Sunday, October 19, 2008
Article Launched: 10/18/2008 10:46:15 PM PDT
Environmental scientist Sandra Steingraber, hailed by the Sierra Club as "the new Rachel Carson," spoke Saturday at the 19th Bioneers Conference in San Rafael on a subject of intense interest to Marin County women: the link between toxic chemicals in the environment and cancer.
Marin has one of the highest rates of breast cancer in the state, and organizations such as Zero Breast Cancer (formerly Marin Breast Cancer Watch) are calling for accelerated exploration into its possible causes, including environmental factors.
Steingraber's book, "Living Downstream: An Ecologist Looks at Cancer and the Environment," won the Jenifer Altman Foundation award for "the inspiring and poetic use of science to elucidate the causes of cancer."
A senior research associate at Commonweal, the health and environmental research institute in Bolinas, Altman established the foundation shortly before her death of cancer in 1991.
In introducing Steingraber, an internationally recognized expert on the environmental links to cancer and reproductive health, Charlotte Brody, executive director of Commonweal, praised her ability to communicate scientific research through her literary talent.
"You learn the concepts," she said, "but your heart sings at the same time."
In an impassioned half hour talk to an overflow audience in the 2,000-seat Marin Veterans Memorial Auditorium, Steingraber told of being diagnosed with bladder cancer 30 years ago when she was 20.
Now a mother of two elementary school age children, she obviously recovered from her cancer and realized that hope, but she learned some things about her illness that have nothing to do with the high cancer rates in the family that raised her.
"Here's the punchline," she told her audience, "I was adopted."
But, she went on, "It didn't take long for me to learn that bladder cancer is considered a quintessential environmental cancer. We have more evidence for a link between toxic chemicals and bladder cancer risk than almost any other cancer."
Although the medical community ignored the connection between carcinogens and cancer in those days, she suspected that her cancer had something to do with the environment in the Illinois small town where she grew up.
Years later, while researching "Living Downstream," she discovered that she was right. Her hometown and its riverside environs "have statistically elevated cancer rates, three dozen different industries line the river, farmers practice pesticide-intensive agriculture, hazardous waste is imported from as far away as New Jersey and the drinking water wells contain traces of both farm chemicals and industrial chemicals, including those with demonstrable links to bladder cancer."
While decrying the lack of regulation of government oversight and regulation of chemical products in this country, she got a huge ovation when she called for the same kind of crisis-driven rescue of the environment that Congress just gave to the economy by bailing out Wall Street.
"We need a $700 billion bailout to invest in alternative energy and reform our chemical regulatory policies," she insisted. "If we don't take action, we don't know what will happen, but it will be terrible. Our ecology will tank."
Steingraber is currently a distinguished visiting scholar at Ithaca College in Ithaca, N.Y., and a sought-after public speaker.
During her address on Saturday, she referred to the words of her mentor, Rachel Carson, in "Silent Spring," that we are all exposed to "a changing kaleidoscope of chemicals over our lifetimes."
These chemicals are particularly hazardous to pregnant women, an issue she writes about in her follow-up book about her pregnancy with her first child, her daughter, Faith, 10.
In "Having Faith: An Ecologist's Journey to Motherhood," she reveals the alarming evidence of chemicals causing what scientists call "spontaneous abortion."
Seeing this as a problem that crosses political lines, she said she's interested in engaging the pro-life and pro-choice movements in a dialogue on this common ground issue.
"Maybe we can all agree, pro-life and pro-choice, that any chemical with the power to extinguish a human pregnancy has no rightful place in our economy," she said to thunderous applause.
Paul Liberatore can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Just before violinist Aaron Redner was to go on stage the other night at the Fox Theatre in Boulder, Colo., with his band, Hot Buttered Rum, he was on his cell phone, talking excitedly about playing Vivaldi's "The Four Seasons" next week in Mill Valley.
"I find myself in a band that travels nonstop and has lots of followers, and that's great," he told me. "But I've been feeling a need to tap back into my classical roots."
By classical roots he means the master's degree in classical violin performance he earned from the New England Conservatory in Boston before joining Hot Buttered Rum, spending the past six years on the jam band circuit with groups such as Phish and String Cheese Incident and the Yonder Mountain String Band.
As a side project that will take advantage of his classical training, the 37-year-old Tam High grad has come up with an idea for a crossover concert at the 142 Throckmorton Theatre during a break in Hot Buttered Rum's busy touring schedule.
