Lisa Margonelli is an author, journalist, and deputy editor at Zócalo Public Square. Her latest book is Underbug: An Obsessive Tale of Termites and Technology. Before taking part in a Zócalo discussion titled “What Can Termites Teach Us About the Future of Technology?” at the RedZone at Gensler in downtown Los Angeles, she spoke in the green room about Edwardian photos, working as a secretary to a wrestling coach, and what her pet duck used to do.
Do you play a musical instrument?
I used to play the violin but I don’t anymore.
What’s hanging on your living room walls?
A painting of my partner’s aunt; she’s smoking a cigarette and she’s looking very wise. And a carving of a fish that’s been charcoal-ized, and that’s hanging on the wall. And then we have a whole bunch of photographs on the other wall. They’re those round, Edwardian [photos], with the bubble glass, two or three of them. And people would pose their daughters, I guess, so they’re these girls looking weirdly savvy, but they’re about eight. And there’s a picture of a bunch of monkeys playing drums. I have no idea whether they’re real monkeys.
What was your first pet?
My first pet was a cat called Kathy Cat. She was named after my aunt, who had moved to New Orleans. Then Kathy got hit by a car, and then there was a cat named Mousetrapper, and then there was a duck named Dippy who imprinted on me and ran around me quacking.
Imprinted on you?
You know how ducks get? And I was, like, this big, and so the duck decided I was its thing.
What were you into as a kid?
Sheep. I had a big flock of sheep with the family sheep, so I had my own flock of 20. I was a 4-H kid; I had a horse and a steer, a beef animal.
Was that hard, as a kid, to look after 20 sheep? Were you fully responsible for them?
Yeah, I was. So, yes.
So animals, critters, always have been part of what you’re interested in.
I guess so, yeah. I moved away and didn’t look back about not having animals. But for a long time I would get kind of weird around four in the afternoon, in the winter time, when the sun is setting. I would feel like I needed to go feed the sheep.
Was there a teacher or professor who really influenced you?
I had an art teacher at the end of high school who was really into looking without judgment and really paying attention to things. And also trying not to dodge the assignment; she gave us complicated assignments, but you really had to look at things, so that was a really interesting discipline. I still kind of feel her in my head.
What’s the strangest job you’ve ever had?
Oh my God. I worked in a salmon factory. I was secretary to the wrestling coach, briefly, as a student job. I scheduled ads for a very tiny radio station and then I screwed up and got fired. That was my first job outside the home. That’ll probably do, huh?
What’s some of the best advice you’ve ever gotten?
A friend said, “Why don’t you just get a Post-it, write ‘So what’ on it, and stick it next to the phone? And if something is going on where you’re thinking, ‘If this happens, it’s all going to go to hell,’ just think, ‘Well, so what—so what if it happens, and so what if it goes to hell?’” It gives you some clarity, I suppose. I don’t have the actual Post-it anymore. It’s in my head.
Do you have a favorite season?
I like fall. I like the crispy air and the colors of the leaves and the feeling that you’ve got to be outside, now, because winter is coming. Spring can be nice, but it’s a little gross. It’s muddy.
If you could time-travel, where would you go?
Well, for this book I really started getting into the year 1909, because that was the year when a whole bunch of new technologies came in. That was the year fertilizer was invented, and it was also around the time that the poison gases for warfare, and that are now used for chemo, were invented. And it was also just before World War I, and there was Einstein, there was Freud, there were all these big shifts going on. And it was kind of the beginning of today, and nobody knew what today was going to look like.
Is there a book or piece of music, a film, a work of art, that you revisit periodically to check in with yourself?
There is a collection of music by Billy Strayhorn, that’s played by Duke Ellington, and it’s about Billy Strayhorn’s death. And it’s the one about the blood cell count. And I hear it about every three or four months. And it’s just really interesting, the different states that it puts me into when I hear it.