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Monthly Archives: April 2012

I am not a religious man, but I have a ritual that I perform every day: I wash my breakfast bowl.

It doesn’t seem like much, especially in this age of dishwashing machines and takeout food on paper plates, but my ritual has a long and meaningful history.

There was a year in my life when I didn’t have a job. I lived with friends in North Carolina and did their cooking and cleaning. Every morning, after breakfast, I washed all the dishes.

To others, dishwashing may seem a boring chore, but to me, it was a time to regain contact with the eons. I could stand at the sink with my hands in the steamy suds and stare out the kitchen window at the leaves blown from their trees.

I stared out the window as I worked, mentally walking down the path behind the house past the tin-roof barn and the wide rolling field where old Mr. Price grew beans and tobacco. On the far side, there was a brook that meandered into a small ravine about a dozen feet deep, wet on its north, sunless side, and dry on the south.

And across the granite that forms the streambed as it cascades through this ravine was a long white stripe of quartz, an igneous dike where molten lava once inched up a joint in the surrounding rock and cooled into quartz bright and shiny against the black of the basalt streambed.

And standing at the sink with my hands glossy with detergent, I could travel upstream into myself the same way, finding, eventually, the glistening evidence of my own deepest thoughts: people I had long forgotten, places I hadn’t remembered being, songs I had sung with my grandmother, and sometimes even peace.

And so I rinsed the hot soap from a dish with scalding water and left it in the drain rack. I reached for the next dish and I thought about other times I have washed dishes.

I recalled the night my son was born. I had been at the hospital for his birth, in the delivery room as he entered the world screaming and miry. After I had taken the usual photos and Annie went back to her room for some well-deserved sleep and the kid was cleaned off and sent to the nursery, I drove home and found a kitchen full of dishes, greasy and smeared, waiting to be cleaned. Annie had been in labor almost two days and, though I had been with her through most of it, I also had gone home periodically for meals.

Those dishes and the ones left over from the dinner at which she started feeling her contractions were scattered all over the house. I filled the sink with hot water and divided up the dishes from the pots and set the plates and silverware into the sink to soak. Steam rose from the suds.

I remember that night; I was in knots, loaded with the new responsibility of a child and desperate with the empty feeling that my wife and I no longer could live together. I stuck my arm into the water and my guts began to relax.

I rinsed the first plate and my mind went blank – the blankness of meditation. My belly loosened and my teeth, which had been gnashing through the nights as I slept for months, relaxed. I rinsed the next plate, and it clicked against the first as I settled it in the drain rack. Soothing.

My problems were not solved, but I could look at the dilemmas I faced without the desperation I had been feeling. My frenzy abated.

Dishwashing became my mantra.

I recall camping with the redhead who succeeded my wife. We were staying in an abandoned farmhouse in a hidden valley of the Blue Ridge. Looking out over the balustrade, we saw the cliff across the glade, the rocky stream that poured down the valley bottom, the second growth in the old farm fields, millions of black-eyed Susans swaying in the breeze. As the sun dropped behind the cliff, I took our supper dishes down to the stream and washed them, scouring them with sand from the creek bottom and rinsing them in the icy water. Billions of fireflies made Fourth of July for us. I left the cold dishes on a large rock to dry overnight.

I recall once seeing a twisting globe of blackbirds rise from the trees and stretch out like the Milky Way across the sky. Hundreds of thousands of birds roosting took flight and spanned the evening sky. I dipped the last pan into the darkened suds and scrubbed it.

When the student asked Zen master Chao-Chou for instruction, the sage answered, ”Wash your bowl.” All philosophies else try to figure out logical ultimates, leaving us, at the end, only a useless ash.

No matter if Plato be right, or Whitehead, or Sartre, the one action that we all share is ”washing our bowl.” No matter if everything Wittgenstein ever wrote is absolutely true, we must act as if he never wrote anything. We still must wash our bowls. If everything is explained, nothing is explained, and we are back on square one. Better to wash your bowl.

So, as I wiped the final grease from the stove top and wiped down the counters and cutting board, I replaced the salt and pepper in the middle of the table and wiped off the tabletop.

All that remained was to rinse the dishrag and dump the greasy suds down the drain, setting the washbasin out to dry. That completed, I dried my hands on a fresh towel and began on one of the day’s other tasks.

Once, long ago, when I visited a friend, Judy Crawford, at her mountain house up near the Plott Balsam mountains of North Carolina, I cooked her a giant meal of coq au vin and I made French bread. We had several friends over and feasted, making such a pile of greasy dishes that we all agreed to let the mess sit overnight. ”I can’t look at the kitchen tonight,” Crawford said.

I woke early the next morning and dressed and went downstairs to the kitchen. It was a little after 6, and the sun was hours from rising over the first peak. I filled the sink and started the dishes. Boonie, her cat, crawled around my ankle, looking up at me, squealing for milk. A few robins and a bluebird were scratching at the ground outside the kitchen window. It was quiet – calm and silent. I finished every last dish before Crawford woke up.

”Golly. You didn’t have to do that,” she said when she saw her shining kitchen. No, I didn’t have to, but I enjoyed it. I was at peace.

Most of what we do in our lives is frivolous – watching TV, fixing the car, reading books, waiting for the bus – but the washing of dishes is important: It is necessary. And it is something humans have been doing since before the days when Abraham lived in Ur. Washing dishes is part of being human.

It’s like watching the centuries change.

In the 22 late paintings Claude Monet made in his suburban Paris gardens during the first quarter of this century, you can see the sensibility of the previous age give way to that of the current one. And you see Modern Art being born before your eyes.

Monet is not the sole creator of Modern Art, of course. In fact, he might be considered a latecomer to the movement. By the beginning of World War I, the avant-garde of painting in Europe had already seen the advent of Fauvism, Cubism, Orphism and Futurism. And during the war it saw De Stijl and Dada.

