Building Bridges by the Bay: The San Francisco Experience

San Francisco is a lot like Vancouver. Sure, we don’t have a famous bridge (although I personally think a Lion’s Gate sounds a lot more impressive than a Golden Gate) or a prison on an island (although those held in captivity on Vancouver Island due to ever increasing ferry rates may beg to differ), but there was a very familiar feel to San Francisco.

The conference that I was attending in San Fran was themed ‘Building Bridges by the Bay’, and was an opportunity for college health professionals across North America to share ideas, build relationships, and work together to create environments that support health and wellness. The theme was fitting – not just for the conference, but for the city it was held in.

Here are the ‘ABCDs’ of why I loved San Francisco so – and why it reminded me so dearly of Vancouver.
A city that may be as diverse if not more diverse than Vancouver – how wonderful it is. There’s something beautiful about communities that can preserve the heritage of their culture while living peacefully with others of all creeds, faiths, orientations, and ethnicities. Wandering through the Castro District, the infamous neighborhood where Harvey Milk brought due attention to gay rights and laid the groundwork for future gay rights activists to fight for their rights, was a humbling experience and a foray into the accepting world Milk must have envisioned.
San Francisco and Vancouver share a coastline – and what a coastline it is. While in Vancouver, finding a spot on the beach on a Saturday afternoon sometimes requires a 6am spot-holding stealth mission, the cooler temperatures in San Francisco allow you to actually appreciate the beach for it’s innate natural beauty – vast expanses of sand and the softly lapping waves – instead of the discarded beer bottles and incessant chatter you find on a sunny Saturday down at Kits beach.
Curious weather
Maybe it’s working up at SFU that has given me an appreciation for fog. There’s something mysteriously appealing about a fog-laden city – it brings a sense of calm to the rustle and bustle of the hectic Union shopping district, and bestows upon the Golden Gate Bridge a sense of furtive beauty.

Before and during construction, the Golden Gate Bridge was widely known as, “the bridge that couldn’t be built”, due to insurmountable difficulties like swift water and strong wind. With determination and vision, this impossibility came to being. I saw a similar determination in the eyes and hearts of gay rights protesters marching the streets of San Francisco in protest of Proposition Eight (which was sadly upheld in a Supreme Court vote on May 26). Despite this, the determination displayed by San Franciscans was voracious, and just as the infamous bridge was build despite ferocious opposition, so too will gay rights one day come to be recognized. In another must-be-mentioned show of determination, I must give accolades out to all the San Franciscan joggers and bikers who take on the hills of San Francisco – that may be, I must admit, the one department in which San Franciscans take the cake.

A Community…of Dance!

A few weeks ago, my special lady and I completed a pretty darn fantastic beginner salsa class. Our group included people from pretty much every culture, socio-economic background and “beginner” skill-level imaginable, and we were lead by an excellent dancer and teacher, the amazing Karlos Reyes:

With this collection of aspiring dancers and Karlos leading the pack – joined by a few of his friends who showed up every now and then to help out – it was impossible to not have a good time as we salsad (functional grammar is so in these days) our way into a smiling, healthy and semi-coordinated community.

Now. The correlations between dance and community as it relates to our class were pretty substantial. Take equality: background, status, income, culture, age and/or style becomes irrelevant when you step on to the floor. Dance: the great leveller! And with a Cuban at the helm, equality (as well as baseball and outstanding health care) were sure to join rhythm, laughter and basic salsa moves as most excellent outcomes of the class.

But don’t just take my word for it. Michelle is going to weigh in on the community of dance as well. We have outlined a few themes and highlights from the class, and are happy to provide a balanced perspective on ‘em for you, the reader. And here we go:

Dancing in a Circle with Different Partners

John: “When I signed up for salsa lessons, I was under the assumption that Michelle and I would be doing all of our dancing together. I was wrong. Due to the gender imbalance (about 70% of the class was female), we men had to be shared with all the ladies. Learning how to adapt to different styles and skill levels – not to mention body types, smells and talkativeness – made the experience all the more interesting and enjoyable. For example, a lovely woman, who happened to be about five feet tall, struggled to not be stretched and lifted off the floor during a move called “sombrero,” as my 6’3″ and misinterpretation of “leading” saw me rigidly not bend down to accommodate her. She was a good sport, gave me feedback and we shared a laugh.”

