Saturday, December 28, 2013

California Winter Fashion

This week, the Winter Solstice marks a special point in our planet’s yearly voyage around the sun.  Our planet does not spin straight up and down, in comparison to the gigantic ball of fire we orbit. We actually tilt -- 23.5 degrees, to be exact.  We are like a spinning top that’s always leaning to the same side.
            The degree and direction of that tilt stays the same no matter where we are in our yearly journey. On December 21st, our northern hemisphere is tilted from the sun---the farthest away it will be all year, and the southern hemisphere is the closest.
            If the Earth were a leaning drunk man, on December 21st our tipsy planet has his head out in cold space, with his butt against the fire. On June 21st, it’s the opposite: his scalp burns while his toes are getting frozen.
            This tilt creates our planetary seasons, which are always opposite to each other in the two hemispheres.  Cold winter in the Northern Hemisphere, warm summer in the South, and the Tropics in between have seasons too, but a little less extreme. 
            That means that today in Maine they’re wearing parkas, snowshoes and ear muffs and tapping maple trees. In Sydney, Australia they’re in board shorts and bikinis drinking beer on sailboats or surfing on Bondi beach.
            But in California, the seasons don’t match up easily with the rest of the world, despite the Golden State being well above the Tropics. That means we can’t figure out how we’re supposed to dress.

            At 8:30 in the morning in Southern California, you’ll see a woman in a long winter overcoat with a chic scarf standing on a street corner next to a man in flip flops, board shorts and a T-shirt, waiting for the light to change.
            The man is shivering a little, but he’s committed to proving he can live like a surfer all year long. The woman is maybe a tad too warm and sweating under the collar, but she’s committed to wearing her fashionable winter clothes at least a few weeks out of the year.
            It’s warm in the sun and cool in the shade, so you’ll see the board short folks sticking to the sunny side of the street, while those seeking a winter wonderland will be hugging the buildings, searching for shadows.
            You also see mad fashion mash-ups that you get nowhere else in the world. Plenty of women wear their down parkas up top, and then flip-flops down below. Guys will wear cargo shorts with a ski sweater.  Both men and women will wear knit caps with their arms, legs, and digits exposed.  We sometimes export these bizarre trends, and people copy us without realizing that we have a seasonal disorder. Consider the woman wearing a thigh-exposing denim mini-shirt, and then oven-hot Ugg Boots on her feet. That weird look came from our seasonal confusion, folks, not any true fashion sense, so be wary of copying us.

            It’s a coastal issue, mostly.  When you get into the San Joaquin Valley and then closer to the Sierra Nevada mountain range, our behavior matches the rest of the country.  True, you’ll sometimes see people skiing in bikinis (only in California), but generally people dress appropriately.  A Visalia cotton farmer wears thick denim in winter, and woman working for the Forest Service in Truckee knows to wear snow boots in Winter.  But if you cross the coastal range and get closer to the ocean, the temperate effects of the ocean confuse us.

            In San Diego, it’s not that bad. San Diego has the best weather in the country, which means it’s 85 in the summer and 70 in the winter, and only the absence or presence of leaves on the trees will tell you whether it’s winter or not.

            When you get to Los Angeles, the confusion begins. Los Angeles is a semi-tropical desert, which means it can get warm in winter, but the warmth doesn’t stick around. It’s cold at night and in the morning, enough for frost to happen, but then it can be 80 degrees in the middle of the day if you’re standing in the sun. It’s hard to know what to wear, so we invent bizarre clothing combinations as we each decide which trade-off we prefer, shivering or sweating. The amount of cement in the urban sprawl only makes it worse. Cement and asphalt don’t hold heat well, so it rises away quickly at night and reflects into your skin during the day. 

            As you get to Northern California, the weather stabilizes, but in ways that don’t match the rest of the country. In winter, Monterey and San Francisco have brilliant days of blue skies and bright sunshine, but it’s still too cool to strip down. In summer, the interior valleys get so hot that the rising air sucks in air from the coast to replace it, and that cooler ocean air hits the coast and turns into fog -- fast moving, bone chilling, wet fog. The last thing you want to do in summer in either Monterey or San Francisco is to go to the beach and take off your clothes. You’d get hypothermia.

            We want our summer and winter experiences to match the rest of the country, so we engage in wishful thinking and questionable behavior. In San Francisco, in winter time, if the sun is out and you can get out of the wind, you can actually find warmth. You can find guys in the parks with their shirts off and women in bikinis and shorts lying on beach towels, but laying low behind hedges. If you’re lying flat to the earth the sun will feel like it’s 80 degrees, but if you raise your head above the hedge row the cool breeze will chill you.  That’s why you see people in swim suits wearing down parkas on top -- they’re on a search for a heat sink in which they can rest, and pretend it’s summer in the middle of winter.
            In summer, it’s the opposite. In most of the city the wet fog is moving so fast that it’s better to wear a winter raincoat than any kind of summer clothes. But Northern Californians still try to be like the rest of the country. That’s why they’re wearing down parkas on July 4th as they barbecue in their tiny backyards, and then they all go down to Crissy Field by the Golden Gate Bridge, and watch the fireworks over the water change the color of the thick clouds while the fog horns blast.

