Saturday, July 26, 2008

Filoli Friday

Filoli's west side. The back of the mansion faces the valley and the gardens.

Two years ago this week, Diane and I left for a month in Ireland, where we made the Birr Castle Demesne our home base. Feeling a bit homesick for the sense of gentility afforded by a huge mansion and surrounding gardens, we took a little trip yesterday to the nearest one of those to us that's open to the public: Filoli, near Woodside, California.

For those not inclined to track down all the details in Filoli's website, here's the short version: The mansion and its grounds are about 30 miles south of San Francisco, in a lovely valley that includes the Crystal Springs reservoir and its surrounding preserved wildlands. Built in 1917 by the Bourn family of San Francisco (who gathered their wealth the old-fashioned California way: they mined it), the estate's name is a severe distillation of William Bowers Bourn II's affected credo: "Fight for a just cause; love your fellow man; live a good life." That origin also explains its seemingly-odd pronunciation among his former estate's current staff: "fye-LUH-lih." Just about everyone else pronounces it "fih-LOW-lee," thus sounding stylishly Italian.

The mansion itself is an odd hodgepodge of various elegant architectural styles, and is certainly impressive if only for its size. Its grand two stories comprise 43 rooms and its demesne's 650 acres include 16 acres of formal gardens. Now operated by the non-profit Filoli Center for the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the house, gardens, and visitors' center are open to the public six days a week for a modest entry fee. Out of sight of highways, hidden away from any major metropolitan center, it is one of the San Francisco Bay Area's lesser-known delights.

Here's the now-customary SherWords Google Earth geographical context provision:

(Click the image to see an acceptable version. For Google Earth users: the marker for Filoli is in the entry courtyard of the mansion, 37°28'13.62"N , 122°18'38.33"W -- cut 'n' paste into Google Earth, and you're there! Great, highly-detailed aerial photographic coverage of the whole demesne is available there, too.)

Diane and I had visited Filoli once before, in 1997, so we knew to duck through this door to get to the gardens quickly. It reminded us of a more modest door to a grand place that we used a lot two years ago.

The stable's clock tower is something of an icon for Filoli. Here we see it from the west across a lily pond; behind us is a swimming pool. The stable is now a gift shop.

The formal gardens are rich with more than fifty varieties of well-kept roses. Above is a "McCartney," and below...

... is an "October" (complete with an October surprise, appropriate for this presidential election year.)

Diane, over the hedge. It's a prickly hedge, too: holly.

Dozens of cylindrically-trimmed, grand Irish Yews oversee the formal gardens and the mansion's lawns. This canyon of them stretches downhill and northward from an alcove behind us that is a popular wedding site.

Walls and gates pervade the place, evoking everyone's inner "Secret Garden" sense of wonder. Here, hydrangeas beckon to a door to a softly wild, tropical part of the gardens.

The main (east) entrance to the mansion, festooned with the second-best wysteria we know. The best, of course, is one in the Birr Castle magic earldom, but you're probably rolling your eyeballs at those references by now, so I won't include a link.


Library. If you click on the image to enlarge it, you'll get a better view of that grand old celestial globe, which captivated me until a docent told me to take my grubby, proletarian hands off it. Well, not in those words, precisely, but you could just hear them, anyway.

The most popular room in the mansion yesterday was this one: the kitchen. Actually, the kitchen is a three-room complex, consisting of this huge one with the stove(s), a smaller food-preparation room, and the "Butler's Pantry." That last included a huge switchboard on one wall for communication with various rooms in the manse -- and a large, walk-in vault (complete with bank-sized vault-safe door) for the family silverware.

(Aside: there were very few people visiting Filoli yesterday, and, as Diane had predicted, many of them were speaking German and French: people spending their hard-earned euros on our cutrate goodies.)

These twelve slides and two dozen others (including other roses -- and a great croquet lawn for Adam's Uncle Bob, if he ever sees this) can be seen at higher resolution by clicking here.

