Minkey Business

"Over the cage floor the horizons come."

About that bass, no treble

Today in class, I learned how to slap. No, not a self-defence lesson, nor a Dickensian parenting course. I was at my bass guitar class. A few months ago, I stopped dreaming and started doing, and bought a cheap electric bass, found a teacher nearby, and started learning to groove.

Slapping and popping is a playing style favoured in disco, funk, and by solo bass players. The thumb is hammered on the lower two strings, and the higher two strings are plucked upwards, causing them to twang metallically against the frets. When you’re learning, it’s better described as “making a racket”, and I am thrilled that this is not just sanctioned, but a part of my student duties.

I’ve taken music classes before, and they’ve all been classically circumscribed. Here, I was intentionally “misusing” an instrument in grand tradition. Jazz for example, began with the misuse of military marching band instruments, which is why the genre so heavily features saxophones, trumpets, and trombones.

Early jazz musicians often had to make do with heavily worn or even broken instruments, and many of the chosen textural elements of jazz—the brays and the squeaks and overtones—probably trace back to when musicians had no choice but to incorporate them into their sound.

American bassist Marcus Miller, backs this up in an online article on For Bass Players Only by Jon Liebman, July 10, 2014. In it, Miller says, “If you notice, all the great cultural creations around the world, they come from poor people, people who don’t have a lot, from the ghettos.”

The article is specifically about slap bass, a technique that’s supposed to have originated (for Western music) in New Orleans in the early part of the twentieth century. While the tuba is the traditional marching band bass instrument, early bass players would be expected to play the tuba outdoors, and the double bass—the largest of the violin family—indoors. Presumably because the tuba or other brass bass instruments are too loud at close quarters. But the double bass was too soft (if you like jazz, you’ll know how the band comes to a halt for the bass solo), so players developed the slap technique to cut through the room.

Last night, at a theatre in Pasadena, I heard the composition Stronghold by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Julia Wolfe. It’s for eight double basses, but this performance, by experimental music group People Inside Electronics, had one live player and seven on tape. In the notes, Wolfe had written, “…I discovered that the bass had a limitless universe of expressive possibilities rarely explored.” She goes on to describe her piece. “Stronghold starts with webs of rolling harmonics, very high overtones that take advantage of the long length of the strings”.

In popular music, solo bassist Victor Wooten, exploits these harmonics to play entire tunes with them. Stronghold was interesting certainly, but for me, really came into its own at the end when the player pressed the bow heavily into the lowest string and created what Wolfe described as “thick, resonant sounds”, the sounds of discovering why we’re here, what we’re meant to be.

Using slap and pop on an electric bass combines percussion and musical tones in a way that feels like what a six-year-old would do if let loose on the instrument. Channeling that racket creates a propulsive, powerful sound, that’s overwhelming if overused. It also feels like a strong connection with the ingenuity, misuse and non-conformity that led to the creation of much of the music we listen to today.

First published in Gulf News, July 16, 2016

Fire on the mountain

After many summers in Southern California, I knew those weren’t clouds. And yet, from the window above our kitchen sink I saw the smoke rise from the mountains as if from a factory that made cumulonimbus for the entire sky.

It was the start of the San Gabriel Complex Fire, the giant love child of the Fish Fire and Reservoir Fire that burned 5,399 acres in the San Gabriel mountains above Greater Los Angeles. Standing in the 43ºC heat on June 20, I watched the two DC-10 Air Tankers make passes over the ridge, striping them with bright red Phos-Chek fire retardant. Helicopters flew back and forth making water drops.

As the sun set, the plane and most of the helicopters departed, but a Sikorsky S-64 Skycrane continued the trips from water source to above the flames, where, as my wife observed, it looked as if someone was trying to put out a bonfire by flicking droplets of water at it. At night, the flames outlined the slopes, with occasional flare-ups as they hit dense vegetation that hadn’t burned in over a decade.

Hundreds of people had to be evacuated, and several hillside neighbourhoods were in danger. But eventually the fire was contained, and several days later, I rode past some of the earliest neighbourhoods to be evacuated, marvelling at how close the flames had come to houses. A lone Skycrane landed at the water tank next to the San Gabriel River Trail and picked up a tank-load of water. It took off over my head into the mountains, to disappear around a ridge for about ten minutes before returning for the next load. It was the only aircraft in the vicinity but followed a clear flight path, hugging the south face of the valley on the way back and the north on the way out.

