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Friday, April 29, 2011

State of Journalism and The Atlantic Monthly

'"The American public used to gather before the electronic hearth every evening",' Ted Koppel said in a commentary on journalism's decline, according to an article in April's Atlantic Monthly.
The article starts in a way that made me think its author, James Fallows, is going to burst into literary tears about the demise of yesteryear's journalism. Then, not too far in, Fallows seems to accept journalism's changes, including what he calls 'infotainment.'
The Internet may have all but killed print newspapers, but it's also caused them to be (I would think) more widely read. Now we can obtain information momentarily via mobile, blogs, emails, and even by simply refreshing our iPad pages. Therefore I think journalism has expanded. It has expanded in all forms. There may indeed be more infotainment than ever before, yet there is also more serious (credible) news than ever before.
The more I read The Atlantic lately the more I wonder if it's this magazine which has dampened its progressive stance, or if it's I who's outgrown it. The magazine did recently, after all, publish a piece by Edward Glaeser, a shining example of capitalist fundamentalism and quashing the voices of denizens.
Lighten up, accept change, and evolve. Remaining suspended in homeostasis makes one curmudgeonly and conservative. Then again, I must admit to wanting that every news source to be beautifully liberal as MSNBC's Rachel Maddow or Harper's magazine or to mitigate reportage on bonehead megalomaniacs such as Donald Trump or Sarah Palin.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Vitriolic Travel Writers Who Don't Travel There

Photo credit

Lakshmi found her way to me two days ago when a friend and I popped into the library to return my Annie Dillard book and get him a library card (library membership is contagious). I browsed through the travel guide section for a few authorities on Peru when I stumbled on a book called Don't Go There: The Travel Detective's Essential Guide to the Must-Miss Places of the World.

Listen to a him on a podcast.

There are thoughts that start entering your mind as if you're a bona fide author (though for sure I'm not yet there). The title alone and a quite cursory glance through the book caused me initially to assume that it would be full of vitriol and vinegar. Much as China and I didn't agree, I refuse to attack it in a manner I assumed the author, Peter Greenberg, the travel editor for the Today Show put into his book. I won't put that much bite into my writing; it'd be so much easier to write straight from the gut like so but it takes more heart and brains to control that tempest. Those of you who know me are well aware of that fact that vitriol may leave my mouth, yet I still believe that some things don't deserve to be in print-- at least not under my name or even under my pseudonym.

In the end, I found the book refreshing and comical and very well researched. It may have had some plucky lines in it for sure, everyone on earth has something to say about some place they've been. But instead of saying something asanine like, 'I wasn't impressed,' which is a factor I'm writing about in my book's current chapter, he sets up the book into chapters that we might title our own conversations: when not to visit places such as DisneyWorld, what's the stinkiest place on earth, where are the worst roads, what's the dirtiest locale? He covers disease capitals, worst airports, dangerous places, and even the element of human rights amongst various cultures. Yes, therefore, it is not the sandpaper pen I expected. In fact it brings more humor and 'wow!'s than offense.

I suggest anyone to read it. It's a bit contrarian, but that's why it's just as useful as a Fodor's or Lonely Planet guide. It's also full of trivia that blessedly evokes conversation at dinner parties.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Writing for Blogs: Interior Design posts

Some new work came my way this week. I'm now writing for I'll have a post every weekday. Check in and discover things about unique staircases that conjure images of both the Yellow Brick Road and Mexican architecture Luis Barragan.
The site also has a page on Facebook.

Photo/blog credit

Friday, April 22, 2011

The Nitpicking Reader of Architecture Articles

In continuing to read Edward Glaeser's treatise on urban planning in the March issue of the Atlantic Monthly, I've grown irritated. While my irritation doesn't run as deeply as my intellectual libido ran yesterday, I have found more than one point of contention.
This guy is an economist and specializes in real estate/urban development. He's no dummy. However, I take umbrage with this particular sentence: 'The forest of cranes along Lake Michigan keeps Chicago affordable.'
A collection of cranes, whether you're discussing the bird or the construction equipment, is called a sedge, not a forest. Forests are for trees, silly kid! And, having just been to Chicago last week I can say this with certainty as well: there was no forest-- or sedge-- of cranes.
Meanwhile I'll keep my thoughts to myself about his heartless, hyper-pragmatic dogma that there should be no restrictions whatsoever on development and construction. This man is the antithesis is Jane Jacobs. Maybe he and Donald 'Egomaniac' Trump should sit in Trump's new international hotel in Chicago's Loop and discuss the glory of money.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Urban Planning Is Sexy

