Sunday, June 26, 2011

Officers Weep

As I've noted before, I've been way less good about attending author events in the Bay Area than I was in Kansas City. Back in KC, it felt like that was one of the only sources of entertainment I had, so I would jump at the opportunity of attending a reading from anyone I was even vaguely interested in. Now, I have a lot more other fun stuff competing for my time, so I need to feel particularly motivated to make the trek to see an author.

I'm hoping that will change now that I'm living closer to the city. The Bay Area is so large and so decentralized that authors can put in events pretty much anywhere, but SF is the literary capital of the area, and does seem to attract a disproportionate number of authors. I'm gradually getting back into the habit of checking for upcoming events to see what looks promising.

I was thrilled when I saw a brief notice stating that Daniel Orozco would be coming to The Booksmith. He would be promoting his new book, which I didn't know existed; it's a collection of his short stories. I'd only read a single one of his stories, but it probably had a stronger impact on me than any other work of similar length has (possibly excluding "Araby").

Back in college, I was an English Lit major (in addition to, you know, the OTHER thing). I've gotten in the habit of saying "English Lit major" instead of "English major," because there are actually two different types of English majors, which are pretty different. A literature major focuses on the study, analysis, and criticism of other peoples' writing. An English composition major, on the other hand, is trained to write clearly and effectively. As a lit major, I focused on literature classes, but I was allowed to take three composition credits towards my degree. Without hesitating, I settled on Creative Writing.

I've gotten a kick out of writing since I was in early elementary school, penning such masterpieces as "War with Venus." As I grew older, and became ever more widely read, I grew increasingly discouraged about ever being able to write something as good as the books I enjoyed reading. Still, I regularly fantasize about becoming an author (well, you know, a real author) and every couple of years I make a serious push towards writing some interesting fiction.

Anyways - back to college. My creative writing class was a workshop-style class, but one with a very strong focus on reading. Throughout the semester, we would read several short stories for each class period; I think we only had maybe four or so writing assignments throughout the semester, including the final piece. My teacher (Mr. Davis, maybe? I'm a bit fuzzy on the name), who always wore the exact same black shirt to class, was an aspiring writer himself, had phenomenal taste in literature, and led excellent discussions as we tried to answer the question: just what makes these stories GOOD?

Like I said, the teacher had great taste, and I still vividly remember many of the stories we read, which spanned several centuries of writing. We read In the Penal Colony by Kafka, several Donald Barthalme stories (including the excellent A Manual for Sons), Bartleby the Scrivener, a few bits from David Foster Wallace and Vladimir Nabokov. One of our teacher's favorite concepts was "the story that isn't a story." We have an enormous variety of forms that we can use when communicating with one another, or even when writing, and yet most fiction fits into one of just a tiny subset of those forms (the first-person recollection of previous events or the third-person discussion of ongoing events). Some incredibly cool bits of short fiction don't look like short stories at all, but end up being very powerful: perhaps it's a set of recipes, or a packing list, or a piece of literary criticism on the real author of the Don Quixote.

At one point, our teacher described a story that he had read earlier and loved, but had forgotten the title and the author's name. I think he offered extra credit to anyone who could track it down for him, based just on his recollections of the story itself. Someone managed to identify it, and we as a class soon added Daniel Orozco's "Orientation" to our reading list. I was blown away.

As my teacher pointed out, it's pretty amazing that the fiction we read generally bears so little resemblance to the lives we live. He doesn't believe in the saying "write what you know," but still, there's a huge set of opportunities out there for writing about the experiences that most of us have. When you think about it, the average American spends about nine hours a day working in an office, which is more time than we spend doing any single other activity; doesn't it seem weird that we don't have more fiction that's about the office experience?

There's an immediate and obvious rejoinder to this criticism - that offices are boring places and we'd rather read about something more exciting. Still, that very boring-ness can be a great opportunity, and that's where Orozco finds his entrance.


"Orientation" is extraordinarily short - in my collection it's seven pages long, but I think the original copy we read was just three or four. It may fit into the category of story-that-isn't-a-story since the entire text consists of an orientation tour. Basically, you, the reader, are a new worker in an office, and the "narrator" is walking you around, describing who works where and giving you some tips on what you'll need to know.

The story starts out fairly benign - this is where you sit, this is where you keep your pencils, and so on. As you are introduced to the other office workers, though, the story begins to skew a little bit. It grows darker, funnier, more disturbing. The specific things he calls out tend to be the sorts of quirks that are very familiar to anyone who's worked in an office - this is the woman who loves penguins and decorates her cubicle with them; these two people hooked up at the Christmas party last year; this is how the coffee pool works. Yet, he follows those quirks down, spending just an extra sentence or so on each one to uncover the more existential tension that underlies it.


I feel like I'm making this story out to be overly complicated, which it isn't. On the surface it's a short and very funny read. It has a way of sticking in your mind, though, and I've found myself returning to it mentally over and over throughout the years.

In the short term, the story had a profound impact on me. My semester-end project owed a bigger debt to that story than anything else we'd read; it didn't have the same style, but was also set in an office, with a deepening level of unease.

While "Orientation" has stuck with me, I had remained oblivious to Orozco's other work. I think that part of the reason why I've fallen so in love with George Saunders' work is that it kind of reminds me of Orientation - again, stylistically they're quite different, but they share a similar gift at being able to extract really deep meaning from the most banal aspects of our lives.

Sooooooo, anyways, I was thrilled to find that (1) Orozco had written several other short stories; (2) they were all being collected together; and (3) he was coming to visit San Francisco. He was due at the Booksmith at 7:30 on a Monday night, which would let me easily swing by after work.

San Francisco is blessed with a plethora of independent bookstores, and I don't think I'd actually visited the Booksmith before. It's in the Haight, which is a cool but crowded neighborhood. The store itself is awesome - very well stocked, with lots of books but not too crowded, and a good eye towards promoting the most interesting material. I'd arrived about fifteen minutes earlier, and enjoyed browsing around and picking up my copy of "Orientation and Other Stories" while waiting.

They had set up the back of the store with several rows of chairs, so I eventually settled down and started flipping through the book. A nice woman (perhaps the owner?) came out and introduced Orozco; I hadn't realized it, but apparently he has some sort of local connection to the Bay Area, although he now lives and teaches in Idaho. He came out, chatted a little bit (it was very hot in the city on that day, and he was drinking lots of water), then said that he would be reading a story, and answering any and all questions we might have. He borrowed a copy of the book from someone in the audience, flipped through it, and then started reading "Officers Weep."

It was amazing.


"Officers Weep" is yet another story-that-isn't-a-story; this one is told in the format of a police blotter. You know, those short spurts of text that show up in columns on the inside pages of newspapers, summarizing the incidents that law enforcement dealt with. Like those blotters, this story was told in chronological order, with each entry anchored to a specific time and block, in response to some report. This story focuses exclusively on the two officers in one particular patrol car; we only get to know them by their badge numbers (Shield #647 and Shield #325), but by the end of the story we have a very intimate and thorough knowledge of their personalities, appetites, and preferences.

