Thursday, September 25, 2008

Nick Cave and Carmen Consoli

Two concerts in less than a week, we certainly outdid ourselves. On Saturday we waited an hour in line on the pavement behind Market Street to get inside the newly-remodeled Warfield Theatre. I bought my tickets two months ago for the Dig! Lazarus Dig! tour of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds.

The first part by the Red Sparowes was boring at best, the instrumental band alternating kick-ass guitar riffs with dull "ambiant rock" melodies.

Honestly, I still don't understand why they were chosen for the first part of Nick Cave's tour. There was really nothing exciting or galvanizing about their performance. The only downside, to me, would be the string of shocking deathly images screened above them on a white sheet because it was disturbing but lacked musical substance.

Nick Cave, on the other hand, was his usual professional self: right on, dark and biblical. He was so wasted (or seemed so) that we occasionaly anticipated a catastrophe but he kept going on and the show was worth the two-month wait.

Like the three other Nick Cave concerts I've seen, this one alternated a mix of powerful oldies (The Mercy Seat, The Ship Song, Stagger Lee, Tupelo, Papa Won't Leave You, Henry ...) with excerpts of his new and brilliant Dig! Lazarus Dig! (Dig! Lazarus Dig!, Midnight Man, More News from Nowhere...).

As we had to relieve our babysitter we unfortunately left before the encore, but we were ecstatic nonetheless (with ringing ears).

Last night at the Bimbo's 365 club in the heart of North Beach, change of musical scene. We had the pleasure to see Carmen Consoli, the Italian pop/rock star.

Bimbo's is such a small venue that its red-velvet draped walls are the perfect setting for an acoustic experience such as last night. Dim lights, round tables and martinis flowing, such was the dark room we entered to sit close to the stage at our reserved table.

Consoli's songs, from the older woman obsessed with plastic surgery in Contessa Miseria to the deceived bride of Fiori D'Aranzio, have the compassion and defiance of her punk-rock beginnings.

Tagged as an "Intellectual rocker steeped in tradition" by the New York Times, Consoli is a passionate performer and her leg and boot moves show how her entire body vibrates with her music. Not sure I'll become a huge fan, but I'm glad we went.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Pirates in San Francisco

Avast ye lilly-livered landlubbers, it's international Talk like a pirate day! And on Talk like a pirate, you better give everyone a bit of yo-ho-ho to show you're alive and hearty!

Unbeknownst to most who view San Francisco as a hippie hangout, the city is also a great pirate magnet. As a mid-1800s city, San Francisco does not have the luxury of centuries of pillage, buried treasures and sunken galleons, but the city by the bay largely makes up for it with pure pirate spirit.

Last week on September 19, 2008, San Francisco celebrated two totally unrelated events: Talk like a pirate day and Park(ing) day.

While the first is pretty self-explanatory (well - you just talk like a pirate), the second deserves explanations. On Park(ing) day, city dwellers reclaim metered parking spots, feeding the meter all day, laying down astroturf and picnic chairs on city streets to promote green spaces and temporary public parks. As my brother says "Only in San Francisco would this happen." I can't argue with that.

We started the day by dressing up my girls in pirate garb. We did not have eye patches but striped shirts, Jolly Roger hats and colorful belts go a long way in the yo-ho-ho.

They brought five pirate books to school, including the hilarious story of the dandy pirate called Backbeard: The Hairiest Pirate Who Ever Lived.

After school came more fun as we proceeded to 826 Valencia, the one and only pirate supply store in San Francisco.

What a surprise when we noticed all the people sitting down on Valencia street with potted plants, whole-grain muffins and "sunbrellas". I didn't know it was Park(ing) day then.

Right in front of 826 Valencia, a minivan-size pirate ship with real pirates haranging passers-by!

My girls were sooooo impressed. "Mom, how do you know this place?" I felt a pinch of pride. Jocelyn, an eye-patched booty-hunter, came down the ship to give golden doubloons to my girls. You should have seen the look in their eyes.

We entered the store and it felt like walking on treasure island.

The store is whimsical and deliciously weird. Walls are lined with wooden drawers bearing mysterious names (shiny, hairy...) and you have to pull the drawers (some way up high) to discover what's inside. Some drawers were so high that I actually had to lift my girls so they would peek inside and report back on the contents!

It was so much fun that we opened every single one of them drawers at least twice. Or thrice, as Jocelyn the booty-hunter came inside the store and helped my budding buccaneers to discover hidden treasures, re-opening the same drawers.

The ceiling is home to brass chandeliers, big hooks and sea glass balls, and dressers serve as resting places for brass lamps, candle holders or wax pirates.

