Friday, January 30, 2009

This is my favoritest essay on architects. Ever.

Annie Choi is a writer in New York City, and this essay/open letter of hers was originally published in the Vol II, 2007 PIDGIN, a publication of the graduate students of Princeton University.   And I wish I had written it, because it's absolutely brilliant.

Dear Architects, I am sick of your shit.

Once, a long time ago, in the days of yore, I had a friend who was studying architecture to become, presumably, an architect.  This friend introduced me to other friends, who were also studying architecture.  Then these friends had other friends who were architects—real architects doing real architecture like designing luxury condos that look a lot like glass dildos.  And these real architects knew other real architects and now the only people I know are architects.  And they all design glass dildos that I will never work or live in and serve only to obstruct my view of New Jersey.

Do not get me wrong, architects.  I like you as a person.  I think you are nice, smell good most of the time, and I like your glasses.  You have crazy hair, and if you are luck, most of it is on your head.  But I do not care about architecture.  It is true.  This is what I do care about:




As you can see, architecture is not on the list.  I believe that architecture falls somewhere between toenail fungus and invasive colonoscopy in the list of things that interest me.

Perhaps if you didn’t talk about it so much, I would be more interested.  When you point to a glass cylinder and say proudly, hey my office designed that, I giggle and say it looks like a bong.  You turn your head in disgust and shame.  You think, obviously she does not understand.  What does she know?  She is just a writer.  She is no architect.  She respects vowels, not glass cocks.  And then you say now I am designing a lifestyle center, and I ask what is that, and you say it is a place that offers goods and services and retail opportunities and I say you mean like a mall and you say no.  It is a lifestyle center.  I say it sounds like a mall.  I am from the Valley, bitch.  I know malls.

Architects, I will not lie, you confuse me.  You work sixty, eighty hours a week and yet you are always poor.  Why aren’t you buying me a drink?  Where is your bounty of riches?  Maybe you spent it on merlot.  Maybe you spent it on hookers and blow.  I cannot be sure.  It is a mystery.  I will leave that to the scientists to figure out.

Architects love to discuss how much sleep they have gotten.  One will say how he was at the studio until five in the morning, only to return again two hours later.  Then another will say, oh that is nothing, I haven’t slept in a week.  And then another will say, guess what, I have never slept ever.  My dear architects, the measure of ho hard you’ve worked and how much you’ve accomplished is not related to the number of hours you have not slept.  Have you heard of Rem Koolhaas?  He is a famous architect.  I know this because you tell me he is a famous architect.  I hear that Rem Koolhaas is always sleeping.  He is, I presume, sleeping right now.  And I hear he gets shit done.  And I also hear that in a stunning move, he is making a building that looks not like a glass cock, but like a concrete vagina.  When you sleep more, you get vagina.  You can all take a lesson from Rem Koolhaas.

Life is hard for me, please understand.  Architects are an important part of my existence.  They call me at eleven at night and say they just got off work, am I hungry?  Listen, it is practically midnight.  I ate hours ago.  So long ago that, in fact, I am hungry again.  So yes, I will go.  Then I will go and there will be other architects talking about AutoCAD shortcuts and something about electric panels and can you believe that is all I did today, what a drag.  I look around the table at the poor, tired, and hungry, and think to myself, I have but only one bullet left in the gun.  Who will I choose?

I have a friend who is a doctor.  He gives me drugs.  I enjoy them.  I have a friend who is a lawyer.  He helped me sue my landlord.  My architect friends have given me nothing.  No drugs, no medical advice, and they don’t know how to spell subpoena.  One architect friend figured out that my apartment was one hundred and eighty-seven square feet. That was nice.  Thanks for that.

I suppose one could ask what someone like me brings to architects like yourselves.  I bring cheer.  I yell at architects when they start talking about architecture.  I force them to discuss far more interesting topics, like turkey eggs.  Why do we eat chicken eggs, but not turkey eggs?  They are bigger.  And people really like turkey.  See?  I am not afraid to ask the tough questions.

So, dear architects, I will stick around, for only a little while.  I hope that one day some of you will become doctors and lawyers or will figure out my taxes.  And we will laugh at the days when you spent the entire evening talking about some European you’ve never met who designed a building you will never see because you are too busy working on something that will never get built.  But even if that day doesn’t arrive, give me a call anyway, I am free.

Yours truly, Annie Choi

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Eschew obfuscation

So, first of all, it would appear that my readers are more erudite than I thought.  However, the case may also be that I should have waited to post people's comments to the quiz passage until a day or so had passed so as not to taint the jury.  Or again, maybe I just have really smart readers.  I hope it's that I have smart readers.