But the old eagle, having been in on the creation of Impressionism in the 1860s, was not left behind as he plunged into his seventh decade.

And the paintings he made in his garden – some 250 of them – chart the change in sensibility.

In the earliest work seen at a recent show, his Water Lilies of 1903, you can see the familiar imagery of Impressionism. It is a picture of the surface of the lily pond on his estate. The illusion of the reflection of the distant trees in the water is seductive. Across the water float several rafts of lily pads, creating a horizontal movement across the vertical tree reflections.

The canvas is still, in some sense, a window through which we look at a pleasant scene, and the virtuosity of the illusion is astonishing.

But as the years go by, Monet becomes less interested in the illusion and more interested in the paint, so that by the time we get to Water Lilies and Agapanthus, of 1914-17, there is almost no depth to the scene. It is not a landscape at all, but a canvas inhabited by images all the same visual distance from the viewer.

If there is a single definition of Modernism, it is that painting ceases to be a virtual window we look through, and becomes one we look at.

Time after time in the late paintings, the gobs of paint build up on the surface like daubs of tar, forcing us to see the paint, the brush strokes, the patches of unfinished canvas.

As I said, Monet was not alone in this. Cezanne, for instance, had already been headed in the same direction two decades before Monet joined in. Gauguin and a host of later Post-Impressionists forced the issue. But it is a sign of Monet’s stature that he never felt as if he could merely repeat himself and his earlier successes, but continued what he called his ”little researches into forms and colors.”

Some critics of the time recognized the change. One review said, ”His language differs more and more from nature (and) replaces it.”

You can see that happening in Weeping Willow, from 1918. The painting may in part be a response to the horrors of the war that raged around him, a symbol of a weeping tree, but more than anything else it is a denial of illusionistic space. The background is the same distance from our eye as the tree trunk, all built out of the squirrelly and obsessive zips of paint.

Or the Japanese Footbridge, from the same year, in which it is difficult to find any subject matter at all. If we weren’t so accustomed to seeing the stereotyped arch of the bridge from his earlier paintings, we’d be hard pressed to say what the picture is of.

One after another of these late paintings becomes about paint, or rather, about the application of paint to surface. In some, the application is soft and feathered, in others, it is violently gouged into the canvas.

Monet’s accomplishments are all the more astonishing in light of his increasing blindness. Beginning in 1912, he developed cataracts in both eyes. By the end of the decade, he was mixing colors more by memory than by eyesight, sometimes using the names printed on the side of the tubes instead of the pigments, which were becoming increasingly distorted by his clouded corneas.

In a way, Monet became the visual equivalent of Beethoven.

At the time, there were those who believed the change in Monet’s painting was caused by the cataracts. They blamed the eye disease for what they thought was a falling-off of Monet’s talents.

The painter went into surgery in 1923 and the cataracts were removed, restoring his vision. But the change in the painting style remained; it was not due merely to pathology.

The 22 paintings in the central portion of the exhibit will not make everyone happy. They are not the easy-on-the-eye parasol and silk-skirt paintings that Impressionism devolved into. As others around him repeated the stylistic habits he pioneered 40 years earlier, and let Impressionism descend into shtick, Monet moved ever forward, finding ever new things to express.

He was disgusted with these epigones, and as hordes of largely American imitators descended on the little town of Giverny to create an ”artists’ colony,” Monet even considered moving away. Artists don’t live in colonies.

But he stayed until his death in 1926, unable to leave the gardens he created and loved.

”Everything I have earned has gone into these gardens,” he once told an interviewer. ”I do not deny I am proud of them.”

Got a good recipe for a hamburger?

A recipe? For a hamburger? Who uses a recipe for a burger? You cannot live in America for more than six months and not know how to make hamburgers without needing a recipe. It’s too easy.

Well, for someone who cooks regularly, it is the same way for most dishes. You don’t need a recipe to fry chicken or to bake a meatloaf. Besides, it isn’t really a recipe at all, but a process.

The hamburger, for instance. You can make them big or small, from ground chuck or ground sirloin. You can douse them with ketchup or mustard. Add Swiss cheese or Velveeta. Cover them in slices of raw onion or smother them with caramelized, sauteed onions. Plop them on a kaiser roll or an onion roll. You even can smother them with bacon and bleu cheese. There are hundreds of variations, yet each and every one is a hamburger.

Anyone who cooks regularly knows this: Cooking is not a rote activity, but one that you feel in your fingertips. It is process, not rules.

And it is surprising how few processes there are. There is boiling, frying, poaching, baking, braising, sauteing, grilling – a few more: saucemaking, egg separation, dough-kneading, etc.

But if you can fry a chicken breast, you can fry a breaded veal cutlet.

In fact, if you master the few basic techniques, you can interchange ingredients with complete abandon and come up with a vast menu of dishes.

I call it ”modular cooking,” and it means you can build up your own ”recipes” from whatever you have in your larder.

GETTING STARTED

Let me take just one example: Linguine Nilsenesca.

It’s a fancy name for an ordinary dish. (In fact, one of the great subsidiary pleasures of cooking up your own ideas is you can name them whatever you want to.)

Linguine Nilsenesca, for instance, is a basic Italian tomato sauce.

I start with hot olive oil in a deep frying pan. I add chopped onions, garlic and peppers. Sometimes the peppers are jalapenos, sometimes just blocky bell peppers.

When the vegetables begin to soften, add a fistful of dried or fresh basil. It’s personal taste, but I don’t think it’s possible to add too much basil.

It doesn’t really matter how much of any of this you use. Different proportions merely vary the flavor. Any proportion will work. If you like more garlic, double the amount. If you don’t care for peppers, leave them out.

The whole thing fills the kitchen and the nearby rooms with the pungent aroma of great eating. Family members float into the kitchen hooked by their noses.

