tag:simonfirth.posthaven.com,2013:/posts ValleyDad 2015-04-03T15:02:59Z Simon Firth tag:simonfirth.posthaven.com,2013:Post/835216 2015-04-03T15:01:47Z 2015-04-03T15:02:59Z Remembering Susan O'Malley in Palo Alto (and around the Bay) If you are driving down Embarcadero Road in Palo Alto for the next week or two, you'll likely see a new batch of 'Community Advice' posters by the late and very lamented Susan O'Malley. They were put up by a group organized by the Palo Alto Art Center, of which I was honored to be a part. It was through her work at the Art Center that I met Susan, and got to help spread her infectiously positive, intelligent, and witty art into my own neighborhood.

Just last October, I ran a week-long class at my daughter's school called 'Susan O'Malley Will Blow Your Mind,' in which Susan came and shared her story, her passions, and her practice with a group of middle school girls. As was only appropriate, the work we all made was more beautiful than the girls could have imagined. 

The posters down Embarcadero are part of project to spread Susan's work throughout the Bay Area this month. Look out for it, too, in Berkeley, San Jose, or San Francisco - or anywhere in between.




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Simon Firth
tag:simonfirth.posthaven.com,2013:Post/743227 2014-09-18T00:33:27Z 2014-09-18T04:07:40Z Is there room for art in Silicon Valley’s Democratic Forest?

Into the teaming pool of aesthetically malnourished wealth that is modern Palo Alto – our left leaning, self-proclaimed ‘City of Trees’ – this week descends a line bated with the tasty morsel that is Sotheby’s presentation of William Eggleston’s helpfully-titled pop-up show ‘Democratic Forest.’  For what are we, if not that? Well, that and a city of people legendarily too busy to even furnish their cash-purchased million dollar bungalows, let alone put something on the walls.

Sotheby’s is fishing here for just three days, it turns out, taking over the Bryant Street Gallery between shows and unsure if the prize shoppers among us will bite. And that’s canny, too. Because who knows what anyone here thinks about art, least of all those in possession of the money to buy it at the rarified levels at which this exhibition is playing.

“Have you been busy?” I asked today at lunch time, already half way through the show. “We hope to be,” the nice gallery staffer replied. It’s debatable whether that leaves enough time for the Valley’s generally over-committed citizenry to flock by. Understandably, but somewhat incongruously, Sotheby’s is hedging its bets by also offering fine wines (with a heavy emphasis on French reds) at the show as well. I suppose you do what you think it will take.

I was discussing just this very question – what it actually takes to show, share, and sell art in the Valley – the other day with my friends Pamela and Mitchell, a knowledgeable local collector and distinguished local artist, respectively. None of us were sure about what you can really say about the economy of art here. I’ve written about our community’s troubled relationship with architecture and much the same goes for the objects you might put in it. Certainly, we have a long way to go with public art. And we’re as keen on collecting Pez dispensers and Panzer tanks as Pollocks.

It’s also true that things are changing. As Mitchell noted in a blog post last week, the arrival of the magnificent Andersons at Stanford is a truly world class event. And the appearance of pop-ups like the Eggleston show and those at the new Pace Gallery outpost in Menlo Park tell us that the major art world sharks, to shift piscine metaphors, are circling.

But I hope we don’t just create a copy of what you can find elsewhere. I think there’s a way in which our nerdy appreciation for mechanical invention and design can converse with more traditional and patrician high art sensibilities and recalibrate a little, perhaps, what is interesting and worth celebrating – and buying, even.

The Eggleston pictures, meanwhile, are fantastic. And they fit an aesthetic that does, indeed, have a history of science and engineering side to it (read Mitchell’s blog for an artist’s insight into Eggleston and the color process), although I’m not sure how the fact that these are contemporary digital prints (by the artist) from the old-fashioned color negative impacts that story. Still, there’s plenty here to engage the various levels at which the Valley thinks.

I appreciated the seventeen photographs most as documentary pieces, and for an approach to composition that achieves balance without either being boring or falling prey to the overt showy-ness to which many documentarians of the American underbelly are prone. Ironically, the project from which these prints (priced at $30,000 to $300,000) are drawn focuses on the relentlessly ordinary in some of the nation’s least affluent corners. But in the land of the $22,000 bicycle, price will be far less of an issue than persuading people that a deeply engaging but static image is worth their time.