And here's why I hope that: because I literally had to read the quoted passage four times in order to understand what the guy was saying.  He's making a good argument, which is that...*sigh* wait, let me read it again...

oh, okay.  He's saying that lately all the "really good" architecture is being produced as a result of a huge influx of cash and and based on unreliable systems to support its existence, namely extreme laissez-faire capitalism, dying industries like oil, and tourism.  The second paragraph pretty much makes fun of Frank Gehry, which is to say that in order to express the newness of the system we're building for, starchitects (like Gehry or Rem Koolhaas, as 2H described) came up with this amazing software (like BIM, as Spencer mentioned--thanks for commenting and glad to have you!) to make these impossible-looking buildings just 'cuz we can.  Making those buildings is a really expensive process, and when the reason for their existence doesn't match up to the actual building, they lie nearly-empty or unused.  The third paragraph...I dunno, y'all.  I like the ghost ship imagery, but his point sort of leaves me.

The point that leaves me is that I have to wade through a lot of text to tell y'all what I just told y'all in the above paragraph.  One of the reasons that some of us architects drink is that the rest of us love to use big $20 words at every opportunity in order to sound really advanced and smart.  Problem with that is that it leaves a huge chunk of society out of the conversation, and we need everyone--preachers, doctors, accountants, claims adjustors, mall cops, small business owners, teachers, sheet metal fabricators, everyone--in on the conversation.  We as a profession need to find clear ways to explain complex problems so that everyone understands why we don't need another remote suburban neighborhood and its requisite strip mall.  But when I say clear, I don't mean dumb it down.  We're all adults here.  What I mean is stop saying shit--and I very much do mean shit--like "Displays of beyond-human formal complexity drop out of the computational design systems employed in the search for exoticism and difference - a difference that was demanded by the market pluralism of ultra capitalism" and instead say "Buildings that look physically impossible to build were the result of drawing and modeling software that allowed architects to draw impossible things so they could actually be built.  And it had to look impossible and unlike anything that came before it for two reasons: 1) just because they could make it so, and 2) because the client had the kind of vision that comes with obscene amounts of cash to spend".  Granted, my explanation is probably longer then the original, but is it easier to understand?  And does it capture the gist of the first statement?

We've all heard businesspeople use "task" as a verb and talk about "optimizing our procedural objectives."  This is the same thing but with an architecture degree.  It's archispeak.  And it makes. me. drink.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Quiz time

In the comments, please relate/respond:

Do you understand any of the following?  If so, what does it mean?

History suggests that the construction of the most ambitious architectural projects immediately precedes the deepest economic slumps. And that's exactly what we've seen in progression from the Guggenheim Bilbao to the cities from zero in the Gulf. This headline grabbing architecture has been driven by the logic of the boom. That's to say, the ideology of the global market has been the context for architecture. These projects attempted to turn the flush of cash and credit delivered by fluctuations of abstract systems into something real: a thing or a place. They sprung up in the ruins of industry or were fueled by the fleeting bounty of mineral extraction. And they were designed around the most distracted and least reliable kind of programme: tourism. Each project competing as a destination to max out vacationers credit lines. It's created an architecture of spectacular, hollow unreality: based on unreal money, housing unreal programmes.

This unreality has infused architectural production, often finding resolution in hysterical, liquid, fluid form at audacious scale - the kind of thing recently dubbed 'Parametricism'. (Note: Just as the height of building might be a warning sign of impending turmoil, the articulation of a stylistic manifesto is a sure sign of hubristic overconfidence). Displays of beyond-human formal complexity drop out of the computational design systems employed in the search for exoticism and difference - a difference that was demanded by the market pluralism of ultra capitalism. Appropriately, these projects seem to use the very same kind of tools that has maximized, magnified, and deepened our current financial crisis. If the Modern movement had the abstraction of industry as its reference, millennial architecture had the systemized abstraction of late capitalism.

