Some thoughts on a niece

November 22, 2010

I recently moved to the Bay Area largely because my brother and sister, and my brother's family, live here now. We were born and raised in Austin, Texas.

Anyhow, my brother has two children, 5 and 2, girl and boy.

I've been staying in their Oakland Hills house for a few months (which has a whole separate level), and it's been great to form a casual relationship with the little ones.

Jolie is a thin, sparky, quirky, imaginative girl. We got to know each other pretty well when Mom and Dad went out of town for a NYC long weekend and I watched her and her brother. Even with a nanny, a very demanding enterprise (lame?). By Sunday, my meter was running down; sleep, focus slowly dissipating. I just wanted to watch TV and eat bon bons after they finally went down. Married With Children.

Anyhow, Jolie and I don't get to see each other that much during the week. I come and go through a separate entrance and live and be on a separate level of the house. So, via Mom and Dad, Jolie and I started setting dates. She inexplicably started talking about fishing and how cool it would be to catch and eat fish we caught, so for her 5th birthday I bought her a fishing pole.

We went to the glory that is Wal-Mart, a mind-boggling event for a kid at any age; I don't think she'd experienced it before. After a brief foray into the Barbies, which majestically draw her by a fairy, mermaid magnetism, we made it to the fishing poles. She was immediately drawn to the pink, flowery, good-for-nothing two-foot-long poles that eventually end, scatter-like, in a sad front yard the same day it comes home, wallowing until some ambitious adult decides to throw it away, finally.

I tried hard to explain that they are worthless poles, that we actually want to catch, clean and eat some fish, not be pretty. She refused a practical one. It was too "ugly." We compromised, ironically, on a red one with "Ugly Stick" declared in large, full letters down the package's side and on the pole itself. I didn't say anything.

We eventually made it to San Pablo Reservoir, a large stocked lake just inland from the East Bay ridge that separates Oakland and Berkeley from the inland valley countryside - cows, farms, open roads.

We pulled up and bought a fishing pass and picked a spot near some Hmong, who were fishing up a storm. Hmong, a people of the mountainous regions in southeast Asia, were the only ethnicity out there that I could see, 50 or so. Their presence reminded me immediately of one of my journalism professor's favorite books and required reading in one of the classes I had with him: The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down. A story of extreme cultural disconnect with a young Hmong girl and her family in its center, told indefatigably by Anne Fadiman, daughter of former New Yorker book critic Clifton Fadiman.

My professor, Berkley Hudson, was impressed by Fadiman's tireless work on the book. When The New Yorker inexplicably hired 38-year-old Tina Brown as editor, Fadiman had been working on the piece. She turned it in, or it was already there, and Brown rejected it. For the amount of work she put in, it was crushing (this is all according to Berkley). She published it as a book and, as related by Berkley, said something like: "A woman goes through delays, gives birth. It's different for a woman."

Anyhow, the Hmong were catching these huge 4/5-pound channel catfish - grey, momentous fish. We inspected one of the catch and Jolie said, "No way I'm touching one of those." I said, "Then how will we catch, clean and eat them?" We fished off a dock into the stocked reservoir grey water with nightcrawlers, but nothing bit. The Hmong were fishing with thawed frozen shrimp and were cleaning up, which was surprising. And they were fishing off the lake's bottom, using tear-drop shaped large weights. They would heave-cast, with large, long poles, the bait 60 to 70 yards out and the weight would sink the baited hook to the bottom. To know when a fish was on, they placed a bobber between the rod's first and second eyelet; when it jiggled, they jumped to yank the rod and hook the fish.

We didn't catch a fish, not even a bite ... even though a Hmong guy gave us two frozen shrimp and we adopted their technique.


Jolie started looking forward to "special time."

So that's how we started the dates. And for the last one we went to the Berkeley Botanical Garden, which is a great 34 acres. The gardens sprawl out into Strawberry Canyon, the canyon that carves uphill above UC Berkeley; the gardens ared divided into sections by region of the world - an amazing layout, and one maybe only California and a handful of other places could hope to put on: everything grows here.

Her little heart/being effusively brightens at random times, particularly related to conscious flights of imagination.

I transcribe a redwood poem of hers at the base of one the garden's most prominent redwood trees with the Golden Gate Bridge anchoring the wide bay in the distance.

The Redwood Tree

We are at the redwood tree.

The branches look like spider legs

and they're trying to take us.

The top looks like a crown.

It's really pretty,

tall and nice.

I'm scared of the spider legs

It's older than us

It's like [effusive, heart-brighten moment] so big

I've also been introducing her to some music. She agrees that Big Poppa's the best rapper:

Biggie Biggie Biggie can't you see? sometimes your words just hypnotize me And I just love your flashy ways I guess that's why they broke, and you're so paid

Ok. Not so many thoughts on a niece, but there it is ...

An Online World

November 19, 2010


A friend (Greg T. Spielberg) and I have been working on developing something for a long time.

We met at the University of Missouri School of Journalism in the fall of 2007; we were both first-semester M.A. students. We sat down to figure out how we could mix our unique perspectives because we recognized an unmistakable subterranean harmony. Art, parties, the real.

Started with Indigo Oak, which stuttered and stopped that first semester, moved on to Testament, which started, plowed ahead, stuttered and stopped in the second semester.

The third semester was a chaos of plans ... then we started again with his re-birthing of Streetwater, a Vail, Colorado, endeavor he did with a friend, David Dean, who now runs Serial\Optimist.

Anyhow, we have been doing the Facebook (1,156 Likes) and Twitter (373 followers) thing, but it has been a halting affair, largely because it's not defined too well. We both want to do an online publication. But there are some amazingly difficult issues to confront in developing/conceiving an idea -> business plan. Online seems free, but it's not. We want to be a daily original presence; not commentary/aggregator, which is beaten to death and (humble opinion) worthless. How do you do that with little or no money?

