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Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion Chronofile and the Irony of the Future

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buckyAfter happening upon about 36 hours of video of Buckminster Fuller lectures from the 1970s, digitized from tape, on YouTube the other day (thanks, GnosticMedia!), I couldn’t help but think about how hard the architect, philosopher, designer and futurist would have shit his pants if he could see the world I live in.

If you’ve never heard of Buckminster Fuller (or Bucky, as he was known), don’t feel bad; he’s most well-known for his work with geodesic domes and doesn’t seem to get a lot of attention outside of the design field. He was born in 1895 and died in 1983, a year before I was born, and was shaped by the unprecedented breakneck pace of change of the twentieth century. He was a true interdisciplinarian, a non-conformist, a man of letters and ideas, able to understand and communicate the overarching narrative of history as he had lived it.

He also kept the most insanely meticulous journal of a human life ever created. This journal, in which (according to Wikipedia) he documented every mundane detail of his life every 15 minutes from 1920 to 1983, came to be known as the Dymaxion Chronofile:

“The Dymaxion Chronofile is Buckminster Fuller‘s attempt to document his life as completely as possible. He created a very large scrapbook in which he documented his life every 15 minutes from 1920 to 1983. The scrapbook contains copies of all correspondence, bills, notes, sketches, and clippings from newspapers. The total collection is estimated to be 270 feet (80 m) worth of paper. This is said to be the most documented human life in history.” (Wikipedia)

“If somebody kept a very accurate record of a human being, going through the era from the Gay ’90s, from a very different kind of world through the turn of the century—as far into the twentieth century as you might live. I decided to make myself a good case history of such a human being and it meant that I could not be judge of what was valid to put in or not. I must put everything in, so I started a very rigorous record.”

- Buckminster Fuller, Oregon Lecture #9, p.324, 12 July 1962

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Bucky spent his early years getting expelled from Harvard twice, flitting from job to job, working with machines and going bankrupt. In his thirties he decided to buckle down and “search for the principles governing the universe and help advance the evolution of humanity in accordance with them… finding ways of doing more with less to the end that all people everywhere can have more and more.” He wrote a bathtub full of books and spent much of his life working on developing methods of cheap, sustainable housing and transportation.

He believed firmly in the power of one person not only to influence the world, but to steer the entire course of the future (his headstone reads “Call me Trim Tab” — a trimtab is a tiny moving part on a wing or a rudder that directs the whole device with the smallest of movements). And it seems as though he felt an intense obligation to history and record-keeping and had a prescient idea of the value of information in the future, which led to his obsession with documenting his life.

The journals themselves are fantastic pieces of artistic and literary value and I think Bucky would have been delighted with our ability to digitize analogue artifacts and disseminate them with very little time, energy or cost to everyone in the entire world who can get access to an Internet connection. I imagine that if he were still alive, he would have changed and adapted and embraced the world as we know it in 2013, and revelled in our capacity to do so much more with less.

But when I went googling, appreciating my position as an armchair knowledge sponge with instant access to more information than Bucky could have imagined, I found something shocking: the Buckminster Fuller Institute, second hit after Wikipedia, had forgotten to pay its hosting company (it’s now back up and worth a visit), and Stanford University, holder of the Chronofile, uses a Flash gallery unviewable on devices.

Sad trombone. In a world where currency transactions are instant and an eight-year-old can build a website, how can this possibly happen? Have we come over the speed bump of the twentieth century only to be stymied by trivialities? Now that we have found so many ways to do more with less, are we now trying to find out how little we can do before imploding as a global civilization?

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My smartphone — the one I have to coat in plastic and rubber because I’m clumsier than a greased-up toddler — is more powerful than the most expensive military-grade bachelor-apartment-sized computer available in Bucky’s day. My desktop computer could run like 10 nuclear research centres in the 1960s. I can fly to places in a few hours that would have taken months to reach a century ago. With a couple of clicks I can get a ground level panoramic view of any street in the world, download and watch any piece of media ever created, and have anything I could possibly want delivered to my door in a few days. With all that shit handled, you’d imagine we’d have more time for solving problems.

And we do. More people in the world are healthier, cleaner, better educated and richer than ever before in the history of the planet. However much I bitch about the Harper government and world politics and current events, I will have a much better life than almost every woman who lived before me. Sometimes I feel bad, given my privileged position, about the amount of time I spend looking at cat pictures and watching reality tv shows and documenting all the inane details of my life on Facebook.

But I imagine people must have thought Bucky was wasting his time with his Chronofile, noting his hygiene habits and pasting in his train tickets and receipts. The technological history of the past 500 years of human civilization is about overcoming the problems of documenting, storing, duplicating and disseminating information. We’ve gotten so good at recording knowledge that we’re doing it all day, every day, in real time. The issue of corporate data collection currently has newsworthy ethical problems, but think about it in a scientific way: a significant proportion of the eight billion people on this planet are generating numerous packets of recorded, cheaply store-able information every day. This is more information than could ever be optimally grasped and utilized by our civilization, ever. We have so much information that we pay people to get rid of it.

These days, there seems to be a pervasive attitude of trivialization among older, educated people when it comes to new media and things like Facebook and internet culture. But are exponentially-increasing leisure time, computer literacy and global interconnectivity — results of our reliance on computers to collect and analyze data — really the hallmarks of a post-peak society hurtling towards self-induced apocalypse? Every generation seems to disparage the next, but the truth is that human history has been developing in new and highly unpredictable ways for millenia, and some people are uncomfortable with change — and, I suppose, with the idea that a journal or a Facebook profile might be the only faded imprint of your life after you’re gone.

When I think of the changes that took place within Bucky’s lifetime — nearly everything we know about the origin of the human species and composition of the universe, the human brain, space and flight, the development and ubiquitous integration of digital technology — how can I not expect that the world I know now will be ancient and unrecognizable by the time I live out my (astoundingly lengthy, comparatively) life expectancy? We have the chance to participate in a world that’s changing faster than at any other time in the past, and we each have the ability to contribute to the collection and understanding of the world’s store of information from our desk chairs. And we all have a responsibility to take advantage of the technology that has grown from the work of the generations that came before, instead of opining for a nostalgic version of the past that may never have existed.

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So be an armchair explorer. Be grateful for your smartphone. Learn how to participate in the changing cultural, intellectual and technological landscape of the world we live in. And don’t take it for granted, because if there is an afterlife, you can bet your balls that Plato and Descartes and Galileo and Newton and all the other human pillars of civilization are looking down on us from the big Tavern in the Sky, green with envy.

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Never Let Me Go

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If you have never seen the film “Never Let Me Go,” based on Kazuo Ishiguru’s novel of the same name, GO WATCH IT NOW. Yes, right now. I’ll wait. If you are my mother, bring a box of Kleenex. Okay, maybe two.

I love this film so much. SO MUCH. I’ve watched this thing over and over again because I love everything about it: the story, the emotion, the tension, the lurking metaphors, the set dressing, the costumes, the entire aesthetic. Certain critics called this film “hipster sci-fi” (which, as far as epithets go, is basically a compliment). And sure, the very subtle sci-fi alternate history plot, intercut with attractive twentysomethings exchanging longing gazes, having general angst and wearing thrift-shop clothes could easily be written off as a cheap play to that particular demographic.

