July 30, 2014

What homeowners should know about PG&E's rights, responsibilities regarding your trees

So, our neighbors will be happy to learn that the tree service is coming Monday to remove a collapse Monterey Pine and its wild tangle of branches and pine needles from our yard Monday.  It will have been a month, the tree is drying out, and we're all worried about the firestorm that could erupt if someone drops a lit cigarette near the tree.

We'll pay the $3,200 it will cost to remove the tree. It's upsetting that we have to come up with the money. There's no word yet whether the homeowners insurance will cover it.  What's even more upsetting has been digging through PGE regulations and learning that the utility may, indeed, bear some responsibility for the tree's collapse. But it will take work, time and money on our part to fight the case.

In my last post, I relied on regulations regarding its Vegetation Management program to raise the question of whether PGE is responsible. As I said, its department is required by state law to maintain clearances around high-voltage power lines.

PG&E doesn't have to get your permission to remove or prune the tree; it will "make every effort to notify you" after its inspection staff identifies work that needs to be done on your property. The contractor PGE hires to do the work doesn't need your permission to come on your property to remove the tree, according to the Tree Pruning FAQs page. 

Since I wrote that post, I found more detailed regulations regarding PGE's vegetation management policy.

This policy is focused on removing trees, rather than pruning them, because removal offers a better likelihood for "safety, service reliability and cost effectiveness."

Reading this, I wish PGE had removed the tree, rather than just pruning. Its own policies say that "hazard trees" should be removed immediately, and quotes  California Forest Practice Rules, which define a "hazard tree" as one that could damage utility facilities should it fall "where 1) the tree leans ... or where 2) the tree is defective because of any cause, such as heart rot, shallow roots, excavation ... or any other reason that could result in the tree or a main lateral of the tree falling."

Neighbors told us the pruning work by PGE's contractor made the tree appear unstable, and likely to fall into our house, our neighbor's house, or even into the street above which the power line runs.
An arborist we've hired to remove the tree saw it shortly after the pruning work, and believed the job made the tree unstable.

Regulations say "techniques of modern arboriculture" should be used when pruning to direct regrowth away from power lines and minimize adverse effects to tree health. To what extent did PGE's work adversely affect the tree's health and put our homes and its own transmission lines at risk?

July 29, 2014

Works of wisdom from, yes, Richard Nixon

It's been a summer of historical anniversaries: the D-Day invasion, the start of World War I, and, coming up, Richard Nixon's resignation as the 37th president of the United States in August 1974.

Nixon was definitely a complicated figure. He revolutionized foreign relations, set a foundation for modern environmental relations and even advanced women's rights, by signing into law Title IX, according to journalist and author Cokie Roberts. But others see him as "tragically insecure" and "the most corrupt president" in U.S. history.

Certainly, my view of politics and American institutions were colored by revelations about Nixon's "enemies list," his role in covering up the break-in at Democratic National Committee headquarters and his secret bombing of Cambodia (which destabilized that country to the extent that the genocidal Khmer Rouge took power).

In any event, Nixon was certainly known for his survival instincts. When push came to shove -- mountain evidence of illegal, unethical behavior cornered him into resign -- Nixon could respond with a certain political genius by giving an amazing speech.  I'm talking about his famous and poetically spontaneous farewell speech to the White House staff before leaving Washington D.C. I came across it recently while watching a PBS American Experience documentary on Nixon's life.

The unscripted and unrehearsed speech has been hailed as one of the most "candid and genuine moments" ever delivered by U.S. president. It's pretty moving, and it definitely offers up words of wisdom for how any of us would face the slings and arrows of life. Here is an excerpt, in which he quotes another American president who overcame a tremendous sorrow.