Kind of like Orientation, Officers Weep starts out in very mundane territory - traffic violations, dog excrement - and over time picks up more depth and resonance as it brushes up against unexplainable phenomena. It's also another very funny story, and I'm so glad that I got to hear Orozco read it. I think I have a bad habit of reading text too quickly, and I might have missed out on some of the really subtle and funny stuff that was in there if it wasn't for Orozco's inflection and slight pauses. There's a hilarious buildup that spans several consecutive reports involving an altercation at a Mexican restaurant and "two Cha Cha Chicken Chimichangas and a Mucho Macho Nacho Plate", and some really funny running gags involving the Department of Public Works and the California Highway Patrol.

On the other hand, since it takes much longer to read out loud than silently (and possibly also because it was at the end of a very long day for me), I completely missed the more important links between the stories, which involve things like a stolen chainsaw, motor oil, destroyed mailboxes, and "wicker havoc." On the page, it's a bit easier to keep tracking these clues, while when I was listening, I think the entertaining interludes kept me from making those connections.

The story ends in a very dark place, ambiguously enough that you can decide for yourself just what happened there.


Orozco spent quite a while answering questions. He reconnected with two old friends who he hadn't seen for fifteen years; apparently, they used to work together back when he was a technical writer of instruction manuals for scientific instruments. (That gives me some slight hope of being able to write "real" books someday.) He said that he hated that job; I wondered (but didn't ask) whether that was one of the inspirations for "Orientation."

This being San Francisco, one elderly lady asked why he would write about cops, since cops are so mean and shoot people in the back. "Are there any stories in this book that aren't about cops?" she asked. He responded with extraordinary good humor and grace, pointing out that he was sometimes afraid of cops, and noting that it was, in fact, the only story in the whole book about cops.

He talked a bit about his inspiration for Officers Weep, which I thought was fascinating. He was specifically inspired by the police blotters in small-town Peninsula cities, which were written with a certain kind of gravity, and yet were never about anything that seemed sufficiently important. He could still remember some of his favorite real-life examples: "Child burns another with penny." "Woman returns home to find a man crawling across her floor." Never any more context, just a bizarre and fascinating hint at a story.

I'd noticed that same trend in blotters, too. When you pick up the SF Examiner or another city paper, you get the kind of blotter entries that you'd expect. There might be six or eight items, that would include things like reports of gunshots, arrests for burglaries, thwarted carjackings, and the same. After moving to the peninsula, I became a faithful reader of "The San Mateo Daily Journal;" for the first few months I read it six days a week, and I still grab about one copy a week. Its blotter is the same length, about six or eight entries, but they are hilariously mundane. "Woman reports loud noise from backyard. Officers ascertain the source to be a sprinkler." "Strong odor of marijuana reported from upstairs apartment." "Laundered jeans stolen from laundromat." I'd thought they were great, but would never have thought of the story possibilities there. That's (part of) why Orozco is a great writer!

A woman asked if Orozco had any unusual writing habits. He replied that one thing which was strange was that he always knew in advance how long each story would be: after he got the idea, before he started writing, he would say, "This is an eight-page story," or "This is about a thirty-page story." And, he's almost always correct. The prediction thing is a little unusual, and so is the fact that he thinks in pages instead of in word count, which is how most other writers quantify their work. He'll hear someone say that they've written 5000 words, and he won't have any idea of how long that is.

(This led to some pretty banal follow-up questions relating to his page predictions, which he handled gracefully.)

The last question someone asked was if he correctly remembered that Orozco had once cut up a cadaver. After some laughter from the crowd, Orozco said that he had, as part of a class he took at Stanford. In the process, he learned that the human body is an extremely tough and resilient thing; we tend to think of it as being quite fragile, but when you take a body apart, you learn how very solid it is. He's thinking of doing a story related to that sometime.

He stayed around to sign books, and graciously spent a lot of time with each person. I was my usual tongue-tied self, just stammering out thanks for coming and mentioning that I'd enjoyed "Orientation" in my creative writing class, but I'd had no idea that he was a creative writing teacher. He thanked me for picking up the book, and said something like, "And, even if you don't like the other stories, at least it's short, so you won't have wasted much time." I replied that I was sure it would be great.

I've finished reading the book - he's right, it is quite short, just 160 smallish pages. After my first read-through, I think "Orientation" and "Officers Weep" are still my two favorites, but there's some other good stuff as well in here.

"Hunger Tales" is a surprisingly visceral story, pretty disgusting in parts, the sort of story that I almost read through half-closed eyes, quickly reading past some of the more disturbing images. Which is pretty amazing, since there's no sex or violence in this story, which is all about food; more specifically, about some individuals' sick relationships with food. It's incredibly well-written, taking some very common behaviors and creating something horrifying out of the way they're portrayed. The last of the Hunger Tales is basically about a father and a son eating a Thanksgiving dinner, and it's among the grossest and most disturbing things I've read.

"I Run Every Day" is another upsetting story. This one is told in the first person, by a person who works a menial job, doesn't have strong relationships with other people, and only seems to derive pleasure from running. Even that, though, doesn't seem very pleasurable; he's more addicted than anything to it. We gradually come to sympathize with him throughout the story, which just makes it the more awful when he later violates another person. I found myself rapidly backtracking from my identification with the character, telling myself "I would never do THAT to someone else... right?"

"Somoza's Dream" is the longest story in the collection, and probably the most conventional story told here, though it still isn't simplistic. The story centers around an important event which actually occurs in the first few pages, but it sprawls out from there, showing scenes in the lives of many people who are loosely related to that event. Details which seem superfluous or unexplainable early on later become central to other characters' lives. It's kind of quiet and kind of lyrical in parts, very enjoyable even while dealing with a violent action.

"Temporary Stories" is kind of a parallel companion to Orientation: not as stylistically ambitious, but returning to the same wealth of story possibilities from drab office settings.

The last story, "Shakers," may be the best portrayal of modern California that I've ever read. That isn't what it's officially about - nominally, it details an earthquake and the lives it touches - but it's very strongly grounded in California terrain, and the glimpses of lives we see shows us everything that's interesting and sad about California today, describing it better than I ever could.

I do hope that Orozco keeps up the writing - he isn't the most prolific guy, but the quality of the stuff he creates is fantastic. Here's hoping we won't need to wait as long for a second volume!

