Quin's Progress


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Sorry, Starman

starmanThe Internet is full of reminders today that David Bowie died exactly one year ago. As if I could forget. Gentle friends, it’s time I came clean and confessed. You see, it’s my fault. I may have killed David Bowie.  Kind of.  Probably.  In a way.

I didn’t mean to! It was an accident, I swear. Let me explain.

img_0554One year ago today, I took the train from Zürich to Montreux, Switzerland, a charming, small town that spills down the side of a mountain into Lake Geneva. Montreux is a mecca for music lovers and historians, for many reasons. It is the home of the eponymous Montreux Jazz Festival, as well as the Montreux Casino (see box note, below), which sits right on the Lake’s edge, and used to house the world famous Mountain Studios where the likes of the Rolling Stones, Queen, Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, Phil Collins, Yes, Duran Duran, Sting, Michael Jackson, Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, B.B. King, Marvin Gaye, and, of course, David Bowie came to record music history in relative peace.

img_0597The band Queen bought Mountain Studios in 1978 for tax reasons, and owned it until 1995. Queen had recorded many albums there, even before they bought the studios. Indeed, their album Jazz was named as a hat tip to the Montreux Jazz Festival. Queen and David Bowie—who lived nearby in Blonay at the time—wrote and recorded Under Pressure in a spontaneous, one-night jam session at Mountain Studios.

img_0860Freddie Mercury recorded his final tracks there in 1991, just before he died. They are some of his most emotional, transcendent vocal achievements; astounding, especially, given his weakened state. The cover of Queen’s subsequent album, Made in Heaven, features the breathtakingly powerful statue of Freddie that now stands on the shore of Lake Geneva at Montreux, “the place at which Freddie had written and recorded his last songs, and which had so inspired and influenced him.”

statue1statue2made-in-heaven

Now, Mountain Studios has moved, and in its former place inside the Montreux Casino is the Queen Studio Experience, an exhibition of a dizzying array of Queen artifacts, including the recording deck where Under Pressure and all of Freddie’s last songs were recorded. img_0795Proceeds from the Queen Studio Experience go to The Mercury Phoenix Trust, funding education, research and outreach projects fighting HIV/AIDS in honor of Freddie Mercury.

Okay, so…back to me killing Bowie.

img_0845A big fan of Queen, Freddie Mercury, music in general—and, of course, David Bowie!—I had to stop in Montreux for a few days on my way to the Matterhorn. As you can imagine, many of the lodging options in Montreux are music themed, for the entertainment of the thousands of visitors that come for the Jazz Festival, as well those, like me, who come to see the glittering shrine to Freddie Mercury that is the Queen Studio Experience. I stayed in one such place, the TraLaLa Hotel.

12552646_10207037227880867_4702047785080605022_nEvery inch of the TraLaLa is covered in music memorabilia and photos of music luminaries who have graced the shores of Lake Geneva at Montreux for the Jazz Festival. Each room at the hotel has a theme inspired by a particular musician. 12507253_10207037227520858_6530174264735288645_nGiven the fob on my room key, I thought I was going to sleep in the Prince Room (who, I swear, I did not kill).

But, lo! When I opened the door, I realized I was in the David Bowie suite. It was a special room, too, because Bowie is a very popular local figure around Montreux. Not only did he, as I mentioned above, live very close by in Blonay for many years, but, he married Iman in nearby Lausanne, and had a home there as well. mjf-poster-95He was good friends with Claude Nobs, founder and director of the Montreux Jazz Festival, and even designed the 1995 Festival’s promotional poster. He only performed at the Festival once, in 2002, but it was a very memorable show, locally, as he jokingly invited the whole audience back to Nobs’ house afterwards. So, it was an honor to stay in the David Bowie room, let me tell you.

12439140_10207037226880842_7070700296455231411_n 1234_10207037227400855_7926709277622535523_nDavid Bowie’s face was everywhere in this room, on the wall, the coasters, the Do Not Disturb sign. Most striking was the huge photo of Bowie that hung on the wall opposite the bed.

There he was, Mr. Z. Stardust and his spooky, different-colored eyes…staring intensely, right at me as I lay in bed, trying to sleep. (Yes, I know his eyes weren’t really different colors, but just looked that way because one pupil was dilated from an injury during a boyhood fistfight over a love triangle. But, still, it’s creepy when those eyes are boring holes into you while you are trying to sleep.) how-can-i-sleepI even posted on Facebook to my friends about it. They had a good laugh at me.