By the counter, legions of classy eye-patches await customers, as well as looking glasses, black and white dice with Jolly Roger faces, enormous and cumbersome locks, keys and just about anything you probably would never need but looks funky enough to be bought.

The weirdest of all is the big barrel full of lard. Yes, lard used to be a very common commodity and if you don't know how to use it, there's a sign with all the uses of lard.

I did not bring any back home but I did purchase a deep blue glass prism, an object formerly inserted in the deck of wooden ships to reflect any signs of fires starting below deck. This shall prove useful in our newly-constructed tree house.

Now, if Friday September 19th had been the first friday of the month, we could have topped the day at Alameda's Speisekammer, a German brew pub that features Pirate Night with live music and dressed customers. Or we could have splurged at Forbes Island, San Francisco's only underwater restaurant on an island smack dab in the middle of Fisherman's Wharf by the sea lions.

But we only felt like going back home for a quieter evening and my girls were allowed to watch the first fifteen minutes of Pirates of the Caribbean.


Monday, September 15, 2008

Anderson Valley and Mendocino County Fair

When we last visited Boonville last May, we promised to return for the Boonville Rodeo on September 13 & 14, 2008. It seemed like the perfect weekend: camping at Hendy Woods State Park under the redwood trees, a day at the old-fashioned Mendocino County Fair and Apple Show with the Boonville Rodeo, wine tasting at local boutique wine growers in Anderson Valley and lunch at the Boonville General Store for organic pizzas and killer chocolate shortbread cookies. Mission accomplished!

Our friends Heather and Jason and their children Lily and Gus joined us for the occasion. On Friday night after three hours in highway 101 northbound trafic, we met them at the campsite in the dark. The air was chilly, the neighbors feisty and we couldn't wait til morning.

After a solid breakfast of pancakes and crepes, we headed to Boonville. I didn't realize until after we got the program that the day was mostly county fair stuff and the evening mostly rodeo events. Time planning was of the essence.

Between 10am and 3pm, we covered all we wanted from the fair. Our first stop at the local produce hall was a funky introduction to Anderson Valley's natural bounty.

From blue or red ribbon vegetables displayed in paper plates to apple growers sharing tastings of rare or unusual varieties (such as the juicy Jonathan or the tart and pink Pink Pearl apples), Anderson Valley was well represented.

Some people even made a map of Anderson Valley entirely out of natural materials such as rice, beans and cattled feed. Groovy. As we tasted apples, sheep shearing was taking place in the hall next door and cattle penning in the rodeo arena.

That's a county fair I like: old-fashioned and slow-paced, authentic and low-key (unlike the loud and noisy Sacramento County Fair we attended two weeks earlier.)

Right behind the produce hall was the Humphreys Barnyard Fun area for children, a place where our four munchkins milked a fake cow, pumped water onto a wooden gutter to drive a rubber duck into a pail, played in a corn box, dug potatoes in a dirt box, made a dirt baby (a sock puppet filled with a dirt and seed mix that's supposed to grow "hair" in a week when placed atop a jar of water) and attended a magic show by Mother Goose. How's that for kid-farm entertainment!

Next on our list was lunch in typical unhealthy county fair fashion: "kurly" fries driping with oil, corn dogs or tri-tip sandwiches and for grown-ups, Anderson Valley Brewery beers. See for yourself how it makes grown-ups cheer up.

After a well-deserved break back at Hendy Woods, we returned in the evening for the CCPRA Rodeo Semi Finals. Floodlights and country music, patriotic speech and national anthem, bucking broncos and rodeo queens, that was Americana at its best and we loved it.

Our children, standing right behind the fence, were mesmerized by the way cowboys and cowgirls roped and tied up calves shooting like darts in the arena, whereas us adults gulped as cowboys broke their backs and held on fast to the broncos.

The Diablo Ladies Rodeo Drill Team performed a pleasant (if somewhat long) horse dancing show after which we left because it was getting too late for little people anyway.

The next morning we nicely packed up our tents and went winetasting, a different kind of tourism.

Our first visit was for Husch vineyards where we got some delicious Pinot Noir and Zinfandel. Then we crossed the road to Roederer Estate and got a champagne magnum for Christmas.

On our way back to the Bay Area, we stopped at Gowan's Oak Tree in Philo to stock up on apples, pears and tomatoes. Such a bargain! You don't find ten-pound cases of pears for $14 in San Francisco.

Our choice for lunch was the Boonville General Store where pizza still tastes as good (chevre, garlic and tomato) but unfortunately they didn't any chocolate shortbread cookies that day. Yet another reason to return...

Friday, September 5, 2008

Fairy Tales: Fact or Fiction?

