Epic Rants and Raves


I’ve made good use of my late mom’s iPad to explore the world of free online 19th and early 20th century literature. As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been slowly making my way through all of Gustav Stickley’s Craftsman Magazine (I’m reading the 1905 issues this week) as well as Moby Dick (never read it in school), May Morris’ Decorative Needlework and the writings of John Ruskin and William Morris.

From these tomes I’ve bookmarked a few epic rants that I suspect Root Simple readers will appreciate. First, as quoted in The Craftsman, the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson,

We are students of words: we are shut up in schools, and colleges, and recitation-rooms, for ten or fifteen years, and come out at last with a bag of wind, a memory of words, and do not know a thing. We cannot use our hands, or our legs, or our eyes, or our arms. We do not know an edible root in the woods, we can not tell our course by the stars, nor the hour of the day by the sun. It is well if we can swim and skate. We are afraid of a horse, of a cow, of a dog, of a snake, of a spider. The Roman rule was to teach a boy nothing that he could not learn standing. The old English rule was, ‘All summer in the field, and all winter in the study.’ And it seems as if a man should learn to plant, or to fish, or to hunt, that he might secure his subsistence at all events. and not be painful to his friends and fellow-men. The lessons of science should be experimental also. The sight of a planet through a telescope is worth all the course on astronomy; the shock of the electric spark in the elbow, outvalues all the theories; the taste of the nitrous oxide, the firing of an artificial volcano. are better than volumes of chemistry.

Enjoy the “taste of the nitrous oxide” kids!

A quote to hang over your workbench

Gustav Stickley, in addition to manufacturing furniture, freely gave away plans to his readers in the pages of The Craftsman. These plans were preceded by long, meandering meditations on the DIY ethos that, sadly, have been omitted from the Dover Edition of Stickley’s furniture plans due to the overrated 21st century obsession with “getting to the point.” Here’s an excerpt from one of those introductions,

It must also be distinctly understood that the proper preparation for this freedom, both of the mind and in design and work, can only come to full fruition by compelling your hands to obey you in doing whatever you have undertaken. Do not think for one moment that you can do good individualistic work, until you have demonstrated that you can copy so that the sternest critic must commend what you have done. Bliss Carman never wrote a truer thing than when he said: “I have an idea that evil came on earth when the first man or woman said, ‘That isn’t the best I can do, but it is well enough.’ In that sentence the primitive curse was pronounced, and until we banish it from the world again we shall be doomed to inefficiency, sickness and unhappiness. Thoroughness is an elemental virtue. In nature nothing is slighted, but the least and the greatest of tasks are performed with equal care, and diligence, and patience, and love, and intelligence. We are ineffectual because we are slovenly and lazy and content to have things half done; we are willing to sit down and give up before the thing is finished. Whereas we should never stop short of an utmost effort toward perfection, so long as there is a breath in our body.”

Now that is something worth writing out and hanging over one’s work-bench. It is on a line with St. Paul’s: “I have fought a good fight,” or Robert Browning’s emphatic words, where in the preface to his poems he says: “Having hitherto done my utmost in the art to which my life is a devotion, I cannot undertake to increase the effort.”

Further reading
Looking for some 19th century summer reading? How about Abe Lincoln’s favorite non-fiction book, An Authentic Narrative of the Loss of the American Brig Commerce, which tells the story of a crew shipwrecked and enslaved by a Saharan tribe (thank you Futility Closet for the tip on that one). And if you’re looking for more seafaring tales there’s always Two Years Before the Mast. Lastly, if you haven’t read Moby Dick, well, what can one say about a book that spends an entire, breathtaking chapter on the color white or pulls both Plato and Thomas Cranmer into a description of sitting atop the masthead?


Is Stickley is the New Ikea?

Screen Shot 2017-06-23 at 8.43.08 AM

You’ll have to pardon the breakout of bungalow fever on the blog this week, but I’ve vowed to spend the summer patching, painting and fixing up things around our almost 100 year old house. One of my projects is an all out war on ugly furniture. Sorry, Ikea, but you’re out. Stickley is in.

Thanks to the folks at Archive.org you can download a copy of Gustav Stickley’s 1909 furniture catalog as well as Gustav’s brothers Leopold and John George’s 1910 catalog. Gustav and his brothers enjoyed their fifteen minutes of fame between the years 1900 and 1915. Furniture trends changed during and after WWI and Gustav’s company went bankrupt. It wasn’t until the 1970s when interest in the Arts and Crafts movement returned.

stickley 811 rocker
We were lucky to have picked up an L. & J.G. Stickley rocker #811 this week that now graces our living room. At nearly 110 years old, the rocker looks a whole lot better than the disposable Ikea couch it faces. If one were to amortize the cost of a well made piece of furniture versus something cheap and disposable I think it’s obvious what’s the better choice.