Sometime after midnight, unable to sleep with David Bowie staring at me, I finally got up and hung a blanket over the photo. And in the morning, it was all over the news: he was dead.bbcrolling-stone-bowie

Clearly, it was me! It’s my fault! I inadvertently voodoo’d David Bowie by suffocating his image with a blanket. How careless of me to not recognize the mystical musical and Bowie-specific vortex that is Montreux, and to do such a reckless thing there. To be fair, though, I didn’t know he was sick. No one did, he kept it quiet. But, still…I feel responsible. Go ahead and blame me, I deserve it.  I feel terrible.

So, I am sorry, Starman. I’d take it back, if I could, if it would bring you back to us. We miss you so much.  For what it’s worth, wherever you are, I don’t mind if you want to watch me sleep. I’ll keep the blankets on the bed this time, I promise.

you-can-watch-me-sleep

The Montreux Casino


purple The Montreux Casino has the added distinction of inspiring Deep Purple’s iconic hit Smoke on the Water. In late 1971, Deep Purple was recording at the Montreux Casino, where the Rolling Stones had a mobile studio at the time. On December 4, 1971 Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention performed in the Casino’s concert space. During the performance, someone fired a flare gun and set the place ablaze. A spectacular conflagration quickly consumed the casino, as well as the concert space, studio and equipment inside (except, hilariously, a cowbell). Thanks to Zappa’s composure and instructions to the audience, everyone at the concert got out fairly unscathed.

montreux-fireThe sight of the terrifying inferno destroying the building and sending smoke and ash into and across Lake Geneva profoundly impacted Deep Purple’s lead singer Ian Gillan: “The wind was coming down off the mountains and blowing the flames and the smoke over the lake. And the smoke was just like a stage show and it was hanging on the water.” When Deep Purple resumed recording after the fire, in a makeshift studio in a room at Montreux’s Grand Hotel, Gillan penned the following fairly literal lyrics about the experience:

Smoke On The Water

We all came out to Montreux
On the Lake Geneva shoreline
To make records with a mobile
We didn’t have much time
Frank Zappa and the Mothers
Were at the best place around
But some stupid with a flare gun
Burned the place to the ground

Smoke on the water, a fire in the sky
Smoke on the water

They burned down the gambling house
It died with an awful sound
Funky Claude was running in and out
Pulling kids out the ground
When it all was over
We had to find another place
But Swiss time was running out
It seemed that we would lose the race

Smoke on the water, a fire in the sky
Smoke on the water

We ended up at the Grand Hotel
It was empty, cold and bare
But with the Rolling truck Stones thing just outside
Making our music there
With a few red lights, a few old beds
We made a place to sweat
No matter what we get out of this
I know, I know we’ll never forget

Smoke on the water, a fire in the sky
Smoke on the water

journal-de-montreaxThe reference to “Funky Claude” in the lyrics is to Claude Nobs, the founder and director of the Montreux Jazz Festival, who was at the scene of the fire, reportedly running in and out of the burning building, helping concert goers escape.

Deep Purple returned to Montreux in 2006 to perform their most recognized hit at the rebuilt scene of its inspiration.

(For my email followers, click here for a video of that incandescent performance.)

zappaIn a final eerie coincidence, Frank Zappa—who was so instrumental in preventing many senseless deaths in the blaze that destroyed the Montreux Casino—died on December 4, 1993—the 22nd anniversary of the fire.


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Tattoo d’Etat

BrainsI have not been in my right mind for quite some time, gentle friends. Before the amused chorus of “you don’t say” rises from amongst you, I should be clear, this time, I’m talking about the right hemisphere of my actual brain. You know how, apparently, the left side of the brain controls logic, reason, analytical thought, and verbal skills, and the right side is where creativity, art, music, imagination and rainbow unicorns live? Well, I’m a lawyer, so you know my zip code is on the left side of town. I’m all about words, not pictures. Recently, however, I decided to pay a visit to the other side, just to have a look around.

That is a banana blossom, about to be turned into a scrumptious salad by yours truly, in Cambodia.

A banana blossom, about to be turned into a scrumptious salad by Yours Truly, in Cambodia.

It all happened quite innocently, at first. As I’ve mentioned before, I love to take cooking classes. As most such courses focus on formulae (recipes) and technique mastery—i.e., science—my left brain stays comfortably in command, while my poor right brain stands off to the side, whispering ways to freestyle the recipe into something even more magical with other ingredients when I get home.

That's supposed to be a flower.

That was supposed to be a flower.

I took several cooking classes in Vietnam, and each featured a segment on fruit and vegetable carving to garnish the finished plates. I, of course, sucked at that part. I even cut the bejeesus out of my thumb while attempting to render a lotus blossom from the butt end of a carrot.

