Tuesday, December 6, 2022

Welcome to Periodgraph

Thank you for stopping by. This former blog now serves as the landing page for Periodgraph Press, an independent publishing company in San Francisco. Hopefully, we will have a better website soon. But for now, all of our effort is going into the finishing touches on the company’s first book: Training is Bitter: Reflections on Life, Effort, and Acrobatics With Master Trainer Lu Yi. Stay tuned for a release within the next few weeks.

In the meantime, you can check out the flap copy below, or enjoy this fun-fact about our name: Periodgraph comes from a phrase spoken over magazine edits. Two people working on Etc. Magazine at City College in 2012 were discussing an article — reading possible combinations aloud while including punctuation. One of them said a sentence, followed by “period, graph,” meaning the end of the sentence and the start of a new paragraph. The phrase stuck.

—Devin Holt, founder of Periodgraph Press

About Training is Bitter:

Hailed as everything from “the father of modern acrobatics” to the “rabble-rouser of Chinese circus,” Master Trainer Lu Yi brings his trademark humor and acrobatic philosophy to his own life story in Training is Bitter.

He recalls a nearly seven-decade career of incredible feats and bitter challenges. At just eleven years old, Lu Yi faced cruel methods and harsh beatings from the coach of his first acrobatic troupe. He went on to become a celebrated performer known for acrobatic creativity who invented a number of tricks—including one that, as far as he knows, has never been replicated. He toured the world as a star acrobat, served as artistic director of both the Nanjing Acrobatic Troupe and the San Francisco Circus Center, and established the first Chinese Acrobatics training program in the United States. Through engaging first-hand accounts and detailed historical essays, Training is Bitter, written with former student Devin Holt, offers a picture of a man who inspired generations of students to endure the hard, bitter training necessary to perform on the world’s biggest circus stages.

“If you’ve watched a circus in the last twenty years, you’ve seen Master Lu Yi’s work. He changed circus in North America and Australia in profound and beautiful ways. He was also my teacher and a dear friend. Training is Bitter gives you a taste of Lu Yi’s philosophy and why he is beloved by performers around the world.”

—JEFF RAZ, former Cirque du Soleil star and author of The Secret Life of Clowns

Friday, July 22, 2016

Go See Ghostbusters This Weekend or the Terrorists Win: Why White Dudes Should Support Leslie Jones

A sad-face emoticon popped up on my phone recently. It came with a text from my girlfriend, who wanted to know if I could step out of work to talk. When I called, she answered the phone crying.

“It was just so mean,” she told me, sniffling back tears at the end of her story.

My girlfriend works as a dancer, and her picture had been used in an article about an event where her company performed. Press coverage usually makes an artist happy, but my girlfriend made the ultimate internet mistake: she read the comments. The nasty, mean-spirited ones about her body that follow women around on the internet like emotional drones, lobbed by people far removed from their consequences.

Leslie Jones quit Twitter a day or so later, the victim of a well-publicized campaign of racist harassment.

And that’s when I realized I would have to go see the new Ghostbusters, no matter how bad the trailer, or that hideous theme song remake, made it sound. It was my civic duty as a non racist — otherwise known as decent — white person. But the Facebook feed wasn’t so thrilled.

My cheesy attempt at reparations was met with derision by a family member, who equated my newfound support for Ghostbusters with a lack of support for free speech. He called me out for contributing to that current political bugaboo “P.C. culture.” The suspension of Milo Yiannopoulos, Jones' heckler-in-chief, from Twitter showed a clear double standard, I was told. And besides, actors and public figures are fair game for trolling: “people who can’t take the heat should get out of the kitchen.”

Most people wouldn’t cry free speech to defend the rights of assholes to call black women apes, but my family member’s core message wasn’t that far from the mainstream. The Atlantic and The New Yorker have both featured lengthy articles that worry if today’s youngsters might be too sensitive. One of my professors at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism said the entire class should read Brett Easton Ellis’ Vanity Fair essay Generation Wuss, in which he dubs millennials over-sensitive, passive-aggressive sissies. (Confidential to Vanity Fair, and cq: typo, graf 6, final sentence, get at me if you need a ce).

There is some truth here. We live in a time when people are constantly asserting the right to define their own identities, and keeping up with current standards does take occasional self reflection — witness Larry Wilmore’s surprise on The Nightly Show when he learned that “tranny” is considered a slur.

But a simple solution exists for the P.C.-beleaguered: just don’t be an asshole. Treat people how you would like… well, you know that one. And remember that sometimes words really do have consequences. Free speech rights have never been absolute; think fire in a crowded theater or threats of violence.

Sure, the consequences of nasty rhetoric might seem far away from behind a computer screen, but they were real enough when my girlfriend called crying, and you can bet Jones knew her career would suffer if she stayed away from Twitter too long — witness her swift return.

