September 30, 2009


My brother has a phone with GPS which provides voice instructions. You tell it where you want to go and it tells you to turn left or right on this or that street until you reach your destination. I don’t like it. I like maps. I like to be able to see where I am and where I’m going and figure out the route for myself. I like to be able to see all the alternative paths and understand the complex, interrelated nature of the system. The phone only ever gives you the next step on the path and you have to trust that it knows where it’s going to end up six turns down the line. Maybe I have control issues, but I think I’ll stick with my maps.

The thing about maps, though, is that they frequently don’t show all the streets. That was the case this weekend in San Diego. I was the navigator. I sat up front with Dad and gave instructions, and damn good ones, if I do say so myself. But there is only so much a paper map at a certain scale can tell you. Not all streets are shown or labeled and it doesn’t indicate in which lane on and off ramps are located. So we got lost a bit, but neither of us minded much. We still knew our general location and the direction we needed to go. When Brandon was with us, he could pull it up on his phone, but when he wasn’t, we just wandered a bit.

You have to travel the path that is before you. Since high school I’ve had one path, cutting a big bold swath on the map, clearly marked and labeled. It wasn’t until I was firmly on the interstate that I had the height to see the alternative routes, and as we know about interstates, off ramps aren’t always where you want them. Eventually interstates come to an end and you have to decide where to go from there.

I feel like I’m trying to read a map which has most of the streets missing. At the same time a voice is talking in my ear, telling me the next step without giving me the destination. The first is a question of what to do after graduation. The second is the ongoing struggle with my thesis mentors. I’m trying not to stress about either, but I find myself working with these questions on a daily basis, like a math puzzle in need of solving or a map in need of drawing.

I had a poster once with a frazzled looking cat. “I’ve gone to find myself. If I should return before I get back, keep me here.” I’m never felt more like that than I have these past few weeks. I’ve been thrown lots of platitudes, by myself and others. “Don’t worry, it will work out,” kind of words. I appreciate all of them, but the truth is, I already know that. If I didn’t, I would have melted into a little puddle of anxiety goo years ago. Yes, it will work out, but how and when and where?

I have a map, with many, many paths, but no longer do I have a destination. One path continues straight ahead. Others slightly curve away, while yet others move in completely opposite directions and some of them look bumpy. Now me, I’ve always been partial to the bumpy roads, the mountain trails, the paths where you never quite know what’s around the next corner. But I’ve been on that trail for a while now and I wonder if I shouldn’t rest. And if I rest, how long before I become complacent? How hard will it be to get back up again?

In the end, the purpose is the same. I want to choose the path that helps me help others to the best of my abilities and to the best service to them. Is that architecture? Is that chaplaincy? Is that the Peace Corps? Is that writing? Is it something I haven’t found yet? I understand that choosing one now does not preclude the others later. I can always turn around if I miss my exit, but I’d rather not have to. I’m sure this is a lifelong question, but here and now it has a particular vibrancy. I need to decide, because whatever path I choose, I need to know how to pack. Should I pack business suits, portfolios, and resumes? Should I pack books, notes, and coffee? Should I pack hiking boots and quinine?

I wonder if it isn’t finally time to take advantage of career center counseling or the psychological services program. Do they do any good?

If only life were as easy to navigate as San Diego.

September 29, 2009

DN Column - Pacifism

While discussing this with my editor, we once again realized how people's worlds diverge without them even noticing it. My reference to being a victim made him think of getting mugged, in which case he'd give the mugger his wallet without a struggle. So would I, but when a woman thinks about being a victim of crime, she isn't thinking about robery, she's thinking about violent crime - beating, domestic abuse, rape, and murder. It's a sad, sad world we live in where these things still occur. But the conversation makes me realize that men don't think this way, don't even notice this stuff (vast generalization), and that we as women allow it to go unnoticed and unthought about (vast generalization). So next time any of you guys are walking through a dark parking lot or rough neighborhood, no matter how safe you feel, take a minute to pretend a rapist serial killer is hiding behind ever bush and he's coming after you. That's the world women live in, no exaggeration needed.

Pacifism springs from active wills


PS - It appears the online version is missing the first paragraph, though this may be corrected later. But it begins: "I didn’t murder anyone this weekend. That may not sound like such an accomplishment until one considers that I spent the last five days traveling – with my family. Mom, Dad, older brother and I hit every tourist destination within 50 miles of San Diego."

September 22, 2009

Bat Loops

Why. That’s always been my question. It’s the wall I’m banging my head against. Sometime, when I’m feeling particularly masochistic, I ask myself why I always need to know why. I’ve got a beef to pick with causation. I want, I want, I want, I want more than anything else a reason. Why.

Life is suffering. It’s a statement of fact, not a why, but we could turn it into one if we feel the need for cold comfort. Suffering is caused by desire. Ah, now that’s a why, that’s a reason. It’s a reason, but not the reason. Why do we desire? It leaves that one out, or hides it behind. Some say ignorance. We desire out of an ignorant belief that gaining what we desire will end our suffering. Well didn’t it? Or so the legends say. Suffering can end, suffering came to an end. When? When he gained, saw, awoke to, realized that which he desired – the reason why, the truths of suffering and the causes of suffering and the end of suffering and the path to the end of suffering. It’s not just any path, mind you, but the ‘right’ path, so named eight times over, the ‘middle’ path, the path that is the ‘goal.’