It was evening, so the CalTrans vehicles, and fire support trucks came down from the still-closed Highway 39 where a sheriff’s SUV sat behind the ‘road closed’ sign. The bored-looking sheriff talked to the driver of the big orange truck with a bulldozer attachment on the front.

I turned and rode down to the Santa Fe Dam Recreational Area where I had a view of the fire command staging area. There were mobile offices set up under the trees, and single person tents scattered all over the park. A helicopter sat the middle of a huge field, a tent pitched next to it. Nearby was a series of big-rig trailers converted to bunk-style housing. It made me think of the term “war footing”.

A day later I drove up to Chantry Flats and hiked to Hermit Falls, parts of the forest that would have been ablaze if it wasn’t for those hard-working fire crews and pilots. The trail went steeply down the side of a mountain into the shaded valley that led to a rocky swimming hole. I looked with renewed awe at the terrain—and imagined the “hand crews” hiking through it in 43ºC heat, carrying chainsaws, pulaskis and shovels, to spend hours creating fire breaks, often at great personal risk.

Scattered on the rocks around me were empty Corona bottles, and more of the plastic water bottles that were visible along the entire hiking trail. There were abandoned sweatshirts, shorts, socks, and even the packaging of a new Speedo. I collected the plastic bottles, uncapping them before stepping on them and recapping, the way I’d seen homeless people do at garbage cans. I turned for the car, following the trail of plastic, like breadcrumbs leading me out of the forest.

First published in Gulf News, July 5, 2016

‘We don’t call 911′

I always stare curiously at gun shops here in the US. As with most non-Americans, I’m not used to casually encountering one in a row of other more familiar businesses.

Once, one had a sign outside that I didn’t understand at first. “We don’t call 911,” it said, referring to the American emergency phone number. Later, the thought chambered. Gun shop employees don’t call the police because they shoot robbers themselves.

“We don’t call 911”. How neatly those words encapsulate an entire national rifle association ethos; that link between gun ownership and civil independence. (Among the most laughable of reasons given for regular Americans to bear arms, is “invasion readiness”.)

On June 1, a friend and I visited a gun shop for the first time. It was in the town of Duarte, in the Greater Los Angeles area, and we went on a whim, noticing it standing there opposite the restaurant where we’d just had delicious fish tacos. Next door to it was a dance studio advertising Zumba classes, and next to that, a pawnshop with a sign saying, “We buy gold”.

It wasn’t what I expected. We didn’t have to be buzzed in like they do at some pawnshops. Nobody looked up as we entered, nobody kept a sharp eye on these two foreign-looking men staring at the shotguns, even as news of the UCLA shooting was emerging. A sheriff stood at a counter, talking guns with an employee. A pimply looking young man finished buying a gun already in its case.

“Enjoy your purchase,” said the employee as the man left with the four-foot long container.

“I will,” he replied.

Of all the gun-buying possibilities in the US, the one that makes Rest of World (and many, many Americans) shake their heads the most, is the assault rifle. A former work supervisor of mine runs an online gun business, and I recently visited his website. Apart from a range of handguns and shotguns, you can—for the cost of a decent television—also choose from nine assault rifles. Most are in the AR-15 style favoured by armies and mass shooters, including Omar Mateen, the Orlando nightclub killer. You might know this style from the M16, the famous Vietnam-era assault rifle.

At the lower end, for just $789 (I bet you’ve paid more for your home-entertainment system), you can own a DPMS Oracle semiautomatic tactical rifle. For $1,025 you can get an Armalite M15 A4, and because California restricts high-capacity magazines, it comes with only a 10-cartridge capacity. In 42 other US states, you could buy a 100-round magazine if you wanted.

That’s 100 bullets in the 5.56 NATO calibre, a projectile that reaches three times the speed of sound, and penetrates 38 to 51cm into soft tissue. And because it’s used by armed forces, it has been developed for “stopping power”, or wound-causing ability.