People may argue that Twitter posts and internet comments should never lead someone to cry, but the “I ain’t afraid of no trolls sticks-and-stones” argument ignores the real problem. Jones' case exposes a vile, racist underbelly of American culture — and that is what we need to stand up against. As Ijeoma Oluo points out in The Guardian, Jones was deliberately targeted because of her race, gender and failure to live up to traditional standards of beauty. Women, and especially women of color, are attacked more frequently in the public sphere simply because of who they are. This constant online terrorizing leads to a world where “free speech” really means more speech for me, because I’m better at hogging the microphone. 

And that’s why I’m urging all decent white people to hand the microphone — and the prominence that comes with success — to Leslie Jones, and a corny Ghostbusters remake this weekend. Because I don’t want to live in a world where the trolls, or the terrorists, win. 

I’ll see you there on my next day off, posted up with some stale popcorn, my girlfriend and a happy-face emoticon.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Dia de los Muertos, Weeping for the Mission and Don Cooksey

The word on Mission streets this year was that Dia de los Muertos is officially played out. The Mexican holiday/arts and culture celebration used to be one of the few times that people in the Mission forgot about neighborhood politics and partied together. Burners painted their faces, gave puppet shows and danced in the park, while working class families and long-time Mission residents built altars in honor of loved ones who had passed away, and everyone came together for the street procession at dusk.

Not so this year. The Examiner ran a front page article about neighborhood concerns over how large the event had grown, which featured the rather unfortunate quote, "They just don't want white people involved." SFist encouraged its readers to "try not to ruin Day of the Dead this year," and, most importantly, the Mission Cultural Center's art show for the holiday focused on themes of eviction and gentrification. It was titled "Weeping for the Life and Death of the Mission District," and the opening was held at the same time as the procession.

It was sad to see something that used to be a fun, low-key neighborhood event get caught up in land-use politics, but it wasn't surprising. This is, after all, San Francisco. And the complainers did have a point. Rene Yanez, a long-time Mission resident and one of the key figures behind bringing the Dia de los Muertos event to San Francisco, is currently fighting an Ellis Act eviction. 

But none of that stopped us from going. Quite frankly, we had lost too much this year not to go. 

We stopped by the park early to avoid the crowds, where we built a small altar. It could have been the daylight hours, or because some artists chose not to exhibit this year, but the altars seemed smaller and less impressive than in the past. Maybe all of the best people were over at the Mission Cultural Center. Their opening proved to be the most memorable part of the evening. That's not doing it justice. It was brilliant. 

There were over 50 artists who created altars for Weeping. One of the most intense was a monument to the hundreds of women who've gone missing in Ciudad Juarez. Their faces lined the wall in the small room where the altar was placed, and a documentary played on a screen at the back of the room. Other altars dealt with issues of class, loss and culture, and some were simply well-planned traditional altars in the style of the holiday.

The most memorable, were the ones dealing with the ongoing class struggles of the Mission. An entire row of altars was dedicated to businesses and cultural icons of the neighborhood that have closed, or been forced to move, in recent years. These remembered places like Discolandia, Modern Times Bookstore and Encantada Gallery. City College of San Francisco was honored with an altar due to its ongoing accreditation struggles, and an altar created by Linnette Morales and Claudia Arenas used prominent symbols of the new economy to mourn the "tech takeover" of the neighborhood. It featured a skeleton sporting the fuzzy, pink mustache of a Lyft car, a cutout of a Google bus running over a street vendor, and a traditional alter candle that had a slightly pixelized image of Mark Zuckerberg's face.

After seeing the exhibit, Russell Howze and I walked down 24th St. to get back to my car. The streets were crowded, and the event was clearly much larger than it used to be. Russell observed that instead of a crazy march with torches through Balmy Alley, it was now a horde of bridge and tunnel folks lined up to watch. 

Is the event's popularity really such a bad thing? 

Not necessarily. Just because something is popular doesn't mean it isn't good – things often become popular because they're good. But there is something kind of unseemly about watching so many white, upwardly-mobile people celebrate a Mexican holiday, at the same time that their presence is pricing out the artists and Latino population responsible for the festivities.

The crowded streets of 24th proved too much for us, and we cut through an empty Balmey Alley to get back across Potrero. When we reached my car, I opened the trunk and pulled out a fuzzy pink mustache, which I attached to the front of my car with zip ties and carabiners. It was almost time to go to work.

I went to the park to remember some of the people and things I lost this year. A sampling of them are memorialized below, in no particular order.


CELLspace was a collectively run community arts center on Bryant St. I was a member from the fall of 2000 until the spring of 2007. During that time I lived in a small box in the ceiling, sat through hundreds of hours of ritual theater, called 911 more than once, and had some of the best times of my life. I also worked like a dog. The story of the rise and fall of Cell is told in a previous post on this blog, "An Obituary for CELLspace." To remember Cell, I brought an old T-shirt, and Russell Howze brought some "Long Live Cellspace" flyers.