Next Thursday night he'll be joined by some of the finest young classical musicians in the North Bay in an interpretation of Antonio Vivaldi's "The Four Seasons," a timeless favorite that most people are familiar with in some form or another. We've all heard strains of it in movies and commercials and have probably hummed it in the shower without knowing it.
"That's why I picked this piece, because it's almost like pop music, " Redner explained. "I'm still going to play all the notes, but there's room
for interpretation and improvisation more than there is in most classical music."
For this one-off gig, he's assembled a classical string quartet filled out by guitar, bass and harpsichord. He's enlisted the likes of Karen Shinozaki, who grew up in Terra Linda and performs with the San Francisco Opera Orchestra, and violinist Michelle Maruyama, who appeared at the Nano Mugen Festival in Japan recently with Third Eye Blind.
"I'm surrounding myself with huge talent and trying to stay relaxed in the middle of it," he said, noting that he's encouraging them to shed their classical music conformity, urging them "to think of themselves as a band."
During breaks between the movements in "The Four Seasons," various aggregations, including all the members of Hot Buttered Rum, are primed to jam on jazz, bluegrass and swing renditions of seasonal songs like "Autumn Leaves" and "Summertime." Making sure this doesn't resemble a traditional classical concert in any way shape or form, Redner's even got an interpretive dancer in the mix.
"People in the jam band world are saying how much they love this piece, which I didn't expect," he said, referring to the Vivaldi. "And classical music fans are going to hear some jazz standards in this show, and some swing and some bluegrass - music they might not go out of their way to hear normally."
During his college years, Redner was on track for a career with a chamber group or symphony orchestra. Then, as he put it, "I got kidnapped by this band, the Grateful Dead. And I decided I loved playing music that people could dance to in a communal atmosphere. That was lacking in my classical music experience."
Even six years later, though, his classical jones has been hard to kick. During Hot Buttered Rum shows, he's known for playing a Beethoven sonata in the middle of a bluegrass tune.
"I've been trying to do that more and more," he said. "Fans are starting to expect it."
With this concert, which Redner hopes will be the first of many, he joins a classical crossover movement pioneered by virtuosos like Edgar Meyer, Joshua Bell, Bela Fleck, Mark O'Connor, Chris Thile and Mike Marshall, who produced the last Hot Buttered Rum album.
"In order to do this kind of thing and not sound like a dilettante, you have to do your homework," he said.
As a resident of San Anselmo, he said there are a lot of beautiful places to do that.
"I go over the Bolinas-Fairfax Road, stop beside one of the lakes and practice my butt off," he said. "When I'm up on Mount Tam in the open air, I try to create music that fits that perfection. I don't want to be guilty of air pollution."
IF YOU GO
- What: Hot Buttered Rum's Aaron Redner's "The Four Seasons," acoustic
- When: 8 p.m. Oct. 23
- Where: 142 Throckmorton Theatre, 142 Throckmorton Ave., Mill Valley
- Tickets: $20, $15 students/seniors
- Information: 383-9600
Photo Info: Aaron Redner of Hot Buttered Rum leads a group of equally musical friends in an excursion into the classical world of Vivaldi, with surprisingly modern results. (Dave Fleischman)
Paul Liberatore can be reached at email@example.com
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Santana wows San Rafael middle-schoolers
By Paul Liberatore
Article Launched: 10/16/2008 10:04:28 PM PDT
Wearing an impeccable white suit and a black fedora, Carlos Santana, looking and sounding like the rock-superstar-cum-spiritual-figure he's become, was greeted Thursday morning by a gymnasium full of squealing, screaming, wildly cheering students at Davidson Middle School in San Rafael.
In honor of Spanish Heritage Month, Santana's highly orchestrated appearance was on behalf of the San Rafael-based Milagro ("miracle" in English) Foundation, the charitable organization he and his wife, Deborah, founded a decade ago. The organization works to improve the lives of disadvantaged children through tax-exempt donations to nonprofits such as Marin City-based Performing Stars of Marin.
"Milagro," Santana intoned in a video shown before his talk, "is the hand of God."
In an article headlined "Carlos' Cosmic Bummer" in the current issue of Rolling Stone magazine, he vowed to stop performing seven years from now, when he's 67, and become a preacher, "Like Little Richard," he said.
In his sermon-like talk to the Davidson students, the majority of them Hispanic, he seemed to be warming to that role, imploring them to pause for 10 seconds of silence in honor of "the holy ghost, for allowing us to come together in unity and harmony and trust and hope, to change the fear all around us on this planet right now."
