Brain Pickings

My Favorite Things: Maira Kalman’s Illustrated Catalog of Unusual Objects, Memories, and Delight

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“Go out and walk. That is the glory of life.”

Four decades after Barthes listed his favorite things, which prompted Susan Sontag to list hers, Maira Kalman — one of the most enchanting, influential, and unusual creative voices today, and a woman of piercing insight — does something very similar and very different in her magnificent book My Favorite Things (public library).

Kalman not only lives her one human life with remarkable open-heartedness, but also draws from its private humanity warm and witty wisdom on our shared human experience. There is a spartan sincerity to her work, an elegantly choreographed spontaneity — words meticulously chosen to be as simple as possible, yet impossibly expressive; drawings that invoke childhood yet brim with the complex awarenesses of a life lived long and wide. She looks at the same world we all look at but sees what no one else sees — that magical stuff of “the moments inside the moments inside the moments.” Here, her many-petaled mind blossoms in its full idiosyncratic whimsy as she catalogs the “personal micro-culture” of her inner life — her personal set of the objects and people and fragments of experience that constitute the ever-shifting assemblage we call a Self.

The book began as a companion to an exhibition Kalman curated to celebrate the anticipated reopening of the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. But it is also a kind of visual catalog sandwiched between a memoir, reminding us that our experience of art is laced with the minute details and monumental moments of our personal histories and is invariably shaped by them. Between Kalman’s original paintings and photographs based on her selections from the museum’s sweeping collection — the buttons and bathtubs, dogs and dandies, first editions of Winnie the Pooh and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Proust’s letters — are also her childhood memories, her quirky personal collections, and her beautiful meditations on life.

Kalman writes in the introduction:

The pieces that I chose were based on one thing only — a gasp of DELIGHT.

Isn’t that the only way to curate a life? TO live among things that make you gasp with delight?

And gasp one does, over and over. As Kalman makes her way through the vast Cooper Hewitt collection, her immeasurably lyrical interweavings of private and public expose that special way in which museums not only serve as temples to collective memory but also invite us to reopen the Proustian jars of our own memories with interest and aliveness and a capacity to gasp.

“Whoever invented the bed was a genius,” Kalman writes in her simple homage, inspired by a trading card ad from 1909. “When you get up from bed, get dressed in pants and socks.” The pants: French silk and linen breeches from 1750–1770; the socks: French knitted silk stockings from 1850–1900.

Her painting of a pair of yellow American slippers from the 1830s is really a love letter to walking, something Kalman sees as an existential activity and a creative device:

The ability to walk from one point to the next point, that is half the battle won.

Go out and walk.

That is the glory of life.

Beneath her painting of a quilted and embroidered silk Egyptian cap from the late 13th or early 14th century, Kalman hand-letters the perfect pairing — Pablo Neruda’s 1959 poem “Ode to Things”:

I love crazy things,
crazily.

I enjoy
tongs,
scissors.

I adore
cups,
rings,
soup spoons,
not to mention,
of course,
the hat.

As an enormous lover of Alice in Wonderland, I was particularly bewitched by Kalman’s painting of a photograph by Lewis Carroll, which calls to mind the real-life Alice who inspired his Wonderland:

There is also Kalman’s wink at Darwin’s despondent letter:

Painting a set of dolls made by Mexican nuns, Kalman notes in her singular style of wry awe:

The nuns have sensational fashion sense.

Emanating from the entire project is Kalman’s ability to witness life with equal parts humor and humility, and to always extract find the lyrical — as in her exquisite pairing of this early nineteenth-century European mount and a Lydia Davis poem:

The objects Kalman selects ultimately become a springboard for leaping into the things that move her most — like her great love of books, woven with such gentleness and subtlety into a French lamp shade from 1935:

The book. Calming object. Held in the hand.

