Thursday, July 31, 2014

Day Trippers

Well, you don't actually steal it, but you can help yourself.  At a "Little Free Library," that is.

I'd heard of these tiny outdoor libraries-in-a-box before, but an article in a local magazine about them mentioned that there are two around here, so I had to go see it.  Even better, I rounded up a half-dozen books to donate, since there are only a few thousand lying around at our casa.

The backstory is that in 2009, one Todd Bol of Hudson, Wisconsin built a model of a one-room schoolhouse small enough to rest on a post as a tribute to his mother, a former teacher and a big reader, and filled it with books and placed it in his front yard with a sign reading FREE BOOKS for anyone to borrow from.  Sort of like the penny cup on the counter of a store, you take one or more when you need to and put one or more back in when you can.  He made several more to give to interested neighbors, and still makes them to send much farther away today, using recycled materials like the wood from a barn demolished by a tornado.

So a lady named Lois decided to become a L.F.L. "steward" (#10725, to be precise) and have one at her home in Mechanicsburg, set in front of her expansive and lush back-yard garden, like so:

I found room for my donations, and took out one by Ian McEwan, who writes some wicked mysteries with a jaundiced eye to the motivations, and bad behavior of, humanity.  Nancy got one of the yellow tomatoes.  So Lois and the more cynical Mr. McEwan represent very different approaches to life, mmm?

Initially, the goal was to have as many of these miniature libraries worldwide as the 2,509 free public ones established by Andrew Carnegie, but as of the beginning of this year, there are 15,000 of them.  Next time we're back in town, I'll try to remember to return the one I picked up.  Maybe it will still be tomato season.

We had another destination a few miles away later in the day.  My grandparents' former home site was being auctioned off by the heirs of the last owner, who was the widow next door.  My brothers and I had sold the then-existing house to her after a not very successful experience renting it out, and she wanted it for her daughter to move into.  I guess its maintenance proved too much for her, too, and sometime in the past ten years she had the house demolished.  The garage, which did not have moisture and other problems, still stood and housed her son's two tractors.  It was one of those sad but inevitable things that transpired, as first the widow's household items were sold, then her house and 3-acre lot, and finally our grandparents' former property (one acre).  There wasn't much interest in the real estate, and a sole bidder got the first for $100,000 and the second for only $32,000.

The area is now zoned commercial/industrial, so with the house now gone, I don't think one can be rebuilt there.  We'll keep an eye out for developments, but won't be walking on that long green lot again.  I covered it all, remembering what had been there, and what remained.  The cherry, pear and apple trees were long gone, I already knew, but the horse chestnut planted around 1960 was huge and healthy.  The outlines of the large but long-gone garden were visible if you knew where to look.

A quote from W. H. Auden at the beginning of the book I picked up at the LFL box said it all:

   "The friends who met here and embraced are gone..."





Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Call It Home

Who would think a radical idea in housing would have been adopted so successfully in very conservative (until recent decades) Richmond, Virginia?  They not only built co-op housing in several neighborhoods in the late teens and twenties of the 20th century, but they did it so well they are thriving today, if not a big news item anymore.

The main place we think of as the place for this social experiment is New York City, and that mainly in the form of extremely exclusive and crazy expensive co-op high rises, but the idea was originally developed, along with co-op farm enterprises and co-op banks, to benefit the working classes who were not exactly getting a fair shake back before those days (T. Roosevelt and Wilson finally did give them a couple breaks, and social activists and writers brought awareness to the nation).  Richmond being itself, though, built English Village for the upper middle class.  Of course, there's more money there.


English Village, 3400 block of Grove Avenue

Completed in 1927, this group of 17 attached townhomes built around a U-shaped courtyard and set back from the street was modeled on rural English Tudor and built for economy of living and durability (a concept lost on homebuilders since).  It was not an apartment building, but a multi-family planned community, featuring individual garages, ample common and smaller private spaces, with a central shared boiler room to provide radiant heat and hot water.  The by-laws are still in force, and the "corporation," that is, the owners' association, is by charter not to make a profit.  Slate roofs, board-and-batten heavy wood doors, stone decoration and stained glass all make a strong Arts and Crafts impression.  Except for the loss of the courtyard fountain the Village remains well-maintained and unchanged today.