I want to know why, always why, but this desire causes so much suffering. It causes crying in the bathroom suffering and arguing with authority figures suffering and late nights with too little sleep suffering and psychosomatic heartburn suffering. And still there is no answer, no why. Some little part of me tells me there doesn’t need to be a why, maybe there is no why, let it go, hide in a hole, have a drink, read a book, forget about it. I’m far too stubborn for that, and I know if I listen, I’ll be right back here next week, crying in the bathroom.

I am absolutely convinced – CONVINCED – that if I find the why I’ll be free of the suffering. Yet enough of the skeptic remains to think it is folly to be so convinced of anything and then the cynic chimes in and basically tells me I’m screwed and then the aversion pops up and tells me to avoid the whole thing, hide in a hole, forget about it. It’s a vicious bitch of a cycle. Hello, samsara, how well do I hate your [internet edit] existence.

I’ve been meeting with my thesis professors every week, and I’m starting to understand what and how, but I feel like a damned idiot for needing them to hold my hand every step of the way. I still don’t understand why. I feel certain if I understand why, I would intuitively realize all the related what and how on my own and, the bigger perk, I would feel like I am on the ‘right’ path, even if it is only named so once rather than eight times. I don’t know that the Buddha foresaw this exact situation, but I’m sure his eight-part path covers the bases.

Even that can be frustrating. Half the time right speech seems like keeping my mouth shut and trying very hard not to argue, because that just devolves into more head banging. On the other hand, if I don’t ask, I don’t learn and what I produce is even more crap. So I can either sit there in what never looks like less than sullen silence or I can invest myself, actually try to figure it out, make them mad, make me frustrated, and then get to crying in the bathroom. I keep thinking if I can just find that one, perfect, non-confrontational, half-enlightened question that they’ll be able to give me an answer, give me a why. We can all have that “Aha!” moment and live happily ever after. Yeah. Right.

So I keep reinventing my faith. They’re professors and they’re good professors and they should know this stuff. If I just follow along for long enough, hold their hand hard enough, eventually I’ll figure it out, see the value of this process, where this path is leading, find my why.

Well, the Christian church can attest to just how good I am with faith. Hell, I changed my entire religion, my entire life because I needed the why. Long before I found Buddhism, I rejected my entire heritage and upbringing because it couldn’t give me the why, couldn’t even show me the path that would get me to the why.

So what’s the likelihood of a couple of professors holding me on faith for the next few weeks (let along the past five)? It’s not a bet I’d take. On the other hand, I do have a few weapons up my sleeves. I have stubborn, for one thing. I have stubborn in spades, enough for any dozen people, and damn it I want, I want, I want, I want to know why! I won’t even let my stubborn clinging to my preconceived notions of what why ought to be get in the way of that.

And I have a shelf full of Dharma books. I was reading Ruling Your World the other day (which has always struck me as an astoundingly arrogant sounding title, no matter what is on the interior pages) and was reminded that I have been very selfish lately. It’s been all about the ‘me’ game. I want, I want, I want, I want to know why. That’s when masochism comes in handy. Why do I want to know why? Well, to help others. Right? Oh wait, did I lose sight of that? Surely I did or I wouldn’t be so angst ridden now.

Knowing why will help design better buildings which can improve people’s lives, support their practice, revitalize the earth, support the community. Knowing why helps turn a selfish desire into something that might actually accomplish itself someday. The Buddha didn’t set out to figure the why of suffering for his own sake. It was prompted by witnessing the suffering of others.

Every time I remind myself of that a little of the tension drifts out of my shoulders. Maybe I should get the bodhisattva vow tattooed on my arm. Or backwards on my forehead so I can read it in the mirror. Although, that might limit my future career prospects. And I’d have to walk around with a mirror everywhere I go.

Then there’s always the path, that noble, eight-fold, middle, goal-esque, thing. It’s just full of baby steps, little things, present-moment accomplishments, the easy-wins. No, I’m not going to tell my professor they’re full of shit or call them idiots because they didn’t understand what I drew. I’m going practice gratitude, say thank you, ask questions, and try, try, try to keep an open mind. No, I’m not going to go out and roll myself into a drunken stupor at two in the afternoon. I’m going to take a walk around the block, cool down, enjoy the fall weather, and then go back to work. No, I’m not going to set my studio on fire. I’m going to carefully roll up that drawing, pull out a new sheet of trace and the sharpies and start again. See, baby steps.

Yesterday there was a bat in the attic, cute and small, but not supposed to be here. It was making erratic loops and twirls over the desks, baffled by the bright fluorescents and the tilting trusses cutting through the space. I called to report it, hoping to solve this problem. Later it flew out a window all on its own, probably the same window it came in through. Lucky little sucker. It got out.

Most days I feel like that bat and most days I act like I do, trying to solve the problem without ever knowing why. We may never know why that little bat was in here, but it made it out okay.

I hope I make it out okay, whether or not I ever find the why.

DN Column - Set Ain't Love

Why, oh why, when I finally got up the gumption to publish this column did I wait for two days before I'm going to be trapped in a flying tin can for several hours and then spend four days in the nonstop company of my parents. Maybe they won't read this one column, or maybe I'll luck out and they'll be too embarrassed and/or polite to bring it up. Yeah, maybe. I couldn't have timed it for a week I know I'm not going to be home for a month, by which time they will have forgotten it? *sigh*

Sex-love connection deceives society


September 21, 2009


Graduate tuition: $2223

Student fees: $711

Books: $138

Model making supplies: $342

Drawing supplies: $125

Super-fast, program required, 17" laptop: $2042

Caffeine and late night pizza: $3884

Getting bat shit on your final thesis project the night before the due date because your university department is too cheap to spring for an industrial stapler and chicken wire over the windows: Priceless.

