Sunday, December 30, 2007

Destination Shopping

Shopping as Entertainment
[picture at left is straight up view of rotunda dome, with lots of strings of holiday lights hanging down.]
I have generally escaped contact with the mass consumerist culture this Christmas Shopping season (last minute shopping for chocolates for Martha's xmas stocking are hopefully forgiven!) but as we headed out today to do some errands, and a little grocery shopping, we somehow ended up downtown at the Westfield Mall, home of San Francisco's Bloomingdale's, which is housed in the ghost of the old Emporium.

In many ways, a mall is a mall is a mall, but this one has some dramatic uses of space. The rotunda itself towers over a third floor rest area with chairs and couches, and the string of lights are positively mesmerizing. Some of the views from above down at the lower levels certainly evoke a sort of vertigo I don't usually feel. The food court on the bottom floor had way too many choices, and it took forever to settle on a 'safe' choice of fish and chips (pretty decent). We even got our grocery shopping done there; there's this real upscale grocery store, Bristol Farms, on the same level as the food court, which is an entertainment in itself. It out-Andronico's Andronico's! I even found a little wedge of goat's milk Bleu Cheese for Jeff and Karen's NYE party!

We ended up staying too late, and got locked out of the rear exit where we came in, and had to truck our groceries around the block, but survived. It gave us an opportunity to look closer at the clever xmas windows of Fox Hardware, at their chandelier made from colanders, wire whisk wheels, and other hardware parts!

Walking through the building brings up old memories: My sister Rickie and I shopping with our Grandma; taking my own kids (many years later) to Legoland during the Christmas season. My dad was an architect, now and then, and sometimes I feel a certain shared appreciation for buildings. I don't really know, as we never waxed philosophically about such things.

I feel kind of guilty, as I generally feel people who like to go to malls are like people on sitcoms, but to paraphrase Pogo,
I have met the shopper, and he is me!

Sunday, November 25, 2007

I'm Not There [review]

Will the Real Dylan Please Stand Up?

Now, before I get into too much of a spoiler mode, let me take a shortcut to a recommendation. If you're really familiar with Bob Dylan's songs and lyrics, and you also enjoy surrealistic art in your movies (the second half of Apocalypse Now for example), I have a recommendation for you. Just go to the movie (quickly now, it's in limited release) with some friends, then go out to dinner or a coffee shop afterwards to discuss the movie. You can come back here later to read the rest!

Welcome Back
You've either gone out and seen the movie by now, or like me, you like to read spoilers! Spoilers? It's not like a whodunit, Dylan is still alive, and his story is not a secret, in fact it's deeply woven into our own culture and identity. This film's main shtick is that Dylan is played by 6 different actors, from an 11-year old black boy to Cate Blanchett. None of them is named Bob Dylan, and everything seems to be from some sort of parallel universe. We see scenes that happened in real life, sort of, but the names have been changed. We see the Newport Folk Festival of 1965, but it's not called Newport. Pete Seeger, who is not Pete Seeger grabs for the historic axe to try and cut the power cables to stop the awful noise Dylan/Jude/Cate is hurling at the audience. The scene in fact opens with the band opening fire with machine guns instead of guitars! (See? You shouldn't have read this far. It would've been a cool surprise if you could have seen it without warning!)
Chronologies are mangled, and you need to just let it happen. You may not like this movie if linear narrative is how you like things. I found it to be a reflection of our whole lives, not just Dylan's. The emotions of tragedy, of stress, triumph, loss, and heartache resonate deeply. Dylan was a one-man Beatles for a while in terms of how much pressure he was under as the 'spokesman for a generation,' a title he never wanted. I was fortunate to not know too much about the film before seeing it tonight, outside of the multiple-Dylan shtick, so it was a thoroughly enjoyable experience. We then hung out with our friends Bill and Lucy afterwards, discussing it. Even though we all had different levels of Dylan knowledge, we all liked it, and would recommend it. Please leave some comments below if you get to see this.


Thursday, November 22, 2007

I came to talk about the draft

Do you feel a draft?
Today I was sitting around, watching football on TV, while I was listening to the traditional noontime playing of Alice's Restaurant, by Arlo Guthrie. For those of you who have never heard it, I'm not going to explain it, other than to say it has a circuitous connection to the draft. It originally came out in 1967, so it certainly needs to be understood in that context.

