Friday, September 24, 2010


i just watched a TED talk by a gentleman named Nic Marks.  He is a statistician, and he spoke about the "World Happiness Index," which is not what I wanted to write about here, but I highly suggest that you go watch the talk.  It is so refreshing to hear someone be hopeful about the future.  His group came up with 5 steps to a happier, and therefor healthier, planet, one of which was "Learn."  He was talking about lifelong learning, of course, and about how people that continue to learn after they leave formal schooling tend to say that they are happier than people that don't.  In talking about learning, he threw out a word, almost as an aside, that has bubbled up in my life a lot lately:  curious.

He suggested that we stay curious.  This is actually a pretty revolutionary (not to say incendiary) statement, when you think about it.

Most of the teachers that I have had have not encouraged this at all.  The really good ones, the ones that I still remember, the ones whose work still inspires me, are the ones that encouraged me to be curious.  Unfortunately, they are few.  The bulk of the teachers that I had as a child (and in college, actually), though well-intentioned I am sure, were only interested in information transfer.  They did not inspire me to learn on my own, or indeed to learn anything at all.

I am not the first person to say this at all.  The general hue and cry against public education that is the subject of so much of my reading these days is full of people who are saying the same thing.  At the end of the day, though, it is not about information at all; it is about curiosity.

I am lucky to have two parents who are naturally curious, and who encouraged me to be growing up.  We used to talk about how things were made, and about why plants are the way they are.  Walking through the woods, my mother would name the trees and flowers for me.  My father made furniture and toys for me, and encouraged me to be a part of the process, instilling early in my life the idea that everything comes from somewhere, everything starts as raw material that is manipulated in some way to become a finished product.  I always used to love on Mr. Rogers' when he would go to a factory that made crayons and we would see how that happened.

The result is that I have continued to be interested in all of that.  I continue to want to know what things have been, and what they could be.  I continue to ask how we can make change for the better, how our decision making processes can be healthier, how our making can be more responsible.  I blithely assume that everyone else feels the same.  This is often an erroneous assumption.

As I talk to my students, I am often caught off guard by how little they have an interest in questioning.  They have been specifically trained not to be curious, to accept decisions made by external sources about what their opinions should be, what their aesthetics should be, what their desires should be.  It is really arresting.

Our seniors are in the process of doing what we call their "thesis."  This is a semester and a half long project that begins with self-guided research, which they are in the middle of now.  The "self-guided" part of that is a real sticking point for them, and my colleague and I are trying to gently empower them to make their own decisions and to draw their own charts.  It is harder than I thought it would be.  Of course, this is really just a process to inspire curiosity, and the hope is that it is a curiosity that continues.

We are really getting somewhere with some of them, which is heartening.  Some of them are really laying into this process of critical questioning and are directing their own research.  The steps in many cases are tentative, and require a lot of encouragement, but they are happening.  I have had several conversations in which I had to calmly reassure students that it is okay to deviate from the original thrust of their research when they find an interesting fact that inspires them, or when they realise that the question they are asking is actually parallel to the question they thought they were asking.

So one by one we are beginning the training that will lead (we hope) to an interest in life long learning.  My question is this:  How can we reach more people faster?  How can we inspire more people to ask questions about their daily lives?  And I am talking about hard questions, ones like "where did the plastic in this water bottle come from?  What are the working conditions of the person who made it?"  Or maybe "what is the effect that my buying this ninety-nine cent water bottle at Wal-mart?  Does it have a better or worse effect than if I drink water out of the tap?"  These are hard questions for many people, and as such they are often glossed over or ignored.  Most people, I think, would not say that they want to oppress workers in foreign countries or engage in acts that specifically make our planet less habitable, but so many people are so used to not asking questions, to not being curious, to not making connections, that they do not even know that there might be another way to approach life.

Lest this get too preachy, I should hasten to point out that sometimes I do not ask these questions either.  I sure as hell am not perfect.  But I am often curious.  And I wish more people were.  And I would like to try to find a way to encourage more people to be.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

information storage

the main library at SU is called the Bird Library (named after benefactor E.S.Bird). It is facing a problem that many libraries across the country are facing, apparently: Storage. No matter how big you build your library, eventually it will be filled to the brim with books, periodicals, sound media, films, et cetera, and decisions will have to be made about which books are stored and how they are stored.

As early as 1869, a fellow named John Dancer was able to photographically reduce printed text with a ratio of 160:1 using daguerreotype, which was the first step to what eventually became know as microfiche. Microfiche always seemed so magical to me when I was young. There were WHOLE BOOKS printed on these tiny tiny rectangles of plastic, and when I put them into the machine I could read them to my heart’s content. It seemed like such an efficient way to store knowledge. No need for all of this heavy paper and cardboard covers! Just print the book once and photograph it, and the entire collected works of Shakespeare can fit into a box the size of a small paperback.

When was the last time you looked at a microfiche machine? I was in the bowels of Bird library with some students and explained what one was and not one of them had ever even seen the machine, let alone used one. They laughed at the antiquated technology, which is their right, of course. The future belongs to the young. And in their world, all of this information is stored digitally somewhere in the tubes of the internet, where there is unlimited storage. For them, the idea that they would have to go to an actual building to find information is tiresome.

