1. Observe the texture on the back of a handwritten letter. Some rougher than others depending on the writer’s sense of purpose, urgency, or weight of hand. I’d like to think these mirror patterns are as unique to our identity as fingerprints or at least the scars on our shins.
2. At the dry cleaner’s, the lady up front yapped on about a book (whose title she couldn’t remember) that discussed handwriting and personality. I wanted to get in a word about how I had been thinking of patterns and texture and identity. She nodded away each attempt and continued talking. I got self-conscious filling in the new customer info and formed each letter as carefully as possible.
3. Rumor has it (code for “I read somewhere on the Internet maybe as long ago as summer”) that at some elementary schools, first-graders don’t practice handwriting anymore. That teachers devote the class time to computing instead, to typing games and such. Why do I think kids just naturally know how to use computers and don’t need that kind of instruction?
4. I can remember only two things we did in 6th grade’s required computer class—typing games and Oregon Trail.
5. Is longhand on track to obsolete? (No.)
The mess of ginger fur weaved a figure-eight around my ankles.
“You don’t strike me as a cat person.”
“What, why? Haven’t you seen the internet?”
Yes—yes, I have.
He asks permission to browse the paperbacks I stashed in the car, a once-over before they head for the donation bin.
“Oh, this would be a good one to take to a bar!”
The response that comes to mind goes something like this: “Umm, yeah probably not where you live” and “But you said yourself you don’t even read” and “What is it with you and faking it?”
Instead: “Really, why that one?”
“Oh you know, it’s just a good length and would keep me busy…and a way to meet people…and it seems like the kind of book that…” Pause. He lifts the book up and down a few times in slow motion to illustrate its heft. ”So can I grab this one, then?”
I think of how I don’t want, in some other place and time, to be introduced as the girl who gave him a copy of Atlas Shruggedand indirectly changed his life in a way that maybe doesn’t jive well with my sentiments.
“Sure. Of course.”
“The point is that the blog is not about sympathy; it’s about prayer. And if people really need to learn how to pray, they really need to know what’s going on.”
“I totally agree.”
“You mean, why does she hate you? Um. Duh. Because you’re friends with her boyfriend and because you have a vagina.”
“Yeah so Johnny, I drove him home last night…and he made some comment, like, hey did ______ cut her hair? because you really can’t tell. He said it trying to be nice, I think, but then I was like yeah, you can’t tell. Then he really was, like, I mean you can never tell—when a woman cuts her hair, you can never tell.”
“The only illegal thing I’ve ever done, is…well never mind.”
“Heyyy, how are you doing?”
“Single, single, single. Oof.”
“Yeah? Hanging on?”
“Bliss. Bold. Single.”
“it seems they were all cheated of some marvelous experience / which is not going to go wasted on me which is why I am telling you about it.”
O’Hara reads “Having a Coke with You” for a documentary series on American poetry. Clip filmed March 1966 in his loft.
“I mean, you’re like family to me.”
“Come onnnn, you can’t be serious.”
“Have you ever tried moving something with your eyes?”
“Oh god, yes!”
“And did you know Patel, p-a-t-e-l, is a very common name? Yes. Patel. Patel and Gupta. They’re like Smith, you know.”
“I didn’t care about any furry friends until my friend who had one had to move and had to leave the gerbil behind and then I cried all night.”
“Wish I could hear you. Especially if you’re saying something important.”
“You mean while I’m sitting here across from you talking to you.”
“That’s because you’re not mindful—”
“Yeah, I’m mindless. Mind—less.”
Joshua Foer’s Moonwalking with Einstein filled my brain with a smattering of fun facts and ridiculous visuals from his memory palace. Claudia Shifer in a tub of cottage cheese. Six bottles of white wine caught up in conversation. A jar of pickled garlic at the end of the driveway. Did you know chicken sexing is a profession? Imagine ‘Chiken Sexer’ in bold type on your résumé! I immediately thought of Dirty Jobs, but google tells me the producers checked that off the list years ago.
