Monthly Archives: May 2009

the americans

theamericansSF MOMA has a wonderful traveling exhibit of Robert Frank’s photographs from his seminal book The Americans. Frank shot these photos in the mid-50’s with a starkness that lays bare our culture. The exhibit is titled Looking In, so appropriate for a photographer who made visible underrepresented people and moments.

In a November, 1951, interview in LIFE magazine, Frank said, “When people look at my pictures I want them to feel the way they do when they want to read a line of a poem twice.” That’s in fact exactly how I felt as I stared at the African-American couple sitting so upright on their motorcycle, the parade watchers in Hoboken whose faces are obscured by a window shade and an American flag, the gas pumps in the middle of a desolate landscape, sitting under an incongruous SAVE sign.

I especially loved seeing the hand-written correspondence from Frank detailing his arrest as he traveled through Alabama shooting for the book and the discrimination he faced there as a Jew. There is also Kerouac’s typed introduction to the book, complete with misspellings.

I was enthralled by this exhibit, enthralled by the apparent connections between Frank’s work and that of the great early 20th century documentary photographers.

And yet …

In all the photos, not one was of an Asian-American. On one hand I have no problem with that. This was Frank’s vision of America, beautifully realized. He makes many points, and they are all indeed poetic.

On the other hand, on the other hand … I can’t help but feel like Asians are slighted once again. It’s irrational, I realize, because I know many, if not most, groups go unrepresented in Frank’s collection.

So I propose a new book be made, called The -Americans. It will be a homage to Frank, shot in the places where he shot across this country, but this time employing a more current sensiblity of invisible in America. What do you say, Guggenheim, will you fund me?

If you’re in the Bay Area, see Looking In. At SF MOMA until August 23.

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redwoods1Visited Muir Woods for the first time this weekend.

I sensed it was my cathedral (albeit one in which people were walking around snapping photos – kind of like an outdoor St. Patrick’s), a place infused with grace. I am not a religious person, and in fact have tried over the years to puzzle through and articulate what it is that I believe. I used to say that I believed in people, that I was a secular humanist. But I wonder if what I actually believe in is redwoods.

It’s not like Muir Woods is a place of pristine nature far removed from society. There were tons of tourists – including me and my family – wandering the well-maintained paths. I did wish that more people took their time to look up and marvel at the crowns of these massive trees, or that they were more reverential and less talkative. But actually it was fine. Ultimately, I cared only about the little mule deer nibbling grass, just feet away, the late-afternoon light slanting through the trees in an almost stupidly picturesque way, the textured reddish bark, the cross-section of the 1,000-year-old trunk with its astonishing historical markers (“Charlemagne’s death”; “Revolutionary War”).

As a kid, the trees I saw and played on sprouted out of cement sidewalks. Most often, they were oaks or maples, and their extensive root systems buckled the surrounding concrete. So of course we’d ride our bikes as close to the trees as possible to feel the bounce over that uneven cement reverbrate through tire and leg and body. I’m sure the trees were choked over the years by New York City soot and car exhaust and stunted in their growth. My memory of them is that they were worn and tired.

One tree, though, stands out. The Weeping Beech, in Flushing – where I grew up. It had long, wispy tendrils that drooped down to the ground. I always thought the name perfectly suited that tree. As a kid, I knew it as the place in the middle of Bowne Park where we would run to for shade on those unending summer days full of play.

A few months ago, I was in Flushing, visiting my dad. I happened to walk past the spot where the Weeping Beech once stood and saw a memorial signpost that said the tree I knew as a child was planted in 1847, the first of its kind in this country. A man named Samuel Bowne Parsons brought a cutting of the tree from Belgium and later provided many of the original trees for Central Park.

In 1966, the tree was given landmark status – the first living landmark in New York City. The tree died – the sign didn’t say from what – in 1998, though it is believed that all Weeping Beech trees in the US are descended from this first one.

(Incidentally, John Bowne – namesake of the park and my elementary school when we weren’t referring to it as P.S. 20 – was one of the first practicing Quakers in this country and stood up against religious intolerance to the point where he was jailed and sent back to Holland to stand trial for his beliefs.)

