Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Grey Craig, entering the landscape

While Grey Craig has not been the sole focus of my work as a professional designer during 2011 it certainly has been an overwhelming one. This description of the site and my involvement with it will give me an opportunity to explain what it is I do in this odd practice I have, it will be a good and useful exercise for me. When people ask "what I do" I am often at a loss. I don't fit very neatly into any category. The standard answer is that I am an "Interior Designer" which is a useful but suspicious phrase. My academic background was in painting and education. My thesis for the education program at the National College of Art in Dublin, Ireland was the development of a course focused on the history of the Irish craftsmen who built Georgian Dublin. At the time, the late 1960's, the average Irish person considered the 18th century culture of Ireland to be a manifestation of English domination. While there is validity to that view, it is also the case that Irish culture at the time had a very distinct personality, and people creating the material culture were Irish and expressed their distinct Irishness through their art. I was trying, with some success, to document and promulgate this understanding.

My mentor at the time was a man who was in the business of saving the interiors from buildings being demolished so that they could be conserved. In working with him I learned how to dismantle these buildings. Note that one can not simply tear these things out of a building, a great deal of detective work is involved. One must reconstruct the process of construction- find the last peg put in and take it out first. I little expected that this training would be enormously useful to my later career, but it turns out to be the case. The term "interior designer" seems a little off the mark to me because what I do very often involves a great deal of research, both of history and of my clients needs, a great deal of detective work, a certain amout of drawing, sometimes more, sometimes less, a sense of structure and systems, and all this not only inside but often outside as well. At Grey Craig I have been able to exercise all these skills. This is a good opportunity to explain them.

Grey Craig, spelt various ways, has a particularly interesting history. I recommend a book called "Newport Villas" by Michael Kathryns for a well researched relation of it. As Mr. Kathryns states the property came into being when Oliver Hazard Perry Belmont and Cornelius Vanderbuilt along with others purchased 100 acres in Middletown, overlooking Sachusetts (Second) Beach and Paradise Rock. This was a farming area, and the property eventually became a model, or "gentleman's" farm under Belmont's ownership. Belmont sold to J. Mitchell Clark who built the first house. You can read it's history here. This is the area that Newland Archer rides through in Edith Warton's "The Age of Innocence" the horse farm being used as his alibi when he visits Ellen in Portsmouth. John LaFarge lived on the other side of Paradise Avenue, and it remains a rural, agricultural area. The Norman Bird Sanctuary borders the property, and despite having being divided, the original estate has been preserved through the foresight of the Grey Craig owners association.

The house was sold to J. Lawrence Mott III in 1917, but was destroyed by fire in 1919. In the mid 1920's the property was sold to Michael Murray Van Beuren and his wife Mary L. Archbold, whose father was one of the founders of Standard Oil.

I must acknowledge that I become very impatient when I am reading about a building because I am interested in the building and all I get is the trials and tribulations of the very rich. I include the "social" part of the history here because it actually will be useful in understanding some facets of this site as a design statement. I will now add two more names. The Van Beurens built the existing house, I should say houses, there are, I think 5, functioning as separate residences and their architect was a man I am ashamed to say I had never heard of: Harrie T. Lindeberg. I have, over the last year developed a rather intimate relationship with Mr. Lindeberg, or at least with his work, and the more I learn the more respect I have for him, and for this building. Let me say, that like most truly great designers he knew when to get out of the way. Never was this more apparent to me than the day before Thanksgiving when my sister and I were guests at the house for cocktails, sitting by the fire in the enormous living room, in this enormous and beautiful house which was yet warm and comfortable and imitate. I can not pay Mr. lindeberg and the his clients any greater compliment than the comfort and family intimacy that this staggering house affords.

I love stories, and there is a story about Lord Kitchener being driven past the Royal Hospital in Chelsea. He asked, rather surprised, where did that building come from? He had never noticed it before, but now, there it was huge and beautiful! His companion told him that it had been built by Christopher Wren 200 years before, how had he not noticed it going past as frequently as he did? Kitchener responded that architect must have been a true gentleman. Amusing story, but the fact is that Wren knew how to get out of the way. Lindeberg did also.

