From the category archives:

Senses

Words on a Screen

by Matt Blair on January 18, 2010

in History,Inspirations,Meaning,Quotes,Senses

Each year on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I set aside some time to read through one of his speeches.

Yes, read. Not listen or watch, but read.

True, Dr. King was more of a speechmaker than a pamphleteer. The audio and video recordings of his speeches are indeed powerful.

But it’s kind of like that moment when you think of a song you’ve loved for years, and realize you have no idea what it’s about, or maybe just an incomplete understanding.

The non-verbal elements that inspire and attract us to a well-delivered speech can distract us from the actual message.

Strip away the soaring tone, the cheer of the crowd, the scratchy black-and-white sense of historical import, the measured breath and gleam in the eyes, the hands resting on each side of the podium as the voice rises and falls, and what’s left?

The words.

Quietly reading the text of a speech removes many of those sensual elements that allow us to get swept away in the moment.

It also fills out the frame in a way that all the short clips and soundbites we hear so often never do: not just the heights at the end, but the slow, steady climb through the rhetorical switchbacks before we glimpse the summit.

Here’s an excerpt of an excerpt that I posted last year:

Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked, and dejected with a lost opportunity. The tide in the affairs of men does not remain at flood — it ebbs. We may cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is adamant to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residues of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words, “Too late.”

Hard not to think of pre-earthquake Haiti when reading a quote like that.

This year, I chose “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution“, from which this line also reminded me of Haiti — and North Korea and Zimbabwe and Detroit and so many other places:

“There is nothing new about poverty. What is new is that we now have the techniques and the resources to get rid of poverty. The real question is whether we have the will.”

And this is the passage that’s stuck with me throughout the day:

One day a newsman came to me and said, “Dr. King, don’t you think you’re going to have to stop, now, opposing the war and move more in line with the administration’s policy? As I understand it, it has hurt the budget of your organization, and people who once respected you have lost respect for you. Don’t you feel that you’ve really got to change your position?” I looked at him and I had to say, “Sir, I’m sorry you don’t know me. I’m not a consensus leader. I do not determine what is right and wrong by looking at the budget of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. I’ve not taken a sort of Gallup Poll of the majority opinion.” Ultimately a genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus, but a molder of consensus.

On some positions, cowardice asks the question, is it expedient? And then expedience comes along and asks the question, is it politic? Vanity asks the question, is it popular? Conscience asks the question, is it right?

There comes a time when one must take the position that is neither safe nor politic nor popular, but he must do it because conscience tells him it is right.

Hmm.

Cowardice, Expediency, Politics and Vanity as the four horseman of Inaction, with Conscience as the savior?

I could sign on to that worldview.

The King Institute has a list of Dr. King’s speeches, with transcriptions of most.

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A Retrospective

by Matt Blair on December 3, 2009

in Background,Life Cycle of Ideas,Meaning,Senses

Is it too early? It’s barely been a year and a half.

I am currently, shall we say, gathering data in Terra incognita.

Rather than rush to publish a few posts that aren’t quite ready, I thought I’d take the chance to highlight a few from the past seventeen months or so.

Writing a blog feels a lot like practicing a musical instrument with the door open.

You try to focus on the sound and the music, while imagining people wandering by muttering:  “Isn’t he getting better at that yet?” Or “He’s still making that mistake?”

Blogging is a process of learning and thinking in public.  After nearly a year and a half, I’m more proud of some posts than others.

Here are a few of the posts that hint at ideas I’ll be building on in the coming year:

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Presentation

The subject reports “a multi-directional effusiveness, an avaricious over-seeking of meta-meaning, and an at-times overwhelming sense of the abundance of interconnectedness of ideas, in which each thought lurks in the shadows of another’s metaphor, and springs forth when approached, hoping to find its place within the whole.”

Diminished ability to punctuate and form distinct sentences and pararaphs is also suggested.

Diagnosis

The subject is experiencing a periodic flare-up of chronic Editor’s Block, loosely defined as a mind-numbing inability to agree with oneself on a final draft, or even an intermediate one.

