This morning I awoke with a start. Fumbling for the light, I was relieved to find that it was just 4 AM, eastern time. I had been in the middle of one of those frustrating and impossible dreams that, even while asleep, I had been working feverishly to find the OFF button. I know you know that particular dream feeling.

The dream started when I awoke to find that I had overslept and it was actually 6AM, and I knew my flight was leaving within minutes – in no way was I going to make it. This meant I wouldn’t get to Portland in time to shop pumpkins with the Maxine and Jake River. It proceeded into some sort of weird traverse across an unknown city, using buses that were unfamiliar and seeming to take far too long to get me to the airport where I might yet catch another flight home. At one point I was so disheartened I was crying or sobbing or some such mixture in an uncontrollable way, thinking I was going to miss even putting Jake to bed.

Er… perhaps 12 days is a bit long to be gone. My webcam and Skype help, with evening goodnight calls full of the day’s news , and spiced by Dexter the dog and Annie Brown the cat, all trying to fit into the frame, but my heart has grown fonder once again in this absence, and there is something to be said for that very gift, of course. I made the plane.

A crazy 12 days touring North Carolina with Dave Walters, a man of great energy with a fun project in Balsam Mountain Preserve, near Asheville: then up to Farmington with the usual full days, biking nights and the inaugural concert of the Casparini Organ at the Eastman School of Music; an unreal event of massive proportion in the world of Late Period Baroque Music and Organ Restoration(!), and a short talk on our role there to the conference attendees. Good stuff.

I’ve noticed something about flying. I really like the jetway approach to the plane. This is partly due to its implication that WE’LL SOON BE AIRBORN AND PERHAPS SOON AFTER ACTUALLY GETTING THERE. But I also like it because it is the only place in a day of airports and planes that you can snag some sorta fresh air. Right there before you step into the fuselage is always some leaks to the outside. And it’s cooler, or warmer, or just different than the faux air of O’Hare or the recycled air inside the Boeing 757. I even acknowledge that it’s a bit tainted with jet fuel exhaust at times. I’ll still take it.

Here’s a list of my flying and airport tips, informally:

  • Never believe the monitor; go to the gate anyway.
  • Always keep your phone and laptop charged, even if you think it’s just a short flight.
  • Don’t check bags if possible, or you can’t go stand by, you have to wait at baggage claim, and anyway, you probably have brought too much. Here’s the subtle adder: use soft-side carry-ons, as the typical wheeled affair doesn’t fit overhead in the regional jets, and you’ll be gate checking it, and waiting on the tarmac.
  • Have the airlines’ 800#s with you, so that while you’re in line at the service counter waiting to talk to someone about how you’re going to get to There since your plane just blew a gasket, you can call direct and get that last seat on the next available flight.
  • Have all your frequent flyer #’s as well. When you get shuffled over or have forgotten to register your flight, it’s best to do it right then.

And for the rental car and hotel, here’s a few:

  • Take the train downtown, and rent there. This might save your first night’s rent and parking, plus the airport recovery fee, it’s also eco, more fun, in big cities, less traffic.
  • Don’t park in the hotel if there’s street parking
  • NEVER buy the rental agency’s tank of gas. It can’t work financially.
  • Don’t buy their insurance either, but this one should be double checked for your own situation.: I use an AMEX platinum card, which says it covers, and many homeowner insurances cover as well.
  • Use Hotwire for hotels. It’s unbelievable, and the best of the hotel deal places. Do you really care which 4 star you stay at for the price of a Comfort Inn? (Don’t use it for flights – no miles and no final control.)


King David and the final carving

The Eastman Rochester Organ Initiative is having its annual conference in less than 2 weeks, and we’re part of the starring cast. Sort of. You see. A couple of years back Chuck Phelps, then provost of the U of Rochester and for whom we built an extraordinary home in the 90’s, introduced me to Hans Davidsson, an absolutely unstoppable man with the tenacity of three. Suddenly we were remodeling Christ Church, flying to Lithuania to understand late-period Baroque architecture and organs (and eating eel-by-the-meter, a local specialty,) and carving pipeshades and figures. It’s complicated. But here’s a passage I’ll share, written on the first of my 3 trips to Vilnius, in preparation for this upcoming inauguration of our work:

“The first time I went to Lithuania, on this crazy organ project, we were being lead around by a strong-presenced woman who was surely going to show us her country, her city, her history. Birute had lived in the US most of her life, but never left Vilnius in her heart. It showed in everything from the golf-ball sized amber broach on her breast to her eyes that misted up regarding anything Lithuanian. We had just met, and my first impression wasn’t good.. I would later tell her, and she never let’s me live it down, that I figured she was simply “over the top,” in a typically dangerous and nationalistic way.

