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Follow the Orange Blob Road

12 Jul

When we were in D.C. a couple of months ago, my boyfriend and I spent a lovely afternoon wandering aimlessly. But then we wanted dinner. And so we pulled out our phones, opened Google Maps and looked for the orange blobs.

Don’t know what I’m talking about? Take a peek at this map. The orange blobs are how Google designates commercial corridors with restaurants and stores. I don’t know exactly how their algorithm works, but seems like the blobs call out the most densely commercial parts of a specific neighborhood. In this screenshot of northern San Francisco, the the big orange block around stretching east from Fillmore Street marks the commercial heart of a neighborhood called Cow Hollow. That’s where you’ll find the most restaurants and shops (and an absurd number of salons, too). Meanwhile, the blob over on Columbus marks the commercial heart of North Beach.

Orange blobs

In Google Mapland, orange blobs seem to be shorthand for “there’s something worth investigating over here.” As a tourist, the blobs are pretty helpful: they steer you to areas where you’re likely to find what somewhere to eat, shop, relax, etc. The blobs are practical.

But could those blobs also lead us astray? See that stretch of orange that’s south of the “Union Street” marker, toward the middle of my screenshot? That’s Polk Street, the main commercial corridor of San Francisco’s Russian Hill neighborhood. But there are also a lot of restaurants on Hyde, just a couple blocks over. Hyde has beautiful scenery, great local restaurants and oodles of SF charm. So why isn’t that block orange? Are people missing out on Hyde Street’s wonders, just because their map doesn’t call it out?

And check out where Polk Street meets Pacific. There are businesses on those blocks, so I wonder why they’re not “important” enough to warrant the orange treatment. Does that mean those businesses are less valuable for some reason? Will those businesses get less traffic over time since they’re not marked on the map? And why did that one taco joint get a label? This is literally just a map of the area…I hadn’t searched for tacos!

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These kinds of tools are incredibly helpful as we navigate the world around us. But they also give us a curated view of what “matters” in a neighborhood—and sometimes I wonder about the longterm cultural impact. In the longterm, will we limit our experiences to things called out on “top 10 lists,” marked on maps, etc.?

Think about it this way: if you only go to top-rated restaurants and only hit up the parts of town labeled on a map, you’re not actually optimizing for personal taste. You’re optimizing for convenience, easy decisions and probably some element of social cache. You could claim that technology is helping you find the best of the best…but how do you know? Maybe just a couple blocks from that orange blob, there’s a business you’d love if only you strolled by and gave it a chance.

Happy 6th Birthday, Culture Cookies!

29 May

It’s that time of year again: my blog birthday! I love that WordPress sends an alert, because it’s truly a reason to celebrate. Six years is a pretty long time to keep up any sort of personal project, don’t you think? Especially when you’re not monetizing it 😉

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Just feels fitting to give this post a cake. Even if it’s only a picture of cake.

I started this blog as a personal outlet for things I loved to do, but wasn’t getting out of my job at the time. Back then, I was a management consultant and my days mainly consisted of spreadsheets, process flows and PowerPoint slides. I missed writing essays, and decided to start a blog so I could write about anything on my mind.

This blog has carried me through so much since then: a cross-country move, several apartments, job swaps, relationships. I ran into one of my loyal readers the other day (Hi Mary-Lynn!) and we chatted about how I post less frequently than I used to. That’s partly because of my second blog, which often steals my attention away from this one. But it’s also because my relationship to this blog shifts over time, depending on what’s happening in my life. Like any hobby, its role fluctuates depending on what I’m doing and how I’m feeling.

Culture Cookies began as a space for commentary and long-form writing. Then I shifted into a brand strategy job, and spent my days thinking about consumer behavior. I’d read trend reports, conduct consumer research and think about how brands should express themselves. That meant marketing and behavior were always on my mind, so many of my posts ended up touching on consumer psychology, social commentary and brands. Even though the blog synced somewhat with what I did at work, it was still an outlet for long-form writing since most of my “official” work still ended up in PowerPoint slides.

Now here we are, May 2017, and suddenly: writing is my job. I get to write for work, day in, day out. But while I do see lots of data (I’m a business writer!), and I do often write about consumer behavior, my daily work doesn’t focus on spotting behavioral patterns anymore.  And I do think that has had an impact on this blog. In the past six months or so, I’ve written much more personal reflection than social strategy or marketing analysis. It makes sense: switching jobs last fall marked a big change in my life, a change that prompted lots of self-reflection. So naturally, the blog evolved again.

