Thursday, December 27, 2012

World premieres headline Hospitality House benefit concert

Should have posted this much earlier, but if you happen to be in the Grass Valley area on Thursday, come check out trombonist Eric "Red" Starr in A Benefit for Hospitality House as he and pianist Paul Perry perform the world premieres of two new classical pieces.

Click here to read the press release, the first ever such document I've ever composed. I've read countless, but never tried to write one. Also reprinted below.

Also, I also had no idea until a few hours ago that the great Utah Phillips was a co-founder of Hospitality House, the eponymous beneficiary of Red's recital. It's a group that seeks to house the Nevada County homeless on frigid nights like this one.

A great cause, and a chance to support contemporary classical music.

Monday, December 17, 2012

No one dies in knife attack at Chinese elementary school

The tragic carnage at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Friday is too devastating for words. It's just disgusting that we're almost to the point of being numb to events like this (and that we are already numb to the dozens of individual murders that happen on US streets every week). And nonsensical claims that this should not be an opportunity for a political discussion are infuriating.

The argument against using something like another mass shooting to illustrate why our maniacal gun culture needs dramatic reform often says something to the effect of: "Well, if this guy wanted to do something like this, he would have just used a knife. It's not the gun's fault."

On Friday, we happened to get this scenario in clear juxtaposition. Thousands of miles away, and hours before Adam Lanza went on his heinous spree, another man, Min Yongjun,  stabbed and slashed 23 children at an elementary school in Henan province, China.

The difference between the two? No one died in the Chinese attack because Min did not have a gun. Guns are simply more destructive, and when they are used in mass attacks, the death toll is certain to skyrocket.

The attack in China is no less heinous than the one in the US, and is actually the latest chapter in a disturbing trend of mass knife attacks in the Asian country. But the questions and incomprehensibility that underlie both of these incidents is the same - why would someone do this? The answer, if there is one, will be found in a tough examination of mental health on an individual and community basis. The answer may very likely never be found. In the meantime, attacks will no doubt continue. The question that must be answered immediately is: Do we want potential attackers to have easy access to guns with which they can shoot up a school, or a mall or a theater. Or should we force them to find some other, probably less deadly, means of carrying out their terror plots? It's a grim choice, but is not a difficult one.

For the US, that pesky second amendment will continue to complicate efforts to reach a sensible solution. I have no idea how it will happen, and like President Obama said tonight in a tear-jerking vigil  for the 26 murdered victims in Newtown, Connecticut, there is no single law or policy that will change the situation we currently find ourselves in. It will take a cultural shift.

Meanwhile, there are recent indications that the rock-solid foundation of the gun lobby is fracturing ever so slightly. In many southern states where gun laws are very lax, conservative politicians are being forced to choose sides in measures that would make it legal to keep guns in a car in parking lots while people are at work. The business communities in many of these states, heavily courted by so many conservatives, are not pleased with the potential laws, saying they infringe on their private property rights, according to the Wall Street Journal. Who knows what this means in the larger context. But a divided front could potentially open up some movement in a conversation that has been dominated so much by the one side as to render the 'debate' stagnant.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Losing Omar again

Omar is dead.

Fans of The Wire and the world at large have lost Omar Little, for real this time.

Donnie Andrews, the man who was a primary inspiration for one of the most beloved characters on one of the most acclaimed TV shows works of literature in a generation passed away last week at age 58.

Donnie and Fran
If you are unfamiliar with Donnie, he played one of the guys who protects Omar when he goes to prison in Season 4, and then teams up with the stick-up boy later when he's out for revenge. (One of my favorite scenes in the series remains the one where Omar and Donnie are sitting in a car on a stakeout and Donnie is singing along with the radio. Just so sweet and simple and illustrative of an inherently benevolent soul.)

He, among others, was the inspiration for David Simon and Ed Burns when they conceived of the Omar character - a street thug with a conscience who robs drug dealers with high-calibre firearms.

Donnie's story is one that deserves to be preserved in the annals of literature (he did, in fact, survive a jump/fall from a six-story window to avoid a shootout). Turn to the pros for the details - the Baltimore Sun has the most comprehensive obit; the New York Times does a solid job too.

This, from the Times, would seem cheesy and contrived if it was in a TV show. As a true event, it's devastating:

Mr. Andrews was known for drug dealing and audacious robberies in West Baltimore in the 1970s and early ’80s. In September 1986, he agreed to kill a drug dealer for a rival to support his heroin habit. It was his first murder.
“My gun jammed,” Mr. Andrews told The New York Times in 2007. “So the guy was lying on the ground, and it gave him a chance to look me in the eye, and he said, ‘Why?’ ”        
Mr. Andrews killed the man but was haunted by his question. Months later, he turned himself in to Edward Burns, a Baltimore homicide detective. In 1987, he was sentenced to life in prison.    

Donnie would go on to reform himself in prison, working from inside to stop the violence on the streets and reaching out to youths and drug addicts to help get them on the right track.

