Thursday, December 28, 2006

Why the apocalypse will not be broadcast

Humboldt cut off from the outside world said the headline in the Eureka Times Standard. On Tuesday, we had our annual Christmas week storm and power outage. I'm not entirely kidding--all the serious outages I recall in the past ten years have been between Christmas and New Years, including the immense storms that caused a lot of flooding and destruction as 1996 became 1997--and literally did cut us off from the rest of the world for awhile (Rt. 101 was closed in both directions, as were portions of other roads, and planes weren't flying into or out of the airport.) Last New Years Eve there was another storm that left us without power for days.This time it was the day after Christmas, and a night and morning of wind and rain left us without electricity for several hours.

But that wasn't what the headline was about. Late in the day we lost all Internet connections and all long distance phone service. There was "a problem" somewhere north of here, but perhaps the most disturbing thing the paper said was that no one knew what it was or exactly where.I'm not sure exactly when Internet service was restored because in the interim we lost our electricity again. Winds raged through here all night and well into the morning--up to 50 mph. The power went down at abot 2:30 am and wasn't restored until Wednesday nightfall, just as we had the fireplace stoked up and were getting the candles in place.

The most maddening thing about this again this year was the lack of information about what was going on. When I lived in Pittsburgh, I could be confident that no matter how silly local radio and TV got--and they were getting increasingly silly---they would all have complete information in any emergency. Some stations would go to an all news format, while others would extend their regularly scheduled newscasts. Because they had regularly scheduled newscasts--on radio stations, at the top of every hour usually, or five minutes before. And probably news headlines at half-past.

But here on the North Coast we have no reliable source of news and information from any radio or television station. My guess is that there are three basic problems. First, conglomerates bought up local stations and ditched local news. With little or no local presence they are unable as well as unwilling to fulfill their public duty, which I would argue they are required to do by law since they are using our public airwaves.

Second, this is a small media market that has trouble getting and keeping experienced newspeople. It's easy to make fun of the teenagers who staff the news shows, with their fake media voices trying to make fluff and half-baked stories sound important. But in emergencies, when the public needs accurate information, it's not funny. The lack of it has a real potential to compound tragedy, if not cause some.

The third reason is that local media don't take the responsibility to inform the public seriously. Where are the regularly scheduled radio newscasts ? And if they can't afford to do them every day, how about scheduling news in times like this, on the hour and half-hour, so listeners will know when to tune in?

What did I hear today? A couple of guys grudgingly offering a few tidbits of info as part of their Studio 60/Daily Show repartee, in the midst of the discussion that really interested them: have any good bands ever come out of Ferndale? And a few mumbled sentences in the local break of All Things Considered, when we were told that power might or might not be off in some places, and if it was, it would be restored as soon as possible.

Isn't anyone being trained to make phone calls and insist on answers? Is it too much to ask to be able to get that information without listening for it amongst hours of music you may not really want to hear?

As beautiful and virtuous as it is, this is a vulnerable place. We are rather easily cut off from the world. We expect a major earthquake that can come at any time, probably accompanied by tsunami. Yet we have no system of obtaining information when we will most need it. There seem as well to be no clear lines of authority for those emergencies, which is something that ought to interest the local print media more than it seems to.

This week wasn't bad (although it's not over.) But the ease with which we lost power and Internet and long distance all at once should be sobering. It's not a joke anymore, if it ever was.

Friday, September 29, 2006

So far...but not for long..

If you follow my more active blogsite, Captain Future's Dreaming Up Daily, you've no doubt noticed that the Climate Crisis is one of my major themes. But adding to the surreality of this moment, so far it seems that at least in the most obvious ways, global warming has been pretty good to the North Coast. When most of the nation and much of the world was broiling, in drought or being inundated with torrential rains and struck with wind and lightning storms, we had a fantastic summer, at least on our coastal strip. We've had a warm early fall; although this has often been the warmest and sunniest time of the year since I've been here, it seems that this fall has been ever balmier and clearer.

But as much as I enjoyed it--and I was well aware how lucky we were, and how beautiful it was--it was with some unease. That feeling increased for the four days I spent in Seattle in early September. It was bright sunshine, clear skies and 80 plus degrees the entire time. People who live there said they hadn't had rain in weeks. I've never seen Seattle like that. Maybe it's seasonal, and in my many previous visits I hadn't been there in early September, but as well as being glorious, it felt eerie.

We have other signs here, too. As in this Times-Standard story about last Saturday, which set a record high for that date, and also a record low. It got up to 82 in Eureka on Saturday afternoon, and down to 42 that night. It's the first double record like that, the paper said, since the late 1800s, which is almost as far back as official white people's records go hereabouts. Not that this alone proves anything. But it does add to the general sense of weirdness, and of more to come.

For under the obvious are other trends. It seems to be getting drier. We can see the fallout from that--the smoky air from forest fires, the mountain lions wandering into neighborhoods in search of water. Because of the time spans and the personal nature of perception of the weather (do winters seem warmer to me because they are, or because for our first years in this house we had less insulation, worse windows and no central heating?) we can't be sure, but we do get a sense of it, and with only that, comes a certain unease, a vague disquiet and anxiety.

Because of the complexities of weather and climate as well as the complexities of our own perceptions, we have science to measure, compare and quantify, according not only to effect but to causes. And climate science is telling us clearly and in as unanimous a voice as science ever has, that we're into an era of serious climate change that could very well become catastrophic to millions of people at minimum, and to all of human civilizaton and most of the nature we know at the maximum, which is not far from likely.

I read this stuff a lot (along with the latest on how we might cope with the near-term effects and even perhaps prevent the ultimate catastrophes in the longer term) and it's become part of me. So it's interesting to me to read something like Bob Doran's account in the North Coast Journal of behind-the-scenes problems concerning this year's North Country Fair. I went to the Fair this year for the first time in several years, for a couple of specific purposes (like gift shopping), which included this one: it was a beautiful day in a world about to change.

