Saturday, August 9, 2008

Welcome to Nut Hill

As everyone on the East Coast knows, Midwesterners are narrow minded, gun-loving, pathologically patriotic, hyper-religious rubes. Of course, any midwesterner can give you the low down on those elitist, Godless, ivy-leaguing, goat cheese eating East Coast snobs. But if there's one thing the midwest and the East coast actually agree about, it's Californians. They're wierdos. A bunch of loopy, spacy, new-ageified, crystal-worshiping, airhead wack jobs. When we moved to Cleveland from California years ago, we'd tell people where we were coming from and they'd visibly recoil. Sometimes they would recover and make a lame joke. But you knew that they would forever suspect you of sacrificing goats in your basement.

Now, I live in the alleged vortex of West Coast wierdness, Berkeley California, where Code Pink is locked in endless combat with the local marine recruiting station and the sign on the bike rental place reads "pedal now or paddle later". I know this flavor of free speech doesn't play well in Columbus Ohio but who would want to live there anyway? To my mind, the people here in Berkeley are remarkably sane, politically and environmentally. They are tolerant of everyone, revel in diversity, and believe that war is obsolete. They brake for pedestrians, fret over their carbon footprints, let their wrinkles show and try their darndest to eat locally grown food. They are also often unapologetically eccentric.

Our little corner of the mountain is called Nut Hill, possibly after the Boyntons, a family of graecophiles who once lived up the street from us in the Temple of the Winds. The childhood best friend of Isadora Duncan, Florence Treadwell Boynton shared her famous friend's passion for dance and ancient Greece. While Isadora eventually packed up her veils and scarves and moved to Europe, Florence married and became a beloved "modern" dance instructor to two generations of Berkeley girls. When Florence and Charles Boynton hired renowned Berkeley architect Bernard Maybeck to design their home, they requested plans that "reflected a Hellenic lifestyle".

The Boyntons didn't just love the ancient Greek lifestyle: they lived it. Like every successful San Francisco attorney, Charles Boynton left for work each day in his three piece suit, briefcase in hand. But as soon as he came home, he threw off his flannel shackles and slipped into a toga. The family folie-a-dix required that the Boyntons and their eight kids wear grecian robes year-round. They must have been a hardy lot: the original temple, eventually destroyed by fire and then rebuilt, was completely open, like its ancient Greek counterparts. That's open, as in no doors or windows. Open to whatever the winds blew in - leaves, bugs, fog and wintry weather with temperatures in the thirties.

The house was green when green was just a color - garbage was composted, water came from a natural spring, and the space was heated in winter by a central fire pit and hot water pipes in the floor. The outhouse was discretely tucked away behind the Eucalyptus trees, next to the grape arbor where Florence Treadwell Boynton gave birth to all of her kids. The Temple of the Winds had no kitchen: Raw foodists and vegans before either term was even coined, the Boyntons subsisted on fruits, honey and, yes, nuts. Whether Nut hill was named for the Boynton diet or the Boyntons themselves remains a subject of academic debate in Berkeley to this day.

All that remains of the original Temple of the Winds are its Corinthian columns, long since incorporated into an imposing stucco house whose inhabitants appear distressingly normal. But you don't have to go far to run into some quirky folk. Wandering through the farmer's market, you spot the Tiger Man, his bike upholstered with orange and black synthetic tiger fur, punctuated by a long tiger tail that flaps from his bicycle seat. Or you find yourself waiting for the bus with the Prophet, a Rastafarian in biblical Burlap robes and a straw coolie hat. Perhaps you live down the street from Sir Legs, who wears skirts year-round - in the Winter, something flannel and kiltish, in the summer, a colorful sarong. You hit the local coffee house and line up behind the Pajama Lady, well into her 70s, with her white mohawk and signature pastel flannel pjs. Or you're at the local Whole Foods, shopping next to a stunning young woman. In her long skirt and flowered hat, she's dressed like Mary Poppins, but she's no nanny. The baby she's holding is obviously hers, because she's obviously breast feeding and both her boobs are, well, obviously exposed, right there in the produce section in close, poetic proximity to the tuscan melons.

And then there's my pilates instructor, who is studying to be a Mayan Shaman - never mind that there are not enough Mayans in the Bay Area to provide her with a customer base. So how can we explain all this different drumming ? Could it be a lack of animal protein in the diet? Perhaps a mysterious cellular response to shifting tectonic plates? A secret plot to keep the rest of the country so weirded out that that they won't move to California and spoil it for the rest of us?

Just chalk it up to tolerance. Out here, nobody cares if you wear a toga to the grocery store, grow your own weed or practice the didgeridoo in the nude. The scenery's gorgeous and the weather's fine. Just like the rest of us, the eccentrics get to come out and play. And the rest of us don't mind a bit.

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