Wednesday, September 29, 2010

A monument of glorious grandeur

As night falls over the City, the bright lights of San Francisco City Hall beam proudly over the Civic Center. Its rotunda is both a beautiful sight to behold and a monument of glorious grandeur.

Beaux Arts beauty:
San Francisco City Hall at twilight
Lately, I've become a grand admirer of San Francisco City Hall and of its rotunda. Maybe, it's because its architectural beauty reminds me of Paris.

I have attended three City Arts & Lectures events in the past two weeks (lectures by Supreme Court Associate Justice Stephen Breyer, dance choreographer Mark Morris, and author Michael Lewis) at the Herbst Theater, located next to the War Memorial Opera House and across Van Ness Ave. from City Hall in the City's Civic Center district.

The brisk, five-minute walk up Grove Street from the Civic Center BART station passes directly by the Main Library, the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium and San Francisco City Hall en route to the Herbst.  So, it's impossible not to admire City Hall's Beaux Arts beauty, whether up close or from across the street.

A plaza view:
San Francisco City Hall (2009).
At more than 500,000 square feet, San Francisco City Hall occupies two city blocks and is surrounded by Van Ness Ave., McAllister St., Polk St. and Grove St.  Its spectacular rotunda dome is reminiscent of Mansart's Baroque dome of Les Invalides in Paris. According to Wikipedia, the City Hall rotunda is the fifth largest dome in the world and it is 14 inches taller than the United States Capitol rotunda in Washington, D.C.

Arthur J. Brown Jr., of Bakewell & Brown was the principal architect of San Francisco City Hall, which re-opened in 1915, in time for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition.  The original City Hall building, which was completed in 1899 after 27 years of planning and construction, was destroyed by the 1906 Earthquake.

Glorious grandeur:
San Francisco City Hall at night as seen from
outside the Herbst Theater.

San Francisco City Hall is full of history, some of it joyful, some of it tearful.  Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe were married at San Francisco City Hall in 1954.  Mayor George Moscone and city supervisor Harvey Milk were slain inside the City Hall building in 1978.

In recent years, San Francisco City Hall has been the site of scores of same-sex marriage ceremonies, and it was also prominently featured in the 2008 film Milk. The inside grandeur of the City Hall building is showcased during annual galas for the San Francisco Opera and San Francisco Symphony, while the spacious outside plaza (across from the Polk St. entrance) has hosted public events, such as large-screen gatherings for the 2010 World Cup soccer tournament and the San Francisco Opera.

The medallions in the vault of the rotunda sum up City Hall's virtues best: Equality, Liberty, Strength, Learning, Progress.

At night or in daylight, San Francisco City Hall is a glorious monument to a city beautiful.

All photographs by Michael Dickens, copyright 2009, 2010.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

All Songs Delighted: Heirloom

Never underestimate the value of a tersely written indie-folk song, especially when it's penned and sung so magnificently by Sufjan Stevens.

This marvelous 35-year-old, American singer/songwriter born in Detroit, Mich., whose first name is pronounced soof-yahn, has composed a two-minute 55-second, elegant masterpiece that appears on his recently released All Delighted People EP and is worth a good listen("Heirloom" is available for purchase online via iTunes and as a free mp3 download from 

My first impression of Stevens and "Heirloom" got me thinking.  How best to describe Stevens and "Heirloom" ...  A multi-talented artist performing a beautiful folk melody on acoustic guitar, singing expressive lyrics in a voice that will remind you of the purity of Simon and Garfunkel circa Bookends (1967).

Spiritual allusions?  Maybe. Or not. 

I first heard "Heirloom" last month on the public radio program, "Morning Becomes Eclectic" via, and perused the show's playlist to find out what song I had just heard.  With all of its simplicity, "Heirloom" definitely caught my attention ~ and, immediately, I knew that I wanted ~ needed ~ to add the song to my iPod.

Happy listening!