Thursday, June 16, 2011


I just rolled over 3000 miles on my cyclocomputer's odometer. As far as milestones go, that's one of the more meaningless ones I have. It's less than the number of miles I've put in since I started cycling again as an adult. It's more than the number of miles ridden since I started working in San Francisco, when my riding habits changed drastically (going from a 7.5-mile commute for about 10 months a year to a 1.2-mile commute for about 12 months a year). It's far more than the miles I've ridden since I moved closer to the city, when my riding habits changed drastically yet again (starting a commute of a bit over 17 miles, which I'll probably only be able to do for about 6 months or so of the year; plus scattered weekend rides for most dry weekends throughout the year). I didn't think to make a record of any of those significant milestones, so all that the 3000 means is the number of miles I've ridden since my previous bike was stolen in December 2007.

I'm loving the rides, though. The possibility of a nicely long cycling commute was in the back of my mind while I was looking for my new place; I wasn't sure if I'd pursue it, but wanted to be close enough to the city for it to be an option. After I moved in in late September, the days were short enough that I didn't want to risk pedaling on unfamiliar roads, so I just did the public transit thing. My only bike outings during the winter months were on weekends. For a while, I was pursuing the dream of riding up to the top of Sweeney Ridge, where I would lock up my bike and then switch to foot for a short downhill hike to Mori Point. It was a good plan with just one flaw: the hills here are insanely steep, and I had practically no experience riding up hills. (I did occasionally ride up to Guadalupe Reservoir from my place in San Jose, but I always pooped out when I tried to go farther up Hicks to Mt. Umunhum.) I played around with Google Maps' new Bicycling layer to try and find better grades, and experimented with a variety of approaches. Eventually, I found an approach that mostly worked, and let me get almost halfway up Sneath Lane Trail before I had to call it quits.

I then moved on to a more realistic goal: riding south instead of north. In my various searches I've come across a variety of really useful local resources, including the aforementioned Google Maps, but also SFBC's own SF Bike Mapper (which performs a similar function but has the advantage of local knowledge, and adds the ability to customize routes based on tolerance for hills); official bike maps from San Mateo County and several cities; and several local riders' groups. Hands-down, the best resource I've found yet for recreational rides is Velo Girls. They have a large collection of great, clearly described rides, which are sorted by distance and difficulty. With any other resource, I never know before going whether the route will be feasible, but with Velo Girls, it's always been great.

Over a couple of months, I've been slowly increasing the size of my loops for Saturday morning rides. (I'm not out every week, but it's increasingly taking the place of my traditional Saturday morning hikes - more on that later.) The first good, successful ride I had was a route that had me head south through Burlingame along flat roads (mostly on or around California); then take a nicely graded climb up Crystal Springs Road through Hillsborough; then a short steep climb up the top of Crystal Springs to the intersection with Skyline (35), where I pick up the Sawyer Camp Trail. This is a very pleasant paved multi-use trail with runners, walkers, and occasional cyclists; it runs for exactly six miles, mostly along two very pretty reservoirs, with no intersections. After exiting at the north end, I can take my revenge on the steep hills as I make my way back down home.

I did that loop for a few times, and each attempt felt great. I next extended it with another Velo Girls route through Woodside. This provided my first exposure to Canada Road, which is legendary among local cyclists as one of the best possible roads in the area. The pavement is excellent; it's set in an inner valley high up the Santa Cruz range, so even though it's close to 280 you rarely see or hear the traffic; the route passes through pleasant forest and near lower Crystal Springs Reservoir; you can ride for about six miles without hitting a single stop sign or traffic light; and perhaps best of all, it's completely closed to auto traffic on Sunday, and gets very little auto traffic on Saturday (mostly SUVs with loaded bike racks). Plus, since Canada connects Woodside with Skyline, it's a great connector for most longer rides.

Now, cyclists in the area are currently undergoing a bit of a purgatory. A multi-year construction project is closing a section of Skyline, which is how most recreational riders prefer to go up and down the peninsula. For cars, this closure isn't a big deal; they just head a little east and pick up 280. For cyclists, though, they need to ride (steeply) down Crystal Springs; then (steeply) up Polhemus; them (steeply) both down AND up a bike path with horrible pavement that takes them over 92 to Canada. There's been some grumbling online - many road riders would be much happier if they could just get on 280 and ride on the shoulder, like they currently do between Trousdale and Millbrae; and at a minimum, they really should have repaved that awful cracked pavement - but most people have adjusted.

Anyways. My next, longer journeys started going through Canada and then hitting Woodside. Woodside is also a mecca for cyclists, but not everyone is pleased with that; unlike Canada, there are people and cars in Woodside, and there's periodic tension over how people are using the roads. The most visible manifestation of this is Woodside police's aggressive ticketing of cyclists who fail to observe traffic signs. I'm actually fine with this - as the only cyclist in San Francisco who stops at stop signs, I'm hoping that it encourages more riders to follow the rules of the road - but it does sour some of what could be a great cycling atmosphere.

The actual riding in Woodside is great, though. My first rides did a loop up a short part of Kings Mountain, then over Tripp and back down on Woodside. As I did more trips, I eventually stretched that out to a (Velo Girls-directed) double loop: up Mountain Home, over on Tripp, pick up Woodside uphill, left on Portola, down Mountain Home to downtown Woodside, then Woodside and Whiskey Hill east out of town, a nice climb up Sand Hill Road, pick up Portola, then descent on Woodside back to downtown again before taking Canada back out of town. For all these loops, I retrace my steps to Crystal Springs, then pick up Sawyer Camp for a pleasant and scenic end to my ride.

One of the resources I'd found while looking up local bike routes is the Tour de Peninsula, an annual fundraiser ride. I haven't ridden it before, but decided I wanted to try it this year. They have a set of ride lengths that you can choose from, ranging from a 20-mile route that's mostly in the flatlands, all the way up to a metric century with epic climbs. I want to see if I can do that metric century. They have two variations on that: the real one, and a 50-mile shortcut version that they call "Simon Says". Well, on my last two rides, I've been trying the Simon Says route. It's tough, definitely the toughest ride I've taken yet, but I'm very pleased to have finished it intact both times. Since I start from farther north, and do an extra loop through Woodside, it ends up being a bit over 60 miles and (according to Google My Tracks) about 6000 feet of climbing. Most of that comes from climbing ALL the way to the top of Kings Mountain Road, all the way to Skyline. It's... difficult. I've been in my lowest gear both times, and have gotten used to more experienced cyclists passing me. Once I get to Skyline, though... well, there's a bit more climbing, but THEN you get to go through this amazing, incredibly fast descent. I rarely take the lane, but I feel totally comfortable doing so here, since I'm usually going over 30. There are just enough flat portions for me to be able to gape at the awesome scenery: it's one of the most panoramic views of the San Francisco bay that I've seen yet, and I feel like I've earned it.

One downside of riding up that high is the weather. On all of my rides, I always check the weather report before leaving home, both at my origin and destination. I abort if there's a reasonable risk of precipitation. For these rides, I always look up Woodside, and see that the weather's supposed to be awesome. Well, yeah, it IS awesome in downtown Woodside, but it's a whole different story when you're 2300 feet up at the peak. On my first outing I actually ran into some patches of rain (!) near the top. On my SECOND outing, it was raining CONSTANTLY from about a mile before the peak, through about half of Skyline. I wasn't exactly prepared for that, although it all worked out fine - when you're riding hard, shorts are fine even when it's chilly out.

