Monday, May 31, 2010

Shifting Values

With warmer days here at last, the East Bay garden is beginning to shift toward yellows, oranges and reds – away from its firm early reliance on pinks, creams and lavenders. The latter are starting to fade.

They are brave, but their prime is past (until next year).

Sunday, May 30, 2010

rue Cambon

First thing this morning I made a simple paper pattern 7.5 inches long and 1.5 inches wide. Then I cut ten of these shapes from a long leftover strip of charcoal-gray felt. These will be the loops from which the two felt panels will be suspended across the front of the baby dwelling still slowly and cautiously being constructed by my daughter and son-in-law, who expect to be putting it into use in about two months. Considering how much slower my progress was today than I had hoped, it is comforting to repeat the fact that the absolute deadline for completion is still a little ways off.

Each of the ten proto-loops needed to be lined with grosgrain ribbon to prevent stretching. I ran out of ribbon after eight loops, and was not altogether sorry of a pretext to get out into the sunshine and walk up to Cliff's Variety in the Castro for additional ribbon. It was only when I got back and settled down to attach the ribbon pieces by hand (there being no adequately attractive way to do this on the sewing machine) that the job seemed to stretch out endlessly toward infinity. After a while, I felt like one of the lab-coat-wearing middle-aged ladies I saw in a recent documentary about the couture operations on the top floor of the rue Cambon atelier in Paris – ladies who spend weeks turning one of Karl Lagerfeld's lightning-elegant sketches into a flawless, handmade Chanel ballgown. When a major fashion show approaches, they work all night. Stitching, stitching, stitching.

By evening all ten loops were securely lined with ribbon and were pinned into their proper places on the panels, but I gave up at that point and went out for take-out comfort food – a shawarma (with hot sauce) from Truly Mediterranean on 16th Street near Valencia. It was a sort of marvel to see the hopping scene all about me as the inner Mission enjoyed a holiday weekend and San Francisco enjoyed balmy spring weather at last. I felt even more like a middle-aged lab-coated lady, blinking in the slanting sunlight after losing complete track of how long I had been immured with my needle and thread. Like those ladies also, I felt obscurely guilty that I had not accomplished more on the path toward realization of the Governing Vision (which in this case instead of belonging to Monsieur Karl belongs to an even more formidable creative force – viz, my daughter).


My daughter loaned me a compact hardcover reprint of Adrian Bell's Corduroy, originally published in 1930.

The publisher's web site offers the following description:

Bell’s father had been withering about his son’s literary ambitions but agreed to let him learn agriculture and sent him as a paying guest to a farming family in a village near Bury St Edmunds. ‘I was flying from the threat of an office life,’ Bell writes on the first page of the book. Yet when he arrived one autumn day on an old motorbike he felt all wrong for the part
too much of a ‘gent’ with his weak hands, his boots which were unlike anyone else’s, and his inability to understand the Suffolk dialect. Like many townies, he assumed at first that the yokels were somewhat simple, but soon his own ignorance of the countryside and initial inability to do the most basic physical tasks taught him a new respect. A farmer, he discovered, stored away in his head thousands of facts about animals, crops and fodder, while his eye for a pig was ‘as subtle as an artist’s’. Bell’s eye was subtle too. He grew to love the land, and Corduroy is filled with the most precise yet poetic descriptions of the countryside and of farming life. It was a book, his son the former MP Martin Bell tells us, that many soldiers from the villages of England took with them in their kitbags to the war zones of the Second World War to remind them of the world of peace and sanity they had left behind. For Corduroy is not simply a period piece it captures what is unchanging about the lives of those who live from, rather than simply on, the land.

An entry last month on The Ibooknet Blog explained that Corduroy was followed by several sequels, as Adrian Bell acquired his own small farm and set about the country life in earnest – but I have not pursued any more of these additional bucolic memoirs.

Instead, I'm now reading The Country Life, an early novel by Rachel Cusk in which a young woman of the 1990s abandons an unsatisfactory London existence to become the paid companion of the disabled son of a somewhat crazier country family than Adrian Bell fled to 70 years earlier. Cusk's protagonist can offer none of Bell's agrarian rhapsodies. On the contrary, here is one of her first, tentative explorations of her new environment:

The village was very pretty, and quite full of life. It was arranged mainly along the road, which became a sort of quaint high street at its centre, and consisted of a collection of very old houses mostly red-brick or painted white many of which had lovely baskets of flowers hanging around their doorways or in pots adorning their window sills. My first thought on seeing these pots and baskets was to smash them. I have no explanation for this impulse, other than that my thoughts were still, at this early stage, essentially urban in nature. In London, I was probably thinking, these pots would almost certainly have been smashed, and perhaps I was, while imagining such an act of vandalism, assuming part of the vandal's character in the process.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Hand Sewing

Today I sewed the weighted cord along the bottom edge of the felt panels that will serve as front doors to the baby dwelling under construction in my daughter and son-in-law's downtown apartment. They emailed me that they had traveled to Cliff's in the Castro today and procured the curtain rod that these front door panels will hang from. Also a large menacing plastic owl to scare away the pigeons from the windowsill outside the baby dwelling.

Panel's bottom edge turned up over the weighted cord and sewn in place – a sort of weighted, rolled hem.

With the hems sewn in, the panels needed to be cut to exactly 80 inches. After that, I pinned a matching-color inch-wide grosgrain ribbon along the top edge of each panel, on the back side. The ribbon is intended to prevent the felt from stretching and induce it to hold its shape.

