The BCC Voice
We Have the Technology 2
Griffin House 5
From Refugee to Successful Business Owner 7
The Artist's Soul 12
The World Traveler 15
Life on Shattuck Ave, Berkeley 17
Welcome to Latin 20
Denver Is the New California 22
We Have the Technology
Bay Area Reporter Explores Technological Advancements in Sensory Perception
Photo Credit: Justine Quart
By Patrick Kruger
Kara Platoni is a journalist, author, and lecturer at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. She spent eight years as a reporter for the East Bay Express, two years as senior editor of the environmental magazine Terrain, and, between reporting projects and teaching, co-hosted The Field Trip Podcast, which focused on science in the real world. Quite a list of accomplishments for someone whose behavior as a child had her parents taking extreme measures.
“When I was in elementary school and had to get ready in time to catch the bus, my parents made me get dressed in the bathroom, because if they let me get dressed in the bedroom I would sneak books... so then I started hiding books in the bathroom,” says Platoni.
Overcoming that tumultuous period—and one unshakable addiction (“Doritos are my kryptonite”)—Platoni published her first book, “We Have the Technology: How Biohackers, Foodies, Physicians & Scientists are Transforming Human Perception, One Sense at a Time,” in December of 2015. The product of more than 100 interviews conducted across eight states and four countries, the book examines how technology is being used to expand human sensory perception, and attempts to answer some big questions: “Can technology help the blind to see?” “Can virtual reality be used to prevent PTSD in soldiers?” “Is there such a thing as reality?” and even “Is the single greatest miracle of food science Doritos?” Insightful, humorous, and mind-bending, “We Have the Technology” is a must-read even if you nodded off in high school biology, and it was the focus of the BCC Voice’s recent conversation with author Kara Platoni.
After graduating from the Berkeley School of Journalism, you spent eight years with the East Bay Express, covering what you've described as the “Nancy Drew Beat”—anything that involves a good mystery. As a starting reporter, how did you end up with that kind of freedom?
That was not my actual beat. Those were… my preferences, or the way I kind of took things. When I started at the Express, the staff was very small; there were only two reporters. Essentially, I covered Oakland and the other reporter covered Berkeley. We had a lot of freedom to cover whatever we found interesting. I started out mostly covering politics, and eventually merged that with science reporting. Regardless of my official beat, I was always drawn toward adventure stories and profiles of people who had interesting lives. I covered a professional ghost hunter. I covered an anti-rodeo activist and, because of that, spent a lot of time with cowboys. That one’s called “Eric Mills and the Horse He Rode in On.” By the way, that was my triumphant headline. I did a ton of stories about con artists; I’m fascinated by crimes of persuasion. I did a story about purse parties—the secret world of counterfeit purses. I did a story about smuggling money to the Middle East. Another was about a group of people who stole $400,000 from Home Depot by pulling a barcode switch. I was always interested in weird crimes and scams.
When did you get into teaching?
I started teaching at the J-School part time in 2009, and the job grew and grew. They kept giving me more classes to teach. By 2013, I was full time. Then I took a year off to go write the book, because by that point I was teaching so many classes that I knew I wouldn’t be able to travel to research the book on top of it. So I took one year off, went out and reported as fast as I could, and came back to teaching in September of 2015. In fact, I went from the graduation ceremony in May of 2013 to my first interview for the book, which was the guy who gets all the magnets put into his fingertips, reported nonstop, wrote and wrote and wrote, and then I turned in the final submission—my full first draft—the morning that I reported back to teach in September of 2015. I filed the book and went straight to teach a class.
What was that feeling like, to submit everything and then, instead of going on vacation, you’re back at work that same day?
By the time I got to the classroom, I was on that alternate plane where you’ve stayed up all night and had too much caffeine, and you’re just kind of vibrating. But let me back up and say: The journalism community, particularly the community within UC Berkeley’s Journalism School, has been amazingly supportive of me in writing this book. Journalists know that everyone is working with a shoestring budget, everyone is trying to make something, and it’s hard out there to sell your product, whatever it is. So when somebody goes out on a limb and says, “I’m gonna quit my job and do a big thing,” people rally for them. People were amazingly helpful to me. I basically sofa-surfed my way through reporting the book. Once I had decided where I wanted to go—which labs or projects to visit—I would post on Facebook and say, “Hey friends! Does anybody know someone in Toronto? Could I crash with anybody in Pittsburg? How ‘bout Paris?” All along the way, people took me up, including friends of friends, family of friends, people I didn’t know. In two different locations, people put me up in their house even though they weren’t there; they just left a key for me.
So I filed my book, emailed it to my editor, and then posted something on Facebook just to thank people for how supportive they had been. And I remember just crying, because it kind of hit me, how much work everybody else had done to get me to that point. I felt very grateful for that community; I felt like it was a group effort.
After that, the class that I teach on Mondays is eight hours long, so there I was in class for eight hours. I remember walking in there, and everybody gave me a round of applause for turning in my book, and all I could do was say, “I think I’m going to have to just lean against the wall here for a minute.”
Was there any place you visited that ended up not fitting the book? Or even a place where you arrived, and you’re looking around, thinking “What am I doing here? This is not at all what I’m trying to write about”?
There was remarkably little on the cutting room floor. I talked to more than 100 people. Each chapter is pretty dense. Most of what I cut were things that duplicated something else. There were some things that I couldn’t have imagined what they would be like until I got there, but they were fascinating or beautiful or wonderful in their own way. Going to Paris to watch the olfactive therapy for dementia patients, and visiting the perfume company that was developing the scents—I had no idea what those things would be like, but they were marvelous once I was there. Same thing with visiting the Colorado military base to experience the virtual reality world: I never knew what to expect until I got there.
That was one of the big reporting challenges of the book. Because it’s about perception, it’s very hard to interview people second hand about their perception. For all of the chapters with virtual reality, I had to get in the helmet myself, because asking people to relay to me what their experiences were like would have been a poor proxy for being there. It’s difficult to describe virtual reality, and memory fades fast. Same with taste and smell, it’s tough to get people to describe what they’re tasting and smelling. In fact, one of the main ideas of those chapters is to explain why it is so hard to describe our perceptions of taste and smell. So I knew I had to go smell for myself, eat for for myself, and do my best to be the proxy for the reader.
Even with that, it sounds like it was still hard to describe, hard to find a word for a taste that we don’t necessarily have a concept of.
Right. That idea, that it’s hard to describe a novel taste because we don’t have the vocabulary for it, the idea that vocabulary shapes your perception of taste, because it shapes what you pay attention to—I had no idea about any of that when I proposed this book. That was something I discovered along the way by actually doing these things, and realizing that I, and all of the other subjects, and all of the people studying it, were bumping up against the same problem. I would say to the researchers, “Wow. This is harder than I thought.” And across the board, they would say, “We know.”
Culture also dictates what you smell, because it trains you to identify odors of certain foods, certain plants, certain products—cosmetics you might be familiar with. We might identify something differently in the U.S. than somebody in France or Singapore might, because we ascribe a different word or idea to that smell. I never considered that, and it only popped up when I went to the French perfumery and they gave me a bunch of scents that would be very easy for a French person to recognize, and I had no idea what they were. They gave me the odor of melon, and I kept thinking it was Jolly Ranchers or Hubba Bubba, because those were American candies that were familiar to me growing up. I don’t eat fresh melon the way people in France do, which is as a dessert. I kept getting it wrong. But the whole book was predicated on the idea that I would just launch myself out there and see what happened.
Your thesis—if there is a thesis for a book like this—seems to appear in the introduction, where you wrote: “By far the most important thing I learned is this: "There is no single, universal experience of “reality,” no objective portrait of the world we collectively share. There is only perception: what seems real to you." What went into your decision to open the book with that idea, as opposed to saving it for the end?
To me, that was the big brain-breaker, the “Oh man, that is a big idea.” I think that concept is probably well-explored for people who are experts in cognition, psychology, or neuroscience, but I don’t think it’s obvious to the layman. It’s easy to assume your experience of the world is pretty similar to everyone else’s experience of the world. It’s easy to assume that you take in things as they are, without morphing that information or translating that information—leaving out or attending to certain details. We tend to take our experiences at face value. I thought it was important to say to the reader, “Hey, I’m going to proceed from this launching pad: reality isn’t reality. It isn’t the same for everybody. It’s not what we think it is.” Once that’s established, we can explore all the possibilities for mutating reality, whether that’s with a retinal implant, or a robotic limb that can touch, or magnetic implants, or something that we don’t even think of as technology, like language, culture, or Tylenol.
