Wednesday, December 31, 2008

San Francisco: December 31

The last fog of the year
make lists
collect remnants
of Christmas meals, chop, bag
mince for an audience of one

Stir up tortilla soup,
cut cilantro, yellow squash,
vidalia and

at last

the piano
play (badly)
and know
enchantment lives
the sharps and flats.

Friday, June 27, 2008

San Francisco: The Basket Case

Today, an oppressive fog. Or smog, from the fires north and south. The Dow plunged. A barrel of oil reached a new high. When the mail came, our water bill was $833.99, which--yes--we're looking into. So I've retreated into the baskets. The Dale Chihuly baskets I saw at the De Young Museum yesterday. The magical baskets.

To describe the installation is like trying to recreate water or heat. Or like trying to explain intuition or a fleeting memory. There was darkness, there was light, transparent color, there was one floating form, and then another. I believe it was Sontag who said photography is a secret within a secret. I felt the same about the line of baskets, with their sister baskets, woven, incised, stacked, nested, cradled. They were like bubbles of a past I couldn't quite grasp. Like a word I could see but couldn't recall.

I remember my father coming back from the farm with an arrowhead in his hand. I remember standing by the little mound of earth in the woods and knowing that underneath there were pot shards and charred bits of some past lifestyle, but to scrape beyond the surface would somehow mar the moment as well as the past. This is how I felt when I saw the baskets, warped, cradled and stacked--they were a reflection of a reflection. I wanted to cry for a memory that I couldn't possess but could filter through my hands, just for an instant.

At home, I checked my email and learned that a tree had fallen on one of the rental houses in Kentucky. Cleo was crying for a walk in the park. There was dinner, the gym. But I was lost along the cradled baskets, in a color called 'tabac,' a woven line, following a link to nowhere and everywhere.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

San Francisco: Conversation Overheard

Photos of Jack Kerouak and Alan Ginsberg were looking on, and so was I.

The young man was a teenager, clearly from out of town, and his act of offense was to stroll into San Francisco’s most famous bookstore and ask for “a sports book -- any kind of sports book.”

The two clerks at the front desk paused, and in tones condescending, told the young man he wouldn’t find anything like that here. He persisted. "Just anything, a biography, sports photos, something I can take home to a friend."

The clerks shrugged and looked at each other, smirking. Try downstairs, one of them said. The young man turned from the front door and headed toward fiction. "That’s the upstairs dude, try the steps that go down." They were enjoying this.

To my relief, the young man walked out the door. But the clerks weren’t done with him. They replayed the scene, enjoying the encounter with this young midwesterner who didn’t have a clue. This was not a San Francisco moment.

For the last two weeks I’ve been punishing myself for not saying something, or doing something. "Excuse me," I’ve said. "Are you always so rude to your customers or just having a bad day?" Hey," I’ve injected-- "Try a little kindness." "You creeps,"I’ve blurted. "I’m never coming in here again."

Most of all I’ve wondered–what kept me from saying something?

Monday, June 16, 2008

SF: Rethinking Pigeons

She was looking in my bathroom window and I knew at once this bird was serious. Bright yellow eyes glared from a new nest, built in the light well while I was in Kentucky during April. I looked back, and quickly recovered from longstanding pigeon-bias to enjoy a daily lesson the domestic life of he-bird and she-bird, a thoroughly modern couple who shared nesting responsibilities.

She-pigeon was small and soot-colored. He-pigeon loomed larger: the gray of a foggy San Francisco sky, an iridescent crest of green on his breast. She was fearless; I could crank open the window to the light well and send out food and water without disturbing her. He was another story. As soon as I appeared in the window there was a flutter of wings and I could hear him at the roof, gurgling, fussing, sputtering.

The nest they constructed was first a scant bundle of twigs swirled into the far corner of the space, but as days passed the pigeons added a substantial number of sticks and their home seemed more structurally sound. I was relieved. A week into the process I could see the tops of two white eggs.

Apparently pigeons have quite a following--positive and negative-- and you can learn almost anything about them on the web. Eighteen days is the gestation period for pigeon eggs but I knew in a week that one of the eggs was damaged...the shell dented and crushed but not fully broken.