Santana, a long-time San Rafael resident, instructed the children to "visit your own heart and touch your own light."
The respectful silence that followed in what
had been a gym full of hundreds of squirming middle-schoolers was clear evidence that these kids were paying attention to a celebrity they can identify with, one who rose from an immigrant background similar to many of theirs to become a rock icon.
"It's important for each one of you, no matter where you come from or where you're going, to value yourself," he told them, in the next breath challenging the education system in California to introduce a new curriculum called "unconditional love" that would combat racism and promote self esteem.
"Just like we can teach history and arithmetic, it's important to teach unconditional love," he said, criticizing the state for spending more on prisons than on schools.
"Someone is making the wrong choices for you," he said, continuing his plea for "spiritual education" in public schools.
"Not necessarily about Jesus or Buddha or Krishna or Mohammed or Rama," he clarified, "but about being kind to one another, about being gentle to one another. It's the best spirituality we can share on this planet."
Deborah Santana, who has filed for divorce to end the Santanas' 34-year marriage, was conspicuous by her absence, but Carlos acknowledged her, thanking her for "helping me create this vision."
"Even though she's not here, she is here in my heart," he said. "She's with all of us because we want the same things for the same reasons."
During the event, Samsung Electronics America's Four Seasons of Hope program in association with Best Buy stores presented the Milagro Foundation with a check for $100,000. All the kids in the audience had on black Samsung Seasons of Hope T-shirts with Santana's image on them.
Sitting in the front row beside San Rafael Mayor Al Boro, Santana smiled appreciatively when youngsters from Performing Stars sang and danced to songs from his career-reviving 1999 album "Supernatural."
Forty years after his career began in San Francisco's Mission District, Santana and his music are so much a part of the popular culture that even 11-year-old Lizbeth Canche, a sixth-grader, said she learned to play "Oye Como Va," from Santana's classic 1970 album, "Abraxas," on the recorder in school.
"I've only seen him on TV," she said before the start of the program, "but my brother works in a car wash, and he came home and told me he saw him there."
Afterward, parent Armando Quintero said having a star of Santana's stature take an interest in a school with an overwhelmingly minority enrollment goes a long way in improving its image and the way its students feel about themselves.
"He didn't even play, but the kids were excited about seeing him," he said. "And they got it. They heard from him how important they are."
Contact Paul Liberatore via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
Saturday, October 4, 2008
Friday, October 3, 2008
Article Launched: 10/03/2008 12:08:38 AM PDT
Every time I think I know a lot about the rock 'n' roll history of Marin County, something new comes to my attention that makes me think again.
That happened recently when I heard that Slide Ranch, the teaching farm on the Marin coast, is hosting a $750-a-couple dinner in honor of the Grateful Dead on Tuesday night at Fort Baker's tony new Cavallo Point Lodge.
The evening includes music by the Celtic jam band Wake the Dead, and a "silver trowel" presentation to former Grateful Dead guitarist/singer Bob Weir.
If you're like me, you may be wondering what in the world the Grateful Dead had to do with Slide Ranch. Surprisingly, a whole heckuva lot.
Executive director Charles Higgins has done considerable digging into the history of a ranch that was once a ruin and now gives 8,000 city kids per year a taste of life on a working, organic farm.
He tells us that:
Ed Washington, co-producer of "The Grateful Dead Movie" in 1977, was the ranch's first director.
Danny Rifkin, the Dead's first manager, had a lot to do with connecting inner-city kids to the bucolic 134-acre spread.
Jerry Garcia, the band's lead guitarist, was its first major donor, contributing $500 - a lot of money 40 years ago.
I was reminded that my colleague Nels Johnson and I attended a Saturday afternoon benefit concert for Slide at the Stinson Beach Community Center by Garcia's short-lived bluegrass band, Old & In the Way.
Over the years, the Grateful Dead's Rex Foundation came through
Originally a 19th century dairy farm owned by a Portuguese family, the ranch had degenerated into a haven for drug dealers and counterculture outlaws in the freewheeling 1960s.
In 1969, through the joint efforts of Marin attorney Doug Ferguson and the Nature Conservancy's Huey Johnson, Slide Ranch was purchased and protected from commercial development and cocaine cowboys.
Once the deal was done, Susie Washington-Smyth, who co-founded Slide with her husband, Ed, recalls bounding down the ranch's precarious driveway with Ferguson and Johnson only to be confronted by shotgun-wielding drug dealers on horseback.
