Friday, December 16, 2011

Country of Origin Scavenger Hunt

So we went around the house tonight and surveyed everything that had a "Made in _____" label. Here are the results:

Household Objects (primarily kitchen)

China: 23*
USA: 12
Thailand: 10
Mexico: 7
Taiwan: 2
Japan, Malaysia, Portugal, Vietnam: 1

*(one older IKEA light was credited to "People's Republic of China"...)

Conclusions? Go to Mexico for knives. Cheap appliances that you get free with your credit card reward points come from China. Cookware was solidly USA, though. One nice old cast iron pan, all our copper-bottom Revereware pots and all the Pyrex baking stuff is made in the country you and I live in. Turns out we still make things after all - or maybe we just have really old things. Pretty much everything except the appliances came from Goodwill.

Made in China



It's a fun little game. We pulled everything out of the cupboards and went at it with a clipboard. I'd recommend it sometime. I'm not really trying to moralize about it right now - it's just interesting to know where stuff comes from.



Food was a very different matter. More diverse, a little more equatorial. You see our local food bias come out stronger here. Also, we have hardly anything in the fridge right now.

Food Items

USA: 10
Mexico: 4
Canada: 2
China: 2
Costa Rica, Ecuador, Madagascar, Italy/Greece/Spain, Switzerland: 1

Madagascar was vanilla, Switzerland veggie bouillon. Costa Rica coffee, Ecuador bananas. China was packaged mushrooms and seaweed.

Food really should be a whole other post, with its own metrics, that someone else more knowledgeable than I should write. But there it is.

Enjoy the holidays and don't buy cheap shit that no one really wants (wherever it comes from).

Monday, November 7, 2011

The Codex Seraphinianus

I can't remember when I've been this excited about something new. It's archeology, really, the unearthing of a lost treasure. This is a book, but a book like you've never seen. First, an introduction.

Tonight has been one of those internet free-associative wanderings wherein I wake up at 3 am and lie in bed staring at the ceiling in the dark simply just surprisingly awake. So I get up and decide to explore the world a little bit. One thing lead to another, I read some xkcd, read the About page on xkcd (yes, well) which happened to offhandedly mention Boing Boing (which I'd been to before, but decided to check out just for the hell of it). The top article on Boing Boing was about this strange book, that was now, for the first time ever, available online for free. And it showed a picture.

This piqued my interest, so I read the post. It turns out this is a book written by an architect, graphic and industrial designer named Luigi Serafini in Italy in the 70's that has acquired to a kind of mythical status and cult following. It is an encyclopedia of an imaginary world in the language of that world. The introduction was written by Italo Calvino (of course). It has been printed in Italian, French and English and is currently out of print, but can be bought used for anywhere from $150-$500 (if anyone out there is looking for a great Christmas present...). It has crazy pictures, thoughtful layout, is about 370 pages long and really just has to be seen to be believed.

At this point, I would say I was committed, in the way that one makes various important life commitments, to this book. I found an article in the Believer about someone else's first experiences with the book, which then became part of my first encounter with the book.

Here's a brief quote of a quote from that article:

"“It would become a drastically different book the minute it became completely translated,” Jackson said, “which of course could be part of the plan. He could have conceived this as a sort of embryonic or chrysalitic work that at some point would take a kind of completely different shape. But the way I see it, it’s probably meant to hover on the verge of scrutability, to constantly hold forth the possibility of being read but stay resistant at the same time. It’s important that it bothers you with the feeling that there is some content that you ought to be able to extract from it in a normal discursive kind of way. It’s meant to appeal to the rational or exegetical urge. It wants to be interpreted but it won’t let you, and it’s very interesting the way it teasingly asks to be read and then refuses. You could see this as a really really elaborate inkblot. It’s never going to completely yield to you in the sense of giving you insight into the artist’s intentions, so it kind of reverts you back on yourself and makes you notice what you’re noticing and notice the associations that you make. It’s a kind of springboard for your own creative musings.”"

I haven't "read" the book yet, but there it is, safely stowed, a single simple icon on my desktop. I'm very excited about it. Some of the things that exist in this world are just incredible. They fill you with wonder and awe and delight. The world stretches and distorts the way it does for a child, where the boundaries are unknown, the fears fantastical and real, the possibilities wild and limitless. I love that feeling. So, I wanted to share that with you. Here's the download link:

[Apparently this link isn't up anymore, but I do have a PDF I'd be happy to share with anyone who wants it. ]

Let me know what you think, yeah? I'm excited for us both.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Frozen Time

There's a sort of time in the night when everything is frozen in place. Maybe other people don't have this experience, or have a different one. Mine is an experience of time as a solid, as still, stuck, the dark bringing everything in. Not inside, but closer, forming a sort of circular screen. Just beyond arm's reach. And then time stops. This is when I do my free associating. The internet's great for that. Take a feeling and throw it in and see what you come out with. It isn't often, or not as often as it used to be, but there it is. It comes back. It reminds me of people. I miss people. I think about them, wonder how they are, wonder if they have a frozen time. There's no need to dress things up here. It's just us, alone, together, in this moment. Time is frozen and here we are, you and I. Why pretend to be something we're not? Organized, responsible, together, sure, whatever. But with purpose? Knowledge of where we're headed or why? Well, I shouldn't speak for you. For me, there are moments when time becomes stuck, frozen, and I see through myself and I look like frosted glass. I can almost see inside, but then there's nothing really. There's just this, just us, here and now. It's okay. There's nothing wrong with admitting that you don't know where you're going. We should do this more often.

