Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Let me tell you a story that both you and I know.

This is a review of a book I haven't read.  But in some senses, I have.  And in some senses, so have you.

Yesterday, journalist and Pulitzer-prize winning New York Timesman Timothy Egan talked with Tom Ashbrook on the NPR radio show On Point about his new book Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher.  It's the story of Edward Curtis, who traveled this country in the early part of the 20th century to photograph the disappearing Native American tribes in their still intact cultures. 

Curtis the person I did not know, though some of the photos I had seen before.  Arresting in their composition, black and white, they capture both a moment in time and something more.  A man collecting rushes from the side of his canoe; the portrait of Chief Joseph, called the Indian Napoleon; these I had seen. 

But I know the book for another reason. 

We have much lore in the United States.  Our presidential candidates espouse a good amount of it each election cycle.  Last night's debate was no different. Barack Obama and Mitt Romney know this very well and they know the phrases too, and if they don't, their pollsters do: We are the exceptional nation.  We are the unique nation.  We stand up to tyrants. We lead, we do not follow. 

The importance of these words is clear, and last night, their immediate impact was also clear.  In this hyper-mediated age, CNN kindly ran a focus group, broken out by gender with real-time tracking of responses to the candidates as they talked.  Say something bellicose, men respond favorably, say something moderate, women tend to be more positive.

These phrases originate mostly from our understanding of the meaning of the end of the Second World War and the defeat of fascism and imperialism in Germany and Japan. In the post-war era we demonstrated both deep foresight and great generosity about the systems needed in a much-changed world.  We sat at the top of the global heap, there by our own American ability to climb and by our capacity to unleash an arsenal of democracy, all in the name of an ideal.  Heady stuff!

Much of this national lore still animates us. It certainly reappeared in the 2003 talk of "a march to Baghdad" that sounded more like the march to Paris 60 years before.  Of course, in 2003 there was no champagne or kisses from French girls.  The faulty analogy led to differences too great to even sneer at, and the cost of the error is still being felt.

But there is another national lore as deep in our collective national self, perhaps deeper because it is older, and closer to our American core.  No founding myth can expunge it, indeed no national saga can exist without it.  It is this American truth that Edward Curtis went out and photographed. It is the story of Native Americans, in their native lands and in their native cultures, in those waning days.  Curtis found them and photographed them before that life was made extinct by the full arrival of European-based American culture. 

The story is heart-rending in many ways.  Seattle, the only major North American city named after a Native American, declared it illegal for a Native American to live within the city's limits.  Curtis found the last remaining one and photographed her.  The Comanche, some of the most feared warriors who roamed the Southwest, ended up being forcibly relocated to Oklahoma, and by the time Curtis caught up with them, they all had short hair and were wearing ties.  Any hippie or Old Testament raconteur would recognized the metaphorical Samson-like castration contained in a haircut and the expression of control and of being leashed in the donning of a neck-tie.

Most moving of all were the recordings of the people that Curtis made on wax cylinders, a technique he learned from E.H. Harriman. To hear the sounds of the bear dance recorded in 1910 -- crackly sounds on a primitive technology of an ancient dance -- haunts.  A tribal leader who was wearing a full bear's skin chants a simple, powerful sound that crosses across time.  The dancer was the carrier of a tradition that may have gone back centuries but was soon to die.  We hear it today as if it arrived by capsule from Mars, but it was us. It was America.  It is America.  As much America as any of our other founding tales. 

Let me tell you a story that both you and I know.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Bridge That Is Also A Place

At its highest point, it is higher than the top of the Transamerica Building in San Francisco.  Its concrete and steel arch effortlessly over the cavernous rock walls and water below.  It catches the warmth of the Southwestern sun beautifully.  It's a modern civil engineering marvel.

It is the Mike O'Callaghan-Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge, spanning the Colorado River, connecting Arizona and Nevada, diverting traffic off of the top of the Hoover Dam which sits 1,500 feet to its north.

