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Was not feeling festive. And then Aunt Becky sent her famous Santa cookies OMG pic.twitter.com/uUIs90Oxsp
— Austin Kleon (@austinkleon) December 20, 2015
My aunt Becky died this week at the age of 72.
I have read a lot of obituaries, but hers is the first I have written.
While I was writing it, I thought a lot about constraint and form and perspective. How we get to know a person and how impossible it can be to communicate the sum of who they were, with all the multitudes they contained.
People see you through their own lenses. You’re as many different people as the number of people who know you, and for any life, there are many possible obituaries.
Thank goodness for structure. I felt very lucky, piecing together the information the family sent me, that there is a general form to obituaries, with a few variations.
I was also thinking about an alternate obituary — the obituary I would write if I didn’t have all this good information.
What do I remember about my aunt Becky?
Primarily, I remember her as a Reader. She loved to read and she dedicated her life to teaching her students how to read.
She had the no-nonsense-ness of a teacher. She carried the wisdom — and the authority! — of someone who’d done the reading.
Nobody does the reading anymore. Becky did.
I remember her giving excellent gifts, maybe a book she’d picked up during a trip to Colonial Williamsburg or Monticello. (Jefferson: “I cannot live without books.”) I definitely remember her gifting me books about the Beatles when I was obsessed with them.
And the Santa cookies. Aunt Becky baked the absolute greatest Santa cookies. Whatever address we had, she’d mail them to us every December. Scroll up and look at them again. Each wrapped individually in a little plastic cookie sleeve. Made by a woman who knew what she was doing.
What gifts she gave me! Books and cookies.
What more could this nephew want from his aunt?
I had a long, lovely chat with doctor and YouTuber Ali Abdaal this week. He read my book Show Your Work! in 2016 and said it inspired him to start sharing online. (He now has over a million subscribers and makes more money as a YouTuber than a doctor!)
One of the topics from the book we discussed is how much you learn when you have the courage to share what you have learned, regardless of your level of expertise.
It was certainly true of our conversation, as I learned something really interesting from Ali: he says he gets way better results with his YouTube videos when he titles them, “How I Remember Everything I Read,” instead of “How to Remember Everything You Read.” There’s something about using the first-person pronoun that opens things up, lets him speak from his own experience, and lets viewers feel like they can take what they need and do their own thing.
Stop worrying about becoming an expert before you start. Teaching that comes from a fellow student is often more impactful than teaching from an expert. C.S.Lewis once said “fellow schoolboys can teach fellow students just as effectively as the teacher”. It’s the difference between saying ‘I’m an expert and I’m going to teach you something’, and saying ‘I’m a fellow student and I’m going to share what I’ve learnt and maybe you can take something from this’.
By his own account, Quah’s actual qualifications for taking on the role of public thinker on podcasting were nil. He’d never made a podcast, had no background in radio or audio media of any kind. In fact, he was not long out of college and a few months into his first media job, an entry-level gig at Business Insider that he describes as closer to market research than journalism. He was basically some random guy with a new off-hours hobby…. Within a couple years of starting his newsletter, this random guy was able to quit his day job and become, for lack of a better word, a full-time expert…
Rob writes, “More than ever, expertise seems to have become a DIY affair; strategic and determined obsession can replace specific credentials or a tangible track record.”
Again, it’s not about being credentialed or being an expert, it’s about seeing a space open up, starting to do work that needs doing, sharing your ideas, and sticking around long enough so people show up and you can interact with them in a meaningful way and build something lasting.
Part of this is also forgetting about job titles and focusing on the work that should be done. Here’s a brief clip from a longer conversation I had with Nelda Sue Yaw about an idea from my book Keep Going:
The crucial thing, I think, is that if you do get the job title, if you do become something like an “expert” or “professional” in your field, you must retain an amateur’s spirit and remain a student, so that you can benefit from the best thing about having your work out in world: the “free education that goes on for a lifetime.”
I’ve been making more of tape
quilts patchworks in the morning to clear my mind and keep my hands busy.
“I have to have something to with my hands to keep me satisfied,” says 93-year-old quilt artist Laverne Brackens.
Brackens says her designs often come to her in dreams. She then wakes up in the middle of the night and arranges her vision to be sewn the next morning. “You’d be surprised at what you can do with the material,” she explains. “The quilt takes you where it wants you to go, not where you want to go.”
