Monday, May 11, 2009

Checking the cops

I get stopped more often than I’d like by the San Luis Obispo County sheriff’s deputies.

I doubt it’s anything personal, but the deputies around here seem to enjoy making unnecessary pullovers.

Last Thursday night, for example, I rode my bicycle home after playing music with friends at a local barn, about five miles from where I live.

It was a full moon, and the coastal air felt balmy, a perfect evening for leaving the car at home, saving fuel and taking advantage of an opportunity for some welcome exercise. The ride itself takes about 20 minutes and leads me through the middle of town and down a country road.

Having already been pulled over several times on my bicycle at night, I’ve got enough lights on me to give me the visibility of a semi-truck. And maybe that was my mistake.

I was making my final leg, about a half block, before reaching home, when I passed the Highway 1 offramp that leads to the main drag through the middle of Cayucos.

As always, I slowed enough to avoid the cars that usually plow through the stop sign and noticed a vehicle about a hundred yards back. As I passed, I saw that it was a squad car.

Somehow, I just knew that it would turn my way rather than take the business loop, Ocean Avenue, which runs through the middle of town.

And sure enough, I felt the squad car’s lights flash on my back as I turned down my street, and I could hear the rumbling engine’s rpms rising as the deputy stepped on the gas to catch up to me.

I pulled into my driveway, jumped off my bicycle, and the squad car stopped in the street in front of my house, only a few feet from where I’d just disembarked.

Two deputies peered at me through the driver’s open window.

“What’re you doing tonight?” the driver asked.

“I was just playing music with friends at the barn.”

“What kind of music do you play?”

“Oh, we play a little bit of everything,” I said, “a little rock and roll, some country, gospel. Actually, we were working with a young gal who wants to be a vocalist. It was a lot of fun,” I added, trying to sound friendly.

Friends have told me from my previous encounters with the sheriff’s deputies that I needn’t answer unnecessary questions from law enforcement. I had an inkling that I should ask him what his business was but I didn’t want to be confrontational.

As usual, I tried to be friendly, the good cooperative citizen.

Nonetheless, I had the sinking feeling that his questioning wasn’t friendly curiosity. He was probing, if not a little inappropriate.

“Is she three years old?” he asked, apparently stuck on the “young gal” part of my response.

My internal reaction was: “What the fuck kind of question is that?” I’m sure my face registered my irritation and I told him that our vocalist is a young woman.

My scrutinizing filters kicked in, and I took a closer look at the deputy, a bit pudgy in the face, like the Pillsbury Doughboy, wearing glasses, tall and not very fit, a guy who probably was rejected from military service and weaseled his way into a career in law enforcement.

Now I was feeling contempt.

I wasn’t sure where this was going but I knew that another question like that and my next reaction would probably get me pinned against the squad car. But I could tell he was already getting bored with me.

“You’re not on parole or anything are you?” he asked.


“Alright, you have a good evening,” he said and pulled away.

Generally, I don’t have a problem with law enforcement. I especially appreciate those who take seriously their mandate to “serve and protect,” who earnestly desire to keep our neighborhoods safe.

When I was growing up, the cops in my hometown made a point of getting to know the locals. They knew me—and my friends—by name.

Unlike the sheriff’s deputies from this area, the cops where I grew up never gave you the feeling they were looking for trouble, or that they were trying to bait you. Instead, they actually tried to get to know the people who lived in their community.

To be fair, on other occasions when the sheriff’s deputies pulled me over, they had legitimate safety and traffic code concerns. They were courteous and respectful.

But I’ve noticed that over the years, lawmen have a tendency to overstep their authority, to pry where they haven’t any legitimate probable cause.

Additionally, as I’ve learned, citizens yield far too much of their legal rights when being questioned by the law, allowing unnecessary searches of their vehicles, persons and personal affects.

And in this county, Sheriff Patrick Hedges spent an unspecified amount of local tax dollars and resources to circumvent local and state laws protecting medical marijuana dispensaries to destroy the legal business operation of Compassionate Caregiver Charles Lynch, who now faces a minimum mandatory sentence of five years in federal prison.

