Around the Block
TAoN No. 107: What's out of place? Plus: A new Missing Word; Walker's Law; the meaning of "Z," and more.
Note: My thanks to those of you who asked about the recent tornado. (The address I list in the footer of this newsletter is a box in Arabi, LA, just outside New Orleans (where we live). A tornado went through Arabi this week and did a lot of damage.) We were not really affected and are totally fine — and fortunate. I appreciate the concern!
Reminder: A Google Doc in progress collecting ways people can help out with the tragic situation in Ukraine is here. And here is a New York Times link to ways you can help.
Sometimes the most simple prompts can be the best. For example, an easy prompt I often use in workshops:
Spot something that seems out of place.
The advantages of this prompt:
This is a very accessible idea; it doesn’t need any further explanation.
It works on almost any time frame: You could give people a week, or 15 minutes, to complete the assignment. And pretty much everyone spots something.
It works for a neighborhood, a commute, a walk, a room, etc.
Most importantly, it’s a sticky idea that can be habit-forming, becoming a routine form of attention, a borderline-nonconscious behavior that connects you to the world and its many surprises.
Which brings me to … the big concrete block that appeared in our neighborhood recently.
I noticed it during a recent dog walk, and I was intrigued. Poking at it with my toe, I guessed it must weigh at least half a ton.
You don’t have to be a detective to notice something like this. But I was immediately consumed with curiosity. This is not an object that a couple of muscle-bound dudes chunked off a pickup. It would likely require a forklift to move. How on earth did it get here?
E encountered the block on a later walk, and agreed. We ended up having a befuddled conversation or two about it. E deployed some Google-fu to determine that this is probably a “bin block,” or retainer-wall block — and likely weighs even more than I guessed, closer to 2,500 pounds. I found some more online clues, such as these “bin blocks” for sale at $55 each on Facebook.
There is a slight chance that the block is connected to a nearby movie shoot; we’ll know for sure in a few days, I think. If it’s not, will this thing just sit there forever? What would it take to get it out of here? Could we get the city to remove it?
Now, to be clear, you don’t need me to tell you to notice when a ton-plus concrete block materializes in your neighborhood.
But I do think there’s something to be said for specifically paying attention to what’s out of place, and being actively curious about it. As we discovered, it can be a fun exercise! So do it on your next walk — you may not encounter an object quite this puzzling, but I bet you’ll notice something odd, perhaps entertainingly so. In short, you should always be looking for what’s out of place.
The Art of Noticing is Rob Walker’s newsletter about attention, creativity, and staying human. Your support makes it possible.
I believe it was via Kottke that I saw this roundup of self-named “laws,” and noticed some individuals had more than one — a phenomenon I’ve encountered before. It reminded me that I’ve always wanted to declare my own “law” about this genre. So here goes:
Walker’s Law: Don’t name more than one “law” after yourself. It’s obnoxious.
Honestly, even naming one law after yourself can be kind of off-putting — as I’ve just demonstrated — but more than that is really tacky. Feel free to share ;)
Dictionary of Missing Words is an exercise in paying attention to phenomena you encounter — sensations, concepts, states between states, feelings, slippery things — that could be named, but don’t seem to be. More here and here.
This week’s missing word is from reader Heather (via the comments), whose suggestion is actually for “a missing gesture”:
We have so many rude gestures, many of which we use while driving. But we don't have a good gesture to say "I'm Sorry!" If we accidentally cut someone off, we should be able to indicate it wasn't intentional. Right now, mostly we just wave and cringe at the same time, which doesn't always translate at a distance.
I think about this all the time — maybe cars need a "sorry about that!" light of some sort, or a penitent version of the honked horn. And certainly I love the idea of missing gesture, that’s really in the spirit of what I’m getting at with this series. Thanks so much, Heather!
What else should we add to The Dictionary of Missing Words? Leave your suggestion — or respond to this one — in the comments.
Next issue: a new icebreaker. (The Dictionary of Missing Words series alternates with Icebreaker of the Week, and, more sporadically, the Something to Notice series.)
I’m about to start my annual five-week class on “point of view,” for the School of Visual Arts’ Products of Design program. It’s one of my very favorite things, and I’m really looking forward to it as usual. And this year I’ll be writing about the class in the next several Thursday member-only posts — the assignments, the thinking behind the class, how it shaped and has since been shaped by TAoN, and other fun behind-the-scenes stuff. I always learn from the PoV experience; become a paid subscriber to enjoy these member-only posts, and I bet you will learn something, too!
Last Thursday’s post for paid subscribers was about What we can’t measure, and how paying attention to what we CAN measure can be misleading.
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In Other News
“The spread of ‘Z’ in Russia is a remarkable example of how swiftly and decisively the meaning of a symbol can be completely reinvented.” And the meaning of ‘Z’ may be changing again. I wrote about it for FastCompany.com. (Previous Design During Wartime installments for paid TAoN subscribers are here and here.)
Reality Check Exercise, from an essay by Christina Lee that is part of NPR Music’s Turning the Tables project: “My therapist gave me an exercise that I still use today. In a moment of distress, I write down the first negative thought that comes to mind (‘I always make the wrong decisions,’ ‘my career is regressing,’ ‘Christmas is ruined’). Then I write through a reality check, as if interviewing myself: Are these thoughts all true? Or is there proof that this situation isn't as dire as I feared?”
Okay that’s it!
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: email@example.com. Or use the comments.
—> Or just click the heart symbol. That always makes my day.
And thanks for reading …
All this by Rob Walker PO Box 171, 748 Mehle St., Arabi LA 70032
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