At 22 years old I began covering planning commission meetings in a Western Chicago suburban township that resisted development like a Republican resists compassion. With relish I attended and write up meeting after meeting, entertained by the masses of denizens who showed up to complain. I'd never been exposed to zoning amendments or setbacks, ordinances, or the like, but anyone who's read me for a while knows I tend to get a bit political, and, of course, I'm a space design writer. The level of detail that goes into development is riveting! The three-sided wars between developers, municipal government, and NIMBYs fascinates. Then you get to see what happens with that blighted lot or that empty parcel of residentially zoned land months later. This is progress, politics, and space design.
Now let's bring that up to my more recent past: chiefly, China, where I had the opportunity to write about urban spaces.
I've just read Edward Glaeser's Atlantic Monthly piece, 'How Skyscrapers Can Save the City', and admit to now finding urban planning and design even sexier than previously. Here's part of why. The article discusses the quandary behind determining who exactly is the grandfather of the skyscraper (Chicago's Louis Sullivan, please), skyscrapers' impact on the (socio-)economic development of Chicago and New York, and the building process that actually constitutes a skyscraper (with him I disagree).

Here's another reason I find urban planning sexy. People not in the industry don't often consider how cities are planned, how they come to look and feel as they do. There's no thought given to the significance to a city's height, width, construction, and particular placement. Glaeser discusses this in delicious detail. He discusses New York, for instance. During its heyday of building lines up the sky, more and more ordinances were developed, naturally. This was partially due to people complaining the skyscrapers were taking the sun (a claim still heard 'round the world by NIMBYs). 'A political alliance came together and passed the city's landmark 1916 zoning ordinance, which allowed buildings to rise only if they gave up girth.... The code changed the shape of buildings,' Glaeser writes, though it didn't stop them by any means; it was, after all, an exponentially growing America. Now his next point sent my mind straight back to China. 'Really tall buildings provide something of an index of irrational exuberance.'
China, and the Dubai of yesterday, is so high on itself that all it can build right now are skyscrapers (skyscrapers that bear little aesthetic value in my opinion, but what can I say about the lack of creativity abounding in the Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill offices of late?) Everything the country builds is a race toward some or another superlative claim, usually frivolous, dubious, and altogether overstated, sometimes to the point of lying. How many people do you think will flock to Guangzhou, China, because it has what's allegedly the world's greenest skyscraper or the world's tallest (censored) communications tower? Anyways, I digress. Let's return to the article.
'The code also removed setbacks and replaced it with a complex system based on' a ratio between interior floor space to total ground area, according to Glaeser. This is what's known as FAR. The very concept takes me back to China, specifically to when I consulted for a talented and prosperous Chinese architect. The increasingly wealthy Chinese don't live in spaces small as the already wealthy Japanese; the Chinese have unfortunately adopted America's idolatry for enormous wastes of interior square footage. The architect and her fellow design staff bitterly complained about FAR restrictions, just as developers I'd covered 15 years ago in the Chicago area township. The difference was, that Eastern country's use of FAR could practically be lifted from 1920s America. On one hand that demonstrates how far behind the country still is (50 to 70 years by most measures I experienced while there); on the other it's kind of interesting the see that country, whilst growing as America was 90 years ago, is using the practices that gave us world-class cities.

You'll have to read my book, when it's finished and published, to further dig into my thoughts about China's urban character. For now, however, suffice it to say what frustrates me about new, major metropolitan areas in India and China that they're not paying attention to mistakes Western countries now admit and try to evolve from. These developing Eastern cities would rather get where we were a century ago and claim to be on par with us.
Then again, no one's perfect. I can't go to subdivisions even in Small Town USA without mentally perfecting their lack of walkability and landscape architecture, their lack of outdoor living spaces and their car-centric planning. Therefore, from suburban US to the megalopolis East, urban planning will remain sexy for me until there are no more cities.
I'd love to hear your commentary.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Yays and Whoas of Journalism

Two pitches down today. That's a lot to do within just a couple hours' span. The subjects weren't entirely new info for me as I've been waiting for weeks to pitch them, therefore they'd had time to marinate in my mind. Nonetheless, each pitch was a new story for me and more expanded than originally planned. Therefore today marked a good journalism writing day.
One story covers how a rural North Carolina school district brought in a design/build non-profit firm to shift its education system. The effects were far-reaching, positively affecting not only the students but the teachers, the community, and the architect/builder themselves.
The second story centers around Jeanne Gang. She's someone I've admired, most especially for her additions to Chicago and its skyline, for a few years now. Originally I thought I'd write about her Aqua building in the North Loop, but the article expanded to use a more recent project to exemplify her iconic use of texture and composition.

