Friday, April 30, 2010

Limpets in Uniform

I spent this morning in a prep classroom with the babies.  It was their first day back after the Easter Break - their very first vacation of the year, and back in the classroom they were suffering an outbreak of terrible shyness.
            One little girl was dragged- quite literally - into class by her mother.  She had her arms wrapped desperately tight around her mother's left leg, and the poor woman was taking enormous lurching Frankenstein steps to move her along the hallway.
            In the classroom, she pried the small limpet loose and sat her down at her very own small desk, and the little creature tucked her lower lip under her upper one and hid under her red school sunhat.  The mother vanished, moving only slightly under the speed of light.  The hat shook quietly, and small tears trickled down below the brim.

The first part of the morning was devoted to reviewing the Five Rules of Good Listening.  Cross-legged on the mat (the small limpet being persuaded to join the rest of us) the children sang together:
            "Eyes are Watching,
            Ears are Listening,
            Legs are Crossed,
            Hands in Lap -
            Mouths are Closed!"
            "And we don't" The teacher said, rescuing a slightly grubby sheet of poster-board from the mouth of a small boy, "chew on the Five Rules Poster.  Mouths are closed, Adam!"
            Manners re-established, it was time for a jolly round of What I Did in My Holidays, going clockwise around the circle.
            The limpet (now firmly attached to the teacher's left foot) was first. Paralyzed with terror, she looked up at Teacher with eyes like Terrible Awful Saucers and shuddered from head to toe with fear.
            "Shamika?"  Teacher said gently.
            After a small eternity,  the limpet let out a small squeak.  "We went shopping?"
            "You bought something at the shops?"
            The limpet nodded frantically. 
            "At the supermarket?"
            The limpet nodded again, and sank to the floor, limp with relief.
            "How lovely." Teacher said. "Tenisha, how about you? What did you do in the holidays?"
            Tenisha, equally small and limpet-like, stared up at Teacher like a baby mouse trapped in the bawling headlights of an oncoming train.  Her mouth worked soundlessly and her eyes darted desperately around the classroom.
            "Shops?"  She squeaked at last.  "With my Dad?"
            "You went to the supermarket too?"  On Teacher's face was the ghost of a grin.              "And you, Shenae?  What did you do over the holidays?"
            Shenae was made of sterner stuff than the limpet and the mouse. "The Easter Bunny come to my Nan's house,"  she said stoutly.  "He brung my Nan a puppy."
            "A puppy - how lovely!  What sort of- "
            "MY GRAN HAS A PUPPY!"
            "Thank you, Adam."  Teacher said firmly.  "It's not your turn yet.  Shenae - what sort of a puppy did the Easter Bunny bring your granny?"
            "A little one.  It barked at her bird."
            "MY GRAN HAS A BIRD!"
            "Not NOW, Adam.  Does her bird talk?"
            "It's a parrot -"
            Shenae shot Adam a Look. "Yesterday the parrot died," she said.
            "It used to climb up on her SHOULDER- "
            "And it sang SONGS - "
            Silence fell.
            Teacher kept her eyes closed for a very long time. "Matthew?"  She asked, her voice breaking the smallest possible bit.  "Did you do anything on your holidays that you want to share?"
            Matthew, staring at Shenae with open-mouthed awe, absently shook his head.  Next to him, Adam simmered visibly, with the distinct appearance of an air horn about to go for the limit.
            "Adam." Teacher sighed.  "Would you like to tell us what you did on your holidays?"
            Struck off guard, Adam stared at her in panic.  His mouth worked frantically and his eyes darted desperately around the room, searching for answers.
            Teacher's shoulders began to shake.  Behind the students, I rocked silently in my chair, and I laughed until I cried.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Boobquake Didn't Rock the Earth

There was an interesting reaction in The Australian to Monday's Boobquake (click here for results and analysis!). 

The Australian chose to publish a response made by Beth Mann, a blogger for
"I appreciate McCreight's intentions behind this; she meant it as a feminist response to a ridiculous statement. Unfortunately, it seems to be turning into something else, with many men chiming in, with their "show us your tits" camera-ready attitude.  Women on parade again...sigh."
            Good Golly.  And the earth itself shall shudder in outrage at our Original Sin! (Breaking in a little cross-cultural Judeo-Christian moralizing there. Just like Ms Mann.)

