Friday, January 27, 2006

Gone Fishin'

The administration has declined to release records of Abramoff meetings, saying it will not "engage in a fishing expedition."

Let's clarify the terminology.

Searching the Google records of millions of Americans is like fishing in a pond posted with "No Fishing Permitted" signs, using a stolen pole and tainted bait.

Releasing the records of the Abramoff meetings is dynamiting fish in a barrel. Given Abramoff's clientele, it's probably an oil barrel.

Monday, January 09, 2006

American Classics

Friday night was a celebration of the best of American culture: it included a trip to a faux-Egyptian picture palace, a great black-and-white movie, one of our finest newsmen, and a conversation in an all-night diner.

Half a dozen of us got together to see Good Night, and Good Luck at the Parkway theatre, built in 1926. Just getting there was an adventure, since Yahoo and Google both offer directions that make no sense in the context of the actual streets. There’s either a missing street sign, or the essential artery has had a name change that never extended as far as the online maps. We did arrive on time, although by the time we got there we both were feeling a bit frazzled.

The Parkway offers comfortable, casual seating on couches and at small tables. It's something like sitting in your own living room to watch a movie, assuming your living room has a multistory ceiling; a proscenium arch decorated with sphinxes, cobras, and cobra-headed vultures; and a genuine full-sized movie screen. And also good lemonade, decent pizza, and excellent lemon bars. It shows classics, cult movies, and carefully selected second-run films. Oh, and you can buy alcohol, too, if you like, or rent it for a private function.

It's a wonderful way to see a movie, and my God, what a wonderful movie to see! Courage, principle, damned good reporting, and subtle, beautiful ensemble acting. David Strathairn has long been a favorite actor of mine; he gives quiet, thoughtful performances in movies ranging from Matewan to Eight Men Out to Sneakers (where he has a delightful turn as a blind man). He’s good, he has always been good, and now he has found the role that should get him an Oscar nomination.

George Clooney directed, and he co-stars as Fred Friendly. The working partnership of reporter and producer comes alive onscreen. Robert Downey, Jr., also turns in his usual fine performance. And Ray Wise as Don Hollenbeck—an impressively understated performance of a man in torment.

Every period detail snapped into place. The sexual politics, the office hierarchies, the clothes, even the ever-present cigarette smoke. No wonder all those guys died young—they smoked cigarettes everywhere, even on camera.

After the show, we stopped at the all-night Merritt Bakery, which is more a diner than a mere bakery, and talked for a bit. Sometime I need to come back there and actually eat (I just had a soda). In addition to the expected burgers, milk shakes, breakfasts, and desserts, their menu features chicken and waffles. That dish is also an American classic, although it’s a tad disturbing to see “Waffle with Legs” or “Waffle with Breast” on the menu. I’m not worried about being attacked by mutant waffle monsters; I’m just bothered when a classic diner’s menu sounds like the exhibit catalogue at a conceptual art gallery.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

In the East Bay Hills

The grassy, oak-crowned hills in the East Bay remind me of Kenya. This rolling landscape with its spare lines and subtle colors is the primal scene for all of us. Millions of years ago, we were born in country like this; the first humans imprinted on their surroundings, and even now we respond with yearning to the wheat-colored hills, the clumps of trees, the fragrant underbrush marking the crevices where life-giving water collects. In a profound sense, country like this—grassy hills on the edge of a great geologic fault—is home to us all.

In Africa, this landscape is home to an astonishing variety of animals. In California we have mammals as small as the pocket mouse and as big as mule deer and black bears. The only pocket mouse I’ve spotted was roadkill; the deer die on the roads, too, and present much more threat to the early-morning commuter. The great grizzly bear, once monarch of these hills, still survives on the state flag, but it is extinct in the wild in California. Still, there are black bears here, and I hope to see one someday. (I’ve seen them in Pennsylvania.)

In the sky above these hills I’ve seen red-tailed hawks, turkey vultures, egrets, great blue herons, the occasional eagle, and plenty of more familiar birds. Still haven’t spotted a condor, though we have some nesting pairs. Rock outcrops are good places to look for tiger salamanders and all their reptilian kin.

Coyotes are common enough to be a nuisance, and deer can be, too, despite their beauty. Still, it was a pleasure when Sonja and I spotted a few deer feeding in the hills along Crow Canyon Road just east of Castro Valley. We were returning from Costco with a month’s worth of groceries—a suburban Saturday-morning expedition that was made adventurous by the grazing deer.

As we rounded a curve, I kept my eye on the hills, still golden despite the December rains. And spotted, with a kick at my heart, a large cat creeping along the hillside toward the deer, like a housecat stalking a catnip mouse. But this was no housecat. Nor was it a bobcat, although we have them here. This was more than twice the size of a bobcat.

A mountain lion.

It was darker than I expected: less gold than medium brown, and paler underneath. It was moving along the deer trail, carefully working its way downwind of the deer. I realized that this was the ideal strategy: the deer were around the shoulder of the hill and a little downhill, so when the lion spotted them, he (or she) could leap downward upon the unsuspecting animals.

It’s one thing to spot a wild animal basking in sunlight, or crossing a road, another entirely to catch a glimpse of it in action. The hunting lion had no attention for anything but its prey. Although I was safe in the car, I suddenly felt small and scared. It was humbling, this elemental fear of the predator. This feeling too must be a legacy of the first humans, those agile hairless creatures so easy for lions to run down and kill.

As well as fear, I felt awe and pleasure. I felt honored by this glimpse of the wild. The only things like it in my life have been the kick at the heart, the terror and awe, of feeling an earthquake or seeing a ghost: things utterly beyond my understanding or control.

We humans are the greatest predators now. Do the deer and the lions feel the same awe when we pass them by in our steel and plastic boxes? I don’t know. But I think that’s why people hunt the great mammals to extinction—not for food, but to make the lion, the grizzly, the elephant feel afraid and small, thus to erase their own sense of being helpless in the face of the wilderness.