Hey, all! Yesterday I walked through the Shoreditch area of London and took in some street art. (Many thanks to K., who recommended it to me.) The best graffiti is beautiful and powerful, evocative and provocative. It’s, you know, art.
Graffiti can dispense insight. It can offer alternate ways of looking at reality. Often found in gritty urban settings, it proclaims to the world that feeling and thought and ingenuity exist everywhere humans exist (which is sometimes, sadly, contrary to popular belief!).
Here’s a sampling of what I saw yesterday in Shoreditch. Yes, I was that tourist taking photos of the street art. Well, so be it: a tourist is what I am, ain’t it?
Brilliant commentary here on living among other human beings.
In the panels below the main message are these words (which are hard to see in this photo):
TO / SPEAK SPEAK SPEAK / the truth / FEARLESSLY—
Great message. Perhaps this has meaning not just in isolation, which is cool enough, but also in combination with the message above it. Perhaps it means that we should not shy away from openly telling people when we adore them; and also we should not shy away from expressing ourselves when people encroach upon our (physical or metaphorical) space. Also, the words “adore” and “endure” both seem to imply that when we speak the truth fearlessly, we should do it with respect. I can be on board with that message!
But zoom out on these lovely messages, and we have a new message that blatantly urges us to spend money. This crude message is all the more crude in juxtaposition with the beautiful sentiments nearby. It’s a reminder of all the forces in our world that try to push us away from what’s really important (i.e., adoring and enduring each other by speaking truth fearlessly).
How about this commentary on American politics?
Peek though the gap in these iron bars and take in a surreal commentary on writing. Who’s really behind the words you read? Which side of the bars are you really on?
Cheers & wish you were here,
I was stumped by yet another medical mystery.
A prescription drug that helps me immensely also makes me tired. I have trouble waking up. I feel fairly alert in the morning, but I ache to nap all afternoon. And forget the evening—I’m ready for bed immediately after dinner.
My doctor has been helping me experiment with different remedies for this problem. Now, granted, I can still function. The problem isn’t severe. In the past, I have been on medications that made me significantly groggier. Still, if I can maneuver myself into a life situation in which I feel more alert more often, I will happily take it.
The trouble, however, is that doctors and scientists, even in this advanced age of medicine and technology, don’t really know how the brain works. And they don’t really know what happens when different chemicals are introduced to it. We know a whole heck of a lot! Sadly, though, that whole heck of a lot amounts to a patchy understanding of what’s going on up there. The brain is just too complex and intricate and multivariate and changeful.
As Gary Greenberg writes in his article “Psychiatry’s Incurable Hubris,” in the most recent issue of the Atlantic, “Psychiatrists . . . cannot precisely predict for whom and under what conditions their treatments will work.”
Sigh. That explains why my doctor is forced to help me experiment. Since different people react differently to any given drug, it’s not possible to know beforehand what will work for each patient.
Thus my doctor, thinking we might make a change and see how I felt, prescribed me a new medication.
I felt different right away. Within a few hours, I felt like I was floating on a cloud. A very nice cloud. The niceness of the cloud intensified over the next few days. It became softer and fluffier and cozier . . . and I felt like sleeping. All day long. Zzzz. . . .
In the meantime, I made a profound discovery about this medication. Listen up, literary friends, because this is crucial! This is key! This is vital! My new medication . . . gave me writer’s block!!!!
I could no longer write blog posts! With sufficient amounts of caffeine and junk food, I was able to edit and proofread, but write a paragraph? Nope! (Needless to say, since you are reading this post, I went off that drug pronto.)
Why is this significant? Well, listen to this fine theory of mine. If this drug energizes some people—not me, obviously!—then might it not also cure any writer’s block those people might be experiencing?*
I humbly invite the reps of said drug company to call me ASAP, so we can discuss my payment for this lucrative marketing idea.
*In case it isn't sufficiently clear, this is a joke. Do not try this at home, or at work, or on a sailboat, or at an amusement park, or in an airplane, or anyplace else you might find yourself. Please also refer to the footnote in my original Medical Mysteries post.
Speaking of confidence—it’s something that’s very difficult to project in social situations, no matter what color your dress is. Possessing the rare talent of confidence is like possessing a bag of scratch in a yard full of free-range chickens. It’s guaranteed to make everyone come running, or at least look up at you with curiosity and interest.
Let me tell you a secret about confidence: when one has it, it’s simple and easy, or at least comes off that way. It’s as simple and easy as carrying a bag of dried corn into a yard full of chickens—that is, if you have the strength to walk and carry stuff, and aren’t afraid of chickens. If you have to alternate between singing fight songs and whispering empowering quotations while drinking whiskey as you walk with that scratch into the chicken yard, that’s not confidence. It might be bravery or foolhardiness or generosity or persistence, but it’s not confidence.
Confidence arises only from long practice, and its appearance of ease masks the years of effort it took to achieve. Confidence is simple and easy because the action has been done so many times before. It’s not the donning of a good luck charm as all your friends cry, “You got this!!”; it’s the calm and grounded reflection, “Of course I can do this. Duh.”
Some writers need several pages to describe a character; Penelope Fitzgerald, with the confidence of a seasoned writer, needs only one short and simple sentence. Here’s an example of confident mastery in writing from her novel The Bookshop. It describes the husband of a woman who is hosting a fancy party in their house:
“Her husband, the General, was opening drawers and cupboards with the object of not finding anything, to give him an excuse to wander from room to room.”
So much is contained in so few words! And, go figure—the passage is about confidence.
Why is the husband, a.k.a. the General, performing meaningless, repetitive actions? It must be because he doesn’t have the confidence to engage in actual conversation with the guests.
