Caspar Institute logoitinerary   < 17 April San Leandro   10 August Caspar >

San Francisco - 3 September 2013


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To The City

All my life, one of the most exciting events is a trip to The City. San Francisco is an amazingly compact, dense, cosmopolitan enclave in a predominantly Western place: a window to a much wider world. In the East Bay (where I was born and raised) or Caspar, it's wide open spaces and a fairly homogeneous mix of Californios. Seldom is heard a non-English word ...and then, inevitably, it's Spanish.

San Francisco is polyglot, compressed, intense. Mostly, we drive to a motel on the far northern fringe as close to the Golden Gate Bridge as possible, forsake our car, and leave the driving to the Muni. 

This time, we came partly to experience the new eastern span of the Bay Bridge, a gorgeous cable-stay structure that replaces the decrepit old cantilever span that everyone expects to fail spectacularly when we have our next big shake. 

<p>How San Francisco feels to this country boy</p>

How San Francisco feels to this country boy

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<p>Artist

Artist's rendering of what the new eastern span will look like after the old span is demolished. Presently, the old span still looms, but looks amazingly temporary and spindly next to the new bridge, that looks exactly like this. Image courtesy the MTC.

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<p>Lady Wenji (Chinese, 20th C)<br />and Li Tieguai (Chinese, 19th C)</p>

Lady Wenji (Chinese, 20th C)
and Li Tieguai (Chinese, 19th C)

Okay, so the first picture is from the Asian Art Museum -- the place where I first learned to look west rather than east for my culture. It used to live in the basement of the Palace of the Legion of Honor (a very east-leaning place). Since its move to Civic Center, this has become my favorite museum. I always see something new and thrilling.

The stone frieze above is Kumbhakarna battling the monkeys, removed by Avery Brundage from above a temple door in the old kingdom of Angkor. Cambodia or northeatern Thailand, 11th C.

At left I have put two ivory statuettes. On the right, the Chinese Immortal Li Tieguai, a courageous crippled beggar boy who became, through the good graces of the Queen Mother of the West, a dragon deity. On his left is Lady Wenji, a princess who was kidnapped and imprisoned for 12 years, and is memorialized for her courage.

The wonderful duck teapot missing its handle at right is bronze and enamel, from the 15th Century. I want one.

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The Main Event at the Asian Art Museum, however, was not Oriental, but mid-Eastern: the so-called Cyrus Cylinder (above) on loan from the British Museum. The story of this simple clay object, about eight inches by four, is a study in the hypocrisy of empire, with a special resonance this week, after the British House of Commons voted against the "Western Powers" spanking Syria's king for his use of chemical weapons. 

The story began in 539 BCE, when Cyrus, a Persian, invaded Babylon. Rembrandt's famous "Writing on the Wall" painting portrays Belshazzar, the Babylonian King, after a feast in which he blasphemously serves wine from vessels stolen by his Daddy, Nebuchadnezzar, when he sacked the temple in Jerusalem. The writing is meant to say, "You have been weighed in the balances and found wanting. God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end; your kingdom is given to the Medes and Persians."

<p>Rembrandt

Rembrandt's "Belshazzar's Feast" (1635), is in the National Gallery in Washington D.C.

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The story continues with the Cylinder, which one of the wags at the British Museum styles as "the first modern press release." The cylinder was created and deliberately buried in the foundation of a temple to Ahura Mazda. The story it tells comes down through various sources, including the Old Testament. The most important bit from a modern perspective, and the reason this exhibit is so telling and timely, is that Cyrus, unlike the Babylonian kings, was a peacemaker. His first act upon taking Babylon was to liberate the prisoners taken by Nebuchadnezzar and his son Belshazzar, including a large number of Jews. Cyrus gave them back their holy vessels, and sent them back to Jerusalem with specific instructions to rebuild and resanctify their temple. 

Cyrus went on to found an empire that stretched from Greece to India, and to administer it as a multi-cultural, multi-lingual, commonwealth. Thus was the first, and last, mid-Eastern peace established ... proving, at the very least, that such a thing can be done. 

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<p>a sampling of things that caught my eye at the Asian Art Museum</p>

a sampling of things that caught my eye at the Asian Art Museum

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After a memorable 5-block walk through the Tenderloin -- Rochelle says, "I don't like it here." -- we found our lunch destination at the corner of Golden Gate and Market: Show Dogs, where we had a wild boar sausage, an organic vanilla milkshake, and maybe the best onion rings ever.

Then we were back on the Muni and off to the Exploratorium's new site at Pier 17 on the Embarcadero.

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I'm afraid your faithful correspondent didn't do very well at the Exploratorium. I was too busy seeing to be able to take pictures. But the place is even more amazing than it was when it was at the Palace of Fine Arts. All the favorite old exhibits, and lots of new ones. We Californians have a serious love affair with science, and this is our temple. The thing that made the biggest impression on me this time: the savvy young mothers with their eager daughters. Dads and boys were conspicuous by their non-presence and/or inattention. Dudes, I'm afraid its over for us.

The next day we went to Alcatraz, a place I'd never been. It was depressing and stark, as it should be. From the plaza outside the administration building we watched the America's Cup yachts practicing for their first race. 

After one last traffic jam, we escaped the City and were glad we don't have to do that to ourselves for a few months. Thrilling. Grueling. Delicious. Mind-stretching. Brutal.

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