Saturday, November 29, 2008

Cash For Trash

There's an editorial in the new issue of one of our local alterna-weekly news magazines, CityBeat, focusing on one of the many unspoken oddities of the current San Diego fiscal crisis. The paper and others have questioned why, if the city is so strapped for cash that they're considering closing libraries and parks (and now seem poised to shut down the fire rings dotting some of the local beaches, a move that mystifies me), nobody in the mayor's office has suggested that the notoriously stingy residents of San Diego might have to pay a little bit for some of their free or cheap services. And an obvious choice would be reconsidering the city's policy on free trash pickup.

San Diego, so far as I know, is one of the few cities in California (and the country) to actually have a law prohibiting any charge for residential trash pickup, and certainly the only one of its size to do so. As sacred a cow to local politics as Proposition 13 is statewide, this free garbage pickup stipulation has been on the books for nearly one hundred years. The People's Ordinance of 1919 was instituted when San Diego was a young city of 70,000 people and garbage consisted mainly of leftover food. As theft of rotting food increased (often for livestock purposes), the city offered to pick up the garbage, free of charge. I've also heard, anecdotally, that area residents were used to tossing their trash into the many canyons across the area, and would have continued to do so had fees been introduced for pickup. The 1919 ordinance has become a general-fund expense for the city since the 1970s, when property tax laws changed. The city now holds nearly 1.3 million people, yet the trash offer still stands. Or, I should say, the trash offer still rules.

This is no small matter. An excellent San Diego Business Journal article from 2003 outlines how San Diego differs from other California cities in this regard.

City Household Monthly Rate for Trash Pickup

Santa Barbara $22.53
Sacramento 21.67
Oakland 18.66
Long Beach 18.00
Fresno 16.44
Anaheim 15.20
San Jose 14.95
San Francisco 14.83
Santa Ana 13.61
Bakersfield 12.00
Chula Vista 11.00
Irvine 10.78
Santa Clara 9.20
Los Angeles 6.00
San Diego 0.00

As the above numbers suggest, we're not discussing massive amounts of fees here. If Los Angeles can charge $6 in 2003 for trash pickup, surely San Diego could request $8 in 2008 to help close the $43 million deficit. A recent Union-Tribune article notes that the 1919 Ordinance costs the city $37.6 million per year. The Mayor's plan to close libraries and rec centers represented a savings of $6.2 million. I'm not the only one wondering aloud what on earth is wrong with this picture.

The mayor, as the CityBeat editorial notes, has refused to even comment on whether or not charging for trash pickup would be a good idea or feasible (it would require a public vote and 50% approval). While conventional wisdom holds that repealing the ordinance would be political suicide, a recent online balance-the-budget-yourself project sponsored by the U-T suggests that city residents aren't as opposed to paying for trash removal as the powers that be believe they are - nearly two-thirds of the first 96 respondents suggested instituting a fee for garbage. At the risk of sounding redundant, I'll repeat the numbers. A $43 million deficit. $37.6 million lost revenues from free trash pickup.

If the mayor's office is too frightened to recommend this action, it may be up to the people to start petitioning for(can't believe I'm writing this) a new tax or fee. However unlikely such an event is, it may be the only approach left when faced with a spineless administration offering no vision for the future and unwilling to take unpopular, yet logical, stands.

Finally, I'm heartened by the fact that local businesses have stepped in to offer support, both moral and financial, to those services targeted by the city for closure to save a (relatively) paltry $6 million. A fellow library friend alerted me to an upcoming fundraiser at the new Otay Ranch Barnes and Noble this Monday, Dec. 1, sponsored by the Chula Vista Public Library. Percentages of every book purchased will be donated to the library, which is in desperate need of funding. Closer to my home is the recent announcement that Ocean Beach's Falling Sky Pottery, 1951 Abbot Street, will be donating 5% of their sales between December 7 and December 21 to the Ocean Beach Library. This kind of community generosity is exactly what's needed during times of fiscal crisis. Goodwill does seem to be in the air. Good leadership is sorely lacking.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Hiking Into the Storms

We took Jane's parents up into the Cuyamaca Mountain range for a 10.5 mile hike along the East Mesa Wilderness Area, a beautiful range of trails averaging 5,000 feet in elevation that wind across varied topography and through multiple ecosystems - chaparral, meadow and grasslands, oak and pine forests, riparian zones, arid canyons. The Cuyamacas were devastated by the October 2003 Cedar Fire, and the once-thick and mature forests of the park are now forever gone. The undergrowth has sprung back, of course, and there is hope that some of the alders and sycamores will eventually return. Still, the burned ghost forests have an eerie beauty of their own.

We braved the mountains on a day when temperatures were barely into the 50s and the county was being impacted by the first heavy rains of the winter season. The predicted mudslides and possible snowfall ended up missing the mountains, leaving us a bit wind-swept and chilly but dry. Along with woodpeckers, ravens and a variety of jays and songbirds, we spotted a large herd of deer ambling between the meadow and the oak groves. But perhaps the best part of the hike was enjoying the silence, the damp air, the dew dripping from the trees, and the ominous dark rain-heavy clouds that loomed ahead during the entire 5 hour journey.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Recession? What Recession? (Detailing a Thanksgiving Spread)

Thanksgiving is far and away my favorite holiday. Not so much for the murky origins and questionable intentions - I'm simply a fan of a major holiday that's both proudly secular and devoted to food and company. For the last seven years, Thanksgiving has been my chance to shine, culinary-wise (culinarily?), as I shove everybody else out of the kitchen and set about concocting a large spread of ever-shifting dishes that best reflect the season and the ingredients of the area. The turkey's my least favorite part - I find it to be a rather one-dimensional food, and notoriously dry. A few years back, I made a rich Mexican-inspired turkey dish that incorporated an authentic mole, and it was both the most time-consuming and the most delicious variation on turkey I've ever been a part of. But I focus on the side dishes....the root vegetables and such.