By the way, if the mansion and its grounds look familiar to you, and if you watched much TV in the 1980's, this is the probable reason for its familiarity:

... the mansion in the credits is Filoli, and a lot of Dynasty, despite its putative Colorado locale, was filmed there.

If you're ever in the San Francisco Bay Area and have half a day to spend in a quiet, beautiful location, you could do worse than Filoli. But you'd better be quick about it. The mansion is a big pile of bricks, erected directly over the San Andreas Fault just ten years after that part of the fault broke in 1906. The fault hasn't budged since, the two sides of the crack under the mansion locked, building up titanic stress. I wouldn't want to be there when it lets go. My geologist friends tell me that a typical time between fault snaps in the Crystal Springs valley is a century, give or take a few decades, so it's due.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Glass Friday

Chihuly at the deYoung, July 18, 2008
(update, July 24: more photos are available by
clicking here.)

As an astronomer, I suppose that I am predisposed to be fascinated by unusual things that glow in the dark. As a former telescope-maker, I am certainly predisposed to appreciate masterful glasswork. As a human being, I am predisposed to appreciate beauty.

No wonder, then, that I was absolutely blown completely away (at least until lunch) by the display of Dale Chihuly's work at San Francisco's deYoung Museum last Friday.

(NOTE: I have uploaded larger than usual original images to Blogger for this post; my standard is 800 pixels on the larger side, but these are 1,000 pixels on the larger side, and they are very well worth viewing at that resolution. You can do so by clicking on any image in this post.)

An early display in the exhibit: autumn comes in large glass leaves.

Chihuly's work is deliciously slathered in controversy in artsy circles. He doesn't actually fabricate the pieces himself, he self-promotes agressively, he has legions of hired minions, he uses light (and marketing) in ways reminiscent of Kinkade... to all of which I say, "so what?" Diane's and my hour in the darkened tunnel of the deYoung's Chihuly exhibit was a jubilant one, a time of slack-jawed grinning that was every bit as energizing as a trip down Disneyland's Splash Mountain waterfall. If that ain't cerebral enough for true art appreciation, then so be it.

The exhibit is popular enough that even museum members need to call ahead for timed tickets, so the darkened trail that winds through the Chihuly exhibit is always pretty well crowded. That prohibited bringing my tripod, so I had to resort to various less-than-optimum hardware and software compromises in order to capture these images. I think they came out pretty well -- for what they are -- but, keep in mind, that they are very, very poor representations of how breathtaking the display really is.

Glass Baskets

Macchia Forest #1

Macchia Forest #2

The "candles" in this work are approximately five feet tall.

Boatloads of Fantasy

Chandelier Room

A Grand Chandelier (about ten feet tall).

Chandelier Detail

A Good Glass Ceiling

Glass Ceiling Detail

Climactic Display: Starting End

Climactic Display: Finishing End

Climactic Display: Detail
A photographer's adjustment I learned to make during the trip through the exhibit was to use my camera's polarizing filter to enhance, rather than minimize, reflections. (The polarizer is almost always used to supress glare and reflections.) It became clear as we went along that there were two major actors in the Chihuly exhibit: the glassworks and the lighting, and that the latter -- including reflections, highlights, etc. -- was absolutely the equal of the former in the overall performance and impact of the work.

At the end of the exhibit is, of course, a gift shop, which includes the opportunity to buy some original products from the Chihuly enterprise. Like this little blue basket. Its size is calibrated by the credit-card-sized price tag at left... for more than $6,000. Mrs. Fort and I opted for a book, instead.

The Chihuly exhibit at the deYoung runs through late September. I strongly urge any of my California readers who haven't been to it yet to hie themselves thereto. It is, to paraphrase Michael Jagger, a glass, glass, glass.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

I'm Happy to Be OK, But...

... I Feel Like an Idiot.

