I Hate This Ad

usa-001I opened the cover of this Sunday’s New York Times Magazine and there she was – again. A young woman in casual clothes holding a cup of coffee, her hand pressed against an expanse of floor-to-ceiling glass, overlooking the sea. The water is the silky blue of the Pacific, the ocean of the future, rather than the murky grey Atlantic, which looks back to Europe and the past. She stands alone, in an opulently sterile house with a wild skin rug and a single chair that speaks of art more than life.

She strikes a three-quarter pose; we can’t quite see her face. She is so independent she ignores even us, the creatures she’s trying to entice. We are supposed to imagine her face could be ours, the view could be ours, the money she has to live in such exclusive seclusion could be ours; because BNY Mellon does such a bang-up job managing her assets. If we had enough assets to require management, we would be wise to seek out BNY Mellon. Then we could be like her.

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What a horrible thought. That the point of being rich is to live, by ourselves, in a place with a distant view, of no one, with a an elaborate rug that confirms our domination over the natural world, and a single chair because we don’t even welcome other human company.

I’ve always lived with others, and always appreciated that the trials of getting along with them are the stuff of life. Not always fun, but always real. The idea that the perfect life is one of complete independence from others is not just an illusion: it is wrong. Humans are social creatures. We need each other. And though I fully embrace Virginia Woolf’s search for a room of one’s own, the idea that we should crave a complete environment incapable of accommodating another human being espouses a socially and biologically corrupt level of independence.

Don’t hire BNY Mellon to manage your wealth.Don’t crave a solitary perch with a view of nothing. Don’t support the idea that objective of life is to disconnect yourself from the other 6 billion people on the planet.

Let’s mix it up with our families, neighbors and friends, spread our wealth around, and share our humanity.

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Happy New Year

vitruvian_man-001I guess 2015 is going to be the year of finding beauty in unlikely places.  After cleaning up from a terrific New Year’s eve party, I opened the dishwasher to discover that plastic wine glasses suffer from the heat.  But they are tantalizing in the winter sunlight.

I hope you find beauty in everything this year.

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Cooking Lessons

vitruvian_man-001It is a truth universally acknowledged that I am a single man in possession of a good fortune who wants for nothing. Like many eighteenth century characters my fortune is measured in income rather than wages. Although I don’t possess an estate worthy of Mr. Darcy, the drafty four-family house I purchased over twenty years ago suits me well. At the time, everyone snickered at my white elephant boarding house. Now they envy the economic independence it affords. I have good health, good friends, wonderful children, a debonair housemate, and ample time to explore my interests. Yet despite Jane Austen’s authority on such matters, I am not in want of a wife. Or even a husband. I assume my debt to society for such undeserved largesse is to acknowledge my gratitude and offer my hand to those with less benevolent luck. Nevertheless, my circumstances continue to improve.

IMG_1061Among the perks that fell my way without strategy or calculation is my housemate, also named Paul. He’s a good cook, incapable of making small portions, and allergic to leftovers. As someone who refuels rather than dines, I was accustomed to pots of rice and beans that lasted for days. Now, as Paul’s bottom feeder, I eat like a prince. I consume only refrigerator items over 24 hours old, yet a typical day might include leftover sirloin tips with an onion and mushroom tapenade for breakfast; chicken with homemade biscuits and fresh peas at lunch; lemon haddock with rice pilaf for dinner.

Paul not only cooks huge quantities, he also buys more than he eats. If he fancies an éclair, he purchases a package of five and eats one. You know who gets the rest. When he orders a pizza he savors two slices, maybe three. The majority of the pie goes to me.

Recently, my bounty blossomed even further: Paul took cooking classes. This was akin to James Joyce enrolling in a Grub Street workshop, but the results of Paul’s embellished craft only mean more, better, food for me.

IMG_1114Week one was knife skills. Paul came home with a Mercer Rule. In the days before computer drafting, architects called it a template; I had dozens to guide drawing circles, toilets, and chairs. Paul’s indicates the precise size of Julienne versus Batonette, small dice versus Brunoise. For the next week our food was chopped so fine I scarcely needed teeth. Of course, all of our knives were deemed unconscionably dull and got professionally sharpened.