Where will consistent content come from? (Written and visual). How do you ensure quality?


Building something beautiful on the Lower East Side.

The New Yorker

November 18, 2010

For anyone who loves The New Yorker ... About Town (2000) by Ben Yagoda.

Explains some of its frustrating aspects and instills admiration for its purity, focus on an elegant, sophisticated, though quirky and very ivory-tower-ish art for art's sake iron-grip perspective.

After 50-plus years of existence (founded 1925), the magazine had become decorous to a fault, largely because the long-time editor William Shawn (1952-1987), over decades, slowly wrested power into a dictatorial kingdom at the magazine: suspicious of detractors, afflicted with the intriguing aging monarch condition of seeing the end of power and not wanting to let it go. Yagoda writes, "But now [the early '80s] the talents of contributors new and old were unable to transcend the essential dysfunctionality of the magazine. It was simply a creepy place" (404).

Even the hallowed New Yorker writer title seems tenuous with the revelations untomed in Yagoda's book; contributors would write and submit pieces and would not be guaranteed publication or payment, and if a piece was accepted, all too often it took months/years of limbo and had to deal with sometimes amazingly arcane and peculiar edits. How does it work now?

I went to the 2008 Nieman Narrative Journalism Conference (ran by Harvard and I just found out it's being discontinued; horrible) in Boston and Dan Baum, a former New Yorker staff writer, lamented, disgruntledly, that his contract did not get renewed for the next year. He had written extensively on Hurricane Katrina's aftermath for the magazine as the man-on-the-ground for the mess, but, surprisingly, he emoted the gut-wrenching frustration of what appears to be (post-reflection) The New Yorker's edit machine of his long Katrina piece. He called it the "New Yorker deflavorizer," and afterward I noticed it all over the magazine, more so in some places than others. Art critic Peter Scheldjahl's, a climactic exception, always. Have to give him a shout out! Probably my favorite staff writer, and not for subject matter, of the magazine. (Aside - I just met a former good friend of his daughter's. Ah! the glory of a tenuous one-degree of separation).

-- interlude/flashback (Nieman Narrative) --


Me and Anne Hull. Cool!

Nieman Narrative: the main reason I went was to meet/see Anne Hull, an amazing national beat writer for the Washington Post. She might be the best newspaper writer working. It's a shame there's not a wider outlet for her. (I first encountered her as I prepared to be a teaching assistant for Cross-Cultural Journalism in J-School; her piece was featured in the class's somewhat-mundane textbook. Her 2002 piece: Rim of the New World. See the popping, alive first article in the series here. It reads as a poetic, off-the-cuff freestyle (in the freeing sense of her voice and perspective) exposé of changing demographics in the Atlanta metropolitan area evidenced by the 2000 census. A snippet:

Cisco gives the man his ice cream cone, mocha-colored fingers wrapped around the white napkin that covers the cone, and into the outstretched knuckles that spell S-K-I-N.

As soon as the man puts the car in gear, Cisco whirls around and spits out a rap.

I represent the South

where the niggas stay scared.

red mouth, nobody mouth as red as mine

down south affiliated with that Georgia pine.

Anne and I corresponded before I arrived; I asked to sit down with her. She gave me her cell number and we texted back and forth at the conference to coordinate (I'm not typically star-struck, but that was cool). And more cool: we (two J-school colleagues and I) were staying in the conference hotel and one of us had got bumped up to the special penthouse breakfast privileges. We all showed up for breakfast the morning of the keynote address and there were Anne Hull and Dana Priest eating breakfast, before their keynote address (within a few months they would win a Pulitzer Prize for their story exposing the pathetic operation of Walter Reed Hospital, run by the U.S. military in D.C.). And there was Roy Peter Clark (a professor's, Berkley Hudson, good friend) who is a big player in journalism, writing, etc. Anyhow, on the way downstairs, guess who was in the elevator? Me and Anne Hull and Dana Priest. Dana was talking about the mundanity of leave-town chores; they were gossipping like any girls would (of course). It was just cool.

When we talked, I asked Anne why she wasn't writing books or writing magazine pieces. Read the story that caught my attention back in 2007 and see why I asked the question. She said she was going to take some time off. A few months later I saw a piece by her in The New Yorker! Her first in the magazine. Didn't have her characteristic freeing voice or spirit (but was good) - maybe because of the deflavorizer?

Note: I looked on Washington Post's website yesterday to read some of Anne's recent stories and there were none for about 15 months, so I emailed her. She responded. She's on sabbatical, working on a book. Thank goodness. It should be a great book with her clear intelligence and her great, clear, free, open, fun writing style.

-- Interlude over --

In 1985, The New Yorker was bought out by Advance Publications, which ended its heavenly, skewed bubble-life; and Shawn was subsequently pushed out, but his farewell letter to the staff indicates the absolute high charm of the magazine and what made/makes it so special:

"Dear colleagues, dear friends: My feelings at this perplexed moment are too strong for farewells. I will miss you terribly, but I can be grateful to have had your companionship for part of my journey through the years. Whatever our individual roles at The New Yorker, whether on the eighteenth, nineteenth, or twentieth floor, we have built something quite wonderful together. Love has been the controlling emotion, and love is the essential word. The New Yorker, as a reader once said, has been the grandest of magazines. Perhaps it has also been the greatest, but that matters far less. What matters most is that you and I, working together, taking strength from the inspiration that our first editor, Harold Ross, gave us, have tried constantly to find and say what is true. I must speak of love once more. I love all of you, and will love you as long as I live" (416). [My emphasis] Truth and love!

