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COMMON PLACE No. 4 | July 2010



I got a big laugh and a lot of nodding heads when I said to some writing colleagues that I realized I often write in a polemical vein. To do so, I think, requires a certain measure of self-regard: you have to believe both that the topic that exercises you is worth discussing publicly and that your opinion will be of interest to others. This also motivates memoir-writing, it seems to me. A diary is not quite the same, although people publish them, too, and their spontaneity, if this is allowed to surface, can make them valuable (as Nassim Nicolas Taleb noted about the Berlin Diary of William Shirer). Memoirs may refer to diaries, or not, but they’re a different animal, closer to polemics both in displaying the self and in the arguments they make for and/or against one’s life. One could call a memoir an apologetic, but I think that calling it a kind of polemic suggests that polemics are a kind of memoir. The polemicist is present, whether the cause is “out there” or wrapped up in the life, the psyche, the bodily equipment. It’s the polemicist who takes it all in and, having done so, argues for a way of seeing it or framing it. This “way” is always tentative, no matter how forcefully stated. There is no black-and-white in life, in actual fact. — John Parman 1



1. The diarist Samuel Pepys describes London’s Great Fire, during which King James II, besmirched with soot, made sure he was seen helping to put it out. Large swathes of San Francisco burned down following the 1906 earthquake, although a few landmarks survived. In 1968, the tenements of Newark were set aflame by rioters and then left by the city as burnt-out shells, much as the corpses of the condemned were displayed at the gates of medieval towns. Tokyo burned in the wake of the 1923 earthquake. Rebuilt, it was destroyed again by US bombs. German cities were whipped into firestorms. The Italian journalist Curzio Malaparte filed a story on the aftermath, when those left for dead were shot pointblank by the authorities. A man who survived the atom-bomb attacks on Japan died recently. Fleeing Hiroshima for Nagasaki, he was trying to describe the light the bomb made to a friend when the other A-bomb fell. “Like that,” he said. Napalm rained down on hapless villagers in Vietnam. Lately in Gaza, phosphorus is the rain of choice. Each storm has its screaming child. That a generation separates them shows how little we are moved by these images to put a halt to the barbarous calculations that engender them. Smart bombs and drones now personalize the delivery; instead of the countryside, it’s an apartment in Belgrade or a schoolhouse in Pashtun. The replies, too, are personal, wrapped around the body. 2. “Give tongue” is the phrase that my father’s book of World War II photographs used to caption one of an English battleship engaging a German foe. “Fire!” belongs to the sphere of warfare, but has spread to terror and judicial murder. German firing squads used machine guns in France. As Goya depicts, French firing squads used muskets in Spain against loyalists fighting for the king. Gary Gilmore chose a Utah firing squad rather than the noose. “Let’s do it,” he said. Spies and deserters, once hanged, were by World War I mostly shot. In China until recently, a 45 to the back of the head was the means of dispatch for literally thousands. Someone told me that it’s the quickest death, more humane than the poison drip that’s replaced it, even there. The drip puts some distance between us and the condemned, but his or her consciousness agonizingly persists.


