Saturday, March 29, 2008

Big Shot Funeral

On Sutter Street, between Polk and Van Ness, at 2:15 PM Saturday afternoon, a street person bumped into a large vehicle parked in front of the storefront mosque (above), and its car horn alarm went off for the next five minutes.

Then, to add to the noise and confusion, at that moment a phalanx of motorcycle cops roared up Sutter Street out of nowhere, and jumped off their bikes in the Polk Street intersection so they could stop traffic for the 40 or so limos and cars with "FUNERAL" on their windshields that were passing by.

The only time I've seen this kind of fast-moving traffic control activity before is when United States Presidents or the Queen of England were visiting San Francisco. Traffic is also blocked in all directions for policemen's funerals when they've died in the line of duty, but that tends to be slower moving. This didn't seem to fit into any of those categories, however, so I just assumed it was a dead big shot with connections in either the political realm or the police department or both.

I certainly hope the citizens of San Francisco weren't having to pick up the bill for this special service, or I'm going to demand a police procession for my own humble remains. And I do hope whoever is paying for the service makes sure to include the time the various policemen took to get into their outfits, or they might be sued in the future. That's what's happening now in San Francisco where a class-action suit has just been filed by various police for all the time they've not been paid while putting on and taking off their uniforms. The chutzpah of these overpaid characters really is amazing, particularly when they haven't solved more than a half dozen homicides in as many years.

Friday, March 28, 2008

There Goes The Neighborhood

Working near 3rd and Bryant Streets for the last six months, I've been confronted daily by One Rincon Hill, a new 62-story luxury condo complex that is grotesquely overscaled for its location.

Looking up at the building on Friday morning, there was a noticeable flaw on its gleaming exterior, and I couldn't quite believe what I was seeing. Was that plywood over the windows in the middle right?

It certainly seems to be plywood. I wonder what's going to happen to all that lovely glass in the next earthquake.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Alan Gilbert at the San Francisco Symphony

The newly appointed conductor of the New York Philharmonic, Alan Gilbert, a mixed-race child of two NY Phil violinists, is conducting the San Francisco Symphony this week in a program of newish music by a composer named Steven Stucky, Mozart's Piano Concerto #18, and the second symphony of the Danish composer, Carl Nielsen.

The concert started out great with Stucky's short "Son et lumiere" from 1988 that takes the idea of using kitschy music that would be used at a "Sound and Light" show at a monument such as the Pyramids or the Eiffel Tower and then doing something with it. As my friend Charlie Lichtman commented, the piece sounded 1940s modernist, but in a good way, and it used a huge orchestra brilliantly. The composer (above, standing in the background) was even there to receive an ovation.

This was followed by a dull rendition of one of Mozart's less famous but extremely beautiful piano concertos, played by Richard Goode (above) with a plodding sense of plowing through the notes cleanly without an ounce of poetry. By the time the piece was over, most of the audience was starting to nod off on Wednesday evening which is not a good sign.

The conductor kept trying to inject some energy into the performance but everytime the soloist would take over, the dullness would return. Plus, as Charlie noted, he wasn't even "off-book," and was following a score closely throughout the entire piece. Maybe it was just an off night but I never want to hear Mr. Goode playing Mozart again.

The second half of the concert was devoted to Nielsen's Symphony from 1902, "The Four Temperaments," which is a wild, weird piece of music, sounding like a cross between Sibelius and Mahler, except with a sense of humor. (For a good essay by The New Yorker's Alex Ross on Carl Nielsen and a review of a performance by Gilbert and the Philadelphia Orchestra of the same symphony, click here.)

The performance was pretty good except when it got too loud in the first and fourth movements, where a lot of detail got lost in the clamor. Still, it was fun and exciting to hear the rarely played symphony, and enjoyable as always to watch the Mark Ruffalo lookalike (above) sawing away at his violin.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

4000: Lights 4 Life

Crossing what I've come to think of as the Susan Leal Crosswalk in front of City Hall, a man in a wheelchair was making his way on Monday evening to a grim commemoration.

The Veterans For Peace (Chapter 69) and the Bob Basker Post of the American Legion (#315) were sponsoring a "temporary memorial and tribute to the 4000 Fallen Soldiers of the Iraq War."

The "conceptual art piece" consisted of 4,000 plastic cups with tea candles in them.

To keep them from blowing away in the plaza's windy expanse, the small crowd was nailing the plastic cups into the ground.

The group seemed to be evenly divided between military veterans...

...and longtime peace activists.

Mayor Gavin Newsom made a quick pit stop to see what was happening before being whisked away by two drivers/bodyguards in his ecologically irresponsible black town car.

Cindy Sheehan, who is running against the war-enabling Nancy Pelosi for Congress, also appeared but she seemed to be there for the duration and was staying on the sidelines with Quaker friends.

People tried to light the candles but the wind was too strong to keep the flames going for very long. I left before the reading of the names of the last 1,000 young soldiers killed in Iraq while not so silently cursing everyone responsible for the abomination that is the United States invasion and occupation of Iraq.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Norouz Art Party at Mirkarimi's Office

On the third Friday evening of every month, San Francisco Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi's office hosts an art show with free wine and occasional food offerings along with lots of political gossiping.