Numbers Game

I never wanted my life to come down to a numbers game. Life may have had other plans. In order to pay back my student loans and maintain a lifestyle similar to what I have now, I’ll need to make close to $40,000 straight out of college. I don’t know if that’s feasible. A simple google of ‘architect intern starting wages’ finds a number of figures anywhere from $27,000 to $38,000. I may have increased earning potential due to my second degree in planning, then again perhaps not. An architect intern is an architect intern. Any additional potential may likewise be mitigated by the down market, which is particularly hard on architecture and other construction related industries as they are tied to mortgage lending and business investment. Maybe I could scrape by on less and hope for a raise, but how long to I want to struggle like that? (Again.)

I consider a PhD. Doctoral students usually receive full funding from their Universities, often in return for teaching appointments. UNL has a very limited PhD program and I’m never seen one of our PhD students teach, so I’m not sure how the system works. I wouldn’t want a PhD from UNL in any case, as the only one offered is in Architecture Education. I would be more interested in a design based or planning PhD. In addition, the salaries of professors seem to be in the mid $70,000 per year. I could not find a starting salary estimate, but if we assume it is closer to the 10th percentile than the media, it appears to be in the mid $40,000 per year range.

The other argument for a PhD is the opportunity it will give me to research a pressing problem. I am interested in exploring physical solutions to gentrification (as community, economic, and social based solutions are already being or have been explored). The downside is that my opportunities upon exiting my PhD are limited. I like to teach and help people learn, but the entire tenure track rigmarole leaves a sour taste in my mouth. I don’t want to live my life in the ivory tower, but there are lots of opportunities for service-learning in this major.

I suppose it will come down to this – if I cannot find a professional position able to pay me a living wage I’ll end up filling out PhD applications.

September 20, 2009

Dreaming Deeply

I haven’t been sitting. No surprise there. But I’ve been dreaming a lot. I think my subconscious is learning, or at least is on better speaking terms. The metaphors are simple, easy to understand, and yet astute. I’m still dreaming in third person at least as often as in first. Topics still vary according to my hormonal cycle. My out of control car dream morphed into one in which, for the first time, someone else is behind the wheel.

My pregnant dream returned with a subtle twist. This time I was only three months along, knew exactly who the father was, and my family was supportive when I told them. This is a major improvement over the usual nine-months pregnant with no idea how it happened and basic aura of panic. Over the years these dreams have progressed. It leads me to conclude that either my biology has become more subtle and has subverted my subconscious (unlikely, considering it is my subconscious and thus every bit as stubborn as the rest of me) to its cause or I might actually be more receptive to the idea of motherhood.

Dreams are more lucid, more easily recognizable as dreams while in progress, more easily shaped. I’ve always had a habit of this, but it seems only to be growing. My sleeping mind is easily set to a task, working out a design problem or coming up with a story idea, products in the forefront of my brain upon waking. I’m more comfortable within my dreams, even the ones which should be seen as disturbing or scary. I think this is because at some level, even well below lucidity, I recognize them for what they are.

I don’t know quite what to make of all this. I hesitate to call it progress. I feel that might be deceptive and only time can tell. Perhaps it is a necessary step towards dealing with stress or a critical realization has been made, or is about to be made, regarding the nature of mind. Maybe it’s just a chemical imbalance in my brain.

In any case, it bears watching – with my eyes closed, of course.

September 17, 2009

Presently Planning for the Future

If you do a Google Books search for “Buddhism present moment” you get 2,780 different books. If you do a regular web search you get 367,000 hits. It’s interesting to me considering I need to devote this present moment and several present moments in the coming year to contemplating my future.

I’m a planner, by inclination, education, and hopefully profession. Now I’m looking for a plan. It’s ironic that up to this point I’ve always known exactly where I was going, even when I didn’t know exactly how to get there, which was often. I was shooting for a Master of Architecture. Along the way I tacked on a Master of Community and Regional Planning. The goal has always been to graduate, find an internship with a firm, pursue an architectural license, become a certified planner, and someday open my own practice. I’m beginning to question this goal, have been for a while in fact, but I need to understand why I question it before I can answer the question.

I’ve written about the myth of the “real world” after college, attempting to destroy the dichotomy between the two. It’s true that I don’t think life inside the ivory tower is any less real than life outside, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t different. I often complain about how I’ve been in college far too long. Which leads me to wonder, is the impulse that sent me wandering the bottomless depths of the internet this morning in search of PhD programs born from a genuine interest to continue my education or a fear that I’ll be either unable to succeed at my previously held goals (job, license, business, etc.) or that those goals will fail to make me happy.

I don’t really like that phrase – “make me happy.” I know that a job cannot magically “make” me happy anymore than anything else. Yet it still seems appropriate. I question whether or not this long-held goal is actually right for me anymore. What if there is something better our there? More fulfilling? More suited to me? I’m suffering from a case of “grass-is-greener” even though I can’t even see the other side of the fence just yet. But is this question itself merely a mask for my insecurities.

Three summers I’ve applied for internships with architectural firms and three summers I’ve come up empty. In 2008, I did get that internship with Rocky Mountain Institute, which has been the highlight of my college work experience, but RMI is not a firm and I’m uncertain I could pursue my goals of licensure with them. So that leaves a nagging doubt – why didn’t the other firms want me?