Apparently a lot had changed behind the scenes at the Fair--according to Bob, not for the better. But to me it was like it always has been, at least on beautiful days. I enjoyed seeing the people, especially children, several of whom I saw in rapt attention to a puppeteer. I enjoyed the food at the African booth. The stalls, the glass and metal and pottery objects glinting in the sun, all the color, the fabric, the shapes. And for me it all had an air about it that I imagined as being somewhat like that in those movies (I thinking one was called "The Shooting Party") about the years or year just before World War I, when life changed abruptly and, over time, almost completely for many if not most people, when most people didn't realize it was going to change. And they certainly didn't know how life would change.

The Climate Crisis could bring that kind of change even in the lifetimes of the children or even the college students at the Fair, or--as I am beginning to suspect from the alarm with which scientists are greeting the latest data--at least the start of it in my own lifetime. Of course, I'm hoping that intentional changes will start soon, in an effort to save the future. Either way, such change may or may not be as abrupt as the effects of a Big earthquake, but once it has started, it will roll on, faster and faster. There will be no going back.

Of course, the North Country Fair has just enough of a feeling of timelessness--of the most ancient marketplaces and harvest festivals--that something of it will survive. But the people who go to it simply will not feel the same about their lives and the world as the people who attended this year's fair.

That was in my mind and in my feelings that day. By coincidence, I guess it was the same day as that double high-low temperature record.

Reading Bob's story prompted another thought about it that seems apropos to this blogsite's erstwhile theme. Becoming native to a place is partly a process of learning its history, and especially learning it through people you know, and through experience, as Bob knows it, or as Barry Blake knows North Coast theatre. But place has other dimensions, and other time scales. So maybe there is room for people like me as well, and ways for us to contribute our kinds of perceptions, and to in our ways to become native to this place.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

A Beautiful Summer, With Losses

Should I feel guilty? I feel grateful. While most of the nation, and even friends who live a few miles away, are suffering through a very hot summer, the weather in Arcata has been magnificent. We've had sunshine and cool air. The strawberry crop this year is terrific (though it looks like the heavy spring rains suppressed the tomatoes), the hummers are humming, and we've just spotted a butterfly.

But the summer hasn't been without loss of prominent members of the North Coast community. Both were unexpected. The most recent, the one that is affecting a lot of people at the moment, is the death of Tim McKay, who began the North Coast Environmental Center more than 30 years ago, and has been a stalwart of the environmental community ever since. He died of a heart attack at 59. But at least he was doing something he loved--birding--and in the company of someone he loved.

I met him only a few times. I was a guest on his radio program once. But his Center was so important to this place that it is inevitable that it plays a role, known and unknown, in our lives here. Sometimes in unpredictable ways. I first knew that the Seventh Generation Fund was here, for example, when I read a summary of one of his many interviews with Chris Peters, its director. Seventh Gen became my entry to learning more about the Native community here and elsewhere.

McKay was a giant of this place, and his influence was felt beyond it. A short summary of his achievements is in the Press Democrat; John Driscoll of the Times Standard provides more context and memory. The North Coast Journal collected reminicences for its cover story. Through the voices of people who knew him well, a portrait of the person begins to emerge. Sid Dominitz, long time editor of ECONews (who I did meet in the first year I was here) quotes McKay's philosophy of activism: "Persistence is victory," and the methodology of "endless pressure endlessly applied." McKay lived it, though his persistence was not angry and blaming but centered. It strikes me that it takes someone with the temperament of a birder to make that work.

Earlier this summer, Eric Rofes died of a heart attack at age 51. Christina Accomando, a colleague at HSU, wrote this about him in the North Coast Journal. Again, I met him only once or twice, in connection with the very valuable Education Summit he organized at HSU every year. I was surprised to learn how much of a national figure he was, and well-known in one of my old stomping grounds, the Boston area. So the Boston Globe article on him was quite a revelation to me.

I don't want to project my own ignorance on the rest of the North Coast. Yet I wonder if our provincialism didn't give less value to Rofes than he deserved. Certainly I thought the importance of that unique Education Summit was not appreciated as it should be, and I know that frustrated him. What will happen to it now?

Of course a lot of people are asking, what will happen to the North Coast Environmental Center? Whose voice will replace Tim McKay's at meetings, on the radio, in hearings and in Congress? These are very great losses for this community. Let's hope the example of these two men inspire others to come forward and continue their work.

Monday, July 10, 2006

More Sara

A few more thoughts about Sara Felder's show at Dell'Arte (see post below), now that more time has passed and the show has closed, so I won't be spoiling it for anyone.

In general, it's kind of amazing that a show that features a self-announced Lesbian, talking about Israel and Palestine, as well as her blind mother, turns out to be so non-threatening. That's largely due to Felder's personality, her performance (juggling and shadow plays fascinate everyone on a non-verbal, non-ideological level), the play itself (which dances around the tough issues rather than confronting them, though it authentically portrays a personal engagement) and in part to the audience.

Lesbians and gay men participate in the North Coast community and are generally accepted as valued members of the community. This is especially true among politically active people, who often support Lesbian and gay causes, and among theatregoers. Felder attracts a specifically gay and Lesbian contingent among her audience, and she did something pretty skillful and interesting: she played to them for a moment, and simultaenously used them to build a joke. In character, she responds to what she thinks is an accusation by an old friend, now an orthodox rabbi in Israel, about "her kind." She goes into a rant defending her coming out as a Lesbian at 16, her pride in being Lesbian, etc., to shouted encouragement and cheers from the audience. Which all contributes to the joke when it turns out the friend wasn't referring to her homosexuality at all. By "her kind" he meant secular Jews.

There is also another particular bit of Felder's showmanship (or does that have to be showomanship?) I've been thinking about. A few times early in the show she picked up one of three large knives, the kind we've seen jugglers juggle (in my case, in the safety of a television audience.) But she doesn't do anything with them. Still, they are the equivalent of showing a gun--the stage rule is that by the end of the play, that gun must go off.

