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from "The Attack of the Zombies," by Andrew Root, Fuller Youth Institute, April 2010

For most of human history our social lives were organized by communities and the traditions and rituals that they upheld and protected.  But modernity, for good or ill, has freed us from this fundamental need for community.  We turned over the job of ordering our social world from communities to institutions. It is institutions, and not communities, that we depend upon. It is institutions that don’t know my name (most know me as number) or my story (only my balance or record) that I have built my life around. It seems that I can live without my parents or friends but not without my ATM card, driver’s license, and Internet access. I can live without knowing anything about my great-grandparents but I must know my Social Security number and credit rating.

Or to put it more pointedly, who would take care of my family if I died in the next few years? Who would make sure my mortgage was paid and my wife had money to maintain her life? Not my community, not my church, not even my extended family. They may all help, dropping off a casserole and offering a shoulder to cry on, but their job, we assume, would be emotional support. No, if I died it would not be a community that would take care of my kids and wife; it would be an institution, the insurance company I’ve been paying to provide for them if the monster of death takes me sooner rather than later. For most of human history this was the work of the community: widows and orphans were to be cared for by uncles, aunts, and neighbors. Their emotional, but most fundamentally their basic financial and material, needs were the responsibility of those who knew them and were part of their story. This was not easy and I’m sure a burden, but it was dependable and communal.

What do we do, and what is our future, when institutions (i.e., insurance companies, various governmental agencies) continue to show us they cannot always be trusted to care for anything other than their own survival? Most of our institutions are what Ulrich Beck calls “Zombie institutions.” They are still moving and breathing, but they have become more haunting than helpful because they are more dead than alive. Standing in late modernity there is more than a little despair knowing that we cannot go back to the tradition-based community, but that the institutions of modernity are ghouls.

from "Ingenious and Demanding," by Ada Louise Huxtable,, 30 September 2009

Ms. Acedo [the housekeeper who must clean Rem Koolhaas’s Lemoîne house in Bordeaux, France] is a star, a woman of determination, ingenuity and forthright opinions who can match anything the house throws at her. As the film starts, she stands on the platform surrounded by her pails, mops, brooms, rags and vacuum cleaner while it rises slowly to the strains of a romantic Strauss melody. (Actually, she does not use the platform, preferring the arduous stair route ever since she got stuck between floors and a technician had to crawl through the books to reach the controls.)

She even succeeds in confounding the notoriously self-possessed architect, in his recorded 10-minute response to the film. One sequence shows her aggressive cleaning of one of the house’s most offputting features, a punitive spiral stair consisting only of toe holds in a round concrete void open to the rain, unfazed by the seeming impossibility of dragging a vacuum up it. Mr. Koolhaas is momentarily flummoxed by the irreconcilability of his architecture and her cleaning methods.

But only momentarily. He quickly redefines the subject as the collision of two systems—“the platonic conception of cleaning and the platonic idea of architecture”—which I take to be the consideration of each on an elevated abstract plane of theoretical existence. Anyone who has ever done any cleaning knows that is not where it lives.

Let us concede the point: It is clear that the job is being pursued with familiar and archaic methods and devices that seem surreally unrelated to the task at hand, revealing how out of sync the vision—no matter how beautifully executed—and the result can be.

from "Who Moves? Who Stays Put? Where’s Home?," by D'Vera Cohn and Rich Morin, Pew Social & Demographic Trends, 17 December 2008 :: via Big Contrarian

The Pew survey finds that stayers overwhelmingly say they remain because of family ties and because their hometowns are good places to raise children. Their life circumstances match those explanations. Most stayers say at least half a dozen members of their extended families live within an hour’s drive; for 40%, more than 10 relatives live nearby. A majority of stayers also cite a feeling of belonging as a major reason for staying put.

Movers are far less likely to cite those kinds of ties. Fewer than four-in-ten say a major reason they moved to their current community has to do with family or child-rearing. Most movers have five or fewer extended-family members living within an hour’s drive of them, and 26% have none. The most popular reason that movers choose a new community, selected by a 44% plurality, is job or business opportunities, according to the Pew survey. About the same share of stayers (40%) cite job or business opportunities as a major reason for staying, but far more stayers choose reasons related to family and friends.

Our property seems to me the most beautiful in the world. It is so close to Babylon that we enjoy all the advantages of the city, and yet when we come home we are away from all the noise and dust.

—Letter to the King of Persia, 539 B.C., quoted in Kenneth Jackson, Crabgrass Frontier, p. 12

from "Ghosts of Christmas Past," by Laura Vanderkam, Culture11, 3 December 2008 :: via more than 95 theses

Why would the housewives of 2008 — many of whom read Good Housekeeping — choose to spend so much less time cooking and cleaning than their grandmothers did? You can’t blame the lack of technology for grandma’s intensity; ads for Norge dishwashers and Spam show that labor-saving devices and prepared foods existed in 1958.

Instead, the answer might be found in another striking difference between the 1958 Good Housekeeping and its 2008 counterpart. There is almost nothing in the older magazine about parenting. There are instructions on making clothes for your kids, but little about nurturing their souls or brains. In 2008, on the other hand, one of the longest articles is about “Staying Close to Your Teen” by doing crafts together, jamming to her music, or learning about his hobbies. An essay by Anna Wulick talks about teaching Hanukkah traditions to her daughter; a “Book Bonus” excerpt from Amy Dickinson’s new memoir recounts introducing her daughter to God and teaching her that “when prayers go unanswered, you learn to change your prayers.”