The other name I want to share with you is Ferruccio Vitale. He designed the landscape at Grey Craig. Like Lindeberg, he is not exactly a household name, despite being one of the most import landscape architects in the history of American landscape architecture. He is often compared with the Olmstead brothers, his contemporaries and to some extent main competition, however Vitale was very involved in the formation of the profession of landscape architecture, developing awards and postgraduate education for landscape architects, including the Landscape Architecture prize of the American Academy in Rome and the Foundation for Architecture and Landscape Architecture. His work includes the planning of the National Mall in Washington, The site of the National Gallery of Art, parts of Longwood Gardens, and of course Grey Craig. I have not been able to trace any documentation for his work at Grey Craig and would be very grateful for information. There is now a very fine monograph on Vitale, by R.Terry Schnadelbach.

It happens that the Grey Craig is almost exactly contemporary with Emmanuel Church's Leslie Lindsey Chapel. It has been most interesting to for me to come to this project after the intense research done on the restoration of the altar screen at Lindsey Chapel. On the one hand the structural and systems issues are very similar, in some cases identical, on the other, it is clear that Lindeberg and Vitale, Allens and Collins with Ninian Comper, were thinking about the tradition of western architecture and it's continuing relevance to modern life in a way that was new and intelligent. It is easy to get tied into the romance of luxury, the nostalgia for history, a jaded view of ones own time that leads to a deadening desire for things as they were in the past. That is not what was happening with these buildings from the early 20th century. Understanding their modernity requires a knowledge of the tradition, and that is a vantage point from which they are seldom viewed. In addition to "style" the engineering of these buildings is remarkable. It is to me rather ironic that if one takes the rhetoric of the International School and applies it to these buildings they hold up very well. Yes, Grey Craig is a big grand house, built for big grand people, but the engineers house, and the gate house, both equally beautiful and rather modest in size both function as family houses equally well. Form does follow function here, structure is rigorously expressed, the systems and engineering were state of the art. This is the surprise of these buildings.

So in March I found myself in the position of having to advise my client While he struggled with structural problems, reversing years of neglect of the roof and drainage systems, the need to make changes to parts of the landscape and to paint and furnish the interior working with and advising his wife. The first step was understanding. It is clear that the VanBeurens were intelligent and sensitive people. No other sort would have spent such vast sums in such subtle ways, and fortunately my clients are intelligent and sensitive people who appreciate and are willing to support a rather thoughtful process.

I have never worked at this scale before, and I have no staff. Fortunately the client's wife was eager to be involved in the gritty details- in fact she handled all the paperwork which was daunting, and many of the structural and mechanical issues were urgent. Despite the pressures we all read, researched and came to understand this wonderful and subtle place. I should add that my client had been following the trials and tribulations of this building for 30 years, and had tried to buy it twice before. Their love for it was the prime motivating factor, and the house has worked a spell over everyone involved. It has been pure pleasure from the start.

The approach to Grey Craig.

The house and landscape are a unified experience. Lindeberg and Vitale work together on this and the result is so right and so subtle that it is easy to take it entirely for granted. I have learned over the years of looking, learning, and practicing, that beauty and harmony never "just happen" and the greatest and most unified experience of place is usually the result of great discipline, and its success turns on small and subtle points. I am showing you a sequence of photographs that depict the experience of approaching this place. They start at the inner gate, beside the gate house from which one proceeds down the drive through woods and meadow, finally around a bend one sees the front of the house and then the entrance arch comes into view. The experience is pastoral and quite. The trees are magnificent. At one point there is a marshy place to the left that in spring is carpeted with primroses, to the right one can glimpse an open area beyond the trees, then to left again is an orchard, then on the right the front of the house with a background of trees and an open lawn. The single most important element of this is what you can't see, the water. These pictures were taken in March and May. Also, ignore the dragon lamps on the gate posts, the originals are in the basemet and will be replaced.

In Japan, or maybe it was China, I no longer have my books and notebooks so I can not find the correct citation, there was a garden built by a very wise philosopher, built on the edge of the sea. Perhaps someone can remind me of the source of this. The story is that when people came to visit they were amazed that he had built hedges and walls to block out the very beautiful view, but when the reached the tea house, and only when they sat down, was the view revealed through a carefully placed opening in a hedge; only after gaining the location of repose was the view revealed in all its beauty. This story appears in many works on landscape design, and I am tempted to think that it is not a coincidence that Vitale and Lindeberg did the same thing at Grey Craig. It is also an instance of how well they worked together. When going through the gate, and along the drive, and into the arch the view, which is amazing, is deliberately screened. One enters the house in a very dark and compressed vestibule which is inside the arch, this gives onto an entrance corridor which runs into the main section of the house past an enclosed courtyard, then into the stair hall, then the center hallway, both of which look to the back of the house. One then enters the main reception rooms and it is only then, after this long and complex series of views and spaces that the view down the lawn past the rocks and over the beach to the ocean is revealed. The view is held until the last minute as a complete surprise, and one feels like one has entered a different world, a magical world. It is a total tour de force, and depends on having the discipline to deny one of the East Coast's most expensive views when the visitor enters the property.

