Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘cities’

05 NOVEMBER, 2013

Before I Die: A Global Ethnography of Anonymous Aspirations in Chalk and Public Space

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“Thinking about death clarifies your life.”

In early 2011, artist, designer, and TED Fellow Candy Chang, queen of thoughtful installations in public spaces that invite collaborative storytelling, covered an abandoned house in her New Orleans neighborhood in chalkboard paint and stenciled on it a grid of the deceptively simple unfinished sentence “Before I die I want to . . .,” which any passerby could complete with a piece of chalk and a personal aspiration. To Chang’s surprise, the wall was completely filled by the next day. Soon, the project took on a life of its own and was replicated in over 10 languages across more than thirty countries, giving voice to millions of such private yearnings.

Before I Die (public library) collects the best of these public yet anonymous walls, from Alaska to Australia, Brooklyn to Berlin, filled with answers ranging from the poignant (“see a year without war”) to the silly (“sleep with a harp player”) to the disarmingly honest (“repair my broken heart”). Alongside the photographs are the stories of some of the people who chalked in their anonymous answers

Chang shares the genesis of the project, her harrowing personal brush with the mortality paradox:

Joan died on a quiet August day. She was a mother to me for fifteen years. She was kind and thoughtful. She loved to garden and she taught me how to plant flowers. When I was a confused teenager, she told me to be true to myself. Her death was sudden and unexpected, and there were so many things she still wanted to do: learn to play the piano, live in Paris, and see the Pacific Ocean. I spent a long time filled with grief. Then I felt gratitude for the time we had together.

Death was always on my mind. It brought clarity to my life. It reminded me of the people I want to love well, the type of person I want to become, and the things I want to do. But I struggled to maintain this perspective. It’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day and forget what really matters to me. I wondered if other people felt the same way.

[…]

Death is something we’re often discouraged to talk about or even think about. … Perhaps that is why it took me so long to explore these thoughts, but when I finally did, I found a comfort and clarity that I did not expect. Beyond the tragic truth of mortality lies a bright calm that reminds me of my place in the world. When I think about death, the mundane things that stress me out are reduced to their small and rightful place; the things that matter most to me become big and crisp again. … Thinking about death clarifies your life.

The book opens with the perfect amuse-bouche of wisdom by none other than Carl Sagan:

We make our world significant by the courage of our questions and the depth of our answers.

But in a wonderfully paradoxical way, the project both embodies and counters this sentiment: The question at its heart isn’t particularly “courageous,” nor are the majority of the answers particularly “deep,” but the combination produces something profound and deeply human, and that’s precisely the point: What makes the world significant — more than that, what makes “the aggregate of our joy and suffering” significant — is perhaps the simplicity and sincerity of our answers to the simplest and most sincere of questions.

Indeed, the answers brim with seeming individual simplicity which somehow unravels the collective complexity of the human condition: World peace, curing cancer, and learning to love might not be the most original of answers, but something magical happens when anonymity strips us of the compulsion for originality and lays bare our deepest, most unoriginally human and heartfelt longings with crisp, urgent sincerity. In aggregate, they are a reminder of what truly matters — a moral lens on what should matter — as we face the immutable fact that one day, when we turn to look back on our lives, all the cleverness and pretentiousness and witticism will dissipate into dust over the burning coals of our innermost, simplest, most earnest desires for a meaningful life.

The project also inhabits — champions — another important dimension, the notion that public spaces anchor us to our physical reality and, at their best, awaken a richer relationship with our surroundings. Chang writes:

Our public spaces are as profound as we allow them to be. They are our shared spaces and reflect what matters to us as a community and as individuals. … At their greatest, our public spaces can nourish our well-being and help us see that we’re not alone as we try to make sense of our lives. They can help us grieve together and celebrate together and console one another and be alone together. Each passerby is another person full of longing, anxiety, fear, and wonder. With more ways to share in public space, the people around us can not only help us make better places, they can help us become our best selves.

Candy Chang (Photograph by Randal Ford)

And just for good measure, here is a wall on which I wrote myself hours after it was installed in Austin in March of 2013:

A beautiful and moving ethnography of aspiration, Before I Die is an enchanting reminder that we’re ephemeral and yet we matter, that we’re singular and yet united in our deepest hopes, that the simplest building blocks of our inner lives are also the most profound and eternal.

