Archive for January, 2010

The last of the penmen

When I was taught to read and write, I was also taught penmanship. I loved the word penmanship and love it still, even though my penmanship is a disgrace. The word presents mysteries the dictionary does not have answers for. Is the suffix -ship, so bracing and Old World, added to the title penman? Was there ever such a thing as a penman? Am I, to the degree that I value handwriting over the keyboard stroke, a penman? Or is the more interesting suffix -manship — as in brinkmanship — added to the simple root pen? Either way, it’s an august word.

My penmanship took a long time to fall apart. In the private Christian school I attended in first grade, we learned our letters in what we called “print” style, but abandoned that style as soon as we could master cursive, which was “real” handwriting. Printing was for babies. I was surprised and dismayed later as I made my way through public school to find that a large number of my classmates wrote in print and not cursive. I thought it displayed ignorance. I didn’t even know how to write in print anymore. But sometime in my twenties I gradually switched over, when it became clear to me that I could write more legibly in print, and that there was apparently no shame in it. My print style looked awkward at first, and it took me a long time to work out what to do with rs and qs, but I had become thoroughly disillusioned with my cursive.

My friend Jeff — schooled one row over from me in the same classroom —  had a very tidy, unrushed, and accurate hand, even if it was a little starchy. His was a cursive that leaned forward but held its shape. There were not many mistakes and crossouts in his letters to me over the years, whereas I was always writing in a hurry and my letters and journals were full of blunders, not (only) of concept but of execution. I was sloppy. Am sloppy. “Word processing” hides this fact, and too, as a critic of Jack Kerouac once pointed out, typing is not the same as writing. My handwriting was upright and a little broader than Jeff’s, with more generous loops, but I would always get to thinking faster than I could write, so that my cursive would eventually start leaning further forward and becoming more clumsy, until it was like Dick Van Dyke tumbling into a room. 

We spent an awful lot of time on penmanship, given what it’s come to, which I’m about to give an example of.

*  *  *  *

It is tempting to imagine that the public library is a haven for books and the champion of the printed word. By “books” I mean in this case things printed on paper, and by “the printed word” I mean type or handwriting or other markings set down on paper.

But it would be a mistake so to imagine. I refer you to exhibit A, a pop-up text pane that popped up online recently when I hovered over the little icon of the cell phone, which puzzled me.


Exhibit A: Whose side is the library on, anyway?


I was perusing the Seattle Public Library’s catalog for — wait for it! — a book on bookbinding, and when I got to the entry giving details for the book, there was this little icon of a cell phone next to it. Wondering what that was, I hovered over it, and well… you see what I saw. I was being encouraged to text this information to myself rather than bother to write it down. I grabbed a screenshot of it and I submit it to you for your slack-jawed dumbfounding.

Of course, it would be unseemly for me to o’erplay my alarum at reading a tip from my local library suggesting that using a pencil and paper would be so hideously inefficient that the idea is dismissed with rhetorical humor. After all, I was using their ONLINE catalog. I wasn’t flipping through a card catalog in a wooden cabinet*. And look, I’m writing and publishing my blog virtually, instead of on paper. You can’t get around the fact that the easiest way, and sometimes the only way, to do many things these days is electronically, and I doubt that libraries are chartered to do things the hardest possible way (many government organizations actually do have such mandates, but I don’t think libraries are among them).

*  *  *  *

When I saw above note, it reminded me that libraries since the dawn of time have been chiefly concerned with preserving, at the very least, information and records, that is to say data, and in the best cases knowledge itself, for future access. The medium of storage, transfer and access is a secondary concern, I would venture to argue. (It should be noted here that a Library of Congress archivist once told venerable Seattle newspaperman Knute Berger that the best method for preserving written information is terra cotta — as in clay pots — because the technology will never get obsolete and it has been proven to be very effective against the ravages of weather, fire, and flood, as well as mischievous people with short arms).

But I confess I am still a little surprised to see this. A little. Don’t the love and appreciation of the vast and long-a-building body of scientific and cultural knowledge that one assumes thumps in the breast of every librarian sort of go hand in hand with a love and appreciation for the medium that has been the go-to medium for so much of the time that we humans have been submitting that knowledge for preservation? Or am I really confusing librarians with book preservationists? As more and more space is given over to tables with Internet-enabled computers on them and less and less space is devoted to books and other printed items, I begin to wonder in what way the library would continue to be a library if a day finally comes when people only go there to get online and download information to their i-Berries, and a certain breed of smartypants finds it a titillating bit of trivia that the etymological root of the word library means “book”. And then they’ll have to explain that “libraries used to have books in them, that’s why…you see…oh never mind.”