In talking to the librarians it came out that all the microfilm and microfiche is being “deacquisitioned,” recycled to harvest the silver that is part of the developing process. Hundreds of 50 gallon drums of microfilm were packed up and carted off to the recycling facility, in order to make room. The same is happening to hundreds of thousands of slides in the slide library.

Apparently all of the faculty are up in arms about the slides being gotten rid of, but when they are told that they can take whatever slides they consider too useful or important to throw away, they seem to never be able to find the time to come and claim them. They seem to like the idea of having those slides there, but not to have a real use for them, like that tie-dyed shirt you wore to the first Dead show you ever went to, the one where you kissed that really smelly hippy girl and you had eaten a pile of mushrooms and her patchouli made you think of dirt and you thought you were being buried alive, remember that show? Not much, but you remember the hippy chick and there is no way you are getting rid of that t shirt, just like there is no way you will ever wear it again.

Same with the slides. And the microfiche.

Libraries in general are in the midst of an existential crisis since they are no longer the main repositories of information. The number of students who visit Bird Library has dropped sharply in the last fifteen years, as more and more are doing their research on line in their dorm rooms. I myself, a lover of books and libraries, go much more rarely than I used to. Even I do a lot of research on line and a lot of my reading digitally.

The intent of this post is not to write eulogy for libraries and books. I had started out to relate a pretty small moment from today, but of course providing the context for the moment takes some doing. And writing up this context stimulates some philosophical flights of fancy: As we separate the information from the storage method, interesting things can happen. We don’t get nostalgic, particularly, about computers, for example, in the same way that we get nostalgic for, say, that tie-dyed t shirt. Items like that shirt, or my great-grandfather’s handsaw are the totemic objects that (Bachelard would tell us) store information in a more abstract way than a record or a book or a piece of microfiche. For some reason, we hang on to the shirt in a way that I did not hang on to the computer that I used to write love emails to my wife when we were first dating and she was overseas for Christmas. I have objects from that time that are very important to me, but the computer is not one of them, which I find intriguing.

Why do we feel that some storage methods are important while others are not? Why can I not bear to throw out the journals that I wrote terrible poetry in in college, when I had no desire to keep the computer that I wrote terrible poetry on in my early adult-hood? Why did I keep the dictionary that I was given when I graduated high school but not the (much bigger) dictionary that came as a CD with my last laptop? Hard to say.

Today we were in the basement of the Bird Library, talking to the person who is in charge of “deacquisitioning” books and other media to make room for new books, a diminutive woman in her early fifties, friendly, obviously kind. We were talking about the microfiche (much of which is being saved for now) and how it is getting moved, and about the microfilm, all of which got sent off for recycling. This nice woman started to weep, standing there on the vinyl tile floor, telling us about how big bins of books were getting sent to the landfill when she first got here, and how the fact is that her job is to throw away (she tries to recycle as much of it as she can) books. Throw away BOOKS.

I was nonplussed to say the least. I wanted to give her a hug, to tell her it is okay, that the information will live on, that all will be well. But it does seem like a hard job. And it is a job that requires a constant awareness that time “creeps in its petty pace from day to day…” as Macbeth reminds us. The inexorable-ness of that is pretty intimidating.

So I have been thinking about books a lot today, and about other ways that we store information, and about how hard it is to let go of the object at hand. And I have been thinking about that nice woman who is trying to get the objects to go gently into that good night, and about how raw and powerful it was to see her overcome with love for these objects, these things, these books.

Saturday, July 10, 2010


the daughter of a friend asked "what is the least important thing in your life?" I do not think I have had a harder question in recent memory. All sorts of glib answers of course spring forth: laundry, bills, plastic, socks. But when one starts to really chase down all of the ways that each of these things ripples through one's life, it becomes impossible to find anything that is actually unimportant.

Everything is so connected that to tease one thread out of my life to say "this I do not need, this thing is unimportant" is a massively daunting task, when I approach it thoughtfully. The easy target for me, of course, is plastic. But then, many of the things that made K better when she had those complications around giving birth were made of plastic. The rain barrel I am getting on Wednesday is plastic. My bike helmet is plastic. Much of this computer is plastic. So obviously it is not that.

I wanted to be glib and say underwear, but in truth Syracuse would be a pretty uncomfortable place for six months of the year without long underwear, I am pretty sure. Same for socks. I would like to say the television, but there are TV shows that I watch that I love, and that lend a rhythm and cadence to my life that are not unimportant, and there are movies that I watch repeatedly that are very important to me. I wish I could say my car was unimportant, but I need to move things from place to place frequently, and often those things are my son, and I do not think putting him on my bike in February would be wise. Or fun. So the car is not unimportant.

Every time I came up with something I realised I could not, in good conscience call any of them unimportant. I try to be thoughtful about the things in my life, and even though there are a LOT of things, they all seem to have a weight or an resonance that render them important.

What a wise question from a young person. Obviously this bears more thought, and a clearer definition of "unimportant."

Thursday, June 10, 2010

shop work

one of the things that I am still trying to learn to manage here at Syracuse University is the sheer number of very interesting projects that are constantly spinning through the atmosphere. One that came my way recently involves a garden, so of course I was interested.