Mann's criticism continues:
"Women should be able to wear what they want.  That’s a given. Women should be able to sexually express themselves how they see fit.  Of course.  And underneath it all, I guess that was Boobquake’s intention.  Unfortunately, we live in a world that sees that kind of freedom of expression as a photo opportunity or another cheap thrill.  All parties must be on board and in celebration of the cause in a way that doesn’t include lasciviousness, latent female hatred or sexual over-saturation.  If not, then all we’ve got is “Girls Gone Wild” with a cause slapped on it."
            Does anyone else find this depressing?  It would appear that Beth Mann - and the Australian's editorial staff agree with the good Cleric in Tehran.   Our female bodies DO absolve the male gender of their responsibility for public decency and basic good manners.
            These reactions makes McCreight's point for her.  In both the Muslim and her own Judeo-Christian tradition, the male body is normal and the female body is understood and interpreted as a sexualized deviation from the norm.  It's very VERY rare that this deviation is regarded in any sort of genuinely favorable light.  (damning with faint praise or exclusivity doesn't count.)  Humans of all gender flavors internalize the cultural values they're born to, and most women cannot comprehend a display of their own bodies (to any degree of risque-itude) without contextualizing it as public shame or hyper-sexual display. 
            No wonder women equate public visibility with prurient nudity.  Many of us are born with the Physical being the Primary - and often the Absolute - aspect of our identities.  And no wonder that, as women struggle to validate themselves within these cultures, they tend to focus on the physical - either in an embrace or in emphatic disavowal.
            McCreight did not ask for a "Wild Assless Chaps for Natural Disasters" March.  She didn’t even ask for a Tasteful Naked Vigil, with candlelight and Emotional Stories of Discrimination Endured and sonorous uplifting choruses of We Shall Overcome. 
            Rather, she has invited us to laugh at Sedighi's prurience. To tip back our heads and roar with laughter at his cruel, bigoted and rather brainless dismissal of half his congregation.  The responses she has received, from both observers and participants, seem to indicate that we need to do a hell of a lot more of it.
            Of course, all this hoo-ha, both the original offense and all of the inspired responses, completely miss a more holistic scientific view of the situation. There are an awful lot of contemporary cultures in this world where female nudity - at least topless nudity, but occasionally the whole corpus - is seen as value-neutral - or had been seen  as value-neutral until Abrahamic missionaries waded in and pointed out their error. 
            We need to be looking at historical geomorphological plats.  Has the earth rested more peacefully since heathen female bodies were revealed as shameful in the sight of foreign gods?
            There's a survey I'd like to see.
            (Obviously, such plats only need to extend back as far as the Judeo Christian Fall or the Revalation of the Koran to the prophet. Extend the search back six thousand years, max. Or to 610 (Christian Era), if we're only interested in refuting Hojatoleslam Kazem Sedighi.)

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

A River Underneath the Sea

“We are 30 meters deep, fresh water, then 60 meters deep – salty water and under me I see a river, island and fallen leaves… Actually, the river, which you can see, is a layer of hydrogen sulphide.”
                                 - Anatoly Beloshchin in the Cenote Angelita, Mexico

What I Did at School Today

Yesterday morning I was happily puddling about with paper paste when one of the little girls at my table looked up at me and asked "Are you a Miss or a Mrs?"
            "A Mrs."  I said to her, pasting a strip of newspaper onto a balloon.
            "What's your Mrs name, then?"
            "It's right here on my name-tag - Mrs Tabubil."
            "Huh."  She digested this.  "Do you have a Mr?"
            "Yes, I do."
            "What's his name?"
            "Mr Tabubil, just like mine."
            "Is he a nice Mr?"
            "Don't be silly," another little girl said. "If he wasn't nice, she wouldn't BE a Mrs.  Is your Mr the nicest person ever in the whole world?"
            "Of course he is." I said.
            "See!?"  She said with deep satisfaction.  "I told you so." And she blew the first girl a raspberry.

I am a recently graduated architect living in a rural Australian mining town during a world-wide financial downturn. This means that I am working in the local school system as a teacher's aide.  I spend several mornings a week at a primary school near to our house.  This school sits in a very low income neighborhood, and the students face tougher issues than most primary school students - beginning with "I couldn’t feed you this morning" and working up to pyrotechnic behavioral problems brought to an early boil by severe physical and emotional abuse.  The kids play rough and cut up hard in class and they are very very sweet and some days they just about break your heart.

I spent this morning with a classroom of second graders, listening to them read.
            "Big Dinosaur chased little dinosaur into the rocks. Little Dinosaur looked out and saw Big Dinosaur waiting for him. Little Dinosaur hoped that Big Dinosaur would go away, but Big Dinosaur did not go away.  Big Dinosaur sat and waited- "
            Will Little Dinosaur be eaten up for lunch?  Or will Big Dinosaur lose him in the sticky swamp, where a little dinosaur can jump from fern to fern but a big dinosaur might become very very stuck?
            You'll have to read the book.
            There are sixteen sub-levels in the classroom reading set.  Some children are ready to graduate from the book-box, and round the stories off with sound effects and spicy character development.  Others, particularly the ones who cannot read very much at all, are very shy; stumped by the embarrassment of sounding out the letters in front of me. One small girl simply guesses, offers "cat" for "mother" and "duck" for "water."  She looks at the pictures instead, sucking on her lower lip and shaking her head.  I spell out loud, reading the story letter by letter and then syllable by syllable, referring over and over to the phonetic alphabet chart on the wall above the blackboard.
            "Now your turn."
            She fusses and fidgets and looks at her fingers.  I begin to spell again and then - what a moment! - she looks directly at the page and reads a whole line of letters one after the other.  "The. Mother. Bird. Sat. On. A -" she looks at the book, and then at me, amazed. She got it.
            It feels that good.