When I do interact with professional architects, planners, and firms, I am often disappointed. I participated in some design charrettes and client focus groups for the new Multi-Cultural Center, a boring box of a building which will lend itself to neither ‘multi’ nor ‘cultural’ anything. Last Friday I verbally danced with the design firms for the new Nebraska Innovation Campus, but their plans left a cardboard taste in my mouth. Years ago, I signed up for the mentoring program through the college but our mentor could offer hardly any input on our studio projects, seemingly out of his depth, and instead showed off his firm’s work of strip malls and uninspiring schools. The architects who come to our studio critiques either get hung up on the number of fire stairs shown on our plan and ignore all other aspects or get into high-brow conceptual arguments with the faculty, while we listen on in exhausted silence.

Yet when I interact with clients and certain other designers, I am energized. Yesterday my planning studio class (10 of us) knocked a design framework for Innovation Campus out of the park. We identified the major issues, created a conceptual visionary framework to guide the design of the entire site, and broke down into three teams to deal with what we see as three major areas of interest. Our two professors, one professional consultant who’s been sitting in with our class, and naturally ourselves, were quite pleased with the scheme and baffled by the professional firms’ inability to come up with something even half as good. I mean really, in the grand scheme, a professional firm with years of experience should be able to spank our asses, right?

Is this the kind of job environment I’ll be diving into? Do I want to do that? On the other hand, there are a few bright spots. I’ve met some architects from firms here in town and elsewhere who seem to have it going on, people I would love to work with and learn from. But what if they end up being similarly stifled by the reigning industry culture? Moreover, I’m interested in design and I know that both architecture and planning have many far more detailed sub-disciplines. Will I be bogged down with busy-work (necessary or not), either as a low-on-the-totem pole intern or a licensed architect? Maybe I won’t mind the little details. I did some work with a contractor on punch list items when I was at Shambhala Mountain Center and I enjoyed that, concrete cracks, door frame scratches, roofing flashing, and all.

Moreover, what if the grass really is greener? What if I’m overlooking something? I’m intrigued by these architecture and design charter high schools I’ve recently found. I really do like to teach and help people learn, but I’m not at all interested in tenure track and I feel I should have some extra work experience first anyway. I like working with communities and I’m interested in exploring community-based design further and finding solutions for the pervasive issue of gentrification, such as a PhD would allow me to do. What about my writing? What about my Buddhist studies? Chaplaincy training? What about travel? The Peace Corps? Japan? Hell, what if I fail the licensing exams one too many times?

It sounds like impatience. Maybe it is impatience. It is definitely uncertainty, worry, anxiety. The way I know how to deal with these things is to sit down and turn my mind towards working out a solution, finding a plan. I don’t have to stick to the plan, but it’s nice just knowing it’s there. A part of me just wants to let it all go, fly by the seat of my pants, devil may care, but that part of me is not the wiser part. That’s the stick my head in a hole part and hope it will all go away. No, I need to sit on the ground of uncertainty and spend some time trying to understand what I really want (yes, even though desire is the root of suffering, blah, blah, blah) and how I can get there from here.

I have a few more months to figure it out, so I’d better pay attention, and if I don’t have a plan by then, well, there’s always that hypothetical job in a shoe store.

September 16, 2009

Welcome to the Bitchfest

Bret: MONICA! You're my hero.

me: you have low standards

Bret: Indeed I do. I said the same thing to the guy in the fast food drive who undercooked my fries. Low standards are an important philosophy for life and education.

me: true so why am i your hero today?

Bret: Because you're the only person on g-mail IM and I'm bored.

me: oh, good enough why are you bored this time?

Bret: Because higher education in the US amounts to daycare.

me: true but you know that didn't you come prepared?

Bret: Well I did bring my tippy cup and my favorite red bouncy ball but nobody wants to play.

me: bummer personally, i prefer a laptop and the new york times, but to each his own

Bret: Well you can't make very good paper airplanes out of newspaper and people look at you oddly if you play computer games during class.

me: what classes are you in? in my classes that's practically par for the course

Bret: I'm at studio trying to do enough that my group actually thinks I care.

me: hmmm i'm betting they don't care if you care so long as you still do do the work that is i'm finding not giving a damn about the work i do quite liberating

Bret: Yeah but it leads to a conflict of motivation vs goals and intended outcomes.

me: goals and motivations only conflict if you have either wereas i'm practicing being unmotivated and goal-less my profs seem to prefer it that way

Bret: Yeah but thats the rub...I think my group has the goal of doing what the prof wants and I only have an over riding desire to tell them that the prof is full of shit.

me: which prof?

Bret: Peter Hind. The guy is nice and all but he talks too much to suit me and wastes too much time making us listen to his irrelevant tangents.

me: so i've heard so why haven't they figured out he's full of shit yet? and why do you care if they just want to do what he wants if that's how you get a passing grade? don't tell me you actually want to learn something? gasp

Bret: #1. Because they think he's great (and in comparison to others on the teaching staff thats not unwarranted). #2. I care because I know what to do without being told and the redundancy makes me grit my teeth. #3. I'm not concerned with learning as I am with trying to contain my angst until such time as I am holding my diploma.

me: i so understand all of that you doing thesis next year or vertical studio? or is this your last?

Bret: Last year. In retrospect I should have done thesis with Wayne so I could have just done my own thing, but I thought I would benefit from another year of healthcare (in terms of employability). In the long run it will help me get a job, its just wading through all the shit I already know that galls, I wish they would let me jump ahead in the project and focus on things I actually want/need to learn.

me: so did you take the healthcare studio twice?

