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Identity wrangling

A hand cupping some water from a stream

Cupping the water in Spicey Gill coming down from Ilkley Moor. Photo taken a year ago today.

“You are not your emotions.” Well you are, but you are not only your emotions. And you can choose not to be controlled by your emotions.

Life is made up of micro and macro decisions, and their consequences.

I chose to move back to the US, and now I am grappling with the reality of that decision, amongst other things. It has made life easier in some respects, and harder in others. Do I regret it? No. Will we be here forever? Magic eight ball says 🎱 “Concentrate and ask again”.

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Encounter with vaccine hesitancy

Had my first IRL encounter with vaccine hesitancy in SF yesterday.

I was grabbing an Uber back from a blood test and got chatting with the driver about all sorts of stuff. He was a perfectly lovely guy, probably around the same age as me. He asked if I’d had the vaccine and I said yes, that I’d had the second about two weeks ago. I asked if he had had it, thinking that maybe he asked me because he’d just had his. He said he wasn’t planning to get it, alluded to being skeptical about what was in them and whether they were safe.

He said something like 40% of the US military wasn’t getting the vaccine. I didn’t really really know what to say to that. I knew it wasn’t quite right, but was too tired to question it.

(Back in February it was reported that about one-third of military personnel supposedly were planning not to get the vaccine, but that was based on an extrapolation from survey data from the rest of the US population at the time, not on any major survey of the military itself [more on this]. We don’t actually know how many members of the military are getting the vaccine since it isn’t being tracked, it could be way higher or way lower. And the broader numbers across the US have changed since then, though there is still a good chunk of the population that is hesitant.)

Anyways, the conversation moved on. We got talking about how dire it was early on in San Francisco, tough for him to drive then. About how nice it is to see things gradually opening up, how it was nice to be seeing so many more people out and about even though it meant bad traffic, about how it will be great when we can stop wearing masks outside at least. He mentioned that he was planning to keep wearing his mask inside and while driving for a long, long time. So he was vaccine hesitant, but in no way an anti-masker or anything.

I mentioned how impressed I was by the vaccine efforts going on at the Moscone Center, about how I’d never seen anything like it, so many kind and qualified people coming together to help so many hundreds of other people every day. Figured it was the best I could do short of actively trying to convince him to get the vaccine itself.

When we parted ways, he said he was feeling positive about the whole situation, with so many people getting vaccinated. Said to stay safe, then I was out the door.

I need to figure out how to respond more proactively in that sort of situation. I think that his rational was probably “there are plenty of other people getting it, so I should be safe without it”. But we can’t realistically get high enough immunity within the population that way, and it isn’t a very community-minded approach. How do you get that across without being accusatory or making someone defensive?

I’m glad he’s feeling positive, but unfortunately I left the car feeling a bit lower than when I’d gotten in. We have such a massive mountain to climb in terms of the quality, efficacy, and breadth of our public health communication.

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A little more on Rietveld’s crate furniture, discovering Louise Brigham’s earlier box furniture, and thoughts about the purpose of a blog

More on Rietveld’s crate furniture

Off the back of writing up the Rietveld-esque crate stool how-to, I started looking in to more about the origins of Gerrit Rietveld’s crate furniture. The best write up I’ve found is “A restorer’s blog: Pre-war crate desk by Rietveld”. It sounds like Metz & Co, the company selling much of Rietveld’s furniture, was skeptical.

“We cannot sell wood chips,” director Joseph de Leeuw had written to Rietveld.

It’s worth reading the post in full for a ton of anecdotes and context, as well as some useful comments from a master furniture restorer.

Louise Brigham’s earlier box furniture

While researching, I also came across this post which introduced me to Louise Brigham, an American designer and teacher best known for her box furniture.

Her background is one of privilege, but she seemed to wield her privilege reasonably well. She came from a comfortably wealthy Bostonian family, and her parents died in her teens. Their death, combined with family wealth, likely allowed her to buck the normal pressures on a woman living in her time. She instead pursued her creative and social ambitions.

After studying both the Pratt Institute and the Chase School of Art (now Parsons), she became involved in the settlement house movement in Cleveland, OH where she experimented with furniture made from boxes and crates. She then travelled around Europe studying craft traditions. Supposedly she visited Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh in Glasgow, which I feel you can see in some of her designs. Perhaps her most impactful time was spent in Spitzbergen, a treeless island that is part of the Svalbard archipelago in the Arctic where she really honed her design rational, ethos, and aesthetics.

