Archive for November, 2007

Reaching People/Distributing Daylight

“What is your objective?”

The G Center sparkles. It is not so much like walking into an office building as like walking through the center of an enormous, high-caret diamond: from the ceiling, shining beams of sunlight,refracted off spinning chandeliers, glittering in ponds of water, rainbows on the wall. I’ve never walked through a diamond but if you could do something like that—make yourself lighter-than-air, dissolve into a million particles and flow through a precious stone, emerge unscathed on the other side—surely this is what it would look like.

It is tucked away in Cambridge, the part of Cambridge that looks perpetually under construction. It is a city at its roughest, rawest—the guts of buildings gaping, exposed; spindly beams reaching up, naked and rusted; cranes sweeping across the skyline, bulldozers parked in muddy lots, men in yellow helmets. Industrial looking office boxes—grey 1970s designs, murky, heavy, and dark—line wide boulevards. People know Cambridge as the home of Harvard and MIT, overlooking the dark blue Charles, charming old brownstones on narrow tree-lined streets, intellect fairly seeping into cobblestones, but here, on the fringes of a college town, architecture has come wearily, setting out to look dry and anonymous. It is a tired piece of town, this. On a sparkling winter morning, crisp, sunny—things feel wrong. This Cambridge belongs to the gloomy day.

I’d never even seen the G building before. It’s not on the two-minute walk from my office building to the train station. I’m a wanderer, typically, but become shockingly businesslike when I’m in heels and a suit (because, I suppose, I’m so fundamentally uncomfortable like that). So when we went in today, the whole thing was a revelation: “oh, this is where it is?” and then a series of “oohs” and “aaahs” while I walked through a series of warm spots of sun; I got dizzy if I looked up, because of all the spinning chandeliers; dizzy if I looked down, for all those spots.

The building is among the most environmentally responsible office buildings in the United States. What this means is that all of the ultra-modern, super-shiny features have a purpose beyond to dazzle: the chandeliers actually help reflect light throughout the building; the glass exterior and huge central atrium reduce the need for artificial lighting; and so on. A pamphlet on the building explains that “daylight is distributed within G Center through a natural-light-enhancement system”.

We go up to the cafeteria, on the top floor, looking out at the urban sprawl as it crawls its way towards the woodlands and hills beyond. I eat a baked potato and we talk about communication: “Who is your audience?” asks a G employee, who we’ve come to for advice on a project. “What are your objectives?” Between sips of green tea or chocolate milk, we try to explain, but what we keep coming up short on, we realize, is story.

“How do we show this?” we wonder. “Whose face can we put on this idea, or that one?” It’s such a crucial way of reaching people—and in this case, it is merely an issue of framing. We can tell our story in dry terms, or in narrative ones, and it will mean the same thing—except no one will listen to the dry terms, and everyone will listen to the narrative ones.

“Distributing daylight”: each prismatic tile refracts, has a job, a purpose, a hand in the distribution of something so ceaseless, so regular, that we cease often to think of it as a resource. And yet there it is, and this building—a building! a building can be just as full of story as a human being—carefully distributes it. Doesn’t use it; distributes it. The cynic in me wants to say it is merely an issue of semantics: some clever wordsmith decided to say that it would be better if the natural light-enhancement system was thought of as allocating or sharing something rather than of vacuuming it up.

But there is something else.  The G Center houses daylight: its energy costs are lower (significantly lower) than those of a comparable, conventional, office building; similarly, waterless and efficient plumbing reduces water usage; 90% of construction waste was recycled.

And I know there are always many sides to one story: but the fact that it is a story at all is remarkable. Here we are sitting in this cafeteria talking about stories, and where we can find them.  We’re making one all the while.

Image of Natural History Museum, Oxford


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paradoxes (& things)

Earlier today, in class, I had a minor philosophical crisis relating to paradoxes.  I had written, you see, a line which ended with the two words: “more whole.”  Something like, “having homes in many places makes me more whole,” although it was more nicely put than that (I believe I may even have been rather proud of the line).  I was sort of basking in the afterglow of having written it, and he, a colleague, said, “you can’t really be more whole.”  I said, “it’s a paradox, it doesn’t have to make sense–” and he said, “that’s a really bad response.”  (Something also to do with the fact that it took be about an hour to think it up).  

Which of course it is, except that I know paradoxes are composed of ideas that are seemingly contradictory.  Mathematically, yes, you can’t be more whole.  I know this–I hadn’t considered it when I wrote the line in question, but I do know it, it’s instinctive, it’s basic.  Yet isn’t there a sense in which you can have a feeling of wholeness, a sense of it, and then discover that in fact what you thought to be wholeness was merely an illusion, that you have more depth yet to fill, and whatever made you discover this has, in some strange way, therefore made you more whole?  