IMG_0791I do not like sucking at things. (Insert Beavis & Butthead snicker here.) Ordinarily, if I can’t do something well, I just avoid it. And, although one might argue that I could easily avoid fruit carving, something about it challenged me. I became determined to master at least one tomato or carrot flower, even if it killed me.

Suck it, bitches.

Suck it, bitches.

So, I hired myself a fruit carving sensei, and buckled down. And I must say, aided by good instruction and the proper tools (there are special fruit carving knives), as well as a bunch of practice, I got to where I could turn out a respectable variety of blossoms and woodland creatures from everyday items found in your local produce aisle. IMG_0788Not too shabby, eh? Remember me next time you have a buffet table to decorate for a bridal shower or red carpet awards show viewing party.

Emboldened by my admittedly moderate success at crafting fantasy vegenalia, I decided to take it to the next level: Tattooing.  On people, not fruit. Such an obvious next step, I know, forgive my prosaicness.

IMG_0589As I quickly discovered, tattooing isn’t something you can just sign up for at the Learning Annex and go do. The people in the industry don’t make it easy to get in—and they shouldn’t. Basically, the way to learn is to get an established tattoo artist to teach you, in an apprenticeship. There are some instructional materials available for purchase online, but I wanted to do it properly, so I wasn’t about to go to correspondence school. After much investigation and multiple inquiries, the tattoo masters at Bangkok Ink agreed to take me on for tutelage.

IMG_0740Bangkok Ink has a deep bench of really talented tattoo artists, including Krit, who specializes in traditional bamboo tattooing—no machine, just tapping the tattoo into the skin by hand with long needles. This guy does cleaner, more precise work in bamboo than most artists can do with a machine. It’s something to behold. They also have a relationship with a Buddhist temple, where sacred Sak Yant tattoos—done bamboo style, and supposedly embodying a sort of protective magic charm—are blessed by a monk, and sealed with a piece of gold leaf.

IMG_0743When they have room, Bangkok Ink also takes on students. It’s kind of a commune of learning, where all the resident tattooists take part in helping out the newbies. You can even learn bamboo tattooing from Krit, if you want, but I wanted to start with the modern machine style.

Bangkok Ink's guard kitty.

Bangkok Ink’s guard kitty.

I was so nervous. I had no idea if I was going to have any aptitude for this at all, and I sure didn’t know if I was going to fit in at the shop. I was the oldest person there by a good margin, and my image is pretty clean cut. I could just see the cartoon thought bubbles over their heads when I walked in that first day, words in Comic Sans font, saying “What’s that middle-aged Farang (Thai for ‘foreigner’) lady doing here? Someone give her directions to Starbucks.”

This thing scared the crap out of me every time I rounded the corner.

This thing scared the crap out of me every time I rounded the corner.

To top it off, the day I arrived, nobody knew who I was, because they had been expecting a man (I get that a lot because of my name), and Aum, the tattoo artist who was supposed to teach me, was in the hospital following a bad motorcycle accident. But, when the owner, Martin, arrived, all got sorted out quickly, another artist took over the task of instructing me, and I got down to work.

IMG_0602It was all very informal, but immediately hands on. My teacher printed out some illustrations of various things off the internet, handed me some special carbon paper, and told me to make a stencil of the image by tracing over it to get the carbon on the back side of the paper. My first several tries were dreadful, and I got purple carbon paper ink all over myself and everything around me. IMG_0597After I got a stencil of a big, cabbagey-looking flower sort of passably acceptable, she gave me a hunk of pigskin they got from the butcher, and showed me how to transfer the stencil ink to the pigskin using a tube of Mennen SpeedStick deodorant. Then, as the stencil dried, it was time to learn how to assemble and use the tattoo machine.

IMG_0605I labored over my first practice effort for almost five and a half hours. When I was done, hand cramped into a nautilus curl, Martin looked at my work, dispassionately said “not good enough,” and went on about his business.

My first attempt.

My first attempt.

I was so demoralized, I went home that night thinking, “what the hell am I doing here?” I was sure I’d made a huge mistake.

But, Day 2 went a little better. Same routine: pick an image, make the stencil, transfer to pig skin, and ink with the machine.

Day 2

Day 2

Bucket o' Pigskin

Bucket o’ Pigskin

It was still not something you’d actually want to put on a human being’s body, but nevertheless, some improvement was evident. Praise was received. I verily skipped home. Maybe I wasn’t going to suck so much after all.

Ugh.

Ugh.

Day 3, tried shading. Another disaster. I almost cried. Suckage, assured. Dragged my ass home in a funk. This endeavor was going to turn me bipolar before long.

