Friday, September 30, 2005

Handy Dandy Index for 9/2005

Adams, John (U.S. president)
“Rebel Lawyers” (9/28/2005)
Alkan, Charles (composer)
“Goodbye, Vinyl” (9/12/2005)
American Red Cross
“New Orleans Levees . . .” (9/8/2005)
Anne of Cleves (royal wife)
“Anne of Cleves” (9/22/2005)
Army Corps of Engineers, U.S.
“New Orleans Levees . . .” (9/8/2005)
Augustino, Jocelyn (photographer)
“Urban Search & Rescue . . .” (9/9/2005)
Baseball
“Cocktail Rules” (9/15/2005)
“Casual Summer Romance” (9/5/2005)
Beatles, The (rock/pop group)
“Goodbye, Vinyl” (9/12/2005)
Berndtson, Peter (architect)
“Edgar Tafel at Fallingwater” (9/1/2005)
Boleyn, Anne (royal wife)
“Anne of Cleves” (9/22/2005)
Boston Red Sox, baseball club
“Casual Summer Romance” (9/5/2005)
Brackenridge, Hugh Henry (attorney)
“Rebel Lawyers” (9/28/2005)
Bradford, David (attorney)
“Rebel Lawyers” (9/28/2005)
Brown, Michael (FEMA administrator)
“Michael Brown Testifies . . . (9/27/2005)
Brown v. Board of Education (1954)
“Rebel Lawyers” (9/28/2005)
Bush, George H.W. (U.S. president)
“New Orleans Levees . . .” (9/8/2005)
Bush, George W. (U.S. president)
“Land Rush” (9/20/2005)
Byrd, Robert (U.S. senator)
“Goodbye, Vinyl” (9/12/2005)
Carter, Jimmy (U.S. president)
“New Orleans Levees . . .” (9/8/2005)
Cherokee Land Strip Rush (1889)
“Land Rush” (9/20/2005)
Chicago Cubs, baseball club
“Casual Summer Romance” (9/5/2005)
Choates, Harry (Cajun fiddler)
“Goodbye, Vinyl” (9/12/2005)
Clemente, Roberto (baseball player)
“Casual Summer Romance” (9/5/2005)
Clinton, Bill (U.S. president)
“New Orleans Levees . . .” (9/8/2005)
“Land Rush” (9/20/2005)
CocktailDB, the Internet Cocktail Database
“Cocktail Rules” (9/15/2005)
Cox, Tom (deputy mayor, Pittsburgh)
“New Orleans Levees . . .” (9/8/2005)
Cromwell, Thomas (royal minister)
“Anne of Cleves” (9/22/2005)
Cruise, Tom (actor)
“Land Rush” (9/20/2005)
Curtis, Mallet-Prevost, Colt & Mosle (law firm)
“Cocktail Rules” (9/15/2005)
Davis, Mike (author)
“New Orleans Levees . . .” (9/8/2005)
Dead Cities (2003), book
“New Orleans Levees . . .” (9/8/2005)
Delius, Frederick (composer)
“Goodbye, Vinyl” (9/12/2005)
Denny, Reginald (actor)
“Cocktail Rules” (9/15/2005)
Diner (1982), film
“Goodbye, Vinyl” (9/12/2005)
Dukakis, Michael (U.S. pres. candidate)
“New Orleans Levees . . .” (9/8/2005)
Embury, David A. (author/lawyer)
“Cocktail Rules” (9/15/2005)
Fallingwater (house)
“Fallingwater Audio” (9/24/2005)
“WDUQ-FM to air . . .” (9/14/2005)
“Edgar Tafel at Fallingwater” (9/1/2005)
Fallingwater Rising (2003), book
“WDUQ-FM to air . . .” (9/14/2005)
“Edgar Tafel at Fallingwater” (9/1/2005)
Far and Away (1992), film
“Land Rush” (9/20/2005)
Federal Bar Association
“Rebel Lawyers” (9/28/2005)
FEMA
“Urban Search & Rescue . . .” (9/9/2005)
Fine Art of Mixing Drinks, The (1948), book
“Cocktail Rules” (9/15/2005)
Fischer, Scott (mountain climber)
“Going Up is Optional . . .” (9/29/2005)
Fournier, Ron (AP reporter)
“New Orleans Levees . . .” (9/8/2005)
Geminiani, Francisco (composer)
“Goodbye, Vinyl” (9/12/2005)
Hall, Rob (mountain climber)
“Going Up is Optional . . .” (9/29/2005)
Harrison, George (rock/pop star)
“Goodbye, Vinyl” (9/12/2005)
Hart, William S. (actor)
“Land Rush” (9/20/2005)
Henry VIII (king)
“Anne of Cleves” (9/22/2005)
Holbein, Hans (portraitist)
“Anne of Cleves” (9/22/2005)
Homestead Act (1862)
“Land Rush” (9/20/2005)
Horses, Arabian
“Michael Brown Testifies . . . (9/27/2005)
Hutchison, Kay Bailey (U.S. senator)
“Going Up is Optional . . .” (9/29/2005)
Internet Dating
“Anne of Cleves” (9/22/2005)
James, Bill (author)
“Casual Summer Romance” (9/5/2005)
Jazz music
“Cocktail Rules” (9/15/2005)
“Goodbye, Vinyl” (9/12/2005)
Jefferson, Thomas (U.S. president)
“Rebel Lawyers” (9/28/2005)
Jerry’s Records (store)
“Goodbye, Vinyl” (9/12/2005)
Joy Division (rock group)
“Goodbye, Vinyl” (9/12/2005)
Katrina, Hurricane (2005)
“Michael Brown Testifies . . . (9/27/2005)
“Land Rush” (9/20/2005)
“Urban Search & Rescue . . .” (9/9/2005)
“New Orleans Levees . . .” (9/8/2005)
Kerr, Walter (author)
“Goodbye, Vinyl” (9/12/2005)
Kerstin (wife of Ron Schuler)
“Goodbye, Vinyl” (9/12/2005)
“New Orleans Levees . . .” (9/8/2005)
“Casual Summer Romance” (9/5/2005)
Koufax, Sandy (baseball player)
“Casual Summer Romance” (9/5/2005)
Krakauer, Jon (author/climber)
“Going Up is Optional . . .” (9/29/2005)
Madan, KC (helicopter pilot)
“Going Up is Optional . . .” (9/29/2005)
Maddux, Greg (baseball player)
“Casual Summer Romance” (9/5/2005)
Mays, Willie (baseball player)
“Casual Summer Romance” (9/5/2005)
Milhaud, Darius (composer)
“Goodbye, Vinyl” (9/12/2005)
Mondale, Walter F. (U.S. pres. candidate)
“New Orleans Levees . . .” (9/8/2005)
Monk, Thelonious (jazz pianist)
“Goodbye, Vinyl” (9/12/2005)
Monty Python
“Goodbye, Vinyl” (9/12/2005)
Mt. Everest (Sagarmatha)
“Going Up is Optional . . .” (9/29/2005)
Namba, Yasuko (mountain climber)
“Going Up is Optional . . .” (9/29/2005)
Organic Vision: The Architecture of Peter Berndtson (1980), book
“Edgar Tafel at Fallingwater” (9/1/2005)
Pittsburgh Pirates, baseball club
“Casual Summer Romance” (9/5/2005)
Plessy v. Ferguson (1896)
“Rebel Lawyers” (9/28/2005)
PNC Park
“Going Up is Optional . . .” (9/29/2005)
“Casual Summer Romance” (9/5/2005)
Poulenc, Francis, composer
“Goodbye, Vinyl” (9/12/2005)
“Reagan Democrats”
“New Orleans Levees . . .” (9/8/2005)
Roberts, Cokie, NPR/ABC commentator
“Land Rush” (9/20/2005)
Roberts, John (U.S. Supreme Court nominee)
“Rebel Lawyers” (9/28/2005)
Rolling Stones, The (rock group)
“Going Up is Optional . . .” (9/29/2005)
Sammy Sosa’s bat, corked
“Casual Summer Romance” (9/5/2005)
Seaver, Tom (baseball player)
“Casual Summer Romance” (9/5/2005)
Seymour, Jane (royal wife)
“Anne of Cleves” (9/22/2005)
Siegel, Fred (journalist)
“New Orleans Levees . . .” (9/8/2005)
Silent Clowns, The (1975), book
“Goodbye, Vinyl” (9/12/2005)
Silent films
“Cocktail Rules” (9/15/2005)
“Goodbye, Vinyl” (9/12/2005)
“Suburban Politics”
“New Orleans Levees . . .” (9/8/2005)
Tafel, Edgar (architect)
“Fallingwater Audio” (9/24/2005)
“WDUQ-FM to air . . .” (9/14/2005)
“Edgar Tafel at Fallingwater” (9/1/2005)
Ted Williams’ head, frozen
“Casual Summer Romance” (9/5/2005)
Toker, Franklin (author)
“Fallingwater Audio” (9/24/2005)
“WDUQ-FM to air . . .” (9/14/2005)
“Edgar Tafel at Fallingwater” (9/1/2005)
Tumbleweeds (1926), film
“Land Rush” (9/20/2005)
“Urban Homesteading”
“Land Rush” (9/20/2005)
Washington, George (U.S. president)
“Rebel Lawyers” (9/28/2005)
Watergate (1972-4)
“Goodbye, Vinyl” (9/12/2005)
WDUQ-FM
“Fallingwater Audio” (9/24/2005)
“WDUQ-FM to air . . .” (9/14/2005)
“Edgar Tafel at Fallingwater” (9/1/2005)
Weathers, Beck (pathologist/climber)
“Going Up is Optional . . .” (9/29/2005)
Whiskey Rebellion (1794)
“Rebel Lawyers” (9/28/2005)
Williams, Clarence (jazz bandleader)
“Goodbye, Vinyl” (9/12/2005)
Wright, Frank Lloyd (architect)
“Fallingwater Audio” (9/24/2005)
“WDUQ-FM to air . . .” (9/14/2005)
“Edgar Tafel at Fallingwater” (9/1/2005)

