Category Archives: Introspection

To let our city die by degrees.

After visiting the Rizzoli Bookstore on its last day of operation to end a week where I’ve read Dustin Curtis on Facebook’s design and Wild Ones by Jon Mooallem, I’m seeing a thread through these three stories about how people in a laissez-faire market make decisions that prioritize profit over aestheics and thinking about what that means in the context of an urban or technological ecosystem.

Though it is the retail presence of an Italian art book publisher, Rizzoli in Midtown arguably qualifies as a neighborhood gem (I suppose its closest analog would be Taschen’s Beverly Hills outpost), but it is a representative of a business that is dying in New York – bookstores – in favor of something that I perceive to be a blight – weak-modernist condominium towers for the ultra-rich.

Facebook’s new News Feed design is certainly something that can’t count me as an admirer. Between the current view and the screenshot Curtis used to illustrate his essay, I would choose the latter in a heartbeat. In the same thread of people exercising their will and aesthetics, I found myself seeing the play between Curtis’ essay and Julie Zhou’s “user-focused” response analogous to Jon Wiley’s exegesis on the Google redesign of 2011 and Doug Bowman’s 2009 farewell to the same company.

And Wild Ones is a fantastic read: Mooallem (so far) hasn’t presented a particular opinion as far as which kind of conservation strategy is best (or even declared explicitly that conservation of endangered species is right), but he has – with a gracious wit – provided a platform for arguments about conservation and human intervention in ecosystems that I find somewhat salient as I’m thinking about how Facebook and Google design websites and how real estate developers like Vornado and LeFrak choose to exercise their will in urban environments.

Is it right that Rizzoli in midtown is closing – not because it’s an insolvent business but because Vornado and LeFrak wish to destroy the older (and, to my eyes, lovelier) edifice and replace it with crash pads for ultra-rich jetsetters? I personally find glass towers in the ilk of One57 gauche, and while I’m not its target audience by any stretch, I am a stakeholder in its success or failure insofar as I am a resident of the same ecosystem.

A theme that runs through Wild Ones is that conservation of one species is never really just about that species but the balance between where it lives, what it eats and what eats it and how people just get mixed up in all of that. In much the same way, my feelings about Rizzoli aren’t really about the bookstore or even about bookstores in general. They’re about the aesthetics of economic predators and shifting baselines for future generations, who I fear we will raise in a cornice-free future without bookstores and the people who care about them.

And that’s a future that will come into being because I believe that when a person prioritizes profit over aesthetics, they subtly shift the baseline of aesthetics for future generations. What degree of visual noise do we accept now in the things we use everyday, whether they’re websites or city streets? How about the generations that follow? Will our grandchildren aspire to design arched-tile ceilings like Guastavino or endow everyday brick with ornaments of brass and terra cotta like Sullivan if they never knew that these places, these features, these possibilities existed?

(Above: one of my favorite short films/presentations on the subject, Lost Buildings – this time in Chicago, with Ira Glass narrating and Chris Ware illustrating.)

I don’t want to know the answers to those questions, nor do I actually want to define the specific boundaries of my aesthetic pluralism or articulate my thoughts on revenue-driven real estate development and A/B-tested software design. But I do want to expand a bit on what Rizzoli’s closure in Midtown actually means to me.

Rizzoli is not a living organism or an altruistic organization, and it’s not even closing up for good (a cashier told me they’re considering reopening near the Flatiron later this year). But it exists in the urban ecosystem of Midtown, and that ecosystem is one that feels more and more hostile to species of people who value literature and art and being in buildings with nice Beaux-Arts architectural features (in short, people like me). It’s one less neighborhood where these species can thrive, in a city that has been getting more obviously inhospitable toward that industry – and by extension, that kind of person – in the past few years.

