2008 cities

As inspired by Jason Kottke (and as reported previously on this site about 2005 and 2006… 2007 skipped because it was an awful December and January), my 2008 year in cities. A * means multiple, non-consecutive trips.

I traveled a lot; I also lived in Berlin for the summer. Of my personal velocity, Dopplr says:

* Minneapolis, MN

* Realitos, TX
* San Antonio, TX
* New Haven, CT
* Princeton, NJ
* New York, NY
Savannah, GA
Austin, TX
* San Francisco, CA
* London, UK
* Berlin, Germany
Copenhagen, Denmark
Goch, Germany
* Düsseldorf, Germany
Hamburg, Germany
Budapest, Hungary
Lake Balaton, Hungary
A night on a train between Budapest, Vienna and Munich
Paris, France
Utrecht, the Netherlands
Monticello, NY (for All Tomorrow’s Parties)
Memphis, TN
Charlotte, SC (stuck overnight)
Montreal, Quebec
Redmond, WA
Nassau, the Bahamas
Chicago, IL

girlwonder is back

Let me start this entry simply. I miss girlwonder.

I’ve done less personal and public writing in the 3 1/2 years since I started graduate school. That feels like a long time. A year ago, I started Active Social Plastic to think about things related to my intellectual pursuits, but it’s not quite the same. I hold it up to the kind of expectation I have for my academic work, which makes it less fun. It feels like work.

Part of the reason I stopped writing on girlwonder is structural: I very quickly had to move the site off server where it had been posted and have never been able to reimport the posts. It also coincided with the period when I began teaching undergraduates. Do I really want them knowing about my bouts of depression or my ex-boyfriend woes from 5 years ago? Not really. Some of it has to do with the intensity of school, especially in my first year. Everything was so very intense, it felt almost impossible to communicate it outside of the five people in my class, the other students in the school and the handful of professors I worked with closely.

That’s not to say I didn’t try. I created a blog on Vox, which allowed me to post privately to friends when I wanted. In the meantime, Facebook exploded and I began using Twitter. My Twitter stream is private; I have 1500+ contacts on Facebook. Is there anywhere where I can say anything about how I feel and what I think? I’ve decided I’d like to try and yet, I can’t really explain why I want to do it. Perhaps it’s as simple as wanting my own room to decorate as I please.  Things are different now than when I first started a personal site some 15 (!) years ago. At that point in time, the public online was small. When I wrote about how I hated my job in 1996, my coworkers weren’t reading it. Now, I must assume that my future academic employers, my fellow students, and the students I teach will all read this. (Twitter’s the place for my snarky comments since I control who reads what I post and trust me, there are plenty.) For several years, I’ve felt like I really can’t say anything of any mettle online, unless it’s in a private community: too much can be taken out of context too late. And that happens, anyway, over drinks and at dinner, not just online

What I’m curious about is being able to write again in a way that doesn’t feel like work. I’d like to try this other outlet for a while, too, and see what happens. So hello again, and welcome to Girlwonder, the personal blog, or website, or even homepage of one Molly Wright Steenson, age 37.

QotD: Looking Back…

What part of your childhood do you miss the most?
Submitted by Maretta.

I miss the neighborhood where we lived: Macalester-Groveland in St. Paul, Minnesota. I grew up on Goodrich Avenue in St. Paul, which was walking and biking distance to all kinds of things. I had a best friend next door (Gretchen) and across the street (Krista), and other friends down the block (Krissi and Susan). The proximity to Macalester College was terrific, of course, but there was a soda fountain, good alleys for riding bikes through puddles, places to get candy and baked goods, two outstanding bookstores (Odegaard and my beloved Hungry Mind, both closed).

When we were 13, my family moved to a suburb. It was the right thing to do as far as space was concerned, but I lost all of my mobility: there was nowhere to bike, nowhere to visit, and for that matter, no friends in my neighborhood. The summer between 7th and 8th grade, I took "Acting, Music and Dance" at Macalester's TCITY (Twin Cities Institute for Talented Youth), and one day, sat down in front of my old house and just cried.

My brother Andy lives two blocks from this house now; my Dad still teaches a mile away from it at William Mitchell College of Law. Every time I visit home, without fail, I drive by it and wave. The crabtree we planted nearly dwarfs the house now; the skyline locust that replaced the elm tree after the Dutch elm disease outbreak is broad and mature. I still dream of that little house when I think of home.

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RIP Guinness, 1997-2008

Jingle dog

More said news from my family. On Christmas Eve, we had to put Skeeter to sleep. It was sudden and very sad.