This union of ideology and form has decoupled in dramatic fashion. The swift disjunction leaves a generation of architecture rendered instantly out of time - as un-possible as Gothic architecture in the Renaissance. These glistening new-ruins are adrift in the landscape of global recession, abandoned like ghost ships, doomed to unknown fates.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

An extra four hours

Kellye recently asked me (well, sorta recently, the first week of January) about how the new 36-hour workweek was going for us at DA.  The short answer is that it's okay so far.  I don't know if people are accomplishing in 36 hours what they used to in 40, but what I've observed so far is that if anyone has any work at all to do, they're getting it done in the time allotted.  I know Derek is doing what he has to do on his project in the 36 hours or less, but his project is also only a couple of months away from wrapping up construction.  Most of us--Liz, Elliot, Jacqueline, Intern Timmy, and me--are doing non-billable stuff most of the time, so of course we can fit whatever few billable thigns we get to do in the 36 hours allotted.  And everyone seems to be doing the 36 hours differently. Sven's team, for the most part, are just taking every other Friday off, Alex (my big boss) suggested that everyone work four 9-hour days and take all of Friday, but most of the people around me are doing what I'm doing and taking Friday afternoons.

Well, it's what I'm trying to do, anyway.  What I'm finding interesting is how my so-called extra four hours keep getting eaten.  For the first two weeks of the 36-hour week, Sven has managed to book meetings regarding the project I'm working on with him on Friday afternoons, which shoots my oh-yay-I-get-Fridays-off plan.  Also, I find that I'm using some of those four to take the place of what used to be billed as sick time to go to doctor and vet appointments.  Which doesn't seem right to me, but for some reason that's how I'm using some of the time.  Even worse, I'm finding that the rest of my four hours that doesn't get eaten up by ill-planned meetings is getting absorbed by chores.  Well, I had a meeting here, so I only got two hours on Friday, I think, so I'll use the other two hours over here to do some housecleaning and to pick up the groceries.  

Recall that I was hoping to use this four hours to do some writing: when one writes--really writes--one needs some time to get into it, then some time to write In The Zone, and then to wrap up the writing or realize that one is spent and done with writing for now, or whatever.  The writing process is not like the housecleaning process or the grocery -shopping process.   You don't have to kinda-Swiff a room in order to get into the mode of Swiffing.  You don't have to sorta-shop at a store next door before you go into the grocery store and really buy your groceries.  But with writing, or at least when I write, I find that I need a goodly chunk of time to write, really write, think and write, get up and pace and sit down and write some more, shift in my seat two or three times and write some more, pick a new album or playlist to listen to on my iPod and write some more, and then realize I've said all I can say for now and put everything down.  So, I really need my four hours in a block to write.

Or do I?

Perhaps I just need to defend the time more fiercely.  Vinnie suggested that I take off Wednesdays instead of Fridays, but y'all, it is so dead in my office on Fridays in general right now that by 10am I realize I've run out of give-a-damn, so if I look unproductive on a Tuesday, I really will be worthless on Friday.  And if I decide well, I didn't write this week, and it's Sunday, so Shorty better get her write on, it's an uncomfortable feeling and I end up resentful of the writing projects on which I'm working, and the work just isn't as good.  I need the writing time without Guy in the house, with the cats curled up on the chaise in little knots like furry bookends being semi-quiet, the iPod plugged into speakers cranking Duffy or Amy Winehouse or Enya or Pat Metheny or Does It Offend You, Yeah? or whatever lame-ass music I want to hear cranking, and me thinking alone and writing alone.

So, perhaps the problem is not just about what other people are doing to my four hours, but also what I'm doing to my four hours and what I'm letting other people do to my four hours.  That being said, I actually got my four hours this past Friday, and it was delightful.  First, I left work about 12:20 and went to a gas station to fill up the car (it was on fumes--had to be done).  Then I came home and had some tomato soup and a grilled cheez sammitch for lunch, then I turned on the computer and got about two hour's worth of writing done.  Some writing of new stuff, some editing of old stuff I'd forgotten existed, but it was good stuff.  I made a couple of phone calls (one of which was to the vet about when to pick up Hazel from getting her teeth cleaned), and then got a call from Guy to come pick him up from work. It was 4:15 by the time I dropped Guy off at home and headed on to the vet's to get Hazel.  So, while I did get a few errands done, I also got in some quality writing time.  Perhaps, perhaps  I can get errands and writing done if I schedule it right.  Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps.  Well, this is only Week 3 of Operation Do Some Writing.  We'll see.

Friday, January 23, 2009

What, did you see a Design Associates coupon in Sunday's paper?

I recently got an email from the facilities manager at a hospital for whom I did some life safety plan work last year. (I sent the guy a personal Xmas card, so I'm hoping that's at least part of why he'd give me the shout out to do the work.)  He mentioned that his facility wanted to change around a few rooms in their emergency department (ED), and he wanted to meet with me in the coming days and go over the project and get a proposal from DA to do the work.  After I confirmed a data and time for the initial scope meeting, he sent back an email describing in further detail some issues about phasing and what he needs to see in the proposal in order to send it to the health system's corporate office and get it approved swiftly.  In the email, he asked about discount pricing, since he had worked with Design Associates before.


