Volume 45 Number 28

Appetite: Island bites, part two

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After a dreamy week in Hawaii, I have a slew of food and drink recommendations to share. Part one of these covered farmers market and street food in Honolulu and snacks from the North Shore of Oahu. This time, we sleep and drink in Honolulu. In part three, we’ll talk Honolulu restaurants.

Though I arrived islandside with a head full of romantic, slightly improbable Blue Hawaii dreams — me wearing a vintage bathing suit, lei, and a mai tai being serenaded by Elvis — my vacation reality was no letdown. No doubt the touristy scourge of chain shops, restaurants, and photo-snapping throngs do indeed exist in Waikiki, but contrary to what some told me, Hawaii’s largest city can be clean and relaxed. Though you truly find “island time” on Kauai and quieter locales, Honolulu is by no means hectic (if you ignore the traffic). It is that island city where you can while away hours at the beach, explore hole-in-the-wall eats, or listen to live music as the sun sets.

Hotel Renew, Waikiki Beach: 

With Asian-modern, Zen-like decor, clean lines and big city chic, these rooms are a welcome respite from the all-day party of Waikiki surfers and sunbathers. No pool or beachfront property here, though upper rooms on the south side have views of the beach. After long walks and lots of sun, I was grateful to enter the heavy front doors of Renew and be welcomed by the tinkle of the lobby’s water fountain. I’d grab a glass of water laced with fresh oranges and head up to my room with ultra-comfy bed and an ocean view.

The winning points of Hotel Renew, which is located on the eastern end of Waikiki, is affordability and peace. Plus, you can always take their complimentary boogie boards and towels a block away to the beach. But the best part? As overpriced as Waikiki can be, here you can get a room on a busy weekend for $180 to $225 a night. 

 

COCKTAILS

The cocktail renaissance is finally hitting Hawaii. Here’s a handful of places and bartenders forging the way.

Lobby Bar at The Waikiki Edition:

Although it is to be found by pushing aside a bookshelf in a hotel lobby, the Lobby Bar is no speakeasy — it’s a white, urban bar with muted lighting and long couches with a semi-exclusive, yet unpretentious air in The Edition, a hot hotel perfect for ultra-cool poolside lounging.

Bar manager Sam Treadway hails direct from Boston’s best-known cocktail bar, Drink and he’s clearly loving the warm island breezes, playing off of the canon of island classics, like the deconstructed mai tai ($11). Treadway has toned down the drink’s characteristic sweetness, amping up the rum (Pyrat XO) and orgeat (almond syrup) and topping it off with mai tai foam and a shiso leaf. He served me a lovely rum manhattan made with Montecristo 12 year rum, and he’s also handy with mezcal. The Agony and the Ecstasy ($11 – nice literary reference) is a winning mix of Del Maguey’s Mezcal Vida, St. Germain, and fresh grapefruit juice, topped with a house ginger beer. Spicy, smoky, gently sweet.

The cherry on top? Treadway combines Mezcal Vida, Campari, and soda to create, yes, a mezcal negroni. I long for the day when I can get one here, in my own negroni-obsessed city.

Town:

Another of the city’s great bartenders is Town‘s Dave Power. Located in Kaimuki, just a few minutes drive from Waikiki, Town feels like I’m back home in San Francisco. Local, organic foods served with with rustic, Italian technique, all-American heart, gourmet animal parts, and classic cocktails (all $10).

Power executes cocktails simply but with a beautifully, even literary, bent. His tequila negroni is a revelation. He explains that his inspiration is M.F.K. Fisher‘s love of equal parts gin, vermouth, and bitters in her cocktail. His version adds an equal part of Don Julio Reposado and a Campari infused with local Hawaiian Kiawe wood chips for a gentle smoky taste.

He also makes a Very Very Good Martini (this being how it’s listed on the menu) and my beloved Death’s Door — something you don’t see much in these parts — and a white manhattan with moonshine (white whiskey) and Dolin Blanc vermouth.

I’d recommend eating as well as drinking here. It’s a special place that evokes other big cities, but uses Hawaiian ingredients and laid-back charm.

Mai Tai Bar:

I am in love with the Royal Hawaiian Hotel. A pink, playful beacon that jumps out of the town’s blanket of highrises, it is the one hotel that evokes the history of old Waikiki. Built in 1927 and dubbed the Pink Palace of the Pacific, this is the classic Hawaii I dreamed of.

I’ll stay there one day. But in the meantime, one can always head through its grove of trees laden with hanging lights, past torches, through the lobby, and out to the back lawn where the Mai Tai Bar looks out over the beach. Live music at sunset and my own private cabana on the beach made this scene one of the most magical I spent in Honolulu.

This is not the place for refined cocktails but the bar has a history of providing tropical oceanside drinks. Manager Mike Swerdloff is a wine lover himself, but keeps up on the national cocktail scene and is passionate about great service, food and drink.

As for cocktails, there are various versions of the mai tai here — all too sweet for me, but they’re destined to be crowd-pleasers, and are greatly enhanced by the paradisical surroundings. Were I to really go for sweetness here, I’d prefer the Chi ($13), made from coconut and Maui’s organic Ocean Vodka and perked up with fresh pineapple and basil; or Pina Rocks ($10): Bacardi 8 year, coconut cream, pineapple, and a lemon-thyme float.

We had a lot of fun with our Smoking Gun mai tai, a winner in last year’s Mai Tai Festival on Kona. A glass of Whaler’s dark rum, Bacardi White, and a housemade velvet falernum was torched with smoke, then topped with a brown sugar-torched pineapple wedge. The presentation was quite dramatic — smoke even spilled out from the glass — but I could still taste the propane when I sipped the drink. That aside, the Smoking Gun yielded a delightfully sweet, smoky island imbibement that evoked roasting marshmallows over a campfire.

Lewers Lounge:

Inside the gorgeous Halekulani Hotel hides a classic New York hotel bar, rich with history and flush with jazz. And the music really is the reason to come. Nightly live jazz sets the classy, upscale tone of Lewers — don’t you dare wear shorts or flip-flops because this elegance is maintained with a strict dress code. You’ll also need a reservation on many nights.

Despite the legendary stamp of Dale DeGroff on the menu (he created it), drinks are of the sweet, fruity variety, like the refreshing ginger lychee caipirissima ($12). More ambitious efforts like the Amante Picante ($12) — tequila with cucumber, cilantro, green tabasco — have the right idea but lack balance. All in the execution?

What is impressive is the bar’s dessert menu. The ever-popular Halekulani coconut cake ($9) is ordered for weddings all over the islands, even from as far as LA. Adult gourmet versions of popsicles and ice cream sandwiches on ice are also available. One can always order from the spirits and wine lists and enjoy a sip of brandy and a slice of cake while taking in Tennyson Stephens and Rocky Holmes’ delightful jazz duo.

La Mariana:

No, I am not recommending La Mariana Sailing Club for the drinks — this write-up is a nod to the historical appeal and charm of a rundown but well-loved space. One of the last remaining kitschy tiki bars from the 1950′s, it can be an adventure just getting here.

Located way out on a harbor, you won’t be sure you’ve found it even when you’ve arrived at the right spot. Park on the street near the “sailing club” sign, then walk around to the right side of the building and enter through the back along the water. Tiki decor and thatched roofs abound in a multi-room layout with open air patio.

The day after the Japanese tsunami hit Hawaii’s shores, I sat here with a pina colada watching boat owners pull their damaged sailboats out of the water. Crusty, sun-scorched sailors sipped mai tais and beers around me, comparing damage done to their boats.

If you go, be sure to read the story of owner Annette Nahinu on the menu. She’s the sort of local character that will make you fall in love with Honolulu and its colorful international history.

Note: I tried to make it to a new Honolulu hotspot that local bartenders recommended, Apartment 3, but couldn’t make it there on a day when Kyle was bartending (Friday nights at the moment). I hear he’s a whiskey lover like myself, and I was sure he’d be another envelope-pushing bartender on this list.

–Subscribe to Virgina’s twice monthly newsletter, The Perfect Spot

 

Appetite: 3 reasons why SF Jewish food has arrived

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Head to the Mission where Wise Sons Deli takes over Jackie’s Café every Saturday. Rolling since January, the young guys behind this pop-up deli have a hit on their hands — lines form out the door for Evan Bloom and Leo Beckerman’s Jewish food with heart. The menu changes often, and they’re preparing a killer-sounding Passover menu next week to be enjoyed at Coffee Bar and for take-out.

The fact of the matter is, we don’t have enough Jewish food in this town. And these guys don’t just make Jewish nosh, they do it excellently. Case in point: I found that multiple menu items fell into my  must order category, rare enough at a restaurant, much less at a small pop-up with a limited menu.

We eagerly await the day they will have their own storefront. Until then, here are three items you’d do well to head to the Mission for from their delightful menu (given that you have a few spare moments on a Saturday, those lines can be killer!):

1. Bialy or bagel with smoked salmon

Whether the day’s menu is featuring a bagel or bialy (Polish kuchen similar to a bagel but baked, not boiled), be sure you snag one. For $8 (or $11 open-faced), bread is laden with house-smoked salmon, red onion, capers, and pickled veggies on the side. Homesick New Yorkers and bagel-lovers among us may have finally found a little something to assuage that bagel-shaped hole that appears whenever we’re away from NYC.

2. Babka

A sweet yeast cake with Eastern European roots, Wise Sons makes their babka sing with earthy swirls of Guittard dark chocolate weaving a pretty pattern through each slice. Whether you order this brioche-like bread by the slice ($3.50), half-loaf ($11), full loaf ($20), or as French toast with fluffy whipped cream ($6 for one; $9 for two), you know a craving has begun. Complicate things further with the chocolate caramel babka ($3.75), made with Clairesquares‘ divine caramel.

Da rueben. Photo by Virginia Miller

3. Pastrami or Corned Beef

Watch a massive side of beef being sliced on the sideboard and try not to order a plate. Or better yet, get a sandwich ($12) of either cut of beef on double-baked rye bread, or as a reuben ($13.50), the supreme queen of all beef sandwiches. Potato salad or coleslaw plus garlic dill pickles accompany, as do meaty dreams of home and all that is good in this world.

 

Wise Sons Deli

Every Saturday, 9 a.m.-2 p.m. 

Inside Jackie’s Café

105 Valencia Street

(415) 787-5534

www.wisesonsdeli.com 

 

–Subscribe to Virgina’s twice monthly newsletter, The Perfect Spot

 

Volume 45 Number 28 Flip-through Edition

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A long time ago, in a galaxy not far away

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arts@sfbg.com

SCI-FI DOCUMENTARY Recalling a simpler time — before mass commercialization and marketing took over the world of science fiction, pop culture, and fan conventions — local filmmaker Tom Wyrsch’s new documentary Back To Space-Con conveys the story of the home-grown, grassroots-fueled sci-fi conventions of the 1970s, told through interviews with the people behind the events, fans who were there, and rare footage shot on location here in the Bay Area more than 30 years ago.

Coming off the successes of his first two projects, 2008’s Watch Horror Films, Keep America Strong, which looked at the local TV phenomenon Creature Features and last year’s wildly popular Remembering Playland At The Beach, about the now-gone San Francisco beach-side amusement park, it wasn’t hard for Wyrsch to decide on what subject to tackle next.

Several years ago, the late Bob Wilkins, former host of Creature Features, had given Wyrsch a treasure trove of one-of-a-kind 16mm footage taken for his show at a series of Star Trek and sci-fi conventions, showing a great array of fans, their handmade costumes, and of course, the many special guests and celebrities who were on hand.

Wyrsch himself had attended some of these events, the larger ones called “Space-Con,” when he was growing up in the Bay Area. “At that time they were a brand new experience,” says Wyrsch. “To go to these conventions was just fabulous. And they definitely left a mark.”

