Sunday, October 13, 2013

Sunday, October 13, 2013

“This isn’t goodbye.”  I was slated to be the next president of the Association of Graduate Liberal Studies Program, the national organization of academic programs like my Master of Liberal Studies program, but yesterday at this year’s conference in Chicago, there I was resigning from the board because of my change of responsibilities at USC. 

Over the past seven years, I have come to truly enjoy my work in this association.  After every directors’ workshop, I brought home ideas, tips, and best practices to implement in my program.  Presenters at each conference bent my mind in new ways: a civil rights colleague of Martin Luther King in Memphis, the U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins in Orlando, Michael Powell of Powell’s Bookstore in Portland, the Akwaaba Quartet performing Ghanaian highlife music here in Chicago.  And I always looked forward to the conference excursions and impromptu short adventures:  water-taxi’ing over to Granville Island in Vancouver, visiting the Tiffany museum in Winter Park, seeing the salmon running in the Columbia River Gorge, and the taking the Chicago Architectural Foundation river tour have to rank among my top favorites. 

Most of all, I have appreciated the friends I have made among the other directors, especially those whom I have worked to present the West coast symposium for our collective students, and those with whom I have served on the board.  By and large, we share backgrounds in the humanities, with a few in the social sciences, and an occasional scientist in the mix (come to think of it, they’ve been physicists. . . .hmmmm).  During breakfast, lunch, or dinner conversations, early-morning or late-afternoon walks, late-night talks, and subway rides back to the airport, we’ve commiserated over institutional politics, celebrated family and professional accomplishments, mourned each other’s losses.  It happened to be during the time my USC MLS program was undergoing the AGLSP full member review process, akin to accreditation, that I mentioned to our external reviewer, the director from Stanford, how I “keep having to go back for more blood tests” because each blood test would indicate something not quite right.  Perhaps because she felt she was in at the ground level with me long before we knew it was cancer, she always takes me aside to ask me how I’m really doing. 

So there we were, after the conclusion of the business meeting, the representatives from Stanford, Duke, Skidmore College, Reed College, Widener University, hugging me one more time and insisting this wasn’t goodbye.  As happy I am with my new position and glad of it, leaving the AGLSP and leaving the responsibilities of MLS to someone else have been the hardest part of saying “yes” to the new job.  I was glad that one of them kept repeating, “This can’t be goodbye.”  

This past week in Chicago was unseasonably sunny and warm, and every local speaker took credit for arranging the uncharacteristically nice weather for us visitors.  But just as I got to O’Hare for the flight home, a thunderstorm rolled in, and we flew out in afternoon darkness and pelting rain.  Like the Chicago fall sunshine, I guess all good stints must come to an end.  But I do hope to see these colleagues again sometime, just as Chicagoans go into fall, hoping again for the return of the warmth of the sun. 

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Twenty-five years ago, almost to the exact month and date, I was settling into office space freshly deemed the USC Lusk Center for Real Estate Development, having leapt from  law and the nuts-and-bolts of real estate development to trying my hand at university administration.  I received a warm welcome from my new officemates, an already-esteemed collection of urban planning professors with specialties in transportation, economics, history, geography, finance, and demography, just to name a few.  I still recall fondly many a fascinating hallway conversation from those embryonic Lusk Center days, as I delighted in learning about the multidisciplinarity of urban planning. 

As the faculty shared with me what they taught and researched, I made note of the works they included in their course syllabi and the publications they produced.  Thus started one of my favorite parts of working in a university:  getting to be the perpetual student.  Some books I borrowed; some I checked out of the library.  Some I own, and treasure, because they were given to me by these colleagues as their books were published, with nice inscriptions inside.   

Some books I bought because my friends stressed to me that these are books I must read, and re-read.  I figured if a book came with such strong recommendations, it must be worth the shelf space.  One such highly recommended book, though, was so outrageously expensive (by Oxford University Press, needless to say), I remember hesitating in the USC Bookstore – could it really be worth it?

I bit the bullet (and don’t think I told Bing how much it was), and that book – A Pattern Language by Alexander, Ishikawa, and Silverstein – changed my life.  That is to say, it has formed the basis of how I understand space and have articulated my surroundings.  Published in 1977, by 1984 it already was, and apparently continues to be, a bestseller in architecture, the built environment, and planning. 

A Pattern Language identifies concepts and elements that are the characteristics of “good” design.  Its authors list features that make towns, buildings, rooms, and even nooks, “feel” good.  The book works like a handbook, one which they designed for the reader to use in planning any kind of spatial project. 

Chewing my way through this book, I realized it was explicating the features we already knew we liked about our house: its northern exposure, the big common room, windows on two sides of every room.  Like kids in a candy store, Bing and I went through the pattern language checklist, identifying the elements we wanted to incorporate into our landscaping plan.  We knew we wanted an “intimacy gradient” buffering the space between the street and our house, a sitting wall, climbing plants, a garden seat, a kitchen garden.  We wanted a courtyard path with “discovery vistas” and “half-open walls,” meaning a fence design that was not completely solid.  We wanted an urban orchard of fruit trees and spaces for play.  

