Thursday, June 30, 2011

Aleksandar Hemon on Narrative, Biography, Language

Aleksandar Hemon wrote a harrowing article in the recent Fiction issue of The New Yorker, "The Aquarium: A child's isolating illness." Before I even cracked open the magazine I'd heard about the article: one friend said she could not bear to read it.

The author describes how his nine month old daughter Isabel was diagnosed with an absurdly rare, viciously malignant brain tumor; how the illness progressed and his family's world imploded; and on to the cruel end.

I get it about my friend who had to give the article a pass. More than once as I read I found I could hardly breathe.

Hemon writes fiction, and his simultaneous observation of an older daughter, Ella, just shy of three years as her infant sister was dying, is as compelling as the brutal course of Isabel's decline. At the time, Ella was coming into the full flower of her grasp of language. As Hemon puts it:

It is not unusual, of course, for children of Ella's age to have imaginary friends or siblings. The creation of an imaginary character is related, I believe, to the explosion of linguistic abilities that occurs between the ages of two and four, and rapidly creates an excess of language, which the child may not have enough experience to match. She has to construct imaginary narratives in order to try out the words that she suddenly possesses.

Mercilessly open-eyed about the divergent worlds in his own small family, with one daughter deathly ill and the other blooming, Hemon writes: "While our world was being reduced to the claustrophobic size of ceaseless dread, Ella's was expanding."

But here was the kicker for me, as someone who has been driven to write for all my adult life:

One day at breakfast, while Ella ate her oatmeal and rambled on about her [imaginary] brother, I recognized in a humbling flash that she was doing exactly what I'd been doing as a writer all these years: the fictional characters in my books had allowed me to understand what was hard for me to understand (which, so far, had been nearly everything). Much like Ella, I'd found myself with an excess of words, the wealth of which far exceeded the pathetic limits of my own biography.

Zing! Right to the core of the heart of the center of the bullseye. One more time: "[...] I'd found myself with an excess of words, the wealth of which far exceeded the pathetic limits of my own biography."

That Hemon could reach into the inferno and pull this white-hot truth from the flames suggest that he has come to understand a great deal indeed. At a cost that he bears, though it is unbearable.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Craft and art: erasure and accent
Does a writer need a writers' group?
Drafting vs. editing

Thanks to mktr for the image of Aleksandar Hemon reading from his novel The Lazarus Project, via Flickr.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Bobcat hunts gopher: a video

Talk about being in the right place at the right time.

My Tai Chi teacher of more than 26 years, Lenzie Williams, hosts a workshop each June at Walker Creek Ranch, an outdoor school and conference center in Marin County. The ranch staff and students tend a rich and sprawling organic garden, keep goats & sheep, and steward a pond teeming with turtles, sunfish, bass, and dragonflies. Water birds visit Turtle Pond, and some of my fellow students witnessed an osprey diving for supper there last Sunday. The site is oddly Edenic ... much of the wildlife seems acclimated to human presence. I suppose the animals have figured out by now that the kids and naturalists who visit are no threat.

And the place is filled with wildlife: deer, foxes, wild turkeys, jackrabbits, racoons, raptors and songbirds, lizards and snakes.

This year, for the first time in the 13 years our school has held its annual workshop there, a young bobcat was hanging out in the neighborhood. Alongside the eponymous Walker Creek, my fellow student Jane C-- and I spotted the cat on our way to the facility's dining hall. I had a digital camera in my pocket, and we had the brilliant luck to encounter the bobcat on the way to his dinner as we were walking toward ours.

Here's the video:

In the edition of T'ai Chi Chuan classical texts translated by my grandteacher, Ben Lo, The Essence of T'ai Chi Ch'uan: The Literary Tradition, one of many prescriptions for practitioners of the art, attributed to Wu Yu-hsiang, is: "Walk like a cat."