But actually, it’s not. And what is so interesting about the production design of this film is that Ishiguru’s novel contains very few specific visual details of character and setting. The aesthetic choices that the production team made on this film were bang-on — eerily beautiful visual details to captured the tone of Ishiguru’s chilling first-person narrative, creating a film that actually looked as believable and heart-wrenching as the book felt. The fact that the result was not only stunning but also pretty fashionable was coincidental.

~~~~~~~~~~~~SPOILER ALERT ~~~~~~~~~~~~~

So what is this film about? The premise is this: in the 1950s a singularity occurred. That singularity was the development of human cloning, and thereby the end of disease. The characters in the film, who start out as children in the mid 1970s, are clones who are being raised to donate their organs before the age of 30. They live at a pleasant boarding school called Hailsham where they are taught reading, writing and arithmetic like all children. They do role-playing exercises to learn how to interact with the outside world. And they are encouraged to express themselves artistically, for the faculty of Hailsham are interested in more than simply the care and feeding of clones: they wish to discover whether the clones have souls.

The premise is horrifying and chilling, and becomes even more so as the story progresses because it remains virtually undiscussed, tainting every moment of the characters’ lives. The story is not a revelatory thriller: the characters know their fate and they do not try to escape it. It’s like Logan’s Run… except nobody runs. And there is nowhere to run, just like there is nowhere for any of us to run when it comes down to the end of our lives.

But this film addresses something more specific than the universal anxieties of existence and death. The generational aspect of the film is hard to ignore: the older generation cannibalizes the younger. And this is precisely the direction that the world is taking, albeit in less visceral and more insidious ways. Health care systems are becoming more and more overburdened as older generations live longer. Pension funds are being drained, not only because there are fewer young workers to pay into government pensions, but because those young workers face fewer opportunities, lower comparative wages, higher prices and less job security than their parents and grandparents did. And perhaps worst of all, governments like Canada are stripping the very institutions and organizations dedicated to preserving the integrity of our society and environment for future generations, and investing in military might, unethical and unsafe industrial development, and a political climate of secrecy and control.

So let’s look at some of the ways these profoundly unsettling themes come through in the visual details.

1. Secondhand clothes The children of Hailsham do not have matching uniforms. The boys and girls all wear grey shirts and sweaters and jackets and pinafores, but they are all different, as if they had been color-filtered out of a big bin of secondhand clothes. Now, all schoolchildren, public or private, wear matching uniforms in Britain, so this styling choice highlights two very important plot points: 1) That the students of Hailsham are seen by government (which funds the institution) as second-rate, and 2) That the faculty of Hailsham look at each child as an individual. Even when they grow up, the characters wear clothes just like you or I might find at the local Salvation Army. No one is investing in their future; they have no future, and their lives are simply a means to an end. Why waste valuable resources on them when a bare minimum will do?

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2. Living spaces in disrepair The cracking plaster in the Hailsham dormitory, the uninsulated Cottages and the old, dusty furniture inside reinforce the lack of responsibility that the government feels towards what is really their most valuable commodity. It also indicates that a paradigm shift is taking place. Barely hinted at in the film (and only slightly more in the book) is the fact that Hailsham is unique: there are other homes, referred to as “battery farms”, where conditions are supposedly much more unpleasant. Hailsham’s closure later in the film intimates that the practice of treating clones like real people is to be replaced by cheaper, more efficient methods.

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3. Found objects It has been documented that children who grow up in un-rooted, high-stress environments (ie. orphanages) tend to collect and hoard small objects, in an effect to exert control and create for themselves a little nested life amidst the fear and confusion of their worlds. The children of Hailsham are treated to occasional “bumper crops” — the delivery of small secondhand items which they can exchange for tokens garnered for good behavior. Sad little broken dolls, used crayons — the cast-offs of the outside world — become to them sacred treasures to hold and keep for all time. These intrinsically worthless items are carried with the children as they leave the school and spend their few short years living adult lives. Though they are never allowed the responsibility of owning expensive things, they prove that they are worthy, sensitive beings.

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4. Reading books The result of a decent education and artistic encouragement are young adults who are thoughtful, articulate and intelligent human beings, who (just like many young university students) read and learn without any guarantee of future opportunities to put their knowledge to use. And for the clones, their future is to be butchered and used only for their organs, throwing away all the inherent potential that never has time to blossom.

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iPad Apple’s Pockets — But For a Good Reason

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Yes, I know the trend-setting ship has sailed on this topic — and been back to port and out to sea again a couple of times. I’m impulsive by nature (thanks Mom) and susceptible to tech trends (thanks Dad), but it wasn’t just the price tag that prevented me from leaping headlong into the waiting arms of Tablet Jesus. Perhaps it’s my looming trajectory towards age 30 or my four years of cohabitation with a cynical pessimist, but I really wanted to be sure I’d make thorough and multifarious use of the iPad before I got one.

I was mostly sure when I went to Future Shop last Friday, armed with a walletful of gift cards I’d hoarded over the past few years from an uncle who has equal enthusiasm for tech trends, and confronted a lineup of approximately zero people to purchase the new iPad. (Apparently, the only real advantage to living in a backwater town that also happens to be a capital city is that no one is waiting in line to swipe new Apple products off the shelves.) The Dartmouth Crossing Future Shop was almost deserted, like, uh… usual, and in 7 minutes I came away with the following items:

1 iPad 16G wifi, white
1 leather SmartCover, navy blue
1 Targus stainless-steel rubber-tipped stylus

Perhaps I hadn’t paid adequate attention to reviews of the iPad over the years, or perhaps nothing I read adequately explained how significant of a paradigm shift to computing the device really is. It’s not a “media consumption device,” as some critics have insisted; instead, I found the iPad to be on one hand, an indispensable supplement to my current style of working, and on the other, a crash course on the future of computing.

Photoshop Express photo editing app

First of all I’d like to say that the iPad CAN replace a computer — if your main activities don’t stray far beyond word processing, minor image editing and internet browsing. App versions of Pages, Keynote and Numbers (Apple’s adequate responses to Word, PowerPoint and Excel) can do everything from word processing to charts and presentations to simple but lovely page layouts. Photoshop Express lets you edit photographs and web browsing and social media management are givens on the iPad.

I make heavy use of graphic design, web design and intensive page layout programs, so it isn’t feasible for me to do without a regular computer. But it does mean that I don’t have to trade off power for mobility anymore. My MacBook, after being in almost constant use for at least 16 hours a day, 7 days a week for four years, will soon be on its way to the big Apple store in the sky. (Sidenote: I remember learning in church years ago that, according to the specifications listed in the Book of Revelation, the New Jerusalem will look like a large, shiny, translucent cube — which would make this structure a subtley brilliant co-opting of religious iconography, n’est pas?) So now I will be able to replace my MacBook with a cheaper and more powerful desktop, and use the iPad for my mobile needs.