You cook this mess down until it looks really ugly. The ugliness is important: The uglier your sauce looks at this stage, the better it will taste.

At this point, you can add some browned chopmeat. If you don’t want meat in the sauce, leave it out. If chopmeat isn’t enough, add some cooked Italian sausage.

When it is all hot and sputtering, douse the whole in a good dose of red wine. It will sputter and fuss and deglaze the bottom of the pan. I usually let the wine just barely cover the mess in the pan. Less will do, so will more.

Cook the wine down until you cannot imagine eating what you see in your pot: a dark, purple, gummy conglomeration of ingredients, sticking together like tar.

But it is not ugly enough.

When the wine is almost gone, add the contents of a small can of tomato paste, stirring it in with a spoon so that everything is covered with a thin layer of paste. Fry it down until just before it begins to burn, stirring constantly.

When you have reached this stage, it is as ugly as it’s going to get. Then you save your reputation by adding tomato sauce or canned tomatoes. It doesn’t matter exactly how much, but enough to make the sauce come up red.

If you have the time and inclination, you certainly can use fresh tomatoes, peeled and dumped in, instead of canned.

Whichever you use, stir it into the mess and smooth everything out.

In the meantime, you will have cooked up a mess of linguine in a separate pot. When the sauce is cooked, you simply ladle it over the drained linguine and eat it, with or without Parmesan cheese.

This is the best spaghetti sauce I have ever eaten.

MEET THE MODULES

I call this cooking modular, because it is essentially built up from six essential modules:

* Fat

* Vegetables

* Meat

* Seasoning

* Sauce

* Starch

You now can change anything around: Substitute chicken for chopmeat and you have Chicken cacciatore.

Switch them all around and you can come up with:

* Coq au vin

* Beef stroganoff

* Mock Hawaiian Chili

* Chicken Motocross

For instance, if you make coq au vin, you begin with bacon fat instead of olive oil. You brown your floured chicken pieces in the hot fat and reserve them. Add a bunch of small onions and mushrooms – carrots and small potatoes, if you want ’em – and brown them, along with some garlic, thyme and tarragon.

They don’t need to get as ugly as the tomato sauce, but they should turn a nice golden color. Add the chicken back to the pot, and dump in a lot of red wine, enough to cover generously. You can mix the wine half-and-half with chicken stock.

Let the pot cook down for over an hour or so, depending on how thick you like your sauce and how soft you like your chicken.

Serve the whole thing with baguettes of stiff French bread and you’re in business.

Substitute beef for chicken and a coq au vin turns into a boeuf bourguignon.

LOTS OF OPTIONS

For stroganoff, begin with butter, saute your stew beef and mushrooms, add your paprika and sour cream, slowly, incorporating it slowly to prevent curdling, and serve it over egg noodles.

For the chili, you start much the way you do for the Linguine Nilsenesca, but you make sure the peppers are hot ones and you use a blander vegetable oil. If you want something less bland, use lard. It has a distinct flavor, but few Americans retain the taste for it that their ancestors had.

And after you add your browned chopmeat, you dump in a dose of cumin instead of the Italian seasoning, and you also add lots and lots of beans. You can use canned beans, or you can use some dried pintos you have cooked up. Canned tomatoes help make a sauce, along with the bean juice.

To make this variation, ”mock Hawaiian,” we add some raisins and diced pineapple.

Then, it is served on a bed of rice.

The process is always the same, get the fat hot and add the meat and/or veggies, get them skizzied, add the spices or herbs, dump in the sauce and cook till done, then ladle the stuff over your starch.

PANTRY SEARCH

The simple process turns into hundreds of variants:

* Possible fats: butter, peanut oil, olive oil, ghee, bacon fat, fatback, lard.

* Possible meats: stew beef, sausage, ground beef, lamb, pork, chicken, tuna fish, veal.

* Possible spices: coriander, thyme, basil, cumin, rosemary, garlic, vanilla, chiles, more garlic, sage, tarragon, garam masala, parsley, etc.

* Possible vegetables: potatoes, tomatoes, carrots, corn, peas, beans, pintos, spinach, cabbage, etc.

* Possible sauces: gravies, sauces, glazes, soups; made with tomatoes, wines, milk products, bouillons, coffee, bechamels, etc.

* Possible starches: pastas, potatoes, breads, rice, noodles, zwieback, grits, etc.

When you get the process down, you will enjoy the creative challenges it presents. Like when you have nothing planned, or you weren’t able to get out to the grocery store.

You look through your pantry and see what is available. Then you play mix and match, plugging what you have into the basic modular process.

That is exactly how Chicken Motocross was invented.

CHICKEN MOTOCROSS

This is low-rent food if ever there was. It is the basic, stripped-down version of the process, and as fast to make as anything:

* Oil – whatever you have.

* Meat – chicken. You even can use canned chicken.

* Vegetables – I like onions and diced carrots. Canned is fine.

* Seasoning – It doesn’t take much beyond ground pepper, although a small amount of thyme is good, too.

* Sauce – After the above ingredients are skizzied, add a can of cream of mushroom soup and serve over:

* Starch – sliced, toasted bread.

It’s not exactly gourmet fare, but it is filling and fast.

No mistakes

I have touched on only one modular process here. There are many others, including lower-fat modules. There are salads to be constructed, vegetable dishes, omelet processes. Even breadmaking can be approached this way, once you learn what a basic dough should feel like as you knead it.

The process should free you. No longer are you tied to recipes and no longer should you ever worry about failing in the kitchen. A mistake is only a variation.

After that, salt and pepper to taste.

This is my valentine to Los Angeles, a dusty, crowded, noisy, sprawling, chaotic city.

We’ve had an on-again, off-again relationship, but though I once had my doubts, I’m now head over heels.

There are other cities with energy, others with a more urban ambience. But there is no other city in the world quite like LA. It is unique.