With my camera capturing video, Jane and I watched the bobcat sense opportunity; step away from the overgrown creekside and into the open with precisely balanced focus and circumspection; stalk its prey; sink into a crouch, suspended on a cusp of supple readiness; then strike. Later that night we played back this exemplary illustration of Wu Yu-hsiang's advice for Lenzie and our fellow-students. It was an auspicious beginning to a week-long workout.

There's more that could be said about Walker Creek Ranch, a site that was once owned and inhabited by the drug-rehabilitation cult Synanon, and also served as the inspiration for my own short story "Martin's Pond," published some years back in Issue #20 of Five Fingers Review

But the bobcat bold enough to hunt in the presence of camera-wielding humans took center-stage this year during my visit to Marin County.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

The blurry line between Landlord and Supreme Power

I wrote a bit in Berkeley's master of bad marketing plans about a former landlord, Reza Valiee. There's more to his story, and I'm here to tell it to you today.

My former landlord is certain that he is a very, very smart man. In his own estimation, Reza's greatest achievements, about which he has spoken publicly for years, are his "anti-gravity" invention and, more recently, his "perpetual motion" machine. (In actual fact there may not be a difference between these two chimeral devices. We may be looking at a re-branding strategy, but I haven't followed closely enough to be sure.)

You can read all about Reza's inventions in the article from the Berkeley Daily Planet that I cited a few weeks ago, Reza Valiyee, a Man of Perpetual Motion. Or you can watch a video posted to YouTube, embedded below, in which some clever videographer -- perhaps a tenant insulted by his landlord's high rents and shoddy maintenance? -- coaxed Reza to "prove" his perpetual motion machine's principles using a soup pot with a hole cut in the bottom, an inclined board, and two magnets.

I kid you not. Watch the video, I couldn't make this up:

Here's my favorite quote from the video (fast forward to 2'12" to hear it for yourself). Says Reza Valiyee, about the significance of his demonstration:

"This is going to change the world as of the time that the university faculty and professors see this and they believe their eyes which up to now they have been saying a perpetual motion machine is impossible. [...] And as far as the meaning of the word impossible is considered, that is even the Supreme Power cannot change it. So, according to the scientific community, I have surpassed the Supreme Power, because I have changed the impossible into possible. There we go."

If you're interested in digging deeper, check out Reza's website, ... but don't try to say the domain name three times fast, you'll sprain your tongue.

Here's a Rezaism taken from that tongue-twister of a site, excerpted on 31 May 2011. Emphasis is as-published:

"At the age of fifteen, my knowledge of physics was more developed and cultivated than any of the minds of the world's six billion person population combined. This is because I am the only one who has successfully invented dozens of fully functional perpetual motion machines. This monumental achievement will not only provide the world with a perpetual, unlimited, clean air, self powered, invented machine (see my website at WWW.PUCASPIM.COM), but it will also bring upon the solution to 90% of the world's problems, permanently. Through utilizing my invention, the wealth of the world (meaning the wealth of its people) will increase by many folds, and will reduce the amount of time the world needs to work, in order to survive, by many folds, leaving plenty of time for recreation and leisure. In other words, I will transform this world into paradise."

There you go.

The wit and wisdom of one of my fair city's wealthier businessmen. In case you were wondering why people call it Berserkeley.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Berkeley's master of bad marketing plans
Advice to a new student at Cal

Monday, June 20, 2011

Artists as vanguard vs artists as liberators

When I left off on a Thursday morning some eleven days ago, moaning about the heat wave roiling New York City, where I was visiting at the time, I had in mind that I'd "hang out in art museums [to] enjoy the benefits of protections extended to the paintings." You know, like air conditioning. And that's what I did -- hung out in air-conditioned buildings, including galleries and museums.