Juan Cardenas

Juan was one of the nicest people who ever worked at the Circus Center. His hugs, smiles and handshakes were genuine, and he was always there with an encouraging word for a struggling performer. I typically ran into him on those late nights at the circus school when I would stick around to practice my act for upcoming gigs. He never once complained about having to clean around me. His death at the hands of a hit-and-run driver was tragic, and criminal.  I didn't have anything to leave for Juan, but Dian drew a lovely card for us to place on our altar in his memory.

Don Cooksey

When I was a kid, I thought of Don Cooksey as an eternal bachelor – he was always at our house instead of his own. Don loved pizza, had an intense stare, and played a mean hand of spades. In later years, after I grew up and moved away, Cooksey started a family of his own, but he'll always be a part of ours too. I didn't have much to remember Don either, but I wrote his name down on a piece of paper, and taped a Marlboro cigarette to it.

Victor Ayala

Victor was a good friend, a skilled electrician, and someone I used to call "the most feared man at CELLspace." He was famous for coming down from his room at 3 a.m. and screaming at event producers about the mess they made. Victor was a bit of a nut, be he had a sweet side too – I used to always talk him into taking me on late-night Burger King runs after a long night house managing at Cell. To remember Vic, Russell brought some flyers with his photo, and I brought a pack of Marlboros. Hopefully, he will share them with Cooksey.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

An Obituary for CELLspace

CELLspace, community arts center, closed its doors at the end of 2012.

During the late '90s and early aughts, there was no better place to see the Mission District’s artistic, multicultural vibe than CELLspace.  San Francisco prankster Chicken John was known to decorate the 10,000 square foot warehouse as a Las Vegas casino; the Flaming Lotus Girls created their first large scale fire installations in the CELLspace metal shop, and during Carnaval, the space would burst at the seams from the ritual drumming, colorful rattling costumes and sheer number of teenagers involved in groups like Loco Bloco and Danza Azteca.

Michael Sturtz was so impressed by CELLspace that he named his industrial arts school, The Crucible, after their art gallery.  

“The name was inspired by the Crucible Steel Gallery, which was the CELLspace gallery at the time,” he said.  

Burning Man’s Arts Advocate and Community Events Producer Steven Raspa held his first interactive art exhibit in that gallery.  "Cell has played a vital and significant role in the underground creative community in the Bay Area for many years,” he said, adding that he could recall, “numerous mad-capped happenings that defied explanation.”

Most people who went there, went to those mad-capped happenings: all-night dance parties that began with a yoga lesson and ended with the Extra Action Marching Band, literary events with David Byrne, beats from Bassnectar when he was DJ Lorin, breakdancing competitions, mechanical bull riding, hip hop theater, live chainsaw massacres, puppet circus suppers, blindfolded transcendental meditation workshops, and youth hip hop nights where gang members from the Nortenos, Surenos, Westmob and Big Block all danced together.

And it all began with a window in the bathroom.

Jonathan Youtt, Justin Bondi and Tryntje Rapalje were living in a dusty, illegal unit attached to a warehouse screen printing business, in what was then called the North East Mission Industrial Zone.  It was a lively apartment, with live music, puppet shows and independent film nights.  In the quieter moments, they would gaze out the bathroom window and watch the T-shirts dry.  They would imagine a better world.  A world with art.  A world with community.  

It was 1996 in San Francisco.  A time when you could still find a room in the Mission for $300, and the dotcom boom hadn’t turned empty warehouses into prime real estate.  When the screen printing business moved out, the dreamers moved in.  They signed the papers on the Spring Equinox.  

The early years at Cell were marked by chaos and construction.  Dave X was known to test his flamethrowers behind the building on Florida St., Jojo La Plume created an open craft loft in the homemade mezzanine, and the Sisterz of the Underground offered free breakdancing lessons for aspiring b-girls on the main space floor.  On some days, you might have seen all three happening at the same time.

This writer first walked through the doors in the fall of 2000, looking for a place to practice juggling.  Tamara Li, one of only three employees — in a space open from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. — said, “for something like that, you could just pick a couple of chores off the chore board.”

Jonathan Youtt pointed out that CELLspace was never just about Burners.  When some local youth were discovered painting graffiti on the outside of the building, they were encouraged.  Those walls later hosted many great street artists, like Swoon, Spie, and Joel Bergner.  Joel Bergner painted his first outdoor mural, “De Frontera a Frontera,” on 2050 Bryant, for which he won Best Public Mural from Precita Eyes in 2004. 

“We were the only community space for a while that would even touch youth [programming], and youth hip hop shows,” Youtt said.  “We provided a place for the Third Eye Movement, United Playaz, and other groups to organize against Prop 21,” a 2000 ballot initiative that made it easier to try juveniles as adults.    

But it wasn’t all playa dust and b-boys.

The caretaker system — where members traded “20 hours” of work in exchange for cheap rent upstairs — led to burnout, and monetary theft.  The space was run by collective consensus, which involved painfully long meetings.  One irate member could freeze decision making, and some meetings ended in screaming matches and tears.  And there were constant problems with the city.  The building at 2050 Bryant St. was never meant to be a public space; bringing it up to code proved to be a nightmare.  CELLspace was temporarily closed by the police or fire departments so many times that some members lost count.  

