Vessel Tonita

It’s been a frenzy of a week with Napa Valley Film Festival this weekend and stockpiling stories for my upcoming trip to Cuba. When I plopped down at my desk Monday morning there was an interesting email waiting in my inbox. My editor had forwarded me a note from one of our sources at the harbor: someone sunk another person’s boat days before crab season opener. It’s a tumultuous time at the harbor and sabotage is somewhat common.

I knew this would be terrible news for a fisherman but I didn’t suspect within the hour I’d be sitting with him and his wife by their now empty berth and hearing their tearful story. The piece on vessel Tonita has made it into my quips this week because the encounter posed a reporting challenge. I had to show compassion while also being aware that this guy could be lying. He could have had it coming like some of the men at the harbor bar would later tell me.

Regardless, there I was at the docks. The Review’s photographer was shooting pictures of the boat, with the mast protruding from the water, as Coast Guard folks scurried about. I approached the couple totally unsure what to expect. In similar circumstances I’ve been told to basically go screw myself.  Fishermen can be a bit temperamental. But this couple was different. To be honest, their openness surprised me.  It was also a relief. It was one of those moments where I was writing so fast to capture this poor man’s words while trying to simultaneously look into his eyes to maintain the humanity of the conversation. He was sitting on some turned over box or plastic crate. At one point I realized that our eyes weren’t level so I sat cross-legged on the wood slabs of the dock. It felt like it would even the playing field and diffuse that weird reporter/source power dynamic that can get wonky.

I bring up the story because I wonder how much this sort of positioning/power dynamic actually changes the encounter. Did he say anything — or go to an emotional place — he wouldn’t have had I stayed towering above him?

Then when he started crying, I kind of put my hand on his knee. What am I doing touching this guy’s leg? I donno. It just felt like the thing to do. But now I question it.

Monday’s story at the harbor makes me think about how I interact with sources. Part of me thinks they are sources first, part of me thinks they are people first.

Making time to write

There seems to always be an excuse why it’s not a convenient time to write.  Often this hesitance comes because I’ve spent much of my day writing, or better said, preparing for the writing stage (i.e. reporting.)

What ever happened to the days of writing for the sake of writing? In college, I’d sneak off during a lull in the school week to capture a moment. It was admittedly a self conscious exercise. I pictured myself reading from the journal as a grown up, allowing the writing to bring about a nostalgic recreation of that moment’s colors, smells, the excitement. These moment weren’t always the most poignant – though sometimes they were — and they were rarely as well thought out as I’d like. For the most part, they are raw moments I’ve tried to capture in a few pages.

I bring this up because I’d like to use this website as a sort of young reporter’s journal. There’s a point in a cub reporter’s first year or so when the formula of news writing is no longer awkward. It begins to kind of pour out without all that much thought. There are certain phrases we turn to without much thought. “Expressed concern,” comes to mind. Sure, this lingo is widely accepted, and, in fact, expected, but it also seems knee-jerk, tired and lacking creativity.

Swing to the other side, the “creative” side and you come off as trying to hard. (Quite a vulnerable position for a writer to be in, actually.)

Really what we’re aiming for here is simplicity, economy and elegance. I also aspire to throw in a healthy dose of sass.

I’ve gotten a bit off topic from my intention of posting about making time to write. For whatever reason, I’ve needed to let my mind  — and finger tips —wander to the topic of style. Why? Let me try to make that connection: I find it difficult to sit down and write because I must shift among the amorphous lines of news writing, blogging, journaling and letter writing and somehow recover my voice in the process.

Like most things, I bet this is one of those muscles that just needs to be exercised.

Journalistic hand holding

Digging around the Review’s archives last week for stories to submit to the California Newspaper and Publishers Association contest, I found quite a few pieces that would have been promising had I gone a step further.  You know the step that requires you to make that extra call? Find that last perspective? Add the graph that gives it wider context?

