Volume 48 Number 05

The Guardian’s Clean Slate Voter Guide


Print this out and take it to the polls for the Nov. 3 election!

Prop. A: YES

Prop B: No, no, no! on Prop. B

Prop. C: No

Prop D: Yes

City Attorney: Dennis Herrera

Treasurer: Jose Cisneros

D4 Supervisor: Katy Tang

Assessor: Carmen Chu 

Read our full endorsements here.






The art of dialogue



THEATER Maybe there’s no better way to grasp your own time and place than by leaving it — in this case, trading San Francisco for Wroclaw, Poland, and Pacific Standard Time for a whiplashing case of jet lag. Wroclaw was home base for a little more than a week during the recent Dialog Festival (Oct. 11–18; dialogfestival.pl/en), which was in its seventh season as a major biennial international theater festival created and programmed by Krystyna Meissner, a force in Polish and European theater for decades.

Joining a cohort of Americans, including several from the Bay Area, most of whom had been invited to the festival by the Center for International Theatre Development (an organization with which I’ve recently become formally associated), we were treated to work by artists from Poland, Germany, Holland, South Africa, Rwanda, Estonia, Iran, Canada, Mexico, Spain, and Hungary. The topic this year, “Violence makes the world go ’round,” was a proposition answered variously and often ingeniously by the productions on offer. The best of these expertly delivered that consciousness-altering blow you want from theater or any art form, as well as much food for thought — not only about the reality of violence in the world today, but the place in it all of the artist, the individual, the public, the spectator, and the theater itself.

For now, one example will have to suffice: a staging of British playwright Sarah Kane’s 1998 play, Cleansed, by Polish director Krzysztof Warlikowski. This was actually one of two separate stagings of the same play in the festival this year; the other was by renowned Dutch director Johan Simons, working with Germany’s Münchner Kammerspiele, who offered three Kane plays in a single evening. (It was also one of two pieces from Warlikowski at the festival, the other being his latest work, Warsaw Cabaret.)

Warlikowski is widely known as one of the masters of the Polish theater today, and his staging of the Kane play is still in demand 12 years after its controversial premiere in 2001. Seeing this legendary production was an extraordinary opportunity, and its impact was in no way diminished by the hype.

Cleansed comprises a discrete set of scenes in which a sadistic “doctor” named Tinker perpetrates vicious humiliations and atrocities on a group of inmates. Among the latter is a grieving woman who has entered the doctor’s wicked sanatorium to commune with the spirit of her dead brother, a heroin addict murdered gruesomely by Tinker in an early scene. There is also a gay couple whose commitment to each other is brutally tested by the awful interventions of Tinker.

Warlikowski’s production unfolds as a harrowing yet gorgeously languid fever dream. Set on a small stage, with an institutional bathroom wall at the back, the strikingly crisp and potent images throughout distort in the reflective surfaces bounding the space. Often drowned in a shifting sea of garish light, accentuated with piercingly beautiful music (the songs derived from the text are sung in the original English), the stage nevertheless leaves ample room for brilliant performances. These deftly created characters and relationships speak eloquently to the deep compassion and understanding there throughout Kane’s penetrating nightmare. (In a seductive and telling move, Warlikowski tacks on a monologue about desperate love, taken from Kane’s Crave, at the outset of the evening.)

Kane’s own productive extremes as a playwright — her cool formal intelligence and invention, as well as her anguished, aching, and uncompromising vision — were served perfectly by the precise and enveloping aesthetic of this exquisite production. But what was it that brought this play and this director together in the first place? And what was the nature of its early impact? In a talkback with the director the following day, a Polish journalist and critic helped set the scene.

“I saw Cleansed many years ago,” he remembered, “at a time when the LGBT movement in Poland was just coming out of the closet. At the time, it was truly a shocking piece. Now it’s a piece that I’m proud of. I’m proud to see how much has changed. Back in the day, the mayor of Warsaw tried to ban the Pride parade and there was only one politician who dared to show up. I remember there being several hundred of us, separated by a double line of police officers — mind you, the demonstration was legal — and above the heads of the police officers, stones were flying at us.”

Warlikowski recalled, “After the first reading we gave up on it. I decided we wouldn’t do Cleansed but do Hamlet instead. It’s a little difficult to imagine now, but I was really shattered by the stones flying at participants of the LGBT Pride Parade. We were working on Angels in America in some dingy little basement. I felt excluded. I felt like I was underground. Groups of women would roam the streets and tear down the posters for Cleansed. Director Krystyna Meissner would go around town to keep them from being torn down.

“I added the monologue from Crave because I thought that would be the only way to get Polish theatergoers to see the piece. The first response was horrible. Whereas people saw the dismemberment as theatrical and acceptable, they were more offended by two guys kissing, and people would get up and leave the room. That’s not something we can really understand today. So there had to be this ten-minute monologue, speaking of love, to trick you into staying for the rest.

“I remember watching the show sitting next to a couple, probably a yuppie couple, new middle-class, in their late 30s. During the first monologue, the woman never looked up. I felt I was embarrassing her. And for the Catholic nation that we still are, it was a lot to expect. Hence all the embellishments, everything that brings in a dimension that makes the dialogue possible — dialogue with the piece and dialogue with society.” *


For more on the Dialog festival, visit www.sfbg.com/pixel_vision.

Hot and cool



FILM The stars say the director was brutal. The director says he wishes the film had never been released (but he might make a sequel). The graphic novelist is uncomfortable with the explicit 10-minute sex scene. And most of the state of Idaho will have to wait to see the film on Netflix.

The noise of recrimination, the lesser murmur of backpedaling, and a difficult-to-argue NC-17 rating could make it harder, as French director Abdellatif Kechiche has predicted, to find a calm, neutral zone in which to watch Blue is the Warmest Color, his Palme d’Or–winning adaptation (with co-writer Ghalya Lacroix) of Julie Maroh’s 2010 graphic novel Le Blue Est une Couleur Chaude.

And yet … this is not Gigli (2003), despite the slimmest of Venn diagram overlays (lesbians). In the states, at least, Blue stars Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux (2011’s Midnight in Paris, 2012’s Farewell, My Queen) don’t yet haunt the tabloids of the nation’s checkout lines. Once you’ve committed to the three-hour runtime, it’s not too difficult to tune out the static, the Daily Beast interview, the tearful press conferences, the threats of litigation, and focus on a film that trains its own mesmerized gaze on a young woman’s transforming experience of first love.

In the early scenes of Blue, which spans perhaps 10 years, Adèle (Exarchopoulos) is a quiet, reserved, slightly dreamy teenager living with her family in the suburbs of Lille, a city in northern France near the Belgian border. We see her making the long commute to the city center for school, reading and musing and writing in her journal, in class, with peers, silently turning over the mysterious events of her life. Pursued by a boy at school and goaded by her friends, she attempts to form an attachment to him and, when the experiment fails, is appalled, identifying something lacking inside herself.

We know what it is — and so does she, on some level. Earlier, in a French class, poring over a text by Marivaux, a teacher proposes the idea of a coup de foudre, love at first sight, a bolt from the blue, and we gather that one is coming for Adèle, something to jar her out of her silence and noncommittal posture, out of listening and reading and into life.

When the thunderclap comes, it’s a chance encounter in a crosswalk, the kind where time behaves oddly, and the rest of the world flattens out and goes achromatic. We hear Adèle’s breathing before we see Emma (Seydoux), a sexy, butch, blue-haired girl who comes strolling into focus with an arm slung over her girlfriend’s shoulder. The moment has a sensual weight to it, carried in Emma’s eyes as they lock with Adèle’s, as she manages to signal something vital to the younger girl, filling in a kind of outline of desire where before there was a dull, confusing nothingness — until time reasserts itself, leaving Adèle disoriented and caught in moving traffic.

When, months later, they meet again by chance; or predestination, as Emma flirtingly suggests; or because Adèle has wandered alone into a dyke bar in search of something she’s not ready to cop to, their conversation isn’t earth-shattering (except, because it’s even happening, to Adèle), but their connection, here and during successive encounters, is unsettling and electric.

Most of this comes across in the small, guarded expressions that flicker onto Adèle’s face, her eyes communicating, at different times, wonder, unease, submersive desire, or panic as she silently digests and wrestles with what is unfamiliar, exhilarating, and, eventually, heartbreaking and terrible.

