The pursuit of goodness

Opinion: Ken Trainor

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By Ken Trainor

Staff writer

It is a measure of Frank Lloyd Wright's genius that even a century later, his work is still ahead of the times. That is evident walking through any of his homes, but particularly the Avery Coonley estate in Riverside. 

The thrill of seeing it easily offsets the frustration of trying to take it all in during a brief walk-through.

There is simply too much to absorb. 

No matter. Whenever I walk through a Wright-designed home, I feel stimulated to the point of exalted. That's also how I felt in February, during a trip to visit friends in Los Angeles, when we walked through the Hollyhock House, which had just opened after a long renovation. My friends finished well before I did. I could have stayed there, and in Coonley, even longer, contemplating Wright's profusion of "ideas."

Being in the presence of such a generative mind is exhilarating, which made me wonder what it might be like to live here — before a developer in the 1950s parceled the land, built homes nearby, and nearly demolished this treasure altogether. But for Avery and Queene Coonley for a good 20 years, it must have been heavenly. According to one of our docents, they commissioned Wright because they believed that, of all architects, he could capture the qualities of harmony, grace and beauty. 

A study should be done, if it hasn't already, on what effect living in a Wright home has on its residents. Perhaps it makes them more generous and open, as evidenced by the current owners allowing a couple thousand curious tourists to wander, a little dazed, definitely dazzled, through these laboratories of creative design.

Wright Plus, I realized anew this year, is a marvel — a model of what can be done with an army of motivated, dedicated, intelligent volunteers, plus the aforementioned gracious homeowners. There is no better advertisement for our communities. Even the long lines allow visitors ample time to peruse the housing stock along our tree-lined streets and strike up conversations with interesting strangers from Pasadena, Montreal and Chicago.

My plan was to see two or three of the local homes and call it a housewalk. I had things to do, obligations tugging insistently on the sleeves of my superego.

But after visiting Hemingway's home on Kenilworth and Wright's Balch House across the street — built in 1911, whose construction the 12-year-old future author no doubt enjoyed watching, well aware of the convention-trampling Mr. Wright, putting the lie to any allegations of wide lawns and narrow minds in Ernie's suburban upbringing — I found myself in line, awaiting the shuttle to Riverside, as if drawn by a tractor beam to architectural nirvana.

In effect, I surrendered to the day with its clearing sky and sunny camaraderie. I even had time, when we returned, for a visit to the Paul Blatchford House at the west end of Elizabeth Court. I dismissed my unworthy (and unhealthy) preoccupations in favor of living a little.

Later, as I ambled, on a lovely early evening, through our beautiful living house museum and municipal arboretum, appreciating it anew, I marveled at the contrast between my frequently unsatisfactory life circumstances and the undeniable goodness of life itself, as well as life in this community, with its long history and my lengthening presence in it.

Somehow, the bad never seems to drive out the good, which presents itself in abundance, in spite of everything, if we don't deny ourselves those moments of meaning known as "living."

The following morning, while listening to the latest in a long line of meaningful conversations on NPR's On Being, my ruminations were reinforced by Maria Popova, an old-soul 30-year-old, who observed that we must find a way to live between cynicism and hope.

"I think a lot about this relationship," she said. "Critical thinking without hope is cynicism. But hope without critical thinking is naïveté. I try to build a life between cynicism and hope because finding fault and feeling hopeless about improving our situation produces resignation, of which cynicism is a symptom and against which it is a futile self-protection mechanism. 

"On the other hand, believing blindly that everything will work out just fine also produces a kind of resignation because we have no motive to apply ourselves toward making things better. I think in order to survive, both as individuals and as a civilization, but especially in order to thrive, we need to bridge critical thinking with hope."

Sounds like something Frank Lloyd Wright might say — did say, in effect, through much of his work, including our own ethereal Unity Temple, currently enveloped in scaffolding.

"There is so much goodness in the world," Popova added. "We just have to show up for it and refuse to leave."

And it occurred to me that maybe we have it wrong. It's not the pursuit of happiness that we should be driven by but the pursuit of goodness. 

Happiness springs from finding the goodness in each day.

We just have to show up for it.

And refuse to leave until we find it. 


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