Volume 45 Number 31

Volume 45 Number 31 Flip-through Edition

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Portal 2

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Valve Corporation

(Xbox360, PS3, Mac/PC)

GAMER Portal 2 reminds us that “first-person” is a point of view first and a game type second. With combat-themed shooters incestuously fumbling over one another to produce the most similar experience, it takes a certain amount of marbles to deliver a shooter about strategy and narrative instead of death. But for developer Valve, Portal’s sequel was never a risky gamble.

Portal (2007) was a surprise success, a last-minute addition to Valve’s Orange Box bundle that boasted heavy-hitters like Half Life 2 and Team Fortress 2. It was Portal, the little game that traces its history to a college senior project in Washington state, that brought the most buzz. A puzzle game where you play a test subject in a future lab, Portal tasks you with escaping elaborate exam rooms by using a gun that shoots portals — one orange, one blue — go in one and come out the other. But it wasn’t just Portal‘s mechanics that attracted players; the humor, pacing, and whimsical approach made it memorable.

In the same way that I can define what made Portal a sensation, Valve too was armed with the secret to its success. A joke is never as funny the second time, but Portal 2 knows its audience and does its best to satisfy old fans while telling an altogether new story.

Sometime after the conclusion of Portal, human test subject Chell is awakened in a deteriorating laboratory by a robot named Wheatly. As Chell, you must negotiate the cavernous lab and a vengeful computer AI named GLaDOS and familiarize yourself with new, futuristic technologies like force fields, light bridges, and gels that make you bounce. Early levels reiterate the first game’s slow and easy increase in difficulty, but soon you are gleefully translating your puzzle-solving skills into a means of escape.

Most of the game is set in test rooms, and it’s unsurprising to learn that Valve’s vision for Portal 2 wasn’t entirely clear: it continues its tradition of creating puzzles first and contextualizing them later. A great benefit in telling the tale comes from stellar voice-acting by Stephen Merchant and character actor J.K. Simmons. Fewer conventional puzzle rooms would be nice, but the brain teasers themselves are consistently satisfying.

Valve could easily have damaged its cult credibility by amplifying a perfectly concise experience, but Portal 2 works. With an equally satisfying (and wholly unique) cooperative mode that highlights teamwork — and a developer commentary mode that places commentary nodes within the game world — Portal 2 packs enough content to justify its standalone release. The joke might be less funny when you anticipate the punch line, but in this case it all comes down to delivery.

Hot house Magic

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arts@sfbg.com

THEATER Talk about community theater. New York City drag artist Taylor Mac doesn’t just bring his Obie Award–winning 2009 show to town, but a good swath of the town to the show. That includes six local directors and something like 40 local actors and musicians, with host Magic Theatre producing in collaboration with queer performance collective THEOFFCENTER and a large handful of other Bay Area players (Climate Theater, Crowded Fire, elastic future, Erika Chong Shuch Performance Project, Shotgun Players, and TheatreWorks).

That’s probably as it should be for a sprawling, gleefully elaborate five-hour performance spectacle that revolves — with good camp humor, extravagant Theatre of the Ridiculous gestures, and devilishly arch songs set to composer Rachelle Garniez’s evocative genre-spanning musical score — around a simple message of brother-sister-otherly love.

A simple message, but couched in a most extravagant presentation. To begin with: Mac as the play’s titular flower, done up stunningly in garish green sequined fabrics and glittering makeup to match, a corolla of five spongy petals around his neck. As some wisenheimer points out in the first act, five petals in a corolla is actually one short for a normal lily, but there’s nothing normal about this Lily: an organic loner raised in a basement studio apartment in Daly City who decides one night to go to the theater. And anyway there are only five acts, so one per.

Suburban bumpkin Lily is audibly charmed and bewildered by what he sees onstage in Act I: a “princess musical” titled “The Deity” (directed by Meredith McDonough) that pops up vociferously from an array of frilly doll-like bodies, all named Mary, strewn over a patchwork wallpaper stage.

The musical would like to be a standard wedding tale, centered on a blustery latter-day maiden (Casi Maggio) chomping at the bit — just a typical romantic story overseen by the proscenium curtain, who goes by the name of The Great Longing (Mollena Williams). But opposing it all is no less than Time herself, played with a sort of airy gravitas by Jeri Lynn Cohen, decked out in a see-through plastic hourglass and a cuckoo clock for a hat. (The costumes, all stars in their own right, are by Lindsay Davis.) Time balks at the repressive hold of this narrative paradigm. To this end, she draws intellectual support from a random daisy (Julia Brothers) reawakened into her former life as a Berkeley critical theorist in comfortable outerwear named Susan Stewart, who recites from her book-length essay, On Longing (an actual book by an actual Susan Stewart, as it happens), attacking nostalgia as inauthentic attachment to an imaginary past at odds with the here and now (or something like that).

In short (not that there is anything short about this show), Time persuades Lily, as a creature grounded in the here and now, to join the proceedings. And Lily, his own love-struck ego asserting itself, decides to embark on a metamorphosis — to shed his flower self for a hoped-for underlying manhood, operating perhaps under a curse of one sort or another — so that he might win the bride for himself (and away from the all-too-male groom in Speedo and accordion, played gamely by Paul Baird).

It will be a shame if the run-time keeps the otherwise Lily-curious away. This was one five-hour extravaganza that really seemed to fly by. (I’ve sat through much longer 90-minute one-acts just this month.) If the plot of The Lily’s Revenge is not exactly designed to keep its audience guessing — our potted hero must live up to the title — the production does keep its audience moving, interacting, and generally engaged when not outright delighted by a steady stream of madcap turns and gaudy mayhem that spills joyfully off the stage and out into the lobby (where Jessica Heidt directs a series of Kyogen segments) and beyond.

A spirited platinum blonde called the Card Girl (Kat Wentworth) corrals the audience for no less than three intermissions, designed to encourage mingling, fraternizing, and face-time with fellow audience members and cast alike. (Meanwhile, Andrew Boyce’s sets and the seating arrangements are rapidly and inventively rearranged.) The intermissions come complete with an optional dinner, dance parties, songs “flushed from the show” performed in and around the lavatories, and other sideshow offerings (solid advice from a garrulous sock puppet, for instance, or a glad-handing glory hole) — all in compact 15-minute increments.

Each act has its own particular character as it advances the merrily convoluted plot. Act II (directed by Marissa Wolf) is set in the round in a flowerbed and features a verse-off between Lily and assorted garden varieties. Act III is a “dream ballet” directed and choreographed with inspired exuberance by Erika Chong Shuch, in which a hilarious second pair of marriage hopefuls (Joe Estlack and Rowena Richie) devolve, amid an onset of “options” and a frenetic set of macabre bridesmaids, into a comically horrifying orgy of indulgence. In Act IV we enter a virtual realm called Ecuador (long story), with animated video sequences to live voice-overs directed with wry sophistication by Erin Gilley.

Finally, as the wedding party assembles amid the “divine madness” of Act V (directed by Jessica Holt) and ceremonial noises erupt under direction of the domineering Curtain, the Revolutionary Flowers, having infiltrated the proceedings, suddenly burst forth from low-rent disguises and storm the stage, while an enormous papier-mâché turd floats across the stage ahead of a dyspeptic visit by the Pope and a giant black Tick holds the White Rose captive and — I wasn’t sure what the hell was going on by this point, to be honest. But as a debauched melee ensues, it’s pretty clear things are tending toward one hell of a climax. It’s all followed by a denouement too. This featuring an address by Mac, now in immaculate dress, the details of which are too charmingly candid to want to relate here. Better you see and hear for yourself.

The five-petaled Lily is most certainly the star of the show, but Mac is also a generous performer, giving ample space for his talented collaborators to shine. If some of the best moments are naturally centered on Mac’s riveting presence, the sweetness and childlike impetuosity in his endearingly comic character, and not least his enthralling power as a singer, there are many more highlights to be had, big and small, among the general bloom.

THE LILY’S REVENGE

Tues–Sat, 7 p.m.; Sun, 2:30 p.m.;

Through May 22; $30–$75

Magic Theatre

Fort Mason Center

Bldg. D, Third Floor, SF

(415) 441-8822

www.magictheatre.org

 

Secrets of our lives

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arts@sfbg.com

MUSIC Cast in the shadows of flashlights, candles, and streetlamps, Ann Yu sings herself to sleep, hiding under soft sheets and contemplating lyrics instead of counting sheep. Her secrets escape at midnight in the form of gorgeously moody melodies, that when paired with slow-motion synth and beats by DJ and producer Jon Waters, become the encapsulating repertoire of Silver Swans.

The hearty bass and electric hums created by the San Francisco duo could inspire a subtle swagger, but its kind of electropop is intended for more contemplative purposes. Silver Swans is dark and brooding, yet innocent and nostalgic. Eager ears should take note of Yu’s creative process and “just sit in bed,” wrapped head to toe in some sort of cozy material.

“I don’t think there’s a single track on our album that wasn’t written while I was wearing my polar fleece flannel pajamas,” she smiles, her freckled cheekbones blushing a delicate pink.

Yu’s comfort is audible and infectious; her voice rings with a vulnerable honesty that draws you close to her fragile lyrics, revealing whispers of unwanted ghosts and wavering happiness. The eerie intimacy is a natural product of Yu’s musical environment: no stuffy studio and no inhibitions. The sounds are derived from the familiar, unpretentious spaces of her own home.

“It’s like when you sing in your room or in the shower. I’m just trying to capture those moments.”

Netting a true emotion takes patience, but today’s music industry moves fast, and electronic music is expected to rocket through the entire creative process. It’s a race to write, record, and release, and if a band isn’t keeping up, they could easily be left behind in a cloud of blog dust. It freaks Yu out.

“There are no limits. You have to kick stuff out so fast. There are no rules. It’s crazy.”

Ironically, Yu and Waters started out at a snail’s pace; it’s taken years for Silver Swans to officially commence. The two first proposed the idea of working on a project together in 2007. At the time, Yu was dedicated to her indie rock band, LoveLikeFire, until last year when the tour landed her back home. The duo finally took on a name, inspired by Waters’ family crest and secured once Yu found a corresponding necklace.

“I know it’s hokey. A silver swan necklace,” she laughs. “It was a sign.”

In January 2010, the Swans hatched their first LP, Realize the Ghost, on Tricycle Records. Near the end of the year, the duo self-released the EP Secrets. Yu and Waters’ collaborations are almost entirely traded through space. Yu e-mails Waters a mood, song, or inspiration; Waters sends her back a few measures of a potential track. Yu writes up the melody and lyrics; Waters ties it all together.

Yu says this process sometimes happens so fast that it’s hard to comprehend her own participation. Yu wrote her part to “Secrets” in about 30 minutes. The song immediately haunts with Yu’s first lines, “Are you happy? I know you shiver like a stone. I know you can’t be when you have nowhere else to go.” She swears someone else came into the room and wrote it.

“I’ll look back at the lyrics and think, ‘Oh, wow, I couldn’t have said it better myself.'”