Images courtesy of Candy Chang

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11 OCTOBER, 2013

Drawn to New York: Counterculture Cartoonist Peter Kuper’s Illustrated Chronicle of 34 Years in Gotham

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“This city is change. That’s its glory — it’s a perpetually unfinished canvas, offering up possibility to each successive wave of artists.”

New York City isn’t wont for love letters (and, okay, the occasional hate mail and breakup letter) — from the illustrated to the poetic to the cartographic to the photographic to the literary, and even the canine and the feline. And if this tells us anything, it’s that the ultimate portrait of the city is a collage of a myriad subjective impressions and private experiences. In Drawn to New York: An Illustrated Chronicle of Three Decades in New York City (public library), celebrated illustrator and counterculture cartoonist Peter Kuper contributes his own, which he calls a “portrait of this city I love, both its darkness and light … a city whose story is ever being written.”

In the introduction, painter and graphic novelist Eric Drooker — who contributed to some of Gotham’s dystopian dreams — ponders the city’s enduring, ineffable mesmerism:

Like moths to a flame, millions are drawn to New York … but why?

What’s the attraction to the big city — the eternal Babel — with its endless confusion of tongues? What’s all the hubbub?

What is it that draws so many people — particularly artists — to Gotham?

Is it the buildings? The lights? The sound? The fury?

The wailing sirens at 3 A.M.? The incessant rumble of nonstop express trains on rusted subway tracks?

Or is it simply the seduction of anonymity in the big city … a chance to reinvent oneself in the rush hour crowd?

Many come as a career move, hoping to be discovered by others … or at least to find themselves.

Many self-appointed New Yorkers, of course, can only connect the dots of how and why we ended up in city, as Steve Jobs poignantly noted of life’s general dot-connecting in his timeless Stanford commencement address, by looking back and never by looking forward. When Kuper packed his own midwestern bags at the age of eighteen to make Gotham his adopted home, he had just an abstract sense of why the city — vertical, gridded, stark — drew him. Only decades later would he capture this abstraction in the concrete, stark grids of his cartoon strips and graphic novels.

Dazzled by the city’s glamor on a childhood visit — with his family, at the age of nine, to see his uncle perform on Broadway — young Kuper also witnessed the inevitable sight of New York’s gruffness, involving a gas truck, a drunk man in a Pontiac, a cacophony of blaring horns, and his father leaping into action to save the drunk from an inevitable explosion. That experience shaped his entire understanding of the city. Kuper recalls:

Clearly New York was a dangerous place where terrible things could happen, but also a place that could turn ordinary people into superheroes. On that sweltering August night, amid the roaring swirl of Manhattan’s manic energy, I decided I wanted to move to this city as soon as possible.

It took him a decade, but in June of 1977, he set fateful foot on Gotham soil at Grand Central, set on becoming a New York animator. The city he arrived in — bankrupt, with decrepit subways, a ghostly Times Square at night, and streets lined with towers of uncollected trash from a garbage strike — sounds to the onlooker almost nightmarish, a nightmare made all the grimmer by the famous Blackout that hit only a month later, unleashing rampant looting. But Kuper was in heaven, living his dream.

That, perhaps, is the sign of a great New Yorker, and especially a great New York artist: The ability to love the city not despite its grit but because of it, to inhabit its struggles with dignity rather than disgust, with empathic curiosity rather than cruel gawking. And that is precisely what Kuper has been doing for thirty years in his drawings of the city at its most real yet its most affectionate, and above all its comforting mutability. Kuper himself puts it beautifully:

This city is change. That’s its glory — it’s a perpetually unfinished canvas, offering up possibility to each successive wave of artists.

Though all of Kuper’s work is remarkably dimensional, brimming with social, cultural, and political commentary, among his most striking pieces is this irrepressibly unsettling, viscerally disquieting image of the raw, debilitating trauma that 9/11 inflicted on the city:

Pair Drawn to New York: An Illustrated Chronicle of Three Decades in New York City with 10 favorite nonfiction reads on NYC.

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09 OCTOBER, 2013

Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York

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“I’d entered the city the way one enters any grand love affair: with no exit plan.”