Later she hands the knives to someone in the front row. Later still, after we've presumably almost forgotten about them, she is teetering on a balance board rolling back and forth over a round object, beginning to juggle lemons. She drops them. Though her juggling has at times appeared supernatural, she has flubbed once or twce, so that's what this looks like. She covers as if she's screwed up. The lemons are on the floor, when she calls for something else to juggle--and the young man in the front row hands her the knives. Which she juggles while balancing, to wonderment and applause.

The moment has been carefully prepared by the hints and expectations earlier. And if dropping the lemons wasn't intentional, it should now forever be so. Because seeing those lemons on the stage upped the ante for what is already a dangerous bit of juggling. Very skillfully done.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Sara Felder at Dell'Arte

I just saw Sara Felder's show, Out of Sight in the Carlo Theatre at Dell'Arte, the Friday night performance. It's as she says in the mini-interview below, a comedy with content. Although the show is still "in process", it's already got a symmetry and an impact. And she sure can juggle! There's wit and emotion, and an audience-friendly ninety minute running time. Everybody had a good time tonight.

She's obviously a veteran performer, present with a presence, and tonight's audience was totally present and on top of things as well. Not just with laughter and gasps at the juggling, which is balletically lovely at times as well as wondrously skilled, but with audible responses to her words, sometimes simply in recognizing the metaphors and symmetries of the piece.

I was fortunate enough to sit beside a couple of brothers (I assume) of grade school age, wearing red hockey shirts. One of them exclaimed each time he got a passing reference in the shadow play--he recognized the one eye over the other joke about modern art--"Picasso!" And when the chicken warned the sky was falling, "that's Chicken Little!" "There's a Greek myth about flying too close to the sun!" Smart kid, smart audience. Good time.

I had emailed Sara Felder some questions for my Stage Matters column in the North Coast Journal, but she's been on tour and didn't get back to me until after the paper had gone to press. Bob Doran posted this at his Humblog, but I thought I'd post it here as well.

What's your show about? What will we see?

Out of Sight is a vaudevillian's attempt to understand both her mother and the Israel/Palestine crisis. To do so, she revisits how her mother became blind -- by staring at a solar eclipse as a child -- and her own visit to Israel in the 80's. It's a comedy with content.

When did you write this show? Is this the first performance?

Out of Sight was commissioned by the National Performance Network and premiered in Spring 2006 at the Painted Bride Art Center in Philadelphia. It has since been performed at the WomenSpeak Festival in Harrisburg, PA. This is its third venue. It usually takes me about a year of touring before the show settles in, so I very much consider these performances in Blue Lake as part of my process of creating the show.

What's your background? Where are you from, etc?

I'm from a little shtetl in Brooklyn called Brighton Beach. I lived in San Francisco for 20 years before my partner got in the crazy notion to go to rabbi school. We moved, with our son, to Philadelphia three years ago and are counting the days (many) till we can return to the holy land of San Francisco. Or somewhere relatively close to San Francisco. Or at least in the same time zone.

Prior relationship to Dell'Arte or the North Coast?

Arcata was a favorite stop of the Pickle Family Circus when I was with them in the early '80s.
I also brought my solo play, "June Bride: the story of a traditional Jewish lesbian wedding" to the Mad River Festival in, gosh what year was that? (8 years ago or so??). Then I brought my next show here too: "Shtik: a queer play on Jewish vaudeville" about 4 years ago. It's wonderful here. I love Dell'Arte, the redwoods, the bagels.

Where did you learn to juggle? How much is that part of your show here?

I learned to juggle in college at U.C.L.A. in the late 70's. Juggling is my best voice in theater work. I love using objects and circus in metaphorical ways. In this show there is mucho mucho mucho juggling. In fact, the whole show is a balancing act between trying to understand "my mother's Israel" which was created to protect Jews from antisemitism and the tragic consequences of creating a country in a place inhabited by a native population. Yes, there's three ball (actually three lemon) juggling, contact juggling, glow-in-the-dark juggling, devil sticks, scarves and knives. And for the first time, I also do a bit of shadow puppets to tell the story of my mother's blindness - shadows to tell the story of shadows.

Out of Sight continues with shows at 2pm and 8pm Saturday July 8 and 8pm Sunday July 9 at Dell'Arte in Blue Lake.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

California poppies, in abundance. Posted by Picasa

California poppies closeup Posted by Picasa
California Poppy

My first spring on the North Coast, I fell in love with the California poppy. Somehow on my previous trips to California I hadn't noticed it, but come late May it was blooming in Arcata. I noticed it especially around the HSU campus, and on the median of L.K. Wood (now shorn to golf course grass and poppy-free).

It was the color, that bright orange that first attracted me, along with their wild abundance. I examined one cluster more closely and noticed that there was variety--some were partly white, some yellow, some a deeper orange that was almost red. A student wandering by informed me that this poppy is the California state flower (true) and that it's illegal to pick them (not true.)

I confess I picked a few anyway and took them home, because having them around made me happy. We didn't have any growing in our yard, but now we do. It cheers me up to see them, especially in those times when I'm not sure what I'm doing here, or if I'll ever feel at home. The poppies keep coming back, glowing and spreading themselves everywhere--today I saw a yard where they were growing up a trellis. Hooray for them.

These flowers are native, and were used medicinally by Native peoples. Powered and smoked, they're said to have a mild sedative effect. Just looking at them produces an effect in me--even this May, my ninth on the North Coast.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

"I'm a small town kind of guy." Intrepid reporter Dave at Fernbridge. Photo courtesy Dave Silverbrand. Posted by Picasa
Dave Silverbrand’s Big Story

Can the North Coast laugh at itself? Or are we all up our own tree?

by William S. Kowinski

Six years ago, Dave Silverbrand was the news director, anchor and star reporter on the TV station with Humboldt County’s largest TV news staff. They generated 22 hours of local news a week---news at 6 a.m., news at 5 p.m., news at 6 and 6:30 and 11 pm, on KVIQ (Channel 6.) The Ackerley Group, owner of Channel 6, poured a million dollars into staff and equipment. Even when they lured away the anchor of rival KAEF (Channel 23,) Silverbrand remained the genial face of Channel 6 news, second in the ratings to KIEM (Channel 3.)

