Our morning walks have been particularly good this past week. The Texas spring is still going strong, and it’s not too hot, not yet. I thought I’d make a “joiner” (from my Instagram stories) in the style of Hockney to celebrate.
“It’s like, anyone can figure out how to draw something. But it’s hard to tell people how to see something.”
Of all places, I was in a hotel room in Crystal City, Virginia when I heard Jason died. I was trying to decide what to eat for lunch. I started crying. I typed “Taco Bell” into Google Maps. I stuffed a handkerchief in my back pocket and put on my sunglasses so I could keep crying. Then I walked to a mall in Pentagon City.
They say life is stranger than fiction, but life often feels like bad fiction. Stupid, over-the-top, a-little-too-on-the-nose fiction. I hadn’t walked a block when I passed a demolition site. Workers were spraying the building with a big jet of water to keep the dust down while a bulldozer tore it to pieces. The fencing around the site had been covered with multi-colored bicycles and inspirational phrases: “WHY NOT? BREATHE. EXPLORE.” I passed a glorious patch of pansies. (Oh, for crying out loud!)
When I got to the mall, I ordered a Crave Box with a Dr. Pepper and sat down in the food court to eat. It tasted really good. Then I made a drawing.
“If you draw at a Taco Bell, you’re a member,” Jason said, of Taco Bell Drawing Club. “There are no rules. I often draw people, but you can draw whatever you want.”
When I got back to the hotel I was scheduled to do a Q&A in a room full of a hundred people. I told them a short version of what I’m about to tell you:
Jason was one of my favorite artists. He was, more importantly, a total mensch. A sweet, soft-spoken guy. I really liked his work and I really liked him.
His art was the embodiment of so many of the things that I love. He believed in walking around and looking at everything and drawing what you saw. He paid attention. He did that thing that all my favorite artists do: He found magic in the mundane.
He was born a year before I was and grew up one state to the northwest, in Michigan. You could tell he got a little thrill when he drew a celebrity on the street and he wasn’t at all ashamed about it. He seemed absolutely sincere and, well, American to me in his love for things like cheeseburgers and Taco Bell. He wasn’t jaded or ironic. He was enthusiastic. (Attention = love.)
I think of him as a drawer, but he was a writer, too. He knew the power of words next to an image — if you look at his drawings, the captions are really what provide so much of the drawings with meaning. (I loved his long, rambling Instagram captions.)
He’s one of the few artists whose work I happily hang in my office and also in my kids’ room. He seemed to have that kind of child-like spirit that really gifted drawers are able to hold onto. I once complimented him on his drawing, and he tweeted back, “I feel my drawings have gone downhill since I was about five.”
The last time I saw Jason was in the summer of 2018. I was in New York for no more than 24 hours, and I randomly bumped into him while browsing the gift shop at the Whitney. I remember he apologized about how sweaty he was from walking around. “Otherwise, I’d give you a hug!”
We only got to visit for a few minutes and then I had to hop a cab over to Brooklyn to get my picture taken. (I don’t remember this part, but my diary from that day says: “I told him I loved seeing the world through his eyes — he seemed touched that I said that.”) I had no idea until a few days later that he’d drawn this picture of me:
It made me so happy to think of him out in the world with his Strathmore pad and a Uniball, scratching away, maybe stopping for a slice of pizza. I can’t believe he’s gone. My heart goes out to his family and friends. I’m so grateful for his work and I’m glad to have known him.
Last week I read about Richard F. Shepard, a writer and editor at the New York Times who took interns and new reporters at the paper on epic tours of New York, teaching them how to investigate and navigate the city.
He said you can’t really figure out the city unless you travel on foot. Here’s what he wrote in his book, Going Out In New York: A Guide for the Curious:
There is no one real New York. It is more of a collage of bits and pieces, each with its own character, often absolutely contradictory to all others and yet purely New York… The only way to savor these varied panoramas is to stroll through; you can see them by car but you can only feel them on foot.
He also said you have to look up:
Look up, he said. Look especially at second-floor windows above storefronts. That, he liked to say, is where a lot of absorbing action takes place. Why would a perambulating soul wish to miss any of it?
Filed under: walking.
“Race to the Top; what a horrid metaphor for education. A race? Everyone is on the same track, seeing how fast they can go? Racing toward what? The top? The top of what? Education is not a race, it’s an amble. Real education only occurs when everyone is ambling along their own path.”
Here are points 2 and 3 in full:
2. Always work (note, write) from your own interest, never from what you think you should be noting or writing. Trust your own interest. I have a strong interest, at the moment, in Roman building techniques…. My interest may pass. But for the moment I follow it and enjoy it, not knowing where it will go.
Let your interest, and particularly what you want to write about, be tested by time, not by other people—either real other people or imagined other people.
