Monday, December 20, 2010

Who The Fuck Is Lena Dunham?

So I was reading The New Yorker at lunch today. Just kind of picked it up and was flipping through it. Last month's copy that I got from the library. Great picture on the cover of Obama looking stern and trying to shake hands with some white politician who looks a little stoned and is trying to give him daps. Looking for an article about your and my favorite capitalist centrist figurehead when I came across an article about Lena Dunham, which I started reading for some reason I won't be able to explain.

Turns out Lena Dunham went to Oberlin College. Small world. Turns out she was there while I was there. I read on, sort of bemused and incredulous, as this FUCKING NATIONAL MEDIA AND CULTURAL INSTITUTION described a couple student films she made at my fucking college. It didn't really hit me until it mentions her flying back to Oberlin to premier some feature film she made and Dan Chaon meeting her at the airport. Dan was my fucking adviser. He's a known writer and a stand up guy. I once drove to his home with Mollie late on a Friday night to leave a weird clay statue and a vaguely unsettling note on his porch. In the article she complains about the gender neutral bathrooms in the co-ops at Oberlin, for Christ's sake. And it just made me think, What the Fuck?

So I looked her up when I got home. She has a slick website. Lena Dunham, Writer & Filmmaker. Her own domain name, nice, simple design, obviously not from a template out of Dreamweaver. All her creative endeavors presented on a side bar with the excruciating attentiveness of a librarian cataloging every public mention, display, obscure film festival award, or individual involved in any of her efforts (We are the Facebook generation, are we not?). I was impressed.

So I kept reading. I looked up some of her videos on YouTube. Now, a lot of famous people have come out of Oberlin. A fucking ton. Especially in the arts and cultural arenas. And that place definitely contained a concentration of amazing creative people at an astoundingly higher rate than the general population, but the thing is there aren't that many people in the rural Ohio cosmopolitan metropolis that is Oberlin, and, without a doubt, I knew every cool person on campus while I was there. And I'd never heard of Lena Dunham. I figured, if she was some instant-hit, big-shot Lady Gaga of the Indy film world, I would have heard of her.

I've gotta say, I watched about 3 seconds of a interview and a 5 minute short film and it's nothing special. It's very much college films made by a self-obsessed hipster from New York who went to an artsy liberal private college. Living with her parents in TriBeCa, which I'm told is the most expense part of New York. So how did she get 6 fucking pages exclusively devoted to her sweet little existence in The Fucking New Yorker? I'm in disbelief.

There's something to be said for having talent, working hard, paying your dues, and producing genius work. And there's something to be said for being rich, knowing people, and shamelessly promoting yourself. And, you know, you really gotta admire someone who can do that well. Either one, makes no difference. Maybe it's not who you are, but who you can fool into thinking you matter.

* * *

It's instructive, though. Just like the Republican party's smear campaign against global warming, in today's media-saturated world, all you need to do to get your message across is be name dropped in enough places to make it appear as if what you're saying is fact. Frequency is readily confused with actuality and lends anything an air of truth. Maybe all any of us needs is a good PR campaign.

I have a lot of friends who are incredibly talented people, doing much more unorthodox and interesting things with their lives than I (or Lena Dunham, I'd wager). But they don't have that same seamless sense of perpetual self observation, that eternal objective other, that mirror you catch yourself in and then smile for the cameras at just the right moment. I don't know whether this is second nature for Lena Dunham or whether it's a conscious effort to succeed in an extremely competitive field, but she clearly has this. It's sort of a polish (or a film, if you like - as in that film that formed over the pool last summer when we stopped putting chlorine in the water...). She does it well, and, hell, more power to her. I'm just baffled. I feel like we all should be able to do this. Get a couple mentions here and an inflated resume list of this and that that you've appeared in and there you go. You're off to the races.

Maybe this is all it takes to succeed. Or, maybe this is what success is (a slightly different proposal). I'm realizing more and more in my life that you create the world around you. Everything that happens to us is subjective, interpreted through human eyes and the lens of culture, and it's malleable. Most people don't know who they are or what they want in life, and we all crave and respond to someone who can make us feel sure of something. Anything. Be it spiritual beliefs, a sense of duty and meaning, or a world in which you make trendy indy short films that go on to wild success. We manifest these things by putting them out in to the world with unabashed confidence in their reality, and I wonder if this is maybe all (or what) it takes to make something real.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Faces of Pioneer Square

Pioneer Square is my favorite area in Seattle. It's the only place that has that tight, old world feel: walkable streets, vaguely post industrial buildings, cobblestones and brick, water towers looming ominously on the roofs of buildings, art walks and homeless people, the feeling that someone might jump out from an alley and rob you at knife point, alleys, the old and a little of the new. It's interesting; it has story. Its textures are rich with innuendo and suggestion.

