Category Archives: Architecture, Design, & Public Space

This Is Japan 1965

This Is Japan 1965Every now and again, the Book Gods don’t just smile but grin upon you. This buried treasure found me at a La Selva Community Library book sale, and I snagged it for the price of an upscale chocolate bar.

If ever an oversized bookstand was made to hold something, it was made to hold This Is Japan 1965. The cover alone is a showpiece of go-go outrageousness.

Even though it weighed somewhere between 15 to 20 pounds and I had to get it home on the train, I had to have it. It was like going to the circus and suddenly realizing you need the camel as a pet.

It fits into a spectacular, blue-and-white batik slipbox constructed from what seems to be balsa wood. The producer was the Japan Chamber of Commerce; the publisher was Asahi Shimbun, one of Japan’s major publishing houses and still the owner of one of its major morning papers.

Clearly the objective was attractive boosterism, but what sort of heavyweight champions strolled away from conventions with these behemoths tucked under their arms? Business cards they were not!

Because the name This Is Japan is so generic, it’s hard to find any deep information on this series—there are editions aplenty on eBay, but for various years. They seem to start in the 1950s and go up to 1969.

Even the ads in this thing are incredible, exemplifying the Golden Age of Modernism, 1965—that sweet spot between elegance and attitude. Bold, simple graphics cavort on the page with minimal text and exciting colors.

More’s the charm as it all sandwiches demure listings for traditional Japanese guest- and bath-houses, thankfully lagging behind the jet-setting moment.

It was a fascinating moment for Japan. Traditional life may still have prevailed outside urban centers, but Stateside we were intimidated by their technological rise and rise.

The quality and durability of the print, binding, and casing are remarkable. Similar projects now would cost upwards of $100.

I rigged a system for strapping it to the front of my suitcase and got it safely home on the train that way.

Now I’m faced with the enviable problem of owning something so beautiful it scares the hell out of me.

Posh Hobby

Is it okay for a working gal to have a posh hobby?

Such is the key question after you discover that current batches of hand-crafted pottery make you go all girly-bonkers. 

Having grown up in California in the 1970s, I’ve long associated hand-thrown pottery with the sort of yawn-inducing, earth-toned hippie drippings you’d expect to find during a mescaline bust.  I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the kind of bold, modern ceramic treasures you can now find in Japantown, indie bookstores branching out into giftware, and of course Harmony, California.

If you’ve never heard of Harmony, there’s a reason.  The town is so small it’s been bought and sold several times.  You can also rent it for weddings. 

But the real reason to go—besides its sculpture garden and other laid-back charms—is its working glass and pottery studios.

That’s where I found this incredible vase by Southern California potter Jon Price.  The deep blue “fireworks” come from a rare process called crystalline glazing, in which crystals actually bloom inside the glaze.  Getting this right is an incredibly painstaking and difficult process; few potters undertake it.  But a talented artisan can produce glorious results like these. 

Reiterating:  Is it okay to have a posh hobby like collecting excellent pottery that just makes you want to … you know, quit your job and collect more excellent pottery?  This fine piece of work did set me back more than any single housewares item in recent memory, so how do I rationalize the splurge?

Truth is, I feel justified every time I look at this little beauty.  My desk becomes more alive just because it’s there, even if there’s nothing in it.  It radiates love, care, and attention to detail.  I think it has a positive impact on my work.

So maybe posh hobbies are cool as long as a) you don’t indulge too often, b) you make sure others get some enjoyment out of it too, and c) you ensure that talented people get their props.  Well done, Jon Price and Harmony Pottery.

Not So Fast, Sonny Boy

Is there anything sadder, more infuriating, more apocalyptic than a 13-year-old with absolutely nothing in his eyes? No mischief, no sadness, no desire, no energy, no love, no anger, not even a deliberate pose of apathy?

There he was standing in front of the stairwell of the bus, earbuds in ears, 24-oz soda in hand, face ravaged with acne, staring into space. I sat directly across.

He threw his half-full soda into the stairwell—well, dropped it really, and not accidentally. He just didn’t care.

Count one against him. This is the point at which my righteous, good-citizen face started burning with blunted rage. Lousy kid. Should I say something? Should I not say something? He was a honky, I was a honky, so I could wag my bony 41-year-old finger at him without feeling like an imperialist pig.