Same time next week?

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

On Picture Windows

I live in an area with many small houses built in the 20's and 30's, largely Craftsman style, if that means anything to you. The thing I consistently notice here is that most of these older houses go out of their way to feature a large picture window in the living room, often framing the family dinner table, and, just as often, that the blinds in these houses are almost always drawn, day or night.

What is it about society that has shifted from wanting to display the living room and bring the world in to pretending that it isn't there? It makes me think of the father in A Christmas Story who was so proud to display his newly won leg lamp in the living room picture window, because that's where you put things you want the neighbors to see.

The picture window is a carefully composed portrait you present to the world. Another analogy may be that it is a TV station you are broadcasting 24/7. And maybe therein lies the difference.

Are we so over exposed to a constant media influx that the still image no longer holds meaning for us? Is that quaint portrait our picture window presents to the world now just another unwanted piece of unnecessary information? Is it that we no longer believe in the power of images, having become savvy after being marketed and lied to so many times? Is it that we no longer have an obligation to the outside world to compose ourselves as a part of a whole? Is it simply that our living rooms have turned inward, turned as all things now are to align with a proper viewing angle for the TV? I don't know whether it's a good or a bad development, but I look at all the closed curtains in lit houses as the bus chugs past and I can't help but recognize that there is some incongruity with the past that is now awkwardly frozen in our architecture.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Getting to Second Base With Seattle

Had a lecture and bus tour today re: Seattle architecture put on by the department. It's a pretty amazing place with a really strong sense of regional modernism that I happen to like. Also saw a documentary put together by the department called Modern Voices that probably wouldn't be interesting to most people, but now I have [old, white] faces to match to all the big names in the frieze around the ceiling of the lecture hall. There is no doubt in my mind that Jeffery Ochsner, who led the bus tour, knows more about Seattle history than any person living or dead, or any half dozen for that matter, or even an exponential factoring of whoever is in a distant second. Besides being able to rattle off all the dates and architects behind all the major buildings in the city from memory, he called my attention to a few obvious yet noteworthy things on the tour. 1. NBBJ architects have designed half of Seattle. I need to look them up. 2. Paul Allen owns all of South Lake Union, and is building some bio-med/yuppie housing utopia within city limits. It's scarey to think one man has that kind of power, hopefully he's using it for good. 3. A lot of people live downtown. You won't think it, because who would want to live downtown, but it's an undeniable fact that there are just a lot of large high-rise apartment buildings and they keep building more, so somebody must be living in them. I'm curious how many people live in downtown Seattle. 50,000? More? There don't seem to be that many grocery stores, although, as Anita pointed out, the good folks in Belltown surely subsist solely on wine and cheese.

There's something I really love about knowing a place. Knowing its history, its struggles, its politics, how to get around, where to eat, where to get that one random thing you need, what the cool monthly or yearly events are, and so on. Just really knowing a place to the point where you have a relationship with it. My relationship with Seattle is really going to deepen as a result of studying architecture. I know the city from a use perspective probably better than many people who grow up at this point, but this is something else. Seeing the city's decisions played out over time in zoning laws and building codes, seeing the incremental changes that transform neighborhoods and build vital new industries. Seattle is a very successful city, financially, culturally and socially, and that is the direct result of many good decisions that many intelligent and well-intentioned people have made over the last 150 years. It's interesting to see this, and see how it affects our lives, how it shapes them. I like this feeling of depth with the place. This is something new.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Master Chef: Reality TV and the Restoration of Traditional Values

Anita's been watching Master Chef. It's a captivating show. There are a couple other cooking shows out there right now, but there's something so much more gripping about this one. I think the difference is that it's all amateur cooks. The contestants are teachers and truck drivers and office workers. They come to cooking as children, through caring for a loved one, or as a lost art that is satisfying and centering, to fill a need in their life. They are seeking validation, or respite from routine, or they dream of making it big. They are nervous and unsure of themselves and so in awe of the food-celebrity judges that they can't keep from saying out loud, 'I can't believe Gordon Ramsey is eating my food'. Some plead with the judges to give them a chance, they make foolish promises like a man who's life is endangered, desperate in prayer. Some are so nervous they drop dishes and leave out ingredients. Some try to look cocky, as if they deserve to be here. Some cook down-home traditional dishes that you might find at the church picnic; others try to emulate what they've seen in magazines – the white rectangular tray, simple, upturned edges, the three carefully crafted morsels, sauce artfully drizzled across it all, something expensive ground over the top just to know it's there. These aren't professional chefs. They all dream of leaving their job and opening a small restaurant, and this show is going to be their soap box and their stage.

