My triumphant return to journalism

Photo credit: Hamed Saber on Flickr, used here according to the terms of a Creative Commons license

After more than a year away from journalism, my writing is finally back in print. I won’t pretend it’s anything glamorous: three obituaries and a thriller about an upcoming Halloween parade.

Wait… obituaries?

“Oh, man, that’s morbid,” said my dear friend Tony.

Well, yes — they are morbid in the sense that death precipitates them — but these aren’t mere death announcements. They’re basically retrospective profiles of notable figures in the community.

The first one I wrote was about the founding general manager of the San Diego Trolley. Before the trolley system was built in 1981, most Americans thought of light rail as an old-fashioned technology. It was the zenith of American car culture. People wanted more freeways, not public transit. Few San Diegans were fond of the trolley concept. Some correctly pointed out that in other parts of the world, the word “trolley” means shopping cart — not exactly the kind of vehicle you would trust to get you to work on time. And yet under Langley Powell’s leadership, the San Diego Trolley was so successful that it sparked a renaissance of light rail development in American cities.

The second obituary I wrote was about one of San Diego’s founding fathers of surfing. Bobby Thomas started surfing in the 1950s, back when surfboards were made out of redwood. He got into the surfboard shaping business when manufacturers started using foam to make surfboards, and he was so good at it that his company, Challenger Surfboards, was the top manufacturer in the late 1960s. Later in life, Thomas played the role of elder statesman to the Pacific Beach Surf Club, sponsoring contests, mentoring young surfers and even competing on behalf of the club in surf tournaments well into his 60s.

I’ve found that I really enjoy writing these obituaries. They’re kind of an antidote to the cynicism that has crept into my life over the past couple years. It is inspiring to learn about what these people achieved and the positive impact they had on others. It’s an honor to be trusted to tell their stories, and it feels good to be thanked for something I wrote.

How to not have a racist frat party

A typical frat party drinking game scene

Derogatory, disrespectful, bigoted and racist. Those are the words Nicole Daniels uses to describe a Duke University fraternity’s Thanksgiving theme party, dubbed “Pilgrims and Indians,” which encouraged guests to “tap into your inner pocahotness” and enjoy a “cornucopia of treats in our modern-day teepee.” There is plenty of room for debate over whether the party theme is as egregious as Daniels argues, but one thing is for sure: the backlash was totally predictable.

Less than two years ago, members of the UC San Diego chapter of Pi Kappa Alpha were the subject of national scorn after they planned a “Compton Cookout,” encouraging guests to celebrate Black History Month by looking “ghetto” and snacking on “chicken, Kool-Aid, and, of course, watermelon.” Observers rightly condemned that party as racist and ignorant. It led to huge protests on the UCSD campus; the Black Student Union even declared a “state of emergency.”

After that kind of acrimony, you would think the social chairs of America’s fraternities would proceed with a little more caution and sensitivity.

As a former fraternity social chair myself, I know what a challenge it is to come up with a fun and interesting fraternity party theme that college students will actually want to participate in. That’s no excuse, however. It’s really not that difficult to steer clear of controversy when planning an event. In fact, UC Davis Greek Life has put together a handy list of guidelines for choosing a theme that doesn’t perpetuate racist and sexist stereotypes. Here’s an excerpt:

1. Does the activity reinforce stereotypes which should reasonably be understood to have historically prevented disadvantaged persons in our society from reaching their full potential?

2. Are the circumstances associated with the action or activity (e.g. advertisements, decorations, garb of the participants, etc.) of the type which should reasonably be recognized as likely to exacerbate the negative connotations of the theme itself?

3. Are the above circumstances, or any of them, exacerbated by negative behavior associated by the consumption of alcohol?

4. Does the registered student organization have a history of holding events where negative behavior associated with consumption of alcohol or public drunkenness has occurred?

5. Does the information available suggest that the theme, advertisements, decorations, or garb were chosen to mock or degrade the group(s) associated with the theme?

6. Does the information available suggest that the theme, advertisements, decorations, or garb of the activity were chosen with the intent to incite breaches of the peace or disorder within the campus community, or under circumstances which suggest that such breaches of the peace or disorder in the campus community were understood as likely to result?

