TAoN No. 67: New Attention for Something Old

PLUS: Savoring the un-capturable; a new icebreaker; and a personal note

The Art of Noticing: 131 Ways to Spark Creativity, Find Inspiration, and Discover Joy In the Everyday offers exercises, prompts, provocations, games and things you can actually do to build attention muscles, stave off distraction, pick up on what everybody else overlooked, and experience the joy of noticing. Indiebound | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Knopf. This newsletter offers related news and ideas that have come along since the book.

“Clean Out Some Drawers”

THE PROMPT: Seek out and revisit something that has been there all along — and deserves fresh consideration.

Much is being written right now about the distinct challenges of this late-but-ambiguous phase of the Covid-19 nightmare. There’s an end in sight — but there’s also a pervasive sense of burnout. There’s also a sense of hope for keeping positive lockdown-era habits, or at least avoid returning to bad old ones.

Against that complicated backdrop, a recent suggestion from artist/writer/Design Observer founder (and friend of TAoN) Jessica Helfand struck me as useful.

Early in the pandemic, Helfand started “The Self-Reliance Project,” a series of dispatches (referencing Emerson’s famous 1841 essay) on “what it means to be a maker during a crisis.” In one essay, she mused on various ways one might “recalibrate.” Among them: “Fall in love with some new thing, or even revisit what’s right in front of you in a new way, and fall in love with that.

More recently, toward the end of this interview on the In the Pursuit of Luxury podcast, she revisited this idea of revisiting. Designers (among others) often focus on the future, she observed, to the point of dismissing history as a nostalgia trap. “But I think one of the things you can do in your studio, or in your life, is to revisit what you’ve got, and reconstitute it in some way,” she said, continuing:

“When my children were young, on rainy days or snowy days when I was going out of my mind, we’d often clean out their closets, and they’d always find some toy at the back of the closet that they forgot they had. Hours of fun would ensue. I know artists that do that. If you’re having a tough day in the studio and you don’t have any ideas, you clean out some drawers.

Perhaps, Helfand continues, we’ve all had more of the “luxury” of “me time” than we ever wanted. But maybe that’s exactly why, as we wind this period down, we should consider “revisiting what you’ve got, and eliciting from it or excavating something of value.”

“There’s something really marvelous about finding that forgotten thing – old letters, old correspondence, old things you meant to read. And if that doesn’t work, you go do time travel on the Internet, and look at some great collection online. I’ve spent snowstorms looking at the Library of Congress, just looking at posters, and being so delighted.”

If you’ve reached a stage where it’s time to recalibrate again, this is a really a helpful line of thought: Look for the toy you forgot you have. “There’s a sort of less-is-more lesson in this,” Helfand concludes. “You think you need more, bigger, better things. But maybe, in your own back yard, you’ve got them already.

More about Helfand’s wonderful books, paintings, and other work here.


Personal Note

As some of you know, I recently took the buyout that Medium offered to editorial employees; my last day is Wednesday. It’s a nice package that gives me plenty of breathing room, so don’t worry! But while I’ll be taking a bit of a break to weigh next moves — and to finish some personal projects, one in particular I’ll be excited to tell you about soon — this newsletter will continue as normal.

“Normal” means I’m always thinking about changes and experiments, but there will be no hiatus, is what I’m saying. I’ve really come to value and truly appreciate the readership here more and more. In fact, right now in particular I would love it if you would spread the word about TAoN. (If you like TAoN, that is; if you don’t, please keep that opinion to yourself!)

Share The Art of Noticing


Something To Notice

“Something To Notice” is a simple suggestion for something you might want to make an effort to notice in the weeks ahead. That’s it. (This feature has gone missing since TAoN No. 59 but I’m bringing it back! “The Dictionary of Missing Words” series will return next issue.) This week’s suggestion comes from .. me!

The un-capturable

Back story: On a recent bike ride along one of my regular routes, I caught a glimpse from the corner of my eye of a runaway helium balloon, silvery-pink against a deep blue sky. I craned to look at it and it zigged and zagged and almost seemed to follow me for a block or two. I considered stopping to take a picture — but realized there was no way to capture how gorgeous this thing looked.

A few days later, on a Sunday morning ride through an unfamiliar neighborhood, I caught the sound of a gospel singer from a church somewhere nearby; the music rose and fell as the wind shifted and I couldn’t nail down exactly where it was coming from. I considered stopping to make a sound shot — but realized there was no way to capture how gorgeous this music sounded.