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Going Up is Optional, Getting Down is Mandatory



Having forlornly decided against taking the $400 floor tickets for the Rolling Stones concert at PNC Park, Kerstin and I went to see a talk by Beck Weathers last night. Weathers, you will recall, was the 49-year old Dallas pathologist and amateur mountain climber who was left for dead, unconscious and partially buried in snow for 14 hours, during the tragic Mount Everest expeditions of May 1996 (in which nine climbers died) – but who somehow managed to come back to tell the tale.

I was only vaguely aware of the 1996 Mt. Everest disaster when I made my own considerably less ambitious trek of Sagarmatha (Everest) National Park in April 1997 (see photo below; I’m the hunched figure on the left). I had somehow missed Jon Krakauer’s first-person account in the September 1996 issue of Outside magazine. However, perhaps not surprisingly, there was a dog-eared copy of it available for me to experience for the first time -- inside a smoky lodge in the village of Dingboche, at 14,500 feet.

Sitting next to a stove burning yak dung for warmth, light-headed and slightly dehydrated from the altitude, I remember experiencing conflicting emotions as I read Krakauer’s tale. I had seen Everest’s peak, with its disarming, churlish cloud-cowlick, from several vantage points during my trek up to that point, imagining that all I really had to do if I desired was to reach out and touch it. During the trek I had been lulled into believing that it was an attainable goal for the likes of me. I could see myself in Krakauer’s portrayal of poor Doug Hansen, the postal worker from Seattle who would die in 1996 after reaching the summit, or of Dr. Weathers – I could understand the sense of optimism that they clearly had that such a dream was possible.

Yet, at the same time, I was also very aware of the toll upon my mind and body that even this paltry 14,000-foot trek could induce. Dehydration, loss of appetite, a general fogginess of consciousness in the evenings, a knee ache and a foot ache, sunburn . . . just imagine, I thought – the punishment you’d take just to get above base camp at 17,000 feet. Brain hypoxia, apoptosis, the gradual death of one’s own cells, at 26,000 feet on the way up – only to be turned away from the peak by weather or exhaustion or some other unforeseen obstacle. The weight of failure was surely more than just emotional when you’ve reached that height.

Then imagine being chased by your own mortality back down the mountain. For the light-headed reader I was, the thought was harrowing.

Weathers, who broke out into the first couple of bars of “Satisfaction” in an impromptu acknowledgement of the evening’s competing entertainment, bursts onto the stage and “acts” his tale, using the entire stage to show how he inched sideways across the blade of the summit ridge, and how he would draw lungfuls of breath after every painful step above 22,000 feet. He works the crowd like a brass-band throwback to the most entertaining of the “famous-for-a-moment” lecturers on the old vaudeville circuit.

Weathers never made it to the summit on May 10, 1996. A few years earlier, Weathers had radial keratotomy surgery to correct bad vision in his eyes, observing that eyeglasses were no man’s friend in the mountains. Although he had heard of the phenomenon before, apparently he had never experienced one of its rare side effects – a loss of vision at high-altitude low barometric pressures. He had reached the ice balcony just before the South Summit Ridge, but at that moment he had to admit his utter blindness. After informing his team leader that he couldn’t make the rest of the ascent, Rob Hall made Weathers swear that he wouldn’t move from the ice balcony until Hall returned from the summit with his other clients. Weathers had no idea that Hall would never return (Hall would later die on the mountain), and ended up standing there in below zero temperatures until nearly nightfall, when Mike Groom, one of Hall’s guides, came down and short-roped him. Weathers was so blind by this time that he would occasionally step off into dead air, causing Groom to have to catch him using every ounce of his strength.