When I first looked at the plan of the house I could not make head nor tail of this entrance sequence. It seemed odd, and round about to have the entrance in a side wing, to have a small inner courtyard right beside it, why not drive up to center of the house? It is only in experiencing the way the house and the landscape interact with the location that one can understand this master stroke.

It is said that the arch is built on the location of the entrance arch of the previous house. The old foundations are indeed down there, I saw them one day crawling through the foundations tracing some wetness that was creeping into the walls. It is also said that the previous house was built of stone from the site, and that also appears to be true of the present house, which makes it fit in the setting in a most remarkable way. The grey outcroppings of Pudding Stone are everywhere and the walls blend right into them, accented by sandstone from Ohio, and that massive red clay roof.

This may seem like an awful lot of space to give to an aspect of this project that I had nothing to do with, but I am very committed to that idea that good design can proceed only from a very delicate understanding of the site. Further, when working with a creation of considerable worth it is important to come to an understanding of the original designers intentions; to get inside their head, to use a phrase. I have had to make a rather large intervention in this landscape, which I will talk about later, and so I feel that understanding, research and appreciation are required if one is to proceed responsibly.

These are my own photographs. On the website of Windigo Architects, who did some renovations some years ago there is a very nice wide angle photo that shows the relationship of the entrance arch to the main body of the building very nicely.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Where I've Been!

These pictures are referred to below, and in reverse order. I can never seem to get pictures into the body of my posts- oh, well!

I am looking at a lovely Christmas card from my dear cousin Sara of "Word Medicine," and in her very sweet message she chides me for not being in touch, either here or directly; "where are you?" she asks; as well she might! She has brought to my attention that my last post was in May! So I am going to take the time to update this blog, family, friends, and followers, with some comments on this strange and wonderful year that I have had. There are a number of headings to each of which I will devote a post, but here is a brief overview of those headings.

I cast my thoughts back to the caroling party at the home of my dear friends the Mygatts last December which Dr Funk and I attended, and which you can see here! I had made my pledge to Emmanuel for 2011 and was fretting a bit over whether I would be able to meet the obligation. Dr Funk very generously offered to cover it, and so we became involved in a discussion about how the obligation of the pledge forces me to push out of the complacency of sickness and engage in life and my profession.

My retirement arrangement pays my bills, such as they are. On the one hand, this gives me a great deal of peace, and in fact allows for significant healing, stress being the great enemy of "T cells." On the other hand, however, it presents the danger that complacency might erode the engagement in life that I have found equally important to my own healing. My observation is that, at least for me, my body tends to respond to the need for activity that my mind and interest places on it. Sometimes it protests, sometimes the virus demands acknowledgement, but in general I find enthusiasm and interest, challenges even, can produce a productive détente amongst body, mind, spirit, and sickness!

So I challenge myself with the pledge I make to Emmanuel. It took some conversation that night to bring Dr. Funk to understand why I could not accept her kind offer, and to undo the arrangement I discovered she had made with our Rector, and I entered 2011 feeling a little apprehensive about what the year had in store for me. Not all that different from the way I feel right now, having repeated my pledge for 2012. I have the ability to feel this way simultaneously with the ability to chuckle over last years apprehension in retrospect. Strange beings, we!

Here we go:

In November of 2009 I made a post about a building I had designed that had been used as set for a scene in a movie. This was very exciting! but in 2011 the same client turned up another, rather different movie association. Those who follow popular culture more closely than I might be aware of the trials and tribulations of Nicholas Cage. He had a house in Newport RI which he sold this past march. The buyer was my client for whom I had designed the building shown in that post. He had been speaking about this deal for some time, and had shown me pictures of the house- being one of the "Newport Mansions" it is shown in various big expensive books. It is actually in Middletown, overlooking 2nd beach. I would chuckle to myself when he would talk about it, never dreaming this would actually happen. Well, it did, last March, and he told me he wanted me to work on it, but I would need to give it all my attention for a few months. What a quandary I was in! I couldn't let it pass, but I had serious doubts about my health holding up. The result of all this is that 2011 brought me the most exciting and satisfying job I have ever had. Much of the time I've been stretched to the max, but it has been amazing and wonderful! there is a picture above.

