It was a glass box. A house in deep woods. It was remote. It was designerly on the interior, animaled on the exterior. It was mine—for a summer. It was two summers ago, and it was intended for critical project studies. “I’m spending the summer upstate,” I would say, as some New Yorkers do. “To write. To play music.” “Where, again?” they would repeat, not being familiar with this particular breed of remote. They’d tick off train stations as I shook my head. No, this was not those. No, this was a remote summer alone from the city, designed to “Make Projects.”
And off I went, trailing instruments and sewing devices and writing material and dog. Yet sixty days later, I was back in the city. And just like that, it was over.
The remote remote
What people who make things know is that ideas fold you in a remote space—inside a cabin, at a writer’s corral, inside your head, at a coffee shop—then ideas press you back out into the world, rubbing your eyes on your behalf. To have an idea is, at some point, to retreat into quietude. With you is the material of the world, the people, their exchanges, the sound of footsteps, the thing people do when they get together, their life sounds. You fold those into your pocket as you fold yourself into your space. And the making begins.
The road leading to the summer house was windy, punctuated with weathered signs. “National Scenic Bypass,” you could make out, barely, on the days it wasn’t raining. The signs, proud proclamations once, were threadbare from weather, as this particular bypass of beautiful that I had chosen to live on was cursed with weather. The deep-mountain woods kind.
Expansive river views, long motorcycle roads, sunsets and rises, farmers’ markets, endless woods—these quickly lose their charm when it rains. Particularly for weeks at a time. Satellite internet, too, loses its certain magical property once rain and storms come. And power goes down. So many days, I would sit, “making projects,” with neither power nor internet.
Within a week, the project became just surviving. “Light!” That was a project. “Survived my first tornado…” “Rattlesnake!” These “challenges,” though, as challenging as they were, may not have stood between my creative project-making so distinctly if I had been listening.
To hear is to let the sound wander all the way through the labyrinth of your ear; to listen is to travel the other way to meet it. It’s not passive but active, this listening. It’s as though you retell each story, translate it into the language particular to you, fit it into your cosmology so you can understand and respond, and thereby it becomes part of you. The word empathy originally meant feeling into, and to empathize is to reach out to meet the data that comes through the labyrinths of the senses. To enter into, we say, as though another person’s life was also a place you could travel to.”
Rather than listening to the city, I left it. I didn’t meet the urban data halfway, making it part of me, but packed it up and moved its shells upstate. As it turns out, my material is urban. It’s loud, and it’s messy. It has feet and wheels and voices and opinions. It’s anti-pastoral. And without it, I have nothing to create against.
Ideas need material to draw upon first, and a place to draw them out second. And to take hold, ideas, like people, need a home.
This thought was first published by The Pastry Box Project
Woody Allen recently:
What people who don’t write don’t understand is that they think you make up the line consciously — but you don’t. It proceeds from your unconscious. So it’s the same surprise to you when it emerges as it is to the audience when the comic says it. I don’t think of the joke and then say it. I say it and then realize what I’ve said. And I laugh at it, because I’m hearing it for the first time myself.
Whenever I find myself in a bout of nonwriting (not writer’s block per se, but an extended period of nonwritingness), I know it’s this. Not a lack of ideas, not a lack of the right space to write, the right drink, the right order, the right methods, the proper instrument, not a deficit of time. It’s simply my conscious getting in the way. I would be better off saying things more wildly, then looking at what I’d said. Do first, think later; many things can benefit from this method — falling in love, taking your first job, speaking up for what you believe in. Write first, think later. Repeat.
This thought was first published by The Pastry Box Project
Exchanging small talk with people we’ve just met may be an unfortunate necessity, but with people we already know, it seems to suggest that they’re people to whom we have nothing to say. And yet if small talk is just talk that’s idle, insignificant and without stated purpose, then surely a substantial portion of the chatter that goes on between couples, friends and (or especially) families must count as small.
That’s Dora Zhang in a recent piece for The Point, digging deep on small talk, a social necessity, if not a linguistic oddity, in everyday social encounters.
But as our talk — from small to significant — moves substantially online when we can’t be co-present, small talk appears in digital expressions as well. Take email. There is:
The non-purposeful opening
- I hope you’re well.
