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Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Best of 2013

We are off to the UK to see Paul’s family so I thought I would file this before we lift off.

Best Historic Memory
I am compiling this a few days after Nelson Mandela’s passing. In 1990, with my dear friend from college days, Kristina, we went to hear Mandela speak at the stadium at USC. We met at my place in Baldwin Hills and then joined a long march to USC (where her daughter now attends school). Once we reached the stadium we were standing (I don’t know that we ever sat down) with people of all races and presumably classes. I felt, for that night, we were, as Richard Blanco wrote in his inaugural poem, one people. It is one of those rare times I feel like I witnessed history and knew it was happening.

Nelson Mandela in 1990
Photo: Michel Clement, Daniel Janin/AFP/Getty Images
Courtesy wnyc.org

Best Political Story
Edward Snowden. I think history will see him as a hero who challenged a government gone mad. Much like Daniel Ellsberg did. And he will change the course of our country’s history. And the reporter Glenn Greenwald may not have started out as journalist, but he saved journalism for democracy. Which, of course, saves democracy itself. The shadow government will have to come out of the shadows.

Photo: The Guardian, AFP/Getty Images

Best Rediscovered Artist
A few years ago I went to an art fair in San Francisco and saw a few pieces of an artist named Jay Kelly. I can’t quite afford his work but it is one “material” thing I crave. His website is jaykellyart.com.

2009 Metal, Wood, Gesso, Acrylic
Jay Kelly Art

Best New Print
What I could afford this year was a print Caio Fonseca made at Paulson Bott Press in 1998. I keep following the lines somewhere different.

Caio Fonseca
Notations I, 1998
courtesy paulsonbottpress.com

Best Tote Bag
Dear friend Johnny gave me this Andy Warhol bag for my birthday! Isn’t it the best?

Best New Satchel
My pals Maria and Chris gave me this British Schoolboy bag from Cambridge satchels. Isn’t it perfect? Had to put it on Pinterest right away!


Best New Source for Bow Ties
For an early holiday gift my dear friend (from the seventh grade onward!) Cherie gave both of us gorgeous bow ties. We looked inside and the label said Kathleen Kelley. Sure enough it is the same Kathleen Kelley who worked at MBT and later at EBay. One of the most elegant ladies I've ever met. Check out her site at kathleenkelleyartisan.com.


Best Local Restaurant
We finally got around to going to Comal in downtown Berkeley. Excellent high-end Mexican food and a great dining room. If you don’t have much time before the theater you can also walk right out to the patio (with a fireplace) where a lady comes out around with a taco chip and margarita trolley. comalberkeley.com

Best NY Restaurant
My pal in Brooklyn Noel took me to Vinegar Hill House in Dumbo. It’s a bit out of the way, but has the best pate I’ve had in ages. Spatially it’s quirky and intimate. Not for the big boned gal. Check out the tiny kitchen with three people and a brick oven. I would lose weight working there. The after dinner nighttime walk on the Brooklyn waterfront was magical. vinegarhillhouse.com

Best (and Strangest) Thai Food
I’ve never thought of DC as a good restaurant town, but apparently that’s changing. My pal Kristina took me to Little Serrow, which is owned by the same folks who own Komi, which has gotten rave reviews but costs a pretty penny. Downstairs in the basement through an unmarked door is a very noisy aqua colored room with a painted corrugated metal ceiling and not one stitch of Thai inspired tourist dreck. Just high tables, stools and a fixed fresh family style menu. It is spicy but not light your mouth (and digestive track) on fire hot. But each week its different. If you have food allergies forget it. And you had better get in line at 5:15. No reservations and the door opens at 5:30. The the few seats fill fast. littleserrow.com

Best Social Media Toy
Speaking of Pinterest, it is hands down my favorite social media toy. I have no idea how it is influencing my “brand.” Being a visual person it is a way to chart my interests, especially the aesthetic ones. It’s like an autobiography in photos. A harmless addiction right?

Best Wedding/Adoption Celebration
David and Jay’s celebration of their wedding and adoption was full love, tears, wine, and good food. You can read about it here (http://seekingfatherhood.com/adoption/more-and-more-married) and here (http://queersage.blogspot.com/2013/09/in-church-on-birmingham-sunday.html) and here (http://www.sfgate.com/style/unionsquared/article/First-came-kids-then-vows-for-David-Kerr-Jay-4849519.php). It was a big deal.

Best Wedding/Adoption Celebration Photographer
Gabriel Harber did a great job on David and Jay’s celebration so I thought I should give him a plug! www.harberphotography.com

Best Art Show(s)
We saw all three James Turrell shows. Although the exhibit at the Guggenheim was the most spectacular of the three shows (I mean any show that can get socialites to lie down on the floor of the Guggenheim must be a good thing!). I loved the quietude of the Houston show. You never perceive light the same after seeing a great Turrell piece. Question what you think you see.