Through all of this, the camera stays close, sometimes unnervingly so. In an early domestic scene, as the voracious Adèle wolfs down spaghetti Bolognese, we are treated to a detail-rich shot of her chewing, open mouth; at night we watch her sleeping and feel slightly creepy about it. And this is before her fantasies about the blue-haired girl begin, and before they manifest, in a series of lengthy, literal sex scenes that have inspired nervous laughter in darkened movie theaters, accusations of voyeurism, and that Idaho blackout, among other responses. Yet the camera’s relentless, intrusive intimacy brings us as close to the inside of Adèle’s head as she will allow anyone, including Emma, to get.

As for those scenes of grappling, slapping, tangled physicality — they’re uncomfortable, and insistent, and they feel very real. Also, like we shouldn’t be standing there watching for quite so long, though it’s certain to be an edifying experience for many in the room. And it may be that Kechiche is intent on an exercise of compare and contrast, offering up these extended interludes, in which two female lovers try their best, for hours, to crawl inside each other’s skin, as a sort of response to an early, abridged scene between Adèle and her boyfriend that ends unsatisfyingly for at least one of them.

There’s a certain heavy, explanatory neatness to that, of a piece with other devices that sometimes drag at the film. Must there be two separate conversations about the delights of oyster eating, to trace Adèle’s trajectory and palatal shift? Yes, Kechiche seems to feel, as if he’d just made a surprising discovery at a queer spoken word night in 1992. Gravely delivered classroom lectures, early in the film, likewise coincide miraculously, pointing always in the direction of Adèle’s life — the coup de foudre, a discussion of predestination, another on the perversions of the natural world, another still on ineluctable tragedy.

One or two of these moments would suffice. But little of the time spent in Adèle’s quiet company feels wasted. We sit with her for hours, quietly marking milestones in a relationship that blooms and deteriorates; standing nearby as Adèle falls apart, too; watching a heart expanding and breaking apart and reassembling, changed. *

BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR opens Fri/1 in Bay Area theaters.

To hell and back



FILM Pop culture’s engagement with slavery has always been uneasy. Landmark 1977 miniseries Roots set ratings records, but the prestigious production capped off a decade that had seen more questionable endeavors, including 1971’s Goodbye Uncle Tom (from the Italian filmmakers who invented “mondo” films) and 1975 exploitation flick Mandingo (“the first true epic of the Old South,” according to its trailer). The latter is often cited by Quentin Tarantino as one of his favorite films; it was a clear influence on his 2012 revenge fantasy Django Unchained.

It’s fitting that Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave is being released almost exactly one year post-Django, though the two films share little beyond the slavery theme. Django (which won Oscars for Tarantino’s screenplay and Christoph Waltz’s dentist-cum-bounty hunter) is loud, lurid, and gleefully anachronistic, with proto-KKK members arguing about the placement of eyeholes on their hoods, and hip-hop on the soundtrack. It approached its subject matter in a manner that paid homage to the Westerns it riffed on: with guns blazing.

By contrast, 12 Years a Slave is nuanced and steeped in realism. Though it does contain scenes of violence (deliberately captured in long takes by regular McQueen collaborator Sean Bobbitt, whose cinematography is one of the film’s many stylistic achievements), the film emphasizes the horrors of “the peculiar institution” by repeatedly showing how accepted and ingrained it was. Early on, a woman is sold and separated from her young son and daughter. Her new owner, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, urges her not to be upset, even as she screams in anguish, because “your children will soon be forgotten.” He has no awareness of the pain he’s inflicting — and he’s one of the more sympathetic white characters in the film.

12 Years a Slave is based on the true story of Solomon Northup, an African American man who was sold into slavery in 1841 and survived to pen a wrenching account of his experiences. An acclaimed violinist, Northup had a unique perspective on the South’s surreal status quo; he was born free and had lived a happy, cultured life until he was kidnapped and subjected to over a decade of mental and physical torture. As Northup, Chiwetel Ejiofor (best-known for supporting roles in films like 2005’s Serenity and 2006’s Children of Men) delivers a powerful, star making performance.

As for McQueen, the director’s familiar moniker may still confuse mainstream filmgoers, but once 12 Years a Slave opens, the Brit should finally enjoy some stand-alone name recognition. A large ensemble cast (Paul Giamatti, Paul Dano, Sarah Paulson, Michael K. Williams) populates a film that balances technical virtuosity with brutal subject matter, scripted from Northup’s book by John Ridley (in a huge step up from 2012’s overly sentimental Red Tails).

Increasingly ubiquitous actor Michael Fassbender has seen his biggest critical triumphs come when he’s worked with McQueen. The director, who started his career making art films, made his first feature, Hunger, in 2008; it starred a then-unknown Fassbender as IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands. McQueen’s daring 2011 follow-up, NC-17 sex-addict tale Shame, earned Fassbender a raft of accolades. In 12 Years a Slave, he’s his best yet playing the film’s troubled villain, a plantation owner who exacerbates what’s clearly an unwell mind with copious amounts of booze. He’s tauntingly cruel to Northrup, but slave Patsey — played by talented newcomer Lupita Nyong’o — receives the bulk of his unwanted attentions, affectionate and otherwise.

There’s one false note in 12 Years a Slave, so glaring it deserves a mention. The film is full of recognizable faces; parts played by big stars like Giamatti and Alfre Woodard amount to little more than cameos. But the last-act appearance of Brad Pitt (as an enlightened, worldly builder) proves a jarring intrusion. Pragmatically, perhaps it was worth it; Ejiofor has said in interviews that the megastar’s involvement helped the film get made. But that doesn’t mean it’s not completely distracting. *


12 YEARS A SLAVE opens Fri/1 in Bay Area theaters.

Lit up



DANCE This past weekend, two dance companies showed premieres inspired by fiction writers. Alonzo King’s imagination was stirred by Irish author Colum McCann (Let the Great World Spin) for Writing Ground, commissioned in 2010 by the Monte Carlo Ballet. For Jenny McAllister, it was mystery novelist and screenwriter Raymond Chandler, whom she has read and loved since she was a little girl.

In the work’s San Francisco premiere, King’s LINES Ballet dancers dived into Writing’s complexities with their accustomed passion and competence. It was gratifying to see new company member Robb Beresford, and apprentices Babatunji Johnson and Jeffrey Van Sciver, already comfortable with the stylistic demands of King’s intricate choreography.

Fierce presence is what King asks of his dancers. For Writing, he placed them into an environment of spiritual music from around the globe, which has moved beyond its historical sources into a quasi-mythic arena. Rarely has a King work — divided into small scenes, as is his habit — conveyed such a fluid sense of unity.

Of course, Writing was full of struggles, disrupted connections, broken lines, and extensions that curled in on themselves. Van Sciver, in a long brown skirt, periodically whipped across the stage like some preternatural force, perhaps generating, or perhaps destructive to, the duet between Kara Wilkes and Beresford. A trio for women in pointe shoes — which suggest defiance of gravity — had them groveling in a crouch. Yet Yujin Kim serenely stretched, apparently indifferent to the violent physical struggle between Meredith Webster and David Harvey. For all their volatility, Kim and similarly tall partner Courtney Henry created visual anchors on the stage.

Writing moved toward its climactic final scene with a clear trajectory, perhaps starting with Harvey and Johnson’s contentious duet that ended with them walking upstage like brothers. They were followed by Kim’s solo to the spiritual “Over my Head.” For the finale, a door opened upstage, and an anguished Wilkes squeezed in, manipulated and supported by four men. She struggled, collapsed, and resurged again and again. Perhaps something was trying to be born out of incredible pain. And yet what compassion these men brought to whatever needed to be done.

LINES also presented the world premiere of King’s Concerto for Two Violins in D-minor, set to Bach’s much-acclaimed score. It just might be this eminent dance maker’s most musically astute choreography to Western classical music. The work opened with Johnson stretching his limbs as if trying to expand space beyond the horizon. The choreography emphasized variations within symmetry, such as the trios that chased each other or peeling stacks of double lines. Webster, Wilkes, Harvey, and Michael Montgomery danced the middle section as a double duet in a beautiful synthesis of edginess and lyricism.

McAllister’s nicely timed and entertaining Being Raymond Chandler, a one-hour dance theater piece for her 13th Floor Dance Theater, looks at the mystery icon (David Silpa) struggling with writer’s block, ambition, a messy almost-marriage, and a love for the bottle. But he was also portrayed as a serious writer, separate from the hack image that sticks to him.

The choreography, mostly social dances from the 1940s, was not particularly original, but these sequences set up a relaxed counterpoint to the staccato dialogs that keep racing from one fictional disaster to the next. There were moments when Being dragged — perhaps drowning in language — but it picked up speed and closed with a flourish.

