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On turning fifty, crescent moons, and Frank Lloyd Wright

by Steve McKee on May 30, 2008

I have recently come to grow very fond of a mood that exists in my neighborhood after darkness comes and things grow still. The streets are empty of movement in all directions as far as I can see and the night is mine, at least in this corner of the world. With me is my canine companion Zoe, the mellowest eighty pounds of dog you’ll ever meet, pursuing her usual agenda of sniffing the edges of the sidewalk and selected bushes. The “sniffing place” is what we call our favorite bit of street-side over on West Tenth. With the tall pine trees and the carpet of fallen needles, it’s like a piece of the High Sierra, except only twelve feet wide.

On many nights there is enough breeze to make these trees whisper, a sound that comes from wind moving through ten thousand pine needles. I love that sound. It’s timeless, like what you hear in a sea shell. Through the pine trees can be seen a crescent moon. Down the street a window glows with the soft blue of TV light that dims and brightens randomly. Every now and then a low gong sound can be heard from an unseen wind chime somewhere in the neighborhood.

Experimenting, I hang the moon from various branches of the pine.

I learned to do that moon thing from a haiku poem I first read twenty years ago (in fact, the above sentence pretty much is the entire haiku) and I find that I like doing it: hanging moons from pines, that is. I recommend it.

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I just turned fifty last week, and I’m surprisingly okay with that. Physically I’m probably in the best cardio shape of my life (thank you 5:30 a.m. spin class three days a week) though I’m not so crazy about the tendonitis that comes to my elbows when I try to curl the same weights that I did so easily ten years ago.

When I was in college I heard it said that architects peak in their fifties. I guess I get to find out about that now. There just might be some truth to that, as my design muscle seems to me to be stronger than ever. While I love those occasional moments of creative thrill to be found in designing things, I’m finding that my work is mostly the practicing of a craft. To wit: a large part of my days are spent in the workmanlike application of skills and techniques, acquired over year and years, to working out solutions. What was once a thrilling breakthrough is now another strategy in my bag of tricks.

I don’t like it when I see famous architects carry on like they are artistes with a capital “A.” Okay, maybe Frank Gehry or Frank Lloyd Wright, get to do this, though Gehry is actually remarkably low-key and down to earth, while the other Frank was about as pompous as they come, but he was so damned talented he was the one guy that got to carry on that way.

When I was in architecture school in the early eighties it wasn’t cool to be a fan of Frank Lloyd Wright. Oh sure, he may have shown architects how to think of space in the twentieth century (I suppose that little bit might have warranted a nod), but it was hipper to dig someone like Antonio Gaudi, the Catalan architect whose work showed such a free spirit. Gaudi and his hundred-year-old half finished cathedral in Barcelona with its anatomical curves and structural tendons had an avant-garde coolness that couldn’t be ignored.
In case you hadn’t noticed, today’s column has turned into one digression after another. Truth is, I’ve been wanting to write one like this for a while now and this month I am, after all, the birthday boy (the semi-centennial birthday boy) and I’ll cry if I want to. (Just kidding, mate. There’s no crying in Architalk.) I’m now in my fifth year of column writing. The pay blows (there’s none), but it scratches an itch in me.

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After Zoe seems done sniffing the West Tenth sidewalk, she and I will sometimes walk in the dark toward the edge of the cliff at end of the Ninth Street Park.

There’s one particular spot that I consider my power spot. Any breeze is made stronger there at the cliff’s edge. During the daytime the gulls use these cliffs to surf the sky. At night the breeze is mine. I imagine it coming from thousands of miles away to find me there. Zoe and I stand in it and take it all in, the vast sweep of black water stretching to Crockett and the bridge and onto the whole world beyond. Overhead I see that Orion is getting ready to throw a leg over the Contra Costa hills (apologies to Robert Frost.) You’ve got to love Orion, king of all constellations. Even superior to the Big Dipper, in my opinion.

In the chill I call Zoe over in front of me where I crouch in such a way that my knee tucks under her and I hold her with both arms, a full bodied clutch where one hand rubs her ear, the other grips her curved chest. Such a warm and living contrast to the cool wind, my dog is. At that moment I love that pup like life itself. I almost always pat her chest firmly a few times, enjoying the sensation of her heft, because dogs can handle that sort of thumping very well and it’s one of my favorite things to do.

After a few seconds of this, I stand and we head for home. There’s not much more to get from this walk, at least not tonight. The itch scratched.


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