About My Blogs

Like many writers, I've started, abandoned and returned to a number of blogs over the years, including ones on this site, at Medium and at the Huffington Post. I wrote a blog called Backward Messages for about three years, exploring the scapegoating of violent video games, heavy metal, the occult and other topics. I also occasionally post recipes from my kitchen at Gluten-Free With Everything

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Nanu Nanu, Mork from Ork

When I was in second grade, in 1981, my teacher's name was Mrs. Mork. One of my classmates -- one of the class clowns, who would later draw his own cartoons -- was obsessed with Mork and Mindy, and with Robin Williams' character particularly. He even dressed like Mork, down to the high-waisted jeans and rainbow suspenders. (Hey, we were eight.) I remember lining up outside the classroom every day, one line for the boys and one line for the girls, chanting that our teacher was "Mrs. Mork from Ork from New York." 

I had a very early crush on my suspendered classmate, and wanted to be his Mindy. I'm sure other girls did, too -- those rainbow suspenders were cool. My heart fluttered every time he said "Nanu nanu" or, most especially, "shazzzzbot," in his reedy eight-year-old voice. I still get a little weak when I think about it, and it's almost impossible for me to separate my feelings about Robin Williams from those second-grade girlcrush memories.

(To be fair, I also crushed hard on a fellow first-grader because of his amazing cowboy shirt -- which I was sure went perfectly with my cowboy boots -- and later on had a complicated relationship with Mork-boy when, in eighth grade, we found ourselves re-enacting scenes from Moonlighting almost daily. No doubt when Bruce Willis finally rests in piece, I'll be similarly wrecked with nostalgia.)

My memories of Williams and his movies -- including Good Morning Vietnam, Dead Poets Society, Moscow on the Hudson, and particularly The Fisher King -- are tied up with my memories of Saturday nights with my mom, when she would always rent a video and invite the rest of the family to watch. We'd sit in the living room -- me on the sofa, she in her armchair, eat popcorn, and lose ourselves in movies. My mom died in early 1996, and although I clearly remember falling asleep on the couch the first time, I'd give just about anything to watch The Fisher King with her again. As with mini-Mork, my memories of Williams are impossible to detange from memories of my mom. His death is in no way comparable to hers, but it's another reminder of those moments I'll never have again.

Later on, during a rough period in my life, he starred in What Dreams May Come, a Maxfield Parrish vision of afterlife where he struggled to reconnect with his wife, who had committed suicide and was relegated to some awful netherworld. He also starred as Patch Adams in the film of the same name, in which my partner's father was supposed to appear; he wound up on the cutting-room floor, but you can still see his name among the patients' credits. And then there's his amazing turn in The Birdcage, opposite Nathan Lane, in a role only rivaled by Patrick Stewart's in Jeffrey. 

There isn't period in my life that wasn't touched by Robin Williams somehow, particularly because we lived in the same region, and stories about him are abundant here. I'm so sorry to hear he's gone, so sorry he won't be part of the new memories we make as life moves on without him. The world is a little darker, a little less funny, without his light and nonstop mirth. 


Why I Write


  • Because it feels wonderful to put words together in a way that looks and sounds good. 
  • Because I love the feeling of wondering if I'm going to be able to pull it off -- and then the feeling of pulling it off. 
  • Because I'm shy.
  • Because I have a lot of long, complicated thoughts but I doubt anyone would sit still long enough for me to express them verbally.
  • Because I like explaining things.
  • Because I love the feeling of enjoying and resonating with something I've read, and I want to give people that feeling. 
  • Because there's no better feeling in the world than having an editor at a publication, whether it's someone I've worked with before or someone who's new to you, say yes to an idea I have for a piece of writing. 
  • Except for the feeling of seeing my published piece, with my name on it. 

Why do you write?



Alcest, Shelter, and Misunderstanding Metal

It’s almost embarrassing to admit, but I’m still angry about Alcest’s new album, “Shelter.” Sure, it’s a gorgeous, if weightless, piece of pop. Neige said he wanted to make an album that erased any traces of metal from his repertoire. Mission accomplished. I’m all in favor of musicians going in a direction that feels right for them, even if it means hurting fans’ feelings or producing something that potentially doesn’t work out musically.

