Category Archives: friends

Saguaro National Park

We are now in the southwest, National Park heaven, where you sometimes find yourselves inside one without even trying. Big Bend was a precursor to this area for us, but now the giant crazy landforms are coming at such a pace that they’re getting their own fast-track on the blog.

Our first experience with National Parks on this trip was in Yellowstone, which we’ve come to think of as an anomaly.  Yellowstone isn’t one place, it’s a lot of distinct places in close proximity – big mountains, geysers and hot springs, wildlife, a big canyon, waterfalls, open plains and lakes, etc.  Most of the Parks in the Southwest seem to be more one-liners.  Of course there are a wide range of ways you can understand them – geologically, ecologically, culturally – but they don’t have the same breadth as Yellowstone.  Greta and I have discovered that our interest in geology lasts for about five minutes, and our interest in botany a bit longer.  We appreciate really cool looking rocks and mountains and plants, but we’re not all that interested in getting into a lot of depth about them.  For us, the distinct experiential character of each park depends upon two items:  what is the Big Concept for each (usually the reason it was seen as being significant and worth preserving), and how can we kinesthetically experience the park by hiking through it.  In the Badlands we realized that we dislike driving around and looking at scenery, but once we get out of the car, the experience of walking or climbing through the landscape is the way we come to appreciate it best.  So those readers who actually know something about rocks and plants will find my observations sophomoric (just as I would probably not be impressed with their insights into architecture).

DSCF6458Saguaro National Park sits on two small mountain ranges, on either side of Tucson.  It’s quite unusual to have such wilderness in such proximity to a pretty big city.  And from what we’ve seen, it’s also an anomaly for a southwestern National Park to not be about big piles of rock in amazing shapes.  The Big Idea in Saguaro is not the landform, but the vegetation.  It is the greatest collection of bizarre plants we’ve ever seen.  None of them are familiar, and most of them seem capable of hurting you really badly.  The saguaros are the main attraction, as they apparently exist here in a profusion unlike anywhere else in the US.  They are strange, DSCF6450they are big, DSCF6449and they look just like they do in Roadrunner cartoons.  (Lots of things in the southwest look just like they do in Roadrunner cartoons.)  We just rambled around among them, soaking up the weirdness – especially the idea of a saguaro forest.DSCF6444

There are many other equally strange, but smaller, plants around.  Lots of cacti and yuccas and agave and such.  DSCF6423(We learn their names when we see them, and forget them within a few days.)  I am pleased when I see one that apparently has an afterlife as tequila or mescal.DSCF6417

We took some short hikes in Saguaro, and decided to not try any longer ones, as we didn’t think they’d seem very different to us.  It struck me that Saguaro is a modular place – every 50 foot by 50 foot area is incredibly interesting, in the variety and strangeness of the juxtaposed plants.  But then the next 50 by 50 foot plot is about the same.  You don’t hike to a sublime view, or have a wide variety of rock-scrambling experiences.  Our local informant in the culture assured us that changes in the environment occur when you move to higher elevations, especially in the mountains to the east of Tucson, but we were camping on the west side and didn’t feel like a drive across the metropolitan area.  So we spent our time looking more closely at what was right around us, instead of charging across the park trying to cover it all.  We camped in a fabulous county campground right next to the National Park, which was quiet and dark, and a little eerie with the howling of coyote packs throughout the night.  The serious RVers put string LED lights under their RVs at night, probably to keep the varmints away.  Lots of lizards scurrying around, and we managed to avoid the one rattlesnake we heard was near the trail up ahead of us.

The aforementioned local informant was Daniel Beckman, the son of Bob and Susan, previously chronicled in the post college friends.  Daniel grew up outside Philadelphia, attended Brown, where he did things related to political science and theater, and then during an internship at Joshua Tree National Park, fell in love with the big spaces of The West.  He now works for the Park Service, and is involved in activities such as invasive plant eradication, while attending the local community college to learn all the applicable science he didn’t learn in college.  (We unfortunately missed seeing him in his role as the Park mascot Sunny the Saguaro, which he undertook for the Park Service 100th anniversary celebration at Saguaro one day we were there.  We think he saw us coming and hid so that I couldn’t post any photos of him in costume.)DSCF6556

We went to the neighborhood Mexican restaurant near his house (which in itself might be enough of a reason to move to the southwest), and as two East Coast refugees, we talked a lot about the the differences in living in the two different places, and how one can know when you’ve found the right place.  I was impressed with his willingness to strike out into unknown territory, to change his location, his intellectual focus, and his whole way of living – something that’s not easy to do at any age.  But Daniel seems very happy in his new life, and perhaps he has found the right place for him.DSCF6415

Roberto Cipriano

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This is a big country, with a lot of people, who live lives that are quite different from one another’s.  We live in Eugene – a weird yet relatively homogeneous place – so another theme of this trip has been to get out there and let Greta see a wider range of possible lives.  We’ve been in towns full of rich people, neighborhoods and whole regions full of poor people, very white places, very diverse places, native American reservations, small Southern towns, endless sprawl, and cabins in the woods.  In these places, we’ve met or visited people who have constructed very different lives for themselves – big city professionals, farmers on the plains, corporate employees, retirees in RVs, academics, musicians, tech entrepreneurs, artists, park rangers, writers, craftspeople.  It’s been fascinating to see the variety of lives that people have arrived at, and Greta certainly has a lot of new models to consider as she moves ahead with her life.  But if I had to select an alternative life for myself from all the people we’ve visited, I might go with Roberto’s.  I probably appreciated it in that there are similarities in interests and occupations to my own life, but he seems to have put a wide variety of avocations together in a very integrated and satisfying way.

Roberto was an architecture student at the UO about 20 years ago.  He was in my second year studio (both his second year in school and my second year teaching).  Even at this early age he was clearly different from his classmates – he was somewhat older, had lived in different places around the country, and had already developed atypical interests – such as his expertise in magic and his running a magic store.  I had some of the same problem with Roberto that I’ve had throughout my life with many other classmates and students – there were just too many interesting topics to discuss with him, and it was hard to limit the discussion to architecture.

I lost touch with Roberto after his graduation (as I did with most students in the pre-Facebook era), but we later reconnected, and I’ve followed his exploits with interest.  He ended up in New York, where he lived in a loft in Brooklyn (back when one might still be able to do this without a hedge fund manager’s income), and he worked in Deborah Berke’s office for many years, where he became friends with Chris Harnish.  (It’s rare when you hear uniformly good things about an architectural office from separate sources, and it’s good to know that the quality of the firm matches up to the quality of the built work.)

Throughout this time Roberto continued to develop his other interests – he is a serious bicyclist, musician, and craftsman of all types – mechanic, builder, instrument-maker.  He went off to southeast Asia for a year, working to build a health clinic in a rural area.  At this point he had some doubts about staying in the architecture profession, as years of experience tend to make one aware of its shortcomings, and he spent some time taking care of the prerequisites for applying to medical school.  But through a complex series of events and circumstances, he didn’t make this radical shift, and instead changed his focus within the field.

Roberto moved back to Texas, where he had previously lived, and settled in Austin.  He has worked for and on a number of endeavors – architectural practice, construction, modular production, and musical instrument fabrication.  He is currently working in the design/build mode, on his own while we were visiting, but now seemingly with a larger enterprise (according to recent FB posts).

