Tuesday, March 6, 2018

London, Part 3 - Exploration

My budget had contracted substantially by the time I reached London. I spent a little bit of money (I could not pass by the opportunity to visit St. Paul's Cathedral, the Tower of London, or Westminster Abbey...plus I wanted to meet my goal of eating out at least once in each city I visited), but to my great satisfaction, and that of my wallet, London cultivates many free and fully-realized cultural opportunities.

I started my second day by traipsing down to St. Paul's. This was a walk of perhaps an hour. Later that day, and most days, I would use the Tube but I took my time to amble just as often.

St Paul's Cathedral (southern view)

St Paul's Cathedral (west view, I believe)

The cathedral was grand, and a complimentary audio tour helped me appreciate what I witnessed, in particular the art there. Vibrant mosaics cast light every which way. I learned that these were constructed with every tile facing in a different direction, which added a delightful, unpredictable dynamic to the already richly-colored scenes.

An amazing, video art installation called Martyrs, by Bill Viola, was presented to one side of the Quire and High Altar area (if I am remembering correctly). Stand with me in your imagination to see four tall, mute monitors. Moving from left to right, you see a person barely visible beneath a mound of dirt, a woman in white suspended in mid-air by chains around her wrists and ankles, a man seated in a chair with a few flickers of flame near his feet, and finally a man whose wrists and ankles are also bound, but he is lying on the ground, wearing only a pair of pants, with a rope dangling above him, tied around his feet. For a moment nothing seems to happen, then you notice motion. Dirt begins to fly upward from the pile on the left. The woman seems to tremble even though she does not appear to be struggling. A fresh glint of flame falls from above to land at the sitting man's feet. You think you notice something dripping on the prostrate man. Shortly it becomes clear that time is moving in reverse for the leftmost man - he is being unburied until finally he stands (but is he relieved? Are you? He is expressionless, his head bowed). The woman shakes more and more violently and you perceive that a cruel wind is buffeting her, and it seems to go on forever until the wind dies down and she once more hangs, still (it must be torturous, but she never opens her mouth or betrays any emotion). The calm man in the chair does not move a muscle as fire begins to positively rain down about him - and he is somehow untouched, although at the height of the conflagration you can barely see him - yet finally the flames die away and he is once more simply sitting, staring straight at you (no fear, no anger, no joy). As for the final man, you did not imagine that dripping water: it seems a faucet, no, a fire hose, has been turned on him from above, and not this but the rope is pulling taut, dragging him up into the air by his feet, until he is suspended upside down as water thunders down upon him. At long last, the deluge abates (you never see this man's eyes due to his position).

Symbolic suffering and you, the symbolic witness. Are you the one who inflicts the torture? The one on whose behalf the torture was endured? A passive bystander? One called to relieve the pain or the conditions that create it?

Hard as it was to move on from this - even now, in the retelling - I did, at last. Sobered, I think. I climbed up and up into the dome. I made a circuit of the peaceful Whispering Gallery, and of course paid a visit to the Golden Gallery to take in its panoramic views of the city.

I climbed back down and out, then made my way south to The Tate. On the Millennium Bridge, a pedestrian footpath, I made the delightful discovery of tiny pieces of art. If you are ever there, be sure to look down as well as around!

The Tate was a joy. This free modern art museum, formerly a power station (!), contained many, fascinating pieces. For several hours I wandered around its halls, and only after I left realized I had not even explored half of the museum!

Some highlights:
  • Janet Cardiff's "Forty Part Motet." Sit on a bench placed in the middle of a huge, dark room. 40 speakers surround you in a distant circle. Waves of chatter and then music wash over you from every direction. Approach the speakers, and discover what the posted information is talking about: each speaker projects only one voice, so that if you walk around the room you experience small aspects of the total piece of music.
  • A roomful of photos and daguerrotypes of African Americans who were slaves or Civil Rights movement participants. Carrie MacWeems curated the collection. Pictures circle the entire room, surrounding but also excluded, bearing witness but also invisible, judged and judging. The first and last pictures are of the wife of a Mangbetu chief, taken in the Belgian Congo in the 1920's.
  • The Painting With White room - a group of art pieces demonstrating the beauty of severely-limited choices. What can be made if one only has shades of white to work with?

The next day, a Sunday, I did a lot but absorbed little, and remember less.

