Not so terrible: Terrible Adult Chamber Orchestra takes a different approach to playing ensemble music

STORY BY NATALIE ARBATMAN, PHOTOS COURTESY THE TERRIBLE ADULT CHAMBER ORCHESTRA

Wearing casual weekend clothes with their hair down, 70 people sit in folding chairs eating snacks and chatting about their week. It’s hard to guess from their appearance, but each of these 70 people is a musician, about to play hours of classical music. 

The Terrible Adult Chamber Orchestra (TACO) is not your traditional music ensemble. The musicians may play the intricate compositions of Beethoven and Bach, but TACO is a non-audition orchestra, with members ranging from first-time players to veteran musicians. 

Founded in 2011 by Cathy Humphers Smith and her husband Kent, TACO strives to create an environment in which any musician can play comfortably and without fear of failure. Humphers Smith said they chose “Terrible” to be in the group name as a “humorous way to set the expectations that it doesn’t matter [how well you play], we’re in this for fun.”

According to Humphers Smith, traditional ensembles can be intimidating for novice musicians and difficult even for experienced ones. She said that because performance orchestras are obsessed with improvement and perfection, musicians often feel discouraged from playing. 

“You’re not performing for anybody, nobody’s buying a ticket, you’re not beating things to death to make them perfect,” Humphers Smith said. “You’re just enjoying playing music for the sake of playing it.”

(courtesy TACO)

Karl Swartz, who quit playing violin after his college ensemble said he’d have to practice for hours every day to be a part of their orchestra, said that TACO is made for people who want to play music “just for the fun of it.”

Though the group began with 20 musicians playing in Humphers Smith’s living room, it has grown to over 70 people attending each meeting and over 700 sit on TACO’s mailing list. Prior to the pandemic, TACO met monthly at the Los Altos Youth Center for three hours to play together.

“Our objective is to all start the piece at the same time and end it at the same time,” said Ola Cook, a flutist who joined TACO in 2012 after dropping the flute in 1997. “Whatever happens in the middle is okay.”

This mentality welcomes musicians who would be unable to participate in most orchestras, such as those who struggle playing full pieces because of medical conditions or inexperience. 

“There are fine musicians who play with performing groups who develop Parkisnons or brain tumors, and they can continue playing with TACO because it doesn’t matter, nobody is judging them, they don’t have to sound perfect,” Humphers Smith said. 

Mark Serjeant, a clarinet player for TACO, developed a sinus condition that makes playing full pieces on the clarinet difficult. He said the relaxed venue that TACO provides means he can continue playing music without worrying about sounding perfect or even being able to play the whole song. 

“I try to play at least one note per measure to try to stay in sync and TACO is the right place for me because they don’t care,” Sergeant said. “Occasionally, we have a song and I actually can play the whole song so it’s a great venue for me.”

Serjeant, who played clarinet in his college marching band said he “put the clarinet in the closet and never took it back out” after he graduated in 1972. That was until 2012 when he joined TACO after reading an article about the group. Serjeant said his favorite part of the casual atmosphere is that he can feel relaxed playing music.

“It’s not like you’re dragging the performance down, because we don’t perform,” Serjeant said. 

Humphers Smith said her organization contributes to a recent movement to make classical music more accessible. She said that classical music is losing audiences because of the procedures that are associated with watching a performance. 

“The listener has to dress up, buy an expensive ticket … There is a protocol for taking in classical music,” Humphers Smith said. “It’s an incredible thing to see a concert live, but they are losing audiences because it’s not seen as very approachable.”

Fourth of July “jam session,” 2021. (courtesy TACO)

Swartz describes their regular gathering as “jam sessions” rather than concerts, or even practices.

These sessions occur once per month when musicians, regulars and those new to TACO, gather to play six pieces of new music for three hours. 

According to Humphers Smith, who also serves as the group’s conductor, most musicians come up to an hour early to set up their instruments and mingle. Then, someone leads everyone in tuning their instruments. 

After tuning, the orchestra plays its set pieces for the session, which come out of the 400 arrangements that Humphers Smith has purchased from school orchestras; school orchestras “take the original music, and make it suitable for certain levels of learning,” which allows various skill-levels to play the same piece. 

“I want to be playing music that is famous and that people know, but I don’t want it to be so difficult that people can’t do it and they don’t have success,” Humphers Smith said.