Sometime in the 1990s, “Ready, fire, aim!” emerged as a business buzz-phrase. Marx’s “MCM,” as explained by Giovanni Arrighi in The Long Twentieth Century, describes how capitalism goes back and forth between a money focus (M) and a commodity focus (C, like China now). “Ready, aim, fire” is a commodity formula; whereas “Ready, fire, aim” describes money’s endless innovation. Fire is the key word in both phrases, however. It connotes a commitment to action that, once taken, is hard if not impossible to undo. “Fire sale” is a potential outcome for both C and M, although (as Nassim Nicholas Taleb points out) the purveyors of M are not always willing to admit it. 3. The oil crisis of the mid–1970s led me to stay in graduate school as job prospects for architects dropped off drastically. Arriving in the Bay Area in 1971, I was able to find work, but was also laid off twice—once because the client didn’t pay, and then (in my own opinion) because I was too slow. I would count the second layoff as a firing. Firms staff up and use downturns as the occasion to pare. Tough times are when they’re forced to pare more than they’d like, making “hard choices,” as they like to say, among the deserving. It’s not anyone’s favorite process, but firing and being fired are the truest expressions of the nature of work in these United States, which is always a mash-up of trajectories, yours and theirs. As with any relationship, expectations abound and delusion is endless: the territory of ego. We are exhorted to “work on it,” too, making ourselves “fireproof” by constantly upping our game. Yet the bigger picture of the workplace is fuzzy at best. You specialize and find there’s no more demand. You refuse to specialize and are penalized for failing to be team player. Similarly, you decline to move to where the work is—or you move and they decide the market isn’t worth it. Being fired can be liberating. It invites us to wonder about them and us. Even if our being fired was lunatic, what do we do with that—seek out new lunatics? What if the whole field abounds with lunacy? As Rahm Emanuel put it, “A disaster is a terrible thing to waste.” And keep I.M. Pei in mind. “I retired from my firm in 1990,” he told Fumihiko Maki in 2008. “I decided then to devote the rest of my life—I didn’t know at that time it would last so long—to do projects of interest only to me. It’s very selfish.” Emerson called it self-reliance: Hitch your wagon to a star. 4. In the mid-1970s, I read some 120 building-fire case studies. This left me with a lifetime habit of noting exits and an aversion to IKEA stores, which are designed like roach hotels. (Casinos also fall in this category, and they encourage smoking!) Another takeaway: the best thing you can do in a fire is get out as fast as possible. (So the best thing you can do beforehand is to simulate getting out quickly until it becomes second nature.) The principal victims of building fires are the old, the infirm, and the very young—anyone likely to become disoriented by smoke, or to be incapable of saving themselves in a hurry or at all. Fire is an accompaniment to domestic life. Clothes dryers are a frequent source of fires in nursing homes, while still plugged-in irons, pots left burning on the stove, etc., also do their part. Candles on the Christmas trees of my father’s childhood burned some neighbor’s house down often enough to be a distinct memory for him. When my daughter lights candles in her room when she meditates, and then forgets to blow them out, my father’s stories come back to mind. Sometimes I wish I’d never read those case studies. My father-in-law used to set up a barbeque in front of our front door—a hibachi, actually, that sat on the walk, the kids circling around it. He was usually having a drink at this point in the party sequence. When I was a kid, a neighbor squirted lighter fluid into his barbeque and it blew up the can. Or so I heard. I must have a genius for storing away these 3

events. In Barcelona when my oldest son was two, every affordable hotel had the only stairs and the elevator joined to form a single “chimney,” with no second exit. I took the front room closest to the ground, figuring we’d escape with our lives if we had to jump. When my father-in-law died, he was cremated and his remains were buried in a box about the size of a concrete block. He’d been an All-American football player in college, so it was odd to see him so diminished. I have a theory that there’s a certain amount of residual consciousness once you’re dead. Fire, once again, puts an end to it. I think I’d prefer a .45 to the head. NOTES Written for Arcade in response to a blanket request for contributions from its editor, Kelly Rodriguez, and published as the fourth issue of a volume on alchemy, June 2010. This version is slightly modified. I wrote this, unusually, in one sitting, and just sent it off. I still don’t know what to think of it. The editor liked it—apparently, it was the first piece to come in. I feel that it responded to the alchemical theme, which to me is about transmuting what we know intuitively—what we grasp—into something else. The firing squad, the .45 to the back of the head—they speak to the raw matter at the starting point. Life often appears leaden, weighed down. Viewed through the lens of having, as Stephen Batchelor points out in Alone with Others, life is just slogging to a blank wall. We collect stuff, and then it all gets taken away. Alchemy gives some of what we accumulate a life of its own. Fire is part of that process. As my illustration suggests, one could extend this essay. I’m thinking of phrases like “playing with fire.” Stolen from the gods, don’t forget. Eve also engaged in thievery. The Big Bang is still visible, still reverberating. The earth’s core is molten because of it. Fire is the alpha and omega, as Böhme knew. SOURCES Among the sources of things mentioned in the piece are: Henry B. Wheatley, editor, The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Volumes 4–6, G. Bell & Sons, 1962 Curzio Malaparte: Kaputt, NYRB Classics, 2005 The War’s Best Photographs, Odhams Press Limited, 1944 Giovanni Arrighi, The Long Twentieth Century, new edition, Verso, 2010 Nassim Nicholas Taleb: The Black Swan, Random House, 2007 Fumihiko Maki, interviewer, “I.M. Pei—Words for the Future,” A+U Special Edition, August 2008 Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” Emerson: Essays & Lectures, Library of America, 1983 Other things, like the last words of Gary Gilmore, were drawn from a lifetime of reading periodicals.




