Ai Wei Wei @Large

Ai Wei Wei - Trace
“Every one of us is a potential convict” — Ai Wei Wei.

Alcatraz is a severe, depressing place. I was glad to have made my first visit to the prison-turned-national-park in time with the @Large exhibit by Ai Wei Wei. His artwork honors dissidents who have risked their personal freedom, and even their lives, for greater causes. The exhibits infuse color, longing and hope into a site that otherwise indulges a grotesque fascination with murderers and thieves who’d once been held here.

Ai Wei Wei - With Wind
“With Wind”
Ai Wei Wei - Trace
“Trace”

It’s rather bizarre to interpellate viewing the Ai Wei Wei exhibits with the historical tour of the prison. @Large lets the cry of courage and discontentment ring out in the holding cells; the Alcatraz audio tour records the screeching of knives as inmates attempt their violent escapes. The dissonance is extremely eerie. And so, all the more, I appreciated Ai Wei Wei’s art and message, the interactive and accessible nature of the exhibits, and how they draw the individual into the dissidents’ stories and struggles.

My favorite interactive element of the exhibit was the briefing books available surrounding the Lego tiles of “Trace,” which featured short bios about each person honored in these icons. Later, at the exhibit’s final stop, “Yours Truly,” these books are made available again. Visitors can pick up a postcard pre-addressed to one of the people featured in “Trace” who is currently being detained. I’ve been to a number of art exhibits that attempt to create interactive, multimedia experiences, and most of the time they’ve felt somewhat forced. This, though, was a very organic reprisal and really drew me in to the story of the Kazakh journalist whose face I’d seen, whose bio I read, and to whom I was hoping my somewhat canned lines of encouragement would get through. What could I possibly say to him that would sound any less than trivial? “Hang in there; keep up the good work”?

But I put my sincere best wishes into that postcard, hoping it would give him at least some measure of comfort where he is detained, hopefully in facilities a little less depressing than what I’d just walked through.

Ai Wei Wei - Yours Truly
Postcards amassed in a canvas bin at “Yours Truly.”
Ai Wei Wei - Refraction
“Refraction”
Alcatraz
A corridor in the main cellhouse.
Ai Wei Wei - Blossom
“Blossom” fits porcelain flowers to the toilets, sinks and tubs of the otherwise entirely too depressing hospital ward.

The entrance to the hospital ward, normally closed to the public, warns that the paint contains lead. Needless to say, I breathed a deep sigh of relief once I left the ward and stepped out of the building into the sunlight.

I found the Alcatraz visit to be a discomfiting, disjointed experience. Here, the destructive lives and demise of criminals are commemorated in a form of voyeuristic tourism that is redolent of yellow journalism. Meanwhile, Ai Wei Wei’s art calls into question the justice systems that perpetrate injustice. I struggled to reconcile the two themes, because the oppressiveness of the place is so entirely palpable. And yet, though there is little that is redemptive inside these walls, artwork can flourish within their confines.

“When you constrain freedom, freedom will take flight and land on a windowsill.”

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The Cable Car at Night

SF Cable Car

My sweetest simple pleasure is taking the cable car at home at night.

Standing on its ledge, I levitate above city streets. The lights shine bright, the hills yield to the crank and bell of the car operator.

But there’s something more that makes the experience special: it forces human interaction. There is no string to pull, no tape ticker that signals a stop request to a bus driver. There is only: “Can I get off at Bush Street, please?” Eye contact. A nod from the operator. The ticket collector who recognizes that I’m a local taking the cable car home at 10pm vs. a tourist he’ll never see again. He asks my name.

Amid the bustle of rush hour, a Chinatown born and bred passenger decides to give her feet some relief from the uphill climb. She boards the car and kisses the operator, her lifetime neighbor, hello.

Yes, technology enables entirely new ways of keeping tabs on a proliferating network of 1,000s of friends. Apps bring drivers to the curb where you’re standing and remove the awkwardness of fumbling for cash. A click of a button can get you a date, or, thanks but no thanks.

For all the distance that technology can traverse, there’s no analog for a simple moment of shared humanity.

“Can I get off at the next stop, please?”

A nod, a pulling of the cranks to brake.

“Thank you.”

“Good night.”

The anonymity of urban life can be liberating. But there are nights when, at the end of a long day, I just want the tracks humming beneath my feet, the wind in my hair, the city lights flickering atop the hill. A reminder that we all are on a path, for a moment in the same direction. We all are human. And soon, we will be home.

Urban Hiking

SF Walk

I stole the term “urban hiking” from a friend in NYC. But here in San Francisco, going for a city walk is surprisingly close to the real thing. It’s such a beautiful city, with hidden walkways hedged with gorgeous flowers, sea lions lazing in the sun. And practically vertical uphill climbs that will keep those legs in shape!