And perhaps you aren’t even completely whole then, but you are more whole, because you are closer to whole.  Whole, perhaps, is an unattainable, in its truest sense.  What I meant, when I wrote that I felt “more whole”, was not that I felt I had reached that unattainable.  What I think I meant was that I felt fuller, richer inside.  It was a simple idea, and I had to go and complicate it with tricky words and paradoxes.

More paradoxes?  The stretching of time: you wait, for what seems an unbearable interlude; it has been a long journey, the longest journey–and then one day you wake up and it is almost over–oh happy thought!  And in tandem with that happy thought you wonder: how did it go so fast?  When all the while, during the waiting, you had been thinking my god, this time crawls by so slowly!

Alas there will be no great celebration in two weeks, though perhaps there should be–no celebration except great relief.  I will graduate quietly: without gown, or cap, or kilt, or party dress.  No ceremony, no eggs, flour, champagne (ah how I’d love to be doused with champagne in cold Boston winter–what a sight on the streets!  but very probably I’d be shortly thereafter arrested, and that would not make a very fine start to my post-university life).  I realize this is the nature of the system: save $12,000, miss the damn party.  Worth it, hands down.  But there is a small part of me that is afraid to be let out into the world without a $12,000 party: otherwise, on what event can I look back upon to say: this was the culmination of my undergraduate studies?

I am mostly un-sentimental about leaving here.  I did have a moment, over the weekend, walking home from the Back Bay (I spent the night on a very gracious friend’s couch, after we’d had too much wine and pizza and I’d missed the T) on a Sunday morning.  It was gloriously sunny out, not too cold (I might have thought that because of my enormous coat, however) but crisp; and I reached the edge of the public garden and began to walk through it, and all the leaves were still on the ground in great yellow-and-red heaps, fluttering with a wind coming off of the river.  And I stood in a patch of sun-and-shade, and thought: oh!  I’ve lived here for four years, and been in this park more times than I can remember, and it’s beautiful, and perhaps I ought not be so stiff about leaving it.  

Then I thought: no, I’m not stiff about leaving it.  Just excited about everything stretching ahead.

Anyway, if education really is what they say it is (accruing knowledge, not pieces of paper), then I have my fair share of it ahead of me.  One piece of paper down (well, very nearly, anyway); perhaps more to go (reminds me: must submit my applications to masters programs by January!); but plenty of learning still to do.  $12,000 parties have nothing to do with this.

Unrelated note: MUST finish my thesis (if I don’t, this entire post is more or less invalid, given that I don’t think I get my degree without a finished thesis).  The more I work on it the more it strays from the realm of the political, into the realm of the almost-philosophical.  In short (and in reference to an earlier post): I find I want to write less about sustainable energy than about sustainable living.

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Have been trawling the web all day for health/politics reporters at work, so I am absolutely swimming in the shit of US politics (well, slogging through, more like–wading with rubber boots and a grimace painted on my lips). It’s a country-wide, all-bets-are-off, money-fueled circus, and the elephants and the donkeys of 2008 sure do produce (and inspire) a lot of shit.

As my father very wisely said: “You could not make this stuff up — it would seem too absurd.” It falls more in the realm of science fiction than public affairs and political analysis. Who stole the politicians’ brains?

“Chuck Norris doesn’t endorse. He tells America how it’s going to be–” so says Mike Huckabee, who seems to be under the impression that Mr. Norris’s presence at the US border will solve all our immigration woes. (yikes) Norris has officially endorsed Huckabee; it’s hard to say which of them is crazier, at this point.

And in this corner, we have headlines like: “Paul ’08 Bid Endorsed by Brothel Owner: Presidential candidate Ron Paul receives endorsement from Nevada brothel owner.” Apparently the kids who run around stumping for Paul have a name: Paultards. The New Yorker had a little blurb about a group of them at Columbia University. I’m paraphrasing, but one of them said something that basically amounted to: “I just can’t understand why you wouldn’t vote for someone who actually wants to lower your taxes!”

In other American news, a four-year-old-boy has been suspended from class for sexually assaulting his teacher. Apparently he buried his head in her chest whilst giving her a hug.



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Photographic Interlude

I continue to be absolutely fascinated by this photograph. Took it last year up in Santa Cruz. There’s something delightful about the image…though I find myself wondering if they’re ducks or penguins? Or something else?