And just as disappearing plant species and food resources and the introduction of highways and airports can be cataclysmic events for animals in the wild, I believe that prioritizing one land use over another (ahem, parking) can be detrimental to the overall value of an urban setting. For instance, while I’m not a hardcore library user or bookstore patron, I value those people as my colleagues and weak ties. And seeing Rizzoli close – and more pointedly, for the reason it closed – means that the pain of losing that species is not just edging closer into being but that it’s being willfully accelerated for selfish reasons.

Obviously, software, architecture, real estate, booksellers, and animals are very different beasts. But the ways people treat them and interpret their own relationship to them have a clear parallel to me. They are all such pervasive aspects of a person’s experience of life that when one aspect of it is altered, it arguably alters the whole experience.

And I’d advise: if you can help it, don’t prey on what you can’t resurrect. There are greater consequences to this than you’ve anticipated.

NRT.

Ten years ago, as I left Narita Airport on an express train for Tokyo, I loaded A Love Supreme into my Discman. What I understood then to be the outskirts of Tokyo unfolded as a diorama just beyond my window as “Acknowledgement” churned into its motif.

I didn’t know that album very well at the time; I was just an aspiring 20-year-old aesthete who wanted to incorporate it into my cultural arsenal. And it lodged itself firmly there as it became the theme song for the things that I don’t yet understand but desperately want to.

That trip to Japan in the summer 2003 (as the guest of a former client and beneficiary of a moment of largesse I’ve yet to pay forward) was the first time that I had been fully disarmed of my ability to communicate. It scared me immensely to be at once surrounded by people and in a void.

I was overwhelmed at the time, not very well-off, somewhat primitive in many respects. I wasn’t sure that I’d ever return.

Looking back, it was essential to my development as a person, immersed in that situation in early adulthood where my only recourse was to observe and communicate using only the most rudimentary of terms. But it’s a situation I’ve learned to recognize and relish, and even sought again.

After that trip, I continued to Manila for an 8-week stay. That summer happened to be the same time Lost in Translation came out, and when I watched it upon my return, it too (however literally) occupied that thematic space with John Coltrane’s modernist jazz.

I return to that space with some frequency now, populating it with new songs to remember other thrilling encounters with my language’s permeable membrane, itself an advancing and evolving boundary. Elitism starts where the limits of your understanding begin, I’d believed long before that and held fast since.

And today, I’m going back.

Running on a really hot day.

Sebastian Junger’s interview-annotated “The Storm” contains one of the best pieces of practical advice on writing – particularly self-editing – I’ve read recently:

I try to edit my work in different states of mind. So I’ll go running on a really hot day and then read the 2,000 words I just wrote. Or if I’m upset, or really sleepy, or if I’m drunk, I’ll read this stuff. If you’re sleepy and you find yourself skipping over a paragraph because you’re bored by it and just want to get to the interesting part, it comes out. Those different states of mind are a really interesting filter.

Perhaps the feeling that my writing (or my life) is not actually that interesting explains my recent years of verbal constipation? Or maybe I should just type faster and hit “Publish”?

I should also say that I’d like to see this kind of retrospective annotation done more often (as with director’s commentaries on DVDs, which I think are among the best things to happen to the experience of watching movies in the last 20 years), though in a more intuitive format (it’s already a story ripe for the JavaScript journalism Farhad Manjoo disdains; the commentary would be another layer).

(via The Awl)

Wash and fold.

Four weeks in, and I’ve figured out a useful trick to packing light for weekdays in New York: a wash-and-fold near the office where I can drop off my laundry before the weekend and pick it up at the start of the week.

It really isn’t so much a trick as an extravagance, but with any new milieu are born new justifications for life’s luxuries. Things that seemed frivolities in a previous routine become imminently desirable: wash-and-fold laundry service, a same-day train ticket, passport wallet, a 4G iPad, a pair of black pebbled leather shoes with storm-welted Dainite soles.

They may be tricks, or maybe just material possessions that address severed connections in my personal infrastructure. The pre-sleep path between water pitcher and toothbrush I knew as a linoleum-parquet-tile-rug textural odyssey in a dozen unlit steps shifts every week. Every morning shower in a shared bathroom is bracketed with moments of being on – and there’re more than those two moments if I forget my shampoo in my toiletry bag or my towel on the back of the door.

