Friday, July 20, 2012

writing inspired by lightning

Thinking about the stormy weather tonight and I remembered this piece from college. Rereading it I'm struck by a couple things. I think it's pretty solid... there's a couple places where I winced and would hold back a little, but it's been edited down pretty well and most of it feels tight. I like writing that is sort of about something but not really about anything and just kind of ends awkwardly. I think the feeling is that nothing ever ends - there aren't conclusions or clear morals to take away from anything... we just go on living.

The other thing I'm struck by is that I don't feel substantially different than I did 8 or 10 years ago when I wrote this... I still feel on the outside of something I can't quite figure out. But I was so much more emotional about it here... somehow needing to think of things as extreme, to define myself as more or less or oppose to something. I'm more patient now... I can watch these things happen and not feel so torn up about it, and I'm getting better at living, but it's not like anything has really changed, and I wonder if this being patient is a good thing or not.

 Ohio Sky 

The place always looks so fresh when I get back, eerie, clean. The way the house looks, it could have sat is stasis for three months and been the same place I left, the exact same place I’d spent eighteen years of my life bored with. For some reason I have trouble now believing it’s real, like maybe it’s a movie set I accidentally spent my childhood growing up in.

 It’s best to get home in the middle of the day, when no one’s around. Walk into the silence of the house with only the dog to greet you, pass through the rooms one by one like a ghost, inches above the floor, touching nothing, leaving no imprint. The carpet in the living room had been freshly vacuumed, the fibers slanted and colored differently, depending on the direction of the machine’s push, leaving the impression of rows, like corn of the view from an airplane.

 I’m energized by car trips, by driving long distances, leaving places, by the shock accompanying arrival. All of a sudden the world slides back into place, the scenery screeches to a zero velocity halt and the slow sounds of the world return. I can always visualize the moment when I pull up into the driveway and cut the engine off, quick and without thought, and the stillness that follows – to get out of the car, uncertain, unaware of the reason for this strange sensation of presence, of tangibility.

I called her before anyone else, after I’d been home half an hour. I hadn’t talked to her all summer, hadn’t given her my number or told her I was fleeing to Virginia. I had thought of calling her but never acted on it. At those moments I had thought about how we needed distance, and I had gone and played basketball, or to read, to create my life without the layer of another’s awareness and the affirmation that addicts.

She was out for the night, in Ann Arbor where she has friends. I imagine them driving four packed into a small car, all male except her, listening to some sort of bland indie rock which they all sing along to because they know all the words. Of course it’s hard to talk to her over the racket, and every time I call she’s in the middle of laughing, answering the phone her voice just coming down from a laugh.

They go out to eat, spend money, talk loudly and never run out of things to say. Over the phone she tells me stories which always place her in a group. She tells me her observations of others, of the subtleties she notices. Sometimes we have long conversations about the right way to live, I’ve found another piece, she says. This seems to be my role in her life. It’s like I am thought only, an electronic whisper for her to reflect her ideas upon.

Well she was going to Radiohead tomorrow night, I had just driven ten hours from Virginia, would I like to go? Well, sure. But she was going with someone else, these small lines and borders surrounding us now, the way we have to act. We decided we would meet at the concert and she would drive home with me. I’d need someone to keep me awake; that’s a good reason to tell some other guy I don’t give a damn about.

 * * * 

We grew up in the suburbs of the shell of Detroit and out lives were bright and colorful like picture books. We grew up in big empty houses with landscaped yards. She was raised Catholic and I was Presbyterian. My family went to church and hers didn’t. She went to Catholic high school and I went to public. We played sports and had friends and went to the Prom together twice.

Night in my suburb is a surreal experience. Walking down the vacated streets, lights in second story windows, the flickering of a television projected blue across a room’s interior. It’s strange to know there are people in those rooms living their lives as you watch. It all looks the same from the outside, each construction roughly the same two common rooms, four bedrooms, a kitchen and bathrooms, standardized in their dimensions and accessories. It’s strange to imagine a person in one of those houses really experiencing something, not just empty and bored, but isolated, alone in a room as I walk past on the street outside. It is my experience that the suburbs affect this cruel relationship between proximity and isolation, amplified violently by the night.