Then out from his pocket came the stickers. You’ve seen these. They’re about the size of the “Hello, My Name Is” stickers but they’re blank and kids put their graffiti tags on them, then stick them here and there. It’s like Tagging Lite, I guess, because it’s easier to slap those stickers around than to do a full-on tagging, which I’ve also witnessed on the bus and been pissed off by.

Boom. Up goes sticker number one on the plexiglass partition. I’ve seen “good” tags (dramatic, clever, containing visual puns, photogenic, inventive) and I’ve seen lousy ones, and boy was this one lousy. Just your bog-standard ugly jumble of black letters.

He scanned around behind him – not alertly, not foxily, just roundly and dumbly, the way a drunk looks at the ground before taking his next step. Maybe he was drunk. Maybe it hadn’t just been soda in his dropped-in-the-stairwell soda.

I looked around, too. Was anyone noticing this? Was anyone seeing this? Did anyone give a damn? It was the warm Saturday of Pride Weekend, and the bus was stuffed with earbudded hipsters behind grasshopper-eye sunglasses, their maws full of slopping bubble gum and lip studs. If they did notice this kid demeaning their public services, either they’d tell themselves it was all harmless fun, or wouldn’t want to risk being perceived as uptight by speaking up.

Or, certain Facebook exchanges have led me to believe, in fact they cared a lot but lacked the sort of script for what to say to a wayward younger peer.

Boom. Up went sticker number two. Same pointless tag, same braindead expression on the kid’s face.

Ah shit, Jen, you’re going to say something, aren’t you? You’re not going to be able to stop yourself, are you? It’s probably going to fuck up your whole weekend too, as you quarterback the incident again and again in your mind and ask yourself what you could have done differently, or tell yourself you just should’ve kept your big mouth shut. Dammit, why is this stuff always up to me? Why can’t anyone else be the Culture Cop for a change? Sometimes I think someone needs to slip me a random mickey every now and again, it’d give me a much-needed mental vacation from caring too much.

I reached over and poked him in the XXL t-shirted ribs. It took a few pokes to even get his attention. He removed his earbuds in slow motion.

Messed up.

“Hey,” I said, “don’t do that. Stop doing that. It’s ugly.”

Sneer, roll of the eyes. My first from a teenager, as a non-teenager! Yay! Now I’m a grown-up!

“Come on,” he drawled.

But he stopped. For a while. Then sticker number three went up on some relatively low-visibility piece of railing. Was that a compromise? Now that I’d done my snickety thing he had to do one more to prove I had no power over him.

The bus, almost at my destination, waited for what seemed like ten minutes at the junction of Upper Market and 18th Street, right before the 33’s treacherous hairpin turn into the Castro. I was still burning all over from fright and rage. Is that why I do this crazy shit? For the adrenaline rush?

But don’t-give-a-shit kids are probably so rarely and randomly scolded by the public, people like me seem to them like oddities, earnest psychotics amusing themselves in mysterious ways, or time travelers groping for a keyhole back into some hoary mist of Avalon.

I stared hard at him. He never looked at me, but plainly knew I was looking.

At long last the bus opened its doors to my stop, and as I stepped down and out, I couldn’t resist picking his discarded soda back up off the ground and brandishing it in his face before the bus doors snapped shut.

“And pick up your damn trash, too!” I snarled. But, with his earbuds back in, he must have seen me as some mouthing female sea monster below him, nipping at the shore of his lysergic little island. His eyes were dead, flat, unabsorbing.

So did I do any good? Did my anger vent make him think? Did any hipsters dig my direct action and get a script for future Lousy Kid interventions?

Let’s be clear: my feelings about graffiti and vandalism are complex.

In March 2003, on the eve of the Iraq War, I got laid off from my umpteenth media job and decided to take a road trip to LA. On Venice Beach, I spied a colorful graffiti wall that was constantly being worked on, constantly in flux, and obviously an accepted part of the landscape there. An artist worked on either side as I snapped photos of the images and words evolving. With the freedom to take their time, the artists could apply a level of detail and creativity they couldn’t if they were just tagging on the fly. With the impending war in the background, freedom of speech issues were very much on my mind, and this wall gave me a revelation: graffiti is media for poor people.

Even if you’re just tagging, there is a kind of message there, which is, “Hello! I’m here! I’m me! I matter!” And who hasn’t wanted to say that?