            A trip to the beach is always wistful in Northern California. If it’s warm, it’s still not warm enough to go swimming. If it’s cold, it’s wet enough that you want to be in the car.
         Farther north, the Coastal Redwoods take over and they create their own eco-system. It’s a temperate rain forest; wet in winter, less wet in summer.

            As winter takes over in Southern California, I plan to enjoy the next six weeks. There was frost on the ground on the first day of winter, but the forecast for later in the week is eighty degrees. January has the best weather of any month, which is the whole point of the Rose Bowl Parade. Look America! While you’re freezing, we have a hundred floats covered with roses and tropical flowers, and it’s brilliant sunshine!  Come move West! 
            The weather is great for hiking, and you can get a sun burned face if you’re not wearing a hat. In February it all changes as the rains finally come, and then we’ll remember that it’s winter and we’re supposed to cover up, but for the next six weeks it’s glorious, as long as you accept the wackiness.
            Our changing climate will mean winters will get more wet and blustery and summer will be hotter and drier, but for now, winter means I can wear my ski sweater with my swim trunks and flip flops.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

The Super Aggressive Christmas Performance

The Christmas season has zones of anger, aggression, disappointment, and fear.   The zones are the crowded places -- the shopping centers, parking lots, post office lines and grocery stores where people must go in their obligatory quest for joy.  Get to the store early to purchase your joy, wait in line for your joy, make sure you bring home joy for your family, and be joyful on command while doing it. Time, space and resources are limited, so we end up jockeying against each other in our individual quests for joy, and it can sour a crowd quickly.
            I can dodge most zones by planning ahead and avoiding people. But there’s one zone I must enter each year, and it always scares me: the school auditorium for the Christmas Singing Performance.
            Lily is in third grade, so this year is my fourth visit.  Although it scares me, I’m battle-hardened. Like fathers everywhere, I know my job on this day and I prep for it with  grim determination. I get up early, charge the camera battery, make sure I have the long lens, and I’m wearing the right gear.
            Robin and Lily are also up early, perfecting Lily’s long hair and steaming the wrinkles out of the outfit for the performance. They’re the show, I’m logistics.
            I leave first, with one of Robin’s long scarves. It will be a seat holder. School is close enough that I could walk, but today time is crucial, so I’m driving. My job is simple; to secure two good seats in the auditorium and hold them while Robin gets Lily to class, and then she can cross campus and get to her seat before the show starts at 8:15 a.m.
            I see other neighborhood cars with solitary drivers and I know they’re like me. They’re the early planners, those people who decide they want to be the first ones in.
            There’s a line at 7:45 for the three hundred seat auditorium, and there’s already a line of eighty people waiting, most of them with tripods and camera bags. People smile and trade pleasantries, but we’re like photographers ready to enter the Olympic Stadium on the day of the 100-meter dash finals. We’re colleagues, but we all want that one special spot. We’re also of like mind; if we plan ahead and work hard, we can grab seats and insure joy for ourselves and our family before anyone else arrives.
            The doors open at 7:50, and the first battle begins. Some people are bold and come with six or seven sweaters or scarves and lay them down and fill a row. The best way to hold them is to plop down in the middle seat, get on your cell phone and keep saying, “these seats are taken, these seats are taken,” to anyone who dares approach.
            Some make the mistake of putting down several sweaters or jackets, and then leaving. Their “reserved” spots will disappear, and once they return and find five people sitting in their spots, they’ll be lucky if they can shame even one person to give his or her seat up.
            I understand the pressure. Grandparents and aunts and uncles are in town, they move slow, they want to see the snowman collage that Class 34 made, and then linger to talk to the children as they prep for the show. That’s where the excitement is, and why they came to school today. They’ll get to the theater when they can.
            We, the brave few who breach those auditorium doors first----know what our jobs are.
If we don’t hold the required number of seats, we will have failed in our jobs to ensure Christmas joy for our families. We also know that there aren’t enough seats for everyone who wants to see the show, so we set up our perimeters and guard them.
            Then there are the video and camera people. They fight for their position in row four and back, they get their cameras set and they raise up those tripods. They’re gambling; by grabbing the less desirable seats, they figure they can occupy more real estate without too much of a fight. But if you’re in row four or back, you know that the video you are shooting will be too unstable in the close-up, so you need that tripod, damn it, or there will be shaky video to show on Christmas night. By 8:00 a.m., there’s a forest of tripods back there.

