Partnering with Nature: an interview with J. Alan Pipes

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Partnering with Nature: an interview with J. Alan Pipes

Last month I spent an evening strolling through the Mingei International Museum in Balboa Park, San Diego.  As I meandered through the exhibits, I stumbled across a series of quotes by the 20th century Japanese philosopher Sōetsu Yangani.  His seminal work, The Unknown Craftsman: A Japanese Insight Into Beauty, captured the essence of a Folk Art movement that celebrated the style and function of handmade goods, crafted by everyday people.

Staring three feet away, at a starkly colored wall, I stood reading a 16x16 inch framed box that had these printed lines:

No machine can compare with [human] hands.  Machinery gives speed, power, complete uniformity and precision, but it cannot give creativity, adaptability, freedom, heterogeneity.  These the machine is incapable of, hence the superiority of the hand.

Sōetsu Yangani's words got me thinking about my artisan friend Jeff Burt-Gracik --founder & owner of J. Alan Pipes -- and the quality, creativity and heart of his craft.  As husband, father, surfer and thinker, Jeff embodies the Mingei theory of normal people creating objects for everyday use; a salt of the earth type using his hands to fashion and form an artifact that reflects the spirituality, beauty, tradition and intrinsic value of carving pipes, as well as the individual and communal characteristics surrounding the experience of smoking.

I was fortunate to sit down with Jeff in his shop and ask him about his work.  Sipping Japanese whiskey and enjoying some seasoned Jamaican Macundo cigars from 1981, I listened as he talked-story about his company, his artful-inspiration, being a father and the fulfilling, yet challenging process of partnering with nature.

MC       When did you recognize you had a bent toward art?

JA        I was a creative kid; I loved drawing, recreating frames of comic books and entering into drawing contests at school.  I think watching my Dad, someone who was always making items for our house, I learned the lesson of, “Why buy something, when you can make it for yourself?” This sparked an interest in me to make my own stuff, there was always a freedom to try. 

MC       Was your family artistic?

JA        You could say that.  My maternal grandfather, a finance guy, was actually a really good painter.  It was funny, he loved painting clowns.  I was the kid who grew up with non-scary clown paintings (laughs)!  And then on my Dad’s side, we have cousin Andy – Andy Warhol.

MC       Wait, you’re related to Andy Warhol?

JA        (Laughter) Yeah, I never met him but my dad’s mom used to paint with him when they were kids.  Growing up there were always stories about cousin Andy; which looking back, I think impacted me.  From early on in my life, I knew I had art in my blood.  Plus, there was an academic-side to my family that influenced me.  On my mom’s side, my 3rd great grandfather founded the University of Massachusetts.  So, I had the best of both worlds growing up: art and thought.  For me, they complemented one another.  I mean, I was the high school student taking AP calculus and model-boat building classes at the same time.  In college, my interests shifted from visual art to music.  I learned to play the guitar, then built one.  I’ve always been someone who enjoys thinking and creating.

MC       And pipes?  How did that come into being?

JA        Before attending grad school, I had developed a taste for nice cigars.  But once my wife, Melissa, and I started attending classes and living as full-time students, our money went to more important things.  One day, Melissa suggested that I start smoking a pipe, and it was like Alice in Wonderland – I looked into the hole and fell in.  My neighbor had some tools for making pipes; I bought a book, read some forums and met some people that helped me understand the process.  I would attend classes during the day, then after studying in the evening, I’d work until early the next morning practicing and making pipes.  I’d get tired, go to bed and do it all over again.  I loved it. 

MC       Did you start selling your pipes right away?

JA        I started posting images on-line of my stuff, and someone reached out and said they liked my pipes and wanted to buy one.  I was blown away that people were paying attention to my work, not to mention willing to buy it!  With that sale, I was able to purchase three more pieces of briarwood, which kept the process going.  By my 18th pipe, my work was included in an illustrated book written by a Portuguese author named Jose Manuel Lopes and published in Portuguese.  The book is entitled Cachimbos – it’s like a coffee table book about pipes and smoking.  It was about 5 or 6 years into the craft that I had an ah-ha moment and realized I was a professional pipe maker.

MC       You mentioned that you had people along the way who helped you in learning the craft of carving pipes.  How important are mentors in the process of becoming a skilled artisan?

