On eased conveyance

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The first time you use a hand truck you will crash into a corner and run over your feet. It’s normal. The guy with infected knuckle tattoos lies when he howls his hand truck skills. But once you get the hang of manoeuvring around corners and avoiding others’ toes, you’ll discover a functional task that is remarkably empowering.

The hand truck has an obvious purpose: move lots of stuff from point a to point b without hurting yourself or the objects. Maybe you’re moving a couch or boxes of books. Regardless, the object or objects are heavy and unwieldy and it’s duty of these four-wheels to transform the item from intimidating to acceptable. With the hand truck you gain a powerful ally in negotiating space with the heaviest things.

Although the hand truck mitigates the threat of the large and overwhelming object, the truck itself retains an aura of intimidation. With it’s looping handle and stiff bars and corrugated metal bed it resembles a medieval torture device. And that’s when folded up. Open and ready to drive, hand trucks appear weather-beaten. The long metal bed hangs down a few inches while inexplicable scratches and loose screws punctuate the handle. Standing ten feet away you picture steering it with ease. Then you approach. And as you play Tetris to fit your couch or boxes of books on the bed, you realize that the hand truck isn’t a soft ally: it wants skill and attention in return for moderated conveyance.

You move. At first you push, forcing your body weight force against the hulking object to make pushing flimsy metal wheels less fatiguing. But after twenty feet you run against the wall. You switch tactics. You pull. The back wheels rattle ominously. Fifty feet later a corner blocks your progress. It doesn’t physically bar like the wall, but as you skirt the edge you realize the back left wheel is stuck. You push back a little, then push forward. Nothing. Standing there, slightly dumbfounded, you contemplate going behind the truck to heave up the back wheels. But, no, that won’t work as you could barely lug the object you’re moving onto the truck. So you drive back further and after manoeuvring and manoeuvring and manoeuvring you finagle a turn wide enough to slide the hand truck through the corner you newly perceive as narrow.

The first time you use a hand truck you will run into someone or something or both. And then you’ll use it again and again and again and at an undefined point your path will function with the vehicle’s. Through changing the way you move through space, the hand truck presents a new lens through which to view everyday objects and passages. All it takes is practice, patience and humility to understand this new outlook.

(Image via Flickr: Jeremy Brooks)

Five Friday Reads 11.09.15

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On the commute

Stockholm metro

I enjoy my commute. It takes approximately thirty-seven minutes: ten minutes walking to the subway, four minutes waiting, sixteen minutes riding the train (with three of idyllic Brooklyn Bridge views), seven minutes walking to work. During this spell the city fades away and I exist in my own orbit together with others existing in theirs.

Enjoying your commute isn’t a given: its daily repetition threatens to quash happiness. Commuting exists within a nebulous neither/nor time. You are neither working nor playing. You are neither productive nor unproductive. You exist. Commuting time is passive time. It shouldn’t be. Articles arguing for a better commute insist upon actively savouring your ‘me time’. But the word’s Latin root suggests otherwise. ‘Com’ means altogether while ‘mute’ signifies mutare, to change. Thus, commuting is a shared transitional activity. It’s a concentrated period during which individual citizens share time, space and routine to shape their city.

Commuting together forms a group identity. By moving in a specific way in a certain place, you assert your identity and build a shared one. Your non-relationship with the person you always see on the subway demonstrates how these different layers of identity form passively. You don’t speak and you don’t know their name, but you share a space, a time and a moment. You share the pole, the delays and the stench of other passengers. You make up stories about this regular traveller, recognize them and invent a name for them. Through sharing in time, space and routine you passively develop a relationship. This non-vocal relationship constructs your commuting persona.

Although these bonds shape how we feel about our routine movements, they form without recognition. Their hidden nature subordinates the commute in our daily movements. Riding the subway and walking to work aren’t inherently disagreeable, but ignoring the commute’s nuances turns these minutes into nebulous, so-called lost time. In a culture where “time is money” such undefined instances become evil through their lack of remuneration. If we adopt an active attitude toward our routine movements, we can acknowledge communal relationship we form and appreciate commuting.

I read. Through books I actively participate in the subway reading community and appreciate the role I adopt within it. Through these self-identity affirming actions, I perceive my thirty-seven minute commute not as lost time, but as daily moments of routine interaction with my city. These actions compose the fabric of my identity and work to form the fabric of a community. I enjoy my commute as shared active time and personally productive space.


Five Friday Reads 04.09.15


  • The End of Walking‘ from Aeon. The modern city is designed to discouraged walking, but cultural stereotypes against walkers will need to change if we want pedestrians to reign.
  • ‘The Importance of MTV Cribs’ from Apartamento. A scripted peek into someone else house reveals design choices, but really reveals how society perceives and classifies these certain objects and spaces.
  • Dining in the Wilderness: The Restaurants in America’s National Parks‘ from Eater. More than just cafeteria, the restaurants in America’s National Parks must negotiate between pleasing the public, maintaining tradition and producing healthy meals.
  • ‘Jonathan Franzen’s Great Expectations‘ from New York. Franzen is one of the few novelists who merits a feature article when publishing a new book. What does this say about literature in America?
  • “Moment” Is Having a Moment‘ from The New York Times Magazine. As digital media changes cultural perceptions of time, the moment has become essential in defining the social and political zeitgeist.