The idea was to make it clear up front: “Hey reader, your individual experience is mutable and completely specialized to you.” The introduction presents that big idea. Then I wanted to start with the biohackers doing something that a lot of people would find strange—contemplating building a compass to put inside their arm—but not come back to them until the very end. In the meantime, I wanted each chapter to be kind of a wave that would push the reader closer to understanding what the biohackers are up to. I saw the structure of the book as: The biohackers are on an island out there in the distance. I’m going to show you where they are. Then we’re going to get in the boat, and I’m going to take you closer and closer to them. Hopefully, by the time we actually land on the island of the biohackers, you understand what they’re doing and why. Even if you don’t want to participate, you can understand how they fit into this larger field of inquiry.
What did you take away from your time with the biohackers?
One of the things that I’ve been thinking about a lot is how much we already have on our bodies that could be considered a cyborg technology or augmentation. I’ve started to think about how modified most of us already are, and how thin, or blurry, the line might be between what the biohackers are dreaming up and what we already do. One of the arguments I’ve made is that the vaccination is a body augment; we don’t think of them that way because they’re standardized, they’ve been around for so long, and they don’t light up. The body’s normal response to the measles virus used to be to get sick and possibly die. Now we don’t do that, because we have this invisible, technological change to our immune system. I have fillings in my teeth. I used to have cavities there and now I won’t, because I have this implant in my teeth that I never think about. Glasses, contact lenses—I think you could argue that for the cellphone, or watch—something you constantly have that gives you additional communication abilities or alters, standardizes your perception of time.
I was doing an interview on KQED and we asked the listeners if they consider themselves cyborgs. We got an email from somebody who said, “No, that’s a terrible idea. I would never want to augment or modify my body.” Later, he wrote back and said, “Well, I do have a hip implant.”
I think there’s a strong argument that we have long ingested, or worn, or implanted technologies that give us additional powers, or protections, or enhance or change our perception. Eyeborg, the guy I interviewed who has a camera in the socket of his eye, makes the argument that if you wear shoes or clothing you’re a cyborg, because we aren’t born with those things.
I don’t know where exactly we draw the line between what’s medicine and what’s an augment or a cyborg technology. I came away from this research believing that we are all more modified than we think, and that the idea of improving the body is very human, and is something that our species has been doing for a long time.
Sounds like fodder for another book, perhaps a philosophy book.
I think I need to lie down for a while before I think about another book.
A Folksinger’'s Journey From Ohio to Nashville
By Louis Do
A lone singing voice accompanied by an acoustic guitar recalls a simpler time, of campfires and frontier homesteads. In 2016, Nashville-based folksinger and songwriter Griffin House carries on these traditions with touches of modernity thrown in. House's music can best be described as dynamic, for his subject matters can range from themes about wartime, to failed relationships, to reflections about the past. Sometimes these songs are sung in their natural acoustic state, but other times, House is backed by a band to give extra emphasis and spice up the mood. On Sunday, April 17th, 2016, Louis Do of The BCC Voice spoke to Griffin House about his childhood, the intoxicating nectar of fame, his new record, and his opinion on the music industry today.
House grew up in Springfield, Ohio, in a working class family. His father worked in a tire shop, while his mother worked with foster youth. House was the first person in his family to embrace the arts. This came about in high school when he saw the play, "Fiddler on the Roof." "There was this guy named Alex Beekman, and he was really talented. I think he went to Broadway to live in New York and try out for plays after high school, but great singer, great actor, really talented. He just inspired me when I saw him. He played Teveye in "Fiddler on the Roof." Something about that made me want to try for theater. It looked really exciting." House acted on this desire and tried out for a one-act play, "Where Have All the Lightning Bugs Gone." He discovered that he liked performing, and proceeded to audition for "Oklahoma." "I got cast with the singing part, even though I'd never sang anywhere in my life before. I had to practice with a tape and learn how to sing. I couldn't, didn't know I could sing."
House started teaching himself guitar at the age of 18, when he was in college. He described the challenges of learning an instrument as an adult, "I bought a guitar, it was called an Oscar Schmitt. I bought it for 100 dollars off of a friend. I lived in an art dorm, and a lot of guys in the art dorm played guitar. I learned from those guys, but I had to work really hard to even get okay at guitar. I hadn't learned it previously, so it was tough getting started." During his experience of teaching himself guitar and observing his college roommates, House realized that he had a passion for playing music, "I remember one night I took my guitar out, and I just decided that I was going to stay up all night long and practice, so I walked around campus in the dark and played my guitar all night. I think I slept on a park bench or something, but I wasn't allowed to go home or go to bed until I practiced all night. I guess that was just to prove that I was serious."
House received recognition with his 2004 release, "Lost and Found." his sound was still in the process of refinement, and he recalls receiving praise from Bill Flanagan on the CBS Sunday Morning. "I got on the CBS Sunday Morning Show. This guy, Bill Flanagan was talking about me and he had written a book about U2. I read the book when I was a kid, and I think one of the things he said was that he's a young man with a young man's influences. His songs remind me of early Wilco, U2 and Ryan Adams. But then he said, he has the potential to join their company."
Receiving such praise was a heavy experience for a 24-year-old emerging artist. "It made me feel that I must have been doing the right thing and that there must be something really good about what I'm doing, or there must be a reason for why I'm doing what I'm doing. I have these dreams, and I really want to do this for some reason, and now it feels like it's supposed to be some kind of destiny." However, destiny is not without its negatives. "Now looking back on it though, I think to receive that kind of praise at 24 is almost like saying, all right, here is what you have to live up to. I think subconsciously that kind of thing can put a lot of pressure on somebody. It can almost make it sound like, look at how special this person is, rather than this person worked really hard and it paid off, so keep working hard.” As House discovered, it is all too easy to be enwrapped in the tendrils of success and its distortion of the artist’s perceptions. “With anything in life, I think that's sort of the danger, to think, oh I'm really special or I'm more talented than other people. I have not found that to be true in life. I think we reap what we sow in terms of you work hard and sometimes the complete underdog can make something beautiful. Sometimes the least expecting person could write the most amazing song.” This is the true meaning of folk music, music that is unadulterated and written by industrious people for the pure purpose of expression. House describes the nuanced balancing act between talent and hard work, “Not that talent doesn't play into it, because I'm saying it certainly does, but I think a lot of people just want to be rewarded for their talent rather than their hard work, and I think it's better when people are rewarded and praised for working hard."
House has overcome the sense that he is in a race and he must make it to the success finish line, to settling into a comfortable and rewarding relationship with music. "It's who I am, it's what I do. I don't know what else I would do. I definitely still feel inspired by music. I am probably more proud and haven’t had as much fun making this last record than any of my other records, and I'm also exploring music with fresh eyes and ears and feelings, because I haven’t been sober for all that long. For the first 10 years I played music, it was music accompanied by massive amounts of alcohol. Now that I don't have that, it's almost like being a different person and a different artist."
House's new record, "So On and So Forth," released on March 4th, 2016, represents a milestone, both in his personal life and professional music career. "What's cool about this record is that it does deal a lot with sobriety, but it's not talking about, oh it sucks getting sober, or how hard it is. It's not that. It's more, here is the kind of growth that I'm going through. Here are the things I'm observing in my own life, and here are the things I'm learning through this process."
The first track, "Yesterday Lies," is a representation of House's growth and evolution, and of House's deeper connection with his audience. "I had somebody come up to me the other day, and they said they had almost a year sober, and when they heard Yesterday Lies they knew exactly what that was about. It made me feel good that that struck a chord because that song is specifically about having this euphoric recall about the old days being better, and kind of wishing you could go back there, but the real truth is that it really wasn't the way you remember it.”
House acknowledges his family for their role in shaping the person he is today. “I give my wife a lot of credit and my family a lot of credit for helping me understand that the way I was living was not really sustainable. I was going on the road and playing 200 shows a year. I was gone 300 days a year, and drinking every day and every night, burning the candle at both ends. And then I got married and my wife helped me see how unsustainable that was. Slowly over time it has become less and less about me every day and more about everybody else.”
Ever since his start in music, House has been selling his CDs for around $10, and they still cost the same price today. However, the popularity of streaming services such as Spotify and Pandora, pose a significant threat to the livelihood of House and other musicians. "I tour a lot, so I still sell a lot of records on the road, but I think every artist will tell you that they are seeing downloads go way down and people are doing streaming. There was kind of a sweet spot in there for a while." Emerging artists may not have access to the resources necessary to make and distribute their records to a physical music store. "When you're an artist who can put your album on iTunes, then the whole world can buy it. People can choose to buy one track or two tracks, and they have to pay a fair price. It's a dollar a song. I think that's pretty easy. It's cheap for the customer but the artist is still getting paid. Then Apple went to Apple Music and streaming, and now there's Spotify and everything else. Downloading is falling off and streaming is the future of music, at least for the time being. The royalty rates on some of these places are like .00001 cent. There's one streaming service where I had a million and a half plays for a song and my payout was 80 dollars. These are companies that wouldn't exist without the use of this music, so they have to figure a way to make it fair for everybody and not just an artist getting free promotion."