Some defenders of these guns say they are hunting or sporting rifles, and should not be thought of as assault weapons. I visited the Sig Sauer website to look at the gun Mateen used in Orlando. “The SIG MCX is an innovative weapon system built around a battle-proven core” says the web page. “The first true mission-adaptable weapon system” says the PDF brochure.

“Shooter make ready” goes a webpage subhead. The SIG has been built to be silenced from the “ground up”, “enabling you to build a complete weapon system for any scenario or environment”.

Very little of this sounds like deer hunting to me.

I searched for dealers within 50 miles of me. There are ten. The closest is a 16-minute drive away. Welcome to America.

First published in Gulf News, June 21, 2016

The largest trees on earth

When you talk of the giant sequoia, people often think it’s the same tree as the coastal redwood. But actually, the redwood, the tallest trees on earth, are cousins of the giant sequoia—the largest trees on earth. Giant sequoias don’t grow as tall as redwoods, but have much broader trunks that don’t taper very much. If they weren’t 250 feet tall, they’d be funny, stubby looking trees.

What struck us again, on this sixth or seventh trip to Sequoia National Park, was that the drive to the park gives no clues about the monsters that live in the hills. Sequoias grow only between about 5,000 and 7,000 feet, and encountering them is literally a matter of rounding a corner and entering the giant grove. The farmland and scrubland on the approach to the Sierra Nevada mountains give up no secrets. There are no especially large trees, or mushrooms the size of footstools, or mysteriously fat pumpkins for sale at the farm fruit and vegetable stalls.

Even after you enter the park, paying what I’ve described here before as the most value-for-money entry fee on the planet, the mountain drive whispers no warnings. Flora and fauna is as expected for pretty much any California ascent, until about 45 minutes up the mountain when those enormous trunks appear, and your mind yaws as it tries to comprehend their size.

Some of the trees in the park are 2,500 years old. General Sherman, currently the largest tree on earth, is estimated to be as much as 2,700 years old. When it was a seedling, the Classical Greek civilisation was at its height, and Alexander the Great was yet to be born. General Sherman shared this earth with Plato, Ashoka the Great and Julius Caesar. When Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) was born, General Sherman was already an incredible age for a tree at 1,000 years old. From classical antiquity onwards, through the Middle Ages, through wars, plagues, fires and the rise and fall of cities and civilisations, art and literary movements, through the lifetimes of all your recorded and remembered ancestors, General Sherman has stood and respired and grown in a grove of fellow giants.

Who knows how long General Sherman will live? Giant sequoias die only by toppling, though they are also under pressure from climate change. Even if General Sherman’s life is 90 per cent done, your great-great-great grandchild will be able to stand in front of the tree and wonder at its humbling long life. I’m assuming they won’t have to wonder if you’ve been there, because even if Facebook doesn’t exist in 200 or so years, digital archaeology will be a thing, and emulators will let them access this vintage data.

The US National Park Service (NPS) is rightly proud of choices it has made to reduce development in the park. It documents the removal of a restaurant and cabins that were right in the middle of a grove of these trees. Perhaps in 200 years your descendant will get off some low-impact maglev monorail and look in askance at the pictures of roads running through the park, and in horror at images of the lines of personal vehicles waiting to get in.

As we left the park just before Memorial Day, the line of cars waiting to enter extended almost a kilometre from the gate through the town of Three Rivers. The NPS has preserved these precious natural spaces, but the stress of so many vehicles and visitors made us consider that staying away from a National Park (and perhaps donating the entry fee to the NPS) is sometimes the right thing to do.

First published in Gulf News, June 7, 2016

‘The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth’

“Southern trees bear a strange fruit / Blood on the leaves and blood at the root / Black body swinging in the Southern breeze / Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.”

Singer Billie Holiday recorded ‘Strange Fruit’ in 1939. The lyrics were from a poem by Abel Meeropol, which he published in 1937 and later set to music. Lynchings in the United States occurred regularly until as late as the 1960s.

The 1960s were also the decade in which M was born; his lifetime, and certainly his parents’, overlaps with a time when black men, women and children were hanged from trees by extrajudicial mobs.

