Thursday, June 28, 2012

On The Rocks

Tom and Gladys Johnston
The volcanic rock arch
One of the cliffside houses
On a ship during a summer job in the 1930s, Tom Johnston saw the islands of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, in the lower Lesser Antilles in the Caribbean, and was captivated.  World War II and a career in newspaper editing and big-city advertising intervened, but the spell had been cast and would not let him go.  In 1961, he convinced his wife to chuck their prosperous lives in New York and head to Bequia, jewel of the island group.
Back when such things could be done by fairly ordinary (non-billionaire) mortals, he spied the empty southwestern peninsula known as Moonhole (so called because the setting moon shines through the rock arch twice a year during the equinoxes), bought 20 acres, and had some natives build steps up to a flat spot to be used for picnicking.  Now this was a man who had talked his way into a prestigious New England private school and also into Princeton, and had told the locals when he was a newspaperman in North Carolina to lighten up on the racism and nationalism (even today, not a risk-free action).  Possibly thinking of the cliff-hugging ancient houses in the American southwest or coastal Italy, he began to create a home, then 19 others, out of the cliff face, local wood, whalebone (they make fine bannisters) and sea flotsam, thinking of these free-form abodes as natural sculptures.  Nature was to rule:  trees were left inside rooms and a hummingbird hatched two chicks in the Johnston's guest room (no doors or windows were originally allowed).  Friends were invited to live in them and a community was visualized.
No road led there; there were no utilities and no groundwater (rainwater in cisterns had proven workable in the islands for centuries, though).  These days a road leads up to the main gate, but there is still no electricity except that generated by wind or solar panels.  Cooking and refrigeration is with propane (works fine for the Amish), and lighting is by kerosene lamp.  A completely private beach, breezes, flickering yellow light and the moon setting behind you?  You can see how Tom's imagination was captured, and then expressed.
Gladys Johnston had been chief of creative research at McCann-Erickson in New York and knew a great deal about human psychology.  Despite the privations and mosquitoes, she adapted to the completely different life on the island, but she never did penetrate the mystery of her husband's mind or motivations.
The houses were not really completed or sold as planned, as the arch above them had partially collapsed and we don't know, at this point, what the finances turned out to be.  Today some are occupied full-time and eleven are privately owned and available as holiday rentals.  One, Tranquillity Villa, has come in for criticism since it has been radically altered and looks more like an arty, but normal, luxury retreat.  Another, Generation Gap, is occupied by the couple's son Jim and his wife Sheena as caretakers of the ongoing Moonhole Conservation Trust.
The New York Times, Sports Illustrated and Coastal Living have published articles on the project over the years.
The SI article came out in 1967 and has the perspective of the Johnstons still living and building.  It relates that two years previously a local official, William Tannis, came by to measure the structures for tax purposes.  It proved to be impossible:  curving, sloping and incomplete walls and floors, no usual features (or windows, remember) and no clear delineation of where the outdoors ended and living space began stopped him and he returned to the office to think about it.  Eventually, the government decided that the Johnstons had already done enough for the island and declared the project to be tax-free.

"The optimist lives on the peninsula of infinite possibilities..."


