A great story I neglected to post

I found this during a year-end cleaning of my “Drafts” folder – an unfinished post inspired by a newspaper article in July which details the life’s work of unsung folk artist, Arthur Harold Beal, garbage collector for the town of Cambria, CA.

Just down the road from the Hearst Castle, that world-famous monument to excess, lies Nitt Witt Ridge, the house on the hill that Beal lovingly crafted of driftwood, river stones, beer bottles, abalone shells, toilet seats, and other assorted junk.  Beal started work in the 30’s was still going in 1992, when he died at the age of 96.

Nitt Witt Ridge by megpi, CC BY-NC-SA-2.0

Nitt Witt Ridge by megpi, CC BY-NC-SA-2.0

Michael O’Malley, a plumber in town, bought the Ridge for $42,000 in 1999.  Unfortunately, the sale price did not include water rights, so he and his wife cannot live there, and because it is zoned residential, they can’t open the house for public tours.  Several times a week in the summer, O’Malley gives private tours, in return for donations, to people who contact him directly.  He is something of an expert on stories surrounding the Ridge’s creator.

Beal used to say he salvaged his wood from the ocean, but O’Malley points out the quality of the material, and suggests that Beal might have “salvaged” it from local construction sites late at night.  Beal seems to have been a curmudgeon.  Some people asked to visit the house while he was still living.  If he liked their looks, he’d let them in, if not, he would shake his fist and yell, “Move along, small change.”  O’Malley found a video of Beal on a 1981 TV episode of “Real People.”  At age 81, with a long beard and a walking staff, “he looked like a mix of John Muir and Dennis Hopper.”

Here’s a brief but informative clip of O’Malley giving a tour of the house:

Last summer, when I started this post, I added descriptions of other architectural oddities, like the Watt Towers and the Bottle House of Rhyolite, NV.  The story grew too long and languished until now.

The end of the year is a good time to contemplate things like Nitt Witt Ridge.  While others compile their lists of “The Best of 2013,” here is my contribution to a list of things wacky and weird.

Selling Thanksgiving

Norman-Rockwell-thanksgiving use

An article in our local paper’s Sunday Business Section both fascinated and sent a few chills up my spine at how effectively today’s marketeers can sell proverbial ice cubes to Eskimos.  They have persuaded large numbers of us to give up Thanksgiving as a day of gratitude for what we have, in favor of the chance to go buy more.

No one needs to wait for Black Friday now.  Major retailers will open their doors at 8:00 on Thanksgiving night, while Kmart’s shopping day will begin at 6:00 in the morning.  People like it and want it, the article says, but it’s instructive to look at the language used:

“The ever-earlier shopping frenzy is a source of dismay for traditionalists who view Thanksgiving more in terms of Norman Rockwell’s famous 1943 “Freedom from Want” painting…They ask: Isn’t the pace of life hectic enough without cutting into a day established for humble gratitude and quiet reflection?”

Is it just me or do you see a bias here?  Some implication that the traditional, quiet reflecting crowd, stuck in 1943, will probably spend the day watching reruns of “The Waltons.”

American Gothic by Grant Wood.  Public Domain

American Gothic by Grant Wood. Public Domain

The most interesting reason the article gave for jumping up from the table to hit the stores came from a “random” shopper at one of our malls, who said, “It’s fun, like a shared adventure for me and my friends.  We love it.”  An adventure is “an unusual, stirring experience,” according to Webster’s Dictionary, which isn’t what I equate with a trip to the mall, but hey, we all know Thanksgiving can be a chore.  

Millions of us have had the experience of traveling “home for the holidays,” only to remember exactly why we left in the first place.  And traditional Turkey Day roles still split along gender lines – who hasn’t heard women complain about working for hours preparing a meal, only to have the men snarf it down in 20 minutes, then pass out from tryptophans and beer in front of a football game?  From that perspective, a trip to the mall with friends might be, if not “an unusual, stirring experience,” at least a refreshing break.

Times are hard, and I can’t fault anyone for the Thanksgiving choices they make, but I do suggest a bit of reflection.  Many who read this blog are writers, and one of the best pieces of advice for writers is to create a mission statement; among all the choices I have now, what do I want from writing?  That’s a good question to ask as we face the holiday season.

Most of us long for peace and serenity, and a time of shared warmth in a community of family and friends.  Nobody wants to wake up on New Year’s Day saying, “Thank God all that is over,” though many will.  It’s a good time to review holiday options and “obligations” in light of the Dr. Phil question, “How does that work for you?”  

I’m no saint when it comes to keeping Thanksgiving “pure.”  For a number of years, when Tower Books was open, Mary and I and friends from work would gather for Thanksgiving dinner, then go browse Tower for an hour before having coffee and pumpkin pie.  Though we didn’t suspect it at the time, we may have been having a shared adventure.  So let’s admit that we’re free to spend Thanksgiving however we wish.  

It just saddens me to see corporate interests breech a once inviolate day, and turn it into an “ersatz” holiday, like Labor Day, stripped of all its original meaning and existing only so people can buy many things that they don’t really need.    

Heat and Air

Day 1 - a portion of the old ducts

Day 1 – a portion of the old ducts

Here’s why I may be a bit light on blog posts for the next week and a half: we have an obsolete heat and air system and a lot of collapsed ducts.  We also have a trusted heat and air guy – an old school type craftsman who has helped us keep warm and cool at the proper times for over 20 years.  He’s going to retire soon, so last spring we worked out a plan to replace everything.