Interestingly, the magazine began to "bleed red ink." After Roger Gottlieb, an interim editor, Si Newhouse, the new owner, hired Vanity Fair editor British Tina Brown, then 38 years old, in 1992, and she moved the magazine, extremely, into photography and timeliness. David Remnick, the current editor (since 1998), took it down a notch, but the magazine still frustratingly covers the exact same topics that spread through the media: The New York Times, The New York Review of Books, and NPR's Fresh Air. It really feels like there's a weekly manifesto sent out to the "cultural elite" about what to cover. Come on! Can we do something about this please? I'll add some specific examples later, hopefully. Back to the red point ... between 1994 and 1998 the mag ran a $60.6-million deficit (424). How can that be/be tolerated? It's too good of a product. Is this public knowledge? I'll report back its current economics, if so.

Anyhow ... Regardless ... Look forward to my pieces in the magazine!

Some ridiculous quotes (from the fashion designer Tomas Maier profile "Just Have Less," by John Colapinto in the Jan. 3, 2011, issue), illustrating the "too-elegant" (a friend's criticism of the magazine) realm of The New Yorker:

Maeir [Tomas, "creative director and head designer of the Italian fashion label Bottega Veneta"] asked Longo [a fashion photographer famous for developing, in the 1980s, the modeling pose of reacting to the impact of gunshots] to reproduce the series himself, using models with Bottega Veneta clothing and bags. The proofs had no credit line identifying Longo as the photographer. When I asked Maier about this, he said that anyone who couldn't distinguish the difference between a real Longo and an imitation was not the customer he was after (37). [!!].


As Maier finished lunch - a salad - I asked him about the ethics of creating astronomically costly things when many people are having trouble meeting their food bills. Maier insisted that his prices reflected the cost of materials and labor ... He insisted that Bottega's goods were not beyond the reach of middle-class people, who have simply been trained to want too much stuff. Anyone, he said, could afford one five-hundred-and-fifty-dollar hand-painted cashmere scarf. "Just have less," he said (37).

The Meadow: a novel-poem

November 17, 2010

A friend lent me The Meadow (1992) by James Galvin a few months ago. I didn't realize it would be such a masterpiece, but poets have been outside of my sphere, unfortunately.

It is a devastating work set in the Colorado/Wyoming borderland, a region where Galvin himself was raised. Only a living intimacy could create the work, a 100-year history of the area depicted through the lives of several interconnected generations of families. Part of the charm is the omniscient narrator's perspective; Galvin dances in and out of his characters' lives and thoughts - both contextualizing them and allowing the characters to express the searing, what appears to be one slow-drawn, wagon-through-mud-consistent drama of their harsh-landscape life. The revolving perspectives and simple, rugged intimacy recalls, strongly, Faulkner's As I Lay Dying.

When the moment ebbed and the horses stilled and the situation bespoke itself in the silence that followed (even the creek's roar was a silence now), the silence issuing from the old man overwhelmed it, and the creek became a noise again, and the roaring in App's ears came out of it, and all the sounds together became the sound of his father's wrath building. App knew what was coming so he just sat there waiting, still as granite, not from fear but from a calm prescience of the inevitable. Without turning he heard the old man's breathing and the crunch of his boots punishing the gravel. He felt the back end of the wagon lift perceptibly, which was not what he was expecting, so he craned around to see the old man squatted down behind the wagon, heaving-to in a carnival-like attempt to lift the impossible back onto the road (51).

Tempering different grades of steel is a subtle art that can't be explained in any book. People see colors differently, so that the relationships of colors as they shade down a metal rainbow from red to purple to tan, can only be hinted at. It takes years and failures to learn (123).

He scoured the desert for agates and jade. He made a saw to cut slabs out of stones. He filled several boxes with the cut and polished jewelry he made. Some of the agates are like tiny landscapes with trees and a river or distant mountains under dawn. All women's jewelry - pendants, brooches, earrings - never given or worn. Put away in boxes in a drawer (126).

In the spring the new grass grows in standing water. At sunset the white mirror-light shines through the grass. That's when the beaver ponds light up, too, and the rising trout make bull's eyes on the surface. A doe that has been drinking lifts her head to listen. Done irrigating, Lyle heads home across the shining field. He has a shovel on his shoulder that looks like a single wing (142).

A heartbreaking lament of a stolen bike

November 16, 2010

Fussy note of the day: *** Not from the bicycle's perspective as the title may suggest (though that would be degrees more poignant and desolate); title has the right rhythm/cadence/feeling as is, so it's there, though misleading ***

Bikes should never be stolen, especially ones that take on the intimacy of pain, self-reliance and companionship that accompanies a simple existence made concrete by muscle-pedal-chain-wheel transportation.

Of course, who's to blame? The victim or the thief? Most often the victim probably. In this case for sure - a beautiful, hot bike cable-locked to a tree in the heart of midday Cal-Berkeley's campus. Tragic ignorance.

Walked around the Oakland Flea Market the next morning: cars, a blue, aching god-knows-what machine, bicycle tires, more than a few disabled, rough armoires, a restful chaos of perhaps useful things - just focus on one rusty or semi-tattered item at a time. Dance along the miraculous, apparently straight paths through the junk, the piled, ramshackled Toy Story despair of usefulness in a hopeless borderland.

I arrived a little after opening time, a guy in a semi-nice VW pulled up and looked to get in. We talked for a second, re-determining the opening time, now 20 minutes past. "It's one of those places where that's fluid," I said, with a slight glance to the junk in the open-air, and then I walked back down the street to the corner "not just another wifi shack" cafe to not-contemplate the soul-crushing reality of a beloved, used-everyday bicycle, stolen, gone, vaporized into the blue, sunny sky of the East Bay, dissipated through the red-green-gold redwood trees of Cal-Berkeley's grand entrance, just down-slope of one small, perhaps justified, tyranny.

It's the second life-altering stolen bicycle: the first was worse, just because a 10,000-plus logged miles and four-year, cross-country relationship is more like losing a partner than an item. Okay have to stop here ... RIP GF Paragon.