On April 15, the San Francisco Planning Commission will again take up the proposed 38-story 555 Washington Street Tower, designed by Heller Manus for AEGON, Lowe Enterprises, and Liberty Hill. At its 18 March meeting, the commission certified the project’s EIR. (Because of a public notice problem, the rest of the agenda was held over, but my sense is that the tower already had the votes going in.) At an earlier hearing, on 11 February, venerable community activist Sue Hestor asked the commissioners, “Does ‘new urbanism’ say that we have to fight suburban sprawl by putting 400-foot buildings everywhere in San Francisco?” Ms. Hestor had a point. For far too long, smart growth has meant “density über alles” on both sides of the Bay. The result is a dog’s breakfast, for the most part, much of which has little to do with walkable urbanism and nothing to do with urbanity. It’s time to get nuanced about density! As 555 Washington demonstrates, density’s context is not just the block itself—the immediate environs of the tower—but what is influenced and perhaps threatened by allowing its increased height. The 555 Washington tower disregards current zoning for the block it shares with William Pereira’s 1972 Pyramid, still the tallest building in the city. Next to it, the new tower doesn’t look so big, of course, and it comes with a packet of ground-level amenities. For Heller Manus, best known for its political acumen, the design is OK: cribbed from the late-modern playbook, but OK. All of this has won it an endorsement from SPUR, an important advocacy group for urban planning and policy in San Francisco. So far, so good—I can imagine the trail of logic that brought SPUR on board. It all seems fairly harmless, and if it violates the planning code in the process, well, the code’s out of date anyway. So why should the Planning Commission hesitate to move ahead with 555 Washington when it takes up again in midMarch? Here are three good reasons for them to slow the tower down and reconsider its larger context.


1. Put a halt to case-by-case rezoning Dropping a housing tower into the Pyramid block seems benign, but it continues a sorry tradition of case-by-case rezoning. Back in May 2009, San Francisco Chronicle critic John King—addressing the 555 Washington tower specifically—spoke up for “a re-imagined, focused plan for the financial and retail district.” He also noted the price the city pays for not having one: “As long as downtown is up for grabs, in effect, count on the process to grow more strident and cynical.” San Francisco’s Planning Department may be hobbled by the downturn, King observed, but isn’t the real opportunity of a downturn to plan intelligently for the future? Given the state of the housing market, there’s no urgency at all to approve the tower. By delaying it, the commissioners can avoid repeating the travesty of exempting Heller Manus’s Folsom/Spear Towers, now the Infinity, from the Rincon Area Plan. (They were approved, and then the new area plan was announced—with a dotted line around the towers that suggested that its eastern boundary had been hastily redrawn.) 2. Add density to the core, not the edge The Pyramid block is on the northern edge of SF’s Financial District, considerably past California Street. To its north, the buildings are much lower, an eclectic mix whose tenants benefit from its current density. This is where you find two of the region’s best bookstores, City Lights and Stout’s, and many of its best dealers in the decorative arts. You want urbanity? It starts here, yet the area clearly thrives because of its proximity to the financial district. Shanghai, facing the same dilemma, has opted to preserve similar areas like the Puxi district, recognizing—as Singapore did not—that they are irreplaceable. This is why SF’s planning code sought, a generation ago, to preserve them. Let’s give its framers some credit for foresight. The question that 555 Washington raises is not whether it’s inappropriate for its site, but what happens next. As UC Berkeley‘s Peter Bosselmann, a professor of urban design, once pointed out to me, adding density at the edge puts pressure on the lower-density neighborhoods that adjoin it. He was talking about the Rincon area, but the comment is even more applicable to the north end of the central business district, where recent and proposed projects along Kearny Street are also testing the higher-density waters. A generation ago, KPF’s building at 600 California had to step down to blend in with lower buildings to the north. That’s the power of a planning code that’s actually enforced. If enough exceptions to the existing planning code like the 555 Washington Tower get approved, the current 200-foot “wall” along Washington Street is unlikely to hold. 3. Focus on urbanity, not just density The question to ask of density is: what does it really contribute to the city? This takes in everything— scale and mix, design quality, effect on microclimate, synergy with surrounding uses, transit access, etc. As we rezone, so shall we reap. Instead of giving 555 Washington a pass, the Planning Commission still has the opportunity to send a much-needed message to the mayor and the developer community: No more case-by-case! Now, in the lull before the resumption of business as usual, is the right time take a comprehensive look at how the central business district should grow, gaining rather than losing urbanity, and how much added density, if any, the districts north of it should absorb. These are the real and pressing issues, which the EIR did not address. The commissioners have one last chance to do so. They should take it. NOTES This was written for the California edition, Architect’s Newspaper, 31 March 2010. The tower’s EIR was certified by the Planning Commission, and then decertified by the Board of Supervisors, killing the project. I didn’t really like the tower’s design, but the issue here was its impact on the larger area. 6



