Taking notes and making notes

Bill Hatch probes the symbiotic relationship between music and writing

I was trading messages with a newsthinking.com reader named William Hatch from California and he kept stunning me with his evocative comparisons between writing and music. (“…drumming gives heart and that’s personally important when you are covering political conflict. Paradoxically, it seems to soften you, keep you loose, melt the cynicism, rigidity and anger that writers can feel when they are covering people who lie and obfuscate for big fat tax-paid salaries…”).

Taking notes and making notes

Taking notes and making notes

He was touching on something that felt real: using one art form to inform another. Those of you who love music, especially those of you who play music, will recognize the potential to integrate one set of skills into another.

Bill has written magazine pieces since the 1960s, just finished four years as a daily journalist and is beginning freelance investigative work on natural resource issues. He graduated from Stanford in Classics, and says he has divided his life “between political campaigns, farming, some farm labor union work, agricultural consulting in western states, Mexico and Nicaragua, writing and music. The two things I didn’t quit were writing and music.” He’s a pianist and percussionist, and he now takes the stage:

WRITING AND MUSIC

By William M. Hatch

Why do music and writing have a symbiotic relationship for me?

Composition, performance, variety of form, play.

Composition. From childhood lessons in jazz piano I learned music had structure, was made of things called chords and scales arranged in progressions from which I, like all musicians, could improvise to make the tune my own.

In college, novelist N.V.M. Gonzalez, also a musician, taught prose composition by means of whatever analogy he thought would work. With me, a carpenter at the time, he alternated musical analogies with allusions to framing, dry-wall work and roofing. Editing was just another form of remodeling. If that didn’t work, he’d suggest playing compositions of Fernando Sor for Spanish guitar.

Performance. Writing a news story on deadline is like taking a solo in a band. It has to be new and it has to swing. I try to make myself find some new feeling in every story I write, like a jazz musician tries to find new feeling in an old show tune.

Variety of form. Musical structures — of a fugue or a sonata, the blues or the changes in a jazz tune — are treasuries of composed shapes, forms, and patterns. They are available in a borderline area of consciousness just beyond earshot. These forms can enter the mind to offer creative aid in the act of composition of a news story.

I think music stays on the borderline of consciousness when I am composing a news story because I am concentrating so hard on this composition in this craft at this moment that I have no conscious energy for another craft.

But, archaic as this may sound, the intensity of that concentration may act like a prayer to the Muses, all nine of them at once.

Play. The key of C-major, favored by most public organs, official spokespersons, elected officials, bureaucrats and the FBI, does not delight me. I like to flat a few notes in that scale with quotes in pungent native English as I compose my story for the night. This is play, the highest, least describable, most rewarding element of composition in any medium.

It takes practice but practice leads to play.

Working with words, I feel I am working with complex meanings that belong to the language and the world — I’m only renting them — meanings I’ve fought all my life to understand, control, marshal, organize. Music has a freedom of formal composition closer to painting than writing. Yet, I have three recordings — of Bach, Lester Young and Billie Holiday, and a Cuban group called the “Congo Kings” — I suspect influence my writing.

Glenn Gould’s recording of Bach’s “Art of the Fugue” is a study in the ceaseless tension and harmony achieved by multiple voices. Fugues are composed of separate, single-note lines that wind in and out of each other, tie themselves in knots of chords and fly in opposite directions. No one voice dominates for long. Some of the chords these voices make are melodious, others sound like something Monk thought up.

I believe the essences of some stories lie in just this kind of weaving in and out of separate voices. Listening for the essential feeling tone in these stories, a tone often both old and new, sometimes guides me to a lead and and a story shape.

When Lester Young plays his tenor sax while Billie Holiday sings, they make a duet of questions about phrasing, tone, lyrics, music, rhythm. You can hear them listening to each other as they question. I think their duet has helped me with a certain kind of apparently prosaic business feature, where the task is to bring individual lives and work into focus. I once found a 25-year love affair that took place on two continents, through several states and bad marriages, in a routine story on the opening of the Chinese restaurant. I found it because of being awake, following a hint and being open to something beautiful behind the anxieties of people investing their life savings in a small business.

Rhythm makes time conscious. Reporters, like all humanity, are caught in vast nets of time, each cord tugging, all cords binding. In “Congo Kings’ Jazz Descargas,” Afro-Cuban drum masters Camero, Valdes and Hidalgo play in the field of time itself. I think their play helps me escape chronology, give me more choices in sequencing and a chance at finding my own sense of the story’s time — its logic for me and the pace for telling it.

