Evan Sagerman

persp-sagerman-200x200

When I was 16, I left quiet Syracuse, New York to spend the summer as an exchange student in Brazil. I arrived to find my host family lived in a huge, modern duplex apartment with a gigantic terrace and panoramic city views. For help they had two live-in maids and a cook. Somehow I’d left middle-class American life and landed in unimaginable Brazilian luxury.

Newly arrived, I wanted to walk around and explore. My host father explained that just up the hill from our apartment building was a favela — a slum. It wasn’t safe for me to wander around. I wasn’t used to such restrictions, so I insisted. He acquiesced and mapped out a route — down the hill. He also sent my host brother with me, who made sure I didn’t carry my camera where people could see it.

That summer I tasted crazy tropical fruits and listened to gorgeous Brazilian music. I swam at private swim clubs with pools the size of lakes and spoke lilting Portuguese. I also walked streets lined with beggars and kids who never went to school. I discovered the favela next door was considered upscale because some of the houses had running water — although none had electricity. I saw how people live in a country where a few are very wealthy, but most are very poor.

I loved Brazil. It was warm and casual and sensuous in a way that upstate New York never would be. But what I most took away from that summer were the walls. Tall, concrete, topped with broken glass and razor wire, the walls surrounded our apartment building, our private school, our swim club and everywhere I went.

At summer’s end, I flew home. Starting senior year at my town’s functioning public high school wasn’t glamorous, but after Brazil, it felt like a civic miracle.

Electricity, running water, public schools — I think the job of government is to provide the foundation upon which a society can peacefully coexist. I want the people around me to have opportunity — partly because I think it’s just, and partly because I want everyone to have a stake in the outcome. I’ve seen what it looks like the other way, and I never want to live surrounded by those concrete walls again.

With a Perspective, I’m Evan Sagerman.

Evan Sagerman is an architect and author living in San Francisco.

Evan Sagerman

Willy Wonka was at the deep end of the pool, and I didn’t know how to swim.

It was the early 1970’s, not long after ‘Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory’ had come out. We were visiting my grandparents at a hotel in West Hampton. Amazingly, my family and I had caught glimpses of Willy Wonka walking around the hotel. I loved his movie, I was dying to meet Willy Wonka, but I was much, much too shy to approach him.

I knew he wasn’t really Willy Wonka. I was 9 years old, and I knew the difference between real life and movies. But at that age I didn’t know the name of any actors, so he was Willy Wonka to me.

In the afternoon I was playing in the pool, and there was Willy Wonka, near the diving board. I separated myself from my family, walked to the edge of the shallow end, and ducked under the rope-which I was not allowed to do. Terrified of the deep water, I gripped the edge of the pool and made my way-hand over hand-down the left hand side of the pool. At the corner of the deep end I looked around for Willy Wonka. He was still swimming near the diving board. I turned the corner and -hand over hand-I made my way toward him.

He was looking the other way when I got to him. I stopped, and said nothing. Eventually he turned around and noticed me.

“Are you Willy Wonka?” I said.

He tilted his head, then widened his big, blue eyes.

“Yes, I am,” he said in his gentle voice.

We looked at each other for a while, then I turned and made my way-hand over hand-back across the deep end of the pool and into the shallow water where I was safe.

I’ve met many actors since then, and I know that chance encounter with Gene Wilder could have gone any number of ways. He could have been polite, he could have been annoyed, he could have been a jerk. Instead, he looked at a small child, and he was Willy Wonka.

Thank you, Gene. I am still grateful.

With a Perspective, I am Evan Sagerman.

Evan Sagerman is a San Francisco architect and author of children’s books.

persp-sagerman-200x200

At a recent conference on children's books, one of my favorite writers confessed to having an inner 11-year-old who just wanted to read books all day and wear cat print dresses. This inner 11-year-old was why the adult author was comfortable writing fiction for middle schoolers. Looking at the author, I saw a lively, intelligent woman in her mid-30s wearing a hip vintage dress and stylish boots. Looking more closely at the dress, I saw the print was actually cute, little cats.