An elegant solution to a complicated problem.

It does not compete with its sister structure.  Rather it compliments her perfectly.

Honestly, the message seems unecessary

Separated by 80 years, these two paired beauties revive a primal nativist creed in me: America the doer; America the solver; America the ingenious; America the determined; America the skilled; America the brave.
Foreground completed during the Great Depression (1936).  Background, completed during the Great Recession (2010). Public works at their best.

This bridge is a testimonial to an America that has by no means disappeared, one where technical skill, engineering can-do, and a tremendously sensitive aesthetic understanding meld form to function with brawn, delicacy and awareness, creating something that will stand the test of generations.

To the detail, beautiful.
The tragedy of this bridge is that this public works project -- all paid for by the taxpayers of this land, where the states of Nevada and Arizona partnered with the federal government to achieve this major success -- will never be lauded for the victory that it is.  Unlike the Hoover Dam next to it (and temporally before it) or the NASA space program of the 1960s, this massive public effort will not similarly shine in the public's mind, largely due to the toxic (and politically-motivated) cynicism and endless demagoguery which says that government bureaucrats never get anything right.  Here is something that is not only governmental but also exceedingly right -- and far (far) better than the container loads of plastic crap we import daily from China to fulfill our consumerist gluttony courtesy of private sector benevolence and wisdom.

Now that my high horse has grown tired, I can also note that standing on the O'Callaghan-Tillman Bridge, 1000 feet above the gorge below, with two 18-wheelers rolling over it at 60 m.p.h. one feels not so much as a shimmer under foot. 

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Where do you want to meet?

This post is really a "what have I been up to lately" post. 

And the answer is: Not blogging, for one.  At least not blogging recently. 

I did go see US Senate Democratic challenger Elizabeth Warren face-off against incumbent Republican Scott Brown last night up in Lowell, courtesy of her regional coordinator James Hutchinson who kindly invited me and gave me a ticket. 

Mind if we snap a photo while you wait?

Scott Brown has the ignominious quality of having defeated Angus McQuilken for the state senate seat vacated by Cheryl Jacques about ten years ago now.  It was a sad, unhappy and unfortunate outcome, with the knock-on effect that Scott Brown is now our federal representative.  To be honest, remembering all those years ago, the district was always basically Republican even though Democrat Jacques held onto it for many years.

Fast forward to 2012, and Warren held her own and more last night, through the bogus charges about her Native American heritage, and "whose side was she on" in the asbestos claims.  All lawyers are taught to make a case.  Brown is a crafty pol and a skilled debater.  He's no slouch, and he's reaching for his tar and feathers and brush.  But she's no slouch either, and wisdom is that things are tilting Dem in this state as in many states.  As one pundit said the other day, "the race is hers to lose".  Turn out the vote is all I can urge.  Turn out the damn vote.

But that, for all its inherent interest, is not why I write.  Why I write is that a group I am connected with -- planners and architects (see our website here) -- is about to start a study, using software provided by OpenPlans called ShareAbouts (thank you Ellen McDermott), to map places where people meet.  We've chosen Kendall Square in Cambridge as our target area. Click here to see our map.

Why is this important?  Well, if you're interested in innovation, and who in Cambridge is not interested in innovation, then who you're talking to, and when, and where and how, all become part of the discussion of the likelihood that you'll have a new idea.  It seems crazy, but that may actually be the point.  It is crazy, and that is what makes it worthwhile.

The best description I've heard is that innovation is decontextualization.  Now, that's a very MIT Media Lab way of saying it, but it's a good insight. Taking things out of one context and putting them into another context and seeing what that tells you is perhaps the best way to come to a new idea.  Or maybe it is the most predictable way to come to a new idea.  In any event, hearing what others think is one way to do this.  And the best way to hear what they think is to see them in person, to get the full richness of their person.  All of it very interesting.  Click on those links above to learn more.