“I was in love with New York,” Joan Didion wrote in her cult-classic essay “Goodbye to All That,” titled after the famous Robert Graves autobiography and found in Slouching Towards Bethlehem — the same indispensable 1967 collection that gave us Didion on self-respect and keeping a notebook; she quickly qualified the statement: “I do not mean ‘love’ in any colloquial way, I mean that I was in love with the city, the way you love the first person who ever touches you and you never love anyone quite that way again.” More than half a century later, 28 of today’s most extraordinary, diverse, uniformly interesting women writers revisit the eternal story of devotion and departure in a new anthology titled after Didion’s iconic essay: Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York (public library), envisioned and edited by Sari Botton, tells tales — funny, poignant, irreverent, deeply human — that ring immutably familiar to anyone who’s ever called Gotham home or dreamt of being able to, yet, like the city itself, always infuse our expectations with subtle surprise. Though the stories differ enormously in both style and substance, one thing unites them: Like Didion’s original meditation, they bespeak a level of intimacy with the city that takes on the language of romance, of sex, of infatuation — a persistent pattern that transforms these personal, autobiographical accounts into stirring universal letters of love, and loss, into paeans of lyrical, conflicted nostalgia for the imperfect lover whom you chose to leave yet whose loss you still secretly grieve.

Illustration by James Gulliver Hancock from ‘All the Buildings in New York.’ Click image for details.

The magnificent Cheryl “Sugar” Strayed — one of the finest hearts, minds, and keyboards of our time, whose Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar is an existential must and was among the best psychology and philosophy books of 2012 — had a rude awakening to NYC. On the warm September afternoon of her twenty-fourth birthday, she saw a man get stabbed in the West Village. He didn’t die, but the shock of it — and the shock of the general bystander-indifference as a waiter assuringly said to her, “I wouldn’t worry about it,” while pouring her another cup of coffee on the sunny sidelines — planted the seed of slow-growing, poisonous worry about the greater It of it. Strayed writes:

I couldn’t keep myself from thinking everything in New York was superior to every other place I’d ever been, which hadn’t been all that many places. I was stunned by New York. Its grand parks and museums. Its cozy cobbled streets and dazzlingly bright thoroughfares. Its alternately efficient and appalling subway system. Its endlessly gorgeous women clad in slim pants and killer shoes and interesting coats.

And yet something happened on my way to falling head over heels in love with the place. Maybe it was the man getting stabbed that no one worried about. Or maybe it was bigger than that. The abruptness, the gruffness, the avoid-eye-contact indifference of the crowded subways and streets felt as foreign to me as Japan or Cameroon, as alien to me as Mars. Even the couple who owned the bodega below our apartment greeted my husband and me each day as if we were complete strangers, which is to say they didn’t greet us at all, no matter how many times we came in to buy toilet paper or soup, cat food or pasta. They merely took our money and returned our change with gestures so automatic and faces so expressionless they might as well have been robots. … This tiny thing … grew to feel like the greatest New York City crime of all, to be denied the universal silent acknowledgment of familiarity, the faintest smile, the hint of a nod.

That realization was the beginning of the end. On a cold February afternoon, Strayed and her husband began packing their New York lives into a double-parked pickup truck. They were done after dark, long after they had anticipated — for living in New York is the art of transmuting a shoebox into a bottomless pit of stuff, only to have it unravel into a black hole of time-space that swallows you whole each time you move shoeboxes — and all that remained was that odd morning-after emptiness of feeling, which Strayed captures with her characteristic blunt elegance:

I’d entered the city the way one enters any grand love affair: with no exit plan. I went willing to live there forever, to become one of the women clad in slim pants and killer shoes and interesting coats. I was ready for the city to sweep me into its arms, but instead it held me at a cool distance. And so I left New York the way one leaves a love affair too: because, much as I loved it, I wasn’t truly in love. I had no compelling reason to stay.

Yoko Ono's hand-drawn contribution to ‘Mapping Manhattan.’ Click image for details.

Dani Shapiro, author of the freshly released and wonderful Still Writing: The Pleasures and Perils of a Creative Life — had a rather different experience:

The city, was what people from New Jersey called it. The city, as if there were no other. If you were a suburban Jewish girl in the late 1970s, aching to burst out of the tepid swamp of your adolescence (synagogue! field hockey! cigarettes!), the magnetic pull of the city from across the water was irresistible. Between you and the city were the smokestacks of Newark, the stench of oil refineries, the soaring Budweiser eagle, its lit-up wings flapping high above the manufacturing plant. That eagle — if you were a certain kind of girl, you wanted to leap on its neon back and be carried away. On weekend trips into the city, you’d watch from the backseat of your parents’ car for the line in the Lincoln Tunnel that divided New Jersey from New York, because you felt dead on one side, and alive on the other.

