There's a place for us



It’s the kind of dream you spin when you’re very young and first in love, but it’s always stayed with us, probably because I could never get the concept out of my head, could never stop talking about it, dreaming about it, and in more recent years actually working in that direction. “What I most want to do,” I told Christine when we were first married, “is get a piece of land and a house somewhere. I’ll make it the best house that absolutely ever was. Then I’ll build a wall all the way to the sky and we’ll let the world and its insanities pass on by.”


For the first sixteen years of our marriage we looked for such a house. Oh, not the castle I’ve shown here, but a castle all the same, our palace, our home, our love nest, our Shangri-La. What we wanted was not a starter or a fixer upper. We wanted something we could call our own, something we could move into and know we would never leave. We wanted our dream home. Well, any real estate broker worth his salt will tell you that such a thing is impossible, but we clung to it all the same. We didn’t want to buy a home only to gain equity and buy again. We wanted to buy a home and stay.


We lived in Orange County, California when we were first married and sometimes looked for a home in that area. Mind, we never once knowingly walked into a home we couldn’t afford (lookie-loos, realtors call that), which is not to say that we were never in a house beyond our means. Pretty pricey area! We moved to San Diego in 1982, which was the height of a particularly bad recession. Unemployment that year ran to something like 12%, and the interest rates for new homes were close to 20%! We found work and a nice townhome to rent and began to itch for a home all our own, maybe something of stone with high walls round it! OK, ixnay on that part, but from time to time we did look, but nothing we could actually afford struck us as being anywhere near the money involved for the purchase.


In 1992 we went to Tucson for our 16th wedding anniversary, one I remember with special affection because at one point on that weekend, Christine was literally dancing around the room for love of me. I have long since forgotten what prompted that impromptu little jig, but I smile whenever I think of it. The other part of that is that Christine said, “We haven’t looked at homes for a long time now. The rates are better. Let’s look again when we get back to San Diego.” Ten days later we opened escrow on this house!


It’s weird how things work out at times. I have long thought that much of life is nothing more than the luck of the draw. The people who sold this house to us had it on the market for one solid year and could never find a taker. At first it was priced too high, they said. Later, well later they could never understand why no one would take it.


People who put a house on the market, especially one they’ve loved, as these people clearly did, want to make sure that the prospective buyers appreciate all the attributes of it. So the first time they escort people through the home, it’s a rather lengthy trip. As time goes on, and the frustrations of an unsold home mount, that tour gets shorter and shorter. By the time we saw it, a year after it had been listed, they had surely shown several hundred people through it. The wife met us at the front door and walked us through a home long since empty, as they had already moved. Here’s the living room, then down this hall, these bedrooms, the master bedroom is here, this back door takes you into the back yard, here’s the fruit trees, then along the side of the house, and back in through the patio door, where we see the family room. It was a jaunt that had taken no longer than sixty seconds, but as we entered the family room I had this mental image of a giant old-time cash register being punched with the SOLD sign. We were told that first-time buyers often have buyer’s remorse at some point, but that it would pass. Truth to tell, we signed the papers and never looked back. We’d found our dream home. Henry David Thoreau said, “If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put foundations under them.” Easy for him to say!


Here’s the thing with a goal like that. Well, it’s not a goal because even when you say it, you know damned well you’re not likely to come up with your very own palace. But, still, it’s a dream, a vision, an incentive, an idea, a concept, hell, maybe even an alternative universe! No, call it what it was when first I said it, a goal.


We got this house in 1992, and I’ve worked on it ever since. Not every day, not even every year, but every December I look back at the year ending, thinking of what was done or, worse, what might have been done. And always, always, always there are goals for the New Year. Much to build, much to do. I am sometimes frustrated, thinking of how much there is yet to do, but still, much has been done.


It took me nine summers to achieve it, but our backyard is a truly enchanted place. All of it is work I designed myself, and most of it is work I did myself, excepting only a casita which had the benefit of professional help, although I still did something like 80% of the work myself. I’m writing this blog at a desk I made myself with only a Skil Saw and a drill guide in a study that was originally two side-by-side bedrooms. It’s lined with floor-to-ceiling bookcases. Every morning Christine puts on makeup at a maple-and-walnut vanity I made for her, seated on a matching chair. At the end of the day she retires to the master bedroom and watches TV on an eight-foot-tall walnut entertainment center. I don’t do upholstery, so we bought the living room sectional, but I designed and made all the rest of the furniture in that room. Truthfully, there’s not a room in the house that doesn’t have something I designed and made, but there’s still the Home Theater and the kitchen and the bathrooms and her office. And the clock ticks so much faster now than it did when I made those plans.