This alley inspired this photo shoot. I really like how it frames the modern addition that mends these two brick buildings. It's something you can't just out and come upon. You would never want to actually enter the building, stand in its (surely) elegant lobby. There's something to catching it through the alley as you're walking by, beyond tube steel stairs, elevated loading docks, octopus gas meters and a woman talking on her cell phone.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

The End of Men

The July/August Atlantic Monthly feature article this year was entitled "The End of Men", the words on the cover overlain on a flaccid, drooping Mars symbol (the circle with a [normally] erect arrow sticking out). The article is a engaging read (who can resist the age old question of whether men or women are better?). I expected it would piss me off, but I felt it was fair, if a little over-enthusiastic, and appropriately provocative. I haven't been reading the Atlantic very long, and I still don't entirely get what they do, but it seems to be fairly breezy articles based on an insight into current cultural trends, filled out with a broad base of supporting examples (for this article, everything from interviews to psychology papers to chick flicks and [of course] Lady Gaga), more or less reading as an opinion piece rather than what you might call the hard journalism of a Mother Jones.

The article posits that in a economy evolving from raw industry to service and tech, men's skills no longer give them the advantage that we held for the rest of human history, and that men have so far been unable to adapt, while women are, essentially, taking over. Variously through the article, men are identified as: dominant, faster, stronger, hardwired to fight, emotional, aggressive, competitive, assertive, controlling, and reckless, among others. Women are described as: nurturing, flexible, educated, conscientious, stable, smart, dutiful, reliable, empathetic, consensus-seekers, lateral thinkers, and morally sensible. As the basis for this shift in roles, the article states that "the attributes that are most valuable today - social intelligence, open communication, the ability to sit still and focus - are, at a minimum, not predominately male. In fact the opposite may be true."

Maybe you agree with these characterization and maybe you don't. Maybe you noticed, as I did, that almost all words associated with women are positive and almost all those associated with men are characterized negatively (or maybe that's just how we've come to understand those terms). What's really alarming about this article is the repercussions of this shift.

In the second half of the article, the author states that secondary education is disproportionately sought by women (60% of enrollment), to the point where schools are going out of their way to promote a kind of affirmative action to draw more men and maintain their idea of a balanced gender dynamic. The dynamic isn't balanced in education, and it's shifting in a large way in the workplace (with a few exceptions, notably engineering and hard sciences). Increasingly, the job market requires these more academic skills, as well as the credentials that come with them, and this leaves those who don't pursue secondary education at a disadvantage. The article suggests that the result of this trend is a society full of educated women who are smart, assertive and employed and more or less neanderthal men who are either anachronistically macho or impotent, defeated and unable to reach out for help. The good working class job - the mine job, the steel mill - that you could get without even a high school education has left our country for parts of the world where labor isn't valued as highly as it is here. Marriage rates are down, which the article suggests is tied to this proposed intellectual and fiscal inequality between men and women. The very fabric of society, it would seem, is coming apart around us.

To see this idea of a world dominated by women taken to its extreme, I recommend Y: The Last Man, the graphic novel series. The story follows the last man on earth after a mysterious event simultaneously wipes out all the males of every species (except him and his pet monkey - yes, I know, I'm pretty sure they intend that). It has interesting gender dynamics, sex, nudity, graphic violence, thoughtful provocation and everything else you could want in a graphic novel. The writing and characters at times feel forced, but it's an interesting read if you're into graphic novels.

So, is it true? Are the women taking over? Are we men destined to revert genetically into mindless cringing animals the women tolerate only for the purposes of breeding? Are action movies a dying genre as romantic comedies take over? Is the information age leading us into a feminist utopia of cooperation and holding hands and thinking about each other's feelings?

It was an interesting article with a doubt. I thought some of the ties and conclusions were a little stretched in the service of generating drama, the falling marriage rate, the suggestion that women make disproportionately more money than men. The numbers presented in the article seem to suggest that many of these trends are just now becoming equal between men and women, and the sense of alarm is extrapolated from there. It's a worthwhile thought to consider, though, given that our culture is so thoroughly defined by masculinity, and that any change in this fabric will be deeply unsettling to both men and women.