This year, as we welcome Jane's parents and two close friends to dinner, I'm getting ready to start prepping. The theme this year (there's often a theme) will be traditional Northern European dishes. As in, really far north. As in, must represent a cuisine found in a European country located above 55 degrees longitude (bean-counters will hopefully be satiated by my insistence that Germany comes close enough, with the city of Flensburg just scraping the edge of 55 degrees). The menu will thus both reflect our northern European heritage (Jane's Russian-Irish, I'm a broader mixture of German-Dutch-Other) and help suggest a suitably chilly atmosphere in our perpetually-sunny corner of the country. The spread promises to be both rich (as in hearty) and decadent. For those interested, the tentative menu follows below, translation provided when necessary.

Salmon Mousse (pureed wild sockeye smoked salmon, served on crackers - the salmon may hail from Alaska, but the recipe comes out of Scandinavia, reflecting the centrality of salmon to the Nordic diet)

Turkey (Jane's in charge of this - Trader Joe's supplied the bird)

Schwammerigemuse / stewed mushroom stuffing (a German dish, straight out of the Bavarian woods, tweaked a bit to slightly resemble the traditional stuffing I've been told I must provide)

Jansson's Freselse / Jansson's Temptation (traditional Swedish dish which may or may not have come from bass singer Pelle Janzon or a Swedish minister from America. Whatever the case, I've adapted it slightly, but it remains a rich sweet potato/onion/anchovy (!) baked dish)

Rote-Bete-Gemuse (Rhineland-area German preparation - beets and lemon juice boiled with cream)

Cumin-Baked Parsnips (a Norwegian dish taken from Andreas Viestad's wonderful book Kitchen of Light: New Scandinavian Cooking)

Caviar (never sampled it before, and figured no time like the present wintry economic climate to spring for some Russian soul-approved extravagance. Don't worry, we'll eat it with a plastic spoon, like they recommend)

Toddy (traditional belly-warmer from the Scottish Highlands, we'll make ours using The Balvenie Distillery's Founder's Reserve Malt Scotch Whiskey (direct from Dufftown, Banffshire) and filled with bobbing cloves)

That's the plan. Now to start prepping.

Monday, November 24, 2008

A Victory For Now: San Diego Library Closures Rejected

With a vote of 6 - 1, the San Diego City Council just voted to reject Mayor Jerry Sanders' proposal to close library locations and rec centers. While this is excellent news, and speaks well for the community response to the matter, one should keep in mind that the vote merely rejects the immediate shuttering of the library locations. The council members have actually adopted the recommendation of the Independent Budget Analyst and deferred any closings until next year. This means that the fight isn't over, simply stalled.

Still, this is a victory, and it should be relished. Keep those signs ready, we may still need them.

Thinking Locally, Acting Locally

Despite the ongoing post-mortems for print media, I maintain an affection for old-fashioned newsprint and magazine spreads. What I lack affection for is the never-ending outsourcing and corporatization that saps smaller newspapers and journals of their primary purposes - informing local citizens and speaking to a specific community. When New York's (or, more accurately, Greenwich Village's) Village Voice was acquired in 2005 by Phoenix, AZ-based New Times - a publishing company that owned eleven other alterna-weekly news magazines across the country - the legendary paper changed from a site-specific source of information to merely the biggest in a chain of similar ventures. Massive shake ups ensued. Film and music reviews, in particular, were impacted by roster changes, and a new reliance on outside reviewers - that is to say, non-New Yorkers - diluted the inimitable Voice character.

Here in America's Finest City, our dominant news source is the San Diego Union-Tribune. It's been up for sale since July of 2008, with organizations from the Tribune Co. and MediaNews Group expressing interest in purchase. As with other news sources, the Union-Tribune has seen a major loss in advertising and a drop in circulation. Less financially painful, but equally as destructive, have been a number of buyouts that closed down the paper's Washington, D.C. office and forced the departure of several high-profile journalists. A larger corporate takeover would likely compromise the paper's individuality even more.

Which is not to lament the demise of the Union-Tribune, at least not in the same spirit as that of the Village Voice. The U-T has hardly engaged in speaking truth to power. Being one of the few major newspapers to endorse Sen. John McCain for president last month was less an act of individuality and more one of deep attachment to the moneyed ruling class in a city dominated by the military, social conservatives and land developers. When the paper breaks out of this mold - busting Randy "Duke" Cunningham, for example, or offering an excellent report on Western forests being impacted by global warming - it highlights the wide gap between their reporters and their editorialists. And they're losing those reporters like crazy.

An alternative to this compromised source of information can be found in the smaller newspapers and magazines available throughout the city and county. The San Diego Weekly Reader and CityBeat are free, easily located and fiercely opinionated. The opinions, however, come from those not yet ensconced in the pockets of well-heeled bureaucrats. There is clearly an agenda - a leftist agenda - at work in both sources, but it's less a question of political affiliation and more one of concern for human rights, environmental protection and checks on abuses of power.

But if print media is truly on the downward spiral, perhaps we can take heart in the recent rise of web-based sources of local news and reporting. I've made several references to a local blog called The OB Rag Blog, a new incarnation of a paper-based project from the 1970s. This blog has only been up and running for a year, but it has already proved to be a solid source of information for events impacting both the community of Ocean Beach and the broader San Diego area. A larger operation is the Voice of San Diego, a nonprofit and independent online newspaper focusing specifically on local issues. They were recently featured in a New York Times article exploring the rise of Web-based journalism, and the impact such organizations are having on traditional print-based news groups.

If political blogs are enjoyable partly due to the absence of corporate editorializing, their lack of editors and fact-checkers can sometimes blunt their effectiveness (yes, yes, physician heal thyself...). And community newspapers sometimes display mere boosterism in the face of larger political realities. And yet I've found both above-named sources to often be much stronger and reliable sources of coverage for the issues impacting San Diego residents than the Union-Tribune.

