MIT Takes a Slice of my Life

haiti-001The MIT Alumni Association publishes a Slice of Life every day. Back in October they made a podcast about my work in Haiti, (MIT Alumni Interview) which proved so successful they followed up with a short video, available on You Tube. Without doubt the best three-minute synopsis of what my time in Haiti was all about.

Thanks to everyone at the Alumni Association; I appreciate their support.




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Dream Cycle: The Dreams of Boys, the Dreams of Men

vitruvian_man-001Last week I posted an essay about my dreams for the world, coincident with Martin Luther King Day. Serendipitously, the next day my niece emailed family and friends soliciting dreams for her seven-year-old son. My nephew’s been waking from bad dreams so mom’s compiling a Good Dreams Jar from which he can choose an uplifting idea each night before bed. After contemplating what a caring and creative mother my niece is, I got on task. Within minutes I realized there was scant correlation between the dreams I wished for on MLK Day and those I offered my nephew.

imgresI dreamed that every person had a fair stake in this world. I dreamed that my nephew slept all night with a puppy in his arms.

I dreamed that everyone had basic shelter. I dreamed that his hero Emmet came over and they built the entire world of The Lego Movie.

I dreamed that everyone had enough food. I dreamed that he had a bowl of ice cream that filled itself after every spoonful.

I dreamed that education and economic opportunity were universal. I dreamed he grew so tall his feet hung off the bed.

imagesI dreamed the dreams of a man pushing sixty, blessed with friends, family and creature comforts that derived from luck as much as effort. Simple, though unlikely, dreams to spread my bounty and create more balance in the world.


images-4For my nephew, I dreamed the dreams of a boy pushing eight. A boy wanting to be bigger, to be noticed, to know how he was different from others, if not downright better.


Making this list of dreams two days apart for two different generations made me realize how difficult it is to reconcile human aspiration. Wishing for equal justice is not the opposite of wishing to make the winning soccer goal, but the desire to be champ can undermine fairness. After all, this dream thinking occurred the same week as the New England Patriot’s deflate-gate brouhaha.

Youthful dreams must be personal – they reflect our quest to know who we are. As we age, our dreams can be more far-reaching, but only if our circumstances allow. If I were homeless or hungry, those immediate needs would command my dream list.

images-1If my nephew is lucky, his good dream jar will lead him to better sleep. He will grow into a teenager and dream of having his own wheels, then a man with dreams of career and family prospects. Eventually, I hope his dreams will look like mine of today, dreams of sharing based in gratitude. By then my own dreams will likely contract. I’ll dream of keeping my teeth intact and my mind firm and my bed sheets dry.

While his son and his grandson’s dreams will include unending ice cream.



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Another Check off the Bucket List

vitruvian_man-001I’m no fan of the term ‘bucket list’. It elevates the idea of peak experience, and thus diminishes the reality of life in the moment. Still, among guys my age (emphasis on GUYS) it’s a topic that comes up time and again. What do we want to do before we die?


Some friends have dozens of feats on their list – a litany of physical exertion and frequent flyer mile expenditures that leaves me dazed. I’m never going to run a marathon or traipse through Machu Picchu, and will turn to dust content with those shortcomings. But I must admit to harboring three long-time bucket list wishes: write a book, be published in The New York Times, and ride my bicycle to the 48 contiguous states.

I accomplished the first item – writing a book – last year. I’m very satisfied with Architecture by Moonlight, but the gestation process was unnecessarily painful and some people I value terminated our connection over my depiction of them. Filling my bucket brought unanticipated downsides.

On January 11, 2015, ‘Haiti’s Economics Aftershocks’ was published in The New York Times, bestowing a legitimacy every writer craves. Reading my essay under that letterhead was eerie. I sounded just like someone who writes for The New York Times. I wondered to what extent I shaped my voice to the medium versus how the medium I’ve read for so long shaped my 12fallon-superJumbovoice. The amazement didn’t last long. Within hours I became the target of a malicious Tweeter who spewed vitriol about the article – and me – all over cyberspace. My rational side recognized the distorted rage of an ill informed person misappropriating fragments of my argument. But the human part of me hurt. It’s discomforting the think that to thousands of Tweeters, @paulefallon is nothing more than a neo-liberal, paternalistic purveyor of tribal stereotypes who should stop meddling in Haiti and close his twitter account from shame. All things written about me until I abandoned following the Internet’s indictment against me. I stopped reading the tweets to preserve my dignity. My NY Times editor was pleased with the article, and that byline will zoom to the top of my writing resume, but the bucket accomplishment has tarnish.