Monday, June 25, 2012

The Best There Is

Since I wasn't there for fame or fortune, at my last (part-time) job with the Mechanicsburg library I did a lot of extra tasks upon request, just for the challenge, which had not much to do with my duties.  Two of the regular librarians often asked for graphic displays for events or promotions, and I regularly spent weekends on the garage floor cutting, spray-gluing and assembling two- and three-dimensional themed creations.  I also identified coins for patrons and helped people find obscure items (often digging in my own huge collection which is being slowly weeded out over the years).   But one incoming phone request was of the type I had been instructed to turn down:  picking up books and magazines for donation to the regular sales (a nice source of income and a fine recycling effort).  The people had a garage full and seemed old and in need of help; it all would have gone to the trash otherwise.  So I loaded my small SUV to the top with magazines and books that were, unfortunately, tainted with mildew and mostly fated to go into our dumpster anyway.  I should have looked for something, though:  copies of the defunct Holiday magazine.  But I didn't, because I had forgotten all about it, like everyone else.
Back in the 50s and 60s, you would occasionally see it in doctors' offices, but with its long-form articles on subjects too exotic for the suburban clientele, it was usually old and ignored.  I saw several in the living room of my friend Bob Freeman's house, and was struck by the frivolity of the title in contrast to the striking cover art and heavyweight content.  But that was the educated, well-traveled and urbane Freemans, whose presence in our boring-as-a-moonscape exurb was inexplicable yet lucky for me.  I only glanced at a few copies and was too shy to ask to borrow one.  Again, I should have, but I was probably too deficient in knowledge, contexts and vocabulary to understand it very well.  One internet commenter echoes what I vaguely felt at the time:  "Growing up in a rural area of northeast Texas in the 1950s, Holiday was a ticket to a different life."
They don't make them like that any more.  At 10"x12", hefty with about 220 pages of quality glossy paper, it was produced at the level of  a museum catalog.  The covers during the glory years (up to a million circulation at its peak) were icons of the international modernist style, hitting you full-on with Mediterranean gusto or minimalist German expression.  Italian-American George Giusti did several in the mid-60s, and they are classics.  Artwork inside included that superb photography of the era and the best of classic advertising, still much admired today.   The items being sold were aspirational, not mass market: Lincolns, color TVs, mink coats.  The kinds of things people who knew what pesto was and actually went to Europe would consider essential.  People who had garages, and a nice dark-blue set of Encyclopedia Britannica.
Unlike other magazines of the genre, the articles weren't  tedious fact-filled guides to hotels, restaurants and shopping: the writers were the best.  Paul Bowles (on hashish, of all things), V.S. Pritchett and Lawrence Durrell (both in the January 1961 issue), Steinbeck and Hemingway, Joan Didion, Ray Bradbury and Alfred Bester (one reknowned and one forgotten science fiction writer, both great), E.B. White and John Cheever, even Jack Kerouac (on riding the rails).
Launched at the very beginning of the postwar boom (March 1946), Holiday merged with Travel in 1977 and disappeared, along with elegant air travel.  That was our golden age, and Holiday was its record.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

A Hundred Adventures

"Summertime is always the best of what might be."
                       --Charles Bowden

It's midsummer, the solstice.  Now is the best of summer, the ultimate fullness of spring.  July and August will beat us unmercifully with the sun we had craved so mightily in March; we find out that too much is as bad as too little.  But now, the plants are bursting with both flower and seed, the beans are forming, the tomatoes green and plentiful, so full of promise.  Early crops are in:  lettuce, spinach, chard.  The strawberries are a close memory while the blueberries and those insanely prolific red raspberries are just about to spill out.  Down South, the tough blackberry dares you to reach in and pluck it -- it will cost you, and be worth it.  The rose will not be slowed, and in this first third of the sweet season, neither will we. 

Yoko Ono, of all people, observed that Spring = Innocence, Summer = Exhuberance, Fall = Reverence and Winter = Perseverance.  We need them all and must keep them when they hide from us.

They say big cities, like New York, aren't themselves in summer, and only get normal again in September.  In earlier decades, the moneyed class, the white-shoe lawyers and financial traders, lived by the code "Sell by May and go away."  The market (stock, of course) suffered from summer doldrums and inattention, so might as well take your profits and retire to New Hampshire, Maine or Martha's Vineyard with the family and servants for three months and practice your drink-mixing skills.  And summer dalliances weren't serious and home-wrecking.  Back to the Street and Yale in the fall, to make the future...

The adventures of summer when we're young seem so big, punctuating the time that stretches out like a yawning cat.  Some go to summer camp and I wonder what that would have been like.  I always wanted to go to the Boy Scouts' Philmont Ranch, thinking that would have been the ultimate youthful experience:  the unknown West, family so far behind even a letter would have seemed to have been penned by ghosts and have no real power or substance.  Horses!  I wanted to learn to ride, even a little.  Campfire songs and easy sleep from tiredness entirely physical.  Waking early to be ready for a new adventure surely to be remembered even in old age.  I only went to local Camp Brady Saunders in central Virginia for a weekend; that had to do.  We had a blast, being senior Explorer Scouts and pretty much large and in charge.  That was well worth attending boring meetings all year, but I left after that, because more boring meetings would not result in anything that much fun again.

I experienced summer most intensely around here, at my grandparents' little house on the huge lot outside Mechanicsburg.  Leaving family behind (seeing a motif here?), I worked in the garden in the afternoons and helped my grandmother with chores quietly in the morning while grandad slept after working the night shift on the Pennsylvania Railroad.  We "processed" vegetables for canning and freezing, ate fresh cantaloupes, lima beans, tomatoes and corn, and stalked the wily groundhog who shook the farthest cornstalks and took bites out of the fallen apples (several .22 and shotgun shots, with no harm done to any groundhog) and the copperheads along the disappearing back fenceline (did get one of those).  I walked into town to the hobby shop to buy plastic models to assemble and paint (my favorite, a white 1959 Oldsmobile.  I still like those late '50s boats).  Grandad had a work car (1948 burgundy Dodge that had its own particular plastic smell) and a weekend errand and go-to-church car (1956 DeSoto Firedome four-door with probably more interior space than any Rolls-Royce and a helluva V8 engine).  They took me to the small J.C. Penney's in the old West Shore Plaza and bought me a brown cotton plaid shirt that I proudly wore on the first day of school and no one liked it.  That's when I discovered the essential truth that other people often don't know what the hell they're talking about.  It had Western details.  It was awesome.