"These guys had on cowboy hats and big duster coats and snarled at us, 'What the hell do you want here?'" she recalls. "Huey (Johnson) looked at them and yelled, 'I'm your new landlord and you've got 30 days to get out of here.' I was convinced they were going to shoot us. When they left, they just trashed the place."
The Washingtons and other members of the Grateful Dead extended family spent months cleaning up the ranch grounds and its falling-down outbuildings, constructing a Buckminster Fuller-inspired geodesic dome as a primary program area.
It became "the anti rock 'n' roll place," Higgins explains, for the folks, mostly women, who were into milking goats and going back to the land, providing a healthy environment for their children and for inner city kids to learn about the earth and how to take care of it.
Carolyn "Mountain Girl" Garcia, Jerry's wife, remembers coming out to the ranch from Stinson with her two young children, Sunshine Kesey, Ken Kesey's daughter, and Annabelle Garcia, Jerry's girl.
"The driveway was a nightmare," she recalls. "They didn't call it Slide Ranch for nothing. By the time it became an environmental center, everyone had put in so much work. There were tons of garbage. We had to break the foundation out from the old cow barn, which was crumbling old concrete, and that took months. Everybody we knew came out and participated."
Since those volunteer-driven beginnings in 1970, more than 175,000 people from diverse backgrounds and communities, most of them youngsters, have participated in Slide Ranch educational programs.
With an eight-person staff, the ranch offers family and group programs as well as summer day camp for 8,000 visitors a year. These are hands-on education activities on a working ranch with farm animals and organic gardens.
"Slide Ranch has always been a different kind of place," Washington-Smyth points out. "It's never been your mainstream summer camp. It's always been right on the edge of idealism and practicality. And that's one of the reason's it's been successful.
"When we started in 1969, it was with a wish and a prayer," she says. "One of the most surprising things to me is that 40 years later, Slide Ranch is still going on stronger than before."
IF YOU GO
- What: Slide Ranch and the Grateful Dead Silver Trowel Award Dinner
- Who: Special guests Bob Weir, Rob Wasserman, Jay Lane, Henry Kaiser, Dennis McNally, Rep. Lynn Woolsey, Brian O'Neill, Gary Fisher, Doug Ferguson
- When: 5 to 9 p.m. Tuesday
- Where: Cavallo Point Lodge at Fort Baker, 601 Murray Circle, Sausalito
- Tickets: $750 per couple
- Information: 381-8758, email@example.com
Paul Liberatore can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thursday, October 2, 2008
Joan Baez is celebrating her 50th anniversary in the music business this year, and she's doing it in surprisingly fine style - with a hit record.
Her new album, "Day After Tomorrow," produced by Steve Earle, was No. 1 on Amazon's Singer-Songwriter chart this week, ahead of Jewel and Eva Cassidy. It was No. 2 in traditional folk and No. 3 in contemporary folk.
At age 67, looking lovely as ever, Joan happily finds herself with one of the hottest albums in the country, which she's dedicated to her 95-year-old mother.
"I told Mom that if I don't watch out, I'm going to be famous," she joked to my wife and me the other night over dinner at Greens in San Francisco.
Joan is a friend, and this was our chance to spend some time with her before she went back out on the road on her second world tour this year.
She'll be back in the Bay Area for a Nov. 15 concert at the Wells Fargo Center in Santa Rosa, followed by shows Nov. 18 and 19 at Herbst Theatre in San Francisco.
Months ago, in our living room in Mill Valley, she played us an unmixed version of the title track, a heartbreaking lament by Tom Waits about a soldier longing to come home from Iraq.
She sings it in her now burnished alto, accompanied only by her acoustic guitar. We were so emotionally moved that we suspected that this album would resonate with the reflective mood of the country at this critical time in our history.
I won't forget listening to the final product, sitting together at Joan's home one golden summer afternoon. With its literate, intelligent, compassionate songs of peace and hope and homecoming by Earle and Waits, Elvis Costello and T Bone Burnett, Eliza Gilkyson, Thea Gilmore, Diana Jones and Patty Griffin, the album touched us just as the title song had. And we were pretty sure we wouldn't be alone.
As one of the citizen reviewers wrote on Amazon: "Joan Baez, my hero. More songs of rebellion, coal miners, soldiers, God. I enjoyed this just this morning and I'm always happy to hear her voice."
Joan recorded "Day After Tomorrow" in Nashville with an acoustic string band that included Earle and bluegrass aces Tim O'Brien and Darryl Scott.