Our friend Steve, a highly-regarded landscape architect in his own right, skillfully incorporated all these elements in our yard, and more, for which our home received a “Golden Arrow” award from the Pasadena Beautiful Foundation honoring garden beautification. 

I’ve kept the pattern language in my head whenever I’ve had the chance to design a space.  Whether a balcony or my office, I try to create “sitting spaces,” pool the light, soften the edges, make personal items useful.  My new office in the Spatial Sciences Institute is about one-third the size of my associate dean office, but I think I will like it just as much.  I re-arranged the furniture to create a “living room” flow, and my ginger jar now is a small table.  My grandmother’s box now will house the accoutrements for my herb tea, and there’s still even room for the bookcase which my dad made on their farm. 

So put finishing touches on my new office space, the books which have gathered dust at home from my earlier urban planning days have reborn in relevance.  This afternoon I’ve thumbed back through A Pattern Language, and have been reminded how much I appreciate works by my friends and colleagues such as Eden By Design by Greg Hise and Bill Deverell, Cities on the Rebound by Bill Hudnut, and Material Dreams by Kevin Starr.  

I’ve rebounded well from Wednesday’s chemo, reassured by the continued drop in the IgM number, and undeterred in my preparation to hit the ground running in this new job on Tuesday.  I’ve been on the Spatial Sciences Institute home page already in this photo taken on Commencement Day.  On Tuesday I’m going to fill in Dad’s bookcase with A Pattern Language and these other favorite planning books, at home again in the office.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Saturday, August 24, 2013

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn't do than by the ones you did. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”
I taped this Mark Twain quote to the inside of our bathroom closet door because Bing had liked it, bowlines and winds in sails and all.  One twilight during our memorable J-World cruising certification week on the Chesapeake Bay, I cracked as he and I shared the helm, "Look, dear, we're sailing into the sunset together."  Every time I looked at this quote, I remembered the hearty laugh I got out of him and our instructor, Dick.

As the High Point Academy calendars and Poly reminders went up and down next to it, the paper yellowed and the tape brittled.  When the door was about to disappear during the complete bathroom remodel last fall, I realized I didn't need to look at that dusty scrap of paper to remember that happy sunset moment, and, as Bing had wanted, I have been doing things instead of regretting not doing things, if you get my grammar and Mark Twain-ish thinking.  

You faithful followers of this blog have noticed that I’ve slowed way down on the postings.  I have been trying to decide what to do with "Wing on Wing." Truth be told, I’ve been too busy, which I offer up as good corroboration that I’ve regained my old energy levels.  I’ve been amazed at how much better I’ve continued to feel as the IgM level has slowly, surely, miraculously dropped and dropped and dropped.  The corollary is that it is scary to admit to myself how crummy I have felt for, well, years.  As I re-wind the tape in my head, I now recognize that I was experiencing WM symptoms long before my diagnosis almost exactly three years ago.

This coming Wednesday I will have my 26th treatment.  26th. Who could have imagined this grind?  Actually, I don’t think even my doctors could have imagined this, because statistically, patients either would have responded way better way faster, or, honestly, would have been dead by now.   I’ll see what my numbers are like with this next batch of tests, but certainly I’m grateful, relieved, and sobered to be beating the odds.  

Here’s what I've been busy doing.  This past week, I’ve been transitioning out of my associate dean responsibilities and into a just-created associate director position with a fast-growing USC Dornsife academic and research enterprise, the USC Spatial Sciences Institute.  As of the Tuesday after Labor Day, I’ll be running the institute with its director, a professor with whom I’ve worked closely and well for a number of years through an intertwined real estate development, urban planning, and geography past.  

The director first proposed the idea to me last summer, and I said no.  I was still filled with uncertainties then.  Over the holidays, I started feeling more positively about everything – maybe it was the delight over how well the master bath remodel turned out?  In any event, my very first meeting in January when the university re-opened after the holidays was with this director, and as we were waiting for our appointment to arrive, I felt that familiar prompt that the right thing to do was to cast off the bowlines.  While we waited for our appointment (who never arrived – I wonder why), the director and I started figuring out the details of this job, which I can best describe as a mash-up of my Lusk Center, ULI, and associate dean roles.  The director realized before I did that I was doing alot of this job any way.  I’ve never felt so secure about a job change before and able to hit the ground running. 

So Wednesday’s treatment has become something to get through so I can get back to planning the new era of the Spatial Sciences Institute.  As with all things USC, I have a new tee-shirt to wear, and am feeling new wind filling my sails.

This summer I had wondered if the time had come to wrap “Wing on Wing,” but I guess not. Many of you have said to me to keep writing.  So if you’re willing to keep checking in, I sense there’s more I’m about to explore, and dream, and discover.