Why doesn’t he have the confidence to engage in actual conversation with the guests? It must be because he always performs meaningless, repetitive actions at parties, and thus never acquired enough practice in talking to people in social situations to do so with confidence.
Of course, such practice is hard. And it involves a lot of trial and error, failure and success, wretched embarrassment alongside heart-fluttering joy.
It’s much easier to open cupboards and wander from room to room. The thought of doing otherwise almost makes one pine for the good old days, when, though people’s lungs were black and sooty, at least they had something sophisticated to wave in front of their faces!
Now, to be clear, there’s nothing wrong with doing little things to help oneself along in the social game, such as sipping wine or pretending to be interested in a knickknack on the host’s mantlepiece. We all do it. But reading Fitzgerald’s description of the pitiable husband/General does not inspire admiration of him . . . just of her.
What skill have you been slowly building confidence in lately?
Around noon on Tuesday, having nothing better to do, the inquisitive one drove to the little skating rink in the town square and parked in the garage. After gathering up the hockey skates in the back seat, the inquisitive one walked to the rink.
But the skating rink, the inquisitive one saw, was packed with people! Some were racing one another: a challenging endeavor, considering the short straightaways and tight corners. Some were jumping, spinning, and performing graceful arm movements, also a challenge in the small amount of space available. Some were guiding and teaching small children, who were having trouble keeping their skates upright. And others were skating backwards, with their butts and arms sticking out.
“Why are there so many people on the ice, at this time on a weekday?” the inquisitive one couldn’t help but exclaim. “And how talented they all are. I wonder who they are!”
A nearby woman, who looked to be of retirement age, smiled at the inquisitive one. Then she said, “These are all furloughed federal government employees. They started coming here weeks ago. The government has been shut down for so long that they have gotten quite good at skating! Oh, and come back in a couple hours, if you’d like to see a professional-level hockey game. That’s why I’m here—to get a good seat for that.”
“Wow!” replied the inquisitive one. “Thanks for telling me about this! Perhaps I will join you, in a bit.”
Too intimidated to put on the hockey skates and join the crowd, the inquisitive one strolled into the library. In that great hall, which was usually fairly empty, people were everywhere! And yet a deep silence reigned. Most of the patrons were reading or writing. There were not enough wooden chairs and tables for everyone, but people, it seemed, had brought in their own camping chairs, beanbag chairs, and cushions. There were long lines at the information and checkout desks—especially at the information desk. This line wrapped halfway around the ground floor. Despite this, the people standing in the line did not seem upset; they were all engrossed in physical and e- books. The aisles were as crowded as Walmart on a Sunday afternoon; and yet there were so few books on the shelves that it looked like a post-hurricane looting had occurred.
“Why are there so many people here, at this time on a weekday?” the inquisitive one couldn’t help but whisper. “And they all look so engrossed in their studies. I wonder who they are!”
A nearby man, who looked to be of retirement age, smiled at the inquisitive one. Then he whispered, “These are all furloughed federal government employees. They started coming here weeks ago. The government has been shut down for so long that they have learned quite a lot! Would you like to attend a lecture by one of them, on Ancient Rome? That’s why I’m here. It starts in a couple hours, but we will want to reserve our seats, as there is sure to be a standing-room-only crowd. The lecturer has become one of the world’s foremost experts in that era.”
“Wow!” replied the inquisitive one. “Thanks for telling me about this! Perhaps I will join you, in a bit.”
There being so few books on the shelves, there was little point in the inquisitive one hanging around to browse. Turning and walking toward the door, the inquisitive one glanced at the message boards on the wall. These were plastered over with beautifully designed placards announcing other events happening that day: and it seemed that every conceivable type of artistic and scholarly and athletic endeavor was represented. And then, glancing out of the big, front-facing windows, which were suddenly rumbling, the inquisitive one saw a fleet of helicopters. And the inquisitive one wondered whether the president was aboard one of them.
Then instantly, in a fit of passion, the inquisitive one ran out into the chilly air and shouted something up at the helicopters, at top volume.
But what exactly the inquisitive one said must remain a mystery, because, at that moment, a band burst into the opening strains of a loud, soul-thumping, perfectly in-tune, hauntingly sweet, and beautifully patriotic song.
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Milkman Anna Burns
Under the Banner of Heaven Jon Krakauer
Waiting for Bojangles Olivier Bourdeaut
A Mind Unraveled Kurt Eichenwald
Eugénie Grandet Honoré de Balzac
The Body Keeps the Score Bessel van der Kolk, M.D.
The Bookshop Penelope Fitzgerald
Digital Minimalism Cal Newport
The Sisters Brothers Patrick deWitt
Dare to Lead Brené Brown
My Year of Rest and Relaxation Ottessa Moshfegh
Almost Everything Anne Lamott
Born to Run Christopher McDougall, Bruce Springsteen
The Ladies’ Paradise Émile Zola
The World Beyond Your Head Matthew B. Crawford
All the Birds, Singing Evie Wyld
Barracoon Zora Neale Hurston
Dandelion Wine Ray Bradbury
Home Fire Kamila Shamsie
The Weather Detective Peter Wohlleben
Play It As It Lays Joan Didion
The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck Mark Manson
Convenience Store Woman Sayaka Murata
Perfect Me Heather Widdows
Sorry to Disrupt the Peace Patty Yumi Cottrell
Why Buddhism Is True Robert Wright
What Is Real? Adam Becker
Kudos Rachel Cusk
The Days of Abandonment Elena Ferrante
F*cked Corinne Fisher & Krystyna Hutchinson
Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine Alan Lightman
Wide Sargasso Sea Jean Rhys
Infinite Jest David Foster Wallace
A Room of One’s Own Virginia Woolf