I winced when I saw the Times’ headline, “Next to MoMA, Reaching for the Stars.” Jean Nouvel’s new 75-story tower alongside the Museum of Modern Art reached back to Lyonel Feininger for inspiration, finally realizing his vision of an expressionist tower. It’s hard to imagine a stronger contrast to Cesar Pelli’s safely office-like MoMA housing or Yoshio Taniguchi’s recent, buttoned-down expansion. “To its credit, the Modern pressed for a talented architect,” Times’ critic Nicolai Ouroussoff wrote, but he goes on to praise Hines, the tower’s “remarkably astute” developer. “Hines asked Nouvel to come up with two possible designs, and made the bolder choice.” That’s Hines in New York. This fall, Hines also won the right to develop the Transbay Tower in downtown San Francisco. Pelli’s proposal for the transit hub component of the project is well done, but the tower is a version of his International Financial Center megatower in Hong Kong. As usual for Hines—they really are “remarkably astute”—Pelli was a smart choice. The Airport Express station that serves Hong Kong’s financial district anchors the twin-tower IFC complex. From a credentials standpoint, that’s valuable experience. Plus a tower that’s up and running is easier to price, even with differences in construction, than one-offs like Richard Rogers and SOM’s competing proposals. Armed with that knowledge, Hines played its trump card, offering up to $350 million for the land—more than twice what the other two developers were prepared to pay. That’s Hines in San Francisco. Hines is Hines—the same smart operators, east and west. Given what they’re proposing for New York, blame San Francisco’s less-than-stellar tower falls somewhere else.



Jokingly called Dean Macris’ last erection, the Transbay Tower benefited from the recently-departed planning czar’s determination to fulfill his long-time vision of a city skyline marked by three accentuated “hills”—two real and one manmade. This is the same vision that gave us One Rincon Hill, the first in a two-tower wonder by Chicago’s Solomon Cordwell Buenz. Compared to it, Pelli’s proposal is definite progress. A lot of people have questioned the logic of Macris’ idée fixe, but that’s another article. The question here is how a competition that was advertised as being all about design proved to be all about money. Not that this is surprising, but—in light of promises made—it feels like bait and switch. And if I feel this way, imagine how SOM feels! I wasn’t privy to the jury’s deliberations, but a few things stuck out along the way. In the initial interviews, Norman Foster failed to appear and his team was eliminated. While eliminating starchitect noshows is a standard m.o. for competition juries, confirming Woody Allen’s maxim that “85 percent of life is showing up,” the jury’s reaction struck me as a surefire sign of provinciality. Another sign of that was the dearth of interesting architects in the mix. Again, I didn’t make the rules, but at roughly the same time that the Transbay schemes were being unveiled, Thom Mayne won a competition at La Défense in Paris that clearly breaks new ground. This was another reason to wince, since a second major work by Mayne might finally have put San Francisco on the architectural map.


Of course, Calatrava made the cut, only to have a falling out with his developer. Perhaps he was chosen, like Icarus, to exemplify the dangers of the creative edge. That left SOM., whose tower—while drawing on a Chinese precedent—alone showed the originality that the competition promised. With its blend of structure and sustainability, it presented a credible future for tall buildings in the earthquakeprone West Coast. Plus, it was new, and that seemed to be what was wanted. (Unlike SOM’s, Richard Rogers’ peculiar tower was a throwback to his high-tech, frame-and-infill days, but vastly toned down, with no real gain in use value, especially as office space.) SOM’s tower fit the bill, if the object had been to build a tower in San Francisco that broke the mold. In retrospect, no such luck. The Transbay Tower reminds me of the new east span of the Bay Bridge, a chance squandered to do something on a par with the Golden Gate Bridge. San Francisco rises to its own occasions with about the same frequency as its earthquakes—maybe less frequently. In that sense, there’s no real mystery about the latest outcome. Still, it makes me wince. NOTES This also ran in the California edition of Architect’s Newspaper, 30 January 2008, page 22. Nouvel’s tower for MoMA was subsequently cut down a bit. Neither tower is really underway, but the transit terminal and park that accompanies Pelli’s is moving ahead. This piece was also a fast burn, as I found the much-hyped Transbay Tower’s outcome deplorable, despite its utter predictability. AN is great about running criticism. This version amends a few edits in the original that distorted my meaning.