Is my life really such a thing of milliseconds, microseconds and nanoseconds that to reach for a writing implement — a pen is never further than an arm’s length away from me and often as close as my coat pocket — is counterproductive? Is productivity the measure of everything? (Hint: my answer to that question has only two letters in it.) And have we given any thought to what may be happening to portions of our brains that are no longer being exercised because we no longer write anything by hand longer than a grocery list? And do we really want to be dependent on our phone service provider for every little snippet of info we want to write down and remember? Or is it that memory itself is no longer a value for our species, because everything is theoretically “retrievable” from some database, even our own notes to ourselves? None of these are rhetorical questions (well, just the one). I read an article recently suggesting that in the future, like tomorrow, memory and specifically the ability to recall knowledge will be less important as a job skill than focus, the ability to see through and filter data to find what is relevant and useful. Everything you could commit to memory, I guess, would be obsolete as soon as you did so, and access to the ever-changing relevant data is assumed to be guaranteed.

Even ten years ago, I would not have known what kind of world to imagine where the phrase “send yourself a text message” would make sense. I prefer not to text myself, thanks. I would sooner drop little notes into terra cotta pots.

*In downtown Seattle, the old wooden cabinets with thousands of cards in them were replaced by a computer-based system, I believe, even before our new post-space-age library was built, all except those at the very tippy top floor in the Seattle section — where librarian Carol Lo recently demonstrated to me their beautifully antiquated usefulness in finding local newspaper articles on hundreds of topics indexed by hand over the last hundred and some years. Most of that information is not electronically catalogued, so if there’s a fire in the SPL much of that history will be history.

High, wide and handsome

Note: Might as well put the kettle on. I reckon you’ll be settin’ a while with this one.

“Lord my shepherd help me pray
Though I left my heart to stray
Though I left my heart untrue
I can follow
I do
I do”

— Hem

There are two young men named George whom I will never forget. I say young men because that is the way I remember them — youthful and energetic and with the whole world open before them, as they are pictured here — though they are now both much older than I was when I knew them, and I felt very old at the time. When I was turning twenty-nine and came to F– Ranch, they were both just nineteen. George P., whom I recently tracked down and heard from by email, says he is “a middle-aged dad” now. I have completely lost the other one, George T., whom we called Geo.

The end of a good day. Wranger George P. and Kernal. Click for larger.

I’m pretty sure I would not be alive today if it were not for George and Geo. In the cheerless middle of a cold winter night in the last century, these two friends practically carried me out of the dilapidated house we lived in and sped me to the ER of the nearest hospital. Turns out it was a good thing they did that, but I love them for other reasons.

George was from up north in the state and had spent his childhood summers as a camper at the ranch. When I arrived in March of 1991, he had already been at the ranch a few weeks working full time. There wasn’t much going on in the winter, but there were cows and sheep to be cared for in addition to all the horses, and there were repairs to make around the ranch’s 4200 acres — gates and fences, for instance. George was helping Arden, who had retired from dairy farming to work as the ranch’s farm manager. Come spring and summer we would be very busy putting kids on horses, taking out trails, and leading horsemanship classes, and in late summer and fall we’d also be making hay (really making hay, like mowing it, “bining” it, and stacking it in barns).

Always ready with a smile. George trudging back from chores on a winter morning. Click for larger.

Arden relied on George because George was reliable in that showing-up-no-matter-the-hour-or-the-weather kind of way, and in that tell-him-once-and-he’ll-get-it-done kind of way, the kind of reliability that an old dairyman found hard to come by in young men in the twilight of the twentieth century. But I relied on George every day in another way; I relied on his phlegmatic calm, his kind and generous nature, his willingness to share every good and bad experience and then laugh about it at the end of the day while we rubbed neatsfoot oil into our boots to keep them from cracking and drying out. He was quick to laugh, but there was a kind of sadness to him, I thought right away; it seemed as though George was hunkered down on the ranch because he didn’t know quite what else to do in life. His work history had been in restaurant kitchens, and in addition to all the other work he did he was sharing cooking duties in the ranchhouse at the time I arrived. He was a good cook, a natural, and he liked making and serving food. However, he was too valuable as a horseman to be in the kitchen during the summer onslaught, and there were others who would take up the culinary tasks during that time.