My problem (well, one of them) is with the way Neige described the new album when he was interviewed by SPIN magazine a few months back: “It's just a safe place to escape, this secret thing we all have when life is going too fast and you are full of anxiety. I think we are living in a very tough era, and it is very easy to get lost and forget who you are. This shelter is a very precious thing that is never changing and that you always go back to.”

If that’s what he thinks “Shelter” is, then what did he think his previous albums were? For me, that’s the perfect description of Alcest’s earlier work, particularly “Écailles de Lune” and “Les Voyages de l'Âme,” which struck the perfect balance between beauty and raw pain. It’s also how many metal fans would describe their favorite album -- no matter how dark, loud or ugly. For Neige to say that “Shelter” provides a safe place is for him to suggest that metal doesn’t provide such a place, and it makes me wonder how he can say such a thing after being part of the metal scene for so long.

People change. Sometimes, metal stops making sense or sounding good anymore, and that’s fine. And maybe Neige wasn’t suggesting that people shouldn’t or can’t find shelter in a genre he’s leaving behind. But that’s exactly how it came out -- both in that interview and in the album he’s made.

Thankfully, other bands are carrying the blackgaze torch, including Woods of Desolation, whose newest album, “As the Stars,” comes close to that balance of beauty and harshness that Alcest perfected. Check out the whole thing with the Bandcamp player below. What other bands would you recommend for Alcest fans who are struggling to get over their “Shelter”-induced heartbreak?




Why it's time to stop throwing tech companies under the bus

When I worked as a local-news reporter in San Mateo County, from 2005 to 2008, I heard a lot from residents about traffic, particularly on Highway 101. The conventional wisdom was that you could tell whether Silicon Valley was booming by how bad traffic was on 101. People who live in San Mateo County hated how long it took them to get anywhere on the freeway, and you know who they blamed, right? Tech commuters.

Another thing I heard a lot about was the trains. For whatever reason, perhaps because they’re run by separate agencies, BART and Caltrain rarely sync up. Caltrain itself is on the slow side; it has “baby” bullet trains that make fewer stops, but they only run a couple of times an hour. There are currently no high-speed trains through the Peninsula, partly because some communities have fought them tooth and nail. Faster trains are probably coming, but not particularly soon. Plus, many of the biggest tech campuses are nowhere near Caltrain stops.

While tech companies like Google, Apple and Genetech are scattered across the Peninsula and South Bay, they attract young, urban types who don’t want to live in suburbs like Mountain View and Cupertino. They want to live in a busy, bustling city like San Francisco. There are only so many ways to get from one to the other, and when public transit takes a couple of hours each way and involves multiple transfers, most people would rather drive. You probably would, too. Americans love their cars, and it takes a pretty sweet deal to get them to give up driving.

The first time I heard of a “tech shuttle” was in 2006, when Genentech was laying out its 10-year expansion plan in 2007, and mentioned it would run a few buses to San Francisco and the East Bay. However, Google’s program started in 2004 as the brainchild of a single employee, but took off -- no doubt because Google employees were just as frustrated by traffic and the public-transit offerings as people in San Mateo County were. They got people out of their cars, and even allowed those who don’t get car-sick to work on the way to and from work, thanks to onboard WiFi (people always mention snidely that the WiFi is free; do they think employers should charge for it?). The shuttles have allowed more people to live car-free, which goes against the idea that tech workers spend their lives moving from one sheltered bubble to another. By all appearances they seem a winning solution to a tough situation.

To backtrack a little, I’ve been a local-news reporter in the Bay Area since 1998, and my partner has worked for Google since 2008. Before that, he worked for another tech company in Palo Alto, but once we started talking about having kids, there was no way he was going to continue commuting by BART and Caltrain -- or even driving -- daily. And we knew we wanted to raise children in San Francisco, where it’s possible to live pretty much car-free and have access to a wealth of cultural experiences, something we both lacked growing up. So when Google hired him, he insisted on working in their San Francisco office. On the rare days he goes to Mountain View, he uses the shuttle, in part because the BART/Caltrain commute hasn’t gotten any better, and in part because you can’t really get to Google’s Mountain View campus that way.

Throughout my years as a reporter, I’ve learned that there’s little more that Bay Area residents oppose than housing. They have definite ideas about where to put it (over there!), where not to put it (near my neighborhood!), how tall to build it (not very!) and how much parking to build (lots, so they won’t park in front of my house!). I once sat through a lengthy design session on a proposed transit-oriented development near San Mateo’s Hayward Park station. The neighbors opposed a reduced-parking plan, somehow failing to get that the project was designed for residents to use the train. The project faltered, and Caltrain later cut service to the station.