Listening to her, I realized that I write picture books because I have an inner 4-year-old.  That's the me who's always happy to stop and look at a dead bug. I never lost that sense of discovering the world for the first time and trying to make sense of it. I spend a lot of time with the simple questions, like what's that? How does that work? What are those people doing?

When I'm with small children, I get down on the floor with them. It's easy for adults to forget that at their height, little kids can't see the top of the kitchen counter. Whatever's up there — food, candy, the cat — is actually invisible. Their world is full of surprises, not to mention terror and fun.

This isn't a case of arrested development. I'm a competent adult: a licensed professional with sophisticated analytical skills and decades of experience. It's just that when I see a new thing, my default approach is the naive straightforwardness of a 4-year-old. I ask a lot of simple questions, and people usually answer them.

It's an approach with drawbacks. I can seem blunt and/or simple minded. My thought process isn't for sophisticates: it's for children. But from that approach the world blossoms and flowers. Everyday systems are just as filled with wonder as fairy tales.  The plumbing of a house and 'Little Red Riding Hood' are equally amazing and equally real. They both have their mysterious sources, their pathways and connections, the parts you can see and the parts you can't.

Maybe that's not the best example. I understand basic plumbing, but Little Red Riding Hood-what's going on in that story? What are those people doing?
 
With a Perspective, I'm Evan Sagerman.

Evan Sagerman is a San Francisco architect and children's book author.

Evan Sagerman

On a quiet, sunny Monday at Squaw Valley, on a nearly empty ski slope, I was run over from behind by another skier traveling about 30 miles per hour faster than me. I screamed from the shock as his body slammed into mine. I kept screaming from the pain as the bones in my shoulder shattered from the impact.  
 
It's terrifying when chance reaches out to strike you. Chance is the unknowable event. The bullet fired from miles away that comes through your window. The asteroid traveling through space that somehow finds your planet. These events aren't inexplicable — they follow cause and effect — but they are unforeseeable and incomprehensible nonetheless. Money and common sense can guard you against many of the dangers of this world, but nothing can guard you from chance.
 
When I got home from Tahoe, my wife struggled to work, take care of me, and take care of our two, small children. Then she got the flu. Then I got the flu. Things truly went from bad to worse.
 
My shoulder broken, sick with fever and pain, I walked down the street to buy soup. A man calmly walked toward me with his pit bull on a leash. A surge of fear shot through my body as I become certain the dog would lunge and bite me.
 
It didn't. The dog walked by without seeming to notice me. As my breathing slowed down, I realized I was expecting something to hurtle out of nowhere to finish smashing me to pieces. The order of my life had been shown to be provisional and in flux; now, I was terrified it would disintegrate altogether.
 
The universe has patterns. With our great brains and excellent tools, we glimpse sections of those patterns. Chance is part of the universe's pattern, but it's not a part we understand well. I know a coin tossed in the air has a 50 percent chance of coming down "tails." But there are a whole lot of spinning coins out there in the universe, and I don't know when they're being tossed. Or who's tossing them. Or why.
 
With a Perspective, I'm Evan Sagerman.

Evan Sagerman is a San Francisco architect and children's book author.

Evan Sagerman

Cafes are my favorite place to work. I love the clinking dishes, the quiet music, the ebb and flow of voices. I gain energy and focus from that hum of life. I disappear into my thoughts, yet remain tethered to the earth. If drinking coffee and eating food are the price of a table, well, that's OK with me.

For 17 years, Que Tal was my go-to cafe. It was right near my house, had good food, great coffee and a relaxed atmosphere. Everything I worked on over 17 years I worked on there. More than a satellite office, it was also the unofficial heart of our neighborhood–our village green. My neighbors and I bought coffees, pastries, and sandwiches, in exchange for which the owner of Que Tal let us sit as long as we wanted. And sit we did. We wrote novels and dissertations, dreamed up business plans and conducted job interviews. We talked to neighbors we never would have met otherwise; the sarcastic novelist, the swing-dancing fire fighter, the Latino NASCAR fan. When our children were born, Que Tal was the first place we took them out in the world. Hospital, home, Que Tal: it was a natural sequence.  When friends and relatives visited, we brought them to Que Tal so they could see our San Francisco.
 