With his fond memories in place and the opportunity to use Wilkins’ rare original footage, Wyrsch decided to interview the people who helped put on the shows, along with those who had attended the conventions as fans, all to help share the feeling of what it was like back then, which the film does very effectively.

“My approach to making documentaries is to really do two things: First, I want to take people back who actually experienced it. The other part is, I want to be able to take people there who never had a chance to go because they either weren’t in the area or they were too young,” says Wyrsch.

One of the great things about Back To Space-Con is seeing all the homespun costumes that fans wore — this was before the Star Trek movies started being made, and for some of the conventions included here, just before and at the beginning of the Star Wars (1977) phenomenon. There were virtually no official costumes or merchandise, and many of the people interviewed remark how wonderful it was to see such creativity and excitement in their fellow fans.

“[Space-Cons] were fan-based conventions that really did not have anything to do with the industry. They were the fans putting on shows for each other,” says Wyrsch. “In the film you can see how they are the grassroots movement of conventions that led to the ones we have today.”

Wyrsch is grateful to have been able to use so much original film footage, and he hopes viewers will appreciate how rare it is that material like this has survived all this time.

“What the younger generation doesn’t know was that it was very difficult and very expensive to go out in the field and do an interview or to film indoors because of lighting and the old cameras,” he explains. “With video and all the high-tech electronics and computers you can put in the camera [today], you don’t have to worry about that stuff anymore. But back then, it was tough, and with a lot of interviews they would go out and do them and then throw the film away because there was no use to it anymore and it took up a lot of storage space. Bob [Wilkins] kept this, and he kept part of history.”

Wyrsch will be on hand at a special Back to Space-Con premiere event at the Balboa Theater, along with former Chronicle writer and Creature Features host John Stanley, and Ernie Fosselius, the man behind the Star Wars spoof Hardware Wars (1978).

“I think people get to see the simplicity that was there in the seventies, it wasn’t so regimented like they are nowadays,” says Wyrsch. “And people love that.”

BACK TO SPACE-CON

Thurs/14, 7 p.m., $10

Balboa Theater

3630 Balboa, SF

(415) 221-8184

www.balboamovies.com

 

Flannelalia

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marke@sfbg.com

PLAID OBSESSION We live in a post-Etsy world, people, and the latest homemade, zero-kilometer focus is on small-batch clothing production. As usual, the Bay Area is taking a lead here, weaving its green intentions and entrepreneurial zeal into its free-spirited fashion sense and a strong garment manufacturing legacy — and producing stylish duds with enough professional veneer to take to the runway or just out for a beer.

The three sharp dudes from Pladra (www.pladra.com) — Scott Ellison, Ian Ernzer, and Jeff Ladra — add another Bay tradition to the mix: classically avid sportiness. “As passionate outdoorsmen, we have never found a flannel that we could wear both in the field and to the bar after getting blood on it,” they say, and so they set about combining their love of surfing, fly-fishing, camping, hunting, skateboarding, and nature photography with flawless design skills and vintage beauty. (It doesn’t hurt that a good plaid flannel is the one item that still unites many of our current style tribes.)

I admit I’m a flannel freak, and Pladra’s three current lines, including an awesome one for women, had me wiping drool off my keyboard. But I wanted a glimpse into the new local-production trend, too, and the Pladra boys happily provided, answering my questions over e-mail.

SFBG Pladra is all about plaid flannel — how’d you come to focus on that? Will you be expanding? 

PLADRA I think it’s safe to say we’ve all had a few go-to flannels throughout our lives. You know, the one you camp in, then come home and go straight to a bar or concert in, then wear to work the next day — each stain is a story and a memory. In terms of our growth, we’d love to let everything grow at its own pace, although we definitely have some ideas. For now, we’re keeping production small and tight. We wanted to start with plaid flannel shirts because they’re timeless and represent an iconic outdoor style we feel really connects to life in the Bay Area. It’s funny that people peg flannels as a trend, but even the gold miners wore flannel. Jeff grew up here, and his grandparents spent their whole lives building and racing motorcycles. He still has photos of them wearing flannels.

SFBG Right now you’re foregoing retail outlets and selling direct from your website. I’m assuming that’s to keep costs down, yes? Has this been a problem in regard to getting your product in front of people?

PLADRA That’s true, we’re selling direct through our website to maintain the lowest price possible. Our goal is not to turn a profit, but to make the best garment possible at the most reasonable price — and our price range is $89–$109. Truth be told, this is what it costs to have a quality, American-made, custom shirt. We’ve found that people who initially scoff at our prices backpedal when they find out what goes into making something in the USA. Americans are so accustomed to paying for cheap garments that are imported mostly from Asia. We’re not condemning that, the truth is that a lot of production out of Asia has great quality. But at a certain point, we need to step back and consider the ramifications that one of the USA’s largest imports is apparel. Many U.S. cities used be the home to some of the best and biggest fabric mills in the world. Now what? All the mills are overseas. Very few companies can afford to use fabric milled in the USA. Even denim companies have to use reclaimed fabric.

The direct selling approach certainly makes it difficult to reach a wide range of people off the bat. But we do want to offer reasonable pricing to our customers. We want to focus on the brand integrity and we don’t want to dilute our product and blast it everywhere right away. We are taking a slow and careful approach in our growth.

SFBG What were the specific challenges of designing and producing everything in San Francisco? 

PLADRA It was really important to us to keep things local and support local businesses. But limiting our geographic range also meant limiting our accessibility to materials that would maintain our desired quality while not forcing our prices to skyrocket. That meant we had to challenge ourselves to search harder for vendors that could deliver great materials and finishing — and we ended up partnering with some incredible ones who went above and beyond to support our vision.

SFBG Pladra isn’t just all about hunting and designing. What are some of your favorite shops and bars in SF? 

PLADRA Shopping-wise, we really like Union Made in the Castro. Our friends at Park Life in the Inner Richmond and the General Store in the Outer Sunset offer amazing home-produced goods. And the Aqua and Mollusk surf shops have always been amazing at supporting their communities. As for going out, we could happily spend the rest of our lives drinking our way through the menus at Toronado and Alembic. And we just scored one of our favorite clubs, 111 Minna, to host our official launch party. See you there? *

PLADRA LAUNCH PARTY Tues/26, 5 p.m.–9 p.m., free. 111 Minna, SF. www.111minnagallery.com

 

Out of the shadows

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arts@sfbg.com

MUSIC The Cults out of the bag.

The initial mystery surrounding the Brooklyn band of two has been solved, as rumors turned into a year of lengthy articles, photographs, and live performances, all soothing the flea-ridden hype. The official promise of a debut full-length this summer is sure to stimulate some additional excitement, but once again the information age has won and indie snoops are left with a furry clump of truth.

“There’s no real story behind us. We’re just real people,” explains Brian Oblivion, the male half of Cults. While it may seem like some rock stars are hiding wizard or robot identities, believe it or not, all musicians are indeed “just real people.” Oblivion attempts to elaborate on this idea, but he and girlfriend Madeline Follin, the female half of the band, are riding in a tour van through some sketchy airwaves. His voice keeps transforming into robotic and scratchy sounds, which makes his theory slightly suspicious.

But no — the Cults are neither lizard-people nor alien-forms. They’re not angry cult leaders or brainwashed followers for that matter. The Internet has explained it all and the facts are clearly posted: Oblivion and Follin are both 22, from San Diego, and going to film school in New York City.

Follin grew up swaddled in punk music, and Oblivion always had a thing for surf-rock, but when the two of them began their courtship, a musical agreement had to commence. Soul, ’50s pop, and ’60s girl-groups like Lesley Gore and the Shangri-Las became a pleasant middle ground. When the lovers began to play music together, their inspiration was a direct pipeline to these performers; musicians who could make lemons into limoncello and drape a lacy haze over any foggy day.

“There’s something so tough about ’50s pop music,” says Oblivion. He respects the genre’s mold-breaking ideas, from its social connotations and ability to blur race barriers to its physical elements, like new echo effects and guitar tones. “There’s lots of spirit in that music that gets written off as retro when new acts try to perform it. But there’s a sentiment in it that we like. It’s moving. There’s something special there.”

Music by Cults makes daisies grow and serious cares seem like spoonfuls of acid-laced sugar. Everything is sublime beneath Follin’s gorgeous bell-like vocals, even when she sings about naughty behaviors, crying, and shit relationships. And they’re not the only young band that has begun harnessing the Motown stallion. Best Coast is the most direct example, but groups like Warpaint and Dom have also turned rock back a few pages, spawning a fresh generation of ears ready to challenge the music industry’s current corporate-pop bill.

“Madeline has a theory about [the ’50s and ’60s pop revival],” Oblivion says. “We’re just old enough now to appreciate it. Our parents grew up listening to it because it was our grandparents’ style. But we’re the ones going back and rediscovering. Our parents are still into their ’80s Rolling Stones records. Our generation is excited because we’re digging in Dumpsters and finding these old records — and we’re finding this music without having it shoved in our faces.”

Like treasure chests buried beneath a sea of Rihannas, American Idols, and decades of rock, the serenades of brass instruments, cheery bass lines, hollow voices, and forlorn lyrics are bubbling up to the surface. It’s discovery and reacquainted love. Aging 40 years or more, these albums may be dusty and scratched, their performers long absent from daily gossip rags, yet there’s still some element of mystery that has regrown from the ashes of the era. That mystery makes for good hype, but as Cults have learned, you’ve got to come out of the shadows to make solid impressions.

“It’s fun to play live and interact with audiences. Live [music] is so important — it’s the only way to make money, and right now shows are doing awesome,” Oblivion says with his crackly, phone-impaired voice, noting his admiration for indie bands that are selling out large venues. He’s calling it a revolution.

“People want to have an experience, something to hold onto. They’re tired of the MP3s that move around through the air, because it’s just not the same as being at a show and feeling the music come out of the speakers. It’s immaterial. You walk away with a feeling.”

That feeling is the revolution.

CULTS

With Magic Kids, White Arrows

Thurs./14, 8 p.m.; $13

The Independent

628 Divisadero, SF

(415) 771-1421

www.theindependentsf.com

 

Hear me howling!

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MUSIC Last November, with little fanfare, homegrown roots music empire Arhoolie Records turned 50, an almost unbelievable milestone for a niche music label dedicated to the lasting preservation of regional music in an increasingly disposable MP3 world.

It wasn’t until this February that Arhoolie even scheduled a celebration, the proceeds of which went to fund the Arhoolie Foundation, the 16-year-old nonprofit dedicated to making a digital archive of founder Chris Strachwitz’s vast miscellany of Mexican and Mexican American recordings — the Frontera Collection — widely considered to be the largest of its kind on both sides of the border. Conceived as a research resource and historical documentation of the recordings, the digitized files are stored and accessible at the Chicano Studies Research Center library at UCLA (www.chicano.ucla.edu). The physical collection of approximately 46,000 units, housed in a climate-controlled basement in El Cerrito, stands as a fragile yet monumental testament to the mostly under-recognized talents of literally thousands of music-makers.

Strachwitz himself, a seemingly boundless wellspring of enthusiasm at 79, slowed only by a recalcitrant hip (recently replaced), attributes the label’s longevity in part to his own stubborn “fanaticism” for music, a trait shared by his small yet dedicated staff. From Strachwitz’s well-documented obsession with tracking down Lightnin’ Hopkins to record him in 1959, to his increasingly far-flung forays into the backwoods and swamps of the musically-diverse South, his emphasis has been on excavating the genuine, the raw, and the regionally significant. The diversity of music that Arhoolie publishes and records ranges in style from dirty blues to folk ballads, Cajun zydeco to conjunto. The tie that binds them isn’t genre, but emotional content.