Best Architecture Show
The A Quincy Jones show at the Hammer in LA. It’s about time he got a show. Besides my deep affection for his wife Elaine (who was mentioned in the show) I felt that his architecture was influenced by a sense of humility. He was trying to figure out the best possible solution to a set of challenges, not building a monument to his own ego. If I were ever to do a book about architecture I would call it “The Humble Moderns: Architecture That Disappears.” Folks like Quincy, Renzo Piano, Joe Esherick, Ralph Rapson, David Salmela. My kind of architecture.

Best Book(s)
It was not a big year for reading books. But I did enjoy Donna Tartt’s new novel, The Goldfinch. I probably liked the gay adolescent love story detail the most. A kind of sweetness within mayhem. On the architecture front, I really enjoyed my pal Pierluigi’s book on Bay Area modernist Don Olsen. Due to the author’s efforts in this and earlier books we aren’t going to lose the modernist narrative in Northern California.

Donald Olsen: Architect of Habitable Abstractions
by Pierluigi Serraino

Best Celebrity
These days the only celebrities I meet are artists thanks to my gig with Paulson Bott Press. I interviewed Maira Kalman and she was as enthusiastic and curious as her drawings suggest. You can read the interviews here (http://www.paulsonbottpress.com/about/oktp/oktp_kalman.pdf) and here (http://paulsonbottpress.blogspot.com/2013/10/maira-kalman.html).

"Easter Parade" 1996

Best Growing Experience
See wedding. It has been the presence of David and Jay’s kids, Shayla and Jaden. I would have been a terrible parent, but I’m a pretty fun uncle!

See you in 2014!

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Postcard from Disneyland

The Facebook photos do not lie. I spent a few days on vacation in Disneyland. It was my pal David’s 50th birthday, and he wanted to show his kids the Magic Kingdom. His husband Jay grew up in the San Fernando Valley and fondly remembers visiting on Christmas Day with all the other Jewish families. And I got to go along as the lucky uncle! I could go on about how evil the Disney empire is, but I could also go on about how evil the automobile corporations are, and how evil most banks and mutual funds are, but the truth is that most of us participate, to some degree or another, in these evil empires. A friend of mine wrote to me, “Ask why there are no pigeons or mosquitoes” in Disneyland. That gave me pause. It is important to observe, and maintain a state of critical inquiry, but some questions remain unanswerable.

It was Charles Moore who gave me a new way to look at Disneyland. He wrote about it famously in Perspecta in an essay entitled “You Have to Pay for the Public Life.” That gave the place cred with the intellectual set. But it was his essay in the guidebook Los Angeles: The City Observed that I treasure. He didn’t live long enough to see Disney California Adventure open in 2001, but this newer park has captured some of his love for Los Angeles.

At several levels, Disneyland can be seen as a mirror for the culture. Think about it. It takes an entire subterranean system, endless back lots, and the largest parking garage in the Western hemisphere to make the happiest place on earth function. You don’t see dirty uniforms, nor do you see most of the “cast” that keeps the pedestrian-centric drama going. They are invisible (behind the scenes or in costumes), and so is the ugly car that brought you here. It parallels an idealized life in our own country, but without pigeons and mosquitoes! Easy transit and parking, plentiful clothes, access to nature, controlled density, fresh fruit and veggies year round—all this provided by workers who are largely invisible to us as they toil in the dangerous factories and warehouses of the developing world, the oil tundras of the Middle East, and the fields of God knows where. It takes a huge number of people working in poverty to keep each one of us clothed, housed, fed, and entertained. Disneyland is a microcosm of the global economy that supports our way of life! But without most of the stresses.

What makes Disneyland’s appeal so broad? Why do people keep returning when a one-day ticket to both parks now costs $132? (Never mind the $30 lunches and $300 hotel rooms.) It is because the Disney theme parks are some of the most designed places on earth. Walt Disney believed in the power of design more than any other capitalist I can think of. There have been numerous biographies of Disney, but I am interested in one that focuses on his ideas about aesthetics. What were those conversations about design and narrative like? When Disney built a new studio in 1940 in Burbank, he hired noted modernist designer Kem Weber (whose furniture now fetches high prices at auction and is featured in museum collections) to give it a modern edge, with most workspaces accessible to daylight.

