Rebecca Horton

Rebecca is a designer and a dreamer who lives at the crux between idea and reality. She is currently pursuing an MFA in design management at SCAD and plans to take what she learns into the sphere of organizational and systems design. When she's not prototyping ideas in the studio or amongst others, you'll often find her exploring the local food scene, attending outdoor concerts, or visiting with friends. To catch her latest happenings and musings, visit her tumblr.

Savannah: City In Flux

The lens centers upon a row of boarded up buildings, with tattered siding and leaning roofs. Along the edges of the image, there is a crumbling sidewalk strewn with derelict characters. At night, the streets in this neighborhood shine bright with globes installed by the city.  Behind closed doors, the community rages: shouts of anger burst through a cracked window, a woman calls for help, two kids light up in hopes of drowning reality. Young parents long to see their children graduate high school, to make ends meet on two or three jobs, to find a way to feed each little one. Several middle-aged residents aim to take pride in some small way, perhaps a backyard garden, or a carefully-lit fire blazing in a papered room that is encased behind barred windows. The juxtaposition of brokenness and a grappling towards hope is unmistakable.

Cut and scene. The camera shifts to a different perspective a mere fifteen years down the road. Kids pummel down the street on tricycles, a neighborhood baker greets passersby with a wave and warm smile, boys ready to play basketball lace up beside a flower-crowned bed and get ready for some three-on-three. The aroma of fresh food wafts from building-tops and residents rouse themselves for a bright and early farmer’s market prize as Saturday morning begins to rear its head.

Photo by Elisa Jara.

Recently immersed in a design school project tied to issues of urban revitalization and community change in one of Savannah’s most illustrious neighborhoods, I have found myself longing deeply to bring hopefulness and restoration to my current home yet struggling for answers. As a newcomer to the city, I have been thrown into a melting pot of southern charm, lingering racism, and deep-set hopes and dreams. I came to Savannah from further north with ideas about the things that make a place successful, and more personally the things that make a place enjoyable.

When friends from afar ask me about my experiences, admittedly I often refer to Savannah as a mixed bag. It has so much character: incredible historic architecture and streetscapes, unique and well-seasoned food offerings, and families with generations of rooted traditions. The city also boasts a thriving art and design school that churns out some of the United States’ most vocationally equipped creatives. Simultaneously, though, Savannah has a pungent underbelly that anyone who has spent more than a few weeks in its heart will recall. Well-known for its prevalent crime and racial segregation, Savannah is a city still in the throes of finding its voice.

On the surface Savannah glitters with the charming warmth of the Old South. Known as one of the first planned cities, Savannah developed around several central city squares and small grassy parks. Once populated with horse-drawn carriages, its wide streets and grassy roundabouts facilitated a ready flow of traffic to and from its bustling waterfront corridor. Today, many people still stroll the downtown area’s wide sidewalks well into the night, often with pets or kids in tow. These patrons, many of whom are tourists, frequent the local bars and restaurants for a taste of southern flair and laid back conversation. Paula Deen has set up shop near the old city market, offering a buffet of delicious sweet and sultry regional cuisine to those willing to come early enough to reserve a seat. Around the corner, the Savannah Bee Company sells everything from honeycomb to honey-scented lotions and offers free samples of many of its honey flavors. Yet another shop breathes the air of French culture to Savannah’s visitors, boasting a well-curated collection of jewelry, soaps and scents, books, tasty treats, and vintage furnishings. Such spots make Savannah feel a bit like an eighteenth century port town in which onlookers are transported into a slower way of doing things and where the most important item on the agenda is the dinner menu.

Further from the heart of downtown, Savannah begins to feel more like a Flannery O’Connor novel. O’Connor, notably, grew up in Savannah, so this musing should come as no surprise. Here, the streets are peppered with wandering jobless men and the occasional local gem, such as Back in the Day Bakery. A brief visit to one of Savannah’s Chu’s Market locations will offer a colorful glimpse of local culture, a beat on teen drug and gang activity, and a close-up of the tightly-knit community bonds of those born and raised in its many homes. As an outsider entering into these parts of town, one will probably feel both discouraged by the marks of extreme poverty and surprised by the depth of local character. Crumbling homes are brought to life through carefully-manicured lawns and colorful accents. Groups of elderly men mill around outside local car repair shops and abandoned grocery stores, carrying with them rich stories of community lifeblood, at times pumped rich and at others parched. Teens wander the streets in the late afternoon, some looking for a few bucks through a quick break-in while their peers are busy seeking out friends to accompany them to the park.

I’ve never met a people as courageous and determined as those who live at the crux of these perimeter communities. One, a woodworker, situated his shop in a neighborhood with kids and teens in desperate need of after-school alternatives to crime and drugs in order to serve as a catalyst for change. Another, a local printmaker and professor, opened a Tex Mex-inspired coffee shop housing locally-made furnishings and intriguing art pieces in an area of town desperately in need of more mixed-use development. Yet one more, a local music teacher, regularly gathers up the trash that populates her block, plants flowers along an ill-repaired crackling city sidewalk, and encourages the city to get more involved in her neighborhood.

As I think on Savannah’s future and my own as an urban resident, I am both moved and inspired by those who have chosen to live in the gap as agents of change rather than shirkers of responsibility who escape for an easier, more comfortable way of life. Dwelling in the clutch of the renowned “Garden of Good and Evil,” I have begun to understand, perhaps more deeply than ever, that we always live in the flux between two extremes: brokenness, and great, vast beauty. At times, the immense pain of a community may leave us feeling paralyzed, unable to discern how to help it move forward. But change is never easy, and a place full-dose is rarely what we make of it at first glean. I believe that somehow, in communities like Savannah, we must hold in hand the two extremes. We must be both passionate repairers of the broken walls and patient investors who recognize that a full-spectrum revival probably will not happen in our lifetimes. To reference Jane Jacobs, we must be willing to become the seeds of our cities’ regenerations, those seeds that bring “energy enough to carry over for problems and needs outside [ourselves].” And like Jacobs, we must be content to make our little mark and let the work of future generations extend our efforts into new domains.

The Tilling Season

My mom has a green thumb — a huge one. Something of a black thumb myself, I’ve always admired her ability to turn an empty, desolate outdoor space into a blooming oasis, all in the matter of a few months. As long as I can remember, my mother has maintained a yearly vegetable garden, full of all kinds of foods. We spent our summer months supping on the bounty of my mom’s garden-fresh grilled or fried squash, juicy tomatoes, brightly-toned red and green peppers — what delight! Looking back upon my earliest years, I clearly recall my mother spending her afternoons outdoors, tending and watering (and sometimes admiring) her handiwork.

Photo by flickr user ItzaFineDay

A few years ago, I decided to have my own turn at tending a garden. I spent three or four hours, and quite a pretty penny, picking out some beautiful, freshly bloomed flowers to plant in a bed of mulch in my front yard. After carefully tucking the roots just below the soil, sprinkling in some fertilizer and watering the little pups for the first time, the immediate result was stunning. The entire front yard was full of color and I felt proud. However, only a few days later, my beautiful plants began to wilt in the scorching sun. I watered them again, adding more fertilizer and hoping for the best. Within three weeks, the flowers were all but dead, and the two beds in which I had planted them were crawling with weeds. My attempts to plant a successful garden had failed miserably, and I was incredibly disheartened.

Looking back at my fruitless gardening exploits, any successful gardener could quickly name a few things I had forgotten in the gardening process. Notably, I have recently come to realize that the stage of my mother’s gardening efforts that I had been the quickest to forget was the tilling season. Often overshadowed by the succor of its results, this was a time essential for the preparation of a successful family garden. This was a season for churning up old soil full of roots, weeds, and rubbish. I remember the rotor tilling machine my parents used to rent year after year, which they spent tiresome hours in the blistering sun running back and forth through the plot intended for the garden. The rotor tiller stirred things in the soil, digging deep beneath the weeds and unearthing them from their underground hiding spots. It also mixed the soil used in the previous year’s growing season with soil that had been resting beneath it, sheltered from the sun and still filled with nutrients. Over time I have come to learn that the tilling season, in whatever form one might find it, is thus essential for a successful crop.