During these shutdowns, CELLspace had to look outside of its doors to bring in money, and that led to an expansion.  Jonathan Youtt convinced the owner of an empty warehouse and parking lot out back to let Cell have fundraisers there.  A group of members envisioned a flea market for the Mission, run with the CELLspace ethos in mind. This writer insisted it would never work.

The Mission Village Market grew to be Cell’s biggest moneymaker, and rivaled the Alemany Flea Market as a destination for vendors.  Mission Urban Arts — a Cell-founded after school program — used the extra building to teach breakdancing, DJing and other skills to Mission youth, and the bike-education group The Bike Kitchen taught their first free workshops at the Mission Village Market. 

With two buildings, in-house youth programming, official 501c3 non-profit status, and an eventual Place of Entertainment permit in 2005, the once kooky warehouse space had grown up.  But as CELLspace became more established, the culture changed.  The space relied less on volunteers, artists and live-in caretakers, and more on paid staff.  Collective consensus gave way to weekly staff meetings, and monthly board meetings, as nonprofit status required by law.  

During this transition, most of the original members left.

“In the '90s it was, live there for nothing, work your ass off,” said Russell Howze, a longtime CELLspace member.  But by the time Howze quit volunteering in 2005 he said, “the culture of making art for participation’s sake was pretty much gone.”

Despite changing the guard, the space appeared to be thriving.  

Cell’s 10th birthday party in 2006 was attended by a who’s who of Mission nonprofit workers, and politicians like Tom Ammiano and Chris Daly.  But later that year, CELLspace lost its second building to make way for a housing development, and was forced to close the Mission Village Market.  Cell had to move all of it’s programs into one building, and the needs of the competing programs clashed.  Tension grew between the events department and the staff who ran the youth program, leading to subtle accusations of racism on both sides.    

Grants helped to cover the loss of income from the market, but a lot of the money was wasted.  After one of the larger grants was received, the staff were given cell phones (no pun intended) for conducting CELLspace business.  Within one year, they would have no business to conduct.

“Essentially, large amounts of money were mismanaged, one grant in particular from DCYF (Department of Children Youth and Families). Money was spent on things it shouldn’t have been, there were gang dynamics in place — it became a high risk situation in some of the decisions that were made, programmatically and financially,” said one former employee who preferred to remain anonymous.  

In early 2007, employees who argued about the direction the space was going were let go, beginning with this writer.  Later that year, paychecks for employees of Def-Ed, the Adult Art Education Program and Mission Urban Arts started bouncing.  After months of assurances, waiting and mystery from the admin, everyone was laid off.  Classes were cancelled, events business fell off, and a locked door at 2050 Bryant St. became the norm.  

Helen McGrath, the former Programs Director, was heartbroken to tell the 200 kids in Mission Urban Arts that the program would end, and didn’t want to let CELLspace close.  McGrath, Lizbett Calleros, and former Board President Dorian Johnson reached out to older members and formed a small coalition of volunteers to save CELLspace.  

“Dave X and Dorian Johnson really gave it a go,” said Howze, who also came back to volunteer after the crash.  But in 2009, the fire department told CELLspace that even though they had a Place of Entertainment permit, they would now need a separate Place of Assembly permit.  That meant construction, and Cell didn’t have the money, or the volunteer base to get it done.

The space limped along for years, but by the end of 2012, the landlord was fed up with Cell’s inability to pay the rent on time.  2050 Bryant St. was given to new management and officially became Inner Mission on January 1st 2013.  Inner Mission is the first ever Bcorp entertainment business.  A Bcorp is a new type of corporation that places a higher emphasis on sustainability, ethical sourcing and equitable treatment of employees, but still operates on a profit model.  

Russell Howze and Jonathan Youtt saw the transfer of CELLspace from a non-profit community center to a for profit entertainment business, as another symbol of the Mission district’s gentrification, and the decline of the arts culture in San Francisco.

“In the long run, the spirit had moved to Oakland,” Youtt said.

Dave X was less forgiving.  He felt that the space could, and would have survived, if more people had pulled together to finish the final construction project for the POA — an enclosed exit in the back.

“In the end it went down not because it was getting shut down by the cops or whatever, but it closed because of our own incompetence,” he said.  

CELLspace is survived by a warehouse arts culture that moved to Oakland, and a crew of former volunteers and employees, who, despite being spit on, shot at, bankrupted and worked until they couldn’t see straight, will miss it dearly.

CELLspace will be remembered with a private memorial service on March 21st — which would have been Cell's 17th birthday — at Inner Mission, 2050 Bryant St.  7 p.m. until whenever.

Post your corrections, remembrances, rants, raves, diatribes and essays in the comments.