I just got a call from my Mom that Guinness, our other dog, had to be put to sleep as well. He had a sudden liver problem and was going to need to go through far too much for an 11 year old dog in order to have a chance of recovery. So today at lunch, they let him go.

Guinness was my stepfather's dog, Skeeter was my mom's. The two lived together their entire lives. He was a Glen of Imaal Terrier, Skeeter was a PBGV: rare breeds that don't look — or act — at all dignified. Glens don't usually bark, PBGV's are verbal, Guinness picked up the habit. His bark was a clipped "Rrrrooo!" with a rolled R.

Guinness's job was to be alpha over Skeetie — he shoulder-checked him into the pool, chased him from the couch, and tried without success to get Skeeter's rawhides. He was also very good at chasing raccoons up trees and keeping them there — for hours.

My mom says that when Skeeter died, Guinness became an old man quickly. It's so sad to know that neither of them will greet me when I come home the next time. The house will be so quiet.

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QotD: My First Boyfriend/Girlfriend

How old were you when you had your first "official" boyfriend or girlfriend? What was he/she like?

I guess it would have to be Bryan Iverson when I was 13, the summer between 7th and 8th grade. He was older than me — he was 16, almost 17, and I met him at the TCITY summer school program at Macalester College. When I went to Rocky Horror for the first time, he came along and our knees touched. This was all very exciting. When I went away for a week, he wrote me letter after letter. It was great. One afternoon, I met up with him in South Minneapolis and he carried a little boom box that was playing Let It Be by the Replacements. It was the first time I heard it and it's still one of my very favorite albums today. My parents had no idea where I was and they so completely grounded me. They were ready to kill me. (I'm still sheepish writing about it 23 years later.) That was the day that I kissed him. It took about two hours before I had the guts to do it.

But for some reason, after two weeks or so, he dumped me. Maybe it was when I went to camp? He'd apparently been very into Sarah, my so-called best friend. I have some recollection that he was dating me to be around her. She and I, later that year, tricked him into coming over to her house and we both jumped out and laughed at him. He drove away. I still feel bad about that.

I burned every single one of the letters Bryan sent me using a pack of matches he gave me. I counted them off. 1. 2. 3. It's one of the biggest regrets I have: I wish I hadn't gotten rid of them.

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There’s a nice epilogue to the whole grading story for the semester. On Monday, I got email from the professor who taught my favorite class last semester — a straight history class on Europe between the wars. I got an A- on the paper and an A in the class. (It made me cry.) This is all the more amazing to me because it’s the first college level straight history class I’ve taken. I’ve taken history of any number of things, just not a strict history class. It was a lot of work — sometimes 500+ pages of reading a week. But I loved it.

So I stopped by to visit the professor on Wednesday to say hello and thank you. He owns a little red terrier who comes to school with him. She and I like each other. I rub her ears, he and I discuss Germany history in the 20s and the 60s.

Anyway, another student tried to open the door and she ran over, barking. The student quickly shut the door.

“Very interesting,” he said. “You know what she just did? She protected you.”

I looked down and she was looking up at me, very pleased with herself. I told her she was a good dog and of course, rubbed her ears.

Things must be okay if my favorite professor’s terrier is going to bat for me.

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A front page story

Last week, we were in Düsseldorf and visited my favorite bookstore, Müller and Böhm in the Heinrich Heine Haus. I’m chuffed that Enrique and I are featured on the front page of the website. Last year, I wrote about the book chain they created when they moved into the Heinrich Heine Haus… that’s what they’re linking to on their page. I’m delighted!

And yes. Girlwonder. I’m going to be publishing here again and announcing some other projects as well in the next weeks.

2006: a look back

Two years ago, I came across this set of questions via Alex’s blog. My archives are still not up past a year ago so I can’t tell you how I got to it– just that it was through his site. For the last two years, I’ve looked forward to answering them again. This is my third time. So here you go: my 2006.

1. What did you do in 2005 that you’d never done before?

Shot a gun. Went to India. Visited a slum.

2. Did you keep your New Years’ resolutions, and will you make more for next year?

I mumbled something about staying healthier I really didn’t work on it much. For next year, yes: I’m making several. Finances will be in better order in a year. And I’m going to be a better email correspondent.

3. Did anyone close to you give birth?

Ruth and Erez had their wonderful son, Liam. I got to see him in London in August.

4. Did anyone close to you die?

Three weeks ago, I lost two friends. In unconnected events, Leslie Harpold and Allison Lange died the same weekend. It’s terrible and very sad.

5. What countries did you visit?

Germany, the UK, the Netherlands, Belgium for a couple hours, India, Canada (Quebec). (And I took the Eurostar!)