Anyways: the descent on Skyline takes you to 84 and Alice's Restaurant, a Woodside institution cum motorcycle hangout. The metric century route has you stick on 35, then descend down Old La Honda Road back to 84, which you climb again back to Skyline. I'm not quite that confident yet, so I've been taking the shortcut here, just cutting out that loop and instead jumping on the (long, steep, fast, fun) descent down 84. Once I feel better about this route, I'll add in the loop. It's fun to do a dry run of an event before you participate, ja?

So, that's been my recreational riding. On the, uh, business front, an unusually wet spring had delayed my planned switch from transit to cycling, but I'm finally in the saddle and riding nearly every day for my commute. I'd spent a few Saturdays over the winter experimenting with a few possibilities for the ride, and have done some minor tweaking in the last month or so too. I'm pretty happy with where I've ended up.

The very first ride I tried was mostly based on a Google Maps bicycling direction suggestion, and it was... not great. It had me riding through downtown San Bruno and South San Francisco, mostly on Airport Boulevard. This is exactly the sort of thing that a computer algorithm would think is a GREAT idea: Airport Boulevard has a bike lane! We like bike lanes, right? And it's a direct route to the city! What's not to like?

Well... I went on an early Saturday morning for my test ride, so it wasn't too bad, but I wouldn't dream of riding this in rush hour. Traffic is signed at 35 miles an hour, but moves faster. Worst of all, though, is that traffic from the 101 freeway merges onto the road - as in a normal freeway merge, not a signaled intersection. Now, given that they are merging traffic from the right, through a bike lane, into the main flow of traffic, they designed this as well as they could. The bike lane is painted a separate color (I think red), and is visibly dashed at the point where it crosses the incoming traffic, plus I'm sure there's signage on the ramp. Still, though... that's just a bad situation.

Oddly enough, I found my salvation from Google's misdirection from, well, Google. is another nifty resource, created by Googlers who live in the Mission and ride their bikes down to work in Mountain View. Their route doesn't exactly work for me, since I start out on the wrong side of 101, but it was a great inspiration for a more Bay-centric approach to the route. I took a look at their map, then spent some time in Google Maps manually adjusting the bike route to what I wanted. I've come to think that this is the best way to use the bicycling directions tool. For any decently long ride, they never come up with what I would do, but they still have good data and some generally good algorithms, so with a bit of tweaking ("No, don't go on this road, use this other road instead"), I can build something that I'm happy with.

So, that made me far more confident about making this thing actually work. Once I got over to east of 101, stuff just fell into place. I ended up sticking with the Class 1 trails that follow the contours of the Bay, rather than the canonical sf2b Bayway, which prefers to take city streets like Gateway. Their way is faster and shorter; mine is much more pleasant and completely avoids traffic lights. This gets me through north San Bruno, all of South San Francisco, and across the Brisbane border. From here, a set of three pretty good roads take me into the city proper. Sierra Point Parkway has a great, wide shoulder; and, since it's only a few feet away from 101 and has absolutely no homes, businesses, or services, it gets very little traffic. Lagoon is a nice and short connector. Tunnel Avenue has no shoulder and could stand to be repaved, but since it's pretty much the only way in or out of the eastern half of San Francisco when riding a bike, drivers are very accustomed to dealing with us.

The last nut to crack was how to get to the office from the border. San Francisco, while politically a cycling-friendly city, will always present challenges from its geography: lots of hills, with few flat stretches, many of which have already been claimed for other purposes. I figured out that once I got north of Cesar Chavez, the last few miles to the office were easy; it was just that stretch in the southeast quadrant of the city that I had to deal with. My first attempt took Bay Shore Boulevard almost all the way in. That fell into the category of "This wasn't TOO scary on this Saturday Morning, but I do not want to do this in real traffic." I tried Third Street, which has a bike lane, but also way too much traffic, too many signals, too many driveways, and too many parallel parking cars merging in and out. Oh, and Muni loves hanging out on top of the bike lane, too. I then took a shot at SF Bike Mapper's suggestion for a less hilly route, which followed a convoluted series of turns around Candlestick Park and through Hunter's Point. I was surprised to see that they did, in fact, find a route with almost no climbing at all; however, I felt nervous about including that much Hunter's Point in a daily route, plus it went so far east that it added some significant extra time to the trip.

What I've settled on now is another slightly complicated but fundamentally good route. After emerging from Tunnel, I merge onto Bay Shore Boulevard but only follow it to the first light. Here, I cross Bay Shore with a walk signal, and then - drum roll please - carry my bike UP A FLIGHT OF STAIRS (have I mentioned lately that I LOVE San Francisco?) to the top of the hill on San Bruno Avenue. From here, it's pretty much all downhill to my office, which is great. There are a few places where you can cut over from San Bruno Avenue to Bay Shore; I've come to prefer Bacon as my crossing point for the northbound commute. I stick on Bay Shore for just a bit longer (eating my lane for a few signals), then turn right on Industrial, and follow a set of side streets to roughly parallel Bay Shore northward to Cesar Chavez. Here, a pedestrian/bicyclist path weaves you through the Cesar Chavez / Bay Shore / Potrero / 101 interchange madness, eventually depositing you safely on the north side. From here, well, you can do whatever you want. Personally, I take a pleasant slow ride up Hampshire (again, I'm the only cyclist in San Francisco who stops at stop signs) to 17th Street, which I take over to Folsom, which takes me to my office.

The return trip is just a little different, due to the vagaries of one-way streets. Here, I take Kansas down to 17th for the trip back south. Other than that, it's exactly the same as the route up, except that I usually wait until Paul Avenue to return from Bay Shore back to San Bruno Avenue. Oh, and I ride San Bruno Avenue all the way down to Bay Shore instead of taking the stairs. You need to press the crossing light button to get across Bay Shore from this intersection, no left turns are allowed.

That's the route I've been riding for the last few months, at least when it's dry out, and I've been happy with it. I've made a few small tweaks along the way from the original. I've found a few spots along the bayside trail where I can cut a loop short by crossing a road. I've also discovered an un-mapped spur trail that lets you bypass the 380/101 ramps near the airport. Other than that, I don't see a whole lot of room for improvement.

I did experiment once with a Skyline-based commute home. This wouldn't work for the trip in to work, but the basic idea would be to exit the city to the southwest, pick up 35, and ride that back up to my town, followed by a fun fast descent home. I'd been surprised to note that the route, even though it swings much farther west than my current route swings east, would only add a few miles to the total distance. In the end, though, it wasn't worth adding to my rotation. It takes a LONG time to work your way through San Francisco and Daly City using surface streets, and once you do get on 35, you're only on it for a few miles before exiting. I'll stick to the bay for my weekdays and save the hills for the weekend.

