the cassandra pages

We’ve been fortunate. It’s been, and continues to be, an adventure. We’re still growing and changing, and have become not only “the protectors of one another’s solitude,” as a dear friend remarked about his own marriage, but the protectors and defenders of each other’s quirkiness. One day, we may be protectors of each other’s dignity.

From the cassandra pages.

Portland street photography

I have the right to take strangers’ pictures in U.S. public places. But I had to get out of town to muster the guts to exercise that right.  No one knows me here in Portland, Maine.  Besides, the people here don’t seem as uptight as the folks back home in the D.C. area, which boasts the universe’s highest number of lawyers per capita.


It’s scary, taking pictures of strangers.  My camera’s neither a phone nor one of those cute tourist cameras.  It’s easily mistaken for a DSLR, something indicative of organizational backing of some sort.  Suppose they don’t know or care that I have the right?  All these cameras, all these ways of embarrassing people online or exploiting their images, all these ways of compromising people’s individual and collective security – I figure if I take the wrong person’s picture, he’ll bust my face or my camera or both.


Street photographers should get close to their subjects, I hear.  Get their faces.  I have a four-thirds telephoto zoom lens that gives me the 35mm camera equivalent of up to 400mm.  With it, I put some distance between my subjects and me, and I made sure my subjects didn’t notice me, and wouldn’t notice me, while I was taking these shots.


On Space.  We teach the genres (high school) and the modes of rhetoric (freshman comp).  So our writers’ forms don’t follow function but rather the states’ standards of learning.  A writer learns forms best by discovering her writing’s parti, and then by finding forms, or parts of forms, that best express it.

A parti is the central idea or concept of a building.  A parti [par-TEE] can be expressed several ways but is most often expressed by a diagram depicting the general floor plan organization of a building and, by implication, its experiential and aesthetic sensibility. . . .  [I]t is unlikely, if not impossible, to successfully carry a parti from an old project to a new project.  The design process is the struggle to create a uniquely appropriate parti for a project. [Emphasis original]

– Matthew Frederick, 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School, Thing #15




I’ve read too many books on writing, but the most succinct and enlightened may be 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School by Matthew Frederick.  Five samples (emphasis original throughout):


Good design solutions are not merely physically interesting but are driven by underlying ideas.  An idea is a specific mental structure by which we organize, understand, and give meaning to external experiences and information.  Without underlying ideas informing their buildings, architects are merely space planners.  Space planning with decoration applied to “dress it up” is not architecture; architecture resides in the DNA of a building, in an embedded sensibility that infuses its whole.

#2 + #3 + #6

A figure is an element or shape placed on a page, canvas, or other background.  Ground [a.k.a. space] is the space of the page. . . . Space is called negative space if it is unshaped after the placement of figures.  It is positive space if it has a shape. . . . We move through negative spaces and dwell in positive spaces.


Suburban buildings are freestanding objects in space.  Urban buildings are often shapers of space.


A tall, bright space will feel taller and brighter if counterpointed by a low-ceilinged, softly lit space.  A monumental or sacred space will feel more significant when placed at the end of a sequence of lesser spaces.  A room with south-facing windows will be more strongly experienced after one passes through a series of north-facing spaces.


Denial and reward can encourage the formulation of a rich experience.  In designing paths of travel, try presenting users a view of their target – a staircase, building entrance, monument, or other element – then momentarily screen it from view as they continue their approach.  Reveal the target a second time from a different angle or with an interesting new detail.  Divert users onto an unexpected path to create additional intrigue or even momentary lostness; then reward them with other interesting experiences or other views of their target.  This additional “work” will make the journey more interesting, the arrival more rewarding.

Every page of 101 is my favorite dark truffle.  I’m afraid to read too much at once.

Flat Death


With the Photograph, we enter into flat Death.  One day, leaving one of my classes, someone said to me with disdain: “You talk about Death very flatly.”  — As if the horror of Death were not precisely its platitude!

— Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida


Italo Calvino
Italo Calvino

One revelation from reading Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida: Barthes and Italo Calvino admired each other’s work.  Maybe they were friends, too.  I don’t know, but it would be fun if it were so: Barthes standing on the shore of nonfiction, shaking hands with Calvino, himself wading in the waters of fiction.

Barthes mentions Calvino in a positive manner at least three times in the book, and Geoff Dwer, in the books’ introduction, quotes a nice thing Calvino said about Barthes shortly after Barthes’s death.

I suppose this realization is ordinarily reserved for people more social than I am.  I’ll ask Victoria when she gets up.  Ever know two interesting people and later discover that they’re friends?  A lot comes over you all at once, thinking about what their friendship might say about each of them.

In retrospect, it seems natural that Barthes and Calvino would enjoy each other. Barthes often teeters but remains just this side of fiction, and in his novels Calvino sometimes comes close to nonfiction.  Together they might embody Borges or Sebald, who often seemed to mix fact (or at least nonfiction) and fiction.  All four were ideamen, writers for whom, as Dyer points out in another fine introduction (this one to John Berger: Selected Essays),  “ideas are the most distinctive and important feature of [their] output.”

[This is the third of three posts on Camera Lucida.  The first is here, and the second is here.]


People warn you that you “don’t really know” people you’ve met online. But my personal experience of blogging, and online life generally, has been one of inexorable outing.

From mole.


On Death & the photograph.  This 81-year-old, Polaroid-carting, ‘walking, talking photo booth” — and the Next Door hostess — get Barthes.  From today’s Washington Post:

“The camera’s old as [bleep]; it looks like it’d steal your soul,” observes Allory Anderson, a hostess at Next Door, as Bob squeezes his way through the bar just after midnight. “But I’ve got two pictures of me on my fridge from him. I don’t have iPhone photos on my fridge.”

A physical photo, Bob says, is the presence of you in your absence. A photo is not for now or for Facebook. A photo is for later, when you’re gone. It is for finding in a shoe box.

Barthes would see this guy as the Grim Reaper, someone whose presence is explained by religion’s absence: “Photography may correspond to the intrusion, in our modern society, of an asymbolic Death, outside of religion, outside of ritual, a kind of abrupt dive into literal Death.  Life / Death: the paradigm is reduced to a simple click, the one separating the initial pose form the final print.”