Michelle: “On the flip side of this experience, being in the more represented female component to the class oftentimes left me partner-less in this circle of dance. John speaks of having to adapt to different partners? Try adapting to a solo sombrero. While not as much of a “community”
experience, it sure makes you aware of what moves you’ve got down pat … and which you don’t!

The Actual Steps

John: “It’s not that men are slow-witted and poor dancers. It’s just that women are smarter and, therefore, are asked to carry out all the complicated steps to all the complicated moves. Fellahs, if you like simple, then salsa is your thing. Let me walk you through it: ‘one-two-one-two-one-two-one-two’… Yeah, and sometimes to spin the young lady ’round and ’round. But that’s pretty much it. Way to go, ladies!”

Michelle: “John, I have to disagree. As Karlos so enthusiastically demonstrated in class … if the women aren’t given direction as to the next move (you young men have to be assertive!), they’re left spinning aimlessly in circles of confusion and pacing in perplexity. While it’s true we women may move our feet a bit more, you strapping gentlemen give the overall guidance and really drive the dance, if you will.”


John: “They totally ran the gamut of sensation. We saw some flowing dresses, emo-hipster-punk-hippie-hipsters, button-down retirees, and serious dancers in serious heels.”

Michelle: “Which totally speaks to the notion that our community of dance really was a community of acceptance. Within our circle of dance, flowered dresses, skintight emo-jeans, corduroy jackets and mumus complemented on another like, well, well-paired Salsa dancers.

Side Conversations

Michelle: “There’s nothing like a 10 second conversation while spinning and turning between dame unas. Like in every community, you don’t always have an ideal amount of time in an ideal setting to get to know all of the fantastic people out there. But the friendships we created in these short bursts of time just goes to show that a few sentences to get to know your grocery store clerk, librarian, waitress, bus driver, or the neighbor-up-on-the-fourth-floor-who-you-hardly-ever-see-but-plays-his-music-really-loud, can go a long way.”

John: “An icebreaker I liked to try was asking a woman if I had the sweatiest hands. And if I didn’t, that I wanted to know who did and who was ruining the good name of men in the room. Yeah, it usually went well. The group was very open to shenanigans.”

Etiquette & Teamwork

Michelle: “Karlos kindly provided us with some general “rules” for leaders and partners. As I read through them, I saw how they hold true for any community:

- Be aware of the space between you and other dancers. Just like you need to be conscious of the impact you have on your neighbours and your environment.

- Maintain a good connection with each partner. In salsa, so much depends on the way you hold your wrist, your elbow, and how you respond to your partner. If we’re not able to connect with those around us, well, we just won’t be as good at what we do.

- Help each other out. During salsa class, people would miss the dance move call. Sometimes, it was because the music was too loud. Other times, it was because the person in question was “talking a bit too much”, or has a bit of “trouble attending”. Okay. These ones “may or may not have been me”. Regardless, as a community, we’d help each other out by letting your partner know what they’d missed. And we were all better because of it.

John: “And the laughter. Once you’ve shaken your bum and grinded your hips and yelled very animatedly in front of people, well, you’re all pretty much part of a special community. So much support, sharing and ideas came out of this class. It started with Karlos, and was contagiously taken up by everyone very quickly!”

Every Tuesday, our community of dance would convene at Brittania Community Centre. While in our “non-salsa-lives”, we’re teachers, musicians, electricians and stay-at-home-moms, on the dance floor we melded into Cuban Salsa Rockstars, teaching, learning, and having a great time doing it. Now that’s community.