It has been kind of fun to note the ways my environment affects my riding. I don't think I'm getting any faster or stronger at riding, but I do notice significant differences in my performance from day to day, which is mostly driven by the wind. It seems like, at least at this time of year, the morning usually has gentle winds out of the north, so I'm mostly riding into the wind for that leg but it usually isn't strong enough to affect me. By the time I head home, the wind has shifted to the west, and usually has gotten much stronger. Since it hits me crosswise, it doesn't have a huge impact on most of my journey, but there are a few sections where I am riding due west or due east, and I definitely feel it on those days! I try to remind myself, when I'm straining hard and only managing 10 mph, that I get bonus points for riding into 30 mph winds.

So, yeah, I'm riding a lot and loving it. It's really easy to do right now, at the peak of summer, when the days are incredibly long: even if I get caught late at work, I still can usually make it home in daylight. If I'm able to keep up my cycling, it'll be interesting to see if and how it continues in the fall. I'd like to do something similar to what I did at Rocket Mobile, where I adjusted my work schedule to match the day; there, I would often leave home around 6, start work around 7, and leave around 4, which let me ride in decent light even in December. The main hitch now is that my rides are quite a bit longer; on the days with the worst wind, it takes me about 1:20 or so of riding time, and around 1:30 of clock time, as opposed to the 35-40 minutes it took me at Rocket. So, I may try to supplement shorter days at work with a few hours of working from home before or after; or I may switch to just riding in one direction, and taking transit in the other. (And, of course, once the rain starts again this all becomes moot, as I'll happily give up my bike whenever it's wet out.)

I've also been kicking around the perennial question of whether or not to upgrade my bike. I've been extremely happy with my Sirrus, and it's pretty perfect for my commute ride, which combines some nice long stretches of pavement with some bumpy city streets. But, now that I've started doing more and longer weekend rides, I'm finding that my hands get pretty numb after I've been riding for a few hours. I'm pretty sure that this is at least partly of my upright handlebars. I love them for city riding, and they're fine for everything else, but it does mean that I'm maintaining the exact same posture for pretty much the entire ride, regardless of what I'm doing: arms straight out, tilted down, hands wrapped around bars. I think doing dropped handlebars might help with that; but, I'm a bit concerned that I'd be sacrificing some ride comfort, which might take away from the advantage of the bars. Plus, it seems a bit silly to spend a lot of money on a really fast bike, when I have absolutely no interest whatsoever in racing, and don't even really care about how fast I go (I keep track, but just because I'm a data nerd, not out of any sort of competitiveness). And I don't think I could justify having a "commute bike" for the week and a road bike for the weekend. Eh. We'll see how it goes.

Oh, yeah, and back to that 3000: for the record, my odometer rolled over as I was approaching Belle Aire Road from S Airport Boulevard on my ride in to work on Tuesday, June 14th, 2011. A meaningless milestone, but since I've been so bad at keeping track of milestones, at least it'll give me one data point to track. Here's looking forward to 4000!

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Fisher of Men

There are quite a few types of books that I'm automatically drawn towards. I like fantasy, I like science fiction, I like bizarre modern fiction, I like novels that deal with dreams and alternate realities. In recent years, I've also begun to automatically pick up books that are set in or predominantly feature the San Francisco Bay Area. That's pure parochialism on my part, but it's paid off well, in part because it has led me to check out entries from authors I haven't heard of or genres that I tend not to explore.

Take "The Fisherman's Son." I first heard about this book from my mom, and as soon as she mentioned that it was set in Half Moon Bay, I knew that I'd be reading it, no matter what. I'm definitely not an expert on HMB, having only visited it a handful of times, but it's an interesting part of our local fabric, and setting a whole novel there seemed like it would have to lead to some edification for me.

I'm not exactly sure how you would characterize the book, but perhaps "character study" comes closest. The main character is Neil, the titular fisherman's son. Most of the story is told in flashbacks that cover the majority of his life, from early childhood memories through adulthood, with the main focus on his early teen years when he first starts assisting his dad on the boat. Occasional italicized interludes report on his current predicament in the present day, so much of the book has an inherent tension as we try to anticipate how the decisions he's making will lead him to his plight.

The book has perhaps a half-dozen or so other characters who are all very well developed and form a pretty compelling, if insular, universe. The most important figure is his dad, the fisherman; the boy doesn't feel too connected with his father, even when they spend days on the boat together, and we get a lot of insight from the boy's interior monologue as he tries to understand what makes this man do the things he does. His father sometimes seems uncaring or cruel to the world around him, but he isn't at all a bad man, just one whose moral code has been shaped by the harsh realities of the sea.

The other family members, a mother and brother Paul, are more tied to the land, and as Neil moves more into his father's orbit, the other two drift farther away from him. At the same time, Neil develops a second family from his father's friends, other career fishermen, several of who are immigrants. There's some nice dialect here; dialect usually annoys me, but it's used in small quantities and to good effect here.

The book felt extremely well grounded in the local scenery. I don't think it's at all necessary to enjoy the book, but I was a bit thrilled to find that so much of the fishermen's surroundings match my own: Point Reyes, Pillar Point, the Golden Gate, Ano Nuevo, and more. That made me much more willing to go along with the stuff I didn't already know, like the different kind of fish that they catch at different seasons and in different areas (salmon close to the coast, tuna only rarely and very far out to sea).

The characters are all very focused on their present, but periodically events from the real world creep in in interesting ways. Some of these are large upheavels: Ott flees Germany to avoid conscription in the Wehrmacht, and Neil is eventually drafted and sent to war (I'm a bit unclear on whether it's Korea or Vietnam). The more interesting ones for me are smaller and more local: the government pays to build a breakwater in Half Moon Bay, which eliminates the storms that used to batter the coast and sets up a safe harbor, but in return the harbor is flooded with out-of-towners who want to play at sailing. We also see, from a distance, the suburbanization of San Francisco, which has no immediate impact on the fishermen but changes the look of their community.

Anyways. It's a cool book; the author really knows his stuff, and has a worthwhile story to tell. (Well, I shouldn't oversell that - the story is more of an elegant framework around which to weave really well-developed characters, which are the main focus.) I'm glad I gave it a read, and am looking forward to my next crack at local color in some other book.

Sunday, June 05, 2011

Aristotle vs. Mashy Spike Plate

Portal 2 is totally awesome.

That is all.

Headland Kings

For better or worse, this may be my last backpacking trip for a while - for the first time since I started these, I don't have any particular destination in mind for a next trip, nor specific plans for a follow-up outing. It was good to end on a relative high note, though... my Point Reyes trip had gorgeous scenery and some memorable adventures, crammed into a brief extended weekend that felt rewarding while serving mostly to energize me.

