California

Bohemian Bridges

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The good people at Guardian Stewardship Editions have included my piece on housing rights/squat activist Steve DeCaprio in their new anthology, Bohemian Bridges, which collects writing on American (especially Californian) social, cultural, and political change. I’m honored to be a part of the project.

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Another CASE award

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Good news: just learned that my cryonics piece for California magazine last year won a CASE award.

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Awards
Berkeley
California
Science

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From Dave Eggers to Barry McGee

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Another piece from the new Pallet. The magazine has this profile section where one interesting person recommends the next interesting person. In this case, Dave Eggers pointed to Barry McGee, the San Francisco artist and elder statesman of the graffiti world. We talked punk rock, surfing, garbage, and, of course, art. The best part of the piece, to my mind, was running into McGee in the water:

One sunny morning after my studio visit we run into each other in the water. The swell is mixed up—not big, but messy and tough to get a read on. He squints toward the west. “I’ve surfed worse.”
He likes to ride old boards, the heavier and more beaten-to-hell the better, in the interest of seeing what’s possible. His board today boasts a chunky, sawed-off-looking fin, an atavistic thing that’s more dinosaur tooth than sporting equipment. On the horizon, an irritable-looking wave rears up and I paddle toward it, trying to get over it before it breaks on my head. McGee makes the opposite calculation. He catches it, and his head disappears under the feathering crest.
Later, from the beach, I watch him surf for a couple of minutes. He sits by himself, closer to the shore than anyone else, catching one seemingly unpromising wave after another. He crouches low and then arches into standing position, stepping forward and then back on the board as needed, carving playful lines into waves others deem worthless. He tells me that it’s “the garbage waves that I like that nobody’s competing for.”

(Photograph by Carlos Chavarría.)

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San Francisco

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When Charles Manson met Dennis Wilson

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A new one for Pallet magazine tells the story of the cult leader and the saddest Beach Boy:

Wilson took off for a recording session, but when he returned at 3am there was a party going on. The women were still there, along with a dozen others, most of them listening raptly to a short bearded guy strumming a guitar. The guitarist came over to greet Wilson. He was slight, maybe 5’2″, but he walked with a predator’s gait. Something in his look—those pupils, wide and dark—gave Wilson pause.

“Are you going to hurt me?”

The little guy fixed him with a smile. “Do I look like I’m going to hurt you?”

That’s when Charles Manson knelt down and kissed Dennis Wilson’s feet.

(Illustration by Owen Davey.)

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California
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Angels, Protesters, and Patriots

photo illustration by Ethan ParkerMy new piece in California magazine is about the essential weirdness of patriotism, and its wildly varying meanings in our politics. It’s an article that takes in the Hells Angels and hippies, Regan and Obama, punk rock and Bruce Springsteen, and a bunch of other stuff as well:

It starts with a guy named “Tiny.” Tiny was 6’7” and 300 pounds. And he really liked to fight.

He was first into the breach that fall afternoon in 1965, punching his way through the front of the seven-block-long peace march on Adeline Street, near the Berkeley–Oakland border. Tiny was a member of the outlaw motorcycle gang Hells Angels, and more than a dozen of his brothers followed in his wake, ripping down antiwar signs and screaming, “Go back to Russia, you fucking Communists!”

The Angels, at first blush, seemed unlikely patriots. Though not yet well known, they had a reputation with law enforcement for drinking, smoking dope, and sacking towns like modern-day Visigoths, answering to no authority higher than their East Oakland clubhouse. But now there they were, waving the flag. Their form of patriotism was gut-level, atavistic, loyalty to nation through blood and fire. Their group persona, meanwhile, was the stuff of American mythology, a grab-bag of frontier clichés sprung to life—they were contemporary cowboys, John Wayne’s unwashed, scofflaw cousins.

Perhaps the truest thing anyone can say of patriotism is that it’s personal. I came of political age in the Reagan era, and in the hardcore punk scene that grew in response to it. I devoured righteous broadsides on apartheid, the prison-industrial complex, and Salvadoran death squads in Maximum Rocknroll, the Bay Area punk bible. I listened to bands with gleefully provocative names—Jodie Foster’s Army, Millions of Dead Cops, Dead Kennedys.

When, in 1984, Reagan adopted Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” as a campaign anthem, my parents dragged me to a Springsteen concert. I suffered as only a 12-year-old can suffer. It was years before I realized that the song was actually an indictment of the country’s piss-poor treatment of its Vietnam veterans.

My wariness of patriotism comes from the tribalism that creeps alongside it and the Us and Them divisions it inevitably creates. There’s an undeniable appeal to tribal membership, of course. We all want to be part of the club, however we define it—Hells Angels, the GOP, punk rock.

(Photo illustration by Ethan Parker.)

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Into the Deep Freeze

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My piece for California magazine on both the origins and future of the cryonics movement. This was a fun one.

Before launching the first cryonaut, they had sandwiches and coffee.

It was a Thursday afternoon in January 1967, in the Los Angeles suburb of Glendale. The ad hoc medical team—a physician, a chemist, and Bob Nelson, a voluble TV repairman and president of the newly minted Cryonics Society of California—huddled around the dead man’s bedside … All of them, living and dead, were about to make history. …

Four hours later the task was completed: They had frozen the first man.

