Monday, September 21, 2015

Milwaukee's Recycled Poop

Last summer, when I worked for Summerfest, I could sometimes smell a very smelly smell on my long days outside in the sun on Milwaukee's lakefront. When the wind was blowing from the south, it was particularly bad. It was also quite hard to identify. At first I just thought it smelled like sewage - poop, basically. But there was an underlying scent that led me to believe that there was something else mixed with the poop to create such a foreign odor. I asked around. My coworkers said something along the lines of "water treatment," meaning that the smell was coming from the nearby water treatment facility. But why on earth would the process of water treatment create such a smell? A chemical maybe? Chlorine? That summer, I never really got an answer to my question. I suffered through the smell, which sometimes made me gag.

It wasn't until last Saturday that the mystery of the smell was finally solved. If you weren't aware, last weekend was the popular event Doors Open Milwaukee, which opened up 175+ sites all over the city of Milwaukee for tours, freelance exploration, and other fun adventures. I had never participated in the event before, and was curious to see what the day had to offer. There was one particular event, a tour of the Jones Island Water Reclamation Facility, that sparked my interest, partially because I have a very limited knowledge of the process of water reclamation and water treatment, and partially because it looked like the most pleasantly weird tour of the whole weekend. I managed to recruit my mom, who is always a good sport when it comes to strange adventures, to accompany me on this excursion.

Considering how hard it was for me to find someone who wanted to go with me, I was a little bit surprised when the event was PACKED. And I mean packed. As soon as we pulled into the parking lot, we knew we would not be alone. Babies, children, teenagers, adults - you name it - had all braved the weird, industrial maze on Milwaukee's south shore to satisfy their curiosity about where our poop goes. It was awesome.

We waited a few minutes before a yellow school bus pulled up to take us to the facilities. We were then told we would have the option of taking a half hour bus tour of Jones Island, or an hour long bus/walking tour of Jones Island and the Milorganite plant. My mom and I of course opted for the longer tour and waited just a few minutes to get onto another bus. While we waited, we walked a hand painted maze that presented a visual of the steps that our waste takes from the time we flush it down the toilet to the time it gets formed into a tiny pellet called Milorganite.

As we walked the maze a worker at the facility approached us and started asking us what attracted us to this tour. He was a very nice man, and I wondered what attracts someone to this kind of work. The conversation soon led us to talk of selling our Great Lakes water to Waukesha, and of wars over water in the not so distant future. It was strange to have such a grim conversation on such a bright, sunny day.

Finally, it was our time to go on the bus for our first part of the tour, Jones Island, to learn about the water reclamation process. I didn't get great pictures because we were sitting on a bus, but I'll try and explain it the best I can without visuals.

The first step of the process is called "screening." In this step, inorganic material such as towels, sand (and, although they didn't mention it, tampons and other gross things) are cleaned from the water. These materials cannot be reclaimed or reused in any way, and are sent to a landfill.

The second step is called "primary clarification." In this step, the water is basically separated from grease and other oils, much like it does when you pour oil into water in your kitchen, or in a school science experiment.

Primary clarification tanks

The third step is called "biological treatment." In this step, bacteria such as "Zoogloea" break down organic material by eating it. I should mention that up until this point, these are all steps that nature would have taken in its own course. The treatment facility just performs these steps on a much larger scale.

The fourth and final step is called "disinfection." In this step, disease causing organisms are removed from the water by treating it with chlorine. The chlorine is then cleaned from the water (so, the water is essentially cleaned five different times) and then returned to Lake Michigan. This water is not clean enough to drink, but is clean enough to be returned to the lake. The water that we drink is actually treated further by a different facility.

After going through the tour, the thing that surprised me the most was the conspicuous lack of technology in the process. It's actually incredibly simple, and except for the chlorine, doesn't do anything that nature wouldn't ordinarily do on its own terms. I had always pictured the process of water reclamation to be chemical-intensive and completely inorganic, but I was wrong. It is also simple enough that the plant itself only needs about six people on a daily basis to operate the entire thing. So, if you think about it, in the city of Milwaukee, there are only about six people that have anything to do with cleaning the water of millions of toilets. It's pretty impressive!

The next stop on the tour was the Milorganite plant. If water treatment was a foreign process to me prior to this tour, then Milorganite was rocket science. All I knew about Milorganite was that it was fertilizer made out of human excrement. (When I was younger this idea seemed incredibly silly to me. I was concerned that we would be putting the poop of people that we knew on our garden and such).