Fraternity and sorority leaders everywhere would be wise to consult these standards the next time they need an edgy party theme. I suppose not being a racist would help, too.

(Photo credit: opacity on Flickr)

Did California really ban LED gloves and pacifiers at raves?

I generally have a lot of respect for Reason magazine, because they’re interesting, relatively honest and nonpartisan. This video by Reason.tv, however, fell short of expectations.

As you can see, the title of the video is “Ravers vs. The Man – CA Bans LED Gloves and Pacifiers.”

And that’s where the trouble begins.

The truth is, California has not banned anything with Assembly Bill 74, which was signed into law a couple days ago. Dubbed the “Concert and Music Festival Safety Act,” it’s pretty straightfoward and noncontroversial. It requires that anyone organizing a event that is expected to draw over 10,000 attendees on California state property must present an action plan detailing how the promoter will maintain law and order and prevent accidental death.

That’s it. That’s all it does. There is no mention of LED gloves, pacifiers or raves. If you don’t believe me, read the bill yourself. It’s only a few paragraphs long.

Coming from a newspaper background, I can understand the temptation to write an exaggerated headline to attract more eyeballs. But Reason’s misleading presentation goes beyond the headline and continues in the editing of an interview with Fiona Ma, who introduced the bill.

It starts at about 4:12 in the video.

Narrator: “Ma may be approaching the rave issue with a lighter touch now, but her push for regulation has still targeted specific aspects of rave culture, such as the use of LED gloves and pacifiers, which she says promotes drug use.”

Ma: “Can’t wear gloves with lights. You can’t walk around with stuffed animals. I mean, all the things that the ‘rave culture’… the promoters have tried to break down and make it more like a concert where people go to a venue to enjoy themselves and not have all the things that are associated traditionally, in the past, with raves. No pacifiers, for example. Nobody was allowed to have pacifiers in their mouth.”

If you look carefully at the words Ma used, it is clear that she is not talking about what her regulation targets. She is talking about steps promoters have voluntarily taken in the past to discourage “rave culture” and make their events more like regular old concerts or music festivals. Yet the Reason narrator’s lead-in, and the cutting of the context of Ma’s quote, misleadingly suggests that Ma is saying her legislation bans pacifiers and stuffed animals.

This is sensationalism. Reason took a relatively meaningless piece of legislation and tried to make it sound far more extreme than it really is. While there is no doubt in my mind that public officials get way too worked up about raves, this just isn’t as bad as Reason wants it to be.

Color me disappointed.

Update 10/12/11: The Raw Story has a far more sober take on this story, with a more accurate headline, “California lawmaker surprised to find genre of music cannot be outlawed.” They include this interesting detail that Reason inexplicably left out:

In January, Ma introduced legislation to the California legislature, the Anti-Raves Act of 2011, that would have made conducting an event that includes prerecorded music and lasts more than three and one-half hours a misdemeanor offense with a $10,000 penalty. The bill was amended six times, eventually becoming the Concert and Music Festival Safety Act, and signed into law by California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) on October 9.

“Troubled, frustrated” by Leonard Bacon

Photo credit: Quite Peculiar on Flickr

Yesterday I was strolling through Midtown Sacramento when I came across a few boxes of books on the sidewalk. A man on a nearby lawn told me they were free for the taking, so I picked up a 1959 anthology of the best of Harper’s Magazine. When I got home I opened to a random page and read this thought-provoking poem. I had trouble finding any copies of it online, so in the interest of making it more available for public enjoyment, I’m reposting it here. All credit goes to Leonard Bacon and Harper’s Magazine. This was published in their September 1954 issue.

Troubled, frustrated–
LEONARD BACON

Troubled, frustrated, ill-behaved,
And by fantasy enslaved,
He has not braved what should be braved.

He has not dared what should be dared,
But cared — Who cares for what he cared? –
And later, like a fool despaired,

Though even in that dark he knew,
However false, he must grow true,
Still trusting what he trusted to.

He has more often than he ought
Trafficked in what he thought was thought,
Until by sharp experience taught

That it was but a hurricane,
Small, but enough to break a brain
not well designed for stress and strain.

Try courage. From exposed conceit,
From bitterness at length complete,
Men learn the measure of the Sweet,

And from their deep excogitate
Height which they cannot estimate,
Remote, superb, inviolate.