Tag Archives: looking

Rambling report

October 24, 2014

The new $24 million segment of the Dequindre Cut, from Gratiot to Mack, is about as short as you’d expect if you’ve ever wandered Eastern Market end-to-end without even noticing. This 0.45 mile stretch is due to open next spring after some delays, following the initial 1.35-mile trail conversion which was completed in 2009. The railroad itself was constructed in the 1830s by the Detroit Pontiac Railroad Company, predecessor of Canadian National and Grand Trunk. Trains ran along the tracks from 1838 until the mid-1980s; passenger rail service to the riverfront terminated in 1982. A subsidiary of the MGM Casino purchased the parcels between 1998 and 2000 and handed them off to the city shortly after.

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Aside from just wandering and having fun, our intent was to examine the benefits and losses of greenway rails-trails conversion projects, particularly the impact on wild plants commonly referred to with the generic term “weeds.” Focusing on the greenery when the Dequindre Cut has been so well-known for its colorful graffiti was a shift that felt natural at the time, and almost certainly foretells the theme of many future walks there. Wildflowers were everywhere bland new embankment walls weren’t. How the pale blocks had been kept free of graffiti for their weeks in place baffles the imagination. Especially as the grade changes to join street level closer to Mack, the balance tips in a pastoral direction. Birds were chirping and flocking around grassy clumps unjostled by the heavy machinery lining the Cut. Behind the Detroit Edison Public School Academy, a birdhouse perched atop a tall pole.

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At Mack we waited a while for the roar of Lions’ game traffic to quiet before setting foot on the rails. This stretch of the Cut splices two different worlds — the vastness of bleak industry to the west where the Pepsi bottling plant sits, and a line of trees and some grassy lands to the east. It’s a dynamic that feels very Detroit. “These would be lovely to keep as parks,” I said. “They already are,” a rambler replied. The disused tracks themselves were littered with surprises — we examined pottery, the railways’ signature shards of metal, bones, shoes, trash, and treasure in the form of a fully intact shovel sitting in a bush.

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The tracks are fenced off with shiny chainlink at Farnsworth where they keep the trains. At this point we turned east, doubling back on St. Aubin for a glimpse of what life might have been like before the railroad. Cobblestone streets still push determinedly westward before petering out into high grasses next to dead-ending sidewalks. Rust inexplicably coats sections of pavement. At Forest, a naked flagpole sits lonesome in the grassy lot that was the Dabrowski Playground, in memory of the reverend who once founded a Polish Seminary there. There aren’t many houses these days. Outside of Eastern Market again, we stopped to check on the little cinderblock wonder at 2126 Pierce St., then followed the alley south to Wilkins. An eastbound detour gave us better viewing of the sculpture garden outside C.A.N. Art Handworks.

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The ramble paused on Gratiot to share generous rambler-made brownies with a belated contingent of tired tweed riders. After this ramblers disbanded to their vehicles and I trekked south alone. At Antietam a red-tailed hawk dove to scoop up a squirrel, dangling it from the power lines. I followed the Lafayette Parks to the river, broad green spaces paralleling the Cut. After the Greening of Detroit Park, I crossed Jefferson and ventured down Riopelle, looking at the Ren Cen looming past the wreckage of a torched building. It felt out of place. In Milliken State Park, the recent sidewalk led me over the hill, next to the canal, and back into the Dequindre Cut.

This is the familiar Dequindre Cut, where in an otherwordly composition graffiti is backdrop for the occasional sly storybook red fox straight out of Le Petit Prince. It’s also a greenway beloved by Detroiters who wouldn’t or couldn’t explore the wilder sections we’d seen earlier in the day. As I strode north, a family passed, pushing their stroller and talking about how safe it was there. Their hip-height young daughter smiled a few paces behind them. It was getting dark but a group of people still had a tripod set up in the pedestrian lane, filming skateboard tricks. This is something you might not try a few miles north along the rails.

If something is lost in this conversion from rails to trails, it isn’t the greater good. As one who lived for the spaciousness and unruliness of parts of this city, I can’t wholly mind that it isn’t here, right here, anymore. But will there always be somewhere else to go? As perambulists in other cities thoughtfully elegize their vanishing wildernesses, I wish they could ramble with us and see the before and the after simultaneously, two sides of a story, two ends of the same trail.