Here is a little secret. I don't talk about neuropathy very much, for the same reason Beethoven didn't talk about deafness, what would my clients think if they knew I couldn't hold a pencil for more than 5 minutes? It has been one of the great burdens of my HIV difficulties (and, by the way, makes typing very difficult.) The physical therapy people at Beth Isreal gave me kneading exercises some years ago. They seemed rather silly and boring and I kept thinking I should be kneading bread or clay. Thinking, but not acting until my friends at Pucker Gallery organized a beginners ceramics class at Mudflat Studios. I signed up, and have since then been working rather diligently and have started to produce some ware that I don't mind showing people: the tall bottle above is a sample.

Now, with all this going so well, I've been thinking about my difficulties holding a pencil. Saying to myself that while I might not be able to draw in the same way that I once did, with a little courage I could probably find a new way to draw, that I should get back to it, finding a way around my difficulties. I was discussing this one day with a friend at Mudflat, who suggested some search terms to find groups of people in the area who get together to draw from the model. I searched and found "The Boston Figurative Arts Center" in September. I have been holding pencils a paint brushes ever since. A photo of one of my new drawings is posted right at the top of this.

And Emmanuel? About mid year the vestry asked for an update, what had the building commission accomplished and what remained to be done, on out 150 year old building that had suffered from years of neglect. While there is still a lot of costly work to be done, it turns out that when written down on paper the accomplishments of my cohorts and myself are rather considerable, surprising actually, to no one more than myself. I am rather proud!

Oh, and the pledge? No problem, not only was I able to exceed it, I've also been able to distribute some funds in other places as well. It actually feels kind of luxurious, being able to support the groups and activities one cares about. It has really seemed like the more I do for the church and other organizations the more I am able to do. What I've been saying about all this is that it is enough to cause one to doubt one's agnosticism!

I will acknowledge that all this wonderful activity has really strained me to the max. I do still get lots of exercise on my bicycle, but most days when I get in I can barely make some food, never mind cleaning or dishes or blog posts or emails. I hope you will all forgive that!

Friday, May 20, 2011



This will be short.

Judgement day is every day.
There are two columns, what you have given,
And what you have taken away,
Keep them balanced and you'll be OK.

The thing about "Rapture" is that it is available, and constant. It's like a train always rushing past us and we only have to jump on. Of course doing that requires an acknowledgment of how temporary, how insignificant, the things that keep us in one place really are. I include such things as Bible thumping, orthodoxies, personal preferences, and particularly the feeling that we have things figured out.

"There is nothing to fear, but fear itself"

Have a really great day tomorrow!

Saturday, April 2, 2011

On The Road to Damascus

All nature is but art unknown to thee;

All chance, direction thou cans’t not see;

All discord, harmony not understood;

All partial evil, universal good;

And spite of pride, in erring reason’s spite,

One truth is clear, ‘whatever is, is right’

Alexander Pope

My Lenten activity this year has been to join our Rector, Pam Werntz, and a group of Emmanuelites, as we call ourselves, in the study of Paul's epistle to the Romans. It was this or give up chocolate, so the choice was easy. I am very wary of Paul. His writings seem to me to be in many ways damaging, yet in many ways beautiful; they are very inconsistent, their meanings often conflicting, and he therefore is, to me, annoying. I have been doing background reading, books about Paul and books about the Bible. I read A.N.Wilson's "Paul, The Mind of The Apostle," which presents an interesting, complicated character, a provocative promoter and business man, in contention with just about everyone and also achieving really great passages of Poetic insight.

"For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known."

We sit around a table in the Emmanuel room, enjoying food and one another's company, discussing what Paul meant here or there, the critic, perhaps I should say skeptic, in me thinking- sometimes saying- look at these words, don't they mean what they say? And if they don't, if it takes 1,900 years of modification and explanation to arrive at the meaning then is it really Paul we are speaking about or some convenient construct to which we choose to attach ancient authority?

At one point I blurted out "the guy's a crank!" to which Pam suggested that perhaps I was projecting. Touché, no doubt I am, projecting myself, my expectations, frustrations and concerns. And worst, "no worst there is none!" I fell into exactly the trap which frustrates me most in Paul, and in life in general: I made a statement poorly explained and open to exactly opposite interpretation from what I intended. I will expand about it here.

