If you haven’t been to the San Francisco Bay Area yourself, and if you wonder why I’m always so happy to get home to it; or why visitors to SF and the bay area so often rave about it — a good place to start is to take in the photo just above. I’m still working my way through photos I took last year, before I headed over to Bangui, where I’ve been now for more than two months. I shot all of the photos in this post during a take-off from SFO en route to EWR last year, in May — but what I’m posting are just photos from the bay area and up til the time we reached the still snow-covered Sierra Nevadas. Since it was nearly a year ago, and this year hasn’t seen as much snow — just remember: it’s last year! Enjoy!
The bay area, which I call home and return to between assignments or even on vacations during an assignment when possible, has its icons. There the golden gate bridge, which I cross every time I go to my own physical home after flying into SFO. There’s the corner of Castro & Market, with its massive rainbow flag as a statement to the world that the city’s LGBTQI (did I forget any of the currently-accepted letters?) population is proud and not about to creep back into some box just because some people don’t much like us. There’s Mt Diablo, forming a triangle across the bay as the highest peak in the immediate bay area — visible behind that rainbow flag, down below. There are vineyards…and this year, there’s rain in the vineyards! And snow in the mountains, though I’ve not yet been to see it myself. Perhaps I’ll make it to the mountains after this assignment, before it all melts. Something to keep in mind.
In any case, I was recently back amongst these icons for a final vacation during the current assignment. When the weather was sufficiently clear, I walked or biked around and appreciated the greenest vistas I’ve seen in years, since California’s been in a drought that’s grown more severe year by year for a decade or so. As it rained on my way back to the airport for the flight back to PaP, I photographed one of Sonoma County’s lovely hillside vineyards through the bus’s rainy window. On the way up, I photographed the GGB through the bus’s reasonably clear window. And I took as many photos of flowers as I could: so much was in bloom! I’ll admit I’ve been overworked at work, depressed in real life at home about what’s become of government and “civil” discourse in my native land, and generally rather tired. So I’ve not taken out my camera much. But I do usually have a phone with me and I’m now on instagram (paulbsrca) so every now and then I remember I can snap something with that, then pop it up on instagram. But I remain more of a long-form guy, so here I’m assembling stuff from both camera & phone, to share some of what I’ve seen and thought lately. It’s always lovely when I know folks read and appreciate what I share. Thanks…and let’s all try to add a wee bit more beauty and pleasure into the days and lives of those around us…if that’s not too bold a suggestion. Peace. 🙂
I’m no architect so I’m probably using those terms wrong, but call it poetic license. I think of the uprights on the Golden Gate Bridge as columns through which I pass, each time I head home from an extended absence. And any time I’m home, I make sure to spend at least a fews enjoying the city of SF and its lovely architecture, hills, bays, vistas, people, restaurants, etc. Over lunch at work here in Port au Prince this week, a few of us from different parts of the world talked about what makes a city beautiful to us. The French person among us spoke strictly of architectural beauty; the Canadian and I favored a mix of architecture with what maps call “relief” — hills and valleys, rivers and bays. Thus, for me, SF is pretty much the top among US cities I’ve known: from ocean to bay, with valleys and hills between; girdled by bridge, mountain and water…and blessed with a progressive citizenry who, for example, voted early to tax themselves in order to ensure all residents of the city had access to basic health care — well it’s really a pretty cool city and one I’m currently far prouder to claim than that deeply-purple state in which I was born. At times like this, when an unpredictable and mean-spirited individual will soon inhabit the white house…well, I need to remind myself what’s enduring and promising about my homeland…
…plus a few remnants from a series one might call ‘airports of the world.’ smw, slt has not gotten out and about with the camera much these past weeks, but I did realize there was a small cache of photos from some boat trips on the bay, and some hikes in Marin and Sonoma counties, that had not yet been posted. Since I get a bit homesick sometimes when I’m so far away, I’m putting these up so that I have an easy way to scan over them from time to time and remind myself what home looks like. Maybe some of you will enjoy it as well. All the photos have descriptive file names that show up if you hover over them or open them separately, I think. In the slide show below, you’ll see a panorama which goes from the Bay Bridge on the left (east), across the full waterfront of northern SF, to the Golden Gate Bridge & Marin Headlands on the right (west). Further down you’ll see some hiking shots from the trails in Tennessee Valley (Marin county), and Annadel State Park & Hood Mountain Regional Park (Sonoma County). In one of them you’ll see frost on the ground in the shadowy foreground: that was Christmas day last year – ah, how I long for frost on a hot afternoon here in Port au Prince! At the end are some photos of me and friends – at Wolf House in Jack London State Historic Park (Sonoma County) … and, well, me looking as lost as I felt, with some colleagues in Casablanca airport on my way home from Sierra Leone, last December. Our flight out of Freetown had been at some crazy hour like 2 am or 3 am or something, so we took the ferry over to the airport at 10pm or so, and snoozed in the waiting area and then flew for three hours to Casablanca to land at something like 8 in the morning. Oy, airports in which we have waited listlessly: might be a future series, what do you think?