Hope, a useful endeavor? Craigslist, the Berkeley flea market, the absurdity of any immediate-action faultless despair.



November 15, 2010

Note: Sorry for the post. Who doesn't love yoga? Ok, maybe some. With that, though, here's a post:

I started doing yoga when I was 19 as a sophomore and an NCAA Div. II basketball star (I wish :); should've been). But, I was on the team and performed the consequent bull-headed, meat-head, intellect-dominated training regimen of muscle-by-muscle training. I do biceps now, I do my stomach now, I do my chest now, I do my shoulders now, I do my legs now. Consequently, I couldn't sit cross-legged or touch my toes, etc.; I was a tight, muscle-bound person.

I started doing yoga because of my girlfriend at the time taught it; I thought it was a joke, for a while - until the day someone pointed out, when watching me sit in pain, that my body was a wreck. There was nothing overtly wrong with it, I just couldn't sit on the ground without pain. A flash-of-light realization occurred: I have to change this, this is not right. I started doing yoga everyday at age 21 and have continued until today, age 32.

I slowly got more flexible and better at yoga, and eventually I taught several yoga classes at the University of Missouri while I attended journalism school there, and the aphorism: "to master something, teach it," I found to be absolutely true. I wasn't the greatest teacher though I tried. I never systematic, long-term training; I just had an experience with a series of exceptional teachers, and a desperation to change my body. And I had a very solid grasp of the absolute basics: alignment, state of mind, attitude, which help create a successful session. Some of the absolute keys (this is gold):

Always relax the face and breathe into whatever position you're in

Shoulders always relaxed, dropping away from the ears. Shoulder blades reaching back toward each other, opening the upper chest and aligning the spine such that the body is supported so you feel the your flesh draped off and the energy/framework of the spine by grounding from the floor/feet through the hips up to the crown of the head. A light, free sensation

Engage the lower back slightly, slightly; be aware that it's the absolute key between the two halves of the body, the nexus that once activated, stimulates balance and an amazing surge of energy, releasing all the power of the solar plexus (the spot two inches below the navel and our center of gravity/source of being). Gets on another level, but that's where you are

Be aware of the hips' position relative to the shoulders, feet. In general, they will be even, horizontally speaking, and working to be either square, both hip points facing the same direction, or open, hip points spreading 180 degrees away from each other, following the knees

Relax/spread the toes; it's surprising how this relaxes the face immediately and lets you sink deeper into whichever pose you're in

Activate an interior line of energy; find the dynamic tension that remarkably anchors and energizes each pose

This post is inspired by a great yoga teacher I've been fortunate to study with in the Bay Area. Good teachers, in anything, are so rare. Jessie Holland is calm, confident, knowledgeable, thoughtful in the layout of her classes, and gives amazing, ever-changing, insightful body cues: spread the energry starting from your core outward to the hands and back toward the feet. Wow! It feels like the body floats away and supports itself.

Anyhow, excellent teachers are rare; it's a treat.

Hasta luego.

The Natural World of San Francisco by Harold Gilliam and Michael Bry (1967)

November 12, 2010

A great book, at times a little overwritten, that gives a great, detailed perspective to almost all the elements of San Francisco's natural history, from its geology to its seasonal climate to its trees, fog, physical evolution ... . Great photographs by Michael Bry illustrate the text by Harold Gilliam, former environmental writer and San Francisco Chronicle columnist.

An example of the natural history insight the book offers: did you know that the 1017-acre, three-mile long, lush, green, amazingly treed Golden Gate Park, which anchors the city's northwest end, was sand dunes in the 1860s and took decades of cultivation to get plants to even take root?

And, the ubiquitous California tree, the eucalyptus, is not native - though this is a fairly well-known fact. But still shocking nonetheless for any of us who hike, ride through the stands of the tall, iconic tree of today's California. It was brought here for timber from its native Australia, but by a key oversight the wrong species, the blue gum (one of 600 Australian species), was picked and broadcast, and before the nascent Californians knew it, they had established a thriving area tree that was useless for anything but its being.

The eucalyptus light is not the bright metallic luster of the Lombardy poplars and the cottonwoods of the arid regions or the dazzling mirrorlike glitter of the quaking aspens in the high mountain passes; it is rather a muted scintillation like late afternoon sunlight on the blue-green waters of an ocean cove as seen through the filtering boughs of pines. This special quality of light is partly the result of the arrangement of its leaves ... Look upward from a point near the base of a one-hundred-and-fifty-foot eucalyptus and you see terrace after terrace of foliage, each with its clusters of leaves shimmering with a different vibration as they are stirred by any slight movement of air. It is as if your eyes were moving upward from the base of a Gothic tower as the sunlight illuminated, one after another, successive rising arches and buttresses, spandrels and spires (82-83).

Gilliam spends an admiringly large portion of the book contextualizing the Great Bar, a curving, thin, underwater sandbar that spans the Golden Gate and, in many respects, is inexplicable. Theories swirl around the nearer geological history of the bay; for instance, when a lot of the current seawater was locked up in Ice Age glaciers, the current coastline was 25-ish miles further to the west at the Farallone Islands. One theory suggests that as sea levels rose, the Golden Gate forced the growing ocean to deposit its in-bound sand, forming the Great Bar. Later, when the overall forces of water through the Gate reversed, the sandbar took on its current seaward-bulging shape. The Bar must be dredged to maintain a shipping channel and is not an important feature in and of itself, but offers distinct, physical evidence, laden with concommitant theories of the area's particular natural history.