This particular outburst of mine was triggered by one of my friend's statement that the world is seriously wrong, and Paul was addressing that. I exclaimed that the world is exactly what it is supposed to be, and it is our job to deal with it constructively. Allow me to give this a context. The proposition is that the first person sinned in disobedience, condemning the human race to the darkness of evil, from which it is necessary to be "Saved," this, either as a group- by the sacrifice of Christ- or individually, saved either through "Grace," by which can be meant a number of complicated concepts, or through "Works," which are defined variously. Actually Pam makes sense of this, but I am pretty sure it is Pam and not Paul in whom the sense resides.

Some time ago I started to think very carefully about the quote from Pope that I have at the head of this entry. The line that was a real stumbling block for me was "All partial evil, universal good" sometimes Pope is as bad as Paul; whatever could he mean by that? The subject of evil in the world is prominent in any discussion of the nature of God and the subject of evil in the individual seems to be the motor of Christian religion- what is it that is meant by this word evil?

I think that one reason I am attracted to Pope is that I have found that it is easier to understand the world and my fellow man if I avoid words that denote abstract notions of evaluation. This is because of the eternally fascinating conundrum that when we speak these words we assume in our listener a complete understanding of concepts whose definitions are in fact very subjective, vague, at best culturally defined often individually defined, and circular. One of my favorites is "perfect" which means without flaw; perfectly clear until you start a discussion of what constitutes a flaw, which inevitably becomes an extremely subjective question. There is a very important aspect of the Japanese aesthetic that an object without any flaws would be very undesirable- not "perfect" perhaps. Evil, in the OED has many interesting meanings, but the entry starts with this:

"In Old English, as in all the other early Germanic langs. exc. Scandinavian, this word is the most comprehensive adjectival expression of disapproval, dislike, or disparagement. In mod. colloquial English it is little used, such currency as it has being due to literary influence. In quite familiar speech the adj. is commonly superseded by bad; the n. is somewhat more frequent, but chiefly in the widest senses, the more specific senses being expressed by other words, as harm, injury, misfortune, disease, etc."

One of our company spoke of insects. When she was a child she thought of them as being bad because they bit her- "why would God make anything so bad?" As an adult she sees how her limited understanding of the world as whole determined the formation of her question. It is a very simple example of a very human tendency, to view a thing as bad because it bites me. The first definition of "evil" in the OED is:

"Bad in a positive sense."

So, the insects are evil. They do harm to me; pollination not withstanding.

When one thinks of the recent tsunami this gets very complicated. I would not be surprised at all to find that some people's faith is shaken by such a disaster. I asked myself about it, but really, those villages and power plants were built very consciously in low lying areas, in full knowledge of their vulnerability, for reasons of economic convenience; for reasons of the flesh as Paul might determine. Earthquakes and tsunamis are not new, and the disaster a result more of men's greed and laziness than an act of God.

In 1968 I moved to Ireland, moved from my secure upper middle class suburb, to attend the National College of Art, and I ended up living outside of Dublin in the countryside. I rented a room in a "County Council Cottage"- rural poor housing, with a friend and was immersed in a society in which meat was seen on the table perhaps once a week, children never had new shoes or clothes, and drinking water was a ten minute walk away. The woman I was renting from had never been more than five miles from this cottage, in which she had been born, claimed never to have had all her clothes off at the same time- with no plumbing bathing was always from a basin, and with no heat the incentive to not disrobe was strong. These folks were well off among their peers, after all, they had an extra room and were renting it for cash, so they didn't have to reuse the tea leaves as often as otherwise. This all seemed very romantic to me, but I acknowledge that I had a return ticket to the US so I wasn't trapped in it as they were, nevertheless I realized something rather surprising. All the hardship didn't seem to affect anyone's happiness. The profile of personalities in the community was pretty much the same as at home. Some were lazy, some were energetic. Some were religious some were "ferocious anti-clericals" and most importantly, as I got to know the community at large I was surprised to find that compared to my affluent, white, upper middle class hometown, about the same percentage were content and happy and the same percentage were discontent and unhappy. The same turned out to be true for me, my level of happiness was not affected, going from a warm well fed home with showers and laundry, to potatoes, reused tea and warm water on rare occasions. I found the same to be true when I was in Bulgaria under the Communists. I found the same to be true of my fellows during the period when I was held in jail during 2006, and I wouldn't be surprised to find amongst those folks sheltered in halls and gymnasiums in Japan, once the shock had passed, that the happiness that an individual has in relationship to their society reasserts itself and is not much determined in the long term by the externals of circumstance. As I say in the right hand column, happiness is something we do, not something we find.

