The Presidio Brat

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Magical Seascape

I've never actually seen the tide this low at Baker Beach, low enough that you could walk clear to the south end and through a gap in the rocks.

It was a magical seascape, a phantasmagoria of shells and colors and critters. Mussels seemed to cover every rock.

Things were still living, and up close, the colors were extraordinary. There were dozens of green anemone-like blobs that closed themselves off if you touched them.

Crimson slices of color inside white mini-clams.

The iridescent hues of what looks like calamari.

The muted pinks and black orchid tones of this weird kelp.

Bright pink and orange starfish

Tooth-like white shells, black and amber streaks

A deep, gorgeous indigo of shells

And the brilliant orange of a starfish against a purpled rock.

It's a rare glimpse into an overlooked part of the Presidio -- the underwater world that touches its shores. I recommend a peek, but watch out for the rising tide.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

This Blows the Mind

This is really unbelievable. Arlene Ducao, a computer programmer at the Media Lab’s Information Ecology Group, has created the MindRider, a bicycle helmet that reads your mind and then telegraphs the emotional contents to passing motorists with a series of flashing lights based on traffic colors – green for good, red for bad. The helmet contains an EEG sensor that can distinguish emotional states in the brain – like fear and panic, or maybe just “being in the zone.”

If I were wearing one of these right now, it would be flashing red. This invention implies that drivers and other bikers need to be made more aware of a biker’s mental state, which in turn suggests that the bikers themselves shouldn’t have to take responsibility for their state.

Now a biker no longer needs to tell himself “I’m getting crazy and not paying attention. I’d better stop.” Instead, a flashing red light tells everyone else to stop?? This device shifts the responsibility onto everyone around the biker by suggesting it will help drivers if they are made more aware of the biker’s mental state (something that is patently obvious in most cases anyway). And the various flashing light patterns on a biker’s helmet conveniently provide even MORE distraction to drivers.

Folks, the average person can distinguish 5,000 expressions on the human face. I don’t think we have trouble recognizing aggression or panic in a human posture. Shit, babies can do it.

There is always the small chance that, if this technology were to come into popular use, the police could begin to issue tickets for aggression as well, since now they’d have proof that the bikers really were thinking those hostile thoughts while they cut you off and refused to stop for traffic signs.

Now put these helmets on everyone and imagine the creepy, 1984 feel to knowing people’s moods based on colored lights flashing from their heads. This would put an end to dating forever, maybe even marriage. Yoga centers would start promising you’ll “leave in the green.” Flocks of good citizens could gather on the cliffs to help passing ships navigate the dangerous coast.

I file this under “there are a million ways to use technology to improve lives and this doesn’t look like one of them.” 

Before the Bridge

AND on the subject of humans relating to the sea: go see the main post exhibit "Before the Bridge" before it closes. It's a visual and historical feast of information about the Golden Gate straits before the bridge was built.

Shipwrecks galore!

For a Presidio geek like me, it's a fantastic place, but it provides a wonderful look at Bay Area history, too. For example, the Spaniards sailed along the coast for 200 years before noticing the opening to the bay. (Spaniards, I feel you: apparently I've sailed right by San Francisco history for 200 years before learning half the things I did at this exhibit.)

It's free and open to the public. Wednesday-Sunday, 11am-5pm, until December 18th.

Photo courtesy of GGNRA Interpretation Collection.

The Human Shore

In this recent radio interview on KPFA, author John Gillis talks about human beings' relationship to the sea.

Did you know that a "great migration" occurred over the past fifty years, and that now about half of the world's population lives within 100 miles of a coast? Gillis thinks that we should be moving away from the seashore.

I think this is a barmy idea, but I like to imagine anyway a world in which we radically change our way of existing beside the sea. Stop overfishing. Stop polluting. Stop conglomerating in cities. Let's spread out a little bit and give something back.

Quoting Gillis:

"The the most unnatural place on earth. It has been scoured, it has been sanitized, it has been moved and changed so that the classic beach of the tourist industry is completely artificial."

"We have managed, in this country, to destroy about 80 percent of the ocean's wetlands."

"A cultural change...has transformed the sea from an object of fear and of something that is a real asset, our wilderness, the one place on earth that we can experience something we can no longer experience in our cities: the sublime. It's the idea of encountering something that is larger than ourselves. It's become the secular god of a lot of people. And they flock to the shore to experience this."

The Presidio's trails are pretty damn sublime, but perhaps I underestimate how important the sea is to the whole experience.

Gillis' book, The Human Shore, seems like a call for sustainability near the seashores. Curious to read more.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

No More Cookies for Marin

Well it's not exactly Presidio news, but today Presidio business resident George Lucas moved ahead with his plans to build a low-income housing complex on his Grady Ranch property in Marin.