I'm reflexively offended by a request for discount pricing, especially on such a small project.  It's easier for me to give you discount pricing, as it were, on a larger project (like for an entire department or patient floor renovation) because I can roll all the uh-ohs into one price, or maybe I just take me fee from 7% to 6.5%.  However, when you give me four rooms to remodel and add a door and wall here and make this door a window there and turn this into that, I still have to do certain tasks and do them well, and there's no room for the uh-ohs: finding pipes or odd things in walls that don't show up on plans, discovering new loopholes in the local building department's rules, or even the client suddenly realizing that they needed to ask for x or y and forgot to so they'll just ask at the last minute, you don't mind do you?  No, not at all, we don't's just that what you're suddenly asking for takes your pharmacy from a low-risk CSP to a medium-risk CSP and my engineers have to provide for twice the airflow and filtration than before.  But, no, not at all, you go right ahead.

I'm also reflexively offended because it costs what it costs to run a business and to pay professionals to do what needs to be done and do it correctly.  My billable rate is set based on my experience as well as DA's need to keep the lights on and the water running and a little bit of profit that keeps everyone happy and the cash reserves stocked a wee bit in case of emergency.  Again, it costs what it costs to do business.  

Now, I undersatnd that it's a really tough economy and everyone wants to try to see if they can get a deal, but this is an architecture firm, folks, not Circuit City.  This is not an "all endoscope procedure suite designs marked $1 over invoice!!" sale; it's a business.  It's a firm with highly- and specifically-trained people that provide design services for a very technical building type.  And it costs money.  Deal with it.

Jann and I figured out a couple of ways to show them that we're trying to work with their budget.  First, we ask them what number they have in mind.  That tells us if they're completely delusional.  Second, we provide them with a few options of how to work the project, as in how much time do I spend versus Jann versus an intern working on the drawings and construction administration and so on.  Third, we tell the facilities manager that if he has any qualms about the proposal when we send it to him that he let us know and maybe we can tweak something or change the wording on something, whatever.  Let us work with you--we don't want you to pay a bill and go away mad.  We want your business again and again.

Hopefully, these strategies will work for everyone.  I mean, we want to do the work, totally.  It's been a dead few months.  But we can't shortchange ourselves with cash, neither can we shortchange the client by not puttin genough time into the project to do it right.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Those who fail history are doomed to repeat it

2H asks a good question in his comment on yesterday's post, which is this:

I’ve seen two philosophies to design:
One says that you create a master plan, an overarching idea that is evident from 30,000 ft. and that macro idea guides the thinking down to the selection of the shelf pegs. The opposite approach says that you begin at the micro, find some aspect of design or space that is clear at the intimate, human level and allow that to guide the concept for the macro. Does the fact that you are doing individual rooms make as statement about either approach, or is master planning for facilities and the design of individual spaces two completely independent things?

Good question.  The short answer is that me building these rooms is about both approaches, both macro and micro.  The long answer, as usual with me, involves more detail.  The macro scale, the 30,000-foot view, as 2H calls it, involves a long-time commitment that Alex (my main big boss at DA) as well as many of the associates working for him have had towards building a central library of all healthcare design knowledge.  On some levels, the technology wasn't where we needed it to be in order to compile databases of information or really good floor plans, ceiling plans, and interior elevations (drawings showing what happens on each wall of a room).  Another major factor was the personalities involved.  It seemed like every time well decided to make a "standard" for our healthcare team, one project manager or the other said "feh" and dismissed the new idea, thereby making every new rule into a "rule".  Yet another reason for not establishing this be-all end-all library is the fairly inexcuseable lack of denouement on decisions.  We'd go over and over something--an exterior wall system, a finish system, whatever--and there would never be any real solution.  No one would just say, "Okay, people, that's it: the insulation goes here, the vapor barrier goes here, it laps over the parapet cap, and the air space is x inches wide.  Done."  So, there was lots of discussion but not a lot of resolution.  Much to my joy, Jann recently expressed frustration with this system of doing things.  "I just want resolution on something!" she lamented to me.  Perhaps that's why she set me to task on this, in the hopes that I, a world-class high-expectating finisher, would provide something tangible after all is said and done.

