Archive for June, 2009

Can do

I was out in my dad’s shop a few weeks ago (at their “new” place, not the house I grew up in, which is gone), and I saw the Can. I couldn’t resist taking a picture of it. The Can is an old gallon paint container that my dad started tossing leftover nuts, bolts, screws and washers in when I was a kid, maybe even before I was born.

The Can represents something really central in my father, who was born in 1930, a year into an economic depression so severe that by the 1950s it was being referred to with the adjective “Great” and initial caps. To this day my old man never throws away something that there is a chance he might find a use for later on. In my dad’s day, this was just common sense. But there is something more. The Can looks like, and is, physically speaking, a big mess in a bucket. But philosophically it expresses some attitudes toward life that say a lot about a man who has never discussed his inner workings much. The can expresses an acceptance of a certain degree of controlled chaos, also a balance of similar and dissimilar, and ultimately it declares the existence of a limit to how far one man will go to classify and organize the world around him. The final atomic unit of my dad’s impulse to sort is this: one gallon.

The Can today. Judging from the label and from the paint color (the Gold Period at our home did not begin until the 1970s), this may be a second in"can"ation. Come to think of it, the first may have been a #6 Folger's Coffee.

The Can today. Judging from the label and from the paint color (the Gold Period at our home did not begin until the 1970s), this may be a second in"can"ation. Come to think of it, the first may have been a #6 Folger's Coffee.

I benefitted from the bounty of the Can when I became old enough to need the odd carriage bolt or a sheet metal screw for a project, by which time I already was familiar not only with the Can but with the unspoken (and always observed) Ritual of the Can, which was to spread out some newspapers on the shop floor, then tip the Can until the whole bloomin’ gallon of tiny metal pieces Spilled out onto the floor. This event came with its own unique sound, which started sharp and sudden and then swooshed and went still — still except for the happy ring of whichever little lock washer got up enough momentum from the Spill to roll across the floor and under the chest freezer, which held the beloved apple pies that you still haven’t heard the last of.

After the Spill came the best part. The careful Pawing through all the pieces in search of the one item that suited the job perfectly. If it was a screw, there would be the obvious attributes of length and head type (phillips or flat, or both!), but also thread count. If a nut, you were usually trying to match to a bolt you had in your hand. Washers came in a number of styles and sizes, some with strange little parapets on them. Whatever you needed and however many you needed — up to about eight or ten — you would always find a matching set. You just might have to Paw through the entire heap to find all eight or ten. The invarying success of the Ritual of the Can vindicated the whole Can ideology. This I knew probably before I could speak. I’d watch my dad Paw (Pa Paw?) through the alluvially spattered mess of Extremely Useful Looking Things, his lean forearm muscles flexing under the rolled-up cuffs of an old workshirt, radius and ulna working in fine tandem to turn and rummage, and hear the triumphant exclamation when the match was made.

The Can: detail.

The Can: detail.

Early fascination with the Can evolved into the familiar and often unreflected-upon relationship one has with the tools and methods of ones tribe, and I  grew to rely on the Can like I would the family ox (if we’d had an ox). And being of a compulsive nature, I was not at all dismayed by the need to Paw through every last one of thousands of pieces each time one piece was needed. Had my dad started out with a series of small pill containers with labels, then the whole Ritual of the Can would never have come to be. The search for a wood screw would be but a glance at a shelf of tidy jars. Where would be the fun in that? 

When I think about it I can still feel the weighty, sludge-like metallic resistance of the heap, which moved under your hand like a wave of heavy water, and the sharp tips of screws against my fingertips. I can hear the dull ringy splash of it. I can feel the hunt.

The Balls of Bothell

At a bend in the road just outside of Bothell there was a sign hanging from a tall post next to a driveway that wound steeply up into the woods. I don’t remember when I first noticed this sign, but at some point it become something about which I said “Oh, there’s that sign.” It always startled me, not only because it seemed so unusual but also because it was suddenly there, suddenly right there if you happened to be looking into the trees beside the highway, and then you’d pass it, and it was really such an inconspicuous little thing. But after that happened a few times I began to sort of look for it and say “is it coming up or did we already pass it? Or was it on a different curve, maybe closer to Kenmore?”

