Loving Bookish Seattle Even Before I Arrive

usa-001People buy more books, per capita, in Seattle than anywhere in the United States – one and half times the national average. Although I cannot vouch that they actually read more (since they’re also busy spending more than twice the national average on pinball and video games), I can attest to the warm embrace they give writer’s, even East Coast guys they don’t know.

I am flying out (weather permitting in snowy Boston) to visit my niece and her boys, so decided to contact Seattle’s independent bookstores. Hooray for Elliott Bay Book Company, who scheduled an event for me (February 5, 2015 at 7:00 p.m. if you happen to be in town). I decided to help promotion. The Seattle affiliates of the American Institute of Architects, Architects without Borders and Architects for Humanity all agreed to announce my reading on their calendars. I also sent an opinion piece to The Seattle Times, which they published on January 12, 2015. Perhaps they liked the piece so much because it happens to be about books.

Regardless, I’m looking forward to visit a part of the country I’ve never seen and soak in life among book lovers.

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Exterior

Seattle Public Library

Architect: Rem Koolhaus

 

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Interior

Seattle Public Library

Architect: Rem Koolhaus

 

 

 

 

A Lesson from Haiti’s Forgotten Children

Seattle Times, January 12, 2015

I brought a carton of books to children in Haiti, but they didn’t accept them as I expected. This was back in January 2011, when we were excavating a hillside for Be Like Brit, the orphanage I designed after the 2010 earthquake. As an architect, I understood that the earthquake’s gruesome toll was largely due to shoddy construction and I wanted to lend a hand in reconstruction. Haiti’s exotic history and tragic present was infiltrating my psyche. But I couldn’t know then how Haiti would change my life. Over three years I returned to the Magic Island nineteen times. Eventually, I left my job to supervise construction of the orphanage as well as a school. I penned so many vignettes of this beguiling land that they evolved into a memoir.

My niece and her three boys collected the books I carried to Grand Goave, ten miles west of the earthquake’s epicenter. It was my fourth visit. Time enough to embrace Haiti’s charms and accepting nature. Time enough for a young Haitian to ‘adopt’ me as his blan. Time enough to realize that extreme poverty did not equate with extreme despair. Yet not enough time to fathom the nuanced differences between American culture and our resilient neighbor.

I designed the orphanage for the Gengel family from Rutland, MA, a building to honor their daughter Britney, who died in the earthquake during a service trip to Haiti. We were keen to start excavating the foundation before the quake’s first anniversary, but Haiti-style delays stymied progress. We had to negotiate the site limits with abutters and then stake the road’s path with neighbors. The backhoe we rented from Port-au-Prince was delivered to a different aid group; they claimed it as manna from the heavens. When the machine finally chugged up our hill, more than a week late, I hoisted the books alongside. Construction in Haiti always attracts an audience. I planned to give Goodnight Moon, No Place for Elephants, and Harry the Dirty Dog to children who came to watch us scrape and level dirt.

I gave directions in broad gestures and mangled Creole to the backhoe operator who wore a wool skullcap despite the heat. A quartet of women scurried across the site to snatch roots the bulldozer uncovered; the basic ingredient of charcoal. Wannabe day laborers lounged in a circle; we hired two at $4 a day to hand dig the latrine pit. With construction underway as orderly as Haiti allows, I corralled the dozen or so children under a straggly tree and distributed the books.

I reserved Ferdinand the Bull for Dieunison, the eight-year-old boy who shadowed me every day. Dieunison was a conniving rascal yet useful helper: ever ready to hold the end of a tape measure when I needed a length. One day he’d wear a starched white shirt and stiff pants, the next day rags. He said his mother lived “over there” with a nod toward town, but I never saw her. He was clever and strong, lazy and endearing. To me, all the promise and peril of nine million Haitians were concentrated into his 70 pounds of unpredictable energy.

When we finished Ferdinand I indicated it was Dieunison’s to keep. The boy looked at me in comprehension, and then set it on the pile under the tree. All day long, children looked at the books, but didn’t take any.

Our excavation grew deeper; our book pile remained tall. A child sat cross-legged on the dirt with a volume, pointed out letters and studied pictures. If another child elbowed in, kicking, clawing and screaming ensued. But once finished, he returned the book to the pile.

