Archive for the ‘Random Things’ Category

Autoblog

Wednesday, November 14th, 2007

So, suppose I wanted to write an autobiography. Where would I start? With my own birth? With my parents? Grandparents? So much affects who I am but the stories in my head are limited – only second hand accounts of the last two generations and a failing memory of my own experiences.

I was born in 1949, the first child from a union between a WWII Navy officer and a society girl from Houston. My father’s father had come from Germany in 1848. My mother’s family had been in this country for a long time. They met in Houston, where my father lived briefly before the war with his brother, a contractor, helping design houses. It was a time of debutant parties and tennis matches and my mother said my father, a terrific dancer, was flirtatious and handsome.

My mother was the last of 5 children, the other four considerably older than she. She was raised by nursemaids and had audiences with her parents rather than loving interactions. When I was growing up, my parents always said, “Children are to be seen and not heard.” This notion was apparently the child-raising maxim of the pre-war era, and it certainly trickled down to my psyche.

My father was the baby of a family of 6, his closest sibling being 10 years older than he. His mother was 45 and his father 65 when he was born, and my sense is that he learned to expect to get whatever he wanted. This also trickled down to my psyche.

How these things affected me is something I think about from time to time. Sometime I can see it clearly, but other times I’m sure I act how I act without even being aware of it. We humans feel so smart, knowledgeable, capable, but we are really rather unaware and imprecise.

How does one do something autobiographical? Chronologically? Interrelationally? Randomly? Who would even care to read it? The beauty of a blog is it doesn’t much matter. This is supposed to be a design blog, but what the heck. Perhaps I’ll add a little autoblog.

Humiliation

Sunday, November 4th, 2007

Caroline Hax (who I think is very astute) responded in today’s column (Washington Post, Sunday, November 4, 2007, p. M2, col. 3) to a reader’s question with an observation that gave me one of those “oh, yeah” moments. The question, like most of the ones she answers, dealt with relationships. She says, “There is a general power structure to dating. Even when the ultimate goal is commitment, the person who asks someone out [and here she admits she is talking generally about men] has, roughly speaking, two intermediate goals: getting sex and avoiding humiliation.” She then says, “Once a woman commits to a man . . . the power shifts. Now it’s her turn to fear humiliation.” [Pause] . . . Of course. That’s exactly what’s so terrifying about relationships.

Humiliation. You feel it if you think you’re in love and he only wants benefits. You feel it when your middle-aged spouse runs off with a 20-something bleached blond. You feel it when you get all flustered if someone of the opposite sex even talks to you, it’s been so long. It’s a feeling to be avoided at all cost.

But, avoiding something at all cost means there is a cost and how do you tell if the cost is too high? How do you balance the almost certain humiliation that will occur at some time or another in a relationship with the benefits that the relationship might afford? How do you let the humiliation and the fear slide off your back and not turn you into a hermit? Can you get over it?

I have answers to most things (right or wrong), but not this one. Still, it seems like some sort of breakthrough to have a concept to mull over. Maybe understanding what is so terrifying is a good start for a change.

Heels

Saturday, November 3rd, 2007

This morning I took one of my pumps to the shoe repair guy. Another customer ahead of me saw the 3″ heel on my shoe and immediately told me of a show she’d seen about how terrible high heels are for our feet. Somewhat rude on her part, perhaps, but it’s nothing that all of us women don’t know. Yet we persist in wearing these heels. It’s part of the uniform of power for women. Men have their silk ties, well-tailored suits, and wingtips. Women have distinctive jewelry, well-tailored suits, and high heels.

But high heels also embody a dream. Not a dream of attaining business status, but a dream of being drop-dead gorgeous – of being noticed, admired, and loved. Power of a different sort. When we are children, it’s a dream for a happy-family future. When we’re young adults, it’s a dream for passion and romance. When we’re middle-aged, it’s a dream for some reminder that we haven’t gone completely to the dogs. We know this romantic notion is just a dream. We know that believing too strongly in this dream puts us at risk for a lot of disappointment. We know it’s unrealistic, but I don’t know a woman who doesn’t harbor this dream in some form, even the most hard-boiled among us. So, high heels may be dreadful for the health of our feet and backs, but they make us feel as if something about this crazy dream just might be possible.