The show has all the great focus-group-tested reality TV show cinematics: The dramatic camera angles and ADHD cuts, a tension-heightening Friday the 13th synthesizer soundtrack, the unpredictable emotional swings from overt cruelty to effusive validation on behalf of the judges, the commercial breaks timed just so - cut away as an eyebrow is being raised and Gordon Ramsey's lips are parting to pronounce the final decision – causing you to yell out at the screen and declare your prediction.

The contestants are real people, and they lay their stories and their emotions on the line. You find yourself allying with those whose stories you identify with – the man who cooks for his bed-ridden wife, the gorilla-sized construction worker who has a heart of gold and a velvet palate, the soccer mom who sacrificed a career to have children and finds salvation in her cooking - and castigating the ones you think are too smug, or who've had it too easy, smirking as the judges cut them down. Forget, for a moment, the assumed role of the judges as abusive parent, giving or withholding love, as well as the pervasive suggestion that validation and self-worth must come through fame, experts, always from outside and always from above. Try to ignore the squirmy vulnerability the contestants offer to up to the judges like a sacrifice. This isn't what I want to write about. This is just to say that what the show does, it does well, and what that says about our culture, well...

What is interesting to me is that this show represents a radical return on our part to value, and even esteem, home work as a culture. This show, more so than the others because it features amateurs, is working to restore dignity to the idea of cooking for oneself and one's family. Home cooking has been in a kind of Limbo since the middle of last century, when the ready availability of chemical fertilizers, the enormous agricultural subsidies, the consolidation of small farms, and the advent of Food Science gave us an unprecedented new option for the dinner table: per-packaged, brand-name food. No longer did Mom have to slave all day in kitchen cooking with whole foods, canning and preserving for winter, baking and making everything from scratch. Now Mom was free to be a consumer like Dad, to join the work force, and, a decade or two later, to break from the tyranny of male-domination, and the drudgery and undesirable performance of uncompensated home work, like cooking and cleaning. Packaged food was quick, easy, cheap, and allowed women (and men) to spend less time preparing food and more time pursuing a fulfilling life of consumerism. Money and time that previously went toward food and cooking now shifted toward technology, gadgets. Fortunes were made, all in the name of choice and freedom. Where did this leave home work, specifically cooking, as a cultural institution? Somewhere between a chore and a waste of time.

In The Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture, Wendell Berry characterizes the pernicious change in American culture over the last century primarily as a change in our approach to agriculture. He laments the culture that has been lost with the small family farm. Berry sees food as a “cultural product” and the land as something that needs to be integrated into our everyday lives in order to be stewarded appropriately. Berry laments the loss of rural culture and the societal values that have disintegrated as farms have become fewer, larger, and more mechanized, and as more people live apart from the land, more isolated from the environment, their home and their work. The following is an extended quote discussing how this shift has affected the role of woman in our culture. I include it not so much to discuss gender roles as to emphasize the change in the nature of home work and cooking (although, of course, the two are historically indistinguishable).

But the assignment to women of a kind of work that was thought both onerous and trivial was only the beginning of their exploitation. As the persons exclusively in charge of the tasks of nurture, women often came into sole charge of the household budget; they became family purchasing agents. The time of the household barterer was past. Kitchens were now run on a cash economy. Women had become customers, a fact not long wasted on the salesmen, who saw that in these women they had customers of a new and most promising kind. The modern housewife was isolated from her husband, from her school-age children, and from other women. She was saddled with work from which much of the skill, hence much of the dignity, had been withdrawn, and which she herself was less and less able to consider important. She did not know what her husband did at work, or after work, and she knew that her life was passing in his regardlessness and in his absence. Such a woman was ripe for a sales talk: this was the great commercial insight of modern times. Such a woman must be told – or subtly made to understand – that she must not be a drudge, that she must not let her work affect her looks, that she must not become “unattractive,” that she must always be fresh, cheerful, young, shapely, and pretty. All her sexual and mortal fears would thus be given voice, and she would be made to reach for money. What was implied was always the question that a certain bank finally asked outright in a billboard advertisement: “Is your husband losing interest?”