Humphers Smith says she tries to vary the genres and types of music the group plays each session. According to Swartz, they have played showtunes, classical and pop, among others. Swartz said that TACO is more “adventurous” than the traditional orchestras he also plays in, which he said “constrain the music.” 

“When we play show tunes like ‘Oklahoma,’ I enjoy that a lot more than playing Mozart or Beethoven or all the Russian people whose names I can’t pronounce,” Serjeant said. 

This practice follows TACO’s guiding principle of making music accessible for all. Boasting a group of diverse community members, TACO prides itself on being open to all skill levels. The group is open to all ages, but the majority of participants are adults. 

“It’s important to have a place like that, otherwise adults don’t get an opportunity to play,” Humphers Smith said.

The wide range of musicians all come together to form a tight-knit community. According to Cook, the support from this group has built her confidence and inspired her to take risks with music, such as travelling to Scotland to perform with a Scotish orchestra, which she said she wouldn’t have otherwise considered. 

“We’ll count under our breath for people who have a little trouble with staying on time,” Cook said. “TACO offers a community and an incredible opportunity for people to be able to get together with other musicians … and do something that’s uplifting.”

Many TACO musicians branch out and create chamber ensembles, coined the Taquitos, with other members who play the same instrument.

Cook said she appreciates the opportunity to connect with other musicians and have a forum to ask questions and share about music.

“Now, because I have this community of musicians around me, if I’m experiencing something odd I can ask ‘Does this sound right to you?’ or ‘Have you ever had this happen?’ and we can all help each other,” Cook said. “It’s really like an extended family.” 

This support extends to the community at large. Humphers Smith said that the holidays last year inspired her to collaborate with KMVT on their programming for seniors who had been isolated at home. Freestyle Academy student volunteers edited together individual videos from each musician and the final product, ten Christmas songs, was broadcasted on KMTV to seniors at home.

Although Humphers Smith said there was initially a huge learning curve with virtual concerts, she adapted and they played a second concert in a similar format with the TACO chapter in Los Angeles. Musicians each played a part of Coldplay’s “Viva la Vida.”

“Musicians have suffered like nobody’s business over this pandemic, it has just been such a burden on musicians in one way, and in another way, it’s opened the doors to so many people who are willing to put in the time to do technical work,” Cook said. 

Humphers Smith said that playing music provides an escape for people from their daily lives because “you leave all your problems outside and you forget about everything that’s going on in your life.”

“Playing with other people live means hearing the other voices and getting to know how you fit in. You’re a part of a group that’s creating something,” Humphers Smith said. “It’s transcendent.”

PAUSD to offer remote learning option for 2021–2022 school year

STORY BY MELODY XU, PHOTOS BY ARYA NASIKKAR

The Palo Alto Unified School District will offer students a fully remote learning program for the 2021–2022 school year.

While all students are expected to attend in-person instruction in the fall, PAUSD’s new Remote Independent Study (RIS) program — introduced to district parents and guardians in a July 20 email — is intended for students and families who believe their health would be compromised in returning to campus.

The program will consist of “weekly synchronous instruction” for its high school participants. According to the email, these students “may likely not be taught by a PAUSD teacher,” as PAUSD plans to make use of a third-party education provider. 

Otherwise offered programs like language immersion will not be available to RIS students, and high school Advanced Placement and honors courses “may be limited or non-existent.” The district is still reviewing whether or not RIS students will be prohibited from school affiliated extracurriculars like athletics.

If necessary, RIS students will be allowed to return to a district school within five days of their request to do so.

“Every effort will be made to return students to the home school pending space availability,” the district wrote in the email. “If space is not available, the student will be considered for another school selected by the district.”

As for in-person students in the fall, a mask requirement will take place indoors regardless of vaccination status, per the California Department of Public Health. However, face coverings will not be required outdoors, and social distancing will not be enforced on campus.

As a preliminary gauge of community interest of the RIS program, a non-binding interest form was sent out to the community. A final version will be sent within the next two weeks.

New Palo Alto teen clinic offers drop-in, accessible mental health care

STORY BY NAINA SRIVASTAVA, PHOTOS BY ARYA NASIKKAR

Teens in the Palo Alto area now have access to a groundbreaking walk-in mental health clinic, allcove, a newly-opened network of integrated youth mental health centers. Recently launched alongside a location in San Jose, allcove’s Palo Alto location provides free or low-cost walk-in mental health services for youth aged 12 to 25.

allcove — which is run by Santa Clara County Behavioral Health Services in collaboration with multiple agencies, including Stanford’s Center for Youth Mental Health and Wellbeing — reimagines how mental health issues in the community are addressed through an approach of early intervention.