For decades, in Marin, San Mateo and San Francisco counties, residents have opposed the idea of creating more housing. But the fallout from those sentiments is a simple matter of supply and demand. In a shortage, prices will go up, determined partly by what people are willing to pay. And when you have well-paid young engineers who love to live in San Francisco, they’re willing to pay a lot. As transportation planner Michael Rhodes recently laid out on Medium, housing has not kept up with job growth in the Bay Area, and that’s not the fault of tech workers. Although there are numerous residential units in the pipeline, I heard a real-estate investor say recently that units currently under construction will not be enough to make prices come down. He didn’t even go so far as to say they would keep housing prices from going up.

Rhodes says:

We have deliberately made it very difficult to build housing in San Francisco—even more difficult than it is to build office buildings. A recent proposed housing development on Valencia Street has been in review for years, and, facing neighborhood opposition for its height, lack of parking, and likely cost, has been whittled down from 16 units to 9—including shedding its two affordable housing units in the process, as it has slipped below the 10-unit minimum that triggers affordable housing requirements.

Neighborhood groups have labeled this a victory, but the cost is a loss of seven homes, two of them priced below market rate. As a result, seven families will be looking for housing elsewhere in San Francisco. Five of those families, the ones able to pay market rate for a new condo, will be bidding on some other housing unit, driving up its cost, and pricing out another buyer, perhaps in an older building. Those priced-out buyers will then go on to price out yet another round of buyers in another building, until someone at the bottom of the economic ladder is priced out of the city entirely. What kind of victory is that?

It’s interesting that Rhodes mentions families, because families’ flight from San Francisco has also been a big part of the regional conversation the past several years. While much of the coverage has focused on lower-income families, there’s another wrinkle: as tech workers mature, settle down and have kids, they start to realize just how much time that commute takes. If working in Cupertino means you leave home at 7 a.m. and don’t get home until after the kids are in bed, no shuttle in the world is good enough. Given the choice between changing jobs and moving to the South Bay -- which isn’t also saddled with a stressful, complicated school-lottery system not enough parents understand -- moving south looks pretty appealing. I know more than a few families who’ve made that choice. I miss them. And San Francisco is worse off without kids and families at all economic levels.

Attracting tech companies like Twitter to San Francisco, even if it involves tax breaks, may pay off in the long term. It puts tech jobs in places where tech people want to live. It creates other jobs in service and retail. It brings other sources of revenue to city coffers. Local cartoonist Susie Cagle points all this out, in the context of Bay Area economic issues, in a recent strip. Google appears to be expanding its San Francisco footprint, but it seems likely the bulk of Bay Area Googlers will remain in Mountain View. Apple, meanwhile, is expanding -- in Cupertino. Obviously, it might not make sense for these companies to relocate 100% to San Francisco, but the urban predilections of their workers -- and the impact that geographic divide is having on the region -- deserves more consideration.

In the short term, bringing more tech to San Francisco will probably drive housing costs higher. Until housing construction can put a dent in the shortage, that’s not likely to change. Perhaps the city can funnel some of that newfound tax revenue into subsidies for affordable housing, particularly below-market-rate housing that’s mixed in with more expensive units -- because frankly, developers aren’t attracted to projects where they’ll only break even or less. And while some have criticized tech companies’ philanthropy as “greenwashing,” Google has had a dedicated philanthropic arm for years and it’s showing no signs of slowing down. It’s not just up to the tech companies to figure out how to fix the Bay Area’s problems. Arguably, tech companies are still much more part of the solution than part of the problem -- though both they and regional governments need to find ways to bridge their culture clashes and collaborate.

One significant problem, unfortunately, is longtime residents who understandably want to hang onto the things that attracted them to their slice of the Bay Area in the first place and don’t want to see things change. That commitment to history and community is important and wonderful. But its dark side is a kind of “I’ve got mine, and everyone else should live somewhere else” attitude that, ironically, is being projected onto well-paid newcomers who are just looking for a way to live in a vibrant city and commute to work in a way that doesn’t suck. The Bay Area is a region of creative, smart people. It seems like we could find a solution to this problem.


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