Timely Words

On the 19th of November, 1863 Abraham Lincoln, our greatest Republican president delivered this address at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. These words seem timely today.

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

There are echoes of the conflict of the Civil War that continue to reverberate through our contemporary struggle to unify a nation divided. I remain hopeful, taking comfort in Martin Luther King, Jr.‘s words that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” And yet I mourn for and with those who are casualties of the hatred and violence in the near term.

Friday November 18, 2016 — Mark —

American Tune

I was listening to music on shuffle this morning. As I was walking up California Street to work Paul Simon’s “American Tune” started playing. There is something reassuring in the moody lyrics of this song that recall an earlier period of contemplation about what it means to be an American. I’ve found myself frequently in this state of contemplation lately as I try to come to terms with the recent election — I feel so far away from home.

Many’s the time I’ve been mistaken
And many times confused
Yes, and I’ve often felt forsaken
And certainly misused
Oh, but I’m all right, I’m all right
I’m just weary to my bones
Still, you don’t expect to be
Bright and bon vivant
So far away from home, so far away from home

I don’t know a soul who’s not been battered
I don’t have a friend who feels at ease
I don’t know a dream that’s not been shattered
Or driven to its knees
Oh, but it’s all right, it’s all right
For lived so well so long
Still, when I think of the road
We’re traveling on
I wonder what went wrong
I can’t help it, I wonder what’s gone wrong

And I dreamed I was dying
And I dreamed that my soul rose unexpectedly
And looking back down at me
Smiled reassuringly
And I dreamed I was flying
And high above my eyes could clearly see
The Statue of Liberty
Sailing away to sea
And I dreamed I was flying

Oh, we come on the ship they call the Mayflower
We come on the ship that sailed the moon
We come in the age’s most uncertain hour
And sing an American tune
Oh, it’s all right, it’s all right
It’s all right, it’s all right
You can’t be forever blessed
Still, tomorrow’s going to be another working day
And I’m trying to get some rest
That’s all I’m trying to get some rest

© 1973 Words and Music by Paul Simon

Friday November 18, 2016 — Mark — culture walking

The Hope of Mendacity

I am grieving.

But I have hope. I hope that Donald Trump is as dishonest about his campaign promises as he seems to be about other things he has said in the past year. I hope he was lying about building the wall. I hope he was lying about deporting muslims. I hope he was lying about prosecuting his election opponent. I hope he was lying about restricting the free press. I hope he was lying about his proposed changes to our tax system. I hope he was lying about kicking millions of Americans off their health plan and returning to a time when it was impossible for some people who needed healthcare the most to access our market driven system.

Trump has empowered and excited a previously underground minority of bigoted white supremacists with his reckless rhetoric. But I have hope because they are still a minority. Though she is inexplicably unpopular, Hillary Clinton won more popular votes than Trump. I have to believe that some Trump voters were swayed by other factors than his support for white nationalism. So it’s likely that a majority of Americans are still more open minded and welcoming than the bigoted voters who came out strong for Trump.

Clearly, there are people who felt that they have been harmed by the changing global economy. And I empathize with them. But it surprises me that voters are so willing to support someone who is demonstrably uninterested actually solving in their problems in a meaningful and long-term way.

I heard one small spark of hope in Trump’s victory speech last night. He promised to embark on a renewal of our infrastructure, promising to put working class Americans back to work. It will be interesting to see if he can get Congress to enact the legislation to do this — a program like Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration is antithetical to the principles of the Republican party.

I am already looking to 2018 and the midterm election where Americans have an opportunity to right the ship and restore some order to government by electing a Democratic Senate and House. Those of us who believe in good government, a strong civil society, and the values of justice and equity have a responsibility to work together to make a change.

Today I mourn. Tomorrow I fight.

Wednesday November 9, 2016 — Mark — politics

Why I'm With Her

I was a strong supporter of Bernie Sanders. If I had to label myself, I’d say I’m a far left socialist democrat. I believe in tax policies that redistribute wealth. (See Picketty.) I favor a liberal social agenda, including: support for same sex marriage; a woman’s right to choose; and strong citizen oversight of police. I believe in single payer, nationalized healthcare. I favor the development of sustainable, low carbon emitting energy systems. I think big oil companies are responsible for a significant part of the damage to our environment. I favor major public (tax supported) investment in public transportation systems. I think public school facilities should be revitalized and redesigned to be so appealing that we have to force kids to leave at the end of the day. This would require significant investment of government funds. I am proud to be called a tax and spend liberal. I believe those policies are the recipe for making a country great.