Two blocks from the building in which the Design department is housed is a little cinder block building that used to be a woodworking shop. It is an uninteresting square of masonry that used to house a one-man shop that did what apparently was high end marquetry and inlay work. The remnants of ongoing projects were still in the building when I went in there, and the work that the owner was doing was at a pretty high level of craft.

What happened to the owner remains fuzzy. The roof collapsed in the building and the owner seems to have just walked away from the building leaving everything behind. I have inquired a couple of times as to where he is now, and each time the answer is non-committal and unclear. I am still trying to get to the bottom of that mystery.

The new owners of the space are a pair of local entrepreneurs that have an ethic and a world-view that are right in line with my own. Since the roof collapsed, they are the owners now of a concrete slab surrounded by cinder block wall that gets a lot of sun so they are turning it into a community garden. They contacted me, and I got a couple of students involved. For the planters we got our hands on about forty old tires, which the students and I arranged in a pleasing manner. It may seem a little low-rent as a solution for planters, but there a lot of old tires in Syracuse. They are not the kind of thing that biodegrades particularly easily and they are waterproof, so from a materials-usage standpoint, it seemed like a pretty responsible choice.

The owners also wanted some seating, and offered as material a pile of mostly Phillippine mahogany that had been left behind by the previous owner. Regular readers of this blog probably know how I feel about using tropical hardwoods and why I feel that way, but this is another of those situations in which my set of ethics has to remain flexible. Looking at that pile of wood sitting there, covered in dirt and getting rained on, I had to really rethink my feelings about what I knew was the provenance of that material.

Yes, it was cut down halfway around the world, very likely in a way that would lead to erosion of arable land, yes the person on whose land it stood probably got pennies on the dollar for cutting down and selling that tree. Yes, global shipping accounts for about 4.5% annually of greenhouse gas emissions. But it was here already. And if I did not use it, no one else would, either, and it would have been cut down completely in vain, and it would rot away into dirt over here. No matter what I think about what the material is or what its history is or the practice that this material represents, in that moment there was a pile of wood lying there in front of us, and I had to react to that. Once a tree has been made into lumber, once we have killed the living being that it was and made it into a commodity, we have a responsibility to be as thoughtful and as responsible as possible about what we do with that material. Leaving it to rot in a puddle is neither responsible nor respectful. So I agreed, and we picked up the slimy, dirty planks and brought them to the shop.

Tropical hardwoods tend to be a great choice for exterior applications. Teak and greenheart are two common examples. These dense woods are often made into boat hulls and decks as well as decks and outdoor furniture for houses. Mahogany is another one that is good for these types of uses. They tend to be rot-resistant and pretty stable, even when wet, and they tend to oxidize over time to that silky grey that cedar shakes do when left unpainted on the outside of a house or barn (This is why “Shingle Style” houses are what they are, after all, because the cedar shingles oxidize and stabilize and don’t have to be painted. Of course, culturally we have forgotten that, so everyone paints shingle houses these days, which I think is pretty weird, given that the paint has to be scraped and repainted every few years, where an unpainted shingle can last for decades. This has nothing to do with the garden, though).

So one of the students and I measured all of the lumber, and she worked up some drawings of ideas for benches, ideas that refer to the rounded top of the tires. This is her sketch. She had pretty good ideas.

I refined her ideas a little, based mostly on structural considerations, and came up with this:

Unfortunately the year had ended by the time I was able to start the build process, so the student was not able to be a part of the fabrication process, which would have been ideal. As it was, I did the fabrication alone. It was nice to move through a limited production run again, lately I have been working on one-offs, when I have worked on projects at all since I shut down my studio.

The process of doing a short run of furniture (which simply means building the same object several times by hand) has a component of dance to it. When you are doing the same operation to all four legs of a bench, and making ten benches, you do the same operation forty times. You start to look for the most efficient way to move the material through the machines, and simply moving the parts around the shop from one machine to another requires some thought. Here are the parts at one stage in the process:

Like most furniture, the front end of this project required a significant amount of work in terms of rough-milling, cutting to length and cutting the joints. For the first two days I really felt like I had not gotten very far at all, and was just moving piles of wood around the shop. But then there is the magical assembly day when after just a couple of hours there are ten (nearly) finished benches sitting on the table:

There will be no finish applied, they will just be left to weather. In all, it was a success, I think, and I am looking forward to seeing them in the garden. This project reminded me how important it is to keep making, even though the bulk of my endeavors now are in the classroom. The making of objects out of wood for people to use is near the top of my list of emotional needs, though it is easy for me to forget that and shuffle it aside. This summer is already proving restorative.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Memorial Day

today is a day of ritual, and I thought I would share a couple of mine. We are moving into full summer, and being on the cusp of something new makes me crave ritual.

One annual ritual that I will perform today is brushing out and putting away my fur felt hats and wool caps and taking out my straw hats and linen and cotton caps. This is always a ritual of relief, for me, acknowledging that yes, spring is FINALLY here, that days are warm and long, and that the snow is behind us for a few months. I follow the rule set out by Truman, who though not a particularly good person to emulate in general had a pretty good idea about hats: Fur felt Labor Day to Memorial Day, straw or linen from Memorial Day to Labor Day. This annual changing of the sartorial guard makes me indulge in my other ritual.