The example of his work that we experienced most thoroughly was his own house, which is located in an older neighborhood south of the river in Austin.  It is high-quality new construction, yet somehow it fits into this funky context just fine – with no pretensions, no screaming architectural indulgences, and a thoughtful use of vernacular materials.  DSCF5335

It is even a vernacular type – a dogtrot house, with an screened porch between the enclosed spaces – living and eating one one side, bedroom and bathroom on the other.  The porch is perfect for this environment, with shaded, ventilated living space in the summer.  (And privacy enhanced by the subtle layering from the street side.)  This passive feature, plus the extensive PV array on the roof make this house extremely energy-efficient.  DSCF5338

The interiors shows off his craftsman’s sensibility, with a smart combination of off-the-shelf items (including exposed gang-nail roof trusses), and hand-crafted details (such as the pantry door and hardware).  DSCF5339

There is a second building in the backyard – a capacious shop building, which is on axis, and so defines both the extent of the visual space of the dogtrot, and the outdoor terrace area.  In this era of willful, extravagant, often-meaningless exuberant shapes, it is a joy to see a simple, elegant building, one which works with ideas of symmetry vs. asymmetry, rhythm, axes, facades with a skillful interplay of materials, and complex spaces made wth simple forms.  Overall, there is a tremendous sense of architectural order, and staying here was a pleasure – everything just felt right. DSCF5344

Even more fun than being ensconced in Roberto’s physical environment was being welcomed into his life.  We picked up the conversation from 20 years ago, and sat around for hours talking about architecture, practice, building, New York, bicycling, and the meaning of life.  For two people who have lived very different lives in different places, our ideas were in remarkable consonance.

We also got to spend time with Roberto’s amazing companion, Carolyn Cohagan.  She has had a long career all over the world as a writer, performer, comic, and producer in theater and film.  More recently, Carolyn returned to her hometown of Austin, and has just published her second novel, Time Zero , which is receiving great reviews everywhere.  The book takes on the issues of fundamentalism and women rights in a dystopian New York of the future.  (One brilliant innovation is that every dogmatic restriction portrayed in the story is actually in place somewhere in the world today, and is footnoted.)   Hearing from Roberto that Greta was a writer, Carolyn sent her a pre-publication pdf so she could read it while we were on the road.  Greta posted a review on goodreads; I’m pleased to see that Greta’s growing obsession with food on this trip has not rendered her incapable of writing thoughtfully about other subjects.  We both really enjoyed hanging out with Carolyn, and I think she will be a big influence on Greta’s life.  Throughout this trip Greta has been fortunate to to spend time and talk with a number of writers – Bill McGowan, Glen and Michelle, Garrison Keillor – but Carolyn’s trajectory is one that Greta can probably imagine for herself.  Plus Greta just thought she was one of the coolest people she’s ever met.

Roberto also took us by the studio run by his friend Joseph Kincannon, a stonevcarver.  Joseph came from New England, and had spent years working on the recommenced construction of St. John the Divine in New York, during some of the same years I was walking past it every day on my way to Columbia.  It was fascinating to talk to him and see them at work with both hand and power tools, perhaps the most extraordinary craftsmanship we’ve seen on this trip.  Joseph and I reminisced about the good old bad old days in New York in the 80s, and both recalled the peacocks at the cathedral, Philippe Petit’s tightrope walk across Amsterdam, and the parties thrown by the somewhat wild daughter of the dean of the cathedral.

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Austin didn’t strike us as the most beautiful city in Texas, but through hanging around with Roberto and his friends, we came to see what is unique there – the people and the culture.  I felt about it the way I do about Eugene – it isn’t the physical attributes of the place that make it attractive, it is the quality of life there.  It seems to be full of interesting and fun people, art and music and the enjoyment of life.  San Antonio is gorgeous, but I’d choose to live in Austin.

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Throughout this trip, Greta has been taking care of her missing-pet jones by hanging out with the pets of our friends along the way.  There have been some pretty great dogs (Jeti, Ace, Harry and Monty come to mind), but Roberto’s dog Woody takes first prize (although Carolyn’s dog was pretty cool too).  Woody has a lovely disposition – fun and exuberant without being annoying, happy to sit with Greta on the couch while she was reading, and damn cute.  The people and the food and the culture in Austin were great, but In Greta’s view, Woody might be enough of a reason to live there.

Texas engineering cousins

Yes, that really is a category in our family. For some reason, three of Greta’s cousins have gone into engineering and ended up in Texas, and we got to visit them all.

Our first stop was in Houston, where Joe Ballard is an engineering major at Rice. Joe grew up in Manhattan, Kansas, where Linda and four of her sisters went to Kansas State. Her youngest sister Becky married Steve Ballard, a local boy, and they stayed in Manhattan and raised their three kids. (We missed seeing Joe’s big sister Audrey in Chicago as she had to prepare for a meeting and couldn’t come out to play.)

Joe was a serious football player in high school, but missed his senior year due to a knee injury. So with a year of eligibility, he went to prep school in Connecticut for a year, then matriculated at Rice.  He’s been playing mostly on special teams (I hope that is the right term, says the blogger who watches 0.5 football games per year), and is in his junior year as a mechanical engineering major.

Joe lives with three of his teammates, and when I asked his advice on where we should stay in Houston, he said we should just park in their driveway.  I loved the idea, and figured this would probably be the most unusual accommodations Greta would experience on the whole trip.

We arrived at Joe’s and were having a beer to celebrate Greta’s having navigated us through Houston Friday rush hour traffic on her own, when cousin Sam Adams showed up.  Sam grew up in Indianapolis, the older son of Dawn and Bill (previously profiled here).  Sam went to a Spanish immersion school, and continued his language focus with French, eventually studying abroad in France, and ending up being practically adopted into a French family, whom his family stills sees often.  Sam arrived at Rice a year before Joe, and is a chemical engineering major.

Greta and I went out for tacos with the cousins, then came back to Joe’s where we hung out with the roommates. I guess my expectations for a houseful of football players had been shaped by being at the UO for so long, but these guys didn’t meet those preconceptions at all. First, although large, they were still within one standard deviation of normal-sized human beings.  Second, they were all very smart and engaging, and as charming as we had come to expect Southerners to be.  We had a great time talking and drinking beer – which was the third surprise, as all of them had no more than one, as they had practice at 6:00 the next morning. (Sam had a bit more, being the non-teammate who could sleep in.)  They are pictured below with Greta as the five-foot scale figure: Sam on the left, Joe next to him, then Cole and Nick. Not pictured is Robby (who gave us excellent advice on camping in the Chisos Basin at Big Bend), and Cole’s lovely girlfriend Maddy.

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While the college boys didn’t meet expectations, their house did. A combination of second-hand furniture and beer brand décor, it showed one major innovation since my days of living in such a household – there were screens everywhere. The living room had two big TVs, in case you needed to watch two games at one time, or watch one game while playing video games on the other. Despite this change, it felt just like all the roommate guy apartments I’d ever lived in, and gave Greta some idea of what environments lay in her future.

We had Vietnamese food with the cousins the next night and really enjoyed ourselves. My first memories of Sam and Joe are as part of a pack of five little boy cousins, running through large family parties wreaking havoc. And even as they’ve grown up, I’ve tended to still think of them that way, as that pack became high school boys and retreated to the nearest basement man-cave, only to emerge for feedings. So spending two evenings with them without any other family around was enlightening. They have both turned onto thoughtful, smart and entertaining young men. Joe still has a year left in school, and so is not planning too far ahead now. Sam is graduating this spring, and is planning on joining the Navy, training to be a submariner. After basic training and OCS he’ll send a year in submarine training in Charleston (Greta told him about the good restaurants.) I spend a lot of my normal life with college students, and being with Joe and Sam reminded me of everything I like about them – their energy, enthusiasm, insights, humor, idealism. It was fun for us both seeing these guys, and seeing the young men they’ve turned into.