I'll offer a quick example of how the OB Rag and the Voice of San Diego differ from the U-T. It's a small example - the ongoing campaign by the mayor's office to close down seven library locations and ten park and rec facilities (the vote by city council will theoretically take place this afternoon). The OB Rag has offered extensive coverage of the two rallies held in support of the Ocean Beach Library, and has linked to video footage of council member Kevin Falcouner speaking to the crowd and pledging to vote against the closure. The Voice of San Diego has presented pieces laying out council opinions, with one segment tracking down various council members and posting their responses and pledges to the issue, in an effort to gage some kind of anticipation of how the upcoming vote will proceed (the mood is hopeful). A longer piece by David Washburn investigates the complete absence from both politicians and community advocates of any suggestion to raise taxes to save the embattled facilities - a fascinating piece on the historical stinginess of San Diego, and a much-needed overview of the larger issues which helped create the current impasse. And the Union-Tribune? I found this article online yesterday - "Bookworms back branch libraries," a decent but short piece which quotes a few people and, through the headline's wording, seems to suggest that libraries merely exist as a repository for books and that only awkward, non-outdoors types have been involved in the process of rallying support. When it serves your own interest to back the mayor's office, it's easy to stereotype. "Bookworms," "hippies," "anarchists," - you know, outsiders. I've simplified the U-T's coverage, of course (there's also this excellent blog post, which raises some interesting statistics regarding the city's libraries and thier funding), but I'm still consistently surprised at how unsatisfactorily this and issues have been covered.

Long live print media. But kudos to the new kids.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Diving In

One of the sleazy charms of Southern California is the sheer preponderance of dated, slightly tacky mid-20th century houses of entertainment strung like cheap pearls along the major thoroughfares. The rapid growth and development of the 1950s has many legacies, but one of the most enjoyable are these living time capsules. I'm a sucker for Americana, especially postwar / Cold War populist architecture - L.A. coffee shops, family diners, tiki lounges, roadside motels, mall prototypes. And dive bars. I love a good dive bar.

West Coast dive bars are a much different breed than East Coast dive bars, which present a woolier brand of seediness - the reek of old cigars and the urine-sticky floors. California dive bars display a different face- the transitory-Charles Bukowski-old Vegas kind of tattiness. Where the drinks are cheap and the service is cheaper. And where the mahogany booths blot out the ever-present exterior sunshine.

I'm no expert when it comes to dive bars, but when some friends stopped by in Ocean Beach last night and suggested checking out a local joint, I was game, especially as the venue was a place I'd walked by countless times, perhaps daily, since moving to the area three years ago, but had never gone into. The Pacific Shores bar (or PAC Shores, as it's also confusingly called) is one of many bars found along Newport Avenue, but it differs from the vast majority (hello Sunshine Company, hello Tony's) by catering less to bikers and unrepentant hippies and more to original California types and the retro crowd. I mean, this place has a gigantic faux scallop shell hanging over the bar itself, and glowing-pastel renderings of ocean life (complete with winking mermaid) on the walls. They have an old-fashioned telephone booth tucked into the corner that has no telephone inside. They have a jukebox that my friend had heard raves about, although it wasn't playing when we visited. Instead, a radio was blasting the Foo Fighters, to the possible consternation of the five other patrons inside, all retirees, one on oxygen. By the time the Clash started banging out "Clampdown," the radio had been turned so low we were keeping our voices down so as not to bother those around us.

We ordered three drinks (one beer, two mixed), and paid $9.50 total. I've paid close to double that for a decent martini at The Pearl on Rosecrans. True, they had nothing on draft, and when I asked the bartender if she knew how to make a Bronx Cocktail, she looked at me as if I'd brought up something rude from her past. "Is it in the book?" she asked. Well, not sure which book we're referring to, but it is listed as an International Bartender's Association (IBA) Official Cocktail, which means it sure as hell's in somebody's book. Needless to say, I didn't get a Bronx Cocktail, especially after the bartender told another patron what I had asked for, and the lady made some crack about how this was San Diego, not New York. (Come on, folks. I realize this is the West Coast and all, but The Bronx Cocktail is an icon!) I settled for a drambuie on the rocks (scotch whiskey with herbs and honey - one of Scotland's major contributions to food culture) and nursed it with an appropriately surly attitude

At one point, the older gentleman next to us upended his dish of salted nuts, sending glass shards and almond scraps across the bartop. You know it's a dive when the dude on oxygen starts smashing up the place.

$3 strong drinks, giant scallop shells, black mood lighting, mixed clientle - and quiet during the week. What more could you ask of a dive bar?

Thursday, November 20, 2008

A Decision Deferred

The meeting in City Council chambers wrapped up last night with the fate of seven San Diego city library branches and nine recreation areas still up in the air. There had been speculation that the council might accept the recommendation of the Independent Budget Analysis (IBA) study and hold off on any action until February 2009. But Mayor Sanders launched a withering attack against the IBA and analyst Andrea Tevlin in particular, accusing her of "procrastination" and warning that her behavior was costing the city $330,000 a week (this is the same individual who last week attacked representatives of the fire and police departments of using "baloney" scare tactics to make their points). Sanders also left the proceedings immediately after speaking and before the public was allowed to make their case. Council member Donna Frye angrily commented on the Mayor's absence: "It would be nice, just once," she told the audience, "to see someone delivering bad news to not only deliver the bad news, but hear your input in person at a public hearing".

One of the key arguments over this budget would seem to be council frustrations with how the mayor's office has made information available to council members. There is a general sense that many key details have been glossed over, that little information has been shared, and that many recommendations have been held back until the last minute, allowing time for less perusal and consideration. At any rate, we'll now have to wait until this Monday, November 24th, for a city council vote on the matter. No public comments will be accepted at that time, but the public may still attend (and bring signs).

More public rallies in front of the threatened libraries and rec centers will take place this Saturday at noon. I heartily recommend following either (or both) The Voice of San Diego or the OB Rag for updates and information. So far, they've been vocal and informative on this issue in a way our city's major newspaper has not.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Decisions Coming Soon (or Not Soon) on Library's Fate

Our City Council meets today to potentially vote on whether or not to accept the mayor's proposal for needed budget cuts, including some which would close down city library locations and park and rec facilities. The public will once again have the opportunity to address council members and plead their respective cases.

However, in some developing news, the Independent Budget Analysis (IBA) report issued yesterday seems to suggest that the council will be recommended not to move forward on closing any library branches at this time. Rather, they recommend a more comprehensive plan concerning closures should be presented to the council in February of 2009, at which point the matter may be decided. This decision would seem to suggest that the council's new members should be the ones voting on the matter, and should receive proper background information. A library contact sent me this release (which I've since come across on other sites, including this excellent overview and commentary courtesy of the OB Rag), and noted that while it does seem like little more than a stalling tactic, they believe anything that keeps the branches open and buys more time for advocacy is a good thing.