            I grab two seats in row four, and set down Robin’s scarf to save her seat.  I set up my own camera, with no tripod. Instead, I’m wearing my thick jacket, because I can rest my padded elbow on the wooden arm chair and create my own comfortable “mono-pod,” and shoot a steady image. I’ll overheat, but I don’ care.  I have to lean into Robin or my neighbor to get my shot, but I’m ready. Tap on my shoulder all you want, tripod boy. I’m doing my lean, and I’m not moving.
            At 8 a.m. the second jockeying battle begins. We early settlers, once competitors, now must fight and defend our territories against the interlopers who arrive on-time. We were the busy ants who planned ahead, and now in come the fiddling grasshoppers, only fifteen minutes before the performance, and they’re amazed there are no seats left. Is this your first year, buddy? I feel for you, but we’re taking care of our own right now.
            The comments between 8:00 and 8:10 a.m. get aggressive. There are too many people trying to sit in too many guarded seats, and the mom guarding six spots can’t hide in her cell phone anymore, and the dad with the tripod up too high ends up raising his voice as well. The newcomers plead for fairness, and often get rejected.
            “Yeah, and Merry Christmas to you too,” often gets said, a few decibels too high and dripping with disdain.

            Robin arrives, along with the other moms and dads. People find their seats, or take a spot standing at the back of the auditorium, leaning against a wall. I know the feeling, that’s where I spent my first year.
            But there is one more battle. There is a final wave of twenty people who tumble in at 8:14, just before the kids march in. These people are joyful without effort, laughing and waving, and clueless to the unwritten rules of How to Properly Secure Seats for the Grammar School Auditorium Performance. They sit anywhere, right on the hands of the people trying to guard the chairs, ignoring the pounding on their shoulder, while they wave to the other Room Mom six rows back. Or they plop down in the aisles, ignoring the fire codes, or they sit right on the floor in front in front of the stage and yank out their tripods and cameras. They missed a chance for the best seat? These self-appointed VIPs create their own. They also stand their ground, and their behavior is so audacious few people challenge them. Although a murmur of dissatisfaction rolls through the rows, we all just want the bickering to end and the show to start.
            Then the principal comes in and grabs the microphone and calms the collective savage beast. Like that poster that reminds us that everything we need to know in life we learned in Kindergarten, the principal turns the first minute of the performance into a gracious thank you to all the parents for coming, and then gives us all a gentle reminder about how and where we sit, why rules are important, and how he’s proud of us for being such good role models for our children. The murmuring goes down, the aisles clear, and the music begins.

            And everything changes when the kids come in.  Time stops, and we all get our moment of joy, watching our children and their classmates mount the risers and then turn to face us. They peer out into the darkness and then their eyes brighten and they smile and wave when they spot us. They are all dressed up and proud of their work, and they feel safe and loved because they know we are there watching and caring about them.
            There’s an empty seat next to me, and the father sitting on the other side alternates between guarding it with his hand and madly texting into his phone.  A woman comes in late after pounding on the door, and she makes her way to row 4, and we all go into the half-crouch as she squeezes past us. She collapses into her spare seat, closes her eyes and exhales. There was another child to drop off at another school, but she promised that she would get there and see the performance, and the dad promised that he’d help make it happen -- and she made it, on a day when the world conspired against her. I glanced over and saw her eyes brighten when her child hit the stage, and she waved at her daughter just like I did with mine. Their child spotted her and smiled like the Cheshire Cat, beaming light right back at them. Parenting is showing up, and Mom and dad had made it happen. They’d done well.
            The performance was great. Some classes sang in two part harmonies, and in repeating rounds, which isn’t easy, They weren’t just belting it out, they’d rehearsed, and it came out as sweet music. Seventy-five third graders sang as one, which turned all 350 of us in the audience into one, and we embraced the moment.
            My fear turns to pleasure on a dime, and I realize both feelings are in my mind, not in the seats or in the people around me. Everything I experienced before was, and is, all in my head.
            I suddenly feel regret within my pleasure; she finishes at this school in two years, so there are only two of these performances left. I feel the days and the months racing past, and I need more moments to embrace.
            I get a grip and return to the present moment, listen to the music and relax. The children give us all the Christmas joy for which we’d come, and I receive it, with thanks. I am grateful for all I have. Merry Christmas.            

Thursday, December 12, 2013

When will the dying begin?

