Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Remembrance of a Walk

In a semblance of continuity I pick up on the same Memorial Day walk...

A semi-deserted quality prevailed on campus. My path led me on to the 3-D ziggurat bridge. It crosses the creek in the form of a ziggurat with projecting elements. The creek was still vigorous despite a Spring turned dry. The greenery was burgeoning in the May time as the male birds were in giddy singing competition. Alongside, a guy leaned against a back-pack chattering away, maybe he was making a phone call.
In the brisk air around the Campanile, the shadow of long pine needles on branches above played on the white marble sundial. Clean-shaven Abe Lincoln's nose was prominent on his haunted carotid. In the distance the Golden Gate bridge stood before an even more remote optical illusion caused by sun light on a fog bank, the Western sky cleft by similar fissures of cloud. The horizon had disappeared in an effect almost arctic in its seeming unreality.

Across the way the Bancroft library building renovations are starting to look like they may be finished this decade. I regularly walk to this spot around midnight and recall with amusement the nights when I witnessed a small tractor vehicle climbing a ramp into the front entrance of the gutted building under floodlights. It resembled nothing more than the scene in Kubrick's 2001 where they have excavated the Monolith in a construction site on the moon.

When I visit at night and see the Greek-revival building and grounds brilliantly lit and deserted and surrounded by darkness, I experience what I call the "metaphysical effect" in viewing the physical landscape. This derives from notions of of perfection in design, approaching the heavenly realm. But my idea derives even more strongly from the paintings of De Chirico and his fellow Italian moderns like Carra and Morandi who were known as the Metaphysical painters. Their deserted city-scapes with classical detritus and uncanny figuration suggest the psychological or metaphysical made visible. They are lonely paintings-- as if solitude allows the world to manifest your mind in front of you.

At times like this I can occasionally summon the awe and delight I experienced when I first visited this campus--it's huge artfully grown trees, sweeping lawns, neo-classical architecture; it's goofy decorative emblems, its saber tooth tiger statue, its topiary clock. Topiary clock? Right and I was headed there to be my turn-around point today.

But I do have to be the curmudgeon and gripe about how much has happened to endanger that impression. All the heedless construction with its resultant unpleasantness and pollution, its loss of open space, and its increase in population and traffic. An endless procession of heavy construction trucks come rolling down the hills like run-away trains. A lady was killed when one truck's brakes failed and flattened her car; a pedestrian was killed by another one at Haste and Dana. Just today (as I write this) I witnessed a close call as a truck, one of two carrying untold tons of scaffolding, what, didn't see the yellow light on Bancroft? As a sandal-footed youth entered the crosswalk the driver of the first truck had to suddenly brake loosening some of the steel he carried. Both trucks proceeded to pull into the bus stop to adjust their dangerous loads. An older lady with a cane tried to catch her bus that just kept going. That whole length of Bancroft is a locus for outlaw trucker and tour bus driver manoeuvres.

The worst offenders by local standards are the tour bus drivers. They leave their big diesel buses running literally for hours ignoring Berkeley's law banning more than 15 minutes of idling, ignoring air pollution and global warming, and ignoring our health. And those profuse campus and Berkeley cops, they never say a word to them about it. The cops just circle endlessly in their cars rarely setting foot to pavement, unless they have some prey in their trap. Then five cop cars rush up, each cop more eager than the last to come and kneel on somebody's head.

I cleared the library and there it was across Memorial lawn, the new East As1an Library, with it's fragmented fool's gold screen, its dreary foundation of concrete cubes, and its arrogant intrusion into the historical footpath. Coming down from the Northside, walkers must detour now so to allow this elephantine monstrosity to dominate the landscape across from the Main Library which is presumably now relegated to housing the semi-moribund Western languages.

More on this day's walk will follow.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Metaphysical Grounds

Rather than follow a more-or-less linear narrative I expect to fashion tesserae in an envisioned mosaic...