M is my neighbour, a man I’ve written about before. I’m fascinated with his mindset in a time we’re more sensitised to diversity than ever, but are in real danger of having a US president try to make good on his promise to build his great big wall.

This February, in Anaheim, California, the Ku Klux Klan gathered for a rally. A crowd of counter-protesters was waiting, and charged the Klan members as they got out of their cars, causing most to flee. Three Klansmen were left behind to be attacked, an altercation that resulted in three stabbings—at least one by a Klan member apparently acting in self-defence with a ceremonial flagpole.

It’s notable that the KKK had no voice in a California town once so overrun by white supremacists, it had the nickname Klanaheim. Today, there’s something hopelessly out-of-date, even childish, about grown men gathering to celebrate their race’s perceived superiority.

Back to M. He and his friend recently took the Metro train to downtown Los Angeles. They wandered through historic Olvera Street, and had the famous “French dip” lamb sandwich at Philippe’s for dinner. It was past 10pm when they got the train back, and as it entered Pasadena, two young men got on, one black and one Hispanic. The men sprawled across the aisle, their legs and bicycles in the way of other passengers. A Bluetooth speaker on one bicycle started blasting gangster rap through the carriage.

“It was awful,” said M, of the music. “It was all misogyny and incest, and just terrible—everyone could hear it. And it was all N- this and N- that.”. M had no qualms about using the N-word in full, loudly on our front lawn.

From personal history, I knew that part of M’s horror was the realisation that public spaces didn’t automatically belong to him, a white man. Even so, I was with M so far. Loud music is rude (and illegal) on the Metro, and it’s even worse when the lyrics are offensive. But M lost me when he told about his follow-up. The next day he called the Metro complaint line and started railing at the person on the other end about “the N- on the train with the loud N- music”. The black Metro employee told M that he didn’t want to take his call, and would transfer him to someone else. M got angry, and demanded that he be heard.

That’s when I got angry too. I think it’s safe to say that no black person in America today should have to listen to a white person use the N-word in anger, certainly not if the recipient is a presumably hardworking, far-from-overpaid city employee.

“How dare he?” said M of the Metro employee. “I was oppressed too!”

His righteous anger sounded plaintive, almost pleading. All I could do was walk away. The wind rustled through the trees around us. “Blood on the leaves and blood at the root.”

First published in Gulf News, May 24, 2016

The disappointment of a salesman

When Sam thought he had the sale, he was indefatigable. The sports version we wanted wasn’t available, so he urged us to consider the regular one, and drove one out “from the back” to send us a picture. But we were sure of what we wanted, so he got to work. He called the port. He updated us on progress. In one afternoon, he found us a car.

That evening, we did some research, and decided to go another way. I texted Sam before business hours the next day, so that he would know not to start any more work on us. I thanked him for his time, acknowledged his effort, apologised for changing our minds, and gave him the reason why.

Sam didn’t reply.

While he may have merely shrugged and moved onto the next customer, his silence was a blank canvas onto which I projected my assumptions of his state of mind. That he was annoyed, and maybe upset. That he was sulking.

Sam’s not the first to have displayed how important it is for salespeople to handle disappointment positively. I’ve had so many experiences that suggest that sales training does not put enough emphasis on how to behave when a transaction doesn’t go as expected. Too many salespeople get hurt or angry (and show that hurt or anger) when a customer changes his or her mind. Car sales especially demand empathy and patience from sales staff, as these are big, important purchases for most people.

Sometimes, I’ve seen salespeople act in anticipation of disappointment. In cycling culture, you are encouraged to support your LBS, or local bike store. It’s considered bad form to go to your LBS to try on something, then buy it online. But many people do this, and sometimes it’s obvious that a bike store employee has made an assumption about you. The result? Self-fulfilling prophecy.

If online commerce means that only two out of ten walk-ins buy, it’s even more important to give all ten a level of service that reminds them why they’ve sought out a brick-and-mortar shop. And that’s the greatest thing about non-online sales: you have the customer standing before you. He or she is giving you a chance to build a relationship. The sale is secondary—the most important thing, I believe, is to bring the customer back just one more time. And then one more, and one more, and soon, it’s “their” shop.

When things go badly, our lizard brains never forget. If you’ve had bad service at one shop in a mall, have you noticed how your gut forever wants you to not even drive past the mall again?