When will the dying begin? I put it at less than ten years.
            Hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, will die in some kind of environmental disaster. It could happen anywhere.
            From the Los Angeles Times -- A National Research Council Report says that “the planet is warming so quickly that the world should expect abrupt and unpredictable consequences in a matter of years or a few decades.”
            The summer fires and the winter storms that disrupt our lives, destroy homes and businesses and cost so much? And the hurricanes? And the droughts? It’s going to get worse and worse.
            The party is over, folks.
            Three massive hurricanes back to back will destroy the East Coast.
            Colorado will burn. The Mississippi rivers will have a mega-flood and destroy cities.  In California, the water will run dry in the middle of the state, while the coast will go underwater. San Francisco will not be a city of hills, but a city of islands.
            As federal and state disaster funds get eaten up and there’s not enough time, money or manpower to address every issue, eventually there will be a disaster that we won’t be able to contain. Food, water, medicine and shelter will run out.
            Civilization will break down.
            We all feel it.  That’s why zombie apocalypse stories are so popular. We all feel that we are just one flashpoint away from chaos.                        
            Soon we will reach a tipping point with the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere where no amount of retroactive action will reverse the forward motion of climate change, at least not for thousands of years.
            Once there are one or two massive death events, we will try to geo-engineer our way out of the problem, by shooting chemicals into the sky to block the sun and cool the planet, or by building gigantic sequestration plants to pump CO2 into the ground, or we’ll build nuclear, as fast as we can. These may create worse problems, but we’ve been geo-engineering the planet for hundreds of years already, we just did it blindly and without purpose.  People will demand that something be done, and we’ll be desperate enough to try anything.  The unintended consequences of our good intentions will certainly surprise us.
            Meanwhile, the acid levels in the ocean are increasing, killing coral and plankton, and there’s a zone of plastic garbage the size of Texas swirling slowly in the middle of the Pacific, like a toilet that you can never flush.
            At one time, the nuclear arms race and the potential for war was what I constantly thought and worried about. That seems like such a quaint fear now, compared to this.
            This way of life that we have may be gone soon. I think about it every day. No more gluten free cookies, stem cell research, or Superbowl halftime show.
There’s also no way to predict which region will have the massive disaster. There’s no way to prepare for it, except to be ready to escape if you have to -- to leave your life behind and be ready to start new somewhere else.
            I also wonder what life will be like after the massive paradigm shift.
            As resources dwindle, as problems mount, governments will control access and limit consumption. There will be rationing. Democracy and freedom will suffer.  It may disappear, and be replaced by some regulated system of government dedicated to controlling intake and doling out resources.
            What can I do?
            I keep two quotes on my desk, scribbled on a tiny note pad.
            “It is better to light a single candle than to curse the darkness.”
            This is an ancient Chinese saying, which made it into Poor Richard’s Almanac, and Eleanor Roosevelt used as well.
            So shines a good deed in a weary world...
            This is what Willy Wonka says to himself when Charlie gives back the amazing Gobstopper, and is reassured that there is good in the world.
            I try to keep life small, and my consumption small. I try to stay in Tier 1 in all my utility bills. I recycle. I eat meat once a week. I’m looking into the solar panels and getting rid of the lawn. I try to be a good example to my daughter. I also try not to get attached to anything, because it may be gone. It may not make any difference, but it’s my candle, for now.
            I think about what role I’m going to play when the paradigm shift happens. I’ll probably be a teacher, a coach, a cook, and a farmer. If I’m required to do more, I hope I can rise to the occasion. It may all end anyway, but I have to try.
            The truth is, I despair. How do you battle despair?
            I realize the solution to despair is to take action. I have great ideas about how I can save the world, but I realize I haven’t take action on any of them. And guess what?  Other people already have.
            I was thinking of a way you could use solar powered garbage collection scoopers to gradually gather garbage from the Pacific Gyre. Then I researched it and found out that Boyan Slat from the Neitherlands already has an idea to clean the Garbage Patch, using the swirling currents themselves to gather the trash.
            It’s engineering on a big scale, but not complicated, and we should try this before other grand scale geo-engineering projects.
            Check it out:
            I also have a solution for global warming. We require millions of massive bio-engineering devices that suck carbon out of the atmosphere, and spew oxygen. But we already have them -- Giant Redwood Trees. Coastal Redwoods are thriving with the higher CO2 levels in all the forests on the Pacific Coast. They are nature’s wonderful geo-engineering marvels.
            If we are going to bio-engineer the planet...
            If we are going to mobilize millions of people because of disaster...
            If whole regions are going to be lost because of tragedy...
            We can plant redwood trees everywhere where they will grow.
            We can plant trees of all kinds, everywhere.
            And of course, Million Trees LA is trying to do just that, planting a million trees within the city, thus changing our ecosystem. Check out:
            That’s the only sure-fire system we have right now to battle the problem, along with drastically cutting energy consumption.
            We’ve had a Dark Age before. We may be heading for another one.
            All I can do for peace of mind is to light my candle, be thankful for what I have, do what I can, and hope the light stays on.
            And maybe take more action...

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Edelweiss, Edelweiss...bless my homeland forever?