During the Vietnam War (never actually called a war) resistance to the draft was a major anti-war strategy, sort of a way to stop the machinery of the war. I really enjoyed listening to David Harris talk about the draft when I was in college, and I remember him talk honestly about the problems of not having a draft. He said once (I can't prove this, this is from my memory) that without a draft, people would care less about the policies of our government, since their own children were not at risk.

5 years ago
On September 11, 2001, thousands of innocent people were killed in terrorist attacks, which were planned by cancerous elements in Afghanistan, a country under the control of religious fundamentalists. Notice, I didn't say Muslim fundamentalists. When the causes of the 9/11 attacks were identified, I was totally in support of a military response to what I felt were the human/cultural equivalent of tumors, tumors that could spread. This is an interesting point in time. I've always thought of myself as pretty much a commie-pinko-leftist kind of guy, but here I found some of my anti-war friends opposing the US entry into Afghanistan on some sort of absolute pacifist grounds.

Bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb Iraq (sung to the tune of "Barbara Ann")
But I'm not comfortable being in the position of agreeing with anything George W. Bush says. While I now feel comfortable with the idea of having a military, and that the service these men and women provide to our country should be honored, I think having insanity call the tune at the top of our government is no way to operate. When we entered the Iraq war so blithely, and without any plan for peace, it all fell apart.

Return of the draft
So, in the last few years, there have been calls from some minority congressmen for a return to the draft. Today's 'volunteer' Army consists of an inordinate proportion of low-income young people, who have few other options. At this point there is no real support for this idea, but it brings back that old idea of how a draft might affect our foreign policy. If we had a universal service system, with no deferments for the privileged, you can bet your booties that before we send Brett and Ashley Prepster off to war, we'll make sure it's worth doing.

Modern ending
Just like the ending of the Sopranos, I don't have a nice well-wrapped solution here. Do I want my children to be put in harm's way? Not particularly. What if it's something truly noble? Please, no hypotheticals! I guess I'd just like to know how you feel about the draft.

Friday, September 14, 2007

In The Valley of Elah (review)

Elegiac Indeed
1. Of, relating to, or involving elegy or mourning or expressing sorrow for that which is irrecoverably past: an elegiac lament for youthful ideals.

For some reason, as I was watching this movie, this word 'elegiac' stuck in my mind. Actually, I was misspelling it in my mind as 'elegaic' but so much for my lost glory as the winner of the 3rd grade spelling bee.

I thoroughly enjoyed this movie, but kept wondering how many people would be bored to death, looking at the heavy lines in Tommy Lee Jones' face, and not having any exciting action scenes (well there was one cops-chasing-AWOL-suspect interlude) involving Mini Coopers or martial arts. I even imagine it could be booed in certain parts of the country just for having Susan Sarandon play a soldier's mother. It's bad enough that Tommy Lee Jones used to be Al Gore's roommate!

But here we are, reaping what George W. hath wrought, with Saddam Hussein's blustery words echoing in my mind. Before the invasion, Saddam said something like 'the Americans will drown in sand' or words to that effect. Perhaps he was right. As we pressed on towards Bagdad, the Republican Guard melted away, and we were moving too quickly to even secure a huge warehouse of ammo and explosives we found. Later on, we returned to find the warehouse empty. I often wonder how many IED's and car bombs have been powered by what we callously left unguarded. While Saddam himself may be gone, I think one could make a good case for the analogy that the US has become stuck to the tar baby in the briar patch.

If you liked Paul Haggis' Crash, you'll probably like this film. I have a soft spot for anyone involved in the production of my favorite TV series, Due South, of which Haggis was a frequent writer, director and/or executive producer.

I'm not really in the mood to list all the spoilers that illustrate the damage the war in Iraq had wreaked on the US. Some of the scenes in the film make this point in an obvious, maybe even clichéd manner, but many resonated with me hours after the film was over.

I think I've warned off those that may not like it, but I still recommend it to the rest of you. If you see it, let's discuss some of the details in the comments area below, OK?

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Fear No Weevil

Yes Virginia, there is a silver lining!

Down South, in the town of Enterprise, Alabama, a statue was dedicated in 1919 to the the Boll Weevil, the scourge of the cotton farmer. Back in the beginning of the 20th century, many areas relied solely on the cultivation of cotton. When the Boll Weevil came up from Mexico via Texas, it destroyed much of those cotton crops. It forced farmers away from the monoculture of King Cotton, and they diversified and prospered. The city fathers of Enterprise honored the Boll Weevil, and the statue itself has a long, bizarre history. But I'm not here to talk about the Boll Weevil.