Another ritual that I will observe is to acknowledge all of those Americans who have served or are serving in the military. Memorial Day, as you probably know, was created initially to honor Civil War vets, and has since been expanded to include all American vets and soldiers. Pretty good idea.

The high school that I went to was not a wealthy one, and there were many of my classmates who joined up right out of school because they could not afford college or had no expectation that they would ever go to college. This was during the first Gulf War, and many of them went over there to wander around in the desert and carry a rifle. A lot of the people getting killed right now in the Middle East are about the age that those kids were then: 18, 19, 20. Chilling to think about. Makes me realise how lucky I am and have been. There is that Vietnam-era song lyric "It's always the old who lead us off to war/It's always the young who die."

Which also makes me think about another kid, who joined up and went off to war. Found himself landing on a formerly insignificant beach in France that was literally strewn with the bodies of dead kids that were about his age. He drove his half-track from that beach in Normandy across Europe with the 796th Anti Aircraft Battalion and came home alive, luckily, or else he and his new wife would never have had Janet, who never would have given birth to my long-suffering wife. Which would mean no Thomas, of course. These accidents of history seem so inevitable from the remove of many decades, but really one stray bullet would have had me married to someone else, with a different child and a (probably) different life. Tech Sgt Charles G Simonson was more fortunate than many of his peers, he lived to a good old age, though he died before Karen and I met, and took care of his family well. We are extremely thankful that his wife is still alive and has had a chance to hold her great grandson, and will again in just a couple of weeks.

Now, I'm a pacifist. I think war is a stupid stupid stupid way to resolve conflict. I truly believe what Machiavelli wrote in The Prince about the effectiveness of brute force and violence, and I further believe that violence only ever begets violence. But regardless of politics, regardless of what you personally may think about the many conflicts in which we are engaged, think today about the actual soldiers with their boots on the ground wherever they are. They’re the ones who really make the history. Not the fat old white dudes that sit safely a thousand miles away, signing the orders to send American kids off to die with one hand while accepting corporate bribes with the other, but the kids like the kids from my high school, that are freezing, or sweating bullets, that are hunkered down getting shot at, that are wondering if that car coming this way is loaded with explosives. The history we get in school is the history of the rich and powerful, we so seldom hear the voice of the poor and disenfranchised. We seldom are taught in school about the terror, the misery, the true bravery, the real but small triumphs that make up life in a battle field for a Private First Class, nineteen years old and away from home for the first time in his or her short life, clutching a rifle and trying to believe the reasons their C.O. told them they were where they are. Remember those folks today.

This has gotten much longer than I meant for it to, all of this stuff gets me real pensive. All I really wanted to do was to share the poem below, one of my favorites. It is by Wilfred Owen, who himself was killed in the trenches in World War I very soon after he wrote the poem. This is one of those that has stuck with me ever since I first read it in 10th grade, and which still makes me cry when I read it. Seems appropriate for today.

Wilfred Owen

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime . . .
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Friday, April 30, 2010

turning away and turning back

i just got out of a meeting with the Production Manager of Syracuse Stage, a LORT C regional theater here in town. He's a nice guy, and we had a really interesting talk. He gave me a tour of their facilities, and there were moments that were almost overwhelming.

In 1987 I was taking an after school acting class at out local community theater, and they told us that some extras were needed for the mainstage play that was going on, which was "My Fair Lady." So I played a street urchin at the age of 14, and during the show I looked around and saw these people wearing all black (cool) with flashlights and tools and stuff (very cool) and hanging out with cultivated bored-but-superior looks on their faces smoking cigarettes outside the heavy green loading doors at the back of the theater (holy crap so very cool omigod omigod). I volunteered to be on the running crew, and to help build sets, and it changed my life.

Looking back, it is obvious to me now that I was at the beginning of exploring the line between the workers and the worked-for, somehow identifying with the people who do "real work" (not that I really knew what that meant, then or now) and the people who don't. And I wanted (and still want) to be on the side of the line where people are working. Even at parties, I tend to help clear dishes or play guitar, providing entertainment. When stressed, I find I have to do something with my hands, to tidy the room, or do dishes or make something. To relax I make things: songs or objects or occasions. My hobbies have often involved being on the "provider" side of the equation, most recently volunteering on a traditionally rigged tall ship as crew, instead of wanting to go aboard as a passenger.

This is not going to be a post about my relationship with the entertainment industry, however. There are things there that I do want to write about at some point, but suffice it to say that in 2006, nineteen years after I fell in love with live theater, I filed for divorce. I had been starting to form some ideas about objects and how I wanted to make them, and about my (very complicated, like everyone else's) relationship with them, and it became clear that theater was not what I wanted to be doing. There were other factors of course. I had also fallen out of love with New York City and was growing to resent it more and more.

So I turned away. I turned and walked away from eighteen years of a career and a way of thinking and a vocabulary and a set of norms, and decided to try something else entirely. It was not easy, initially. I had been in the entertainment industry longer than I had been out of it. I had never really had a job that was not somehow connected with it. All of my ideas about how to live and how to think and what to expect professionally and personally had been shaped by entertainment. Over the last three and a half years I have been navigating a new way of thinking, a new set of expectations. I have learned a lot, and am generally happier now than I was from about 2002 to about 2006, for a lot of reasons, both personal and professional.