This approach diverges from traditional mental health services, specifically targeting a demographic of youth and aiming to prevent the progression of mental health issues as opposed to mainly treating patients with problems of high severity. 

allcove’s opening is the product of years of planning and preparation to bring the unique clinic model, which was inspired by similar programs in Australia, to the United States.

“Having a space for young people, up to 25, which is when many mental health conditions have sort of shown themselves, becomes an important age period to be able to do early intervention for mental health–related issues,” said clinical professor and Associate Chair for Community Engagement Dr. Steven Adelsheim. 

Each allcove clinic offers physical and mental health support through services ranging from advice and treatments regarding physical and sexual health to counseling, support groups and substance use services. Professionals provide both medical and emotional advice and treatment.

Patients may schedule an appointment with their local allcove center in advance or simply walk in, where they can tour the space and team members assist them in determining which services meet their needs. Patients are not required to be accompanied by guardians, although allcove encourages involving supportive family members. 

The majority of services offered by allcove do not require parent or guardian consent, and services which do are disclosed by team members. Visits are always confidential, unless any information shared threatens the safety of the individual or someone else.

Due to its commitment to prevention and early intervention, allcove is designed to be a short-term service, however, allcove centers work with pre-existing mental health programs, such as those in schools and within the community, and refer individuals to long-term services which will meet their specific needs.

“We also want to be able to connect people to other services they might need in the community, whether it’s support for housing, or for more intensive mental health services.” Adelsheim said. “Complex mental health [support] needs to be able to be a place where we can link people to other services and support they want.”

Local youth voices play an integral role in shaping allcove through their involvement in the decision making process. Youth advisory groups, consisting of local teens work alongside experts and have a large influence in determining allcove’s design, atmosphere and the support groups offered, among other aspects.

“What’s really critical is the voice of young people on the development of the services and the name and the design, and the idea that this space is reflective of the voice and needs and wants of the young people of our community,” Adelsheim said.

By creating “an environment designed by and for young people,” Adelsheim said that allcove facilitates a comfortable space for young people to talk about mental health and is able to better assist individuals seeking support within the community.

Through its services, allcove aims to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health, a barrier which often leads to people to neglect their mental health issues, and not seek help until they face a crisis.

“Within many of our cultures and families, there is a lot of stigma around accessing mental health services,” Adelsheim said, “We want to break through that and create comfortable spaces where young people feel okay about going in early.”

According to Adelsheim, more allcove sites within California communities are currently in the works, and allcove hopes that this mental health model spreads beyond the state.

“We’re creating a space where young people are going to walk in and feel more like it’s for them, instead of some typical mental health clinic,” Adelsheim said.

RV residents file lawsuit against Mountain View to block Measure C

STORY AND PHOTO BY CARLY HELTZEL

RV residents, represented by legal advocacy groups, filed a lawsuit Wednesday against the City of Mountain View in an attempt to overturn Measure C — the ban on oversized vehicles, including RVs, on narrow streets.

As 83% of the city’s streets qualify as narrow, many members of the public have regarded Measure C as a backhanded ban on Mountain View’s RV residents fueled by a “Not In My Backyard” mentality. 

The lawsuit alleges that the ordinance was designed “to banish the City’s low-income populations.”

“It’s about the Constitution and not allowing discrimination against people that can’t afford housing,” plaintiff and RV resident Janet Stevens said. “Not only in the city of Mountain View but everywhere.” 

The legal groups leading the effort are the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, Law Foundation of Silicon Valley and Disability Rights Advocates. They filed a six-plaintiff class action complaint under the Civil Rights Act, Americans with Disabilities Act, and the U.S. and California Constitutions, among others. 

The city’s most recent statement released Wednesday said that the ordinance is focused on traffic safety and treats RVs no differently than other oversized vehicles.

This, however, makes it worse in Stevens’ mind. 

“They’re throwing out the baby with the bathwater,” Stevens said about the ordinance. “They’re just disguising what they want to do by their title of making it street safety. This is ‘Not In My Backyard’ gone crazy.”

Stevens, the ACLU and many more have actively opposed Measure C from when it was first drafted as a city ordinance in September 2019. Mountain View Housing Justice Coalition spearheaded a petition that struck down the ordinance and forced it onto the November 2020 ballot as Measure C, where voters passed the measure with 56.6% margin.