It will be some time before I embark on my bicycle odyssey – Spring 2016 is the soonest I might pedal out of town. The reality of the adventure is more difficult to arrange than the easy flowing fantasy that rolls through my head. Though by now I realize that the journey, like any other bucket pursuit, will contain its share of bitterness along with the sweet.


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I Have a Dream – 2015

usa-001On this Martin Luther King Day I have a dream that today this nation, this world, will rise up and live out the true meaning of the creed that all men are created equal.

That we abandon labels that divide – white from black, Democrat from Republican, rich from poor, man from woman, gay from straight, Christian from Muslim, American from Russian.

That we all share a fair stake in it this world

That black lives matter and police are respected

That educational and economic opportunity are available to all

That justice is equitable and punishment restorative

That everyone enjoys basic food, shelter and healthcare

That pulling our weight and caring for our neighbor is a privilege rather than a burden.

imagesI have a dream that when we look into the cosmos, we realize this is the only world we have.

That we share it with seven billion other humans

That we are stewards of countless other creatures

That we are no stronger than the weakest among us

And that lasting peace will only come when we celebrate all being in this together.


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After the Earthquake’s Anniversary

haiti-001It is incongruous that the fifth anniversary of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, on Monday January 12, provided such a flurry of excitement and activity for me. I am just coming off the media blur. However, I was happy to participate in discussions about Haiti and voice a more positive perspective on our deserving neighbor than the media usually portrays.

Throughout January I will post all of the articles and interviews I did surrounding January 12. Today I want to thanks my friends at WBUR: Fred Thys, Kelly Horan, Anthony Brooks, Frannie Carr, and Mark Degon. Anthony interviewed me on Radio Boston and the station published the following essay on WBUR Cognoscenti, with an accompanying audio commentary.


On Shaky Ground: Haiti, Five Years Later

Five years ago today, January 12, 2010, a 7.0 earthquake shook Haiti. We’ll never know how many died; precise statistics are difficult in that imprecise country. The official toll is 316,000. Other estimates are smaller, yet still in six figures. The following month Chile experienced an 8.8 magnitude earthquake and 523 people died (USGS) – a count as precise as Chile’s stringent building codes. The comparative math from these two events is staggering: Chile’s earthquake was 60 times more powerful than Haiti’s, yet the Haiti suffered 500 times more deaths.

Three girlsI had visited Haiti the summer before the earthquake and fallen in love with the Magic Island’s casual charm. As an architect, I understood that shoddy building construction was responsible for most earthquake-related deaths. Haiti’s long tradition of concrete construction, excellent at supporting direct pressure but weak if pulled or shaken, exacerbated the tragedy. Concrete requires steel reinforcing to withstand forces from all directions, but since steel is expensive and building codes nonexistent in Haiti, underreinforced concrete crumbled when the earth shook. People were crushed.

My desire to contribute to Haiti’s reconstruction led me to design two buildings in Grand Goave, a town ten miles west of the epicenter. The Gengel family from Rutland, MA built an orphanage to honor their daughter who died in the earthquake; Mission of Hope, a Haitian-based organization with strong Massachusetts’ ties, built a new school. Boston-area engineers and craftsmen designed innovative earthquake-resistant structures and trained local Haitians how to make traditional concrete construction stronger. After a few more visits, Haiti infiltrated my psyche and by 2012 I left my stateside job to supervise construction and live there half-time.

120402 19 Bucket BrigadeEach day in Haiti was ripe with surprise, wonder, and frustration. Local women collected the stumps our excavation unearthed to make precious charcoal. We vied with other aid groups for scarce construction machinery. We built our own concrete block plant to cast stronger blocks. We mixed concrete by hand, in simple ratios of cement bags to buckets of sand and gravel. Concrete floor slabs, that might take eight guys and line of ready-mix trucks six hours to pour in Boston, required two hundred men working 40 hours straight, day and night. At six dollars a day, labor was cheap and plentiful, while materials were expensive and machinery rare.