Treatments Recommended

  1. Eat an unknown variety of apple.
  2. Feel a light drizzle on one’s face.
  3. Run one’s fingertips across the branch of a rosemary bush and inhale deeply every five or ten minutes until only the memory of scent remains. (Or until the hands are washed — it is flu season.)
  4. Listen carefully to the crunch of leaves underfoot.
  5. Look away from the computer screen, and wordlessly observe scenes like this one:
More compelling than a thesaurus -- sometimes

More compelling than a thesaurus -- sometimes

Prognosis

The subject will return in a few days to report on the efficacy of the suggested treatments.

The tonic effects of time should not be discounted in this case.

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Cameras Are Spotlights

by Matt Blair on October 28, 2009

in Perception,Places and Contexts,Senses,Tools

People seem to be tilting their heads a little higher on the streets lately.

(No, not just because of the latest gushing story about Portland in the national press.)

Our trees — the moody ones that change their wardrobe with the seasons, not the stalwart evergreens — are baring themselves for winter, and Portlanders, often with cameras or camera phones in hand, are gathering evidence of autumn before it all falls away and leaves us with short days and drizzle.

This season brings all sorts of sensations: the first time in months when you feel cold even with two jackets on, the pumpkin lattes, the smell of roasting squash, the constant uncertainty over whether it is or isn’t actually raining, the seemingly endless variety of fresh apples, the piles of leaves that the kid in me wants to stomp through, and the intuition to look up a little more frequently than usual.

Life doesn’t stop, of course, and all the things that preoccupied us two weeks ago, and will preoccupy us two weeks from now, are still there, weighing on our minds enough to even our gaze, or turn it back down to the ground.

Looking down: Not such a bad view, either...

Looking down: Not such a bad view, either...

Whether absorbed in conversation, mentally re-prioritizing my reading list (again) or simply walking around mulling over nascent thoughts, whenever I see someone fussing with a camera, it acts as a silent, subtle alarm: something interesting must be happening here.

Hmm, a building — must be working for a real estate agent.

Or we see a toddler stumbling down the sidewalk towards the parent, who is documenting another step towards confidence.

Then there are those rare — and to me, beautiful — moments when a quick scan reveals no cause for photography at all. We can find no explanation for why someone has stopped to capture some part of this scene.  And we are left to wonder:  How often am I missing something among all that seems ordinary?

A camera is an attention-directing device as well as an image capture device. To point a camera is to convey to all those around us: I find this worth remembering.

When passing a woman carefully framing a shot causes us to pause, and wonder what she’s looking at, she has done us a great favor by making us more attentive to our surroundings.

Even just seeing a photo later, out of its original context, on Flickr or a postcard or an email, can have a similar effect. We think:

“I saw something like that last week, and I didn’t stop to notice the details.  Maybe I should.”

And with that in mind, I’m going for another walk, before all the leaves are on the ground.

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Last night, while cutting and roasting these little squares and cubes of yum:

sweet potatoes and red pepper

Not quite squares or cubes...

I was listening to an episode of Philosophy Talk about language titled “What Are Words Worth?” and one of the topics was whether and how our native language constrains our thought processes.

Most people would consider English to be my primary language. Anyone who has tried to comprehend my attempts at French or Japanese or Chinese would consider English my only language. And they’d be essentially correct.

Or is it mostly accurate?  Or spot on? I have a notion of what each of those phrases means, but I’m not sure the best way to say it. I could keep fiddling with it, or come back to it in ten minutes. But I’ll just leave it as an example of my frequent inability to find a word or phrase that precisely fits what I’m thinking.

If my thoughts originate in English, shouldn’t the words and sentences just fall out of my head, fully-formed? Why do I feel inclined to hunt through dictionaries, ponder each word’s heritage, and fret about shared perceptions of what specific words mean?

In other words, why does writing feel like translation rather than transcription?

Micro-Dialects

Maybe it’s a matter of converting my own personal and idiosyncratic dialect into more commonly used patterns? That seems plausible enough.

We each use language in our own peculiar way. Through editing and revision, we move from the quirky, hyper-local dialect of our internal monologues towards the language practices we share with our audience.

To communicate a specific idea, I have to capture its meaning, seal it into these little semantic packets called words and phrases, sequence those into sentences and paragraphs, encode it with one computer, transmit it to another computer, and let you take it from there.