JA        I think it’s extraordinarily important.  There are very few people in the pipe-making world who haven’t apprenticed under someone else that I can look at their work and say, “That’s good.”  Pipes are functional.  Though artistic, they have to perform – they’re not just pretty things to set on a table and look at.  There is a precision that comes from learning the craft.  Art comes from your head and your heart, but the craft comes from watching and learning from others who invest in you as an artisan.  There is sloppy design and sloppy craftsmanship; and then there is excellent design and excellent craftsmanship.  I firmly believe that having multiple mentors, people who give you the gift and diversity of their experience and skill, help you become excellent in your work.  Your ideas can be unique, but they have origins – a foundation for you to make informed decisions about design.

MC       It’s like jazz, you have to know the rules before you can break them.

JA        Exactly.  Seasoned pipe makers are always asked, “What is one piece of advice that you’d give someone starting out?”  For years I heard, “Find your own style.  Find your own style.  Find your own style.”  I found that troubling.  I never heard, “Learn to make a good pipe.”  My approach has been different.  From the beginning, I have sought to make the very best pipe I could; and then once I mastered that – or at least had some facility – then I could dress it up and play with design.  It’s like an architect designing a building that looks pretty but isn’t functional.  What the hell is the point?  The same is true for pipes.  If it’s not functional, it’s a sculpture with three holes in it (laughs)!  When a customer buys one of my pieces, I fully expect them to use it and to pass it down as an heirloom.  I have made and stamped close to 1200 pipes and I would love for each of them to be used for 50 or 70 years.

I can’t control nature; I have to collaborate ... My partner is nature.

MC       When it comes to design, what’s your process?

JA        A pipe begins the moment I pick out the wood.  This past summer I traveled to Milan to buy my briar.  The cutter laid out 200 blocks and I individually inspected each piece hand picking about 25 of them.  Sometimes I know the pipe I want to make the moment I see the wood.  Sometimes it takes me looking at it for months before an idea hits me.  When it does, I’ll either sketch out the design or go straight to the wheel to see what emerges.  It’s a place of great satisfaction and frustration.    

MC       The serendipity of the unknown.

JA        I think so.  It’s the process of realizing potential.  You have an idea that you want to see come to fruition, but each block of wood is different.  There are times when I start shaping a piece of briar and everything falls into place.  However, there are other moments when I cut into a block and I encounter a flaw in the grain and I have to stop.  The same is true for applying the stain.  Here’s an example of the same pipe, yet this one is more dramatic in color.  (Holding two pipes in his hand) Both are beautiful, one is extraordinary.

In the past I have worked with metal, making knives.  Though the process is similar, metal is uniform.  You never encounter a flaw in metal that you haven’t created.  That’s not the case with carving pipes.  Wood is dynamic.  I can’t control nature; I have to collaborate.  It’s exciting, yet profoundly difficult.  My partner is nature.      

MC       Wow, there’s a life-lesson: “I can’t control nature; I have to collaborate.”  Has carving pipes taught you any other “life-lessons?”

JA        Well, it’s funny.  Having studied theology in graduate school, I get a lot of questions like that from people.  They ask me, “How has making pipes influenced your beliefs?”  I’m always curious what they expect me to say, “Oh yeah, it brings me closer to God!” (laughter)

MC       Ha! (laughter) Okay, let me rephrase the question more specifically.  How does your passion to realize potential impact the way in which you parent?

JA        (Continued laughter) It’s easier to sculpt briar than it is to sculpt a person!

MC       (Continued laughter) Well said. 

JA        I have two kids: a nine-year-old girl and a five-year-old boy.  Both of them are so precious, both so unique, both beautiful and smart; they each possess their own will, their own personality, their own outlook on life, their own creativity.  And much like the briar I work with, you can’t control it.  You try to create the right environment, you give them experiences that may help reveal who they are to become and you do the best you can with what you have.  But in the end, it’s a partnership.  That’s parenting - recognizing the gift of each day to help shape and form a life, problem solving when nature introduces challenges and encouraging the passions that are embedded within your children.  As parents, we only have them for a short period of time; and we can’t take those moments for granted. 

MC       Have you seen your artistic roots in them?

JA        Oh my God, most definitely; especially in my nine-year-old.  She loves to draw, loves to create but mostly she is an avid reader.  At the age of seven she read through the Harry Potter series and has since read them multiple times.  She writes songs, she writes stories.  She’s learning Mandarin Chinese in her school and her best friend speaks Farsi.  Together they created their own language with an extensive vocabulary complete with a dictionary.  It’s crazy.

