Sunday, November 2, 2014

Diary: East Coast 2

The crowd at MoMA's Matisse exhibit.
I spent a weekend in Manhattan in mid-October, making the rounds of museums that - when I visited in early September - were universally between exhibits. My starting point was the Met, to which I went with an economist I met at breakfast on Saturday. We walked across Central Park and then saw the "Assyria to Iberia" exhibit and a smattering of the 19th- and 20th-century French. In between, we visited the roof garden, which I'd never seen. 

A bit of skyline visible from the Met's roof garden.
From there, we went to the Guggenheim. The big exhibit, Zero, documents an art movement of the same name active in France, Germany, and Holland in the first half the 1960s. I didn't remember it, nor did I find the work compelling. In my experience, the Guggenheim is hit or miss. Its permanent collections - early Kandinsky and Impressionist-to-modern European paintings - are always good. 

I went on alone to the Neue to see an exhibit of Schiele portraits. The Neue does a good job of conveying the biography and context, but the show is a mix - some exceptionally good things and the rest. This may be the fate of an artist who dies unexpectedly and relatively young - everything is kept, there's no possibility of the artist looking back. Perhaps to the detriment of both, there's a second Schiele exhibit in London, I read.

On Sunday, I went to MoMA to see the late Matisse show, mobbed, but as a member, I went through twice. The surprise at MoMA was a small exhibit of Dubuffet, an artist my mother liked. I was always skeptical, but these drawings have a lot of power and reveal a side of him I hadn't seen before. 

Dubuffet drawing at MoMA.
Next up was the Frick, to see again a collection that I really like. A sign asking patrons to limit their photography to the garden court brought this issue to mind. Both the Met and MoMA are permissive about photos - you can snap away as long as you're not using a flash, although some exhibits are out of bounds. At the end of my visit to the Frick, I took a photo of the garden outside the entry foyer and was reprimanded by a guard. Why the garden is out of bounds for photography is a mystery.

The Frick garden photo that earned me a reprimand.
Then back to the Met, where I learned on arrival that, as a member, I could preview the remarkable Cubism show, a bequest from Leonard Lauder that moves the Met solidly into MoMA territory. I can't say enough good things about this show, which includes work by Braque, Gris, Leger, and Picasso. It's especially good at showing how Braque and Picasso traded ideas and riffed on  their respective work. Gris was also a revelation. If you're in Manhattan this fall, be sure to see it. Because the work has had much less exposure, it had more impact on me than the late Matisse.

A pair of Greek or Roman eyes, from the Met.

I ended up in the Greek and Roman hall, which probably rivals the Frick these days as my favorite slice of art in New York City. Every walk through, I notice work I'd missed or something new about something seen before. The eyes above feel like the antecedent of a vitrine full of surreal objects seen at MoMA. 

Although I did a lot in two days, I always feel how much more there is. Two artist friends spent a year in Manhattan recently. I'm not sure I'd spend a year, but a longer visit would be desirable, to experience the city in a fuller sense.

Waiting for the downtown 1 at the W. 79th Street Station.

Part of what makes the city desirable is the way everything is connected. I habituate the same hotel - the wonderful Lucerne at W. 79th & Amsterdam - not least because the M79 and the 1 are close by. Armed with a Metrocard (when will there be transit pass that works globally?) it's pretty much a snap, although Sunday was cold enough that I cabbed to the Met from the Frick. (I hate cold weather, and Manhattan has the cab thing down. Uber, to which I'm addicted in SF, feels redundant there.)

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Diary: East Coast

The western shore of Long Island Sound at Milford, CT.

I made a short trip east, 4 to 8 September, to attend a birthday dinner for my wife's younger sister. This was at a restaurant, L'Ondine, in the countryside near Danbury, CT. Beforehand, I spent a day in Manhattan, mostly at the Met. As if by common agreement, the city's main museums were rotating their exhibits, so my focus at the Met was on the Greek and Roman Hall and the French Impressionists upstairs. 

A Greek or Roman frieze, seen at the Met.

The Metropolitan is a remarkable museum. I first visited it in grade school, decades ago. Some curatorial hands have been at work, pruning the halls and galleries to clarify rather than overwhelm. Moving through the arc of Greek and Roman art and artifacts, with accompanying maps of those worlds of city-states and territories, some of them clearly uncharted, the proximity collapses time's distance, especially when what's viewed has a modern tone to it - whether of beauty, as above, or of design. 

A glass vessel, Greek or Roman, from the Met.

It's not accurate to style the European painting galleries as Impressionist or even French, but they dominate. The last time I was there, I was stunned by the quantitites of Gaugin, Monet, and Van Gogh lining the walls - too much Monet, I thought, but there are fewer now, laid out on a north-to-south route that starts on at the southwest corner and moves in a crisscross fashion to the opposite (east) side of this set of galleries. This, anyway, was my route, which took me back in time, suggesting that I should have walked the other way. One benefit of reverse chronology is that you see the influences more clearly - and how painters, including Monet and of course Picasso, shifted gears.


Georges Braque at the Met - a painter whose work I much admire.

