TAoN No. 68: Keep Complaining

PLUS: A missing word, a new icebreaker — and a giveaway!

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.

How To Be Positive About Being Negative

THE PROMPT: Find something to complain about — creatively.

As discussed last time, we’re in a transitional moment, working to hang on to good habits developed during the pandemic and dump bad ones. Lots of positive vibes out there, and there’s nothing wrong with that!

Nevertheless, I’d like to say something positive about … going negative. Being a critic. Complaining.

For understandable reasons, “critics” get a bad rap. But the right kind of critic, with the right creative approach, can actually be pretty delightful. And really, pointing out problems is the only way to make progress.

Consider, for example, the pothole. While nobody likes potholes, very few of us actually do anything about them; they’re just something to swerve around and promptly forget. A decade ago or so, friend of TAoN Susan Clements took a different approach. She had recently moved to New Orleans, and as an avid biker she quickly noticed our city’s many epic potholes and crumbling streets. Her response? She began photographing them, eventually collecting her “favorite” finds in The Pot-holes of New Orleans, which amounts to a crisply designed, nicely printed, full-color coffee table book — about potholes.

This absurd, funny, charming gesture is ultimately a form of criticism and complaint: It draws attention to a problem, creatively.

I’ve been thinking about Susan’s self-published book partly because of the recent emergence here in New Orleans of “King Cone” — an eight-foot-tall traffic cone apparently made by activist pranksters to draw attention to a monstrous pothole. It’s received extensive press coverage, and has also popped up on the entertaining Instagram account @lookatthisfuckinstreet, dedicated to pointing out the city’s deteriorating roads.

These projects join a kind of tradition of creative complaining about potholes around the world. Chicago artist Jim Bachor has for years filled potholes with his own mosaic art. ‘The Pothole Gardener’ used them as sites for little tableuax. Mypotholes treats them as imaginative jumping-off points. Explicitly civic actions include Anton Schuurmans’ potholes-as-planters strategy to draw attention to road conditions in Brussels; similar efforts in Mexico City; and a Pittsburgh anniversary party for one long-neglected pothole.

Clockwise from upper left: Jim Bachor tiles; The Pothole Gardner; King Cone; pothole as planter in Brussels.

And of course there was “Wanksy,” who marked potholes with conspicuous penis symbols — a childish complaint tactic that proved quite effective in attracting municipal attention.

But my point here isn’t about potholes, it is rather to say: That’s an awful lot of very creative, engaging, and arguably constructive complaining about a problem that most of us simply shrug off! That is the tradition that Susan contributed to. And that can inspire.

Susan — one of the most un-negative people I’ve ever met — has also been on my mind because she passed away a few months ago. In addition to being a generous supporter of the Significant Objects project (which is how we first connected), she was an incredibly kind and voraciously smart person, a total original. I was very sad to hear this news when a relative of hers contacted me and asked if might be interested in a copy of her book. I already had one of course, but I accepted, and now I offer this extra copy to you, as a way to share her spirit of creative critique: If you’re interested, write to consumed@robwalker.net with “pothole book” or similar in the subject line before, say, midnight Friday. I’ll choose a winner at random.

Now go find something to complain about — and do it well.

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 Ryann H. in the comments:

I wish we had a word for that feeling you get when you don't wake up on the right side of the bed. … Like, you don't even know what you are upset or worried about yet, but it is concerning nonetheless, an unpleasant transition state from sleeping to waking. The worry hangs there, like when a person sits down a little too close to you in a waiting room. "Woke up on the wrong side of the bed" works, but I wish we had a word.

This is so vivid. Thank you Ryann!

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

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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 me:

What’s your favorite-ever celebrity siting? (And related follow-up: Have you ever been truly star-struck?)

Inspired by this review of ex-Talking Heads drummer Chris Frantz’s recent memoir Remain In Love; Frantz has apparently had a lot of fun ones, including bumping into a startled Patti Smith on a beach in the Bahamas: “I said, ‘It’s me, Chris Frantz from Talking Heads. Good to see you.’ ” Something about that makes me chuckle.

Despite cutting in line, I’m still working through a 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

@paperhazell, @eva_bec. On Instagram, at least, the UK/Europe cover is definitely prevailing!

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 use the comments!

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

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