Archive for the ‘Stanford’ Category

Bike Party

Saturday, April 17th, 2010

bike_party_2010_april by billmo, on Flickr

Friday night, April 16, 2010 San Jose Bike Party hit the El Camino Real, bringing their two-wheeled high jinks to Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Palo Alto, and Stanford. Bike Party is a volunteer group that organizes monthly bike rides through the streets of the South Bay, attracting hundreds of riders. In contrast to the edgier and more confrontational Critical Mass, Bike Party seems to be a more festive and light-hearted event, but still a serious ride. Friday’s route was 27.57 miles long.

bikeparty  191I first heard of Bike Party last year when they rode past my house in the middle of the night. I was asleep in bed when I was awakened by a couple neighborhood dogs barking their heads off. I could hear voices and strange mechanical noises coming from outside in the street. That’s not so unusual; it’s a busy street and occasionally we’ll have boisterous pedestrians or vehicles going by. But this time the noises didn’t stop and the dogs kept on barking so I went to the window to see what was going on and slipped into the Twilight Zone. There were bicycles rolling down the street. Wave after wave of bicycles. Dozens of them. There were mountain bikes, road bikes, stunt bikes and beaters, riders in costumes, hipster types, and nerds in reflective vests. I thought I was dreaming. I went outside in my pajamas and found a couple teens from the neighborhood already standing on the curb, watching the spectacle. They’re the ones who told me it was Bike Party, being much hipper than I.

When I learned Bike Party’s route this Friday included a big chunk of El Camino, of course I wanted to go see the fun and maybe take some pictures. However we went to the anniversary celebration at Calvin’s and I stayed too late enjoying the festivities so by the time I got up to Palo Alto the ride was pretty much over. I saw a few isolated stragglers but hardly enough to constitute a party. I stopped to chat with two riders fixing a flat tire who told me they estimated there were a thousand riders out. I asked how the ride on El Camino was and they replied, “too many cars.” Fair enough.

I reflected on how tragically unhip I am. I drove my car to try to get a look at a celebration of bikes, and missed the whole thing. Ironic and sad. I drove over to the ride’s end at Sunnyvale Town Center and strolled up and down South Murphy Avenue to see if I could spot any riders enjoying a post-ride beverage at the many nighttime watering holes there, but all I saw was this well-populated rack. As it so happened several bars had the Sharks’ hockey playoff game against the Colorado Avalanche at HP Pavilion on their TVs, and as I was walking back to my car I heard the whole street erupt in cheers as Devin Setoguchi scored the game-winning goal in overtime to even the series 1-1, thrilling the home crowd. Friday night on El Camino the good times just rolled.

The Girl Who Fell from the Sky

Monday, April 5th, 2010

Heidi Durrow is coming to the Bay Area this week to read from her debut novel, The Girl Who Fell from the Sky, and sign copies of the book. She’ll be at the Stanford University Bookstore on Wednesday, April 7, and at Kepler’s Books in Menlo Park on Thursday, April 8. Full details are below. You’ll note that both Stanford and Kepler’s are on El Camino Real. Meet-the-author events are always enlightening and a great way to show support for independent booksellers, but these particular readings are quite special to me. You see, I’m privileged to know Heidi.

Heidi and I were Stanford undergrads together, both class of 1991. Freshman year we lived in the same dorm complex, Stern Hall. We didn’t really know each other in college, but we were aware of each other. I hope she doesn’t mind my sharing that she worked in Food Service at the dorm and her job was to swipe the residents’ meal cards through the cafeteria card reader. She was the gatekeeper of the goulash. (My roommate and lifelong brother-from-another-mother Shu Nung Lee also worked in Food Service, but he wasn’t cute enough for that kind of front-of-house duty.) So I saw her just about every day and remember her well, the pretty, petite, light-skinned girl with the startling blue eyes and fuzzy-curly hair. We never spoke beyond the perfunctory exchange of redundant thank-yous.