Hedges, in my opinion, should be removed from office. He clearly overstepped his authority as a lawman and has become a threat to the local community.

Any law enforcement officer who oversteps his authority is a threat to free society. And citizens who cherish their right to privacy, their freedom to ride a bicycle, or run a legal business without harassment from the law, ought to push back, and keep the police in check. §

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Information Blackhole

One of the advantages of New Media, I suppose, is that it opens up the dialog to more voices.

That carries its own risks, such as the bald racism and ignorance that seem rampant on the internet.

Maybe that's the price we pay for leveling the playing field and opening the door for a wider range of perspectives.

Journalists may be faulted for fencing themselves in and creating an exclusive club, accessible only to those with the proper credentials, but their "gatekeeping" role, for all of its faults, has been a huge public service, especially when it filters out false information, maligning and name-calling, and fosters intelligent and open discussion.

Arianna Huffington
, as you probably know, recently enthused on Capitol Hill the emerging class of online citizen journalists, who will allegedly take up the slack where the real pros have all but disappeared.

For now, I remain a skeptic.

Will citizen journalists have the resources and determination to doggedly pursue corrupt public officials? Will they have the skill and support to ferret out the Cunninghams and Abramoffs of the world?

As newsrooms have continued to diminish, and news pages have gotten thinner, I worry that an enormous information black hole is forming.

So far as I can tell, the transition from print to digital news has done little to improve the quality of information available to the average citizen.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

My romance with print

I’ve noticed an unnerving disdain for print in today’s digital culture.

In the New Media world of Twitter and social networks like Facebook and MySpace, print holds little allure, or romance or even usefulness.

It’s all about the Internet.

“This is where it’s all happening,” a college student informed me recently while helping me post my literary magazine, The Rogue Voice, online. “It’s all about interactivity.”

“Yeah,” I responded, “but so many of my readers tell me they like having something they can hold in their hands and read, not a computer, but a magazine.”

He responded: “How old are these people?”

“About my age.” I’m 50.

“Exactly,” he said. “I’d say most young people don’t have the romance with paper that you and your readers have.”

I don’t understand this; first, because I’ve had few romances I’ve enjoyed more, and second, because print helped revolutionize the Western world, which suggests it deserves more respect.

I’m not against advances in communications and access to information; I’d simply like to see print given its rightful place in the history and progress of civilization.

In the last 500-plus years, the printing press played a key role in spreading the balance of power that comes from knowledge; it put literacy and language into more people’s hands.

In many respects, its ability to put vast amounts of information at people’s fingertips has had the same democratizing effect that the Internet is having on people around the world today. It opened the floodgates for the advancement of science, the arts, history and literature, galvanizing cultures and informing the masses.

Of course, abuses have occurred through the printing of propaganda and lies, but overall I’d say the world is a much better place than it might have been if print had never come to be.

Now, I’m being told that I need to get with the times, be web savvy, and forget print. I’m working on it, but don’t ask me to give up print. For some reason, which is hard to explain, I prefer print as the medium for losing myself in stories, as a means of escape from the daily grind.

There’s a quality of stillness and imagination I feel when reading printed material (especially books) that doesn’t seem possible with a laptop, or a desktop or even the latest iPhone.

I like print: books, magazines and newspapers, anything I can read without the buzz and whir and beeping of a computer or cell phone.

I like to sit in the shade of a tree, or lounge on a hammock, and lose myself in a novel or short story or poem and read until I enter another world or doze off—without worrying about whether my book falls to the ground.

I like the sensation of a powerful story staying with me long after I’ve put it down because it engaged my imagination rather than my ego.

My greatest concern with the demise of print: That our ability to imagine will suffer, that it will succumb to the narcissism that is so much a part of social networking and Internet discourse.

Print keeps me grounded and connected to the world in a way that doesn’t seem possible with the New Media. It allows me time to pause and reflect, to be absorbed in a world that exists only between me and the author, without twitters and instant messages and constant updates.

