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Much Ado About Toast

20 Nov

Midway through a recent flight, my seatmate turned and asked where I live. When I answered that I live in San Francisco, she started on a rant about SF’s fixation with high-end toast. Turns out: my seatmate makes her own bread, her own preserves, etc. So my usual “pricey toast is ok because you wouldn’t really make this kind of toast at home” argument didn’t work. Instead, she proposed that everyone should produce their own food. But that perspective doesn’t take into account the realities of how most people eat. Most people aren’t milling their own grains or making their own jams. They’re buying what’s easy to find, affordable to purchase and simple to use.

This is such an interesting time in American food culture. Still, we’ve seen some big shifts in mainstream food over the past few years. You can see which trends are going mainstream by looking at grocery store shelves. What you see at places like Target or Safeway reflects what most Americans have access to. Even the largest food companies are putting out products that emphasize “fewer negatives” or “more benefits.” That shift toward “better for you” products is a pretty significant change to the way people eat every single day.

Remember when Marilyn Hagerty made internet waves with her review of Olive Garden? Lots of people laughed at her review of such an “everyday place.” But couldn’t one argue that everyday meals are the most important? They may not provide our most treasured memories, but they do make up the bulk of what we eat. I love to follow food trends and read about new restaurants, but I think it’s equally important to understand what’s happening in mainstream food culture. America’s food culture is largely defined by what goes onto people’s dining room tables, and not just what happens on chef challenge shows.

The next time you’re at the grocery store, try planning a week of meals with products you wouldn’t typically buy. More expensive, less expensive, healthier, less healthy–makes no matter. Sometimes it’s just good to shake up your frame of reference and try to imagine a different day-to-day life. Try to imagine the everyday meals of someone not like you. What would they eat? What would their priorities be? What could you learn from them?

At A Crossroads

9 Oct
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Gion, Kyoto, Japan

Do you ever have those moments where something just clicks and you walk away with a renewed perspective on your world?

I had one a few weeks ago, standing at the very corner you see here. During an early morning stroll around Kyoto, Japan, I found myself at this beautiful intersection. At a literal crossroads, early enough in the morning that no one else was around. I stood there for a few minutes, just taking it all in. The architecture and the history, of course, but also what got me to that corner in the first place.

What brought me there? Change, friendship and a bit of serendipity.

I switched jobs recently, which always causes a shift in perspective. My whole routine changed–every little bit of it. I’m on different routes everyday, since my new office is across town from the old one. I see different people, talk about different things, think about different topics. My role itself is incredibly different from what I was doing before. Everything is new, exciting, intriguing and of course–sometimes intimidating, too.

I didn’t get much time off between jobs so I planned to take vacation pretty soon after starting the new position. I’d originally intended to stay home and take it easy–after all, I’m a huge proponent of staycations. But at the last minute, a friend tempted me to join her in Japan, instead. And I figured: why not? I had the miles, I had the time and most importantly, I had a dear friend inviting me to join her adventure. So off I went to Kyoto and Osaka for a whirlwind, delightful trip.

We crammed a lot into our few days together, exploring as much as we could. On our final morning in Kyoto I took a solo walk around the Gion district, famed for its high-end restaurants and traditional geisha culture. We’d already wandered thru this way at dusk, which is when the guidebooks tell you to go. I’m so glad I made it back there during the daytime, too. Something just clicked as I walked around, taking in the incredible wooden buildings and charming side streets. Soon I found myself at this crossroads, standing  utterly still, contemplating all the change and newness in my life.

I found a lot of peace in that moment. I probably looked crazy, standing there so deep in thought. But it was the perfect burst of serenity and reflection, self-love and self-care. I needed that moment. I needed to stand there and think about where I’d been and what was ahead.

As I stood there, I felt my brain and heart and soul click into better alignment. And I don’t want to forget how that morning felt. So I made this photo the wallpaper on my work laptop. And anytime I need a quick dose of inspiration or a quick brain refresh, I’ll take a peek at the photo and try to remember how it felt to be on that corner, in the crisp fall air, contemplating my world.

Mapping Memories

7 Aug

It started with a sports bar.

A few weeks ago I was rounding a corner in Chicago’s River North neighborhood, rushing to meet some friends for dinner. As I looked up at the bar across the street, a wave of memories came crashing over me. Back when I lived in Chicago, I’d gone to that bar for a university alumni event. Seeing the bar again reminded me how happy I’d been to attend that event, how nice it’d been to see old friends and how good it felt to meet more alums.