The Twelfth Floor Heterotopia

Arlanda Airport

The other day I was in a government building and asked a guard where I could find the bathroom. ‘On the twelfth floor,’ she grunted. Then she disappeared, turning on her rubber heel, keys clanking. Right, to the twelfth floor.

The twelfth floor signalled my entrance into a heterotopia of first world bureaucracy. Michel Foucault, the 20th century French intellectual, describes a heterotopia as an enacted utopia that expresses a vision of a societal ideal. A secular higher power directs meaning within these spaces. The power may be cultural or political or social as long as it illustrates the operation of a group. Some may enter the area while others are prohibited. These spaces reveal how we structure our world and respond to taboos. They possess both intellectual and practical functions. As I examined the limbo-esque twelfth floor, I better understood my community.

In addition to public rest rooms — so-called public, I had to show an appointment confirmation and passport to pass security and access them — the twelfth floor boasted a café (aptly named Café on Twelve) and empty locked rooms. I saw a man on his phone and a woman waiting for the elevator. The emptiness evoked the distance the building put between its functions and visitors. Although the visitors had been chosen to enter, they were shielded from the bureaucracy’s inner workings. Shades of pale and mossy green covered the walls like an alien’s living room. After seeing this sinister hue, the tenth floor’s plastic pink felt like the cheery. Whereas the public amenities floor intimidated me with closed doors and strange colours, the tenth floor distracted me with a bright, false cheer. Openness and restriction characterise government bureaucracy.

Foucault argues that access to space and spatial relations dictate modern life. The sites we visit define us. Frequenting a museum or being admitted to a hospital gives us a distinct social identity through which to perpetuate culture as reflected in a given area. Government buildings accomplish a similar function. Entering one of these guarded edifices associates the individual with a specific ideology, defines them according to the law and asserts their role as an ordinary citizen. The government building is a heterotopia in that it mirrors society and social relations while existing separately from the daily orbit of most citizens.

Myriad citizenship identities were being formed and performed during my visit. There were the deviants; arguing with the guards over phones and restrictions. Others acted as enforcers, upholding social norms. Some played the atemporal: they were waiting when you arrived and waiting when you left, casting them in a separate orbit from the standard 30-minute appointment. Our purposes impacted our roles. Some sought citizenship, others green cards renewals and others foreign visas. Although the heterotopia echoed the country in which we lived, our respective sections of the mirror corresponded with our social identity.

Despite our unique roles, we were all social others — individuals seeking to alter our citizenship status — in this heterotopia of deviation. A heterotopia of deviation collects individuals whose actions, and consequently identities, digress from the social norm. Foucault argues that the heterotopia of deviation has largely replaced the heterotopia of crisis (at least in modern cultures), which dominated in centuries when knowledge directed relations between groups and individuals. A heterotopia of crisis collected individuals in a critical mental, physical or emotional period. Foucault cites boarding schools, old-style honeymoons and military service as heterotopias of crisis that separated people in compromised states from routine life. Rather than cast out people in difficult periods, we rebuke people who exhibit a strange identity.

Time impacted the social and governmental interpretation of my national identity. Defining my identity as ‘deviant’ as opposed to ‘in crisis’ was a product of the 21st century’s loosened borders. Whereas immigrants to the US during the early 20th century were processed en masse on an island, modern migrants are processed in varying degrees of public view. Migration is no longer solely the product of a crisis — of money, of religion, of food, of family — that brings migrants to a new space. While contemporary migrants may be undergoing crises, the motivations are varied. I was a deviant: I was deviating from the path my country had set for me and, accordingly, entered into spaces that delicately pushed me away from others. They pushed me toward the desolate twelfth floor.

Crossing the threshold of the heterotopia ushered me into alternate temporal realms. My time within the building was sectioned: there was my appointment time; the queues, waiting for my number to be called; and my brief appointment. Time’s regimentation within the heterotopia foreshadowed the new demarcations I’d experience upon leaving: there would be the time to send my application; the window of time during which I could enter the country; the days when I’d be permitted to pick up a residence permit; the years for which I’d be allowed to stay within the country; the hours I’d be permitted to work; the day on which I’d be required to leave. My new experience of time within the heterotopia anticipated how I’d experience shared cultural time upon leaving.

But even as this heterotopia acted upon us visitors, it also acted with us. This was how I arrived at the twelfth floor. Although the building could have been closed in a fortress of hidden governmental rules, society’s insistence on viewing itself as a democracy required it to be at least partially open. So I had the terrace café and a toilet amidst an alien-green hallway of closed doors. My heterotopia of bureaucracy asserted that my society was open, even as it partitioned my time, directed my identity and determined my movement.

Five Friday Reads 21.08.15