Monday, April 14, 2014

Board Games

As the parent of two-under-ten, one of the complaints I hear most often from them is that they’re BORED.  But they’re decent kids and don’t really complain much; they’re good at entertaining themselves and finding silver linings.  Often they show me how to have a good time with little more than curiosity and a smile.  Also, they’ve got damn scant cause for claiming boredom, because of all the cool boards I have given them to play with.

That’s not a figure of speech, either, much less pun or snark.  I’m talking about actual boards that I’ve actually owned since I was knee high, boards of wood, boards that have gained, over a lifetime of use, a special importance to me, and that I truly think now have a special importance to my sons.  Lemme break it down:

Monkeyboard is the really old one.  I remember playing with it from earliest childhood, even when it first showed up as the top to a toy cabinet or feeding table or something.  (Actually, my mom wonders if it came to our house before I did myself, as part of a promotional giveaway from a photographer who would ultimately capture the least photogenic moments of my first several months.) It’s about twenty inches square, and only about 1/6” thick - but for all that, it’s proven strong enough to withstand all the silly crap I ever did with it.  Usually it was just a surface for writing or drawing, especially when I was abed.  But sometimes it was a crafting board or a piece of a larger construction project or a sickbed breakfast table or any number of things.  It was in pretty steady use till I went to college.

One side of the monkeyboard bears remnants of a
chalkboard surface, or two, really - the original green slate, over which my mom painted a black replacement surface once I’d worn out the green.  But the black paint - which never really worked as a chalkboard but that’s no nevermind - wore out and wore off, leaving odd, murky coloration.  Also, the black surface was carefully painted so as not to obscure the letters of an alphabet and the primary digits, which were inscribed up the sides and across the top of the board in chunky, easily imitated letters. 

And in the middle of this alphabetic listing, right at the center of the top of the board between M and N, standeth
the monkey.  Proud and festive, he’s depicted in a line drawing that will live with me forever: standing erect and facing left but glancing slyly right at me, he waves a large baton in one hand and wears an elaborate drum major’s costume, right down (up) to the jaunty kepi on his prognathic head.  With his prehensile lips and the big simian grin he’s tossing my way, it’s never been clear to me exactly what he has in mind - but after half a century I think its safe to say I’m not expecting him to try anything anytime soon. 

Over the many years I’ve aged with Major Monkey, our relationship has gone through certain evolutions.  He scared me.  I loved him.  He bored me.  He was my closest friend.  He was a minion of Hades.  He was a painted anthropomorphic monkey (or “anthropomorphunky").  But through all of that and, believe me, more, he has always been there, peering out of the sliver of green background reserved form the black as if he were peeking from behind some inky scrim.  Yup, Major Monkey and me go way, way back. 

The other side of monkeyboard was once just the unpainted reverse of the top of whatever it once was the top of.  At some point we painted it a sickly yellow, and I got used to that.  Shortly after college, I glued large sheets of drawing paper to this surface, traced out one-centimeter squares over the whole thing, and called it a pente board.  It actually got a fair bit of use in that manner, most recently just a few months ago when Z and I played for the first time.  I enjoyed the game and the company but particularly I enjoyed the continuity.  It was nice to be back in front of the monkeyboard again. 

Meantime, the boys use the monkeyboard even today as a play surface, a lego center, a ramp for toy monster trucks, a ludicrously stubby slide.  That board is getting a lot of action these days.  Judging from his grin, I think Major Monkey likes it.

There’s another board, too, that I’m seeing around semi-regularly these days after a long low-profie period.  Last time it was out and about, some years back, it was resting across two cinderblocks with two more atop it and a cubic crapload of paperbacks between them.  That’s right, this one was a bookshelf - about four feet by ten inches by half an inch thick.  This is a regular old unfinished solid pine board, cut around 1972 when my pappy and me had gone to the ol’ neighborhood lumber yard to equip my boyhood room with a set of bracket shelves.  Handicraft projects involving my dad could be a hit-or-miss affair but he nailed this one, by which I mean, he screwed the rails competently to the wall and successfully hung the brackets therefrom.  After that, even I could set the boards in place.  And so I did.  Then I laid a buncha boox on’em and never looked back.