Then it was over. Ackerley sold out to the broadcasting behemoth, Clear Channel Communications (which reportedly was most interested in Ackerley’s billboard business). As a result of the sale, the Channel 6 local newscasts were closed down completely.

One of the few at Channel 6 to survive this sale was Dave Silverbrand, who continued to provide one local news story a day for Clear Channel’s station in Santa Rosa. Shortly thereafter, KVIQ was sold again, this time to Raul Broadcasting, and for a short time, Silverbrand was out of a job entirely.

Dave Silverbrand has the image and presence of an easy-going guy. But he doesn’t like inactivity. So in his underemployed period about four years ago, he sat down and wrote a play: a satirical look at a North Coast conflict, centered on the survival of a tree.

One of the characters is a veteran TV news reporter, worried and angry that his 35 years of reporting hasn’t amounted to much, who is trying to redeem his own self-image with one last great story.

After finishing the play, which he titled The Tree, “I didn’t try to do anything with it,” Silverbrand said recently. “I figured an opportunity would come up sometime.”

Pacific Arts Center Theatre created challenging theatre on the North Coast for a generation, first in Arcata in the 1970s and then in the early 90s in Manila. Along the way, it spawned the children’s theatre group, Vagabond Players. After leaving Manila, both groups moved for about a year to the Eagle House, then to a Eureka warehouse space. Then PACT stopped producing completely, and Vagabond reconstituted itself as a program of the Ink People. But true to their name, they were still vagabonds.

“We were homeless for about two years,” said Carole Wolfe, volunteer artistic director. “I wanted us to be in Arcata, but I was basically calling everybody who might have a space to rent.”

When it got to the point that she was looking just for storage space for Vagabond’s equipment, she contacted the landlord of the Old Creamery building in Arcata. “He asked me if we were still looking for space for the theatre. I said, ‘yes we are.’” Three months later Vagabond Players moved in---to the same space where Pacific Arts Center began, some thirty years earlier.

Vagabond’s first foray in its new space was an ambitious production last fall of Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, directed by Mark Dupre.

Dave Silverbrand, who lost his job when Raul Broadcasting took over, had to apply for the position of General Manager of KVIQ, which he got. Except for an engineer, he is the station’s only employee. He does all the station’s local segments, such as his “Project Lean” series (healthful food), “Project Green” (Arcata Recycling) and “Dave is---“ (“a kind of comical thing where I try different peoples’ jobs”), a format he began in previous Channel 6 incarnations.

So last September he showed up at the Vagabond Players’ new space, now called the Star Garden Theatre Art Center, to do a story on "Wild Things.” He mentioned his play, which he’d continued to work on over the years. “They said, well, it would be our first adult production,” Silverbrand recalls, “ but let’s take a look at it, and they did, and pretty much on the spot said they wanted to do it.”

So The Tree grew in Arcata, and will open this Thursday, March 30 at the Star Garden Theatre for a three-weekend run, with all proceeds donated to Food for People, the Humboldt County food bank.

Young Dave does radio. Photo courtesy Dave Silverbrand. Posted by Picasa
"It gives me a chance to say a few things, without sounding like some grousing, grumbling old man. I can be a humorist and say the same thing. It’s great.”
Just Do It

The tall reporter in the trenchcoat and floppy hat talks earnestly to the camera about his thwarted ideals. Images of his heroes, like Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite, flash across the screen. His career, hasn’t amounted to much. We see him doing forlorn stand-ups and getting tossed out of a rock concert. He needs one big story to justify his career.

The man in the video is the man showing it to me on an ancient monitor perched on a riser at the Star Garden space: Dave Silverbrand. The clips, which Silverbrand edited together to create what amounts to a character in his play, are from his own career. There are six or seven of these taped segments which the audience will see, while the live cast accomplishes its scene changes.

This is one of the joys of this play for him, the live Silverbrand claims. “I get a chance to laugh at myself,” he says, “which I enjoy doing very much.”

Dave Silverbrand (the surname is an Americanization of a common Swedish name) was born in King City, south of Salinas, and grew up in various small towns down in Steinbeck country. In high school his English teacher suggested he attend a town council meeting and write something about it for the local radio station. He did, and found he liked it a great deal. Until then he hadn’t even imagined a career in broadcasting, but after earning a B.A. in journalism at San Jose State University, he wound up in Portland, Maine, where he worked as a television reporter and substitute anchor for the next twenty years.

Silverbrand returned to California in 1992. After a couple of years as a reporter for KIEM-TV, he went back to school and earned his Master’s in English at HSU, where he also taught and was heard on KHSU radio. By 1997 he was back in TV broadcasting, as news director at Channel 6.

He showed me another taped segment for his play when I visited his Channel 6 office, a cramped, narrow space in the Eureka building where Eureka Television Group runs its four stations and his as well. The premise of this clip is that the reporter, now bored and angry because the “big story” he’s covering is moving too slowly, is being interviewed by a grade school girl for her school newspaper. She asks him general questions like “What is your job?” and he gives increasingly resentful answers, complaining that he is called in to anchor when “the little punk calls in sick,” and he loses choice assignments to reporters who bat their eyelashes “and shake their booties.”

As he continues to rant even after the girl says she has to go, the segment is genuinely funny. But it is pretty biting if not bitter, so I asked Silverbrand if that’s how he feels about his own career.

“Sure, this is how I feel, that’s the point,” he said. “In 35 years, I’ve had cases where I had to come in and fill in for the little punk who calls in sick, and I’ve been upstaged by the anchor queens, because they’re the anchor queens. There’s a lot about TV that’s superficial, and I’ve watched people just slide into these plum assignments because that’s the way TV is. It ticks me off sometimes. The rest of the time I’m having such a good time it doesn’t matter. That’s why I’m enjoying myself with this play. Because it gives me a chance to say a few things, without sounding like some grousing, grumbling old man. I can be a humorist and say the same thing. It’s great.”