Darkness has always seemed more alive to me, a presence, a thick mangled thing, leaned over dripping breath down the back of your neck. There are certain aspects of the human mind that only emerge at night; the dark existential experience of self, a haunting feeling of being lost, unable to find anything to answer questions you can’t compose into words. In the suburbs everyone is given a warm place to sleep and left to deal with their problems on their own. We are divided into neat claustrophobic containers where we project our insanities onto the walls. Sometimes there were nights I felt so ripped open I couldn’t sleep, and I would just lie in the dark listening to music.

 * * * 

With each album, Radiohead gets more electronic, the lyrics more cut up and deconstructed. They move towards saying nothing, towards just whispering and screaming while noise and tempo evoke all the madness the listener has to discover.

 I copied down directions from Mapquest and got in my car. I’m the sort of person who turns the music on first, begins backing down the driveway second, and manages to get my seat belt on halfway down the street. It was a nice day to be heading back out onto the road, the sky stretched out blue full of mountainous clouds overhead. I merged onto the highway and left the windows open, turning the music up to account for the wind.

When you’re in motion you don’t have to think. You don’t stay in one place long enough to experience the bad side. In motion, driving down the highway, life is touch and go, nothing gets too deep and nothing needs to be taken seriously. It’s like you’re watching a movie about yourself, sensory input flying across the windshield at eighty miles an hour, as big as your peripheral vision can get.

 The concert took place in Cuyahoga Falls County, Ohio, near Cleveland. An outdoor venue adjoining a state park. A beautiful day with beautiful trees and nice gravel roads. It didn’t feel appropriate to me. Some music, some experiences you need boundaries for; some beautiful things are dark and unnatural; they come out of claustrophobia and paranoia, a trapped animal insanity. This was my experience of Radiohead. This was what they meant to me. It began to feel forced to drive all this way, to seek out a feeling, when it conflicted so vulgarly with the pleasant atmosphere.

 I got to the concert early. I tried calling her but couldn’t get through. There were different types of people in the parking lot 0 dreadlocks and collared shirts and sandals and boots. People were learning against cars in groups, sitting at picnic tables, walking around. They were all talking and occasionally one voice would solidify for a phrase and then fade back.

 To get in the venue you have to cross a bridge manned by security guards. They make you empty your pockets for them. They pat any suspicious pockets and run a metal detector through the ozone surrounding you. Inside are stands with merchandise and beer. From over the hill you can hear the sounds of the crowd and canned music blaring. It was like this for awhile. I lay on the hill and pulled my hat down over my eyes. I tried calling her.

Night falls, the lights go out, Thom Yorke begins whispering. The music comes in, slow, intricate, tangled keyboards and distorted guitars. Thick, layered, arrhythmic, atonal. Illegible whispers, feedback and radio broadcasts, cut up and looped. Everyone is cheering and the sounds begin to build. Red and blue lights wash the figures on stage. Behind them a massive screen plays distorted feed of Thom breathing into the microphone.

The last thing she had taught me was to be patient. To look past the words and find the reality they couldn’t quite express. To understand the way people work, like equations, the web of forces that function as a social machinery. I learned that I am something aside from the way I work. I learned that people are just situations and to accept them like gravity. She taught me I don’t have to let myself be hurt by anything, because none of it is exactly me, and none of it is important, and you can just decide to let go and keep moving.

It had been two years and I’d changed dramatically. The contact I kept with old friends just saw them falling into paths they would never escape, passively making decisions they wouldn’t understand until it was too late. I wondered if she had managed to stay alive. I needed to see her to find out. Sometimes when my routine and relationships stretched thing I needed to think she was out there moving in parallel.

* * * 

At twelve thirty I merged on to the interstate. The flat Ohio sky was sibylline and dark. Thunderclouds suspended in monochromatic gradients for miles overhead. In the distance lightning formed brief thick stalks between the earth and the sky. I hadn’t found her at the concert. I had looked and I had called and when it was over I had left.