You know we tried various sports with her – she was the kid on the soccer field picking daisies and throwing them in the air just to see what they looked like when they floated.  But in the end, we realized that she had her own interests, so we started allowing her to pursue them.  I think that’s the gift that we, as parents, can give her – allowing her to be herself.  It’s respecting the individuality of her life.

MC       You strike me as a grateful person.  What’s the secret to your happiness?

JA        There are so many things that make me happy.  Every day is filled with happiness.  From waking everyone up, to making coffee for Melissa, to dropping the kids off to school and watching my daughter carry her enormous backpack filled with more stuff than she could possibly use – items that she loves – to making pipes, to interacting with my customers, to cooking, to eating well, to exercising – it’s all of it.  I mean everything is a gift. 

It’s so easy to get wrapped up in the details of doing this or that; packing something up, answering an email, shipping something out, making dinner, putting the kids to bed, collapsing on the couch because you’re so exhausted and then getting up the next day and doing it all over again.  I think we have to establish memorable moments – reminders throughout the day and week that keep in front of us the simple experiences that bring us joy, not allowing them to pass by.

MC       And the result of such a lifestyle?

JA        You get to see potential realized.  It’s like what Michelangelo said, “I just remove everything that’s not part of the sculpture.”

 Photo courtesy of J. Alan Pipes

Photo courtesy of J. Alan Pipes

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Monkey Business

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Monkey Business

It’s all fun and games until someone gets bit by a monkey!  Yep, you heard me right.  During my recent Bali trip, I did an excursion day to Ubud – a cultural center in the mountains north of Canggu where I was staying.  As a part of the day, I visited "Monkey Forest" (as it's popularly called), a tourist destination hosting 10,000 people each month that celebrates the deity Hanuman -- the Hindu monkey god -- revered in Indian culture.  As an Indonesian natural reserve, it’s a place where spiritualists can experience three ancient temples built around 1350AD and where travelers can admire Macaques monkeys in their natural habitat.  Or for the more adventurous, a place where one can purchase bananas to feed the furry creatures in hope of getting that perfect photo to shock family and friends back home.  I fell into camps two and three: armed with a passion for photography, a 50mm fixed lens and a desire to get that perfect portrait.

My afternoon started off relatively uneventful as I watched in amazement vendors selling blackened bananas, monkeys scrambling in antics and guests becoming human trees - shoulders and arms for branches as curious primates stood, sat and climbed on them.

It all seemed somewhat rehearsed, like a sideshow at a theme park where the actors practiced their roles to perfection off stage in hope of executing a performance that would receive an onslaught of applause from people like myself.  It worked.

Not all acts were flawless.  Some definitely had the comedic relief of working with a live animal – an improvisation that didn’t detract from the show but added to it.  Like the image below, this monkey didn’t get the memo about sitting properly and was constantly fidgeting ultimately spitting out his half-digested banana on her face.  No harm, no foul.  There was lot's laughter, albeit nervous.

Continuing to stroll along the path, I found several would-be models for my impromptu photo shoot.  This one I called Rafiki– the baboon character from the Lion King.  He just had a face that oozed wisdom.

Then I came across this monkey and I wanted to shout, "Hey, save me a piece of that corn" - a famous phrase from Jack Black's character Nacho Libre.  "Nachoooooooooo ....."

This little one made me smile; it's how I feel when someone sticks a camera in my face.

And finally, I captured this image.  At first, I thought she was going to make some sounds, but she didn't.  I later discovered in my research that the silent "open mouth stare" is a warning sign - a threat saying, "You're in my space" - information that would have been helpful prior to my visit.

My journey was nearing the end, and I truly was enjoying these intriguing creatures; however, my drive for cinematic perfection was not yet met – that is until I saw one lone monkey sitting on a shallow cobblestone wall.  It was the ideal old-world setting that I was envisioning, and the subject was so serene.  Tired of solo shots and the less than desirable “selfie-pose,” I asked a man standing nearby if he would take a photo of me sitting beside my picturesque monkey.  In a British accent, he agreed.

As I sat down, my photo partner got a surge of independence and turned his back away from me.  Having witnessed previous scenes like this unfold for other people in the park, I wasn’t alarmed.  Channeling the Jungle Book and my inner Mowgli, I scooted closer to him thinking that he'd get the hint.  Still nothing; so I scooted even closer while the Englishman advanced frames on my iPhone.