As a reader, you go through an inverse process: you use a tool like a browser to copy it from a computer to your computer, which retrieves text from the numerical codes, and positions the sentences and paragraphs, which you then parse into words and phrases. Hopefully they mean something to you which approximates what they meant to me.

This model works well enough for blog posts, which tend to focus on words and voice, so it’s easy to assume that only the machines are translating and transmuting the ideas as they move from my mind to yours.

An Inadequate Container

But what about all the ideas that never take the form of written or spoken languages?

Could anyone imagine Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring captured in words alone, and then accurately transformed into sound? It might be possible — after all, musical notation is a kind of language — but it would certainly be inefficient and absurd.

I could have described the objects depicted at the top of this post using only language:

“Two well-scrubbed sweet potatoes from the Farmers’ market (cut in 1.5cm cubes) along with a red pepper from the Farmers’ market (cut in 2cm squares) tossed in olive oil, cumin, coriander, black pepper, a pinch of salt, roasted in a glass dish at 400F for approximately 53 minutes, until they were just right.”

Yet there’s nothing intrinsically linguistic about them. I used language to procure them. I just used language to describe them.

Other than that, the experience of them, it seems to me, has very little to do with language. I decided a photo paired with a flippant phrase (“little squares and cubes of yum”) was a better way to present them. Smell and taste would create a more accurate perception in your mind of what came out of the oven, but digital media hasn’t quite caught up with those senses — yet.

If language is not an adequate container for all thoughts, then what is thought?

Do ideas form out of a kind of raw “thought stuff” which is then sometimes translated into language?

In my experience, yes, which is why I feel like writing is translation, like whatever I express in English is at best an approximation of what I’m after.

I’ll explore this question, and some of its implications for idea-making, in my next post.

In the meantime, I’d like to hear about your experiences:

  • Do you feel like you are directly transcribing what’s in your head when writing a short story or a blog post or painting or dancing?
  • Or do you feel like you are translating your ideas, whether into language or image or sound or other physical forms?

Please add a comment or send an email or a tweet, and let me know.

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Textural and Temporal

by Matt Blair on August 30, 2009

in Books,Perception,Senses

The Black Book of Colors by Menena Cottin and Rosana Faría is the shortest book I’ve read in quite a while.

This concept book consists of a series of paired black pages: text describing a color in both braille and white letters on the left page, and an image in raised black ink on the right. (You can see an example in this review.)

Ostensibly a book for children, it is a book meant to be touched and felt. Sighted readers can tilt the book back and forth in the light to perceive the image — but that’s cheating isn’t it?

Thomas, our guide through this seemingly monochromatic world, explains each color to us:

“Thomas says that blue is the color of the sky when kites are flying and the sun is beating hot on his head.”

Touching the adjacent page with eyes closed, I scanned from upper left to upper right, out of instinct.  There didn’t seem to be anything at all.

Descending the left side of the page, my fingertips caught a bare thread near the bottom. With no other distractions, they followed that thin line up and to the right, until it exploded into the shape and form of a kite.

Our eyes can take in a page at a glance — not every detail, of course, but the general structure of it.  With touch alone, our sensory connection to the page shrinks to narrow points — a fingertip or two. The experience of the page happens not in an instant, but through time.

Looking at a page, we think: there’s a kite on the right.

Touching the page, there’s nothing at first, then a spare line, and then a burst of complexity.

It’s not just that we’re using a different sense: the entire sequence of the experience has changed.

Questions

What is your primary sense?  How do your perceptions change if you mask or ignore that particular sense and focus on your other senses?

Does your primary sense allow you to perceive something in an instant, or does the experience unfold through time? Do some senses take longer than others?

With practice, could your perception with that particular sense get faster? Would you want it to?

Could your perception with that sense get slower over time? Would you want to develop that ability?

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For many modern-day visitors to Egypt, Abu Simbel is an out-of-the-way excursion, an option at the end of the itinerary. Down near the border with Sudan, and much smaller than most of the high-traffic historical sites in Egypt, it is an afterthought.

Just another postcard:

Egypt: Abu Simbel

Abu Simbel Postcard

But what if it is approached from the south, as humans have approached it for millennia? Or as part of a 14,000 km walk across the continent?