Thanks for reading,
—Devin Holt

Monday, January 21, 2013

6 Black Power songs (and one bonus video) for MLK Day

In his lectures at City College and SF State, music historian and author Ricky Vincent likes to point out that, "you can learn about the ideas and arguments of black identity by listening to the music."   So today -- in honor of the MLK Holiday -- we're taking a little trip into civil rights music history.

First up: Say it Loud -- I'm Black and I'm Proud -- James Brown
In 1968, civil rights activists were running out of national leaders.  Huey P. Newton was in prison (the case was later dismissed), Malcom X had been assassinated, and on April 4th, Dr. King was shot while standing on his motel balcony.  In this environment, black musicians and artists became de-facto spokesmen for civil rights.  James Brown stepped up to the plate with, Say it Loud -- I'm Black and I'm Proud!  

For more on this, check out the excellent documentary The Night James Brown Saved Boston.  But for now, let's just watch James do what he did best:

2. The Revolution Will Not be Televised -- Gil Scott Heron
Perhaps one of the most borrowed phrases in hip hop history, the poem has been sampled, remixed and referenced by artists like KRS One, Public Enemy, Common and even Snoop Dogg.

Gil Scott Heron's message of non-commercialism and commitment to the cause is still relevant today, perhaps even more so.  "The revolution will not be brought to you by Xerox, in 4 parts without commercial interruptions..."

3. The Message -- Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five
James Brown's legacy didn't end in the 60s.  He was also a direct inspiration for the artists who created hip hop.  Pioneers like Kool Herc rapped over James Brown's funky beats, and the original b-boys danced to the "breakdown" section of James Brown records.  But until The Message dropped in 1982, hip hop was known more for rocking parties than political consciousness.  

Ironically, Flash himself never wanted to do the song.  He thought the beat was too slow, the gritty street tales were too depressing, and that people wouldn't dance to it.  According to Dan Charnas in The Big Payback, the The Message was conceived by Sylvia Robinson at Sugar Hill Records, who did an end run around Flash to Melle Mel when he turned her down.

4. You Must Learn -- KRS One and Boogie Down Productions
While he never received the mainstream recognition that Public Enemy did, KRS One was an important figure in the early days of conscious hip hop.  The Temple of Hip Hop founder is considered by many -- including Grandmaster Caz -- to be the greatest live emcee of all time.  Known as "The Teacher," among hip hop aficionados, his raps focus on storytelling and education, but still rock the house.

5. Fight the Power -- Public Enemy
No way could this list be complete without a shout to PE!  While they got in a little hot water over some of Proff Griff's comments about Jews (he later said the tape was doctored), the group defined the political hip hop sound throughout the 80s and 90s.  Chuck D played the professor, Flava Flav mocked the minstrels of old, and Griff brought that militant feel to their stage shows.  

These days Chuck D is known more for his books -- and Flava more for his tv show -- but here they are at the height of their fame.  

6. The Coup -- Dig it
Ok, I admit it, I added this one partly to get some Bay Area up in here.  But the city that brought you the Black Panthers is well served by Boots Riley and company.  Known for funky hooks, marxist lyrics and killer DJ Pam the Funktress, The Coup proves that not all hip hop on the west side focuses on guns, drugs and misogyny.  Here they are with a track from their first album, Kill the Landlord.  Tell 'em Boots!

Bonus video:  I Have a Dream
And, of course, the one ring to rule them all.  If you've never seen the whole thing, it's worth all 17 minutes.  Rest in Power Dr. King.

Did I miss something?  Let me know in the comments section.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

A Curmudgeon's Guide to Burning Man

Are you sick of new age hula hoopers rambling about theme camps and playa dust? Rolling your eyes at all those EPIC Burning Man posts?  Recently, my favorite grumpy lesbian asked me to explain the desert cult people.  According to her, “they get that sickeningly glitter pony glow in their eyes and revert to ambiguous fluffy descriptions like ‘it’s just the playa man, everyone is happy and lovely’--BARF!”

So for all you grumpity grumps out there, here is the straight poop on Burning Man.

The Man
A very large stickman.  Gets burned on Saturday.  This means something, or maybe it doesn’t.  Fun times.

The Playa
The festival site.  A vast expanse of dust and sunshine in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada.  Hot during the day, cold at night, and prone to four hour dust storms.  Imagine you’re in the worst place you’ve ever been camping.  Now go and look for somewhere much, much worse.  You might end up here.

Attendees, or “participants.”  Burners come in all shapes and sizes, but lean heavily towards Wonder Bread.  If I had to guess, I would say the average person at Burning Man is a thirty something white male that didn’t party enough in college and spends the rest of his year chained to a keyboard.

Buying, selling, and all corporate advertising are strictly prohibited at Burning Man, with two exceptions.  The Center Camp Cafe has coffee, and ice is sold in a few places.  This might bring you closer to your neighbors, or it might make you really, really wish you had remembered the toilet paper.  

Sex, Drugs, and Techno
If you don’t care about things like basic hygiene or sleep this will be the best part.  For the true curmudgeon, sexual relations at Burning Man will be the same as anywhere--everyone else will be having a lot of it.  And if you don’t like techno you better get some bad-ass earplugs, or spend all week at Death Guild Thunderdome.

