Friday, April 4, 2014

A Few Random Notes on Prayer and Love

Most of these blog posts have been about design or art, so it’s time for one that’s more about faith.

In Los Angeles recently, we had a few folks over at our funky rented cottage for a BBQ (sans BBQ, but that’s the challenge of renting through VRBO), and an old friend of Paul’s drove up from Newport Beach. She has platinum blonde hair in an asymmetrical cut, high-heel platforms, beautifully painted toenails, and spray-on jeans. You might think LA actress or costume designer, but no, she’s an Episcopal priest! Another friend is writing a memoir about her rather bizarre upbringing in the shadow of Hollywood. The same day, I read my friend David’s blog post about facing his loathing of sports as a kid (often humiliating for gay boys) as he begins to coach his daughter’s little league. All of that got me thinking about parenting and parenting traditions that were intended, rejected, and then modified. And about faith.

You can always find a lot about your parents’ parenting that didn’t work, but as I was trying to go to sleep in a strange house in Los Angeles, I started thinking about a tradition that didn’t seem to work for most of my life, but ended up becoming useful many decades later, in a much altered form. Our family ate dinner together almost every night, and we said grace before eating. The prayer went like this: “God is good. God is great. We thank him for our food and family. Amen.” My sister thinks she picked it up at a Sunday school she attended briefly.

Often, we rushed through grace because we were hungry. We probably made fun of it. I know we interjected our own variations as we began to question God’s existence. Remembering this ritual caused me to think about how our parents tried to give us an awareness of faith, but without imposing any specific dogma. My mother grew up Lutheran, which was common for Norwegian immigrants and their offspring. Right out of Lake Wobegon (via the plains of Canada). My father grew up Methodist, but according to the family lore that he denied, they were originally Jewish on one side with a failed detour into Mormonism. My parents were not regular churchgoers. Indeed, they were married in my maternal grandparents’ home in Hubbard, Oregon. Nor were any of us kids baptized.

When we were fairly young, we began attending different churches all over the East Bay. A friend of my father’s was instrumental in starting a church in Lafayette where we had to drink communion. We had no idea what that was about. The hymnals were always confusing to me, but I liked the music even though I couldn’t carry a tune. I think we attended mostly Protestant denominations. The most memorable church service was one I attended with my mother and her friend Mary Lee Saxton at Glide Memorial in 1972. It was literally days after Angela Davis had been released from prison on bail. Reverend Cecil Williams introduced her, and the crowd went wild. My mother took off her shoes and stood on her pew to see Davis and clap for her. Now, baby, that was church.


When I was a kid, many of my closest friends were Jewish and I started going to Jewish Youth Group meetings. Some of the houses where we met were quite grand, and the meetings were fun, but finally one of the mothers called my mother to ask her to join Hadassah, and that was their way of saying that I didn’t really belong.

I always more interested in the buildings than any liturgy. Eventually we seemed to settle on the First Unitarian Church of Berkeley, a block up the hill from our house. A handsome concrete structure designed by Wurster, Bernardi & Emmons with a central atrium built on land donated by Bernard Maybeck. The church, with its sweeping view of the bay and the Golden Gate Bridge, was home to community theater and lots of benefits for Cesar Chavez’s farm workers and folks trying to stop the war in Vietnam. But we didn’t really go to church much. In fact, once, the minister called because he saw our name and address on the rolls but realized he had never even met us. I went to services as a young teenager because of the political sensibility. There were guests like Malvina Reynolds and Ron Dellums. Later on, that’s where my brother got married and where we held my mother’s memorial.

Sketch of First Unitarian Church

In the 1990s, I was drawn to the aesthetic of the Buddhists and tried two temples in Berkeley. I sat for a while at the Berkeley Zen Center, which is linked to the San Francisco Zen Center and the Soto Zen tradition that Suzuki Roshi brought to San Francisco and the west in 1959 when he was the age I am now. I went to BZC off and on for a while but never felt connected to the community of people. Occasionally, I visit Green Gulch and sit there on a Sunday. Because of the relatively large size of the gathering, I don’t look for community. I try hard to empty the mind, but it is still largely an aesthetic experience. For several years, I went to Tassajara each summer with my pal (from preschool!) Mara and her husband Chris. It was especially comforting in the summer of 1999 just after my mother passed away. Later I brought Paul, but he passed out in the hot mineral water, and we haven’t been back.

Tassajara Zen Mountain Center
Green Gulch Zen Center

When I met Paul, he worked as the musician for the Sunday afternoon service at St. Mary the Virgin, a beautiful small Episcopal church out on Union Street. It was a strange group of folks, most of them quite wealthy, but truly charitable. Paul worked with two priests. The second one was quite open about being gay and a recovering alcoholic and gave a homily about the Bible being a lie. Now I liked her! But she wasn’t a big fan of Paul’s ideas about music.