“Alexandre and Sonia Poussin undertake to walk the length of Africa entirely on foot, from the Cape of Good Hope to the Sea of Galilee. In a three-year trek along the Great Rift Valley of East Africa, their goal is to symbolically retrace the passage of early Man, from Australopithecus to Modern Man.”

After spending three weeks making their way through the deserts of northern Sudan towards Egypt, Alexandre said Abu Simbel seemed “huge and egoistic”, like an announcement that you’ve reached the beginning of civilization.

Egypt: Abu Simbel

Clambering up a fallen facade

So which is it? Just another set of statues at the end of the postcard deck?

Or a still-standing Ozymandias?

The order of our experiences, the precise sequence of where we’ve been and what we’ve observed, profoundly shapes our perceptions of our surroundings in the present moment.

When I heard Alexandre describe Abu Simbel that way last fall, it reminded me of a walk I had taken through the woods in Virginia several years earlier.

I was visiting Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s home outside Charlottesville. After buying a ticket next to the parking lot, visitors have a choice: take a bus up to the house, or walk up a gently sloping path. I took one look at the crowded line for the bus, and headed for the forest.

As I walked, I looked at the trees, the trail, the changing October leaves, and wondered how it all might have changed since Jefferson — or Sally Hemings, for that matter — walked nearby two centuries ago.

More poignantly, when approaching Monticello from the forest you pass the graveyard first, well before the house is in sight. Jefferson’s gravestone provides a concise outline of how he viewed the accomplishments of his own life:

Gravestone of Thomas Jefferson

Gravestone of Thomas Jefferson (Sorry for the bad photo...)

I continued walking past the main lawn and the gardens, and rounded the front of the house to join the line for the tour. I listened to the chatter of those who had taken the bus to the top as they debated how long Jefferson had been president, and when, or which denominations of money featured his face.

Within the house at Monticello, the tour guides focused on Jefferson’s massive library, his incessant architectural tinkering, the specimens  Lewis And Clark sent him from their expedition, his prodigious correspondence, his wine collection, his agricultural experimentation, his massive debts, and, of course, his eight years as president.

I listened and absorbed all the historical details with my usual level of curiosity, but also through a more reflective frame: Before starting the tour, I had already seen how it ended, from Jefferson’s perspective.

Questions

Have you had the chance to approach an historic site or a work of art from multiple directions?  How was each approach different?

Do particular pieces of art imply a certain approach?  How is the work strengthened or weakened by arriving from another direction?

Think about the way paths are constructed in museums.  What can you glimpse from the outside? From the lobby?  From one gallery to the next?

Where does the ‘art experience’ start? How have the museum’s designers managed the transition from street to art? How does the sound environment change? The temperature? The lighting?

How would it be different if you came up an elevator from a parking garage instead of through the front entrance?

Exercise

Find a place or work of art that can be approached by multiple paths, and take each.

Experience the same place or idea coming from these distinct perspectives, and make note of the differences.

A path could be a physical approach — the way you move towards something.

Or it could be a contextual approach: go to a gallery or a museum exhibit that you don’t know anything about. Note the experience. Then go study the historical and cultural context, and return.

Or it could be imagining a new path to a place you’ve already visited: Did the existing path enhance or detract from your experience of that place? If you were asked to redesign the approach, how would you do so?  What elements would you preserve and what would you change? What mindset would you try to create for visitors?

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In the northern hemisphere, the summer travel season is upon us. In addition to thinking about sight-seeing and noshing over the next few months, I want to encourage you to go here-hearing, place-touching and site-smelling.

That may sound a bit glib and silly, not only because of the wordplay and alliteration, but because it isn’t how we typically think of travel.

When people return from a voyage, they talk about the places they went, the people they met and the conversations they had. In terms of making sense memories, they may have lots of photos and videos, and tales of food and drink, from the fantastic to the horrific and everything in between.

Sound, touch and smell are often minor characters in the story. Maybe they took note of the smell of a particular flower, or the roar of a waterfall.

But did they touch anything they couldn’t have touched locally?  Did they hear anything they’d never heard of before? Was there a smell they hadn’t encountered anywhere else?