The Art
Going to Burning Man for the art is kind of like reading Playboy for the articles.  Playboy really does have good articles, but we all know you just wanted to see Kim Basinger naked.  

Burners love to give everything a cute name.  It makes life easier and can turn sitting in traffic into a spiritual experience.  Which is good--because come Sunday, that’s where your ass will be.  Sitting in traffic.  Oh, excuse me, Exodus.  

Common Terms
Every community has it’s lingo.  Here are a few things you might hear and what they mean.

Black Rock City = Yet another name for the festival site.

Radical Self Reliance =  Bring your own stuff.

The Gift Economy =  Give that stuff away to people who didn’t bring their own stuff.  

MOOP =  Matter Out Of Place  Trash, basically.

Is this your first burn? =  Pretty sure I’m cooler than you.

Is your back sore? =  Would you like a massage?

Would you like a massage? =  I want to sleep with you.

Are your legs sore? =  I’m a creepy middle aged guy with no pants.

What not to do
I’m all for letting your curmudgeon flag fly, but it won’t win you many friends at "the burn." Avoid asking questions like:  
Why is it ok to sell ice, but not water--what about water that used to be ice?
Why would I pay 300+ dollars and volunteer at an event thrown by a for profit corporation?
When was the last time you washed that?  

You might be tempted to point out that bringing a crapload of drugs, water, and your car to the desert is fun, but has very little to do with “survival.”  Or that dubstep sounds like two robots taking a shit.  Or that dancing is defined as “moving rhythmically to music” and therefore very little dancing happens at Burning Man.  Don’t do this if you want to get laid.

What’s the point?
Why endure massive dust storms, six hour traffic jams, and a third of the Bay Area’s douche bag population?  Why drag a week’s worth of water, food, and clothes to one of the world’s least hospitable campsites?  The truth is, there are as many reasons as participants.  But where else can you find a free coffee shop that will only serve you if you get spanked, ride a giant flaming scorpion or play in an abandoned shipwreck in the middle of the desert?  I go because Burning Man reminds me that all art--like life--is temporary.  So you better enjoy it while you can.

See you on the Playa,

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Sneaking into Outside Lands

“Most of them flicks I can’t recommend, but back then half the fun was sneaking in”
--Boots Riley


"Are you a construction worker or something?"  The guy was asking too many questions, and I was eyeballing a sharp pair of pliers and yellow reflector jacket.  I pass on the pliers but take the jacket.
"No, I'm a writer.  I need this stuff for a project."
"I need to ask you one question."
Oh boy.
"Should I keep taking Creative Writing classes?"
Should I come clean?  Explain that I’m not a “real” writer, but a chronically underemployed circus performer with a blog?  No, that will only lead to more questions.  I’ll have to tell him about the SF Circus Center, why I don’t do acrobatics anymore, and will fail to explain the difference between juggling and object manipulation.  If it goes on long enough he’ll ask if I've ever done it with any "hot contortionist girls."  I hate that conversation--sometimes I stay home just to avoid it.

Still, his Creative Writing aspirations lingered in the air--like a piece of dust waiting to clog up my hard drive.  He looked like a younger me, wondering if I should really go to Circus School.
“Yes, of course,” I tell him. “Why not?”

                                  __________          __________          __________

The idea of sneaking into Outside Lands came--like so many bad ideas--from shooting the bull in a coffeeshop.  I often toss out writing ideas to my friend Russell, and if his ears perk up, I elaborate.  I didn’t want to go all Commando over the fence, so I started staking out the park when the signs went up, thinking of an old Escapologist motto, "You're not going to escape by being stronger than the ropes, you're going to escape by knowing more about what's going on than they do."  

I would go on foot, or take late night drives through the park-- assessing entrances, exits, and weak spots.  Security was out on my first trip, almost a week before the show.  They were friendly guys, wearing yellow, orange, or red windbreakers.
“We’re here so people know we’re not stealing their park, we’re just borrowing it for a while,” one of them told me.  
“Are you guys hiring?”
“The company, -------- is always hiring, and they’ll take just about anybody.”  Hmm.

On Thursday, I set some rules for myself:  No property damage, no wrestling if I got caught, and definitely no resisting arrest.  I would sneak in on wit, brains, and shadows--or not at all.  I left the house around 6:30pm for a recon mission, but  I packed a bag with the essentials--just in case.  I took my yellow reflector jacket, my red security-ish windbreaker, 2 bottles of water, a blanket, a sandwich, and a pen and paper.  I forgot my toothbrush.


I walked into the park alone with my bag feeling like a secret agent.  I was Chuck Norris rescuing POW’s, Denzel taking on kidnappers, or Mark Whalberg bringing down a government conspiracy.  I walked slowly around the fence, surveying each entrance.  The show wouldn’t start until Friday at noon, but the gates were already regulated by people wearing purple Event Staff shirts.  There were 3-4 fences in some places.  At the VIP entrance I crossed the street and watched from a bench.  Everyone going into the park was flagged down by a guy with long blond hair.  He looked friendly, so I went to check it out, was flagged down, and told the park was closed.  He was less friendly up close.

