On a Sunday morning stroll to procure dim sum, beer, and books by Messrs. Sturgeon, Ellison, and Bradbury, the FMA and I encountered this elderly Chinese accordion player faithfully belting out "Silent Night, Holy Night" and "Oh, Susanna!" while sitting in front of the Moscow and Tbilisi Bakery Store on Geary Boulevard. Considering that yesterday was also Pi Day (3.14 for you mathematically disinclined) and the x birthday of Albert Einstein, I felt that we successfully charted at least one star from the major pop-culture constellations in one swell foop. Bless his cotton socks, the accordionist spoke little English and enthusiastically encouraged us to sing along. Instead, we tipped him a buck or two and headed on towards Clement Street and Fine Literature. P.S. My e-mail list was broken yesterday, so you might've missed this update: "Why Children Turn to Alcohol".
Arthur Seidelman has been directed more films, plays, and TV shows than you realize. He was also the first person to direct Arnold Schwarzenegger, although he swears he didn't have a hand in casting him. I got to listen to him speak to a small group at the Jim Jarrett studio in San Francisco over the weekend, and he re-iterated that most important of lessons: follow your dream, and work hard at it. Actors need to hear that lesson repeatedly, apparently, given the business-oriented nature of their Mecca, but it's not a bad lesson to keep at the front of your brain, no matter what you feel your calling is. It's even harder to remember during this Great Recession, when food and health become acutely more pressing than art, but perhaps that makes it even more important. However, I'd be remiss in my duties if I didn't recount that I asked Mr. Seidelman about Arnold. It was apparently Seidelman's film directorial debut, as well. He said, in a far funnier manner, that the Governator was a charming man. He also reminded us that it was he who was quoted in Newsweek on the Governator's political triumph as having said that Ahnuld was as suited to being governor as Gray Davis was suited to being an action star, but that he and Arnold had remained friendly. It's so good to know that the Governator has friends. And now, back to the dream.
For 21 years, a small group of San Franciscans have gathered on Ocean Beach to symbolically expurgate the previous year's woe by collecting discarded Christmas trees from around the city and setting them on fire. As rituals go, the Post-Yule Pyre isn't too far from various pagan ceremonies. People of all ages gather for the event, which is brief by necessity and by science. Christmas trees are dried husks, and they burn fast. Also: throw several dozen dead trees in a pile and ignite them, and good luck not attracting the police - even if you are at the southwestern corner of town, on a dark beach. There were young children that parents kept a respectful distance from the flames, and there were heads of gray hair a good deal closer. I didn't know anybody there, but when we met up at the Java Beach Cafe - the latest resting place of the last of the Doggie Diner heads - it became apparent that this would have more than a couple dozen folks. As a group, we dragged the gathered trees to the beach, and invited the curious onlookers to leave their living rooms and join us. The waning moon had not yet risen, and the tide was on its way in, so we were bereft of both light and the heady smell of outgoing salt water. This wouldn't last long. The trees were piled up and people fell into a circle around them, and the light waft of pine needles was soon replaced with smoke and the roar of the flames. We could see the steam evaporating from the wet sand beneath the pyre, adding a slightly ethereal quality to the event. I didn't notice the police presence until they gruffly asked us all to leave, but apparently they'd been watching us for some time. This blog post summarizes the event nicely, and why it's a carbon-neutral event. As quickly as we had gathered the trees and built the pyre, we dispersed. Some went for drinks at the Riptide, and the majority of us went home. My 2009 wasn't the horrible-no-good year that others have had, but it wasn't great. Maybe a little ritualistic fire is all the spark that 2010 needs to get going. Oh, and for what it's worth, the second photo above was picked as SFist's Photo du Jour, and featured by Laughing Squid, too.
Car 798 of Duboce Yard first came to my attention during the holiday season of 2008. I bike past the yard every day on my way home from work, as many San Franciscans do. If you're heading west, on the left is a mural marking the sights you see transversing the City. The Duboce Yard is one end of The Wiggle bike path, a series of right-angled turns that minimize the incline between Church Street, the Castro, and the Mission with the Panhandle, the Sunset, and the Richmond. Car 798 is usually an nondescript railcar, and if it's due for the road there's a lot of work to be done. The railway car depot is off of Market, just as Buchanan begins its climbs up and down the city's hills as it heads north. Trapped behind a black fence, Car 798 is only visible if you head straight at it, and although a few people walk the path between the head of Buchanan and the foot of Church Street, most of those who transverse it are commuting bicyclists. What brought it to my attention a year ago was the destination board, listing the North Pole, and the wreath. I missed my chance to take a photo of it last year, and was pleased to find that it had returned this year. It took a week of mental reminders, but I eventually brought my camera on a ride. The small irony of Car 798 is that, even though S.F. does experience colder winters than other large West Coast cities that shall go unnamed, it's nothing less than a bit of holiday humor to imply that our slightly-below 50 degrees Fahrenheit winters have anything to do with the frigid cold of the North Pole. Nevertheless, it's hard not to appreciate that the Muni mechanics at Duboce take a bit of extra time to spruce up a car that doesn't seem to have any intention of leaving the yard. However, its colors are red and white, which must give public transit fans from Tokyo to Amsterdam a thrill to think that Santa rides a standard gauge, and not a reindeer-pulled sleigh.