Indeed, reading through the two Good Housekeping issues back to back, it’s hard not to reach the conclusion that, on the whole, American culture is far more child-centered now, in these days of two-income families, than when most women stayed home. If the 1958 Good Housekeeping is any indication, many moms in the June Cleaver era were too busy brushing the nap of their electric blankets to ponder how best to bond with their teens. As women’s time has become more valuable, though, because so many are working, working moms have chosen to spend their limited time not sewing tops for their kids, but playing, talking, and praying with them instead.

from "Musician Frank Zappa (R) w. parents (L-R): Francis and Rosemary in Frank's home," photo by John Olson, Google LIFE photo archive :: via FFFFOUND!

The teardown may represent a kind of progress: the new house is superior in nearly every technological way to the building it replaced. But it also represents a kind of cultural failure—the failure to make something of the world that was given to the owners of that piece of property. Such failure is sometimes inevitable—the world we must make something of includes, for better or worse, the economic realities of the real estate markets and the construction business, the unwise and slipshod architectural choices of previous generations, and laws governing land use that impose relatively stiff taxes on small buildings. But while the responsibility for the cultural failure that is a teardown may be shared by many parties, it is a failure still.

Culture Making, p.55

photo by Thomas Locke Hobbs, 19 March 2007
from "Hot, flat, and blinded by science," by Christopher Shea, Boston Globe/Brainiac, 30 October 2008

Friedman is locked into reverence for technology, sometimes at the expense of common sense. He conjures up a house so “smart” that its room lights are triggered by motion sensors; a central monitoring device is in constant contact with the local public utility, automatically reducing consumption at peak times; the house generates its own energy from wind and the sun; and “when the sun is shining brightly and the wind is howling” the house’s energy-brain will turn on your dryer, finishing up your laundry.

McKibben asks: “Does it ever occur to him, in the grip of a fantasia like this, that if the sun is shining brightly, or the breeze is blowing steadily, you could dry your clothes on a $14 piece of rope strung off your back deck, or for that matter on a foldable rack in the apartment hallway?” Friedman’s smart house is more benign version of the much-hyped hydrogen car, in other words: They’re both sexy and a long way off, while there are other, simpler solutions already at hand.

"Junk Drawer, Chicago IL," by Paho Mann, 2003 :: via
"Dave," Merredin, Western Australia (2007), by Caitlin Harrison, Flak Photo, 19 September 2008
from "A history of tables," by Kirstin Vander Giessen-Reitsma, catapult magazine, 12 September 2008

A photo is floating around our attic somewhere, probably in a Converse shoebox. In it, I am just barely fifteen years old, a sophomore in high school, wearing an oversized green sweatshirt, jeans, and perhaps the shoes that came in the box that now holds the photo. The setting is my school library. I am sitting at a table where I appear to be studying, but across from me is Rob, another fifteen-year-old sophomore. The look I’m giving the yearbook photographer is an exaggeration of innocence. Though our books are open, pens in hand, Rob has just finished giving me directions to his house for the party he plans to have while his parents are out of town.

At twenty-eight years old, nearly eight years in to my marriage to Rob, I can see this sly study hall meeting around a library table as a fulcrum on which much of my life story turns. I can also see tables—those ubiquitous pieces of furniture that invite gathering by their nature—as a key image for exploring where I’ve been and where I may be going.

by Andy Crouch for Culture Making

Chapter four of Culture Making begins with a description of our family’s chili—and has prompted several requests for the recipe. Ask and you shall receive . . . after a brief check to make sure that posting recipes isn’t an infringement of copyright (turns out it’s complicated, and actually a very interesting example of culture at work . . . ).

This receipe is adapted from the terrific cookbook Moosewood Restaurant Cooks at Home, where they call it “Red, Gold, Black, and Green Chili”:

1/2 cup bulghur
1/2 cup hot water
28-ounce can of canned tomatoes, undrained

Bring the bulghur, hot water, and about 1 c. of juice from the can of tomatoes to a boil in a small saucepan, then simmer until the bulghur is cooked.

3 Tbsp olive or vegetable oil
3 cups chopped onions
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp chili powder
1 Tbsp Tabasco or other hot pepper sauce (we omit this—our kids would really go crazy!)

Sauté these ingredients together until the onions are soft.

2 green bell peppers, chopped

Add the bell peppers and sauté for 2-3 minutes. Chop the tomatoes right in the can and add them to the pan.

2 cups fresh or frozen corn kernels
1 1/2 cups drained cooked black beans (14-ounce can)
1 1/2 cups drained cooked red kidney beans (14-ounce can)

Stir in the corn and beans, and heat thoroughly on low heat.

Add the cooked bulghur, simmer for a few minutes longer, and salt if necessary.

We always top this with grated cheddar cheese.


a Boing Boing post by David Pescovitz, 11 June 2008

We’ve posted previously about the turfwars that can develop between pets and home robots. Today’s Wall Street Journal surveys the battleground in a feature titled “When Dogs and Robots Collide, Somebody Needs A Talking To.” From the WSJ:

According to Daphna Nachminovitch of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, introducing robots into a pet household should be done with care. “There’s no way to explain to them that this is not a threat,” she says…

Sympathetic owners sometimes just retire their new purchases. In other cases, the pets take matters into their own paws. Peter Haney, a university administrator in Lethbridge, Alberta, twice found his Roomba in pieces after letting it clean while his flat-coated retrievers, Macleod and Tima, had the run of the house. “No one is talking,” he says…

“It comes up constantly,” says Nancy Dussault Smith, a spokeswoman for iRobot Corp., in Bedford, Mass., which makes the Roomba. “Dogs, cats, all animals, they have their own personalities, so they all react differently to the robots.”

IRobot tested its Roomba designs with pets, she added, incorporating safety measures in the motorized disc-shaped cleaner such as automatic deactivation when it is flipped over or sat on.