the strength of the black panther



First things first: there was no way this movie wasn’t going to be a huge hit. It’s almost literally an all-star lineup of acting talent, given that it’s got at least half a dozen black actors you’ve heard of right off the jump and some more you’ll be hearing about for years to come (take a bow, Letitia Wright) AND that it was directed by Ryan Coogler, who might be the 21st century Orson Welles at this point. (Fruitvale Station, Creed and now a Marvel blockbuster that’s going to crack $2 billion worldwide? Are you serious?) Even the Tolkien white guys, Martin Freeman and Andy Serkis, are proven rock stars of genre media. And of course there’s the Marvel-Disney vault to pay for the whole thing. This wasn’t the little movie that could, this was the cinematic version of Coogler’s beloved Golden State Warriors. We’re gonna run Curry and Thompson and Green out there and then add Durant and then come and get it.

No, this movie worked because it was real and it had depth and it hit a bunch of different levels and hard questions. What do we owe to the rest of the world? What do we owe to our less fortunate brothers and sisters? What do we owe them at risk to our own lives, our own safety and security? What do we do when the sins of the past step backward out of the fourth dimension and ram a blade through our shoulder? All tough and profound things to think about, none of them with clear and obvious answers.

But the one that jumped out to me is this: this movie is the most valid artistic commentary yet on the Electoral College and the election of Donald Trump.

Think about it. Wakanda is a modern 21st century country under the veil, with unbelievable technology and prosperity. On what grounds does it make sense to have a system of ritual combat by which anyone can show up, get a lucky break with a spear, and suddenly be the unconditional ruler of the country? Granted, there is (presumably) a winnowing process through the various tribes where they say whether or not they want to challenge, but what sense does it make to say that if the Omega Psi Phi in the furs (don’t front, M’Baku is absolutely the Ques, I will die on this hill) can sweep the leg, they’re suddenly the most suitable king?

Well, it makes about as much sense as the Electoral College, in that: it’s an old practice, it was handed down hundreds of years ago, it tends to work out most of the time, and we’re willing to overlook the times it hasn’t and say “well that isn’t going to happen” right up until it fucking happens and now you’re up there and it’s a hell of a lot higher than your dumb ass thought it was, ain’t it? And then you have some decisions to make, because your process has just put the worst person in the world on the throne. Now: do you accept that leadership and go along with the plan? Do you break off and reject it and rebel? Do you vow your loyalty is to the throne, the office, the title, the Constitution or the country rather than to the man and try to finesse things?

And then, what happens next? What happens if you don’t manage to renew the challenge through the loophole of “not actually dead yet” and the guy stays on the throne and starts implementing his plans? At what point do you change your mind about going along to get along, or about saying you’re staying to prevent something worse? Where do you draw your line and what happens when it inevitably gets crossed? Then what happens?

Sadly, we don’t get time to delve into this in the movie or in Avengers: Infinity War. But the dynamic duo of Ta-Nehisi Coates and Brian Stelfreeze have delved deep into this in their run on Black Panther in the mainstream Marvel Comics line (and some of their design and philosophical DNA is absolutely in this film) and it poses a difficult question: what does it mean the entire system that put you in a position of leadership is irreparably broken, and what happens then?

And that’s the question this country has to grapple with: what happens now? What happens after that? And after that? You can’t turn back time, you can’t undo what happened, you can’t hit the reset button or ask the rest of the world for a do-over. This is now, this is real, and we might don’t come back from this. It’s way past time to be thinking about what we do now beyond just try to hang on and survive and hope that this was a blip. Because it’s not. Because sadly, Wakanda isn’t real. Neither are Infinity Stones.

Free wheelin’

After the genesis of my last post, Mountain View finally caught up with Birmingham, Alabama by launching an electric bike share. Actually, they launched two bike share programs, one electric (Lime) and one not (ofo) on a six month pilot program. Very strict rules about not leaving them on the sidewalk (like the plague of electrified scooters currently afflicting major cities) and dire warnings about the kind of “forgiveness rather than permission” that has been the hallmark of Silly Con Valley for years now.

