The Eastern Shore #13 and #14

Two more recent shows to mention here on the ol’ blog. For TES #13, I spoke to Chinwe Okona and Spenser Cooper from Oaklandish, Oakland’s homegrown retailer of apparel and civic pride. We talked about how the company got to where it is now, how it’s growing beyond Oakland via There There, and how they work to live up to local values while fostering local pride and identity. Also discussed: how I am bad at marketing, where to sit when working at a computer, and whether XXXXM is a size.

And on TES #14, I had a great conversation with Jim O’Brien. Jim’s an Oakland-based writer who maintains a blog called Ice City Almanac. For the past four years, he’s written there and occasionally in San Francisco Magazine about violence and its civic & personal aftermath in Oakland. He’s reporting deeply & sensitively on a difficult topic and telling important stories.  We talked about the violence prevention community he’s reported on, why he started this work, and his thoughts on the intersection of violent crime and city politics.

You might also notice that the podcast now has a new URL of its very own: TESpodcast.com. You can update your feeds if you like, but the old URLs should all keep working just fine.

The Eastern Shore #11 and #12

Hadn’t mentioned these on the blog yet — though I’m not sure how many people end up at the podcast from here. I had two really good conversations recently. TES #11 was a chat with Oakland restaurateur Jay Porter, who was first on the show back in June. Since then, Jay has opened a restaurant in Fruitvale called the Half Orange, and still has plans for a second on Market at 42nd Street. We caught up about how things are going with the restaurant, his involvement in the Eat Real Festival, and his thinking about Oakland’s upcoming minimum wage increase ballot measure.

TES #12 was with Oakland-based artist Sue Mark. Sue’s work turns local history and local culture into public artworks and performance pieces that help capture the unique story of a place. She’s worked locally and internationally, and we talked about her experiences in Bulgaria, Germany, and Portugal, as well as what she’s up to now in Oakland. Sue has a lot of insight into what it takes to make a living as an artist, and we talked about what makes that challenging and how she addresses it.

Having good guests makes it a lot easier to have good conversations. Listen, subscribe, and let me know what you think, and if you know someone that I should have on the show, tell me! I’m always looking for interesting East Bay people to talk to.

The Eastern Shore #10: Eat Real Festival

On The Eastern Shore on September 1, 2014, I talked with Ally DeArman, event manager of Oakland’s Eat Real Festival and programs manager at the Food Craft Institute. We discussed the festival’s history, what you can find there this year, where it might go in the future, and how Ally and her team are working to support the local food system in the East Bay. Scarf down the latest episode, and subscribe while you’re at it.

Ways to Shut That Whole Thing Down

An adaptation of this ran on KQED as a “Perspectives” segment on Tuesday, September 9.

A little over two years ago, Missouri Congressman and Senate candidate Todd Akin made a fool and a national punchline of himself by suggesting that, if a woman is raped, her body has magical defenses that kick in to prevent pregnancy. While arguing that rape exceptions to abortion restrictions are a distraction, Akin said:

It seems to me, first of all, from what I understand from doctors, [pregnancy from rape is] really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down. But let’s assume that maybe that didn’t work, or something. You know, I think there should be punishment, but the punishment ought to be on the rapist, and not attacking the [fetus].

I’ve always particularly enjoyed that little “but let’s assume” bit. Yes, let’s consider, just hypothetically, that your nonscientific bunk theory about the mind-reading powers of a woman’s uterus doesn’t pan out.

Akin’s election-sealing stumble came to mind recently when I read a story from my alma mater, North Carolina State University. Four enterprising undergrads (#yesallmen) [edit: they are recent graduates, not undergraduate students] have developed a nail polish that changes color when exposed to certain “date rape” drugs.1 They’ve also founded a company to sell this nail polish: “Undercover Colors.” Swirl your finger in your drink, ladies, and find out if it’s been dosed. Their product is, in a sense, attempting to give the female body a way to try to shut that whole thing down.

I saw my first notices about this when it was shared by several fellow NCSU alumni on Twitter and Facebook. One of the four students behind the product is in the scholarship program that I was a part of at NC State, and that program’s official Twitter account also got in on the fun with this little interaction with NYT columnist Nick Kristof, who had shared a link to a story about the nail polish. It turns out that the program had awarded an enrichment grant to one of the company’s co-founders “to support a portion of the team’s research efforts.” This had all the makings of a call-out in the coming year’s annual report to Park Scholarship donors and supporters.

By now, lots of other people have already pointed out the problem with Undercover Colors. It places the responsibility to prevent rape on the victim, and from there it’s a quick step to blaming the victim when it happens. Oh, you were drugged and raped after a night out? Should have been wearing your special drug-detecting top coat — and probably also a prairie dress and veil, to be extra safe. You can never do too much to stop men from raping you.

The lack of special nail polish does not cause rape. Rapists do.

When I was a student at NC State, I didn’t think much at all about sexual assault: about the way we talk about it, the problem of victim-blaming and where we put responsibility for prevention. If you’d told me about this nail polish 10 or 12 years ago, I probably would have thought it was a good idea. So I don’t want to condemn too directly the young men who created the product and are now, as per the American Way, attempting to profit from their creation.

What troubles me most is the apparent lack of adult supervision. These students developed this product and started this company with the support of professors and advisors at the University. They won funding (and publicity) last spring from the University’s Entrepreneurship Initiative, through a multi-round competitive process. I already mentioned the Park Enrichment Grant given to one of the company’s co-founders in direct support of the development of their product. Those grants are also awarded competitively by a committee of professors and alumni.