I had just finished reading a wrenching account of the slaughter of the entire local Jewish population under the Nazi occupation. Maxine’s father’s family had come to America at the turn of the last century, during one of the czar’s pogroms, but the wing of the family that stayed behind had perished in Kaunas, a beautiful city that was once the heart of Jewish intellectualism and culture in the Baltics. It wasn’t just the invading Nazi’s who were brutal to the Jews; it was the nationalists as well. Coupled with my own innate distaste for blind and unquestioning patriotism in any country, and having just finished that book which had brought me to tears, I was on edge to hear her go on and on. The Lithuanian culture, the land, the language, the brains, even the bread! It was all the best, and getting better. Even the women were the most beautiful, according to Birute.

But over the days of that trip I did learn to appreciate what the people there were in the midst of accomplishing. There was a marked line drawn between what was obviously bad remnants of the soviet era and what was being re-built, cleaned up and newly minted. Downtown Vilnius is thriving, and plenty of healthy signs of economy, industry, creativity. It’s been just 14 years since the last freedom, and so much has been done. I’m told that it is the fastest growing economy in Europe. One of my pictures recently is from the steeple of St. Catherine’s, a Benedictine church almost brought back from its status as storage shed for decades. In the vertical format panorama are old soviet apartment buildings in the far distance, four tower cranes in a clearly modern area, and then nearby, in the old city, a crumbling roof structure that was being discussed to become a hotel by some Norwegian investors. Lots going on, lots of layers.

Before that week was out, I had come to appreciate how much work had been done, and grew to appreciate much of what my guide was saying. All the tension dissipated at once when, after a morning run, I came up to Birute and said, “I will now believe everything you say, for the women here are in fact the most beautiful in the world!” Since then we’ve been grand friends, and yes, she, like much if her country, is really over the top.”



Of the numerous issues giving the city permitting horde fits is my desire to use Faswall blocks made by Shelterworks in Philomath, OR, about an hour south of Portland. These are similar to Durisol in Ontario Canada, but on the west coast. both are made with demineralized wood fiber and Portland cement, and came from the post world war two European need to find something to extend and therefore limit the need of hard to get concrete in that massive re-building effort.

I call them an inside-out ICF (insulated concrete form.) Typical ICF’s use virgin expanded polystyrene forms that are hand stacked, shored up and filled with re-bar. I was one of the first to use them in western NY, in 1984, hated them then and ever since. A consumer hoodwink, frankly, that I’ve mostly avoided except for a very few clients who have had their way with me. (Hey, I’m not totally stubborn.) The problem is that they leave the very vulnerable EPS, which breaks down with ultra violet and is susceptible to critters on the OUTSIDE, where it has to be parged and protected. For this privilege you pay through the nose and it’s not very easy to do a great job.

Faswall takes the concept of a stackable form and makes it right. The block protects the insulation inside, the concrete usage is minimized, the r-value reasonable, and you still get to pay through the nose. Well, okay, if you were looking for a Cinderella story, this one is only about foundation blocks. I did visit Beatrice Dohrn, one-time legal council, Manhattan cabinet-maker and now building her own home, in Eugene, with only one helper. She’s steadily going up 2 stories with blocks and has discovered some good tricks. When she’s done, she’s definitely going to write these guys a proper manual, I hope.

The permit problem is that this little company isn’t all engineered certified like they will be one day, and after all, Portland is serious about its seismic category 4. The waffle-like pattern created by these blocks hasn’t the testing that solid concrete walls have, and no matter the theory and numbers, these guys have their rules. Time to switch engineering firms and bring in the guys with bigger pocket protectors.

There are other ICF’s in this theme, like Apex block, Rastra and others. Email me if you want the long story of how I chose Faswall.