Theaters, all of them, have a particular smell. No matter where you go, there is a "theater smell," the smell years of paint and lumber and super heated lights and sweat and laughter and tears. It is a smell of flame-retardant salts and tension, of several hundred people in a room experiencing a single moment all together. Maybe it is a vibe instead of a smell. It is unmistakable, though, and I bet if I were blindfolded and led into a theater I would be able to tell immediately. It is a smell that hit me in the center of the chest today, and for a moment made it hard to breathe.

Then I fell in to the comfort of jargon and conversation, of discussing methodologies and techniques and power structures. It felt strangely calming, like stepping off the deck of a storm-tossed ship on to the dock in my home port. I had just met Don but I actually knew him a great deal better than I know some of the colleagues I have been teaching with or near for the last two semesters. All of my shibboleths applied here, all of my assumptions held true.

It was an arresting experience.

Walking through the theaters and shops conversations started, conversations about integrating design work, about sustainable initiatives in the entertainment world, about the possibilities of making more responsible choices in the entertainment industry and in the design industry.

I do not think I want to return to the entertainment industry. I do not think I have an interest in being a set designer again. But maybe my new path includes working with some members of that industry to find ways of doing what they do in a cleaner, healthier way. Many of the lessons I learned in my former life have given my life a heading over the last few years, how interesting to think that this new way of thinking might turn around and help set bearings for my former colleagues.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

spring evening

it has been glorious weather the last couple of days. Sunny, warm-almost-hot. Daffodils are blooming, crocus are wide wide open in the way that says "spring is HERE!" The sun has been out, which has made me take the man-cub on walks and bike around town, and tonight the warmth made me have an extra beer and take a guitar out on to the porch and sit for a while.

On our porch are four of my "Notirondack Chairs." They were designed around three very specific behaviors: Playing guitar (you need a chair without arms), drinking beer (you need a place to put it if you are playing guitar), and being with friends. So these are chairs that have one arm (which also lets them be arranged as a loveseat when you are done playing) but a wide arm on the other side for the beer. The back has a pretty vertical attitude to the seat, which makes it perfect for playing music. After dinner tonight, in the gathered gloom of our quiet neighborhood at dusk, I finally put them to the test.

I have a guitar that I bought at Musician's General Store in Brooklyn. It is small, the size that the Martin guitar company calls "parlor sized." When you look inside you can tell that someone made it at home, there is glue running down the inside, and the neck is very wide, like a classical guitar. The tuning pegs are of a '5o's vintage, small and plastic, white in a way that is not even trying to be ivory. The sound is singular, if not great. I have a special spot in my heart for this guitar. It is the one that I always carried on boats, because it is small. To this day, the strap is a piece of seine twine, a tarred sort of polyester string that is ubiquitous on traditionally-rigged sailing vessels. There are many and many a good evening, rum-soaked or not, playing and singing in that guitar. We always made up with volume what we lacked in skill, and never worried when we forgot a verse.

So I brought the little guitar out on to the porch, and sat in the chair, and played (quietly) and drank a beer. The wind wandered by, my fingers walked up and down the chord for "I'm so Lonesome I Could Cry," and the beer was cold. What a lovely moment, arresting to be physically in a situation that I had created theoretically. Nothing earth-shattering, just a happy convergence of time and intention.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

on a Saturday in early March 77 years ago, Franklin D Roosevelt stood behind a podium. In the face of a crushing Depression, he had been elected President, and was now facing a public that was skeptical about the government, that had no confidence at all in the banking system, and that was jobless and in some cases homeless in unprecedented numbers.

Sound familiar? It sure does to me.

FDR delivered his "nothing to fear but fear itself" speech, which is the part of his First Inaugural that people remember, when they remember anything at all about it. I was re reading that speech recently because a student of mine went to the FDR memorial in D.C. If you are ever in our Nation's Capital, you should go the FDR memorial. It is truly the most beautiful and moving memorial on the Mall, and I am saying this even though it is near the Lincoln Memorial, which might help put it in perspective.

As I was reading this stirring speech again, I was came across this:

"Happiness lies not in the mere possession of money; it lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort. The joy and moral stimulation of work must no longer be forgotten in the mad chase of evanescent profits. These dark days will be worth all they have cost us if they teach us that out true destiny is not to be ministered unto, but to minister to ourselves and our fellow men."

Change the "men" to "people" and this is a credo that we all could do well by adopting. Joy in the creative process, a feeling on everyone's part that we are all stewards of each other, and a disdain for simple wealth. If we could all think that way, this world would be a hell of a place.

Now we are being told that we are coming out on the other side of yet another situation in which the rich have lied and cheated, causing massive unemployment and the loss of homes and savings on the part of a great many Americans. The number of people that were surprised by the events of the last little while makes it clear that we all need to spend more time reading the story of what has come to pass already.

It also seems to me that it is usually the people who do no actual work that cause the problems. One does not seem to read about crooked carpenters or weavers or potters or writers very often. There seems to be something about people who make things that keeps them more or less honest. I wonder if there is something in the "thrill in the creative process" that Roosevelt wrote about, something in the work of turning raw material into a finished object or meal or house that makes one respect the person to who the finished thing will go enough that there is less impulse to lie or cheat. Maybe not. Maybe I am glorifying the worker for the sake of glorifying the worker, which is a tendency that I have, I know.