Notice, and savor, the the things that can’t be captured.

Have a suggestion for Something To Notice? Tell me: consumed@robwalker.net or in the comments.


Icebreaker Of The Week

  • Noticing is about other people, too. The Icebreaker series aims to help with that. There’s a central collection spot for all the icebreakers to date, here. || There’s also an Icebreaker Slack app, here. (Back story on that here.)

This week’s icebreaker comes from reader Doug Fawcett:

What is your most vivid memory of a historical event that occurred during your childhood?

This one is easier for me to answer if the age range includes adolescence — I was a teenager when The Challenger blew up, and have a very strong memory of learning about that from my friend whose locker was next to mine. His class had actually been watching the launch live. That said, Doug’s answer is kind of the standard-setter: the Kennedy assassination. But this is a great suggestion — thanks, Doug!

As usual, I’m still working through the backlog of icebreaker submissions, but as always, I want more:

Send your favorite icebreaker (whether you made it up or found it elsewhere) to consumed@robwalker.net


In Other News

@libristerica (Another one I can’t actually read but I assume is nice!)

  • The mighty HILOBROW kicks off SEMIO OBJECTS, a series of essays by professional semioticians on objects of personal significance. (This is an extension of PROJECT:OBJECT, which now that I think about it is very in-line with the theme of this issue’s opening prompt!) The new series unfolds here.

  • Friend of TAoN Carla Diana’s terrific book My Robot Gets Me (I liked it so much I blurbed it!) is out. A virtual launch event in the form of a salon with Carla and folks from Smart Design is April 13: Registration is open now.

  • Also coming up: an online, communal session dedicated to writing letters to those no longer with us. Fascinating.

  • Totally delightful and mind-expanding BBC audio doc: “The poet Raymond Antrobus explores the art of translating sound for the eye, looking at the poetic possibilities of closed captions.”

  • I’m so into the collage illustrations of Lola Dupré, recently written up in Colossal. I’ve been following her Tumblr for years (she’s also on Instagram) and even tried to get her to be part of the Lost Objects installment of Project:Object. She was too busy, but I remain a fan!

  • Onomatopee is a visual exploration of sound through interwoven typography and illustration.” Looks (sounds?) very cool!

  • Aging joyfully > aging gracefully.

  • I am quite excited about Anne Elizabeth Moore’s new memoir Gentrifier. One admirer describes it as a story of “class, race, gender, religion, sexuality, economics, love, community, and the medical industrial complex, all through the lens of Moore's experience of being given a 'free' house in Detroit.” Moore is a sharp observer and a terrifically smart, funny, fearless, and at times lacerating writer. And, of course, she is a friend of TAoN. More, including preorder info, here.

  • Mmuseumm is reopening!

Okay that’s it! Next issue in two weeks.

As always, I value your feedback (suggestions, critiques, positive reinforcement, constructive insults, etc.), as well as your tips or stories or personal noticing rituals, things we need a word for, and of course your icebreakers: consumed@robwalker.net. Or please use the comments!

Leave a comment

Thanks for reading …
rw

P.S. If you enjoyed this, click the heart symbol, share it and/or sign up here: robwalker.substack.com.

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All this by Rob Walker PO Box 171, 748 Mehle St., Arabi LA 70032 

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TAoN No. 66: A Humility Lesson

When the best answer is a question. PLUS: Missing words, a new icebreaker, and more

The Art of Noticing: 131 Ways to Spark Creativity, Find Inspiration, and Discover Joy In the Everyday offers exercises, prompts, provocations, games and things you can actually do to build attention muscles, stave off distraction, pick up on what everybody else overlooked, and experience the joy of noticing. Indiebound | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Knopf. This newsletter offers related news and ideas that have come along since the book.

When A Question Is The Answer

THE PROMPT: Notice when you are about to make a judgment — and ask a question instead.

One of the wince-inducing rituals of my job as a journalist is transcribing interviews and listening to myself fail to listen. There’s always at least one moment when I miss a chance to pursue (or even step on or get in the way of) a source’s smart point or original observation by rushing to (try to) make my own. This is a failure of attention on my part — and a failure of humility, too.

I’ve been thinking lately about humility and its connection to attention and noticing thanks to Radical Humility: Essays On Ordinary Acts, a new collection of short essays edited by Rebekah Modrak and Jamie Vander Broek. A range of contributors address the value (and often the absence) of humility in politics, art, journalism, education, and daily life. The essays are full of useful insights, and I think the project as a whole is well-timed — I know I’m not the only person who has been rethinking goals, ambitions, and values as a result of this pandemic era, and cultivating humility is certainly part of that rethink.