Over the Christmas holiday in late 2008, I read two book-length interviews with Ivan Illich by David Cayley , a Canadian broadcast journalist. In passing, Illich mentioned Leopold Kohr, an Austrian political theorist best known for the phrase, “Small is beautiful.” In a talk that Illich gave at Yale University in October 1994 , he noted that Kohr advocated for proportionality rather than smallness. As Illich developed Kohr’s main themes, I saw his relevance to how we think and talk about urban density. 1


Kohr argued that everything that exists has natural limits, and that cities arose and thrived thanks to a widely shared “common sense” about the limits of their pieces and parts, and the ways in which they properly related to each other. Proportionality for Kohr meant “the appropriateness of the relationship.” Another key word for him was certain, as in “a certain way.” Kohr would say that bicycling is ideally appropriate for one living a certain place. This statement reveals that “certain,” as used here, is as distant from “certainty” as “appropriate” is from “efficient.” “Certain” challenges one to think about the specific meaning that fits, while “appropriate” guides one to knowledge of the Good. Taking “appropriate” and a “certain place” together allows Kohr to see the human social condition as that ever unique and boundary-making limit within which each community can engage in discussion about what ought to be allowed and what ought to be excluded. In other words, we cannot meaningfully discuss density except in relation to a certain place. One question that density poses is, “What relationships are appropriate to that place?” It’s not a question that is meant to be posed or discussed in abstract. “Who is the community?” is also a relevant question: in relation to a certain place, “community” is no abstraction, either. In his talk, Illich noted that, with the Enlightenment, we began to lose our grasp of proportionality in this sense.


The price of modernity “Plato would have known what Kohr was talking about” Illich said. “In his treatise on statecraft he remarks that the bad politician confuses measurement with proportionality. Such a person would not recognize what is appropriate to a particular ethos, a word that originally implied a dwelling place, later something like ‘popular character.’” Also lost is paideia, “the attuning of the common sense to the ways of a certain community, and tonos, which one can understand as ‘the just measure,’ ‘reasonableness,’ or ‘proportion.’ A hundred years before the French Revolution, proportion as a guiding idea, as the condition for finding one’s basic stance, began to be lost.” This disappearance has hardly been recognized in cultural history. The correspondence between up and down, right and left, macro and micro, was acknowledged intellectually, sense perception confirming it, until the end of the 17th century. Proportion was also a lodestar for the experience of one’s body, of the other, and of gendered relations. Space was simply understood as a familiar cosmos. Cosmos meant that order of relationships in which things are originally placed. For this relatedness—this tension or inclination of things, one to another, their tonos—we no longer have a word. Tonos was silenced in the course of Enlightenment progress as a victim of the desire to quantify justice. Therefore we face a delicate task: to retrieve something like a lost ear, an abandoned sensibility. Illich also pointed to temperament, which went from being “the combination of qualities in a certain proportion, determining the characteristic nature of something,” as medieval philosophy defined it. “To temper was to bring something to its proper or suitable condition, to modify or moderate something favorably, to achieve a just measure.” At the beginning of the 18th century, it “came to mean to tune a note or instrument in music to fixed intonation,” Illich said. The universal and general thus replaced the local and specific. “Proportionality being lost, neither harmony nor disharmony retains any roots in an ethos. The Good, Kohr’s ‘certain appropriateness,’ becomes trite, if not a historical relic.” The result is a shift from “the Good” to “values.” An ethics of value—with its misplaced concreteness—allowed one to speak of human problems. If people had problems, it no longer made sense to speak of human choice. People could demand solutions. To find them, values could be shifted and prioritized, manipulated and maximized. Not only the language but the very modes of thinking found in mathematics could norm the realm of human relationships. Algorithms “purified” value by filtering out appropriateness. Modernity, that child of the enlightenment, comes with a price. How we think and talk about density today is symptomatic of what it has cost us. This is what I take from Kohr and Illich. While there are proponents of higher-density urban development who speak eloquently about urbanity and manage to achieve it, density in practice can be a diktat of abstract values that leads more often than not to a redeveloped cityscape that is placeless, generic, and disharmonious. Reframing density Cities like San Francisco and Berkeley exemplify our current dilemma around density. On one side are the advocates for what might be called “regional, long-term values .” On the other side is the local community, appalled by redevelopment proposals that disregard current zoning and posit a radically altered fabric than what exists. The typical context is a drawn-out and politicized entitlements process, fought as a zero-sum game. Reading Illich on Kohr, I wondered if what’s broken isn’t the way we think of density in an urban context. How might we reframe it? Three changes seem crucial: 3