I am sometimes uncertain as to the direction of this particular blog site, and it’s that huge volume of work that gives me pause. What I want is that dream I spun back in 1976. I want a piece of land and a home and a wall all the way to the sky. How will I do all that and still write? And then I thought, well, maybe I should just start telling people what I’m doing these days. And maybe I will.



Is the Unexamined Life Worth Living?


Do Better 1


“Do Better”


Do Better 2I have recently begun cultivating a friendship with the youngest of my ten nieces and nephews, a young lady who is currently a college junior. In discussing her the other night with my wife, Christine pointed out that our niece speaks in complete sentences and eschews entirely the phrases of her generation: “like,” “well I go and then she goes,” “OMG,” “that’s sick,” and the immortal “unh” as space filler whenever the speaker is unable to formulate a coherent thought. But I think what most impresses me about this young lady is that she reads, and not just books for her classes.


When I was about her age I encountered a quote by Socrates that has always stayed with me: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Interestingly enough, just now when I searched the Internet to make sure I had the wording correct, I encountered a column in which the writer asserted that those who live by such things are elitists, which in a sense, simply makes my point. Not all of us are going to pursue the more arcane things in life, but I do strongly feel that those who read only enough to get themselves through their formal schooling and then avoid reading thereafter cheat themselves of much of the very essence of life. And the very fact that he would make such a statement leads me to my second point, which is the anti-intellectual bias that has done so much to retard this country’s progress at times.


I am currently reading “The Reckoning” by David Halberstam, which “tells how the emphasis changed from making cars to making profits, letting quality slip and innovation lag at a firm formerly the symbol of American industrial genius. Meanwhile Nissan was rising from the ashes of war with grim determination, embracing any sacrifice to improve its product.”


Do Better 4It’s a book that exists at a number of levels, which is true of the other books I’ve read by this author. He tends to dig very deeply into the history of things and the history of all the people involved. One of the lesser characters in this drama who surely would have been a major player in a more reasonable world was Donald Frey, who had a PhD and had come to Ford Motors from academia. He had been working as an assistant professor of engineering doing purely theoretical work in metallurgy, but he was so well-respected in his field, and Ford Motors was so in need of his talents that they tripled his salary in order to get him. Once they had had him on board, though, he was just an employee, subject to the same whims and petty jealousies of any other employee.


Halberstam had this to say about him: “At Ford he was the house egghead. His colleagues would find not only the New York papers on his desk but British ones as well, the Manchester Guardian and the Economist. There were always books there too, and he was considered to be almost as bad as Robert McNamara in wanting to talk about a book he had just read; even more annoying, many of these books were not about business, let alone the auto industry. ‘The trouble with Frey is that he’s too goddamn smart for his own good,’ Henry Ford II once said of him, and he did not exactly mean it as a compliment. ‘Maybe,’ Ford added, ‘he’s a genius. Maybe not. But he’s certainly a pain in the ass.’”


Halberstam went on to point out that although Frey had taught at the University of Michigan before going to Ford and was a true sophisticate, he was also in his heart a tinkerer of the kind that existed in America in the thirties and forties. He was exactly the kind of person Ford Motors most needed to be listening to in those days when they were doing little more than producing shabby cars for the American public, but this man was suspect because he read and studied and looked into the why of things in the abstract.


Of course, the flip side of that was that people with that kind of curiosity also tend to have analytical minds, which is the very sort of thing Ford Motors was often in need of in those days when they had antiquated factories in which they were to produce modern car lines. It was a matter of priorities, really, or a test of values, if you prefer. All they were doing in those days was crunching numbers, figuring out how to make the largest possible profits in the shortest period of time, which necessarily precluded things like modernizing their  manufacturing plants.


A company given over to the pursuit of quality, as opposed to mindlessly maximizing profits to the virtual exclusion of every other factor would have made the sort of changes that were then being made at Japanese car manufacturers, which enabled the Japanese to eventually out-produce and out-sell the company that had pioneered automobiles. Perhaps the shakers and movers at Ford Motors might have done better to spend less time maneuvering for the next promotion and a bit more time examining their own lives. Better for them, better for Ford Motors, better for the country.