Buttoned-up usually refers to a finely tuned operation or a conservative manner. Buttoned-down is typically conventional. But definitions crumble when the buttoned (down or up) item in question is an outgoing red apron. This self-proclaimed people person and cheerful greeter at the cozy Breads Bakery near Lincoln Center wears a hu-manifesto made of upbeat buttons given to him by customers. Here, personal resistance takes the form of being polite, loving, democratic, and musical theater-going. Not to mention offering strangers a visual hug.
American seasonal flavors and scents are threatening to turn pumpkin season into one giant corporate cliché. You know autumn is here when pumpkin donuts, bagels and cream cheese come rolling out of Dunkin' Donuts. Ditto Starbucks' pumpkin-flavored lattés, Frappuccinos® and scones. Even Oreos, M&M's, deodorant, and, hilariously, pet shampoo are getting pumpkinized, reports Fortune. Personally, I like my gourds in shards. For years, I've applauded the changing of the leaves by watching farmers at Daisi Hill Farm in Millerton, New York, load pumpkins large as cannon balls onto a handmade medieval-style catapult. There's more deep-bodied joy in watching them fly through sky to explode in a distant field than all the pumpkin-spiced goods in the world will ever deliver. Unless, of course, you're the pumpkin.
Design that speaks out can whisper or shout. I see more people wearing their values on their sleeve (or caps, jackets, sweatshirts and backpacks) with slogans and small buttons that promote love, equality and resistance. I also notice the proliferations of anti-hate posters and flags on the doors of independent stores, on sides of churches, and here, on the glass-front entrance wall of a Jewish Community Center in Manhattan. The sheer size and profundity of this sign, along with the invisible burden carried by a stooped passerby, left me speechless—but not for long.
Walking near the 79th Street Boat Basin, I noticed that this rusted iron nautical ring bent its neck in the same graceful arc as two female Mallard ducks perched beside it. Bolted and yoked, it seemed burdened by time and water. Immediately, I thought of T.S. Eliot's third. In his epic poem, The Waste Land, Eliot asks, "Who is the third who walks always beside you...Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded...who is that on the other side of you?" Eliot's "third" refers to a guardian angel or spiritual support (see Third Man factor for why). Here, of course, it is the ducks who can glide. The ring gives strength by being strong and immobile. I loved watching the two ducks flex and swivel their necks next to an imagined mirror third. A few seconds later, they swam off.
Mighty ants have six legs. So does this man who mistook his chair for a hat. His reverse cargo turns heads as he carries it forward in an efficient and ancient Egyptian solution. A passing Shleppers moving truck echoes his place in the universe. Still, he soldiers on. People's burdens are rarely so visible but this one transforms. His load creates a mythical shadow beast that rules the kingdom of the crosswalk. Without his labor (and those like him), none of us can be seated.
There are no dry paint signs. That simple fact transforms wet paint signs into an event: Transitory public performances whose main intrigue is their fleeting nature. Which surface was painted? Is it still wet? Can I touch it? What will my fingertip look like dotted in color? Did it happen today? Yesterday? At all? Running across wet painting in action is a little like catching Santa Claus wrapping gifts. I was oddly thrilled to witness this sidewalk performance. The artist wielding the red roller was proudly in the flow. Which changed me. Next time I come across a lonely wet paint testament, I'll look for clues about the painter rather than the painted.
The person (or people) who created this got to say with pride: "Today I made love on the beach!" I stumbled across it on a long walk and could say, "I found love on the beach." And then I realized that the only way to make this love everlasting was to shoot it.
Smart cars are so adorable you just want to pick them up and put them in your pocket. Whenever I see one, I hope these extremely efficient and small-is-beautiful Mercedes are counterbalancing the horrendous number of gas-guzzling black SUV's picking up in the city. The jelly bean-sized cars are so well-designed for the Rush Hour maze that even the NYPD bought a fleet.
