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?


Jerry Seinfeld on Things

“All things on earth only exist in different stages of becoming garbage. Your home is a garbage processing center where you buy new things, bring them into your house and slowly crapify them over time.”

Thank you Doug Harvey for tipping me off to this gem.

Being the Change: Peter Kalmus Book Appearances


Peter Kalmus, an atmospheric scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and our guest on episode 39 of the podcast, has a new book out, Being the Change: Live Well and Spark a Climate Revolution. In the book Peter shows you how to slash your fossil fuel use to 1/10 the average and still live like royalty. If you’d like to hear Peter speak you have two chances:

Wednesday Aug 9, 7:00pm: Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena
Friday Aug 11, 7:30pm: The Last Bookstore in downtown Los Angeles

Hope to meet some Root Simple readers at Peter’s talks!

Nobody Wants Your Stuff


A load of toxic waste.

I reached a low point, last week, in the sad task of emptying my mom’s house when I got bounced out of the Goodwill donation center like a drunk who had sidled up to the bar one too many times. The manager who, during my previous visits, viewed me with a mixture of crankiness and suspicion came out and said to me, “Unless it’s saleable, we don’t want it. We’re about to shut down donations.” From his furrowed brow and hard stare I knew that he was speaking, not generally, but to me personally. I had strained the good will of the Goodwill and now had to recognize that I had a tchotchke problem in need of the intervention of a higher power.

That higher power came in the form of an independent thrift store down the road that was happy to take my rejected Goodwill load. A local rock club took all the lapidary supplies. But, later in the week, the Salvation Army rejected a perfectly good couch and chair. Sadly, a lot of my mom’s belongings will be sent to the landfill. The reason? There’s just too much stuff in this world and nobody wants more.

I had intended to write about dealing with the loss of a loved one and what to do with their belongings but I was out-scooped by Richard Eisenberg’s blog post “Sorry, Nobody Wants Your Parents’ Stuff.” Eisenberg says everything I was going to say. He notes that we live in an Ikea and Target era and nobody wants old stuff unless it’s mid-century modern. The antique market has cratered and in the words of the furniture dealer who is staging my mom’s house (with mid-century modern goods), “It’s never coming back.” It just so happens that my mom had a lot of mid-century modern furniture that will find a new home. But there’s still going to be a huge dumpster full of lesser furniture and other miscellaneous items heading to the landfill later this week.

Eisenberg’s blog post prompted a huge response and he did a followup post, “What You Said About ‘Nobody Wants Your Parents’ Stuff’” that has some further suggestions and a bit of push-back. My experience with my mom’s belongings affirms what Eisenberg said in the first post. The only thing I’d add is that the experience has made my Marie Kondo fervency even stronger. The professional organizing mafia’s strategy, that would have us buy more storage boxes and closet gadgets, is misguided (read more about this in a New York Times article “Marie Kondo and the Ruthless War on Stuff“). I think Kondo is right to say that we all need to downsize and buy fewer things in the first place.

In addition to Kondo’s war on stuff I think we need to revive a commitment to craftsmanship and beauty. I’ve spent many evenings in the past month reading Gustav Stickley’s Craftsman Magazine, that documents the unsuccessful turn of the last century war on cheap industrial goods. My Kondo/Morris/Stickley mashup has inspired a few new house rules:

  • Think long and hard before bringing anything new into the house.
  • When you do get something make sure it’s of high quality and take care of it.
  • Should you find me or Kelly at an Ikea, know that we are on a bender and call the police.
  • Before buying something ask what will happen to this object when it’s no longer needed. Does it have long lasting value or is it just another landfill destined item?
  • Remember always the words of William Morris, “If you want a golden rule that will fit everything, this is it: Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.”

At least being bounced from the Goodwill and facing couch rejection at the hands of the Salvation Army puts me in esteemed company. When moving out of an apartment in New York, W.H. Auden had the Salvation Army drop by to pick up a couch. The workers first noted the sorry state of his couch: it was held up on one end with a brick and had a cigarette burn and a large stain. Auden explained that he had accidentally lit the couch on fire and the only thing he had to put out the fire was a shaker full of martinis.

You can bet that I won’t be “Kondoizing” my cocktail shaker. Especially now, when contemplating the sheer amount of stuff in this word, I’ve deemed it both beautiful and useful.


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