The factor that is most in play right now is time.  For most of my days at DA, I've been comfortably to insanely busy.  It's only been the past three to four months that I haven't had a lot to do.  Many of us (the highly-experienced licensed and mostly-licensed healthcare design staff) are pretty unbusy now, and it's finally left us with the opportunity to get these important-but-not-urgent things done.  So, Jacqueline is working on the healthcare design and code requirement differences between all the states, various people here and there are working on specs or construction system standards, and I'm working on templates for each type of room in a healthcare facility that will allow people with or without a lot of experience in a type of design (surgery suite, labor/delivery/women's care suite, imaging, whatever) to accurately space plan for the department as well as show the department's users something as a starting point of design.

On the micro scale, each room type--OR, LDRP, CT scan, PET CT, exam, toilet room, etc.--brings with it its own set of problems and issues and questions that need to be asked.  For example, on MHRC's radiology suite (note: for the most part, the terms radiology and imaging can be used interchangeably), the doors for some of the rooms had to be extra big only to get the equipment in the rooms.  This reeks, because where a 4'-0" wide door would have easily worked for every patient coming in and out of the room, a 4'-0" door with a 1'-0" smaller door had to be put in because the imaging equipment needed a 5'-0" opening to go through in order to get to its final resting place.  And because imaging equipment vendors have to work in a dust-free, finished area, we couldn't just leave a big hole for them to roll the $1+million equipment through and then nail up some extra studs and drywall and the 4'-0" door later.  So, one of the questions/things to consider that will be listed along with my room layouts is "do you have a wide enough path to roll the equipment through?"  That's just one of many several-thousand-dollar questions the architect should ask their client and the equipment vendor.

As I build these rooms, I zoom from macro to micro and back again.  I think of the best ways to use my time.  For example, I wondered if I should build the CT scanner as a 3D model, and then I decided that yes, it would be best to do so.  After all, having a big chunk of equipment actually in the room template will help a newbie to imaging design understand just how much room this thing takes up.  Architects think in 3D, so it makes sense to draw in 3D.  I think of the best ways to use the software.  For example, I give extra consideration to how I build each thing I put in the room templates--the CT scanner, a paper towel dispenser, a mayo stand--because too much detail makes the model eat up memory space on your computer, but too little detail and you just have a room full of abstract boxes, which helps no one.

At any rate, the goal of my endeavors is to build a big, single-source database of healthcare architecture knowledge that incorporates lessons learned from past projects.  I'm slowly getting away from feeling like I'm totally wasting my time to feeling like we might actually finish one of our lofty goals at DA and do something right.  We will if I have any say in the matter.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

It depends on what the meaning of "useful" is

Tomorrow, we're having a handyman come to the house to loook at and give us an estimate on building an extra sound wall in our bedroom.  After seven years, two fans, a white noise machine, and three tenants next door, we've come to accept that no one is going to be quiet enough for us on their own, and we're just gonna have to suck it up and build an extra layer of acoustical protection if we ever want decent sleep again.  So, I'm having to do some cleaning in the bedroom to make it look semi-acceptable for someone I'm not related to by blood or marriage to see.  And I'm hard pressed to muster up the energy.  I had a burst of about fifteen minutes where I got some clutter cleared, but ultimately I'm here, in front of the computer, writing this post instead.

That's not to say I've been getting into my writing, that is.  You know, the writing I was all excited to do in my off-hours since we're only allowed to work 36 hours a week at Design Associates.  First off, I can never seem to get my Friday afternoons free--seems like the only time the clinic people I'm doing the master plan for can meeting is Friday afternoon.  So, I'm trying to leave early at another time, but I really wanted Friday afternoons.  Longtime drinking buddy and counselor of mine, the extra-fashionable psychologist Vinnie, suggested that I take Wednesday afternoons instead.  Evidently, there's some research that says it's better to take a break in the middle of the week instead of a long weekend.  Whatev.  But regardless, it seems that my chores are finding their way into my "free" time--taking the cats to the vet, grocery shopping, housecleaning.  Which would be fine if I'd take the time on Saturday or Sunday instead to do my writing, but I"m not.  I mean, I'm getting a couple hours done per week, but I'm not clocking the mad time like I thought I would.

And the house still isn't clean.  After writing that bit about clean your house first before you remodel, I got a little amped to do some straightening up around here.  I usually catch a housecleaning/purging bug in January, and I do end up yoking its strength and actually getting rid of stuff and cleaning what's left, but this year?  Not so much.  I have to wonder (and am almost positive) that this lack of enthusiasm has to do with the lack of rest I got in November/December 2008 and early January 2009.  I've evidently misunderestimated (to use a word courtesy of our outgoing president) how much I count on my downtime, and how much more of it I need than I used to.

