Connie’s Photo Park–A fun detour

In Madrid, New Mexico, along what’s called the Turquoise Trail, we happened upon Connie’s Photo Park. No attendant approached us, and there was no gate or admission fee. A slot with a sign suggesting a donation sat quietly off to one side.

My husband, Dave, and I were the only two visitors while we were there. Paintings were varied but several were vaguely reminiscent of the old West.


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Some had a cut-out for one face and some for two. Clearly somebody had a good time creating all these characters. I wish I knew more of the story behind the paintings.

In the back was a big empty bathtub on what looked like an old set for a western.    I got Dave to get in the tub for a photo.

No, it was not exactly a day in a museum, but we had a blast.

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Meow Wolf–a Santa Fe gem

Meow Wolf is difficult to describe.

The building itself used to house a bowling alley, but with aid from George R.R. Martin (yes, that George R.R. Martin), it now has only faint vestiges of that era.

It is at its heart an artists’ collective.  The art even spills out into the parking lot, where huge sculptures of a robot, a spider, and a wolf loom over cars and picnic tables.

 

 

 

Its website has this under “About us”:

Meow Wolf is a Santa Fe, New Mexico based arts and entertainment group that established in 2008 as an art collective.

The company is composed of nearly 200 artists across all disciplines including architecture, sculpture, painting, photography and video production, virtual and augmented reality, software and hardware development, music and audio engineering, narrative writing, costuming and performance, and more. Basically everything.

Snaggy, the Meow Wolf mascot

The centerpiece of Meow Wolf is The House of Eternal Return, a 20,000 square foot art exhibit that has secret passages and a mystery involving the Selig family. The person who took our tickets explained that about 30 percent of the experience could be enhanced with 3D glasses, which he handed us. After listening to a man on a video warn us not to gossip once we were inside, we entered, knowing almost nothing about what we were going to see but excited in our anticipation to discover what lay ahead.

Here’s the website’s attempt to describe it:

House of Eternal Return is a unique art experience featuring an astonishing new form of non-linear storytelling that unfolds through exploration, discovery and 21st century interactivity.

The first structure you see is a Victorian house with several rooms, ostensibly belonging to the Selig family. There are many references and clues surrounding their disappearance, including audio recordings and papers. Family photos hang in some rooms, and bedrooms are decorated in such a way to make it clear which family member lived in each one.

The kitchen seemed quite ordinary until I saw someone emerge from the refrigerator, bathed in brilliant white light, looking equally surprised to have found herself in a kitchen. The family room at first appears like any family room across America, but if you stay long enough you’re bound to glimpse someone crawl through the fireplace and disappear.

At one point, I put my hand against the outline of a hand on the wall, and a door opened into a futuristic travel agency, where one could choose from among several different vacation destinations. And the names were already somewhat familiar to me because I had read a brochure that had been left out on a coffee table in the family room that advertised the various trips available.

And there was this space pod filled with child’s furniture that defied gravity, a dinosaur skeleton whose ribs were musical, a little chapel with an amazing ongoing light show, a video arcade where you needed no quarters, and staircases that took you to other equally interesting spaces. Stepping into a commercial-sized freezer led me to a small dark room that is mirrored and equipped with four distinct lightscapes to experience.

Everything is self-led, but there are employees in white lab coats who wander through, in case of emergency, I suppose, or to ensure that people are behaving themselves. Some of it is painted in fluorescent colors and indeed looks even better through the 3D glasses.

My favorite room was a kitchen and dining area painted in black and white.

Because we were there on a Thursday morning, we were surrounded by tourists, families, and middle-aged folks like ourselves and older. I imagine that in the evening, visitors might include more young people, locals, and more than a few individuals taking recreational drugs.

One of the offerings in the learning center

In addition to the House of Eternal Returns is the David Loughridge Learning Center, a maker/art space dedicated to all kinds of creativity. There are jumbo foam blocks, a mural created by a group of middle-school teen girls, boxes of art supplies, and a large papier-mache rendition of Meow Wolf’s mascot, Snaggy. Classes, workshops, and various gatherings convene here.

