My Dinner with Kiyoshi


by Kirby Urner
September, 1999


One Friday evening in November of 1998, when my fellow NPYM AFSC corporation representatives were sharing a humble meal at Friends Center in Philadelphia, I slipped out to have a four star dinner with Kiyoshi Kuromiya, a man known to restaurateurs throughout the city. His guidebook for gourmets, which he wrote years ago while still a student of architecture at the University of Pennsylvania, helped revolutionize the city’s palate – and provided Kiyoshi with a measure of financial independence. Even your average Philly brew pub seems to feature haute cuisine these days.

Kiyoshi recounted this personal history over savory fare at The Fork, and then turned to the more serious subject of civil rights activism. Even while enjoying his reputation as a man about town in Philly, he was leading a double life, serving on the front lines in the fight against racism, working closely with Martin Luther King on various non-violent actions, mostly in southern cities.

He was once bludgeoned to near-death with a club by some deputy sheriff. TV and newspaper images showed him being rushed to the hospital, head bloodied, while Dr. King publicly shared his fear that Kiyoshi was DOA. But fortunately he recovered, and was able to join King for the March on Washington, where he sat in the front row to hear King’s famous "I have a dream" speech. Kiyoshi was born in a prison camp for citizens of Japanese heritage at Heart Mountain, Wyoming.

We left the restaurant and sauntered over to the Liberty Bell, a resonant symbol in this context. These days, Kiyoshi is a leading "treatment activist" on the front lines against our society’s prejudices against people with AIDS. His not-for-profit Critical Path Project has been instrumental in keeping the AIDS community well informed about leading edge treatment options. Kiyoshi himself is HIV-positive and more than once has been at death’s door in his struggle for health. His training as a gourmet comes in handy for times when it’s a real challenge just to retain an appetite for any kind of food.

But what brought Kiyoshi and I together that evening was another side of his multi-faceted persona: the architecture connection. Kiyoshi had enrolled in the University of Pennsylvania primarily to study under Lloyd Kahn. But he didn’t experience a true meeting of the minds in that subject until he later encountered Synergetics: Explorations in the Geometry of Thinking by R. Buckminster Fuller, a book he started reading while recuperating from surgery.

Here at last was a thinker and an architect whose writings resonated at a more deeply psychological level, even though the metaphors were starkly geometric, couched in a language more familiar to engineers. As Robert Thurman (a.k.a. Tenzin) writes in his Circling the Sacred Mountain (Bantam Books, 1999):

Buckminster Fuller is a great hero of mine – the poets all hate him because he wrote like an engineer, but I love him anyway – because he never gave up the idea that people can solve every problem they’ve created. I mean, the guy had plans after World War Two for taking the factories that had been creating bombs and, while hardly changing them a jot, creating homes and workplaces, heating systems, cooling systems, entire ecosystems. Interconnected, rational, ethical solutions to global problems. Big business wouldn’t let him do it, but he had the plans. Not just talk – but blueprints!


So Kiyoshi grew closer to Fuller, at first just dropping by Fuller’s Philadelphia headquarters to purchase various editions of the Dymaxion Map, a nationless world projection which Kiyoshi found especially suitable for plotting ley lines, geodesics from an ancient system of geometry still used in America’s early days to site its great cities and thoroughfares.

According to Kiyoshi, Philadelphia is on a geodesic connecting London with the Great Pyramids in Ghiza, and its principal streets likewise evidence an awareness of this global network, an awareness wherein sacred geometry and architecture remain intimately conjoined.

Fuller was quick to recognize Kiyoshi’s promise and set him up with an office in New England, a base for collaboration on Fuller’s two major books post the two-volume Synergetics (Macmillan 1975, 1979): Critical Path (1981) and Grunch of Giants (1983) – both published by St. Martin’s Press. Kiyoshi’s name appears on the cover of Critical Path under the title of Adjuvant, meaning "catalyst" (although his name does not appear on the second book, a sequel, Kiyoshi tells me his role on this one was essentially the same).