Drive down Wilshire Boulevard, up Sunset. See the Deco theaters with boarded-up windows, the endless garish billboards selling conspicuous-consumption manic grins.

Down La Cienega and up Sepulveda. There’s a Vons, there’s a Ralph’s. Tiny shops selling used leisure suits, giant shopping malls touched down on their real estate like alien mother ships.

Look at its thousand tract-house bungalows, each tarted up in pink and yellow, with a surreal topiary garden along its foundation.

Stop at its aging Moderne luncheonette for a scrambled-egg breakfast served by a wrinkled waitress in a starched white uniform.

She speaks in a voice like beans in a coffee grinder.

All around there are signs that you cannot read, in languages you don’t recognize. Those in English often are so crowded with type, you cannot get the gist of them in the few seconds you have as your car zips past the intersection.

There are open markets selling leather handbags and cheap jewelry. A dog is tied to a fireplug. Posh shops in Beverly Hills. The sleazy agora of the Sunset Strip.

Get on a freeway and be prepared to stop. Take a surface street and make your appeal to the gods for a place to park.

And when you do, try the Persian lunch, with its dried limes, lamb and pile of basmati rice with a fragrant streak of yellow down the middle.

The car in front of you pours blue smoke from its pipes like sewage from a culvert, and when the light changes, he sounds like a B-29 and you can’t hear the traffic report on the car radio.

The choking smell of partly burned petroleum comes in through your vents. It feels slightly oily in your trachea.

On one side, an in-line skater wearing a bikini over her long johns glides past, and a BMW on your left looks like it is being driven by a hung-over wino.

Up the Baldwin Hills and down Chavez Ravine. The city’s river runs in a concrete gutter ornamented with broken shopping carts lying on their sides.

I love it all.

Los Angeles has more than its share of bad taste mixed in with some surprising good taste. But, most of all, it has taste. Most places in America are way too bland; LA doesn’t suffer from that.

It is a stylish city. Look around where you live – do you see much style? I didn’t think so. There is a sameness to our city blocks, a developer’s efficiency that makes our houses useful but not very individual.

Look at our downtowns and see skylines of insipid boxes, the visual equivalent of the lowest bid.

Then see LA. Everything screams style. From the Arts and Crafts Movement homes in turn-of-the-century neighborhoods to the new postmodern megagargantuan offices downtown, everything speaks of its self-awareness. In a city of toys, style is not an option; it comes standard equipment.

Like the extra chiles that heat up your papusa in the Salvadoran restaurant that charges you $6.95 for the best dinner you’ve had in months.

You ain’t eatin’ if you ain’t sweatin’.

What you get in Los Angeles is a great big buzzing alarm clock to jolt you awake. It is the vial of smelling salts under your nose. In LA, you feel more conscious, more aware. It provides you with endless stimulation.

You can complain that not all the stimulation is entirely pleasant, and that is certainly granted. But you cannot say that taken as a whole, assault on senses and sensuous pleasure, the city is not more alive, more electric, more ”more.”

FORM, FUNCTION & FEELING

ARCHITECTURE MORE THAN BLUEPRINTS, IT’S HEARTPRINTS, TOO

 

 Not everyone loves paintings, not everyone goes to the symphony, not everyone reads poetry. But almost every person in the world has a relationship with architecture: It is the art we live in and work in.

 

Whether it’s a tract house or a $1 million A-frame, the place we sleep in becomes something more than wood and windows: It’s home.

 

Of course, some architecture is better than others. And the difference isn’t just cost or engineering.

 

“Architecture is the difference between art and mere building,” says architect Eddie Jones of Jones StudioInc. “Architecture is spiritual; building is just construction.”

 

Jones is bringing his entire studio to the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art this month in an unusual exhibit that puts the daily work of his firm on view for the public. Everything will be there, from staff meetings to staffers drawing plans to meetings with clients.

 

“We were asked to do a traditional show, but I wasn’t really interested in doing that, with photos and plans and text on the walls,” he says. “But then we thought, ‘Why don’t we just put ourselves on display, let people see what architects really do.’ ”

 

Jones is one of the best-known firms in the Valley, designing a range of buildings from private homes to the new Lattie Coor Hall at Arizona State University, a 274,000-square-foot classroom building in which every room has natural light.

 

“You can buy a beige stucco house,” Jones says. “Get a variation of one of the five cracker boxes on sale that week. But there’s something else out there.”

 

Among the clients who have come to him for a home is Lou Ann O’Rourke, who has a Jones house in Scottsdale.

 

“The house is a very high-tech contemporary home, but very soft and livable inside,” she says. “It’s just the entire environment that is happy, and it’s exactly what my husband and I envisioned. I consider my house a happy home, because it makes you smile.”

 

And emotion is what architecture, like any great art, is all about.

 

“If it’s architecture, it’s emotional,” says Michael Schroeder, of Langdon Wilson Architects, who designed the Phoenix City Hall and was consulting architect on Richard Meier’s federal courthouse in downtown.

 

“If it’s just functional, then it’s a numbing intellectual exercise. Architecture impacts your moods. You feel emboldened, or humbled, or joy and delight, or claustrophobic. It can induce, in good and bad examples, a whole range of emotions.”

 

But how does architecture do this? What is the essence of the discipline?

 

We all recognize that some buildings make us feel comfortable and others make us twitchy. There’s the coziness of a well-designed home and the anomie and angst that is a bad shopping mall.

 

The trick is that architecture isn’t just a visual medium. It isn’t just sculpture that you walk through.

 

3 elements

 

There are three essential elements of a well-designed building.

 

The first is called sculpture: the building as a three-dimensional form. You walk around it, front to back, and its lines are interesting. This is the part of architecture you learn about in art history, and the part that bears the weight of nomenclature: a Gothic cathedral or a Tuscan home. How does it look from the street?