That initial recording of “Secrets” remains the only one. Yu hasn’t been able to precisely replicate the emotions she had behind her vocals that first night; spontaneity can’t be matched. This is why she reminds herself that it’s always best to let the inspiration come organically, regardless of outside pressures to produce in volumes.

“I’m not a trained musician,” she says, sipping on her sparkling cider at Heart Bar. “I don’t think, ‘Oh, I’ll write a song in the key of D today.’ Or ‘I’ll use minor chords on this one.’ I have to let it happen magically and then it’s extra-special.”

SILVER SWANS

With the Hundred in the Hands, DJ Aaron, DJ Omar

Thurs/5, 9 p.m.; $10

Rickshaw Stop

155 Fell, SF

(415) 861-2011

www.rickshawstop.com

 

Some shit-talking

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arts@sfbg.com

MUSIC Psychedelic Horseshit slinger Matt Horseshit has the gift of gab. He’s been credited with coining the genre label shitgaze, though he’s quick to dismiss it. “Genre names are pretty ridiculous at this point — a few kids in their room make up something and call it shoelace-gaze. A few people do something in their house and it’s now, ‘Which house?'”

Yet that talent, and flair for provocation, has also gotten the vocalist-guitarist-keyboardist into a world of pony dookie. Like when he spewed equine poo-poo all over Wavves, Vivian Girls, No Age, and TV on the Radio to the Washington Post in ’09, creating an indie-rock perfect shitstorm of heavily blogged proportions. Lo-fi, Horseshit opined in the article, has “exploded into this thing where Wavves is getting $30,000 to [expletive] crank out this [expletive] generic [expletive].” Call it the Horseshit side of the delightfully whacked, very wrong, and thoroughly shattered Psychedelic Horseshit equation talking.

Still, in a world of so much prepackaged pop/rock/hip-hop bowel movements and independents who’d rather play innocuous than call out crap as they hear it, you gotta love a guy who’s willing to say how he really feels, however impolitic, sensational, and naive it might be to do so. “There are too many positive vibes out there!” a friendly Horseshit (né Whitehurst), 27, protested last week by phone from his hometown of Columbus, Ohio. “Sometimes you gotta cut the tree down to make it bigger.”

The problem was that people, like the Vivian Girls, whom Horseshit considers pals and “sweet people,” got hurt. “I was railing against stuff in a moment of confused passion,” he explains now. “Then I was getting e-mails from people that I partied with, ‘What the fuck, I thought we were friends … ?’ No one wants to listen to the guy from Psychedelic Horseshit talk about how they’re influenced by Pavement — we’re here to entertain people and sell records — some people got that out of that …”

The flurry also caused Horseshit to step back and think about what he was doing — and whether he wanted to continue doing it at all. After putting out a mini-avalanche of CD-Rs, EPs, and albums on Siltbreeze and Wavves’ label Woodsist, among others (and running through 17 bass players), Horseshit decided to jump the “lo-fi gutter,” as he puts it, and embrace clarity, texture, even lyrics that don’t harsh on rock’s absurdities (see “New Wave Hippies” on Magic Flowers Droned [Siltbreeze, 2007]), rendered all the more naggingly accusatory when delivered in his nasal, nyah-nyah-ish tones.

“I honestly wanted to make a leap to a bigger label,” he says. “But after all my shit-talking, nobody would touch us at all … I don’t want to be linked to shitgaze for the rest of my life and be a rock history footnote.”

So after “weeding out” some band members, Horseshit and percussionist-keyboardist Ryan Jewell decided to make an album, Laced, to please themselves. “This record was the first thing where we took all our influences and thought about the way it was being taped,” says Horseshit, who confesses that he’s now thoroughly sick of mixing his own band’s music. “It’s more textured and more about sonics than it is about being bratty punks, and the lyrics are more dreamlike. There’s not a lot of pointed ‘fuck this’ and ‘fuck that.’ I got sick of that stuff … I was a little too honest there for a while.”

FatCat has since signed them on and Laced — a hazy, hallucinatory miasma of beats and moods that evokes both the loudly buzzing atmospherics of Black Dice and the experimental art damage of a less poppy Ariel Pink — is set to come out May 10. Leading up to the blessed date: the “Shitty Sundays” series of larky yet intriguing free MP3s (some freshly recorded only a few days previous), which have been released weekly on the FatCat site. The MP3s hint at Laced‘s trippier, less aggro mood, clad in samples and sprinkled with sequencers and drum machines (“I started going to festivals and taking ecstasy and getting into blissed-out dance music,” explains Horseshit), although the fuck-it feeling that anything can happen remains, the same freewheeling, horse-caca churn of the first Psychedelic Horseshit show I ever saw, back in 2007. “It’s a stepping stone kind of record,” Horseshit offers. “It has one foot in our path and goes in a lot of different places and frees us up from what a lot of people think we are.”

A tempered, more mature Horseshit? Could be — he’s even willing to bide his time while Jewell is away on a meditation retreat. “He wouldn’t even tell me where it was!” he marvels, adding that keyboardist Nicole Bland is playing with the band in the U.K., “covering his ass when he’s figured this shit out.”

“I said, ‘The record’s coming out,’ and he said, ‘I can’t be in the band right now. I just need to be away and find out what’s going on.’ It’s bad timing, but I respect it. It’s like, you know, ‘Thanks.'”

 

Bleak frames and guilt

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arts@sfbg.com

LIT From the first page, an anonymous manifesto denouncing the pharmaceutical industry, to a bronze sculpture of a suppressed anti-Nazi headline from the Lippische Tages-Zeitung weighted down by a giant hammer and nails on the last, David Lester’s graphic novel The Listener (Arbeiter Ring Publishing, 304 pages, $19.95) explores how words often fail their intended purpose, precipitating actions with unforeseen consequences.

The unintended consequence of the manifesto: an amateur activist falls to his death while hanging a banner from a radio tower. The unintended consequence of the unpublished article: the rise of the Third Reich and the fall of a nation’s conscience. In Lester’s book, both events become entangled within the scope of Louise Shearing, a Canadian sculptor wracked with guilt over the death of the activist, who took the phrase “action speaks louder than words” to heart.

Although The Listener eventually makes reference to the fallen activist, Vann, being influenced by Louise’s sculpture of French anarchist Louis Michel, it’s not immediately clear to the reader why Louise, as opposed to the scribes behind the manifesto, must bear the brunt of the guilt over his death. Like many young people in a state of flux, Louise winds up backpacking across Europe, hanging out in art museums and hooking up with cute but pedantic European men. In one of those almost-magical chance encounters so common to the open road, she has a conversation with an elderly couple in a café, which culminates in an unexpected history lesson.

Rudolph and Marie are from the former German state of Lippe (now part of North Rhine-Westphalia), site of the last free election in Germany before Hitler took the chancellorship. As journalists and members of a smaller right-wing party (the DVNP), which balks at towing the Nazi Party line, they nonetheless go along with the suppression of an article exposing corrupt Nazi campaign tactics. The headline pulled at the last minute is preserved for posterity on a secret plate that Rudolph smuggles home. “Our failure to defeat the Nazis in Lippe is a regret we live with every day,” Marie says.

It’s tempting to draw a parallel between Lester’s The Listener and Jason Lutes’ Berlin, but to compare the two does The Listener a disservice. Where Berlin is a meticulously-rendered serial drama characterized by painstakingly clear lines and weighted text, The Listener is a shadowy morality play cloaked in the mantle of German Expressionism. The black guilt that weighs heavily within Louise and the German couple seeps across each page like a Rorschach blot. Each bleak frame is a single painting, rendered in messily urgent layers of gray, interspersed with replications of newspaper headlines trumpeting the rise of the Third Reich. Also unlike Berlin, most of the book’s action actually takes place in the present day, where the reverberations of the dead can be, and are, remarked on by the living.

The Listener flags during Louise’s unstructured attempts to ascertain what art means to her by discussing it at length. She swoons over Cézanne and deconstructs Picasso, but is so rarely shown in the act of creation that it’s easy to forget that her art has served as a catalyst for action. It’s possible to imagine Lester — painter, musician, activist — having these very conversations with himself, but they don’t have the same impact as the sculpture Louise finally creates in the last frame, a picture truly worth a thousand words. 

 

TV eye

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arts@sfbg.com

HAIRY EYEBALL In 1976 artist Clive Robertson reflected on a performance he gave that same year, in which he dressed up as and restaged pieces by the famous postwar German performance artist Joseph Beuys. “We have to adapt legends so that they become portable and can fit into our pockets,” he wrote. “Unfortunately for the artist, that is the fight we label history.”

Robertson was addressing his own anxiety of influence in the face of Beuys’ then-ascendant status within the art world, but his comments also provide a gloss on the struggle that curators and art historians face in their own practice. In the case of “God Only Knows Who the Audience Is,” a parting gift from the graduating students of California College of the Arts’ Graduate Program in Curatorial Practice, currently on view in the galleries of the school’s Wattis Institute, it is a struggle undertaken with great intelligence and economy.

Smartly conceived and staged, “God Only Knows” is a dialogic tale of two histories. One is a survey of the nonprofit artist-run organization and gallery space La Mamelle (which became ART COM in the 1980s) that existed in various incarnations from 1975 through 1995 and forms an important, if under-recognized, chapter of Bay Area art history. The other traces a concurrent shift in performance art, largely made possible by the advent of video technology, away from the artist’s body and toward the disembodied artist.

La Mamelle was, appropriate to its name, a nurturing organ for the local art scene. In addition to hosting events and organizing exhibits, the organization released videos, audio-zines, and microfiches, and published anthologies as well as the regular magazine in which pieces such as Robertson’s “The Sculptured Politics of Joseph Beuys,” quoted above, first appeared.

The constant proliferation of publications and media put local artists such as Chip Lord, the video collective Ant Farm, Lynn Hershman, and Bonnie Sherk — who all have pieces or documentation of early performances on display here — in touch with other artists around the world and vice versa. The aforementioned artists had wandered to the end of the conceptual inroads that had been laid down by the likes of Andy Warhol and Beuys, and were now operating in a new media wilderness, with only their VHS cameras to guide them.

“God Only Knows” successfully locates these artists and their work within a continuum of practices that stretches into the present. Others have followed Robertson in treating Beuys and his practice as source material (“identity transfer” in his words), as evinced by nearby pieces in the first floor’s survey of performance art that de-centers the artist’s body as both a performance’s agent and its living trace, such as Whitney Lynn’s 2010 re-do of another Beuys performance, or Luis Felipe Ortega and Daniel Guzmán’s 1994 video Remake, in which the duo stages “improved upon” versions of canonical performance art pieces.

The exhibit’s second floor takes us into the ’80s and ’90s, where the message is clear: television opened up the potential for art to reach new audiences. Greeted by the ponderous, mustachioed visage of Douglas Davis in his The Last Nine Minutes, a live-to-video performance realized in 1977 for Documenta 6, we immediately see how video dissolved the time lag between action and its documentation. Bill Viola’s 44 portraits of television viewers (1983-84) staring silently into their TV sets, made for WGBH in Boston, screens on the other side of the entrance.