So it was a shock when Que Tal closed. That was a little over a year ago. The landlord decided not to renew the lease and our village green disappeared. There were a lot of tears on the day it closed and a lot of grim encounters with neighbors in the months after. We'd greet each other with serious handshakes and ask, "How are you doing?"  Which really meant, "How are you doing since Que Tal closed?"  We'd ask about people we used to see there, but now didn't see at all. One neighbor made coffee at home in protest, until he missed seeing his neighbors. I ran into him on the street as he was walking towards a new cafe. I wished him good luck.
 
In a city with hundreds of cafes, it was a sad and lovely thing to learn that one of them just couldn't be replaced.  

Thank you, Que Tal.
 
With a Perspective, I'm Evan Sagerman.

Evan Sagerman is a San Francisco architect and children's book author.

persp-sagerman-200x200

At 45 I started seeing double out of my right eye. Cataracts, my doctor explained. He walked me through my surgical options, then told me he'd operate when I was ready.

Over the next few years my right eye deteriorated from double images to quadruple images to just blurry shapes and colors. It wasn't a crisis, though, because my left eye still had crisp, 20/20 vision.

When the cataracts seriously interfered with my depth perception, it was surgery time. My doctor cut open my right  eye, removed my damaged lens and slipped in an artificial one. The next day the bandages came off, I opened my eye, and saw the world in 20/20 again. Gleefully I looked through my new right eye, then my old left eye, one at a time, marveling at what I'd gained. But something was different between the images: they were different colors. In my brand new right eye, light was brighter and colors cooler. In my trusty, old, left eye, light was dimmer and colors warmer. It was as though one eye saw the room lit by fluorescent bulbs, and the other eye saw the same room lit by incandescents.

I asked my doctor if I was imagining this. I wasn't. He explained that as the lenses in our eyes age they become "tea stained." I asked which color scheme was the right one. Both, he said. My new, right lens was seeing the world  pretty close to the way I'd seen it as a child. The old, left lens was looking at the world the way a 49 year old would. Aging literally brings a more autumnal view of the world.

A few months later I was jogging at night along Valencia Street. Curious to test my post-surgery vision, I looked at the busy bars and restaurants through just one eye, then the other. To my new, right eye the street was filled with bright excitement, and I felt the night-life rush of my 20s. Switching to my left eye, the street changed to sepia-tones and I was back in my late 40s. I knew cataract surgery would help me navigate through space. I didn't  know it would also let me travel through time.

With a Perspective, I'm Evan Sagerman.

Evan Sagerman is an architect and author. He lives in San Francisco.

persp-sagerman-200x200

When I was 16, I left quiet Syracuse, New York to spend the summer as an exchange student in Brazil. I arrived to find my host family lived in a huge, modern duplex apartment with a gigantic terrace and panoramic city views. For help they had two live-in maids and a cook. Somehow I'd left middle-class American life and landed in unimaginable Brazilian luxury.

Newly arrived, I wanted to walk around and explore. My host father explained that just up the hill from our apartment building was a favela — a slum. It wasn't safe for me to wander around. I wasn't used to such restrictions, so I insisted. He acquiesced and mapped out a route — down the hill. He also sent my host brother with me, who made sure I didn't carry my camera where people could see it.

That summer I tasted crazy tropical fruits and listened to gorgeous Brazilian music. I swam at private swim clubs with pools the size of lakes and spoke lilting Portuguese. I also walked streets lined with beggars and kids who never went to school. I discovered the favela next door was considered upscale because some of the houses had running water — although none had electricity. I saw how people live in a country where a few are very wealthy, but most are very poor.  