SF Walk 3
Loved these guys. Nothing to do but lay out in the sun and occasionally honk at each other for more space. Good life!

I used to be so much better at making time to be a tourist in my own town. To be more observant, appreciative of small details that make life beautiful, fleeting moments that make strangers more human.

But since moving to SF, work has spun my world into a blur of stress and largely constrained my range of motion to the two-mile stretch between work and home. The worst part is, stress tends to compound itself by making me feel too busy or crazed to make time for the things that keep me sane.

This weekend, I successfully forced myself out the door for a 2.5-hour walk around “my” city, one that I have called home for nearly two years yet still know far too little about. No map, no agenda. My meanderings led me to so many beautiful places, hidden in plain sight.

SF Walk
Most amazing stumble-upon of the day.

Resolved: I need to do this more. (And with a real camera next time!)

Graced with Light – Grace Cathedral

Graced with Light

Twenty miles of ribbon sway gently, draping downward from Grace Cathedral’s vaulted ceilings. The visual effect is so beautiful and has to be seen in person; the ribbons catch the light like a hologram and create the illusion of light coming in through stained glass. It really stunned me that something as simple as ribbon could elevate a visual form to be so lyrical and beautiful and spiritually moving.

The display of ribbons, which “carry our prayers, dreams and wishes skyward,” is called “Graced with Light” by the 2013 artist in residence Anne Paterson.

The cathedral is gorgeous in its own right and open to the public. It’s also only a few blocks from where I now live, and I just want to go sit and enjoy the stillness and reverence. There’s also a labyrinth that actually takes quite a long time to traverse — it’s supposed to lead you to a meditative state if not a dizzy one :)

Graced with Light

The installation is currently scheduled to remain until the end of February 2014. Check the Facebook page for updates, and be sure to see it before it ends!

Photos courtesy of D.

Santa Frisco

SantaCon 2013 is on today at Duboce Park!

San Francisco sure is a quirky place! Today is SantaCon, a day when everyone dresses up in Santa costumes and goes on a city-wide pub crawl.

There seems to be a city-wide quirkfest at least once a month, and I love how SF’s inhabitants are game for anything. The crowds that show up don’t do anything half-assed! Well, that is, in literal terms they might be even less than half-assed (take Bay to Breakers, for example). But I mean that in terms of effort, SF’s city dwellers show up with all-out, totally-bought-in gusto.

It’s the up-for-anything spirit of this city that made it possible to stage the Batkid’s wish on such a large scale. Only in SF would the police force drape Batkid placards on their motorcycles while maintaining crowd control for the thousands of supporters who showed up to see the mayor of the city conduct a City Hall ceremony for one, very plucky, young cancer survivor.

You’ve probably seen it by now, but… it’s my first post in a while, and it’s just too good not to share:

 

 

55 Acres of Magic

If you live in San Francisco, you’ve most likely heard of microclimates: a bizarre combination of the Bay area’s topography, water and wind currents that make some parts of the city cold and foggy and others warm and sunny. So from your hipster pad in the Mexican Mission, you’ll see the fog rolling downhill but it won’t likely reach your sunny backyard.

But the San Francisco Botanical Garden takes that to an insurpassable level. Its 55 acres are home to carefully curated microclimates, from a Succulent Garden to a Redwood Forest. Within just a few steps, you find yourself on a different continent. I truly think it’s the most magical place in San Francisco. And, dear SF residents, it’s free with a California ID!

Here’s a blurb from the SF Botanical’s website explaining what makes this magic possible:

The Botanical Garden is a living museum within Golden Gate Park, offering 55 acres of both landscaped gardens and open spaces, showcasing over 8,000 different kinds of plants from around the world.

The Bay Area’s mild temperatures, wet winters and dry summers, coupled with San Francisco’s famous coastal fog, provide a range of climatic conditions that exist in few other botanical gardens in the world. These unique conditions allow it to grow and conserve plants from all over the globe, including plants that are no longer found in their native habitats.

Words surely don’t do it justice, so without further ado:

Entering Temperate Asia

Transitioning to South Africa
Photo from when I first visited the Botanical, on an overcast day. Something to note is the seasonality of the garden – the different climates peak at different times.
For example, the South African section had so many more flowers in bloom than when I last visited. It looked entirely different!
Native California. There are also benches nestled everywhere throughout this quiet, secluded park. The perfect place to come for some contemplative time.

Ferns greet your entry to the Redwood Forest
Love the cleverness of this – plants growing in a felled redwood trunk.
And to think that all this is just ten blocks from where I live. Truly magical.
Cozy campsite surrounded by California redwoods!
Then you leave the Redwood Forest, and you’re in a completely different climate again. This fuzzy tree is my favorite.
Araliaceae / ginseng family. Ready to burst into bloom.
Silhouette
What the flowers look like in bloom. So effervescent!
Succulent Garden. Seriously, is this AMAZING or what? How do they do all this landscaping??
Spiderwebs. All these succulents were covered in crusty cobwebs – I suppose because they don’t get watered as often?
En route to the Zellerbach Garden of Perennials
The Zellerbach Garden wasn’t peaking this time around, but it’s still got lovely trellises flowing with flowering things.