Waf, the Phenom.

Waf, the Phenom.

It didn’t help my morale any that there was another student there, Waf, from Belgium, who started two days before I had, and on his third day there was already working on real live people, doing beautiful work. Min and WafIn fairness, he was an artist to begin with, so he already had the skill and confidence to gracefully create images. This was just a new medium for him. He was great, right out of the gate. And, so nice and encouraging to me, too, as I struggled along my much steeper learning curve.  If he wasn’t so nice, I’d have been really jealous of him.

L->R:  Aum, Tom, Ori and Waf

L->R: Aum, Tom, Ori and Waf

Two other guys—Ori and Tom—who were not beginners (at least, not by the time I got there) were also in residence.  When they weren’t cracking us up, they were spending some time polishing their already impressive skills, banking some experience, and developing their individual styles.

Ori, inking his own leg. And me, in the mirror.

Ori, inking his own leg.
And me, in the mirror, taking the photo.

When the shop was quiet, Ori would get bored and tattoo his own leg, while sipping a beer for the pain. And, can I just tell you, even though he was half in the bag, and all twisted up like that, his lines came out as clean and perfect as if he’d used a ruler. Dude is a natural.  (Click here to see more of his work.)

Practice, Practice.

Practice, Practice.

I, on the other hand, was clearly not a natural. You could just hear the rusty gears creaking in my head and smell the smoke coming out of my ears as I concentrated so hard on getting the lines even and the shading nice and feathery. My teacher was pretty laissez faire, which was probably good, as I get very frustrated and touchy when I’m having a hard time mastering something.

Hung prominently in the shop.

Hung prominently in the shop.

From the look of the work I was turning out, I was having a very hard time. The only thing I had any immediate gift for was creative draping of pashminas around the other guys’ more modest female clients who didn’t want to expose too much while they were getting worked on. A useful skill, sure, but not what I was there for.

IMG_0679But, around day 5, something shifted. Things started to click, and the machine felt more natural in my hand. I held it less tightly, and it flowed more easily over the pigskin, and suddenly, my lines looked better. The shading looked softer. The colors were going in nice and solidly. Day 5 was a good day, indeed. In fact, at the end of it, my teacher said I was ready to work on a person. IMG_0745I said no, I’m not ready. But, Pang, the manager came by and looked over my shoulder, clucked with approval, and went and put my name on the schedule board for a live, human model the following Monday.

IMG_0831I tell you what, if there’s anything that’ll motivate you to spend the whole weekend hunched over a piece of spoiling pigskin in the Bangkok heat practicing lining and shading, it’s the knowledge that some naïve kid who wants a free tattoo is going to be putting his pristine arm in your hands to indelibly mark for all the world to see. I didn’t want some epic tattoo fail ending up on the Internet—or anywhere else, for that matter—on my watch.

My walk to work along the Saen Saep Canal in Bangkok.

My walk to work along the Saen Saep Canal in Bangkok.

Monday arrived—Day 8—and I hadn’t slept much. I made sure to eat a good breakfast so my hands wouldn’t shake, and went to the shop to await my first victim. When he arrived, two hours late, I was nervous, but composed. He didn’t speak English, and I don’t speak Thai, so Aw, the shop assistant, translated for us. The model was a skinny slip of a kid of about 20, and he indicated he wanted his tattoo on the inner side of his forearm, but he didn’t have any particular image in mind. I found that strange, but I had bigger fish to fry.

Aw, our trusty shop assistant, and interpreter.

Aw, our trusty shop assistant, and interpreter.

We sat down at the computer together and sifted through various tattoo styles until he saw one he liked: a neo-traditional pocket watch flanked by some roses. He was a toothpick, though, so the image wrapped almost all the way around his arm, and he refused to let me shrink it to fit the flat part of his forearm. But, as Tim Gunn says, it was time to make it work.

All stenciled up and ready to go.

All stenciled up and ready to go.

In those last few seconds before I touched the needle to his skin for the first time, I stopped to take a breath, and looked at his clean, smooth baby skin. It was never going to be the same again. Whether it would look like a poem or like tire tracks by the end of the day was up to only me.

Ori, fixing my cable.

Ori, fixing the cable.

Unfortunately, I was beset by technical difficulties, right away. The power cable to my machine was wonky, and I kept losing power. Ori fixed that for me.  Then, because of the location of the tattoo site, and the way we were sitting, my boob was in the kid’s hand the whole time I was working.  He didn’t complain, though, and I forgot about it after a while.  Also, because I was obsessively cleaning the skin as I worked, the stencil was rubbing off.

Yes, my boob is in his hand.

