In 2010 a family of four sold their charming little condo in the increasingly fashionable neighborhood of University Heights. With the money they bought a stripped out house in East San Diego previously owned by human smugglers. Their goal was a radical change in lifestyle that would allow DIY Makerism, self reliance, alternative technology, permaculture, and urban homesteading into their lives in ways their HOA would have never allowed. The ideas that lead them to take this plunge came from the steampunk movement as it was during a brief shining period when art and philosophy seemed at least as important as brass, and great essays, speeches, and letters were written. These days they don't worry so much about what people call "steampunk." They call what they're doing the Greyshade Estate.

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Friday, April 4, 2014

Terraced Yard

I finished terracing the backyard with urbanite and fill dirt about six months ago. The crab grass in the fill dirt sprouted up so thickly that it obscured the wall so I'm just taking a picture of it now. Its totally changed the yard from abandoned waste ground into a space that looks like someone cares about it. All materials were free. It just took about nine months of very hard work. Now I just need to replace the crab grass with something a little more edible.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

The Divided Heart of an Agrarian Steampunk DJ

I wrote this piece for a webzine called Aether Magazine last summer. The premiere issue was themed "Steampunk's Divided Heart." Unfortunately the project seems not to have panned out.

Abney Park at the Edison 8 May 2008
From the right: Chromatic Theory, S. Sprocket, The Anachronist, and the author

 I first became aware of steampunk’s transition from an obscure subgenre of science fiction into an intellectual and artistic explosion in early 2007. A friend told me about a new Internet forum he was on called Brass Goggles. He was known by the screen name “Anachronist” on the forum. Anachronist, his girlfriend, my wife and I became the first group of steampunks in San Diego. There were a few other people in town but they repeatedly stood us up when we tried to hang out.

Anachronist and I grew magnificent facial hair, took to wearing braces and bowler hats and waistcoasts. The four of us spent a lot of time talking about the ideas we read about, and the things that were going on hundreds of miles away. This was before steampunk conventions. Steampunk was a presence at the Burning Man festival. Steampunk Magazine was brand new. Abney Park had done a steampunk photo shoot but their albums were still straight-forward goth. Raspuntina seemed to fit the bill better with their album “Oh Perilous World,” as did the Dresden Dolls, and of course there was Dr Steel. Steampunk was a presence at Maker Faire also and Makers and steampunks shared a philosophical base in DIY and a pragmatic user serviceable technology. A few brave souls put together steampunk costumes for sci-fi conventions and confused their fellow nerds, but most of the world’s scattered steampunks just worked the style into their daily wear. There were so few events going on that if you didn’t dress steampunk to just out and about you never would dress steampunk at all.

 Despite how physically isolated many of us were it was an exciting time. We were very aware that this was the start of something. What the nature of that something was, was the topic of countless debates on Brass Goggles, and in those days everyone was on Brass Goggles. It was the steampunk community. The Makers were the high status rock stars of the forum with musicians running a close second. It was out those debates that a steampunk philosophy, or a least a few generally agreed on values emerged. Making things was always better than buying them. Making things that did something and looked awesome at the same time was the ultimate in cool. There was some kind of dissatisfaction going on with how technological history had played out in the real world. Some people just thought it was ugly and plain. Others hated the way it couldn’t be modified. Others were very uncomfortable with how dependent we were on a vulnerable high tech infrastructure that we could not control. This later point was sometimes tied to the depletion of oil.

By 2008 some of these ideas made it into print. One of the most thought provoking was Johnny Payphone’s Open Letter to Jake Von Slatt and Datamancer, from Steampunk Magazine number 4. It was a full of intellectual gems but the passage that stuck in my mind the most was this one: “To me, living a steampunk self-reliant life of minimal technology is about preparation for those possibilities. I don’t want to survive an earthquake only to die because I don’t know how to grow corn, or fix a generator, or suture. And thus I only involve user-serviceable technologies in my life.” I thought about this passage and all the other philosophical bits by the steampunk thinkers deeply. I came to the conclusion that as a steampunk I should always be learning new skills, and finding new ways stretch myself as a Maker. Also while making things look cool and brassy was great, the practical steampunk goal was to be in control of the technology I used. Within that goal, the technologies I most depended on were the ones I needed to know the most about, for example, food production.

By the spring of 2008 we had more to do than read and discuss philosophy. Abney Park released Lost Horizons at a Bar Sinister show in LA. The Edison bar opened up. The four of us took the name Machina Fatalis Steampunk Social Club. The idea was simply that if we said Machina Fatalis was putting together an event it would seem like a bigger deal and people might not stand us up. It worked. In the aftermath of Comic-Con international’s first steampunk met up Machina Fatalis put on a host of events, culminating in the launch of Chrononaut a steampunk club night. Chrononaut hosted two dozen steampunk parties from 2009-2011, making it one of the most successful steampunk clubs in the Western US. Prior to Chrononaut, I had no real experince as a DJ or an MC or planning musical event, but as a steampunk I was always up for learning new skills.

