Archives For road trips

From the very beginning my T-square and triangle were an easy media of expression for my geometrical sense of things.

Frank Lloyd Wright

It’s time for the WordPress Weekly Photo Challenge! This week: GEOMETRY.

So of course I have to talk about Frank Lloyd Wright. (My Fallingwater novella LILIANE’S BALCONY comes out next fall!)

And of course I’m not going to talk about geometry or photography, I’m just going to tell a story.

A few weeks ago I drove into Chicago to visit the Robie House for the first time. My dad was in town from Colorado, and Chicago is way closer to Indiana than Colorado, so I took the opportunity to drive to the city and have dinner with him. (I was Richly Rewarded with six ounces of filet mignon at Gibson’s Steakhouse. Medium rare. Cooked in an 1800 degree oven. Perfection.)

Before Dinner with Dad, I took an afternoon tour of the Robie House, which is on the campus of the University of Chicago. I was guided perfectly by Siri, but already, even as I drove, I was making comparisons to Fallingwater.

To get to Fallingwater, you drive on the PA Turnpike and get off at an exit for a town you’ve never heard of (different exits depending on which way you’re coming), and then you drive rolling country miles:

through towns like Normalville:

Sometimes you stumble upon some geometry:

Other times you just see rainbows:

What can I say, it’s a very soothing experience just to DRIVE to Fallingwater. It’s much less soothing to drive to the Robie House:

And even when I arrived at the house, there was nowhere to park. It’s on the corner of a long narrow street of elegant old-Chicago homes, and for blocks and blocks the cars are parked bumper to bumper to bumper to bumper. As I passed the Robie House on my left, a guy was directing traffic through the intersection, and I said, “Where do I park for the Robie House?” And he didn’t even stop waving his hand or glance at me as he called back, “59th Street.” Which was like five long blocks back to the main road.

So I turn around and head back, driving slowly in hopes of spying an open parking spot, and the car behind me stays within an inch of my back hatch, and the driver is already gesticulating, and I’m thinking, Dude, Indiana license plate! Figure it out! And then I get behind a car that is waiting for another car to pull out so it can take the parking spot, and the street is too narrow for me to go around, so I wait patiently while Dude behind me starts honking and swerving like HE’s going to go around me, and then I finally make it around the other car and the Dude behind me yells out his window: Fucking bitch! At me! So of course I shove my arm out my window and give him the finger. And then I praaaay that he doesn’t pull out a gun and shoot me before I can get to the Robie House.

So already I’m wishing I were in rural Pennsylvania instead of downtown Chicago. But the walk to the Robie House is quite charming after all.

I arrived just in time for the 3:00 tour. My Robie House guide was super thorough and knowledgeable and did a great job of pointing out all the unique architectural (geometrical!) details of the house. First she took us across the street for an outside view of the house. Note the cars.

And already I’m realizing another difference between the Robie House and Fallingwater: there’s only one tour at a time through the Robie House. Maybe six tours per day, 12 visitors per tour. At Fallingwater, the tours start every 6 minutes, and when I was there the following weekend, they were sold out, with 1200 visitors each day of the weekend.

Back at the Robie House the guide had to battle with the sounds of jackhammers, sirens, and even a helicopter as she tried to talk. Then she walked us around the house and inside through the lower-level foyer.

Where I got a bit distracted by the geometry of a tree:

And the geometry of a window looking through the former children’s playroom:

That empty playroom signals what I would determine is the most significant difference between the Robie House and Fallingwater: the Robie House is empty.

Fallingwater is fully furnished with the original items owned by the Kaufmann family. The bookshelves are positively loaded with books from around the world and across the centuries. When I go through the house I look at book spines as much as at this or that cantilever.

The Robie House, I have to say it again, is empty. It turns out that the Robie Family that commissioned the house in 1908 only lived there for a little over a year before having to sell it to pay off inherited debts. Then two other families owned over the next 20 years. And then it was purchased, along with many other houses on the nearby blocks, by the University of Chicago, and it was used over the years for apartments and meeting places. For a while it was the office of the Alumni Association!

In 1957, there was serious talk of demolishing it (to make room for a student dormitory), and 90-year-old Wright showed up to plead its case. Within a decade it made it onto the appropriate protected historical landmarks list. And thank goodness it did:

I’m reading Zadie Smith on “Rereading Barthes and Nabokov,” and her essay leads with this:

The novels we know best have an architecture. Not only a door going in and another leading out, but rooms, hallways, stairs, little gardens front and back, trapdoors, hidden passageways, et cetera.