Motivated no longer by practical needs, but by loneliness and fear, women began to identify themselves by what they bought rather than by what they did. They bought labor-saving devices which worked, as most modern machines have tended to work, to devalue or replace the skills of those who used them. They bought manufactured foods, which did likewise. They bought any product that offered to lighten the burdens of housework, to be “kind to the hands,” or to endear one to one's husband. And they furnished their houses, as they made up their faces and selected clothes, neither by custom nor invention, but by the suggestion of articles and advertisements in “women's magazines.” Thus housewifery, once a complex discipline acknowledged to be one of the bases of culture and economy, was reduced to the exercise of purchasing power.... As housekeeping became simpler,and easier, it also became more boring. A woman's work became less accomplished and less satisfying. It became easier for her to believe that what she did was not important. And this heightened her anxiety and made her even more avid and even less discriminating as a consumer. The cure not only preserved the disease, it compounded it.

And, in case you're wondering what happened to the men:

There was, of course, a complementary development in the minds of men, but there is less to say about it. The man's mind was not simplified by a degenerative process, but by a kind of coup: as soon as he separated working and living and began to work away from home, the practical considerations of the household were excerpted from his mind all at once.

In modern marriage, then, what was once a difference of work became a division of work. And in this division the household was destroyed as a practical bond between husband and wife. It was no longer a condition, but only a place. It was no longer a circumstance that required, dignified, and rewarded the enactment of mutual dependence, but the site of mutual estrangement. Home became a place for the husband to go when he was not working or amusing himself. It was the place where the wife was held in servitude.
(pg. 114-115)

From there, Berry goes on to discuss how this division of work has served to break the bonds of the marriage relationship by removing practical reasons to be together, leaving only sex and the glossy love of fairy tales, which both become idealizations that no one can ever live up to. For him, the separation from the land - from the growing and processing of food – has led to the destruction of the everyday, practical tasks that bond a couple together, and rippled out into the larger culture from there, affecting everything from how we work to how we live to how we spend our money and how we see our selves. If one accepts the premise that something important has been lost that progress has not adequately replaced, this comes to seem like a serious, damning, and congenital flaw in how we live.

As Berry points out, “But then it must be asked if we can remove cultural value from one part of our lives without destroying it also in the other parts.”

This is a question of quality to me. It requires a conscious choice today to do that which will enrich our lives and not to take the default option. Perhaps it has always seemed like this to conscientious people throughout history, but I would imagine the difficulty inherent in making this choice can only be compounded by the absolute omnipresence and finely-honed genius of our marketing and advertising culture. At no time in history have we had a more nuanced knowledge of what is effective in influencing our decisions, nor more labor and resources directed toward affecting how we make those decisions. No wonder it's become commonplace in our culture to downplay the importance of the home and home work. We are drawn out seeking a cartoon version of the good life for every conceivable need that can be packaged, sold, consumed and yet unsated. It takes a feat of great individuality and a strong stroke to swim against this current.

Or at least that's how I've always thought of it, thought of myself - as striking out, making decisions based on my own reasoning, staying true to my principles. Now I wonder if culture does the same, in a way that's just as subtle and nuanced as the economic forces that have led to its disintegration. Economics (and capitalism) are soulless, after all. They are merely rules and forces that control play. At the bottom of it all, there has to be genuine human emotion and desire driving the action. Maybe enough people have gotten sick of bad food and alienation, maybe we're starting to realize that we do value using our hands, having a multifaceted sensory experience of world and personal agency beyond the convenience of purchasing something ready-made. And, hey, isn't there a market in there somewhere? Well, I guess that brings us back to Master Chef.

I try to be positive about the world, because I think you create your reality. The decisions we make literally compose and influence what happens in the world. How could they not? In terms of being positive, this means we choose how we see the world, and in what light we interpret it, but the idea can be applied in so many other ways. Financially, for instance. The most exciting thing for me about shows like Master Chef is that they actively promote the idea of quality in life. They suggest that there is a clear difference in levels of quality, that it's desirable to seek quality things, and that this is a worthwhile way to live. I'm excited to envision a whole generation of people pulling out the old Joy of Cooking, blowing off the dust and dead flies, and trying to reconstruct grandma's casserole recipe. I think it's important to cook for ourselves and to cook with whole foods. More so than in any other facet of life, I think it's especially important to purchase good food and support the economies that produce it. To me, this means sustainable, organic food cultivated in a way that treats the land, the animals, and the workers well. This is one of the small things that we need. I think its effect will be slow and subtle, its roots feeling down into the cracks in the foundation of our culture. I can think of no better place to start the work of reshaping society than in the kitchen.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Sunday, May 8, 2011

End of an Era

Last week of working at Second Use. I feel like I'm graduating high school. It's a weird thing. I've been there the same amount of time - a little over 4 years. It's the longest I've done anything except go to school and be alive. I went in to my friend's first grade class this week to speak to them about being an architect and encourage them to go to college. I told them that you go to grad school after college if you really like going to school. They wanted to know if I work hard and if I'm a billionaire.