While the small girl and I read together, Teacher is giving the class a Very Important Talk.
            "You make a Strong Decision" she says, looking seriously at the children, "when you Use your Head Instead of your Emotions.   A Strong Decision is a Grown-Up decision. You don't just think about Yourself - you make a Strong Decision for All of the People in this Room and you think of All the Ways you Might Affect Them. A Weak Decision is when you use your Emotions instead of your Brain and you think Only of how good the Decision feels Right at that Moment.  Weak Decisions Hurt People.  When Thomas helped me clean up the classroom yesterday after art, was that a Strong Decision?  Mikal?"
            "Yes, Teacher. It WAS."
            "And when Petra tipped that bucket of crayons all over Carlie this morning, was that a Strong Decision or a Weak Decision?  Shenae?"
            "A weak decision."
            "And what -"
Her eye is caught by a boy who has escaped the talking circle and is sitting underneath a desk, scribbling long looping ovals in blue crayon on a sheet of paper.
            "Simon," she says sternly "Are you making a strong decision right now?"
            "Are you going to stop and join us in the circle?"
            Well - she's halfway there.
            We pick the kids up off the floor and march them off to the multi-purpose room for their morning exercise session.
            At the head of the room, a smiling Teacher steps smartly through a set of aerobic dance numbers, choreographed to booming techno tunes.  She's flanked by a double backing group of third grade girls - pony tails flying, dancing in formation, they know the steps- they're good girls.  And rather smug in the face with it, too.
            Halfway down the room, in the no-man's land between where the carpet stops and where the room becomes a garage for the school minivan, there is a double security cordon of aides and teachers.  Between the backing dancers and the security cordon is an absolute melee.
            The room is packed full of children - fifty-odd of them, from Prep to Grade Four.  They are dancing, talking, running races, spinning like tops, playing clapping-games, taking teacher-mandated time outs in the corners, or just plain staring into space and looking bewildered.
            I sympathize.  Some of the fourth-grade boys are staging fist-fights, their eyes carefully on the teachers, timing their swings for maximum adult outrage. In the middle of the room, third-grade boys are breathing heavily and breaking into exciting kung-fu kata unknown to any of the major martial arts schools.  Unfortunately for their flow, under their feet six small girls from the prep class are trying to take a nap.  There is periodic howling.
            Less than a third, perhaps, of the children are doing anything vaguely dance-related at any given moment. At the top of the room, the teacher steps through her paces, smiling sunnily out over the heads of her flock.  She is completely and cheerfully oblivious.  Her mandate involves techo-routines.  It doesn't say one single solitary thing about making the kids do them WITH her.
            Mine is a somewhat tougher gig. I stand in the security cordon, and as bemused children filter out of suspension I take them by the hand and dance them back onto the exercise mats, and keep dancing until they look at me in disillusionment and wander away.
            The really big fourth grade girls are too cool to even pretend to play along - they slump against the side walls, their whole bodies dripping with ten-year-old disdain and they giggle at us behind their hands and make the third-grade girls squirm.  I promise them 5 whole minutes of uninterrupted hyper-frigid glowering if they dance five minutes with me.  One risks a shy smile, but the long, scrutinizing cool looks of the others drive her back to the wall.
             On the other hand, when the bellowing begins, they have an unbeatable view - two of the more creative fourth-grade boys have pierced the cordon and discovered the mini-trampoline.  Which they are using as a catapult.
            Five-year-olds go tumbling.
            End exercise session.  Exeunt omnes.  In bits and pieces.

On the way back to the classroom, one boy breaks away from the crocodile and races off ahead of us.
            "Mikal - that is a very weak decision!"  Teacher bellows down the hallway.  "A STRONG decision would have been to come back and stand in the line here with all of us!"
            The classroom is locked, so Mikal isn't going anywhere interesting.  Teacher squares her jaw and we stand there, twitching and giggling, until he becomes bored sitting outside a locked door and slouches back, not looking at Teacher, and shrugs into place at the back of the line.
            Back in the classroom the children practice their lettering - writing out lines of "oo" and "oe" and, when they are done, coloring in a picture of a donkey printed inexplicably on the next page.  One boy uses his workbook to hit the girl next to him over the head.  She howls and brandishes a pencil.  Confiscating the notebook and putting it firmly back on the desk, I ask him sternly "Was that a strong decision?"
            "No!" He shouts gleefully.
            "Are you going to do your work now?"
            "Don't have to do it just because you say so."
            I sigh, very quietly.  Don't undress the Emperor, kid.  The rest of them think I have actual authority here. I am big, they are small - for most of them, that's enough.
            Finishing their pages, they bring them to me for the Adult seal of approval. 
            "Lovely."  I enthuse. "Very good lettering on this page.  What a nice coloring job you did there!"
            One boy is less than impressed.  "You didn't mention that I painted his tail green!" He wails.
            "You're quite right."  I apologize.  "What a very green tail!"
            "Or his teeth all gray!"
            "Oooh - yes, they are grey - has he been eating licorice today?"
            He stops wailing and considers it.  "Lots and lots and lots!"
            I send him off for the highest honor that is mine to bestow - a visit to the library for a sticker from the Librarian's Drawer.  Scratch 'n sniff.