Finally, only inches away, I made the decision to gently nudge my primal friend – as if to say: “Help a cousin out, and turn around for my picture.”

Now, I know what you’re thinking.  You’re saying to yourself, “Carter, wasn't there a sign as you entered the park that read: “Don’t touch the monkeys?”  To which I would answer, “Yes, there was.”  But clearly that was nothing more than a legality statement - a posted placard to satisfy an insurance company’s fear of litigation.  I mean let’s be honest, if you don’t want interaction with the monkeys then why sell food so that humans can feed them, which only encourages them to jump, climb and sit all over the tourists.  At least that was my rationale.  Nevertheless, back to my story ...

As I gently (and I mean gently) nudged the monkey, I quickly turned toward the camera so that when the picture was taken we’d both be facing in the right direction.  What happened next was like a scene out of the 1995 blockbuster thriller, Outbreak.  Without warning, my docile photo subject transformed into a frightened beast attacking me; grabbing my shoulder and biting my arm just above the elbow, he hissed and screamed as he stepped back and displayed full teeth and open mouth.  Shocked, I jumped up wondering what had just happened.  Then the Englishman peered over the camera and said with no emotion, "You're not supposed to touch the monkeys."  Bewildered, I stood speechless as he then handed me his phone, and said, "Would you take my picture?  I won't touch him."  The monkey, not amused, turned his back again on us wanting no part of our shenanigans.

Completing the photos, me and the Englishman exchanged phones and went our separate ways.  I quickly made my way back to the car, half expecting I would find a hideous flesh wound but I didn't.  There was a long scratch down the length of my arm, and a puncture site that looked more like a pinch than a bite.  My driver and guide for the day helped me clean the area with alcohol pads, and we began discussing the question of rabies vaccination.  Given that the bite didn't technically "break the skin," we agreed that I would probably be alright and decided to forego on the doctor.  I wish I could say that my decision sat well with me; however, after getting back to the villa, I researched WebMD, rabies symptoms and read the stories of other "Monkey Forest bites." Let's just say, I didn't sleep much that night.

The next day, me and three others left early in the morning for an all-day surf trip.  In the car, my companions were picking up on my distraction and asked if I was okay.  I told them about the monkey incident, and the immediate consensus was that I needed to place it safe and get a shot.  Driving through the little town Medewi, we pulled into a hospital just as the staff were arriving for the day.  To make a long story short, the nurses and doctor examined me and agreed that I needed to get the vaccination.  As if the story couldn't get any better, there was a classic breakdown in language between English and Balinese and as they were preparing me for the two shots, I misinterpreted where they were to be administered.  Thinking two shots, I concluded my buttocks were the prime location, so I began to drop my board shorts to the amazement of the nurses, doctor and my surf guide.  Fortunately, frantic gestures cued me that I was making a horrible mistake and the embarrassing situation was kept at PG-13.  We all laughed; then they stuck me in each thigh.

I wish I could say, "The End" but with rabies it's a series of four (or five) vaccinations spread out over a strict calendaring system starting with Day 0 and ending with Day 21.  Only being in Bali nine days, I had to make the necessary arrangements to receive the subsequent shots in the States.  However, Murphy's Law was in play and it turns out that Indonesia and the USA use different vaccinations; which meant that I had to start all over.  

A word of warning if you plan to get bit by a ravenous animal, the rabies vaccination is not the easiest to find (nor the cheapest @ $350 per shot!).  I ended up using Passport Health - a travel clinic located throughout the States.  This turned out to be quite helpful, I just got my last shot while on a work trip to Denver this past week.

Reflecting on the whole ordeal, I am reminded of the documentary film 180 South where the founder and owner of Patagonia - Yvon Chouinard, stated, "It's not an adventure, till something goes wrong."  I think my trip to Monkey Forest falls into the "adventure" category, and it has taught me a couple of things:  1) Next time bring a zoom lens; 2) There is no such thing as a perfect picture; and 3) When someone says, "Don't touch the monkeys," they mean it.

