A new series aimed at staying curious and adapting to whatever this new "normal" might be. Assignment 1: a new calendar for a new era
|Rob Walker||Jun 10||6|
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Today kicks off a series of posts I’m calling Summer School. The rough plan is seven posts, one every other week. After today, these will be sent to paid subscribers only, so if you haven’t signed up, now is the time!
(See below for more Summer School details — including how to get in touch if you want to keep getting the posts but it’s not in your budget.)
Summer School Post No. 1
Some background on Summer School
As longtime TAoN readers know, this newsletter had to make some adjustments when lockdown kicked in. Prompts and projects and inspirational examples centered on exploring new places and interacting with strangers and so on didn’t make a lot of sense anymore; I shifted to ideas for exploring the neighborhood, interacting with the immediate environment, and a bit of personal reflection. (For example, see TAoN No. 41: Indoor Roundup and TAoN No. 43: Indoor Roundup, the Sequel.)
As I’ve discussed the last few issues, and as you know, things are changing again. Unlike lockdown, which was fast and widespread and decisive, this change is happening at a different pace in different places (I am quite mindful that TAoN has many readers outside the U.S.), and it’s playing out differently for different people.
I definitely count myself among those who are adjusting in fits and starts. It’s not that I’m frightened to return to a more adventurous way of being. And it’s not exactly that I’m trying to sort out whether there are pandemic habits I should keep. I just feel a little … rusty … when it comes to this whole “society” thing.
So I’m giving myself the summer to readjust — and in a sense educate myself on how to make sure I stay engaged and curious in whatever new “normal” emerges. I’m inviting you to join me as I work through that process. Starting now.
Some background on this prompt
I’m starting by reviving and revising an idea from the peak of the lockdown period — and combining it with one the main “gateway” prompts from The Art of Noticing book.
Last July I issued The Neighborhood Calendar Challenge: “Over the next few months,” I wrote, “take occasional pictures around your neighborhood, with an eye toward compiling enough (12) for a calendar. “
The idea was a containable but ongoing project designed to help rediscover a familiar territory. (It also seemed like a good family project.) I suggested parameters like identifying personal neighborhood landmarks, or narrowing your subject to a category like flowers or a certain recurring architectural feature, or even a color.
My calendar project focused on, uh, bollards. (More here if you’re curious.)
Reader Erica Gibson took up the challenge, but altered it: She’d been living in Norway for several years and had just taken a new job in Berlin, and so “decided to make a 2021 calendar with meaningful scenes from my time in Norway.” (More here.)
Gibson’s alteration helped inspire the present revival of the calendar challenge: It made me realize how flexible the idea can really be — in ways that make it both more accessible, and more challenging.
The first Summer School prompt
The very first item in The Art of Noticing book is what I called a single-object scavenger hunt. This means making it a point to look out for some specific, recurring feature of the landscape: good, bad, indifferent-but-interesting. In the book I tell an anecdote about hunting security cameras, but it could be notable mailboxes or fence ornaments or store banners or the backs of stop-signs or particular trees or birds or flowers or anything.
(Inspiration side note: I recently learned that my former Medium colleague Peter Slattery had a similar and cool self-assignment — seeing if he could collect an entire deck of cards by finding each one on the street; it took six months. He talks about it with another ex-Medium colleague, Sophia Smith, here. As with a calendar, this is an idea with a clear end point.)
Big picture, what’s really useful about the single-recurring-object hunt is that it re-orients your vision: You’re looking for something you’re not supposed to be looking for, and that makes you notice all kinds of things that everyone else overlooked. Beyond the immediate subject at hand, this is subtle training to develop a more adventurous way of taking in the world.
That’s what makes it a good “gateway” exercise — and an ideal starting point for Summer School.
The prompt: Pick one target subject — and pursue it beyond your neighborhood. Make it something you can look for wherever you go, and then make it a point to go new places to look. (Or at least places you haven’t been in a while.) Do so with an eye toward collecting 12 and making a 2022 calendar.
For now, think up a potential subject or two — my wife and I have a couple under consideration — and start collecting images. In the weeks ahead, you can change your mind, or adjust (the way Erica Gibson did). It’s a simple project that encourages personal engagement with the world, wherever you go. And the calendar parameter imposes limits: You have only so much time to work with; you need compile only so many images.
Finally, as I’ve said before, I just kinda love the calendar as a medium: I appreciate the idea of assembling images that will speak back to you in the future. Plus, worst case scenario, it results in a totally practical object that you can use for a whole year. So much better than a term paper!
Where Summer School Goes From Here
The arc of Summer School (seven posts, one every other week) will roughly follow the arc of the book: Seeing —> Other Senses —> Other people —> Other places —> Looking inward.
The prompts and challenges will, like today’s, strive to shape timeless/durable exercises and inspiration to the countours of this unusual transitional period.
The category I’m currently thinking about the most is “Other People.” Obviously it’s always been important to be truly attentive to others — to be a caring friend, a perceptive colleague or manager, a tuned-in listener in general. But for me at least (well, actually I know it’s not just me) this matter of how to relate to other people is what the pandemic has most challenged and complicated. So a couple of entries will be crafted with that in mind. (If you have thoughts or specific suggestions or recommended reading on this subject, let me know.)
PLUS: Somewhere along the way — I’m guessing mid-July, but that’s subject to change — there will also be a live online Summer School event & workshop. Details later, but that event will echo the themes here, and will be open to paid TAoN subscribers.
Can’t subscribe right now but you really want in on this series and/or the workshop? Drop me a line at email@example.com and tell me. I’m particularly interested if you’re an educator, but in general I’ll definitely do my best to work something out.
And thanks again to those of you who are subscribers — you’re making all of this possible!
There will be no extra post this weekend. (There will, as previously promised, be extra posts on some weekends for paid subscribers in the future. Just not this weekend.) Next up is the usual Monday post! It will be a fun and useful one, as you’ll see.
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: firstname.lastname@example.org. Or use the comments.
—> If you enjoy this newsletter and like the Summer School idea, please help spread the word!
Thanks for reading …
All this by Rob Walker PO Box 171, 748 Mehle St., Arabi LA 70032
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