Bret: Yup. I figured doing multiple heathcare projects of different types was better than doing a thesis and only doing one project. Volume > quality sort of thinking. Plus I know that next semester with Wayne I will have a golden ticket to do whatever I want.

me: cool sorry they have you stuck in a group that's slowing you down i had to do remedial homework for my thesis profs this week because my design process isn't what they think it ought to be i'm two weeks behind schedule

Bret: Ouch. Make it up, bullshitting is the true art of the architect. That is my motto. What do they think you should have done?

me: oh you know, come up with a nice fuzzy concept, diagram the concept in some bizarre way, put the diagram on the site and create some completely arbitrary schematics which relates well to the concept but have no reasonable chance of actually being a workable building or for any reason actually fulfilling what actually needs to happen on the site but apparently what I handed in was "much more promising" despite the fact that it means didly squat to me

Bret: It can't be! Focus on a meaningless and arbitrary concept over actually addressing reality? I cannot believe such a thing of our school! In life its the fuzzy bunny thinkers that always kick you in the balls. or ovaries as the case may be.

me: so true ya know, i was trying to figure out why i found it so hard to do it the way they wanted me to do it and i realized something i've been designing things my way for 23 years i started drawing building plans when i was 6 when i was 8 we got a computer and one of the first programs my mom bought was a little floor plan layout software for me i taught myself orthographic projection when i was 10 i had a dozen notebooks full of plans and sections and elevations by the time i was 12 so when they ask me for a design, that's what i spit out but the problem is that that isn't the way i design - that's just the way i express the design the process is all in my head because i never had a way to express it so they assume i'm just not doing it - i'm not considering concept and architecture and design and i try to tell them in words (cause words and plans were the only ways to express what i had) but they think that's not good enough i have to have diagrams and schematics - like if the process is external it's more valid and if its internal it might as well not exist at all ARG!

Bret: Welcome to the school of architecture where they don't believe that you can think with your brain, you have to sketch to do it. Draw some squiggly lines on a page and make them happy.

me: that's what i ended up having to do it's just ridiculous makework

Bret: And now you know the source of my angst in this school since sophomore year. Makework > learning/doing.

me: ha - try freshman year! try kindergarten! hey, we'll graduate together in May go figure i'm seriously considering writing an honest graduation speech something short and sweet, maybe just two words do you think they could withhold my diploma for that?

Bret: I think they would try to find a way. I hope your speech would start with an 'F' and end with 'you'. I think mine would start with 'F' and end with 'this school'.

me: yeah, but i have no reason to believe another school would have been any different so i'd just stick to the all-encompassing pronoun

Bret: True. Would 'fuck higher education' be general enough or would you like to indicted US education in general?

me: oh, we must include k-12 certainly i hated that more than college ya know, i was stupidly looking forward to this year i had thought i'd finally get a chance to do it my way

Bret: Silly rabbit, you never do your projects in do the professors, and when you do someone else's work you have to do it exactly how they like it or you just aren't learning.

me: "you do your professors" ha, now i know why some people sleep their way to the top it's easier ya know, i miss ertl he was a great studio proff because he didn't give a damn well, this bitchfest has been fun, but i've got to go to school now hang in there

DN Column - Health Insurance Reform

Here is yesterday's column. I was busy being mad yesterday so I didn't put it up.

On a different note, the 'remedial' homework I was assigned by my thesis profs has been deemed "much more promising." I find this all baffling because to me it means little more than inane and arbitrary scriblings on paper, but that could just be the mad talking. I'm afraid they'll think I was very sullen and ungrateful yesterday (maybe the first, but never the last). I found that being completely shut down was the only way I could be open to what they had to say. So I probably came off like I didn't care because, well, I was trying very hard not to care because every time I invest myself in the work I do for them, I get sucker punched. I guess the end result is, I don't care much for the work I did for them yesterday, and I don't care much whether they like it or not. *sigh* I'm gonna have to figure something better out.

Anyway, here's the column, with it's appalling innocuous headline.

Health care reform urgent, no solution in sight


September 12, 2009

Do What You Know (or Don't)

After another very frustrating meeting with one of my thesis mentors, I have decided to let it go. I'm not going to do what they want me to do because 1) I don't know what it is or how to do it and 2) I don't believe it's neccessary. They tell me that I need to be able to clearly explain and diagram my concept before I can more foward otherwise it will get lost and not be expressed in my schematic design. I say that if the concept cannot be made edvident by the schematic design it is not a successful schematic design. And given that it's my schematic design, no one else needs to clearly understand my concept ahead of time, when the design should make it obvious. Not everything needs to be known going in - sometimes you just have to go in anyway.

So enough of this - I'm going in.

September 10, 2009

Walk Before You Run

I’ve been quite stressed lately and in such circumstances I do one of two things – I hide or I run. I’ve been hiding. This involves, among other things, taking refuge in the imaginary world of stories, novels, television, movies, etc., sleeping, wasting time on frivolous tasks just to keep my mind occupied, and generally feeling confused, tense, and bitchy. When I run, I can work through it. I write a lot, work a lot, build and design a lot, and generally feel fulfilled, energized, and punchy.

I run when I know where I’m going and when I don’t, I hide. Hiding is generally a response to more severe stress, mental and emotional exhaustion. Running is symptomatic with the physical and mental stress that simply comes from having too much to do in too little time. This week I keep forcing myself to step out from behind the bush and move down the path. I’m trying to run when every instinct is screaming at me to hide.

