Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Does ANYONE Write A Letter Anymore?

In the process of moving to Palm Springs this year, I came across a box filled with stacks of old letters; most of them were from my college and Peace Corps years and talk about college. then living and teaching in Africa. Most were to my mother, who had saved them, but there were also letters from friends and family as well. What struck me was that after all these years, some nearly 50 years old, was the memories they brought back. It was then that I resolved to begin writing letters ... you know putting a pen to paper and handwriting letters to friends and family. There is nothing that holding a letter in your hand can compare with. Reading a short, often misspelled and grammatically incorrect email does not compare with the experience. Yes, an email can be printed out and saved but it just isn't the same. There is a coldness, a lack of personality in the perfectly formed letters devoid of variation, eccentricity.

I think letter writing has become a lost art! Writing a letter is a time of reflection. It is a way I believe to take stock of our lives and both sort out events and to give those events meaning. Think back a few days, weeks or months, when was the last time you received a real letter, one that was not a bill but a personal message from a friend or relative? In the same token, when was the last time you stopped your life and reflected on what you had done? Recently or in the past? We are the designers of our own lives as much as we are creations of events that surround us. To me, at least, writing a letter is a way to make sense of my life. I finally realized that the lack of doing this simple task, reflecting, made it hard at times to understand who I am.

On a recent trip to Hong Kong I learned that my aunt had passed away and I was suddenly overcome with grief ... both at her passing but also the realization that I wouldn't receive anymore of her chatty, newsy letters. They just recounted what she was doing but provided a link both to family and her life. They would end and she would not be a part of my life any longer. In losing her I realized the others that I have lost over the years ... aunts, grandparents, uncles, friends ... people I cared about who no longer are a part of my life.

What to say?
More than just my mother's younger sister, my aunt played a key part of my life. I remember her wedding at my grandparents house where I was the ring bearer in the 50's. Her family and ours were close and I remember baby sitting her two oldest children on our numerous visits to her home or hers to ours. I was at her house when I learned that my father had passed away at the age of 40 and I was a teenager of 16. I vividly remembered the funeral for her husband who passed away a few years later. She and her children were at my wedding.

While visits were few and far between in the intervening years, we kept in contact and finally made connections again after a trip to Alaska and then last Christmas when I went to visit my cousin and her. Every holiday we received a cheery letter wishing us a happy Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas or even 4th of July while recounting the small and sometimes big events in her life.

Letter writing in the 21st Century
When I had resolved to write a letter, by hand, I went in search of stationary befitting this. Imagine my surprise when I found that letter paper and matching envelopes were as hard to find as chicken teeth. A search on Amazon revealed few choices and on my recent trip to Hong Kong, I could not find a single box of stationary despite finding many stationary stores. Cards and envelopes were in abundance both here and there but letter stationary?

Letter bundles are a link to our past
The argument I hear from friends and relatives is that they wonder what to say, they don't have time. Really. Its amazing that they can send quick short notes in email oftentimes frequently during the day but can't sit down long enough to compose a letter.  I can remember Doris Kearns Goodwin, the wonderful American historian saying during a talk that historians were worried about history if everyone writes just email and there are no letters to read and gain insights into figures of our history. Yet, as the scandal of Hilary Clinton's server has shown, while you may hit delete, delete, delete, once on the Internet words and photos live forever. Sitting in front of a computer and staring at a LED screen is hardly romantic or as much fun as reading a letter, seeing the penmanship and the choice of paper. Even the stamps and date stamp has an element of telling a story.

While a "letter" may live forever on the internet,
retrieving it may not be as simple as letters tied in a bundle and kept safely in a closet.

There is something though to be said for the handwritten note ... something that no email can ever say or show. How else can you say or even express the simple words "I love you?" It isn't just the idea of the note that counts, it is the time it took to create it.

I urge every one of you to challenge yourselves, by writing a letter, giving yourselves the time and chance to see what events have recently and in the past shaped your lives. I think it is quite clear here with the quote from Hillary Swank, one of today's finest actresses who says:

Thank you for reading my blog and I hope that you will read those posted in the past. Like a love letter to life, they are all a reflection of how we and events shape and design our lives.

Alan Krug

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Shopping Till We Drop: A tale on four continents

Night Market on Temple Street, Kowloon, Hong Kong
It was only on my second visit to Hong Kong that I realized what fun street market shopping can be. I think the national sport there is shopping. I sure know Chinese shoppers love the Cabezon Outlets in the middle of nowhere on the way to Palm Springs, CA. To tell the truth, after looking at prices in the multitude of upscale malls in Hong Kong (they are like fleas, just about on every corner), I can see why they shop! The difference in prices pays for the trip and then some. The irony? Most of what they buy in the good ole USA was made in their home country, China!