In reverse order, I saw a Philharmonic performance at Avery Fisher Hall; edited a short-story-in-progress in the ever-magnificent Rose Reading Room, at the main branch of the New York Public Library; visited Galerie St. Etienne to see an exhibition of drawings by Max Beckmann, Otto Dix, and George Grosz, Decadence & Decay; hung out in a climate-controlled atrium at 590 Madison Ave.; and made my second pilgrimage to the Neue Galerie, a museum that inspired two posts on this blog last Fall, on the topic of Gustav Klimt's portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer.

The Neue Galerie hit another bull's-eye with their current exhibit, Vienna 1900: Style and Identity, on offer only until June 27th -- if you're in Manhattan & haven't seen it, now's your chance.

From the museum's own description of the show:

"The Neue Galerie is pleased to present an exhibition entitled Vienna 1900: Style and Identity. The show, curated by Christian Witt-Dörring and Jill Lloyd, aims to reveal a common thread running through the fine and decorative arts in turn-of-the-century Vienna: the redefinition of individual identity in the modern age. Major works by fine artists Gustav Klimt, Oskar Kokoschka, and Egon Schiele are on view, as well as furniture by architects Otto Wagner and Adolf Loos, and decorative artists Josef Hoffmann and Koloman Moser. A special emphasis is placed on fashion, with loans of key clothing and accessories from the period. The exhibition also explores the overlap with new attitudes towards gender and sexuality that surface in Viennese literature and psychology at the time."

The Neue Galerie is a small museum, and seems even smaller if you happen to stumble around the corner onto 5th Ave and run smack into the Gormenghast that is The Met. The curators nonetheless presented a rich, coherent, and intellectually stimulating body of work.

Klimt's ornamented portraits of wealthy patrons, which dominate the central room on the museum's second floor, set up a viewer for shock and wonder on encountering his nude sketches of women fingering themselves erotically, displayed in a dimly lit 'back room.' On the other end of the second floor, Max Oppenheimer's portrait of Sigmund Freud stares out from a corner over the only item of furniture in the museum galleries that visitors are encouraged to test-drive: a replica of Freud's psychoanalytic couch covered by a thick Persian rug. The point this progression of rooms makes is almost too didactic, but at least no one is going to miss it. As Roberta Smith wrote in her NY Times review of the exhibition, "There’s no modernism like Viennese modernism, that amazingly fraught, conflicted efflorescence of art and thought that flared up around the turn of the 20th century. As the Austro-Hungarian Empire sank into paralysis in the decades before World War I, Freud discovered the unconscious lurking, unsurprisingly, behind the city’s repressive social codes."

I climbed the stairs, and the juxtaposed sensibilities presented in a room on the museum's third floor really caught my interest. Ornate, highly stylized cabinets, tables, and chairs designed by Josef Hoffmann and Koloman Moser were arranged on one side of the room; while a restrained sampling of far plainer furniture from the apartment of Adolf Loos filled the other. The curators posited that these divergent approaches to interior decorating reflected sharp differences in conception of the role of art and artists in the modernity to which Vienna was slowly waking.

In Hoffmann's and Moser's conception, it seemed to me, the role of the artist was to form a vanguard, leading the masses (well, perhaps the wealthy bourgeoisie) to a new consciousness: to provide an aesthetic context in which individuals could be modern. For Loos, the role of an artist and architect was to clear away the confining, backward-looking constraints of historicist style in order to offer modern individuals a blank canvas, as it were, on which to express conceptions of self freely from individual-consciousness outward: the artist as liberator.

Here's how the curators framed the contrast at the entrance to the museum's third-floor:

"The redefinition of the concept of individual identity, whether based on class, ethnicity, gender, nationality, religion, or sexuality, was the prerequisite for the birth of an autonomous modern individual in the multinational environment of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the early twentieth century. This inevitably raised difficult questions: did establishing a modern style contribute to the self-confidence of the individual, or did it create a new conformity? Was the concept of style inherently backward-looking and incompatible with the modern, international cosmopolite?"