The weather in Manhattan and vicinity was oppressive on Friday. While staying with friends in Stamford on Saturday, though, a big storm blew through - thunder and rain, repeated over the day and early evening. The birthday girl and her husband were late arriving at the restaurant because of the weather, but it had blown over by the time we all drove back. The storm broke the heat, so the next day - Sunday - was wonderful. We spent it at our friends' beach house at Milford, on Long Island Sound.

The Sound from my friends' beach house.

When I was in college, I sailed with my parents from Galesville, near Annapolis, to Martha's Vineyard on their 30-foot sloop. We went up through the Sound, but my Sunday visit gave me a chance to observe it from one vantage point. At Milford, the tide goes out 100 feet or more, exposing a sand bar. There's an island off of Milford to which one can walk at low tide. Apparently, a few people every summer misjudge the rising tide and drown while trying to get back. There's something peculiarly American, I think, about the fatalism with which this is viewed - the laissez-faire attitude that's been so dented by the fallout of litigation, yet survives here and there, to someone's peril.

Literally since winter turned to spring, I've been wanting to go to a beach, but the moment never materialized. I was properly grateful to find myself on one - mostly sitting with a drink in hand, in keeping with my phlegmatic nature. As the day ended, the huge moon of this brief season rose above the sound, making a trail in the water that grew brighter as the sun set. 

The moon rising over the Sound at Milford.

I spent the last day back in Manhattan, on E. 93rd Street, less than a block from the park. I looked in at the Neue Galerie - only the Klimt room was on view, but I bought a small book by Robert Musil at the bookstore (and earlier found a novella by Stendhal at another bookstore near to where I stayed). The Guggenheim was similarly shut down, the Futurism show on its way out. I saw the Kandinsky room and the permanent collection. 

Graphic by Mel Bochner at the Jewish Museum, Manhattan.

Walking back from the Guggenheim, I stopped in at the Jewish Museum, which I'd never visited. Unfortunately, I missed by a day the just-opened abstract show. The mix of didactic exhibits and others focused on contemporary art reminded me of the Museum of the City of New York, only more vertical and compact. Didactic exhibits tend to lose their spark after one viewing. If these ones are ever redone, the didactic could be smaller and experiential - more easily varied and updated; then the art and artifacts could come forward.


Monday, September 1, 2014

Diary: Late Summer

1 September 2014

Flowers in the garden outside the barn.

Late summer is one of Berkeley's two ideal seasons, with fine, warm weather. We banished the deer, and the garden has repaid our kindness with flowers and vegetables. Unlike spring, a sign that winter's over, late summer speaks of autumn, of the dreaded fire season, and of impending winter which I dislike. So I view it with mixed feelings. In childhood, it meant the end of leisure - the real kind in which time barely figures - and a return to school, with its clock, its work, its spans of dead time that imagination sought to fill. School prepares us for the odd life that follows, with its interludes of joy and terror amid long stretches of making, doing, dreaming, and regretting. 

This Saturday marked 40 years since I married. This led me to post some photos, both of the event and of the bride. Elsewhere, I've tried to set down thoughts about marriage - an institution that also has to fit within the life that follows. Marriages build up their quota of tangibility, although this is as ephemeral as anything else. A striking feature of the news, more or less across my lifetime, is its tendency to give vivid examples of the tangible falling apart. Yet we persevere, so this illusion is a necessary workaround, like the Zen stricture against nihilism.

Late summer is a memento mori, a prelude to winter. Last winter was summery, which was pleasant enough but jarring. If it repeats, it will be a disaster. My prejudice against winter reflects long experience. The house is tighter now than it used to be, so the worst of it is not as bad from a living standpoint. I can put up with the rain, too, for the most part. I think the dark is the real problem, how the days contract. Whatever the season, I'm up late, but shorter days depress me.

Nature, of course, could care less. It has its own reasons. I'm just another genetic pop-up, with seasons of my own, fast expiring. At least, my seasons feel that way, although I could argue for some continuing middle ground that separates me from the nearly dead - an argument that's likely to continue pretty much until they hand me the morphine. 

A year ago, I was in London, on a trip that also took in parts of France and Spain. It was ill-timed in relation to work, but a perfect end of summer. This summer has been short trips to the East Coast, plus some days off now and again. The barn and the garden have substituted for distant places. As a friend pointed out, our region is many others' tourist destination. I do love it. Whenever I'm away, I soon miss it: Domesticity again.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Diary, June and August 2014


It's now summer (June 2014, almost 100 years since that fateful August). Last weekend - a long one owing to Memorial Day - I picked up the first of Alexander Herzen's four-volume memoirs. They make quite a contrast from my postage-stamp version, but that seems in proportion to my life and works compared to his, Yet we share the urge to write it down. 

My parents' centennials will be next year, August - their birthdays were nine or 10 days apart. Our family is given to recording things - letters and photos, primarily, although my mother wrote poems and my father started a memoir that I wish he'd finished. Perhaps one's children are the most natural audience for such a document, if only to see what light it sheds on them.

Spring and summer are my favorite seasons. I dislike late fall and winter, even here where it rains, usually, but rarely snows. The bare trees and the cold are unappealing, whereas the budding and blooming of nature, the warmth of the sun, are a great pleasure. I'm writing this in the renovated shed I use when the weather is good. It looks out at the garden, the sun behind me now. My wife fenced it off, so there are flowers in abundance. Every other year, the deer ate them. I'm grateful for these small favors.

