Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Berkeley on my mind

with 5 comments

I was born in Castro Valley, California, a pleasant but nondescript part of the Bay Area whose greatest attraction to me, at least in my teenage years, was that it was only a forty minute BART ride away from downtown Berkeley. Growing up, I assumed that I would attend college there, and although my education took me a bit farther afield, I still spent many of the weekend and summer afternoons of my adolescence exploring the areas around Telegraph and Shattuck. And though I haven’t lived in the Bay Area for more than a decade now, I’ve been shaped by Berkeley in ways I’m only now beginning to realize, not so much the Berkeley of my own childhood as a version in my imagination, which reached its ideal shape—at least in the story that I like to tell myself—in the ten years or so before I was born.

The landmark that connected my imaginary Berkeley with the one I explored as a teenager was the old UC Theater. This was the theater where Werner Herzog ate his shoe, where an ongoing festival of Hong Kong movies ran every Thursday for years, and where The Rocky Horror Picture Show played at midnight (never seen, alas, by me). It’s also where I had many of my favorite movie memories: I saw the complete Indiana Jones trilogy here, and Judy Garland in A Star is Born, and Lawrence of Arabia, and Spike & Mike’s Sick & Twisted Festival. I can remember John Waters’s anti-smoking announcement nearly word for word. And the theater’s closing ten years ago remains one of the small, indelible tragedies of my life. If Berkeley can’t sustain a place like this, I asked myself, then how are art house revival theaters supposed to survive anywhere? (The similar struggles of the Brattle in Cambridge have only increased my pessimism.)

So what else resides in the Berkeley of my imagination? There’s Chez Panisse, of course, where Alice Waters helped Herzog cook his shoe (slowly, in garlic and duck fat). There’s the Whole Earth Catalog, which was rooted in Sausalito but whose heart belongs in Berkeley. There’s the epic Plan of St. Gall project of Walter Horn and Ernest Born, which evolved concurrently with Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language—the best, most essential book of the last fifty years, and one utterly saturated by its time and place. There’s Robert Anton Wilson, in his house in the hills above the Berkeley campus. And, not incidentally, there are also my parents, who would have been around my own age—or even somewhat younger—at the time I’m talking about.

Like I said, I haven’t lived in the Bay Area in a long time. And the Berkeley I’m describing may never have existed, except in my own mind. But as I look back at my life, which has taken me to some extraordinary places—Harvard, New York, Chicago, and beyond—I feel as if my philosophy, such as it is, was really shaped here. Calling it a “philosophy” might be taking it too far: it’s really nothing more than an interest in whole systems, an inclination toward voluntary simplicity (in life, not in thought), and a nose for the weird, esoteric, and neglected. It’s an instinct that sends me regularly to used bookstores, always trying to recreate my first experience of Moe’s. And whatever it is, it has outlasted all kinds of other, passing infatuations, so that I still carry a bit of Berkeley with me wherever I go.

5 Responses

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  1. I too feel a particular attachment to some old art house theatres.

    If they go down I would feel sad as I feel a part of my soul is in those buildings.

    The only solace is that one day a new one may appear and my soul will be revived.

    That is a surety.

    I’m learning to love the empty. It means something new is waiting to be born.


    May 12, 2011 at 10:01 am

  2. “…my philosophy…was really shaped here…nose for the weird, esoteric and neglected…”

    Probably with you a lot longer than you think.

    “an inclination toward voluntary simplicity…”
    you and George Bush have something in common after all.


    May 12, 2011 at 10:05 am


    In Chinese ghost stories you can’t burn a joss stick for anyone unless you start with burning one for yourself first.


    May 12, 2011 at 11:32 am

  4. Chinese ghost stories also involve a lot of hopping corpses. I’m definitely going to write one someday.


    May 12, 2011 at 11:42 am

  5. “The player will run as far as they can towards their destination before getting killed, corpse run back from the nearest graveyard, resurrect as far away from their body and as close to their goal as possible, and repeat as many times as is necessary until they reach their goal. Corpse jumping is not advisable as a general mode of travel, because of the lengthy walk back to the corpse”


    May 12, 2011 at 1:18 pm

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