What I’ve learned over the past week in terms of supplementing my work process with the iPad has been transformative. If you’re considering whether a tablet like the iPad will work for you, maybe my next five points will help you make a decision.

1. My spine is thanking me. For the past two years, I’ve carried my MacBook back and forth to work with me. I work at Dalhousie, where the only thing older than the software is the hardware. The computer in my office screamed in agony and begged to be euthanized whenever I did something as simple as try to open Outlook (though, to be fair, I did the same thing the first time I used Outlook). So I depended on my own system to perform the wide variety of tasks I’m responsible for — from graphic and web design to administration and project management.

But then came the Great Bus Strike of the Winter of 2012, and on the half-hour walk each way, my 5-pound laptop colluded with my computer cord, full-size Moleskine agenda, wallet, snacks, hand lotion, extra clothes, last week’s mail and assorted garbage to turn my backpack into a 15 lb sack of back problems. My 1.44 lb. iPad cut down on about 8 pounds (including agenda, file folders of project materials and old mail, which I now photograph and store digitally if I think I’ll need it) and my back has been in considerably less agony these days.

2. I’m keeping track of my 8 kajillion projects. In addition to my part-time day job, I have between five and ten freelance design projects running at any one time. I simply do not own enough shelves to store all the paper generated from these projects were I to print everything out. My organization system has heretofore been loosely based on “piles of paper in the bag I used when I met with that client” — the info for one guy’s website inhabited a leather shoulder satchel, the stuff for one group’s poster lived at the bottom of my backpack.

iScope project management app

But my iPad has become both my project manager and my filing system extraordinaire. I use iCloud and GoDocs (for Google Docs) to sync my documents and spreadsheets, Dropbox to store and transfer larger files, WorkTimer to record my time on each project and PDF Expert to bill clients with form-fillable invoice and receipt templates I made. iScope, a tool I discovered just a few days ago, has already become essential for planning and tracking my various projects: for each project, I can set out tasks with start and end dates, assign a person responsible for each task, and add notes and attach documents and images. And for any loose print documents that are still lying around, I trap their souls in the iPad’s 5 megapixel camera and store them for posterity.

3. I feel like I have a digital butler. Dealing with the four different email accounts I check hourly, schedules littered with obligations and events, an RSS feed with 7849 unread items and a brain that flits between them like a crack-addled butterfly, I have come to appreciate the unified (and polite) approach that the iPad takes to prod me in the right direction. Friendly noises remind me of my appointments, signal that I have email or an IM or a video call, and warn me of upcoming due dates.

Calendar app

Of course, you have to meet it halfway and actually put your appointments in the calendar — the iPad won’t slap you across the face in the morning, pick out matching socks or drive you to the bus stop. But if you’re more hare-brained than regimented, the iPad is intuitive enough to lead you through the baby steps toward becoming a person who actually picks out her clothes the day before.

4. I get to use my hands. For those of you who never grew out of the phase where you just wanted to touch everything you saw with your grubby little man-paws, not monkeying around with a mouse or a trackpad simply feels like the way things are meant to be. (For those of you who, for some reason, don’t like the idea of a touch screen, choose a stylus and then read about the phase you’re stuck in.) But whether finger or stylus, I’m now able to achieve illustrative effects that have been unachieveable for me without a Wacom tablet. Though I’m primarily a “digital” designer, I rely on hand drawing in almost every project. Hand drawn type and image have character, something that can’t be replicated with vector drawing or even well preserved with Illustrator’s Live Trace function.

My old process for incorporating hand drawn elements into my work had five laborious steps:
i. Draw image.
ii. Set up craptastic but evidently indestructible 3-in-1 Lexmark printer.
iii. Scan image to computer.
iv. Open image in Photoshop, increase contrast for black and white drawing, remove white background and clean up eraser marks.
v. Export in appropriate format to Illustrator, Live Trace if necessary.

Adobe Ideas drawing & illustration app

Now I use an app called Adobe Ideas, which actually uses layers as if you were drawing in Photoshop. I use a stylus to draw on a new page or on top of an imported image. When I’m done, it exports the artwork to me as a pdf image with a transparent background, ready to use in any program. Furthermore, with an app called AirDisplay (which I haven’t used yet but will purchase as soon as they update it for the new iPad), you can actually use the iPad as a secondary screen — meaning you can integrate touch function and hand drawing right into your computer programs, or maximize a tiny MacBook screen by keeping your pallets on the iPad.

5. I feel like I’m in looking into the future. I’ve written before about the iPad and PADD, the Personal Access Display Device used most notably by Captain Picard in Star Trek: TNG. But the similarities between the device I own now and the one I made out of cardboard and dreamed of having as a child doesn’t stop at form and function. Star Trek’s PADD tapped into the Enterprise’s central computer and gave the user access to its databases and to his or her personal logs and subspace messages, stored centrally in the ship’s computer mainframe. This is exactly the direction that the future of computing is heading.

Once upon a time, in the 1990s, people had home computers and stored or exchanged information by loading it onto floppy disks. Through a modem, they accessed a worldwide database of connected servers called the internet, but online sharing of information was limited to a few kb sent in an email or uploaded onto a GeoCities page.

Fast forward to 2012: the storing of digital information has become exponentially cheaper (a standard model iMac now comes with 2621 times more storage space than the first Macintosh that my parents bought in 1984, and costs 3 times less), and most people take advantage of free online storage space. I have literally hundreds of documents, images and video stored in the ether, in my Gmail, Google Docs, DropBox, WordPress, Youtube, and iCloud. The iPad, with its limited 16G of storage, is not designed to be limiting but to be freeing: there is no longer any need to overload a hard drive with data. Upload your documents, the tiny files they are, to Google Docs or iCloud. Keep your pictures in Flickr, your videos on Youtube or Vimeo. Put the files you use most in DropBox. Stream music and video, don’t store them. The iPad is your mobile window into the cloud.

And relax, Everyone Over 40: nobody is going to steal your identity if your half-finished detective novel is in your password-secured Google Docs account. Internet predators will not care if your secret recipe for stuffed peppers is synced in Evernote across your phone and your computer. You probably shouldn’t keep your credit card information and your social insurance number in your Gmail, but the worst thing that could possibly happen to you in terms of internet security breaches is that someone hacks your stupidly easy password (note: your password should not be your name) and sends your friends penis enlargement spam. Seriously, what possibly gain could anyone get from “hacking” your Cloud-stored documents? The photos of your cat are not a gateway to your liquidateable assets, and unless you make your living telling American women what they can and cannot do with their uteruses, the forces of internet vigilantism will indubitably pass you by.

