Features & Columns

A Look Back

A look back at the columns, alleys and interstices that defined 2011
in San Jose and beyond
LOOKING UP: Local singer Lisa Dewey made the big time in 2011. Photograph by Felipe Buitrago

AS ANOTHER calendar year barrels to an end, reflections begin to emanate, not just from the literal alleys, but also the cognitive routes, creative throughways and that which fogs the above.

As this columnist perceives them, alleys are side passages usually subordinated by society to the "in-between." The alley denizen occupies the interstices. He operates off the beaten path—geographically, creatively and even psychically. Sometimes the result is linear, while in other cases, more abstract multidimensional explorations emerge.

With that in mind, the alley denizen will fondly recall some particular highs from the last 52 weeks. The themes tend to circle back; everything filters through one's own hometown. Tensions exist between native and exotic, between domestic and international, between one's home turf and one's inclination to go somewhere else. Art and writing seem to harmonize those tensions—the experience of which constantly reinvents the columnist's relationship with San Jose as a whole.

This year in particular, a few inspiring women came to light in this space.

SJSU professor Cathy Miller, whose 1998 biography of Somali supermodel Waris Dirie sold millions of copies, was blown away to hear that the U.S. premiere of the film was debuting at Cinequest, right here in San Jose.

Fourteen years ago, immediately after completing her MFA at Penn State, Miller co-authored Desert Flower, the worldwide-blockbuster story of Dirie's life and the horrors of female genital mutilation. It was a sheer coincidence that after all these years, the film debuted right down the street from where Miller teaches. Go figure.

In another twist, lifelong San Jose musician, songwriter and SJSU graduate Lisa Dewey began to see pay dirt when Fleetwood Mac's Lindsey Buckingham recrafted one of her songs for his latest solo effort.

It was a great story; as any musician who grows up here knows, the decision to remain in San Jose is a difficult one if you expect to be taken seriously by anyone else in the world.

Part of the human condition here is dealing with the ridicule hurled at San Jose from musicians in more happening cities. Our reputation seems like that of a wasteland of squandered musical potential, where commercial success is equated with leaving. One often longs to be that one musician who finally makes the big time without having to go somewhere else.

In terms of classical music and youth musical education, one particular SJSU graduate did make it without leaving. Christine Eunmi Shin runs the New Mozart School of Music, which started above a pizza joint in Palo Alto. It was hard work, but her story, like Lisa's, was quite an inspiring one. Over lunch, she said she was an "accidental entrepreneur," and the rest of the story wrote itself.

When it comes to foreign travel improving one's relationship with one's local landscape, 2011 revealed several synchronicities to the anti-man-about-town.

Immediately upon returning from Chiang Mai, Thailand, for instance, he found himself at House of Siam in downtown San Jose, coincidentally sitting right next to two Thai Buddhist monks. With the help of the restaurant owner's husband, the anti-man-about-town gave his remaining Thai currency to the monks and went home to deal with his jet lag.

A few experiences in the Great White North also evoked connections to San Jose. A trip to Vancouver brought back memories of the San Jose Earthquakes' intertwined history with the Vancouver Whitecaps, right on the stadium parcel where the author first saw a Vancouver game 30 years earlier.

Similarly, an unexpected visit to Ken Kesey's old PA system at the Cantos Music Foundation in Calgary produced a wild romp through the 1960s counterculture, right at the time when the movie Magic Trip about Kesey and the Pranksters opened in the valley, featuring the bus from which the PA system came from.

There was much more, of course: the Mexican Heritage Plaza, the Chocolate Watchband, Winchester Skatepark, dive bars, a soccer stadium, technology symposiums and the Spartan Bookstore receiving department. I can't wait to see what 2012 brings.