Indeed, the screen does no justice to the magnificent object that is My Favorite Things, an object to be held in the hand and the heart. It follows Kalman’s equally enchanting The Principles of Uncertainty and Various Illuminations (Of a Crazy World), which she has complemented with such wonderful side projects as her illustrations for Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style and Michael Pollan’s Food Rules.

For a dimensional tour of Kalman’s mind and spirit, see Gael Towey’s wonderful short documentary.

Illustrations courtesy of Maira Kalman / HarperCollins; photographs my own

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Ursula K. Le Guin on Aging and What Beauty Really Means

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“There are a whole lot of ways to be perfect, and not one of them is attained through punishment.”

“A Dog is, on the whole, what you would call a simple soul,” T.S. Eliot simpered in his beloved 1930s poem “The Ad-dressing of Cats,” proclaiming that “Cats are much like you and me.” Indeed, cats have a long history of being anthropomorphized in dissecting the human condition — but, then again, so do dogs. We’ve always used our feline and canine companions to better understand ourselves, but nowhere have Cat and Dog served a more poignant metaphorical purpose than in the 1992 essay “Dogs, Cats, and Dancers: Thoughts about Beauty” by Ursula K. Le Guin (b. October 21, 1929), found in the altogether spectacular volume The Wave in the Mind: Talks and Essays on the Writer, the Reader, and the Imagination (public library), which also gave us Le Guin, at her finest and sharpest, on being a man.

Le Guin contrasts the archetypal temperaments of our favorite pets:

Dogs don’t know what they look like. Dogs don’t even know what size they are. No doubt it’s our fault, for breeding them into such weird shapes and sizes. My brother’s dachshund, standing tall at eight inches, would attack a Great Dane in the full conviction that she could tear it apart. When a little dog is assaulting its ankles the big dog often stands there looking confused — “Should I eat it? Will it eat me? I am bigger than it, aren’t I?” But then the Great Dane will come and try to sit in your lap and mash you flat, under the impression that it is a Peke-a-poo.

Artwork from 'The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs.' Click image for more.

Cats, on the other hand, have a wholly different scope of self-awareness:

Cats know exactly where they begin and end. When they walk slowly out the door that you are holding open for them, and pause, leaving their tail just an inch or two inside the door, they know it. They know you have to keep holding the door open. That is why their tail is there. It is a cat’s way of maintaining a relationship.

Housecats know that they are small, and that it matters. When a cat meets a threatening dog and can’t make either a horizontal or a vertical escape, it’ll suddenly triple its size, inflating itself into a sort of weird fur blowfish, and it may work, because the dog gets confused again — “I thought that was a cat. Aren’t I bigger than cats? Will it eat me?”

Illustration by Wendy MacNaughton based on Gay Talese's taxonomy of cats. Click image for details.

More than that, Le Guin notes, cats are aesthetes, vain and manipulative in their vanity. In a passage that takes on whole new layers of meaning twenty years later, in the heyday of the photographic cat meme, she writes:

Cats have a sense of appearance. Even when they’re sitting doing the wash in that silly position with one leg behind the other ear, they know what you’re sniggering at. They simply choose not to notice. I knew a pair of Persian cats once; the black one always reclined on a white cushion on the couch, and the white one on the black cushion next to it. It wasn’t just that they wanted to leave cat hair where it showed up best, though cats are always thoughtful about that. They knew where they looked best. The lady who provided their pillows called them her Decorator Cats.

Artwork from 'The Big New Yorker Book of Cats.' Click image for more.

A master of bridging the playful and the poignant, Le Guin returns to the human condition:

A lot of us humans are like dogs: we really don’t know what size we are, how we’re shaped, what we look like. The most extreme example of this ignorance must be the people who design the seats on airplanes. At the other extreme, the people who have the most accurate, vivid sense of their own appearance may be dancers. What dancers look like is, after all, what they do.