Yeah, so anyway, I’m gonna end with a caveat lest the Cynical Pessimist accuse me of taking bribes from Apple under the table (I totally would). Do NOT get an iPad if you are less than prepared to relearn the way you use computers. It is an adventure ride full of challenges and breakthroughs that will ultimately encourage your creativity and make your life easier, but it is not for the faint of heart or… okay, I’ll say it: Old people, the iPad is not the same as a computer or a phone. It is a different thing. You will need to learn how to use it. Follow this simple rule for life: when you encounter problems, put forth your question to the Google, and it shall be answered.

I’ll post later about things that I really don’t like about the iPad when I have enough collected. (First on my burn list: the WordPress app. It is eight fruity varieties of suck. And it will be hearing from my acid tongue.)

The Neopagan Wheel of the Year

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 (or, Why we need Fewer Holidays and More Festivals)

I’m sick of holidays. Now, I’m not sick of days where I don’t have to get up and go to work and I can just wear stretchy pants all day and eat crackers out of a box while watching the Animal Planet YouTube channel on autoplay (moar pleeze).

What I’m sick of is the madness, excess, obligation and outrage associated with our holidays ’round these parts. The savage and ferocious North American holiday can trigger a host of unpleasant problems: overspending, panic over the “perfect gift”, anxiety over food preparation, a toxic level of pressure to create and maintain the proper attitude and atmosphere, guilt over family obligations and rage over appropriation of the season. Not a December ever goes by without some twat complaining that the True Meaning of Christmas has been usurped, or some poor school board getting someone else’s PC agenda rammed down its gullet over a well-meaning pageant. Even our lesser “optional” holidays like Valentine’s Day and St Patrick’s Day warrant enough decorations, cards, games, themed gifts and Red Dye #40 to wipe out everyone in the Dollarama.

Most of our holidays and annual celebrations originate from either Catholic feast days or ancient pagan festivals. And some holidays, like Christmas and Easter, sprang up in pre-Christian times and then got a haircut and a dogma adjustment to fit into the Roman Catholic calendar. Pagan folk festivals inevitably centred on seasons, weather, agriculture and the various gods and goddesses in charge of these departments. Early Roman Catholicism affixed almost every day of the year to a particular saint, transforming the most important holidays into elaborate spectacles of ritual and rhetoric. (Speaking of the ardour of holiday after holiday, nobody had it worse than the Catholics. No sooner were the remains of the Michaelmas goose cleared away than it was time to haul your cattle to church for a blessing on the feast of St. Francis.)

It’s that same backbone of ritual and rhetoric that undergirds our modern celebratory commitments, and has begun to constrict its pointy ribs around entire months of the year. Now that western power and prosperity is in decline, the way we celebrate holidays seems anachronistic. It’s a throwback to the excess and image-consciousness of the mid-twentieth century, decadent and shameful. Christmas bonuses, paid vacation, flights home and even out-of-season foods are no longer on offer, and the pressure to keep up with irrational traditions (like giving pointless single-function gadgets to each other because we all already have one of everything else) is becoming more and more irritating. And if you think you want special days to celebrate your faith, then actually celebrate! But don’t expect everyone else to showcase their religious devotion similarly, or to appreciate yours.

What we really need are not more holidays or vacation time or days off, but more festivals, in the most barbaric sense of the word. Festivals are not the time to retreat to the four walls of your house with your nuclear family, pay lip service to a religious tradition and cram expensive gifts and/or food into each other’s already bloated houses and/or faces. A festival is a joyful gathering during which people come together to celebrate something that matters to the community, like spring or love or being alive, by eating and drinking and talking and sharing one another’s company — and cooking things with fire and laughing so hard that beer comes out of your nose and farting and singing and falling asleep on the floor.

By these criteria, I have only ever been to one real, true festival: my father-in-law’s yearly summer party (I’ve only been to one but he holds it every year). He hires a live band, fires up a couple of barbecues and an outdoor fridge, and friends and relatives from miles around set up camp (literally like tents and RVs) in the yard, and talk and sing and eat and dance and consume all manner of magical elixirs until late into the night, and go to sleep under the stars.

I propose we redesign our year to make room for festivals and only celebrate traditional holidays if they’re actually going to be loads of fun. A good model might be the Wheel of the Year, a neopagan invention which amalgamates major feasts from Celtic and Germanic pagan traditions into one framework. The Wheel designates eight festivals that cycle with the earth’s seasons, and many of the dates fall near our traditional holidays, making them easy to work into the calendar. The festivals of the Wheel occur at regularly spaced intervals throughout the year and aren’t tied to particular dates, just particular times of year. The festivals which fall on solstices and equinoxes (Yule, Ostara, Midsummer and Mabon) are known as quarter days, and those that fall midway between these (Samhain, Imbolc, Beltane and Lughnasadh) are known as cross-quarter days.

So here’s Forest Friend’s Proposed Guidelines for Super Awesome Festival Fun Times and How to Celebrate Them:

Samhain (sahw-en) (31 Oct – 2 Nov, or the date of first frost) This is a Gaelic harvest festival, the beginning of the “darker half” of the year, and traditionally the Celtic new year.
Purist: Light some hardcore bonfires, share autumn food and honour ancestors and the departed with songs and stories.
Slacker: Light some candles, read an HP Lovecraft short story and bicker about narrative frameworks. (No really, that’s exactly what we did last Halloween. It also may have involved not answering the door and hoarding all the candy.)

Yule (19 – 23 Dec at the solstice) Known by the Romans as Saturnalia. Celebrate the new solstice sun and the beginning of winter.
Purist: Decorate evergreen branches or trees with nuts and fruit (and water them or you will get pine needles all over your house) to symbolize the bounty that the coming year will bring. Burn candles and a Yule log and scatter the ashes in the garden or field. Share meals and give gifts to the needy.
Slacker: Make your friends bring over delicious food, drink lots of mulled wine and play an alcohol-fuelled game of Settlers of Catan.

Imbolc (2 – 7 February) Celebrate the nearing of winter’s end and coming signs of spring.
Purist: Clean the house and burn candles to encourage the return of warm weather. Eat dairy, lamb and winter vegetables.
Slacker: Turn up the heat and don’t leave the house, since February in Canada is intolerable. If your city has a transit strike, play groundhog by burrowing under the covers and not coming out until spring.

Ostara (19 – 23 March at the equinox) A celebration of dawn and spring!
Purist: Watch farm animals give birth and honour youth, children and fertility. Have a meal of rabbit, lamb, eggs, fresh greens and bread and fruits.
Slacker: Go to the zoo if it’s open. Hug your cat. Have some “eggie in a basket” — cut a hole in a piece of bread, put it in a pan and drop an egg in the hole, then fry until done and top with cheese and spring onions.

Beltane (30 April – 2 May) May Day celebrates the hopeful expectation of summer.
Purist: Celebrate fertility and the balance between masculine and feminine. Hang flowers, decorate trees with ribbon and light fires — this is a time to dance and to make love. Scandinavia and northern European countries celebrate Walpurgis Night with bonfires, picnics and pranks on the eve of May 1.
Slacker: Have sex in the woods. Or at least by an open window.

Midsummer (19 – 23 June on the solstice) A celebration of the summer solstice and longest day of the year.
Purist: Hold a concert, have bonfires, fireworks or other colourful displays on the eve before the solstice. Passion and fertility are considered to be at their peak. This is a fortuitous night to pick medicinal herbs.
