Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Paul Robeson

Paul Robeson…. a pity we don’t know this name better. He was an amazing man. This guy fought for what he believed at great personal cost. For one thing, visit here to read the transcripts of his appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee; he held his own and showed those interrogators as the buffoons they were. It’s interesting to read this after seeing Good Night and Good Luck not too long ago.

The funny thing is, I had decided quite randomly to write my history column on Robeson, based on a photograph in the Oakland History Room of him singing to inspire WWII shipworkers in Oakland. For lack of a better reason, I was going to tie my column in with the movie I just mentioned… but the librarian at the History Room said, “Oh, you’re writing about the exhibit?”


Turns out that serendipitously, there’s a fabulous exhibit up now at the African American Museum and Library at Oakland (AAMLO) with all kinds of video monitors so you can see the great man in action and hear his insanely deep baritone voice. One of the things this exhibit stresses is that Robeson was the first to underscore the importance of Negro spirituals by performing them in sanctified concert halls. They're more than just work songs—they have a depth and power and distinct philosophy about life and pain; they are a legitimate artform.

Speaking of powerful songs, the exhibit also talks about “Old Man River” and how Robeson was best known for that song, although its lyrics are stereotypical and he had to change them. I still get chills, however, at that line, “I’m tired of living and scared of dying/But Old Man River he jes keeps rolling along.” As a young girl growing up in Vermont looking through our Broadway showtunes book, I remember being awed at the desperation that lyric expressed. I’ve still never seen Showboat; I should rent it.

There’s a Paul Robeson tomato on display, created by Moscovites… maybe that’s why the HUAC was so suspicious!

AAMLO is graced with six Arthur Mathews murals, out of an intended 12 (the library ran out of money, back in the early 1900s). Two panels were completed and burned in the fire associated with the 1906 earthquake (whose centennial was yesterday), so Mathews had to repaint them. My museum friend Diana says the Oakland Museum will be doing a Mathews exhibit next year: can’t wait.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Tulips and morbidity

My favorite flower is a tulip, and my favorite color in tulips is red. These are at the Mountain View Cemetery right now, for the Tulips Days they hold annually.

Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed the cemetery and also New York's Central Park, was adamant that cemeteries should not be like parks. I had a hard time understanding this for a while. Mountain View is designed with beautiful curving roads that sinuously and organically cut into the hillside, and its stretches of greenery are visually stunning... isn't that what you mean by park?

But yesterday I spent some time thinking about it as I climbed the cemetery's hills. I think the Victorians were into picnicking at cemeteries, bringing the whole family and a gingham blanket to sit upon. And maybe that's what park meant then: simple, mindless enjoyment -- whereas Olmsted wanted an acknowledgment of the sobriety of death...?

I think he would have approved of how I visited the cemetery yesterday. I was there initially to take a photograph of a monument for my history column, and then decided to walk for an hour (yes, the cemetery is that large) for exercise... but the tombstones I read as I walked soon had me in a thoughtful frame of mind.

The mowers had just mown the grass, so the air was filled with that staggering scent of summer, and the trees in blossom also sent their odors wafting... the grass was the bright almost translucent green of a heavily rainy winter... The lawn rolled down to a vista of ocean and distant cities. I stood there gulping down all the ecstasy the earth was serving up: dazzled; really, lucky. Lucky to still be here and experience it.

As I looked at the 1800s graves of children who lived for hours, or lived for months, with a granite lamb atop their stone to say how the parents grieved, as I smiled at some of the outlandish names, as I saw newly-placed flowers and even several true mourners crouched or on their knees, fresh in their sadness, I thought that all I could do was try to be good in my own way. This would all pass, this sensation, this brightness, my skin... my only job was to be aware and thankful.

And Olmsted's landscape made such "large" thoughts possible. It is easy to see the earth's cycle and know your place in it when nature is hand in hand with the dead.

And on to some cemetery gossip: the unendowed section of the cemetery? What a frightening mess. Gravestones buried half-cocked under grasses, split into pieces. I found a pile that looked like they had simply been thrown in a mass from wherever they once stood. I thought if ghosts exist, they're here in the unendowed section, furious, bewailing their forgotten state...

Thursday, April 13, 2006

My cats were like bishops....

...but Gary's dog is God. Come see my writer friend Gary Turchin read from his very cool novel in progress My Dog God. Happens 7 p.m. on Thursday the 20th at the Rickshaw Stop in San Francisco. More details here.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006


Yesterday I was out photographing various Oakland landmarks that had been saved through efforts of Oakland Heritage Alliance members. Here’s a startling one: City Hall itself!

After the Loma Prieta earthquake, there was a strong push to knock it over and start over. Luckily, our gorgeous Beaux Arts building got the seismic retrofit it deserved.

I was photographing these buildings for the Oakland Heritage Alliance newsletter, which I lay out. It's OHA's 25th anniversary, so I was trying to get images to illustrate a looking-back kind of article. Since Friends of the Oakland Fox, the group working to re-open the fabulous old Fox Theater which has been abandoned for decades, was an OHA offshoot, I decided to take pictures of the Fox façade.

Façade only, since the front is barred with chain link fence. I’d only been inside the theater twice, for very abbrievated looks.

So I was there holding my camera, peering through the fence, when I discerned a live human behind it, sitting in a chair. Upon seeing me, he rose to his feet and walked to the gate, saying, “You’re here to take photographs? Come on in.”
He was treating me like he was expecting me!

Although it crossed my mind to pretend I was whoever he thought I was (which always works in movies), I decided to come clean. “Are you expecting a photographer?”


“Someone from a newspaper, media?”