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Simon Firth
tag:simonfirth.posthaven.com,2013:Post/625968 2013-12-03T04:04:38Z 2014-09-18T00:48:22Z Valley snapshot - a new Little Free Library in Palo Alto

There are now about two dozen Little Free Libraries in Silicon Valley. Here's the latest, in the College Terrace neighborhood of Palo Alto. You can find a map of all the Little Free Libraries in the world, here


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Simon Firth
tag:simonfirth.posthaven.com,2013:Post/499180 2013-02-23T21:38:53Z 2013-10-08T17:08:16Z Works like a charm

First thing this morning, Michael made himself this bracelet. It has the useful quality, he tells me, of doubling his magical powers.]]>
Simon Firth
tag:simonfirth.posthaven.com,2013:Post/499186 2013-02-15T05:10:00Z 2013-10-08T17:08:16Z Offering 'Community Advice' in College Terrace

Here's some advice currently on offer outside my house.

It's part of an extension of a public art project created by the excellent Susan O'Malley and commissioned by the Palo Alto Art Center entitled 'Community Advice.' 

This is Susan's description of the project:

I interviewed a few shy of 100 people in Palo Alto for this project. I asked: What advice would you give your 8-year-old self? What advice would you give your 80-year-old self? Using the words of those I met, I designed ten different letterpress posters. Sometimes the poster text is verbatim from the interview; other times I conflated several people’s advice into one. In addition to hanging the works in the opening exhibition at the Palo Alto Art Center, these posters were installed along Embarcadero Road in Palo Alto for passersby to see.

I saw the installation while driving down Embarcadero Road before I knew about the commission. I was so taken with Susan's posters that I stopped and took some pictures of them.

Then my neighbor and textile artist, Ealish Wilson, had the brilliant idea of inviting Susan to extend her project in collaboration with residents in Palo Alto's College Terrace neighborhood. A selection of Susan's posters are now gracing various local yards for the next two weeks -- a celebration of community, positivity, and art. I'm thrilled to be a part of the effort.

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Simon Firth
tag:simonfirth.posthaven.com,2013:Post/499193 2012-11-17T17:57:00Z 2013-10-08T17:08:16Z Valley snapshot - a woodpecker granary

I'd seen evidence of acorn woodpeckers high up in trees before, but here's an entire granary that's easily visible from the ground. It's in the Byrne Preserve in Los Altos Hills. A single tree like this can hold 50,000 acorns by the end of the fall.

These are a community effort - run by an inter-related clan with a structure resembling a 1970s utopian commune.

It's wonderful that we now encourage landowners not to remove every tree that dies in their woodlands. These woodpeckers are just one of the 80 Californian bird species that rely on dead trees for nesting, food storing, hunting, roosting, and resting. Besides - if they can't find a tree to drill, acorn woodpeckers will happily turn to fences, utility poles and even buildings to build their larders.

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Simon Firth
tag:simonfirth.posthaven.com,2013:Post/499202 2012-10-05T16:24:00Z 2013-10-08T17:08:16Z Searching for the Chinese workers who built the Transcontinental Railroad

Maxine Hong Kingston's China Men first got me interested in the story of the Transcontinental Railroad and the extraordinary Chinese workers who built the most treacherous parts of it.

Since then I've read more and walked through some of the tunnels they built.

Although tens of thousands of Chinese workers worked on the railroad between 1865 and 1869, not a single document created by any of these workers is known to have survived.

Now a group of reseachers based at Stanford have announced a search in the US and China for family papers created by the mostly migrant workers. It's called the "Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project."

I'm looking forward to hearing about what they get sent.

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Simon Firth
tag:simonfirth.posthaven.com,2013:Post/499212 2012-07-24T21:02:00Z 2013-10-08T17:08:16Z Valley snapshot - the resident lizard

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Simon Firth
tag:simonfirth.posthaven.com,2013:Post/499221 2012-04-20T04:09:00Z 2013-10-08T17:08:16Z Valley snapshot - Judith Selby Lang installation at the Palo Alto Bowls Club

I'm a big fan of Bay Area artist Judith Selby Lang, and of the Palo Alto Art Center, which has been commissioning some excellent work of late.