Which reminded me of what I was trying to say here when I talked about Fallingwater and fiction (and about writing a fiction set at Fallingwater):

Wright leads you through space and sounds and organic substances that you’ve never experienced in a house. (And isn’t that akin to what writers aspire to with fiction: leading readers through narrative space?)

Frank Lloyd Wright (Photo: Canoe Communications)

And the next thing I knew Zadie Smith was talking about Wright and comparing him to Nabokov. In response to Roland Barthes’s claim that the Author is dead, that only the text is important, Smith says:

I think of [Nabokov] as one of the last, great twentieth-century believers in the autonomy of the Author, as Frank Lloyd Wright was one of the last believers in the Architect. They both specialized in theatrical interviews, struck self-regarding and self-mythologizing poses, all of which would mean nothing (the Author being dead, you don’t have to listen to his self-descriptions) if it weren’t for the fact that they wove the restrictions and privileges of authorship into the very fabric of the things they built.

Vladimir Nabokov (Photo: Guardian UK)

Smith continues:

For it’s true that each time I enter Pnin I feel its author controlling (via an obsessive specificity) all my reactions, just as, in Wright’s Unity Temple, one enters through a small, low side door, forced to approach the magnificence of the interior by way of a series of of awkward right angled turns.

Wright’s Unity Temple (Photo: uuworld.org)

And all of this makes me pensive and happy as I return to Fallingwater this weekend . . .

Letterpress!

June 6, 2012 — 1 Comment

Center for Book Arts work room.

Today I was in NYC for the first of a 5-day Letterpress Printing & Publishing Seminar for Emerging Writers at the Center for Book Arts. Here’s a sampling of what we did. We’re all newbies to letterpress.

Vandercook Press

We all set our names in different type faces and prepared for printing.

Making a print.

The print!

In celebration/preparation for my forthcoming book set at Fallingwater (Liliane’s Balcony), I am volunteering be an Ask-Me Guide at Fallingwater. I attended an orientation in April, and this week I volunteered two days.

Tuesday was my first day, and it was high drama from the time I arrived at 10 a.m. The front desk was short-handed, there was a woodpecker trapped in the Visitors’ Center, and busloads of fourth-graders were arriving for their field trips. The kids, of course, were fascinated by the trapped woodpecker, which thought it could fly through the glass panel and was clearly bewildered each time it smacked into glass. One boy proudly told me that he’d raised baby robins after the mother bird abandoned them. A maintenance guy was called, and he managed to clutch the woodpecker briefly between two long duster puffs and eventually direct the bird out of the area – to great applause from the fourth graders.

You can’t see the woodpecker, but the person in yellow is looking right at it, moments before its escape/liberation.

The lone Info Desk person was a mastermind at the Fallingwater command center. Somehow, amid fourth-graders, trapped birds, new membership applications, and visitors who wanted to avoid fourth-graders, she managed to speak to each new visitor, assign them a tour group, and send a group on its tour every 6 minutes.

My job was very simple: assemble the tour groups, count the number of people in the group, and tell them how to get to the house – and I still managed to screw up. A group that was supposed to have 14 only had 12, but someone said two more were coming. I could see them coming so I said, “Great! Here’s how you get to the house.” And as they walked past me toward the house, I counted 16 people – too many for one group. But it was too late. This happened a couple times. It’s times like these that you think you should probably just turn your Ph.D. over to the person at the Info Desk, who is clearly smarter and more competent than you in every way.

Things calmed down eventually, and I was able to have an amazing lunch in the cafe: an apple, butternut squash, and brie panini with couscous!

But when I returned, there was a sudden and huge downpour/storm. A young French family had their tour postponed and the little girls ran around the sheltered area for a half hour. I watched people run to the center in the rain and handed out umbrellas for trips back to the parking lot.

In my days at Fallingwater, I saw school kids of various ages, families from France, the Middle East, the Far East, the US South, and even an Amish group. I talked to a couple from North Carolina (Wright aficionados), a student who asked if the visitors’ center was the house, and a woman who was at Fallingwater to celebrate her 50th birthday. She celebrated her 40th on a mountain in Alaska. And I met all the amazing people who work and volunteer at Fallingwater.