So, a halt to the process, perhaps? The report makes clear that this "deferral of library and recreation center closures should be considered a temporary measure, intended only to keep these facilities open until a more deliberate and comprehensive plan for facility closures is developed and presented..." Which means nothing has been decided yet. Which gives me hope and leaves me skeptical.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

In Watermelon Sugar: Harvest Time

The little (very little) watermelon that could has offered itself up for the picking. This was to be no ten-pound giant. The little handful of fruit popped off the shriveling vine, and it was time to sample the inside. Our friend Sean witnessed the picking, and tried to hold back a few chuckles after seeing how tiny the melon really was. Later, after dinner, Jane split it open, and we were pleased to discover that her little project tasted exactly as a watermelon should. And for the first time in our lives, we were able to say that we ate an entire watermelon (seeds excluded, of course - those will be saved to grow future mini-melons).

Monday, November 17, 2008

Weekend Protests: San Diego Library Closures IV

Over the weekend, San Diego hosted what has been reported as the largest rally against the passage of Proposition 8 in the country. A crowd estimated at 20,000 - 25,000 assembled in the neighborhood of Hillcrest and marched to the County Administration Center on the waterfront, a considerable distance. The march was peaceful and upbeat, and the event attracted remarkably few counter-protesters. Others have noted with some surprise that the San Diego rally was much larger than similar rallies held in San Francisco (7,500 people), Los Angeles (10,000) and New York (12,000). I'm not sure whether to credit the impressive turnout to some latent San Diego activism or our perfect weather, but it was striking nonetheless.

A much smaller but equally passionate protest took place a few blocks from our home, as residents and community leaders of Ocean Beach rallied in front of the O.B. library branch. Jane and I went down to take part, and were quickly handed signs to wave at passing motorists (unfortunately, Jane's was heartfelt but misspelled - "San Deigo [sic], America's Dumbest City"). The honks from passing motorists were constant, and the speeches given by Frank Gormile (editor of the local and excellent OB Rag Blog), Pat James (OB Historical Society), Suzi More (Friends of the Library President), Steve Heverly (OB Town Council) and others were passionate and informative.

The OB People's Food Co-Op showed its solidarity with the cause by closing the co-op's doors for one hour during the protest. Petitions were passed around, for people to express opposition to the library's closure and another for individuals to volunteer as workers for the branch. And then, the assembled crowd of about 150 citizens began a short march from the library down Newport Avenue, to the Ocean Beach pier.

I wish we had marched in the street and not on the sidewalk, but our route did allow for plenty of interaction with the many small business owners and startled tourists along Newport. And Jane and I weren't the biggest fans of the prepared chant - "We Are Hopin' / To Keep the Doors Open". Catchy, though (I'm not sure if my idea, "Books / Not Crooks", would have been any better). But it was uplifting to see people turn out and show support for our struggling little library branch.

There will be a Strategy Meeting this Tuesday, Nov. 18th, at 7 PM (see the OB Rag for details), and the City Council Hearing for the budget takes place Wednesday, Nov. 19th, from 2 - 5 PM. Car pooling will be available to the hearing from the O.B. Library.

And, of course, Ocean Beach isn't the only neighborhood being impacted by these cuts. Time to make some more signs.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

The Heat of November

I'm well aware that most of the country is settling into chilly temperatures and evenings of mulled cider and hot chocolate, but here in San Diego, we're still feeling the effects of the hot Santa Ana winds that have fanned new fires up in Santa Barbara and the San Fernando Valley. There may not be any fires burning down here (yet), but we've had bright sunshine and warm breezes over the last few days. Given the fact that we've also lately been inundated with a surplus of fresh limes from our farmer's CSA box (or just "the box," as we like to call it), I decided it was time to take drastic action and make a little limeade.

The proliferation of food blogs on the web are a bit of a mixed blessing. There's far too many of them, and it can be difficult to discern the quality of the recipes or food tips they offer. Many also seem to be boasts of what somebody ate the night the before, complete with fuzzy photos of unidentifiable food. No thanks. I've added a link to a helpful food blog compendium to the right, under the new(ish) "BlogRoll," but the sheer numbers can be exhausting.

Far more useful can be simply Googling the food item you wish to investigate. My search for "limeade" led to several good blog hits. I was tempted by one offering sprigs of mint, which we have growing in our back yard. But when I came across a link to "rosemary limeade," I knew I had to follow it up (we also have fresh rosemary growing on the front porch). Courtesy of The Accidental Scientist food blog (and adapted from a cookbook entitled "A Measure of Grace,") this was a winner - the tang of the limes played off nicely with the deep richness of the rosemary. Bitter and sweet, all in one.

Both recipes, and most of the serious lemonade or limeade recipes I've used, take a little longer to make than standard lemonade because they call for making a simple syrup rather than dumping sugar into the water / juice mixture. This makes a huge difference in taste - the sugar becomes dissolved, leaving the drink finely integrated and balanced.

Apologies to those currently cranking up the heat and mulling the cider. Maybe set this one aside for next spring?

Rosemary Limeade

Makes 1/2 Gallon (I changed the proportions)

2 cups simple syrup:
1.5 cups water
1.5 cups sugar
2 stems fresh rosemary

2 cups fresh lime juice
5 cups water

Make the simple syrup. Combine water and sugar in a sauce pan, and bring to a boil. Stir until the sugar dissolves, and then boil, undisturbed and uncovered, for 10 minutes.

Remove from the heat and add the rosemary stems. Cover, and leave to steep for 1 hour. Add the simple syrup to the lime juice and water, stir, and serve over ice.

OCLC / WorldCat Love

There's not many exciting aspects to getting a master's in library science, but once in a while I do stumble across some tool or feature that strikes me as being particularly useful or just plain cool. And as I am an Information Professional (drums and trumpets, please), I like to share these findings with others of a curious bent, so they can incorporate them into their daily lives or wherever else they could use a quick search.