Banning communication

Wednesday, October 31st, 2007

My daughter is writing her college admission essays. One short question asked “What is the form of communication that you would most like to ban?” I’m not sure what she wrote, but we brainstormed types of communication. Talking, writing, telephoning, email. Cell phones, text messaging, Facebook, pop up ads. Morse code. Mother nagging, sister fighting. Dogs barking in the next yard. Street preachers. Ads in the middle of your favorite shows, MovieTone News, billboards, newspapers, magazines, sale prices posted in store windows, junk mail. Gossip. Books. Vanity license plates. Telemarketers who interrupt your dinner, unsolicited faxes, fundraisers. Off-color bumper stickers. Racial or ethnic slurs. Tattoos. Pornography. Lying, slander, libel. This list seems to be going downhill fast.

It turns out to be a very interesting and not so simple question. At first, we thought: communication is a good thing – what could be bad enough to rate actual banning? But in thinking about it, there is a lot of very unwelcome communication out there – some merely annoying, but some with the potential to cause great harm. There’s a lot of discussion to be had here.

Funny how at first glance these questions seem sort of silly but manage, with some thought, to have some real depth. In many ways, this is the same with any topic – the more you look at it, the more you understand it. People, I suppose, are the same way. Perhaps we should approach our daily lives like college essays, taking time to move the experience a little beyond the surface.

History

Sunday, October 14th, 2007

All right! The National Geographics are gone, picked up by a nice young man from Illinois, and I just sold my radial arm saw to a neighbor who is moving to the country. He says he can take a lot of my old building materials too – hinges, rolls of Romex, fiberglass batts, and so on and so on filling my basement – and either use them or donate them to the Habitat for Humanity in his new neighborhood. He also told me of an organization not terribly far from my house that will take building materials for reuse. I can load up my van with whatever my neighbor can’t use, take it to this place, and these usable things will find a new home. This makes me happy – I can’t stand it when things go to waste. But it sometimes puzzles me – where does this compulsion to rescue usable things come from?

I grew up in the Midwest in a house built in the 1880s by my grandfather, who sailed to America from Germany to flee the Revolutions of 1848. In 1913, just before the First World War, my father was born in the upstairs bedroom and, though I burst forth at the local hospital, I lived in the house until I went off to college. Now, there was a park catty-corner from the house that my father had donated to the city in memory of his father, the German immigrant. We kids spent a lot of time in that park, playing on the swings, building huts in the tall grass down at the bottom of the hill, trying to smoke cigars in the lilac bushes. I think this park may hold a clue to my packrattery, for engraved in a massive limestone step at its entry was my grandfather’s motto: “Avoid waste, vice, tobacco and booze, and you will have health, honor and plenty.”

Perhaps simply reading this motto all summer long throughout my childhood really burned the message into my brain, but maybe these sentiments are bred into my bones in some deeper way. Surely the immigrant families in the late 1800s had to make do with what they had and my father, born during a time of world turmoil, living through the Great Depression in the 20s and fighting in WW2, must have had a deep sense of the fragility of material prosperity. But, my father did prosper and I grew up without want.

I think about this history and am struck by how the lives of my parents and grandparents formed me. I have a glass of wine now and then, but basically, I live by my grandfather’s motto. Now it’s become clear that avoiding waste isn’t just a personal peculiarity – it’s got to become a way of life for everyone if we are not to destroy our planet.

So, saving everything under the sun and now feeling the need to get rid of much of it doesn’t really relate to saving the planet. Still, I’m not tossing things out on the curb for the garbage collector. Now that environmentalism is enjoying a resurgence of interest (thank you, Al Gore), maybe, just maybe, more people will start to approach their material accumulations and consumption habits with a wider understanding of the consequences of continued waste and a greater willingness to contribute to a solution.

