Saturday, August 27, 2011

365 Jobs: Plumbing and LSD

August, 1987

Stony Ridge was an isolated, quiet, hardscrabble ranch in the Santa Cruz Mountains.  You'd never find it unless you had good directions.  At the end of a long, twisting, somewhat hair-raising driveway you came to a gorgeous little valley, rocky and rugged and utterly private, with an ugly stucco ranch house.  A Stanford professor owned it with plans to someday retire there.  Meanwhile he rented the place to some Stanford MBA students who seemed incongruous in the wild west setting. 

The house was unfurnished.  Apparently all the Stanford MBA students required at the time was a mattress, desk, and gigantic stereo equipment.  They decorated the walls with pictures of themselves bare-chested riding motorcycles and singing rock and roll.  No doubt these men are now Silicon Valley moguls of the highest rank. 

When the stereo was off, the only sounds were the scuttling of lizards and the clicking of computer keyboards.

For several years I repaired the ranch house and surrounding outbuildings, never meeting the owner who spoke to me by phone and mailed me checks.  The house was a dusty broken-down disaster that had previously been maintained by an 80-year-old legendary mountain handyman.  I removed the man's deadly bootleg electric system which had tapped into the service entrance before the breaker box.  I patched the funky water system and tried to keep everything running.

Eventually I met the owner, Bob, who wanted to make the small barn livable so he could use it on weekends and eventually retire there.  Part of the barn would be a sculpture studio. 

On a hot morning in August I was installing a sewer line from the barn to join the main septic line from the house.  Olen Ring, a fellow La Hondan, was operating a Bobcat.  Olen was backhoeing  the ditch while I followed along with a shovel, communicating with hand-signals and head nods. 

After Olen departed, Bob invited me to join him for lunch.  He said he'd been watching me and, he said, "I like the way you work."

"I try to get it right," I said.

"I mean I like the way you synchronized with that backhoe guy.  How you communicate.  How you visualize."

All we'd done was plan a ditch and dig it.  I selected Olen because he always had a precise, gentle touch on a Bobcat. 

Bob showed me the sculpture studio, which was basically a stable with a window.  He was working with clay, shaping a nice little nude.  No model.

Over bowls of soup Bob questioned me and pried out the fact that I was a published writer, something I rarely revealed to clients.  My most recent novel, Frank City Goodbye, was about the birth of the hippies in the Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco.  Upon learning this, Bob peppered me with questions.  How did I know so much about the hippies?  Had I been there?  Did I take LSD?  Did I hang out with Ken Kesey in La Honda?  What did I know about the origins of Kesey's LSD experience?

I answered as best I could.

Bob's wife was there, too, spooning soup and looking more and more uncomfortable.  Finally she said, "Disclose yourself, Bob."

He disclosed.  Bob had been one of the researchers at the Menlo VA hospital where Ken Kesey was given LSD.  Bob knew more about the whole story than I did.  He attended the Trips Festival, met Timothy Leary, etc.  But he’d been an academic and seemed to know little about how it felt to be young then.  That was my area of expertise: being young then, being a seed blown by the wind of the Sixties.  Bob was fascinated at how I'd taken root in La Honda, writing books, raising family, working with my body as much as my head.

I told Bob I’d quit writing.  At the moment I couldn’t juggle it anymore with work and raising kids. 

"I've been through the same thing," he said.  "It comes back."  He meant the sculpting, the nice little nude.

Robert McKim
As I found out later, Bob — Professor Robert McKim — was an engineer and industrial designer.  He created the Product Design major and the graduate-level Joint Program in Design at Stanford, an interdisciplinary program that combines mechanical engineering, art, math, physics and psychology.  Dean Hovey, one of the first graduate students in the program, said, “Bob McKim was trying to create little Leonardo da Vincis, people who were skilled in many things and diverse enough to create a whole product."

As a professor Bob had become frustrated that his engineering students couldn't draw or, in his words, "think visually."  He searched for ways to open their minds to visual problem-solving, which led him to the LSD research at the Menlo Park Veteran's Hospital.  

In a book called Altered States of Consciousness, Bob co-authored a chapter (originally published in 1966) describing volunteers — engineers, physicists, mathematicians — who were trying to solve problems after a 200 microgram dose of LSD supplied by the U.S. government.  (Oh how I wish there were a followup study of those volunteers, many years later.)

Bob moved on to other, non-drug methods of encouraging visual thinking and wrote a textbook on the subject: Experiences in Visual Thinking.

Thirty-some years later, by coincidence my son Jesse took a few of those classes pioneered by Robert McKim at Stanford.  By then, Bob had retired.  

Bob was a visionary in his field and an inspiration to a generation of designers, including the founders of IDEO, a world-famous design firm in Palo Alto where in the long strange trip of life, my son Jesse now works.  For the record, Jesse has never taken LSD.  But I'm sure Bob would appreciate Jesse's work methods, just as he admired mine.

As a handyman you never know what connections you'll make in the dusty backroads of the Santa Cruz Mountains. 

No comments:

Post a Comment