The same sort of memory “flash” happened again the next day, when I passed a French bistro downtown. My thoughts flashed back to getting late night snacks there after a networking event, with people I’d just met that night, and never saw again.

Sometimes when I walk around a city, memories ripple through my brain in a series of bits and pieces. It’s small moments that I suddenly remember, prompted by a physical sight that takes me back to another time. Some of the memories are monumental; I think of my boyfriend whenever I pass the bar where had our first drink. But most of these “flashes” are made up of non-monumental moments. They’re those experiences you sort of forget about over time, but reflect on fondly when they float to your brain’s surface. They fill in the gaps between milestones and big life changes. They make up most of our day-to-day lives, and collectively form most of our life stories.

I’ve been wanting to create a “Memory Map” for a while to chronicle these sorts of moments. The things that make me smile, make me reflect, make me think back to a different point in my life. I’ll probably start with a map of San Francisco, since it’s where I’ve spent the bulk of my post-college days. Perhaps over time I’ll do the same for other places I’ve lived, and places I’ve visited. I love keeping track of different pieces of my life: it provides a good mix of nostalgia, reflection and general Type A geekery. And it just sounds so satisfying to draw all over a physical map, to “formally” associate spaces with thoughts, memories with markers.

 

Putting Words in Your Mouth

15 May

side by sideThese two pictures have a lot in common: both were taken at airports, both are retail displays, both display the same type of product. And yet, there’s something critically different. The left photo describes KIND Bars as “sweet treats,” while the right describes Clif Bars as “healthy snacks.”

Fundamentally, these are similar products. They’re both essentially trail mix bars, with ingredients like nuts, fruits and chocolate. Both manufacturers market their bars as healthy snacks, touting functional ingredients that add protein, antioxidants, etc. But when they’re given such explicit descriptions, suddenly the bars seem to serve different roles. KIND bars become an indulgence, while Clif Bars maintain a healthy halo.

These displays weren’t actually side-by-side; I happened to notice them a few days apart in San Francisco and Cleveland. But, let’s pretend they were next to each other. If I was trying to find a healthy snack in the sea of airport junk food, would I grab from the left, or the right? You can imagine the scenario where someone is making an impulse buy, and sees the two products with their respective signs. Let’s assume they know very little about either brand, and the signage helps them navigate their decision. Clif Bars would seem like a healthy choice, while KIND Bars would seem like a sweet pick-me-up. People buying the Clif Bar may pat themselves on the back for a “good” choice, while the KIND Bar buyers probably still pat themselves on the back for buying the KIND Bar instead of a candy bar.

health.pngThese displays are effectively positioning the products. They’re telling us how to categorize the options in our heads. They’re overruling whatever is written on the actual packaging, by framing the bars for us before we even go to pick them up. Take a look at how KIND describes its bars on the brand’s website. A far cry from indulgence, right? I’m sure the brand wouldn’t be happy to find its bars labeled as a sweet treat at the Cleveland airport.

When we shop, the retail environment is full of visual cues intended to influence what we buy. But while most grocery stores label their aisles with straightforward category names (deli, canned goods, etc.), these airport retailers have taken it a step further, classifying products by their perceived role. It’s a tad unfair to the product manufacturers, to be sure. I don’t think it’s necessarily unfair to consumers, because we should be making our own choices before we buy, regardless of what signs or packaging tell us. But if I were the KIND account manager responsible for airport retail – I’d reach out to that Cleveland store and fix this display situation, ASAP.

The Quantified Self-Worth

30 Apr
rush

Via YPulse

According to marketing agency YPulse, 50% of 18-33 year-olds say that getting a “like” on Facebook gives them a rush. This number goes down for younger audiences- but YPulse suspects it’s actually because “likes” are second-nature for them. They’ve grown up in a world of likes and retweets, so it’s possible that social media “affirmation” registers as a given. If you’re a teenager, you may not know life without social media. But for the rest of us, let’s think back to the days before we posted our lives and thoughts online. In a given day, we may have gotten compliments on our outfits, caught up with friends, or gotten into debates on heavy topics. But we didn’t have such a centralized, public platform to tell people about our lives. And so we didn’t have such instant access to affirmation – or lack thereof.