There were plenty of opportunities for someone to say, “Hey, guys, maybe this isn’t a good idea.” I understand that projects of all kinds develop momentum, and it becomes difficult — both practically and emotionally — to be the person who steps in front of the boulder that’s already rolling downhill. But at every step in the creation of the product and the company, many people had ways to try to shut that whole thing down.

Spinning off companies is not the point of a college education. It’s learning — and not just learning subject matter and professional skills, but also how to be a better human. How to think more carefully about our decisions. How our actions push the world one way or another, so we should do our best to make sure it’s the way we mean to be pushing.

A college campus isn’t the only the place for those lessons, thank goodness. Both before and after, we keep learning, sometimes through pain and embarrassment. Like I said, when I was in college, I probably would have thought this nail polish was a good idea.

College students are young adults; both words matter. They bear responsibility for their actions, their ideas and opinions, and their education. But in many ways, the grown-ups are still in charge: of directing those actions, of shaping those ideas and opinions, of providing and improving that education.

Maybe in the backlash against the drug-detecting nail polish that has appeared over the last few days, the young men behind it are learning something — with the help of pain and embarrassment. Maybe.

This is also a “teachable moment,” though, for the professors, advisors, and administrators at North Carolina State University. You are molding young minds. Do better.


  1. The phrase “date rape,” wherever it is used, needs to be one word shorter. 

Mania

“Ladies and gentlemen, from the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City: Robin Williams.”

Sometime in my last two years of high school, a friend loaned me his CD of Robin Williams’ 1986 stand-up album A Night at the Met. You should know that I graduated from high school in 1999, so as I was driving around my eastern North Carolina hometown laughing my face off to this album, it was already over 10 years old.

Some comedy is timeless, but A Night at the Met is shot through with contemporary references. Ronald Reagan I knew, sure, and Gorbachev. I sort of understood who Muammar Gaddafi was. I certainly didn’t know enough then about the Reagan administration to get the joke about Disney’s Goofy being the Secretary of the Interior. It’s possible I don’t get that joke now. He mentioned Adnan Khashoggi within his first minute on stage.

But I still laughed my face off. I memorized the whole album, and while most of it has faded now, bits of it still bubble up in my mind.

“Bring a lunch. Stay for the day!”

I can’t say A Night at the Met ages particularly well. Those current events references don’t help, and certain bits leans on really broad, dumb stereotypes. It’s very 1986 — not that my sense of taste or perspective was developed enough when I was 16 or 17 to see any of that. I just knew that it made me laugh.

Then it passed from something that made me laugh to something that changed the way I looked at the world.

I am not a comedian. My wife and friends will attest to this if you require proof. But late high school is where I started to find my own personality and, with it, my own ability to make people laugh, at least in conversation if not on stage. A handful of stand-up albums and books, A Night at the Met among them, were important in shaping what I thought was fair game for laughter — which was everything, basically — and how to get it.

Williams was the kind of comedian who would imitate or create characters, often for just a few seconds, to build bits around. He carried all these voices inside him, brought them to life momentarily, and then riffed off them as his own straight man. Here, listen to his bit about alcohol from that album. Most of the little characters he does are lampoons of drunks — though the whole time, he’s really talking about himself. (He starts the bit saying he had to stop drinking because “I used to wake up nude in front of my car with my keys in my ass.”) He puts on these tiny plays that are realer-than-real, and, as people say, funny because they’re true.

That style has influenced the way I talk to people to this day — probably often to the detriment of my relationships, but so it goes. Something about the creation of little characters and scenarios that were funnier than the real world was and remains very attractive to me.

I’m not saying I wanted to be Robin Williams. I’ve never been pointed toward acting and comedy, nor have I ever harbored the notion that I was that funny. Another thing I knew I could never match was Williams’ pace. His rapid-fire riffing, often just with himself, is what people remember him for from his comedy specials, talk show appearances, and even whole movies built around that ability. When performing, he was, more often than any other mood, manic.

Manic. There’s a word that wants to follow that one. I know we don’t say that anymore. Still, they’re a pair in my mind.

I think all funny people have a darkness in them. I guess we all do, but you know, the stereotype of the clown crying on the inside is a stereotype for a reason. The sadness was always there. It’s how come he was so good at what he did.

That doesn’t explain anything, of course. Depression kills. We know that. That doesn’t make any particular victim of the disease any easier to take.

Everybody has their Robin Williams thing, it seems. Maybe yours was Good Morning, Vietnam. Maybe it was The Fisher King. Mine was A Night at the Met. He created everything from tiny characters to whole worlds, and pulled inspiration from everywhere, and spit it all back out in this beautifully inspired mania. It lit me up. It opened my eyes.

I guess what I’m saying is thanks, Robin Williams. Thanks.

The Eastern Shore #8: The 1947 Partition Archive

On The Eastern Shore for Monday, August 4, my guest was Guneeta Singh Bhalla, founder and executive director of the 1947 Partition Archive. The Archive is an organization based in Berkeley that works around the world to gather the personal stories of people affected by the 1947 Partition of India and Pakistan. They’re working to gather 10,000 personal accounts by 2017, then release all of the information for use by academics, artists, museums, and anyone else who wants to learn how the Partition changed the lives of some of the millions of people affected by it. It was a good talk. You should listen.

The Eastern Shore #7: Baseball in Oakland

On The Eastern Shore this week, I spoke with John Hansen, co-founder of Oakland Fan Pledge, a website devoted to keeping the Athletics in Oakland. We got into the A’s recent Coliseum lease renewal with the City & County, what the team owners really seem to want, and what fans like John would like to see for the future of baseball in our city.

Head over to the podcast site to listen or download. If you’re subscribed via RSS, Stitcher, iTunes, etc., those feeds should update soon.