A Lesson from Santa Barbara's Funk Zone

Photo: Courtesy Kodiak Greenwood

Columnists tend to write about very big things, axis-altering things, monumental things like global warming, the political landscape, and Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson. I like little things, partly because they're easier to grasp, partly because I had to Google how to spell Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson. Little things are often more interesting and, if you pay close attention, they sometimes dole out lessons applicable to very big things.

Not long ago I wandered Santa Barbara's Funk Zone with my friends Kodiak Greenwood and Ethan Stewart (just to be clear, no relation). If you haven't been to the Funk Zone, you should go: home to free spirit artists, wine bars filled with chatter and laughter, a surf museum that opens whenever the owner damn well pleases (he lives upstairs and hosts legendary July 4 parties), and an enormous wall mural that makes a simple request -- Pass them by and forgive them their happiness -- the Funk Zone is everything that's right about California. It's also just back from the beach so that, standing in a downy evening inhaling a perfectly titrated sea breeze, you understand the gift of life in Southern California. I have been to Santa Barbara many times, and it is quite nice with its Spanish style architecture and eye candy people, but the Funk Zone has a pleasant edge. It's people being themselves.

As Ethan, a Funk Zone regular and talented writer for the Santa Barbara Independent, aptly put it, "It's the least gentrified part of town. And it's right on the frickin' water."

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No doubt in a place as, well, funky as the Funk Zone, there are numerous lessons at hand, but here's the one we stumbled on, bestowed to us by a man who looked like a roughed up version of Gandalf, only J.R.R. Tolkien's wizard didn't have sausage-thick fingers swollen by a lifetime of manual labor.

Photo: Courtesy Kodiak Greenwood

Greg Ray had just learned a lesson, too.

"I just found out magnolia's toxic," he said, running those gnarled fingers through an equally gnarled beard. "I wondered why I've been feeling this way. That's probably why people don't work with magnolia."

Greg is a wood worker who crafts his pieces in appropriate Funk Zone fashion. Working in the front yard of a tree trimming business, he takes bland stumps, limbs, and other discards destined for ignominy, and, patiently sawing, shaving, cutting, and chipping, turns them into pieces of extraordinary beauty. I say extraordinary because as a professional journalist I am trained to downplay things. When we found him, working beneath a small palm-thatched hut and a dangling sign proclaiming "Tiki Ohana," he was putting the finishing touches on a mermaid with a mallet and chisel. The mermaid was life-size, and, with her sensuous curves, supple hands (clasping a dolphin), and delicate waves of hair she might as well have been real.

Greg worked, making precise chips, his beard caressing the mermaid's cheek. He stood back and studied his work.

Kodiak, Ethan, and I stood quiet and appropriately humbled.

Greg grinned at us.

"This was almost entirely done by hand," he said. "About ninety percent of the people who come by here, walk right past on their cell phone. You're the technology; get it?"

Such things take a very, very long time, but I knew, not as a journalist but as a human being, better than to ask Greg how long he had labored. I knew he would have no idea.

In the next breath he said, "How can you achieve anything unless you focus everything on doing it?"

Ken McAlpine is a three-time Lowell Thomas award-winner. His most recent book is "Fog," praised by one critic as "one of the most intelligent, richly detailed, deeply felt and evocative novels I've read." He writes weekly on KCET's SoCal Focus blog about Ventura and Santa Barbara counties.

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