Sunday, March 23, 2014

Concord Sucks (or All Hail the Penultimate Car-centric Suburb!)

It took me less than two weeks to abhor Concord, not only as a cyclist but as a motorist as well. Prior to this month, I had only been in Concord once in my life. Now that I work there, I traverse its streets five times a week, primarily as a cyclist but sometimes as a motorist. In large part, it’s been an agonizing experience. I grew up in Fremont, CA—another California suburb that was designed with vehicular traffic as its principle means of transportation—but man, that town has nothing on Concord when it comes to being a car-centric municipality.

Concord’s the least bike-friendly city I’ve seen in the Bay Area; it’s not even close. Back in February, I nearly cancelled my second interview with my current employer because after taking the 1.4 mile drive from their office to the Concord BART station to scope out the potential commute, I was scared of riding my bike along those streets. During that drive, I zipped down a few of their main streets such as Willow Pass Road, Clayton Road, Galindo Street, and Concord Avenue. Dear god, I thought, riding those streets on a bike would be suicide. There were no bike lanes. No shoulders to ride on the side of the road, and all the cars and trucks on those main streets were motoring fast. In most suburbs it is clear who the roads were paved for, but in towns like Concord it is abundantly clear. Along that drive to and from the office to the Concord BART station, as well as the drive off the highway to the office, I saw few pedestrians and no cyclists on the roads. I saw one or two guys riding their bicycles, but they were pedaling on the sidewalks, which was completely understandable. (Ultimately, I rode my bike to the second interview after I found a route to the office that avoided—for the most part—the main streets.)

In writing up this post, I googled “Concord” and “not bike friendly” out of curiosity. Amongst the top 10 hits were two articles on an accident back in 2012 that killed a father and one of his daughters while they cycled on the sidewalk of one of Concord’s main thoroughfares. The New York Times even wrote an article about it. In the April 2012 article, they stated that Concord—the largest city in Contra Costa County—had “less than three miles of painted, on-street bike lanes” at that time. That article was written two years ago but I’m willing to wager, backed by what I’ve seen on Google Maps, that the number of miles of on-street bike lanes is still about the same. During these past few weeks I’ve run some errands around Concord for work, and moseyed around some of the strip malls in the vicinity of my office and I have yet to see anything resembling a bike lane, or even sharrows. By comparison, Pittsburg—Concord’s municipal neighbor with a population of 63,264 (2010 U.S. Census) and 17.218 square miles—had 35 miles of on-street bike lanes in April 2012. With a total land area of 30.5 square miles, Concord is nearly double the size of Pittsburg, a suburb which, by the way, is not renowned as a cycling haven.

As a motorist, Concord seems to be a bit of a pain, too, especially if you’re driving along one of the many side streets and attempting to either cross the main street or make a left onto it. If that is the case, be prepared to twiddle your fingers on the steering wheel for a quite a while because those signals are poorly timed for saps like you. From my limited experience, it doesn’t seem to matter what time of day it is: commute time or early afternoon, those signals are timed to always give significant preference to motorists riding along the city’s main arteries; streets like Galindo, Willow Pass, or Concord Avenue. If you’re driving on those streets, that town was built for you, buddy boy, but if you’re a motorist, or a cyclist, or god help you a pedestrian trying to cross those busy thoroughfares, you will have to wait and wait for your opportunity—and once it’s your turn, the signals will give you little time to accomplish it. To help illustrate this, my 1.5 mile bicycle ride from the office to the train station takes about 12 minutes on average. Sometimes, I shit you not, I’d say about half of that time is spent simply waiting at a crosswalk or a signal so I can cross a main street. They’re the worst timed lights I’ve ever seen. Even in Fremont it’s not as bad. On their heavily-trafficked streets the signals are only poorly timed—and understandably so—during commute time to give preference to its motorists, not the whole fucking day.

