Frank Lloyd Wright: Beginnings

In keeping with my new-found passion (to visit as many Frank Lloyd Wright [FLW] buildings as I can), I went to Oak Park a week ago to see Frank Lloyd Wright’s first home and studio. I found the experience both anticlimactic and bracing.

As an artist preoccupied with words, languages, and story telling, I often take nourishment from other forms of art–looking for particular narratives or themes, or the emotional resonance of the work, or the intellectual energy of specific choices. In my life, I have been greatly moved by painting, poetry, theater, architecture, landscapes, dance, textiles, and pottery. I’m very receptive to beauty, movement, light and joy, and also melancholy.  Thus my favorite seasons are Spring and Fall (could I call them renewal and maturity?).

I very much enjoyed my afternoon in Oak Park because it encouraged me. In museums, we typically encounter artists at the height of their powers, when they have worked out their concepts and executed their master works. Retrospectives allow some insight into the creative process over time, but the works selected remain the most polished and impressive. Seeing Mr. Wright’s early accomplishments reminded me that the person who would later author the amazing FallingWater had his own slow creative evolution: Refining ideas, tuning concepts, using an iterative approach to his work. Mr. Wright seems to have had sophisticated taste from an early age, and to have collaborated with master craftsmen who excelled in their own right. I believe that this dialogue between artists invigorated his work–it certainly invigorates mine. But I was reminded that even great geniuses have moderately sized successes in the beginning. The homes I saw were lovely and impressive, but they were first steps in a very long journey. Stamina and dedication over time are key ingredients–it’s helpful to remember these aspects for my own creative journey.  OakPStudioHere are visitors on a tour of his studio, which is next to his first home. I enjoyed visiting the studio more than the home because it was a working space, but also a marketing space, so he had made it clever–with modular stations that could be moved around–and a bit grand, with lots of natural light, high ceilings and low hanging ceiling pieces that were anchored by an interesting pulley system.

Having been so impressed by the work of his late career, it was instructive to see work from the beginning of his career and consider the through-lines, the preoccupations and themes, that withstood time.

Some themes (according to me):

  1. Light versus dark–where light is allowed and where light is limited in his spaces.
  2. Containment versus expansion (this the tour guides emphasize as compression and release)–narrow hallways leading into large rooms or outdoor spaces.
  3. Privacy versus view–setting high windows in busy neighborhoods that only show trees and sky as a view.
  4. Geometry and order–lots of repeating themes and patterns.
  5. Spaces within spaces–creating little rooms within larger rooms–like the high-backed dining room chairs he preferred, creating a center of intimacy during dinner. Or delineating sub-spaces within larger rooms, so there is a reading/library corner, and a music corner within a larger living room.
  6. The primacy of the living spaces over the bedrooms, kitchen, or bathroom spaces.
  7. Finding the right furniture for the space and the theme of the space. There are story-telling murals on the walls of his Oak Park home, which influence the rest of the furniture, colors and patterns in the rooms.
  8. A dislike for clutter. Working after an era with more elaborate decorative patterns and fabrics–FLW’s style is relatively sparse and geometrical.
  9. Fitting homes into their landscapes, creating a dialogue between man and nature–Organic Architecture is the term Mr. Wright coined, with FallingWater as the preeminent rendering of this philosophy.

Mr. Wright belonged to a Unitarian Church in Oak Park, which was a relatively new suburb to Chicago in the 1890s.  He built many homes for others in his congregation–there are about 30 FLW homes in the area, and there are about 20 on the walking tour near his studio.FLWFirstMayaYou can see the rapid evolution of his taste through his early houses. This grand home was at a time when he was experimenting with Mayan decorative themes.

FLWFirstJapanThis private home illustrates his interest in Japanese temple architecture.

FLWFirstPrairieThis private home is considered the first of his prairie-style homes–which feel to me Japanese influenced, with an added concern for the privacy of the family, protecting them from onlookers. (Strangely prescient considering the number of visitors to Oak Park circling the streets scavenging for his legacy.)

Visiting FLW’s home helped me understand why his later designs have such limited and oddly placed windows. When Mr. Wright moved to Oak Park, it was mostly plains and dirt roads, with very few houses. However, over his ten years in the neighborhood, the lots started filling up with new houses, and he soon had a next door neighbor, uncomfortably close to his dining room windows. He filled in his original windows, and installed high windows in his dining room, so he would still have light and privacy. This experience must have been formative because privacy for homeowners really influenced his architectural choices going forward even for homes with many acres of land in rural areas like the Kentuck Knob house.