With both ends finished, I can proceed tomorrow with the construction of the loops to go over the curtain rod, five for each panel, ten in all, and each lined with this same grosgrain ribbon.

Beach Chalet

The Beach Chalet across the highway from San Francisco's Ocean Beach was another 1930s WPA project, and this explains the lavish decorative schemes, every available surface covered in fresco or mosaic. A plastic inscription told me that the man among roses below, leaning with his cigarette over the back of a park bench, is the beloved local sculptor of animal kitsch, Beniamino Bufano (1898-1970).

But the Beach Chalet was overflowing with tourists (in contrast to the beach itself) so I did not linger there but made my way back outside and headed through the park toward the MUNI stop.

Out at this western end of Golden Gate Park the weeds are rejoicing even more vociferously than the weeds I have been watching with more consistency at the eastern end (as here and here and here and here). All this unseasonable rain is good news for the weeds, and even better news is the absence or indifference of gardeners – who are victims like all the other municipal workers of the city's budget sorrows.

Nowadays waiting for the bus can be truly suspenseful, since there is a much better chance than in the past that it will not come at all. But my miniature Friday seaside vacation was graced with luck from beginning to end, and my short wait was made even shorter by the Emerson String Quartet playing Schumann through my headphones, an ardent soundtrack that kept me company all the way home.

Friday, May 28, 2010


Rode the 5 Fulton bus after work out to San Francisco's Ocean Beach. After yesterday's rains the sky was exceedingly clear. At first the beach seemed oddly deserted. Whenever I am alone with the ocean I think about how it will go on, not only after I am dead but long after humanity is extinct. However, these reveries did not last long before various enthusiasts began showing up. And life reasserted itself.

The beach's curved retaining wall dates back to WPA days of the 1930s. It is a bit battered and corroded, but still sturdy enough to defend the parking lot above from the occasional wave that might reach so far.


After another fierce day of rains yesterday it seemed important to take advantage of the squeaky-clean sunlight today. With the work week over and a 3-day weekend ahead, I caught the 5 Fulton bus and rode straight out to the Pacific Ocean. And on my way from the bus stop to the Ocean I passed this restored windmill at the westernmost edge of Golden Gate Park.

Thursday, May 27, 2010


Artist Moved by the Grandeur of Ancient Ruins
Henry Fuseli

Robert Harbison reproduces the wash drawing above on page 109 of his magnificently meandering book, The Built, The Unbuilt, and the Unbuildable : In Pursuit of Architectural Meaning (Cambridge, Mass. : MIT Press, 1991). The Fuseli illustration (done in 1778) appears in the chapter called Ruins. Harbison's perverse and fascinating take on the significance of ruins includes the following explication:

It is essentially our ignorance and not our knowledge which stirs us before the Greek fragments. Like the most moving Greek sculpture, now less than a shadow of its old self, the best classical sites are architecture without architects, where roles have been reversed, and landscape has reasserted itself over buildings. They are important not for helping us reconstruct past civilization but for assuring us there will always be something bigger than that. Without really leaving it behind, they show us that the human culture which constrains and fascinates us is not all there is in the world, and that one can transcend the human, simply by following art over the edge into dissolution.

Fuseli's Artist Moved by the Grandeur of Ancient Rome shows a figure in a state of utter dejection dwarfed and enclosed by selected bits of a colossus, which though larger and hence more powerful than he, is in its dismemberment equally ineffectual. The past is conceived as a figure or being, now reduced to abstraction and monstrosity. The artist is part and not part of the collapse: his posture echoes the cascading form familiar in many scenes of ruin, but for all his solidarity with the fallen giant he remains apart, neither buried nor assimilated, reveling now in a fit of melancholy which will pass.

This picture is a clear portrayal of ruin as a psychic state. The artist is smaller but his feelings dominate the scene. Even Rome is dwarfed by the intensity of our projections onto it, and everyone secretly feels when confronted by obliteration of the above-ground traces of his memories that it is mainly a personal loss. When a childhood scene is cleared to make way for something else or perhaps for nothing else, one's first thought is not of those who lived there last, one's successors, but of one's old sensations which are now a book abruptly closed. In Fuseli's picture the little node of consciousness validates the whole, creating a subject where otherwise there would be none.

The fragments in Fuseli's sketch are among the surviving parts of a gigantic statue of the Emperor Constantine. I hope to visit them next March in the Capitoline Museum in Rome, where I will probably be moved to veil my brow and shed an informed tear.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Many Roses

New spikes of foxglove are withstanding the winds and rains of the bad days and extending their vertical presences right up inside the pink climbing rose on the fine bright days.

I should not trash the rains altogether. This year I'm trying a new organic rose & flower food in the borders, and there can be no doubt that the rains send it down to the roots with special effectiveness, beyond the powers of mere hose-watering.

Even the rogue rosebush (more like a wild rose than a tame rose) offers a more respectable showing than it ever has before. Several years ago it sprang all unbidden out of the root onto which a commercial hybrid rose had been grafted, after that commercial rose was carelessly destroyed by some laborers. I have steadily argued for digging out the root and putting in a new bush of known provenance, but my daughter has persisted in defending this brave vegetable evidence of a lofty spirit, and now – just like in the movies where the runt always triumphs in the end after many vicissitudes – her faith is justified.