Week two was eggs. Everything got beat light and fluffy.

IMG_1082Providentially, the week before Thanksgiving was stews and stocks. I’ve been cooking Thanksgiving for twenty years, and have mastered the sequence of roasting turkey, carving, eating, stripping leftovers, boiling carcass, and making turkey barley soup from the leftovers. That tradition was crushed by Paul’s enthusiasm for making stock. He confiscated the carcass, which got boiled on Friday, then strained, chilled, fat removed, and reduced. Actual soup didn’t appear until Saturday. Yes, it was better than mime, but perhaps only because we had to wait so long.

Week four was slow cooked meats. Week five was white sauces. Paul’s repertoire grew complex. Our diet grew heavy. When Paul asked, “Will you be needing the kitchen tomorrow afternoon?” I stayed in my office and enjoyed the vapors wafting up the stairs. He only asks from politeness, for although the deed proclaims this as my house, the kitchen now belongs to Paul. New gizmos arrive daily. He brandished something called a potato ricer. I thought rice and potatoes came from opposite corners of the world.

IMG_1118Sometimes, I miss my kitchen and the peasant fare I used to boil there. When Paul traveled over Christmas I considered making crock-pot beans and cornbread. But the refrigerator was crammed with more elaborate goodies. So I sautéed shitake and chanterelle mushrooms in remnant stock, folded in chicken liver pate and poured it over garlic croutons. It was delicious, but left me feeling disconnected with my fellow man.

After another multiple day round preparing more stock, more soup, Paul said, “Tell me when you want some soup and I’ll compose it.” What is he, Beethoven?

IMG_0884An important part of our chef / bottom feeder game is that it occurs without comment. I pride myself as expert in guessing what’s beyond Paul’s due date and pass on anything Paul might still eat. I would never task him to heat – excuse me, compose – soup for me. He realized that later. “Since we don’t eat at the same time, I made portions you can heat up any time.”

I waited a day, then heated up a lingering bowl of fresh squash soup with burnt pumpkin seeds and slow cooked sausage. I may want for nothing in life, but that soup was so delicious I savored some more.

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One Hundred Years Ago Tonight

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A poem by my friend, Bertrand Fay:

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My name is John Wiggand

My mates, good lads all, call me Wiggers

Countrymen, my fam’ly for generations

Know the woods and fields of Hertfordshire

My Ma is gone. My Da alive, back home

Yes, and sweet Sarah, ‘less I was born t be a ghost,

She’ll be my missus when this war is done.

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I joined up, like most, as soon as we declared

Pro Patria runs deep in me.

I know my gun, the bayonet blade, how cold steel is

So far these thirty days it’s muck and mud

That’s what it is, this bloody trench.

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We’ll not be home for Christmas

Though they said this somber night is Christmas Eve

Anno Domini ‘14

Not what you’d call a midnight clear

Just a star or two shining down on No Man’s Land

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And I don’t know, I might be hearing things

But across the frosted barrens a low sound comes

Like nothing you’d expect to hear.

A thrum, at first, then growing into a melody

And words, German words, Stille, heilige

Unmistakable, the tune from our side

Lad’s voices lofted on the frigid air

Silent night, holy night

And in my heart, amazement takes the place of fear

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In the hush a wee, faint light

Another and another until I lose count

Rising ‘bove the breastwork of the Boches’ dugout opposite

As if suspended in the atmosphere a hearty glow

‘Tis then I see so many candles flick’ring on an evergreen

Tannenbaum, the Christmas tree

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It draws us Tommies, man by man

We mount the berm, climb out from the trench

And soon sworn enemies here on the Western Front

Yet each a son away from home

Are gathered in the snowfall, smiling

Absurdly at first, then shaking hands

Clapping shoulders, exchanging what we have to share

Tobacco, oranges, a flask of schnapps

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My harmonica, I take it from the pocket of my greatcoat

A German chap who says, in English, that his name is Franz

Is fingering a mandolin

Together we play, not quite in tune

Bach’s Jesu Joy, Bleibit meaine Freude

When we finish Franz says Wiggers, das war gut

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Someone has a soccerball, starts a game and in the dark

We are again what we all are

Boys

Who ne’ertheless this wondrous night

Own a world where nothing seems wrong

The Great War, just begun

A Christmas truce, heav’nly peace

Midnight to dawn at first light

Strife and sorrow, more to come

But what we had ‘twas not a dream

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Architecture by Moonlight – Reading Group Guide

haiti-001Here is a Reading Group Guide for Book Clubs who are reading Architecture by Moonlight.  Enjoy!