Then the storm came -- a freak white-out that caused Groom, Weathers and several members of Scott Fischer’s rival expedition to lose their bearings. They hunkered down on the South Col, strength gradually succumbing to the elements; but when a short break in the storm occurred, Groom and a couple of the other ambulatory climbers felt their way down to “Camp Four” at 26,100 feet to find help. Anatoly Boukreev, one of Fischer’s experienced guides, came and rescued Fischer’s clients one by one, but Weathers and little Yasuko Namba -- who earlier that day, at 47, became the oldest Japanese woman to reach the summit -- were incapacitated. Weathers lost a glove trying warm his hand inside his armpit, exposing his right hand to wind chills 100° below zero. By the time another climber, Stuart Hutchison, arrived on the scene, Namba and Weathers had sunk into comas. Hutchison assumed they were irredeemably near death. Weathers’ wife and children in Texas were called and told that he had perished.

Namba, lying in the snow beside him, would not survive. But Weathers opened his eyes at some point during that second day (he’s calls that “the miracle” that saved him), and he banged his dead-frozen arms down on the ice to regain some sensibility, and he got up and staggered blindly into the wind toward camp like a mummy, his face blackened by frostbite.

Again, his compadres thought he wouldn’t survive the night. On May 12, however, he woke up asking for help, and he was short-roped down to “Camp Two,” where he’d heard that the Nepalese were going to attempt the impossible – a helicopter rescue at an altitude where the air was so thin there was no guarantee that a copter’s blades would be able to chisel into it for lift. Weathers’ wife, back home in Texas, had roused Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, who had roused the State Department, who had roused the U.S. embassy in Nepal, who found KC Madan -- a Nepalese military pilot, who until that day had questioned whether he had ever done anything to challenge his courage to the limits. His white knuckle flights (two of them, to 21,000 feet) to save Weathers and Taiwanese climber Makalu Gau should have dispelled all doubt about such matters, Weathers observes.

Weathers made it back to Texas, eventually. He lost his right hand below the wrist, and surgeons managed to save an indistinct if partially functional paw for him on his left. His face was scarred by frostbite, and he says he’s rebuffed suggestions that he let a plastic surgeon fix them – he says he wants to remember this ordeal every morning when he looks in the mirror.

Those scars remind him, he says, of how much he values being home with his family.

Labels: ,

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Rebel Lawyers


Last week I gave my 4th annual “Whiskey Rebellion” speech for the local chapter of the Federal Bar Association.

The Whiskey Rebellion, in case you’ve forgotten the American history you were never taught anyway, was an insurrection in 1794 by settlers in the Monongahela Valley in Western Pennsylvania who fought against a federal tax on whiskey by tarring-and-feathering revenue collectors and conducting other mischief. President Washington led 13,000 soldiers to quell the insurrection – which was the first and only time a sitting president led troops into battle.

It turns out to have been a very important, if almost forgotten event, in American history, because it was the first dramatic opportunity for the United States government to prove its legitimacy to its own people, and to impose the will of the federal government upon the contrary desires of a state or local constituency. It was also an important test of the limits and protocols of dissent within the infant Republic, the ability to disagree with the policies of the government without being branded as a traitor.

Of all the truly interesting things I could have discussed concerning the Whiskey Rebellion, unfortunately I had to focus on the activities of lawyers during the Rebellion, because people were actually paying to listen to me so that they could obtain Continuing Legal Education “Ethics” credit for the year.

There were two lawyers who played major roles in the Rebellion. One was Hugh Henry Brackenridge, a Princeton-educated pro-federal carpetbagger and Pittsburgh’s first-ever lawyer, who campaigned against the whiskey excise tax but stopped short of urging rebellion. The other was David Bradford, an allegedly mentally unstable country lawyer, the deputy attorney general of Washington County who was to be branded as a traitor, a thief and a ringleader of the insurrection for giving violent speeches and rousing the public outcry.

Both lawyers ended up as losers in the conflict -- but both found redemption, after a fashion.

Brackenridge’s pamphlets and articles condemning the excise tax became well known among the politicians in Congress and in President Washington’s cabinet – so much so that Washington’s soldiers chanted anti-Brackenridge epithets on their way to quell the insurrection. But to his fellow Pittsburghers, Brackenridge was a traitor to the cause because he would not support armed resistance against the feds. He ended up losing the trust of his neighbors as an advocate, until he was finally elevated to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. (This is sometimes what happens when no one else will have you.)

David Bradford had a warrant out for his arrest, and he ended up escaping South to New Orleans, and then to the fringes of Spanish West Florida, before being pardoned by President John Adams. Then, strange as it may seem, President Thomas Jefferson, who was having troubles with Spanish Florida during his term, actually sought out Bradford to help him with the situation, recalling how well Bradford was able to stir up the residents of Western Pennsylvania during the Whiskey Rebellion. I think it says something about the young Republic's willingness to forgive and forget an honest mistake that Bradford might be asked by his president to serve his country once again. After all, it was only a few years before that some of the English-speaking inhabitants of North America had decided to throw off the yoke of the only apparent authority which then existed -- that of the British crown. They claimed that they were being taxed without representation, and they claimed that they had a God-given right to govern themselves. Who could blame Bradford for thinking he might have had the colorable authority to do the same a scant few years after the last time it was done?

And therein lies the gist of my message to the lawyers assembled (in case you missed the speech itself). In a free society, lawyers are given a wide berth when it comes to challenging the existing legal order without being branded as traitors. Although “precedent” is a powerful element in our system, even John Roberts, in his recent confirmation hearings, had to admit that it was not inviolable; the ability to break precedent is, for example, what moved us from the “separate but equal” doctrine of Plessy v. Ferguson to the integration imperative in Brown v. Board of Education. And yet, procedural and ethical rules seem to place limits on a lawyer’s ability to launch arguments that are not grounded in current law – as evidenced by the sanctions that can be imposed against lawyers for “frivolous” claims, for example. So – how is a lawyer to know when he or he has gone too far? What are the limits of a lawyer’s working dissent?

It is part of a lawyer’s job to exercise our independent judgment -- not only about the advice we give to our clients, but about the advice we give to ourselves. We are always, at some level, consciously or unconsciously, asking ourselves: where there are no outright prohibitions and no black-letter rules to guide us, do we have an argument that this is legal? And if it is found to be illegal, what's the magnitude of the consequences? David Bradford obviously got a break, because this was, after all, a first test for the federals. The next guy no doubt took his lumps.

