16 November, 2015

Poetry at Patreon

As some of you know, Patreon is a site that enables individuals to help support the content that they love. But more than a company, it's also a place and a group of people. Bay Area-based Patreon creators like myself were invited to visit the Patreon office last Tuesday for a poetry event, and I figured it would be nice to meet some of the folks who help me keep this photo blog up and running.

So that's how I found myself chatting with my benchmate Selena, who described the office "as if the word 'startup' threw up all over everything." But not in a bad way, she clarified. "I mean, it's nice, but…"

She was right, of course, but the venue seemed to fit the character of the event. While I was there to see Patreon, much of the audience had shown up for comedian/poet/performer Derrick Brown (pictured), along with his contemporaries Annelyse Gelman and Jason Bayani. Just prior to the event, I saw Brown duck away from seemingly-perpetual bouts of dancing to go do a handful of pullups on an exercise station that was tucked beneath an open air staircase.
"There are several ways to get 'got' in a city. The prime offense is to always be looking up."
Jason Bayani started off the evening with… I don't know… A poem? A feeling? A window to another world? Whatever it was, I loved it. The poem itself, "Kein / Muenchen," was the centerpiece of an experience that was some combination of visual and visceral. It didn't transport me to Munich, so much as transport the Munich experience back.

I mean, when I talked with Bayani beforehand, he avoided describing his poetry other than as "personal." I can see why. "Kein / Muenchen" was — is — a personal tale that reminds you of the ties between the physical aspects of a place and how it makes you feel to be there, looking up, because you just can't help it.

I caught up with benchmates Stephanie and Jeremy afterwards and they confirmed that the piece strongly recalled each of their own experiences visiting Munich in the past. You can find the poem online here, along with a short feature on Bayani.
Annelyse Gelman took the stage next. While also a poet — she and Bayani both have books published through Derrick Brown's poetry publication house, Write Bloody Publishing — her Tuesday evening performance was primarily a musical piece. What struck me was her ability to embrace mistakes.

Well… maybe not mistakes, really. But she took the kinds of sounds other people might make by accident, and she formed them into an intentional component of her music. And listening to it reminded me of the unconscious expectations that we form while listening to music, and that the right song can force us to recognize those biases, and to reconsider what "music" can sound like.
Derrick Brown was all over the place. In a good way. The energy that characterized his fidgeting before the show continued throughout, and he took us on a topsy-turvy journey through different kinds of feelings. Happy stories that were actually sad. Sad stories that ended up being funny. Confusing stories that somehow managed to offer deep revelations about human nature. It was all there. After the fact, Brown admitted to me that he loves playing with the audience's emotions and expectations.

For the bit in the photograph, Brown asked for volunteer couples who had been together for at least two years. He picked one and had them sit in front of the audience, facing us. He then described himself as a high-tech mind-reader, broadcasting the supposed inner thoughts of the two volunteers in an absurd, obviously-prefabricated monologue.

But in practice, he constructed a situation that allowed the couple to reveal actual aspects of their inner thoughts to each other, and to us. You could tell when the ridiculous monologue struck on an actual feeling because the couples' reactions would become momentarily sincere or vulnerable, amid all the laughter. "Uh-oh," you could see one think to themself. The situation also induced a heightened sense of empathy from the audience — I watched the couple closely, because it would be cruel to keep laughing during one of those fragile moments. The golden rule seemed to guide all of our behavior for those few minutes.
And more generally, throughout the performance, Brown displayed a masterful control of our behavior and reactions. When he wanted us to laugh, we convulsed with cackles and giggles and guffaws. The most ridiculous situation would be followed by the perfect one-liner, and we would just lose it. Then moments later, some new turn of events would demand our most grave consideration, and we would return to stoic silence, ears and eyes rapt with attention, hearts hoping.
After his final poem, Brown thanked our hosts, somehow uttered "let's all thank our DJ" with a mostly-straight face, and then cranked up the tunes again. People milled around, chatting with each other, meeting unfamiliar faces, and waiting in line for signatures.

In the somewhat raucous atmosphere, I was surprised to spot Gelman, perched atop a table that seems to embody the word "rustic," leafing through one of Brown's poetry books. Perhaps some of the best hiding spots are in plain sight.
Another unexpected contrast was between Brown himself — still, for once, despite the profusion of sound and music — and some fans who danced to the grooves as they jauntily waited for him to finish his painstakingly-careful inscription. Clearly, he was still in control.