An Island of local foods, thriving theatre … and dirty, dirty exhaust fumes

This past Saturday, I took advantage of the clear, crisp, sunny day and a few free hours to ride my bike down to Granville Island. As I whizzed along (well, maybe ambled is a more accurate term …), the fresh air did wonders for my spirit, leaving behind thoughts of impending biostatistics midterms and laundry piles at home. As I made my way past the tennis courts and Kids’ market, a slightly (OK, very), ridiculous perma-smile on my face and a saunter in my bicy-stride, I saw before me an illogical and incoherent sight: vehicles. Dirty, polluting, resource-depleting vehicles. And not just a few. They were everywhere. Is this some kind of Emily Carr inspired performance art piece, I asked myself? Surely this must be a group of forward-thinking, sustainability-minded students making a statement. Sadly, this was not the case. There really were an abundance of vehicles stuck in a horrific traffic snarl around the Island. The Island was replete not with the smell of local fare and the sound of street musicians, but with the smell of exhaust and the nerve-grinding sounds of honking cars and revved engines.

As of late, there has been increased hype around making Vancouver’s built environment more conducive to biking and walking. The benefits are evidence-based and success stories can be seen in many European countries (Denmark and Holland, to name a few). Active Transportation (i.e., walking, biking or rolling) has numerous environmental and health benefits, as well as economic and social ones. Cities that are more pedestrian friendly have been linked to increased local shopping and retail sales, and a more vibrant sense of community. Tourists find pedestrian-friendly cities more welcoming, and tend to spend more time and money in places where walking and cycling is more accessible.
I understand that, well, Vancouver ain’t no Copenhagen. We’re simply not at a place, be that politically or logistically, where a large-scale infrastructural overhaul can take place to make Vancouver’s streets just as accessible to bikes and pedestrians as it is to vehicles. But baby steps can be made. And I propose that making Granville Island car-free be one of those baby steps. There are plenty of public transit options around the Island for individuals to get to the entrance. We might consider creating more opportunities for street car linkage and increased bus service to the island. For those individuals who simply must take a vehicle, limited paid parking stalls can be kept available, with revenues going towards more sustainable transportation options.


As it stands, the beauty and distinctiveness that is Granville Island is being sullied and tarnished. And what kind of statement do we want to make in the world when they visit our beautiful province in 2010? I suggest we take this small step, make a statement about what we, as Vancouverites, stand for, and save this little Gem of an island from the tarnish of exhaust.

The Tupperware tales. Are you a part of the movement?

There’s an underground community lurking in the shadows of Commercial Drive … and there might possibly even be one in your neighborhood as well. Kits, Surrey, Coquitlam … yes, this could very well include you. No, I’m not talking about gangs, drugs, or black-market gambling (although these very well could be affecting your neighborhood). I’m talking about something far more pervasive. More lasting. More contained. I’m talking about Tupperware, folks. Yep, that pliable, attractive, and very long-lasting synthetic polymer we’ve all grown to love and celebrate (for those of you who have never been to a Tupperware party … well, you were probably born after the 1970s. But you get the picture).

What was once a product that was primarily used to bring food made in the home out is now being used to bring food made outside the house in. And it’s a great, community minded, environmentally friendly thing, friends.
On the Drive, there’s a lovely little sushi joint I often frequent. Bringing sushi home in those horrendous plastic and Styrofoam containers was too much for my poor, sustainable mind to take. And an easy solution, so that I could continue to feed my sushi dependency and quell my urge to be friendly to our little planet, was to bring my own containers. Until a few weeks ago, I thought I was alone in this practice. I felt like an outsider. Like I should apologize for disrupting the to-go-sushi-making-flow. And then … I found another. Our eyes connected across the restaurant as we both held our Tupperware, proud and prepped to confront the plastic-loving staff. A sigh of relief, a smile and a nod.
So to all of you Tupperware-yielding restaurant goers out there … you are not alone. There are many of us out there, and with time and persistence, our practice may very well become the norm.