There are, in fact, tilling seasons of many kinds found not only in gardens but in all spheres of life. As I’ve discovered well enough through my own trial and error, establishing solid roots and bearing good fruit is not something that just happens naturally. We cannot simply throw down some dirt, buy a few plants, and expect a thriving garden. However, if we are willing to put in the initial effort involved in laying a solid foundation, we may yet see crops that bloom twofold, fivefold, and a hundredfold.

This fall, a time of tilling in my own life will shift to a time of sowing. I am moving southward, to pursue a new opportunity in design. The period leading up to this opportunity has been full of lots of churning and upheaval, of longing to be planted but finding no root, and of waiting for seeds to establish themselves in the soil and begin to bear fruit. That is, perhaps, a journey that resonates with many a twenty-something.

We twenty- and young thirty-somethings want to be planted deep, yet often feel like such a thing lies just beyond our grasp, as we are in the years of exploring the initial contours of who we are to become and learning to listen for where and with whom we make sense. Many of our peers are as well, and there is constant moving and shifting in the soil of our lives, perhaps physical and sometimes social or emotional. There is, to be sure, almost nothing harder than seeing a glimpse of what is to come yet not being able to bloom until just the right time. Yet, as the story of my mom’s garden has taught me, the best crops come from a soil that has been prepared, tilled and watered for the coming growth cycle. We long for our gardens to grow, big and tall, and for them to provide sustenance for many, but a time of tilling is always necessary before the season of the crops.

 

La Cuisine de Thomas

We’ve all had them: the meals that are so dreamily delicious that they stick with us forever. Amongst a small group of friends, we may recount them with fondness, perhaps even trying to recreate them with some minor degree of success. Such memories shape our culinary imaginations and serve as a means for drawing out our deepest sense of delight.

Nestled between the Rhône and the Saône in Lyon, France awaits an experience of gastronomy sure to please both the palate and the heart. Starting with a bright-eyed young chef and a single waiter, the legacy of restauranteur Thomas Ponson now spans four locations across a single block. Thomas’s signature location opened approximately ten years ago, and today serves up a variety of traditional French dishes, including the typical three-course lunch for a mere 18 euros. For lunch, showtime is 12 noon, with a single seating and a showcase of all kinds of sweet, savory and salty fare. For dinner, you might stroll by around seven for an apértif and then extend the conversation over dinner around eight or eight-thirty. Meanwhile, if you are hungry for wine and tapas, you can cruise around the corner to Cafe Thomas for a few quick bites and some great people watching. Here, there are cafe-style tables set inside a small building with large, open windows. Outside there is even more seating looking out onto a nearby museum and the surrounding area. And for a true culinary indulgence, Thomas’s most recent addition, La Reserve Thomas, is a must-visit.

La Reserve Thomas is a showpiece of Thomas’ work, with a large walk-in wine storage room enclosed in glass and a heavy wood table flanked by only enough chairs for an intimate party of about twelve. The walls showcase animal heads, the ceiling boasts a wine glass chandelier, and a large cabinet displays spices in neat canisters. This space has an old world ethos that feels gamey and hearty, just like the wild animals that are one of Thomas’s favorite preparations.

Thomas Ponson at work.

Thomas is the namesake of an ambitious, pepper-haired gent who trained under Michael Chabon. His focus is upon perfecting traditional French cuisine and serving up plate-after-plate of sheer deliciousness. When asked about his favorite things to prepare, Thomas cited a love for wild game, wood cock, rabbit, and the like. In fashioning the menus for each day’s offerings, he allows “the products” to shape the food. “Whatever is fresh,” informs the meal and comes delivered daily for an of-the-moment seasonal dining experience.

In terms of the food itself, Thomas’s offerings soar above and beyond any sort of experience his own modest affirmation might imply. In France, lunch is much more common for eating out. So, in traditional fashion, during a recent visit to Lyon, a few friends and I stopped by Thomas’s first location for the high noon meal. Our lunch began with a choice of shrimp and guacamole over greens or rockfish soup topped with a mint cream sauce. It continued with the main course, in our case braised pork atop a simple pile of buttered mashed potatoes. The meal closed with two dessert options. I selected the raspberry tart, while my companions picked the pain perdu, one of Thomas’s signature dishes.

I wonder where Thomas’ culinary ambitions will lead next. “Perhaps an Italian restaurant with a French twist?” he says casually. To be sure, Thomas has a knack for quality and craftsmanship. After we arrived early to peruse and photograph each of his sites, he kindly offered us each a cup of fresh coffee. I accepted and minutes later stood sipping a tiny cup of frothy goodness, which was accompanied by a small packaged chocolate stamped “Thomas.”

Café in hand, as we closed our pre-meal tour in La Reserve Thomas, I was hit by the weight of my experience and the charm of this man’s dedication to his craft. Quite like any other kind of artist, the chef builds an experience based not only in the seen experience but also the many unseen elements that make us hunger, search, and savor. While I cannot quite put my finger on what made Thomas’s particular brand of cuisine so extraordinary, what I can say is that it heightened and made palpable the remarkable relationship between creature and creation.

All photos by Maggie Stein.

Not Words, But Meanings

“The language of Friendship is not words, but meanings. It is an intelligence above language.” –Henry David Thoreau

Friendship is something that runs deep in our culture; no matter how digitized we get nothing will ever replace the importance of walking through life with others. The company of friends gives our lives meaning and contour. Our friends sharpen us and remind us to be our true selves. They call forth a sense of rest from far within us that breathes comfort to those around us, even when they’re just standing by our sides. Likewise, friends welcome us into the space of their own lives; they invite us into the things that they love and say “come, take a long deep sip, and then tell me what you think.” Over time, I have learned that being a good friend and having a good friend are some of life’s greatest riches.

The interactions that occur between good friends are realizations of our inmost longings-desires to know and be known, and to belong. Knowing others well, we learn to love them well, and we begin to see them through a lens that recognizes and affirms all that is beautiful and good in them. Likewise, over time we see our friends’ flaws clearly, but we choose not to live in the space of these flaws. Instead, we gently encourage our friends to overcome the obstacles that hinder their ability to fully embrace the people that they were made to truly be. Likewise, our friends do the same for us, deepening and heightening our experience and calling forth the best in us.

This particular reflection is an ode to friendship–friendship done at a distance, and friendship done face to face. There is nothing I treasure more than the cultivation of a friendship that lasts for a long, long time. And although you often cannot know this at the beginning, these relationships bring such a richness to life’s experiences as they develop over the years. Friendships create meaning in our lives, and they likewise enable us to create pockets of meaning within those of others. As Henry David Thoreau once suggested, friendship involves “an intelligence above language,” it involves an attentiveness that extends far beyond shared words, and a type of knowing that transcends physicality.

Thoreau’s musings come from a book passed onto me by my mother many years ago. It was a gift from one of her college best friends, entitled “A Book of Friendship: Celebrating the Joys of Having Friends.” This mustard yellow book, filled with poems and illustrations, has weathered with me for nearly twenty years. Young and sprightly when I first received this now treasured gem, I hardly appreciated what it had to say. Yet, today I reflect back upon it often and smile gently at how closely many of its passages resonate with my experience.

Good friends, those who truly last the tests of time, are often hard to come by. People move, relationships change, circumstances shift. And life goes on. As someone who grew up moving rather frequently, I learned this lesson fairly quickly. It is one thing to develop a friendship with a neighbor or classmate and to spend time enjoying one another’s company in the same place, but it is really quite another to try to maintain that relationship at a distance while continuing on with life’s everyday activities. Yet, the challenges of modern life often demand that people break physical ties, and at what expense? While today’s technologies enable us to connect with others at great distance, is there a limit? And further, how can we maintain friendships across state and national lines when there is really no other option?

My friend Sarah, who has been there through bitter relationships, through passion pursuits, and through fuzzy life transitions is a testament to the fact that good friendships are worth cultivating–whether maintained from down the street or done at a distance. Sarah and I first met in college, through a mutual friend who encouraged us to live together. Our friendship started out slow at first, like any other. Early on, we both enjoyed one another’s company and wanted to spend time together. We often grabbed breakfast or coffee on campus as a means to hear about one another’s lives and share what we were learning. Slowly over the years, what started out as a surface-level acquaintance grew into something much more, where we are now able to speak into the hard places of one another’s lives and likewise able to just sit together silent enjoying moments of reflection. Both of us would say that this depth of friendship didn’t come without considerable time or effort, or even sometimes sacrifice.