- I hope this note finds you well.
- Hoping you had a great weekend.
- Hope you had a good trip.
The openings, so full of hope, that we layer into our email are a kind of linguistic greasing the wheel. While it’s meaningful for people to state social intention, to do some social grooming, these openings may be presumptuous. After all, this past weekend, the goldfish may have died, the car broke down, the game may have been rained out. When opening with small talk, consider how your subtle well wishes may be received. Then there is:
The aspirational closing
- Hope you get some rest.
- Hope the weather lets up.
- Hope to see you soon.
- Hoping you have a great weekend.
These aspirational closings help keep our conversations going; they’re necessary social cues that indicate we’re departing from the conversation and bid the person well. When they’re genuine and followed up on next exchange, even better.
“The opposite of small talk isn’t big talk, but no talk.” And while we are undergoing an age of big talk, big topics, big data, more, I, for one, am all for more meaning — talk or no talk. Hope you are too.
David Byrne on his remote collaborations with Brian Eno:
The unwritten game rules in these remote collaborations seem to be to leave the other person’s stuff alone as much as you can. Work with what you’re given; don’t try to imagine it as something other than what it is. … The fact that half the musical decision-making has already been done bypasses a lot of waffling and worrying. I didn’t have to think about what to do and what direction to take musically — the train had already left the station and my job was to see where it wanted to go.
He goes on to ask:
Is writing ever NOT collaboration? Doesn’t one collaborate with oneself, in a sense? Don’t we access different aspects of ourselves, different characters and attitudes and then, when they’ve had their say, switch hats and take a more distanced and critical view — editing and structuring our other half’s outpourings? Isn’t the end product sort of the result of two sides collaborating?
I like this. Collaboration as the caretaking and guidance of two parts of a moving train.
The real trouble with this world of ours is not that it is an unreasonable world, nor even that it is a reasonable one. The commonest kind of trouble is that it is nearly reasonable, but not quite. Life is not an illogicality; yet it is a trap for logicians. It looks just a little more mathematical and regular than it is; its exactitude is obvious, but its inexactitude is hidden; its wildness lies in wait. —Gilbert Keith Chesterton
They were right. As they’d predicted two decades ago in 2013, half of humanity now lives in cities with nearly 60 percent of our world’s population as urban dwellers. Cities have not only grown in size and population, their very interface has changed.
Back then, citizens were enthusiastic about the layered effect of our data so we could search, sort, friend, follow, retrieve, and archive it in the interest of exactitude. Google, Twitter, Foursquare were changing technology — which is to say, culture. These, and more, increased the opportunity for specificity as they decreased the chance for serendipity.
But humans grew uncomfortable. Things got smarter. Time sped up and time compressed as people became more informed, more efficient, more connected, faster. While the rise of the slow (at first, slow food, then slow web, slow cities) began as rhetoric, it took as a movement.
With more inhabitants than ever before, cities had become not a place for human interaction, but for precise location and retrieval. Entering addresses and finding exact points on the map (with recommended walk/drive/transit directions!) left little up to chance. As humans found more, they had less. Media inventors of any notoriety launched apps and services that provided shortcuts: shortcuts to getting lost, shorthand for privacy, short forms of disconnecting.
Meantime, undigital became luxury. Spas, once islands of tranquility and beauty, became islands of undigital luxury goods. Free “off the grid service” services sold out. This pastoral new concord has had an effect. Humans choose longer lines, the slow lane, practice inexact query formation. Because without the slow, the good was not recognizable.
The divide between the connected and unconnected continues to demonstrate an economic discord: those living comfortably are also living un-connectedly. Unubiquitious computing demands have inspired developers to rush to build unconnected communities. The new connected is to be disconnected. Deadspots are the new hotspots.
Moving toward is moving away, and hence, the notion of density and progress has changed. It’s our job to pause, coordinate, and design opportunities for chance.
This thought was first published by The Pastry Box Project
In the future, you have access to all your data. Memory, or the lack thereof, is no longer discussed. It is only assumed, a feature of modern life, since you can now relive all your past data as experiences. But because of “technical constraints,” all of your experiences are taxonomized and merged for ease of efficiency/retrieval. To access your past, then, is to relive each experience — in real time, all at once.