My favorite arc in Donnie's story is a relationship he developed with another of Simon's protagonists, Fran Boyd from the book The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood (if you have not read it yet, just do it).

The Times has covered this story very well, and you should read about it here. The short version is that Simon and Burns put Donnie in touch with Fran while she was in the throes of drug addiction. They talked regularly while he was still in prison, and it was partly his inspiration that helped her get clean. She, Simon and others lobbied hard for his early release, which he was granted in 2005. In 2007, Fran and Donnie were married, and David Simon was the best man. Read the wedding announcement in the Times here.

Unfortunately, it has been an increasingly difficult year for poor Fran. In August, her son DeAndre died at age 35 of an apparent drug overdose. DeAndre was another of the protagonists in The Corner and he lived a life that vacillated, almost moment to moment, between hope and despair (he also appeared in The Wire (as did Fran) as Brother Mouzone's bodyguard, Lamar, incidentally). Read David Simon's heartbreaking obituary of DeAndre here. This is real life that still aches beyond fades to black.

My sincerest thoughts and prayers for Fran. She is a survivor and a hero. Let her strength endure.

(Picture is from Donnie's anti-violence organization Why Murder?)

Friday, December 14, 2012

'You are trying to experience disorientation and panic': a lesson in helicopter survival

In the event that I am aboard a helicopter that crashes into the sea, I can survive. I'm certified.

Last week I took a trip over to Robert, Louisiana, where Shell Oil has a large training facility for most everything related to offshore oil production. It was the command center when BP's Macondo well blew out, sunk a rig and led to one of the worst oil spills in history. It's a place dedicated to education and safety - you are even required to back in to all parking spots to minimize the risk of auto collisions (a requirement, a later learned, that is actually common at work sites throughout the oil industry).

It is also home to one of the Gulf Coast's most renowned centers for HUET training, or Helicopter Underwater Egress Training. It is a class required of most everyone who might ever go offshore in a helicopter. Of course, that population is made up almost entirely of people who work in the oil industry - not just the roughnecks and roustabouts that work on the drilling rigs and production platforms but also the crews of supply ships and support vessels for those same facilities. And of course the parasite reporters who cover such things.

Shell had invited me and a couple other reporters to come check out the Noble Bully I drillship, which is drilling for the oil company about 70 miles off the Louisiana coast at the Ursa/Mars prospect in the Gulf of Mexico. It would take about a day to get there by boat, but only an hour or so by helicopter. Since we'd be flying over water - and since helicopters have a nasty habit of, well, crashing - we needed to be trained in escape.

The class kicked off around 7 am and began with a few terrifying videos of sinking sea ships and fleeing sailors. That was enough to get us to pay attention. The instructor said, quite soberly, that the most important thing you need to have in order to survive is something worth surviving for. For him, it was his wife, kids and grandkids. Maybe it's a girlfriend, he said. Maybe it's a cherry car. Whatever it is, you need to keep that thing in mind at all times if disaster does strike.

We proceeded to learn some nifty survival stats and strategies. The instructor extolled the virtues of life jackets, which may seem kinda obvious. But it turns out that, especially in cold waters (less than 59 degrees F), a life jacket can triple your chances of survival. In waters that cold, you won't survive more than one or two hours because the coldness will wear your body down. But with a jacket, even in frigid seas, you can survive up to six hours. Don't take 'em for granted.

Other tips: If there is a group of you lost at sea, lock arms in a circle and kick in three- to five-second blasts to create a pulse effect. It creates a target of whitecaps visible from the air. Kick in short bursts so it looks like a signal. Also, beware of static electricity caused by chopper blades when they lower a cable to pull you from the water - it'll travel right down the cord and the hook. Let the hook hit the water first so the static electricity dissipates.

That's all helpful info, of course, but that is not the aspect of HUET that gets the people buzzing. In the afternoon, we moved to the pool. We performed progressively harder underwater tasks like swimming through doors, inflating our coveralls as a flotation device, and so on. Then came the main event - the dunking.

The pool is equipped with the shell and spartan innards of a faux-helicopter cabin attached to a mechanism that lowers and spins the whole contraption upside down. Four of us at a time sat in seats inside, strapped in by a seatbelt, and were instructed on how to jettison the windows and the doors. After punching them out, you must find and grip a reference point so you don't get more disoriented and can find your way out when the frigid seawater rushes in (although we were in a heated pool during training).

"You are trying to experience disorientation and panic," the instructor told us.

And so there we were, strapped in to our simulated disaster cab. "Brace for impact!" someone shouts.

"Brace! Brace! Brace!"

We clutch our seat belts for dear life as the vessels crashes into the surface of the water. The cabin quickly fills. It's up to our ankles and then our knees, and then the whole thing starts to flip. Stomach, shoulders, neck - quick! take a breath because it may be your last! - and we're submerged, and still flipping.