What has made my friendship with Sarah thrive, and will help it continue to do so, is a mutual commitment to its sustenance. Since college, Sarah and I have rarely lived in the same place, although we did have one choice year together in the DC suburbs. Our friendship has existed mostly over the course of phone calls and a few in-person visits multiple times per year, sometimes involving coast-to-coast plane trips. Ironically, although neither of us would like for distance to separate us, I think we would both say that the hours between us in recent years have helped to make our friendship stronger. The distance between us has forced us to commit to making time for one another and, without the convenience of living together or even nearby, it has been imperative for us to carve out space to know and to care for one another as friends.

As my own relationship with my now dear friend illustrates, a true and lasting friendship involves a sort of mutual consent–a consent to dive deep and allow for mistakes, a consent to be there even when it is tough or inconvenient, a consent to listen even when we do not want to hear the truth. Like Thoreau suggested, a friendship is composed not primarily of words, but of meanings, meanings wrought over time and through shared experience. It is possible to create such meaning over phone calls and emails, but the true snuff of a friendship is tested and refined through shared experiences–late night concerts, day trips to the countryside, and sometimes tears over a glass of wine. As Thoreau says further in the longer passage from which the one I’ve quoted draws:

The Friend is a necessarius, and meets his Friend on homely ground; not on carpets and cushions, but on the ground and on rocks they will sit, obeying the natural and primitive laws. They will meet without any outcry, and part without loud sorrow. Their relation implies such qualities as the warrior prizes; for it takes a valor to open the hearts of men as well as the gates of castles. It is not an idle sympathy and mutual consolation merely, but a heroic sympathy of aspiration and endeavor.

Difficult to put into words, but full of import nonetheless, friendship involves a living and loving that can only come through time, effort, and great care. It is something to cherish, to esteem, and to aspire to as one of life’s greatest endeavors.

photo by:

Confessions of a Reluctant Bluegrass Fan

Let the record state, I have recently fallen in love with bluegrass music.

As a music fiend of many years past, I’ve doused my ears with everything from A Love Supreme to The Black Keys. In college, I was of the breed that packed like sardines into a local club for a few notes from the likes of Anathallo; and in early adulthood I have swooned over the tunes of Brooke Waggoner, Ratatat, and Jonsi. But never did I ever think I would fall over to the dark side of anything that resembled country music. Banjos and fiddles, no sir. The thought of rocking my hips to the beat of tunes reminiscent of country line dancers has always been the farthest thing from exciting in my book.

Second String Band.

Yet the same girl who once mocked Dollywood as backwoods country nonsense is now swooning over covers of “I’m Gonna Sleep with One Eye Open.” Truth be told, there is just something wonderful about that pared-down, comfortable enough to cut the fool when a few wrong notes are hit, experience. It feels authentic and inviting. Likewise, it breathes a sympathy that acknowledges that the world is spinning rapidly but reminds us that we don’t always have to keep pace.

In my short relationship with this brand of music, I have learned that bluegrass cannot be fully appreciated until it is experienced “in the moment.” There’s something about the genre that just does not translate the same at a distance as it does in the flesh. The ethos of a few hours of shared aural experience in a sparsely decorated room with antique wood floors and a few tattered thrift store chairs strums a rhythm that brings its audience together. Social barriers are broken down, and people feel at ease approaching strangers to strike up a conversation or ask for a dance. All in all, the connection that is experienced through such music is a feeling of presence, a feeling of rootedness. To fully grasp it, you must taste and see. It is, to reference Polyani, a kind of tacit knowing.

At a recent office-wide lunch, I joked with a few colleagues that I had become a groupie of a bluegrass band here in town. The great irony is that this joke is fairly true-to-reality. As I recently recounted my weekend past, I realized that a brief house show played by said band, was the true highlight of my time out of the office. After only a small initial dose of their elixirs, I can now hardly avoid any opportunity to listen closely, jig and sway, to the tunes of these musicians. Following this band-multiple days a week at times-I have become enraptured in the experience of their music. Again and again, surrounded by a roomful of grinning twenty and thirty somethings, the stresses of my week melt away to a series of foot tapping beats. Collectively, we experience songs that stir our spirits and warm our hearts like hot toddies on a cold winter evening.

In surprising ways, my experience of bluegrass has moved me. It has stirred up the part of me that longs to live in a place where I know my neighbors’ names and spend Saturday afternoons sitting on a front porch with a big pitcher of lemonade. Stepping into musical experiences where one might find a husband and wife duo jovially strumming melodies on a small stage in a wooded backyard, my heart fills with nostalgia. The pace of life to which bluegrass tunes often allude is characteristic of my childhood in the south. Yet today, the very notion feels incredibly foreign and almost idealistic. My day-to-day is now filled with subway rides across town and afternoon tet-a-tets in tea shops filled with foreigners. Life feels exciting, but it also sometimes, perhaps even often, feels exhausting.

My generation is craving the lessons that the bluegrass experience can impart. Modern bluegrass artists like The Dave Rawlings Machine, Gillian Welch, and my new friends in The Second String Band here in DC, remind us that there is more to life than rush and go, see and be seen. There is a casual restfulness to such music, which one cannot help but soak up when basking in its presence. Grasping to put this feeling into words, one might say that this music speaks to the part of us that often lies below the surface but is longing to be unearthed. If my own experience is any indication, the more persistent we are to discover it, the stronger its allure.

Winter is for Lingering

A fire crackles occasionally nearby, puffing out the icy chill that sifts through the window. I sit with a mug of cocoa in hand contemplating the year past and the year to come. The barren trees outside are sprinkled with white, and the grass weighs heavy under the burden of an unexpected snow. Christmastime has come and gone and we have begun to settle into the soft winter lull. With an end to the holidays, we are now entering the bowels of winter– those barren months when plants shed their colorful garments and animals burrow deep for a time of hibernation.

crafternoon

Photo by Maggie Stein.

It is easy now to fantasize about seaside sunsets and late-afternoon cook-outs spent with friends. Each year about this time, our hearts begin to ache with anticipation for life’s more punctuated seasons. Restless for the coming spring and summer months, I often find myself battling the desire to turn winter into a “grit your teeth and bear it” moment. The bitter cold, the early sunsets, the deadness of the land, each can wear heavy upon our tender hearts. After a quarter century of winter slumbers, though, I have come to realize that there is something in this moment of waiting that is both sweet and significant.

Futuristic at my very core, it has always been incredibly hard for me to fully experience a single moment without looking ahead to the yet to come; the very nature of winter rubs against this tendency to push ahead without first pausing. As my mother might say, “winter is for sipping and savoring, for taking life slow and learning to enjoy the simple things.” Thus, over time, winter has become, for me,  a time of learning to be patient, a time of resting and waiting with expectancy while also taking joy in the moments at hand. In general, I recommend taking the season in its stead and making the most of it; with a bit of initiative it can really be quite grand.

Winter is often a time for looking forward and looking back. Journal in hand, we can ruminate upon lessons from the year past or build lists of hopes and dreams for the year to come. If we are to live the questions, as Rilke might recommend, we must start with asking them of ourselves. With the changing of calendars, we may reflect with some frustration upon failed expectations or lingering uncertainties. But with a year fresh and new, there is great opportunity to remobilize and live into the questions of yester-year and develop fresh ones with a newfound sense of hope.

As we wait for the coming spring, winter is a wonderful season for cultivating a sense of identity and rootedness that can only come through time spent in solitude. I recall with fondness an accidental lonely winter when, snowed in for several weeks, I was forced to come to terms with the woman in the mirror and explore my hobbies and passions in greater depth than I ever had before. It is one thing to be ourselves in relation to other people, but it is quite something else to ask “who am I when no one else is looking?” With the push- and- go hubbub of normal life, there is little time for us to listen to our inner whisperings. Frosty evenings with a bitter wind, though, enable more space for listening and responding to our deeper selves.

This season is also ripe for new discoveries, whether it’s antique sifting, cultural exploration, or weekend excursions. This year, a friend and I have made a pact to visit New York City every few weeks in efforts to get to know people and places that we would not normally engage with. On many of these excursions, we will likely visit new restaurants, park ourselves in interesting coffee shops, and go to parties where we know few to no one. As two single young women here in the nation’s capital, the thought of spending winter bunkered down does not excite us, and so a space for trying new things will bring life and freshness to the coming winter months. While New York has made the top of my list this year, other possibilities include visits to nearby Pennsylvania to scour antique dealerships, day trips to the Maryland shore for a seafood fix, and even an excursion to an up-and-coming urban design hub in the Northeast.