 By the time Chrononaut was underway Anachronist was dropping out of steampunk. The beginning of the end for him was when someone spray-painted a Nerf Maverick and posted it to Brass Goggles the first time. For us steampunk was a subcultural style and value system. We weren’t cosplayers. We were aware that steampunk cosplay was becoming more popular but until that poorly painted Nerf gun, the cosplayers seemed to want to match the craftsmanship of the other Makers. Anachronist took it as proof that the movement would soon descend into total superficiality. I figured that steampunk could survive a few cheap and easy props, especially in a city with asuccessful steampunk club night. Music could unite the costume and lifestyle people. Surely there was room for both.

Chrononaut changed over time. The crowd got older and more indifferent to the music. We started with a few vendors but they became an uncontrollable flood. In many ways the club died one night in 2010 although I was too busy spinning tunes to notice. A friend of mine decided to check the night out. He’s a starving music student but he put together a decent outfit, a three piece “suit” of coordinating but not matching tweed. I thought he looked quite dapper. During the night someone looked him over and asked. “What do you call that? Steamprole?” He never came back.

All this time my wife, two boys and I were packed into a 750 square foot condo. We were making the small things we could, sewing when we could find space and trying to grow herbs on a north-facing balcony. This was not even close to the lifestyle that steampunk inspired us to. We’d been reading about low-tech self reliance movements and were increasingly seeing a confluence of ideas that steampunk was only one aspect of. We came across ideas like homesteading, permaculture, and finally urban homesteading. During a day of idyll web surfing I found something startling. The housing market had shifted so much that it was possible for us sell our condo and buy a house. It turned out to be a far more difficult process than we thought, but we bought an extreme fixer on a large but barren urban lot. We named it, not without satire, the Greyshade Estate. Before it was even fit for human habitation I started a blog and wrote a mission statement on what we were trying to do.

Powerful people started to notice steampunk. People in the inner circle of sci-fi fandom decided to put on a steampunk convention despite the fact that some of them disliked steampunk as a genre. A wealthy promoter decided that steampunk was the next big thing in music. By the end of 2011 Chrononaut, as a monthly event, had died an extremely ugly death, at the hands of greedy venue owners. People who insist that steampunk fit the mold that of other “fandoms” that have gone before it, run our local convention, and reject more philosophic panel topics. If I were a wise man I would walk away from steampunk. I don’t enjoy science fiction conventions much anymore, steampunk or otherwise. I show up in the clothes I wear everyday and get accosted by vendors trying to accessorize the "newbie." I’ve had well-intentioned people shove props in my hand for photo shoots out of pity. I try to explain that I don’t need these things because I’m not in costume but I might as well be speaking another language. From the local scene I get two messages over and over. “Please start Chrononaut up again,” and urban homesteading isn’t steampunk.”

Yes if I were wise I would just walk away, but its not quite that simple. Steampunk is like song that’s stuck in my head. In fact, it’s like a playlist of thousands of songs. It has literally changed my life. It colors every technological and aesthetic choice I make. Part of me wants to say: “We threw some good parties, we became urban homesteaders and it is a healthier saner life choice. Move on now.” I’m not sure its really possible to move on when something has gotten that far under your skin. Then there is this other thing going on with me and steampunk. That mission statement/manifesto thing I wrote has gotten over five thousand hits. In fact the monthly hits on my blog have been going up so fast they’re starting to make me dizzy. I’m finding references to my blog all over Internet. Maybe I’ve come full circle. Maybe I’m that steampunk philosopher on the web that inspires others, maybe not.

All I know is that I love steampunk, no matter how much it hurts.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

My first trim work

Horizontal blinds offendeth mine eye. Not only are they cheap examples of modernism gone horribly wrong, but the need for them is based on modernist architectural corner cutting. In 1953, when they built my house, trim work was considered too expensive and time-consuming to install. Instead they simply set the doors into the stud and drywall construction and rounded the corner to give a nice clean modernist line. After all, no one wanted fussy trim work in 1953. It looked positively Victorian to them, and they felt it served no purpose.

But trim work does serve a purpose. It reinforces the edges of doors and windows allowing them to do things like support curtains. Without trim you have to try to fix your curtain rods to a wall stud with long screws or use drywall screws and hope for the best. You are limited to lightweight curtains at most, or horizontal blinds. Our house came with horizontal blinds.  

Horizontal blinds break constantly. The ones in my son Colin's room seemed more cursed than most. I tried to hang curtains and the mounts pulled out of the wall after only a few months. There was nothing for it but to revert to good reliable Victorian technology. So I took the plunge and put up my first piece of trim work.

As simple a project as this was in and of itself it meant coming up with a plan for all the trim throughout the house. It had to be a plan that could be done in stages as we had time and money. Which meant I had to chose materials that were likely to be around for awhile. What I decided was to use simple boards of  California redwood for everything but the picture rails. In California, redwood is one of the most regulated forestry products in the world, so its likely to be around at a stable price for the foreseeable future. Its got a nice fine grain that sands and stains well but is more affordable than any hardwood.