6. What would you like to have in 2007 that you lacked in 2006?

An acceptance from a Ph.D. program in architecture, a promise, better finances.

7. What date from 2006 will remain etched upon your memory?

July 3

8. What was your biggest achievement of the year?

Reconnecting with Birke.

9. What was your biggest failure?

Probably still the money front.

10. Did you suffer illness or injury?

Aside from a couple of colds and the requisite stomach upsets one gets in India, nope.

11. What was the best thing you bought?

A sari I bought from Archana’s mother and some clothing made especially for me in India.

12. Whose behaviour merited celebration?

Enrique. Birke. Abhishek. Archana. Udai. Asha. Paul. Carolyn. Jonathan and Caitlyn. Sean. Kentaro. Aditya. Gautam and Nimisha. Jenn. Rachel. Gaby. Thom. Meredith. My MED cohort. Enrique’s family. My brothers. Their kids. My parents and step parents.

13. Whose behaviour made you appalled and depressed?

The Republican party. The friend I gave up on.

14. Where did most of your money go?

Rent, paying down debt, groceries.

15. What did you get really, really, really excited about?

Cedric Price, who I am researching. Bangalore. Finding Birke again.

16. What song/album will always remind you of 2005?

“If you come tomorrow,” by Rajkumar. “If you come tomorrow, it’s too early, if you come today, it’s too late… you pick the time, a ticktickticktickticktick a ticktickticktickticktick… Darling!”

17. Compared to this time last year, are you:

1. happier or sadder? as happy

2. thinner or fatter? yeah, fatter

3. richer or poorer? slightly more money

18. What do you wish you’d done more of?

Writing on Girlwonder. Being more daring with my writing.

19. What do you wish you’d done less of?

Being scared to be a daring writer. Wasting time worrying about other people’s opinions.

20. How will you be spending Christmas?

In Minneapolis with my family, and then new year with Enrique’s family in Texas. Possibly going to Michigan to visit the architecture Ph.D. program.

21. Who did you spend the most time on the phone with?


22. Did you fall in love in 2005?

I stayed in love. Does that count?

23. How many one night stands in this last year?


24. What was your favourite TV programme?

I actually watched TV! My favorites were Lost, Entourage, and Mythbusters (starring my old friend Adam).

25. Do you hate anyone now that you didn’t hate this time last year?

No, because I don’t hate people. But I did give up on a friend after being disappointed one too many times.

26. What was the best book(s) you read?

For the first time, I’m having a terrible time answering this. I did read–lots–but it was connected to my thesis projects (and Cedric Price Works II is more a collection of drawings and articles). Most of these were articles, not books. The most illuminating thing I read was “Network Fever” by Mark Wigley. I also quite liked Hadas Steiner’s dissertation, but she’ll kill me for saying so. I’m working my way through Haruki Murakami’s short story collection, Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman but I prefer his novels (and I loved Kafka on the Shore).

27. What was your greatest musical discovery?

Lady Sovereign. The Clientele. Grand National. But I’m more musically out of touch than I’ve ever been, and I should create a whole new set of musical resolutions.

28. What did you want and get?

I got a sister again! I found Birke, my German host sister. I lived with her family in 1990 for two weeks and stayed in touch with them till 1994. She was 7, her brother was 5. Then, they moved and the mother changed her last name. I googled Birke in May and not only found her, but discovered she had been an au pair for George Knight, a New Haven architect my friends work for and who teaches at Yale! Moreover, she was coming back to New Haven to care for the Knights’ newest kid. So from October till last week, we got to hang out for the first time in 16 years. She is now 24, beautiful and very bright–it was a ton of fun to be able to spend a lot of time with her.

And a sister-in-law, too — Carrie and my brother married in November. It’s different, now that she’s family.

And Bove (Jenn, that is) moved back to the US from London. I see her a lot more frequently.

29. What did you want and not get?

A chance to make it back to Italy before the Interaction Design Institute shut its doors. I’d never gotten to see the Milan incarnation and I’d never missed a graduation. Many of the students are dear friends and I wanted to be there for them and the professors… and to say a final goodbye to that chapter of my life. But I just couldn’t do it.

30. What were your favourite films of this year?

Nothing knocked my socks off. Things were cute and fun to see, like Prairie Home Companion and Little Miss Sunshine. I kick myself for not seeing Krrish in India but everyone else had gone.

