Monday, May 31, 2010

Perfect Books

Housekeeping - Marilynne Robinson
This is a lovely, heart-achingly lonely little book with a lot of space in-between everything that moves the plot along and silence between the characters. This has remained one of my favorite books ever since I read it 7 years ago.

The Life and Times of Michael K - JM Coetzee
Creates a somewhat similar atmosphere to Housekeeping, but written by a man. You almost wouldn't know the story is set in apartheid South Africa except in the glimpses you see of the world flitting by peripheral to the main character.

How Buildings Learn - Stewart Brand
A spectacular book about how buildings age and what that means for their design. Very well documented as well as opinionated and engaging. Executed perfectly and highly accessible to anyone, whether informed on the topic or not.

A Year on the Wing - Tim Dee
A beautiful, poetic book about bird watching. The observations are surprisingly fresh and stunning, and the book is done so well it's a worthwhile and wholly engaging read whether you care about birds or not.

Memory of Fire trilogy - Edwardo Galeano
Galeano blurs fiction and nonfiction is this poetic telling of the history of abuse and imperialism in the Americas. The three book trilogy progresses chronologically and reads as short vingettes that are focused on individual people, experiences and moments in a truly remarkable way. I've never seen anything else like it.

Infinite Jest - David Foster Wallace
The epic 1100 page novel about tennis and drug use by my favorite author. 200 pages of the text is academic style footnotes in which whole characters are introduced and tangential narratives unfold. Wallace is the most intelligent and observant writer I've ever read. His nonfiction is also excellent. His short stories are awful, though, and you shouldn't read them. Keep a dictionary handy when reading this, because there will be about 5 words on every page that you've never seen before. Wallace has a preference for using characters who have read the OED (Oxford English Dictionary) in its entirety and he once wrote a book review of a new dictionary. I'm deeply sorry that he hung himself last October.

Invisible Cities - Italo Calvino
This is a funny, haunting, beautiful book in which Marco Polo describes fantastical cities he has traveled to in the empire of the great Kubla Khan. Each chapter introduces a single city, focusing on its inhabitants and the rules of its operation. This book draws you into its reality, creating a world in which the basic laws of physics seem to be determined by poetic impulses and wild imagination. Also worth reading by Calvino is Cosmicomics, which is a funny, anthropomorphic take on the creation of the universe and If On A Winter's Night A Traveler, which is equally experimental.

House of Leaves - Mark Danielewski
This is a touch too experimental to be a perfect book, but I included it here because it's the only book that has ever physically scared me in my adult life. The book reads like a horror movie, but in a much more cerebral and unsettling way. The positioning of text on the page is unorthodox to say the least, and gets wilder as the book descends, but somehow, the effect is successful and Danielewski pulls off what anywhere else would have seemed a trite and cheesey special effect to amplify the eerie world of the story. Be patient with it, because it's different than what you're used to expecting from books. Give yourself over to it completely. Only read it in the dark, and only when you're alone.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Stick Building

I thought I'd write on this great little video my sister sent me a while back. It's about a guy who is growing a house. Out of trees. Yes, right, all houses are made out of trees. No, GROWing.

Growing Homes
(The translation is a little awkward, but you get the idea.)

At one point he says, "In 3 years, I'll be able to cut the window here." It's unimaginable. We put up stick built* houses in, what? a couple months?, with the majority of the framing and exterior cladding in maybe a month.

I remember hearing a spot on NPR in the wake of one of the Florida hurricanes. It turns out the houses built by Habitat for Humanity had stood while the houses built by professionals had been wiped out. Why? Because the amateurs had pounded so many more nails into those houses - and so many of their nails ended up bent, going in at weird angles that held together better. Unfortunate for some, but also hilarious.

The guy in this video plans out where utilities will need to come through years from now and leaves pipe in place for the trees to grow around! I can imagine different types of people attempting this project, but only a German would approach it in manner so thorough and meticulous that you almost forget what a wildly romantic concept it is.

