There is a certain happiness sighted when your bus comes along. It is of course a small specialized form of happiness and will never be a great thing.

-Richard Brautigan, The Old Bus

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Making Sacramento Regional Transit look good

Let's take personal responsibility.

My primary care physician is with UCDavis Medical Group. His office is just three blocks from where I work at 21st and Q. That's a choice I made some years ago, before I was such a transit fanatic. I liked being able to walk to the doctor's office.

Today, I was at my doctor's office, and he decided I needed to see one of the UCDavis ophthalmologists at the Medcenter on Stockton Boulevard. And, as if by magic, the ophthalmologist's office said come on over right then, and they'd work me in.

So there I was with my car at home. I want to rely on Regional Transit, and rely on Regional Transit I did.

I walked back to 21st and Q, where several buses have stops. Two of the lines I knew went by the Medcenter -- the No. 38 and the No. 50E express. The 50E is on a 15- or 20-minute schedule (until cutbacks take effect next year) but I didn't know if its limited stops included the Medcenter. The No. 38 is a 30-minute bus, but I didn't know when the next one would be along.

Got questions? Call 321-BUSS.

OK. I know I have not been kind to the 321-BUSS people. They deserve some credit for being there. Yes, the automated voice said it would be two minutes to talk to someone, and it took four minutes. Yes, callers are subjected to the worst hold noise I've ever encountered. It is a frightful thought to imagine anything worse. But when I told the lady I was at 21st and Q and wanted to get to the UCDavis Medcenter as soon as possible, she told me the No. 50E goes there, and it would be along at 12:42, which was less than 10 minutes away.

The 50E arrived on time and I was walking to the ambulatory care center at the Medcenter by 12:53.

And just to underline the benefits of taking RT, when the doctor got through with me I couldn't see to drive my car if I wanted to. The bright sun stuck daggers in my dilated eyes. I walked most of the way back to the bus stop with my eyes closed.

People make choices where they live. Personally, I think people who work downtown and choose to live in Roseville deserve what they get. They have no one to blame but themselves when they discover that a long commute only gets longer when you try to fit transit into the equation.

I will try to hold back the smugness oozing from me. Sometimes stuff just works. And sometimes personal choices make it work even better.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Bus driver appreciation day

I like riding the bus more than light rail. It is more personal. And when you get a bus driver who clearly enjoys his work, then your day just looks brighter.

Today I was in need of brighter since I was on my way to the dentist. I had taken the 82 to Sacramento State and I was waiting with about a dozen other riders as the No. 30 unloaded a bus full of students. From the curb, I could hear the driver chatting with each rider as they left, telling them to have a nice day, stuff like that. Finally, the last student left the bus.

"OK. Let's do this," the driver said, and motioned the waiting riders aboard. Everyone received a cheerful "Good morning" in exchange for the fare.

As I settled in the rear of the bus I caught pieces of a conversation between the driver and a student headed for the A. Warren McClaskey adult school. The driver was not only patient, but even cheerful. That, I thought, was a test of driver quality.

After a minute or two wait to get on schedule, the bus headed downtown.

"Sunday at 2 a.m. turn your clocks back one hour," the driver announced. "Monthly pass holders and students with stickers, the end of the month is coming up. You have one grace day to get your November pass. That's Thursday. Friday you will have to have a November pass or sticker. Students with discount stickers and semi-monthly pass holders get no grace day. You will have to have the November passes on Thursday."

The Daylight Savings announcement was a nice surprise, but even more so was the rest of announcement. In all of the bus rides between February and October, I've never had a driver explain the rules for renewing monthly passes.

As the bus approached each stop, the driver announced the intersection. This was an older bus without the robot lady to make the announcements. I couldn't tell if the driver just had an excellent voice that projected all the way to back of the bus or he was using the PA system. Most of buses have really lousy PA systems that garble any effort at communication. Much as I appreciate the effort, I prefer silence to unintelligible noise.

Everyone boarding received their "Good morning," and departing passengers were treated to "Here you go, buddy. Have a great day."

I pulled the stop request as the bus turned from J Street onto Alhambra.

"Alhambra and K. Safeway and B of A," the driver announced.

I left the bus from the back as more lucky riders boarded from the front. It was a nice way to prepare for my teeth cleaning.

Monday, October 29, 2007

No good fortune goes unpunished

I wanted to write something today about Sacramento Regional Transit's new Transit Master Plan update process. The RT board held a workshop on the topic last week, and tomorrow RT officials will meet in the morning with a bunch of people called "stakeholders."

This seemed like a good time to explore my ideas on what would make transit something more than an entitlement of the poor and disabled.

And then I noticed the little stream of liquid with tiny chunks in it coursing back and forth in one of the grooves in the floor next to my seat in the light rail car.