Despite this bleak time for musicians, House is still determined to pursue his passion. "For the time being I'm playing shows and people are coming to my shows, and they've been coming to my shows for years now. I don't know how long it's going to last, but I have no reason to think that it's just going to stop tomorrow, so my plan is to keep going and if they keep showing up then I'll keep coming and playing. If they stop showing up then I'll find something else to do.”
To keep current on tour dates, new music, and buy Griffin House’s latest album, “So on and So Forth,” visit:
By Rose Hanson
Known around the Gourmet Ghetto for owning not one, but four locations of cheese specialty stores. Peter Raxakoul the owner of Country Cheese Co. better known as Pete, is taking the East Bay by storm. After opening his fourth store in San Francisco six months ago, which now features over 112 different bottles of wine, we sat down to speak of his humble beginnings, his big break, and his struggle with racial prejudice in the food industry.
To even get an interview with him seemed like a daunting task. After speaking with him, the only way I would get the interview would be if I joined him and his friends on a bike ride. But it didn't stop there. I would have to race and beat one of his friends up the Bay Bridge, which is a 22 mile loop from BCC. I grudgingly met up at his San Pablo store, bicycle in tow, hoping somehow to make it through the ride alive.
After meeting the riders, Greg, a man with a hipster worthy beard and a love for cycling trumped only by his love for his 3 year old daughter, and Tony, a hardcore Warriors fan who also doubles as an amazing chef, we were set to ride. We started off first towards Point Isabel Shoreline, taking a few turns here and there to rack up more mileage. Greg and Pete set off leading the pack on their carbon fiber bicycles as Tony and I tried to bike without falling over or hitting anything. The wind was brutal, but so were the hills. As we biked alongside the Golden Gate Fields, past the parking lot that was the freeway at rush hour, and onto the path that would lead us to the bridge, my nerves set in. With fifteen miles down, Pete stopped us at the base of the bridge. I was to race Tony to the top. Whoever got there first would win. With a short countdown, we were off,
Pete and Greg speeding past me. I cranked the pedals of my bike that hadn’t seen the light of day since high school. My calves burned, and the wind was pushing me around every which way. I looked behind me only to see Tony wasn’t far behind. After what felt like hours, I saw none other that Greg and Pete. Shoes off, laying against the end gate, guzzling water and joking around. Exhausted, sweaty, and out of breath, I got my interview.
How was growing up in Laos?
I was born in the capital of Laos in 1970. But I had to leave my country when I was seven years old. It was right after the Vietnam War, but there was still war happening in Laos. My father was an officer in the military, and after the war was over he had to escape to Thailand so he wouldn't be prosecuted. Many officers and their families were executed by the communists. So my dad was a refugee in Thailand for safety, and he soon sent word for us to come and escape to meet him there. At the time my mom was pregnant and was already caring for four kids so my mom had to pay people to smuggle us across the river. A lot of people don’t make it. Most of the time they pay money to these people to help them cross the border, and it's those people who kill them. They are basically traitors. We were very lucky. Once we got there we were arrested. This way we could get our paperwork processed as refugees. This was the only way would have an identity. We stayed in jail for a month just waiting for our papers. After that, we were moved to another camp to see what country we would go to. These people in refugee camps would starve just waiting to leave the camp. Even I starved. You aren't allowed to get a job. They feed you broth with leftover vegetables, and rice. That's all we ate. Some people who had family on the outside could get money through mail. If you didn't have that connection you were basically screwed. We stayed in the place that they would keep cattle. No room, no nothing. We slept on pallets and tried to set up tents until our paperwork was finalized. A lot of people resort to killing in the camps. You are starving and in survival mode there is nothing else.
How old were you when you came to the US?
I was nine years old.
Was that a total culture shock for you?
Yes, of course. I didn’t speak a lick of English, I knew nothing about this country. In the camps I would learn french since everyone was going there. But the reason we even came to America was because we found someone to sponsor us to go. When we got here all we had was 35 dollars and there were seven of us. Luckily, we met other Laos people who helped us and connected us to a Lutheran church. That's what saved us. The church taught us how to read and write in English. They came and fed us, clothed us. Everyday this woman Anne Ernesto, who was our sponsor, would come and make us lunches, taught my mom how to can food, took us to the hospital, she was so caring. I miss her a lot. Learning English in the school system was difficult for me. They never really tested to make sure I was actually understanding anything. Even if I failed, I would go to the next grade up. I took ESL classes too, but because I had to repeat seventh grade I ended up learning a lot. If it wasn't for my parents and the support of the church I wouldn't be who I am today, and where I am today.
After high school did you go straight to the military?
Yes, straight to the military. I got an offer to play soccer for San Francisco State, I was pretty good at it, I was all American, and I got a lot of letters from schools and professional teams wanting me to tryout. But it wasn’t really what I wanted to do. I went to the military to get an education and learn. Another big part of it was my dad was in the military, I grew up seeing my dad in that iconic uniform. He was my hero, I wanted to be like my dad. But when I joined, I didn't really like it. Too many rules, the chain of command, it didn't fit with me. So I opted out to the army reserve for 10 years, and after that I was done. I wanted to do something else with my life.
How did you get started in this business?
My mom used to work for this company in 1983. She worked here as a cashier and stocker 7 years prior to us owning it. I worked here when I was 16 as a summer job in the Berkeley and the San Francisco locations. When the owners of the company died, their family decided to sell. My mom told me about it and I was interested. But there were other people interested in buying it, including the manager at the time. The family gave me a chance to work for 3 months, just to see if I liked it. They never actually taught me anything. They just let me go. They never told me where to buy anything or where to get anything. But I was an honest and hard worker, I came into work everyday and did everything the best that I could. After the 3 months of me working, they decided to sell it to me. I don't know why they chose me. Maybe they thought I deserved a break. I wanted this store so bad. I took out a loan, my parents helped me pay for it. All that mattered was getting that store. They had a book and it was filled with all the products in the store and exactly which vendors they came from. I was so scared. I was only 20 years old, and it was a lot of responsibility. What to order, how much to order, no one told me what to do. I had never even done the ordering before. So I followed that book for a while until I got comfortable. Ordering things is just something you have to learn on the fly.You make mistakes, you order too much, you don't order enough but overtime it becomes easier.
Over the course of your time owning the stores have you ever faced racial prejudice?
Even today after 26 years I still face racial prejudice! At the beginning, when I was a young man still learning how to work the business, people actually approach you, accuse you of not knowing anything about the product. In one incident, a person came up to my face and said, “can I speak to someone who is white who knows about the cheese?” and all I could do was comply and refer them to the previous owners. But as the man went to ask them about the cheese, the owner said “that guy over there?” pointing to me, “He knows more about cheese than I do.” And as the owner said that, the man just left the store because he assumed an asian person wouldn’t know anything about cheese. And I still get that stereotype, even today and it's hard. Asian people don't typically eat cheese I guess, but now a days everyone eats it no matter what race you are.
I noticed that each store has something that makes it unique. The Hopkins store has coffee, and the new San Francisco store has wine and so on, what made you pursue these things in addition to cheese?
I bought that business because of personal interest. But, I never wanted to own a store in San Francisco, I have three stores within 3 miles of each other. I never had to commute. It helps to have the stores so close especially when someone calls in sick, if one store needs something right away I can just drop it in 5 minutes, it's easy to help each other out. When my kids were growing up here, it was easy to get them from school, if there was an emergency it was easy to be there. But when I got the fourth store, for the specific reason of wine since it pairs with cheese so easily, it was taking on a lot. A lot of stress and a lot of inconvenience. But it was new. I’m not a wine drinker, I don’t know a lot about wine. So I had to understand, and drink more wine. It’s apart of that business. One thing I have always wanted to do was have a wine bar. Have a place where you serve wine, with cheese, pate, dried fruit, all of that. So the San Francisco store was kind of like a test run for me. It gave me the opportunity to learn about different wines. I was able to appreciate the differences in bold alcoholic California wines versus medium fruity French wines.
Is there any closing thoughts or advice you would give to someone who wants to become a business owner?
I grew up wanting to give people a chance since I have been helped so much as a child. This job is fun, I never have to work at a desk, everything is always changing. A business is comprised of how you can be successful? How hard are you willing work? How badly do you want to provide for your family? This job is hard don’t get me wrong. Employees come and go, you have to trust yourself and respect your store to be successful. Just know not to give up. It’s going to be a long road, it’s going to require long hours, no vacations for a few years. Business requires effort. All I can say is hold on, and never give up. Never ever give up. 26 years later and I’m still pushing. But trust me, it’s all worth it.