I’ve written in the past about Modrak, a writer and artist who teaches at the University of Michigan, and consider her a friend and hero of TAoN. So I asked if she might suggest a prompt/assignment, and she answered right away:

“A simple but challenging one that I've been trying since reading Melissa Koenig and Valerie Tiberius's essay in the book about how to be a better friend (... parent, sibling, colleague, etc.) is to notice when I'm about to make a judgment and to ask a question instead.

More broadly, the Koenig (a psychology professor) and Tiberius (a philosophy professor) essay — “Don’t Be A Know-It-All: Or, How To Be A Better Friend” — argues for a humility in relating to others that includes admitting what we don’t know, and committing to giving others the opportunity to share a perspective we may have missed.

“I don't think of myself as a judgy person,” Modrak continues, “but once I start to pay attention, this technique is more needed in my life than I like to admit.” This can involve the way she responds to anything from her daughter’s pie-making technique to her students’ artwork. “Sometimes I'm missing a key piece of information that makes the difference in how I might respond.”

“According to Koenig and Tiberius, asking a question also helps to establish trust by showing that you're interested in hearing what your friend/child/colleague has to say. My assignment for myself is to be attentive throughout the day to each moment when I'm tempted to make a judgment about someone else's choices, to keep track of those moments, and to ask a question before making any judgment.

A great assignment. And a lesson in the value of humility. More about the book, which I am enjoying, here.


Dictionary of Missing Words

  • Dictionary of Missing Words is an exercise in paying attention to phenomena you encounter — sensations, states between states, feelings, slippery things — that could be named, but don’t seem to be. More here and here.

  • This week’s submission is from reader riley jean in the comments.

The moments in interactions where one of the parties decides to accept miscommunication for the overall good of a conversation. Like when you can't understand what someone's saying and you've asked "what?" too many times, so you take the gamble that it wasn't important and go "ohhh I see, yeah haha..." so you can move on. Needs a word!

There might actually be more than one missing word here, because I feel like there should also be a word for the phrase, tone, and bodily attitudes one uses to signal the neutral-ish agreement that allows one to move on. Anyway, love this — thanks!

  • UPDATE: In TAoN No. 66, the Missing Word, from readier Jamie, was: “We need a word for mourning the loss of something you never had. For example, the career you didn't choose or the person you didn't marry.

  • This brought two interesting responses. One came from reader Kelly, in the comments: “My husband and I refer to these as ‘ghost ships,’ stealing words Cheryl Strayed used in her incredible book Tiny Beautiful Things. If you haven’t read it, may I wholeheartedly recommend it to you?? So good.”

  • The other came from reader Meg Allwein, via email: “‘A word for mourning the loss of something you never had’ = saudade. It's a Portuguese word with very nuanced meanings, one of which is exactly what Jamie was looking for. I first encountered this word about a year ago and -- as such discoveries often do -- it has come up many times since then.”

  • Thank you! I love hearing that maybe words aren’t missing after all, they were maybe just laying low.

What else should add to The Dictionary of Missing Words? Leave your suggestion (or respond to this one) in the comments.


Icebreaker Of The Week

  • Noticing is about other people, too. The Icebreaker series aims to help with that. There’s a central collection spot for all the icebreakers to date, here. || There’s also an Icebreaker Slack app, here. (Back story on that here.)

This week’s icebreaker comes from a Twitter thread from Dr. Amber Spry, brought to my attention by reader Anna Martino, in São Paolo:

“Every year when I teach identity politics I ask the same question on the first day of class. Rather than the usual icebreakers, I ask: ‘How does your family / your culture cook rice?’”

The thread (which is worth reading) goes on to explain how Spry uses “this little question about rice to transition to a more substantive discussion about how the same topic can mean many things to different people, and the way we engage with difference matters.”

Anna adds: “I liked [the question] so much, I use it all the time in my creative writing classes.” Indeed, it is a great question — and the way Spry uses it is invaluable. Her spirit is worth emulating, perhaps more than ever.

As usual, I’m still working through the backlog of icebreaker submissions, but as always, I want more:

Send your favorite icebreaker (whether you made it up or found it elsewhere) to consumed@robwalker.net


In Other News

@astridchamberland.be. (I hope it says something nice!)