I remember the first book I bought that was written by Neil Gaiman. I was browsing the shelves at The Funny Papers, a comic book shop in the Outer Richmond in S.F. Way out on Geary, surrounded by fog, people who loved comics, and a blissfully long commute home, I would buy my weekly stash of Batman books and occasionally sneak glances at books placed above my line of sight. I was 15. One day, I saw a book with a stark white cover. The thin line drawing was of a San Francisco Victorian, and vibrant windows shone an orangey-gold inside that fictional house. I bought it, and devoured a strange tale of Emperor Norton I, the King of Pain, and insanity. I had met a Sandman story by Neil Gaiman, and came away completely entranced. I would soon meet one of the Sandman artists, Mike Dringenberg, at the next Wonder-Con, and even met Neil himself briefly while at a party at Comix Experience, another excellent comic shop in S.F. Nice guy, I thought about Neil, not realizing until years later that Neil was in part known for his genuine courtesy to fans. In 2001, I would even experience that friendliness firsthand, interviewing Neil prior to an on-stage appearance he was doing with Harlan Ellison and Peter David, and just after American Gods had come out. There are few writers who've both entertained me and inspired me as much as Gaiman has, so when I had the opportunity to help out at Comix Experience as part of Brian Hibbs' ongoing 20th anniversary year, I wasn't going to sit on my butt. Brian has maintained one of the best comic book shops in a city that has no lack of good ones, so I would've helped even if it hadn't been Neil as the star attraction. The first people in line had on display what popular culture has taught us since the first release of The Phantom Menace: Show up early. More than an hour before Neil was due to arrive, let alone open the doors, a handful of ticket-holders were waiting. From that point on, everything that could go wrong, didn't. It was as flawless an event as I've ever seen or participated in. Neil showed up, we let the crowd in, Brian gave a little background on his friendship with Neil, Neil read, Neil signed, and about two hours after we were supposed to be finished, Neil left. Brian has recounted much of the history in this blog post, which is worth reading simply for its unique historical perspective. However, it's also important to note that Neil made a correction to it after Brian introduced him on Sunday morning. The gist of it was, Neil stopped Brian from ripping off the covers of a misprinted Sandman #8 with a forcible shout, and convinced him to hand them out for free. Brian took it further, leaving copies all over San Francisco with the store's contact info inside, and the rest is history. As many tech observers have noted, and even the somewhat technophobic Brian himself has pointed out, having a devoted fanbase takes time and effort, and requires collaboration between the "star" and the reseller. Besides helping out Brian, the reading on Sunday was, in my mind, the real reason to lug weighty bookshelves around and play Krowd Kontrol Kop. Although, the crowd control bit we all knew was just for making the customers' lives easier: Neil Gaiman fans are not, say, Vince Neil fans. Thankfully. Neil's ability to read his work, both in person or as an audiobook or over the radio, is a rare talent among writers. As the FMA pointed out to me, Philip K. Dick would've had even more influence if he'd just hired an actor to read for him all the time. Neil, on the other hand, reads like he writes: the words flow, they sound as natural as if he were coming up with them on the spot, and even if you've memorized the story you'll be happy to hear him read it to you, again. Neil pointed out the obvious difficulties in reading from a comic book, so instead of reading from "Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader," he read from his other new book with a question mark at the end, "Who Killed Amanda Palmer?" When I read them to myself a few days before, I thought they were good-but-not-great examples of Neil's ability to adapt and twist conventional tales in unconventional ways. Read aloud though, and by somebody who knows where to pause and what to tonally emphasize, made them sound more than entertaining enough to make the entire crowd forget the sweaty and cramped setting. At just over 100 people, the crowd would've been happy enough with Neil reading the phone book. What we got was about 30 minutes of pitch-perfect storytelling. The signing was no different. Neil spent significant time talking to each of the fans, and affixed his signature to a wide range of his books, a C.S. Lewis book ("The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Not by Neil Gaiman"), and one girl's arm. She had a tattoo of one of his characters, a baby gargoyle named Goldie, and once she had Neil's name inked below Goldie, she ran off to Haight St. to have it done in more permanent ink. She also ran back to show us. I think the highlight of the day for me, though, was when Neil asked Brian to sign a copy of his collection of retailer observations. Tilting at Windmills might not have the print run of The Graveyard Book, but even writers get other writers to sign their books.
