Tag Archives: seeing

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.


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?



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?”


“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.”


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?


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.

Visiting the water lilies

March 28, 2014

When not covering new territory in the city or on a trail each day, what purpose does a daily walk serve? There are the obvious answers — commuting, physical health, stress relief, dementia prevention, community watchfulness, meeting the neighbors, practicing for when you get a dog. At the end of this line of thought one is left tracing the same tenuous path as the previous day, or coming up with variations in a familiar pattern.

When I was younger, I’d take a similar walk every day after school, in the evening. The moon would often be coming up. Flowers would appear and disappear on plants, leaves on trees would spring forth and die back. The air would become humid, then crisp. The light did all sorts of crazy things depending on the season, the weather, the day.

These sorts of walks invariably make me think of Monet. When he moved to Giverny in 1883, a ways outside Paris, he sat out in all seasons enjoying the garden. He acquired land across the road from his house a decade later and expanded the gardens, digging a pond and building the water garden with its famous Japanese-inspired bridge.

For all the emphasis on novelty and adventure, there is some great virtue in doing the same thing again. Viewers find Monet’s Nymphéas relaxing, serene blurs of plants melding into sky into mist, shadow, reflection. Like many pursuits of beauty or happiness, this one was tempered by an ambition that may have uprooted what looks like self-evident tranquility. (Actually, to me, a number of them look rather maniacal. That’s nature for you).

Monet's Nymphéas in 1919, via wikipedia.

Monet’s Nymphéas in 1919, via wikipedia.

“These landscapes of water and reflections have become an obsession,” Monet wrote in 1908. “It’s a continual torture to me!” Squinting at his lilies, rummaging through half-finished paintings to find the one precisely matching the conditions of the day, obsessively devoting canvas after canvas to the same damn thing — was Monet really happy? He put more and more of his energies into the garden — enlarging the pond, exchanging rare plant varieties with his friends, commissioning the bridge. He hired a gardener to boat around the pond in the morning, cleaning soot from passing trains off of the lily petals. He financed paving the road to eliminate dust that would leave an unsightly patina on his plants. He trimmed the lilypads themselves. “All my money goes into my garden,” he complained. Yet, “I am in raptures,” he is quoted as saying on the official website for the estate.

Nymphéas in 1915, via wikipedia.

Nymphéas in 1915, via wikipedia.

In the moment of doing, it’s hard to tell which work is important to be done. I have jobs, guys, and poor time-management skills, and none of those jobs could be described as neo-Impressionist painter. What does Monet have to do with walking, if all he did was sit there in the garden? Many other artists and writers have had equally solid, and highly perambulatory, preoccupations with the outdoors. But I think of Monet at these times because of his exquisite attention to the passing day, his willingness to sit and document the scene before him, and more importantly, record the less palpable things it evokes. For Monet, as one art historian said, “Memory, rethinking, double-backing and moving through space all become part of the act of seeing.”

For Monet, his obsession with the garden and the painting of it paid off, at least by external measures if not in his own joy. Of this, how much reality, how much shimmering myth?, I wonder as I walk around town, waiting for gardens to enliven. To actually see the water lilies, of course, you’d be better off making the 88 hour walk to Chicago, where you can squint at haystacks and poppy fields and a few of the famous floating plants as the master himself did.

Nymphéas in 1917, via wikipedia.

Nymphéas in 1917, via wikipedia.

Channelling Monet, I embark on my little segments of the thousand miles I’m determined to walk this year. As writer Craig Mod discovered when he experimented with tracking technology, finding himself scuttling through the night to bound up and down staircases in pursuit of his goals, we do funny things when someone’s watching, even if the someone is none other than ourselves.

It would have been great to do this experiment like science — spend a year recording without any particular resolution, establishing a control to see what a normal number of miles is for me in this city — not an average abstract number, but something personally relevant.