Finally, Pablo Casals’ lifelong affair with Bach’s six suites for solo cello strengthens my faith that practice leads to play.

“For 12 years I studied and worked at them every day, and I was nearly 25 before before I had the courage to play one of them in public,” he wrote. He only consented to play all six of them 35 years later. In his old age, he wondered, “How could anyone think of Bach as cold, when these suites seem to shine with the most glittering kind of poetry?”

EVERYDAY EXPLANATORY JOURNALISM

All journalism should be “explanatory,” but there are certain moments when you can work harder to give the audience a lesson–take readers deeper into a subject they are used to seeing addressed superficially.

Here are two examples, culled from two fields general-assignment reporters must routinely tackle: labor squabbles and the weather. Both stories are long–nearly 50 inches–but you could have written them with the same sensibility in 30 inches. Both were written by people with a degree of expertise in their fields, but a GA willing to make a half-dozen extra phone calls could have injected some of the same insight into the pieces.

In the first, business writer Nancy Cleeland examined a waterfront labor dispute. I liked the fact that she told the story through two separate tours of the same place, and was willing to struggle a bit to explain the oft-used but seldom-developed expression “rigid union work rules.”

MAKING WAVES ON THE WATERFRONT

By Nancy Cleeland

On one side of the table sits a tough, deliberative, tradition-bound union determined to protect some of the last great blue-collar jobs in America.

On the other is an increasingly powerful and impatient group of multinational corporations driven to move merchandise ever faster as transpacific trade explodes.

The gulf between them–which has grown through years of distrust, resentment and misunderstanding–at times seems as wide as the ocean that separates California and Asia.

That divide now colors every move in the high-stakes contract negotiations between the Pacific Maritime Assn., representing ocean carriers and stevedoring services, and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. Talks covering 10,500 dockworkers along the West Coast began a month ago in San Francisco, but have yielded little. The current contract expires at 5 p.m. Monday.

Each side has gripes: Ocean carriers claim the union operates under cumbersome, 40-year-old rules and has been slow to accept technological changes that could save them millions of dollars. Workers claim the shipping lines want to chip away at their strength by moving highly paid jobs to nonunion contractors, reducing health benefits and eliminating the union’s revered hiring halls.

Here’s where Nancy sets the stage for the depth of the piece:

Some of the toughest points, however, are ambiguous and emotional, and they cannot be resolved with a clause in a contract. That became clear during two recent tours of a major Los Angeles port terminal, guided alternately by representatives of management and labor with the intent of clarifying contract issues.

From the start, it was evident that these were starkly different cultures. High-level union officials debated for a week before agreeing to the tour and establishing ground rules. The PMA made arrangements in a day, with only one condition: The shipping line that opened its doors could not be named. “If we say anything that makes the union mad,” a supervisor said, “they can make life hell for us.”

The foreign-owned line operates one of the largest and most modern of 14 terminals in the Los Angeles-Long Beach port complex. Covering 300 acres, it can accommodate three mega-ships at a time, each one carrying several thousand steel containers the size of railroad cars.

On a recent Thursday morning, the terminal hummed with activity. Trucks rumbled along lanes of containers, which were stacked three-high by machines resembling giant forklifts. At the water’s edge, long-limbed cranes plucked multi-ton boxes from ships’ decks, then set them down on a truck chassis with a thunderous boom. Two minutes later, the same crane dropped another load. Then another and another.

Here’s where she sets up the discussion of union work rules:

The scene was noisy, outsized and frenetic. Then, at 11:30 a.m., it came to a sudden halt. Time for lunch.

Industry consultant Frank Hanley, who was leading the management tour, chuckled and shook his head. He couldn’t have asked for a better demonstration of the union’s power.

As the average U.S. workweek grew through the 1990s, and 24-hour operations and staggered shifts became routine, the ILWU managed to maintain work rules much as they existed a generation ago. They include a common hour-long lunch break, double-pay for night shifts and the guarantee of a work pace that the union calls healthy and sustainable, but the shippers deride as simply slow.

ILWU members are among the highest-paid blue-collar employees in the nation, with basic longshore workers earning an average of $80,000 last year, including overtime, and union foremen taking in $158,000.

“That’s not middle income, that’s upper income,” said Hanley, who once managed terminals in Hong Kong and Oakland for a U.S. ocean carrier, but left the company several years ago after it was bought by a Singapore-based freight line. Part of a wave of consolidations that shifted most major shipping lines on the West Coast to foreign ownership, the sale nudged many veteran employees such as Hanley into early retirement.