But as I told Mary-Lynn the other day, I miss the old Culture Cookies. I enjoy writing personal essays, and don’t plan to stop, but I do want to beef back up the other parts of this blog that I’ve sort of abandoned for the past ten months. Consider this my blog birthday pledge: I pledge to reboot my marketing talk and behavioral commentary. It’s time to turn more of my scheming scribbles into actual posts. I already have a couple of drafts in the works, and promise to share them in the next few weeks.

As always, thanks for reading. Hope to see you back here soon!

Into the Memory Box

16 Apr

When I walked into my childhood bedroom a couple of months ago, I found a plastic box sitting on my desk. The box held a scattered assortment of things my mom had found around the house: souvenirs from family trips, commemorative pins, jewelry I used to wear as a kid.

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Many of the things in that box felt pleasantly relevant today. A bracelet from my first trip to Paris, when I fell in love with the city and the language. The baton necklace isn’t something I’d actually wear today, but I still proudly call myself a baton twirler—and even taught a baton class at work last week. The cable car necklace, a souvenir from a family trip to San Francisco, is even more special now that I’ve lived in SF for 5 years.

But then we get to the gold necklace on the left, the one that looks like half a heart. That’s part of a classic friendship necklace, the kind that’s broken in two to symbolize everlasting friendship. Except…I have no idea who had the other half.

There’s something funny about that. At some point in time, I considered someone important enough to split a friendship necklace with them, declaring our everlasting friendship. And yet here we are, probably 20 years later, and I haven’t a clue who had the other half.

To be fair, those things weren’t exclusive relationships. I split friendship necklaces and bracelets with many people over the years…often at the same time. This necklace wasn’t like a written decree to ONLY be best friends with that one person, despite what “best” technically implies. I had several “best” friends, some “bester than others.” Even as a (word obsessed) kid, I found the fact that you could have more than 1 “best” friend a tad confusing. But I called lots of people my best friend back then.

So back to our mystery: who had the other half? My life swirled around over the years from school to school, hobby to hobby. I can think of many candidates for the other half, but nothing’s confirmed. Odds are that I’m not close to that person anymore, since my world changed so much over the years, and mostly shifted away from people I knew as a kid.

When I was really young, I accepted that friendships broke, and you moved on. You switched classes or changed levels at ballet or moved, and that’s just how things went. But as I got older, I resisted the idea of friendships that end. These days, I’m terrible at letting go of friendships. I hate the fact that someone who mattered so incredibly much to you at one point in life, could matter very little later on. It hurts to think about people who defined certain years of my memories, but no longer pop up in my world today. It pains me when someone drifts away, and I feel so incredibly bad when I’m the one who drifts away, too.  I want to keep all the people I like close, in my life, as much as I can.

But that’s just not how life works. I’ve gotten a little better over the years at accepting this truth about friendship: not all friendships last forever. The right people will stay in your life, and both sides have to put in effort and energy and care for that to happen. You have to invest in the relationships that mean the most and work the best. And you have to accept that sometimes, you’re just not someone else’s “friend priority” when they do their own round of investing and working and prioritizing.

I still treasure memories of people who meant something in the past, even if they’re not around now. I’m grateful for whoever had the other half of this necklace, because even if I can’t place who it is, I know they must have been important to me at a particular time in my life. I’m grateful that back then, they meant enough to me for us to declare ourselves BFFs, believing we’d be there for each other through thick and thin. Even if that didn’t last, maybe the true purpose of the necklace was the support it gave us at the time. Sometimes you just don’t end up BFFs, despite buying jewelry about it. Still, it’s nice to know that at some point, I felt so strongly about someone being meaningful that we should wear symbols of that friendship. And it’s nice to know that when I was young and needed that friendship, someone was there for me to wear the matching half.

It’s Ok to Quit

5 Mar

I’ve wanted to learn how to knit since I was in high school. A friend started to teach me our senior year, but we never made it past the first few steps. For years, knitting was a “someday” hobby. Someday I’d learn, when I had the time, and when I had the chance. I held onto my needles and yarn and partially knitted scarf, planning to finish it whenever I could.

I got my chance this January, after years of anticipation. A friend invited me to join her knitting class, and I jumped on the class. I showed up to the first class so excited to finally learn how to finish that scarf.

And then, after all that time: I din’t like it! I enjoyed creating something, and that my effort produced something tangible right in my hands. But I didn’t like the process. I didn’t get sucked in and lose track of time. I didn’t find it relaxing. Practicing felt like a chore, rather than a hobby I’d choose to do for fun.