It's kind of funny to see how all of the different agencies handle backpacking differently. Henry Coe is (was? more on that later) a state park; the Ohlone Wilderness is managed by the East Bay Regional Park District (Alameda and Contra Costa counties); and Point Reyes is managed by the National Park Service. The NPS also oversees Yosemite, but the two are run a bit differently, which makes sense since they are VERY different parks. Point Reyes is much smaller, but also much more accessible; someone in decent physical shape can get to pretty much any part of the park, at pretty much every time of the year. PR is much less of a wilderness experience than Yosemite, which I've actually come to appreciate: it's amazing how much you can fall in love with simple things like an outhouse after you've done without.

Anyways: Yosemite manages backpacking by setting limits on the number of hikers it allows into a trailhead at any given day, but allows those hikers to camp anywhere they want. PR has designated hike-in campgrounds, and only allows you to stay at one of those sites. Reservations can be made several months in advance. After doing research, I'd decided that Wildcat camp sounded the coolest, and called on the first day that reservations were available. Amazingly, it had already sold out by the time I called (which, admittedly, was in the early afternoon, and for Memorial Day weekend). Fortunately, I had a backup ready, and opted for Sky Camp, which is more centrally located and higher up.

The campsites are the best-equipped of any backpacking site I've been to: each comes with a picnic table, a charcoal grill, and a food-storage locker. I appreciated the locker most of all, as it meant that I could forego the bear can. (I don't think there are actual bears in PR, but there are tons of critters who have become very familiar with the food brought by humans.) Each campground has a combination of individual and group campsites, and also has an outhouse, trash and recycling receptacles, and potable drinking water. I still brought my water treatment fluid, just to be on the safe side, but was happy to not need to treat any of my water.

Of course, I camp in order to hike, not vice versa, and the hiking was excellent. On Saturday I arrived at the park a bit after nine, after a little confusion on the way in - I'd used Google Maps for directions, but had just directed to "Point Reyes Park" instead of the actual address of headquarters, and so it had directed me to a random road deep into the park. I figured out what was going wrong once I headed north from Point Reyes Station, and was able to easily turn around and return. The headquarters was fairly busy even this early in the morning, but was very well-staffed as well. I got checked in, got my permit, and bought a decent topo map (they had two for sale, I opted for the Wilderness Press one). After cinching up, I headed to camp.

There's a nicely dense and complex cluster of trails in the headquarters area, and after some reflection, I decided to take what looked like a relatively boring trail out and save the more interesting ones for my return on Monday. Starting from headquarters, I headed up the Horse Trail, which rose on a pleasant grade through fairly thick forest. This brought me to the Sky Trail, which I followed a short ways downhill to Sky Camp. The whole trip took me less than two hours, so I had plenty of time to pitch my tent and head out again before lunch. I'm not sure whether the NPS lets you request specific camp sites or not; I'd been assigned #12, which was in a pretty heavily wooded area with good coverage but no views. It would be a great spot to camp on a hot day or in inclement weather, and seemed about twice as big as most other individual camp sites. If I had the chance to go again, though, I'd try to get one of sites 3, 4, 9, 10, or 11, all of which have breathtaking views of Drake's Bay.

I'd decided that Saturday I'd focus on hiking in the area north and west of Sky, and spend Sunday in the bigger areas available south and east. From Sky I headed up towards Limantour Road. My map makes it look like the trail dead-ends there, but from trail signs I figured out that it intersected with Bayview Trail. I picked up that, which runs closely to the road for a while before breaking away. I crossed the road to pick up Inverness Ridge Trail, which has excellent views of the southern end of Tomales Bay. The trail eventually brought me to my main destination, Point Reyes Hill, the highest point in the area. Here, I was treated to the gorgeous sight of Drake's Bay, which has a particularly graceful curve. I paused at a fortuitous picnic table to eat lunch, then headed down the Bucklin Trail.

I'd originally planned to cut west toward the White Gate and get as far west as I could before turning around, but a drizzle developed that quickly turned into a steady downpour. I'd brushed off the weather reports, which had mentioned a slight chance of rain - in my experience, a slight chance of rain tends to mean no rain at all; or, even if it does rain, only a small quantity. I hadn't dressed appropriately, was getting increasingly miserable, and decided to try and cut this leg as short as I could. After reaching Muddy Hollow, I turned east, then picked up the Bayview trail to Limantour, where I retraced my steps back to camp. By the time I reached camp I was wet and soaked, so I quickly whipped up a hot meal, then dove into my tent where I shed my sopping clothes, changed into my dry spares, and burrowed into my sleeping bag. I was finally warm and comfortable, and didn't mind too much that I had several hours of daylight left; I passed the time by reading Burning Chrome and doing crosswords.

Sunday was far more successful. I headed south on Sky Trail, then continued down on Woodward Valley to the Coast Trail. The Coast Trail runs along an overlook that's raised a fair amount above the ocean, which I'm all in favor of: hiking is infinitely easier on dirt than on sand, and you get better views this way. The whole of Coast Trail is beautiful, from the stunning sight of Drake's Bay through the myriad cool rocky outcroppings to the southeast.

I bypassed several spur trails down to the beach, but did spend some extra time at Arch Rock. This is a promontory that extends a good way into the ocean, but there's also an unmarked trail that steeply descends down to the water, where (if you're brave and feel like hopping across several rocks) you can cross a stream that runs out to the ocean through a hole carved through the massive rock above. I stayed here a while, fascinated by the interplay of water: a constant stream flows into the ocean, but the inrushing tide can occasionally overtake it, reversing the flow as it pours upstream. I took some photos and a short video, then scrambled back across the rock and regained the trail.

I hadn't been sure how much time I would make on this hike - I usually count on about 3 miles per hour for a "normal" hike, and about 2 miles per hour when backpacking; on this day I was only carrying my small daypack, but I was also planning on being out for about twelve hours, and taking plenty of time for pictures. I reached Wildcat a bit after noon, and decided that this would make a good point to start curving back towards home base. I spent a very brief time on the beach at Wildcat. Seriously - this park's full name is Point Reyes National Seashore, and I probably spent less time at the actual seashore than anyone else who's ever been there for three days. It was nice, but I had hiking to do!

I'd been hoping to eat lunch at Wildcat Lake, a cool lake that's surprisingly close to the ocean. It's fairly marshy and overgrown, though, so I continued heading north. I passed through Old Out Road, then decided to take the no-bikes-allowed Alamea Trail the rest of the way up. Big mistake! Yesterday's rain had turned the road into a ruin, totally muddy, unpleasant, and vile. It was the most miserable hour of my entire trip. I finally re-emerged on the Ridge Trail and then picked up Stewart Road to Firtop, which doesn't have any views but does have a nice meadow where I finally ate a belated lunch.