From Refugee to Successful Business Owner
Pete Raxakoul on Immigration, Racism, Bicycles, and Cheese
Photo Credit: Rose Hanson
Pete Raxakoul's parents, aka "Mom and Dad" work at the Country Cheese located at 2101 San Pablo Ave, Berkeley
By Sharon Gibbons
Mark Lightfoot teaches art classes in pastel and two-dimensional design at Merritt College with a twinkle in his eye and a calm mien. He is a serious working fine artist, and a gallery owner in the Art Murmur district in Oakland. He has a new commission that he’s anxious to get to, he’s busy with a new exhibit of his work, “Mindscapes” at his gallery, and he’s taking a class in fused and slumped glass, learning a new medium. In the midst of it all, he took time to talk to the BCC Voice to give advice for aspiring artists and share insights from his own artistic process. We met at Manna Gallery, where Lightfoot's most recent work is being shown.
Lightfoot grew up in Michigan and in high school, was mentored by the artist, Glenn Michaels, working on large murals for the World’s Fair. He then entered the University of Michigan thinking to be an architecture major, until a tour of a local architecture firm persuaded him to switch his major to art and art education. Beginning to teach children’s art classes after his second year in college, Lightfoot earned a B.S. in Design. His college years happened during the Vietnam War and the draft, which required all eighteen-year-old men to enlist, unless they were in undergraduate school full time, which kept Lightfoot in school. Unfortunately, going to graduate school in the arts meant risking the draft, but Lightfoot wanted to develop as an artist and took the risk, going to the University of Washington to earn his MFA. Thanks to bureaucratic delays and the war winding down, Lightfoot wasn’t drafted, but the turbulent times were stressful.
After graduating with his MFA, Lightfoot found it hard to find good paying work teaching art and managing galleries. As he approached his thirties, he went back to school to earn his teaching credential and taught and worked in Canada for several years. To be closer to his family, Lightfoot moved to San Jose and then later moved to Oakland. He continued to do full time teaching at high school and community college art classes until retiring in 2008. He found an art studio in Oakland to share in 2004.
What was it like to have an art studio again?
I was still teaching full time and working [in the art studio] on the weekends on very small things like a study notebook. This led to larger pieces that started to get me thinking about work I had just begun in San Jose. I literally picked up from 1985 and built on that, when I left teaching and was able to work full time. Talk to any professional artist and what you do is you go to work every day. It doesn’t matter! Charlie Rose interviewed some real heavy hitters about inspiration and they all laughed. There’s no such thing! There’s doing the work and as you get into the work, things start to move. Then, you get momentum.
I also found I was on a wonderful curve for a long time, for a couple of years. Then, I sort of peaked with that particular pathway. I felt, “Oh, it’s like a sine curve." It was freaking me out. I realize now that it’s important that you continue to go on even though you might make crap for weeks. It’s the habit of going to the studio on a regular basis, even if it’s only for two or three hours a day, As long as you’re in there, things happen
I’m having a little challenge with that right now. I’m here for the next three weeks [at the gallery] as my partners are traveling so I lose that time in the studio. I have two days a week at the college when I’m teaching so that disrupts my work time. I’m taking a glass class so that’s being in a studio. I have this big commission [a private commission of four paintings] and it’s piecemeal right now. I won’t get it done until I’m finished teaching. I need that block of time from Monday to Friday. I need time to think about it day after day.
You’ve mentioned that you like to work in series...
That’s why I like this commission: it’s a series of four, yet they all have to be unified. I tend to work with at least two, usually three or four, and I’ll have them up at the same time so I can move from one to the other. That keeps my momentum going and keeps this particular idea coming forward.
Could you tell me more about your current show, “Mindscapes”?
I decided I wanted to take a class in digital printing at Berkeley City College as a way to get into new media. It gave me a lot of information about how to work with it. I’ve been exhausted with my painting. There are three artworks that started as paintings, and I wasn’t happy with them, so I said, "I’m going to photograph the paintings into the computer and go from there.”
Would you show me? We walk over in front of his picture, “Samurai,” a mysterious and subtly colored piece.
I was exploring. I was working with more texture. What you see there is modeling paste using spatulas and palette knives to create a broken surface. It wasn’t quite right, so I photographed it. I ended up doing a great deal more work to get a lot more dimension within the figure, a lot more light and dark. You can keep playing with it and if you don’t like it you can change it much more quickly than you can in the actual artwork. So that one is the closest to what the painting actually is, and yet, it’s dramatically different.
If we turn to this one ["Jungle,"] this painting began with a series of shapes, but I didn’t like what it was, so I cut and pasted it, and flipped it, so the composition has become radial. The image is pushed farther back with a semi-opaque mask and a lot of the textural things. I combined photographs of drop cloths I have in my studio. They are in all of those pieces. It gives you an automatic dense textural background. I was able to reinvigorate that image, but it is quite altered if you saw the original,
In Photoshop, everything is a photograph, so you’re manipulating photography and you can do different things with it. I find this kind of digital art much more satisfying than actually trying to replicate or imitate painting or drawing. Actually using photography and photographing your own work, like I did, you’re still working with your own material. So that’s how it invigorated my whole process of thinking.
The glasswork is totally different. It’s an applied art. It’s nice just to think about design rather than think about, “Is it meaningful?” It’s more like: "Is it cool?” There's a whole little community of people who are into this. I take these classes at Studio One. There are twenty people in there and a lot of them have been taking it for years. It gives you the opportunity to talk to people about things about your work and people are giving you ideas and suggestions. It’s nice to be in an art community again where you’re not just isolated in your studio.
Do you have advice for Berkeley City College art students?
You must take yourself seriously and use your time effectively. If you have a class that lasts for four hours, you should be there in class for the whole time. You’ve got the continuity of time, you’ve got the instructor who’s there with more expertise to help you and you do need help. You may understand the assignment, but it’s better to work in class. You need to ask the instructor questions and engage: you need to be engaged. Your work will get better. You’ll find that those habits will carry on as you move out on your own. You will certainly need to have habits of persistence because it’s very easy to start sliding and not doing it. Years ago, in a graduate seminar, the instructor said, "95% of Master’s candidates will not be doing any art in five years.” To address that, you need habits early: take yourself seriously and do the work.
Do you have suggestions for how to approach marketing and the business of an art career?
There are programs that offer this; California College of the Arts and the Academy of Art University are doing more of this. There are no shortages of consultants who will help you when you get out [of school] and they’re not cheap. Learn how to contact galleries, learn how to submit work; a lot of stuff is online. There are so many competitions online, you could just be getting yourself in with that. A lot of these are easy to enter and not too expensive. I’d be careful about fees and I would avoid their publications. Oftentimes, their art is weak and who reads the publications?
You have to get into a gallery or set your website so you can make it. A lot of people use Facebook over a website; it can function as well and be more dynamic. People use social media all the time, but there are certainly ways you can market. Selling your work is hard. To get taken up by an art consultant, you’d already be in a gallery. It’s really difficult to get into a gallery because there are so many good artists and it’s very competitive. We [the Manna Gallery] have no problem finding really good artists. If I were going into this, I would go into areas that would lead to more careers like art tech: game design, animation. Pixar pays their artists a lot of money. Of course, you’re a cog in the machine [laughs.]
Pretty neat machine!
A lot of it is looking at what you want to be good at: maybe being a fine artist isn’t what you’re so good at, maybe being a designer, maybe being in graphic arts or web design. A lot of design does not require drawing skills, just that you be sensitive to visual effects.
An Interview with Mark Lightfoot
Photo Credit: Mark Lightfoot
"Marine" acrylic/ canvas
"Winter White Set" Fused Glass
"Asleep" acrylic, oil/ paper
"Secret Garden" acrylic, oil/paper
"Vitruvian Flex" acrylic, oil/ paper
Photo Credit: Sharon Gibbons
Mark Lightfoot teaching at Merritt College
Photo Credit: Lis Arévalo
The Artist's Soul
Judy Juanita: Activist, Writer, Teacher
Since 1993, Judy Juanita has helped many students in the process of starting reading and writing in college. She is an English Instructor at Laney College and her passion is writing, and also teaching reading and writing through literature. Maybe not all her students know she is also a writer who has written essays, poems, plays and a novel, "Virgin Soul," a coming-of-age story in which a young girl, Geniece, experiences big changes in her life and in the world. Many readers have asked the author if this novel is an autobiography, as she is herself a former member of the Black Panther Party in Oakland, and has participated in important moments in the contemporary history of American Education. In this interview, Lis Arévalo from the BCC Voice spoke to her and discovered the great artist and human being we have as a teacher in our community.
I’m curious about your name, Judy Juanita. On your web page I found a different one…
I was born Judith Ann Hart and my mother’s middle name is Juanita. And I took the name Juanita when I begin getting published. It’s to honor my mother. Her name was Marguerite Juanita Hart.
Juanita is a Spanish name. Was your mother from a Spanish speaking country?