So, I quit.To be fair, I quit earlier than I would have liked. I had to miss class 3, which made class 4 pointless. But regardless, I just knew I wasn’t going to keep it up. Some might say I gave up too soon,  or that I’d like it more once I got the hang of it. But you know what? I simply didn’t like it. And that’s ok.

We don’t have to like everything we try. We don’t have to be good at everything we try. It’s 100% normal, in fact, to dislike some of the things we try, and to be bad at them. I think it’s human nature to want to excel at everything, to be a person of many talents. And it’s also human nature to beat yourself up a bit when you’re not good at something or don’t enjoy it. But sometimes, hobbies aren’t a good fit for your skills or your needs, and then it’s time to move on. There are too many amazing things this world to spend time on hobbies you don’t like.

It seems like it should be a letdown that after all these years, I don’t even like the hobby I’d been dreaming about. In reality, it felt like a tidy ending to a longtime dream. Telling myself that it’s ok to dislike something and it’s ok to quit actually felt really good. It was a nice reminder to focus my time and energy on the things I really like, rather than trying to make every little thing work.

Of course, the urge to try new hobbies won’t end here. I have plenty of hobbies already, from writing this blog to baking my way through every recipe possible. Still, there’s something so enticing about trying something new and entering a whole new world of possibilities. I doubt I’ll ever get sick of trying new things–just don’t expect me to like all of them!

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That’s The Way It Is

5 Feb

When I first started learning French, I wanted to translate everything. Signs, menus, conversations: all were fair game. French opened up a whole new world. Suddenly, I had two ways to express what was on my mind. If I didn’t like saying it in English… how about French? I was fascinated by the nuances of languages, their vocabularies, their way of expressing things. It boggled my mind that two people could look at the same object and think there were two different answers to explain what it was.

I started listening to music in other languages, studying the lyrics so I could sing along. I also translated English songs into French just to see if I could. Then I’d sing along to the English version with my invented French lyrics. Were my translations accurate? Probably not. But man, did I feel cool.

I’d sort of forgotten about my personal translation service until the other day when Celine Dion’s “That’s the way it is” came onto the radio. That was one of my go-to songs for language practice back in the day, because Celine had recorded versions in both English and French. I never loved the actual music, but I loved having two sets of lyrics to play with. I studied the French lyrics to learn new vocabulary and get a better feel for translation. Whenever I heard the song I’d sing along in French, feeling like I had a secret language.

Now that I remember those old habits, I think I’ll start again. It’s been hard to maintain my French as a “grown up” with a full-time job that has nothing to do with foreign languages. Every year I say I’ll get better at practicing, but I’ve never made it happen. I’ll read a few books in French every year, but just haven’t committed the time I should to keep those skills strong.

So, I’m calling it now: I’m going to restart that personal translation service. I’ll start translating signs and lyrics in my head again, just to get back in the habit of thinking in another language. Maybe eventually I’ll set a goal for reading, and then for speaking. But the easy things to start, for sure. Because life gets busy–that’s just the way it is.

The Annual Report (vol. 4)

16 Jan

I say this every January, but last year feels like a total whirlwind. Suddenly here we are, at another new year. January 2016 feels so close and so far at the same time. It seems like just yesterday that I was wandering Nashville’s streets with my mom–my first trip of 2016. And yet, so much has changed that the feeling I had back in Nashville isn’t even a feeling I can access anymore.

I always take time to reflect on my year and try to remember where the time went. It’s easy to remember the big things: my trip to Japan, my new job, the beautiful weddings I attended. But I like to look back on smaller things, too. My diary isn’t very typical. I don’t use it to express myself or track my emotions. Instead, it’s simply a log of all the things I did in a year that seemed notable when they happened. I started the log in 2012 when I was new to San Francisco and created a “San Francisco to-do list,” organized by neighborhood. I started writing down what I did every week, too. Looking back at my log makes me smile, because it reminds me of all the little things that made a year great. Things like brunch with friends, trying that new restaurant, finally making it to some part of town I’d wanted to see, trekking to some far-off bakery. It always makes me happy to see what I did, and who I did it with.

So, as I’ve done for a few years now, I used my personal log to write a sort of “annual report” for 2016. Here we go!

teavel-betterNo wonder it felt like I missed a lot of 2016 in San Francisco: I took 22 trips last year! That’s a lot of time away from home. Trips encompassed everything from Ohio to Portland to Maryland. Work and leisure travel were actually pretty balanced, with a slight tip toward business trips. 2017 will definitely look different, since my new job doesn’t require much travel.