I took another fulfilling walk - along the south shore again (which I visited almost every day), from Tower Bridge past the New Globe Theatre, through what seemed like a market of some sort (but not active while I was there), past the Big Eye and across the Thames to take in Big Ben and Parliament. I strolled through St. James Park, enjoyed my first live sight of swans, made a perfunctory visit to Buckingham Palace, and then moved on to the Museum of London.

Big Ben

A tower of Parliament (as seen later from Westminster Abbey)

The Tate is another, amazing, free offering. The history museum provides a magnificent amount of information. I enjoyed some of the elaborate and immersive dioramas. I wish I had been a little less sore and a little more energetic, and I also wish I had been able to see this great facility when I had not spent the last two months visiting a dozen similar locations. I recommend this museum to anyone - I was simply suffering from education fatigue at the time.

Afterward, I grabbed some lunch from an Asian fusion restaurant called Leon, and took a seat outside the Museum by an ancient Roman Wall. It was quiet, and a bit drizzly. That proved to be one of those unexpected, unpredictable highlights of the day.

Fourth day - this might have been my second-best day in London, after the night I arrived.

In the morning I toured the Tower of London, guided by an ebullient and wonderfully hammy Yeoman Warder - apparently known colloquially as a "Beefeater." In her red-and-black striped uniform, this woman delivered a colorful and informative array of facts about the fortress. She showed and described the Traitor's Gate, The Bloody Tower (where two young nephews of Richard, Duke of Gloucester, were perhaps - probably? - murdered by that very uncle), a small, lovely chapel that served as an odd oasis in the eye of this historical storm of blood, as well as the Scaffold Site. This last is now an outdoor memorial on the spot where many people met their unfortunate ends, often for the simple crime of being an object of the monarch's ire. Thomas More was killed here, as was Henry VI, Queen Anne Boleyn, and over 100 others.

The north walls of the grounds show off some odd, fun metal sculptures of animals. Across the way the south walls provide nice, if not particularly marvelous, views of the Tower Bridge and Thames River.

Inside the Tower of London

After I had my fill of the Tower, I took up a lead that my host had provided, taking the Underground up to Camden Market. This is a maze-like flea market, indoor and out, that consumes three storeys for a couple of blocks. I basked in bright sun and people-watching, was bemused by the sudden discovery of an Amy Winehouse statue (forgive me, but I know nothing about her music), gobbled up some delicious falafel, and then sallied forth, further north, to Hampstead Heath.

Hampstead Heath is a very large park grounds with several ponds at its southern tip, a string of several more along its eastern edge, and voluminous meadows and forest ranged about the rest. Naturally I felt drawn to the water, which is how I discovered an apparently popular gay sunbathing spot. I worried for a moment that I was intruding, as this smallish, yet crowded lawn was secluded from view by a line of trees to west and east and was by far the most populated area I had seen in this enormous park, but as I kept walking I saw several others on strolls of their own and I realized I was just being paranoid. (The most poignant part of this story was my observation, at the time, of my capacity to create awkwardness where there need be none).

Further on, between two of the ponds was a tall, earthen wall with some sort of tracks along the ridge. Another pond provided a play area for dogs, where I smiled at some eager puppies leaping about in the water. Reaching a tall hill crowned by a couple of tall trees, I climbed up, then looked back: the final pond on the east edge of the park was hugged by a rind of grass and purple flowers.

North of here I found the Kenwood House, a large, white manor looking upon a vast, flat lawn that I don't know anything else about. Finally, I made my way back south toward the nearest Tube station along a wooded trail. Here I ran into a worried man on a bike who had lost his dog. As he pedaled away, I hoped they would find one another.

Hampstead Heath

London street views - near Hampstead Heath

Day five (fourth and final full day before leaving) - Westminster Abbey, the National Gallery, and a poorly-planned visit to Speaker's Corner

Westminster Abbey was beautiful, but tragically overcrowded. It was impossible to really visit with anything there, as this Abbey - impressively crowded with impressive statuary and crypts - is basically a cattle chute of tourists that offers scant moments to step to the side and appreciate. The gardens and gated cloister were out of the way, much less crowded and by far the best part of my time there. In the serene emptiness of the gardens my imagination finally escaped, giving me a bit of the encounter with peace and beauty I had been hoping for. I ought to also give due credit to Poet's Corner, which I have dreamed of visiting for twenty years. Seeing crypts - even honorary ones - for so many famous artists was breathtaking.

