Thursday, August 28, 2008

Under the Sea at the Castro Theater

What do you get when you combine 1400 eclectic people in San Francisco's famous Castro neighborhood, a juried mermaid costume contest (for adults and children), 1400 pearl necklaces and 1400 jars of bubbles?

My friends, you get the Little Mermaid Sing Along at the Castro Theater.

Build in 1922, The Castro Theater is an impressive historic landmark here in San Francisco that has hosted Sing Along musicals, along with hundreds of other films and live events, for the last 80+ years. This past week, the theater hosted my all-time favorite cult classic, The Little Mermaid.

L and I walked into the theater without expectations. We knew we loved the movie as kids (loved the movie), so that was enough for us. When we were handed a colorful gift bag full of sparkly props at the door by "Ariel" herself, we knew we were in for a real treat.

The interior of the theater is classically grand -- the huge gold-embossed cathedral ceiling took my breath away. On the stage, an organist in a tuxedo played songs from the movie that reverberated throughout the theater. We took our seats and opened up our goody bags, happy to discover a golden paper crown and pearl necklace to wear right away. We also discovered a glow stick, party popper, small jar of bubbles, a silver plastic fork (dinglehopper) and a noisemaker/clapper thingy.

As people took their seats, I looked across the audience and found myself beaming as I gazed down upon hundreds of gold crowns.

"Ariel" got up on stage and kicked off the show, which began with a costume contest for children, followed by a costume contest for adults. The most beautiful man I've ever seen dressed up as Prince Eric. My childhood fantasy was brought back to life -- I still want to be part of his world.

Finally, after much anticipation, the show began. Ariel instructed to make as much noise as possible - whether through our singing or general "clean" commentary about the events on screen. L and I sat next to a hilariously rambunctious group of guys that didn't hold anything back, cat calling Ariel when she rescued Eric from the exploding ship ("Oh yes she DID!") and booing Ursula every time she appeared ("You are so UGLY I can't even stand it!").

We shook our plastic clappers every time Sebastian scurried across the screen, blew our bubbles when Ariel took her grand bath in Eric's castle and popped our party poppers when they FINALLY smooched at the end. Wow. 4,000 party poppers and streamers flying = magical, magical kiss.

I have to admit how touched I was by the music and lyrics of this movie, now that I'm seeing it as an adult. I didn't understand it all as a kid, even though I knew every word by heart.

I'm ready to know what the people know...ask 'em my questions and get some answers...What's a fire and why does it - what's the word? Burn? When's it my turn? Wouldn't I love, love to explore that world up above? Out of the sea...wish I could be...part of that world.

After the movie ended, all 1400 crowned men, women & kids left the theater and dispersed along Castro Street with their pearl necklaces still on. I felt like it was New Year's Eve, Halloween and my birthday all in one night. Thanks, Castro Theater, for keeping the kid alive in all of us and the part of us that believes that a true love's kiss is really all it takes.

I speak for everyone when I say that we look forward to many more Sing Along's together.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Summer Camp

During one of his poetry talks in Tuscany this spring, David Whyte told us a story about how his (now teenage) son used to call grown ups "growing ups" when he was a little boy. I love this. And when you think of it, that should be the real term for adults. I don't know that I'll ever reach a moment in life when I deserve the definitive title of Grown Up. I much prefer the idea of a work in progress.

So lately I've been thinking about summer camp, specifically summer camp for adults, and the idea of growing young again. Why not? I personally could use a good dose of bonfire-singing, sidewalk-chalking, finger-painting, smores-dripping, firefly-catching evenings. I want something to help bring back the magic of summer, its room for creativity, its freedom.

Over the past few years, I've been actively exploring a number or urban and rural "camps" for adults that render that feeling of the summer camps we had growing up. Those of you who shared in my Chicago chapter attended more than a few of my guitar "shows" at the Old Town School of Folk Music, one of my favorite adult camps to date. Whether you want to take an Appalachian dulcimer class, learn native African dance or simply start guitar lessons from scratch, Old Town School of Folk offers nightly and weekend classes for both adults and kids in over 50 different instruments, not to mention vocals, dance, yoga and a multitude of ensembles. They also offer the option to rent instruments from their on site store, "A Different Strummer" so you don't need to commit to a huge investment if you're just experimenting. Classes are held in groups - about 20 people in each class. Each class session ends with a collaborative "group jam session" in the main auditorium where all levels of practice have the opportunity to play and sing together. I've never met a more eclectic, happy and caring group of folks in one spot.

