Why Oakland Is Not Paradise


I didn’t get to busk today. I had to sort out yet another crime-related problem. You see, in the ten years since we’ve become homeowners, we’ve been burglarized twice. The first time, I came home and caught the guy in the house. I wrested my laptop from his hands while screaming curses at the top of my lungs, and was very lucky to only be hit across the face in the process. Honestly, I didn’t notice. The police had to tell me I had blood running down my hand where he’d tried to claw my fingers away from the laptop, and my partner later noticed the bruise on the side of my face. I’d wondered how my glasses ended up across the yard…

My neighbors were no help whatsoever. One ran into her house and slammed the door. Another was home, and later told me he had heard something, but didn’t feel he could come outside to see what was going on. The third watched from across the street as I staggered out onto my porch, then turned around and walked into his house. No one called the police.

We got an alarm after that. It didn’t help. The next set of burglars ripped it out of the wall. Our neighbors were once again home, and did nothing. The police came twelve hours later, after repeated calls. We barred the windows completely after that and we take our electronics with us when we leave. Not that we have much left. We were never able to replace our laptops or the video cameras my partner was hoping to someday make a living with, times being what they are.

The cats set the alarm off last month. The police were called, and never came. We got home three hours later and had the alarm company cancel the police call. I filed a complaint against the police department and my partner talked to the neighbors. Once again, some people had been home and no one had even bothered to check, let alone call the police. Filing a complaint was all we could do, really.

Yesterday I received a bill for a false alarm. Today, I called the officer in charge of our complaint and was completely stonewalled, as I had been when I filed the complaint. They respond to calls according to a priority system and property crimes are lower priority, et cetera, et cetera. And he had no way to deal with the bill, that was something I’d have to take up with the city of Oakland.

It took an hour or so, but I found the right clerical at last, and she was very helpful. My second call had been to the alarm company to get the documentation of what had happened. All I need do is send it to her and the bill will be canceled. Between the file I made of everything I’d done, all the phone calls I had to make, and the navigation of various systems, I’m out two hours and a day of busking. I saved myself almost $100 in fines. The anger and frustration is gravy, and the fear of leaving my house unguarded every day is something I’ve lived with for the last couple of years.

The damage to Oakland is multiplied by all the other homeowners who are in the same position I am, and it is completely unnecessary. In our neighborhood, one house is probably causing most of this. Every house has an alarm on this block, and several of us have been robbed, some more than once. After the first burglary, I saw the man who assaulted me. He saw me too, the way he ducked down on his porch proved that. I did my best to just walk along as if I hadn’t seen him, but as soon as I got around the corner I called the police. After all, they had his fingerprints. I was now able to give them his address. They asked me what I wanted them to do about it. And then they stonewalled me. The neighbors at the time knew of him, they called him “skinny guy.” None of them, even those who had been robbed by him, were willing to talk to the police.

This is a microcosm of the problems that face us all today. We all know what needs to be done, we just don’t want to do it. As neighbors, we need to pay attention to what goes on. We need to check on each other and call the police when necessary. We need to act as if this is home, and as if our actions matter.

The apartment building next door had a robbery averted about four years ago. We heard the break-in and asked, loudly, over the fence, what was going on. The burglar ran. We called the police. It was simple, and it’s what neighbors do, right?

Our actions matter. Just because we can’t solve the whole problem is no reason not to do what we can. Just because we don’t have the power to change things we know are wrong is no reason not to speak up. I can’t clean the whole beach, but I pick up trash all the time. Not all of it, just some, but I leave it a better place than it was when I got there. That’s all I have to do, I only have two small hands. That’s all any of us have to do. Is what we are about to do part of the problem, or part of the solution? That’s the only question we have to ask.

I got an apologetic call back from the police officer who stonewalled me this morning. He said that the bill was their mistake and he would have it cancelled. I didn’t mention the fact that he’d told me of his powerlessness to do just that this morning. I thanked him and I am quietly planning the next step. Until we can get out of Oakland we will continue to do whatever we can to make it a better place. It isn’t about any individual police officer, it’s about a system that does not respond to the needs of their citizens. It’s about a city government that cuts services and at the same time institutes more fees and fines on their citizens. $25 a year for an alarm permit. An $84 fine for a false alarm. A $25 appeal fee to protest such a fine. And it goes on. Every crime not investigated, every neighbor who turns a blind eye when someone is hurt, when someone dumps another sofa on the corner or throws another bag of trash out of a moving car makes Oakland a poorer place.

Poor isn’t about money, not really. I was taught the difference between being short of money and being poor. I was also taught that good taste costs no more. it’s about learning to cook, about making things last and buying only what you need. It’s about reaching for the stars even when you’re living in a tagged trash can of a neighborhood. It’s about feeding your head, spending that bus ride with a library book instead of sprawling across two seats and scowling at everyone who passes. Our house may be filled with secondhand furniture but it’s also filled with a well read library. We may not be able to afford to eat out much, but the house smells of a well made stew that will provide us with lunches for the week and the chicken whose bones provided the stock is waiting to be roasted for dinner. We are wealthy, and it’s a wealth everyone can have–and should.