No, she wasn’t. When I took the name I was living near New York City and several friends said “Don’t name yourself that. People will think you are Porto Rican.” And then my father said “Why don’t you just go back to being Judy Hart? This is after I was divorced. My married name started with a T. The next Christmas, my former in-laws sent me two gold pins “JT”. So no one was pleased with my taking that name, not even my mother. She said “Why do you want two first names?” even if I was honoring her, but it was a huge lesson. Sometimes when you do something that has meaning and it’s a statement of self-affirmation, it doesn’t please anyone, but you have to decide it and do it for yourself… And I think it’s a beautiful name. It has a beautiful sound, a poetic sound.
I have also read that your life story is different from your character Geniece’… What is your story as a Black Panther Party Member?
The tasks in the party were strong, so we were in the picket lines; we were on the protests at courthouses, we were all participants in community programs, giving breakfast for children; those who edited the party paper also sold the paper. There was a sense of everybody doing a lot of things, there was a lot of work available for everyone. The central
committee only had a couple of women who were dominant. This was an era of a sexual revolution; the birth control pill came out for the first time in history, and women had choice over their reproductive freedom, so we were part of that era. Yes, we were out there having “free sex” but it was choice and if somebody tried to force us, there were confrontations, and that happens in the book several times. Many of the experiences that my character goes through were events that occurred either around me or I was a part of. So I was a young student at the City College, I did meet the founders of the Black Panther Party; I was the editor of their newspaper, I did eventually get involved in the Party, and I did carry a gun. My character is an orphan. I created on purpose someone very vulnerable. I had great parents who were very supportive of me during their entire lives. I also made Geniece a more thoughtful character. I was a willing participant in the sixties, very bright but very silly. She is very serious, introspective, as a character in a novel can be. She is thinking a lot on what is going on. In a novel you can talk a lot about the feeling about what’s happening. Geniece has to take responsibility for her own life direction.
School is also different now than the one in your story
It was in fact two dollars a semester for a student body card at Oakland City College (Merritt College nowadays). And when I transferred to San Francisco State the tuition was 48 dollars a semester.
What about the contents of Education?
Totally different. We activists hadn’t yet infiltrated and changed the schools, so History, Politics, Sociologists, English did not reflect diversity. Instead, they had a Eurocentric perspective, “the white man” one. Our purpose in having the students ‘strike at San Francisco State, which lasted four and a half years, the longest strike in Education’s history, was to create a Black Studies department, and it led to the Ethnic Studies department. So our purpose was to broaden the curriculum, and in the book you see different allusions to the experimental college, arts movements, black poetry, and many things which enlarged the focus of studies of American Higher Education.
Are you also interested in Gender Studies?
They are wonderful. I am not an expert on them but I studied a wide variety of work connected with the expansion of the canon, with getting feminist viewpoints into everything that we look at. That is the beauty of teaching English: I can expose students to all different kinds of “isms.” My second book, a collection of essays, is called “De-Facto Feminism.” It is about how one person redefines what womanhood is for her, from being a militant black activist to being an independent woman.
Would you call yourself a feminist?
Sure. I call myself a lot of things. I am person first but yes: a feminist, an astrologist, a Buddhist, a black arts movement survivor, a writer. Feminist is one more of a huge number of titles that I ascribe to.
As a writer, do you have special habits or routines for reading and writing?
Since I switch from genre to genre, when I am writing a genre I usually try to read in that genre. So, if I am writing a play, I try to read plays. However, I went to a playwriting workshop a few years ago, and the instructor said that it is good to be aware of what you’re are reading while you’re writing because there are questions that come up in a reading that you being to answer in your writing, so you need to be aware of how it is affecting you. At that time I saw that this one text "Guns, Germ and Steel," which is a favorite book of mine by Jared Diamond, was influencing a play that I was writing. I read the source material that helps me understand the historical period I am working on.
What inspires you for playwriting?
I am inspired by the unheard voices, the unsung, the unthought-of, the people in the margins of society, the ones who have been forgotten. Those are the voices that I listen to, whether I want to or not; those are the voices who I can render best in my writing in general. I wanted to explore all kinds of genres because of curiosity.
Are creative writing workshops good for writers? Do they work?
Absolutely. They help through creating “false” deadlines for you. And I have made incredible, long lasting friendships through them. Getting support from a writers’ community is very important because no matter how much your friends and your loved ones support or like you, no one really can understand better than another writer what the agony or ecstasy or writing is about.
Do you have unpublished manuscripts? What are your future plans as a writer?
Tons. My mom came to me after she died, two years ago, and she said “You have ten books, get them out.” I think that these manuscripts that I have are coming out in one form or another. I have four of them out now, one of them is ""Virgin Soul. I continue to send short stories out, I continue to write poetry, and I have some children’s books. I keep trying to have that sense of urgency. I am just looking at my life and saying it’s time, Get it organized. Get it out, and get it in a form that can be utilized for a future generation.
Let me ask you something about you as a teacher. Do you like teaching?
I love teaching. It’s an exchange of ideas. I am an idea-person. I want to get my own ideas out and I want to hear and read what others are writing about also, so it’s definitely a wonderful process. The first essays that I assign, I hesitate over them each semester because I know that as soon as I start reading them my heart is hooked.
You have been a Black Journalism and Black Psychology teacher!
When the Black Studies Department at San Francisco State started, the first Department and Program in the nation, I was hired to teach in that department. And it was because I not only had the B.A and some teaching experience, but because I had been a student activist in helping get that department. Shortly, within two or three years, the highly trained, the PhDs started coming in and teaching Black Studies and Ethnic Studies. But at first all over the country, activist students were the ones who took those positions on. I had been working on newspapers, including a number of Black newspapers, including the Black Panther paper. I devised the course teaching how Black people and Black freedom fighters had used newspapers from the Abolitionist period up through the Black Panther Period. Black Psychology, I was a Psychology major, so I thought on my feet as I went along. What Black Studies did was add another layer of diversity to Education.
Are you teaching Creative Writing now?
I am currently teaching Development of Writing, and Composition and Reading. I get really creative in these classes. I always bring in fiction, plays, and other genres. I have found it is wonderful. I cannot do straight academic texts. My mission as a teacher is to help students learn through the different genres. This opens students’ eyes.
Could you say the world is now better than the world you saw in the mid-sixties?
Of course! Fast changes have happened. The African American president of the United States is only a combination of these changes. Many fields are now open to all people of color; some are reluctantly open, but they’re open. Some laws have changed and some parts of society have taken a lot of time to catch up with the laws, and certainly attitudes have taken a lot of time to change, but this is a very different world than it was in 1965. Plenty of changes are yet to be made. We still have to come to grips with the fact that we have given the police the power to be judge, jury and executioner, and that’s not the purpose of a police force, but we haven’t come to terms with that yet. The Panthers were the early warning system in the sixties that this isn’t right, that the police had too much power. And they take it out on the oppressed, but now, unfortunately, people are seeing they take it out on whoever is closest to the end of the barrel of the gun.
To keep reading about Professor Judy Juanita and her artistic production, visit her webpage, where some of her essays can be found and "Counter-Terrorism," one of her plays can be downloaded. www.judyjuanitasvirginsoul.com
Judy Juanita, Laney College teacher and former member of the Black Panther Party
Foto Credit: Lis Arévalo
By Lis Arevalo
Professor Achva Benzinberg Stein
By Regina Moreno Hernandez
It was the year 1965. Achva Benzinberg Stein had no more than $70, but after hearing about the Free Speech Movement in Berkeley, she bought a one way ticket on the Greyhound bus from New York to Berkeley. After 4 years, Stein graduated from UC Berkeley as a Landscape Architect. A Fellow of the American Society of Landscape Architecture, twice awarded with a Fulbright Fellowship, Stein's travels and experiences throughout the years have shaped her career as a Landscape Architect.
She came to the United States after she finished her army service in Israel, her country of origin. When she arrived to New York, the Civil Rights Movement had just started. “I took one semester in New York, and then I read about Berkeley in the New York Times; it was about the free speech movement, and I thought Wow! They are having a good time,'" said Stein. So she left New York hoping everything would work out in Berkeley. Not long after she arrived, she realized it wouldn't be as easy. But she was lucky.
“There was a professor looking for an au-pair girl. He and his wife needed somebody to take care of the kids at night, wash the dishes…but not all day long. They would give you room and board in exchange. By 6 o'clock I took the bus, went up there, they met me, said ok, and that was the end for one semester. It was so fun!” However, being an au-pair girl for the couple wasn’t working, so when the summer came, Stein started working for two older men cleaning house and cooking for them. This job allowed her to look for other jobs too. She worked in UC Berkeley's library, in a restaurant at the university, where she worked during lunch time, and had a third job as a waitress in the women's faculty club.