As you may know, he's been trying to build a studio in Marin for many years, but protesting NIMBYs (who call themselves the Lucas Valley Estates Homeowners Association) have sentenced his plans to bureaucratic hell. The scary part of the story? They've been fighting him on development issues for TWENTY-FIVE YEARS. Seriously.

So he's finally moving on. And taking his studio plans with him. And leaving behind plans to build low-income housing on the land instead, because, frankly Marin, take that!

The homeowners group has said that his proposed studio - a "263,701-square-foot digital technology production company" - was going to be too big, displace too much dirt, and interfere with the path of a creek running through the area. In other words things that belong in the category of CBD - complete bureaucratic dishonesty. If they really gave a damn about the direction of a creek or the amount of dirt displaced, they'd be willing to work with Lucas to mitigate those hazards. What they seem to want is total control. They want to decide exactly what's in their "their" backyards, because they've fallen prey to that fallacy that when you own land, you own the whole community.

But the truth is, whenever you buy (or rent!) a house, you are investing in something that is subject to fluctuating property values, societal and environmental changes, hell even roughneck neighbors with pit bulls. I guess the Marin residents in question don't want to have to put up with things they don't like. The real question is: George Lucas is building a digital arts studio - I'm sorry, is it a nuclear power plant? An international airport? Is he building a VOLCANO? What the hell is wrong with you people?

They're leaning pretty heavily on their "environmental" and "historical" reasons, saying that the studio would be out of keeping with the bucolic surroundings. It means they obviously haven't seen his Letterman Studios, which displaced the historic Letterman Army Hospital:

And replaced it with a new Digital Arts Center:

Yeah, boy that George Lucas, he obviously needs a lesson in taste. What's remarkable about the Letterman Center is that it managed to be even more in keeping with the Presidio's style than the previous building was. Good Lord, he made the place look BETTER.

I think anyone can trust Lucas and his team to provide development that is not only respectful of the ambiance, but that is beautiful in its own right -- and that may actually improve the existing environment. Naturally, the same would be true in Marin. Why wouldn't he want to build the best possible thing - in his OWN backyard?

Marin NIMBYs, one more strike for your ridiculous sense of entitlement. I wish you many low-income housing complexes in the future. Maybe losing one of the country's most innovative and successful businessmen and having to rub shoulders with the lesser-entitled instead will give you a bit of perspective.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Disney Magic Indeed

So I finally went exploring the Walt Disney Family Museum. You know, the place people see on a drive-by and go: why is that here? That was my question too, the first time I saw it. And after a few hours in the place, I found a personal answer of sorts - see below. But first I will say that it works exceptionally well to follow the complexity of someone’s life through the labyrinthine corridors of a Montgomery Street Barrack.

The name of the museum should have made this completely obvious, but the place is all about Walt Disney – the father, artist and businessman. It is not about Disney in the sense that we normally use the word – to refer to the studios, the movies, or for that matter anything cartoonish (or schmaltzy, depending on your generation, I think). So I was a little surprised to discover that when you enter the doors, you begin a chronological walking tour focusing expressly on one man’s life and rise to fame. It begins with a history of the Disney family’s emigration from France and it ends with Walt’s death from lung cancer in 1966 – and then boom, you’re out the door wandering dazedly through a very un-Disney-Store-like gift shop, where I bought a post card of the historical Presidio in 1846. (?)

In my ignorance I was expecting an inside look at the Disney I knew from having raised a kid in the 90s. But forget about Belle and Mulan and Princess Jasmine - the movies on display stop circa Peter Pan. Instead, this place offers a real slice of American history – the development of Hollywood, World Wars I and II, depressions and strikes and Communist infiltrators – and of course the birth and rise of a great American cultural icon, Mickey Mouse. Around this is a parallel history of filmmaking and animation, which is fascinating.

Warning to the mild: there is a phenomenal amount of stuff in this place! You could spend three whole days there and still not absorb it all. About a third of the way through even I was overloaded.

But the exhibits are fabulous – lots of movie clips and interviews and animated histories, old film projectors and story boards and drawings of all kinds, everything very beautifully displayed. There is a lot of personal memorabilia – family photos and interview clips. Walt, it turns out, was a collector of miniatures. He spent quite a bit of time hunting down small things. There’s a whole display of his little tea sets and shotguns. I started getting the idea that this obsession for The Small was one of the reasons he liked kids so much.

Salvador Dali and Walt Disney, Untitled from "Destino", 1946
But I was most surprised by Walt the artist. I always imagined him as a very savvy, hard-driven businessman, but he was also a passionate artist in his own right, the kind of guy who took his pencils and sketch pad with him to war. He also had a deep, early love for technology, and he pushed the boundaries of it like nobody’s business. (Such an excellent combination of creativity and acumen – very George Lucas.)