Air bubbles everywhere as the water shoots up my nose and into my ears. The disorientation is kicking in heavily now. We must wait before the violence subsides and the vessel comes to rest before we can punch out the windows. We must remain strapped in even through this so the rush of water does not throw toss us around the cabin.

I'm upside down and searching for the handle that's supposed to jettison the door. I can't find it. Panic is beginning. Somehow my hand glances it and I'm able to push it open as my stolen breath moments earlier at the surface is reaching the end of its life span. I weakly get the door off and clutch for the seat belt latch. It comes off stubbornly and, using the reference point of the top of the open doorway, I push myself out and barely make it to the surface - arms flailing, as instructed, to clear the path of any potential debris from the crash - and gasp for breath. Safe. Alive.

Click here to see my video of what happens (on the surface). 

This is not embellished. I actually needed a little assistance from the scuba team that served as a safety net for this particular run-through. I had to do it again in order to pass the class, and pulled it off slightly smoother, or at least with less panic and no help from the scuba guy. The upside down thing is tough because, to jettison the door, you have to reach down a bit to find the latch. When upside down, you actually have to reach up a bit. It's tricky when disoriented to begin with.

Nevertheless, I am now certified. Two days later, I and some of my classmates flew out. We made it to the rig and back with no problems, thankfully. But I knew that, if we ditched, I would have shit my pants.

Sunday, December 02, 2012

Tales of a plumbing refugee

We have been having plumbing problems for a while at our house here in Montrose. It's the bottom floor of a rented duplex on Sul Ross & Hazard. It started with a backed up sink, and then a backed up shower. As the problem worsened, nastier and nastier water started to fill the various basins in the house. A plumber would come and clean out the pipes, the problem would subside for a few weeks, and then it would return.

Fast forward to last week. We had spent Thanksgiving break in Big Bend National Park, which is pretty much the most incredible place I've ever seen. But it's a long way away. So after driving in the car for about 10 hours, we got home a little after midnight to find the plumbing issue had come to a head.

A foul odor was coming from the bathroom. I turned on the light to find the tile floor crusted about a half-inch think with... raw fucking sewage. It was mostly toilet paper, caked and soggy, but there were unmistakable globules of feces scattered about, as if some deranged easter bunny had come in and shit in secret corners and left his deposits there to crust over. The toilet and floor were covered in this stinking sludge. A thick black gunk covered the bathtub, which would not drain. It stunk. It was one of the most disgusting scenes I could imagine. (The image to the right was taken several weeks ago, but that is the sludge that had been flowing into our tub every so often. We came home to find our entire bathroom covered in this stuff - plus shit.)

Our landlord has been handling it, to her credit. She sent over a cleaner who spent about two hours scrubbing the shit out of the bathroom (literally) with a big bottle of bleach. She has put us up at a nice bed and breakfast just a block down the street, the Modern B&B, which is quite a nice place (and recommended). The chef makes the best omelet I've probably ever had, made to order. It all seemed well and good, just a relatively minor (if momentarily repulsive) inconvenience. Until...

Late Thursday afternoon I got a panicked call at work from the landlord. The plumbers had to replace a chunk of the sewer line because a tree had grown up right on one of the connections to the house and the roots had run rampant over the tree's 30-year lifespan. Obviously a substantial operation that required permits from the city because of nearby power and gas lines.

"Is the dog inside?" my landlord asked. Yes. "Can you come and let him out? I don't have a key and there's a gas leak. The fire department is here." I was about 30 minutes away. She said she would break down the door and rescue the dog if she needed to. This minor inconvenience had just turned into a life-threatening emergency.

CenterPoint, the local utility, had come the day before to mark off where the gas and power lines were. But apparently they mis-marked. The plumbers, digging with a shovel, nicked a gas line. It started spewing gas; apparently you could hear the hissing. You could smell it five blocks away. When I got home, fire trucks and policemen had blocked off the road for a block in both directions. The house next door was evacuated (ours was empty aside from the dog). Eventually the leak was stopped and the house was deemed safe to re-enter. Inside I had a newspaper, unread at the time, with a story about an explosion, initially blamed on a leaking gas line, that leveled an entire neighborhood in Indianapolis. O saw the story the next day, and shuddered.

Thankfully, the story remains only a frightening hypothetical. But it could have been devastating, and an unforeseeable conclusion to what started out as a simple plumbing annoyance (maybe not so simple, but still). We are still staying at the B&B; the plumbers, I think, were spooked because they have not been back to work since. I'm pretty sure the sole blame lies with CenterPoint because of their shoddy marking job. That's inexcusable. What's worse, when the landlord called them immediately after the leak was discovered, it took them more than an hour and a half to show up and set things straight. Luckily the fire department was able to stop the leak, but how that doesn't qualify as an urgent emergency that requires immediate action, I have no idea.

Anyway, we are all safe, and still essentially homeless, or, at least, unable to use what is actually now a very clean bathroom.