“They are all very down to earth, totally alive and vibrant, from people who have mostly had a rough life,” Strachwitz explains. Perhaps best known for their bang-for-your-buck compilations assembled by region or genre: 15 Early Tejano Classics, Angola Prisoner’s Blues, Masters of the Folk Violin, Arhoolie has also released a number of seminal single-artist albums. Bogalusa Boogie by recent Grammy Hall of Fame inductee Clifton Chenier, Flaco Jiménez’s 1986 Grammy-winning ranchera album Ay Te Dejo en San Antonio, and the Pine Leaf Boys’ 2007 Grammy-nominated Cajun dance album Blues de Musicien exemplify Arhoolie’s commitment to unadorned authenticity.

Though it’s been a few years since Arhoolie recorded any new material, there’s a stockpile of one-of-a-kind field recordings patiently awaiting release. A recent addition to the Arhoolie canon is 2010’s Hear Me Howling, a four-CD collection housed in the handsome confines of a hardcover scrapbook. This 72-track compilation of raw material, gleaned from a series of Bay Area recording sessions from 1954-71, captures the essence of the music as well as the musicians in the moment: a humorous reference about Strachwitz’s “new recording machine,” improvised by skiffle group The Skid Band; a soft-spoken call for requests by bluesman Mance Lipscomb; a brief but earnest sermon delivered by the Rev. Louis Overstreet before he launches into an anthem on his electric guitar.

On several of Hear Me Howling‘s tracks, you can hear Strachwitz’s distinctive laugh carrying above the responsive noises of the audience. The intimacy of these mostly home recordings brings the circumstances they were recorded in to life in a way that no studio polish can mimic. Each is an aural document of a precise place and time.

Aural documents are what head Frontera Collection archivist (and trombonist for radical ska-punk ensemble La Plebe) Antonio Cuellar specializes in. His Sisyphean task is to scan and digitize a copy of every album — he’s been working for nine years, focusing primarily on the 78s and 45s that make up the bulk of the collection. After listening to a recording, Cuellar compiles a list of keywords to append to the digital file. Recurring themes and keywords such as “patriotism” (four hits), “praise of beauty” (3,590 hits), “executions” (32), and “trabajo de emigrante” (277) are entered into the digital database, along with a high-quality scan of the physical vinyl, and notes on the artists (Hermanas Segovia, Narciso Martínez, Orquesta La Campaña) and style of music (conjunto, ranchera, bolero, vals bajito, and Latino rock and soul).

“Often the only information left about a recording is on the label,” explains Cuellar, who extracts what he can from each. But besides collecting discards from jukebox joints, radio stations, and major label back-stock, Strachwitz acquired several now-defunct labels lock, stock, and-barrel, including Falcón and Ideal. This has allowed him to expand on the information he archives, noting, for example, what a particular recording artist was paid ($10 and a six-pack) or who was in the backing band. It’s painstaking, “sometimes tedious” work, but Cuellar, who may be the only person besides Strachwitz to have listened to so much of the collection, has a clear sense of its historical importance.

“Probably 99.9 percent of these artists are unknown,” Cuellar points out. “If I do a search for them online, it directs me back to Arhoolie, to the information that we have here … [Whereas] I can go and search for information about the most obscure blues guy, and he’s going to have something written about him.”

“It was Guillermo Hernandez [the late former director of UCLA’s Chicano Studies Research Center] who made me aware that this music was really the literature of the campesinos,” Strachwitz muses. “When he discovered I had all these damn old records, he became totally intrigued. Because nobody at that time seemed to know they had such a long history.” “It definitely influences me,” notes Cuellar, who was born in Mexico. “It’s helped open my eyes to my own history.”

Transylvania twist

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arts@sfbg.com

FILM For many devoted fans of horror films who grew up in the 1980s — especially those who were monster kids in spirit or became one in the ensuing years — the 1987 movie The Monster Squad has a special, firmly staked place in their hearts.

Paying tribute to the icons of the classic Universal monster pantheon while weaving a modern storyline into the mix, writer and director Fred Dekker created a now-cult favorite, a film that is scary and funny, entertaining and touching all at the same time.

Dekker, who was born in San Francisco and grew up in Marin County, will appear for a post-screening Q&A after The Monster Squad unspools at the Castro Theatre, part of Midnites for Maniacs’ “Heavy Metal Monster Mash” (the rest of the mash: 1981’s Heavy Metal, 1984’s This is Spinal Tap, 1986’s Trick or Treat, and 1984’s Monster Dog).

“I loved the Universal monster movies and would stay up on Saturday nights and watch those on TV, but I also loved The Little Rascals and Our Gang and Abbott and Costello,” Dekker says. “The Monster Squad came out of my idea to kind of do a new take on Our Gang — kids with a club who all have their own lives apart from their parents and grown-ups — [mixed] with the Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) approach, where they meet the classic Universal monsters. That was the genesis of it in a nutshell.”

Although the film has finally gotten some of the recognition it deserves over the past several years, culminating in a two-disc 20th anniversary edition DVD release, along with several tributes and live events around the country, it was not considered a success at the box office when initially released.

“It was a little depressing for me because I had worked so hard on it and I felt like I hadn’t connected, but I’m happy that we made the movie that we wanted to make,” the director says. “We made a very peculiar kind of movie. We made it for ourselves, and a lot of the choices that seem a little politically incorrect now actually make the movie, I think, hold up better because we were true to the characters and our experience as kids. I think that people respond to that, the verisimilitude of it.”

In addition to the bold, creative reimagining of the monsters and their design and characteristics, Dekker added another layer of depth to the story with the character referred to as “Scary German Guy.” Viewers discover he’s a survivor of a Nazi concentration camp when he tells the kids that he has dealt with “monsters” before, and the camera zooms in on his camp tattoo.

“I believe that genre stuff only really works if it’s got some foot in reality that an audience can relate to,” Dekker explains. “I think you have to imagine that the world you’re seeing in the movie is the world you live in. It makes those fantastical elements more believable.”

Dekker didn’t realize that The Monster Squad had become such a beloved part of so many people’s lives until a few years ago, when he was invited to a tribute event in Austin. These days, he enjoys attending screenings and events, and is looking forward to answering questions from local fans on Saturday.

“I found that the movie had this enormous following from the people who had grown up with it and taken it to heart because they saw themselves in it,” he says. “It’s been really gratifying in a weird way, because it did find its audience — it just took 20 years.” 

MIDNITES FOR MANIACS: HEAVY METAL MONSTER MASH

Sat/16, 2:30 p.m. (Monster Squad, 4:45 p.m.)

$13 for all five films

Castro Theatre

429 Castro, SF

(415) 621-6120

www.castrotheatre.com

Breaking point

0

arts@sfbg.com

FILM When erstwhile Hitchcock (1948’s Rope, 1951’s Strangers on a Train) protagonist Farley Granger died last month, obituaries kindly forgot that hitherto he’d been judged as a limited-range pretty boy luckily cast in a few iconic films.

Beauty alone certainly can get you pretty far in Hollywood, now as then. But Granger’s big-lashed, puppy-eyed, dark-haired hunk had charms not strictly visual, notably a mile-wide vulnerability streak poignant in classic noir films like 1949’s They Live By Night and 1950’s Edge of Doom. He wasn’t that impressive an actor, or even an imposing personality like many golden age stars. But he communicated an attractive, soulful decency.

Similarly positioned is Keanu Reeves, who has managed a longer mainstream Hollywood ride while seldom escaping the perception that he hugely lucked out. He’s one of those actors spectacularly franchise-wealthy — due to those Matrix movies wherein his usual baffled solemnity was ideal — yet whom the public otherwise feels scant evident loyalty toward, and producers don’t know what to do with. Now that he’s aging out of his looks, can he transform into a character actor à la the similarly problematic Kevin Costner?

Maybe. Reeves played charming suitors in Something’s Gotta Give (2003) and The Private Lives of Pippa Lee (2009), both very much supporting roles. He seems increasingly interested in indie films, which he surely doesn’t need to pay the rent. They generally suit him more than the myriad large-scale fantasy, action, or romantic vehicles that followed The Matrix (1999) and Speed (1994).

He’s certainly the best reason to see Henry’s Crime, a pleasant, middling, retro crime caper costarring frequently better actors at dimmer wattage than usual. Although uneven, Reeves still offers a turn equal to (if quite different from) his personal bests: as the second half of a stoner-goofball team in the Bill and Ted movies, and as Siddhartha in the good parts of Bertolucci’s silly Little Buddha (1993), which fully tapped a nirvanic tranquility behind his screen passivity.

Henry’s Crime is an old hat out of the Damon Runyon trunk, in which lovable crooks mix it up with hoity theatrical types and nobody gets hurt except (barely) the really bad guys. James Caan — who starred in similar enterprises during their post-The Sting heyday, particularly 1976’s excessively dissed Harry and Walter Go To New York — plays the veteran convict-conman who schools Reeves’ hapless Buffalo, N.Y., toll-taker Henry after our hero is slammer-thrown for an armed robbery he didn’t know he was embroiled in until it was over.

Upon release, Henry discovers the targeted bank and nearby theater had a Prohibition-era secret tunnel between them. Having already done the time, he figures he might as well do the crime by finishing the aborted bank job for real. He enlists local stage diva Julie (Vera Farmiga) as well as Caan’s parole-coaxed Max. Resulting wacky hijinks render Max a theater “volunteer” and Henry as Julie’s Cherry Orchard costar, all so they can access the walled-up passageway to the bank vault.

Much of this is ridiculous, of course, and not intentionally so. We can’t believe Henry/Reeves is a stage “natural,” for Chekhov or anything else (despite Mr. Ted having played Hamlet in 1995 Winnipeg). Caan and a solid support cast hit predictable notes; romantic interest Farmiga is atypically shallow in her admittedly stereotypical role. Yet her superior thespian chops seem to stir something in Reeves, who remains wooden at times but also flags a relaxed sweetness in their scenes and elsewhere. The climax is classic movies-getting-how-theater-works-wrong. But its contrivance functions to some extent because the lead actor convinces us it should.

Reeves is getting a tad jowly now, physique likewise surrendering to gravity. This could be great for him: he’s made his money already, maybe he can now surrender to being something more-less-other than a box-office behemoth. Costner managed it with The Upside of Anger (2005) and The Company Men (2010), while still playing the occasional lead (albeit in flops). The critical success he’s had as middle-aged losers after a run of critically disclaimed variably-superheroes could be Ted-slash-Neo’s own, if he’s willing to surrender glamour that much. He’d hardly be the first huge movie star to finally get some respect thataway. But he might be the (still) cutest.

 

HENRY’S CRIME opens Fri/15 in Bay Area theaters.

A Beirut festival

0

paulr@sfbg.com

DINE Mazzat used to be a deli, and some of the badges and incidents of deli-hood remain — mostly the glass cases, full of delectables, that run deep into the restaurant like a half-wall. The neighborhood setting is unusual. The old Central Freeway used to run almost directly overhead as a kind of hellish roof of concrete, but it’s gone now, leaving — across the street — a large gap with an improvised garden: an open wound that’s slowly healing. The setting reminds me of Prenzlauer Berg, an area of what was once East Berlin, with weedy emptiness and the memory of damage just steps away from gleaming renewal.

Mazzat (which opened in December in the old Apollo Market & Deli space) does gleam. With its rather formal look — of polished dark wood and taupe paint, inverted tulip lamps, white linen tablecloths, and a handsome wooden wine rack at the rear of the narrow dining room — it belongs in spirit to the renewed heart of Hayes Valley rather than to the whitewater river of traffic surging along Fell Street past the restaurant’s front door. It also implies much higher prices than those you actually find, with the majority of items — the menu is Lebanese — under $10, and in many cases well under $10. You can enjoy a brilliant feast at Mazzat and still find yourself looking at surprisingly reasonable number at the end.

The menu includes quite a few choices you would expect to find throughout the eastern Mediterranean, including dolma, tabbouleh, and baba ghanoush. The hummus ($5), served in a slanted oval bowl, was wonderful, with its potentially overbearing constituents, including garlic, lemon, and tahini (which can be quite bitter) held in a proper balance. On the side came warm pita triangles in a bottomless basket. Even better was the yogurt-cucumber dish known in Greece as tzatziki ($5); it tasted as if it had been made with whole-milk yogurt, which has a velvety quality its more gelatinous low-fat cousins can’t match.