The most compelling chapter of the book, "The Sky," discusses the Bay Area's weather patterns, in particular the subtle changes in types and timing of seasonal fog with its attendant causes. Gilliam describes how he can, amazingly, wake up in the morning and tell what the weather forecast holds for the day just by sniffing the air from his one-time Telegraph Hill home:

The aromas drifting in the window were sure signs of things to come. If the odor was salty, we could expect cool, breezy weather off the ocean and probably fog. But a pungent aroma from the coffee roasters near the Ferry Building would be borne on a south wind, a reliable indication of an approaching rainstorm. An odor of burning or an acrid tang in the air meant the breeze was coming from the industrial areas northeast of the bay, particularly the oil refineries at Richmond and beyond. The day was sure to be sharp, clear, dry, and extraordinarily cold if the season was winter, or equally clear and dry but unusually warm at any other season (203 - 204).

SF in five movements: 1. The Land and the Waters 2. The Trees 3. The Parks 4. The Wildlife 5. The Sky

Chocolate Croissants!

November 11, 2010

Who knows how it started, but it definitely began. Somewhere along the way chocolate croissants became a part of my identity. As a staple in bakeries, I must not be the only one. I don't know if that's a consolation? I really would like to go back to my formative pre-7-year-old days and count how many times my mother brought me to the bakery, with me as an excuse (who can say? :) ), when the chocolate croissant situation started via a weekly (or bi-daily) titration of butter, filo dough and chocolate. As a young adult and as a growing-older one, it's become a routine to sample cafes', bakeries', boulangeries', etc. chocolate croissants of any area I happen to land, if even for a little while. Honestly, it is not just an excuse to eat multiple chocolate croissants day in and day out. I swear.

Paris! And your chocolatines! How disappointed I was. The birthplace (I assume(d)) of the chocolate croissant. I sampled them everywhere, all over the city. Near Notre Dame, Sacre Coeur, Museo de Picasso, Latin Quartier? Nothing.

There've been many heartbreaks.

Having recently moved to the East Bay, I continued my sampling. It's unconscious, I swear. For the first time, however, I made the tasting systematic by recruiting some people (analysts).

Here's the deal. A research program was designed loosely after another, albeit plain, croissant-off; the top four bakeries in the eastern north-Oakland/Berkeley area were sampled: La Farine, Market Hall Bakery, Masse's Pastries and Semifreddi's. La Farine, Market Hall and Semifreddi's were somewhat in-the-know spots for the analysts before the test, but Masse's Pastries in north Berkeley was off the radar. In the croissant-off linked above, Masse's wins, and after reading some of the comments I thought they might dazzle on the chocolate croissant frontier, too. While I was at Masse's Pastries, the last bakery on my chocolate croissant run on the day of the analysis, I asked the baker why chocolate croissants are rarely made into real croissant shapes. It's rare, as you probably know, to see an actual chocolate croissant (croissant, from the French: "crescent"); typically, its representation is a folded-over mess with chocolate stuffed inside. One bakery around the corner from where I work in Berkeley simply makes a flat bread roll and stuffs chocolate in to it (to be fair, it's called a "pain au chocolate" - but what's the point of that?. Needless to say, they were not included in the croissant-off). The baker at Masse's said that it's simply easier to make the folded-over version because the chocolate for chocolate most often comes in sticks of a length convenient for folding in - it's a little more, or a lot more, complicated to croissant them in.

-- interlude --

On a Mexico trip, I found a great bakery in Barre de Navidad, Jalisco, run by a French-Canadian (if I remember correctly) and his wife. They got up everyday at 3:30 a.m. to make the day's croissants - plain, almond and chocolate - all about half the size of regular croissants. I got up early one morning to bake with them, and while the husband lamented, sadly, that his parents would not visit or respect him because they thought he was on vacation and not really working in Mexico (though he was!), we talked about and made croissants. To get the traditional form, the filo dough is buttered and cut into triangles, and the triangles are then, surpringly, simply rolled up from one point to make the characteristic, texture-laden croissant shape. I learned something important that enlightned much of my croissant experience, too: many bakeries don't use butter, but margarine, because it's much easier to work with, but a lot less tasty. Isn't it the blending of butter and chocolate and flaky dough that make choclate croissants great?!

-- back to the contest --

Two croissants were purchased from each bakery and then cut up into two or three pieces with the ends removed and then placed on four plates. The five reviewers had no idea which croissant came from which bakery.

-- a note --

I had been blown away by Market Hall Bakery's chocolate croissants - buttery, chocolate-y and flaky. A rare combination. And, they dame in completely off the map; no blogs or food sites mentioned them in the little research I did for the taste-off.

-- back to the contest --

The results (listed in order of favorite):

Analyst K: La Farine, Masse's Pastries, Semifreddi's, Market Hall Analyst M: La Farine, Market Hall, Masse's Pastries, Semifreddi's Analyst N: Market Hall, La Farine, Semifreddi's, Masse's Pastries Analyst Ra: La Farine, Masse's Pastries, Market Hall, Semifreddi's Analyst Re: Market Hall, La Farine, Masse's Pastries, Semifreddi's

Obviously, La Farine won, but Market Hall is clearly the second favorite. After tasting both one after the other, and vice-versa, it was clear that they were very similar but differed in the taste of their chocolate. La Farine's was less sweet, mor dark; Market Hall's more milk-buttery. Surprisingly, the heavily touted Masse's Pastries didn't do so well. Maybe an off day.

Regardless - a very one one for a chocolate-croissant addict!

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

November 10, 2010

A wonderful, devastating book. I had no idea that the fantastical beginning, "GhettoNerd at the End of the World," would turn out so soulful. I stopped reading after 10 or so pages assuming that the boasting of Dominicano young Oscar was leading to some self-indulgent, self-esteem-building work about a niche life. Couldn't have been more wrong. The seams of the book tore apart, the words ached with tragedy, a multilayered profile of a country raped and beaten by a tyrant - the effects beading through time and a space and landing on a young, awkward boy, one that we, in melting-pot America, have likely encountered growing up (I know I did, intimately, in the public schools on the poor side of the tracks in Austin, Texas). The weight of history, the subtle karma of trenchant tragedy.

