It’s Alive! and Upcycling

Last night I noticed that the scallions I put in a glass on the windowsill have put out new growth and it felt like some kind of miracle. I frantically looked in the fridge for other produce I could save–we waste so much!–and saw that we have at least two more green onions I can use and re-use, along with some carrots and potatoes to plant in the new planter box (more on that project later). I’ve always been one of those people who claims to kill plants. Learning that it just takes a little patience and thought has been a real head-smacker. How could I have been so stupid?!

It’s Alive! Scallions reborn on the kitchen windowsill. Change the water every two or three days if you try this at home.

I’ve been reading a lot lately about upcycling and product hacking. I’ve started about as simply as one can, by cutting the bottoms of my plastic drink bottles before recycling the rest and using them as little planters to propagate cuttings and seeds. It’s the tiniest of starts but one that I hope to expand upon this year.

Time to get the potting soil and cloche.

The Cabin and Other Projects

Our house was built in 1960. We have a room that we call “the cabin” and I decided to decorate it partly with pictures from a 1960 issue of Field and Stream. Here are the results. I’m super happy with these little collages!

This weekend I also started building a planter box from my own plans. More on that later–including the plans–but here is a progress pic just to mark the occasion.

And finally, I started learning how to knit with a loom. I’m surfing a wave of creativity!

Knowledge Work, Emotional Labor

As a graduate student and “knowledge worker,” most of my life revolves around processing information. One of my academic fields–information science–deals with how people gather and disseminate information, and how people turn it into knowledge, while the other–history–involves gathering and interpreting a vast amount of data to craft an argument about the past. I use these skills Monday through Friday in a fairly specialized way solving (more or less) complex real estate questions for the State of Florida, while the rest of my time is devoted to academic work. So, on the whole, I spend a lot of time working, and a lot of time simply thinking about thinking. A couple years ago, I was vaguely unsettled by a tension between thinking materially and thinking digitally. Simply put, is it better to work with a pen and paper, or with computers? This tension has only grown as I’ve thought more about the problem, and now in my mind it has come to resemble a sort of civil war with the comfort and rigor of paper on one side and the flash and pomp of circuits on the other.

Maybe “civil war” is a little dramatic, but let me explain at least how these seemingly simple thoughts really do conjure up feelings. Electronics seem to wrap me in this warm sense of capability and convenience. I call it a siren song. Simply entrust your information and time to their care, they promise in honeyed tones, and your life will be both enriched and simplified. It feels good, like I’m firmly planted in The Now and remarkably productive. Pens and paper feel more active, more rigorous — like they allow me to channel some kind of Indiana Jones-style, rugged individualism in my work. It’s up to me to recall what I wrote yesterday, or last year, but I’m more likely to process the information because I had to embody the process by writing it down. 

But are either of these things true? I’ve spent the last several years wrestling with this question, straddling a line that is just as much emotion as it is intellectual, and I do not know. It is not a question I will answer today. But in the spirit of blogging through my confusion, as Gregory Gunderson proposes here, what I’m curious about today is the emotional dimension of this question. Ideas engender feelings, of course, and this one is no exception; but why should it be that I have feelings about paper and computers? And why do these feelings compete with one another?

I think these feelings have a lot to do with marketing. Marx rather famously argued that capitalism reduces human relations to commodity fetishism. In this view, producers and consumers do not see each other as humans in the round, but rather as inputs and outputs in the market. To the President of Samsung, in this view, I am not Chris, the graduate student and government employee struggling to understand why he has feelings about a cell phone, but Chris, a once and future customer with needs, fears, and desires that can be used to encourage me to buy another phone or tablet. It’s not the person who matters in this view, but the exchange.

Emotions smooth this exchange. For the last century, the market has carried out this act of reduction through significant psychological warfare. It is not a coincidence that the inventor of propaganda was also the inventor of modern public relations–a man who convinced women to smoke in the 1920s by suggesting that cigarettes were symbols of liberation before aiding the CIA in the overthrow of the Guatemalan government in the 1950s. Making people associate products with their identity brings them to the exchange. 