Ever heard of a novel’s characters coming to life? In this piece, Chandler’s did, fighting with the muddle-headed writer for a different identity and desperately trying to stay in the story (hopefully, in a major part). Yet they also pitched in, with disastrous results, rewriting what was clearly a mess. The whole thing might as well be a backstage look at a soap opera.

Patric Cashman wanted to die — again and again; Erin Mei-Ling Stuart was hilarious as both Chandler’s almost-wife and the seductress who, she insists, needs to be a brunette. The versatile Blane Ashby had so many roles — a noisy neighbor, a crook, a former husband — that I couldn’t keep them apart. The weakest character in this entertainment was Eric Garcia’s sleepy Philip Marlowe, who only came to life halfway through.

Good comedy has an ability to draw you in even as you stay at arm’s length. McAllister at her best — and she is good here — has that gift of playing with perspectives and focus, while keeping the audience off balance McAllister has also learned from Chandler: Out of all those misfiring plot twists, she pulled together a lickety-split mystery that took off like a rocket. *



Wed/30-Thu/31, 7:30pm; Fri/1-Sat/2, 8pm; Sun/3, 5pm, $30-$65

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

700 Howard, SF



Sat/2-Sun/3, 8pm, $18-$23

ODC Dance Commons

351 Shotwell, SF


Cover me bad


MUSIC Halloween’s like Christmastime for crafty weirdoes. But for me, crudely sewn, elaborate costumes are only half the fun. Around these parts, creativity seems to peak during what is arguably the most wonderful time of the year. The Bay Area particularly steps it up by honoring the punk band tradition of the Halloween cover show (where legendary bands are paid tribute through song and dress).

This year’s Total Trash Halloween Bash (www.totaltrashproductions.com) offers some of the usual suspects when it comes to rockers delivering camouflaged covers. However, with Nobunny channeling Bo Diddley as “Nodiddley” and Russell Quan joining Shannon and the Clams as Los Saicos, we step out of the box that usually brings us Cramps and Misfits covers. While those shows are completely appropriate (along with the typical homage to bands like the Ramones, the Damned, and Alice Cooper) and have proven popular, Oakland’s sentimental-grunge act, Yogurt Brain, has opted to take on Weezer this year. Rest assured — fans of the Blue Album and Pinkerton won’t be disappointed.

“I can’t wait to hear them do ‘Buddy Holly’ live,” Nobunny emails back in anticipation. Figuring it’s not the masked-man’s first time at the rodeo, I asked him and a few others about the origins of this tradition. No one seemed to be able to pinpoint exactly when and where it started, but Mark Ribak from Total Trash Productions quipped Thee Oh Sees’ John Dwyer “probably invented it” as an alternative to seeing the Cramps on Halloween (Bill Graham Presents booked an annual Cramps Halloween show in SF starting in the mid-1980s).

Ironically, Nobunny’s first, full-cover set would be the Cramps back in 2009; the same year front man Lux Interior died. I asked far and wide and got scattered remnants of Halloween parties past (like the time a member of Chicago’s Functional Blackouts recalled his previous band dressing in drag, billing themselves as Pretty Pretty Pretty Princess, and doing Bikini Kill songs in 1999).

“Here it definitely seems like more of an event than other cities I’ve lived in, but cover shows seem to happen everywhere in every city,” says Stephen Oriolo, Yogurt Brain’s guitarist and songwriter. He’s gotten into the theatrical spirit so much that by press time he’ll already have done a couple of shows as TRAWGGZ (a Troggs cover band) with members of the now defunct Uzi Rash. “Halloween is a time to be something you’re not. Merging that idea with parties or shows naturally makes sense to do a cover set.”

LA Burger bands like Pangea and Audacity have covered Nirvana and Adolescents respectively. Closer to home, the Clams, who are repeat offenders, have done Devo and Creedence Clearwater Revival (which by all accounts was something you had to see to believe), and Uzi Rash made minds melt with a searing interpretation of Monks songs, shaved heads included (Thee Parkside’s Hallorager II, another Halloween show, will have a different Monks cover band this year. www.theeparkside.com).

As for some of Nobunny’s favorite Halloween tricks: “I like the pranksters, like Ty Segall doing the Spits when they were scheduled to be the Gories. Or my absolute favorite was when Uzi Rash, who were scheduled to play as the Fall, soundchecked as the Fall, and then came out at showtime and performed as the Doors. Great swindle!”

So put on your costume (you might even win a contest if it’s good) and have an old fashioned sing-along with a room full of equally pumped people at one of these shows. I just pray my chances of hearing “The Good Life” live doesn’t end up being a prank. The room is sure to erupt as the tradition thrives in the Bay.





MUSIC It’s entirely debatable what year this current wave of the garage rock revival broke out.

But for all intents and purposes, let’s just say the genre came back into vogue yet again around 2009: the year Total Trash Productions came into existence. For the past five years, the booking company has served up dozens of garage rock shows and fests in the Bay Area.

And this year, on their fifth anniversary, the folks behind Total Trash are bringing a relic from the first wave: The seminal Washington-based 1960s garage rock band, the Sonics, will play a string of shows for the annual Total Trash Halloween Bash.

The Sonics were there in the very beginning. They got their start in a time when the British Invasion was in full swing. Rejecting sugary-sweet mop-topped bands, the Sonics idolized Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard.

“We thought, to heck with wearing suits and neckties," keyboardist-vocalist Gerry Roslie says. "Playing love songs felt wrong — we could only play music with power. We played loud and we played how we felt: like animals.”

The band released a string of albums in the ’60s, with a mixture of rock n’ roll covers such as "Have Love Will Travel," "Louie, Louie," and "Roll Over Beethoven" and edgier, screaching original numbers like “Strychnine” and “Psycho.”

Many credit the Sonics as a proto-punk band of sorts, but Roslie says he saw the band as an outlet to live out his rock ‘n’ roll fantasy until the grips of adulthood came.

“I didn’t know we were garage rock or proto-punk, because those terms didn’t exist at the time we were playing,” Roslie says. “I just knew that we liked being crazy and wanted to play something different than what was out there at the time.”

Roslie left the band in 1967 and started an asphalt-paving business. For decades he had no idea of the influence that his band had left, with future acts such as the Cramps, the Mummies, and the Fall all performing Sonics covers at one point or another.

During that time, Roslie lived a quiet life. That is, until the band was approached in 2007 to play Cavestomp!, a garage rock festival in Brooklyn. That was the first time the band played in well over 30 years.

“We were so nervous — we decided that we would only start playing shows again if people still liked us,” Roslie says.

And sure enough, the Sonics were received with great fanfare, and continued on to play shows in Europe. The one thing that still amazes Roslie is the enthusiasm of new and old Sonics fans alike.

“We’re still scratching our heads going ‘wow’ — I feel that we’re finally getting the attention we deserved,” Roslie says. “We played for teenagers and 20-somethings back in the day, and we’re still playing for that kind of audience. A lot of the kids look the same as they did back then.”

Like many bands that reunite, the Sonics are playing songs made when they were quite young themselves, for the most part covering issues surrounding teenage culture. But as it stands today, all of the members of the band are old enough to be card-carrying AARP (American Association of Retired Persons) members.

“I’m a teenager inside of some wrinkled old body,” says Roslie. “The songs that we made back then are still relatable because we’ve maintained our attitude. We’ve still got that.”

And the Sonics mojo is still intact. So much so that the band is creating a new album. According to Roslie, fans can expect it around late December or early 2014. The release isn’t titled yet, and the label is yet to be determined.

“We didn’t want to go off in a different direction like many bands that have been around for a while do,” Roslie says. “We’re keeping to what we know and do best — loud, crazy rock n’ roll.”

Perma-teenagers or not, the Sonics still have attitude and candor aplenty, spreading the underground rock ‘n’ roll gospel (actively or not) since before you were born.

With Phantom Surfers, Legendary Stardust Cowboy
Fri/1, 7:30pm, $35
New Parish
579 18th St, Oakl.

With Roy Loney, Dukes of Hamburg, Wounded Lion, Chad & the Meatbodies
Sat/2, 7pm, $35
Rickshaw Stop
155 Fell, SF
(415) 861-2011

In the year of worms



TOFU AND WHISKEY That voice. Those eerie, singular vocals that are somehow both alien and intimately familiar. They sound like electric Tesla coils wrapped in whipped silk. San Francisco’s Hannah Lew is most often heard harmonizing by three with her striking post-punk trio Grass Widow. With newer project Cold Beat, it’s her vocals alone above the needling guitars and anxious synths of a different band.