I do not favor an incremental approach to creating a country that has the best schools, the best public transportation, the best national healthcare system. I believe the pathway to making America great again is to vote every Republican out of office and elect a president and congress who have the wisdom and political will to use the vast wealth that has accumulated in this country to build a civic system that benefits all Americans.

I did not initially support Hillary Clinton. I don’t believe it’s good for our country that we have only two families living in the White House for 28 out of 36 years. Hillary’s stated positions on many issues are to the right of my position. I believe she favors a more incremental approach to reaching the goal of a great society. I felt that Bernie’s approach was much more assertive, and there were lots of young voters who were energized by his campaign. I was as excited about the prospect of electing Bernie as I had been about electing Barack Obama.

Then came the primaries. Hillary (due to her strong relationship with the DNC) had a powerful structural advantage in the primary system. And despite a strong showing (better than I expected, frankly) Bernie did not prevail. Of course I mourned the defeat. And for several weeks I held off making a commitment to supporting Hillary.

The train wreck on the GOP side was entertaining at first. Was it really possible that they would choose a puerile, narcissistic buffoon as their nominee for President? And if they didn’t, the alternatives didn’t look so good for them either. The GOP debates had turned into a parody of political conversation. (Underscoring the fact that intelligent conservatives have lost control of the party.) As entertaining as it was, it was also frightening.

After the first “debate” between Hillary and Donald I finally found myself willing to openly support the Democratic nominee. The contrast was so stark, and the stakes so high that there is no real argument in my mind. I may be a far left liberal, but I am also pragmatic enough to realize that choosing the best option available to block a despot from becoming president means choosing Hillary.

So today, to my family and friends who were supporting Hillary all along, I say, “I’m with you, and I’m with her.” And I hope you’re with me and willing to push her to be the kind of president who will set us on a path towards a better America.

Vote, please, and when you vote, vote Democratic!

Saturday November 5, 2016 — Mark — politics

Good Things Come in Threes

On my walk to BART I enjoy the little interactions that help to brighten my day. Today I was successful in engaging with a couple of guys who I’ve been working on for a while. There are usually three guys sitting at the end of Lake Merritt across from the Veterans Memorial building. Dressed for jogging, they are always chatting amiably amongst themselves but my attempts to make eye contact and offer a greeting have been unsuccessful. As I get within greeting distance the member of the group who sits facing me as I walk by usually flicks his eyes away. Today, though, I caught his eyes and offered, “good morning!” He smiled and gave that, “good morning,” back to me.

That was enough to make my morning, but as I turned into the driveway of the building next to the Cathedral Of Light, I startled the security guard who had his back turned to me. He turned and snapped a quick smile and, “Good Morning!”

“Good morning! How are you,” I asked?

“Fantasic. And Getting Better,” he replied!

These two interactions would have been enough to carry me through the week. But after I got off BART, as I was approaching the intersection of California and Davis, I ran into my son Nate, who was walking with a co-worker to grab a cup of coffee. The trifecta!

Monday August 22, 2016 — Mark — walking encounter

The mixed blessing of information technology

Our son Justin is driving to Arkansas to catch up with his wife and children who flew to Little Rock this morning. They are artists with a small family, and making ends meet in the Bay Area became a significant challenge. Seeking an alternative, they’re moving to a house in a forest near Roland, AK.

I followed Justin’s solo road trip on Find Friends and was enjoying an occasional text exchange whenever he stopped for gas or to get out and stretch his legs. He pulled off at a rest stop on I-40 near Edwards Air Force Base and we caught up on his plans to try and make it as far as Flagstaff. He was making pretty good time, but I had suggested that he might want to think about stopping in Kingman. He would be there around 9:00 and it would be getting dark. He wanted to push on because he is really eager to reach his family. So around 9:00 I saw him arrive then continue on past Kingman. Then, about 9:30 his phone stopped updating in Find Friends. About 10 miles east of Kingman the app just started reporting he was last found 5 minutes ago. 10 minutes ago. 45 minutes ago. An hour ago.

Resisting the urge to panic, I first persuaded myself that the battery had probably died on his phone. Still not panicking, I figured I could at least check for traffic incidents on that stretch of highway on the Arizona Department of Transportation website. My eyes hit on a yellow incident icon was placed on I-40 between Kingman and Flagstaff. The description of the incident was maddeningly vague, which of course made me start to feel some pangs of anxiety. I copied the incident ID from the ADOT website and pinged their Twitter account, asking if they could provide more details:

@ArizonaDOT — any details about event ID 641554 on I-40 west of Seligman? I’m trying to find my son who was driving there 30-45 mins ago.