The profession urges us to be men and women of our time – it urges us to be wide-awake and practical, using our wits and our experience and our street sense as we go about our duties. And this applies, I think, to the advice we give ourselves as much as it does to the advice we give others. We take measure of our actions in the context of our times -- and whether we are laboring to maintain the status quo or to effect radical change in society, if we still have our dignity by the end of it all, then it seems to me we’re on the right track.

Labels: , , , ,

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Michael Brown Testifies Before Congress


"I do solemnly swear that not a single Arabian horse was lost during Hurricane Katrina."

(Credit: George H.)

Labels:

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Fallingwater Audio


The WDUQ-FM Fallingwater anniversary report, featuring a discussion between author Franklin Toker and Edgar Tafel, the last surviving apprentice of Frank Lloyd Wright present at the birth of Fallingwater, is now available at WDUQ's audio site (Quicktime required).

Labels: ,

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Anne of Cleves


Today is the 490th anniversary of the birth of Anne of Cleves, the fourth of Henry VIII's six wives.

After the death of Henry VIII's third wife, Jane Seymour (not the TV doctor), days after she had given birth to his first legitimate son, it was inevitable that Henry would be looking for a new wife.

Executive dating was in many ways as thorny a chore in the 16th century as it is in the 21st century. Anne of Cleves might have been the top search result for an Internet dating query by the king, had the Internet been around in 1538 and had the king asked for "a pretty European noblewoman of child-bearing age whose state has not turned its back on England after its secession from Catholic jurisdiction."

England had, indeed, become isolated from the rest of Europe after Henry's break from Rome, so Henry's chief minister Thomas Cromwell was anxious for Henry to form an alliance with the principality of Cleves in Germany, a Protestant state allied to Saxony and the league of Lutheran princes. Still, Henry worried about whether Anne was pretty enough, so he sent his court portraitist Hans Holbein to Cleves to paint her. Holbein's portrait of Anne (see above), said by many to be a superior likeness, showed her to be a delicate and demure fraulein. Satisfied, Henry had Cromwell proceed with the marriage negotiations.

Anne traveled from Cleves to Richmond in the middle of the harsh winter of 1539, and Henry was so impatient to see his new bride that he rode through bad weather from Greenwich to Richmond, catching her, no doubt, at the end of an arduous journey, and perhaps not on her best hair day. Henry took one look at her and said, "I like her not," later referring to her as a "Flanders mare." On top of Henry's disappointment in her appearance, Anne did not otherwise seem to be cut out for English court life: she spoke only German, and did not possess the talents of the typical lady-at-court -- i.e., she did not sing nor play an instrument nor read -- although she apparently knew how to sew very well.

With his statesman's cap on, however, Henry knew it was too late to stop the wedding, but he couldn't bring himself to consummate the marriage, and arranged for a divorce six months later. Anne accepted the title "King's sister," and Henry provided for her most generously for the rest of her life, giving her the royal palace at Richmond and Hever Castle (where Henry's second wife, Anne Boleyn, had grown up). Henry blamed Cromwell for the whole fiasco, and before the year was out, had him executed.

There are many possible morals to this story; in particular, I like "Beware of single European women who take a good picture," and "Be careful about setting your boss up on a blind date -- especially if he's the king."

Labels:

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Land Rush


Among the many surprises in President Bush’s speech from Jackson Square in New Orleans last Thursday was his proposal for a federal urban homesteading program for the Gulf Coast region. As he put it: “Under this approach, we will identify property in the region owned by the federal government, and provide building sites to low-income citizens free of charge, through a lottery. In return, they would pledge to build on the lot, with either a mortgage or help from a charitable organization like Habitat for Humanity. Home ownership is one of the great strengths of any community, and it must be a central part of our vision for the revival of this region.”

When spoken with the President’s Texas drawl, the word “homestead” cannot help but call forth in my mind the memory of that famous Oklahoma land rush scene from William S. Hart’s Tumbleweeds (seen above), one of the greatest and most realistic Western action sequences of the silent cinema. (The one in Tom Cruise’s Far and Away was a pretty walk in the park by comparison.) Since 1889, when the original Oklahoma Cherokee land-strip rush occurred, the government has gotten a little more sophisticated about how it doles out its homesteading land, however, so you can all put your horses back in the barn.

Commentators have generally been stymied by the proposal. Cokie Roberts referred to urban homesteading as a new idea in her NPR commentary on the speech earlier this week, stating that the 19th century Homestead Act that made land available in the West was “one of the most effective and popular ideas in this country,” but that “we’ve never tried it in urban centers.”

Actually, we have. Or at least we’ve seen variations on this theme. Three years before the Homestead Act itself was repealed in 1976, Wilmington (Delaware), Philadelphia and Baltimore started their own “citysteading” programs, taking city properties acquired in tax foreclosures and offering them for sale to the public at low prices. The federal government began the process of rechanneling its interests in homesteading the following year with the passage of the Housing and Community Development Act, re-selling properties acquired in FHA mortgage defaults; by 1980, 90 urban areas, from Benton Harbor, Michigan to New York City participated in such programs.

Unfortunately, by 1989, it had come to light that many urban homestead properties that were intended for “low income working people” had been transferred illegally to ineligible people (i.e. speculators with capital). Under the HUD Equity Restoration Act of 1989, the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development was given the power revoke home sales and impose civil penalties on well-heeled carpetbaggers. In 1997, President Clinton announced a new urban homestead initiative, attempting to improve city homeownership by “cutting mortgage closing costs, helping police officers buy homes, using rental subsidies for home purchases and cracking down on housing discrimination.” The Urban Homestead Initiative remained a part of the HUD strategic plan as late as 2000.

So, in one form or another, it’s actually an old idea.

However, I have seen surprisingly little study with regard to the success of either the federal programs or the myriad of state and local urban homesteading programs that exist to this day. It seems to be accepted as a given that such programs will help to facilitate urban revitalization. What seems less clear is that such programs do anything to improve the plight of the urban poor.

One of the interesting recurring anecdotes of the Katrina aftermath are the stories of New Orleans residents, now finding themselves in Houston or Florida or LA, confirming that they have no intention of returning to New Orleans. They perhaps sense that there is more opportunity for them in a new environment -- and judging by what we have seen, we can hardly blame them for that.

One wonders if an urban homesteading program would actually draw any of the people President Bush would hope to draw back into New Orleans, or whether drawing low-income people back into New Orleans just for the sake of having them there is an altogether good idea – particularly if job creation lags behind resettlement.

Although I have nothing against a nationwide urban homesteading initiative, it would perhaps be a better bet, for the short term, to find ways to fund the cost of moving and temporarily resettling people (giving the Katrina homeless financial assistance to deal with rental and utility deposits, for example) in areas where work and opportunity can be found -- followed by a more robust initiative addressing home ownership for low-income individuals, wherever they may be located. While the rebuilding of the Gulf Coast is a worthy and important goal, let’s hope that federal housing and urban policy focuses on some of the systemic problems that existed before Katrina hit (though illustrated in its wake) and that continue to exist in its aftermath.