St. Mary the Virgin Episcopal Church sanctuary
Courtesy Turnbull Griffin Haesloop Architects

Several years ago, I had a dream about praying. And I realized praying was like pure art, something that begins only with you. It need not be about a religious figure telling you what to say or think. It is an empty space you fill up or leave empty. This was the lesson of Buddhism that I seemed to have missed when I was sitting. Find the empty place and try to stay there. Over time, my most common prayer was just saying, “Thank you.” And the place I find myself saying it is in the shower. The first thank you is for hot water, something most of us in middle class America take for granted. (One day in a hotel in lower Manhattan, there was no hot water, and instead of letting it go, I was grouchy all day. So even if you remember to be thankful, it doesn’t mean you don’t expect the comfort!) Each morning I also try to be thankful for having found a partnership that is caring, a home that is comfortable (if not quite large enough for the art and books we continue to acquire), friends, food, and not having to scrape to get by. Thankful for finding work that is meaningful and allows me to interact with design as well as with interesting people.

I often forget to get through all that appreciation before it’s time to get out of the shower. So I start my prayer routine, if that’s what you call it, when I am doing my daily swim. But there, instead of being thankful for the miracle of abundant warm water, I try to empty my head out and just breathe in and out and move. The usual chatter fills my head, and I try again, remembering not to chastise myself for being so loud. Later, when I ride BART into the city, I try and remember to close my eyes and empty my head out again. I feel that the combination of these various ways of praying helps me be kinder and more open. Which brings me to a kind of answer to a prayer that I didn’t know I had.

Our pool

Almost two years ago, my friends David Kerr and Jay Stowsky brought two young children, brother and sister, into their lives. They were in foster care at the time, and David and Jay became their foster parents as part of an adoption process. Last September, they formally adopted them.

Kerr Stowsky adoption

I have been Uncle Kenny to two birth nieces and dozens of children of my friends over the years. (I just found out that two of my friend’s kids thought we were actually blood related!) Sometimes, I performed well, and other times, I was forgetful. But with these two young children, I feel more focused, more present, more open. Their needs are different because their early lives were so unstable and unsettling. I think because of “my practice,” my trying to slow down and be thankful, I am more open not only to giving love but also to hearing someone ask for love without precise language. The other day, we arrived for a quick visit at David and Jay’s, and young Jaden (we call him little Jay) was waiting on the patio because from that vantage point he could see us come up the steps to the back door or hear us open the front gate and walk up the path to the front door. He had us covered. His older sister Shayla (Jaden calls her ShayShay) was waiting inside with her book. When I first met her, she didn’t know how to read, and now she reads me entire books far beyond her grade level. When we were at the Exploratorium last weekend, Jaden focused intently on just a few of the gizmos, but Shayla was drawn to many of the bright new shiny objects. She has learned how to wait patiently for her turn, even though she worries that whatever she wants will be gone by the time she gets to the front of the line. After our science playtime, we were walking to get ice cream, and she complained bitterly about her feet hurting and that it isn’t fair that Jaden gets carried all the time. Shayla is too big (not to mention too old!) to get carried, but what she really needed was someone to hear her complaint and stay next to her. In a few minutes, we got our soft serve ice cream cones and watched the bay. There is still something so comforting about sitting outside on a beautiful day with a good ice cream cone. It washes away the sore feet and injustices of being a big sister.

Jay with the kids at Point Lobos

Watching the kids find their sea legs in a new home and with a new family has been the most powerful emotional experience of the last few years. I can’t close Guantanamo or stop the NSA or any of the many political issues I post articles about every week. But I can hold a trusting little hand during a walk and throw a laughing child up into the air and let them fall into the pool, and they know I will catch them before they go too far under. I really think my home-cooked form of prayer has helped give me the stillness and gratitude to be present with these wondrous kids. I am more open to love, which travels two ways all the time. That is an answered prayer.

The Kerr Stowskys at Disneyland

Friday, February 14, 2014

Google Buses, 8 Washington, One Percent, and Resist!

Courtesy Leslie Dreyer

This post started out as an exploration about recent changes and resistance in the bay area. But now I am finishing it on Valentine's Day. So, it must be about love too.

There has been a lot of talk about Google buses recently. Some demonstrators have held rallies at the bus stops, and in one extreme case, a demonstrator broke a window on a bus. The city of San Francisco has begun charging a small fee for the use of public bus stops. But this anger towards Google is real. Where is it coming from?

I have been remembering the many Occupy camps I visited in 2011. Although those camps are gone, the idea that the one percent are running everything has stuck in the country’s consciousness. That is victory. A foundation was laid.