My recent experience working with young authors and aspiring journalists—and the sad fact that newspapers and numerous other publications are dying all over the country—suggests that print has become passé.

It’s so Old School.

Advocates for the New Media—in their enthusiasm for “interactivity,” online networking, and uploading every trivial (does any of it ever reach the sublime?) opinion or detail of their life—give the impression that print no longer serves any useful purpose.

Slowing down, settling in with a good book, letting the mind wander, getting away from the computer, and using the imagination have lost their appeal.

I refuse to give in. While I support advances in information technology, I’ll never let go of the romance of the printed word. §

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Social Networking

When the economy took a dive late in 2008, ad revenue for The Rogue Voice disappeared as quickly as the black hole that opened when the government agreed to hand out hundreds of billions of dollars to undeserving bankers.

Where did all that money go? Where's the stimulus for Americans who don't own banks or have huge interests on Wall Street?

My magazine ran on a limited budget, funded mostly through a handful of local advertisers. With so much financial uncertainty and hundreds of billion
s of dollars floating out there somewhere, and with no guarantee that any of it would ever reach Main Street, what little advertising we had quickly dried up.

We got behind in our finances and have been unable to print another edition since January. Readers began to contact us, wondering when the next edition would come out.

"As soon as we get the funding to print another issue," we responded.

One devoted reader called and asked me to meet her at a local restaurant. During our meal, she said: "If you go out of business, it'll literally ruin my lunch." She explained that one of her great pleasures was to pick up a new issue, order calamari, a tall glass of wine, and lose herself in the magazine. The only other magazine that gave her as much reading pleasure, she said, is the New Yorker.

At the end of our meal, she wrote me a check for $500 and said: "When you're ready to have a fundraiser in my home, let me know."

"I'm ready now," I said. Several weeks later, about 40 friends and supporters of The Rogue Voice met in the back yard of her San Luis Obispo home. We collected about $900 in donations, enough to cover about a third of our existing print bill.

Meanwhile, New Media advocates, mostly younger, enthusiastic entrepreneurs devoted to digital, online publishing urged us to begin posting content on the web.

We met with prospective web designers. One bid requested $3,200 for a four-page website, plus $80 an hour thereafter to design and add subsequent material. Additionally, she wanted 80 percent of all new subscriptions that resulted from the website.

Eventually, I met and worked with a student from Cal Poly who was eager to show me—free of charge—the multifaceted benefits of publishing online. We got a homepage posted, with a few samplings from the latest edition ( It's a work in progress.

While working with him, I lauded print as one of the few really satisfactory escapes from our digital-driven world while he assured me that publishing online will bring more readers, provide greater publishing flexibility, and more opportunity for dialog. Besides, he suggested, print will soon be obsolete.

It was hard to argue the point, especially given the fact that so many print publications are going out of business. I suspect that print will continue to go out of fashion until it becomes mostly a specialized service for readers willing to pay premium dollars for high-end printed matter.

It's hard to imagine anyone getting as much enjoyment from sitting under a tree, reading from a laptop or a Kindle, Amazon's new reading wireless device, as they would from a book or magazine. Personally, I've never found my computer reading experiences to be as pleasurable as touching the pages of a book. But then I'm an Old School reader.

My student friend, after helping me put up a homepage, recommended that I next sign up with Facebook so that I could begin generating traffic to the site. I did as told. I began "social networking" online, even opening an account with Twitter.

Before long, I realized that I've begun participating in the same narcissistic cultural trendiness that has been so much a target of The Rogue Voice. We've won over our readers—a widely divergent readership—because we unabashedly celebrate the dogpatch, slacker lifestyle and have been contemptuous of anything trendy.

So, here we are, at a crossroad, attempting to hold fast to our original vision of giving voice to individuals who live on the edge of society, who are not pretty and politic, who speak their minds with brutal, humorous and disturbing honesty, claiming ground in an unfamiliar and unsettling digital landscape, hoping that this social networking will help rather than hurt our endeavors.