Touring The Rock is one of my favorite tourist attractions in San Francisco (the audio tour is first rate!) but today we were there for a different reason. Artist Ai Weiwei’s exhibit @Large opened last week and I was curious to see it. My parents arrived yesterday – what better way to spend the day than boating out to Alcatraz and enjoying some art? I was particularly intrigued because Weiwei had created the exhibit without ever visiting the space; he isn’t allowed to leave China because of alleged tax evasion; many believe he is grounded because of his outspoken criticism of the Chinese government. As we arrived to the dock, we saw these words from Ai Weiwei:

The misconception of totalitarianism is that freedom can be imprisoned. This is not the case. When you constrain freedom, freedom will take flight and land on a windowsill.

We were greeted by a large, brilliantly colored dragon head, with multiple bright circles following behind as the body. The dragon wove throughout the length of the hall where prisoners once did laundry. The bright swirls of colors mesmerized me – reds, blues, purples, yellows, greens. As I wandered, I noticed a few of the circles had words embedded in the patterns: “Our march to freedom is irreversible,” “…privacy is a function of liberty,” etc. I loved the contrast of the brightness of the dragon’s body and the hope in the words to the drabness of the prison.

Ai Weiwei's "With Wind"

Ai Weiwei’s “With Wind”

Privacy is a function of liberty

Privacy is a function of liberty

We continued into a room which showcased over a hundred portraits of people who have been detained because of their beliefs or affiliations. All made of Legos. Tiny, 1×1 or 2×4 Lego blocks. Millions of Legos. Binders identified each portrait, and the reason they were detained.

Ai Weiwei's "Trace"

Ai Weiwei’s “Trace”

Next we made our way to the Cellhouse, where we heard the sounds of those detained for their beliefs. Some were familiar – Martin Luther King, Pussy Riot, Fela Kuti; others were not – Ahmad Shamlu, Mahjoub Sharif, Victor Jara. Standing in the tiny cell, listening to the words that landed others in cells similar, an eery feeling crept over me.

We ended our tour in the mess hall, writing postcards to prisoners of conscience all over the world. Weiwei said that it’s easy to feel forgotten in prison – this was a small gesture to let prisoners know their acts weren’t in vain, and they weren’t forgotten.

Tracks of My Tears

There are three events where, without fail, I will cry:

  1. Weddings
  2. Graduations (particularly high school graduations, but I’ve been known to shed a tear or two at college ones as well)
  3. Pride

At each of these events, at some point, I’m overwhelmed by the hope and joy the occasion represents, and am so overcome by emotion that I burst into tears. I’m not a very pretty crier, either. More of a gasping for breath, red-nosed, blurry eyed crier. It usually doesn’t last very long, just a few minutes, and tends to surprise those who haven’t experienced it before.

Today was the Pride Parade in San Francisco. I met two dear long-time friends, and we sat on steps on Market Street which gave us a great view of not only the parade passing by, but also a tremendous vantage point for people watching. We watched floats from businesses (Safeway, Google), churches (Mission Bay Community Church, Episcopalians, Catholics (with a Santa Claus?)), causes (cage free animals, right to bear arms), and community groups (adoption agencies, alliances of LGBT groups from around the world). We observed young ones in rainbow tutus and beads walking by, as well as old ones in leather getups or naked. We relished the sunshine beating down on our bare shoulders (a rare occasion here in the city), clapping for and waving at parade participants. At one point we stood up, dancing to the music of Sylvester, Queen of Disco, and that’s when the tears started to flow. My companions immediately hugged me with reassurances that it would be okay, and all I could murmur through the sobs was, “I’m just so happy…”

The Suit

For the past several years, I’ve been a season ticket holder to ACT. I usually buy tickets to 4 – 5 plays. I pick the plays from the short description listed in the pre-season flyer and  don’t do much more research than that. Without fail, every year there is one outstanding play, two to three that are okay to good, and one that is horrible. The outstanding one usually catches me by surprise; I couldn’t have predicted it would be outstanding from the description.

Tonight I saw the outstanding play of the season.

The Suit is a spectacular story and it was executed flawlessly. The audience is drawn in from the very beginning, when the narrator talks of smoking weed and drinking moonshine in the township of Sophiatown, and playfully offers to share his imaginary indulgences with audience members in the front row. The set is simple: a few chairs, a carpet, a table, some rolling clothing racks. The cast consists of three actors and three musicians. Mathilda, the lead, beautifully sings a few solos; during the rest of the play the music is artfully woven into, onto, and among the dialogue.