When he's in his civilian disguise as Bruce Wayne, just what does Batman do with his boots? Perhaps more importantly, just what do Batman and Bruce Wayne and their podiatrical dilemma have to do with this mostly-travel blog? Today the FMA and I helped out our good friend Brian Hibbs host Neil Gaiman at his comic shop, Comix Experience. The store is renowned as one of the best comic book stores in the world, and with good reason: Brian understands the perfect balance of catering to the customer while offering one of the most diverse selections of sequential storytelling ever seen. His is the Strand of comic book stores, where the comic book staple of superheroes gets no more than equal billing to other genres, although they've got superheroes, too. Calling Comix Experience a comic-book heaven would belabor the point, but be no less accurate. Just as importantly, Brian's was one of the first shops, although not the only one, to treat comics as more than superhero vehicles. I will have more photos and perhaps a few more stories to tell about today later this week, but I wanted to to share this one now. The FMA and I, Brian's employees, and several others longtime customers were assigned various tasks to help rearrange the store for Gaiman's short-notice reading and book signing. Since I tend to be good with the low brain-power tasks early in the morning, I helped lift and move bookcases. The FMA, less well-suited to that kind of drudgery than I, was assigned to make sure that Neil's various whims were catered to. Much to my surprise, Hessian sacks and live kittens were not required. English breakfast tea, on the other hand, was. At one point, the FMA and another lovely friend-or-employee of Brian's named Shannon were milling about in the storage area behind store as Neil visited the restroom to graffiti the walls. No, really: it's customary in a comic book shop to have visiting authors and artists leave a physical imprimatur on the store. Nobody said this, but I understood: On a Sunday morning, at 10:30, there is no thought that consumes one's mind as voraciously as the desire to consume bacon, to crawl back into bed, or, failing that, to doodle above a bathroom sink. During a conversation about comics in general, Shannon asked the FMA if she were much of a Batman fan, since the signing was timed with the release of Gaiman's "Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?" deluxe edition. The FMA replied that she sort of wasn't, at least of the comics themselves, and the conversation soon turned to how the Dark Knight was ever able to make those quick costume changes in elevators and other confined spaces. Superman was logical, if you accepted the premise: he's Superman, and he can do anything. Batman was a character whose success depends on a veneer of being a bit more realistic. Having discussed the merits of modern, easy-to-compress fabrics and how they relate to a Bat-suit, Shannon and the FMA had moved on to the thorny issue of the boots. While trying to figure out how butt-kicking boots could be reconciled with the leather boardroom shoes befitting the CEO of Wayne Enterprises, a voice called out from the restroom. Neil had adjourned from his drawing to announce, from behind the closed door - which, by the way, was emblazoned with a full-length face of Matt Wagner's Grendel, painted by the man himself - that Bruce Wayne simply kept the boots rolled down while in billionaire playboy socialite mode, and rolled the boots up when he needed to keep the blood off his argyle socks. Now, I know that Gaiman is a brilliant writer, and judging by his 795,000+ Twitter followers (at the time of writing), I'm not alone. But I've spent 30 minutes this evening trying to roll my Harley Davidsons down from mid-calf, and I'm here to tell you: It just can't be done. UPDATED: The FMA pointed out that I got some minor details wrong in retelling the story, and those have now been fixed.
Marin County Fair, but it's as good a jumping-off point as anything else for me to rant a bit about food. Jon Carroll may have his feline fulminations, but I've got the inescapable edible. Unless you're consuming cats, I think we can all agree on who's got the topic with broader appeal. I'm currently reading The Omnivore's Dilemma, which neatly lays out in about 400 pages everything that's wrong with the American food production system. I'm not yet done with it, but Michael Pollan's ability to present some new idea or an old one in a fresh manner on nearly every page still blows me away. Some of his concepts are only tangentially related to the sort of idea-fucking that I've been doing for most of my life: "What if," I wonder, and then go off on a brain tangent about steampunk aesthetic and whether people like brass because it's shiny or the implications of a galactic police force that chooses more of its members from one planet than any other. Other ideas that Pollan explores in his book have serious, real-world implications for people who care about cooking, and he discusses them in such a way as to be inclusive and let people come to their own conclusions. There is very little dragging-the-horse-to-water crap that many opinion columnists or non-fiction book authors perpetuate. His writing style is conversational: Here is what I've learned by doing this. He doesn't even get to the point of, "...and draw your own conclusions." The terseness of the style forgoes the need for ham-handedness, and so you can actually decide whether he's on drugs or making sense. Frankly, I think he's making a lot of sense, and since the book came out in 2006 I'm a bit late to the game. That said, and book unfinished, it's important for me to note a few things about The Omnivore's Dilemma and its implications thus far. First off, for those of you who don't know how the FMA and I deal with our weekly consumption of fuel, we cook a lot. We prepare about five or six meals per week at