I hope to gracious these sell a couple times. It's rather time my work was placed in top Western publications. Meanwhile I continue waiting for a significant British magazine to tell me if/when they'll print a piece they've already indicated interest in.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Page Always Wins, according to The Writing Life

Approximately half of Annie Dillard's The Writing Life bores me senseless, yet the book isn't entirely pointless. It is a literary classic, after all.
Here are some things she's written that I'd like to hold on to, savoring them to maintain the inspiration.
'When the Danish aristocrat Wilhelm Dinesen shot birds all day... he and his wife had three children under three. The middle one was Karen.'
'(The writer) must have faith sufficient to impel and renew the work, yet not so much faith he fancies he is writing well when he is not. For writing a first draft requires from the writer a peculiar internal state which ordinary life does not induce.'
'A work in progress quickly becomes feral. It reverts to a wild state overnight. It is barely domesticated, a mustang on which you one day fastened a halter, but which now you cannot catch. As the work grows, it gets harder to control...You must visit it every day and reassert your mastery over it. If you skip a day, you are, quite rightly afraid to open the door to its room.'
'The page is jealous and tyrannical; the page is made of time and matter; the page always wins.'

Monday, April 18, 2011

After a nine-day hiatus from writing the book, I've returned to the page, slaying dragons of delay. The tone of the writing disappoints me. The subject is difficult to dig in to because it takes so much work to recall and then to determine which of it will interest readers. Most all of it came out as narrative, and only a little writing appeared in literary non-fiction tropes such as dialogue, though some Hong Kong-specific information actually does situate it in travel writing.
One hour led to two. And tomorrow I'll know where to start at least.
The experience was tough, like slogging through knee-high water in jeans and high heels. It's good to have written, though.

Friday, April 15, 2011

California Dreaming: My Dream Home Lies in San Francisco

Of course it would transpire in San Francisco! Having exposure to all kinds of architecture from my national and international travels, I'm still stuck on Victorian for my personal favorite. Only I'd do the inside comfy contemporary, in other words, not warehouse chic or austere minimalist. This California Home + Design magazine story is about as close as I've come to my dream house in pictures. I would, however, ditch that standup shower and install a claw-foot tub, complete with a metal curtain rod and shower curtain-- just for the sake of my eclecticism.

This stellar magazine is one of the foremost magazines on design, not full of itself, beautifully designed, covering a wide variety of architecture and design styles and concepts, and I ache to write for it. If you know the editor there, please pass on my undying passion and my name. I can start writing for them tomorrow...

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Shirtless Architects Working It Up for 72 Hours

I don't know why most of the guys in this 72-Hour Urban Action debut episode are shirtless-- at least because it's bloody hot where they are, but also perhaps a fact of machismo? Nonetheless, catch this 10-minute video

72 HOUR URBAN ACTION | EPISODE 01 from 72 Hour Urban Action on Vimeo.

on architects, artists, and urban thinkers from around the globe who come to Israel to answer the area's needs for public spaces. It sounds the bell for the import of  urban outside living rooms. Successive projects to the initial 72-Hour Urban Action are forthcoming.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Writing: Gaining Clarity after the Gauntlet of Prewriting

Let's give gratitude for those moments of dread that turn out to be easy. Yesterday was such an experience. When faced with a large piece to write trepidation did creep into gnarly tentacles into my thoughts. Once I began, however, a blessing appeared instead, that of a piece practically writing itself. Turns out I already had most of it written, was just intimidated by the gauntlet I'd had to run before stepping to the composition phase.

(Lakshmi, Hindu goddess of fortune, luck, fortuity)

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Another Cheer for Reading Your Writing Aloud

Took the printed version of my book with me on the trip to Chicago. Read it aloud to my friend while he drove, since, of course, we had six hours of sitting ahead of us.
I found this was helpful because it allowed me to mark down what he thought was funny. It also helped me write notes where I needed to clarify things, either because I was reading aloud (always helpful) or because he didn't understand something.
Note to others who do this: don't assume that just because the reader doesn't like something or doesn't respond enthusiastically initially that your writing didn't work. In fact sometimes it just takes a while for it to sink in. My friend did tell me about parts he liked several hours later, completely unprompted by me.
Must admit I am glad I brought the particular version I did. This one was printed a couple weeks ago and has therefore been lengthened in some parts and edited in others already. Therefore, I couldn't hinder my book's progress too much by inserting a section of edits in the midst of writing it. 