You spend seven weeks holding your iPhone to your ear on hold.
You pull to refresh for seven months, click to refresh for nine.
You miss 30 Thanksgiving dinners restarting your laptop.
12 Valentine’s Days restarting your iPhone.
You swipe past iPad ads for 48 hours before ever seeing content.
You deliberate for two hours clicking the back button.
You waste four hours feeling guilty about not accepting invitations.
You go nine whole months accepting LinkedIn recommendations.
Six months seeing who’s followed you on Twitter.
One hour clicking away from ads you clicked accidentally.
For two months you stare at your browser default page.
You power through eight years of anxiety trying to unfriend people on Facebook.
You hunch over your desk for seven months downloading unregistered software.
Three straight weeks stealing someone else’s WiFi.
You tell friends you’re “off the grid” for 48 hours.
You scroll through Twitter for one year without clicking a single link.
There are 16 days you missed the point when your calls are dropped through AT&T.
And 14 hours of confusion as you try to work Skype video.
Three years of watching YouTube videos.
Sixty-five minutes liking.
Forty hours tapping.
Ninety-seven whole days right clicking.
You spend fourteen whole days without contact as you stare at the fail whale.
Three days confused as you update your WordPress install.
Two years behind updating your iPhone apps.
Seventeen months with strained eyes while you debug code.
Two years cursing Adobe Creative Suite.
You spend six months with slumped shoulders as you click “forgot password?”.
You reflect on older times. Passwords were forgotten once, and forgotten again — the next day, the next week, the next month. The thought seems idyllic. A life where small errors are experienced in lovely, small scales — one at a time.
This thought was first published by The Pastry Box Project, and its form taken from and inspired by the first chapter of David Eagleman’s Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives
Simon Heffer reviews, or rather is offended by, a new book on the origin of manners:
As I wandered through this increasingly unfathomable book — if it has a thesis, I for one missed it — two elements of the bleeding obvious appeared to be missing. The first was the idea that most manners have evolved because most of us, whichever class we spring from, behave towards others as we would like them to behave towards us: so, unless downright barbaric, we do not defecate in front of other people, or vomit over them, or spit at them, or tell them their wives are ugly or stupid.
The second is that the most recent chapter in the evolution of manners is through what the right calls political correctness. The terms used half a century ago to describe ethnic minorities, or disabled people, or people of minority sexual orientations are not acceptable in most polite society today. Manners are made by fashion and by peer pressure.
“If it is not rude to say so,” he finishes, “[the book] should have been better edited and about half as long.” It may be, but perhaps well deserved.
The times displayed on Grand Central’s departure boards are wrong — by a full minute:
This is permanent. It is also purposeful.
The idea is that passengers rushing to catch trains they’re about to miss can actually be dangerous — to themselves, and to each other. So conductors will pull out of the station exactly one minute after their trains’ posted departure times.
You might call this time-hacking; you might call it behavioral engineering; you might call it comical. Regardless, it seems to be working. Grand Central boasts the fewest slips, trips, and falls of any station in the country.
Once heard Carnegie Hall starts their performances eight minutes early [or late] for a similar reason. Curious what other time hacks exist to accommodate New Yorkers.
British psychologists report that those who live in cities have a certain diminished power of attention compared with those who don’t:
[T]he brains of people in remote places seem ready to focus on the task at hand, while the brains of their urban counterparts seem prepared to explore the ever-changing conditions of city life. Certainly explains why some country folk find the city overwhelming, and some city folk find the country a little dull. Nothing personal — strictly neural.
[C]ity dwellers have developed a form of attention that puts priority on “the search for potential dangers or new opportunities.”
Or perhaps city dwellers are simply trying to be comfortable.
[Image source: “Oliver Twist,” “The Catcher in the Rye” from the Fictitious Dishes series, Dinah Fried. “The photographs in this series, Fictitious Dishes, enter the lives of five fictional characters and depict meals from the novels The Catcher in the Rye, Oliver Twist, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and Moby Dick.” Be sure not to miss Dinah’s collaboration on Tiny Little Words and certainly don’t miss What Book Should I Read.]