Collecting and purging

Tuesday, October 2nd, 2007

I have long-standing love affair with National Geographic Magazine. Stashed in various places around my house is a collection that goes back some 30 years or more. My parents had a similar collection that spanned 50 years, lined up in rows on dusty shelves in the attic. National Geographic – the sacrosanct magazine that no-one was ever allowed to deface for school projects or leave out on the porch in the sun. I saved them religiously, but for what? Nobody ever looked at them after the first week or so. Nevertheless, year after year, I couldn’t bring myself to get rid of them, thinking that I would someday go back and re-read those interesting articles and once again marvel at the gorgeous photography.

Today I posted an ad on CraigsList offering them to anyone who would come pick them up. What happened?

I’ve been a collector (i.e. pack rat) for years, but a couple of years ago my house got full. I don’t know if it got full or if I got full, but I suddenly stopped bringing home every abandoned but still usable chair I saw on the street on garbage day (finally understanding that, no, I would never find the time to fix it up) and started seriously thinking about getting rid of some stuff. I’m talking serious thinking for, like, 5 years with little actually making it out the door. Last weekend, however, some things finally started to move. Mostly books, but also some of my old building materials (for example, spare fence pickets kept for 25 years for “kindling” but never actually chopped up and burned), a few clothes, and a box or two of knick-knacks. This was a step in the right direction, but it’s the National Geographics that may actually signal a turning point.

So what is it about collecting and purging? Is it an age-related phenomenon? Do we collect when we’re young and purge when we get older? Do we collect to create a sense of self and purge to bring about change when that self gets somewhat stale? Do we collect when we feel empty and purge when we feel full? Do we collect to learn and purge to make room in our heads for something new? Do we collect when we’re putting down roots and purge when we’re ready for a move?

Probably all of the above. All I know is that right now I’m getting rid of the National Geographics and it feels like a beginning.

Tōō ĭn

Saturday, September 15th, 2007

This week my firm hosted a meeting of all the regional design leaders. On Thursday, the rest of us mingled at a reception and were treated to a slide show showing some of the issues they had discussed. Very inspirational, of course, and as occasionally happens, this event triggered a dream. In the dream fragment I recall, someone approached me (in the setting of this reception) and said, absurdly, “tōō ĭn.”

I write this phonetically because when I woke up with this dream snippet in my mind, the phrase churned up several spellings – to in, too in, two in, to inn, too inn, two inn. So, why not have some fun with these random dream words. What if you had a contest to interpret these words in terms of design or art?

First I looked them up in a dictionary, mainly to get the phonetic spelling, and found that both of these words have myriad meanings. “To,” for example, is both a preposition and an adverb. As a preposition it means toward, as far as, to the extent of, before, until, for the purpose of, in honor of, relationship, exclusivity or separateness, in the direction of a given state, in contact with, in front of, regarding, as a toast. “Too” means in addition, excessively, to a regrettable degree, extremely, immensely, or indeed. Even “two” has more than one meaning – it’s a cardinal number, the second in a sequence, something having two parts, or a two-dollar bill.

“In” can be a preposition, adjective, adverb or noun. As a preposition it evokes limits, movement from outside to within, function, style, process, order, means, medium, condition, activity, purpose, reference, and ratio or proportion. As an adverb or adjective, it means toward the inside, toward a destination or goal, within a place, available or under one’s control, inclusion, relationship, incoming, inward, having power, currently fashionable, exclusive. As a noun it relates to position, influence, or power. “Inn,” of course is a public lodging house serving food and drink to travelers, a hotel, a tavern or restaurant. But it’s also a residence hall for students, especially law students, in London.

Wow – a plethora of connotations, not even considering acronyms, abbreviations, slang, and languages other than English. So what could one do with this?