So it was here, on the cover of Critical Path that I first encountered Kiyoshi’s name, at a time when I was tuning in to Fuller in the early 1980s. Back then, I was serving as a high school mathematics teacher in a Catholic girls’ academy in Jersey City, NJ -- my first job post Princeton (Class of 1980). Now here I was, almost a decade later, playing hooky from the AFSC corporation dinner at Friends Center, and finally getting to meet in person with Fuller’s trusted adjuvant.

As a high school math teacher and philosophy major, I had a professional interest in getting to the bottom of Fuller’s critique of our western psychology in Synergetics, which I started reading after taking in Critical Path.

Fuller claimed our obsession with right angles and the cube betrayed a narrow landlubber’s focus, whereas a mentality more informed by maritime traditions would keep in mind the roundness of the Earth at all times. No infinite, perfectly flat planes exist in reality, nor should we insist on using them metaphysically, Fuller advised. Euclidean-style geometry may have been a favorite pass-time of nerdy Greeks, scribing with rule and compass on a sandy beach – but their beach was always curved, not flat to infinity.

The World Trade Center towers are slightly further apart at the top than at the bottom, because of the Earth’s curvature. If you think all lines rising vertically upwards, perpendicular to the Earth, remain parallel to each other, then you don’t have the right conditioned-reflexes for operating as a competent human being aboard Spaceship Earth. And besides, these lines don’t go "upward" but "outward", as a sphere confers essentially two freedoms: inward/outward and around. Interesting points, I thought, and continued looking for ways to incorporate these intuitions into my 10th grade geometry classes.

I think I was mentally prepared to tackle Fuller’s serious-minded poetics around this time because of my long-standing interest in the psychoanalytic literature. Since I’d discovered Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams while in 8th grade at the Overseas School of Rome, I’d been hooked on tales of the unconscious, and on Jungian-style narratives about the adventures of the ego in the face of greater archetypal powers. During the summer before Princeton, I was reading Ernest Becker’s Denial of Death (a book Woody Allen plugs in his movie Annie Hall), which introduced me to one of Becker’s favorite authors, Norman O. Brown.

In Love’s Body (Vintage Books, 1966), Brown tells us that the sin of Protestant fundamentalism is literalism, the attempt to reduce truth to a single, non-resonant formulation that deliberately kills off the play of meanings. Literalism seeks to plug the dam of "between the lines" alternatives, drains away all the depth to leave one true (shallow) reading of the rules. In this way, rigor mortis sets in, and we harvest the wages of sin: loss of eternal life in what Lacan, the French psychoanalyst, termed the Full Word. Quoting from Love’s Body:

Protestant literalism: the crux is the reduction of meaning to a single meaning – univocation. Luther’s word is Eindeutigkeit: the "single, simple, solid and stable meaning of scripture; unum simplicem solidum et constantem sensum…. The crux in the reduction of meaning to a single meaning – both in scriptural and in literary exigesis – the crux in univocation, is the reduction of meaning to conscious meaning: intentio auctoris, the author’s intention. But the unconscious is the true psychic reality; and the unconscious is the Holy Spirit. The opposite of the letter is the spirit. "The sensus plenior is that additional, deeper meaning, intended by God but not clearly intended by the human author". [pg 192-95, footnotes omitted]


Kiyoshi and I agreed over tasty entrées that Love’s Body was an illuminating book – he’d read it too. And I think it was our shared willingness to allow for "polymorphic" readings (Brown’s term) which made Fuller attractive to both of us – and to Hugh Kenner, a leading James Joyce scholar, who counted Fuller among the central poets of our age in his book The Pound Era. Perhaps it’s this prerequisite training in the liberal arts which Fuller’s writings require which explains why Synergetics went out of print (only to resurface on the World Wide Web): its initial readers were mostly in single-minded search of some literal core, not realizing the work is by design subversive of such approaches.