I loved Brazil. It was warm and casual and sensuous in a way that upstate New York never would be. But what I most took away from that summer were the walls. Tall, concrete, topped with broken glass and razor wire, the walls surrounded our apartment building, our private school, our swim club and everywhere I went.

At summer's end, I flew home. Starting senior year at my town's functioning public high school wasn't glamorous, but after Brazil, it felt like a civic miracle.

Electricity, running water, public schools — I think the job of government is to provide the foundation upon which a society can peacefully coexist. I want the people around me to have opportunity — partly because I think it's just, and partly because I want everyone to have a stake in the outcome. I've seen what it looks like the other way, and I never want to live surrounded by those concrete walls again.

With a Perspective, I'm Evan Sagerman.

Evan Sagerman is an architect and author living in San Francisco.

persp-sagerman-200x200

At 45 I started seeing double out of my right eye. Cataracts, my doctor explained. He walked me through my surgical options, then told me he'd operate when I was ready.

Over the next few years my right eye deteriorated from double images to quadruple images to just blurry shapes and colors. It wasn't a crisis, though, because my left eye still had crisp, 20/20 vision.

When the cataracts seriously interfered with my depth perception, it was surgery time. My doctor cut open my right  eye, removed my damaged lens and slipped in an artificial one. The next day the bandages came off, I opened my eye, and saw the world in 20/20 again. Gleefully I looked through my new right eye, then my old left eye, one at a time, marveling at what I'd gained. But something was different between the images: they were different colors. In my brand new right eye, light was brighter and colors cooler. In my trusty, old, left eye, light was dimmer and colors warmer. It was as though one eye saw the room lit by fluorescent bulbs, and the other eye saw the same room lit by incandescents.

I asked my doctor if I was imagining this. I wasn't. He explained that as the lenses in our eyes age they become "tea stained." I asked which color scheme was the right one. Both, he said. My new, right lens was seeing the world  pretty close to the way I'd seen it as a child. The old, left lens was looking at the world the way a 49 year old would. Aging literally brings a more autumnal view of the world.

A few months later I was jogging at night along Valencia Street. Curious to test my post-surgery vision, I looked at the busy bars and restaurants through just one eye, then the other. To my new, right eye the street was filled with bright excitement, and I felt the night-life rush of my 20s. Switching to my left eye, the street changed to sepia-tones and I was back in my late 40s. I knew cataract surgery would help me navigate through space. I didn't  know it would also let me travel through time.

With a Perspective, I'm Evan Sagerman.

Evan Sagerman is an architect and author. He lives in San Francisco.

 

Evan Sagerman

When I was 16, I left quiet Syracuse, New York to spend the summer as an exchange student in Brazil. I arrived to find my host family lived in a huge, modern duplex apartment with a gigantic terrace and panoramic city views. For help they had two live-in maids and a cook. Somehow I'd left middle-class American life and landed in unimaginable Brazilian luxury.

Newly arrived, I wanted to walk around and explore. My host father explained that just up the hill from our apartment building was a favela — a slum. It wasn't safe for me to wander around. I wasn't used to such restrictions, so I insisted. He acquiesced and mapped out a route — down the hill. He also sent my host brother with me, who made sure I didn't carry my camera where people could see it.

That summer I tasted crazy tropical fruits and listened to gorgeous Brazilian music. I swam at private swim clubs with pools the size of lakes and spoke lilting Portuguese. I also walked streets lined with beggars and kids who never went to school. I discovered the favela next door was considered upscale because some of the houses had running water — although none had electricity. I saw how people live in a country where a few are very wealthy, but most are very poor.  

I loved Brazil. It was warm and casual and sensuous in a way that upstate New York never would be. But what I most took away from that summer were the walls. Tall, concrete, topped with broken glass and razor wire, the walls surrounded our apartment building, our private school, our swim club and everywhere I went.