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We Never Travel Alone

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We Never Travel Alone

I am convinced that the greatest characteristic of being human is the capacity for relationship.  As human beings our interactions are pregnant with potential, moving beyond mere utilitarian roles to the realm of empathy, selfless acts of compassion and solidarity with the other.  Time and time again history reveals that these attributes are not solely reserved for members of the same tribe or clan but rather cross the lines of diversity and are displayed freely on the landscape of culture and society.  We marvel when a stranger welcomes the other like family, when the unknown offers a familiar hand of assistance, when the local treats the alien like a neighbor.  It’s as if in these moments the veil of self-protection and division is lifted and we see how life should be - that thin place where the best of who we are and who we were created to be is manifested on the stage of existence.  Like a spark, this display of altruism ignites a vision for an alternative way of living, and it is in these moments we recognize at the depths of our being that we do not travel alone.

This truth was profoundly demonstrated to me during my recent trip to Bali.  Traveling solo, I was without my system of support, though frightening at times, it provided the opportunity to receive the gift of relationship from the unsuspecting other.  It was in the absence of my own community that I discovered the community of the stranger.  It was in the vacuum of my sufficiency that I was open to the offering of the outsider.  It was in my need that the universality of love emerged.

Mindful of this phenomenon unfolding, I determined to participate in it rather than resist it.  The fruit of that decision are the photos and simple stories that are listed below.  These are not all of the people whom I encountered during my travels; it would be nearly impossible to name and picture each one.  However, these few represent the ever-present community of strangers around us who reveal the inherent gift of compassion woven through the very fabric of human DNA .  Our only task is to have open hearts and minds to receive their gifts of friendship, care and mutuality; and by doing so, overcome the debilitating myth that we are isolated people destined to hoard and protect our own.

I am convinced that the greatest characteristic of being human is the capacity for relationship.

Saying that, allow me to introduce you to the community of the other that showed me great kindness.  Take your time as you scroll through the images and captions; look at their eyes and hear their stories echoing in the background.

 Meet Sasha, a DoubleTree employee.  He was the first stranger to offer me assistance as I wandered into the hotel lobby with surfboards and duffle bags hanging off each shoulder.  He helped me find an open conference room to store my boards overnight and assured me that the room would be locked..  He was new to LA, moving just seven months ago from Davis, CA.

Meet Sasha, a DoubleTree employee.  He was the first stranger to offer me assistance as I wandered into the hotel lobby with surfboards and duffle bags hanging off each shoulder.  He helped me find an open conference room to store my boards overnight and assured me that the room would be locked..  He was new to LA, moving just seven months ago from Davis, CA.

 Meet Adel from Egypt.  A driver for Crown Limo, he pulled up in a black Chevy Suburban to take me and my 9ft. board bag to LAX - not a small task.  After laying down the seats and resting the nose of my bag on the center console, he shrugged off any stress seeming to suggest - "All in a day's work."  His peaceful presence made getting to the airport a breeze.

Meet Adel from Egypt.  A driver for Crown Limo, he pulled up in a black Chevy Suburban to take me and my 9ft. board bag to LAX - not a small task.  After laying down the seats and resting the nose of my bag on the center console, he shrugged off any stress seeming to suggest - "All in a day's work."  His peaceful presence made getting to the airport a breeze.

 Meet Putu, an employee at The Pineapple House where I stayed in Bali.  She made a delicious breakfast for me every day.  She emulated kindness, grace and tireless service as she welcomed me each morning.  A cup of coffee, a plate of fruit, a main course with a side of toast and jellies filled not only my stomach, but my desire for shared experience.  The table is such a sacred space where we can be seen and known.

Meet Putu, an employee at The Pineapple House where I stayed in Bali.  She made a delicious breakfast for me every day.  She emulated kindness, grace and tireless service as she welcomed me each morning.  A cup of coffee, a plate of fruit, a main course with a side of toast and jellies filled not only my stomach, but my desire for shared experience.  The table is such a sacred space where we can be seen and known.

 Meet Era, the retreat manager and massage therapist for The Pineapple House.  Her smile says it all - full of life and optimism.  Greeting me each morning, she exuded joy as we sipped our coffee talking about the adventures of the previous day.  I received two treatments from her on the first and last day of my visit.  The final treatment included a traditional Balinese a skin scrub called "Boreh" - a mixture of rice, ginger, cloves and cinnamon.  When applied, it creates a heat-effect that relieves muscle aches and increases blood circulation healing the body and warming the soul.

Meet Era, the retreat manager and massage therapist for The Pineapple House.  Her smile says it all - full of life and optimism.  Greeting me each morning, she exuded joy as we sipped our coffee talking about the adventures of the previous day.  I received two treatments from her on the first and last day of my visit.  The final treatment included a traditional Balinese a skin scrub called "Boreh" - a mixture of rice, ginger, cloves and cinnamon.  When applied, it creates a heat-effect that relieves muscle aches and increases blood circulation healing the body and warming the soul.