Echoing legendary choreographer Merce Cunningham’s contemplation of dance as “the human body moving in time-space,” Le Guin considers the dancers she knows and their extraordinary lack of “illusions or confusions about what space they occupy.” Recounting the anecdote of one young dancer who upon scraping his ankle exclaimed, “I have an owie on my almost perfect body!” Le Guin writes:

It was endearingly funny, but it was also simply true: his body is almost perfect. He knows it is, and knows where it isn’t. He keeps it as nearly perfect as he can, because his body is his instrument, his medium, how he makes a living, and what he makes art with. He inhabits his body as fully as a child does, but much more knowingly. And he’s happy about it.

Photograph from Helen Keller's life-changing visit to Martha Graham's dance studio. Click image for details.

What dance does, above all, is offer the promise of precisely such bodily happiness — not of perfection, but of satisfaction. Dancers, Le Guin argues, are “so much happier than dieters and exercisers.” She considers the impossible ideals of the latter, which cripple them in the same way that perfectionism cripples creativity in writing and art:

Perfection is “lean” and “taut” and “hard” — like a boy athlete of twenty, a girl gymnast of twelve. What kind of body is that for a man of fifty or a woman of any age? “Perfect”? What’s perfect? A black cat on a white cushion, a white cat on a black one . . . A soft brown woman in a flowery dress . . . There are a whole lot of ways to be perfect, and not one of them is attained through punishment.

Photograph by Zed Nelson from his project 'Love Me.' Click image for more.

And just like that, Le Guin pirouettes, elegantly but imperceptibly, from the lighthearted to the serious. Reflecting on various cultures’ impossible and often painful ideals of human beauty, “especially of female beauty,” she writes:

I think of when I was in high school in the 1940s: the white girls got their hair crinkled up by chemicals and heat so it would curl, and the black girls got their hair mashed flat by chemicals and heat so it wouldn’t curl. Home perms hadn’t been invented yet, and a lot of kids couldn’t afford these expensive treatments, so they were wretched because they couldn’t follow the rules, the rules of beauty.

Beauty always has rules. It’s a game. I resent the beauty game when I see it controlled by people who grab fortunes from it and don’t care who they hurt. I hate it when I see it making people so self-dissatisfied that they starve and deform and poison themselves. Most of the time I just play the game myself in a very small way, buying a new lipstick, feeling happy about a pretty new silk shirt.

Ursula K. Le Guin by Laura Anglin

Le Guin, who writes about aging with more grace, humor, and dignity than any other writer I’ve read, turns to the particularly stifling ideal of eternal youth:

One rule of the game, in most times and places, is that it’s the young who are beautiful. The beauty ideal is always a youthful one. This is partly simple realism. The young are beautiful. The whole lot of ’em. The older I get, the more clearly I see that and enjoy it.

[...]

And yet I look at men and women my age and older, and their scalps and knuckles and spots and bulges, though various and interesting, don’t affect what I think of them. Some of these people I consider to be very beautiful, and others I don’t. For old people, beauty doesn’t come free with the hormones, the way it does for the young. It has to do with bones. It has to do with who the person is. More and more clearly it has to do with what shines through those gnarly faces and bodies.

But what makes the transformations of aging so anguishing, Le Guin poignantly observes, isn’t the loss of beauty — it’s the loss of identity, a frustratingly elusive phenomenon to begin with. She writes:

I know what worries me most when I look in the mirror and see the old woman with no waist. It’s not that I’ve lost my beauty—I never had enough to carry on about. It’s that that woman doesn’t look like me. She isn’t who I thought I was.

[...]

We’re like dogs, maybe: we don’t really know where we begin and end. In space, yes; but in time, no.

[...]

A child’s body is very easy to live in. An adult body isn’t. The change is hard. And it’s such a tremendous change that it’s no wonder a lot of adolescents don’t know who they are. They look in the mirror — that is me? Who’s me?

And then it happens again, when you’re sixty or seventy.

Artwork from 'The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs.' Click image for more.