If we make it such, winter can also become a rich time for food and friendship. After spending hours behind a cookbook (something I greatly enjoy), we can conjure up meals to share with friends and family. Whether it’s a slow-cooked beef roast heated to perfection in a crockpot or a hearty dutch oven butternut squash soup, the foods of this season are rich and flavorful, worth sipping in small, leisurely doses. Film and culture clubs are another great way to bring people together for socialization this season, offering not only a way to build community but also a way to expand one’s grasp of the world at large. Built around a particular work or topic, such groups are a fairly simple way to mobilize people in a time when very few want to go outdoors.

There is much to be learned, explored, and experienced, if we look hard and deep for the places to cultivate richness amidst our chilly respite. What we make of winter is really up to us, and while it can be full of icy frustration, it can also be full of warm fireside reading, weekend movie marathons, and loads of self- discovery. A few additional suggestions on ways to weather the season without lamenting its woes can be found below.

Some Additional Recommendations for the Winter Months

Try out a new book. This is a great time of year for reading up on anything and everything that is of interest. For example, check out Book by Its Cover, a lovely website that previews the pages of visually stunning new books. And, if you’re cash strapped after the holidays, why not consider this a time for exploring the public library?

Geek Out. Develop your interest in indoor gardening, rock climbing, astronomy, studying up on all the hows and how nots.

Get creative. This is a great time of year for letting the creative juices flow. Whether it’s an interest in beading or a fascination with ethnic cooking, this is a great time of year for honing one’s craft.

Do something that pushes you out of your comfort zone. So you’ve always wanted to do improv? Well, now’s your chance…

Consider traveling. Although travel is often reserved for the summer months, there’s nothing quite like a good vacation to reinvigorate and refresh in the midst of a lull season.

Make new friends. Getting bored with the change of seasons? Consider branching out and meeting new people. With the slew of names and numbers you’re likely to have in hand thanks to Christmas shindigs, why not give someone a call and set up a brunch date, coffee meeting, or a jaunt to the museum?

Take up an indoor sport. For me, it’s swimming; there is nothing like an indoor sport to keep our bodies in tune. Exercising in the winter not only keeps us active, but also helps us sleep better, think more clearly, and wake up with more energy.

Information Design and the Modern World

We live in a world increasingly saturated with information, and thanks in large part to the worldwide web, data now flows faster than the speed of light. Whether this means downloading massive amounts of text to a computer or mobile device, sharing links and ideas via social networks, or simply accessing news media resources, the reality is that there is an abundance of data in today’s world. Information designer Richard Saul Wurman puts it bluntly: “A weekday edition of The New York Times contains more information than the average person was likely to come across in a lifetime in 17th century England.”

With so much data spinning around us, how can we make sense of it all, and for goodness sake, how can we choose where to focus our attention?

A growing field known as information design may have at least part of the answer. As defined by the Information Design Exchange, information design is the defining, planning, and shaping of the contents of a message and the environments in which it is presented, with the intention of satisfying the information needs of the intended recipients.”[1] Information designers exist at the intersection of theory and practice. They seek ways to make information useful by organizing, synthesizing, and presenting it in a cohesive manner that will enable rapid analysis and application. Expressions of this notion of “planning and shaping…contents” and presenting them coherently abound, from the musings of Edward Tufte (see, for example, Tufte’s book “Envisioning Information”), to Hans Rosling’s brilliant Gapminder software.

Infographics, geocoded maps, and data-rich graphs are just a few of the many resources that designers and statisticians are using today to present information and convey meaning to their audiences. These visualizations are popping up in a variety of places, such as popular Generation Y publication Good Magazine, the DataBlog” of UK-based Guardian, and Fast Company’s popular “Infographic of the Day” resource.

With the loads of data present in today’s society, there is vast market potential for visually coherent, data-driven information tools, particularly those with ready access to Web outputs. Meanwhile, those with the design and statistical chops to manipulate these tools stand poised to have a tremendous impact on the way we view and interpret the world. To such an effect, in a 1994 essay for Wired Magazine, Paul Saffo poignantly predicts the growing importance of point of view in an information-saturated culture:[2]

The scarcest of context resources will be something utterly beyond the ken of cold algorithms — point of view. “Point of view” is that quintessentially- human solution to information overload, an intuitive process of reducing things to an essential relevant and manageable minimum. (emphasis added)

As Saffo suggests, the way in which information is presented matters greatly. It matters for the kinds of decisions that are made based upon that information and it matters for the results of those decisions. Information design, at its best, helps people make sense of the world that surrounds them, highlighting patterns, underscoring trends, and offering insights into why things are they way that they are and how to improve.

Simultaneously, information designers hold within their reach an incredible responsibility– a responsibility to not only organize and make sense of massive amounts of information, but also to present information that conveys meaning where meaning exists, and avoids attributing meaning to non-meaningful relationships. In a January 2010 piece Stephen Few, of Perceptual Edge, cautions those developing “information visualizations” to ensure that they use “renderings” that accurately and cohesively convey information.[3] Similarly, data visualization guru David McCandless recently gave a TED talk illustrating the power and persuasion of information made beautiful. McCandless’s talk is visually stunning and well-presented. However, the comments section of McCandless’s presentation underscores some of the challenges that accompany visualization: while some viewers wildly supported McCandless’s work, others criticized him for misrepresenting the facts in a few key areas.

As with design in nearly every other area, information design exists with the capacity to enlarge and enhance the world, and the simultaneous potential to harm it if used improperly. As designers, artists, and interpreters, we should remain ever- aware of this reality, and applaud those working to present data in meaningful, thoughtful ways.

To learn more about information design and its applications, visit any of the resources mentioned above, or check out the following:

  • Helvetica: a documentary film about the influential role of this popular typeface and the importance of graphic design in everyday life
  • The writings of Otto Neurath
  • Vizthink.com, a “global community for visual thinkers and communicators”

[1] “Information Design: Core Competencies; What information designers know and can do.” Information Design Exchange, 31 Aug. 2007, 8. Accessed via http://www.iiid.net/PDFs/idxPublication.pdf

[2] Saffo, P. “It’s the Context, Stupid.” Wired Magazine, 1994. Accessed via Paul Saffo’s Website: http://www.saffo.com/essays/contextstupid.php

[3] Linked on Few’s website is a fun interactive quiz, challenging visitors to test their visual IQ when it comes to graph design http://www.perceptualedge.com/files/GraphDesignIQ.html

Into the Process: A Journey with Chuck Close at the Corcoran

Sometimes an experience with a work of art resonates so deeply with our person that we feel as though we were a part of its composition. Like a story whose pages magically unfurl the novel of our own lives, we are hit by the breadth and depth of a journey that feels immediately familiar and cuts to the core. Such was my recent encounter with the work of famous portraitist Chuck Close.

Chuck Close, "Phil," 1980.

A few weeks ago, a friend invited me to spend a Sunday afternoon with her at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. With no sense of what might be on exhibit, yet eager to muse over art with a friend, I quickly consented. As we approached the building that lazy Sunday, I noticed a banner displaying a gridded-out image and the name Chuck Close. As I stared at this vibrant display, I realized that the artist had employed a process strikingly similar to the one I had just learned in a summer design course and somehow felt that he and I had met before. Minutes later, my friend and I ascended a set of heavily-treaded stone steps into an entire gallery of Close’s work, a chronological survey no less. Almost immediately, my jaw locked into the open position and remained that way for the next few hours. That afternoon read much like a romance novel, as piece by piece I fell in love with the story that unfolded before my eyes, discovering striking ties to my own woven deep within its pages.

The beauty of this particular survey is that through it I did not just experience the final products of Close’s art-making; instead I experienced the art-making itself. In addition to completed pieces, the Corcoran’s exhibit showcased intricate stencils through which Close and his associates pressed pigmented pulp pieces, a grey-scale key used for translating color values from photograph to canvas, and a series of woodcuts — each representing a step in the process towards a final work of art. I, like other visitors to the gallery, thus experienced not just fully-formed works, but the story of an artist’s development and the stories of each work’s maturation.