Day one was rendered somewhat chaotic by our two rescue dogs who were exceedingly vocal in their disapproval of someone crawling around the attic hammering things and sawing things.  As in vocal for hours.  We will also be without heat for about 10 days, but you know what?  We lucked out.  Temperatures are mild, and today is a burn day, according to the county air quality board, so there’s a fire in the wood stove right now.

As I lit the fire, I turned on the PBS News Hour, which put our minor inconvenience into perspective as I watched the horrific suffering in the Philippines:  tens of thousands of storm survivors with nothing – no shelter, no food, no water.

A few days ago, I tweeted a New Yorker blog post which discussed a leaked copy of the most recent installment of the  I.P.C.C. (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report, this one suggesting that “preparing for climate change,” an emerging theme in some quarters, is largely an illusory goal, at least for the most vulnerable portions of our world population.

The blog quotes the president in a speech he gave last spring:  “Those of us in positions of responsibility, we’ll need to be less concerned with the judgment of special interests and well-connected donors, and more concerned with the judgment of posterity. Because you and your children, and your children’s children, will have to live with the consequences of our decisions.”

The way I see it, everyone living and breathing is in a “position of responsibility.”  This is how I understand it for myself:

  1. Being responsible means I contribute to the relief effort for Haiyan, just as I have for Katrina, and Sandy, and the tornadoes last spring, and just as I will for the next superstorm.
  2. Being responsible means I cultivate gratitude for all I have and compassion for those who are suffering loss – all kinds of losses – and try to manifest this somehow every day.
  3. Being responsible means I can no longer tolerate those who would deny the reality of climate change.  Leaving aside the blame game, the world is changing, and there’s no time for those who pretend otherwise.

Not much in relation to the magnitude of the problems we are just beginning to see.  And yet…If enough people of goodwill face our situation and consider what may lie within their power to do…who knows what the outcomes may be?


Do you have a hometown?  When someone asks where you’re from, are you able to tell them?  Or do you mumble something like, “I’ve lived in a lot of places?”  I do that.

According to the census bureau, less than 1/3 of the people in western states live where they were born.  My wife comes from Rochester, NY.  I was born in Poughkeepsie.  We met in San Francisco.  That seems to be the norm out here.  I had lived in five cities and gone to six schools by the time I finished high school, so I can answer,”Where are you from?” in a lot of ways.

Childhood memories are layered in ways that reminds me of geographical strata.  Each place, school, and time had its own feeling tone.  Recalling those times sometimes seems like gazing at ancient pictographs on differing layers of rock.

Near Tucson, Jan. 2008

Near Tucson, Jan. 2008

A visit to Mary’s family in Rochester last week was like visiting earlier layers.  The sense of place in western New York is much like where I grew up.  The feel of the air, the look of the sky, the wind through the trees, the trees themselves, are now foreign but deeply known at the same time.  Maybe the answer to my question is,”I am from all the places I’ve ever lived.”

Rochester postcard

Old factory towns like Rochester have a strong sense of communal past.  There is more “home” in some towns than in others.  In the local paper, I came upon the smiling face of a handsome young man in the obituary section.  Charles “Dutch” Lydon died on June 1st at the age of 89.  He won five bronze stars in combat in the Pacific in WWII, was an “avid” bowler and golfer, and “a proud Kodak employee for 30 years.”  He is survived by children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.  Tom Brokaw must have been thinking of people like Dutch when he coined the name, “greatest generation.”

I don’t think my parents generation was great just because they were superior beings.  I believe the times demanded and fostered their greatness.  Men like Dutch Lydon knew where they were from, knew what that meant, and believed in it.  Now there is no more Kodak to be proud of.  Silent factory chimneys stand like tombstones for that way of life.

Not that smoke and soot were good for you, or that Kodak didn’t screw up in the end and screw its workers.  Not that things were so good if you weren’t a white hetrosexual male.  Not that my generation didn’t rebel against all that.  It’s just that from our current perspective, we can see things of value we lost when this way of life came to an end.

A sense of belonging and community, for one thing.  Friends and family you can count on were cited as key factors in a recent survey that named the ten happiest countries in the world.  Do I even need to say that the United States failed to make the cut?

Sense of community is an impression, an imagining, a gut feeling, but it makes a profound difference.  Walking along the Lake Ontario shore, we stopped to admire a fine old brick building, a public bathhouse, with half a dozen tennis courts sheltered from the wind in an enclosed courtyard.  The bandstand in the park was under renovation, as was the carousel with its hand-painted animals.  This is a city that doesn’t just pay lip service to words like “community.”  A cop on patrol passed us with a smile and a “Good morning,” because, though the park was filled with people, he had nothing more pressing to do.

Many in my generation grew up on Easy Rider and On the Road, filled with wanderlust and a longing for the horizon.  Others married their high school sweethearts, anxious to settle down.  People I know played it both ways, with differing results.  There aren’t any rules of thumb.  From the time of the pioneers, California has attracted people looking to reinvent themselves.  This is where Norma Jean Mortenson became Marilyn Monroe.  Sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn’t.

It has taken me longer than usual to write this post.  I kept putting off hitting the “Publish” button in hopes of reaching some kind of conclusion.  Doesn’t seem likely at this point.  Just a number of questions without any clear cut answers.

What does it mean to have a hometown, or maybe the question is really, how does a “town” become “home?”  What does it mean to have a home, to “feel at home?”  What does it mean to be from someplace?  “You can’t go home again,” Thomas Wolfe famously said.  Nobody asks the flip-side question, which is whether we ever really leave?

I’d love to hear any thoughts you have along these lines.