The story is gripping while exploring love, desires, friendship, betrayal, survival, racism, and punishment – all within 75 intense minutes. Motives are understated; characters are real. If you’re in the Bay Area, make your way to ACT. You’re in for a treat. You may even see me in the next row.

Tea for Two

We started our tea tradition at The Plaza in New York three years ago. We enjoyed ourselves so much that it’s become a regular ritual. Sometimes we host teas at our houses (and invite others to join us as well), other times we try new places around San Francisco, and other times we return to favorite spots. Our goal is to have tea together in at least five different countries over the next five years.

Today we tried a new spot, Crown & Crumpet’s Tea Stop Cafe. When Rachel told me the address, I pondered out loud, “I think that’s in Japantown. I can’t remember ever passing a British tea shop in Japantown.” Sure enough, it was tucked inside a multi-purpose building, along with a theatre, a harajuku store, and several other small shops.

It didn’t have the formal (stuffy) air of many of the other places we’ve visited. The walls were stark white and bright sunshine shone through the tall glass windows. The tables were covered in tablecloths with bright blue and pink flowers and hot pink accents were abundant. The servers were incredibly friendly and wore delightful aprons. We both prefer the savory treats to the sweet ones, and we weren’t disappointed. The vegetarian mini-quiche was melt-in-your mouth delicious, the chicken curry sandwiches were seasoned perfectly, and the cinnamon scones were some of the best we’ve had anywhere.

One of the reasons I love our tea outings is that the ritual of taking tea forces you to slow down. We pour the tea and as we wait for it to cool to a drinkable temperature, we catch up on everything – work, social, travel, upcoming events. The conversation alternates between serious topics and discussing which treat we should try next (we both have the same strategy – try the things we think we’ll like least first, then end with favorites).

We left excited about our new find, adding it to the short list of favorites to return to.

My Heart Belongs to You

Many nights I walk through Union Square on my way home. For some inexplicable reason, I consider it a treat to cut through the square, rather than walk on the sidewalks bordering it. I generally will only cut through the square late at night, when the hustle and bustle of the tourists are gone.When I’m likely to be the only one there.

At each corner of the square, there is a heart of San Francisco, a large heart sculpture painted by a different artist. Tonight I noticed a new one had been installed, midnight blue with beautiful white flower stalks arching over it. I watched tourists pose in front of it, giggling and making hearts with their hands. It was a tiny reminder of how lucky I am to walk past the hearts every day.

I continued across the wide plaza, empty of the cafe tables and chairs or art vendors that are often there during the day. Walking across the plaza, surrounded by towering department stores with their windows aglow, I love the city. I love the stillness, the emptiness of the square at night, when no one is there. I love the flatness of the square, the greyness, the smoothness of the stone. When I walk diagonally across the square, I’m starring in my own version of That Girl, taking place in San Francisco rather than New York.

As I exit the other corner of the square, my favorite trumpet player is playing. I intentionally slow my pace in order to miss the light. I stand at the corner, listening to his soulful notes echoing through the still night air. Oh, San Francisco, once again, you’ve captured my heart.

Unexpected Pleasures

I moved into my new place almost seven months ago. Whenever I see friends, they ask, “Do you still love your new place?” I always answer a resounding, “Yes!” Recently, though, someone asked me, “What is something unexpected that you love about your new place?”

I thought for a moment. I thought about the known things, those things I anticipated I would love: having a washer and dryer in my apartment (I have never experienced so much joy from doing laundry), having beautiful colors on the walls, living in a neighborhood I love. However, three things came to mind that I didn’t anticipate I would love when I bought this place:

  • I never realized how happy having so much sunshine in my apartment would make me feel. My apartment is a corner unit, facing south and east, and I get sunshine almost all day long. Bonus, I’m never cold anymore.
  • I never realized how happy I would be in a place that I could actually clean, and get clean. Each of the homes that I’ve lived in for the past twenty years have been over 100 years old. That’s a lot of built up dust that just doesn’t come clean no matter how much bleach you use. Here, I sweep my floors and they are clean. Clean!
  • I never realized how happy it would make me to look outside my window at various times of the day and see the sun rising over the San Francisco skyline, the sky a delicate pink; or the sun shining brightly at midday, making all the windows of the skyline sparkle like diamonds; or the darkness late at night, when the lights of the nearby buildings shine like urban stars.


In the Name of Science

A couple of afternoons a week, I walk to our Lounge in downtown San Francisco to co-work with other Bay Area Automatticians or visitors who happen to be passing through town. I love catching up with co-workers and we usually have some fairly engaging conversations.

