5 favorite epigrams

  1. “The word ‘no‘ crops up a great deal around Lou Reed. […] Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore once called Metal Machine Music “the most positive negative record”, and I guess Lou Reed must be the most positive negative artist – because during our conversation the word ‘fun‘ comes up just as often as the word ‘no’.” — Alan Licht’s profile on Lou Reed, ‘Give Them Enough Nope’, in The Wire.
  2. “It was just embarrasing as well as exhibiting this awful, awful taste. His choice of movies, say, was invariably terrible. TV programmes… Everything. Plus he was starting to get pretty weird […] A genius musician but an amateur human being.” — Brian Wilson’s collaborator on Pet Sounds, Tony Asher. From Dark Stuff by Nick Kent.
  3. “My poems may hurt the dead, but the dead belong to me” — Anne Sexton
  4. “I always believed that computer might be that thing that I only need, that I only need that thing to survive. It might replace everything.” — Andrey Ternovki, the teenage founder of Chatroulette.com, as quoted in a piece in this week’s New Yorker.
  5. “‘I guess I’m not very human. All I really want to do is paint light on the side of a house.” — Edward Hopper

[Image: Stefan Sagmeister’s poster for Lou Reed’s Set The Twilight Reeling.]

Summer Babe

For all the bitching and kvetching that I do about Prague during the late winter, man it’s hard to beat this place in the spring and summer months. Above is the view this morning on the way to teach class at 8am. This week is part of the fortnightly stretch where god turns the color knob on the apple blossom trees to ‘fluffy pink’.

Speaking of improved weather, I was happy to discover yesterday that ‘summer’ produces the following unexpectedly solid playlist in my iTunes (as always, click for larger image):

The Best Day of the Year

It happened two weeks ago in San Francisco;  it’s happening next Sunday here in Prague. It’s the day the clocks move forward, unequivocally my favorite day of the year. If we ever getting around to casting off the shackles of the Gregorian calendar (a task the Czechs have gotten a small-but-significant head start at), I would propose that this become the new first day of the year. Wouldn’t it make more sense to have the calendar roll over on this day, the unofficial start of spring and good times, rather than on some random dark-ass date in the middle of winter? Clocks Go Forward Day always feels like the beginning of something big– how many days can you say that about?

In my opinion, it’s a shame that Clocks Go Forward Day isn’t met with more ritualistic fanfare– a day off from work, a few pagan rites, etc. I feel like we’ve been conditioned to greet it with an air of shrugging indifference, an attitude that I suppose stems in part from the fact that Clocks Go Forward Day is a scheduled routine, a rational measure that doesn’t really feel magical. (Imagine, in contrast, if the change just happened out of the blue one evening with no warning– poof, an extra hour of light! People would be freaking out). But I can’t help but suspect that the constant bean-counting and whining of Daylight Savings Time detractors also impacts our attitude towards this day. You know them: the Oh-no-I’m-losing-one-hour-of-sleep crowd. Let’s just say this isn’t a set of priorities that I have a lot of respect for. In fact, I wish I could do business with it, in a colorful-beads-for-Manhattan-Island-type exchange: ‘Okay, I’ll give you this one shiny hour of sleep in exchange for months of light spring and summer evenings.”

Like everything, the idea of Daylight Savings Time was invented by Benjamin Franklin. During his sojourn in Paris as an American delegate, Franklin observed rows of houses with shutters as the Parisians struggled to sleep through the blasting morning sunshine (incidentally, the same sight that inspired Al Gore to propose the invention of  the internet 200 years later). Although Franklin only proposed the idea half-jokingly in a satirical essay, it was picked up by a London builder named William Willett who spent a fortune lobbying for it and managed to get it brought before the British Parliament, only to have it laughed off the floor. I can only imagine what a lonely existence it must have been to be the sole proponent of moving the clocks forward, the endless ridicule one would have been subjected to. Once Germany enacted Daylight Savings Time, Great Britain began to take it more seriously, but only finally started moving their clocks forward after much contentious political debate. The leader of the anti-DST side seems to have been Lord Balfour, the original I-want-my-one-hour-of-sleep bean-counter. At one point, he raised the following imaginative scenario: “Supposing some unfortunate lady was confined with twins and one child was born 10 minutes before 1 o’clock. … the time of birth of the two children would be reversed. … Such an alteration might conceivably affect the property and titles in that House.” Presumably, this was immediately followed by men with powered wigs rioting and tearing up chairs.

The only thing I’ll say in defense of Lord Balfour’s point of view is that the time change does create some really mind-bending and inconvenient scenarios when one is operating between countries that have different DST dates. My attempts to do freelance work for outfits based in the U.S. come to a screeching halt during the two week period between the American and European DST start dates, as we constantly screw up and miss each other’s  calls. More surreally, when I went to New Zealand a few years ago, the time change happened at different times and in different directions. For part of my trip, the difference was 21 hours, then 22 for a few days, then finally 23, which made the massive time change feel even more science fiction-y that it already would have.