Stein was able to save money for next semester; however, not all her problems were solved. She was a foreign student, so she had no way of getting financial aid from the university. Luckily, she had a loving boyfriend who helped her. Together they went to the library and found a scholarship given to Jewish students studying agriculture. The problem was she wasn't studying agriculture; she was majoring in Landscape Architecture. So, they sent a letter arguing that she was studying "decorative agriculture." She got the scholarship.
Later on, David Stein would become her husband. “We stuck together ever since. My husband and I traveling all over. His family lived in India. He's not an Indian, but his family left at McCarthy’s time. McCarthy was the senator who created this kind of anticommunist feeling in the 50s. My father-in-law was an architect and he worked in low cost housing, and that was considered communist at that time.” Her father in law became a renown architect in India, and thanks to his connections, when Professor Stein's husband came to study in Berkeley, he knew people from the field.
“He knew all the architects in the Bay Area because of his father, so it was really nice for me, because I got to know all the professors in Architecture school. They invited him and I was his girlfriend. The chair of my department was almost like his uncle, so we used to eat there Friday night, Sunday night…it was really nice,” recalls Professor Stein with a smile. David Stein's father was a freedom fighter against the British mandate, and her grandmother, who years later would visit her at the university, took part in the French Revolution.
After that, life just happened. She worked all over the globe, Europe, China, India, Israel, and the United States, mainly in public service designing parks, schools, housing projects, and more. She had two kids, and finally settled in California, so her children could be in a stable place during junior high.
“If you want children, then you have to manage,” said Stein, “so when the children got to junior high I said we can’t keep on, so before they got into junior high we moved back to Southern California.”
Years later, Stein was invited to Northern Carolina to start a Landscape Architecture program, both graduate and undergraduate. She stayed there with her husband for five years. Later on, she was invited to start another program in the City College of New York.
“There was one student when it started and 60 when I left,” said Stein with excitement. She explained that being a professor has a disadvantage; even though they have summer vacations and a more flexible schedule, they don't have much time to design since you are busy teaching, writing books, and doing research.
Once, Professor Stein worked for a private client, the producer of “The Lord of the Rings.” It was the only time in all her career that she designed a garden. Even though it was a great and fun experience for her, she said since it was her first real job, the project closest to her heart was the mini parks she designed in San Francisco. Three of them are considered to be the best in the city. However, she likes all her projects, “I learned from each and every one. I really want to take something nobody has done before, do it, and then it would become a prototype. So that was very good. It matters that you push the profession further.”
“We work to live, not live to work,” she said as she reflected about the choices she has made. Stein is not only an inspiring Landscape Architect, but also and admirable person. She encourages students to think about how much of their time they will put into their work, “It’s a very short life we have, and if we really work like that, ok, so you impress some people, but life is more, it's made of flowers. Make sure you do enough, but don't slave to it. It’s not worth it.”
As a last piece of advice from someone who seems to hold the wisdom of age, Stein offered: “Let life give you some chances. You'll meet nice people, but if you work so hard, you don't give life a chance. You may not have all the opportunities that you can. Don't think it’s only work, [do] anything—movies, dancing, singing, painting, writing, sitting in a coffee shop— very important. And find a man that you don't just love, but is your friend. Someone who really understands you. It's hard. Life is not so simple, but look at the sunshine. We’re here, talking across ages.”
Learn more about Achva Benzinberg Stein's work at www.achvastein.com
The World Traveler
Adventures of a Landscape Architect
Life on Shattuck Ave, Berkeley
An Interview with Laylane
Laylane was residing near Center and Shattuck in Berkeley
Photo Credit: Marcus McAlpin
by Marcus McAlpin
Outside of a Starbucks, I couldn’t help but notice the colossal contrast between the wealthy students having a late coffee, and the woman sitting across the table from me. Laylane, a 19-year-old homeless person residing in Berkeley California, had no problem in engaging in an in-depth dialogue regarding to her well being as a street-dwelling person. Her dark brown skin almost shimmered in the imminent rising of the moon, as she told me the truths about her circumstances and the truths of her emotional roller coaster. I would like to think most people are like myself, and take time to contemplate the lifestyles of the many, but in actuality it’s quite difficult to fully understand such a complex condition. Speaking to Laylane was not only heartbreaking, but eye opening to a world most walk right by on a daily basis. Because somebody is resting their head to sleep on Shattuck or Center, does not negate their status as a human being. The more knowledge we have about these lifestyles, the better understanding we have. Bridging the gap between the fortunate and less fortunate is crucial to our sense of community and our sense of self.
What’s your name?
Uhh Laylane Laylane?
Where are you from originally?
Do you stay in Berkeley now mainly or…
Would you consider yourself a house-free person? Or are you in a house sometimes?
How did that develop?
Umm I had left my dad's due to like family issues and stuff like that. And I just like, if I was going to get my stuff together, I would do it my way, instead of doing it everyone else’s way, you know?
So it was your own conscious choice?
How old do you think that developed, like, in your mind, that you didn’t want to go with this straightforward system everyone else was doing?
I was about umm… 10? When I started saying I don’t like this. Cause I started to notice patterns. I was in LA with my auntie, and it was like, it was an everyday pattern we had! It was like get up, wash face, brush teeth, get dressed, school, home, homework, park, extra curricular activities, dinner, bed, cycle repeat. Do the whole thing again.
So, that was our pattern, and I didn’t like it! When I was 10 years old, I was like you know what, no! So I switched it, what I did, I would get up, I would brush my teeth first, and then I’d wash my face, I’d switch up the order of operation. So yeah, I was about 10 when I started doing things my way.
Do you think um... by doing it your own way, did your family or whoever was around you, did they start to notice that early on? Like you doing things differently than everyone else in the family, everyone else in the house?
No, nobody noticed because I was always just my “dad’s daughter.” Like I never got a chance to be, just Laylane you know. I was always “oh, I know who you are! You’re so and so’s daughter!” And I’m just like no! You know, I couldn’t stand it. So I started doing things to make people notice me, you know?
What kind of things did you start to do for people to notice you?
I started to, like act up, just a little bit. And then like, once I saw that that wasn’t working, I was younger, I started broader things, like I’d run away, I’ve umm.. cut, just to make people see me have some sort of sense of control in what I was doing and stuff. As far as the cutting goes.
Are you still in communication with anyone from your family, like your dad?
Yeah I won’t talk to my mom… my brother and sisters I don’t really talk to that much.
But you and your dad still talk from time to time?
Yeah, every now and then. So in my thing, being house free is not ok… it’s not. And there’s various reasons why. You have people who tend to want to pick on you all the time, you have people wanted to think you’re crap, you have people calling you dogs just because you sleep on the sidewalk, cause apparently if you don’t have a house you have to become an insomniac and stay up all night. So that’s where I think being house free is not ok.
So you don’t mind sleeping on the street, the actual comfort doesn’t bug you, it’s more of how people react to how you are out here?
If we did live in a society where there wasn’t a stigma for that, and it was just an accepted norm, do you think you’d be happier with being house free?
I’d be more happy in a house But I wouldn’t mind… like think about it, when you go camping, you’re basically living outside for the 3 or 4 weeks that’ you’re camping! So it’s basically like you’re homeless, but you’re camping, so you know I wouldn’t mind doing that.
But you’d like having a place to go back to at the end?
Are you taking any steps to become not house free anymore?
What kind of steps, I don’t even know what you would have to do
(laughs) Well I use to be a foster child, but I left the system, not legally, like I didn’t go to court, so my social worker and my lawyer are still working on trying to get my… ID and birth certificate and my social security card.
Once you have those what would be your next step?
I could apply for a job, like working with kids. Cause I like working with kids! It’s the teenagers I can’t stand (laughs).
So you say you’re 19, is that relatively young for the people you hang out with?
Well, all these guys are like 10,000 years older than I am, in theory… (laughs)… umm it’s not weird, they’ve all become family.
So there’s a strong community among you and your friends?
Yes. Because I do understand that everyone’s different, I do understand that people are more fortunate and less fortunate, I do understand that. And I understand how to treat those that are either less fortunate or more fortunate, you could be more fortunate and you can be the nicest person ever, or you can be less fortunate and you can also be the nicest person ever. If that makes sense?
Completely, they don’t necessarily categorize together.
Yes! Cause if I see it, cause if you’ve noticed, we’ll sit here and be hungry, and we’ll ask people if they can spare their left overs, cause we’re hungry! And I know you can hear us, I know you can hear us. We can’t even get a head nod, or a shake. Like there’s a couple people that will be like oh no I’m sorry. But for the most part, they act stuck up and like we don’t exist! I don’t like that.
That’s a big part of what we’re trying to convey here too, is that everybody is a human being, nobody deserves to be looked over as if they don’t exist.
So have you, in your house free days, have you just been in Berkeley or have you have been in Oakland too?
I’ve been in Oakland too.