‘Just find a way to work the system, you can have an awful lot of fun. "
Because, as it turns out, Silverbrand and I are almost exactly the same age (born six weeks apart in the summer of 1946) and had our first journalism jobs at the same time a few hundred miles apart (I was a writer and editor for the Boston Phoenix while he was getting started in Maine), I happen to know something more about the peculiar point in media history when Silverbrand was beginning his television career.

There were few women on the air in television news until 1971 or so. Boston’s largest TV station, WBZ, had one female reporter, a middle aged woman respected for her reporting skills. But a few years later there was a huge influx of primarily young and attractive women hired to be on the air, at first as “soft” news reporters, then general assignment reporters, then talk show hosts and co-anchor spots on new early news shows, and by mid-decade, the anchor chair on the more established news programs.

Several proved to be very good at television news. The alarmingly beautiful Natalie Jacobson, who became the first woman to anchor the evening news in Boston, is still a popular (and now award-winning) newscaster at the same station, WCVB. Pat Mitchell, who I met when she was the WBZ film and theatre reviewer, is now the head of PBS.

But there were others… On a story, I had to attend a public hearing in Boston concerning telephone company regulation. I arrived an hour or so into it and saw a group of reporters standing in the press section, but I didn’t know any of them. However, there was a tall, extremely striking woman I’d seen on TV, and of course she’s the one I chose to approach, to catch up on what had gone on so far. She smiled her blinding smile at me and giggled. In her long, perfectly manicured fingers she held a reporter’s notebook, completely blank.

Of course, there were male anchors more famous for their handsome smiles than their penetrating intelligence (the urban legend about Boston’s biggest anchor star had him solemnly warning that a missing child should be approached carefully, because he was “acoustic”), and airhead anchors of both genders have since become a living cliché. But at precisely the moment Dave Silverbrand was beginning, this rapid influx of young women into local broadcasting was skewing the system to the detriment of other reporters, before some balance was achieved. Though it wasn’t easy for the young women either, it could be frustrating for young men.

But Silverbrand coped with all the change for 20 years in Maine, and could have stayed longer. “People I worked with years ago are still there,” he said. Or he could have tried to advance to more prestigious and better-paying media markets in bigger cities. “I didn’t have the fever for big city TV,” he said. “I’m kind of a small town guy.”

Since coming to the North Coast to be closer to his California family, Silverbrand has felt the effects of media conglomerates as well as all the other outrages. So besides satirizing his fate in a play, how does he deal with it? “If I had just acquiesced to the way things were, I would be incredibly angry and disillusioned,” he said. “But I learned early on that if something is really important to you, you go ahead and do it.”

Case in point: In 1982, a young Maine schoolgirl named Samantha Smith wrote to Yuri Andropov, then the Soviet Premier, telling him of her fears about nuclear war. He invited her to Moscow, and her trip became a media sensation.

“It was a big global story, one of those stories that I wanted to do so badly, I could ace that story—but somebody else, for those superficial reasons, got to go and do it,” Silverbrand recalled. “I felt so angry and left- behind about that. But I said, Dave, you can come up with your own way to do something like that. You don’t have to wait for somebody else to write your ticket, you can do it yourself.”

So Silverbrand organized high school student trips to Russia and went with them for four consecutive years. “That was even more fulfilling to me than covering Samantha Smith. And that’s the way I’ve been doing things ever since.”

Even when he was the one-person news staff for Channel 6 during the Clear Channel period, and he got a hankering to go to Cuba: “I knew nobody I worked for would send me, but I really wanted to go. I knew I would have to pay my own way, so I did.” He also took a camera. And since he was responsible for providing Clear Channel’s Santa Rosa station with one story a day from Humboldt, he fed them his series on Cuba. “What were they going to do? They had to put something in that slot. And I had just a wonderful time, talking to Cuban people.”

These days Silverbrand also teaches English and journalism classes at College of the Redwoods, and passes on this lesson. “I tell my students, ‘you can do things that are important to you, you can find a way. You don’t have to be told to do it, just go out and do it, and make a difference, and feel good about yourself. If you let others write all the rules for you, you’re not going to get anything done.’ In its own passive-aggressive way, what I did was revolutionary. So I tell them, ‘Just find a way to work the system, you can have an awful lot of fun.’ ”

In the end, that seems to be Silverbrand’s dominant feeling about his career. Veteran CBS journalist Mike Wallace had announced his retirement a few days before our conversation. Silverbrand watched an interview with him. “I thought, dammit, I’ve had as much fun at my job as he’s had at his. I didn’t make nearly as much money, and I didn’t work on a national TV network, but I’ve had a ball. And I’m not done.”

Dave in Russia. photo courtesy Dave Silverbrand. Posted by Picasa
"I think he’s very happy. He told me this is just how he imagined it to be.”
An Equal Opportunity Spoof

Coming in from the March mist and cold, the space inside the Creamery building now known as the Star Garden Theatre feels immediately welcoming. The very high ceilings add to a sense of spaciousness and possibility, and there’s a warmth in the combination of modest fixtures and the theatre’s elegant wood floor. The homey reception area has a refreshment bar, topped with the large masks from Where the Wild Things Are, and a revolutionary new concept in local community theatre---two (count’em, two!) restrooms, one next to the other.

Though Carole Wolfe’s main concern is providing “a safe space” for children at Vagabond Players’ productions and kids classes, she is open to other opportunities these rooms provide. That’s one reason they gave the theatre a separate name. “We’d like to rent to other groups that want to perform for a weekend, or for classes,” she said. “We’re looking for a fresh start,” which also means an openness to new plays and productions for adults, as evidenced by The Tree.

Ten actors, some of them in their first production, gather here for rehearsals. At first, Dave Silverbrand wanted Mark Dupre to direct. “After six months of creating the heads for ‘Wild Things’ and putting together the production, Mark decided he didn’t want to do it,” Wolfe said. “But Dave was still set on having it in this space.”

Enter Denise Ryles, the veteran Humboldt County actor who directed her first show a few years ago. “Dave Silverbrand and I go way back,” she told me. “I was in an English class he taught at HSU, and later he would come into The Costume Box, the shop my mother and I have. He was doing his ‘Dave is…’ thing on Channel 6, and we’d dress him up for the different things he wanted to do.”

