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October 23, 2006

Building on the Sea Side

Though humans have to struggle against the forces of land and nature everywhere they build, one of the most difficult places, and yet also one of the most popular, is along the coast. The ocean is a vast and varied force that fascinates us. We want to be close to it, be able to see it stretch out into the distance, creating one of the true horizons that we can find on this planet. It is always changing, moving, living. We want to hear the rhythmic crashing of the surf, the high cry of the gulls, feel the fresh sea breeze, and smell the salty air.
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We have a strong desire to go as close to the edge as we can and yet maintain our security and comforts of modern living. We want to be able to step out the door onto the sand, not waste anytime maneuvering through our synthetic jungle to get to the beach, to reach the sea. But we also want to have the protection and comfort and commodities of home ready at a moments notice. When we have had enough, we want to step inside and be completely shielded from the elements.

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The built world on the ocean's edge has a lot to contend with. The vast openness of the ocean brings with it strong winds, long hours of sun exposure, and moist salty air. The land shifts nearly as frequently as the sea does, eroding and crumbling. There are jagged rocks and cliffs and shifting sands. There is the sand that gets everywhere and is not stable enough to build on. Even the coast line itself shifts, sometimes very drastically, over the years, pushing in here and stretching out there. And then, of course, there is the high potential for out of the ordinary extremes. "Normal" storms bring with them a whole new level of wind, water, sand, and salt, let alone the extremes of tidal waves, hurricanes, and tsunamis. Common sense and practicality would tell us to steer clear of these disaster-waiting-to-happen zones. But that is hardly what we do. Transportation, economics, tradition, beauty, and a desire for the unobtainable are the driving forces that keep us on the ocean's edge.

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So how is this monumental opposition dealt with and resolved? All of the seven types of resolutions are utilized in an attempt to build on the oceans edge. We make walls, screens, and other wind and water breaks to keep nature out. We build big enough so that the fluidity of the sand does not affect our structures. We also try to make structures that will allow nature to coexist with our buildings; we build on stilts so that we can both go further out into the unknown and also so we can let the dynamic seas pass below. While some buildings build walls of glass to keep out the wind, salt, and sand, others have open airy wall that let everything pass through. We have levies to keep the water out, and we have canals to let the water pass by. With all of the various solutions, they all still try to maintain a view of and accessibility to the sea.

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However, despite our best efforts, we have not been able to master the sea. Probabilistic responses will only take us so far, because with the ocean and its force, there will always be something bigger than expected. This is seen on the smaller scale of severe winter storms, seasonal global shifts like "El Nino", and then of course the big disasters like the tsunami that hit Indonesia and hurricane Katrina that took out New Orleans. All of our built resolutions can be obliterated so easily by the ocean. And yet we will never stop building and trying.

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October 10, 2006

Fall as a Phenomenon

Fall -- the changing of the colors of the leaves in fall -- is an amazing phenomenon to me. There is a scientific explanation for the exchange of chemicals and quality of the angle of the solar radiation that creates this visible change in the colors of the leaves at this time of year, but that is not the phenomenon that I am talking about. The phenomenon that interests me is the beauty of the landscape filled with the brilliant and vibrant colored leaves. The land looks like its on fire. Bright yellows, oranges, and reds transform the lush green world of summer into a living and vulnerable world of change. Fall is a transition time. It is inevitable that when the leaves change, winter will soon come and all of the color and even the leaves themselves will be lost. But in that short span of Fall, when the leaves are in many ways less stable (as they will soon be dying), they fill the land with a look of life, activity, and movement. The rustle of the leaves on the tree; the sound of dry leaves crunching under foot; the delicate and carefree dance of the leaves as they flitter across the ground, touching here and there and spinning and twisting as the wind caries them. This is the phenomenon of Fall. It is the clockwork of the seasons and it comes once a year, between Summer and Winter. The "things" of this phenomenon are the leaves -- as they changes from lush greens to lively oranges and reds. The framework of Fall is the trees -- all the trees that hold all the leaves for those last fleeting moments before they fall for winter. The whole of Fall is much greater than the sum of its parts.

October 3, 2006


Kenwood. Kenwood is the name of a small town in Sonoma County in northern California. It is the name of a vineyard that is located there as well. But to me, "Kenwood" refers to the house that my grandparents have there. They bought it long before I was born in hopes of opening a restaurant there and though that never happened, it has been the site of many family gatherings.

The house itself is a mysterious and odd mixture of grandeur and quiet bareness. It is a big house, or at least big by my standards growing up in a city where there is very little free, empty, "unused" or "unproductive" space, but was not constructed to be so. It is composed of many smaller buildings (very small -- like sheds in most cases) being pushed together to create this main house. Each room is different; each room has its own character. None of it matches or seems to belong together at all, and yet all the oddities work perfectly together.

There is the "four door room" - a room in the middle of the house that is no larger than 6'x9' and has 4 massive doors; the 4' wide solid oak door, the 2.5' wide leaded glass door, the exterior wood door with the stained glass window, and the "regular" door.

The windmill – an old windmill in the back corner of the property that is filled with bats. The actual windmill part of the windmill came down long ago and leans against a fence somewhere becoming apart of the vines and cobwebs.

The “greenhouse? – named for its pealing green paint and having nothing to do with growing plants.

The “honeymoon cottage?. Most of my aunts and uncles have been married at Kenwood – and then they stay in this little shack (about 12'x8' – maybe) afterwards.

“Robert’s cottage? – a place my uncle Robert once started to fix up but that now is filled with spider webs, ladders, paint cans, miscellaneous furniture, and who knows what else.

These are just a few of the oddities of the property, of the physical space. But Kenwood has meaning to me not because of the physical space but because of what happens there and who is there. It is a place of family, of security, of love, warmth, belonging, honesty, and beauty.

Thanksgiving: looking down the 20' table that glows warmly in the candle light and seeing all the faces or my cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents; spending the whole day Wednesday baking rolls and pies, learning from my grandfather who has been a cook and baker for the last 65 years; watching my grandmother as she bakes without measuring because she can feel with her arthritic hands when the chemistry of the dough is just right; hearing my little cousins giggle with joy as they make sugar cookies, wearing the aprons that are folded over twice and still drag on the floor and the smudges of flour on their foreheads, noses, elbows, and ears; being apart of the never ending flow of people and hot baking sheets of the elaborate dance of baking for 60 (though there are only 30 people in my family) in one small kitchen and one oven; and then later, the elaborate dance of 30 people showering and dressing for Thanksgiving dinner in one small bathroom; taking a slow walk in the brisk fall air of dusk through the town after Thanksgiving dinner; playing football on the lawn across the street; waking in the morning to look out at the rows of the vineyard as they disappear into the fog; seeing the hillside glow in warm reds and yellows and oranges in the slanted fall light; staying up all night freezing in the "greenhouse" shed that is covered wall to wall with mattresses as my older cousins and I talk, tease, poke, throw shoes, and laugh all night long; lying awake in the dark, knowing that I am literally surrounded by family.