Look Into A Mirror

19 Aug

In consumer research, we often use a technique called ethnographies. Ethnographies are essentially in-home interviews, and they’re just as it sounds: we go to people’s houses, and talk to them in their “natural habitat.” We ask questions about their lives, their hobbies, their relationships. We dig into their perceptions of specific brands and types of products. For a beer interview, for example, we’d ask all about the types of beer they like, when they drink it, where they buy it, etc. We use these interviews to help clients better understand their consumer targets – their lives, their interests, their concerns. It’s a rich way to gather insights, and a fascinating one, too.

One of the best parts of in-home interviews is that there’s a lot of showing, on top of the telling. We always ask for a house tour. Every part of the house is fair game, from bedrooms to bathrooms. If it’s a food or beverage-focused project, we go through their cabinets and their fridge, taking note of what they eat, how they store it, how they serve it. Though sometimes respondents feel a bit embarrassed to show us their messy lives, that’s sort of the point: few of us have homes that are as organized and beautiful as what we see in magazines, and to truly understand “real people,” we have to see life at its realest.

I recently was thinking about what would happen if a researcher entered my own apartment and did an in-home interview about me. How would she describe my perspective on life? My thoughts on relationships? The way I organize my living space and belonging? I looked around my apartment, trying to size up what my room says about me. My bedroom is full of mementos and curios. Books, pictures, souvenirs, art. There are a couple pieces of World’s Fair memorabilia floating around. A tray gifted to me by one of my favorite college professors. A ceramic bowl that my brother made me. Artwork I bought on a bridge in Prague. And then, of course, the overflow storage, organized with a steel bookshelf and fabric cubes. Would the researcher comment on my love of travel, perhaps? On the multitude of pictures of family and friends? My collection of foreign language dictionaries and thesauruses? On the sheer quantity of things “on display” in my room?

I like to think that the researcher would scribble notes down about my outgoing spirit, my inquisitive mind, my breadth of hobbies. I’d hope they say that I seem to have it together. I’d hope they’d say I’m a savvy consumer who makes rational choices. I’d hope they’d say I’m interesting.

If a researcher entered your home: what would she think? What would she deem important to you? How would she describe your perspective on your life? What do you think would go in the report?

The Shoes of San Francisco (Picture Prattle)

14 Aug


Broadway and Romolo

I’ve lived in a few cities before San Francisco, but never before have I seen so many shoes on the sidewalks. I started taking pictures of these shoes a bit ago. There’s just something about them that makes me want to know more. I’m sure some of these shoes have sad stories: perhaps a homeless person accidentally left a shoe behind and forgot where he left it.  Some are probably disappointing stories: the rollerblade that fell out of someone’s bag as he threw it in the car. Some seem pretty purposeful: the pair of tennis shoes perched on top of a trashcan, poised as an offering to a new, deserving owner.

Here are some of my favorite photos of the shoes of San Francisco. I don’t know their stories, but I sure do wonder.

What I Like About You

8 Aug

It’s really easy to ignore the people around you. After all, most people you see are people you will never meet. It’s easy to treat them like “extras” in a movie where you’re the star. While you’re busy living your life, they’re just there in the background, adding texture then fading into a blur.

At some point I developed a little game to help me hone in on the people around me. It’s called “What I Like About You,” and the only rule is that you have to think of something you like about every person who passes by. For every single person you see during the game, you have to come up with a mental compliment. It can be about their hair, their watch, their shoes – it doesn’t matter. The point is to pay enough attention to the people around you that you can recognize something about them that you sort of, kind of, maybe, relate to.

Yes, it’s nice to compliment people out loud – and I certainly recommend doing lots of that, too. But the point of this particular “game” is really to make you more aware of the people around you. Giving people compliments is a nice way to connect. Giving people mental compliments is a nice way to engage your own thinking. I realize it may sound superficial to focus on appearance and belongings rather than people’s personalities. But imagine, for example, that you’re on the bus, and a string of people is filing past you. Realistically, you are not going to talk to every single one or compliment each one out loud, at least not without sounding a little fake. This is an exercise to help remind you that there’s more to the world than you. And to remind you that while people may look different than you, there has to be something you can share in common. It helps keep you from getting trapped in your own little bubble of existence. After all: I may be the top billed star in my own personal life, but the scenes would be much less interesting and much less meaningful without all the “supporting actors” and “extras” around me.

So Yesterday

3 Aug

How many times have you heard someone say that “X” is the new cupcake? I’ve heard that phrase applied to all sorts of things over the years, from macarons to pie. Yet, despite its naysayers, the mighty cupcake has persisted. Sure, other sweets have had their moment in the spotlight: the cronut, for example, got impressive airtime and spawned tons of copycats. But none of the pretenders to the dessert throne have had quite the same impact as the glorious cupcake, both in terms of its physical availability and its imprint on the American dessert psyche. One bakery even has Cupcake ATMs!