So Ryles agreed to direct (and her mother, Rosemary Smith, who still has the Costume Box at 2nd and T in Eureka, has designed the show’s costumes.) By all accounts, Silverbrand worked closely with the production, from involvement in casting to attending rehearsals and making revisions according to what he saw and experienced. “I believe in having the writer here,” Ryles said. “He can hear it and decide for himself if it sounds good or not. He can help the actors, and maybe the actors can add something, so he’s here to decide to keep it or not. I think he’s very happy. He told me this is just how he imagined it to be.”

Dave eating healthy. from Senior News. Posted by Picasa
“These personalities clashing with each other, these people bickering and picking at each other---it just seemed like so much fun to me.”
The story in The Tree pits two families against each other: one father is an ex-hippie environmentalist who is now produce manager at the Co-op, the other an ex-logger now working in a lumber yard. They are battling over a single tree in the heart of town---should it be cut down to make bleachers for the high school football team, or left to live out its natural life? An aggressive police chief and a cautious mayor are between them.

This is not Silverbrand’s first play (a documentary drama called The Lobster War, based on his Maine reporting, was produced at the Eagle House in 1999), but it is his first comedy and work of the imagination. It seems his English Masters paid off, for it also includes star-crossed lovers in a Romeo and Juliet subplot, as well as a mysterious figure, a elderly woman who becomes a key player in the unfolding story.

Silverbrand and Ryles agree that the theme of the play is change, and how people cope with it, and try to locate a new identity in flux. The action---which includes protests, police plans for subduing protestors, city council meetings, etc.---seem to come from familiar local events, many of which Dave Silverbrand covered as a reporter.

They are situations rife with conflict, but that’s always fascinated Silverbrand, from the first town council meeting he witnessed as a teenager. “These personalities clashing with each other, these people bickering and picking at each other---it just seemed like so much fun to me.”

This attitude towards local conflicts, however, may be contrary to North Coast tradition. “Everybody here has an opinion about conservation and environment, and it’s a pretty deeply held philosophy. You don’t find too many ambivalent people around here. But there are some parts of the country where people laugh at themselves on a regular basis,” Silverbrand mused. “Where I lived in Maine, it’s part of the culture to laugh at yourself. Different parts of the country are the same way. We take ourselves very seriously up here---too seriously sometimes, I think.”

Silverbrand said he hasn’t seen the Dell ‘Arte play about a tree-sitter, Shadow of Giants, now on national tour, so he can’t make any comparisons. “I’m not saying this is one of the great plays of all time---it’s not,” he added. “But it is a local satire, an opportunity for all of us to laugh at ourselves. That’s pretty much the value of it.”

For all his fascination with disagreements, Silverbrand seemed proud to point out that he got along well with both police and tree-sitters during the protests in Freshwater a few years ago. Though Silverbrand refused several invitations to climb a tree, he and Jenny Carr—known as Remedy---were cell phone friends. He remembers answers his cell in a San Francisco hotel where he was on a Christmas shopping trip with his wife, and it was Remedy calling from her tree home, just saying hello.

Everybody likes Dave. But will they feel the same way after this play?

“I think he wrote a real heartfelt piece,” Denise Ryles said, and added with a grin, “he makes fun of everybody equally.”

A different version of this story appears in the North Coast Journal.

Michael Bean airbrush work for poster photo for "The Tree." Chris Wisner photo. Posted by Picasa
Performances of The Tree are Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m., March 30 to April 15. There is also a matinee on Saturday, April 15. Tickets are $10, $8 students/seniors. 2-for-1 tickets on Preview Night, March 30. The Star Garden Theatre Art Center is in the Old Creamery Building, at 1251 9th Street in Arcata. The theatre seats about 100 for this production. Call 442-1533 for reservations and information. This is a show for adults. Proceeds benefit Food for People.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Two Takes On Place

What does "this place" really mean, in real life?

It can mean lots of things. A couple of them were suggested to me by two letters to the editor, on the very same page of the North Coast Journal a couple of weeks ago.

The Journal had published an interview with Cherie Arkley about her plan for a development on the Eureka waterfront that includes at least one "big box" store, Home Depot. At the moment, opposition is gearing up to the Arkley plan, and a lot of it is aimed at the effects of generic Big Box development.

But apart from the merits of that approach, I was intrigued by a letter from Duncan B. MacLaren, Fieldbrook, that zeroed in on the more specific question of whether this particular place--not the waterfront exactly, but the North Coast area---needs this particular Big Box: Home Depot. Underlying the question is the demonstrable fact that at least some Big Box stores drive out local businesses. Wal-Mart of course drives out just about every kind of retail business, that's been demonstrated over and over again. But MacLaren seems to be wondering if we need a Home Depot, given the other similiar businesses here, and given the likelihood of Home Depot driving out other hardware stores etc., is it worth it?

MacLaren doesn't think so. He doesn't think "a 3-way lamp socket" is really going to be any cheaper at Home Depot than at various Ace Hardware stores already here. And whether Home Depot, where "lumber has never been its strong suit" would offer the variety and expertise of local businesses it might hurt or destroy. His conclusion: "Give me the expertise and variety of an Almquist or a Mill Yard every time."

At this point a more recent immigrant to the area may shed some light. When I think of what's different about "this place," it certainly includes places like Almquist and especially another store he mentions: Pierson's.

I've just never seen a store quite like Pierson's anywhere. The combination of variety, of sales and value, and of friendly expertise, is phenomenal. Plus this business has apparently been deeply involved in local communities for a long time, and has provided good jobs for people---judging from their commercials, with low turnover.

I'll bet it's part of the community's image to outsiders as well. When I think of Portland, I automatically think of Powell's bookstores and the Coffee People (who make the best mochas on the planet, consistently.) I'll bet there are people who when they think of Eureka think of Pierson's. So the question becomes, do we want to mess that up, and become just like the rest of the country, all buying at Home Depots? Would we risk that, or is there really room in this area for a big box Home Depot?