I'll describe a typical peaceful walk around my vicinity. But as Yeats said "peace come dropping slow" in "the bee-loud glade." And were that bees were allowed to be loud in this world, the vital yet threatened bees. It was a blessedly quiet day due to the Memorial Day holiday. The record store/cafe downstairs was closed, so no sound-bleed of classical music greeted me with the day. The University was closed for business and the traffic on Bancroft Way was very light. It was nearly tranquil until the early afternoon when a representative of the new student majority came to the little concrete breezeway between Lower Sproul Plaza and Bancroft. It functions as an echoing box for the insect-like robotic disco that a group of students gather there to dance to. Today not a troupe but a lone wannabe dancer showed up with some sort of small but super-sonic boom box and cranked that. As he did his little hops and assorted cliche dance moves. I decided to yell something figuring my neighbors were all away. He heard me and may have lowered the volume infinitesimally. And fortunately he lost interest after a while. No one else had shown up to join him--sometimes they are there past midnight. They are worst and most persistent recreational noise nuisance here. The triumphalist taiko drumming is more maddening but generally is not as frequent or as die-hard as these slithery dance cadres.

The day was cool and only intermittently sunny. People not familiar with the Bay Area may be surprised to learn that one often appreciated hat, scarf, and gloves even in late May. And so attired I set out. Even the main entrance to campus facing the terminus of Telegraph Ave. was relatively quiet. As usual appeared to be individual loitering in an inconspicuous vantage point as if keeping surveillance on a free people. They are always in evidence when the right of free speech is being exercised as when every Friday the kindly older Jewish ladies for justice for Palestine assemble around an information table as the Women in Black. At this safe distance in time the University likes to acknowledge the legacy of Berkeley's Free Speech Movement. They of course ignore the reality that the administration and its police force did everything it could then and has ever since to undermine free speech.
A few years back on a quiet unused lawn near Boalt Hall, we demonstrated against John Yoo and the shameful policies he abetted . As indifferent students walked past blown-up photos from Abu Ghraib, speakers addressed the small gathering over a microphone connected to a small amplifier. A UC cop stood anxiously looking at his watch until an hour had passed and he could insist the mic be turned off. The dignified Daniel Elsberg who had been speaking softly over it was thereby rendered inaudible over the nearby incessant University-driven automobile traffic. This is from the same police who see little problem with the insane levels of noise pollution that goes on for hours on Upper and Lower Sproul including their own piss factory The Bear's Lair, a malodorous campus bar. But then that deafening racket, unlike the quiet speech we listened to, doesn't proclaim the University complicity in vast war crimes. Maybe it celebrates it by obliviousness to it.

So I walked past the deserted fountain and on uphill. There was Barrows Hall under renovation, its exterior marked with squiggly loops of paint, looking like a vast sketch by Dubuffet or Leger. There was the fond familiar green metal pelican statue. There was the striking new music library in green slate shingles with scattered burgundy windows. I crested the hill alongside and ambled down an incline to visit a notable dogwood tree. Its old growth trunk, half-hollowed out and burled resembling a Dali figure, was crowned by a flowering canopy of newer branches. It looks frail and precarious. But as I have noted when I've climbed it and when I regularly stretch my back by hanging from a branch, it is solid and sturdy. Just past it in a small grove of rhododendron, is the statue of the last Dryad. It is a likeness of a beautiful long-haired young girl amazing for unabashed open-legged pose showing her body's own flower. As if to emphasize her timeless free spirit, people place flowers in her cast bronze hair. Unhappily the rhododendron flowers burn away very quickly these days. A lady gardening at St. Mark's Church told me Northern California has become too hot for "rhodos" as she affectionately called them.
I remember a song from my youth by Donovan in which he sings of "meditating rhododendron forest", a point of transcendence. And I often visit the splendid rhododendron grove in Golden Gate park, if only in my mind. Then I am compelled to recall a comment by the California poet Gary Snyder, rather Zen and austere. Someone was bewailing a possible future extinction of Redwood trees. "Something will replace them," Snyder replied. Some of us, however, don't always find it as quite as easy to think in terms of geological time.