The Lebanese salad fattoush ($8) is something of an analog to the Italian bread salad panzanella, in that each is a way of making use of stale bread. In fattoush, the bread is pita, and at Mazzat, the toasted pita chunks were tossed with shreds of romaine, chopped red pepper, and bits of cucumber. It was as if a panzanella had collided with a caesar salad and the result given a tangy-sweet dressing.

Also slightly sweet were the meat pies ($6 for four), pastry rosettes filled with chopped beef that had been simmered with onion and tomato. I would have liked the filling a little better if it had been a bit less sweet and more savory (onion has surprising sweetening power, almost like carrot, when cooked enough), but it was easy to balance the sweetness with a hit of tzatziki.

On the savory-verging-on-salty part of the spectrum, there is the halloumi cheese ($4), presented as a quartet of fried chips with a slight softness and rubberiness inside. Halloumi is a Cypriot cheese, typically made with blend of cow and sheep milk, and this halloumi did indeed seem like a well-trained feta, with some of the pungency and saltiness nicely muted by the cow milk. If you like saganaki (the Greek cheese that gets doused with brandy and set on fire tableside) and can live with less theatrics, you’ll like the halloumi.

There was a divergence of views on the chicken shawerma wrap ($8), a burrito-sized cylinder of lavash stuffed with chicken that smelled and tasted of clove. The party of the second part didn’t care for the clove, and I understood the objection — clove has a strong personality — without joining it. The discordant association, for me, had to do with Christmas, since clove, with its penetrating perfume, is a key ingredient of mulled cider, a holiday favorite. On the other hand, the presence of clove meant that the wrap (with its flatbread skin nicely pressed and warm like a freshly ironed shirt) would never be mistaken for a burrito.

The desserts were of a proportion I would call ideal. They were bigger than petits fours, but several degrees of magnitude smaller than what you usually find at restaurants — and pay $9 or $10 for now. Nammura ($2.50), a kind of semolina cake that looked like a rectangle of corn bread, was nicely moist and just sweet enough to qualify as a dessert, although it did look lonely and naked on its plate. Almost anything would have helped: a scattering of berries, a sifting of powdered sugar, a splash of liqueur — maybe some arak, the Lebanese answer to pastis? More complete was the baklava ($3), intense with honey and fresh chopped pistachio, which also lent a lovely sheen of pale green, a hint of spring inside Mazzat as in the garden across the way.

MAZZAT

Mon.–Thurs., 4–10 p.m. Fri.–Sun., 11 a.m.–10 p.m.

501 Fell, SF

(415) 525-3901

www.mazzatsf.com

Wine and beer

DS/MC/V

Not noisy

Wheelchair accessible

 

Infrequent flyer

0

le.chicken.farmer@gmail.com

CHEAP EATS My flight was cancelled so I did my taxes. I tried to do my taxes. What I did, I wrote to Coach and said, “Let’s play catch. My flight was cancelled.” She was at work.

I went to get my nails done. After, I saw Sockywonk sitting on the step of her soap store, so I sat down next to her.

“I’m sorry I’m a bad friend sometimes,” I said. “Here.” And I handed her a small bag I’d been carrying around. Inside: the sexy nightie she lent me to go roller skating in last fall.

It was decided that I wasn’t a bad friend.

I went in the store and bought two tubes of Chapstick and deodorant. Then it was time to throw the football with Coach, but something had come up, for her, so I went home and unpacked my suitcase, then repacked it, only with Chapstick. The deodorant, I decided, smelled worse than me, so I filed it in my medicine cabinet.

Can I tell you how hungry I was? And I had eaten my refrigerator the evening before, in anticipation of two weeks away. Coach was in Dolores Park with cookies and crazy people, and kept texting me to say be patient, we would throw, we would eat. “Wait for it. Wait for it,” she said.

I have blood sugar issues, everyone knows. One thing, it gets harder for me to make decisions, the farther away I get from my last meal. So when, having waited for it, my time came, I was not as prepared as I should have been. I was, in fact, unprepared.

In other words, I needed Coach to step up, and, being Coach, she did! With flair and brilliance. She grabbed the first rubber-band-stuck paper flyer menu from the first gate we saw and said, before even looking at it: “Let’s go here.”

So we did. We walked to Market and 15th streets, to Bombay. The menu had a picture of an elephant parading a banner between its trunk and tail: “Best Indian Food in the Castro!”

I don’t know about that. I had eaten there once before but didn’t have much to say. I think they dogged me on the spice factor. This time I ordered better, in part because I was with a goddamn vegetarian, which shows to go you. So instead of ordering chicken tikka masala or something predictable, I got chana palak, which is spinach and garbanzo beans (two things I love) and, in honor of the sad fact that I wasn’t in New Orleans, a bunch of fried stuff. Pakoras, samosas …

All of which were just dandy, drenched in the tabletop hot sauce and green stuff. But what stole the show for me was my own personal li’l bowl of chicken and lemon soup that I tacked on by way of having some meat in my day, and therefore not going completely crazy.

This soup, it was fantastic! It was spicy, creamy, and wonderful, and it was called mulligatawny — which in itself is cause for celebration.

I was all set to love the best Indian food in the Castro this time around, except that something happened to ruin everything. And it wasn’t that we were fighting, which we were, kind of. I forget why. I remember I showed Coach my fingernails, how shortly manicured they were. She wants to help me be a better lesbian, see, as surely as I want to help her be a better outside linebacker. “Trim your fingernails,” she’s always telling me. “Lesbians don’t like long fingernails.”

I think I understand why, but then (not that I ever said this out loud, or ever would, it’s such a fucked-up thing to say:) most lesbians don’t have as many fingers as I do. Ba-dum-bum …

Um, but that wasn’t it, either.

The paper menu had a coupon for one free entrée, but we tripped up so much over the fine print ($25 minimum, one coupon per table, dine-in only and between 5 and 10:30 p.m.) that we neglected to consider the bigger print, the point: that to get one free entrée (of lesser value, not to exceed $8), you had to of course order two entrees. They dazzle you with so much fine print you miss the point. Tricky, innit? 

BOMBAY

Daily: Lunch 11:30 a.m.–2:30 p.m.;

Dinner 5–10:30 p.m.

2217 Market, SF

(415) 861-6655

AE/D/MC/V

Beer and wine

 

New school

1

CAREERS AND ED You don’t need a degree, or even the patience to sift through US Census Bureau reports on educational attainment, to know that each year this nation graduates more students from institutions of higher ed — public and private universities, colleges, junior colleges, and professional schools — than it did the year before. San Francisco is second only to Seattle in the number of papered persons running around, and statistics say that they, in turn, are more likely to raise little educational overachievers of their own. With this glut of matriculation on the horizon, it’s hard not to ponder the degree programs of the future: an associate’s in astrotourism? A bachelor’s of biosynthetic anatomy? A PhD of P4TA? (That’s “preparing for the apocalypse” for the cyber-stupid.) Hard to say. But before we get carried away, here’s a sampling of programs fit for a brave new world that can be found in the here and now.

 

SOLAR PHOTOVOLTAIC DESIGN AND INSTALLATION

California South Bay University sits smack-dab in the center of Silicon Valley, so it’s no surprise that the offerings are high-tech. The larger California zeitgeist seems to be rolling in on the San Francisco fog, though, and interesting patterns — like a master’s of science in green energy technology — have emerged. But the university really takes advantage of the Santa Clara Valley sunshine (and billowing demand for sustainable energy) with its Interstate Renewable Energy Council-accredited certificate program in solar photovoltaics, the science of connecting the two. If a full-fledged degree isn’t in your forecast, the school offers two 40-hour courses that might be a perfect fit.

California South Bay University, 1107 North Fair Oaks, Sunnyvale. (408) 400-9008, www.csbu.us

 

INTERACTION DESIGN

Degrees in video-game design and Web programming are old hat, but California College of the Arts takes the idea of the user interface beyond the screen, and plugs it back into real life. The school’s focus on design that users can interact with includes classes on platforms from cell phone to sculpture, game console to gallery, preparing students to “create meaningful and innovative designed experiences in the realms of work, lifestyle, and play.” Vague? Yes. Useful? Possibly. That three-dimensional holographic surround-sound computer interface that Tom Cruise uses in Minority Report? Get your virtual-reality gloves out ’cause it’s on its way …

California College of the Arts, 1111 Eighth St., SF. 1-800-477-1278, www.cca.edu

 

LANDSCAPE HORTICULTURE

Horticulture goes high-tech at Merritt College. The school claims to have all the most up-to-date equipment in the field, and with 5,000 square feet of computerized greenhouses, a 5,000-square-foot lath house, a floral and drafting lab, and disciplines such as “turf management,” we doubt anyone would argue. And to think, we were still relying on dirt, sun, and water to do our growing.

Merritt College, 12500 Campus Drive, Oakl. (510) 531-4911, www.merritt.edu

 

BOOK ART AND CREATIVE WRITING

This master’s program allows students to develop as writers and visual artists simultaneously, and encourages a “deep exploration of the book form in both content and materiality.” The interplay of form and content is not a new academic trope, but given that physical codices may soon be obsolete, taking a moment to ponder the book as object might not be a bad idea — lest future generations wonder why we wrote all over our toilet paper. Literary artifacts? Worth checking out!

Mills College, 5000 MacArthur Blvd., Oakl. (510) 430-2255, www.mills.edu

 

GREEN AND SUSTAINABLE TRAVEL

Tourists looking for a tequila sunrise and a tan may not realize that the pool they’re baking beside used to be a jungle. Each year, sensitive wildlife areas the world over are steamrolled under hotel strips. At the same time, environmentally-conscious tourism has become a booming industry. Given the facts, a student could do worse than this City College Business School program. The quickie certificate takes just a year — not a bad thing, considering ecotourism’s popularity and the rapidly decreasing availability of stuff left to tour.

City College of San Francisco, Ocean Campus, 50 Phelan, SF. (415) 239-300, www.ccsf.edu

 

HIV/STI PREVENTION

With a focus on risk reduction counseling, data collection, and outreach strategies, this one-year certificate in HIV/STI prevention studies from City College’s health education department just seems like a really good plan to bring a brighter future to all.

City College of San Francisco, Ocean Campus, 50 Phelan, SF. (415) 239-3000, www.ccsf.edu

 

FOLKLORE

Preparing for the future is all about remembering the past … or so might say a folklorist with a master’s or doctorate from UC Berkeley. An interdisciplinary degree from the department of anthropology, folkloristics (that’s the term) provide a new spin on the studies of ethnicity, nationality, gender, and sexuality, as well as the chance to revive vernacular tales, customs, beliefs, and plain ol’ stories from days gone by.

UC Berkeley, 318 Sproul Hall No. 5900, Berk. (510) 642-7405, www.berkeley.edu

 

RAZA STUDIES

That “melting pot” we all learned about in grade school is on the boil — bubbling with a range of issues both sweet and spicy, and some we haven’t even tasted yet. As our country continues to diversify, equity, social justice, and community empowerment will only become more important. San Francisco State University’s B.A. in raza studies seeks to offer future leaders the knowledge, skills, and social consciousness necessary to navigate an increasingly complex social landscape.

San Francisco State University, 1600 Holloway Ave., SF. (415) 338-1111, www.sfsu.edu

 

TAXATION

If everything else on this list is just a bit too futuristic and far out, Golden Gate University offers one of the country’s oldest and best-respected graduate programs in taxation. Looking for the ultimate in job security? This is your best bet since the San Francisco College of Mortuary Sciences closed in 2002. Death … and taxes. Golden Gate University School of Taxation, 536 Mission, SF. (415) 442-7880, www.ggu.edu

Heady

0

culture@sfbg.com

CAREERS AND ED “Just to let you know, this class is different than other yoga classes,” warns the receptionist at the San Francisco Integral Yoga Institute. It’s Monday night and I’ve just shown up at the institute to try my first restorative yoga class. “You roll around on pillows …” he continues.