If Sam had replied to my text, thanking me for letting him know, and telling me to come back any time, I’d feel obliged to him. I’d remember him, and six months or a year from now, if I or a friend was in the market, I’d seek him out. But now? I might tell a friend, go there, but don’t work with Sam. Or I might steer the friend from the dealership altogether, because I assume that Sam’s possible emotional immaturity is a reflection of management’s character.

Thoughtful brand owners must shiver in their sleep knowing that thousands, even millions of dollars of brand value lies in the hands of Sams—people they have no control over, who are the first (and often only) human face of the brand for most customers. The brick-and-mortar shop today is either a useless rock or a precious gem, and only the staff at the specific location can decide which.

First published in Gulf News, May 15, 2016

When nouns are ‘doing words’

Whether bathroom policies at universities, racial attacks on buses, or police shootings, we live in a time where contexts of delicate issues are discussed and exposed in a way that was either impossible or overly long-drawn without the internet.

Within hours of triggering events we are able to read in depth on issues of gender, race, or culture. While most commentary is nuanced, enlightening and well-written, it’s common to have some of these ideas lost in a labyrinth of verbiage known as “academese”.

I’ve always been intimidated by academese. Its confidence trick requires readers who are either insecure enough or humble enough to assume that if they don’t understand something (or have to read a paragraph four times) it’s their fault. I’m usually insecure enough, having taken on the burden of wanting to be intelligent in all contexts that don’t include numbers.

Even when I write, if my confidence falters, I find I reach more often for academese and its keystone, the nominalisation. Turning verbs into nouns is a great way to play confidence tricks. Instead of, “the actor climbed the ladder”, the actor could “utilise a ladder for the exploration of verticality”.

A recent discussion on a copyeditors’ list confirmed what my gut has long known—that academese is simply bad, pompous writing. To watch these editors fearlessly tear down pedestals was an editing and writing lesson: don’t be cowed. One list member shared a note on the word ‘privilege’ by the American novelist David Foster Wallace, written for The Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus, 2012. It begins, “Even though some dictionaries OK it, the verb to privilege is currently used only in a particular English subdialect that might be called academese.”

Wallace provides a “ghastly” example sentence about the privileging of “univocal discourse”. “Contemporary academese,” his note continues, “originated in literary and social theory but has now metastasized throughout much of the humanities.”

Note the use of a verb associated with the spread of cancer. Wallace mentions two other words used the same way, situate and interrogate. So, for example, “to situate cultural bias”, or “to interrogate gendered attitudes”. He goes on to say these and any such phrases should exist only in “a university course taught by a professor so thoroughly cloistered, insecure, or stupid as to believe that academese constitutes intelligent writing. A required course, one that you can’t switch out of. In any other situation, run very fast the other way.”

Not mentioned as a fault of these professors is laziness. This bloated, intestinal writing might sound like hard work, but it’s far harder to take complex ideas and make them accessible and readable. Nominalisations and long noun phrases click together easily to build swathes of imposing text that utilise the auto-sanctioned ambiguity of abstraction’s faux-representationality for the conferring of dubious yet unquestioned agency. See?

In the years since the Thesaurus was published, the privileging (and more) of abstract nouns has metastasised into daily discourse—the social media posts and “10 ways to” articles. The internet has broadcast voices previously too oppressed and alone to be reliably heard, and yet, many of these stories are told by, or through, or because of, an academic. The style is instantly recognisable and isolates the people who most need to hear these tales; these different ways of looking at the world. Whether it’s because they are marginalised, persecuted or misunderstood, some people need great courage merely to tell their stories. It’s vital that their editor (internal or external) is as brave, and finds ways of presenting it that won’t send Wallace, and most of us, running very fast the other way.

First published in Gulf News, April 26, 2016

Gently down the streaming

Whenever I grow impatient with technology, I remember the clip of comedian Louis C.K. at the Conan O’Brien Show. “We live in an amazing, amazing world,” he says, as he uses the example of airplane wi-fi to describe how some of us have totally lost our wonder for technology. And let’s not forget about flying itself, something people complain about non-stop. “You’re sitting on a chair,” C.K. exclaims. “In the sky!”