I thought children with so little would crave possessions, but their interest in the books extended only so far as actually using one. Perhaps they had no place to keep a personal belonging. Owning something can be more burden than pleasure to children who lack their own room, or bed, or even pockets.

After a week our excavation was complete. On the last afternoon I placed a book in each child’s hand and they ran off. In fifteen subsequent visits to Grand Goave, through sweat-soaked days of digging and moonlit nights of concrete, I never laid eyes on those books again.

I don’t ascribe nobility to their disinterest in material possession. But like so many experiences in Haiti, great and small, I appreciated the altered perspective the children gave me. There’s a logical simplicity to claiming something during use, without assuming the burden of ownership.

 

 

 

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Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1,2,3): Reminiscent of Another Iconic Drama

usa-001As I took my seat after Intermission at ART’s production of Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1,2,3), I was struck that Suzan-Lori Parks’ historical drama is first cousin to another epic of another disenfranchised group in another era: Angels in America. The two plays share structural similarities. Both spread out over multiple performances, though Ms. Parks’ next installment, (Parts 4,5,6…) is still gestating. Both utilize the same actors in multiple roles to highlight dichotomies of human nature. The runaway slaves in Part 3 are more poignant having been the plantation slaves in Part 1. Both make individual stories universal through telling them as fables. The actors front the audience; they even refer to us. Dialogue bounces between members of the aptly named chorus without the pretense of actual conversation. Ms. Parks tells a mammoth tale from the perspective of the least significant, yet most affected, participants.

imagesFather Comes Home from the Wars’ connection to Homers’ The Odyssey is more direct than its analogy to Angels in America, but once the link to Tony Kushner’s play lodged in my head, the more satisfying it became.   Hero, Ms. Park’s main character, is a flawed hero, if he’s hero at all. His charisma instills more devotion from those around him than his actions. In that way he’s related to Prior Walter, another imperfect leading man. Each play relies on an omniscient external force to relay its truth, though its telling that an angel delivers the message to the world of gay men, while a dog delivers it to the world of slaves.

The two plays also share a pattern of reporting action occurring elsewhere. At first I was annoyed by Ms. Parks’ tendency to tell rather than show, just as Angels keeps us cooped up in Prior’s bedroom. Until I realized that was the point – we don’t need to see the Main House or the actual battle to understand that the events shaping these slaves’ lives are outside their direct control, just as Prior is incapable of controlling his disease.

images-2Perhaps the most satisfying analogy is that both Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1,2,3) and Angels in America are so well written. Tony Kushner’s subtitle, A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, would have been pompous except that it’s true. One dying man’s rants reveal a disturbingly wide spectrum of human behavior, while Ms. Parks covers a comparable range of insight from a shanty porch.

I can’t applaud very aspect of ART’s production. The set is innocuous; too literal to spark imagination, too stark to add drama. The raked walkway without beginning or end that occupies upstage is lifted straight out of The Color Purple but is less well executed. ART’s renown for flawless execution fall short, particularly when spots fail to pick up Steven Bargonetti’s amazing guitar and banjo picking song interludes that bridge transitions. Benton Greene is adequate as Hero, but less engaging than his supporting players. This is especially true in Part 3 when, after Jacob Ming-Trent’s phenomenal bit as Odyssey Dog, the play falls flat for several minutes. After writing such a loving, comic, thoughtful canine monologue, which is performed to maximum effect, even Ms. Parks must accept that it’s impossible to follow a great animal act.

imgresimages-1These shortcomings are mere quibbles compared to the power of Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1,2,3). For the lights, sets, music, and actors all exist in service to the language, and the language is three hours of the most thoughtful poetry to ever grace a stage.

Walking home from the theater, I considered how Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1,2,3) does for African-Americans what Angels in America did for gays. Until I realized that was wrong. Angels in America did not catapult the consciousness of gay men, their consciousness was already set. The power of Tony Kuscher’s play was to force that consciousness onto the rest of our culture. I imagine that African-Americans already understand the rage, the futility, the compromises their ancestors made to exist, and thrive, under slavery. Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1,2,3) doesn’t need to raise that consciousness. Instead, at a time when questions of race and equality are as raw and relevant as ever, Suzan-Lori Parks deepens slavery’s pain for the rest of us. We cannot participate in this play and then look away.

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Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1,2,3) plays at ART through March 1, 2015.

 

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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.

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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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