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#detroitstayclassy

September 28, 2014

Even a half-asleep pedestrian in Detroit would not fail to notice the new public art that materialized this week. Perched on streetlight bases and utility boxes, decorating windowsills and ledges, sunbathing on grassy patches, 3,000 small white signs stencilled with a simple black tie infiltrated the landscape seemingly overnight.

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Something special must be up, I concluded on seeing a seventh one in the short stretch of Woodward I was walking. But what? I asked some friends, asked some bystanders, asked the people working parking for the game downtown. Stationed directly across from a pair of the stencils propped up against stop sign posts, the guy flicked his neon flag, shrugged, and told me he had no idea.

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The black ties are the symbol of the positivity-fueled “Detroit Stay Classy” campaign, which seeks to redefine class, vaguely asserting that “class encompasses a lot of things but most importantly is defined by your character and personality.” Their sparse manifesto puts a momentary blind eye to history, and maybe reality, with its awkward truisms reminding Detroiters that “every person is born with what is needed to take that first step towards their success.” “You and your ideas are special and have to be pursued,” the site cheerleads. The idea that you have to be pursued is one all too familiar to Detroiters behind on their utility bills.

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Lacking either the curiosity or the entitlement, it never occurred to me to take any of the ties for myself, which was apparently the intent of the project. The back of each has scrawled on it “for you — from me. p.s. stay classy”, the website, and the tie’s production number. Some of the ties are now displayed proudly in store windows, some have gone home to the burbs, and a lot are decorating downtown offices, reminding their keepers to keep it classy at work, judging by elated comments.

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What percentage of Detroiters will never have any idea of the meaning behind these white boards? If they don’t know, then what is the point? It’s only more mysterious stuff placed in their environment by some well-meaning “other” for some other well-meaning “other.” Missing the transparency of other positive-thinking public art efforts, like Cheer Up! Detroit, where the message is accessible to any literate person wandering by, the ties bristle with exclusivity. In not addressing the people it was intended to encourage — people who are not middle or upper class, internet-literate, and nestling this cute tchotchke into their art collection — how can the project really be meaningful, something aside from more fluffy lighthearted Detroit Future boosterism?

In the depths of conversation with a very positive woman, flagging cars of Tigers fans into a small lot near the stadium, she told me about her 45 minute commutes on foot to work — a 2.5 hour job — “and that’s taking all the shortcuts,” she said, “through the fields and through people’s apartment complexes, everything.” Instead of relating happy messages about black ties painted on boards, she told me about being robbed last year on her solitary route home, the reason she will no longer work night games. “I wish I had a bike,” she sighed, looking at my rusty Peugeot.

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The ties are whimsical; I can seldom argue against whimsy. Inspiring something like a city-wide scavenger hunt — thankfully, the project succeeded in not limiting classiness to the 7.2 — is the kind of fun every metropolis needs. Yet it’s not really the most clever irony by which a project all about personality and character takes an article of clothing as its symbol — an article none other than the alienating tie that encircles white collars. Perhaps these boards and their surrogate neckwear are an apt talisman in a city known for its hard-working working class, but the undertone of exclusivity persists.

Detroit’s black tie makeover is part of a broader clash between understanding and respecting a space and its people, history, and culture, and understanding and respecting one’s personal needs and ambitions, and figuring where to interpolate oneself into that history and culture. This is a struggle every time I go out on a walk, thinking always of the millions of people before me who have walked the same route — the same sidewalk, the same street, the same path, the prairie and forest before the city. Where can the black tie fit into that?

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Timely reading:
“Is There Room for Black People in the New Detroit?” by Suzette Hackney, who asks, “Still a question looms: Is there room for low income residents to benefit from the dazzling reinvention of their city?” As one resident she interviews put it, Detroit’s new development “is for the white folks and tourists. It ain’t for us.”

Unplug and play

May 7, 2014

Hello from Screen-Free Week! Screen-Free Week is a collective effort to “spend seven days turning OFF digital entertainment* and turning ON life! It’s a time to unplug and play, read, daydream, create, explore nature, and spend time with family and friends. *work and school assignments not included.” I’m actually writing this on my Etch-a-Sketch, so it doesn’t count. Surely no one gets hit by a car Etch-a-Sketching while walking.

