Little Boxes... made of ticky-tacky

... and they're all made out of ticky-tacky, and they all look just the same.

This little ditty was the opening theme song for the television show Weeds, whose primary theme for the first three seasons was a critique of the suburban culture, lifestyle, vanities, and contradictions. Housewives and business professionals are smoking dope far more often than you might assume (but then again, this is the southern California version of the suburbs we are talking about, in the show).

But the theme song has always been the great, obvious reminder of the writers' criticism of the suburbs as somehow more safe, with less vice, and the fledgling perception that it is somehow filled with more wholesome people. Most obviously, it points out that all the "little boxes on the hillside," while they might be green, yellow, and blue, are all the same. Little cookie cutters set up for a life of Jonesing (by which I mean, keeping up with them).

One of my favorite exhibits at the Museum of Modern Art on our recent visit was an exploration of the city, the suburb, and our relationship to these different kinds of spaces. It revolved around the Buell Hypothesis, which is brilliantly simple at its core: change the dream and you change the city.

This deeply resonated with me; because, yes, I have taken a class on the history of the U.S. city and its development, the fallacies we have believed about them, and the many mistakes we have made in expanding them. We have had some victories too, and I think we are in an era now where we are becoming better equipped at adjusting the errs. Urban sprawl, the desire for the suburban "space"--which is, having a little yard next to your neighbor's little yard--the single-family house, the two-cars-and-garage, the desire for this "American Dream" has resulted in enormous masses of Metropolitan Statistical Areas--giant areas that now constitute the urban area of a city, and with tragically awful commutes for the people living an hour outside, as the only transportation system to accomodate the two-car dream is the interstate highway.

The Metro Statistical Area of Atlanta includes 28 counties, including the city of Athens, more than an hour east of the center. I think MSAs are fascinating beasts, and I've written about my thoughts on the cityscape before. Atlanta is one of the worst offenders of sprawl, the expansion of low-density development that saps the previously natural and open spaces that once surrounded a city, and replaces them with strip malls, big-box stores, retail centers, and many series of little rows of houses surrounding a singular winding street.

Plenty of people get really angry about sprawl, including the guy who wrote this book about it. In an article I talk about about here, the environmental benefits of reversing sprawl are explored: people in cities are using way less energy per capita to survive, period. The thing is, it is so hard to stop, to reverse, because we have not yet worked to redefine "the dream," as the Buell Hypothesis so simple stated. It was like a lightning bolt struck me. Of course. When we redefine what it means to be successful in this United States of the 21st Century, where, ahem, we are no longer the powerhouse leader of the universe and we better get over it fast, we can begin to properly analyze, repair, and improve the lives of so many living in our urban areas--as far out as they have spread. We can change our own perceptions of the kinds of spaces in which we live, work, play, thrive, towards more sustainable living in the population-seven-billion world of today. And it all, fundamentally, comes down to one uncomplicated sentence. Change the dream and you change the city.

Plus, it was just very fun to browse the theoretical models for housing systems of the future, when cities are a much larger part of the dream, and the family dwelling space for the majority of urban/suburban people might look quite different. So exciting. But I love cities. You already knew that. 

 

Graphic New York City

So there are an endless number of ways to be inspired in--and by--New York City, and I am only adding myself to the category of people who fell in love with the city upon visiting. It certainly makes itself easy to love, if you would rather not have to use a car, enjoy eating pizza on a sidewalk patio at midnight, and want to randomly discover art galleries, quirky stores, and delicious street food piled one after the next on every little street. One of the ways the city inspired me was in its graphic, natural state; that is, the billboards and architecture combining with graffiti, tiles, manhole covers, stairwells, creating an bold urban patchwork of colors, patterns, movement. Here are a few of my favorite examples.

 

Taryn Simon, exploring bloodlines and stories that bind us, through photos

 

In the middle of a Saturday afternoon, in midtown Manhattan, we were near collapse after a morning exploring the Upper West Side and Central Park, then shopping around midtown. Then we went to the Modern Museum of Art. I felt it essential to visit at least one of the major, internationally-renowned museums New York City has to offer, even while we were resisting the traditional tourist visit to the City.

