Saturday, July 19, 2014

From Oakland to Old Palo Alto

Moving on from Oakland, we boarded the BART train to make the short journey from one end of the Bay Area to another, but one that took us into a very different world. Our friends Patti and Joel live in Palo Altothe home of Stanford university and the heart of Silicone Valley.  They  moved here 40 years ago when Patti was working with data for Stanford researchers and Joel was monitoring sunspot activity at the nearby radio astronomy observatory. Their house is a diminutive summer cabin sheltered by an ancient oak that was built around  the turn of the century. 

A lot of water has flowed under the bridge since then and their house is now situated in the heart of a neighborhood that must boast some of the must expensive real estate in the world and is certainly is home to some of the world's richest people. 

When I last stayed here in 1999, the family a couple of doors down were the Hewletts (yes of HP famethe printers not the sauce!). The community garden and lawn bowling green a couple of streets away was left to the city by Elizabeth Gamble, heir to some of the Proctor and Gamble fortune. Here long enough to be considered almost "old money" are the Jobs family, who live in a rather fairytale corner house built  out of red brick with a wild garden of many trees and shrubs. The epitome of the new money must be Google founder and multi billionaire Larry Page who bought 2 or 3 adjacent houses and is building on the siteone wonders whether Ms Proctor would approve and one gets the  distinct feeling that she would not. Old Palo Alto is understated, unlike nearby Atherton where high walls conceal large estates. 

We also visited our friends in Homer Lanean idyllic spot where erstwhile hippies continue to live in a communal space of tiny summer cabins they first rented in the 50s and 60s and later bought in the late 80s. Located by a tiny creek where deer come to water and humming birds hover. 

It was in a similar lane nearby (Perry Lane) that Ken Kesey lived when he was working at a veterans hospital and taking LSD in experimental programs at Stanford. Not surprisingly at the same time he was writing One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.   

University Avenue  in Palo Alto still retains the feel of many American small town main streets, but appearances are deceptive. The Italian restaurant at one end is ground zero for venture capitalists the world over; this is where  the deals are done that later change our lives with the advent of another Whatsapp, Dropbox, or Pinterest. The cinema half way down the street is a classic of the genre built in 1925, which  has survived thanks to the  good offices (and money) of the Packard family, who funded the restoration of the beautifully decorated interior and Wurlitzer organ and set up a Foundation to preserve the theatre as a functioning cinema. We went to see the original version of the Wizard of Oz on a large screen and the difference between that experience and seeing the film on television or digital versions was striking.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

An update from Dick -- Poetry : Word Party at Viracocha

We have not been very good at keeping up this blog and promise to be better. Ideas abound but time is scarce and between work and play it has been hard to fit in blogging.

However on the occasion of his first public performance as a poet Dick has written the following post. (PS I may be biased but I thought he was great and the audience was very appreciative). The event was pretty amazing.

Poetry : Word Party at Viracocha

For over a year I had targeted Viracocha as the ideal venue for my public poetry reading debut. This imaginatively quirky poet-owned antique shop on vibrant Valencia Street in the San Francisco Mission district has long been a supportive illegal venue for jazz, poetry and performance arts. Yesterday it reopened as a legal private performance space with a reopening party featuring the popular R&B group Con Brio in the refurbished basement venue.
But since it was the 3rd Tuesday of the month, long-established Word Party did not want to renounce its monthly event featuring top class jazz and open mike poetry. So the Word Party began upstairs at 8 pm. The signup policy allows poets who want to read unaccompanied to do so during the band’s intermission, allowing for nearly 3 hours of non-stop poetry performed mainly by regular participants but open to all and made all the more amenable by available beer and wine and the participation of a talented and fully complemented jazz group with long experience in accompanying poets.
I had wondered whether I could get a good reception reading contemplative poems in a somewhat lyric vein in venues known for audience-rousing, beatnik, street and spoken word poetry. The result of my initial trial would determine for a time my attitude towards facing public reading. I needn’t have worried. Many experienced poets cheerfully waited 2 or 3 hours for their slot, listening respectfully and applauding all comers. I got in early and was more than pleasantly surprised by an enthusiastic response to 2 short poems.