I am not educated, but I do read books -- and the T.R. quote was a pretty good one. Here is another one I found as I was reading, my last night in the White House, and this quote is about a young man. He was a young lawyer in New York. He had married a beautiful girl, and they had a lovely daughter, and then suddenly she died, and this is what he wrote. This was in his diary. 
He said, "She was beautiful in face and form and lovelier still in spirit. As a flower she grew and as a fair young flower she died. Her life had been always in the sunshine. There had never come to her a single great sorrow. None ever knew her who did not love and revere her for her bright and sunny temper and her saintly unselfishness. Fair, pure and joyous as a maiden, loving, tender and happy as a young wife. When she had just become a mother, when her life seemed to be just begun and when the years seemed so bright before her, then by a strange and terrible fate death came to her. And when my heart's dearest died, the light went from my life forever." 
That was T.R. in his twenties. He thought the light had gone from his life forever -- but he went on. And he not only became President but, as an ex-President, he served his country, always in the arena, tempestuous, strong, sometimes wrong, sometimes right, but he was a man. 
And as I leave, let me say, that is an example I think all of us should remember. We think sometimes when things happen that don't go the right way; we think that when you don't pass the bar exam the first time -- I happened to, but I was just lucky; I mean, my writing was so poor the bar examiner said, "We have just got to let the guy through." We think that when someone dear to us dies, we think that when we lose an election, we think that when we suffer a defeat that all is ended. We think, as T.R. said, that the light had left his life forever. Not true. 
It is only a beginning, always. The young must know it; the old must know it. It must always sustain us, because the greatness comes not when things go always good for you, but the greatness comes and you are really tested, when you take some knocks, some disappointments, when sadness comes, because only if you have been in the deepest valley can you ever know how magnificent it is to be on the highest mountain.

July 28, 2014

Walnut Creek's Century movie theater the latest cineplex to serve wine, beer

So along with buying popcorn and nachos with that neon orang-y cheese, patrons at the Century Walnut Creek 14 will soon also be able to buy a glass of wine or beer. This is according to a "Public Notice of Application to Sell Alcoholic Beverages," posted in one of the windows of the movie theater facing Locust Street.

The application is made to the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, and says the license is for a "new wine/beer eating place.

What exactly does this mean? When one in your party gets her Icee, does this mean you can also belly up the concession stand for a glass of Cabernet Sauvignon or craft beer? And then take your drinks and overpriced and over-salted junior popcorn into the theater to watch the show? Or will the theater create a special bar area to serve alcoholic drinks, along with more upscale food.

The movie/wine/beer trifecta has been going on at a few other theaters in the area.

 Cinemark Holdings, Inc., which also owns Walnut Creek's Century theater, opened a new 12-screen high-technology movie theater in Napa in 2012. The theater, in the "heart of the wine country," also features the CineVino Wine Bar with a luxury lounge serving small plate selections, along with wine from Trinchero Family Estates and Francis Ford Coppola Wineries and  beer from Lagunitas Brewing Company, the North Bay Business Journal reported. 

Cinemark, which is based in Plano, Texas, has opened wine bars in other new theaters in communities in Colorado and Texas.

More locally again, Livermore's independent Vine Cinema and Alehouse, features first-run and independent and classic films (bravo!) for its entertainment lineup. Its alehouse menu serves burgers, caesar salad, pizza and salad along with a wide selection of draft beer and premium wines, including some from Livermore Valley -- for the reasonable price of $5.76 to $6.25.

I'm not sure, but the Sundance Kabuki theater in San Francisco's Japantown may have introduced the upscale eatery and wine bar concept to the Bay Area theater-going experience.  One of the hosts of the international San Francisco Film Festival, the complex reopened in 2007 after undergoing a $6 million renovation by Robert Redford's Sundance Cinemas.  One enhancement is the balcony bar, where, says the San Francisco Chronicle, you could eat ceviche and tartare and sip a cocktail at your reserved seat in the balcony while watching a film.

July 21, 2014

PG&E and the Monterey pine that crashed into my back yard

One neighbor described the sound as a big “whoosh.” To me, just rousing myself from sleep at 2:30 a.m., it sounded like something crashing – a ladder against an outside wall or a bookshelf in my son’s room slamming to the floor. 

It was July 3, and the disaster – whatever it was – woke all of us up. Lights blinked on in various rooms of the house, and my husband, mother and I in our nightgowns and sweatpants rushed to check the house, inside and then out. We couldn’t see anything right away, after going through the different rooms and then walking outside the front and back doors.  We even looked over the fence into a neighbor’s back yard, and saw no sign of disaster.