Teacher interrupts our writing practice for an Important Announcement.
            "This afternoon" She said solemnly "I saw someone make a weak decision.  It is very easy to make weak decisions - What is not easy is Doing the Right Thing and coming back and changing your weak decision for a STRONG one."  She stop talking and beams at the class.  "This afternoon Mikal did not Let His Emotions Control Him.  He made sure that his Thoughts were In Charge of his Emotions.  I am giving Mikal a citizenship award.  Mikal - take this and show it to the front office - you have been a Class Ambassador today, and we are all Proud of You."

Lunch is peaceful.  We eat sandwiches and apples (only Healthy Snacks (TM) are allowed in the classroom) sitting cross-legged on the carpet.  Except for the boy who throws his yogurt at his neighbor, misses, and gets the carpet and the wall and the window ledge and the window panes instead.  Under the inflexible eye of teacher, he wipes up every drop of his Weak Decision, too - except for the thick white spray across the back of his own head and uniform shirt.  Teacher is secretly very impressed.  I can see her calculating trajectories inside her head and wondering how he managed it.
            Before the kids go out into the yard, they have Circle time.
            The children sit in a ring around Teacher's chair and, one by one, she asks them how they have been feeling today.
            "Carlie?" Carlie waves her hands high above her head and beams at us.  We smile back happily.
            "Thomas?"  Thomas makes a medium size equivocal motion in front of his chest.
            "Oh dear.  Do you want to tell us why?"
            "Because Alex pushed me in the chest and he didn't say sorry!"
            "Oh Alex," Teacher sighs.  "Alex, how are you feeling today?"
Alex is a tight bundle on the rug, his hands pushing down hard on the carpet.
            "Do you want to talk about it, Alex?"  Teacher says gently.
Alex shakes his head violently, his head buried in his chest.
Teacher looks at the class.  "What happens when somebody doesn't want to talk about things?"
            "We respect his feelings" the children say. "And we don't make him say anything he doesn't want to say."
            "Thank you." The teacher says.  And smiles. "Shanae?  How are you feeling today?"
Hands wave high overhead. "Because we were with YOU all day today, teacher!"
            "How very kind you are! Thomas - where are you going?  When you were medium unhappy we all listened to how you felt.  We respected you.  Class- what is Thomas going to do now?"
            "He is going to sit in the attention chair and respect everyone else the way they respected him!"
            A small girl, her face and her dress smeared and grubby with last week's dirt, the shoes on her feet worn to flinders, sits with her arms wrapped tight around Teacher's arm.  Staring up at her, her face glows.

Many of these kids come from really rough homes.  The toughest ones - particularly the older kids in the Upper Primary classes, they batter at you, until you find out what life is like - in some very specialized ways - for each of them the moment they walk off the school grounds at the end of every day. After that, there is nothing they can do that will dent you.
            I can't write about any of that.
            If all these children learned at school came down to Circle Time - sitting in a safe and quiet space, watching Teacher show them how to share and how to listen and how to care - there isn't a single larger thing you could give them all year.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Conversation in a Taxi

"What did you think of our fog this morning?"  The driver asked me.
            "It was awfully thick."  I said. 
            "Oh yes."  He said.  "It got very very thick before it was through.  We need some more fogs like this! If we can have three of these in a row, we'll have some good rain after the last."
            He was an old man, straight and gray, with a hearing aide in his left ear and an RSL community badge pinned to his chest.
            "Does it always work like that?"  I asked him.
            "Yes, indeed - for as long as I've been here, and I've been here all my life.  Three morning fogs and the weather will come down on us like a rain of bricks and fill the tanks.  What did you think of that thunderclap last night - the first one?"
            "Wasn't that a bang?  It shook our windows loose!"
            He laughed.  "Split the sky open all right!  Nature's been on a streak this year, hasn't she?  He glanced at me in the rear-view mirror.  "All these earthquakes and volcanoes and landslides - what can you say, eh?"
            "You know why it's all happening, of course." I said confidingly, sliding forward in my seat.
He looked back at me suspiciously.
            "Why's that?"
            "Declining moral standards."  I told him.  "One of Iran's senior Clerics has explained that all this geomorphological turmoil is because Iranian women aren't wearing their veils quite as far forward on their heads as they should be.  Men are being tempted beyond the brink of decency and the world is breaking out in earthquakes and volcanoes."
            He looked at me for a very long time, and then he caught the twinkle in my eye and burst into laughter.
            "Oh the things," he gasped.  "The things people say!