When cupcake powerhouse Crumbs recently announced that it was shutting its doors, the “cupcakes are over” cries began anew. You know what though? I’m just not buying it. Perhaps Crumbs over expanded, but that doesn’t mean the dessert’s glory days are totally over. It just means that one well-known, pricey competitor didn’t make their business model work. And besides, Crumbs was already rescued, anyway- by the company that owns Dippin’ Dots.

Some Slate writers searched the Nexis database to find instances of the phrase “the new cupcake” and found that 57 different foods have been given that treatment over the past few years. Macarons have the most mentions, followed by pie.  I was surprised to see things like burgers and hot dogs on the list, too, but I guess that just shows how the phrase has taken on a life of its own. It’s no longer really about the cupcakes, and what’s going to replace cupcakes as America’s favorite dessert. Instead, it’s become a way to talk about trends, as a whole. Makes me think about those scenes from Josie and the Pussycats where they constantly introduce new colors as “the new black” and then “the new red,” etc.  Anyone? Alright, moving along then.

Take a look at Slate‘s handy phrase tracking chart. Any surprises in there for you? Their research uncovered that the phrase was first used in a press release about brownies. At least that makes sense- calling “empanadas” the new cupcake is much less linear!

In honor of the cupcake’s sure-to-be ongoing reign, here are some of the recipes I hope to make before 2014 is over:

The People I’ll Never Know

18 Jul

Cities feel alive. They’re pulsating, dynamic places where people circulate at all hours of the day and night. They breathe their energy onto you, which can be invigorating, but tiring too. They have personalities of their own, quirks, secrets, years of history folded into their streets. Sometimes I’m amazed by the immensity of what happens when you put so many people in a highly concentrated space.

Studying abroad in Madrid was my first experience living in a true city. Sure, I’d traveled to plenty of cities before, but I’d only ever lived in suburbs. And as I adjusted to the highs and lows of urban dwelling, I was struck by the sheer vastness of people that I saw on a daily basis. Of course, the suburbs aren’t people-free, and they have their own people-watching hotspots. But when you sit in your car shuffling from point A to point B, you don’t get as much interaction with people beyond your immediate scope. In a city’s public transit and on its sidewalks, you really see everyone, and everything.

In Madrid I took the subway everywhere. And I was always struck by the volume of people I saw in the stations and on the trains. People who I would probably never meet. People whose stories I didn’t know. In time, I developed an admittedly odd habit: whenever a subway car sped away, I’d look at it and think “goodbye, all the people I’ll never know.”

I’m not sure what was so striking about it. Perhaps the sheer volume of faces. Perhaps the fact that I was in a foreign country added a slight edge to the situation. I was just overcome by this realization that every subway car was filled with people I knew nothing about, and likely never would. There was something about this concentrated set of strangers, speeding away that really stuck with me. Yes, I could have gone up and tried to make friends in the subway. But I never would have met all of them. And the point was more than that, anyway: it was a reminder of how our own lives are just one tiny thread of what’s happening on this earth on a daily basis. We need those reminders sometimes, of the vastness of the world.  And in Spain, that vastness was amplified by the fact that I knew very few people in the city, period. Back in the US, I’d go to campus events alone or show up to the college cafeteria solo, assuming I’d know someone once I got there. At my Spanish university, I’d walk into the cafeteria and fail to see a single familiar face. It was a striking experience for me, as an extrovert who tends to bounce between groups of people.

These days, I see a lot of strangers on my daily commute. Sometimes I do talk to them, but only when there’s something that prompts natural conversation: the ticket machine isn’t working, a tourist wants dinner ideas, a toddler is making silly faces. I see some of the same people a few times a week, and always wonder if it’d be cool or creepy to go up to them and comment on the overlap, start a conversation, see what they have to say. With photo blogs out there like Humans of New York and Nola Beings, it’s becoming more common to celebrate the stories of strangers. But in day to day life, would people be as receptive? If I just walked up to someone and tried to talk with them for the sake of talking, how would they react? If I told the guy I secretly call my “bus buddy” that I realized we take the same bus several days a week, would he say he’d noticed me too? Or would he run away in fright?

I’m going to challenge myself to talk to 5 complete strangers in the next month, without any pretext. No cute toddler, no crazy bus driver, no bonding over our city’s bizarre bus doors. Just two people, talking.

Such A Treat

10 Jul

Growing up, trips to Los Angeles were a big treat. We only went a few times a year, and always for a specific reason like seeing a play or shopping in the Garment District. But no matter what brought us to LA, we ended our day the same way: with a trip to Canters Deli. Sometimes we ate dinner there, indulging in comfort foods like corned beef and matzo balls. Sometimes we just made a pit stop to pick up dessert. Either way, I always made sure to leave with one of Canter’s giant black and white cookies in my hands.