I get it — restorative yoga is not your typical barrage of sun salutations and yogic pretzel bends — so I nod reassuringly and head up the flights of stairs to the top floor of the institute’s Victorian-style mansion-cum-yoga-palace, emerging in the dark, candle-lit room where the class will be held. There are high wood ceilings and plenty of space on the carpeted floor, where a pile of pillows wait for each student.

Our instructor will be Divya Nanda, a guest teacher who has been affiliated with the institute for more than 40 years. Wearing silky orange garments from head to toe, she radiates a calming, peaceful presence.

Here we go. Let’s just get it out there. I’m not a yoga person. If I happen to take a break from Internet-beer time long enough to exercise, I prefer to do it alone with my iPod rather than in a room full of strangers.

But I’m a stressed-out soul, generally speaking, and restorative yoga’s smooth, centering movements sound appealing. This form of yoga is geared toward relaxation and uses slow-moving techniques to give students a sense of peacefulness, spiritual fulfillment, and mind-body connection — all things yours truly is 100 percent lacking. Most yoga studios in the city offer some form of restorative class, which can be perfect for those suffering from injuries or just in need of a little slow-paced nurturing.

“Restorative yoga is based in the philosophy of the whole yoga practice, which is to be peaceful,” Nanda says. “Peace is within you, so we go within.”

Within we go, starting with “oms,” “hari oms,” and simple warm-ups — downward dog pose interspersed with concentrated breathing exercises and stretches. All the while, Nanda circulates throughout the room, adjusting our positions and making sure that we’re completely relaxed and comfortable.

During one warm-up that involved sitting with our knees tucked under us, Nanda looked over at me and said, “Hannah, you might want to do this one in the cross-legged position, I don’t want you to hurt your ankles.” I was shocked. How did she know my ankles were aching — x-ray yogi vision?

After the deep breathing, we move on to poses that entailed lying in super-comfortable, unconventional asanas. They make me feel like a sleepy baby. Designed to place minimal pressure on joints, they include splaying out our legs and arms, every part of our bodies supported by soft pillows.

Along the way, Nanda shares soothing thoughts: “The future is a mystery. The past is history. What we have is now, the golden present.” “Beyond the thinking mind there is a great peacefulness,” and so on. We end the class with guided meditation and this Sanskrit chant: “From the unreal to the real, from the darkness to the light, from our fears to the knowledge of our immortal natures.”

Leaving Nanda’s world was bittersweet: I’m sad to go, realizing I’ve never given myself a sanctioned stretch of time to nurture my reflective side. But emerging from the institute, walking back out into the gentle buzz of Dolores Street, I feel so centered that I can almost hear my body whispering to me. Was that an “om shanti,” relaxed core of mine? I can’t be sure — but I know it won’t be my last time in restorative yoga. Below, a brief list of ways to learn to nurture yourself in the Bay.

Restorative yoga

Mondays 7:30 p.m. –9 p.m., $9 for first class, $12 for subsequent classes, Integral Yoga Institute, 770 Dolores, SF. www.integralyogasf.org

 

INTERPRETING DREAMS WITH HORARY ASTROLOGY

You may not have heard of the San Francisco Astrological Society, but as far as Bay Area star sign enthusiasts are concerned, it’s a big deal. This year it will be hosting astrology-focused lectures on topics like “The Cycle of Saturn,” “2012 and Beyond.” If you’re interested in what your dreams can tell you about the future, you’ll have to check out this upcoming talk. It promises to teach about the basic techniques needed to unlock your dreams for clues on what’s to come using ancient Greek dream interpretation methods and horary astrology, a sect of astrology based on creating a horoscope for the exact moment in which a question is asked.

May 26, 7:30 p.m., $7 for members, $12 for nonmembers. Building C, Fort Mason Center, SF., www.sfastrologicalsociety.com

 

SENSUAL TOUCH AND DEEPER CONNECTION (IN AND OUT OF THE BEDROOM)

If you’re not big on touching people, then this class is probably not for you — although it might have the power to change your mind on the subject. This one-time workshop with somatic therapist and intimacy coach Shara Ogin teaches you how to take physical contact to the next level. From intimacy to sex to sensual massage, Ogin plans to show students how to make each experience more intimate and cosmically close.

April 19, 6–8 p.m., $40/pair advance, $45 at door. Good Vibrations, 1620 Polk, SF. www.goodvibes.com

 

EVOLVING WESTERN HERBAL TRADITIONS

Medical herbalist, new age crusader, and self-proclaimed member of the herbal renaissance, David Hoffman teaches this class focusing on the history of herbalism in the United States and the world. The workshop ranges from discussions about herbs in science and medicine to ways herbs are used in the our country and the changing role of botanical medicine in a modern global context. Rolling papers not included.

Aug. 23, 10 a.m.–5 p.m., $100. Charlotte Maxwell Complimentary Clinic, 2601 Mission, SF. www.ohlonecenter.org

 

Behind the panel

2

caitlin@sfbg.com

CAREERS AND ED Graphic novelist Gene Yang has a theory about how the comic industry came to be home to more Asian American artists than probably any other North American media form. “American comics have always been an outsider’s medium,” he wrote in a recent e-mail correspondence with the Guardian. “Most of the American comic book icons — Superman, Batman, the Hulk, Captain America — were created by poor Jewish boys living in the ghettos of New York. All you needed was a pencil, some paper, and a tiny bit of talent. Asian Americans took advantage of the same dynamic.”

Suppositions aside, Yang’s point is this: these days, Asian Americans are at the top of the comic book game. Yang has published many comic titles that creatively explore what it was like for him and his siblings growing up in the Bay Area (he was born in Alameda). American Born Chinese pits a high schooler against a monkey king from Chinese folklore who compels him to face his discomfort with his family’s heritage. Level Up looks at a video game fanatic’s transition to med school, a journey undertaken by Yang’s brother in real life.

Yang is by no means the only Asian American excelling in the comic industry. Jim Lee, a Korean American who was named copublisher of DC Comics last year, is often regarded as the modern era’s quintessential comic artist. And many of the genre’s biggest names — including the man behind DC’s Supergirl series; Bernard Chang, creator of the syndicated strip Liberty Meadows Frank Cho; and Human Target illustrator Cliff Chiang (all interviewed via e-mail for this article) — are first- or second-generation Asian Americans.

“If you were to ask any comic book fan who their favorite artists are, odds are there will be an Asian American creator — or two, or three, if not four — on that list,” Chang says.

This wasn’t always the case. When most of today’s comic book artists were growing up, there were few stories being told about Asian Americans in popular entertainment. Chang moved to Miami from Taiwan as a child, and apart from comic books sent to him by relatives overseas, saw very little in the mass media that could relate to his own experience. “For the most part, you had the Bruce Lee kung fu movies that played on the secondary television stations on the weekends,” he says.

“Everything seemed to be about people in Asia or recent immigrants,” remembers American-born Chiang. “I didn’t go out of my way to seek out those stories. What I did respond to was art and animation created by Asians in the form of cartoons like Speed Racer or Battle of the Planets.”

He wasn’t the only one who turned to cartoons as a child. Yang fondly remembers the commonalities he found in superhero comics, even going as far as attributing his and other Asian American boys’ attraction to Superman to a subconscious recognition of a kindred soul. It was a connection he copped from Jeff Yang, editor of Secret Identities: The Asian American Superhero Anthology, a collection that assembled some of today’s top comic art talent in creating an illustrated shadow history of the United States.

To wit: “Here’s a guy with two identities, one American and the other foreign — Kryptonian. He has two names, one American — Clark — and the other foreign with a hyphen in the middle, Kal-El. He came to America at a young age. He’s black haired, mild-mannered, and wears glasses. All of his superpowers derive from the fact that he’s a foreigner.”

And there’s the art form itself, Yang continues: words and pictures side by side, typically avoided in Western art save in children’s books and advertising but embraced in Asian tradition. “You could have the best brush-painted image in the world,” Yang says, “but if the poem paired with it sucked, the whole piece sucked.”

 

THE SAGA OF RYAN CHOI

But if so many of the genre’s artists are Asian American, why are so few of its protagonists? Despite the prevalence of minority fans at comic conventions and the ever-diversifying profile of the people who create comics, their characters — with the important exception of those in manga — are mainly Caucasian.

And the big publishing houses in comics appear to sticking with this monotone. For a time, Marvel and DC experimented with retiring their big name heroes, replacing them — in the words of Yang — with “younger, hipper, often ethnic versions.” As an example, he offers the saga of the Atom, originally a white guy named Ray Palmer. Palmer was made to disappear mysteriously, and in the logic of the comic universe, was replaced by his
Chinese protégé, Ryan Choi.

But “the young ones just weren’t selling,” says Yang. Ryan Choi got a blade to the chest and Ray Palmer got his job back.

Most of the widely-known artists we spoke to think diversifying the superhero world wasn’t something that could happen overnight. Most fans, they said, are attracted to comics out of a sense of nostalgia that doesn’t hold up well with change, especially one as drastic as switching up a character’s race.

“Supergirl is an established character with years of history and story lines,” Chang says. “I can’t simply come in and change her to be an Asian girl, that wouldn’t make sense. But I make an effort to draw new supporting characters with different ethnicities, not just Asians but blacks, Latinos, and others.”

Cho thinks the reason Asians have thrived in the comics industry is the genre’s relative anonymity. “You have to understand there’s a strong and subtle undercurrent of racism in America. But comics are color-blind. It’s the ideas, art, and stories that matter — not how you look or who you are.” And he wants to keep it that way. “I don’t want to read any Asian-centric stories, or any black stories. I just want to read a good story.”

 

“I DEMAND SOME REPRESENTATION!”

Of course, not everyone shares his views. Hellen Jo is a SF comic artist who draws because she considers comics “a beautiful narrative medium with boundless potential.”

“Despite the ‘enlightened’ age we live in, I still can’t find many Asian American narratives that resonate with me personally,” Jo says. So she makes her own gorgeous comic strips and books that tell stories that fall far outside the standard comic canon, distinct even from the genre’s occasional tries at depicting Asian women.

“We don’t often see Asian American women shown as brash, plain, ugly, dirty, and without ambition — and it certainly isn’t because those types of API [Asian Pacific Islander] women don’t exist,” Jo says. “I identify as a gross, stupid, ugly Asian American girl and I demand some representation!”

But she’s not waiting for Marvel to release Gross, Stupid, Ugly API No. 1. Jo is taking the bull by the horns — just like Yang, who draws his own works, and the many mainstream artists we spoke with who contribute to books like Secret Identities and have side projects that speak more directly to the API experience. Sure, these books don’t sell as much as the blockbuster Batman and Avengers titles — but at least they exist now.

As do more and more Asian Americans and other minorities among the genre’s most talented creators. It’s hard not to believe that Ryan Choi will rise again, in his own series this time, with a decidedly unambitious API girl at his side.

 

alt.sex.column: Not the gerbil!

0

Dear Andrea:

I was wondering, is gerbil-stuffing for real, or just made up?

Love,

Hadda Ask

Dear Hadda:

I’ve been expecting this question and am willing to accept it as a sort of occupational hazard. Anal insertion of gerbils occurs exactly as often as tripping baby-sitters tuck the turkey into the crib and the baby into the oven. In the interest of science, I ran this by Dr. Marc Nelson of Stanford, who’s worked in ERs for 16 years, and has been looking. And? Many rumors, no gerbils. This is the man who actually saw the patient with a gut-full of Barbie heads, so you just have to take his word on it. Let’s look at this realistically: Why, exactly, would anyone stick a suffocated, duct-taped rodent up his butt? I can only imagine a sort of credulous half-wit, driven to try it by repeated exposure to this question through constant perusal of sex-advice columns. I sure hope I’m wrong. Now, may we never speak of this again.