Yes, my boob is in his hand.

Aum, who had returned from the hospital a couple days before, was standing over me, his eyes still swollen and black from his accident, urging me not to stop, to just continue working freehand.

Half-way, and the stencil is rubbing off.

Half-way, and the stencil is rubbing off.

But, he had a whole lot more confidence in me than I did that I could do that without utterly defacing this child’s arm. So, I kept stopping, referring back to the printed image, and manually drawing the stencil back on. After about the fifth time redrawing the stencil, though, Aum was getting impatient with me, saying we were going to be there all night.

Finito!  My very first tattoo on a real, live human.

Finito! My very first tattoo on a real, live human.

I said an inner “TAWANDA!!” and did my best to finish the rubbed-off parts freehand. And, for a first effort, I think it came out reasonably well. Only took six hours. And, boy, did I sleep like a rock that night.

IMG_0876

Did that one, too.

The ensuing days were a flurry of sweet, tough, Thai kids happy to let me cut my teeth on them in exchange for free tattoos. Oddly enough, they usually didn’t have any specific image in mind when they came in, frequently saying “Up to you,” when I’d ask (through an interpreter) what they wanted. Up to me? Really? Well, then guess who’s getting a tattoo of a penguin in a hula skirt dancing on the tip of a giant corndog! That usually got them engaged in the image selection process pretty quickly. It also ensured that I ended up doing a lot of skulls flanked by roses. It’s a classic choice, easy to make on the fly.

The picture he brought.

The picture he brought.

What I gave him.

What I gave him.

BOOM!

BOOM!

In fact, there was only one time someone came in already prepared with a picture of what he wanted. It was a kind of rough illustration of a knuckle dagger that he wanted tattooed on his tricep, exactly as pictured, but embellished with some blood dripping from the blade.  I had to do an especially good job on this one, too, as my victim had absolutely gorgeous work done already by my comrades—mostly by Tom—and I didn’t want my contribution to the glorious canvas of his body to be an ugly toad. In the end, both he and I were very happy with the result.

The Shop.

The Shop.

IMG_0709Once I found my footing, just being in the shop was a blast. We had a mild, comic uprising when someone put techno music on, as it made everyone’s lines come out all uneven and bumpy. In fact, the only music no one ever complained about was Johnny Cash. I settled a mystery for those who thought the clients were sniffing glue for the pain during tattoo sessions, by imparting my earlier acquired knowledge of the universal Thai addiction to menthol nasal inhalers (they really are great if you are feeling dizzy from the heat or pain). MuralWaf painted fantastic graphic murals—his original wheelhouse—on the exterior walls of the shop. Tom would sing while he worked. Pang would bring us food, sometimes with chicken feet in it, that we’d eat at the picnic table on the patio, sometimes under the laundry strung up to dry. PicnicGroups of loud, vacationing blonde girls would come in groups of three or four, get matching tattoos, and squawk away at the top of their voices about their supposedly-wild-but-actually-pretty-tame sexual exploits in a manner clearly contrived to garner the interest of the guys in the shop, but that resulted only in us making vicious fun of them after they’d left. (Seriously, ladies…no one cares who you blew.) It was very colorful, in more ways than one.

Pretty sure that's research.

Pretty sure that’s research.

One afternoon, we were all absorbed in our respective projects, and out of the quiet, Tom said: “Do you guys remember that Friends episode where Phoebe and Rachel go to get tattoos?” Ori, without even looking up, answered, “No, I didn’t watch that show.” I, however, had actually just been thinking about that very episode a couple days before, so I chimed in with, “Yes! And Phoebe chickened out, and just had a dot on her collarbone, saying ‘it’s a lily, as seen from space!’” To which, Tom responded “No, it was ‘This is a picture of the earth from space!” Ori finally interrupted us and said, in a mildly exasperated tone, “No, it was: “It’s the way my mother sees me from heaven.” Tom turned around, eyebrow cocked, and answered, “I thought you said you never watched it.” Ori shrugged. “Well, I didn’t want to admit seeing it, but if you’re going to quote it, you should at least get it right.”

(If the video doesn’t show above, click here.)

The last one I did before leaving.

The last one I did before leaving.

As my time at Bangkok Ink drew to a close, it was clear to me that, although I had come a very long way from that first disaster of a cabbage flower on pigskin, I still have a lot to learn and a long way to go if I’m going to be anything but a dilettante at this. I am really hoping to get back there someday, to see how much better I can become.  I’m also looking into other places in the world where I can continue to learn and improve my skills as I continue my travels.  We shall see.

Words to live by.

Words to live by.  Written on the wall of the shop.