What are the differences between the two places?
Here… a lot of the homeless kids are kind of like, calmer. You know? In Oakland, in some parts of Oakland some of the homeless are really really really aggressive.
Do you think drugs are playing a part of that?
I do… for some people. You know? I think drugs for some people do play a major part in their behavior. Because you know drugs alter the chemicals in the brain, make you feel every emotion 10 times stronger than if you were sober. So, if you are an overall angry person. You’re just filled with rage, you had a horrible child hood, your parents got divorced when you were 13, so… you’re already pissed off! So you add cocaine, meth, freaking syrup, whatever your choice of drugs is, if you overdo it, it’s going to become a chemical imbalance within the body. So you’ll become more rageful than before.
(In the background man yells: you guys are big stars!) (laughter)
Goddamnit. That’s Tripp (laughs)
Do you do any drugs?
I… do not, I do smoke every now and then. Cause I have severe anxiety, soo.. I do it so I can be like… relaxed. I have severe anxiety and PTSD. So when you know, I’m above the clouds, if someone were to touch me, normally I’d probably jump because I’m anxious, but when I’m high it’s just like “Yeah!! Heyy!”
Well do you find among the people you’re friends with, do a lot of people suffer from similar things to you, in terms of like anxiety and PTSD?
There’s a lot of people that I have known over the years, and just the few months I’ve been in Berkeley, like my friend Ninja, he suffers from some mental concerns, I suffer from mental concerns. You know I’m bi polar, and the PTSD, anxiety, I have multiple personality disorder, so yeah.
When you have issues or problems like that, what outlets do you turn to besides self-medicating, what other outlets do you really have?
There’s a few outlets. It depends, for me, it depends on the person within the person. I have 2 girls that are like really silly that like to have fun in my head, and when they come out, you know, I’m really funny and energetic! Then you have the really serious me, and then there’s also just me.
So you said you’re bipolar, you have multiple personality disorder, how did that get diagnosed, did you go to a doctor?
I went to a doctor, and they saw… what do they call that, like an examination?
Yeah, so they did that and they said I have multiple personality. They said I’m bi polar, cause there was a part in the examination where he asked me something, and I flipped a wig cause the question? I hated being asked that question so I started throwing books and stuff. I was cool calm and collected until he asked that question. And then there’s sometimes where I’ll be sitting here and I’m calm and relaxed, and then all of a sudden I’m mad as shit and I don’t know why. Or I’ll just get sad out of nowhere, or super happy, like a 5 year old with candy.
By Taima Dugan
John Piazza is a teacher of Latin at Berkeley High, beloved by students for his accessible teaching, and his recognition that teenagers, although they sometimes act like a different species, should nevertheless be treated as human beings. Piazza grew up in the Bay Area, and after going to Maybeck High School, attended the Dominican University in San Rafael and San Francisco State University. During his time at college, he fell in love with the philosophies of ancient Greece and Rome, and eventually decided to learn Greek and Latin in order to delve deeper into these philosophies. While learning Latin from the Pope’s latinist in Rome, he made the decision to become a high school teacher and has been teaching Latin to Berkeley teenagers for two years now.
What made you want to learn Latin?
During my undergrad studies in philosophy and religion, I became fascinated with the big questions of the human condition. What does it mean to be a human being here on earth? What are our obligations to others? How should we be living our lives? What is real? All the big questions like, is there a God, etc. I was fascinated by those questions and by looking into the different traditions of the world to learn about their insights, not necessarily their answers, but how each tradition chooses to frame those big questions. So I ended up wanting to focus on the ancient Greek philosophers, Plato, Aristotle, and others. It was because I wanted to know them better that I made the decision to start learning ancient Greek, and when I decided to move into the world of classics, it also required me to know Latin as well.
What are some specific ways you can name that the philosophies of the ancient Romans and Greeks have affected you?
That’s a good question. I think what I liked about these ancient thinkers is that all of their abstract thinking was rooted in the practical question of “What ought we to do while we’re here?” The big questions of what is ultimate reality, known as metaphysics or theology, as well as questions regarding the mind, epistemology, which is, "what can I know?" The ancients believed that thinking about these questions gave people more insight about the ethical questions. What are my obligations to others? What ought I to be doing? Because in order to come to a solid understanding of one's obligations, they believed it was important to know what it means to be a human being in the world. That idea in itself struck me because it showed me that philosophy wasn’t just about thinking about things for their own sake, but it was informing a life that is lived intentionally. The idea of developing principles or guidelines, words to live by, whether it’s something like the Golden Rule about treating others the way you’d want to be treated, or the idea that retaliation is just as much an act of violence or injustice as the act that instigated that retaliation. And I think that it goes back to this intentionality, the idea that we can live our lives in a way in we’re just reacting to what the world does to us, or we can make very conscious choices about what we are going to do during our lives. The ancients understood that life was very precarious, and that a long life was not guaranteed, a happy life was not guaranteed, wealth and health, not guaranteed. Given all of that, what can we still do and what should we still do in spite of that.
I was wondering if you had any other college experiences to share, anything that impacted you?
Yeah, college for me was a wonderful experience. A big part of it is because I did not immediately go to college after high school. In fact when I finished high school I didn’t have much intention of going to college. I was very focused on other things, I was a competitive cyclist. I wasn’t, by any means an athletic specimen. I didn’t have any pretensions of going and being a professional or winning a bunch of races. But I loved the sport. I loved being a cyclist, I loved the long meditative, often solitary training rides in the Berkeley hills and out to the various mountains. Doing that kind of training was not only physically great for me, but it helped me to maintain my sanity through those teenage years. It grounded me and it was meditative in a lot of ways. And at the same time I was fascinated by this culture of cycling that existed mostly in Europe because it was so much older, so I wanted to go over to Europe. Not necessarily to be a champion but to participate in that tradition and be a part of the peloton as they call it. I ended up working in bike shops here for a good part of a year, and then I moved over to Belgium and just plopped myself in Gent with a bike and started to enter races and ride with other people, it was an amazing experience. Long story short, I realized that cycling wasn’t for me, I sent my bike home, and then I started to travel around and really explore the more intellectual and artistic things that Europe had to offer. I spent a lot of time in museums and cafes, a lot of time reading books, and thinking about what I wanted to do next. By the time I came back to America, I was excited to get back into an academic life that was on my terms. It wasn’t what I had to do because I was in high school or because I was being forced to do this, but I had the luxury to come back and enroll and make a fresh start in education. I ended up spending probably a decade in school before I ever got my Master’s. It took me a while to explore and figure that out, but that process was great. I had the good fortune of encountering many professors who were so receptive to my enthusiasm, that I felt like I could really connect with them, and they helped me to connect with the various subject matter.
I also studied music when I was at SF State, I took up a few musical instruments I settled on the trumpet, I was taking private lessons there, and I was in the swing band and the modern big band, and I sort of tried to put together a jazz combo. My college experience at SF State allowed me to connect with so many amazingly accomplished people in so many different fields. I was also able to study at UC Berkeley as a SF State student so when I decided to focus more on the Greek and Roman philosophers, I was able to come over to Berkeley and be in seminars with some truly amazing scholars. That was part of what inspired me to continue with ancient thought and ultimately to go into becoming a latin teacher.
What made you want to become a latin teacher?
Well I knew I wanted to be involved in education, because the work of study and of questioning one’s ideas, of challenging and refining our assumptions and our thoughts about a variety of things fascinated me, and I’ve taken a lot of pleasure in it. As I became more interested in ancient Greek and Roman civilization and thought, that option of being a latin teacher was one of the few that was open to me. It took me a while to come to the conclusion that I thought that being a Latin teacher would allow me to do what I wanted to do. That does go back to this teacher whose picture is up on my wall, it’s Reginald Foster. He has literally dedicated his life to Latin. He lived most of his life as a scholar but also as a teacher. And it was spending a summer with Reggie, that I consciously made the decision. And I said to myself “You know what, I can see myself doing this everyday,” because of his example. This is someone who had read seemingly everything that was written in Latin. It was working with Reggie, learning Latin in Rome, and being with a large group of incredibly motivated people. There were like sixty of us and we crammed into a little classroom that looked like it was made for fifth graders. It was in the basement of a convent, near Reggie's monastery. I need to add that Reggie taught his class free of charge. So you still had to make it to Rome and find a place to stay, but this is free, this was his calling, his vocation. It was sitting in that sweltering little classroom, where Reggie was showing us some beautiful piece of literature and showing us a sentence and saying “ look at how beautiful that is, look at the structure of that sentence, look not only at what this person is saying but how they say it.” To have somebody who is so experienced in Latin that they can show you that about the seemingly obscure and ancient and supposedly dead language. That was very inspiring to me, that’s when it occurred to me that this is what I really want to be doing.
Were you imagining yourself as a professor or a high school teacher?