Today, had started out rather optimistically. I should have realized the warning.

My bus arrived five minutes early at 65th Street station, which made it possible for me to dash from the bus and catch the train downtown, cutting 15 minutes from my regular commute.

But no good fortune goes unpunished.

I caught the movement of the unidentified river out of the corner of my eye as I was reading my book. Looking up, I followed the stream to its headwaters -- well, really stomach waters expelled from some head. Whatever. Someone had barfed, and by the time I noticed it no one was taking credit for it.

Today I find it harder than, say, last week to imagine enticing what RT calls "lifestyle" riders to join me on the train. Why would anyone want to leave their car for this?

Perhaps RT could take some of the stakes from the stakeholders and give them mops. Maybe RT could put "transit sickness bags" in pouches in front of each seat. Just a thought.

I will admit this is only the second time in nine months that I have had to ride with the aftermath of someone puking on a light rail car, but it strains my transitarian enthusiasm.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

A waste of a free ride

The bus stopped, and the doors opened. A woman grasped the handrail with her right hand and with her left planted her cane on the step. Pulling on the railing and leaning on her cane, she made her way slowly onto the bus. Her progress had a fragile tentativeness that made her appear much older than she looked.

She stopped beside the fare box and leaned on her cane. In her right hand she held a crumpled dollar bill. She tried to insert the bill into the green sign taped over the fare box.

"Thank you, Sacramento," said the sign. "Today's ride is on us." "Us" was Washington Mutual.

The woman made another attempt to slot the money into the slotless sign.

Today, Washington Mutual celebrated what a wonderful bank it is with a free for all on Sacramento Regional Transit.

Giving up on the fare box, the woman tried to hand the dollar to the driver.

"Rides are free today," the driver tried to explain.

The woman is a regular rider. She attends the Winterstein Adult Center. The center offers free classes for people who want to learn English.

After a moment of obvious puzzlement caused by this change of routine, the woman accepted that no one wanted her dollar. She pivoted on her cane and shuffled carefully to the nearest seat.

On my regular bus, which runs from American River College to Sacramento State and on to the 65th Street light rail station, two-thirds of the riders -- maybe more -- have monthly passes. WaMu's free rides had no meaning for them. Most didn't even notice the sign.

Since hearing of this free-ride offer yesterday afternoon, I have been trying oh so hard not to look into the mouth of this gift horse. I don't want to be rude or sound ungrateful, but RT passed up a golden opportunity to invite commuters to try its service for a day.

"Check us out," RT could have told the community. "There is an alternative to solo commuting on crowded freeways."

Instead, RT gave less than 24 hours' notice. The Business Journal web site and several other sites that routinely publish unedited press releases announced the free rides, but the other news organizations paid no attention, at least none that I could find. Nothing appeared in The Bee to alert people who don't regularly ride the bus.

It is simply not feasible that WaMu's offer to give transit riders a free ride at its expense was a surprise to RT. Every light rail ticket machine, every fare box, every light rail car and every bus had notices about WaMu's "Thank you, Sacramento" offer, signs that only existing riders were likely to see.

Why did RT give away this opportunity?

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Ride RT free on Oct. 25

Sacramento Regional Transit today announced that everyone gets to ride free tomorrow, Oct. 25.

On Thursday, October 25, 2007, WaMu will pick up all bus and light rail fares for Sacramento Regional Transit District (RT) commuters. An estimated 105,000 Sacramento transit users will be able to ride for free between the hours of 3:50 a.m. on October 25 and 12:50 a.m. on Friday, October 26, 2007, courtesy of WaMu.

One of the nation’s leading banks for consumers and small businesses, WaMu was recently named “Highest in Customer Satisfaction with Retail Banking in the West/Pacific Region” by J.D. Powers and Associates. The Sacramento Regional Transit District buyout is part of WaMu’s broader “Thank you, California!” campaign currently underway statewide. WaMu operates more than 30 retail bank stores in the Sacramento area.

The full press release is available here.

I suppose it would be considered a dental examination of a gift horse if I mentioned the short notice. So, instead, I'll just say,


Unmet transit needs

Sometimes a picture really is worth 1,000 words.

The Sacramento Area Council of Governments is in the midst of another round of hearings, requesting input, asking people to gripe about how transit doesn't meet their needs.

Here's mine: I want to be able to take transit to the Safeway store at the intersection of Fair Oaks and Manzanita. The picture below offers 1,000 words about my unmet transit need.

It is actually worse than it looks since the No. 10 and No. 9 community bus routes offer very limited service. When they are not available, the route uses the No. 82 to No. 23 bus at Watt and El Camino. That bus goes east on El Camino to Fair Oaks, increasing the trip time from 49 minutes to more than an hour.