To me, no one object at Neue Galerie more fully embodied Viennese uncertainty in groping toward modernity than an armchair designed by Kolomon Moser circa 1903, pictured here. A highly stylized piece of furniture whose function is to support an individual in solitary or social activity in her own dwelling, the rigid, cubical chair resembles a barred prison cell if it resembles anything. The chair expresses in a nutshell the confining effect of "total design" even as it purports to break with tradition ... meet the new cage, same as the old cage, as Pete Townsend might put it?

Because the special exhibition took up the whole of available space, I once again missed a chance to see Max Beckmann's Self-Portrait With Horn, for the second time in nine months. But that only means that Neue Galerie hasn't seen the last of me.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
The Steins Collect at SF-MOMA
Gustav Klimt's portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer: a saga
Art bliss at MOMA

Thanks to Michelle Thompson for the image of the NYPL's Rose Reading Room, via Flickr.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Acting like citizens about health care

As the G.O.P.'s prospective candidates for president in 2012 slowly emerge out of the tea leaves, the national debate about health care policy gets weirder and weirder. What's a party whose raison d'être is to regain power to do (cf. Mitch McConnell)?

According to the Republican Party's playbook, trumpeting the signature achievement of a (currently) leading candidate when he served as a state governor is off the table. Why? Because Mitt Romney's signature achievement as governor of Massachusetts was signing a health care reform that was rational, pragmatic, economically viable, medically sound, and a boon to public health. Not perfect, to be sure. But better. Way better.

Oh, but wait ... it also served as a model for national health care reform signed into federal law by President Obama last year.

The story has been told, is being told, and will continue to be told, by talented professionals at greater length and in greater detail than you need to hear from me. Check out Ryan Lizza's story in the 13 June issue of The New Yorker for a comprehensive analysis, Romney's Dilemma, available from your local public library if you don't subscribe to the magazine. For a shorter survey that isn't limited to subscribers, try Dr. Aaron Carroll, Associate Professor of Pediatrics at Indiana University, via his piece on, Romney's contortions on health care.

Let's take a small step to the side and have a look at what Michael Specter has to say on controversies over vaccination in the 30 May issue of The New Yorker. In the article, Specter gives an airing to reservations & resistance to government-mandated vaccination, making clear in this specific aspect of public health policy the issues that are currently shaping the larger national debate on health care -- specifically, the tension between individual liberty and responsibility to community. Here's how Specter lands in his consideration of the topic:

But the social calculus of vaccination can never be reduced to the estimation of individual benefit. When most members of a community are vaccinated, they protect those who are not by eliminating the viral reservoirs in the population. The effect is known as herd immunity. Some people, because they are too young or have particularly weak immune systems owing to cancer or other illnesses, cannot be vaccinated. For them, herd immunity is the only defense. As long as the majority are vaccinated, then, a few can decline without courting harm, but when vaccination rates fall below a certain level this protection quickly begins to vanish. At that point, someone who refuses a vaccine imperils not only his own health but that of everyone he encounters.

Clear enough? Here he is again, reducing the issue to an even sharper point:

After all, what makes it easy to be a vaccine dissenter these days is the fact that most people aren’t. Because of routine vaccination, measles -- which kills at least a hundred and fifty thousand people in the developing world each year -- long ago ceased to be a significant threat in the United States. This creates a paradox. Public-health officials must struggle constantly with the consequences of their own success [...]

In this reader's opinion, that's just about the same point that Ryan Lizza makes in his article about Romney, here quoting Timothy Murphy on a requirement that individuals purchase health insurance. This so-called "individual mandate" is a key element of both Romney's and Obama's health care policy reforms. (Murphy served as one of several Romney advisers on health-care policy during his term as governor of Massachusetts.)

According to Murphy, Lischko, and Gruber, Romney believed that the logic in favor of a mandate was impeccable. Federal law requires emergency rooms to treat patients regardless of their ability to pay. "This is not Calcutta," Murphy said. "We don't let people go and die in the street. And then the question is, Who bears that cost? Those costs get paid by increased premiums for the people who do buy insurance, or they get paid for through socialized costs and claim our tax revenues and come at the expense of other things that people might want to do, like building roads and bridges. And in the Republican Party that I grew up in -- go back to the welfare debate, it's about personal responsibility -- that seems pretty reasonable."