This week I got to see Lang's new installation at the Palo Alto Lawn Bowls Club with a group of excited 2nd graders. They were treated to a well-designed appreciation activity, learning how Lang and her helpers made the work, what inspired her and some of the environmental and aesthetic ideas that inform her creations. 
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Simon Firth
tag:simonfirth.posthaven.com,2013:Post/499231 2012-03-03T06:27:00Z 2013-10-08T17:08:16Z Anglo settlers in California, ignorance and AC

The 4th grade California Mission experience is a state right of passage and it would be hard to beat the introduction to that world offered by the rangers at San Juan Bautista State Historic Park

The tour of the park that my daughter's class was lucky enough to experience this week introduced them to the Native Americans who lived in the area for many thousands of years, the Spanish priests who arrived a couple of centuries ago and transformed the native culture, the Mexicans who came next, threw out the Spaniards and got the locals to work on their huge ranches, and then the late-arriving eastern Americans who ended up running the show, mostly as a result of shear force of numbers (and a fair bit of squatting).

We learned that the anglos, however, weren't that smart about climate-appropriate building. Take the adorable 19th century log cabin house that now resides right next to the Historic Park museums (it was originally built about a mile away).
 

It's highly attractive to anyone educated to admire the mythic west or fancy ski cabins. The hand-hewn authenticity of it is straightforwardly impressive. Look at the joinery:
 
And the chimney:

But the reality is that it was built within spitting distance of houses that were far better adapted to the local climate, but which the anglos were unable to build -- the adobe homesteads of the Spanish and Mexicans. It's hard to believe that the building below is actually older than the one above, but it is. Plus it was cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter, unlike the picturesque but non-insulated and hole-ridden cabin.

It's interesting to wonder why the anglo settlers settled on a such an inferior building style. Could they not afford adobe (which is just made from clay and cow manure, after all)? Maybe they didn't realize what was better. Or perhaps no-one would tell them. Or were were they afraid, or too proud, to ask?

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Simon Firth
tag:simonfirth.posthaven.com,2013:Post/499243 2012-02-14T18:22:00Z 2013-10-08T17:08:17Z Child-directed 'literacy events' in Death-eye Village

Here's some of what's been going on recently in my backyard, AKA Death-eye Village -- events that have me thinking about how play and literacy connect.

All villages need signage, of course, especially when they're home to shops selling weapons, potions and other accoutrements of magical play. 

Many visitors will want to know where to find the weaponry outlet.

And even within stores, you need to be pointed to the different product options on offer. 

I'll spare you pictures of the weapons themselves, the racks of wands and the (rather putrid) potion mixtures because what interests me here is how the children have naturally and enthusiastically included written language in their play.  

These signs were all made by a seven year old boy whose typical response when asked by a parent or teacher to write anything down is an agonized moan of dismay. And yet here he is running around voluntarily writing.

It turns out that the sign to Death-eye village is a classic example of what Stanford's Shirley Brice Heath famously called a 'literacy event.' Other examples would be reading the name of a favorite cereal on a store shelf, writing your name on a birthday card for a friend, or making money, tickets, or books for games with toys and pets. 

The number of literacy events experienced by children as they begin to read and write is a crucial predictor of their future development as readers and writers. One way to understand the achievement gap between children from lower and higher income households is that the former experience measurably fewer literacy events during their pre-school and elementary years than the latter. 

But a childhood of privilege isn't always amenable to literacy events either, at least those that children originate themselves. After all, a rigidly-scheduled day directed at notching up adult-sanctioned achievement leaves little time for free play. 

For the upscale, ambitious parent, free play is frustratingly . . . well, free. An hour with a tutor guarantees a set number of literacy events. An hour of free play might not see any. But those it does see, I'd argue, are of disproportionate value because they spring from child. 

Here are some lessons I've taken from observing my own children and their friends engaging with literacy in play:

1 - It happens when it happens. One child can want to start creating lists and signs literally years before another will. This is alarming and frustrating to caring but anxious parents who would really like to ensure that their children pass particular benchmarks by specific dates. But give children the time and space in which to develop that interest themselves and you'll help both inspire and preserve, indeed positively encourage, their emerging love of language.

2 - Because you can't schedule child-directed literacy events, children need a huge amount of free time in which to develop games that inspire them to literacy play. That's another big argument for dialing back the scheduling.

3 - Even though you can't schedule a self-motivated literacy event on cue, you can create circumstances likely to let them flower. Most importantly, you can give your children a rich world of stories from which to draw as inspiration. That world can come from conventional books, but it can also be inspired by movies, by conversations about family history, by song, by school, by church-going, by simply talking with a child about their everyday lives and interests. 

4 - You can also establish fertile ground for literacy by seeding your child's play environment with a very few basic, affordable materials: paper, cardboard, pens, tape, paint. That's about it (wood, nails, hammers, sticks, bottles, water, mulch, dirt are great, too).

