Tiny House Dweller as Contemporary Hermit in the Garden

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One of the difficult to comprehend landscape trends of an earlier era was the garden hermitage. Real hermits disappeared with the Reformation, but the idea of a fake, picturesque hermitage lived on in English style gardens. Some just had a hermitage structure with the suggestion that someone lived there: an open book sitting on a table or sometimes even a dummy dressed as a hermit. But more wealthy land owners took the idea a step further and went so far as to pay people to act as hermits. Gordon Campbell’s book The Hermit in the Garden From Imperial Rome to Ornamental Gnome contains the following story,

At one great house in England the accounts disclose a half-yearly payment £300 to a hermit, who had, for this commensurate salary, to remain bearded and in a state of picturesque dirtiness for six months in the year in an artificial cave at a suitable distance from the house–just far enough (but not too far) for the fashionable house-party, with its court of subservient poets and painters, to visit, walking there in the afternoon, peering into the semi-darkness with a little thrill of wonder and excitement.

The Craigslists of an earlier era sometimes carried garden hermit help wanted ads,

Mr Hamilton, once the proprietor of Payne’s Hill, near Cobham, Surrey, advertised for a person who was willing to become a hermit in that beautiful retreat of his. The conditions were, that he had to continue the hermitage seven years, where he should be provided with a Bible, optical glasses, a mat for his bed, a hassock for his pillow, an hour-glass for his timepiece, water for his beverage, food from the house, but never to exchange a word with the servant. He was to wear a camlet robe, never to cut his beard or nails, nor even to stay beyond the limits of the grounds. If he lived there, under all these restrictions, till the end of the term, he was to receive seven hundred guineas. But on breach of any of them, or if he quitted the place any time previous to that term, the whole was to be forfeited. One person attempted it, but a three weeks’ trial cured him.

I was giggling my way through Cambell’s hermit book until I realized the idea is still, very much, alive. We don’t have hermits anymore. We have tiny house dwellers. Tell me how this reality show ad is any different than the garden hermit appeals of an earlier era:

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I’ve long thought the tiny house movement to be less about practicalities than about about a reaction to the spiritual malaise caused by consumer culture. The greatest expense in building a house are the kitchen and bathroom. Walls are cheap so you might as well make some extra space. Thus, in economic terms, a small house rather than a tiny house makes more sense.

But the tiny house movement is not about economics. It is, in part, an attempt to, in the words of the Joni Mitchell song to get “back to the garden.” In this way, the contemporary tiny house aspires to Adam and Eve’s pre-fall tiny house described in John Milton’s poem, The First Love of Adam and Eve,

the roof
Of thickest covert was inwoven shade,
Laurel and myrtle, and what higher grew
Of firm and fragrant leaf; on either side
Acanthus, and each odorous bushy shrub,
Fenced up the verdant wall; each beauteous flower,
Iris all hues, roses, and jessamine,
Rear’d high their flourished heads between, and wrought
Mosaic; under foot the violet,
Crocus, and hyacinth, with rich inlay
Broidered the ground, more coloured than the stone
Of costliest emblem

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But the tiny house also resembles a full embrace of melancholy that’s been unfashionable for at least 150 years. There’s a whole genre of now nearly forgotten “dark” poetry that Cambell quotes from, such as Thomas Parnell’s ‘The Hermit,’

Far in a wild, unknown to public view,
From youth to age a reverend hermit grew
The moss his bed, the cave his humble cell,
His food the fruits, his drink the crystal well.

It’s not too great a step from this picturesque melancholy to full desert father style escape from the consumer matrix. Right now we’re riding high on an economic boom. Inevitably there will be another bust. No sane person knows when that bust will happen again, but when it does I predict we’ll see more garden hermits and fewer tech bros.

Full credit must go to Gordon Campbell for the quotes in this post and to Fr. Mark Kowalewski for the Joni Mitchell reference. You can also listen to a Futility Closet Podcast episode about garden hermits.

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A Halloween Mouth of Truth

We are lucky to live on a block with a lot of friendly, creative people. Last year on Halloween, two of our neighbors did an elaborate Mount Olympus/Hades themed candy giveaway, while another, a professional DJ, turned on all his professional lighting equipment and smoke machines in addition to a full laser light show. This year all of these attractions returned with the addition of a new contribution from Kelly: a candy dispensing Mouth of Truth.

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The original Mouth of Truth (La Bocca della Verità) is a first century fountain or manhole cover on display in the church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin in Rome, Italy. A folk tradition holds that if you stick your hand in the mouth you have to tell the truth or else your hand will be bitten off. The Mouth of Truth had its fifteen minutes of fame back in 1953 when it was featured in the Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck movie Roman Holiday.

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Kelly’s Mouth of Truth remix featured a puppet tongue that alternately gave candy and tugged on kid’s hands. It was a big hit. We had huge crowds and gave up around 9 pm after serving approximately 300 delighted customers (and two completely terrified toddlers).

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Zeus put down his cardboard thunderbolt and took a break from handing out candy two doors down at Mount Olympus to visit the Mouth of Truth.

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Our friend John donned his cat suit and acted as Mouth of Truth interpreter, explaining the the concept to the many hundreds of costumed kids.

img_1842Kelly donned a witch’s hat, in spite of the fact that she was out of view the whole evening performing the arduous task of tongue puppetry for three hours. I dispensed cheese, crackers and cocktails to visiting adults in the adjoining garage.