Looking back from the present, I see I had so much unidentified anger deep inside me then, and even though I willingly did the hard work and obeyed the rules as best I could, I remember always feeling that I was about to burst. Uncle Bill seemed to embody everything I felt it important to rebel against, and yet I also felt it was my duty not to spread bad attitude. George was the one who heard me grumble under my breath, or read the particular shape of the steam coming out of my ears after Bill would pass by barking some complaint, and he would find a way to make me laugh, or he’d just say “Come on, let’s run the horses out.” Playing guitars with George on the dangerously collapsing front porch of “the men’s house” at the end of the day — well, I think that might have saved my soul.

George T. ("Geo") on a rare break in the bustle. Click for larger.

Geo arrived a few weeks after I did. Geo was from Cardwell, Montana. At that time in his life he was experiencing a difficulty relating to authority. His relationship with his father he described as hostile. I seem to recall talk of punches having been thrown. I’m pretty sure Geo had done a couple years in the military (is that possible at so young an age?), which had done him wonders, but he did not want to go back to Montana. A pastor he knew who occasionally volunteered at the ranch and whom we called Pastor Willie had suggested he give the ranch a whirl.

That was a happy day for us, because the Ranch needed a personality like Geo’s. Geo was comic in bearing and buoyant in spirit. Despite being from a small town in Montana, he had urban hip-hop tastes. He had a habit of striking up what he called “beatbox” or “bebox” by using his mouth to imitate a heavy, sputtering rap beat. Very quickly, every member of the ranch began asking him to stop doing this, but he would only grin the big friendly grin you see on his face here and shout, as a d.j. would, “Hit it! Hit it! Hit it!” He had an infectious laugh — hell, just looking at him smiling makes me laugh even now. He was indomitable. You couldn’t squelch his life-loving energy.

Geo, Rebecca and Joanna vaulting on horseback, another ranch visitor handing up the kitten for the finale. I think I was gone by this time. Photo used by permission of Chris Alcott. Click for larger.

One thing I especially valued about Geo was that no matter how much he thought something “sucked”, and there were many things about the way the ranch was managed that quickly found themselves on this list for Geo, he seemed determined to make the best of it. I remember seeing him frown — the frown was always temporary, he just couldn’t be like that for long, and while he frowned you could see him struggling with what he considered unfair or outrageous. His heart was good. And he didn’t want to use his fists. Pretty soon, he’d be laughing again.

And he did amazingly well with the parts of the ranch that did not suck, like being with the campers. I escaped counselor duty all but one week of that summer because I was needed as stablemaster, and George was often assisting Arden with farm chores. But Geo served as a counselor for the most difficult age-group of boys, the back-talking, limit-testing preteens; you’d see them pile out of their parents’ cars on Sunday afternoon all full of beans, ready to cut loose and raise hell, but in less than a day they’d be marching in step behind Geo like ducklings, loudly repeating the boot-camp cadences he had taught them. And when they stepped out of line, he sat on them, but he laughed with them too and it was all a great time. They knew he liked them, and they loved being around him. By the end of the week, their lives were different.

Built at the beginning of the War Between the States, a.k.a. the Civil War. We called it "the Mill". Click for larger, but watch your step on the porch.

We worked side by side every day. During the busy summer season, the day started before sunup with the drive in to the ranch house. We saddled up the few horses we’d kept in the night before for this purpose and rode them out to look for the rest of the herd in whichever pasture we’d run them out into the previous evening. Bringing the herd in was exhilarating. A herd on the move is a terrifying, beautiful thing. Being part of that motion is like riding some great raging river. We broke fast after round up, then we taught lessons in the ring and rode trails all day. I was the least experienced rider, so was not often needed as an instructor. Some days I stood in the stables, talking to the horses and making lead ropes out of old hay twines.

At the end of the day, a few of us would mount up, call for the dogs, and run the horses back out to pasture for the night, what we called “round-out”, chasing them through Ring pasture so they wouldn’t stop and eat the good grass there, and on into Lake or Thoroughbred pasture. We cracked little whips and shouted to keep them going, and the collies nipped at their heels and barked. When we’d herded the last pony through the gate, there was the pleasure of the five minutes or so riding back in the evening sun toward the stable, and toward dinner and maybe a shower. It was the best time of day. We never rushed back. The round-out crew was different every day, but very often it was George or Geo and myself and one or two of the older campers. In my memory I see us all riding back through Ring at a walk, with the evening sun turning the green grass gold.

One of the campers in the stable with Decapa, or maybe that's Julie. The ranch house is visible in the background. Photo courtesy of Amber MacPherson. Click for larger.