 Meet Suny, surf guide/instructor at The Pineapple House.  As an excellent surfer, he charged set waves drawing impeccable lines and cutbacks.  Far from arrogant, he was patient, intuitive and fully present with each person.  His sense of humor put everyone at ease.  Staring at overhead waves, he would say, "Oh these are small."  In short, he gave confidence and made you feel at home in the lineup.

Meet Suny, surf guide/instructor at The Pineapple House.  As an excellent surfer, he charged set waves drawing impeccable lines and cutbacks.  Far from arrogant, he was patient, intuitive and fully present with each person.  His sense of humor put everyone at ease.  Staring at overhead waves, he would say, "Oh these are small."  In short, he gave confidence and made you feel at home in the lineup.

 Meet Berta, a fellow Pineapple House guest originally from Barcelona now living in Austria.  She works in the International Motorsports Marketing Division for Red Bull.  We would sit by the pool talking about life, work and our futures.  Twice we hung out, catching the night life of Canggu.  She was brave and rode back with me on my rented scooter, and I joked with her that I was a little intimated driving with a motocross aficionado as my passenger - she laughed and was gracious.  In traditional European-style she extended hospitality to me and said, "If you and your friends are ever in Austria, give me a call and I'll show you around."

Meet Berta, a fellow Pineapple House guest originally from Barcelona now living in Austria.  She works in the International Motorsports Marketing Division for Red Bull.  We would sit by the pool talking about life, work and our futures.  Twice we hung out, catching the night life of Canggu.  She was brave and rode back with me on my rented scooter, and I joked with her that I was a little intimated driving with a motocross aficionado as my passenger - she laughed and was gracious.  In traditional European-style she extended hospitality to me and said, "If you and your friends are ever in Austria, give me a call and I'll show you around."

 Meet Gede, The Pineapple House Villa manager.  This man was the epitome of gentleness.  Always bowing his head when he would shake your hand, his smile was infectious.  He would greet you as if you were the only one in the room.  Though my interactions were limited with him, he left an indelible imprint on me.

Meet Gede, The Pineapple House Villa manager.  This man was the epitome of gentleness.  Always bowing his head when he would shake your hand, his smile was infectious.  He would greet you as if you were the only one in the room.  Though my interactions were limited with him, he left an indelible imprint on me.

 Meet Wayan, the shuttle driver for The Pineapple House.  He greeted me at the Denpasar International Airport with my name on a placard, and immediately made me feel at home.  This was indicative to the character of the Balinese people.  With limited English on his end (and no Balinese on mine!) we mysteriously connected through broken phrases and gestures.  This picture captures him well - thumbs up, nothing is a problem.

Meet Wayan, the shuttle driver for The Pineapple House.  He greeted me at the Denpasar International Airport with my name on a placard, and immediately made me feel at home.  This was indicative to the character of the Balinese people.  With limited English on his end (and no Balinese on mine!) we mysteriously connected through broken phrases and gestures.  This picture captures him well - thumbs up, nothing is a problem.

 Meet Rachel, Owner of The Pineapple House.  Originally from England, she moved to Bali and is now living her dream.  As surfer, yoga instructor and retreat owner she creates space literally and spiritually for her guests.  During my time there, Rachel became a friend.  On a couple of occasions she accompanied me on my surf excursions, and one day I attended her Yin yoga class which was absolutely amazing.  With honesty and attentiveness, she listened as I shared story and reciprocated by sharing hers.  She is perfectly gifted and suited for her work, and I am deeply grateful that our paths crossed.

Meet Rachel, Owner of The Pineapple House.  Originally from England, she moved to Bali and is now living her dream.  As surfer, yoga instructor and retreat owner she creates space literally and spiritually for her guests.  During my time there, Rachel became a friend.  On a couple of occasions she accompanied me on my surf excursions, and one day I attended her Yin yoga class which was absolutely amazing.  With honesty and attentiveness, she listened as I shared story and reciprocated by sharing hers.  She is perfectly gifted and suited for her work, and I am deeply grateful that our paths crossed.