In December 2020, city council approved the measure’s implementation — the installation of about 2,600 street signs that cost $980,000. Wednesday’s statement said sign installation, along with enforcement of the measure, is set to begin later this month.

Mayor Ellen Kamei and Council Member Margaret Abe-Koga were both unable to comment, citing it as an active lawsuit.

Newsom declares drought emergency in Santa Clara County, asks residents to reduce water use by 15%

STORY BY TOMOKI CHIEN, PHOTO BY ARYA NASIKKAR

Gov. Gavin Newsom Thursday urged Californians to cut water use by 15%, and further expanded the state’s emergency drought declaration to include Santa Clara County, along with eight others.

50 of the state’s 58 counties — home to 42% of the state’s population — now fall under the emergency declaration, which essentially allows state agencies to move more quickly and effectively to support drought response measures.

Newsom’s plea for residents to cut water use comes as part of a separate executive order, which the governor stressed is voluntary. 

“I’m not here as a nanny state,” Newsom said at a Thursday press conference. “We’re not trying to be oppressive — again, these are voluntary standards.”

The voluntary 15% reduction applies to residences as well as industrial and agricultural operations.

But while the state’s order may be voluntary, the Santa Clara Valley Water District early last month voted to impose a mandatory 15% reduction in water use compared to 2019 levels; the order leaves it up to local municipalities and private water companies to decide how they’ll impose the 15% cutback on customers.

“We can’t afford to wait to act as our water supplies are being threatened locally and across California,” said Valley Water Board Chair Tony Estremera after the vote to impose the restriction in June. “We are in an emergency and Valley Water must do everything we can to protect our groundwater resources and ensure we can provide safe, clean water to Santa Clara County residents and businesses.”

By voluntarily cutting water usage by 15% compared to 2020 levels, state officials estimate that residents could save enough water to supply more than 1.7 million households for a year.

Newsom urged residents to take “common sense” measures to reduce water usage, including cutting back on lawn irrigation, reducing time in the shower, checking for leaks on properties, installing efficient showerheads and only running full loads of laundry and dishes.

“By the way, [if] you do those things, you also save money,” Newsom said.

The Santa Clara Valley Water District is offering residents up to $3,000 dollars in rebates to replace high-water using landscapes with drought-resilient ones.

Those measures have worked before: In part thanks to the same water conservation practices, per capita state residential water use during the 2013–2016 drought fell by 21%, and still, 2020 per capita residential water use was some 16% below 2013 levels.

State agencies will track California’s monthly progress toward the voluntary 15% reduction.

Locally, the state of the drought is dire.

The U.S. Drought Monitor labels Santa Clara County as being in “extreme drought,” the second-highest ranking on the six-tiered scale. 

Among other symptoms, regions experiencing extreme drought generally see intensified, year-round fire seasons; wildlife encroaching on developed areas in search of food and water; a hard-hit livestock industry; and extremely low reservoir levels.

The county’s largest surface reservoir has been drained and put out of commission for a decade to allow for the Anderson Dam project, which officials say is crucial to protecting against floods in the future.

Imported water supplies, which account for 55% of the county’s water, have also seen a “significant reduction” this year, spurred by the depleted Sierra Nevada snowpack.

“If the drought continues into next year, we could face the possibility there will not be enough water to meet basic demands without serious risk of subsidence in 2022,” Estremera said in a statement Thursday.

Subsidence occurs when large amounts of water are removed from ground, which causes it to sink because the soil was partially supported by the water.

“The proclamation by Gov. Newsom amplifies how important it is for all our communities to reduce their water use during this extreme drought,” Estremera said. “Many people reduced their water use significantly during the last drought. Valley Water thanks them for their conservation efforts and encourages everyone to keep up the good work.”

The Cobblery: Quality craftsmanship stands the test of time

STORY BY DANA HUCH, PHOTOS BY DANA HUCH AND ARYA NASIKKAR

For the sole operators of the family-owned Cobblery on California Ave., engineering innovative and often slightly experimental solutions to a wide range of repair requests is the core of the business.

Manager and seasoned crafter Jessica Roth has taken on challenges like redesigning a backpack strap for someone in a wheelchair, elevating a denim belt with a one-of-a-kind leather embellishment and reconstructing an old favorite shoe pair to accommodate orthopedic needs.