1. A new, exclusive line of clothing.
2. A salute to architectural trends, past or present.
3. Maps.
4. A design for two hotels.
5. A panel discussion about the role of design – can there be too much design?
6. An examination of the process of design.
7. A photo essay on entrances.
8. A paper about achieving balance between private and collaborative space in the workplace.
9. Anything relating to signage.
10. A comic book about opening a bar.
11. A discussion of proportion.
12. Funnels.

This could go on and on and be somewhat serious or completely whacky. Wouldn’t it be fun to see what people came up with?

Haikus

Wednesday, July 4th, 2007

Cleaning my study, I found a folder I’d forgotten about. It contained some writing I did about five years ago as part of a writing course I took at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, MD. My first daughter had just gone to college and my youngest was starting 6th grade. The writing course marked the beginning of a quest for something new to do with my life, post-children.

One of our assignments was to develop 100 word vignettes along the lines of the Life is Short: Autobiography as Haiku feature in the Washington Post. This was a fun assignment – to convey a little shred of life in a few well-chosen words. Here are six of the haikus I wrote for the class, all of which, interestingly enough, seem to be about being middle-aged. I guess they reflected my reality at that time pretty well.

1

I drove my first daughter to college last week. Some of my friends hold their lips tight to hide their tears. They miss their daughters too much. But I do not. I wanted her to go – it’s her turn to know that everything is possible, to meet friends who will always be there for her, to make choices that only she owns, and to learn from her mistakes. Well, she is excited by her classes. She is making friends. She has met a boy. In her last e-mail she said, “I am happy.” I am happy too.

2

What is wrong with these pants, I grumble to myself. I tug at the waistband strangling me. These used to fit fine. It must be cheap fabric; it keeps shrinking. You’d think things would hold up a little longer. I pick out a larger pair to wear, burying all the shrunken ones in the dark of the closet with vague hopes for their future resurrection. I know, of course, that the waistbands are not shrinking. I am getting thicker, loosening and settling into middle age. How did this happen? I was going to be young forever.

3

In class, a woman boasts that her husband does all the cooking. The other women exclaim, “I can’t imagine having a husband who cooks!” I, a single mom, silently mope: I can’t imagine even having a husband! Later, as I cautiously gather the mail, newly fearful of anthrax spores and terrorist attacks intruding on my safe suburban life, my morning self-pity is startlingly trivial: I can’t imagine living where real terror is a daily companion and people struggle just to survive. We may live in one world and share one humanity, but we have six billion separate realities.

4

What do you do when you’re a single mom and have no one to bounce ideas off? How do you know you’ve made the right choice, from the trivial—“Should I get my hair cut”—to the consequential—“Should I leave my secure job to try something that might suit me better?” You can read, observe other people, talk to someone who really doesn’t know you, or listen to your fears, trying to put them in perspective. But ultimately, you just make a choice and live with it. Unfortunately, so do your children, so you’re back where you started. Unsure.

5

Whop. “Okay. Turn sideways. Watch the ball.” Whop. My daughter is learning tennis. I circle the fields, waiting. The whops recede as I dodge football and cross-country. Soon I’m beyond, protected by distance and the softly shaking trees sheltering this haven from the rest of the world. Flocking birds wheel over the empty pitcher’s mound as I lean on the fence and feel the dusty October sunlight warm on my face. The muffled sounds of whistles and thudding shoulder pads ride the breeze across the fields. I breathe in the unexpected moment of peace.

6

“How many moms sit like this?” I ask my 13-year old, as I lay sprawled, legs up the wall, head hanging off the edge of the sofa. Actually, this position feels pretty good, stretching my stress-stiffened 54-year-old neck muscles, but what I really want is confirmation that I am not the boring grown up that my mother was. “Nobody.” she says, with affection in her voice, “You’re a weirdo.” That’s exactly what I want to hear.

Consumption

Thursday, May 31st, 2007

At some point, it has to turn around. I’m thinking about consumption – the buying, using, and reckless discarding of things – a thought triggered by a headline in the May 2007 issue of Dwell (p. 41), Room to Consume? Editor-in-Chief Sam Grawe says, “Without things (or more accurately, things in excess), I would hazard to guess that any one of us could live graciously in a space smaller than the average American family room (that’s 300 square feet). Give us more room and we’ll just fill it up with more stuff.” Ain’t it the truth!