Within minutes they replied:

@mdh There’s a disabled vehicle on the shoulder that reportedly hit a pothole. No injuries are reported. A tow truck’s en route.

Even as I relaxed I wondered if it was Justin who hit the pothole. Then, a moment later, his iPhone updated it’s location.

Feeling a little foolish over having worried, I started to shut down for the night with a final tweet…

@ArizonaDOT Thanks. Moments after I tweeted you my son’s iPhone showed up in Flagstaff. He made it to his destination.

Love is powerful. After nearly 34 years I can’t break the habit of needing to know he is safe.

Thursday August 11, 2016 — Mark — living

Morning Encounter

I often see the same faces each day as a walk to BART along Grand Avenue. This morning, though, I saw a new face. He was walking with a lilt. Three of those little red straws you get in a coffee shop to stir in the cream were hanging out of his mouth. He was grinning and from about 25 feet away we caught each other’s eyes. I smiled.
“How you doin’, big dog,” he called?
“I’m doin’ great, how about you?”
“I’m great, too. Thanks for asking!”
We bump fists.
“It’s good to see you,” I say.
He smiles and we walk on.
15 steps later I hear him call out, “It’s good to see you too!”
I turn and flash him a thumbs up.
It’s a good way to start the day.

Wednesday August 10, 2016 — Mark — walking encounter

Adventures on BART

I’ve started commuting to San Francisco every day on BART. The last time this was a daily routine for me was in the early 90s when I was student at ACT. Back then it was unusual to be on a train with more people standing than sitting. In 2016, during the morning and evening commute hours, the trains are packed.

Today there was a young man on the train who looked different than most of the other commuters. His hair was unkempt. He was carrying a plastic Target bag. And he was moving around alot, so he had created a pocket of space around him that others on the train were trying to maintain. When we got to West Oakland station he made his way to the door and got off. But just as the doors were about to close he got back on. At this point there was no way to grant him the extra personal space he’d had before, so he reached over to grab onto the vertical bar next to the door to steady himself. This meant that he had to move very close to a woman who was also using that grab-bar. Their physical closeness at that moment appeared to make the woman a little uncomfortable, but she was facing away from him and seemed resolved to accept the circumstances.

This did not go over well with a short balding guy sitting several rows away. He stood up and stared intently at the situation, trying to get the attention of the other passengers standing around the young man and the woman who was cornered. He kept pointing as he tried to make eye contact, indicating that the passengers should do something to help the poor lady. Finally, just before the train pulled into the Embarcadero station, the woman closest to the pair realized what the bald guy was upset about and moved her body to make room for the trapped woman to work her way free of the young man.

The sad moment for me was making eye contact with the young, disheveled man. I couldn’t tell if the confusion in his gaze was his general state of being or if the interaction with the other passengers had triggered something. I tried to hold his gaze for a moment, but he looked away quickly.

Tuesday August 9, 2016 — Mark — culture living

Independence Day

When Thomas Jefferson wrote his first draft of the Declaration of Independence he included this in the list of complaints against King George:

he has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating it’s most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. this piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the CHRISTIAN king of Great Britain. determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce: and that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, & murdering the people upon whom he also obtruded them; thus paying off former crimes committed against the liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.

Obviously, this paragraph was problematic for the representatives of the states who were profiting from slavery (both for the southern states where slavery was the foundation of plantation culture, but also for northern states who profited from selling black humans to their southern neighbors). This paragraph could have set the stage for ending slavery in the creation of our new nation, but the delegates to the Continental Congress’ conflicting economic interests superseded Jefferson’s complaint against the king, and that paragraph was stricken from the declaration. The legally sanctioned, systematic degradation of black humans would continue for several generations before Abraham Lincoln finally signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. Some of us will acknowledge that the system of white supremacy that was rooted in the foundation of this nation did not end in 1863, and that white supremacy must be extinguished before we can truly celebrate “Independence Day.” I look forward, with hope, that this day comes soon.