I reminds me of walking home. I lived in Shambhala during the summer of 2007, high in the Rocky Mountains, and every night I walked home after dark by myself. Every night I was afraid and every night I wanted to hide. I wanted to stop and turn around and go find somewhere indoors and safe and full of other people. But I forced one foot after the other for the entire half mile hike.

Even when I got to my dark, empty tent halfway up the forested hillside, I wasn’t particularly comfortable, but I rolled myself in my sleeping bag and diligently reminded my overactive imagination that the muffled roaring coming from higher up the hill was a moose and not a bear. We looked it up, remember? And the soft scritch-scatching along the edges of the tent was just Edwin, the chipmunk, not some giant predator trying to get in and eat me. We saw him yesterday, remember?

Naturally, college is a little different. There’s not safe tent to pass the night and daylight doesn’t make the fear go away.

I have competence issues. When my competence is threatened, I don’t handle it well. When I’m frustrated, confused, feel like I should know something, be able to do something, but don’t, possibly can’t, I have a very negative reaction. I’m used to being the smart one. I understand things, I know what’s going on, I can absorb massive amounts of information and create intuitive solutions. I’m not always wise and I don’t always get the right answer, but I usually know within a fraction of a second whether I have the answer I not. If I don’t have it, I know how to get it. If there is no one correct answer (which is often), I know how to bullshit something into sounding correct.

I’m stuck in a situation now where I think I know the answer. I keep telling myself that surely I must have it. But if so, why isn’t it apparent? Why can’t I bullshit my way around to it? And if I don’t have it, where do I find it? What more research could I possibly do? How much brainstorming can I take?

And perhaps most problematic: am I being led astray?

It’s happened before. We all think everyone thinks the way we think, or at least we think they should. Intellectually, we might concede this isn’t true, but deep down we still think it. So teachers try to teach students to think they way they think (despite their best conscious efforts to the contrary) and design the way they design. Naturally, across the field some consensus has emerged, but it will never be a one-size-fits-all garment.

Am I letting my professors try to push me into a design process which fundamentally doesn’t work for me? How can I tell? How much is simply my own stubborn resistance and how much is a lack of confidence, trusting them more than I trust myself? That questioning it leads to all this stress and I tend to believe anything that causes that much trouble isn’t worth the effort.

And yet they’re so very certain that I ought to know this, that I ought to be able to do this, that I should have done it before, but it doesn’t have the faintest ring of familiarity to it. When I think of my one truly successful design, this is not how that happened. But maybe it was a fluke? Or maybe I was doing exactly what they’re telling me I should be doing, I was just doing it unconsciously in a way I can’t adequately articulate even to myself?

So many questions and so few answers. Usually, I’m okay with that, but not today, not this week, and not last week, and I can’t see any way of getting okay with it this time around.

But if I keep hiding, I’ll just end up sabotaging myself. That’s what the dreams were about. Maybe I shouldn’t be running just yet. I tried that two weeks in a row and the bruises from the wall I ran into are still healing. I’ve just got all these expectations, for myself, my project, my professors, and they keep bubbling up, doing more damage than good.

It’s time to put them down and start walking.

September 02, 2009

Quietly Going Crazy

You ever get the feeling you’re going out of your mind? You ever get it at ten o’clock on a Wednesday morning while sitting alone in your quiet cubicle in a state office building working on yet another boring spreadsheet full of census data? Like you want to cry and jump up and dance and fuck something all at the same time? And everything seems so surreal and when you rub your closed eyes you feel dizzy and your glasses feel too heavy and the way they frame your vision, usually so totally unnoticed, is just driving you crazy? And you can’t believe you’re wearing what your wearing and it feels like a sham and the dour grey overcast outside is just so absolutely damned appropriate and every time you look around you feel like this ought not to be your life? Yeah, it’s like that. A Kerouac kind of mood, like what did I take and how am I going to pour this crazy energy out of me?

And nothing on the outside shows. A face devoid of emotion. A body just sitting loosely in the chair in the soothing beige cube like it always does, finger tapping along on the keys. Not an ounce of outward tension. Not a word said, not even a scream, not a hair out of place. And if someone popped their head in right now, I’d answer them with a smile and make small talk just like there was nothing beneath the surface at all.

Maybe there isn’t?

And if someone did catch on and ask me what’s what, I’d downplay. I’d dismiss. Sure I’m a little off, but it’s not big deal. My breakdowns aren’t like other people’s breakdowns. I don’t do crises. I don’t flip out. It’s a matter of degree and my boat is still smooth sailing and the storm is still over the horizon, always over the horizon. It’ll go away. I’ll be fine.

That’s such a shit word, isn’t it? Fine. It’s so overused so as to loose all meaning. We need a better word. One that says “no, I’m not okay, but I don’t think there’s anything to be done about it and you can’t help, so we should just all go about our business like nothing is happening and wait until something more conclusive comes to bear.” It’s like the wind through the trees. They say the flexible ones bend, they bend but don’t break, they survive. But everything bends before it breaks. No one can predict the wind.

So I let my fingers fly and talk myself down out of the trees, degree by degree. It’s all there in black on white on paper computer screen. It’s real. I can’t deny it’s real, but I can also see it is ephemeral, illusory, malleable, like the wind, virtual like the binary code behind the programs, all imaginary ones and zeros. I can go back to the dream, sink back in, loose myself in the spreadsheets and the soothing beige walls. Turn on my little space heater to chase away the chill, pull on my headphones to fill the frenzy with music, a recognizable beat, drowning out my pulse. I like it when I can’t find my pulse. It’s almost like I don’t exist.