There are a number of ways to submit your "unmet transit need" example to SACOG:
As a supporter of transit, I feel a need to offer a postscript to this post. I may not be able to get to the grocery store closest to my house, but that doesn't mean I can't shop for groceries conveniently from the No. 82 bus that goes by my house. As the map below shows, getting to Raleys at Watt and Marconi is a very real option. Driving takes about 5 minutes and the bus just 12 minutes.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Google Transit comes to Sacramento

Above is a screen capture of what Google's interface with Sacramento Regional Transit's on-line trip planning data produces. This service went live Monday. It is still in the testing stages, but it is fully functional.

Go to, click on Sacramento, enter a starting address and a destination. It is just like using Google Maps. You can even click between the transit option and the route if you are driving.

The difference between RT's and Google Transit is the difference between the original, text-only computer adventure cames and the modern interactive software.

This is going to be my first choice for trip planning.

Douglas Adams's Starship Titanic on the bus

In the late 1990s, Douglas Adams, author of the famously popular "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," was working with friends developing an adventure game that used state-of-the-art (for late 1990s) graphics and a natural language parser to create an interactive adventure story. It was called Starship Titanic.

Adams considered writing a novel about the Starship Titanic, but his publisher insisted that it be published at the same time as the game. He didn't have time to do both and so he focused on the game.

And then Terry Jones arrives. Wikipedia summarizes Jones as "a British comedian, screenwriter and actor, film director, children's author, popular historian, political commentator and TV documentary host." And, at that time, the voice of a parrot in the game Adams was creating.

As Adams explains in the introduction to the book, "When Terry saw all the graphics and character animations we had been creating over the previous months, he became very excited about the whole project and uttered the fateful words 'Is there anything else you need doing?' I said, 'You wanna write a novel?' and Terry said, 'Yeah, all right. Provided,' he said, 'I can write it in the nude.' "

And the humor of Terry Jones' book "Douglas Adams's Starship Titanic" is stark naked.

The book is just as much fun as Adams' "Hitchhiker" series. I was particularly found of the Yassaccans, an industrious folk known throughout the galaxy for their dependable construction work. And peace-loving, too.

A black rage swallowed Bolfass whole, and the next moment he had swiveled out his SD handgun and blasted the three newcomers to cosmic dust -- their bodies exploded in a supernova of entrails and mangled flesh that quickly reached white-heat and, happily, burned out before they could bespatter or stain the beautifully hand-lacquered walls.

Lucy was aware of a violent cacophony of noise and her eyes were whited-out by the most piercing light. She screamed, grabbed onto The Journalist, and fell in a faint upon the floor. It was that terrifying.

Bolfass grinned and blew away the smoke from his SD handgun. His anger assuaged, he twirled the gun on his finger and slipped it back into its holster.

It has to be explained at this point that the Yassaccans were a peace-loving, kindly race -- dedicated to craftsmanship and sober industry. Many of them, however, were also prone to blind, blood-lusting rage when confronted by certain things, such as sloppy workmanship or a disregard for fine handcrafting. In the distant past these rages had led to terrible destruction of life and property, and since the moods went as quickly as they came, they had also led to unendurable remorse for many thousands of these otherwise benign and caring folk. The Yassaccan scientists had, therefore, developed the SD weapon, which, unlike the sort of hardware most military scientists come up with, was designed to reduce death and destruction rather than increase it. The Simulated Destruction weapon -- or SD gun -- gave the user the momentary impression of having wreaked the bloody revenge that his crazed fury craved without actually doing any damage. It always surprised and stunned the enemy, but that was all.

As one might expect from a book whose origins flow from the development of an interactive story, the plot sometimes devolves into a manual for the game:

At that moment, The Journalist suddenly burst onto the Captain's Bridge.

"The ship's on automatic!" he panted. "But the central intelligence core is missing some of its parts. We can't control the ship unless we can locate all the missing bits of the system and get them back into place!"

Still, it is a fun read. If you like Douglas Adams' books, you will enjoy Terry Jones' effort.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Missing my bus

"I am not allowed to call the dispatcher until the bus is 15 minutes late."

I've worked with computers for many years and even dabbled in programming. When a computer reports that information I am requesting is unavailable, I don't argue. But it just seems more personal when a guy at the other end of the 321-BUSS line tells me he can't explain what's become of my missing ride to work.

It's 8:20 a.m. The No. 82 bus was scheduled to leave American River College at 8:04 a.m. It is just 2.2 miles from the route's starting point to my location at the Engle and Miradera bus stop. The next stop up the street is the first timing point. The No. 82 was supposed to reach that stop eight minutes ago.