Often the wider context seems painfully obvious at the time. Sometimes it feels like I’m connecting the dots for readers who presumably know the basics of what’s going on outside Half Moon Bay. Paging through the archives, it was obvious that a few months, or even a year, can dim the timeliness of such stories. So my thought is to plug in those extra graphs in the top third of the story, even though writing them feels like hand holding. Maybe some of my hesitation is because it’s sometimes awkward to weave such “wider-context” blurbs into the fabric of an otherwise local story.

Some weeks, writing nine or 10 is an overwhelming task. Truth be told, for the five or so stories that beg for those “extra steps,” it’s just a matter of calling up an expert at Stanford, or googling around for a national news story that articulates the wider trend.

The Amazon vs. Chevron – An indigenous plea and a toxic legacy

Priscilla Queen of the Dessert, the bio-diesel bus, is whizzing down the freeway in the drizzle. About 20 activists in sopping fleece jackets sit inside on lumpy cushion seats that have probably carried protesters since the late 1960s. It’s about 7:30 a.m. and they sip coffee, pass around dried mango slices and sign over-sized cardboard petitions that, in a few hours, will hit the desks of Chevron’s top executives. Emergildo Criolo, who sits shoulder-to-shoulder with activists from Rainforest Action Network and Amazon Watch, has been up for three hours.

Criolo is an indigenous man visiting California from Ecuador’s rainforest. He woke early to dress in his tradional Cofan garb and to paint his face with customary red markings. Then he sat and thought about his responsibility representing four Amazonian tribes. “I wanted to think about what we were going to do and make sure I was in the right head space,” Criollo says through a translator. He says oil drilling in Ecuador’s rainforest from 1964 to 1992 killed two of his sons and nearly took his wife.

Partnered with an Ecuadorean oil company called Petraecuador, Texaco left 17 million gallons of crude oil spills, 917 unlined crude pits and dumped 18 billion gallons of toxic waste, according to ChevronToxico, an environmental campaign for justice in Ecuador. Over the years, Texaco and Petraecuador produced about 1.7 billion barrels of oil. When Chevron bought Texaco in 2001, the company inherited the burden of tens of thousands of Ecuadorians claiming their water supplies are poisoned and more than 1,400 of their people dead because of the oil mess.
Today Criollo is going to the home of Chevron’s new CEO John Watson to deliver a petition with over 325,000 signatures of people from 150 countries urging Chevron to clean up the oil giant’s toxic legacy. John Watson took over the position at the beginning of this year. As part of his new job, Watson must also deal with the largest environmental lawsuit in the company’s history. Thirty-five thousand Ecuadorans filed a $27.3 billion lawsuit against Chevron, but the oil company begrudgingly disputes this as a corrupt figure. Chevron recently produced information showing that, “the author of a report recommending that Chevron be ordered to pay $27 billion in damages is the majority owner of an oilfield remediation company that stands to gain financially from a judgment against Chevron.”
“It’s been 16 years of legal process,” Criollo told San Francisco Chronicle. “People are still dying. They’re sick. So we’re really hoping this new CEO takes a new position.”
Criollo exits the bus in Lafayette, CA and makes his way to the intersection of Deer Hill and Happy Valley Roads for a photo opportunity. A videographer from Rainforest Action Network and members of the press photograph a stoic yet unassuming Criollo as he stands in a cotton shirt and pants at the signpost in the light rain. The documentation is important so that Criollo’s people can witness his actions, one activist explains. But, critics argue these types of “camera-friendly” events are more stage shows than substance.

A swarm of activists and the press follow Criollo as he walks for about a mile over the wet road to deliver his message to Watson’s home. He rings the intercom doorbell at the CEO’s front gate. He stands for 15 minutes at the front gate, telling the intercom system of the havoc Chevron wrecked on his home.

To little surprise, Watson doesn’t invite Criollo in for a cup of coffee. By the time Criollo leaves a few voice messages, two cop cars speed onto Watson’s property and politely tell the group to leave.