Lew has been writing songs as Cold Beat for some time, in between Grass Widow releases and tours, but this week she releases her first EP under the moniker: Worms/Year 5772, with songs inspired by the trauma of Lew’s father passing away a few years back. While Cold Beat is mainly a Lew production, she enlisted many local rock ‘n’ roll luminaries to both play on the album and back her up at shows.

The record’s sound is rounded out by guitarist Kyle King, drummer Lillian Maring, and Shannon and the Clams’ Cody Blanchard on guitar and synths. The live band features King, the Mallard’s Greer Mcgettrick on guitar, and Erase Errata’s Bianca Sparta on drums. That live version will celebrate the release of the EP with a show at the Night Light in Oakland Tue/5.(Cold Beat also plays Great American Music Hall on Nov. 14.) But before that, Lew spoke with the Bay Guardian about the origins of Worms/Year 5772, her DIY record label and music video projects, and the songs she played at her wedding last week:

SF Bay Guardian What inspired you to write new music as Cold Beat, outside of Grass Widow?

Hannah Lew I always write songs and sometimes they just didn’t totally feel like Grass Widow songs. I just kept collecting them and not really knowing if I should release them. As the tunes started accumulating I decided I should get a band together and figure out a way to share the songs. When Kyle King and I started playing — his energy really enabled the songs to come to fruition.

SFBG Can you tell me a bit about the songwriting process with Worms/Year 5772 and how the themes of “death, Internet surveillance, paranoia and science fiction” translated into the music?

HL “Worms” was written as a response to my grief about my father’s death in 2009. I couldn’t help but imagine worms eating his corpse — which was a very visceral image I couldn’t get out of my head…I think the horror of this was something I couldn’t really share with anyone, and in taking time to write more songs on my own I started realizing that it was good for me to have an outlet for some other concepts that were a bit more personal.

I always turn to science fiction when I am trying to understand or relate my feelings. It gives me a change to explore depths of doom and hope that I can more easily imagine not on this earth. In writing all the lyrics alone for Cold Beat there is a little more of me just in my own head which can be great and sometimes paranoid or depressed. I get really bad insomnia and many Cold Beat songs were demoed at 5 or 6am.

Grass Widow lyrics are always more of a conversation where as Cold Beat lyrics are more like an interior dialogue. It’s kind of like describing a dream to someone.

SFBG Does “Year 5772” refer to the Jewish calendar? Why did you make this connection?

HL My late father was a rabbi and I was raised very religious. I was writing Year 5772 about a dystopian post-apocalyptic dream I had that seemed to take place in some distant future and I started thinking about how the Jewish calendar is already in Year 5772 — actually a couple years later now since the song was written a few years ago — and how our concept of the future is based in what point in time we imagine ourselves in — but the concept of linear time is very relative.

I guess being Jewish is kind of futuristic and ancient simultaneously. I like the idea of collapsing time and writing a song that takes place in a landscape outside of time. I also like thinking about existing in many times simultaneously.

SFBG Did you find the solo songwriting process freeing or more complicated without the group’s input?

HL Some of the Cold Beat songs were written during the time Grass Widow was writing our last record — Internal Logic. Somehow they just seemed more personal and better spoken from one voice instead of related by three people. I think the complicated part for me was deciphering which songs were Cold Beat songs and which ones to give to Grass Widow.

Grass Widow is a great space where the three of us would relate and abstract our feelings and dreams together. But there were some things I was going through that I couldn’t synthesize with anyone else and just had to express on my own. I like having conversations about concepts with bandmates, but I also like working alone.

Luckily I can do both! I think it is important to be able to do things on your own so you know who you are and have something to offer a collaborative project. Just like in love.

SFBG You got married last weekend — what key songs were on your playlist? Are you willing to give up any other details?

HL It’s all kind of a blur. but it was so much fun! Some friends of ours put together a wedding band with Kyle King as the band leader. My husband (whoa!) and I put together a set list for the band to play of all our favorite dancing songs. I think the party really went crazy during the Dick Dale version of “Hava Nagila” and we got lifted up in chairs and everything, but also [the Flamin’ Groovies song] “Shake Some Action” was pretty epic too.

My friend Henson Flye made giant clamshells and Raven Mahon made a moon photo backdrop. We had a choir of friends sing “I’ll Be Your Mirror” while I walked down the aisle. It was really beautiful and a beautiful way for all our friends to express their love and friendship and show us support and for us to throw a fun party for everyone. We’re lucky to have a lot of love. Still buzzing from it!

SFBG As with Grass Widow (HLR), you’re putting Cold Beat out on your own label, Crime On The Moon. Can you tell me about the label, and why you’re sticking with DIY?

HL I really enjoy doing everything myself. HLR has been a great experience and we really took the time to make critical decisions about how we wanted to do business. I figured I could easily do it myself with Crime On The Moon since I had the experience of putting out the last few Grass Widow releases. One drawback is that when you put music out on a label you have an instant fan, publicist, and advocate — so when you’re on your own you have to manufacture your own confidence for what you are doing. But having good bandmates and support from your friends goes a long way!

SFBG You also make music videos — will you make any for Cold Beat? Are you working on any others currently?

HL Mike Stoltz, who made the Grass Widow “11 of Diamonds” video and collaborated with me on “Give Me Shapes,” is in the process of editing a Cold Beat video for “Worms.” So that will be out in the next couple of weeks! I am always updating my site (www.hannahlew.com) with new finished videos I make for other bands.

SFBG Anything else you want people to know about Cold Beat or about other upcoming projects?

HL Well I’m excited for our EP to be released November 5. We’ll have copies at our record release show at the Night Light in Oakland with Screature and Pure Bliss. Then we’ll be touring the West Coast to follow that.

I’m also releasing a seven-inch [that] Raven and I recorded with Jon Shade on drums under the name Bridge Collapse. We recorded with Kelley Stoltz and I’m looking forward to releasing those songs along with a compilation of SF bands writing songs as a response to the tech boom. So a lot of exciting Crime On The Moon projects ahead!


Tue/5, 9pm, $6

Night Light

311 Broadway, Oakl.


Fight back to save your home


By Tommi Avicolli Mecca and Fred Sherburn-Zimmer

OPINION The good news from San Francisco these days is that tenants are fighting back in a big way to save their homes. Speculators and investors intent on making a killing in a sizzling real estate market are not always having an easy time getting rid of those who stand between them and obscene profits.

While tenant resistance has become a hot ticket item in the local mainstream media, legislators are introducing a slew of new laws aimed at curbing speculation and the housing crisis. Even the Mayor’s Office has gotten into the act, intervening in at least two recent high-profile evictions: the Lee family and 1049 Market.

A low-income elderly Chinese couple and their disabled daughter, the Lee family chose to stay and fight when the Sheriff’s Department gave them notice that it was coming to lock them out after an Ellis Act eviction. Hundreds showed up in support, with a large number of people willing to block the door and risk arrest. TV went live from the protest. Within no time at all, the Mayor’s Office stepped in to negotiate with the landlord for more time so that the Lees could find an affordable place to live. While the Lee family didn’t ultimately get to stay, their struggle brought public attention to what is happening here in San Francisco.

When the tenants in the artist live/work lofts at 1049 Market received letters from their new landlord saying that the city was forcing him to evict them because of an outstanding code violation from 2007 that he inherited when he bought the building, they didn’t take it lying down. It wasn’t true that the city was making him evict anyone. He had the option to bring the building up to code, something he found “economically infeasible.”

Tenants from 1049 Market contacted Housing Rights Committee where we work, and we helped them organize. We were afraid the landlord’s other two buildings on the same block might meet the same fate. The story made the cover of the San Francisco Examiner about a week later.

Suddenly, the Department of Building Inspection announced that it had discretion in terms of the code violations, especially the costliest of them. DBI’s deputy director sent the notice of violation back to its staff for review. The city began meeting with the landlord to try and prevent the tenants from being evicted.

Negotiations are still in progress, but the fact that the City has stepped in so aggressively on the side of the tenants is a major victory. Of course, it’s due to tenants fighting back when so many people told them they couldn’t win.

Jeremy Mykaels, a gay disabled man who’s lived in the Castro for the past 40 years and in his current apartment for almost 18, decided not to move when new owners (investors from Atherton and Union City) threatened him with an Ellis eviction. They went through with it after he turned down a buyout.

Eviction Free San Francisco, a direct action group, organized protests in SF, Atherton, and Union City. Attorney Steve Collier of Tenderloin Housing Clinic challenged the eviction in court. A judge just threw out the eviction on a technicality. The jury is out on whether the investors will start the process all over again. Fight back. It could save your home. 