What I want to know is whether the bus is delayed or simply not coming. For all I know, some accident or road construction nearby could have forced a rerouting of all of the No. 82s. I have a reason for needing some information.

I really don't like 321-BUSS. I hang up, and check my schedule to decide when the bus will be a full 15 minutes late.

At 8:27 I call 321-BUSS. A recorded voice tells me my wait time will be -- pause for effect -- one minute. And I wait. And I hate that hold music. And I wait.

At 8:33 a woman comes on the line and I explain that the No. 82 is now more than 15 minutes late. She disappears for a moment and then returns:

"That coach broke down," she says. "So you will have to catch the next one at 8:42."

There's no bench where I've been standing since 8:08, so I decided to walk the three-tenths of a mile to the next stop. I keep looking over my shoulder, fearful that a rogue bus will overtake me.

As I approach the stop I can see an obviously anxious bus rider waiting at the stop. She's pacing back and forth as I approach.

"Did you see a bus?" she asks.

"It broke down," I explain. "The next bus should be along at 8:42."

"I need to be somewhere," she complains. "I've been here since 7:30 a.m."

As we were talking the No. 82 bus arrived two minutes early.

I started taking the bus on Feb. 1 of this year. I've taken the bus to work every day that I've worked with one lone exception when it was necessary to haul my son's moped to a garage in midtown.

The bus has never been more than a few minutes late.

One breakdown in so many rides is a pretty good percentage, maybe even admirable and worthy of praise. The guy who answers my e-mails to, says that Sacramento Regional Transit averages about 509 bus runs on each weekday. Since Aug. 14, just 10 buses have broken down due to mechanical reasons.

You could even argue that if I had driven to work all of those days, I would have experienced at least one day when a traffic tie-up delayed me at least a half-hour.

But when your commute relies on someone else, you feel more vulnerable, the everyday slights just hurt more. Sort of like talking to a guy at 321-BUSS who insists he can't call dispatch and find out what became of my bus until it is at least 15 minutes late.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The "beeping" bus

The No. 82 bus I take to work is never late.

Today it was late.

When the bus finally arrived, I boarded and took my customary seat in the first elevated row in the rear of the bus. The driver was talking on a phone. Since drivers don't normally chat with friends while driving the bus, the phone in the driver's hand was suspicious.

Eventually the driver put the phone away and drove to the next stop. The bus pulled to the curb, the doors opened and then everything went black.

Well, the lights went off inside the bus as the driver shut down the coach.

The driver was busy with stuff in front of him but he wasn't going to bother his passengers with the finer details of what was going on. Sort of like a doctor who is trained not to say "Oops!" during a surgery.

After more than one passenger inquired about the delay, the driver finally explained:

"We have an emergency flashing. If we don't correct it, we'll have fifteen thousand police surrounding us."
When a passenger suggested we could all participate in a re-creation of the movie "Speed," the driver said, "No, we don't want that."

The passengers were disappointed at the lost opportunity to make an exciting movie of their commute, but then the bus started and we were on our way, leaving the disappointment behind at the stop.

Then the bus went, "Beep-beep, beep-beep."

The driver's fingers responded with a choreographed sequence of pokes at the bus computer touchscreen.

In the early space explorations, animals were sent into orbit and monitored. In order to tell what effect the trip was having on the animal, they were trained to pull a certain lever when a light came on. If they answered correctly, they were rewarded with a treat.

The driver took his treat -- silencing the beeping bus -- and we continued on.

Back at the Sacramento Regional Transit's operations center, the progress of the bus and its driver were logged, and fifteen thousand police were told to stand down.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

College of transitarian tranquility

Anyone who attends Sacramento City College who doesn't use light rail to get their is just not trying.

I'm taking a class that's officially an on-line offering, but I keep having to go to school. First was for an orientation class at the start of the semester, and today I had to visit the campus to take an exam. The trip back in August to the orientation was fine, but the trip from Midtown to City College and back today was a dream.

Getting to Sac State is easy enough. Lots of buses serve the campus. But their is something really nice about boarding a train for City College and stepping off at the gate to the campus.

If Sacramento Regional Transit could make other parts of the system work this well, people would abandon their cars for transit.

Sacramento's Southside Park from the bus

Sacramento author William Burg has written two books for Arcadia Publishing's "Images of America" photo histories. Given the nature of this blog one would expect I would have started with Burg's first book, "Sacramento Streetcars," which the publisher promises "presents an aspect of local history hidden today under asphalt on many downtown streets: an era when Sacramentans could ride to the department stores on K Street, to Joyland in Oak Park, to the public baths in Land Park, or to the Alhambra Theatre—all for a 7¢ token."

But, no, instead I started with Burg's latest offering, "Sacramento' Southside Park."