So, listen up, folks! I want to let you in on a little secret. There is one easy-to-use and very effective website / database operation that allows any user to see where, in their city or beyond, a particular library book lies at a particular moment. This goes beyond calling up the local library or searching their online catalog, which doesn't always work satisfactorily. This is a method that ranks, by physical distance from your home address, all the holdings of the title you seek, be it public library, county library or university library.

The program is WorldCat, which is itself a product of the larger organization Online Computer Library Center, Inc. (OCLC). What WorldCat does is function as the world's largest (sheesh, terminology, sorry) OPAC, or Online Public Access Catalog. An OPAC is any old online catalog you find at a library these days, that is, the system which supplanted the old card catalog. Most OPACs serve their library and a few city or county locations. What WorldCat does is link up the catalogs of all these libraries (or most of them, anyway), with 90 countries and 10,000 institutions represented.

WorldCat has the same relation to a regular library catalog as the Internet has to your home computer. For many years, this service was only available to librarians and paying subscribers, but in 2003, Open WorldCat began making motions towards non-professionals. Today, there are numerous ways to tap into WorldCat, such as through the OCLC page or through

Once you're on the website, just type in the name of a book you're curious to find. You may be asked to fill in your zip code, so the program can determine where to start looking for items. A screen should then offer specific listings. Clicking on them will reveal which libraries have holdings, and how close those libraries are to your home. And through a decent Inter Library Loan system, you should be able to get your hands on most any of these.

This all presupposes that there's some of you out there still tracking down books, and that you don't accept Borders or Barnes and Noble as the final stop on the journey. Give WorldCat a try. I've found it to be somewhat addictive.

Friday, November 14, 2008

North County Suds: A Trip to Stone Brewing Company

In between touring makeshift refugee camps and speaking at city council meetings, I have managed to have a little fun lately. With a friend out visiting from the Bronx for a long Veteran's Day weekend, we took several short trips around the area, and one particularly memorable one was a long-postponed drive up to the city of Escondido to visit the Stone Brewing Company.

Jane and I have never had much enthusiasm for beer, a dual reflection of the fact that the vast majority of beers available in the U.S. seem to be flat, fizzy, piss-yellow swill and that we largely reject the culture that goes along with it. But I've been steadily chipping away at this bias, and have come to respect the new generation of American brewers who have staked a claim for producing some of the most distinctive and intense beers in the world. I still have some East Coast regional favorites, like Brooklyn and Smuttynose, and I'll always try a draft of Chippewa Falls' own Leienkugel. But I have to give it up for West Coast brewers. And I'm especially fond of the emerging San Diego beer scene.

There's no arguing that San Diego still lags far behind Seattle and Portland, Oregon, who are undoubtedly the top two craft-beer makers in the world (yes, that's right, the world). And if you want to experience real beer culture - that is, brew pubs with local organic food, anticipated seasonal releases, and community-engaged alehouses (like the wonderful series of pubs run by McMenamins Brewery, the majority reclaimed urban or rural architectural spaces) - you still have to take a trip to the Pacific Northwest. But while San Diego beer culture is still clawing out of infancy, there's more and more available to counter the Bud-Lite-keg-at-Charger's-games image that's kept some of us from appreciating this ancient craft.

There are many excellent San Diego-county craft brews to sample, and while many have small distribution centers, others can be found throughout the West and even farther East (there's also a refreshing lack of competition among these smaller breweries - they all appreciate and boost the other's product). There's Karl Strauss Brewing Company, Alesmith, the unfortunately named Pizza Port (which is actually known as simply "Port" these days, and is one of the finest producers we have) and their sister production, The Lost Abbey (fantastic stuff), and Ballast Point Brewing. And the grandaddy, Stone.

Stone is not the oldest craft brewery in San Diego, but it has set the tone for the new movement. That tone is, at times, one of sheer attitude - they don't call their signature ale Arrogant Bastard Ale for nothing. But it's a reputation well-deserved. Stone is devoted to the notion that beer is a serious drink, and they craft brews that are often intensely bitter, flavorful and rich. They also worship at the altar of the hop, so those who enjoy particularly hoppy beers will want to seek out Stone's IPA and the aforementioned Arrogant Bastard. Jane and I are also partial to the chocolate-and-coffee decadence of their Smoked Porter.

Our friend has been trying his hand at home brewing over the summer and fall, and was interested to see the workings of a real brewery. What surprised us all the most was how fundamental and basic the procedures of beer making are - the only difference between the 55,000 square foot operation and our friend's Bronx apartment operation was the scale (and the fermentation time, of course). Afterwards, we enjoyed some samples from the tap room before heading home.

Stone Brewery also runs a world-class brew pup on the site, one I've heard many good things about. We didn't have the time to catch a meal there, but there's always next time for that. If you come across any Stone beers in your area, you may want to give them a try. And I'd be curious to hear your local microbrew / craft beer favorites.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

San Diego Library Closures, Part III

The budget shortfall continues over here in San Diego, and yesterday I found myself, somewhat last minute, making preparations to attend the Special Joint Meeting of the Budget and Finance Committee and City Council Committee at the City Administration Building downtown. Having never witnessed a council chambers session before, I was a little unsure as to what I could contribute, but I thought it would be interesting to at least observe the proceedings.

So, I found a seat in chambers on the twelfth floor, and as reporters, council people and citizens began filing in, I kept glancing over at the little table near the door holding OPPOSE or SUPPORT forms for members of the public wishing to speak to fill out. And while I had no prepared text, I decided to fill out the form, with my name and address, and drop it into the speaker box near the podium. And then I quickly set about writing some remarks.

Mayor Jerry Sanders spoke, and then sat behind the speaker podium to take the heat. Councilwoman Donna Frye (who Jane and I have always wished had been our mayor), recently ousted City Attorney Mike Aguirre (who I have largely supported) and Councilman Kevin Falcouner, along with many others, hemmed and hawed over the budget details. And then the public began speaking. There were roughly forty speakers, each granted two minutes to address the mayor and the city council. Some calmly laid out specific rebuttals to how their respective community would be impacted (the fire and police departments were particularly well represented). Others made general pleas for children's programs or the city fabric. A few made extremely emotional presentations. One woman spoke rather ramblingly for a few minutes about being raised by nuns and how George W. Bush was not a true Christian (you always get one of those).