As stable master, I also recruited a few souls to scoop the stables with me before they could go in to dinner. I’d hook the spreader up to the PTO (power-take-off) of one of the tractors and drive it into the stable, and after we’d loaded it up with poop I’d drive it out into one of the pastures, usually Lower Barn, and spread it. The spreader was a wagon with a kind of conveyor belt that pulled the manure back into a spinning mechanism that flung it out into the fields to serve as fertilizer. You controlled the flinger with a lever, and if you let it spin too fast you’d have horseshit all over your back in no time. Manure was greenest and wettest in the spring, when the horses were eating the new grass. Because of the proteins in the grass, this was also the time when the horses shed their ragged winter coats and their flanks started to shine and they fattened up. I enjoyed flinging the manure. The noise of the tractor meant I didn’t have to listen to anybody, and at the end of the day that was nice. I just drove around, looking back every once in a while to see the clumps of dung arcing beautifully against the setting sun.

Teaching classes in the ring. Photo used by permission of Mary McDowell Heidorn, standing center. Click for larger.

After spreading manure, there were flakes of hay to toss to the round-up/round-out horses in the paddock and whatever sheep or cattle might be in the barn that night. Most nights there were also hayrides, barn-dances, or worship services, depending on the day of the week. We returned exhausted to the Mill, as we called our house, played a little guitar or treated our boots before collapsing into bed in rooms where ornate wallpaper put up a century before was pealing, and got up before sunrise to do it all again. On Saturday mornings we had cattle round-up and a chuckwagon breakfast, which meant we had to get up even earlier. Through the fall and winter, the workdays were shorter but the work itself — fixing fence in the biting cold wind and snow — was more demanding. More often we worked alone then. In late summer Arden taught me to drive the tractor along steep hills so we could stay ahead of the haying while the weather was good. Or I’d hook up the brush hog to the PTO and spend days chopping back blackberries that were encroaching on pastures and hayfields. George and Geo were often using other tractors to set out those big round rolls of hay, especially in winter when there was no more grass for the animals. Arden did all the other things we younger men had no clue about, like taking the spring rams and calves to market. He came and went like a ghost, always smiling and crooning hymns. I liked those days, too, but I was always glad to get back to the ranchhouse, where a cup of coffee and some quiet conversation awaited, and maybe some cake, too. 

It wasnt’ that the work was hard and physical. That was the best part. We ate like hogs and slept like unmined diamonds. What was difficult to endure was the endless speechifying by the owner about how this wasn’t good enough and how that had been the wrong thing to do. And every complaint and edict was backed by a scripture reference — some parable ingeniously interpreted — so there was no arguing. There was a constant wearing down of one’s spirit, of one’s good intentions. The staff, in response to this subtle but constant abuse from above, closed ranks to support one another, which was the true miracle of that place.

Weekend visitors to the ranch heading out on a trail. Photo used by permission of Chris Alcott, who is in the foreground at left riding what looks to be Sundae. Click for larger.

Geo left the ranch late in the year; just couldn’t take the insanity of being carped at incessantly by a man who was never satisfied, never gave praise and always criticized, pressured and wheedled. We all missed him terribly, even perhaps Bill, who was not happy about how Geo departed and expressed “disappointment” in the young man. Bill needed to keep a stock of people to villify and use as examples, and Geo’s hotheaded departure was convenient that way. The young women of the ranch, especially Rebecca and Joanna, the two who had grown up there and were homeschooled and more intelligent and better educated than any people under eighteen I had ever met, were constantly rolling their eyes when Geo first arrived; his beatbox noisiness and puppy-dog energy offended some sense of culture they had imagined for themselves by reading Austen and the Brontës. But when he left, the place had a hole in it. I think he went back to Montana for a few months, but it didn’t work out, and we soon heard that if Bill would allow it, Geo wanted to return after Christmas. After a speech in which he gloated about Geo having learned a lesson, Bill told us he was allowing Geo to return at the New Year. We rejoiced.

Though older, I was like both Georges. Like George P., I struggled with an inner restlessness, and like Geo, I had inside me a truculent resister against authority. I had almost quit and gone home after two weeks, having seen how things were there, but even in that short time I had developed a loyalty to the hardworking folks who would be left with even more to do if I left. Perhaps — no, certainly, I ascribed more importance to my own presence there than was due. The ranch was constantly attracting more volunteers who wanted to have a part of that beautiful life on the land with horses. But I stayed and I began, for the first time in my life, dealing with the contradictions, working out my salvation with fear and trembling. Like George. Like Geo. And my body began to come awake to the fact that I was a creature of earth, an awareness that has not ceased to tug at me for a single day since then.

