Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Azby Brown: Just Enough - from Edo to Us

In 2005 The International Examiner published my review of "The Very Small Home". At a time that empty-nesters call moving from mega-mansions into 2500 sq. feet homes downsizing, to see the ingenious use of space in homes of around 1000 sq.feet remains refreshing.  Now the author of that inspiring book, architect Azby Brown treats us to another gem. In "Just Enough: Lessons in Living Green from Traditional Japan"(Kodansha International) Brown points to the past to show how we can live happy, fulfilled and responsible lives today.

In my mind Azby Brown is the Rick Steves of historic time travel. Where Steves takes you to his "Europe through the back door", Brown invites us to visit Edo period Japan with him. He addresses his readers —that's us— as part of his entourage. If we're willing to go the distance, we may accompany him on a foot-trip through the 18th Century Kai province of central Japan. On our way to the village of Aoyagi (a composite of different villages in the area) we learn among other things about vegetation, foraging, the sharing of water and homesteads.

Concerned about the environment, deforestation and lack of fuel sources Brown studied what happened in Japan over two centuries ago when the archipelago suffered from similar environmental problems as our world does these days.

"Just Enough" is divided in three sections. "Part I – Field and Forest" introduces the reader to the sustainable world of 18th Century farmers in the Kai province. "Part II – The Sustainable City" addresses ways in which city dwellers in those days did their share to keep their society from going down the drain. In "Part III – A Life of Restraint" the highest accomplishment of the Samurai of Edo comes to light.

At the end of each of the three parts a section is dedicated to what may be gleaned from life in the Edo period and how we can apply those lessons in our own lives, in today's society. Brown asks us to rethink the meaning of comfort, to look for beauty in function, use water more fully and suggests to "put human waste to good use". If you're bewildered by the latter, the author mentions that the "yuck factor" was introduced by the Victorians, and that composting toilets have been in use since the 1970s and are constantly improved.
His drawings of Edo cities are idyllic, clean and green. Seeing a pen drawing of a neighborhood's "drain patrolman" really drives home the notion that waste control was very important.

Having literally illustrated his narrative with countless pen and ink drawings Brown follows the example of the 18th Century Shogun's government. "Higher-up" provided Edo period farmers with detailed manuals —visual aids that held information on anything from plant varieties, to tool design and fabrication, to climate and health. Back then it was all there was, today there's something magical about hand-drafted imagery, it draws the reader in, line by line, more effectively than a thousand words or a photograph could.

The author, a native of New Orleans, LA, is director of the KIT Future Design Institute in Tokyo. He holds degrees in architecture and sculpture from Yale and entered the Department of Architecture of the University of Tokyo in 1985 under a grant from the Japanese Ministry of Education. He became an associate professor of architectural design at the Kanazawa Institute of Technology in 1995, and currently holds a position there in the department of Media Informatics.

In lieu of presentations on 6/30 and 7/1, Azby Brown will be speaking at Elliott Bay Book Company, 1521 Tenth on July 2 at 6 p.m. Admission is free.

Previously published in the International Examiner 6/16/2010
this work by Judith van Praag is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

She Writes and Shares @ SheWrites

Mother of the author in original SheWrites Birthday Design Tee-shirt ©2010 SheWritesdotcom celebrating the writers' platform and meeting place one-year anniversary

"Why don't you write a book about us, you and me," my mother would say now and then.
I'm not so sure you'd really want me to do that, I'd think, share what I write about us with the world? But that was a long time ago, when writing about my parents still had a therapeutic function and I was by no means ready to share those notes with anyone, let alone my mother. My mother myself, my mother and I, so many years spent trying to understand what could not be understood.

Children try to understand where their parents are coming from, literally and figuratively. If parents keep a secret from their children out of shame or for fear their offspring might repeat their mistakes, those same well-protected children most often step in their parents' footsteps anyway.

"I used to do exactly the same things you do," my mother would say, and I'd think, yeah, right, sure mama. It wasn't until I started to sort-out all the material I inherited after her death, piecing together letters, photographs, postcards; scanning Identity papers and the like, that I realized how true her words had been.