On a slightly different note, I've recently become pretty involved in the Laughing Lotus Yoga community in San Francisco, a relatively new yoga studio in the Mission (16th St. at Dolores). Laughing Lotus was started by Jasmine Tarkeshi and Dana Flynn in New York where their original set of studios still thrives. Here at their newer San Francisco location, every 90-minute session feels like an afternoon at summer camp. We eat animal crackers, drink tea, sing songs and jump around the studio like 8 year-olds. I'm consistently amazed at how fun the teachers at Laughing Lotus can make a class while still providing the spiritual and physical guidance we come to yoga for. Laughing Louts also offers a series of retreats throughout the year if you want to have a longer time away. I haven't tried any of the retreats yet, but the most recent one, "Ring Around the Redwoods" took place in Mendocino (north of San Francisco on the coast) and included an on site vegetarian cook, masseuse, daily hikes and morning and nightly yoga.

A friend of mine recently passed along information for Esalen, an adult learning center in Big Sur that's perched on a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean. In addition to its aesthetic beauty (seaside gardens, natural hot springs, etc.), Esalen offers hundreds of continuing education courses for adults, ranging in topics from writing to massage to organic gardening. The length of classes varies but many are held over a long weekend. Lodging is available on site (you can choose from dorm-style or single room). I hope to check this place out next month, if for no other reason than to sit with these people in the hot tub.

Lastly, time and funding permitting this autumn, I'm planning a pilgrimage to the John Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, North Carolina, one of the original folks schools in the United States. Located in western North Carolina in the Blue Ridge Mountains, the John Campbell Folk School was founded in 1925 by John Campbell and his family and is based off the folkehojskole (folk school) model from rural Denmark. More than a hundred years ago, these "schools for life" helped transform the Danish countryside into a vibrant, creative force. Similar to the original intention of the schools, the Campbell family designed the folk school in Brasstown as an alternative to the higher-education facilities that drew young people away from the family farms and community.

Today, the John Campbell Folk School has evolved into a nationally-recognized cultural center and offers year-round week long and weekend classes for adults in craft, art, music, dance, cooking, gardening, nature studies, photography and writing. A week in the Blue Ridge mountains at the folk school looks like good living to me -- 3 homemade meals a day, cozy lodging on the property (with the option to camp), day-long classes and plenty of gorgeous scenery. I should also mention the weekly barn dances and concerts, which bring together visitors and members of the local community in celebration of music and movement. It doesn't get much better than that.

There are still a few weeks left of summer and a long gorgeous fall ahead of us -- both are the perfect time to explore your own idea of adult summer camp. It doesn't have to be a week long, expensive commitment. Even buying a new set of watercolor paints and some apple juice can qualify. Report back with what transpires.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Secret Gardens

Last weekend in New York, I spent most of Saturday morning wandering around the lower half of Manhattan - poking in the Chelsea Antique Markets, sipping coffee at Cafe Habana in Nolita, perusing the shops in the West Village. It's always a treat to find yourself in New York without a schedule, without the needing-to-be-there-by-this-time-to-make-this-reservation, etc. After I few hours of wandering though, I started to grow a bit weary from the stimulation. I also found myself trying to make a plan, even though no plan was really needed. In life, I have found that this is generally a setup for failure. What I should have done was taken a nap. However, my new plan was to take the F train to Brooklyn and explore a few neighborhoods that my friends lived in, which I hadn't done before. And so.

I got off the train at Atlantic Ave. and the sun was brutual. It was somehow 20* hotter in Brooklyn than the rest of New York. The concrete was radiating heat, horns were honking, kids were screaming. I fumbled around at the intersection, looking for my map and sunglasses trying to not drop my camera, ipod or iced tea. I could feel my patience exiting and the exhaustion kicking in. I was totally over Brooklyn before I even left the subway station.