The sign was a wooden sign less than two feet high and a foot wide*, and it had gold letters on it that cheerfully announced “The Balls of Bothell”. In smaller letters was written “Darl and Jeannine”. You couldn’t see the house because of all the tall firs along the driveway, and the driveway had obviously been there since State Route 522 had been just a two-lane road. There was something really — I don’t know, adorable I guess, in the deliberate forfeiture of this couple’s anonymity along one of the busiest roads in the state. The sign seemed like some liveried messenger from an earlier time sent down the driveway to shout out the names of the lairds o’ that place to all passers-by. It seemed so unnecessarily and hopelessly friendly to declare not only their presence but their first and last names as well before an unceasing stream of cars heading either east or west in great haste, but in any case not stopping to visit the Balls.

What kind of people would hang up a sign like that?

My wife and I made frequent trips exploring northwards out of town in the early years of our marriage, and at some point the Balls’ sign became a thing we looked forward to as a sort of road ritual. Old farmhouses gave way to stacks of condos along this road, and old favorite restaurants like the Schnitzelbank Restaurant became other things, but through it all, no matter what else changed, there was this nifty moment on your way home when you rounded that sharp turn and ho! “The Balls of Bothell – Darl and Jeannine”.

We imagined what they were like, the Balls. We saw them jolly and fond of company, and always honoring of each other, perhaps like Mr. and Mrs. Bagnet in Dickens’ Bleak House. We wondered what would happen if we just slowed down and turned there one time, drove up the driveway and called upon them by name. Would they just roll with it? Had that actually happened to them a number of times before? Would there be cookies or some pie, maybe? It reminded me of a short story I read at some point in that long ice age that was my formal education — a story about a locomotive engineer who passes a farmhouse every day on his run, and every day waves back to the woman and little child who stand, every day, at the edge of their field waving at him, and one day after several years, after watching the child grow larger, he gathers his courage, puts on nice clothes, and goes to the farmhouse to introduce himself. I don’t remember what actually happens, but I remember that it was some kind of disaster. The woman is cold and unfriendly, and maybe the kid is a helion. Anyway, you can see the obvious lesson in it. Don’t knock on the door of a fantasy.

We’ll never know about the Balls now. One day late last year, or early this year, we rounded the curve and the sign wasn’t there. My eyes surveyed the situation instantly and thoroughly — we were in the right place; the trees had not grown significantly, nor had the underbrush. The sign was just gone. We were stricken and dumbfounded. On a later trip past the curve it appeared that some trees had been cleared, because we could see the house up on the hill, big sheets of plywood covering the windows. The house was not to be sold, then, but knocked down.

I’ve been meaning ever since to google the Balls of Bothell and see if anyone else besides us had developed an attachment to this sign and the legendary (and maybe imaginary) couple it announced. I did it today and indeed, another blogger has already eulogized the Balls of Bothell, though she mainly focused on the bawdy pun that their name lends itself to (warning: cuss words and potty humor). I thought it was worth mentioning at least. Things go away when you don’t pay attention to them and they go away even when you do pay attention, and the thing is, when they go away, they’re not there anymore.

*Incorrect; it was actually a good bit larger, as I discovered firsthand later. This story grew and took on a life of its own, as you can tell from the comments below. I wrote a follow-up post to this one in September 2013 that includes several photographs of the sign and of Darl and Jeannine; you can find it here.

When someone thinks you’re tall

This morning for Father’s Day my daughter Mara and my wife Angela presented me with several gifts, just for being Mara’s dad (could this gig possibly get any better?). 

A Father's Day gift that gives anticipation all summer!

A Father's Day gift that gives anticipation all summer!