Maybe this should’ve occurred to me sooner, but I’d never realized (or admitted?) that these paths and even the smell of my own towel as I dried off my face were ballasts of a kind. Still, I don’t suppose that justifies the sheer quantity of dress shirts I own.

While this lifestyle of packing light and keeping no fixed address requires an unusually heavy amount of thinking, the price of having lots of stuff is becoming apparent. Christina spent the weekend clearing bookshelves; I spent an hour today in conversation with a pair of moving companies to discern the price of leveraging their infrastructure for my northward leap. In sum, I’ll likely spend more than a month’s rent (not just my share but the entire check) to store the contents of my E Street apartment and have them unloaded them at a time and location to-be-determined.

But that’s the price I’ll pay at the end of the month. In the meantime, it’s a $10 wash-and-fold bill that allows me to lighten my everyday carry to a duffel and a backpack, three days at a time in New York. This week, as last week, I’ll be sleeping in a guestroom on Grand and Lafayette in Clinton Hill; next week, I’ll be in Park Slope.

I’ve grappled with the definition of ‘home’ for most of my life. For now, I’m content to call it the place where I know exactly what my towel smells like and where it’ll be hanging.

Return to form.

Using the phrase return to form to describe the state of one’s artistic production seems a tacit admission of irrelevance, like R.E.M. or The Simpsons in the 21st century. And I am demanding exactly that of myself this morning, with you as my witness: my own return to form.

I’ve long maintained that you have to be prolific before you can be good. A corollary, I’ve learned, is that you have to stay prolific in order to stay good. A shabby score on a (brilliantly made) kerning test set it off last night, but it’s been percolating for years. It’s been a while since I’ve expended the effort to write well about wrinkles of the world I’ve inhabited.

Writing and designing were not previously practices meant to imbue me with cultural relevance so much as they were personal relevance: they were means to accrue self-confidence. Somehow, as the former became a byproduct, it was that I pursued. And it felt good – to have references queued up, flexibility and mobility in my career, disposable income, a role as a mentor – to have all those things afforded by a body of substantial work to one’s name.

And I forgot to make work that was relevant to myself. And when it stopped being relevant to me, I stopped making work as often. And when I stopped making work, I forgot how to make good work.

And I won’t be making good work for a while – I hope it’s a little while and not a long while. But I’ll be making work, and I hope that I produce something I judge favorably before too long.

I’d like to believe it’s not so much that I’ve forgotten how to write as I’ve just forgotten to write. Please bear with me as I test this hypothesis.

On workaholism.

I have a godmother who I consider the consummate workaholic. She runs a care home, which is a demanding job as it is, but she lives as though there is no such thing as a spare moment—not as though there is always something to do but as though there is always something that needs to be done.

I have never seen her sleep. When I would visit her in Stockton with my family and we would return to her house after a late night, she would be immersed in some manner of household chore while we were readying ourselves for sleep. I would pass out on the sofa watching her shadow on the ceiling in another room—the only room in the house still lit at that hour. In the morning, she would be at the care home or running errands or otherwise occupied. The full breakfast she cooked and laid out on the kitchen table was already cold, and the more perishable items would be back in the refrigerator.

During those visits, I felt that I was lazy in comparison, and for whatever reason, I felt that she regarded me an inferior person because of it. Somehow, I felt that I would not live up to her standard if I did not also keep myself occupied in necessary labors at every waking hour. Towards the end of my high school years and into college and afterwards, I did not join my parents when they visited her on long weekends.

Although I had not seen her for a few years, when she heard from my mother about my move to Washington, she sent boxes of pots, pans, lamps, soap, toilet paper, ramen noodles, and so forth. I called to thank her, and she asked how I was acclimating to life in my new city, how I spent my days. I told her. She said I should go out and meet people. She advised me to do something besides work.

Originally published 22 May 2007.