Who is it that surrounds you?  Who are the people that are serendipitously placed in your life - the strangers that are so often overlooked?  They are there, but you must be in a place to receive the gift of their relationship.  You only need to pause, acknowledge your need, open your eyes to see them and welcome their friendship. 

The truth is, we never travel alone.

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American Made Nostalgia: an interview with Mason Dyer

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American Made Nostalgia: an interview with Mason Dyer

In a throw-away culture, where the focus is on making things cheaper and replaceable there’s a subtle undercurrent that ebbs in the opposite direction.  The recent emergence of homesteading, woodworking and farm-to-table are just some of the waves that are flowing backwards instead of forwards, a desire for simplicity and sustainability.  Articles like Millennials, Nostalgia, and Urban Preservation seemed to suggest that this nostalgia is only rooted in a form of escapism, a way to endure the anxiety of the present and the unpredictability of the future.  But not all nostalgia is narcissistic - a projection of a false past on others - or an attempt to escape one’s reality.

Rather nostalgia can lead to a creative and generous life.  Put bluntly, nostalgia is simply human - human to remember the past and to reflect on the people and the experiences that have positively influenced one’s life.  These memories are a source of encouragement and can be a swell of vision for the present and future.  Though it centers on the idyllic dimensions of one’s history, nostalgia can be practical.  Nostalgia draws attention to beauty, which inspires new forms of beauty.  It is a treasure chest of lessons from the past, a tide of poetry that has potential to influence present-day form and function.

Mason Dyer, a 28-year-old Millennial entrepreneur, embodies this vision in his southern California company, Dyer Brand.   Nestled in the beach culture of San Diego, Dyer Brand draws from the rich heritage of the hotrod and surf culture of the post-WWII eras of the 1950’s and ‘60s designing, manufacturing and selling men’s clothing and surfboards.  Following the growing trend of American-made goods, Dyer Brand is committed to a meticulous craftsmanship that emphasizes durability, aesthetic and performance.  His attention to the former ways of life is charting new courses in the surf industry, reminding an instant gratification culture of the values of hard work, growth through failure, joy and the Aloha-spirit.

I first met Mason in 2008.  He was a college senior shaping surfboards for friends in a dinky garage in San Diego.  Seven years later, I visited Mason in his Oceanside shop - a decorative combination of Hogan’s Heroes, Happy Days, and The Endless Summer.  This time in addition to my camera I brought my pen and notepad, and I listened as he shared his views on life and the lessons to be learned from nostalgia.

MC      What’s so important about nostalgia?

MD      Nostalgia is linked to the way I was raised.  I grew up in a really small town in southern Delaware listening to the stories of my Dad and my grandfathers as they talked about the good ‘ole days.  As I got older, I became interested in history and began reading about other families and their stories, and all of that had a big impact on me.  I think you tend to see the past through rose-colored glasses, but that’s not all bad – it’s actually cool.  With nostalgia, you take the best of the past -- whether that is culture or style -- and you make your own.

MC      Are there certain stories from the past that influence you more than others?

MD      Yeah, stories of America during and after WWII: guys that were coming back from the war saying, “What I experienced, I never what to encounter again.”  Being back, they began building a new life; and that’s when a lot of culture boomed specifically the hotrod and surf culture.  Not wanting to conform to desk jobs, they applied the ingenuity and resources from the war and built faster cars and made balsa wood surfboards from recycled US Navy surplus life rafts.  Even fashion was influenced by this era: flight jackets, chinos, and T-shirts emerged as mainstay articles of clothing.

 Preston "Poppop" Dyer - photo courtesy of Madison Dyer

Preston "Poppop" Dyer - photo courtesy of Madison Dyer

MC      Did you hear these stories first hand, or read about them?

MD      Both.  My grandfather on my dad’s side was a WWII vet.  As a kid, I heard his stories and, wanting to know more about his life, I became a history nerd.  I studied the era to know my family heritage, and through that I got into learning about the design and function of uniforms and materials used during the war.  What’s so interesting to me is that items designed as pure function became pure form -- which has been huge impact on Dyer Brand and what I make. 

I’ve learned not to be afraid of failure ... If everything you do succeeds, then someone is lying to you.