John Muir wrote that “no temple made with hands can compare with Yosemite.” And I say no temple made with hands can compare with the California Redwood. Or, for that matter, the Weeping Beech.

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fancy pants baseball

I play fantasy baseball.

There, I said it. Out loud. In public.

For those of you who don’t know what fantasy baseball is, basically it means I watch a computer screen as flesh-and-blood major league baseball players play the game. I myself don’t play, either live or on the computer. I watch. Apparently, I’m one of about 15 million people who engage in fantasy baseball (including the guys in that famous scene from Knocked Up.)

fancypantsSounds passive, I know, and kind of dorky. The art is in managing your team, which is comprised of players from all the various baseball teams. This setup breaks down your one-team allegiance. It’s as though you assemble a United Nations of players and then root for your squad (i.e., peacekeeping force).

I have two favorite fantasy baseball stories. The first involves a colleague’s husband who used to play fantasy years ago – maybe in the mid-80’s – before it was computerized like it is today at Yahoo and, where players’ stats are compiled in real time, as games progress, and you can see your team sink or rise in the standings instantly. At that time, USA Today was the holy grail of stats. Each Wednesday, every player’s batting or pitching numbers were posted. So, he and his office buddies would take turns each week during their lunch hour entering the players’ numbers into a Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheet. And only then would they be able to see who was in the lead.

Now that’s a group of guys who loved the game.

The other story: My former boss and dear friend, Marci Resnick, was a big Philly sports fan. I mentioned to her once that I played fantasy baseball and she had no idea what I was talking about.

“You play what?” Marci asked. “Fancy pants baseball?”

When I told her, no, FANTASY baseball, she exploded in laughter at her own misunderstanding. But decided fancy pants sounded better anyway.

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why she tweet

This from Claire McCaskill, US Senator from Missouri (democrat), in a letter to the editor in the May 10 issue of the Sunday NY Times:

After reading Matt Bai’s piece last weekend (April 26), I’d like to explain why I tweet. His thesis is that Twitter is banal and superficial, and yes, it can be. But it has redeeming value in the context of my job.

First, through Twitter, I am able to post information daily on a public bulletin board about serious policy issues. These short messages are intended to drive thought and discussion rather than provide a thorough analysis of the issue.

Second, tweeting is a discipline that keeps me connected. Between hearings and votes, I think of what I want to tell the folks at home – after all, I’m in Washinton to work for them.

Third, I use Twitter because no one can edit me. In a world driven by edited sound bites, and a Capitol Hill culture that parses, obfuscates and works hard at saying nothing, we shouldn’t look down our noses at a few short declarative sentences.

Finally, it’s fun. Part of the problem in Washington is that folks take themselves too seriously. As I tweet about work and even the mundane parts of my life, I’m staying connected and grounded, and I have a smile on my face.

Well put, clairecmc. Let us never look down our noses at a few short declarative sentences.

Here’s her Twitter feed: (she’s following 1 person and being followed by over 24k)

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one of the lovejoy columns


Walking with my friends Miriam and Katrin and and their family, I came upon the Lovejoy Columns. Painted structures that clearly once had some kind of utilitarian purpose. They stand in the middle of a small open space in the Pearl District, near that jewel of independent bookstores, Powell’s.

The drawings are haunting, made moreso by the rebar tentacles that spread from the tops of the columns. Turns out these structures originally supported an overpass at the city’s railroad yards. A man named Athanasios Efthimiou Stefopoulos, a Greek immigrant, worked as a night watchman and from 1948 to 1952, during slow times, began drawing on the columns. At first, he used chalk, but eventually went over his work with paint.lovejoycolumn2

The columns once held up a Lovejoy Street, hence the name. I wonder if Mr. Stefopoulos thought of that fact. If the idea of the street held up by these beams prodded him on as he created his masterpieces.

the lovejoy columns

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what i talk about when i talk about running (murakami homage)

I wish, like Murakami, I could decide to run, decide to be a writer, then go out and run marathons and write surreal novels that turn into international bestsellers.