A major part of my identity is about being useful.  Am I doing anything useful?  Am I producing anything useful?  It would seem around here that I'm not.  When I do, I notice that I get really resentful and exasperated.  As in, "does no one else in this house know where the Swiffer is?  Really?"  Or, "does no one in this office read their email?  Are you freaking kidding me?"  It would seem that I'm resisting the urge to be constantly useful and productive, even when I'm following that same urge.  It makes me very tired, and it makes me want chocolate.

At work, on and off for the past few months, I've been creating typical healthcare rooms in Revit.  Jann gave me the idea to do it, so I can't take the credit for having that much foresight.  The idea is that someone, preferably someone with a lot of knowledge about healthcare, builds in 3D with Revit (which is really the only way you can draw in Revit, in 3D) every kind of room you see in a hospital or clinic: operating room, substerile, clinic exam, scope/minor procedure room, unisex toilet, patient room with a family zone, patient room without a family zone, trauma bay, ED exam, LDRP, and every imaging modality.  I've spent the past couple of days doing the imaging rooms: x-ray, rad/fluoro, CT, nuclear medicine, and MRI.  I actually built a CT scanner machine in Revit, and it looks pretty badass if I do say so myself.  In building these rooms, I'm having to look over different projects I'v done to see how big each of these types of rooms was, what kind of casework they had, what kind of sinks, how many of which medical gases, and so on.  I then have to put all these things together in a drawing/model form so that if someone had little or no experience with healthcare architecture, they could look at what I've done and get an idea of how to big to make these rooms and what each room should have in it and what it should be made of.

My feelings about this have vacillated, but the longer I work on it, the more I forget that what I'm doing is overhead, not billable to a project per se.  At times, I've been feeling guilty about this, and then I even freak out a little and start looking around like a camera is watching me, and I wonder who is watching me and I realize that no manager has asked how I'm doing or what I'm doing lately.  And then I panic a little.  Just a little.  I don't hyperventilate or anything, but I do freak out a little.  Then I realize that Jann asked me to do this, that there's not much checking in to be done, that after four or so months without a project my bosses all know that I'm without a project, that in their meetings they know I'm working on this, and that if I've been mostly overhead for the past four months and I still have a job...then it's okay.  I mean, I could still be laid off, I suppose.  But what I'm doing is actually pretty damn handy.  After the rooms are built with all their equipment and whatnot, Jann asked me to compile lists of questions to ask your client and your consultants when you're working on these project types.  Based on the work I've done at MHRC and Wheatlands, and based ont he work my colleagues have done over the past few years, that should be a pretty good list.

It would appear that I'm still useful, just not in the way I've previously defined it.  Or perhaps I'm redefining "useful" to be more inclusive of what Stephen Covey calls work that is "important but not urgent." Or perhaps I'm redefining useful as sitting on the chaise with the cats perched on me while I flip through my latest issue of Southern Living.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Our identities, our time, our selves, and our livestock

Longtime WAD commenter Faded observed recently on my post about feeling all “meh” about work that I had been defining myself through my work, and without a major project to do I needed to figure out what really defines me.  As he put it, “What is it that’s mine now?”  Faded poses a good question to all of us.

On the one hand, we are not what we do to earn our bread.  We are not our paychecks.  We are not even our interests or hobbies or race or gender or religious affiliation.  According to yogic philosophy, we are not even this earthly shell we inhabit nor are we the full collection and sum of the things we are and traits we have.  It doesn’t matter if I have no major projects at work; they are not me and I am not them.  This too shall pass—the economy is down, then it’s up, we have no work, then we have plenty of work and I’ll be very busy.  If I am terrible at karaoke or mediocre at sketching or stand-up or decent at public speaking, it is neither here nor there.  I am not my failures or my successes; I am much larger than these things.

And yet…how can I not have a great deal of my identity wrapped up in something I’ve been pursuing, something that has possessed the vast majority of my waking hours since I was eighteen?  How does anyone not have at least part of their identity defined by what they do for a third of their lives?  Now, by that definition, I could be defined as “lazy” because I also spend about a third of my life asleep, but you have to sleep sometime.  You have thousands of choices of what to do with your time, however, and that’s how we often define ourselves.


But even that line of reasoning reminds me of a really off-color joke:

In a small tropical village, a tourist came upon a man weeping by the side of the road.  The tourist inquired what was the matter, and the man wiped his eyes and gestured towards the harbor that the road overlooked, full of boats of every size.