I chose to address the city's decision to close down those libraries deemed of "low use," a concept I challenged as inadequate when dealing with the many ways in which information is transmitted. I was gratified to receive a smattering of applause when I finished. I spoke around 11 AM, and the testimony and discussion continued until 5 PM.

I was pleased at the turnout and the passions on display. I would estimate that the vast majority of the attending public were there to show support for their libraries. I was also heartened by the fact that the city council specifically noted their reservations with the mayor's numbers of low circulation and library use, and requested specific figures rather than quick assurances. One of the key moments for me yesterday was hearing a council member discuss, somewhat pragmatically, how the "consequences of potential blight and public safety issues with temporarily shuttered facilities" should also be considered. It wasn't something I had even thought about. A library being considered a blight - what a fantastic metaphor for this city. There's no telling how much turnouts like these impact city decisions - the future does indeed look bleak for the financial health of San Diego. But how healthy can a city be that begins shutting down libraries?

By the way, for those curious, the City of San Diego does an excellent job of recording and making available video of these city council meetings, and with a little skipping around, you can easily view the proceedings and my two-minute speech. The link for the webcasts can be found here. Click on the "Video" link for November 12, 2008. Once it starts playing, you can skip ahead to wherever you'd like (the entire video file is nearly 6 hours, so believe me, you'll want to). My section begins at 2.07.40. You may not be able to land directly on that moment, but you'll be able to get close. And the woman who speaks right before I do is much more entertaining than I am, and well worth a viewing.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Library Closures Follow-Up

I posted earlier about the proposed closings of 7 City of San Diego public libraries, and in the meantime I've been monitoring community responses. Jane has also been doing her part, and during a discussion with some members of the local Point Loma choir she sings at, found herself seated next to a very friendly and extremely passionate library advocate. She's sent me some information regarding a hearing on the issue taking place throughout the day tomorrow, Wednesday, November 12. In addition to this council meeting, the San Diego Public Library Foundation is beginning to circulate information on how citizens can respond and fight such measures. I'm including a link to the page for those in the area who might be interested.

I think one very telling detail mentioned in the press release is the statistic on library use during economic recessions. Studies have demonstrated that there is an uptick in library use during times of economic hardship - which seems pretty intuitive. Free use of computers, and free rentals of films and books, are always boons to any community, but in times of job loss, home foreclosures and major budget crunching, those free services become even more desirable.

I'm glad to see the beginnings of an organized response to these suggested closings, and hope to follow further developments from my end.

Monday, November 10, 2008

The Threat Is Real....

Over the weekend, Jane and I were lucky enough to experience a traveling project sponsored by Doctors Without Borders / Medecins Sans Frontieres, in which a makeshift refugee camp was set up in an urban public space for city residents to explore (via guided tour) and try to understand some of the harsh realities suffered by the estimated 42 million people around the world who have been forced from their homes and displaced. The exhibit / project is called A Refugee Camp in the Heart of the City, and has journeyed throughout Canada and the West Coast before setting up in San Diego's Balboa Park. We received a 45-minute tour from a charming Kenyan woman who had recently worked at a Ugandan refugee camp.

The event was fascinating, but I'm afraid one thing I also took away from the day was a renewed skepticism for the supposed widespread threat of childhood food allergies plaguing the United States and, by extension, the world. Each station of the exhibit highlighted a specific problem faced in any refugee camp, be it locating clean water, monitoring malnutrition, building hygienic latrines, dodging landmines, dealing with cholera epidemics, or coping with emotional trauma. During the section discussing malnutrition, our guide handed around a small plastic ready-to-use food item called Plumpy'Nut, which was developed in 1999 by a French scientist and delivers much-needed protein, energy and a wide assortment of essential vitamins. It requires no cooking or preparation, keeps for 2 years before being opened, requires no refrigeration, and being a soft paste, it does not even require teeth for congestion. A month's worth of the food item for one child is $35. It is therefore considered to be literally a lifesaving device for children suffering from severe malnutrition, and has been adopted for famine relief after widespread success in Darfur and Niger.

However, Plumpy'Nut, as the name might suggest, contains peanut paste, along with vegetable oil, powdered milk and sugar. And at the mere mention of the dreaded peanut, several shocked members of the tour group asked our guide about food allergies and how such a product could be served to children. Our guide was equally shocked - by the question. She said, to her knowledge, there had never been any reactions or allergies in the camps. Her response seemed to be that peanut allergies were so incredibly rare as to barely enter into consideration.

No doubt, peanut and other food allergies do exist (I have a slight allergic reaction to nuts and avocados, which has manifested itself as a slight mouth tingle as long as I can remember). But I've also become convinced that the current food allergy hysteria is yet another example of the lethal combination of sensationalistic news media and well-placed advocacy groups. Meredith Broussard wrote a short article and spoke on NPR last January on the possible exaggerated threat of food allergies, for which she was severely attacked by both parents and groups such as the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN). Broussard notes that food allergies were of little concern to the majority of parents just a generation ago - I certainly don't remember hearing much about them - but are now considered to be a full-fledged childhood epidemic. She questions the data supplied by organizations such as FAAN, which has continually referred to a figure of 30,000 Americans sent to emergency rooms and 150 - 200 deaths each year from food allergies. Broussard notes that this figure was actually taken from a 1999 study of rural Minnesota, in which 133 individuals over five years suffered from some form of anaphylaxis - which could run the gamut from going into shock to simple itchy mouths (like my avocado reaction). The Centers for Disease Control, on the other hand, has listed a mere 12 recorded food allergy-related deaths in 2004.

The knee-jerk reaction from some of the people on our tour to Plumpy'Nut reminded me of the pure hysteria that resulted a few years ago from the sloppy and sensationalistic reporting of the so-called "kiss of death" - when a teenaged girl supposedly died from a peanut allergy after kissing her boyfriend. The boy had apparently eaten a peanut-butter sandwich earlier in the day. I try not to follow mainstream American news coverage to avoid just these kinds of non-news stories, but this one was impossible to avoid, as the international media picked up on it as well. The death was held up as a major indicator of the rampant danger of the food allergy epidemic. Five months after the death and subsequent panic, however, the coroner determined the girl had actually smoked pot earlier in the day and died from an asthma attack. I don't recall much follow-up from the media when this news was announced.