Criollo was six years old when Texaco came to Ecuador. “They arrived in these big helicopters that looked like big birds,” he says. “We hid because we didn’t know what they were.” About three months later, young Criollo remembers walking into a Texaco worker’s camp while selling jewelry. He greeted the American senior oil executives and the oil drillers. They responded by lifting the flap of the traditional wrapping he wore around his waist in order to check his gender. From then on, Criollo gave up dressing in the customary garment and started wearing pants. This was his first encounter with the oil giants.

It’s approaching 10:00 a.m. and Priscilla is loaded up again and driving the few miles to Chevron’s headquarters in San Ramon, CA. Han Shan of Amazon Watch says he’s proud of the people on the bus. “I’m inspired by people like Emergildo and those from Ecuador’s rainforest who’ve sounded the alarm to ask for solidarity from us,” he says.
“We’re trying to build a grassroots movement of support for something that ultimately rippled out of California,” Shan says of America’s responsibility in outsourcing oil drilling. “We need to take responsibility for this California company.”
By quarter after ten, everyone’s lining up in Priscilla’s center aisle to exit the bus. Armed with a loud speaker and big colorful photographs of Ecuadorans impacted in their oil-saturated rainforest, the activists are ready to take on Chevron.
Criollo, his interpreter Mario Ramos and Mitch Anderson from Amazon Watch are the last to get off the bus and they make their way to Chevron’s entry kiosk. Chevron has been expecting the group. Through the glass, the security guards are busy making phone calls and lots of exaggerated gesticulation.
Only Criollo and the two others are allowed into the headquarters’ main building to talk with top officials. Security keeps everyone else outside. Meanwhile, the activists form a semi-circle on a grassy patch in front of the headquarters’ entrance. They make cell phone calls to the executives inside, read off the names of petition signers and impacted Ecuadorean. Several belt their manifestos into the loudspeaker as passing cars honk in support.

Later, after returning from the trip inside, Mitch Anderson describes the Chevron executives’ “disingenuous” empathy during the meeting. After Criollo told his story, Anderson says Chevron said his problem was with Petroecuador and that Chevron had already cleaned up its portion of the mess “They won’t say Texaco did a bad job in Ecuador. Texaco was supposed to clean 40 percent of the spill because they owned 40 percent of the drilling operation. But they did a remedial job of covering oil with dirt.”
Chevron didn’t respond to several requests for comment, but here is the section of their site that addresses their role in Ecuador and here is a video on Chevron’s YouTube channel indicating a $3 million bribery scheme implicating the judge ruling over the lawsuit in Ecuador.
Summing up Chevron’s ethics and litigation strategy about the $27 billion environmental lawsuit, last May Chevron spokesman Donald Campbell told reporter John Otis that, if Chevron loses, they would appeal. “We’re going to fight this until hell freezes over,” he said. “And then we’ll fight it out on the ice.”

The lawsuit is playing out in an Ecuadoran court in Lago Agrio and the judge is expected to have a ruling by the end of the year.

Hummer's fate as a Chinese Humdinger

Each day this week seemed to bring news about the fate of Hummer, America’s polluting elephant in the room. Early in the week it seemed that an obscure Chinese machinery company called Sichuan Tengzhong would buy the General Motors marque for $150 million.

But as it turned out, Tengzhong couldn’t get its act together. Chinese banks withdrew lending offers and American banks are weary of becoming involved. Tengzhong even tried to go through a subsidiary outside China to buy Hummer, according to Chinese media.“The deal is on the ropes, if it’s not on the canvas yet,” Michael Dunne, the president of a Hong Kong auto consulting firm told The New York Times.Hummer-H2-rear

Also, the Chinese government didn’t approve regulation for the deal. Why, you might ask? The New York Times reports, that it’s in large part because “senior Chinese officials are trying to put a new emphasis on limiting China’s dependence on imported oil and protecting the environment.”

And to think that in the early days of the Iraqi war, the Hummer epitomized pro-America. Now that sustainability is on our radar, it would seem that things have changed. Now everyone wants in on a piece of the sustainability pie.