His task that day was to show how new electronic devices could speed up the freight-moving process, boosting productivity and profits and making way for the growth of international trade. The PMA says the union has blocked such technology to protect jobs.

First stop was the terminal’s main entrance. On an average day, trucks pass through its gates 3,000 times to deliver containers for export or, more commonly, empties that once carried consumer goods from Asia.

Each “gate move” must be documented, and the driver assigned to a spot on the crowded terminal grounds. How that transaction happens is one of the most contentious issues in the contract talks.

Shippers claim most of the information, such as origin, destination and contents of the container, could be collected electronically by optical scanners that read codes stamped on the side. But they say the union insists on manually keying in much of the data, and staffing the gates as they have for decades: with one highly paid clerk for each of the 10 entry lanes.

“Four or five could handle what 10 are doing today,” Hanley said, “but they won’t allow it.”

An incremental step, he said, was the installation of cabin-height printers at each gate, which allow truckers to tear off their own documents rather than taking them from a clerk. The union resisted that change for months, Hanley said. Meanwhile, clerks insisted on tearing out orders from the printers and handing them to drivers, who had to park and walk to get them. Those steps added 40 seconds to each transaction, he said.

Union representatives say printers now are being used as intended, and that they simply needed time to study the change.

“They have the right to introduce new technology. It’s already in the contract,” said Peter Peyton, a third-generation longshoreman. Section 15 of the contract that expires Monday states, “There shall be no interference by the union with the employers’ right to operate efficiently and to change methods of work and to utilize mechanical, electronic or other labor-saving devices.”

There are just two caveats: The technology can’t be used to make the work more difficult, or to move it outside the union’s jurisdiction.

Shipping lines say the union uses those conditions to block the technological changes they need. Workers say without them, the use of scanners, remote cameras and computers could allow shipping lines to move jobs to nonunion contractors in low-wage states. Peyton said the union has proved through the grievance process that several shipping lines have done just that.

Such fundamental disagreements marked each stop on the two tours and illustrated the reason negotiations have been so tough.

When Hanley discussed technology, it became clear that the shipping lines’ primary motivation is to sharply reduce the number of highly paid clerks employed at the ports. Although no union members would be fired, he said, some clerks might have to be trained in less desirable work.

Comments from an operations manager who went along on the tour, but asked not to be identified, also indicated a resentment of the union’s perceived arrogance. “The ILWU has never punched a clock,” he said in claiming that some members report late for work. Later, nodding toward a line of battered dock trucks, he said, “Look at the way they treat our equipment.”

The flip side of that resentment is a fear of the ILWU that is all but unknown in these days of shrinking union membership and weakened labor power. In a major dispute, the union could shut down the entire Western waterfront. But even a small offense could have subtle repercussions. For example, the manager said, union dispatchers with a grudge could assign less experienced “casual” workers to the terminal, slowing production.

For their part, union representatives said they merely want to be treated as respected partners in port development, not compliant employees. “If they listened to us, we could save them millions,” Peyton said.

Passing through the same terminal a week later, he pointed out several union-inspired innovations that have helped the shippers’ bottom lines, such as labor-saving quick-release locks on containers.

A college-educated computer aficionado who defies the stereotype of a burly dockworker, Peyton said terminal operators could boost productivity by installing a shared central computer system. They won’t, he said, because of competitive concerns. “One time, I had to wait two hours for three containers to come over from another terminal because the computers were incompatible,” he said. “Someone literally had to drive over to pick up the paperwork.”

Peyton, whose clerical job is a prime target for shipping lines, also challenged the idea that faster gate transactions would speed the flow of containers. He said it would just move congestion from outside the gates to inside the yard. “It’s already like dodge ball in here,” he said as trucks plowed past each other.

Ultimately, Peyton’s arguments came down to philosophy. Why shouldn’t dockworkers share in the bounty of global trade? Why is it archaic for a blue-collar worker to live comfortably and support a community’s economy? Why does high productivity trump solid jobs?

His grandfather worked the docks before the union was born in 1934. Through family lore, Peyton knows how dangerous and humiliating those days were. Men lined up on the waterfront to bribe foremen with money and offers of women. Once hired, they were worked to the point of exhaustion.

It wasn’t until many failed attempts, and finally a brutal strike in 1934, that the union was born and employers were forced to negotiate.

Union members along the coast commemorate that strike, known as Bloody Thursday, every July 5 with marches and speeches. Some ports close for several hours. In San Francisco, painted outlines mark the places where two bodies fell.