 

 

          

ProductImageHandlerReading Group Guide for

Architecture by Moonlight:

Rebuilding Haiti, Redrafting a Life

By Paul E. Fallon

Overview

Architecture by Moonlight chronicles author Paul E. Fallon’s journeys to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake to design and supervise construction of the Mission of Hope school and Be Like Brit orphanage. The rudimentary tasks of building in a developing country provide the context for a deeper exploration of this beguiling land, so different from the United States, yet rooted in our shared history as the Western Hemisphere’s two oldest republics.

The book reveals Paul’s personal story of balancing contradictory demands. The Gengel’s, a boisterous American family, seek to construct a memorial for their deceased daughter. Lex and Renee Edme run Mission of Hope, but their evangelical missionaries are sometimes more interested in saving souls than filling bellies or educating minds. Tradition-bound construction workers are more comfortable with magic than the physics of earthquake-resistant construction. The soul of the narrative belongs to Dieunison, a wily Haitian orphan who captures Paul’s heart and exemplifies both Haiti’s tragedy and its indomitable spirit.

From the simple yet sturdy buildings that Paul conceives, Architecture by Moonlight posits larger questions about our individual and collective response to tragedy, the act of construction as a path through grief, the benefits and pitfalls of philanthropy, and the shortcomings of international aid. By the time the two projects are complete, he envisions Haiti, unhinged from outside directives, mapping its own future.

Architecture by Moonlight is the eloquent tale of “an ensemble of incomplete people struggling in a land of great trial and great promise, trying to better understand their place on Earth.” Paul reveals how, when seemingly different people come together, we succeed by seeking our commonality. Therein lies the strength we need to rise above disaster and celebrate recovery, perseverance, and humanity.

Discussion Questions

  1. One out of every 40 Haitians died in the earthquake; an equal number were wounded; and one in six of the survivors were homeless. Americans believe our infrastructure and technology will protect us from such a catastrophe (as it did in Chile’s February 2010 earthquake). Yet the damage inflicted by Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy were much worse than we anticipated. Can you envision a natural disaster of that scale occurring in the U.S? Would we cope better or worse than Haitians did?
  1. Do you think Dieunison, the boy who ‘adopts’ Paul as his blan, exemplifies both Haiti’s problems and its promise? Which of his characteristics can be extrapolated to Haiti’s larger society? What aspects of Haitian culture does the book describe which Dieunison does not represent?
  1. Paul states, “When it comes to acknowledging feelings, I am as opaque as any guy.” (page 4). At what point in the book did he move from having a vague tug toward Haiti to understanding his reason and purpose for being there?
  1. When Paul brings a carton of children’s books to the construction site, he notices, “If a child picks up a book, his right of use is fiercely guarded, and a clawing fight breaks out if another child tries to snatch it. But once finished, the books returns to the pile, available to whoever might want it next.” (page 34). Why do the Haitian children have such a casual sense of ownership? Is it a desirable trait that fosters sharing, or reflect a lack of respect for valuable possessions? Would their attitude be different toward objects of greater immediate value, like sneakers or cellphones?
  1. Paul comments on the simplicity and directness of Haitian Creole (page 110), a language with a limited vocabulary and no tenses, while English contains more vocabulary than any language in the world. What are the advantages and limitations of having a language or unlimited vocabulary versus one of few words?
  1. How would Paul’s working relationships with Lex, Renee, and Len have changed if they knew his personal feelings for Lex? Should he have been more forthcoming in sharing those feelings?
  1. Do you agree with Renee Edme’s statement, “Haiti is a country of teenagers?” Is that a positive or disparaging remark?
  1. After Nightline visits the orphanage site, Paul reflects, “…we have all been willing fools in the dream machine.” (page 117). Does Nightline provide positive value? How could the segment be reframed to more accurately portray the project?
  1. Paul interprets Len Gengel’s statement, “Cherylann and I have given the most anyone could to Haiti, and that’s our only daughter” (page 157) as an attempt to reframe Britney’s death to provide Len some control over it. How do you interpret Len Gengel’s statement?
  1. Paul does not believe in pure altruism; he purports that every good deed is motivated by some self-interest, however defined. He is often frustrated by the Evangelical missionaries’ conversion agendas. But how different are their actions from the personal agendas that the Gengel’s, and even Paul, bring to Haiti?
  1. Do you agree with Paul’s statement on page 120: “I don’t really believe humans seek peace and light, or we would make more of it on this earth.”?
  1. Are W.B. Seabrook’s words, written in the 1920’s, “…our attitude now in Haiti is superior, but kindly” (page 161) still applicable? Is it an appropriate attitude? If not, how should we consider our Haitian neighbors?
  1. There have been many commentaries about whether the international aid that flowed into Haiti after the 2010 earthquake was appropriate or effective. The book raises these issues in only a tangential way. (“All this aid is making someone rich.” page 163). Is this story enhanced or compromised by remaining apart from the details of politics and policy?
  1. Architecture by Moonlight does not provide a blueprint for how to improve Haiti. It extrapolates from two specific projects to suggest broad approaches to enhancing Haiti’s participation in the 21st century. Would the book be more successful by offering more concrete suggestions? Does reading this book give you have specific ideas of how Haitians could improve their conditions?