(Click on the link below to listen to "Heirloom," or scroll down to sample the entire EP.)

Heirloom By Sufjan Stevens
When your heirloom’s wilted brown
When the devil’s pushing down
When your mourning has a sound
And you hesitate to laugh
How quickly will your joy pass
How quickly will your joy pass

And when you walk inside I feel the door
I’ll never let it push your arms no more
And when your legs give out just lie right down
And I will kiss you till your breath is found
And when you walk inside I feel the door
I’ll never let it push your arms no more

So do you think I came to fight?
And do I always think I’m right?
Oh no I never meant to be a pest to anyone this time
Oh no I only meant to be a friend to everyone this time
From All Delighted People EP, released 08/20/2010
Copyright 2010. All rights reserved.

<a href="">All Delighted People EP by Sufjan Stevens</a>

creditsCopyright. All rights reserved.

licenseAll rights reserved

Friday, September 24, 2010

A knothole perspective of the game

AT&T Park, home of the San Francisco Giants, is a classic urban baseball ballpark with a brick facade whose old-time feel has been a welcome, if not always kind, addition to the downtown city landscape since its opening in April 2000.

The privately financed ballpark at the corner of Third and King streets, in the South Beach neighborhood of San Francisco, replaced crumbling Candlestick Park as home of the Giants. It's been host to one heartbreaking World Series (in 2002, the Giants lost in seven games to the Angels); the scene of many towering home runs hit by Giants great Barry Bonds (including his record-breaking No. 756 on Aug. 7, 2007); and, it provided the setting for pitcher Greg Maddux's 300th career victory (on Aug. 7, 2004), a game my wife and I were witness to, from both far and near.  More about that later.

AT&T Park:
The ballpark at Third & King
With a 12.7-acre site, bounded by Second, Third and King streets and the China Basin (renamed McCovey Cove in honor of the Giants great first baseman and fan favorite, Willie McCovey), AT&T Park was built into one of the coziest parcels of land of any Major League ball park. Within it, the Giants have honored their past heroes, too. There's Willie Mays Plaza gracing the corner of Third and King streets complete with palm trees and a statue of the Say Hey Kid. Further down King, there's a statue recognizing Hall of Fame slugger Orlando Cepeda and heading toward McCovey Cove on Third is a statue saluting Hall of Fame pitcher Juan Marichal. Finally, a statue honoring Hall of Famer Willie McCovey sits across McCovey Cove and is accessible by walking across the Lefty O'Doul Bridge on Third Street.

View of the Portwalk at AT&T Park
from across McCovey Cove (2006)
One of the unique aspects of AT&T Park is its Portwalk, located beyond the right-field wall, which allows visitors sweeping views of McCovey Cove and the San Francisco Bay beyond while walking along the perimeter of the ball park ~ and, in a nod to baseball charm, the opportunity to sneak a peek of the ball game for a few innings ~ or longer ~ without having to pay a fee in the tradition of the old knothole gang.

Framing Greg Maddux:
We watched part of Greg Maddux's 300th career victory while
standing in the knothole at AT&T Park on August 7, 2004.

Standing under the right-field arcade stands, looking through a chain link fence at the field, is an interesting, if not unusual, way to observe a baseball game ~ from the perspective of the right fielder ~ without the benefit of television monitors, but with the radio broadcast of the game piped in.  It's how we saw the start of Maddux's quest for his 300th Major League victory six years ago during his second stint with the Chicago Cubs. (We later lucked into buying field club seats behind home plate for the final seven innings of the game.)  Also, it's how we spent a portion of our afternoon last Sunday, standing in the knothole, watching a couple of innings of the Giants' 9-2 victory over the Milwaukee Brewers.

Watching the Giants chase after
the 2010 NL West pennant
from the knothole.
Our Sunday travels brought us into San Francisco for morning church and brunch at Home. During our meal, I suggested we ride the Muni Metro train across town afterward to watch a bit of the Giants game from the knothole before returning across the bay. After all, the Giants are fun to watch ~ they are chasing after the NL West pennant ~ and the Muni Metro train would drop us right outside the ball park.

