The wonderland of things

“So let me postulate a situation. You’ve got a young married couple, all dewy-eyed and lust-crazed, moving in to their first house. It’s not a bad house, because her father helped with the down. So they stand there in the their first real kitchen. Say marble countertops, built-in dishwasher, electric not gas stove, which is an abomination but never mind. There are boxes on the floor filled with kitchen stuff. It’s time to unpack.”

I pause for a breath. Scott looks at me expectantly. We’re having lunch in the Sidebar, a fine Oakland establishment across the street from Lake Merritt. Scott knows a lot about design, probably. Scott knows about a lot of things, some of which may not be things. I picked him to listen about kitchens. Lucky him.

“So here’s my question: How do they decide where things go? That pair of scissors, for instance. Where does it go? The flatware drawer? The tool drawer with the screwdrivers and the one hammer? Maybe it doesn’t even  go in the kitchen. Maybe the scissors belong in the home office. Which brings us to the garlic press, the wastebasket, the kibble container, the fruit bowl, the baking powder, and so forth. Where do they go? How do you decide?”

“How do you decide?” asks Scott, stressing a different word in the sentence.

“Me? How do I decide? Mostly I’m not the decider in the kitchen. But I think some of it has to do with how our parents’ kitchens were organized. I’m sure that very few mothers actually explained why the colander goes where it goes, but, you know, kids. They internalize things, and pretty soon the colander is in the baking drawer because that’s where Mom had it. Which is too bad, because the colander belongs on the occasional pot shelf.”

“The occasional pot shelf?”

“Where the pots you use only occasionally go. The big one you only bring out for stew when company is coming, the little sauce pan that’s rarely used for sauce. As opposed to the every day frying pan or the useful pot for cooking pasta. Clearly, some of the decisions are based on some kind of frequency-of-use algorithm. But others…”

My voice trails off. I’m at the limits of my pre-lunch speculation. I take a ruminative bite of polenta. I love lunch. When I was starting out as an editor, lunch was always the time for idea development. Plus, it was usually free. I don’t imagine you kids have heard about expense accounts, but they were one of the loveliest flowers of the old capitalism. Now everybody eats kale chips at their desks, finished off with their ninth cup of coffee of the day. I remember when a nice veal piccata and a glass of white wine was a routine treat. I —”

“My arrangements are always logical,” Scott says. “For instance, all the things with pointy ends go in one drawer. Knives, scissors, that sort of thing.”

“What about the meat thermometer? That has a pointy end. You could kill someone with a meat thermometer.”

“That goes in the cooking drawer, with the pot holders and the measuring cups and the small pile of folded recipes. The treasured recipes, of course. Mom’s meat loaf,  the chicken dish my wife learned in college, the infinitely elastic lasagne. Are 17 people suddenly coming to dinner? Let’s have lasagne!”

Can you find the cherry pitter? The knife sharpener?

I could see that Scott was getting into it. I could see that he enjoyed making lists of kitchen thingies. Buying kitchen implements — a wooden spoon, a whisk, a pepper grinder — doesn’t really even seem like consumerism, although if you add up the cost of all your utensils and containers and one-use appliances — popcorn popper, anyone? It’s basically a hair-dryer with a top — it would probably be more than a Meneghini refrigerator.

(I just looked. A Meneghini La Cambusa will set you back a cool $41,000. But it’s a damn good refrigerator.)

“Of course, my arrangements are darned logical too. I think everybody thinks their own arrangements are logical. Those scissors I mentioned? That was not a hypothetical example. Tracy thinks the scissors belong next to the sink. That is of course ridiculous. They belong over in the prep area, where boxes and bags require opening. But, you know, other people. They sure are protective of their opinions.”

“So what happened?”

“We bought another pair of scissors. We needed an anti-bickering strategy.”

(Research indicates that we have five pairs of scissors in the kitchen. We also have a cherry pitter, an egg slicer, a lemon squeezer, a potato masher, a funnel that used to belong to Tracy’s mother, and a large ashtray in the shape of Dodger Stadium. We also found this:

Does it fly? Is it used in witchcraft?

Which, who knows? Not us.)

It was Scott’s turn to meditate. He chewed his Cuban roast pork sandwich. “Is there a point here?” he finally asked.

“I had an idea that I’m pretty sure is not new, but it came to me in my own little head, so I like it. Everybody’s a designer. Everybody has dozens of design ideas that they don’t know they have. Like, some people favor symmetry. They’re always discovering an object that must go in the center of the table or wherever, and then arranging objects on either side. Bonus points if you’ve got two of something — porcelain rabbits, say — and put one on either side. Other people prefer a more subtle aesthetic approach, while still others like random scattering of stuff,  because that makes life more interesting. It’s hard to say where these preferences come from. Family patterns, sure, but there are plenty of examples of people who grew up in a symmetrical household and became militantly chaotic as soon as they left home.”

“And how does this relate to the scissors?”

“Just this: I have no idea where my preference in scissor location comes from. I could make up a reason why it’s logical, but that would be post-hoc hand-waving. It comes from the same place as my fondness for cacti and my love of old cars. It feels hard-wired. And, I, well, think that’s interesting.”