In the middle of the gallery, playing across what the accompanying brochure calls an “archipelago” of viewing stations, are various video pieces by La Mamelle and ART COM artists, as well as those by artists such as the Borat-like Olaf Breuning, whose work plays off of the spectacle of TV shows. Meanwhile, at the back of the room, Mario Garcia Torres’ jarring 2008 nine-channel compilation of artists’ TV cameos from the past four decades (Dali doing a car commercial; Warhol appearing as himself on The Love Boat) tabulates the increasing banality of art’s intersection with television.

Yet despite the histories laid out in “God Only Knows Who the Audience Is,” Bravo’s Work of Art, YouTube, and the continual meddling presence of James Franco, video has yet to kill the performance art star — or at least the demand for the star’s body, as demonstrated by Marina Abramovic’s recent MOMA retrospective, in which the real attraction was not the controversial restagings of her greatest hits, but her daily physical presence.

The irony, of course, is that exhibit’s online half-life, which continues today. The Flickr and Tumblr are still there. The artist is still present to those who navigate to those pages, even though Abramovic left the building long ago. God only knows who’s still watching.

 

DISAPPEARING ACTS

The title of German painter Christoph Roßner’s current solo show at Romer Young, “The Hat, That Never Existed,” is a tip-off. Roßner’s smudged, over-painted, and half-erased depictions of things and people — trees, candles, top hats, houses, old men — scan as disappearing acts rather than fixed portraits (the way the canvases have been hung even suggests that a few have gone missing from the gallery). “Ghoulish” is the operative word here. Not much separates the faceless specter of Ghost from the skeletal visage in Grinser; and Roßner can make even a rock look like an Expressionist coffin. That’s not lazy journalistic shorthand, either: Roßner’s rough-hewn bleakness is of a piece with the Old World aesthetics of, say, George Grosz. The séance lasts only one more week, though, so act fast.

GOD ONLY KNOWS WHO THE AUDIENCE IS

Through July 2

CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Art

1111 Eighth St.

(415) 551-9210

www.wattis.org

THE HAT, THAT NEVER EXISTED

Through May 14

Romer Young Gallery

1240 22nd St., SF

(415) 550-7483

www.romeryounggallery.com

 

Nothing was delivered

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arts@sfbg.com

FILM A few wordless minutes into Meek’s Cutoff, we see a boy carving the word “LOST” into a log. You know then that Kelly Reichardt has made another movie about being stranded in America, this one a neorealist western. The year is 1845, and a three-wagon caravan is crossing the hardscrabble northwestern plains en route to the Willamette. The families have hired the rogue guide Meek (Bruce Greenwood) to show them the way, but he’s only got them low on water. The place we now call Oregon remains contested territory. There are dire murmurs that Meek may be a British agent, purposefully leading American settlers astray; Meek redirects this unease toward the prospect of race war. When the group captures a Cayuse man (Rod Rondeaux), the guide advocates hanging. Sanguine Solomon (Will Patton) maintains that they should keep him on to find water.

The distant shots of the men deliberating their best route — patent guesswork — could be from any of the three women’s perspectives, but we have little doubt the attentiveness belongs to Solomon’s wife Emily (Michelle Williams, reprising her role as Reichardt’s moral center). Millie (Zoe Kazan) is young and weak-minded (she falls prey to Meek’s fear-mongering); Glory (Shirley Henderson) is pious, pregnant, and reluctant to accept charity. Emily is skeptical of the wisdom of men.

Meek’s Cutoff is in large part about Emily’s being brought to action — first to try to earn the Indian’s trust by mending his moccasin, and second by holding Meek at gunpoint when he aims to fulfill his blood lust. Unlike the Indians in classical “progressive” westerns like Broken Arrow (1950), the Cayuse does not prove himself as the noble embodiment of liberal values. He remains wholly Other, and any perceived alignment with Emily is ultimately incommensurable. The film offers a clear moral preference for Emily’s stand, but Reichardt and screenwriter Jon Raymond’s loose chain of scenes — one imagines them as chapters with plainly descriptive titles, as in 19th century novels — neither rewards nor punishes such conviction.

After working with different cinematographers on each of her previous features, Reichardt has found a keeper in Chris Blauvelt: the slow, nearly psychedelic dissolves, distant views of riders approaching and lamp-lit conversations burnish this film with a newfound compositional integrity. Reichardt’s expressive sound design (a squeaky wheel is practically a character) and knack for staging muffled performances remain in evidence, but not everything works so well in Meek’s Cutoff. In particular, the title character’s transformation from charismatic braggart to hateful sociopath feels roughshod. By the time Emily has him at gunpoint, the scales have tipped. She’s too brave by half, and his monstrousness is similarly overstretched.

Yet one forgives this narrative convenience because Reichardt in other ways acknowledges the difficulty of mounting a western with a female protagonist. Gone are the telling gestures, close-ups, and music cues glinting through Old Joy (2006) and Wendy and Lucy (2008); the oblique camera style shies away even from the minor pleasures of detail. These things have everything to do with the film’s torn attitude toward the genre: one in which key dualities of wilderness-civilization and individual-community are resolved by the arrival of a man who knows how and why to use a gun.

Williams submerges into the role as she did with Wendy, another marooned pilgrim, projecting tense defiance rather than magical iconography. Reichardt and Raymond cast the ideal of heroism still further adrift from any notion of destiny in their stand-still plotting of scenes. Meek’s Cutoff may be the antithesis of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road — instead of a fantasy of fatherly love slicing through a postapocalyptic nowhere, here we have the struggle for the soul of a fragile community that may not survive, but is liable to be remembered.

MEEK’S CUTOFF opens Fri/6 in Bay Area theaters.

The darkness underneath

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arts@sfbg.com

FILM It’s been more than 15 years since Jodie Foster sat in the director’s chair, but for a project like The Beaver, she was up to the challenge. As with her past directorial projects, Little Man Tate (1991) and Home for the Holidays (1994), Foster felt a connection to the material that inspired her to take on a larger role.

“The films that I do direct are personal films,” she reflects. “Their goals are very different from the things that I act in, and they really are about an expression of who I am and what I’ve lived.”

In this case, Foster can relate to the larger issues at hand if not the specifics. The Beaver tells the unique story of Walter Black (Mel Gibson), a clinically depressed man who struggles through his suicidal desires with the help of a beaver puppet. Walter uses the puppet — which he also voices — as a way of connecting with his family and the outside world.

“What I’ve seen as the years have gone on is that there’s a pattern of what I’m attracted to and what I take on,” Foster explains. “And it’s very much about people who are having a spiritual crisis. They have to delve through that spiritual crisis head on and hopefully emerge out on the other side as changed people.”

The Beaver requires its audience to take the journey with Walter, an occasionally unsettling experience that mimics Walter’s psyche. For Foster, it was important to stay true to the story, which meant both the comedic aspects and the devastating reality of mental illness.

“It’s a strange tone, and it’s a challenge for an audience,” she admits. “They’re either up for the challenge or they’re not, and we know that. We know the film is not for everybody … As an audience member, you have to be able to go through all those tones — start out light and then little by little, kind of discover the darkness underneath.”

The script itself walks the line between dark and light — it’s the first feature from Kyle Killen, who created the critically adored but short-lived TV series Lone Star. But Foster had her work cut out for her as she strived to maintain her vision for a film that’s an undeniably tough sell.

“That was something that we really talked about,” she recalls. “How do you make this movie entertaining in any way instead of having it just be grim and boring? That’s why there’s a fable quality to this film.”

For the same reason, Foster believes Gibson was the ideal choice for the role. As Walter, he must play both the depressed man at his wit’s end and the cheeky puppet who gets Walter through it.

“I think Mel struck just the right balance between his lightness of touch and a gruffness,” Foster says. “The Beaver is not Russell Brand in Hop. He’s got a deep, dark voice. He’s lewd. He’s tough. [Mel] can be witty and light, and he can also go to an incredibly dark place.”

But can audiences, who lack Foster’s personal relationship with Gibson, look past the man’s public troubles? In the past year alone, Gibson has faced accusations of racism and domestic violence.

Foster believes Gibson’s performance transcends any negative press he has endured. And since she has little control over what audiences will ultimately think, she chooses to focus on the positive.

“At this point I’ve kind of thrown up my hands,” Foster says. “The really good news is I got to make a movie I love. I am so genuinely grateful, and it does have its own reward.”

THE BEAVER opens Fri/6 in San Francisco.

 

Globe

1

paulr@sfbg.com

DINE When Globe opened nearly a decade and a half ago, it almost instantly developed a reputation as the place where you could find chefs having dinner at 1 a.m., after their own places had closed. The heart of the Barbary Coast restaurant (opened by Joseph Manzare and Mary Klingbell and still run by them) was a wood-burning oven that glared out over the dining room like the Eye of Sauron, and there was a wonderful perfume of woodsmoke in the air. (I think smokiness should be added as a flavor, incidentally, to make six. For years we were stuck with sweet, salty, sour, and bitter, and than umami, or meatiness, was added. Smokiness is distinct from those five, and also quite real.)

The march of time is often cruel to restaurants, and, as someone who last stepped into Globe before Bill Clinton got himself impeached, I wondered what I would find in these later days. An insider friend, discussing a famous San Francisco restaurant with me recently at a dinner party, ended up gently dismissing it by saying, “Well, it is a 30-year-old restaurant,” as if to say that loss of freshness is inevitable. But restaurants aren’t heads of iceberg lettuce in a refrigerator, de-freshening with every tick of the clock, and Globe isn’t even 15 yet.

My first impression, on stepping inside recently, was that the place is still recognizable. The walls are of exposed brick, the floors are simple wood plank stained dark; the stairs to the private dining room and restrooms downstairs are made from plain, workmanlike steel; and the dangling light fixtures over the small bar, of glass in several colors and elongated shapes, are mildly ornamental but not garish. The look is spare, muscular, and elegant, like that of an athlete in an ancient Olympic Games, clad only in a loincloth. (Actually such an athlete would probably have been naked, but put such thoughts from your mind.)

The menu is as pared-down and purposeful as the décor. I am heartened by brief menus, even though brevity is a kind of heresy in this gassy culture, where more is always better and is preferred without question or argument. Brief means: these are the dishes the kitchen believes in. And Globe’s kitchen obviously believes in its succinct list.

The restaurant’s wood-burning oven made it an important precursor of the current pizza chic, and pizza remains a significant element of the menu. The crusts, though thin, retain a distinctive elasticity and chewiness — which means that once you get some into your mouth, it’s a complex, satisfying experience. The downsides are that such crusts can be more difficult to cut, with slices sticking together, and the points can suffer from droopiness. Drooping pizza points remind me of the ears of a dog who’s just been chastised for some offense he doesn’t quite understand. We found the gambori mushroom pie ($16), boosted by white truffle oil, to be powerfully earthy, although the tomato sauce could have used a bit more salt.