Recently, when prompted by me, she said she thought she kinda sorta remembered me singing a cappella with the Stanford Fleet Street Singers. Perhaps she was just being polite or it might have been an induced memory, but at the risk of sounding immodest I was a bit of a campus celebrity in those days, known for my blues-inflected rendition of everybody’s favorite “Schoolhouse Rock” ditty, “I’m Just a Bill.” See, my name is Bill. That made it funny.

heidi_headshotWe graduated in parallel in 1991. Fast-forward to 2006, the year of our fifteen-year reunion homecoming celebration. For every homecoming class, the Alumni Association compiles a Reunion Book to which every graduate can contribute a yearbook-like page summarizing what they’ve been up to since college. When I received my copy of the Reunion Book, I enjoyed flipping through it cover-to-cover, reading its many diverse stories. Most pages are jam-packed with photos and text because as it turns out it’s difficult to cram fifteen years of life onto a single letter-sized spread. But Heidi’s page made me pause; it stood out because it was nearly blank, little more than a Tweet. It contained a single Hollywood-style head shot, an intriguing one-line professional summary—journalism, law, fiction writing, consultant to the NBA & NFL  (!)—and a URL: That was it. She sounded like a real-life Dee Dee Thorne.

I totally remembered her and wanted to know more so I went to her web site and got the rest of the story. The site has since been redesigned but even back then it was professional and engaging. I learned she was now a writer and impressively had completed her first novel manuscript, titled Light-skinned-ed Girl. (The title is a term she heard a lot growing up, an African American Vernacular English phonological construction. I learned those words in a Black English Linguistics course and I think Heidi may have been in that class too.) I learned she was working very hard in the face of constant rejection to get this manuscript published. I deduced that the site itself was a deliberate marketing vehicle to promote her work. It worked on me; I got sucked in by the nearly-blank Reunion Book page trick! I learned she was smart, determined, and talented.

I learned something else. I learned she’s biracial: her father was black and her mother is white. She’s also bi-cultural: her father was an Air Force sergeant from Texas, her mother a librarian from Denmark. Having lived in the Bay Area most of my life I’ve known many biracial and multiracial people, people in mixed marriages and relationships, and families built up from cross-racial adoptions. I never gave their stories much thought though; I took them for granted. I was certainly aware that mixed relationships were often fraught with palpable difficulty from both sides during the racially-charged sixties, and that cross-racial adoptions require special sensitivity and cultural effort. But I never stopped to think about what it means to be mixed. Heidi had, a lot, and she wrote about it, a lot, with eloquent honesty. On her web site she had a link to her blog, also called Light-skinned-ed Girl. She didn’t have all the answers because no one possibly could, but she fearlessly asked aloud the questions she lived every day.

I stayed up very late that night reading everything on her site. I read a short excerpt from her manuscript, and longed to read more. I read every posting on her blog and every comment from the community that was starting to build around her. I was hooked and inspired. Race and identity make up a large part of her writing, but the larger story which emerges is about the joys and challenges of living a creative life. Her novel is the heroine of that story and comes to a happy ending. On May 31, 2008 Heidi exuberantly announced that her manuscript had won Barbara Kingsolver’s Bellwether Prize for Literature of Social Change, a prize which includes recognition, cash, and most splendidly publication. Her book, renamed The Girl Who Fell from the Sky, was published by Algonquin Books in February, 2010. But I got it in January. How?

Rewind back to 2006. (Get used to nonlinear narrative; it’s an important literary device in her book.) I live in the Bay Area so I never miss my Stanford Reunions and the fifteenth was no exception. I was hoping Heidi would be there so I could make her acquaintance but she wasn’t. After it was over I slipped out of my comfort zone and emailed her out of the blue to let her know how much I enjoyed her manuscript excerpt and her blog. I was reading her blog regularly and in fact hers was the first blog I ever followed and the first to show me how the technology worked and what it was capable of. That same year I first had the idea to create I had various big plans for it but thanks to Light-skinned-ed Girl I came to understand that a blog would be the heart of it.

