Saturday, April 29, 2006

Fire in the Hayes Valley

A little after 8 pm on Friday the 28th, we saw flames leaping into the air in the Hayes Valley.

There was a fire on Grove Street between Octavia and Laguna...

...that was threatening the entire neighborhood.

Burning cinders were flying through the air and landing on gawkers...

...who were mostly neighbors worried about their own homes.

The firemen did a great job at controlling the blaze...

...which only destroyed the one wooden Victorian...

...and its two neighbors on either side.

The entire neighborhood filled up with smoke and according to somebody who worked at the Opera House, the vents there were sucking in smoke from the outside into the concert hall, driving away the balletomanes from that evening's performance of "Sylvia."

I hope everyone got out of their buildings safely.
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Update: According to Cicero Estrella in the "San Francisco Chronicle," everyone did get out safely, the Victorian where the fire originated was vacant.

He continues:
"About 125 firefighters and 30 engines responded to the fire. The cause of the blaze was under investigation, Fire Chief Hayes-White said.

Residents of the block said the house has been under renovation for at least one year, and that drug dealers and users have broken into the house a number of times."

The next day the Fire Department came out for an inspection of the three buildings thad had burned.

A young woman resident from this building was sorting through the burnt debris on the sidewalk for remnants of her journal.

I didn't take her picture because she was in such obvious shock but offered her my sympathies instead. "It's okay, I've got a lot of good friends," she replied before wandering away.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

There's No News Like Barry News

There was quite a bit of media in front of the Federal Building today...

...but they certainly weren't there to cover the noon peace vigil that has met weekly since October 2001.

There were a few Hells Angels in front of the building, presumably for a federal trial, so we wondered if that might be the reason for all the media, or perhaps they were there for the pedophile trial of a local who had been arrested for engaging in sex tourism with little girls in Cambodia.

Foolish us. There is no other news in the Bay Area, if one is to believe the execrable "San Francisco Chronicle," but Barry Bonds news.

Did or he did he not take steroids? Did he commit perjury in federal court? Should the sanctity of baseball statistics be defended in their utter purity? Should the impossibly haughty and unfriendly negro be put in his place? (The racist underbelly of the Barry hounding can be heard in all kinds of comments from white San Francisco "fans" that sound uncomfortably like Boston or Chicago fans at their least racially enlightened.)

The powers that be in San Francisco and in the larger world are cooking the financial books in every unethical way that exists, and the United States is turning into some demented mixture of Imperial Britain, Nazi Germany and the bloated, corrupt Soviet Union, but what we are supposed to concentrate on as citizens is that dirty cheater, Barry Bonds.

The best inside professional sports book ever written is still "Ball Four" by the pitcher Jim Bouton from the 1960s, where everyone was fueling themselves on a mixture of booze and benzedrine ("greenies"). Bouton has a wonderful website (click here) where somebody asks him if there's any difference between the 1960s drug abuse and the later steroid abuse, and he does draw a distinction, saying that bennies were performance enablers ("usually taken because we were so hungover") while steroids are performance enhancers and actually un-level the playing field. Still, at a certain level of the game, for at least the last twenty-five years, most of the top performers were juiced.

So can we move on, professional journalists, to subjects just slightly more important? This overkill is only waning your already shaky credibility.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Don't Fear Bush's Future Nerves

After what seemed like 80 straight days of rain in San Francisco, we booked a last-minute flight and motel room in Palm Springs for three days so we'd stop feeling like human mold.

Waking up at 4AM on Sunday the 23rd and flying early to the desert was surreal enough, but parking on the tarmac at Palm Springs Airport next to Air Force One really was odd.

It seemed we could not get Satan (aka George Bush Junior) behind us, as Dubya was in the San Francisco Bay Area on Friday and Saturday (good job, Hoover Institution protestors, George Schultz is the real Beelzebub!) before coming to the Coachella Valley where he headlined a fundraising speech for rich Republicans that netted a quick $2 million.

Then it was on to a photo-op breakfast and prayer service with some Marines, followed by lunch with the 92-year-old former Warren Commission member, Republican consigliere, and president of the U.S., Gerald Ford.

Monday's "LA Times" didn't even bother mentioning all this presidential activity in their desert backyard while the local conservative rag duly trumpeted that day's triumphant talking point.

The motel we've staying in is "mixed," which means a bewildering assortment of young Canadian lesbians, old Russian Jewish couples, multi-culti families...

...along with the odd competitive bodybuilding couple...

...and a number of marines on furlough with their wives/girlfriends. The Iraq invasion is going to be with us in one way or another for a very long time.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Please, Pretty Please, Ms. Pelosi

The recent news about the United States' possible nuclear strike in Iran was disturbing enough that I was compelled to write a polite letter to my Congresswoman, Nancy Pelosi, asking her to please disavow the insanity.

I decided to deliver the letter personally to her office in the Federal Building on Golden Gate Avenue and was accompanied by Markley, the organizer of the weekly Thursday peace vigil in front of the same building.

