February 27, 2010

Two Ways

A hundred colored slashes set the backdrop, disorganized rows of blue, black, red, gold, green, white and a dozen other colors. Each slash stands proud, shoulder to shoulder, each row stacked unevenly upon the next, a rainbow of knowledge. Here and there a horizontal band squeezes in atop the heads of shorter siblings, or a row leans a bit where a cousin has wandered off. All are brightly lit by late afternoon sun through tall west windows.

And there, before the rows of color, endless possibility, stands a simple, white draped table, and on the table a dark lump, shining in the direct sunlight, deep with dark wisdom against the prismatic wall. It makes almost a perfect oval, like a beautiful lump of dark rye bread, except for two small triangles just catching the light.

To the left, a bowl of flowers that never fades. The daisies, white, yellow, and red, set long ago by some unknown hand. Below that stands the line of family, grandparents, parents, and siblings, a break in the colorful march.

Slowly the sun fades and the dark lump uncurls, triangles twitching back and forward, sharp white points flexing, and upright statue reasserting itself to survey its domain. Golden orbs swivel, as if the admonish the sun which slides into night for stealing the comforting warmth, a personal affront. That castigation rendered, and all else in its appointed place, the dark shape sets forth to find mischief once again.


My cat snoozes in the direct sunlight falling across my dining table. Her form makes a dark lump on the white tablecloth against the colorful backdrop of my bookcases, two little dark ears peaking up to give it shape. The spines of the books stand straight as stripes, in a dozen different colors. To the left of the tall case, a painting of flowers echoes the colors found on the shelves. Below that, a single shelf carries the photographs of my family.

This view gives me immense satisfaction. The books are so full of knowledge, questions, and stories. The painting is a favorite because of its unexpected nature, found some years ago stashed in the back of a cluttered antique store, with the signature of an unknown artist. My family is naturally important, but I especially enjoy the picture of my mother at eighteen with her beautiful blonde hair and lovely smile and the one of my brother and sister-in-law smooching at their outdoor wedding (they eloped) in Denver.

My cat I love because she is so contrary. All this morning she was pestering me, laying on my hands, bumping her head against my computer monitor, walking on the keyboard. She makes sure I know this is her house, her domain, and I am only here to serve her whims. This afternoon she is taking advantage of the last of the warm sun to be still as a stone and her fur just as warm, but soon she’ll wake, glare and start her mischief again.

February 23, 2010

DN Column - Travel is Basic Goodness

Subversive dharma. And a poke at my editor, Jake, who is always writing about the sinful nature of humanity. Prompted by this weekend's trip to Chicago with several of the fourth year studios. The original version of this column was a drunk's ramble written after a good carafe of sake. But it was too long. (PS - Your average college senior has no appreciation of good sake.)

Travel experiences prove goodness in people


February 17, 2010

The Contents of a Life

Last week my friend Lacey followed me around with a video camera for a class project. Her homework was to create a ninety second narrated profile of someone she knew. We started at my cube at the Office or Rural Health, ate lunch over pizza, and finished in my attic studio in Architecture Hall.

It started with the prayer flags. I have a small set of paper prayer flags in my cube at work, the ones the Foundation for Tibet keeps sending me although I’ve never given them any money. I like them; they’re cheerful. I have another set in my studio, yet more at home, and I’ve even snuck some into my parents’ house. What were they, Lacey wondered, and I tried to explain. I fear I fail at that, because what they are and what they mean are different things to me. I’m not so metaphysical as to believe a slip of paper hung from a string can actually spread goodwill by itself, but every time I see them my spirits are lifted and I know that affects the world and people around me.

Lacey noticed other things – my oatmeal, my shoes and slippers, mugs, peanuts, my little space heaters, glass bottles waiting to be recycled, the accoutrements I surround myself with. My cube is fairly sparse. It’s small, beige, well-lit, and uncluttered, with only a few reference books and neat stacks of papers on mostly empty shelves and clear desk space. My studio is a glorious mess, with books, papers, model-building materials, electronics and computer accessories, old newspapers, pens, pencils, notebooks, pillows, a sleeping bag, lamps, and rolled printouts spilling everywhere, leaving only a few bare square inches in front of my keyboard where I rest my arms to type. The angled roof, dark beams, and dim light make it close and cozy (or so I maintain).

