Let Pilobolus Build the New World Order

vitruvian_man-001I attended an incredible workshop this week; WBUR Cognoscenti published my thoughts about letting the improvisational dance group Pilobolus show the world how to lead, follow, and all get along.

Since Cognoscenti doesn’t pitch events, the awkward poser can recommend that you witness Pilobolus this weekend at the Citi Shubert Theater in Boston, hosted by Celebrity Series. It will be a memorable performance, and perhaps reveal new ways for us all to move together.


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Two Lookin’ Atcha

usa-001The refrigerator shelves were almost empty. My middle-aged brain couldn’t concoct a breakfast from leftover chili, half a dozen eggs, kidney beans, two day-old rice, diet Cherry Dr. Pepper, and a jar of strawberry jam. Until I realized the meager pickings held everything I needed to jump-start my day with a Denco Darlin’.

Denco’s Cafe anchored the corner of East Main and South Jones in Norman, Oklahoma for over 35 years. Rumor has it the original Darlin’s satisfied men’s cravings of a different sort in the upstairs rooms of the commercial block tight to the railroad tracks. But by 1972, when my high school buddies and I frequented Denco’s after a long night, Darlin’s were a legitimate menu item.

Main Street Norman swells to 100 feet wide where the street grid shifts to accommodate the crick in the Atchison Topeka and the Santa Fe tracks. The rest of town aligns with a compass grid and the University of Oklahoma campus. Forty years ago the grid shift separated downtown’s gun shops, pawn shops, and boot shops from the campus’ malt shops, head shops and fern bars. Working cowboys had no business near OU, and vice versa. Except late a night, when everybody showed up at Denco’s.

Neither laborers nor fraternity boys, we were oddball high schoolers better at math than football. We opted out of Norman High to attend University School, a pair of Word War II outbuildings on OU’s neglected North Campus; misfits in a town where football rules in the generation before Big Bang Theory made geeks cool. We didn’t drink or smoke much; still our heads nurtured a rebellious buzz. We grew our hair long, tried to grow beards, listened to American Pie, and played bridge ‘til dawn several nights a week. Around four in the morning, hungry and giddy, we drove through blinkered lights and angle-parked my parents’ Torino wagon between mud-caked pick-ups and flashy GTO’s.

imgresDenco’s was open twenty-four hours, though I don’t believe anyone frequented the place in daylight. Wee morning was prime time; daybreak men in working jeans cradled mugs of hot coffee, late-night partyers in paisley shirts nursed burgeoning hangovers. We found a booth and ordered our Darlin’s. The food was cheap. The air, laced with cigarette smoke and stale beer, was free.

A Denco Darlin’ with Two Looking Atcha came in a shallow metal plate, like a miner’s pan, filled with elbow macaroni, a ladle of chili, a handful of shredded cheddar, and two sunny-side eggs. The food was piled high but never overspilled the edge. Grease held the assembly in place. One morning I tried to extract a unique noodle from my meal without success and therein grasped the principle of covalent bonding.

Just before swallowing the last of my chili and slurping my Coke I realized that sleep had slipped off my agenda. I’d motor straight through to my 11 a.m. shift at Safeway. Sacking groceries for eight hours on no sleep wasn’t fun, but it wasn’t hard either. My buddy Mark’s eyes were half-closed; he was expert at sleeping through the day. Larry was wide-eyed as me. Konrad, our quartet’s philosopher, retained an inscrutable look. He extracted a toothpick from the jar on the table, inserted it along his upper gum and pronounced, “My teeth feel like they’re wearing sweaters.”

Denco’s closed a few years after we graduated from high school. Attempts to recreate Denco’s have failed. The streets of downtown Norman still run at an odd angle, but these days that’s the only thing unique about them. There’s not much cow town left. Denco’s is a law office.

University School closed in 1973; my graduating class was the last. I’m Facebook friends with my high school pals, but only Konrad stills lives in Norman. We went on to college, then graduate school. Two of us became physicians. We married, raised children. Two of us divorced. The renegade spirit that led us to Denco’s proved more rebellious in our imaginations than in our deeds.

Back to my refrigerator circa 2014. Although I was missing two key ingredients for an original Denco Darlin’ – no noodles, no cheese – I could toss together a reasonable facsimile. Instead of eating nutritionally appropriate poacheIMG_0574d eggs on dry toast, I got out the skillet, poured too much oil in the bottom, scooped in chili, beans, and rice, and mixed it with a spatula. On a separate burner I greased the griddle and fried two sunny-side. When the whites bubbled, I glided the eggs over the chili. Two bright yolks shimmered atop the oily stew. The entire mass slid onto my plate. I ate it up fast.