Follow me on Medum

Okay that’s it! Next issue in two weeks. Unless I suddenly make good on my threat to go weekly. We’ll see!


This Is Probably Obvious, But…

I really can’t thank you all enough for the responses and ideas you share here week after week, it’s really a constant source of enjoyment, enlightenment, and surprise. None of you are obligated to chime in, but those who wish to: Please keep passing along your useful thoughts and/or reactions to things other readers have shared.

And as always, I value your feedback (suggestions, critiques, positive reinforcement, constructive insults, etc.), as well as your tips or stories or personal noticing rituals, things we need a word for, and of course your icebreakers: consumed@robwalker.net. Or use the comments!

Leave a comment

Thanks for reading …
rw

P.S. If you enjoyed this, click the heart symbol, share it with a friend or on social media, and/or sign up here: robwalker.substack.com.

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All this by Rob Walker PO Box 171, 748 Mehle St., Arabi LA 70032 

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TAoN No. 65: Honor Your Obsessions

Plus: A Missing Word, a New Icebreaker, & More

The Art of Noticing: 131 Ways to Spark Creativity, Find Inspiration, and Discover Joy In the Everyday offers exercises, prompts, provocations, games and things you can actually do to build attention muscles, stave off distraction, pick up on what everybody else overlooked, and experience the joy of noticing. Indiebound | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Knopf. This newsletter offers related news and ideas that have come along since the book.

Honor Your Obsessions

I’ve repeatedly mentioned my admiration of artist Nina Katchadourian, both in The Art of Noticing book and since the early days of this newsletter. So it’s surprising I was slow to take an interest in her latest project, even after friends recommended it. But eventually I came around — and learned something important from Katchadourian once again.

To Feel Something That Was Not of Our World,is a gallery show that was inspired by the artist’s obsession with a book called Survive The Savage Sea, an account of a family that survived 38 days in small lifeboat on the Pacific, after their vessel was destroyed by Orcas. This book was read to her as a child in the 1970s, and evidently she never got over it, re-reading the text year after year. You can see a short “orientation” video here.

The thing is, a story about a shipwrecked family stranded at sea is … not interesting to me. I mean I get why it’s extraordinary, and why other people might be fascinated. But it’s just not my kind of thing: In fact it sounded like the sort of subject that everyone is supposed to be amazed by (the book was a best-seller in its day; there was a movie), which for me is a turn-off.

But eventually I took a friend’s advice and watched a video of a Zoom-event gallery walk-through, in which Katchadourian showed and talked about the work she’d made about the book. To create the show, she spent 38 straight days making visual, audio, and video responses to and explorations of the family’s harrowing experience and ultimate survival. In the process, she spoke daily to Douglas Robertson, one of the family members (he was 18 at the time of the incident) who later wrote his own account. You can see the whole walk-through, and Katchadourian and Robertson in conversation, here.

I loved the whole thing! As one might expect given her other work, Katchadourian was clearly drawn to the creativity and ingenuity and doing-your-best-with-what’s-at-hand that the family displayed. It’s a cliché to say that limitations can be good for creativity, but these were some very extreme limitations. (More details about the show and project in this New York Times article.)

But, impressive as all that is, that’s not what turned me around on the project. What turned me around was Katchadourian’s own enthusiasm, dedication, maybe obsession. This was very clearly a personal mission, and that showed. Her interest is so obviously intense and sincere, that’s what becomes interesting.

To consider a scaled-down example of what I mean, this is why the best (in my opinion!) installments of The New York Times Magazine’s Letter of Recommendation series are the weirdest ones — I’m not particularly interested in semicolons, or collecting old issues of Sassy, or Arby’s. But I’m interested in hearing from someone who is genuinely passionate about those subjects. Again, their interest is what’s interesting.

One of my recurring themes with students or creative types or professionals or whoever is: We’re all being trained to pay attention to what’s hot, what’s now, what’s trending. But don’t worry if the thing you’ve noticed, or what you’re interested in, doesn’t fit those categories. That’s exactly the stuff that will make you different, what will make you stand out, what makes you … you.

But somehow that’s a lesson I still manage to forget sometimes, and “To Feel Something That Was Not of Our Worldwas a timely and useful reminder.

Give yourself some time to think about your most unusual (least popular?) obsessions — from childhood to the present. Consider how you might make the case for why these things matter; imagine writing your own Letter of Recommendation, and what it would say. Or maybe there’s another method you prefer to writing. Or maybe persuading someone else isn’t important to you. Point is: forget what’s trending. Honor your obsession(s).