Fuller was maybe the last New England Transcendentalist, his great aunt Margaret Fuller Ossoli having been the first to publish Emerson and Thoreau in her Dial magazine, along with writings of her own. Fuller read and was influenced by these writings while still a freshman at Harvard, before getting "fired" for failing to conform (his family sentenced him to hard labor at a cotton mill after he took the an entire cast of thespians out for drinks after a play). His father, who died when Fuller was young, had been a tea merchant for the East India Company (Fuller himself drank enormous quantities of tea – it would soak through his scalp and stain his pillow).

Earlier that day, I’d accompanied Kiyoshi on his rounds about town; he was delivering the latest issue of his organization’s journal, cram-packed with detailed information about the latest treatments for AIDS – how the newest drugs worked, their possible side effects, their costs. This issue also focussed on the internet as a way to disseminate such information more globally, and to foster greater equity in treatment, as those with AIDS in the Third World usually have no affordable health care options: Malthus-inspired reflex conditioning is content to let these people die, as there’s not enough to go around as it is (according to the prevailing dogma).

This is the same brand of selfishly-motivated reflex-conditioning Fuller perpetually ran up against, and tried to counter with lots of real world data, gathered and analyzed under one roof. He called this effort World Game: computer-assisted grand strategizing on the model of war games, but with an eye towards ending the causes of war, rather than unnecessarily exacerbating them. As a part of our rounds, and to oblige me as a tourist, Kiyoshi stopped by the headquarters of the not-for-profit Philly-based World Game Institute, one of the legacy institutions still struggling in Fuller’s wake. Medard Gabel, WGI’s executive director, graciously met with us in the conference room. I explained that I was in Philadelphia on Friends’ business, and Medard volunteered that he was a sometime attender at a Friends’ Meeting in nearby Media, Pennsylvania.

This penchant for global "big picture" thinking, obvious in Fuller, is likewise evident in my own family. Jack Urner, my father, is an urban and regional planner, with experience in the USA, Libya, the Philippines, Egypt, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Lesotho. In each of these countries, my mother, Carol Reilley Urner, has teamed up with dad by tackling the circumstances faced by the most disadvantaged in these places (the "poorest of the poor"), rolling up her sleeves with enthusiasm, experiencing her calling to do God’s work according to the examples set by some of her role models: Gandhi, St. Francis, and Dr. King. Having such activist Quaker parents predisposes me to see that "little individuals" indeed make a real difference in the world, and potentially have a lot of responsibility towards improving living conditions on our planet.

It was during this period of growing attunement to Fuller, in the early 1980s, that I was visiting my parents in Cairo and set about writing a paper on General Systems Theory with an eye towards sharing it with him. After watching over my dad’s shoulder in his office, and accompanying my mother on her rounds among the Zabaleen, nomadic Coptic Christians living in an abandoned quarry in southern Cairo, I merged these experiences with some of the metaphors and concepts I’d gleaned from Fuller’s various tomes. The language was polymorphic rather than literal, but contained a lot of real world data about dad’s cities-in-the-desert, and the kind of the micro-business lending my family was doing (something we continued in Bangladesh, and which practice the Grameen bank has popularized and made internationally acceptable).

Fuller wrote back on his impressive letterhead (lots of prestigious awards and honorary degrees) to say my paper was "excellent". So I felt I’d officially become another one of his students, albiet towards the very end of his life. We tracked one another after that, meeting only once in person at Hunter College in New York, myself one more in the audience, but with a personal relationship forged in the interim.

When Fuller died on July 1, 1983, I was on my way to Friends General Conference, somewhere outside of Washington, DC (our family base at that time). I read about it in the Washington Post and experienced a lot of sadness, making sure to get something like an obituary in the FGC newsletter for the next morning. I’ve continued as Fuller’s student ever since that time, making contacts within his large network of peers and collaborators, which includes lots of interesting characters, such as Kiyoshi Kuromiya. We are finding the internet to be an indispensable tool in this regard, a catalyst – as Fuller anticipated we would in Grunch of Giants (now on the web).

And of course I’ve been working to integrate this path I’ve chosen with my practice of the Quaker faith, a process which includes sharing with Friends what this work looks like from the inside. And so I hope that you, my readers, will have found this article illuminating towards this end.

Kirby Urner
3745 SE Harrison St.
Portland, OR 97214


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