I can’t wait to discover more of his mid-career designs like Taliesin in Wisconsin.


A Good Week for Editing

After working for ten years on a piece that was almost, but never quite, satisfactorily finished–I decided, inspired by the Matisse show “Paires et Series” I saw in Paris, that if I couldn’t get my story to behave as I had written it originally, and rewritten it countless times, perhaps it was time for a radical rewriting. I opened the existing word document, then opened a new word document next to it, and got to writing, occasionally re-purposing small amounts of text that still worked in version 2. Aha! Working fast over two nights and two days, I’m pleased with the final result. The narrative finally makes sense, it is cohesive, the images have been pared down to the necessary few. The character’s emotional journey has a beginning and an ending and a melancholy swath of a middle.

It was a good week. I significantly reworked two pieces I’ve always loved but never brought to ripeness. They had hung around, rotting green mangoes of work, and I felt angry for not being able to bring them to their full sweetness. Rotting no longer. My shiny new fruit is off to market. I wish I had more weeks like this.

Philadelphia V. New York

As the time came to board the bus back to Philadelphia on Sunday night, after three really good days in New York City, I started feeling the usual: relief plus validation. Relief because I’m always happy to come home. I’m a little bit smug in the knowledge that I picked the right city to live in. I love living in Philadelphia. I love living here because I find it to be (Philly attitude and all) an exceedingly gentle city (with the exception of the universal horror of the Philly driving culture). Philly has a vibrant art scene, a delicious food scene, architecture, history, quality of life, and affordability to recommend it. NYC has that odd way of making my spine tingle with the unfettered sense of possibility that makes me want to run around giggling. NYC is recklessly overstimulating. I LOVE the people watching in New York. It is awesome. But my wallet lies flat like dessicated husk whenever I leave Manhattan. And what I love more than being overstimulated is being relaxed. I love the fact that I never ever feel stressed out when I’m commuting home in Philadelphia–even annoying setbacks in public transportation are generally manageable. The distances aren’t that great in my life. I can walk if I must. (This distance thing includes emotional, financial, and intellectual distances–it’s a metaphor). In New York, there’s a low level but endless grind that makes me feel like my soul is constantly battling tiny little scratches to its vital organs. That said, I’ll be scratched to death while sitting in a restaurant with a really fabulous interior design, which might distract me way past soul death. On the other hand, back home in Philadelphia, I feel like my soul drinks smoothies, listens to Mozart, and gets regular massages–even if the setting is less fantastic (and nothing feels more like a fairy tale come true than when I walk the High Line Park in Manhattan). I like the Philly option better. That’s just me.

And in fairness, I already had my five years in Manhattan and I loved every second of those years.


I lived in New York City, Manhattan–so I’d get those spiffy envelopes that said it: New York New York, for five years right after college. I moved to Philly more than a decade ago, but when it came time for my 30th birthday, I had my party in New York City. This was an act of nostalgia for my twenties and an act of love towards the city. I’m facing the next turning of the decade, and I’m headed back to New York. I don’t know what that means. Maybe it means I’m salmon swimming upstream to the watering places that shaped a younger me. I’m going to spend a celebratory weekend, and will make a symbolic stop at my once glamorous watering holes, The Algonquin and the Royalton for one cocktail each. I was so excited to walk in Dorothy Parker’s steps when I was young.

New York still feels incredibly familiar but strange. Manhattan doesn’t need me, it has its own thing going and I haven’t been written into that story. I no longer belong to the New York City timeline. I get occasional glimpses of the city’s evolution. My weekend jaunts are little postcards from the future to my current self which holds the old Manhattan in its mind. In the early 90s, Manhattan still had a kind of wild rugged energy in places, and now the whole of it feels like a polished grand dame to me. Maybe it’s because I’m older and I gravitate to quieter scenes.

Anyway, salmon, swimming upstream, not to spawn but to witness, maybe catch a glimpse of myself rounding the corner. Who’s doing the gazing and who’s being beheld is the mystery.