Still and all, it upsets me to see kids so young engaging in tagging when it’s clear they’re not just being obnoxious but starting to make really poor decisions with their lives. When a gang of taggers leaps up and starts hitting an already-nearly-destroyed bus, I pick up heavily on their rite-of-passage adrenaline. As they shout and egg each other on, their brotherly bonding saddens and repulses me. I want to smack them or shake them: Don’t you care about anything?!

Then when I deduce why they don’t care about anything…I don’t know. I just wish someone at home had really shown them the way.

Taggers could fend off a lot of hostility if they just chose their targets a little more logically. There’s an old folks’ home down the street from me, and they’re constantly getting tagged. Come on, guys, you don’t have grandparents? Nobody in your family does home care for a living? All those people need a break, big time.

A friend of mine works at a nonprofit providing vital services to a poor community in Oakland. Her office is always getting tagged, too. To paraphrase her response, “Like I don’t have anything better to do with my time than get out the can of cover-up paint in the morning again?”

Which brings us to our beleaguered public transit system. Sure, I’m mad at MUNI. You’re mad at MUNI. It needs fixing. Is that any reason to degrade and filthy the buses we all rely on? When you fuck up the buses, it’s demoralizing to those who use the system.

That means YOU, Sticker Boy. MUNI is not The Man. MUNI subsidizes your transportation, especially if you jumped your fare, which you probably did for maximum mucho-macho street cred. You’d be well advised to direct your anger elsewhere, such as City Hall. With the spill in the Gulf, we need to fight harder than ever for a transit system that saves oil, and citizen-to-citizen, we need to keep the buses nice for all of us.

Better (as in more morally acceptable) places for graffiti: the backs of street signs (definitely not the fronts. I once got a $250 parking ticket because someone put a sticker over a bus stop sign so I didn’t know not to park there – I appealed but the court showed no mercy), abandoned buildings and other derelict eyesores, or intelligence-insulting ad billboards.

Have you ever randomly intervened when you saw a young person doing something wrong? Does part of you not want to risk their disapproval? Have you wanted to intervene, but were afraid? Send me your stories.

The New Pollution

Whenever I head back to an old cafe or restaurant I once loved, or approach one that looks cool from the outside, these days it’s always with a sense of dread. From the outside, the place always looks sweet and inviting: intimate lighting, cozy tables, a view of the sidewalk, square, or park. The closer I get to walking through its doors, the more deeply I feel that longing for respite from the outside world that’s as old as civilization itself; I want quiet, shelter, nourishment, a place that protects me but brings me into warm contact with others. I want a place that incubates a mealtime conversation with my companion, or if I’m alone, a sense of connection with strangers who could be my friends.

What the restaurant gives me instead, more often than not these days, is flatscreen television. A blinding rectangle of strobing nonsense culture — an assumption that, as a customer, I’m totally incapable of whiling away some minutes at my table however I choose, perhaps by doing nothing much at all.

The ubiquitous flatscreens are a depressing epidemic that I believe is ruining what little post-cell-phone public space we still have. Are restaurants subjecting us to TV because customers are asking for it, or are customers asking for it because they’re now used to TV in restaurants, or are struggling restaurants just freaked out by the quiet and stillness of what was once called atmosphere?

I tried to answer these questions and more in my article “Real People, Real Places,” published with I hope you’ll read it and give me your feedback on how to speak back to the restaurant and hospitality industry about keeping our places — and ourselves — conversational, atmospheric and real.

Defending the Cathedral Mind

“Boys and girls, can you tell me what reverence means?”

I can’t remember the name of the deacon’s wife who taught the bible class for the 4-to-6-year-olds, but she was a very nice lady who smelled like unbaked pie crust.  She also enjoyed doubling herself over in her child-sized chair and addressing us as though doing a poor imitation of a severely mentally retarded person.

I raised my hand.  I was always raising my hand.

“Um, reverence?  Means that you, um, be quiet?  Because Jesus is there?”

Her face mimed orgasmic revelation.  “Yes!” she mouthed.  “It means we be quiet, because Jesus is there!”

Even as I was learning to spout the rote answers I knew adults wanted to hear, I was lost in confusion and “backsliding” (the church term for engaging in normal critical thought) into the firy furnaces of dark doubt.

For one thing, if we were supposed to be quiet in the church because Jesus was there, but we were also being told that Jesus was everywhere, wouldn’t that mean we were supposed to be quiet and reverent everywhere?  How could school be taught?