Fried food is like memory; its distinct flavor has a short half-life. I sopped up the last of the grease with bread. It tasted as good as I remembered, though I couldn’t feel sweaters on my teeth. Some insights are only available to young men who’ve been up all night.

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Architecture by Moonlight

haiti-001Architecture by Moonlight: Rebuilding Haiti, Redrafting a Life, is available through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and University of Missouri Press.

Please join me at an author event around Boston, and attend a remembrance at the Cambridge Public Library on January 12, 2015 – the fifth anniversary of the earthquake.

Check www.paulefallon.com for updates and additions to book events.


Boston Area Events for Architecture by Moonlight – November 2014

ProductImageHandlerWednesday November 5, 2014  7:00 p.m.  New England Mobile Book Fair  82 Needham Street Newton Highlands, MA

Sunday November 9, 2014  3:00 p.m. Book Ends Winchester 559 Main Street Winchester, MA

Friday November 14, 2014 3:00 p.m.  Harvard Book Store  1256 Massachusetts Ave Cambridge, MA

Tuesday November 18, 2014 7:30 p.m. Interview on NewTV by BJ Krintzman  Comcast Ch. 10, RCN Ch. 15, Verizon Ch. 34

Friday November 21, 2014 7:00 p.m. Calumus Bookstore 92 South Street Boston, MA 02111   Reading with LGBT community focus

Boston Area Events for Architecture by Moonlight - January 2015

Thursday January 8, 2015  7:00 p.m.  Porter Square Books  25 White Street Cambridge, MA

Monday January 12, 2015 6:30 p.m. Cambridge Public Library 449 Broadway Cambridge, MA  Reading and remembrance to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the Haiti Earthquake

Tuesday January 13, 2014  7:00 p.m. Trident Booksellers & Cafe 338 Newbury Street Boston, MA




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Frivolous Intentions

awkward_pose_3-001I’ve been practicing CorePower Yoga for a year now, which means a year’s worth of Intention. Making an Intention in yoga class was new to me. At first it felt forced. Then I got into the spirit of Intention and began identifying people who could use a bit of extra energy. Neighbors suffering from illness, folks struggling with life decisions, friends who could use an extra boost – people I would pray for if I believed in prayer. Sometimes I conjured cosmic, Buddhist sort of Intentions like world peace and universal wisdom. Rarely I sent my Intention inward to myself; a sure sign that I was troubled.

Some teachers suggest Intentions. They ad lib a few palliative words or read an inspiring quote. They have good – intention – though their suggestions never align with my own headspace.

imagesA few weeks ago, when nothing seemed particularly better or worse in the world or my position in it, Intention came up fast during yoga sculpt and I had nothing in mind. Have fun! Rang through my head. What? I did a mental double take. That is no kind of Intention. It’s silly and ephemeral. But nothing significant would occupy my head, so, Have fun! it was.

When we were in an extended high plank and the teacher invoked our Intention to spur us on, I smiled. When she commanded that our Intention bring us through hamstring curls the fact that I wasn’t having fun – yet – made me laugh. When she brought us back to our Intention during savasana I decided that the prospect of having fun had energized my yoga that day.

images-1Since then, frivolous Intentions have become commonplace. Some days my Intention is to have fun; other days its to dance, have more sex, or party. My yoga is more carefree, buoyant. Perhaps someday my Intentions will address the world’s major ills directly. For now I enjoy musing about song and dance and having fun. Which may do more for me – and the world – than any somber Intention.

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Old Schwamb Mill

usa-001Veer off of Mass Ave onto Lowell Street in Arlington, take the first right on Mill Lane, walk a hundred yards and step back 150 years. That’s when  Old Schwamb Mill, custom oval frame manufactory began creating the most beautiful picture frames in the world, and where the original equipment still operates in its Civil War era building. My friend Bob and I happened by last Tuesday and enjoyed one of the most memorable tours of my life.