This letter was about a change that, if made, could harm something that makes this place This Place. The second letter was about a change that may have already done so. It was from Jessica Puccinelli in Fortuna. It begins: "On Jan. 3, the Board of Supervisors voted 4-1 to have Jack Noble's gravel crusher installed in our residential neighborhood on the bank of the Van Duzen. Those who made the decision hadn't driven our one-lane road or seen our homes."

She goes on to say they would have seen what a nice, thriving neighborhood it was, with a particular character to its homes, people and businesses. But---"They would not have seen the Nobles. They started the mining and moved out." Possibly because of all the noise, dust, water pollution and traffic due to the gravel trucks. (The name of "Noble" is all too perfect, unfortunately. Not as a quality but as the nobles who own the land, but don't live there.)

But if the supervisors had come, she contines, "they might even have seen a mated pair of bald eagles, our national bird, that also nest here. They're a beautiful sight. With a noisy crusher and more truck traffic, we may never [see] those birds again. And neither will anyone else."

That says it all. I don't know for a fact if what she says is accurate, but what made her neighborhood "this place" for Jessica, also made it a particular place for everyone. And now (she fears, as we all should) it's become just another ruined landscape,which are all too common. They are so common that it's often hard to remember what actual places look like.

All the characteristics of her place--the quiet, the bed & breakfast, the homes and the businesses suited for just that place, and the presence of that particular pair of bald Eagles--all gone.

It all becomes just like every no-place else.

Friday, February 03, 2006

This North Coast Economy

This week's North Coast Journal cover story is an interview with two banker/entreprenurial Humboldt residents talking about the county's economy. I have two quick reactions on subjects they brought up, primarily of local interest but also with wider application: the relationship of government and business, and the public relations dilemma of our local university, in a time it has begun the mainstay of the local economy and should be even more of a focus in the future. But it's currently struggling to stay alive.

The Business of Government

One of the themes that emerges from this interview is what one banker calls the "natural tension" between business and government. One says that Humboldt has become dependent on government funds from outside for infrastructure and services, but those funds are declining. He also suggests that the wave of local entreprenuership of twenty years ago hasn't been repeated in recent years.

But he fails to put the two together. I'd be interested to see a graph of the two phenomena: the years in which California and the federal government devoted more tax money to infrastructure--roads, parks, water systems, etc. as well as the infrastructure of support for public education at all levels, special programs for the arts and sciences, support for the state university, etc.---and for social services, including medical care, various support systems for senior citizens, for healthy children and families, for the differently abled. And the years in which there was a high level of entreprenuership locally. (I don't mean a literal graph---I hate graphs. But a comparison.)

I'll bet they match up pretty closely. What apparently business forgets (and may like the rest of us to forget) is how much they benefit from government support, both generally (as in the above examples) and in special favors, everything from abatements to roads built for their private use.

I'm not about to defend government bureaucracy (or the corporate version) that stifles creativity and tamps down energies. There is something of a natural tension between the processes of business and government, but that's often healthy. They operate as checks and balances. But it's time for everyone to recognize how much business benefits from government in creating general and specific conditions that allow businesses to begin and thrive.

It's going to be especially true in Humboldt's future. Two major components of the local economy that aren't mentioned are tourism and retirement or senior citizen related services, including medical and various care facilities. (Humboldt is precisely the kind of place that attracts retirees.) Both require government support, sometimes in direct subsidies (senior care) or indirectly in maintaining parks and public lands, and building new infrastructure.
Neither of these are high profit margin businesses, and though some can be fairly large, most will be small and very entrepreneurial. (I hope one of the eight ways I've spelled that turns out to be right.)

For both, smart government spending is essential, and it's time for business to recognize this--oppose these self-destructive tax cuts for the wealthy, on every level---and make life better for everyone, which makes this place more attractive to employers and good employees, as well as specifically creating better opportunities for business.

Redwood State University?

The bankers acknowledge that Humboldt State University is now the largest single economic force in the county, and is likely to be the most important factor in its economic future.But Humboldt is suffering the effects of state funding cutbacks, while it is also experiencing a decline in students, while much of the rest of the state university system has higher enrollments. The bankers discuss this in the context of our substantial "underground economy" (which means marihuana) and the apparent fact that this is the county's identity worldwide--that is, Humboldt =Humboldt's Finest.

Humboldt State especially perceives this as a problem, their biggest problem in fact. In some ways it seems to have become an obsession. One of the bankers, Patrick Cleary, suggests that HSU change its name to something like Redwood University, and advertise it as being in Arcata, not HC. The other, Thomas Bruner, thought this was a good idea, because HSU was never going to be able to market against this image directly: "Because what are you going to do, spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a marketing campaign? Humboldt: It's Not Just Dope.

The idea of a name change, of "re-branding" in today's vocab, isn't a bad one. There's recent precedent for a name change in the state university system---so the number-crunchers will have something to study to budget it. It could kick off a positive marketing campaign that might have the virtue of being true, for HSU does have an identity, even if it's been unable so far to express it well enough. And it does have to do with this place, with the environment and environmental concerns.

It's also possible to creatively take on the stereotype, with something between "It's not just dope" and the backdoor effort HSU halfheartedly pursued to market this place as "healthy."

But is it necessary? I'm not persuaded of that. It is a kind of truism that seems to be true by virtue of being repeated, and there's nothing more powerful in corporate America-- or corporate academia--- than the latest conventional wisdom. But there's no advantage in simply being so defensive--people can smell that a mile away (not just about dope but the homeless on the Plaza, etc. )

There's also no doubt in any case that HSU needs focused and more creative and energetic marketing, (as well as fewer public relations catastrophes) and a more flexible attitude--- and the clock is ticking.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Welcome to this site revisited

Now that there may be some new eyes coming to this site, thanks to a North Coast Journal article, I thought I would re-state the basic idea for this blog.

I wanted to create a space on the Internet to explore what makes the North Coast the North Coast: what makes this a particular place.