Friday, April 8, 2011

Helpful Quote from Annie Dillard's The Writing Life

On reading Annie Dillard's The Writing Life, half the book falls utterly flat on me. At other times, however, her words seem to have come from my own fingers. The following quote marks an occasion of the latter. 
'The reason not to perfect a work as it progresses is that, concomitantly, original work fashions a form the true shape of which it discovers only as it proceeds, so the early strokes are useless, however fine their sheen. Only when a paragraph's role in the context of the whole work is clear can the envisioning writer direct its complexity of detail to strengthen the work's ends.'
Let's approach this one backwards, second sentence first. 
Could I agree more? Doubtful. There is an article I've lately been refashioning to sell to US pubs, but the stuff won't come. I've tried this way, that direction, and another path. Each refuses to yield exactly what I want to say. After trying for a few days I let it go. Flexing the writing muscle over it at this point would be akin to trying to carve pudding. 
Now about the first sentence I must say this:
in the process of writing my book, I worry not about how it sounds or its level of eloquence. I merely get down the facts, infuse it with my mood of the moment. Editing will help shape it like the finer instruments at a sculptor's disposal.

What say you? Any comments on Dillard or your own experiences with first drafts and topic?

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Another Drop of Inspiration for the Writing Well

Found yet another inspirational trick for those moments that I can't sit my doopie down to write: the LinkEds and Writers group on LinkedIn. The relief discovered in the ability to commiserate is palpable. Glory be!
Wasn't feeling the need for inspiration when I checked out an email from this group today; nonetheless, I'm inspired.
I give thanks.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Devi the Writing Fairy

Devi, the writing fairy, visited last night. She entered like a laughing lioness. Unfortunately she was derailed by  a couple events that demanded my attention, but apparently she's returned. And, as Hemingway would have loved, she left in the middle of a sentence. 

Monday, April 4, 2011

Writing from the Right Side: Who's Afraid of Travel Dreams?

We're more likely to hear about people waking on the wrong side of the bed, but what do we ask if someone woke up wakes up happily? Such did I experience this morning. My dreams revolved around travel and that feeling of rush, that feeling of adventure that courses from my veins to my heart and through my pen. These dreams included working with mostly other expats to determine procuring and connecting electronic equipment, finding ourselves acceptable applications, eating at exceptional restaurants, and finally wishing to gracious that I'd had my bloody camera when a panther appeared in the water before us. He or she wasn't fully grown yet but still strong enough to exact some serious damage. Those eyes, that shiny coat, those claws that sliced the air as the big cat tried to extract herself from a watery situation she clearly disliked. The water was more like a ditch but a naturally occurring four-way stop of clean, shallow salt water. To one side was a row of mangrove like trees but tall. To the other side a water auto pulled out of the parking lot/dock of a restaurant. Large, banana tree sized leaves fell about the water. Some relatively thin but tough branches from the tall mangrove trees periodically plopped into the water. The sky was an immense blue bowl with barely any clouds while her sun seemed to smile upon all of us. I was excited to have found this water path with my guide, whom I think was an Indian man. I looked forward to finding my new expat friends at the restaurant.
My thoughts are that that is my hope to return abroad. My thoughts are that no, it isn't easy, but there are many new adventures to have, and this second trip will bring more and different reward.
Or maybe it means none of that. Maybe it's just a side effect of writing my travel book half the day and falling asleep whilst reading another travel book. 

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Drops of Inspiration from Anne Dillard

I open Anne Dillard's A Writer's Life to moisten the well of writing. Out pops quotes in her first essay, ringing softly yet
‘The writing has changed, in your hands, and in a twinkling, from an expression of your notions to an epistemological tool.’ 

'The line of words is a hammer.  You hammer against the walls of your house. You tap the walls, lightly, everywhere. After giving many years' attention to these things, you know what to listen for. Some of the walls are bearing walls; they have to stay or everything will fall down. Other walls go with impunity; you can hear the difference. Unfortunately it is often a bearing wall that has to go. It cannot be helped. There is only one solution, which appalls you, but there it is. Knock it out. Duck.'

'It is the beginning of a work that the writer throws away....The latest version of a literary work begins somewhere in the middle and hardens toward the end.'
'How many books do we read from which the writer lacked courage to tie off the umbilical cord? How many gifts do we open from which the writer neglected to remove the priced tag?'

Ok. Now marks the time to get back to my own writing.


Saturday, April 2, 2011

Barren Well of a Writer's Inspiration

The well of inspiration derived from reading A Woman's Asia has dried up. Opening its pages now feels like scratching my hands against the course dirt at its bottom, hoping to find an ocean, or even a pond, but all that comes is the desert. There is no gurgling, no source of comfort, though there are at least echoes of inspiration that once was.
Nonetheless, I shall write anyway. I shall press on, squeezing this shell of a once-full cactus flower until a drop nourishes my pen.