120308 Rebar CarriersIt took Sisyphean effort to complete these buildings. The orphanage is a quarter mile up a hill so steep that trucks delivering reinforcing couldn’t climb the grade. Laborers carried over 100,000 pounds of steel uphill on their shoulders. I calculated over 1250 hours of brutal hauling. At a total cost us less than $1000 in wages.

The school and orphanage have been open for over a year. We envisioned them as prototypes of Haiti’s vernacular construction reinterpreted to withstand earthquakes. Unfortunately they proved too expensive to become a new standard. Before the quake, Haitian buildings cost about $25 per square foot. Post-earthquake inflation has doubled that price. Our engineered buildings cost even more – $75 per square foot. Compared to U.S. construction, this is cheap. But Haitians struggling to feed, clothe, and educate their children cannot justify buying sturdy two-dollar block from our factory when they can mix sand and gravel with a handful of cement and a bucket of water to form sun-dried units at half the cost. These inferior block crumble under the slightest pressure, but tomorrow’s earthquake is a distant rumble compared with today’s growling stomach.

DSC03287We created two sturdy buildings in Haiti, but like most philanthropic groups, we fell sort of the larger objective: helping Haiti become self-sufficient. Transforming a subsistence economy into a productive one requires incentives that reinforce each other to improve the overall quality of life. Everyone agrees that Haiti needs better education, more jobs, and transparent government. From my particular perspective, Haiti also needs to adopt – and enforce – building codes. Codes would require better construction materials and improve construction practices. The increased cost of higher standards would eventually be absorbed by an expanding economy. And many more children would be protected against the next earthquake than our school and orphanage can ever shelter.

121212 MoHI School with children





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5 Years after the Haiti Earthquake: 20 Visits & 10 Gifts Received

haiti-001Five years ago, an earthquake devastated Haiti. Hundreds of thousands of people died, though exact numbers are elusive in that imprecise country. International aid poured in. Some helped, much didn’t, despite First World hubris that we would ‘build back better’.


I leant my hand designing and building a school and orphanage in Grand Goave, ten miles west of the earthquake’s epicenter. I’ve been to Haiti twenty times. The buildings are finished and serving their community. Yet, on this anniversary of the tragic event, I am celebrating the resilience of the Haitian people and the incredible gifts they’ve given me. Treasures equally valuable what I offered them.

  1. The more you give, the more you get.

121212 MoHI School with childrenThe most valuable human experiences emerge come from exchanging wildly different things. Swapping apples for oranges is worthwhile, but exchanging apples for an exotic fruit is more satisfying. I was a middle-aged guy hankering for adventure and purpose; Haiti needed concrete and steel. What began from afar led to occasional visits, and eventually leaving my job to supervise construction. The more invested in Haiti, the greater satisfaction I received.

  1. Witness rather than judge.

DSCN2151Crowds assembled to watch local laborers and blan (Creole for foreigners) build portable shelters from 2×4’s and tarps post-earthquake. When the blan flew home, construction ceased. I couldn’t understand why, since the structures were easy to erect, better than tents, and manpower was plentiful. Until I realized that my idea of ‘better’ didn’t align with theirs. Life in Haiti was difficult before the earthquake and difficult after, albeit in different ways. I brought energy to build, they countered with a more valuable survival skill: resilience.


  1. ‘Be’ before you ‘Do.”

120308 ParadeUpon introduction, Americans often ask, “What do you do?” It’s an irrelevant question in a country where organized jobs are scarce and the concept of unemployment doesn’t exist. Haitians are bound by relationship rather than title. They aren’t defined by what they do, but who they are.


  1. Work for purpose above money.

MoHI ConcreteHaitians despise “the man”, whether French plantation owner, corrupt government, U.S. Marine or patriarchal aid organization. People seek money for basics and indulgences, as we do the world over, but pride as the world’s first black Republic trumps the money motivator. When I aligned our objectives, crews worked harder than any I’ve seen. When I got bossy, they turned lazy. Mere wages couldn’t make them toil.

