Archive for February, 2009

Venice by the Bay

Monday, February 23rd, 2009

Oakland has some venetian gondolas on Lake Merritt, but if you want to find a place in the Bay Area that feels (at least a bit) like Venice, you’ll do better heading across the estuary to Alameda’s lagoons, as I did one day late last week.

Alameda lagoon

Unfortunately, unlike the canals of Venice, Italy (or the canals of Venice, California, for that matter), you won’t have much luck taking a long romantic stroll alongside these lagoons, because there are only a few spots where the public can reach the water’s edge. Most land on the shoreline is private property.

Alameda Lagoon

Also unlike the canals of the Venetian archipelago, these lagoons are neither ancient nor natural. In the mid 1950’s Alamedans, showing all the city planning wisdom of that era, voted to allow a developer to add 350 acres of landfill to the tidal flats south of Alameda’s town center, where a new neighborhood and a shopping center would be built (the Alameda Sun’s website has a dramatic but blurry aerial photograph from 1958 showing the new landfill). Stately Victorians on Alameda’s “Gold Coast,” which had previously been on bayfront property, now presided over these small lagoons instead, with views of other homes instead of ships and sailboats out on the bay.

Alameda lagoon

One legacy of this sudden expansion of the island is that you still notice a stark difference in design as soon as you cross over the lagoons to the newer “South Shore” neighborhood. Whereas the older parts of Alameda have narrower 19th-century streets and pedestrian-friendly shopping districts, the more recent development 50 yards away is the epitome of late-50’s planning, with wider roads, numerous cul-de-sacs, drab ranch houses and a sprawling shopping mall. (more…)

Here Comes the Sun

Friday, February 20th, 2009

The rain has passed, at least for now, and there was music in the streets again in Oakland yesterday:


Stations of the Cross

Thursday, February 19th, 2009

Stations of the Cross

That’s downtown Oakland in the distance to the north. Here’s a southward view from a spot a few feet away:

Stations of the Cross

Statistic of the Day

Monday, February 16th, 2009

Rainfall at Oakland International Airport from January 1st to February 14th: 2.61 inches

Rainfall at Oakland International Airport on February 15th: 1.87 inches

Those two numbers are way below average and way above average, respectively. (In fact, the record rainfall for Feb 15 had previously been 1.41 inches.)

Boy’s Toy

Monday, February 16th, 2009

I bought myself a new gadget: I was starting to feel the limitations of my point-and-shoot (only a 3X zoom, for instance), so I upgraded to a Digital SLR. Now I just have to learn how to use it. It’s been raining almost nonstop since I bought it last week, but we finally caught a break in the weather today, so I took it out for a spin:


It does fine as a point-and-shoot with everything set on “auto,” but I assume I’ll get better results if I start paying attention to ISO, aperture, shutter speed, depth of field, and so on. All that is new to me.

I’ll have to learn how to hold the camera flat also, so that the Transamerica Pyramid doesn’t always look like the Leaning Tower of Pisa (the problem is more evident on larger versions of the photo):


I think I found the bluest cargo bay in the world today, on a Warehouse near the Oakland waterfront:

Blue Door

Most of the shots didn’t turn out especially well, and the overcast skies didn’t help, but I did post a couple of others to my Flickr page.

Boxing Out Joseph Cornell

Sunday, February 15th, 2009

A lot of prominent names appear in the Bill Grimes’s New York Times obituary of Leila Hadley, the author and socialite: Vanderbilt, Luce, Brando, and so on. One person whose name does not appear is the artist Joseph Cornell. Hadley appears to have been the closest thing Cornell ever had to a lover, and superficially, you can’t imagine a less likely couple: Hadley was a world traveler and sexually free, while Cornell almost never left the city limits of New York and seems to have died a virgin.

It would be a mistake to dismiss their intimate relationship with a shrug and the cliche that “opposites attract,”  because Hadley was in fact precisely the kind of woman that you would expect Cornell to fall for. While Cornell never travelled farther than Massachusetts (and not even that far in adulthood), he frequently conjured up European hotels — or the entire solar system — in the magical shadow boxes that he created in his basement in Queens. While Cornell never had a proper girlfriend, he was an obsessive observer of women, and often turned his boxes into little shrines to the women he admired from afar, such as Lauren Bacall. or 19th century ballerina Marie Taglioni.