Tommi Avicolli Mecca and Fred Sherburn-Zimmer work at the Housing Rights Committee.

Shit happened (Oct. 23-29)


Tenant proposals and Guardian forum address eviction crisis

Tenant advocates have proposed a sweeping set of legislative proposals to address what they’re calling the “eviction epidemic” that has hit San Francisco, seeking to slow the rapid displacement of tenants by real estate speculators with changes to land use, building, rent control, and other city codes.

“In essence, it’s a comprehensive agenda to restrict the speculation on rental units,” Chinatown Community Development Center Policy Director Gen Fujioka told the Guardian. “We can’t directly regulate the Ellis Act [the state law allowing property owners to evict tenants and take their apartments off the rental market], but we’re asking the city to do everything but that.”

The package was announced Oct. 24 on the steps of City Hall by representatives of CCDC, San Francisco Tenants Union, Housing Rights Committee of SF, Causa Justa-Just Cause, Tenderloin Housing Clinic, UNITE HERE Local 2, Community Tenants Association, and Asian Americans Advancing Justice.

“San Francisco is falling into one of the deepest and most severe eviction crises in 40 years,” SFTU Director Ted Gullicksen said. “It is bad now and is going to get worse unless the city acts.”

The announcement came a day after the Lee family — an elderly couple on Social Security who care for their disabled daughter — was finally Ellis Act evicted from its longtime Chinatown home after headline-grabbing activism by CCDC and other groups had twice turned away deputies and persuaded the Mayor’s Office to intervene with the landlord.

But Mayor Ed Lee has been mum — his office ignored our repeated requests for comment — on the worsening eviction crisis, the tenant groups’ proposals, and the still-unresolved fate of the Lees, who are temporarily holed up in a hotel and still hoping to find permanent housing they can afford.

The package proposed by tenant advocates includes: require those converting rental units into tenancies-in-common to get a conditional use permit and bring the building into compliance with current codes (to discourage speculation and flipping buildings); regulate TIC agreements to discourage Ellis Act abuse; increase required payments to evicted tenants and improve city assistance to those displaced by eviction; require more reporting on the status of units cleared with the Ellis Act by their owners; investigate and prosecute Ellis Act fraud (units are often secretly re-rented at market rates after supposedly being removed from the market); increase inspections of construction on buildings with tenants (to prevent landlords from pressuring them to move); prohibit the demolition, mergers, or conversions of rental units that have been cleared of tenants using no-fault evictions in the last 10 years (Sup. John Avalos has already introduced this legislation).

“The evidence is clear. We are facing not only an eviction crisis but also a crisis associated with the loss of affordable rental housing across the city. Speculative investments in housing has resulted in the loss of thousands affordable apartments through conversions and demolitions. And the trend points to the situation becoming much worse,” the coalition wrote in a public statement proposing the reforms.

Evictions have reached their highest level since the height of the last dot-com boom in 1999-2000, with 1,934 evictions filed in San Francisco in fiscal year 2012-13, and the rate has picked up since then. The Sheriff’s Department sometimes does three evictions per day, last year carrying out 998 court-ordered evictions, Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi told us, arguing for an expansion of city services to the displaced.

At “Housing for Whom?” a community forum the Guardian hosted Oct. 23 in the LGBT Center, panelists and audience members talked about the urgent need to protect and expand affordable housing in the city. They say the current eviction epidemic is being compounded by buyouts, demolitions, and the failure of developers to build below-market-rate units.

“We’re bleeding affordable housing units now,” Fred Sherburn-Zimmer of Housing Right Committee said last night, noting the steadily declining percentage of housing in the city that is affordable to current city residents since rent control was approved by voters in 1979. “We took out more housing than we’ve built since then.”

Peter Cohen of the Council of Community Housing Organizations actually quantified the problem, citing studies showing that only 15 percent of San Franciscans can afford the rents and home prices of new housing units coming online. He said the housing isn’t being built for current city residents: “It’s a demand derived from a market calculation.”

Cohen said the city’s inclusionary housing laws that he helped write more than a decade ago were intended to encourage developers to actually build below-market-rate units in their projects, but almost all of them choose to pay the in-lieu fee instead, letting the city find ways to build the affordable housing and thereby delaying construction by years.

“It was not about writing checks,” Cohen said. “It was about building affordable units.”

Discussion at the forum began with a debate about the waterfront luxury condo project proposed for 8 Washington St., which either Props. B or C would allow the developer to build. Project opponent Jon Golinger squared off against proponent Tim Colen, who argued that the $11 million that the developer is contributing to the city’s affordable housing fund is an acceptable tradeoff.

But Sherburn-Zimmer said the developer should be held to a far higher standard given the obscene profits that he’ll be making from waterfront property that includes a city-owned seawall lot. “Public land needs to be used for the public good.”

Longtime progressive activist Ernestine Weiss sat in the front row during the forum, blasting Colen and his Prop. B as a deceptive land grab and arguing that San Francisco’s much ballyhooed rent control law was a loophole-ridden compromise that should be strengthened to prevent rents from jumping to market rate when a master tenant moves out, and to limit rent increases that exceed wage increases (rent can now rise 1.9 percent annually on rent controlled apartment).

“That’s baloney that it’s rent control!” she told the crowd. (Steven T. Jones)

Students fight suspensions targeting young people of color

Sagging pants, hats worn indoors, or having a really bad day — the list of infractions that can get a student suspended from a San Francisco Unified School District school sounds like the daily life of a teenager. The technical term for it is “willful defiance,” and there are so many suspensions made in its name that a student movement has risen up against it.

The punishment is the first step to derailing a child’s education, opponents said.

Student activists recognize the familiar path from suspensions to the streets to prisons, and they took to the streets Oct. 22 to push the SFUSD to change its ways. Around 20 or so students and their mentors marched up to City Hall and into the Board of Education to demand a stop of suspensions over willful defiance.

A quarter of all suspensions in SFUSD for the 2011-12 school year were made for “disruption or defiance,” according to the California Department of Education. Half of all suspensions in the state were for defiance.

When a student is willfully defiant and suspended, it’s seen as a downward spiral as students are pushed out of school and onto the streets, edging that much closer to a life of crime.

“What do we want? COLLEGE! What are we gonna do? WORK HARD!” the students shouted as they marched to the Board of Education’s meeting room, on Franklin Street.

They were dressed in graduation gowns of many colors, signs raised high. They smiled and danced and the mood was infectious. One driver drove by, honked and said “Yes, alright!” Assorted passersby of all ethnicities cheered on the group. The students were from 100% College Prep Institute, a Bayview tutoring and mentoring group founded in 1999 aiming to educate students of color in San Francisco. Their battle is a tough one. Though African American students make up only 10 percent of SFUSD students, they accounted for 46 percent of suspensions in 2012, according to SFUSD data. Latinos made up the next largest group, at 30 percent. (Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez)

Techies to NSA: Stop spying on us!

Thousands of privacy and civil liberties activists, including many from the Bay Area, headed to Washington DC for an Oct. 26 rally calling for surveillance legislation reform, in response to National Security Agency spying programs. It was organized by more than 100 groups that have joined together as part of the Stop Watching Us coalition. The group has launched an online petition opposing NSA spying, and planned to deliver about 500,000 signatures to Congress. Many of the key drivers behind Stop Watching Us, from the Electronic Frontier Foundation to Mozilla, are based in San Francisco. (Rebecca Bowe)

What jobs?


For all its shiny gadgets and gleaming new luxury condo towers, San Francisco nevertheless houses a huge demographic that lives at or below poverty.

Officially, it affects about 12 percent of the city’s population, according to the most recent US Census data. Experts from the Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality calculated an adjusted poverty figure to capture a more accurate portrait of economic disadvantage. According to that alternative yardstick, which factors in location-based costs such as the price of housing, a full 23.4 percent of San Franciscans live in poverty.

City agencies have documented ethnic identities, languages, neighborhoods of residence, and other data concerning poor people who seek assistance through city-administered services. But even though millions of dollars have flowed through city coffers to boost prospects for those who lack steady work, there’s scant documentation showing what this has actually achieved.

Despite budgeted expenditures totaling nearly $70 million for workforce development in 2013-14, not a single San Francisco city official can say how many individuals managed to rise above poverty as a result.



At the behest of Board of Supervisors President David Chiu, the city’s Budget & Legislative Analyst recently analyzed the city’s myriad workforce development programs. It found that there is no standard measure to track the results of the programs, which are administered across 14 city departments.

The analysts recommended convening a committee to get a handle on it, “so there would be somebody accountable for compiling that information,” noted Severin Campbell, a principal at city budget analyst Harvey Rose Associates.