This is the Ft. Harrington workmobile: a 2005 Dodge Dakota. It weighs a little more than three tons, and has a pretty powerful V8 engine, full-time four-wheel drive, and power everything. That means that the engine has to be running in order for the steering and bakes to work easily for anyone who isn't monstrously strong. I'm not monstrously strong. Keep that in mind. (It also has automatic transmission, since Mrs. Fort's surgically-reconstructed knees and ankles prohibit clutch-pedal operation.)

My daily commute is beautiful, about 25 miles long, mostly through the great redwood forest of the Santa Cruz mountains along the twisty, two-lane track of California highway 9. Highway 9 is a popular excursion for folks with all kinds of transportation modes, all the way from hikers to sports-motorcyclists, a spectrum that includes, of course, bicyclists. Recently, over on RACS , I had occasion to vent some frustration over the small percentage of bicyclists who "lane hog" up here in the mountains: downhill coasters who clog up traffic by refusing to pull out of the center of the lane to let motorists pass.

I got caught up behind one of those today on my way to work. The below image from Google Earth (please click on it to see a better view) shows a roughly two-mile stretch of my commute; I was traveling right-to-left along the highlighted path. The yellow-highlighted portion is where I glumly trailed the guy on the bike who was going about 30 mph at maximum, and the comfortable, legal speed for motor vehicles along this stretch is 40. All along this part, he frequently looked back over his shoulder at me, so he knew I was there, but never pulled over to let me pass, and there was (clearly) no place safe for me to pull into the oncoming lane to pass him. The blue part of the path is where things got interesting.

I know this road well. I've driven it just about every workday for the past ten years, so I reckon that means that I've driven this stretch of mountain road more than 4,000 times (both ways.) It's a good thing that I know it well, as it turns out.

Above is a closer view of the blue stretch of the path; I was going from right to left. At the beginning of the blue part, I knew I could pass the cyclist, but there was oncoming traffic, so I waited until point "1" (please click on the image for a better view.) At that point I accellerated moderately until position "2", where I floored the accelerator in order to get past the still-lane-hogging bicycle before any traffic could heave into sight around the oncoming hairpin curve.

At position "3", I was past the cyclist -- and in deep shit.

The throttle was stuck full-open; the V8 was screaming at full rpm, not backing off a bit when I took my foot off the gas.

Between "3" and "4", I stomped on the accelerator several times, trying to unstick the throttle, meanwhile thinking that I could not turn off the ignition (brakes and steering are power-enabled, remember, and I knew that nasty hairpin was coming up fast), and I shouldn't throw the transmission into neutral, because that would probably blow the engine.

At "4" I gave up on the accelerator-banging, and just plain STOOD UP on the brake pedal. From there until position "5", the power brakes and the 230+ horsepower of the out-of-control engine battled each other, the tires screamed (and maybe me, too, but I ain't sayin' for sure), and that hairpin between "4" and "5" flashed past faster than it ever had before.

At "5", knowing the road and its upcoming very short, gentle-curved section, I disengaged the transmission, turned the ignition key off, kept standing of the brake pedal, and leaned heavily to the left with hands in a strangle grip on the steering wheel around the curve -- no power means no power steering, no power brakes, and four-wheel drive becomes 4-wheel lead-weight without power. The whole crippled thing came to a stop at position "6", anticlimactically safely off the road. No cliffhanger. That's okay, really, thanks, my adrenal gland had already had a pretty good workout in the previous ten seconds or so. Didn't need the cliffhanger business, much as it would make for a better read.

(By the way, the valley running down the left side of the above image is the San Andreas Fault.)

Here's where the "idiot" part kicks in:

So, there I was, safe and sound, but a bit rattled. I called in AAA's help via cell 'phone, and while waiting for the yellow truck mused about times gone by. Specifically, that if this had happened in the '60s, I would have just popped the hood and traced the accelerator linkage to find the problem. But I knew that modern automotive technology had progressed so far beyond what I was used to that it wasn't even worth the effort to pop the hood.