Some owners can't resist gloating. When I saw this blue subcompact backing up into a luggage-sized space, I thought, what a real New York car. It wasn't just Smart, it was also Smart-ass.
These eggs called out loudly to my inner narcissist. Reading my name in the unlikeliest place— the bright neon of a refrigerated shelf— made me laugh. Fresh foods was giving me a shout out?
Which made me think. What if our future In Real Retail Life (IRRL) interactions were hyper-customized just like current online "Amazon/Netflix recommends"? What if we saw things just for us everywhere? In a boutique, Carol’s jeans, Carol’s dress. At the hardware shop, Carol’s light bulb, Carol’s nail. Even on stickered fruit: Carol's banana. We'd all be trapped in a claustrophobic echo chamber of our own historic tastes (and yes, it's already happened with politics). Your name here, everywhere.
On the other hand, who could resist a small cute box of humane heirloom blue eggs? Thanks, Carol, whoever you are.
I wish I could witness the total eclipse on August 21, but I'll have to make do with a partial experience in my home city. It doesn't help that Annie Dillard wrote in her brilliant 1982 essay 'Total Eclipse': "Seeing a partial eclipse bears the same relation to seeing a total eclipse as kissing a man does to marrying him." Oh well.
Eclipses are dramatic because they connect polar opposites. We expect the sun and moon to revolve in harmony. When the moon obstructs the sun, it breaks every rule we know about nature. It's unbalancing. Dillard wrote that seeing the eclipse in Yakima, Washington was like "slipping into a fever, or falling down that hole in sleep from which you wake yourself whimpering."
Night skies of textured velvet can also feel like fever dreams. Vaporous skies fascinate me. I took this photo through our windshield as we drove in a purple haze late into the night. It felt to me like clouds were devouring the moon—a midnight of the soul. Then I remembered that both clouds and moon were in fact lit by the sun.
With our torrent of selfies, a humble paper-cut profile can feel as retro as a manual typewriter. But when I saw these friends and travelers silhouetted against the Lincoln Center fountain on a beautiful August night, I was absorbed by their inky shadows. The subtle yet compelling profiles made me nostalgic for restraint—for whispering instead of shouting, for listening over talking, for reflection over tweeting, and even for black-and-white over color. I decided the couple on the left was on a first date, the two women in the middle were cherished old friends, and the man on the left was an exhausted but happy tourist. I remember a wonderful teacher who told troublemakers, "Can you get my attention in a positive way?" That's what this group silhouette did for me, quietly and stealthily, until I realized I was not only mesmerized but becalmed.
Have you ever gone to bed in one place and woken up in another? I don't mean mind-glazing benders, but rather sleep or travel induced changes of location. I have wonderful childhood memories of surprise return. You are driven home, say, from a county fair with your head wedged awkwardly on the back seat armrest and your feet piled on your brother's. Suddenly bright morning is here and your head rests gently on your own soft bed pillow. You might have a vague memory of being slung over the magic carpet of your father's shoulder in the dark, but really the whole thing is so surprising that you wonder if yesterday was dreamed.
Overnight arrival in a new place is more dislocating. You fall asleep on a plane, train or ship and you wake up to strangely invasive foreign sounds and smells. I once traveled to Chicago on an overnight railroad car and was stunned by the changes outside my window come morning. Or maybe you arrive at night somewhere, and when the next day comes, you awake to a jaw-dropping view you hadn't seen in the dark.
This lovely striped cucumber beetle traveled to my city kitchen on a berth of vibrant green and yellow squash blossoms from Wells Homestead farm in Aquebogue, Long Island. All I could think of was his immense surprise. He tucked into a soft blossom in a farm field under the stars at night, and ended up in Manhattan in the morning. It seemed cruel to kill him, so I captured him in a deli container and carried him outside to a new home in verdant Riverside Park. Long may he munch.