First, we need recognize that density’s effects are always specific. Another question to ask of density is, “What will it actually contribute to this place—this site, block, neighborhood, district—in terms of livability, urbanity, and sustainability?” It’s also important to ask “Who will benefit from any changes


to the existing fabric that alters its density?” Especially so when the changes proposed will undo existing agreements on the character of that fabric. Second, we need to revive the rule of law in urban redevelopment. In San Francisco and Berkeley, its loss has led to a politicized, case-by-case entitlements process. Glacial and expensive, it makes every project a protracted struggle, while undermining the existing planning framework that, at least in theory, codifies good practices and precedents. Third, we need to restore a “common sense” about proportionality and appropriateness, so that density regains its innate connection to actual settings and to those who live and work in them. There is a supposition that ordinary people cannot be trusted to make decisions about density, yet the results of a process dominated by experts don’t inspire much trusted in their greater wisdom. By rooting density in the specifics of a place, the larger principles that make a higher density desirable can be considered in application. Is this the place to shift the density higher, and if so, then how and how much? What will this imply for adjoining areas? Do we need new rules—or old rules reaffirmed—to maintain these areas as they are or ensure their future redevelopment is appropriate? Restoring common sense These are obvious questions, but they are not being posed. Density is considered a value for its own sake, socially useful. The actual results are often a disaster. Ordinary people are up in arms, because they recognize that their own cities have turned against them. That’s steadily breeding a reaction, even in leftwing cities like San Francisco or Berkeley, which accept that higher density is necessary. It’s not just “Not in my backyard!” The reaction is “common sense,” the desire to preserve the quality of the city against incursions that undermine it. There’s no confidence that what’s being proposed won’t result in a net loss of urbanity for a neighborhood or a district. We all know of places that, by adding new density thoughtfully, have gained hugely in urbanity. These are the benchmarks to which Smart Growth advocates point, but they’re the exception. Every time mediocrity gets a pass in the name of higher density, the case for it gets weaker in the public’s mind. Every time some out-of-scale project emerges from entitlements, bloated by the need to recoup what politicians have managed to extract from it, the public sees higher density as yet another form of corruption. The divide will get worse, not better, until density is reframed. Cities will get worse, too, until urbanity is seen as the necessary outcome of redevelopment. Behind urbanity are the place–specifics of proportionality and appropriateness, as Kohr and Illich noted. Without that sense of tonos, we are not as smart about growth as we need to be. NOTES 1. David Cayley, Ivan Illich in Conversation, Anansi, 1992, and The Rivers North of the Future: The Testament of Ivan Illich, Anansi, 2005. 2. Ivan Illich, The Wisdom of Leopold Kohr, 14th Annual E.F. Schumacher Lecture, Yale University, October 1994, E.F. Schumacher Society, 1996. 3. This was neatly illustrated in an article on 4 July 2010 by Jonathan Weber in the New York Times, quoting Smart Growth advocate Peter Calthorpe, who spoke approvingly of such proposed megaprojects as the environmentally-vulnerable Saltworks in Redwood City, seeing that partial wetlands redevelopment as responsible in the longer run, as against the short-sightedness of their local critics. Still unpublished, this was written for a Smart Growth advocacy group in Manhattan that put out a call for papers during the late December 2009 break. This is the sixth draft, considerably cut down. 12