Touring in New Delhi: Random Observations

I finally had a day to tour Delhi. I saw a lot of wonderful, beautiful things, but every visit was tinged with the regret of unknown compromises. Would I have been happier getting a beautiful henna drawing on my hands or walking the streets and goign shopping with a local? Possibly. But I had made my choice, and so historical sight seeing it was.

We went to the Red Fort, and saw the outside for a bit (I was told it took an hour and a half to tour, and I could either see the Red Fort, or I could see more of old Delhi, so I picked the latter). I wanted to see as much as possible.

We then took a bicycle pulled rickshaw through Chandni Chowk, which for some reason I’ve always heard of and it’s always sounded terribly romantic or magical and mysterious. I love the names of places in New Delhi.

I had been warned that this street market was very dense and hard to get through, and that the only way to carve a path through was in a rickshaw as the drivers are expert navigators.

The streets are very chaotic and crowded. It’s hard to capture exactly how the traffic flows in twenty directions at once, with some people going against traffic, while bicycles, children, and animals do what they want to do, regardless of what cars, trucks, tuktuks and buses are doing. It’s daunting. But the good news is that it generally doesn’t move very fast. The slowlness of traffic does encourage people to dart across. It’s amazing there isn’t more random street slaughter. However, in one day of touring Delhi I did see more people with blindness in one eye than I have in my whole life in the States.

So in Chandni Chowk, on a rickshaw, sitting next to my guide, we rode through the wedding market, the silver market, the gift market, and the book market, which as you can imagine are densely crowded with shops that sell exactly those things. The shops are the sizes of some larger closets found houses in the US, and there are four or five people sharing the space, and they are usually sitting, while one or two are napping, and yet there’s a sense of tremendous vitality.

Then we went to the Jama Masjid, or the big mosque. It’s either the biggest mosque in Delhi or the biggest one in India. It can apparently hold up to 25,000 people. It’s primarily an outdoor plaza with a fountain for washing hands and feet, and rows of rolled up carpets ready for prayer. I frustrated my tour guide because I did not let him talk a lot. I was very tired and wanted to try to take it all in and absorb the sights, and not have to constantly concentrate on a flow of informative chatter. So we chatted in fits and starts, I took pictures, and found out a few things, and appreciated the company and facilitation through the crowds of men.

Women are rarely alone in this society it seems–they usually move in groups, or with children.
There are lots of solo men, however, so it was good to have an uncle figure with me as I definitely stick out in a Delhi crowd. I had been warned there would be a lot of staring, but I did not find it hostile. I think people were just really curious and surprised to see me about.

I did see some Western women touring the sights solo, but they were generally a bit older. I curious and wanting to stop them and ask them how they found being tourists in India. But there were already being brave and didn’t need me bothering them further.

One things has remained true of my entire stay–the people are incredibly welcoming, smiling, kind and sweet to me, they are helpful and decent and just want to be treated with a touch of respect.

So for the mosque (My first ever) I had to remove my shoes, buy some slippers, and then put on a full covering which was delightfully ugly orange and green flowery pattern (yes I have a couple pictures).

Then we took the rickshaw back to the auto and headed to Raj Ghat, the site of Gandi’s cremation which is by India’s second most sacred river.

It’s a black stone slab with an eternal flame next to it, and some flowers on it.

My guide wanted to make sure I saw as much as possible, so he suggested we just see it from above, but I deciced I had to go up to it and pay my respects. So i darted through, barefoot again, and came back. we then went to Humayun’s tomb, which was built 75(?) years before the Taj Mahal (closed on Fridays), and was supposed to be the inspiration for the Taj.

It’s very pretty, red sandstone and white marble building. I have some good pictures. It’s actually kind of amazing the state in which the historical sights are–they tend to have beautiful crumbling stone work and peeling paint work.

It’s also weird being shown buildings from the 1600 and 1700, because these do not impress me in their age, since there are much older things in Paris.

The oldest sight around, the Qutub Minar, was too far for me to reach on this compressed day of touring (all public buildings close at five pm, I left the hotel at 1pm, so we had to hustle through Delhi’s impossible traffic as best we could before rush hour started).

I really enjoyed the peacefullness of the gardens around the tomb. I was glad to get back to the hotel and finally relax a bit. I was sad to leave Delhi before I experienced more of it, but I’m really happy to be heading home.


I originally wanted to call this blog post, India will have us by the throat (I’ll explain later).