            "There's a young blogger in the US who is proposing an empirical test." I said.  "She's proposed that on Monday the 26th every female with a passing interest in science or moral philosophy wear the most revealing clothes they dare - a shirt open to their navel or a flash of the ankle below a sensible skirt - whatever feels really decadent.  If the men of the world fail to go on compulsive sexual rampage and the earth fails to implode out of sheer moral indignation, the cleric has to take it back."
            He looked at me again and then he laughed and laughed and laughed.
            "There's a thing I say to women" he offered.  "D'you want to hear it?"
            "I'd love to hear it."
            "Every year on August 6, every woman I see - I wish a happy birthday!  And they hate me for it!  How they hate me when I do it.  Do you know why I say that to them?"
            "I don't know why you say it."
            "D'you want to know why I do that?"
            "I would love to know why you do that."
            "You really want to know why I say it?"
            "You know I really really do!"
            "Let me just adjust this mirror, so I can see you better.  There you are.  Now - I tell them Happy Birthday because August 6th is the date that every racehorse in Australia is considered to be one year older.  Now d'you know why I do it?"
            "I am beginning," I said gravely "to have a few suspicions."
            "But you're not going to give it to me."
            "I am not going to give it to you."
            "You're going to wait for me to say it."
            "I am absolutely going to wait for you to say it."
            "It's because" he said triumphantly, "on August 6th, every woman is either a young filly or an old nag!"
I burst out laughing.  He slapped his knee and looked back and me and roared.
            "Oh yes" he sighed  "I'm a terrible trouble - a terrible trouble!   But there's words and there's words, I know that, you know that.  I may like to peck at them a little, but I do love women, and there's far too much pleasure in making them want to wring my old neck.
            Did you know that my football club came up with an annual award just for me? Do you think you could guess what it might be?"
            "I have a few ideas."
            "Well, I'll tell you.  It was a foot in mouth award!  Happened at the annual awards banquet a few years ago. The president of the club led us off with a little speech and we raised our glasses and at the end of it he pointed to a big chart on the wall and told us up there everyone would find their seat and their table for the night, and I just couldn't help meself: I opened my mouth and said "Glad you didn't leave it to the wives. We'd be standing here all afternoon."
He slapped his knee again and wheezed.
            "Well- the wife looked at me rather frostily - rather frostily. The president took me aside and said "Charlie, I need your help with something" and he took me outside for ten minutes and when we came back he pointed me in the direction of my table and do you know what they had done while I was away? I sat down at that table and a circle of female faces stared back at me without a smile on any one of them. I was the only man there, and they did me properly.  Oh dear.  All night, they did. They made me pay.
            And the very next year, the very first award of the night was my Foot in Mouth award.  D'you know how they made it?"
            I shook my head encouragingly.
            "They went out and bought a concrete door stop shaped like a foot and painted it gold.  And on the front of it - can you guess?"
            "I couldn’t guess."
            "They found a pair of those wind-up chattering teeth - a pair made out of brass, and they stuck that to the front of that golden concrete foot.
            I saw those ladies last month - at a banquet in Port Pirie.  We were at their table because we hiding out from a certain bloke and it turned out that they were hiding out from the very same bloke. We had a lovely time together. Of course" he said reflectively "I probably shouldn't have that story around town afterward. Now he knows that we're all hiding from him!  And they're telling me now that those teeth are mine again this year!"
            We had been parked across from my destination for the past five minutes. He turned in his seat and looked directly at me.
             "Darling, it has been a pleasure - an absolute pleasure - to have you in my taxi today. You'll wear a very small shirt on Monday- you will, won't you?  A very small shirt.  Peck at them - bite them hard!"
            I laughed and said that I would.  He reached back to shake my hand.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

How I learned to Talk like an Architect

On my very first day at graduate school, we neophyte architects were herded into a subterranean lecture theater and had the facts of life explained at us by our studio professor. One foot on a chair, his elbow on his knee, his camel-hair jacket unbuttoned and swinging jauntily around his manly frame, he was the very image of a dashing and successful practicing architect as he set down to the business of telling us all about our very first project.
            We would construct two cubes out of bass wood dowels  - he said - and we would wrap these wooden frames in paper. One cube inside the other, we would slash both paper layers full of excitingly shaped and dynamically positioned holes. We would line the inner cube with photo-resistant paper and, placing our boxes on window ledges, track the movement of the sun across these photo-resistant inner surfaces. And then - at last! - sun exposures in our eager little neophyte hands, we would trace the patterns and draw them out in both plan and orthographic perspective.

Or as the professor explained it:
             "The vertical mapping of the temporal exposure of the surfaces is intended to provide the prime conceptual material out of which your subsequent architectural proposal will gradually coalesce and emerge or -if you deem appropriate- remain submerged.  Ahem."

We blanched, but we were young and keen and not particularly blessed with foresight, and we merely squirmed a little in our seats. Visual theory attended to, our professor got down to the nuts and bolts of the class, and we fixed our eyes upon him and pulled out writing pads and pencils and prepared to take notes.
            Which, from the point of view of posterity, turned out to be rather a good thing.
            Making vague noises about the "materials acquisition" the professor handed out lists of required studio equipment -  lists that he assured us earnestly were "entirely non-hierarchical in form."
            "What's that?" He said testily. "Self-evidentially, I mean you to infer that everything on that page holds equal relevance for your practicable activities. Is this clear?"
            Raising his voice, he drew our attention to the large number of pens and pencils on the aforementioned non-hierearchical list, and said that "in this studio, you will find a void of digital content," or, in plain-speak, that we didn't need a computer this semester, because "this school strongly values the acquisition of traditional methodology for learning skill sets as they allow a certain entry to representational media not available through a dramatic jump into digital technology. Ahem."
            I heard a choked-off titter somewhere behind me.
            But he wasn't done yet. Turning to the subject of the actual physical construction of our basswood-and-paper models, he noted, in passing, that "although your drawing mat is resilient and self healing, the purchase of a reserved cutting mat is advisable.  In fact, it is not inadvisable to have a number of reserved substrates available for different materials. Ad exemplo, to understand the functionality of your parallel rule bar, I would here note that parallelity and verticality are only a few of its relevant inherencies."
             Once he'd disposed of the equipment list, the professor settled down for a comfy professorial fireside chat about school theory and student expectations:
            "As you advance within the school, a lack of comfort with representation will become conflated with your burgeoning computer skills"
            (= "don't forget how to draw once we turn you loose on the computer.")
            Because "in general, your work with traditional media has been unparalleled within our faculty - "
            (= we reckon that pencil drawings are much prettier than digital renders anyway)
            " - Although it is certainly true that the use of digitalization has become so primary within our program."
            (= when jargon come in, grammar goes out the window!)