The analysis was a follow-up to a similar audit performed in 2007. The previous study concluded that the system to help struggling people obtain job skills and get hired “was fragmented, with inconsistent planning and coordination of resources and inadequate monitoring of programs to ensure that the programs’ goals and outcomes were achieved.”

Analysts who examined the workforce development system in 2007 discovered a lack of evidence that “individuals receiving services were eventually placed into jobs leading to economic self-sufficiency.”

To cure this dysfunction, the Board of Supervisors formulated a plan. In November 2007, it created Administrative Code Section 30, a new policy centralizing oversight of all workforce development initiatives under the Office of Economic and Workforce Development, overseen by the Mayor’s Office.

In 2007, OEWD’s annual budget for its workforce division was $547,841. By 2012-13, that amount had swelled to $19.3 million. The federal government contributes a lot, but citywide, about 65 percent of workforce development spending comes from local funds.

“Since 2007, the city has worked hard to incorporate the recommendations that came from the audit,” OEWD spokesperson Gloria Chan told the Bay Guardian earlier this year. She said the workforce division of OEWD “has made significant strides and progress to improve the city’s workforce system.”

But the latest Budget & Legislative Analyst report tells a different story. “The city continues to lack citywide policy and oversight of its workforce development system,” it notes. “Many of the key provisions of Administrative Code Section 30 have not been implemented.”

Five years have passed, and little seems to have changed. “We didn’t find a broken system,” Campbell said, “but it wasn’t what the city had envisioned.”

The report noted that the shortcomings could be partially attributed to constraints on funding provided by outside entities like the federal government, making collaboration among departments difficult.

Nevertheless, the lack of a cohesive citywide workforce development strategy coincided with one of the worst economic downturns in US history. While certain sectors have experienced recovery by now, many low-income San Franciscans are still grappling with losses sustained during the Great Recession.

A recent survey of panhandlers, commissioned by Union Square business owners, found that the majority were homeless individuals who said they didn’t have jobs, and thus couldn’t afford rent. Some apparently interpreted these findings as a revelation; the survey results were recently spotlighted on the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle.



Tiffany Green is one of the 10,883 clients served by San Francisco’s workforce development system in 2012-13. She’d previously worked at the security desk of a Tenderloin services provider, but left that job because she couldn’t find anyone to look after her young son during her shifts — and the job didn’t pay enough to cover child care costs.

So she enrolled in CalWORKS, a state program administered by the city’s Human Services Agency, which offers subsidized child care, food stamps, and cash aid for low-income parents while they complete six-month job training gigs with employers who have partnerships with the city.

She was less than optimistic when asked if she thought it would lead to a steady job. “The outcome is going to be everybody else’s outcome, which is nothing to look forward to,” she said, adding that for all her friends and family members who’d completed similar six-month job training programs, she didn’t know of any who’d landed full-time jobs as a direct result.

Karl Kramer, director of the San Francisco Living Wage Coalition, said his organization has been working with city agencies to build pathways to help participants in the programs connect with opportunities for full-time employment in civil service positions.

His organization is pushing for legislation to reform one of those initiatives, the Community Jobs Program, “to make it a real job training program that fast tracks participants into available entry-level city jobs. The reports that we get is, for people who have been through the programs, it leads to very few full-time jobs,” Kramer said. So far, his group hasn’t gotten much traction with city officials.

Steve Arcelona, deputy director in charge of Economic Support and Self-Sufficiency at the Human Services Agency, didn’t respond to multiple voicemails seeking comment.



The report comes at an odd time — in San Francisco’s current economic climate, new jobs are being created all the time, and the unemployment rate has declined. But experts note that recovery has been uneven, and only certain sectors have reason to be optimistic about the future.

“The San Francisco region is doing better than most,” Chris Haney, executive director of the California Budget Project, told us.

The city boasts a rise in “high-scale, high-production, better paying jobs” in the flourishing tech sector, accompanied by a rise in “lower-paying service jobs,” he said. “But we’re not seeing a tremendous amount of growth in the middle class, middle paying categories.”

The dilemma follows a broader trend of wage inequality that’s persisted over the last couple decades, he added, giving rise to what economists have dubbed the “missing middle.” A decline in the unemployment rate can mask this dysfunction, he said, because “you may have folks who are employed, but they’re employed at lower wages than before … What’s coming back isn’t as solid as it was previously.”

It’s against this precarious backdrop that, despite $70 million dedicated to connecting the low-income or disadvantaged with decent jobs over the past year, the city’s workforce development system appears to be plagued by dysfunction. Chiu recently introduced legislation to implement the Budget Analyst’s recommendations of undertaking yet another system overhaul.

But for many still struggling to get by, few short-term solutions are in sight. Ever-increasing housing costs make the “missing middle” phenomenon especially thorny in the Bay Area, Haney noted. “It’s harder and harder for low and middle income folks to live in the region,” he said. “They are being given clear signals that they need to move.”

Guardians of Fospice



DEATH ISSUE Like in any hospital, the doctors at the San Francisco Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals shelter deal with the living and the dying on a daily basis. But in these halls, the dying often have no homes and no families — unless they’re lucky enough to leave through the front door.

The SPCA is a unique safe haven for the furred, a pioneering “no-kill” shelter. The distinction doesn’t mean no death, it means the staff actively avoids euthanization of animals that have a chance of being adopted, including those that are already in the process of dying.

The doctors, technicians, and support personnel have a unique challenge: While most pet owners — or pet guardians, the official replacement term San Francisco adopted in 2002 — deal with the death of a beloved pet once or twice in a lifetime, the people here learn to deal with losing the animals they love every week.

The term they use is “compassion fatigue,” and the specialists here have to learn how to manage emotions surrounding death of animals that number in the hundreds every year.

Dr. Kate Kuzminski, the director of shelter medicine at the SF SPCA, gives us a tour. Our first stop is a small checkup room, where two adopted kittens, Liam and Otto, are pacing on a table.

“Here’s your opportunity to see poopy kittens,” their guardian, Judy, says. Though she’s playful, diarrhea can be dangerous for kittens if left unchecked. Diarrhea leads to dehydration, which leads to death.

Kuzminski looks them over, pulling the unhealthily scrawny young cats by the scruff of the neck. They’re a dark, dusky grey, with poofy fur, and about the length of her hand. After just a minute of looking them over, she prescribes a treatment and moves on. The brevity of her visit seems callous at first, until she tells us that she has more than 300 animals clamoring for her attention.

The most vulnerable of the animals under her care are kittens, Kuzminski explains. “We have a great foster program, but without the foster program they would likely die,” she says. It costs thousands of dollars to care for one kitten for a few days.


Two kittens in beginning of life care at the SF SPCA snuggle. 

Compartments along one wall hold about three kittens each, many hooked into little IVs that kept them hydrated. The kittens tumble and play with each other as she discusses their likelihood of living. The facility has an extraordinary success rate, she says, but sometimes there’s a limit on what the vets can do.

The kittens mew and meow in the background as she outlines their options.

When an animal is suffering, sometimes the answer is euthanasia. But for those with kidney disease, cancer, or other debilitating conditions, the SPCA’s “Fospice” program is sometimes the answer. Fospice is the combination of two ideas: Foster care, and hospice. It’s end of life care for homeless pets.

Alison Lane is the Fospice coordinator, overseeing 13 or so animals at any one time. “Most of these cats, and sometimes dogs, if they were in any other shelter, they’d be euthanized,” Lane says. “They’re hard to adopt out.”

The foster owners are provided free food and vet care for the animals they nurse into death. Photos of the pets and their owners are on Lane’s door — one cat watches fish float by on an iPad. The pets often last much longer in Fospice than they’re expected to, she says.

“Amore is only three years old but has congenital heart failure. She’s been out for three years now, the doctors were certain she only had three weeks to live,” Lane says. “But we’re not looking to extend their lives necessarily, we just want to make their quality of life better.”

The SFPCA’s hospice found homes for 1,045 cats and kittens and 115 puppies in 2012. But there are only a dozen or so animals in Fospice care. When one dog had to be euthanized just a few weeks ago, the staff held a “last day of life” party for her and the owner.

Laura Mullen, a foster technician, tells us it was healing for her and the staff.

“We had an Amber party, with balloons and flowers and she got hamburgers and all sorts of things. Amber had a good time, a good snack, and had her family around her. It ended on a happy note,” she said.