Plowing through Isaiah Berlin's difficult introduction to Liberty, I asked myself if I'm a good person, a bad person, or some typical combination of the two. Swedenborg argued that people fool themselves into believing they're good when they're mostly not. I'm sure that's true. Elsewhere, I've noted the human tendency to live beyond the boundaries that life affords. (Good and bad arise in these parts. One rides the range, but eventually one grows tired of fence-mending. Friendships of a simpler kind become more desirable.)

Separately
An acquaintance noted that my politics were hard to fathom. Bourgeois, I would say, although to the left owing to something of a social conscience. I prefer social democracies and welfare-capitalist states to market-obsessed ones (and of course to autocracies and theocracies, which abound today and seem to be growing). Life is ameliorated by being in Northern California, a bastion of liberality. This is a place where people of all kinds marry for love and find happiness. It has many unresolved problems, but this mitigates against them and gives me hope. 

Is bourgeois more of a category than a political position? Or is the supposition that membership in that class carries politics of a certain kind along with it? I think that to place myself thus is to privilege private over public ownership in a number of instances, and to favor Isaiah Berlin, say, for his pluralism, his acknowledgement that life is filled with contradictions, not least our own. (I think the experience of living in Singapore and traveling much of the world as a child predisposed me for this.)

My politics have come some distance as the world around me has evolved. Born when I was, I'm necessarily a child of World War II, with its narrative of valiant defense of freedom, despite competing subtexts of colonialism that arose promptly in the 1950s (and which I experienced directly as a child). My parents' worldview, especially my father's, shaped mine. My father, a Democrat in a Republican enclave, wasn't afraid to assert his politics or take positions he felt were right, whatever others might think. If I am more conservative in some ways than them, this probably reflects living in Berkeley, where leftism often feels unreconstructed.

Into August
The sun finally - briefly - appears after a cloudy, cool day, prompting me to open up the barn. My wife shows me the tomatoes she's picked in the garden, and we discuss the pears, three of which are nearly ripe. While making lunch just now, I read part of a review by Frank Rich of a book on the 1970s - 1973 to 1976, the transition from Nixon to Reagan. It made me think of the Vietnam Memorial, how it was embraced by everyone, pro-war or against, acknowledging the dead, their essentially pointless deaths, caught up in a maelstrom the politicians and their advisors unleashed. Coverage of World War I - the retrospective histories its centennial has kicked up - also stresses the blundering way it began and the difficulties of ending it once started. My visit to York cathedral in May 2011 made the Vietnam Memorial's point: the dead warrant remembering, but why then do we forget the follies that set those deaths in train?

Wars flare in the Ukraine and also in Gaza and Israel, providing an undertone to daily life here. Many are opposed to Israel's one-sided conflict with Hamas, with so much collateral damage. Others say that Hamas sets it up that way, so Israel is justified. Still others retort that Israel made Hamas inevitable. I'm ambivalent - the whole situation feels like a failure of the imagination, especially given what Gaza could be if left alone to develop as a place and an economy. If rethought at a reasonable density, it could be home to a lot more Palestinians. 

The felling of a neutral aircraft by Russian-supported rebels in eastern Ukraine speaks to the folly of proxy wars, whether we or they sponsor them. I feel similarly about the Chinese (et al) throwing their weight around in the South China Sea: some lower-ranking hothead is bound to spark an incident. With China, it's never clear if anyone is actually in charge. Events unfold and the officialdom deals, after a fashion, usually leading with belligerence. Sometimes it's hard to tell the propaganda machinery apart from North Korea's, given the resort to hackneyed phrases from other eras. Someone should tell them that no one listens and everyone thinks it's stupid.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Diary: Life as narrative


Recently, in a review of two books on the painter Lucian Freud, the writer Julian Barnes distinguished between two types of human nature, episodic and narrative. Freud, he said, was an extreme example of the first type, a person for whom life was "one damn thing after another"; on the other end, life is a story and the events within it are part of its unfolding. 

I fall in the latter category, but "narrative" doesn't quite capture what I experience. Nor does "destiny," at least not in the sense of something that overrides everyday reality or makes more of my life than is actually warranted. It's not a sense of self-importance that I've felt since childhood, but more a sense of being among people and situations that in some cases tie together, occasionally in a very specific way. 

In his memoir, Words, Sartre talks about how, filled with the biographies of the great he read in volume in childhood, he kept looking for the turning point in his own life, the moment when his destiny would appear the way it always seemed to do in those books. I have had a few experiences that I would regard as turning points or, more accurately, as moments of recognition, but what they pointed to was in no sense set. This is why "destiny" doesn't seem right. What life hands us, in my view, are circumstances. Are they nature's dice-rolls, karma, or the outcome of some kind of interstitial conversation among the principal players? 

Moments of recognition are mostly to do with others. Many just float by us, but a handful of people appear to be there by design. Viewed in retrospect, it can look like we and they are on separate trajectories that cross, seemingly by accident, propelled by overlapping intuitions or clues. The joys and pains of the crossing are part of life, too. The Buddha counsels us otherwise, but it's hard to sidestep much of what we encounter - it seems too uncanny, when it arises, and then we plunge - the glittering sea that Horace described, with its deceptive calm and howling gale. It can also look like we've found each other again, but this too has its issues. Who is this other? We are and we aren't who we were, I would say, and considerable time goes into sorting this out, dealing with the residue we carry with us, however much we may try to shed it.