I never would've finished the book if it hadn't been for the chance encounter with a Berkeley undergrad work-study student who had to tour me through the Berkeley Art Museum because I wanted to photograph the building for the first blog post; some angles in the museum require permission for some reason. Her (Jennifer's) thesis has to do with the book and its unusual use of footnotes. We didn't go into it in depth in the short time we talked, but maybe (hopefully) this post will be expanded if we get to meet about it. It would be a great book to talk about. I randomly saw her at the corner of Ashby and College, big sunglasses that swallowed her eyes and cheeks, Frenched-out (she lived in France for awhile), thin, skirt, leggings, big boots, a cigarette coming and going from her mouth, dangling, during the nonchalant movements, between her middle and index fingers. The way she leaned into her hip standing on the curb looking downstreet at the busy intersection, she brought Paris and the beautiful fashion-flowers of Madison Aveenue as they wait in the brief light for their car concretely into the day. I said hello not sure it was her; it was. We talked a bit and said we should talk about Oscar Wao, and her eyes, after she brought down the huge, dark glasses had the harried, overworked, stressed look of the passionate undergrad (N O T E N O U G H T I M E T O D O W H A T S E E M S L I K E R E A L L Y M A T T E R S, C O N S T A N T L Y I N S P I R E D A N D T R I P P E D U P B Y E C O N O M I C S O R S O M E O T H E R S U R V E Y C L A S S; Little do you know then that this is the problem of life: keep the fire burning strong in the midst of the (seeming) mundanities of living. I did a biography for the University of Missouri Journalism School's centennial celebration of probably the most all-star dean in the school's history (outside of founder Walter Williams, of course (blasphemy); note: he was scandalous; he married a younger student. In the archives during my research, I came across a handwritten note by her to a friend describing his come-ons, and her confusion and disappointment because she respected him - they eventually married) Pulitzer Prize winning magazine historian, Frank Luther Mott. His great life's motto was "Time Enough": there's always time enough to do what you want to do! Great to hear and true!).

Junot Diaz's footnotes, for the most part, fill in the reader on the central aspect of the story, the nonfiction core of the fiction - the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic.

The joy of the book was the poetic power-punch adrenaline of the prose. It reminded me of Kerouac's in On The Road; it was like Junot Diaz entered some entranced zone and let the story go, rife with Spanish slang words and phrases and inspired, random inter-chapter divisions. Some of the story is from an omnipotent narrator, some from the characters themselves (at least one).

Some inspired passages:

But that's not what I wanted to tell you. It's about that crazy feeling that started this whole mess, the bruja feeling that comes singing out of my bones, that takes hold of me the way blood seizes cotton. (Page 72): The way blood seizes cotton.

Before there was an American Story, before Paterson spread before Oscar and Lola like a dream, or the trumpets from the Island of our eviction had even sounded, there was their mother, Hypatia Belicia Cabral:

a girl so tall your leg bones ached just looking at her

so dark it was as if the Creatrix had, in her making, blinked

who, like her yet-to-be-born daughter, would come to exhibit a particularly Jersey malaise - the inextinguishable longing for elsewheres. (Page 78).

Shuffling back through the book what stands out is not the prose itself, but the underlying force and power and inspired telling of the story. This is obviously Diaz's soul exposed in a high form of art. Pulitzer Prize 2007. Indeed!

Note: just read James Agee's A Death in the Family, his semi-autobiographical, supra-mundane, 1958 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. Published posthumously (not a finalized manuscript by Agee), the prize must have been a life-award, because the book is remarkably bland, though it has some concrete-crushing-skull tragic overtones. It's about a sensitive 4-ish-year-old boy, Rufus (the story encircles his perspective, though told using adult language and perception, but we never lose the boy's heart)), losing his gentle, loving (to him), wonderfully loving, father in the mountainland of rural early-20th-century Knoxville, Tennessee, and his/life's intimate impressions of the event. The greatest, amazing, scene occurs near the end of the book when Rufus (or the book) flashes back to the whole family, father included, traveling to visit his great-great-great-grandmother in the rural mountainland in a loaded-down-with-family car, his uncle standing on the running boards guiding (somewhat) the way. The old woman, on a porch chair, Rufus remembering her wrinkled, minute, square-cracked, channeled skin, and after a few Rufus-gestures of hugging-hello, kissing, gloriously, her smile. And pee.

Anyhow, as disappointing as A Death in the Family was, Agee deserved every award possible for it or anything else he did, for his amazing Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941). One long prose-poem characterizing the Depression Era of the deep South via the intimate portrait of a couple of families. A quote:

Huge thunderheads were barely lifted on the horizon, their convolutions a scarcely discernible brain-shape of silver in the strength of the light. They were no use; they were a trick a drought sun likes to play; and get away with over and over again. They ride up looking rich as doom, and darken; the look of the earth is already dark purple, olivegreen and wealthy under their shadow and the air goes cold and waits (Agee, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, 337).

A redwood building

November 9, 2010

Berkeley Newman Hall

Berkeley's Newman Hall, and its muted grey 30-foot-high windowless, free-standing concrete walls, sits like a massive bear on its haunches would on the corner of College Avenue and Dwight Way.

The building's set back from the street some, but its blunt, overwhelmingly two-dimensional, barefaced and supple exterior grabs your attention; at the lip of the Berkeley hills before the land accelerates to the ridge above, the structure anchors, in your mind, southeast Berkeley with its Greek houses, its student living towers, its two-story rental houses.