San Francisco is changing and quickly becoming unaffordable for anybody who makes less than six digits. Some of the resistance to this change has to do with nostalgia, a form of NIMBYism. Some of it has to do with large buses crowding small streets. Some of it has to do with working people being evicted by developers buying small buildings to convert them to TICs (as a friend of ours recently experienced). Some of it probably has to do with envy too! And some of it has to do with Google becoming Big Brother and cozying up to the evil NSA. (“Do no evil” indeed.)

At the same time, a project proposed on the Embarcadero, 8 Washington, was recently voted down at the ballot box. The idea of putting every possible development project up for the ballot is questionable, but there were people whom I respect on both sides of the argument. I am of at least two minds (typical). On the one hand, I am not crazy about another housing project for the one percent. But on the other hand, it is a higher use than a private swim and tennis club that benefits the affluent with little contribution to the city. I have to say, I rather liked SOM’s design too.


But both of these events (and dozens of others, including the development proposals adjacent to Crissy Field) bring up issues about urban development and class warfare, or at least potential class warfare. Right now it’s class conflict. Organizations ranging from the big (SPUR) to the small (Storefront Lab) have been doing a good job talking about density, development, transit, and regional planning. But right now, I am thinking about class conflict turning into class warfare. The Google buses (which provide non-single-occupant-vehicle transportation for well-paid middle class workers, not members of the ruling class—remember, those are the ones with drivers and private jets!) are a symbol, as much as 8 Washington is a symbol. The one percent are taking over the city, much as they have already taken over the society. The difference is that in San Francisco, it has become more visible. At the national level, the elite of the one percent have done a good job of staying hidden.

The underlying conflict here is the one discussed in Robert Reich’s recent writings and his documentary Inequality for All. His main point is that the growing inequality between the very rich and everybody else is destabilizing our democratic society. And he’s right.

I think the choice is clear. We either move towards voluntary redistribution of wealth downwards or risk an involuntary redistribution of wealth accompanied by violence. It is in the long-term interest of the one percent to start reshaping society so that they don’t concentrate so much wealth in their camp. I mean, honestly, how much better can one’s life be after the first few million?

Revolution will come when the aspiring middle classes see their path cut off. And as Reich points out, research all over the country shows this happening. Occasionally, I hear people complain about welfare cheats and Section 8 recipients, and while I don’t condone anybody stealing from the government, what poor people are going to do, legally or illegally, is a drop in the bucket to what we, the middle class, are paying to subsidize the wealthy corporations through direct government transfers and indirect tax breaks. We have a welfare state—it happens to be welfare for the rich. When the government supports the rich, as has done most intensely since 9/11 and the dramatic growth of the military industrial security complex, it is called capitalism. When it redistributes the income so that the poor and middle class can survive the chicanery of the one percent, it is called socialism.

So I don’t mind a street protest that calls out Google for colluding with the government, for concentrating wealth, for creating secrecy instead of transparency, for doing evil when their credo says they won’t. But don’t bust the windows. Don’t stop the middle class workers (albeit the well-paid middle class workers) from going to work. Vote against 8 Washington if you think it’s really going to hurt the city. These are still sideshows to the main event. We have to take to the streets and the airwaves to urge the one percent to support initiatives that give people healthcare, housing, food, and a voice. We need to protest the Koch Brothers, their ilk, and their level of influence! This is the future of Occupy, and it is our children’s future. Let’s restructure capitalism with intentional action rather than violence. Let's remember love as we resist.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Postcard from the UK

Our holiday trip to the UK was cold but beautiful. We mixed a city of earthen tones punctuated by red buses with a countryside full of every shade of green. And good food everywhere we went.

This time Paul booked a late afternoon flight, which meant we arrived in the UK in the afternoon of the next day and only had to power through dinner before we collapsed. It might have worked if we had been in business class and really slept. So although I didn’t crash upon arrival, I was fuzzy for the better part of a week. We took the bus from Heathrow to Victoria Coach Station, which was more fun than the tube because we could see the sights. And it took us right to our hotel, which was at the edge of Belgravia.

The idea of hospitality and service in hotels has not reached down to the midpriced boutique hotels. But in the middle of winter, you are just glad that they left the heat on. Because it gets dark and frigid in December. When you wake up from an afternoon nap, it’s already nighttime. After we unpacked, we strolled the neighborhood and came across a marvelous shop just across the street. It looked fantastic, but we weren’t altogether sure what it sold. Turned out it was the shop of the genius milliner Philip Treacy.