This is why writing workshops can be a little dangerous, it should be said; even the teachers or leaders of such workshops can be a little dangerous; this is why most of your learning should be on your own. Other people are often very sure that their opinions and their judgments are correct.
3. Be mostly self-taught.
There is a great deal to be learned from programs, courses, and teachers. But I suggest working equally hard, throughout your life, at learning new things on your own, from whatever sources seem most useful to you. I have found that pursuing my own interests in various directions and to various sources of information can take me on fantastic adventures: I have stayed up till the early hours of the morning poring over old phone books; or following genealogical lines back hundreds of years; or reading a book about what lies under a certain French city; or comparing early maps of Manhattan as I search for a particular farmhouse. These adventures become as gripping as a good novel.
I love those verbs: following your interests, pursuing them, trusting that they will lead you somewhere.
Ambling along your own path… even if it’s deep into an unknown woods…
Related read: “Have you tried making yourself a more interesting person?”
I had made a significant change in my relation to the place: before, it had been mine by coincidence or accident; now it was mine by choice. My return, which at first had been hesitant and tentative, grew wholehearted and sure. I had come back to stay.
My wife and I took a magical little walk (just an hour or so after I had written this post!) in a part of town unknown to us and I thought about happy we were to be back here, in the place that suits us, walking and exploring and just living our lives.
If you pop over to Keri Smith’s website for her book The Wander Society, you’ll find printable PDFs of “The Wander Society Pocket Library,” handy little pocket zines you can print out and stick in your pocket before you go sauntering around.
They’re all worth reading, but my favorite, no surprise, is HDT’s “Walking” (1862):
If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again—if you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settled all your affairs, and are a free man—then you are ready for a walk.
It’s chased nicely by Morley, who says, “I can be as solitary in a city street as ever Thoreau was in Walden.” (1920, from Travels in Philadelphia.)
“The Art of Idleness” (1926) is excerpted from the recently reissued The Gentle Art of Tramping.
Virginia Woolf, by the way, was a fan of Thoreau, and wrote this about him in 1917, on his 100th birthday:
Few people, it is safe to say, take such an interest in themselves as Thoreau took in himself; for if we are gifted with an intense egoism we do our best to suffocate it in order to live on decent terms with our neighbours. We are not sufficiently sure of ourselves to break completely with the established order. This was Thoreau’s adventure; his books are the record of that experiment and its results. He did everything he could to intensify his own understanding of himself, to foster whatever was peculiar, to isolate himself from contact with any force that might interfere with his immensely valuable gift of personality. It was his sacred duty, not to himself alone but to the world; and a man is scarcely an egoist who is an egoist on so grand a scale. When we read “Walden,” the record of his two years in the woods, we have a sense of beholding life through a very powerful magnifying glass.
Filed under: walking
“Everything is within walking distance if you have the time.”
I’m skeptical of nagging technology and tracking technology, but my Fitbit has kept me from turning into a gigantic lump on book tour. Here’s David Sedaris in his essay, “Stepping Out,” collected in Calypso:
I was travelling myself when I got my Fitbit, and because the tingle feels so good, not just as a sensation but also as a mark of accomplishment, I began pacing the airport rather than doing what I normally do, which is sit in the waiting area, wondering which of the many people around me will die first, and of what. I also started taking the stairs instead of the escalator, and avoiding the moving sidewalk.
The other morning I hit 10,000 steps before 10AM. I took a walk along Lake Michigan and decided to walk to my train at Union Station.
You hit 10,000 at 10AM and you can feel smug for the rest of the day!
Here is a beautiful passage about walking from Elizabeth McCracken’s Bowlaway:
In the mornings he would walk…. At the start of a walk, alone or moving, the sun at his back or cold rain down his collar, he was more himself than under any other circumstance, until he had walked so far he was not himself, not a self, but joined to the world. Invisibly joined. Had a religion been founded on this, purely this, he would have converted….. Proof of God? Proof was in the world, and the way you visited the world was on foot…. Your walking was a devotion.
Filed under: walking
This morning we debated whether to walk out in the rain or stay in the house with the boys. We chose the rain and were rewarded.
We are receiving our portion of the infinite… I do not so much wish to know how to economize time as how to spend it.
The scenery, when it is truly seen, reacts on the life of the seer. How to live. How to get the most life. How to extract its honey from the flower of the world. That is my every-day business….
I am convinced that men are not well employed, that this is not the way to spend a day. If by patience, if by watching, I can secure one new ray of light, can feel myself elevated for an instant… shall I not be a watchman henceforth?
Today I discovered that you can use a stretch of the Shoal Creek Greenbelt trail to walk between Bookpeople and the Central Library. That means if I added less than a mile to one of my epic Greenbelt walks to the Central Library I could almost walk from my house to Bookpeople without using a city street…
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