Sometimes, as I wheel the bike out for a ride, my Garmin cycling computer takes its time to start up. “Acquiring satellites,” the screen says, and as I start to roll my eyes, I remember C.K. I mean, my bicycle has a device on it barely larger than matchbox, that locks onto signals from a network of GPS satellites 20,200km above my head, to tell me how far, fast and high I go on my ride, and I can’t wait two minutes for it to connect?

“Give it a second!” says C.K. to people who roll their eyes at their slow phones. “It’s going to space! Can you give it a second to get back from space?”

I caught myself again recently when Tidal tripped up, as the music streaming service has done a few times in the last two months. Let’s look at the technological advances that got me to this place. First, the software in audio systems can be updated, and the most recent update to the lead component brought with it native Tidal integration. The streaming service now appears as a source along with the current digital, analogue or radio inputs. I have a three-month free trial of the HiFi level, which means I have access to CD-quality music, of pretty much any band I can think of. Bangalore rockers Thermal and a Quarter, or Kerala rock band Avial? They’re there. Hopelessly expensive, out-of-print 70s prog rock band and album Crack the Sky? Yup. Favourite single by Crispian St. Peters I barely remember from my mother’s 45rpm record collection? Pressed a button and it was on my mind. And I still can’t put up with a few hiccups during heavy load periods?

The concept of CD-quality streaming has messed my world up a little, I have to admit. Having all the music at my fingertips isn’t new — with YouTube, it’s been that way for a while. As for playing through the “big system” it’s been possible via the television or the home theatre PC. The game changer here is the seamless experience, and, for anybody who cares, the audio quality. Whether nostalgia, or listening to radio hits, or exploring new music, it all plays loud with a presence, depth and detail not available on lesser streams.

And exploring new music is where Tidal has really paid off—both through search and its curated playlists. I’ve discovered the existence of a “post rock” movement, a musical genre called ‘djent’ and a hiterto unknown love for minimal Detriot techno. And my now-favourite band, Amplifier.

Yet, for a number of reasons, I wouldn’t pay $19.99 a month after the free trial. I’d rather have a personally assembled music collection without recurring costs. One that’s not at the whims of internet connectivity and corporations. It was Louis C.K. himself who later said of technology (this time, Twitter) that we are not required to use something just because it’s there. Sure, it’s great to have GPS bike computers, high-quality streaming and in-air wi-fi, and I think that staying abreast of new technology is important as you get older. But what’s equally important, I believe, is to use it like you don’t really need it.

First published in Gulf News, April 12, 2016

Going to the zoo

Out here on the western wing of the United States, living as we do within reach of Hollywood (the industry, not the city), famous entertainers feature a lot in the local press. But in the last few weeks, we’ve been following two very different stars: Shamu and P-22.

Shamu is, of course, a concept rather than an individual—a rolling roster of Orcinus orca that performs at SeaWorld, a couple of hours away in San Deigo. On March 17, Joel Manby, president and CEO of SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment, wrote an article in the Los Angeles Times titled ‘The Last SeaWorld Orcas’. In it, he announced the end of orca breeding in the park, as well as the “phasing out” of theatrical orca shows.

He didn’t mention it, but follow-up reports said the tide of public opinion was turned by the 2013 documentary Blackfish. Though SeaWorld has a defence on its website titled ‘The Truth about Blackfish‘, it seems the moral highground is not to be found in a large swimming pool with whales leaping out of it for human entertainment.

The other star, P-22, is also a mammal, but furry and land-dwelling. He’s male mountain lion who currently lives in LA’s Griffith Park, a 4,310 acre wilderness in the middle of the city. In August 2015, LA was saddened by the death of his kin P-32 who managed to cross the 101 freeway in April, but was killed trying to cross the north-south 5 freeway. (A successful crossing would have got him into a huge contiguous wilderness area.)

P-22 is a freeway crosser as well. He’s believed to have been born in the Santa Monica mountains, so had to cross the 405 and the 101 freeways to get to the park—these are roads that are a total of 10 to 12 lanes wide, and never free of traffic. Though he suffered mange for a while, he’s now a seriously good-looking chap, and there are several majestic photos of him and his liquid, alert eyes, including one of him in front of the Hollywood sign.