As your life unfolds, what you intuit manifests, often with "false positives" - those crossing trajectories - followed by certainty. And while you stake your life on the certainty, its main benefit is a willingness to persevere, even (or often) in the face of whatever wreckage everyday life produces. I believe this extends to the rest of the cohort - the people that matter, one's fellow actors in an unscripted narrative that each one would recount differently. 


Sunday, June 15, 2014

Diary: 15 June 2014

Thomas Heinser and George Homsey.
Yesterday, my wife and I drove out to West Marin to have lunch with the photographer Thomas Heinser, the graphic designer Madeleine Corson, his wife, and our mutual friend, the architect George Homsey. I've known George for 43 years, I thought just now, remembering how he used to play opera on the radio when I worked in his office for six weeks in 1971. One morning when we were both there early, a woman sang especially memorably. We spontaneously shared our admiration, a moment that has stayed with me as the probable origin of our friendship. 

Our lunch, European in quality and pace, took place on the terrace of an elongated, New England-white farmhouse. The surroundings would be heaven to a landscape painter, with long views of hilly pastureland. Being close to the sea, the terrain isn't as parched as places not very far to the east. 

The main course: grass-fed beef brisket.
Driving George back to the city, I found that, as always, he's completely up to date, asking my opinion of buildings here and in Europe. For a long time, I've felt that George deserves his own monograph. He won the Maybeck Award, but he needs a book. Two friends, Helen Degenhardt and Noreen Hughes, have put together an oral history, I understand, which could inform the text. I've tried to interest EHDD in getting behind the project, but it hasn't happened. 

In the car, I mentioned to George that I twice interviewed Allan Temko, the late critic and art historian, late in his life. He was a Chekhovian figure at that point, I said. A memorable one, too, prone to telling jokes. In the first interview, I asked him if it bothered him to make enemies. I was remembering an episode I witnessed of a prominent local architect trying and failing to freeze him out at lunch, when Temko dropped in to see how the first "beauty contest" of the San Francisco Downtown Plan was going. It didn't bother him, Temko said, because "only third-raters hold grudges." Now there's a good rule for life!

Monday, March 10, 2014

An "After 3.11" Coda

After I posted my report on the "After 3.11" symposium at Berkeley CED, I received a note from Berkeley Professor Dana Buntrock, convener of the event. It's a comment on what I wrote, which I post here:

I don't believe that Hitoshi Abe and I were talking about self-aggrandizement at all. What many architects  have discovered in Tohoku (and what Mary Comerio also pointed out in her excellent opening) is that you need government or private funds to rebuild. In the absence of money, architects have struggled to discover what other means they have to help. As I pointed out, these architects are also tapping into every source of outside funding they can find to build the modest buildings they can: LVMH, Japan Society, even people like me. They have also traveled to Tohoku on their own money, depleting the resources of already struggling small firms.
 
In the case of Toyo Ito's Golden Lion, he exhibited Tohoku to get more attention for the small rebuilding efforts his group was doing. After all, the first biennale after the Kobe quake also addressed its impact. The Golden Lion, received for both the earlier work by Isozaki and the later work by Ito, reflected the work's  emotional impact. But Isozaki did not get creamed like Ito; Kobe had governmental support and rebuilding was progressing. If we criticize Ito for being less effectual, we are killing the messenger.

As Abe pointed out, making large topographic maps of lost cities gave many people an opportunity to at least celebrate the places they knew and loved. I have learned of the importance of representation, which was clearly out of step with many people's initial needs and thus seemed callous. But the atomic bomb dome in Hiroshima is an important reminder of unseen dangers around us; Chiho Ochiai and George Kurumado both pointed out that more modest stone markers reminded many to build above the waterline of past tsunami.

What disasters like 3.11 make us aware of is that the values and skills that serve us well in prosperous times--winning awards, getting in magazines--are of limited use in a situation like we see in Northern Japan today. It has challenged caring Japanese professionals to take on new skills, like public workshops and advocacy, fund-raising, and incorporating energy conservation. These were not normative or desired in the recent past. In adapting these skills to new conditions, architects may make mistakes--but the international networks and access to funds have played an important role for many. The road to learning how to reach these funds and not self-aggrandize or be overly abstract has been a bumpy one.

For years, people criticized Shigeru Ban for his modest impact in, say, Kobe decades ago. It took him a very long time and many failures to arrive at the point where his group could rapidly construct 200 very livable "apartments" in Onagawa within months of the 2011 earthquake. What many have learned only recently is that architects need a different skill set to be effective after a crisis, and that the time after a crisis is the worst time to try to develop these skills. That's the more important take-away, and one we in the Bay area should not take lightly, should we, too, be damned to learn it the hard way.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

3.1.11 Symposium @ CED

Refugees of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami.
On 8 March 2014, I attended a symposium at Berkeley CED, "After 3.11," convened by Berkeley Professor Dana Buntrock, that drew speakers from Japan and California. It's been almost three years since this appalling event, and the focus was on its lessons and implications.