Saatchi Gallery

We wandered over to the Duke of York’s Headquarters (constructed in 1801, it was once a school for the children of soldiers’ widows, and later some German spies were court-martialed there), which was converted to the latest version of the Saatchi Gallery in 2008. It’s a stunning building, but the exhibition entitled Body Language was disappointing. In the exhibition New Order: British Art Today, there was one artist I liked, Sara Barker, whose delicate metal and lightly painted canvas sculptures divided space and invited inspection. And the famous oil installation by Richard Wilson, 20:50, has been reconstructed in the new building. (Photos of all three variations can be seen on the Saatchi website.) I loved watching visitors walk in and try to figure out what they are looking at… Eventually the scent of oil, although not overwhelming, gives you a hint.

Sculpture by Sarah Barker

Richard Wilson's 20:50

We were lucky to find a decent restaurant next door to our hotel, as it had begun to rain. From our vantage point, Christmas was mostly an excuse to meet up with old friends and share a drink or a meal, and not an orgy of bad candy, complex toys, and useless kitchen gadgets. This turned out to be the case among the adults in Paul’s family, if not the kids, which is one reason we like going there so much.

Paul loves taking the bus in London, even if it takes longer than the tube. We got up at a normal time, walked around the corner, and caught the bus to Somerset House. Our young pal Carlos is spending the semester at the Courtauld Institute of Art, which is just across the courtyard. We should have stopped in to see their collection, too.

We were lucky to get on one of the buses designed by Thomas Heatherwick, a brilliant young industrial designer best known for the Olympics torch. Unlike the older double deckers, the new model has two staircases, and everything has been thought through, from the swerve of the wraparound glass to the incised pattern in the rubber floor and staircases. We were doubly lucky because the front seat was open upstairs. As we turned every corner, I was like an eager puppy with every new vista of Westminster or Big Ben or other landmark I’ve only seen from the street. The perception is distorted just enough that you feel like you are going to mow down the errant pedestrian. The streets are tight.

New double-decker bus

Somerset House hosts all kinds of art shows—not that they always make sense together. Upstairs, they hung the famous Sandham Memorial Chapel paintings by Stanley Spencer, which have been removed while the chapel is being renovated. While they are interesting pieces of postwar art, they didn’t have anything to do with the show I wanted to see: Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore! Isabella Blow is credited with discovering both Alexander McQueen and Philip Treacy. She was born into the end of an aristocracy. Lots of entitlement and no money. Apparently, she bought out McQueen’s entire first collection but didn’t have the money to pay for it, so like the rest of us, she went on the installment plan. The show didn’t reveal a lot about her as a person, but it did show the clothes, hats, and fashion shoots that she had a hand in.

Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore!

In most European cities, we have a pattern of heading out early in the morning after a large breakfast, skipping lunch (or eating very lightly), and then taking a nap before our late afternoon and evening expedition. Scheduling tea during the holidays takes a great deal of planning. Claridges, the Connaught, and the Berkeley were all full, but Paul found a jewel box of a tea room in the Capital Hotel just down from Harrod’s. Maybe slightly less elaborate than a fashion designer-inspired tea we had several years ago at the Berkeley, but sufficient to cover us for lunch and dinner! Paul’s fellow composer pal Cecilia McDowall updated us on her many commissions and performances in the US.

Tea room at Capital Hotel

With a short break, we then departed for St. John’s Smith Square, which is a deconsecrated church from 1728 that was firebombed during the war and restored. It now serves as a performance venue. The Cardinall’s Musick, the group that sang Paul’s premiere in Orkney in 2012, was giving a concert. In addition to hearing the beautiful music, afterwards we got to hang out and share a bottle of wine with director Andrew Carwood and singer Patrick Craig (and his folks). Patrick is one of the funniest choral singers I’ve ever met. He could be a standup comic.

We woke up early the next day and headed out to Borough Market, which is like San Francisco’s Ferry Building but funkier. It’s on the south side of London Bridge and reminds me of an authentic Dickens Christmas Fair. Our destination was the cheese shop, Neal’s Yard Dairy. As they say in the UK, “Oh, that was dear.” But these were some of the best cheeses we’ve ever eaten. For an early lunch, we ducked into a place called Elliot’s, which had a warm proprietor and good food, but suffered from the usual mediocre service.

Borough market

The train to Rugby (where Paul was born and near where the family still lives) takes just over an hour from Euston Station. After we got off the escalator at the train station, Paul pointed out a bench and said, “That’s the spot where I once spent the night when I missed the last train when I was a teenager.” One day it will have one of those blue ceramic plaques: “Composer Paul Crabtree slept here.” Euston is one of those modern monstrosities of the postwar era. It looks like something from the USSR’s modern bureaucrat period. Our tendency is to arrive early for planes and trains. But there is hardly anyplace to sit, and the cafés couldn’t be any more dreary. There is a growing movement to save modernist buildings in the UK, but I hope they tear this one down.