The assistant professors were beginning to make coughing noises at his more florid excesses, and the class was developing an interesting variety of nervous tics. Someone finally slipped a word in sideways and asked a question about the actual project:
            "If the basswood frame is covered with paper, are we allowed to have the frame be visible?"
            The resulting drivel was so spectacular that it is worth quoting in full:
            "This problem is necessitated by initial moves on your part conflated with critical moves on the part of others. This exercise does not privilege the model as an artifact. The basswood frame will necessarily become visible through the projection of shadow and, via the compromise of envelopes, the dialogue between structure and substance, structure and perception, visual and invisible...... er.....  Ah ha....ha... did you mean literally visible?  Like, with your eyes?"
            "May the heavens preserve me" I thought, "from catching his attention this year.  I just might start spouting jargon back."

Despite the liquid velocity
The loquacious sibilance with which he articulates his erudition
            and, incidentally, demonstrates a not insignificant portion of inflated pomposity
Elaborating upon a contemporary conflation of contradictions that show how exemplary 
            hierarchies deviate from accepted norms and, thereby, perspective, from his 
            viewpoint, the primary functionalities of certainty and coherence -
- That's viscosity.


Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Eyjafjallajökull Erupting

To quote my uncle N:
"In the first book of his "Old Kingdom" series, Garth Nix describes a "free magic elemental" called Kerrigor.
This is a pretty good likeness!" 

The Dark Tower - Eyjafjallajökull Erupting
Originally uploaded by skarpi

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Architecture of Public Lavatories

I found this lovely public lavatory on September Beach in the Lincoln National Park.  It is a spiky, sculptural poem in wood and corrugated tin.  Antipodean steampunk.
            Creative re-imaginings of the Aussie Shed are a major - and fruitful - part of the modern Aussie vernacular (but arguably only the modern Aussie Vernacular.  After working the form into my project work at architecture school in North America, I was roundly informed that "Nobody designs like that. Even if you like that sort of thing. Which we don't.") but this little construct has a jewel-like delicacy that I find particularly enchanting.
            Its arched roof floating over spindles of rust-treated iron, this little building references all the required vernacular elements - the tin shed roof, the rusticated woolshed walls, the field-stone foundations, the old farm equipment rusting in old barns all across the wheat belt - all without a single nod to kitsch or self-dissolution in the bland tin walls of Aussie Modern.  Instead, these elements are turned into a spare and elegant vocabulary, the limited forms given sculptural discipline and precise attention to balance.
            Particularly I love the curve of the slatted outer shell.  The rough stone foundation gives anchoring context to the high sweep of the floating roof, and a public park on the edge of the Southern Ocean becomes the perfect - the only conceivable - site for this structure.  The little building is set perfectly into this place - it simply wouldn't - couldn't - belong in an urban park or a metropolitan seaside promenade.  The stone walls make it need the bay and the knowledge of cliffs stretching out past the horizon.

Beyond the essential loveliness of this particular little structure, I admit to being fascinated by the architecture of public lavatories. Architecture is, by its nature, showy - a very public display.  Balancing this narcissistic objective with a sensitive handling of our contradictory expectations of private self effacement is a complicated - and heavily loaded - exercise. (A bit like this sentence.)
            My obsession began when I was an undergraduate assigned to design a public lavatory for the Boston Common. The building would stand on a prominent swell of ground in an area of major foot traffic adjacent to the Boylston Street subway stop.
My project would be Confrontational!  Yet Secretly Sensitive!  About Overt Exposure and Apparent Voyeurism!  And the Contradictory Expectations Generated by Apparent Public Display, But in its Applied Utility, Also the Practical Application of Effectual Concealment!
(I also learned to talk like this.)
            I based my design on a contemporary church built in Seattle - I cannot, now, recall the name of either the building or the architect, but please imagine glorious and towering concrete walls sliced through at all levels by long panels of colored glass.
            The central visual "moment" in my lavatory was one I'm still quite proud of - the structure was illuminated by a great shaft of structural glass thrusting up through the center of the building.  But for the actual lavatory cubicles I muddied the design considerably with my "light art" - a double concrete shell slashed through with stained glass windows - the layers offset so that the light - if not the interested gaze of passers-by - could come right through.
            Imagine this concrete lavatory cave in Massachusetts in January. Cold and clammy and your privates are tinted pink. Delicious. It was an overwrought undergraduate muddle, but the reviewers were very kind and appreciated what I had tried to do with the light.