As we approached the building, I could smell that rancid, dreadful smell that tortured me last summer and made me want to puke as I worked. It got stronger and stronger as we walked into the building, went down an elevator, and finally entered the facility.

I have to admit, the next part of the process is a little bit lost on me. Between the smell, and the nauseating sight of chemically and organically broken down waste on a conveyor belt, I was a little bit distracted. But I did get some pictures to give you a better idea.

The adult in me knows that this is a rare glimpse of an obscure process that I was getting to see, but the kid in me couldn't help but make the comparison to ground beef, and ultimately, Taco Bell. I just couldn't help myself.

The last step in the process was down in the basement of the facilities, and was the final answer I needed to solve the mystery of the smelliest smell. In the basement was a row of huge dryers, very similar to a dryer we use to dry our clothes, in which the now highly manipulated waste is placed in to dry. 

The door pictured above is a small trap door in the dryer that is used by workers to stick their hand in and test the moisture in the Milorganite. As the woman who gave us the tour pointed out, "Making Milorganite is not a science, it's an art." The dryers are not able to be fully operated by computers, because an actual human is needed to judge whether or not the product is dry enough to be removed from the machine. It's kind of like making pickles. There is no exact formula for making the right pickle with the right taste, and in fact, just like pickles, Milorganite is a fermented product that varies from batch to batch.

At the end of the tour, we were allowed to feel a bit of Milorganite in its raw state, before it is ground up further and ready to be sold. I was a little bit relieved that the tour was almost over, because of the thickness of the smell. By that point I felt slightly nauseous again, and wasn't really sure whether or not to breath out of my mouth or my nose. We were asked to please sanitise our hands, and then we were released outside.

After we were out in the sunshine and fresh air again, I was able to reflect upon the experience. Not only did I learn about the system used by the city of Milwaukee to clean our wastewater, but I learned the rich history of Milorganite. Little did I know that the name "Milorganite" actually comes from the name "Milwaukee." Milwaukee + Organic + Nitrogen = Milorganite. Cute, huh? Milwaukee has actually been making Milorganite since the 1920s, at which point we were one of the only cities in the United States that used this process. Now there are many other cities that produce Milorganite, but Milwaukee is still known as the city that pioneered the recycling of a waste product. It is also notable, as a friend pointed out to me later, that the sale of Milorganite almost entirely covers the cost of production, which makes it, in essence, a socialist process. My mind goes back to my younger self asking me if it would be okay to sell Milorganite in a for-profit system, simply because of the human aspect of it. Would people be up in arms about selling their own waste so a giant company could make money off of it? It somehow feels akin to selling a kidney on the black market.

When I eventually made it home, I had an ironic problem waiting for me: My toilet was clogged, and had been since that morning. I ran out and bought a plunger, and engaged in the relatively unpleasant process of plunging. When the clog finally cleared, I quickly racked my brains, thinking about the workers at the treatment facility, and asked myself if I have ever put anything down a toilet that probably shouldn't be there. The only thing I could think of was a dead goldfish, many years ago, but I didn't feel that guilty because I know that this a relatively common funeral for a goldfish. I thought maybe I should start flushing mints or other pleasantries such as candies down the toilet, to make the process of cleaning the water more pleasant. Of course this is a stupid idea that makes absolutely no difference to the process, but it was still funny to think about for a minute.

Ultimately I vowed that I will tell anyone I possibly can about this tour. Even for someone like me, who tries as hard as I can to live in balance with my environment, it was the experience of seeing the way that water has to be cleaned that made me really understand why we should keep it clean in the first place. It's all just one big cycle. Just think, if you see a guy eating Cheetos at the zoo, you may or may not end up putting a bag of Milorganite containing his excrement on your grass next spring. I'll repeat the warning of our tour guide: Don't flush pharmaceuticals. Maybe don't even take them in the first place. Don't eat weird, processed food. Dispose of your tampons properly.

For my own part, I will try and make peace with The Smell. Maybe it will make me gag and complain a little bit less now that I know exactly where it's coming from. I can also explain to others why that smell is a smell that makes Milwaukee unique. It's not gross…it's recycling. 

Thank you Doors Open Milwaukee for an awesome, educational weekend!

And, if you're interested, check out this awesome coloring book my friend Jamie made for the weekend's events. 

Thursday, September 17, 2015

"Life" in "Visual"

It was an average day in spring when I realized my job wasn't getting me anywhere, I wasn't making enough money, and I wanted to get myself to a better place in life. I quickly resigned, before I really had a new job, and took a few interviews during my "two weeks notice" period. One of the jobs I interviewed for was this new trendy thing I had been hearing about: merchandising. I knew of a few artists who worked in the field and seemed to like it because it made use of their visual talents.