Saturday July 4, 2015 — Mark — culture living

Memorial Day

One of the great challenges for a citizen of the United States is the intellectual gymnastics one must perform in reconciling our national ideals with our living reality. We are a nation committed to the ideals of freedom and equality, and the belief that justice and equity will prevail in all cases. We honor those individuals who have sacrificed their lives in the defense of these ideals, and Memorial Day is an occasion on which we redouble that honor. This, despite the fact that our nation often fails to live up to these ideals, and in some cases, those whom we honor have failed to live up to the ideals they claim to defend.

Last week a judge in Cleveland acquitted a veteran-turned-police officer who inexplicably felt it was his duty to leap on the hood of a citizen’s car and empty not one, not two, but three magazines of bullets into the already bullet riddled bodies of the two men in the car. The officer had chosen a bench trial, possibly assuming that a jury of his “peers” would not afford him the same leniency as a judge. What this judge proved as he twisted his way through a pre-verdict presentation is that justice is not just blind. In the United States, justice may also be deaf and mute. The judge determined that there was not enough evidence to hold this veteran accountable to the ideals of justice that the soldier presumably fought to defend in our country’s wars in foreign lands.

If this were a single, isolated incident of injustice, we might overlook it as an aberration. But this story of the Cleveland police officers who acted without honor, who violated nearly all the ideals we profess to hold dear, and the judge who excused them from responsibility for their acts of violence, is just the latest in a string of similar stories of the kind of inhumanity that seems to have taken root in police departments across the country.

If we hope to live in a free, just, and equitable society we may need to reexamine our uncritical reverence of those who claim to protect us. I have met police officers and soldiers who are worthy of the honor we bestow, and a blanket pardon for crimes against other humans would likely offend them as much as it offends me. So, on this Memorial Day, as we reflect on the service of those who died serving this country, let’s also remember the victims of state sanctioned violence — those who died at the hands of police officers. And if we really believe in the American ideology, let’s take a stand and say we won’t ignore the brokenness of a system that fails to treat all its citizens with justice and equity.

Monday May 25, 2015 — Mark —

Looking for Steve

Stephen Michael Morris

I went to bed Saturday night (August 2nd) thinking about getting up on Sunday morning and having an early brunch with my wife Anna, my brother Jon (visiting from Illinois) and my parents. Our plan was to eat at a nice place where our son, Justin, works. That plan changed when Anna woke me a little after midnight on Sunday morning. Her tone was urgent — “Steve is missing in the mountains.”

She was on the phone with her sister Carrie, and they were trying to figure out how to locate Steve’s iPhone with the Find My iPhone app. We tried several Apple ID and password combinations without success. Carrie had been in touch with the Trinity County sheriff, and they intended to start searching for Steve on Monday morning. The friends Steve had been camping with (near Stoddard Lake in the Trinity Alps) had already been back to the peak they had climbed earlier that day, looking for him. As we grew increasingly frustrated at being unable to find Steve’s phone (as it turns out, even if we knew the right Apple ID and password, there is no AT&T coverage anywhere near Billy’s Peak where Steve got separated from his friends) Anna and Carrie began to make their plans to drive up to the mountains.

Anna drove to Carrie and Steve’s house on Sunday morning, accompanied by our son Nate and his girlfriend Katherine. From there Anna and Carrie drove to Weaverville where they checked into a gloomy, dirty little motel that I had booked for them. (The motel had a 3.5 star rating on Tripadvisor. Apparently Tripadvisor isn’t a reliable rating service for little, off-the-beaten-path motels. When they first checked in they discovered that the sheets were dirty from the previous guests.) Fortunately, after a couple of nights they found a place to stay in Coffee Creek — a small house just up the road from the command center.

Steve MorrisInitially we had been given a story about how Steve got separated from his friends that was both confusing and misleading. We were getting information that was passed to us third and fourth hand. By Tuesday, after talking with Steve’s friends, Anna was able to share a clearer narrative of the events. Steve and three friends had hiked to the top of Billy’s Peak on Saturday morning from their campsite at Stoddard Lake. It took a couple of hours to climb over the rocky path from the lake up to the summit at about 7,300 feet. They reached the summit in the early afternoon. The smoke from the nearby Coffee Fire is visible in some of the photos taken at the summit. The men who were with him reported that Steve was in his element on the top of this mountain.