We’ll be leaving Oakland as soon as we are able. It’s sad, really. Our first home together was six blocks from where we live now and we’ve moved all around the East Bay since. Oakland is beautiful, a place of fine old houses and with an urban forest as diverse as the people who live within it. Lake Merritt is a jewel and the estuary that feeds it is one of the finest city birdwatching sites I’ve ever seen. But in nearly thirty years it hasn’t changed one bit, except possibly for the worse. I’m tired, and I’m not willing to invest any more of my life in this place. But I wish it well, it deserves better. All it needs are people who care, and are willing to get involved with what goes on around them. 

We Are So Wealthy!

We all have such riches, things that we’re not even aware of! Things that make our lives better, that make our communities better places to live. I realized this this morning, lying in bed with my iPod. All it took was a notification email from the public library. One of my holds is waiting for me. My first reaction was “Oh no! I haven’t finished the two books I already got last week, and I know I can’t read all three before they’re due!”

Then it hit me. I have more books than I can read. For free—or at least, at the taxpayer’s expense. Collectively we have the wisdom of the ages at our fingertips, all we have to do is walk into the library. We have a plethora of beautiful buildings to keep this treasure in, and we have a staff of professionals to take care of it for us, file it in a way that allows us to find what we want quickly and easily, even access some of it remotely. I can place a  hold for a physical copy of a book literally from my bed, and sometimes, I can even check the electronic copy out and be reading it in mere seconds.

What a wonderful use of our collective power as taxpayers! I find this to be useful and enriching, but what I really love about it is that anyone, down to the homeless, can access all this information. People who can’t afford to buy or store, say, the latest Jared Diamond book, which is what I’m currently reading, and which prompted this tiny existential crisis this morning, can read this book for free and then hand it back in. Barring theft or destruction, that book will always be there and can be checked out again whenever we please.

I can’t recommend this book, _The World Until Yesterday_, highly enough, actually. I lost my tiny mind for a moment because I was afraid I would have to turn it in before I finished it. As if it were necessary that I digest that whole thing at once! What I love the most about it is that it expands my view of humanity through time. It makes me remember why I love archaeology and anthropology so much, and it is adding greatly to my perception of war and how it shapes our relationships with each other.

I was wrong, unfortunately. I had the idea that war was a relatively recent invention, and that warfare was a path we set our feet on when there was no more “away” to move to when we had disputes with each other. Sadly, this is not true. An archaeological site from 5000 BCE with 18 people dead from blows to the back of the head burst that bubble for me, as well as a reminder of the film “Dead Birds,” which I saw in school years ago. We have always had ways of treating each other badly for stupid reasons.

However, as I also learned in school, just because a practice has a long history does not mean that it must have a long future. We learn from our mistakes, and we can change the stories we tell. Change the story, and you can change your life. We always have a choice, and if there’s one thing I know about humanity, it’s that we’re the most adaptable, flexible species on the planet. We are worldchangers.

We are storytellers. Sit still, quiet down, and you will hear the voice in your head. You won’t be able to turn it off. And why should we want to? What we can do is become aware of it, and really listen to what it says, and then let it go. Like a river, the eddy is always there, but the water that creates it is different moment to moment.

I am a storyteller. I choose carefully, and lately a lot of the stories I tell are about war. How we idealize it, how we discover over and over again that it’s a lot easier to start one than to get out of one, and how it’s never worth the price we pay for it. Most of all, I tell a story of how we can evolve beyond it. War is never a good idea. It never solves the problem, all it does is change the circumstances. We have to fix the problems caused by the fighting before we can get back to the original problem, and many times we get so distracted by the process that we never do get back to that.

I believe that knowledge is an antidote to war. Diamond made me remember just how long history really is. Seeing the scope of it helps me see the way out of war. There have been some other excellent books written about war lately, and most of them I have been introduced to via the public library. Paul Chappell, a West Point graduate and a professional soldier, has a lot to say on war and how we can finally move beyond it, as well as Frances Moore Lappe’s excellent book Ecomind.

Above all, Diamond’s description of how small the worlds of the First Peoples who still engage in traditional warfare are made me feel so sad. It made me realize just how far we have come towards ending so many forms of injustice. I can hardly imagine not being able to go twenty miles from home for fear of being killed simply because I strayed into someone else’s territory. We have a long way to go, but I know we can do it. I know that I will never pick up a gun voluntarily unless it’s for food or recreation. I will certainly never have one in my house for personal defense, no matter how often I get robbed. Stuff can be replaced. A human life never can be, and nothing I own is worth killing for.