Does individual liberty matter? Of course it does! But it's not the only variable in the equation. As individuals, we have ego and superego to balance id. As societies we have government, compromise, and rule of law to bound purely self-determined exercise of will and power. Where to draw the lines between individual liberty and social obligation will (I hope) be a topic of spirited disagreement and debate for centuries to come. But that's not the same thing as saying it would be okay to let Tea Party lunatics drive national policy.

In response to Congressman Paul Ryan's plan to gut Medicaid and Medicare, from which the party has been forced to beat a retreat for now, I wrote in early April: "Pander to the rich. Leave the poor to die in squalor. That's the cliff over which the G.O.P. wants to drive a nation they would rather damage than govern."

Mitt Romney, in his willingness to contort a once-pragmatic approach in order to align himself with extremists, seems well-qualified to hold the reins if the G.O.P. is successful in its bid to plunge the nation into an abyss.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
G.O.P proposes a death panel plan for health care
Post-ideological health care

Thanks to DonkeyHotey for the caricature of G.O.P. presidential candidate and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, via Flickr.

Monday, June 13, 2011

SFO's Terminal Two: the Mire of Feel-Good Environmentalism

Last year, after saving up for years & years, I blew most of my accumulated United Airlines miles on a domestic flight. Then, in a startlingly callous act of customer disloyalty, I decided that exercising my option for a freebie had the effect of loosening my reins. With my balance radically lowered, I was free to fly on Those Other Carriers without worrying too much that I'm not accumulating precious (or, in my experience, overvalued) miles.

April's gala opening of SF International Airport's rebuilt "Terminal 2" led to an obvious choice: Virgin America, Sir Richard Branson's shiny new U.S. carrier, based right there in the airport from which I most frequently fly. I booked Virgin America to travel to the east coast and back last week, for a meeting in the DC area and some R&R in New York (see last week's post about New York's heat wave; I had a great time despite the beastly weather, more anon).

Let me start by saying several nice things.

First, Virgin America is a pleasure to fly. Nice leather seats. Nice individual touchscreen TV + music + order food anytime + flight-map device in the seatback in front of each passenger, and -- yes! -- it has an off switch so a decent, TV-hostile passenger can read. A book, not a Kindle. A hardback, no less (Ransom, by David Malouf). Nice flight crew, younger and hipper than you might have encountered on certain other airlines in which the staff have invested major fractions of their working lives (I'm not calling this a good or a bad thing, it is what it is). The most amusing bit was on the outbound flight, in which one crew member kept exhorting passengers to ask his fellow crewmember -- who'd gotten some distance along the American Idol road to ... to ... to wherever the heck that road leads -- to demonstrate her vocal talents. And, for now at least, fares are low, low, low. I just booked another flight, also combining business and R&R, for later this summer, and Virgin America was 40% cheaper than United on the dates I'm traveling to Chicago. Yeah, it's always a crapshoot depending on your travel dates and when you book ... but jeez. 40% cheaper? It would have been downright irresponsible to my financially ailing employer to buy a ticket on my "usual" carrier. (Word to the wise: for a great way to search for the fares and schedules you want.)

Second nice thing: SFO's Terminal 2 is nicely laid out, the art is humane, the space is scaled to human proportions (I flew back out of JFK, don't ask), and the concessionaires include decent places to eat. Not just food you can choke down, but food you might actually enjoy. It's enough to make you think you're in an airport local to some of the foodiest communities on the continent. I had a baked-to-order pizza at the Napa Farms Market, and -- miracle of miracles -- it was a meal I would have enjoyed even if I weren't in an airport. Okay, enough free advertising, this blog is not monetized.