Of course, you can’t have Daylight Savings Time without Standard Time, which itself only came about after considerable wrangling and arm-twisting. Before the railroads really took off, there wasn’t really this idea of people all observing one exact time- they pretty much just went by whatever the local sundial said. It was only in the late 19th century that there began to be a need to have everyone on the exact same time. When the measure was imposed on Detroit in 1900, the city resisted, leading to a bizarre situation where half the town was following Standard Time and half was following the ol’ town sun dial for a spell.

The entire notion of Standard Time and Daylight Savings Time, of time zones and of setting the clocks ahead and back to suit human activities and preserve energy– it’s really one of the more brazen acts of Enlightenment thinking (along with, say, carving up the Middle East into distinct nation states– that one didn’t work out so well). One can only imagine the thrill and nervousness experienced by the person tasked with drawing a line down the map and declaring that the two sides would obey practices regarding something as basic as man’s relationship to the sun.

(Photo: stolen from my friend Jess’ Facebook page, of our friends hanging out in Dolores Park in the summer twilight).

(See this excellent site for more info on history and practice of Daylight Savings Time)

Blog fight song, part two

From David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech to graduates of Kenyon College in 2005:

“Because here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship– be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles– is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.

Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings.

They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing.

And the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the centre of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talk about much in the great outside world of wanting and achieving…. The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.”

Obecní Dům Cherub

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I’m really fond of our flat here in Prague (and, yes, I know that ‘flat’ sounds pretentious to my American readers, but that’s just how we do things here, so it sounds normal to me now… much like cooing ‘ciao’ to acquaintances). It’s big, cheap, in the attic of a villa and has all sorts of strange quirks and features. Unfortunately, it’s also a deathtrap-in-waiting for our young son as soon as he gets older and starts moving around, with splintery beams, abrupt ledges and – worst of all– a spiral staircase with no bannister. So, facing the reality that we’ll have to move out once our ticking time-bomb of a child gets older, I’m already starting to nostalgize the place a bit. Consider this the beginning of a series: ‘Weird, Quirky Old Aspects Of Our Flat That I’ll Miss Once We’ve Had To Move.’

WQOAOOFTIMOWHTM #1: Obecní Dům Cherub

With all the hurly-burly of finishing The Book and my subsequent visit to an Alpine sanatorium, I forgot to mention that the wife and I had a chance to go to Obecní Dům (Prague’s Municipal House) two weeks ago for a friend’s upscale birthday party. Obecní Dům is one of the architectural landmarks of Czech’s brief one-of-the-ten-richest-countries-in-the-world phase between the wars: Art Noveau masterpiece, houses works by Alfons Mucha, blah blah blah…


This was the first time I’d actually been inside the Municipal House, and the visit was significant to me for one thing because we’ve actually had an artifact of Obecní Dům hanging in our flat this whole time, although I didn’t realize it until fairly recently. When we originally moved in, this giant cement baby head was there to greet us, stonily starting at the floor from his (?) wooden beam perch:


(Note: I realize the balloon spoils the effect a bit, but it’s left over from our Halloween party and the kid likes it. So, it stays).

Being generally intimidated by babies, I avoided making eye contact with the thing for a while and wondered if I would come downstairs someday to find it mysteriously vanished in the same unaccountable fashion that it had appeared in the first place. Eventually resigned to its presence, I thought to ask our landlord about it when he gamely showed up at one of our parties for a few minutes. A semi-retired architect, he told me that he had been involved in a restorative face-lift of Obecní Dům at some point and had managed to pinch it from the site!

While I was at it, it thought I might as well ask him who the previous tenants were. This is the kind of flat where you wind up being sort of curious about your predecessors, given that – as explained above – the place is sort of oddball and only conveniently set up for young-ish, child-less couples. This led to the following exchange:

Landlord: Oh, they were a very nice couple. Much like you, actually: the woman was Czech and the man was an American. And they liked traveling quite a bit.

Me: [starting to get creeped out imagining exact doubles of us living here before us]

Landlord: (after a pause) Except they were quite old. Older than us, in fact.

Me: [radically recalibrating my mental image in light of the fact that my landlord is about 70 years old]

So, there seems to be sort of a ‘Benjamin Button’ dynamic happening with our place. Whether the magic powers of the Obecní Dům Cherub has anything to do with this phenomenon can only be guessed at.

Short attention span theater


One of the things I like about design is that you wind up doing a lot of different types of work for a lot of different clients. In this sense, the job acts as a kind of zany docent of the world, leading you into various different realms of human enterprise and giving you fleeting examples of the types of people, attitudes, jargon, attitudes, attire etc. that populate each. One week, you’re doing a project for a box factory; the next week, a clown college; and so on. This is nice gimmick in terms of incorporating a constant (if superficial) level of variety to the job… you’re never exactly doing the same thing every day (unless you decide take a job for that box factory as their creative director, in which case you most definitely are).