Like a Small, Insistent Earthquake

About ten years ago, I booked a ferry from Stockholm to Turku, Finland. I was expecting a modest little boat for the overnight journey, and was astonished to arrive at the port and see what was essentially a cruise ship looming a dozen stories above the water.

As we boarded, I noticed many of my fellow passengers with folded-up carts and large empty bags were all rushing in the same direction. Curious, I followed the clamor, careful not to get trampled. So much for Scandinavian reserve.

After several twists and turns, I rounded a corner, and ran into a store teeming with activity: Ah. Booze. Now it made sense.

I remembered reading somewhere that the ferries were popular day-trips or night-trips for those buying duty-free alcohol, because the taxes on both sides of the Baltic were so high.

As I turned to leave, the engines engaged, pushing the ferry away from the dock. The massive ship shuddered at the force required to overcome its inertia, and all the bottles began to clink softly against each other.

I entered the store and tiptoed as quietly as I could through the aisles, listening to the highs and lows of the bottles delicately tinkling amid the din of alcohol purchases. Imagine being in a wine shop or liquor store during a mild but continuous earthquake, with thousands of glass bottles barely touching one another.

It lasted several minutes, and it remains one of the most beautiful sounds I’ve ever heard.

Nose and Skin

To retrieve scent memories, I have to think a little more deeply. Here are two examples:

  • The aroma of olive oil extraction that fills the countryside in Andalucía, Spain in mid-winter.
  • The incense-infused wood in the Todaiji temple in Nara. I went there at least a dozen times while living in Japan, and every time, in every season, I was captivated as soon as I stepped over the threshold.

I really had to scratch my head to come up with a touch memory — I guess I need to pay closer attention to storing tactile sensations in the future! Here’s one:

I used to climb the hill behind the apartment building where I lived on the edge of the sprawl surrounding Osaka, Japan. The hill faced the west, and much of the trail was in the sun, but there was one little pocket about halfway to the top that didn’t seem to get any sun at any time of day. There was nothing visually distinct about this part of the trail, but the quality of the air was entirely different: fresh and dramatically cooler.

I always looked forward to that spot, especially in the heat of July and August. Better than any air-conditioning!

Exercise

Before your next trip, get a pocket notebook. Divide it into three sections, however you like: Sound, Smell and Touch.

Even if you don’t have any travel plans, try doing this exercise on walks around your neighborhood or even the clothing aisles of a local mall. Seek remarkable sensations all around you, even in seemingly unremarkable places.

Every time you take a photo, sip a drink or munch a snack, make a point of entering something in each of these sense categories in your notebook.

Try to get in the habit of reaching for this notebook when you smell something or touch something interesting, in the same habitual way you might reach for your camera.

Describe the sensations in anyway you like: just tune in and capture it in some way.

(I’m a big fan of traveling with audio recorders, but for the purposes of this exercise, I want to encourage you to be in the moment, so please listen with your ears, not your microphone!)

And when you return, give your memories of these sensations top billing in the stories you tell: “You won’t believe what I touched this summer…”

Enjoy!

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The Experience of Enormity

by Matt Blair on May 8, 2009

in Perception,Senses

In the mid-nineties, I was hearing a lot of buzz about the way CD-Roms and multimedia were going to “change everything”. (There’s a pair of words that should always be interpreted as a warning…)

I was working in computer art at the time, and I should have been excited by these developments, but I just couldn’t get into it. In my experience, these CDs were limited to trite little sound-effects, pixelated graphics and postage-stamp-sized video — when they actually worked. Remember what it was like to get video to play on a computer in 1994?

It was tiny. It was puny. It was so much smaller than the scope of our senses.

Was this really the future?

Then I saw Laurie Anderson on her Bright Red tour, and it was precisely the kind of rebuttal I had been yearning for.

Enormity: to be within, and to be enveloped. That’s what this new notion of “multimedia” lacked, and what the concert hall could still provide.

Simulacrum

A gorgeous photo of lightning is not the same as the visceral experience of being in — and underneath — a thunderstorm on a summer afternoon in Alabama.

Seeing a film of people walking around a Richard Serra sculpture is not the same as standing in the shadow of one.

No photo or map conveys the cultural shock of the Reconquista as well as circumnavigating the cathedral built in the center of the Great Mosque of Córdoba.