Meow Wolf hosts musical entertainment as well.

 

The  funky cafe/bar offers snacks and beverages, and there’s a super-cool gift shop.

I’m not sure this long-winded account truly captures Meow Wolf, but I hope it provides a taste of this unique place. If you ever go to Santa Fe, it is well worth spending half a day at Meow Wolf. In fact, I think it’s a perfectly good destination all by itself.

Marvelous Marga!

I have always loved Marga Gomez. I remember seeing her at a comedy club in Emeryville that is no longer there and at The Marsh when it was just a nook carved out of a little cafe in the Mission. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen every solo show she’s done in the Bay Area, and I even watched Sphere, a science fiction movie (not my thing) because she had a small role in it. I also spotted her at a Poets & Writers conference, where I was brave enough to pass her a note during a presentation. And when I was protesting some underhanded activities by Berkeley’s former library director, Marga was doing her bit to entertain the small but loyal group of librarian supporters. I may have also caught sight of her at the dog park once.

So I guess you could call me a devoted fan.

Marga’s current show, Latin Standards, is poignant, funny, and insightful. If you’re already a fan, you’ll recognize the hysterical rendition of her primping mother and loving portrayal of her charming showman dad. But this show plunges more deeply into her father’s career and how this background directly shaped Marga, despite his plan that she should become a doctor.

She is the kind of performer who connects with her audience and is sensitive to mood of the crowd, who was loving her the night I saw the show. Despite her plea for folks to turn off their phones, which she explained were distracting, one cell phone ringtone blasted mercilessly from a purse a few seats to my left. I was furious on Marga’s behalf. Luckily, the guilty party was able to silence it swiftly.

I saw her on a sad day in history–Brett Kavanaugh had just been confirmed. This was not lost on Marga, who proclaimed that she was performing the show that made it the greatest night of her life–on the worst day of her life. And it being Berkeley, nobody wondered what she was referring to.

I urge you to go whether you’re already familiar with Marga’s work or not. She puts her whole heart into every word. And since she claims this is her final one-woman show, you don’t have much longer to be able to see one of the finest solo performers around.

Latin Standards is playing through November 17 at The Marsh in Berkeley. Don’t miss it!

Remembering Letha

Letha was my student.

She was feisty, curious, and funny. She always wore a cap over her shaved head and usually wore a hefty belt and an oversized t-shirt. She rode her bike everywhere, and everyone in the probation department building knew her. If you glimpsed her riding her bike from a distance, you’d think it was a 7th-grade boy rather than a middle-aged woman. She was always on the lookout for free snacks.

The name Tanya was tattooed on her chest. It had nothing to do with me–it’s also the name of her ex–but we both thought it was funny that my name lived permanently on her body.

When Letha first enrolled as my student, I asked where she lived. She declared, “Here!” And she did spend a lot of time in or just outside the building. Although she didn’t have a street address, she had a home that she referred to with a certain pride. Letha had a secret arrangement with the manager of some storage units who pretended not to see that she had taken up occupancy in the unit that was created for storage rather than living. Letha had furnished it like a tiny apartment. She’d even found a free couch that became her living room. With a fiercely independent spirit–and a bit of a temper–I’m sure Letha was happier living there than she would have been having to adhere to someone else’s rules in a shelter. Sleeping in a storage unit had its advantages: since the grounds were locked overnight, she was safely off the streets by closing time and could sleep soundly without worrying who might find her.

Letha called many women in the probation department building “auntie” even if they were younger than her. I suppose it was a term of affection for all of the women who supported her: her probation officer, her case manager, her therapist, and probably others I didn’t even know about.

I don’t think Letha planned necessarily to graduate from high school, but she definitely wanted to learn. She took her studies seriously when she came to class and did her best to concentrate even when her meds made her sleepy or she’d lost her glasses. I taught Letha the difference between short and long vowel sounds, and she genuinely seemed delighted to discover new words.