My wife Robin holds a grudge against the actress Kathy Najimy. I don’t, however. In fact, Kathy Najimy is part of one of the best memories of my marriage, but whenever I mention her, Robin scoffs. That’s how different our memories are of the event that caused it all. Nostalgic affection versus bitter resentment.
            It was summertime, and for Robin’s birthday we purchased tickets to the Hollywood Bowl’s Sound of Music Sing-a-Long for a large group of friends. The Hollywood Bowl is wonderful in the summer, and seems vast yet cozy. It holds more than 25,000 people, and when you are there on a summer night you feel like you are part of Los Angeles. You feel the pulse of the city, and know that besides a baseball game, nowhere else in L.A. are this many people gathering. It’s warm as the sun sets, but you have blankets ready for when the temperature drops. You are nestled snug in the hills, and if you’re high enough up you can see the illuminated Hollywood sign in the distance. The Hollywood Freeway cuts through the Cahuenga Pass to the East, and you can hear it like a distant river. Deer and coyote creep through the dark hills to the West. You may see them on your way back to your car after the show, if you tried street parking in the high neighborhoods. If you’re lucky the moon will be out, which makes Los Angeles seem perfect.
            The Sound of Music Sing-along is a hosted screening of the movie, The Sound of Music, and everyone is encouraged to dress up in costume. As the sun goes down there is also a costume contest, and then as night takes over they start the movie on a vast screen, with excellent subtitles. You sing with the songs, shout back at the picture, and they even hand out goodie bags of props to every attendee, so you can throw confetti in the air, hold up edelweiss as you sway and trade cards of your favorite things.

            For the birthday party, we designed costumes for most of our friends. Do Re Mi Fa So La Ti and Do costumes were easy, for instance.  We painted eight t-shirts with the two-letter word written on it, and then threw in an extra prop --  like tea bags hanging from a baseball cap for “Ti” for instance. We gave a plastic yellow sun hat to “Re,” a drop of golden sun.
            However, Robin went all out. After all, it was her birthday...and her undoing.
            Robin dressed as edelweiss -- head to toe. She designed a full body jump suit of lightweight astroturf, including a hood, and covered the entire suit with tiny white plastic flowers. She was a human carpet of the Austrian mountain flower. From the moment we arrived at the Bowl, she got compliments.
            Then she was spotted by some of the Bowl staff and invited to participate in the costume competition, hosted by the evening’s Master of Ceremonies, Kathy Najimy.

            “Just head down to the stage and tell them that we picked you to compete,” one staffer explained.
            I escorted Robin down from Section K, high up in the nosebleed seats, but as we got to the stage, the guards told me I could not stand and wait in the aisle. I was a fire hazard, and my costume as the note “Do” was lame and clearly not worthy, so back to the nosebleed seats I went.
            I joined our party in Section K and watched as the sun set. It was timed perfectly. Kathy Najimy went through the line of costumed fans and either found a reason to eliminate them, or asked the crowd to vote. The house lights came on just as the semi final round started. The line of competitors, which started at twenty, was down to four, and Robin was surviving every cut.
            “She’s going to win,” I announced.
            Her birthday revelers shouted loud at every “scream if you like this one” vote, and soon everyone in Section K knew to shout for Edelweiss. Our fan base grew to surrounding sections, and I felt the power of ten thousand people in the upper seats deciding that Robin had to win.
            As the twilight faded, the lights of the Hollywood Bowl lit up behind the people on stage, and shifted in different pastel hues, illuminating the bandshell behind them. They lowered the big movie screen, and The Sound of Music logo came up in bright yellow. Robin survived the semi-finals. It was down to two costumes. 
            Edelweiss Robin was up against two people who were dressed in ONE costume. They had taken a stretch of Astroturf, glued tiny hamlets, rocks, trees and rivers to it, and stuck their heads through two holes in the top. One would call out, ‘We’re the hills!” and the other would then chant, “and we’re alive!”
            Their presentation was good, but their costume was not. It came time for the final vote. Kathy Najimy said she would announce each costume, and then judge by the screams and applause.
            “And first up -- Edelwiess!” she yelled.
            Robin stepped forward, and opened her arms just as a spotlight hit her Center Stage. Her hundreds of white flowers lit up like a reflective beacon. It was dark by now, and my wife was a tiny speck on the most famous stage in Los Angeles, and 20,000 people were screaming for her. She was as big as Jay Z and bigger than Springsteen. She stood there, basking in the hot white light as thousands screamed for her. It was awesome, and I loved watching it.