  1. Cherish what’s useful in the moment.

DSCN1515I brought a carton of children’s books and placed it under a tree at the construction site. When a child read a book, he battled any who challenged his right of ownership. But once finished, he left it behind. I thought children with so little would crave something to own, but they saw no point in claiming possession of something no longer in use.

  1. Find depravation’s upside.

DSCN1048No lunch? Dinner will taste all the better. No lights? The stars are magnificent. No cement? We have an afternoon to swim. No gasoline? Walking home along the river is peaceful. I never met people who had so little, or laughed so much.



  1. Where death is commonplace, life is precious.

DSCN1891During 2012 I spent two weeks every month in Haiti. On every visit, someone died. The most tragic deaths were a mother and four children, smothered when their tent collapsed in a mudslide triggered by Hurricane Sandy. Most deaths were preventable through public health measures like clean water, sanitation, lifeguards or pre-natal care. Haitians mourned hard and loud, then stirred their spirits to resume lives never taken for granted.

  1. Magic thrives in a world governed by physics.

DSCN2182Haiti’s richness lies in its conflicting truths; eighty-five percent of Haitians are Catholic; ninety percent believe in Voodoo. We built heavy concrete structures with steel reinforcing to buck the tidal earth. Explaining the value of massive construction was difficult, almost heretical, to men seeped in the belief that earthquakes are messages from angry gods. Who are we to fortify ourselves against their wrath?

  1. Small boys tell big stories.

DSCN1308I met Dieunison on my second trip, when he adopted me and became my construction helper. Over the next four years his mother died, he lived with relatives, then strangers, got shuttled to Port-au-Prince, and escaped back to Grand Goave. When I decided to adopt Dieunison in return, my desire that he conform prompted the boy to run away. Only when I ceded the freedoms he demanded did Dieunison accept a sturdy roof, regular meals, and solid education. Dieunison wants the advantages the world can offer, but only on his terms.


  1. 10. Share a ball with the widest circle.

120304 BeachOne afternoon, swimming in the Bay of Gonave with another volunteer, a group of Haitian’s flagged us to join them. We jumped high and dove long, splashing and tossing their ball with the exuberance of American eight-year-olds. Yet we were ages 20 to 56, strangers all, except for our common love of a ball and the waves.


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Cambridge May be Cushy, but We’re Not Afraid of the Cold

usa-001The thermometer dropped below zero last night, and the City of Boston closed public schools today. Really? There’s no snow on the ground, little ice and the sun is bright.

One might have thought that the precious, coddled People’s Republic of Cambridge would stay inside by fiat when the mercury shrunk. But truth be told, Cambridge is a lot heartier than its fuzzy liberal image allows.

True, the DPW plows are out with the first flakes; they even slated the bike path on my way to yoga this morning. But in 14 years of my children attending Cambridge Schools, they rarely closed for weather, and were open for learning today.

imgresThere are other fascinating contradictions about living here. The city has a reputation for being Socialist, when it’s actually a hotbed of capitalism. All the start-ups. All that intellectual capital. There are more jobs in Cambridge than residents. What other city can boast that statistic?

As a result, our commercial tax base is phenomenal, and our residential property taxes only half to 2/3 of neighboring communities. Yet services in Cambridge range from excellent (all those plows) to exorbitant (Cambridge spends over $27,000 per student in our schools) to absurd (we have a full time Peace Commissioner and Smokey-bear outfitted ranger who patrols Fresh Pond).
imgres-2Cambridge takes itself too seriously and is prone to discuss everything too much. It takes days to determine the results of City Council elections due to our uniquely completed form of electoral government (proportional representation – good luck figuring that out). Yet, we have a long history of squeaky clean government. The city is simultaneously complicated and transparent.

imgres-1In short, although it’s not perfect, Cambridge is a city that other localities can only dream of becoming: an affluent place with a solid social safety net, distinctive schools, high paying jobs and moderate taxes. But all of our advantages don’t make us soft. We don’t close down just because it’s cold.


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