In a sentiment that calls Rilke to mind — “I am not one of those who neglect the body in order to make of it a sacrificial offering for the soul,” he memorably wrote, “since my soul would thoroughly dislike being served in such a fashion.” — Le Guin admonishes against our impulse to intellectualize out of the body, away from it:

Who I am is certainly part of how I look and vice versa. I want to know where I begin and end, what size I am, and what suits me… I am not “in” this body, I am this body. Waist or no waist.

But all the same, there’s something about me that doesn’t change, hasn’t changed, through all the remarkable, exciting, alarming, and disappointing transformations my body has gone through. There is a person there who isn’t only what she looks like, and to find her and know her I have to look through, look in, look deep. Not only in space, but in time.

[...]

There’s the ideal beauty of youth and health, which never really changes, and is always true. There’s the ideal beauty of movie stars and advertising models, the beauty-game ideal, which changes its rules all the time and from place to place, and is never entirely true. And there’s an ideal beauty that is harder to define or understand, because it occurs not just in the body but where the body and the spirit meet and define each other.

And yet for all the ideals we impose on our earthy embodiments, Le Guin argues in her most poignant but, strangely, most liberating point, it is death that ultimately illuminates the full spectrum of our beauty — death, the ultimate equalizer of time and space; death, the great clarifier that makes us see that, as Rebecca Goldstein put it, “a person whom one loves is a world, just as one knows oneself to be a world.” With this long-view lens, Le Guin remembers her own mother and the many dimensions of her beauty:

My mother died at eighty-three, of cancer, in pain, her spleen enlarged so that her body was misshapen. Is that the person I see when I think of her? Sometimes. I wish it were not. It is a true image, yet it blurs, it clouds, a truer image. It is one memory among fifty years of memories of my mother. It is the last in time. Beneath it, behind it is a deeper, complex, ever-changing image, made from imagination, hearsay, photographs, memories. I see a little red-haired child in the mountains of Colorado, a sad-faced, delicate college girl, a kind, smiling young mother, a brilliantly intellectual woman, a peerless flirt, a serious artist, a splendid cook—I see her rocking, weeding, writing, laughing — I see the turquoise bracelets on her delicate, freckled arm — I see, for a moment, all that at once, I glimpse what no mirror can reflect, the spirit flashing out across the years, beautiful.

That must be what the great artists see and paint. That must be why the tired, aged faces in Rembrandt’s portraits give us such delight: they show us beauty not skin-deep but life-deep.

The Wave in the Mind remains the kind of book that stays with you for life — the kind of book that is life.

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Craigslist Founder Craig Newmark on Trust, Integrity, Human Nature, and Why a Steady Moral Compass Is the Best Investment

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“What surprises me, in a way, is how almost universally people are trustworthy and good.”

In 2007, Y Combinator founding partner Jessica Livingston set out “to establish a fund of experience that everyone can learn from” by interviewing some of the most successful entrepreneurs at the time — the founders and first employees of such celebrated companies as Apple, PayPal, Flickr, Adobe, and Firefox. The resulting conversations were published in the now-classic volume Founders at Work: Stories of Startups’ Early Days (public library), titled after the Paris Review’s iconic Writers at Work.

Today, in a culture that talks a great deal about “creating value” but seems to care very little about upholding values, and writes history with the same bias, I keep coming back to the most heartening interview in the volume — Livingston’s conversation with craigslist founder Craig Newmark, whose beloved lo-fi website began in 1994 as a hunch, became a humble side-project email list in 1995 highlighting interesting events in the San Francisco area, and turned into Newmark’s full-time labor-of-love business in 1999. In 2004, eBay purchased a 25% stake in the company from a former employee, but craigslist remains independent and privately owned, helping millions of people in several hundred cities around the world find everything from used couches to true love. Underpinning the site’s success is Newmark’s own idealism, his adamant refusal to surrender to cynicism or succumb to commercialism, and his unflinching faith in the human spirit.