The climb up had been challenging and Steve thought there might be an easier, safer way down. Two of the hikers felt that they would feel safest returning by the same route by which they came, so they started back to camp. Steve and the other hiker, Bob, began looking for an alternate route, and they began to circle the peak, moving gingerly and carefully to look for another way down. Each of the men looked in a different direction, but they were never more than a short distance apart. Because of the terrain and jagged rocks they could not see each other. After a few minutes Bob returned to where the men had separated, expecting to find Steve, but Steve had not returned. Bob called out, but the wind and noise from the helicopters fighting the fires just a short distance from the peak seemed to drown out his call, nor could he hear any response from Steve. He continued to look, and call, but never again saw or heard Steve. He returned to the camp by the original route arriving there a short time after the other two hikers. It was still early afternoon so the group returned to the peak, and for a couple of hours continued looking for Steve, returning to their camp as the night grew dark.

Knowing that he had some water and a Power Bars, they might have hoped he would hunker down for the night, and find his way to camp in the morning when the sun came up. Two of the men walked out on the trail to a location where they could use their cell phones to contact the sheriff and report Steve’s situation. They also contacted the pastor of Steve’s church. (The men who were camping together were all members of the congregation’s men’s fellowship.) The men continued their search on Sunday.

By Monday morning the sheriff had activated a full scale search. A California Highway Patrol helicopter made several flights and searched in the areas where the men thought it was likely they would find Steve. (Mostly along the Southwest side of the ridge.) As the Coffee Fire on the other side of the valley (further to the South and West) continued to grow, the Forest Service asked the men in Steve’s party to leave their camp and return to the search command center in the tiny community of Coffee Creek at the eastern base of the mountain where Carrie and Anna had stationed themselves. The Marin Search and Rescue team was onsite and they and other searchers deployed to the mountain with dogs in search of Steve. The Marin Search and Rescue team is one of the most experienced and respected high mountain rescue teams in the state and they were led by Michael St. John, a battalion chief with the Mill Valley Fire Department. Initially they were approaching the mountain on foot, but by Tuesday the California National Guard had deployed helicopters to airlift the search teams to the top of the mountain so they could search more effectively and for a longer period of time each day. Searching with the assistance of trained dogs, the team covered all the terrain between Billy’s Peak and Lake Stoddard to the South West side of the ridge and the Minnehaha Creek drainage to the North-east, on the opposite side of the ridge from Lake Stoddard.

The search continued on Wednesday and into Thursday morning, with Matt Shargel (a middle school science teacher and member of the Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Search and Rescue Team) taking over the leadership of the search team from Mike St. John. Mike had to return to work. Anna’s respect and admiration for these two men is boundless. She speaks of their intensity, clarity, and sensitivity. Of their drive and passion for the work they do, and of their deep, heartfelt compassion. Working alongside the Trinity County sheriff’s department, the search teams are comprised of volunteers who take time away from their families and other work to respond to the call for searches like these. They gave selflessly and bravely to scour the mountain, and despite the many hours spent looking and calling, the searchers (numbering around a 100 altogether) turned up no evidence of Steve. A blue UC Berkeley Nalgene bottle and a nylon cap were the only things the team found — items left behind by other hikers, not by Steve. The rocky terrain along the ridge at Billy’s Peak did not reveal any bootprints or other evidence, and by mid-day Thursday, having covered the areas around Billy’s peak that could have been safely reached on foot, Matt began to form a theory about where Steve might be.

While the Trinity Alps wilderness area is large (821 square miles) the search field for Steve was relatively small, and there were roads within a couple of miles of the peak and the Stoddard Lake campsite in any direction Steve could have walked from the peak. If he had found a way down the mountain, even if he had minor injuries (sprained ankle, broken arm, etc.), it was likely he could have reached a roadway within a couple of days.

Matt’s theory is that while Steve and Bob were looking for a path down from Billy’s Peak, Steve may have lost his footing and fallen from the mountain. The decaying granite is extremely unstable, making even careful movement around the peak very dangerous. Bob and Steve were separated for a relatively short period of time, and Steve’s disappearance seems to have been very sudden. Matt’s theory is consistent with Bob’s description of the timeline on the mountain. Based on the terrain where Matt believes Steve might have slipped, it is possible Steve would not have survived the fall, and if he fell, it is likely that his body is lost in a rocky crevice, lodged where he cannot be seen from the ground.

Mid-day Thursday, having found no clues and with little evidence to support any other explanation than what Matt put forward, the decision was made to suspend the search. If any new evidence or information about Steve’s whereabouts or movement should surface, the team assured Carrie they would resume, and search until Steve is found. Anna and Carrie spent one last night in Coffee Creek and on Friday morning they began their journey home.