I started at Second Use because the ReStore wouldn't hire me. True story. I had worked for the Red Cross for a while, but it felt very bureaucratic. I worked for Youthcare for a while being an on-call counselor for a couple of their homeless teen residential facilities, but honestly I just don't have that kind of patience for helping people with their problems. Then I worked for the Pike Brewery, which was fun. I got a lot of free beer, and they gave us lunch at the bar every day. They fired me, totally out of the blue on a Friday after I'd just gotten back from going home for Christmas. Apparently the head brewer had decided I wasn't picking things up the way he wanted and neglected to give any feedback to that effect. (I don't drink their beer anymore... but no loss, it's really nothing special.) So then I was unemployed for about 3 months, which I hated. I found I just couldn't be productive when I didn't have any structure in my day. I played computer games and watched all of Deadwood, the HBO series (which is excellent). Then I had a very uninspired interview at the ReStore, didn't get hired, interviewed at Second Use, and the rest is history, as they say. Well, I suppose all of it is history, really.

It's worked out well. I've learned how to use tools, how to take things apart, and how to figure out what things are that I've never seen before. I've become one with the forklift, moved 30' beams, know how to get something 15' wide through a 12' opening and, most recently, how to pick up a quarter with a forklift (no joke), although I haven't actually tried it yet. Have to do that with my last week here.

I've seen so many building materials over the last 4 years that I've actually figured out what many of them do. Now when I look at a roof, or a wall, or the burner on a stove, I see all the connections, fasteners and substructure that lie beneath the surface. And what's more, I know what it feels like to take a hammer and pry bar and tear into them. I know by looking at something how it will move, where it's center of balance lies, and how to engage with it.

It's a really powerful thing in the world to have agency. To feel physically empowered to affect the world around you. To be comfortable in your skin. And it's important. I think of those moments of civic virtue when you see someone leave behind their backpack on the bus or you see a man yelling at a woman and being aggressive. Do you jump up and yell "Hey, you forgot your bag!" or step in to let the man know there are witnesses who will stop him from taking it too far? Well, it depends on whether you live inside yourself or out in the world. And this, for me, comes from having practice, from being used to affecting things outside yourself.

I've learned how to negotiate with people. How to manage people's expectations, treat them with respect, and not compromise on what you need to get out of the interaction. I've been responsible for spending thousands of dollars of the company's money. In a very real way, the success, growth and profitability of the business hinged on decisions I was making every day. It was never huge amounts - probably $500 is the most I ever paid out at one time - but it sort of surprises me to consider how I just kind of fell into a position of such responsibility. Surely there must be some valuable life lesson in having to explain over and over why we wouldn't pay someone for their worthless old door that's been cut down on one side and shaved at the top and is a non-standard size and drilled for a deadbolt even though it's an interior door. My creativity, at least, must have improved by having to say the same thing over and over in new and convincing ways.

I learned a lot about people. Second Use is a great place and all the people who work there are really interesting and creative and have a wealth of talents. We're all pretty close, so you really get to see how other people live their lives. It very much isn't the kind of workplace where you put on a persona when you come in, and, for better or worse, people's humanity shines through. When I think about it now, it's probably not a typical retail environment where you can say "Fuck the customers" in a staff meeting and get a laugh and encouragement. I appreciate how committed and supportive the owners are of letting people learn and grow and be themselves. It's nice to have a work environment that acknowledges you're human. We all have strengths and weaknesses and good and bad days. In my position, I was expected to do everything from climb in the recycling dumpster and compress the cardboard down, to cut, claw and saw apart buildings, to negotiate purchases and price $10,000 appliances. I appreciate being expected to problem solve, think on my feet, and perform physical and mental tasks constantly, just as a part of my day.

One of the things that made Second Use so great for me was that there was always something else to learn. I felt like the door was very much open to become as involved as you want to be with the running of the business. I ended up becoming a manager, running meetings, interviewing job applicants, and going over the financials basically just out of curiosity. I think one of the reasons I stayed as long as I did at the job was that there was always something new to learn, often in areas I wouldn't have considered previously - how to run a small business successfully, how to create systems that will work on days when the people working just want to check out and go on autopilot, how to keep the energy of a group up and make people feel good about what they're doing, how to just stay fresh and alive when you're working full time and doing the same thing day after day, year after year.

I've seen a lot of my co-workers on their own paths while I've been on mine. I've seen how things from people's childhoods affect how they function as adults. I've seen people making hard decisions and avoiding hard decisions. Everyone's working through things that they need to figure out, and this takes time. Life is a messy, riotous, excessively dramatic affair with a lot of noble impulses and a lot of backsliding. In many ways, I think I've come to understand how people limit themselves. I've seen what a huge role confidence plays in getting what you want. At this point, I believe that we're basically capable of anything. I think that if a person makes up their mind and knows what they want out of life, and devotes themselves to that goal completely, that they will get it. The universe responds to this kind of direction, chiefly because other people respond to it. I think everyone is looking for a sense of purpose and direction and we all respond so strongly to others who have it. Even if it's their own purpose that doesn't include us, in some way we want them to succeed. We feel caught up in their story, and, I think, we want to be convinced that there is a subliminal order to life. We want to see them get what they want because it means we might do the same. Everyone needs a little help with motivation, with getting through the hard parts and holding on to their vision. And we need each other to do this.