The last time I saw her, we were working on subtraction. She said she wanted to be able to know whether she was getting the correct change when she bought something, and I helped her figure out how much money she’d have left if she bought a replacement phone. She also wanted to go on a vacation and figured she had enough cash to enjoy a weekend away, but she was conflicted. I don’t know exactly what the issue was, but I think someone was trying to talk her out of it. She said she knew she had problems she had to deal with, but she just wanted to get away from them for a while. I told her it sounded like she needed to take a mental holiday, and she grasped onto that quickly. “Yeah, that’s what I need–a mental holiday!”

On a recent Monday night Letha was found in a parking lot bleeding and unconscious, and although someone  found her and rushed her to the hospital, she didn’t make it. I don’t know if she ever came to after they found her. I hope she wasn’t in pain for long. And I hope that if she was conscious at any point in the hospital, that some human being–a nurse, an EMT, a doctor–held her hand and spoke kindly to her in her last moments, since none of her aunties could be there to comfort her.

The person who beat Letha surrendered herself to the authorities, but I don’t know what specifically caused her death. Maybe it was a misunderstanding or a fight that got out of hand. It doesn’t really matter any more because she is gone, and nothing is going to bring her back.

A few months ago, Letha celebrated her birthday with us. The women in the front office bought her breakfast, one of her aunties made her a birthday cake, and I wrote up on the dry-erase board in big letters “HAPPY BIRTHDAY, LETHA!” She loved the food and all the attention. I’m so glad that she knew, at least on that day, that lots of people loved her.

I’m going to miss her.

My first Five Keys graduation!

Sherri (right) was Shanon’s in-custody teacher

I’ve only been teaching at Five Keys since October of 2017, so this May was my first opportunity to take part in the end-of-year festivities. I’ve been to many graduations, mostly my former second- and third-graders, so I generally watched from the audience side of the auditorium.

But this time, my graduating students were adults, and I was up on the stage of the Solano Community College Theater handing out diplomas. All graduations have common elements: the director/principal/head/president greets and presents the graduating class, proud family members cheer as their loved ones cross the stage, and either a guest or a faculty member utters wise words to live by and wishes the graduates bright futures.

Jorge & me

Two distinguishing characteristics of a Five Keys version of this ceremony are (1) most of those accepting their high school diplomas received at least part of their education while incarcerated, and (2) the age range of the graduates may be anywhere from 19 to 90, which means some of those in caps and gowns had children and even grandchildren celebrating this milestone with them.

But what stood out for me were the students’ speeches. They were so grateful to everyone who had supported them, even if some didn’t have any friends or family members there to watch them get their diplomas. They related some of the difficulties they’d encountered along the way–and to be sure, some of them have surmounted huge obstacles–but the tears that day were all about happiness, and most of the speeches focused on the future. Some wanted to go to college, some wanted to start their own businesses, and some just wanted to find a job that would keep them out of the criminal justice system.

Only two of the fourteen grads who walked the stage that day had been my students, but I felt a swell of pride not only for Jorge and Shanon, but also on behalf of all those graduating. And I enjoyed being  part of this wonderful community that included my fellow educators, Jorge’s smiling auntie who carried a big bouquet of balloons, and the deputy sheriff who cut and served cake to her former inmates.

Even after I climbed into my car afterwards, I was giddy with positive energy. Although I suppose it could have been a sugar rush from the cake…

Eureka Day is brilliant!

Lisa Anne Porter, Elizabeth Carter, Rolf Saxon, Teddy Spencer, Charisse Loriaux (photo David Allen)

Jonathan Spector has penned a gem, and we here in the Bay Area are lucky to see its world debut. The first commissioned piece from Aurora’s new Originate+Generate program, this one knocks it out of the park. Josh Costello directs a talented cast who portray the board members at a progressive private elementary school in the Berkeley hills. Having been a teacher at a private progressive school myself, I was curious to see a play about one.