I don't mean to deny the reality of food allergies - they clearly exist, and pose a threat. But when fear and anxiety of an unproven epidemic have so spread throughout a society that people in a tour of refugee camps move swiftly past concerns of cholera, malnutrition, dysentery, measles, trauma, clean water, land mines and war violence to ask about peanut allergies - well, I for one have to agree with Broussard's clever title for her original piece; "Everyone's Gone Nuts".

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Good Things Growing

After seven months of being trapped in a confined area, far off to sea, Jane has found herself noticeably drawn to the natural, the organic and the home-grown. One of her first actions after returning to San Diego last summer was to root up the old tulip bulbs in the back yard and replace them with a self-fashioned wooden garden bed, which she then filled with a mixture of soils and a collection of vegetable seeds. I joined in the fun by constructing a compost bin (econo-style, by sawing off the bottom of a garbage can and poking breathing holes for the compost into the side). Since beginning this project, we've enjoyed fresh handfuls of basil (far more pungent than any store-bought bags) and sprigs of mint, clusters of arugula (we may as well get the words "COASTAL ELITE" tattooed onto our foreheads), zucchini, beets, a few green beans, tomatoes (still ripening on the vine as we speak), and numerous towering sunflowers.

The latest addition to Jane's garden is a watermelon, whose spiralling vines have been overtaking the box for the last month, and is finally beginning to bear fruit. It's been fascinating to watch the tiny buds grow into perfect miniature melons. Most have given up and died, a sad product of the damp, moldy sea air we experience from living so close to the ocean. But one little guy has held on, and we recently had to situate it atop a commandeered plastic crate to keep the heaviness of the fruit from bending the vine. Jane worries over it daily, testing the melon for squishiness and making sure it receives the proper amounts of water. No idea how much longer he'll hang on, or what size he will reach. But we're both looking forward to sharing at least a mouthful of sweet watermelon juice come early winter (early winter = watermelon season? how crazy....).

Friday, November 7, 2008

California Blues

There's just as many reasons to be ashamed of living in California as there are reasons to be proud, and our deep-rooted aversion to paying taxes for anything is, I'm afraid, one of them. Despite our reputation as a deep-blue bastion of liberalism, the state of California is actually an odd blend of coastal progressives, suburban conservatives, and rural reactionaries. This does accurately reflect our state's diverse makeup of mega-urban centers and nearly pure wilderness, but it also leads to intense arguments within the state legislature up in Sacramento. While the state voted Democrat on Tuesday (even normally beet-red San Diego County, which has only gone blue once since World War Two), it also passed Proposition 8 - ironically, largely due to a massive African-American turnout. One step forward, one step back (or two).

When I first moved to California in 2005, the notion of ballot initiatives and propositions seemed exciting - a real chance at direct democracy, with citizens circulating ideas and later voting them into state law. I've now come to view these initiatives far more skeptically, as I've seen how poorly-worded bills and uneducated voters have combined to create a volatile mix of reactionary politics and long-lasting impacts. Prop. 8 is merely the most recent example of an issue adopted by a specific group (in this case, the Mormon Church, which produced the bulk of the estimated $27 million spent in support of the bill) and wedged onto the ballot between more mundane matters involving tax increases in police spending and high-speed rail initiatives. If one wants to see how destructive California ballot initiatives can be, one need only look back to 1978 and the epochal passing of Proposition 13.

This amendment to the state constitution capped property tax rates in California, and reduced them, on average, by 57%. On the surface, this bill was unbeatable. As property rates along coastal regions in the state started to rise, the fear of older home owners being priced out of their homes began to grow. And who wants higher taxes?

Well, cities that hope to thrive and offer excellent services for its citizens, that's who. The result of the enormously popular Prop. 13 (it is now considered untouchable in Sacramento) has been a sharp decrease in city programs and community growth, especially in coastal areas which have always enjoyed / suffered higher property prices. State funds have been necessary to keep cities and municipalities afloat. Sales tax revenues have become an integral part of the California economy, and the current nationwide blight of consumer sprawl and big box stores are a direct result of our state's need to bring in added revenue to make up for the lost property taxes. California schools have fallen from among the best in the nation to some of the most poorly funded and lowest achieving. And libraries - don't get me started on libraries. I've never before witnessed such a cavalier attitude - in hours, staffing, holdings, housing - towards what many of us consider a civic virtue and community necessity.

So it was with little surprise that I read yesterday of San Diego mayor Jerry Sanders' plan to cut the city's $43 million budget deficit by eliminating, among other things, 7 city library locations. Not trimming hours - that's already been done, with the result that our massive central downtown library, with holdings of 3 million items and serving a city population of nearly 1.5 million, is only open 52 hours a week, not opening until noon on Mondays and Wednesdays, and shutting its doors before 6 PM on Tuesday and Thursdays (for some comparison, my old library in downtown Albany, New York, was open 70 hours a week, 9 AM-9 PM, Mon-Thur, with adjusted hours on weekends). And not by letting go of positions - that's already been done, too. The plan now is to actually shut down 7 library locations completely and utterly, including our Ocean Beach branch, a tiny structure just four blocks from my house that recently celebrated its 80th anniversary. It's not a beautiful building, it does not boast a pleasant indoor environment, the staff can be moody, and the collection isn't impressive. But losing it will be a community tragedy, and one more example of how short-sighted laws can help destroy the fabric of a community.