If I’m honest, though, I think it’s safe to say that, unlike Waf and Ori and Tom, I’m just not an artist. I sense that the best I’ll ever be at this is a competent technician. I’ll always have to farm out creation of the actual artwork to a real artist, or, you know…the Internet. I can live with that, though. I’ve come to accept the fact that I’ll just never really be completely in my right mind. I mean, brain.


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Happy Fountain of Boobies

Starbucks always gets my name wrong

Starbucks always gets my name wrong

Yesterday, I went to get my underarms lasered, and if you’ve ever had that done, you know how much I suffered.  So painful!  I swear, I need to take a wooden spoon with me to bite on.  But, as they say, beauty is pain, and if you read my post about Tata the Thai Face Slapper, you know I’m not afraid of it.  Anyway, the laser doctor (who looks and sounds just like Mr. Chow from the movie “The Hangover”) has his office in Union Square.  So, afterwards, I grabbed a latte at Starbucks and went to sit in my Happy Spot to wait for my ravaged armpits to stop stinging.

Ruth Asawa's "San Francisco Fountain." The "HH" stands for Hyatt Hotel that commissioned it in 1970.

Ruth Asawa’s “San Francisco Fountain”
The “HH” stands for Hyatt Hotel

I have several Happy Spots in and around San Francisco, and the one in Union Square is at Ruth Asawa‘s “San Francisco Fountain” on the steps outside the Grand Hyatt Hotel on Stockton, between Sutter and Post, right next to the Levi’s store.  I could be in the foulest of moods, actively planning my foes’ murders, but if I “set a spell,” as my Granny would say, in this spot, invariably, my smile returns, and my foes get to live to vex me another day.

Superman flying through downtown San Francisco

Superman flying through downtown San Francisco

This fountain is whimsical, magical and thoroughly, unabashedly fun.  It’s a fun-tain.  Completely covered in kajillions of comical little figures that look like they’re fashioned out of Play-doh, it is actually a relief map, of sorts, of the City of San Francisco.  Although I think anyone would love it, it really does take a denizen of our fair City to catch and truly appreciate some of its more obscure details.

Chinatown

Chinatown

It’s built into some brick steps, with the edge facing west at the top of the stairs representing the ocean, and the edge facing east toward the street representing the bay.  Scenes and figures depicting City landmarks, history and life adorn the fountain walls and rim, in roughly geographic order.

Golden Gate

Golden Gate

The Golden Gate Bridge is complete with its ever-present traffic, and its glorious towers extend up the side of the fountain wall and over the top of the rim into the water.

Coit Tower

Coit Tower

There’s Coit Tower peeking out on top of Telegraph Hill, Ghirardelli Square, Chinatown, the old Mint, City Hall, the Conservatory of Flowers and the Filbert Steps.  I can’t fit pictures of everything in this post, but, you name it, it’s there.  It really is a full tour of San Francisco all in one place!

"Support Your Local Chicken"

“Support Your Local Chicken”

Every time I come see this fountain, I make my way around it, inspecting it closely, laughing at the little figures and scenes, and I always, without exception, find something that escaped my notice before.  Like this time, I discovered this little chicken truck.  Look, how cute!

IMG_2459IMG_2419This is kind of juvenile of me, I know, but, one of my favorite things about it is, if you look closely, there are naked boobies all over this thing.  Everywhere.  It’s fabulous!  You know my old saying, “Everyone Loves Boobs.”  Young/old, men/women, gay/straight, it doesn’t matter, we’re all united in our affection for boobs.  Boobies are the universal singularity.  You know I’m right.

boobiesIMG_2398There are lots of lounging, tangled lovers sprinkled throughout, too.  I love that.  How can that not make you smile?

A shout-out to Carol Doda, the famous stripper

A shout-out to Carol Doda, the famous stripper, and her fantastic boobs

The fountain was commissioned by the Grand Hyatt in 1970, and created by artist Ruth Asawa, known as the “fountain lady” for her works like this one, as well as the gorgeous mermaid fountain in Ghirardelli Square–another of my favorites.  She molded the figures out of bread dough, and let it dry hard before it was cast in bronze.  She also built a model of the steps that the fountain would be set into in her back yard, to store the bronze panels as they were completed, so she could visualize the map of San Francisco as it took shape.

Lombard Street

Lombard Street

Asawa enlisted the help of a bunch of school kids and other visitors to mold some of the figures, to give life to her idea to “show what many hands working together could do.”  And as the plaque on the sidewalk explains, “[p]erhaps the most remarkable aspect of the fountain is that, in the end, Ruth succeeded in proving her point; it is her work, produced by many hands, and like all great folk monuments, it belongs to everyone.”