 

The second part is engineering: An architect had better know his stuff or his building could fall down. It’s also well designed when its function fits comfortably into its design. A school has to have workable classrooms; a garage had better have a place for a car.

 

Architects can use engineering to create something new, with an innovative lighting scheme or experimental heating system. The engineering is not just the boring parts.

 

But there is a third aspect to architecture that’s not often understood: It is the heart of the endeavor, the part that isn’t shared with sculptors or engineers. And that is the empty space inside.

 

“Architecture is creating space,” says Marlene Imirzian, a Phoenix architect. “Creating a space that enhances the experience of the people who are in it.”

 

Because it’s not like other, more familiar art, it’s the most difficult part of architecture to discuss.

 

But an architect molds empty space the way a sculptor molds clay, moving from small spaces to large spaces, opening up space to the outside with windows or closing it in with walls, raising a ceiling up or lowering a floor. You move through a well-designed building like an explorer finding ever-new ideas about space.

 

Many of us know the magic of the embracing hollow from childhood, when we built a fort in the woods or threw a blanket over a table to create the tiny space within. When we were children, we had a natural sympathy for architecture.

 

Comforting shelter

 

“For me, it was underneath my neighbor’s porch,” says Vern Swaback, dean of Arizona’s architectural thinkers. “I’ll never forget that: comforted, sheltered, mysterious, explorative.”

 

Even a cardboard appliance box can be seen as architecture.

 

Too many of us lose our sensitivity as we become adults and feel any space is good enough. It is not.

 

“Think of all those people who move here to Arizona because they love the desert, but buy a custom home and move in and close the door and lock out that spirit,” Swaback says. “And inside could be anyplace.”

 

But if they could live in a home that gave them the same feeling as underneath the neighbor’s porch, or that tree house — that’s what good architecture gives them.

 

Although we are talking primarily about the architecture of Western civilization, other cultures have their own, but those also partake of these three qualities: what it looks like, how it functions and how the interior makes you feel. That much is universal.

 

“Great architecture doesn’t need to have an intellectual agenda,” says architect Will Bruder, who designed the Burton Barr Central Library in Phoenix, “but it gets to your senses and embraces you. It gives you a way to look at the world from a different perspective.

 

“You don’t need a degree to understand great architecture, but it raises the hair on the back of your neck.”

 

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Glossary of architectural terms

 

* AIA: American Institute of Architects; the largest advocacy and support group for professional architects.

 

* Adaptive reuse: To teach an old building new tricks, such as turning an obsolete factory into condominiums or a warehouse into an art gallery.

 

* Art Deco: A type of modernism from the 1920s that emphasized geometrical shapes and ornamentation. Also called “Moderne.” Best-known examples are the Chrysler Building in New York, and the Luhrs Tower and the old City-County Building in Phoenix.

 

* Beaux Arts: An umbrella term for a movement in design that used motifs and ideas from the past to create seriousness in buildings. Popular from the 1880s to about 1920. The Walker Building in Phoenix is an example. It is also the parent of the many “revival” styles so popular in tract housing.

 

* Box: What needed to be smashed: the old habit of making rooms into discrete boxlike cubicles. So yesterday.

 

* Client: The reason a building is built: the person or organization that foots the bill.

 

* Design-build: A system of designing and constructing that integrates all the separate parts of the process so they can happen concurrently and not just serially, as in the traditional scheme, where the architect designs, the project goes out to bid and then the contractor is hired to build. In theory, it means that the architect is also the contractor; although in practice it can also mean that the contractor is the architect.

 

* Elevation: A schematic architectural drawing of what the outside of a building looks like straight-on; also, the outside of a building, i.e., facade.

 

* Entrance: Not only the door, but what looks like the door: How is it perceived by a person approaching it? Sometimes hidden, sometimes glorified, depending on the ideology of the architect.

 

* Gated neighborhood: A voluntary prison.

 

* Historic preservation: In Phoenix, saving what was good from the past, while allowing developers to do what they want.

 

* Interior design: A point of contention in the field, over whether architects should design the insides of a building as well as the outsides, or whether the insides should be left to a specialist.

 

* International Style: A subspecies of Modernism, popularized by Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson, most easily recognized as the glass-and-steel tower. See Bank One Center or the former Mountain Bell Building in Phoenix.

 

* Machinery: Gymnastics has its compulsories; architecture has its machinery: the boring stuff you have to get right — plumbing, air-conditioning, elevators.

 

* Mission Revival Style: A modern style borrowing details from historic mission architecture of the Southwest, often with arches and stucco. See the Heard Museum or St. Mary’s Basilica in Phoenix.

 

* Moderne: A branch of Art Deco, sleek and with a love of machinelike imagery and surfaces.

 

* Modernism: In architecture, the movement to try new ideas and designs, rather than quote old ones, but generally with the emphasis on engineering and classicism, with a disdain for ornament. “Less is more” was the watchword, “purity” the dogma. See the Sandra Day O’Connor Federal Courthouse in Phoenix.

 

* Passive solar: A means of using the sun for climate control, without the use of fancy technology; i.e., shade.

 

* Postmodern: Since the 1970s, the attempt to reinstall ornament and “fun” in building design, often purposely quoting or comically misquoting styles from the past and often using many styles at once. See the new Municipal Courthouse in Phoenix.

 

* Processional: Fancy word for the footpath you take approaching a building and through a building. It can be seen as a scenario and controlled by a clever architect.

 

* Program: the list of specifications and requirements that a client has for the design of a building.

 

* Scale: The size of a building relative to other buildings, relative to the size of a human and relative to its importance.

 

* Sense of place: The expectation that the landscape or a building’s surroundings will make itself felt in the architecture.

 

* Site: Architect’s word for vacant lot.