Do I?

I wonder when I’ll be ready to pull myself out of this tailspin. I can’t sit here forever quietly going crazy. I’ll have to leave and go somewhere else, to quietly go crazy there. But even then, it’ll never show. Nope, it’ll never show. Never did before so why should it now? Except I have the words, don’t I? I have the real/imaginary word on the paper computer screen. I could erase them. Buh-bye. No one would ever know they had existed. Well, I would know, because I ain’t into that self-denial bullshit – much. But maybe I’m no one? Bet I could be if I tried. Nah. So what if I am (not)? Wouldn’t change anything. Irony, that. Being nonexistent doesn’t make Kerouac stop screaming.

It’s like the tree in the forest, they one these arrogant idiots ask if it makes a sound. ‘Course it does. You think the world revolves around you does it? If you’re not there to bear witness, you think the laws of physics don’t apply? Or are you the reincarnation of Descartes then? And the Wichowski brothers all rolled up into one? Oh, hell, where was I going with this?

I don’t suppose it matters. It’d be too much to hope for any kind of resolution. Maybe I should set sail, head for that storm and ride the big waves for a little while. Ya never know, it could be fun. And how would I ever know? I always kept it just where I want it, just over the horizon, never breaking over my little boat, still smooth sailing, always smooth sailing. But ya know, it’s there all the same. My little pond might have little ripples, but I’m trapped by the storm nevertheless, standing here by the rail watching it. Can’t tear my eyes away. Wouldn’t want to ‘cause it’s beautiful. It’s scary and it’s beautiful and it’s all up inside me.

But I can’t go sailing today. Nope, today I have to be Monica. I have to get dressed and brush my teeth and go to work with the spreadsheets and the soothing beige walls. I have to go to studio and go to class and be smart and charming and just the slightest bit abrasive, rubbing wrong, smoothing the rough edges from other people’s lives. That’s who I have to be today and tomorrow and the day after and every day for the foreseeable future. That’s who I’ve committed to be and I can’t let them down. I can’t just walk away because right now, at this moment, I want to unzip my skin, jump out the window and leave it behind.

I like the way my hand feels when I grip my fist, grinding the bones together, pushing the nails into the palm, feeling the skin slide over the muscle. Solid. Real. But strangely not mine. Oh, I’d never damage myself, but I love the sensual feel of pressure, pushing, gripping, almost hurting. Does that mean I’m real? Guess I’ll keep this skin. I’ll sit in this chair and contemplate all the logical reasons for the storm clouds brewing. Caffeine addiction. Hormones. Stress. Enlightenment.

Okay, well, not the last one, but hey, ya never know. Bet this is what the Buddha felt like under that tree being tormented by Mara. Bet this shit came up. Bet it passed away, too. And I bet he sat there for one hell of a lot longer with one hell of a lot more preparation and dedication than I’m going to be sitting here in this damned soothing beige cube. Ain’t no accident he woke up under a tree. How ironic would it be if Maitreya Buddha got enlightened sitting in an office cubicle in some accounting firm somewhere in middle America? Wearing a business suit and a bad haircut? Oh, I would just laugh my ass off. It’d be so fucking appropriate. Shake us all up, I can tell you. “What do you mean you didn’t spend years wandering in the wilderness seeking ultimate knowledge?”

Damn, I feel so much better now.


I tried several times while writing the above to go back to the spreadsheet I was working in. I tried to let myself get lost in the research, but after a time I just gave up and wrote. I wanted to get it out. And yes, a part of me wanted to document it, like that time I wrote about being so sick. Such a mind is rare for me, and the writer in me wanted to take advantage of it for future reference. Research, as it were.

I knew it was self-indulgent, and I tried to let it go. I mean, I shouldn’t be prolonging my own suffering for the sake of my ‘art’ (I’ve always looked skeptically on those who do) and I was doing a disservice to my boss who I should have been working for at the time. But the gridded numbers just couldn’t hold me, so I wrote. Eventually the humor helped, so I let the thought of business suit Maitreya Buddha unspool while I went back to my boxes within my box.

After I left work, I continued to feel twitchy and off. My mind was a racquetball and every time it struck the wall felt like it cracked a little bit. I went up to the college. I smiled and waved at people. I tipped my hat and exchanged “Hello, how are you?” half a dozen times. After my sixth “I’m good,” I wandered into the bathroom and looked in the mirror. I waited until the door closed to whisper “That’s a damned lie,” to my reflection. I felt like I was having a manic episode like I’ve read about, but how could that be? I still felt in control, at least of my outside self. Completely and utterly in control, at least for now. For how long, I wondered?

I knew I needed to get out of this headspace, before I said or did something unwise, so I did it the only way I knew how, by focusing on others. It didn’t work at first. I ate lunch at the bar in a crowded noisy restaurant, surrounded by talking people and too loud music, but it just grated and I couldn’t finish my sandwich. I walked into class determined to practice active listening for a change, no matter who the speaker was. Luckily, she was good and the subject was interesting. Class ran long and then we all headed down to a meet and greet for the new department head.

I felt like myself again, not completely, but better. I focused on the dean giving his welcome. I focused on getting to know the landscape architecture students who are now one department with the planning students. I focused on our new department head, Kim, with her awesome short grey hair and little round glasses. After most people had trickled out, I stayed and chatted with Trent, then a little group of us talked with the dean when he came over. Then Kim suggested we all go over and see our new planning studio.