I've been very grateful for everything I've learned from working at Second Use and from all the wonderful people there. They're a jaded, cantankerous, godless, pessimistic bunch, and I love them for it. If there's one thing I could wish for us all, it's that we feel good about what we're doing, right now. There's no time in this life to feel bad. Each moment is vitally important and every situation we find ourselves in holds limitless possibilities. It's not always easy to see this, and that's why it's important to surround yourself with good people who can help you when you lose your way.

I want to thank everyone who's helped me figure out who I am and what I want from life. As with everything, this is a process. I don't know where this goes, but I have a clear sense of what the next step should be. I hope I've helped you all in some way or another as well. Life's too much to take on alone, so let's stay in touch, wherever we end up.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Growing Up

The last year has been a lot of change for me. First time having my own place (correction: our own), first time owning furniture, buying dishes, pots, pans, a vacuum cleaner, a new mattress, a car, becoming a manager at work, applying to grad school. Lots of adult-like things involving such abstractions as logistics, money and responsibility. Let me say this is a process I've been engaged in. That this is happening because it is what feels and seems right at this point in my life. It is the place I've ended up 5 years after following out the ideas I left college with, seeing where they went, seeing their fault lines, contradictions and failings and... going deeper? Anyway, becoming an adult. In what I'd like to emphasize is a continuation of a process of living intentionally and trying to be honest with and true to myself.

The thing about right now that is strange is I am in a very different position than many of my friends. I have a lot of friends from college who are very much living creative, loose, traveling, working a little here and there, no health care, making art, being wild, playful, creative, feeling-oriented lives. I love these people, and the time in which I was living that life with them was the best I've ever felt. It was nothing less than salvation. It was an answer to the stiff, soulless suburban world in which I'd grown up. I place an enormous value on these friendships and want to maintain them, but, for the last year, every time I see an old friend, I end up feeling sad, disoriented, frustrated, inadequate and ultimately just confused.

I have no idea how to balance these forces in myself or the world. On the one hand, I feel almost stupid, in retrospect, for taking this long to take a more active role in my life, to realize I have abilities I can exploit to improve my position and live the life I want to live, and to leverage my education and privilege to make this happen. I feel silly for going to an extremely expensive college in the first place and willfully denying any thoughts about the future. What are you going to do with a creative writing major? It didn't matter. What mattered was that that was what I was feeling then, what I wanted to do. Are you going to go into journalism? I hated that. People who had no idea what creative writing was grappling for a practical application, desperately trying to give you a way to seem respectable, showing their embarrassment for you with their confusion. I sort of wish I had thought seriously about journalism now, but no, I was writing weird subconscious poetry. And learning about life. I don't regret it, but it was an expensive opportunity that most people aren't granted.

So there's that. The why haven't you made something of yourself sort of track. The time spent going around and around in circles about not contributing to the destructive economy, being militant about not living in ways that destroy the earth, not owning a car and spending half a day just to get groceries, all the hours and hours spent in the kitchen and in house meetings arguing about something - whatever - who can even remember now? And then there's wondering if I'm slowly slipping back into the suburbs through the back door. If my desire to have a family, make a middle class income, have meaningful work, have health benefits, have good quality material possessions, etc is leading me into a logical chain that will put me right back where my parents were, wanting the best for their kids, raising kids that were depressed and couldn't wait to get out of the suburbs.

I feel... flat, empty compared to how I was college. It was a wild, exciting time, and I gave myself over to it completely. Oberlin was this magical little snow globe completely removed from what you would normally think of as reality. Who would have known an otherwise uninspiring town in rural Ohio would be the perfect place to just explode? I have such stories. Dropping trou in the middle of lunch to streak prospective student tours going by, the late night naked kitchen crews, the whole semester where we coordinated outrageous and extravagant events to coincide with prospie tours, Kayle hanging upside-down in crab position from the ceiling in Harkness throat singing at full volume and looking like a giant alien frog on the living room ceiling, covering all the windows in the dining room with cardboard, playing black metal full volume and serving trays of broken glass for a special meal, shouting out loud the entirety of Ginsberg's Howl in public space several times, staying up 80 hours straight to see what would happen, climbing every climbable building on campus and breaking into pools, abandoned buildings, HVAC tunnels and anything else we could find, traveling most of the way to Niagra Falls in the trunk of a car (too many passengers) to arrive at 5 in the morning and begin the return trip, so many conversations about art and life and figuring ourselves out, almost none about politics or ideas in the classical sense. Just all these things that I will carry with me forever, that are in no way a part of my life right now.