Fanshen and HeidiIn 2007 Heidi and her longtime sister-from-a-different-mister Fanshen Cox created Mixed Chicks Chat, an award-winning weekly live call-in podcast dedicated to telling the truths of the mixed experience. Fanshen, an amazing actress, filmmaker, educator, and friend, is also mixed. Of course I listened to their podcast religiously (again the first I ever followed) and participated in the off-air chat room, calling in when I could, and before long found myself thoroughly involved in the wonderful burgeoning Mixed Chicks community, which is bizarre because I am neither mixed nor a chick but somehow it makes sense. Drop by some time; I’ll introduce you around. In 2008 these two amazing women with the help of a tireless cast of volunteers produced the first Mixed Roots Film and Literary Festival, an annual event at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles celebrating Loving Day with films, readings, workshops, and family activities focusing on the untold stories of being mixed. I flew down to L.A. for the inaugural festival to help out and meet them both in person after months of amiable but purely online interaction. I tell you all this (a) to plug the Mixed Chicks, and (b) to paint a picture of my high regard and ongoing involvement with Heidi and Fanshen.

Stunned by my good fortune, and so happy for you! Can I crow ... on TwitpicHeidi’s publisher announced the book would come out in February, 2010, Black History Month of Barack Obama’s second year in office. Perfect. In January the advance copies were circulating, getting rave reviews, and the publisher was pushing it hard to booksellers. Awesome. Not content with their considerable efforts however, I went to the Stanford Bookstore on January 16 (I was in the area) and asked their information desk if they were going to carry it. The employee wasn’t sure so I got the contact info for their buyer. Cool. I was about to head home, when I succumbed to a slightly crazy urge to go a little further north to Kepler’s Books in Menlo Park. I asked their information guy the same question, were they planning to carry The Girl Who Fell from the Sky when it came out the following month. He typed a search into his computer then replied, “We have it in stock. It’s on this new releases table right here.” Sure enough, there it was, nearly a month ahead of the release date. I was flabbergasted. Incredulous. Elated. I couldn’t believe my good fortune, having the honor of being among the first on the planet to buy the book. It was Cosmic perfection that this happened on El Camino. I bought three copies (I gave two away to family), DMed Heidi on Twitter, raced home, and finally, three and a half years after I first read the teaser from the manuscript, read the full novel, finishing it in three days.

Heidi DurrowThis post is quite long so I won’t talk too much about the novel itself. It has been covered at length in national press including the New York TimesWashington Post, Christian Science Monitor, and NPR. TV is next; Oprah, we’re comin’ for ya. It’s lighting up the blogosphere and vlogosphere, and it’s climbing the sales charts. This is a fun time. I will say this: I loved the book. It’s beautifully written, it tells an important, heartbreaking story, and I’m incredibly proud of Heidi. There were passages, including the climax, where time seemed to stop as I was reading because I was so consumed by the prose. This is high praise for art in any form. The most valuable gift to me is that because I’ve been getting to know Heidi these past few years, hearing her voice and her stories, I was able to inhabit the book in a way I’ve never experienced before. I knew what she was talking about. Go get it and read it; it’s widely available online and at your favorite independent and chain bookstores. Join our online community. If you can, go to her readings this week or check her book tour schedule for one near you. Seeing her eyes, hearing her voice, and getting her autograph will enhance your enjoyment of the book.

Kepler’s won the day but ever since I read those pre-published manuscript pages in 2006, I’ve visualized Heidi reading and signing her books at the Stanford Bookstore. The bookstore cuts an elegant symbol, the busy crossroads at the heart of the campus where we intersected only incidentally  twenty years ago but left just enough of an impression to build a friendship on years later. Now that the vision is coming true, it brings full-circle the arcs of our two stories, but not to closure. This Ferris Wheel ride isn’t done turning.