It has been a week since we first learned that Steve was separated from his friends. The intervening days have been filled with emotion. Deep sadness has given way to a realization that the family has lost a husband, father, brother, and uncle. If Matt’s theory is true, Steve died doing what he loved to do. He was on a mountain top, pushing the limits of his hiking skill. The last photograph of him shows him with a huge smile, gazing into the distance, wind at his face. His body may remain forever on this mountain, and we can think of no more fitting place for his final rest.

Sunday August 10, 2014 — Mark — California living

Too Precious

Back in the 1990s I had an idea. Actually, I can trace the early origins of the idea to 1980 when I lived in New York City. At that time, whenever I went out to dinner with friends I’d order a hamburger. Partly this was due to my limited cash resources. A burger was generally the affordable and filling option. I used to explain to my friends that a burger was a barometer of a restaurant’s quality. If the chef treated the burger as if it held a legitimate spot on the menu and put a decent expression of this humble meal on the table, it was a good sign that this restaurant was committed to good food.

In the 90s I encountered a book written by a friend, Don Knuth. His book 3:16: Bible Texts Illuminated posited that one could understand the whole of the bible by reading the sixteenth verse after the start of the third chapter of each book. His theory that a common sample of many texts could prove illuminating, revived my interest in the burger theory. Over the years I collected some notes on favorite burgers, and from time to time I flirted with writing a book about burgers, how they capture a chef’s humble side, and explore the theory that you can really know a restaurant’s gestalt by tasting its burger. I’m not convinced there’s an audience for such a tome, but I have a hard time shaking the urge to order burgers when I eat out.

Three years ago I decided to commit to a vegetarian diet, and to be completely honest, the most challenging part of this commitment was giving up hamburgers. I enjoyed being a vegetarian (pescetarian, actually) not only because I felt great, but also because there are lots of healthy vegetarian foods I enjoy that I ate more frequently. The draw of burgers was strong, though, and a few months ago I gave in. I still eat meat rather infrequently, and when I do indulge, it’s often for a burger. And I’ve revived my interest in exploring restaurants by their commitment to this simple sandwich.

Recently, Anna and I shared a meal at the new Umami Burger on Franklin Street in Oakland. Umami is a chain which has its roots in Southern California. I thought it would be fun to sample their fare so we stopped in early one evening for a taste. Before I describe that meal, I want to provide a little context about my burger preferences.

I have a few favorite burger places in the Bay Area. Trueburger in Oakland is one of my top choices. Their burgers are simple, straightforward classics, perfectly portioned and cooked juicy. Just enough of a bun to make eating possible without overpowering the sandwich. Trueburgers are made with quailty beef, ground on site. They are cooked to order, but prepared quickly. No pretense here. If you don’t want a tomato on your burger just say so. They’re happy to give you what you want. A trueburger is also a decent value. At $5.15 it’s as cheap or not much more expensive than burgers at various greasy neighborhood burger stands (Kwik Way, Ahn’s, Giant Burger). A real deal.

When I’m working in the City, I often grab a quick lunch at Super Duper Burger. Like Trueburger, this is a classic, straightforward burger. Lettuce, tomato, onion, and a small tasty Niman Ranch patty, cooked crispy on the outside, juicy on the inside. This is a two-napkin burger. I order the mini, which is a quarter-pound patty, priced at $4.75. This is a very tasty burger. If you visit Super Duper during happy hour you can get the burger, a beer and fries for $9.25.

Trueburger and Super Duper are essentially fast food joints. You order at the counter and the food comes out a few minutes later, on a tray. You find a spot for yourself in the dining area — bus your own tray, please. But the burgers are very satisfying and prepared with attention to detail, and a good value.

If you want to sit, order, and have your meal delivered, you can’t go wrong at Barney’s Hamburgers on Piedmont or College in Oakland. Barney’s isn’t much more expensive than Trueburger or Super Duper, and it’s also a decent alternative when you’re dining with a group. Burgers are around $7 to $9 — still a decent value. Barney’s offers lots of variations on a burger, and the Niman Ranch patty is a bit bigger than a Trueburger or Super Duper Mini burger.