And I wonder if I'll ever make new experiences on par with these. I wonder if it's possible to become an adult and do such things. It seems to me that my friends are living in denial, ignoring some of the hard questions about the future and life to continue living in the way that feels the best. But this doesn't keep me from feeling somewhat lonely for it, and disoriented. I know this is a very different set of conflicts than most people are presented with. I think most people aren't even aware that this wild, radical world exists. The Burning Man, Rainbow Gathering, dumpster-diving, co-op house, consensus model, vegan, anti-capitalist, buy nothing, gray water recycling lifestyle. I think a lot of people accept the apparent reality that life is boring and lonely and the best we can hope for is to have a couple good friends who understand us, a nice phone with a lot of apps, go out to the bar a couple times a week, get laid once in a while, and numb ourselves with alcohol and TV. I feel grateful that I've seen what an alternate world can look like. But I can't deny that I'm living in this one, and it's just so hard to reconcile the two.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Physical Media

I spent a bit of time in a used CD store today. It's not something I normally would do. I get almost all my media from the public library. Thousands of dollars worth a year. I go to the library at least once a week, sometimes twice. Anything I can't get there, I either do without or buy off Amazon. As much as I like the idea of used bookstores and used CD stores and all that, I just don't need to own these things, and I've never had a desire to own the thing, the visceral, personal connection to it. The thing itself, the plastic disc, is a means to an end for me. Books are a bit different, I do enjoy owning books, but I only accumulate them if I'll want to refer to them, or if I know I'll never come across them again. Otherwise, I just give them away when I'm done. The weight that things have, possessions, objects.

But it was interesting looking around the store. I had a $3 credit from a DVD I sold them. Got the DVD free at work. So. Went through all the used CDs, the $1 bargin bin, the bundled DVD packages of TV shows. Sort of nice to expose yourself to something tempting and then realize you don't really want it. A purification of sorts. I ended up getting a couple things I hadn't heard by groups I'd heard of out of the bargin bin. You can't go wrong with $1 CDs.

Got me thinking. CDs and DVDs are maybe the last physical media our culture will ever use, as far as music and movies go, and books are even heading this direction, although they won't go as far. Everything is streamed, online, instantly accessible. Blockbuster only stays open out of a sense of nostalgia, discomfort with a digital world. There is no longer a need to go out to acquire and bring back the physical means by which to watch your movie. Besides, who doesn't have Netflix? For this in-between time in which not everything is instantly available yet online.

The music store was so 90's. There were so many little categorized objects. It was so geeky. There was so much weight there. So many precious little things. That sense, that collector's mentality dictated the terms of the space, the decor (busy, colorful, dim, loud), the very ethos of the place (a little fuck you, a little playful). All that came out of the objects, the weight of their presence. I suddenly felt nostalgic for the days when a thing was itself. When you saved up and anticipated the release of some album or another and waited in line to buy it and took it home giddy and immediately put it on and listened to it 4 times through, because that thing was it. That plastic disc was the only way to get what you wanted, same with records before. This was never my history with music. I came in right at the death of this era. I spent hours and hours up at night reading about bands on and downloading them via Napster. I never paid for music, never had that physical connection to it's paraphernalia.

There's something important about the objects, though. They are the texture of the world, the reality surrounding the experience. Without them, there is no reason for anything to be a certain way. What I mean is, imagine a quickdrive, a memory stick. It is a vessel, an empty, expressionless carrier. There is no reason, no need, and it would be disruptive for it to be customized to its content. It is simple, black, utilitarian, all purpose. It does not have its own identity the way a CD does, the packaging, the cover, the booklet, paper or plastic case, in some highly marketed cases, an elaborate physical presentation like this retrospective of Motown Records #1 hits my mom got my dad 2 Christmas' ago. The box holding the CDs is the original recording studio building. It's a little bit of genius in the world, a thing that is done perfectly.

So what's my point? I don't know exactly. Just that as things become more digital, interchangeable, transitory, there is less reason for anything to be any certain way. I wonder if our objects will become nondescript, interchangeable. If we'll lose that childlike excitement of going to a music store to acquire a thing that is in itself the experience we want to have.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

The Individual, Other People and The Place Where Strengh Comes From

There is this fiction in our society, this story that we relate over and over. It is so ingrained in how we conceive of our history and evolution that we don't even realize it's there. This is the idea of The Genius, The Individual. The Individual who enters the world fully-formed and destiny-bound out of the womb, rises above the rabble, and, with their particular, individual genius, forges the raw stuff of the world to suit their vision.

This is how we interpret our history and our present. It was Lincoln who freed the slaves, the Founders who made the Nation, Bill Gates who single-handedly shit out a software empire, and of course every ill of the country is currently Obama's fault, Bush's before him. I think this is a harmful fiction for several reasons. 1, I think it's inaccurate, for truth's own sake. 2, I think it discourages individuals from having agency and seeing themselves as capable. It sets the bar so high that you're either a genius or you're another member of the flock. The exclusion of little steps and group victories makes the question of participation an all-or-nothing decision, which leaves no way in. 3, it discourages group process, which is where ideas incubate, where the creative juices mix and whirl and spill out over the brim, and where the work is really done.