Hot air ballooning and baseball are not as different as you'd think. They both seduce you into searching a blue summer sky with joy and excitement. Time stands still—as in music or poetry— as you trace the fleeting arc of the soaring ball. The higher it flies, the more your feet don't touch the ground. The world around you quiets and disappears. For a moment, your heart is suspended in air and nothing else matters. And you think, this is weightlessness, what it feels like to fly. This is being six-years-old and lying smack flat on the grass to absorb the sky. This is summer, unfettered.
This emerald green hot air balloon floated out of nowhere above a friend's country lawn in Millbrook, New York, and we all ran out to admire it. We could barely see the people in the bucket, but we waved anyway. The boldly striped flying machine looked down on us and towering evergreens with complete superiority. We were insignificant, but we didn't care. We listened to it inhale and exhale loudly, whooshing like a giant doing yoga. It was above us for just a half-dozen breaths, and then it sailed out of our patch of cumulus-filled sky. Even after it left, a little bit of it stayed, like a memory of a home run. We had more space inside us.
See if you agree. Check out this beautiful National Geographic short film by Joel Schat of a New Mexican hot air balloon festival by clicking here.
My first thoughts were of Dorothy when I came across this sunflower yellow Quaker-style house askew in the Rose Kennedy Greenway in downtown Boston. Was there a dead Brahmin stuck underneath? Actually, all Oz allusions were accidental, according to Brooklyn artist Mark Reigelman. He created this art piece, "The Meeting House," from traditional building materials like Eastern white cedar and birch plywood to reference both the residential disruption caused by highway infrastructure projects and the healing qualities of communal civic structures.
As work and chores migrate to the web, I think places where people can gather and talk face to face and make progress as a community become even more appreciated. I've noticed that inviting lounges and shared worktables are super trendy, not just in expected places like hotel lobbies and coffee shops, but also in museums and even gyms. MoMA's new renovation, for example, adds 25-percent more public space, including a stunning second floor cafe and first floor lobby lounge. The stylish entrance space of my newly madeover Equinox gym fuses hotel lobby with high-tech workspace. Gym members give fingers and minds a workout while sitting at long shared work tables with electric outlets, rows of marble cafe tables or on stylish black upholstered chaise lounges. You could spend all day at the gym without breaking a sweat.
The irony is that people using these public work spaces often line up next to each other staring at glowing screens like toddlers in parallel play, communing without communicating. I call it public isolation. Perhaps if a large Meeting House landed in their midst they would put down their screens and talk to each other, which is why I think some people secretly love disasters. When you contrast Reigelman's colorful small house with the large impersonal glass skyscrapers in the distance, which one would you rather play in?
I've always had a bemused appreciation of carved radishes, pumpkins, watermelons and other spectacular examples of the celebrated Asian and European art of fruit carving. I mean, really, who doesn't love a watermelon turned into a samurai head? However, it's not often you run across a carved banana, and this abstract fruit art from Henrietta's Table in Cambridge, Massachusetts was my first encounter. First, I saw a deboned fish. Next, I saw a caterpillar. The longer I stared, the more it became a Rorschach banana with infinite possibilities. A dinosaur backbone? A slightly gooey snake? An intricate wooden block toy puzzle? What do you see? And, more radically, the next time you pick up a knife to cut your summer fruit, what could you make?
Aspenites, apparently, don't need snow to ski. They just strap themselves in their skis to the rack on their car. But at least they get to hold poles. This Aspen rooftop skier is certainly telemarking his independence (From Britain? From winter?) in the town's annual July 4th parade. Or perhaps he's a dog lover making a sly homage to Mitt Romney's Irish Setter, Seamus? Whatever you think, it's little feats of homegrown ingenuity like roof-rack skiing that lead everybody to love a parade. I took this photo last year, but it stayed on my mind. This year I went to the beach. I wasn't about to follow in this guy's shoes.
I imagine the small black sedan parked first. Next, the orange aerial platform truck lowered the boom. Both were tucked in for the night. Either way, the scene is the textbook definition of suspense. And a creative interpretation, too, of "double parking."