All this begs the question: just who are the planners at the City of Concord? Have they ever taken public transportation? Have they ever had to take a bus in their lives? Do they believe bicycles are contraptions that should only be ridden for recreation along parks and trails such as the Iron Horse Regional Trail? (From what I’ve been told, it’s a beautiful 55-mile trail that runs from Livermore to North Concord, passing through cities like Concord and Pleasant Hill.) Do they think car-centric American suburbs are healthier for humans than walkable cities with infrastructures conducive to riding bicycles or public transportation like the ones littered throughout Europe, our civic forefathers?

I wish all the current and past city planners for the City of Concord were given missions, such as:

-Take an enjoyable stroll along the entirety of Clayton Street!, or
-Ride a bicycle, somehow or another, from the corner of Diamond Boulevard & Concord Avenue to the TJ Maxx on the corner of Clayton and Bailey Road; or
-Walk or take public transportation from Highlands Park to Sun Valley Mall.

I can’t help but think that if the knuckleheads who designed Concord attempted to traverse their human-made landscape by a means other than a motor vehicle they’d quickly and viscerally understand just how dehumanizing and wretched their civic constructs are. They would see how antithetical their planning is toward building anything resembling a healthy community. And better yet, I hope those short-sighted idiots with their fancy planning degrees will be there in 30-50 years when those suburban streets are barren, bereft of vehicular traffic, with abandoned gas stations and rusting cars littering the landscape they helped to create.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

The Soundtrack of My Life

Last week, my homeboy J-Oro wrote a Soundtrack of His Life. He got the idea from our buddy, Ethan, who riffed on the idea after hearing a story on NPR in which a writer chose six songs that would make the soundtrack of her life. Being the narcissistic fucker that I am, I’ve thought about a soundtrack that could convey my spirit. I’ve fantasized about a soundtrack that could accompany, say, a film based about my life. A few years ago, I experimented with this by writing a piece titled “My Cancer Playlist,” a compilation of 12 songs that could express my “cancer journey” (as oncologists and practitioners in the field like to refer to that tumultuous time in the lives of their patients).

I just wanted to get in on the fun, this conga line of soundtracks, so here’s mine:

1979 - Ring My Bell, Anita Ward

This song came out in 1979. I was in my mother’s womb for the first four months of that year. Now when I bob my head and gyrate to this disco classic, I can’t help but secretly wish that my mom somehow listened to this song in Guadalajara while I was one with her. I can picture it now: me kicking in her womb, a smoke machine in the corner, cute chicks on the sidelines, a disco ball hanging from the uterus lining. I should’ve never left!

Many years later, I would see a parked car in the Mission. It had a bumper sticker that read “I Came to Get Down.” I went bonkers. Fuck yes. That’s what I want my headstone to read.

1984 – Cherish, Kool & the Gang

I have shards of memories from a trip I took with my dad to Miami when we lived near Orlando. (I remember staying in a hotel for one night. I vaguely remember being so pleased by the grown-up table they had in the corner of our room with a pen and blank notepad resting expectantly on it.) On the drive to Miami, I remember sitting buckled into the passenger seat. This song came on the radio while we drove across a bridge. I peered over at my dad. The sun shined behind him, flickered from the suspension cables or passing cars that zipped by. I remember feeling at peace, safe beside my dad.

In large part, my early childhood was unremarkable. I was loved by my parents and sisters. I was one of the lucky ones. Cherish.

1993 - Genius of Love, Tom Tom Club

Junior high. Everyone’s wearing baggy colored pants and striped shirts from Miller’s Outpost. Even though I’m a peruano and not mexicano like most of the other Latinos at my school in Fremont, CA, I figure I should wear the same clothes they’re wearing and listen to the music they’re listening to, like 98.1 KISS FM and 106.1 KMEL (the people’s station!) Since I’m a Latino, I feel like I was supposed to listen to rap and hip hop and R&B and old school R&B, though I had no clue what that really meant, old school R and B. This was a song those stations played. I really liked it even though I had no clue who I should be.