From the Brown Eyed Baker blog. Click through to see her recipe, which I fully endorse.

We all had our own favorite treat in the Canters bakery. Mine was that scrumptious cookie, a cakey base with two types of frosting. My brother’s was the chocolate rugula, my mom’s the chocolate-dipped cookies, my dad’s the hamentaschen. I was always happy to take a bite of my family’s picks, but I never wavered from my own ritual of getting a black and white. If you’re from the East Coast you may not understand my laser focus on getting one of those cookies, as they’re pretty popular pastries in your neck of the woods. But black and whites just aren’t that common on the West Coast, and trips to Canters were one of my only ways to get them. For me, black and whites will forever be intertwined with road trips, LA adventures, and shared family nostalgia. Canters is part of my family’s memory fabric, just like any other ritual we grew together. Even today, as I bite into a black and white (and as Seinfeld notes, you have to get a bit of black and white at the same time), I think back to all of the fun we had picking our pastries out of Canters’ beautiful displays.

We all have foods like that, don’t we? Foods that transport us to happy times, to shared memories, to family love. Maybe it’s the lasagna your mom made every Saturday, or the tacos you only got with your grandpa because your grandma thought the restaurant was too unsanitary. Perhaps it’s the diner you visited on vacation in Florida every summer, or the sandwich shop you’d go to twice a week with your high school classmates. Food isn’t just physical sustenance: sometimes it’s very tightly woven into our nostalgia and emotion.

These days, I rarely make it to LA, and even more infrequently to Canter’s. Oddly enough, my black and white habits have shifted somewhat to the East Coast. Whenever I travel East, I make it a point to snap up whatever black and whites I encounter. Sadly, I’m often disappointed- bad icing, stale cookies, weird flavoring. I probably should have expected disappointment when I bought one at a New Jersey roadside bagel shop earlier this year but hey, you just never know!

My version of Brown Eyed Baker's cookies. The chocolate frosting still tasted delicious, despite its rather ugly appearance.

My version of Brown Eyed Baker’s cookies. Note the gloopy chocolate frosting. They tasted better than they looked, I promise.

To fill the West Coast cookie void, I recently made my own batch. I’d attempted black and whites a few years ago and didn’t like how they turned out, but this time I was really happy with the recipe I used. I then took the cookies to a picnic, where they were declared delicious by the masses. So if you want to try your hand at them, I highly recommend using this recipe from Brown Eyed Baker. Lemon extract and cake flour seem to be key ingredients here, and the recipe is pretty simple. I did have some issues getting the chocolate frosting spread on before it thickened up – guess I’ll have to keep making the cookies until I get it right!

I got curious about black and whites as I wrote this, and browsed the Internet a bit to learn more about how they became so ubiquitous with Jewish delis. There’s a good article at Eater NY, if you’re interested. And just because: check out this guy’s black and white review site. He stopped his reviews a while ago, but it’s still worth a browse and a laugh!


A Touch of Class (Picture Prattle)

23 Jun

At first glance, this room looks just like any other classroom. Tables, chairs, a whiteboard.  But this particular college classroom profoundly shaped who I am today.

I had my freshman intensive seminar in this classroom. It was one of the most influential classes I’ve ever taken, focused on global culture and cultural differences. We used that whiteboard to map our perceptions of each other, to list the labels we used to describes ourselves, to chart the way we felt when we had a frustrating cultural experience. We spent many hours in that room debating the merits of looking at things from other perspectives and trying to understand the world beyond your own cultural defaults. During every class session we pulled those chairs into a circle to facilitate open dialogue.

I also had my research fellowship seminar in that classroom. My fellowship was a really unique program, an opportunity that I was lucky to have. As a junior, each student in the fellowship picked a research topic and a mentor. We then spent the next 2 years doing independent research, evolving our hypotheses and writing myriad papers on our individual topics.  In my cohort of 5, our topics ranged from Kierkegaard to Chinese economics to feminism. My research explored how Mexican journalists shaped their identities while at the 1900 World’s Fair in Paris. In that classroom we taught each other what we’d learned, shared our papers, learned from our Professor, debated our ideas. We grew as scholars, as writers, and as friends.

Those two classes were almost bookends to my college experience, the very beginning of my academic explorations and the pinnacle of it. And in between those bookends,  I had French classes in that room, group meetings, club meetings. I had some of my most fundamental discussions from college in there. I had some of my most challenging moments in there, too.

Sure, at first glance it looks like a boring classroom. But it’s not about what’s in the room. It’s about what came out of it


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