I completed a loop by heading north a bit more, then picking up Greenpicker Trail to swing west and south. This brought me to the Glen Camp trail. All told, I hiked through three of the four backpackers camps on Sunday, and came within less than half a mile of the Coast Camp as well. Glen Camp was probably my least favorite of the bunch: not bad, but it didn't have the amazing views of Sky or the ocean proximity of Wildcat.

After reaching Bear Valley Trail, I continued straight on to Baldy Trail, which had a really fun and steady rise up from the canyon to the ridge. It was getting late in the afternoon, but I must have caught a second wind, because the elevation just melted away from me. Baldy connected me with Sky Trail, where I played footsy with a large and loud group of hikers until I turned on enough gas to leave them permanently behind. I continued on Sky Trail all the way back to camp, where I celebrated with another hot meal, some quiet reflection, and finishing the last short story in Burning Chrome.

Monday, Memorial Day, ended up being somewhat abbreviated. I woke up around six, struck camp, finished breakfast with the last of my remaining fuel, then headed out. I took Sky Trail south to the Z Ranch Trail, then headed towards Mount Wittenberg. I stashed my pack behind a tree before the final ascent, but I needn't have bothered, as it's actually quite gentle. Wittenberg doesn't really have any views, either, but it does have a nice, rambling top with a whole set of looping trails that cut through forest and meadow.

After wrapping up, I simply followed Mount Wittenberg Trail back down to Bear Valley Trail, where it was a short jaunt to the headquarters, my car, and ultimately home.

I think that with Point Reyes, I have now done pretty much all of the backpacking that's available close to the Bay Area. Henry Coe remains my favorite of the bunch, for its remoteness and serenity as much as for its beauty. The State of California is shutting down that park, which I think is a travesty bordering on an outrage - it's depressing that our legislature has so little control over its own budget (thanks to, um, we the voters) that the only influence it can have is through cutting stuff that nobody wants to see cut. Coe is a treasure, and a vital resource for the fast-paced, high-tech world of Silicon Valley, and I really hope that creative minds in our government can help find a way to keep it alive. Ohlone Wilderness was good too, but far more limited, with really only a single through-trail giving a backpacking experience; I don't really have any desire to do it again, unless it's to experience the same thing in a different season. I suppose there is backpacking along the Skyline-to-the-Sea trail, but that only really works as a one-way trip, and doesn't seem worth the effort, especially since I've hiked all of it in segments before. I can definitely imagine coming back to Point Reyes at some time in the future; there are tons of hikes I could do as full day trips, plus I could profitably enjoy a three-day backpacking trip based out of Wildcat, which is close to a lot of territory that I never got around to exploring. And, of course, there are lots of great parks within a day's drive of the bay area - I would love to return to Yosemite sometime, probably focusing more on the high Sierra territory; I also would like to experience some of the other parks in the Sierras, like Hetch Hetchy; or checking out any of the myriad National Forests in northern and central California. I don't know when, but I do hope that there's more such trips in my future.

Saturday, June 04, 2011


I came to know Anthony Bourdain through a stream of amusing anecdotes provided by my brother Pat, who is a superb foodie and plugged into the world of chefs, regional cuisine rivalries and current food trends. I've never seen Bourdain's show, but was mesmerized by a recording of a Google Talk he gave that provided a voice to the great stories I'd already heard. He's brutally honest, funny, sets high standards for others and higher standards for himself. He's a proud New Yorker who begrudgingly concedes the superiority of the Bay Area's ingredient supply while still making a strong case for the supremacy of New York chefs.

I picked up "A Cook's Tour," which is a sort of travel journal that recounts Bourdain's yearlong trip around the world, "in search of the perfect meal." Bourdain being Bourdain, he states up front that this was a fairly artificial endeavor: he'd hoodwinked the Food Network into paying for it, in exchange for having their cameramen follow him around and film everything. (Bourdain is a notorious basher of the Food Network in general, and its celebrity "chefs" in particular, which makes this all the more funny.) Still, the trip is authentic in that he is visiting real chefs and home cooks making real food in their traditional ways.

While food is a very important concern of this book, I was surprised to see that it often shared equal billing with other elements of the meals. Any given experience Bourdain describes usually includes four components: food, alcohol, location, and company. All of these combine to make an experience wonderful or terrible. He's up-front about how, after he's drunk a lot of beer, the food starts tasting much better and his companions seem more charming and funny. This feels real and believable to me - the emotional high of a meal is supported by everything else going on, and I would much rather be eating a slightly dry turkey with my extended family for a holiday meal at the homestead than a perfectly moist turkey by myself at home - but it was impressive that a professional chef would make the case that really amazing food isn't everything.

Many of the stories Bourdain tells are mouth-watering, making me want to follow in his footsteps and try the same thing. He returns again and again to his tale of Vietnam, which seems to be constantly serving up wonderfully prepared meals in friendly environments. His tale of a kaiseki meal at a Japanese ryookan made me mourn the fact that that was one meal I didn't get to experience during my trip there. The emotional highlight for me came in the penultimate chapter of the book, when Bourdain and three fellow famous chefs attend a meal at Thomas Keller's French Laundry. Bourdain wrote this book before Per Se opened up, and I can imagine the mixture of awe, anticipation, and outrage he feels at Keller coming east.

Other trips are more viscerally exciting because of what's happening off the table. Bourdain seems to be comfortable consorting with criminal elements, corrupt government officials, and slightly unhinged expats. We hear about his experiences under the wing of the mafiya in Russia; a harrowing trip up the river and over landmined roads in Cambodia; listening to partisans singing in Basque territory.

Sometimes there's a bit of a Fear Factor element, when Bourdain tries something that seems gross or horrifying. Often this is because he's heard that it's good; other times, his handlers are convinced that it'll make compelling television. The book opens with a pig feast in Portugal, which starts when the family of one of his kitchen chefs slaughters a huge pig.  He describes the slaughter in some detail, forcing us to make the connection between the wheezing animal we see nibbling slop and the browned flesh that rests on our plates. During his visit to Morocco, he goes to great lengths to obtain a goat so he can have someone cook and serve him its testicles: according to Bourdain, they are delicious. Others go poorly; the crew forces him to eat a pet iguana, which unsurprisingly tastes horrible.

And then there are the meals that are truly awful, or, worse, boring and bland. Bourdain doesn't pull any punches here out of respect or deference; if he thinks something tastes bad, he'll say say so, and say why. I think one of his best lines in the book comes when he describes natto as the Vegemite of Japan: all the natives love it, and foreigners will never be able to understand why. He returns to France to try and recreate beloved childhood memories, but the weather is awful, and all the food he tries seems tired and uninspired, until he eats some old seafood that actually tries to kill him.