Leila Hadley, sexually alluring and worldly, might have seemed to Cornell like all of his lifelong fantasies turned into flesh and blood. Hadley told Deborah Solomon, Cornell’s biographer, that he even spoke about marrying her and traveling together, although those musings could simply have been more fantasies spun by a fantasist, one who ultimately could not bring himself to consummate his relationship with Hadley.

Joseph Cornell is a lot more interesting (and historically important) than most of the people mentioned in the Times obituary, including her four husbands and various lovers. It’s sad, but not altogether surprising, that Hadley’s affair with Cornell didn’t even merit a small mention in her obit. For while she was a figure who looms very large in Cornell’s life story, his place in hers, amid the marriages and affairs, looks negligible — although it probably wasn’t, from her point of view — and you can understand why an Obit writer almost 40 years later would not deem Cornell worth mentioning at all.

What passes for a “news analyst” at NPR

Thursday, February 12th, 2009

I’ve mentioned before that I try to avoid NPR as much as possible. It’s mostly the tone that bothers me, rather than anything about the content or political slant. If you want to hear someone peddling conventional wisdom in a self-congratulatory tone of voice, then NPR is for you. (Yes, I know that this is unfair to many thoughtful and decent reporters and interviewers at NPR — please remember that I see NPR the same way I see my beloved New York Times: indispensable and exasperating in about equal measure). No one embodies the things that bother me about NPR more than hosts such as Robert Siegel, and political analysts such as Juan Williams and Cokie Roberts.

I’m not very familiar with Williams’s early career. If people tell me that his reporting for the Washington Post and his work on “Eyes on the Prize” and his Thurgood Marshall biography were good, then I won’t argue. That doesn’t excuse his being a complete hack now, and it doesn’t excuse NPR for treating people like him and Cokie Roberts as if they are insightful analysts of the political scene. As background, here is something Juan Williams said to Bill O’Reilly and Mary Katharine Ham on Fox News on January 26th which has caused a fuss among some NPR listeners:

Michelle Obama, you know, she’s got this Stokely Carmichael in a designer dress thing going. If she starts talking, as Mary Katharine is suggesting, her instinct is to start with this blame America, you know, I’m the victim. If that stuff starts coming out, people will go bananas and she’ll go from being the new Jackie O to being something of an albatross.

I won’t waste time explaining why this is insulting and moronic. It’s hardly a shock that this is what passes for punditry on Bill O’Reilly’s show, or that Williams is willing to feed cable news viewers and producers the garbage that they subsist on. What I will waste time explaining, however, is how Williams’s explanation exposes him as a hack even more than his dumb comments on Fox News did. When NPR’s ombudsman, Alicia C. Shepard, questioned him about the remarks, Williams first dismissed the complaints as a “faux controversy.” After reviewing the video, he revised that, and explained that he could see how the “tone and tenor” of his comments might have distorted what he saw as “pure political analysis:”

I regret that in the fast-paced, argumentative format my tone and tenor seems to have led people to see me as attacking instead of explaining my informed point of view.

Ah, so when he compared Michelle Obama to Stokely Carmichael in a designer dress and shared his insights into what her “instinct” is, he was “explaining his informed point of view.” Apparently he knows Michelle Obama very well, to be able to explain what her instincts are with such confidence. How does he see into Michelle Obama’s psyche so perceptively? Well, let’s see what else he told the ombudsman:

When Williams was speaking of Mrs. Obama as a potential liability, he told me, he was referencing pieces in The Atlantic and Politico. A Politico article listed Mrs. Obama as one “Dem” her husband should watch out for. “She’s glamorous, she’s on message, she’s the nation’s favorite mom — and now she has nowhere to go but down,” said the article.

Never mind the fact that the Atlantic article that Williams cited in fact argued against the myth that Michelle Obama is a Stokely Carmichael in a designer dress whose “instinct is to start with this blame America, you know, I’m the victim.” What’s even more damning about Williams’s explanation is his admission that what he calls “explaining my informed point of view” is in fact just a recitation of some shallow caricatures that have become conventional wisdom among the Washington journalists who write for places like Politico.