"Mom, did Cinderella really happen?" asks the five-year-old on her way to school.

I could have brushed it off with a few words and simultaneously crushed five years of patient fairy tales brainwashing. "Sweetie, it's about time I told you the truth." Of course, that would have led Santa to the dump of adult lies together with leprechauns, lutins, elves and unicorns, and I'm not even mentioning the Tooth Fairy. Sadness and bitter tears would have ensued and I would have lost all my bedtime allies.

But deep inside, I love fairy tales and flying creatures more than I crave blunt honesty so I just answered. "I don't know Sweetie, I'll need to look into it." And so I did.

So that you know, I don’t drive a mouse-powered carriage. I don’t expect birds to fold my laundry in the basement. And my husband doesn’t return from work on a white stallion with a feather on his head.

Having said that, it was worth taking a closer look at fairy tales. After all, I wondered, why wouldn’t there be some hint of historical facts in them as with many folk tales?

On a GGMG mom’s suggestion, I started my investigation with Hansel and Gretel. “Hansel and Gretel is based on some truth of famine during the dark ages,” she wrote, “Not sure you want to share that with the kid yet.”

I googled it and sure enough, Hansel and Gretel is a crowd-pleasing 19th century German tale referring to the hardships of medieval times when infanticide was common practice during famines. Not sure my five-year-old could stomach that idea, so I moved on to Snow White. Bingo!

Snow White is loosely based on the real (sad) story of Contessa Margarethe van Waldeck.

Born in 1533, Margarethe was a beautiful young woman with fair hair. She grew up in the mining town of Bad Windungen, a town where miners were children commonly called dwarves because of the difformities caused by their back-breaking life. At age 16, Margarethe was sent to the imperial court of Brabant where Prince Philip (the later King Philip II of Spain) fell head over heels for her.

Bad news, the marriage would have caused political turmoil. Like Snow White, Margarethe had a problematic relationship wityh her stepmother who hated her. Margarethe died poisoned at the age of 21.

What about the apple then? Well, it turns out there was a man in Windungen who poisoned children through apples to keep them from stealing them off his trees.

Fast forward a few centuries, mix the two stories and you have a fair young woman dying in the hands of a wicked stepmother with a poisoned apple.

I have long wondered whether the death-like sleep of Snow White (or the Sleeping Beauty for that matter) could be connected to that medieval disease when seemingly dead people were buried alive and later woke up in their coffins, scorching their fingernails trying to escape. However at this point, that's pure speculation.

On with another tale, Cinderella. The earliest version of the theme may be found in the real life of a 6th century BCE Thracian slave turned courtesan called Rhodopis. As explained on Wikipedia, "It is said that as Rhodopis was one day bathing at Naucratis, an eagle took up one of her sandals, flew away with it, and dropt it in the lap of the Egyptian king, as he was administering justice at Memphis. Struck by the strange occurrence and the beauty of the sandal, he did not rest till he had found out the fair owner of the beautiful sandal, and as soon as he had discovered her made her his queen."

That's an exotic substitute for Disney's glass slipper that totally satisfies my quest for historical anecdotes. But Cinderella transcends cultures as different versions can be found in China, Korea, Japan and in the West, France, Italy, Germany and more.

"What about Aladdin then?" asked my five-year-old. The controversy over where the Thousand and One Nights originate is a scholar-stuff brain-twisting discussion but it looks like sadly, Aladdin was not inspired by a real person.

A much less debatable loved thief would be Robin Hood. The Search for the Real Robin Hood is a website entirely dedicated to linking the folkoric icon with existing outlaws having lived in Yorkshire and practiced their art in the Sherwood Forest.

The good news is, there are several Robin Hood candidates to pick from: Robert Hod, Robin of Loxley, the Earl of Huntington, plus other minor thieves. The bad news is: we don't know for sure.

But as my mother says, "Children need pixie dust to dream." So forget the historical anecdotes. They're fun but fairy tales are better bedtime material than "taking the dog out on a rainy day". If we told fairy tales as living history, our children would go to sleep out of boredom. Add a little glitter.

Plus, as Bruno Bettelheim wrote in his book The Psychoanalysis of Fairy Tales, "Fairy tales are psychologically way more convincing than "realistic" tales for children. By guaranteeing the child that he can earn the [fairy] kingdom, fairy tales also teach the child additional values:

to find your kingdom, you'll have to leave your home;

your kingdom is not readily accessible;

you will have to take risks and fight obstacles;

you cannot do it alone and need outside help;

to get outside help, you will need to wield in to their requirements."

Fairy tales are about imagination. What better place to escape the world than your imagination?

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Yosemite National Park: Junior Rangers Wanted!