A knothole perspective:
Looking over Aubrey Huff's
shoulder, about
309 feet from home plate.
By the time we arrived, the Giants were batting in the bottom of the third inning, already leading 4-0 thanks to a first-inning grand slam homer by Jose Guillen.  There were a couple dozen other knothole customers enjoying the game, some who looked like regulars.  A few Giants fans took to razzing Brewers right fielder Corey Hart in between pitches, nothing unprintable mind you, just keeping him in the game. We stayed until the fifth inning.
No worries, the rain showers that were predicted for game time never materialized and neither did the Brewers' offense against Barry Zito.  The Giants scored five more runs after we left.

Looking back, our stroll along the Portwalk and visit to the knothole was an hour well spent at the ball park.  After all, we were cheering for our local nines.  And it didn't cost us a dime.

All photographs by Michael Dickens, copyright 2010 except where noted.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Musical serendipity

The French novelist Marcel Proust wrote:  "The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes." Maybe ears, too?  With autumn's arrival at mid week, my aural senses continue discovering many new and wonderful songs and artists worth sharing with you. Some by accident, some not.

Here are 10 current, recent and soon-to-be released songs worthy of a listen or two, and a place in your iPod playlist:

Owen Pallett:
A Swedish Love Story
"A Man With No Ankles" is the first track from Owen Pallett's forthcoming EP, A Swedish Love Story (due for release on Sept. 28), which he wrote in tribute to one of his favorite films, En Karlekshistoria.  The Canadian musician is best known as a solo artist who previously recorded under the moniker Final Fantasy. Here's a link to sneak a listen to "A Man With No Ankles":

"Undertow," lush in multi-voice harmony, is from the all-female, Los Angeles indie quartet, Warpaint, whose evocative sound is reminiscent of The XX.  "Undertow" is from Warpaint's new album, The Fool.

"Gypsy Eyes," is from the 21-year-old, Massachusetts-born singer/songwriter Sonya Kitchell, whose jazzy, chamber pop musings recall Joni Mitchell during her Hejira period.  Her album, Convict of Conviction, was released in March.

"Write About Love" is the title cut from the forthcoming (due for release on Oct. 12) album by the Scottish indie-pop darlings, Belle and Sebastian, and it features guest vocals by British actress Carey Mulligan (Pride & Prejudice, An Education).  You can find a free download of the single "Write About Love" online via the music blog "Stereogum":

Amanda Merdzan is an Australian singer/songwriter and multi-instrumentalist whose album, Into the Gallery, features themes of heartbreak and homesickness.  You can find a free download of "To Know You" via the music blog "Here Comes The Flood":

"Never Listen to Me" by The Thermals, an indie punk trio from Portland, Ore. is from their current album, Personal Life, that was released earlier this month.  The Thermals are getting a lot of buzz in various music blogs and, earlier this month, played at Bumbershoot, Seattle's music and art festival.

"Bye Bye Montreal" is from the new album, Hunter Hunter, by Canadian singer/songwriter Amelia Curran, released this week.  It has already been honored in Canada with a Juno award for best solo traditional and roots folk album.

"From Above" is nice, witty pop from the forthcoming Lonely Avenue, a collaborative project from Ben Folds and British author Nick Hornby (High Fidelity, Fever Pitch, About A Boy), that is due for release next week. You can sneak a listen via:

"In Every Direction" is from Junip's newly-released album, Fields, the current project of Swedish guitarist/vocalist Jose Gonzalez that has received plenty of plaudits from's "Morning Becomes Eclectic" program.  Fields was recently a First Listen featured album on the NPR music website.