The VIP entrance was the last of three, and on the Fulton side of the park.  Walking away, I felt dejected.  Who am I kidding? I thought, this is never going to work.  I continued along the road by the fence, moving away from the festival, towards the Lincoln side, and home.

On the way back I found an opening in the fence at Anglers Lodge and walked in.  There was a small parking lot with some trucks and a few trailers, but no one was around.  I found a stairway that led up to a cabin, and behind the cabin was a fly fishing pond.  I recognized the pond immediately from my walks inside.  I was directly behind the main stage, on the other side of the fence.

I walked to the other side of the pond and went into the woods.  The trails took me in a few circles, but eventually, I found a weak spot.  The fence was at the top of a very steep 20 ft. hill, and it wasn’t fastened to the ground.  With a little effort, I could probably squeeze under it.  The plan was to hide in the woods until 3 or 4 in the morning, wait for a good moment to climb under the fence, and walk not run to the port-o-potty that was 20 to 40 ft. away.  I would pray that it was unlocked (and clean), lock myself inside, and wait for the music to start.  8 hours in a port-o-potty will make a great a facebook status, I thought with a chuckle.

With 2 hours of daylight left, I decided to look around some more; you never know what you’ll find in a park with 1,017 acres.  I was trying to follow the fence towards 19th ave. when I found a small paved road--too small for a car, but just right for a bike, golf cart, or pedestrian.  I followed the road uphill on a hunch.  A woman in a red windbreaker came walking down towards me and said hello with a smile as we passed each other.  At the end of the road was an open gate, and beyond the gate, was the backstage section of Outside Lands.  

I forced myself not to stop, stare, or look guilty.  Security and staff were everywhere, but no one was watching the gate.  I walked in with my bag slung over my shoulder and my heart pounding in my chest.  On my left was the fence, and beyond it, I could see the pond.  On my right was the back of the main stage and the polo fields.  In between were several trailers and a thin row of small trees.  Each trailer was outfitted with three cans with colorful labels that read: Trash, Recycling, Compost--even rock stars recycle in San Francisco.

The trees gave me a little shelter from the hubbub, but soon I had to choose between walking directly through the festival grounds, or the delivery area.  I chose the delivery area, hoping it would be mostly vendors.  Any time I passed someone I would give them “the nod.”  The “what’s up / I know where I’m going” nod.  At the end of the delivery area I found a new fence.  Shit.  The path I was expecting was blocked.

I turned right, and went into a food vendors tent which, mercifully, was empty.  To get to the woods, and the hiding place I had scoped out, I was going to have to walk to the other side of the festival.  But at the moment, there were several staff with walkie talkies and a golf cart outside of the tent.  If I went back to the delivery area I would look lost, but if I stayed in the tent and the vendor showed up, I was busted for sure.  There was nothing to do but wait.

Thankfully, after a couple of minutes, the golf cart drove away.  I stepped out of the tent and turned left, walking out in the open, and then passing through the VIP area.  It was nice, with a soft padded floor, lots of tables, and a long bar in an enclosed space.  This is probably as close as I’ll ever get to VIP, I thought.  At the end of the VIP area there was a man in a red windbreaker hanging something up.  I gave him the nod, but I did it too fast.  It was a nervous nod, a nod from someone who isn’t supposed to be here.  Would he notice?  I would have noticed.  I kept walking, passing back into the open, and towards the woods at Choco Lands.

Just before I reached the entrance to Choco Lands, a man in a bright orange shirt on a 4-wheeler drove in front of me, turned the 4-wheeler around, and stared right at me.  A giant yellow arrow came down from the sky and pointed at my head, illuminating a sign on my chest that read “This guy snuck in you need to kick him out!”  I could feel the man’s eyes behind his sunglasses.  He knew what I was up to.  He was coming for me, he... turned right again on the 4-wheeler.  He was making a u-turn.

I walked up the path between the trees into Choco Lands.  When I saw a good spot, I darted off into the woods.  I crawled on all fours, and then on my stomach, into a small opening under the trees; the foliage was so thick I could barely sit up.  I opened my bag, unrolled my blanket, and ate my sandwich.  This would be my home for the next 14 hours.

The stillness of my enclave amplified the sounds around me.  I could hear hammers clanging, voices laughing, and trucks beeping.  Several times my head popped up, convinced a truck was about to run me over in the dark.  Later, in the distance, I could hear someone sound checking on a harmonica--Amazing Grace. Surprisingly, I slept well.

In the morning I hid in the woods until I knew the doors were open and bands were playing.  This was the moment of truth--if I get caught now I spent the night in the park for nothing, I thought.  I crawled on my stomach again and came out covered in brush; just another concert goer at Outside Lands.   