We moved on to Houston, where we saw Ben Robinson. Ben’s mom is Linda’s sister Paula, whom we had visited in St. Petersburg (profiled here). Ben grew up outside Dallas and in Louisville, but the family roots in Kansas were strong, and he returned to Kansas State for both his undergraduate and masters’ degrees. During those years Ben saw a lot of the world – his mom was living in Shanghai, and Ben would visit her there for extended periods, or else they would meet up in some other cool place.

Ben moved to Houston, where he now has another one of those jobs I can’t understand.  As far as I can tell, his engineering company makes products used by other engineering companies, both hardware and software.  Ben is involved in developing and marketing those things.

We went over to Ben’s apartment (which showed he had definitely moved beyond the frat-boy collegiate decor), and met his roommate, a veterinarian from Oregon City.  We asked how he could stand the Houston weather after growing up in Oregon, and he said he had moved to Houston partly because of the weather;  we’ve never gotten that response before.

Ben is enjoying the young professional life in Austin, and gave us some insight into what that is all about, placing it squarely on the Portland-Brooklyn axis of hipness.  (Ben intermittently sports a man-bun these days.)   One gets old and forgets that there are just good places to Iive as a young person, surrounded by lots of peers and lots of things to do.

I didn’t get a picture of Ben, nor do I have a lot of conversation to recall.  While we were at his apartment, I started to feel really sick, so I just went back to the trailer and crashed while Ben took Greta out to dinner at his favorite joint.  She said they had a good time, talking about our trip and other cousinly things.  We have to thank Ben for providing this opportunity for Greta, which led to her feeling very mature, sitting in a hip restaurant with her cousin, without any of the parental generation in sight.

The Menil Collection

DSCF5005The architectural high point of Houston is definitely the Menil Collection.  After seeing so many Renzo Piano museums on this trip, it was instructive to visit his first in this country, from the mid 1980s.  The overwhelming impression is that of simplicity and clarity, which sometimes has gotten obscured in his more recent buildings by all the fancy parts.

I still remember being fascinated by this building when it was first published.  In a decade when major public works were either the last gasps of expressive late modernism, or the equally histrionic statements of Postmodernism in the ascendant, Piano designed a simple grey and white box.  The architect who, along with his then-partner Richard Rogers, had provoked the whole architectural world with the Pompidou, was now working in an almost classical mode, reminiscent of Mies and Kahn.  Museums want to be simple boxes with carefully-designed lighting, and Piano did this literally –  a grey box with white colonnades all around.

What most impressed me then and now is how this large building fits into a residential neighborhood of small bungalows.  The museum had been buying up those bungalows for a while, and then plunked this museum down in the middle of them, on a full-block site. They still own all the houses across the streets surrounding the museum, and they have been remodelled to house functions such as offices, the bookstore and a new cafe.  DSCF5040They are all painted the same shade of grey, and the landscaping of lawn and trees reinforces the residential scale.  I always go back to Howard Davis’s response when a student asked him how much a building had to resemble its surroundings in order to fit in, and Howard said “about 30%”.  A funny answer, which I think may be true (Howard now swears he said 50%).  The Menil resembles its context in color, material (wood siding), simple flat walls, individual windows instead of curtain walls, steel channel detailing which refers to wood trim,DSCF5012 porches, and a lawn.  Somehow this keeps the building from overwhelming everything around it.  I like it that he made a building that feels monumental yet accessible, a temple with a colonnade that also reads as a big wood-framed house.

The colonnades surrounding the building show Piano’s first design for complex shading / daylighting devices.  They are beautiful as objects, and they work very well at bouncing and modulating the light.  DSCF5014

One could argue that this refined design isn’t necessary on the exterior – you just need a sunshade.  But this roof is carried into the interior, where it daylights the circulation spaces and many of the galleries.  The use of them on the exterior is a way to tie the building together, and state the key move of the building where all can see it.  (And without them, it would just be big box.)  They also create a gracious walkway around the building, a very pleasant place to stroll. The scale is intentionally deceptive – using wood cladding and a white porch makes one think the building is residential in scale, but the bays are actually very wide, and the columns are over two stories tall.  Piano reinvents the colossal order.  DSCF5075

People were using the grounds as a park – reading in the grass, letting little kids play – another way in which the building is an amenity in the neighborhood.DSCF5048

So the big problem with this post is that you can’t take pictures inside the museum.  Too bad, as it is worth looking at.  The plan is absurdly simple – a cross axis for entry in the middle of the two long sides, and a longitudinal hallway down the center which ends in a big window in a recess at each end.  DSCF5011

The galleries are to either side of the hallway, and are emphatically separated from it – no open plan here.  it succeeds because of the light – the indirect light from the monitors above, and the big windows at the ends.  The galleries themselves can be rearranged within this modular system, and the daylighting tuned to meet the needs of the current exhibit.  The most interesting spaces architecturally were the galleries around an internal courtyard, which was very similar to Kahn’s Kimbell.  A few bays of the grid are simply left open, the light comes down from above into a planted court, and the galleries around it have glazed walls.  (These galleries house sculpture and other works which can tolerate these light levels.)  Amusingly, this courtyard isn’t in the middle of the building, but is directly behind one of the exterior walls – you have to look hard on the exterior to see any indication of it.

As at the Kimbell, the quality of the collection is a distraction from the architecture.  It is a wide-ranging and excellent museum in many ways, but the Surrealist collection is astonishing.  After walking through it all, I was having a hard time remembering any Surrealist masterpieces that weren’t here.  Our favorite part was the room where they showed objects of tribal and folk art with had influenced the Surrealists.  In any other museum, this work would be displayed in a scholarly manner, arranged according to place and time of origin and annotated with long, detailed labels.  But the Surrealists didn’t really care about all that, they just thought these were really cool things that they found visually and conceptually appealing.  So they are all mixed up in the gallery, with wildly varied objects juxtaposed and crammed together.  It is fun, and it helps you understand their artistic processes.

The Menil has a few other buildings – a lovely, small Piano building housing a permanent installation of Cy Twombly paintings, and one with a Dan Flavin installation.  It has also spun off two other buildings in the district – one that used to house Byzantine frescoes (long story), and the Rothko Chapel (a building which I found to be as uninteresting as the Rothkos;  I’m a philistine).    I think this little bit of Houston is better than all the rest of Houston put together.

DSCF5050The other great thing about visiting the Menil Collection was seeing my old friend and classmate Sheryl Kolasinski, who is the deputy director and COO.  Sheryl majored in art history at Brown, and then we attended grad school at Columbia together, where we formed the Ivy League art history cabal.  She worked as an architect for a while, then joined the NYC government, where she eventually ended up as head of design and construction for all the city’s cultural institutions.  She moved on to the Smithsonian for about 20 years, where she was deputy director for operations, and oversaw $1.5 billion in construction.  She didn’t come out and say it, but I have to guess she got a little burnt out by the size of the operation (overseeing 1900 employees) and the range of issues she had to deal with, which was getting pretty far away from architecture.  So she moved to a much smaller institution, where she can have a really direct effect upon its future,  Sheryl is in charge of implementing the Menil’s masterplan, the next phase of which is a 30,000 sf drawing center for works on paper.

We had a great, short visit, catching up on the past 30 years or so, and talking about all the different directions in which an architectural career can veer.  I’ve always thought that architects tend to have a breadth of vision and a skill set that’s often way out of proportion to the scale of projects they are called upon to administer, and it was wonderful to see how Sheryl’s talents have been recognized and appreciated, allowing her to accomplish a lot in an important context.  And from now on, when someone says something snide about what you can do with an art history degree, I’ll just say that you could do something like manage the Smithsonian.