Mountain View had a few docks for the Bay Area Bike Share program, which have all since been removed. It was an annoying approach, simply because those bikes were only useful in a dock-to-dock pattern. Great for getting down Castro from the train station to El Camino, for instance. Less great when they put docks at light rail stations…which were connected by light rail already. So the solution, apparently, is dockless bike sharing. Which presents its own set of issues.

See, Mountain View has had an unofficial free dockless bike share for years now, courtesy of Google. The shitty single-speed bikes they have for riding around campus have a way of finding their way off campus and winding up places they probably shouldn’t be, like the end of the train platform or on their side in a parking spot or in the median of Central Expressway. And while you could grab one if you saw it lying about, and even ride it all the way to, say, Murphy Avenue in Sunnyvale behind the pub, you could pretty much rest assured it wouldn’t be there when it came time to ride back.Not a lot of utility in one way disposable transit.

But that drives home the dockless bike problem in general: you take one somewhere, you want to know you can get one back. In China, the solution was just to dump one imperial shit-ton of bikes everywhere, with the result that a lot of companies went big and went bust and left literal mountains of waste bikes behind. Not a particularly good idea. Here, the bikes are being “redistributed” by their vendors (not least because someone’s going to have to make sure those Lime electrics get charged up). Hopefully they’re taking assiduous notes of where the bikes go and where they end up at day’s end and are adjusting the pattern accordingly.

Because here’s the thing: they’re actually quite handy, especially the electrics. If I’m willing to cope with either the problem of two solid upslopes with only a mild electric assist (or alternately take a chance on a surface expressway), I can easily bike home from downtown for only a couple of bucks. If it were possible to take one of these to the next town over, I would gladly go one-way to the pub and catch a Lyft back. And the thing is…the electric bike is just so damn effortless. To the point where I’m looking at one from a UK manufacturer that looks almost maintenance free, belt drive, no gears to mess with, just get on and go, for £1000, and wondering how to get it back here.

Of course, at the same time, Mountain View is considering changing their sidewalk rules downtown. Which is asinine. If it wasn’t safe to put bicycles on the sidewalk before, how is it safe to do it now and throw skateboards and electric unicycle dickwheels and God knows what else out there? At present, there are spaces for cars and pedestrians, and lightly electrified vehicles are in a sour spot where they won’t do well in either space. And God forbid you put them in the bike lane…

Hold up.

Downtown Mountain View is basically unnavigable by car from lunchtime on anymore. Parking is already a disaster, traffic is a mess, it’s hardly worth the effort. Why anyone thinks building office space there is a good idea is beyond me, but they keep doing it. So here’s the answer: take all the street side parking on Castro street and turn it into a physically separated lane for bicycles and electric hipster things. You want to park, go in one of the lots or decks, but Castro is gonna completely separate motor vehicles and pedestrians and everything that’s neither fish nor fowl nor good red herring. And to be honest, that’s going to become even more of a problem when the crossing at Central closes for good with the long-overdue remodel of the third busiest train station on the Caltrain line.

And at that point, you’ve made downtown a much easier place to be. You don’t have to keep your head on a swivel on the sidewalk because some techie  who thinks he’s Lance Armstrong or Marty McFly has somewhere to be. You don’t have to worry about getting clotheslined off your Lime bike by a parked car. You don’t have to worry that the asshole on his hoverboard is going to stray in front of your car because he can’t take his eyes off his phone. Easy peasy. And you’ve made it much easier to choose a Lime or an ofo instead of a car for just popping downtown for dinner or a pint or to restock at Ava’s or Jane’s.

And ultimately, that’s kind of a thing. If you have reliable access to reliable electric bikes point-to-point, you never have to worry about wrestling your own bike onto transit (and using up space that could be earning ticket revenue). If the light rail runs every fifteen minutes or more, you never have to cut things short and time your outings to make sure you won’t be stood around the platform in the dark for twenty minutes. I basically never needed a car for the last four years I lived in Arlington, Virginia – because the job and the bar and the mall were all on the train, and the train and the other mall and the grocery store and two drugstores and a movie theater were all walkable distance. If you want to make a place walkable and bike able and reduce the traffic, you have to reduce the need for traffic. Dense housing without dense everything else is 180 degrees the wrong direction.