Slacker: Go see an outdoor film. Interpret “medicinal herbs” as you see fit.

Lammas or Lughnasadh (loo-na-sa) (around 1 August) This is a time to celebrate the beginning of harvest season and to bless the crops.
Purist: Light fires and feast on foods featuring summer berries and the first fruits of the harvest. It is an auspicious time to embark upon a serious relationship, to wed, or to rent or buy a house.
Slacker: Eat blueberry pie and browse Kijiji for a new apartment.

Mabon (20-24 September on the equinox) This is the harvest festival and the celebration of the autumnal equinox.
Purist: It is important to share food with friends and with those in need, to show your thankfulness for the prosperous harvest. Eat dishes made from autumn foods, nuts and the fruit of the vine.
Slacker: Go to a fall fair in a rural area. Watch vegetables of unbelievable size being judged and large ruminants perform feats of strength. Consume local brew.

Rinse and repeat to make your year festi-ful!

Manage Your Wardrobe with Paper Dolls

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(and, like, getting rid of things maybe)

I have a problem with buying too many clothes. I don’t mean I have a shopping addiction — although if I lived in a place where the height of sophisticated style wasn’t the Gap, I might. What I mean is that I have a problem buying super cheap, hilarious second-hand clothes, just because they’re super cheap and hilarious. Like a $3 Northern Getaway t-shirt with airbrushed kittens on it. Or a $6 one-piece jumpsuit pattered with tiny ice-cream cones. Or everything that’s velvet. Stupid, stupid stuff. (To be fair, though, I’ve been wearing that jumpsuit for three years).

I wear everything at least a few times and some of my favourite, long-worn pieces have been cheap, ridiculous impulse buys at one point (I’m looking at you, rust-coloured mohair sweater with velvet buttons!). And when I’m done with them I just put them in a bag and donate them right back to the Salvation Army. (Really, I’m renting clothes from them. I should totally just be able to pay a flat monthly rate, like Netflix.)

So how do you manage your wardrobe so that mornings are sane, you’re able to own the things that you love, and find and wear the things that you own?

1. Minimalism.
Sometimes I like to try and convince myself that I want to be a minimalist and I get rid of lots and lots of stuff and just keep the tried-and-true pieces that I’ve worn for years. But then I realize that I’ve been wearing these clothes for years and I am so bored. It works for some people: Mr. Forest Friend has had many of his clothes since high school. But he hates clothes, and if they didn’t get dirty and stinky and worn out, he’d prefer to wear the same outfit until he died in it.

Blogger Emily Wall edited her wardrobe down to one rack and found the process and the result utterly liberating. (If being a minimalist meant trading all my trash for her rack of exquisite pieces, then put me in a white room with a Philip Glass soundtrack.) There are also lots of blog-based projects that challenge readers to pare down their wardrobes to a certain number of pieces for a set period of time. But I think the key to living with a minimalist wardrobe is a desire to embrace a classic style, which is something I have yet to get into. Maybe it’ll happen when I turn 30? Or when I spawn younglings whose antics rob me of sartorial energy for anything but straight-legged jeans and ballet flats? But for now I’ll stick with my blue and pink striped turtleneck and you can shove your camel trench coat up your professionally-groomed butt.

2. Organization
For someone who considers rompers and fur hats to be wardrobe staples, creative organization is necessary. Remember Cher’s closet in the film Clueless, how she has a computer program that puts outfits together and gives her a virtual preview of what it would look like on her? That’s basically what I made this weekend. It’s a little less fancy and it was a lot more work, but essentially it’s a paper doll of me along with an array of clothes that I actually own.

Okay, maybe it’s a little narcissistic to make a paper doll of yourself. But it’s a really fun way to play with your clothes and put together outfits without making a giant mess (the giant mess comes later when I actually get dressed) — especially when it’s been winter forever and everything you own seems boring.

If you want to make your own digital paper doll, here’s how:
a. Draw a picture of yourself in your underwear! Trace it in black pen.
b. Lay some tracing paper over the picture of yourself and draw clothes to fit the outline of your body.
c. Scan your drawings.
d. In a photo editing program like Photoshop, select and copy each piece of clothing out of the white background of the paper you drew them on, and paste into a new file with a transparent background. That way, you can layer the clothing over your doll without taking the whole white page with you.
e. Add colour with the paint bucket tool and details with the paintbrush.
f. Make outfits!

3. Live in Sweden…
Because then you can take advantage of Lånegarderoben — clothes libraries! I AM NOT KIDDING THIS ACTUALLY EXISTS. At this Lånegarderoben (literally “loan closet” — use your Google Translate to read the posts), you pay SEK 600 (about $90 Canadian) for six months and you can borrow up to three of their beautiful designer items for a maximum of three months. This is perfect for people with short fashion attention spans, meagre wallets and tiny closets. Why do I need another reason to move to Scandinavia? Why do people even live in places that aren’t Scandinavia? (And why wouldn’t this work in Canada? Answer: the small percentage of Canadians who are really interested in fashion is mostly made up of people who can afford to buy their own beautiful designer clothing, and do so. Everyone else gets their clothes at the Sally Ann, the mall or Canadian Tire. Mostly Canadian Tire. Actually, that might not be a bad idea for a post: “Fishnets Made Out of Fish Nets: Sartorial Adventures in Canadian Tire.”)

Five Iconic Notebooks in Film

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I am a highly non-linear notebook user. I usually have several on the go at once, for different purposes. I write on scraps and sticky notes much more often than is good for me. And I have a terrible habit of folding a letter-size sheet in half, writing on one side and then the other, and then opening it and writing on the inside, leading to a completely nonsensical succession of pages that spell nothing but trouble once I haul it out of a damp ass pocket, moulded into a semicircle, and try to transcribe it (provided it hasn’t gone through the wash).

I’m also totally, shamefully susceptible to trends in note-taking. I was about 19 when I snapped up the first Moleskine I ever saw in a Halifax shop, and I rode that bandwagon like I thought it was heading straight to a hazy, idealized version of 1960s Paris, like in that movie with young Michael Pitt and incestuous siblings and labyrinthine apartments with bathrooms as big as my kitchen. I abandoned the halfsize hardcover Moleskine as my standard a few years later, due to its severely unmalliable cover but I still use the full-size, soft-cover cahiers. And I swear by Moleskine planners. The x-large, soft-cover, 1-week-per-page, 18-month agenda changed my life: with a whole page of note space for each week, I don’t feel like I need to haul around a whole other book to put my grocery lists and doodles in.

For all you other notebook junkies (I’m looking at you, Mr. Hiltz!), here’s an excellent review and critique of major notebook brands. And here’s a blog called “Notebook Stories” by a self-described notebook addict who posts on all things notebook-related. (For the record, my notebook of choice is MUJI’s kraft A5, which is not sold in my unadventurous, backwater country.)

And here, as promised, is a list of iconic notebooks that have appeared in film that have not only piqued my trend antennae, but have actually changed the way I write in my own notebooks. (And nobody comment that I forgot to mention the film “The Notebook”, because I haven’t seen it and I don’t care.)

Also: spoilers ahead.

1. Harriet the Spy.