I find that’s true of all of my work, too. Anni Albers said you have to let the materials lead:
Being creative is not so much the desire to do something as the listening to that which wants to be done. The dictation of the materials.
It’s as true for people who work with words as thread. Here’s an excerpt from Irish poet Ciaran Carson’s obituary:
Mr. Carson — who was also a translator, working in several languages — viewed writing poetry not as an exercise in setting down an idea, but as an exploration.
“The kind of examination question which used to be put, ‘What did the poet have in mind when he said …’ is an assumption that the poet clothes his thought in verse,” he told The Spectator in 2012, “whereas the poet often doesn’t know what he has in mind: He follows the language, and sees where it might lead him, which is usually a very different place from what he thought at the onset.
“If you know exactly what you are going to say in a poem,” he continued, “that poem will be a failure. Besides, there is no interest or fun, in saying what you already know.”
When I came across artist Bisa Butler’s quilts, which are based off of photographs, I wondered if there was still room for this kind of exploration. “I like working from black-and-white photos,” she says, “because it gives me the freedom to put in the colors I feel belong there.”
I’ve been asked a few times how I store my zines, but my solution (I put them in a box) is far less clever than cartoonist and journalist Malaka Gharib’s solution: She uses a binder filled with sheet protectors for trading cards!
Filed under: zines
Here is a collection of posts from artist Amy Meissner — one of my favorite follows on Instagram — advertising a mending and clothes repair workshop she helped run in Anchorage, Alaska, before the pandemic. They all have the same caption: “Mend a thing.”
Here’s something she said about the workshops that has stuck with me:
Once you’ve mended something, if you didn’t have sentimental value attached to it before, then you certainly do once you’ve taken the time to care for it.
“CARE FOR SOMETHING” is the last lesson in my friend Rob Walker’s wonderful book, The Art of Noticing.
He explained in his newsletter:
[O]ne of my favorite responses to a willfully open-ended prompt I give my students — I order them to “practice paying attention” — came from a student who thought he did it wrong. He had made a planter, he explained, for a cactus. He’d done this, he said, on the theory that “by nurturing or caring for something, you pay more attention to it.” And of course he was right! (See also this recent Times Magazine essay making a similar point: “How Taking Care of Houseplants Taught Me to Take Care of Myself.”)
I will try to connect Amy and Rob’s thoughts with a snippet from Keep Going:
“Attention is the most basic form of love,” wrote John Tarrant. When you pay attention to your life, it not only provides you with the material for your art, it also helps you fall in love with your life.
So, while we often think of love as leading to care, care can also lead us to love.
I feel this most deeply with my kids. I’m closest to them when I’m giving them my full, undistracted attention and care. I feel the least love for them when I’m trying to get something else done, or I’m wishing I was elsewhere. (There must be a connection here to John Cage’s formula: If we ignore noise, it disturbs us. When we listen to noise, we find it fascinating.)
In her book, The Gardener and the Carpenter, Alison Gopnik advocates for the abandoning of the word “parenting” as a verb, and encourages readers to think of being a parent as a relationship that runs on love, instead of a job that runs on work. “Love doesn’t have goals or benchmarks of blueprints,” she writes, “but it does have a purpose.” The purpose of loving children is to care for them as a gardener would tend to plants, creating the conditions under which they will thrive.
This caring, she says, changes us, and deepens our love. “We don’t care for children because we love them,” she writes, “we love them because we care for them.”
This sentence has profound implications for parents and caregivers of all kinds. (Including children caring for aging parents.) I’m not even sure if the sentence is true, but I want it to be, and if it isn’t true, it is a useful fiction, because it encourages us to do the verb, first — not to wait on the deep feeling before we care, but to care first, and if the feeling comes it comes, but if it doesn’t, at least we’ve cared.
Gary Snyder once said he didn’t think talking about “doom scenarios” were very effective when it comes to changing people’s behavior. “The first step, I think… is to make us love the world rather than to make us fear for the end of the world. Make us love the world… and then begin to take better care of it.” I’m thinking of this now, and wondering if the first step is to perform an act of care — to mend, to repair, to darn, to sew, to patch, to heal — and then the love will come.
Or maybe it’s not directional at all, but an endless cycle:
“I’ve always been a tinkerer,” he begins, and explains how his father, a jazz musician, cut off his finger and had to modify a clarinet with saxophone keys so he could play. (It just gets better from there.)