1. I sometimes think that if reincarnation is real, the twin poles of our moving across time are absolute masculinity and absolute femininity. Each step in one direction or the other gives us a different mix, but our subsequent associations—who we fall in love with, for example—color what comes forward. Biology is never precisely destiny, as long as our human imaginations are intact. Our nature is innate, but it is also situational—malleable in response to people and events. It’s one of our compasses, but the courses we set vary immensely over the expanse of our lives. I sometimes weary of being a man, but I know well that being a woman is a good deal harder, actually. They must weary of being women, too. Growing up, I constantly had to come to grips with my own nature and decide, if that’s the right word, what to bring forward and, having done so, how to stay on good terms with the rest. I think that’s an important point, how easily we imagine that the rest can be ignored or repressed. The constant unearthing of proof of the folly of doing so is one of the great themes of our times, a cautionary tale that too often is also someone’s nightmare. Making the world safer for human nature is a worthy project. We would all benefit. It’s still tipped in the other direction, but that simply doesn’t work. The politics and the landscape of sexuality began to change when I was in high school. I worked for two gay florists who lived together above their store in the next town. In the company of my Iowa cousins, I visited Fire Island, where a friend from their town was the island doctor during the summer. This was before AIDS. Gay men took to the beach in the same way that women did on the French Riviera, I observed, barely clothed, their bodies buffed. In men, it felt like childhood. I remember the impulse to remove my clothes, at that young age, and the frisson of running around naked with other boys. Sexual license in general increased dramatically while I was an undergraduate. What was seen as the hypocrisy of our elders was thrown off. Youth, propelled both by the war and by drugs, hit the streets. In white America—not black America—this was mostly nonviolent. Black America set out to burn the house down. They had less to lose, and good reasons to disbelieve in nonviolence, especially after King was assassinated in 1968. Whites—those whites that turned out—were tired of the line of reasoning that led to a pointless war to which they might be sacrificed. We were close enough to our fathers’ war to know that this one didn’t add up. As children of war survivors, we took staying alive as a birthright. My generation, which came of age in the 1960s, is often pilloried by succeeding ones for our hubris and narcissism. I remember a writer for a national magazine, Life, perhaps, telling us that we risked being


remembered only for smoking dope and making love. Not so bad, my cohorts replied. It seems an odd charge given what we knew even then about our parents’ generation. Didn’t he read the New Yorker? One difference was that sexual license “came out.” That process always overshoots, but its origins go back to World War II, when everyone turned a blind eye to everything. Our parents tried to button it down, but they also knew what that could mean—the Nazis being the prize example. Coming out is a theme of the second half of 20th-century America. It took myriad forms, but the instinct was the same. 2. For my mother, being modern meant embracing modern conveniences, like instant foods. In the tropics, canned or frozen foods were a necessity to eat a Western diet, but my mother saw them as a time saver. I don’t begrudge her this, although over time her penchant for prefabricated foods fell out of favor. Pop artists made hay with this aspect of 1950s American modernism. As captured by Roy Lichtenstein or the deadpan Andy Warhol, it was pretty funny. My mother was modern to the end. I never asked her about Pop Art, but I imagine she thought it was modern, too. People look back at the midcentury as a high water mark of design. In Europe in 1960, my parents bought some fine pieces of Scandinavian modern furniture for their modern house. Modernity came easily to them, because they’d experienced the modern world directly. They saw the claims of our small town as momentary, however much they might get caught up, day to day, in the mechanics of the plot.


Work is tantalizingly close to done. You eat your sandwich at your desk, munching. Evenings and weekends always promise fun. And your book suggests some weekday lunching, But then those plans fall through. It starts to rain. On the train, one woman bores another. “You’re not looking at me,” she says, her pain unleashed, but then she hurries to smother any trace of it, plugs noise in her ears and stares into the middle distance, dead to the other, like one who disappears. (A still-permitted death let it be said.) Life has an eternity left to run. It’s raining out, but they predicted sun.

NOTES A Memoir in Time is an attempt to write autobiographically and place what I experienced personally in a cultural, political, and social context. (Don’t all memoirs do this?) I started writing sonnets after reading Invitation to the Dance by Mary Oliver—a book on poetic structure. To be honest, I couldn’t figure it out from this book, although I learned a lot of other things, and I ended up looking at a sonnet by Shakespeare and applying his structure and rhyming pattern. I’d never written poems to this kind of constraint before, and it’s proven interesting. I also discovered that I have a knack for rhyming. 14

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Common Place No. 4  
Common Place No. 4