More on this walk later on.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

First Impressions

Now to look toward how this locality has altered over time....

I can easily summon vivid impressions of my arrival in this town in 1979. I saw it then as more of a residential stepping stone to San Francisco. It was coupled with my first impressions of California specifically Northern California. In the wee hours of the previous day I had flown into SFO from Massachusetts, and spent the day resting at a family member's home in Hercules in nearby Contra Costa county. I remember of course the weather after leaving frozen New England in early January. It felt to me like early Spring-- green grass was growing, some flowers were around, and there was a terrific smell of the Eucalyptus trees that bordered the rolling hills of mainly cow pasture.
Then the next day we drove to Berkeley for a tour of the university campus and environs. My tour guide identified with the former and was conflicted about the latter. He liked the bourgeois good life available here but felt no connection to the counter-culture. There were more visible surviving counter-cultural institutions around then--it was after all still the seventies. I had brought with me a version of the new east coast punk generation idea but a lot of Berkeley appeared to be still back in the Aquarian Ages.

The first notable Berkeley personage I observed I later came to learn was named Serge. Rumor had it that he was an academic who had had a nervous breakdown after much dosing with LSD. He was tall, had long gray hair and beard, and was dressed in tatters. His skin was reddened and below his fierce brow peered opalescent eyes. He seemed immersed at that moment in a complex lecture on a simultaneous observation of photons and their nature. There were no ostensible listeners to this lecture which fact in no way diminished the determination he put into it. Over the following years I concluded this lecture never concluded. I frequently heard parts of it on my strolls through bustling Telegraph Avenue where it was generally given.
I do recall seeing Serge (I think it was him) not long after he began sporting a styrofoam float from a marine crib tied atop his head. It was up in the Berkeley hills at that drizzly time of year when copper-colored salamanders cross the hill-traversing roads in large numbers. I rode in a friend's car past a figure in tattered robes carrying a cross-shaped picket across his back walking on a steep and remote incline. It was an apparition of a psychedelic martyr of the Berkeley Hills.
I also noticed that Serge was accepted and even popular with younger somewhat less eccentric frequenters of the over-crowded comic strip of Telegraph Ave. I'd see him catching a lift on the back of a motorcycle with some young hep cat. He died by the end of the eighties and was eulogized with a big photo in the local weekly "alternative" newspaper. It felt like losing a fond, familiar tree.

The Avenue then as now catered to University students, but it appealed as much to a larger world. It offered diversion to book lovers, record enthusiasts, and high school kids eager to make the scene. Bookstores, record stores, head shops, cafes, eateries, and clothes stores were the mainstays, as they are now with the addition of various tattoo, piercing, and cell phone service centers. There was in addition a large floating population of what were then called street people and are now generally thought of as part of the nebulous population labeled "the homeless".

I have long been interested in itinerant people, in those who attempt to lead lives without being dictated-to, who may be unemployed, but, in a idealistic sense, are unbowed. I read about hobos and wobblies; I was compelled by the myths and texts of Jack Kerouac, Woody Guthrie, and Bob Dylan; and I hitchhiked and camped-out a bit myself. It goes back to childhood interest in native ways of life and in early explorers--in how a human being manages to survive on basic materials and ingenuity. But while growing up, aside from the coming of the hippie generation, I had seen few people who were rootless. Most of the migrant hippies were on a lark or were intentionally being "poor in spirit" as the Gospel would have us be. Aside from a few individuals who seemed to outside society around my hometown and maybe the alcoholics who used to hang-out on a few benches in the Boston Common, very few people who would fit the now sadly commonplace notion of a homeless person ever crossed my path. I don't miss much that does cross my path.
I did see homeless people when I came to California. Ever since a certain former governor of California became president the following year, the dispossessed in this society have proliferated exponentially.