Mullen needed it more than most because she usually assists Dr. Kuzminski when an animal is euthanized. She says kitten season is often the hardest. Between December and March, they see anywhere between 30-40 kittens a day. Mullen is a 12-year veteran of the SPCA, so when the less experienced techs can’t handle it emotionally, she steps in to assist with euthanasia.

dr kuzminski


Dr. Kate Kuzminski is Director of Shelter Medicine at the SF SPCA. 

First, they separate the animal into a room on its own. It’s very important the other animals don’t see the process, Mullen says. They sedate the animal, and touch its eyelids to make sure they are asleep. Then they administer the euthanizing fluid and watch it take its last breaths and check for a pulse with a stethoscope.

Kuzminski said when they euthanize an animal, they often email the volunteers, techs, and vets who spent the most time with them so they can say goodbye. Before she asks for a tech to help her ease an animal to its final sleep, she asks about how the person is feeling that day.

“I always check in with Lauren, ‘are you okay with doing this today?’ It’s easy to get burnt out,” she said. Kuzminski’s colleagues do the same for her. Though she’s seen a lot of animals through their last days, she says the hardest loss she’s dealt with on the job was a dog named Coco.

When Coco came in, she was already suffering. She couldn’t walk, and couldn’t eat. They amputated her leg. When her esophagus closed, they took turns feeding her intravenously. The small staff grew to love Coco. The team worked with her for six weeks, in shifts. Ultimately, she didn’t make it. When Coco was euthanized, Kuzminski was out of town on business.

“The difficult thing about when Coco died was I wasn’t here for my staff,” she says, her voice fluttering a bit as she speaks. “You really want to win.”

But sometimes, you don’t win. And with the short lifespan, fragility, and sheer number of animals in pet-loving San Francisco, the staff of the SF SPCA sees a lot of death. For Lane, it helps to think of death as a part of life, something she learned here.

“As sad as death is, it’s inevitable. We all try to make the death, the passing of this animal, as easy and as comfortable as we can make it,” she tells us.

When a pet passes, they give a card to the foster owners, but it’s not a condolence card. It’s a thank-you card. “I think I’m much less afraid of (death),” she says. “You get that feeling of, well, we’ve done everything we can, and now we say goodbye. It’s not an awful thing, it’s not terrible. It’s about how you’ve spent your life. “




Why won’t you let me go?


By Brian Smith

Dad was confused.

He was taking a combination of drugs that were keeping him alive and reducing his pain. His morphine dose was quite high.

The fact that he had even made it to 78 years old was amazing considering he survived California’s polio crisis of the 1940s. But now it was coming back. Post-Polio Syndrome weakens muscles that were previously affected by the polio infection. This brilliant man was atrophying both mentally and physically before our eyes. Eventually, he would not be able to breathe. And there was no cure.

“When do we go?” he asked us. “Where are the other attorneys? This is an important deposition.”

He was on a kind of mental auto-pilot, reliving 45 years of familiar work stress — not the way anyone wants to experience his final days.

“There are no more depositions,” my wife explained in soothing tones. “Your job is done. You were one of California’s finest lawyers and you helped build a respected firm in the Central Valley. You should be very proud of your legacy.”

“Why won’t you let me go?” he said with tears welling up in his eyes.

That cut straight to the issue at hand.

For months, father had been telling everyone who would listen that he was “done.” He wanted to die. His quality of life had become so bad (a collection of pills, oxygen machines, and bad cable TV he could no longer understand) that he had nothing left to live for and wanted to die peacefully in his own home, surrounded by loved ones.

But choosing when one dies is not an option in California. The law is quite clear. California Penal Code §401 says: “Every person who deliberately aids, or advises, or encourages another to commit suicide, is guilty of a felony.”

The circle of family taking care of Dad felt overwhelmed.

The visits by Medicare-supported home hospice nurses were welcome. They were heroic in their one clear mission: to reduce suffering. But hospice nurses are not in the business of ethically assisting someone to die. That remains controversial and illegal in California.

The local “death with dignity” group recommended the only method legally allowed in the state: The dying patient simply quits eating or drinking. In a few days, they slip into a coma and never wake up. But isn’t dehydration and starvation really a form of torture? For this to work quickly, not even slivers of ice to cool the mouth are allowed.

There must be a better way.

In Oregon, where a Death with Dignity Act passed in 1994, Dad would have gotten his wish. After confirming his desire to end his life with two witnesses, consults with two doctors, and after a short waiting period and verification that the patient is not depressed, a prescription for a lethal cocktail of drugs becomes legal in Oregon. The dying person can gather family and friends for a dignified ritual that ends with the self-deliverance from this mortal coil.

Sadly, for my dad in California, there would be no easy way out.

His mood turned angry as the weeks passed. He began lashing out at the assembled loved ones for the sin of keeping him alive. We had neither the skills nor the backbone to withstand the kind of misdirected vehemence this skilled litigator could deliver upon his loved ones in those final days.

Eventually, the family broke down and took the angry patriarch to a hospice facility with a staff fully trained in the arts of comforting the afflicted.

We know leaving the farm broke his heart. He had lived there his entire life. His family’s roots on the land go back to the Gold Rush. At the hospice, he died in less than four days.

It didn’t have to be like this. There must be a better way to die.

Why are there no better options for dying Californians?

Where aren’t the Baby Boomers (who are beginning to face this exact issue) demanding a Death with Dignity law?

Why must our elders endure so much suffering at the end of life?

Why won’t we let them go? 

Brian Smith lives in Oakland. His family’s farm is in Stockton.

Reclaiming death



DEATH ISSUE Death is the Grim Reaper come to collect his dues, a silent, bewildered specter bound in black, this undeniable truth that we avoid at all costs. But it doesn’t have to be.

Beginning in Northern California, a growing movement has mounted an attack against death as we know it. They call themselves “death midwives.” Part ferry operator for the dying, part guardian of those left behind, these home funeral guides are committed to transforming our experience of death.

“Most people in this country have no exposure to death,” Jerrigrace Lyons, a prominent death midwife based in Sebastopol, tells us. “The references they do have are negative; it’s frightening, it’s ghoulish, it’s a failure. We need something realistic that shows death to be beautiful and graceful, with a lot of compassion and love and honoring involved.”

The most expensive party you never wanted to have, funerals in America have become a multibillion-dollar industry. Between the fees for completing the necessary paperwork, transporting the body, embalming, flowers, headstone, and casket, funerals cost an average of $7,000. (This is excluding the price of a cemetery plot, an 8 by 4-foot piece of real estate that can cost $5,000.) The services only take a few hours.

“Everything happens so fast,” Lyons says. “People need more time.”

Nearly two decades and 350 corpses have taught her that there is nothing more important for a family than having time with the body to grieve. This is just one part of the death process that we have lost touch with.

“Death is such a sacred and holy thing, and we have commercialized it,” Heidi Boucher, a veteran death midwife in Sacramento, tells us. “The funeral industry has made it really mysterious and creepy, so people are afraid of death.”

Americans once took care of their dead in the privacy of their own homes. During the Civil War, embalming became popular as a way to preserve dead bodies. Meanwhile, more people were dying in hospitals, distancing the living from death.

painting a coffin

When funeral directors established a monopoly on the legal right to embalm, we were separated even further from death. Today, most people have no idea what to do with a dead body. Even if they did, there are enough laws and restrictions around death to daunt almost anyone grieving over the loss of a loved one.

Paying someone thousands of dollars to deal with it no longer seems unreasonable. But handing our dead over to funeral homes might come at an even greater cost than we realize.

“When a body’s taken away, it’s taken out of the hands of the family,” Lyons explains. “There’s no direct care of the deceased, no personal involvement. There’s no way for the family to feel empowered by knowing that they’ve done everything they could to give their loved one a great send-off.”


Working as an ER and ICU nurse, Robin Russell saw a lot of death, but she was struck by how people feared death. No one wanted to talk about it, as if the word would summon the Angel of Death if said out loud.

Inspired by the open recognition of it with humor and color that she witnessed in Mexico during Dia de los Muertos, Russell began searching for a way to change how people understand death in this country. What she found was Lyons.

“I realized that one of the reasons we are so afraid of death is because it has been removed from us, by the body being taken away, filled with embalming fluids, made-up and dressed-up by strangers, and placed in a casket for a memorial conducted in an unfamiliar place, for an allotted period of time,” Russell says.

So she enrolled in Lyons’ death midwife certification program. As midwives offer care and support during and after births, death midwives give the same attention and guidance during and after deaths — from making sure that the dying are comfortable to counseling them about what is coming and helping them make arrangements.