Programming notes

First: I’m a day late with this issue. Sorry!

Second: The last few issues have gotten overwhelmingly long (seems to me) so I tried to dial this one back. I’m also toying with the idea of other changes, including shifting to a weekly schedule, but with shorter issues. We’ll see.

Finally, it has occurred to me that recent installments have been more inward-looking, which is largely a reflection of where we are in the arc of the pandemic. I’m also thinking a lot about how that can/should change, and at what cadence, as we move into whatever is waiting for us on the other side of this thing.

Your thoughts, feedback or suggestions about the future of TAoN are of course welcome. (I would be particularly interested in those of you (educators, etc.) who have used ideas from the book or newsletter that you’ve found useful, either for students, work teams, families, or yourself.) Contact info & comments button below.


Dictionary of Missing Words

  • Dictionary of Missing Words is an exercise in paying attention to phenomena you encounter — sensations, states between states, feelings, slippery things — that could be named, but don’t seem to be. More here and here.

  • This week’s submission is from Jamie, via the comments.

We need a word for mourning the loss of something you never had. For example, the career you didn't choose or the person you didn't marry.

Thank you Jamie!

What else should add to The Dictionary of Missing Words? Leave your suggestion (or respond to this one) in the comments.


Icebreaker Of The Week

  • Noticing is about other people, too. The Icebreaker series aims to help with that. There’s a central collection spot for all the icebreakers to date, here. || There’s also an Icebreaker Slack app, here. (Back story on that here.)

This week’s icebreaker comes from reader Tammy Hunter:

What was your favorite activity as a 10-year-old?

“I have always had great responses to this when I have led meetings,” Tammy says. It’s a fun one! Thanks so much, Tammy!

As usual, I’m still working through the backlog of icebreaker submissions, but as always, I want more:

Send your favorite icebreaker (whether you made it up or found it elsewhere) to consumed@robwalker.net


In Other News

@nandita.srinivas

  • Thingdown is my weekly roundup of things — objects, products, stuff — that are lately in the news or otherwise of interest right now. The latest installment is here.

  • Tangentially related to the Missing Words project: “Refresh this webpage for an endless stream of words that were invented by a machine learning algorithm,” reports Claudia Dawson in the indispensable Recommendo newsletter. Some are quite fun.

  • Adrienne Brown David. Painting one 5x7 painting every day of 2021. Beautiful. (Thanks, Cynthia!)

  • An appreciation of “the visual glory of blank VHS tapes.” Impressive. (Thanks, Kaushik!)

  • You’ve probably seen the Clothesline Animals by Helga Stentzel. Here are more of her “optical illusions using ordinary things found around the house.” Clever and sweet.

  • Reading waveforms.

  • For those interested in following the earlier prompt to invent your own holiday — turns out there’s a whole guide for doing just that. Useful!

  • & finally: this video is a few years old, but often when I feel overwhelmed by confusing stories about cryptocurrency and the blockchain and all that, I’ll watch it again, and feel much better:

Follow me on Medum

Okay that’s it! Next issue in two weeks. Or thirteen days. Or maybe in one week. We’ll see!

As always, I value your feedback (suggestions, critiques, positive reinforcement, constructive insults, etc.), as well as your tips or stories or personal noticing rituals, things we need a word for, and of course your icebreakers: consumed@robwalker.net. Or use the comments!

Leave a comment

Thanks for reading …
rw

P.S. If you enjoyed this, click the heart symbol, share it and/or sign up here: robwalker.substack.com.

Share The Art of Noticing

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All this by Rob Walker PO Box 171, 748 Mehle St., Arabi LA 70032 

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TAoN No. 64: Consider the Gifts

Plus: A One-Object Time Capsule; Another Missing Word; A New Icebreaker; & More

The Art of Noticing: 131 Ways to Spark Creativity, Find Inspiration, and Discover Joy In the Everyday offers exercises, prompts, provocations, games and things you can actually do to build attention muscles, stave off distraction, pick up on what everybody else overlooked, and experience the joy of noticing. Indiebound | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Knopf. This newsletter offers related news and ideas and noteworthy projects that have come along since the book.

Consider the Gifts

I didn’t know much about the artist Roni Horn, but as I skimmed a recent Q&A with her, this exchange stopped me:

What’s the weirdest object in your studio?