Tuna tartare ($15) combined coarsely chopped fish with scallions, wonderfully peppery Genovese basil, and olive oil. The tartare was served with oily levain toasts and an Easter egg of black-olive tapenade, which provided a necessary correction of salt (and umami). We did think the macaroni and cheese ($8), made with Tillamook cheese — is that a selling point? — was good but not up to snuff, the bar having been raised sharply in the past few years. The best versions of mac ‘n’ cheese now use unusual pasta shapes, more intricate blends of cheeses, additions of fortifying and flavor-enhancing ingredients, and often a bread-crumb gratin. A gratin alone here would have made a big difference.

Several of the main courses offered an attractive char. A filet of wild coho salmon ($22) was laid atop a bed of boccacino pasta, with braised rapini, aglio e olio, and salsa verde — a Globe classic. One small niggle: the pasta, long fat tubes like bucatini on steroids, was awkward to eat gracefully. More user-friendly was the Cornish game hen ($21). The little bird seemed to have been largely boned out, and was plated atop a marvelous green garlic risotto that was not only beautifully cooked and seasoned but as bright a green as spring itself.

Only in the desserts did I detect any sign of fatigue and disengagement. A slice of amaretto cheesecake ($8) was quite good, very intense with almond and just sweet enough to win the day, but the apple tart ($8) could have used a serious rethink. The idea seemed to have been to deconstruct it, with apple slices laid on what looked like a napkin of pastry and topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. The glory of apple tarts is the melding of caramelized apple with nicely crisped pastry; here the pastry was sepulchral, the apples not caramelized. It was the flat-earth version, in need of some roundedness. 

GLOBE

Dinner: Mon.–Sat., 6 p.m.–1 a.m.; Sun., 6 p.m.–midnight

Lunch: Mon.–Fri., 11:30 a.m.–3 p.m.

290 Pacific, SF

(415) 391-4132

www.globerestaurant.com

Full bar

AE/MC/V

Noisy

Wheelchair accessible

 

Let it show

0

arts@sfbg.com

DANCE In December 2009, as part of a double bill with Kara Davis, Kate Weare showed an excerpt of a work in progress in which Leslie Kraus rammed her head into Douglas Gillespie’s chest, knocking him flat on his back. It’s a moment one is unlikely to forget. Weare must have thought so as well, because she retained the passage in Bright Land, which received its San Francisco premiere at ODC Theater this past weekend.

The setting is a hootenanny with the Crooked Jades quintet — splendid, smart, solid musicians — providing both the inspiration and the live accompaniment to the dances. Many of the songs — they were listed in the program, with the lyrics available online — are dark and ambiguous in the way that folk material tells one story on the surface, but covers up more complex perspectives. I regretted that more of the texts could not be easily understood during the performance.

Bright opens with the musicians strolling in and Lisa Berman’s steely version of “Moonshine” — a song about incest, rape, prison, and death. Not exactly happy-time music, but it pays tribute to those stark parts of life we don’t like to think about. Reflecting that double vision, the choreography starts with the dancers walking in, the men (Gillespie and Adrian Clark) from one side, the women (Kraus and Marlena Penney Oden) from the other. Crossing paths, they stop in their tracks and the party is on.

From the beginning, these dancers are as weary of as they are attracted to each other. Traditions are acknowledged, with the men swinging the women and the women circling the men — there are even shades of square dancing. But encounters are rough, short-lived, and pulling-at-the-seams. They are angular, dense, and then, for no apparent reason, the tumultuous actions stop, as if a film has been cut. Yet there are moments of joy and tenderness: a cheek receives a caress, skin-to-skin contact is fully relished.

In addition to the ever-surprising full-body language, Weare uses a rich mix of gestures: ramrod straight arms, chopping hands, sly smiles. Throughout the work, the women seem to have particular powers. At one point they head straight for each other and plant a kiss on each other’s lips. While clearly a sexual act, it looks even more like an acknowledgment that the two are on the same page. For “Old Man Below,” they sit like crones in wide squats, never taking their eyes off of the male duet. Skipping in an exuberant sisterhood, they swing the men’s shirts around their heads. Often they seem flirtatious, flipping their skirts and fanning themselves.

But Bright is no political tract. These dancers tangle, dive, and pull each other into duets, trios, and quartets, not so much in romantic or oppositional relationships, but as part of defining themselves and each other. In a slow dance section — with the lights discreetly lowered — the two couples seemed glued to each other, but without the expected erotic heat. In “Uncle Rabbit,” watched over by his colleagues, Gillespie’s questioning solo sent him into a tortuous back bend, echoed by the observers. Later he launched himself headfirst between the supine Kraus’ legs with no reaction from her. Penney Oden, however, stripped off her dress.

A long, sculpturally intricate duet in which the dancers flowed like cream over each other took excellent advantage of Kraus’ petite but fierce persona and Gillespie’s tall but lanky frame.

What fascinated throughout, besides the precise use of an intricate language, was the sense of these people simultaneously being pulled every which way. Weare doesn’t present this issue in terms of resolvable conflicts but as an existential state of being. These men and women live off ambiguity, contradictory impulses, and instability. They are going full-speed, except when everything stops. Yet they are also vibrantly and sensuously alive, every pore of their skin open to the next sensation, and knowing they can be kicked out of the game anytime. Rarely does putting up a mirror to our frantic, multitasking, and always-on existence make for such satisfying and well-performed choreography.

 

The San Francisco-Jalisco añejo

1

virginia@sfbg.com

DRINKS Tequila is not tequila unless it’s made in the Jalisco region of Mexico. So strictly speaking, you’re not going to find a local tequila in the Bay Area. But the case of Don Pilar is about as close as you’re going to get — his story is written by lines drawn directly between San Francisco and the Jalisco of his youth.

Pilar (a.k.a. Jose Pilar Contreras) is a Bay Area entrepreneur in the truest sense of the word, an all-around Mexican American success story. Born and raised in the Jaliscan highlands where his Don Pilar tequila is now distilled near the town of San Jose de Gracia, knowledge of the liquor runs in his blood. “My father is a proud alteño, a highland gentlemen,” says Juan Carlos Contreras, Pilar’s son and brand ambassador. “During the 40 years he’s spent in the U.S., he has always kept his heart in the highlands.”

Pilar moved to California in the 1960s to work its orchards and fields. After years of grueling labor, he joined two business partners (now commonly referred to as “the tres amigos”) to open the popular Tres Amigos Restaurant in Half Moon Bay in the 1980s, now with three locations. Pilar launched his own Amigos Grill in Portola Valley and in 2002, returned to Mexico to pursue his next venture: making his own añejo tequila.

“We are lucky to have [San Francisco] as our home base,” says Contreras. “People [here] are hip to trends and small, up-and-coming brands like us.” He cites the “great community” the city has bred of aficionados and tastemakers — like Julio Bermejo of Tommy’s Mexican Restaurant and Tequila Bar and Lippy the Tequila Whisperer — as one of the reasons that his family’s tequila business has been able to prosper and sell. Plus, “the large Latino community has been supportive of my father’s tequila, especially because of his immigrant story of success.”

Pilar is that rare figurehead who stays hands-on in his businesses. It’s not uncommon to find him buying supplies and produce for the restaurants, or to catch him supervising agave fields in Jalisco.

“In Spanish, you’d say that my father is a jalador,” Contreras reflects. “He and my mom work seven days a week. If he’s not at a local store signing bottles for customers, you’ll find him washing dishes at his restaurant. This is the key to his story of success.”

Yet another key would be value — you’d be hard-pressed to find a better añejo at this price (it’s often sold locally in the low $30 range).

An aged, golden version of tequila, añejos cost much more than blanco or reposado tequila. Pilar’s double-distilled release is aged in virgin American white oak barrels with a medium char. The taste is redolent of butterscotch, chocolate, and toasted agave. With a full, round finish, it has won a number of awards, often surpassing añejos that cost at least twice as much.

Recently the family has added to their tequila family with a blanco, a young, un-aged tequila. Where the añejo bottle features a photo of Pilar the patriarch, the blanco’s has a younger Pilar of years past. Clean and bright with pineapple and citrus zest notes, the blanco has a gentle, creamy finish, a standout among its peers.

It’s all built on traditional Jaliscan knowledge of the liquor — but Pilar adds a touch of artistic San Francisco spirit. His crew uses the Mozart method of fermentation, coaxing the process along by playing baroque music — Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, to be exact. They believe that the musical ambiance optimizes the tequila’s conversion from sugars to alcohol. 

Subscribe to Virginia’s twice-monthly newsletter, the Perfect Spot 

 

Superlist 2011: Bottomless mimosas

0

culture@sfbg.com

DRINKS In the murky depths of our foggy past (the ’80s!), the Guardian regularly featured Superlists — as-close-as-it-gets-to-comprehensive guides to a small facet of our beloved city. We were feeling a little dry and reporter-y on a recent Sunday, so we’re bringing the tradition back with bottomless mimosas.

Mimosa. Just the saying the word can bring to light that hard rock inside us whose glitter only catches the light on those sunny, breezy, weekend brunch occasions. Refreshing, sparkling, citrus bastions of happiness, those mimosas — the gift(s) one gives to oneself as a reward for having nothing to do. But where there is one mimosa, we are of the opinion that there should be many mimosas. Here’s our citywide list of the wheres and whens of finding a bottomless mimosa special near you, prices and hours of availability thoughtfully provided. Drink up, and drink often. (Hannah Tepper)

 

Luna Park Sat.-Sun. 10 a.m.–3 p.m., $13. 694 Valencia, SF. (415) 553-8584, www.lunaparksf.com

Lime Sat. 11a.m.–3 p.m.; Sun. 10:30 a.m.-3p.m., $8 with purchase of meal. 2247 Market, SF. (415) 621-5256, www.lime-sf.com

Circa Sat.-Sun. 10 a.m.-3 p.m., $8 with purchase of meal. 2001 Chestnut, SF. (415) 351-0175, www.circasf.com

Bisou Sat.-Sun. 10 a.m.-3 p.m., $8 with purchase of meal. 2367 Market, SF. (415) 556-6200, www.bisoubistro.com

Paul K Sat.-Sun. 10:30 a.m.–2:30 p.m., $13. 199 Gough, SF. (415) 552-7132, www.paulkrestaurant.com

Nickies Sat. 10 a.m.–2 p.m., $8 with purchase of entrée. 466 Haight, SF. (415) 255-0300,

www.nickies.com

Moussy’s Sat.-Sun. 11 a.m.–2 p.m., $15. 1345 Bush, SF. (415) 346-7029, www.moussys.com

Mercury Lounge Sun. 10 a.m.–3 p.m., $11. 1582 Folsom, SF. (415) 551-1582, www.mercurysf.com

Axis Café and Gallery Sat.-Sun. 10 a.m. — 3 p.m., $12 with purchase of entree. 1201 Eighth St., SF. (415) 437-2947, www.axis-cafe.com

Dell’Uva Sat.-Sun. 11 a.m. — 3 p.m., $15. 565 Green, SF. (415) 393-9930

www.delluvasf.com

El Patio Espanol Sun. 11:30 a.m. — 3 p.m., $24 includes set brunch. 2850 Alemany, SF. (415) 587-5117, www.patioespanol.com

Tangerine Wed.-Sun. 10 a.m. — 3 p.m., $33 per pitcher. 3499 16th St., SF. (415) 626-1700 www.tangerinesf.com