Third nice thing: it's better to save energy than not.

But that third nice thing leads me to think it'd be a good idea to take a closer look at this newborn addition to San Francisco's airport.

SFO's Terminal 2 has been trumpeted as a significant advance in modern passenger air travel. The terminal won Gold Certification from the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program of the U.S. Green Building Council, the first airline terminal in the world to achieve that certification.

SFO's own description reads: "Designed to improve indoor air quality and reduce energy consumption, the innovative sustainable elements included in Terminal 2 will reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the facility by an estimated 1,667 tons per year." The page from which this is taken suggests that most of the reduction is a product of lower electrical energy consumption. Also from the same source, "SFO will provide PC Air and 400 Hz power supply to aircraft at all T2 gates, reducing jet fuel consumption by aircraft Auxiliary Power Units (APU) by 1,400,000 gallons per year and reducing CO2 emissions by approximately 15,000 tons per year."

Add it up: 16,667 fewer tons of greenhouse gas emmissions per year than your standard-issue terminal.

Sounds pretty good, eh? Getting to one's gate sure feels better than your usual stale-air and florescent-lighting walk through an airport terminal. (There's something spooky about the fact that it's called a terminal, don't you think?)

But I had a nagging suspicion. You know the kind I mean. The suspicion that anything that looks that good has to be papering over a story that's rougher around the edges. So I did a little research. Just a little -- I'm not claiming to have the final report prepared here, and would love to hear from folks who know better than I do.

Let's start with some facts:

The Bureau of Transportation Statistics gives 12 month stats for passenger enplanements and miles in the U.S. -- 728,920,000 and 813,160,763,000 respectively from March 2010 through February 2011.

In describing the environmental impact of air travel, Wikipedia cites statistics from Finland that peg CO2 emissions at somewhere between 114 and 178 grams per passenger-kilometer (g/pkg) depending on whether flights are long-haul or a medium domestic (within Finland) distance.

SFO's T2 "About" page tells that the new terminal has "capacity for 5.5 million enplaned passengers per year, and a projected 3.2 million enplaned passengers in the first full year of operation." (These numbers are offered prospectively: the page from which they are gleaned has not been updated, as of this blog's composition, to reflect the fact the terminal is now open.)

Okay? If those are the facts, it's now back-of-the-napkin time.

Let's split the difference between the number of "enplaned passengers" for which T2 has capacity, according to SFO, and the number projected in its current first year of operation: call it 4.35 million.

Using the BTS stats cited above, assuming (back-of-napkin, remember?) that traffic from SFO is average in length of trip, and converting passenger miles to passenger kilometers, we get the BTS reporting an average trip of about 1795 kilometers per passenger during the period covered.

And working from the CO2 emmissions estimates -- again splitting the difference in the range given by the Finnish organization LIPASTO -- we're talking CO2 emissions of something on the order of 262 Kg/passenger-trip.

That's 1,140,213,300 Kg of CO2 emmissions per year for the passengers who are expected to enplane at Terminal 2 each year. (I can't say I've understood this correctly, but the language leads one to believe that passenger 'deplanements' aren't included in the SFO stats given above. Fair enough. Let the arrivals count against some other airport's CO2 boo-boos.)

Turning kilograms into tons, we're talking 1,256,870 tons of CO2 emitted in the course of passenger air travel embarked upon from SFO's Terminal 2 each year.

(Ah, units-of-measure. Brings you right back to high school physics. Word to the wise: Google unit conversion.)

So, comparing apples to apples:

  • Terminal 2's annual CO2 emissions reduction, in tons: 16,667
  • CO2 emitted annually by air travel originating at Terminal 2, in tons: 1,256,870

And, Q.E.D., how does the back-of-napkin comparison boil down? Environmentally oriented features at SFO's Terminal 2 reduce CO2 emissions by 1.33% of the quantity of CO2 spewed by the air travel that originates at its gates.