That brings me back to why I follow a bardic path, and I’ll leave you with a triad on this:

The three principal duties of a bard:
The first is to learn and collect the sciences.
The second is to teach.
And the third is to make peace, and to put an end to all injury.
For to do other than that is not usual, or becoming to a bard.

The Museum of Ereaders


I went through the ebook box today. It made me realize

a) what a bookgeek I am,
b) how far reading devices have come in the last dozen years, and
c) what a strange cusp in time we are standing upon.

I’d wanted a rocketbook for a couple of years before I could buy one. They started out as a $500 device, and I was temping as a library tech in law offices at the time. By the time RebaCon, the first and only rocketbook convention, was held in San Francisco, I was a dot-commer. I’d just come back from my first sailing trip, and went on a whim. I was hooked from the moment I held one. Being a bit more flush of money at the time, and the price being a far more reasonable $199, I called all the Barnes and Nobles in the area till I found one that stocked them. I drove down and bought one that night.

I still have it. And it still works, as do the other two we own. Of course, it’s an antiquated device by now. I need a serial port to USB adapter to even plug one in. I need to maintain a windows partition on my mac to even use the software. I mainly do that out of sentiment, but it is still the best built and best thought out reading device in existence. It was built to do one thing, and one thing only: read text. It reads three formats; its own proprietary format, vanilla ASCII, and HTML. This makes it usable to this day. It came with the Rocket Librarian, a program that organizes its library of books and allows the user to convert anything in those two ubiquitous formats into rocketbook files.

I readily admit I used it mainly as a fanfic tablet. Not only could it convert files from sites that stored such things into ebooks, it would also follow the links, if so directed, and render chaptered fics into one easily readable file. I could also get long articles from sites such as the old Salon.com and read them whenever I pleased. The Project Gutenberg library was mine for the reading, wherever and whenever I wanted. And then there was Fictionwise.com, a mere shadow of itself now that it is owned by Barnes and Noble, but back in the day it was the perfect partner for the Rocketbook.

The good people who ran Nuvomedia were in it for the love of ebooks and they understood the full potential of the device. They knew that being able to put one’s own content on the device was vital, and they not only made that easy, they went as far as possible to make it useful. It wasn’t possible to actually edit files, but the bookmarking and note-taking features are better than those found on the current generation of ereaders. In short, they came as close as they could to making the PADD, the Star Trek tablet computer, as was possible back in the 1990s.

Going through that box, I realized just how much we’ve given up with the latest generation of reading devices. The people making them now are only in it for the money, and to be fair, actually bringing the ebook into widespread use probably required that mindset. Nuvomedia had to sell their device to a larger company in the end, and no vestige of the original device remains today.

I do most of my ereading today on my iPod, or on a Nook Color. I don’t care for either, but they get the job done. The iPod is too small and the apps available, ever since ebook reader was hobbled by Apple and Barnes and Noble, don’t do the job nearly as well. The iPod, though, is always with me, and so I always have something to read. It also lets me check ebooks out from the public library, which I love and do often.

The Nook unfortunately, is not only bulky, it’s also a direct open window to Barnes and Noble. They are so thoughtful, they keep track of everything for me, including my place in every book on every device. They open a wireless connection whenever they can, unless I actively turn wireless off. And they datamine my reading history and library, both to try and sell me content, and for whatever other purposes they so desire. While I can fill a certain tiny portion of the cavernous memory on the device with my own content, the lion’s share is locked in to Barnes and Noble. I didn’t realize this when I bought the device, Now that I know I will never buy another. A Kindle? More of the same. I have never, and never will own one of those.

When I buy books today, I generally take the paper option if I intend to read the book more than once. The biggest problem with both Barnes and Noble and Amazon is that the user is effectively renting content. You can read whatever you bought on multiple devices, but you can’t close the pipeline. And you can’t take the content over to another app or program. Sooner or later, the content you paid full price for will be unreadable on any device available.

I’m sitting in a room full of books right now. Paper and ink, of different shapes and sizes, the products of many minds, many of the volumes far older than I am. I can lend them to whomever I please, sell them or give them away. In time, if time is kind, they will be enjoyed by other people whose names and faces I will never know. I have nothing against ebooks. I have always wanted access to the libraries of the world from wherever I happen to be. To me that was, and is, the promise of the future. But sitting here, with the weight of knowledge heavy on shelves all around me, I wonder whether I will see free and unfettered access to the wisdom of the ages in my lifetime. The Amazons and Barnes and Nobles of our time only see what will sell, and what is current. Project Gutenberg is a David to their Goliath and in any case, can only archive what is no longer under copyright. We all know that David won, but how long will it take? What will be lost if we don’t maintain paper books, and libraries, long enough to get there? The Library of Alexandria burned, after all, and we are all the poorer for it.