A look at Close’s earlier work reveals an unmistakable process that cuts across his output from various points in time. Close almost jokingly refers to his earlier painting as that of a “junior abstract expressionist.” Studying the paintings of de Kooning and the like, he began a slow journey towards understanding and then redefining a movement. In the ‘70s, Close began employing a gridding process, where he experimented with mezzotints, wovens, and airbrushes to create unique portraits. By the early 1990s, he had developed amazing textiles ranging from huge handmade paper pieces to rugs and tapestries. In the past twenty years, he has broadened his methods even further, masterfully graduating into a variety of printmaking mediums, such as woodcuts, intricate silk screens, and daguerreotypes.

Close’s appreciation for and understanding of abstract expressionism is immediately evident in his work, but it is as one who has mastered the techniques and transformed them into an entirely new genre. His work today is anything but junior. Square by square, inch by inch, Close translates bits of images from one source to the next, working steadily until their essence has been recreated as accurately as possible. His final products are somewhat like glorified pixilated images, where viewers can see the grid up close and experience how each part helps make up the whole. They are, however, richer and deeper than anything digital, executed by hand with careful planning and an incredible attention to detail.

Chuck Close, "Georgia," 1982.

The featured works maintain little room for mistakes and second-guesses, as Close’s processes are often irreversible — burnishing a piece of metal, layering pigment on top of already-dried pigment, and making paper by hand, just to name a few. Each image, however, becomes a way for Close to invite others into his process. Many of Close’s final works leave tracings of the grid evident, allowing viewers to imagine and step into the ways in which he created them. Simultaneously, much of Close’s artwork is collaborative in nature, starting often with a photograph or drawing of an artist who has inspired him in some way and then ballooning into group manifestos, involving many talented artists and apprentices who help him turn ideas into realities.

Glimpses of Close’s artistic development emerged further in a video that played in the lobby, which featured him in his summer studio painting from a wheelchair. Here, Close talks about his childhood: groomed by a family that appreciated and encouraged his artistic tendencies, failing miserably at traditional school assignments but able to garner reprieve by turning in creative extra credit projects, and hit hard by the death of his father at the age of ten, yet rebounding quickly to a love of painting. From early on, Close’s journey is a mix of immense tragedy and immense joy. While his father’s death could have easily crushed him, as could a major spinal injury in the 1980s that left him paralyzed, Close beautifully resurrected himself in both instances by channeling his energies into creative work.

Chuck Close, detail of "Self Portrait," 2000.

Even amidst immense difficulties, Close persisted and pursued his passion for art-making. This is where Close’s story speaks to my own. My personal experience with Close’s work is akin to that of a girl who wakes up on a plane next to a stranger who later becomes her sweetheart. The encounter was not planned, goodness knows it could not have been planned if I had wished it so. Yet, there is an unmistakable trace of a master craftsman delicately weaving a story into his loom without my knowledge.

Waiting for my own artistic vocation to unfold, I have been inspired and encouraged by the journey of Close. In his own small way, he has reminded me to wait patiently for frayed seams to come together, illustrating how seemingly fragmented pieces can converge to form a splendorous quilt of beauty.

Close became stronger as an artist by taking the time to master his craft, and executing precision and foresight in each step of translating an image for a new medium. Similarly I, as someone pursuing a love of design, craft, and creativity, must work diligently to realize the fullness of my calling as an artist. But simultaneously, like Close as well, I must realize that sometimes our grandest plans become grounded, but only because something much bigger is in store.

The Story That Needs to Be Told

As a prolific writer, I sometimes challenge myself by asking the question “does this story need to be told?” More often than not, I find that when I really think hard about it, it does not seem so.  And thus, I often resolve myself to thinking that I just do not have enough good stories to tell and have not seen the world well enough to capture it in words– whether written or spoken.  But, here is the thing: no one sees the world quite as I do, and by not telling stories because I am afraid that mine are not needed, I may be robbing the world of a story deeper than those I wish I had the capacity to tell.

And that is what is so interesting about stories. Any good storyteller, whether he is a filmmaker, a songwriter, or a novelist, knows that there are always many stories intertwined into the one that takes up the main pages. Take, for example, the story of A Christmas Carol. Within its plot many tales of struggle, sacrifice, and self-discovery surface. By the time this work finishes, many a reader sees a hint of himself in the character of Uncle Scrooge, and goes away puzzling over the meaning of life. It is not so much the fact that Uncle Scrooge has major character flaws and decides to finally do something about them that makes this story intriguing; rather, it is the way in which the author chooses to tell his story through the visits of three ghosts. By taking Scrooge on a journey to different points in time, these ghosts help to illustrate how actions have consequences and help to convince Scrooge that he, too, is part of a bigger story in which he plays a part in shaping the final outcome.

The end result of a good story is not so much about the subject matter as it is about how the story is being told, and the particular slant that the writer takes in telling it. That is, after all, what can make one book about a particular topic fascinating, while another book on the exact same subject may never make it out of the bookstore.  Good storytellers know that they must know a subject well enough to be convincing; beyond that, storytelling is mostly about thoughtfully crafting compelling narratives.

One of the places that I have seen the art of storytelling illustrated well is in culinary television. When I was little, I loved to watch cooking shows. There is one show that used to come on in the afternoon and featured world-renowned chefs making up their dishes with a voice-over describing the process involved. I enjoyed it mostly for the intriguing accent of the European lady who described each of the dishes, and occasionally for the looks of the culinary escapades in their prepared states. However, as much as the chefs featured on this show had mastered their techniques, the stories that accompanied the cooking often left me wanting more.  In the end, the show read a bit boring. Now, contrast this show with one today where the chef makes the food sound so interesting that one hardly cares what is being cooked in the first place. Typically, such a chef excels in commanding an audience and bringing dishes to life through tying their own personality and stories into the food that they are preparing. Whether their cuisine is Indian, French, or backyard barbeque, what matters most is not the cuisine but rather the presentation that goes with it. What keeps viewers coming back for more is a hint of life and meaning beyond the food itself.

The best storytellers can use nearly any subject to tell a story that is interesting. They might use two men dueling over a woman to show the consequences of greed and jealousy; they might place characters in the midst of a tornado to illustrate the importance of family; or they might use a shared evening at an art gallery to depict the power of relationship. The art of telling stories is not about finding the perfect ones, but rather about learning how to use language, metaphor, plot, conflict, resolution, denouement, and more, to give readers a taste of something that is both beyond themselves and yet also deeply resonant.

One of my favorite quotes from one of my favorite authors, Madeline L’Engle, reads as follows: “We turn to stories and pictures and music because they show us who and what and why we are, and what our relationship is to life and death, what is essential and what, despite the arbitrariness of falling beams, will not burn.” We tell stories because they help us remember who we are, and what in the world we are doing here. Sometimes a story is a tool that helps an author remember who he or she is. This was often the case with Madeline L’Engle, who needed her time for writing so that she could truly be Madeline. Whether her stories were published or not, the time L’Engle spent writing was still important. At other times, stories become the vessels through which others are reminded, perhaps for the first time, of who they are. Here, stories become needed, not because the author felt that they were needed but instead because there is a deep human longing for truth, meaning, and relationship that extends beyond material need. Good stories scratch the itch that lies just below the surface of things, churning up just enough dust to make others curious. Needed? Yes, they are needed, although not in the same way that we might think food, and water, and shelter are needed. They are needed because they speak to the unspoken realities that surround us and provide us with tools for navigating the oft-murky waters of everyday life.

An Off the Wall Lesson in Artistry from Matson Jones

Germany, Berlin, Robert Rauschenberg, Riding B...
Image via Wikipedia

Some say we’re entering the “Creative Age.” But what is an artist to do when he can barely afford life’s necessities, much less pay for the materials to carry on in his work?

It is easy to hope that a fabled patron might come along to foot the bills – and at times they do. When reality strikes back, though, we realize that not every artist is going to be able to make a living wage making his or her art. Even in the best of economies, this will probably never be the case. But, that does not mean that the artist should give up or even retire for a “safe” career.  When painting pictures will not pay the bills, perhaps the best way to respond is by painting outside the lines.

I read a book that inspired me to rethink the way that artists should go about making money. Chronicling the life and work of Robert Rauschenberg, this book wove an interesting tale of Rauschenberg’s “Off the Wall” path to success. Rauschenberg’s paintings are now at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney, and other prestigious museums, but years ago he was painting over old canvases because he could not afford to purchase new ones. In a tough spot after being fired from a job as a janitor, Rauschenberg needed a new source of income. And after a bit of creative thinking, he found it in an unlikely place: window dressing.