Kathy Armstrong

On this trip we’ve been visiting a lot of my family and friends, but not so many of Linda’s. It’s not that we don’t like them, it’s that most of them live in the big middle of the country that we’ve been circumnavigating.  But in Dallas we finally found a friend of Linda’s who’s moved out towards the periphery.

Kathy Armstrong was an interior design major at Kansas State with Linda, and they’ve been friends ever since.  Before last year I had only met Kathy at our wedding, so we obviously didn’t know each other well.  Kathy and I became Facebook friends several years ago – I think she decided to do this once she realized Linda never posts anything upon FB, and if she wanted any news from our family, she’d have to rely on me.  We’ve had this online conversation since then, and it is remarkable how you can get to know someone that way – I quickly learned that Kathy has a great sense of humor and a sense of the absurd, although I sometimes think that now she mainly wants to be my friend so she can read the comments from my friend Dan.

Last summer Kathy came to visit us on Whidbey Island, and we had a blast.  We didn’t do anything extraordinary, just walking around town, cooking and drinking and talking. Kathy has this ability to really enjoy the ordinary occurrences of life, and in thoughtful way – a meal isn’t just enjoyed, but it is thought about and planned and discussed.  I realized during her visit how much she brings a designer’s sensibility to everything.  I tell my students that designers may work intuitively, but then we always have to slip into analytical mode, to understand what is going on that made a design turn out the way it did.  Kathy is that way with almost everything – not just looking at buildings.  Although she is not what I’d consider a semi-pro cocktail drinker, we had great discussions of the nuances of drinks that I was proposing.

DSCF4110Greta and I got to Dallas after a long drive from Louisiana, and Kathy had a wonderful dinner waiting for us.  But most importantly, we got to meet Monty and Harry, Kathy’s beloved Scottie and Westie.  I must admit I was a little nervous about meeting them – I had seen their exploits on FB, and I was worried that they might fall into the category of amusing yet crazed house dogs who spend lots of time alone, and who therefore drive all possible sources of engagement and amusement crazy.  But they were not at all like this – they were very chill, happy to see us and hang out, with really charming personalities.  Greta has been relying on our friends to provide intermittent substitute pet experiences on this trip, and Harry and Monty fit the bill perfectly, lying around with her while she was reading.  We did watch the Westminster dog show on TV with them one night, pulling for the terriers.

DSCF4974We also got to spend time with Kathy’s boyfriend Greg, and with his son Harry.  Greg is also an architect, and his perspective reinforced the good things I’ve heard about graduates from Arkansas.  Greg has returned from years working in China, and he and Kathy met when he began working at her firm.  Kathy and Greg suggested several of their favorite restaurants, and we spent several evenings talking over drinks and meals.  To Greta’s dismay, the conversation often drifted into professional matters, and I was struck by their insights and wisdom into the profession.  I most often find myself in professional conversations with people in my profession – academics – and we talk about our world, which is very different from the world of professional practice.  So spending time with two people who each have over 30 years experience in very varied careers was enlightening.  I still retain enough knowledge of that world to understand it, but I was struck by how much they had experienced, knew and understood about it.

DSCF4963One day Greta and took the light rail from downtown to Kathy’s office, which was in an interesting mixed-use node of redeveloped industrial buildings and new construction.  She works for Leo Daly, a multi-city interiors firm, where she specializes in hospitality projects, once of the few building types about which I know absolutely nothing.  Their office is really appealing, on the top floor of a remodelled building.  Kathy runs projects all over the country and internationally, and travels pretty frequently for site visits and project meetings.  We talked about how she had consciously chosen this type of career, and how she had gotten to see a lot of the world, meet a lot of people, and have a wide range of experiences in different places.  I vaguely remember having a life somewhat like this, before I settled into relative isolation in Eugene, and we enjoyed comparing and contrasting our lives.  Part of the agenda for this trip has been for Greta to see the different ways people live, and I was glad that she got to see Kathy’s life, and understand how that path can be enjoyable and fulfilling.

Kathy is not from Texas, being most recently from St. Louis, so she was able to provide the non-native’s perspective on her new home – appreciative of all that is good about the area, but without the native Texan’s starry-eyed chauvinism.  This was invaluable, and she really helped orient us to what was to be a very different cultural experience in the coming weeks.  We had a great time hanging out with her and Greg and the dogs, and it was really good to spend time with a friend who made us feel at home in a strange new land.

Glen Pitre

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I’ve been pretty good about staying in touch with friends from all the different phases of my life – this trip has included many friends made in high school, college, grad school, New York and Oregon.  But over the years a few good friendships have fallen away, mainly due to circumstance – long distances, people raising kids and getting busy, lack of an internet for staying in touch.  Chief among these friends was Glen Pitre – a dear friend from college whom I  hadn’t seen in 30 years.  Since college I’d been moving back and forth on the New York-Oregon axis, and Glen had been on the Louisiana-Los Angeles axis, so we’d just never intersected.  (Plus Glen has more friends than anyone I’ve ever known, so he probably can’t keep track of all of them.)  So a part of this trip I was really looking forward to was seeing Glen at home in Louisiana, a state I’d also never visited.

Glen and I met our third year in college, where we both lived in Leverett House.  Glen had taken a year off to work on a bicentennial documentary project, and when he returned a lot of his buddies had graduated, so he was looking for new people to hang out with.  Our backgrounds were nothing alike – I was the Catholic school kid from suburban New York, and he was the first Cajun to attend Harvard, having grown up on the bayou in Cut Off, Louisiana (a name I at first refused to believe was real).  We had both grown up messin’ around in boats, and we were probably also united by our majoring in the arts (me in art and architectural history, Glen in visual studies / photography / filmmaking), as we were surrounded by friends who were into government / economics / history.  We liked the same music, and Glen introduced me to Cajun music, including Cajun Country (which is like country music but better, as everything sounds better in French, and you can’t understand how dumb the lyrics are).

We did a lot of things together, such as staffing the house grill on Sunday nights – me cooking while Glen used his superior social skills to placate the customers.  Glen and I even managed to complete an animated movie together our senior year, a three-minute time-lapse film showing the growth of Boston, where he supplied the filmmaking know-how, and I supplied the historical research and physical drawing.  But mostly we hung out talking, occasionally munching on the dried shrimp he kept in his room.  I’d known some gregarious and friendly people in my life, but Glen outdoes them all – he seems to be friends with everyone.  My roommates and I once realized that if everyone sitting in the dining hall were able to knock off everyone else in the room they disliked, at the end Glen would be the only person left.

All this time Glen was steadily moving forward into his career.  He was an excellent photographer, and had free-lance gigs with the Times, the Boston Globe, etc.  When a local politician announced his candidacy for the US Senate, he hired Glen as his videographer (unfortunately, his campaign didn’t last beyond the campaign announcement, where he managed to mispronounce “impotent” a few times during his speech).  As Glen learned filmmaking, he immediately began writing and directing movies about Cajun life, most notably La Fievre Jaune, a dramatization about the 1897 yellow fever epidemic.  Glen made these movies on minuscule budgets, using his family and friends as the actors.  (His father turned out to have talent in this area, and continued on through more films.)  La Fievre Jaune was made while Glen was still in college, and launched him as the “father of Cajun cinema”.

Glen suggested that after college we might take a break from academic life and do some shrimp fishing – his family had an old boat that was sunk at their dock, and if we could raise it and put in a Chevy engine, we could spend the summer on the water.  When the time came, the price of shrimp was so low that it made no sense to invest anything in the enterprise, and we abandoned the idea.  Sometimes I think about how my life might have turned out differently if the price of shrimp had been higher in 1978.