So what is bad? What is evil? I once read a definition of evil as being that which runs counter to the aims of society. A good definition, because it points up the subjectivity of the word. That Pastor in Florida has staged a trial and shown that Islam is evil. Of course much of Islam feels that Christianity is evil. The difficulty is that by definition both are correct, because in both cases the other is counter to the aims of the particular society, and that is how we determine evil.

We are all children of the same God however. At least that is my belief. It has been much discussed, even in the ancient days in which Judaism was forming, whether "monotheism" means there is only one God, or that only one God among several would be worshiped, but I believe, and I think most Christian, Jews, and Muslims agree, that there is only one God. It then follows that any act of sincere worship is directed to that God, and would it not then follow that in calling other religious groups evil we are projecting our very human prejudices into a much larger sphere? "Verily, Verily, travellers have seen many monstrous idols in many countries; but no human eyes have ever seen more daring, gross, and shocking images of the Divine nature than we creatures of the dust make in our own likeness, of our own bad passions" as Dickens says in Little Dorrit.

Such is the problem with words of evaluation, and in this is rooted the basic meaning of my statement about the world being the way it is supposed to be. The word bad, or evil, implies an inherent quality; I think it is fair to say that that is how we tend to use it. So a distinction must be made in our discourse, whether we mean, when we say "the world is bad, is badly wrong," that we don't like the way things are going, or whether we mean that the world is inherently bad, structurally evil. The range of meanings could be anything from "I really don't like the way people are wearing their hair this year" to "the nature of creation is so badly damaged, the human soul so destructive, that our own actions are to no account." Whether Paul, whoever he was, was intentionally saying the later I think that that is the meaning that is often taken away from his writings, and I find it disrespectful to the creator.

When I say "the world is just what it is supposed to be" what am I saying? That it is inherently good? Good is just as slippery a word as bad, just as subjective.Things are what they are.

There is an interesting design exercise: to take a thing, or a color perhaps, that one dislikes, and base a design on it. When given to a group of students what results is often their very best work. It seems ironic, but the activity is to look beyond one's prejudices and preferences, one's comforts, and see the potential that any thing has to offer. There are no bad things. Some things offer one advantage, some another. Some may be useful to me, some may be useful to that crow I see hopping around outside my window. I don't think a whole lot of worms, but it seems to like them.

The world has many uncomfortable corners. It has certainly been no bed of roses for me, viewed one way; but no, it has been a very challenging, interesting, and at the end of the day, satisfying place to me, that's viewed another way. All facets of creation are linked in the most amazingly complex chain, and even the bad, the evil if you will, are links in that chain, sometimes are in fact the golden links in the chain. The world is just what it is supposed to be because there isn't any other way for it to be. This is my revelation, my incident on the road to Damascus, if you will. It came to me in an equally dramatic way (though after reading Oliver Sacks I start to wonder if it was actually Migraine-no matter.)

In Job, chapter 38, The Lord asks "Where wast thou... when the morning stars sang together and all sons of God shouted for joy?...Have you entered the places where the snow is kept? Have you seen the storerooms for the hail?" I come to believe that it is the greatest part of faith to accept not just that we don't understand, but that we can't understand; to trust that which isn't understood. That which is seen as evil is the partial evil Pope is referring to, and it is a link in the chain of universal good. That what we see as bad and what we see as good are in that dark glass, and we often can't distinguish them. That in that dark glass is our understanding of ourselves, of others and the world at large; and the only badness, or goodness, is contained in our acceptance of our own responsibility to love all of this world and all of it's creatures of the dust.

Monday, January 24, 2011

How many keys?

I am reading Bill Bryson's (or bill bryson, as he is described on the cover) "the mother tongue, english and how it got that way." Often, it happens that you are fully justified in castigating my careless capitalization, but in this case I am simply transcribing from the book cover. It was loaned to me by Dr. Funk. The subject interests me, and I find it delightful. It is a veritable mine of the sort of odd, erroneous or internally contradictory statements that I particularly enjoy.