Paul sprung for first class, which would have been fine, but some interlopers snuck into our section, which brought out my usual class conflicts. I wanted them thrown out! Within a minute of coming downstairs into the new waiting area at Rugby Station, we saw Aunt Jenny’s beaming face and were whisked back to Orchards.

Graham and Jenny’s house has two hearts. One is the garden where Graham can be found almost every day except for the rainiest days of winter, and the other is the kitchen, where the heat is always on and something is always being planned, prepared, or “tidied up.”

The big change in the kitchen is a new range top that is electric but works like gas. Instant heat, and it turns off when you remove a pot so the grandkids don’t get burned. There have been a few changes in the garden since our last visit. But the biggest change is in the view of the garden. Graham had a ribbon window installed along one side of the lounge. It’s so big that it required a new steel beam and steel posts. When he first suggested this, I thought it might be too much view all of the time, but I was wrong. It is especially useful in the winter, when it’s so cold that most visitors don’t want to spend more than a few minutes outside. The orchard has been trimmed and a few birches around the pond removed. There is also a mound to create more of a middle-ground view. In the immediate foreground is a canal or moat around the living room windows. Like a circular water feature, this offers an upside-down view of the tall trees.

The new window at Orchards.

Peace was quickly disrupted by all of the cousins in what they call a GnT flash mob. This is the only family I’ve ever spent time with that resembles a rolling party, with members from every age group. After one cocktail, we all had to rush off to church for a caroling service. In this case, church was a 15th-century stone structure just a mile away in Kimcote. Right out of a British mystery, complete with bell ringers and their furry ropes. This congregation installed beer garden–type heaters to keep the faithful warm. We all joked that it was like the TV show Midsomer Murders and that we should find a body just as we were leaving.

Christmas singing at Kimcote

The next day, our pals Joanna and Tony from Wales came by for lunch. There were tales of Greece (and why it was a mistake for it to join the EU) and Joanna’s family burning down a campsite. Joanna also brought Paul’s beautiful Christmas present, a slender porcelain tower, which took some doing to sneak into the house!

Christmas gift: vase by Joanna Howells

The next few days were spent eating, drinking, singing, and opening presents at cousin Jane’s. Her husband, Paul, has become quite the cook. The entire family gathered for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. We sang, ate, laughed, and teased with the affection that closeness brings. It was as Christmas should be.

Paul Collins in his dream apron with emergency beer supply helmet.

Dominic Collins with his Christmas cap on.

Cozy Christmas

Following a relatively quiet Boxing Day, we ventured to Stoke Goldington to see James and Emily Chua and their wonderful daughters and cousins. James is a retired architect who has built a large private garden defined in large part by stone walls that he made by hand. He fells dead trees in a neighboring farmer’s wood and then hand-saws them into specific lengths to heat his home. In the middle of summer, the sun and the small efficient fireplaces heats the entire former barn. One of their daughters is an architect and the other a musician. So there was a lot to talk about. This year it didn’t rain, so we got to see the garden at leisure. A perfect day in the country.

The Chua Garden in Stoke Goldington

When we returned to London, we stayed in Belsize Park, a neighborhood known to fans of Elizabeth George as the home of Detective Sergeant Barbara Havers. It’s a bit more upmarket than it used to be, but it ain’t Belgravia. However, it is home to the actor Sir Derek Jacobi (remember Claudius?), who sat a few seats away from us at the theater. We had to stand in line only a few minutes at the TKTS booth in Leicester Square to get fifth-row seats to Ibsen’s Ghosts, which was some of the best theater either had us in seen in a long time. The set designer uses invisible walls to give the illusion of a manor house on the narrow stage.

Our hotel in Belsize Park

We also had a good long visit at the Victoria and Albert Museum, where we focused on modern ceramics. Found some by Robin Welch, a potter whose work I bought on a whim 20 years ago. The highlight was seeing the work of potter Lucie Rie and her reconstructed studio. The gift shop revitalized my interest in the Festival of Britain and all it did for modern British design. I feel another post coming on…

Lucie Ries reconstructed studio in the V&A

When Paul started to get crabby and threatened to get a sandwich from Marks & Spencer, I went into high gear and quickly secured a table at a Lebanese restaurant on Brompton Road. Looking at the prices, I figured the small plates would be, well, small. The servers must have thought, “Those grotesque Americans,” as we ordered more falafel than the table could hold. It was embarrassing. Later in the day, we ventured down to Battersea to have dinner with Paul’s pal Paul Hughes. Another new neighborhood. We had to walk through a public housing project to get there, but we found out it wasn’t dangerous at all.