I believe that social media is net positive. On a given day, I may chat with a friend in France, pick up recipes from a friend in Los Angeles, learn about Chinese culture from a friend in Shanghai. I get to see baby pictures from friends who live far away, learn about events to attend, feel a sense of community with others living in San Francisco. Sometimes I worry I spend too much time online, sometimes I wonder about posting our lives as content – but overall, I think social media adds good to my world.

narcisissm

Facebook briefly tested a tool that summed up likes for you. I joked about it- but also kind of liked it…

 

And if YPulse had surveyed me, I too would have answered “yes” to the question about getting a rush from likes. I love getting likes on social media and on my blogs. I like getting compliments in real life too. Who doesn’t? It feels good. When I post things on social media and nobody interacts with them, I definitely wonder why. It doesn’t impact my self-perception in any way, but I do catch myself analyzing what drove the lack of interaction. Was it simply that Facebook’s algorithm didn’t show my post to enough people? Was it the topic I wrote about? Was it the time of day when I posted?

There’s a lot of talk these days about the quantified self: using technology to record data about how we live, in the hopes of self-improvement. You can track every step you take, every minute of sleep. I understand how this can help us improve. But I hope we don’t also enter a phase of quantified self-worth. I hope that, despite the rush we get from people affirming us online, we remember that our value doesn’t depend on likes or retweets or shares. I hope we can reap the benefits of social media, without letting the potential downsides soak in. I hope we can continue to separate social media content from real life. I hope that in a time of “influencer strategy,” we remember that we’re more than our likes.

I’ll still get a rush if people like this post. And I’ll be excited if anyone chooses to message me about it, whether they agree or not. But I’m personally trying to see social media engagement as a potential conversation, and not a game or popularity contest. If nobody likes this blog post- so be it. There’s always next time.

 

Whatever Happened to Predictability?

19 Mar

If you want a giggle, go Yelp the “Full House” house. It currently sits at 3.5 Yelp stars- not so good for a “local flavor” entry.

fulllllI don’t remember how I ended up on this Yelp page. Like all good internet rabbit holes, I must have searched something, then just kept clicking away. I tend to get sucked into things like forums, because they provide such interesting insight into human behavior. I see Yelp as a sort of a social experiment where we can learn about people’s biases, preferences, and perceptions.

fullhouse_house_01The “Full House” house, or FHH as I am going to call it, is featured in the opening credits to the original “Full House” show. It’s where we’re told the main characters of the show “lived” throughout the show’s run. It’s not actually where the show was shot, of course, because that’s just how TV works. But it’s become closely tied to our memories of the show, and many a San Francisco tourist sets out to find it. The show’s opening also includes shots of Alamo Square, a park nearby that host beautiful Victorian homes known as the “Painted Ladies.” So a lot of people think the FHH is IN Alamo Square, which it isn’t- it’s a 20 minute walk away. Many Yelp reviews point this out so that future inspired tourists don’t make the same mistake of going to Alamo Square to see the FHH.

As I scanned through the FHH Yelp reviews, I saw 2 key perspectives:

  1. You owe your childhood self a trip to see the FHH. It is a must-do if you’re in SF.
  2. It’s too disappointing to visit the FHH because it doesn’t look like it did on the show. Plus, its location away from the Painted Ladies is a disappointment in itself.

Now, let’s unpack that a bit. First off: you “owe” yourself a trip to see this house, because nostalgia is a powerful thing. We all know the Full House characters aren’t real people, and that nobody we’d recognize has ever lived in this home. Yet, nostalgia for seeing this house within a specific media context is enough to make it relevant. This is why pop culture-themed tours thrive: Sex and the City themed tours in NYC, Lord of the Rings tours in New Zealand. Even though we know movies and shows aren’t “real,” they feel real to us. So we seek out experiences that remind us of the emotion and joy we feel. Visiting the FHH is supposed to give us pleasure, let us reminisce, and make us feel happy about a childhood icon.

But- it can also be disappointing to chase this nostalgia. As many reviewers have noted, the house doesn’t look like it did in those opening credits many years ago. The current owners have repainted it. Plus, they’ve put up trees that sort of block the view. So when you’re trying to peep on the house, it’s harder than you’d expect- and it doesn’t look “right” anyway.