When the AAA guy arrived, he agreed with me. He appeared to be about my age, very well-experienced, and capable. And he didn't pop the hood.

When we got the truck to our mechanic, many miles away, and after the truck had been gently lowered from the AAA transport, our mechanic did pop the hood. Here's what he found:

... no, not a pillow, but this redwood twig (the standard pillow is there for scale.) Turns out that the cable from the accelerator pedal to wherever it goes travels up close to the bottom of the windshield. This redwood twig had worked its way from the hood seam at the bottom of the windshield into the engine compartment -- and had fallen into just the wrong place when I floored the accelerator to pass the cyclist, wedging the thick end between two metal parts of the engine and its midsection against a protrusion from the accelerator cable, jamming the throttle into wide-open mode.

If I had just opened the hood, I would have seen it. I didn't, so I wasted half a day of my own... and of the AAA driver.

Not a complete loss, though. It was a beautiful day, and a nice ride in a big ol' yellow truck.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Independence Day, 2008

In Adrianne's garden.

Several of the regular readers of this irregular blog posted articles celebrating Independence Day on July 4th: Mike did, Ruth did, Dann did, and even ronnie posted a wish for us from north of the unstressed border.

Selfish lizard that I am, though, I didn't. Instead, I chose to indulge myself by enjoying some of the benefits that ultimately came tumbling out of the events of 232 years ago. I spent the day taking a long, leisurely drive around the beautiful area I live in, the land around San Francisco Bay, and enjoying a gathering of the extended clan at Adrianne and Grace's house for a great barbeque. Thanks, Declaration signatories (and all the others who, through the years, have furthered and defended their vision); I enjoyed on that day the stuff you started. The only downer was that Diane couldn't accompany me, since she was still not feeling completely up to snuff after a little accident she had a few weeks ago.

Here's a top-down map of my wanderings (click the map to see a version you can actually read):

The light blue trail is my path to Adrianne and Grace's place in Pleasant Hill, while the purple one traces my return. The numbered spots indicate locations from which the photos below were taken. I tried to avoid freeways as much as practicable, given time constraints. If I was going to pay almost fifty bucks in gasoline for the roughly 200-mile round trip, I sure as shootin' was going to enjoy the ride.

Fair warning: what follows, especially the long section at the barbeque, will be of interest only to family, if them. But others are, of course, welcome to join us in virtuality!

The Ride Up to Pleasant Hill

Here's a perspective view, courtesy of Google Earth, from the Boulder Creek end:

(The termini of the routes marked are the centers of the towns, not our actual home locations. I'm not that unconcerned about putting such personal details out here on the web-o-sphere.)

Photo position 1, from a vista point parking lot along California route 35, also known as "Skyline":

Looking eastward. My destination today, Pleasant Hill, is beyond -- but not a whole lot beyond -- the most distant band of clouds (whose slight brown tint is due to smoke from the Big Sur fire, far to the south on the coast.) The water is San Francisco Bay, and the white patches are salt evaporators.

Photo position 2, in an old section of the town of Fremont in the East Bay:

This photo was taken specifically for, and in homage to, the world-famous Canadian blogging cat, Mojo, who is somehow under the impression that he is the President of Cuba.

I have no idea where that idea came from. Really. I don't.

Photo position 3, on Palomares Road, just off its intersection with Niles Canyon Road:

Niles Canyon provides a narrow slot through which a single-track rail line and a two-lane highway find a shortcut from the Livermore area through the East Bay hills down to the heavily populated flatlands by the Bay.

Palomares Road is a scenic ten-mile byway through the heart of the hills that generally parallel two busy Interstate highways: 880 along the East Bay's flatlands and 680 on the east side of the East Bay hills. I discovered it in October, 1989, when I was living in Oakland. The Loma Prieta earthquake of that month devastated normal transportation routes around the Bay for months after, and I used this road as part of an inventive-by-necessity daily commute from Oakland to Cupertino and back.