The minute you enter the vast dark space of "Hansel and Gretel" at the Park Avenue Armory, you have that creepy back-of-your-neck feeling that somebody or something is watching you. Indeed, somebody is. You are being surveilled by overhead night vision cameras and flying drones, and your image is being live-streamed not only to an exhibition room at the front of the Armory, but also to the Internet public here. Above, I'm taking a photo of myself surveilled taking a photo. My image is being captured from above in total darkness and projected in ghostly white onto the armory's floor.
The unsettling installation was conceived and designed by artist/activist Ai Weiwei and starchitects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron to raise questions about the amount of surveillance used not only in war, but in our public spaces. I saw the exhibit the morning after I saw a theater version of George Orwell's "1984" at the Hudson Theater. It was a double helping of art-induced paranoia, courtesy of Big Brother.
It made me wonder who else is watching us, and where? Alexa? Your iPhone? The hobbyist's drone outside your apartment window (yes, this really happened to a friend of mine). The bugged guest room of your host's art-filled glass house (in Elizabeth Strout's new novel, Anything is Possible)? Can we have dignity without privacy? Does spying erode empathy? Let's ask and answer these essential questions before anything becomes possible.
I was walking in the park when I passed this stock-still bench sitter. If he were a sculpture, I'd call him "The Meditator." The idea of art imitating life is as old as Aristotle, but what I saw here flipped it on its back: Life was imitating art. The meditator's softly rounded back and relaxed, still presence reminded me of the lifelike sculptures of Duane Hanson, or in this case, a happier younger version of Hanson's "Man on Bench". I wondered what the artist, who died in 1996, could have created in the past 15 years if he had lived into the iPhone era. I think he would have fun with tourists and the selfie-stick. Suddenly I started seeing contemporary flesh and blood Hansons everywhere. I saw one in the stationary young woman huddled over a tripod taking a photo of the grass. In the inert, wall-leaning texter hunched over his iPhone. In the becalmed children absorbed by an iPad game on the subway. And then I realized that portable phones and screens turn us into frozen statues more often than we know. Technology has a Midas touch. A quiet tech-free meditation in the park may be the perfect antidote.
My heart goes out to Betty. She was a mild-mannered saleswoman with a halo of grey curls who rang up a few houseware items for me. I was stunned to get this request to rate her a day later by email. I had to struggle to remember her. I guess our interaction was fairly "seamless," though I did have to wait in line and fish out a credit card. I certainly wouldn't rank it "world-class"–not Betty's fault. So what would that make my rating? A three? A two?
Who said knockout interactions should be the goal, anyway? Sometimes I don't want anything more than a three-star interaction. Perky and relentless five-star pleasantries can be downright exhausting. Take the passive-aggressive "have a nice day!" or the too-friendly waitress who interrupts every story just as you're getting to the punch line. Someone's five is another's three. Trust me, the needs of the general public are varied and unreliable. The general public should not have rating power.
I fantasize that when Betty was growing up in Oklahoma, she learned if you didn't have something nice to say about somebody, you didn't say it at all. It seems to me like living hell that every retail interaction she now has in later life is rated.
Worse than video surveillance, this is attitude surveillance. It is soulless and blood-sucking and has got to stop. Nobody should have to be excellent all the time.
Yet the bottomless maw of voracious big data must be fed. Hotels, restaurants, college reunions, airport security, and Uber drivers all beg for ratings via button, app and email. In fact, some services, like Uber, are rude enough to rate you behind your back. You, the customer! Who knows what other sneaky secret ratings are going on. Did you smile and say thank you as you picked up your latte? Did you make a good shoe statement at that trendy restaurant? Maybe you are actually a three as a customer. Or a two. How does that make you feel?
I can tolerate annoying surveys about places and experiences, but I draw the line at rating humans. It's inhuman. Fight back by giving everyone and everything all stars. Betty, here's five for you.