I felt entirely outside the debate for most of the article. In high school, I played football, basketball, baseball, ran track and spent a good deal of the summer in the weight room with guys screaming at me to finish that last rep or out pushing myself to run until my legs were shaking and I threw up. I've gone nose to nose with guys in basketball games shouting over fouls, but I can also shrug off an insult, step outside myself, and walk away. I'm smart, well educated, and I read prodigiously. I'm confident, I can be decisive and have agency when needed, but I'm humble and tend to seek out other opinions, draw others in, and prefer copacetic group dynamics over accomplishing a task at any cost. The way the article was presenting men and women in such diametrically opposing lights didn't seem to apply to me. The thing that caught me up and brought me down to size was when the article discussed the way women and men apply to college. The women, it said, tend to take a lead role to their application process - filling out the apps themselves, planning ahead, arranging school visits, filling out the FAFSA - and this is very much true of the way Anita ended up at Oberlin. Men, it says, tend to sit on the couch and let their mother take care of things, and this is more or less the way I ended up in college.

I remember it getting on into senior year in high school and every adult you interact with asking you what your plans are. I remember very distinctly refusing to plan in that way that serious, upwardly mobile types are supposed to. I very much wanted to enjoy my life and live in the moment, follow my feelings and allow things to unfold as they would. Maybe this isn't the same type of apathy this article identifies as distinctly masculine, but the result was the same. Fortunately, I was raised in a family that supported me and that valued education. And that, I think, is the answer to this male-female skill and success divide.

I think I very much have learned to be who I am. Certainly genetics plays some role in basic aptitude, but what you do with your abilities is learned. My parents had me in their mid-thirties, intentionally giving themselves time to live a little first, so that they could focus their attention completely on their children. They read to us as kids, sent us to summer camp, art classes, swimming lessons, and sports games. They stayed together, had stable, good-paying, union jobs, and we lived in the same house my whole life, where they still live. They choose the house as much by its merit as by the school district it's in. The area is wealthy and has extremely well-funded, well-regarded public schools. In high school, I was in a program called Flex that was a sort of entrenched liberal arts school within the high school. It was composed of about 200 students, 7 teachers and took up the first 3 hours of the day. It had it's own wing of the school and we were known as Flexies by the rest of the students.

The Flex learning environment was more laid back than a normal classroom, promoting active, involved discussion rather than rote memorization and testing. We watched serious films, took elective classes, wrote heady essays, made bold declarations, and, 3 or 4 times a year, took monstrous 100 or 200-some question Flexams. When I got to college, I found that I had already encountered some of the material in many of my intro classes: psychology, sociology, anthropology. Flex was an incredible experience and could accurately be described as teaching you how to think rather than teaching you to know. All the teachers were wildly liberal, of course, and an attitude of social responsibility and engagement was an unstated assumption.

Mr. Craig was a self declared communist who drove an old Volkswagen bus and insisted he was waiting for the next capitalist crises of over production to buy a new car (wherever he is now, I'd bet he has one). Mr. Shaheen almost definitely smoked pot and was always willing to let you run with a idea and see where it took you. Mr. Pare started each day off by playing guitar and didn't care if you were 10 minutes late (he was fired as a result of some sort of sexual scandal with a student I never got the full story on). Mr. Pavlov was somewhat of a jock, his only claim to fame being that he was an extra in the movie Newsies. The women tended to be less bombastic, but equally adamant about their values. Ms. Rabideau and Ms. Kirchoffer were stern, large woman of the old world type. The other woman (I forget her name) was French and a little willowy and flighty; I don't think I ever had a class with her. We had one black teacher, Ms. Moten, who was about 4 feet tall, fiery, funny, and informed us (to our outrage) that black people couldn't be racist because they weren't in positions of power in society (we insisted she was in a direct position of power over us).

In school, I was in advanced classes, got exclusively B's, did very well on standardized tests, and went to college at a place that was to the rest of the world what Flex was to high school. College took my alternative education to a new level: I encountered openly gay people, had a gay roommate, my social circle freshman year was the women of the Kalamazoo College Women's Resource Center, learned not to use gay as a derogatory adjective, encountered trans-gendered people, sort of figured out what they were, was introduced to and resisted using gender-neutral pronouns, studied other religions, was outraged at social inequality, encountered feminism, socialism, anarchism, cooperative living, hippies, and drugs, learned to play, learned how to be physical with others in a way that wasn't about goals (as with sports), learned how to cook, learned about local food and environmentalism, got comfortable with all these radical ideas and ultimately learned it's okay to use gay as a derogatory adjective if you're in the right company and they understand you understand and are using it ironically or intentionally or whatever. In short, I had the liberal arts education to beat all liberal arts educations, and I gave myself over to it completely. It was amazing.