Finally, "Sink or Swim" by Bad Lieutenant came to me ~ found me? ~ totally by accident.  While perusing the music blog, "Music For Kids Who Can't Read Good" ~ ~ I stumbled upon a song list which included a tune by the 80's new wave band New Order (remember 1983's "Blue Monday"?).  Upon reading New Order's Wikipedia entry, it noted that band leader Bernard Sumner moved on to form a new group, Bad Lieutenant.  Immediately, I visited iTunes, found Bad Lieutenant, and sampled "Sink or Swim" from their 2009 release, Never Cry Another Tear ~ and was hooked.  Same great sound, same great voice.

Musical serendipity, I guess.

Happy listening!

Friday, September 17, 2010

Random musings about morning fog, our rose garden, French Roast coffee and Elvis Costello

As I opened the front door this morning at precisely 6:30 a.m. to bring in the New York Times, I couldn't help but notice the weather surrounding our cul-de-sac:  It was very foggy outside. The accumulated dew on the newspaper's plastic wrapper, laying idle for a couple of hours on our front steps, spoke volumes.

The fog's impact reduced visibility surrounding our house to the length of a football pitch.  It was just another typical, late-summer morning shaping up in the Bay Area.

Orange rose with morning dew
on petals and leaves
Not surprisingly, the Bay Area forecast for today predicted morning fog, then mostly cloudy skies.  Although our high is supposed to reach 70 by this afternoon, I have my doubts. Something about a trough of low pressure moving through northern California that's bringing cooler conditions to the Bay Area. I've become all too accustomed to cool, moderate summer temperatures living in the Bay Area for the past 15 years. While I would welcome a 70-degree, late-summer afternoon, now, I'll happily settle for the 65-degree temperature that is due San Francisco today, where the fog is legendary throughout the summer months.

Pristine rose
The upside to today's morning fog and lingering dew is two-fold:  The overnight accumulation of dew and moisture means I don't need water the lawn and plants as planned, and, just as pleasing, it makes for good conditions to take photographs of our roses.

Mr. Lincoln rose:
Lovely to look at,
but difficult to photograph.
When I stepped outside to our backyard garden, I witnessed the dew on many of the roses, including their petals and their leaves.  The lingering fog and dew makes observing them interesting, but it's also very challenging to accurately capture it in a photograph. Ditto for the rich redness of the Mr. Lincoln roses ~ lovely to look at in person, but difficult to achieve the right hue of red when taking a picture.

Standing among giants:
I'm 5-feet-10 and
shorter than our
Mr. Lincoln and
Queen Elizabeth
rose bushes.
In the past month, we've let both our Queen Elizabeth and Mr. Lincoln rose bushes grow.  Nothing magical about it, and yet, they've have grown quite tall ~ taller than me, and I'm 5-feet-10.  Both of these bushes continue to show great blooms in September. Ditto for our Orange rose bush and our First Prize bush, too.

With autumn less than a week away and October close, our weather, finally, will perk up ~ if only for a few weeks.  With it, there's promise that our roses can continue enjoying some additional happiness and further growth, too.

In the meantime, as I await the fog to lift and the mercury rise, I'll gather my thoughts about the pleasure of our garden, savor a warm cup of my favorite French Roast coffee, and listen attentively as Elvis Costello sings about "Shipbuilding," from his 1983 album, Punch the Clock, appreciating the mournful, lovely trumpet solo by Chet Baker that accompanies some of Costello's most poignant lyrics, written during Britain's build up to the 1982 war with Argentina over the Falkland Islands.  Different times.

Morning becomes eclectic.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Ichiro ~ An appreciation

During our recent Labor Day weekend trip to Seattle, I had the occasion to spend a very pleasant, 60-degree sunny afternoon among friends watching the marvelous baseball player Ichiro Suzuki at work. Or was it play?

There's something extraordinary about Ichiro's consistency. Game after game, season after season.

Extraordinarily consistent,
game after game
While there was nothing remarkable about watching the lowly Mariners beat the equally lowly Cleveland Indians 3-0 at Safeco Field on the Sunday afternoon before Labor Day, a game that had no bearing on either the American League West or Central pennant races, I took advantage of our seats 11 rows up from the field down the first-base line in Section 116 to enjoy studying Ichiro over the course of nine innings, be it work or play.