Walking with a generous friend into the frigid twilight earlier this month, watching the sky go blue as the snot in our noses stung and froze, he asked me about the nature of these walks. “We could be sitting inside,” he pointed out. Why were we walking? Was it for exercise? They make gyms for a reason, went the thought unsaid.
“I didn’t really think so much about it being a physical thing,” I told him. “I don’t think anything will happen to my body if I walk three miles a day. I picked the number because it seemed reasonable.” Walking a few miles a day hardly seems like a marker of any level of fitness, when the rest of the non-sedentary world wakes early in the morning to run 5 or 10 miles.
“Yeah, what’s that, 45 minutes?”
“About an hour. You see things, get distracted, take pictures, run into neighbors, friends… And that’s the point. It’s lovely. So it ends up taking a lot longer, when you factor all that in.”

Still, on grey days that alternate between drizzle and hail that bends the eyelids in half, I wonder if I’m just, so to speak, gilding the lily.

Field guides without fields

March 22, 2014

Announcement: Marche du Nain Rouge is tomorrow! As if you needed a reminder. The walk starts at 1 at Traffic Jam in “everyone’s Midtown Detroit” and goes to Cass Park, Mike Ilitch’s Midtown Detroit.
For those who don’t believe the hype, this means that the Anti-Funeral Procession for the Cass Corridor is happening from 2-6.
Also, please stop calling it the ‘Marche de le Nain Rouge.’ That’s just not right.

Browsing the library shelves, I came across an enticing new acquisition, A Field Guide to American Houses: The Definitive Guide to Identifying and Understanding America’s Domestic Architecture. Originally published in 1984 by Virginia Savage McAlester, the second edition, released last December, offers considerable updates, such as how to “read” a neighborhood, and information on homes built after 1940, which constitute an entire 80% of American dwellings.


The immense hardcover volume, the size of an obnoxious biology textbook, weighs quite a bit more than could be easily packed to take into the muddy field or hefted open to consult while perched on a slippery snowbank — a better title might be An Encyclopedia of American Houses. As intended, it’s a trusty desk reference companion. The preface suggests three ways of using the book: flip through it to find similar photos, use the sprightly pictorial key to identify main features, or read about the historical precedents to the main American house styles. Taking this information out into the field, “style identification can become almost automatic,” and the book waits at home to aid in sorting out subtypes.

Whichever way you approach it, at least a little of the information seeps in almost instantly, broadening perspective of the built environment in a way that a tree guide, for example, can seldom do for the natural environment. To an untrained eye, the differences in siding on houses are easier to discern than the subtleties of bark patterns. It’s been a great game to wander through neighborhoods, peering at porches and chimneys and cataloging types of dormers or “other roof elaborations,” piecing together more of Detroit’s abundant history.

From Native American tepees and wigwams to the McMansion (McAlester favors the kinder term ‘millennium mansion’), the coverage is inexhaustible. When you think you’ve come to the end of the book, a short appendix dealing with green and alternative construction appears, accompanied by photos of geodesic domes. This astute comprehensiveness was a long time coming. As the New York Times relates, McAlester had originally assembled “some 100,000 house photos, many from the Library of Congress, and pinned them on a giant corkboard. Picture the tormented detective in a thriller, rearranging mug shots, with bits of red string.”

The extensive visual references are hard to choose from, but this Spanish Revival has the best landscaping.

The extensive visual references are hard to choose from, but this Spanish Revival has the best landscaping.

Many of the houses I’ve recently wandered past are Queen Anne or Stick, some Shingle, Second Empire, Italianate, Richardsonian Romanesque — in short, lots of Victorian homes, the entire chapter gorgeously represented in a few mile radius. What’s fascinating is how old some of these stylistic impulses are. In an age of new construction techniques like balloon framing and the beginnings of the design industry, Victorian homes were still being modelled, albeit loosely, on Medieval prototypes — the same thatch-roofed stuff people had been building from the 6th through 15th centuries. Even as MIT established the first American architecture program in 1865, the dominant styles recalled Medieval times, with or without various Classical elements appended to them. McAlester coordinates the solidly useful information in the field guide with well-placed tidbits of architectural history. Until 1840, she notes, before the boom of competing architectural styles and schools producing architects to advance them, there was only one formally-trained architect in the United States.