Scott smiled. I know he thought it was interesting too. “Want some coffee?” he asked. I was pretty sure he was hinting that he would enjoy a discussion of coffee worship and its attendant grinders, pressers, steamers and beans from the north slope of Mount Confundida in Costa Rica. But no, he just wanted coffee.

Photography by Tracy “You really want me to take a picture of our table?” Johnston

Not so much into chaos: Michelle Mizera

2.5 Things

A while ago, I worked with the journalist Cynthia Gorney on her fine book “Articles of Faith” , all about the fight between pro-life and pro-choice activists around a now relatively unknown Supreme Court case, William L. Webster versus Reproductive Health Services.  Gorney, being the dedicated journalist she is, spent a lot of time with women on both sides of debate. She talked to them about their backgrounds and how they relate to their beliefs, and the symbols they used to sway popular opinion. (Remember the tiny feet lapel pins? They’re still available.)

And she listened. That’s what reporters are supposed to do: Listen. And later, when talked about the women and their passionate opinions, she mentioned how deeply she was impressed by the women’s sincerity and sense of purpose.  She understood that they were talking about something real, some uninfected with partisan concerns.

I began to think about it this way: Suppose you really, really believed in the sanctity of human life? We all do, of course — I assume you oppose murder — but some take it more literally and completely. Then you’d be against capital punishment, and war, and the cruel detention of immigrants — and, of course, the abortion of unborn babies. Those babies are alive; it is a sin to kill them.

No matter what the Supreme Court says, our definition of “life” is of necessity fluid and filled with unknowns. Does life begin at consciousness? By  that measure, then someone in a vegetative state is not alive and can be killed at will. Does it begin when the baby leaves the mother’s womb? That’s as arbitrary distinction as any other.

I believe deeply in a woman’s right to choose. But I respect some of the people on the other side of debate, the people who unlink the issue from social concerns, and who maintain their respect for life no matter what, adopting positions I approve of (against capital punishment) and ones I don’t (against assisted suicide). There’s a lot of pandering around this issue, and a lot of patriarchal bullshit, but there’s also lot of concern for helpless children, both unborn and born.

I think the anti-gay people are hopeless bigots motivated by some weird form of sexual panic. I think the Trumpish anti-refugee folks are motivated by fear and bad information. But pro-life people are engaging on another level of conversation altogether, and we should be aware of that.

The new struggle calls for new alliances, new ways of thinking. A leader of a pro-life group banned from sponsoring the woman’s march said that she had concerns about violence against women, and about workplace equality. Those are things worth talking about. And if the conversation ambles over to, say, climate change, or education policy, or U.S. ties with Russian intelligence — well, so much the better.

Time for the Left to stop acting like, you know, the Left. (The Hillary-Bernie battles are still being fought on social media, boring many). Forget ideological purity now; think strategically. This is Resistance; we can figure out who gets to be Lenin later on.

My friend Caille Millner reminded me of Ghanian proverb: “Two people in a burning house must not stop to argue.”



Art is a mark of civilization, and civilization is what we are trying to save. I know that sounds a little…excessive, but think about it. A little chaos is good, but civilization does not do very well in total chaos. Stuff gets lost. Some of the stuff getting lost is eminently disposable, but some of it isn’t. Like art. My younger daughter lives in the Canadian province of Quebec. There, the government supports art. With money. Think of that. That’s why she lives in a place that’s very cold for much of the year. Because art.

It is important to try to save the NEA and the NEH, but that course does not seem promising. The humans in charge of the government do not seem to be exactly in tune with the solace of art. But really, we own the art — and we get the art we deserve.


Art is our port in the storm. Certainly, political art illuminates our times and protests our current condition. (Also, it doesn’t; that’s the thing about art: Many different drummers; many different drums). And, sure, mediated art is great (personally, I await with anticipation the new season of “Stranger Things”), but the live stuff is the best. It’s a damn juggling act every night, with the possibility of the void looming at any moment. And it’s also where transcendence happens; some unpredictable combination of audience and performers and musicians and lighting technicians and everybody coming together to provide balm for your heart.

Feeling a little down about human beings? Get out and see someone doing something. Sure, it could be terrible, although probably not as terrible as an executive order. That’s the gamble we take as sentient humans; we trust others to see truth we cannot see. And to share it with us, and to expand the community of empathy.

So, swear to God, if you want to make a political statement, go support a theater company or a zither player or an action painter or a chorus of Ukrainian hip-hop opera stars. Applaud, share, repeat, rejoice. Remind yourself that this too exists. Give money to artists so they can keep being artists.



My apologies for the 2.5 weeks between blog posts. My head was too full of Trump. I started a dozen fragments responding to some outrage, while the other outrages jostled in my head, wanting equal time. And I could never complete a thought, because Another! Fresh!  Outrage! would happen and demand a response from Me! Because I have Perspective!

And then I realized: Everybody who could write good was writing good about Donald Trump. Points were made; disgust was demonstrated. It was overwhelming; it was heartening. And it made me feel, well, the outrage is doing pretty good; it’s got legs. So maybe there’s other stuff to say. And that’s what I’m concentrating on.

We should love each other, because we need each other more than ever before. And that’s what I have to say about that.




Photography by Tracy Johnston

Help with the little things they mean so much by Michelle Mizera