Disney was obsessed with detail and would spend large sums to make his animations better and to innovate. He gambled on new technologies, and often he won. He understood and exploited media synergies to great advantage. When we were kids, we watched Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color every Sunday night and hoped to see shots of the park we had just visited. We only went to a handful of films as a family, and, of course, Mary Poppins was one of them. Each kind of product helped built interest in another. What child in the United States doesn’t know Mickey Mouse (who would have been named Mortimer if Lillian Disney hadn’t had some sway)?

But Disneyland can also be painful. For a child, it is a rich experience, one that lasts well into adulthood. Of course, new films appear, the culture changes, and a theme park must evolve, and in terms of a child’s memory, change radically. Each visit is both nostalgic and sad. When I was young, in the mid-1960s, my favorite icon was the Monsanto House of the Future. I wanted to live there! Tomorrowland felt like a real look into the next decade, which I was impatient to reach. By the time the futuristic house was torn down in the late 1960s, tomorrow was yesterday’s news. Even though the monorail cars have gone through several generations of improvement, they look sort of silly now. It’s hard to say if the future ended when man stepped on the moon, but the future is no longer a place, it’s a cloud. And Tomorrowland feels placeless now. There are still submarines, but now they are all about Captain Nemo.… If you don’t keep up with popular culture (brought to you by Disney and Pixar), visiting Disneyland can be a bit like walking through a dream where you don’t know the cues.

One day for lunch we ate “outside” on the terrace at Blue Bayou, where you are part of the entertainment for the Pirates of the Caribbean ride. When I was a kid, passing that romantic café before descending into the watery depths, I wondered where it was located. I probably thought the customers were part of the latest technology, what I later learned was called animatronics. When I was slightly older, I wondered if they were actors. Then I thought perhaps you get a free lunch to perform as happy diners in nighttime New Orleans. In fact, you pay dearly to be part of the show. And this is one the genius concepts of Disneyland. You are a cast member too! When you are too exhausted to go on, finding a bench (outside the restrooms, which are based on Frank Lloyd Wright’s Storer house) and watching this strangely egalitarian parade is almost a fun as looking at the ones that Disney organizes throughout the day. That you can do at no extra charge.

As for the Pirates ride itself, I don’t think it is as much fun since it’s been redesigned around a kohl-eyed Johnny Depp. The same is true for the haunted house, which has been temporarily reconfigured to celebrate Tim Burton’s Christmas. I rather enjoyed Burton’s creepy characters in MoMA’s show a few years ago, but they seem forced in the haunted house. I have to say that the ginger cookie smell that was spritzed at us was especially noxious. But both Johnny Depp and Tim Burton must be a bit surprised that they turned up as features in a Disney theme park. Had Uncle Walt met them on Main Street, he would have had security throw the bums out!

On a trip to California Adventure in 2006, I found the newer park strangely barren, too vast, without the variety of scale and density, mature landscaping, and all-important berms of the original park. Much as the basis for the Disneyland entrance sequence is based on Walt Disney’s own boyhood in Missouri, the new Buena Vista Street and Carthay Circle are based on the Los Angeles that Disney experienced when he arrived and first began working in the city he would end up interpreting for the rest of us. The Imagineers went back to their roots, Walt’s own nostalgia.

Interestingly, one of the most popular rides in the old Disneyland park is Autopia, which trains the wee ones for the autocentric future (architect Charles Moore is especially funny on this point). It is also one of the oldest continuously operating rides. Building on that ongoing success (I love that the ride is in Tomorrowland) and the success of the Cars movies series (what’s better than to turn the devil itself, the automobile, into something loveable?), the Imagineers created an entire themed “land.” Irony builds on irony. You park your car a good 20 minutes from the entry to either Disneyland or California Adventure and then walk 20 minutes to wait between 20 and 90 minutes to ride in a miniature car for four or five minutes. Brilliant! But the waiting at Radiator Springs Racers is almost as good as the ride. Beautiful desert landscaping and even a reproduction of a historic bottle house. Reportedly the ride cost $200 million to build. It’s more tied to the Southwest than to California, but who cares? It’s still about cars and movies.

When you walk through Radiator Springs, past the Flo’s V8 Café with its piston supported canopies and the Cozy Cone Motel based on wigwam motels, you see the glorious peaks of Cadillac Range, a spoof on the avant-garde artist collective Cadillac Ranch. Somehow the Ant Farm’s crazy art project in Amarillo, Texas, has been co-opted for Disneyland. It’s almost as sweet as the hippie geodesic dome, which must house some drug taking commune-ists. (Check out the Jumping Jellyfish for a drug-inspired ride!) Even though the founder of the happiest place on earth might be appalled that the counterculture has influenced his squeaky-clean dream, he would love to hear the cash registers ringing—or pinging.

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