Kyoto University's Norio Maki compared the Kobe and Tohoku earthquakes. They  were similar in terms of loss of life, but the Tohoku earthquake affected a coastline comparable to the one that stretches from SF to LA. The Tohoku earthquake zone has a much lower density than Kobe, with a declining population. The tsunami destroyed its fishing economy, also. His colleague Chiho Ochiai, a sociologist, studied a coastal village there that did better than most because its residents had a collective memory of previous tsunamis in the 1890s and 1930s.

UCLA's Hitoshi Abe
UCLA Professor Hitoshi Abe and Buntrock criticized some architects' post-3.11 efforts, arguing that it was a weak, sometimes self-aggrandizing response. (This was my interpretation, based on Abe and others' noting Toyo Ito's Golden Lion award for projects in the earthquake zone, implying a degree or self-promotion. Buntrock commented later - I posted it separately - that her and Abe's point was that collective, government-backed action is needed to get sufficient traction in the wake of a disaster. She absolves architects like Ito of self-aggrandizement, saying their efforts involved much self-sacrifice. He brought it to the Biennale, she adds, to draw attention to the plight of the people of Tohoku, as Isozaki had before him regarding Kobe.) 

Abe and Makoto Shin Watanabe of Hosei University discussed Archi-Aid, a group that helps local governments plan reconstruction and also proposes larger redevelopment projects. Archi-Aid can be seen as an attempt to address the weaknesses of architects' individual, uncoordinated actions.) Abe showed a traveling exhibit, developed by an Archi-Aid participant, with topographic models of towns and villages destroyed or damaged by the tsunami. They prompted people to contribute their detailed memories of specific places. 

Hosei University's Makoto Shin Watanabe
Watanabe showed some prototype housing Archi-Aid designed that paid careful attention to energy performance. Masayuki Mae of the University of Tokyo contrasted these initiatives with the temporary housing favored by the government, showing how poorly it performed thermally. Showing examples by Isozaki and Sejima, he said that new, stonger energy regulations will make it impossible for Japanese architects to ignore thermal performance. Berkeley's Susan Ubbelohde, who helped define the performance standard for Archi-Aid's prototype housing, noted how California has managed to lead the energy conversation in the US since the oil shock of the mid-1970s.

Kazuhiro Kasai of Tokyo Institute of Technology and David Mar of Tipping Mar in Berkeley discussed earthquake retrofitting in Japan and California, with Kasai showing small dampers, suitable for residential remodeling, and Mar describing a FEMA initiative (and online analytical tool) to address California's massive soft-story problem in older buildings. Kasai and Berkeley's Verna Terzic also discussed the relative merits of different seismic reinforcement schemes, with base isolation (BI-OCBF and BI-IMRF) doing especially well in minimizing the cost of getting a building back into operation after a seismic event.

In his wrap-up talk, George Kurumado of Takenaka, one of the Japan's largest construction companies, talked about the human and political issues around disaster preparation, including the tendency to ignore known risks because their implications are considered too costly or politically impossible. He argued for extending seismic regulations from their focus on life safety to a broader focus on resilience, nothing that the ability to come back from a disaster is crucial to business and provides a strong argument for higher building performance.

Toyo Ito and collaborators in front of a small post-3.11 project.
Just as an earthquake exposes the weaknesses of the built environment, an event like 3.11 shows in high relief the weaknesses of those responsible for immediate disaster relief and subsequent recovery. As Abe noted, a huge burden for planning the reconstruction fell on local government. This created a workload for which they were unprepared in terms of manpower and expertise. Archi-Aid sought to fill the gap, but its efforts were hobbled by other factors, including local-government resistance to spending money to achieve higher building performance. Clearly, it's not just government involvement that's needed, but the ability to see - as Rahm Emanuel famously said - that a crisis is too good an opportunity to waste.

Kurumado noted that the decision to provide a relatively low sea wall and berm around the Fukushima nuclear reactor meant that everyone else took that pattern as the standard, although it was set to a medium-risk earthquake and tsunami, not a higher-risk one that would be an issue for such a critical facility. Locating the generators in the basement was the other fatal flaw - worse, as it turns out, than the sea wall-and-berm problem.

Kurumado's comment about ignoring the obvious applies right here at home, I thought. My own house is two blocks from the Hayward Fault, overdue for another event. (The last was in the 1860s.) We joke about playing "beat the clock," but in fact the Japanese pocket damper that Professor Kasai showed got my attention, as it could bring some affordable new tech into the retrofit picture. 

As a public policy issue, 3.11 also raises the usual questions about society's willingness to prevent rather than rebuild. America loves its disasters. (Mar made a comparison between the "known factors" for high seismic damage and those leading to a heart attack.) Like the wellness movement, the current push for resilience - which sees seismic safety, energy performance, and social and business recovery as aspects of the same goal - may finally get some official muscle and cash behind it. That could led finally to the kind of preventive measures that would make sense in earthquake countries like California and Japan.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Diary: 2 March 2014

 
The Pantheon-influenced Rotunda, designed by Thomas Jefferson and restored and renovated (after a fire) by Stanford White, and the Lawn, the original heart of the University of Virginia campus in Charlottesville, visited on 22 February 2014.