Trivia and mnemonics aside, the book is part memoir, part academic lit review, and part history book. Foer weaves research and rumination on human memory between anecdotes of how he went from journalist covering the U.S. Memory Championship to winning the next year’s title. He not only explores the nature of memory and our capacity to remember (and to forget) but also offers a neat glimpse into the culture of mental athletes. Though the facts-laden narrative may come off a bit dry for those used to juicy novels, I found the book as a whole engaging and a breeze to get through.
Heads-up: readers looking for a how-to on improving memory would find Foer’s work lacking. It’s not meant to be a collection of tips and tricks. However, Foer does demonstrate his experience practicing with the classic memory palace mnemonic—hence, that jar of pickled garlic in the driveway. I hadn’t heard of the terms “memory palace” and “method of loci” before but have definitely used the technique. When and where I learned it beats me, can’t remember. This I do know: spatial orientation has much to do with my uncanny (or so I’m told) ability to remember birthdays—an ability that likely deteriorated as the prominence of online profiles made this information easy to retrieve without storing it internally. I’ve always seen (in my mind) the calendar as a map. This “map” is not a timeline but a representation of an actual structure-of-sorts that I can walk over and explore as one might do with a memory palace. Whenever I learn someone’s birthday, I instinctively place them on the map so that later in picturing, let’s say, the third of week March I’d see certain people hanging out together. Not necessarily interacting with each other but more like a huddle of bobbleheads in a corner of March.
What follows is an incomplete catalog of salient points. Or rather, notes to self bulleted edition.
On the inverse of time-flies-when-you’re-having-fun:
Monotony collapses time; novelty unfolds it….If you spend your life sitting in a cubicle and passing papers, one day is bound to blend unmemorably into the next—and disappear. That’s why it’s so important to change routines regularly, and take vacations to exotic locales, and have as many new experiences as possible that can serve to anchor our memories. Creating new memories stretches out psychological time, and lengthens our perception of our lives.
On the art of forgetting:
To make sense of the world, we must filter it. “To think,” Borges writes, “is to forget.”
On memory and immortality:
If memory is our means of preserving that which we consider most valuable, it is also painfully linked to our own transience. When we die, our memories die with us. In a sense, the elaborate system of externalized memory we’ve created is a way of fending off mortality. It allows ideas to be efficiently passed across time and space, and for one idea to build on another to a degree not possible when a thought has to be passed from brain to brain in order to be sustained.
- Foer mentions the 10,000 rule—an idea made popular via Gladwell’s Outliers that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert at something, say playing the violin—and ruminates on the importance of practice. More specifically, the importance of quality over quantity when it comes to practice.
- I liked the bits on synesthesia, savant syndrome, Asperger’s, and the most forgetful man in the world.
- How Gutenberg (and his printing press) democratized knowledge as well as changed the importance of memorization.
- The shift from intensive to extensive reading. Why we don’t remember what we read.
- Education revolution that de-emphasized memorization and focused on experiential learning.
- The link between memory and creativity. Mental athletes are experts in coming up with vivid, comical, or downright bizarre (thus memorable) mnemonics.
- The magical #7.
- Internal vs. external memory, the SenseCam, and life logs (which made me think of Path). The prospect of a sensecam-like device that could be embedded into the skin, the retina, or other inconspicuous loci. Ethical considerations in melding mind and machine in such a way that internal and digital external memory are so connected as to be almost indistinguishable.
- The Internet as the ultimate weapon in the “war against forgetting.”
Ok, I’m finished here. Glad I finally got around to this one. Perhaps I’m on my way to curb that habit of adding and adding and adding to but rarely subtracting from the book list. Perhaps perhaps perhaps. We’ll see.
TIMESTAMP: 4:39AM EST
SUBJECT: Toilet is not working
BODY: How do you say that in Chinese?
