Tuesday, July 28, 2009


i am packing our house in Providence.  We had made a lot of plans for this move, but the universe is acting very strongly just now to underline to me that my plans, though entertaining, are not of particular interest to it.  Karen and her mother are in Syracuse, and I am here packing.  This is the first time in our lives that I have been more or less solely responsible for our collection of stuff, and though it is profoundly overwhelming, it is giving me a chance to ruminate about some things that have been long buried.

Bachelard writes about objects being containers of memory, and yesterday and today have been experiences that completely support that way of thinking.  Our 11 year history together has imbued some objects with a lot of memories, years of use layered on to the object, causing it to become worn with the use like an old tool.  And some of these are not objects that we handle, you understand.  Use can be defined in a myriad of ways.

Yesterday I came across a little glass vase.  We never keep flowers these days, as our cats treat them as snack bars, but there was a time that I kept fresh flowers in the apartment all the time.  When we got married, Karen’s parents lived in Qatar, and brought these exquisitely delicate little glass vases to put on all the tables as gifts for those who came to the wedding.  We have a couple left that we have (miraculously) not broken, and it was one of these that got packed yesterday.  It has been living on our dining room table for a while now, and every time I look at it I think about our wedding, and our early years and who we were then and who we are now.  Not, maybe, in a conscious way, maybe a more symbolic way, but truly, every time my eyes land on this little object these thoughts flash through my mind. 

That is what I mean by using something without handling it.   The house is full of objects like that.

Then there are the objects that had not seen the light of day in a long time, that bring back a flood of very specific memories.  Deep in the back of the closet I found a pair of black leather pants.  I know you don’t believe this, but I swear it is true.  In about 2000 or 2001 Karen bought these and actually wore them.  I remember this, clear as day.  I remember standing at the top of the stairs in our apartment in Bed-Stuy in Brooklyn and her wearing these pants.  We were younger, of course, and in a very different stage in our marriage, and all of that was contained in these pants.  I had supposed that they had been given away years ago, but no, here they were, stiff with non-use, but carefully preserved in the vault of the closet. 

These memories, these histories of us are written in the everyday objects around us.  Everything is a totem in our house, everything is a record-keeper.  I am so careful about and enamored with the process of making because the objects that we make are not anonymous.  They are not disposable.  They are all endowed through their inclusion in our life with great import.

Of course I realize that the objects that are important to me are not necessarily as heavy with memory and meaning to others.  My sister and her wife were here yesterday afternoon helping.  This impromptu packing process has required us to lean heavily on the support of those who love us, and I have been truly thankful to be so blessed with loving family and friends.  As they packed our kitchen and the stoneware that my mother made for us, I watched story after story get carefully wrapped and stowed away, realizing that in some ways it can be helpful not to feel the weight of the history in each object.  For that reason (among others) moves are easier when someone else packs.  They could wrap and put in boxes objects that I would have had to contemplate individually, a process that can take quite a bit of time.

Now I am moving through a maze of some of the most emotionally brutal objects:  boxes taped shut.  

They are the defining aesthetic feature of this space at the moment, and require a different system of navigation, both physically and emotionally.  The speed with which this move came upon us has not given me time to grieve for leaving this space, which has been the most positive space in my life in years.  I have loved being here, and have learned a lot and grown a lot here, all (I think) to the better. Providence is a good city, and this has been a good house.  And I will miss it.  We are moving on to great things, and an exciting new chapter in our lives, and I know that, but this has been a good chapter too, and I feel that it is ending abruptly.  Too abruptly.

So I will put our memories in boxes, trying to be care-full and respect-full not only of the process of this transition, but also the outcome.  I will do this with the knowledge that all of these objects are not leaving our lives, they are coming with us, supporting us, recording for us our paths toward parenthood and a new environment, a new space, a new part of our lives.

Friday, July 17, 2009


at the RISD library there is a room called the “Picture Collection.”  It is one of my favorite places in the whole school, and I recently had an opportunity to show it off to a couple of visiting students, which brought it back to the front of my brain.

It is like the NYPL Picture Collection, for those of you familiar with that.  It is a series of filing cabinets filled with folders, each of which if stuffed with pages torn out of magazines over the years.  Every folder has a subject matter,   so there is a “Sports-Cricket” folder for example.  As well as an “Animals-Cricket” folder.  And a “Furniture-Georgian” and an “Architecture-Korea” and a “Political Personalities.”  The list goes on an on, it fills a 2” binder, neatly typed and cross-referenced.  You find the category you want to look at and ask for the folder, and you can check out up to 50 images at a time to take with you.  Pretty amazing.  You actually get to take these laminated pages with you to use as reference or as inspiration.  I used it all the time when I was in school.

Part of what I love about this analog approach is that it relies on my object recognition rather than a computer’s.  I was talking with an acquaintance the other night about how we recognize images and objects, about the way that we are able to understand (in a way that a computer is not) that an image of a red vase is an image of a red vase whether it is a digital photo with the file name DSC_00000546 or an actual photograph or an actual object (a real red vase, in this example).  The computer (so far) is programmed only to recognize files named “red vase,” and not to be able to see a red vase in an image of a dining table that is named “Dinner at Dave’s house.” (though my acquaintance is of the opinion that it is coming not too far off, a prospect that is intriguing and terrifying at the same time).