Westminster Abbey

The National Gallery is another one of London's amazing, free treasures. This generously endowed, extremely busy art museum lies in the heart of the city (if there is such a thing in London). I regret that my time and memories here has also suffered from the physical and cultural fatigue I ran into at the Museum of London.

Honestly, the most fascinating and indelible part of the Gallery to me was the profusion of performers and chalk artists. I saw lots of very large, very colorful chalk drawings in more than one place, come to think of it. A particularly vexing mystery: how did the person dressed as Yoda hover in midair, supported by a tall, thin rod held out straight to the right by one hand?

I made my way at some point up to Speaker's Corner, eager to hear some local word on the street. This is a small spot in the northeast corner of Hyde Park that has traditionally been set aside, for over 140 years, to speeches and demonstrations. The only problem: this only takes place on Sundays, and I was here on a Tuesday! For my time and weary feet, I settled for sitting in a deck chair someone had left out - at least until a scruffy fellow came by and said that if I wanted to use the chair, I had to pay a couple of pounds. I moved on....

That evening I went out for one, final walk. It drizzled so I brought my raincoat with me. The sky cried for me, just a bit - happy/sad tears that my European journey had, for now, reached its conclusion. So many glowing city lights, fuzzy in the rain. So many tall, tall shadows. So much water rolling beneath me as I crossed each bridge, and so many people going on millions of other adventures.

London street views at night

Thames at night

The next morning I woke, packed, and got on my way to Gatwick fairly early. A half-day in an airplane later, I was in Los Angeles...bodily, anyway. Then, as now, the better part of my spirit remained behind, in Europe.

London street views

London street views

Monday, February 26, 2018

London, Part 2 - Arrival and first impressions

I arrived at Paddington Station, London, at about quarter to five in the afternoon of a hot Friday in mid-July. The second I stepped down from my train an urgent task required my attention: find a Visitor kiosk and buy the Visitor Oyster Pass within fifteen minutes, before the kiosk closed. Adrenaline surged as I scanned a sea of bobbing heads, train schedule displays, colorful shopfronts and signs pointing to various platforms and tube lines, all sprawled about a terminal that seemed, at the moment, as large as a sports arena. I cinched my big pack tighter to my back, hiked the small pack closer to my front, wiped the sweat from my brow, and lumber-hustled toward the nearest visible station agent.

Immediately my body was grateful for the rest it had received in sleepy Bath (it would take my mind about a day to recognize that gift). My Bath host had lived in London when she was younger and expressed both appreciation for the abundant experiences it had given her youthful self, and relief that her older self no longer had to endure its frenzy. Those first moments I spent making my way to the Visitor booth in Paddington gave me a glimpse of what she meant, and my awe before London's largeness, busyness, and complexity only grew over the next five days.

I secured my pass with just a few minutes to spare. The existence and necessity of this item had only come to my attention a couple of days earlier, and in Bath I had worried since a lot of online guidance suggested I should have had this shipped to me before I even came overseas. My London host had reassured me I could buy the Visitor Pass locally, though, so time had been my only remaining concern. Now, thankfully, the way to my short-term home and to hundreds of other locations in this grand city was clear.

My hosts were a multicultural family who lived in what seemed to be a largely Middle Eastern neighborhood. This was the first time in all my travels I had stayed with an entire family, in the traditional sense: two parents, young children. It felt by turns stifling (the mere presence of children makes me feel "responsible," obligated) and warm. Listening to them arrange bath times, the son play with toys, or the daughter practice piano placed an endearing, domestic capstone upon my time in London and - since this was my last destination before returning to the States - upon my journey as a whole.

That first night in England's capital left me with a lot of free time, which I eagerly spent wandering about. I ventured along narrow streets (where I would later find squeezed a weekend flea market and pop-up street vendors), marked by crowded apartment buildings, small shops, beautiful graffiti, tiny, modular boutiques and clubs, and occasional people going to or getting from at the otherworldly time between a city's business hours and its weekend. Then I gawked my way south down bustling A10 (Bishopsgate? I'm unsure of how street names worked there). I observed "small" office buildings with column-lined entrances, skyscrapers whose fascinating shapes and colors, not to mention immensity, defied my richest memories of American cities, a multiplying number of shops and cars and, seemingly every few blocks, stairways or side streets swallowing or spewing constant streams of Tube riders.

