Category Archives: Ponder

Things I think about

Touring Oppression, Obsession and Greed

Americans like to tour other countries. Sometimes we say that they have history all around them, but in America it is hard to find anything that is more than a few hundred years old. So we travel the rest of the world looking for really old stuff, stuff with real history. Of course the things we find are the great structures and works of architecture that have withstood the test of time: the pyramids, palaces, cathedrals, temples, fortresses, and castles.

In general, we don’t have those things in America. We think it is because we are not that old. The truth is age has little to do with it. It is about the structure of society and the concentration of power and wealth. Egypt does not have pyramids because it is old. Egypt has pyramids because it had a social structure that placed all power and wealth in the hands of a very few people. The rest of the country was enslaved and worked to accomplish the wishes of those at the top. It is estimated that tens of thousands of slaves worked to build the pyramids.

No one travels to Russia to see the great accomplishments of the communist system. No, they go to see the churches and palaces built during the time of the czars.

In Rome we see the great temples, forum, coliseum, aqueducts and fountains built by the thousands of slaves captured during the various military conquests. It is estimated that at one time there were ten slaves to every free man in Rome.

In France we see the ridiculously lavish, palaces and art collections of the Kings who taxed the peasants to near starvation.

At the Vatican you can see some great cathedrals and works of art paid for through abusive practices of paying indulgences.

As you travel from place to place the names change but the story is much the same. Wonderful architectural structures and beautiful collections of fine art all acquired because a few people had the power, wealth and control of public resources to lavish on themselves and their own interests. We don’t have those things in America not because we are not that old. We don’t have them because we have placed our focus on the freedom of opportunity for the common man. That is not to say that we don’t have some very wealthy people. We do, and they live some very lavish lifestyles. You can watch “lifestyles of the rich and famous” and see all kinds of wealthy Americans, but there is something radically different. We feel that these people earned their money, or at least we willingly bought their product of service. Somehow we don’t feel like they obtained their wealth through the oppression of others.

So there you have it. We admire these great structures, and art collections of history. We marvel at the great empires of the past that brought them into being. Then we create laws and social structures to guarantee that concentrations of wealth and power like that will never happen again.

It really is hypocritical tourism. We praise the accomplishments of oppressive empires of the past and condemn them in the present.

What kind of monuments will we build in our present day that will become the tourist attractions of the future? Will they be monuments of greed and oppression? Will they be monuments of individual expression, like the Watts Towers, Scotty’s Castle, or Salvation Mountain, that were built in the past, but new building codes will guarantee that type of individual expression never happens again. Maybe we will simply continue to admire the monuments of ancient history because we can no longer build them in the present.

Chipped Paint and Broken Plaster

I am sitting in a solarium café in a hotel in Italy. The room is filled with old patio tables with simple formed steel tops and elaborate, decorative, cast metal bases. The chairs are also old and mismatched. It seems that they are simply collected over time from just about anywhere. Some are indirectly carved, others are delicately curved steel bars, bent to create curly-ques, and heart shaped backs. Like the head board of a fine brass bed. There are wicker benches with woven seats and backs. Some chairs are formed of bamboo or some type of reed. There are also simple folding chairs made from steel flat bar and wooden slats. Everything has multiple coats of paint. The last layer is white. All the paint is chipped to expose the earlier colors of the bare steel. The rest of the room is decorated with various pillows, lights, baskets, fresh fruit and plants. There are wire hearts covered in fabric hanging around the room. Some are right side up, but most are cocked at some odd angle of even upside down. It is exactly what you would see in some “Country Cottage” magazine.

It is all very romantic and appealing. I just can’t figure out why.

Two days ago I went to visit our office in Assago. It was a very modern building, the type that would e featured in “Architectural Digest”. My guess is that it was when it was first built. It is what I call an architect’s playground. The architect went wild with every new and different idea he could come up with. Often these buildings are not about beauty of even functionality; they are about being different, cutting edge, breaking the rules and being modern. The ironic thing is that in 20 years these buildings will look old and dated.