The letter read as follows:
Dear Congresswoman Pelosi:
The recent report by journalist Seymour Hersh in “The New Yorker” concerning the Bush administration’s plans to possibly attack Iran pre-emptively with nuclear weapons is deeply alarming on many levels. Having shown they are capable of any atrocity over the last five years, this administration adamantly refuses to take the nuclear option “off the table.”

What is equally alarming is the almost complete silence this insane idea has elicited from the Democratic opposition. As House Minority Leader, I especially looked forward to hearing you speak out on this issue, and how the pre-emptive use of nuclear weapons against anyone for any reason is deeply immoral. It would also be the beginning of the end for humanity, but again, we haven’t heard a word from you on this. Please do your constituents a favor and speak out on this important issue. The fate of the world may hang in the balance.

There is a weekly peace vigil in front of your offices here in San Francisco that meets from noon to one every Thursday. Please come and join us. You would be most welcome.

Michael Strickland

Once past the heavy-handed security at the front door of the building, there didn't seem to be any further security at all.

In fact, it looked as if you could just use Congresswoman Pelosi's Xerox machine unmolested if you were so inclined.

We were greeted in Pelosi's office by her receptionist, Tina, who could not have been more gracious, welcoming and altogether charming.

The sour-faced staffers in the room next door did not seem as thrilled with our presence in their inner sanctum.

Having fulfilled a bit of my civic duty, I marveled again at how the elaborate concrete barriers against "terrorists" were unintentionally the most perfect skateboard park I've ever seen.

Here's another request for Congresswoman Pelosi. Why not take off all the little metal impediments and the threatening signage, and actually make this plaza a world-class skateboard park?

Skateboarders are cool, always have been, and they could keep an eye out for evildoers.

I can see the T-shirts now: "Skateboarders Protecting Us Against Terrorism."

Saturday, April 15, 2006

I Wish Charles Ives Could Be a California Guy

The title of this post should be sung to the similarly titled Beach Boys song.

Saturday the 14th was the final concert for Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the San Francisco Symphony before they traveled to Carnegie Hall for a series of concerts. Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, the mezzo-soprano diva of the last decade, was originally slated to sing Mahler songs as part of the program but she canceled with a "gall bladder obstruction."

The last minute replacement for the concert and the tour was Stravinsky's "Petrushka," which I'd heard in a fairly dull performance earlier in the year before the tour to China, so I showed up at intermission.

The second half was a rare performance of Charles Ives' "Holidays" Symphony, four discrete pieces of bizarre programmatic music dedicated to Washington's Birthday, Decoration [Memorial] Day, The Fourth of July, and Thanksgiving respectively. Seeing that this concert was being performed during a five-day period that included Passover, Good Friday and Easter, the programming struck me as unintentionally Secular Humanist Gone Berserk, in a nice way.

The great musical essayist Michael Steinberg had a wonderful piece in the program explaining the music, which he calls an "Ivesian Four Seasons," a perfect description. He continues:
"It is not only what the Danbury, Connecticut bands played -- and Ives's music is always full of references to hymns, marches, dance music, and other sounds from the vernacular -- but their blending and colliding that determined the sound of his compositions. He loved musical collage and gave new meaning to the notion of polyphony. In his scores it is not just the counterpoint of individual musical strands but the coming together of whole different musics. He shocked his listeners by blurring the hallowed line between the cultivated and the popular. He questioned the idea that tempo should be stable and probed the possibility of flexible, evolving speeds. He found his way to polytonality, atonality, polyrhythms, and other devices that, like Leonardo's bicycle and contact lenses and ball bearings, all had to be reinvented by others."

It's interesting that most of those reinventors of Ives' discoveries were West Coasters like Henry Cowell (who Ives treated disgracefully when Cowell was thrown into San Quentin for being a homosexual), Lou Harrison, John Cage and a multitude of other visionaries.

Most of Ives' major pieces weren't even performed until after he died in 1954, including the present edition of the "Holidays" Symphony, and the major reason for that was not their weirdness, astringent New Englandness, or sheer adventurous quality but because the composer himself stopped composing in 1924 and became a rich insurance asshole in New York City instead.

In my fantasy alternate universe, Ives didn't react to his wild small-town messianic bandleader daddy and become a shrewd monster on Wall Street, but instead went to California and protected, nurtured and learned from Henry Cowell, hung out with Charles Seeger (father of Pete) at UC Berkeley, and lived happily and beautifully into his 90's somewhere on the California coast, changing the entire course of musical history while he was at it.

In a sense, that alternate history is being played out through John Adams. The first movement of his recent commission from the San Francisco Symphony, "My Father Knew Charles Ives," is one of the greatest homages to another composer that I've ever heard. (Will somebody please record it, for Christ's sake?) He takes the whole four-bands-walking into the central New England gazebo square polyphony to its wonderful next step, and Adams' father was also a New England bandleader, so there's real connection there.

The difference is that Adams, unlike Ives, moved to California at the right moment in his life and has bridged that New England Transcendantal Inventor/California Hipster Holy Visionary divide quite perfectly. If you live in New York, make sure you go hear the San Francisco Symphony performance, by the way. This orchestra and its conductor know what they're doing with this music, and it really is special.