The narrator anticipates this house will stand 500 years - as long as the trees do. It’s optimistic, but makes some sense - a living tree protects itself from rot and insects, there's no need for siding and no need to paint it - although presumably a roof will be required.

I think it's safe to say most houses that are being built right now in the US are made to last 30-50 years. In the 1800's up to the 1940's or so, we built buildings to last 100 years. This is back when we had higher quality wood**, masonry construction was common practice, and then there's the craftsmanship itself. I bring this up because this man's house will take 30-50 years just to grow. It's a very different perspective.

I've been on jobs where we've salvaged materials from million plus dollar homes that were 10 years old, being demolished for the view - so that the next owner could come in and build their dream home. Homes get built on spec*** by developers or upgraded for sale by homeowners, requiring them to be generally appealing to everyone and specifically appealing to no one. New owners come in and completely gut the place to suit their tastes - the materials entirely unused, the house just a showroom. Are we doing something good for the world salvaging a 10 year old home? It's morally ambiguous.

I've also sold materials to a man who had to fix up his brand new home built on spec by a developer. The workmanship was so poor that the wiring caused a fire and, being severely in debt already, he was now involved in a court case against the developer as well as repairing the home himself to make it livable in the meantime.

On the one hand, we have a failing of material and construction quality - on the other, a lack of respect for the resources and the labor involved in the process. To ask what makes a building survive, or what makes one successful, is a broad question that I don’t intend to answer here. I certainly don't think growing buildings is anything more than a romantic notion, but there's something in the patience and the process that I wanted to point out and pay homage to. A building is a monumental undertaking; it's the most expensive and resource-intensive thing most people will ever be involved with. When I build a home, I want to be able to run my hand across its surfaces and know that it will age with dignity, adapt well, and be treated respectfully throughout the course of its life.


*Stick built is a term describing any house built on site with conventional 2x4/2x6 framing - as oppose to post and beam, masonry, modular pre-fabricated panels or components, tilt-up or cast-in-place concrete or other structural compositions.

**Old growth wood has tighter grain, which literally leaves less air space in the wood and is more resistant to rot, stronger, and less susceptible to warping. Old growth wood doesn’t exist in commercially viable quantities anymore.

***On spec: Built by a developer before a buyer is secured; the opposite of custom built.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Requiem for Detroit

I have this fantasy of returning to Detroit, walking through its neighborhoods photographing abandoned buildings and climbing through them. I imagine all the hidden subcultures and underground scenes thriving in the urban wasteland - artists and grafitti and urban gardens. Anywhere that society is coming apart at the seems, where no one cares what you do with the physical space, is bound to produce incredible creative projects. When there's no one to tell you you can't do something, or you shouldn't, people who are inspired and motivated and excited to try out their ideas will flourish. They will slowly emerge from the ruins to reclaim the city.

Growing up in the sterile, wealthy suburbs to the north, Detroit has always held a strong fascination for me. I never explored it when I lived there, except to go down for baseball games, plays and the Thanksgiving parade. Even then, we didn't go more than a block off Woodward. That was the 1990's and parts of Woodward were already lined with abandoned buildings boarded over in plywood.

This film is exactly what I would want to be doing if I were in Detroit right now. It captures the exact moment and place in history that Detroit embodies. Detroit is in many ways the pulse of the nation, or, if not that, then the throat culture taken to determine the sickness. For so many decades, as Detroit went, so did America - and now it's a ruin; it's a monument to times past, left for the archeologists of future civilizations. But there are still people living in the city, and some things are thriving.

The documentary begins and ends on Eminem, native son. The soundtrack, fittingly, is incredible. Detroit was always a locus for great music, the Motown Sound. The film goes from Eminem to Woody Guthrie to Public Enemy to Frank Sinatra, Martha and Vandellas and the MC5.