Either way, this weekend I intend to thrill in the creative process a little, myself. And to read some more of Roosevelt's words.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

time passes

The first college I went to was the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. It is a medium-sized state school, neither good nor bad, just what it is. I went there for theater because a mentor and teacher and good friend of mine went there. I really had no idea what the hell I was doing.

Somehow my parents steered me towards this "alternative" program called "Residential College," which was about 125 or so students living in an old beautiful brick dorm on campus. There were "core classes" we all took (though, truth be told, I was awash in hormones and was not able to really appreciate what was happening around me), and then we pursued our major outside of those. This college was created (I think) and run run by two amazingly patient and kind people: Murray and Fran Arndt.

I had them both for different classes. Murray was interested in Grail literature, and that interest that has stayed with me all these billions of years later; Fran got me into Mark Twain. Being that I have a tattoo of Twain's words on my arms, I would say that she had a pretty deep effect on me as well.

I did not do a good job of being a student at UNCG, and I did not pay as much attention as I wish I had. I sort of exploded into my own sexuality and workaholic narcissism, in the way that a lot of college students do. The more I work on methods of teaching, and the more I spend time with my students, the more I remember with chagrin this time.

Fran recently stepped down as Director. She had her hand on the tiller for decades, and of course someone else should step in. In the newsletter that we get in email she published the following letter. Virginia is her grand-daughter, Emily was her daughter. She passed last year. I apologise if it is a little specific to a particular moment in my own life, as opposed to the larger conversations that I try to have in this forum, but it was so touching and so well-written that I felt a need to reproduce it here:

Dear RCers and ARCers,

Time brings changes in names and in directors. This

will be my last letter as such, and it is difficult to know

what to say. Keats closed his truly last letter with “I

always make an awkward bow,” but then he was John

Keats, dying at 25 with some magnificent poetry to keep

him alive forever. I seldom bow and have not curtsied

since I was in piano recitals as a child. But it is hard to

say good-bye with any grace.

You and this program have been a large part of my

and Murray’s lives, more perhaps than you can imagine.

The names of students and even faculty who were and

are friends often elude us, but the actual people are

always firmly imbedded in memory. Still, I am glad we are

all wearing nametags at the reunion. It has been a good

ride, and you have taught me more than I have you,

although I do hope that some of my favorite books and

films stay with you and are passed on to your children. I

have heard more than once that Grail Literature has

messed up someone’s ability to just see a movie or read a

book without always finding patterns. Sorry. But

sometimes some patterns are helpful. Some of them even

give us the faith and courage to endure.

I am now often reading with Virginia the books that

were once mine and then Emily’s. It is good to believe

that some experiences with literature are able to link

generations. Some of you earliest RCers may already

know this, and I really must leave before grandchildren

begin to apply. I do look forward to hearing from you,

seeing you sometimes at Valle Crucis or reunions.

In the last years I am starting to believe that nothing

ever really ends, it just changes form. Ashby Residential

College will change forms; it must to survive. But the

same truth and spirit that Warren, Dick, Murray, and I

have found so important will remain.

My love (when I bow or curtsy I fall down),


I hope that I have this kind of effect on my own students, this kind of deep effect that gets under the skin and stays there. The kind that manifests without thought. The process of inquiry that makes it possible to find joy in the support beam of an old mill, or in watching a leaf slowly change color in autumn in the way that makes the memory of an old poem resurface.

Teaching in the moment is hard. Teaching from a twenty year remove is genius.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

we are all connected.

there is building not far from the building in which I work that is being gutted. It is one of many venerable mills and warehouses in this area that were built along the Erie Canal over a hundred years ago when it was a thriving thoroughfare. Now, like so many of those buildings, it is a derelict relic of a time so far gone that many people don't remember it even existed. This particular building is slated to become condos and artist galleries, to be given a new life now that its former life has ended, which I think is great.

I was approached by someone involved in that to take some of the big old beams that are coming out as part of the demolition process and turn them into benches that will ultimately be put in front of the building. It is a great idea, and a project I am excited to be a part of.

I spent Saturday in the shop with two students who were interested in being a part of this process. We had a great time, and for me it was relaxing (though tiring) to be in the shop for a solid day of moving wood around.

We spent a little time before they started designing looking at the old beams, reading as much
history as we could from them. We talked about what the mill building was when it was built and thought some about the people who built it. Though the wood was obviously mill-cut, the final shaping for installation was done with hatchets, in some places, which speaks of a time when carpenters had hatchets in their tool boxes.

When I cut off a sample chunk and resawed it on the band saw, the beautiful grain of the Douglas Fir was revealed, and we spent
some time smelling it and looking at it, and talking about fir and
where it comes from and how it grows and all of the things that were made from it. We looked at the difference between the hundred-year-old patina on the outside and the fresh golden color of the inside and talked about that contrast. Finally, after all of this, they started to design these benches.

An interesting thing occurred: Though I was careful not to insert myself into the design process in any way, the design that the students came to looked very much like something that could have come off of my drawing table. Here is an in-progress dry-fit of some of the parts:

The lines are clean, the material is simply presented and the history of the wood is honored. These students have different design styles from each other and from me, so this turn of events was unexpected. Which got me to thinking.