"One of the persons to think to do so was, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, J.R.R.Tolkien, later to become famous as the author of the Hobbit trilogy."(capitalization his)

He is discussing the study of dialects. I suppose the superficial reader might miss Tolkien's interest in Linguistics. It is perfectly possible to assume that he was merely reporting those languages, not inventing them. It is rather surprising though, that he missed the fact that "The Hobbit" isn't a part of the trilogy, and that if you include it you have four books rather than three.

but it seems that math can be a problem, as witness;

"The Japanese have now managed to get around the pictographic problem by using a keyboard employing katakana syllables which are converted on the screen into kanji characters, rather as if we were to write "twenty percent" by striking 3 keys- "20," "per," "cent"- and then seeing on the screen one symbol: "20%."

How is it that I had to use 4 keys to get that 20%, I'm counting the shift of course, and, not counting the quote marks, 14 were needed for "twenty percent"

It is obvious that Mr. bryson's typing has become totally unconscious (I assume the Mr. should be capitalized, no?) There is, however a larger and subtle issue that over the years has become a great concern to me. I say this often, that it would seem that the public has become so passive that you can basically tell them anything and they won't challenge you. Amusing enough in this context, and I am enjoying the book, and I hope Mr. bryson will take my carping in good sport and not mind so much his poor math being pointed out. But in the political arena this passivity is being used to persuade the public into any unthinking position that certain politicians want them to take, and there it is dangerous.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Dr Wright's Cat

Today is Martin Luther King Day. It just occurred to me that that fact adds some interest to a number of currents that seem to be swirling around me, and impels me to leave aside the "work" I should be doing for my clients and make some observations.

These currents, that are combining into a force, let's see: there is the violence, waste and sickness of the attack on Congresswoman Giffords, and the attention it has brought to the level of hate and aggressive speech in our public discourse. Also, a friend of mine is working very hard to address the habitual denigration of female doctors in our medical system, and has this morning sent me quite a lot material about the cases she is interested in. She also looks at sex trafficking- in New York, yes, it's an established fact! My client and dear friend who spends the winter in Florida has sent a copy of a sermon she heard recently, it deals with Kurt Cobain's suicide and his personal pain which resulted from the anger and violence in his parents marriage. At church yesterday I was given a copy of "The New Yorker," which contains a very nice article on "Blue Heron" and contains a picture of some our friends, but I opened it carelessly this morning and found the pages just ahead are filled with discussion, some rather graphic, of Stieg Larsson's novels, their violence, and ability to hold the public's attention despite their rather poor writing.

I went on line to make sure I had the correct spelling for Congresswoman Giffords, and found an ABC news report about her, not bad in itself actually, sandwiched between a very long advertisement for Macy's "million dollar" makeover- change your appearance and change your life, and followed by someone bring on pretty little critters (I'm not making this up.) I think, actually, that those conjunctions pretty much sum up both the way this world looks to me and what I think is wrong in it.

As my readers have probably surmised I have been having a time of "writer's block," and I feel rather negligent, and in fact have made some poor attempt to keep up with posting. I feel especially negligent at not having related the very satisfactory resolution of my "post Dr. Choi" medical team, particularly as that as yet unposted piece sits unfinished here on "Sam." Sam is my hard drive, named for the cantankerous cat who spent 18 years with me, my longest domestic relationship as it turned out. So here is the upshot of that: I was assigned to Joe Wright, whose NPR posts over the last 6 years or so were a consolation to my fears of this dread disease I live with. As my Primary is Rafael Campo I come to feel like my health care has become a writer's workshop!

I am jumping around, I know, but if you will continue to jump with me you will perhaps discover that there is a place I intend to land.

The friend I mentioned above, who is concerned with women in the medical field, is kind enough to include me often in her Boston Symphony Orchestra season subscription. Last Fall, James Levine conducted Mahler's Fifth Symphony. I find Mahler emotionally exhausting, and in this symphony the 4th movement, the "Adagietto," speaks especially strongly to me now. By "now" I mean in this "post disease," "post acceptance of finality" existence that I lead, what I call my "afterlife." I told my friend that this movement is what I would identify as representing my personal "near death" experience, and I can't help wondering if there wasn't a good deal of James Levine's own medical struggle contained in his powerful and delicate reading. If it is the case that there is any purpose or intentionality in our fates, and if I look for the purpose in mine, then I wonder if I am perhaps left here to tell you all that the experience of transition from this life is like that movement, rapturous, warm and full of love.