At summer's end, I flew home. Starting senior year at my town's functioning public high school wasn't glamorous, but after Brazil, it felt like a civic miracle.

Electricity, running water, public schools — I think the job of government is to provide the foundation upon which a society can peacefully coexist. I want the people around me to have opportunity — partly because I think it's just, and partly because I want everyone to have a stake in the outcome. I've seen what it looks like the other way, and I never want to live surrounded by those concrete walls again.

With a Perspective, I'm Evan Sagerman.

Evan Sagerman is an architect and author living in San Francisco.
 

persp-sagerman-200x200

Gengar Prime. Arceus. Rayquaza C level X. Aiden was in the backseat of the car, excitedly calling out names. What sounded like gibberish was my nine-year old son preparing for his first Pokemon tournament.

Pokemon were created as an Atari video game. Wildly successful, Pokemon evolved into movies, television, comic books, toys, trading cards, and a strategy game. Aiden fell in love with the colorful monsters on the cards: then he learned to play the game. Having played against friends, Aiden wanted to test his skills against strangers.

As a game, Pokemon falls somewhere between poker and Dungeons & Dragons. Playing a 60-card deck against a single opponent, winning requires magical creatures, strategic thinking and luck.

The tournament was held in a drafty warehouse full of card tables and folding chairs. Seventy people milled about, trading Pokemon cards and playing pick-up matches. The players were five to 55 years old, all races, 20 percent female. We stood in the registration line between an undersized 12-year old girl sporting thick glasses and a muscular 28-year old man with the brute presence of a boxer.

Aiden was quiet and watchful, but during his first match, he blossomed. There he was, surrounded by people who loved what he loved. Truly geeky or imposingly buff, all that mattered in this room were your Pokemon and how you played them.

Aiden had been carrying a world around inside his head. The Pokemon — their strengths and weaknesses, their histories and evolutions — were alive to him. This tournament was the first time I saw his world manifested as a shared vision. It was like I’d traveled to an exotic foreign country, and on arrival I’d discovered my son was not only fluent in the local language, but was a sophisticated and sought-after conversationalist.

We all have worlds inside our heads. Sometimes we join others who share our visions and create universes. Burning Man, the Renaissance Faire, Giants baseball. Sometimes these universes are visible, but often they’re hidden away in unexpected places. Now when I see a warehouse I wonder what’s behind the corrugated metal walls. Is it plumbing supplies, or a land of enchantment — like Pokemon?

With a Perspective, I’m Evan Sagerman.

persp-sagerman-200x200

Where was my venison?

In Kansas, where’d I’d traveled last deer hunting season, venison is a staple. Here in the Bay Area, it’s a delicacy. So almost from the moment I stepped off my return flight at SFO, I started fantasizing about the dinners my gourmet friends would prepare featuring my soon-to-be-arriving venison.

Two months after my return, however, my deer was still in a freezer in Kansas. Clearly it was time to call my hunting guide, Steve, and find out what the delay was.

Now I’m a city guy, whereas Steve’s spent his entire life hunting and farming in rural Kansas. Whatever he lacks in cosmopolitan finish, however, he makes up for in sophistication. On my trip, Steve introduced me to dry land farming, limestone hydrology, the burning characteristics of local hardwoods, deer food preferences and rural health care delivery, to name just a few topics, and somehow tied them all together. He was affable, open, and engaged, like a favorite college professor — only armed and in camouflage.

On the phone Steve sounded friendly but tired. He told me my venison was all ready, and he’d ship it out next week. I wondered what was keeping Steve too busy to make it to UPS, so I asked him what he’d been up to lately. Steve said he’d been out the last few nights: 10:30 pm to 7:30 am, in minus 13 degree weather, rescuing newborn calves. He was getting ready to head back out that night. 

We talked for a while about calves, and winter storms, and how cattle survive a Kansas winter. Steve told me a funny story about staying up all night drying a newborn calf with a blow dryer so it wouldn’t freeze to death. He described how he’d had to cut the hide off of a dead calf and drape it over another calf to fool a mother cow into accepting the calf as her own. It worked.

