Monday, April 16, 2007


Leather. While denim might be San Francisco contribution to the world of fabric, the city’s has a long history of bovine appreciation. I grew up in Cow Hollow, a neighborhood before real estate agents swallowed it into the Marina and Pacific Heights. The city has bars that specialize in hats, festivals that bring out vests, and parades that show off chaps. The stench of this cow town has long since been replaced with the scent of coffee shops and day spas, but there are the remnants of this western lifestyle. This weekend I went to one of the largest leather gatherings in the city – the annual Grand National Rodeo at, of course, the Cow Palace.

The last time I went to the Palace was for the wintertime Dickens fair with the exotic costumes, salty shanties, and quantities of mead. The Grand National rodeo harkens back to the same century but a different continent. The same percentage of folks wear hats, but the shanties are more about god, dogs, and country, and the mead tastes like Budweiser. Buckles aren’t used for shoes, but are meant to be status codpieces worn on belts. The fans’ devotion to the event remained the same.

The level of pure earnest at these festivals seeps deeply into the spectators. Most have such a strong desire to participate in a pulp genre lifestyle where the poor are dirty, villains are real estate crooks, and the women wear copious amounts of undergarments. There are times when I think everyone clings fantasy of a simpler time when there wasn’t email or downsizing, but the past that is cherished has been bleached by Disney in the same way that tomorrowland doesn’t ever have homeless. There is an absence of London’s cholera and Native American small pox at these festivals. The notion of an ambiguous past is not meant for those who need to worship it.

The real difference between the Dickens fair and the rodeo is that at the end of the day of the rodeo somebody has to ride the bull.

The rest is prelude. The show has horses being spun as if they were dogs chasing their tails, and dogs rounding cattle into corrals as if they were horses. A perky Miss Grand National dressed in a satin shirt and a bouncy hairstyle that suggested that Mane 'N Tail shampoo wasn’t only used for her steed. Quite a few events were about getting a calf to the ground either by jumping on them, having a couple of buddies lasso both the front and back legs, or a soloist lasso then tie the fallen calf. Boxers get ten counts; calves only get six. The fasting roping of the night was by the security guards who caught a drunk hopping the fence to take a short cut to the Montgomery Gentry Concert. The time remained unofficial.

There was a small laser show before the bull riding that was reminiscent of Jordan’s Chicago championship team introductions. This one was followed by real cattle. Bull riding is one of the few things that is tougher than it sounds. The sport has long been a source of metaphors. Middle management is constantly being told to grab the bull by the horns. From the standpoint of someone trying to last 8 seconds this is not a very good idea.

A better approach is clenching braided rope and kick in the opposite direction of the creature as it bobs and weaves. It might be too simple to say that a bull is an elephant injected with caffeine, but the truth is that leading rave drink isn’t called "Red Dumbo." A good bull has a variety of moves: a midair twist, a double down head fake, and a back side shimmy. Bull riding is the battle between the last two of Newton’s laws: the bull’s seeks "force is mass times acceleration" to his advantage, while the rider must counter with "for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction." Bull riding is equal parts physics and prayer. To project their cognitive abilities, most riders now wear helmets. I don’t know if the outlaw shells come in black.

When I saw the first bull ride I thought that the show must have been sponsored by the National Chiropractor Association, but the lead sponsor of the Grand National is a workman compensation insurance company, Andreini & Company. There must have been an actuary a few booths over from me drowning his night with Budweiser and mumbling "We insured what?"

No one finishes a bull ride easily. A few can hop on a nearby horse and then bounce to the ground, but everyone limps out of the arena. The unlucky ones are stamped or speared, which I think in the variety of workplaces has to be the worst exit interview ever. All of the riders on my night made it out on their own accord, but I have no idea whether they will make it to thirty.

It takes a sport so old to crush men so young. As they hobbled they had the physique of rookie baseball players but the posture from playing football against someone twice your size. They carried not just the weight of their own rides, but the collective need of nostalgia.