Taryn Simon, artist and photographer, has a knack for amazing titles. Her current show: A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters, I-XVIII. At some point as we neared delirium, we wandered into the photography section of the museum, tucked on one of the expansive floors, and found Taryn Simon's stunning exhibition of photographs. To be honest, the named intrigued me first, as names and titles nearly always do. A great name is the fastest way to get me interested. (I read Angela's Ashes in sixth grade--I know, right?--because I desperately wanted to know who Angela was, and what was her relation to the little grungy boy on the cover; no other reason.)

We found ourselves surrounded by austere faces, portraits of men, women, rabbits, sitting each by themselves, amid a series of people (and sometimes things) who are somehow related, whose lives and stories intersect by some grand or small event. There was something about "bloodlines," as after looking deeper at the panels and photographs, I was confused about the organization of the show and its larger meaning. I left intrigued deeply, wanting to spend more time pondering this series, these "chapters," later, but not wanting to buy the $125 exhibition book--which was the show in its entirety, amazing.

Hours later, I am in the hotel room taking a much-needed rest, and flipping through a Time magazine I'd brought with, when there is this bold headline: "There Will Be Bloodlines: Taryn Simon untangles the ties that bind."

I kid you not, I got goosebumps. If I had looked at this magazine a day earlier, I might have overlooked this name, skimmed the article at best. Here was this woman, and her explanation of this newest project, which was four years in the making, and took her to twenty-five countries.

Now I have a proper explanation of the project's theme and meaning:

The organizing principle for this project is what she calls bloodlines: all the living descendants, plus any living forebears, of a single man or woman who sets a story in motion.

And the reasoning, the messy ties and stories and variable havoc that occurs within these "bloodlines" is where her project becomes truly fascinating. It echoes what I see and know deeply: that family lines, genetics, and genealogy have little to do with  the way our lives turn out, have almost nothing to do with the events that shape our individual lives in the present.A simple concept, really; and this explains why the tribal man with ten wives, dozens of children, and many dozen grandchildren appears in a massive sequence. And also, why there is a man missing from his own story--a blank canvas appears instead; he was executed for war crimes after the end of WWII and Nazi Germany, but descendants appear after his spot, along with more missing people, via their empty canvases, as well as pieces of clothing that act in lieu of a person, who preferred not to share his or her face in association with this man. Meaning becomes clear.

Simone depicts bloodlines as flowing charts of small portraits--like a living periodic table of the elements. What resonates is the persistence, and finally the insufficiency, of ancestry and kinship as systems for making sense of unruly destinies. To show that blood lineage can be an extremely loopy line, she sought out unlikely subjects; one is a Lebanese man who claims to be reincarnated, so he pops up more than once in his own family history. "I was always looking for a surreal twist," she says, "something that would lead to a collapse of logic."

All the same, even the most outlandish chapters have their universal element. As Simon put it, "We're all the living dead, pieces of what came before." What she means is that we all carry the DNA of our forebears; there ghostly current pulses through us. The intricate machinery of her project is designed to show that blood ties are a weak line of defense against the blows administered by history, politics, or sheer unlucky circumstances. [italics my own.]

Yes. This entire work is more stunningly magnificent than I ever could have imagined, aligning greatly with my own theories on this whole world and what happens to us during our time here.

Recalling tropical oases...

Today we had our warmest day in awhile in old Atlanta, and the snow by my house is slowly but surely melting away. I am not tired of the winter, in fact I am enjoying it a lot. I soak up the cold season while we have it, because the summer heat is enough to stick in my memory--and it will be here again in the blink of an eye. But I was missing the suntan I got this summer in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. I was craving the amazing stuffed poblano peppers and spicy chorizo tacos they served at the thatched-roof restaurant next to the pool, and of course, the happy hour margaritas and strawberry daiquiris. I felt so glamorous sitting by a pool that melted down several layers, which was right next to the ocean, which gave way to the mountains, and then to the sky. So I just had to look back at my pictures and remind myself that the heat will return soon enough, and with any luck, a suntan too. But I doubt I'll be here again any time soon, and I'm feeling a little bit spoiled that I even have a place like this to miss.