Somewhere during my seminar on calving season, I started feeling silly for worrying about the venison. I was thinking on city time, but Steve was working on country time. I don’t know when meat-shipping season is, but I bet Steve does. And when it rolls around, Steve will send me my venison.

With a Perspective, I’m Evan Sagerman.

persp-sagerman-200x200

I sleepily made breakfast for the kids, hoping I could get them settled with the babysitter early so I could slip down to the café before work. My dreamy thoughts of a bagel and cappuccino were interrupted by the chime of an incoming text message.

It was our babysitter, who lives downstairs. A raccoon had attacked our chickens during the night. She and her roommate had fought off the raccoon, but not before it had killed two of our three chickens. She recommended not letting the children in the backyard until I cleaned up the mess.

The problem with being a gentleman farmer is sometimes real farm life intrudes. Until now, our chickens had been low maintenance pets, providing us with eggs and making our city backyard look pastoral. Changing the straw in their coop was as messy as it got. Now I was searching the house for a cardboard box that would make a good coffin.

Outside, it was all feathers and death. I picked up a chicken that yesterday had been a beloved family pet and placed her eviscerated hull in the cardboard box.

Then I walked over to the other chicken and reached down.

“Please God,” I thought, “let that be the wind ruffling her feathers.”

It wasn’t. Henrietta was still breathing. The raccoon had blinded and maimed her, but hadn’t killed her. I felt sick as I thought of her lying in the dirt for the last six hours, alone and dying.

I went to the shed and retrieved a hatchet and a block of wood. I carefully placed Henrietta’s head on the block, took a solid stance, and swung.

I’d like to say I killed her cleanly and put an end to her suffering. I didn’t. This was my pet, and I didn’t have the heart for this task. It took me five swings to kill her. Then with the last of her life Henrietta chased me around the yard, wings flapping. I was spooked by this grisly race, but relieved she was finally dead.

I turned away then, and dug some graves.

I actually did make it to the café that day. But not until after the funerals, of course.

With a Perspective, I’m Evan Sagerman.

persp-sagerman-200x200

When my second grader was awake a half-hour after bedtime on a school night I was tired and annoyed. When he was still up 1.5 hours later, I was starting to despair. I went into his room and – once again — scratched his back and sang him a lullaby. Aiden interrupted my version of “Baa Baa Black Sheep” to ask, “Dad, have you ever seen an atom?”

Seeing that Aiden was still quite awake, I decided to answer his question. We discussed atoms, protons/neutrons/electrons, and smaller particles.  Having scaled down, Aiden wanted to scale up: can you combine atoms with other atoms? I explained what a molecule was, using water as a simple and tangible example. My son surprised me by telling me how many water molecules are in a raindrop, something he’d learned at school. From there we worked out how many atoms are in a raindrop. The chain was suddenly complete and the physical universe snapped into place in his eight year old brain.

The joy was contagious: suddenly there was no way we could stop.

From atoms we moved on to the elements. Aiden made an intuitive leap to hypothesize about the melting points of metals versus other elements. Melting points led to freezing points led to what would happen if you stuck your hand into liquid oxygen. Aiden quickly applied his new knowledge to wonder to which specific nano-scale the cold would shatter his fingers.

I thought things were maybe getting a little silly when Aiden switched to the cloning of woolly mammoths, but I was surprised when he used the term “arctic species.” Then I was floored when he went on to discuss the ethical consequences of cloning one animal versus reintroducing the whole species. Having decided he was in favor of cloning — the species that is — he ended the conversation by asking what “mammoth” meant as a word, without the modifier “woolly.”

Aiden led the discussion throughout. He wasn’t avoiding bedtime; his mind was spinning with the wonder of it all. Listening to him, I was keenly aware of how solidly his second grade teachers had grounded him in science, language, math and ethics.

Teachers, thank you.

With a Perspective, I’m Evan Sagerman.