But then I ventured further out onto our back patio. It is set against the side of a hill that slopes up behind our house. The light from our dining room shone on the patio, and I could see something unusual: a branch with pine needles lay on the ground, and nearby rested a greenish pine cone. Neither are among the the scattering of oak leaves or twigs that usually wind up on our backyard patio.  

I looked up the hill, into the dark, above a trellis my father long ago built over the patio.

And there it was, in the blue-black light, the outline of some giant hulking thing. My mind flashed to image of a ship run aground onto a beach into a storm, or the bones of some prehistoric behemoth.

I couldn't make it up the hill via an established walkway. It was blocked by the tree and its aftermath.  I moved around to the other side of the yard and made it to the top part of the back yard. Much of the top part of our back yard, where a redwood tree and apricot tree stood, was now a tangle of branches and needles.

A street runs behind our backyard. I walked a ways down it and saw that the downed tree was maybe at least 40 feet long and that its source was at the far end of our next-door neighbor’s yard near the street. The tree had broken off at the roots.

Several hours later, after the sun had come up, we joined some neighbors in waking to this strange situation. As it was, my vacation was starting that morning, a break that included a road trip to the Sierras for a wedding and then to Oregon. 

Fortunately, we immediately discerned that the tree toppling had caused no damage that required any immediate attention.

The tree was a Monterey pine, and it had crashed across our fence and probably destroyed the two other trees, though it was hard to see amid all the tangle of branches. It may have also caused a crack in our trellis. But no utilities were threatened, and our house was spared. We called to file a claim with the insurance company, and talked to neighbors, notably those next door who owned the tree. 

So has begun an interesting journey of trying to figure out who is responsible for the damage to our property and perhaps the even bigger cost of chopping down and removing the tree.

Our next-door neighbors feel terrible, and they are good people and good neighbors. They are an older couple, and have been very kind to our family and other neighbors over the years. 

They said they had been worried about the tree since the spring. That’s when PGE dispatched a company to come out and prune the tree’s branches which had been touching a power line. Apparently, those branches had caught fire sometime in the winter.

But our neighbors said the tree company hired by PGE had pruned the branches in a way that made the tree look dangerously unbalanced. 

Somehow, over the months, we missed all this. Then again, this particular tree, somewhat distant from our properly line, had never been directly visible from our back yard. There were other trees standing in the way. It never seemed to loom threateningly above us or our house.

But in getting out and talking to neighbors who live on the street above us, I learned that they, too, had been worried about the tree since PGE's tree-trimming work. And, they, too, thought the tree was leaning pretty precariously. One told me she worried the tree would crash into our next-door neighbors’ house or into ours' in any storms this coming winter.

According to PGE's website, its Vegetation Management Department is required by state law to maintain clearances around high-voltage power lines. It dispatches companies to do the pruning work. These contracted companies are described as “qualified” foresters who determine the amount and type of pruning based on, the website says: the tree’s growth and structure, wind sway, species of tree and environmental factors, among other things.

“As always, we also include a reasonable margin of safety above the absolute-minimum clearance requirements,” the website says.

When we got back from vacation, I called PGE,  and talked to one representative who listened, took the information and said she would send out a claim form.  A few days later, I received a call from another PGE representative – unfortunately I wasn’t able to hear or write down the department name. This person  sounded a bit confused about why I had called.  After I explained the situation, she huffed impatiently and suggested that PGE was in no way responsible; our neighbors are responsible because the tree was on their property….

I said I still wanted to file a claim and to obtain records of any work that had been done on the tree.  She said little else, other than that there would be a phone record of our call. 

I suppose that is reassuring -- the paper trail has been established! -- but the more I read about PGE's responsibilities around tree-pruning programs, the more I think pushing them for answers is worth my time. Two weeks since the tree toppling, I've also become worried that the tree could become a fire hazard, as its heap of branches and needles dry out in the hot summer weather. Shouldn't PGE be concerned in that regard?  

Meanwhile, I’ve heard from our homeowners' insurance company that it may only pay to repair the damage to the fence and to the trellis; but it won’t pay to remove the tree and all its branches. A tree removal company has given us an estimate of $3,300 to do that job. 

In the meantime, our community could also be dealing with an epidemic of toppling Monterey pines. The Contra Costa Times said last Wednesday a Monterey pine, across the street from Kaiser Permanente's medical campus in Walnut Creek, toppled over and landed on three cars. 