There are some interesting recurring cinematic techniques that are used well by the filmmakers. The projection of old footage onto the sides of now abandoned buildings is an especially powerful strategy. Everything from a music video filmed in a Ford on the working assembly line to the 1969 riots, washed ghostlike across overgrown and crumbling edifaces. It's powerful. Additionally, almost all of the interviews take place in moving vehicles or while breaking into and exploring abandoned buildings. Many of the car interviews are disconcertingly interrupted by people in the surroundings screaming, shouting, drivers-by leaning out the window to finish chugging a tall boy in a paper bag, etc.

Detroit is an amazing place and a powerful microcosm of America itself. This country never rolled like it did after the war when industrial production was booming and the middle class was growing. The unions were strong and whether the Big Three liked it or not, they were funding a livable reality for thousands of workers. But the old sins were always there under the surface.

The workers came from across the country to Detroit, and with them came the old racial divides of the South. Not that the North was a post-racial world by any means; the KKK was active in Royal Oak, where my father grew up, and neighboring Berkley. The riots in 1967 were enormous and Detroit was never the same, but all that really happened was the White/Black line that had been drawn within the city's border became the city's border. We grew up about 10 miles north of 8 mile (made famous by the Eminem movie - the northern border where Detroit meats Ferndale), and there were maybe a dozen black kids in my high school of 1100.

The suburbs are surprisingly wealthy given Detroit's abject poverty. Oakland County, where I grew up, is ranked 26th in the nation by per capita income (according to Wikipedia), and Bloomfield Hills, my suburb, has a per capita income of over $100,000. There's serious money not 10 miles outside Detroit's border.

This documentary captures the rise and fall of one of the greatest cities America ever built. Detroit is the epicenter of American industrial might, the place where we "turned these dreams and desires into sheet metal." The footage exploring abandoned buildings and factories is captivating, the music is compelling and the narrative flows as smooth as a Cadillac. I especially appreciate the note that the film ends on: Ex-cons working for Goodwill to salvage the abandoned builings, urban gardens croping up in their wake.

Requiem for Detroit - 75 min.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Dissection of This Chair

I found this great old office chair at Goodwill yesterday for $10 (it had a coarse gray upholstered seat and back which I immediately disassembled upon getting home). It's probably 1950's or 1960's, made back when things had metal parts instead of the black plastic prevalent now. I turned over all the chairs that had swivel bases and examined their parts for aesthetic appeal and for whether they'd suit my project, and this one won hands down. The modern office chairs have very large, clunky mechanisms where the support meets the seat that handle raising and lowering the seat, tilting the chair back and swiveling all in one. They're bulky, ugly, have arms projecting on all sides, and are made of unattractive metal or plastic meant to be unseen, like the black-clad stage hands in a play - although they do the job well. I liked this chair because of the simplicity of its mechanisms, because I'm a sucker for anything that's cast metal (this is brass), and because the finish is brushed stainless. And who doesn't love brushed stainless? Am I right?

The height of the seat is raised and lowered by turning the bottom disc, through which the threaded post moves. The disc is attached to the base with the legs and casters. There is a catch (the little nub in the middle of the unthreaded track on the post) that serves as a barrier for both this mechanism and the disc above, which sets a height for the chair back to brace against. The top disc also threads on the post, but it moves up and down independent of anything else.

The disc can be lowered.

And then the chair back.

The seat mounts on 2 steel strips that bolt or screw to its underside and then slide back and forth on the base to determine how far forward or back you want to sit in relation to the chair back (I don't think I've ever used a modern chair that does this, but maybe I just couldn't figure out their inner workings). There doesn't seem to be any guard to keep the seat from sliding off the base, but there is a simple set screw (with the enlarged knob handle) that braces against the seat bottom to keep it from self-adjusting.

The last mechanism is a simple tilt built into where the chair base secures to the back that responds to the angle at which you lean within a small range of motion.