Having done a brief stint doing windows for Gene Moore, Rauschenberg began doing displays for a variety of venues, including such highbrow operations as Tiffany’s and Bonwit’s department store. Rauschenberg even managed to reel his friend Jasper Johns into what became a regular operation, and a quite lucrative one at that. Before long, thanks in part to Rauschenberg’s innovative approach to making art and Johns’ meticulousness for detail, the duo was pulling in work from a variety of avenues. The artists’ approach was simple: they took on only enough jobs to sustain their finances, and managed to save up most of their time for pursuing their personal artwork. Eventually, the two branded their partnership as Matson Jones, using this name to keep their commercial projects separate from their painting.

The duo’s work as window dressers is an interesting case study about the outpourings of an artist’s vocation. It is particularly interesting when considering how someone with a penchant for painting – or for that matter any art form – might work out his or her craft.

Matson Jones provided a way for Rauschenberg and Johns to continue making their art, even if they were not getting paid enough to live on – and in Rauschenberg’s case, it encouraged the use of new and different materials. Rauschenberg began using concepts gleaned from his window dressing work in his artwork, incorporating new materials such as aluminum and gold leaf. As a result, a commercial occupation often regarded in disdain by some artists ended up expanding Rauschenberg’s artistic palette. Go figure.

It is no mistake that these two later-famed painters were successful with their window displays. Their commercial success was most certainly tied to their experience envisioning and creating artwork, not just some ability to conjure up moneymaking schemes. Window work is, in many ways, a natural fit for painters who are accustomed to turning ideas into images and producing bodies of work that build upon a theme.

With this odd partnership sketched out, there are certainly some lessons that can be gleaned. But, rather than trying to provide the answers, I would like to pose a few questions. How might Rauschenberg and Johns’ model for making money while continuing to make art apply to and inform artists today? For instance, what non-traditional ways might an artist consider for honing his or her craft? And further, how might an artist transform his or her view of “work” to incorporate new outpourings that might result in an income?

While the answers to these questions are not black and white, they remind us that neither is the vocation of an artist. Talent does not always equate with financial viability nor does the sheer quality of one’s artwork. This is what is clear: when the way forward seems impassable, a painter should not give up painting, a writer should not give up writing, and a musician should not give up music making. Instead, as the Matson Jones model suggests, sometimes a bit of creativity is necessary to make things work. With enough outside-the-box thinking, the result may just be (perhaps even to the artist’s surprise) a mutually beneficial collaboration.

The Lessons of Place – A Quest for Restoration

When is the last time you walked into a place and breathed out a nice, long “ahhh?” Was it a coffee shop? Maybe your favorite restaurant? A corner bookstore or local club?

One of my favorite spots is a little local restaurant on the coast of North Carolina that serves up top-notch gourmet food and excellent dining advice from its well-educated staff. The windows are elegantly draped with white curtains and the lighting is low. Only a handful of folks can fit into the restaurant at a time and large groups are rarely found in the somewhat-tight quarters. Those who dine in this space sometimes linger for hours over crème brulee and a cup of coffee, simply enjoying one another’s company. I fondly recall early college visits there with my grandparents, savoring succulent meals and wonderful conversation.

I am fascinated by the concept of place, what places can do to us, and how they mold and shape our perceptions of reality, our hopes, and our dreams. Further, I am intrigued by how the homes we build, the spots we visit, and the towns where we do our bidding, end up making us a certain kind of people. In some form or fashion, the places where we live and the places that we visit, influence the way that we choose to engage the world around us. They can also serve as an outpouring of our inner longings.

Photo: Rebecca Horton

Back when I lived in the D.C. metro area, I was a frequent visitor at the United States Botanic Garden, located just on the edge of the National Mall. I’d often wander over on a Saturday morning after a particularly tough week at work or if I just needed to think through some things for a while. Entering into this massive building with huge translucent walls, I was always mesmerized by the succulent aromas and enraptured by the spectacular “decor.” At every turn of the head, there were patches of rich green foliage, brilliantly colored florae, and intricately patterned plants.  As I moved from room to room, the cares of my week would melt away in the beauty that surrounded me, and I would find my restless heart brought to a place of stillness and awe. A small pond with bright green lily pads would beckon me to delight and enjoy. And a towering balcony in an immense rainforest-like room, featuring creeping greenery and bursting buds, encouraged me to watch and wonder. This place simultaneously invigorated and calmed my spirit, and in the process touched some of my deepest parts. In many ways it was, and still is, a breathing thesis of how a well-designed space can stir the human spirit.

On another note, there was also a space located in the D.C. suburbs that I often longed to see made over. Just down the block from my old townhouse, it was right on the edge of Old Town Alexandria, about a ten-minute walk from the metro. This particular building was located in what many residents still considered a “transitional area.” Only a few years ago, the surrounding street was home to rampant violence and drug-dealing. Quite rapidly, though, young families and retirees have bought up its houses and flipped them. Here, backyard piles of dust and weeds were being dug up and turned into patio spaces for winter firepit gatherings and late-summer tapas tete-a-tetes. In the process, Alexandria was gentrifying, a change that in some ways one can view as both good and bad. The old was going, the new was coming – a process that always involves a give and take.

The place that always caught my eye was this little shop on the end of my block. A prime location for a great local coffee shop or café, with big windows and a double-corner view, it was only blocks from the heart of King Street. Abandoned by an owner who was not yet prepared to part with it, this space was a reminder of the old habits of the area’s prior community that was hesitant to catch up with the coming changes. This shop stood as a reminder of the not-so-ancient past that in many ways the city’s new residents would rather forget than reclaim. Per the neighborhood chatter, although the owner regularly put money into making minor improvements, he was still not willing to sell his shop to the swarm of incoming developers, hanging on to it perhaps for a golden deal or maybe for the sake of bittersweet memory.

As I think back to this space now, I realize that the process of re-cultivating a place and infusing it with new life is not always easy or well-received, and it is sometimes long and arduous. Often those who come in the name of progress would do well to learn the stories of the spaces that they purchase before bulldozing them to build the next big thing. Simultaneously, the world longs to see old things made new, and the revitalization of urban landscapes can be a powerful means of exhibiting beauty and grace.

Daily we are touched by both the ugliness and the beauty of the places that surround us. And yet, the process of understanding and interpreting a place and making it rich and welcoming is often easier said than done. As we come to grips with this notion of place, the words of Alain de Botton encourage me to go deeper and keep probing:

It is in dialogue with pain that many beautiful things acquire their value. Acquaintance with grief turns out to be one of the more unusual prerequisites of architectural appreciation. We might, quite aside from all other requirements, need to be a little sad before buildings can properly touch us.

To one effect, the world that surrounds us is crumbling, even as we run our fingertips across its surfaces. To another, it is constantly being renewed by the work of designers, artisans, and architects who share a vision for restoration through expressions of beauty. Perhaps in some ways by knowing the ugly, we have a new appreciation for beauty. But in knowing the beauty, we long to behold what is not yet fully realized.

Making Time for Tea

There is almost nothing I enjoy more than an afternoon tea with my mother, grandmother, or sisters. Ever since I can remember, tea time has been an occasion (when celebrated) punctuated by a spirit of restfulness and contentment.

When I was about ten, I received one of my most prized possessions – a porcelain white English tea set, complete with six octagonally-shaped cups, and a bodacious pot for holding steamy brews. The tea set was an instant hit with me and my younger sister. On cold winter afternoons, we would heat up bowls of clam chowder and put out a few cookies to serve alongside our steeped beverages. We would convince our mom to join us for an hour or two of sipping, conversation, and imagining. Amidst the winter lulls, this experience of tea time was a delight, and it let us temporarily forget the bitter cold.

Photo: Heidi Schachtschneider

For me, the notion of tea time conjures images of Victorian ladies, English gardens, and Tchaikovsky. As a child enjoying a cup of tea and a few sweet treats, I would feel as though I had been transported to the 18th-century world of bustles, corsets, and lace napkins. I would stretch out my hand, and a tall young lad might whisk me away from my chair and pull me out onto the veranda for a stroll. Or, my sister and I might gallop along with a pack of horses or take a quick ride on a carousel, like the scene in Mary Poppins where Poppins, Burt, Jane, and Michael jump into Burt’s street-chalk drawing.