A moment to unwind. Geo, George and Jonathan, the youngest member of the family that was living on the ranch at the time. Click for larger.

Meanwhile my heart began to implode, literally. I contracted acute pericarditis, no one every found out how. Bill discouraged doctor visits because they were an outlay of money that to him expressed the opposite of faith in God. (Yes, I know, these are the machinations that go on in a cult. And in some very real respects that’s what the ranch was. But I must be as charitable to Bill as truthful memory will allow. He was not amassing money and driving around in Porches and having ten wives. He was earnestly trying to communicate the gospel of Jesus, and give children a safe place to develop a sense of belonging and achievement in the process.) Insanely, I went along with the “have faith and it will go away” policy, as I was not fond of hospitals myself and at that time still had that young man’s sense of indestructability. But the sac around my heart had filled with fluid over the preceding weeks and I was approaching the point where I could not breathe without pain — it felt like someone was harpooning me from behind every time I inhaled.

As my internal organs began to be increasingly restricted by the accumulation of water around my heart and lungs, I failed to see that I was in what the Germans quaintly call Lebensgefahr — “life-danger”. And Ohio’s deep bitter winter cold, to which I was unaccustomed, seemed to increase the pain. Hearing of the trouble, my parents begged me to get me to a doctor. I did, once, and got some Erithromyacin for the swelling, and assumed it would take care of itself. But it got worse, and the breath I was able to draw became shorter and shorter and more painful with each day, even as I convinced myself that it would be okay, until I woke up one night when the cold was bone-breaking and the heat had gone out in the house and found myself rasping and shivering in my sleeping bag. I suddenly realized that something was dangerously wrong. I called out for George, noting even in my delirium how nifty it was that I only had to shout one name, and both of my housemates came running into my room.

The hospital was thirty miles away by twisty country roads. The boys helped me dress and loaded me gingerly, like a live torpedo, into the back of the Subaru, where I lay in fetal position feeling every bump and dip on the way. I believe George was driving. Calm. Assured. Fast. Since I did not die, Bill was able to claim later that this trip had been unnecessary, though I know and they knew that I might have stepped out with His Grimness (the Reaper) that very night had they dawdled. But I did not die. That was not the Plan. I still believed very much in a Plan back then. Nowadays I struggle with the idea of a Plan. Here’s what I remember, though: it never occurred to me at the time that I would not live, not even a month later when the symptoms returned and the cardiologist I was visiting took one look at me and called an ambulance and I was again hospitalized with acute pericarditis. I still remember lying in the ICU, knowing that everything would be alright. I knew that I was loved. For some reason, that made me feel invincible.

The bad ones always survive. I know this photo was taken after my hospitalization because I had never been able to grow a beard until after being on prednizone. I don't recall the name of the woman in the picture, but we could not have survived the days without the help of our weekend volunteers. Click for larger.

Like I said, I love George and Geo for reasons other than saving my life. It was because we were all there together during one of the most bizarre chapters in any of our lives, when we were young, strong and optimistic. It is difficult to talk about my ranch experience with people who were not there, because in many ways it doesn’t make any sense. People do what they have to do, and everyone’s journey has its own dark turns that seem inexplicable to others. The entire time I was at the ranch I wondered if I was staying because I was too afraid to leave, and through all the years since then I’ve wondered if I left because I was too afraid to stay.

Maybe we all wonder that, because the ranch had such great potential and to have been a part of it for any time at all was to breathe in that vision of an outdoor life with good people close by. Geo appears in pictures that were taken at the ranch the next year, but no one knows what became of him after that. I’ve just located George again after all these years, and this very day he wrote me that he left the ranch about six months after I did, but went back years later with a wife and young family and was helping to run the place as program manager for several years. He says he left only after Bill decided to quit paying the staff, (“After all, it’s more of a ministry than a job,” Bill reasoned), because he had a family to feed. George returned to the hospitality industry, where his efforts were appreciated, and is now managing a Bob Evans restaurant. Like me, he has gone where his journey has led him. But I know he wakes up from dreams in which he’s bringing the herd in, standing in the stirrups at a full gallop. I know he wakes up remembering the smell of spearment stems just broken by the hooves of running horses. 

Ready to serve.

 NOTE: This is one of a series — or rather a cluster — of posts that I am writing about my experiences at the ranch, not in any particular order. The first one was Shooting Emma.

What’s wrong with this picture?