On Sunday, Lacey came down to get some video of me at the Daily Nebraskan, where I edit for the Opinion Section once a week. That desk I share with Jake, the section editor, in an odd chess game of cluttering and de-cluttering. I am on the side of de-cluttering, my first task upon arrival each Sunday afternoon to clear away any leftover copies of the budget or other papers Jake has scattered about, relegate research material to one neat pile in the corner, stack the books back up in a martial row, and return lost pens, pencils, and notepads to their assigned tray. I wash the coffee mug we share, “Grace,” the name of Jake’s church, and a stark cross in white on the blue ceramic. My tea and his tea are shoulder to shoulder behind his small daily calendar of African proverbs.

In my beige cube, looking at the container of writing implements now as it sits in a neat row with the tape dispenser, stapler, and yellow post it notes, I wonder about this dichotomy. I try to recall where I keep such implements in my studio. I only know they should be in the small set of plastic drawers at my right hand, but in reality I tend to find them scattered about in various places. My desk at home is a hybrid, messier than my cube or the Daily Nebraskan, a little cleaner than my studio with more clear surface, if only because I spend less time there, and shelves full of books and accumulated stuff. Why these places so neat and these places so, well, not?

I can only believe it comes down to ownership. My studio is mine. When I moved in I found only a bare desk, chair, and drafting table. The table I pushed out in favor of my own furniture. The computer is mine and all its accessories. The books are mine or from the library. The papers are for my own use, not data to be referenced and filed according to regulated principles, to be rummaged through by unknown future employees. The easy chair that looks out the small dormer windows is something my parents and I found in an antique store on Leavenworth Street in Omaha. Its cream leather sports an embroidered spur, the brown thread matching the bronze nailhead trim. The black metal task lamp I inherited from my mother who got it from her mother during a clear out.

Yet none of these things matter. I don’t work better or worse in any of the four locations. I do like my studio for the character of the building and because once there I can look forward to not having to go out into the cold again anytime soon. The later changes with the weather.

The prayer flags, I think, are important to me. I hung some over my desk when I worked at Shambhala Mountain Center and again at Rocky Mountain Institute. I’ll have to take the next set of flags the Dalai Lama sends me down to the Daily Nebraskan. They are reminders that no matter where I am or what I am doing, I have the opportunity to be mindful, learn, and help other people. That is important – not what is or is not mine, how clean or messy, or free or constrained I feel. Those are all artificial constructions anyway.

Lacey showed me this, when she showed me all the things I surround myself with, but take for granted.

February 16, 2010

DN Column - Men & Talking Sex

Kinda a cheeky one today. Thanks to The Frisky, The Independent, and The New York Times for enlightening me, and to Google for finding them when I asked it "why don't men want to talk about sex?" (Yes, my research methods are very sophisticated.)

Hesitancy to talk about sex exposes men’s sensitive side


February 11, 2010


“It needs something,” Duncan said.

“Something what? Something light, something open, something close, what?” I asked.

“I don’t think we need to define it for you. You need to figure that out on your own,” Rumiko put in.

“Well, ‘something’ could be a purple people eater for all I know.”

That didn’t fly. No, that didn’t fly well at all and I apologized. But I didn’t mean it, so I felt bad for lying. I felt bad for not feeling bad because I wasn’t sorry. I didn’t understand what the “it” was, let alone the “something,” but the apology smoothed ruffled feathers and we were able to backtrack and at least define the “it” and what the “something” should do, if not what it is, precisely.

I wrote a lot last semester about the design process and the friction between myself and my professors. Today we had a particularly rough critique, though not for any design based reasons. The project is coming together, well into its final stages, moving from design development to production. No, the rough edges this time were all internal. I’m simply becoming very tired of feeling like my hand is being held.

It not something either of my main mentors, Duncan and Rumiko, are doing. It’s just things they point out in the design that often seem fairly simple, like “Oh, I should have seen that,” yet it hardly occurred to me. Or if I did notice a problem, it was a vague amorphous thing I wasn’t able to even properly articulate let alone put a solution to. Yet I do not see. It is right before me and I do not see. This has happened week after week.