For the last 15 years, I have played bass in a small intimate worship community, we've referred to as "The Early Service." Early, because we started at the ungodly hour of 8:30 AM! During that time I have been fortunate enough to evolve and improve my skills, and have shared music making with a long revolving list of wonderful, talented people. But, one doesn't have to walk very far down the road of old clichés to find "All good things must end someday."

For a variety of reasons (we won't go into it, remember the 'silver lining' focus here?) we've been on hiatus the last three summers, and I don't think I'll be rejoining whatever it is that's scheduled in the Early Service's place later this month. Certainly there's lots of pain, sadness, and sometimes anger, but let's get back to that silver lining, OK?

With some time on our hands during the last few summers, we have played in other churches on Sundays, and also at Laguna Honda Hospital in San Francisco. Laguna Honda is the hospital of last resort for many people, and we have been honored to play there. Sometimes there are 50 or more residents, most in wheelchairs, and they really appreciate what we do. It really puts things in perspective for us. Sometimes when we play John Lennon's "Imagine," it really hits me when we do the last verse:

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world
Usually when you hear the first line of that verse, it resonates in some sort of intellectual way, but here we are, playing for the residents, many of whom literally have nothing. It's been an honor to play there.

Another thing we didn't used to do 'in the good old days' was play with Martha. Martha has always been an excellent piano player and musician, who can actually read those funny little black dots and staff lines, as well as work off the 'cheat sheets,' and helps me figure out the 'idiot chords' for songs, but hasn't been asked to help out in the past at church. Now we get to rehearse and play together, and that's what I call a silver lining.

So, what do I usually do in a case like this? What else; quote some T. S. Eliot that seems appropriate to the occasion:

Fare forward, travellers! not escaping from the past
Into different lives, or into any future;
You are not the same people who left that station
Or who will arrive at any terminus,
While the narrowing rails slide together behind you;
And on the deck of the drumming liner
Watching the furrow that widens behind you,
You shall not think 'the past is finished'
Or 'the future is before us'.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Tragic Echo

Coyote Pup Killed by Car

In an article today in the online Chronicle, we find that a coyote pup was killed by a car, near the site where two adult coyotes were recently killed. The article goes on to say that they also know that the coyotes that were killed were also fed by humans. It sounds like there is at least one other pup still out there. I don't know enough about coyotes, but worry for their safety without their parents around.

As independent as the coyotes seem in our imagination, just like any other animal, the babies need help to make it.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

How Will the Wolf Survive?

Collision Course for Coyotes in Golden Gate Park

This last year, I drove to work through Golden Gate Park. There are certain joggers you'd see, and almost every day, I'd see this Dodge Caravan parked, with a big black dog with a flashing LED on its collar, surrounded by scores of ravens. I have no idea why, perhaps the dog's owner fed the birds.

I saw daily progress on this huge purple head, The Dreamer, as it was installed near the de Young.

But a month or so ago, I saw a creature by the side of the road that transfixed my attention. I pulled the car over, as the car behind me did, and I just stared at it. It looked like a real big fox, or a skinny wolf; no dog I knew had ears like that. I now realize it was a coyote.

I find myself truly absorbed when I encounter an animal that represents 'wildness' to me. That might simply mean an animal I don't normally see. Ravens, pigeons, seagulls, and blackbirds are familiar enough, but even then I will stop to look if they are especially close. I always watch the hawks roosting on top of streetlight poles in the city, as they look for gophers and such. (Boy, I could really use a gopher-hungry hawk in my front yard!)

But this coyote was something else. Here was the classic 'wild dog,' roaming around our artificially engingeered, but beautiful, Golden Gate Park. And now, we read in the paper the sad news that a pair of coyotes has been killed after they had attacked some dogs in the park.

I think everyone is sad about this, some people are angry because they feel the coyotes 'were here first.' From what I can tell, I can't really fault the actions taken, as these coyotes had pretty much sealed their own fate by getting too close to our civilization. While doing a little background research for this post, I found an especially prescient article in the Department of Fish and Game website about the need to keep wild animals wild. The headline of this article, printed some time ago, reads: "Wild Animals Ruined, Even Killed, by People’s Carelessness!" This article was written last November, but sounds like it was taken out of the morning paper:
Coyotes play an important role in the ecosystem, helping to keep rodent populations under control. They are by nature fearful of humans.