Roth is pictured in front of her shop. (Dana Huch)

“I will try anything. I am a trier. I am a ‘It never hurts to ask’ person,” Roth said. “And sometimes I surprise myself.”

She and her family learned the craft of cobblery (a term Roth contends that her mother coined) entirely from generations of self-teaching and relayed lessons. Shoe repair is an unusual trade in that the only way to become a cobbler is through inheritance or apprenticeship.

Roth owns and operates the Cobblery on California Ave. in Palo Alto alongside her husband and her brother-in-law. Her family also owns the European Cobblery in Downtown Los Altos.

“I don’t know how people get into the trade if you’re not born into it, to be honest,” Roth said.

Fortunately, the passionate crafter found herself at home in the family business early on in life and spent hours after school exploring the possibilities of the materials. Roth described her serendipitous, play-oriented apprenticeship as “learning without knowing that we were learning.” In the playroom for her and her siblings in the back of the store, Roth made tiny doll shoes and purses out of real leather.

“My parents always encouraged us to get creative with the supplies,” she said. “It was like our iPad.”

With this harnessed enthusiasm, Roth was able to surpass the skill of her mother at a relatively young age. Nevertheless, every day in the shop offers an opportunity to continue improving.

Roth is pictured in the Cobblery workshop. (Dana Huch)

“I’ve been doing this for 27 years and I’m still learning new things,” Roth said. “I’ll come up with things and be like, ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t believe I haven’t been doing it this way for so long!’”

One of Roth’s alteration specialties is resizing tall boots to fit various calves. She had done this for about 18 years with a tedious, imperfect process of measuring boot and calf circumferences until one day her inner inventive craftswoman stepped in and revolutionized a no-measure, perfect-fit guaranteed method. Roth improvised during a fitting by folding and using tape to resize temporarily while the client was wearing the boot before completing the alteration.

“I couldn’t wait to tell my mom,” Roth laughed. “I was like, ‘Wait until you see what I figured out!’”

In addition to the early mastery of her trade, growing up in the family store on California Ave. and interacting with customers gave Roth a sense of home in the business and a connection with the community.

One unexpected way Roth gives back to the artistic community that supports her family’s business is through her micro-grant public art installation, the Poppy Project. With funding from the City of Palo Alto, Roth teamed with a graphic designer and a local print shop to create decals that could be placed on sidewalks and structures. These scattered installations feature the state flower along with thoughtful words, brightening the full stretch of California Ave.

An installation of the Poppy Project is pictured. (Courtesy the Cobblery)

“Some of my words were mental health-oriented: ‘Awareness,’ ‘Courage,’” Roth said. “…I just wanted to lift people’s spirits.”

Curious crafters in the community also benefit from Roth’s “underground” nighttime classes which teach at-home repairs and offer open-ended workshops for those who want to create something using the shop’s materials.

“It’s super informal,” Roth said. “It’s not a running event or anything; just anybody that wants to learn … I will make the time to [teach them].”

In the future, she hopes to expand her workshops into summer camps or structured classes, in part inspired by a beret-making class Roth attended in Paris which planted new seeds for these ambitions.

Despite the delight the Cobblery brings to its community, staying in business as a small craft shop is a struggle in the tech-central Palo Alto region, where space isn’t cheap and interweb presence is imperative.

The Cobblery’s word-of-mouth way of business has not changed much since its founding in 1940, and is not exactly tailored to the modern world, Roth said.

“We’re really not tech savvy here,” she said. “We’re really cobblers.”

But even so, in the past decade the Cobblery has seen a demographic shift take place with new patrons gaining interest in their craft. In contrast with the usual older clientele who were attached to shoe repair by tradition, a younger generation is drawn to the business due to its environmental conservation and sustainability factor.

“Shoe repair was a dying trade,” Roth said, with an emphasis on “was.” “I have new hope because of the new generation wanting to not throw things in landfills, but for a long time we became a very disposable society.”

Roth explained that support for local craft businesses is a strong force in shifting towards sustainability on a large scale. Quality and repair are at the heart of shrinking human impact.

“We should care about our Earth,” Roth said. “We should definitely try to keep things around for as long as possible. … I think that buying nice things and keeping them around for a long time is not only good for you and your foot health, but you’re not being wasteful.”

The Cobblery is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at 410 California Ave., Palo Alto. The European Cobblery is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., at 385 State St., Los Altos.