The man introduced himself as Pedro, and he began, “Do you see that harbor, full of beautiful boats, for fishing and for fun?  I made more than half those boats over the past twenty years, but do you think anyone calls me Pedro the Boat Maker?  No!”

Pedro paused and then said, “Over there on that hillside, do you see those beautiful little houses?  People live in those houses, raise families in them, and rent them to visitors like yourself, and they’re all well-built and have survived two hurricanes.  I built almost every house on that hillside over the course of thirty years, but does anyone call me Pedro the House Builder?  No!”

Pedro wiped his eyes.  “But you screw one goat….”

Anyway, where was I?  Oh, right.  How what we do does or doesn’t define us.

Even though I haven’t done comedy in like seven years, there are people in my life, both work and home, who think of me as funny and as “Pixie the architect and comedian”.  At least I hope the word “architect” gets in there somewhere, or that’s a very different OAC meeting.  And while that identity defines me as someone who is generally funny, it implies that I am always funny and can be funny on command.  Every now and then, someone will invite me to hang out with them and their friends from another circle, and I can tell that they’re waiting for me to jump into the conversation with some clever repartee or to take the discussion to some hilarious level, and there’s just nothing there to work with and no reason to be funny.  When I’m the odd person out in a group, I observe and ask a few questions because I’m not familiar with the dynamics of this group of people.  Inevitably, the person who threw me into this group is a little disappointed that I failed to live up to their hype.  And I end up being of two minds about it: 1) damn, I wasn’t very funny, was I?; and 2) it’s not my job to be Laugh-A-Minute Pixie; I get to be Pixie, whoever that is that I feel like being at the time.

Having said all that, I’ve ended up using this professional sorta-crisis as an opportunity to explore other aspects of my identity, or non-identity, or…whatever/however the Buddhists see it.  I’ve started channeling some of my energy into some writing projects that I’ve been meaning to get to for a while, and with the lack of activity at work that can positively channel my energy it’s helped.  But it’s still touch-and-go with feeling at peace about all this.  I guess it’s sorta like being a kid at school, when you mark time in school all day because you know when the last bell rings that you’re heading home to do something fun and that actually truly interests you, like build your fort or supersonic death ray or draw your comic book or act out a play or movie or music video.  Using that concept, that means that I’m doing whatever work I have as best as I can for eight hours a day so I can go home and write, though most days here lately I only have the energy to go home and catch up on all the periodicals I wasn’t able to get through during November and December.  Some days, I can only flip through a catalog—can’t even muster the brainpower to read an actual magazine.  And at work, sometimes my focus is fine, and other times I have a severe case of Shiny Object Syndrome and it takes me two hours to model a wall-mounted sphygmomanometer in Revit. Perhaps one day I’ll be called Pixie the Revit Sphygmomanometer Builder. 

Friday, January 16, 2009

In memoriam of Dad, or, grief therapy with Home Depot

So after I wrote the post about being all "meh", I laid down in bed to read and realized that Friday (today) would be/is twelve years since Dad died.  The subconscious is a strange and strong thing.  After spending my November and December working like hell on the office party, then traveling/moving/skiing for a week and a half into January, I haven't really had the chance to rest like I usually do, and January 16th snuck up on me in a way that it usually doesn't.

So anyway, I went to sleep and had a weird dream.  Well, it wasn't that weird.  But it was interesting.

It was a commercial.  Seriously, a commercial.  The camera, as it were, was panning over a town just after a rainstorm.  It becamse apparent from the voiceover and the appearance of the houses that it was New Orleans after Katrina.  That Home Depot music was playing as the camera flew over the little neighborhood.  You know the music from the commercials; if I started humming it right now, you'd know it.  And the voiceover--the same voiceover that does all the Home Depot commercials--was talking about how you can fix things up and build stuff, make your dreams come true.  It panned over a beautiful little grey cottage with white trim and a dark grey roof, and the voiceover said, "You can repair what was damaged..."
And then it panned/flew just beyond the cottage to the lot next door, at which the home had obviously been completely destroyed, and the foundations had been filled in with concrete, scored appropriately, and two little cabana/sheds constructed on it.  The voiceover then said, "...or make new memories when what was is no more."

" can do it, we can help."

Then I woke up.

Newt B. Goode: October 5, 1946-January 16, 1997

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Free advice from an architect

First off, I have to welcome Small Town, a new blogger and an architect in the northeast. Thanks for joining us here on the intertubes, man! As a small firm/solo practicioner, you may have some useful info to add to today's post.