London street views

As I came closer to the Thames the weekend's victory over work was all but secured. The forces of frivolity and relaxation grew until, by the time I reached and read the inscription on The Monument (to the Great Fire of London), the fortifications of commerce, lit but abandoned,  had fallen silent, while clubs, restaurants, and streets swelled with those celebrating the victory of relaxation.

The Monument

The Monument inscription

Sunset over London treated me to its brilliance as I reached the north shore of the Thames. I lingered for a bit to enjoy it and to let the marvel of this city's endless visual delights, to north and south, east and west, wash over me a few more times. At last I crossed London Bridge.

Sunset over Thames, looking west from London Bridge

From here I first caught sight of Tower Bridge to the east, in all its white and candy-blue glory, and made my way toward it along the lively, south shore river walk. Parks, fountains, shops, restaurants, museums, an amphitheater, sculptures - I feel like I saw a bit of everything just in the half-hour or so as I walked to Tower Bridge. I stopped a few times to take pictures to send to family then, as it was growing late and I needed dinner, crossed north, craning my neck to take in every line and curve of this beautiful, famous, colorful crossing.

Hayes Galleria - along south Thames river walk

Tower Bridge

I continued past the fortifications of the Tower of London (where I would later return). Standing in twilight, not yet knowing what I was seeing, the sudden sight of old fortifications that were barely as tall as the street I stood on (contrasting with the parade of modern grandeur I had so far encountered) impressed on me at once the greatness and humility of the past. It makes me think now, as I write, of the competition between eternity and desolation in each person, each incident, each artifact, every day that we exist.

Mundane tasks, delightful in these uncommon circumstances, took up the rest of my evening as I visited a Sainsbury's, put together some dinner, then spent the rest of the evening chatting with my hosts and scheming what to see for the next five days.

Friday, February 23, 2018

London, Part 1 - Life Purpose, Perspective, and Departure

I returned from London more than six months ago (and I wrote the first draft of a blog about London one month ago). It took me quite a long time to revisit the week I spent in that incredible city and craft some thoughts about it. The question of why it took so long does not bring any surprises: I have not picked up the proverbial pen because my hands have been busy wringing out my morbid fear that this is my final visit-in-memoriam to Spain, Italy, Greece, and the UK.

Today, I am not there except in my imagination. I worry that once I've commemorated London and walked on (spoiler alert: I recount my time in London in my next blog post), all these experiential and emotional monuments that sprung up inside me as I journeyed, as I met people, places, and myself, will be cloaked from my view, the paths to them erased. I am afraid that the stiff-collared custodians of opportunity are stingy and punitive, that they are quietly shifting the boundary rope back to where it belongs, behind my back, with each step I take. The territory in which I can experience life (I worry) is shrinking. Social pressures, economics, physical wellness, and whatever other routines which have defined so much of my life so far are restoring their rule. When will I no longer even be able to remember or feel any evidence of last spring's adventure?

This is an old topic, I know. I carry on about the dramatic emotions that this trip conjured in me, or that I have conjured in myself as a way of understanding and remanifesting the trip (even while I was on it, perhaps, but especially now to defy everyday inertia and keep the larger, brighter me and the glimmer of Europe which it contains alive). In addition to worrying about myself I wonder constantly how common such feelings are - the hope and exhilaration, the despair and panic which follow, the slow, quiet surrender to normalcy. I wonder what conditions would enable us to adopt hope and persistence as well as we learn to give in to the status quo.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Designed to Discourage

How many of us have encountered people, businesses, or systems that advertise some kind of good but only yield frustration? How often are we puzzled by the gap between a stated purpose, and what we actually experience?

We participate in many services and systems and many of them, to put it mildly, have flaws. Dating, job-seeking, grocery shopping, transportation, taking turns at a deli counter, deciding what to eat for dinner or wear to school. Queueing to get through a revolving door, competing for merchandise in auctions, donating to an institution or trying to succeed in a business venture.

Do we believe we can improve these experiences for ourselves, our customers and communities? Do we want to? If yes, how do we proceed? I believe a good place to start is to recognize gaps between promise and delivery, and that we have choices about these gaps.

What follows is my draft exploration of such issues. You will not find proof or scientific rigor here, and I do not promise profound revelations. If anything, I hope to advance the cause of stating the obvious, which we often seem quite bad at doing. Talking about realities that we experience, or sense, that we are aware of consciously but do not admit or only instinctively and therefore don’t know how to admit, can be healing and productive.