As of Wednesday, the bid is off. Hummer could be destined for the junkyard. A New York Times editorial said, “We suspect the deal collapsed because the Chinese Communist Party — which rarely shows much shame — is worried about China’s image as the most polluting nation on the planet.”
GM said it would shut down Hummer after the Tengzhong’s bid collapsed.

Then on Thursday, Hummer had a come-back when news broke that GM contacted four Chinese companies to gauge interest in the brawny military-derived SUV.

It’s unlikely a Chinese firm will buy the entire unit, analysts said, but the firms may only be interested in buying parts of Hummer’s assets (i.e. tooling and equipment at Hummer’s Louisiana factory.)

In response to GM’s announcement, Detroit Free Press joshed that “flags across oil-rich Saudi Arabia were lowered to half-mast while the entire Exxon/Mobil board of directors were seen at a group grief counseling session. On Wall Street, oil speculators were jumping from windows while in Michigan, some people were mourning the possibility of a world without Hummers.”

Photo: All Right Released.

Biological Clocks Keep on Ticking, What’s a Girl To Do?

photo credit: Flickr's batcavernaTick-tock, tick-tock. Listen carefully, ladies. That’s the sound of our quickening biological clocks telling us that we’ll lose around 90 percent of our eggs by age 30. As it turns out, we can’t dilly-dally around baby-making for as long as we thought.

Right when we’re starting to get a handle on juggling life/work balance, yet another study pummels us with conflicting messages about what we should be doing? We’ve forged through three waves of feminist politics for equal access to equal opportunities and it would be a pity to get this far to be outfoxed by something as trivial as “fertility.” Dammit, I WANT TO DO IT ALL, and why shouldn’t I?

But, before a foot-stomping temper-tantrum takes the best of me, let’s step back a moment.

As it turns out, that remaining ten percent (around 30,000) of viable eggs, are sufficient for making a baby. You might have to kiss good-bye that quaint notion of relying on good, ol’-fashioned fertility, and instead concoct your bundle of joy in a petri-dish. But, why not? Modern medicine has given people new knees, unclogged their hearts, and done wonders for erectile dysfunction. In most respects, we’ve kissed goodbye the notion of au-naturel to accept a happy medium between nature’s path and science’s convenience. Infertility technology is one way to achieve the ultimate goal: A healthy child.

Women are waiting longer to have children. More precisely, we’re waiting until around age 26.5, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. This is nearly six years later than in 1970.

Society has certainly changed. But reproductive endocrinologist Robert Stillman told The Washington Post, “ovaries will take another million years or two to catch up to that.”

But since high-powered women don’t exactly want to wait another million years for mother nature to catch on, we’re left with what Carolyn Butler from The Washington Post describes as “balancing the personal, primal urge to partner up and procreate with worthwhile social goals such as pursuing higher education and a successful career — not to mention economic stability.”

Do you think women should push our ears to the ground and listen to mother nature’s fertility message or freeze youthful eggs and get back to the board meeting?

image credit of Parent Map Magazine, May 2007

The 39/19/33 Computer Scientist: Barbie Gets a New Job

In case you didn’t hear, Barbie’s into roll play.

Admittedly, I was that sexually curious little kid who stripped my dolls of their clothes to pretend they were doing the nasty; in all seriousness, Barbie gets around. But not in the way you might think.

Mattel’s darling blonde bombshell just switched jobs for the 125th time in fifty years. She’s been every thing from a police officer to an aerobics instructor and now…(cue drum roll)… she will be a news anchor and, this is the best one: a computer scientist!

She really does it all, doesn’t she? And, all the while, looking so good.

The “dismantle the patriarchy” angel on my shoulder just whispered something to me about how I should actually feel sorry for Barbie. Supposedly she suffers from “super woman” syndrome, a cultural backlash that infects women with an urge to be everything to everyone and leave no time for themselves? Whatever that means.