Love,

Andrea

Dear Andrea,

I need good, detailed advice to improve my blow jobs. I know the basics. I need “tips”.

Love,

Teach me

Dear TM,

I’m not so sure about those “tips,” hon. Men tend to want the whole thing. In order to avoid gagging on the whole thing, I suggest wrapping a slippery paw around the base, which will not only serve to shorten the shaft, but will put control of angle and thrust firmly in your own hand(s).

Now that we’ve established that hands-free operation is not the only, or even the best, approach, what’s next? How about variety? Changing tempo, depth, and degree of pressure as you go will avoid the dreaded “snore job,” and its attendant blow to your ego. You can squeeze and swivel that hand up, down, and around. Stop, tease, breath, even a little bite or two may be appreciated. Think of it as jazz — get the melody down, then improvise.

Your tongue may be your strongest muscle; it can also be the gentlest. And do remember — you may touch, stroke, or kiss whatever you can reach from your present position take breaks to attend to other parts.

All this variation, all these clever, playful moves, may make him thrash, moan, and propose marriage, but will also cause eventual, intense frustration. Somewhere in there, you will have hit on exactly “the move” he requires.

Love,

Andrea

 

The failed experiment

27

news@sfbg.com

For three decades we have conducted a massive economic experiment, testing a theory known as supply-side economics. The theory goes like this: Lower tax rates will encourage more investment, which in turn will mean more jobs and greater prosperity — so much so that tax revenues will go up, despite lower rates.

The late Milton Friedman, the libertarian economist who wanted to shut down public parks because he considered them socialism, promoted this strategy. Ronald Reagan embraced Friedman’s ideas and made them into policy when he was elected president in 1980.

For the past decade, we have doubled down on this theory of supply-side economics with the tax cuts sponsored by President George W. Bush in 2001 and 2003, which President Barack Obama has agreed to continue for two years.

You would think that whether this grand experiment worked would be settled after three decades. You would think the practitioners of the dismal science of economics would look at their demand curves and the data on incomes and taxes and pronounce a verdict, the way Galileo and Copernicus did when they showed that geocentrism was a fantasy because the Earth revolves around the sun (known as heliocentrism). But economics is not like that. It is not like physics with its laws and arithmetic with its absolute values.

Tax policy is something the framers of the Constitution left to politics. And in politics, the facts often matter less then who has the biggest bullhorn.

The Mad Men who once ran campaigns featuring doctors extolling the health benefits of smoking are now busy marketing the dogma that tax cuts mean broad prosperity, no matter what the facts show.

As millions of Americans prepare to file their annual taxes, they do so in an environment of media-perpetuated tax myths. Here are a few points about taxes and the economy that you may not know, to consider as you prepare to file your taxes. (All figures are inflation adjusted.)

1. Poor Americans do pay taxes.

Gretchen Carlson, the Fox News host, said last year “47 percent of Americans don’t pay any taxes.” John McCain and Sarah Palin both said similar things during the 2008 campaign about the bottom half of Americans.

Ari Fleischer, the former Bush White House spokesman, once said “50 percent of the country gets benefits without paying for them.”

Actually, they pay lots of taxes — just not lots of federal income taxes.

Data from the Tax Foundation shows that in 2008, the average income for the bottom half of taxpayers was $15,300.

This year the first $9,350 of income is exempt from taxes for singles and $18,700 for married couples, just slightly more than in 2008. That means millions of the poor do not make enough to owe income taxes.

But they still pay plenty of other taxes, including federal payroll taxes. Between gas taxes, sales taxes, utility taxes and other taxes, no one lives tax free in America.

When it comes to state and local taxes, the poor bear a heavier burden than the rich in every state except Vermont, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy calculated from official data. In Alabama, for example, the burden on the poor is more than twice that of the top 1 percent. The one-fifth of Alabama families making less than $13,000 pay almost 11 percent of their income in state and local taxes, compared with less than 4 percent for those who make $229,000 or more.

2. The wealthiest Americans don’t carry the burden.

This is one of those oft-used canards. Senator Rand Paul, the tea party favorite from Kentucky, told David Letterman recently that “the wealthy do pay most of the taxes in this country.”

The Internet is awash with statements that the top 1 percent pays, depending on the year, 38 percent or more than 40 percent of taxes.

It’s true that the top 1 percent of wage earners paid 38 percent of the federal income taxes in 2008 (the most recent year for which data is available). But people forget that the income tax is less than half of federal taxes and only one-fifth of taxes at all levels of government.

Social Security, Medicare, and unemployment insurance taxes (known as payroll taxes) are paid mostly by the bottom 90 percent of wage earners. That’s because, once you reach $106,800 of income, you pay no more for Social Security, though the much smaller Medicare tax applies to all wages. Warren Buffett pays the exact same amount of Social Security taxes as someone who earns $106,800.

3. In fact, the wealthy are paying less taxes.

The Internal Revenue Service issues an annual report on the 400 highest income-tax payers. In 1961, there were 398 taxpayers who made $1 million or more, so I compared their income tax burdens from that year to 2007.

Despite skyrocketing incomes, the federal tax burden on the richest 400 has been slashed, thanks for a variety of loopholes, allowable deductions and other tools. The actual share of their income paid in taxes, according to the IRS, is 16.6 percent. Adding payroll taxes barely nudges that number.

Compare that to the vast majority of Americans, whose share of their income going to federal taxes increased from 13.1 percent in 1961 to 22.5 percent in 2007.

(By the way, during seven of the eight Bush years, the IRS report on the top 400 taxpayers was labeled a state secret, a policy that the Obama overturned almost instantly after his inauguration.)

4. Many of the very richest pay no current income taxes at all.

John Paulson, the most successful hedge fund manager of all, bet against the mortgage market one year and then bet with Glenn Beck in the gold market the next. Paulson made himself $9 billion in fees in just two years. His current tax bill on that $9 billion? Zero.

Congress lets hedge fund managers earn all they can now and pay their taxes years from now.

In 2007, Congress debated whether hedge fund managers should pay the top tax rate that applies to wages, bonuses and other compensation for their labors, which is 35 percent. That tax rate starts at about $300,000 of taxable income; not even pocket change to Paulson, but almost 12 years of gross pay to the median-wage worker.

The Republicans and a key Democrat, Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, fought to keep the tax rate on hedge fund managers at 15 percent, arguing that the profits from hedge funds should be considered capital gains, not ordinary income, which got a lot of attention in the news.

What the news media missed is that hedge fund managers don’t even pay 15 percent. At least, not currently. So long as they leave their money, known as “carried interest,” in the hedge fund, their taxes are deferred. They only pay taxes when they cash out, which could be decades from now for younger managers. How do these hedge fund managers get money in the meantime? By borrowing against the carried interest, often at absurdly low rates — currently about 2 percent.

Lots of other people live tax-free, too. I have Donald Trump’s tax records for four years early in his career. He paid no taxes for two of those years. Big real-estate investors enjoy tax-free living under a 1993 law President Clinton signed. It lets “professional” real-estate investors use paper losses like depreciation on their buildings against any cash income, even if they end up with negative incomes like Trump.

Frank and Jamie McCourt, who own the Los Angeles Dodgers, have not paid any income taxes since at least 2004, their divorce case revealed. Yet they spent $45 million one year alone. How? They just borrowed against Dodger ticket revenue and other assets. To the IRS, they look like paupers.

In Wisconsin, Terrence Wall, who unsuccessfully sought the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate in 2010, paid no income taxes on as much as $14 million of recent income, his disclosure forms showed. Asked about his living tax-free while working people pay taxes, he had a simple response: everyone should pay less.

5. And (surprise!) since Reagan , only the wealthy have gained significant income.

The Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute, and similar conservative marketing organizations tell us relentlessly that lower tax rates will make us all better off.

“When tax rates are reduced, the economy’s growth rate improves and living standards increase,” according to Daniel J. Mitchell, an economist at Heritage until he joined Cato. He says that supply-side economics is “the simple notion that lower tax rates will boost work, saving, investment, and entrepreneurship.”

When Reagan was elected president, the marginal tax rate for income was 70 percent. He cut it to 50 percent and then 28 percent starting in 1987. It was raised by George H.W. Bush and Clinton and then cut by George W. Bush. The top rate is now 35 percent.

Since 1980, when President Reagan won election promising prosperity through tax cuts, the average income of the vast majority — the bottom 90 percent of Americans — has increased a meager $303, or 1 percent. Put another way, for each dollar people in the vast majority made in 1980, in 2008 their income was up to $1.01.

Those at the top did better. The top 1 percent’s average income more than doubled to $1.1 million, according to an analysis of tax data by economists Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez. The really rich, the top 10th of 1 percent, each enjoyed almost $4 in 2008 for each dollar in 1980.

The top 300,000 Americans now enjoy almost as much income as the bottom 150 million, the data show.

6. When it comes to corporations, the story is much the same — less taxes.

Corporate profits in 2008, the latest year for which data is available, were $1.8 billion, up almost 12 percent from $1.6 billion in 2000. Yet even though corporate tax rates have not been cut, corporate income-tax revenues fell to $230 billion from $249 billion — an 8 percent decline, thanks to a number of loopholes. The official 2010 profit numbers are not added up and released by the government, but the amount paid in corporate taxes is: in 2010 they fell further, to $191 billion — a decline of more than 23 percent compared with 2000.

7. Some corporate tax breaks destroy jobs.

Despite all the noise that America has the world’s second highest corporate tax rate, the actual taxes paid by corporations are falling because of the growing number of loopholes and companies shifting profits to tax havens like the Cayman Islands.

And right now America’s corporations are sitting on close to $2 trillion in cash that is not being used to build factories, create jobs or anything else, but act as an insurance policy for managers unwilling to take the risk of actually building the businesses they are paid so well to run. That cash hoard, by the way, works out to nearly $13,000 per taxpaying household.

A corporate tax rate that is too low actually destroys jobs. That’s because a higher tax rate encourages businesses (who don’t want to pay taxes) to keep the profits in the business and reinvest, rather than pull them out as profits and have to pay high taxes.

The 2004 American Jobs Creation Act, which passed with bipartisan support, allowed more than 800 companies to bring profits that were untaxed but overseas back to the United States. Instead of paying the usual 35 percent tax, the companies paid just 5.25 percent.

The companies said bringing the money home — “repatriating” it, they called it — would mean lots of jobs. Sen. John Ensign, the Nevada Republican, put the figure at 660,000 new jobs.

Pfizer, the drug company, was the biggest beneficiary. It brought home $37 billion, saving $11 billion in taxes. Almost immediately it started firing people. Since the law took effect, it has let 40,000 workers go. In all, it appears that at least 100,000 jobs were destroyed.

Now Congressional Republicans and some Democrats are gearing up again to pass another tax holiday, promoting a new Jobs Creation Act. It would affect 10 times as much money as the 2004 law.

8. Republicans like taxes too.

President Reagan signed into law 11 tax increases, targeted at people down the income ladder. His administration and the Washington press corps called the increases “revenue enhancers.” Among other things, Reagan hiked Social Security taxes so high that by the end of 2008, the government had collected more than $2 trillion in surplus tax.

George W. Bush signed a tax increase, too, in 2006, despite his written ironclad pledge to never raise taxes on anyone. It raised taxes on teenagers by requiring kids up to age 17, who earned money, to pay taxes at their parents’ tax rate, which would almost always be higher than the rate they would otherwise pay. It was a story that ran buried inside The New York Times one Sunday, but nowhere else.

In fact, thanks to Republicans, one in three Americans will pay higher taxes this year than they did last year.