My first day here I thought that everyone was incredibly nice. That as much as I’ve been kindly treated and welcomed in Rio and Hong Kong, by far, people in India have been kinder and more welcoming.

What I noticed in my second and following days was that the people I ran into in India were incredibly ambitious. There is a hunger for advancement and hard work in this country which I have rarely seen in the western world. Delhi puts Manhattan work standards to shame. Everyone I’ve run into here is putting forth their dearest personal best, seeking a touch of recognition. A billion smart, kind welcoming people, eager for their share of the middle class, and willing to work six days a week, 12 hours a day to get it, versus Westerners and their comfy standards of living. Oh my. There’s an education gap to bridge, but it won’t last forever.

I always supposed the 21st century would be fascinating. And the hype on India is off the mark, but not wrong. There is a wonderful pool of cosmopolitan, tolerant, flexible, sophisticated people here.

Everyone talks about the poverty in this country. That was brought home for me when I saw a very poor person on the side of the street very lovingly shake the dirt out from a stretch of burlap sackcloth, which was obviously his most treasured property, and then fold it with great care.

There’s always more to say, but I’ll leave it here for now.

Root Canal

There’s nothing inherently wrong with the words Root or Canal, the same way there’s nothing inherently wrong with the phrase Up All Night and the word Working.

I’m not going to spell it out, but trust me, it’s bad.

On the plus side of the equation, I found the most awesome blog: Feminist Ryan Gosling.

I finally located my perspective somewhere under a pile of weep. I realized that I tend to have my little meltdowns well after the crisis has passed. Like many children my age, first things go bad, then I handle them, then I realize what I went through and suffer from emotional hiccups. Then I calm down and see that everything is going to be okay.

So there. Everything is going to be okay. Plus a little helping of Feminist slogans: Hey Girl.


I was thinking before I started my two plane travels to New Delhi of all the different rumors and murmurs you hear about India: That people respond so strongly, that it provokes and makes visitors think. I’m still in a fog of jetlag and Ambien, having gone to bed at 4am last night, but I have some general impressions.

I burst the tourist bubble:
The hotel insists on making me take BMWs everywhere (my hotel bill will blow socks off). On the advice of a local colleague, I burst through the BMW bubble–while I was not allowed a taxi, and had to be white glove driven to Khan Market, I did pull off a low-rent return to base on my own terms. I took a three-wheeled auto rickshaw back to the hotel. Daring, dangerous, no seatbelts, vehicle of Chinese (i think) construction! Driver whose hands were covered in? Unknown. Driver with desperate eyes, but friendly conversation. The insistence I take his number in case I want a tour of the people’s Delhi. He disapproved of the places I had done some shopping, too expensive, locals would not go there.

Many staff, one Sylvie: There are many staff. They are all quite specialists. It is unclear to me the difference between each specialist staff member’s role, but some only provide fruit, other appear to give pistachio sweets at night, others dust (even my stuff on the counter), and others straighten the bed. I will go bankrupt trying to tip the lot, so I have given up.
There are greeters, those who xray your stuff, those who body scan you, those who open doors, those who join hands to say Namaste, and then all the others, function unknown, but readily available. Two charming ladies, or was it three total, were involved in my getting a cup of tea outside. It’s a bit overwhelming, this level of care of details.

Temptation abounds:
Many beautiful things to buy.

Sensory overload.
When I came into my hotel room last night, there were two men, the tv was on, a welcome beverage was handed to me, someone had just put a welcoming bindhi on my forehead, I had a jasmine necklace around my neck, I was asked to sign here and here, and then got a 30 minute lecture on how to operate my room’s many controls. It’s sights, scents, sounds unending.

Random animals.
There are unsupervised life forms of all stripes lying about. Dogs sleeping in market corridors, no sign of owners. Life abounds.

Acrid odors. It smells like burning plastic, similar to burning a milk carton.

Poverty. Apparently I was directed to a fairly fancy market (mostly tourists). The fancy market did not look fancy to me–except for the immaculate L’Occitane storefront. Also, crumbling pink concrete buildings were pointed out to me as government housing, apparently this was high end housing, and being a government employee is a high status occupation. I think back to Philly municipal employees. It’s all very interesting.

Relaxed movement.
Much like Rio, people kind of jaunt or saunter when they walk about. There doesn’t seem to be a rushed setting, the way I found in Hong Kong.