Glen went back to Louisiana and began all the career threads he’s kept going since then:  photography, filmmaking (both documentary and feature), writing (screenplays, novels, guidebooks, articles, academic chapters), retail (selling Louisiana-related articles through a catalogue store), producing radio documentaries, and designing museum exhibits.  Most of my friends have heard me tell stories about my high school friend Jack, who has had literally at least ten different careers;  Glen is my only other friend who can compete.  The  difference is that Jack has moved all over the world as he’s pursued these lives, whereas all of Glen’s activities have been grounded in his home in Louisiana (except for excursions into Hollywood).  Glen has been teaching filmmaking at LSU for the past year and half, which he said was the longest gig he’s ever had in his life.  When I told him I’d had only two real jobs since grad school, he just stared at me.

Glen and  I got together a few times in the  80s.  He’d come up to Boston or New York on business, stay with me and my roommates, and ask if he could invite his friends over to dinner (and we should invite our friends too).  Then he would spend the whole day cooking – huge amounts of shrimp spaghetti or gumbo – and dozens of people would show up for a big party.  Glen had never lived in New York, but somehow he had more friends there than I did.  (Including a number of girlfriends.  Glen always awed me by being able to pull out his address book wherever he was, and find an old girlfriend to look up, who was always overjoyed to see him again.)  The last time he visited was in 1985 – he had finished shooting his first English-language, big-budget, Hollywood movie,  Belizaire the Cajun, and he was in New York for the editing.  We got to see the first cut in a screening room, and Glen’s stories of writing and directing a large, complex movie were riveting:  you walk onto the set, there’s hundreds of extras (including dozens of horses), the meter’s running, and everyone looks at you to tell them what to do.

While I moved on to teach in Oregon, Glen kept all these careers going, and spent more time in Los Angeles as his screenwriting continued.  He married the charming Michelle Benoit around 1990, and they have mostly worked together since then.  Michelle grew up in West Louisiana, and remarkably, has much the same set of professional skills and interests as Glen – writing, directing, producing, designing.  Perhaps even more surprising than their professional similarities are their temperamental ones – Michelle is one of the few people I’ve ever met who can match Glen’s extreme degree of gregariousness and charm.  She probably would have survived in the Leverett dining hall too.

Together they’ve completed a huge number of projects – feature movies, documentaries, and over 30 museum exhibit installations.  (More detail on all their various projects through the years can be found at their website, coteblanche.com.  It’s really interesting.)  They have great stories to tell of their lives and all the people they’ve met.  (A short story I have to relate because otherwise no one will ever write it down and it’s just too good:  Glen is heading to the bathroom in Los Angeles in a big old movie theatre that’s been converted to a multiplex, so the hallway has a slope.  He’s going a bit faster than he realizes, and as he goes to push on  the bathroom door, it swings open in front of him.  Glen stumbles in, falling on his hands and knees.  He looks up, and sees Mel Brooks holding the door handle.  Mel Brooks looks at him and says, “Pretty good, but you need to work on your timing.”)  I suggested to Greta that she should stick around New Orleans to be Glen’s Boswell;  she rolled her eyes.

For a while Glen and Michelle moved among New Orleans, Bayou LaFourche and Los Angeles, but in the past few years they’ve consolidated in New Orleans.  In the 1990s they bought a double shotgun house in the Marigny (the historic district right next to the French Quarter), which was configured in various ways to accommodate their living space, their office, and a rental apartment.  They now live in the back half while the front two apartments are for Glen’s mother (when she’s in town from her home in Cut Off), and an Airbnb.DSCF1554

Greta and I showed up in mid-January, and Glen wanted to know if we’d stick around for a week, as the Mardi Gras season was kicking into gear, and he would be having one of his big parties the next weekend when the Krewe de Vieux parade passed by the end of their block.  Remembering Glen’s prior culinary productions, I of course assented, and we moved into his mom’s apartment while she was out of town.   We got to help Glen cook for the party – Greta chopped all the onions for the venison and wild pig sauce picante and the carrot etouffe, and she will now be one of the few people in Oregon who knows any of the secrets of Cajun cuisine. We had an amazing time at this party, meeting many friends of Glen’s and Michelle’s whom we now think of as our friends too.  (The extraordinary lifestyle and people of New Orleans will be another blog post soon.)

DSCF3875The party was held in the vehicle bay of the old firehouse that Glen and Michelle bought about five years ago, which is right across the middle of the block from their house.  They undertook a massive renovation of the derelict 100-year-old building, and it now contains their offices, plus spaces they rent to writers, filmmakers, photographers, etc. (oldfirehousemandeville.)  It is a remarkable compound they have, a quiet enclave in the  middle of a bustling neighborhood, probably the most appealing urban living situation I’ve ever seen.DSCF1890

Greta and I both caught whatever virulent respiratory bug was going around in New Orleans, and were laid low with bronchitis for a week, taking antibiotics and venturing out only for excellent meals.  At this point we had been there for two weeks, and Glen said that since it was only another week until Mardi Gras, it would be silly of us to leave.  We couldn’t believe they didn’t want to get rid of us, but we took them at their word.  Glen’s mom came back to town, so we moved out of her apartment and back into our trailer, which we pushed through the firehouse into the courtyard.  DSCF3557We are now experts on urban camping, and it is the best.  Quiet, yet convenient, with interesting people, superb food and no mountain lions or bears.  No view of the mountains like I have sitting here in Moab, but it’s a good trade-off.

The next week leading up to Mardi Gras was mainly a series of parties being thrown by Glen and Michelle’s friends on the days when parades passed near their houses.  Mardi Gras arrived, and Glen and Michelle were the king and queen of the St. Anthony’s Ramblers, a day about which I’ve already posted at saint-anthonys-krewe and the-panorama-jazz-band-marches, but here is one irresistible photo of Glen leading the parade.  (I’ve since learned from other friends we made in New Orleans that when you need to find a photo of yourself for any reason, it’s hard to find one where you’re not in costume.)
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After this point, we were reluctant to leave New Orleans at all.  One of the best things while traveling this year has been knowing people in strange cities – instead of being a tourist seeing the sights, you have entree into the life of the city.  In New Orleans we had friends-by-association everywhere – we weren’t just getting to hang around with Glen and Michelle, but with their whole world.

But we did eventually have to hit the road.  First we saw a few last things we’d missed, including the exhibit on Katrina at the Presbytere Museum.  (Glen was also the co-director of an IMax movie called Hurricane on the Bayou, and was running two film crews in New Orleans in the aftermath of the flood.)  The exhibit was incredibly comprehensive about the causes, experiences and consequences of the two hurricanes in 2005.  Glen and Michelle designed quite a bit of the exhibit, including the final room, where a multi-media presentation using screens set in windows from demolished houses showed New Orleans residents talking about the meaning of their experiences.  DSCF3477

We spent four weeks in New Orleans, and we can’t wait to go back.  (I’m trying to find some academic conference that happens in New Orleans every year at Mardi Gras.)  It was wonderful to reconnect with such a good friend after so long, equally wonderful to meet his wife (who somehow feels like she’s been a friend for just as long), and wonderful to spend time in a previously-unknown city, that now feels like a home to us too.