At one time seven mills operated along the Mill Brook, which originates in Arlington’s Great Meadow and parallels Massachusetts Avenue through Arlington Heights, Arlington Center, and East Arlington, before joining the Mystic River. These days, most of the mills are remembered only by the names of bulky condominium buildings, but the Old Schwamb Mill was saved from the wrecker’s ball and was listed on the National Register of Historic places in 1971. Today, it is a working museum, open to the public two days a week.

IMG_0971The Schwamb Mill has made oval picture frames – frames that now hang in the White House and Buckingham Palace – since 1864. It’s hard to know which is more impressive, the four rotating frame jigs that allow a craftsman to create beautiful molding profiles in perfect ellipses of any axial proportion, or Dave, the keeper of the mill for the past fifteen years who dropped everything he was doing to give us a leisurely tour.

IMG_0972The wood frame building is little changed since the Civil War. The rough floorboards, exposed columns and beams, though well maintained, have never been updated. The dark interior, highlighted by sharp light through six-over-six pane windows, is full of workbenches, profile templates, molding samples and well-worn hand tools. Along the south wall, where the natural light is strongest, three frame jigs are permanently bolted to the floors, ceilings, and walls, with cast iron supports. Belt and pulley systems turn the jigs. They were originally driven by water, then steam, and only recently by NStar.

Dave explains how the oval frame jigs work. The pulleys rotate a huge axle, maybe 10” in diameter, that spin a wide, flat plate. Two other iron plates are attached to this, at right angles to each other. They can be held at a fixed distance from each other yet slide independent of the main element. A large slab of wood is fixed to the outermost plate. When the main axle turns, the inner plate spins in a circle, but the outer plate, and the wood attached to it, spins in an ellipse, with the major and minor axes determined by the distance fixed between the two sliding plates. It’s ingenious and durable; the machines are more than a century old.

Oval picture fraIMG_0966mes are made from four pieces of hardwood, each one-quarter oval, that are rough cut into thick arcs but have precise finger joints. This rudimentary shape is back screwed to the jig. A heavy iron stand sits to the left of each jig, at the single precise height that is perpendicular to the frame at every point of the ellipse’s irregular turn. Dave pulls an overhead wooden lever the size of a paddle. The belts roll, the plates spin, the wood base and rough frame rotate in what appears to be a wobbly motion, but that movement is precise at the location of the chisel stand. Dave takes a chisel, and with steady hand lays it atop the stand. He gouges a clean, crisp line along the spinning oval.

IMG_0968It takes about eight hours to make a frame: two hours to cut the four pieces of hardwood into a rough oval and finger-joint glue the edges; an hour to set up the jig once the glue is dry; two to three hours to shape and sand; a final hour for an oil finish. Old Schwamb Mill sends frames out that require gilding and other custom finishes.



We piqued Dave’s interest with enough questions that he invited us downstairs to see the big daddy jig – capable of spinning an oval frame with up to three feet of difference between the mIMG_0969ajor and minor axes. Screwed to the template was the largest frame Dave’s ever made – a six foot by four foot oval commissioned by the Harvard Museums. He’d already finished and delivered one; the second was in the final stages of chiseling before final sanding. The size of the walnut frame presented numerous challenges. It had to be built out of eight pieces rather than four, the jig needed additional reinforcing because the template was so big it racked as it swept through a full twelve inch variation in each direction. (The sliding plate offset is one-half the total difference in the axes; a two-foot differential requires the jig be set with a one-foot space in each half-rotation). The mammoth frame is an incredible piece of craftsmanship.

The Old IMG_0970Schwamb Mill builds about thirty custom oval frames a year, a tiny percentage of what they made when the mill employed more than twenty people in the 1870’s. An oval frame online costs about $40; one from Old Schwamb can cost ten times that. But the point of buying an Old Schwamb oval frame is not to just to encase a photo, but to own a piece of handcrafted history.

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Revere’s Ride

vitruvian_man-001I wanted a gift to give my daughter’s Peace Corps host family. I suggested food, maybe chocolate. Abby nixed that idea. She explained via email that chocolate was unknown in her Cambodian village. How about something from Boston, she suggested, maybe a calendar? A Boston gift felt right, but a calendar seemed paltry. I considered a coffee table book or Red Sox jerseys before deciding on a Revere Bowl, that functional, graceful, and historic Beantown classic.