A device he invented for holding up his guitar so he could tap double-handed turned into one of the greatest illustrations ever filed for a patent:
For another great look at Van Halen’s tinkering spirit, check out this 1998 MTV interview at 5051 Studios, which he had built (and passed off to city inspectors as a racquetball court to avoid zoning issues) so he could record at home:
The interview touches on many of my favorite subjects: home recording, architecture, design, constraint, fatherhood, etc.
I love what he says about being self-taught:
It’s music theory, not fact. Like lawyers and doctors: “Still practicing.” They ain’t got it down yet. It’s music theory, not fact. There are no rules. I never learned how to read music. Maybe that’s why I’m so twisted and unorthodox. But if I’d have taken guitar lessons, I wouldn’t do all the silly stuff that I do!
And this story about his son, Wolfgang, being in music class at school:
He’s in first grade… so he’s got a music class once a week. And Wolfy asks me, “When you’re doing that high stuff on the guitar… I really like it when you do that.” I said, “That’s called ‘improvising’ — when you stray off the melody.” […] It was Halloween, and they’re singing songs [in music class] and he’s improvising! Straying off the melody a little bit! And the teacher gave him a time out. And Wolfy got pissed off. So he picked up a pumpkin and threw it at the teacher! […] So I get a call from the principal, and I had to go down there. And I said, “There are no rules. I don’t want my son learning that way. His life is surrounded by music all the time, and I don’t want him taught by a book.”
It’s the 70th birthday to Charles Schulz’s Peanuts, one of the greatest works of American art. (The very first strip ran on Oct. 2, 1950.) In celebration, I thought I’d post a batch of my remixed Peanuts strips I make in my diary, which are made from cut-up Page-A-Day calendars I buy every year. Be forewarned: They’re pretty weird.
Links to four zines worth of them:
See also: “Cutting and pasting the comics”
Speaking of bored games, I’m at the point in quarantine where I’ve purchased yet another Rubik’s Cube:
I love this one. Buttery action and stickerless. Only trouble is, I’m a bit red/green colorblind, so the low contrast is a little hard on my eyes in low light. Worth $7 for sure.
I literally do not know how these kids do it. I have the algorithms memorized and I’m down to around a 2 1/2 minute average on my solve time, but I can’t imagine being able to do it any quicker than one minute or even 30 seconds, let alone 7 seconds. Blows my mind.
Here’s the patent and original prototype by the cube’s inventor, Erno Rubik. He has a new book out called Cubed: The Puzzle of Us All, and was profiled by The New York Times. Loved the description of tinkering in his childhood bedroom, which resembled “the inside of a child’s pocket, with crayons, string, sticks, springs and scraps of paper scattered across every surface.”
These days, he spends his time reading sci-fi, playing table tennis, gardening and tending to his cactuses: “They have wonderful flowers and long life spans.” He is not done with the cube. He still reflects on its possibilities — not an improvement to its design, but on its potential applications.
“I am not doing it because I want to become a champion, or because I am expecting new discoveries from playing it. At the same time, I am expecting some new potentials for the basic ideas,” Rubik said. “I see potentials which are not used yet. I’m looking for that.”
I had a breakthrough recently where I was finally able to solve the (longest) algorithm for moving the corner cubes in the top row counterclockwise or clockwise. Turns out the problem was my badly copied notes, which broke the algorithm into two lines and made it seem more complicated than it is:
A dumb mistake with a good lesson: while copying notes by hand is worthwhile for retention, re-copying them might be even more worthwhile for comprehension.
(Is this the nerdiest post I’ve ever written? Quite possibly.)
Today I remembered that the ancients named the seven days after the five planets known to them — plus the sun and moon — but only three of the days correlate in English: Satur(n)-day, Sun-day, and Mo(o)n-day. The other days are derived from Anglo-Saxon names for gods:
Here’s a video explanation:
After watching that video back in January, my son and I tried to map it out for ourselves (I believe strongly in copying out charts to better understand them):
This is the time of year I think a lot about seasons and how we’ve managed to carve up time. It’s amazing how much of this stuff we just take for granted. For example, the word “month” comes from “moon,” as the months roughly correlate to the length of a moon cycle. (This month, wonderfully, begins with a full moon and ends on a full moon.)
“Sunset month of the year” struck me this morning, made me realize the parallel between seasons and days. Spring is like early morning, summer; mid-day, fall; sunset and evening, winter; night. Damn, how nature loves to re-use a pattern.
Filed under: Time
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