Dipsacaceae / scabiosa

The Andean Cloud Forest.
OMG the most amazing flower of the day.

They look like purple pasta!
Case in point about the seasonality: The last time I went to the Botanical, this was one of the most unique plants I’d seen. It was in the Andean/Chilean part of the garden, and just had these gorgeously brilliant turquoise flowers.
And this is what that plant looked like today. Nature is amazing – hope this one blooms again soon!
I <3 flowers. So much.
It’s impressive that one side of the pond looks like California…
And the other side looks like this.
Now entering Australia!

Australia and New Zealand, unsurprisingly, border each other in the garden. I just love these gorgeous, fibrous trees. It’s really so transportative to walk through these microgardens – I’ve never experienced anything like it.

The Japanese Tea Garden

San Francisco’s Japanese Tea Garden is a gorgeously landscaped world unto itself within Golden Gate Park. You do have to pay for entry, but there are excellent free walking tours. The history that the tour guide shares is quite riveting–of how the Hagiwara family maintained the grounds, and the prejudice they faced particularly during the time of World War II internment.

Our tour guide. Not pictured: his very shaggy pooch!

The bushes are trimmed to look like they’re snow-capped.

This walkway is meant to be reflective–when small puddles form between the rock slabs–to further elongate skyward.
Zen garden
Gingko biloba tree
The precision applied to each plant in this garden is exquisite. Love these undulating branches.
Moon Bridge. Quite steep!

Bay Area Livin’: We Hike So We Can Eat

The Bay area lifestyle is known to be outdoorsy. Weekend hikes are the norm, bike rides over to Sausalito, skiing in Tahoe, or trekking up Half Dome.

You’re probably imagining San Franciscans as being all fit and caffeinated and not an ounce of body fat on them. There are those types, yes. But then there’s the rest of us, who work out only so as to burn off all some of the calories we take in. Because the eating here–it is gooood.

There are few points on which I’ll concede that NYC > SF, but here’s one: I don’t get quite the same frequency of visitors here as I did when I lived in New York. I do still get some visitors, but fewer and farther between.

But lucky me!!! Last week, everyone came to town. A lot of incredible eating happened. K and I sat at the bar at Nopa for three hours, eating nonstop. We were there so long and ate so much, the bartender told us dessert was on him. So we had dessert too. Nopa was really one of the best eating experiences I’ve had so far in SF. Not to add to the hype (we were at the bar because there were no Open Table reservations until mid-September!). It really just is that good.

My bro and sister-in-law-to-be were also in town, and I spent the day with them on Saturday. Our itinerary was literally a short hike bookended by all-day feasting. We barely even had enough time to work up an appetite between brunch and dinner, but the food was so good, we ate it all anyway.

Brunch at Zazie’s. The waitress highly recommended the gingerbread pancakes. We each got eggs, plus an order of pancakes to share. I had an egg benedict with crab, green onions, and other amazingly delicious things. Also, the gingerbread pancakes were amazing. Also, we were sitting out in the garden patio and it was sunny. It really doesn’t get much better than that!
After brunch, we headed to the Marin Headlands for a hike. We walked along the beach, watched some wakeboarders, and continued along the Coastal Trail for a while.
Absolutely gorgeous.
On the way back, we stopped at a lookout point for views of the Golden Gate Bridge and the city beyond.
We had dinner at Esperpento, a Spanish restaurant. We ordered so many tapas, and everything was delicious. And then we had seafood paella. I’d joked with the owner that we were going to order everything. When he came to our table and saw everything we’d ordered, he acknowledged that I wasn’t kidding around! Hehehe.

There was, I’ll admit, an ulterior motive behind planning out this amazing and delicious day: to get M+K to move here next year!

‘Cause ya know, visitors are nice and all, but I actually want everyone to move here! All my friends and family! Having you here would truly make this the best place to live.

It’s Enough to Make You Wonder

Three questions:

  • Does this happen to other people too, or just me?
  • Are men in San Francisco crazy? (Yes.)
  • Or am I really just that hot? (Ha, not.)

Yesterday, as a guy prepares to get off the bus, he comes up to me and says:

You have the most beautiful hair in the goddamn world. You are a-DOR-able.You are my DREAM COME TRUE.

And I mean, he was saying this so loud, the entire bus was staring.

Another to add to the list of strange encounters and attempted pickup lines. If this keeps happening, I’m going to have to start a series. Like really.