In the frenetic, cutthroat, fast-changing world of global trade, such reverence for history might be seen as a sign of everything wrong with the ILWU, proof that the union is archaic and inefficient.

To dockworkers, however, the past informs the future, and ultimately, they believe that’s what keeps their union strong.

The second example was written by Eric Malnic, Metro’s resident weather guru, putting Los Angeles’ drought into perspective:

DRY CYCLE MAY SPIN ON FOR YEARS

By Eric Malnic

If it doesn’t rain tonight, and it almost certainly won’t, Los Angeles will have just completed its driest year in history.

And at least one expert says that this could be only the beginning, that Southern California and the rest of the Southwest may be experiencing the onset of dry weather that could last a decade or more.

“I don’t think any El Nino’s going to come riding in on a white horse and drop a lot of rain that’ll rescue us from this drought,” said Bill Patzert, an oceanographic meteorologist from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. “It looks like we’re in for a long, dry spell.”

Rainfall at the Civic Center since July 1, 2001, has been a scant 4.42 inches, less than a third of normal and the least that has fallen on Los Angeles since they started keeping records in 1877.

But is this a drought? That depends on your point of view.

If you’re a firefighter, it’s a drought, all right. Wildfires already are crackling throughout Southern California, Arizona, New Mexico and southern Colorado, fueled by brush and trees desiccated by a four-year stretch of dry weather. This year’s is one of the earliest fire seasons ever, and it promises to be one of the longest and most devastating.

“I’ve been in this business 28 years, and I’ve never seen it so bad,” said Donald R. Feser, a U.S. Forest Service fire chief in the Angeles National Forest.

Ranchers and farmers dependent on timely rains for livestock feed and grain crops call it a drought, too.

“All the range-land guys are hurting,” said Rob Frost, a cattle rancher in the hills north of Santa Paula. “It probably will force some people out of business.”

But for typical urban residents of the Los Angeles Basin, it may not seem like a drought at all.

Meteorologists say the lack of rain we’re experiencing now is due to a shift in the high-altitude jet stream winds that propel most storm systems from west to east in the northern hemisphere.

Southern California usually gets most of its rain between September and March, when the jet stream tends to drift far enough south to drive these storms into the coastal mountains that stretch from Point Conception to the Mexican border, dropping rain in the valleys and snow at higher elevations.

This year, according to Tim McClung, a National Weather Service meteorologist, a persistent ridge of high pressure stalled over Northern California and the Great Basin, deflecting the jet stream–and the storms that ride it–farther north than usual.

The result: Rainfall figures shrink the farther south you go. San Francisco received about the normal amount of rain; San Luis Obispo got 67%; Santa Barbara, 50%; Los Angeles, 29%; and some areas near the Salton Sea, about 4%.

Here’s where Eric takes the reader deeper:

By itself, this year’s drought is troubling enough. But if Patzert’s theory is right–and Kelly Redmond, a research meteorologist at the Western Regional Climate Center in Reno, says it could be–the shortfalls are part of a prolonged dry cycle that could be cause for major concern, especially for those firefighters and dry-land farmers.

Studying records that stretch back more than a century, the two men have concluded that there are multiple cyclical phenomena in the Pacific Ocean–driven by forces not yet fully understood–that may have enormous influence over whether the weather is wet or dry in Southern California.

One phenomenon is the familiar El Nino-La Nina cycle, characterized by fluctuating surface ocean temperatures in the eastern equatorial Pacific.

During El Ninos, when these temperatures are relatively warm, the high-pressure ridges drift east, the jet stream drifts south and Southern California sometimes gets much heavier rain than usual. An example was the winter of 1997-98, when more than 31 inches of rain fell on Los Angeles.

During La Ninas, when the equatorial surface temperatures are relatively cool, the high-pressure ridges stall, the jet stream is deflected north and Southern California almost always gets less rain than usual.

El Ninos and La Ninas occur at irregular intervals and seldom last more than a year or two. After the drenching El Nino winter of 1997-98, the cycle reversed, and the next two seasons were both La Ninas, with below-normal totals of 9.12 and then 11.57 inches of rain in Los Angeles.

The 2000-2001 season, with 17.94 inches in Los Angeles, was somewhat above normal, but Patzert considers that a local anomaly since most other cities in Southern California were at or below normal.

And then came this year, the driest year ever. And it was neither El Nino nor La Nina.

“Clearly, there are other forces at work,” Patzert said.