Screen Shot 2017-06-23 at 8.42.24 AMCraftsman furniture seems to have fallen out of favor again with the ascendancy of mid-century modern mania. I’m hoping for a Stickley revival. To that end, please note that L. & J.G. Stickley seem to have manufactured the world’s first futon couch and it’s a lot more handsome than the ones I see discarded on every other block in Los Angeles.

Screen Shot 2017-06-23 at 8.42.49 AM
Lastly, I’m trying to think of the lifestyle adjustments that would justify a weekend in the garage making a copy of the L. & J.G. Stickley dinner gong. How exactly would a dinner gong work out in our 1,000 square foot house occupied by just two people? Would its existence prompt more inspired daily meal prep? Would reheating a frozen Trader Joe’s meal (what a friend calls the Ikea of food) in the microwave justify a bang on the gong? Would it cause the cats and dog to scatter? Should I develop a gong app instead?


My attempt to craft a longer blog post with a clickbait headline, “Is the Dinner Gong the New Killer App?” failed due to lack of source material, but I’d like to share this bittersweet object: a French dinner gong crafted from a WWI artillery shell.

3 Mules the Movie

Back in 2012 Kelly and I were running an errand in the neighborhood when we encountered a man with three mules walking down busy Sunset Boulevard. I put up a quick blog post with a few photos. Thanks to Google, for the next two years, my blog post became a place to comment on the whereabouts of the “mule man” whose real name is John Sears.

Through that same blog post we met a very talented local filmmaker named John McDonald who has been working on a documentary about Sears. I had the great privilege of seeing a short work in progress version of the film McDonald would like to complete.

It turns out the story is more complex than I would have imagined from my first encounter with the mule man on Sunset Boulevard. Sears is making a point about public space and our rights to travel and use the commons. It’s a stance that often puts him at odds with law enforcement, local governments and, perhaps, modernity itself.

You can see some excerpts from McDonald’s film on YouTube and make a tax deductible contribution towards completing the project. You can follow Sears via his Facebook page 3 Mules. McDonald’s website is 3mulesmovie.com.

The Fertile Ground of Bewliderment

It’s Memorial Day in the U.S. which means that most of our domestic readers are probably not reading Root Simple blog posts. For those few of you who are, allow me to suggest a podcast to listen to while you recreate, garden, or mix a cocktail. It’s a lecture by Charles Eisentein delivered last year at St. James Church in London. He begins with the need to stop the paradigm and language of being at war with everything: bugs, people, germs etc. My favorite bit comes during the question and answer session when Eisenstein addresses a concept of interconnectedness he calls, “interbeing.”

Interbeing is the truth. You can only suppress it at great and growing effort, temporarily, until you become exhausted. It’s like a parking lot covered in cement. If you don’t constantly maintain it in a state of ugliness, then beauty will erupt. Dandelions will come up, it’ll crack, and in fifty years it’ll be beautiful. And we are getting exhausted now at maintaining an ugly world.

You can read a transcript of the lecture here and listen to more of Eisenstein’s podcasts here.

Changing the World One Party at a Time


Artist’s depiction of Jennie’s monthly neighborhood party. Extra points for finding our new dog in the painting.

Once a month, our neighbor Jennie Cook (our guest on episode 50 of the Root Simple Podcast) hosts a cocktail party for neighbors. She started the party ball rolling by sticking handwritten invites in mailboxes up the block. Usually, around twenty people show up.

I’ve come to believe that the most revolutionary acts in our lives are those that reduce separation and loneliness. The philosopher Hannah Arendt called totalitarianism, “organized loneliness.”(1) As Arendt implies, this loneliness is by design. Facebook, Google, Nextdoor, Apple et al. make money when we’re sniping at each other on our phones and keyboards, not when we have a cocktail glass in our hands.

This weekend, in South Pasadena, I’m giving a presentation on the subjects we cover in our blog and books. The organizer wants me, in particular, to address the legalities of keeping chickens. But even if chickens are legal where you live, neighbors can start a ruckus in the henhouse about them and about a whole host of other contentious issues such as parking, trees and landscape maintenance. But if we already know each other socially, these sorts of fights are less likely to start.

But I think it would be a mistake to throw neighborhood parities with utilitarian goals. The party is an end in itself. One shouldn’t put a price on fun, joy or a well mixed libation.

I could go on, but I’m going to cut this post short so that I can start the process of getting our house in to shape so we can host a few of these neighborhood parties in the future. And I want to close with a plug for Jennie Cook. She has a cookbook, Who Wants Seconds, full of recipes that will make everyone at your party happy. And if you live in Los Angeles and need a caterer for any event large or small, I can’t say enough good things about Jennie Cook’s Catering.

Now, go forth and throw a party for your neighbors!