I think re-using this old chair base for what God intended it to be is going to be a lot easier than trying to hack something together from plumbing parts and old pipe and whatever else I can find at the hardware store. What I really need is either a forge and machine shop or a hardware store that stocks all the weird and over-specialized bits of hardware that no one would ever have any reason to use outside of an industrial production setting. It would be entirely unprofitable, but what a cool place to go and poke around and try to figure out what things do. It would have to be bulging at the seams, poorly lit, with tight, claustrophobic spaces - basically an even more convoluted annex of Hardwick's. If you ever find a place like this, please let me know.

Sunday, May 9, 2010



I finally went to IKEA for the first time ever on Friday and let me tell you it was a roller coaster of oohs, aahs, grimaces, dry hacking into my forearm so no one noticed, veiled sarcasm, genuine amazement, wary respect and so much more. I was fortunate enough to go with my friend Seth, who has a well-honed sense of quality in objects and life. We made it about 1/2 way through the store (which covers 3 city blocks) before we were overwhelmed by its sheer immensity and we rushed to escape lest the remainder of our brains leak out through our nasal passage and our souls be forever bound to roam the aisles in search of tea light trays.

This is just the parking lot. IKEA promises you LOTS. An all-inclusive system of spiritual belief, lifestyle and home furnishing selections. No detail is neglected or left unlabeled.

We arrived before the store officially opened. There were other people waiting. The staff were kind enough to open up a small pre-determined display set in the first sequence of the store for us to feast our greedy eyes and grubby hands upon before opening up the entire yellow brick road for business.

In IKEA - at least in the Renton IKEA - you walk through the store the way they want you to. It's a serpentine maze of home display mock ups and drop ceiling framework fluorescent lighting, with everything labeled and priced. Everything except the TVs on display. No idea why they don't just go into the business.

IKEA succeeds because it's cheap. Because it brings designer made products that have a clean, modern sensibility to a whole new market of people who otherwise wouldn't be able to buy new furniture, and would have to settle for the boring old stuff they get at Goodwill. In this, IKEA is something of a revolution - a movement to bring power to the people. One might even say Socialist in character...

But is this really what's best for the world?

Being in IKEA made me feel dirty. It made me want to go home and just hold the various little chunks of wood and weird bits of metal I've managed to collect. To stroke my old, solid wood teacher's desk I got for $15 and assure it I'll stand by it through good and bad, scratches, paint, gouges, dings, delaminations and all.

There is a saying about IKEA products that a wise man once told me. A man who was dropping off used building materials on the way to the dump (I work at a salvage yard). He said, "You don't want that. You can only move IKEA stuff three times." How true, how true. It's cheap, yes; it raises the masses out of their bland Goodwill lives and bring them style and taste and choice beyond imagination. But IKEA is the plastic spork of the building material world. I imagined the whole store ceasing to exist. I was unmoved. I imagined coming back after an earthquake, every single thing having broken neatly into its requisite components at the slightest jolt, the carnage sprawled across the giant warehouse floor. Seth broke something, a vase. I half expected tiny shin-high robots to come whisking around the corner to brush it into a dust bin that emerged from their abdomen before anyone saw the imperfection. Sometimes it's nice to openly expose yourself to the temptation to purchase objects and realize you have no desire for them at all.

In the end the retail experience degraded significantly. We stopped to eat (you have to pause and take sustenance to make it through the desert that is IKEA) at the deli partway through the store. Roughly, the first third is extremely manicured mock-ups room displays. The second third is large rooms of all similar objects - lights, rugs, appliances, kitchen ware, etc. The final third is pallet racking full of boxes, looking like any other warehouse. It's as if the employees themselves lost focus and got bored in arranging the store.