Saturday, June 28, 2014

A cornucopia

Just visited the Berkeley Bowl supermarket, which has to be one of a kind in the world. This is an iconic Berkeley business and one that that to some degree symbolizes the way of life we associate with this part of California - organic, vegetarian, free trade, co-op, sustainable, recycle ... you get the idea.
 Started in 1977 as a neighbourhood vegetable shop, it has grown into an immense emporium of fresh food, organic products, and bulk dry goods. The variety and choice can only be hinted at by the photo of the fridge display above (one of 2 or 3 in a row tucked into a corner of this huge retail space) dedicated essentially to root vegetables (and a couple of types of cabbage). Stunned by a display of about 9 types of radishes and 4 or 5 varieties of beetroot, I couldn't resist taking the photo. 

Somewhat bewildered, we wandered from the organic vegetable section (larger than the vegetable section of most big supermarkets) to the normal vegetable section - the size of a 3 or 4 tennis courts. Just when I felt I had seen it all I would stumble on some new section with more surprises: fresh chick peas or fresh turmeric root, 20 kinds of African root vegetable or Chinese greens, a whole section dedicated to fresh herbs, a meat counter offering buffalo, venison, kangaroo, elk, and camel.
I won't even start to talk about the rest of this supermarket. The whole enterprise would be too challenging. 
We walked home loaded down with supplies - six short blocks that take us from the edge of Berkeley back to North Oakland - crossing the invisible city line marked only by a change in the colour of the street signs from brown to green. 

Friday, June 27, 2014

We flew from Dublin to San Francisco "over the top", (a trip involving hours and hours of staring out of a round window at immensely flat and empty parts of the globe where very few people ever go -- mostly covered in ice. The immense expanse of Hudson Bay was covered with a patchwork of ice floes as June temperatures finally started to break up the solid Winter ice pack. It was a daytime flight and we got no sleep, arriving thick headed and bleary-eyed at SFO where we were quickly and efficiently dumped out onto a pavement - sorry I mean "sidewalk". (The many formalities of entry to the US had been completed online and at Dublin airport and I had been duly quizzed, fingerprinted, and x-rayed to everyone's satisfaction.)

Waiting to greet us were Patti and Joel, who had braved rush-hour traffic to be there. I only realized the heroism involved in that gesture when we spent the next 2 solid hours edging slowly along an endless succession of freeways -- 8 lanes wide and packed solid at 4 pm with commuters making their way home to the East Bay across the Bay Bridge. I had heard and read so much about the joys of living in San Francisco that this awful reality came a a rude shock and led me to wonder why anyone would want to live in a place where such a journey formed an inevitable part of their day.

 Half way across the iconic double level bridge, just after Yerba Buena island, I was startled to see the skeletal remains of a towering ghost bridge break away from the one we were driving on and take a different route across the bay. The impression was strongly reminiscent of the world described in William Gibson's intriguing Bridge Trilogy in which the Oakland Bay Bridge, rendered unstable by an earthquake, has become a vertical shantytown warren inhabited by society's outsiders in a cyberpunk world.

 In the real world, the eastern span of the 70-year-old bridge was unsafe, particularly because of the risk of earthquakes (a section collapsed after a relatively minor quake in 1989), and it has recently been replaced by a modern marvel of engineering, the widest bridge in the world according to the Guinness Book of Records.

 Finally we reached our destination - Jon's house in North Oakland, a neighbourhood bordering Oakland and the adjacent Berkeley (of university fame), a place of stark contrasts and amazing human diversity.

 Of which more anon.

 If anyone is interested in knowing more about the William Gibson trilogy, this is one woman's view :