He reserves some of his greatest ire for trends in Western cuisine, particularly in his late chapters on Britain and the US. He hates the fact that he can't smoke in restaurants any more. He thinks that our trend towards improving food safety is actually making things worse: the increasing regulations are driving small producers out of business, which is leading to a few large and powerful companies creating monocultures, which is why there's so much salmonella in our chicken. He hates how "Mexican" food has not only become bastardized, but also spread to London and beyond, so the same boring glop follows you everywhere. In the same chapter where he lyrically sings the praises of the French Laundry, he unleashes a sustained and funny tirade against vegans, attacking their overall philosophy (particularly the "meat is murder" viewpoint), but then unleashing the worst insult of all: they (the Berkeley vegans Bourdain visited) can't cook well.

After reading this, I can see well why Bourdain is such a celebrity in the food world. I'm not exactly sure what he's up to these days, but I hope to go back and check out some of his earlier works and adventures... he's an interesting dude, and I'm glad he's going first to pave the way for the rest of us.


On Wednesday I got to see Invocation, the first part of the new dance Bare Bones Crow, which was created and performed by my relative Vangie King. (I'm not totally sure what the proper term is for our relation. She's my father's cousin; does that make us first cousins once removed?) She's been dancing for most of her life, but this was the first chance I'd had to see her, and it was a great experience.

On an earlier visit with Vangie when my parents were in town, she had described the idea behind this new piece. It evokes a creature who is buried far underground; the creature awakes, and the dance shows its journey. Vangie collaborated with a sound designer to create the aural landscape for the dance.

Vangie's dance was included in the "raw & uncut" showcase at The Garage, a cool performance space in SOMA. The Garage sponsors a resident workshop program that allows artists to spend time developing new creations, and many of the dances in this showcase were from residents at various stages of their program.

The Garage reminded me a lot of some of the smaller venues in Chicago where I've seen Pat perform. Really intimate, very immediate, usually with one person who's clearly running all aspects of the venue. Here, people gave donations for their entrance ($10-$20 sliding scale; I'd pre-paid on Brown Paper Tickets, but will probably do it in person the next time I come), received programs (simple and effective folded sheets of paper), and could choose from various beverages to purchase. The manager let us all know the window of time when the restroom was open - since it's on the opposite side of the stage as the seating, it isn't exactly accessible during performances. Folks mingled or lingered for a while, then we headed in and started the show.

The first piece, "No Self," primarily featured a single dancer; another woman prowled around at intervals and provided live lighting support, and a man played a fairly subdued string instrument for live music. The woman, wearing a very long dress, was standing on a pedestal hidden under her dress, giving the illusion of enormous height. The piece began with her coming to life, and slowly coming to understand and control her body. (The moment when she first smiles was both hilarious and disturbing.) Intellectually, I knew that I was watching a person standing on a pedestal, but throughout the performance it felt like I was watching a single, tall, increasingly graceful body. Eventually she came down and moved around the stage. As with the other dances, there was fairly minimal speech, but what little is there seems shocking. The words towards the end go something like, "You want to live forever? I wish to die!" The piece was intriguing and seemed to end on a somewhat bittersweet note.

Next up came Vangie's piece. She performs as the creature - I presume the Bare Bones Crow of the title - who abruptly awakens in an enclosed space deep underground. The creature is curious, frightened, exploring its surroundings and trying to understand what's happening. The creature also seems quite powerful, but perhaps not aware of it. Vangie's colleague Brenda had designed the sound for the piece and "performed" it live via her Macbook. Some of this was ambient noise and music, but there were also amazing sound effects that really magnified Vangie's movements: crackling rocks, spooky-sounding drippy slime, hurried footsteps, and more. (Unfortunately, the audio system got a bit wonky and it was sometimes hard to separate the sound from the hissing speakers. I'm ignorant enough about modern dance that I couldn't tell if it was a technical problem or a sign of avant-garde composition!) Vangie's movements were amazing to watch - often stately, deliberate, and powerfully focused. She, too, only occasionally spoke, and her few words captured the stress of the creature.

After a first attempt at a piece that was aborted due to the increasingly feisty speakers, we took an early intermission, followed by a piece by two male dancers. One was a native American Indian (who started off wearing extremely bright red high heels) with a larger build, another looked like a regular white guy with a slighter build. This dance seemed to be more purely about movement; or at least, it didn't seem to be telling a story as explicitly as the first two had. It was also quite funny, although I wasn't sure until fairly late on whether it was OK to laugh.

"Maintain Class" also had flashes of humor. This dance featured two incredibly attractive young women, who start the dance reading newspapers in chairs. The dance moves through a sequence of phases, each set to its own song (including some really excellent electronic pieces) or silence. Sometimes the women seem to be cooperating; other times competing; at one point they writhe in pain on the ground, at another they seem to be playing a cruel version of the trust exercise, at others they dance with one another. I think the emotional center of the piece comes when the two very slowly rotate in smooth 360-degree pivots, with each turn showing a new face to the audience.

After an earlier aborted attempt, the second shot at "Worn on the Bottom" had better cooperation from the music. Combining trends from the first two and two previous performances, this one was both disturbing and funny. The dancer maintained strong eye contact with the audience throughout her performance. Dressed in a pure white girlish dress, she starts out flipping through the pages of a large book, and begins to dance along to the music she hears. Some of the movements become increasingly sexual, which feels incongruous and disturbing as the dance continues. Her moves repeat and evolve throughout the dance, giving you ample opportunity to reflect on them. (I'm just now realizing, incidentally, that print is a HORRIBLE medium for describing a dance. It would be better if I had more of a dance vocabulary; I apologize for the hash I'm making of all this.) There was one particular sequence of gestures she made which fascinated me for reasons I still don't understand: starting with both arms raised just above her head, she pauses for a moment, then moves her right arm through a swift set of even horizontal steps away from her left arm; at the end, she moves her right hand up and forward, toward the audience, twisting just a tiny bit, as if she were reaching for something far away or turning a key in a lock. Like I said, I don't know why that movement resonated with me, but it's still haunting me days later.

The evening ended with "*cari's tiny circus*", which was accurately billed as four "almost serious dances." The first term that comes to mind to describe this one is "prop dancing," though that doesn't begin to do justice to it. Each of the four dances had some physical object or set of objects on stage. For the first one, she came out in a deliberately gaudy and poofy ballerina dress, and plopped herself down in, um, a bucket. And then she danced in the bucket. It was pretty unreal, incredibly talented, and highly amusing. Another dance took place entirely on a stool, where she somehow managed to maintain her balance while dancing on the top, on the side rungs, swung out sideways, etc. My favorite one featured a variety of pots and pans spread across the stage: she somehow managed to dance through a skillet, dutch oven, stockpot, etc., without ever touching the floor. It was a lot of fun, and the performance felt like a celebration at the pure joy and fun of controlling a talented body.

So, my first introduction to San Francisco dance was a great one. It was a lot of fun to see Vangie perform, and also fun to see it in this context, where I could try and pick up a rudimentary education about what else is going on in modern dance. I know I'll never be an expert at this particular art form, but I like what I've seen so far.