I’ve never been much for prisons. They’re scary, and being someone with an active imagination and a personal identity that leads to punishment or death in many places, I’ve always had a certain “there but for the grace” reaction. During a high-school social-action trip to Washington, DC our youth group visited a local medium-security federal prison and spoke with prisoners. It was an important experience, but I admit I felt far more in my element at the soup kitchen, to which I returned to help cook and serve on our choose-your-assignment day. I’d still make the same choice. So it’s probably not a surprise that – for all the time I spend in SF – I’d never set foot on the island of Alcatraz until a week ago when I was drawn there, in a group organized by my good friend Amy (thanks again!) to see a special installation of art created in absentia by Ai WeiWei specifically for this former prison location…indeed, for this location which is probably one of the most famous and certainly one of the most tourist-friendly former prisons in both the US and the world at large.
Indeed, it’s that very tourism-friendliness which has helped keep me away from Alcatraz: I’ve imagined that many visitors go with a sort of prisoner-theme-park idea in mind. I start out deeply uncomfortable with the basic statistics and facts about race, opportunity and incarceration in the US…then I add my uncomfortable awareness of how the US’s crime and punishment statistics measure up against other peer nations which pride themselves on openness, opportunity, and democracy for all (spoiler alert – do some research, but last I knew we don’t compare any better there than we do on gun violence per capita…), and in the end I’ve just never managed to get out to Alcatraz.
I’m so glad that Ai WeiWei and the creators of this exhibit gave me a good reason and impetus to visit. His work has made me think a great deal about freedom – freedom of mind, of body, of spirit. Freedom from as well as freedom to do, to think. There’s a range of installations – audio clips heard inside a small cell of famous prisoners of conscience from around the world, ranging from Martin Luther King, through the Robben Island Boys, to Pussy Riot. There’s an audio installation in the psychiatric observation cells, with a Hopi ceremony recorded. Through this I learned that among the earliest prisoners at Alcatraz in the 1890s were quite a few Hopi elders, who supported the parents of their tribe in refusing to enroll their children in the schools that were to “modernize” their children. (Translation: rip them from their homes & roots, and leave them confused about their place in this race- and class-driven world.) He’s got beautiful kites — dragon and other kites — with messages from fighters for freedom of conscience and ideas around the world. There’s a huge room whose floor is full of lego portraits of prisoners of politics and conscience around the world, and postcards where you can write you own message to some of these folks in many nations.
All in all it’s a very thought-provoking and educational exhibit. And being on Alcatraz, in the heart of one of the world’s most beautiful bays, it’s also a beautiful outing. Check it out if you’re in the area during the coming months. I believe and hope that posting these images is in line with the artist’s wishes but do hope someone will inform me if I’m wrong in which case I’ll gladly remove any that don’t fit. Peace, health, freedom to be happy sad or thoughtful in the new year to one and all.
The exhibit-installation had many parts. The one called “blossom,” of which there’s an example above, was installed in the hospital ward. It made me think of the hundred-flowers campaign, and also of the buddhist tradition that the lotus flower derives some of its spiritual power from the fact that it represents beauty arising from the muck. In another part of the main prison ward were many audio segments, each playing inside an individual cell and each representing music or speeches from people and groups imprisoned for their ideas or art. That’s hard to capture in film – but the shot to (I hope) the right, showing the three tiers of cells, and the photo of text from one of Martin Luther King’s later speeches are both from that section. The dragon kite is from a segment called “With Wind,” and if you look at some of the photos closely you will see quotes from people imprisoned or threatened with prison for their ideas.