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Garrison Keillor

DSCF3455We saw Garrison Keillor at party last weekend, but didn’t talk to him, following a general principle of leaving celebrities alone unless you really have something to say.  The next day I regretted this, as it occurred to me that while I may not have had much to contribute beyond the appreciation of a fan, he might have enjoyed talking to Greta, the apprentice writer.  So today when we turned onto Chartres St. in the French Quarter and saw him leaving his hotel, I shamelessly buttonholed him and introduced him to Greta.

They had a wonderful conversation, as he talked about his own early forays into writing, and how writers need to write – you have to get up and do it every day.  Over the past few months many people have suggested that I should write a book about this trip, but I’ve always felt that Greta should write it, not me.  As Greta talked a bit about the trip, you could see the wheels turning in his head, and the two of them started to rough out the premise for the book (which he thought should be a novel, not a memoir – I’ll leave off any more discussion of its direction to avoid being a spoiler.)  He was just very engaged and thoughtful, and when we sat down for lunch, Greta wrote down all of his advice.

As we walked off I had my own literary déjà vu.  In his first novel, The Moviegoer, Walker Percy’s protagonist is walking down the street in New Orleans, and sees the actor William Holden up ahead of him.  Holden asks a young honeymooner for a light, and afterwards he can see the change in the young man, as the brush with celebrity has brought him out of his humdrum experience, making his own life somehow more real.  As with so much else in New Orleans, it’s hard to distinguish art from reality.

UO grads

Visiting your former grad students is different from visiting friends you knew earlier in life.  High school friends were really just kids, so seeing those friends four decades later is somewhat hilarious – you can’t believe they’re really grown-up, with grandkids and such; you keep expecting them to burst out laughing that they’ve been putting you on.  College friends are not quite as unbelievable, as you knew them as they were starting to invent their grown-up personas.  But seeing my former students as grown-ups doesn’t seem weird at all – they were already young adults in grad school, and they often were pretty far into setting their life’s course.  So seeing them on this trip just feels like touching base with a more experienced version of the person you already knew.

DSCF5927I first met Neelab Mahmoud when she was a GTF in our big lecture class on Place and Culture.  She led undergraduate discussion sections, where she was a great teacher, and helped us think through assignments and directions for the course.  Neelab’s input always had a wisdom and thoughtfulness that belied her relatively young age – she was very open to everyone else’s perspectives, and was great at making connections amongst them.  As I got to know her better I started to understand where these traits came from – her family had been refugees from Afghanistan when she was a child, and settled near Washington DC.  Neelab had the insights that can come from being between two cultures, and the need to make your way in a very foreign place.  She understood the relativity of many things others take for granted, and was superb at getting her students (and professors) out of their comfortable boxes.  In the nicest way possible.

Neelab was in my housing thesis studio the next year, where her work was visionary.  Her background had been in biology – so it was clear the rational and analytical side of design would be taken care of – allowing her to focus on the more expressive and intuitive aspects.  She was willing to follow a train of thought without knowing where it would lead – a remarkably confident way to work.  In the end her project was beautiful, accommodating and appropriate.  Not exactly the kind of work that tends to get built, but the best kind to pursue in school, where you can explore ideas that you can later put into practice.  The only problem with having Neelab in studio was that she was just too interesting to talk with about many things, and it made focussing just on architecture difficult.

After school Neelab and her husband Ben moved to San Francisco, where she worked for Pyatok Architects, a leading housing design firm.  They then moved to Baltimore so Ben could attend engineering grad school at Johns Hopkins, and it’s there they’ve stayed.  Neelab has her own practice, Studio Marmalade, and has been teaching a wide range of courses as an adjunct at Morgan State University for six years.

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We stayed with Neelab and Ben in their classic Baltimore rowhouse, north of downtown towards Johns Hopkins.  It was interesting to hear about their decision to live in a central city location, their commitment to the city and to their neighborhood and schools.  I was a little apprehensive about parking the trailer in a big, tough, eastern city (as I’ve noted, most of my understanding of Baltimore comes from The Wire), but Neelab just said, In case you get there before me, I’ll leave the key in the mailbox, and don’t worry about the dog – he barks ferociously, but he’ll just lick you once you come in.  A somewhat crazy middle-aged Deadhead chatted with us about our trailer as we parked it, and the nice, very old man on the porch next door conversed with us about the weather as we fished out the key,  Jeti the dog did indeed lick us, and everything was copacetic.

The coolest thing about staying with Neelab and Ben was getting to meet their kids.  I’d watched Ava and Kai grow up on Facebook, so I thought they’d be great, but they were just a pleasure every minute.  Greta and Ava clicked in about two minutes, recognizing each other as members of that same sorority of cool smart girls who read all the time.  (Greta is keeping a scoreboard from this trip.)  And Kai is perhaps the sweetest five-year-old boy I’ve ever met (but I’m partial to little kids who want to hug me after knowing me for a couple of hours.)  Greta and I both seem to need a fix of little kids every once in a while – staying in campgrounds in the off-season, you are hanging with old people.DSCF5910We really enjoyed meeting even more of Neelab’s extended family.  Her cousin Rahiba was staying with them too as she settled in to Baltimore, and we spent an engaging evening drinking Manhattans and talking.  This was when the news about the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean was peaking, and I learned a lot from the perspective of two young women whose families had both been immigrants to this country, at different times.  The next night Rahiba’s parents came by, and we had supper with them all.  It was a lot like graduation, when you get to meet your students’ families, but a lot more fun and intense.  We had a great time with Neelab and all her family members, and were sorry to leave as winter pushed us southwards.

Chris Harnish graduated from the UO a couple of years before Neelab.  I never had him in studio, but he was in my housing course after I moved back to Eugene from Portland.   But more than in class, you got to know Chris from wandering Lawrence Hall.  There are some people who are just a presence in a place – outgoing personalities, rapid-fire thinking, a strong sense of humor, and into everything.  Chris was one of these, so getting to know him was more a series of chance encounters and random conversations.

My quintessential Chris story comes from when Linda and I were travelling through Scandinavia on a bus with students from the summer architecture program at the DIS in Copenhagen.  Chris was part of the group, an enjoyable companion for such events as sauna-sitting and lake-jumping in the middle of the night in Jyvaskyla. DIS104aThe tour visited Alvar Aalto’s summer house at Muuratsalo, and on our way to the house, we passed by the sauna, a simple vernacular structure, not a modernist icon.  As we continued on to the house, we heard a large splash, and turning back, found Chris in the lake.  He smiled up at us and said, Aalto swam here, I have to swim here.

After school Chris moved to New York and worked for Deborah Berke’s excellent firm for about five years.  He then joined up with Architecture for Humanity and went off to work in South Africa.  This started him on what has continued as a significant part of his career, and he has maintained his connections there and continued to visit and work on projects.  During this same time he moved to Philadelphia, and began teaching at Philadelphia University, with a focus on sustainable and community-focussed design.  He and his wife spend their time renovating an old townhouse in downtown, and we caught him for a quick couple of drinks as we breezed through Philadelphia.DSCF5681

It was fun hearing about his recent life, and his experiences in teaching.  Learning about your former students’ work in architecture is great, and it helps keep me in touch with what is happening in the profession.  But spending time with those such as Chris, Neelab and Lynne Dearborn, who have gone on to teaching careers, is a different experience.  (I guess this is how most professors feel about their grad students, who are all aiming at academic careers, but in architecture, very few students are.)  So talking with those who’ve somewhat followed in your footsteps is very gratifying, and I like to think that the experiences they had at the UO might have helped make them the teachers they are today.