I'm bringing all this up not to talk about how great I am in front of a captive audience, but to show my path to becoming a more or less balanced person. I think something the Atlantic article neglected in its all-female utopia is that men have some very valuable traits that women tend to have in shorter supply. Men tend to be confidant, decisive (as in able to see the scope of a situation and make decisions quickly and assertively without becoming mired in self-doubt or the emotional undertones, implications and general mess of all the people involved), men can be brutal, honest, objective, and efficient, men can force themselves to do something hard that they don't enjoy (even for years and years), and I think men are especially more apt to be able to focus on a single thing, to get caught up in it and zoom in so completely as to block out all distraction. You can see how many of these traits are negatives as well as positives, and I don't deny that.

I think, in general, that this article is right about where society is heading and that, in general, men are woefully juvenile in how they deal with their emotions and in handling group dynamics and complexity of any sort, but I would also posit that an excess of femininity is no more desirable than an excess of masculinity. This is why I think a liberal arts education is so valuable. When we open ourselves up to see and understand the perspectives, opinions, processes and lives of others, our worldview expands; we grow. By making ourselves vulnerable rather than deciding we already understand how the world is, we become broader, stabler and stronger for it. I think the longer a person delays deciding that they understand something in life, the more conflicting information they will take in and the better off they will be. And this is simply something that you don't get from going to bars, watching TV, or talking to people at work - or at least you don't get enough of it to really effect a change. Perhaps this is a way in which marginalized people are at an advantage over white men - women and minorities have been forced to come to terms with a complex world full of many different perspectives, while men have been able to march blindly through history waving our fists about and shouting, up until now. I think a formal education that's engaging, active and responsive (rather than being focused on tests and memorization) is the best way to acquire new perspectives and expand the scope of who we are, man or woman.

This only leaves you with one problem: How to get a job with your worthless liberal arts degree?

Monday, November 15, 2010

William Livingston House, Detroit

William Livingston House, Detroit (demolished in 2007).

And my drawing of the same.

Photograph taken from this great book called Ruins of Detroit that came out this year.

Detroit is maybe the first post-industrial city in this country. Or maybe it's just the first post-apocalyptic city. Smaller cities have come and gone and been blown away with wind, larger cities have retooled, taken on new industries, and continue to thrive. But it's Detroit I keep hearing about on NPR. The country seems to have a collective fascination with Detroit right now - with its spectacular failure.

Maybe this is something like what happens when you have a limb amputated and continue to feel it for years afterward. But it raises a much broader question for our country. What do we do with all the infrastructure we built up after WW2? All that steel and concrete, red brick and ceramic facade, and what about those storied assembly lines? Just think of all the machinery!

Do we retool to produce solar panels just as we retooled to produce Buicks after the War? Do we clear the abandoned lots and plant seeds? So far, it seems that we've granted 42% tax breaks to films, guaranteeing that ever post-apocalyptic movie for next decade will have a little piece of Detroit in it.

There's something irresistible and important about Detroit. This is the city where people came from across the country to make $5 a day, unskilled labor, on the assembly lines. Detroit invented the middle class. And now, as we slowly lose our middle class, as income disparity grows greater and greater while wages stagnate, as unions decay and compromise themselves out of existence, corporations overtake politics, and the left moves to the right while the right moves toward fascism, there's something quaint and important about Detroit. There's also something of the sense of driving by an accident on the freeway. We're all rubber-necking a little bit, but we're also thinking about ourselves. What happens when we stop producing goods in this country? How long can we maintain our standard of living based on imports and debt? How long can we lie to ourselves and bully the rest of the world into serving us? What happens when the middle class disappears and the working people of this country start getting pissed off? It's a volatile time we live in. There is no security in an unsustainable system, even for the people at the top. This is what I see when I look at Detroit. It is perhaps a mirror. We can't help but become absorbed in self-reflection as we watch.

Monday, November 8, 2010


I'm thinking about drawing tonight. There's something powerful and amazing about drawing. It's a simple act, nothing mysterious about it, a skill that anyone can learn. The real value in drawing is in learning how to see, how to be present.

Whenever I draw, I see the object of my attention in greater and greater detail as time stretches out. I begin with the exterior boundary line of an object, usually somewhere along the ground or horizon line of the scene. From here I begin to fill in detail. I see texture, slight curves, detail, detail. I get sucked in to this other world so quickly. I become like a horse with blinders on, the tunnel vision zoomed in so far I lose my normal awareness of the world around me. It's a process of seeing in greater and greater detail. I find myself reaching and surpassing my own sight by degrees. I draw something and then look closer, my sight penetrating further and further in. My drawing is a rough approximation at best. I am fabricating lines. I see new details. I go back, include them. These become real. I have represented the object adequately. Then I see new details, smaller, more precise details...

