Friday, July 9, 2010

Digging In

Photo courtesy Flickr

The other morning my best friend from first grade called to chat. The conversation fit the same template as every other since we discovered the telephone in fourth grade, spending half an hour each day after school debriefing.

We went to the same sock hops and threw our first parties together. Corrine now lives “twenty minutes from everywhere”, but nearly within sight across the bay. From the front porch, I can toss a beer can downtown. Thirty-five years ago, she lived two doors south sweating out a divorce, grad school, and the care of two pre-school daughters. I lived up the street in an old building New Yorkers told me had to have come from Brooklyn, sweating out a divorce of my own and trying to make sense of art school after a short lifetime in literature.

In the early Seventies, our neighborhood could have been lifted straight from a blacksploitation flick. The buildings resonated with soul and Motown, Safeway carried chitterlings and masa, my relatives stood on the sidelines wringing their hands that I should choose to live here, and the ghost of Jimi Hendrix walked up and down Pike Street. Churches had handmade names like Zion Full Gospel Holiness and House of Prayer for All Nations.

There are now ten five hundred thousand dollar town houses under construction across the street, and a Seattle producer has issued a compilation of the local music that made the early Seventies so rewarding. Bronze Jimi, frequently decorated with votive offerings, hangs out near Broadway and Pine.

This year, the Pride parade outgrew Broadway, but the neighborhood celebrates even more noisily than it did in the beginning. A violin-maker puts up a marquee in his parking lot, and it rains men. A revived park two blocks away is crowded with young families, old people, and live music that just shows up. A roving gang of Balkan dancers blows through now and then.

When things heat up on Saturday, we’ll get a fire going in the backyard and slow-smoke meat for next week over green apple sticks and rosemary. It won’t be the incense of the Sixties, but it’s what we were shooting for at the time.

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Thursday, July 8, 2010

Low-Brow


Photo courtesy Flickr

An informant in San Francisco found White Walls Gallery’s mid-June show very stimulating. We compared notes about White Walls and the Asian Art Museum, discovering that we appreciate both WW’s forthright presentations and the quiet eloquence of the Brundage collection that’s housed in the Asian facility.

White Wall’s director supports the graphic tradition that began in the mid-Fifties with Ed “Big Daddy” Roth’s hot rods. Some people call Fifties’ style Populux. American cultural historian Tom Wolfe discusses Roth in The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby. The potent graphics of the Sixties grew out of this school, or skool. The aesthetic survives around the cracker barrel in the University True-Value hardware store in Seattle. An astrophysicist with an international reputation agrees that this outlet is one of the great art and physics department hardware stores in the world. The critics are tougher than the fasteners.

Juxtapoz magazine serves this community. Edited by Robert Williams (whose social values Roth questioned), it is the third largest-selling art magazine in the country. Jux is a source of frank hype for exciting material that connects art, skaters, and music. Fine Woodworking and the skate magazine Thrasher have also been sources of intelligible criticism not dominated by government grants to the arts.

Avery Brundage was the last director of the international Olympic committee to support amateur competition. In the Sixties, his collection lived in San Francisco's De Young Museum in Golden Gate Park. One could reach it by walking down Haight Street through a living gallery of low-brow posters, body paint, and modified vehicles.

The two aesthetics are an unexpected pairing, linked by low-brow’s popular self-determination and the Asian tradition of reclusion. These comments are all I can contribute to art history, except to add English collector Alastair McAlpine’s rule of selection: choose what you like. And then buy it, fast.

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More after the jump.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Coffee Cups and Other Hazards

Photo courtesy Flickr

It’s popular at the moment to buy used dishes. That’s green and wise, but a few precautions are in order.

First, discard a dish that’s cracked or chipped. It can’t be cleaned and leaves you open to legal action.

Back in the day, “ladies” fussed about good dishes, because cheap tableware often had heavy metals in the glaze. Heavy metal gives a glaze a rich color, and, unfortunately, acid foods like coffee and salad dressing leach the contaminant and feed it to the diner. I talked to an environmental solid waste specialist in 1982 about cadmium artist’s colors, and he freaked. He said heavy metals are only slightly less toxic than plutonium and stay lethal for nearly as long, hundreds of thousands of years. Unfortunately, heavy metal colors are the most thrilling and seductive.