Palo Alto Bell’s Books continues decades-long mission to match the “right books with the right people”

STORY BY MELODY XU, PHOTOS BY ARYA NASIKKAR

Browsing through the ceiling-length shelves of Bell’s Books feels like opening a box of historical treasures; the variety of books a customer encounters might include first edition Steinbeck or Twain novels, an early grimoire (book of spells) once considered effective in summoning angels or a collection of Pablo Picasso artwork signed by the renowned 20th-century artist. 

Throughout 86 years of operation, Bell’s Books has evolved from its beginnings as a college textbook shop to the new, used and rare bookstore it is today. Today, Faith Bell is Bell’s Books’ second generation owner. 

Faith Bell is pictured in front of a Bell’s Books display.

While the store orders new books from publishers in response to consumer demand, Bell said that she has always specialized in stocking used and rare collectibles.

“Our love is really with the antiquarian books,” she said. “We always like to find unusual or unique or rare material in unusual topics. The joy is in finding things that people haven’t seen before.”

Bell defines truly rare books as “ones that you simply find, almost never,” using the word “rare” sparingly and opting for “scarce” a majority of the time. Books can be truly rare, she said, for factors like their beauty or limited number.

Bell’s Books is also sometimes interested in provenance — the identity of a book’s previous owner — whether this is a notable individual or an interesting, anecdotal one; one example is the subject of English folk song “Bobby Shafto’s Gone to Sea.” 

“I have a book that belonged to the real Bobby Shafto with his bookplate in it,” Bell said. “I came across his bookplate and went ‘Oh my gosh! It is, it’s the real one!’ Because it has his manor house, and where it was and the time period’s right. So it’s funny, the little things like that.”

Two bookcases — where certain titles are kept for fragility or value — are pictured. 

The process of collecting and selling used books starts with a phone call, in which a Bell’s Books staff member questions the potential seller about their collection’s genres, size and condition. With this relative understanding, Bell’s Books staff arrive wherever the books are stored, curate a selection and make an offer.

“I have to figure out which [books] are likely to go quickly, in which case I can pay well for them, or which of them are still going to be sitting in my warehouse years from now,” Bell said. 

Many staff members are knowledgeable in their unique intellectual fields — whether something like philosophy or true crime — which assists Bell in book-buying. At any given time, thousands of boxed-up books in the employees-only back of the store are in the process of being cleaned, researched and priced after purchase. 

“One of the things that makes this area interesting is that there are more people per capita with multiple advanced degrees in this county than there are anywhere else in the world,” Bell said. “So, it means that people with very specialized interests have fascinating libraries and we’re able to access those.”

Despite the growing digitalization of books, Bell is firm in the opinion that print books hold great value to their readers. However, she noted that libraries of Stanford professors she used to visit were much more vast before the popularization of digital books.

“Call me a Luddite, but I think having access to information that doesn’t require electronic devices is important,” Bell said.

For Bell, her family and staff, the feeling of looking up at walls of books and knowing they are all “waiting for you whenever you want,” simply can’t be replaced by e-books.

“I very much enjoy the physical book,” Bell said. “The aspect of paper and binding, typography, ink. And that’s something I really love to share with people. Putting together … the right books with the right people, is a lifelong goal and joy, and I’d say that all my staff share that as the dominant force in their lives.”

Bell’s Books is open in downtown Palo Alto every day from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., at 536 Emerson Street.

A slice of California: State of Mind Public House and Pizzeria serves locally-sourced passion

STORY BY NAINA SRIVASTAVA, PHOTOS BY ARYA NASIKKAR

Enter a new state of mind: the embodiment of all things California, tossed into the form of a family-owned pizzeria.

Known for its distinct Californian dishes and family-friendly dining experience, State of Mind Public House and Pizzeria embraces the entire founding family’s passions. The Downtown Los Altos restaurant — and Palo Alto counterpart — offer an eclectic array of specialty pies, California brewed beverages and even ‘90s arcade games. 

“This is something that I’m passionate about … I love making pizza, and I love playing pinball, and I love craft beer, and I love local produce and we do all those things,” chef and co-owner Lars Smith said.

Chef and co-owner Lars Smith is pictured in the State of Mind kitchen.

As chef, Smith carefully assembles State of Mind’s frequently changing menu, experimenting with in-season, local produce. The newly available summer menu features some of Smith’s current favorite dishes, including the “Been All Around This World” pizza topped with summer squash and the award-winning “Elotero” pizza, inspired by Mexican street corn.