After four interviews, I accidentally landed the perfect job for myself. It was within biking distance of my home, it paid more than my last job, it was full time, and it fell under the "visual" category, meaning, in some small way, I would finally be putting my art degree to use. I entered the job with my head held high and my self-esteem in much better shape than it was in the winter.

Now, about four months later, I find myself trudging to work with a miserable feeling in my heart, wishing I could turn my bike around, crawl back into bed, and forget I ever thought this job was a good idea in the first place.

But let's rewind. When I started the job, I had little to no idea what would really be expected of me. I had heard I'd be dressing mannequins, making displays, "making windows," and setting up for the different "seasons," whatever that was supposed to mean. Since I started four months ago I feel that I have learned enough to fill an entire manual, or perhaps write a small novel about my experiences.

Here is a brief overview of what I do on a daily/weekly/monthly basis:

1. Dress mannequins

Yep, I'm required to dress the ladies and the dudes. Dressing the ladies came pretty easily to me, as I am a lady, and have always enjoyed fashion. The trickiest part was learning how to disassemble the bodies of the mannqequins in order to maneuver the clothing onto them, often during store hours when tons of people were walking by. I dropped more than a few arms and legs on the floor in front of a full audience during the learning process. Dressing the men had equal technical challenges, but with the added obstacle of not knowing anything at all about men's fashion. The first couple of times I dressed male mannequins I had a few sales associates approach me and tell me that they looked "gay." [While there are several reasons why this probably wasn't the best word choice, the point was well taken]. On top of these challenges, the male mannequins are probably about twice as heavy as the female ones, which means that I often have to lay their entire bodies down on the floor to dress them. I once had a woman walk by me and gasp because she thought there was a dead person on the floor.

2. Set up cosmetics displays 

Cosmetics displays can be charming or annoying. The one directly above this sentence was my favorite display that I have worked on so far. This is the only part of the job in which I am regularly allowed to use "props" such as the roses pictured above. The props nestle peacefully alongside the product under shiny vitrines on pedestals in order to promote their divine smelliness. The purpose of the vitrines is so that people don't steal the product (there is a lot of stealing where I work). I am told that we only set up displays for the fragrance companies that have enough money to promote their product in the store. We do a lot of set ups for Chanel. On my first day on the job, I dropped and broke a glass vase (a prop), making me look very much like "the new girl." I have not broken anything since.

3. Put up signs and hang art

There is a lot of corporate art that needs to get hung and moved around as the merchandise in the store moves throughout the selling period. There are also signs, like the Chanel sign above, that get hung for different events, sale sets, seasons, and products. Sometimes they hang from the ceiling, otherwise they are placed in impossibly heavy sign holders that I have to haul from floor to floor. Unfortunately, I have only gotten the chance to do a bit of vinyl lettering here and there throughout the store. My boss used to have an entire sign shop in his office, but apparently now even cheap vinyl is too expensive and time-consuming for many retailers.

4. Make window displays

Making windows is fun! It is what makes my job unique to other visual merchandisers who work in giant concrete block buildings without windows. The mannequins above are wearing merchandise that is on loan to us from Goodwill for their 150th birthday celebration. We have a history with Goodwill, which is why they chose us as their advertisers. The window displays are not always as extravagant as this. Sometimes they are simple, with just two forms, and a sign. They have gotten less and less complicated throughout the years, largely due to the store's decreasing budget. The worst thing about windows is all the dead spiders that accumulate in the corners in the summertime. 

5. (Sometimes) put up lettering

The store has been undergoing a significant makeover since I started working there, with many vendors getting added to the mix or getting moved around the store. Corporate wanted us to put vendor lettering on the walls so buyers would know which vendors were located in each department. My boss warned me that lettering was difficult and tedious, and that not many people were good at it. Needless to say, he was a bit surprised when I turned out to be very good at it! I am not sure if it was my experience in a sign shop that gave me a steady hand, or my determination to get a compliment from my boss, but I totally killed this project. Unfortunately it was kind of a one-time deal, and I likely won't have to do it again for awhile.

In general, this is what I do on the job. There are other tasks that have to be attended to daily such as; walking the store to make sure nobody undressed a mannequin or moved around a display, dusting mannequin bases and shelves, moving around clothing fixtures so that they stay in a gridded pattern, etc., etc. All of these tasks, when analyzed invidually, are things that I like doing, and I do well. I cherish the fact that I have a job that has me on my feet all day rather than sitting in a cubicle, and I realize how lucky I am that I am able to work with my hands.