That was a specific decision to be a high school teacher. In a high school setting you actually get to spend a lot more time with your students, as a Latin teacher in a relatively small department, I get to teach the same students for two, three, sometimes four years, five days a week, for the entire academic year. That’s a teaching opportunity that very few professors have.
Do you plan to continue teaching for a long time?
I think so. Teaching is hard work, it’s very challenging in many ways. The interpersonal aspects of dealing with more than a hundred teenagers on a daily basis, requires you to think on your feet. And not just in terms of your intellectual thought, but also in terms of your emotional responses. How you respond to positive interactions, how you respond to being provoked. It’s not a requirement, but being a teacher, just like being a parent I’ve found, is an invitation to introspection. If an interaction is going badly, or if something isn’t working, that I see as an invitation for me to not just investigate what’s going on with the other person, but also to think about why I’m responding in that way. Maybe trying to improve those interactions by thinking about my role in it. I’ve found it to be beneficial to examine my own thoughts and my own responses in a situation. That if I do that and am able even for a little while to think clearly about what I’m bringing to the classroom, I find that helps me to not make the same mistakes again. Knowing that I’m going to be in here tomorrow with the same group of people is another chance to get it right.
Photo credit: Taima Dugan
Welcome to Latin
An Interview with John Piazza
The forever fashionable, Jonathan Starrling.
By Zach Adams-Dominik
Jonathan Starrling is a jetsetter. In the past five months alone, he has flown to four different countries in four different continents, and multiple major cities throughout the United States. I’m told he once caddied for Justin Timberlake, wears $2,000 shoes, and has been clinically determined to be addicted to sex. He’s a friend of a friend and was part of a cadre of young professionals who flocked to Denver, Colorado in the early 2000s hoping to recreate the Silicon Valley in the Rocky Mountain state. He’s young, charismatic, witty, and he came to pick me up for our interview in a brand new Mercedes-Benz; from all appearances, he’s the embodiment of success. As luck would have it, Starrling was in San Francisco in early May on a business trip, and wanted to try out a gastropub a client had recommended. Hungry for answers about the burgeoning tech culture and thirsty for a beer, I accompanied him into the city. As we weaved through traffic on the Bay Bridge and tried our best to circumnavigate the ever-present road maintenance, I asked him about his life.
First off, thank you for agreeing to this interview and coming to pick me up.
Sure, sure. Work is done with for today and now it’s time to play. Besides, no one looks good eating chicken wings and drinking beer all by himself.
Well, I'm glad my company is appreciated, at any rate. Besides an affinity for pub food and fancy cars, what else is there to know about Jon Starrling? Tell me a little about yourself.
Alright. Well, let’s see, I’m 30, I’m V.P. of Education at Apto, I’m a Sagittarius, and in 10 years, I’m going to retire.
What does a vice president of education at Apto do? What is Apto?
Yes, so, Apto is a commercial real-estate software company. Commercial realtors, actually, they prefer to be called commercial brokers, they need something so that they can track all of their different properties and their clients as they go throughout. They need information so they can sell, buy, lease; that sort of thing. There’s no real tool that does that. Think of something like Zillow or MLS, but more for commercial brokers. When you’re looking at different buildings and different office spaces, it isn’t easy to keep track of what building has a space for lease, what floor, what office, or what whole property that’s going up for sale. Apto is how they can track all that. And it helps to track people who are interesting in buying, or interested in selling a space, as well as people who are looking for a space. It can help a tenant or a landlord that has spaces to be sold or leased.
So it’s not like for you or me, then; it’s more for these massive real-estate companies?
Exactly right. My job is to fly to all of the cities where we see growing interest in our service and I train people on the software. The job is fun and I get to meet a lot of people but I like it most for the executive title.
How long have you been there? Did you move to Denver specifically to work for Apto?
So, I moved to Denver a couple of years ago. Five, actually. Denver has the huge start-up scene right now but I moved there to work for Oracle. I did that for three years and then moved to Apto.
Why did you switch to a start-up?
I like start-ups because you get a lot of responsibility, very quickly. I mean, I already have a V.P. title at the age of 30. Heh, so that’s why you switch to a start-up. But it’s also laid back. Marijuana is legal in Colorado and a lot of people smoke at work. You’d be surprised how many people do it. Also, some people don’t wear shoes. I don’t like that so much, but it’s a thing.
You look like you quite like your shoes.
I’m glad you noticed. They’re bad for walking, but a good V.P. sits.
How are you liking it as compared to a bigger corporation?
Love it. Our CEO is very big on culture. He takes us out and is a friend as well as a boss. He’s big on giving you your task and then leaving you alone. He doesn’t care when you’re in the office, or how many hours you worked that day as long as you’re completing your work. A lot of times I work from home. Well, or I’m on the road. That’s completely different from the structure of an old money, established business.
How do you feel about Denver as an environment for start-ups? Is it really the new Silicon Valley?
Yes, I will say that it probably is. All of the big companies are moving out to Denver and Boulder. So, we now have Google, we already have Bing, we have all of your normal app start-ups around here, and a lot of your big tech companies are moving their offices here in Denver. Also, WeWork is a big part of it. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of places like WeWork—they're shared workspaces where you rent out an office so you don’t have to pay for an established location. A lot of start-ups go to places like that so that they don’t have to have their own property. Start-ups usually only have a small amount of people, like 5 or 10. These rental workspaces are perfect for that. And it’s not only that; it’s a space where you can go to get counselling. So people who have sold off their companies, they come in and they’ll give you one-on-one counselling on how to be successful. There are places like that all over. I use them when I travel to hold meetings.
Why Denver, of all places? I mean, why are businesses moving out there when the Bay Area is still a thing?
It’s a bunch. One thing I would say is the cost of living. Denver has plenty of room for expansion and now it’s growing rapidly. Land is cheaper than other places and the political climate is there. I’m sure tax breaks are part of it with Colorado trying to get more companies to move. And, honestly, I’m sure the legalized marijuana has something to do with it. Especially with start-ups. People like it and they’re going to do it; why not go where you don’t have to worry at all? It’s just the right environment right now. Anyone can get a job. You can be dumb as hell and be an executive. People are pissed off. I mean, Denver is the new California. We do what you do, but better.
With so many companies already over there and more starting up, is it a buyer’s market? I mean, do you feel confident in your ability to jump to another company if the start-up you work for goes under?
Well, it is flooded, but, based off your skills, you can do alright. In two weeks you could probably get a new job. I work in a very niche department, so I’m okay in that I don’t have competition, but the openings are lower. The bigger problem is that what I do, which is basically training, is usually one of the first to be let go in a downturn. Honestly, it’s probably the first things that goes. But I do customer education as well, so I deal with the whole training aspect, internal and external. It’s very easy to go from company to company if you wanted to. I wouldn’t because my goal is to be CLO, which is Chief Learning Officer, and I’m on the path to do that on Apto. Plus, like I said, I don’t plan on working too much longer. My goal is to retire by 40 or 45. I probably won’t jump ship anytime soon.
How likely do you think you’ll be able to do it?
So, with the cost of living being so cheap and the kind of money you can make, even with no degree, it’s kind of crazy. Think of the gold rush, but with apps, and weed, and everyone is getting rich.
Do you ever encounter any issues with being a young professional? Do people respect you? Is there a hurdle you have to get over?
Well, not really. Most guys at the start-ups are this young. Thirty is actually old for my company. And my customers, I can deal with customers all the way up to 80 years old. The real-estate profession tends to attract the older crowd, so a lot of the brokers are older. And yes, they respect you because you have knowledge and you’re sharing with them what they don’t have. As long as you know how to engage your audience, that’s all that really matters. Most of the guys I work with are in their twenties. I tell them how life is.
What’s next for you? Any big plans after your early retirement?
Hah. I want to open a club called Kinetic. Have you ever been to an oxygen bar? With the hoses? I want to do something like that, but with vaporized weed. It’ll be called Kinetic because the floors will be hooked up with pressure sensors that generate electricity. I want the whole club to be run off the dance floor.
So, when the lights start to dim, you have the DJ play?
Right now? It’d have to be D-Lo. Everyone start jumping! Hah.
We had made it to the restaurant and had already begun on our second round when Starrling got a phone call. He apologized, gave me a one hundred dollar bill to cover the food and an Uber back into Berkeley, and got up to leave. I asked him if everything was alright. He took a moment, looked down, pointed at his marvellous shoes, and said, “It’s always alright.” With that, he left. I ordered another beer for myself and contemplated my $40 Vans and previous life decisions. Our mutual friend had told me earlier that Starrling had never been to college. He's also only three years older than I am. The world is a curious place.
Photo Credit: Zach
Denver Is the New California
Johnathan Starrling Wins at Life
Even the V.P. of Education gets his hands dirty, every once in a while.
Photo Credit: Jonathon