Bringing Music Back: From Me to We

The brilliant author and neurologist Oliver Sacks has recently written a book on the ways in which music can move us, change us, and bring us together. Musicophilia ( describes the peculiar, the miraculous, and the poignant ways in which music is integrally woven into the fabric of our lives, our memories, and our very neurological compositions. He tells tales of individuals afflicted with Alzheimer’s Disease, who, after months or years of confusion and lost identity, respond to music in beautiful and remarkable ways: smiling, keeping time, and regaining a sense of lucidity that sometimes lasts for hours. He tells of instances where music has animated those with Parkinson’s, and given those who have suffered from strokes the ability to speak.

Music, it seems, has presented a pathway to these individuals: a pathway to their memories, their souls, and their very sense of self. The ability for music to stir in people emotions, memories, and a sense of wellbeing is truly amazing, and may be one of the reasons music has a way of bringing people together – of developing community.
I recently went to a CBC Book Club recording, where the author in the hot seat was renowned musician and conductor Rob Kapilow (who coincidently, is chummy with Oliver Sacks – oh, to be in that circle of literary brilliance!). Mr. Kapilow (, in ‘All You Have to Do Is Listen – Music from the Inside Out’, describes the way music moves us at this very instinctual level. We don’t need to be musicologists* to have this visceral reaction, to feel what the music is telling us, to respond to it in real and beautiful ways. Music can bring us together, tie us to a certain cause or moment, and make us feel like we’re a part of something larger than we are.
It seems, somehow, that this has been lost. I blame it on the iPod. Before the invention of the phonograph in the late 1800s and the subsequent explosion of recording devices and recorded sound, people had to go to a concert hall to listen to a musical performance. It was something that was necessarily shared – as Rob Kapilow likes to put it, it was a “we” experience. Think about how we listen to music now: through our Ipod headphones. There is nothing communal about it – it’s turned into a resounding “me” experience.
Music is made to be shared. When we hear music, we think back to the moments they’re embedded in. Music and the people and places we love are – or should be – integrally connected.
So my call out to you all is to celebrate music with those around you. Go to more concerts. Rent out a Karaoke room and sing your heart out with your friends (and some beer). Take a salsa class. Share the Music, because that’s how it was meant to be experienced.
*Yes, yes, I know this is probably not a “real” word. Am I OK with this? SURE AM! I suppose I would consider myself a ‘functional linguist’, and am at ease with taking creative liberties. Words have come in to our vernacular over the years because they’ve become socially relevant (I love how ‘facebook’ has now become a verb). Down with the Ivory Tower of Linguistic Supremacy! Give words back to the people, I say! (A linguistical liberal commie? Some might say …). And if you have a problem with this, you can Facebook me …

The Craigslist Experience: More than a One Night Stand

I’ve recently been indoctrinated into a new and exciting community: The Craigslist Community. I must admit, my entrance was neither graceful nor fully desired. My apprehension about joining this virtual community was centered around the fact that it was, well, virtually casual. Now don’t get me wrong – I have nothing against virtual communities, per say. If I did, it would be rather hypocritical of me to be a Weekly Gumboot contributor and a Masters student completing my degree online. The difference, I think, can be demonstrated with the following ‘continuum of a relationship’ analogy: Craigslist is kinda like a one night stand. The connection between individuals is short, sweet, and superficial. The ‘boot is akin to a committed relationship – a sustainable marriage of ideas (from everywhere) from a dedicated group of individuals (I suppose this would be a rather polygamous relationship, but you get the picture …). It was this (presumed) starchy superficiality of Craigslist that kept me at a safe (virtual) distance from the site.

And then I caved. A series of unfortunate events in a chaotic move to the ‘Drive (of a scale and scope not dissimilar to those that confronted Mr. Snicket) propelled me into the Craigslist world. And I saw that although the relationships that are cultivated are indeed brief, they are meaningful nonetheless, and can contribute to a kinder, more considerate, and better connected community.

A few Craigslist jaunts to exemplify:

1.) The Australian Mattress Seeker.