P.S. Akemi, age 8, in her Sabot at the dock of Alamitos Bay Yacht Club

Monday, June 24, 2013

Monday, June 24, 2013

One of the most gratifying aspects about my role as the director of the USC Master of Liberal Students Program is to help my students identify the topic of great personal interest to them on which they will write their thesis.  Then comes shepherding the team effort with the program faculty in supporting them as they research and produce their thesis.  The graduating students present a summary of their projects at a colloquium right before graduation to an audience of our faculty, students, alumni, their family, and friends.  The colloquium always is a great celebration which tees up Commencement Day.

Students who have completed their theses and those who have made substantial progress on theirs have the additional opportunity to submit abstracts for consideration for presentation at an annual summer symposium.   This annual symposium, international in scope, is really a wonderful thing.  Six other directors of graduate liberal studies programs and I have worked together for seven years to give our students the chance to experience what it is like to convert a large work into an abstract for submission, and then, if selected, into a 20-minute presentation to the students, alumni, and faculty attending from all the participating programs. 

It’s an honor to be selected – not every submission is – and over the years, my students have come to see the benefit of putting in the extra work to prepare their submission and then prepare for their presentation.  Once Commencement is over, we turn our attention to practice sessions to get the timing down and the Powerpoint finessed. 

This year, I had six students submit and be selected, our largest USC contingency ever.  So this past weekend, we all traveled to the site of this year’s symposium, the charmingly beautiful campus of Dominican University of California in Marin County, right across the Golden Gate and Richmond bridges from San Francisco.  I couldn’t be prouder of the great jobs which each of them did.

Us directors also feel our symposium is important in giving all of our students and alumni the chance to experience being part of a larger academic community and get to know colleagues from institutions such as Reed College, Stanford, and Maastricht University in the Netherlands.  Us directors also have become good friends over the years and truly look forward to our time together.  As the symposium location has rotated around, from Palo Alto to Portland to Vancouver, down to LA last year when I was the host, and this year back to the Bay area, we have thoroughly enjoyed one another’s campuses and hospitality.  Us directors also are proud of the fact that we do this symposium as an informal consortium on a financial shoestring, which I think accounts for why we have been able to keep it going for a good stretch. 

I know my students are relieved to have their presentations behind them now.  I’ll be encouraging a few of them to push their presentations into the next iteration to submit for publication in a journal.  As one of my law professors said about making law review, it’s rewarding hard work with more hard work.  In a way, I’m sorry to have this year’s symposium over: there’s so much anticipation, and it seems our lovely weekend, even when I was the one worrying about AV and the lunch delivery last year, is over all too quickly. 

Friday, June 7, 2013

Friday, June 7, 2013

One of my favorite memories of being little in the Downey house was all four of us piling onto our parent’s bed on Saturday morning.  Sometimes my dad would say, “Who wants to walk over to Winchell’s with me to pick out a box of doughnuts?” To which we would start chanting, “doan-doans, doan-doans!” (pronounced with long “o’s”, a verbal concoction of my brother Bob’s that stuck in the family), and which would motivate us to start getting dressed and out the door to the intersection of Paramount and Florence.

My dad liked doughnuts enough that later in his life, my mom managed his diabetic diet so that he could occasionally have a plain cake doughnut.  But in those days, we were talking the full array that Winchell’s had to offer.  I know Krispy Kreme and Dunkin’ Donuts have their fans, but I guess your tastes get formed by what you grow up with, and I remain Winchell’s loyalist.  When Bing and I made a bold real estate move to buy a house in Northeast Pasadena in the late 1980s, I reassured myself that we could believe in a neighborhood that had a Winchell’s.

So over our years passing through the intersection of Orange Grove and Los Robles, we have stopped in at that Winchell’s for the “Saturday morning on the way to Colburn” doughnut, for the “zero-dark-thirty on the way to Long Beach for the Beach-to-Bay regatta” doughnut, for the “keep the Elders Quorum happy on a service project” box, and for “treats for USC students on a field trip” box.  During the time my hair dresser was at a salon near the intersection of Lake and California, Akemi and I had a little tradition after we had our hair cuts that she could choose an ice cream cone at Baskin Robbins or a doughnut at that Winchell’s.  “Doan-doans” often won out.

Having professed Winchell’s loyalty, I have to say, though, that the very best doughnut I have ever had was made by a bakery in Barnstable on Cape Cod which the place we were staying at served in the lobby in the early morning.  When I was in Portland, Oregon last fall, my conference host said we must walk over to the nearby Voodoo Doughnut, nationally famous for its, uhh, imaginative flavors and decorations. I was happy with my selection of a Mexican chocolate doughnut from among the family-rated options.

These days, “doan-doans” aren’t on the diet, but in observance of National Doughnut Day today and the fact that I was at the office at such an early hour having taken Akemi to the airport for her return to Boston, I decided a doughnut was in order.  The doughnut shop a block away from campus is pretty modest, but certainly they can handle a chocolate cake with sprinkles.   

So happy Doughnut Day!