Book Readings & Signings

Heidi Durrow, author
The Girl Who Fell from the Sky

Stanford Bookstore

White Plaza, Stanford University
Wednesday, April 7, 2010 5:30 pm

Kepler’s Books

1010 El Camino Real
Menlo Park, CA 94025
Thursday, April 8, 2010 7:30 pm
Dessert served compliments of Anna’s Cookies of San Francisco

Here Come the Men of Stanford

Thursday, October 22nd, 2009

The Stanford Athletics department has produced this hilarious promotional video featuring my old a cappella group, the Stanford Fleet Street Singers. This is one of those strange weeks where things seem to converge. Last Saturday, the anniversary of the Loma Prieta earthquake, I wrote about how I was at a Fleet Street rehearsal when the shaking started. Next Saturday, I’ll be attending the Stanford Homecoming A Cappella concert of all the groups on campus. Afterwards I’ll be rooting for the Cardinal at the Homecoming football game against Arizona State. So naturally yesterday, hump day, I received this video featuring Stanford football and a cappella. It’s like a mashup of my life.

Now I have it on good authority that the world does not in fact revolve around me, but I must point out that I actually arranged the song that Fleet Street is doo-doo-doo-ing at the start of the video, “Lulu’s Back in Town.” I arranged it my Freshman year. That’s pretty good longevity for an arrangement, considering some of the guys in the video were born the year I graduated.

Stanford Reunion Homecoming A Cappella Concert

Memorial Auditorium, Stanford University
Saturday, October 24, 2009
2:00pm – 4:00pm

Stanford Homecoming Football Game

Arizona State @ Stanford
Stanford Stadium, Stanford University
Saturday, October 24, 2009
7:25pm kickoff

Loma Prieta, Nature’s Camino

Saturday, October 17th, 2009

Twenty years ago I was an undergrad at Stanford University. I sang baritone in a 16-man a cappella group, the Stanford Fleet Street Singers. We used to have full-group rehearsals twice a week, and an additional weekly rehearsal for each section. The “bari” sectional was Tuesday evenings before dinner. I never liked that abbreviation, “bari.” It always made me think of Barry Gibb and Barry Manilow—two superstars in their own right, but just not my thing, ya dig? For a while I lobbied to call ourselves the ‘tones but it never caught on. Too bad, it sounds so much cooler.

So we four baris—John Sullivan, Jason Windawi, Gray Norton, and myself—gathered on Tuesday, October 17, 1989 in the Arroyo dorm lounge in Wilbur Hall to work on our parts for the week. [Thanks, Gray, for filling in the details I forgot!] I don’t remember if we started at 4:30PM or 5:00PM but I do remember that at 5:04PM the whole building shook like it had been hit by a truck. Then it kept on shaking. It was an earthquake. John and Jason were not from California so I think that may have been the first quake they ever felt. They were nervous but excited and enjoying the thrill ride with newbie “so this is an earthquake!” innocence. However Gray’s a native Californian and I’ve been here since I was five so we were old veterans with some perspective and I’ll always remember he and I looking at each other, eyes big as saucers, when we realized after a few seconds that this was very very serious. Scientists may quibble but for us at that moment, in that place, it was The Big One.

We stayed calm and all our elementary school drilling came back to us. We dove under the nearest piece of furniture, a ping-pong table, dragging John and Jason with us. I realized right away that it was a terrible choice. It looked solid enough while we were standing up but from underneath it was pretty much a folding chair with a net. Not sturdy at all. Then I looked around and realized that the table was right next to a lovely floor-to-ceiling picture window. A wall of glass—exactly where you don’t want to be in an earthquake. Well, we were the baris and we were tight so I barked a few orders and each of us grabbed a table leg, lifted, and in perfect unison we scooted that table away from the window from underneath, keeping it over our heads the whole time like a Spartan phalanx shielded from Persian arrows. By then the shaking had stopped…I think. I still felt some shaking but I think it was my legs. The window didn’t shatter, the ping-pong table held, the building stood fast (Wilbur Hall is pretty much a concrete bunker), and we were all unharmed.