In my move, I had a mattress that I no longer needed. I posted it for free on Craigslist, and got a response from an Australian backpacker-type who had just arrived in Canada, and had no furniture or money to her name. She really wanted my free mattress, and was willing to trek over to Kits, in the rain, and attempt to transport it back to the hostel she was staying at downtown. By herself. Without a vehicle. Don’t ask me how in the world she was planning on doing this. In a display of good will, two friends and I delivered the mattress (along with pillows and sheets) to her downtown. The gratitude she displayed was payment thrice over. And in her eyes, Canada is forever golden.

2.) The Anti-Community: Antique stores.

Antique stores, to me, exemplify everything a community should not be. Having some antique furniture that needed to be sold in the move, my partner and I went down to a few on the Drive. The owners at each were rude, arrogant, and pretentious: “Antique Pine? [insert shudder]. You will not be finding anything of that style here”; “Now, let me teach you a lesson about second hand dealings, dear”. The stores either refused to even have a look at the desk and chair we had, or tried to low-ball us beyond belief. All in all, a horrible experience. One Craigslist posting and two hours later, they were both sold to a delightful woman, at a reasonable price. They were exactly what she was looking for, and it was a pleasant experience all around.

3.) Recruiting into the Craigslist Family.

Posting my outdated stereo system (almost antique material itself, with tape decks and all) on Craigslist, I didn’t expect to get a whole lot of bids. And I didn’t. But the one I did get led to a perfect sale, a delightful chat with the buyer, and a new recruit into the Craigslist family. A grandmother whose grandson had broken her stereo system was looking for a simple one that would play her old tapes as well as CDs. It was her first time on Craigslist, and I hope I represented this community well. Mary came over to pick up the stereo, and while she was waiting for a cab to get back home, we had tea and had a great conversation about life, love, the universe and everything. Like me, she was a bit apprehensive about the whole “Craigslist thing”. But after her positive entrance into the community (getting tea and some free CDs out of the deal), she emailed me to thank me, and to let me know that she no longer felt intimidated by Craig or his list.

So to all of you Craigslisters out there – I implore you to uphold the good name of this community. Whether your experience remains a one night stand or develops into a deeper relationship, be kind, be honest, and be open to the possibilities that may come before you.


Where the ‘burbs end and community begins…

I suppose it would be a good idea to start things off on a fresh, honest foot (a foot not in a gumboot, unfortunately) … I grew up in the suburbs (please, please don’t judge). The Burbs. Originating in the 50s, these new developments were touted as the solution to everything that was wrong with the city: why live close to your work or school when you can live farther away, in a bigger more energy consuming house, and spend a large proportion of your life driving in your gas-guzzling vehicle to work, school, the fitness centre, and anywhere else you needed to go? Sure, I may sound a little … cynical, when it comes to thinking of my childhood in Coquitlam, but with a sustainable mind and a community-driven heart, I can with no good intention say the environment I grew up in was conducive to either.

Community is based in no small part on the build environment: how the physical environment is shaped by humans, and in turn how conducive this arrangement is to such things as capacity to build/sustain community, to lead a sustainable lifestyle, and to be physically active. Think about transportation: in the suburbs, getting around, being social, and being active oftentimes necessitates a vehicle. In the city, you can just walk. In a small town like Merville, well, many of the necessities of daily life can be grown (or shot) from your own backyard. Everyone knows everyone (for better or for worse, as gossip goes…feel free to ask John Horn for some stories…). The suburbs are built to be insular. Houses and cars, and not a lot in between. The sedentary nature of a suburban lifestyle has played a role in the rising obesity epidemic in Canada (did you know that over 50% of Canadians are now considered overweight/obese?). Oh, and another interesting fact: studies show that the rate of heart attack increases with the length of time you are stuck in traffic.

Communities need to be built to encourage, well, community. Open Spaces. Parks and Trails. Mixed Land Use (residential, commercial and organizational). Locally owned businesses. Community Gardens.

In closing, please excuse my upbringing in a community-deficient suburb. Out with gas-guzzlers and in with gumboots,