Labels: , ,

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Cocktail Rules


I recently became aware of a terrific book on cocktails, originally published in 1948, entitled The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks by David A. Embury. It is encyclopedic, witty and well-written, and it is an anthropological treasure chest of forgotten concoctions, neglected ingredients, rituals that now seem downright exotic to us, and impeccable standards.

The author, David Augustus Embury, was a partner and one of the senior tax attorneys of the venerable old Manhattan law firm of Curtis, Mallet-Prevost, Colt and Mosle, known for its public international law expertise. The firm exists today, but unfortunately it cannot bring itself to acknowledge Embury’s formidable contribution to American culture. A spokesman for the firm simply laughed at me and declined to provide any pertinent information about Embury.(1)

Like all good lawyers, though, Embury begins by defining his terms. A cocktail, for Embury, is an “aperitif cocktail – i.e., one to be taken before a meal as a stimulant to the appetite and an aid to digestion.” This quaint definition opens a window onto a lost world, in which on any given evening men and women “dressed for dinner,” donning formalwear and gathering together “at the club” for a couple of drinks before casually assembling a party for dining. Breezy conversation, and the slow, deliberate savoring of an evening’s available tastes, were the primary practices of such outings.

No doubt Embury became an enthusiast of the cocktail while coming of age in college around World War I, a time when some of the greatest of America’s 20th century homegrown entertainments were on the verge of maturing, asking more of their audiences rather than less: silent films were stretching beyond their novelty status, finally building a vocabulary and assuming a decorum to rival the “legitimate stage”; quadrilles had given way to the subtly playful rhythms of ragtime, which in New Orleans was fusing with blues to create jazz; and baseball was shaking off the rowdiness of its turn-of-the-century play and becoming an observational landscape for intellectuals.

All of these – silent films, jazz and baseball -- are now rarefied air, and like the cocktail itself, have each experienced a precipitous decline in their drawing power. The hallmarks of each were that they required a loyal aesthetic temperament, a sophisticated palate and an understanding of special rules. They created, in their respectively segregated fan bases, a fellowship of attentive, informed appreciation. Such are the disciplines that Embury brings to his rarified topic.

This was all well before the collegiate stage had adopted its current interest in beer pong, Jello shots and Everclear-and-Kool Aid. While these are strictly numbing rituals, Embury takes pains to explain that the experience of a cocktail is intended to be bracing and uplifting. It must whet the appetite as well as stimulate the mind, and it must be pleasing to the eye as well. The overall effect of a well-made cocktail, according to Embury, should be as follows: “Taut nerves relax; taut muscles relax; tired eyes brighten; tongues loosen; friendships deepen; the whole world becomes a better place in which to live.” It makes one wonder whether the UN might be more effective with some expert mixologists on staff.

In the service of such goals, however, Embury also advocated moderation. Embury’s careful and exacting advice on this matter is worth repeating. “But how, you may ask, is the average person to know exactly how many drinks he can stand? Should he go on just one binge and have a record kept of how much he consumes in order that thereafter he may know when to stop? My answer is 'No.' It is best that you never find out the limit of your capacity. There is just one safe and simple rule which, if rigidly adhered to, will afford you a maximum of pleasure in your drinking with a minimum of danger of ever becoming drunk. When you reach a point where you feel absolutely sure that you could stand one more but have some slight doubt as to what two more might do to you, STOP. If you resolutely refuse to take even the one extra that you are certain would be O.K., you will maintain your physical stability, your mental balance, and your moral aplomb.”

I could have used this advice once or twice in my own career, but I assure you that now I have committed it to memory almost as a shibboleth.

Embury is nothing if not opinionated. He prefers glass cocktail shakers with metal lids to all-metal shakers, arguing that glass is a better insulator from outside temperatures during the shaking process. Among American whiskeys, Pennsylvania ryes and Kentucky bourbons are the best, and all others are “vastly inferior.” All true Rickeys are made with limes, and never with lemons. Rules are rules.

Perhaps Embury’s most controversial opinion involves proportions. With all the mathematical discipline of an Internal Revenue Code expert, Embury argues, for example, that all “sours” can be made using the same proportions (8:2:1) and that many cocktails, indeed, may be viewed through an isomorphic model – hence his classic statement that “the Side Car is nothing but a Daiquiri with brandy in the place of rum and Cointreau in the place of sugar syrup or orgeat.” This “unified theory of mixing” led one recent reviewer to carp, “Well, all right. And Romeo and Juliet is the same as Two Gentlemen of Verona, if you delete the tragic ending and make Juliet a man.”

Despite Embury’s occasional excesses, his directory of drinks makes for some charming nostalgia. Try ordering a Millionaire, a Tennessee, a Colonel Lindbergh or a Seventh Heaven today, and I think you’ll see what I mean. And if you want to explain to your bartender that a particular drink is only properly made with Oloroso Sherry, Kümmel or Csaszar, you’ll probably experience a similar feeling of anachronism.

It isn’t enough, in most bars today, to say that David Embury knew what he was talking about, but a dip into his world in the pages of The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks is still a worthwhile diversion.

(1) Embury was also, for many years, the head of a national organization of college fraternities – which is probably more to the point, notwithstanding the Hollywood stereotype of the dipsomaniacal lawyer, ably essayed by such fellows as Reginald Denny (not the beating victim, but a British character actor) throughout the 1930s.

See also:

CocktailDB logo

And: Ron Schuler's Parlour Tricks: Food and Drink, and My Baby and Me.


Labels: , , , , ,

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

WDUQ-FM to air Fallingwater Story


As an update to my previous posting on the subject (see Edgar Tafel at Fallingwater), I have been informed that WDUQ-FM (90.5 in Pittsburgh and surrounding areas) will air its story on Edgar Tafel at Fallingwater on Thursday morning, September 22, 2005, the 70th anniversary of Frank Lloyd Wright's first drawing of the house. The story will air during the 6:30 a.m. and 8:30 a.m. half-hours in the middle of the local cutaway from WDUQ's broadcast of NPR's Morning Edition.

Included in the story are portions of my interview with Franklin Toker, author of Fallingwater Rising, and Toker's discussion with Tafel about Fallingwater's birth.

Labels: ,

Monday, September 12, 2005

Goodbye, Vinyl


When you’ve lived with your stuff for so long, sometimes it takes someone new to give you a sense of perspective on it. This was certainly the case when recently my beloved wife of 5 months decided I didn’t need my collection of LPs on vinyl anymore.

“You don’t listen to them. They’re just taking up space.”

“But . . . I collected those.”