Today, having tea brings back fond memories of favorite pastimes, time spent fabricating intricate adventures that might last all day long, or enjoying a favorite book curled up in the wicker rocking chair in my family’s sunroom.

Just before it got cold each fall, my family used to vacation at a rustic inn in the mountains of North Carolina. Every afternoon, we would head over to the main hall for tea, hot cocoa, and board games. My parents would lounge by the fire, recalling the day’s experiences and scanning the newspaper. Meanwhile, my siblings and I would cackle over a round of checkers, or feast on the snacks and treats that accompanied our hot beverages. We were in what felt like a giant wood cabin straight out of the days of America’s early settlers, except that it was outfitted with modern conveniences such as heat and insulation. Although not the busiest of times, afternoon tea moments – like these at this mountain lodge – are some of my favorite memories.

As I have grown older, my fondness for tea time has continued, and I have come to realize that it is much more than a childhood game. Just a few months ago, my mother and two youngest sisters came to visit me in Charlottesville. Mid-afternoon on Saturday, we headed off to tea at a local inn. Luxurious antique chairs, a darkly-colored oriental rug, and a big fireplace framed by an ornate mantle were the backdrop for our late-day affair. At ten and fourteen, my sisters loved the chance to dress fancily and play grownup for a few hours.

As we lounged in our oversized seats, waiting for our drinks to steep, our server brought out a tiered tray full of tiny sandwiches, pastries, and tarts for us to munch on. As side notes to the occasion, there was also clotted cream, lemon curd, and a generous dish of fresh marmalade for us to spread on our baked delights. All of this was a true feast, and the whole afternoon felt like a luxurious blessing. The time passed slowly and we enjoyed one another’s company, oohing and aahhing over the delicious spread before us and reminiscing about distant memories. We remarked on the events of our day and made plans for the next, but with no real agenda in mind, just taking the opportunity to unwind and delight.

Teatime is about much more than just the tea or the food. It is about a welcoming of friends to the banquet, a relishing in community, a chance to be still in the busyness of life. Such moments are not just mere accessories to the rest of life; they are, in fact, part of the deep substance that comprises our humanity.

And tea often involves a bit of fanfare. Ladies dress up for tea. Fancy tablescapes are the norm, complete with eloquently-stitched runners, delicate flowers in vases, and fluffy napkins carefully slipped inside silver rings. Our senses are awakened through rich scents, sights, and tastes. Encouraging participants to savor elaborate beauty, rich flavors, and thoughtful design, the aesthetics of a tea party can sharpen our perceptions and deepen our artistic roots.

Today, tea time is an underappreciated art form. There are those with a handle on the concept – particularly those in Asia – but we’ve mostly lost its wonder here in the West. In the old days, tea could serve as a time to reflect on the experiences of the day, or as a moment to inspire action through those hours that remained. Friends could share a few laughs, and families could take some time away from the busyness of the day.

Amidst the hustle, bustle, scurry of modern life, the notion of tea time stands as a beacon of hope, serving as a way to punctuate and accentuate our day-to-day affairs. In contrast to a rush-and-go mentality, a good cup of tea always takes several minutes to steep; otherwise its flavor will be lacking. Whether taken alone or taken with friends, tea time can help us become more intentional, more perceptive people. Taking time for tea may help us cultivate the patience to wait for those things that cannot yet be, and help us better appreciate the lingering whiffs of a beauty that can only be sniffed when one takes a big, deep breath.

Making a Difference in the 21st Century

We live in a world of complex problems – perhaps more complex than ever before – but we also live in an age of immense possibility. We often take this reality far too lightly. Not too long ago, we feared as the swine flu virus began spreading rapidly around the world; less than a year later, and the dread of a major global outbreak has largely subsided due to the marvels of modern medicine. Amidst the Black Death of the 1300s, no one would have dreamed that such a thing was possible.

The global warming doomsayers report that glaciers are melting at an alarming rate, and “Bombs Over Baghdad” is hardly just the name of a song. With tremendous problems looming, it can be easy to grow cynical, depressed, or disenchanted. And yet, there is much to be hopeful for, and there are many things that the average person can do. In his 2009 commencement address at The University of Portland, Paul Hawken said, “Inspiration is not garnered from the litanies of what may befall us; it resides in humanity’s willingness to restore, redress, reform, rebuild, recover, reimagine, and reconsider.” What follows is an account of my own journey in coming to understand and appreciate the words of men like Hawken.

Not too many years ago, a college professor kicked off my college senior-year Public Policy practicum course with a single book and a simple objective. The book: Design Like You Give a Damn, an inspiration source for those thinking up innovative ways to address humanitarian crises. The objective: It is time to take your ideas out of the classroom and into the real world; we have talked public policy for quite some time, and now it is time to live it. Fingers tingling with anticipation after hearing what waited ahead, I never could have imagined what might result from such a curriculum, and perhaps neither could my classmates. Sparking an endless curiosity for the concept of public innovation, a simple class planted the seeds for a drastic re-shifting of my own priorities.

Prior to this course, my two great interests – the public good and the arts – had always seemed at odds. Two loves (it appeared then) that ne’er the twain should meet. At the time, I was finishing up dual majors in political science and public policy. My political inclinations were clearly winning out. The logic seemed simple enough: “If you want to make a difference, you go into politics.” And there was little surrounding me in a twenty-first century liberal arts university to dispute this claim, particularly as my studies focused upon reading, essay-writing, and honing my understanding of the democratic process.

But, as someone who was just as likely to have her head in an interior design magazine as in Plato’s Republic – and perhaps not one more than the other – I often wondered why I had been so unfortunately gifted with competing interests. It seemed that if I went the art/design route, I would be giving up my concern for issues related to the common good and settling for a more materialistic way of life. Seeping with an overdose of asceticism, my train of thought went something like this: planning outfits, decorating for events, drawing pictures, how can these be good? Meanwhile, as I pushed off in the other direction, my soul hungered to be plugged into the creative arts despite my misguided ideals.

Later, during that odd semester spent regularly commuting from the classroom to Durham’s public housing neighborhoods, I began to dream with my classmates and local community members about what could be through the implementation of community gardens in local neighborhoods. In the process, I discovered that my two chief passions were not opposed, but could coexist quite happily.

My four months of practicum led me on a rather curious adventure where I learned of things like Food From the Hood, a public gardens project developed by students in Los Angeles to rebuild a downtrodden part of their community. Food From the Hood launched in the aftermath of L.A.’s race riots, as an attempt to empower youth and provide an educational resource for non-traditional learners. Once envisioned as a community-building exercise, the garden has morphed well beyond its original aims. With ingredients from the garden, students now produce and market salad dressing, learning business management skills in a real-world context. Today, the fruits of the students’ labors sell at high-end grocers like Whole Foods and have landed them in quite a few news media reports. Perhaps more significantly, though, the program has given inner city youth the tools and the courage to step out in the marketplace and their own community to have an impact.

A few years later, my head still spins with ideas as I browse the pages of Studio At Large, a book documenting the journey of several University of Washington architecture students using their craft to make a difference in the Pacific Northwest and around the globe. Students and faculty at UW’s Building Sustainable Communities (BASIC) Initiative are responsible for reimagining and re-envisioning place and space with the input of community members. They have built schools in rural areas with no transportation access, developed innovative migrant housing solutions in Eastern Washington on a minimal budget, and improved access to a community garden for a Seattle neighborhood’s elderly Asian population. Like Food From the Hood and my own hands-on learning experience, UW’s program encourages students to see themselves as global actors as they realize the impact that their work can have in creating a better world. These architects, artists, and planners work with whatever tools and resources they are given, within the context in which they are placed, to produce lasting results. Consequently, their lessons remind us all that social change does not start in Washington – it starts in our neighborhoods, our communities, our places of business.

While once upon a time my dreams made little sense, today they come together with ever-increasing clarity. Making a difference does not necessarily mean lobbying for the next act of Congress, although that too is important. Instead, it means living uniquely into the talents, opportunities, and needs placed before us day by day. I now realize that design is about so much more than coveted objects and high-end labels. Things like advertising, fashion, and fine arts are, in fact, professions that can be used for the public good; and many design-minded folk like urban designers are living that reality day by day. And furthermore, changing the world does not start over there; it starts here in our own backyards.

