Monday, December 17, 2007

Airstream Storytelling

It's our turn to be the interesting party guests. While everyone else our age has been busy at work this year, we've been on a leisurely land cruise through North America pulling that great mid-century icon of American adventure and wanderlust--an Airstream trailer. That's a story that piques everyone's interest. Quitting work before age 50 to travel America with a grade-school daughter: How do you do that? People hardly know where to begin with their questions. Generally, the questions fall into the categories of:

1. How can you afford to do this?
2. What's it like living/traveling in a trailer?
3. How do you school Allison?
4. What have you seen so far?
5. How long do you plan to do this?

They want to know everything: the how, why, and where. I realize in my answers that the whole adventure is not a complicated thing. Everyone seems to have a sense for what it means. Almost everyone has taken a road trip. Almost everyone has experienced the thrill of a summer excursion to a national park or beautiful place in the U.S. All we are doing is taking a full immersion into the experience. We are on an extended road trip, one that is awesome because we don't have a deadline. It's not us that is interesting--it is the adventure. We are just the characters in a story that any listener can easily replace with themselves. Seeing America by road is an easy dream to comprehend.

In a way our adventure is so American, so democratic, that I feel compelled to share, especially when the interest from others is so sincere. I believe a recounting of a safari in Kenya or rafting down the Amazon couldn't draw the sincere and absolute fascination people exhibit when listening to our kind of story. We are sharing something so uniquely American and so guaranteed to elicit nostalgia or childhood memories that we feel like preservers of an American cultural ritual. And that's just the road trip aspect. The other is the Airstream factor. I've never met a person yet who didn't think Airstreams are just super cool.

I've enjoyed a holiday season homecoming. We're home at the right time to gather with friends for dinners or parties. We had two social occasions in two nights. I spoke so much that l lost my voice. Apparently, I haven't used it that much on the road. Now I was suddenly called to report on a version of: "How I spent my summer vacation." Instead of being the kid who had to go to summer school I'm the kid who got to see Mt. Rushmore, Buffalo Bill's wild west, the Canadian Rockies, the California coast. I rode ferries in Puget Sound, picked pumpkins in Oregon, hiked the mountains and redwoods of California.

It's a story I like telling.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

To be or not to be Green

I'm back to dreaming of building our dream house. I always do this when I get planted here at home. Why? Because I have never been satisfied with our old house yet I have never seen one other new one (in our town, in our price range) in that I would prefer. The sad fact is that today's homes are devoid of true character. I understand all the economical reasons for the blandness, but it grates on me nevertheless. I do not want a trophy home or anything remotely resembling the horrible things being built today. I want a smart home that blends with its environment, uses resources wisely, and has subtle understated style. No packaged theme, no faux finishes, no stamped concrete, no granite countertops, no wall of windows. No cathedral ceilings, no walk-out basement, no 3-car front entry garage, no wasted space.

I've wanted a smart "sustainable" house long before the term became vogue. Now I am afraid "sustainable" will be another fraud--becoming a design style term with no substance after developers catch on to it. Eco, green, and sustainable are the new catch phrases. Intentions may be good. I am happy to see all the attention on rethinking our homebuilding. We all want to be conscious of our carbon footprint, our impact on the earth. I just hope developers and builders will embrace this revolution honestly. For me, however, the time is not right for us to take the leap. To be pioneers in this movement requires lots of research, effort, and money. Building green is not cheap, not yet.

Our home is a sprawling California-style ranch circa 1970. For all it's flaws I think it's still heads up over the split-ranch and still later contemporary Tudor and Mediterranean styles with their monster ceilings and interior columns. At least a ranch has correct proportions. Our house suffers innocently from obsolescence. It could benefit from advances made in heating and cooling, especially. My new house would practically be off the grid and real. No pretense.

But since it is our home of the last 15 years and since it is no strain on our finances we keep it. We improve where we can. It's like the gas guzzler vehicle you may own. You weigh a new car payment against the rising fuel costs and decide for yourself which is worse. I read something interesting today in Dwell (Dec/Jan) magazine. For the most part Dwell and literature like it sickens me with it's pretentiousness and often god awful love of ugly-ass architecture. But an article, "On the Level," struck a chord. It discusses the renovation of the sweetheart of postwar suburbia, the split-level house. Most people agree they are ugly, but they occupy en masse the older neighborhoods that are becoming attractive to buyers. What's a design aesthete to do but make the necessity of economy suddenly chic? It's becoming cool to look at the split-level as worth saving. They are relics of a particular period in American housing history built quickly and affordable for the middle-class. According to architect Peter Cardew, they have a cultural value worth preserving. He advocates saving the lowly split-level and in this one statement he makes a stunning argument regarding sustainability: "When people talk about sustainability, they are usually referring to a new architecture, but when you figure that most of the energy that goes into a building comes from the one-time act of construction, you are already ahead when you can keep a building rather than demolish it."

Right. Hadn't really thought about it that way. For us to go green we would eat up more energy and resources than if we stayed put in our obsolete mid-century home. That is news Robert will love to hear since he's never been interested much in my new house-lusting daydreams. Foiled again.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Made in America

I pulled our Christmas tree up from the basement tonight. It's plastic but surprisingly real-looking and it was incredibly cheap two years ago when I grudgingly made the jump from real to fake. Naturally, it was made in China. Those Chinese are great with fake floral goods. The truth is a lot of good stuff comes out of China and it is always dirt cheap.

This new Hallmark ornament is also made in China. However, the actual Airstreams are made in America--in Jackson, Ohio. Probably every ornament on my tree is made in China. The Chinese must love Christmas, but not this Christmas. They must be in a panic with the exposure and recall of their lead poisoned toys. Nobody's buying toys made in China. I say, good. I hate toys anyway. My kids always had too many. I don't know where half of them came from. But once a year I found myself cleaning my house of Rubbermaid containers full of stupid plastic toys, most complements of McDonald's Happy Meals. About the time Allison came around I had made a habit of requesting the toy be omitted from the Happy Meal much to her disgruntlement. (Interestingly, McNuggets eventually lost their appeal to her appetite.) I say buy kids books for Christmas. They still make books in America don't they?