Nine straight 200-hit seasons,
a Major League record
Against the Indians, the left-handed batting Ichiro led off the bottom of the first with a crisp single to left field against Cleveland starter Jeanmar Gomez.  Quickly, he stole second base for his 36th stolen base of the season, but was left stranded. After striking out to lead off the third, Ichiro got his second hit of the game in his next at bat in the fifth, beating out a grounder to second.  He flew out to center field to end the eighth.  He finished the afternoon with a 2-for-4 performance, which raised his batting average to .313. (Through Monday, Ichiro was hitting .309.)

"Ichiro is better at putting the ball on the bat than anyone in Major League history," the NPR commentator Frank Deford recently opined in a radio commentary.

"There's nobody like
Ichiro in either league ~
now or ever."
~ Bruce Jenkins
In a 10-year Major League career, all with the Seattle Mariners, Ichiro has strung together a record-setting nine straight 200-hit seasons ~ as of Tuesday, he needed only 14 hits for another 200-hit season ~ and he's been an All-Star every year.  He also holds the Major League record for most hits in one season with 262 set in 2004.  He won the American League Rookie of the Year and MVP in 2001, when he hit .350, stole 56 bases and accumulated a rookie-record 242 hits.  He has also won nine Gold Gloves.

"There's nobody like Ichiro in either league ~ now or ever," wrote the San Francisco Chronicle columnist Bruce Jenkins. "He exists strictly within his own world, playing a game 100 percent unfamiliar to everyone else.  The game has known plenty of 'slap' hitters, but none who sacrifice so much natural ability for the sake of the art."

Ichiro, 36, came to Seattle after playing nine years in Japan where he had a career .353 batting average and amassed 1,278 hits playing for the Orix Blue Wave.  Since his arrival in Seattle as one of the first position players from Japan to play regularly at the Major League level, Ichiro, who wears uniform No. 51, has gone on to hit safely more than 2,200 times.

Bright and cheerful, Ichiro's
work ethic is a joy to observe.
Unfortunately for Ichiro, he doesn't have a very good supporting cast this season and the Mariners (55-89 through Monday) are destined for a last-place finish in the AL West.  Still, Ichiro remains bright and cheerful.  His work ethic, which includes the use of yoga-like stretching exercises to stay limber while playing right field, is a joy to observe and appreciate.   And, his pre-swing pose of extending his right arm toward the pitcher with his bat pointing due north is, well, uniquely Ichiro. On this September day, among 22,621 fans who still cared enough to spend the day at the ballpark, it's what kept me interested and entertained.

All photographs by Michael Dickens, copyright 2010.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Bumbershoot ~ Seattle's Music and Arts Festival

While the Labor Day weekend marks the unofficial end of summer, it's become a tradition of ours to head up to Seattle to relax among friends, indulge in good food and wine, and, just as importantly, enjoy Bumbershoot.

This year was no different ~ and, while the Seattle weather conditions were mostly favorable on Saturday and Sunday, we didn't let a little rain that fell on Labor Day dampen our enthusiasm for wanting to hear great music and absorb the wonderful culture that awaited us at Bumbershoot.

The marquee at
Seattle Center
says it all.
Bumbershoot, Seattle's annual music and arts festival, is produced by the non-profit arts organization One Reel in collaboration with Seattle Center. It has played an important role in Seattle's transformation as one of the most imaginative music and arts-filled cities in the country.

Last weekend, Bumbershoot celebrated its 40th anniversary.  It first started in August 1971 with a promise of "Fun for Everyone."  Since then, it's become North America's largest urban arts festival, and every year, the 74-acre Seattle Center campus surrounding the iconic Space Needle has turned into an area rich in community and spirit, and full of inspiring and important music, arts, dance and film.