Some time later it has been 3 hours hunched over a paper clutching a pencil in hand. I'm hungry, my back hurts, my hand is cramping up, I've lost all sense of the passage of time, of my narrative of things I should be doing, what comes next what comes next. I don't draw very often.

Deer Skull, 2008.
3.5 hours.

I don't draw very often. I don't know why. I think of myself as someone who is good at and enjoys drawing. And yet I'm finding I have almost nothing to include in my portfolio for school. All my drawings over the years have been on scraps of paper and card board. They've been weird things like animal skulls and the sprayer in the school cafeteria dish washing sink. Nothing with depth of field or perspective. Why don't I make drawings more often?

We get busy, caught up. We're tired at the end of the day. We do what's easy. Engagement, in anything, takes effort, energy; it seems much too hard. It's a shame. I wish I drew more.

William Livingstone House, Detroit.
Maybe 4 hours in to this one.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Synonyms for Tacky

Main Entry: tacky
Part of Speech: adjective
Definition: cheap, tasteless
Synonyms: broken-down, crude, dilapidated, dingy, dowdy, down-at-heel, faded, frumpy, gaudy, inelegant, mangy, messy, nasty, out-of-date, outmoded, poky, ratty, run-down, seedy, shabby, shoddy, sleazy, sloppy, slovenly, stodgy, threadbare, unbecoming, unkempt, unstylish, unsuitable, untidy, vulgar.

Try it out loud. It's great.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Light, Heat and a Backdrop

Last Saturday, I rented two 750 watt, 3000 kelvin, blindingly white, extremely hot lights. Despite feeling like I was going to be vaporized at any minute (or that the gates of Heaven had opened in my living room), we managed to shoot 450 pictures to draw on for my portfolio. Here are some of the winners.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Ship it to Georgetown

I've been reading about the trade balance between nations and how this affects foreign currency reserves, domestic currency valuation, and ultimately power, security, employment, influence and distribution of wealth across the globe. Because, you know, I think this shit affects us in our actual lives and the things we actually do, by defining the limits within which we make choices. Ever since the 70's when we stopped making things here in the US and both parties begun pushing a neo-liberal, free trade agenda, we've been running a trade deficit, which means, we import more stuff than we export. Way, way more, at this point. And you know how that stuff gets here? In giant metal boxes. When you snoop around behind any grocery store in the country, what can you reliably find? A stack of pallets and a stack of milk crates to take home and use for fire wood or furniture. Well, when you snoop around in any port town, you find enormous stacks of steel shipping containers.

On the secondary market, you can pick these babies up for $500-$2500 - cheap for an easily adaptable, structurally impregnable building block. Around the country, astute folks have been noticing this exciting new waste product of the global economy and finding ways to do awesome and useful things with them. You can find a million examples with a Google search, so I'm just going to show one here.

This a building in Georgetown that got some local attention for being "the largest cargo container project on the West Coast." More preciously, it's a pair of buildings on a shared lot, one of which is occupied by an interior design firm. Hybrid Architecture designed the project, which they describe as "cargotecture".

Some of the details are pretty nice. The shipping containers are used very much as what they are, without apology. I like the use of round porthole windows and the dents to reference their nautical past.

Some of the elevations are a little stark, though, especially around back, and the climbing vine that seems to not have fulfilled its obligation on this trellis would certainly be nice to soften the sheer walls and provide a little contrast.

It's really a very very simple design. Two boxes, offset, with an S-curve circulation path through the lot, encouraging interaction between the two buildings, creating common, modified, open courtyard spaces, and allowing each building to have its distinct identity and function while, clearly, existing as one unit.

For one of the assignments in the summer architecture program I took at UW, we had to design 2 live/work spaces for an artist and an artisan on a long, narrow city infill lot with party walls. This layout is exactly what I came up with. That was having zero experience with architecture, barely having even given much thought to the field. I may be wrong, not having studied this yet, but I suspect it's fairly intuitive and not particularly complicated - beyond all the codes and details you have to know. I think the architecture-as-art aspect is going to be the focus of a formal education, but I can also see that there are a whole lot of buildings being built, that are decent, nice and successful, that aren't meticulously executed, that don't carry through a central concept informing their every decision down to the most minute detail.

If the light switch cover doesn't fit with your concept, you should design your own. I anticipate this will be the academic approach to architecture, and I think it will be good for me to experience that, and have to dwell in the conceptual phase, and be able to defend my design decision in reference to something other than feelings, impressions, or practicality, but it will probably also be the most challenging part of grad school for me. I certainly resisted it all the way through that summer class.