            But Kathy Najimy made a mistake -- an understandable mistake, but a mistake for which Robin will never forgive her. In a music amphitheater so large there are several stations of speakers to amplify the noise as it goes back into the upper sections. It took an extra beat for Kathy’s question to make it all the way up to the back sections, and it then took a moment longer for the growing roar of the crowd to make it all the way back down to the stage, like a wave washing up and back through 20,000 people. But Kathy Najimy moved too quickly to the next contestant.
            “And who wants ‘The Hills?’” she asked, and Robin’s rivals benefitted from the roar that was still happening for her. Our roar, from way up in Section K,L,M,N, and O were hitting the stage just as Kathy switched to “The Hills.”
            She then decided, incorrectly, that “The Hills” had won.
            “The Hills” won a week-long cruise from Vancouver up through the Queen Charlotte Islands. Robin won second place, and received two free tickets to the Hollywood Bowl.
            The movie started. I saw Robin, the tiny dot, move off the stage and start the long losing trek up to the nosebleed seats. I ran down to meet her and got to her halfway and escorted her back. People were already yelling.
            “Edelweiss, you got ripped off!”
            “Edelweiss, you were the winner!”
            When we got back to our seats, I did a “shout-out” for Edelweiss and Sections K,L,M, N and O all screamed their support. It was awesome.
             The movie was great. The night was great. I was proud of Robin. I loved seeing my tiny little white dot down on the stage, her arms outstretched, as the screams of thousands rolled down the seats and across her. I loved being part of Los Angeles that night. All of that makes it a great memory for me.
            But Robin?
            When I told her I was writing this post, I asked her how she felt about that night. “Good times,” she said. “But I’m still a Bitter Betty.”
            I guess it’s like being proud of someone for winning a silver medal in the Olympics. I feel great for her, but she still remembers how close she was to gold...

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Gorneaux : Instagram Artist Douglas Gorney

Douglas Gorney is a writer, editor, ghostwriter, Internet start-up entrepreneur, marketing consultant and serious photographer, and in the past year he’s become an Instagram artist, and his work is worth examining.

            A few of his images are here on this post, but you can also go directly to: to see more of his work. The thousand words here are like the restaurant review, while his site is where you can find the actual meal.

            He lives in the Mission District of San Francisco, and as he exits his home every day he has his Android HTC smartphone with him, and a 2” by 2” frame in his head. He snaps photos of doors, gates, handles, rails, walls, windows, curbs, and garages. He likes the bright colors of the Mission, the twenty layers of paint on wood, stucco and metal, and he captures that interesting intersection where one piece of man made construction ends and the other begins.

            We often race past these details around us without noticing, but Gorney sees them whenever he steps outside, and then captures them in that small square on his Android screen. He’s always looking, and he can easily spend two hours going only three blocks, while snapping dozens of photos. What’s worth framing today? If you’re wandering in the Mission, you may see him lying on the cement sidewalk, peering at a mail slot, or examining a stucco wall for five minutes, his nose two inches from the plaster. Gorney doesn’t feel hampered by the limits of 2” by 2” frame -- he feels it both challenging and freeing. And pulling out an Android or iPhone is easy. It’s a way of seeing, and serious photographers who embrace the smartphone and the smaller frame it provides gain speed, access, flexibility and freedom from it.

            He’s engaged in urbex - urban exploration - but instead of crawling underground into the subway or climbing the outside of bridges, he goes “micro” and dives into the cracks of the city. Luckily, so far no one has confronted him, stepped on him, or opened a steel gate or window in his face. Once, at the Mission and 16th Street BART station however, an undercover SFPD police officer did grow suspicious and shadowed him for awhile. The officer let him off with a stern warning about drugs, which Gorney took in stride.

             Gorney describes himself as a minimalist, and he has been invited to be part of RSA Minimal and RSA Doors and Windows, where his work is often featured. Most minimalist photography is true abstract art -- it exists on its own, separate from the time and place where it was captured. Even the objects themselves disappear as the frame defines a new two-dimensional beauty. The time and place where it was captured no longer matter, only the resulting “discovered” art does.

            But what I like about Gorney’s work is that time and place still exist in all his photos, like a thick texture. Gorney admits that although he sometimes strives for that anonymous flatness of minimalism, you can’t help but feel the Mission District of San Francisco in his work. He loves what he calls the colorful grubbiness of his neighborhood, one of the oldest on the West Coast. Right now, the Mission is a mix of the original Hispanic neighborhood that flows with the street names -- MIssion, Valencia, Guerrero -- and the new hipster crowd who climb on Google commute buses that roll on those same streets. It’s a battle of gentrification, but this is still a place where it’s easier to add another spray of red stucco, another layer of pink paint, and another piece of blue trim rather than stripping it all bare and starting new. That would be like stripping away history, and it wouldn’t feel right.

            The images he finds are thick with those years of paint, which seem to add thickness to the photo itself. I feel the neighborhood around the edges; I sense people are walking past, just a foot out of frame, and that someone will walk through just after he snaps the photo. He also goes through stages: "X" patterns, mail slots, small windows, numbers, then blues and now reds. On his page, you can see where he finished with one inspiration and then moved on to the next.

            In terms of his work-flow, he used to feel compelled to take the photo and then instantly post, but now he’s slowing the process down. He collects images in the field, downloads them at home, and then tends to use the applications Pixl’r Express or Snapseed to reframe, crop, adjust color and saturation, and then carefully selects the ones worthy to post on-line.