So when we came to Umami, our expectations were shaped by a fairly positive experience with local burger restaurants. I should start by saying that we enjoyed the flavors of our Umami burgers. Anna had some sort of Turkey burger. I ordered Umami’s “Manly Burger.” I can forgive the fact that the burger was overly salty — several of the ingredients were contributors: the salty onion strings, and the bacon lardon contribute sodium, and I’m sure the cook salted the burger patty as well. The taste wasn’t unpleasant, but it was a very small burger, it’s diminutive size emphasized by the fact that there was nothing decorating the plate. Just a small burger surrounded by a sea of white porcelain. This was a $10 burger, small by comparison to Barney’s options, and not even as tasty as a $4.75 Super Duper Mini. (The Mini might actually be a little more filling than the Umami burger.) Anna and I shared a very small kale caesar salad, each of us had a beer, and we each had a small burger. The check was over $50. We didn’t even have fries with our burgers.

What made the evening especially interesting, though, was overhearing the conversation at the table next to ours. Our server turned to our neighbor to take his order. He asked about the Beer Cheddar cheese which was served on the burger that he wanted. He told the waiter that he didn’t drink and would like to substitute a different cheese. She initially agreed and went to the kitchen to turn in the order. She was back in a few minutes with the bad news: “No, the kitchen will not be able to switch the cheese on that burger,” she said and then offered some sort of explanation about the integrity of the menu and the chef’s wisdom about pairing cheeses, bacon, and other ingredients into a subtle symphony of flavors that was the essence of an Umami burger. She held her ground as the patron redoubled his effort to make the change, finally suggesting that the chef leave off the Beer Cheddar on the burger he was ordering, and then he ordered an additional burger with the cheese he wanted, so that he could scrape that cheese of the second burger and put it on the burger he intended to eat.

Anna and I were blown away. This is a hamburger restaurant! And unless I’m totally uninformed, Umami doesn’t have a Michelin star. I realize that there is a faction in the food industry that treats preparing and eating food as high art, but there’s a point where taking yourself too seriously wanders into the realm that another friend, English professor Dave Crowe, calls “too precious.”

We won’t be going back to Umami.

UPDATE: Here are some other interesting thoughts about burgers.

Sunday August 4, 2013 — Mark — food culture

Taking Stock of 2012

I haven’t blogged much in the past year, and what I did write was not totally focused on Oakland. But I do want to get back to blogging about Oakland as the year wraps.

I love Oakland. From where we live we can look out our windows and see Lakeside Park and Children’s Fairyland, the Port of Oakland, the Oakland hills, San Francisco Bay, and our immediate neighborhood, Adams Point. From our vantage point, sunsets over uptown are beautiful, casting a glow on the city that masks the gut-wrenching reality that visits so many of Oakland’s neighborhoods. Anna and I celebrated our 31st wedding anniversary a couple days ago, on a day that Oakland experienced it’s 128th, 129th, and 130th homicides of the year.

Oakland is praised by the New York Times for our emerging foodie culture while Bloomberg reports on Oakland’s high crime, loss of police, and bad financial dealings with the Oakland Raiders. We have a mayor who was elected by getting the most second or third choice votes. Our school district is struggling with shrinking enrollment. Port directors are accused of partying with hookers on the city’s dime. And yet, when people ask me where I live, I’m proud to report I live in Oakland.

So many good things have happened here in the last year. A twitter friend, Rebecca Saltzman, @RebeccaForBART, won election to the BART board, and I’m hopeful she’ll help make the system more accessible and economically sustainable. My good friends at Great Oakland Public Schools have been working to influence Oakland’s school leadership in a positive way. The restoration of the Lake Merritt walking path and the restoration of the lake’s connection to the estuary continues. The A’s pulled ahead of the Rangers on the last day of the season to win the pennant. Producers Associates theatre staged its 46th season of musical theatre in a jewell of FDR’s WPA, the Woodminster Amphitheater, dedicated to California writers. The redwood forests continue to stand in majestic beauty.

As the year ends and our country continues to grapple with the plague of gun violence, I feel compelled to share a few things I learned from my students earlier this month. For some children in Oakland, gunshots are a percussive punctuation to the rhythm of life in their neighborhoods. Some of my students laugh when they talk about how quickly they hit the floor or start to run when they hear shots around them, but I know the laughter is put on to mask their real fear. When I was sitting with one of them the other day, he asked me if I had ever seen or been around a shooting. I admitted that I had not. He looked at me seriously and quietly for a moment before saying that it was something that made him deeply afraid and he hoped he survived long enough to escape his community.

After the shootings of first graders in Newtown, Connecticut, several students in my classes shared their feelings of frustration over what they perceived as a disproportionate reaction to those killings. “Everyone is sad because those were rich young white kids,” said one. “Why don’t we have a moment of silence for the people who died here in Oakland,” asked another. It’s true that the terror of a mass shooting catches the national attention in a way that the killing of people on the streets of Oakland doesn’t. Five times as many people were murdered in Oakland in 2012 as died in Newtown on that day. Oakland is a place where breathtaking beauty meets heartbreaking reality. As we begin a new year, I hope our community can find ways to break the cycle of violence.