The planning students have never had a studio before, although we’ve been begging for one for years. Kim just earned our instant love. Erin liked the space so much, with its windows and brand new drafting tables, she kept covering her gaping smile with her hands. I thought she was going to jump up and down. Even the guys were thrilled. I chatted with Andrea at the bike racks before we went our separate ways. So normal, seemingly so normal. Everything seems to be going so well for her and I’m glad.

I still feel a little off. A little antsy and odd. I’m home and listening to the Macross Plus soundtrack by Yoko Kanno, which is more brilliant than I have words for, especially the classical pieces. I should eat something, but I think I’ll just fix myself a whiskey, read a little more, then head for an early bed. As with so many other problems in my life, maybe I can dream my way out of it. I always think it’s odd how my sleeping mind often seems to work better than my waking mind. I find so many fabulous design solutions when I’m dreaming. I’ve learned to trust it. Maybe I can find some psychological solutions as well. And if I don’t, well, I suppose that’s okay, too.

Crazy ain’t so bad.

Beautiful Fear

Rumiko was ripping me out. She’d finally seen through it all – the fa├žade of intelligence and hard work to the core of disguise and laziness. This was it, the sham was up, college was over. But wait, the night before the dean had tossed me out the door with a thunderous deep voice warning me never to return. And the night before that my boss had kicked me to the curb with for-shame.

Oh, that’s right, this is a dream. I reached out to the scene playing out before me, Rumiko’s crowded office with it’s west-facing windows and book lined walls, her standing indignantly by her desk, the cars passing beyond the building. I reached out and touched the flat surface of it, like a movie screen. I pulled it forward, like pulling a dust cloth from a piece of furniture and it became tiny in my hand, no bigger than a sheet of paper. I crumpled it up and tossed it over my shoulder.

Then I turned and walked away, crossing the threshold into another dream, a more useful dream, one in which I contemplated a new schematic design solution for my thesis project. As I dragged myself up out of the nap, kicking to the surface, I realized that hey, that just might work. I searched for a notebook and pen.

This was Monday, the day before my ass kicking review. Yes, I got my ass kicked, but not to the curb. The dean still likes me and my boss is still pleased with my work. But I know what the dreams are about. Heaven above, the end is in sight. Am I actually going to finish this thing? And then what? Oh, beautiful fear of the unknown.

I was just starting to get comfortable here. Maybe I could stay a while, but sabotaging myself is not the answer. No, no, it’s time to move on. So I’ll crumple up that urge and toss it over my shoulder and walk into something more useful.

I’ve been here way too long.

September 01, 2009

Kick Ass Compassion

Today I got my ass kicked. And it was good.

Sixty seconds after I managed to suck it up by breathing deep and mentally chanting “I will not cry, I will not cry,” I realized I had made exactly the right choice when I picked my thesis mentors. Wrathful protectors, the both of them, unrelenting compassion. Which means they’re gonna damn well educate me for my own good whether or not I see fit to cooperate. I do try. Honestly, I don’t mean to be a stubborn pain in the ass, but when I don’t get it, I’m not going to sit there and nod my head and pretend like I do.

I’ve heard it said a dozen times that you can’t teach design and I’ve always thought it was a cop out. What they speaker really meant was that they can’t teach design. And I’ll agree, it’s damned hard to teach, but after fumbling and frustration (and not crying), they managed to explain it to me – the pieces I’m missing, where I need to go back, what I need to articulate.

“I feel like I’m learning to talk,” I told them, after listening to Rumiko’s description of all the things I needed to consider in my schematic design and how I needed to articulate those considerations diagrammatically. Because I had considered them, I just hadn’t done so explicitly, or hell, even consciously in some cases. I work intuitively, just stirring the pot and letting it boil.

“The thing about intuitive design,” Duncan pointed out, “is there’s no accountability. How do you know you’ve met all the criteria? How can you compare one design against another?”

I’d never thought of it that way. It makes a lot of sense. Then on the other hand, it’s only true if the designer fails to be accountable. I don’t have to county every apple in a bushel to know whether or not I’ve been gyped. I can look at a complex algebra equation and spit out an answer, if not perfect, then damned close, without working any of the steps. But then, Duncan and Rumiko are meticulous. It’s part of their personalities and I’ve always known that. I’m more willing to fly by the seat of my pants, but I can see where it would pay to perfect the meticulous approach first. Like an art teacher once told me, “Abstraction should be a conscious choice, not a default because you never learned how to draw.”

I was frustrated because what they were asking for was not something I’d ever been asked to do before, or if I have it was so poorly I didn’t understand what was required and then managed to fudge by without really understanding what I was doing or why. I don’t like not understanding, I’m not used to it, and I quickly become frustrated, mostly with myself. Eventually we worked it out. They just want recipes for the soup. That’s not so bad, hey? We all need recipes when we’re learning to cook.

“How did I ever get this far without knowing this stuff?” I asked, but they just shrugged. I wonder if all grad students are this clueless. I thanked them for putting up with me. After all, when I asked Rumiko to be on my thesis committee I told her that her job would be to kick my ass.

Boy did she ever, and Duncan got the other cheek!

DN Column - Parents Growing Up

Trying the 'show, don't tell' method in a column. I don't know that I'll get any response to it, since it's not about anything controversial, but I figured it might be relevant. It's about this time (18-20) most kids start to realize their parents are people too, not just Mom and Dad. Although the title is mistaken, though not actually misleading. I moved out over a decade ago. Or rather, they did and Brandon and I bought the house.

Change in family dynamics after moving out