09 October, 2015


"We don't usually stop here, but…" That's always an ominous thing to hear while on a train ride. As one of the conductors made some non-committal statements about how something had just happened, and that we'd be stopped at Burlingame for a short while, some of the passengers had already assumed the worst — they started gathering their belongings, contacting ride sharing services, and generally trying to find other ways to continue traveling up the peninsula.

They were right. A few moments later, the speakers crackled to life. For some of us, the words "trespasser incident," said what the other passengers had already presumed. A few moments later, the wording became clearer. "Fatality." "Looks like it'll be more than a little while." Many of the remaining passengers disembarked at that point.

The conductors were already outside, standing at the north end of the train, chatting with the engineer. I asked one conductor and she replied that both northbound and southbound trains were stopped, at which point my traveling companion and I decided to scrub our trip to San Francisco and go for a walk.
When we returned, our train was gone. That, combined with the quiet around the station, was eery. The trackside monitors stubbornly and steadfastly displayed the current time in a shade of yellow that nearly matched the streetlamps. It's always comforting to see them flick over to the expected arrival times, but those were clearly on hiatus. Lacking any other kinds of guidance, we sat next to the southbound tracks and waited.

After a short while, a southbound train approached, #284. We rose to meet it as it came to a stop, but a rush of passengers emerged from the doors as they opened. They said that everyone was getting off and that we should all head to the opposite platform and wait. It turned out that this train (on the far side, in the photo) was the one that had struck the person, and it was finally letting passengers off before it would continue south, out of service.

Another train arrived before we were able to cross, but it was headed northbound (the near side train, in the photo, #289). As we waited, I talked with a few of the passengers and learned that the on-duty crew is relieved immediately. In subsequent research, I ran across this article from wnyc.org, in which a Caltrain engineer described it as being "rescued from the scene."

The #289 departed, and then so did the #284. Then a second northbound train came and went before a southbound train finally arrived to effect our own somewhat less traumatic rescue. But the emotions surrounding these incidents are always peculiar and relatively incoherent. I imagine that this is an evening that I'll be pondering for awhile, yet.

27 September, 2015

Portraits In Situ (part 1)

"Within every man and woman a secret is hidden, and as a photographer it is my task to reveal it if I can. The revelation, if it comes at all, will come in a small fraction of a second with an unconscious gesture, a gleam of the eye, a brief lifting of the mask that all humans wear to conceal their innermost selves from the world. In that fleeting interval of opportunity the photographer must act or lose his prize." —Yousuf Karsh

As I flit through life with camera in hand, I inevitably notice certain moments that seem to exemplify aspects of my friends' personalities. With luck, I recognize those moments in time to take a photo.

Here are some of those photos, and a word on what I see in them.


31 August, 2015

People Making Cool Stuff: Carmel

"My parents would tell you that I've always been drawing on walls."

It's amazing how you can watch the creation of a work of art — you can follow every stroke of the brush, every mark of the pencil — and it's not until you pause and blink a few times that you see a picture rather than just a composition of strokes.

And even after you recognize that an art work was created, it remains something of a mystery exactly how it happened. How did the person start with a blank page, and come up with this? And why? What had to go through their mind during the creation process?

So I asked. This post is the first in a vague series about the cool stuff that my friends create.
For Carmel, it started in first grade, with Dr. Seuss' The Lorax. She enjoyed the story, but distinctly remembers being taken by the book's illustrations — "I want to be able to draw like this." By high school, Carmel said, she was watching anime like Sailor Moon almost every day, and her current illustration style certainly reflects that influence.
Carmel explained that most of her pieces begin with a "burst of emotion" — a spontaneous sense that she has some feeling or message to share, and that she might express it with an illustration. She mentioned that even during stressful periods, the creation process "takes me away from the real world." The process gives her time and space to contemplate the things that are going on in her life.

Once she has a kernel of an idea, she typically does some pencil sketches to find a direction, and then will keep moving forward once she hits on a form that captures her feelings on the topic. The ideal illustrations are "an extension of my feelings and thoughts," she added.
After the general theme, further development of the storyline and the color palette go hand-in-hand. Carmel specifically mentioned that she picks a color palette to suit the subject. More emotional topics garner darker, bolder colors, while other topics might receive colors that are more subdued and dreamy, as she described them.

To actually apply the colors, Carmel uses watercolor to fill space, and colored pencils for details. She mentioned having tried acrylics and oil, but she stuck with pencils because of her facility with them. "[They] feel like an extension of my fingertips."
When the process is complete, Carmel keeps some of the pieces, and she gives some of them away; perhaps to coworkers, to friends, or as gifts. Even of the pieces intended for other people, though, she noted that "I won't give it if I'm not proud of it." After all, she describes each work as "a piece of myself."