When I was a 20-something, I lived on $400 per year. This included a mortgage payment of some $35 per month (can you believe that?), divvied up with my fellow land-owner. Mind, this was the early 70’s. We owned 20 acres of woodland in North Idaho and mostly lived in a customized Econoline (top sawed off and raised roof built from scavanged concrete forms). We mortgaged a purchase price of $7,500 for the acreage, had time for the flora and fauna of our larch-covered forest in the summer, and worked at whatever we could find in the winter to earn that collective $800. Later, we built a teensy (150 sf?) house of slabs (the first cut taken off a log at our neighbor’s sawmill). Our possessions were few and our staples lentils and rice. We had no utilities and few expenses other than an occasional tool or package of seed. We were happy as clams.

Since then, I’ve managed to amass an enormous number of possessions that fill my 3,500 square feet suburban house to the brim. Books, plants, kids’ artwork, ratty old furniture, leftover building materials, electronics, 40 years of National Geographics that I just can’t part with (what is this about?), closets of linens, toys now being saved in anticipation of eventual grandchildren, hand-me down memorabilia, and a tool for about everything you can imagine. 27 years is a long time to collect.

I’m starting to long for more simplicity, but how does one part with 27 years of child rearing, project making, and random acquiring? It would take a month of days, working steadily, to make any sense of it, and if I ever managed to get rid of something, I’d be sure to need it the next day.

The scary thing is that it’s not just me. It’s no secret that in the US, an awful lot of us have way too many things. Things that jam our houses and our spirits to the point that we have no space for a quiet moment, things that require resources to be snatched from the earth and soon tossed aside in an ever-growing mound of irretrievable junk.

As much I’d love to give it, this is not so much a sustainability lecture as an expression of bafflement. How did I get here? How did we all? I love being able to rummage through my basement storage room and finding the precise bolt or patch of denim I need for a repair or a project, but wouldn’t my life be a lot more breathable if I had fewer possessions demanding so much attention? Same goes for our societal getting and spending. We are facing a global environmental crisis and we are finally beginning to know it, but wouldn’t we have been just as happy if we hadn’t been so greedy?

From fitting everything in the back of a van to today’s excess has been quite a journey – it’s definitely time to put it in reverse.

Leaving

Tuesday, January 9th, 2007

I have a new job. It starts at the end of this month. Though I told my current employer that I was leaving nearly 6 weeks ago, it’s not an easy time for them. I’ve been in the job for over 12 years and they depend on me. When I took the new job, it seemed as if 8 weeks would be plenty of time for them to find and for me to train a replacement, but none of the people they’ve interviewed satisfy them. Now it’s almost time for me to leave and it’s obvious that the new person won’t be on board before I go.

The change has brought up a number of emotions – some expected and some quite unexpected. I expected to feel sad to say goodbye to employers who have been good friends to me during a period of my life when I needed the kind of job they offered and who’ve been patient and understanding. I expected to feel excited at my new prospects. I expected to feel a bit of frenzy in getting tasks finished up. And I’m feeling all of these emotions.

What I didn’t expect is to feel oddly irritable. Some of this is because I’d have handled the new hire process more efficiently; some because I feel really sympathetic toward my employers for the difficult transition; some because the hiring process has consumed more hours than I expected and I’ll have to put in some overtime to get things in proper order for leaving. But this evening as I was driving home, I realized that much of this irritation is due to some deeper job frustrations that I’ve been suppressing for quite a few years. Odd how long you can put up with jobs that really don’t fit; strange how this gets so much harder when you no longer need to.

A few weeks from now the transition will be done. I’ll be in an exciting new job and hopefully my current bosses will have found someone they like who’ll bring new energy to their office. Leaving can be hard, but change is an terrific opportunity.