If anything is going to get me to live in England (well, part-time in the summer, anyway), it might be a cottage in the countryside. On our last full day, we took the train from Victoria (which feels like a proper train station, unlike Euston) down to Kent to visit Alasdair and David’s new home in Faversham, Rose Cottage. If I understood correctly, the cottage was originally built for one of the gardeners on the local estate. For various reasons, Alasdair and David ended up with an acre of land that spreads out from their dwelling. They already have a tractor to mow the lawn! We are excited to come back in the summer for one of those lengthy, boozy picnics the Brits have to celebrate the brief appearance of the sun. David has a talent for sourcing great home design products that are both cottagey and contemporary. They have given us a tea towel from Lush Designs, and if I had a cottage, I would have their fabrics and lampshades everywhere.

The sky from Faversham, Kent

Hope to return in the spring and see everybody again at the Bath Festival!

More info can be found at:

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Best of 2013

We are off to the UK to see Paul’s family so I thought I would file this before we lift off.

Best Historic Memory
I am compiling this a few days after Nelson Mandela’s passing. In 1990, with my dear friend from college days, Kristina, we went to hear Mandela speak at the stadium at USC. We met at my place in Baldwin Hills and then joined a long march to USC (where her daughter now attends school). Once we reached the stadium we were standing (I don’t know that we ever sat down) with people of all races and presumably classes. I felt, for that night, we were, as Richard Blanco wrote in his inaugural poem, one people. It is one of those rare times I feel like I witnessed history and knew it was happening.

Nelson Mandela in 1990
Photo: Michel Clement, Daniel Janin/AFP/Getty Images

Best Political Story
Edward Snowden. I think history will see him as a hero who challenged a government gone mad. Much like Daniel Ellsberg did. And he will change the course of our country’s history. And the reporter Glenn Greenwald may not have started out as journalist, but he saved journalism for democracy. Which, of course, saves democracy itself. The shadow government will have to come out of the shadows.

Photo: The Guardian, AFP/Getty Images

Best Rediscovered Artist
A few years ago I went to an art fair in San Francisco and saw a few pieces of an artist named Jay Kelly. I can’t quite afford his work but it is one “material” thing I crave. His website is

2009 Metal, Wood, Gesso, Acrylic
Jay Kelly Art

Best New Print
What I could afford this year was a print Caio Fonseca made at Paulson Bott Press in 1998. I keep following the lines somewhere different.

Caio Fonseca
Notations I, 1998

Best Tote Bag
Dear friend Johnny gave me this Andy Warhol bag for my birthday! Isn’t it the best?

Best New Satchel
My pals Maria and Chris gave me this British Schoolboy bag from Cambridge satchels. Isn’t it perfect? Had to put it on Pinterest right away!

Best New Source for Bow Ties
For an early holiday gift my dear friend (from the seventh grade onward!) Cherie gave both of us gorgeous bow ties. We looked inside and the label said Kathleen Kelley. Sure enough it is the same Kathleen Kelley who worked at MBT and later at EBay. One of the most elegant ladies I've ever met. Check out her site at


Best Local Restaurant
We finally got around to going to Comal in downtown Berkeley. Excellent high-end Mexican food and a great dining room. If you don’t have much time before the theater you can also walk right out to the patio (with a fireplace) where a lady comes out around with a taco chip and margarita trolley.

Best NY Restaurant
My pal in Brooklyn Noel took me to Vinegar Hill House in Dumbo. It’s a bit out of the way, but has the best pate I’ve had in ages. Spatially it’s quirky and intimate. Not for the big boned gal. Check out the tiny kitchen with three people and a brick oven. I would lose weight working there. The after dinner nighttime walk on the Brooklyn waterfront was magical.

Best (and Strangest) Thai Food
I’ve never thought of DC as a good restaurant town, but apparently that’s changing. My pal Kristina took me to Little Serrow, which is owned by the same folks who own Komi, which has gotten rave reviews but costs a pretty penny. Downstairs in the basement through an unmarked door is a very noisy aqua colored room with a painted corrugated metal ceiling and not one stitch of Thai inspired tourist dreck. Just high tables, stools and a fixed fresh family style menu. It is spicy but not light your mouth (and digestive track) on fire hot. But each week its different. If you have food allergies forget it. And you had better get in line at 5:15. No reservations and the door opens at 5:30. The the few seats fill fast.

Best Social Media Toy
Speaking of Pinterest, it is hands down my favorite social media toy. I have no idea how it is influencing my “brand.” Being a visual person it is a way to chart my interests, especially the aesthetic ones. It’s like an autobiography in photos. A harmless addiction right?

Best Wedding/Adoption Celebration
David and Jay’s celebration of their wedding and adoption was full love, tears, wine, and good food. You can read about it here ( and here ( and here ( It was a big deal.