These emotions work toward marketing’s ultimate goal: segmentation. Tech not only benefits from segmentation–it is a several trillion-dollar market built on the inchoate promise of eternal “improvement”–it is now the primary platform by which segmenters work on our emotions. Like pretty much everyone born in the last forty years, I’ve been remarkably susceptible to this segmentation. I like tech, I think it is good; but as events over the last few years called this enthusiasm into question, there was another consumer identity ready-to-wear: the bohemian scholar, the rugged individual, whatever.. I won’t even get into how the culture of tech contributed to this workaholism in the first place, because the responsibility is all on me. But, really? I’m basing my identity on how I like to read and take notes? Something is wrong there.

Maybe that’s the breakthrough. I suspect it is just a detente, though, because tech and paper are just a synecdoche for the deeper problems that trouble us all. Is this smartphone spying on me? Am I free to read and think without being surveiled and manipulated at all hours of the day? Is the digital future really better than the analog past? I don’t know. Let me check my notes. 

Food and Place: Lucilla and The Grey

The difference between good food and great food has a lot to do with its relationship with place

Tonight we ate at Lucilla here in Tallahassee, and it was really good. I had the vegetable pot pie–a flavorful concoction of corn, squash, asparagus, tomatoes, field peas, shiitake, and scallions in a roasted shallot tomato velouté ,suspended between a couple pieces of flaky pie crust and served alongside a decent-enough salad of mixed greens with cucumbers and radishes drizzled with a vinaigrette. It was all really well done–for real, you should eat there if you’re in Tallahassee–but I don’t know that I’ll remember anything about the meal beyond its quality a few weeks from now. I think this is because we remember stories and, unfortunately, the menu at Lucilla doesn’t have a story to tell. 

While it’s clear that the menu is mostly “Southern,” it’s a little bit all over the place. You can get “Snapper St. Charles” or Blistered Shishito Peppers, if you’d like; or perhaps you’d prefer to choose between Pasta Bolognese or Shrimp & Grits. Each of these would be undoubtedly delicious, but the menu doesn’t have a story to tell about the people who made it or the things that inspire them. Contrast this with The Grey in Savannah, Georgia. On Chef’s Table, Executive Chef Mashama Bailey recounts how she originally developed a really eclectic menu. After she was encouraged to focus the menu by mentor Anne Willan, she chose to focus on place. This is a big part of what makes the restaurant so successful. It’s not a Savannah institution, like Mrs. Wilkes Dining Room, but it might as well be; because everything about it, from the location and decor to the menu and attitude, is so richly evocative of the city that it seems almost impossible to skip the restaurant when you visit. 

Telling a story about place the way that The Grey does elevates the occasion from a merely sensuous thrill to an aesthetic experience. This, I think, is what we remember most about restaurants. It’s what drives Vice to make a film about Pok Pok in Portland. It’s why the Travel Channel is mostly food shows. It’s also what keeps us going back to some really mediocre places, like Olive Garden or Outback Steakhouse. 

So here’s maybe a lesson for budding restaurateurs: evoke an interesting place well, and you’ll be successful. Add wonderful food to the mix? You’ll be legendary.

Seriously, though: go eat at Lucilla! You won’t be disappointed. 

Seminole Wars Heritage Trail

I’m working on a project based on the Florida Seminole Wars Heritage Trail. Because the Trail is primarily spatial, I started by creating a Google Earth layer listing all of the points by region. I just learned that disallows kmz uploads, so I imported the map into Google Maps instead. Here’s a link. Happy (but reflective) travels!

Chicago in the Rear-View

Well, it’s all over now save for the thinking. Of course, what is anything but thinking? Walking, eating, even breathing, are just thinking in motion. Travel is no different. The sights, sounds, smells, and feelings we seek by traveling are, at bottom, just another way of thinking through the world. The trip I’ve been thinking about for the last four months is finally over and I’m still unpacking it all, but I’m interested today in how we come to think about places in the first place. 

If you played Sim City 2000, you might remember a little easter egg in the game. Here’s how it worked: build a library in your city, click on the building to view details, and then click the button marked “Ruminate.” The game would then open a window containing an essay on cities by Neil Gaiman. I suggest playing the game on DosBox and reading the essay in context, but you can read the short piece here if you don’t have the time. I first read Gaiman’s essay when I was about ten years old, and I’m convinced that it shaped the way I think about cities from the very beginning, because Sim City was the first tool I ever used to think about what a city is, how it works–and Gaiman’s essay tied it all together. Software can move you like that. 