 An hour later the green numerals on the dashboard and the rhythmic sweep of my wipers begun digging into my mind. Bits of consciousness fell away, half seconds ticking off somewhere not quite awake. I was blinking out and drifting lanes, my head jerking back, eyes full of fear and adrenaline. I kept passing rest stops, pushing on to watch the storm in a kind of rapt religious awe.

Heat lighting was dynamiting the clouds, briefly staining them grainy shades of orange and gray. The road was empty and abandoned in both directions. I had forgotten about her. The world was disintegrating, shrinking. I watched rain in the headlights. Lightning was flashing constantly now, soundless, horizontal, walking on spider legs along the belly of the clouds.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Certain Pictures Have Surfaced Recently...

Oberlin College,
circa 2003-5

Robot Warz

Blaise took the semester off from school, so naturally he used his time to organize an elaborate series of pranks coinciding with spring tours of prospective students. The movement caught on in Harkness (our co-op) and took on a life of its own. We had schedules of tours from someone working in the admissions department and we figured, What better way to influence the new generation of Obies to be cool? Uptight students would be disgusted and anyone like us would know this was the place for them.

For Robot Warz, a dozen of us spent most of an afternoon making cardboard robot suits/body armor out of the co-op's recycling. We got Sam to dress up like a mad scientist with a giant remote control and someone queued up some drum 'n bass on a stereo as we waited for the tour to come by.

We all roboted around until Sam screamed that he'd lost control of the robots and then chaos ensued. It was basically a giant mosh pit of cardboard robots. We'd attracted quite a crowd by then, so we all put on a good show. In the end, cardboard carnage lay strewn across the grass.

Bike Derby

Bike Derby was a great annual tradition and probably the most nihilistic, self-destructive event on an otherwise conscientious, environmentally-responsible campus. Events as I remember them included: tall bike jousting (top), bike discus (below), longest track stand, tug of war (two riders take off in different direction attached by a band made of inner tubes... obviously one or both fall spectacularly. Actually, most of bike derby ended with people falling spectacularly...) and the derby. The derby was about 20 riders doing laps around the bowl, chugging a beer at each lap, and then the final no-holds-barred round where you just plowed into everyone else until your bike physically couldn't function any longer. It was incredible.

The Bike Derby traditionally ended with a giant, smoldering, black-smoke-spewing pile of annihilated, unrideable bikes. Safety and Security was never very happy about this, and they usually tried to shut down the Derby - although it seems like they didn't try that hard, in retrospect. I do remember one year them arriving to break things up as the keg we had hidden inside a bike-powered float made a stealthy get-away.

Braveheart Reenactment

This was the most elaborate event coordinated to coincide with prospective student tours. There were at least 50 and maybe closer to 100 participants - all dressed in kilts and other Bravehearty attire. We squared off in the big bowl in front of the library, first mooning each other, then the front flash, then rushing at each other screaming, stopping just short and hugging, then resetting and the final charge, ending in carnage once more.

Big Parade

Big parade started as a student art project and become an annual event that really united the crazy students and the town. It featured a load of bike-powered floats that were all impressive.

Co-op Antics

Harkness co-op was the base for all of this. A co-op is something like a hippie version of a frat, I guess. We set our own budget, administered ourselves, decided rules and policies, bought food from local farmers, cooked and cleaned up all the meals, etc. The bathrooms weren't gendered, and there was a cube outside the group shower with a 3/M/W/E on it. Depending on what way you oriented the character, it meant: Me Myself and I (the 3), Men, Women, Everyone. The greatest thing about Harkness was that you could count on seeing everyone you knew at the meals, and they became the catalyst for most of these pranks. Basically there was a group of a couple hundred really cool people who were ready and willing to do these things at the merest suggestion. (The other co-ops were great, too... each had their own character and personality.)