"It's going back to my roots, but with contemporary songs," she said. "It speaks to the essence of who I am in the same way as the songs that have been the enduring backbone of my repertoire for the past 50 years."
Joan was back in Nashville last night, where Earle presented her with the Spirit of Americana Free Speech Award at the Americana Music Association's seventh annual awards show.
Then she was off to the U.K., where she's a sought-after guest on radio and TV talk shows.
I asked her what the Europeans want to know. She said they always begin by asking her about Barack Obama, the first candidate she has ever endorsed for president, whether America is ready to elect an African American to head the country.
She said she tells them that it all boils down to whether America is smart or not. By the time she returns home in November, after the election, we'll know the answer to that.
When multimedia artist Walter Kitundu rescued a one-eyed pigeon in the Marin Headlands one day this week, he called his new pet MacArthur, a name inspired by the $500,000 MacArthur Foundation "genius" award he'd just won.
The soft-spoken 35-year-old artist in residence at Marin's Headlands Center for the Arts was one of 25 MacArthur Fellows announced on Monday. He'll receive $500,000 with no strings attached over the next five years.
There are many strings attached to the wildly imaginative instruments he builds for San Francisco's Kronos Quartet, an association that has earned him a reputation as a rising young star in experimental music.
He's best known for creating the "phonoharp," a beautifully constructed multistringed wooden
He and the quartet played phonoharps when Kronos premiered Kitundu's composition "Cerulean Sweet" at Carnegie Hall in New York and the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco in 2006. They played a rendition honoring Charles Mingus at the San Francisco Jazz Festival last year.
Those successes aside, like many artists, Kitundu has to hold down a number of jobs to keep body and soul together. He was driving his battered 1984 Honda to one of them - a class in wood arts he teaches as a "distinguished professor" at the California College of the Arts in San Francisco- when he took the cell phone call from the foundation that instantly and dramatically changed his life.
"It sounded like a bill collector at first," he said Thursday morning in his capacious studio at the Headlands Center near Sausalito.
But he was soon disabused of that notion.
"At that moment I sort of froze," he recalled. "I was in disbelief. I was without words for a while. This was something I never imagined. I was crying as I parked the car."
The only catch was that he was informed of his good fortune a week before the public announcement, and he was sworn to secrecy until then. He could only tell one person, a girlfriend.
"Conceptually, everything in my life had changed," he explained. "But, practically, everything was exactly the same. That dissonance lasted a week. It was a strange feeling."
Kitundu began his career as a DJ with a hip-hop group while studying art. He's often had to decide between buying groceries or the materials he needs for one of his projects. No more.
"For an artist in this country, the things that are stressors are often financial," he said. "Oftentimes I've had to ask myself, 'Can I buy a sandwich or should I get these bolts and finish this last piece?' To have that not be an issue is overwhelming."
Dennis Bartels, executive director of San Francisco's Exploratorium, where Kitundu is on the staff as a multimedia artist, describes him as "a rare combination of original thinker and gentle soul."
Surrounding him in his Headlands Center studio are the parts for "trumpet" violins, a trumpet cello and a trumpet viola - brand new instruments he's making for the Kronos Quartet.
The group's Dennis Harrington has compared him to Leonardo da Vinci, and he is indeed something of a Renaissance man. He's now deeply involved in nature photography with a focus on birds and raptors. His latest phonoharp is inlaid with the shape of a shorebird.
On Wednesday he slipped out of the media spotlight and worked in the Marin Headlands with other volunteers banding migrating hawks. That's where he befriended MacArthur before the handicapped pigeon, now safely in a cage in the artist's studio, could become a raptor repast.
"For the entire day, being completely inaccessible was fantastic," the publicity-shy artist said with a smile. "It was very centering."
Born in Minnesota, Kitundu spent eight formative years in Tanzania, where his parents still live. His father is a retired doctor and his mother a retired nurse. He hasn't seen them in two years, and one of the first things he plans to do with his money is pay them a visit.
"They didn't know about the existence of the award," he said. "When I told them, my mom asked, 'How much is it?' Needless to say, when I told her it was for a half a million dollars, they were thrilled. The next day they were reading the news reports on the Internet and my father said it was hard to read through the tears."
IF YOU GO
Walter Kitundu speaks as part of the Design and Craft Lecture Series at the California College of the Arts at 7 p.m. Oct. 22 at 1111 Eighth St., San Francisco. For more information, call 703-9500.