“I couldn’t imagine doing the same thing every day [with] a menu that never changed,” Smith said. “I love, every three months, having to put out a new menu… It’s just exciting for me.”

The entryway view of State of Mind’s open kitchen is pictured.

Unlike many family-owned restaurants, State of Mind opened a second location, called State of Mind Slice House, located only a half mile away from Smith’s childhood home in Palo Alto.

With almost the entire Smith family being born and raised within the Bay Area, the locality of both sites are significant to the family’s personal connection to the community. 

Opening a family-owned restaurant like State of Mind was a long-held dream for the Smiths, with two generations of restaurant business experience backing them up.

“When my dad started getting close to retirement, he [said] ‘Let’s talk about this. Let’s talk about a family restaurant,’” Smith said.

Nearly every member of Smith’s family helps run State of Mind, whether it be choosing which beverages to serve, hiring or managing finances. Even Smith’s eight-year-old son helps out by building new tables for the restaurant with his grandfather.

To the family, State of Mind isn’t just a restaurant and source of income, but a part of who they are: a way for them to funnel their passions and connect with the community.

“I bring my kids here on my days off and my brother is here playing pinball on his days off,” Smith said. “This place is very authentic to who we are and our experience, and it’s really, really fun to share that with other people.”

Smith is pictured tossing pizza dough.

Smith’s pizza making experience began with a job at Pizza My Heart, which he started a few months after graduating high school. Initially, he intended to use the job as a launching pad to a different kind of career in dining. 

“I had this idea [that] ‘I’m going to do something great and then work for a really fancy restaurant,’” Smith said. 

He attended college and majored in history, but soon returned to the culinary scene. After dipping a toe into the world of fine dining, he found himself drawn back to the more casual, accessible charm of Pizza My Heart.

“I fully embraced it,” Smith said. “I loved it, I worked my way up in the management and corporate structure of the company [and realized] I really like pizza. And I really like wearing a t-shirt and jeans to work,” he said.

Despite the happiness that Smith found at Pizza My Heart, he had other ambitions.

“I always had in the back of my mind, ‘I’m going to do something on my own someday,’… with the goal of owning my own restaurant or food truck catering,” Smith said. “I didn’t know what it was, but I knew that I wanted to do my own thing.”

Fulfilling this dream, Smith established State of Mind with his family members and two former Pizza My Heart co-workers: his wife and his business partner. 

Along with the two co-owners, Smith brought a vision for a more casual environment from Pizza My Heart. He regularly interacts with customers as they bounce between seating, the bar and the arcade.

The possibility of opening a third location, still within the South Bay Area, is something which the co-owners are looking into, following the success of their second restaurant location. 

“We would like to expand thoughtfully and sustainably for us in ways that make sense, [so] that we could still keep the family values we have: treating employees well, highlighting local and seasonal produce,” Smith said.

However, Smith said that the restaurant won’t expand outside of the local region, staying true to State of Mind’s roots and mission to serve the diverse community that they hold close to heart.

“We’ve created a place that’s open for everybody to come,” Smith said. “It’s all about neighborhood and community and celebration.”

State of Mind currently offers indoor dining and a fully open bar and arcade in adherence with county COVID-19 guidelines. You can order online here, visit State of Mind Public House and Pizzeria at 101 Plaza N, Los Altos, CA 94042 or visit State of Mind Slice House at 3850 El Camino Real, Palo Alto, CA 94306.

MVLA adopts LCAP, targets inequity over next three years

STORY BY TOMOKI CHIEN, PHOTO BY ARYA NASIKKAR

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The Mountain View–Los Altos Union High School District board approved its latest Local Control Accountability Plan, a goal setting and budgeting document for school districts on June 21.

The LCAP lays out broad goals for the next three years which include ensuring equitable access to high-quality education, increasing community engagement and offering wellness and mental health support.

All local educational agencies in California — which include public schools, county offices of education and charter schools — are required to adopt an LCAP on a three year cycle.

The LCAP is part of a state education funding model known as the Local Control Funding Formula, which essentially ensures that schools receiving state funds budget the money in a way that aligns with state and community priorities; a large part of adopting each LCAP includes revising after meeting with various stakeholder groups across the district.

Each LCAP allocates a portion of the education agency’s budget to specific actions expected to help achieve those goals.

An LCAP must also offer target metrics that can track progress in reaching those goals, which in theory holds educational agencies accountable to goals they set and the funds they use to get there.