The congenial but not particularly decisive head of school (played delightfully by Rolf Saxon) doesn’t lead so much as facilitate discussion among parents in an attempt to rule by consensus. He reads Rumi at the beginning of every meeting and avoids conflict at all cost. The parents include Eli, the stay-at-home dad (a perfect performance by Teddy Spencer) who hysterically strikes yoga poses throughout the first meeting; Meiko, the hot young single mom on the prowl who presumably shops at Whole Foods and farmers markets (Charisse  Loriaux); the uber-lefty Suzanne (Lisa Anne Porter), who makes cashew lasagna and speaks gently but is quick to remind the other board members that at Eureka Day, gender-neutral pronouns are used for everyone as a matter of course; and new Eureka parent, Carina (played by the versatile Elizabeth Carter), who is certainly the sanest of the bunch.

The good-natured skewering of the stereotypical Berkeleyite as ultra-politically correct was right on target and provided for much of the laughter in the play. And the scene in which a virtual parent meeting is happening on Facebook (pictured above) was one of the most hysterical I’ve had the pleasure to watch.

However, Eureka Day is not just a comic romp. The conflict that divides the school community is the vaccination debate, and some of the characters at first seem to represent simply their point of view. But Eureka Day is neither a propaganda vehicle nor a single-issue play, and the characters reveal more depth in the second act, which takes a serious turn.

At its heart, Spector’s play echoes the deep divide in our country, with red states feeding off Fox “news” and blue states angry at all those people who voted in the Cheetoh-in-Chief. Most would agree that we in Berkeley live in a bubble of like-minded liberals, so our brand of political arguments are less likely to span the full red-to-blue spectrum that exist elsewhere in the country. But the question of vaccination is one that strikes closer to home, since there are liberals on both sides of the issue here in the Bay Area (though I would argue it’s more of an issue in Marin, but I’m sure that’s because I live in Berkeley and don’t want to think that my neighbors could be anti-vaxxers).

Of course anyone who delves into the comments section of Berkeleyside knows that we in Berkeley are no strangers to vitriol, and the Facebook live-streaming session in the play illustrates how easily members of a community can turn on each other.

Given our current polarization as a country, it’s sort of refreshing to watch people argue about something other than politics. But the main reason to buy tickets for Eureka Day is to treat yourself to a stellar performance of a terrific world debut. If you haven’t seen it, there’s still a week left in its run, so get your tickets now!

 

Betty Reid Soskin–What a Life!

Recently at Pegasus Books on Shattuck, Betty Reid Soskin read from her memoir, Sign My Name to Freedom. I already owned a signed copy that I had bought when I heard her speak in her capacity as a park ranger in Richmond, California at the museum with the longest name ever: Rosie the Riveter/WWII Home Front National Historic Park. But at the museum, she spoke strictly of history because she was on the job. I had been looking forward to hear her talk about herself and her book. Apparently so did a lot of other people–when I arrived a half-hour early for the reading, most of the seats were already claimed. Luckily, I found a spot on the third row. By the time she was introduced, dozens of folks were standing shoulder to shoulder around the chairs on the crowded platform designated for readings.

Betty Reid Soskin is both a local and national treasure. She’s lived so many lives, running a record store in Berkeley, working as a legislative aide, becoming a park ranger in her fifties and an author in her nineties–and, oh yeah, she was also a mother of four.

She started blogging in 2003, sharing her life’s stories with that wry, distinctive voice. You can sample her entertaining stories at CBreaux Speaks.

Partly because all of her contemporaries have died and she’s lived so long, she states plainly that she no longer thinks in terms of the future and is absolutely content living in the present. That said, the dedication of her memoir promises that her next book will be more about her four children. So Betty may not live for the future, but she continues to make plans for it. And despite her new career as an author, she returned to her job at the museum as soon as her book tour ended. No resting on her laurels–she remains a popular speaker that packs the museum auditorium regularly. At 96, she has the energy of at least two 48-year-olds, and I’ve declared her as my new role model.

Although she was born in Detroit, her Creole parents moved the family back to New Orleans when Betty was just three years old. They lived there a few years before trekking west to California and settling in the Oakland hills, where Betty spent her childhood.

But rather than read my summary of her talk, you should buy her book and read it for yourself. And if you live in the Bay Area, you should order it from Pegasus Books. Of course if you live elsewhere, you should purchase it at your favorite independent bookstore or ask for it at your local library. But the point is that you should read Sign My Name to Freedom.