For those unfamiliar with the format, the book is broken up into an introduction and eight chapters. Each chapter opens with a partial page of explanatory text, and the rest of the chapter is composed of historical photos and maps with lengthy captions.

Burg does a nice job, within the constraints of the book's format, to provide an interesting snapshot of the area of Sacramento that stretched generally from K Street south to Broadway (then Y Street) and from the river to around 14th Street.

Southside grew up around riverfront and the railyards as immigrants were drawn to the jobs in Sacramento. "The neighborhood's population," Burg says, "became a diverse mix of Portuguese, Italians, Slavs, Japanese, Chinese, Mexicans, Russians, and other ethic groups. During World War II, many African Americans moved to the Sacramento area seeking wartime employment. At about the same time, immigrants from India, in the region that is now Pakistan, moved to Sacramento and established the oldest mosque in the western United States."

But the diversity we would celebrate today had a different reality at the time.

"The Federal Housing Administration (FHA), whose loan programs made new homes in the suburbs possible for millions of Americans, instituted the policy of redlining risky neighborhoods. Neighborhoods were designated as risky if they were occupied by nonwhites or even considered likely to attract nonwhite residents. ... As loans became harder to obtain, people were less able to improve their homes and neighborhoods became more dilapidated."

Eventually, the city turned this blight into an economic opportunity.

"Redevelopment programs were developed by the federal government to to replace substandard housing for the poor with new, high-quality housing," Burg says. "However, most cities, including Sacramento, used these programs to expand the central business district. New housing units produced by the programs were for fewer than the number of units destroyed during redevelopment, and often the replacement unites were far more expensive than the neighborhood's original housing." As Burg explains, the revitalization of the city business district was a financial success, "But the neighborhoods, and the people who lived there, were gone."

I'm being unfair in focusing my discussion of the book on this example of economic injustice that burdened this area. The book is filled with the faces of people who lived and prospered in the area, ethnic organizations that sustained communities and civic improvement efforts that continue today.

Reading the book, you thirst for more. The snapshots, frozen in time, suggest a larger story, a historical novel perhaps that could bring to life these people who defined Sacramento's Southside Park.

Now I will have to order Burg's "Sacramento Streetcars."

As a postscript I have to add this photo:

This is the only known photo of "The Arizona Gang," a legendary band of young toughs from the 1880s so famous for its nefarious activities that the section of Southside south of R Street was named the "Arizona District."

Monday, October 15, 2007

Alternative transportation options

OK. So I pick on the people who can't imagine riding transit because they would have to associate with "those people." It's not like I can't imagine myself riding something besides Sacramento Regional Transit buses and light rail.

On Sunday, I was at my brother's house in Palo Alto.

My brother rides his Segway to work, about a three-mile drive, and has to put up with shouts from the rabble of "Get a bike!"

Until the price of Segways drops well below the current $5,000 you won't be seeing me cruising around Sacramento. But if the Segways ever do become common on city streets we'll have a real problem on our hands: SEGWAY RACING!

The green Prius pimps

Bloggers Unite - Blog Action Day Last Monday, The Sacramento Bee's Scene section launched a weeklong "Shades of Green" series of articles:

Going green is going mainstream, even as the debate about global warming continues. Many of us are changing our lifestyles in everyday ways, from the cars we drive to the cleaning products we use to the way we garden. This week, Scene explores this cultural shift and offers ideas for small changes you can make, too.
For seven days, the front of the Scene section and much of the very limited space inside was taken up with various "Shades of Green."

And where did riding Sacramento Regional Transit play into The Bee's "Shades of Green" report? An afterthought among "5 green tips":
Do you have Prius envy? It’s no wonder: Toyota’s hybrid Prius (and the Honda Civic Hybrid) average 51 mph on the highway. While you’re waiting to buy one, try riding public transit or walking, and save the change for that new car.
At least in "Readers share tips for going green," transit gets an honorable mention. Toshiye Kawamura of College Greens said:
I take care of my 97-year-old dad, and I go back and forth to his house on light rail and the bus. I always choose to take the bus or train whenever possible because it is much less stressful and you meet some very nice people in transit.
Just what is it about the environmental movement and supporters of all things green, that they can't see transit as an option?

Sunday's Scene belabored the obvious when it pointed out that switching from driving a GMC Yukon to driving a Prius would help the environment. But taking transit would help even more. "If you leave your car at home one day a week, you prevent 55 pounds of pollution each year from being emitted into our air," according to the Sacramento Metropolitan Air Quality Management District.

Over in the East Bay, AC Transit is proposing a bus rapid transit line that would run from the Bay Fair BART Station in San Leandro to downtown Berkeley. According to the report in Sunday's San Francisco Chronicle:
The $400 million bus rapid transit project would look a lot like light rail, with elevated stops in the middle of the street and dedicated lanes free of cars. Buses would run every 10 minutes and sail through intersections. ...