I had never been to Shreve Crump & Low. The tuxedoed doorman greeted my bicycle pants and reflective vest like I was wearing Burberry; the elegant saleswomen smiled at my bicycle pannier as if it were Louis Vuitton. I chose the 8” diameter bowl; I figured it would fit in the plane’s overhead. Visions of presenting this finely crafted piece of our culture to the family sheltering my daughter for two years ran though my head while the saleswoman stepped away. When she returned with an immense silver box with wide ribbon and bow, I realized I’d need a checked bag.

In Phnom Penh, I gave Abby soap, candy bars, novels, and granola; American basics that Peace Corps volunteers crave. Her eyes arched at the silver box. She slipped off the ribbon. Oh, Dad. I know you meant well, but we can’t give this to my family. I didn’t understand why but acquiesced to her cultural sensitivity. We forsook an afternoon at the National Museum to find a more appropriate gift and settled on a World Atlas. Cambodia and the United States bound between hardcovers.

We wanted the atlas wrapped. A petit woman laid a generous sheet of gold paper on the counter. She cut the sheet, trimmed it again, and again. I grew more nervous with each reduction. When the remains were scant millimeters larger than the book itself, she started to tape the wrapping directly to the cover’s satellite photograph of earth. No! I reached out to stop her from obliterating the Philippines. Abby, in perfect Khmer, explained that we did not want the paper taped directly to the gift. The woman shrugged. She made tiny folds and sealed them with bits of tape until the book was covered in gold, just barely. She snipped two pieces of thin blue ribbon and taped a cross on the front of the box. After ten minutes of frugal wrapping the woman brought forth a wide chunk of garish ribbon, pulled a hidden string and it blossomed into a gigantic bow that concealed the entire mess.

TIMG_0134he next afternoon, Abby’s Cambodian family reversed the process. We sat around a wooden table, shaded by the sleeping rooms above. They unpeeled each snippet of tape and smoothed each paper fold with agonizing precision. When they finally exposed the book, Philippines intact, we traced our fingers over each page and scrutinized every image with equal interest, Index included. The map of Cambodia held no more interest than any other. For some reason we lingered long in Paraguay.

Meanwhile the Revere Bowl lay inside its box, zipped inside my duffle, ungiven. Abby was right. There’s no place for a pewter bowl in a traditional Cambodian house. The raised sleeping spaces are private and sacrosanct; public spaces are open to the elements.

We stashed the bulky silver box in the baggage hold of our bus to Battambang. We carried it on the boat to Siem Reap, and the tuk-tuk to rural Bakong. Then we retraced our route. I gave Abby a roadside hug when the bus stopped in her village and then continued with my bowl to Phnom Penh. I checked the silver box at the airport.

IMG_0482Three flights, thirty hours, a pair of customs lines, two subway rides, one bus, and a four-block walk later, I unpacked. The Shreve box was skewed and cracked, the ribbon frayed. Three security search tags nestled inside the Revere Bowl.

My elegant gift survived its 20,000-mile journey in perfect shape. I could return it; I don’t need a Revere Bowl. But it’s become a souvenir; its function is irrelevant. It looks lovely on my piano.



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Glazed Tile Madeleine

usa-001Marcel Proust took one of the most famous bites in the world, gnashing into a delectable madeleine, and thus triggered Remembrances of Things Past. Last night I experienced a similar deja vu, though, being an architect rather than a foodie, my memories were tripped by a glazed tile floor.

I was at Harvard’s Memorial Chapel to hear Nicolas Kristof speak about how to save the world. I knew such an undertaking would require an empty bladder, so I descended into the men’s room before hand. I pushed open the door and confronted a tile floor; white with small blue squares, in a distinctive pattern I had seen before. Actually, a pattern I had drawn before, and supervised its installation in a house renovation in 1990; the very first commission of my solo firm.

IMG_0957The project included much more than an eccentric tile floor. There was a new kitchen, family room addition, study addition, wine cellar and extensive landscaping. The building and landscaping were so well integrated the house was written up in The Boston Globe. When finished, the original 1942 cottage had almost doubled in size and the entertainment-minded couple who lived there could sit 24 for dinner.

But turning a gracious per-war house into a 90’s showcase couldn’t stave off the wrecking ball that swings through Boston’s upscale suburbs like a pendulum of economic privilege. The house was demolished in the early 2000’s to make way for a 7,700 square foot, five bedroom, seven bath manse that presses against its .57 acre lot with the same discomfort as a rich cookie that bloats one’s stomach after a sumptuous meal.

Everything I created is gone. All that remains are the fragments of memory triggered by other spaces, other rooms.

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