I'm using Monocoat stain left over from doing my floor. The redwood stains darker than my floors but they still look good together. My first stage is simply to install matching boards over all the windows, then the doors. After that I'll see how it goes. As I install the the boards I have to fill in with plaster and paint due to the rounded edges I mentioned. It's going to be a long process but eventually the effect will be cross between the craftsmen houses of the 1920s and a Victorian manor.  

Sunday, September 1, 2013

My Climate / My Cooking

A couple days ago, when it was especially hot and humid, I did all my cooking for the day in the morning, in the shade of a tree over a charcoal fire pit. The thought of heating up my house by cooking in the indoor kitchen was just revolting. This way, even though the coals were hot, there was a breeze at my back.

If you visit Old Town San Diego you will note that the Spanish settlers did most of their cooking outdoors. Historically the Kumeyaay people did everything but sleeping under a sunshade at most. Then silly white people came along and insisted that kitchens belonged indoors because that's the way they did things in Boston and New York.

In a Mediterranean climate cooking indoors only makes sense a few months out of the year. This is why I really want to build a wood fired outdoor kitchen. For now the technology to cook outdoors is still accessible because its basically prehistoric. Its like this homo sapiens: when its hot build your fire outside your cave. When its cold build your fire inside your cave.

Of course you can always build a fire inside your cave in hot weather, turn on the air conditioning, and stare with dull horror at your power bill. Plenty of people do this, but I'm not sure they qualify as homo "sapiens."

Friday, May 31, 2013

The Root Simple compound

Erik and Kelly of the Root Simple blog have a laid back approach to self reliance and eco-living. For over a decade they've been experimenting with dozens of projects at their small home. Their discoveries are compiled in two extremely useful books The Urban Homestead and Making It. Even if you live in a tiny condo or apartment as we once did Making It is an will teach you how live a healthier, greener and more economical life. This video is a twenty minute summary of their views and knowledge. Its interesting to hear Erik talk about things being "low tech." At times he sounds like a green thumbed version of Johnny Payphone. Watching this video makes me realize that we are crazy ambitious in what we are doing. We have kids, nearly three times as much land to tame, and our house is still not "move in ready" in the conventional sense. Oh and we want it to look steampunk eventually. We do have the advantage that people like Erik and Kelly have done a lot of research and development for us. Take a look at some of Kirsten Dirksen's other videos also. There is much to inspire.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Kitchen lights

Now that I know that we're not losing our home, I decided to celebrate by finishing a fun project I've been gathering parts for for a while, a coordinating set of lights for my kitchen to replace the plastic mounted bare bulbs we've put up with since buying the place.

The first one is near the sink and counter. I started with a vintage pulley my wife found on Ebay. I simulated old cloth covered wire by sliding modern two strand electrical cord into nylon tubular webbing. I branched the cord by splitting the two strands in the middle, removing some insulation at staggered spots and wrapping the connection in a electrical tape secured with thread. The join sits on top of the pulley and is close enough to the ceiling to be practically invisible. I picked up some heavy duty sockets and vintage style bulbs at Home Depot. The whole is secured to the ceiling with by attaching a simple wooden disk to the fixture mounts. I painted the disk to match the ceiling, drilled a hole for the cord, and screwed in a small hook.

The fixture over the kitchen table was a bit more complicated. The frame of the fixture is metal hanging basket that I reversed the chains on to create a hanging dome shape. I used the same sockets and cords that I used for the other fixture but the junction was a little bit more complicated. I used a small kitchen funnel for a junction box. The connections were too bulky for screw on connectors so I soldered them into inelegant but functional lumps. Once I tested my three tentacled light beast I mummified the conections in electrical tape and secured it to the frame. The sockets I attached with three small bolts. The cords I attached with twists of rebar wire. Placing three of these twists close to where my junction funnel sits on the frame holds the funnel securely in place. The ceiling mount is identical to the one holding up the pulley light.

The last step was to put both fixtures on dimmer switches with fancy brass plates aligator head knobs.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Good news

We're getting a lot of hits this morning due to the appearance of my guest post, The Nine Novels that Defined Steampunk, on the Steampunk Workshop. That makes it all the more important that I share our good news in timely manner. A couple weeks ago we received notice that our Social Security application for Miles had been approved. What that meant in terms of money we did not know until this Saturday when our first check came in the mail. Basically we are getting enough so that between my job and SSI our steady income and our fixed bills meet. That means if we continue to live like frugal little homesteaders and reliable people I will not have my wages attached and we will not default on our mortgage. We still have to scramble each month for power, water, gasoline and what few groceries we buy but the house is safe. This is huge! For this reason we are asking you NOT to donate to our Go-Fund-Me fundraiser below. It has served its purpose by getting us through late March and April, when we truly had no way to pay our bills. A hearty thank you to all who helped us when we had no where else to turn!