Bay BridgeOver the next few hours and days news came in of the magnitude of the quake’s devastation throughout the region. The horror of the Cypress structure collapse in Oakland. The shocking visual of the ruptured Bay Bridge. The tragedies and fires in San Francisco’s Marina District. The destruction of downtown Santa Cruz. We named it for its little-known epicenter, the Loma Prieta Earthquake. We tallied its statistics: 6.9 on the Richter scale, 63 dead, 3,757 injured, 11,000 homes destroyed, 7 billion dollars in damage.

It was a grim day and the losses were staggering, but given the large population and the wide area affected, I’m grateful it wasn’t worse. Emergency responders and hospitals were well-prepared and heroically effective. Not all but most of our critical infrastructure—freeways, bridges, tunnels, utilities—withstood the quake and continued to serve after brief interruptions. All the A’s and Giants fans at the historic and ironic Bay Bridge World Series got home safely if slowly from Candlestick Park. At Stanford there was significant structure and property damage but no injuries that I’m aware of. With the power out for a while and classes canceled for a few days we huddled and bonded with dorm-mates early in the school year.

In retrospect thankfully the El Camino Real corridor along the Peninsula was relatively unscathed. The Mercury News recently published a chart listing the number of housing units destroyed or significantly damaged in the quake. The most were in San Francisco county: 24,800. The fewest were in Santa Clara county: 1,000. (Ironically Loma Prieta the mountain is actually in Santa Clara county.) San Mateo county isn’t even listed; I take it there were too few to bother counting.

Part of it may be that we had learned our lessons by then, many the hard way. The missionaries who forged El Camino along the mission trail 200 years ago often remarked about the frequent earthquakes but didn’t heed the warnings. Earthquakes damaged or destroyed many early missions. In particular a series of earthquakes around Santa Barbara on December 21, 1812 destroyed or severely damaged seven missions, some of which had to be abandoned and rebuilt elsewhere. There were tragic death tolls. At San Juan Capistrano the two boys ringing the bells for Mass were killed when the tower collapsed.

Still the Spaniards pressed northward, building stronger and stronger structures as they went. I like to think that the pueblos and towns and cities that sprung up along the route inherited the aesthetics of resilience and were built to last. There were mishaps—the Great 1906 San Francisco Earthquake exceeded their ability to prepare—but 1989 showed that El Camino has gotten a lot of things right.

It’s interesting to compare El Camino Real with the San Andreas fault, that famous feature responsible for so many historic quakes including 1812, 1906, and 1989. El Camino isn’t literally on top of the fault, though interestingly they do cross near Mission San Juan Bautista. Their similarity is more symbolic. They parallel each other, running south-to-north from roughly the Mexican border to approximately Sonoma county. (The fault at that point slides into the Pacific ocean.) To me they both represent forces of movement and change in the state. The San Andreas fault is the tectonic junction between the Pacific plate and the North American plate. The Pacific plate moves south and the North American plate moves north at a plodding 4-6 centimeters per year. As it rumbles along it shapes the state, pushing up mountains and sealing up valleys and bodies of water. Every so often the plates slip and we feel the temblor. El Camino moves us also, but at a slightly quicker pace. It also moves us forward through time. It’s the juncture of nature and invention. It’s where people plant roots and build things, but never lose the wandering spirit that brought them there. So they constantly rebuild and reinvent, and every now and then deliver a jolt that shakes the world.

It’s perhaps inevitable that El Camino shadows the San Andreas. For the past 25 million years the fault has been defining and reinforcing the orientation of the land. Humans just followed the geological path that was laid before them. Earthquakes will happen and the road will shake but that fateful October evening twenty years ago today, El Camino Real was the natural place to be.

The Big Kiss…Off?

Thursday, October 8th, 2009

Stanford University was founded in 1891. One thing that set it apart from the start was the fact that it was coed, unusual at the time. Boys and girls together, gawrsh. It wasn’t long before these inventive youngsters came up with a rite that was doubtless daring at the time, but in our sepia-toned way-back mirror looks sweetly romantic now: Full Moon on the Quad. The way it works is freshmen become true Stanford men and women if and only if they are kissed by a senior at midnight in the Quad under the first full moon of the school year. The tradition has persisted so for over a century the place to be for the incoming and outgoing classes on that harvest moon is in front of Memorial Church, lips a-pucker.