But it was the story of the koala that got to me. The LA Zoo is in Griffith Park, and apparently P-22 got in and grabbed a one of the Australian eucalyptus eaters, killing it. Reading about it brought a lump to my throat. But not for the koala.

It was for P-22, and the thought of this mountain lion wandering through a darkened zoo, and grabbing something that resembles food—a creature from 12,000km away. (Then, and this is where my imagination took over, he spits it with a feline “yuck” because it tastes like eucalyptus.) The LA Zoo might well have asked for the relocation or even killing of this visitor, but instead issued a mild “Please do not feed on the animals” by bringing inside all creatures at risk from P-22’s nights at the zoo.

The story made me think of the strangeness of P-22’s world, even though he’s geographically in the same location his family has been for thousands of years. He’s bounded by freeways on all sides and there are no females in his patch, so he’s going to have to travel soon, and make one of those terrible road crossings.

SeaWorld’s orcas meanwhile, have no crossings to make. They were all born in captivity, and cannot, says SeaWorld, survive in the wild. “The real enemies of wildlife,” writes Manby in his article mentioned earlier, “are poaching, pollution, unsustainable human development and man-made disasters such as oil spills—not zoos and aquariums.”

Depending on how bad that koala tasted, P-22 might not agree.

First published in Gulf News, March 29, 2016

The gold line comes to get us

“Isn’t it ironic,” said Kenny the Rail Fan, “that we’re attending the opening day of a railway line, and we’re in an Uber on the freeway?”

I certainly hadn’t expected so many people at the first day of the running of Los Angeles Metro Gold Line extension. Passing through what are called the “bedroom communities” of the foothills on the eastern side of the city, the extension runs about 17km past Pasadena, taking in our quiet town of Monrovia as it goes. Now, instead of a 20-minute drive to the nearest station, we can either walk 15 minutes, or drive in five to the local station, to get a train to downtown LA.

Thousands of people showed up for the opening, and the excitement was infectious. Some of the new stations had parties with bands and food trucks. Hundreds lined up for free rides on the new line. Pedestrians pointed excitedly and waved as the full trains went by.

And that’s why we found ourselves in a shared taxi, driving back to a less crowded station to get back on the train. The terminus in Azusa had a 1.5 hour wait, with the line snaking through the station square and into the parking structure.

Kenny, whose “rail fan” title is self-proclaimed, had been looking forward to this day for a long time. In fact, though it was only March 5, he had already taken off work on May 20, the day the LA Metro Exposition line extension opens, and when the rail system will finally take passengers to the beach.

Perhaps more than most cities in the world, Los Angeles is especially hard for a newcomer, or visitor, to crack. Kenny the Rail Fan’s LA is most likely so vastly different from another LA native’s that an outsider has no common threads as a way into understanding this city. The Metro was my way in when I was new here. It offered me a loose scaffolding (or, if you will, a rudimentary rabbithole) as a way to start to piece this place together. (Please allow my heavily mixed metaphors work as a meta-metaphor for LA.) As a result, the Metro is special to me—it was, in a way, my first Angeleno friend.

It was through those early, nervous trips on the Gold Line and then the Red or Purple Lines that I formed my first connections with this city, and started to establish a shaky sense of belonging. And with the extension, it’s as if the city reached out to us, and legitimised us somehow. After all, living out in Monrovia is to be on the “not happening” side of town, but we love it here at the feet of the majestic San Gabriel mountains. Critics of the extension say these communities don’t have the population density to support a rail line, but the arrival of the lines is already spurring development.

This sounds like amazing forward thinking, but consider this. Fifty years ago, Monrovia was connected to Downtown LA via an electric light rail that was demolished to make way for the car. But even as the rail service expands, and LA undoes its backing of the horseless carriage, Metro reports steadily declining ridership. This downward trend has been shown to pre-date the commonly cited explanations of falling petrol prices and a recovering economy.

Out of the thousands who showed up for the opening, the question is, for how many of them is this a transportation solution, and for how many is it an annual joyride? What about Kenny the Rail Fan? Well, he drives to work.

First published in Gulf News, March 15, 2016