home, although in any given week the number of meals eaten at home can vary from four to seven, depending on our social proclivities and the Jewish holiday calendar. These meals that we prepare at home don't just cover dinner, they make up almost all of my lunches and most of the FMA's, as well. We shop at the local Chinese and Mexican markets, hitting Trader Joe's only for orange juice, cheap but decent vodka, and bread and yogurt free of high-fructose corn syrup. If asked us for our favorite inert gas, it would have to be freon, since we depend mightily on our freezer to keep leftovers and home-cooked meals that were made to be frozen ready for a quick reinvigoration. At any given time, we have around half a dozen dinners for two ready to be defrosted on short notice, and none of them were bought. We do this for several reasons. We like to cook. Preparing our own food has more to do with taste than anything else. I remember soon after we moved to San Francisco and discovered that a Thai restaurant we had been to twice used the same Thai curry paste that we bought at our Asian market, but charged us more for the meal without the sense of pride we could take in preparing it ourselves. Fuck that, we said, and we haven't been to a Thai restaurant in more than a year. Why, when we can prepare the food like we remember it in Thailand, instead of having the tastes adjusted for Western taste buds. We like our cooking, but we like our flexibility, too. Americans, and that includes those who live and eat in America but don't identify as countrymen of L'Etats Unis, are facing perilous times. Our very health is being thrown into risk by the mere and base act of eating. Looking at statistics, the food we consume can be broken down into one large category, supplanted by an even larger one: We eat corn, and that corn is fed on oil. The chicken or cow that you're eating along with your broccoli in garlic and brown rice? Sounds healthy, right? But if Pollan and his colleagues are to be believed - and there's ample evidence that they're right - all those food products, if bought at a major American food reseller like Safeway, Shaw's, or Albertson's, all come from corn, and that corn essentially comes from petrochemicals. The chicken is fed corn. The cow is fed corn. The veggies were grown with fertilizer that comes from a mix of oil-based crap, and corn. The corn itself comes from animal- and petro-based fertilizer, and so even when you make an effort to avoid HFCS you're essentially buying the same shit that you put in your car. Not only do we like to cook, but we know it's healthier. We can choose which recipes are worthy of a full-on butter assault, and which can get by with a dash of olive oil, or with nothing. Fanqie chowdan, which I've just butchered the spelling of but is essentially a Chinese dish of egg, tomato, and green onion stir-fried and served with rice, is a healthy dish. We add nothing, letting the natural oils permeate the food. The more you know about what goes into your body, the healthier you'll be. Please, find me a logical counter-argument, because I haven't been able to think of one. Food is not merely fuel. We have been genetically and physiologically programmed to both utilize and enjoy food that tastes good. As the farmers that Pollan interviews in his book suggest, though, things that taste best to us are not always available. So we're designed to enjoy a range of foods, in different seasons and conforming to different tastes, but all of which can benefit our bodies. So it's good to eat potatoes in winter, and chicken in the summer. Strawberries are meant for one time of year, and asparagus another: just because some "organic" enclave can have it flown to your local Whole Foods regardless of season doesn't mean you should buy it. Nor does it mean that it's organic. So, we get back to the FMA winning a stuffed Muppet, Rizzo the Rat, at the Marin County Fair. Just north of San Francisco, Marin County is one of the most affluent counties in the entire United States, and the world, too. There are minority-heavy pockets of poverty - ask how many of the people you know who live in Marin have been to Marin City in the past 25 years - but there's also extreme wealth. Marin is also the northern gateway to San Francisco and the traditional marketplace that S.F. is, so the farmers even further north in northern and western Marin, in Sonoma and Novato counties, and some from Mendocino, too, make their way down to The City. The Marin County Fair was big on electric vehicle displays. PG&E had a booth, and classic muscle cars from the 60s, sleek and strong, had been refurbished with electric-only engines. Somewhere, Shai Agassi was bashing his head into a keyboard. An emphasis on the greenness of the fair was heavily drilled into your head, yet the fair lacked an equal emphasis on green food. Many of the food stalls might have had signs up indicating that this meat bowl or that funnel cake fried dough thing was baked using "organic" ingredients, but organic could mean anything. Organically-grown whatever that have to be flown and trucked into your hometown during the nadir of the off-season aren't "organic," at least not in the original sense of the term, according to Pollan. What you know about what you eat can make a huge difference in your health, so when a place as eco-friendly as Marin offers shoddy (in other words, zero) documentation at one of their biggest annual events, it doesn't bode well for the impact of changing hearts and minds. Then again, it's all slow going, and the FMA, who claims she never wins anything, participated for the first time ever in the classic American pastime known as the carnival ruse and walked away with an enormous stuffed and probably bootleg rendition of the Muppet Rizzo the Rat. This is how they sucker you in - but she looked so happy.I wasn't originally planning on writing about today's excursion to the