Newmark’s most powerful tool as an entrepreneur and a human being is the very thing Kurt Vonnegut believed was the key to happiness — the knowledge that one has enough. Recounting a pivotal point at which advertisers began approaching him about running banner ads on his free site, Newmark gets to the heart of the values question:

I thought about my own values and I was thinking, “Hey, how much money do I need?” … So I figured I would just not do that.

At that point, I got the first inkling of what I now call my “moral compass.” I better understood it later—particularly since the presidential elections, because then I realized that people were claiming a moral high ground who actually didn’t practice what they preached, and it’s about time for people of goodwill to reassert their idea of what’s right and what’s wrong.

Newmark was able to stay true to his own values by making very deliberate choices about not letting outside interests interfere with his vision — specifically investors, who invariably bring their own financial interests and thus begin to warp values in favor of narrowly defined “value.” Newmark tells Livingston:

I’ve stepped away from a huge amount of money, and I’m following through.

[...]

I coasted on savings for several months… I funded it with my own time. In no form did we ever take investment money… For the most part, for the first few years, it was just putting my own time and energy into it. If I was billing for my own hours, it would have been a great deal of money.

And that energy was considerable — when Livingston asks whether craigslist garnered “a positive response pretty quickly,” Newmark speaking to the idea that one should “expect anything worthwhile to take a long time” and responds:

Our traffic has always been slow but sure. We’re the tortoise, not the hare. Now and then we’ll get a surge of growth, but it’s been slow but steady.

At this intersection of firm values and steadfast dedication lies Newmark’s most essential insight. While “follow your gut” is a common platitude often dismissed with a scoff, especially in our culture of great impatience for any semblance of earnestness, there is something to be said for the difference between a throwaway aphorism and an ideal enacted in one’s own life as a “quiet, precise, judicious exercise of probity and care — with no one there to see or cheer.” Newmark’s greatest learning is very much the latter:

The biggest entrepreneurial lesson I’ve learned has been that you really do need to follow your instincts.

[...]

Trust your instincts and your moral compass… The deal is: we’re not pious about this. We try hard not to be sanctimonious. This is the way people really live; we just don’t talk about it. I’d prefer to be cynical and not talk about it, and yet, that’s real life.

Therein lies his most heartening conviction — the same one Isaac Asimov shared in his spectacular short meditation on cynicism and the human spirit. Newmark, like Asimov, speaks from a place of resolute humanism, echoing legendary graphic designer Milton Glaser’s memorable perspective on the universe. He tells Livingston:

What surprises me, in a way, is how almost universally people are trustworthy and good. There are problems, and sometimes people bicker, which is a pain in the ass, but people are good. No matter what your religious background, we share pretty much the same values. There are some minor differences that we disagree on, but the differences are at the 5 percent level. That’s pretty good.

Artwork from Sophie Blackall's illustrated craigslist missed connections. Click image for more.

After noting that the two most important factors in his company culture were an atmosphere of trust and a keen moral compass, Newmark considers how that reverberates throughout the craigslist community itself. When Livingston asks whether he ever worried about spammers and other ill-willed people trying to take advantage of the site, he answers:

We have a really good culture of trust on the site — of goodwill. You know, we’re finding that pretty much everyone out there shares, more or less, the same moral compass as we do and as my personal one. People are good. There are some bad guys out there, but they are a very tiny minority and our community is self-policing. People want other people to play fair, and that works… It works great in all sorts of ways, and it’s also an expression of our values. Mutual trust. This is kind of democracy in real life. Everyone wins, except for the bad guys.

Founders at Work is a trove of wisdom in its entirety, from Paul Graham’s characteristically contrarian and inspiring introduction to the remaining interviews with legendary entrepreneurs like Steve Wozniak, Caterina Fake, and Brewster Kahle.

Complement this particular excerpt with the question posed by Alan Watts — what would you do if money was no object? — which should underpin every entrepreneurial pursuit, then revisit this field guide to finding your purpose.

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