1995 - Rape Me, Nirvana

It’s past midnight because that’s what my digital alarm clock reads. I can’t fall asleep. I turn the radio on my clock. For whatever reason, I flick through the channels, searching for something. I hear the opening palm-muted guitar notes, then the opening verse. It reminds me of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” from the Nevermind album I had borrowed from my older sister, Mariana. This time, something clicked inside me. A cog turned. This was the music I felt bubbling within me. The angst. The ugly distorted beauty of it all. I was a rocker in spirit from that day on. And I found my first artistic idol.

2000 – Garbageman, The Cramps

My college years. Still living at home, taking the train all the way to Daly City to attend film school. I’m writing short stories and film scripts in which startling moments of life that are full of life can happen in a boring-as-fuck suburb like Fremont. I’m starting to feel like something is fundamentally wrong with suburbia as a construct but intellectually I still lack the language to elucidate. But I was having startling moments of life that were full of life in Fremont because of my punk-rocker-outsider-type friends, especially my first serious girlfriend who was One half hillbilly / And one half punk. (And she was so much more.) I’m getting loaded regularly. Experimenting with my mind on occasion with drugs. I’m discovering classic cult films, great books, and astounding bands like The Cramps to nourish me, to sing back and paint the world I feel. My friends helped to open these worlds for me.

2001 - Everything in Its Right Place, Radiohead

Here’s a recipe for depression:
• read Derrick Jensen’s The Culture of Make Believe,
• read George Orwell’s 1984 while visiting Peru, your ancestral homeland
• listen to Radiohead’s OK Computer and Kid A a lot
• ¬while visiting your expansive family in Peru, a place where you are a tourist, become keenly aware, for the first time in your privileged life, of all the death, destruction, and tantamount change that was wrought on that land by a group of greedy Spanish conquistadors who believed their God was the right one.

And the world is never the same after that summer.

2006 - El Desierto, Lhasa de Sela

Weeks before Valentine’s Day in 2006 my girlfriend Julia broke up with me. I’m 26 at the time. We parted at a time when I was beginning to assume a future inseparable from her. Other than loving life in San Francisco, I am lost in every way: unsure of what work I want to commit my one life to; no heart to rest mine beside. So I quit my job to backpack alone through South America. I dreamt of winding my way to the Atacama Desert. I longed to walk into the desert. I wanted to vanish in it.

Besides my books and journal, my one true companion on those long, grueling bus rides across the continent was my iPod shuffle. Lhasa de Sela’s La Llorana was on steady rotation, including this song containing this verse:

He venido yo corriendo olvidándome de ti
Dame un beso pajarillo no te asustes colibrí
He venido encendida al desierto pa quemar
Porque el alma prende fuego cuando deja de amar.

[Quebrada del Diablo, Atacama Desert]

2008 - Maloyan Devil, Bob Brozman & Djeli Moussa Diawara

July 26, 2008. Saturday night in the Mission. With my camping backpack strapped around me, I’m marching to the 24th Street station to catch a train to SFO. I’m heading to Thailand and Cambodia for three weeks. To kick off my journey on a righteous note I slip on my headphones and pick a song at random on my iPodito. Of all the 120 songs this beautiful but haunting blues number plays. It startles me. Does this song portend what lies ahead for me?

By then, an ominous swollen lymph node had popped up by left clavicle.

2009 - Of Wolf and Man, Metallica

Friday mornings, before almost every single one of my twelve chemotherapy infusions, this song blared from my headphones as I marched out of my flat on Dolores Street to San Francisco General. My spirit roared to the nasty staccato riff that opens the song; the thundering snare; the opening verse: Off through the new day’s mist I run / Out from the new day’s mist I have come / I hunt, therefore I am / Harvest the land, taking of the fallen lamb. I was the wolf. My corporeal nemesis, Mr. Hodgkins, was my prey.

I was so pissed off to live.