Buses would run in center lanes, stopping at elevated platforms in the middle of the street. Each stop would be about a half-mile apart so that buses could go faster and bus drivers would have the ability to turn stoplights green using GPS technology. Each stop would have an electronic sign informing riders when the next bus is scheduled to arrive.
And yet the proposal is opposed in Berkeley, a city that has adopted a city ordinance that requires a massive reduction in the city's contribution to global warming.

Driving a Prius is not the only green transportation option, and the sooner environmentalists stop pimping for Toyota and start acknowledging transit's potential, the sooner real progress will be made.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Band of Sisters on the bus

Finished reading Kirsten Holmstedt's "Band of Sisters: American Women at War in Iraq."

This is as much a book about women serving in combat in Iraq as it is about the author's own path of discovery:

Too old to enlist in the military, but young enough to remember how I felt when I was nineteen or twenty, I could not imagine myself as I was at that age driving a Humvee across the desert in Iraq while snipers hid in trees or on rooftops, preparing to kill me. How would I perform if duty required me to fight for my life and the lives of my friends?
But for me this is not really about the differences as it is about the sameness.

May 26, 2005, Haditha, Iraq. Fifty Marine infantrymen and two female combat service support Marines are taking a break in an abandoned four-story school. The women have been brought along to search Iraqi women the patrol encounters as it sweeps the city. The Marines were bedded down, trying to get some sleep, when a rocket-propelled grenade exploded in a window. Lance Cpl. Carrie Blais and a male staff sergeant took up a position at a window overlooking the schoolyard.
Captain Sean O'Neill came into the classroom and told the Marines there were no friendlies in the area. Anyone on the street was a possible threat. The staff sergeant ordered Blais to fire on anyone with a weapon. Less than two minutes later, Blais spotted a male Iraqi about 400 meters away. He was wearing a white robe and carrying an AK-47 as he ran from the one lone house to the other houses.

"There's someone there," Blais yelled to the staff sergeant.

It was Blais's first time firing at someone. She was scared. She didn't want to take out a random person.

"Shoot," the staff sergeant yelled back.

Without hesitation, Blais fired two shots, hitting her target in the right leg. His leg jerked and he fell. The AK-47 landed a short distance away. The Iraqi started crawling toward his weapon.

"Finish it," the staff sergeant yelled.

Blais fired two more shots. The Iraqi stopped moving as his white robe turned red.
There is a reason the Marines insist that women get the same infantry training as men.

Holmstedt's book profiles the experiences of Marine Lance Cpls. Carrie Blais and Priscilla Kispetik; Army Capt. Robin Brown, a Kiowa helicopter pilot; Army Specialist Rachelle Spors, a medic; Marine Capt. Amy "Krusty" McGrath, an F-18 Hornet weapons system operator; Navy Aviation Boatswain's Mate Handler Marcia Lillie; Marine Lance Cpl. Chrissy DeCaprio, a turret gunner in a military police unit; Marine Capt. Vernice "Junk" Armour, a Cobra helicopter pilot who became the first black female combat aviator; Air Force Lt. Col. Polly Montgomery, a C-130 transport pilot who became the first female commander of a combat squadron; Marine Gunnery Sgt. Yolanda Mayo, a public affairs chief in Iraq; Navy Lt. Estella Salinas, a nurse responsible for a mobile surgical company in southern Iraq; and Army Sgt. Angela Jarboe, a long-haul trucker in Iraq.

When the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, it had only been 10 years since the military had opened up combat aircraft assignments to women. There were, and still are, many questions about how women in these new roles would fare in a war. Today, according to an NPR report, one in every seven U.S. military personnel in Iraq are women. The broad sweep of experience outlined by Holmstedt demonstrates that the old division between men and women in combat has been blurred, if not erased.

Holmstedt goes so far as to suggest her observations prove women's service in combat has been a success.
The heroics of America's mothers, daughter [sic], sisters, and wives on the battlefield can no longer be understated. In this war they have proven beyond a doubt that they can run convoys on the most dangerous roads in Iraq, man vehicles and personnel checkpoints, perform route clearance operations, and conduct quick reaction force operations when others got hit on the road with IEDs. They have boldly faced the threat of IEDs. They have been shot at and returned fire.
Holmstedt overreaches. Women are no more anxious to be shot at than men. As Army truck driver Sgt. Angela Jarboe explained to Holmstedt, staying behind when a convoy took to the road "usually meant doing maintenance on the trucks, filling up sand bags to fortify the compound, and picking up trash. The soldiers had the most fun on the convoys because it meant they were away from their company and could breathe. No officers looking over their shoulders."