On Tuesday, a large number of California voters decided that chickens have the right to live in larger cages (Prop. 2) while announcing that certain human beings have not yet earned that opportunity. And as we face another library closure, we live with the decisions of 1978, in which the birth of the tax revolt announced that civic pride was nothing compared to private property. Sometimes, it's really hard to be proud to live in California.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Two Kinds of Hope

I tend to reject grand narratives in both art and life, but there are times when events and movements seem to dovetail, and last night was one of those times. A monumental election coincided with a difficult anniversary, and it was hard not to get swept up into a tide of emotion.
The top photo shows a hand-made sign linking Ocean Beach with a specific campaign, and it sprang up in a nearby yard sometime in the early days of the presidential race, when the Clinton machine was still swaggering its way across the media landscape and Mitt Romney was rubbing brylcreem into his gleaming hair. But this little red-white-and-blue patch of hope gave me a small promise of positive directions to come.
The bottom (somewhat fuzzy) photo was taken exactly one year ago at the Naval base here in San Diego, moments before Jane climbed aboard the USS Cleveland for her seven-month deployment to the Middle East and beyond. It was a journey neither of us wished to take - both for the purely personal anguish of losing a companion and a larger moral ambivalence in taking part in a military operation demanded by rulers we did not support or respect. You can see that I've plastered a very false and tentative smile on my face. Jane isn't even bothering to fake it. Immediately afterwards, we said goodbye for the better part of a year, and began figuring out how we were going to cope without the other.
I wouldn't dare to compare our personal story with the larger events unfolding yesterday, but they do remain linked in my mind. Our rapt attention to the returns last night was tempered by bittersweet remembrances of our actions one year earlier. That bittersweetness remains today as we close two chapters in our lives.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Look At Me! I Participated in Democracy!

The line was out the door and the rains were coming down - two odd sights for complacent San Diego. The novelty of jumping puddles and toting an umbrella was commented on by more than one wet voter standing outside the Bethany Lutheran Church. Truth be known, I would have rather voted in somebody's garage or a coffee shop, which is where many voters in California spend election day. Zip codes are zip codes, however, and districts are districts, and the church worked out fine (although many high-maintenance voters audibly complained about the poor lighting). I cast my ballot, received a little "I Voted" sticker, and was told by a fresh-faced young poll worker that the Starbucks down the street was giving out free java to those of us bearing the proof-of-voting stamp. I skipped the Starbucks, and hurried home through the welcome rains of November.

Monday, November 3, 2008

The Hitch Is Back

I've long been an admirer of the critic, commentator, and professional raconteur Christopher Hitchens, whose acerbic wit and extreme erudition has done many of us contrarians well over the past few decades. A true maverick in a time when that phrase is being used rather liquidly, Hitchens has written endless books and columns calling out politicians and cultural mavens on their foolishness and crimes, from Henry Kissinger to the Clintons to God Himself. It was Hitchens' willingness to take on both the smuttiness of Bill Clinton and the piousness of Mother Theresa that moved me firmly into his camp - anybody so fearless was a mind to be reckoned with. I have always wholeheartedly agreed with Susan Sontag's pronouncement: "May his targets cower".

Unfortunately, it's been a bit of a rough road for Hitchens over the last eight years, as he dismayed many in the leftist wing by throwing his support behind President George W. Bush and the war in Iraq. I may not have agreed with his stance, but I found his writings on the war to be insightful, passionate, thoughtful and intriguing. I'm not sure if I came across any other pieces that so forcefully and convincingly made the case for a war I personally found repugnant. Others were not quite so forgiving, and Hitchens has been persona non grata among certain circles for some time. Too bad for them. The ongoing howls from the GOP machine as conservative thinkers from George Will to Peggy Noonan to Christopher Buckley express reservations about John McCain and (especially) Sarah Palin make clear the limitations of toeing party line and adhering to ideological rigidity. The leftist cause is made stronger by intelligent and thoughtful debate on the ongoing war, both pro and con, not by banishing those who suggest flexibility to the wilderness.

However, I suspect we'll be hearing a slightly different tune from certain quarters as Hitch has recently begun to make clear his appalled opposition to the GOP front runner. Over the last month, he's written a series of disdainful pieces lambasting the final days of the campaign and the GOP choice for vice president. He's echoed the ignored calls for a press conference, highlighted Palin's contempt for science and intellectualism, and called out the campaign for distorting the credentials and world views of Rashid Khalidi.

As we near the end of an extremely long and at times extremely ugly campaign, I admit to taking solace in the fact that thinkers like Hitchens continue to hammer away at our disgraceful excuses for leaders. Witty blog titles aside, I won't welcome Hitchens "back" - he never left. That's what I like about mavericks.

More Views From the Top

Perched on the porch, overlooking the whole of San Diego County (ie, an area the size of the state of Connecticut), upwards of 5,500 feet on Mount Palomar (click on photos for even more detail).

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Into the Hills

A common complaint lodged against the San Diego area is that there are no seasons. While I disagree with this argument in principle (one only has to acclimate themselves to the area to recognize that San Diego weather shifts remarkably throughout the year), I realize that what people really mean to say is that San Diego lacks the "normal" succession of seasonal changes that one might find in northern or less coastal areas. But to really get a sense of the changing seasons around our little sunshine-graced bubble, one only need head up into the county's numerous mountain chains, where the winter nights turn frigid and the passes fill with snow. San Diego County's high point is only 6,140 feet - high enough to provide remarkable vistas and temperature changes, but still dwarfed by the nearby San Jacinto range (upwards of 10,000 feet) and the San Bernardino range (especially 11,499-foot San Gorgonio Mountain), just over the Riverside and San Bernardino County lines.

Still, San Diego's Cuyamaca Range, Laguna Range and Mount Palomar offer a taste of the High Sierras - pine, oak, cedar and fir forests line the upland areas, and small ponds and streams dot the valleys. Palomar is both the northernmost mountain range in the area and the farthest west, which means it is the first range to intercept ocean moisture rising off the shoreline forty miles away. This location means Palomar is among the coldest and wettest areas in San Diego County.

Jane and I spent a quick weekend up in Mount Palomar with some friends at a rented cabin, positioned directly over the long drop into the surrounding valleys. The cabin was a restored 1930s retreat, and boasted an impressive deck that we spent much of our time on, enjoying the views. Saturday was clear and warm, and we were able to spot the distant coastline, the slope of the Point Loma peninsula and the Mexican islands of Los Coronados - well over an hour and half's drive away. During the night, the clouds and fog rolled in, and we awoke to an amazing white-out as the clouds parked themselves around our cabin and pummelled the walls with gusts. We got to bundle up in jackets, drink the homemade mulled cider that Jane made, and generally feel that we weren't missing out on the rapidly approaching end to fall that so many of our friends and family members are enjoying / experiencing throughout the country.

I'm back at the beach now, with a cool breeze rustling the palm fronds. There's no need to boast, but there are times when this area really does seem to have it all.