(Also, please note that I will discuss relatively mundane opportunities to effect change in free and civil circumstances. I do not presume to speak for, or offer advice to, those who need solutions to dire situations.)

Friday, January 26, 2018

Timeless in Bath, Part 2 - Stonehenge

One morning, during my time in Bath, I took a Scarper’s Bus Tour to Salisbury, or in other words to see Stonehenge. People seem to have mixed reactions to this site, ranging from awe to profound disappointment. I stand, mouth agape, among the awed.

Quick plug (I have no special loyalty to or arrangement with this company): The tour was timely, the bus was comfortable, uncrowded, and had huge windows allowing great views of the countryside. I found the driver friendly and knowledgeable, pointing out several fascinating features along the drive, including the Westbury White Horse - a chalk drawing sculpted into a hillside below an Iron Age fort. The price of the tour covered tickets (no standing in line - yay!) as well as an audio guide (this would have also incurred a fee). I found the tour well worth the price.

Ticket and audio guide in hand, I was set loose for a couple hours to wander and wonder. The territory of archaeological interest around Stonehenge is actually quite extensive. In fact, just from the parking lot to the visitor center and stones is 1.5 miles! Normally I would have relished that walk, but due to my timetable I was obliged to join a queue for a short, park-furnished ride that ferried me to the historic site itself. The wait for this ride was only perhaps 15 minutes, so it was not long after I debarked my tour bus that I stepped down, my stomach jumped, and my nerves tingled with the knowledge that I was about to pass through a looking glass into ancient history.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Do you want to deliver the value that your audience needs to receive?

“Discover the real problems.” - Don Norman, The Design of Everyday Things

Guiding principles of user research:
- You are not the user
- Keep an open mind
- University of Minnesota, User Research and Design course, Brent Hecht

Do you want to deliver the value that your audience needs to receive? ​It is a design thinking question, and I pose it to anyone (myself included) who wants to contribute to the world. “Delivering value” applies to many of our situations. You might want to manufacture a product, give a speech, provide a humanitarian service, or participate in a relationship. Your “audience” might be a user base, a room full of business associates, a stranger on the street or a life partner. In all cases, the basic concerns remain the same.

Originally I intended to preach about designing your deliverable to meet the goals and understanding of the people who use it. However, I am relatively new to the world of design and don’t have the experience or authority to start handing out road maps just yet. What I have is growing awareness of and excitement about the landscape of this discipline. Its insights have broadened my perspective and creative output, and so I can speak with enthusiasm about the topic given in the title, as a migrant to this land inviting others to join me.

Our starting point is not how to design, but why we should care about design. Our audience benefits - we benefit - if we embrace that our audience’s goals may be different than ours, and that delivering something of value to them takes a special attitude and special effort.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Timeless in Bath, part 1

My ride to Bath was uneventful and leisurely: a good indicator of how the next three days would proceed. Arrival at Bath Spa was likewise peaceful. The only notable features were the rain - by my count this was only the third time in almost 60 days that I had encountered rain - and the relatively cool temperature. I actually put on a raincoat when I exited the station!

Looking back now as I write this, I am staggered by the relative oven that southern Europe baked in this year, and concerned for my new friends and acquaintances and all their fellow citizens. On balance, I enjoyed the warmth and clear skies I encountered between May and July, in spite of sweltering days, soaked shirts and fatigued afternoon naps. Of course, I also recall that it was the heat that finally chased me north, where I could relish getting rained on in Bath. As I retreated in the face of 38 degrees Celsius (100 Fahrenheit), those I waved goodbye to persevered, with some measure of comfort (I hope), as by mid-August temperatures neared 48 C (almost 120 F). Heat, drought, fires, service breakdowns: it seems appropriate that Europeans named the heat wave Lucifer.

It is hard for me to conceive of. Even though the areas where I normally live are also encountering more extreme weather in recent years, we do not also contend (as many of the places I visited do) with seriously compromised economic health. Now, when I think about moving to Europe, I think not just of the ways in which it would be enriching or fun for me, but also how I might adjust to new, everyday environmental, economic, even sociopolitical norms. Furthermore, I wonder what I would contribute. My experience this summer was high on receipt and short on delivery. If I were to take part in a community, there would need to be more balance in that equation.

For now, though, back to Bath:

A slight drizzle was on as I exited the station.