The many features of a Stick style house.

The many features of a Stick style house.

The Queen Anne wall itself as a decorative element -- graphic titled "Devices to avoid flat wall surfaces".

The Queen Anne wall itself as a decorative element — graphic titled “Devices to avoid flat wall surfaces”.

Detroit is as diverse as you’d expect for such a large city, and exploring neighborhoods with both newer and older wonders of residential architecture is something to look forward to as the weather warms and forgotten sidewalks are unearthed. Where are all the Tudors, the boring Neoclassicals and Colonial Revivals, where are my secret favorites, the smartly-tiled Spanish Revivals?

Geographic distribution of Greek Revival subtypes.

Geographic distribution of Greek Revival subtypes.

It did make me curious about what is arguably the oldest house in Detroit, the Charles Trowbridge house on Jefferson. The house is easy to miss, so easy I’ve walked past it dozens of times without noticing. This has probably happened to millions of people since it was built in 1826. Coming north off the river, I walked past it again, and kept going. There is no green historical marker in front of the unassuming Greek Revival brick structure, painted white with a mishmosh of Victorian elements tacked on at some point. It’s not very interesting to look at, outdone by the showier adjacent residences-turned-offices, one of which has been attached to it by an enclosed walkway.

Apparently this is it. The oldest house in Detroit, built 21 years after the 1805 fire.

Apparently this is it. The oldest house in Detroit, built 21 years after the 1805 fire.

This inviting bench has a nice view of the adjacent carriage house, totally mismatched in style from the house it sits behind.

This inviting bench has a nice view of the adjacent carriage house, totally mismatched in style from the house it sits behind.

If I get around to reading the field guide cover-to-cover, it will take some time, but it’s wonderful to savor in small portions, and a sensible purchase for that privilege. It’s also done the favor of keeping me occupied during the obligatory daily segments of the thousand miles. If gold were as helpful in understanding what goes on with our building habits, this book would definitely be worth its weight in it.

The fact motivating the creation of this field guide, that old homes hold a certain value in our culture and their ownership conveys some level of prestige, is by no means universal. In other countries, such as Japan, no such field guide would be written. As Freakonomics reports, the average lifespan of a house before its value dwindles to nothing is just 30 years. Some studies even pin this number as low as 15 years. Half of all houses are demolished within 38 years of construction. This, from a country that lent the rest of the world aesthetics like wabi-sabi, encouraging us to celebrate the small imperfections of our homes, inside and out. Here, older homes don’t tend to depreciate like used cars, and a hundred years will pass before the average home is demolished. One can begin to understand this, in a location that sees 20% of the world’s high-magnitude earthquakes and has a recent history of homes obliterated by bombings, leading to crummily-constructed houses popping up to quickly accommodate the million people left homeless, but the obvious, like McAlester illustrates in her field guide, is never the whole story.

It’s hard to say which is curiouser, our paradoxical penchant for filling our old homes with sleek, cheap Ikea furniture, or the Japanese drive to knock everything down and design exactly the house that is desired by the occupant. In a culture of ancient temples, recycling, and traditional values like mottainai, or avoiding wastefulness, the Japanese approach to housing comes as kind of a shock. To simultaneously value newness as “spiritually clean and pure,” except perhaps in the case of a fresh pair of vending machine underpants, is bizarre.

Maybe the more profound way to accept transience is to demolish everything that isn’t a mossy Buddhist shrine — but I hope, stuck as we are on hanging onto the past, it doesn’t come to this in America. The ability to see the proverbial hand of time moving across a landscape is not a pleasure I’ll easily give up, a reluctance likewise felt, no doubt, when I have to walk this field guide back to the library.