Evan Goodwin is of a different generation from the previous two grads. Evan was in my housing thesis studio this past year, so while in Savannah we got to check up on his transition to the outside world.  Evan grew up in South Carolina and went to Clemson as an undergrad, where he developed some of the most remarkable graphic abilities I’ve seen in years.  The first thing I noticed about Evan (besides his charming personality) were his drawings, a predominantly pen-and-ink style that made me think he was the reincarnation of a 1970s architectural illustrator (all this is visible on his website at evanrgoodwin.com).  The second thing that struck me about Evan was the rigor of his thinking, as he applied these graphic skills in series of small-scale typological studies that systematically explored a range of spatial concepts.  Seeing clear thinking beautifully presented is one of the pleasures of being an architecture professor.

Evan did great work in my studio and elsewhere in the department (he was also in Linda’s furniture studio), but he didn’t neglect the social aspects of grad school life.  He lived with a large contingent of his classmates (I could never figure out exactly how many) in a big house right down the hill from ours, which seemed to become the center of social life for a large part of his cohort, both grad and undergrad.  I’ve gotten old enough that students don’t invite me to parties very often anymore, but Evan and his crew would, and I finally went to their graduation blow-out, which was a much better party than we ever had in grad school.

DSCF9838After graduation Evan decided to move back to South Carolina, and he lives and works in Bluffton, a town on the coast outside Savannah, near Hilton Head.  He’s enjoying the work with his firm, but we could tell he misses the good times in Eugene – social opportunities are minimal in a small town full of retirees.  We dragged Evan into Savannah for dinner at Treylor Park, Greta’s favorite restaurant, where we eventually found out that our waitress was a recent graduate in architecture from SCAD.  Greta and I both liked her, so before we departed, we tried to make sure that Evan had left enough intriguing contact information so that his chances for social interaction might be increased.

Family (southeastern division)

My family has lived in New York for generations (Bronx and Manhattan origins for all branches), but as the decades have passed, you can see the demographic trends of the country writ small in our family,  with migration towards the south and west.  As we drove down the east coast we managed to visit many of them, though once again not all.  (And I’m afraid I can’t add any old photos to this post, as I had to move all family photos off my computer to make more room, and then forgot the flash drive in Seattle.)

DSCF6228The first southern relative we saw was my cousin Alice, who lives in the Virginia suburbs of DC with her husband Gary.  When we were young we only got to see Alice and her siblings every couple of years, as my Uncle Bill was attached to the Foreign Service in places such as South Africa and Mexico. This was in the days before simple and cheap international flights – I actually remember seeing them off on an ocean liner as they left the US once.  HIs last assignment was in Washington, so they settled in Falls Church, and both Alice and my cousin Bill have stayed in the DC area.

Alice and Gary live in McLean, but we didn’t get to see their house, as it is up a steep driveway, (and after our experience in my brother’s new gravel driveway in NY, we decide to play it safe.)    So Alice and Gary met us (along with Bob and Susan) for lunch in DC and we had a good time catching up.  Gary works in the finance field, with another one of those jobs I can’t quite understand.  We don’t get to see them very often, but it’s always fun – they have boundless energy and enthusiasm, and the conversation is always wide-ranging and engaging.  We’re trying to convince them to come visit us agin on the west coast soon.

DSCF7583My cousin Kathie lives in Raleigh, where her branch of the family moved in the 70s.  At that point, it was so unusual for New Yorkers to move to the south that when my Aunt Marge walked into a store and asked for bagels, she was met with a blank look.  Kathie seemed to adapt well as a teenage transplant, and was the only one of her siblings to pick up up a southern accent immediately.  Kathie started her career out as a speech therapist, and has evolved more in to social service program management at this stage.  She raised three kids, all grown and off on their own now, and is also now a grandmother, with twin baby grandchildren.  Her daughter Jennifer, who works as a city planner, came over for dinner when we passed through, and we discussed our experiences of sitting on opposite sides of the table in project planning meetings.

We also got to hang out with Kathie’s partner Chris, who teaches management at NC State, and we had an excellent conversation about the state of academia in different places.  As in every other conversation I’ve had with an academic on this trip, my suspicion that higher ed in this country is becoming a strange and dysfunctional world was borne out.  It’s not that our individual campuses or departments have issues, it’s that academia (especially public institutions) as a whole is going through a transition period (marked by reduced funding, the explosion of management, the shifting of costs onto students, etc.), the end state of which is unclear.  After Greta went to bed we all sat around taking about the general state of affairs, three middle-aged people with enough experience in the world to now understand how things work, and also enough experience to understand how difficult it is to change any large institutions.

DSCF7675The next night we stayed with Kathie’s sister Marirose and her husband Steve (who took off on a trip the next morning before I could grab a photo).  Marirose has another one of the jobs I can’t understand, but at least this time it’s not because it’s in an arcane area of finance.  Her work seems to involve human resources, and leadership, and training and networking, and I think she knows everybody in Raleigh.  (One of my high school friends moved there a few years ago and immediately met Marirose at a reception.)  My mind works in very concrete ways (why I became an architect), and Kathie told me that their father could never really figure out what Marirose did either;  he was in HVAC, another member of the concrete-minded side of the family.  Steve is an engineer, so his work I get.

Marirose and Steve raised three kids too, with the youngest still in school at NC State, it’s astounding to me that my littlest cousin is also a grandmother.  Her daughter Caitlin came over for dinner with her four-year-old son Chase, whom Greta declared to be the most delightful child she had met on the whole trip (Greta is an astute judge of small children and dogs).  We had a great time eating, drinking, playing, telling old stories, and catching up on the various goings-on in our extended families.

DSCF8998Our next family stop was with my sister Laurie and her husband Jeff in Estero, Florida.  Laurie is my youngest sister, seven years older than me, so she and our sister Sue were effectively responsible for a lot of my upbringing.  I was always hanging around them, listening to their music (they had much better taste than my brother) and yacking, and and they never seemed to mind.  They were a huge influence on me and how I see the world.  Greta and I sometimes discuss how much ideas about how women should live have changed in the past half century – she has always taken it for granted that she can do whatever the boys can, and is amazed that it was ever different (a viewport I’ve always shared).  I tell her that my views were probably shaped by having three smart, forceful sisters, who always figured out what they wanted to do and moved ahead in that direction.

Laurie worked at a variety of jobs while living in New York, going to school and raising her son Justin (previously seen in the northern family post).  Eventually she moved out to the Philadelphia Main Line to be near our sister Sue, and after a few years she met Jeff, a madman stockbroker with three kids, and who had hobbies like hot air ballooning and racing his Corvette on the middle-aged guy stock car circuit.  They got married and later ended up working together, starting and running a brokerage firm and a mutual fund company.  (Financial type jobs where I actually do understand what they do.)  Laurie has always loved the ocean, so over the years they spent a lot of time in their summer house on the Outer Banks, before deciding to move their winter base to the Gulf Coast.

Laurie has recently joined my sister Pat and brother Jerry in retirement (so I’m the last one working to pay all their Social Security benefits).  They now spend most of their time in Florida, but head north to Pennsylvania frequently to see their kids and grandkids, (as Laurie has always been about the most engaged grandmother I know).  We had a good time staying with them, and Linda and Jeff got to once again commiserate about what it’s like being a quiet person married to a Keyes who never seems to stop talking.

While Linda was traveling with us in Florida, we switched gears from my family to go visit her sister Paula, who is living most of the time in St. Petersburg at this point.  Paula had a long career working for Yum (Pizza Hut, KFC, etc.) in various places around the country.  When her son Ben was out of the house and off at school, she moved to Shanghai to work for six years, often taking her vacations in other amazing places around the globe.  After returning to Louisville she left Yum, but has more recently signed on as a consultant with Bloomin’ Brands, helping them figure out how to internationalize some of their restaurant lines (such as Outback).  They’re based in Tampa, so she’s rented an apartment nearby in St. Petersburg (the most bizarrely laid-out one-bedroom apartment I’ve ever seen.  I hope none of our grads worked on it.)  We visited her there, dragging her away from the office briefly to experience the St. Petersburg nightlife.  The next day we met her for lunch, then we hit the road again while she went back to work.