2010 - Nutshell (from their MTV Unplugged album), Alice in Chains

Rejoining “the kingdom of the well”—as Sontag called it—was deliriously great at first, but there’s fallout to deal with. Fallout from lowering my head and pushing through grad school and that shitstorm in my life for over a year and a half and never stopping. Staley’s lyrics and wearied voice in this recording sounded like this feeling locked inside:

And yet I fight
And yet I fight
This battle all alone
No one to cry to
No place to call home.

2011 - I’ll Fly Away, Allison Krauss and Gillian Welch

Winter 2011. I’m in Taos, New Mexico for an artist residency. On the day I rented a neo-hippie white Volkswagen Bug to cruise out of Taos, past the Rio Grande Gorge, I see the land and gray sky open before me, nestled by the surrounding mountains. This song comes on my iPod. It’s all so piercingly beautiful—being alive, listening to this immaculate song in a land that feels like home. I cry. It was a great day to die.

2013 – Always, Atlantic Starr

For years and years I have loved this song. All that time, I think I secretly longed to find someone who I could dedicate this song to. I think I longed to grow into a man who could dedicate this song to someone. In Maria, my sweetheart, mi amorcita, the love of my life (and now my “domestic partner,” according to Kaiser Permanente), I’ve finally arrived there. When I listen to this song, I can easily daydream of us slow dancing to it, surrounded by our loved ones.

2014 – Achilles Last Stand, Led Zeppelin

Over the past four months, I’ve been a bit obsessed with this song. I still remember the first time I listened to it. What immediately struck me was Jones’ galloping bass line and Robert Plant’s voice. Familiar with every Zeppelin album before Presence, I was stunned by the tone of his voice; it’s like the fire in him was tempered. It was evident that this was a different Robert Plant. And it was: during the recording he was wheelchair-bound with a broken ankle and elbow from a serious car accident in Greece.

The rest of the song, with some of Page and Bonham’s most astounding work, is imbued with a soaring, unrelenting, and desperate power. By comparison, it makes “Rock ‘N Roll” seem mundane. The desperation, the-backs-against-the-wall power is what left me in complete awe of this song. I felt validated to read that Plant described Presence as a “cry of survival,” “a cry from the depths.”

Now at the cusp of 35, I feel like this song more than any other. My body’s getting creaky. It doesn’t heal as quickly as it used to, but I feel mighty in a way I didn’t when I was younger.

Meanwhile, the polar ice caps are disintegrating. “Colony Collapse Disorder”—the mass death of honey bees worldwide—has entered our lexicon. Our way of life on this planet is beginning to crumble at an accelerated pace that even we can see. Life is always full of suffering but we’re in for a load of it in this century—if we make it. You know shit’s bad when Stephen Hawking recommends we seek life outside Planet Earth within the next century if we wish to continue this human experiment.

So the outlook’s bleak. Our backs are against the proverbial wall. This is when we’ll see the absolute best and worst of humanity. This is when we’ll truly see what we’re individually and collectively made of, and I’m going down swinging. This is my fight song now.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Thoughts on the 2014 NFC Championship & 49ers offseason

For the third consecutive year the San Francisco 49ers literally came a few plays from either going to the Super Bowl, or winning it all. Sunday’s loss to the Seahawks was particularly brutal because of NaVorro Bowman’s devastating injury, the favorable hometown calls to the Seahawks that could have had a significant impact on the game’s outcome (I counted at least four bad calls by the two-footed zebras), and the fact that the Niners season was lost again in the right side of the end zone with an opportunity to win the game at the last seconds. Though I now admittedly straddle some nether region between cheerleader, admirer, and bandwagon fan (I don’t know what to call it; any suggestions are welcome), Sunday evening was a time I, a long-time Oakland Raider fan, had pity for Niners fans. To come so close to that shimmering shooting star only to see it slip away, yet again; it must be devastating. With my Raiders, I’ve become accustomed to knowing that they will suck so I haven’t experienced such a blow of dashed hopes since the beginning of 2003 when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers ran roughshod over us in the Super Bowl (aka The Tijuana Bowl). Sunday’s third straight close-but-no-cigar loss for the Niners inevitably makes one question if Lord Tennyson was right when he wrote: “Tis better to have loved and lost / Than never to have loved at all.”