I don’t know how many times I’ve explained and will have to explain that my knowledge of Mandarin has shrunk to meet only two needs: birthday well-wishing and the ordering of beer.
In French we call New Year’s Eve le réveillon (de St. Sylvestre). Some translate réveillon to ”eve,” but the word itself comes from the verb se réveiller meaning “to awaken, to wake up” and relates to the noun réveilas in “awakening.” This nomenclature derives from the tradition of staying awake until (or past) midnight, though in my early years I tacked on additional meaning that has more to do with how a year’s end or another’s start is an awakening. But to me the réveillon isn’t the awakening itself; instead it represents the space just before it—that tiny gap between endings and beginnings.
If le reveillon stands in for the metaphorical gap, then the literal forms crowd my apartment this morning. Or, one could say they un-crowd. The most obvious are the gaps on the bookshelf. A turn about reveals unused hangers in the closet and space under the bed where once hid notebooks and cameras. The trash cans are empty; three bags huddle by the door awaiting their trip down the chute.
See, I’m at the tail end of what I now refer to as the Big Purge—a slow process of sorting through all material possessions in effort to minimize them. Slow because in the meantime I’ve performed the packing-and-unpacking routine no less than six times and laid claim to no less than six bedrooms. Moving is a hassle, yes, but it’s also opportunity (or reminder, or force) to reconsider the things we carry. How satisfying to stand in the doorway of a room emptied, looking in, left hand on the knob. How satisfying to survey a room at the tidiest it will ever be. The doorway, too, is a gap.
The Big Purge—of clothes, books, and middle school trinkets; of people, too, in a way—began shortly after vacating my college apartment. I spent a sweaty week in Kentucky sorting through a rented storage unit that housed memorabilia of my life since 1998. Most of the cardboard stacks were near ceiling height, thus sorting involved acrobatic maneuvers not limited to balancing on furniture of the assemble-it-yourself variety and straddling towers of linen-stuffed space-saver bags. I wore closed-toe shoes just in case.
Clothes were the easiest to tackle; it’s hard to rationalize keeping a pair corduroys two sizes too small. The trinkets took a bit longer. They were, in large part, useless and tacky but held sentimental value as most useless and tacky collections do. My mother was present to supervise my acrobatics, and our storytelling filled the stretch between water breaks. We recalled that time I thought I failed a biology test and hid a teary face in a bathroom stall while I phoned her. We laughed over an equally teary episode when a soccer ball traveling 70 mph met my face (my nose) and how the most blood I’ve ever seen soaked the Carolina-blue jersey a deep red. Each item belonged to a story. Years from now, freed from the material reminders, will I still know or forget?
Time and distance make those afternoons of storytelling feel more cathartic than they ever were. The sort-and-purge begets life (my life) (a life) into a mechanical affair—tangible in textures worn and rough and forgotten.
Through each gap I give up something to make room for something else—elsewhere. I heard once that moving the last box from the parents’ marks grown-up status, whatever that means. Grown differs from growing. The latter excites while the former appeals in the way that tarmac is appealing which is to say, flatly. But I like the idea of relieving parents from the non-contractual role as watchdog to boxes of team trophies, prom getups, and camp correspondence. “Camp” as both noun and adjective.
Endings are easier to recognize than beginnings are to prepare for. There are times we begin anew armed with a 12-step plan, a shield, and a fleet of cheerleaders. There are times we don’t recognize what we need until we’ve begun. The task is to begin, I repeat to myself. The task is to wake up.
Begin somewhere, do good work, keep moving.
“Grace to be born and live as variously as possible.”
Feels nothing like winter out there, but that doesn’t make this hibernation-appropriate tune any less pretty (damn good).
Unearthed from the surprisingly well-lit cave that is my RSS reader (not sure what I mean by that; don’t mind me). These were among the pieces that I starred in my reader or otherwise bookmarked. Consider it a holiday sort-of-gift: a reading list for when you need a break from the merrymaking but don’t want to commit to the stack of novels that you swore! you’d finish by year’s end. A soup of serious, chuckle-worthy, and heart-tugging.