First, some history. In 2009, President Obama pushed his own tax cut—for the working class. He persuaded Congress to enact the Making Work Pay Tax Credit. Over the two years 2009 and 2010, it saved single workers up to $800 and married heterosexual couples up to $1,600, even if only one spouse worked. The top 5 percent or so of taxpayers were denied this tax break.

The Obama administration called it “the biggest middle-class tax cut” ever. Yet last December the Republicans, poised to regain control of the House of Representatives, killed Obama’s Making Work Pay Credit while extending the Bush tax cuts for two more years — a policy Obama agreed to.

By doing so, Congressional Republican leaders increased taxes on a third of Americans, virtually all of them the working poor, this year.

As a result, of the 155 million households in the tax system, 51 million will pay an average of $129 more this year. That is $6.6 billion in higher taxes for the working poor, the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center estimated.

In addition, the Republicans changed the rate of workers’ FICA contributions, which finances half of Social Security. The result:

If you are single and make less than $20,000, or married and less than $40,000, you lose under this plan.

But the top 5 percent, people who make more than $106,800, will save $2,136 ($4,272 for two-career couples).

9. Other countries do it better.

We measure our economic progress, and our elected leaders debate tax policy, in terms of a crude measure known as gross domestic product. The way the official statistics are put together, each dollar spent buying solar energy equipment counts the same as each dollar spent investigating murders.

We do not give any measure of value to time spent rearing children or growing our own vegetables or to time off for leisure and community service.

And we do not measure the economic damage done by shocks, such as losing a job, which means not only loss of income and depletion of savings, but loss of health insurance, which a Harvard Medical School study found results in 45,000 unnecessary deaths each year

Compare this to Germany, one of many countries with a smarter tax system and smarter spending policies.

Germans work less, make more per hour and get much better parental leave than Americans, many of whom get no fringe benefits such as health care, pensions or even a retirement savings plan. By many measures the vast majority live better in Germany than in America.

To achieve this, single German workers on average pay 52 percent of their income in taxes. Americans average 30 percent, according to the Organizations for Economic Cooperation and Development.

At first blush, the German tax burden seems horrendous. But in Germany (as well as Britain, France, Scandinavia, Canada, Australia, and Japan), tax-supported institutions provide many of the things Americans pay for with after-tax dollars. Buying wholesale rather than retail saves money.

A proper comparison would take the 30 percent average tax on American workers and add their out-of-pocket spending on health care, college tuition, and fees for services and compare that with taxes that the average German pays. Add it all up and the combination of tax and personal spending is roughly equal in both countries, but with a large risk of catastrophic loss in America, and a tiny risk in Germany.

Americans take on $85 billion of debt each year for higher education, while college is financed by taxes in Germany and tuition is cheap to free in other modern countries. While soaring medical costs are a key reason that since 1980 bankruptcy in America has increased 15 times faster than population growth, no one in Germany or the rest of the modern world goes broke because of accident or illness. And child poverty in America is the highest among modern countries — almost twice the rate in Germany, which is close to the average of modern countries.

On the corporate tax side, the Germans encourage reinvestment at home and the outsourcing of low-value work, like auto assembly, and German rules tightly control accounting so that profits earned at home cannot be made to appear as profits earned in tax havens.

Adopting the German system is not the answer for America. But crafting a tax system that benefits the vast majority, reduces risks, provides universal health care and focuses on diplomacy rather than militarism abroad (and at home) would be a lot smarter than what we have now.

Here is a question to ask yourself: We started down this road with Reagan’s election in 1980 and upped the ante in this century with George W. Bush.

How long does it take to conclude that a policy has failed to fulfill its promises? And as you think of that, keep in mind George Washington. When he fell ill his doctors followed the common wisdom of the era. They cut him and bled him to remove bad blood. As Washington’s condition grew worse, they bled him more. And like the mantra of tax cuts for the rich, they kept applying the same treatment until they killed him.

Luckily we don’t bleed the sick anymore, but we are bleeding our government to death.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

David Cay Johnston is a columnist for tax.com and teaches the tax, property, and regulatory law of the ancient world at Syracuse University College of Law and Whitman School of Management. He has also been called the “de facto chief tax enforcement officer of the United States” because his reporting in The New York Times shut down many tax dodges and schemes, just two of them valued by Congress at $260 billion.

Johnston received a 2001 Pulitzer Prize for exposing tax loopholes and inequities. He wrote two bestsellers on taxes, Perfectly Legal and Free Lunch. Later this year David Cay Johnston will be out with a new book, The Fine Print, revealing how big business, with help from politicians, abuses plain English to rob you blind.

 

It’s not so easy building green

34

OPINION The Parkmerced project developers like to talk about how environmentally sound their plans are, but a harder look suggests otherwise.

At a March 29 hearing on the project, Green Pary member Eric Brooks presented graphic evidence of the environmental impacts of the destruction of the garden units and the landscape, and the proposed increase in parking on- site. As a transit-first city, it seems ludicrous to spend so much on below-grade parking. And regrading and replanting the entire site will allow toxins in the soil to become airborne.

Then there’s the question of whether the site is really “blighted,” as the developer claims — and whether so much housing needs to be torn down in the first place. Sup. Eric Mar questioned the issue of the deterioration of the existing units; he said he’d visited the site and noted that many units appear to be in fine shape.

I agree that the western side of town needs more density — but dumping that density disproportionately on one community seems to be a biased approach. Parkmerced is a renter community. Other areas dominated by homeowners seem to be off the table.

San Francisco should take a broader look at west-side zoning. That would include looking seriously at corridors with light-rail lines — Ocean Avenue, West Portal Avenue, Taraval Street, Geary Boulevard, Judah Street, and others — where some one-story buildings are far more deteriorated than the buildings at Parkmerced.

City officials should look at alternatives that allow other sites to be upzoned or allow owners to build on side sites. This would lessen the effects on one community by sharing the growing pains of a city limited on three sides by water.

We all want the projects, work, housing, jobs, and an expanded tax base for the city. But many of us question whether the current plan for Parkmerced does justice environmentally and sustainably when it ignores infill and preservation-based alternatives that could create more jobs and a better long-term green solution.

I have submitted a proposal to the Planning Commission that shows how to improve transit linkages, how infill housing can be done, and how the 11 towers at Parkmerced can be redesigned (the initial concept was to design new, pencil-thin replacement towers and structurally-reinforced new buildings). I suggest that more infill housing can be built by removing parking garages throughout the site — which would lessen displacement and allow a significant density increase.

Assurances by the developer should not placate the city or the supervisors. If the supervisors lean toward approval, they need to be reminded of the transit, sustainability, and open-space concerns of the project to ensure that the design is changed either through revisions of portions or the whole to make more clear the concerns that the project has been greenwashed to promote the developer’s interests.

Aaron Goodman is an architect and Bay Area native.

Seeking a watchdog’s watchdog

1

rebeccab@sfbg.com

When cash pumps through the guts of city politics, the Ethics Commission is charged with keeping track of it all to help members of the public follow the money. But what happens when the public loses faith in the ethics of the Ethics Commission?

In the run-up to a hotly contested mayoral race, in a city marked by rough-and-tumble politics influenced by moneyed power brokers, the function of this local-government watchdog agency is especially critical — and to hear some critics tell it, the Ethics Commission needs reform if it is to perform as an effective safeguard against corruption.

So it was hardly surprising that an April 5 discussion at the San Francisco Board of Supervisors meeting about whom to appoint to the Ethics Commission featured a low-level tug-of-war with some potentially high-level implications.

Sup. Eric Mar proposed that the board consider Allen Grossman for the seat. An octogenarian government watchdog unaffiliated with any political party, Grossman has gone so far as to file a successful lawsuit against the Ethics Commission for not following its own public-disclosure rules. As a potential appointee, he was widely viewed as reform-minded, following in the footsteps of others who have been purged from the body in recent years.

“Open government and good government work together, hand in hand,” Grossman told members of the board’s Rules Committee several weeks prior, interlacing his fingers for emphasis.

Grossman won the backing of Sups. John Avalos and Ross Mirkarimi. But Board President David Chiu spoke against the idea, throwing his support instead behind Dorothy Liu, an attorney and professional colleague of his through the Asian American Bar Association. The Rules Committee, chaired by Sup. Jane Kim and filled out by Sups. Sean Elsbernd and Mark Farrell, also turned down Grossman in favor of Liu.

“She’s extremely hard-working and does her homework,” Chiu later told the Guardian. He also saw it as a plus that Liu was not a political insider: “I think we need an individual on the Ethics Commission who will be impartial,” he said, adding that he’d prefer “someone who has not been involved in the rough-and-tumble of San Francisco politics.” Sup. Carmen Chu echoed Chiu’s comments during the meeting, saying she thought Liu would be an ideal candidate because she did not seem to have an agenda.

Mirkarimi and Avalos, on the other hand, said they were looking for a candidate who did possess a vision for strengthening the role of the agency as a watchdog. “I think our Ethics Commission and the department, as it stands, needs all the help it can get,” Mirkarimi said during the meeting. “I think having people who are well-seasoned with an understanding in the law of ethics and sunshine is something we should be looking for. Mr. Grossman has exhibited that well over the years in trying to do everything he possibly can to advance the cause in a nonpartisan way of making sure that we have a very strong Ethics Commission.”

Mar’s motion to consider Grossman was shot down on an 8-3 vote with Mirkarimi, Mar, and Avalos dissenting; Liu then won the commission appointment on a 10-1 vote, with Avalos dissenting.

Until recently, the Board of Supervisors seat on the Ethics Commission was held by Eileen Hansen, a progressive who had called for political reform under Mayor Willie Brown’s administration prior to being named to the post. When she was being considered for the commission, Hansen recalled, then-Sup. Michela Alioto-Pier raised an objection. “[She] thought the perfect person would be somebody who … would come essentially as a clean slate,” Hansen remembered. “Because I had been involved in organizing campaigns and had run for office, that was deemed too political.”

Yet Hansen viewed her familiarity with the system as an asset that helped her serve as an effective watchdog against corruption. During her six-year tenure, Hansen often cast lone dissenting votes against decisions she believed were weakening ethical standards. She told the Guardian she’d tried floating remedies for situations she viewed as inappropriate, only to have them summarily ignored, a role similar to that of former Ethics Commission member and staffer Joe Lynn.

In one case, Hansen recalled, she became concerned about a planning commissioner who also directed a nonprofit. To raise money, her organization held fundraisers that were ostensibly attended and funded by the very same developers and lobbyists who appeared before her at the Planning Commission. Yet Hansen said she was unable to persuade the other commissioners or staff to call for an investigation.

A more recent Ethics Commission vote underscores the same tension. On March 14, the commission voted unanimously to waive a pair of ethics regulations to allow a mayoral staff member to become executive director of the America’s Cup Organizing Committee (ACOC). Composed of highly influential business figures including at least two billionaire investors, ACOC is tasked with securing corporate donations for the America’s Cup to offset city costs of hosting the race.

Kyri McClellan, project manager with the Mayor’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development, helped craft a memorandum of understanding with ACOC regarding its fundraising obligations to the city. In her new job, without skipping a beat, she’ll interface with the city on behalf of ACOC. The rules that were waived for her benefit are meant to prevent city officials from holding undue influence over their former coworkers after leaving public service, and to prevent city staffers from accepting money from city contractors right after departing from city employment.

“If I had been there, there would have been at least one vote against that waiver,” said Hansen, whose term on the commission ended before this vote. “We have this law in place for a reason. By continuing to provide waivers … we create a situation where the public will not trust the Ethics Commission as a watchdog.”

Hansen said she was scouting for a new commissioner who would carry on with her work. “I was looking for and trying to recruit a visionary — someone who could really be a reformer,” she said. “We’re almost in a position now where we need a watchdog over the watchdog.” She said she saw Grossman as the right fit.