Monday, April 09, 2007

The Lorax in Concert

The Beatles played their last paid concert in San Francisco. As did the Sex Pistols and the Band. It isn’t so much that rock stars don’t come to the Bay Area; it is that we get them after their peak – the entertainment equipment of a baseball player after too many off-seasons eating hot dogs instead of weightlifting being told that from now on he will a designated hitter. There are parts of the performance that remain, little bits that can still amaze with the energy that came from the younger self, but the complete concert is reduced to at best a greatest hits compilation with the occasional song of the new album that serves as a reminder of how the new work is vastly derivative. Few have good second acts. Last Wednesday I saw one of the great exceptions.

It had been 19 years since I had last heard him speak, and after all these years the first thing I noticed is that we are both about 30 pounds heavier than the time he visited my college. Whatever effects there are from global warming are exasperated by the extra layers we ate into ourselves. Physical charisma isn’t as important to him now; no longer a heartbeat away from his boss’s job, he has moved on from the power that comes from an elected official to a new role of his defining, our environmental designated hitter. He is, now more than the last decade, our political rock star. He is Al Gore.

There was a buzz at the Masonic Auditorium on Wednesday night for Al Gore’s City Arts talk that is usual reserved for sport events or half off Christmas sales. If there is a city that longs more for a few hundred votes going a different way in Florida, I don’t know it. David Remnik in the New Yorker captured this angst about how different the world would be as did a skit on Saturday Night Live. The sketch shows a future with each 2000 presidential candidate. George Bush’s world is in flames, and Will Ferrell played him as a bumbling maniac. There was a time when the show made fun of how incompetently Bush spoke, but it stopped after that September as if the planes not only collided with the towers but their sense of irony as well. What was supposed to funny now actually came true: America was burning.

The skit of Gore’s possible future was of a bored nation. He had the country open up text books, and spoke like a disappointed history teacher to the state of Iowa. In real life he speaks with monotones and sighs. He hesitates to form the right sentence, and in these pauses I could feel he was weighing the choices; considering the balance between environment necessity and human urges, educational reform and television regulation, between Nuclear power and carbon offsets; and examining each item as is connects to the fabric of understanding that comes from a life that not only gained access to scientific experts, but also the far harder choice of seeking them out and listening. Al Gore is a rock star.

At first I thought crowd around me murmured only agreeing giggles when he talked, but it came clear in the word of Mark Anthony that some came not praise him, but bury him. The woman behind me bristled every time the interviewer asked Gore about the greatness of private schools. She seemed oblivious that she was sharing a lecture with the rest of the crowd, and the experience she had hoped for the $15 was to ramble loudly as if she were watching the former vice president on television. Perhaps she just had a couch mode where politics were meant to be drowned out by sound of ones own voice.

The hard part is that she wasn’t alone.

A third of the way somebody else started screaming about how 17,000 scientists didn’t believe in global warming. I was taken back by how anyone could heckle Al Gore. The sentence about Al Gore that use the word “polar” should it before the words “ice caps” and not “’izing figure.” Being against Al Gore is a bit like being against Smokey the Bear. Both are against C02 from forest fires.

Somebody else right behind me was ejected for yelling about carbon offsets crushing the third world. There is an angry showmanship side to San Francisco politics; there is a point when radicalism shifts to a destructive force, a time where a good concept such as making San Francisco more bike friendly shifts into beating up people in minivans. Sometimes it seems we are city of bull horns instead of Boy Scouts.

I do believe strongly in free speech but have a larger hesitancy about free shouting. It isn’t so much that someone yells fire because in that case at least the expression is being heard, but it is more the conundrum that if everybody yells then no one can hear what is being said. The strength of a political argument is not measured by the volume of sound, but by the analysis of its points. It needs dialog. It needs people who are willing to weigh the information of the world. It needs Al Gore.

At most of the lectures in the City Arts program there is a book signing afterwards, but Gore disappeared quickly once the talk was over. It is much harder for him to mingle than say his predecessor Dan Quayle (though granted his successor isn’t coming to San Francisco anytime soon). Without the epilogue the lecture seemed short.

I left knowing that screaming “encore” wasn’t going to help anymore than “four more years” did at the start of the millennium. I believe that my voice is bettered used to talk about his points with smaller groups of friends. My voice isn’t meant for the big stage; we can’t all be rock stars.