What I don't like, I realized [after hours and hours of analyzing why the heck I am so unhappy], is the going. The trapped feeling that you get from not being able to leave your place of employment for X amount of hours unless previously approved by a supervisor. The pitifully short lunchbreaks in windowless break rooms, the mind-numbing din of commuting the same route every single day, week after week, month after month, knowing exactly what awaits you when you walk in the doors. I swear I could work as a garbage collector and be happy just as long as I didn't have to be confined to a soul-crushing schedule. The longer I am in the workforce the more I realize that it's not necessarily the job that gets me down, but the schedule.

I apologize for this self-reflexive post, but I am proud that I finally realized this about myself. I have been beating myself up for not being "normal" [which in my twisted vocabulary book = able to work a real job], and to start trying to figure out a way to work [because I love work, I really, really do - I'm the hardest worker that I know!] in a way that doesn't feel so much like work. I used to think this was impossible, and that there was never going to be any way for me to develop skills that would allow me to work on my own terms, on my own schedule, and be my own boss. Even now I am not quite sure exactly what I'm going to do. But at least I have been able to identify one thing that I WANT in my life, and for me that's a huge accomplishment.

And so here I am again - stuck in a job that isn't getting me anywhere, waiting for the moment when I can leave, trying constantly to get myself to a better place. But this time, at least, I can see very clearly where that place is. And it's awesome.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore + Bonus Questions

Every once in awhile, take a step back and remember that nature is the best artist.
Photographs from Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Michigan:


My friend Alli (who wrote a post for me awhile back) wrote me these fun questions for my birthday. I hope you enjoy them as much as I did!

1. What is your favorite blog to follow? I really enjoy looking at John Shimon’s blotchyblobs blog. There’s always something morbid, insightful, or humorous to look at…sometimes all three at the same time. A “guilty pleasure” blog that I like to look at is Face Hunter. It’s this independently wealthy dude who travels around the world taking pictures of beautiful people in beautiful cities. Everyone likes a little eye candy...

2. What art-related book changed the way you look/think/feel about art? This might sound incredibly cheesy, but I actually always think about The Girl With the Pearl Earring when I am looking at portraiture. I think about the part where the artist Vermeer forces the protagonist to pierce her ear, even though it cannot be seen in the painting. It always makes me wonder what interactions between artist/subject happen while a painting or photograph is being created. Also, the book Just Kids was influential, but not in the way most people probably would guess. I actually hated the book because Patti Smith’s writing was so bland. It made me feel like, “Wow, she’s this famous poet/artist and I could write this book ten times better than she did.”

3. Favorite work of art? Wow, hard question. I am not sure if this counts as a “work” in the traditional sense, but I love the Heidelberg Project in Detroit. I love it because it shows the kind of healing influence that art can have at the grassroots level in damaged communities. Maybe I'm an idealist, but I wish all art would aspire to be as altruistic.

4. Least favorite work of art? Anything by freakin’ Cindy Sherman. Also, The Dinner Party, by Judy Chicago.

5. Best thing to say about a work of art when you don’t get it but want to seem profound? “It reminds me of [insert artist’s name here].”

6. Worst thing to say about a work of art when you don’t get it but want to seem profound? See above.

7. Most embarrassing thing that has happened to you in a gallery/museum? This is a good one. I actually went to the Milwaukee Art Museum my freshman year of college wearing a see-through dress that I didn’t realize was see-through until I was under the museum lighting. You should have seen the look on the docent’s face! (She was an old lady, of course).

8. (In the style of Art21’s opening sequence…) Art_________s. This was a hard one - Art recycles.

9. A dead artist you are happy is dead? I was thinking about this the other day…I would have to say Frank Lloyd Wright. He wasn’t a very good person, and we need to stop putting these autocratic white men up on pedestals.

10. Best piece of art criticism/theory? I still love Nochlin’s “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists” even though I don’t like Nochlin, or her other stupid articles.

11. What material is underused/underappreciated in art? I would have to say…cat hair. Just kidding! I don’t think this necessarily counts as a “material,” but I would have to go with iPhone photography because of the way some people abuse it on platforms like Instagram. iPhone cameras are incredible! They are comparable (although on a much smaller scale) to high quality digital cameras and people don't even realize it. It's this powerful tool that people just keep in their back pockets and use for selfies. 

12. What is your favorite chocolate dessert? Anything chocolate as long as there isn’t any fruit in it. But mostly, brownies.