The Sycamore Sat.-Sun. 11 a.m. — 3 p.m., $10. 2140 Mission, SF. (415) 252-7704, www.thesycamoresf.com

Mayes Oyster House Sat.-Sun. 10 a.m. — 3 p.m., $9. 1233 Polk, SF. (415) 885-1233, www.mayessf.com

Café Taboo Sat.-Sun. 9 a.m. — 3 p.m., $10. 600 York, SF. (415) 341-1188,

www.cafetaboo.net

Park Chalet Sun. 10 a.m. — 3 p.m., $25 includes brunch buffet. 1000 Great Highway, SF. (415) 386-8439, www.parkchalet.com

Stable Café Sun. 10 a.m. — 2 p.m., $15. 2128 Folsom, SF. (415) 552-1199, www.stablecafe.com

Oola Sun. 10:30 a.m. — 3 p.m., $10. 860 Folsom, SF. (415) 995-2061, www.oola-sf.com

Don Pisto’s Sat.-Sun. 11 a.m. — 3 p.m., $12. 510 Union, SF. (415) 395-0939, www.donpistos.com

Sugar Sat.-Sun. 8 a.m. — 4 p.m., $10. 679 Sutter, SF. (415) 441-5678, www.sugarcafesf.com

Fresca Sat.-Sun. 10 a.m. — 3 p.m., $12. 3945 24th St., SF. (415) 695-0549, www.frescasf.com

The Republic Sat.-Sun. 11 a.m. — 3 p.m., $14. 3213 Scott, SF. (415) 817-1337, www.republicsf.com

Farmerbrown Sat.-Sun. 10 a.m. — 2:30 p.m., $15. 25 Mason, SF. (415) 409-3276

www.farmerbrownsf.com

Darla’s Sat.-Sun. 10 a.m. — 3 p.m., $8. 822 Irving, SF. (415) 753-3275

Triptych Sat.-Sun. 10 a.m. — 3:30 p.m., $30 includes entree. 1555 Folsom, SF. (415) 703-0557, www.triptychsf.com

Nova Bar and Restaurant Sat.-Sun. 10 a.m. — 3 p.m., $9.50. 555 Second St., SF. (415) 543-2282, www.novabar.com

Ironside Sat.-Sun., 10 a.m. — 2 p.m., $10. 680 Second St., SF. (415) 896-1127, www.ironsidesf.com

Dunya Sat.-Sun. 11:30 a.m. — 3 p.m., $12. 1609 Polk, SF. (415) 400-5770,

www.dunyasf.com

Eastside West Sat. 11 a.m.–3 p.m., Sun. 10 a.m. — 3 p.m., $25 includes entree. 3154 Fillmore, SF. (415) 885-4000, www.eswsf.com

Colibri Mexican Bistro Sat.-Sun. 10:30 a.m. — 2:30 p.m., $10. 438 Geary, SF. (415) 440-2737, www.colibrimexicanbistro.com Spire Sun. 11 a.m. — 2 p.m., $10. 685 Third St., SF. (415) 947-0000

www.spiresf.com

Andalu Sat.-Sun. 10:30 a.m. — 2:30 p.m., $15. 3198 16th St., SF. (415) 621-2211, www.andalusf.com

1300 Fillmore Sat.-Sun. 11 a.m. — 1 p.m., $12. 1300 Fillmore, SF. (415) 771-7100 www.1300fillmore.com 

Nothing’s fixed

0

CYCLING The SF Bike Coalition’s valet parking was strangely empty for a blazingly sunny Saturday event by the Ferry Building. “They’ve just been leaving their bikes around,” a bored attendant told me of the crowd assembled for the Red Bull Ride + Style fixed-gear competition. But that wasn’t out of apathy to their rides — these attendees wanted to keep their bikes close.

Candy-colored fixies were turned upside-down on their handlebars, stacked in piles with the steeds of their owners’ friends. Young men (there were a lot of young men) kept their hands firmly locked in riding position, rolling their bikes back and forth as they spoke, some times gesticulating with them for added effect. Those slim, messenger-style backpacks were much in evidence.

In the competition arena, no one strayed far from their bikes either, except for the spectacular falls that sporadically broke up the action. Strap-on fixed-gear pedals make for epic wipe-outs; one soldier was taken off the field on a stretcher.

Save for the lone female who rolled about during the event’s interminable “practice times,” all riders were male. This was about bros on bikes. Indeed, as the final race around the hazardous, hairpin track was announced between Bay Area childhood friends Jason Clary and Kell McKenzie (Clary won), the announcer took a moment to salute their relationship. “You guys have known each other since you were 14? It’s bro versus bro! Fixed-gear nation!”

Competitive fixed-gear racing is, relatively speaking, a nascent addition to the legion of bone-cracking thrill fests enjoyed by extreme sports fans. The sport’s lexicon is borrowed from the death-defying ride tactics of gonzo bike messengers, a profession that has to sprint to keep up with e-mail and 3-D projection technology to stay salient for corporate America.

San Francisco is one of the messenger bike meccas. The city has given birth to some epically fly-terrifying fixie films — guys slaloming down from Twin Peaks, diving into traffic, holding onto buses for acceleration, basically using the ridiculous speed you can achieve on a fixed- gear bike for pure chaos (in the eyes of the pedestrian, surely).

But street stunts do not a competitive sport make. On Saturday, it was apparent that everyone was trying to figure out just what Ride + Style meant. The week before the event, the Guardian interviewed Austin Horse, one of New York City’s best-known bike messengers, by e-mail.

“Nobody knows what to expect about Ride N Style,” he wrote. “It’s very mysterious, but the riders know it’s going to be a challenging and compelling event because it’s coming from Red Bull. [Editor’s note: Apparently Red Bull’s sponsorship is a big deal. Red Bull also sponsored a downhill bike race through a Brazilian favela, the aerodynamic inanity of Flutag, and your most jittery friend in college who had a dorm room full of Red Bull crates. Remember that guy?] The result is that all the riders are a little more anxious about this race than other events. What we do know is that it’s gonna be a sprint with features some guys aren’t going to be comfortable with. It’s a little scary.”

The second half of the day was given over to what was billed as the most cutting edge part of the competition: the freestyle contest. Covered in sherbet colors, spiders, geometric whorls, and playing card designs, they looked every bit the background for an extreme sports tournament.

“Only rarely have events invested in features tailored to the constraints and potential of this type of riding,” Horse says. When the cameras are off “people practice wherever they can — skate parks and street spots.”

In San Francisco, one of the most reliable spots to watch good fixed-gear freestyling is in the Harry Bridges Plaza, the strip of asphalt between the Ferry Building and where Ride + Style was erected in the more ample Justin Herman Plaza. You can go out to Harry Bridges at dusk most days and see people hopping their bikes off the ground, spinning in the air, twerking their handlebars, riding backward in tight figure eights, and stopping on dimes.

But the ramps took it up a notch — so up that spectators began to compare the competition to those of BMX bikes, which can catch a lot more air than fixed gears. It wasn’t a coincidental connection: some of the competitors announced on the microphone that they were usually on a BMX, and Jeremy Witek, the lead designer of the ramps, told me during the construction phase that this was the first time he’d been asked to make structures like these for a fixed-gear competition.

There were some hands-down highlights of the freestyle portion — Kohei “Kozo” Fuji flew in from Osaka to bust the first fixed-gear back flip in international competition. But many of the routines seemed strangely suited for their setting. The beauty of the fixed-gear lies in its simplicity — one pump of the legs, one rotation of the wheels, the easy mathematics of human body and machine.

But the novelty of seeing these lifestyle bikes thrust into the bright lights and loud announcers of the X Games variety wasn’t lost on those least jaded of San Franciscans — the Embarcadero tourists. Washing my hands in the Embarcadero Center bathroom, I heard a young woman essentially ask her mom what the hell this crazy city of bikes is up to. “Does San Francisco always have this?”

Girl, it does now. 

 

Knee-jerked reaction

1

CHEAP EATS I left my uke in New York City — technically in Boston, in the back of a station wagon headed for New York City. I left my baby, my toothbrush, my second-favorite pillow, and my other baby in New Orleans. My rabbit-fur jacket that I only ever wear to Rainbow Grocery … I left that in New Orleans too. I left my stomach in Dallas. I left my left knee in San Francisco, on the 50-yard line of a football field at Crocker Amazon. I don’t know where I left my pink cowboy hat. I can’t find it, and it’s pink cowboy hat season.

I got the ain’t-got-no-cowboy-hat-or-left-knee-neither blues.

One thing: I do have a new baby. He’s four months old and lives upstairs in my apartment building, so the commute’s real easy compared to Louisiana or even Berkeley. And he likes to suck on my left bicep sometimes while I’m rocking him to sleep, which gives me cute little hickies there.

In Dolores Park, a live dog’s got a stuffed bunny by the throat. He’s thrashing it this way and that, hammering it into the ground, growling, and beating the living fuzz out of it.

In various states of revelry and/or reverie, my friends and I are occupied in just generally occupying a couple of blankets, watching this big dog do its thing.

“My money is on the rabbit,” I say, because it is. I love an underdog.

In fact, we all are one — back in last place, our one-game winning streak having come to an inglorious end earlier that morning. Dig, who had an important sack on a third-and-short, our play-of-the-game, goes, “Look! It’s playing possum.”

Sure enough, the rabbit is lying very still in the grass, the dog standing over it, watching warily. I’m not a dog person, but I almost feel bad for this un. Its prey, this shattered, chewed-up Easter bunny, is limper than limp, is missing an ear, and arguably never had much fight in it; Nevertheless, I more than half expect it to at least jump up and run away, if not kick the dumb dog’s ass first.

Next week is the Kentucky Derby, and now that I officially “play the ponies,” I will have to find me a long shot to get behind. And get shat upon.

I got the ain’t-got-no-cowboy-hat-or-even-no-left-knee-neither blues.

My own Hedgehog says I ain’t no spring chicken farmer. I’m afraid someone’s going to buy me golf clubs for my birthday. Please don’t buy me golf clubs please. I got some team sports left in me, and contact ones at that. I know I do. Get me a knee brace, an ice pack, and a Costco-size bottle of ibuprofen, I got the ain’t-got-no-left-knee blues is all.

When that happens — that is, this happens — there is only one thing for me, and that is some quality Chunks de la Cooter time. It puts everything else in perspective. So I went and made a chicken pot with them, and bathed them and sang them to sleep and woke up with them in the middle of the night, and in the morning I took them to their Chunk Fu class, and then to Arizmendi and then what they call “the new park” because it’s probably the oldest park in all of Berkeley and therefore not on their beaten path. And I took pictures of them on the big-girl swings.

It was hard to say goodbye, so I didn’t. I went to dinner with the whole de la Cooter fambly down to Solano, to the new-to-me Korean bowls-of-things place, called Bowl’d.

The idea here — at least the main one — is bibimbap in stone bowls with your choice of meat or tofu. They also give you a choice of white rice or mixed grain. Either way it’s going to get all crusty and delicious at the bottom of your hot hot hot stone bowl.