Is there something inherent in a reverence for history and an excitement about historical material that has a universal aesthetic? Could it be possible that, given an appropriate understanding of the provenance of the material, there are design choices that everyone would make?

This is a dangerous line of questioning, of course, implying that there is a pre-determined design path. But I can not help but wonder. I can not help but wonder if we all took the time to really get to know where we came from, to really look thoughtfully at all of the processes and chains of events that brought us to this moment, this Now, if we would not stand in more of an accord with regards to where we are going. If everyone all together made themselves aware of the history of our making, of the history of our building, of our governing, of our belief systems, if that would not help bring us together and unite us in a more thoughtful process as we figure out what kind of world we want to move through, and what kind of world we want our children to move through. I think it might help, at the very least.

So this is my assignment to everyone I meet up with today: Find one thing that is near you right now and really look at it. Think about how it came into your life, and then think about how it got to wherever you found it. How many trucks across country, how many miles on a container ship from Asia? What are the raw materials? Where did the petroleum for the plastic come from? Who got it out of the ground? Where did the tree that provided the wood (or the paper pulp) grow, and who cut it down? What kind of processing plant created it, and who works there? How do they work? What is their life like? What about the person who sold it to you? What is their life like? What is important to them? After thinking about all of this for a few minutes about one object, look at all of the objects in your house and realise that there is a similar thought process about all of them. Even gum wrappers. Even dish soap.

Boggles the mind.

Friday, February 5, 2010


the least pleasant part of being a teacher is the ritual of grading. I have always made jokes about colleges that don't give grades, but as an educator there is some merit to the philosophy. The students here seem to be really fixated on grades, some of them so much so that when and "unfair" grade is assigned, it can prompt angry emails, heated discussions, even tear-filled office visits.

This led me to do a little reading about grade inflation, and about what people think about it. One of the colleagues that I am teaching with this semester said that he has even noticed it in himself over the past five years, that at some point a "C+" became a "B-."

I absolutely understand this trend. Never having taught a class in which grades could be evaluated by raw data, I can't speak to the process for grading, say a 100 level math test, or a "names and dates" type history test (though I do not know if such things still exist). All of my teaching is done in a studio setting, and involves in-depth, exploratory conversation with each student. While I love this process, a side effect is that I tend to get emotionally entangled in each student's journey, which makes me more compassionate toward them than perhaps I should be.

One conversation that comes out of this line of observation is the one about "process over product." Is it more important that the students learn to apply a critical, thoughtful design process to each design challenge, or is it more important that the end product look good? Depending upon which side of the bed I get up, my answer to this changes. And this is not what I am writing about this morning.

This morning I am more interested in evaluation in general. A grade is an evaluation on a really comforting level. We understand where "B" stands next to "A" after all. We understand that "Average" is perceived as "Bad" while "Above Average" is perceived to be "Average." This all makes sense. But these are all external judgments, and though they may apply within certain constructs, they are all pretty arbitrary constructs. I was reminded recently of how I felt about "success" as a set designer when I first moved to New York, that the yardstick went from "anonymity" at the bottom end to rave reviews in the Times and the Voice at the top.

It is a construct for evaluation that is as valid as any other, I suppose, but it was so freeing when I decided that it no longer applied to me, that I would rather be evaluated based on whether a line that I spliced held, or, when I got to graduate school, whether a chair held the person sitting in it in a comfortable way. In some ways it is a shift to a system of evaluation in which complete anonymity is at the top of the yardstick: If the user does not notice that they are successfully using the object, if it functions so perfectly that there are no issues at all, then it is at its most successful.

Of course, it is a little disingenuous for me to imply that I don't have an interest in being published or recognised publicly (I only just now notices that "published" and "public" share a root. I will have to look in to that later). And there are external evaluation processes that matter to me a great deal: Karen's approval being one, my student's successes being another. But I think I am shifting as I get older toward processes of evaluation that value experiential success over opinions of observers, for the most part.

I have been talking to a couple of the students here about how little their grades will matter when they get out and are working. A client is not going to ask what grade they made in Sophomore Design. Or choose another designer because that grade was a “B.”

The other side of that, of course, is that as we have no other commonly accepted evaluation criteria, a great many other decisions are being made based on a student’s grade. The most important of these is financial aid: In a time and at a university in which the price tag for an education at the collegiate level is sneaking towards $200 000, financial aid is a necessity not just for students from working-class backgrounds. Even the very privileged students that we tend to have here often rely on some kind of financial aid, which is often heavily dependant on GPA.

Which comes back to being emotionally tied up in the process of our students. And to what an education is really for. As a Program, the Interior Design faculty got together and re-wrote our mission statement. We talked a lot about what kind of graduates we wanted to produce. Not once did the subject of GPA come up, not once did we even think of using that rubric as a useful yardstick. We came to the conclusion as a collective that we want to produce “curious and critical thinkers.”

I love the process of inquiry. Most of what I do as I stand at a student’s drawing table is ask them “why?” They are beginning to notice that, too, and some of them are asking it themselves, which makes me very proud. I feel like the most important thing that I can teach them is to look in the face of all of the dogma that bombards them (religious, retail, political, social) and to question question question to make sure that they think it is valid. That is the real success as far as I am concerned. And in the end, that is what I want to evaluate.