If you have not seen this film, go watch it right now. This film still influences my style — only last year, I spent months searching through thrift shops for the perfect yellow rain coat without quite knowing why, as if the Nickelodeon production team were piloting my brain, turning me into a pawn of the lamest and most inexplicable plan for world domination. Anyway, the most iconic part of this underrated and very iconic film is Harriet’s classic marble notebook with “Private” written on the cover. In this film, notebooks store secrets and Harriet’s secrets lead her to a confrontation of who she is, what she is capable of and what it means to grow up.

The marble notebook was never part of my elementary school studies (we had these), but when I found one in a dollar store soon after I watched the film, I was once again at Nickelodeon’s mercy. Nowadays, I find the rules on the page too far apart and am annoyed by the sadly inflexible cover. But I pick some up whenever I find them, because the Mr. loves them and doubles up his rows of cramped and scratchy penmanship between the lines like some sort of crazy person…

2. Se7en.

The most disturbing of David Fincher’s films (with, perhaps, the exception of Gross Reverse-Aging Brad Pitt) features the same marble notebook as in Harriet the Spy. Except there are hundreds of them. And they are filled with doubled-up rows of cramped and scratchy penmanship, written by a psychopathic sadist serial killer. In Se7en, the notebooks do not store a secret so much as a manifesto, something meant to be found. But they also serve to ground a faceless, nameless evil within a human being, rendering the killer even more terrifying. That an eerily cool homicidal maniac would inscribe his canon of madness within the pages of a child’s copybook is a contrast played to great dramatic effect, and only one of many such excellent demented touches in the film. (Go watch this one too. Except you, Mom. You should maybe watch “The Notebook.”)

3. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

The wear and overuse of a decades-old notebook, its pages saturated with dried ink and dust, leaves crammed with scraps and souvenirs, is something that I think would be pretty hard to fake. But the production team did a whopping good job of it with the Grail Diary in this film. The notebook in this film is a record, a chronicle of a lifetime of work, a hoard of esoteric knowledge jam-packed with drawings and notes on age-stiffened paper, the covers pockmarked and the spine creased so that it lies open on its own (a very necessary virtue for a notebook). It looks like the type of old-school, hard-wearing book manufactured in the last century that Howard Carter might have had in his saddle-bag when he discovered Tut’s tomb.

(At around age 12, I discovered a notebook of similar consistency in an Asian gift store in the Penhorn Mall. And you better believe I scribbled a stylized map of the Valley of the Crescent Moon, stuck a golf pencil in there, slapped an elastic around it and carried it with me wherever I went. But that was NOTHING compared to French artist Fabien Palmari’s page-by-page reconstruction of the Grail Notebook.)

4. Amelie.

Amelie is about overcoming the fear of engaging in the unpredictability of life. So there are tons of examples of notebooks and note-taking buried within the film, and all represent the anxiety of those people who would rather record events in life, second-hand, than deal with them. Amelie’s landlady pines for the man she imagines her long-lost husband to be, wallowing in his old letters. An old man, coming home from the funeral of his best friend, erases his friend’s address from his address book. Joseph, the man in the café who dates Georgette the hypochondriac, habitually mutters into a tape recorder, afraid that Georgette is having an affair. Amelie tasks her stewardess friend with photographing the garden gnome around the world and send the photos (visual records) to her father to encourage him to travel. L’Homme de Verre paints Renoir’s Luncheon over and over and makes video mix-tapes. And of course there is Nino’s scrapbook, where he compiles found photos of people he doesn’t know. And happiness is only found for the characters of the film when they come out from behind their notebooks and photographs, risking disappointment and failure for a chance to participate in the joys and trials of life.

5. Memento.

The notebook in this film is, of course, Guy Pearce’s (sexy, sexy) body, upon which he tattoos important information about his life to compensate for his lack of short-term memory. In Memento, the “notebook” not only functions as a means of keeping record, but also as highly visible art. For most of us, the contents of our notebooks are hidden, private and not anywhere near beautiful enough to inflict on the public. But this is not the case with American conceptual architect Lebbeus Woods, whose notebooks are veritable works of art and have been displayed in exhibitions.

 

 

Notebooks of Lebbeus Woods. I wonder what brand they are?

If there’s any lesson I’ve learned about keeping a notebook, it’s that no topic, no subject is too insignificant to record, and to record beautifully. But it takes self-discipline and patience, two virtues dependent on method and organization towards which I am baby-stepping, one mangled to-do list at a time.

 

 

Hey readers (that’s right, all five of you)! If you think of any other examples of iconic notebooks in film, post them in the comments!

Postage Stamps are Endlessly Fascinating

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(Things I learned from hoarding foreign stationery: Part II)

Okay, so I didn’t actually learn this from hoarding foreign stationery. I’ve been a philatelist since childhood, when I inherited my uncle’s stamp collection and spent a memorable Christmas holiday sorting, organizing and cataloguing stamps. Value was irrelevant — rather, I was interested in amassing the widest variety of visually interesting stamps from as many countries as possible.

My interest in philately was recently renewed when I realized that stamps in pristine condition are really boring, and that envelopes attached to stamps are interesting too. I love the functional, thoughtless way people put stamps on an envelope and the crude, random overlay of the ink stamp from the mail sorter slapped on top. I love the wear that stamps and envelopes take on their travels: dirt, creases, tears, stamps and stickers layered over and over as they leave the sorting facility in one country and enter the next. This process signifies not only a journey but a lifespan, as the crisp, new envelopes and bright, pristine stamps go out into the world and come back changed. I collect the ones that seem to have led the most interesting lives, full of adventure and thrills and disappointment and heartbreak, and I can’t bear to cast them away once they’ve finally fulfilled their ultimate purpose. The way that their mysterious history is “written” upon them is just too interesting to discard. (But trying to explain to my husband that my expanding and unwieldy stash is simply a retirement home for deserving mail doesn’t come off too well.)

There is a Japanese aesthetic called “wabi-sabi”, which appreciates the ephemerality of life and celebrates the beauty of the “imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete.” Qualities such as asymmetry, irregularity and unrefinement, and the way things wear, change and age, are seen as the authentic reflection of life and nature. “Shabby chic” is the bastardized commercial version of this aesthetic — things like faux-vintage finished furniture and mass-produced mismatched tableware not only fail to evoke reflexive spiritual contemplation, they defy the essential aspect of wabi-sabi that comes from age and wear.

The emotional reaction that worn stamps and envelopes elicit, and the visual aesthetic they possess, can only be described as wabi-sabi. There is a story hidden under each stamp, each air-mail sticker, between each rip and crease  — the more battered and worn, the more interesting. This is the reason I love mail from Nigeria: I’m not sure what sort of shenanigans are going on in the Nigerian post office, but the dirtiest, most ragged (and therefore most beloved) pieces of mail I’ve ever seen have come from there.

Let’s look at some stamps, shall we?

1. Africa Not only does mail from African countries end up delightfully tattered, it also seems to take a whole lot of stamps to get it here. Fig. 1: I love the purely practical layering of stamps; if placed one beside the other, they would have covered the entire envelope! Fig. 2: The bright colours of the Cameroonian stamps against the brown paper are quite eye-catching (and if you look closely, you’ll see that there are boobs on the green ones). Fig. 3: Instead of a person or an animal or a simple scene, these Eritrean stamps display an iconographical jumble of symbols, like mad heraldry.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2