In her column, NPR’s ombudsman implies that if he had cited the Atlantic and Politico in his comments on Fox News, then they might have been less problematic. In fact, citing those sources would have just undermined the pretense that he is offering anything more than recycled smears. By mentioning the Atlantic and Politico articles in his own defense, Williams is basically saying, “I present myself to Fox News viewers and NPR listeners as an independent-minded, thoughtful political analyst, but in fact the punditry I share is just warmed-over conventional wisdom that I have picked up from other Washington pundits.”

I’d love to hear Williams being introduced on “Weekend Edition” as an “NPR regurgitator of Washington conventional wisdom,” instead of as an “NPR news analyst.” It might sound less impressive, but at least it would be accurate.

Eye of the Beholder

Monday, February 9th, 2009

I just noticed this plaque last week, after having walked past it dozens, if not hundreds, of times:

Eye of the Beholder

I took another photo from the same spot, looking in a different direction:


The plaque was placed where Interstate 580 crosses over Grand Avenue, creating a dark, imposing overpass that separates Lake Merritt and Lakeside Park from the 1926 Grand Lake Theater. It might be quaint that people were so jazzed about urban highways in the 60’s, were it not for the fact that these freeways drew and quartered the cores of many American cities, cleaving neighborhoods in two and allowing drivers to bypass Oakland on their way to and from San Francisco without ever having to see a city street, never mind interact with any of its citizens or businesses.

Fair Use

Monday, February 9th, 2009


Okay, so it’s a bit rough around the edges. I’m no artist — or lawyer, for that matter.

(In case anyone is unfamiliar with the legal jousting between the AP and Shepard Fairey, who created the iconic Obama “HOPE” posters, you can get up to speed here.)

Capturing Shadows

Wednesday, February 4th, 2009

Later this month, a project by Joe Penrod called Orange and Blue will be opening at Oakland’s Swarm Gallery along with works by Jared Clark and Jake Watling as part of the ENTER/EXIT exhibition. I’m not especially tuned into Oakland’s thriving arts community, but I have known Watling for several years (I may have occasion to write more about some of his nice Oakland-inspired work in the future), so I happened to be looking at info about this show in advance. Penrod is based in Olympia, Washington, and much of his work has been devoted to the quixotic pursuit of shadowcatching, using blue painter’s tape and photography. Here is one nice example (images reproduced with the gracious permission of the artist):

10 and 4 by Joe Penrod

10 and 4 by Joe Penrod

I assume that the title requires no explanation. Shadows have long had a somewhat uncertain ontological status, dating back to Plato’s cave allegory, and probably before. There’s no doubt that shadows are real — we can see them with our own eyes, after all — but good luck trying to touch one, or pack it up and take it home with you.

Penrod certainly isn’t the first artist to try to preserve shadows — one might argue that the history of photography has been one long inquiry into the preservation of shadows — but I love the playfulness of the bright blue tape, and the whimsy involved in trying to finish the taping and photographing before the shadow has moved. The movement of the shadows enables some of my favorite pieces, like this one on a Williamsburg street corner:

by Joe Penrod

by Joe Penrod

Sometimes, too, it’s not the shadow that moves. These images are great fun (trying to catch shadows could be an amusing game for small children), but then you realize that most of these tape outlines will hardly outlast the shadows they are capturing, whether because they will be worn away, or deteriorate in the weather, or be removed by diligent city workers. Thus the need to photograph the outlines after they are complete. Is the blue tape outline the artwork, or is the photograph of the outline the work of art?

Both, surely, but how long will a digital photograph last? Forever, we hope, but in the grand scheme of things, those digital files may be as fleeting as the blue tape, which is as fleeting as the shadows themselves.

Stop Shadow by Joe Penrod

Stop Shadow by Joe Penrod

I was particularly interested in these works because my friend Pablo Manga, an artist here in Oakland, also works with tape, but with dramatically different results. You might think that tape would be a limiting medium, but Pablo’s works achieve very different effects depending on the kind of tape and the colors he chooses. Even variations in the manufacturing quality of the tape can create some fascinating effects. And that’s all before any decisions about how to place the tape, which produce an entirely different set of possibilities.