            He also feels his overall Instagram feed must have as much balance as each photo he creates. A photo is just one 2x2 shot that he fusses over, but the Instagram feed also shows his entire body of work, which he then must work on as well. The dozens of images flowing past must have the same balance as any individual photo, so the resulting whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It’s one of the quirks of Instagram, or any Internet feed -- as he adds to it, Gorney is forced to constantly analyze and edit a retrospective of his own work.            
                           Besides the RSA groups listed above that like him, Gorney recommends the Instagram groups Candy Minimal and Sundoors. He also likes MissUnderground, who is an urban explorer who snaps wonderful images of the London Tube. She has picked one formal theme -- the Tube -- and she never varies.            

             Calling all my cinematography, photography and fine artist friends! Let me know what you think of www.instagram/gorneaux and let’s get a dialogue going about his work, and then let’s discuss yours. I know you’re doing this too and that you have favorites of your own!

Thursday, November 14, 2013

A San Francisco Ghost Story

For a brief period of time, I lived in a house in San Francisco that had two ghosts who appeared late at night. I was haunted by one of these specters that frequented the attic, which had pitched walls and ran almost the entire length of the house, and was also my bedroom.
            There’s a famous photograph of a row of Victorian homes in San Francisco, The Painted Ladies, right on Alamo Square Park. The house I lived in is the old Victorian mansion on the corner of Steiner and Fulton Streets, but since the house hadn’t been gentrified yet, it never made it into any of those famous photos. The owner lived on the middle main floor, while she rented out the top two floors to Monica Stevens, who then rented out the four other bedrooms to a cadre of friends -- Steven Adams, Michael Ahearn, and others. The girl tenants would get the rooms on the main floor, while guys who rented got one of the two rooms one flight up, in the attic.

            In your 20‘s you are on the move, cycling through jobs, school, traveling, and romances, so there was often a room on one of the floors open for rent. It was a carousel of young adults in their 20’s, coming and going, who were all part of an extended tribe.
            This was over twenty years ago, so rent was cheaper, especially by the room. I remember it was well under $1000 a month. Rent for any one-bedroom in San Francisco in any neighborhood is $3000 a month now, so I can’t imagine what rent for a Victorian on Alamo Square would be today. Back then, Hayes Valley was in transition, so there were hip restaurants and coffee shops, but car alarms were often going off after 9 p.m., and there was yelling in the streets.

            The apartment itself was fun and funky.  It had high ceilings with electric wall heaters, thick coats of paint on ancient molding, and long staircases that led up to small rooms with squeaky doors and loose doorknobs. When you walked in the front door you’d climb twenty steps to get to the first landing, where there was a plastered-over hole in the wall molding. There was once a wooden lever that filled that hole, and when you yanked on it, it pulled a metal band that would unlatch the locked door down below, so you didn’t have to walk down twenty steps to let someone in.
            I remember seeing those levers in old San Francisco homes when I was very young, but they’re gone now, and now the plastered over holes and the rusty mechanisms inside probably don’t even exist any more. But the ghosts were still there. And when they were in the world of the living, they probably yanked on the levers all the time to let in visitors and loved ones ringing the bell twenty steps below.
            Monica’s place had good parties, and cocktails on Friday afternoons before the fun began. The English Beat, and The Smiths were on the turntable. Yes, turntable. You get the idea.
            I had already moved to Los Angeles to attend film school, but I would return to San Francisco when I couldn’t find work, or because I couldn’t fully commit to life in Los Angeles yet, and I would end up living in the city again for three to four months at a stretch. Twice I got lucky and got a room at Chez Monica.
             For seven months I had the upper room on the East side of the building, overlooking downtown and the bay. It was a small room, but it had a big window and you could step outside on the roof and stare at the city, and even climb up on the pitched roof and read a book -- until the cold drove you back inside.
            During another brief time the attic room came available for rent. It was the largest room in the house, but it was not high in demand, because of the rumor that it was haunted. Both men who had lived in the room before me had encountered ghosts.
            Steven Adams lived in the room the longest, and was most plagued by the haunting. He recounted how there was a malevolent male spirit in the room who would throw books at him while he slept, and who would hold him down and try to suffocate him.
            I heard that Steven and Monica and others had once held a séance in the house, in an effort to appease the spirit, but I don’t think that it worked.
            There would sometimes be raucous parties in the house that went late into the night, with couples crouching in corners having heart-to-heart conversations, or people arguing politics in the kitchen over beer and cigarettes. It was after these parties that the other ghost would appear.
            Michael Ahearn, who also lived in the upper attic room for a while, said the floating image of an older man with gray hair and a beard would appear on the staircase or at the entrance to his room and block his way. The specter would stand there pointing and silently shouting, as if scolding him for his behavior.
            Therefore, I was excited when the attic room was free on my next rotation through the house. Both Steven and Michael casually warned me about the ghosts. I shouldn’t put books on the built-in bookshelf right under the window -- the ghost would knock them down on you. And leave the window open. The noises of the traffic would keep me awake and the room would get cold, but I’d have peace.
            The room had pitched sidewalls because of the roof, so there was no choice but to put your bed in the middle of the room and against the west wall of the house -- under the window. And right under the small window was the one shelf built into the wall.