On a bittersweet personal note, 2012 is the year I say goodbye to my colleagues at Edna Brewer. While I loved being in the classroom and building relationships with the students who I served at Brewer, I found the bureaucracies of the school district, the teacher’s union, and especially the special education department increasingly frustrating. My plans for a new approach to serving special education students at Brewer were scuttled at the last minute when PEC (OUSD’s special education department) re-assigned me to two sites just days before the first day of school. That reassignment was rescinded, but only after it was too late to follow through with my plans. Frustrated by this and other idiosyncrasies of working for a department that seems out of touch with its primary mission, I chose to accept an offer to return to my work in software design and development. This new position combines my previous experience with my newly gained interest and experience in education. I’ll be working on staff for Teach For America, developing tools for teachers to track and foster student achievement. Fortunately I’ll be able to remain in Oakland, and able to stay in touch with the students who deeply impacted my life.

Saturday December 29, 2012 — Mark — community

Certified Letters

I got a pair of certified letters last Saturday transferring me to two school sites for the 2012-13 school year. It wasn’t a complete surprise. Ever since someone in Oakland’s special education department (called Programs for Exceptional Children) made a multimillion dollar accounting error, PEC has been frantically trying to solve its budgeting crisis by reducing its human resources. The first response was to fire all of the program specialists — a group of teachers who work outside the classroom to provide support to the school-site special education teachers. Most of them were rehired a few weeks later.

The second response was to reassign and expand the case-loads of a bunch of resource specialists — teachers who provide services to students who primarily remain in general education classes but who need additional support to be successful in their classes. In many cases (like mine) the reassignment took the form of splitting a teacher’s week between two schools instead of one. About a third of OUSD’s resource specialists were sent transfer notices like the one I received on Saturday. Now, instead of just being responsible for students at Edna Brewer, I’ll also need to serve students at Westlake Middle School. Last year there were four resource specialists between these two school. This year there will be three, and I will shuttle back and forth between the sites.

What was bizarre about the letter was the rationale that was given: “As you are aware, student needs change, and we must ensure that we meet their needs promptly and fully.” It’s certainly true that student needs change — every day is a new challenge for many of the kids I serve. But the issue that triggered this transfer has nothing to do with student needs, and everything to do with the massive, avoidable, accounting error made by PEC administration.

It’s absurd to claim that my transfer will ensure that the district is better able to meet student needs promptly and fully. The students in the resource program at these two schools will now have three teachers instead of four serving their needs. That’s a 25% reduction in resources. The aide who supported students at Edna Brewer last year will also be split between the two campuses — another 25% reduction in available resources. PEC is disturbingly confused about how to “promptly and fully” serve student needs.

The fact that this decision was made without teacher input and announced a few days before the beginning of the school year also meant canceling a special program that I have been designing for my students. I had been designing a class that would have targeted students who need a program that draws on their existing skills and interests. Many of the students in our program have struggled in school for so many years that they have lost their enthusiasm for learning. The program I had designed, with input from my students, was intended to help rekindle their curiosity and reinvigorate their love for school.

Katy Murphy wrote about this situation on her blog yesterday, and several teachers have left comments. My situation is not unique, and in some ways, less disruptive to student needs than some of my colleague’s situations. It’s extremely disheartening to treated like a widget. PEC’s decision, made without regard for the relationships and programs that exist at many schools, is disrespectful of resource teachers, students, and of the staff at the affected school sites.

The school board meets tonight, and I think a few resource teachers will be attending in hopes of sharing our frustration over PEC’s ham-fisted handling of their self-inflicted crisis. PEC has a new director, hired over the summer to replace the director who presided over the accounting error. If this is an indication of our new director’s leadership style, we’re in for a rocky ride.

UPDATE: I just got a third copy of the certified letter. I guess they really want me to know they’re serious.

UPDATE 2: I went down to the school board meeting to ask politely to have my transfer rescinded. When I got there, three of my colleagues were already there. They read a letter which many of the staff at Edna Brewer had signed. I was so grateful. Perhaps there is hope — apparently many of the transfers have been rescinded over the past couple of days.

Wednesday August 22, 2012 — Mark — Education Schools

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