Several other prospective tour pranks that I participated in or heard about were: leading our own tour in outrageous costume to intersect with the official tour at various points, David Brown as tour guide loudly citing ridiculous information, 6 or 7 of us pecking the ground like chickens outside the admin building when the tour went by, Blaise and Kerry (female) walking toward each other across the library bowl, meeting, undressing, exchanging clothes, redressing, and going their separate ways. The stand in if we hadn't thought of anything else and a tour was going by at meal time was to streak, of course. One time we challenged the tour guide to a backwards race (the tour guides always walked backwards), but it was hastily organized and everyone took off running (backwards) in a different direction. We awarded the tour guide the bust of a conquistador that had been in the lounge.

My favorite story is one I only heard about. There were twin sisters, one of whom was a tour guide. While she was giving a tour, they pulled up in a van, grabbed her, threw her in the van, then her twin sister got out and calmly continued leading the tour as the van drove off. I still love imagining the thoughts running through the heads of parents who were accompanying their kids on these important school visits.

Chair-diving in the co-op dining room late one night.

This started small, just another night with nothing much to do. Nate and Ben Shirley-Quirk and I started doing runs into stacks of chairs on a little kids bike. It started out pretty small but people keep showing up to watch and the chairs keep getting higher and higher. I think in the end, we were at it for 2-3 hours until finally the chairs were up to the ceiling and the top one had a metal trash bin filled with silverware on it. Ben ended up bleeding from his head and we called it a night.

Here's an action shot of me diving into the chairs with cape and Styrofoam cup helmet.

Our award-winning couch/tent/inflatable raft fort.

Made this one weekend when my friend Chris came to visit. I think he had a good time. Chris is a pilot now. He does corporate flights for a small company in Michigan. Sometimes he flies celebrities to the Dominican Republic and sometimes he flies a cooler with an organ in it. Chris has excellent taste in B movies.

I think Oberlin showed a good time to my friends who did manage to visit. Rob (dubbed "Wingarrow" during an earlier visit by my friend Mollie) came down with his blues rock band to play a show for my birthday. If I'm remembering right, this was the same night Nate's black metal band Abaddon set up and hide in our basement drinking PBR for at least an hour before the party started. We tied 2 beer cans on a string through a conveinent hole in the bathroom floor that I could shake to signal them to come up at the appropriate time. They emerged (in total darkness) from the hatch door in our kitchen carrying candles and deer skulls, marched processionally into the living room, plugged in and started to play. Or maybe that was another night. Either way, I remember Rob saying it was one of the best shows they'd played. For years later, he was still known as Wingarrow to my friends, some of them had never known his real name.

Graduation Week

Graduation week was a great time. All the greatest people in the world, with a whole week before the ceremony and nothing to do but have fun together. Amanda started a tradition where we had dinners at rotating people's houses rather than eat in the school cafeteria (the co-op kitchens had shut down after classes ended). We ended up having quite a few meals at our house, which was great. I'll always remember Blaise and I were cooking for one, and we had all these stuffed bell peppers that no one had wanted to eat the day before. Instead of serving them again, Blaise suggested we put them through the blender and make a milkshake. Needless to say, no one even tried that item.

One of my favorite things about the week was that Blaise had made this giant dinosaur skeleton out of cloth over a metal frame stuffed with newspaper. It was enormous and awesome. He researched skeletal anatomy to create his own plausible creature. It stood about 15 feet high and 40 feet long. Well, it had been in storage but Blaise was getting giving it to the Big Parade, so he got the head and front arms and we draped it off our porch so it looked like the thing was crawling out from inside the house. Then we'd just sit out there hanging out and watch people walk by. At one point it had a Bambi cardboard cut-out in its mouth when a group of schoolchildren on a field trip passed by.

Nate and I decided to stay up as long as we could during graduation week to see what would happen. We ended up staying awake for 80 hours. It wasn't bad once it was day, you got more energy, but the nights were really weird. It must have been the second night when we were both just drifting off into weird weird places. I remember the only way I got through it was by doing dishes all night, courtesy of one of the dinner parties. Nate was playing Wagner on the record player and I remember my mind drifting off and sort of blanking out whenever I didn't have something physical to focus on. I have no idea what was going on for him. Our 3 days of being awake ended with the Bike Derby, which was perfect.