The Benham Gallery on First Avenue has closed after 22 years. I only had a “passing” connection to it, never even went in unless it might have been on one of the First Thursday Art Walks two decades ago. However, the loss of any gallery along one’s route is a nasty hit, given the likelihood that what will replace it in that space will be something less inspiring and even simply less visually interesting. This has got me thinking of other galleries, gone and not gone, on my commute.

Ouch. See ya online.

I pass several art galleries every morning on my way down from the bus stop on Third Avenue to my workplace on Western Avenue. The first one is the Patricia Rovzar Gallery on the southwest corner of Second and University. The large windows of this location are put to good use. From the sidewalk I have as good a view of a rotating portfolio of artists’ works as if my daily route took me through the halls of the Seattle Art Museum, which is across the street but does not have fine art hanging in its windows. My favorite artist in the Rovzar gallery is Jerri Lisk, an Idaho artist who paints in acrylic on aluminum.

"Oakley Doakley" by Jerri Lisk. Image used by permission of the artist.

She paints landscapes that are true in a simple way like the observations of children and often include the white trunks of aspens or birches or oaks and blue shadows that suggest a kind of cool underlying the warm sunlight. I don’t often feel strongly about the plastic arts, but I often pause at one of the windows when Jerri Lisk’s paintings are hanging and just fill my soul up. I did it this morning. If that gallery ever closes I will surely perish.

My soul is enlarged. The Rovzar Gallery across University Street from SAM.

The other two are the Benham Gallery and, right nextdoor, the R. E. Welch Gallery. Until the closing of the Benham, which was a gallery established specifically to showcase photography, these two narrow-fronted galleries were sandwiched between Ancient Grounds on the north side and the Cherry Street Coffee House (not on Cherry Street, obviously — it’s a branch location) on the south side, so that they formed a strange, doughty little rampart of storefronts that offered either coffee or art or both. The two fine art galleries dealt only in art, but Ancient Grounds serves espresso amid a shop full of First Nations tribal artifacts, art and curios, and Cherry Street, like many coffee houses, displays art by local artists on its walls.

I have always appreciated this dense little reach of my walkamute, where the windows are full of interesting people, art and crafts to view and reflect upon as I pass by, and where the smells of coffee and tea waft out onto the sidewalks. The retreat of the Benham Gallery from this cluster is like a direct hit scored by the anonymous, non-malevolent economic forces that lurk behind all such closings. I don’t imagine the gallery’s closing will negatively affect Cherry Street Coffee, but with a sudden gaping hole now between Ancient Grounds and R. E. Welch, I think it would be good time to visit them if you haven’t yet gotten around to it.

Goodbye Mr. Sugar, wherever you are.

On my homeward route, I go up Spring Street. There used to be a tiny gallery on the northeast corner of First and Spring called Isis on First, the only good thing about a tragically ugly concrete building there.  The gallery is gone now and I can’t even find an online presence for it, which is sad, because I wanted to mention an artist whose name I think was Edward Sugar, although I cannot find anything on him either.

My recollection is that Sugar is a First Nations painter, though I don’t recall why I think that; maybe there was some info in the window. His art was very bright and…I want to say splashy and imprecise, but that doesn’t really sound very appealing. One of his paintings that hung in the window of Isis last year was of an owl on a tree limb with a moon behind, but it was not “photographic” in style, nor was it abstract. I don’t know anything about styles or schools of painting, so I don’t know what to call it, but the technique was the heaping of large swirls of colorful paint with a palette knife. You could see it was an owl, by its shape and posture and the size of its eyes. The rest was all strokes of color swirling every which way, and the moon was just a whirlpool of yellow and white paint. It looked as much like a painting of paint as it did a painting of an owl. Anyway, I liked it a lot.  

Late blue daylight

I was going to save this post for a lean week later on, but Marni was eager to see this photo on the blog, and I admit that this post is merely an excuse to display the photo, so I’m posting it now.  

One of my favorite things, photographically, is that moment in a day when it is not yet dark but lights have begun to come on in homes and businesses, and there is a rich blueness to the whole atmosphere even though the sky may actually be cloudy. I remember a photo in an issue of National Geographic — or perhaps my brain fuses several photos into a single visual memory — of some rural general store out in Wyoming or one of the Dakotas with a warm yellow glow in its windows and the blueness of evening all around it. I suppose, now that I think about it, that I have seen many hundreds of images like that in my life. Farmhouses at dusk. Such images always mesmerize me and make me instantly want to be at that place. There is something in me wired to respond to that collection of cool blue dark and warm yellow light.  