Author Biography

Paul E. Fallon is an architect whose career focused on design of hospitals and medical institutions. Architecture by Moonlight, a memoir of reconstruction in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, addresses design and construction at a more intimate scale. The book evolved from blog posts (www.theawkwardpose.com) written as a means to comprehend his experience on the Magic Island. Paul has written for The Boston Globe Magazine and Christian Science Monitor and is a regular contributor to WBUR Cognoscenti. He is an MIT alumnus, father of two grown children, and lives in Cambridge, MA.

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30,000 Years Lost, 20 Years Found

vitruvian_man-001Twenty years ago this month, archeologists discovered Cave de Chauvet Pont d’Arc in southern France, with paintings more than 30,000 years old. Scientists from around the world have digitally mapped the cave, built raised walkways above its floor, and established protocols that limit access to 12 people for eight hours during two 15-day periods each year. These constraints are designed to minimize man’s effect on the site, while accommodating our human itch to explore and comprehend. We cannot know with certainty how our interactions affect a cave that was sealed for thousands of years – there’s no sister cave we can submit to double-blind testing. But I fear these safeguards are an illusion that salves our conscious while enabling us to poke around. Humans cannot simply leave something alone.

images-1Werner Herzog filmed “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” during one research cycle. The 2010 film begins with a sweeping view of Pont d’Arc, leads into the cave, and alternates between illuminating the remarkable images and describing ongoing research taking place there. By film’s end, we understand these paintings through a dual lens: as extraordinary ancestral art, and an exquisite demonstration of our scientific ability to reconstruct the past.

imagesJulien Monney, an archeologist in the film relates the story of a 1970’s Australian aborigine; a man who’s my contemporary age-wise, but the Chauvet Cave painters’ kin in his habits. When the aborigine encounters a faded rock painting, he mixes pigment and rejuvenates it. To him, the painted rock is not a fixed entity with a unique author. It’s a human contribution to the natural world that can deteriorate and be refreshed within nature’s rhythm.

Our response to the paintings at Chauvet has been exactly opposite. Through the researchers interventions, we preserve the cave floor we deem valuable, while violating other areas by erecting a walkway. We collect and analyze charcoal fragments. We chip away and stabilize, but we do not contribute, add or embellish.

images-2Dominique Baffier, Curator of Chauvet Cave, explains what she considers important research findings. She attributes a pattern of red dots on a prominent rock to one specific man, six feet tall with a distinctive thumbprint, yet determines that other paintings contain elements that span five thousand years. A five thousand year timeframe is akin to me, in 2014, contributing stone to an ancient ziggurat.

imgres-2The cave paintings resemble contemporary compositions. Horses with multiple legs and a female pelvis embracing a bull’s head are Picasso and Duchamp’s spare, elegant forebears. I’ll never see them in person, and I never should. But, thanks to the digital age, I can appreciate them through Mr. Herzog’s film, 3-D mappings or the replica constructed a few miles from the cave.