One memorable realization of this perk happened for me in March of 2005, when I was working with a studio that had taken on an identity and packaging job for a new line of soaps and scrubs to be called Pomegranate Body. On our first day of work, I was sent off on my bike with a camera and two tasks: (1) buy a real pomegranate; (2) take photos of competing bath and body products in the nearby branch of Sephora, the hideous chain cosmetics store. Task 1 proved to be absolutely impossible in the middle of March (apparently the antithesis of pomegranate season); task 2 became imperiled when a beefy security guy told me that it’s prohibited to take product photos in Sephora stores. Being a somewhat lazy and passive person, I’m generally inclined to comply with such orders, but in this specific case is struck me that I had no need to go back to Sephora for the rest of my life, and that I had a very real and substantial need to get product shots. So, I continued taking photos for a few minutes in surreptitious ‘spy mode’, nonchalantly snapping very poor, blurry shots while keeping the camera out of eyeshot and pretending to be conscientiously shopping. Inevitably,  the security guy caught on and marched me (firmly, but civilly, I must say) out of the store to the curiosity of other patrons. Once I jumped on my bike, it occurred to me that I’d spent an few hours ‘on the clock’ shopping for a nonexistent fruit of ill-repute and getting thrown out of a perfume store. Beats workin’!

From time to time, my experiences give me a renewed appreciation for these random, short-attention-span-theater aspects of the designer’s job. Consider the juxtaposition of meetings I’ve had in the last 24 hours: yesterday, a middle-aged Chinese couple who market canned pork products to Central European countries; today, former supermodel Tereza Maxova’s charity foundation. Vive la difference!

(Photo credit: Tereza Maxova, by Flickr user Neon / 24)


taylor_keith_birdnest_artworkimageI’m a sitting duck for things like Ian Frazier’s mammoth account of his road trip across Siberia in the current New Yorker (subscription required to read article, but there’s also a free podcast about his trip). For one thing, I’m morbidly obsessed with the gulag – Russia’s infamous penal colony system – and once spent a year reading gulag-related literature to the exclusion of almost everything else. Second, I can never get enough of hearing how big Siberia is, always couched in different exciting terms: 8 time zones! One-twelfth the land mass on earth! etc.

Then, perhaps most of all, there’s the sheer haplessness of the place and the stories of persistence of the human spirit in this environment that are equal parts pathetic and touching. Consider, for example, this toss-off line in Frazier’s piece:

Phillip Johann von Strahlenberg, a Swede captured by Peter the Great’s army at the Battle of Poltava, in 1709, and sent with other Swedish prisoners to Siberia, wrote that the region had six species of deer, including the great stag, the roe deer, the musk deer, the fallow deer, and the reindeer. He also mentioned a special kind of bird whose nests were so soft that they were used for socks.

[emphasis added]

Just when you think you’re all gulag-ed out, along comes the heart-breaking image of an exiled Swede dutifully cataloging the wildlife while trudging around in his bird nest socks. I’m sufficiently inspired to have already gotten a beat on my Phillip Johann van Strahlenberg Halloween costume for this year.


I had a belated concern over Michael Jackson’s death: what of Bubbles, the singer’s erstwhile chimpanzee companion, reportedly the only moonwalking ape on earth with his own bodyguard ? I asked a few people what they thought was going to happen to Bubbles when they brought up the death of his master over the past week. Answers were unsatisfactory, ranging from “Who?” to my hairdresser who dismissively said, “I don’t know… he’s old now.” I finally looked into the matter and learned that apparently Bubbles hasn’t been on the scene for a long time, as The King of Pop had him shipped out to a monkey preserve once the chimp started exhibiting aggressive behaviors and posing a menace to Jackson’s son. Oh. That’s sad. I prefer to think of MJ and Bubbles as they were immortalized by Jeff Koons, seemingly eternally inseparable:


Warehouse of lost stuff

jest1221365735In David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, the main character has an attack of existential dread where he envisions a giant room containing all the food he will ever eat in his life (it’s basically a visualization of the fact that we’re all organic, decaying, mortal creatures on this earth, etc etc.)

I prefer a breezier version of this idea. I think each of us is haunted by the memory of a prized possession that we somehow lost or even gave away in moment of crazed misjudgment. My list includes, among other things, a few choice and irreplaceable cassette tapes (tapes always seemed expressly designed to break your heart by either getting lost or getting eaten) and several items of clothing, some old drawings, a few vinyls, and so forth. I like the idea of a giant warehouse that contains everything you’ve ever lost or regrettably given away. You have 30 minutes to root through the warehouse and take with you anything you can find. But, the challenge lies in rooting out the prized possessions from all the piles of random junk that you didn’t care about then and don’t care about now. The most pernicious thing would be the temptation to yield to distraction– imagine all the crazy random mementos you would stumble on, and how hard it would be to keep focused on your laundry list of a few prized items that you’re intent on finding.