This shipping container building is nice, simple and well done. We should be building everything out of these things. A. Given our inept fiscal governance, they're a readily available waste product, B. They're cheaper, stronger, easier to prefabricate and ship, and require less labor to put up than a conventional stick building, and C. They're a no-brainer to recycle 20 or 30 or 50 years from now when someone tears that building down.

I think we need to move away from wood frame construction in residential buildings and start using lighter, stronger, recyclable steel wall framing. Or just shipping containers. The exciting challenge with using shipping containers would be to not allow yourself to be limited by the form and build something that doesn't look like you just craned a pile of boxes over from the port and cut a door in the front. It seems like we're pretty much willing to put up with any awful, impersonal structure in our work buildings, but maintain very traditional aesthetics for our homes. There would have to be a certain openness to using metal in the home, accepting its colder, somewhat industrial nature, and in finding ways to create great spaces with shipping containers that people feel comfortable in, sitting on the couch in their tighty-whities watching Cops. Who knows what the future will hold? It could happen.

* * *

The most interesting thing about this elegant, storied building is its immediate context, which, if you know Georgetown, well, it's Georgetown. Here's the neighbor to the north, 20 feet across the alley:

There's something about this obvious tension that I love. You almost feel embarrassed, although I couldn't say for whom.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Wednesday, September 29, 2010


Architecture is a way of seeing the world. It is a process of asking questions. Designing buildings is a means to create experiences. Architecture is about choosing to be the type of people we want to be, in spaces that engage rather than limit us. Architecture is about living intentionally. It is about observing closely, drawing conclusions and manifesting them in the world.

When I walk into a bar or a friend’s house or a restaurant, I see a theater set. This is the set upon which we play out our interaction. I see whether the door opens and disappears, or whether it feels looming, the entryway congested while it catches on shoes and clutter. I see the arrangement of furniture and objects moving into the space. Where am I most drawn to sit? Where is the light coming from? Is there anything in my way, subconsciously frustrating my efforts? After a while, I begin to take in more detail. I see the HVAC equipment grafted on to the ceiling, evocatively or apologetically exposed. I see the graceful bends in the electrical conduit where it turns to run down the wall. I see the conjunction where the old growth post and beam structure meets the steel I-beam retrofitting, the suture between old and new. I draw information from these intersections. How old is the structure? How many iterations has it gone through? How much attention to detail has been paid to its invisible spaces? Is it loved? Does it feel welcoming? Is this person someone who will put up with a loose door handle for years rather than take five minutes minutes to tighten it? Is their space chaotic or does it convey a sense of harmony, peace, intention in thought and action? The spaces we allow ourselves to exist in say as much about us as we do when we sit down to talk. Quite possibly, they say things we could never put into words.

* * *

I've gotten to the point of writing my Letter of Intent for grad school applications, thought I'd include some drafts and musings here in the blog.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

A Spider's Web

I just watched out the back door for maybe ten minutes while a spider completely dissembled its web. I've never seen this and never knew they could do it. I think the spider understood that I was going to walk out the door (we don't use the back door much), and decided to conserve its resources rather than let me destroy its web. This is another thing I never knew they could do - re-consume/absorb/store their web and reuse it. Spiders are totally fucking green.

When I first opened the door, the web was a glorious complete figure blocking about half the doorway off. After it had been long enough that I realized what was happening and ran to grab the camera, the web looked like this:

As I watched, the spider traversed out to the extreme lower ends of its web and drew the web back into it little by little. I couldn't figure out if it actually has a way to pull the web back in to its abdomen to be redeployed like a tape measure recoils, or whether it was consuming its web to digest and reuse the material or something else entirely. What I can say is that the web seemed to be disappearing - a surprising quantity of it, and it certainly wasn't trailing or dangling behind like you might expect if it wasn't going into the spider's body.

The next thing that happened was the stuff nature documentaries are made of. After the spider had all but dismantled all traces of its web, it begun spraying multiple strands of silk with great force out its abdomen and into the night.

You can see the freaking exclamation marks all over as this stuff is shot out with so much force the camera captures it as a blur in the long exposure. I have never seen a spider do this before. My best guess is that it has neatly and precisely recoiled all its used silk and is now expulsing it at with much force to hopefully catch onto to some new surface from which to begin a new web. Here's an illustration:

This makes me wonder, What else are the spiders hiding from us, those crafty bastards?