More pressingly, would I be sent to hell for watching the Monkees do“Last Train to Clarksville” with the sound up?

These things went through my brain, but I couldn’t articulate them to myself.  People in my world didn’t voice such thoughts, which made the thoughts seem to emerge from some horrible shadow side of me.  I decided in the end I had better be reverent because, well, Satan sounded like a pretty scary guy; hell had been so vividly and repeatedly described to me that I could imagine it much more easily than, say, our nation’s capital; and I wanted the grown-ups to love me.

So I was reverent in the house of God, not really getting what the big deal was, but hoping I would at some point in the future.

Flash forward to 2002 and the dark, delicate months in which we were all still reeling from 9/11.  A shock-jock station in New York broadcast a couple having sex in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and the resulting public outrage did not just come from the usual musty corners of old ladies and Moral Majority firebrands.  People who regularly tuned in for their daily dose of fart jokes and political incorrectness were switching off their radios for good.

Suddenly, in the wake of incredible violence, chaos, and grief, reverence in the house of God was no longer a throwback to empty authoritarianism.  New Yorkers had memorialized friends, spouses, co-workers, sons, and daughters in special buildings that were meant to invoke the sense of another world, of awe and mystery, a sense that even if we didn’t understand everything that was going on in our lives, there was still some great (if often cruel) design at work.

Modern people have an uneasy relationship with reverence.  Holding certain things sacred, or believing certain physical places are special, are seen as signs of intellectual weakness.  It’s clear why.

Despite the supposed free-thinking amorality of the age, plenty of us are still introduced to reverence via some “because I said so” apparatus such as the church.  Once you grow up and spot The Man Behind the Curtain, you see reverence as just another crowd control tactic to keep you scared and unquestioning.

Those of us raised nonreligiously are introduced to reverence, if at all, via images of square, pious 1950s types kneeling and praying in cheesy clip art.  The modern, free-willed person pays no heed to such primitive ideas as honoring a set-aside space in which he or she has to – gets to – relinquish control over self-importance and authoring one’s fate.  This may explain why contemporary church architects create places of worship about as otherworldly and awe-inspiring as an In-N-Out Burger parking lot.

“Irreverent” is now synonymous with I-shouldn’t-be-laughing-at-this hilarity.  If a cringy-funny film like Borat is irreverent, then its polar opposite must be humorless misery, right?  (And I say that as a fan of Borat.)

The last time I really needed some peace, quiet, and change of perspective, I got off the 5 Fulton bus line at St. Ignatius Cathedral on Fulton Street here in San Francisco.  (By the way, I don’t recommend this mid-day during the week, when the maintenance crew is doing their thing.  If you think hammers, power drills, and shouting workmen are annoying in your ’hood on Sunday morning, try them in a vaulted stone airplane hangar designed to echo straight up to Jesus, Joseph, and Mary.)

But maintenance racket is small potatoes compared to what happened last time.  Just as I was reaching a quiet sense of comfort about my problems, candles flickering all around me, the side doors banged open and a chirpy admissions volunteer from the University of San Francisco (the Jesuit school whose cathedral it is) trundled a band of about 20 prospective students through the place.

As the volunteer swung her index fingers around like an air traffic controller, yellingly explaining this grotto and that chapel and this altar and that station of the cross, five students were having phone conversations, five more were checking texts or surfing the web, two had iPods, five were having surly exchanges with their parents (who themselves were multitasking, conducting a few important, gum-snapping phone calls whilst in the House of God) and about two were actually listening to the tour and deeply impressed with the place.

By the time this pageant of oblivion had crossed through to the other side and was proceeding on to the library across the quad, I felt like a child whose sandcastle had been trashed by the big kids.  Was I the only dupe left in the world who noticed that a cathedral is meant to shut you the fuck up?

After the irritation of the event had died down I ended up feeling sorry for those kids.  What would they do when one more barf-o-rama kegger party somehow wasn’t enough to relieve the strain of their lives?  Reverence and contemplation wasn’t part of their repertoire; nobody had given it to them.  Young people generally are not reverent (that’s why we love them), but that doesn’t mean they don’t need it every now and again.

If the grand heights and depths and kaleidoscopic colors of St. Ignatius weren’t enough to command it in them—or their parents—then what would be?

Whether you believe in God or not is beside the point.  If you lose the ability to receive messages from your surroundings, the quality of your life will be compromised.  Everywhere will be the same, because you will always be the same in it.