But it is not something that one can do once and then be finished and get a grade. This inquiry HAS to be an on-going process. When we stop asking questions we stop thinking for ourselves. And this is what I am confronting in my students: That they do a great deal of work until the deadline, but then they want to stop and move on, to put the project in their portfolio and never look at it again.

So this morning I have been thinking about how to evaluate them in such a way that they continue to question. What system can I use as an educator that encourages a continued critical inquiry while simultaneously providing a useful and compassionate comment on a student’s progress?

I am still working on this. I have a feeling I will be for some time to come.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010


as most people do, I have a set of objects that are part of my daily accoutrements. Nothing earth shattering, most of it, probably very similar to the things that you carry. About six months or a year ago I decided I wanted one of those things to be a pocket knife. For many years a pocket knife was a standard part of my life, but I sort of fell out of the habit. It seemed a little too macho so I kind of let it go.

But I decided I wanted to carry a small knife, one that I could use to open letters, that kind of thing. What used to be called a "pen knife" in the days when pens were made of feathers or reeds and had to be constantly trimmed to stay sharp. So I started combing the flea markets and antique shops looking for the right pocket knife. Something small, with only one blade (maybe two), wooden scales on the handle. Something that is clearly a tool not a weapon, so that there is no false manly implication that I know how to defend myself. We get so specific with this kind of thing, and often I find that I get too specific and can not find just the right thing, so I never have it at all.

Karen found one for me for Christmas:

It is small, and I like the squared-off blade (developed by a Civil War amputee who needed to use the edge of his pants pocket to open his pocket knife as he only had one hand). The handle feels good in my hand and it is nice to have a good, sharp knife sometimes. So even though it was not quite what I had in mind, it has rapidly become a part of my daily coterie of objects. And it got me thinking about delight.

We all have objects that delight us, that have an emotional resonance beyond mere use. Many of the objects that I have made have this quality for me, that when I sit in them or hold them or stir scrambled eggs with them the experience is heightened and made more important and exciting, somehow, than they would otherwise be. I find that, for me, it is often objects that were made by someone I know and given to me that have this quality, though that is not true across the board. And though it is not true for everyone, I wonder how many people respond more to a made object than a bought one.

Of course, this gets into a bigger discussion about what is actually made and what is manufactured, and where the line is drawn, and whether there is any way to draw that line. This is a discussion that many much more erudite people than I are having, and is not really the thrust of this entry. I am more interested at the moment in celebrating the objects (bought or made) that bring me delight on a regular basis. The pocket knife (which is bought, after all, and industrially produced) is one. It is the kind of object that I enjoy holding in my hand, and that I enjoy using. And it has made me think about the objects that I have made for other people, and about whether they bring the same kind of delight to them.

What are the processes by which delight can be woven into the making process? How does an object move beyond being a mere object, and become my knife or chair or spatula or hat? Of course retailers have been trying to figure that out for years, and are not any closer to figuring it out, which makes me wonder if it is impossible to mass-produce.

Maybe delight is about stories. Maybe it is about memories that an object contains. Maybe it has to be about what the end user brings to it, and how the object gets woven into the user's lives.

This obviously bears more examination. In the meantime, though, it is nice to be aware of the delight that we feel in the world around us, even in carrying a humble pocket knife.

Monday, January 4, 2010

among the many things that I love about my family is our unshakable need to make things. Yesterday in passing I asked my mother if she had any books that might have instructions for making origami animals. The directness of the making process for origami is so satisfying, the only tool used is one’s hand, the only material a piece of paper. I only know how to fold cranes, though, and it has become a nervous habit, I find myself folding cranes in the places I used to smoke: in meetings, in bars, sitting around the fire, watching television. I though perhaps I should expand my repertoire.

Thirty or so years of being teachers and artists means that my parents have thousands (this is not an exaggeration) of books in their house. There is no subject that can not be researched here: gardening, Lincoln, the history of surgery, food, and, as it turns out, origami. Paper folding books were procured, old magazines were culled, and square paper was cut (see below).

Last night we sat in front of the fire and folded paper. I started with a fish, which looked nice folded from an advertisment for pasta, and a "sleeping dog," which was not particularly satisfying.

My sister (who is also here for a few days) started with a frog, which was a little advanced, and did not, initially, seem right:

So I tried my hand at one, which worked out a little better. The interesting thing about folding paper shapes is that, like so many other things, there is a set of steps that must be followed, in order, and a deviation from that proves vexing.

My mom was working on a butterfly, so I joined her, and we had a pair of butterflies:

Next was a "star box," which needs to be made with paper that is solid on one side and colored on the other. Having the print on one side from the magazine took away, a bit, from the finished product. The curse of all that art school is the deeply sown habit of looking critically at every product of my hands.

Then my sister showed us how to fold little paper boxes, which were by far my favorite. Easy to make, very satisfying when finished, and infinitely expandable, so that a set of nesting boxes can be made with nothing more than a sheet of paper. I see a LOT of paper boxes in my future...

This is my kind of cold night, sitting in front of the fire with family, making things and laughing, (occasionally) not making frogs, drinking beer and telling stories. Though I am missing home quite a lot, having been gone for so long, and though I am looking forward to getting back in the classroom and back in the studio, this is the kind of recharging moment that is so vital.