The truly old architecture is called timeless and classic. As I walk the brick streets of Tortona, Italy, I am in awe of the old brick buildings with heavy wooden doors opening to brick and tile paved courtyards—the shuttered windows and balconies with hanging flower boxes. Everywhere there is chipped plaster. Occasionally I will run across a grand old building that is abandoned and decaying. The plaster has fallen away exposing large areas of ancient brick. The red tile roof has collapsed in places letting light filter through the broken windows from the inside. Great chunks of the wall have collapsed. Somehow there is a beauty in all of this decay. It is the subject of great photographs and pencil sketches.

Once again I ask myself, “What is it that makes old decaying buildings so appealing?”

What is funny is that I can remember as a child I didn’t like old looking things. Chipped and broken, meant chipped and broken. It seemed dirty. I expected bugs to come crawling out. There was nothing beautiful or romantic about it. I liked the clean, slick modern styles.

I guess your tastes change as you get older. You appreciate what happens with the passage of time. You understand that many of those chips and broken pieces have a story—the story of people’s lives: the events that formed them, the attempts to repair them, the new plaster and the new coat of paint. Many things have no specific story, it is just the wear of daily life that weathers and shapes us and leaves small cracks, chips and smudges. The buildings, the furniture, the collection of odds and ends, the tilted hearts—they all have a story. I will never know these stories they are lost to time, as someday mine will be, but there is something beautiful and romantic about sitting in a solarium in Italy, sipping on a cappuccino, surrounded by a million silent stories told by chipped paint and broken plaster.

In Tribute to the Designer

When I arrive at work I drop my things off at my desk, log into my computer, pick up my coffee cup and head to the coffee maker. Free coffee, my favorite kind. The deal is you get free coffee, but when the pot is running low you have to make another pot. It really is pretty easy:

  1. Place the empty pot under the drip mechanism
  2. Remove the tray that holds the coffee grounds and filter, dump out the old coffee
  3. Replace the old filter with a new one
  4. Open a package of coffee and pour it into the filter
  5. Replace the tray
  6. Push the “brew” button

They really have made it easy. Even I have mastered making coffee with this method. It seems like I am making it every morning.

One morning as I was making coffee I couldn’t find the scissors that were normally there to cut open the coffee package. The thought occurred to me that I probably don’t need scissors. The package has a jagged edge. I’ll bet it was designed to be torn open. I looked a little closer and discovered that there is actually a little notch cut into the top of the pouch to make it easy to start the tear.

My mind went on a free-for-all considering all of the careful design work that goes into making packaging. It needs to hold the coffee and keep it fresh. It needs to be made of a material that is not affected by the coffee and doesn’t affect the coffee. It needs to be strong enough to hold the coffee during all of the packaging, shipping and handling. You can’t have a package that will accidentally break open. At the same time it must be designed to tear open easily and in the right direction. You can’t have the package tear down the middle and spill the coffee all over. It really is a very sophisticated design. I am a designer and we think about these kinds of things. I also considered the machine that puts the coffee in the package. And of course there is that one point in the process when the machine cuts an extra little slice in the package to make it easy for me to tear.

At that point I began to really appreciate all of the work that the designer put into designing a package for me; one that would make my life easier. I decided then and there that I would never again use scissors to open a coffee pouch. Nope. If the designer went to all of the trouble to design a machine to cut a small slit into the pouch to make it easy for me to tear, then every morning I will pay tribute to the designer and I will tear open the package.

God is the great designer of the universe. He has paid close attention to every detail. Often it was done for our benefit. We are designed to function in certain ways. God has designed our relationships to work in certain ways and yet we often want to do it a different way.

Whether you are opening a coffee pouch or relating to your spouse or friends, consider the effort that the Designer put in to the design. Reflect on how He intended for it to work. Then pay tribute to the designer and behave in a way that honors Him and His design.