If you have any kind of college degree or profession, I bet you get asked for free advice or services. Come on, everyone raise your hand if you’re a doctor, an IT specialist, an aesthetician, a plumber, anything that requires money and an appointment to get done. Same thing with architects—Lawd, we can’t go to a party and say what we do without someone asking us to look at this or that, or how can we add on to the house, or we want to put a deck on back here, or should we do this or that to the house. Usually, Guy and I recommend getting fire insurance and a friend who can work without leaving behind fingerprints or receipts for kerosene and matches. If the person asking keep imploring us for free advice, we tell them our fee, which is what our respective firms charge for our time. That usually shuts them up. However, as architects who constantly absorb and analyze the built world, Guy and I sometimes can’t help but give free advice. When an uncle of mine was building a new house, Guy toured it with some of the family and noticed an opportunity for them to add a small wing wall and a countertop in order to make a bill-paying/mail-catching/phone-locating nook. He told me after the house visit that he felt like he may have been “too” architecty, strolling around telling my uncle how to “improve” his house now that it was over half finished. My uncle ended up taking Guy’s advice, and he raved to us later about how great that little alcove was near the kitchen, how useful, and how he’d never have thought of it himself, and thanks so much for the advice. And that was $80/hour advice at the time, for free.

The world is full of free advice. Every health and fitness magazine has free advice from nutritionists, personal trainers, and doctors, and all it really costs you is the price of the magazine. Every home improvement magazine has tons of advice from builders, interior designers, organizational consultants, and the like. There are countless articles and websites and news features and TV shows with advice from well-renumerated professionals, and while you do have to pay for internet service and cable TV, that cost compared to the cost of hiring all those people to help you personally makes it pretty much free. But advice at any price is useless if it doesn’t really help you, or if it would help you but you don’t take it.

I realize that I have a disclaimer on my blog sidebar that says what you read on this blog shouldn’t be taken as gospel, and I stand by that. But what else am I doing right now of any use? So, as a service to my non-architectural WAD readers, here’s a little free advice from a professional for everyone thinking about adding on or renovating their home:

  1. Purge. Purge, my children. Purge your possessions. Get rid of anything and everything that you could have used in the past year but haven’t. Look at mementos you’ve been holding onto and really think about if you’re still the same person if you were to get rid of it. If you can’t get rid of it, where can you put it so that it can be appreciated and not in the way? Donate clothing that you won’t or can’t wear. Donate books and housewares to Goodwill or other thrift stores. Donate furniture and home accessories to a thrift store or sell them on eBay or Craigslist. Chuck magazines in the recycling. Shred financial documents over seven years old and bills, etc over a year old.
  2. And then scrub. Clean like a mofo. Shampoo the carpets and rugs. Wipe down walls. That’s right, I said wipe down walls, any walls you think someone might even have a chance of having put their hands on. Wipe down baseboards and polish/clean furniture and blinds. Vacuum, sweep, swiff, and mop your floors. Give your bathroom and kitchen fixtures and appliances a good scrubbing. If you can find one of those household steamers, like a Steam Shark, get or borrow it and go to town. Purge and clean. Purge and clean.
  3. When you’re done purging and cleaning, that’s the best time to really assess whether and how much to remodel or add on or whatever. At least one in five people who are thinking about renovating or adding on to their home and who follows steps 1 and 2 will discover that they don’t need to do a damn thing once they’ve gotten rid of some stuff and cleaned what’s left. Well, maybe a few throw pillows, but other than that, they’re done. Also, steps 1 and 2 will show you what you really have to work with and what you have that needs storing or showing off.
  4. Every home improvement project involves three factors: time, money, and energy/motivation. When you consider taking on a home project, especially a DIY project, you need to assess how much of each these things you have. What’s especially important is to recognize of which of these you have the least. Let that be your guide as to what you do in your project. For example, if you have the least of time and only slightly more of money, then you’re going to want to save the extra cash or do some bartering or something to hire someone to do at least some of the work so that whatever time you do have is best spent.
  5. The fourth factor in home improvement is the Universal Law of Handiness. If you’re not very handy, either take a class at Home Depot or somewhere similar or get a handy friend to help. Or again, save up the extra cash and hire someone.
  6. If you’re doing anything beyond wiring a new light fixture into an old light fixture, hire an electrician. Please believe me—it’s worth the cash. If you fuck up a pipe, you’ll send water a-spraying and will need a bunch of towels to clean up, but if you fuck up wiring, you’ll be staring at a pile of cinders where your awesome house used to be and trying to explain to the nice firemen what happened. Do not taunt happy fun electricity.

    There. You’re welcome.