January 1, 2014

Mechnical ventalitation, other end-of-life medical measures for Jahi McMath? "What it buys is misery we would not inflict on a terrorist"

Thirteen-year-old Jahi McMath is dead. That's the conclusion of Paul Fisher, the chief of Pediatric Neurology at Stanford University, who was appointed by an Alameda Superior Court judge to examine the girl and make the final determination about whether this Oakland eighth-grader is alive or dead. He concluded that the child lying in the hospital bed at Children's Hospital in Oakland is in fact dead, with no hope of recovery.

He said she had an irreversible brain injury and shows complete absence of cerebral function, meeting all criteria for brain death, listed by professional societies and the state of California. 

Alas, that conclusion hasn't satisfied Jahi's grieving family, whose painful, tragic denial, fueled by what they call a strong religious faith, has been exploited and amplified by an attorney with questionable ethics, groups with a political right-to-life agenda, and media members who seem enamored with the made-for-TV-medical-drama suspense aspects of this storyline. 

If there is anything positive that can be gained from this situation is that it is prompting good discussions in responsible media outlets and in private homes about end-of-life issues. And perhaps it is encouraging people to consider carefully at how they would want to die, or how they would make decisions in regards to a loved one who is terminally ill or who has suffered a traumatic brain injury and can only stay alive through mechanical means.

Maybe the best place to look for answers to these questions are doctors and health professionals themselves. Find out what life-saving measures they would choose -- or rather, not choose -- for themselves. You would be very surprised.

"The Bitter End," is a January 2013 segment on the PBS radio show RadioLab that looks at a decades-long Johns Hopkins University study on doctors, including asking doctors about their own views on medical care and dying.

The study shows (see chart above) that up to 90 percent of doctors, surveyed for a hypothetical scenario in which they suffered irreversible brain injury, would decline mechanical ventilation, CPR and dialysis.  Up to 80 percent would say "no" to a feeding tube.  Of course, they know things we lay people don't know, including what it really means to get CPR (only about 8 percent of people survive, and the rest are in pretty horrible shape) and what it means to be kept alive by a breathing machine.

"What it buys is misery we would not inflict on a terrorist." 

This quote comes from Ken Murray, a doctor was interviewed for the RadioLab report and who has written several articles about how doctors think much differently about death than patients. 

The misery he refers to involves patients getting cut open, perforated with tubes, assaulted with drugs, and hooked up to machines -- specifically to mechanical ventilators -- in what doctors know is a "futile" attempt at care.  

"All of this occurs in the intensive care unit at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars a day. What is buys is a misery we would not inflict on a terrorist," he writes in an article "How Doctors Die: It's Not Like the Rest of Us, But It Should Be." 

He more specifically addresses the agony of mechanical ventilation in the RadioLab interview. To use mechanical ventilation, doctors need to paralyze the patient, so she can't move, though she might still be fully aware of what's happening around her, Murray said. Mechanical ventilators usually involve inserting an endotracheal tube into the windpipe. This can be profoundly uncomfortable, as sometimes, other reports say, the machine doesn't quite sync up to the patient's natural rhythm for breathing. 

When my father was on a mechanical ventilator for a few days after heart surgery in 2002, the doctors strongly suggested he be heavily sedated so that he wouldn't be mostly unconscious until it was removed. My father eventually came off the ventilator, and lived for another eight months, but had trouble swallowing and later developed pneumonia and other infections. Watching my father on the ventilator convinced me that I never want to be on one. 

In a blog post for the Center for Health and Media Policy at Hunter College, RN Mauricio Berrio Orozco asks whether prolonged mechanical ventilation causes needless suffering, especially in patients surviving a devastating brain injury. "Many of them are conscious, but a good prognosis is basically impossible. They do not have even the slightest chance of recovering their previous level of functioning."

Orozco also points out the serious problems that can arise from long-term ventilation. These patients are at serious risk for infections and ventilator-associated pneumonia, huge pressure ulcers and muscle atrophy from inactivity.

Murray adds that some of the treatments we offer to critically ill patients are often "worse than the disease. You may be prolonging life but not for very long. The life you have left is misery."