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I was on the phone with my mother this morning (well, I say morning. it was actually afternoon), and there was no water at the ranch. Nothing, she said, coming from the taps. This creates all sorts of problems. No showers. No flushing. No hand-washing. Those things you take utterly for granted. “I’m making tea,” she said, sounding wistful. “How?” I wondered. “Oh–we have some bottled water.” I started to fret that they’d use it all up at once.

So we were chatting about the woes of water shortage (“we walked from one end of the parcel to the other looking for the problem!”), when all quite suddenly, I heard a cry go up: “oooh! water’s coming! water’s coming!” If hundred dollar bills started falling from trees, and rivers started running diamonds, I don’t think you’d hear half the excitement that was put into those words.

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When I first came to Oxford, it was the clearest, bluest, most beautiful early-summer day you can imagine. I walked from Jericho to the center of town, meandered my way up and down the High, turned at St. Aldates, and found myself, quite by accident, at Christ Church meadow, where everyone had come out to read under cover of glorious sunlight.

Not because it was beautiful (though it was), or because I had some idea, before I’d even come, that I should like it here (for I did), but because despite all the worries I had, and have, and always will have (they are many), I took a big sigh in that moment, let my shoulders relax (they had been stiff with adventurer’s apprehensions), and said “I like it here, and I am utterly, and completely, content”; because of all this did I decide that this would be A Major Place in My Life.

A few days prior I had sat cross-legged on my bed, clawing at my own skin, singing a terrified refrain: what am I doing? what am I doing? To escape the throes of banality, I was heading off literally into the unknown: not the carefree Eurotrip of student lore, but a three-month vacation with a vague starting point, an even vaguer ending point, and a whole lot of soul searching to be done in between. Because as a child I had been convinced that I would live, someday, in England—indeed, the logistics of this never once crossed my mind; nor did any flicker of doubt that it would actually happen—I chose Oxford as my jumping-off point. I thought: if I study abroad (even for just six weeks), it shall give me an excuse to be there; which is something, if you’re me, that’s always necessary.

So I came into London on a dreary morning; too proud to take a taxi, I dragged myself half across town searching for my hotel. I was following a printed-out map with no street names (this is not an attempt to be overly symbolic–I really was; but since it’s the truth, I’ll also accept it as a very nice metaphor). It started to rain, but I went on, without an umbrella, in ballet flats and soggy jeans, because I had something to prove. I did find the hotel, a good hour later. I think it was about fifteen feet away from where I’d started out. I was wet and weary. “Can I check in?” I said. “Normally, yes,” the concierge assured me. “But today, we’re having problems with some of our rooms. We will have to put you in a hotel across the street. Come back in the evening.”

It wasn’t even noon yet, so I left my bags and plunged into London. I needed food. I needed a beer, to quiet my nerves, which were starting to cause my whole body to shake. I had been to London only once before, with my parents, eight years previous. I had loved England–really, truly loved it. I felt almost relieved to be back, except that what I wanted more than anything was a shower and a nap, two things I couldn’t, at the moment, have. So I decided to walk to the British Museum—I think I wanted to ground myself in things that had been on this earth for infinitely longer than I myself had been.

I found my way to Marble Arch, then went down Oxford Street, where I discovered the horror that is Primark (and an H & M on every corner, I kid you not). All the way down Oxford St. to Bloomsbury. There’s a Starbucks across the street from the British Museum, did you know? I went inside the museum, and fought through hordes to see the Rosetta Stone; I went downstairs to the Muslim Art section, which was deserted and full of beautiful blue-green bowls. I started to become dizzy with the force of everything, so I came out, and walked all the way back to my hotel. I bought myself dinner at a little convenience shop down the street: cheese, crackers, chocolate, juice, and a small bottle of wine that I chose for its name alone: Oxford Landing.

They gave me a beautiful suite around the corner from Paddington Station, with the most comfortable hotel bed I can ever remember having. But they could have given me a pillow made of rocks and a cot made of nettles, and I would have slept. I didn’t even eat all my crackers before I was asleep.

And the next day I went to Paddington Station and I asked the ticket agent for a ticket on the next train to Oxford, and my whole body quivered with the thrill of saying those words. “I need a ticket for the next train to Oxford,” I said. And the ticket agent said, “Alright,” and gave me my ticket, for a small fee, and then there I was, on a train, going very fast, it seemed, through city and country.

At Oxford, I came tumbling off the train, followed by a veritable menagerie of luggage (can you have such a thing?–my bags were so unruly, I think that you can) and stood blinking in the sunshine, without any idea where to go. I asked a cab driver to take me to my destination. “Weee-eell,” he mused. “I could do that. But it isn’t very far, you know.”