What would a land of endless summer be like?  Australia, the Caribbean, anticipation of the ripening of seasons, everything blooming all year.  Whatever latitude you inhabit will have its own pace and pleasures; rum is not better than hearty ale.  Full is the life that includes everything that you can embrace or dream of.  The oak and the palm are both enduring and beautiful.  Stories of others' summers fill out the pages almost as well as your own; read in the slow afternoons and let your mind travel on the easy, warm breezes:

"Factualism will smother the imagination altogether."  -- Saul Bellow

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Shake and Bake

Fuji Sanibel 1.0 cruiser
Mango Sport velomobile

Planet X Cafe
A real traveler wades into the unknown, is discomforted, surprised and in the end, grateful to be wiser while still whole, having tested him (or her-)self and mastered a little more of the art of life.
And then there's us.
Our third annual trip to Rehoboth Beach, DelaWHERE?, broadened no mental horizons, and no challenging discomforts were sought.  Pretty much the opposite:  we know what we like, and, well, we did it again.
Back at the Avenue Inn, a block and half from the ocean, with wine and cheese at 5 P.M., a cool indoor stainless steel pool, and a bed the size of our township.  Seems like the same hard-working and sanguine staff members are still there, and that tells you a lot about a lodging.  One of the first orders of monkey business was an early evening stop at the Pig and Fish, where our favorite outdoor table was available and Chip, the waiter with unmatched conversational skills and a wicked sense of humor, still plies his trade with skill.  Zach's favorite dish, the Pork Shank, was not on the menu, but thanks to Chip's intervention, was produced anyway and was porcine perfection, as always.  I was very happy with my white sangria.  Several times.
More San Francisco than San Fran is, the Planet X Cafe next door to the Avenue Inn was even better upon our return this year:  due to a rush of larger parties, we lost our porch spot and found a better one at a tiny table in the bar area, among the candles, beads and Buddhas.  The bartender, a ringer for Bruce Springsteen, had to suddenly handle the filled tables as well as his bar, and an amiable confusion reigned.  The recorded music was just my taste (thus excellent), and the food was, to give less praise than it deserves, creative, lovely and memorable.  And there's no reason to ever just order the usual with items such as Ginger Lime Punch on the liquid side of the menu.
Last year we were perched on the beach when the Virginia-based earthquake hit --  it felt like being tossed around a little in a saute pan.  This year's drama was all the lifeguard action.  We saw a class being trained at the north end while on a walk, and the ones near us two days later didn't seem to spend much time in their elevated chairs; they were always leaping down and sprinting to the water to deal with almost-emergencies.  They prevented any real ones from playing out, and one guard brought a goofy kid back to Chair #12 to give him a good talking-to about waving his arms about and acting like he was drowning.  Don't make me dive into that cold water for no good reason again!!
We finally stopped by Atlantic Bicycles and rented an hour on two cruiser bikes and rode most of it on the boardwalk -- the smooth forgiving wood boards and lack of cars was ideal.  Next day, Nancy had more roasting on the beach to do, and I went back for another hour, this time spent on the flat, wide streets.  That's the Fuji pictured above -- three speeds, old-fashioned coaster brakes, nice comfy seat; it was a delight.  Not driving much, but walking and bicycling this past week, got me thinking about alternate means of transportation again.  Unsafe in traffic, but with distinct advantages, the velocycle (which I have never actually seen) is a three-wheeled recumbent cycle enclosed by a fairing -- looks like a smaller, lighter version of Buckminster Fuller's ahead-of-its-time Dymaxion car.  Regular bicycles are more manoeverable, climb hills better, are easier to get on, and certainly more affordable (the Mango Sport Red Edition Velomobile, with everything including USB ports, is over $13,000), but this design uses several times less of your energy, is much more aerodynamic and can cruise at 21 - 25 MPH.  Edging closer to car than cycle, it can also have an electric motor and an aircraft type canopy with solar panels.  Still not safe competing with regular cars (and we have no suitable tiny car/bike lanes), it is tempting to think about the fact that it is twenty times more efficient than electric cars on the market now.
But we enjoyed being pretty inefficient last week.  And as they say, if you play, you must pay.  That would be two days of unpacking and laundry; well worth it, all in all.  No ginger lime punch in sight to ease the burden, but there are a couple of Delaware's own Dogfish Head 60-Minute IPAs in the refrigerator....