So, if Jahi is still alive, as her family and their supporters insist, then keeping her indefinitely hooked up to a mechanical ventilator carries the risk of condemning her to days and months of agony. If she is alive, it sounds like she'll need to be paralyzed, heavily sedated and constantly monitored for infections, ulcers and muscle atrophy.

The family has received support from a brain-injury treatment center dedicated to Terri Shiavo, the Florida woman whose case in the mid-2000s sparked a fierce nationwide end-of-life debate, according to the Contra Costa Times. The organization, run by a former hairdresser, revealed earlier this week that it was helping Jahi's family get her transferred to a facility in New York, that claims to be "about preserving life and treating brain-injured patients with care and dignity."

The mechanically ventilated reality of Jahi's death--or life, as her family asserts--seems a far cry from dignity. If she's alive, then it could be misery, as Murray describes. The medical interventions necessary could lead to profound suffering. Did the Terri Shiavo organization, or the facility accepting her transfer, explained those facts to her family?

But if she's dead, as all the experts say, the only misery and suffering would be to her dignity. It's time for her family, already coping with profound grief, to accept that she's gone.  

October 9, 2013

Should high schools do away with football and other sports?

Last Friday afternoon, I was sitting in the bleachers at Las Lomas High School, watching the Knights junior varsity team putting up a valiant struggle against the Acalanes Dons. It was a lovely, early October afternoon, T-shirt weather giving way to fall crispness as the sun went down and the stadium lights turned on.

That I even just wrote this sort of Friday Night Lights, American sports-speak paragraph feels a little strange to me because I never much cared about football--not until my son started playing as a freshman last year.

I certainly didn't care about football when I was in high school, and my team was the Acalanes Dons. I don't think I ever went to a Dons football game, and I didn't know any football players. As a member of the school's drama program, my friends and I considered ourselves to be something of what passed as the cosmopolitan elite in a suburban high school. Yeah, we were a bit full of ourselves. We joked about the jocks being too mainstream, and we stereotyped them as simple, "bust-heads" guys. We probably resented any primacy their team membership afforded them on campus, the fact that we had to attend pep rallies for homecoming, or the expectation that we get rah-rah about some vague notion of "team spirit."

I have a feeling this anti-football, anti-sports sensibility would have found much to like about The Atlantic's big new cover story, The Case Against High School Sports.

In the story, author Amanda Ripley argues that the American high school love affair with sports is hurting academics, at a time when our next generation of students cannot afford to get behind in terms of preparation for global competitiveness. She writes:

Sports are embedded in American schools in a way they are not almost anywhere else. Yet this difference hardly ever comes up in domestic debates about America’s international mediocrity in education. ...

... Even in eighth grade, American kids spend more than twice the time Korean kids spend playing sports, according to a 2010 study published in the Journal of Advanced Academics. In countries with more-holistic, less hard-driving education systems than Korea’s, like Finland and Germany, many kids play club sports in their local towns—outside of school. Most schools do not staff, manage, transport, insure, or glorify sports teams, because, well, why would they?

But I'm not in high school anymore, and my son plays high school football and is really enjoying it.  I really enjoy going to his games. I read this kind of story, and I find my mind grousing, almost like some Fox TV news fan, about more media attacks against the great American institution of football.

Actually, I do seriously wonder if those arguments about American high school students falling behind their counterparts in other countries is a bit overplayed, tired--and simplistic.  For one thing, can you really compare the academic achievements of students from the much more culturally and economically homogenous population samples that you would get from Korea, Finland and Germany against the United States, where students come from hugely diverse segments of society?

OK, for me to attempt to make the argument that these educational hand-wringers are comparing apples and oranges, I would need to dig into the data. But from reading the article, Ripley doesn't demonstrate she did much digging into the usual data either -- which is disappointing, considering this is The Atlantic and I expect its writers to produce better evidence.

Meanwhile, she seems to measure the "success" of American students by test scores and in terms of their potential as producers in an economy. In her argument, where do other indicators of success come in? I'm talking about students growing into adults who feel well-rounded and happy and contribute to society in other ways. Those sorts of attributes don't show up in standardized test scores.