            I put books there, of course, and I waited. Nothing happened. Several weeks passed, and my room was warm and uneventful, and I forgot about all the stories.
            Then, one night, all six books landed on my head while I was sleeping. I assumed there had been an earthquake. Growing up in California, you know not to hang a painting or a mirror over your bed or headboard, and the same goes for books on a bookshelf, so I blamed myself ... until I found out there had been no quake.
            I put the books on the shelf again, and they were swept onto my head again the very next night. That’s when I felt the twinge. I started hearing creaks, and started to feel I wasn’t alone in the room at night. I stacked the books on the floor after that, and played my clock radio after sunset.
            Then the night came.
            I was sleeping and then had a dream that someone was sitting on my chest, until I realized I wasn’t dreaming. I was awake. I tried to sit up, but I couldn’t because the person then pushed me down even harder. I opened my eyes and saw nothing except the empty room, but I felt that someone was there. He was male, young, in his 20’s, around the same age as me, and he was enjoying crushing the air out of me. When he knew I was awake and scared he laughed, in fact, but I couldn’t hear it except in my mind. I tried to yell but couldn’t -- eventually I shook him off and he disappeared. I turned on all the lights and paced for a while, and then finally got back to sleep.
            From then on, I slept with the window open and I didn’t encounter the same problem again. I mentioned it to the other people in the house, and they confirmed that I had met the same ghost who bothered Steven so often, but for me it was only once.
            I’ve always loved ghost stories, so I did some research on the phenomenon, and it turns out that the haunting I experienced is the most common haunting there is. In fact, it’s so common there may even be a scientific explanation for it.
            Sleep paralysis is a phenomenon in which people, either when falling asleep or wakening, temporarily experience an inability to move. You are in between waking and sleep, usually disrupted REM sleep, which is when you dream. While sleeping, your body is smart enough to have muscle atonia, or muscle weakness, which is what prevents you from acting out your dreams. It’s a good thing we have it; otherwise we would all be sleepwalking every night. Sleepwalking, in fact, is when muscle atonia hasn’t kicked in, and people start wandering around while in REM sleep.
            The opposite is when muscle atonia lingers too long at the end of a dream, and that becomes sleep paralysis. You are waking up in the middle of a dream, before you have fully recovered your ability to move.
            Your dreaming brain is very good at creating imagery to explain outside stimulus, which is why when you are dreaming and someone shakes you, you often incorporate that shaking into your dream. You feel a tug on your arm, you look over and your brain creates an image from Star Trek, let’s say, of Spock grabbing your arm. Only after you emerge from REM sleep into wakefulness do you realize it’s your wife shaking you and not Leonard Nimoy.
            So what does your brain do when it’s still dreaming with protective muscle atonia, but then is suddenly awake? It creates a dream image to explain why it’s temporarily paralyzed, and we create an image in our brains of someone or something holding us down.

            It’s so common that it’s called the “Old Hag Syndrome,” and people would say that “the old hag visited you” when you experienced this feeling. There are paintings and sculptures through the centuries of demons and monsters and hags sitting on people’s chests and paralyzing them in their sleep.

            There are a lot of explanations to why you get sleep paralysis -- most of them having to do with difficulty sleeping or exhaustion, which is when your brain chemicals go wacky. Being active, sleep-deprived, alcohol-drinking men in our 20’s, this answers some questions about our mutual sleep paralysis, but not all.
            Why did Steven and I experience paralysis only in that room? Why did Steven experience it more often than me? Why did our brains create the same image, of a young angry man who was gleeful as he punished us? How does that explain the books falling on our heads? How does it explain the angry older man who would shout at Michael on party nights when he tried to bring girls upstairs?
            There have also been studies that show that many hauntings have been linked to a build-up of carbon dioxide in homes.  When there is too much CO2, it’s poisonous and it can create hallucinations. In older homes it’s more common. Because heat rises, I speculate that that rising carbon dioxide rose with the warm air and collected in higher concentrations in the attic, the last room in the house. When you opened the window, the cold clean air would enter, and the noises would stop.
            This explains more -- perhaps that is why just one room was haunted in the house.
             At the same time there are still enough questions about my experience in the house to make me unsure about what really was going on. My next step in this investigation is to research, if possible, who lived in the house over the years. Perhaps an angry young man and a scolding older gentleman were previous tenants.
            I will keep you posted. If you have any thoughts or information, let me know!