Food and Identity: The Stories Behind the Foods We Crave

Ever heard the phrase “you are what you eat”?

Believe it or not, the food that we eat provides a significant impression of who we are – as products of our families, communities, and heritages. Take, for example, the increasingly popularFood Network, which broadcasts chefs from around the country who spotlight their “unique perspectives on food” or regional dining preferences. These chefs express their lifestyles and backgrounds through the foods that they prepare. Whether Mediterranean, Southern, Latino-Fusion, or ancient Japanese, the kinds of foods we choose to cook, eat, and share with our friends present a picture of our cultural being.

Give me some grilled seafood, a salad with fresh greens and unconvential twists, and a hint of bacon here and there, and I am a happy camper. What do these things say about who I am? Surprisingly, a lot. Here’s a snapshot.

Seafood: I spent much of my childhood vacation time on the coast of North Carolina, eating home-cooked or locally prepared shrimp, crab, and shellfish. Of course, corn on the cob, baked potatoes, and hush puppies were always welcome additions.

The Salad: I love fresh, local ingredients that have a nice, crisp bite and leave me feeling healthy and refreshed. Fresh salads are a reflection of my desire to remain rooted in the land and find unique, quality ingredients at my neighborhood farmer’s market rather than the local superstore.

Bacon: I grew up in the South, where everything from fried eggs to green beans is flavored with the stuff. This appreciation for bacon showcases my penchant for both southern cuisine and southern culture, where life is a bit slower and conversation more casual.

What does the food that you eat say about you?

What we eat evokes memories of things that shape us: roasted ham and the family dinner on Christmas Day, tart lemonade and afternoons trying to make a few dollars at the end of the block, hot cheese-oozing pizza and long-lost evenings with the babysitter. Whatever the flavors may be, our impressions and perceptions of our circumstances can take root in certain foods, flavors, and cooking styles. We associate foods with particular places and experiences,and sometimes a bad experience can leave a bad taste in our mouth for a food we might otherwise have loved. Seafood may remind us of trips to the beach; watermelon, the Fourth of July; or pancakes, lazy Saturday mornings.

Photo: Robin

By participating in a meal, we participate in a moment, an experience, a sliver of life. The meals we make and consume serve as markers for the relationships and memories built around those meals.

It should come as no surprise, then, that one of the particular ways we remember various cultures is through their foods: Mexico’s spicy sauces and tacos, Italy’s cheesy meat and tomato creations, France’s crepes and croissants. A few years ago I studied in China for six weeks. Looking back, much of what I remember is based around the food: hot and spicy noodle bowls, steamed pork dumplings,tie ban niu rou (a hot skillet with sizzling beef and vegetables). Spending time with Chinese friends from my university almost invariably involved going out for food, and was almost always an adventure, as my palate sampled new flavors and textures. These flavors and textures become a part of the storybook written into my mind’s eye about the people I met, places I experienced, and new adventures I embarked upon.

Share a home-cooked meal with a friend, and in the process you may learn a thing or two about who they are and what makes them tick – something that words alone might never articulate.The meals we eat, where we eat them, and with whom we share them tell a story – one that becomes an integral part of the much bigger story of our lives. Some chapters are filled with bold flavors, or intriguing spices, and others carry more subtle aromas and tastes. What does your food say about you?

The Boutique City Conundrum

Everyone in America wants their town to hit the list of the top five places to live in the U.S. – with clean streets, amazing mixed-use housing, and an easy walk to the corner grocery – but what many developers are not asking in the process is, “At what cost?”

A few days ago, I watched a special on Portland’s city planning process from the past several decades. Portland’s government has used something called an “urban growth boundary” to foster development within the city’s existing limits, rather than encouraging ever greater sprawl and suburbanization. Outside the boundary, local farms can flourish off the nutrient-rich land and sell their products to eager city residents. The boundary guarantees that these farmers are staying put, as it protects both the land and well-being of these rural entities. Portland’s model is focused upon a belief that both the urban dweller and the farmer are essential for the flourishing of local culture, and that undercutting the value of healthy land and healthy farms will undercut the city itself. The model is increasingly trendy, but still quite rare.

In a typical metropolitan growth pattern, as cities expand past their original boundaries, farmers are often the first pushed out. Developers see farmland as ready ground for new housing, strip malls, or major roads and are willing to offer high stakes to obtain it. Cities and their surrounding suburbs can span for hours of driving time.

For example, take Washington, D.C., with its surrounding suburbs in northern Virginia and Maryland, or Los Angeles and its expansive outskirts. To support these models, intricate highway systems, high speed transit, and massive infrastructure are necessary. Commuters may spend hours driving to work and returning home each day, and often those who work within the actual city’s boundaries have little concern for the city’s well-being, and certainly no say in its government.

Meanwhile, with an urban growth boundary, urban and rural do not mix. Beyond the boundary, one will find farms, along with forested and other “protected” lands. Inside the boundary, one will find urban development-buildings, homes, sewer and water systems, power lines, and industrial complexes. Cities with urban growth boundaries exist as single units rather than suburban centers, and often have much more dense populations than other metropolitan models. Rather than encouraging outward growth, urban growth boundaries encourage cities to grow deeper and more concentrated. With this model in play, things like freestanding single family housing and mall-style shopping become rare and unsustainable. So the restaurants get better, the apartments more beautiful, and the wares more exciting. Meanwhile, prices per square foot of space and even the cost of commodities can grow substantially with increased demand and competition.

Portland’s urban growth model is an interesting one, and certainly the city has transformed from disorganized and disconnected to upscale and appealing. Over the past few decades, Portland has transformed into a bustling boutique city of sorts, enabling its citizens easy access to high-end amenities and great local wares. Today Portland is often considered one of the best places to live in the country, and boasts an amazing waterfront park. However, this model can come at a steep price.

While the urban economy is booming and business couldn’t be better, many low and mid-income residents claim that for them, the growth is unsustainable. The hour-long television special on Portland also featured a woman who had moved several times in the last decade due to rising housing prices, and was now considering yet another move as her current landlord was demanding an additional hundred dollars per month.

While to some a little bit more money might not be a big deal, to others it means tapping fictitious bank accounts. Gentrification, while often of little concern to those with padded bank accounts or posh jobs, is a real concern for many city residents. As families are forced out of their homes, they must choose new neighborhoods further from transportation routes, good schools, and the very vibrant local culture that claims ability to uplift and empower them and their children. Planning expert Joel Kotkin’s writing captures these concerns quite well in his 2006 article “Urban Legend” (PDF download):

Boutique cities, like a high-end specialty merchandiser, have little use for the general run of the working and middle class, whose needs are assigned to the domain of Target, Wal-Mart and other suburban merchandisers. Indeed, if the makers of the boutique city worry about anything besides themselves, it is usually not the disappearance of this hardworking middle class, but how to deal with the potential threat represented by the alienated underclass, with its potential for lethal mayhem. Many denizens of these environments do not see the city as a place that holds their commitments, but only one locale that, for a period of time or a particular season, seizes their fancy.

Kotkin’s article comes with a bite – especially for anti-suburbia advocates like me. His work suggests that easy answers, “let’s uplift the poor by making cities vibrant places to live” urban renewal is often easier said than done. We need to make fewer global generalizations and focus more upon sustainable local outcomes. Kotkin’s piece suggests that truly refining and renewing America’s cities, or any country’s cities for that matter, in a way that is sustainable involves a long hard look at cities’ populations, and their specific needs and attributes. While one model might work for New York, that same model is not necessarily going to (and probably will not) work for Chicago. Similarly, a push for a trendier, greener, smarter city – the barking chant of today’s planning elites – might not appeal to the urban dweller who is barely feeding his/her children, balancing major credit debt, and managing multiple jobs.

A sustainable approach to urban development will view cities less as economic engines and more as communities, taking into account the interests of all, rather than a select few. It will consider how people, environment, business, and infrastructure all work together to build a comprehensive whole.

Author Wendell Berry captures these tensions and concerns of community in his essay “Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community“:

A healthy community is like an ecosystem, and it includes – or it makes itself harmoniously a part of – its local ecosystem. It is also like a household; it is the household of its place, and it includes the households of many families, human and nonhuman. And to extend Saint Paul’s famous metaphor by only a little, a healthy community is like a body, for its members mutually support and serve one another.

As Berry suggests, communities only work when people start living for something much greater than themselves.