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The virtues of spending time without screens have made the news lately, for reasons beside the obvious or usual — obesity, heart disease, depression, other depressing conditions. Julia Filip, writing for the Atlantic, put together a tidy summary regarding the alarming worldwide increase in myopia. It’s not news, but in “Nearsightedness and the Indoor Life,” she suggests that we all get outside a bit more, reporting that between the 1970s and the turn of the century, myopia rates increased 66% among people between the ages of 12 and 54. The situation isn’t getting any less blurry. One quarter of people on the planet need glasses, a number that is forecasted to increase to a third by 2020 (futuristic as it sounds, that’s in just six years).

Much research is under way to find out why children need glasses at younger and younger ages, and what can mitigate the more serious longterm health risks that can arise from fuzzy vision. Filip talked with Dr. Maria Liu, head of the Myopia Control Clinic that opened last year at University of California, Berkeley. “The eyeballs are very adaptive while they are developing,” Liu explained. “If we impose a lot of near work on the eyes as they are developing, the eyes will interpret nearsightedness as being the normal state.” Filip writes,

Although modern lifestyle makes it harder to fight the disorder, there is something parents can do to prevent its early onset. “Increasing outdoor activities is a very strong protective factor for myopia,” Liu said. “Whether it is because hormonal levels are different outdoors, or because the light intensity is stronger, or because we do less close-up work, it has been shown consistently that outdoor activity is very protective and tends to slow the rate of progression.”

Taking breaks from myopia-inducing work every ten minutes and “looking in the distance” is also quaintly suggested. Last fall, Brian Palmer covered the subject for Slate, looking at studies comparing child development in Australia and Singapore and its impact on vision. Suspiciously, he notes that “small children look adorable in eyeglasses” — why do people like the sight of impaired kids so much? Maybe this early-onset myopia is a greater survival adaptation than we give it credit.

Palmer focuses on the outdoor aspect of the puzzle, saying that if near-work is really the culprit, it’s problematic for culture and education. Let kids be healthy and illiterate, or teach them to read and risk retinal detachment? “If the problem is just a matter of light intensity, however, you could send your child outside to read,” Palmer writes after reviewing some studies done with rhesus monkeys, who, you can bet, were not reading anything. Unable to suggest a solution, he goes on to cite statistics on childrens’ lost time outdoors.

What can we do? Lots! Screen-Free Week has a few relevant recommendations among their “essential handouts.” They look remarkably like living a normal life, but, perhaps, without stopping to text every three minutes. (Screens for communication are, however, permissible). Anybody want to go build a fort, taking care to include breaks every ten minutes to look into the distance?

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Thing-finding

April 10, 2014

A lot of the wonders of walking were most elegantly summed up in children’s book I read long ago. Pippi Longstocking, famed pirate heroine and vanquisher of boredom everywhere, knows a lot more about walking than your average grown-up. One morning, while Pippi is busy baking a modest five hundred cordiform pepparkakor, a kind of Swedish cookie, her neighbors Tommy and Annika visit. When she finishes, Tommy, like your average bored, screen-sucking kid, asks, “What are we going to do now?”

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“I don’t know what you are going to do,” said Pippi, “but I know I can’t lie around and be lazy. I am a Thing-Finder, and when you’re a Thing-Finder you don’t have a minute to spare.”
“What did you say you are?” asked Annika.
“A Thing-Finder.”
“What’s that?” asked Tommy.
“Somebody who hunts for things, naturally. What else could it be?” said Pippi as she swept all the flour left on the floor into a little pile.
“The whole world is full of things, and somebody has to look for them. And that’s just what a Thing-Finder does,” she finished.
“What kind of things?” asked Annika.
“Oh, all kinds,” said Pippi. “Lumps of gold, ostrich feathers, dead rats, candy snapcrackers, little tiny screws, and things like that.”

Tommy and Annika thought it sounded as if it would be fun and wanted very much to be Thing-Finders too, although Tommy did say he hoped he’d find a lump of gold and not a tiny little screw.

“We shall see what we shall see,” said Pippi. “One always finds something.”

The children set off on their own, like few children have the luxury of doing today. Pippi thought it would be best to keep to urban surroundings, as most things to be found are where the people are. She tells Tommy and Annika about the incredible things she’s found in the forest, and she would of course tell you too, if you read the book.