If anything, the success of women in combat areas, despite the close quarters, has underscored the foolishness of continuing opposition to having openly homosexual men and women serve in the U.S. military. If heterosexual men and women can work together, why should the sexual orientation of any soldier be an issue? Military efficiency today is no more threatened by the presence of a gay man than it was by a negro man before integration of the military following World War II or by the increased number of women serving in the armed forces.

Heroism in combat is always about the team, the family, comrades in arms. It is about professionalism. Man or woman, gay or straight, makes no difference.

Holmstedt suggests momen may actually be the meanest soldiers in the field. As she explains:
There are psychological surveys about how much crueler women warriors are in battle than men, especially if they have children, because they are ferocious about protecting their young. ...The first thought that came to [Army Sgt. Angela] Jarboe's mind after the explosion was that she had to get back to her children. What's the first thought that comes to a man's mind? [Dr.] Davida [Boltz] said men are more self-oriented. They love their kids, but it's not like a mother.
Holmstedt is never far from the narrative of this book, and her constant injection of herself, although distracting, gives readers the opportunity to weigh how they view women in combat:
Between the two of them, [Army Sgt. Angela] Jarboe and [Army Sgt. Laura] Mitchell have five children. I realized that the same could be said if I had been sitting at a table with two soldiers who were fathers. Yet there is still a newness and vulgarity to women in war, to women attacking and even more so, to being attacked. There was a time lag in what we civilians knew, saw, and understood about women in uniform because most of their stories hadn't reached us. Women were in combat, but a part of me couldn't believe it. Their stories still seemed surreal. I never felt comfortable hearing them; only astonished and then a delicate desire for distance.
Holmstedt may see her desire for distance from these stories of war as a gender issue, but I see it as a symptom of America's broader uneasiness with the sacrifices we ask of our professional military personnel and their families. While they sacrifice, we go shopping.

One last point: I picked up this book because I read a review posted at the SacWomen web site. The review by W. H. McDonald Jr. of Elk Grove (originally published on Amazon) claimed , "This book is destined to become a military classic!" That is such a stretch of the truth that it could only have been written by someone with a financial interest in the sale of the book.

An interesting read, yes. If you wish to learn more about the experience of women in the Iraq war, Holmstedt offers a reasonable overview drawn from personal experiences of those she interviewed. A classic? No. Read any of S.L.A. Marshall's books to understand the definition of "classic." For an Iraq war example, try Bing West's "No True Glory, A Frontline Account of the Battle for Fallujah" or the haunting short stories of John Crawford's "The Last True Story I'll Ever Tell: An Accidental Soldier's Account of the War in Iraq."

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The fall Transitarian Diet

Today was a gorgeous day, with giant fluffy clouds scuttling along and the temperature straining to reach 70 degrees -- perfect weather for the Transitarian Diet, that merger of good-for-you walking and good-for-the-environment transit riding that makes you look good and feel good.

And muddy and a little bloody as well.

This is the second week of my vacation. This morning the kid was at school and the wife at work, and I needed to visit Blockbuster, get a haircut and read a chapter for a class I'm taking at City College. Since I could accomplish all three tasks at Town and Country Village at Fulton and Marconi I decided to tie it all together in a transitarian outing.

Getting from my house to Town and Country by bus is fairly simple, but it can require three different buses. With the fantastic weather and no real time constraints, I decided to walk a little less than a mile to Auburn Boulevard, where I could catch the No. 1 bus. After a short ride to Watt and Auburn Boulevard, I would catch the No. 26. The No. 26 runs from the Watt/I-80 light rail station to Auburn Boulevard and then down to Fulton Avenue.

And so I packed my backpack with videos to return and books to read and set out walking.

Which brings us to the perils of walking in suburban Sacramento County.

The sidewalks in my neighborhood are intermittent. For one long stretch of my walk to Auburn Boulevard, I was forced to walk in the street. I was thankful for the bike lane separating me from the traffic.

At one point the unimproved drainage ditch made way to a rounded curb and gutter -- and mud.

I remember seeing the mud in the gutter. I recall seeing my foot step in the mud. I even remember thinking that I could get out of the gutter and back in the street and avoid the mud.

And then the foot in the mud lost traction and I spun and collapsed in the street, scraping a knee and bloodying the palm of one hand.

Laying on my back in the street I wondered what it could be about sidewalks that suburban developers found so inconvenient back in the 1960s. What was the attraction of lawns that run all the way to the street?

Have a nice trip? See you next fall!