But the corporate folks at Mattel claims the “I Can Be…” Barbie serves a purpose to girls as they grow. “Role play becomes real play,” the PR dude says. “ They’re able to experience this amazing world of possibility and imagination, all without leaving home!” To be fair, in her days as an astronaut Barbie landed on the moon four years before any man walked its surface. In the 1980s, she broke the “plastic ceiling” when she took to the boardroom as “Day to Night” CEO Barbie. She even ran for president before Hillary Clinton—the ultimate Super Woman—ever made it onto the ballot. Co-option-much? No! Never.

All this on-the-job experience has made Barbie an excellent networker. To celebrate her 125th career this year, she’s launched a global campaign to inspire girls by partnering with The White House Project and Take Our Daughters And Sons To Work Foundation. The taking kids to work thing makes sense, but what is The White House Project? That could be anything…

As it turns out, The White House Project is working to ignite a national movement to encourage the next generation of female leaders. Okay, okay. I can go with that. But then we get to this: the project’s mission is “add women, change everything.”

Has the “add under-represented groups and stir” approach ever worked? I guess it’s up to Barbie to decide. She seems to be calling all the shots around here these days.

Commercial Culture Wars

You might want to schedule your beer refills and bathroom breaks during the actual game this year because word on the street is Super Bowl commercials will be as juicy as ever this time around.

As it turns out, more people tune in for Super Bowl ads than for the actual football game (51 percent compared to 49 percent), according to a Nielsen Co. survey from last month.

The coveted 39-second commercial slots go for as much as $2.8 million, down from $3 million last year. CBS had companies vying for the 45 minutes of ad space, but the network has the last say on what gets in.

It’s pretty clear why an ad of a man running over a woman for a bag of Doritos chips didn’t make the cut, but why not a commercial for a gay dating site that shows man-on-man action? A little out there for football watchers, perhaps.

The most controversial ad centers around a certain A-word that shall not be named. (okay, I give in… “a-bor-tion.”)

The incensing ad supposedly features Florida Quarterback Tim Tebow’s mother Pam talking about how, while pregnant with Tim, doctors advised her to abort the fetus because of expected fetal damages. Pam ignored the warnings and had the baby that would grow up to be a professional football player.

One point for the pro-life side.

But, wait, before you flip the score card…this just in: While pregnant, Mrs. Tebow was living in the Philippines where abortion is illegal. Will the commercial admit the fact that abortion wasn’t technically an option for Mrs. Tebow?

Women’s rights advocate and attorney Gloria Allred said the Focus on the Family advocacy ad would be misleading if it didn’t include all the details of the story.

And president of Women’s Media Center Jehmu Greene quipped on Fox News that “This is clearly a thinly veiled attempts to undermine a woman’s right to make reproductive rights.”

Planned Parenthood retaliated with an ad that references the Tebow commercial with former Viking Sean James and Olympic gold medalist Al Joyner saying they “respect and honor” Mrs. Tebow’s choice and that only women can make the best decisions about their health and their futures. “We’re working towards the day when every woman’s decision about her health and her family will be respected […] We celebrate our families by trusting women.”

One point for the pro-lifers.

But, before we get ahead of ourselves, how about a reality check?

No one has seen the ad yet. Focus on the Family hasn’t even released the script to anyone but CBS, who contradicting a longstanding policy to not run advocacy ads, approved the segment.

Planned Parenthood hasn’t bought any commercial time to air their public service announcement and a spokesperson for the organization said it felt their money was better spent on its health centers.

Though CBS plans to run the Tebow ad, the network nixed one for the Internet domain service The company’s “Lola” ad racked up nearly 190,000 views on YouTube. It features a flamboyant football retire turned lingerie tycoon frolicking around with undressed women, pursing his lips at all the right moments.

And an ad by a gay-dating site that depicts two male sports fans cheering—and kissing—after a touchdown also won’t appear during the Super Bowl. Despite over 540,000 YouTube views, CBS rejected the ManCrunch commercial.

Doritos is better off not running this ad. Running people over in your car to get a bag of chips isn’t funny.

But CBC may have had its head up its ass on this one. This KGB directory assistance ad is funny, right?