Other observers, such as CitiReport blogger Larry Bush — an investigative reporter who called for the creation of the Ethics Commission in San Francisco in the early 1990s — questioned whether Liu was the best choice after hearing her statements at the March 17 Rules Committee hearing. Liu did not come out strongly in favor of televising Ethics Commission meetings, which has long been a sticking point for open-government advocates.

“I absolutely support televising the Ethics Commission, I think it’s really important,” Kim noted when we asked her about this. She added that she would have supported Oliver Luby — a former Ethics Commission staff member and whistleblower who was ultimately ousted from the job — if he’d applied.

Kim noted that an initial concern she’d had in seeking an ethics commissioner was whether the person would vote to allow Mayor Lee to resume his job as city administrator after serving out his term as interim mayor, a key decision that the commission was scheduled to consider April 11.

Once she was advised that it would be inappropriate to ask which way they would vote when conducting candidate interviews, Kim said she withheld her question — and still didn’t know Liu’s or Grossman’s position at the time she spoke with the Guardian. “I think it’s very appropriate for him to get his job back,” Kim noted. “That vote is very important to me.”

That vote drew closer scrutiny, however, after Ethics Commission staff recommended that the exemption that would be built into the law for Lee’s benefit should be expanded to include appointed members of the Board of Supervisors. “This new proposal would convert a targeted, narrow exemption to deal with a special case into the ‘Politician Job Protection Act’ and could open the door to all kinds of unintended consequences,” charged Jon Golinger of San Franciscans for Clean Government.

Meanwhile, Luby seemed disheartened by the board’s selection of Liu for the Ethics Commission. He was looking to Grossman to fill Hansen’s shoes as the commission’s reformer — a role previously held by Lynn, Luby’s good friend and mentor who died last year.

He lamented, “This will mark the first time in over 10 years to have an Ethics Commission without someone who has past experience advocating for good government.” 

 

The tale of two trials

1

news@sfbg.com

Since March 21, reporters representing the cream of American journalism have been camped out in the Bay Area covering two high-profile trials.

In an Oakland courtroom, two men are accused of being involved in three murders, including that of Chauncey Bailey, a journalist who was writing a story about Your Black Muslim Bakery. In San Francisco, baseball home run king Barry Bonds is accused of telling a federal grand jury that he never knowingly took steroids.

Apart from the fact that both trials are taking place simultaneously and all the defendants are African American, there is a disparity in how these cases are being treated by the media, both local and national.

The Bailey trial is being covered by fewer than a dozen reporters from mostly local media: the Oakland Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, KTVU, American Urban Radio Networks, CBS Radio, NPR, the Guardian, the Associated Press, ABC 7 News, several websites, and bloggers. Some are there every day, others are not. To be fair, there was more media coverage for the first few days of the trial.

According to KCBS reporter Doug Sovern, who is covering the Bonds trial, the press list includes “KCBS, KGO Radio (some of the time), KQED (occasionally), Westwood One, Channels 2 (KTVU), 4, 5, 7, 11, Comcast Sports Net, ESPN, CNN, Bloomberg, the Associated Press, Agency France Presse, the Chronicle (a reporter and a columnist every day; sometimes two columnists,) the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Bay Area News Group (including the San Jose Mercury News), Reuters, the Los Angeles Times, Sports Illustrated, a few other bloggers, stringers, and people I don’t recognize,” writes Sovern in an e-mail. “I would say that adds up to about 30, plus still photographers. Probably close to 40 in all, plus THREE sketch artists!”

Media experts say the Bailey trial is far more significant when you look at how both cases affect society.

“Obviously Barry Bonds is one of the greatest baseball players of all time,” said Louis Freedberg, senior reporter for California Watch, one of the units at the Center for Investigative Reporting in Berkeley. “You add to that the celebrity factor in a society that is completely obsessed with celebrities, regardless if they do good or bad, I can see how it’s easy to define this (Bailey) as a local story and shunt it aside.”

But the problem is that society depends on journalists to provide truth and information and to hold those in power accountable. There are many countries where journalists are arrested and/or killed for writing stories that someone doesn’t like.

An independent press was a top priority for America’s founding fathers, right behind establishing the military.

“Establishing a free press was viewed as fundamental,” said Freedberg. “I don’t think they talked about baseball players at that time, so when you have a journalist being assassinated, that strikes at the core of what this society stands for — or should stand for.”

That belief was so strong after Bailey was killed that journalists, including the author, came together to form the Chauncey Bailey Project to finish Bailey’s work and make sure that everyone who was involved in the assassination was brought to justice.

“Some media are covering this deeply — the ones that covered it here — so I don’t want to make a blanket condemnation. But, yeah, I think the Bailey trial has much broader symbolism and importance to the United States than the trial of Barry Bonds,” said Robert Rosenthal, executive director of the Center for Investigative Reporting and executive editor of the Chauncey Bailey Project.

Another issue that has caused concern in the African American community is how boys and men of color are portrayed in the news media. “Usually when you see this demographic in the press, they are accused of crime, victims of crime, or playing sports,” said Dori Maynard, president of the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education.

In the Bonds case, the media are hitting two out of three — a great average for baseball, but a Bonds conviction will have virtually no impact on American democracy.

The media should cover the Bonds trial, but it should not forget about the Bailey trial, which will still be going when the Bonds trial ends.

If those who are on trial for killing Bailey are indeed guilty but are allowed to go free, it will send a message that journalists — the people who keep society informed and hold those in power accountable — are fair game. (Bob Butler)

This story first appeared at www.maynardije.org, the website of the Maynard Institute, a member of the Chauncey Bailey Project, of which the Guardian is also a member.

LATEST TRIAL NEWS: JUDGE DENIES DEFENSE MOTION AFTER REPORTER RECEIVES DEATH THREAT

On April 11, a defense attorney in the Chauncey Bailey murder trial asked the judge to ban jurors from reading newspapers or using the Internet for the duration of the trial after the Bay Area News Group and the Chauncey Bailey Project reported that a journalist had received a death threat while reporting a story related to the now defunct Your Black Muslim Bakery.

Gary Sirbu, who is representing codefendant Antoine Mackey, made the request as the trial resumed Monday, April 11. Articles about the threat were published Saturday, April 9 on the front page of Bay Area News Group publications, including the Oakland Tribune.

Judge Thomas Reardon asked jurors if they had read any news stories over the weekend about the telephone threat made to reporter Josh Richman. By a show of hands, jurors indicated they had not read the articles.

Reardon denied Sirbu’s request, saying he did not want to make such an order. But the judge again cautioned jurors to avoid any news coverage about the case or anything related to Your Black Muslim Bakery. (Thomas Peele)

 

No cuts-only pension deal

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EDITORIAL Mayor Ed Lee has released a draft set of proposals for pension reform, and union leaders continue to meet with financier Warren Hellman to try to craft an alternative. Meanwhile, Public Defender Jeff Adachi is narrowing his options and appears ready to move forward to put his own plan on the ballot.

Everyone involved claims to be interested in a compromise, in some proposal that would reduce the city’s burden of paying $350 million this year (and potentially as much as $790 million in five years) into the employee pension fund. We support that idea, too — there are plenty of necessary, progressive moves to fix the city’s pension system and free up more cash for local programs.

But so far, none of the proposals on the table include any new revenue sources — which means, in effect, that the mayor, Hellman, and Adachi all want city workers to bear the entire brunt of the impact of a Wall Street-driven recession. The message: only city employees should share the pain; the wealthiest San Franciscans and biggest, richest businesses don’t have to contribute at all.

It’s a dangerous part of the tax mythology that Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter David Cay Johnston discusses in his article in the Guardian this week. He notes that the argument in favor of tax cuts for the rich — that lower taxes will lead to more investment and thus more jobs — has been tested in this country for 30 years. And it hasn’t worked.

Most San Franciscans probably realize that. Most city officials vote for Democrats, opposed the Bush-era tax cuts on the rich, and argue for more federal aid to cities. This is a progressive town.

But when it comes to something as fundamental as local economic policy — who pays for city services and who gets the benefits — the story becomes completely different.

The mayor and eight of the 11 supervisors are celebrating a broad-based tax cut as a way to create jobs in the Tenderloin and mid-Market (although the evidence that tax cuts don’t create jobs is overwhelming). The mayor is looking at the equivalent of a cuts-only budget (although everyone at City Hall opposes the notion of a cuts-only budget in Sacramento). And while it’s almost certain that some sort of pension reform will be on the November ballot, none of the players involved in the negotiations have openly taken what seems to us to be the only logical position:

Pension reform has to be linked to tax reform — a commercial rent tax, a progressive gross receipts tax, a city income tax, an increase in the Pacific Gas and Electric Co. franchise fee or something else that hits those who can afford to pay. Otherwise, we can’t support it.

Even the city employee unions are being awfully quiet about the need for a deal that includes new taxes. They ought to be leading the charge here, telling everyone that a cuts-only pension deal isn’t going to be acceptable. (The tax measures could hold until the November 2012 budget, when they’ll be easier to pass — if there’s a firm assurance that the mayor, Hellman, Adachi, the supervisors, and all the other players will support them.)

City employees are being asked to take what amount to pay cuts — which will reduce their purchasing power and have a depressing impact on the local economy. Taxing the wealthy (who spend a much smaller percentage of their income) has no such depressing impact. Those are hard, cold facts. They need to be part of the discussion.

Robert Reich, the former labor secretary who now teaches at the University of California, Berkeley, has an interesting essay on his blog April 9 that discusses Obama’s budget capitulations. The president, he notes, “is losing the war of ideas because he won’t tell the American public the truth: that we need more government spending now — not less — in order to get out of the gravitational pull of the Great Recession. That we got into the Great Recession because Wall Street went bonkers and government failed to do its job at regulating financial markets … That the only ways to deal with the long-term budget problem is to demand that the rich pay their fair share of taxes.

“And that, at a deeper level, the increasingly lopsided distribution of income and wealth has robbed the vast working middle class of the purchasing power they need to keep the economy going at full capacity.”

That’s as true here as it is in Washington. And if city officials want progressive support for pension reform, they need to acknowledge it.

 

Editor’s notes

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tredmond@sfbg.com

Does anybody else feel as if the whole country is collapsing around us?

I mean, I’m not an apocalypse fan. I remember when Ronald Reagan was elected and we had a big meeting at the Connecticut Citizen Action Group, where I worked, and a lot of people were on the edge of a serious panic, and Miles Rapoport, the staff director, told us all to calm down: the organization, and our work, would survive. So would the nation. I spent a lot of time with serious anarchist types in the 1980s, and I never really bought the notion that the revolution was at hand (alas, it was not) or that the United States of America and the corporate world order were on the brink of collapse (alas, again).

I think I slept through the great Harmonic Convergence on Aug. 17, 1987 (“the point at which the counterspin of history finally comes to a momentary halt”) and I’m not terribly concerned about the Mayan calendar.

But I’m getting so I wake up every morning these days asking myself exactly what the fuck is going on.

I called my old friend Calvin Welch the other day to talk about the San Francisco mayor’s race, and when I asked him how he was doing, he told me: “Well, other than the fact that America is falling apart everywhere I look, I’m doing fine.” And he’s not any crazier than me.

It’s funny. I never felt as nervous about the state of the nation under Reagan or Bush as I’m feeling right now under President Obama. And I wasn’t as scared about California when Arnold Schwarzenegger was governor as I am now, with Jerry Brown in charge.

Not that Reagan and Bush weren’t far, far worse, or that Brown isn’t doing a decent job, all thing considered. But when our folks are in charge — decent, smart folks who, for all their flaws, have essentially decent ideas about politics and humanity — and they can’t seem to make anything better … I guess that’s when I start to wonder if anyone can.

I’m not one to make sweeping generalizations (well, not usually), but in 2011, the country, and the state, are being run by a handful of bullies. They’re wrecking the economy, wrecking the schools, wrecking the future — and nobody seems to be able to stand up to them. And even this diehard optimist is starting to wonder when it will ever end.