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The City

I've been reading The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs. From what I've gathered, it's a very influential, sort of pop-urban planning text that turned convention on its head when it came out in 1961 and is now canon.

The book basically tries to define what a healthy city is, and identify strategies to encourage their development.

The city looms large in my thoughts right now. It's such an incredible creature; a mythical beast. Cities emerge up out of the landscape like giant, chaotic stalagmites, like computer circuit boards. Their formation is so convoluted, the result of many forces and intentions pushing and pulling in so many different directions - and yet their fabric is interconnected along so many routes, they take on an almost organic existence, become a single, living entity.

Jane Jacobs doggedly pursues diversity in city life. Her focus is largely economic diversity - diversity of use. She posits that for an area to be healthy, it should be vibrant, glowing with people, connections and intersections. To her, the city fulfills needs and creates community. A healthy city street fosters contact between neighbors, it serves to socialize children, providing role models and varied adult influence, and the busier it is, over the largest possible spread of hours, it works to ensure safety. Jane Jacobs' city is the anti-suburb, it is mixed use taken as far as it can go, people heaped on top of people all living and breathing and brushing up against each other out in the streets.

Anita and I are at a point in our life together where we're starting to turn over from placeless 20-somethings to people who want to have careers, own a home, have kids some day, and engage with a place. We're becoming more specific, you could say. This focusing raises many questions, one of which is Where to be? It's something we've talked round and round, and researched and thought about. Where to live? A city?

I don't really think of Seattle as a city. Seattle is more like a glorified town that has the economy of a city. As of 2009, only 617,000 people actually live in Seattle city limits, which ranks 23rd in the country. New York city alone has over 8 million. But what sets Seattle out to me is how much of it is single family housing and how much of the city is green. In almost any neighborhood in the city, if you unfocus your vision and just observe colors, you can turn 360 degrees and more than likely you'll end up with a 50% green field of vision. Seattle has trees everywhere, landscaping, and huge, wooded parks. There's an old growth tree I'm thinking of in north Capitol Hill that's probably 6 feet in diameter, just shaking the sidewalk off as it stakes its claim to the land. Hell, I did a search for the last bear (as in, yes, the large furry species of mammal not the, well, nevermind) and it was freaking 2006. The poor thing was Tasered and tranquilized to death by police and wildlife agents several blocks off campus in the U District. When I can step outside and actually see the stars and maybe get mauled by a black bear, sorry, but that's not a city.

These are the elements Jane Jacobs identifies as contributing to vibrant, healthy city atmospheres:

Mixed Uses - Limited not only to commercial and residential, but broken down to include different types of activities that give people reason to be in a place at different times of day. For example, a park where people walk their dog in the morning before work, housewives take their children midday, business people eat lunch, children play in the afternoon, and lovers stroll at night. For this park to be vibrant, it must be near residences, offices, nightlife, restaurants, a school, etc. Without this level of activity, the park threatens to become dead, unused, unloved, and even dangerous.

Short Blocks - Short blocks encourage penetration by pedestrians into streets they would never have reason to pass through. This allows the success of small businesses on street corners and further in. Jane demonstrates with drawings and experience how a particularly long street, which no one save the people who live on that street have reason to traverse, can create a dead zone which cannot maintain health or vigor.

Aged Buildings - Surprisingly, Jane specifically points out the value of having a mix of old and new buildings in a neighborhood. She has an excellent chapter where she demonstrates how high rent and low rent structures combine to create vitality and health. She identifies certain types of businesses as barometers of the health of an area, specifically used book stores. (Interestingly enough, Joel Garreau, who definitely read this book and is the writer of Edge City: Life on the New Frontier, cites this exact same indicator.) A used book store cannot afford to rent a new space. Newly built spaces require high rents to pay down the loans needed to built them. While used book stores, art galleries, artist lofts, camera repair shops and so on may attract people to an area, this very attraction will destroy itself if it's developed too far. Similarly, an area that sees no development will fall into disrepair, fail to attract investment or businesses, and potentially become a dead and dangerous place. Either way, the danger is too much of one thing, which she identifies as a natural tendency in city evolution to be guarded against.

And lastly,

Density - Jane says each city and each block within each city carries its own set of circumstances and conditions that make it impossible to proscribe an ideal density. She ultimately ends up suggesting a number somewhere above 100 dwelling units per acre.

Beyond the poignancy and accessibility of her arguments, her style is engaging. The book is peppered with quotations from literature and culture used to introduce topics and underscore points. Here is one of my favorites, used to illustrate how proscribing one density standard for all cities would be ridiculous:

"What are proper densities for city dwellings?