Best Wedding/Adoption Celebration Photographer
Gabriel Harber did a great job on David and Jay’s celebration so I thought I should give him a plug!

Best Art Show(s)
We saw all three James Turrell shows. Although the exhibit at the Guggenheim was the most spectacular of the three shows (I mean any show that can get socialites to lie down on the floor of the Guggenheim must be a good thing!). I loved the quietude of the Houston show. You never perceive light the same after seeing a great Turrell piece. Question what you think you see.

Best Architecture Show
The A Quincy Jones show at the Hammer in LA. It’s about time he got a show. Besides my deep affection for his wife Elaine (who was mentioned in the show) I felt that his architecture was influenced by a sense of humility. He was trying to figure out the best possible solution to a set of challenges, not building a monument to his own ego. If I were ever to do a book about architecture I would call it “The Humble Moderns: Architecture That Disappears.” Folks like Quincy, Renzo Piano, Joe Esherick, Ralph Rapson, David Salmela. My kind of architecture.

Best Book(s)
It was not a big year for reading books. But I did enjoy Donna Tartt’s new novel, The Goldfinch. I probably liked the gay adolescent love story detail the most. A kind of sweetness within mayhem. On the architecture front, I really enjoyed my pal Pierluigi’s book on Bay Area modernist Don Olsen. Due to the author’s efforts in this and earlier books we aren’t going to lose the modernist narrative in Northern California.

Donald Olsen: Architect of Habitable Abstractions
by Pierluigi Serraino

Best Celebrity
These days the only celebrities I meet are artists thanks to my gig with Paulson Bott Press. I interviewed Maira Kalman and she was as enthusiastic and curious as her drawings suggest. You can read the interviews here ( and here (

"Easter Parade" 1996

Best Growing Experience
See wedding. It has been the presence of David and Jay’s kids, Shayla and Jaden. I would have been a terrible parent, but I’m a pretty fun uncle!

See you in 2014!

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Postcard from Disneyland

The Facebook photos do not lie. I spent a few days on vacation in Disneyland. It was my pal David’s 50th birthday, and he wanted to show his kids the Magic Kingdom. His husband Jay grew up in the San Fernando Valley and fondly remembers visiting on Christmas Day with all the other Jewish families. And I got to go along as the lucky uncle! I could go on about how evil the Disney empire is, but I could also go on about how evil the automobile corporations are, and how evil most banks and mutual funds are, but the truth is that most of us participate, to some degree or another, in these evil empires. A friend of mine wrote to me, “Ask why there are no pigeons or mosquitoes” in Disneyland. That gave me pause. It is important to observe, and maintain a state of critical inquiry, but some questions remain unanswerable.

It was Charles Moore who gave me a new way to look at Disneyland. He wrote about it famously in Perspecta in an essay entitled “You Have to Pay for the Public Life.” That gave the place cred with the intellectual set. But it was his essay in the guidebook Los Angeles: The City Observed that I treasure. He didn’t live long enough to see Disney California Adventure open in 2001, but this newer park has captured some of his love for Los Angeles.

At several levels, Disneyland can be seen as a mirror for the culture. Think about it. It takes an entire subterranean system, endless back lots, and the largest parking garage in the Western hemisphere to make the happiest place on earth function. You don’t see dirty uniforms, nor do you see most of the “cast” that keeps the pedestrian-centric drama going. They are invisible (behind the scenes or in costumes), and so is the ugly car that brought you here. It parallels an idealized life in our own country, but without pigeons and mosquitoes! Easy transit and parking, plentiful clothes, access to nature, controlled density, fresh fruit and veggies year round—all this provided by workers who are largely invisible to us as they toil in the dangerous factories and warehouses of the developing world, the oil tundras of the Middle East, and the fields of God knows where. It takes a huge number of people working in poverty to keep each one of us clothed, housed, fed, and entertained. Disneyland is a microcosm of the global economy that supports our way of life! But without most of the stresses.

What makes Disneyland’s appeal so broad? Why do people keep returning when a one-day ticket to both parks now costs $132? (Never mind the $30 lunches and $300 hotel rooms.) It is because the Disney theme parks are some of the most designed places on earth. Walt Disney believed in the power of design more than any other capitalist I can think of. There have been numerous biographies of Disney, but I am interested in one that focuses on his ideas about aesthetics. What were those conversations about design and narrative like? When Disney built a new studio in 1940 in Burbank, he hired noted modernist designer Kem Weber (whose furniture now fetches high prices at auction and is featured in museum collections) to give it a modern edge, with most workspaces accessible to daylight.