In the epigraph to my forthcoming book, I quote Frank Lloyd Wright: “The rock ledges of a stone quarry are a story and a longing to me.”

I love that quote, and this week at Fallingwater I kept thinking that Fallingwater itself is a story and a longing. Everyone at Fallingwater has a story and a longing, and I loved having contact with so many of them.

I’m giving two readings in two states in 21 hours. Tonight I’m giving a reading hosted by the South Bend branch of the American Association of University Women (AAUW), and tomorrow I go back to my alma mater, the University of Cincinnati, for a reading in the Elliston Poetry Room, where I have had the pleasure of attending readings by so many amazing writers.

Tonight:

Tomorrow:

Fiction Reading: Kelcey Parker

Friday, April 13 at 4:00 p.m.

Elliston Poetry Room, 646 Langsam Library

At AWP I got to meet with Kathleen and Abby of Rose Metal Press, who publish amazing, beautiful, and unique hybrid-genre books like these:

They also say super-smart things about the importance of indie-publishing, like this short essay, “On Being Indie,” at The Next Best Book Blog:

Compared to trade publishers, we have more creative freedom because we are independent and a nonprofit and can publish and encourage the kind of writing that we see as ground-breaking and innovative rather than focusing heavily on the marketability and projected sales numbers of any given project. We obviously want our books to sell, but the quality of the work takes precedence in our process of choosing what we’ll publish.

So you can imagine how thrilled I am that they are publishing my book, Liliane’s Balcony, in fall 2013. They wrote up a juicy description of the book to preview their upcoming publications:

Liliane’s Balcony is a novella-in-flash that takes place at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater. Built for Pittsburgh merchants E.J. and Liliane Kaufmann in 1935, the house is as much a character as it is a setting. One September night in 1952, Liliane Kaufmann—tired of her husband’s infidelities with a woman named Stoops—overdoses on pain pills in her bedroom. From there, Liliane’s Balcony alternates Mrs. Kaufmann’s mostly true story with the fictional narratives of four modern-day tourists who arrive at the historic home in the midst of their own personal crises, all of which culminate on Mrs. Kaufmann’s over-sized, cantilevered balcony. With its ghosts, motorcycles, portraits, Vikings, and failed relationships, Liliane’s Balcony is as dizzying and intricately beautiful as the structure in which it is set.

Here’s a link to the opening chapter published at Talking Writing:http://talkingwriting.com/?p=640

Frank Lloyd Wright was on my mind because of the book and because I was in Chicago, where he’s kind of hard to avoid. On Sunday, after I had my final coffee-with-a-friend and before I drove back to South Bend, I visited FLW’s home and studio in Oak Park. Here are a few of the like 50 pictures I took. They’re kind of crappy because I used my iPhone and was often rushing to take pics before other tourists got in my frame, and they’re in reverse order so just pretend you’re walking backward through the tour.

Wright's Oak Park house and studio, 1889-1909.

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Love the ceiling lights throughout the house.

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Secretary's desk in the studio office.

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Waiting room to the studio. And also a talking room where they could lay out plans on the table and shut the studio door and discuss the PLANS.

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Side of studio.

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Model of the Robie House.

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Center of studio with hint of the vaulted ceiling. Amazing.

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Yep. Apparently the second floor was originally supported by the chains, but current building codes won't allow it.

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First view of studio. Robie model on left. The desks straight ahead are the ones in earlier photo. Light shining down from upper level windows.

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The children's play room! (There were 6 kids.) Windows on both sides. Grand piano wedged into the wall on the left side of image.

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More awesome ceiling lights. These are in the dining room, which was pretty small and typical of the time.


Living room. Bay window seating.

For Wright, the hearth is always the center of the house and family.

Travels to Central Michigan

November 6, 2011 — 1 Comment

Thanks so much to Darrin Doyle and his awesome colleagues and students – and his wife Courtney! – for making me feel like a rock star at Central Michigan University this week. And for putting up with my coughing fits, and for serving up lots of hot tea so that my voice would survive my reading. Darrin’s graduate students had been reading For Sale By Owner, and they really impressed me with their insights and questions about the stories.

And thanks to my IUSB students, who were all very sweet, wishing me safe travels as I left, and to Joe, my beekeeper student, who brought me a jar of honey from his bees! I felt like Winnie the Pooh!