Monthly Archives: December 2013

The House Whisperer

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I am writing this post in Mexico, sitting on a patio with the sun in the sky and a laptop upon my lap, looking at the notes I brought down with me and wondering, just what was the fuss, anyway?

In Norteamerica I call myself a “house whisperer.” Houses tell me what they want, whether I own them or not. I believe it’s in my DNA. I once had a great uncle who couldn’t enjoy himself at a restaurant if a painting or framed print across the room was at a tilt. That’s me too. Both Uncle Fran and I would have to get up and cross the room to straighten it, before lifting a fork to our Caesar salads. Other people, they tell me, are not like this.

For years now an exterior shutter has been missing on a house across the street from where I live. In the time in which a family has rented the house, they’ve seen their careers flourish, their small sons grow, and a rambunctious black Lab settle into a mellow dog. Had I been renting the house, the first thing I would have insisted is that the owner replace the missing shutter. I’m not sure I would have thought that all the rest could happen without it.

How did I get this way? Every house I knew in Connecticut was lived in. It was in visiting my grandparents in Naples, Florida that I first turned into a voyeur of houses. A continual crop of model homes came up, and we went down there, every winter. I had never experienced anything like it, the sheer pleasure of walking through empty spaces…. and completing it in one’s mind. Afterwards I worked on all the floorplan handouts, made improvements in space planning, drew in the furniture, and thought in terms of color schemes. I was hooked.

It was one quick slippery slope from the child who rearranged her parents’ furniture in the night, to the one who drew floorplans on a pad of graph paper in the backseat of the car, to a design firm in San Diego. But that’s just where I was when I first heard of Las Brisas, in Ixtapa, Mexico. Where I am now.

Las Brisas was a Camino Real or Westin Hotel at the time. The principal of the firm was the only one of us who could afford to stay there, and he gloated about it upon return. In my memory I almost think he was the one who designed it. In any case, he impressed upon us that ancient Mayan temples were the inspiration for this hotel. Each floor, as it ascends, is shorter, and the hotel climbs to an open air lobby at the top. To walk the stone floors of open air corridors is meditating. It is remarkably minimalist and contemporary looking, a composition in stone, color, and water rushing in aqueducts.

Now that I am finally here I indeed feel like I’m in a monastery. There is a cloistered air about it, despite its openness. And though the hotel may be filled, there is never any sense of a crowd. As guests we experience wingspans of space, privacy, and remoteness. The beach is private. A hammock hangs on each room’s terrace. Time stands still. Each day is like the day before.

Tropical magic is at work for me here. Everything that was interior is turned inside out, toward the outdoors. Working with the materials at hand, roofs are thatched, flooring is continuous with terrace, and furniture is built-in, eliminating the clutter of legs. I realize I am saying this at a resort, but our wants are really quite simple.

The same thing happens in the San Juan Islands, where so many software developers who made their fortunes in Seattle build second homes of logs in the woods at waters edge to live the simple life. There is a Marie Antoinette in us all apparently. It can cost a lot or we can find it where we are by scaling back. I don’t have any problem seeing that. But then the principle of that same firm in San Diego made sure that all his designers realized a Portuguese fisherman’s cottage built with straw in the plaster walls has more integrity, and is more beautiful, than anything we might hope to do in the finest residences in La Jolla.

Not a day goes by that I don’t thank him for that.

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The Man Who Came to Dinner

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 “After all my time on this earth, I was becoming the person I was meant to be.” Donald L. Brown

I am not in the habit of inviting authors on book tour to my home for dinner, but if I were, our life would be more interesting. Nevertheless, I took this step after hearing Donald Brown promote his book, The Morphine Dream, in Seattle a few weeks ago. Having written a memoir of my own, I consider it good form to support other memoirists. And this man’s story is extraordinary.

It is hard to know where to begin with him. As a high school dropout, former Marine, and washed-up professional athlete, Don suffered an on-the-job industrial forklift accident in 1980 that subjected him to multiple surgeries for “severe internal derangement of the knee” and years of confinement to a wheelchair. Clearly his life had changed, and somehow he would have to take matters into his own hands.

Don’s orthopedic surgeon advised him, “Go back to school. You have a fine mind. Put it to work for yourself. It’s time to rely on your intellect, not your body. Put the energy and passion you’ve always had during your athletic career to work for your mind.”

By reading and listening to motivational books and tapes, Don turned his stay at Boston’s New England Baptist Hospital into an opportunity to repurpose his life. “Where do you want to be in five years?” one tape asked him, and Don noted “Harvard Law School” on a pad of paper. Next, the motivational tape asked him where he would like to be in ten years, and despite the fact that physicians had told him he might never walk again, Don wrote down “Walking U.S.A.”