31. What did you do on your birthday, and how old were you?

I turned 35 (!) on November 26. We gathered at the Anchor in New Haven the evening of the 25th. Over the course of the evening, a bunch of people stopped by. Birke came with a beautiful cake, shaped as a castle and dusted in powered sugar, like snow! At midnight, she lit candles and everyone sang happy birthday. I wore the requisite birthday tiara. When I gave a guy sitting alone a piece of cake, he thanked me by biking home and giving me a robin’s egg blue cashmere sweater that I wear.

On the day of my birthday, Birke and I dressed up as rockstars for a photo shoot. Her friend Chris shot us as Nagelack (German for nail polish) and we shouted, “Nagelack fuckin’ rocks!” as we loudly sang Nena songs in German. Birke makes a badass rockstar. Me? I don’t look as good in red leather pants as I did when I was thinner, but I did my best. When I got home, Enrique and I had steak and broccoli rabe for dinner.

I also discovered that when you turn 35, people say things like, “You don’t look that old!” One person walking by at the Worldchanging book launch party overheard me telling someone I’d just turned 35. “You do NOT look like you are 35! You do NOT!” This is well and good–but there’s a backhandedness to the comment, namely the perception that 35 is old. It’s problem pregnancy time. It’s why-aren’t-you-married time? I don’t have a problem with my age, I’m glad to look young, but the response to my age is weird.

32. What one thing would have made your year immeasurably more satisfying?

Bringing Enrique with me to India. I wish he could’ve met my friends.

33. How would you describe your personal fashion concept in 2005?

Introducing the kurta (long flowing Indian shirt) into my wardrobe.

34. What kept you sane?

Conversations with Enrique, my MED classmates, Jenn, Ali and Maggie.

35. Which celebrity/public figure did you fancy the most?

Maybe Viggo Mortenson.

36. What political issue stirred you the most?

I was stirred–and heartened–by the elections.

37. Who did you miss?

Enrique every day I was gone. San Francisco. Mike and Liz. Ben (aka Neb). John. Abhishek. Yashas. Archana. Now, Birke.

38. Who was the best new person you met?

There’s not a single person, but a bunch. It’s the people I met in India. First, I worked with a great crew: Jonathan, Carolyn, Kentaro, Udai, Nimmi, Prasad, Asha, Paul, Archana, Indrani, Aishwarya, Savita, and dozens of other people I’m not naming, were welcoming and smart. I love the work we did, the conversations we had. Then, Nimisha and Gautam, who worked with me as research assistants on the mobile sharing project. They opened up their worlds to me, introducing me to friends and family and many days of great conversations. Second, thanks to John Thackara, I met Aditya. Then, thanks to Aditya and Archana (who are more connected than anyone I’ve ever known), I met Yashas and Jasmine, Archana’s lovely group of friends, Zack and Abhishek. Not surprisingly, some of these people knew each other. It was a rich and wonderful 8 weeks, filled with some of the best conversations I’ve had in many years.

39. Tell us a valuable life lesson you learned in 2005.

There are several.

  • From Peggy Deamer, who’s departed Yale for New Zealand: always be able to state what’s personally at stake for you and develop your argument from there. (After my final review, this was the conversation we had in the bathroom).
  • A corollary to that, from my advisor, Emmanuel Petit: don’t be afraid of criticism. It never stops.
  • Ballsiness pays off. That’s what I learned when I met Sean at the Microsoft Social Computing Symposium in May– I asked what I’d have to do to spend a month or two in India. A proposal and a few phone calls later, I was on a plane.

40. Quote a song lyric that sums up your year?

It’s The The. I got the song “This is the Day” stuck in my head the week before I left India and listened to it nonstop.

“Well… you didn’t wake up this morning

Because you didn’t go to bed

You were watching the whites of your eyes

Turn red

The calendar, on your wall, is ticking the days off

The calendar on your wall is ticking

the days off

You’ve been reading some old letters

You smile and think how much you’ve changed

All the money in the world

Couldn’t bring back those days.

You pull back the curtains, and the sun burns into your eyes,

You watch a plane flying across a clear blue sky.

This is the day — Your life will surely change.

This is the day — Your life will surely change.

You could’ve done anything — if you’d wanted

And all your friends and family think that you’re lucky.

But the side of you they’ll never see

Is when you’re left alone with the memories

That hold your life together like


Worldchanging book

On November 1, the Worldchanging book hit the shelves. I wrote a few pieces for it in the “Retrofitting Suburbia” section about ways to retool suburbia to fight sprawl. The book is chock full of information about sustainable approaches to living on this planet. It reminds me a little of the Whole Earth Catalog at one point in my time. The book is beautiful, too–I love the cover with the shiny, radiating bird.

I’m planning to be in New York for upcoming events surrounding the book. See you there?