You know that non-rule that a mixtape shouldn’t include two tracks by the same artist? I had it in mind here and stuck with one piece per writer, which in retrospect is unfair, but so it goes.
Am I really posting a cat video on tumblr? What is this world coming to?
In truth, I share this video more often than any other video, maybe more times than all the others combined. Then a couple of days ago, for the first time ever, it showed up in my inbox—and I’ve watched it at least five times since then. Twice just now.
(embrace the catvertising?)
While carols abound, I’m stuck on Lord Huron’s rendition of “Auld Lang Syne.”
So happy (almost) new year, I guess.
From how the Internet fosters innovation and open-source communities to why education should favor distributed creativity over centralized instruction.
Neoteny, one of my favorite words, means the retention of childlike attributes in adulthood: idealism, experimentation and wonder. In this new world, not only must we behave more like children, we also must teach the next generation to retain those attributes that will allow them to be world-changing, innovative adults who will help us reinvent the future.
Note: This essay is part of a NYT special series on the future of technology.
st. claire – the simple things
i’ve been listening to this album all morning, and i never want to stop.
in a related story, i’ve figured out that the only things that ever really get attention on here are the things that people already know and love…which really isn’t fair to the world, if you think about it.
anyway, this is like everything you love, but better. it’s got the front porch feelings of iron and wine or bonnie prince billy, with a little of the creepiness of cary ann hearst. it also has feelings. and banjos.
Here’s to being fair.
It’s at once reaffirming and intimidating when someone asks me for advice. Who, me?Giving advice? It’s reaffirming—or, flattering—that they value my perspective enough to ask, and intimidating in that I feel compelled to preface everything I say. The opportunity to doll out advice is kind of a weighty responsibility, ya know? Ironically or fittingly, you decide, this year found me in many situations when others sought my advice, while I myself was the one in grave need of it—on the hunt for mentors, daily.
Thing is, there’s a lot of getting in the giving.
Turns out that sharing advice is excellent opportunity (and push) to re-evaluate oneself. What is it that I know? How did I arrive there? The more I have to formulate sensible feedback to those late-night phone calls or to the panicky emails, the more clear-minded I feel about my own dilemmas. Is the advice we share the advice we ourselves most need to hear? In my case lately, yes.
I’ve been working with a class of (mostly) freshmen this semester, and nearing the end our conversations have shifted from what in the world all those cost curves mean to What courses should I take? What do you think about transferring? Should I apply to study abroad? Should I do _______ this summer? And so on. I love these exchanges. We mull pros and cons, share anecdotes, and debate next steps. As each discussion concludes, I return to wisdom someone passed on to last summer’s students (re: college in general).
By the time you graduate, you should know how to read critically, think analytically, write clearly, do a bit of math, and speak cogently and confidently whether to an individual or to a large group. You should understand the benefits of being both decisive and committed. Most of all, you should know how to work.
Work. What is work? I was perched on my bathroom counter, on the phone long past midnight, when that question came up. I had just recounted the above, and my friend wanted to know, Well, how would you define work? She explained that it was a question on a philosophy exam from our college days that even now she can’t answer. We didn’t come up with a new, revelatory definition but this question, it lingers, it wakes me up, it keeps me up.
Thinking about the what naturally led to asking why. Why do we work? The most compelling reason that came to mind: growth.
I want to be the kind of person who works (can work) in order to grow. How fitting then to rediscover Bruce Mau’s Incomplete Manifesto today. Rule #1:
Allow events to change you. You have to be willing to grow. Growth is different from something that happens to you. You produce it. You live it. The prerequisites for growth: the openness to experience events and the willingness to be changed by them.
I might even say demand in addition to “allow.” Be willing to change, yes, but also view it as a requisite. Demand growth.
Now there’s the advice I needed to hear.