I'm not going to get too mushy. There were so many more memories and so much more to say about my experiences there. Oberlin changed my life. It was fantastic.

Friday, January 13, 2012

First Impressions

First impressions of architecture school.

From what I've gathered, architects are a highly respected profession, on the order of doctors, lawyers, etc, or maybe just a notch below, but without commensurate pay. I did hear architecture school compared to Med school when I was applying, which I didn't believe at all but now am wondering about. I don't know how hard Med school is, but this is definitely the hardest thing I've ever done, time-commitment-wise. Way more involved than my undergrad, which was more or less writing poetry and doing drugs, although really less drugs and more things like liberating 100' of barb wire from North Fields one night and transporting it to Nate's basement where it then sat until he wrapped himself in it and wore a gas mask to a party one night and spent the night ominously starring at people without speaking. This is different. I'm here to get a profession, a job, a line of work, acquire skills, etc. I'm going to an enormous state university with a football team that is televised. Oberlin actually had a football team, and I'm sure I could have played on it... maybe even started, who knows. John fucking Heisman actually went to Oberlin, and the gym is named after him, and most of the people who go there probably have no idea how totally bizarre that is. But the money thing, well it's hard to tell. People like self-deprecating. I've heard a lot of people say if you're going to architecture school, you're not in it for the money. But I am... I just think I have lower standards than they do. Engineers certainly make more. I don't really know what architects make. Anything more than $40k/year and I'm sure I'll feel freaking rich. I won't even know what to do with it.

The difference between architecture and building is that "architecture" has a unifying concept behind its design. This can take different forms and be more or less well executed, but there is some sort of abstraction motivating the decisions that go in to the design. Only something like 2% of buildings are designed by architects [Turns out this is an exaggeration. This article says the meaningful figure is somewhere around 28%, although it's all a matter of how you define your terms.]. For the large part, it seems that architects exist to serve the monied elite, and that most architects design high-end single family homes. Again, I have no idea whether this is true or not, but it's my impression thus far. The ideal, though, of architecture, the promise is that it exists to somehow better the public realm. A library, for instance, is a quintessential example of a building an architect would love to design. It has great weight, funding enough to do something cool, it serves the community and has a clear motivating idea behind its existence. Seattle, by the way, has the most amazing libraries I've ever seen anywhere. And I'm not talking about the stupid downtown library that gets all the press. It seems that most of the branch libraries are architect-designed and they're all really nice. And there's something so so valuable about having nice public buildings and public spaces. I don't think we always realize in this country how important our built environment is in feeling part of a place, or having respect for a place. James Kunstler has this great TED talk where he talks about making places worth caring about. That has been my feeling my whole life. From growing up in the suburbs to experiencing community full force at Oberlin to living in Seattle with it's weird isolating individualism. What we desperately need in this country is anything that connects us to each other and makes us care about the world. We need to feel at home in our places, and I think the human connections follow from having the space in which to do it.

Architecture is taught as a fine art. At the core it is very abstract. We do discuss things like truth and beauty and so on, but it's more abstract in a modern and not classical way. You have to have a idea behind your design, and this idea should serve as a touchstone for every single design you make. In theory, down to what the light switch covers look like - if it would fit your concept better, you design your own. Obviously, this is outrageous, but that is the general idea, and that is what differentiates architecture from building. An example:

I don't know a lot of famous buildings yet, but one I really like is this church in Seattle designed by Steven Holl. When I visited this church (and got a tour from the project architect who was on site during construction), I really understood this idea of design for the first time. Steven Holl is a world class architect who went through UW and works out of New York now. He does watercolors every morning. That's his thing.