Going there matters. Being there matters. But it’s not enough.

A Canyon

I have been enjoying Chris Guillebeau’s blog lately, yet I was a bit horrified to come across the Grand Canyon on the over-rated list in his post 9 Overrated Tourist Destinations (And 9 Great Alternatives).

Don’t get me wrong: this is a great article, largely because of the evenhandedness of suggesting alternatives for each overrated spot. His essay/manifesto 279 Days to Overnight Success is also full of excellent insights. The title alone is such a succinct blend of aspiration, pragmatism and volition.

Here’s how he described his experience:

I went there with my family last year, and my 16-year old sister and I had fun coming up with alternative names for the Grand Canyon. Our top choices were:
The Decent Canyon
The Not-Bad Canyon
The “If you’re 10 miles away, go and see it” Canyon

You get the idea. Technically speaking, the Grand Canyon is impressive, but there’s so much hype about it that it’s hard to live up to your expectations upon arrival.

So many people reacted to this that Chris recently added a comment to the post calling for a kind of truce on the subject:

1) I think we’ve discussed the Grand Canyon enough – some people love it, some don’t, and as for me I’m kind of in between. Each opinion is valid, but let’s move on.

Rather than jump into the fray, I want to use it as an example of how we experience enormity.

You can’t really see the Grand Canyon. No human can.

Instead, you go to selected viewpoints, gather information, and try to piece this phenomena together in your head. From this thin dossier, you try to interpret its meaning and significance.

Put another way, a human visiting the Grand Canyon is like a gnat visiting your ankle. Would you say the gnat understands you or your significance?

Such expansive sites and moments are sensually humbling because they surpass the limits of our perceptive abilities.

From any one vista, or by visiting a dozen in a single day, you are merely assembling clues about the nature of what is in front of you.

These clues help you construct a not-entirely-accurate mental model of a physical place, and that is ultimately where you visit places like the Grand Canyon: not in front of you, or beneath your feet, but in your mind.

When we finally arrive at a site we’ve imagined visiting, each sensation is compared to our expectations and the models we bring with us. We confirm some suspicions, invalidate others, and add unexpected nuance.

To truly perceive, we must leave our expectations behind. Otherwise, it’s all comparison.

Big art, Little artifacts

No matter how you go or where you stand, you won’t be able to fly through a place like the Grand Canyon and switch perspectives like you can in Google Earth. No matter how many times you visit, you’ll never capture each vista at the precise light conditions found in the 100 highest-rated photos of it on Flickr.

Do such tools and services take the magic away? Do they give us such a rich set of expectations and such a strong sense of having been there that real life — the sight and sound and smell of any particular spot — just can’t compare?

When technology delivers fragments and artifacts of sensory experience to our desks and kitchen tables and mobile phones, what does it mean to go somewhere anymore?

It’s worth noting that many of the commenters who disagreed about the Grand Canyon had immersed themselves in the Canyon by hiking into it or rafting through it.

Immersion seems to make a difference.

And that was the problem with the multimedia hype in the 1990s: we were trying to connect with big ideas by looking through the jaggy and unreliable window of a computer monitor and hearing tinny sound from little speakers, with no other senses engaged. We were outside, looking and listening in. It was too small for us to be enveloped.

Yes, computers have gotten better and faster and better able to convey beauty.

But a 24-inch screen and a great speaker system still offer mere hints and fragments of what the world is like.

Here is an image of a painting by Salvador Dalí:

The Hallucinogenic Toreador by Salvador Dalí

The Hallucinogenic Toreador by Salvador Dalí

You may have seen it before.  Did you know that it is four meters tall — taller than one person standing on the shoulders of another? Approximately 25-times the size it appears on your screen?

When we go to enormous places and encounter big art, we all have our own distinct experiences. When surrounded by something bigger than any one of us can perceive and comprehend, we notice different things, and we come back with different stories.

The collection of all of our stories continually reshapes the myths, and the myths reshape our perceptions.

The only way to judge the hype and keep the myth connected to the reality is to go there, and let the sensory richness of a place or an idea infuse your mind and body.

You still have to go there.