Emotional involvement was not what I needed, but there I was. I recalled a 12-year-old version of myself, my brother's BB-gun in hand, taking a few wild shots at a pigeon roosting on the vacant Johnson house down the street. Miraculously I killed the thing, and what I recall beyond my immediate regret was the intense color of its blood. Later in college pot-throwing class I would be drawn to pigeon's blood as the most dramatic, most mysterious glaze color of all. I love it still.

More days passed, well beyond the eighteen day mark, and the couple continued to take turns sitting on the eggs. The female would usually be on the nest at night; the male would be there much of the day. They were no longer shy about the food I proffered and I refilled the dish about once a week. Other than glancing out the window at intervals I tried to keep my distance.

Still, I was hooked. I searched for my pigeons when I walked toward Speedway Meadow; I found myself looking backward after descending my front steps, wondering if one of the pigeon pair might be watching me as I left the house. The small iron pigeon in my kitchen window, a find at the Paris Flea Market, suddenly became more about a bird than about the City of Lights.

Three weeks passed and it was apparent that neither of the eggs would hatch. I felt like a physician who knows the truth about a stillborn child but doesn't want to acknowledge it. All three of us, the two pigeons and I, went on with the nest sitting and the nest watching for at least another week. We all pretended nothing was wrong.

Then one day there was a change. Both pigeons were strutting around the light well, agitated, on and off the nest. This was, apparently, the day they would end the vigil. I wondered if they could feel what I felt: all this long wait--for nothing. Ira tried to cheer me up, saying this was probably an unplanned event, that the pigeons were hugely relieved not to have to deal with squawking young ones, that they were anxious to get back to their normal pigeon-lives in the park or on the sidewalk at Geary. I couldn't laugh.

In the next days, the June light drew me to other windows. I reveled in the view of the bridge and tried to memorize the play of light on the Church of Holy Virgin. Still I sometimes looked out at the pile of twigs and once I was shocked to see the female back on the nest. But then she was gone.

A good week after the light-shaft tenants departed I noticed a shadow on the roof above the nest. The two pigeons were sitting there, still as statues, their heads both turned downward at an identical and awkward angle, peering at the what remained of the eggs. I expected them to fly away but they didn't move...not for the entire time I stood at the window.

Now a broken eggshell has blown into the main part of the light well--one of the eggs has decomposed and crushed. The last time I looked the other egg was still resting there, temporarily protected from the elements. And the pigeon couple, bright male and charcoal female, they've finally moved on. At least I guess they have.


The pigeon couple returned to their nest in July. Both eggs hatched, and the fledgelings are almost ready to take flight. We've named them Rebecca and Walter.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Kentucky: By Design

I found a dimpled spider, fat and white,
On a white heal-all, holding up a moth
Like a white piece of rigid satin cloth--
Assorted characters of death and blight
Mixed ready to begin the morning right,
Like the ingredients of a witches' broth--
A snow-drop spider, a flower like a froth,
And dead wings carried like a paper kite.

My mother and father would have appreciated Frost's poem, though I don't know that either ever read it. The sense of discovery. The three fragile players--spider, white heal-all, and moth. The bittersweet balance of nature, life and death.

Frost, ever brooding, can't stop with the mis-en-scene--He asks,

What had that flower to do with being white,
The wayside blue and innocent heal-all?
What brought the kindred spider to that height
Then steered the white moth thither in the night?
What but design of darkness to appall?—
If design govern in a thing so small.

When I recall the last days of both my parents, I find that Frost gives voice to my thoughts. Mine was a larger scene: the dissolution of my father's essence; my mother's final silence. Those days I tried to ask, "What brought us here? Could I have changed things? How can I make sense of this design?

Eventually my own creative forces reached in to scoop me out of the hole. With Phil's support and interest I decided to design a memorial to our parents.

It's for a window in the stairwell of the church where we grew up. This stained glass is isolated--it won't be closely juxtaposed with existing balcony windows. But we wanted the color and format to be compatible.

In my first drawings I tried to repeat the basic arch and grid pattern of original windows. These prototypes didn't exactly move me in color or style, but I kept going.

Our window would face the newly created prayer garden -- lighted and visible from the garden bench in twilight or early morning.