Among them was a hand-printed “announcement” that they will be coming to fetch me early from work on August 6th so we can attend a concert of the band Crooked Still, of whom I am something of a fan. The concert will be outside on the grounds of the old school at St. Edwards State Park, and I can hardly wait.

When she's off studying music in Vienna or teaching soil management at some hippie college in Oregon I know I'm going to see this among the hellibores and cry all over it.

When she's off studying music in Vienna or teaching soil management at some hippie college in Oregon I know I'm going to see this among the hellebores and cry all over it.

Mara has been asking all week long when Fathers’ Day is because she was so excited to give me her gift. It’s a stepping stone for the garden, shown above in its plastic container while curing. Mara placed every “gemstone” in it herself, reports Angela, and made the handprint. I’m agog with delight over it. We placed it in the garden this evening.

Here’s a picture of the real gift I get to open my eyes to every day.

Angela and Mara, June 2009

Angela and Mara, June 2009

I took this image with my vintage (1940s) Speed Graphic 4×5. I’ve taken only about two dozen shots with it in the five years I’ve had it, and I still haven’t learned how to focus it very well , but given that you have to set up your shot under a dark cloth and shoot blind, I’m pretty happy with this. Of course, the subjects do lend themselves…


Whither the clothesline?

I once read this injunction: 

“Have nothing in your home that is neither beautiful nor useful.” 

I like that saying, because it acknowledges that beauty has its own usefulness and utility has its own beauty. It pretty much gives the green light to anything except downright ugly things that you couldn’t pound a short nail with. 

I’ll circle back around to that idea in a minute, but in light of my recent post about how people behave on buses around here, I gave neighborliness a try yesterday. An elderly couple got on the bus. She sat in an empty seat opposite me and he sat next to me, so they could be next to each other across the aisle. Cute, right? So I says to him I says, “Good morning.” 

And that’s all it took. I won’t reproduce the entire conversation here. The first leg of it contained the phrases “may get some rain”, “okay by me”, and  “watering my vegetables each morning for the last 29 days”, and that brought us to a discussion of our respective gardens. 

“I always said I’ll have a vegetable garden even if I have to get out there on my hands and knees, ” he said. Then he laughed and pointed to the knees of his denim jeans. “It’s at that point now! I wore out my britches working out there.” 

I told him that my lettuce and peas were doing well but complained that my broccoli had bolted. He sympathized, telling me he once grew radishes that tossed up great volumes of vegetation but that were the size of marbles when he harvested them. “When it’s a good year, it’s really good. You get fresh vegetables right out of the garden. When it’s a bad year, you say what am I doing this for?” 

He then observed that no one else on his street maintains a vegetable garden, and he seemed a little perplexed by this. 

I thought this was interesting. My impression is that there are a lot of people in North Seattle raising their own food in small gardens. On my own street, our friends next door have grown some vegetables for at least two years, and a few people have started building small boxes like mine or setting out pots with tomatoes. My little 3-foot by 6-foot “farm box” is out front, actually on city property, so everyone could see me growing clover as a “green manure” in it over the winter, and I may be fooling myself, but I like to think that my little zillionth of a cultivated acre may have inspired these recent enterprises. If so I’m relieved, because I sort of feel like the Jed Clampett of the neighborhood. I had a two-yard heap of topsoil lying in the driveway all winter, the hatchet job I did on a laurel hedge that was leaning over our back yard took me a month to clean up and dispose of, and I found that someone actually cut my lawn one day after I had been lax about keeping it mowed (this last turned out to be an honest mistake on the part of the neighbor’s lawn care guy, but I didn’t know that and was busy feeling sheepish and ashamed until my neighbor apologized, at which time I naturally modified my attitude to belated outrage). 

I bring up the hillbilly thing because of something  else my fellow rider said yesterday. After noting the unpopularity of vegetable gardening on his street, he observed that “no one hangs their laundry outside to dry anymore. We’re the only ones on our street who do that. Even if it’s sunny out, people put all their laundry in the dryer. They never even think of hanging it on a line.” 