She was prolific in the early 1900s. In 1909—over two decades before Rietveld’s crate furniture—she published Box Furniture, a book charmingly illustrated by Edward Aschermann on how to make furniture from crates. The book was reprinted multiple times and translated in to many languages.

To all who care for simplicity and thrift, utility and beauty, I send my message.

Louise Brigham, Box Furniture, p25

In the early 1910s, she set up a woodworking “laboratory” for children called the Home Thrift Association. During WWI she started one of the earliest ready-to-assemble furniture companies, Home Art Masters.

Why haven’t we heard more about her work?

For further reading on Louise Brigham, there are a few articles and books out there that look worthwhile. The interiordesign.net article “Thinking Outside the Box: Louise Brigham’s Furniture of 1909” by Larry Weinberg published in 2009 provides a lovely introduction to Brigham and her book. See also Kevin Adkisson’s paper “Box Furniture: Thinking Outside the Box” from 2014 for much more detail on her, including her later life.

The most extensive writing on Brigham currently appears to be Antoinette LaFarge’s book Louise Brigham and the Early History of Sustainable Furniture Design. I haven’t read it, but it looks promising.

And of course, check out Brigham’s Box Furniture available to view or download for free on archive.org. Love it, this book being part of the Internet Archive feels very in keeping with her vibe.

I’m planning to dig in a bit to Alice Rawsthorn’s writing. Her short article on Brigham for Maharam prompted me to look at her other articles. The list is extensive. Looking at that list, she seems to have covered so many of the women I have had some major or minor curiosity about over the past few years. See her writing on Louise Brigham, Ruth Asawa and the Alvarado School Arts Workshop in San Francisco, architect and designer Charlotte Perriand, architect Sophie Hicks and her home, Lucie Rie and her buttons, furniture and interior designer Clara Porset, Bauhaus photographer Gertrud Arndt, architect Jane Drew, interior designers Agnes and Rhoda Garrett, architect and activist Grete Lihotzky. I think I need to pick up a copy of Rawsthorn’s Design as an Attitude or Hello World: Where Design Meets Life at this point.

On a more personal note, I identified strongly with Rawsthorn’s short article on her most treasured possession for Elle Decoration. My most treasured possessions from my maternal grandmother are cookbooks and kitchen tools. Her battered plastic cake stand, a perfectly shaped spatula, a muffin tin. From her mother, it’s her quilt patterns cut from scrap cardboard and cereal boxes, and her flower drawings for embroidery. This is not to say that I don’t also cherish more traditionally precious heirlooms, it’s just that the objects with utility feel like they maybe have more of the life of the person in them.

Some thoughts after reading Didion’s “On Keeping a Notebook”

I finally read Joan Didion’s “On Keeping a Notebook”. I was reminded of it yet again while surfing around the web looking at all of the above and found a copy online.

Keepers of private notebooks are a differ­ent breed altogether, lonely and resistant rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss.

Harsh. But probably fair.

See enough and write it down, I tell myself, and then some morning when the world seems drained of wonder, some day when I am only going through the motions of doing what I am supposed to do, which is write—on that bankrupt morning I will simply open my notebook and there it will all be, a forgotten account with accumulated interest, paid passage back to the world out there […]

Exactly.

We are not talk­ing here about the kind of notebook that is patently for public consump­tion, a structural conceit for binding together a series of graceful pensées; we are talking about something private, about bits of the mind’s string too short to use, an indiscriminate and erratic assemblage with meaning only for its maker.

Now this is interesting, and it sort of hits on the difference between a personal blog and a blog that feels more business-driven.

The best personal blogs I’ve come across feel like a glimpse in to someone’s personal notebook, something filled mostly with notes written with the author in mind first and foremost vs notes that have been written with a wider audience in mind. A good personal blog can (and maybe should) contain a mixture of both, since they both can be absolutely great and useful. But when it is only ever writing for an audience… well that doesn’t feel like a personal blog, to me.

It all comes back. Perhaps it is difficult to see the value in having one’s self back in that kind of mood, but I do see it; I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends. We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget.

“It all” being moments, memories, the good and the bad.

I hope to have this site when I’m 80. I may not like some of the things I wrote 50 years prior, but at least I will be able to reacquaint myself with former me-s. I hope I don’t lose sight of this purpose.

And we are all on our own when it comes to keeping those lines open to ourselves: your notebook will never help me, nor mine you.

A difference between Didion’s era and now: some of my notes could help you, and yours me. Another reason that I love personal blogs. It just seems so hard to find them sometimes.

A notebook, that’s all any of this is, really.