Last year a two-bedroom, 1 1/2 bath unit of 1536 square feet sold for around $230,000, which is unfortunately no longer in the upper-middle class stratum.  Unfortunately, the Depression put an effective end to the co-op projects in Richmond, and only one of the original owners did not lose his home there by 1934.  The commercial condominium developments of today, the heirs to this excellent idea in housing, do not measure up to the original, but the spirit is alive in university towns in places like upstate New York and the Pacific Northwest.

Other co-op neighborhoods in Richmond include Ingleside (1916), Byrd Park Court (1922), and Laburnum Court in the Northside (1919), which is as well-kept and attractive today as English Village, but consists of 24 individual homes instead of one building.  It too originally shared a radiant heating plant and even a discounted central electricity system, but these were abandoned in the 1970s as too expensive to maintain.  It is still a co-op corporation, though, built not in one but in several styles such as Colonial, Mediterranean and Arts and Crafts.  Common purpose must continue the feeling of neighborhood through the succeeding generations of owners and families.


Laburnum Court home


I used to think the name "Laburnum," which is used for this neighborhood and the area's main thoroughfare, was an unpleasant-sounding word and not a great choice, but found out that it's the name of the lovely Golden Chain Tree, which has cascades of yellow flowers and a beautiful and useful dark wood.  So, with that association, it seems pretty attractive.  Now I have to find out why in the world they named a town in Louisa County "Bumpass" ....


Pretty, but it is poisonous


Saturday, July 5, 2014

Love Among the Coconuts

The hula that stole a heart

A lot of people, Americans and Japanese, go to Hawaii to get married and honeymoon.  We saw a couple of seaside weddings while we were there, and with the consistently perfect weather and bright blue sea on Maui's southwest coast, it's obviously a great choice.  One couple, still remembered fondly almost a hundred years later, did not come to Hawaii and never married, but their lives were a storybook romance.

Today by Keawa'iki Bay on the shore of the Big Island the remains of an estate built in the 1920s, a dozen stone buildings that are only accessible by water, would remind you of Gatsby's if you knew its story.  Francis I'i Brown was not only a championship worldwide golfer, a legislator, and an all-around sportsman, but also a descendant of an advisor to Kings Kamehamea II through IV, and thus a member of the nobility, the ali'i, who still occupy the top level of local society.  His family had once owned a big chunk of Oahu, including Pearl Harbor; the the estate land on Keawa'iki Bay was once royal.  A baseball fan and initmate of film stars, photos exist today of Francis gripping and grinning with Babe Ruth and a young Bob Hope, among dozens of others, and surfing godfather Duke Kahanamoku was a longtime friend.

His already pretty spectacular life was changed forever when he was among the first guests at the new (1927) Royal Hawaiian Hotel at Waikiki.  He caught sight of  popular hula dancer Winona Love who was starring at the grand opening with Johnny Noble's orchestra.  The story goes they fell in love while strolling through the Queen's old coconut palm grove by the hotel.  Winona was also ali'i, her mother being of the royal family, so their match would seem perfect, but her mother supposedly would not approve of marriage.  Poor Gatsby was denied Daisy, too, but like Randolph Hearst and Marion Davies, this couple stayed together for the rest of their lives.

Francis I'i Brown

Introduced to Hollywood by Francis, Winona was in two short films and taught Delores del Rio to hula for the film "Bird of Paradise" at the request of David O. Selznick.  Their golden koa wood bed survives today, as does a set of eight engraved silver goblets.  They never had children, but relatives and friends recall their sunny lives and legendary parties in many stories; one visitor remembers that a mynah bird greeted Mr. Brown every morning.

Almost too much like a fairy tale to be believed, Winona and Francis had hideaways on the estate like a pavilion on an island in the restored royal fish pond and a snug cottage nearby which is a popular spot for weddings today, now attached to the Mauna Lani resort.  Two championship golf courses there are named after Francis, and the resort's catamaran is the Winona.