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I baked WAY more in 2016 than 2015, but the breakdown didn’t change much. Cookies continued to rule, making up 56% of the 68 recipes I baked in 2016. You can find more details about my year in baking over on my other blog.

Some 2016 Fun Facts: 

  • Meals at my favorite local Moroccan restaurant: 8
  • Bamboo forests explored: 1
  • Trips to wine country: 4 (including 2 birthday bus day trips) 
  • Museums visited: 7
  • Cat birthday parties attended: 1 
  • Magnitude to which I felt grateful for friends and family: as always, non-quantifiable

I wrote 23 posts for Culture Cookies this year, just 1 shy of last year’s total. I would have loved to post more, so I’m a little bummed by that number. But I also wrote 47 posts for my baking blog last year, so of course I couldn’t do it all. As cheesy as it sounds, I give myself permission to write less frequently for Culture Cookies. This blog digs deeper into analysis and commentary, while Sugarsmith is more about personal stories and recipes. That blog is simpler to write and since I bake so often, I constantly have new material. I used to get more annoyed about the lack of posts here, and I still wish I posted more often… but I also know that things get busy, and I can’t do it all. And that’s ok!

Top New Posts of 2016

  1. Talkin’ Bout My Generation
  2. Off the Road
  3. When Suggestion Engines Get It Wrong
  4. Much Ado About Toast
  5. At a Crossroads

1 Older Post that Technically Cracked the Top 5:

  1. How do YOU Flâner?

My Favorite 2016 Posts Not in the Top 5: 

Thanks to everyone who reads, comments, debates, and shares!

Off the Road

11 Dec

This time last year, I was staring out a hotel window at a smoggy LA scene. The day before, I was in Austin. The week before? São Paolo. I wasn’t on an intentional adventure–this was business travel. All three stops were for focus groups. I tried to make the most of it: an early morning dash for donuts in Austin, a quick museum stop in São Paolo, trying a new restaurant in LA. Mostly, though, I sat in focus group facilities, scribbling notes about consumer behavior and eating an inordinate amount of M&Ms (a focus group staple).

And now here we are, a year later, and I have zero business trips planned. After 7 years of frequent, often chaotic business travel, I’m officially off the road. It’s largely a relief–but there’s also something bittersweet about it that I’m still trying to process. My new job will involve the occasional business trip, but most the time, I’ll be home sweet home.

Switching myself off from business traveler mode has actually been one of the weirdest adjustments to my new job. On the one hand, I’m elated. Business travel can be so tiring, and it made my life really fragmented too. I could never quite plan ahead, I never committed to weekday plans more than a week out, and I always knew there was the possibility I’d have to hop on a last-minute flight. I struggled to set good habits because once I’d gain momentum, the next trip would come along and disrupt it.

And yet: there’s something beautiful about popping up all over the place. Business trips took me places I probably wouldn’t have been to otherwise: far-flung suburbs, extremely small towns, medium-sized towns that just don’t make most tourist itineraries. I’m full of stories from the last 7 years, some treasured and some reviled. That time I got lost in Alabama and ended up at a pecan farm. All the late, late night drinks and early, early breakfasts with NYC pals, crammed in to accommodate my work commitments. The months I spent staffed in New Jersey, barely seeing anything beyond my hotel and my client site.

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Waking up in Sao Paolo

This lifestyle shift is really impacting me right now. I find myself thinking about the feeling of checking in at a new hotel, pondering how much time I spent in airports, remembering all the times I dragged my suitcase around a new place. Planes and hotels were such a big part of my life for so long, whether I liked it or not. Being on the road had some exciting moments but more importantly, it was familiar. Lack of routine was my routine for so long, and it’s sort of bizarre that the pattern ended.

A more open calendar means opening up my life: the lack of movement means I can move forward in new ways. But, I’m still figuring out how this whole “non-business traveler” thing works. I’m trying to establish a better routine. I’m saying yes to weekday plans. And above all else, I’m savoring the feeling of staying still.

Since I keep a sort-of diary, it was really easy to map the places I’ve traveled for work. So naturally, I had to do it. This map only reflects locations, not frequency. For example, I hit up LA a few times in 2013 alone. Maybe someday I’ll add frequency in… but for now, the data-geek side of me finds this map pretty satisfying on its own.

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