In her narrow idea of success, she also seems to diss the argument I've developed for supporting any extracurricular activity--including sports--in high school programs by saying this about a former Tennessee high school principal:

His argument is a familiar one: sports can be bait for students who otherwise might not care about school. “I’ve seen truancy issues completely turned around once students begin playing sports,” he says. “When students have a sense of belonging, when they feel tied to the school, they feel more part of the process.”
OK, so what if it's familiar argument, if it's true for a lot of kids? When my son said he wanted to do freshman football and start practicing the summer before freshman year, I was happy. It meant he wanted to somehow get involved in school and have in place a social network before the academic year started.

He's become friends with the guys on both the football and wrestling teams. Being on both teams has given him confidence, a sense of belonging and an investment in the school community -- which I believe makes him much more engaged academically.  

But sports wasn't the only way he-- or any other student -- could find this sense of engagement. He could have found it, like I did, doing drama. Or, like other friends of his, who write for the yearbook or play in the band.

Ripley's strongest arguments come when she picks apart the huge financial investment -- which often come in the form of hidden costs -- that schools make in their sports programs.  She tells the story of a Texas rural school district, whose superintendent made an absolutely radical decision, especially in the spiritual home of Friday Night Lights. He decided to eliminate the high school's sports programs and focus on academics.  The district faced being shut down by the state due to academic failure and financial mismanagement. Football at the high school cost about $1,300 a player; math, by contrast, just $618 a student.

It turns out the school and the community missed football less than they thought. While some football players transferred to other schools, others took up club sports. Meanwhile, the rate of students passing classes went up 30 percent, and rowdiness, fights and other behavioral issues on campus declined. And, for the first time in many years, the district had a healthy operating balance and no debt. “Learning is going on in 99 percent of the classrooms now,” the school's former football coach, who also teaches history, told Ripley, “compared to 2 percent before.”

I've watched -- and loved -- Friday Night Lights. Certainly enough to know that there are places in America where sports truly overwhelms the culture of the schools and of the surrounding communities. I would have suffocated in a Dillon Panthers kind of school, and I'm sure there are a fair number of kids in those high schools who suffer because they don't care about being part of football-dominated school spirit.

Ripley's arguments probably better apply to the Friday Night Lights kinds of places.

Meanwhile, she has these curious paragraphs and bits of information near the end of the her article that undercut her arguments.

She is critical of the fact that only 40 percent of seniors participated in sports, which means that 60 percent do not. But last I checked, 40 percent still translates into a fairly significant number of kids in any school population. Then she writes:

Though the research on student athletes is mixed, it generally suggests that sports do more good [italics mine] than harm for the players themselves. One 2010 study by Betsey Stevenson, then at the University of Pennsylvania, found that, in a given state, increases in the number of girls playing high-school sports have historically generated higher college-attendance and employment rates among women.
Finally, she cites this study, by a Columbia University researcher, which backs up my earlier assertion about the overall value of extracurricular activities, including sports. This study ...
... found that teenagers who participated in extracurriculars had higher college-graduation and voting rates, even after controlling for ethnicity, parental education, and other factors.

So, here in suburban San Francisco, we're blessed with pretty good to outstanding public high schools that usually offer a range extracurricular activities.

I'm sure there are some kids at Las Lomas who just want to focus on academics -- and they can. If Las Lomas is anything like Acalanes was when I was a student, then you can, if you choose, mostly tune out the sports culture -- with the exception of the occasional pep rallies.

And then there are some kids who don't like school, or don't thrive in your typical, large American comprehensive high school. Maybe they are otherwise brilliant, or entrepreneurial, or self-starting, and they will find their own way to succeed in life.

And when they become rich and successful CEOs, they will bemoan how mainstream public education dulls the mind and fails to help our next generation stay competitive in our global marketplace. They will send their kids to Waldorf schools, or whatever new alternative education trend comes along, and they will start their education foundations and donate to programs that support charter schools or small-school communities. Such efforts are laudable considering that there certainly are kids who would thrive in those kind of education environments.

However, I would guess that a majority of students are relatively content with the blend of academics and extracurricular activities they get at larger comprehensive schools. They want the opportunity to have something besides academics to engage them creatively, socially, physically or intellectually.

As it happens, some kids will find that sense of engagement in the swimming pool, on the basketball court or on the football field.