I thought at first I would learn, but after so many weeks, I am tired. Right after the review last semester I set the Windhorse Project aside and there I left it for four whole weeks. When I returned I could see. I made three large changes and then fretted that they would not pass muster, but they did. They were intuitive, and I fretted that I would be unable to justify them, but never that they were wrong, but my mentors accepted them. I felt we were closing in on the final design, and we have, but these last three or so critiques have been so stodgy and incremental, full of little things I did not see.

Perhaps I ask for too much, but I do not recall this trouble in prior projects. I felt more in control. That seems like such an awful thing to say, “in control,” but even on those projects when I did not have answers I felt confident in my ability to find them because I knew what it was I was going for. I don’t feel that in this process.

I wonder now if this is a byproduct of the process itself, which I have long felt was imposed upon me, and not one of my own making or own inclination. Which leads me to question whether or not I am resisting, subconsciously or not, in order to validate my own preconceptions as to what the design process ought to be or if I am not suited towards this process at all. Duncan and Rumiko seem to be in agreement regarding it, therefore I have subsumed my will to theirs, hoping to learn enough to be able to move forward on my own within this framework. But that has not happened and I grow impatient.

Rumiko and Duncan’s process is what I call “concept first.” Whereas mine is the “soup process” (I wait until I see). And though I still wonder if that is the whole problem, that one process is “mine” while the other is “theirs,” I must also attempt to play to my strengths. A left handed person can learn to hold a pen in their right, but it will never be natural or easy and their work will never be as neat or clear.

It is too late to go back, but I think I am approaching a conclusion. I have suspended my doubt for quite a while, in order to move forward, but I think in the future I shall go back to the soup process. Perhaps it will result in no better products, but at least it is something I understand to do. Duncan and Rumiko won’t be there to hold my hand forever.

The training wheels have to come off sometime.

February 09, 2010

Taking Care

Today on the Tricycle Editor’s Blog, an excerpt from Pema Chödrön’s latest book reminded us “When we build a house, we start by creating a stable foundation. Just so, when we wish to benefit others, we start by developing warmth or friendship for ourselves. It’s common, however, for people to have a distorted view of this friendliness and warmth. We’ll say, for instance, that we need to take care of ourselves, but how many of us really know how to do this? When clinging to security and comfort, and warding off pain, become the focus of our lives, we don’t end up feeling cared for and we certainly don’t feel motivated to extend ourselves to others. We end up feeling more threatened or irritable, more unable to relax.” From Unlimited Friendliness (Winter 2009).

I wondered, what do I do to take care of myself? What are the things that genuinely generate warmth and friendliness towards myself and help me be more able to care for others? And what things are just indulgences, cop-outs, bribes, and stuff I tell myself I deserve or need but don’t actually show real caring and don’t help me become more open to others?

Keeping my home clean is something I frequently underestimate, yet when it is clean, I am always amazed at how uplifted I feel. It has been a dumping ground since last September when the new school year began, and self-nagging to clean over winter break resulted in no more than a constant mild guilt. Yet, when Alison wanted to come over to have a look as a possible renter, I took the time, not much really, and cleared my dining table, coffee table, entertainment center, and desk, of their resultant piles of accumulated junk. I put my laundry away and did my dishes. I spread a flowery tablecloth on the dining table and dusted my shelves.

Since then, I’ve managed to keep it clean, with minimal effort (as I’m rarely home) and the way it makes me feel continues to surprise me, especially after returning from a long day spent in my cluttered attic studio (which, perhaps ironically, as a working space I feel very few compunctions about messiness). So being lazy and avoiding cleaning because I’ve had a “hard day” or I “deserve a break” or “no one else cares anyway,” actually makes me feel worse. These selfish excuses help no one, including me.

There are many ways I indulge without actually taking care (OED: to take thought for, provide for, look after, take care of; to have a regard or liking for) of myself – my constant low-level intake of refined sugar throughout the day, the way I procrastinate homework I perceive as “boring” or “pointless” and scramble to make up later, how I sleep too much or eat too little in response to stress, the way I get caught up in fictional stories and neglect my work and the real people around me.