At a triumphal news conference a few days later, Nelson, the TV repairman, explained the purpose of the professor’s “cryopreservation.” Bedford, he told the assembled reporters, “will be kept frozen indefinitely until such time as medical science may be able to cure cancer, any freezing damage that may have occurred, and perhaps old age as well.”

 

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Economic Leverage: UC Students Fought Tooth and Nail to Divest from South Africa

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Before the pro-Palestinian BDS movement, before the new push for fossil fuel divestment on college campuses, there was the anti-apartheid struggle. My new piece for California magazine chronicles its growth, from its beginnings amid the civil rights movement to the sustained pressure on the UC system to divest from apartheid South Africa to its eventual victory in the late 1980s.

When Nelson Mandela died last December, it seemed that the whole world mourned his passing. Twitter overflowed with love for the former South African president. South Africans of all colors and ages sat vigil outside his Johannesburg home. Leaders from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe traveled to FNB Stadium to memorialize Africa’s secular saint, and Barack Obama told the assembled dignitaries, “Nelson Mandela reminds us that it always seems impossible until it is done.”

Indeed, 30 years earlier the prospect of a free South Africa was almost unimaginable. Mandela had been imprisoned for decades. Although black townships from Cape Town to Durban were in open revolt against the white-run government, the regime had all the money and firepower it needed to keep the rebellion in check. It also enjoyed the full-throated support of the administrations of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, who considered Mandela a Communist terrorist.

It was against that backdrop in April 1985 that a few dozen anti-apartheid students launched a sit-in at the entrance to Berkeley’s Sproul Hall. They hung banners, organized teach-ins, and, as night fell, unfurled sleeping bags on the steps. Within days, hundreds were sleeping there overnight, and thousands were turning out for midday rallies.

A banner above the steps spelled out their demand:

END UC TIES TO APARTHEID

CALL TO DIVEST

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California
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Bummer Beach

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A few years back, the Silicon Valley billionaire Vinod Khosla bought the land surrounding Martins Beach, a lovely little cove just south of Half Moon Bay. He then closed the only access road to the beach. Trouble is, all beaches are open to the public under California law. In this month’s San Francisco magazine, I wrote about the legal battle between Khosla and a group of surfers for access to the beach.

Early on the morning of October 21, 2012, five surfers pile into a Chevy Suburban in Half Moon Bay and drive south on Highway 1. Just past the city limits, they pull off the road at the entrance to Martins Beach, a beautiful little cove frequented by generations of fishermen, beachgoers, and surfers. It’s a typical coastal morning: damp, chilly, the sky a latticework of fast-moving clouds. They shrug off their hoodies and suit up.

From the highway a single road—the only way in or out—tumbles toward the beach past hay fields, weathered bungalows, and stands of wind-sculpted cypress. The road, which runs over private property, was open to the general public for almost a century. But an automatic metal gate installed by the property’s new owner now bars the way. Signs hang from the gate: “Beach Closed, Keep Out” and “No Trespassing.”

The signs make the surfers a little nervous, sure. But they had read the California Constitution the night before, saving screenshots of the relevant portions to their smartphones just in case. Article 10, Section 4, it seems to them, is pretty clear: “Access to the navigable waters of this State shall be always attainable for the people thereof.” In other words, the public owns all of California’s 1,100-mile coastline.

Shortly after the group hops the gate, they are confronted by an older man in an SUV who yells, “The cops are on their way!” before driving off. Jonathan Bremer, the leader of this group of unlikely dissidents, shoots back sarcastically: “Good morning! Thank you for allowing us to access public lands!”

The road bends in on itself, and the beach comes into view: a natural amphitheater framed by sheer 75-foot cliffs, Mediterranean in its color palette. Jutting out of the waves is Pelican Rock, a postcard-ready formation that bisects the cove. The group paddles out. It is far from an epic day—the peaks are shifty and windblown—but at least they are making their point. Bremer, a 28-year-old vehicle engineer, grew up near the coast in Bellingham, Washington, and moved here three years ago. His manner is intense, at odds with surfer stereotypes. “I really don’t like it,” he says, “when people tell me I can’t go places that I’m legally entitled to go.”

Then, as they sit in the lineup, their boards rising and falling with the swell, the cops show up.

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Inspector General

mag_coverFor this profile of the man who runs field operations for U.S. Customs across a huge swath of the West, I spent a few days talking with Customs agents and hanging out at the Port of Oakland, SFO, and a mail-inspection warehouse. It was totally fascinating.

The Port of Oakland is not a human-sized place.

Stacks of shipping containers stretch into the wide blue sky, monoliths of gleaming metal overhung by skyscraping cranes that methodically load crates on and off of cargo ships. Far below, semi-cabs and SUVs trundle to and fro, mice in the shadow of giants.

In one corner of the terminal, a Customs and Border Protection officer inhabits a specialized utility truck, peering into a few dozen of the 500,000 containers that pass through the California port each year.

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crime
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Poverty is Making Kids Sick

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Or so argues Nadine Burke Harris. And the rest of the medical establishment–not to mention Hillary Clinton–is beginning to listen. In this piece for San Francisco magazine, I profiled a local doctor who is making waves across the country, helping transform the way we think of childhood illness.

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San Francisco

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