Just a few blocks from Cal, it's planted as one big, welcome clog in the artery of College Avenue's headwaters; College, which begins at Cal's south border, is the easternmost heartline of Berkeley's north-south traffic, the correspondent (all parallel) of Telegraph, Shattuck, MLK, Sacramento and San Pablo to the west. Above (east of) College, the upscale, convoluted neighborhoods fade out into the narrow ridge that separates the Bay Area from the inland countryside, shadowed, powerfully, by Mount Diablo a few miles away. As College tumbles headlong at a slight decline, basically running due south, it approaches the charming Berkeley/Oakland interchange, announced quietly by a large rectangular green sign, "Welcome to Oakland; pop. 409,300, elev. 42 Feet," heavily shaded by sidewalk maple trees and an energy-burst of boutique businesses, all in a row: Wood Tavern (woody, taverny restaurant), La Farine Bakery (see the chocolate croissant post), a flower shop, an upscale grocery, and then Cole's Coffee.

Like BAM (see 11.08.10 post), Newman Hall was designed by Mario Ciampi and stands, interestingly, just a few blocks south of the museum (which is just west of College on Bancroft Ave.). The two structures are remarkably similar, primarily in their boldfaced bare concrete walls, which provide a framework like bone of a fleshless body, that bleed through both both buildings - similar massive, poured, segmented concrete blocks serve at once as interior and exterior. The most stunning aspect of the building is subliminal, however. You know there's something eerily familiar about the texture of the vertical, irregularly spaced grooves that run down the concrete-grey 30-foot tall, massive walls. The sightline up the building's facade is slightly disjointed by the offset stacking, edge-over-edge, of three similarly grooved equal-height (10-foot high) segments. The building's structure, consciously and unconsciously, sings in your mind when you recognize the similarity, harmony, dialogue, conjuration with the six-tree grove of redwoods that stand, symmetrically, 10 feet from the Dwight-College intersection, at once shading and introducing the Center's entrance which ducks about 30 feet behind the grove at a diagonal before straightening to parallel Dwight and College on either side. A couple of redwoods, about 120 feet down College at the far end of the Center's bordering monolithic wall, complete the complementary impression.

The rhythm and texture of the concrete's grooves suggest it was carved by slow, persistent, trickling runnels of rain; an even more powerful impression emerges from its offset, irregular furrows, which call up the nature-crafted, ancient, deep rusty, ruddy spongy gold of redwood bark. In that realization, the concrete grey becomes both a canvas and a mirror for the sun-filtered red-green gold of redwoods. Stunning.

Inside the chapel, the back wall of which is the same free-standing 120-foot long wall bordering College Avenue on the outside, the concrete is grooved as well, but has a different effect, not as elemental or environmental. It creates a dominating two-dimensional sensation as if the back wall is a placemat unrolled. The grooves and the overwhelming 2-D impression create a sense of flight, an elevation, a lacy green sky-gaze, the sensation you get from resting your chin on the soft, light bark of a redwood's trunk and staring upward along its grooves hundreds of feet into the air, ending in sky and flight. Inside, the lack of color envelopes you and enhances the imagination's more glorious, multidimensional completion.

The consequent Mass I wish I could say matched the space's glory. The round priest seemed a bit off balance, more from disinterest or boredom than from intoxication, though that could've been the case, too. The Catholic experience reminded me of a previous life, one involving a Catholic formation house at St. Edward's University in Austin, Texas, a Holy Cross school, sister of Notre Dame, the source of my B.S. and first M.A. The youngish (40-ish) director of the live-in program, a Holy Cross Brother, from Baton Rouge, wonderfully Cajun, drank seven and sevens (w/ Seagram's Seven, no doubt) every night. But he was cool. More than once, he recounted his experience as a teacher at a Catholic high school in Louisiana, in particular regarding a test question he gave on his final in some type of a Catholic religion class. His principle test question went something like: "What is the Church?" And his point, paraphrased was, "Anything involving a building, a document or a ritual was wrong. It's about the people." And, undoubtedly, that's true. There're not many occurrences in life of the right person and the right time coming together at the right place. Relationships are the only thing that's real, and when they go right, the world goes right; it'd be nice to hit a homerun with each one: professor, teacher, boss, friend, lover, priest, rabbi, whatever. But that just doesn't happen. Maybe ten percent are great? That's a whole other discussion. Not going there now.

Regardless - Berkeley Newman Hall, thank you for bringing space and being so interestingly together.

So long, so gone

November 8, 2010

Berkeley Art Museum

Sadly, the Berkeley Art Museum, aka BAM/PFA, is leaving its building. To a lover of the museum, it feels like a vulnerable, soft-bodied snail is leaving its magnificent, geometrically mesmerizing shell and setting out some Never Ending Story journey, if only its new home is only a few blocks away. (But it's moving into the shell of, at least what's now, a depressing building. See a picture here :( ). The move has been in the works since 1997, but, catching an inadvertant clause in a late-nineties newspaper clip on its architect during research for this post, I just became aware of it, and it awakened a tragedy of emotions (the burning arrow/castle sequence of Kurosawa's Ran. Really.).

The building attracted me immediately on the first visit in the early Primes. In that era, I traveled from Austin to Northern California by way of Berkeley fairly frequently and would always visit the museum (it was like a beacon in my mind's perception of the not-quite-a-city city - it's soul, heart, light seeping into Claremont, shining out and over campus, spreading down Bancroft, enveloping the Gourmet Ghetto like the East Bay's random, diverse, now-dense, now-sparse, now-gone fog), located in the foothills of Berkeley across the street (south) from Cal.

BAM shares a magnetism with NYC's Guggenheim - a vast, open interior, with compelling, spiraled galleries, dancing, staccato (notably unlike the Guggenheim), around it. The building itself surpasses any of the art it holds, though the pieces of the museum's eclectic collection, made up of traditional Asian pieces, various sculptures, some notable modern works by Clyfford Still and Mark Rothko, tucked in its various corners/galleries make this random, make-shift collection dazzle and brings dimension, illumination and life to the powerful blank-canvas-of-a-space. It's a hyperconducive setting for a clean aesthetic experience.