A key goal outlined by the district’s LCAP continues to be to ensure “academic excellence for all,” by offering equitable, high-quality education. 

The district’s 2017 LCAP identified many of the same problems acknowledged in the 2021 document, specifically lagging GPAs, low math grades and failure to meet A–G requirements in the Latino, students with disabilities, English learner and socioeconomically disadvantaged populations.

Key remedies to those inequities include continuing to offer credit recovery and summer school options as well as intervention services, which target students at risk of not graduating with additional academic support within or even after the school day — that can be done within a student’s assigned classroom or in a separate room specifically for support instruction.

Offering internet access, Chromebooks, exam fee support, academic counseling, mental health services and “culturally relevant education” are also stated actions.

“Many of our classes have a Euro-centered view of the world when half of our students do not see themselves reflected in the point of view,” the LCAP reads. “Teachers will increase the amount of culturally diverse texts, lessons, and materials they use in the curriculum. This is partially supportive for our [English learners and foster youth] because they historically are our students of color.”

One part of that could include the district’s planned ethnic studies course, which is set to make its debut in 2022.

The LCAP offers a number of metrics for determining success in ensuring academic excellence, some of which include higher scores on state assessments; an increase in the percentage of students completing A–G requirements; higher GPAs in Algebra I; and a higher percentage of student body enrollment in Advanced Placement courses.

Specific metrics can be found starting on page 11 of the LCAP.

A separate goal titled “life long learners” — which details supports for teachers — goes hand in hand with the goal of “academic excellence for all.”

Of a number of actions, the LCAP lists a “teacher induction program,” in which new teachers are paired with a mentor from the instructional support team, specifically to help teachers focus on supporting at-risk students.

The district also plans to continue offering professional development opportunities, including “anti-bias/anti-racism” training.

Increasing stakeholder communication and engagement is another goal, similarly created with equity in mind. The district hopes that by increasing community engagement — specifically with parents of at-risk students — chronic absenteeism, dropouts and suspensions will decrease, while graduation rates increase.

Another part of that includes working closely with the Mountain View Whisman and Los Altos school districts to align common practices, which in theory ensures that rising ninth graders transition into high school as smoothly as possible.

The recently appointed community outreach specialist should play a large role in that.

The only goal on the LCAP not explicitly tied to equity relates to safety and wellness, specifically mental health support.

“Effectively using data to identify specific student needs and connecting them to the appropriate resources/services is necessary to ensure their access to standards-aligned instruction and support them in becoming college and career-ready,” the LCAP reads.

A key part of that is the newly created intake coordinator position, which will be responsible for assessing and directing mental health referrals to the correct support — whether that be therapists, administrators or school counselors. 

The district had previously contracted with the Community Health Awareness Council to offer an intake coordinator, but Wellness Coordinator William Blair said in an email that the district decided to transition to doing so internally. 

A sizable portion of the funds — some $1.1 million — are also slated to go toward providing mental health services to students through counselors and therapists.

“To strengthen this work in mental health, we will better define our roles, practices, protocols and services within our clinical team,” the LCAP reads.

PAUSD approves 2021–2024 Local Control Accountability Plan, reorganizes Department of Equity and Student Affairs

STORY BY MELODY XU, PHOTO BY EMILY MCNALLY

The Palo Alto Unified School District approved its 2021–2024 Local Control Accountability Plan, a goal setting and planning tool required for educational agencies in California at Tuesday’s board meeting.

Key highlights of this three-year LCAP include goals for early literacy, equity, additional social-emotional development support, wellness and home-school connection. Specific steps in order to achieve these goals are also outlined, which include training elementary teachers in teaching phonics, expanded summer school programs and providing devices and hotspots to families. 

The plans were initially introduced and given a public hearing at a June 8 board meeting along with district staff’s annual LCAP update for 2019–2020.

Along with the LCAP, Assistant Superintendent Yolanda Conaway announced structural reorganization of the Department of Equity and Student Affairs, which focuses on the experiences of historically underrepresented students in the district.

The department was established by Superintendent Don Austin in 2019, and now plans to reorganize in order to avoid “duplicative efforts around student support.”
“This allows us to look at student services through the lens of equity,” Conaway said. “And it also allows us to really be creative and innovative about some of those initiatives that will be coming out of the department. So in the future, you will be hearing lots about mental health, a lot about attendance.”