We’ll see how long it takes the geeeeeeniuses of Silly Con Valley to figure that one out.

not going home again

My whole life, I had the feeling that Birmingham was specially cursed to die for the sins of the South. Atlanta got a free pass because they were “too busy to hate” – not too Christian, not too decent, not too kind, but just didn’t have the time. And for that, Atlanta got the pro sports and the subway and the airport and the Southeastern headquarters of everything. Meanwhile New Orleans got to be New Orleans. Florida turned from a swamp into Miami and Orlando and Disney World and South Beach and god, even Jacksonville got an NFL team. Memphis had the blues and got the NBA and turned into the Oakland of the South, culturally. And then there’s Nashville.

It’s impossible to dispute that pretty much anything about the South that’s actually good or cool or desirable were either created by, perfected by or inextricably bound up in the African-American experience. Barbecue and grits and greens. Gospel music, blues, rock and roll, Dirty South hip-hop. Family reunions and small-town familiarity and half or more of the players that make college football any good. So start with that. Then consider that Nashville didn’t have a population of color on par with other Southern cities, so didn’t have nearly as much Civil Rights drama as other places (not to deny Z. Alexander Looby and Diane Nash and James Lawson and Perry Wallace their rightful place in the constellation of the righteous). But beyond that, Nashville was always a thing apart – Redneck Hollywood, the Protestant Vatican, the origin point for the white South’s Saturday nights and Sunday mornings alike.

When I went back to Birmingham in 2012, or 2013, or 2015, I would look around the coffee shops and tapas restaurants and craft beer bars and Railroad Park and ask myself where are the black people. And as a rule, they were there. Maybe not in proportionate numbers, but coming from Silicon Valley, where you can’t remember the last time you saw two African-Americans, it was enough to be reassuring. Now before I make my point: I do not believe Nashville has done this deliberately, any more than I think Taylor Swift actually tried to cultivate an image as an Aryan princess. But sometimes through no conscious fault of your own you get tangled up in stuff that you weren’t expecting. And I feel like Nashville – with its endless bro-country patriotism and Insta-fueled murals and bach-and-brunch food scene – has accidentally fallen into being Red America’s new Baptist Vegas. All the excitement of a glamorous getaway party town without the hassle and inconvenience of people who aren’t Just Like You.

It’s not purely my imagination. Jefferson County, Alabama (which includes Birmingham and many of its white-flight suburbs) is 42% African-American. Metro Nashville (which is to say, the Nashville-Davisdon County hybrid entity that has existed since 1963) is 28% African-American. Hell, at the time of the merger in 1963, it was under 20%. This is in no way meant to imply deliberate action by Nashville or pin the blame on them. Honest, it isn’t. Nashville felt like home to me on day one in a way that Alabama never did, that DC didn’t, that even NorCal didn’t. But I suspect that Nashville has inadvertently become a desirable destination for a certain demographic in a way that, say, Birmingham is not – and could not be.

And maybe that’s the thing that keeps me hanging onto that Barons jersey and buying the new hat and clinging to a 205 Ruben Studdard jersey and a 205 prepaid cellphone number. Because there is a Birmingham in there that I would claim, that I want to claim. Fred Shuttlesworth and AG Gaston and Frank Stitt and Lee Bains III and the Glory Fires. The Tired Texan and Rickwood Field and Good People Brewing and Railroad Park. City Stages and Celestial Realm and Dave’s Pub. Five Points and Pepper Place and the Botanical Gardens, McNolia’s and Charlemagne Records and Special Dogs and Legion Field and Grapico and Buffalo Rock. Willie Mays and Jerry Wolak and Carson Fulmer and Jerome Bechard and the GAS Line and the UAB Blazers (and a certain two-time NAIA champion, once upon a time). Dr. James Andrews and the Jimmie Hale Mission and Yeilding Chapel and 16th Street Baptist Church. The Alabama Theater and the McWane Center and the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and the Negro Southern League Museum.