If coyotes are given access to human food and garbage, their behavior changes. They lose caution and fear. They may cause property damage. They might threaten human safety. They might be killed.

Relocating a problem coyote is not an option because it only moves the problem to someone else’s neighborhood.

Help prevent deadly conflicts for these beautiful wild animals.

Just like the people who build their houses closer and closer to the wild areas are on a collision course with Mother Nature in the form of wildfires and cougars, these encounters can inevitably lead to tragic outcomes.

I think we look to wildlife with some sort of subconscious longing for something we've lost in exchange for the comforts of civilization, and seeing things like coyotes in the park, red foxes near the beach, or peregrine falcons raising their young in the heart of the city gives us some sort of hope.

Monday, July 02, 2007

The Big Lie, Chapter...Whatever

<-- Scooter Libby scoots away without any hard time.

Am I dreaming? Can this really be happening?

Numero Uno: George W. and Dick Cheney consider themselves above the law in an executive order signed by Georgie himself, both saying they are not covered by this order. It's a presidential order Bush issued in March 2003 to cover all government agencies that are part of the executive branch. But, incredibly, Cheney and Bush refuse to comply, and nothing happens! No consequences!

Numero Dos: Cheney Chief of Staff Scooter Libby is convicted of a felony in the Valerie Plame Affair, and Bush commutes the sentence (2.5 years in prison) so Scooter doesn't have to pay for his crimes, crimes that Bush said would be paid for!

I don't mean to display too much naïveté here, but the relativistic attitudes that coexist around what would seemingly be a slam dunk are just stunning. I guess this just shows how powerful Cheney is as impeachment insurance. Why impeach Bush, when all we'd get is Cheney to replace him?

Monday, May 28, 2007

Support Our Troops

And now for something completely different:

Recently, a friend of mine was showing me some photos she took of an Iraq War vet with his artificial leg. While I can't show you the photos for privacy reasons, it did get me to thinking about the cost of war, and what it means to "Support Our Troops."

As a science teacher, the main tenet of my teaching is the TANSTAAFL concept, which stands for:

"There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch."

In science this relates to The First Law of Thermodynamics, the conservation of energy. I think it's a pretty good rule to live by in many regards. Honest accountants know that the true cost of many actions is not always what is advertised, but adds up based on all the consequences. In war, money is not only spent on guns and bombs, but is spent on repairing the damage to our soldiers and society as well.

Currently, we don't seem to be able to break out of the linguistic gridlock about the definition of what "supporting our troops" actually means. The president seems to feel that any attempt to reign in the blank check he feels he's been given is somehow not "supporting the troops." Congress conversely seems to feel that sending the troops off to die in the crossfires of a civil war we've unleashed isn't very supportive either.

So, what we have here is the analog to this classic National Lampoon cover. If we don't buy Bush's War, we are against the troops. This is such a false choice. I'm an old anti-war peacenik from the Vietnam era, but I have come to respect the sacrifice soldiers make for our country. We don't live in a stateless world, and until that day comes where we have no borders, we will need people to defend us. So many soldiers have lost their lives, and so many more have practically sacrificed their souls, all betrayed by a Commander-In-Chief with the big lies. On one hand we have budget deficits, tax cuts for the rich, huge contracts in Iraq for Halliburton and the like, and we juxtapose that with a rat-infested Veterans Hospital. Military families are living near or below the poverty level, and benefits to the veterans seem perpetually at risk. If we are to ask these young men and women to do whatever it takes to protect us, we owe it to them to make sure what they are dying for makes any sense at all, if there is such a thing.

Supporting our troops means we don't put them in harm's way as an instrument of policy, but only as the last resort.

click on the comic below to enlarge:

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Ain't Nothin' Wrong With a Big Cathedral

On the occasion of the 15th (possibly the last) anniversary of the 'Early Service,' I shared a poem I wrote many years ago. It was inspired by a more intimate, small group style of spirituality. I got the idea when I was on the N Judah, cruising past a big cathedral, Saint Anne of the Sunset, on my way downtown.
Nothing wrong with a big cathedral
Nothing wrong with a place so grand
But all I need is to be with my people
To hug a friend, to shake a hand
So I'll tell you something
Tell ya what I found
When we stand together
We stand on sacred ground
On sacred ground

Wherever two or more are gathered
Wherever two or more are gathered
Wherever two or more are gathered
There is love love love
Love love love
We got love

Saturday, February 24, 2007

It's All a Dream We Dreamed

one afternoon, long ago
n. Philosophy.
  1. The theory that the self is the only thing that can be known and verified.
  2. The theory or view that the self is the only reality.
Some say solipsism was the disease of the 20th century, or at least that's what they said back in the 20th century. This radio station I'm writing about is so narrowly focused, it almost seems like some kind of personal dream, made just for me. I have no idea how many others relate to it like I do!