But most of all, he was driven by a pure desire to take children and adults to a place of primal innocence, and – if only for the course of a movie – to restore their faith in the core of goodness at the center of life. That longing drives some of the greatest fantasy – underlying Tolkien’s Middle Earth is the idea that a beautiful world was lost, something innocent and good that we can never get back to. But the author is going to find a way for us to get back there, dammit. (Yes, I just compared Tolkien and Disney. I know.)

If I may make a leap, I think this is partly why the Presidio is amazing. It’s a natural place that was somehow magically preserved amidst the concrete obscenity all around it, and for me, and probably for many other people, it retains a feeling of all the good and mystical things of childhood. It’s transcendent, full of signposts from a forgotten age, and, kind of like Chief Wu said: a Disneyland of its own. So in fact, it’s very fitting that the museum is here.

Anyway, the place is well worth a visit (and maybe three or four).

the Oscar for "Snow White and the Seven Dwarves"
Things I liked:

All the mind-boggling colors and sounds.

A break from all the mind-boggling colors and sounds at the back of the building, where you have a spectacular view of the bay through glass walls.

A huge café (with cupcakes) and plenty of space to put up your feet.

Things I didn’t like:

Not being able to take pictures.

While I personally love getting lost in an enormous labyrinth of a building, especially when there’s so much to look at, it’s all fun and games until someone has a seizure in the Mickey Mouse room, and all the good-hearted visitors go running around desperately looking for an exit so they can get downstairs and get some help for the poor woman. A bit more flexibility in the escape routes would have been nice. (But hey, at least it’s across the street from a fire house.)

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

El Polin

the spring at El Polin

Well, it sometimes happens that the Trust offers a free historical tour, twenty people sign up, and only three people end up braving the pouring rain on a cold Saturday morning.

My husband and I were two of the three who stood beneath umbrellas on March 31st to hear about the history of El Polin. Despite the bitter cold, we felt like we’d struck the jackpot -- we got a whole archaeologist to ourselves. And the spring, which is near the MacArthur housing complex, was as quiet as mysterious as it must have been when the Briones family settled there in the early 1800s.

Behind Kari, the "oldest road in SF"
Before going, I had a chat with my mother, who is a retired army wife and Presidio historian in her own right. She recounted the army’s El Polin "tour" twenty-five years ago. What stood out in her memory was the legend of the spring – that drinking from its waters could induce fertility and longevity. Trust archaeologist Kari Jones revealed the possible source of this legend: Guadalupe, the oldest daughter of the Briones family, had twenty children, most of whom survived into adulthood. And she lived to be over 100 years old. Not bad for a “pioneer.” Hell, if you could show me a woman who could do that today, I’d still be bowled over. 

What was especially interesting was getting a peek into an archaeologist's brain. Kari's factual tour was rich and fascinating, but equally intriguing were the question marks about the place - things the Archaeology Lab is still trying to piece together. A small brick reservoir across from the spring could have been used for any number of things - watering cattle, washing clothes, mixing adobe - but this is where archaeology demands the ability to mentally reconstruct a different time and place -- and getting to see some of that process was a real treat.  

The new Presidio renovation of the spring is spacious and designed to be bucolic, but the spring itself still has a dark mystery, with water bubbling constantly, the flow hidden among plants and shrouded in superstition. A strangely post-modern metal frame filled with stones marks the old Briones home, inviting you to stand in what was once their main room and ponder how ridiculously small it was for such a large family. The road leading past El Polin is called “the oldest road in San Francisco.” It led from El Presidio (approximately, the location of the current Officer’s Club) to the “city”, which was nothing but a small mission busily suppressing the Indians.

Unanswered questions of the past hang there as well: What about the natives, who used the spring and considered it sacred? Were they able to protest a family moving in right next to the spring and taking control of its waters? What thousands of years of history did the natives have there that were never recorded? If anyone is going to explore these things, it seems to me that the archaeologists at the Trust are capable and passionate enough to do it. For a list of their upcoming events, click here

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Presidiot part 1

One definition of a Presidiot is: People who think of a national park as one big trash disposal area.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Traces of the Army Remain

Naturally, the army's all over the Presidio, even though they've been gone for 20 years. They're in the architecture, the layout, the trees, the monuments. They're in the cemetery and the cleanly-trimmed yards. But I like noticing the little details, too.

An old building at North Fort Scott:

Peeking inside the window of an abandoned building on Halleck Ave:

Still plastered on a window at Sports Basement - the old Commissary:

Old Building 228 (or near it) off of Halleck:

Oooooh, shiny.

A preview of the new Doyle Drive, alongside the old one. It's gonna be lovely!