Fig. 3

 

2. Asia Asian mail offers so many paradigm shifts, it’s hard to know where to begin. Fig. 4: The beautiful bird stamps from China are works of art in themselves, and only enhanced by the pictogram characters on the ink stamps and the brown paper background. Fig. 5: In this example from China, the stark red and green ink printed on the envelope works well with the lovely colours and subtle watercolour style of the stamps.

Fig. 4
Fig. 5

 

Fig. 6: More birds, more beautiful colours and contrast from China. Fig. 7: There’s so much going on with this Vietnamese envelope. An ink stamp that serves as postage, a post mark, what seems to be an authenticity sticker over the seal, and another interesting retro sticker pasted on the centre right. Definitely the signs of a complicated journey.

Fig. 6
Fig. 7

 

 

 

Fig. 8: A bill of lading from a Taiwanese shipping company. The stamps are simply awesome — especially the one dancing at the top right. The paper is very thin, weighted only by the thickness of the stamps. Fig. 9: Also from Taiwan. I love the bunny stamp; I think it references the Year of the Rabbit. Fig. 10: This stamp from Japan is simple, delicate, beautiful. It seems to be printed with ink onto sticky paper and then applied to the envelope. I love how the blue air mail sticker looks next to it.

Fig. 8
Fig. 9
Fig. 10

 

Fig. 11: This stamp from India is printed directly on the envelope, and the detail is meant to evoke the perforated edge of regular stamps, preserving tradition without the extra printing costs. Fig. 12: White, red, indigo and brown and the rough, functional stamps give this mail from Fiji an interesting, utilitarian look.

Fig. 11
Fig. 12

3. Europe Design “sophistication” unfortunately keeps most European stamps from producing interesting iconography or brightly-coloured rabbits, but there are gems nonetheless. Fig. 13: The muted colour palette and the strong sculptural and architectural images in these Russian stamps, along with the delicately printed word “avia” (by air/air mail) are great. Fig. 14: These Maltese stamps look different enough not to have been bought at the same time, but the colour combination is stunning and unexpected. Three stamps couldn’t go better together than these. Fig. 15: The stamp to the right on this Polish envelope may be my favourite stamp of all time. I have no idea why that minotaur is clutching that lockbox, but I am DYING TO KNOW. I would also totally buy this stamp in pencil case, lunch box or tote bag form.

Fig. 13
Fig. 14
Fig. 15

Interfaces in Sci-Fi Films: a study in user experience

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When we talk about style in film, it’s not just wardrobe and set. An important part of production, especially in sci-fi films, is interface design. For the technologically impaired, an interface is what allows a user to interact with a system or a machine — your internet browser, the buttons on your tv or computer, even the drive-thru window at a fast food restaurant are all examples of interfaces. The tone and style of a sci-fi film are reinforced or even defined by the visual means through which the characters interact with technology.

Voigt-Kampff Machine, Blade Runner

For example, the gritty future-noir tone of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) is reflected in the grimy screen of the video-phone and the minimalist, hard edges of the Voigt-Kampff machine. Contrast this with the sexy, ethereal gestural apparatus of the PreCrime headquarters in Minority Report (2002), set in a world so smoothly organized that every crime is prevented before it can happen.

PreCrime interface, Minority Report

The meaning that interface design brings to a film can go very deep. A major theme of The Matrix (1999) is the blurring of boundaries between user, program and interface: at the beginning of the film, Neo is unaware that he is actually interacting with a system through the huge, complex interface of the world around him, or that he himself is simply a small part of another system being used by the machines. Throughout the film, he cuts across these divisions, from watching the Matrix on the operator’s multi-screen interface, to plugging into the Matrix through the Construct interface, to actually being able to see the code flowing while still inside the Matrix.

But the significance of sci-fi film interface design doesn’t end there: user interface designers regularly take lessons from sci-fi on how to improve — and how to screw up — user interaction and experience. A panel at 2011′s SxSW conference discussed both the role interface has with film narrative and how on-screen interfaces might translate that into real life (listen to audio here.) One of the panelists, Chris Noessel, has collaborated with renowned user experience designer Nathan Shedroff on a book called “Make It So: Interaction Lessons from Science Fiction.” In the book, which is slated to come out this year, Shedroff and Noessel examine interface design from the past 100 years of sci-fi film and explain how film interfaces have been inspired and developed, and how designers learn from on-screen examples to develop real-world user interfaces. Their presentation at MacWorld 2011 is engrossing and fascinating — it can be watched here.

And for those of you interested in the pure visuals of film interfaces, check out accessmaincomputerfile.net for screenshots of screen-based interfaces from tons of sci-fi films you’ve seen and plenty that you’ve never heard of. (Also, is that a Netscape favicon they’re using? Holy timewarp, Batman!) Also interesting — and spot-on — is Jakob Nielsen’s Top 10 Film UI Usability Bloopers.

Video and computer game interfaces are a related topic and a study thereupon may lead to some startling insights (like how websites for the military/armed forces tend to mirror the visual tropes of military games like Call of Duty). Perhaps my husband, who is a game UI customization junkie, will be interested in writing more about this!

For now, I’ll leave you with some screenshots of my favourite sci-fi interfaces:

Esper photo, Blade Runner

Since the age of 12, I have seen Blade Runner about 50 times. The gritty, dirty, clunky, subtley Rube-Goldberg nature of the technology onscreen reflects the cultural mish-mash and environmental decay of dystopian Los Angeles in the year 2019 (only seven years from now!). The interfaces in the film are harsh, minimalist and utilitarian.

Bridge of Battlestar Galactica

What I love about the production design of Battlestar Galactica is that they didn’t take for granted any of those “space ship” tropes. There are actual telephones attached to cords in the walls. Buttons aren’t simply lights on an LCD screen; they’re knobs and switches. And even though there are display screens on the bridge, they’re not necessarily interactive — Adama and his crew actually carry around folders and clipboards and paper (all hexagonal, of course).

LCARS (Library Computer Access/Retrieval System), Star Trek TNG

PADD (Person Access Display Device), Star Trek TNG

We watched Star Trek: The Next Generation as a family when I was young, so part of my love for it is nostalgic in origin. The LCARS (Library Computer Access/Retrieval System) is beautiful, though — colourful, functional, responsive to the lightest touch of a finger. And I tell you, if I ever have $500 lying around, I will totally get an iPad just so I can sit back with a cup of Earl Grey and pretend I’m Captain Picard in my ready-room. Nerd fantasy, engage!

Got any favourite film user interfaces? Share them in the comments!

We Are All Obsessed With Design (weekend-rant-o-rama)

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It’s occurred to me lately, as I walk downtown or through campus, as I surf around the world through my internet goggles, how very few of us are still watching where our own feet fall. No longer do we live within our four walls, living a life confined to our own activities and duties. We are always looking outside — or worse, imagining what we ourselves look like to others from the outside, and judging others based on the same reverse, inside-out perspective. We look for clues in others based on what they wear, what they carry, how the insides of their homes look. We send out signals with our vintage wool sweaters, our Fjällräven backpacks, our Anglepoise lamps. Really, it comes down to this: we are all obsessed with design. 