Vendors in Liberia, West Africa
My first real experience with street shopping was when we moved to New Mexico and we would travel to the Mexican border and see the markets there. To a boy from urban Portland, OR, where such things didn't exist back in the early 60's, it was a novel experience. It was when I spent two years in Liberia, West Africa as a Peace Corps volunteer and the kind of market I was used to was nearly as rare as chicken teeth, that I began to appreciate street markets. In fact, we were given a set number of plane flights to our village ... a 30 minute flight, or a 12 hour road trip. We learned to divide those flights so that we could shop at the Monrvia Lebanese supermarket, make a mad dash to the airport, fly home and our students would be waiting for the mad dash home and the refrigeration of frozen items. If something was not put away at breakfast, coming home after school four hours later we would see the mold already forming! We had a kerosene refrigerator that actually could freeze things. To entice the boys to get things for us, we would give them an ice cube. In a land where it never gets much below 70º you can imagine what a treat that was. When we were cut off from our supply of kerosene, we nearly had to abandon our post because we couldn't keep food or medicines refrigerated. The roads became impassable and we couldn't even be flown out.

Street market in Monrovia, Liberia
However, vegetables and fruit were purchased locally. We would give the houseboy 50¢ and he would return with far more than we could eat! Tomatoes, cucumbers, oranges, mangos, onions, grapefruit, papaya if in season. We had an avocado tree behind the house that bore twice a year. Back in 1967 few in the states even knew what they were. More for us.

Our dirt path of an airstrip was lined with mango trees and we would gorge on those until we were yellow and they were gone.

Sidewalk shopping in Merry Olde England!
Of course sidewalk sales and then flea markets, patterned after the old and honorable versions in Europe became the rage. I can remember on my trip home in 1969 visiting the ones in Rome, Florence, Paris and London. It seemed like you could get anything. Haggling was expected. Never good at that the locals would often intervene for me to get me a better deal!

It seemed to take longer for it to catch on in the US but when it did, it took off like a rocket. Every weekend you would see, and still see, signs posted on telephone poles, taped to walls and other signs announcing a yard sale. Many would place ads in the local paper and now the Internet telling of a sale. I've been told that people pick a neighborhood they like and cruise them every weekend looking for the yard sales. One lady in West Covina, CA bought a painting for $50 that turned out to be a Jackson Pollack valued at $5 million. So, you never know!

Not to be left behind, Pasadena seemed to jump in with both feet. Pasadena City College (PCC) held
Rose Bowl Flea Market
their swap meet or "flea market" every first Sunday of the month. Not to be outdone, the Rose Bowl, that venerable bastion of American Collegiate Football Glory held their Flea market on the second Sunday of each month completely surrounding the stadium, and then some, with vendors offering everything! Looking at much of it I would think, "Well, my junk can become your junk ... for a price!"

We are not talking about a few thousand attendees, we are talking about 100's of thousands of attendees some of which drive from hundreds of miles just to sell and buy!

However, it is in Hong Kong and maybe much
Piggies in all their glory
of Asia, I don't know, that the street and markets seem to flow on just about every street and alley. Just coming down the street where I am staying you pass meat markets with pork, beef and fish hang or freeze in ice. Flowers, fruit or every kind and stripe are for sale. Spices, dried items and even candy are sold. This would freeze the blood of an American food inspector. I could just see them falling to the street frothing at the mouth. No one seems to get sick so you do have to wonder. There is no doubt that it is fresh ... but you wonder "fresh" for how many days? Even my Chinese friend has his doubts.

Considering the many malls in Hong Kong that are selling upper and super upper scale brands, there is something to be said about looking at, fingering, haggling with the street vendors. No one seems to take umbrage to this and in fact is expected! If you go to the Temple Street Night Market you can find just about every brand at a discount. On close inspection though, you know
Temple Street Night Market
without a doubt its an impostor but that doesn't make it any less fun. Everything is there ... clothes, computer items, paintings, watches, purses of every color and design, shoes, shirts, pants, and accessories for the home, Bose speakers that are simply not, Polo Shirts that well, lets say sell for merely a few bucks when the mall sells them for $100 each ... you get the drift. Everyone knows and that's the fun.

Night Market jewelry. Does it really matter if its "real" or not?
Only open nights from 6 pm till midnight it is often a relief from the heat and humidity of day time. There are many restaurants as well so you can eat, shop and people watch! Is it real? Is it fake? Who knows and after a lifetime of worrying about such things, I finally realize if you like it ... who cares? I remember so many things I really liked on all my travels but never bought. When I'm gone, someone else can worry about that. After watching Antiques Roadshow you may find out that, well, you really never know!
Shopping at the Peak

In fact on this trip I ended up at The Peak, the mountain that overlooks Hong Kong and Kowloon across the bay and actually went shopping. This amazing area with views of the city, that are breathtaking, has not one but two shopping malls. While much of it is most likely cheap stuff you could purchase at the Night Market, I found some treasures that were what I was looking for ... Christmas gifts, a robe for Halloween that while inexpensive is amazing in its intricacy. As I've discovered both here and at home, Chinese shoppers know the cost of everything. They are also not shy about asking for a
discount, something that I remember drove merchants crazy when they moved to Southern California in large numbers in the 70's. As I have recently learned, it doesn't hurt to ask and have been surprised over and over again at the response. There is one or will be one soon!!!