Yet there are also a few genuine ways I care for myself – keeping my house clean, giving up cooking, working at the Daily Nebraska even though it is outside my chosen “career,” my Saturday night bath, the Sunday New York Times, enjoying music and listening to podcasts, sharing the lives of animals like my cat, and taking the time to care for others.

Stopping into the office to kibitz with Andrea or Brett, running into classmates on the stairs of Arch Hall, chatting philosophy and religion with Jake online, are all highlights of my day. Perhaps it’s a selfish motivation because these things make me feel better, but I like knowing how the people near me are doing. I want to know about Brett’s origami shaped aid station and I like joking with him about putting a giant robot poised to step on it in the model rendering (because it’s designed for deployment in Japan and we know how they love their giant robots). It makes me feel more involved with the world and less isolated. Even though by rights I ought to be up at my desk working furiously on my thesis, these water-cooler moments really help me find balance and energy.

So taking care of others is also one way of taking care of myself.

DN Column - Capitalism is Killing America

I have hesitated to write on this concept for a while now. I fear my point will be misunderstood as simplisticly anti-capitalist, when it's more subtle than that, a critique of what values we hold and from where we derive them within our society. It build a bit on concepts of attachment and aversion, i.e. love is good, love clouded with attachment can be very distructive, and love is prone to be accompanied by attachment. Capitalism is neither intrinsically good or bad (I hope), but capitalism clouded by greed is bad, and capitalism is prone to be accompanied by greed. We'll see how it goes. Oh, and check out Capitol Words; it's really a fun little site. I just wish it had trackbacks to full quotes.

Greed, self-interest tarnishes American capitalism


February 05, 2010

Feeling the Wheel

I’m tired of being labeled. Tomorrow that’ll change. Tomorrow I’ll be all about defining myself again, on the lookout for stereotypes and categories. Last week, Zach told me my boots were very liberal. How can boots be liberal? They’re just canvas, elastic, and rubber. They’re also bright, spanking red.

I’m tired of defining myself. I feel pushed around. Because of how I’ve defined myself I am now locked into certain paths. I can’t just pick up and go to France to learn to be an acrobat. Architects don’t do that. Writers don’t do that. Writers write. Architects architect. Americans verb everything.

I don’t want to abhor the south anymore, just because it doesn’t have seasons. I want to be unapologetically warm even in February.

I don’t want to have this ego trip. I pat myself on the back with every puddle I splash through. Aren’t I smart – I’ve got my wellies on. I don’t have to step gingerly, hop over, and suffer cold, wet feet like all you silly folks in your loafers and heels. Why do I have to feel this way? Why is everything a statement?

Welcome to the flip side. Aversion. Attachment. It’s all the same thing. Does a wheel have an upside and a downside?

I want to say these things don’t bother me. Wouldn’t it be nice to stop looking for labels and to also not care how they are applied? Wouldn’t it be nice to actually feel like I honestly could do anything I felt like tomorrow? As if I were, in fact, free? Not simply to know it intellectually, but to feel it deep down inside. What would it be like if I didn’t have to congratulate or chastise myself?

Buddha knows.

February 02, 2010

Fighting for Jesus?

Flock Is Now a Fight Team in Some Ministries

This was a shocker until I wondered, is there any difference (other than a continent and several hundred years of refinement) between this and Shaolin Kung Fu?

DN Column - Do Less

Totally stolen, er, adapted to the college lifestyle from Marc Lesser's "Do Less Accomplish More" article in the Fall 2009 Tricycle. Also mildly based off my prior post, Living With Dedication.

Focusing on what’s most important makes for a simpler life


February 01, 2010

Subversive Stereotyping

We always have the best conversations at weekly Opinion Section meetings. They are chaotic and far-ranging, full of interruptions and interjections and non sequiturs. We rarely accomplish much, but we have a good time.

