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Good morning, I'm back in full size!
While I was away, Ursula LeGuin died, and she was an important writer to me, but I didn't feel too sad exactly because I feel like she lived an incredibly full life (both as an artist and a social human) and she published so widely - not just fantasy and scifi, but literary criticism, books on the craft of writing, a translation of the Tao Te Ching, blog posts, political commentary - I don't think you can say she died without having given the world what she had to give. And that seems to me the best thing you can say about death (which for the record, I hate and do not have many good things to say about).
Her short story, The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas, is mostly a criticism of utilitarianism (some moral prices are too high, no matter what the benefits are to however many people) but in setting up the allegory, she has to describe a properly utopian city, where everyone is happy. But she struggles, because when most people imagine a city where everyone is happy, they imagine stupefied people, or naïve children, etc etc. How can she get you to believe that the people were mature and intelligent and complicated, but happy as well? (“I fear that Omelas so far strikes some of you as goody-goody. Smiles, bells, parades, horses, bleh. If so, please add an orgy. If an orgy would help, don't hesitate.”)
And so there’s this little paragraph that I have kept in my head ever since I first read it:
The trouble is that we have a bad habit, encouraged by pedants and sophisticates, of considering happiness as something rather stupid. Only pain is intellectual, only evil interesting. This is the treason of the artist: a refusal to admit the banality of evil and the terrible boredom of pain. If you can't lick 'em, join 'em. If it hurts, repeat it. But to praise despair is to condemn delight, to embrace violence is to lose hold of everything else. We have almost lost hold; we can no longer describe a happy man, nor make any celebration of joy.
If you look at most of what prestige tv has been, so much has centred around cynicism and darkness, to the point that it almost seems like tv can’t be prestige unless it has those qualities. This is the treason of the artist. She's not kidding when she uses that word. Betrayal of the highest degree.
Which is why The Good Place is so great, if you’re not already watching it! It’s almost a perfect accompaniment to The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas: it shows goodness and positivity and growth in a way that’s complicated and interesting and intelligent (and very funny), and it also explicitly deals with utilitarianism.
Read The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas (full story). Or at least read the intro parts on art and joy.
Four different Japanese words (and ways of thinking about) space
"Instead of being about the built environment, the Japanese words for space center on the interactions and relationships among people. Of the four terms that reflect an aspect of space, each looks at human relationships from a different perspective, and each is potentially useful in considering the spaces we all make and use."
Relational space (wa)
“We sat directly across from each other in a small room, which made the wa very tense and confrontational.”
"Wa is an awareness of interpersonal connection and is often described in terms of moving air. Every space has a certain quality that influences the types of relationships that form there, and wa recognizes the way that relationships are affected by the space they’re in."
Knowledge-mobilizing space (ba)
"Ba is about the arrangement of elements to create connections that are more likely to produce new knowledge or experiences. While wa focuses on relationships, ba is concerned with how knowledge is formed and shared. If wa is about social and interpersonal harmony, ba is about ensuring that people’s knowledge and experience can be put to good use."
Strongly recommend the full article which gives much fuller explanations and examples.
[I'm going to call this vibes, resonance, cultural and historical connections - the full article has a better explanation]
Negative space (ma)
[Like whitespace in design, absence, not negative-bad. Breathing room.] "The Japanese idea of ma is that we need to create interruptions or absences that allow for difference to be reconciled. Designing for ma is about creating moments of awareness and quiet.
"For example, in Japan, shrines are often built at the end of long uphill hikes; the long and tiring walk prepares the mind to enter the shrine and leave behind other distractions and worries. Cities are scattered with small parks that appear suddenly and offer winding trails for quiet reflection. Even conversations in Japanese are marked by long pauses that would be unsettling for Western ears."
Turkish garbage collectors open library full of discarded books
"Turkish garbage collectors in the country’s capital city of Ankara have opened a public library that is full of books that were originally destined to be put into landfill. The workers began collecting discarded books and opened the new library in the Çankaya district of Ankara.
"The library now has over 6,000 fiction and non-fiction books and includes a children’s section, an area dedicated to scientific research books, and a number of English and French language books for those who are bilingual."
"The library building itself used to be a brick factory and is located at the sanitation department HQ. The building featured long corridors and an aged brick facade and transformed perfectly into a library."
"It was originally created for the use of the employees friends and family but, as it grew in size, the library was officially opened to the public in September of last year." Full article
Two things I found out today:
1. Up until the 13th Century AD, there was a thriving, pyramidal city on the Mississippi River, directly across from where St Louis is today. It's called Cahokia, although not really correctly because the Cahokia people didn't get there until centuries later. In it's prime, between 1000 and 1200 AD, it had a population of up to 40,000 people, more than London or Paris at the time.