Anyway, I’ve ruminated a bit on the loss, especially since it was such a battle with various potential turning points (which I’ll discuss here). As a fan of the game, that’s what will make the 2014 NFC Championship go down as a classic—the fact that there were several key plays that could have swung the outcome of the game. Here, in little logical organization, are some of the post-game thoughts I had bouncing around my head:

Seattle won because their secondary outplayed the Niners defensive backs.

This game produced several elements that literally decided the game, but I felt like this was the most glaring (with the exception of Kaepernick’s decision-making and game-managing prowess versus Russell Wilson’s). A couple of ways of thinking about this:

1) If the Niners defense had the Seattle secondary, there’s no way the Seahawks would have won.
2) If the Niners defense had the Seattle secondary, there’s no way Russell Wilson and his offensive unit would have scored more than 17 points (or 10 points for that matter).
3) If the Niners had a shutdown corner like Richard Sherman, they would have won.

From what I observed, the Niners front seven played well enough to win the game. They produced four sacks, one intentional grounding (should have been at least two, from what I remember) and lots of pressure on the fleet-flooted and cagey Wilson; minus the 40-yard run by Marshawn Lynch they bottled him up, too, especially in the first half.

17 of Seattle’s 23 points was on the Niners' defensive backs (I thought Fangio dialed up a brilliant defensive game):

-The long pass to Doug Baldwin to set up Seattle’s field goal in the first half seemed to be on Das Hitner, who somehow allowed Baldwin to dash past him to haul in a long pass from Wilson on a broken play.

-Sure, Marshawn Lynch and his O-line did a great job, but Eric Reid took a bad angle on Lynch in the open field that could have stopped that 40-yard touchdown rumble.

-Jermaine Kearse—another undrafted free agent wide receiver for the Seahawks—outpositioned Carlos Roger on a fuck-it, let’s-chuck-it toss into the end zone after Aldon Smith jumped offside. (Sure, Smith deserves blame for that, but a superior defensive backfield should not have allowed a touchdown like that; if it’s a pass to Megatron, Boldin, or Julio Jones, okay, acceptable, but Jermaine Kearse? Come on.)

Why didn’t Jim Harbaugh call timeout with first down from the 18 with thirty seconds to go?
It was kind of the single most important play of the Niners’ season. Remarkably, they had two timeouts left. Why didn’t Harbaugh and his eight-dollar Walmart khakis burn one to collect his team, take a breath, have that little bit of extra time to really think through what play(s) they were going to call, and what next play they would call depending on the outcome of the first down play? I know the Niners had momentum at that point; they had the Seattle defense on the run, but with a young-still-maturing quarterback in a hostile, hostile road environment, why didn’t they chill and call a timeout there?

With his talents and Russell Wilson’s poise, decision-making, and wits, Colin Kaepernick and the Niners would have won.
And they might possibly be unstoppable. But that’s not the case, which makes Kaepernick, in my humble opinion, the most intriguing quarterback to watch.

Speaking of Kaepernick, am I the only one who thinks his pre and postgame interviews are reminiscent of Adam Sandler’s Billy Madison?

It's probably the backwards hat that does it for me. But to Kaep’s credit, he took question after question after question from the media after that brutal loss. Maybe he was numb from the loss of another huge game, but I admire him for sticking in there and taking every question fired at him. Postgame interviews like these must be some form of hell.

But that said, how could Kaep have possibly thought that a jump ball to Crabtree vs. Sherman by the right side of the end zone was his best match up?
He still had thirty seconds. He still had two timeouts. He still had Vernon Davis and Anquan Boldin to throw to. Why would he not hesitate to throw all his chips in on a dangerous, dangerous throw into double-coverage to his weakest receiver in terms of out-muscling a guy for the ball?

If I were a Niner fan, that level of decision-making is what frightens me the most about Kaepernick. Like Brett Favre, he has this Superman-complex where he thinks he can make every crazy-difficult throw when sometimes it just isn’t the wisest thing. Especially with thirty seconds left. On first down. With two timeouts left.