At the present time, our society seems so thoroughly gripped by this fiction of the individual. Why should you pay taxes for someone else's health care, education, unemployment? You either sink or swim. If you fail it's your own fault, never mind that the system is rigged against you. In politics, it only serves the powerful to keep the rest of us blaming ourselves, each other, becoming disparaged, apathetic, and dropping out of the game. In life, it makes us passive, consumers; it robs us of our creative potential. And this is a shameful thing for a culture that has always been characterized by innovation, experimentation and open-mindedness.

I posit that the individual does not exist. There is no such thing as you, just you, in a vacuum. We are all part of society. We are shaped by the forces around us. The lines our lives run are dictated by economic and social realities on a much larger scale than we can ever really understand. If we succeed, it is because we build upon the work of those who came before us, if we fail it is because of forces beyond our control. I don't mean to absolve individuals of all responsibility, for there is certainly a significant role to be played by any one person deciding how they want their life to be, and making it a reality. I have supreme faith in the power we have to shape our destinies when we are crystal clear about what we want and utterly committed to the task. But this is a very small percentage of the people alive today, and the rest of us go through life in some combination of doing what's easiest, what feels good, going along with what we see reflected in the world around us and so many other external influences. So why this idea that we can withdraw? That we can ever just be on our own, separate in some way from society, it's forces and it's obligations?

This has always been an individualist country, from the cowboys to the venture capitalists. It's what makes America great. We have religious freedom, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom to bear arms and so many others. These freedom are constantly under attack and we stand at risk of losing them, but, comparatively, it's not so bad here. So it stands to reason that this idea, this thread, would work it's way through society and be extrapolated to it's extremes. I can understand the impulse and the logic, I simply find it narrow minded, superficially self-centered, short-sighted, and really just counterproductive.

* * *

I think strength comes from admitting weakness. It comes from exposing yourself to the light and to other people. It comes from drawing on their strengths, integrating them into yourself, your world view, absorbing their ideas, their skills, their knowledge and using these things in your own pursuits.

I believe there are people of genius in this world, but I don't believe that anything that has ever happened to move society has been the work of an individual. We live within a system, a structure, whatever it's rules, norms, functions, it imposes itself upon us. The option to withdraw is a false choice. To withdraw from humanity is impossible, even the loner who lives in the wilderness beyond the reach of culture takes with them ideas and objects formed by this culture, their very way of thinking has been formed by society, if only in opposition - let alone the citizen who doesn't vote, doesn't follow the developments of the culture, and complains only when it finally directly affects them in some way, a speeding ticket, a tax increase. This interconnectedness is the reality - why fight it? Why not use it?

When I work on something that requires knowledge or skills I don't have (which happens constantly), I proposition everyone I can think of who might have any idea of a solution or even a lead. I go through the phone book (Well, I use the internet. No one really uses the phone book anymore, do they?) and call businesses to ask them questions. It works. They can't just hang up on you. And I find that most people are extremely receptive to someone humbly seeking out their opinion and expertise. Many of these conversations begin something like this: "I have this thing I want to do and I have no idea how to do it. I thought you might be able to suggest some ideas for where to start." I don't ask for too much, I'm humble, and I'm sincerely grateful. It works.

This is strength, in my opinion. Not the strength of the genius returning from the desert with an idea that will transform society, but of an individual as a sort of conduit, a filter, a manager of the skills and abilities and knowledge of others. When you see yourself clearly, your strengths and your weaknesses, and accept them, you don't feel a need to be something you're not, and you stand a much better chance of achieving what you set out to do. And what's better: you might even learn something in the process; and so this is also growth, which is strength.

What I want to know is, Where is this story in our culture? The story of success of the group? Why is this so absent from our self-conception, from our dreams, our myths, our politics and our arts? Is it too complicated to explain? To fit into a pithy title or sound bit? Is our attention spam too short to hear it out? Our egos too large? It's a shame that we put so much energy into trying to be The Genius, or beating ourselves up over failing such an impossible standard. It seems to me that we could accomplish so much and use our abilities so much more efficiently if we just thought differently about what strength is.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Architecture Portfolio

The covers are made with salvaged maple gym flooring (I think it was a racquetball court) and aluminum. The text is silk screened on. Tomorrow I'll take the pages and covers to Phil's Custom Bindery to put it all together. This is the culmination of a year's worth of work, creating many of the projects, photographing them, designing the layout and building the actual object. It feels good to be so close to done on this. I'm grateful to everyone who's helped me along the way. I had to learn how to do all sorts of things I didn't know, and many I never would have thought of, and I couldn't have done it without a lot of help. Thank you much. I'll find out if I got in to grad school in March.