Only once my Grand Design was in its final stages did I start to think about the actual psychological context of the public bog.  I began to read like crazy: about eco-toilets, sensitive schemes for grey-water regeneration, dry-compost toilets for the outback, solid-gold johns soft and slippery to the touch, and websites for travelers from all sorts of cultures confronting "horrible foreign toilets" with terrified outrage, frozen contempt and, occasionally, remarkable insight and grace.
            These websites gave the most insightful stories: the post-war German toilet with a catchment shelf for the inspection of parasites in feces. The peculiar eliminatory politics of the trans-Siberian railway, whose lavatories must cater to all cultures within the Soviet Union - the resulting bureaucratic compromise being a cast iron western toilet with foot-plated dug into the toilet seat, so that the nervy traveler squatted three feet above the floor, bracing herself against the walls of the cubicle and praying for good aim as the train lurched and rattled its way along soviet-era railway tracks.
            Toward the end of the project, we had a guest lecture by a Master's student whose graduate thesis was a really nervy sort of public loo.  It was a cell - a womb - a meditation chamber - encapsulated within an egg shaped shell.  The toilet was wired in ways hitherto undreamed-of: the light inside strengthened and changed color depending on your emissions and corresponding colors raced and flickered across the outside of the shell as you performed within.  When you flushed, the entire shell contracted, pressing in against you ("Just like a mother's contractions when she's flushing you out of the womb!") letting the entranced audience outside know exactly where in the proceedings you stood. (or crouched, trembling through acid flashbacks to 1970's semi-baked Fruedian psycho-theory.)
            Wow. But my very favorite-est cheek-puckering real world example of Applied Voyeuristic theory must be the two-way mirror cube. Monica Bonvicini, I salute you.

Monday, April 19, 2010


My new favorite trope

Metonymy (pronounced /me'tɒnɪmi/) is a figure of speech used in rhetoric in which a thing or concept is not called by its own name, but by the name of something intimately associated with that thing or concept. For instance, "Washington," as the capital of the United States, could be used as a metonym for its government.

The words "metonymy" and "metonym" come from the Greek: μετωνυμία, metōnymía, "a change of name", from μετά, metá, "after, beyond" and -ωνυμία, -ōnymía, a suffix used to name figures of speech, from ὄνῠμα,

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Recipe: Oma's Appeltart

Mum has arrived safe in Rarotonga and is sitting on a beach, eating the freshest paw-paw in creation and, I devoutly hope, drinking from a coconut.  My sister, the luckiest fourth-year medical student in creation, is doing her eight week elective rotation in the Cook Islands.  Mum's visit to me was a mere prelude to a week of sybaritic tropical R&R with her.
            Yes, I am feeling ever so delicately green.
             Feeling the need for spiritual comfort, this afternoon I will be baking my Mother-in-law's Apple Pie. The baking of this pie is a subtle, sacramental experience.  The consuming is a consummation. The mere inhalation of the vapors is communion with the breath of the divine.
            My father-in-law tells me that the world is full of wonderful apple pies and that I owe it to myself to explore them all, but when a person has found the One True Faith  - who goes comparison shopping?  Like all true believers, I will proselytize this pie right left and center (all political and religious bents catered to).  You may close your web browser right now, if you choose, but you will, I assure you, be missing out on a glimpse of eternity  a front seat for the holy rollers, speaking in the tongue of apple and sugar and cinnamon!

Dutch Apple Pie (Oma's Appeltaart)
For the dough
2 1/8 cups self-raising flour (300g)
3/4 cup butter (180g)
1/2 cup brown sugar(150g)
1 teaspoon vanilla essence
1 pinch salt
1 Egg

For the filling
2 1/4 Lbs granny smith apples (1kg)
3/4 cup raisins (washed and dried, 100g)
1/4 cup granulated sugar (40g)
3 teaspoons cinnamon (or more to taste)
2 1/2 teaspoons lemon juice (or more to taste)
3 tablespoons semolina (to absorb the juices)
Make the Dough
1. Sieve the flour, brown sugar, vanilla and the salt into a bowl.
2. Cut the butter or margarine into small cubes and add these to the flour mixture.
3. Beat the egg and add 3/4 of it to the flour mixture (you will need the rest to glaze the finished pie).
4. Using two knives, mix the butter/margarine and the flour mixture.
5. Using one hand, knead it to form the dough until you can form it into a ball (this may take quite a while).
6. Put the ball of dough in the fridge for about an hour. In the meantime, make the filling.

Make the Filling
1. Peel and thinly slice the apples (allow the sizes to vary - it'll taste better).
2. In a large bowl, combine apple, raisins, sugar, cinnamon, the lemon juice and half of the semolina.
3. Mix well and allow the flavors to blend, stirring occasionally.
4. Butter a 9" round spring-form cake pan.
5. Line the pan (bottom and sides) with about 3/4 of the dough - as long as the pan is covered, the layer need not be very thick.
6. Cover the bottom with the remaining semolina.
7. Add the filling, but try to leave the juices out.
8. On a lightly floured surface, roll out the remaining dough until it's less than 1/4 inch (1/2 cm) thick.
9. Cut the dough into strips and layer them over the apple pie to form a lattice, covering no more than one third of the surface - you should be able to see quite a bit of the apple slices.
10. Use the remaining egg to glaze the dough strips.
11. Bake the pie at 175 C / 340 F, just below the middle of your oven, for about 75 minutes.
12. Remove the springform only *after* the pie has cooled.
13. Serve warm (reheat in oven or microwave) or cold, with whipped or ice cream, or freeze.