The lower galleries make space for contemporary, eccentric shows: one of my favorite BAM memories occurred during a middle-of-the-day brief visit with a friend. We reclined in adjacent massage chairs that faced a lower gallery's wall with many-colored, bright, vivid, vibrant neon lightbulbs dangling, sparkling from its upper reaches - an exquisite experience.

The mostly concrete building (inside and out), completed in 1970 and alternately lauded and scorned - it was called a bunker by The New York Times architecture writer Nicolai Ouroussoff (and likely by others) - is typical of its Brutalist genre. With an overwhelming concrete interior and exterior segmented into playdoh-like blocks with visible pour textures and seams, the building asserts a surprisingly supple energy. It was designed by modernist San Francisco architect Mario Ciampi, chosen from among 366 aspiring BAM architects. Ciampi had an idiosyncratic passion for a civic design that brought people together; his unrealized dreams for downtown San Francisco included sections of Market Street, downtown's main avenue, as pedestrian-only plazas. He worked on these ideas until his death at 99 in 2006. What he failed to do for his hometown, however, he did for us in the 96,000-square-foot BAM building.

Inside, along with a related sense of intimacy, it feels like you're entering, as a miniaturized being, a snail shell as six axes, represented by six elevated gallery spaces jutting toward the museum's main entrance, converge on your position. Like the Guggenheim, the galleries wind counter-clockwise up, but here the revolution ends just shy of one. Concrete and jutting, blocky geometry so dominate the building that space takes on a dimension-less feel: cardinal compass points incohere, even the shape of the building remains amorphous in the mind's map though all its end-walls are visible from many places in the museum.

The building has a heart, a central axis open from base layer to ceiling, which is the most intriguing aspect of the building as it provides a rich, deep sense of where you are.

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(I stole the previous phrase from literary journalist John McPhee (his first piece published in The New Yorker, which he had pestered for years as an aspiring writer, was on basketball (an account of playing ball in England (almost played on an ill-formed court in the Tower of London)). The line comes from his first book and early New Yorker piece (The current New Yorker editor-in-chief, David Remnick, took McPhee's writing class, as many now-notable "literary" journalists did, at Princeton, which McPhee still teaches) on Princetoner, NBAer, later, U.S. Presidential-hopeful Bill Bradley (became a book, too) titled, A Sense of Where You Are). Check out his 1976 book Coming Into the Country. The scope of the reporting gives an indication of why McPhee is the grandfather of literary journalism. He structures his pieces so carefully, scene by scene as they drift in and out and around his subjects - characters, places, first-person, scent, emotion, the cool water-wreath of coming-out-of-the-country Alaskan-river-soaked bandanna encircling your forehead - glorious. Check out a grad school paper I did on McPhee here).

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BAM's building has strong Abstract Expressionist elements, too, which fit fluently with the spirit of the museum's impetus: the famous Ab-Ex artist and then-Berkeley professor Hans Hofmann provided the spark for the museum when he donated 47 of his paintings and $250,000 in 1963 to start the endeavor off. Hofmann, who died in 1966, would have recognized the blocky, abstract forms in much of his work in the building's wonderfully chaotic, unified feel; the building's an evocation of his work's characteristic subliminal symmetry and freedom. Skylights slice the ceiling at different elevations and planes over the building's center. Shifting trapezoidal spaces swirl around the central axis in a cubist throw of space. The exterior exhibits the interior: concrete cubes jutting out as if centrifuged.

BAM is moving because of the Bay Area 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake that interupted the Oakland A's World Series. A seismic retrofit of the building in 2001, after a 1997 structural analysis, brought numerous steel supports, inside and out - six white steel supports on the inside and numerous black spiderleg-like ones on the outside - but they weren't enough to keep the museum in place.

The new building site lies across from the University of California, Berkeley's main entrance, where the muted Art Deco-style former university print building stands. The move has not been a straightline endeavor. In 2006, the university hired world-renowned Japanese architect Toyo Ito, who has not worked in the United States yet, to design the building on the one-and-a-third-acre lot. It was critically acclaimed; though, as Ouroussoff chillingly forecast in his 2008 New York Times article reviewing the project, its $200 million cost turned prohibitive in late 2009 - another victim of the stumbling economy. At that point, the university had raised just under half of the funds.

Ito's design was marvelous by all accounts. Ariane Bicho, communications director for the museum (dressed in black, with black tortoise-shell glasses that dominated your impression of her), gave a longing look for a moment after hesitatingly describing its design (she was clearly having a bittersweet moment, and at the same time remaining aware of her political duty as communications director for the museum). She mentioned curving walls that never really met - a seamless, water-flowing space, "compelling." The design was dominated by arching, flowing, thin molded steel plates, filled with concrete, flayed and slender as potato chips. It was "as if the façade had been slowly eroding over millenniums," wrote Ourousseff. Ironically, the building's design inspired at least one reviewer to respond to the space in a way the current one excels: "I kept imagining people wandering through the building the way you might wander through a park - not because there is something in particular you are planning to see, but because it's a park … ." Ourousseff also pointed out, "Mr. Ito once said that he would like to create spaces that are like ‘eddies in a current of water.'" It appears his BAM model did just that. Too bad the university had to pass on it.

Diller, Scofidio and Renfro, a noted New York City architectural firm with a great Web site (check it out), has picked up the pieces and designed a $95-million space that will use the standing 48,000-square-foot three-story building and a to-be-built 38,000-square-foot addition where a spiraling two-story parking lot now stands. The design is still going through internal review, so Bicho stood tight-lipped on details, but there will be a public comment period late next year or early 2012 with an eye to building completion in late 2014. (blah, blah, blah). Nearly half of the cost has been raised.

Thankfully, the current BAM concrete monster will not be torn down, but most likely used as academic support space. It will be divided up, however, which will fortify it, but in the process kill its open-axis heart that made the space such an amazing, radiant place to visit.