Disney was obsessed with detail and would spend large sums to make his animations better and to innovate. He gambled on new technologies, and often he won. He understood and exploited media synergies to great advantage. When we were kids, we watched Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color every Sunday night and hoped to see shots of the park we had just visited. We only went to a handful of films as a family, and, of course, Mary Poppins was one of them. Each kind of product helped built interest in another. What child in the United States doesn’t know Mickey Mouse (who would have been named Mortimer if Lillian Disney hadn’t had some sway)?

But Disneyland can also be painful. For a child, it is a rich experience, one that lasts well into adulthood. Of course, new films appear, the culture changes, and a theme park must evolve, and in terms of a child’s memory, change radically. Each visit is both nostalgic and sad. When I was young, in the mid-1960s, my favorite icon was the Monsanto House of the Future. I wanted to live there! Tomorrowland felt like a real look into the next decade, which I was impatient to reach. By the time the futuristic house was torn down in the late 1960s, tomorrow was yesterday’s news. Even though the monorail cars have gone through several generations of improvement, they look sort of silly now. It’s hard to say if the future ended when man stepped on the moon, but the future is no longer a place, it’s a cloud. And Tomorrowland feels placeless now. There are still submarines, but now they are all about Captain Nemo.… If you don’t keep up with popular culture (brought to you by Disney and Pixar), visiting Disneyland can be a bit like walking through a dream where you don’t know the cues.

One day for lunch we ate “outside” on the terrace at Blue Bayou, where you are part of the entertainment for the Pirates of the Caribbean ride. When I was a kid, passing that romantic café before descending into the watery depths, I wondered where it was located. I probably thought the customers were part of the latest technology, what I later learned was called animatronics. When I was slightly older, I wondered if they were actors. Then I thought perhaps you get a free lunch to perform as happy diners in nighttime New Orleans. In fact, you pay dearly to be part of the show. And this is one the genius concepts of Disneyland. You are a cast member too! When you are too exhausted to go on, finding a bench (outside the restrooms, which are based on Frank Lloyd Wright’s Storer house) and watching this strangely egalitarian parade is almost a fun as looking at the ones that Disney organizes throughout the day. That you can do at no extra charge.

As for the Pirates ride itself, I don’t think it is as much fun since it’s been redesigned around a kohl-eyed Johnny Depp. The same is true for the haunted house, which has been temporarily reconfigured to celebrate Tim Burton’s Christmas. I rather enjoyed Burton’s creepy characters in MoMA’s show a few years ago, but they seem forced in the haunted house. I have to say that the ginger cookie smell that was spritzed at us was especially noxious. But both Johnny Depp and Tim Burton must be a bit surprised that they turned up as features in a Disney theme park. Had Uncle Walt met them on Main Street, he would have had security throw the bums out!

On a trip to California Adventure in 2006, I found the newer park strangely barren, too vast, without the variety of scale and density, mature landscaping, and all-important berms of the original park. Much as the basis for the Disneyland entrance sequence is based on Walt Disney’s own boyhood in Missouri, the new Buena Vista Street and Carthay Circle are based on the Los Angeles that Disney experienced when he arrived and first began working in the city he would end up interpreting for the rest of us. The Imagineers went back to their roots, Walt’s own nostalgia.

Interestingly, one of the most popular rides in the old Disneyland park is Autopia, which trains the wee ones for the autocentric future (architect Charles Moore is especially funny on this point). It is also one of the oldest continuously operating rides. Building on that ongoing success (I love that the ride is in Tomorrowland) and the success of the Cars movies series (what’s better than to turn the devil itself, the automobile, into something loveable?), the Imagineers created an entire themed “land.” Irony builds on irony. You park your car a good 20 minutes from the entry to either Disneyland or California Adventure and then walk 20 minutes to wait between 20 and 90 minutes to ride in a miniature car for four or five minutes. Brilliant! But the waiting at Radiator Springs Racers is almost as good as the ride. Beautiful desert landscaping and even a reproduction of a historic bottle house. Reportedly the ride cost $200 million to build. It’s more tied to the Southwest than to California, but who cares? It’s still about cars and movies.

When you walk through Radiator Springs, past the Flo’s V8 Café with its piston supported canopies and the Cozy Cone Motel based on wigwam motels, you see the glorious peaks of Cadillac Range, a spoof on the avant-garde artist collective Cadillac Ranch. Somehow the Ant Farm’s crazy art project in Amarillo, Texas, has been co-opted for Disneyland. It’s almost as sweet as the hippie geodesic dome, which must house some drug taking commune-ists. (Check out the Jumping Jellyfish for a drug-inspired ride!) Even though the founder of the happiest place on earth might be appalled that the counterculture has influenced his squeaky-clean dream, he would love to hear the cash registers ringing—or pinging.

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