Friday, November 12, 2010


Photo courtesy Flickr

I love the way grass grows, with the fresh structure emerging through and displacing old material. On the phone and my nth cup of coffee one morning last week, I made noises about not needing anything except dirt, a laptop, health insurance, and a gym. The young arts graduate on the other end of the line suggested a blog. It’s important to visualize with care, and I’d hate unwittingly to shed something important, but that laptop has become the navel of my life.

In one of his novels, Neal Stephenson describes a Victorian farmhouse whose parlor is strewn with computer terminals and hazardous extension cords. That single image turned my idea of space management inside out, and I decided to get on with things rather than trying to perfect scenery for a script that was obsolete before it left the printer and not my idea to begin with.

In a sunny Haight Ashbury dining room around March, 1967, an amateur scribe gave me a broadside of one of Kenneth Rexroth’s poems. The focal point was the phrase “right now” written six inches high in the medieval English book hand that is the parent of all upright type faces with serifs. I thanked him and fussed about a frame. The writer said just to pin it up and enjoy it. He had given me the work as a sample of an ink recipe. The writer became a pillar of computer security.

Futurist Buckminster Fuller published a book called I Seem to Be a Verb. Fuller’s insights and his willingness to reconsider language-he once kept silent for three years-have informed world culture. It’s useful to wonder whether verbs or nouns have the upper hand at home.

-30- More after the jump.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Anything Can Be Anywhere

Photo courtesy Flickr

I called on my godfather several weeks ago. He worked as a librarian and has always loved antiques. (March 3, 2010) I have always loved to study basic activities, and reading a book is as basic an action as I can imagine.

Visiting Uncle Landon and Aunt Eleanor’s retirement quarters is like going to the Makah Tribal Museum in Neah Bay: moment to moment opens to unfold unexpected levels of insight about familiar experiences.

Uncle Landon pulled a book off the shelf and sat down to show me. The last time I remember someone being excited enough about print to wave a book around was someone palming a copper-stapled copy of the Hsin Hsin Ming, Richard Baker’s work I think. The last time someone sat down to read to me was 1948.

The title was The Conquest of Mexico, written late in life by one of Cortez’s companions. It seems to have been intended to increase the man’s estate. Uncle Landon and I shared a good hour’s discussion of the text, the edition, and the archaeological context of the work.

I felt like a retriever with a goodly duck to be able to comment about Spanish influence on calligraphy*, the engineering marvels of bookbinding (December 31, 2009), and my second-hand archaeology of the indigenous trade route from Mexico to Canada. Those guys got around, and there’s a stone-age billboard in Naches whose bas-relief condor looks over the trail and across the valley.

Novelist Larry McMurtry wrote a book about an antique picker named Cadillac Jack, whose motto was “Anything can be anywhere”. That’s a lesson I hope to continue to learn every day for the rest of my life.


*The models for the popular Italic hand were Renaissance ones from Spain. The handwriting of the Spanish colonial bureaucracy in the Southwestern border states was Italic, and the emperor Trajan, whose memorial column in Rome holds the master models of Roman capital letters, was from Spain. There’s a copy of the Trajan column in Astoria. More after the jump.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Simple Table

Photo courtesy Flickr
It’s a good year to feast lightly.

It’s hard to improve on a table that doesn’t wobble, comfortable chairs that seat people eye to eye, a white cloth (butcher paper, even), simple cutlery, glasses, and plates, and a careful setting. Get the basics squared away, and it’s fun to improvise.

Keep the centerpiece low, the lighting kind, and put out the best bread, cheese, drink, and fruit that you can find. It’s easy to elaborate on a simple base, but damned hard to simplify a thicket of excess.

-30- More after the jump.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

A Dish of Tay

Photo courtesy Flickr

That’s what my Irish grandmother called it. The formal Japanese ceremony serves tea in bowls. Western ceramics retain a vestigial bowl, the saucer. Old style Navy mugs were steep-sided bowls with no handles and an irresistible heft. It wasn’t long ago that country folk stopped drinking tea or coffee out of the saucer, a practice derided in the twentieth century as rustic.

Making tea bowls is high art. From time to time, Seattle’s Asian Art Museum displays world-famous examples. To the best of my understanding, the most highly regarded ones are from Korea, ordinary products of ordinary people. Tea masters value them for their lack of self-consciousness. That may be why a heavy white Homer Laughlin mug sitting on a diner’s boomerang-printed Formica table is so irresistible. Willow imagery denotes Korean origin.

In the Fifties, several tea rooms in the downtown retail core allowed matrons to take their leisure while shopping. Except for Frederick and Nelson’s, tea rooms disappeared during the Sixties. They reappeared a generation later. I presume it took that long for women to realize that it was time to sit down and catch their breath.

High tea is named for the “high” or relatively large numbers of the hour of its service, around five in the afternoon. High tea serves meat and whiskey to the weary.

Tea seems to be big business now. Rarified pickings cost hundreds of dollars an ounce. The bibliography has expanded, and no doubt traditional Eastern (which is to say west of Seattle) training in tea and wider trade with Asia have influenced the market. The health aspects of tea are touted in the media. Commercial tea rooms serve aggressive, sophisticated, and highly specialized menus.

I would never argue with the evolution of a food technology, but I think the essence of tea is the company of a friend, a safe and tranquil place to drink, a fire, simple vessels, and good water. The leaf is the variable. Each variety serves its purpose.

Tea can be formal or informal, private or commercial, but rightly, tea is attentive, careful, relaxed, and a little high-minded. I don’t see a place for ambition at the table, if any. It’s a wonderful way to learn the difference between precious and valuable.

More after the jump.

Monday, November 8, 2010

The Doormat

Photo courtesy Flickr

I have often wished to live in a house that flushes. Come to think of it, Hercules tackled this problem. The closest I got was a concrete building in Puerto Rico with a drain in the tiled ground floor and eighteen-inch high tile baseboards. The floor was washed every day, imperative in that climate. Several years ago, I toured a new locker room at the Y with a woman who had raised her family on a five-hundred square foot houseboat. We agreed that the generous wheelchair-friendly shower stall would make a comfortable sitting room.

My partner came home from some field work in Eastern Washington to tell me that one of the local mountain lions had set up housekeeping in a culvert, novel enough, but especially noteworthy because the cat had pulled a deer hide onto the sunny stoop of its lair. There may be the kernel of a usable idea in this semi-ghastly but thought-provoking strategy. I knew that small cats like their comfort, but I have never known one to arrange furniture.

A few years ago I chatted with the housekeeper-in-chief of Seattle’s public housing. We agreed that recent immigrants keep exemplary homes and have much to teach us, and that home ec classes that cook lobster instead of egg are off target, especially here in Dungeness crab country. She clued me to the basics: quarters should be decent, safe, and sanitary. That leaves room to quibble but no doubt about the essence.

-30- More after the jump.