The Yelp reviews span a range of tones. Some reviewers are totally self-aware that they’re dissing someone’s private home for not matching their own hopes. Others seem genuinely upset that the owners have changed the house. And some are just annoyed at the house’s location on a “boring” street rather than in the iconic Alamo Square.

What is this, exactly? Is it entitlement? Or just sadness that memories don’t sync with reality? This happens a lot with nostalgia. You have these built-up memories of how something used to be/taste/feel, and you treasure those memories with passion. So when you re-encounter those memories years later, if it doesn’t match what you thought you’d feel- you feel let down. We’re seeing lots of reboots and sequels these days- but many of them flop, when they don’t match expectations for what they should look like, based on pop culture memories.

In reality, the current FHH owners don’t owe our nostalgia anything. They must have realized what they were getting themselves into when they bought this house- and hey, maybe they painted it gray to deter people from wanting to bother. I’m sure they were the least happy campers when the “Fuller House” series was announced! But at the end of the day, we don’t have a right to be mad at them. The people writing these negative Yelp reviews are simply encountering what happens when reality doesn’t match memory.

So as the Full House theme song alludes- predictability isn’t always a given. And when we latch on too hard to “how things were,” we get a bit flustered by how things are today. And while the FHH has a measly 3.5 stars, the Mrs. Doubtfire House has 5- because it still looks “as it did in the movie.”

Craving a City

14 Feb

Sometimes I wake up craving a city. I get out of bed, and imagine that when I walk out the door, I’ll find myself someplace other than San Francisco. Sometimes I’m in a Chicago mood. Other times it’s Madrid. Just last week, it was Arkansas.

I’m not entirely sure what drives these “cravings.” I’ve lived a good number of places by now, and each one does remind me of a particular stage of my life. I’ve also been a business traveler for so many years- and the first few years, I was on the road every week, headed to the same place for months at a time. So those places factor into my city cravings, too. They make it messier, in fact, since I never really lived there, but went there so often. I have no roots in those places, but I do have a bond. Sometimes I find it hard to grasp that my story ties to so many places, and that my life has been such a web of locations, projects, people. I suppose it’s common in today’s world, but at times I wonder what it’d be like to live in 1 place your entire life, and leave only for vacation.

When I first moved to San Francisco, I thought feeling like I should be in Chicago made a lot of sense. After all, I’d just spent a few years there, and I barely had any friends here yet. So I’d regularly miss Chicago, miss my friends, and feel like I was in the wrong place. I’d expect to walk outside my building and see the bricks of Lincoln Park, the curve of Lakeshore Drive, the grandeur of downtown Chicago. Instead I’d walk outside to light gray sidewalks, the ascent of the Fillmore hill, the elaborate Queen Anne homes. I’d get on the 45-Union to go to work, rather than the 134-Stockton/Lasalle Express. I’d walk up to a 4-story office building, rather than a skyscraper kissing the Chicago sky.

Nostalgia is a simple explanation for these “cravings.” And it can be triggered by people, moods, weather. Whenever the weather hits a specific shade of crisp, it takes me back to St. Louis, and to my first true “fall” season, the first fall I spent away from Southern California where the seasons blend together.

And yet- it’s more than nostalgia, I think. I can easily wish to be back on 2012’s vacation to Hawaii, but that’s longing, not a feeling of belonging. When I wake up with city cravings, I feel like I’m in the wrong place- that I was meant to be somewhere else that day. The Arkansas example is a good one. Back in 2010, I spent several months commuting to/from Bentonville, Arkansas every week for a consulting project. I certainly didn’t lay roots there- we stayed in a hotel each Monday to Thursday, and flew back home Thursday nights. And yet, thinking about Bentonville takes me to a specific mindset and feeling. When I woke up last week and imagined I’d be stepping into the lobby of the Aloft Bentonville rather than my San Francisco home- it surprised me a great deal. For some reason, I just felt like I was supposed to be in Arkansas that day.

Every city has its own rhythm and flavor. When you walk through its streets, you feel a certain way. The building blocks of a city combine to produce something excitingly distinct: the architecture, people, tastes, smells. The way the air feels. The way the people interact. And when you spend time in one of these places, it sticks with you. Something about that experience seeps into your soul, hooks into your psyche. And once it’s there, it’s there. To be uncovered someday, perhaps by a sign, a memory, a mood.

A look at some of the places I’ve called home:

 

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