I had decided a long time ago not to be a Shrevie about my record collection – you know, the guy in Barry Levinson’s Diner (1982) who goes ballistic when his wife messes around with his records, which seemed to be an unhealthy extension of his own identity. By “a long time ago,” I mean that after the first pang of recognizing myself in that character, it took several years for me to shuck off the humiliation of such recognition, stand on my own two feet, and decide that there were more important things in life than “what’s on the B-side.” Since that epiphany, I have been content to let perfect strangers rifle through my collection and make rude comments about it, or rearrange it out of alphabetical or genre order. I have learned to live with the chaos.

And while it was true that (1) I hadn’t plugged in a turntable in years, and (2) I had re-collected a good percentage of my vinyl collection on CD and that even that wasn’t getting listened to the way it used to, I still had to sit down for a moment in a quiet room and seek some clarity.

As usual, however, I was soon able to come to the conclusion that my wife was correct – I wasn’t listening to them, they were taking up space, and moreover my self-esteem had long ago managed to declare its independence from what was in my record collection. In that quiet room I also remembered a passage in Walter Kerr’s The Silent Clowns, in which he writes disparagingly of collectors of old cans of silent movies -- some of which are otherwise lost to the ages -- who horde their cache like trophies, keeping them out of circulation or letting them rot, never again to be experienced and appreciated by the public. I didn’t want to be retentive for the sake of being retentive.

After trading phone calls with a local vinyl dealer, on Saturday we loaded up 3 boxes of my decomposing records and lugged them up the dealer’s narrow, dark staircase.

“You the guy I just spoke to?,” asked Jerry, the big, hairy proprietor.

“Yeah, that was me. About 200 records here” – some 1980s jazz reissues, some Beatles and post-Beatles rarities, Monty Python, some Joy Division first-pressings, a bunch of obscure classical stuff (Alkan, Poulenc, Milhaud, Geminiani, Delius), and a smattering of other things that I can afford now to admit I’m embarrassed about – that sullen singer-songwriter that my girlfriend and I latched onto when we were in high school, that LP of Senate Majority leader Robert Byrd where he plays the fiddle, etc.

Jerry sat astride a stool and inspected my LPs in chubby handfuls, carefully sizing up each individual record before designating it for an appropriate pile. Although he didn’t say what the significance of the piles were, I quickly guessed that one was the stuff he thought was pretty interesting, one was the stuff that he had too many copies of already but might sell someday, and one was the stuff he’d rather not pay for, but would take if I threw it in.

There were some he paused over, making curious comments: a Thelonius Monk reissue (“Oh, yeah, that Italian label . . . ”), five volumes of Senate Watergate testimony (“You know there’s gotta be someone out there who wants this . . .”), a miscellany by Cajun swing fiddler Harry Choates (“Wow!”), a Clarence Williams collection (“I haven’t seen this packaging before . . . ”), George Harrison’s Wonderwall, a critical bomb but a collector’s dream (“Ha!”). The “interesting” stack was the tallest of the bunch.

All the classical LPs ended up in the “throw-in” pile. “I suppose you want me to take these, too.”

“If you can, sure.”

He named his price. I didn’t even muster up much of a grimace before he raised it. That told me he knew he was getting some good stuff. I agreed, and we took the cash. “That’s great,” he said. “You’re going to make some collectors very happy – you had a lot of unusual items there.”

There it was again, my sense of pride over this stack of cardboard-encased vinyl, rushing back with a warm embrace like an old friend. I smiled as I wandered back down the stairway. I knew he’d make some money on me, but I didn’t care. I was happy to hear that I had done a good job with that collection. It was good to know that my judgments could be validated by someone. And I really didn’t need to possess these records anymore to know it, either.

[Okay, Kerstin, that turned out to be a nice reaffirmation. Now, let’s just stay away from my books. Please.]

If you’re interested in picking through what I left behind, visit Jerry's Records on Murray Avenue, Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh.

See also:

Marketplace (American Public Media): "Day in the Work Life," featuring Jerry's Records (March 12, 2005)

Labels: ,

Friday, September 09, 2005

Urban Search and Rescue Heroes


Our friend Jocelyn Augustino, a photographer, has been following FEMA Urban Search and Rescue crews around New Orleans for the last week. We received this dispatch yesterday:

Just wanted to drop a note to say I'm fine....in spite of the fact that I'm living in hell....you couldn't even begin to imagine things down here. I have lost the charger for my cell phone so have not been able to return my personal phone calls. Hope to resolve that...someday;) other than that...very tired...living off of very little sleep...the rescue guys remain my heroes -tragic that the media has decided to slam the FEMA operation which in turn slams these men. People are still getting rescued...had a bunch today in areas that are flooded...you couldn't believe the lift of spirits for these men and women when they make a rescue.
Just a reminder that, even as we express our dismay and outrage over the inadequacy of leadership and the initial responses to the New Orleans disaster, the Urban Search and Rescue men and women in the field deserve our thanks and respect.

See some of Jocelyn’s photos at http://www.fema.gov/storm/katrina/photo_katrina1.fema?id=5.

Labels: ,

Thursday, September 08, 2005

New Orleans Levees: Crushed By the Bipartisan Weight of Suburban Politics

As Ron Fournier of the Associated Press has reported, last year the Army Corps of Engineers asked for $105 million from Congress for hurricane and flood programs for New Orleans, but had its request slashed to $42.5 million; meanwhile, the recent $286.4 billion federal highway bill did manage to provide for such pet projects as a $231 million bridge to a “small, uninhabited Alaskan island.”

The failure of federal authorities to fix the problems, resulting in the devastating breach of New Orleans’ levees in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina -- after years’ of unheeded warnings by scientists, the Corps and New Orleans’ leading institutions -- is unfortunately part of a broader pattern of bipartisan neglect of cities at the state and federal level that has been taking shape for two decades.

In a 1992 essay in his book Dead Cities entitled “Who Killed L.A.? A Political Autopsy,” Mike Davis observed that as voter demographics have changed, so has the attention paid by state and federal officials to the economic and infrastructural needs of the nation's larger urban areas. In 1992, the year that President Clinton was elected, the nation officially became a “suburban majority” nation, meaning that there were more suburban voters in the country than urban or rural voters. Apparently, suburban white voters had already been a majority of white voters since 1980.

As Davis put it:

The politics of suburbia, notes Fred Siegel in a recent article in Dissent, are “not so much Republican as anti-urban . . . [and] even more anti-Black than anti-urban.” Racial polarization, of course, has been going on for generations across the white-picket-fence border between the suburb and the city. But the dramatic suburbanization of economic growth over the last decade, and the increasing prevalence of strictly rim-to-rim commutes between job and home, have given these “bourgeois utopias” . . . unprecedented political autonomy from the crisis of the core cities . . .