The magical hour for lamplit architectural photography.

Last weekend after our tryst with Marni at Island Books on Mercer Island, we all walked over to Starbucks on SE 27th Street. For several reasons (overroasted beans/burnt flavor being one and the operational tendencies of large corporations being the other) I’m not a fan of Starbucks and don’t patronize them if there is a smaller alternative nearby, so it chagrins me that I’m doing even backhanded advertising for the behemoth of beans. Nevertheless, I love this building. What drew my eye when we walked up was the hefty exposed beams and the lovely wood exterior “ceiling”, and the fact that the building is in the form of a shed with its tallest wall facing south to capture the precious northwest daylight through the tall windows beyond the fireplace. And, yes, the fireplace, which can be enjoyed both inside and outside.  

It reminded me of something I read shortly after the downtown Seattle REI building opened, comparing it and some other building. The point was that the architects REI contracted had created a building that suited and seemed to be in harmony with the space it occupied — not only the space on its block but also the space in its city and the space in its region, the Pacific Northwest. It was open and woodsy and it capitalized on daylight and elevated spaces. In other words it was a lot like us. The other building, whose identity I now forget, was just some swanky modern box dumped among its neighboring buildings without any relation to or consideration of its neighborhood, a reflection of the cookie-cutter mindset of the boardmembers of the multinational corporation whose outlet it was.  

As we approached this sturdy lean-to of a coffee shack, I wondered out loud if it was the work of the same architectural firm that had done the REI store. It turns out that’s not the case. REI’s Seattle store was designed by Mithun. This Starbucks was designed by MulvannyG2 Architecture of Bellevue. It opened in October 2004. Still, it looks to me that the same ethos was at work in both cases, and it’s one I applaud. Ironic that a company that has pretty much conquered the world with with the cookie-cutter approach would be the instigators of such a worthy and quintessentially local design. There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio… 

We spent a half-hour inside (Darby had to wait outside but she could see us through the big windows), during which time the light of day started to fade, and as we left I turned around and saw this. Part of me said, you don’t need a photo of a Starbucks, and another part of me said, what an amazing thing it is to live on this planet at this hour of the day. 


Island treasure

“There’s an independent bookstore
The last one that remains
All the others you might look for
Have been eaten by the chains
They soldier on…”

— Al Stewart

Mercer Island, a.k.a. the Rock, is an island in Lake Washington, once fully and still remarkably covered with tall Douglas firs, that has quick access to both Seattle and the east side of the lake (the Eastside) thanks to the fact that Interstate 90 runs right through it, connecting it with both shores. Most of the thousands of people who travel across the island every day never experience any part of it beyond the ivy that dribbles down over the grey freeway walls as they blast along on their commutes from the Eastside to Seattle and from Seattle to the Eastside.

Not that there’s much reason for non-residents to use the off-ramps. Mercer Island is what the Eastside used to be — a “bedroom community” to Seattle. The island has enough room for one small city, which has lately developed a ten-story skyline of thoughtfully executed apartments and condos, and a few thousand postwar residential homes (I guess it’s getting late enough in America that I should specify post-World War II homes — what realtors call “midcenturies”). There is no industry, just residences and the kinds of businesses that serve them — dry cleaners, restaurants, dentists, Starbuckses, teriyaki joints, nail salons, realty and law offices, a Hollywood Video store (now closed up — done in by Netflix and TiVo), a bridal and tux shop. I haven’t had a reason to set foot on the Rock since the last time I visited my friend Rich’s dad’s house, which is up the hill from the city somewhere in that somnolent and sylvan suburb.

That said, and oddly enough, my local independent neighborhood bookstore, Island Books, is nestled in this community. It has been my neighborhood bookstore for several months, even though it is not in the neighborhood I live in and even though I had never visited it until yesterday. Why this is is, my friend Marni is a bookseller there. She’s a bookseller in an honest-to-gosh mom-n-pop book store.

Marni is one of the many souls I failed to keep in touch with after Angela and I were married. I’ve known her since high school (Kip inducted her into our tiny crèche — she “got” our sense of humor). For years we knew she was working at Madison Park Books — which, alack!, went the way bookstores and even video stores tend to go, id est, away — but we didn’t keep much in touch. I ran into her a few years ago with Mara and learned that she was now at Island Books. She started sending Mara wonderful hardbound picture books for Christmas, which she herself admitted was sort of unexpected and over the top, but she couldn’t help it. The thing about booksellers like Marni is, they actually view their job, in its best realization, as shepherding new books to the people who should be owning them. A bookseller who loves books but dislikes people is not this kind of bookseller, and you won’t find any of those at Island Books, I’ll warrant. Marni likes people. She likes getting to know people in the ways that make them who they are. When books come into the store, she sees not only titles, but the faces of people she knows who MUST HAVE THIS BOOK. If those people don’t happen to be customers of Island Books, she finds other ways, such as birthdays and holidays, to get their books to them.