When my niece was quite young, she made this olive tree out of pipe cleaners, wool and glue for me because I’d been away for six months and she was looking forward to seeing me. It’s just the ugliest thing you’ve ever seen, but I absolutely love it. And it appears in the “The Selected Gifts” (1974-present), which is a photo installation that I made by going through my life and pulling all of the gifts given to me.

What really jumped out was the part her answer that I’ve bolded — her documentation of “all of the gifts given to me.” (Here is her related book.)

This is such a great idea! In The Art of Noticing book I have a couple of prompts related to compiling personal “inventories.” Like designer and researcher Paula Zuccotti asking subjects to document every object they touched in a 24-hour period. Or artist and educator (and TAoN pal) Kate Bingaman-Burt, a master of the inventory project, having her students list and draw personal inventories such as everything they are carrying, or everything they own that they want to get rid of. Or designer and entrepreneur Tina Roth Eisenberg’s list of “Things I Didn’t Buy” — a kind of anti-inventory. Creating an inventory can reveal something about you.

But conducting an inventory of gifts received strikes me as really resonant right now. Stopping to observe and reflect on what we’ve been given — and by whom, and why we’ve held onto it — is not only a cue to feel gratitude, but a source of connection in a distinctly unconnected time. Maybe it’s even inspiration to reach out to a gift-giver we’re missing.

The occasion of the interview (which I went back and read all the way through) is Horn’s current project: the culmination of 14 months making one work per day — a stretch that overlapped with the onset of the pandemic. This is also fascinating, and I’m excited to learn more about Horn’s work. But meanwhile, her thinking about a gifts is itself a gift.

Bonus prompt: The Art of Noticing book also includes my suggestion to always ask about the weirdest thing in the room. It often yields a great story.


A One-Object Time Capsule

After resisting the idea of the “cool mask” for nearly a year, I have now seen a mask I can’te help but admire. It’s the “Wearing Mask On Bottom of Chin Illusion” mask, from Maskalike. “It looks like you’re wearing your mask wrong (aka being a “chin masker”),” reads the product description. “But it’s actually on right! Wear it to surprise and amuse people around you.” I wrote a bit more about the mask as an object here.

Now, I totally get why someone might not be “amused” by this object at all. In real life, chin-maskers are stressful at best. But something in the dark humor and astute observation here makes me admire the object anyway. If I had to make a time capsule of this era I might choose this thing — and maybe nothing else.

  • What would you put in a time capsule to sum up this past year?

PS: Maskalike was founded by Danielle Baskin, a really impressive artist/designer with an eye for the absurd in the everyday. You can also read about her recent Blue Check Homes project — a prank that pretended you could get a physical variation on Twitter’s “verified” symbol mounted on your house to confirm your notability and authenticity to passers by. See her site for other smart and funny digital and physical creations. What a hero of noticing!

Leave a comment


Dictionary of Missing Words

  • Dictionary of Missing Words is an exercise in paying attention to phenomena you encounter — sensations, states between states, feelings, slippery things — that could be named, but don’t seem to be. More here and here.

  • This week’s submission is from Bret B, from the comments.

Need a word for the when you enter a Zoom room all by yourself. Do I have the wrong room? Do I have the wrong time? Is Zoom down? Am I alone in the universe?

Thank you Bret B.!

If you have a response (maybe there IS a word for this?), leave it in the comments.

Or even better: share your own example!

Leave a comment


Icebreaker(s) Of The Week

  • Noticing is about other people, too. The Icebreaker series aims to help with that. There’s a central collection spot for all the icebreakers to date, here. || There’s also an Icebreaker Slack app, here. (Back story on that here.)

This week’s icebreaker comes from friend of TAoN Jenna Sherry.

What activities, realizations, or new ways of doing things will you (try to) keep from this past year?

“It's a question you could ask any year, but it is particularly interesting now when there is so much focus on things we are missing being able to do,” Jenna writes. “It seems to spark a moment of reflection about what we have learned about ourselves in a challenging time, and as well as a reflection that some new habits might have come out of necessity, but contributed to better quality of life.”

It’s such a valuable thought; thanks so much, Jenna! (Bonus: Here’s a clip of her performing Brahms’ “Sonata in E Flat Major Op. 120 no. 2, II. Allegro appasionato.”)

As usual, I’m still working through the backlog of icebreaker submissions, but as always, I want more:

Send your favorite icebreaker (whether you made it up or found it elsewhere) to consumed@robwalker.net


In Other News

@counterprintbooks

Follow me on Medum

Okay that’s it! Next issue in two weeks.