As if on cue, I looked to my right and saw a small chalkboard sign perched against a long concrete wall that read "Your Garden is Open! Come on in and smell the flowers and sit in the shade." I climbed through a small entry way in the gray wall and discovered a tiny Narnia inside. Yellow daisies and cheerful marigolds lined the miniature walkway. Honey bees were humming along from flower to flower. Butterflies fluttered around my feet. A small canpoy of vines provided shade for a little kiddie pool and set of chairs so you could cool off your feet and read awhile. There was also a small plot of tomato plants and string beans and a wooden bench under a big maple tree. I sat down and rested, cooled off, soaked in the quiet. This place was an oasis. I'd gone from hell to heaven in 30 seconds flat.

I later did some research to see what saintly people were responsible for this magical place. Much to my delight, I discovered a dozen or more community garden groups in Brooklyn alone. Credit for this particular garden probably goes to the New York Restoration Project, which operates under the belief that greenspace in neighborhoods is fundamental to the quality of life and something that everyone deserves to have access to. Also to my delight, I discovered that program was founded by Bette Midler, who plays an active role in keeping the community gardens alive and thriving. The organization has reclaimed over 400 acres of under-resourced or rundown parkland in the last decade - no small feat given the limited open space in New York.

I also came across another amazing site called OASIS New York, which is a sort of hand-made map search engine that you can use to locate the closest greenspace to you. OASIS, which stands for New York City Open Accessible Space Information System Cooperative, partners with more than 30 federal, state, and local agencies, private companies, academic institutions, and nonprofit organizations to create this one-stop, interactive mapping site. The site provides dozens of city maps, identifying anything from the closest community garden to ideal bird-watching spots on the harbor.

Although most of us don't call New York home at the moment, I think the idea behind these programs and websites is critical in creating and maintaining the greenspace in our own cities and communities. Below are a few sites that might inspire those of us outside NY:

I should note that Brooklyn continued to romance me that afternoon and we're now on fantastic terms, great friends even. I'm thankful for her warm welcome at the Atlantic Ave. community garden and for the inspiration to seek out similar spaces in the world.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Ourspace (A Tribute to Frida)

It comes with the territory. Living in a popular, metropolitan city often means tight living/creative spaces, high rent prices and a general sense of restriction when it comes to living large and out loud. A city notorious for its cost of living, San Francisco is no stranger to these challenges. What continues to amaze me though, is what blooms in this city despite the confinement.

This summer, I've been attending quite a few performances at the Red Poppy Art House, an incredible artists' space in the heart of the Mission district. The Red Poppy hosts everything from flamenco workshops, to Brazilian jazz concerts to oil painting lessons for kids. Housed in the bottom studio apartment of an old red Victorian, it's a space that is as ethereal as it is practical. By day, it's a working artist residency and classroom. By night, it is magically transformed with candles, cushions and chiffon streamers into a lively performance space that is almost always filled to capacity. I love that they never insist on a cover charge (a donation is always encouraged). It's art by the people for the people.

On a similar note, Red Poppy Art House works alongside another amazing San Francisco organization - MAPP: The Mission Arts and Performance Project, which has also caught my attention lately. MAPP's main goal is to encourage residents to transform their garage and outdoor spaces into living art galleries. They emphasize that art doesn't need to be formally housed in galleries - rather, putting it at a more basic accessible level can change the health of our society.

This past weekend, Red Poppy and MAPP teamed up to host a Frida Kahlo tribute that took place alongside the huge Frida exhibit that opened June 18 at the SFMOMA. Among many other smaller performances, the tribute was tied together with a moveable performance space in which "Frida" traveled from studio to studio on her bed, carried by friends and family, just like she was carried into her final gallery opening. Kelly and I were lucky enough to catch the show as it passed through the Red Poppy Art House and even played an "active" role in helping to get the makeshift performance space into the studio. Once we did, we listened to prayers in Spanish, watched sage burn, felt live drums reverberate the floorboards and paid homage to the amazing artist.

I'm in awe of the folks in this neighborhood who keep a space like Red Poppy alive and becoming equally inspired to get involved and to contribute to it. Maybe that can be a small goal in accordance with this blog -- to deeper explore the Urban Miracles within MAPP and give whatever I can, even if it's just a few brush strokes a month. If you live in the Bay Area, I hope to see you there very soon. It is, afterall, our city, our art and ultimately our space to create together.

(photo courtesy of Todd Brown)