Some mornings, after our walk, my 21-month-old son and I will sit on our front steps and draw on a little square of the sidewalk with chalk. Birds (“brrr!”), trucks (“chuck!”) and maybe the letter S (“esh!”) or B (“buh!”) It never gets old, but it gets hot, so when we’re sweaty enough, I stick the little box of sidewalk chalk behind a potted plant on our porch, and we go back inside the house.
* * *
This morning when we got back from our walk, I noticed someone had taken the red chalk from the box and written down the sidewalk:
COMPOST!!! COMPLETES THE CYCLE. CREATES COMMUNITY. “CATCHING.”
At first I was puzzled by the graffiti, but then I looked across the street at the signs stuck in my neighbors’ tree lawns, advertising the URL of the local “bike-powered compost recycling” startup. And like Will Graham in an episode Hannibal, I blinked my eyes a couple times, and reconstructed the scene: The Composter, biking the big barrel around, collecting the green buckets from porches, comes across my porch, which is bucketless. The Composter takes in our drawings, notices the sidewalk chalk, and sees not a marketing opportunity, no, but a chance to spread the message.
* * *
I’ve been feeling cranky lately about the slogans I’ve seen coming from the “creative” slash “entrepreneural” slash “startup” worlds:
MAKE YOUR MARK.
PUT A DENT IN THE UNIVERSE.
It strikes me that both of these metaphors involve vandalism.
The first, “Make your mark,” reminds me of my dog, lifting his leg, and leaving his “mark” on a lamppost.
The second, “Put a dent in the universe,” reminds me of opening a car door in a crowded parking lot.
(It comes from something Steve Jobs said: “We’re here to put a dent in the universe. Otherwise why else even be here?”)
These slogans presuppose that the world is in need of marking or denting, and that the purpose of human beings is to leave some sort of sign that we were here. They remind me of one of my favorite Chris Ware comic strips, called “Rocket Sam on the Mysterious Cave Planet of Zanndor” — a pudgy cosmonaut travels the galaxy to the planet of Zanndor, explores its exotic surface, spelunks down into a cave, and when he reaches his final destination, pulls out a can of spray paint and graffitis profanity and genitals on the walls. In the final panels, he returns to his rocket ship and flies off.
* * *
“I look at art, all of art, as graffiti. That’s how the Italians describe the hieroglyphics on the Egyptian tombs, they were just pictures of a past culture. That is all art is, a way of expressing emotions that come out of a certain culture at a certain time. That’s what cartoons are, and that’s what comics are.”
* * *
When it comes to graffiti, one man’s vandalism is another man’s art.
What’s the difference between the “tag,” that ugly scrawl that announces so-and-so was here:
Or Keith Haring?
Can we forgive vandalism if we like the message?
Or if it’s clever?
Or if it’s harmless?
What about when vandalism is an act of public service?
Suddenly, “making your mark” can mean lots of different things. What matters, of course, isn’t making a mark, but the purpose behind making a mark.
* * *
So that brings me back to The Composter. I don’t know what possesses somebody in business to use a kid’s sidewalk chalk to advertise their service. (I’m currently imagining, for example, if China Palace, my local Chinese takeout joint, decided that instead of slipping a menu under my doormat, they’d leave their own chalk message: FREE EGG ROLLS FOR ANY DELIVERY ORDER OVER $25!!! ) The act was annoying, but not malicious. I think it probably came from a decent, if not a little self-righteous, place.
Sometimes having an important mission makes us do dumb things.
* * *
A peek at the company’s website tells me they’re trying to improve their community by “unleashing their creativity,” and “creativity means challenging the status quo.”
And that brings me to a point: creativity doesn’t necessarily mean anything. Creativity is not an end, but a means. A tool for making things exist that don’t currently exist. You can use it to save the planet, or you can use it to ruin it. When we celebrate the act of creativity regardless of its purpose, we get slogans like “make your mark.” As if making a mark is always a good thing.
Not every mark that can be made should be made. This might be a strange thing to admit for someone who literally makes marks for a living. Every writer who publishes wonders whether they’re adding anything of value to the world, or whether they’re just vandalizing. (Sometimes I wonder if I should put down the Magic Marker and pick up a Magic Eraser.)
Look around: the world doesn’t need more vandals, it needs more cleanup crews.
So back to “making your mark.” Maybe we should find another metaphor altogether. Maybe we could borrow a phrase from medicine:
First, do no harm.
Or maybe that’s too weak. Too passive. So maybe this:
Leave things better than you found them.
Now we can argue about the word “better”…