At the top: cabbage, carrots, sprouts, greens, bulgogi if you’re me, and one nice sunny-side-up fried egg.

 

 

I wish there was a little more meat in it. But the meat there was good, and so was everything else. They don’t give you so many little bowls of things for the table, but they’ll refill what you love. In my case: kimchi. Super spicy. New favorite restaurant. 

BOWL’D

Sun.–Thurs.: 11 a.m.–10 p.m.;

Fri.–Sat.: 11 a.m.–11 p.m.

1479 Solano, Albany

(510) 526-6223

Beer and wine

AE/D/MC/V

 

Power and shared wealth

0

rebeccab@sfbg.com

In the 1930s, political cartoonists often portrayed California’s monolithic Pacific Gas & Electric Co. as a giant octopus, its tentacles extending into every sphere of civic life. If money buys influence, the cephalopod analogy may still be apt today when considering the company’s tally of corporate giving, part of a detailed filing with the California Public Utilities Commission.

PG&E’s largesse, measured in thousands of dollars in donations, spills into a broad array of nonprofit organizations, educational institutions, chambers of commerce, and volunteer-led efforts throughout the state. PG&E’s corporate giving is so broad that it even extends to several organizations affiliated with appointees to the Independent Review Panel convened by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) to investigate PG&E’s deadly San Bruno pipeline explosion.

While the utility undoubtedly advances worthy causes with its myriad donations to youth groups, cultural centers, organizations fighting AIDS and cancer, arts councils, environmental groups, and other charitable entities, corporate contributions always reflect a calculated decision, notes Bob Stern of the Center for Governmental Studies.

“They’re a big company, and they’re trying to, shall we say, ingratiate themselves with a wide swath of community interests, including nonprofit groups,” Stern told us. “The cigarette companies did that all the time, and it was very effective … because nonprofits then laid off on ballot measures, for example, or they would oppose ballot measures that would increase cigarette taxes. My bottom line is, businesses don’t just spend money gratuitously. There is a business reason a business spends money — campaign contributions or donations. And they have to justify that to their shareholders.”

In mid-October 2010, CPUC president Michael Peevey announced his selection of five expert panelists for the newly created advisory body on the San Bruno explosion. In an official filing, Peevey ordered PG&E to fund the panel, which would be tasked with gathering facts and making recommendations to the CPUC “as to whether there is a need for the general improvement of the safety of PG&E’s natural gas transmission lines, and if so, how these improvements should be made.” A report on the panel’s initial findings is expected in the coming weeks. The effort is on a parallel track with the federal investigation now underway at the National Transportation Safety Board.

The appointees bring a wealth of knowledge and expertise to the table. Panelist Karl Pister, for example, chairs the board of the California Council on Science and Technology, served as chancellor at UC Santa Cruz, and has taught civil engineering. Jan Schori has an insider’s understanding of how an energy company is run thanks to her past experience as CEO of the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD).

Yet some of Peevey’s appointees to the Independent Review Panel have ties to PG&E. Panelist Paula Rosput Reynolds formerly held positions at the investor-owned utility, according to her bio, including serving as an executive of the PG&E’s interstate natural gas pipeline subsidiary. An understanding of the company’s inner workings could be considered an asset, but it also raises questions about her independence.

Panelist Patrick Lavin serves as an executive council member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, which represents PG&E employees. He’s also on the board of directors of the California Foundation on the Environment and the Economy (CFEE), a nonprofit that counts PG&E among its membership. CFEE sponsored a two-week trip to Spain last November for government officials, energy industry representatives, and others to study “renewable energy, infrastructure, public private partnerships, desalination, and rail,” according to its website, picking up the $8,880 tab for Peevey to join the trip. The nonprofit received donations from PG&E totaling $45,000 in 2009, $45,000 in 2008, and $40,000 in 2006 — the three most recent years available.

Schori, meanwhile, has clearly held roles in the past that have placed her in an adversarial relationship with the utility considering that SMUD — a public power utility — has engaged in territorial battles against PG&E. Yet Schori also serves on the board of the Climate Action Reserve, a nonprofit that also counts former PG&E vice president of operations Nancy McFadden — the architect behind PG&E’s ill-fated ballot initiative Proposition 16 — on its board of directors.

Climate Action Reserve received $45,000 from PG&E in 2009, according to a CPUC filing. Schori also previously served on the board of directors of a nonprofit called the Alliance to Save Energy, which was co-chaired by former PG&E CEO Peter Darbee, who was expected to step down April 30 with a retirement package totaling nearly $35 million. The Alliance to Save Energy received $45,000, $35,000, and $35,000 in PG&E donations in 2009, 2008, and 2006, respectively. Schori did not respond to a request for comment.

The chair of the San Bruno Independent Review Panel is Larry Vanderhoef, former chancellor of UC Davis and a highly respected academic. As an ex-officio trustee of the UC Davis Foundation, Vanderhoef is engaged in soliciting private-sector contributions for the university. UC Davis has received an average of around $200,000 in philanthropic contributions from PG&E each year since 2005. In an e-mail to the Guardian, spokesperson Claudia Morain noted that Vanderhoef “has never been involved in PG&E solicitations.”

PG&E’s contributions to the two nonprofits and the university represent very small portions of the total budgets of these three entities, particularly in the case of UC Davis. At the same time, they are relatively large sums compared to the contributions the company generally makes. The city of Berkeley, for example, received just $2,500 from PG&E in 2009. Most organizations receive less than $10,000, but certain groups are given much more. The UC Regents, for example, received a $406,400 donation from PG&E in 2009.

“The panel members are all eminently qualified to perform the important job that has been entrusted to them.” CPUC spokesperson Terrie Prosper told us. “It is not surprising, or inappropriate, that the panel members also are involved in philanthropic activities of various kinds in California. Nor is it surprising that PG&E, California’s largest public utility company, in its own donations to various public and nonprofit institutions and its other philanthropic activities, supports some of these same worthy causes. These philanthropic activities in no way impair the independence, good judgment, or valued public service the members of the Independent Review Panel are giving to California.”

Stern, of the Center for Governmental Studies, said PG&E contributions to organizations affiliated with members of the Independent Review Panel did not necessarily raise a red flag. “Sure it has some impact, but not in terms of disqualification. That’s off the table as far as I’m concerned,” he said. “I have 15 members on my board of directors. I would never say that because we got a grant worth $200,000 from PG&E that that would affect my board member ruling on a PG&E matter,” he added, speaking hypothetically.

As members of an advisory group rather than public officials, he noted, the panelists would not be in violation of any conflict-of-interest rules. “Certainly there’s always a question of bias and appearance of impropriety. And the question is, how extensive is it? It’s a whole bunch of different factors. It’s all gradations. There is no rule on this, obviously, but it’s an appearance question, and whether or not the appearance looks like they’re going to be biased.” At the end of the day, he added, the question would be settled by “looking at the final results and seeing what the final results say.”

Evicting hoarders

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People who collect massive amounts of stuff in their apartments often suffer from a mental disability that causes them to become hoarders. Even so, they can face eviction — despite state laws that protect renters with disabilities. And when hoarders get evicted, they usually become homeless.

“Hoarding behaviors may result in a landlord issuing an eviction notice on the basis that the tenant has created a nuisance, fire hazard, or other danger in the building. If the tenant is diagnosed as disabled, the tenant may notify the landlord of the disability and request the landlord provide a reasonable accommodation to enable the tenant to remain in the apartment rather than being evicted,” reads a recent report from San Francisco’s Mental Health Association, which is seeking to educate renters, landlords, and the general public on the issue.

Evictions in San Francisco are on the rise. Between March 1, 2010 and Feb. 28, 2011, 1,370 evictions were filed, an 8 percent rise from 1,269 evictions the previous year. The Federal Fair Housing Act (FHA) and California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) offer protections to those who have a disability, but landlords say there are liability issues associated with excessive hoarding.

Tenants can fight evictions by asking their landlords for a “reasonable accommodation” whose duration depends on the situation. A reasonable accommodation could be a plan that requires 30 days of cleaning and support service for hoarders in an effort to avoid eviction.

According to Mayoclinic.com, hoarding is labeled an obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). But many researchers consider it a distinct mental health problem that can be treated with therapy or counseling. California law defines a disability as a physical or mental impairment that limits one or more life activities, such as walking, seeing, hearing, working, learning, or caring for oneself.

Sandra Stark, 66, hasn’t allowed anyone in her home for five years. She collects kitchenware and antiques. Like most hoarders, she started collecting after a traumatic event. It occurred when she was in her 30s and was gaining weight. Stark had never heard of the term “hoarder” until she watched a special on The Oprah Winfrey Show.

She claims her hoarding is a symptom of depression and disability, not OCD. “I feel like, with my weight, the clutter is a barrier between me and the world that hurt me,” she told us.

Before TV shows uncovered the lives of hoarders, family and friends often were the ones to call for help. These days, hoarders often seek help themselves. A&E’s Hoarders receives 1,000 submissions every month. After we spoke to some hoarders, they were all willing to seek change.

MHA recognized the problem and created a task force in 2007. Its goal was to build a plan of action to combat compulsive hoarding in San Francisco. The task force puts the costs of compulsive hoarding at more than $6 million per year. In 2009, the task force completed its report and estimated that between 12,000 and 25,000 residents in San Francisco struggle with this condition.

Most landlords try not to evict hoarding tenants right away. “Landlords may be compassionate and, in many cases, I believe, try hard to prevent evictions. However, they still have liability insurance and strict guidelines to follow,” said Tim Ballard, a social work supervisor for the city. “It is their responsibility to protect the other tenants, and the painful result used as a means of harm reduction is often the legal option of eviction proceedings.”

He said the heavy cleaning required on a hoarder’s home can cost between $6,000 and $8,000 and can include removing trash to create safety in their home. The largest amount spent was $16,000. Currently, Ballard has 300 clients who are hoarders or clutterers in San Francisco.

On March 10, MHA hosted its 13th Conference on Hoarding and Cluttering. Keynote speaker Christiana Bratiotis, who has her doctorate in social work and is director of the Hoarding Research Project, defined compulsive hoarding as the “acquisition of, and failure to discard, a large number of possessions that appear to be useless or of limited value.”

Michael Badolato, administrative assistant of Broderick Street Adult Residential Facility, attended to find a reasonable approach to deal with a hoarding resident living in his facility. “The challenge of hoarding is the mental health issue involved,” he said. Other attendees included educators, landlords, healthcare workers, attorneys, and hoarders themselves.

One panel discussion topic was how hoarding and cluttering are portrayed in the media. The panel included Michael Gause, associate director of MHA; Robin Zasio, a physician on A&E’s Hoarders; and Kari Peterson, an organizer from Hoarding: Buried Alive. Hoarders was created to show people in crisis and prevent the behaviors through the show.

The panelists claim that in order to show what the crisis is, a sensational aspect is involved. Ceci Garnett, whose mother was featured in an episode of Hoarders, says knowing that others are out there is “worth it to let people know they are not alone.

“And at least now there is treatment,” she continued. “We have to risk sensationalism to start a conversation.”