View to the east from Palomares Road.

At the Barbeque

Adrianne shows off the first season of her raised-bed vegetable garden!

Grace has become quite the swimmer: she's great at diving down to the bottom of the pool and retrieving the weighted rings. It is so very hard to adapt to the fact that she'll be six years old next month. By the time I do, she'll probably be seven. And then 15.

Grace's cousin, Kiana, and her aunt (and Adam's sister), Reva.

Grace and Kiana in the pool.

We had very special visitors from England at this celebration of separation therefrom: Adam's uncle John, the younger (but not youngest) brother of Adam's late mother, and his wife, Ngoc Thu. John, recently retired from a long and successful career at Reuters, is a naturalized British citizen. I had only seen him once in the past 40 years, and that one time was more than 20 years ago. I was delighted at how the years fell away with grace and ease. John is the fellow in the blue shirt; the guy in red is Bill Lombardo, who was a great friend of Doug's. Bill is a musician from, yes, that Lombardo family: Guy was his uncle.

John and Ngoc Thu live in the south of London most of the time, but they have a new second home near Lyon, France. Ngoc Thu is in dark blue, above. Adrianne, in green at right, is famously petite, but notice that Ngoc Thu is standing on a step, and, even then, is only a little taller than Adrianne. Like Adrianne, though, she packs a very large personality in a very small package.

Grace's step-granddad, Adam's stepfather, Reva's father, Kiana's grandfather, Parris, was there with his wife, Dierdre. They live in Grass Valley, California, now, which is where Diane's parents lived after her dad retired. It strikes me that some sort of diagram of this family's relationships to one another might be interesting. Or maybe even form the basis for a doctoral dissertation in sociology.

Uncle Adam and Kiana.

Through his voiceover career connections, Adam hooked Kiana and Reva up with an agent who now has Kiana doing professional photo modeling. I am not kidding; that's real.

"Sometimes my uncle is just so silly that it's beyond words. Rully, it is."

Adam and Lynda.
If you can, zoom in on the right lens of Adam's sunglasses (the left one, of course, from our perspective here.) You'll see a very proud father in the act of taking a snapshot of two wonderful people.

Adrianne's mom's dog, Jack, and I hit it off very well. He knows a sucker for small dogs -- or just a sucker, period -- when he sees one.

The Trip Home

Gramps heads out (photo by Adam.)

Google Earth perspective view of the trip home (the purple trail, at left.)

Photo position 4:

The trip back involved a ride down the length of Niles Canyon, starting in the village of Sunol (and its old-timey but functioning train station) at the top.

Sunol had its Warhol-McCluhan quarter hour of fame in the early 1980's, when its citizens sagely elected a black labrador retriever, Bosco, to be their mayor. The Chinese were famously not amused. According to this 1990 article in the New York Times:

One of the more unusual attacks on the United States came in February in a sarcastic front-page article in People's Daily and other newspapers, asserting that the idiocy of American democracy could be seen in the election of a dog as mayor of a California town called Sunol.

''Western democracy has reached such a pinnacle that there is democracy not only among human beings, but also with dogs,'' the newspaper crowed. It added that the election ''is a wake-up tonic for those kindhearted people who blindly worship Western democracy out of ignorance and naivete.''

Bosco, they hardly knew ye.

Photo position 5 (you'll have to go back to the first map to see this location; it's very nearly all the way back home in Boulder Creek):

Fog drifting into the San Lorenzo Valley.

The Jeep rattled home, over the Saratoga Gap on Highway 9, past this vista point (which we elegantly call "pee point" because of its handy latrine) at nearly sundown, with the Pacific's natural air conditioner flowing into the valleys of the redwoods. It had been a very good day, with the notable exception of the absence of my girlfriend.

And the absence of my older son. You didn't think you'd get through this entire post without mention of him, did you? Not yet, no, not yet.

Thank you, gentlemen below. I couldn't have done it without you.