Ruminating in Sim City 2000

“Cities are not people,” Gaiman writes, “but, like people, cities have their own personalities.” When I think of Chicago I imagine a vast, brown machine straddling Lake Michigan, churning incessantly. A pulsating, breathing hybrid being made from people and steel and brick and concrete. On my second night in the city, now 950 miles away, I called it a “grand steamroller of a city… an unstoppable machine looming over the Great Lake,” and at the end of the trip I felt the same way. Of course I’m not alone in this characterization. Carl Sandburg famously described the “City of the Big Shoulders,” the “Hog Butcher for the World,/ Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,/ Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler.” Anthony Bourdain called Chicago a “completely non-neurotic, ever-moving, big hearted but cold blooded machine with millions of moving parts… that will…roll over you without remorse.” Following Sandburg, we are inclined to see these millions of people, living like anywhere else, as some sort of thing, some lovable but impersonal monster chewing up corn and spitting out steel. Why? Maybe we give each other this idea of what a place is, and we travel to reinforce it. Maybe we travel because of it. Or, maybe Gaiman was right. Maybe Chicago really is a sprawling machine made of people. 

Bathymetric Map of Lake Michigan

On my first day in the city I was riding the Red Line train south into the Loop and it struck me as odd that all of this should be happening just a few thousand feet away from the cold, quiet depths of wild Lake Michigan. While the train raged through a tunnel, an image popped into my head of a Smallmouth Bass, ensconced in silence and ever-so-still, suspended in the water just a few hundred yards away from this roaring, clanging madness. In my imagination, a single little bubble escapes the fish’s slowly opening mouth. It meanders to the surface, where it contributes an immeasurably tiny voice to the symphony of noise swirling in the air around the city. It is amazing that these two things–electric locomotive and smallmouth bass–should exist in such proximity to one another, and it raises the question: is the fish part of the machine, too? Tennyson argued in his way that nature is “red in tooth and claw,” but in this place the traveler cannot help but feel that the order is reversed. The city is wild; the lake civilized. It’s all a matter of perspective, yes, but the frigid calm of the lake’s depths seems to offer a poignant counter-argument to the City for living in this part of the world. The fish does not move unless it must. The people living in the city are always moving, bundled against the killing cold. Maybe this is why the city seems like a thing unnatural: it moves when it should be still.

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1733 Map of Chicago (Source)

The cold is unmistakable. The wind, infamous. It gets dark at 4:30 in the afternoon during this time of year. When I was there it was foggy and wet, muddy from the first snowfall. As the sun slid beneath the horizon and the long, cold night closed in, I thought too about how miserable Chicago must have been for the people who lived there hundreds of years ago. “Cities exist in location,” Gaiman says, “and they exist in time. Cities accumulate their personalities as time goes by.” Huddled against the cold, counting the days until the spring, Chicago’s early people–Native progenitors and European usurpers alike–must have cultivated a biting sense of humor and a firm work ethic to survive here. Joking to blunt the sharp edges of the cold and shorten winter’s long nights, then working feverishly in the warmer months to survive the cold again. The first Europeans came to know Chicago as a place to cross the river: once, twice, three times you could portage the Rivière Chicagou on this 1733 map. The city, as Gaiman suggests accumulates its character across time and space. You stamp your feet when you’re cold. In Chicago, you cross the river. Over time, millions of people found their way to the portage. They stamp their feet to stay warm. They cross the river. They do it over and over again until they start to look like millions of moving parts and the city takes on a life of its own.

Images like these are the things we use to understand cities. I’m no closer to understanding Chicago today than when I boarded the plane to visit, but neither was Sandburg when he wrote:

“The bronze General Grant riding a bronze horse in Lincoln Park

Shrivels in the sun by day when the motor cars whirr by in long processions going somewhere to

keep appointment for dinner and matineés and buying and selling”

The city is what we project upon it. It is then what we project upon the projections. Add image upon image, time upon place, and the palimpsest can take on a life of its own, like Sandburg’s General Grant in the remainder of the canto:

“Though in the dusk and nightfall when high waves are piling

On the slabs of the promenade along the lake shore near by

I have seen the general dare the combers come closer

And make to ride his bronze horse out into the hoofs and guns of the storm.”

Chicago, I will miss you.

Grant Monument