Ray Cleary, who was on season one of TLC’s Buried Alive, also appeared on the panel. Featured before and after treatment, he is still in the process of recovering. “I didn’t have to throw everything away,” he says. “I still have boxes and don’t know what to do with them.”

Another hoarder, who asked to remain anonymous to avoid eviction, was critical of the media attention on hoarding. “It’s a cult. People are going to make a career off my circumstance — making it a disease.”

These people have “already decided it’s a pre-mental disease,” she continued.

Inside her home near Van Ness Avenue, a small path led from the door to her living room. By the door hung green bead necklaces from years of parades; yellowing stacks of paper filled every space in the rooms. An information junkie, she collects newspapers and books. A San Francisco resident for 45 years, she used to be homeless and has suffered from a head injury. “Throwing something away is like throwing away memory — and that means it’s gone forever,” she says.

When she was homeless, her belongings went to storage. But when she got housing, she couldn’t throw anything away. Everyone she knows who has suffered from a head injury has this problem as well, she says, claiming it comes from gradually mixed emotional issues from losses and her health.

For years she tried to find someone to help her recycle or donate items, but she couldn’t find the help she needed, even from her case manager. Other hoarders claim that most caseworkers aren’t aware of their condition and assume they just need to throw everything out at once — something hoarders don’t feel they can easily do.

Her landlord isn’t involved with the property and doesn’t know of the situation. She would like someone to sit and accompany her as she cleans, but she doesn’t know of any service that provides this. During the interview, she picked up a phone call from someone who was going to stop by later to help. “But they usually flake on me,” she acknowledged. Her hoarding, she says, is part of a physical health issue, not a mental health problem.

But San Francisco does offer places such as the MHA conference to discuss the issue. Hoarders‘ Dr. Zasio says the show helps the people who are willing to go on TV. In exchange for going public, the network pays for six months aftercare, including services such as home repairs and therapy sessions. Although the network recognizes that it gains ratings by sensationalizing the condition for 44 minutes, it also wants to raise public awareness.

Of the 1,370 evictions in San Francisco in the past year, 442 cases were prompted by a breach of rental agreement and 271 cases were for committing a nuisance. These cases could include hoarding, but the city doesn’t specify that in its statistics.

As Teresa Friend from the Homeless Advocacy Project said: “If the person with a disability including hoarding is without family or friends to turn to or is not part of a legal intervention process and evicted, they will end up homeless.”

 

The case against consolidation

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With officials predicting that San Francisco will spend $500 million annually on health care costs for city employees and retirees, the Board of Supervisors Government Audit and Oversight Committee held an April 28 hearing to analyze why hospitals costs are higher in Northern California than Southern California, and why costs have escalated in the last decade.

A panel of experts outlined a list of cost drivers and identified hospital consolidation as the major culprit — a finding that fueled concerns that costs will skyrocket once Sutter Health, which operates the California Pacific Medical Center that took over St Luke’s in 2005, builds a 555-bed hospital on Cathedral Hill. The board will consider approving the project as soon as this summer.

Ellen Shaffer, codirector of the Center for Policy Analysis, said that the city’s recently approved Health Care Services Master Plan (“Critical Care,” 11/23/10) provides San Francisco with leverage to collect and analyze data and make informed health choices.

Shaffer noted that since 1960, when there were 26 hospitals in San Francisco, facilities consolidated so frequently that by 1990, only 12 hospitals remained. And by 1998, the three largest hospital networks controlled 43 percent of hospital beds — compared to 18 percent just four years earlier.

“Today in San Francisco, the most expensive of the northern counties hospitals get $7,349 per patient per day on average,” she said. “In Los Angeles County, the figure is $4,389.”

David Hopkins, a senior advisor at the Pacific Business Group on Health, said that Sutter Health, which reported a 30 percent increase in net income in 2010, already controls 44 percent of hospital beds in San Francisco. Catholic Healthcare West controls 28 percent, and UCSF controls 26 percent. “Insurance companies say Sutter’s size and dominant position give it an upper hand in contract negotiations,” Hopkins observed.

Healthcare planning and policy consultant Lucy Johns said technology is another key cost driver. “It’s a medical arms race,” Johns said. “Every hospital wants the latest everything.”

Jane Sandoval, a registered nurse at St Luke’s, said that what residents and workers need is access to affordable healthcare, not luxury care at overpriced rates.

“We’d rather have enough staff and the ability to care for all patients than work in a facility that’s likened to a five-star hotel,” Sandoval said. She noted that State Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones filed suit April 13 to intervene on behalf of the plaintiff in a whistleblower suit against Sutter Health, which has been accused of fraudulently charging insurers millions of dollars for anesthesia services that either weren’t provided or were billed higher than typical rates.

Anne McLeod, senior vice president of health policy for the California Hospital Association, an industry trade group, claimed that Northern California’s higher hospital prices are primarily due to higher labor and living costs in the Bay Area. “Wages are a huge component of hospital costs, and they represent the fastest growing component of costs,” she said.

But Glenn Melnick, a professor of health care finance at the University of Southern California, said that even if a hospital was airlifted from Los Angeles to San Francisco, its costs would still be 38 percent higher after adjusting for local differences. “When hospitals consolidate into large systems that dominate a specific region, that hospital system has the power to demand contracts from health plans that include high reimbursement rates for their services and limit the ability of health plans to offer low-cost products and share the data consumers need to compare costs across providers,” Melnick said

Sup. David Campos, who called for the hospital costs hearing, observed that the cost of creating jobs includes health care benefits. “So to the extent that things like hospital consolidation are increasing costs, the hospitals themselves are implicated,” he said.

But CPMC media relations manager Kevin McCormack noted that CPMC/Sutter has invested more than $7 billion since 2000 on technology, facility construction, and improvements to address medical needs and state seismic safety requirements.

“Sutter Health appreciates its role in ensuring that health care is affordable. And we realize that holding the line on prices without compromising quality will require additional cost reductions,” McCormack said. “To this end, doctors and nurses and support staff throughout our Sutter Health network are working aggressively to substantially reduce expenses.”

He denied that Sutter had engaged in inappropriate anesthesia billing practices. “The lawsuit paints a false and inaccurate picture,” McCormack said.

He also said that plenty of competition remains in Northern California. “The decision by the California Public Employees Retirement System in 2004 to shift a significant number of members away from Sutter-affiliated hospitals to other providers demonstrates there’s plenty of healthy competition,” McCormack said.

But Campos said the hearing clarified that, while there are different factors why costs are going up, one of the most important is hospital consolidation. “We need to ensure that we understand that, even in face of higher labor and cost of living costs, hospital costs in Northern California are still 30 percent higher than Southern California,” Campos said.

Noting that CalPERS excluded Sutter from its network, Campos added: “We need to follow suit in terms of saying that we’re only going to do business with hospitals that are responsive to our concerns and follow best practices.”

 

Canine conflict

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San Francisco enjoys proximity to natural beauty and recreation on a scale unlike any other major urban area in the country. The 75,000-acre Golden Gate National Recreation Area offers city dwellers almost 60 miles of rugged coastline, forested hiking trails, and scenic beaches to enjoy. In most cases, people can bring their dogs.

While the city is notoriously difficult to raise human children in, four-legged friends flourish in an environment that celebrates their existence. With a multitude of dog-friendly parks, pet hotels, and ubiquitous doggie boutiques to accommodate the estimated 120,000 dogs that call San Francisco home, the canines and their companions form their own political constituency.

So it’s only natural that GGNRA’s Draft Dog Management Plan, which restricts dog walking in the park, has the pet set howling. The plan would limit off-leash dogs to 21 different areas of the park, including some of the most popular places such as Crissy Field, Fort Funston, and Ocean Beach, and ban dogs from some areas, like Muir Beach, where they have long been welcome.

The 2,400-page plan has been in the works since 2002, created out of the need to uphold the agency’s duty to protect the sensitive wildlife and plant species in the park while accommodating a growing population of visitors. Since its unveiling in January, thousands have rallied against it, filing so many comments to the National Park Service that it has extended the public comment period until May 30.

Currently, dogs are allowed off-leash in small fraction of the GGNRA lands and on-leash throughout most of the park. The proposed plan offers six alternatives for each of the 21 areas examined, all strengthening existing — but often ignored — leashing policies and reducing areas where dogs are allowed to roam tether-free.

“This is overly restrictive and unrealistic,” said Martha Walters, chair of the Crissy Field Dog Group. “There are certainly more management measures that can be taken with signage and educational outreach to protect these environments without having to impose this plan.”

Opposition has been widespread among pet owners and groups like the SPCA and Animal Care and Control. The Board of Supervisors voted 10-1 on April 26 to adopt a resolution formally opposing the plan, although the city has no jurisdiction over the area.

“It’s one thing to make sure we protect endangered species, but this plan doesn’t just do that,” said District 8 Sup. Scott Wiener, who authored the resolution. “This is a much more extreme proposal that is a significant restriction to dogs.”

Opponents fear the plan will force more dogs into city parks where overcrowding and aggressive behavior could become problems. Dog owners and advocates stress that responsible dog guardianship can be compatible with environmental stewardship, and that the NPS should better enforce the pet policy already in place.

“This is not right for our community,” said Jennifer Scarlett, codirector of the SPCA. “I would never want to wish harm on any wildlife, but it’s a piece of land stuck in one of the most densely populated cities in the country.”

But the GGNRA is still part of NPS, although many existing national environmental policies have largely been ignored here.

“We don’t get to choose whether or not to fulfill federal mandates,” said Alexandra Picavet, public affairs specialist for the GGNRA.

The GGNRA allows leashed dogs in more places than any other national park, and is the only park in the entire NPS system that allows off-leash dogs. It achieved National Park status in 1972, but its unique position as the backyard of a major city caused it to bend the rules when it came to letting the dogs out.

“The policy was adopted by the superintendent at the time of the GGNRA, and even that wasn’t really enforced,” GGNRA spokesperson Howard Levitt told us. “This was relatively early in the parks history, and in the early days, we didn’t really understand the importance of natural resources and history in the park.”

According to NPS, GGNRA is home to more threatened and endangered species than Yellowstone, Yosemite, Sequoia, Death Valley, and Kings Canyon national parks combined. It has a higher concentration of sensitive species than all but four of the 394 parks in the system.

The new pet plan would not be implemented until late 2012, after public comment is taken and the plan is revised. For six to 12 months, monitoring areas to measure compliance with leash laws will be conducted. If 75 percent of users do not comply, further restrictions will be made.

Current regulations are broken everyday at Ocean Bean and Fort Funston. Like the lax marijuana laws that are synonymous with San Francisco, leash laws have historically been considered more of a suggestion than a rule. At Crissy Field, one of the most popular recreation spaces for off-leash dogs, NPS observed dog owners disobeying the guidelines more than 60 percent of the time.

Many people do not realize that the four-mile stretch of Ocean Beach slated for restriction currently only allows dogs from May to June, or that the Great Meadow of Upper Fort Mason has never allowed the many off leash dogs seen there every day. Dog advocates say better signage about existing rules would help.