Can that be right? Any engineers out there want to shoot holes in my napkin?

It might still feel good to fly in and out of the new terminal at San Francisco International Airport. But if I've done credible arithmetic, we can't delude ourselves. Groovy new airports don't solve the fundamental problem that jet planes are bad bad bad for our planet's climactic equilibrium. They're not going to right the ship.

I'm expecting that next pizza at Napa Farms Market, the one I might well order on my way to Chicago next month, won't taste quite as good as the first.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
The radiation cloud is blowing in the wind
Digging deeper holes
Things fall apart

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Heat wave in New York

You can't count on the weather when you plan a vacation, and thinking back on the last couple of months I am led to wonder if this was ever more true in the U.S. than in the current year (I'm thinking about the folks who have suffered through floods and tornados recently). My own experience of unusual weather has been pretty minor to-date. For example, the morning I left the Bay Area last weekend on my way to a work-related meeting in the Washington, DC area, it was raining. It doesn't rain in the Bay Area in June. Except when it does.

Post-meeting I'm spending a few days in New York for some R&R. I didn't have a lot of plans for Wednesday, I had a few last things to attend to for work, then I thought I'd just knock around the city a bit and decompress from a fairly intense several weeks on the job. Little did I know New York would be in the throes of a heat wave when I showed up. CBS is reporting that the current heat may shatter records that have gone unbroken for seven decades. Ouch!

I'm staying out on the east edge of Alphabet City, and thought I'd take a walk along the East River, nothing strenuous, just down as far as the Williamsburg Bridge. Not a bad idea: there was a breeze along the river. Still, it was hot as all get-out. I think I have a new appreciation for what the word schvitzing really means.

Today? It's supposed to be worse. I think I'll hang out in art museums. That way I'll enjoy the benefits of protections extended to the paintings...

Monday, June 6, 2011

Berkeley's master of bad marketing plans

Bopping around town in the wake of May's student exodus, it's clear that the current rental market in Berkeley is not kind to landlords. There have been more For Rent signs up in windows around town this year than I've ever seen before.

(Do rental markets bore you? Keep reading anyway. This post is about property owners with ... issues.)

Of the many For Rent signs up around the south side of Berkeley, where I live, a noticeable proportion of them look something like the photograph to the right. That sign was recently posted in the lower flat of a two-unit building on Ward Street, a few houses from where I lived through most of the 1980s. Good friends of mine lived in that very flat once upon a time.

All those phone numbers? I'll get back to those in a bit.

Reza Valiyee was my landlord from 1982 to 1989. The For Rent notice in the photograph is posted in a window of one of many buildings that Reza owns. His real estate holdings are assessed at more than $6,000,000 and are worth a great deal more (he has owned many of his properties for twenty years, thirty years, or longer -- a period during which assessments have risen at a much slower rate than actual value of real estate in our little burg; cf. Reza Valiyee, a Man of Perpetual Motion, from the Berkeley Daily Planet, 20 Aug 2009).

Reza owns about a half-dozen of the houses on the block where I lived as his tenant back in the day. He owns boarding houses that he rents out to UC Berkeley students. He owns vacant commercial property on a shuttered stretch of Shattuck Avenue, which becomes the main drag of Berkeley's downtown a few blocks further north.

Those boarded-up blocks on Shattuck? Reza has memorably refused to sell those lots because he believes the powers-that-be will someday decide that a new BART (metro rail) station needs to be built between Ashby and Berkeley stations, which are three minutes apart by train. If they do, he believes, he'll be positioned to make a killing off the neighborhood's transformation.

(From the SF Chronicle, 28 March 1998: "'That's the first time I've heard that one,' said BART spokesman Mike Healy, barely suppressing a chuckle. 'We have no plans for another station in that area.'")

When I was his tenant, we called our block "Rezaville." Reza himself lived on the corner, as he does still, in the lower flat of a tatty two-unit building. The flat is shielded by heavy curtains that I've never seen open in nearly three decades (see photo, below).