 

* Spanish Colonial Revival Style: Sometimes called “Taco-Bell” architecture, this stucco-and-tile-roof style borrows decor from colonial Spanish architecture of the Southwest.

 

* Sustainable: Green, not greenback.

 

* Victorian: The popular style of the latter part of Queen Victoria’s reign, even outside England, characterized by superfluity of ornament; often called “gingerbread.”

 

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Styles abound downtown

 

In the small space of downtown Phoenix, you can take a short tour of architecture and style.

 

* Victorian — Rosson House, 139 N. Sixth St., built 1895, A.P. Petitt, architect.

 

* Beaux Arts Classical Revival — the Walker Building, 302 W. Washington St., 1920, J.W. Walker, builder.

 

* Neoclassical Revival — Arizona Capitol, 1700 W. Washington St., 1900, James Reiley Gordon, with many additions.

 

* Mission Revival — St. Mary’s Basilica, 360 E. Monroe St., 1903-14, R.A. Gray and George Gallagher.

 

* Spanish Colonial Revival — Orpheum Theatre, 203 W. Adams St., 1929, Lescher and Mahoney.

 

* Art Deco — Luhrs Tower, 45 W. Jefferson St., 1929, Trost and Trost.

 

* International Style — Chase Bank Building (formerly the Valley National Bank Building), Central Avenue and Van Buren Street, 1972, Welton Becket.

 

* High Modernism — Sandra Day O’Connor Federal Courthouse, 401 W. Washington St., 2000, Richard Meier.

 

* Postmodern — Phoenix Municipal Courthouse, 300 W. Washington St., 1999, Daniel, Manning, Johnson and Mendenhall in association with Helmuth, Obata and Kassabaum and the Omni Group.

 

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5 notable buildings in the Valley

 

There are many interesting buildings in the area, but these five have elicited the most comment, for and against. People either love ’em or hate ’em.

 

* Arizona Biltmore — It’s either the best non-Frank Lloyd Wright building in town or its original integrity was compromised by its makeover by the Taliesin Associated Architects.

 

* Burton Barr Central Library — Most people love its clever and innovative design; some think it’s the biggest metal shed they’ve ever seen.

 

* Nelson Fine Arts Center — It has one of the most interesting interiors in the state, but some say its exterior looks like a penitentiary.

 

* Sandra Day O’Connor Federal Courthouse — OK, it would be a great building elsewhere, but who thought it was a good idea to build a greenhouse in the desert?

 

* Taliesin West — It was the Valley’s first tent city, but it’s showing its age, and for some, there is too much odor of a cult.

It’s hard not to make fun of opera.

 

The 300-pound soprano stands onstage and sings of her love for the 110-pound tenor while proving that nothing can hold a louder sustained note this side of an air-raid siren.

 

In this art form, when someone is fatally stabbed it can take him 20 minutes to fall over, because he has his big aria to sing. The audience applauds; he expires.

 

Bugs Bunny, after all, doesn’t spend much time lampooning novelists or painters. No, he saves his best digs for the opera.

 

We kid. But we kid because we love.

 

In fact, opera is probably the most loved art form this side of poetry. All over the world, audiences laugh and weep at those figures who stand onstage, trying to out-sing a 100-piece orchestra.

 

Those who love opera love it to distraction. They would rather give up food. It speaks to them like nothing else. That’s because opera goes straight to the heart, even as it gives the brain conniptions.

 

“The music is incredibly moving, human and passionate,” says Scottsdale opera fan Laura Hemenway, who has been an Arizona Opera season-ticket buyer for 15 years.

 

She is one of many: Radio broadcasts of Metropolitan Opera performances reach 11 million people, roughly twice the audience of an NFL game on ESPN.

 

“I think the stigma is being lifted,” Hemenway says. “It used to be that opera was perceived as very highbrow, but opera organizations across the country have worked hard to educate the public and encourage attendance from across the spectrum.”

 

Gaining an audience

 

“To many non-operagoers, opera is overweight ladies with horns singing in a language they don’t understand,” says Joel Revzen, artistic director of Arizona Opera. “We spend a lot of time trying to dispel these myths.”

 

Evidently, it has been working: From 1982 to 2002, the National Endowment for the Arts reports, the U.S. opera audience grew by more than 44 percent. In 2002 (the latest year with numbers), 6.6 million adults attended the opera.

 

The audience is increasingly diverse. In 2002, 6.1 percent of the opera audience was Hispanic, 3.8 percent was African-American and 3.6 percent was Asian-American and Native American. The crowd may still be largely White, but nearly 15 percent is not, and it’s a growing number.

 

A quarter of the audience is younger than 35.

 

“I see young people in goth dress and body piercings at the opera,” Revzen says.

 

Who’d have thunk it?

 

The attraction is opera’s emotional power: These are primal stories told with great music.

 

“I had people write to me weeks after (our production of) The Consul last season,” he says. “They were still shaken.”

 

All about the feelings

 

We make a mistake when we think that opera is just drama with singing.

 

Unlike most theater, opera isn’t really about the story or about characters caught in a plot. One reason so many people feel estranged from opera is that they expect a naturalistic story and they get what seems to them a truckload of silliness. Lots of overwrought screaming about murder, incest, adultery and death.

 

But opera isn’t about the characters or the story, at least not in the way that the Odd Couple is about Oscar and Felix, or Streetcar Named Desire is about Blanche and Stanley.

 

No, opera is about raw emotion personified onstage, and the music characterizes those emotions much more successfully than the singers who act out the parts.

 

This is opera’s great power.

 

There is that great scene from Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories, where his character’s ego has escaped and terrorizes the countryside. Like some sort of shaggy Bigfoot, it wanders through the woods killing and maiming, a monster on the loose.

 

Now imagine that instead of his ego, it is the character’s passion, or his hate or his jealousy or ambition, that has escaped. Put that passion onstage in a costume and let it sing its heart out: That’s opera.