Core cities, for their part, have helplessly watched the reapportionment of their once-decisive political clout in national politics . . . as Carter, Mondale and Dukakis each demonstrated, it was possible to sweep the urban cores and be crushed in the suburbs by the defection of so-called “Reagan Democrats,” a stratum largely consisting of blue-collar and lower-middle-class white refugees of the cities . . .

The Clinton campaign [in 1992] was, of course, the culmination of a decade-long battle by suburban and Southern Democrats to wrest control of the Democratic Party away from labor unions, big city mayors and civil rights groups . . .

. . . [T]here is no obvious reason why a campaign carefully designed to de-emphasize the cities should deliver a president suddenly fixed on their needs. In the aftermath of the Los Angeles rebellion, neither
Business Week nor the National Journal could locate a significant dividing line between the Clinton and Bush [Sr.] approaches to urban policy.
Along with the inexorable shift in political clout away from the cities to suburbs, cities have received less and less help from state and federal sources.

Just to take New York City as an example – in 1977, federal contributions constituted 19% of the city’s budget. In 1985, the federal contribution had fallen to 9%, and by fiscal 1997, it was apparently just under 5%. Combined with the dwindling tax base of most major urban areas due to the suburban flight of not only affluent individuals but healthy businesses, the result has been that many cities are finding it increasingly difficult to stay viable economically. Most often, the programs hardest hit by such budget cuts are subsidized housing, economic development assistance and job training, but infrastructure is a matter for increasing concern in most cities. As Tom Cox, deputy mayor of Pittsburgh, told me, just before Pittsburgh had to file for “distressed status” under Pennsylvania’s Municipalities Financial Recovery Act in 2003, “It isn’t as if we have fewer roads to maintain, or fewer feet of sewage line,” just because more people are leaving Pittsburgh for the suburbs and taking their votes and their tax dollars with them. (Myself included, admittedly.)

As the cable news cameras are making abundantly clear as they hover over New Orleans, inadequacies in our current method of funding infrastructure, housing and job creation in the nation’s cities are all issues that are inevitably swirled up by the tragedy of the breach of New Orleans’ levees.

[Meanwhile, Kerstin has been volunteering with the Red Cross for the last week. Please click the box to lend your support to Katrina victim relief.]

See also:

Mike Davis: Poor, Black, and Left Behind (September 24, 2004)



Labels: , , ,

Monday, September 05, 2005

Casual Summer Romance


My wife Kerstin and I and a couple of our friends enjoyed a ballgame at PNC Park the other night. We didn’t arrive at our seats until the 5th inning was almost over, however, and I only got to see future HOFer Greg Maddux throw a couple of pitches before he was yanked, but it was a nice end-of-summer evening. The ballpark looked great, and there were fireworks afterwards. Never mind that Kerstin had to ask me who won the next morning. (Cubs over Pirates, 7-3, if you’re counting.)

Yes, as a long-time baseball fan, I do feel somewhat guilty about having such a cavalier attitude about the game these days. But if I were to portray myself as some kind of studly sporting lothario for a moment, Major League Baseball has become, for me, like a casual summer romance – available, forgettable.

Perhaps it is just a phase, but my interest in today’s game has been in decline ever since I spent 7 years of my professional career as a lawyer representing the City of Pittsburgh, working on the seemingly endless series of transactions and decisions leading to the completion of PNC Park in 2001. Being inside the business of baseball is a lot like being inside the sausage-making machine, unfortunately – not a pleasant experience. (More about that, perhaps, in a later entry.) And while I am literally swelling with pride as I sit in PNC Park in the beautiful night air, for the splendid creation that it is and the small role I was able to play in its birth, I am not connecting with the Major League game the way I used to.

Some of my friends have let on that Major League Baseball hasn't been the same for them, either, even without the experience of having looked at the Pirates’ financials for several years. This year, the biggest story in baseball has been steroids. Last year, at least we had the improbability of the Red Sox’ World Series triumph to buoy our spirits; but in 2003, the biggest stories in the sport were Sammy Sosa’s corked bat and Ted Williams’ frozen head. We’ve had a few disappointing seasons, my friends and I.

Actually, Major League Baseball as a cultural institution has been on steroids for some time. Just look at the numbers. Baseball numbers in years past were manageably man-sized numbers, even when superhumans were their authors. Two hundred hits, 3,000 hits . . . batting .300, or even .400 . . . smashing 60, then 61 home runs . . . 714, 755 across a man’s career. . . 20 wins, 300 strikeouts . . . a no-hitter (zero is surely a manageable size). Contrast those comfortable numbers with some of the significant numbers that spurt from the sports pages today – $56 million for local TV rights, a $100 million dollar player contract, $248 million to build a ballpark – even the fact that the word “million” could appear anywhere in the same sentence with a word ending in “park” is an indication of how baseball may have lost its human scale.

It's a good bet that Major League Baseball may have completely lost all connection to its roots. It is unlikely that the players and fans of baseball as it was played in the 1870s, for example, when the game became a league sport, would feel any sense of kinship with today’s game.

Let’s remember this: games are never just games. They are fundamentally about other things -- and through ritual disguised as "play," games function as a way in which society can fill specific spiritual voids.

In the 1870s, baseball -- a summer sport, played in larger Midwestern and Eastern factory cities, which came of age with the rise of Urban America -- became popular in part because the feel of it evoked a nostalgia associated with the rural agrarian past. It’s staying power came in no small part from its visceral attributes: the sensation of holding a hand-wound orb of jute, covered by rough leather, between one’s thumb and the curve of one’s forefingers – a soft shape, but solid to the touch, like a chestnut; the cracking sound of wood making contact, echoing to the outer fringes of a quiet meadow; the smell of fresh grass; the scraping of crumbs of earth beneath one’s feet.

As Bill James glibly observes, in the 1870s the game was played by “(e)ntrepreneurs, Irish, and people from Brooklyn, Philadelphia and Baltimore.” First and second generation Irish, first and second generation factory boys, fresh from the family farm (or the memory of it, passed from father to son), collecting together on weekends in green parks to “reach home,” to wash away the industrial soot and grime, breathe in some clean air, and play in a pastoral paradise once again. The entrepreneurs to which Mr. James refers were simply the clever fellows who turned baseball into a modest money-making venture, consciously or unconsciously exploiting that primal, spiritual need of the newly-minted urbanite to return to the wheat fields.

Fast-forward to 21st century America, and we can see that the underlying function of baseball has become alienated from that which once attached it to the collective consciousness. Today, most of us have grown up in cities or suburbs, and any lingering memory of wheat fields in us is no doubt deeply submerged within some obscure corner of our chromosomes, along with spearing a woolly mammoth. We may still hear the evocative crack of the bat, but the other sensations have long since died out, replaced at the ballpark by the Jumbotron, Technicolor logowear and hip-hop interludes.