Reza may have a lot of real estate, and a corresponding stream of real estate income, but he shows little evidence of being a big spender. It's not just that he lets the buildings he owns go to pot, inviting endless battles with neighbors and the city. Some months ago I saw him haggling with a clerk over the price of costume jewelry at the local Goodwill outlet.

Most puzzling, despite the fact that he has a lot of property and has been renting it out for decades, his marketing blitz doesn't strike me as one honed to fill vacancies. Not anytime soon. I mean, what's with all those phone numbers on the ugly signs?

It's as if Reza's success as a landlord -- and at $6M+ in real estate holdings, there's no getting around the fact of his success -- as if it were predicated on the tenant-brutalizing markets of the 1980s and 1990s, when a property owner could put up an index card in the UC Berkeley Housing Office and fifty prospective renters would phone by the end of the day. Give him a market in which he has to compete? Take a look at that notice full of phone numbers and tell me Reza's got brilliant instincts as a businessman. No, it's not polite to smirk when you say that.

The middle panel of the notice shown at the top of this post (photo taken in March) contains eight phone numbers on a sheet of 11"x17" paper. Though you can't read them in the second photo, the sign in the flat above Reza's own abode -- shown to the left -- displays those eight plus four more, for a total of twelve.

By the way, that sign on the second story of Reza's building? You'd need a pair of binoculars to read it from the sidewalk. Even I, a certified idjut in money matters, could do better than that.

Think about it. If you were looking for a place to rent, would eight or twelve phone numbers crammed onto an informational sign inspire confidence that you're going to reach someone who can answer your questions? Or might you figure something more like ... jeez, that sign's advertising a game of speed-dial Persian roulette.

If I didn't know better, I would wonder what the heck Reza was thinking. But I do know better. Reza Valiyee has always been forthcoming about what he thinks.

I'll write more about that later this month ... stay tuned.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
The blurry line between Landlord and Supreme Power

Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Steins Collect at SF-MOMA

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is currently mounting an exhibition titled The Steins Collect. The show gathers paintings from the collections of Gertrude Stein, her brothers Leo and Michael, and Michael's wife Sarah. The four -- and Stein's partner, Alice B. Toklas -- lived as expatriates in Paris early in the last century. Among others, they befriended Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso before they were luminaries, and collected their work before it was priceless. I visited the museum on Saturday to see the exhibition.

For me the high point was the unexpected pleasure of seeing Picasso's Boy Leading a Horse again, less than a year since I last visited the painting at its permanent home at New York's MOMA. But the show was rich both in work I had seen before and that I had not, and well worth the (somewhat startling) ticket price, $25 total (for the museum admission plus a supplement for the special exhibition). In addition to Matisse and Picasso, the exhibition features work by Paul Cézanne, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.

Here are Picasso's portrait of Gertrude (from New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art) and portraits by Matisse of Michael and Sarah (from SF MOMA's own collection):

And Picasso's magnificent work, Boy Leading a Horse:

The damning-personal-confession part of this blog post? I've never really warmed to Gertrude Stein's work.

Yeah, Oakland is practically across the street from where I live, so I've regurgitated more than my share of Stein's "there is no there there," enough that I want to slap myself silent when I'm tempted to repeat the trope yet again. But I've had a hard time plowing through Stein's actual work.

I found Alice B. Toklas' (auto)biography kind of amusing, but I was young and impressionable when I read it. Nowadays I'm inclined to wonder what the world really gained from "Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose" three hundred years after Billy Shakespeare declaimed in the voice of Juliet that, "A rose / By any other name would smell as sweet."

Okay, end of sour rant. Gertrude Stein and her family clearly had an eye for art.

The SF MOMA exhibition opened two weeks ago, and runs through September 6, 2011.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:

Art as long as history, time beyond memory
Gustav Klimt's portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer: a saga
Art bliss at MOMA