IMG_2474Notwithstanding that lovely “this belongs to everyone” sentiment, if I ever find the owner of this tag handle, I will sit on him and pound upholstery tacks into his gums and then squeeze lemon juice over the wounds.  I mean, really.  What the Hell?  Don’t get me wrong, I live in the Mission District, I can appreciate graffiti as street art.  But don’t be tagging works of art.  Especially not one as purely joyous as this one.  It’s bad, bad karma, not to mention, disrespectful and just plain rude.

As with every other time I’ve visited this spot, though, even this crude offense faded away and gave way to laughter and levity as I explored the happy little creatures that inhabit the fountain walls.  Thanks, Ruth, you made my day — again!

The old Fleishhacker Pool--once the largest pool in the world

The old Fleishhacker Pool–once the largest pool in the world

Not just boobies, there's naked bottoms, too!

Not just boobies, there’s naked bottoms, too!

Happy creatures at the beach

Happy creatures at the beach


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Yes, Dad, I’ve Actually Been to Iceland

DSC03189When I was in Alaska with my dad a couple weeks ago, and we were on that 12-hour train ride from Anchorage to Fairbanks, I was chatting with the people sitting across the aisle from us, and they asked if I had ever seen the Aurora Borealis before.  I said no, but that I had tried to see them when I was in Iceland a few years ago, and they hadn’t cooperated.  My dad perked up when I said that, and interrupted and said “You went to Iceland?”  I said yes.  Pause.  Skeptical look from Dad.  And then he exclaimed: “In your dreams!”

That’s right.  My own dad called shenanigans on me.

Either he forgot about my Iceland trip, or maybe my mom just never told him where I was, I don’t know.  But he didn’t believe me.  So, Daddy, this one is for you.

Hallgrímskirkja in Reykjavik

Hallgrímskirkja in Reykjavik

A few years ago, I had to go to Germany for a memorial service for my German mom (the matriarch of the host family I lived with for a year when I was an exchange student in Germany in the 80s).  At the time, Iceland Air flew between San Francisco and Frankfurt, and would let you do a stopover in Iceland for up to a week without charging you extra airfare.  (They still do allow stopovers on the way to Europe, they just don’t fly out of SFO anymore.)  So, I stopped in Reykjavik for a week.

Reykjavik

Reykjavik

Iceland is groovy and strange.  In the best possible way.  There’s steam coming out of the ground everywhere, and glaciers on the horizon.  Two-thirds of Iceland’s residents live in and around the city of Reykjavik, and they all believe in fairies, but they call them “hidden people.”  They have hydrogen-fueled cars and buses that cut greenhouse emissions by over 50 percent.

The Pearl

The Pearl

There’s a revolving restaurant and a Viking wax museum–“The Pearl”–under a big, blue glass dome on top of some massive tanks that hold natural, geothermically heated water that heats the city’s buildings.  How awesome is that?

DSC02933There’s a really vibrant art scene that is weird and wonderful, if a little dark.  There’s a kind of a seafaring-depression-disembodied-baby-appendage theme happening, that takes a few days and more than a little alcohol to get used to.

Scary baby arms and legs coming out of balls of spider webs--the stuff of nightmares!

Scary baby arms and legs coming out of balls of spider webs–the stuff of nightmares!

Sólfar, or Sun Voyager

Sólfar, or Sun Voyager

Hér stoppa the bus

The bus stoppa here

The people of Iceland are all on a first name basis.  They even refer to the president of the country by his first name.  To be fair, the population of the whole country is about a third of San Francisco’s, so they might actually all know each other.  But really, it’s because Iceland’s culture has a naming convention that indicates the immediate father–and nowadays, sometimes the mother–of the person, rather than the family lineage name.

I don't know what those little donuty knot thingies are called, but they were delicious and I ate more of them than I am proud of

I don’t know what those little donutty knot thingies are called, but they were delicious and I ate more of them than I am proud of

So, a person’s last name is their father’s first name as the prefix, and the word “son” or “daughter” as the suffix.  So, for example, because my aforementioned dad’s name is Henry, my name would be Quin Henrysdaughter, or in Icelandic, Henrysdottir.  If my mom, whose name was Carole, had been a single mother, I’d have been Quin Carolesdottir, if she was a feminist and didn’t want to follow the traditional patronymic convention.  If I had a brother named, oh, say, Theotis, his name would be Theotis Henrysson or Carolesson.  Get it?  Okay, so, since that is not especially helpful in identifying people by family line, and since so many people have the same first names, folks just kind of go by their first names in Iceland and leave it at that.  I kinda love that.