Camille     arro's "Woman Hanging Laundry"

Camille Pissarro's "Woman Hanging Laundry"


I was careful to note that there sure was nothing like the fresh smell and crisp hand of wind-dried laundry (I was in fact momentarily cast back to some of the great line-dried-laundry-sniffing moments in my life), then I hazarded my impression that a lot of people these days probably view clotheslines as sort of “seedy”. He didn’t hear me. He went on to say that he and his wife still put their clothes outside to dry “even in the winter. If they freeze, you just bring them inside and thaw them out.” 

I’ve actually given some thought to disappearance of clotheslines previous to this conversation, and I’ve come to the conclusion that there really is quite a bit of hillbilly in me. I think middle-class culture, and even that of the rich, didn’t used to be so removed from what I might call “just living on the earth”. It makes sense to use the wind to dry your clothes. But in the last few decades the middle class has become hostile to function as a legitimate beauty in it’s own right. Everything gets sanitized to an increased level of marketability. A home in a neighborhood is really now a house in a location, and most of us don’t want to jeapardize the value of the house by making it more of a home.  I’m not immune. Part of me would strongly object to having to look out of my windows and see someone else’s union suit flapping in a June breeze. 

But the deeper, Jed Clampett part of me recognizes that this is a lot of craziness. We city dwellers seem to indulge in a collective shame about our agrarian past, and in many places we’ve zoned or covenanted agraria out of our neighborhoods. We’d be embarrassed by the smell of a truly useful compost heap, the needy clucking of hens. And like my companion said, we never even consider using the wind to dry our clothes anymore. Maybe that’s because clotheslines remind us of rural homesteads, where people live among all of earth’s unseemly processes and bad smells, or of tenements of the urban poor, where neighbors live with such a lack of privacy and dignity that they must simply ignore each other’s underwear going by on the pulley. 

When exactly did laundry blowing dry in the wind stop being perceived as a beautiful thing in its own folksy, functional way? Whenever that happened, that was the moment when beauty and usefulness became estranged bedfellows. 


Update 23 February 2010: I’ve just discovered that the quote I referred to at the beginning of this post is attributable to the author, artist and textile designer William Morris, and its full text is “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”

Cold plate

I don’t have anything earth-shattering to talk about today, but it’s a truth every single day that I’m crazy about my daughter. My wife and I are gobsmacked that such an interesting, gracious, honest and thoughtful human should fall into our lives. I thought I’d share one of my favorite recent pictures of Mara. Angela took this photo one sunny day after Mara had asked for a “cold plate” for lunch. Cold plate, she says. Sheesh. That’s what comes of having a mom that used to work in the restaurant business.

This kid knows a good spot for lunch on a hot day

This kid knows a good spot for lunch on a hot day

You’re not from around here, are you?

I was reading on the bus this morning, a Metro Transit bus. A big black woman, dressed all in black but rather nicely I thought, sat down next to me and I was unsure whether I heard her say to me “how you doin’?” I looked up, but her face was turned away from me as she tried to fit herself into the seat. Maybe she had addressed someone across the aisle or in the seat ahead or behind, but I said “good” in a very low voice that would be audible if she was listening for it but would only fade into the city traffic noise if indeed she had not been talking to me.

Then she began telling me how difficult it had been for her, gettin’ up and down those Greyhound bus steps.

I instantly brightened. I admit that I have stereotypes — prejudices if you will — about black people. (I don’t like the euphemism “African Americans” for blacks any more than I like Native Americans for Indians, because African Americans are not usually Africans and I myself am a native American.) Seattle is not a place where people say bigoted things. Rather the opposite. We say a lot of unbigoted things, but the truth is, neighborhoods of color are different, and in different parts of town, than neighborhoods of non-color (our North Seattle street has several black households, including our neighbor, but I think that’s remarkable). So I don’t currently know many black folks. 

Anyway, my stereotype about large black southern women is that they are characters and that they say what’s on their minds. I folded my book and said, “You just got off a Greyhound? Where’d you come in from?”