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Reconsidering Wealth

by Matt Blair on March 20, 2009

in Meaning,Perception,Senses

I was traveling through Europe during the financial crisis of 1998. While it was not the kind of crisis that was obvious on the streets of western Europe, there were stories here and there of how the froth of the markets — especially the currency markets — had spilled into every day life.

In Helsinki, I met a German motorcyclist who was making plans to return home by ferry.  He’d made it through Poland, the Baltics and Russia, but with great difficulty: he couldn’t get any hard currency out of the banks at all during the last half of his trip, though everyone wanted to hand him rubles — as many as he could take.  But no one would accept rubles from him, a non-Russian.  Dollars, they told him.  Deutsche marks.  British pounds.  You’re a foreigner, went the implied argument.  You must have some real money.

He did, back in Germany. But the numbers in that account didn’t matter to a local bank in Latvia.  They had no dollars or Deutsche marks to give. No one was willing to translate those distant numbers into a fungible, functional currency, though they were eager to give him all the local paper he could carry.

He told me of the relief he felt crossing into Finland, inserting his bank card into a machine, and watching it proceed with the transaction, as though nothing unusual was going on. The alchemy of the ATM seemed like a small miracle. The numbers in his account in Germany could be made real again, translated into paper that meant something, no questions asked or explanations needed.

A few weeks later, I was in Paris, and pensive photos of Bill Clinton had pushed the financial crisis to the inside pages of the newspaper.

As I reached the top of one of the towers of the Notre Dame cathedral, my eyes moved upward to look out over the city, and stopped at a newspaper resting on the ledge. It had been carefully folded to the section with stock quotes. Given the climate, I immediately began to imagine some poor soul who had read it one last time, then set it aside before jumping. I hadn’t heard murmurs of anything like that, so maybe this paper’s reader had the sense to set it down and walk away, life intact, regardless of financial status.

I hadn’t followed any details of how the crisis was affecting America at all during my travels. I had limited access to the internet, a very small amount of money invested, and there was just too much to see to be bothered or worried. But curiosity got the better of me. On closer inspection, without even turning the page, I noticed one of the minor tech stocks I owned: it had lost more than half its value since I had landed at Heathrow ten weeks earlier. I shrugged — not because I didn’t care. I shrugged, as my eyes looked out across the city again, because I was in Paris.

I slowly walked back to the youth hostel where I was staying for the week. It was autumn, and I wanted to change into warmer clothes before a night of wandering.

Returning downstairs, I noticed two of my roommates sitting at the bar, in a cloud of smoke and gloom. They were paying 12 francs each for bottles of Kronenbourg beer, and I counted at least six empties on the table in front of them. (This was before paper Euros, and 12 francs was about US$2 at that time.) I walked over for a chat, and before I’d finished my hello, one of them said “We’re so broke, and everything costs.”

This was actually a decent youth hostel, one of the better ones I stayed in during that trip. It was not as though they had been subject to the kind of humiliating delousing described in Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London or were shriveled by hunger with nothing but murky water and days-old bread to eat. They had blown through more francs in beer in one afternoon than I had spent on food and drink in two days. And still they thought themselves poor.

The places we go, the books we read, the films we see, the ideas that excite us, the culture we share, the beauty we perceive, the friends we make, the people we care for, and who care for us — that’s wealth. Some of these require money, and some don’t. But they all add to the richness of life.

Earlier that afternoon, I’d had a late lunch, sitting in the sun, on the tip of the Île de la Cité, as the Seine seemed to flow all around me. I had a loaf of fresh bread, still warm from the oven, that cost me three and a half francs, and a large bottle of Volvic water, which cost me two francs at a small grocery store in a neighborhood I’d meandered through earlier.

Bread and water — the old stereotype of prison food? Not on that day, in this spot:


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I’d had a great day. I’d go so far as to say intoxicating. This couple had spent at least twelve times the amount of money I had spent, getting drunk and bemoaning their poverty, staring at the wall of a dark lobby in the city of lights. Their mindset was costing them more than anything else, because it prevented them from seeing the the beauty and potential all around them.

They asked me to join them at the bar, and I just smiled, politely declined and walked out.  At that moment, it didn’t matter how many francs or centimes were in my pocket, or how many numbers were attached to other numbers in a data center on the other side of the world.

I had a whole city to see, and so many of the best parts were free.

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