If you have never been to one or perused a sidewalk sale, now might be a good time to try. There is usually no pressure, remembering, of course, that you never pay the asking price. Lowball it and see what happens. Remember, you could be lucky like the guy on Antiques Roadshow who bought a Windsor styled chair on the way there only to find out his $30 purchase was an original 1700's Windsor chair, one of about 6 that was worth $30,000. Gasping he grabbed his chair and when asked what he was doing said, I'm going back to see if there are any more!

Thank you for reading my blog. I truly believe design is an important part of our lives! Please read earlier blogs that cover how design shapes and yes, rules our lives!

Saturday, July 2, 2016

The Joys of Coloring "Within" The Lines

An adult coloring page

I think we all remember grade school and those pictures we were given in Kindergarten, 1st, 2nd and who knows what other grades, to color? Activities that I realized much, much later (as a teacher in the Peace Corps and found myself doing the same thing) were to give the teacher breathing space between subjects. We were given a page to color with whatever crayons we had, with the admonition to "color within the lines!" I think if I heard that once I heard it a thousand times. Maybe that is why I am so anal today with my adult paintings and crafts ... I am always trying to keep between the lines still!

I know this has been the rage in the United States now for the past few years. You can't go into a craft store today without seeing hundreds of "adult" coloring books along with colored pencils, markers, even fine tipped Sharpies in colors we never had as kids. Back then, they were like a Model T Ford, you could have them in any color as long as it was black. Though I did use a few items when I was teaching my seniors at the home, I never much relied on those pages without some kind of motive ... Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas decorations. I did note that they all seemed to enjoy doing it but I rarely tried them myself. I felt that I wasn't that old ... at least not yet! I was an "artist" for heavens sake, above such trivial pursuits.

As you can see above, this changed when I visited my sister last month. You couldn't help but notice all the coloring books and markers, Sharpies and such on her coffee table. As we talked and caught up on the past 20 or so years, she colored. Conversation didn't seem to slow her down and we had some deep conversations about our lives, the turn of events and such.

Ready to be colored
The following morning, we both got up early, made coffee and chatted. I looked at her variety of books, found a page design I liked, tore it out of the book and tentatively colored away. It was while I was getting absorbed in this rather mundane task that I was sent a text message with a link and watching that a moment on my iPhone turned to my sister and said, "Let's watch MSNBC. Something has happened in Florida." That something, of course, was the shooting and killing of 49 patrons at the Gay night club Pulse in Orlando, FL.

We sat glued in front of the TV all day watching developments as more and more details came out. Other than taking my dog for a walk, we were glued to the TV barely leaving even to eat. The more we watched, the more I colored finding in that simple task a kind of comfort that seemed forever broken in just going to a club and dancing with friends. Nightclubs such as Pulse were always considered a safe haven for the LGBT community. Now that safety was forever shattered.

I asked my sister about her new hobby. Never really artistic or at least not as much as me, I watched her and realized that whoever thought this up hit the motherlode of need and emotion for adults today. I find that just daily living is stressful. What you may have had planned can change in a minute. Illness, doctors appointments, a stolen vehicle and all that has to be done with that. The list goes on and on! While some of my sister's pages were interesting, some were amazing in their colors and execution. I urged her to have a few of the pages framed. While the design might not have been her's, the colors and the way items were colored were hers exclusively.

Look at the blank page above. If you gave this to 10 people each one of them would use colors so very different from each other that the finished product would look different. In some ways that difference would become their work of art.

Is this art? I don't really know. I do know though, that it obviously brings comfort to millions of adults that don't knit, paint, sew or garden maybe living in a climate that you can be trapped indoors for months at a time. I was thinking about this very thing when everyone warned me that summer in Palm Springs was hell. I was told, close all the blinds, turn on the air, strip naked and catch up on all the shows and movies you missed in the fall, winter and spring in Palm Springs. If you think I am kidding, when I returned home my A/C, not even a year old, was broken. I lived with a struggling single room unit for a week before it was finally repaired the day it hit 122º. So, yes, it gets that HOT and the concept of "hell" is very, very real!

However, I have a "studio" chockablock full of canvases and unfinished wood things that are begging to be "colored" too. Yet, as I colored alongside my sister sharing markers and discussing colors, I realized that by 7:00 or 8:00 at night my mind began to shut down and while I may not have wanted to go to bed, this might just be the activity that I might find satisfying. If for no other reason than a way to try out color combinations for my birdhouses! And the best part? NO ONE HAS TO SEE THEM EXCEPT YOU!!!

Looking for a new, artistic activity? You just might find, as I did, a way to wash away the stresses of modern living if only for a few hours. All you crafters, let me also add, it gives you a chance to try and broaden your palette. I know it sure did mine.

Thank you for reading my blog. I believe that art is but a part of the design of living. Please check out my earlier blogs where I discuss how we design our lives!