A wildflower theme was my first idea and I stuck with that. Mom and Dad delighted in their own garden and transplanted dozens of fragile flowers from Hailwell to a shady spot in our back yard. As children, Phil and I were often steered to the wildflower garden to see the first sprouts of the season. Later as young parents we did the same with Kent and Matt,Ben, Mason, and Emma.

So the Dutchman’s Breeches, trillium, bloodroot, ferns, violets...each heralded a new season both in the farm woods and in our own back yard. As my first ideas surfaced, it seemed that the pale golds, blue greens, and lavenders would play nicely against colors of the existing glass.

Phil suggested adding an Indigo Bunting to the design. Transplanting and tending the wildflower garden from Hailwell was mostly Mom’s domain. But on jaunts to the farm it was always Dad’s job to point out the glittering flight of the bluebirds, now so rarely seen.

The first clean draft of the window positioned the birds at top quarters and meant this design would not be crafted with four identical quarters, but as two halves in mirror images. This suited me fine until I begin experimenting with color. Too much bluebird. Not enough pastel and woods color. Top heavy to the max. I went back to the drawing board.

The next design placed trilliums at each corner, golden crocus and Jack in the Pulpit on the sides. Foliage was in yellow greens and blue greens.

A tulip magnolia–-reference to Mom’s beloved Hickman County Museum–-found a spot at top and bottom center, with slender Dutchman’s Breeches providing a sparkle of white. Indigo Bunting, edited in scale and position, was center-stage.

At this point a draft went to Wallis Stained Glass in Murray, with color bars from the original windows placed at the sides for reference.

Jack Wallis Stained Glass is a few miles outside Murray, Kentucky, a cluster of rectangular shops in a hollow off Butterworth Road. It's quiet. Neither Ira nor I knew what to expect, but preliminary phone calls and emails made me feel comfortable about this stage of the project.

After ritual greetings and a warm-up conversation, Jeremy Speight and I took a look at my drawing.

There's a lot of pausing and looking. We begin the ritual of pulling out glass samples and checking them against the colors I've proposed.

Just hauling out large glass pieces from their upright positions in storage bins was a delicate operation.

Jeremy and Patty Cornelius placed large monoliths of glass in the window, so we could consider the texture, transparency, and impact of color against color.

There was a lot of talk about greens. Yellow-greens, blue-greens, green-greens. How color plays against color for maximum effect.

Patty produced a delicate yellow-gold for the center crocus. We talk about cutting the glass so veins and texture will starburst from a center point. My confidence was established...the designers and glass-cutters here seemed to appreciate the subtlety of each component of our wildflower window.

We slid a swirly rose-colored glass from the bin and checked it against the
light. Easy decision--the pink magnolia blossom would be cut from this piece. Indigo blue is another issues. We looked at several samples and finally settled on one.

I was amazed that we found a piece of glass that echoes the borders of the original windows. It was a swirling pattern of purples and blues...and included some earthy browns. To my eye it was dramatic and distinctive. And should be used sparingly in a pastel window.

The black-and-white design was exactly like I drew it, with small improvements suggested by Patty and Jeremy to facilitate the flow and to stabilize the design.

The blue-greens and yellow-greens had a subtle difference, and as promised, the individual cuts brought out the beauty of the grain of the glass.

There's an abundance of soft white in the window and the band of dark multicolor makes a nice contrast. This is also the same glass that's used in the other balcony windows--a swirl of blue, purple, amber.

So far I was happy with the details. The dutchman's breeches flow into the pink tulip magnolia. Lines that flare from the blossoms were an addition that made the design more graceful than my original sketch.

It's all about the light. So when the leaded window was propped against the window, the colors sprang to life.
It was a mix of sweet and earthy colors, geometric and organic shapes. Jeremy put more gold in the window than I had in my initial sketches and I'm not sure if I liked it when I saw a photograph of the finished window. Nevertheless I ok'd it during a conversation we had and crossed my fingers that it would looks ok installed.

Finally, months later, the window is installed. I'm happy with the craftsmanship. The cuts are smooth--even the difficult curves--and no modern shortcuts were used in the leading process. The colors are distinctive--earthy golds --not my choice but they keep the pastels from being cloying, the greens and purples resonate in ways I'd hoped. If I were starting over I would do some things differently, both in the window and in the larger scheme of things. How it ultimately worked out was all right...I'm at peace with it. At some point I realized the design was out of my hands.