As always, I value your feedback (suggestions, critiques, positive reinforcement, constructive insults, etc.), as well as your tips or stories or personal noticing rituals, and your icebreakers: consumed@robwalker.net. Or use the comments!

Leave a comment

Thanks for reading …
rw

P.S. If you enjoyed this, click the heart symbol, share it and/or sign up here: robwalker.substack.com.

Share The Art of Noticing

Twitter | Medium | RobWalker.net NB: I use (some) Amazon Affiliate links

All this by Rob Walker PO Box 171, 748 Mehle St., Arabi LA 70032 

To unsubscribe see the footer — the grey box at the bottom of the email.

TAoN No. 63: Invent Your Own Holiday

Plus: Read the walls, a missing word, new icebreaker(s), and more

The Art of Noticing: 131 Ways to Spark Creativity, Find Inspiration, and Discover Joy In the Everyday offers exercises, prompts, provocations, games and things you can actually do to build attention muscles, stave off distraction, pick up on what everybody else overlooked, and experience the joy of noticing. Indiebound | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Knopf. This newsletter offers related news and ideas and noteworthy projects that have come along since I finished the book. ****Subscribe or unsubscribe at: robwalker.substack.com.****

Invent Your Own Holiday

For those of us lucky enough to live in New Orleans, one of the great pleasures of Mardi Gras is that while our city takes the day off, puts on a silly outfit, enjoys parades and friends, and gets drunk, the rest of the country goes to work as usual. “Everywhere else, it’s just Tuesday,” as the saying goes.

This is one reason I’d been feeling so glum about Mardi Gras this year: no parades, no 9 a.m. champagne with a crowd of pals and strangers, no costumed throngs whooping it up. I almost decided I’d just go to to (remote) work like everybody else.

But New Orleans has rallied. With parades cancelled, a movement has risen from the grass roots to decorate homes as if they were carnival floats — “float houses,” they’re called, markers of “Yardi Gras.” Look, it’s not the same, but it’s really brightening up the city, and (at least a little) everyone’s mood. (An example from our neighborhood above; one E noticed in the Marigny today below. More about the float houses and lots of pictures of fancier ones here and here and here; also Metafilter has collected a group of links that give the whole back story. The idea evidently started as a Twitter joke.)

All of this reminded me of something I read in The Wall Street Journal back in November, about companies trying to figure out how to mitigate the unique work stress and burnout that pandemic culture has caused:

“Here’s a suggestion … Employers should invent a holiday. Don’t just offer extra vacation days, which anxious employees aren’t taking anyway. Make it a company holiday, so employees can take a break without guilt or fear.”

The article (which is probably behind a paywall, sorry) gives several examples of firms mandating a company-wide off day, and what various employees did instead — from visiting the beach to making art with the kids. And that’s cool. But I was briefly disappointed that nobody seemed to be devising a full on new holiday, along the lines of Festivus (from Seinfeld). Then I realized maybe we don’t want our employers doing that.

But we can do it.

And the more I think about that, the more it seems to me like a great design-class assignment, or family project, or just an individual thought exercise requiring observation of existing “holiday” parameters, contemplation of how celebration might connect us to others, and individual reflection on what seems worth celebrating in the first place. So:

  • What are your holiday’s “traditions”? Does it involve costumes? Certain specific foods? Particular music? Mandatory rituals? Special indulgences? A color scheme? Objects, whether functional, decorative, or absurd?

  • Who is involved? A group limited by personal connection, or geography, or some idea? People you hand-pick for reasons of your own? Or is it more open? Or is this a holiday just for you.

  • What is your holiday about? What deserves a holiday? (Or maybe that doesn’t matter. Don’t overthink it, keep it light if that’s easier. If your holiday is about you and a friend dressing in purple and going to museums, fine!)

  • Finally: When is your holiday? Find a day that you and your fellow observers can take off. (Bonus: make the holiday last longer with run-up events that don’t require days off. Carnival is of course a whole season of formal and informal events.)

  • PS: Don’t bother to explain all this to your boss. For years I would try to make clear to various editors elsewhere that Mardi Gras is a really big deal in New Orleans so I might be hard to reach — but they’d just call or email me anyway. Finally I just started to say “I’ll be totally unreachable Tuesday, for personal reasons.” If the reasons involved day-drinking in a wig downtown, well, so be it.