But the real thing I love about the Picture Collection is the sloppiness.  As I am looking at these photos I often will see something in the background or in the corner of the page that is intriguing or helpful, something that sends me off down another path in my research.  It can be linear, on the worst days when I am not paying attention, but it is at its strongest when it is circular or ovular or explodes out across a variety of fields and categories.

In the design process, as in life, an amount of slop is not only allowable, it is necessary.  The creative process and the design process demand that our thinking be kept as open as possible for as long as possible, and they tend only to end in a pleasing and satisfying and thoughtful way when we keep away from the straight and narrow.

There is a similar amount of slop in the way that we are built, slop that allows us to stretch and contort in ways that are not in line, strictly speaking, with our direct biological functions.  This lets us do things like yoga and gymnastics, but also allows us to squirm into the bilge to get at a recalcitrant bolt that is ‘way up in a tight little place, for example, or pick one very tiny screw up off the floor where we dropped it.  It also lets us function with one kidney, and to learn to adjust to losing a limb.  The physical slop allows us to learn new ways of functioning, and to constantly grow and adapt.

When Matthew Crawford talks about being a “knowledge worker”  he recounts being forced to adhere to a “knowledge quotient (how’s that for a terrifying phrase?).”  The system that he had to follow, which is like a lot of systems that a lot of us have to follow professionally, did not account for varieties in understanding and thinking.  It required a codifying of thought and action regardless of the situation to the point that the actual product was not only negatively compromised, it was actually, in its way, harmful.  What he experienced was an intellectual version of the Industrialist’s Creed introduced in “Cradle to Cradle:”  If brute force isn’t working, you aren’t using enough of it.

When I am looking at the planks for a new project, I spend a great deal of time laying out the pieces on the raw wood, making time to try many different options before I cut into the raw material and start to give it a new form.  I look at the color and swirl of the grain of the wood, flipping the planks again and again in an effort to give the wood the greatest possible voice, the most harmonious possible outcome.  All thoughtful woodworkers do this, it is a common beginning step, one that enters into the dialogue with the wood that I am always writing about, and that ensures a beautiful finished piece.  Industrially produced furniture often indicates a lack of sensitivity to this step, being more interested in fitting the largest number of final pieces into a given board and sacrificing a pleasing finished object.

The less slop that gets built into system, whether it is a physical system, an intellectual system, or an educational system, the less likely the system will be sustainable over the long term and the more likely that the end result will be less than it could be.  In our desire to codify and systemise, we often lose the very thing we are trying to achieve.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

a call to arms

we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”

Two hundred and thirty three years ago a gentleman planter (who was also an inventor, an amateur woodworker, architect, musician, and goodness knows what else) who was all of thirty six years old penned these words. They were terrible and aggressive words, words that started, of course, a revolution. Now we call it the Revolution. Capital R.

From our remove, it is hard to comprehend what he and the other members of the Continental Congress were doing. When we hear or read the words “high treason” these days they don’t have a lot of teeth. There are not a lot of people committing it in our country, lately. At least, they are not getting prosecuted. But for these men (and yes, they were all men. And white. And rich. That does not diminish the enormity of what they did.) the act of signing their names to this particular document was unambiguously taking a stand for which it was possible, and in fact likely, that they would be tried and hanged.

They were putting their lives on the line to back up their convictions (some more quickly than others, we are moving to the only state that abstained from the first vote, New York. They came around eventually, though), which is another idea that a lot of us here have a hard time understanding. There are folks in other countries that understand it perfectly, and are doing it right now, of course. What would you die for? What would you risk loss of property, prestige and life to say publicly?

I have been thinking about revolution, lately. I have been doing a lot of reading that has got me in that frame of mind (Wendell Berry, McDonough and Braungart, Matthew Crawford, Walter Rose). The revolution that I have in mind is not a political one (though that may not be a bad idea, more on that another time), but a cultural one. And it needs to shake things up as completely as did that document two hundred and thirty three years ago.

What the Continental Congress put together as a result of their revolution was a completely unheard-of system, one that they believed to be better than any existing system. They did not have any examples to follow, all they had was their knowledge that the existing system was broken, and that something new was needed. That is where I feel that we are.

Ecologically, we are juggling bowling balls while treading water in a lake that is on fire. Many of the solutions that are being put forth involve putting on a fire-retardant suit, a solution that does nothing at all to change the basic situation, it merely keeps our hair from getting singed before we drown.

The system is broken. Something new is needed. That something new is not an object, I don’t think, especially as they tend to come wrapped in plastic inside a box that is shrink-wrapped. It probably won’t be political. I think it will have to be a major cultural about-face, a complete re-thinking, not of the system, but of our base-line expectations. And I think it needs to happen soon. It may be scary, it will certainly mean a complete re-thinking of how we relate to our surroundings and to each other, and it will have to be a huge.

I want to be clear: I am part of the problem. We have a lot of things. I am typing this on a plastic laptop, we have two cars, we buy things wrapped in plastic. I need to change my expectations and desires just like everyone else in this country, and I am trying to figure out how to do that.

So today, on this day when we celebrate family and country and history, I am thinking about revolutions: The ones that have been, and the ones that still need to happen. Happy 4th of July.