This year however the event has fallen victim to that perfect storm of modern science, well-intentioned protectiveness, and media fear-mongering: the H1N1 virus. University officials canceled the event due to concern it could lead to a swine flu epidemic.

My first reaction on hearing this news was that the whole thing has become ickily seamy in recent decades, but I’d hate to see it go out like that.

full moon on the quadfull moon on the quad 2006I graduated from Stanford in a not-so-recent decade and yep, I went to FMOTQ once or twice during my time there. My memories are hazy but I recall it being a good time but a little too bacchanalian, not at all matching the intimate fantasy I had built up in my naive little head. (What’s that? You want to know if I was made there or a maker? Ah…but that would be telling.) I haven’t seen it since—I’d probably be arrested for lechery if I tried to crash—but from published accounts it hasn’t changed much. If anything it’s gotten a bit worse with cases of public drunkenness, lewd acts, and middle-aged lechers trying to crash.

The University has moved to protect its students and reputation by taking some control over the event, providing security, sanctioned entertainment, etc. It’s this element that they canceled. On the face of it it’s not a bad call. I’ve seen enough fictional outbreak scenarios in movies and television that I can practically see the PowerPoint slides depicting casualty projections with the Quad circled as ground zero. A big ol’ bull’s-eye on a Google map.

Still I’m a sucker for tradition and would mourn this one if it passed prematurely. Finding your way through life requires striking the right balance between repeating what came before and forging new experiences, hopefully building and improving as you go. A good tradition connects you with a community larger than yourself—past, present, and future—and there’s validation in that.

Last year’s FMOTQ bore little resemblance to the very first one. A community as vibrant as Stanford’s knows how to adapt to changing times. H1N1 is a mere irritation to be worked around. I’m not even sure how FMOTQ could be canceled; the moon and the Quad are still there and barring a Tiananmen-type crackdown students are still free to use them as they see fit. So the students may retract at first, but they’ll push back, pulling, twisting, and tweaking the event until it suits them once again. There will be some missteps: this past Sunday under the full moon some undergrads opted to interpret the event as Full Moons on the Quad, to the em-bare-assment of all. Maybe it only takes a few sensible precautions. But they’ll get there. In its next incarnation it may not look like the FMOTQ I knew, but it will be the same in name, and that’s good enough for me.

[Source: The Stanford Daily]

Stanford Football Home Opener

Saturday, September 19th, 2009

The Stanford Cardinal play in their football home opener tonight against the San Jose State Spartans. Kickoff is set for 6:00 PM at Stanford Stadium. This game is affectionately named the Bill Walsh Legacy Game in memory of the Pro Hall of Famer and Bay Area coaching great who played at San Jose and coached at Stanford.

I’m a Stanford alum but I live in San Jose so in theory I should be conflicted over this game. But I’m not. Go Cardinal!

2009 Stanford Football Schedule


Opponent / Event



Sat., Sep. 5 at Washington State Pullman, WA W, 39-13
Sat., Sep. 12 at Wake Forest Winston-Salem, NC L, 17-24
Sat., Sep. 19 vs. San Jose State Stanford Stadium 6:00 PM PT
Sat., Sep. 26 vs. Washington Stanford Stadium 6:00 PM PT
Sat., Oct. 3 vs. UCLA Stanford Stadium TBA
Sat., Oct. 10 at Oregon State Corvallis, OR TBA
Sat., Oct. 17 at Arizona Tucson, AZ 3:00 PM PT
Sat., Oct. 24 vs. Arizona State Stanford Stadium 7:15 PM PT
Sat., Nov. 7 vs. Oregon Stanford Stadium TBA
Sat., Nov. 14 at USC Los Angeles, CA TBA
Sat., Nov. 21 vs. California Stanford Stadium TBA
Sat., Nov. 28 vs. Notre Dame Stanford Stadium 5:00 PM PT