“No, a preservation group or something.”

“Oh. It’s just a random coincidence that I’m here taking pictures of the Fox. But I wonder… is that preservation group the Oakland Heritage Alliance?”

He wasn’t sure, but he was kind enough to let me inside anyway. I was blown away by the luck of my timing, to be there holding a camera when he expected someone holding a camera….

So for the third time in my life, I entered the cavernous and gorgeous Fox Theater, built in 1928 and moldering since the 1970s. The 4,000 or some odd seats are all gone, so the auditorium is vast and curved and empty. On either side of the stage are two gigantic Buddha statues. Back when the Fox was operational, incense would burn in the figures’ laps and their eyes would glow. One statue’s eyes glowed ruby, and the other’s emerald.

The theater was very dark and of course my flash didn’t serve to light the space, so the interior shots didn’t work. But here are some shots of the dazzling Art Deco entrance, where the ticket booth used to stand. The marquee and blade (the long vertical sign) were very badly deteriorated, and in 2001 the city paid to have them professionally restored, so they beam brightly at night although the Fox itself is still pretty dismal. 

The Friends of the Oakland Fox just kicked off a capital campaign to get the theater restored enough to hold performances there, sort of a placeholder until the whole thing can be restored. Even just this stopgap restoration, called the Ruins project (i.e., keep the theater as a ruin, but operational) is supposed to cost $27 million! I’ll be making a donation once I get my advance, and you should too!

Monday, April 10, 2006

My love affair

Today I renewed my love affair with Oakland. What a city! Usually, I'm overcome by city love when I'm at the lake, but today it was the cherry blossoms in front of City Hall that got me going. My feelings were probably fortified by sunlust... after all this rain, it's so great to take a breath that doesn't involve getting water in your lungs.

Also, something very special and coincidental happened to me... more later.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Aht! Culchah! My dawgs were bawkin!

Went to the SF MoMa yesterday (sans Randolph and Kirsten this time) to see the 1906 earthquake photographs. Odd that a museum of MODERN art is showing 100-year-old photos, but no matter; for me, history and modernity co-exist peacefully.

Because I was wearing high-heeled and quite pointy-toed boots*, standing and looking at the exhibits for three hours became painful. So I sat down to watch Steve McQueen’s Drumroll for a lot longer than I would have otherwise.

This is a film McQueen made with three cameras affixed in a rolling cement mixer he pushed down the street, apologizing to passersby as he went for the space he took up on the sidewalk. Two cameras were mounted inside the mixer, facing outside right and left, and one on the outside that rotates with the drum, so you can see the blur of McQueen’s body over and over. The three circular images are displayed side by side. As soon as you walk into the dark exhibit space, you’re instantly disoriented because the circling images make you feel like you’re rotating as well.

At first I thought the images were mundane, endless taxi wheels and pedestrians’ feet, but my cruel shoes encouraged me to stay and watch longer. And hey, it got really cool the longer I stayed. I’m always telling my critical thinking students to “observe longer,” and it definitely paid off here.

I started noticing little things I wouldn’t have otherwise, like how the three images fit together and share some cornerspace with each other and figuring out that the blur was the artist (of course the placard says this, but I didn’t get it until I got it, and then it was an aha). I became in tune with the rotation, breathing with the grinding sound the mixer made, at peace with being upside down. Way cool.

And I’m guessing this is not the Steve McQueen of the acting world.

The day previous, I had heard a DJ on the radio saying that the Beatles and the Beach Boys had a sort of competition to see who could be more revolutionary and groundbreaking in their music, apropos of “Yesterday” being the first rock song to use a classical quartet. And then I came to the MOMA and saw that artists were doing the same thing: Jeff Koons with his ceramic Michael Jackson and monkey, the surrealistic photographers, the artist who bounced a basketball covered with paint over a canvas and called it art, the artist who did the same with naked women’s bodies (well, I guess instead of dribbling the women, they writhed on their own.) It was a nice synchronicity to see the same principle applied to two different art forms.

I loved my afternoon there.

And then I walked to BART, seriously looking around to see if there were any shoe stores because my feet hurt that badly. And wouldn’t you know it, it was commuter rush hour after five o’clock and I didn’t get a seat. I stood all the way to Oakland thinking evil thoughts about my beautiful boots.

*my boots are taller and pointier than the ones pictured… and also less Prada.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Redhead returns to east coast

I was so sad to say goodbye to my redhaired sister... we had such a wonderful time together. Her whirlwind visit was the highlight of the spring! Can't wait to lure her back out here again. Actually, the airline owes her a free flight, imho, for how they treated her on her return. Maybe a strongly-worded letter will yield a certificate that she just has to use before it expires.

One of the most fun things we did was have high tea at Lovejoy's Tea Room in San Francisco. I just love those hot scones with lemon curd! And the teeny triangle sandwiches without their crusts... The place is filled with antiques, as is the store across the street, which made the redhead very happy and in her proper habitat.

We had other great adventures as well, like when she kicked a dinosaur in the head... repeatedly. So sorry about the inside joke, but she told me not to put her on my blog so I'm going very under the radar here. Miss you, Red!!!!

No logs in peasant fireplaces in the 1500s, it turns out

This week I finished a small self-inflicted revision of Hexe. Teo Ruiz, the man whose Terror of History lectures inspired the book, very kindly agreed to read it and comment on historical accuracy. He has been so patient and wonderful and answers all my follow-up email questions (every one of which I’m convinced will be the last one… but then… wait! what about 16th century window sills?) I owe him so much.

So I did a round of firming up little anachronisms and next my editor will read that version and send me her edits. I’m dying to see what she has to say.