These other forces, he said, apparently include a much longer cyclical phenomenon, rooted in the surface water temperatures farther north of the equator, known as the Pacific Decadal Oscillation.

Patzert said that in the positive phase, these surface waters tend to cool in the north; in the negative phase, they tend to warm. He said these oscillations, which apparently affect the flow of ocean and wind currents, may influence weather in Los Angeles and the Southwest for periods that last as long as 20 years.

(You fans of alliteration will envy Eric for somehow finding a source who offers the beauty at the end of this graf:)

“In the 1950s and 1960s, rainfall was generally less than normal,” he said. “That was a negative phase. There was a positive phase in the ’80s and ’90s. But after the El Nino of ’97-’98, we went back into another negative phase, and I think we’re in that now. These negative phases, coupled with La Ninas, are the demon divas of drought.”

While the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has predicted another moderate El Nino next winter, Patzert said, any tendency that might have to increase rainfall probably will be overridden by the negative oscillation.

“This negative oscillation could last another five or six years, maybe even longer,” Patzert said. “There might be a wet year

here and there, but overall, it looks pretty dry.” Redmond is more cautious.

“Are we getting back to a period, like the ’50s and ’60s, when it was generally drier than normal? That’s an open question,” Redmond said. The period during which detailed data have been collected–mostly since World War II–is still too short to extrapolate with great confidence. State water officials argue that Patzert’s theory is based largely on conjecture.

“There’s no hard evidence that permits you to forecast that far ahead,” said Jeanine Jones, an engineer with the state’s Department of Water Resources.

The Forest Service’s Feser isn’t looking beyond this year. He’s concerned with the here and now. He said he knew there was trouble as far back as Easter, when a small blaze started in Susana Canyon, in the Angeles National Forest.

“The humidity was low and the winds weren’t bad, but that fire spread rapidly over more than 100 acres,” he said. “When a fire burns that well on a day not conducive to extreme fire behavior, that’s a bad sign.”

Feser said the problem was an extraordinarily low level of moisture in the brush that burned.

Under formulas used by firefighting agencies, the weight of that moisture is compared with the weight of the plant’s dry, woody fibers. The ratio is expressed in percentages–100% would mean the moisture in a plant equaled the weight of the fibers. Because plants are like sponges, they can absorb more than their dry weight, so figures over 100% are possible.

“Normally, that brush would be at about 150% by now, but it’s already down to between 70% and 80%,” Feser said. “We consider 65% the critical level, and we’re almost there already. By the end of the summer, it’ll be down to 50%, low enough to kill the whole plant. At that level, brush burns like gasoline.”

Dave Franz, a spokesman for the California Farm Bureau Federation, a nonprofit lobbying group representing about 95,000 farmers in the state, said the lack of rain in Southern California has cut back natural forage about 95% in Ventura County, where Frost runs his cattle. Riverside County farmers dependent on rain for their grain crops are hard hit, Franz said.

But Franz said most of the farmers in California–by far the largest agricultural state in the nation, with revenues in 2000 of more than $35 billion–either are situated far enough north to have had ample rain or have plenty of irrigating water.

And in Los Angeles, suburban lawns are likely to remain green. Because of what well may be the largest and most sophisticated water catchment, storage and delivery systems on Earth, Southern Californians should have plenty of water to keep their crops green all summer long. Thanks to ample supplies transported hundreds of miles from wetter areas, the likelihood of water rationing in most of Southern California is virtually nil.

Jones of the water resources department said that 60% of Southern California’s water supply is from elsewhere, brought in by the State Water Project, the Los Angeles Aqueduct and aqueducts from the Colorado River. The other 40%, she said, comes mostly from groundwater basins in Southern California that remain in pretty good shape.

“Rainfall in the north is close to normal, so there’s plenty of water for the state Water Project,” she said. “The Owens Valley is drier than normal, but the L.A. Aqueduct (which draws its water from the Owens Valley) is a pretty small contributor. The Colorado Basin storage system is down to 70% of capacity, but it’s a huge system, capable of storing four times the average annual flow.”

Overall, Jones said, the water supply in Southern California looks adequate, except for a few mountain communities, like Idyllwild, that are dependent solely on rainfall for their water.

“There shouldn’t be any major problems,” she said.

FINAL WORD: This will be the last new posting for the summer, at least. The site will remain running indefinitely so you can browse the archives at your convenience. But I’ve gotten sick of the sound of my own voice and feel like I need to shut up for a while. I’ll expand on this (I’m not that sick of the sound of my own voice) a little next week.