A few weeks ago someone brought up the topic of oil pulling, a practice which has been in the news lately because various celebrities are trying it. There was a surprisingly heated debate among us. I had heard of oil pulling (basically, swishing coconut oil around in your mouth for 20 minutes first thing in the morning, which is supposed to whiten your teeth and eliminate toxins from your body), but didn’t have a strong opinion about it. I listened to Meredith claim that it was ridiculous, and there was only one scientific study to support the practice, claiming oil pulling was about as effective as mouthwash for oral hygiene.

Since I wasn’t pro- or anti- oil pulling, I volunteered to do a test and try it out. My regular routine includes brushing my teeth and flossing in the morning and evening. I don’t, however, use mouthwash.

For the first week (March 30 – April 5) I would brush and floss as usual, and also use mouthwash. The second week (April 6 – 12) would be the control week, to allow my mouth to return to normal. The third week (April 13 – 19) I would do oil pulling each morning on an empty stomach as recommended, rinse with salt water, then brush and floss as usual. After the three weeks were up, I would write up my observations.

I bought the coconut oil last week during an excursion to Trader Joe’s. It’s been sitting on my counter ever since. Tomorrow is day one of oil pulling week. On the eve of the start of the experiment, I have to admit, it’s not super appetizing to think that I’ll be swishing oil for 20 minutes as the first thing I do when I wake up tomorrow. But I’m keeping an open mind, in the name of science!

Getting ready for oil pulling

Getting ready for oil pulling

Sink or Swim

“When was the last time you had a swim lesson?” he asked. I started laughing. “Probably when I was 7 or 8? A pretty long time ago…”

I know how to swim, and thoroughly enjoy it. I swim like I run, slowly. Being in the water puts me completely at ease and I leave the pool tired, but so relaxed and so genuinely happy. I’ve signed up to do a triathlon in June in North Carolina with a good friend. As I’ve started swimming more often, I’ve felt as though I could be better at it. Hence the swimming lesson.

An aside, swim instructors are the nicest people on earth. At least the two that I’ve taken lessons from. So patient, and incredibly friendly. The world needs more swim instructors.

The first part of the lesson involved me swimming and him observing. After a couple of laps, he told me, “Your form looks good. There are a few minor things we can work on, but overall you’re doing fine.” Part of me was disappointed. I kind of wanted to hear, “You’re doing it all wrong. Let me show you how to swim!” And then I would learn the magic secrets of swimminghood and turn into a dolphin. That didn’t happen.

First we worked on my kick. I was kicking from my knees, instead of from my hips, and keeping my feet too far below the water. I practiced on the side of the pool (as I had when I was 7), and felt the difference. I swam a few laps, focusing on staying more horizontal, and not letting my feet dip too far beneath the water. Whoa! I felt more of a burn in my legs, and I was moving much more quickly through the water. Score!

Next we worked on breathing. He said I was lifting my head too far out of the water when I was breathing, breaking that horizontal plane I wanted to maintain. He suggested keeping one goggle eye in the water and only lifting half of my head out to breathe. This resulted in many full mouthfuls of water and uncontrollable sputtering. After a few laps, he suggested we move on to my stroke. I agreed that would be a good thing.

He showed me how to hold my hands (like Michael Phelps, nonetheless), and use the most force in the first quarter of the stroke. I practiced this standing still, and felt like I had the hang of it, though I felt a little like a Tyrannosaurus Rex. I swam a few laps, and realized I was trying to focus on too many things – kick from the hips, horizontal plane, head in the water, don’t guzzle water when breathing, hold hands perpendicular, strong stroke at first – and I ended up flailing. Or simply rolling over on my back, mid-lap, and just floating.

After the lesson, I stayed at the pool to practice on my own. I tackled one aspect at a time. Incremental progress is hard. I was exhausted when I left the pool. I haven’t mastered the tips we covered tonight, but at least I didn’t sink.

From Amsterdam to BART

The BART doors opened, and as I started to enter, I noticed three very tall, stunning, unusually dressed ladies with musical instruments. I edged as close as I could towards them. I was curious 1 – if they were drag queens and 2 – what they were doing. One played the guitar, one the xylophone (such an underrated instrument!) and the third a violin. As the train pulled away from the station, they started playing a folk version of a song that sounded familiar, but I couldn’t quite recognize. One man was filming them, another was sound recording them. I watched, intrigued.

At the next station, they stopped playing long enough to hold on to the bar so that they wouldn’t topple over. A man entered the train with a newspaper bundle full of fresh flowers. He walked up to them (was this staged or real life?), asked them where they were from (Amsterdam), and said beautiful ladies from Amsterdam should always be offered flowers. They laughed and he continued on. As the train started again, they played another song.

The next stop was mine, and it was honestly one of the few times that I was sad that my ride was over.

Musicians on BART