Edited 10 May, changed “like a personal brand exercise” to “more business-driven”. The phrase “personal brand” has a lot of negative connotations, so “personal brand exercise” felt way too snarky on a re-read. Business-driven blogs by individuals are super important, and useful! They’re just different, and there’s space for all of that (and a mixture of all the above) online.

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Bay trees and blackberry thorns

California Bay Laurel trees along Dipsea Trail near Stinson Beach

Note: I’ve included points about edibility because I’m interested in foraging generally, but foraging is not allowed the area I describe.

We went to Stinson Beach again recently, have got in to a good routine of leaving early enough to just barely beat the crowds and get a decent parking spot, but not so early that it’s a slog to get out of the apartment.

This time, we walked up Dipsea Trail to a lookout point with a large, lone eucalyptus tree with a tree swing. It was a little over two miles round trip with about a 500ft elevation change, nearly all uphill out and all downhill back. The first section follows a little stream from Panoramic Highway through a grove of California Bay Laurel trees which bent over the path. It was quite damp and cool even though it was getting pretty warm elsewhere, smelled amazing.

A note about California Bay Laurel: The leaves are edible, but they tend to be much stronger than the stuff you buy in shops. Proceed with caution if using for stock or something similar.

The rest of the way was more open, with terrain that reminded us a little of the moors in Yorkshire. A lot sunnier though!

Flowers we saw (native plants are linked to the Calscape website for further info):

And a few more I just have not been able to identify…

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Maintenance is everything

I don’t expect most of the opinions that I hold now to have the same shape in 10, 20. years. I don’t think any of us is the same person every day, identity shifts with every tiny experience, so it’d be a silly thing to suggest or expect.

But one that I think might stick, the thing that might last if I ever wrote a manifesto: Maintenance is everything.

Bikes, physical health, mental health, roads, relationships, furniture, websites, clothing, parks, plants, sewers.

If it’s worth creating/buying/doing in the first place, it’s usually worth maintaining. And I love maintenance, fixing things, so that’s lucky! (Don’t like cleaning so much, which is another major part of physical maintenance, but I’m working on that.)

The problem is that new/shiny is a lot more lucrative than old/broken (more on this). How do we shift that mindset?

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First day of the rest of my life

Just got my first vaccine dose yesterday, my appointment was at the Moscone Center. Good lord, they’re running a slick operation over there. The staff are clearly working very hard to keep things smooth and quick. And the unrelenting torrent of small talk they have to put up with! They are saints.

I’m happy to have had mountains of very clear (but un-pushy) reference material and guidance from my OB/GYN practice about whether or not to get the vaccine when expecting. The endorsement by the OB/GYN community in the US is very different to the approach in the UK though, which has made some conversations with UK-based friends and family interesting! None of them have said I shouldn’t get it, but some have expressed a bit of trepidation, which is fair enough. There are a lot of factors making up this sort of public health guidance, and there’s still a lot we don’t know. We’re all making do as best we can.

All things going to plan, I should be fully vaccinated by 21 April. 🤞 I know this is terribly hyperbolic, but it sort of feels like the first day of the rest of my life.

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it’s a wild world

A woodcut by Albrecht Dürer of the northern hemisphere celestial globe, from the Minneapolis Institute of Art collection

Albrecht Dürer, The Northern Hemisphere of the Celestial Globe, woodcut, 1515 | (CC-PDM) Public Domain, Minneapolis Institute of Art collection (source)

Came across two tweets today that have jointly taken up residence in my head. This tweet:

i don’t want a career, i want whatever bilbo baggins and the rest of the hobbits had in the shire

And from this tweet, a short clip of Ethan Hawke’s TED talk:

I think that most of us really want to offer the world something of quality, ☝️something that the world will consider good or important☝️. And that’s really the enemy, because it’s not up to us whether what we do is any good. If history has taught us anything, the world is an extremely unreliable critic.

The shire is tiny, quaint, communal. That’s part of why it “works”.

Our world, on the other hand, is enormous and increasingly fractured. We can be exposed to nearly every possible facet and product of humanity via our phone screens. The desire to make a mark is as strong as it has ever been, but it’s hard to do anything that feels of real consequence when you’re effectively a sea-monkey navigating the Pacific Ocean.

You can make it feel smaller by limiting media consumption (traditional and social), but it has to be a daily, conscious action. And the pressure to engage can be enormous depending on your age and career. It just wears you down.

