and Matthew’s story I think immediately call to mind Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. The gist of the book is that in our current economy, there is a prejudice against trade crafts and work that involves manual labor as second class. In fact he argues, many blue collar jobs involve as much if not more intelligence and skill than more service oriented white collar jobs.

Contrast this this with all the talk coming from the Obama administration about “rebuilding our nations infrastructure” and articles like this one from the Los Angeles Times about shortages of skilled tradesmen don’t come as a surprise. I think this TED talk by Mike Rowe makes the point nicely:

Picturing the Future

I was recently sent this article comparing skylines of San Francisco in two of this summers science fiction blockbusters: Star Trek and Terminator: Salvation.

These two matte paintings pretty much sum up the perspectives these two franchises have on the the future of human race. In one world, the human race overcomes its petty differences and silly things like armed conflict and joins together into a planetary federation posited with the task of maintaining peace and diplomacy throughout the universe; a heady and high-minded ideal indeed. In the other, not only does humanity destroy itself by it’s own inventions, it’s fall is inevitable.

The theme of being destroyed by ones own creation is not a new one (dating back to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or even the Golems of Jewish folklore) but is definitely very much the view of the future from a modern perspective. Even the production design of Star Trek evokes a “Retro” feeling, an update of the clean, geometric shape of things to come envisioned in the sixties and seventies.

I’ve just finished reading a memoir by David Beers entitled Blue Sky Dream about growing up in post war california, the son of an aerospace engineer at Lockheed when the future (as my eloquent co-worker Sean puts it) “was shiny and new.” And that’s the thing, if you look at when these two series’ were conceived, you will notice a marked shift in attitude towards the future. The 1960’s brought us not only Star Trek but also The Jetsons and Lost in Space with images of the future as a generally happy place where technology makes our lives better.

But, as Beers points out in his book, as government money for aerospace programs began to dry up, disillusionment set in. I don’t think it a coincidence that it is around this time (the 1980’s) we got movies like the Mad Max’s, Escape From New York, Blade Runner, and a whole host of other dystopias, not to Mention The first two Terminator movies. That’s not to say there weren’t optimistic visions of the future in the 80’s (that is when most of the Star Trek films were released) but I’d say that it is fair to argue that the 80’s are when that kind of view of the future really took hold of mainstream consciousness. A view that, I believe, still defines our attitudes today.

Take for example this talk by Bruce McCall:

We laugh at these images but I think in that we’ve also lost something of the wide eyed gleam the future used to inspire; but why?

I think part of what happened is technology has gotten away from people in the sense that, as it becomes increasingly complex, it has also gotten less and less intuitive. Part of this is surely attributable to the increasingly rapid pace at which technology is developing in the world but part of it is also due to a failing in design.
I think everyone can relate to a how frustrating it is when a device or piece of software doesn’t work as described or has poor documentation. But even beyond that, people don’t want to read documentation. I think this is part of why apple has been so successful as of late, they’re gone to great lengths to make the user interface intuitive. Naturally they have the advantage of an environment where they control most of the variables but I think that they’re attempts at making the way we interact with the virtual world mimic the way we interact with the physical one are a great step in the right direction.
Take a look at this TED video for more of what I mean about putting the user back into user interface.

To come full circle, in Terminator 3, Kate Brewsters Dad, when General Brewster is pressed to allow Skynet full control over the military defense system he says “I’d like to keep a human in the loop”. And when he finally does acquiesce, Skynet is unleashed and destroys the world. Let’s keep humans in the loop.

Plastic Bags

I’ve been sitting on this post for a while but back in January I read an article in the SF Weekly (which I Ironically picked up off the street) about San Francisco’s recent ordinance banning plastic bags.

San Francisco is a city that enjoys being scratched behind the ears by an adoring world. And the city was certainly purring a little more than a year ago when it banned plastic shopping bags, which triggered adoring headlines around the globe. Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, the ban’s primary author, was fêted in publications from The Economist to People (which gave the photogenic supe a full-page spread). Locally, the ban was a hit: San Francisco was a national trendsetter and a world leader in the green movement.

For locals, this was change we could believe in — after all, it asked us to do nothing. The ban didn’t even ask us to think. The infinitesimal decision-making of “Paper or plastic?” was simply replaced by waddling off with armfuls of default paper bags. This, according to the ban’s backers, was progress. San Francisco had slain the plastic dragon, doing away with a detested petroleum product that littered our streets, endangered wildlife, and symbolized everything wrong with America’s consumerist, throwaway society. That the ban — which applies only to chains or large stores grossing more than $2 million yearly — did next to nothing to alter consumers’ throwaway behavior was largely left unsaid. One year later, it still is.

In that time, it has become apparent that many of the rationales used to justify the ban — such as its benefiting the environment and alleviating the city’s litter problems — are not playing out in the real world. Plastic bags induce a highly visceral reaction; they have been likened to “synthetic vermin,” and Mirkarimi described them to SF Weekly as “unearthly things.” But visceral hatred is generally not the best motivation for public policy — especially when scientific studies indicate that policy to be counterproductive.

According to the Environmental Defense Fund’s “paper calculator” — and factoring in the city’s requirement that bags be composed of at least 40 percent recycled material — the ecological consequences are staggering. That many paper bags weigh about 5,250 tons, which results in the felling of 72,000 trees, sulfur dioxide emissions of 91,200 pounds, the release of 21.5 million pounds of greenhouse gases, and the generation of 40 million gallons of wastewater.