But hovering over all of that is Alabama. Bull Connor and George Wallace and Selma and four little girls dead. A state that went 2-1 for Trump and elected a holy-roller publicity hound and likely statutory rapist to the the state Supreme Court twice and almost put him in the US Senate. Paul Finebaum and Harvey Updyke and SEC headquarters. Gardendale First Baptist and Scott Beason and “Go To Church Or The Devil Will Get You.” The Cradle of the Confederacy. The Heart of Dixie. The most crimson of red states.

Austin gets a free pass for being Texas, whether it deserves it or not. Nashville is getting toward a free pass for being Tennessee, for better or worse. I don’t know that Birmingham will ever get a pass for being Alabama. I don’t know why it shouldn’t; most everyone who tries to keep it Alabama has already fled to Hoover or Trussville or Gardendale. You can get better local craft beer or electric bike sharing in downtown Birmingham than you can get throughout Santa Clara County in the heart of Silicon Valley. But nobody seriously thought for a hot second that Amazon would ever site its second headquarters in Birmingham. Nobody is out there trumpeting Birmingham as the new “It City.” Even as mild an appellation as “Redneck Portland” is probably more likely to get turned to Nashville or Chattanooga.

And yet…the problem with moving away is you don’t get to see things shift, you only perceive the change as a sudden slam from what was to what is now. And I left for good after 1994 – back only at summers, then only at holidays, then not at all. So even if I was born there, even if I went to school there, even if I was stuck almost entirely in its orbit for twenty-two years – I couldn’t claim a hand in its revival even if I wanted to. My school isn’t there any more. I don’t have any college friends. The relations are tenuous at best.  Sure, now they have stuff just as good as we have here, but I’m already here.

Maybe the facts on the ground are different. Maybe the city of Birmingham really is going blue-bubble instead of just tiny bits here and there. As long as my mother is alive or Trump is President, though, I don’t think I’ll ever be there long enough to find out for myself. Which is a shame. It would be nice to have a past before 1996 or so. Of which.

cloud cover

It was about halfway through undergrad that I formulated the notion of “the black cloud.” I don’t know if it was related to weather – the cold, humid, rainy winter of the Deep South might have lent itself to that – and I certainly didn’t have the toolbox to characterize what I now recognize was a gigantic banner hung out to say “DEPRESSION HERE”. All I knew is that there was something in the very air and earth of the place that reverberated with a constant refrain of “this place is not for the likes of you.”

That, ultimately, was the difference between my struggles at National Geographic and the late struggles around Silly Con Valley. Make no mistake: NGS had some really rough stretches, and I did rage-quit more than once (only to turn up a day or two later and resume as if nothing had happened). But if DC and Northern Virginia were never the “home on day one” the way Nashville felt, they certainly never radiated “you don’t belong here” the way my undergrad did…or the way Silly Con Valley would come to after 2012. And I had my gang around me shoulder to shoulder. There were bleak times, there was grief, there were challenges and difficulties and some problems I would never get to solve, but there was never the black cloud.

But then, there was no black cloud here either. Not at first. My first eight years in NorCal varied from highly adequate to quite awesome to absolute perfection, and while the second-biggest mistake of my life did put me down a hole for a couple of years, it was still a work problem and a worry over my future rather than the kind of existential crisis the black cloud implied. And I battled through the obstacles and kept going best I could. And then the black cloud returned with a vengeance sometime around late 2012, such that by the time work turned to shit three months later and stayed there, it was easy to be swamped, be overwhelmed, wonder how it was ever going to be possible to escape my job, escape the Logan’s Run atmosphere of Silly Con Valley, escape a place and a time that rejected the notion that there were, you know, other people. And I was just getting close to sorting that out and digging out…and then the election happened.

So it’s been a long time getting out from under this particular cloud. Over five years, if I’m being honest, and five years where I struggled to grow as a person. Five years of running to stand still, five years on defense, five years just trying to stay alive. But not all clouds are bad, as I learned during one of those cognitive behavioral therapy exercises where you breathe in the good color and exhale the bad one.  And I was purging all that bad orange by breathing in…gray. Fog. And visualizing myself being quiet and safe and at peace…on the cliffs above the Pacific shore. And I realized that all I want from the black cloud is to replace it with the gray one.