I will return to this thread of encountering Berkeley in a later blog.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Rambling Introduction

To begin somewhere, it might as well be this way...

Like many others, I am inclined to absorb and to think about my situation, my environment, and the culture I'm part of. But it takes motivation to express these thoughts and observations. Otherwise it would seem wise to sit back and exempt oneself from the fray--the incessant conflict of a populous, contentious, spoiled and unsustainable way of life.
I have indulged in this sort of disengagement over the past seven or eight years during a marked cultural revolution in reverse. "Too much democracy" at home following the cultural revolution that began in 1966, has led the powers that be to engineer an apparent state of affairs enabling the declaration of military rule of the world (the so-called war on "terror") and end to notions of freedom at home (homeland security state).

Like many perhaps I have been somewhat intimidated by the resultant climate. We were fearful to speak our minds lest we labeled unpatriotic and dangerous. For example when the chief executive visits a foreign state and declares it "our greatest and most important ally", am I allowed to reject this view, am I free to voice support for the people that state declares enemies and oppresses. What if these people's desperate attempts at self-defense results in a designation of "terrorism" by our extremely biased political leaders? Do I still have the freedom of opinion and the freedom of speech to strongly disagree? Can I do so without hostile surveillance, without pejorative labels used to suppress my opinions? Without my name being added to a "No-fly List"?

Loss of hope is of course not an option. I've now lived long enough to see the pendulum swing both ways and I have a sense that things are now in rapid flux. And in the tradition of those who inspired me throughout my life I resolve to speak openly and with a charitable and forgiving heart.

Despite all this, I want to assure potential readers that this is not a political journal. Or at least state clearly that its politics extrapolate from my observation of the life I see around me and not from anyone else's doctrines or from media feeds.

The title Berkeley Flaneur is an adaption of a title used by the 19th Century French Romantic poet Charles Baudelaire. His title is Paris Flaneur. A flaneur, as I understand it, is someone who walks around in urban settings in sort of aleatory fashion and observes humanity as a sort of "kaleidoscope of consciousness" (Baudelaire). It is related in his thinking to the concept of a dandy--one who lives an aestheticized life and is by choice outside of the usual paths of career, family, and the duty of conformity. A flaneur may be a former dandy who is a little beat, and hopefully a little beatific.

I aspire to be a flaneur. I rarely travel by automobile, I mainly walk places and ride rails. I live a short walk from a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) train station which I often take to San Francisco where I ride MUNI trains. In 2005 I took trains from Oakland to Vancouver then across Canada to Toronto, Montreal, on to New York City and Boston. After a stay in my native Massachusetts I trained back from Providence to NYC, onto Chicago, Denver and back to California. All with very few miles traveled in cars or buses. I regard cars as the fastest engine for the ruin of the world. And my ultimate allegiance is always to the living world, not merely to priorities of mankind. At the urging of a spouse I learned to drive and got a license to use as an ID at the age of thirty-five. I'm no stranger to the joys and the stress of riding in cars, including one trip from Massachusetts to Oaxaca and back, but I have very rarely driven in my life. I say this not to sound self-satisfied as much as to plead my case on the judgment day.

And Berkeley is the place I have lived for the past nearly thirty years after one year of living in San Francisco. It is a curious microcosm of American society as well as something of an exception from it. Critical Mass, a group of bicyclists who protest the arrogant dominance of automobile traffic, ride down my street en masse once a month. And up this same street John Yoo goes to work each day at Boalt Hall law school. Yoo is the author of legal opinions used by the current administration to impose an imperial presidency, enact heinous programs of torture, and begin the massive warrentless spying on Americans we have today.
Anyone who thinks Berkeley is mainly comprised mainly of liberals and gourmands has another think coming. Things have changed. Among other things this journal will try to inform readers how radically they have as viewed from where I've been walking lately.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Opening Act

Please stay tuned for forthcoming broadcasts.