If that story isn't enough to give love a good name, I don't know what is.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

5000 Light-Years from Home

We covered a lot of ground while in Maui, but there's a good deal left for next time, if there is one.  Visited Kihei, Maalaea harbor (the GPS led us to a sugar cane field, but the harbor was two blocks away), and especially the old royal capital and port city of Lahaina.  The park behind the courthouse barely contains a huge banyan tree colony, where we incredulously watched a man carry a large silver fish over his shoulder on his way from the dock.  What was he going to do with it?  It would have fit into a minivan, but not into any cooler.  We dived into Hawaiian history in the courthouse museum and saw where King Kahehamea had his motu, or residence, and where the royal taro patch was.  OK, I like this stuff.


Actually the national flag of Hawaii, before it was adopted as the state flag

We made sure to stop at the Ma'la Oceanside Tavern, which was very much at the edge of the ocean, a little north of town, where the green turtles that are said to hang out around the rocks outside; they certainly were there.  About a half-dozen of the creatures were going bottoms-up, raising their heads to observe us with big dark eyes, and turning on their sides to give flipper waves.  I did get close to one, within a few feet, in the water in front of our hotel, and he gave me the once-over and a flipper wave, too.

Where the green turtles are

Later that night, we attended a sold-out installment of the Old Lahaina Luau, because how could you miss that?  There were demonstrations beforehand about casting fish nets, beating out bark cloth and drumming.  The dancers, who portrayed succeeding periods in history from the original Tahitians to the missionary period (as you can imagine, there were a lot more clothes in the latter than in the former), were ridiculously young, fit and tan.  Add drums, fire torches and several Mai Tais, and I guarantee a fine evening.

A passionate dedication to quality was clear in various enterprises, beginning with the luau production, and continuing through restaurants such as the Oceanside and the Monkeypod.  We were at the latter, in Wailea, twice and both times the entertainment was excellent.  We did not fail to add to the tip bucket, either.  Our favorite drink there was the No Ka Oi, which translates as "It's the best."  Featuring a lilykoi and honey syrup, it was almost to pretty to... all right, it wasn't.  They sell fast because they disappear fast.

Go ahead, have a couple

Other superior spots: Ululani's Shave Ice, purported to be the best on the islands.  Of course we had to try a few others for comparison before finding this one, around the corner from Mick Fleetwood's restaurant (they say he stops in to jam frequently, and is quite eccentric), and yes, it is the best.  It would take months to try all the flavor combinations.  Like gelato in Italy, this is the right stuff.  And, the Ocean Vodka distillery, up about 1000 feet above sea level near Kula, which is on the way to the volcano.  Their goal is not only a to make a superb product, but to be as self-sufficient as possible.  The owners designed and built the building, planted about two dozen varieties of organic sugar cane on several re-graded fields, and do the graphics in-house (the artist, Kai, was our tour guide).  We saw how family members hand-bottle, label and pack.  The containers come from Ontario, but almost everything else is local or done by them.  Sugar cane is normally a destructive, chemical- and machine-intensive enterprise, but they will have none of that.  The fields are not burned, as is usual, and the stands are carefully harvested by hand so that they regrow; the standard method is to tear up the roots and replant for each crop.  Chickens take care of the bugs.  The water used is the essential story, though:  it is drawn from the ocean floor at the edge of the Big Island by a Japanese company, which normally sells it back in Japan for quite a price, since it is perfectly balanced to the chemistry of the human body.  The water originated from Greenland around 2000 years ago, and travelled along the worldwide ocean current, very slow and deep, since it's very cold, to pass by Hawaii.  It's desalinated, of course, but retains the ancient minerals.  The only ancient glacier water, organic sugar cane vodka in the world, as you can imagine.

The old banyan

And the goat farm?  It's almost next door to the distillery, and is also completely organic.  Old surfboards are everywhere, as are hundreds of extremely contented goats.  Their goat cheese is used by the high-end restaurants on the islands and in far-away metropolitan areas of the mainland.  It is exquisite.  Maybe we were distracted by the wide-open scenery or the funny old surfboards or the lingering taste of the samples, but while we were petting the one- to four-week-old babies, one slid his head through the wide mesh of the fence and quietly chewed on N.'s new white shorts.  I didn't think it was possible to have a better day than we were having, but that was a hoot!

Since we couldn't figure out how to just stay so we could keep on learning about and enjoying this island, it was eventually time to say aloha.  Our driver back to the airport was quite a character who had more stories than he could fit in to the 45 minutes, and the trip back was long but problem-free.  We can't imagine now not having gone there at least once.