The Chapel of St. Ignatius, campus of Seattle University



Conceptual Watercolor

I being this up because it seems like textbook architecture to me. Holl studied St. Ignatius' writing (which are largely concerned with light and I believe use light as a metaphor for God's love) and derived his ideas from this point of inspiration. He made a watercolor of 7 bottles of light, and this basically literally became the building. The space is 7 interconnected but clearly distinct volumes, each with an opening to allow light in through an aperture and a colored baffle to deflect and color that light so that it washes across a wall - for each bottle, a different color. It's a pretty amazing space, and I just don't think you come to this level of design if you're predominantly concerned with just making something functional. In that case, you make a box, because it is the most efficient thing there is. But there's this really nuanced process here that lead to this incredible experience. And I love that the building is tilt-up concrete walls, which is how they make warehouses. They actually hired a contractor who does warehouses, sat him down, asked him if he could do different shaped panels, different heights, etc, took notes, and created this wild-looking thing.

That's the idea, then. It's certainly not necessary that all building be approached that way (although I think it would be incredible if we demanded this level of quality from the things that make up the very fabric of our daily existence) and for much of what's built you don't even need an architect (an engineer's signature is adequate... under a certain size you may not even need that...). The profession seems like it can lead in a lot of different directions, and I come in wary. I'm concerned about going into debt (pretty deep) and getting locked in to something just to pay the bills. I think an architecture education can lead to making furniture, doing design-build, doing industrial design, being a CAD-monkey for a big firm, going into practice for yourself, getting pigeon-holed, being unemployed, moving to South America and starting an utopian commune, becoming a specialist in Arby's parking lots and doing it until you're 45 and shoot yourself in the basement while the kids are sleeping, make starchitect buildings all over the world, and a million other things. I think it'll be important to stick to my ideals when I come out of school and make sure I end up doing something that feels meaningful and worthwhile to me. Somewhere, at the bottom of all this, I'd love to have a skill that I can use to improve the world, even if it's just to make the space for others to do so. I think about Builders Without Borders, and just having a really valuable skill that I can then offer pro bono from time to time. Of course, I want stability, a middle class income, enough money to raise a family, etc as well, but I really want this to be, and I think it can, mentally, physically and spiritually/emotionally/creatively satisfying. I'll accept no less.

My Work

Final project of first quarter was a building design for a cooperative of photographers based on an actual site (an empty lot) in Ballard (the one they do the farmer's market in). We researched photographers, choose a type of photography and wrote a manifesto for our collective, then we designed the building around these ideas. My photographers were largely based on Edward Burtynsky (if you haven't seen Manufactured Landscapes, you really should). So they photographed industrial processes in an effort to connect end users with the manufacturing process, which at this point in the evolution of global capitalism generally takes place a world away and the feelings of which are removed from the feelings of the end users. Their work, as I saw it, was to present this material objectively, acknowledging it's awe and beauty as well as it's horror. Here's my favorite picture of a granite quarry by Burtynsky (from Barre, Vermont, where my sister lives right now):

So, here are pictures of my model and drawings:

My design was intended to in some way capture this sense of excavation through a mass of rock into a larger chamber that opens up above and below. In this chamber, the work space occupies the floor below and the gallery floats above on a platform with its walls exploded out to be the walls of the building, where the final product is displayed, hanging just above the work that goes in to producing it. In this way, the whole process of industrial production and final product are inseparably intertwined as part of the way this building functions and through the course of the experience of moving through it. I stacked the cardboard in the model instead of using vertical surfaces for walls (and cut it by hand, which compresses it slightly versus laser-cutting), both of which strategies served to make it feel very heavy. Heavy in a figurative sense of a mass of rock being carved out but then also the thing weighed like 5 or 10 pounds and the critics were audibly surprised when I passed it to them. It was about the most laborious way possible to make a model and that single cardboard thing (which is about 1' by 6") took me almost 20 hours to make. It was so satisfying. One thing I found really interesting: one of the reviewers commented on how the project ends up conveying emotion through it's utter lack of emotion (or sentimentality), or else through it's purely functional approach. That comment was so insightful into who I am as a person that I was a little bit shocked when he said it.

Here's my desk at the end of the quarter:

And here's Craig stomping all our models down into the recycling bin:

In conclusion, it's a blast. I'll keep you updated as I have more nuanced thoughts about various things. I look forward to the kind of in-depth conversations these blog posts generate with people who otherwise wouldn't have any idea what I've been up to.