by JOANNA SWAN
B.F. Skinner used rats and electricity to prove it. Mothers use cajoling and dessert, with varying degrees of success. For me, the ambrosia of positive reinforcement was chicken pot pie and a clean plate. Now I cannot tell whether it was the polished plate or subsequent affirmation that brought pleasure; ultimately, whether pilloried or praised, being made an example of is rarely as rewarding as it is for those the exemplar serves to motivate.
At age 9, by way of good parenting or vestigial puritanical roots or both, I had learned to clean my plate; as I polished off my chicken pot pie at the neighbors' while Brittany and Brooke mashed crumble-crust and peas into inedible mire, their mother noted how "Joanna finished her plate," the ellipses audibly suggestive in her voice - I was not cardholding member in the Picky Gang.
Unpleasantness of acting as upstanding dining paragon to my playmates aside, my habits expanded to include not only clean-plate niceties, but also: a fondness for Sizzler and all-you-can-eat, a wish to try all boba tea flavors at Quickly (especially the unpronounceable ones), a small army of exotic herbs from the Co-Op's bulk section, a thirst for collection or aggregation or a comprehensive grasp of any sensation remaining to be archived and experienced.
Being into a lot of things, all at once, can have its perks but sometimes I wonder if I won't end up like Henry Darger with his ten-thousand page epic of weather reports; or like Anderson Cooper's mom, with her impressive collection of food dating from the post-War years. Life in the Bay Area exacerbates these fears, and not only because it's maybe the closest thing Northern California has to New York, or because trash queens and green gurus cohabitate with sybarites and socialites alike.
It's more that there is this impregnable fount of sensory output, observable in varying degrees of Overwhelming – I could sit in this cafe, at this breakfast nook, on this fucking miniature pastel stool at the Tutti Frutti fro-yo, slowly digesting the ceaseless cascade around me, and synchronously witness the declension of all productive pursuits. The flaneuse par excellence, immobilized by her stimuli.
The busses in Berkeley are quiet. They are, like many surprisingly utopian singularities of the region, segueing towards some definition of sustainability – in this case, hydrogen fuel cell technology – and are satisfied to flit from stop to stop, ebullient like the hummingbird graphic plastered across their sides. Punctuated with alarming frequency by the sirens of rescue vehicles and police cruisers, the streets in Berkeley are smooth and efficient, until they become the clogged traffic paroxysms found most often between the hours of 3 and 6 p.m.
Berkeley's streets are not Oakland's streets, and the architecture around the latter's Lake Merritt in particular – a throwback to the Sixties' ranch-style, that Burt Bacharach of architecture (think mauve, sliding doors and plenty of carpeting) – seems on the whole as forgotten as its pavement, pock-marked with cracking maws that if ventured upon by bike lead to some serious coccygeal agony. Oakland is served by many of the same busses as is its northern neighbor. Yet its stops often seem more forlorn, bedecked with indescribable fabrics, soiled articles, and once, the words "dirty n-----" juxtaposed atop an ad featuring a very caucasian toddler and juvenile Golden Retriever. One day I found an unopened pack of unsalted butter near the stop at Franklin and 14th, and many fine comestibles resulted.
In a timely and germane piece on beautiful blogs, Sadie Stein observed that it is possible to fall "down the picturesque-vintage-design-craft rabbit hole and emerge three hours later, bleary-eyed and full of self-loathing." The Bay Area is almost like the physical manifestation of this terror-trip (incidentally, a search for "handmade" Etsy items spawns 40,000 from San Francisco alone) and as Stein notes, it might truly be possible to see "the next twenty years of your life go by" whilst engrossed in the Berklhemian brilliance of a Khitchari Kraut or tea-infused tofu.
