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GP11Feb04: One of a Kind

Sunday Morning.  A Sunday morning broadcast  provided an escape from Windows, Mad Cow, and Asian Chicken viruses, from news of the low-grade warfare punishing poor nations around the globe, and from the odor of chain store consumerism that is so addictive and yet so unfulfilling for wage earners in many lands.  A trip to the Bahamas no longer gets us away from these untoward conditions, since they are part of the baggage everywhere.  They make us feel as if we are riding out somebody else’s agenda. 

Now we have to climb back into the 18th-century to get away from it all.  Writer and educator Neil Postman, a cultural beacon until his death in October 2003, urged us to get with the 18th in any event, since he thought it would best equip us to handle the 21st, as he argued in Building a Bridge to the 18th Century

Professor Jack Lynch of Rutgers got us there during the church-going hour via C-Span from the Boston Athenaeum (www.bostonathenaeum.org).  Author (or editor, if you like) of Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary, a slimmed down version (3100 entries) of the Master’s original (42,000 entries), he rambled on amusingly about dictionaries in general but also focused on Johnson’s in particular, which has always been a bible for literate men and women.  With his vast sweep of hair and his mildly eccentric disposition, Lynch himself seemed to play out his own concept of an 18th-century lexicographer at the lectern. 

Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language, despite all the wondrous productions that came after, including Webster’s patriotic American rendition, was simply different.  Most have a squad of editors; he was the only author of his work.  It is a delight that represents his prejudices and literary leanings.  It is of his brain, his time, and his place.  It is one of a kind. 

Warwick.  On the Global Province, we take special pleasure in putting forth “one of a kinds” for your inspection.  Just recently we added Clay Lancaster’s architectural folly Warwick to Global Wit (Item 109), an 1809 structure, near his birthplace in Lexington, which he resuscitated, embroidered, and expanded into a mischievous delight.  See www.warwick
foundation.org.  An architectural critic who waxed on about Brooklyn’s brownstones and Nantucket’s charms, Lancaster understood that the most singular architecture had to be stamped with the markings of time and place as well as the thumbprint of its creator in order to achieve enduring uniqueness.  In the San Francisco Bay Area, the regional AIA Gold Medal Winner Bernard Maybeck achieved a similar distinction by designing redwood domestic structures that combined lofty conceits from his Beaux Arts training with the simple, humble lines of an aspiring society.  Forget the International Style if you want to create one-of-a-kinds.  History, accumulated knowledge, local color, endless refinement, and a bit of wit is what creates admirers who shout, “There’s nothing like it.” 

Saffron and Spice.  We just visited GoumanyaT et Son Royaume (Best of Class, Item 322) in Paris which, as near as we can tell, is the world’s best spice shop, all built on the knowledge accrued by one family over some 6 generations, the business having started in 1809.  The spices there are simply better than we have found at any enterprise in the United States.  Proprietor David Thiercelin, like his forebears, has a special knowledge of saffron and can tell you of the poseurs to avoid in the trade.  As with Johnson or Clay Lancaster, the key to his fine offering is that he not only has the right goods but he has an encyclopedic knowledge about his domain that enables him to always shun mediocrity.  With the ingredients provided at his shop and others, is it any wonder that French chefs can still put a better meal on the table? 

Seminary for Thinkers.  In a few weeks, we’ll add the Institute of Advanced Study to the Big Ideas section of Global Province.  Public Television has commemorated its seminal role in advancing big theories.  See www.thirteen.org/bigideas/about.html.  Years ago we visited with one of its Directors whose wife, as we remember, was a biochemist.  They both were bedeviled by a strange smell that emanated from their refrigerator, clinging there no matter what they did.  In all their travels, they had never heard how charcoal sweeps away odors.  We sent them a batch as partial recompense for an afternoon’s great conversation. 

The Institute, even more than Princeton University, became the home of brilliant immigrants and other thinkers during the 1930s.  Probably none of them knew much about charcoal, but they could ponder game theory and the puzzles of astrophysics, perhaps a bit of relativity, and other interplanetary thoughts without much regard for the everyday cares of the world.  Einstein was even able to reach into religion and poetry.   

Unlike all the think tanks that have sprung up around the country that deal deeply with a narrow agenda often dictated by the purse or politics, the Institute was a special haven that soared because a scholar there might think about anything longer and harder than anyone else.  If you are not expected to think about trivia, maybe then you can get to the big stuff.  

Survival.  Retail consultant Paco Underhill has decried the “monoculture” of our shopping malls where the same products and the same stores inhabit little boxes constructed by real estate developers who neither know nor care about the retail experience.  He not only suggests that the malls are dreary but that they are, as a result of their sameness and sterility, at an economic dead end. 

Perhaps we need more “one of a kinds” everywhere in our society to sustain our economy and our imagination.  It is rather ironic that, as America draws to the close of the Industrial Revolution and mass manufacturing and tries to move into the Information Economy,  ever lower-cost knockoffs are being pushed through the global distribution chain and that we are encountering copies at every turn.  This was supposed to be the era of mass customization, but it ain’t, yet.  In the weeks to come, we will talk more about “one of a kinds,” not as an eccentric cure for boredom, but as a remedy for an economy that is outsourcing itself into oblivion.  We will even theorize that one might even look for “one-of-a-kind” investments because they might just endure a while.

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