I don’t want to deprive Penrod’s work of its charm by spewing a lot of commentary about it, so I will spare my readers any additional thoughts. The best response to art like this, in my opinion, is summed up by this woman at Pike’s Place in Seattle:

By Joe Penrod

By Joe Penrod

If you can make at least one person stop, smile, and point, then that’s an artistic success as far as I’m concerned. The Swarm Gallery exhibition, at 560 2nd Street near Jack London Square, will last from February 20th to March 29th. Among the many objects whose shadows Penrod has tried to snare are orange traffic cones, and his Swarm installation will involve traffic cones as well. You can also find more work on Penrod’s blog or his Flickr portfolio (there’s more than just the tape outlines, even though that’s all I’ve mentioned here.) Good stuff, I think, and I definitely plan to check it out in person when the show opens.

Wake Up and Smell the Music

Tuesday, February 3rd, 2009

Music is central to every single civilization that we know of, with dozens of different uses: there’s religious music, martial music, work songs, play songs. Music is a very powerful force for bonding people together.
–Oliver Sacks

If you walk past a school near my house at the right time on the right day — today at about 4:30 pm, for example — then you will find a man standing on the schoolyard steps playing a small wooden flute. The reedy tones will reach you before you catch sight of the flautist, and the other sounds of the city — news choppers overhead monitoring freeway traffic, the engines of cars roaring down nearby Park Boulevard, dogs barking from behind fences or windows — will fade, if only a little, into the background. The man never has an audience except for the occasional passerby, and he does not seem to desire one; while he will silently acknowledge a wave if one is offered, he is playing for himself, perhaps liking the way the melodies sound in the open air, or appreciating the break from a hectic life at home.

There is music everywhere, for those who wish to hear it. It might be concert violinist Joshua Bell playing for spare change in the Washington D.C. Metro station, as he did in 2007 as part of an experiment for the Washington Post. It might be Wynton Marsalis outside your window playing “When the Saints Go Marching in” as he leads a jazz funeral down your street to the Cotton Club, as happened to me in 2002 after Lionel Hampton died. It might be an unknown busker trying to put together some money for lunch or train fare outside a BART station.

The window is open today
And the air pours in with piano notes
In its skirts, as though to say, “Look, John,
I’ve brought these and these”—that is,
A few Beethovens, some Brahmses,
A few choice Poulenc notes…

— John Ashbery

Often, it will just be a neighbor playing for the sake of playing. Many afternoons towards dusk, a man walks to the pergola at Lake Merritt and plays his saxophone for the setting sun and anyone else who cares to listen. When I lived farther from the lake, off 14th Avenue, a neighbor would sit on his fire escape on warm evenings and play the banjo, with one knee raised to cradle the instrument. In my old building in New York, a soprano on some higher floor would practice scales and arias, her notes tumbling down like falling leaves and slipping in my open windows uninvited.

The desire to create music, and the pleasure to be had from listening to it, may be unique to human beings. There are some people who are left entirely cold by music, including synaesthete Vladimir Nabokov, who wrote that music affected him “merely as an arbitrary succession of more or less irritating sounds” (in one of life’s ironies, his only child became an opera singer). Most people, however, respond to music in a visceral way, dancing along with beats, discovering that catchy melodies routinely make hostages of their brains, or paying more than a day’s wage to squeeze into a room with thousands of strangers to partake of a communal aural experience.

Hey, Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me,
I’m not sleepy and there is no place I’m going to.
Hey, My. Tambourine Man, play a song for me,
In the jingle jangle morning I’ll come following you.

–Bob Dylan

You might think, given music’s nearly universal appeal, that we would stop short and take note when we stumble upon someone making music solely for his or her pleasure, and ours. We are very good at tuning things out, however, including tunes themselves, and all too often the music around us barely registers, if at all. So keep your ears open for songs wafting through the air as you go about your life, and when you hear them, go following them sometimes — even if there is someplace you’re going to.

Now Daschle away, Daschle away, Daschle away all.

Tuesday, February 3rd, 2009

So Tom Daschle can now return to earning a fortune as a lobbyist, and can use his close relationship with the President of the United States as a way of influencing public policy, while being subject to none of the scrutiny, oversight, conflict of interest rules, or other safeguards that are in place when one is a public official.

Sounds like a great victory for government transparency and accountability!