The answer to this would be something like the answer Lincoln gave to the question, 'How long should a man's legs be?' Long enough to reach the ground, Lincoln said."

I have a lot of friends, my girlfriend included, who find cities abhorant creatures. They find them to be confusing, congested, polluted, distasteful, dead concrete places that preclude any possibility of living life naturally. This line of thinking inevitably ends up with some variation on a back-to-the-land theme, where you can run free in the fields and pick your food straight from the earth.

There is a certain allure in this way of life to me. I see the intuitive flow and simplicity. I see the sense of having a direct link to the natural world, and how we're divorced from that in the city. I see the mental and emotional lightness of having space and time and air and light and living life at a slower, more deliberate pace. I think there are two things that keep me from throwing my suitcase in the car and leaving my phone and computer behind and never looking back. One, is the vitality of cities, and the other is a sense of engagement in the human process and responsibility toward the whole.

The Responsibility Angle

When things are not feasible for everyone, because they arise out of a set of specific, unreplicatable circumstances, they aren't solutions. I think of these things are not existing, not being real.

If you didn't have to work because you were on a trust fund and were able to do unpaid internships until you were offered a sweet job, that's good for you, but it doesn't help me understand how to get a good job. If you inherited $20,000 from your rich uncle and used it to put a down payment on a house, fine, but it doesn't give me insight into how to own a house. Given the population on the planet, I don't think the idyllic, bucolic small town life is possible any longer. Sure it will continue to exist and people will continue to live in and enjoy it, but it's a dead paradigm, a fragment of a past that is slowly disappearing. It doesn't offer a solution anymore, because it isn't sustainable for everyone to have a 20 acre farm with a pond and a little patch of woods where they hunt their own meat and build a treehouse for their kids. I may even be lucky enough some day to be able to choose this life, but I think it would feel like giving up to me, retreating, burying my head in the sand and leaving the world to deal with its problems on its own.

So, do I want to live in a city? It's a tough question. I find myself drawn to that small town life all the same. It has its charm, its direct, emotional appeal. I've never lived anywhere that didn't have ground level access. That, to me, is what makes a city. I grew up in a house in the suburbs on a 3/4 acre property with nice big Ash trees and a front yard half the size of a football field. I hated the monotony of the suburbs, so I moved to a city that's full of life and culture and a mixture of uses, but still I've sought out stand-alone homes to rent rooms in. I've always wanted ground level access, to be able to just walk outside barefoot and step on some grass, to drag my 5 gallon batch of beer outside so as not to spill it inside when transferring and cooling, to sit on the porch and sand a wood-working project, or let it sit drying with paint or chemicals I wouldn't want inside. I've never pushed myself to give this up, and so, in some way, I've never really embraced the city.

100 dwelling units per acre amounts to at least 150-200 people living on the footprint of my parent's property.

The co-housing community where I live now, which feels, to me, like a very healthy and well-designed level of density, is exactly 3/4 of an acre (according to the King County Parcel Viewer, which is an awesome tool for these kind of things). There are 23 dwelling units on this site, with approximately 60-70 people living here. This is suburban density level according to Jane Jacobs; she would have 4 times as many people living on this land. Her vision, I suppose, is mostly composed of 3-5 story buildings with commercial below, residential above, and the occasional large lot for a library, community center, park, or other public facility. The only part of Seattle that has these densities is Downtown. I don't think Capitol Hill even comes close to this. This is why I say Seattle isn't a real city.

The Vibrancy Angle

The thing that's great about cities, and that's a result of their density, is that cities are pulsating and bursting with life. It takes so many people crammed into such a tight place to create some things, things which wouldn't exist otherwise. Cities have always been the places of innovation and invention in society. Cities are where ideas come from, and where the human experiment is pushed forward. Cities are exploding with people scheming, striving, growing, changing, yearning, and creating. What is an isolating individual tendency in a small town becomes a full blown, righteous, in-your-face subculture in a city, and it can support any number of such subcultures, all overlapping and interacting in interesting ways. Cities are the mecca of this cultural diversity as well as Jane Jacobs' economic diversity, racial diversity, and any number of other things that make life interesting and worth living. As much as I appreciate nature, I am also a student of culture, and while the city may look like a dead concrete place to some, I see the weeds growing up through the sidewalk and generally find them so much more interesting for it.


I don't know where this goes. I guess you live life to find out your story. I'm interested to have the conversation with any of you, and hear your thoughts, because it's something that I haven't figured out, and what are we here for but to huddle together and hem and haw and generally kick about until someone looks up and says "Yes. That there!" and points off into the distance?