“Georgia,” she said. Then she told me all about how she had to get up and down out of a Greyhound bus seven times during the three-day trip, to transfer from one bus to another. She was here to visit her children. She had been here before. I think she said she’d lived here for a spell, and she said Georgia was hot right now. Very hot.

A three-day trip from Georgia brings you to Seattle's bus depot. The ceramic-tiled roof is to make you think you've arrived somewhere sunny. Image pilfered from Google Maps.

A three-day trip from Georgia brings you to Seattle's bus depot. The ceramic-tiled roof is to make you think you've arrived somewhere sunny. Image pilfered from Google Maps.

“The woman next to me kept talking and talking,” she said. “She kept talking until I finally said ‘Will you please be quiet? I bought a ticket so I could sleep, not listen to someone talking!'”

I tried to picture her actually saying this to some poor lonely windbag, and wondered if she just remembered wishing she had said it. We only had two stops before I had to “alight” (I”m going to blog about that word sometime), so I didn’t get to hear any more of her story, but I wished her a pleasant stay.

Two things stand out that fortify stereotypes I already have, yes about black women but more about southerners, or rather people not from Seattle. This woman was dressed very nicely, and my impression is that east of the Mississippi, and especially in the South, you don’t go out in public wearing your gardening clothes. I often wear what I call man-pants and man-shoes to work, but happened today to be wearing jeans and sandals, and I was untucked to boot.

The other thing was that she did not hesitate to greet a stranger. A stranger engrossed in a book. That’s something I really admire. My wife is from St. Louis, and like many who have relocated to Seattle she has observed that natives of the Emerald City (I am one) are polite — pathologically so in freeway merge situations — but you can live here ten years and still not have any close friends. No one invites you to join their group. We’re friendly in a shallow way, and hard to get to know. Mainly we don’t want to be bothered. And no one talks to each other on the bus (unless it’s a Snow Day or the driver misses a turn). Initiating a conversation on the bus, any Seattle bus commuter knows, is a cultural misdemeanor.

The bus ridership can be divided into three groups — and let’s give them colorful labels: say, “books” for the readers (we’ll throw the  laptop users in with them), “poddies” for those plugged into some audio device, and for those undiverted, what… “Slicks”? “Neats”? I’m a book, mostly, but only because there are so many poddies and so few neats. I have met a few people at my bus stop and one or two on the bus itself (met Tim C. on the bus [see Worm bin Jedi]), but it’s rare.

Sometimes I get the urge to just stand up in the aisle and yell, “who wants to play a word game?”, but the poddies wouldn’t hear, the books would be irritated, and the neats, sensing trouble, might look out the window and let me burn. I’d have to switch routes or take a later bus after such a pillorying.

If fifty people comment on this blog that I should do it, I’ll do it. But in the meantime I’m grateful for out-of-towners like that Georgia peach that sat down next to me today and interrupted my read. I guess it wouldn’t be outrageous for me to follow her lead, turn to a nearby neat and ask “how you doin’?”

Resistance may be futile, but it’s dashed hard to come by, too

“A man walks down the street, he says, Why am I soft in the middle now? Why am I soft in the middle when the rest of my life is so hard?” –Paul Simon

You’re not going to enjoy this post. It’s a bummer all the way through and ends on a grim note. But it’s time to talk about the gym. Working out at a facility specifically to stay fit and healthy, I mean. This is really a sore spot with me, and I’m fixin’ to tell you why.

We joined the YMCA some months ago. Angela just needed some way to get some regular cardio, and the Y has a safe, fun place for kids to play while parents work out. It’s not cheap, but I figured I would start working out too, since five years sitting at a desk moving mainly my forefinger has been making me pasty. I’m certainly not overweight for my six feet and an inch, but I feel… well, soft, lethargic, like my blood just isn’t moving around my system very well. Prior to this job I never went very long without finding myself employed in the vicinity of steep hills to climb (survey crew), something heavy to carry (survey crew, nursery work), something fast to chase (horse wrangling) or fresh air (all of the foregoing). But time is catching up with me, and the mid-section waxes doughy, if you’ll allow me some mixed metaphors.