This is one sure way to make a customer out of Matt. Earlier this year, after Marni and I connected on Facebook (yeah, Facebook, is there a problem?) and after she started reading and commenting on this blog, and after an intertwining conversation arose about the Bullitt family’s old fireplace on Squak Mountain and the importance of supporting local independent bookstores, and especially after Louis, another reader of this blog and partaker in that very conversation, tracked down Marni through Island Books and ordered me a book on the Bullitt family of King Broadcasting fame and had them send it to me, all on the huggermugger, I decided that Island Books was my bookstore. Marni also was the one who recommended (and would have bought for me and sent to me if I’d let her) the book Shop Class as Soul Craft by Matthew Crawford, which I still intend to blog about someday.

Awash in northern light. Mara behind the counter with her new friend, Marni, and Roger, the boss of her.

Mara astool with Darby, Marni and book hunter extraordinaire Cindy.

Yesterday we used the occasion of the arrival of a biography of William Randolph Hearst (The Chief by David Nasaw), which I had ordered from Marni earlier in the week, as an excuse to cross the lake and finally visit the store. It was Marni’s day off, but she met us there with her dog, a beautiful and soulful russety Golden Retriever named Darby, and introduced us to her Island Books’ coworkers Cindy, who handled the search for the Bullitt book Louis bought me and found it in Tennessee or thereabouts; Lori, who was reigning benignly over the children’s department; and Roger, who co-owns the store with his wife Nancy (Roger took over the store in 1991 but it’s been here since 1973). We were welcomed as warmly as if we were family. Despite a rush that engulfed the store during our visit, Roger spoke with me at length about his experience with education and private schools, and also about why a book like Kin Platt’s Sinbad and Me, a favorite among a certain contingent of about my vintage, would go out of print and never be reprinted again, and about certain actions I as a concerned citizen of readerdom might take to nudge the book back into print (who knew you could DO stuff?).   

Island Books is the only bookstore on the island, to my knowledge, and it’s an insular treasure. I hope the burghers of Mercer Island realize what they have there. It’s been a rough year for retail in general, and with the slim margins that booksellers must operate in even in the best of times (“the publisher prints the price right on the book,” says Marni, “so you can’t raise the price, you can only lower it”) this bookshop lives ever on the brink of extinction. Nevertheless, the atmosphere inside the store betrays no hint of economic anxiety or bitterness over the injustices of the publishing industry (Amazon gets a big break, yo, because they can buy each title by the zillions). The store is in a little strip mall and has a rather narrow front, but is marvelously lit by northern windowlight — the best bookish kind — all along its length. Sturdy old armchairs find themselves right behind you when you want to sit and thumb through some treasure you’ve discovered, and the place is all of unpainted wood shelves that Roger makes himself as though they were chicken coops and his books were prize hens.

And just about the time you are getting toward the back of the long space and realizing that the store is a LOT larger than it looks from the front, you come to the children’s section, which bends around behind the neighboring storefront and occupies almost as much space again as the rest of the store. Every picture book is “face out”, which from the perspective of a book is like being in paradise. People can see you when you’re face out. They can be lured by your title and by the engaging artwork on your cover. Face out is the only way to display picture books. From across the room, ten yards away from this wall of Caldecott winners, old favorites and new releases, I saw the cover of Robert McCloskey’s Time of Wonder, a book that had been a magical favorite of mine when I was a child. We bought it for Mara. (Full disclosure: we bought it for me.)

There’s also a playhouse that kids can climb into, which we expected Mara to be all over, but after one trip through that she was less interested in the playhouse or any of the books than in Darby, whom Marni let Mara walk around the store on her leash, and in Marni herself, whom Mara today came to regard as her own friend.

There is apparently a lot more that goes into being a bookseller than one might imagine at first. I think it involves a little spellcasting. Marni is one of the best, and to my lights, Island Books is an establishment worthy of her magic.  

NOTE: The blogger at Surrounded By Water: A Mercer Island Blog, who might disagree with me about the island’s worthiness as a place to visit, has written an informative article on Island Books that does not suffer from solipsism.


The Great Seattle Gargoyle Hunt