And it’s not just Wallpaper magazines in the dentist’s office, or everyone and their unborn babies tweeting and blogging, or those terrible Helvetica t-shirts. It’s that design — rather than family or religion or culture or work — is what we now use to invent our own identities and tweak ourselves into the people we want to appear to be. The irony is that, in reaffirming our created selves in the eyes of others through designed images and objects, we can’t help but hear that hollow ring of inauthenticity, which drives us again to consume new trends, new things to plug that hole and portray a newer, realer self.

For an example of this seemingly inescapable spiral of modern life, take the Eames rocker in the baby nursery. You don’t have to be a professional designer to know that Eames chairs are expensive and to own one is to bellow to the world that not only do you have taste, you know your design history which everyone who’s someone knows. And your friends are impressed at how you were able to elevate the conventionally kitschy nursery to such a level of taste. And all your blog readers wished they thought of it first and comment that it’s so wonderful you’re bringing up your children in the right aesthetic environment because it’s so important that children are exposed to culture at home.

But your baby doesn’t give a mustard-coloured crap about what’s in his room. He’ll grow up puking on vintage quilts and pissing his little catalogue-ordered drawers and stuffing handfuls of organic seaweed crackers into his face, and when he gets old enough to rebel, he’ll know just what store to get that leather jacket and exactly where to order those limited edition sneakers and precisely what music to choose in order to complete the counter-cultural identity he’s working on.

If he ever has to start paying his own bills, he’ll go through a phase where none of that matters, a phase in which wearing the same jeans for three years, eating what’s only barely expired, and making friends with every glue-eating buffoon who likes Zappa, become the very signposts of freedom. For him, sleeping under a soiled unicorn comforter with strangers he bonded with an hour ago over something he can’t remember is a ceremonial revelation of the Meaning of Life. But then he’ll get a real job making real money and start seeing things in a new way again: he’ll begin to get a high from “discovering” products, from finding the perfect things to silently elucidate who he feels himself to be, who he wants to be. The Panasonic RP-HTX7 headphones are not overpriced eardrum fellators but the best high-performance audio in a vintage throwback style. The persnickety organic diet and gym membership aren’t shameful telltale signs of personal insecurity or a decadent lifestyle, but all about “balance” and “energizing your life.”

Perhaps we are all just victims of a marketing ploy, a clever subterfuge engineered to create within us an irresistible desire to slather ourselves and our living spaces with the products offered in ads that pinion us from every direction like darts on a target. If “Style” is just another word for “attractive arrangement of products designed to maximize the possibility of your bringing it home,” then our attention to design, so carefully couched in an interest in “form” or “function” or “colour” so as not to appear vapid, is simply the culminating success of the advertising industry. It is us performing what we have been programmed to do, and not an expression of anything.

Or perhaps we come by this urge more genuinely, from a need to assert ourselves, or whatever construct we have come to believe is ourselves, upon our environment and upon the external impression we give to the world. Perhaps it is a higher need, one that only emerges on condition that all our lesser needs have been sated, a concrete realization of self-actualization — Maslow’s cap on the pyramid.

The undeniably visceral sense of excitement and inspiration we feel when confronted with a particular object, scene or piece of media may come from memory, nostalgia or a fixation on the novel, but it is no less felt and no less real than the ideas which “occur” to us from no discernible reference point. Spontaneous expressions of delight, wonder and curiosity at art, architecture, objects, images, even colours and shapes, must come from somewhere authentic, or they wouldn’t be so universal.

Perhaps it is just the visual presentation of ideas, not designed objects or the images themselves, that so excite us. Perhaps it’s that spark of creativity that jumps up into our brains from some esoteric plane when we are confronted with the results of someone else’s creativity, someone else’s design. Maybe that’s what we’re addicted to. And maybe what’s best in life is pursuing that addiction and creating new sparks for our fellow humans to devour.

So, watch where your own feet fall. But watch where others’ fall as well, just in case there’s a chance we can make one another’s paths a little more interesting.

The Grown-Up Kitchen

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I spend a lot of time in my kitchen. The kitchen table is my official workspace. I have a tiny desk in an “office nook” in the living room, but it’s above a heat vent so it’s officially covered in sleeping cat 90% of the time. I’m a notoriously messy worker so my trail of chaos usually leads from my be-catted desk, though the bedroom and into the kitchen, over the table, chairs, cabinet and counter-tops. And I have to say that the kitchen, even though it’s by far the most used room in the house, is the only one that I haven’t got quite figured out.

I’m not exactly sure when I started caring about kitchenware. It was definitely after I stopped living with roommates and moved in with the guy who’s now my husband. I’ve always been into clothes, accessories and fashion in general, but not having my own domestic terrain until recently kept my aesthetic cravings largely out of that zone. Perhaps it was just adulthood and necessity that began to stir those cravings — we needed things to cook in, eat off of and sit on, and the harvested dregs of parents’ cupboards and old roomies’ leavings slowly deteriorated or became otherwise inadequate. And thus, another excuse to consume was born.

Though I’m possibly the least immune person in the world to beautiful kitchen things, my desire has not yet fully blossomed, mostly because I know that owning nice things will involve more attention and care than I’m willing to give. (I did get one of my wishes, a Chemex coffee maker, as a wedding present, and it caused nothing but contention between me and the Mr. because it doesn’t have an “on” button.) I think this natural avoidance of the responsibility inherent in owning things is important (though admittedly much stronger in my husband). It serves as an essential check against my equally natural inclination towards collecting beautiful things and against the advertising blitzkrieg I’ve grown up within. Futhermore, the combined income of two sporadically employed twentysomethings doesn’t exactly accommodate the fine furnishings, decor and kitchenware I drool over — which is a resonating reminder that what I want isn’t necessarily what I should get.

All the same, in recent years I’ve spent many an hour ogling MUJI (no MUJI stores in Canada yet!) and Ikea (no Ikea in Atlantic Canada yet!) catalogues, the house porn of Dwell and blogs like KITKA Design, by the proprietors of the fantastic Toronto boutique Mjölk (seriously, I dare you to look here and not feel like you got socked in the gut with aesthetic bliss and overwhelming, almost infantile desire).

So to make peace with the warring factions inside my head, my relationship and my bank account, I look for houseware and kitchenware satisfaction the only place I know will deliver a surprising bang for my stingy buck: the thrift store. Mixed and matched dishes, vintage European cookware and awesome kitschy glassware aren’t exactly handcrafted Japanese cups or pristine midcentury teak furniture, but they’re cool and cheap and fun to use and don’t completely break your heart when your cat destroys them. And I can take plenty of aesthetic and financial satisfaction in that.

All the fun vintage kitchenware that appear in the photos are listed on the Forest Friend Etsy shop. But if you’re around Halifax and you’re interested in any of the pieces, you can pick them up directly from me! You’ll save us both a fortune in shipping and I’ll even give you a discount. Email me at forestfrienddesign@gmail.com.

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