Care for a stroll? The resistance you need without that disturbing change of scenery. Image heisted from

Care for a stroll? The resistance you need without that disorienting change of scenery. Image heisted from

So I went to the Y today for the first time. I belonged to a gym five years ago, while I was alternately unemployed and freelancing, and it was the last time I felt physically healthy.

But here’s the problem: I’m philosophically agin it. I’m opposed to the very idea of working out at a gym. Not the idea of lifting weights and bodybuilding as a hobby. To my lights, choosing to turn one’s body into Conan the Barbarian by means of levers and weights seems vain, but not pathetic. I can see it as a legitimate pastime, if that’s one’s thing. But to go to this place regularly because its the only place where my muscles can encounter resistance, because if I don’t go my muscles will atrophy and my cardiovascular system will languish, because if I don’t go I will wither and die — that strikes me as a stinging indictment of  white-collar work culture.

Try as I might to think modernly, I can’t help but measure everything against the yardstick of life as a subsistence farmer (or anyone who uses his hands in labor or craft). Consider: the farmer gives himself to the toil of clearing, sewing, weeding, and reaping and the toil gives back to him physically. His body, soul and mind are all exercised and nurtured by the work. In this sense, the work itself does not cost and in fact adds to the worker’s well-being. (Clearly, it also kills him in the end, because we wear out, but no one gets out alive anyway, and we’re not talking about the end, we’re talking very much about the middle.)

By contrast, white-collar desk work — wait, I should pause here in case my friend and direct manager Michael reads this and clarify that my work, when I’m doing it, is actually pretty fun and engaging; I’m good at it; I work with brilliant guys whom I admire and learn a lot from; and I’m very grateful in this economic climate to have a job at all.

An modgothic instrument of        ? Yes, but it's also the white collar professional's last hope against entropy. Image filched from

The white collar's last hope against entropy. Image filched from

As I was saying, however, white-collar desk work offers only a mental workout and money. But the mental workout doesn’t occur in conjunction with a physical workout and is not centered on the cycles of the earth’s own labors, so it merely exhausts the mind without putting anything back. And what you trade for the money is a lot. I’ll leave it for individuals to assess what cost to the soul there is in leaving one’s family in one world and stepping for ten or more hours into a completely separate and other world, a daily ritual we are pressured to think of as normal but one that is really a recent development, a gift of the industrial age. For me, the spiritual cost is high. I become isolated in my tasks, and if it weren’t for the fact that I work with such great people at a small company, I would be in a peck of soul trouble.

Physically of course, it’s a disaster. My postures sitting at my desk, riding the bus or driving a car, and sitting on the couch (because I haven’t got poop to do much else at day’s end) are all identical. You have a middle-aged guy slouched over something… just swap out the mouse for the remote, or the remote for the steering wheel. There is no physical exertion in my work except carrying my cup of decaffeinated Bigelow French Vanilla tea from my desk to the meeting room (which has no windows in it, lest I be accidentally nourished by some flitting view of leaf or bird). It’s as though white collar work is a kind of  non-medium like the vacuum of outer space, and in leaving work I have to readjust to the earth’s atmosphere like a returning astronaut, my knees wobbly and my heart sluggish because there has been nothing, no gravity, to offer resistance to my body. 

So I go, like countless others, to this facility and trade the money that cost me so much of my time to earn, and spend yet more time, to get my physical health back. And that’s my objection, right there. I shouldn’t have to do something in addition to my work to keep my body healthy. The work should provide that for me. But the work of a modern professional paper pusher does not.

So I enter the gym. I pay. I harness my body to the machine.

And I’m still not feeling any connection to the soil from which I was formed and to which I must eventually return.


The Great Seattle Gargoyle Hunt