If you think a dish is worth having, turn it over the first time you pick it up. Look for a well-printed and designed familiar manufacturer’s name and country of origin. Dab the piece with a lead-testing kit. That might seem pricey for a ten cent mug, but brain damage costs all the life support you’ve consumed so far.

There was a revolution in ceramic technology about fifty years ago. Cheap dishes, and cheap is the word, now last much longer than previously, so the hazards they contain linger, too, and injure over a longer period. Even a long-established and respected name in tableware can get skunked by an off-shore manufacturer and inadvertently market toxic dishes. The manufacturer pictured above revised its glazes when the problem came to light, so recent products can be trusted. We still test new tableware, though, and go over it with a Geiger counter, too.

Consumer education about heavy metals comes and goes. Usually it comes when some horror story about toddlers emerges. On the whole, concerns about glaze make sense of the old practice of choosing one china pattern and sticking to it. It’s OK to have just one set of dishes-chose plain ones and add odds and ends whose body color matches that of the plates. Ordinary home furnishings chains sell inexpensive tableware that outperforms the best of the past. Just test the stuff in the parking lot and take it right back into the store if it fails.

Decide ahead of time how many guests you want to serve at the table, and fill out place settings to that number. If I were buying for six at a big box or discount chain, I’d buy two cartons of six settings to accommodate breakage and losses, and store the back-up units someplace hard to reach. Doubling up in the beginning would guarantee ten times the use. Smart friends choose the same pattern so they can entertain crowds without having to pay party rental fees.

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More after the jump.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Mowers and Money

Photo courtesy Flickr

Working in one garden for forty years leaves me with one crate of gear and one “sling blade” to manage the outdoor show. Plus a corn broom, border spade and small rake. I have used and discarded a pickup truck full of tools and seductive plastic innovations, a sizeable pickup at that, too.

Yesterday the mower showed signs of flagging, and my pard and I talked over its future. In the beginning, a graduate student of landscape architecture clued me to the wisdom of mowing minor garden debris with a flat-bladed power mower. She also clued me in to the wisdom of wearing steel-toed boots, safety goggles, and ear protection, and to the wisdom of reading the doggone manual.

We’ve used up four or five mowers since we’ve lived here. I’m suspect that’s more than average, and sometimes I wonder if there’s a mower welfare agency like the animal protection advocates. As the biker began the traditional spiritual exercise of attempting several dozen yanks to get a small engine to turn over, we considered the wisdom of our ways, if any.

A new mower will cost perhaps two or three visits from a lawn gang. We use a machine for four or five years and recycle every bit of yard waste on the site, saving around forty dollars a month in city hauling fees. In a perfect world, a local shepherd would come by weekly to feed a flock of miniature herbivores and maintain the lawn with curry, Easter dinner, and sweaters, but until that great day arrives, we’ll manage with a Briggs and Stratton mounted on pressed steel.

But next time, I’ll test the mower before I make a mess of the lawn with prunings.

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Monday, July 5, 2010

Pretty Little Homes

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Sometime on the afternoon of July first, KEXP broadcast a song that used the phrase “pretty little homes” several times. Perhaps the phrase was "pretty little houses". Half-listening, it seemed to me that the piece is 2010’s answer to the Sixties’ “Little Boxes”, but a deeper and more sophisticated rejection of Domestic. It brought to mind the recent film “Crazy Heart”.

A wise older friend who could have lived anywhere raised her daughters on Telegraph Hill not far from the San Francisco coffee house where, I believe, Malvina Reynolds wrote her musical inditement of cookie-cutter family life. Bonnie told me in one 1981 breath that yes, I was pregnant and no, I did not have to go and live in Baby Land.

Since my female elders were deceased, I had been free to make my very own foolish decisions about where and how to live, and it was comforting to hear Bonnie’s respect for them. I still don’t know whether those decisions were wise, but I’m not unhappy with the results. Life style is so enmeshed with individual family and personal values and with economics that it takes a sociologist and anthropologist to look at the wider issues.

Think of the household as a means to an end rather than as an end in itself. Sylvia Porter’s money management books, that span the Sixties through the hyper-inflation of the Eighties, cast a rational eye on the economics of owning versus renting. Remember to borrow money only for things that gain in value, and remember that a credit card is borrowed money.

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