My first inspiration was Wes Jackson’s book (published in 1996, the year I got here) called Becoming Native to This Place. This was a powerful idea for a newcomer. How do you come to know and be invested in a place? The idea of becoming native is to feel the same deep identification, and to have the same stake in a place as someone born here, with generations of ancestors buried in its ground. The passage of time obviously helps, but it's not enough.

The way Wes Jackson and others use the concept (like the poet Gary Snyder, it goes beyond roots in a community or an economy, but includes the particulars of the natural landscape. In their view, becoming native to a place is essential to keeping its character and its ecology alive.

That seemed especially appropriate here, not only because of the close relationship people on the North Coast have to their natural landscape, but because of the active presence of Indigenous peoples, the Natives of this place.

So on this blog and a companion one, called North Coast Texts, I started with a few themes. The first had to be the Native American presence and specifically the process of ongoing efforts of reconciliation, involving local tribes (especially the Wiyot) and the non-Native community, relations within the Native community, and how this might affect the relationship of everyone here to the place itself.

As for the place itself, I started from the ground up, by exploring aspects of local geology (here ) and also here.)

I also began describing my experiences and background as a newcomer here, and here (way down at the bottom of the month), and a little about the arts on the North Coast (mostly photos.)

There's more noodling on the basic concept, too.

I frankly had hoped to start dialogues on all these subjects, and more, through the comments. That hasn’t happened yet. Maybe it still can. I’d love to find a way in which people feel comfortable discussing their experiences as newcomers. Or exploring what they value most about living here, and how they feel they can best express it.

That, by the way, was why I created two North Coast blogs. North Coast Texts was for exposition and longer posts. This blog was supposed to be more for discussions: more “blog-like.” But whether or not that happens, the articles and interviews exist as an archive, a useful resource.

Lately this blog has become more blog-like in that my more recent posts are shorter and more personal---more about how I interact with this place, and it interacts with me. I think the idea is still an important one. It transcends our likes and dislikes about institutions, politics and economics, although all of those are relevant. Eventually though it has something to do with our feeling for the place, and maybe even the feeling of the place for us.

Monday, January 23, 2006

North Coast Links

Since Eureka was a battleground over a proposed new Wal-Mart, there's likely still some interest in the issues raised then. I wrote a review published on the cover of the San Francisco Chronicle Book Review, with a HUGE illustration, which you can find here in its on-line version, or in a longer version here.

Also, some of the material in an earlier post here became part of a cover story in the North Coast Journal about Humboldt Quakers and Guantanamo Bay Prison. It seems to have started ripples that are still moving outward several weeks after publication. Locally, it seems to have sparked interest in the Guantanamo effort (new participants in the Guantanamo group's meetings) and in the Quakers (new people at worship for several Sundays in a row.)

One letter to the editor in the Journal indicated that other local churches might find ways to support the Quakers' efforts. And some national Quaker organizations have taken note as well.

The cover story of this coming Thursday's issue of the Journal is on North Coast bloggers. I was asked to contribute part of it, on my blogging experiences. Should be interesting.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Our Sci-Fi Weather

The Eureka Reporter reports the explanation by the National Weather Service for the sudden windstorm that devastated the Humboldt County electrical grid on December 31. Some people in less than remote places were without power for six days.

Several storms came through from the Pacific during Christmas week. By New Year's Eve morning the latest bout of heavy rains and constant winds had died down, only a weak storm was forecast for early in the new year, and most of the county was breathing a sigh of relief because it seemed the worst had passed and the grid got through it fine. But then at about 9:30 am winds that are estimated at up to 85 mph hit various parts of the area, and did the damage.
They were brief, and didn't affect all areas.

Now the Weather Service says that it was such a rare weather event that there is no record of it happening in Humboldt before. A similiar situation happened in Portland, OR in the 90s, which weather types have been studying ever since.It's called a bent-back occuluded front. In this case the storm had indeed passed--the front was in Montery to the south and Sacramento to the southeast. But "rapidly intensifying" low pressure in the ocean off our coast actually sucked the storm front back--the front "bent" back to the North Coast.

This explanation came in a story about why the NWS didn't issue a wind warning, not the most intelligent approach to the phenomenon, since it's not clear what the Emergency Alert would have done. Here's a classic graph on the outcome: But by the time they realized how strong the winds would be, it was too late, Dean [of the NWS] said. "The feeling at the time was that the winds had already started, so people already had the information that it was windy."

Yeah, good thinking. But what about this weird event? Nobody has seen it around here until the 1990s and now it's happened again. The conventional wisdom is that weather is full of freak events. It's that tricky old Mother Nature, tsk tsk, chuckle chuckle.

Well, the weather is seldom original, and some humility is certainly proper, but global heating scenarios predict such freak weather, and if the oceans are warmer in places they weren't before, we may be in for more "freak" storms. For which, incidentally we are not well prepared, as this event makes clear. The power crews performed admirably afterwards, but the flow of timely information was spotty and inconsistent, and generally a failure. Missing the point even a week afterward ices that particular cake.

There was a terrible TV movie on a few months ago about a series of storms that wiped out various picturesque capitals of the world and threatened to be "the end of the world!" as the title indicated. It ran for something like 4 hours over two nights, so I taped it and we watched the highlights. Good popcorn trash tv, but science fiction is rarely without relevance to the undercurrents of mood in the present. Sci fi weather isn't just coming. We just had some.

While we're interested here in what makes Humboldt "this place," it's always necessary to remember how deeply this place is connected to the rest of the world. Our weather is made elsewhere, in warm waters of the Pacific, for instance. They call it global warming because it is a global phenomenon in cause and general effect, but just as it is also caused by accumulation of specific acts in separate places, the effects are felt differently in different places. Yet as a global phenomenon, it's useless to look at either the cause or the effect only in local terms.

That's also the case with other kinds of air pollution---specific chemicals released in the air here may have their greatest effects elsewhere, and vice versa, just as the acid rain caused by polluting smokestacks in the eastern states is killing the life in midwestern lakes and forests.

We are part of this world, even the sci-fi part.