Looking forward, however, I can report that the shelves stayed where they were, full of favorite old friends who waited for me patiently, all through my salad days and into the soup course.  But eventually Kel and I moved into our own place a couple years after graduating college.  That new place needed bookshelves so we brought our boards and got some cinderblocks to lay them on.  Those boards held books, tchochkes, stereo components, and the occasional red solo cup.  To coin a phrase, they abided

We moved to Frisco and the boards came too.  We got bookshelves - real ones - but when our roomies moved out and left us the place to ourselves it was time to call out the boards again.  And then, indignity of indignities, kids started living with us - our children, as matters turned out.  Space returned to a premium as lots of new furniture and associated chazzerai appeared in our midst.  We jettisoned our “filler” books and filled our “real” bookshelves instead with toys and games.  The cinderblock shelves were broken down and put away, so no toddler would accidentally pull them down and prove us unfit parents.  The blocks went to the garage and, ultimately, the dump.  The boards… well, by now time’s vagaries had reduced our stock to just one board, an oldie but a goodie.  We slipped it into a closet and it hid there very quietly indeed.

That closet became a black hole, attracting every household object that wasn’t nailed down elsewhere.  Eventually I had to excavate it, pull out everything and reorganize it so it only contained useful stuff.  It was during this process that the old bookshelf board came once again to light.  I set it atop the pile of crap I’d pulled from that closet, crap I’d concluded was superfluous, crap I was ready to eliminate from my life.  With no blocks or brackets to sustain it, that old board had clearly reached the end of its line.  It no longer served any purpose at all, nor could I reasonably expect it ever to do so again.

Anyway that’s what I was thinking as I set it aside.  Then I returned to my labors, with which I occupied myself happily until distracted by the sound of Hot Wheels on pinewood.  Z had propped up the board and was using it as a racetrack for toy cars.  Then it became a bridge, and then a lever for catapulting other toys around the room.  He cycled through a couple more creative uses for that piece of pineboard before I roused my paternal mojo and informed him that we’d be taking it to the dump.  He turned moist sad eyes on me and I couldn’t possibly follow through on my board-disposal threat. 

For years I’d looked at that board and only saw a stranded bookshelf, bookless and unshelved.  Z took mere moments to see its true utility, which began with “fun” and has yet to find a final endpoint.  The bookshelf board, like the mokeyboard, keeps lending itself to untried purposes.  I don’t know how much longer the boys will keep discovering new ways to play with old lumber, but they’re starting to inspire me a little

Let us not also forget: the pressboard shelf I found abandoned in a West Philly street, that became the 4008 sign that distinguished our stately abode from the other abodes on our block of equal or greater statlitude.  I painted it glossy black with a broad up-pointing arrow outlined in red, inside of which were inscribed the numbers of our address in a diamond format over a series of vivid chevrons.  It hung on a column by our brick footpath, visible from the street, pointing the way to the entry door.  That it came out totally cool and not like some shoddy found-object craft project (which in fact it was) is evidenced by it still having been on display last time I visited Dr Andy’s garage, in in a place of honor in a house full of beautiful things.  (Sorry folks, couldn’t find the right photo of it.)

And around the front of that old house where hung that sign, at a grand double door with large mullioned crystal panes, hung one last board of note: We’d reorganized the space of this gracious home by converting every room except the bathrooms and kitchen into a bedroom.  As a result, the side door was being used as the primary entryway, and the big, obvious, original main door was now nothing more than a wall of windows in the marble foyer of my ludicrously opulent bedroom.  But I didn’t expect folk to know that on their own.  Rather, I expected them to apepar at my transparent foyer uninvited at naked o’clock on a Sunday morning.  To preclude this likelihood, I decorated up another piece of board I’d found - a flat panel, like the bottom of a drawer, on which I painted an informative message in multiple vibrant colors and friendly fonts, the purpose of which was to make people go around to the other damn door and let me sleep in peace.  Then I shellacked the whole damn thing for luster and posterity.  As I am now at the posterior of that posterity, I can report with confidence that it looks as good today as it ever did. 