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John suggested that, next year, we create a giant candy dispensing Zardoz head as a tribute to this nearly unwatchable “so bad it’s good” 1974 Sean Connery science fiction vehicle.

zardoz-21No, I will not to wear Sean Connery’s Zardoz costume.

Zardoz costume aside, the fun that Halloween provides really helps get to know neighbors. We need more festivals in our lives like this, where we take a break from day to day concerns and work together, on the neighborhood level, to create space for joy and unity.

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Peter and the Farm

We haven’t seen this very “red in tooth and claw” documentary yet but, ladies and gentleman, this is how you do a trailer! From the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s synopsis of Peter and the Farm,

Peter Dunning is a rugged individualist in the extreme, a hard-drinking loner and former artist who has burned bridges with his wives and children and whose only company, even on harsh winter nights, are the sheep, cows, and pigs he tends on his Vermont farm. Peter is also one of the most complicated, sympathetic documentary subjects to come along in some time, a product of the 1960s counterculture whose poetic idealism has since soured. For all his candor, he slips into drunken self-destructive habits, cursing the splendors of a pastoral landscape that he has spent decades nurturing. Imbued with an aching tenderness, Tony Stone’s documentary is both haunting and heartbreaking, a mosaic of its singular subject’s transitory memories and reflections—however funny, tragic, or angry they may be.

Peter and the Farm will be in theaters and available on demand through Amazon Video and iTunes starting November 4th. More info here.

Pet Peeve: Martini Glass Size Inflation

cocktailbigIn my perfect world Root Simple has a downtown office in one of LA’s iconic 1920’s era office buildings. Every day at noon we’d break for a three martini lunch. But how are we going to bring back this boozy tradition without losing afternoon productivity? The answer is simple: we’re going to reduce the size of the glass.

In yet another example of the supersizing of America, the average martini glass size has gone from 3 ounces, back in the early 20th century, to a stupendous 12 ounces or more. In other words, the three martini lunch of yesterday has less alcohol than you would consume with just one martini today.

I thought I might be the lone voice in the wilderness on this issue, thinking that the masses have flocked to martinis the size of hot tubs. But the kids at the Kitchn beat me to it, noting that small 3 to 4 ounce martini glasses have the added advantage of being less top heavy and keeping drinks cooler. They also provide some specific recommendations. I especially like this classic 4.6 ounce glass. For a more thrifty option you can do as I did and scour thrift stores.

So my brothers and sisters, let’s unite and un-supersize our martinis! The fate of civilization is in our hands.

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Are Miniature Books the New Smartphone?

Die Psalme Davids: Nach fransösischer Melodeij in Teutsch Reimen gebracht. Basel, 1659 (a miniature book bound in tortoiseshell). Image: Wikipedia.

Die Psalme Davids: Nach fransösischer Melodeij in Teutsch Reimen gebracht. Basel, 1659 (a miniature book bound in tortoiseshell). Image: Wikipedia.

I tend to be slow to adopt new technology. I was probably the last person on the block to have dial-up internet service. I still have a landline. And I held out on getting a smartphone until just last year. But once I adopt a new technology I turn into an addict.

Computer scientist and work habit guru Cal Newport warns about smartphone addiction. He has a suggestion for breaking habitual phone checking. When you’re out and about simply don’t check your phone, even when you’re in a long line at the post office. Newport’s reasoning is that by constantly checking your phone you’re training yourself to be a shallow thinker.

But there’s still all those long, boring lines to deal with. What about reading a book instead? Newport might not agree, but at least it’s better than checking a phone. I’m hoping that a little more book reading might help counteract my shortened attention span (which I blame on the internet).

A short history of tiny books
One of the convenient things about a smart phone is that it puts the whole internet in your pocket. But long before Snapchat people carried miniature books. Prayer books and the bible were popular in miniature form. In the 19th century, improved printing technology brought a wider variety of tiny books aimed at travelers.

In the 20th century the miniature book became an end in itself. Rather than utility, miniature books are now objects to collect. This is not what I’m interested in. Rather, I’m looking for books that are small (non necessarily miniature) and convenient to carry while on the train or running errands.

81keznrblllPractical small books
Penguin has a long history of publishing books in smallish (not miniature) form. Since the 90s I’ve occasionally picked up their inexpensive and short classics series such as Thoreau’s essay Walking and Michel De Montaigne’s Four Essays. Kelly just got me their Little Black Classics Boxed Set which includes 80 works of short fiction and non-fiction by authors as varied as Samuel Pepys, Edith Wharton and Dante.

But the first book I started my cellphone alternative experiment with is Ammianus Marcellinus’ History Books 14-19 in an edition that’s part of the Loeb Classical Library. Loeb books are handsome, small and sturdy hardbacks with English on one page and Latin or Greek on the opposite page. Marcellinus is an entertaining Roman historian whose extant books chronicle the tumultuous years around the time of Constantine. So far it’s even more lurid than the updates on our current presidential election I get when I glace at the iPhone.

Yes, you can read books on a smartphone, but I still think that the medium of a paper book lends itself to developing a greater ability to focus. And as Cal Newport suggests, anyone who can focus on a problem in depth for a long period of time will be more valuable than those of us with the attention span of a flea. My prediction is that the cool kids will be reading tiny books.

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