On 19 February, I flew east to attend a family wedding in Richmond and then briefly visit Charlottesville, where I toured Monticello and then stopped to see Jefferson's remarkable "opening move" at the University of Virginia. I realize it's heretical to say so, but the interior of Monticello is better than the house itself. From outside, it feels like two different buildings joined together. The thrust-out octagon and porch have a sort of dog's-head quality from the lawn. Although it looks large in the photo, it's small in relation to the lawn, lacking the grandeur of the Virginia mansions built by his contemporaries. Inside, however, its virtues are manifest, especially in Jefferson's own quarters, essentially an apartment within the house. (Unfortunately, I couldn't photograph the interior.) 

Monticello. Jefferson's apartment occupies this part of the house. The extensive basement level is visible under the terrace. The conservatory also opens onto it. The house is most impressive, to me, viewed from this direction.
I had seen Monticello as an undergraduate, but had little memory of it. The front hall is a wunderkammer of mostly American artifacts, many of them given to Jefferson by Lewis and Clark, whose expedition Jefferson (as US President) underwrote. The scale of the place is brought home by the absence of a grand staircase. Concerned about heating it, Jefferson opted for a compact plan with two small, enclosed stairwells that run from the basement to the third floor. There are also dumbwaiters, as the kitchen is below the house. (That level services the house unobtrusively, an idea that repeats itself at the University of Virginia, along with other motifs.)

View from the Rotunda of the colonnades bordering the lawn at the University of Virginia.
The Jefferson-designed centerpiece of the University of Virginia campus consists of a rectangular two-level lawn anchored by the Pantheon-like Rotunda and fronted by one-story colonnades interrupted by two-story commons buildings. Behind the colonnades are small student rooms. Paths extend away from this central assemblage, each defined by serpentine walls that enclose the gardens of the two-story residences that parallel it as a series. (I'm making guesses here about the use, except the student rooms behind the collonade, of which I looked into two.) Everything is still in use. It feels like a piece of pre-Haussmann Paris ended up as the heart of an English residential college. Jefferson had the foresight to locate it at the highest point of the campus, removed from the sprawl that surrounds it now at a respectful distance.

A milk company's building off Broad Street in downtown Richmond, VA.
We spent two days in Richmond, but sightseeing was limited. We stayed at The Jefferson, a truly grand hotel. The wedding ceremony took place at the Catholic cathedral, a short walk across nearby Monroe Park. A colleague who lives there offered a tour, which I hope to take up on another visit. He told me over drinks that Patrick Henry made his "Give me liberty or give me death" speech at a local church, and that many of the more obvious signs of its days as the Confederate capital, like the equestrian statues of Confederate generals, reflect late 19th-century nostalgia.

My nephew and his bride's first dance as a married couple.
Weddings remind me of the powerful grip that families have. They also have an oracular quality: one looks for auspicious signs, like a break in the weather, and evidence of enthusiasm among the different parties. In this case, the weather turned summery, though bracketed by winter. And when the Monsignor made his man-and-wife pronouncement, the bride expressed her happiness. That warm affection carried through the evening, as knots of old friends gathered to talk and reminisce, and the newly married couple's cohort partied on.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Sort of a Memoir


3 January 2014 
Stendhal uses three different memoir-writing strategies: in media res, placing the reader at some point in the life from which the years immediately before it are recounted; from childhood, although Stendhal characteristically uses this device to show a certain self-consistency; and the coming-of-age recounting that gets the protagonist from mere youth to the beginning of maturity.  The first two are autobiographical, while the third is the opening chapter of a novel.

Stendhal wrote his in-media-res memoir 10 years after meeting the object of his fixation. She died in between, he eventually reveals, but his obsession with her persisted. I can see that. It ends with an account of a rendezvous he and a friend had with two English prostitutes. Bringing good food and wine along, they make a party of it, and the women are charmed. Their English clients were not as thoughtful. Stendhal praises their chestnut hair, his spirits momentarily recovered. The impression he leaves us with is of a man who's haunted by his great love and yet manifestly, observantly in the world. Despite his faithfully rendered activities, we never doubt his devotion.

4 January 2014 
The year after I got my B.A., I worked at the oldest private library west of the Mississippi, as it styled itself. My colleagues were older women, like characters from a play. The patrons were often drunk after lunch, smelling of onions and alcohol. I couldn't help but take these things in. Cautionary tales like this are useful when you’re young, showing you what to avoid. 

The most beneficial work I did between undergraduate and graduate school was as a term-paper ghostwriter. To make a decent hourly rate, every paper had to be written in six hours or less, so I developed a method and also honed my writing to the bone. When necessary, as with a class to which I submitted six different papers, I varied the tone. Every paper got an A. When I was offered  work with an architecture firm, I quit. It turned out that I was their only writer, and they closed down. For my part, any awe I’d felt for academia was gone.

My method was straightforward: I would find a general source that gave me the basic plot. Old volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica, the predecessor to Wikipedia, were great for this. Then I would find two or three plausible current sources, quickly absorb their theses and grab some quotes. Then I would write. (It helped that I was a fast and very accurate typist.) I never polished the pieces too thoroughly, which lent them authenticity. The term-paper mill's one sop to ethics was to ask the students propose their own theses. This was an error; they were often completely wrong and I would have to argue the negative, which I did with evident success: do-it-yourself rhetoric. 