I don’t understand the film’s title, Cave of Forgotten Dreams. The cave is not forgotten – it’s found. And forgotten dreams are not accessible to our consciousness, while we’ve spent twenty years applying scientific ‘how’ and ‘what’ to scratch at the spiritual question that plagues us: why.

imgres-1The true cave of forgotten dreams is yet undiscovered. Once found, it will be subjected to the fashionable human prodding’s of that time. If Chauvet Cave had been pried open 5,000 years ago, it might have provided shelter; 500 years ago, an opportunity for plunder; five decades ago, a bonanza for tourism. Instead, the cave was found during a period fixed on preserving and replicating. We revere ancestors by freezing them in time. We coopt them by recreating their 30,000-year-old sanctuary in three years. Are our preservation efforts a tribute to our ancestors, or do we set ourselves above them by refusing to contribute to their collective expression?

We are also left to ponder Herzog’s central question: What is time? We’ve known these paintings for less than one-one-thousandth of their existence. We determine that they’re ancient, yet consider them new because we measure existence from discovery. What is time when more than a thousand generations lapsed between Chauvet Cave ancestors and us, yet aborigine cousins touch up similar paintings in our lifetime? Why do we care that a single man painted red dots while other compositions evolved over millennia? Are our preservation efforts a tribute to our ancestors, or do we set ourselves above them by refusing to contribute to their collective expression?

 

imgresMy gut response to research in the Cave de Chauvet Pont d’Arc is to cease our meddling and seal it back up. But we cannot pretend the cave away; it is found, and humans are compelled to explore. Our constant push to achieve, obtain and understand drives progress. That’s why we dominate this planet, even to the point of endangering its natural balance.

 

What bothers me is our pretension of preservation. Cave de Chauvet Pont d’Arc is a phenomenal example of early man’s capabilities. Our analytical bent and technical prowess dictate that we study it rather than add our hand to it. But we’re only kidding ourselves in believing that our walkways and lasers and simple presence don’t alter this remarkable place. We make our mark by keeping our hands off, but future generations will know we were here.

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This essay was published December 18, 2014 by WBUR Cognoscenti under the title: “Ancient Cave Drawings, Modern Science, and the Pretense of Preservation”.

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Return to Haiti: Saint Boniface Hospital Infectious Disease Pavilion

haiti-001I am off to Haiti early Monday morning, taking a familiar trip that I haven’t made in over a year. I’ll be traveling with Conor Shapiro, Executive Director of Saint Boniface Hospital in Fond des Blancs, the largest hospital in Haiti’s southern peninsula, and acute care center for children from Be Like Brit orphanage and Mission of Hope School.

I’ve been working with Conor and others from Saint Boniface for several months designing a TB and infectious disease pavilion as well as an expansion of the their emergency department / operating suite. We received funding from USAID for the infectious disease pavilion, and so are making a site visit to coordinate design details with site conditions and local clinicians. We hope the ED/OR expansion will be funded soon.

images-2This is an exciting project that will offer improved health care for the two million people in the southern peninsula. But it also represents the changing face of design and construction in Haiti – at least in my personal experience.

These projects, funded by international aid agencies rather than local initiatives, are organized along the lines of design and construction we have in the United States. I’ll develop the design, but won’t be doing direct construction work as I did in my projects after the earthquake; there are local and American construction teams for that. This reflects more sophisticated project delivery for Haiti, but less hands-on work for me.

DSCN2136I am also going to have two days in Grand Goave; a chance to visit Dieunison and Dieurie and other friends there. Fortunately, Lex and Renee have a list of things for me to do. They know how I hate to just sit around visiting. I love Haiti, but I lack the social gene so common among Haitians.

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