Friday, March 15, 2013

Race Street

Photo courtesy Flickr

Koberg and Bagnall nail the Gyro Gearloose syndrome in their introduction to The Universal Traveler, a pillar of popular design instruction. They point out that since “conformity is the shortest route to acceptance in a mass society, behaving uniquely is a sure way to become an outcast.” They go on to say that “acceptable unique behavior is possible for anyone...who has interest in resolving problematic conditions.”

That academic mouthful made sense of a war story that lodged in the back of my brain in the Fifties. Now and then when my parents and their friends were partying someone would bring up Davey and his roller skates.

One of the three or four main streets in Port Angeles, Washington, is called Race Street. I’ve visited PA off and on all my life, and not too long ago, I came through town with a skater in the back seat. Race Street seemed made to bomb, and I observed that the street had been laid out to support the only big summer game in town, the soap box derby. I watched orange crates rocket down the hill, as I white-knuckle watch skaters streaking down John Street.

My father, his friend Jared, and Davey were posted to the Port Angeles Coast Guard station during World War Two, not bad duty, considering. My sense of their mission was that it was fairly boring. Dave Gn. lived in base housing at the top of Race Street and grew impatient with the walk to work. One day, he fastened a pair of roller skates to his regulation oxfords and skated down the hill in uniform, his middy collar presumably flapping behind him.

It took several days for the commanding officer to get wind of Davey’s shortcut. He was called onto the carpet and told to cut it out because he was compromising the dignity of the service. It’s hard to suppress a good idea, though. Somebody in LA pulled a pair of metal street skates apart, nailed the wheels to a piece of orange crate, and there’s a skate park on Race Street now, in the town where Tony Hawk's mother grew up.

-30-  More after the jump.

Thursday, March 14, 2013


Photo courtesy Flickr

Fact-checking a reference in a recent blog, I discovered that a favorite design text has been reissued. I gave away my first edition of Don Koberg and Jim Bagnall’s Universal Traveler, thinking I had internalized enough of the material, and have kicked myself gently ever since. Now and then.

Most of the material in this blog is based on habits of mind I learned from the UT The second I found an updated classic edition of the text for sale on line, I ordered two copies. They arrived last Friday, and I’ve been leafing through the material, reading closely now and then.

When it was new to me, the typography and graphic design of the book was unprecedented, and I’ve still never seen anything quite like it. It’s relatively civilized, but in the same hemisphere as DIY punk music posters from the Seventies and Eighties. 

The book came out of Cal Poly, and there must be engineering rigor behind the content, because the cover is UPS brown and ooky Forest Service yellow. UT, like the Whole Earth Catalogue and 100 Things To Do With An Alligator, reveals the sheer wit and curiosity behind the innovative hurricane that was the Sixties.

The book looks like tie-dye and reads like a short-sleeved plaid polyester shirt with a nerd-pack. One copy, a pound of coffee, and a vacant week-end would make a supremely cost-effective twenty dollar vacation.

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Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Culture Shock

Photo courtesy Flickr

Ordinarily when I want a laugh, I do not turn to Channel 9’s European Journal, the pre-dawn Sunday news compendium. This week is different, and if you want to sample definitive understatement in narration and film editing, go for the story about Korean automotive engineers in a tiny village in Arctic Sweden.

The town has reliable snow for testing the braking systems of cars, and companies from all over the world send their prototypes to skid school. The Korean guys find the behavior of the local people incomprehensible. The locals in turn find the Korean guys a convenient source of rental income.

Anyone who’s tried to keep a bunch of kids happy at the table will appreciate the kitchen contest between tofu and fish sauce on one hand and elk meat on the other. The story is endearing fun, and a refreshing change from the usual predictable tale of hands across the sea.

-30-  More after the jump.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Gardening With Memory

Photo courtesy Flickr

In 1972, I rode a bus downtown with a senior logger, who pointed out a towering pine that overlooked the freeway. He said it was a rare tree for the local forest, and the individual specimen was well-known. That’s Western Washington in a nutshell. The shell cracked, though, and the tree is gone. I don’t know what happened or when, but my back was turned, and Plant Amnesty was not yet there to protect the heritage.

The local art community had had a couple of generations’ appreciation for traditional, formal Japanese garden design when I was a sprout, and that discipline was the ideal complement to the pioneer and indigenous affections for the landscape. We’re all shinto at heart, as far as I understand these things. 

My great-grandparents’ garden in Port Townsend had an inexplicable archaic feel to it. They had moved away years before I visited the house, but it retained the original plantings, and my mother and grandmother pointed out all the features that remained. Nothing seemed to have changed, and the yard felt like a time tunnel. The voice of ancient timber is strong on that site.

I had the same sensation in 1970 discovering a tiny line shack set in acres of tall second growth overlooking the Sound in West Seattle. The shack was original, the interior immaculate, and there was no underbrush around it. Perhaps rabbits kept it down. I never learned the story of that place, but it was enchanting.

After moving to the Hill, I discovered a particular hipster style: a very small backyard cottage painted charcoal grey (the big box hardware chain calls it Oxford Brown) set into a carefully maintained but non-disciplined landscape, the whole deeply private and expressive of careful economy.

A neighborhood sculptor set eight-foot split planks of cedar inside his property as a casual fence during the Boeing Depression, when a waterfront bungalow could be had for twenty-six thousand dollars and small neighborhood mansions went for fifteen. Last I looked, the fence is still there, although the designer seems to have moved on. The planks evoke indigenous architecture.

New construction on the block has turned my front garden into the narrow courtyard I always visualized. The established native plants will soon tell me what they want, and I look forward to finessing this little landscape to borrow views from the new buildings and simplify maintenance even further. What once took three days a week to manage as an English garden shrank to six hours on a Saturday and now asks only an hour from time to time.

My own cottage waits in the back of the lot, and what might seem intrusive oversight from the new buildings simply improves security. I can finesse sight lines from the sitting area with a shrub or two and keep the spot as tranquil as ever.

-30-  More after the jump.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Housekeeping And PE

Photo courtesy Flickr

Our mothers or grandmothers inherited a cruel load of labor after World War Two, when it became unusual to have help in the ordinary middle-class home. Electric appliances and automatic furnaces did the heaviest lifting, but child care and routine cleaning still put many a pound onto the back of a woman who had been trained to expect that the world would take care of her. As late as the mid-Seventies, it was advised that to have beautiful hands, one should do “nothing”.

“Ladies” were expected not to exercise, or to conceal exertion. There was a strong cultural bias against “menial labor” that effectively busted educated women who were keeping house. Physical training for women, and career training, too, were discussed as Good Things back in that day, but it was not until 1972 that Title IX ensured women’s equal access to formal physical training. There’s a hell of a difference between lifting a kid when you’re fit and lifting a kid when your body is mush from pregnancy. Heavy labor without skill locks the body and mind into sad, self-pitying habits and perspective. 

Like going to college, the only preparation for physical training is already to have enjoyed physical training. The Y is there to show the way out of the lifelong handicap known as being out of shape. Start training by setting aside one minute three days a week simply to sit and put yourself first. Set an alarm. Before long, you’ll learn to be alarmed if you don’t do that, and that’s when the fun can start.

-30- More after the jump.