Friendly Kindness. As I went about shopping, I really didn’t know if I was being treated kindly or being robbed blind. I tried to engage the local women for their opinion and they were quite sweet, friendly and helpful. The shopkeepers also are nice and very respectful and have an elegant dignity about them. But I can’t help but feel that I have gold and platinum dollar signs blazing above my head when they look at me.

When I had tea, the tea was a California brand, Forte. It’s good tea, but I sometimes drink it in Philadelphia, and I certainly didn’t come to Delhi for California brand tea.

Does Pandora Mock Me?

I’m sitting brutally alone in a business class lounge, preparing for two long flights, and I’m by far the most awkward not-quite-first class duckling to walk these moderately well decked halls. In proof, who else would find herself strangling a full water bottle so that it splashes the fridge below and soaks the linens above. I tried to be discreet after bathing the credenza.

In my shame, I’m seeking refuge in my friendly electronic medium, and I’m wired up like a Superman villain (3 I think), with my laptop charging, my iPhone charging and my earphones in so I don’t scream at the gentle lounge music.

I turn on Pandora for a touch of distraction and voila, Nina Simone sings “every time we say goodbye” which is the saddest parting song I know of–compound this with the patented mournful Nina effects: Voila (again): A pity party in the corner by the door until they denounce me to the classy authorities.

The Rebalancing Act

I’m here to tell you how much I love working on my memoir manuscript. It engages a whole other part of my mind in a truly delightful, relaxing way. Okay, I may be lying about the relaxing part. Editing my memoir fills me with teeth grinding fear and hopeful gases. Yes, editing has physiological effects.

At any rate, I reread, in a state of pleasant surprise, my latest iteration of Bed Stories, which goes through various romantic and family anecdotes that are linked to the presence of beds. It’s always been my sweet, slightly broken darling, but I think it may have finally found its rhythm. Because writing is about finding, varying, and sustaining rhythm. (Did you know the word Rhythm had so many Hs? I did not.) But yes, this story is cooked. It is done. It smells like, well it smells like the vapors of Michter’s bourbon in my empty glass, which is a slightly smokey, slightly sweet, very boozy aroma.

This evening of delighted discovery of finished products in the rubble of my ever unfinished memoir is brought to you by the letter S. S for Surrender and Serendipity. Surrender because it seems that, like me, the students in my classes have basically given up on the readings. I have come to terms with drastic skimming. Serendipity because tonight I figured out that the deadlines for my next research papers weren’t quite as dire as I expected. So I came home and, instead of plunging into research, I got to plunge into my very own personal writing project. My personal writing project makes me feel at home in the way the best vacation I have ever had made me feel at home in a strange place. There’s sun, there’s discovery, and there’s a sweet satisfaction experienced between swims and naps. I don’t get to nap when I edit, but I do get to swim in my mind’s flow.

I’ve vowed to myself that I will rebalance my time> more time writing, less time reading homework/researching. I want to do it all, but doing it all must include my writing. There. I said it.


I find it nearly impossible to write while on vacation. I’m too happy. My thoughts meander sideways.

I’m absorbed by the new locale, and I am full of half formed reflections. My brain is busy contrasting my home town against Montreal, trying to imagine what it might be like to live here.

I’m evaluating the beauty of the citizens, the sophistication of the garb, the attitudes on the street, the friendliness of the people, the layout of the city, the general quality of the food, the accessibility of the water front, and probably a million other things I don’t consciously realize I’m assessing.

Today’s forecast was rain, but we’ve had a great sunny (okay humid) day instead.

We’ve managed to see a fair chunk of the city even with our relaxed, goofing off, unfocused approach to tourism. Today was all about parks: we discovered Mont Royal and La Fontaine–both lovely urban oases.

I did not bring proper shoes for a five hour saunter through diverse terrain, so I am now in possession of fancy new walking sandals, purchased on sale at a labor day weekend street fair. I like to bring home accessories (usually earrings) to commemorate trips to new cities. So check that box. Montreal memories have been commemorated via footwear. I did sacrifice one accessory to this city’s gods. I’m minus one silver hoop, likely lost in Old Montreal between a creperie and a maple sugar delicacies house.

I’ve instituted a vacation cocktail hour. Between 5 and 6, I head off to the balcony with a cold glass of white wine. Not a bad pre game option in preparation for the dinner hour. This may be my only fixed agenda item of the day (beside frequent sweet snacks).