Moral: Two-dimensionality has gotten a bad rap. 

it was like this when I got here at 09:59 PM
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Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Lady Vanishes

Sure I like living here, but I think we can break that down even further.  It’s the little things.  I guess I never really get used to the big stuff; I feel as much like a tourist at Bush & Grant as anybody else.  That’s what distinguishes iconic places - they are places unto themselves; they don’t partake of their environments so much as they define them.  By their essence they overwhelm.

The big places make SF SF, but they don’ t make it my SF.  I key rather more to the granular and microenvironmental, the details that enliven the world where I actually live.  They form a kinetic tapestry that shifts and changes as some favorite little local quirk gets hauled away or broken or fixed, and some other spot, heretofore unremarkable, is suddenly transformed into a place worthy of affection. 

I’ve even got one to lay on you now, on this general theme:

We’ve explored the curious non-intersecting corner of Geary and Fillmore - even sharing numerous vibrant images of the art that once did, and now does, decorate the north-west part of that area.  But the south-west zone has been enduring a long period of blah.  The plain brick building at the actual corner is justly famous for great music and gorgeous free posters, but from the sidewalk it’s pretty much a snooze.  However, its new neighbor to the west seems to have broken out into the world of streetside visual emoluments.

I say “new neighbor” but that’s a relative term.  Most everything thereabouts dates from the jazz age or before, when the ‘Mo was Heptown.  But that wild precinct also sustained a more metaphysical side, with the Albert Pike Memorial Scottish Rite Temple rising with Romanesque solemnity on Geary a short stretch west of Fillmore.  It was dedicated in 1905, but its last congregants were adherents of the Peoples Temple.  They all went to South America in 1977 and killed themselves in a gruesome illustration of cult authority.

After the People were gone, their Temple languished as mute indictment of a city and a nation that allowed such madness to reign unchecked. No one could conscion worshiping again at such a tainted altar.  So, employing the renewal tactics perfected during the previous decades across the street in Japantown, they tore the damned place down after the ‘89 quake and replaced it with an edifice that was maximally inoffensive.  Architecturally, it owed nothing to the previous building: that one had pediments and columns and a richly textured facade; the new building is little more than a tilt-up, with no decorative features to speak of.  And the new tenant is no spiritual entity that might recall Jim Jones to our minds by association - it’s just the post office, pedestrian, unsexy, eminently safe. 

Since I’ve been in town, that post office has been hunkered down next to the Fillmore Auditorium, placating us with its utter lack of message or agenda.  If we wanted help forgetting the People’s Temple, this place is Lethe’s draught.  It’s not like it feels like it’s been there forever - it’s easy to see that this building is a latecoming interloper in an older neighborhood.  But it doesn’t recall associations of anything that came before it.  It is architecturally null.  It’s almost like it renders the site invisible. 

Well, not exactly invisible anymore.  Now I keep my eyes open as I pass the People’s Post Office, to say g’morning daily to the old Talbot’s lady.  She’s always standing there, rain or shine, with her babushka and her sensible shoes and her big Talbot’s (tm) tote.  She looks bored, and maybe faintly exasperated, gazing west up Geary as if waiting for a bus. 

I say “as if.” I say she’s always there, and I describe the expression on her face.  I know what she’s wearing.  She is an installation of public art outside the misbegotten post office, across from the wall where the jazz mural used to be.  Jazzy, she is not: executed in painstaking detail, she is absolutely ordinary, life sized, accurately rendered, a perfect study.  I can almost smell her scented skin cream.  I like to watch her ignore me as my bus rolls past her.  Recently I saw that someone had jammed a cigaret into the protoscowl of her mouth.  Seriously, it made my whole day. 