The gray cloud has many advantages over the black one. The gray cloud is shelter, keeping away the harsh light and prying eyes. It’s a blanket, cozy in all directions. It’s cool temperature encouraging my new favorite wardrobe with the heavy work shirt and the slubby T-shirt and the wool flannel ball cap. But it’s not just climate, it’s a mindset. A way of thinking that approves of one long Imperial pint of ale nursed all evening. Or quietly assembling the pieces of the meal kit to more-or-less cook dinner. Or to move all the social media apps off the phone and take time to just read books, and listen to podcasts, and try to learn the patience that’s required when you can’t just set the world to rights. The gray cloud rewards quiet, patience, calm…baseball instead of football, the minors instead of the majors. Empty bars, quiet pubs, nighttime walks. Early mornings before the crowds arrive. A compact phone, without work or social media apps, and a monochrome Kindle, both with ridiculous long battery life, and a mechanical watch that isn’t doing notifications or fitness tracking or asking to be charged every night.

The gray cloud reminds me of being in Ireland, or England, or some place with a long view of history and a more human scale. A pace and a perspective more suited to being mindful of the world around you, yet equally suited to leaving the world beyond your grasp safely out of reach and not letting it intrude. The sort of thing that makes me think that when I go, maybe reduce me to ashes and then scatter them somewhere on the San Mateo coast in the fog belt where it can be 56 degrees with marine layer…forever.

Wouldn’t that be something.

After the finish line

My wife just replaced the battery on her iPhone 6s. She got it shortly after it shipped in 2015, replacing an iPhone 5s whose camera had gotten a bit dinged up. I don’t think she cared much for the extra size, she never used the 3DTouch, and I’m sure she would have just as happily taken the iPhone SE had it existed at the time (and to this day she finds the 5-series form factor preferable for most everything except maybe movie-watching at the gym.) A combination of age and work MDM did for the existing battery, which was famously smaller than the one in its predecessor to make room for the gimmick 3D Touch technology (which I am almost certain she has never used and neither have I.)

Thing is, that phone is pushing 3 years old. But if you look at what is out there to replace it in the Apple-sphere…what is there that’s worth spending more than $29 for a battery replacement? Moving to the 7 from the 6S gets you…slightly better processor, water resistance, and no headphone jack. Hardly worth it. Okay, so spend the money and move up to the 8? That gets you…the same as the 7, plus wireless charging and a glass back, so now you have twice as much to shatter if you drop it. Okay, so move all the way to the iPhone X, and pay $1000 for…the same as the 8, plus Animoji and no TouchID so you actually have to pick up the phone and stare into it to unlock instead of just absently resting a thumb on it. And yes, AMOLED screen and a bigger battery, but is it really worth paying a thousand bucks for all that instead of twenty-nine?

And that’s the point I’m at myself: work bought the iPhone X, but if they took it back and Apple fails to replace the iPhone SE, I’m going to put a new battery in mine for $29 and ride that bomb to the ground. Apple had to make a bigger phone, because the market demanded it. But the iPhone 6s that dropped in 2015 had a 4.7″ display,  NFC payment capability, 2 GB of RAM, could listen for voice commands and shoot HD video or take double-digit-megapixel pictures – just like the original Moto X two years earlier. And since then, Apple’s “improvements” have either been the sort of gimmicks we mocked Samsung for, or else decisions that actually make the phone more difficult to work with. More glass to break, fewer useful ports, unintuitive UX modifications – and to what end? Higher margins and flat unit sales.

Apple is content to become Tesla. And that’s a problem, because the only other game in town on smartphones means letting Google have free rein to gallop through your privacy and personal data while you accept that the version of Android that came with your phone may be the newest one you ever get. But then, if the best use of your money is to replace the battery in your three-year-old iPhone instead of wasting twenty times as much on gimcracks and reduced compatibility, you may not have that many more iOS updates to look forward to either. How well do you expect iOS 12 to run on an A9 processor, given that my iPad mini 2 and its A8X struggle like hell with iOS 11?

I say all that to say this: it’s past time for Apple to decide what it wants to be. If the plan is to disappear up Jony Ive’s asshole, then go on and do it so I can figure out what plan B is.