There is something magical about the way "ranger" rings to our ears. It evokes pristine wilderness, preserved nature and protected wildlife. Rangers wear funny hats, shiny badges and know about bears. They can start fires better than mom and dad (even with fancy square bases) and like to sing songs at campfire circles. To a child, they're nice guardians of the outdoors and that's immensely respectable. So when you ask a five-year-old if she wants to become a junior park ranger, the answer is a loud and clear yes.

When reading the Yosemite Park News, I noticed a full page about the Junior Park Ranger program. Basically there are two categories. For children between three and six years of age, there's a Little Cub button that you earn by doing some nature-oriented activities. For children between seven and 13 years of age, you can earn a shiny Junior Park Ranger badge by doing more nature activities.

I was aiming at the Little Cub category so we filled the page of the Yosemite Park News, attended a campfire circle for children, collected a bag of trash on the campground and my girls drew a picture of a Yosemite sight.

The campfire circle for children was particularly fun because Ranger Joanna Cooke performed a skit with two children about what not to do when a bear approaches your campsite. As the ranger growled and crawled towards the first little girl, the girl screamed and ran away. "Perfect," said the ranger, "that's exactly what not to do." The second time round, the ranger gave instructions to the second participant and as the ranger growled and crawled forward, the second little girl completely told her off, pointing her finger and yelling not to come take her food. Big rounds of applause for the right attitude.

We then sang "Tuolumne" to the tune of The Sound of Music's Edelweiss, and heard an African story about how the spider got her narrow waist.

The next day, having completed the page, I took my girls to the Tuolumne Visitor Center and Ranger Anna Cummings came to us. She asked simple questions to my oldest while the youngest avidly sucked her favorite thumb: "What do you remember from the campfire circle?", "What have you learned about animals?" and so forth. She had my oldest repeat the junior park ranger oath after her and then swore her in.

To my surprise, she handed over a Junior Park Ranger badge to my oldest and a Little Cub button to my three-year old. Even more unexpected, she asked for silence in the visitor center and introduced my girls as the new junior park rangers that day. Wow, what a thrill!

My girls blushed to their ears when everybody clapped but deep inside they were super proud. The first day of school was Tuesday and the first thing they brought to class was ... their junior ranger badge and button.

Yosemite National Park: Tuolumne Meadows & Glen Aulin

Of all the Yosemite National Park, Tuolumne Meadows offers my favorite things: endless meadows, mountains peaks with whimsical names and meandering crystal-clear rivers.

However as the meadows are barely accessible four months each year for the masses and infrastructures are super basic, they don't attract the crowds the valley floor gets. In fact, many people don't even know there's a Yosemite beyond the valley.

This year, we started our 10-day camping trip by three nights at Tuolumne Meadows. The first night included two bear sightings on our campsite but not by us.

My friend Christine woke up at three in the morning, went out of the tent, stumbled upon a furry thing munching next to our tent, heard another one rustle nearby, and realized that they were bears! She dashed back to the tent, put on her glasses and came out again. The bears were gone but it made for a great breakfast story for my girls.

By mid-morning, we packed a picnic lunch, laced up our heavy hiking boots and went on the way to Glen Aulin. Glen Aulin is a popular hike from the meadows as the dusty trail lazily cuts through plateaus and hilltops before catching up with the Tuolumne River, then descends haphazardly on a wild ride through forests and granite slabs, creating occasional pools and waterfalls.

Having hiked there six years ago in our pre-children era, we figured we knew the way. Ahem. With two under five, no trail is quite the same. All of a sudden, distances expand, rocks get bigger, the dust clouds you up til your neck and the sun hits twice as hard. That day we forgot our ever-popular Nestle sweetened-condensed milk as hike steroids but trail-mix did the job all right.

After three miles we called it a day and stopped by the river, just a mile before the real Glen Aulin mountainscape unveils. What a sight though. Pure Yosemite high country.

My girls were so happy to splash around. With Cathedral Peak as backdrop and ankle-high chilly waters to revive our weary feet, the experience was heaven.

Coming back was a little tough on our five-year-old. Our three-year-old, cleverer, was traveling in style on her father's back and chatting away like a morning robin. Our oldest kept stopping every dozen steps because she was "soooo tired." Since we each carried a backpack plus their miniature backpack filled to the brim with insect boxes, magnifiers, sunglasses and whatnots, carrying her was not an option.

When we finally reached the stables, we sat down with a big sigh of relief. Too much dust is too much dust! While I enquired for horse-back rides, my husband went to get the car. Turns out that the minimum age for horse rides is seven years because you have to have your own horse. Never mind.

All we wanted by then was a relaxing day by Lake Tenaya's beach.