I suppose the goal is a balance, cultivating a smaller, more meaningful personal world (friends, collaborators, family, acquaintances) that you can retreat to and just occasionally reaching out in to the hurricane. But when making a decent living feels tied to the hurricane, or the hurricane seems like all you have left… it’s not an easy truce.

This is why the silent retreats, the off-grid living, the hamlet cottages are so compelling. It’s easy to think that physically moving somewhere less frantic will automatically offer peace, but unless you can temper the virtual arena that makes up your world, it’s just more of the same.

No answers here, as usual. Just more thoughts for the whirlpool.


Edit: I just re-read this and it makes me cringe a bit. It’s so obvious, and it has occurred to me a thousand times before. Why is it an epiphany every time I think about it? I always forget, it’s like Groundhog Day. Maybe this is what mantras are for. Something like the perennial I am enough, but more My sphere of influence, the way I define it, and the way I engage with it is enough. Ugh I don’t know!

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NOW v4: Big personal news, frustrations about current events, a tiny bit of hope

Updated my Now page, contents below for posterity. This one contains probably the biggest news in my personal life since we moved. 🐣 Fewer emojis in this update because it just feels too casual considering the somber state of things right now.


It’s late February 2021. We’re coming up on a year since we hastily moved out of our flat in London a week+ early to avoid getting stuck in top-tier pandemic 🦠 lockdown without a home.

Personally, these past few months have looked largely the same as every other month since early 2020. I’ve been exceptionally fortunate throughout in that every sticky situation caused by the pandemic or current events has turned out alright. Sometimes this has been down to luck or timing, but more truthfully, it is directly related to the privilege of having very supportive family, friends, and collaborators.

Of course it’s been just more chaos in the wider news. Since my last Now update there was the election in November 🗳, an astronomical spike in Covid cases and deaths tied to winter holiday travel and celebrations, then the Capitol insurrection in January followed by a pared-back, pandemic-appropriate presidential inauguration. There was the very recent terrible freeze in Texas which resulted from a catastrophic combination of extreme weather and exceptional incompetence on the part of state legislators and the Texas Public Utilities Commission. How can we blame wind turbines freezing when people in Arctic territories manage to keep theirs running smoothly? And how did state regulators not see this coming considering the 2011 federal report explicitly recommending winterization efforts? Friends in Austin reported being without power for over 50 hours, indoor temperatures around 48F or below. Many Texans lost their homes or lives, a child in Conroe died of suspected hypothermia in bed next to his three-year-old stepbrother. The US coronavirus death toll just passed half a million. And all of these headlines are from the US alone.

But the vaccine 💉 distribution also started towards the end of last year, and the curve is dropping. Even though there’s some uncertainty surrounding the vaccines’ efficacy, particularly in preventing transmission or against new virus strains, even though there have been problems with efficient distribution, it still gives me a bit of hope. It’s a drop in the bucket when you consider all of the broader problems, but it’s something. Sam’s parents got the jabs a while back, then my grandpa, then my parents. I should be eligible for the vaccine in less than a month according to California’s current schedule.

The reason I’m eligible so soon is that we’re expecting. Some very happy personal news. 🙂

Perhaps it’s an odd time to have a baby, but it’s not like we’ll be disrupting a busy social calendar. They’re due to arrive this summer, possibly right around when we can start seeing people again. At least I really hope.

Navigating self employment and maternity leave has been interesting. I plan to get back to work when I can, I really like what I do and the people I get to work with. And it’s going to be very stressful not earning for a bit! But I’m under no illusions that it will be easy and am planning to take a solid few months completely off. Will probably have to find childcare ASAP, which I hear is a tortuous and expensive undertaking in SF… Talking to friends and collaborators that have been through this has been essential. It’s reinforced my feeling that planning and flexibility are two sides of the same coin. The unknown aspect of it (did you know that only roughly 5% of babies come on their due date?) makes it a little difficult to figure certain things out, but we’ll get there.

Work-wise 👩🏻‍💻 I’m currently focusing on wrapping up big preexisting projects before my maternity leave and fitting in maintenance work to pre-empt requests that otherwise might have arisen while I’m out for a few months.

My bigger projects include: working with Nick Sherman to add some exciting functionality to the super-useful Variable Fonts website; developing a new site for Danish art 🎨 school Det Jyske Kunstakademi designed by Sara De Bondt studio; helping out long-term collaborators Corridor8 with some major website improvements; developing a website designed by John Morgan studio for a major London-based gallery 🖼 including the automated migration of over 4000 entries; developing a new website for Gort Scott Architects designed by Polimekanos. I’m still collaborating with Bec Worth on the WIP 🚧 open-source WordPress theme that powers this website, though that project has been dormant for a bit due to maternity leave prep busy-ness.