5 - Lastly, you can probably help by also removing certain things from your kids' play life: an always-on TV or radio, toys that encourage passive as opposed to interactive play, and, perhaps, yourself. If you are not around to write the sign, for example, the child has to write it for him- or herself. The same applies to spelling. My rule is never to spell a word for a child until the child's first given it a go. It's amazing how often they get it right (Death-eye Village -- I had no idea my seven year old could spell that right). 

Most of all, though, we need confidence in our children's own amazing capacity (and need) for working out their lives through narrative. Give them the space to do that and we help enrich not only their lives, but ours as well.
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Simon Firth
tag:simonfirth.posthaven.com,2013:Post/499254 2012-01-29T18:40:00Z 2013-10-08T17:08:17Z A graveyard of grottos
Well, it's actually a regional park, the oldest municipal park in the state of California, according to Wikipedia. 

But for much of its early life, San Jose's Alum Rock Park was also a health spa. Between 1890 and 1932, the 27 mineral springs that run into Penitencia Creek were located and given their own small grottos. In addition, a railway line, swimming pool, tea garden, dance pavilion and a variety of privately owned bathhouses were built to accommodate visitors.

Today, most of those facilities have been dismantled and the park is oriented much more towards the direct and unmediated appreciation of nature. But the stone-built grottos along the creek remain, still dribbling out waters loaded with iron, calcium, sulphur and more. None feature alum, as it happens.

I knew none of this history (there's more here) until visiting the park yesterday. It's a lovely place - clearly popular with locals, and full of wildlife. The disused grottos are fascinating -- modern artifacts with the aura of something ancient that you might stumble upon in Tuscany or Greece.  

 

 

 

 

 

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Simon Firth
tag:simonfirth.posthaven.com,2013:Post/499268 2012-01-09T04:13:00Z 2013-10-08T17:08:17Z Valley snapshot - R.I.P. Great Horned Owl
I wasn't the only one to be excited that my friend Richard found a dead California Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus pacificus) in his backyard in Palo Alto's College Terrace neighborhood this afternoon. We ended up taking a gang of five children over with us to check out the poor deceased bird -- only to find five other kids already there. 

Because we saw no signs of damage, and because the owl's tail feathers were in pretty bad shape, the general (and sentimental) opinion was that the bird had simply succumbed to old age. We were all thrilled, though, to find that it had been living nearby.  

As a gardener plagued by squirrels, I was especially delighted. I'd known that Great Horned Owls were the only local owls that will take a squirrel, but had though they much preferred wooded areas to suburban garden landscapes. Not so, I guess. That's good news for us and a warning for the squirrels to perhaps move on, I rather hope.

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Simon Firth
tag:simonfirth.posthaven.com,2013:Post/499278 2011-12-22T19:28:55Z 2013-10-08T17:08:17Z Valley snapshot - Vintage Rolls Royce

In Los Altos, celebrating the holidays means it's time to decorate the vintage Rolls.]]>
Simon Firth
tag:simonfirth.posthaven.com,2013:Post/499292 2011-11-21T16:22:54Z 2013-10-08T17:08:17Z Cetacean memento mori  
The massive blue whale skeleton at the Seymour Marine Discovery Center at UC Santa Cruz is haunting, especially on a gray November day.

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Simon Firth
tag:simonfirth.posthaven.com,2013:Post/499299 2011-11-21T05:54:26Z 2013-10-08T17:08:17Z What Michael learned today ]]> Simon Firth tag:simonfirth.posthaven.com,2013:Post/499306 2011-11-21T05:51:02Z 2013-10-08T17:08:17Z The reader (age seven) ]]> Simon Firth tag:simonfirth.posthaven.com,2013:Post/499313 2011-11-05T22:51:24Z 2013-10-08T17:08:18Z November rose

The rains have just returned, making for easy drinking and an escape from the stress of summer drought. In response, the roses rush to bloom, even as the nights draw cooler. Their leaves will fall soon. For now, though, a moment of fragile balance in the garden.]]>
Simon Firth
tag:simonfirth.posthaven.com,2013:Post/499322 2011-11-04T01:10:59Z 2013-10-08T17:08:18Z Valley snapshot - rain clouds, Page Mill and El Camino

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Simon Firth
tag:simonfirth.posthaven.com,2013:Post/499332 2011-10-25T04:01:46Z 2013-10-08T17:08:18Z Fire damage It used to be a Helichrysum italicum, until a squirrel ate the plastic sheathing on the power line right above it this last weekend. Two wires in the cable touched, igniting the plastic which then dripped, burning, onto the unsuspecting plant. Said plant quickly became a burning bush, flaming some six feet into the air until the Fire Department arrived. Luckily, this all took place when we were home to notice and call for help before the car parked next to the Helichrysum caught fire as well.  