She moved to the alive side at nineteen, to live with a boyfriend she soon married, only to find herself divorced at twenty. (“How many people can claim that?,” Shapiro asks clearly rhetorically — and, clearly, she’d be surprised.) Now, thirty years later, she has a Dear Me moment as she looks back:

I wish I could reach back through time and shake some sense into that lost little girl. I wish I could tell her to wait, to hold on. That becoming a grown-up is not something that happens overnight, or on paper. That rings and certificates and apartments and meals have nothing to do with it. That everything we do matters. Wait, I want to say — but she is impatient, racing ahead of me.

And though she became a writer — a Writer in the City — Shapiro found herself strangely, subtly, yet palpably unfitted for the kind of life the city required:

I could lecture on metaphor; I could teach graduate students; I could locate and deconstruct the animal imagery in Madame Bovary. But I could not squash a water bug by myself. The practicalities of life eluded me. The city — which I knew with the intimacy of a lover — made it very possible to continue like this, carried along on a stream of light, motion, energy, noise. The city was a bracing wind that never stopped blowing, and I was a lone leaf slapped up against the side of a building, a hydrant, a tree.

Writing now from her small study in scenic Connecticut, two hours north of the city, she reflects on her choice to leave after — and despite — having attained her teenage dream:

My city broke its promise to me, and I to it. I fell out of love, and then I fell back in — with my small town, its winding country roads, and the ladies at the post office who know my name. I did my best to become the airbrushed girl on its billboards, but even airbrushed girls grow up. We soften over time, or maybe harden. One way or another, life will have its way with us.

Photograph by Berenice Abbott from ‘Changing New York,’ 1935–1939. Click image for details.

Roxane Gay, author of the beautiful Ayiti, recalls her first impressions of New York as a child in Queens — its city-street grit, its Broadway glitter, its daily human tragedies and triumphs unfolding on every corner. Above all, however, the city sang its siren song of unlimited diversity and unconditional acceptance to her — a young black girl with an artistic bend — as she became obsessed with attending college there:

If I went to school in New York, surely all my problems would be solved. I would learn how to be chic and glamorous. I would learn how to walk fast and wear all black without looking like I was attending a funeral. In adolescence, I was becoming a different kind of stranger in a strange land. I was a theater geek and troubled and angry and hell-bent on forgetting the worst parts of myself. In New York, I told myself, I would no longer be the only freak in the room because the city was full of freaks.

But despite being admitted into NYU — her most dreamsome fulfillment of idyllic fantasy — her parents had their doubts about the city’s dangers and distractions, so they sent her to a prestigious school a few hours away. And yet Gay continued to fuel the fantasy of New York’s make-or-break magic wand of success — a fantasy especially entertained by aspiring writers:

New York City is the center of the writing world, or so we’re told. New York is where all the action happens because the city is where the most important publishers and agents and writers are. New York is where the fancy book parties happen and where the literati rub elbows and everyone knows (or pretends to know) everything about everyone else’s writing career. At some point, New York stopped being the city of my dreams because it stopped being merely an idea I longed to be a part of. New York was very real and very complicated. New York had become an intimidating giant of a place, but still I worried. If I wasn’t there as a writer, was I a writer anywhere?

And yet she did became a writer — a great one — even though she left the fairy Gotham godmother for a tiny Midwestern town, where she now teaches, writes, and revels in the unconditional unfanciness and comforting underwhelmingness of it all. After a recent visit to the city to meet with her agent — for though a Real Writer may live anywhere, a Real Writer’s agent invariably lives in New York — she reflects:

New York was a strange land, and I was still a stranger and would always be one. Overall, that visit was fun. The city was good to me and I looked forward to returning and soon. But. There was nothing for me to say goodbye to in New York because I never truly said hello. I became a writer without all the glamorous or anti-glamorous trappings of New York life I thought I needed.

Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York is an exquisite read in its entirety and a wonderful addition to these 10 favorite nonfiction reads on NYC. For an antidote, complement it with some cartographic love letters to the city from those who decided to stay and the mixed experiences of those who came and went.

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