DSCF3015cWe returned to south Florida to spent more time with my stepmother Gina, who was living in the home she shared with my dad until his death in 2014 (six months after this photo was taken).  Gina grew up in Liverpool, and when she was three, she was evacuated with her siblings to a small town in Wales the day after the British entered WWII.  They lived on a farm in this town for a few years until the risk was deemed less and they returned to Liverpool.  (I happened to be traveling in England in 1989, and met up with Gina and my dad, and we went down with her surviving brother and two sisters to see the town on the fiftieth anniversary of the day they arrived.  Some people there actually remembered them.)  Gina then grew up in Liverpool (didn’t know the Beatles), and after working as a seamstress decided to try something new.  She moved to the US in the 60s, and eventually ended up in New York, working as a secretary at Associated Dry Goods, where her boss was a client of my dad’s.  After my parents got divorced, my dad sent Gina a letter asking if she’d like to go on a date (he didn’t feel right putting her on the spot while at work) and that was that.

They had a happy marriage for over 40 years, living on the Hudson River in South Nyack, and later buying a condo in Naples. Gina went back to school and got her bachelor’s degree in the 80s.  They travelled together a lot, sometimes related to my dad’s work running his engineering firm, but then a lot more when they retired.  They split their time between the northeast and Florida, but about ten years ago, when my dad was in his 80s, they decided that summers in Florida weren’t a lot worse than the northeast, so they just stayed down south.  We visited them in Florida every Christmas after that, which was always a week of eating and talking and walking on the beach.

After a year and a half of living alone, Gina agreed with my sister that maybe she should move on, so they made plans for her to move into an assisted living facility.  It’s in the same development as their condo, so Gina will still be near all her friends, and can still participate in all her normal activities, like her exercise class and bridge club.  My sister has put her financial and organizational expertise to good use straightening out all of the financial complexities, and we tried to help  her sort through papers and books, etc. while we were there.  Gina  moved into the new place in January.  It’s a beautiful building (actually has a better view than the condo), and it seems like a fine place to keep enjoying the good life in Florida.

Leaving Florida we we left all my family behind (mostly they go south but not west), but there’s more of Linda’s family to catch up with in Texas.

Jeff Thompson

DSCF8832One time Jeff and I were talking about the different kinds of people you meet in architecture school or firms. There are the hard-working, serious, responsible types.  There are the people with big ideas but not quite the skills to realize them.  There are the problem-solvers who excel at the rational aspects of design, but have a hard time with the more intuitive or compositional aspects.  And then there are the people who just throw something down on paper, and it always looks good.  Jeff smiled sheepishly and said, Yeah, I was one of them.  He was absolutely right.  Our class in grad school was half people who had four-year undergrad degrees in architecture, and half people who had never designed a building before.  Jeff had gone to the University Of Florida, gotten a very good education there, and everything he did was beautiful.  I was in awe of people like him, and if he hadn’t been such a nice guy, I would have really hated him for it.

Most of my close friends in school, such as Ray and Kerry, were more like me – northeasterners with liberal arts degrees who were feeling their way into this design thing.  Not only was Jeff one of those really different architecture undergrad types, but he was from southern Florida, a completely alien world.  I was equally exotic to him; he recently told me that I was the first person he’d ever known who regularly swore as part of normal conversation.  (Jeff had never lived in New York before, obviously.)  But despite these differences, we became good friends quickly.  Not only was Jeff innately talented, but he was also very smart, inquisitive, gregarious, a very good guy, and a lot of fun.  Architecture school is full of people who seem to be miserable most of the time – they’re sleep-deprived, overworked, insecure, dissatisfied with their work or angry that no one recognizes their genius. In the midst of this general angst, Jeff was always cheerful and kidding around.  He had a way of getting you to stop taking it all (and yourself) too seriously.  It would have been a lot harder getting through school without his presence.

After graduation, Jeff and I both worked in New York at Steven Winter Associates.  We shared an office and spent a huge amount of time together for two years.  We were mostly working on building systems and technology and research projects at this point, but we did get to do a little design together.  My favorite collaboration was when we designed a 15,000 square foot house on an island in the Nile in Cairo.  Being of the Postmodern generation, we went to town with historical allusions – domes, aches, courtyards, etc.  There was a squash court and an outdoor pool, carefully screened from eyes going by on boats.  It never came close to getting built, but we had a lot of fun.

After a couple of years Jeff felt the pull of family and the good life in Florida and so he returned. I visited him once in the lat 80s, after he had been working for a firm down there for a while, and was just starting out on his own.  He showed me a house he had designed for his parents and which his brother had built.  It was really good – simple, appropriate, well-scaled, with beautiful rooms.  He talked about how hard it was to get work, and I said, but surely if you show people this house they’d want to hire you?  Jeff said, yes, they like his parents’ house, but then they want to know if he could do something like that for them, but more ostentatious.

I moved to Oregon and we lost touch.  I tried to Google him, but there are a lot of Jeff Thompsons out there.  Finally I found him through Google Image, standing in a group photo of staff working for Broward County.  We talked on the phone and caught up, and the next year when we were down in Florida at Christmas with my folks, we went over to Ft. Lauderdale to see him.

Jeff, like so many other excellent architects, had problems keeping his firm afloat with the inevitable oscillations in the boom-and-bust economy.  HIs ex-wife lived up north with their two children, and he had responsibilities.  So he moved into the public sector, working in capital projects for Broward County, getting a regular paycheck and benefits, and keeping more regular hours.  He has happily stayed on there, and is now the Broward County architect, acting as the client and overseeing projects.  A couple of years ago he took us to see a new children’s museum they had built, which was great.  I’ve always thought that good clients had as much to do with good buildings as did architects, and this bore that out.  It’s really worthwhile running complex processes so that good buildings can actually happen.

The other thing that happened with Jeff’s firm was that at one point he hired a charming interior designer, they fell in love and got married.  Jill stayed on in practice, and also taught in and ran an interior design program in Miami.  But after many years of those same business cycle swings, plus the completely insecure, badly-renumerated and often miserable life of a non-tenure-track faculty member, Jill went over to the public sector too.  She works for the county parks department as their park planner and designer, and is loving what she does.

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Jeff and Jill had a daughter about 20 years ago – Hannah is now a college student living at home with them  in Ft. Lauderdale.  Greta and Hannah have now met a few times over the years and have always had fun hanging out.  The added attraction on our visit this year was Jeff’s daughter Jenn, who finished college up north and has been living with them in Florida since, working at various jobs and becoming a broker.  Greta and Hannah and Jenn discovered many common interests (sci-fi, superhero comic books, etc.) and they have been put on Greta’s ever-growing list of the sisterhood of cool nerdy girls she’s met on this trip.

The first night we arrived, Jeff had acquired a big block of seats for the 3-D opening of the new Star Wars movie, which was perhaps the high point of the month for Greta.  Linda had joined us for Christmas, so we all cruised around looking at stuff for a couple of days – beach towns, Miami, the new Perez museum.  It’s quite amazing having two architects and two interior designers get together – the ideas are flying and the conversation never lags.  The only problem is that all the kid are bored to tears by it, but at least this time they had their own conversation going on;  so as always with seeing the Thompsons, we all had a great time.