So what to put there now?  I'm thinking a smaller kind of daisy.  And cone flowers maybe, and some iris, too.

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Simon Firth
tag:simonfirth.posthaven.com,2013:Post/499340 2011-10-16T17:32:09Z 2013-10-08T17:08:18Z Valley snapshot - Sunday morning farmers' market

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Simon Firth
tag:simonfirth.posthaven.com,2013:Post/499356 2011-10-15T20:24:53Z 2013-10-08T17:08:18Z Valley snapshot - dahlia at Hidden Villa, Los Altos Hills ]]> Simon Firth tag:simonfirth.posthaven.com,2013:Post/499365 2011-10-12T01:19:02Z 2013-10-08T17:08:18Z Valley snapshot - Jobs memorial, Palo Alto Apple store Tomorrow it will be one week since Steve Jobs passed away. The Post-it note memorial on his local Apple store continues to grow.

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Simon Firth
tag:simonfirth.posthaven.com,2013:Post/499184 2011-10-10T00:12:34Z 2013-10-08T17:08:16Z Valley snapshot - boy at the Baylands

A perfect day to take a net and see what you can find in the bay (we found snails, a water beetle and several tiny fish).]]>
Simon Firth
tag:simonfirth.posthaven.com,2013:Post/499195 2011-10-06T18:59:32Z 2013-10-08T17:08:16Z Valley snapshot - paying respects at the Jobs' house

There are around twenty people at a time. Parents with kids, guys in hoodies taking a break from their cubicles, neighbors, press, tourists. Most have iPhones. The garden is looking beautiful - the orchard full of apples.]]>
Simon Firth
tag:simonfirth.posthaven.com,2013:Post/499200 2011-10-05T16:49:22Z 2013-10-08T17:08:16Z Valley snapshot - double rainbow over Escondido Elementary

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Simon Firth
tag:simonfirth.posthaven.com,2013:Post/499207 2011-09-27T20:03:31Z 2013-10-08T17:08:16Z Valley snapshot - glass pumpkin patch

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Simon Firth
tag:simonfirth.posthaven.com,2013:Post/499217 2011-09-21T20:17:00Z 2013-10-08T17:08:16Z Barenaked and white

Most Amaryllis belladonna specimens that you see in Northern California are pink. But you can get white, salmon, red and even orange varieties. I have just two white-flowering bulbs. They're lovely, though, and bloom a good few weeks after the pinks, extending the naked lady season nicely.
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Simon Firth
tag:simonfirth.posthaven.com,2013:Post/499230 2011-09-20T17:15:58Z 2013-10-08T17:08:16Z Valley snapshot - Stanford Quad, ready for Convocation 2011

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Simon Firth
tag:simonfirth.posthaven.com,2013:Post/499240 2011-09-19T04:13:37Z 2013-10-08T17:08:17Z Life is (still) where you look for it
In the late 18th century, the great English naturalist Gilbert White observed the following:

"It is, I find, in zoology as it is in botany: all nature is so full, that that district produces the greatest variety is the most examined."
(from The Natural History of Selborne

It's interesting - and a little surprising - that his observation remains true. It's easy to imagine all but the Earth's deepest oceans and its very smallest organisms pretty much already discovered. And yet this weekend brought news of the discovery of 12 new species of frog. What it took to find them, evidently, was examination of a kind that White would surely commend. As the AP puts it: 

"Years of combing tropical mountain forests, shining flashlights under rocks and listening for croaks in the night have paid off for a team of Indian scientists that has discovered 12 new frog species plus three others thought to have been extinct."

On the same day a new species of dolphin was announced in Australia. But the most spectacular example of White's rule still ringing true came a few month's back, in June. We learned that an ongoing project in New Guinea sponsored by the World Wildlife Fund has, over the past ten years, discovered over 1,060 species of plants and animals previously unknown to science.  These include 100 orchids, 134 amphibians, 43 reptiles, 71 fish, 12 mammals and two birds - none of them exactly tiny beings.  

The day before that announcement, the California Academy of Sciences shared the results of a 42-day expedition to just one island in the Philippines. On that short trip, Academy researchers had collected more than 300 plant and animal species that were previously unknown.  

White's Selborne was one of the first ecosystems to be systematically explored. It's exciting to be reminded that so many others remain. 
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Simon Firth