“To me, they went this way instead of having any intermediate steps in current policy and off leash areas,” said Rebecca Katz, director of the Animal Care and Control. “I am not supportive of the alternative. This isn’t like any other national park, and we don’t want it to be.”

On a recent visit to Fort Funston, it was evident that the park was, as some environmentalists call it, a de facto off-leash area. Dozens of dogs, most off leash, romped in the windy dunes, far outnumbering dog owners and professional dog walkers. Most dogs happily jumped from car to sand without ever being put on a leash.

Longtime San Francisco resident Candy Deboer and her giant schnauzer, Leila, have been coming to the park for years after finding city parks unsatisfactory.

“Golden Gate Park? I’ve tried that and I ended up stepping over hypodermic needles,” Deboer said. “Plus, I have a dog that loves junkie poop. I grew up camping, hiking, and fishing. I know how to preserve wildlife and take care of a park.”

Many said closing Fort Funston and Ocean Beach in March during tsunami warnings resulted in horribly crowded dog parks, and felt that GGNRA’s plan would deliver more of the same.

“We are using the parks the way they are supposed to be used,” said San Francisco resident Willa Hagerty, who also spoke at some of the hearings on the plan. “If we are doing something wrong, let us know with signs or fences.”

For some, walking dogs isn’t just a means of enjoying the outdoors, it’s a source of income. “The plan would really affect a lot of jobs like mine,” said SF resident and dog walker Josh Boutelle, who impressively handled eight different dogs while on a run for SF Pup Prep. “There will be more incidents in parks when there is crowding.”

Although everyone surveyed at Fort Funston stridently opposed the plan, most supported regulations in some form, from limiting the number of dogs professional walkers can handle to requiring leashes in some parts of the park. Sup. Wiener is also in the process of devising regulations for dog walking in city parks.

But the GGNRA plan has pitted environmentalists against dog advocates. The Sierra Club and Golden Gate Audubon Society support the plan and even argue that more restrictions are needed than proposed. Those groups, along with six other organizations including the California Native Plant Society and Nature in the City, wrote a letter to the Board of Supervisors April 8 opposing Wiener’s resolution.

“The GGNRA was created in part to bring a national park-caliber experience to all Bay Area residents and visitors, not to expand recreation opportunities for dog owners,” the letter states. “Contrary to what some are saying, the proposed plan is not about keeping dogs out of the GGNRA. Rather, it is about inviting dogs into the park in a manner that is sustainable and fair to all park users.”

The Sierra Club has even used the dog debate as a big factor for its mayoral endorsement. Sen. Leland Yee has spoken in support of the plan, while mayoral candidates Sup. John Avalos and Board President David Chiu voted to oppose it.

“I’m concerned that the Sierra Club is going to use a microscope on a tiny, insignificant measure to make a decision on mayoral endorsement,” Avalos told us. “The dog policy is insignificant compared to so many other environmental issues.”

Others disagree. Michael Lynes, director of the Golden Gate Audubon society, thought Wiener’s resolution was hasty and did a disservice to the years of work NPS has put into the plan.

“They keep talking about the impacts to the city, while here they are trying to do something that impacts the National Park,” Lynes said. “The resolution is really strange. It opposes the Park Service’s effort to regulate land in a way that is sustainable and equitable.”

Opponents say evidence of dog-induced damage to wildlife and humans is unclear, but the plan gives hundreds of pages of studies and incident reports. In 2008, nearly 900 dog-related incidents were reported, including attacks on vulnerable populations such as young children, seniors, and, disabled people. In 2005, Guide Dogs for the Blind found that 89 percent of their graduates had guide dogs interfered with by off leash dogs.

Plus, as difficult as it may be for dog lovers to fathom, not everyone wants to be around dogs when enjoying the outdoors. Currently, dogs are allowed on all but one major trail in the GGRNA, and China Beach in the Presidio is the only beach where people can have a dog-free experience.

“At the end of the day,” Lynes said, “people don’t want to change their behavior.”

 

Mirkarimi running for sheriff

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OPINION Serving as San Francisco Sheriff is a huge civic responsibility. The sheriff has 1,000 employees, more than 2,000 pretrial and sentenced prisoners daily, and management responsibility for a budget of more than $150 million. And, like all department heads, the sheriff’s involved in a lot of politics.

I believe Sup. Ross Mirkarimi is the person best prepared to serve as San Francisco’s next sheriff.

Mirkarimi has the law enforcement experience of graduating from the San Francisco Police Academy (as class president) and more than eight years of on-the-job experience as an investigator for the San Francisco District Attorney. He was the lead investigator in one of the city’s all-time biggest white collar crime cases, against Old Republic National Title Insurance Company.

As a union labor representative in the D.A.’s office, he picked up some significant experience negotiating contracts for public safety personnel under the CALPERS retirement system.

He’s no stranger to the training and discipline of a paramilitary institution, having been certified in advanced environmental crime forensics from the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Glynco, Ga., as well as earning an honorable discharge from the U.S. Navy for serving in the reserves.

Equally important, Mirkarimi has demonstrated the progressive values required to maintain and expand San Francisco’s outstanding track record of diversity in hiring, innovation in criminal justice, and commitment to rehabilitation San Francisco deserves in our next sheriff.

Elected supervisor in 2004, and reelected in 2008 with 77 percent of the vote, Mirkarimi has been a very effective advocate for his district and for San Francisco — especially on public safety issues.

As a member of the Budget Committee for five years and twice chair of the Public Safety Committee, he is intimately familiar with the complicated issues confronting all partners in San Francisco’s criminal justice system, whose combined budgets account for well over $1 billion.

Mirkairmi and I have worked together on many criminal justice issues, including the creation of San Francisco’s Reentry Council and an innovative community-based program that provides case management services to ex-offenders who have a history of violence. That program — the No Violence Alliance — has significantly reduced recidivism among the program’s participants. It was a risky venture to take on violent offenders as a case management study, but both Mirkarimi and I felt that it was time San Francisco expanded its approach toward effective reentry.

It is this type of thoughtful, yet courageous approach to our criminal justice challenges that leads me to endorse Ross Mirkarimi to be my successor.

The San Francisco Sheriff’s Department has many difficult challenges ahead: a diminishing budget; the governor’s “prison realignment,” which will put many state prisoners in the county jail; preserving the jail’s rehabilitation programs; and finding cost-effective ways of managing the 40,000 individuals who come through San Francisco’s jails each year.

I believe Ross Mirkarimi brings the right combination of law enforcement training, legislative experience, and political acumen to meet these challenges. I am proud to support him in his bid to become our next sheriff.

Mike Hennessey is sheriff of San Francisco.

Let counties raise taxes

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EDITORIAL The president of the state Senate, Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), has a bill that could profoundly change that way California pays for government. At lot of insiders think it’s just a ploy, a way to force Republicans to come to the table and accept some tax measures, but Steinberg appears serious. He’s presenting the bill to the Governance and Finance Committee May 4, and a simple party-line majority vote could get it to the governor’s desk.

The bill, SB653, would allow counties and school districts to approve taxes — a wide range of taxes, the type that are now entirely under the control of the state. Local governments could impose an income tax, a transactions and use tax, an oil severance tax, a vehicle license fee, or a tax on alcohol, cigarettes, or marijuana. It’s part of what Gov. Jerry Brown calls “realignment” — returning more authority to local government, which is complicated and has advantages and disadvantages. But on its own, the tax measure makes perfect sense: if the residents of San Francisco want to pay a higher car tax, or income tax, or tax on booze, and use the money for better schools and public services, why shouldn’t they be allowed to do it?

San Franciscans pay far more in state taxes than the city gets in state money. That’s one of the great ironies of California finance: the more liberal counties, where the voters support adequate public services, wind up subsidizing the more conservative areas that demand tax cuts. A certain amount of that is inevitable, and even laudable: richer areas should be helping pay for schools, police, and roads in poorer areas. It’s certainly true in the arena of public education, where the courts have, properly, ruled that that state has to make sure every school district gets adequate funding so that kids in Marin County don’t get better educational opportunities than the kids in Tulare County.

And there’s always the risk that realignment will push the state back to the days when geographic inequality was even more dramatic, that California will wind up being, as Sen. Mark Leno (D-SF) once put it: “Hollywood next to Mississippi.”

But Steinberg’s bill doesn’t cut state funding at all; in fact, he’s among the Democrats working to avoid more budget cuts. SB653, properly administered, wouldn’t mean less money for any local agency. It would just remove the ceiling.

California is becoming too big to govern effectively with the current rules — and under the state Constitution, written in a very different era with a smaller, more homogeneous population, even a tiny number of Republicans can hold the budget process hostage. That means, for better or worse, that cities like San Francisco, where residents want decent services and a credible social safety net, are on their own. And if Brown’s proposals to put more of the service burden on the counties (for example, by shifting thousands of state prisoners into county jails) move forward, local governments are going to need the ability to raise their own resources.

Unfortunately, many of the taxes that state law currently allows local government to impose (sales taxes, for example) are regressive. Taxes on income and motor vehicles are far more fair and progressive, and ought to at least be available to cities and counties.

The Democrats in Sacramento need to take this seriously and work for its passage. It’s not the entire solution to the budget crisis and to economic inequality — but it’s an excellent start.

 

Editor’s notes

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tredmond@sfbg.com

I heard a retired Army officer, a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, on the radio May 2 talking about the death of Osama bin Laden. Great news, he said, with all sincerity; now we can end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, stop wasting all this money, and bring the troops home.

That would nice, wouldn’t it?

But don’t start counting on an end to the wars, an end to the deaths of U.S. troops, or an end to an $881 billion defense budget (up from $300 billion in 1980 and $311 billion in 2000) or a significant change in our national priorities.

The truth is, Osama bin Laden wasn’t a factor in the invasion of Iraq. He wasn’t there; Saddam Hussein didn’t like him anyway. He was probably in Afghanistan for a while, but by the time we got mired in that quagmire, he’d moved on to Pakistan, which is supposedly our ally in the war on terror. That’s where he was running his operations, and that’s where he died.

The invasion of Iraq had nothing to do with terrorism. The war in Afghanistan might at some point have been related, but it’s not any more. The U.S. did the exact worst thing you can do in a military adventure: sent in troops with no way out.

Maybe Obama will now find the courage to say what he should have said the day he took office: we no longer have any strategic or national security interest in occupying Iraq and Afghanistan. Time to cut our losses, bring the troops home, put some of that money into the civilian economy, and deal with the real threat to American democracy — the horribly uneven distribution of wealth and power in this country.

Maybe the Democrats in Washington will show some backbone and start cutting the defense budget. Let the Republicans justify a continued war that their guy, Bush the Younger, insisted was about al Qaeda. Let them explain why we have to keep troops on the ground now that the head of al Qaeda’s gone. Let them explain why that’s more important than Medicare and Social Security.

But I’m not placing any bets.

I was a strong supporter of Obama. But when I saw hundreds of people partying and dancing in the middle of Valencia Street on election night, I had a bad feeling that this was going to end with an ugly hangover.

So I’m not dancing in the streets about the death of Osama bin Laden. I’ll save that for the day when the last American soldiers leave Iraq and Afghanistan and the military budget comes back to earth.