The Weight of My Not Caring Would Sink A Ship

Studying for my seven architectural registration exams is going great. Thanks for asking.

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Fortunately, nobody I know is foolish enough to be asking, at least not more than once, because I want to think about this as little as humanly possible, pass each stupid exam by a point, move on with my life, and then never think about this again.

Yes. My attitude is poor. I taught school for a decade. I know a poor attitude when I see one. I know a counterproductive attitude when I see one. I won’t even go through the whole thing again, my disillusionment and financial angst at paying $250 to apply to START these tests, or the $210 I’ll have to shell out for the first one, and each of the six more after that. The $10 that almost broke me was the last $10, the fee to access the practice software for the test. You can access it for free if you have a 1980’s era computer, but if you have a modern-day, newfangled 64-bit computer? The testing board is not set up for that.  $10 please. You’ll have to use the cloud. Whatever the hell that means. I no longer care. I cried one single tear of rage, paid the software fee, and started studying.

The first few studying sessions did not go well, in that the angry black cloud over my head prevented any information from getting anywhere near it. The larger problem is that, after a 10 hour workday, arriving home at 6:15, trying to walk the dog, feed us both, and sit down by 7:30 and study, I have very little left in the way of mental or emotional resources. The lowest point so far was a couple of weeks ago when I took my study guides to Lily’s on a Saturday and thought I’d sit in a corner with a beer and a slice of pizza and enjoy some pale winter sunshine and pleasant background noise.  I was so miserable and frustrated and angry that I realized I was in danger of crying in public, and then that I was actually crying in public. It was very localized, and you wouldn’t have known it was happening except for the occasional removal of tears in a super subtle way and the fact that I was hiding behind my hair and staring intently at my book.

And then I felt stupid for feeling this defeated about taking a series of exams which are MY CHOICE, nobody is making me do this, nobody is even ASKING me to do this, and nobody but me will ever care if I DON’T do this. So I’m doing it, but nothing says I have to attempt any measure of grace about the process. After crying into my beer at Lily’s, though, I had a come-to-Jesus meeting with myself and decided I had to Cowboy Up. In fact, I bought a t-shirt. I wear it when I study.

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“The only way out is through,” Julia told me the other day when I was in full-on rant mode.

“Not true,” I told her. “There is a really, really, really easy way out. It does not involve me taking any tests.”

I’m taking them. But not gracefully.

For my first test, the Whose Fault Is It exam, I’ve made it up to “mediocre” on my practice tests, so I think if I took it right now I’d pass, barely. I have a little more time. I’m finding that the most obnoxious part of the test format, so far, isn’t the deadly-dull content about contracts and litigation and spec writing. It’s that it’s so, so poorly written, deliberately obfuscating and with lots of tricky tricky little word puzzles. No educator would be allowed to use an assessment instrument this badly written, and as a former educator, I find it mean. I’M STILL DOING IT. Still without grace. I am at peace with that.

Yesterday, though, I flipped through the hundred-page architectural history review booklet. That, right there, is a test I would love to take. I’d love every minute of preparing for it. I wouldn’t have to prepare, though, because I aced Architectural History and a-plus aced World Architecture, and then I was a TA for both classes, and I loved it all over again. There isn’t an architectural history exam in this series of seven. They don’t even consider it important enough for an exam, they just throw a question or two into each of them to see who went to grad school. And to me, architectural history around the world is the whole point of architecture. It’s why we do what we do. It’s why people build what they build, how they inhabit the public realm, what matters about each culture enough that we carve it into stone, from the dawn of time up until right this minute. The history of architecture is the history of humanity, and that is why I did this.

There were a hundred pages of hand-illustrated buildings in that review booklet, from prehistory up through the most famous examples of modern architecture, and as I flipped through it, I realized at one point or another I had visited well over half of them. The Erectheion. Giza. Sagrada Familia. The Pantheon. Fallingwater. And I got chills thinking about what architecture does, when it is done well.

Ask me about the difference between a performance spec and a prescriptive spec. I can tell you. Ask me where the footings go in relation to the frost line. I can tell you. Ask me what type of insurance each party in a construction contract must carry. I do not care about any of that. But I can tell you.

Or. Ask me what it’s like to walk through Zanzibar’s Stone Town, with the buildings so close you can touch them on either side of you and it feels like a maze, especially if the undersea cable to the mainland is cut and you’re navigating by candlelight. It’s magic, and the hand of every culture that passed through it is visible, and it’s a beautiful urban space. Ask me what it’s like to climb Borobudur at sunrise. It’s terrifying, and the weight of what you feel radiating from it will knock you back a step or two, and then you reach the top and you’ve never experienced anything so peaceful as the sun rising over the valley mist.  Ask me what it feels like to stand inside the Farnsworth House, which makes no sense from the outside. It’s utterly connected to that beautiful little river, which you can’t see from any pictures of the house I’ve ever seen.  Ask me how people behave when they stumble from the narrow walled streets of Siena into the wide public space of Il Campo. They go a little bit wild, which is what happens when you give people procession, compression and expansion. It’s astounding to watch. Ask me what happens at dawn of the winter solstice at dawn inside Newgrange passage tomb outside of Dublin. I can’t tell you that for sure, because you have to win an annual lottery to get in, but on a regular day? You feel like a druid with powers to summon the return of the sun, its warmth, the cycle of new growth, and a return to spring.

Ask me what architecture means, and I could write a book about that.

Think I’ll take a few tests first.

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