Postscript: I was editing this on the bus, getting ready to shoot a blurry phonephoto of her to illustrate this post.  I found her gone.  Turns out, it was a temporary deal, and I missed most of it.  I was on the bus when I realized, had no choice but to move on.  But maybe, on reflection, that’s the best illustration I can use here anyway.

And let us also acknowledge: the passing of FDPH.  A work crew tore up the sidewalk at 19th and Geary while remodeling the new tapioca shop, and they seem to have dumped the jagged remnant of concrete where a famous concert promotion team painted evidence of their micturative proclivities with cheerful yellow brushstrokes that had somehow been preserved there since the 1960s, kept in place while all the other panes of pavement around it were torn out for various other repairs.  Now the sidewalk there is smooth and unsullied.  Not sure if that’s a step forward, but we’ve taken it regardless and there’s no going back.

it was like this when I got here at 09:11 AM
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Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Stepping Out: A Chucklehut Brush With Greatness

Celebrity sighting!  Oh, but it’s Chucklehut style - no one anyone else has ever heard of.  Regardless, it was exciting for me: I had a brush-with-greatness moment with Barely Walking Guy!

You recall from your compulsive forays through my archives that there’s a guy in my ‘hood who has trouble getting started walking.  Not the slow walker or the guy who can’t see - this is the guy who wrestles internally with every step he takes.  I’ve seen him staring at a sidewalk crack, willing himself to step over it yet still trapped on the wrong side, waiting for the strength to make a move.  It looks exhausting. 

You may even recall that in recent years I’ve seen he’s made great strides, as they say.  I’ve seen him cover the length of a few storefronts without halting, and he’s sometimes even looked sort of comfortable doing it.  But more often I’ve seen him dash quickly several yards before suddenly halting dead on a dime.  When he’s moving, it isn’t totally clear he can stop, and when he’s stopped, one might reasonably wonder if he’s likely to get going again.  Even so, that’s inestimably better than when he was just stuck in place.  Whatever he’s wrestling with, he seems to be making headway. 

This I deduce, based on a recent trip to that clinical crucible, the local supermarket.  I had parked near the racks for storing shopping carts, just this side of the sliding front doors.  Only one lonely cart was left.  I let young Jesse run forward to grab it, when I saw he was apparently in a footrace for the cart - -with none other than the very gentleman to whom I have been making reference. 

Both ran, but that reflected the same level of similarity as to say both were bipeds.  J’s arms were pumping, delight blazing from the corners of his straining lips and eyes.  The other, not so much.  He was running like a raindrop driven across a windshield at highway speed.  His chest was pushed forward but his eyes projected a desperate desire to stop, which he eventually did just at the cart rack, just as Jesse got there first and triumphantly seized the sole available cart, claiming it as his own. “Ours!”

I took a step in.  “Hold up, there’s plenty around here, let’s share with - “ I didn’t barely get out even that much before the other man himself spoke up.

I should note, he was looking well, his hair a burnished pewter, his skin firm and healthy, wearing nice shoes, maintaining himself in good condition.  Maintaining.  Hmm.  He was now standing before me with a rooted posture.  I got the feeling it might be a moment before he walked again. 

“No, you go ahead,” he told us.  His speech was clear and friendly, though a little rushed.  “I just need to catch my breath.”

He and I engaged in a brief deferential pantomime of donative affirmation and reluctant acquiescence, and then I wheeled the cart away with the deepest respect for how this guy had handled our social overreach.  It’s not his breath he needed to catch, but that’s a fine way to put it.  Man who Wrestles with Cracks, you know how to handle yourself.  I should have expected you to know how to think on your feet. 

it was like this when I got here at 08:03 AM
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It’s been a while since I’ve updated, but not for lack of material - the new notebook…

The Straight Line - plus bonus photo-delite goodies


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