 

Familiar chord

 

The music is a direct conduit to the heart. Mere words only get in the way.

 

“Music can convey emotions beyond words,” Revzen says. “Libretti can sometimes be banal, but the music underneath is very deep and powerful.”

 

Opera, like all the high arts, recognizes that inside each of us, these large things exist, and not only do they exist, but they are the most real parts of us.

 

Yes, we drive to work each day. Yes, we give the spouse a peck on the cheek when we leave. Yes, we look forward to the ballgame over the weekend.

 

But even the dullest accountant or shoe salesman has in his or her past or future the great love, the deaths of dear ones, the lost love, the fear for children’s ruin, the sense of growing older and facing the imminence of death, the sense of sharing the good marriage, or of the isolation of a bad one: These emotional states are so much larger than our 9-to-5 jobs, so much more real. They are our true selves, though we orphan them through habit.

 

Opera reacquaints us with that true self. It reminds us that as humans, we are more than our next promotion, more than our membership in the Kiwanis Club. That is opera’s job, that is its glory.

 

That is your experience of erotic passion up there singing to Don Jose in Carmen. That is your heroic inner self killing the dragon in Siegfried.

 

“With opera, you are given permission to recognize yourself,” Revzen says.

 

Listening to opera, you fall into a trancelike state and all the boring parts of life drop away, and you experience only the marrow of it all: The things that, when you come to your deathbed, you regret not having had more time for. No one, as they say, ever regretted they didn’t spend more time in the office.

 

“Why is Boheme so powerful? Because some part of us feels it so deeply,” Revzen says. “We are connected to the love between Rodolfo and Mimi and have compassion for her suffering. We feel sorrow.

 

“It’s real life.”

 

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Someone’s been spreading terrible lies about the arts: that they are difficult, elitist or meant for only a special few.

 

The arts are meant for everyone.

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Opera on DVD:  5 great videos

 

* La Traviata: Verdi’s great opera directed by Franco Zeffirelli with Teresa Stratas and Placido Domingo. (Universal, $24.95)

 

* Magic Flute: Mozart’s Singspiel magically directed, in Swedish, by Ingmar Bergman. (Criterion, $29.95)

 

* The Marriage of Figaro: A sizzling update of Mozart’s greatest opera, directed by wunderkind Peter Sellars (Universal, $39.95)

 

* Carmen: The sexiest Carmen on film, Julia Migenes seduces Placido Domingo. (Columbia/Tri-Star, $27.95)

 

* The Barber of Seville: Hermann Prey is a perfect Figaro in this La Scala production directed by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle. (Universal, $29.95)

 

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A glossary of opera terms

 

* Aria: An opera singer’s solo — a song on steroids.

 

* Baritone: The second lowest male voice, usually a villain.

 

* Basso: The lowest male voice, when not a villain is usually a king. Sometimes both.

 

* Bel Canto: Italian for “showing off.” A type of Italian opera with especially florid vocal writing.

 

* Buffa: Comic.

 

* Castrato: A male soprano, made so by the once popular practice of castrating teenage boys before their voices cracked.

 

* Chest voice: The deepest and strongest register of a voice.

 

* Coloratura: A singer specializing in vocal acrobatics.

 

* Comprimario: Sidekick.

 

* Contralto: The lowest female voice, often used for earthier, sexier parts, rather than the “good-girl” parts the soprano gets stuck with.

 

* Counter-tenor: When not enough boys volunteered to be castratos, they settled for tenors who sang falsetto.

 

* Diva: A celebrated female singer, a k a pain in the neck.

 

* Gesamtkunstwerk: Richard Wagner’s word for the “complete art work”; an opera in which the words, music, staging and choreography are all created by the same monomaniac.

 

* Habanera: A type of Cuban dance in a swinging rhythm made famous by Carmen.

 

* Head voice: The highest, emptiest register of the human voice. The singer’s ability to switch from chest to head tones without anyone noticing is especially prized by opera connoisseurs. Whole reviews are based on whether this occurs in a performance or not.

 

* Leitmotiv: A tune that keeps coming back, like cucumbers.

 

* Libretto: The words.

 

* Mezzo-soprano: The midrange of the female voice. Mezzos often play either the heavy or the “trouser role,” i.e., a cross-gender part in which they pretend to be young males. Kin-ky. Hence the saying that mezzos play “witches, bitches and boys.” Carmen is a mezzo. She is not a boy.

 

* Number opera: An opera with discrete arias and ensembles, each of which is numbered in the score.

 

* Overture: The music the orchestra plays while the audience reads its programs.

 

* Prima donna: The star.

 

* Recitative: Pronounced “retch-ta-teev” and for a reason. The parts that would be spoken in a musical, but are sung in a quasi-singsong fashion in opera.

 

* Singspiel: A kind of German opera in which audiences don’t have to endure recitative.

 

* Soprano: The highest female voice, reserved for heroines, because the high voice is best for expressing distress.

 

* Tenor: The high male voice, usually the hero and usually half the size of the heroine.

 

* Verismo: An Italian style of opera that tells stories about regular (i.e. poor) people and their jealousies and betrayals. Usually ends in a murder.

Shakespeare is the 900-pound gorilla of culture. He’s the Big Boy to whom others are compared, and never the other way around.

He is the premier poet of the English language, acknowledged by even those who don’t read poetry or go to plays.

Author of Hamlet, Othello, Romeo and Juliet, Henry V and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, he is the oldest English writer whose works are still regularly staged in the theater. The best plays — and yes, he wrote a few clunkers — are wise, witty, deep and profoundly moving. No one tells us more about being human.

Shakespeare is also the source for the largest single section of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations.

You can hardly get through a day without encountering some echo of the Bard’s pen: If something is a “foregone conclusion,” or has come “full circle,” or is a “sorry sight,” you can thank Shakespeare. Or thousands of other phrase-habits, such as when something is “in the wind,” or if you speak the “naked truth,” or have a “heart of gold.”