                                    __________          __________          __________

The Festival

The first thing I did was look for coffee--at $4.50 a cup, even sneaking in wasn’t going to be cheap.  After coffee and some lost ipod drama, I was ready to survey my new digs.  I was also starving.  I walked from McLaren Pass towards the Barbary, bought a $10 burrito, and sat down at an empty picnic table to enjoy breakfast, lunch, and dinner.  A group of teenage girls joined me at the table.  They were excited to be at Outside Lands, with tickets for the whole weekend.

The kids were friendly, offering to share dried mangos, almonds, and rum hidden in shampoo bottles.  I declined all three, too focused on my burrito.  We were debating the question of the day--Justice or Neil Young?--when a police officer walked up and gave me the stare.  My heart stopped beating.  How did he know?
“Are you hiding any booze over here?” he asked me.
“I don’t drink.”
“You don’t drink?  Can I look in your jacket?  We got some information that you guys were hiding some liquor over here.”
It occurred to me that I was, sans wristband, at a table with three 19 year old girls who are hiding booze.  After a quick glance through my hoodie he turned to face the girls.
“Do you have any liquor in shampoo bottles or anything?”

Lucky for me, these were good kids, or rather, bad kids that knew to play it cool.  The girls handed over their purses with innocent eyes, adding for good measure, “we have some actual shampoo and stuff, if you wanna look.”  The cop opened a purse, pulled out a melted ice tray looking thing and stared at me.
“What is this?”
“Um, I’m not actually associated with these people.”
“Yeah, we don’t know him, we just sat down here to eat.”
The policeman decided we were ok, and apologized for the disturbance.  “I understand.  You’re just doing your job,” the leader said to a chorus of yeahs.
“We better go,” she told her friends.  I decided to avoid cops and teenagers for the rest of the day.  Maybe the rest of my life.

                              __________          __________          __________

It was time for some music.  I went to the Land’s End stage and caught the Dirty Dozen Brass Band.  These guys were amazing--fun, funky, and excellent performers. Unfortunately, no one told them that SF crowds are too cool to sing along, and the audience participation stuff did not go well. Regardless, I left their set ready to grab my bag, ditch Outside Lands, and hitchhike to New Orleans.  Who dat say dey gonna beat dem saints?

Next I went to the Twin Peaks stage, where Wallpaper was playing.  I had never heard of them, but this is a group to watch.  Clearly channeling early Beastie Boys, they borrow from pop, 70’s funk, and Oakland swag.  Singer Ricky Reed was thrilled to be at Outside Lands proclaiming, “I’ve been sneaking copious amounts of psychedelics into this bitch for years--but this is our first time playing here,” before launching into a crowd favorite.  As if on cue, someone offered me “doses” during their set.

Wallpaper was sneaking in music if I’ve ever heard it, and sure enough, I saw 4 or 5 guys run down the hill and jump over the last fence into the crowd.  Hot on their heels came another group of baseball capped, T-shirt wearing youngsters, who were thwarted by the orange shirted Event Staff and SFPD.  The Event Staff were outside of the fence, SFPD was inside, and big mean looking guys drove golf carts back and forth on both sides.  It was like a game of Whack-a-Mole in reverse.

According to Josio--an orange shirter from Pittsburg--“as soon as they get over this fence, it’s over.”  He said if the Event Staff catches you trying to climb over they’ll just walk you out, but if SFPD catches you on the inside, then you’re in trouble.  I asked how many people he thought make it over per night. “Probably at least 50.”  Josio gets paid $10.24 an hour (SF minimum wage) to patrol the fence--he likes the job.

                                  __________          __________          __________

My Stepmom used to say, “If you would spend half as much time doing what you’re supposed to do, instead of trying to get out of it, you would be a lot better off.”  As usual, she was right.  Between reconnaissance, shopping trips, and execution, it took 35 hours to sneak in.  Even at $10.24 an hour, I could have earned enough for a ticket with those hours, and at $15 an hour, I could have bought a VIP ticket.  So my advice to fellow sneakers?  Get a job.

Another Planet fares better than most promoters, but I’m not a big fan of these mega-festivals.  Setting up even one band is a lot of work, so a hundred of them on temporary stages is bound to be messy.  And, you can never control the weather, which was awful--even for the Sunset; I could see my breath by 6pm.   Freezing winds, rancid port-o-potties, and an hour long wait for coffee (single cup brew at an event with 65,000 people?), had me ready to go home before Neil Young and Crazy Horse began their headline set.  I stayed out of pure stubbornness, determined to get my money’s worth.  I’m glad I did, so I could hear these immortal words in person:

“hey hey, my my,
Rock and Roll will never die,
hey, hey, my my”

Let’s hope so, Mr. Young.  Let’s hope so.
Thanks for reading,

p.s. Did you like this?  Then please, re-blog it, re-tweet it, facebook it, give it to a carrier pigeon, or do whatever you like to do with stuff that you like.  Thizzanx!