Bumbershoot 2010:
Neko Case performs on the
Bumbershoot main stage
on Saturday night.
Since 1994, my wife and I have attended Bumbershoot 14 of 17 years (missing only 1995, 2001 and 2003).  Over the years, we've seen a lot of enjoyable and memorable music acts, including:  Elvis Costello, Bonnie Raitt, Bob Dylan, Neko Case, Blondie, the Shins, Bruce Hornsby, Crowded House, Lucinda Williams, Shawn Colvin, Jenny & Johnny, Laura Veirs, Iris Dement, Zero 7,  Bo Diddley, Natalie MacMaster, Mayer Hawthorne, Estelle, Nada Surf, Matt and Kim, Lenka, Mates of State, Rodrigo y Gabriela, the Clientele, Josh Ritter, Alejandro Escovedo, Sonya Kitchell, Justin Townes Earle, the Avett Brothers and Elvis Perkins.  The list goes on ... The Bumbershoot venues come in all sizes, big and small, quaint and ornate: Main stage, backyard stage, mural stage, Northwest Court, EMP Sky Church, McCaw Hall.

Northwest Court intimacy:
Elvis Perkins performs
during 2009 Bumbershoot
At Bumbershoot, we've also seen outstanding ballet performed by the Pacific Northwest Ballet, laughed at improvisational comedy, engaged in serious and not-so-serious art, watched Roller Derby, and applauded impromptu performances by buskers and jugglers around the Seattle Center grounds.

This year, we bought tickets for two of the three days and attended the Bumbershoot festivities on Saturday and Monday. We allowed ourselves a break on Sunday and, instead, spent the afternoon at Safeco Field watching Ichiro and the Mariners play the Cleveland Indians.  Then, we enjoyed a relaxing evening with our host friends at their home, grilling chicken kabobs and sweet corn and sipping Oregon pinot noir.

Justin Townes Earle:
Singing "Harlem River Blues"
On Saturday, we caught sets by Plants and Animals, Justin Townes Earle, the Budos Band, Ozomatli, Neko Case and, finally, Bob Dylan, who enthralled thousands on the main stage for 75 minutes mixing something old with something new ~ and everything original.  We returned Monday afternoon and evening ~ oftentimes donning rain ponchos to stay dry from the soggy weather ~ and enjoyed sets by The Clientele, Greg Laswell, Bomba Estereo, Jenny & Johnny, Laura Veirs and the English Beat.

The Clientele:
Melancholy pop with a spin
of surreal literary lyrics
The Clientele is one of my favorite British bands, one I've been wanting to hear live since discovering their melancholy pop infused with surreal literary lyricism about three years ago.  I spent much of their set standing right up at the lip of the stage, great for absorbing their reverb sound and shooting lots of photos.  As an added bonus, I got to meet the band during a CD signing session held adjacent to the stage that followed their set.  "Sorry for the crummy weather," I said to guitarist and bandleader Alasdair MacLean. "No worries," he replied. "We're used to it."  Spoken like a true Brit who, obviously, puts up with lots of soggy weather across the pond.

Another thrill was seeing one of the first live shows by the recently formed Jenny & Johnny (Jenny Lewis and Jonathan Rice), who played a fantastic one-hour set in support of their newly released CD "I'm Having Fun Now."  Great songs, great fun.

At Bumbershoot 2010:
Exhausted and wet,
but it was time
and money well spent.
Of the thousands who attended Bumbershoot on Labor Day, I was singled out by a reporter from KIRO-TV, the local CBS affiliate, who interviewed me for that night's 11 p.m. newscast.  My sound bite earned me about 15 seconds of fame and, it being a slow news day, the reporter's Bumbershoot story led the newscast.

By the time we left Bumbershoot on Monday night, the skies surrounding the Seattle Center were cloudy, the air chilly and we were all exhausted and a little wet.  Yet, this annual end of summer celebration and fun with our friends was time and money well spent.