He gave me directions; I said to myself, “hell, you’re young, you’re sprightly, you can handle a walk,” so I walked.

The further I walked, the more I started to think: “I’m going to like it here.” I went across the little bridge; I found George Street and went up it to Cornmarket; realized I’d gone too far and turned back around. London had been all grandeur; tall buildings, imposing structures, clusters of the ultra-hip or ultra-modern slouching down broad avenues. But this, I thought—this was someplace I could breathe.

Within a few weeks of my arrival, the weather turned from fair to foul, as if it wanted to test my allegiance. I donned scarves and leggings and opened up my big red umbrella and let the heavens, which had been so kind to me before, pour rain on me all the way from Jericho to the King’s Arms, where I would sit in the smoky haze and warm myself with cider. But the ground itself could have frozen mid-June, and I wouldn’t have cared. Whatever it was I went looking for that May (I still don’t know) I found, I think, on my first day there.

NOTE: The title of this post comes, appropriately enough, from Dorothy L. Sayers’ Gaudy Night.

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I straddle longitudes and latitudes—

What is the point, I wonder, at which you can say you truly know a place?

I was born in turn-of-the-20th-century-California, where kids rode horses and climbed trees, where roosters woke families in darkest dawn, where rains washed the road away each winter and we set up school in a Victorian mansion. Then I crossed the country in one sweeping motion; 21st-century-Boston, all WiFi cafés and gleaming ultramodern skyscrapers. If you looked at the ground, you’d realize that people had been walking on the same bricks for four hundred years; or close to. But I didn’t know what old meant until I crossed the ocean, another sweeping motion, and walked down the High Street in Medieval Oxford.

“If you keep moving east,” my mother jokes, “eventually, you’ll end up right back where you started.” Isn’t that what Eliot says? “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.

I start to feel a bit like that about university. Did I not know precisely what I wanted, from the moment I set foot in these hallowed halls (metaphorical hallowed halls, in my case, for the Emerson campus is as un-ceremonial as can be, as unlike a campus as the food court in a shopping mall)? I was going to be a writer, and spend my four years here filling my head with books–until a few weeks in, when I decided to explore, and my exploration led me somewhere entirely new, and exciting, and now here I am, and all I want is what I wanted in the first place, except that, as Eliot says, I have an utterly new sense of it.

There were points in my youth when I hated the ranch–and if you’d seen it, and hadn’t lived there, you’d have to wonder why. But I had a thousand reasons: I hated its distance, its ruggedness, the way everything was full of hills; I hated how dark it got at night, how early the morning light came shooting into my bedroom, how coyotes and cows kept me up at night with their incessant howling and mewling, how I had to harbor a vague worry, everywhere I went, of mountain lions; I hated how dry the hills got each summer, how muddy and wet everything was by the light of winter; I hated going out in the dank darkness of a cloudy evening to turn the generator on; crawling up the driveway laden with grocery bags and heavy bookbags; and more, and more. I was a petulant teenager, yes; but when you know someplace, really truly well, do you not also gain a right to rail at it sometimes?

I certainly don’t hate it now (though neither to I flatter myself that I could live there again, not yet)–going there is a respite, a holiday from the ugliness of a city, a feast for the senses. Never before did I appreciate a simple walk through the hills so much; never before did I delight so well in donning muddy wellies and tromping through the mud; never before did I lie awake by moonlight and marvel at how rare the sound of a coyote seems, or awake bathed in hot sunlight to think how special it is for one’s rhythms of sleep to be marked not by the sounds of college kids yelping their way through a party, but by the rise and fall of the moon.

I find myself spread across many places: and I wonder, am I divided and split, or am I, in fact, more whole because of it? –and I think, because I am in essence the optimist (though some of you may not always believe it) that it is most assuredly the latter.

I have dreams now of Oxford; which seems, in my memory, to be the place I have been happiest, though surely there have been, and will be, minor unhappinesses there. It is not easy to feel this way: am I, I wonder, abandoning my family, my childhood home, the country that birthed me? But I am not doing these things, for to do so would be to renounce where I come from, and though it may be harder to visit the ranch, to spend time with my parents, I embrace wholeheartedly my origins, and know them as such, and know also that distance alone cannot keep me from them.

I straddle longitudes and latitudes—and know that I am more whole for it.

* Pico Iyer, from Sun After Dark (Alfred A. Knopf, 2004). Iyer, a travel writer (I might like to argue he is much more), was born in Oxford, raised in Santa Barbara, CA; then educated at Eton, Oxford, and Harvard. At the time of writing Sun After Dark he was living in suburban Japan. Straddling…

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