No one really knows why it declined - there's not much evidence of warfare, but current theories include floods, deforestation and over-hunting, or political collapse. So pretty much everything.
"One of the major problems that large centers like Cahokia faced was keeping a steady supply of food. A related problem was waste disposal for the dense population, and Cahokia became unhealthy from polluted waterways. Because it was such an unhealthy place to live, Snow believes that the town had to rely on social and political attractions to bring in a steady supply of new immigrants; otherwise the town's death rate would have caused it to be abandoned earlier." BLEAK
Wikipedia's page on Cahokia has a lot more info on the city, including on the central structure, called Monk's Mound, named that because a community of Trappist Monks lived there for a while. And they had a woodhenge! I didn't even know that was a word, but it turns out you can henge anything. Lamington-finger-henge.
2. In Cahokia, they drank something called Black Drink. Or maybe just priests drank it? Hard to say. It was made from a type of holly, and contained caffeine, theobramine (the active ingredient in chocolate that's why people like it) and an emetic (i.e, it makes you throw up).
This article ('Ritual Black Drink Consumption at Cahokia') is academic and fairly dry, but it's interesting if you're into the processes of archaeology. It tracks where Black Drink was consumed in the Americas, tries to trace what it was for (ritual purposes, probably, but how do they know that?) and what it was made from. The substance itself has all decayed, but it was drank from porous clay vessels, and residue seeped in and can be tracked. Which plants in the Americas have caffeine? Which would be most likely to be used? Etc etc. Read the dry, archaeological processes article.
Also I'm really charmed by how they've just called it Black Drink, that's the official anthropology name now, and it's a good one.
Relatedly, a less dry article by an archaeo-botanist:
Hunting for the ancient lost farms of North America
"2,000 years ago, people domesticated these plants. Now they’re wild weeds. What happened?"
"By studying lost crops, archaeologists learn about everyday life in the ancient Woodland culture of the Americas, including how people ate plants that we call weeds today. But these plants also give us a window on social networks. Scientists can track the spread of cultivated seeds from one tiny settlement to the next in the vast region that would one day be known as the United States. This reveals which groups were connected culturally and how they formed alliances through food and farming."
"Perhaps the strangest part of this story is the fact that people simply stopped cultivating so many crops that were central to their diets. Imagine what would happen if we decided to abandon wheat to the wilderness. Suddenly, there would be no more baguettes and pastas—not to mention cakes. Sure, we could make delicious breads from corn and tasty noodles from rice or beans. But for many of us, it would feel like an incredible loss of a comforting staple. No doubt, that’s how the loss of knotweed felt to aboriginal Americans, too."
Aron Klein’s captivating images of the Bulgarian demon chasers
Interview with photographer and more photos here
The secret to successful spinsterhood / living alone
I mean, there's enough "secret to a successful marriage" articles, right? Anyway, here's a thing that's true: People usually put more effort into day-to-day life stuff when they do it with a partner. That is: you're more likely to cook proper meals and try out new recipes, rather than eating some equivalent of Bachelor Chow or like, picking things out of the cupboard and fridge until you've technically eaten enough to call it dinner. You probably keep your room/house a bit cleaner because it's affecting someone else. You're more likely to say "let's go out for coffee" instead of making one at home and drinking it black, which you hate, because you forgot you'd run out of milk.
So I reckon successful spinsterhood is when you do all those things for yourself: when you maintain the standard of slightly upgraded effort and specialness in daily life that you would normally only be motivated to do with someone else. (I think single parents are the same, they put in the effort to make proper meals and go to the park for the sake of their kid, when they probably wouldn't bother just for themself.) I don't think it's about a lack of respect for self, by the way, it's more that the effort to outcome ratio doesn't seem worth it when it's only benefiting one person, but does when it's benefiting two.
Those things are going to be different for everyone: having fresh flowers in the house? lighting candles? you know the gap I'm talking about though. That gap is the secret to successful spinsterhood! That's my theory.
I absolutely don't practice what I preach here, by the way, I eat meals called "Breakfast Solution" and "Stir-Fried Everything" and I never go for walks for no reason and sometimes fail to even when I have a really good reason like a "we're going to return your parcel if you don't pick it up soon" card from the post office. But I'm getting better, and I reckon it's the right path to be on.
So if I have a New Year theme or guiding direction, I reckon that's it.
If you want solicited advice, send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org or just reply to this email.
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