If the Niners have any hope of toppling the Seahawks next year, this is the area where Kaepernick needs to improve.

Speaking of that first down with thirty seconds left in the game, what was with Greg Roman’s playcalling in the second half?
Throughout the year many Niners faithful have continually questioned Roman’s play calling. Typically, it is critical of how Roman seemingly under-utilizes Kaepernick. In large part, I haven’t been a part of these off-with-his-head pleadings from Niners fans, but let me join that friendly discussion after this game. I’ll contribute with some questions in bulletpoint form:

• Why were their less rushing plays for Kaepernick in the second half?
• Unless I’m wrong and didn’t see this play or register it, why didn’t the Niners attempt at least one deep pass to Vernon “I’m 6’3, 250 pounds and run a 4.4 40-yard dash” Davis to keep Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor honest with their deep coverage, to help stretch the field for the Niner offense? (It’s like Roman conceded, before the game kicked off, that they wouldn’t be able to throw deep, so they played into a mostly short passing attack, which largely played into Seattle’s hands.)
• Why didn’t the offense try to exploit Boldin’s height and beastly-size advantage when he was lined up against the 6’1 Bryon Maxwell with an isolation jump ball or two? (Don’t they remember what Boldin did in the playoffs last year?)
• Remember when Roman used to run those cute jumbo formations with extra linemen and tight ends in Alex Smith’s last year? Why didn’t he try that a few times against the Seahawks defense, especially in the second half when they’re presumably a bit more tired? That could’ve negated that almighty advantage they have with their secondary composed of late-round draft finds, no, or am I dreamer?

Onward to next year:
Going into the draft, after this game I can’t help but think the Niner’s priorities are in the following order: CB, WR, and DL (Justin Smith isn’t finding the Fountain of Youth at 34). Reid’s a rookie; he should get even better. Whitner’s a smaller version of Chancellor, so if Seattle can make a strong safety like him work for a championship-level secondary, why can’t the Niners?

I think CB has to be priority. They need an upgrade at that position. If the Niners had a shutdown corner, they would have probably won this game at CenturyLink Field. They’d probably be favorites to win it all next year (albeit with their current roster). The Niners needed to hold the Seahawks to less than 20 points to win this game on the road, and they failed in large part because an undrafted free agent not named Victor Cruz but Doug Baldwin put up 106 yards on 6 catches. That’s not a worthy performance for a championship-level defense. Fact (as Brian Wilson would say). And maybe the Niners need to draft or sign a battering-ram-type running back to wear the Seahawks front-seven down? (Unless Marcus Lattimore can fill that role.)

And since we’re on the subject of how the Niners can keep pace, let alone surpass the Seahawks, I think it comes down to their drafting and development of those two positions: cornerback and wide receiver. Thus far, Trent Baalke has shown he can’t draft and develop a good wide receiver, so that’s a problem. But so far, it looks like Seattle might have a similar deficiency in that department.

But when it comes to defensive backs, sweet baby Jesus there’s a disparity between these two franchises. Seahawk GM John Schneider and Pete Carroll seem to be god-given nuclear arms manufacturers with their Legion of Boom while Baalke and Harbaugh are firing back with a Smith & Wesson. It’s absolutely fucking remarkable (Niners fans: insert your PED jokes here):

-5th round picks: Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor
-6th round pick: Byron Maxwell (who, from what I’ve seen, would be the top CB on the Niners, which is scary because he’s supposed to be their nickel back)
-Undrafted free agent: Brandon “I’m Juiced! (and It's Not Skittles!)" Browner

Only fool they really invested in, as far as the draft, was Earl Thomas with a first round pick. That’s just fucking insane, reminds me of Jimmy Johnson’s early drafts with the Cowboys. (There I go, rubbing in some more salt to the wound, right?)

The Niners need to reverse this trend or they’re going to be running second to the Seahawks for a long time.