So smw, slt has again left the continent and headed off to work. This time our work really won’t be anything we document on here, so both to clear my own to-do list, and to leave my friends with a sense of how well-rested I’ve become from these past two months in my spiritual and now literal home of California (well, literal in the sense I actually have a home there waiting for my return, not in the sense I’m there at the moment or expect to be for the next few months…), I’m giving a you a scrapbook of shots that piled up since my return from the ABQ wedding in mid-August. The bay, the golden gate bridge and Marin headlands as seen from Fort Mason; various scenes of Napa and Sonoma counties as seen from hikes & bikes around new new home base; some shots from a couple days last week (!) in Los Angeles – back to Topanga Canyon & the fountain in Grand Park on a nearly-full-moon night (the next night, we stood out on my balcony up north to watch the lunar eclipse at 3AM, how cool was that?!)…and scenes of the bay’s wetlands around Palo Alto as seen when I had the privilege of riding along for some training with my friend Amy who’s getting herself trained to fly a small plane.
If you’re curious about the work, there was a PBS frontline documentary filmed in early August at that project where I’ll very soon be working; from Europe I’m unable to launch the link but I’m fairly sure if you’re in the US you can find it here: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/ebola-outbreak/
As the man says, be well, do good work, and keep in touch. It’s certainly what I plan to do! Cheers.
Between assignments, I’ve been a wanderer since I first filled up the storage space in January, 2005. People viewing my life from outside often express envy of how much I ‘get’ to travel: comments along the lines of “oh, it’s so exciting that you get to go to all these places and travel so much.” People who know me a bit better, or people for whom, like me, going to work = packing a bag with (one hopes) sufficient saline solution & undergarments for a year’s assignment in a remote location of which one has, so far, only indirect knowledge, understand that the travel is the part I hate the most. And that the rootedness that comes from identifying one solid piece of earth as one’s spiritual and physical home is what I envy everyone else the most. Be that as it may…the participant observer is an identified role in sociology and anthropology, and as someone who increasingly feels reasonably comfortable many places, but at home nearly nowhere (aside from a few places like SF Bay area and LA’s west side), I do have a certain distance from what I observe in most places. And what I observe in the US is always most fascinating and too often disturbing, since it’s the place o’ my birth and so on and so forth.
Some recent observations, for those outside the US who’ve missed it:
Our supreme court’s decided that companies (on whom most of us rely for our health insurance, crazy though that seems to anyone from a sane nation) have the same right to religious freedom that individuals do – and they get to express that right by dictating what forms of family-planning and possibly other health care choices their employees (and their employees’ family dependants) may make within the insurance plan. To illustrate the broader socio-political insanity this ruling might unleash unless the country gets to single-payer soon, I’ll take a short quote from Justice Bader Ginsburg’s strong dissent from the narrow majority’s decision: Would the exemption…extend to employers with religiously grounded objections to blood transfusions (Jehovah’s Witnesses); antidepressants (Scientologists); medications derived from pigs, including anesthesia, intravenous fluids, and pills coated with gelatin (certain Muslims, Jews, and Hindus); and vaccinations[?]…Not much help there for the lower courts bound by today’s decision.)
This follows by a few years the same court’s decision that companies have the same right to freedom of expression that individuals do – meaning they can buy all the elections they want now, pretty much, as in campaign donations and campaign advertising are pretty open game for whatever rich & greedy corporation wants to drive “public” policy its way.
So, to review: companies can (and do) buy as many politicians as they want; and companies can (and do, now) ensure that their employees receive only the health-care services that the companies’ owners approve of. (And oh btw, for those believing this is a ‘narrow’ ruling – check out the definition of closely held, and what % of Americans work for such a company. Not so narrow, eh?) Ah, ‘democracy.’ And lots of my American friends ask how I can stand to live & work in so many other countries where corruption and greed are so rife…
But at least there’s always SF to go home to. Indeed, I guess the fact it’s such a successful, happy & healthy city because of its openness to heterogeneity and its willingness to embrace the importance of good, common-interest governance to the health & welfare of society & individual citizens (i.e. not just big companies & their majority owners) is precisely what’s always made it so very scary and threatening to the Koch-funded tea-party types. Oh well, their loss, unless they succeed in dragging the rest of us down with them. Enjoy the views, folks – I realized I’ve actually shown very little of SF in these pages over the years – not quite sure why, but here’s a bit finally.