Tommy and Annika looked at Pippi to see just how a Thing-Finder acted. Pippi ran from one side of the road to the other, shaded her eyes with her hand, and hunted and hunted. Sometimes she crawled on her hands and knees, stuck her hands in between the pickets of a fence, and then said in a disappointed tone, “Oh, dear! I was sure I saw a lump of gold.”

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Thing-finding, like Pippi instructs her friends, can be as humble a pursuit as finding rusty tin cans and dead rats to hunting down prizes like gold. Today, I investigated a mesmerizing beacon that turned out to be a roadkill e-cig. Any takers?

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It’s not the find but the perceptual game that matters, looking at your surroundings to connect seemingly disparate things together, to find new ways of making sense of the world. This can be as silly and undignified as stringing together some weird narrative to explain all those sad useless mattresses lying around, as the Walthamstow Tourist Board did this week. They’re also doing commendable work with the lost pair of shoes population. It’s all good, as long as, like Pippi, we’re wandering around and paying attention.

Excerpted from 'Celebs that Look Like Mattresses', by the Walthamstow Tourist Board

Excerpted from ‘Celebs that Look Like Mattresses’, by the Walthamstow Tourist Board

Suddenly Pippi gave a terrific yell. “Well, I never saw the like,” she cried, as she picked up a large, rusty old tin can from the grass. “What a find! What a find! Cans — that’s something you can never have too many of.”
Tommy looked at the can doubtfully. “What can you use it for?”
“Oh, you can use it in all sorts of ways,” said Pippi. “One way is to put cookies in it. Then it becomes a delightful Jar with Cookies. Another way is not to put cookies in it. Then it becomes a Jar without Cookies. That certainly isn’t quite so delightful, but still that’s good too.”
She examined the can, which was indeed rusty and had a hole in the bottom.
“It looks almost as if this were a Jar without Cookies,” she said thoughtfully. “But you can put it over your head and pretend that it is midnight.”

Tomorrow is Walk to Work Day, a perfect opportunity to stretch your whimsy muscles and see some strange things. According to the official website based in San Francisco, as few as fifteen minutes of commute-oriented walking count as walking to work, so there aren’t many excuses not to do it (injured feet might be a valid one). You never know what could happen. Maybe Pippi herself will appear and reward you with a pepparkakor from her Jar with Cookies for your efforts.

On really looking

February 5, 2014

On yet another snowy day, with a foot injured from trampling January’s crusty ice clods, sitting inside has never seemed finer — or, at least, less dismal. I’ve been spending time with Italo Calvino, one of the few writers whose immaculate insight locates precisely what’s at the center of a landscape, urban or rural, and its people’s interaction with it. His collection of stories Invisible Cities is a classic that holds up to as many instances of reading as the paper will permit. In contrast with recent works published on the subject of looking, Calvino’s wit, tenderness, and verbal majesty never fail to surprise, to transport the reader into a more imaginative frame of mind.

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In “Stories of Love and Loneliness,” a collection of eight short works written in the 1950s and published in English in the volume Difficult Loves, Calvino relates the awkward adventures of some common archetypes — the poet, soldier, traveller, clerk, among others. Here is an excerpt from “The Adventure of a Nearsighted Man.”

He caught on, finally. The fact was that he was near-sighted. The oculist prescribed eyeglasses for him. After that moment his life changed, became a hundred times richer in interest than before.
Just slipping on the glasses was, every time, a thrill for him. He might be, for instance, at a tram stop, and he would be overcome by sadness because everything, people and objects around him, was so vague, banal, worn from being as it was; and him there, groping in the midst of a flabby world of nearly decayed forms and colors. He would put on his glasses to read the number of the arriving tram, and all would change: the most ordinary things, even lampposts, were etched with countless tiny details, with sharp lines, and the faces, the faces of strangers, each filled up with little marks, dots of beard, pimples, nuances of expression that there had been no hint of before; and he could understand what material clothes were made of, could guess the weave, could spot the fraying at the hem. Looking became an amusement, a spectacle; not looking at this thing or that — just looking. And so Amilcare Carruga forgot to note the tram number, missed one car after another or else climbed onto the wrong one. He saw such a quantity of things that it was as if he no longer saw anything. Little by little, he had to become accustomed, learn all over again from the beginning what was pointless to look at and what was necessary.