In the past two decades, a number of “Life-Cycle Analyses” (LCAs) have measured the “cradle to grave” environmental impact of plastic and paper shopping bags. SF Weekly was unable to track down any that rated paper as being more environmentally beneficial overall. Again and again, paper bags were found to require more energy to create and transport, emit more greenhouse gases, generate more water and air pollution, consume far more fresh water, produce much more solid waste, and produce markedly more eutrophication of water bodies (a condition in which an excess of nutrients, often nitrogen, leads to choking algae infestations).

Several of these LCAs were commissioned by the plastics industry — yet Charles Lardner, a spokesman for the American Forest and Paper Association, said the paper industry does not dispute the studies’ findings. And a number of the studies were not connected to the plastics industry. A 2004 analysis by the French retail giant Carrefour found the most environmentally friendly bag to be a heavy-duty reusable plastic sack; paper bags were found to be the worst of all. Regarding so-called “biodegradable plastic,” while LCAs differ, several found it to require far more energy to produce and distribute than regular plastic. What’s more, it requires the cultivation of vast amounts of corn or potatoes, which are farmed unsustainably using powerful chemicals. The West German, Australian, and Scottish governments weighed the scientific evidence to deduce that a simple elimination of plastic bags in favor of paper ones would be an ecological step backward. This conclusion was duplicated last year in Seattle.

These findings do not much impress Jack Macy and Robert Haley of the San Francisco Department of the Environment, two of the longtime movers and shakers behind the city’s quest to quit plastic. Haley notes that “you can always get an LCA to support your view,” and brushes it off as “bogus science” irreparably tainted by its connection to industry. The two then touted a 2000 study in Sweden that showed paper bags to be more environmentally friendly than plastic ones. This LCA, performed by the firm CIT Ekologik, is something of a security blanket for municipalities hoping to justify a plastic bag ban; officials in Manhattan Beach and Massachusetts have cited it as well. It warrants mentioning, however, that this was not a study of small grocery bags but hulking, 55-pound animal feed sacks. What’s more, it too was commissioned by industry: a consortium of European paper bag companies.

In 2002, Ireland mandated a fee of 21 euro cents on plastic shopping bags; within a year, its residents were using 90 percent fewer of them. This was the kind of measure the Department of the Environment and Mirkarimi originally pushed for San Francisco. It wasn’t what they got. During a one-year voluntary bag-reduction program adopted by the city’s largest grocery stores, the supermarkets’ lobbying arm, the California Grocers Association (CGA), turned around and engineered a 2006 state law forbidding municipalities from forcing stores to charge a fee on bags. This galvanized the Board of Supervisors behind Mirkarimi — “I told the mayor, ‘No more talking. We’re going for the ban,'” he recalls. Mark Westlund, a spokesman for the Department of the Environment, told the media that San Francisco had no option other than the one it took. But that isn’t true.

Thoughtful and innovative methods of skirting the 2006 state law are being developed in the Bay Area — but not in San Francisco. While the state forbids municipalities from imposing a bag fee on stores, leaders in Santa Clara County will vote this year on whether to place a fee directly on consumers, to be collected by stores. If that idea fails to gain support — or doesn’t survive the inevitable lawsuit from the plastics industry — the county could simply ban plastic bags and then charge a fee of around 25 cents on paper ones. These methods don’t have the San Francisco ban’s righteous simplicity, and — in a possible anathema to city liberals — they target mom-and-pop shops as well as chains. But the South Bay plans would actually reduce consumption and help the environment.

While Mirkarimi likes to tout bag fees, he doesn’t seem thrilled with the idea of San Franciscans paying them. The fee he proposed in 2005 would have been footed by stores, not by shoppers — a model that has never created significant reductions. He gushed about programs at Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s in which shoppers who bring their own bags receive tiny rewards. While this approach makes people feel good about themselves, it doesn’t produce real results. Yet when IKEA began charging for bags, consumption dropped 92 percent in the first year alone. Finally, shoppers who go the extra mile to bring reusable bags are missing the big picture — an Australian study noted that driving two kilometers (1.25 miles) roundtrip to the store burns the fuel energy it would take to create 17.5 plastic bags.

“Paper bags have a greater environmental impact than plastic bags, and therefore you would not create a policy that banned plastic and forced everyone to use paper only,” said Dick Lilly, the manager of the waste prevention program for Seattle Public Utilities. After much analysis, that city spurned the San Francisco model in favor of a fee on all bags, meant to spur shoppers to bring their own — a goal San Francisco officials embrace, but do virtually nothing to promote. Key elements of the S.F. model, in Lilly’s estimation, “could be a catastrophic mistake.”

Now it would be easy to come away from this article cursing overzealous activists or politicians that pander to said bleeding hearted constituencies. But I think that there is a deeper lesson in all this.

With commodities, the rationale for free market capitalism is that the price that is paid for a good will reflect what goes into it. So you pay for concrete, or pipes or computer chips, roughly the total value of all the materials and labor hours put into making it. One of the problems with this system arises in what are called hidden costs, that is things like pollution that the manufacturer doesn’t have to put on his or her balance sheet but still end up using some of societies resources.; eventually someone has to clean up the pollution and that usually ends up being taxpayers.

But in the case of plastic bags, we have the unique situation where the commodity that does use less resources actually costs less; that’s why most stores use them. Tacking on an additional 5 cents for each plastic bag used only furthers this philosophy. Users are paying the cost of the resources they’re using; a cost they are going to have to pay one way or another, whether in the form of tax dollars for pollution cleanup programs, or at the checkout counter. The difference is, at the counter, that cost is associated with the good whereas in taxes the relationship to consumption habits is much less direct.

I once heard that you should pay for the things you love. Otherwise they go away.

I believe that