Fortunately, there wasn't any traffic at the time. I brushed myself off and continued my trip. I made my bus connections, never having to wait more than five minutes. I completed all three of my tasks and even added a lunch at Noah's Bagels while I read the chapter in my textbook. And I made it home equally accident free.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Taking the bus to the Salmon Festival

Sacramento Regional Transit will operate continuous bus service from the Hazel light rail station (Folsom Boulevard and Hazel Avenue) directly to the American River Salmon Festival at Lake Natoma/Nimbus Hatchery on Saturday, Oct. 13, and Sunday, Oct. 14, 2007.

RT's bus service will run every 15 minutes from 9:55 a.m. until 4:40 p.m. The last bus from Lake Natoma/Nimbus Hatchery will depart at 5 p.m. Complimentary ride tickets are available upon boarding. Passengers can park free of charge at any of RT’s 18 park-and-ride lots, including the Hazel light rail station (432 parking spaces).

According to, the Gold Line trains to Folsom run on a half-hour schedule on the weekend, arriving at Hazel at 16 minutes after the hour and 46 minutes after the hour. The trains headed back downtown run every half-hour from Hazel at 7 minutes after the hour and 37 minutes after the hour. The last train from Hazel leaves at 7:07 p.m.

The Salmon Festival features entertainment and educational activities, including wildlife demonstrations, live music, food, exhibits, guided rafting and more. Admission is free. For more information about the event, visit

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Computers will do that

Last week, a bus arrived at Sacramento State with No. 88 on the side and the route summary for the No. 88 on the front. Two co-eds with backpacks asked the driver if the bus was going to the Amtrak station. I was about to tell them they wanted the No. 30 bus when I heard the driver tell them he was going to the station. The two co-eds boarded the bus.

I walked over to the bus, and the driver explained that this was the No. 30 bus. I pointed out that both the front and side signs said this was the No. 88.

"Computer will do that," he explained.

I had been waiting for the No. 30 bus and if the two young women looking for the Amtrak station had not tipped me off, I would have missed the bus.

This all comes to mind because I was researching getting to American River Drive when the coughed up this helpful suggestion:

Computers will do that, I thought.

Defeat of the transitarian

I was determined that I wouldn't start my day the way I had yesterday. I'm on the second day of a two week vacation and I had spent the first day driving from appointment to home, out on an errand and back. Not a bus in sight.

Today, I boarded my neighborhood bus, the No. 82, and took it to the Starbucks on Watt near Kings Way. I joined a half-dozen riders, mostly students, judging by their age.

Along the way, a middle-aged woman boarded and asked for an all-day pass. "I'm going to do some errands," she explained.

If only it were really that easy. Yes, I have only myself to blame since I live in the unincorporated suburbs of Sacramento, but I can wish.

Yesterday, I needed to get to an office building near the corner of Watt and American River Drive at 9 a.m. The normally helpful couldn't help.

I'm having trouble planning your trip. This is due to one of the following reasons...

* 1. Your origin or destination are not within .4 mile of a transit stop, or they are outside of our service area. If you are within our service area, try using a nearby Landmark or major intersection which is more likely to have a stop nearby. If you are outside our service area, please consider traveling to/from one of our Light Rail stations (listed in Landmarks).
* 2. There is no service on the day or at the time you've requested. Please try a different date or time.

This has happened before. It would be nice if the site allowed users to set an acceptable walking distance, rather than limit walking to less than 0.4 miles.

As it happens, the No. 80 and No. 84 buses cross American River Drive on the Watt bridge, but the nearest bus stop is north of Fair Oaks at a little side street named Cosmos Avenue. Still, according to, the distance from the stop on Cosmos to the end of the Watt off-ramp that drops traffic onto American River Drive is actually just 0.36 miles.

Since I had never been to this office before, I didn't check the time for getting to Cosmos and walking. I just drove. Me and hundreds of others riding alone.

This morning the bus had a baker's dozen riders by the time I got off at Kings Way, still mostly students but with several elderly salted in the crowd.

At Starbucks I had an apple fritter and a coffee and read a chapter in a book. When I finished the coffee, I walked over to Emigh Hardware to pick up something I needed for a Honey-do project, and then walked to the Watt and El Camino bus stop. When I checked the schedule I found I had less than 10 minutes to wait for the next bus home. Fortunes of clean living or just the sort "good luck" that comes when you don't care if the wait is a half-hour.

I arrived home relaxed and feeling good about my choice of riding the bus. And then the phone rang.

The Honey-Do Ranch foreman explained that I needed to take her sweater to the cleaners -- yes, today, not tomorrow; it must be back in time for our trip to Oregon Friday -- and while I'm there I can pick up some chocolate that we will be taking with us.

And all the transitarian enthusiasm that had ballooned in me escaped in a long hiss. Pffffft! I just don't have enough time in my day to take two buses to get to the cleaners and then two buses to get back.

Defeated, I will take the car out on another errand.