As for my mom’s side, her dad grew up as the son of Italian immigrants living in the Bronx during the 1950’s.  He was into cars and rebuilding engines.  I would listen to him and ask questions about the cars he had, and the cars he worked on.  Finally, my dad has surfed his whole life, and taught me to surf when I was 5 years old.  He appreciated surf history, and was a vintage surfboard collector; so growing up, I was surrounded by amazing vintage shapes and styles.  When I moved to San Diego, I remembered this history and began making connections to places like Windansea, Swami’s, and San Onofre.  Because of my dad, I understood the significance of places like these and it helped me become a better surfer and, ultimately, a surfboard shaper.  By listening to their stories, watching their lives, and living life with them I was encouraged to dig deep and make their values my own.

MC      Is Dyer Brand the natural expression of those values?

MD      When I started Dyer Brand, I wanted it to be a reflection of that heritage of Hot Rod, military, and surf culture.  The stories that I heard as a kid and the values that are rooted in them have really shaped me as a person.  I didn’t know what I wanted to do growing up because I had so many interests.  It wasn’t until I got a call from Mitch Abshere, a friend who was starting a new surf company called Captain Fin, that I realized my desire to own my own business.  Being a part of the surf and clothing industries got me excited to think about what I could make and offer that would be different.

MC      So how is Dyer Brand different than other surf companies?

MD      What makes me different than other surf brands is that they all offer a similar thing: a modern aesthetic with minimal production cost.  Dyer Brand takes the 1950’s & ‘60s and packages it crafting goods that are true to form and made with the finest textiles.  If I was going to make it, whether it was a surfboard or a pair of boardshorts, I wanted it to be the highest quality.  As I looked around at the other companies, everything I saw was being made outside of the USA, and I started to ask,  “At what cost?”  Thinking about my products, I wanted them to have a story behind them, and the story of Dyer Brand comes from American ingenuity and pride.

MC      It seems like the industry is taking note of your difference.  In the last year, you’ve partnered with big companies like BMW and Brixton.  What was that like?

MD      Yeah, last summer Dyer Brand teamed up with the fine folks at Brixton Apparel along with artist Mike Upton for a limited edition USA made board short called the Beach Bomber, a cotton vintage military style trunk.  I also shaped and glassed a one-of-a-kind 7’ Sea Bee single fin surfboard that was sold on Ebay as a fundraiser for the humanitarian organization SurfAid.  Overall, the project was a success.

MC      And BMW?

MD      Ha! (Laughter)  Well, a year ago June, I worked with BMW on the Path 22 Concept, an initiative to design and build a tracker-style motorcycle, which is a remake of an off-road/street bike.  At that time, BMW was partnering with Vincent Prat, who organizes and runs the Wheels and Waves Festival in France, and they wanted to add to the bike a surf rack.  Vincent told them that there was only one guy who could do the job, and gave them my name.  Then out of the blue one day, I receive a phone call from Ola Stenegard, Head of Vehicle Design at BMW Motorrad asking if I’d be willing to sit down and talk about the project.  Long story short, he flew out California and we spent the day in the shop discussing the concept and what Dyer Brand could offer.  In the end, I shaped two surfboards for the display bikes.  We worked close on the color tint to blend the traditional style with modern technology.  It was a good challenge, but the end result was fun and cool.  I mean, how many people can say that they’ve made surfboards for BMW?  Really rad.  Plus, I became friends with a lot of the guys on the project, which is even cooler because, being a Gear Head, I now see them at auto shows and conventions.

... the story of Dyer Brand comes from American ingenuity and pride.

MC      Looking back over the last six years, what have you learned?  And what’s next for you?

MD      I’ve learned not to be afraid of failure.  It does suck when it happens – I’m going through stuff right now - but it’s not all negative.  It’s how you learn.  If everything you do succeeds, then someone is lying to you.  Failure is like callouses on your hands.  There are just certain things that you can’t do until you have those callouses.   Owning your business forces you to know everything, and to do everything.  From sweeping the floors, to packing orders, to accounting, to product forecasting - as the owner you know it all, which, I think, makes you a successful entrepreneur. 

As for what’s next, a lot of innovation especially on the clothing side of things.  We’re doing some exciting projects in Japan as well as the US market.  I’ve been working really hard to ensure that everything in a Dyer Brand garment is made by Dyer Brand: patches, buttons, trims, and fabrics all designed by us.  With boards, I’m shaping and selling more that reflect my personal interests.  Overall, I don’t want to be that guy in his 50’s that says, “Man, I wish I had tried that.”  I’d rather try something and fail than not try at all.  I don’t think I could live with that kind regret.     

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 Photo courtesy of Alex Swanson

Photo courtesy of Alex Swanson

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