Later
To want to live parallel lives is in keeping with our sense of self. We embody different roles without much difficulty, navigating life's predictable contexts in a manner that more or less meets their expectations, so it seems reasonable to push this idea further. One problem is the inelastic nature of time. It's true that time slows down in certain situations, but this is not the same as having more of it at your disposal.

We push the idea further often because we want to our lives to be bigger or fuller than they are. The opportunities to do so arise with uncannily good timing; if they didn't, they would be easier to resist. Experience suggests that our ability to lead parallel lives is limited. What we really want is separate lives: a life here, a life there, with time and space between them. That would be really convenient. Some people reputedly arrange their lives in this manner.

"That would be really convenient" is meant ironically. What's desired is a life that's fluid and, if possible, frictionless. We want the usual borders to come down. It's a child's view of things, in which "choosing sides" is just part of the game. In a child's view, the point of living is to play, alone or with others. We go to school, of course, and clean our rooms, but our hearts are longing to make up stories or get a scene going.

Separately 
My daughter came over this evening after writing me a long note in answer to a question about the impact of travel that I asked about the night before. We talked a bit further about it. I said that, to me, place represents a totality of expression, conveyed in talk and writing, of how things look and are cherished or neglected or reshaped, and of how people are. In my lifetime, I’ve seen a great many places, intrinsically distinctive to the point of insularity, become like "the rest." As business and tourism both search for still-insular places, I imagine they are as endangered now as the rhinos.

5 January 2014 
A certain bossiness floats through life, but mandatory is a broad, resistable category for me, taking in other people's ideas of how I should spend my time and even the consequences of my own earlier choices to attend parties, openings, concerts, dinners, and other events. Travel also creates a sense of dread as the date of departure looms, not out of any fear of traveling, but out of a countervailing desire to stay home. Knowing that I will invariably resist, I try to get myself through it. I think it relates to the separate lives discussion above: if I could, I'd often prefer to send someone else to fulfill these obligations. At the urging of a colleague, I once took the Meyers-Briggs personality test, which said that I was INFJ, the least populous of its eight types. I read the results, parts of which were familiar: craves company, but flees it unexpectedly. That's not resistance, it's self-preservation. 

As a child in Singapore, I used to move through the adult-filled garden of my parents' parties. I was quite small and my vantage point was low, so people's legs were like trunks and their upper torsos like spreading branches. Their attention meanwhile was at eye level. My favorite aspect of these parties was the Chinese lanterns my mother strung up. Nowadays at parties I try to float in and out, departing as quietly (and quickly) as possible. This is in no way a comment on the parties themselves, which are perfectly fine. 

Separately 
Each person's nature is distinct from every other, yet we generalize constantly about how categories of people differ. These generalizations are both true and false. Since we chalk a lot of behavior up to them, believing in their truth must be part of our social-navigating apparatus, a heuristic that keeps us from stopping every five minutes to figure out what just happened.

To me, distinctiveness is all, especially in the closer relationships. The beloved one has these specific qualities of self, and when I catch a glimpse of her, I’m reminded of every other time they were evident. The thread of distinctiveness is visible whenever it appears. I see it and remember, "You aren't like anyone else." The best gift of self that people can give others is their distinctiveness. 

Later 
Death, I read, is a mark of seriousness in literature (V.S. Pritchett, via Russell Banks). It is the "great matter," according to the Buddhists; I believe they're talking about coming to grips with our mortality, a dance that began for me when I first realized that I would die. I was pretty far along, I think, before the terror of our situation, as Gurdjieff put it, became real to me. How one dances with death varies with one's age. At my age, the specific perils of getting older loom larger than my actual extinction. In fact, I’ve started to see death itself as something of a relief.

Uchimaya Kishio, a 20th-century commentator on the Soto Zen of Dogen Eihei (circa the 1100s), explained what mind means in Zen. Our world, he wrote, lives and dies with us. Mind is everything that exists for us. No one else can share it. It follows that a memoir like this resembles the residue of the spray on a sea-facing window of some cottage. It can give some sense of the pounding of the waves, perhaps, or the way the sea smells at a certain distance from it, but how it was, beyond these images, is limited by the medium, the intent, and the impenetrable boundary between what I experienced and what I'm able or willing to convey.

Is love not also a mark of seriousness? Love involves play, but play takes in death, as well, long before we understand that it applies to us. From the start, love is a serious game: our life depends on it. It exposes us to the perils of misunderstanding and the limits of our ability to shape events to suit our desires. It plunges us in sadness, almost from the outset.

Still later 
It’s characteristic of me to play the same music again and again. Right now, it's Angela Hewitt's version of Bach's Well-tempered Clavier, especially the second half of notebook one. Before that, my favorite was Keith Jarrett’s recording of Handel's harpsichord suites. My life too is organized in a habitual way. Even my variants from it are habitual, I realize. People express amazement sometimes at the extent to which I cram culture into short trips, but this, too, is a habit. I pack my days with activity because otherwise I would get depressed, the main symptom of which is lethargy. If I'm depressed, I hardly stir.

My life was organized for me very early on. Whenever a structure is provided, I fall right in with it. Where it isn't, I have to create it. This is a slow, trial-and-error process. Weaving, which I do on most Saturdays, is an example of success in this arena. I have to extend it, I tell myself, thinking of everything that isn't getting done, isn't habitual, and needs to be (an old, old story).