Fueled by morphine for the pain, “I was sky-high,” Brown said. “I was flying.”

“Hospitalization was good for me,” recalls Don. “I had come to realize that my athletic career had been a result of incredibly hard work and focus. I knew I had to get engaged in a new future and work as hard as I did to be a professional athlete.”

In this way Don accomplished each of his goals. From a GED to community college to transfer into Amherst College, Don landed in the Harvard Law School of his dreams. Then in 1997, following graduation, “overweight, over fifty, a diabetic, and…. lucky to be walking at all,” averaging 41 miles per day, Don made the 5,004 mile trek across the continent in 137 days. Starting at the finish line of the Boston Marathon in Copley Square and taking the northern route, he completed his journey by coming over Stevens Pass in Washington, and walking on down the coast through Oregon, Northern California and Big Sur, reaching his destination in San Simeon with the Pacific Ocean before him.

“I didn’t even bother to take off my shoes. I simply walked right in,” writes Don.

His method for turning dreams into actuality was always a carefully formulated plan of execution. While attending community college he distinguished himself by sitting front and center in lecture halls and winning every student award he could. At Amherst—still wheelchair bound—Don moved into a dorm the summer before starting “to figure out how to navigate the hills and dales of the campus, get my syllabi and books, meet my professors, and, most importantly, start reading.” From the start, Don told everyone he met at Amherst of his goal of attending Harvard Law School.

Likewise with the walk, “I knew when I departed Boston that if I could make it through the first two weeks, I would complete the entire journey.” It was a mental challenge as much as anything. Don divided each day’s walk into four ten mile walks in his head, considered crossing state lines a powerful motivator, and basically “realized I must push on, or else the notion of quitting when things got tough would rule the walk.”

Long distance walker Rob Sweetgall had taught him that “if I completed an arduous and lengthy walk one day, and then repeated it the next day without difficulty, I’d be prepared for that distance—regularly.”

Well, what could we say to that? Before us stood a man who in his life had learned so much about himself, tested it, and it held. I’m sure we squirmed a little in our chairs, then made every effort to buy the book.

That is when I invited him to dinner. What I recognized right away was his effectiveness in all things–something he hadn’t even mentioned was the writing of the book and its publication, no easy feat, I know. And at the end of the evening, at his request, Don Brown went off with a copy of my manuscript, the memoir I mentioned.

Shhh…. He is reading it now.

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Why We Need Artists

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Because I grew up on the East Coast, I still get a kick out of towns, hills, creeks, rivers, and roads with Western names. Raised on enough Westerns for it to be a part of my television DNA,  I don’t think a born Westerner would derive the same pleasure, as I made note on an impossibly long drive the names: Sweet Briar, Tom Cat Hill, Lost Man Creek, Rogue River, Wonder Stump Road, and dozens more. As a writer, I may use them someday.

“It sometimes takes a foreigner to come and see a place and paint it,” David Hockney once explained. We did not know then, on our drive to San Francisco, that we would be attending Hockney’s “A Bigger Exhibition” at the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park. But that’s just what we did. And it made sense. It made sense of everything.

Having studied at the Royal Academy of Art in London, Hockney moved to Los Angeles in the 1960’s. There, the extraordinarily talented British artist immersed himself in swimming pools, mid-century architecture, palm trees, portraiture, and the Southern Californian sun-drenched light for twenty-five years. Returning to his native Yorkshire, England in 1996, “A Bigger Exhibition” covers the years since his return to England. Hockney’s 21st century art, one might say. More than ever now his subject is light, from the bleakness of winter to the excitement of its return in spring and summer, and throughout the hours in a day.

“People don’t look very hard,” notes Hockey. “I do, and I do something with it.” 300+ works make up this monumental and expansive exhibition in oil, watercolor, charcoal drawings, digital films, and  iPad paintings. A seventy-six year old man today, Hockney is running circles around us and calling our attention to the world.

Stepping out into the park, every which way I turned was a “Hockney.” The sunlight through trees, the trees bereft of leaves, and this sensation continued all the ride up the coast toward home. The Tuscan hillsides of Napa and Sonoma, the cathedral-like presence of redwood forests, the Big Sur experience with rocks, the Pacific as a sheet of mica, and gleaming white towns along its edge. We took the long coastal route back, following the contours of hills and river beds on roads that switched and turned south, then north again. The Old Coast Highway. And I saw it all through David Hockney’s eyes.

This is why we need artists in this world.

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