It all flows from the great fountain of the English tongue.

Can you imagine modern life without these words coined by him: addiction, admirable, anchovy, aerial, arouse, auspicious — and we haven’t even left the “A” section.

In fact, Shakespeare is so pervasive, he’s more often misquoted than anyone else is quoted at all.

And he didn’t get that way by accident: He really is the best.

“Shakespeare to me is like the Bible,” says Mike Elliott, 58, of Mesa, who goes regularly to Shakespeare performances with his wife, Debby. “He is always relevant, always speaks to us, reaches out to us and still connects with all the issues that face human beings no matter where or when they live.”

He enjoys reading the plays and poetry, but, he says, “they really come alive when we see them.”

And the plays provide an antidote to what Elliott calls the “entertainment bottom-feeding” that clogs our TVs and movie screens.

“It’s really simple,” says Jared Sakren, artistic director of Southwest Shakespeare, whose production of Hamlet opens this week at the Mesa Arts Center. “His writing touches on the universal, so that his characters, what they say and what they feel, is understandable to any audience.

“He touches on experience we, as human beings, all understand, except he says it just a little better than we can say it.

“Perhaps more than just a little better.”

The problem is that sometimes the great Shakespeare plays scare off potential theatergoers. Perhaps it’s that Shakespeare is too revered and not enough enjoyed — too much like going to cultural church.

And that’s a shame, because that isn’t what Shakespeare is about: If any great author ever aimed at the broadest possible audience, it was the Bard. He was no snob: His fart jokes prove that.

Then there’s the problem of Shakespeare’s language, so dense, and to our ears, so often archaic, with those “sirruhs” and “prithees.” His language is not ours.

But language is the heart of Shakespeare, and to get to know his language is to understand his theater — because Elizabethan theater was different from theater today.

We live in a visual culture, and we expect certain things from our plays, such as costumes and stage sets. We expect our actors to show us what is happening rather than telling us about what is happening.

It was different in 1600: Elizabethan culture was a verbal culture. There’s a reason there are so few great — or even good — English paintings from the time: Their genius was not visual. They ate, drank, dressed and lived words.

“A rhapsody of words,” as Shakespeare has it in Hamlet.

Even the least educated audience member — one of the “groundlings” standing in the bottom of the theater in the cheap-ticket area — would have come expecting to hear great rhetoric and great poetry.

And Shakespeare delivered.

To us, used to text messaging and the grunts of teenage children telling us where they’re going when they leave the house, Shakespearean language seems flowery and elaborate. But that’s the very glory of the work.

“Zounds! I was never so bethumped with words since I first called my brother’s father dad,” as he wrote in King John.

And being “bethumped with words” is what going to Shakespeare is all about.

* “If music be the food of love, play on.”

* “Put up your swords, for the dew will rust them.”

* “O! For a muse of fire, that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention!”

Shakespeare’s audiences attended the theater with their ears, just as we go with our eyes. It takes a little readjustment to absorb all the Bard has to give us.

“His audiences expected poetry — even more, they expected rhetoric,” Sakren says.

“Elevated language and the uses of language they understood better than we understand now. So poetry does become a game played with language.

“They understood the rhetorical forms, they were taught them even in elementary school.”

So in As You Like It, when Rosalind says, “No sooner met, but they looked; no sooner looked but they loved; no sooner loved but they sighed; no sooner sighed but they asked one another the reason; no sooner knew the reason but they sought the remedy.” It’s a sentence that uses classical rhetoric rather than naturalistic speech. These are the patterns of language that keep us attentive to the climax: We are hooked on the sentence just as we might be hooked by a plot — to find what comes next.

There are other things that make Elizabethan theater different: The plays weren’t divided into acts and scenes, as plays are now, but played through more like movies do.

And because Elizabethan theater didn’t use scenery — which would have been needed to change between scenes — the plays could, and often did jump from place to place with the alacrity of film. If a scene was needed with just three lines, so be it; it was done, then on to the next. Just like movies.

This makes for a fleetness of storytelling that more equipped theater cannot match. Shakespeare moves at the speed of his own imagination, unhindered by props and curtains.

But the lack of scenery also helps explain the words: If he can’t up-curtain on a drawing room or battlefield, Shakespeare will instead describe his setting in words, painting verbal pictures of what his audience needed to imagine.

“Think, when we talk of horses, that you see them printing their proud hoofs i’ the receiving earth; For ’tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings, Carry them here or there; jumping o’er times, Turning the accomplishment of many years Into an hour-glass,” as the narrator exhorts in the prologue to Henry V.

But the point of all these words is the illumination of human life and character.

The great literary critic Harold Bloom goes so far as to say Shakespeare invented modern human beings.

What Bloom means is that Shakespeare provided a model for reflexive thought. Before him, people acted and reacted. After him, they had a vocabulary for discussing their inner lives.

“This is the first time onstage that you get the full interior of the human psyche and psychology,” Sakren says. “He takes us on a journey inside the human mind and elevates what we know of humanity instead of reducing humanity to simple actions or plot points.”

So, in Hamlet, we don’t just see the revenge acted out, we hear the revenger’s thoughts and second thoughts, his weighings and balancings, his fears and rationalizations.

“We get a view of the inner workings of the human soul,” Sakren says.

Shakespeare’s characters are so multidimensional that we can never fully understand them — any more than we can fully understand any real person. There is always something deeper and more complex, even contradictory.

Emerson said of Shakespeare, “His mind is the horizon beyond which at present we do not see.”

In other words, we can’t explain Shakespeare, but he can explain us.

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Jared Sakren’s  Top 5 Shakespeare plays

* Hamlet.

* The Tempest.

* Othello.

* As You Like It.

* The Merchant of Venice.