This month's edition was unusually lively as the half-Russian, half-Iranian supervisor was hosting an Iranian New Year Party (Norouz) which had become entangled in a fracas with Mayor Newsom and one of his supporters, a wealthy Iranian woman named Turquoise Bridges. She has been holding an expensive fundraiser each year at City Hall for Norouz that this year included a special $500 admission for a meet-and-greet with the Mayor.

The party was originally scheduled for the same date as the Mirkarimi art party, but Newsom canceled for a Southern California event, so the expensive party was rescheduled to the next week. However, Ms. Bridges decided to lash out at Mirkarimi and accused him of trying to ruin her expensive Norouz event because he had not been invited to speak, and that was why he'd scheduled his free event on the same evening.

This is nonsense, of course, but the truth has never been much of an impediment for Newsom and his supporters. For a thorough and entertaining account of the entire affair, click here for an article with photos and lots of wild commentary at Fog City Journal.

The same site has an entertaining account of the art opening (click here) and the Iranian feast with music which was laid out after I had already left.

My concerns over Iran are not about who is the queen of the San Francisco expatriate community, but about the safety of those who are living in that ancient culture.

Certain lunatics in Washington, D.C. and Israel are currently hellbent on bombing Iran into kingdom come, and according to Allan Uthman they are demonstrably crazy and evil enough to go ahead and do so, no matter how disastrous and publicly unpopular the attack would be (click here for the whole article). Pray we get through the next year without it happening.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

California Green 1: Transportation

Needing to visit my mother in San Luis Obispo after she had undergone a series of terrible surgeries, I hopped onto the Coast Starlight line of Amtrak in Oakland on Tuesday morning.

The train was on schedule for the very first time in my experience, and the reason turned out to be that instead of originating in Seattle, the line was starting in Sacramento because many of the tracks and tunnels in the Pacific Northwest have been destroyed by their rough winter this year, and have been out of commission since January.

So if you want to take Amtrak from Washington state or Oregon to Southern California, you need to take a series of feeder buses that will land in you Sacramento for the truncated Coast Starlight. When I asked an Amtrak worker when it would be fixed, he shrugged with sadness, and answered, "Three months, six months, a year...who knows?"

This hasn't exactly boosted ridership, and the train was half-empty. Plus, they had dispensed with the sleeper cars and its associated dining car so the only thing to eat on the train were microwaved hot dogs, hamburgers and pizzas in the crummy little snack area under the domed "lounge."

In a state and a country that needs to get off its addiction to oil fast, Amtrak's state of affairs is both stupid and shameful.

To add insult to injury, passenger trains have to wait out in open fields for long stretches at a time while waiting for freight trains to use the tracks which makes it impossible to adhere to any kind of a schedule.

It's also more than a little disconcerting to see one of the train's conductors wandering out in those fields to make a manual adjustment to the switching mechanisms. I haven't seen anything this antiquated since taking a train trip in the 1970s from Mexico City through the Yucatan jungle to Merida, and at least there were villagers hopping onboard to sell us food.

Since the Republican operative, Governor Schwarzenegger, seems to be doing everything in his power to keep a bullet train from north to south being built, how about just restoring slow and reliable train service instead? It would be a start.

California Green 2: Water

The state of California dodged a bullet this winter with rains that managed to erase three years of drought.

If these rains hadn't arrived this year, California would be looking at even more insurmountable problems than it already faces from its mushrooming population.

What surprised me most was the whining, from people who should know better, about how miserable they were from all the rain throughout the winter when in truth we should all have been bowing down and performing ritualistic dances for the rain gods who were blessing us with their bounty.

The train ride through the Salinas Valley, which usually looks brown and parched, was one of the most extraordinarily beautiful landscape vistas I've ever witnessed.

Just when you thought it couldn't get any more psychedelically green...

...the train traversed the Cuesta Grade between Atascadero and San Luis Obispo...

...where the state flower had run amok on the hillsides.

Even better, my mother was recovering beautifully from surgery and the world felt renewed.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Olympics in China, Torture in Tibet

On Monday afternoon about 100 people came marching down the sidewalk on Van Ness Avenue.

They were protesting China's heavy-handed occupation of Tibet, now in its sixth decade.

The expatriate California composer Daniel Wolf is proposing a personal boycott of all things made in China and he's probably on the right track (click here for the whole post on his brilliant blog, "Renewable Music.")

However, it's hard to act morally superior as a nation after what we've just done and continue to do to the sorry ex-nation of Iraq.

I'm not sure where the crowd of protestors were headed, though City Hall was probably the target..

The other day there was a crowd of about 50 people marching in a loop around City Hall chanting slogans protesting the invasion of Kurdish areas by Turkey.

In many respects, our world hasn't outgrown World War One and the weirdly reconstructed borders that came out of that disaster.

I wish we were further along in the story that Arthur C. Clarke told in "Childhood's End," where the overlords simply demand, "Stop war and then let your civilizations evolve."