It was an experience, I'll say that. I appreciate Seth's willingness to go with me, because I don't feel the need to ever return to that bright, shiny world of photo-finish "veneers" of exotic wood species, of unconvincingly lightweight stainless steel everything, and of prices that assure you: someone somewhere is being fucked over to bring you this product. Thank you, IKEA, for reminding me why I live my life the way I do.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

The Benefits of High School Football

When I was 15 (Sophomore year) I was an atypical small, skinny, quiet, thoughtful high school football player without a lot of self-confidence. I went away to a week long summer football camp at Michigan State University. I wish I had the essay I wrote on that experience to publish here. The main coach was the MSU football team strength training coach (the guy who you picture screaming down into your face while you grunt and sweat and struggle for all you're worth to put up the bench press rack you're trying desperately to keep from falling back down on your throat and thereby cutting off circulation, air flow and ending your stint in this game). The kind of guy you're surprised when it turns out he's able to speak in complete sentences.

I learned to let go of the things I wasn't able to control and focus on the ones I was. The weather, the other team, the field surface, the referees, these things are traps your mind can get stuck on. You have no influence on them whatsoever. You simply release them. Your own play, your preparedness, your diet the day of the game, your mental state - you take ownership of these things. It was a good lesson.

I learned to be tough. Mental toughness is so much more important than physical toughness. I've never been in a fight in my life (one that wasn't consensual anyway). It's extremely unlikely that in the course of my day I would have an actual physical altercation with anyone. Why would I be afraid or intimidated in any interaction? Why would I let anyone force me into doing things that aren't who I am?

I feel that I can hold my ground intellectually with anyone I meet - and if they know more than me in some arena, I smother them with questions and systematically extract their knowledge to make it my own. Toughness is approaching life as if you feel comfortable in it. If you can learn this through running 50 yards full speed and throwing your body against someone else's, falling down and standing up to do it again, great; there are probably other paths to this knowledge as well.

Toughness is often admitting your limitations and being able to see yourself as something larger than your skills, abilities, strengths, weaknesses. Seeing yourself as malleable. Feeling that you need to cover up a weakness means you'll never get past it. Sometimes strength comes in exposing weakness to the daylight and asking what you need to do to get past it. Having confidence in yourself that you can figure it out. Knowing that everyone else is just as sorry as you are and that if you can admit it you're 100 times better off that they are. On a similar note, I often think of things I'm doing - even things I've been doing for years - as experiments, as things I'm able to watch and make decisions about and try out or walk away from if they're not working out for me.

In football, you learn to force yourself to do things that are hard. That no one should really have any good reason to be doing. There was one summer we were doing a pre-season training where we ran up a giant hill 8 times in a row. No one was in shape - this was early enough in the season before it was allowed to start training with pads or anything. So we were just running. It was hard. After the 4th or 5th ascent, I stumbled off into the trees and puked. I felt like I was going to die. Then, after releasing it, I felt better. I went back and finished the workout. You don't learn that playing video games or reading books.

When you have this - which I think is willpower - there is less of a divide between thought and action, which I think is helpful in the new-years-resolution kind of things where people say "This is what I should do" and then fall back into old habits. You just do it. That's all there is. Nothing happens in life but that someone - an individual - does it. It's great. I tend to view things in systems. If something is a rule, it's a rule, you do it. There isn't much rationalizing. I think this would make me an excellent member of the armed forces. Of course, I get to vet all the rules.

I'm a little surprised at how down on football people are. Those people are assholes. You can learn from anything if you pay attention to it. You heard it here first.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Of Windows and Wishbones

I really really like this window system. Snear and call it steampunk if you must, Seth, but I'll always be a sucker for an exposed mechanical control with gears and little whirly things that spin when you turn a crack that moves a 6 ton(!) window sash. Lord Jesus, God in Heaven. It's enough to cure the blind, restore faith to the forsaken and right all wrongs in the world.

Chicken Point Cabin #1
Chicken Point Cabin #2

I love the angle iron flat screen TV shelves photoed in the second link. Crosby Olsen Sundberg Kundig and sometimes Young seem to be doing very cool stuff.

The Brain

The window reminds me of Arthur Ganson, who makes the kind of machines that will one day overthrow us and use our bones and teeth for their minute, pointless tasks.

Sunday, May 2, 2010