The music scene is epic.  It’s not all Björk and Sigur Rós–not that there’s anything wrong with either of them, I love them both.  But if you want to go sample some really unique, indie musicians, who aren’t imitating whoever the last big thing was, go to Reykjavik, preferably during one of their music festivals.  There are several, including “Dark Days” during January, when the sun never comes up.  Which explains why some of it sounds like this:

I discovered that little gem by giving a music store clerk my American Express card and telling him to pick out six cd’s for me that represented the latest from the local music scene, and he gave me this one by Mugi Mugison (so, if you recall, that means Mugi’s dad was named Mugi, too).  Don’t feel too bad for me, though, because that clerk also introduced me to Emiliana Torrini long before she broke out internationally, and the group Leaves, who are eery and dreamy and lovely and always put me in the mood to make soup (I would post a video for you, but all the videos I can find are geographically blocked.  If you want to have a listen, start with the album “The Angela Test,” if you can find it).

DSC03138The steam coming out of the ground that I mentioned before?  Not kidding even a little bit.  It’s everywhere.  Spurts, geysers and clouds of the oh-so-fresh-smelling stuff (note sarcastic tone).

Steam coming out of the ground

Steam coming out of the ground

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The locals pile up the rocks in these formations to mark where "the hidden people" live, so others will know not to bother them

The locals pile up the rocks in these formations to mark where “the hidden people” live, so others will know not to bother them

There’s a big geothermic power plant outside Reykjavic, and the runoff from the plant sifts through the volcanic rock of the Reykjanes Peninsula, and bubbles up to form a hot springs lake called Bláa lónið, or Blue Lagoon.  The water is about 100 degrees Fahrenheit and is very rich in silica, which  clouds the water and forms a thick, silky, white coating on the sharp lava surface.  It feels kind of like bathtub caulk to the touch, but you can scoop it up and smear it all over your face and body.  Which people do.

Bláa lónið, or Blue Lagoon

Bláa lónið, or Blue Lagoon

They go there specifically to cover themselves in that muck, and let it dry to chalk on their skin. There is even a skin clinic at Blue Lagoon, as the silica mud is supposed to be great for psoriasis and such.  I don’t know about that, but I can tell you, that weird, milky blue lake was ethereal and spooky, and I had to soak in it until I turned into a prune.  It was seriously one of my favorite parts of the trip.  They have massage therapists who will come out into the lake with floaty rafts for you to lie on, and massage you in the water.  Oh, and the hot dogs at the snack bar were ridiculously good–they put those crunchy french fried onions on them and stick it down with curry ketchup (trust me, it was better than its sounds).  But, really, the best place to get those special Reykjavik hot dogs with the crunchy onions is a little kiosk down by the docks.  I kid you not, the line at that place at midnight is so long, you’ll kick yourself for not buying two when you finally get to the window, because when you taste how amazing they are, you’ll have to get back in that line.  That made more sense in my head, sorry.  The hot dogs are good, okay?  Really good.  But I digress….

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Thingvellir

DSC03200Outside Reykjavik, icy, crystal clear rivers and streams runoff from glaciers and cut through a vast, open plain where the site of the first Viking congress at Thingvellir is preserved.  The ground opens up to give way to the veils of a giant waterfall that falls down, into the earth, instead of off of a bluff above.  The crater of a live volcano forms a punchbowl for a preternaturally marble green lake.  It’s a land of incomparable and curious beauty.

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Iceland’s heavy volcanic activity is due its location right on the mid-Atlantic Ridge, where the European continental plate meets the North American continental plate.  The plates are spreading apart, and new earth is literally bulging up from the crack.

The crack between the European and the American Continental Plates

The crack between the European and the American Continental Plates

You can walk over a rickety bridge from one continent to the other.  The day I was there, the bridge had a camouflage net over it, because Clint Eastwood was filming “Flags of our Fathers” on the beach, and they couldn’t very well have me in my purple and green coat and giant blonde pony tail skipping across a white bridge in the background of what was supposed to be World War II Iwo Jima.  Although, in my humble opinion, that movie could only have benefitted from a scene like that.  Just sayin’.  Whatever.

The bridge between the continental plates.  Note Clint Eastwood's camouflage net

The bridge between the continental plates. Note Clint Eastwood’s camouflage net

I still crawled over the bridge on all fours, though, just so I could say I crossed a bridge between the continents.  Now that I think of it, I’m going to have to watch that extremely long movie again, and keep an eye out for that bridge.  Just in case.  You never know!  At least, this time, I can watch it on video, so I can pause it and go to the Snyrtingar.

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