This week we discussed stereotypes in response to last week’s impromptu sex theme in the section. Jake, with his “crunchy conservatism” (his characterization) and “Christian luddite” (my characterization) tendencies, often has trouble in dialogue with other conservatives, who paint him with the broad socialist brush following any reference to environmental sustainability, after which he feels excluded from any conversation, written off. I pointed out that I have often found it to my advantage to “own my stereotypes,” because that gives me the opportunity to shake people up when I act outside of them.

I have always seen this as a kind of passive-aggressive strategy, and it has served me well in debate. However, passive-aggressiveness is typified by a kind of mostly silent obstructionism, and silent is one thing I am not. I can be a very loud obstruction when I put my mind to it (and sometimes against my own better judgment). I lay wait. Perhaps I was a jungle cat in my last turn ‘round the wheel, or a like a baseball player, I wait for the pitch before I swing. It even shows in my fencing. I taunt an opponent into attack with a false opening or feint, then parry and score on the riposte.

Is this clever or merely deceptive? How often have I railed against stereotypes even as I turn them to my use?

In relation to last week’s section, I wrote from a very sexually liberal stance. People are surprised to discover I hold such opinions. I dress fairly conservatively, “thrift store chic” if one is charitable about it, without showing skin or curves. I don’t talk about drinking, partying, or “this guy I met the other night.” In addition, I am sexually liberal but I am also very picky about my relationships. Sexually liberal people should be having lots of sex, right? They should dress provocatively and have all kinds of thrilling stories, right?

At the same time I respect other people’s opinions about sex, especially in regard to religion. I don’t disregard religious teachings in contradiction to my own liberalism as “old fashioned” or “dogmatic.” So while Jake and I hold entirely opposite views on the topic of sex outside of marriage, we find a platform for mutual respect. As a result, we had a lot of fun editing each other’s columns this week, helping strengthen each other’s arguments. Too often people assume that someone with a strong opinion one way or the other will naturally “poo-poo” an opposing viewpoint. They are surprised to be engaged in civil debate.

Is this “laying in wait” an effective strategy for shaking people up, helping them move beyond conceptual thoughts and categories? Am I just doing it for my own amusement? Or am I just passing? In sociology, passing is the ability to present oneself as a member of other social groups such as race, gender, class, etc., usually in order to gain social acceptance. Do I spend most of my life passing and then only “shake things up” when I feel safe or want attention?

When I first moved to Lincoln, I got a job with the Army ROTC. It took them six months to realize they’d hired a pacifist (and worse, a vegetarian), but by that time I was already embedded in their minds as a person, an individual worthy of consideration and respect. We had many quite lovely debates in the office and I never felt excluded. In fact, it is one of my favorite times here at the university because it added to the diversity of my experiences. At the end of my “tour” they gifted me with the soapstone buddha who now graces my very informal shrine at home.

I am forced to admit I get a kick out of delivering the surprise. I like being other than what people take me for at first glance. It’s the chance to be Cinderella at the ball. (Did I really just use a Disney metaphor?) It also prompts good conversations, a favorite activity I don’t get to indulge enough. People assume I’m younger, more conservative, and more acquiescent than I am. It’s fun to be otherwise. I always feel a little subversive.

It’s useful, in any discussion, to be seen as an “insider” rather than an outsider. This was true at the ROTC. This is true when I worked in customer service and learned to fake various accents because people were nicer to me if they felt I was one of their own. This is true when I do projects in rural Nebraska and toss around the names of my parent’s small town homes as proof of my “credentials.” A “radical” suggestion from an insider isn’t usually seen as radical at all, whereas even the most commonplace suggestion from an outsider is viewed with suspicion.

Am I perpetuating false dichotomies? Am I perpetuating stereotypes? Am I working to break these things down? Or merely doing the best I can with imperfect cultural paradigms, trying to build a house with a broken hammer?

I try to never consciously present myself as something I am not (I don’t work in customer service anymore, so no more fake accents), however, I am aware of and do capitalize on the conclusions people draw on their own. I am not obligated to announce all of my preferences, affiliations, opinions, and quirks to everyone I meet, not least of which because this would be impracticable. Yet I have to be aware that I sometimes tread a thin line between ego, deception, and skillful means. This concerns me, as well it should, and is something I must continue to contemplate.

In the meantime, I'll try not to twitch my tail too much in the tall grass.