There has been a very strange thing on the AM dial recently in the Bay Area. KTRB has moved its 50,000 watt transmitter from Modesto to the Bay Area, and has been 'testing the transmitter' by playing exclusively (with some exceptions) music of the classic San Francisco Sound bands. There have been no commercials, only these odd, often tacky promos about how they don't know what format the station will be playing. One friend described it as KFRC (oldies station) for aging hippies. Perhaps he's right.

It's an odd experience to drive around the City, and hear Quicksilver's "What About Me?" followed by "The Fool," their big closing track from the first Quicksilver album. I don't think I'd heard the song in decades, and there it was, wafting into my car on tinny AM frequencies. I have heard it a few more times since then, and it still amazes me how powerful this band was at one point. "Pride of Man," "Dino's Song," and even "Edward the Mad Shirt Grinder!"

The other morning on my way to work, I heard the Airplane's "Comin' Back to Me," and was immediately transported back into my bedroom at my parents' house in Cupertino, in 1967, listening to my GE portable stereo, with maybe a bayberry candle burning for mood. This haunting song hasn't been on the radio in what seems like forever. Could this really be happening? Could I be driving through Golden Gate Park on a dark misty morning listening to this song?
I realize I've been here before.
The shadow in the mist
Could have been anyone--
I saw you, I saw you,
Coming back to me.
And in typical fashion, I have heard this song several times since, but it still sounds beautiful. I love "Somebody to Love" and "White Rabbit" but why don't I ever hear this song anymore?

They even played "Masked Marauder" from Country Joe and the Fish's first album, a short cinematic instrumental. I wrote a poem in high school based around my impressions of this song. About all I can remember now is some line I wrote about the "Stranger that everyone knows" coming down from the hills. Great tune. Barry Melton was definitely as hot as anyone back then on guitar. He became a lawyer over 20 years ago.

When Moby Grape's "Omaha" explodes out of my car radio, their potency and intensity puts them in a special class. There's something almost punkish about the music, but simultaneously virtuosic (is that a word?) And to think this album also contains the extremely short "Naked if I Want to."
Can I buy an amplifier, on time
Well I ain't got no money
But I will pay you before I die
One of the things I have enjoyed is the lost art of playing 'sets' of artists. In a galaxy far away, in KMPX/KSAN land, if the DJ felt like it, you could hear 2, 3, or more songs in a row by the same artist. No media consultant told them they couldn't do it. I have heard "Children of the Future" going into "Quicksilver Girl" and then maybe into some live Steve Miller track I didn't even know ("Evil?")

I have heard "White Bird" now and then over the years, but once again, how could I get tired of this? It's a great "car song" and I always flash back to returning home from the Santa Cruz Boardwalk in my parent's Mustang, driving through a 'tunnel of violins' (the multitracked end of the solo section) with my sister Rickie and Bill, a college roommate. Summer of '69 indeed!

KTRB has been playing lots of big Janis hits, but also some great tracks you don't hear anymore, like "Bye Bye Baby" from the first Mainstream LP. Looking at the crude album art takes me back to seeing it for sale in the store window of a record shop on Haight St. when it was released.

I know it may be hard for some of you who know me to hear this, but they might play a little too much Dead. I like the song, but hearing "Hell in a Bucket" just doesn't seem right in this milieu. Otherwise, it's been good, driving around, cruisin' to tunes, and hearing "Morning Dew" off the first LP whilst traversing Golden Gate Park.

There's been more, and I will be sad on the day I turn my radio on, and find something else coming out of 860 AM, but for now I will take the time warp, and be glad for the good times.

And yes, I have been blessed to hear "Box of Rain" too:
It's just a box of rain
I don't know who put it there
Believe it if you need it
or leave it if you dare
But it's just a box of rain
or a ribbon for your hair
Such a long long time to be gone
and a short time to be there