Chocolate and Stingrays

My mother has just spent a wonderful week-long visit with us, and I am noticing its effect on my waistline. Mum brought so much good chocolate with her- and bought so much more chocolate while she was here, that I'm suffering some sort of theobroma hangover.  It's a very pleasant and buzzy sort of hangover, but in place of regular meals I'd be happy to enjoy some solitary meditation over the next week or two.
Mum's visit went like this:  during a drive through some seriously pretty red-and-olive painted desert, she told me gravely that if I was serious about having children in the near future I needed- right now and no later- to focus on my diet.  
            "Eat only natural foods, avoid anything processed or containing artificial additives; stay away from fish with a high mercury content and above all, avoid sugar.  Cut it out completely.  I know that this last stricture will be very difficult for you, but you must have WILL POWER and - Ooh- speaking of sugar, is there anything left of that kit-kat I bought at the service station?  Pull it out of my bag and we'll split the last two bars!"

Mum takes her chocolate seriously. My aunt still speaks wonderingly about the visit she spent with Mum and Dad ten years ago in Northern Chile. 
            "They took us through the most empty desert you can imagine, and your Mum pulled out a cooler and - oh my dear Tabubilgirl, I've never seen so much chocolate in one place in my whole life!"
            That's my mama!

It was a wonderful visit. We talked and talked and talked, and then we talked some more, and then we sat down and really talked.  In between conversations we drove her up to Port Lincoln, which was as utterly lovely as the previous week (like a small Queensland town dropped down in coastal Victoria) and on to Coffin Bay which was even lovelier, because the sun was out this weekend.  Mr Tabubil went gaga over the oysters again and the grumpy restaurant staff had turned into a group of young ladies sweet as sugar and butter-pie.  We had missed the regular lunch hour and were deep into the Oyster-and-Coffee hour, but on account of how Mum is phenomenally allergic to oysters, they thought as how they might be able to scrounge something simple for us in the kitchen. That "something" turned out to be a massive platter of the freshest, most delicately seasoned (cumin was prominent) tuna steaks I've ever met in my life.  There really is no substitute for seriously fresh seafood.
            We've changed our minds. Go and eat at the Osyterbeds Good Food House, 61 Esplanade, Coffin Bay, (08) 8685 4000.

Back home, Mum spent the rest of the week driving our little silver Celica around town, ten or twenty kilometers under the speed limit, "just to be safe."  I took her down to the Marina to walk out along our lovely fishing jetty. The water was clear as glass and we could see every stone and stand of sea grass on the bottom. Boys were crabbing. We hung over the rail to look down at their crab pot and we saw a great piece of shadow lift itself up from the bottom and swarm up and over the pot. It was an enormous black stingray, at least five feet across. The boy in charge of the pot yelled and grabbed for the rope and tried to shake the monster loose; the monster flattened itself around the pot and hung on, then the boy began to haul the rope upward and the stingray loosed its hold and slipped away under the jetty.
            That evening I was tutoring maths, and when I arrived at the office I boasted to Simon (my boss) all about it. He nodded, blandly unimpressed, and told me that under the rock wall of the marina only a few hundred meters away from the jetty lives a stingray that is nine inches thick across the middle - it weighs about 350 kilos and is the size of a room. Very popular with scuba divers. My student clattered through the door and nodded confirmation. On the weekend, she said, she had been snorkeling on the sand-flat at high tide and had found herself face to face with a four-foot-wide-er.
            "You really cannot imagine - I absolutely froze.  My Dad called to me and told me it was only a manta ray, and I backed away really carefully and then I swam back to the beach - I've never swam so fast in my life and then, when I was back at the beach he told me it was really a stingray and I was so scared I nearly died!"
            We did less maths than usual that day, because Simon sat us both down and told us stingray stories.
            Simon's sea stories are the best - because they're all true. When he tells you the most hair-raising ones, he finishes with the words "and would you like to see the photographs?"
            And then he shows them to you.

Simon's Stingray Story:
"Last year, coming in from a fishing trip at a bay that's out past the lighthouse, I was powering in toward shore, moving pretty fast, and I saw a dark shadow across the sea ahead of me. I thought it was a patch of sea grass so I gunned the throttle to get through it - and the strangest thing happened. As I passed through the sea grass, the water right in front of the boat was white - I was looking at the sea bottom - a path of white sand cutting right through the dark. Well that threw me. I slowed down and came around wide and circled back to where the weed started and I tell you two girls - it wasn't sea grass at all, it was about a thousand stingrays, all pressed together, all on top of each other, and as I came toward them they moved aside, just as if I were was Moses, making a path through the Red Sea."