I’m still offering free 30-minute open office hours sessions on Wednesday mornings Pacific Time for anyone that has web-related questions, but am now just using email to schedule this. Dropped Calendly for scheduling since it felt like unnecessary admin. My most recent sessions included walking someone through how I worked with the Are.na API on Gemma Copeland’s site and discussing how best to make content adjustments to a personal site for SEO purposes with a lovely former collaborator who is embarking on some exciting new personal projects.

Limited free time at the moment is mostly taken up by mindlessly watching feel-good shows like The Repair Shop and Taskmaster, and by anxiety-driven research. That all needs to change. Some of the research has been dedicated to wrapping my head around the blockchain and NFTs since so many of my colleagues are now jazzed about it despite prior misgivings. But most of the research is made up of learning more about what on earth having a kid is supposed to entail in 2021 and beyond. If anyone has tips on teaching kids about social media safety let me know, I’m already worried.

Besides that, I’m still contributing to the Feminist Open Source Investigations Group. Cooking and baking 🍲 used to be my main pandemic pastimes but that fell seriously by the wayside due to first trimester woes. I did successfully bake my MIL’s top-notch lemon drizzle cake 🍋 recently, which was a big win. Sam and I have been doing a little more walking and exploring outdoors, not enough. And we just started making some furniture based on Rietveld’s crate designs. More on this to come soon. I haven’t kept up with my anti-racism reading recently, nor other reading, so need to revisit the reading list 📚 I set for myself a while back. And I need to make more effort to make IRL friends in the SF Bay Area. I put it on the back burner since lockdown measures combined with being extra-cautious due to pregnancy made seeing people in person seem unfeasible. But that is changing as numbers go down. Have had a lot of luck reaching out to people on Twitter though, every one of those digital encounters has been really nice. Still looking for a new choir 🎵 in the Bay Area, though I’m not expecting to find anything that rivals Musarc in terms of breadth of repertoire and experimentation. We’ll see!

Am I allowed to say that things are maybe, just barely, looking up? 🤞 Don’t hold me to it, time will tell.

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Lichens are not plants

I’ve been taking pictures of “little plants” for a little while. The most consistent aspect of this photos is that they contain lichen, sometimes moss.

Turns out a lichen is not a plant. See Wikipedia for more info but in short: “A lichen is a composite organism that arises from algae or cyanobacteria living among filaments of multiple fungi species in a mutualistic relationship.”

Ah well, still going to refer to them as little plants. But let the record show that I now know my error.

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Growing up in a DDT dumping ground

Rat beach near Torrance, California in 2010

Rat Beach in 2010

I came across the article below recently and was pretty floored.

“How the waters off Catalina became a DDT dumping ground” by Rosanna Xia for the LA Times, 25 October 2020

I grew up in Torrance till I was 5 and Palos Verdes until I was 13. I played in the ocean at Rat Beach all the time, caught tadpoles in the storm drain just next to PVBAC, went tidepooling in Abalone Cove. I had no idea about the Superfund site, this is the very first time I’ve heard of it. How on earth is that?

Lunada Bay in Southern California, 2010

Lunada bay in 2010

It looks like the Superfund site starts just south of Lunada Bay and gets worse as you pass Portuguese Bend down towards San Pedro (see map).

And now they’ve verified punctured DDT waste barrels that have been sitting on the sea floor just off Catalina, possibly since the 1980s. This could be three to four decades of leakage from up to half a million barrels.

They leaned in to examine an icicle-like anomaly growing off one of the barrels — a “toxicle,” they called it — and wondered about the gas that bubbled out when the robot snapped one off. To have gas supersaturated in and around these barrels so deep underwater, where the pressure was 90 times greater than above ground, was unsettling. They couldn’t help but feel like they were poking at a giant Coke can ready to explode.

Sea lions up and down the coast have been dying from it for decades, and still are. We eat a lot of seafood from these waters.

How can this possibly be cleaned up, and who on earth is going to pay for it? Certainly not the Montrose Chemical Corp. of California, they’ve been gone for years.

It’s just so exhausting. It feels like so many people’s jobs right this moment are simply running around slapping Bandaids left right and center, scrambling to fix what have become systemic problems caused by the poor decision making of people in the past. Lack of foresight, deliberately turning a blind eye, “we’ll deal with it later”, “it can’t possibly be that bad”. The environment, tech, policing, advertising.

So much firefighting.