Instead, I run my short-distance routes and trails. And write blog posts.

Don’t get me wrong. I like my runs – Crissy Field on weekends, around Glen Park and into Noe Valley for shorter jogs, down to the Berkeley marina after work. It might seem boring to run the same routes over and over again, but I enjoy the familiarity. It’s meditative.

On the other hand, I also like finding new runs. This weekend, my friend Heather showed me two and each was spectacular in its own courtesy of the Berkeley Daily Planet

The first was the Albany Waterfront Trail, a path that leads out through a grassy area onto what was once a landfill. At the end of the trail, on a desolate spit of sand, we were surprised by a huge metal sculpture of what looked to be a woman, her palms and face turned up to the sky. As we walked along the beach we saw sculpture after sculpture, including an enormous dragon. I felt like Charlton Heston in Planet of the Apes coming upon the Statue of Liberty – it was as though we found the remnants of some lost civilization.

We also ran in Tilden Park, along a ridge that ultimately gave us beautiful views of the Bay and the hazy outline of the Golden Gate Bridge. That’s one thing I love about living here – turning corners on trails and getting unexpected glimpses of the Bay and seeing the outline of the San Francisco skyline and that iconic bridge.

photo courtesy of the Berkeley Daily Planet

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move the bus

If I’m ever a dad, I will not be able to name my kid Thomas.


All the Thomases in my teaching life, I’m certain, were simply one reincarnated being – the same clever, willful, completely mischievous bundle of id, sent to test me year after year. Yes, each Thomas looked different, had different parents, different birthdays. But this was all an attempt to throw me off, I know now.

I was actually not Thomas #1’s classroom teacher. To make extra money, I had decided to work our ice-skating afterschool program. This entailed taking a busload of five- to seven-year-olds, including Thomas, a kindergartener at the time, to the old rink at Prospect Park in Brooklyn one afternoon a week. I actually loved those late fall days, watching the kids glide unsteadily around miniature orange cones and point their toes inward to slow down as they made their wide-arcing turns.

The bus ride back was almost always pleasantly peaceful, the kids exhausted and sleeping. On one of those return rides, though, we found ourselves in the midst of a miserable Flatbush Avenue traffic jam. The bus crawled along or, worse, stood completely still for interminable stretches. Besides the shrill honking of annoyed drivers and the deep rumble of the bus engine, it was quiet. We were resigned to our traffic-jam fate.

And then Thomas #1 screamed:

“Move the bus, fuck face!”

It was, more or less, what we all were feeling. Still, inappropriate. My co-teacher, Virginia, a brilliant early childhood educator, spoke to Thomas. Instead of reprimanding him, she coaxed out the fact that he had to pee and then gave him better language to use for future moments. Incident done.

But really just the beginning for me.


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the same and different

When I was a kid, we found all kinds of ways to play baseball without having the right equipment or the right number of kids or even grassy infields.

If there were two of us, we’d grab a broom handle and a spalding rubber ball and head over to P.S. 20’s narrow alley where a yellow strikezone was permanently painted onto the red brick school building. A hit past the pitcher on the ground was a single, on the fly a double, past the oak tree a triple and into Sanford Avenue a home

Three allowed many more options. My favorite was a game we called tagging up in which one kid stood at home, one kid stood in the outfield, and one kid stood on third base. The kid at home would throw a high fly ball to the outfielder who tried to make as spectacular looking a catch as possible – in full sprint, cap flying off head, wild calls of “I got it!” The kid at third would race home, then, trying to beat the throw from the outfield.

We lived in New York City and a lot of us were poor, or didn’t have parents who understood the culture well enough to know how and when to sign us up for Little League. So we organized ourselves. We watched major leaguers hit and pitch and catch and run, we heard television commentators explain the rules. And then we proceeded to make up versions that had familiar echoes but embraced our context. It was the same, and different.

dComposing is my writing life version of stickball and tagging up. Because writing is both the same as it was during my first job out of college, when I was a beat reporter for a small-town New England newspaper. And so very different.


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