Yes, it’s all that lovely, and not very difficult. Read the rest of the story to find out what happens to Amilcare Carruga on his walks around town. Available at your local library.

Don’t walk this way

February 1, 2014

There’s something eternally captivating about travel narratives, even the most mundane ones that happen close to home. It’s also the time of year — especially this year — when it’s tough to do much other than envision equatorial adventures through the lines of frost on the windows. Last spring, a new book titled On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes by Alexandra Horowitz seemed to appear everywhere, basking in positive media mentions. I sought it out, walking to the library time after time only to find it out on loan. Imagining that the book was so hotly in demand that the library couldn’t keep it on the shelf for as long as it took me to get there after verifying its presence in the catalog, my fervor increased.

After about six months, I finally had the book. I sat down to read and was confronted by something less “breathlessly wonderful” as Maria Popova gushed on the always-fascinating brainpickings.org, or as “brilliant” as the New York Society Library would have me believe. “It is undoubtedly one of the most stimulating books of the year, if not the decade, and the most enchanting thing I’ve read in ages,” promised Popova, who went on to highlight perhaps every quotable passage in the entire book. Contrary to expectations, after a chapter or two, I realized that, despite the low reading level required by Horowitz’s halting prose, the reason this thing was never at the library was because nobody could actually finish reading it.

It took a truly humiliating number of renewals and late fines, but I made it through, and unlike a long walk, I’m no better for it. Sometimes I laughed so much I cried, not because the book is actually humorous, but because Horowitz’s struggles are so sad. The book is about attention, about taking time to notice, as Horowitz quotes Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, “the observation of trifles.”

Instead she practically jogs through the book, breathless at times, stumbling over both words and ideas. It’s one thing for elegant phrasing to elude someone who is a cognitive scientist by trade; that’s easily forgivable in an age when many of our books are written by politicians and basketball players and chefs who haven’t yet quit their day job to pursue a creative writing MFA. Popova’s review boasted that as “[f]irst, she takes a walk all by herself, trying to note everything observable, and we quickly realize that besides her deliciously ravenous intellectual curiosity, Horowitz is a rare magician with language,” but the evidence is scant.

It’s a lovely concept — who am I to say no to eleven walks with nice people who can narrate to you a world visible only to them? It’s magic. Horowitz, inspired and mystified by walks with her former mutt, recruited an impressive range of guides for the natural and unnatural microcosms of the Manhattan blocks she calls home. She walks with her nineteen-month-old son, her dog, a geologist, an entomologist, a senior scientist in the wildlife division of the Humane Society, a doctor and medicine professor, an urban planner, a typographer, an illustrator, a sound designer, a blind person, and, of course, herself.

Her fourth walk, and one of the most depressing, is with venerable illustrator Maira Kalman, beloved advocate of the whole walking-and-noticing thing. Horowitz quotes Kalman’s maxim, “If you are ever bored or blue, stand on the street corner for half an hour.” After thirty-five minutes of this (Horowitz seems always to be counting), she cheerily reports, “Not only was any glimmer of boredom vanquished, but I’ll be darned if I didn’t grow less azure by the second,” with the trite cheesiness that’s by now her unfortunate trademark. Boredom glimmers? Who knew.

It’s hard not to cringe as she dumbly tags along with Kalman, seeming perplexed at every turn how this could be taking so long. When she describes Kalman’s walking pace as “loitering,” it just feels disrespectful. It’s hard to doubt that, as originator of this concept, she truly wants to be there; nonetheless, most of the walks in the book feel rushed, even when she is busy verbalizing reluctance to part with her walking companions. Maybe she is cold, or has to pee.

She does fulfill the objective of expanding her range of noticeable things, even if among those is the humdrum onward march of the hours. “This is not to say that everyone I walked with saw everything. Moments into my walk with one of the world’s foremost researchers on the science of paying attention, she stepped right over sixty dollars lying in her path on the street. She simply did not notice it,” she writes incredulously.