When death comes, midwives turn their attention to the living, assisting the families and friends in caring for their loved ones at home. This can include helping them bathe and dress the deceased, preserving the bodies in dry ice, and completing all of the necessary paperwork to have a legal home funeral. With the aid of a death midwife, families can keep their dead at home with them for up to three days.

making your own coffin

When Boucher first started working with the dying 30 years ago, she was one of few death midwives. But Americans have grown more environmentally and economically conscious in recent years, making home funerals increasingly appealing.

Death midwives offer funeral directors’ expertise at a fraction of the cost, sometimes for free. They advocate forgoing caskets in favor of cheaper, greener options like cardboard boxes or even just a shroud.

Expensive frills like elaborate flower arrangements and guest books are done away with, along with toxic ones like embalming. The movement is still very small — Boucher estimates that there are 100 death midwives in the US — but practitioners are optimistic about its future.

“Many people don’t know about this, but 99 percent of the ones I talk to who do are totally into it,” Boucher claims. “We just need to educate people. That’s the only way that anything’s going to change in this country in regards to how we perceive death.”

Lyons has taught 400 people and had 150 graduates from around the world since she started her death midwife certification program in 2000. In coming years, she foresees the home funeral movement growing as much as the birth midwife movement did in the ’60s.

“When the person’s kept at home for several days, it normalizes death a lot,” Lyons states. “The family is there, making everything beautiful and natural. There’s the comfort of the home, the privacy. And it isn’t just for the family. It’s also for the person in transition.”



When Carol Singler had a home funeral for her father in 2012, she swore she could feel his spirit there with them. Lyons had made things easier for Singler in every way that she could, guiding her through the process and even driving her downtown to drop off the necessary paperwork. Lyons recommended a cardboard box that people could decorate instead of a casket.

“When somebody dies, it feels like if you could give them something of your heart, then you would know everything was at peace. This gave us the opportunity to do that,” Singler remembers. “Decorating the box with paint and collages, putting all of our love into it for my dad, we had tremendous emotional processing. We talked a lot about death and dying. By the time we finished, my nephew, who had taken the death really hard, was saying to me, ‘I never knew it could be like this. I don’t feel afraid of death anymore. I want to die like this.’ If my father had just been whisked away, that would have been the end of it. Nothing would have happened to really heal our hearts.”

Singler’s husband is dying of lung cancer. The doctors predict that he has a month and a half to live. She wants him have a home funeral assisted by Lyons too, so that their grandchildren can have the same opportunity to process their grandfather’s death.

Kim Gamboa’s teenage son Kyle committed suicide five months ago by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge. Another mother put her in contact with Boucher, and, within hours of Kyle’s death, she was at the Gamboas’ house, explaining and arranging things.

Boucher was prepared to answer the usual concerns about legality and decaying. Gamboa attended a home funeral a decade ago. At the time, she wondered how the family could stand having a dead body in the house. Once it was her own son’s funeral, however, she had no apprehensions. “When it is actually your loved one, you have such great comfort in having them home with you,” Gamboa explains. “I had wanted to do everything for him, for his soul, and then it turned out to be everything for us, and the community, to help us say goodbye.”

kyle funeral

For three days, Gamboa and her husband kept their house open to everyone who wanted to visit Kyle. They placed his body in an open casket in their living room, surrounded by flowers and candles. Kyle’s many team jerseys hung on the walls and the pictures and letters his visitors brought crowded the fireplace mantel.

“I do not know how I could have dealt with this or the world without having all of that time to talk to him, to kiss him, to touch him,” Gamboa reflects. “Bringing everyone over provided incredible support and strength, and a sense of closure. We could all grieve and share the happy times that we had with Kyle. It gave us three more days with our son to say goodbye. I can’t even describe how much that helped.”







Let’s talk about death



DEATH ISSUE  Death comes for all of us, sometimes with advanced warning, other times suddenly.

Loved ones get a chance to say goodbye in fewer than half of all deaths, so I was fortunate to see my 92-year-old Grandma Elinor Bonin in the week between her massive heart attack and her passing on Oct. 7. And I was doubly lucky to catch her while she was still fairly stable and lucid, before she went downhill, wracked by pain, fighting for each breath, and wishing for the relief of death.

Her health had been deteriorating for years and she was ready to die, as she told me in her room at Sierra Vista Hospital in San Luis Obispo, the same hospital where my daughter Breanna and I were each born.

Grandma was already suffering from pneumonia and congestive heart failure when she had a massive heart attack in the early morning hours of Oct. 1. The prognosis wasn’t good, so she worked with my mom and others to craft an exit plan: creating an advanced care directive with do-not-resuscitate order, setting up home hospice care paid for by Medicare, and going home to die.

“I’m ready,” she told me — sweetly if wearily, with a resolute resignation in her voice — as we waited for the ambulance that would take her home from the hospital. “I just don’t want to live in agony anymore.”

We all want to believe that we’ll show that kind of grace, clarity, and courage as we greet death. Society is beginning to wake up to the realization that extraordinary efforts to prolong life as long as possible can be as inhumane as they are costly, finally opening up a long-overdue conversation about death.

As we explore in this issue, the Bay Area is the epicenter for evolving attitudes towards the end of life, from the death midwives movement and home funerals to the complex discussions and confrontations of taboos now being triggered by the Baby Boomers facing death, both their parents’ and their own.

“The reality now is we’re kickstarting the conversation about death. We’re at the very beginning of this,” says San Franciscan Suzette Sherman, who just launched www.sevenponds.com, an information clearinghouse designed to elevate the end of life experience. “Death is a wonderful part of life, it’s a profound moment.”


Read more about: death midwives, AIDS obit archives, passing pet care, and Death with Dignity in California


We honor and celebrate death in San Francisco more than they do in most American cities. The AIDS crisis forced San Franciscans to grapple with death in once unimaginable ways. We continue to pioneer comforting passages with programs such as Hospice by the Bay and the Zen Hospice Project.

Our iconic Golden Gate Bridge has the dubious distinction of being the site of more suicides than any bridge in the world, with more than 1,200 people choosing to end their lives there, including 10 in August alone — a sad statistic considered local officials approved a suicide barrier in 2008, but they still have yet to find funding to build it.

Death Café salons that started in Europe have begun to catch on here, and from Latin America we borrowed and popularized Day of the Dead, which on Nov. 2 will fill the streets of the Mission District with thousands of people and Garfield Park with creative shrines to the dead.

“The way that we used to talk about death in the United States was as a sudden event. Now, it’s an anticipated event,” Death Café facilitator Shelly Adler told a small crowd that had assembled on Oct. 23 in the Great Room of the Zen Hospice Center. “The dying process is now thought of, not as something you can prevent, but as something you have a little control over.”

That’s what my grandmother had: a little control over her death, but not a lot. She was able to choose the place of her death, but not its time or manner, like she might have been able to do in Oregon or other places that allow the terminally ill to gather loved ones together and self-administer a lethal final cocktail.

death statistics

I was able to get some final quality time with this amazing woman before she passed, watching her light up at the memory of teaching me to ride a bike, laughing at the distant thought of running alongside her wobbly five-year-old grandson. And then she laughed again when I said that I still ride my bike everywhere I go, and that I even brought it down with me in the car I borrowed from my girlfriend because I don’t own an automobile anymore.

It was the last laugh she had, my mom told me later. The next day, propped up in a rental hospital bed in her living room, was when she really began the slow, arduous descent into death. The pain and morphine sapped her spirit and fluid steadily filled her lungs, slowly drowning out the last of her life.

But longevity runs in my family, and Grandma could have hung on for days or weeks like that. Her husband, my 97-year-old Grandpa Bonin, had suffered a similarly massive heart seven years earlier, also looking for awhile like his time had come, but he fought his way back and was healthy and strong as he sat by her bedside. You just never know.

So, with pressing deadlines at work and lots of other extended family members flying in to say their goodbyes to Grandma, I said mine on Thursday evening, Sept. 26.

Four days later, I got the call from my mom, a voicemail waiting for me as I returned from yoga class. I was struck by the fact that Grandma died almost at the precise moment that I was finishing my shavasana, coming out of my corpse pose as my grandmother was permanently going into hers. It’s left to the living to ponder confluences like that and to search for meaning within the mysterious expanse of death.

That’s been the central preoccupation of religions for centuries, offering assurances to the flock that we needn’t fear death, that it’s a natural part of life, a view that has been reinforced by modern secular society as well, from atheists to ecologists.

So let’s confront death, bring it out of the hospitals and mortuaries and into the open. Let’s have the long-overdue societal conversations about it that we need to have. Let’s talk about death. 

Janina Glasov contributed to this report.