One thing about modern life is that change erodes your habits. Bookstores where I used to go have vanished. Music arrives in ways I can't fully fathom (and most of it isn't the music I want). I have to decide which parts of "new" really pertain. And I have to navigate the subtle alterations of the everyday.

Return 
La Rochefoucauld is another great French commentator on intimate life between men and women. His life story was one personal disaster after another, when it came to women, until he finally met a woman smart enough to make a friend of him, pure and simple. Perhaps by then he was also tired of the chase. If lovemaking is a kind of conversation, why does it always blow up? Is there a way to sustain it? These are the questions that arise. It should be simpler, but both parties have to see it that way first.

The one psychic I know once commented that relationships between men and women have children as their trajectory when fecundity is in the picture. Children are "where it wants to go," whatever the conscious feelings of the participants. I think there's some truth to this. Getting older is therefore potentially liberating, freeing relationships to take other directions. 

Separately 
When I read Enneagram Structures by Claudio Naranjo, I saw that my enneagram number is seven. I thought I was a five or a nine, but no, I'm a seven quite thoroughly. The flaws of this character type are a tendency to live in the future, not the present; a dependence on personal charm to dodge interpersonal bullets; and a determination to avoid anything remotely painful. 

6 January 2014 
Some time ago, I dreamt that I was walking in the middle of a curving, residential London street, the kind that's lined with row houses and shade trees. There was no traffic, apparently. Looking down, I saw a thin gold ribbon embedded in the pavement. I picked it up. In dark-blue letters against the gold, it read, "You are an editor." I didn't argue. It also made me realize that I'm a writer of specific kind, an amateur. I write well, and this ability has served me my whole career. But I don't think I'm capable of writing anything longer than a chapter and most of what I write is much shorter. When I look at what I write, I see a miniaturist, which means that I have to treat certain topics as fragments, if I can treat them at all, while others are perfectly suited to their small frame.

The diary form of this sort of a memoir exemplifies how I drag content out of my head. It reflects my lifelong tendency to plunge in without much if any prior design. Fiction comes much harder. While I occasionally have ideas for stories, I can't see where a story should go next. And where it goes is usually a blind alley, which is frustrating. I feel that my story has been hijacked, that my protagonists wouldn't go there, and yet clearly I wrote in that direction. More work, in other words, than I'm prepared to give it, so hats off to the real writers of fiction. 

Separately 
What are my actual topics? They probably begin and end with me. As Christopher Isherwood put it, "I am a Camera," but the camera in my case (probably in his, also) is holographic. My topics are the things that resonate with me and in me. This doesn't mean that others don't figure, but how to work them in? When I make a point about distinctiveness, I could cite the most intimate details. In fiction, this might be useful, but anywhere else it feels gratuitous and indiscreet. Some of my photo-collages, interestingly, get into this territory. Visual work and fiction blur identity or subsume it to make a different point: not her, but this. A fictional narrative could be useful, but my version of reality has been challenged often enough to make me wonder, with Hayden White, if every narrative isn’t fictive. Certainly every narrative is subjective. 

Also separately
In 2005, a friend in Tokyo suggested that my family on my father's side was Sephardic. I don't know if it's true, but certain things argue for it. My name is derived from a city, which is how the Sephardim named themselves. And Parma had a large Sephardic community that was expelled on several occasions. Going backward from the chronology of the family tree, which starts when "they," the unnamed ur-couple, bookbinders, arrived in Odense, Denmark, I got to one of these expulsions, two generations or so earlier. The family went to Germany and then north, my cousin told me, some going to Norway and some to Finland. They were following the printing trade, I read in an essay on that topic by Peter Drucker. So my working theory is that this proto-family arrived in Denmark and said, "Hi, we're Italian." Generations later, some of them still look Italian or even Andalusian, but extended like the portraits of Modigliani. Others are entirely Nordic, gone to ground.

My daughter lived in Alpujarra, south of Granada, for almost three years. While visiting her, I had an impulse to settle there. I love Madrid, which is a more likely destination. Something about Spain feels like home to me, which if true must be a genetic memory. Is this possible? 

12 January 2014 
Last week, a friend posted a short essay by someone else that asserted that a memoir isn't an autobiography. I sort of agree, in the same way that this is "Sort of a Memoir." Her point was that you shouldn't expect accuracy from a memoir. Nabokov made this point, too, although he revised his second edition after his sisters complained about certain "facts." ("We were in Nice.") 

19 January 2014 
This morning, I visited a friend who's being treated for an illness. It took a toll on him last month, from which he's now recovering. He observed that his life is currently more bounded, and he wanted to find things to do that fit this new reality. I've started weaving, which he noted as an example of what he meant. I understand: the things I do are essentially domestic arts. 

Later 
Last night, I read an article in the Financial Times about long-lived men and women in Japan and the doctors who tend to them. The goal is a good quality of life, said one. A Japanese word was cited that translates roughly to "live life to the fullest and then die fast." One person's full is not another's. When I sum mine up at the end of the year, there's an illusion of activity, but it consists of my taking my way of being here and there, trying to preserve it—a comical process, especially in company. Owing to repetition, the everyday is supposed to have less resonance than unusual events, yet I crave it. Perhaps its resonance is a deeper one.