Horowitz also assembles quite a parade of interesting tidbits over the course of the book. She seems to shy away from being present during the walks, groping to accomplish this with strategies like counting down minutes, spastically cataloging things of questionable relevance, or rambling tangentially about dogs or monkeys. Delving into fact, and better yet, scientific studies, is where she is at her most lucid. Her sigh of relief whenever she digs into this comfortable territory is so palpable it nearly blows the page out of your hand. Aside from most musings quickly devolving into a debriefing on some study about animals (clearly her work teaching psychology, animal behavior, and canine cognition, according to the author bio, is never far from her heart), the collage of facts is not totally unwelcome. It provides a respite from the onslaught of her poorly-wrought observations, like ducking behind a building on a windy day. Lest you believe that all of our actions come down to wiring shared with apes and canines, she writes, “Notably, not all of our crowd behavior mirrors the animal swarms,” but only in that we’re not also cannibalistic, like desert locusts. As Horowitz listens to bird calls, she suddenly conjures up a whale. Since this is not an animal usually found either in the lab or on the streets of Manhattan, she provides a lonely illustration.

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Oftentimes bewildering, at her best Horowitz is giggle-inducing. “As the taxi passes, a stenciled POST NO BILLS is discernible on the scaffolding hulking over the sidewalk. Words are the ample cleavage of the urban environment: impossible not to look at.” Funny? Kind of, but Horowitz makes so many gauche blunders that one must wonder whether the joke is on her. Another highlight is when she lumpily wonders at how “in this part of the city the humanity is remarkably peaceable and hushed. I worried that we would only hear the rustle of expensive silk undergarments from this neighborhood.”

This hint of linguistic dexterity is a part-time phenomenon. When the geologist tells her about the precise type of schist making up a wall in Central Park, she says, “Yikes! Here I must pause, anticipating a collective drop in reader blood pressure. One risks, in writing about geology, numbing one’s readership with the terminology. Schist, gneiss, phyllite; metamorphic, sedimentary, siliciclastic, schistosity. It can be dizzying. I sympathize. I hear “Paleozoic” and I nearly drop right into a deep sleep.” Twelve pages later, we’re supposed to believe this is the same walker who, with her husband, owns literally “hundreds of dictionaries, whose main role in our lives are first, to wait uncomplaining until they are thumbed through by us, and second, to then offer up such masterpieces of grace and charm as omphalos, amanuensis, and picklesome.” Horowitz’s efforts to have it both ways are discordant, making her an unreliable narrator and guide.

It’s hard to be so disappointed by this book when one gets the sense that Horowitz, ever-toying with her own weird-fangled brand of whimsy, is a noble ally. In a particularly relatable moment, she confides that “[s]ome years ago I began noticing, then collecting, stray single gloves or mittens lying forlornly on the ground, displaced from the hands they had been warming. These melancholy creatures, always frozen in an awkward or pleading pose, indicated recent passage of someone busily doing something requiring a free hand, I found more right gloves than left, probably a reflection of the overwhelming right-handedness of people, and the inclination to remove a right glove to do something requiring dexterity: take out one’s wallet, punch in a phone number, retie a shoe.” While I can’t say I agree with her assessment, it’s a nice notion that someone else is monitoring these apparitions.

As Horowitz takes a loop around the block to determine what’s shifted in her awareness, she is overcome by a monstrous zeal. Everything has changed. Suddenly there are letters and rocks and triangles and noises and plants everywhere. She says, “It was a new street. My eye caught sight of something a few yards down the street. I nearly leapt toward it, rudely lunging right in front of someone happening to walk by and not anticipating nearly-leapers. The object of my lungely leaping was a gaping sidewalk crack, unfilled with mortar. I kneeled and peered in. Inside lived dozens of tiny, hopeful two-leafed plants pushing up toward the light. None bore the mark of an insect.”

Horowitz demonstrates a very interesting tactic to spice up other people’s walks, without all the bothersome invitations and consent — just jump in front of them and kneel down on the ground. They’ll be sure to notice lots of new things as they trip over you and you both end up in a woeful tangle on the sidewalk. The most important lesson for the reader is a simple one — don’t walk this way.

She concludes: “The result of these walks on my head is tangible: they refined what I can see. My mind can prepare my eyes to spontaneously find a leaf gall, to hear an air conditioner’s hum, to smell the sickly sweet smell of garbage on a city street (or the fragrance of my own soap on my face, instead).” I hope she enjoyed all those walks on her head. My mind can prepare my eyes to not read this book again.

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