So free butter notwithstanding, baking is all but unnecessary, the finest no-knead home-bake dwarfed by Messieurs Miette, Arizmendi and Semifreddo. The Bay Area inspires and intimidates your senses: it feeds you new rice grains from terra untried; single-origin beans of cacao and coffee that tickle new fancies, and sometimes a hole in your pocket; the finest ferments of kombucha and injera; and a few tousle-haired boys on bikes with drip coffee and a Whole Foods distribution contract at the ready. In Chinatown, there are $2 curry tofu banh mi joints slowly colonized by young urban professionals and Yelpsters galore; and there is Tom's Bakery, whose reviews on that hallowed ratings website run Proustian in their charmed reminiscence:
You could hear the machines churning and the must [sic] aroma of fresh fortune cookies being made.
As she walks further down 9th Street, she is met with a heavenly sweet smell that only Arizmendi's chocolate things could rival. She discovers a discreet little fortune cookie bakery that is open and making fortune cookies. For $3, a bag of delicious chocolate fortune cookies became her breakfast.
Located right behind my old church, we used to smell the cookies baking all the time. And then, we'd get hungry.
I saw their machines at work. Smells delicious.
One can still smell the cookie aroma and hear the machines churning inside.
The goods are fresh and you hear, smell, and see the cookies being made right there.
Smell! See! Hear! All within one dingy, creaky factory on 9th and Harrison, the pot-holiest of rues. How, then, to cultivate a Zen-like discipline in the face of such temptation?
They tell me that meditation allows one to train the brain to ignore life's annoyances: street traffic, dampness in the home, innumerable choices, potholes, and high energy bills. Perhaps I set my sights too high. Laziness or hopefulness or both preclude daily meditation though because more often than not, there is a counterbalance to the dolor. Unfortunate that the upside is as frighteningly overwhelming as the negatives it so helpfully nullifies.
If it's true that hemlines follow history and fashion acts as benchmark, my mien has gone the way of Kate Bush, or the delphic Willie in Altman's Three Women and that means dark lips and long skirts and cable-knit sweaters with built-in belts and wool socks with brogues. Also, myriad scarves.
More succinctly, this suggests that I'm dressing for dotage because the Kate Bush look is putatively that of an eccentric older woman, more likely than not one with a surplus of dreamcatchers, Tibetan spice mixes, and novelty beeswax candles under her silk obi belt. Since it's as far as I can see pretty unintentional I would guess that it's either some absurd subconscious drive to discourage ne'er-do-wells, a secret admiration for Ms. Bush and hipster sorceresses et al., or else a reflection of my daily distractions: innumerable bicycle boulevards to traverse, galleries to discover, vegan donuts with exorbitant prices and exotic glazes to salivate over, Occupy assemblies to join or impugn.
Whether reflected in Baba Yaga dressing or no, sensory suffrances and joys alike have a guileful tendency to remind me of death.
Even if I were to make it a distinct goal to "taste every restaurant in Temescal" or "intimately acquaint myself with the finest jiaozi in Chinatown," I'd ineluctably grow in both years and corpulence before realizing said goals. I can finish the flaky pie on my plate; the east bayshore alone could demand a decadal investment at minimum. Given my relative youth, I'm curious as to whether those twice or thrice my age feel any less perturbed by what they're potentially missing out on, what they could be gaining from the cornucopian offerings of the world. Am I simply unsatisfied like Aesop's Fox, longing for his grapes, or the Raven for his cheese? Will there be a point in my true antiquity when the weight of my experiences counterpoises with those left unturned?
I suspect there is little satisfaction to be found in surfeit of a metaphor. The desire to amass experiences both tangible and fleeting remains intact and in some absurd vestigial pointlessness is probably what powersed me through swaths of Red Baron pizza Friday nights immemorial. Age, I realize, becomes sole signatory to the attainment of greater experience, the hordes of knowledge and sensory titillation we seek: a pandora's box of a broader, tastier, and more brilliant palette, with wrinkles as inexorable partner in crime.
Joanna Swan is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer and artist living in Oakland. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here. She blogs here and tumbls here. She last wrote in these pages about the girl scouts.
Jeff Koons "Easyfun-ethereal" paintings courtesy of the Guggenheim.
"Life in L.A." - Ariel Pink (mp3)
"Too Young' - Phoenix (mp3)
"A Real Woman" - Squarepusher (mp3)