It’s colorful and boisterous, and it can be great fun. And I don’t begrudge anyone making a good dime from doing something they love -- more power to them. The thing is, I think there is a growing number of people each passing year who wonder what part of themselves is supposed to be fulfilled by the Major League game, apart from that portion of their minds that is already affected by any modern spectacle, almost indistinguishably from the others that compete with it on daily basis – from cruising the mall, to going to a concert, to watching cable TV or listening to your iPod.

I don't mean to suggest that Major League Baseball needs to mean to us what it meant to people in the 1870s. However, if it is not fundamentally “about” anything that is different than those other diversions, then Major League Baseball risks being superfluous.

I know I’ll come back. I always do.

In the meantime, I have the intimacy and immediacy of minor league ball to keep me occupied, cut down to a manageable human size, with human-sized foibles. I get hours of fun from poring over the season-by-season numbers put up by a Tom Seaver, a Sandy Koufax, a Roberto Clemente or a Willie Mays. Their vapor trails keep the game alive for me. And I do get a thrill from putting on the old Rawlings glove, smacking it with my fist and playing catch.

I just hope that when I do return, there’ll be enough of its old essence – that stuff I love about the game – that’ll still be recognizable in it.

Labels: , ,

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Edgar Tafel at Fallingwater



I am not a real radio reporter. However, I do have an unhealthy interest in a dizzying array of topics far and wide across the vast plains of topicdom, and I guess I’m vocal enough about these odds and ends that people seem to know this about me. So, it wasn’t a complete surprise when a friend of mine from a local NPR station asked me to “cover” an event taking place at Frank Lloyd Wright’s celebrated creation known as Fallingwater, located just 50 miles south of my own home outside of Pittsburgh.

September 22 will mark the 70th anniversary of Wright’s original concept drawings of Fallingwater, often described as the single greatest piece of architecture of the 20th century. Thus it is that 93-year old architect and former Frank Lloyd Wright apprentice Edgar Tafel visited Fallingwater last Saturday, to stand on one of his master’s famous balconies in front of a documentary film crew and, as a witness to history, to discuss Wright and Fallingwater with University of Pittsburgh professor Franklin Toker, author of a definitive study of the house, Fallingwater Rising. (Photo of Toker and Tafel at left.) Tafel is, in fact, the last surviving human being to have been present when Wright drew the house.

I am fortunate enough to own a home designed by another of Frank Lloyd Wright’s apprentices, the late Peter Berndtson; my home is featured in another book, Organic Vision: The Architecture of Peter Berndtson, by D. Miller & A. Sheon (The Hexagon Press, 1980). Armed with my enthusiasm for the work of Wright and his Taliesin fellows, after a crash course in sound engineering given to me by my reporter friend, I arrived early at Fallingwater on a rainy Saturday morning, wearing one of my best suits. (I doubt that Edward R. Murrow wore anything else, unless he was in a war zone. Even then . . .) My job, handed to me by an apparently seriously understaffed news department, was to meet with Tafel and Toker, record their conversation, and if possible ask a few questions of my own.

Although Tafel and the film crew were running late, shortly after I arrived I encountered Franklin Toker, a scholar with a twinkle in his eye. We discussed Wright, Fallingwater, Tafel and Berndtson, and he regaled us with tales from his “eighteen years” of research on Fallingwater Rising. Although he is principally a scholar of medieval Italian architecture, Toker was inspired to write about Fallingwater for a number of reasons. First, if you are an architect in Pittsburgh, it is simply expected that you should be able to say something intelligent about Fallingwater. Secondly, Toker points out that while booksellers will claim that dozens of books have been written about Fallingwater, in his own experience he came to believe merely that dozens of books have a picture of Fallingwater on their cover, and that no single work had come close to telling the full Fallingwater story.

Toker’s usual research involves translating medieval Latin texts, so researching Fallingwater was a challenge in that he actually had to sit down and interview people. He noted that it was often the emotional content of an interview, rather than the facts elicited, that was of most value in compiling oral histories – especially where the frail memories of people in their 90s were concerned.

The day's star nonagenarian, courtly Edgar Tafel, seemed anything but frail when he arrived. Sporting a snazzy gold print jacket and a collarless black shirt, he was hobbled a bit by arthritis, but it was also clear that he enjoyed basking in the glow of his master’s creation, and that it gave him a certain energy to be in its presence. As the camera crew readied itself and I concentrated on my sound chores, plugging in to the sound of the obliging film crew, Tafel chatted jauntily with Toker, and even sang a few bars of an old Taliesin song (“we love Mozart . . . we hate Beaux Arts”).

Tafel has been telling the story of Wright first putting pencil to paper for so long, it has an air of being rather rehearsed at this point. But Tafel is part showman, to be sure, so as he tells the tale, he is measuring his audience's reaction. He tells how Wright and his team were ensconced at Taliesin in Wisconsin, when they received a call from E.J. Kaufmann, Wright's anxious client, informing Wright that he and his wife had just landed at Milwaukee and would be arriving soon, wanting to see his preliminary drawings. There were none, of course, at that moment, so Wright sent his assistants scurrying to make Taliesin ready for his visitors, and with pencils flying, a mere couple of hours later Wright had a picture of Fallingwater on his drawing table, waiting for E.J. and Liliane. The design just poured out of him, Tafel recalls. He had not sketched one line prior to Kaufmann's call.

As the discussion took its course, Toker invited me, standing off camera, to shoot a couple of questions at Tafel. I noted that Tafel was part of a select group of architects who had received their early training from Wright, many of whom had gone on to interesting careers, and asked if there was one thing that all of the Wright apprentices seemed to share from their experience with Wright. Tafel’s answer meandered a bit, but by the giddy end it was clear that the one thing that the Wright apprentices all shared was a poor education in engineering – most had to supplement their education in order to be certified, and many, like Wright himself, were never certified as architects. I think I can attest to this, given my own experience with the work of a Wright apprentice. Roofs seem to be a special problem for Wright-style homes. It reminds me of the comments of one of Wright’s clients regarding chronic roof leaks: “That’s what happens when you leave a work of art out in the rain.”

I also asked Tafel what he hoped people would be able to take away from Fallingwater 70 years from now. He paused, then quietly mused, “Who can tell? . . . who can tell?”

With the formal interview completed, Tafel was led off by Fallingwater curators for a board meeting, leaving Toker and I to wrap up some final thoughts on Fallingwater. His answers to my questions were so beautifully rendered, I will await the transcript and bring them to these pages in a later installment.

Luckily, my excitement did not interfere with getting good sound -- the crisp tones of Tafel and Toker, with the gentle hiss and bubble of the famous waterfall underneath. I am hoping to report in a few weeks that some portion of it will be airing locally.

Labels: , ,