But the "Adagietto" is not the last movement, neither of the symphony, nor of my life. It is followed by the cheerful "Rondo-finale." The odd thing is, well, odd to you I suppose, that it was that movement that I had trouble with. There was pain in moving from the quiet resolve of the 4th back to the cheerful life of the fifth. A distance felt, as though life is being watched from afar, and the joy and the dancing filled with pathos, this is just how I feel in this phase of my life. I expect people to think it somehow ungrateful of me not to rejoice in having overcome, if that's what I've done, AIDS and it's attendant problems, the personal and material loss I've experienced, but I've been teased with an experience of the end, and it was glorious, and so I wait.

In composing my "unposted" post about Dr. Wright I went to his blog to collect a link and found this very beautiful statement about loss. I feel just like Dr. Wrights cat, looking through the glass, perplexed and vacant.

And so to get back to the beginning of all this I want to tell you what I see.

I see us all tending to cause pain to our fellows and the world; often to our gain, but as often with no gain in mind at all. A woman promoted and honored by her colleagues only brings them and their department credit. Keeping people down and excluding them only prevents the accretion of good. The man who pays and exploits for sex degrades himself more than he degrades the person he exploits. He denies himself human fulfillment and erodes his own sense of self. Those who focus on their desires will always be disappointed, and not because their desire can not be achieved, but because, as Dr. Johnson said 250 years ago, our wishes are vain and false. Those who pay money for, and reward, the creation of violent fiction harden themselves and condone violence in our society. Those who seek their own benefit without taking care of the world they live in make a fortress for themselves and will live under siege.

These lessons have been presented to us repeatedly. It doesn't take a great sage, although it does take a certain amount of courage, to grapple with them. It also takes a willingness to live with a concept and deal with it over time, a capacity that our society seems to be losing rather quickly.

I wonder in particular about the situations where pain is caused for no reason. I have been subjected to those actions in the past, and I observe them around me continually. Dr Johnson would say that they are where real evil lies. I don't know about evil, we always use that term for the things we don't approve of, I prefer the word destructive. Whether we are good or evil, I think we all know when we are building up and when we are tearing down. As a society I think we should be talking more about why destruction is so "salable" as entertainment, why we look so strongly at the differences between us and ignore the similarities. When we criticize is it to be helpful or just to show off, when we deny others their rights, or proper credit for their accomplishments could it be because we have no confidence in our own? And when society strikes out at good people, and we protest and complain, do we ask ourselves what change we can make in ourselves that will give us the right to our own complaints.

Finally I ask what we suppose we add to the value of our own lives or our society by depriving others and oppressing them? The discussion is often cast in terms of the rights and hardship of the oppressed. From this side of things I have to say that I really can't see what the oppressors are gaining. It seems like yet another case of the emperor's clothes: that in the end the oppressors are denying themselves the skill, support, and benefit of those they oppress, whether spouses, coworkers, nations or races. It's just stupid.

Saturday, January 15, 2011


People are talking a lot about the snow we've had. As I've said many times before this world is beautiful in all it's guises. This evening I took a long walk, but didn't have a tripod so I couldn't catch that magical time when the street lights are reflecting off the white ground as the sky darkens to a haze of mother of pearl. This is from the Arnold Arboretum last weekend.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

May you live in interesting times

Violent language pervades our culture: "no, I'm going up, would ya hit 6 for me?" Even in elevators, I suppose people would be shocked if the friendly person actually drove his fist into the button panel but the language has become so much a convention that it requires some attention to use "press" in this context, despite it being the appropriate word.

I've just come from the opening of the new Yawkey Center at Dana Farber. My tour group was waiting for the elevator, one opened at the other end of the bank and another group scooped it. "We could fight them" a bright young man said, (yuk, yuk!) As we entered our own car I said to him "we mustn't use aggressive words in public discourse anymore," trying to be equally jocular. "What did he say?" the woman with him whispered. "I guess something about my language," he replied, perplexed.

How he could have missed my point I don't know, but he seemed to. If there is an explanation I think it is that this language, and the mindset that produces it, is so accepted that it doesn't register anymore. Watch television (if you can,) even the commercials are violent. American have constructed such an artificial society that they mostly live in isolation from consequences and thus don't have to understand the real meaning of their language, their attitudes or their politics. The ultimate example of this disconnect is in Sarah Palin's claim to be the victim, to be the subject of "blood liable."

We live in very interesting times