My mother the nurse, my mother the designer, my mother the advertising woman. And yes, my mother the wordsmith, my mother the traveler (on the right in this photo), my mother the midwife. Little did I know how adventurous she'd really been, the rebellious daughter of a strict upbringing.

My mother, "Mina Bakgraag", my father's muse, my teacher, the woman who challenged a man 20 years her senior to become a professional artist —because she wouldn't give him a child if he didn't. My mother, the wife of the artist who always said he couldn't paint her for the life of him. But what about this painting?

I recognize the woman with the short bangs as the one in  a photograph taken in 1955, showing Nita with her and Jaap's dogs, she pregnant with me, the dogs on guard, Jaap no doubt behind the camera. I'm panning left and right, zooming out, imagining what happened back then, how my parents lived before I was born, zooming in again to our lives together, our "folie". Yes, I've been and am writing about us, about her and him and me.

Do you ever wonder whether your memoir should be called a novel?


This work by Judith van Praag is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License

Friday, June 11, 2010

Head Back for this Dutch Treat - Craving a ... what?


The tags in the tweet by @TabletMag for Katie Robbins's article in Tablet magazine would have been a dead give away, but it was the announcement of a Dutch Treat in Tablet's newsletter that caught my eye before I'd even logged in to my Twitter account. What could it be? Something about our proverbial thriftiness perhaps?

The moment Tablet's website had loaded and I saw the photograph with the article I knew, and so did the little guys who work at my physical memory bank. My mouth started watering. Even although pickled herring isn't my favorite, the sight of soggy pickles coupled with the white flesh and blue skin of the marinated fish did the trick. Can't help it, I'm conditioned that way. No matter that I have a sensitive stomach, been suffering from hiatus hernia since childhood and GERD will hit me with a vengeance (I'll spare you the details, if you're interested, just click on the links) if there's anything that proves my Dutch heritage it's the click, click, clicking in my memory bank when I see a ***haring***.

"Oh, wat snak ik naar een Hollandse Nieuwe."

Oh, how I crave a New Dutch Herring I thought in Dutch, yes, that's what happens, just the way I'll think of "poffertjes", "oliebollen" and "Nieuwjaarsrolletjes" in Dutch, I "Snak naar een Hollandse Nieuwe." And don't think (with all due respect to the hosts) that the haring we eat on Koninginnedag in Seattle comes even close to true Hollandse Nieuwe!

The Volkskrant reports that the first barrel worth €58,000 has arrived, but if I go by Tablet Magazine's article New Yorker's have got their own! OMG if it was just a matter of getting on the subway, I'd rush to The Grand Central Oyster Bar for the Holland Herring Festival.

Anybody going to/ coming from N.Y. one of these days?

Do you have a similar response to a food or drink of your native country? Any food memories that turn you into a lyrical fool?

This work by Judith van Praag is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License

Thursday, June 03, 2010

My Cubist Gertrude Stein Portrait

I dug up the 1998 print of the collage "Two Muses, Two Muses" after reading Renate Stendhal's blog post at SheWrites Why do something when it can be done
After hearing the announcement on NPR (in 1998) that Rebecca Brown was organizing a 24-hour Gertrude Stein-a-thon at the Richard Hugo House in Seattle I proposed to add an exhibit of designs I created for video presentation of Three Plays. Inspired by the preparatory goings on at Hugo House, I borrowed a pile of books on Stein from the library. Matisse has always been a favorite of mine. When I came across Gertrude Stein's literary portrait of Matisse, I decided to make a portrait of Stein in Matisse's later applique-like style, using a photocopy of a photo I found in one of the books.

Thus the title "Two Muses, Two Muses", borrowing something from both the writer and the painter, each of whom has been my muse.

After making the collage, I couldn't stop. I tacked the burlap I had lying around on a 4'x8' board and made a larger than life painting of the writer while listening to her reading her portrait of Matisse. Listen to Stein recite and you may understand my obsession.

My dear friend, former dancer Lori Mitchell poses with Gert for the sake of scale.

If you're an artist, which writer/ poet triggers your artwork, if you're a writer/poet, which artist has triggered your writing?

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This work by Judith van Praag is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License