What’s really moving to me about the float-house phenomenon is the same thing that was making me so glum about the absence of parades and so on: It’s confirmation that Mardi Gras really means something. The fact that it’s so distinctly local is a big part of that. It’s not special despite its comparatively limited reach, it’s special because of that apparent limitation. It’s special because it’s ours.

So invent a holiday — one that’s yours.

(I still don’t know what I’ll actually do this Fat Tuesday, beside bike/drive around looking at houses. But I did put in for the day off.)

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Read the Walls

Longtime friend and former colleague of TAoN Ron Lieber, who writes the “Your Money” column for The New York Times, has a new book out: The Price You Pay for College: An Entirely New Roadmap for the Biggest Financial Decision Your Family Will Ever Make. It is just what it sounds like.

Ron put together a list of “the 23 best college books/guides written for the general reader” that he made available to those pre-ordered his book, and to my happy surprise it included The Art of Noticing book. The connection may not seem obvious, but Ron explained on Twitter: “I think people should read [TAoN] aloud to one another as they road trip to visit colleges.” Obviously, that would delight me.

It also made me wonder if Ron — an extremely perceptive journalist; I believe I linked earlier to his bravura piece on those big Bed, Bath & Beyond coupons — had any noticing/attention habits or tips for us. He answered immediately:

Here’s something from my book reporting, but I'm like this in real life too. Always, always, always read the walls. Read the posters, read the ads, read the random scribbled for-sale signs.

I won't soon forget the suggestion board at the Oberlin library that had turned into a giant discussion in 10 different people's handwriting about whether it was OK to post a suggestion that the school increase security due to all the stolen bags, or whether that was somehow racist or classist or townist. I won't forget that at Colorado College there were mental health awareness posters with real students on them, with real names and all their diagnoses. I won't forget that at Bowdoin this had essentially been commoditized -- they have a book of old posters from the wall in the admissions office. 

I can see how “reading the walls” must have shaped the reporting for The Price You Pay for College, but I also just love the hidden narratives in those examples. And this doesn’t even touch on graffiti! It all reminds me a little of an earlier and more on-the-street-focused prompt: Observe a Poem, about constructing something new out of the words you notice. But I’m digging “read the wall” as a simple and rewarding noticing practice. I’m taking this advice.

Meanwhile: those of you with kids thinking about college, I’d definitely recommend Ron’s book. More on that here.


Dictionary of Missing Words

  • Dictionary of Missing Words (formerly Need A Word For … ) is an exercise in paying attention to phenomena you encounter — sensations, states between states, feelings, slippery things — that could be named, but don’t seem to be. More here and here.

  • This week’s submission is from Arlena, via the comments.

Need a word for that momentary feeling of satisfaction and pleasure when you don't know what music you want to listen to, so you ask your home AI device to simply 'play music' and it plays the perfect track — one you didn't realise you wanted to hear until it played it. Or conversely, a word is needed for the opposite effect — when you make the same request thinking you're open to anything and it plays something you don't want to listen to.

Wonderful. Thanks Arlena!

If you have a response (maybe there IS a word for this?), leave it in the comments. Or even better: share your own example!

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Icebreaker(s) Of The Week

  • Noticing is about other people, too. The Icebreaker series aims to help with that. There’s a central collection spot for all the icebreakers to date, here. || There’s also an Icebreaker Slack app, here. (Back story on that here.)

This week’s icebreaker comes from reader Vedika.

What is the dumbest thing you made your parents buy for you as a kid?

Actually, Vedika sent my ten icebreakers. So many of them were fun that I am going to add two more this week. (No charge!) I really like this one:

What topic do you wish was a college major but isn't?

And then there’s:

Have you ever had an Internet friend?

I would modify that one — because I assume everyone would answer yes, right? — to ask who is the best Internet friend you’ve ever made. (Could be someone you later met IRL, or an Internet-only friend. At this point I can think of lots.)

Thanks so much Vedika!!

As usual, I’m still working through the backlog of icebreaker submissions, but as always, I want more:

Send your favorite icebreaker (whether you made it up or found it elsewhere) to consumed@robwalker.net


In Other News

@mysticnoanklibrary, @francissadac

Follow me on Medum

Okay that’s it! Next issue in two weeks.

As always, I value your feedback (suggestions, critiques, positive reinforcement, constructive insults, etc.), as well as your tips or stories or personal noticing rituals, and your icebreakers: consumed@robwalker.net. Or use the comments!

Thanks for reading …
rw

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All this by Rob Walker PO Box 171, 748 Mehle St., Arabi LA 70032 

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