Hey Jimmy! If you missed last week's edition – Werner Herzog on creativity and making a living of doing what you love, Tolstoy's letters to Gandhi on why we hurt each other, Maya Angelou on courage and facing evil, and more – you can catch up right here. And if you're enjoying this, please consider supporting with a modest donation – every little bit helps, and comes enormously appreciated.
Reflecting on the ritualization of creativity, Bukowski famously scoffed that "air and light and time and space have nothing to do with." Samuel Johnson similarly contended that "a man may write at any time, if he will set himself doggedly to it." And yet some of history's most successful and prolific writers were women and men of religious daily routines and odd creative rituals. (Even Buk himself ended up sticking to a peculiar daily routine.)
Such strategies, it turns out, may be psychologically sound and cognitively fruitful. In the altogether illuminating 1994 volume The Psychology of Writing (public library), cognitive psychologist Roland T. Kellogg explores how work schedules, behavioral rituals, and writing environments affect the amount of time invested in trying to write and the degree to which that time is spent in a state of boredom, anxiety, or creative flow. Kellogg writes:
[There is] evidence that environments, schedules, and rituals restructure the writing process and amplify performance... The principles of memory retrieval suggest that certain practices should amplify performance. These practices encourage a state of flow rather than one of anxiety or boredom. Like strategies, these other aspects of a writer's method may alleviate the difficulty of attentional overload. The room, time of day, or ritual selected for working may enable or even induce intense concentration or a favorable motivational or emotional state. Moreover, in accordance with encoding specificity, each of these aspects of method may trigger retrieval of ideas, facts, plans, and other relevant knowledge associated with the place, time, or frame of mind selected by the writer for work.
Wendy MacNaughton for Brain Pickings
Kellogg reviews a vast body of research to extract a few notable findings. Among them is the role of background noise, which seems to fall on a bell curve of fecundity: High-intensity noise that exceeds 95 decibels disrupts performance on complex tasks but improves it on simple, boring tasks – noise tends to raise arousal level, which can be useful when trying to stay alert during mindless and monotonous work, but can agitate you out of creative flow when immersed in the kind of work that requires deliberate, reflective thought. (The psychology of writing, after all, as Kellogg notes in the introduction, is a proxy for the psychology of thinking.) The correlation between skill level and task difficulty also plays a role – feeling like your skills are not up to par raises your level of anxiety, which in turn makes noise more bothersome.
These effects, of course, are relative to one's psychological constitution – Kellogg surmises that writers more afflicted with the modern epidemic of anxiety tend to be more disconcerted by noisy environments. Proust and Carlyle appear to have been among those writers – the former wrote in a cork-lined room to eliminate obtrusive sounds and the latter in a noiseproof chamber to ensure absolute silence – whereas Allen Ginsberg was known for being able to write anywhere, from trains to planes to parks. What matters, Kellogg points out, are each writer's highly subjective requirements for preserving the state of flow:
The lack of interruption in trains of thought may be the critical ingredient in an environment that enables creative flow. As long as a writer can tune out background noise, the decibel level per se may be unimportant. For some writers, the dripping of a faucet may be more disruptive than the bustle of a cafe in the heart of a city.
Wendy MacNaughton for Brain Pickings
Turning an eye to research on the specific timing and duration of writing sessions, Kellogg points to several studies indicating that working for 1 to 3 hours at a time, then taking a break before resuming, is most conducive to productivity, not only for writers but also for athletes and professional musicians – a finding since repeated in more recent research. He also cites a 1985 study of circadian rhythms – something scientists have since explored with swelling rigor – which found that performance on intellectual tasks peaks during morning hours, whereas perceptual-motor tasks fare better in the afternoon and evening. Hemingway, in fact, intuited this from his own experience, telling George Plimpton in a rare 1989 interview:
When I am working on a book or a story I write every morning as soon after first light as possible. There is no one to disturb you and it is cool or cold and you come to your work and warm as you write. You read what you have written and, as you always stop when you know what is going to happen next, you go from there. You write until you come to a place where you still have your juice and know what will happen next and you stop and try to live through until morning when you hit it again. You have started at six in the morning, say, and may go on until noon or be through before that.
Location and physical environment also play a role in maintaining a sustained and productive workflow. Bob Dylan, for instance, extolled the virtues of being able to "put yourself in an environment where you can completely accept all the unconscious stuff that comes to you from your inner workings of your mind." Reviewing the research, Kellogg echoes Faulkner's memorable assertion that "the only environment the artist needs is whatever peace, whatever solitude, and whatever pleasure he can get at not too high a cost" and notes that writers' dedicated workspaces tend to involve solitude and quiet, although "during the apprenticeship phase of a writer's career, almost any environment is workable" – most likely a hybrid function of youth's high tolerance for distraction and the necessity of sharing space earlier in life when the luxury of privacy is unaffordable.
But the key psychological function of such dedicated environments isn't so much superstitious ritualization – an effort to summon the muse through the elaborate juju of putting everything in its right place – as cognitive cueing. Kellogg considers the usefulness of a special space used solely for writing, which cultivates an "environment that cues the desired behavior":
This phenomenon can be reinterpreted in terms of the cognitive concept of encoding specificity. The abstract ideas, images, plans, tentative sentences, feelings, and other personal symbols that represent the knowledge needed to construct a text are associated with the place and time of the writing environment. These associations are strongest when the writer engages in few if any extraneous activities in the selected environment. Entering the environment serves as a retrieval cue for the relevant knowledge to enter the writer's awareness. Once the writer's attention turns to the ideas that pop into consciousness, the composing process flows again. Particular features of the environment may serve as specific prompts for retrieving, creating, and thinking.
For instance, a scene outside an office window, a painting hanging on the wall, or a plant sitting in the corner may become associated with thinking deeply about a particular text under development. Staring at the feature elicits knowledge representations bearing on the problem at hand.
This strategy is rather similar to the one most often recommended for treating insomnia – instituting a regular bedtime and using the bedroom as a space dedicated solely to sleep, in order to optimize the brain's ability to enter rest mode upon going to bed and cue that behavior each night just by entering that environment. (Perhaps not coincidentally, many of the most successful writers are also zealous in their sleep habits.)
A visualization of famous writers' sleep habits vs. creative output
In fact, Kellogg cites a 1990 treatment program, developed by research psychologist Bob Boice developed for educators and other professionals who must write for a living and who were struggling with writer's block, which uses a similar approach:
A key component of [Boice's] program is the rearranging of the writing environment. He recommends that the writer "establish one or a few regular places in which you do all serious writing" and "nothing but serious writing; other writing (e.g., correspondence) would be carried out elsewhere." Boice insists that magazines, novels, and other nonessential reading material be banned, social interactions minimized or eliminated, and cleaning and straightening up of the place delayed until a writing session is completed. By following these recommendations, the writer creates a space solely to think and write, avoiding extraneous activities. This space, therefore, becomes associated with all the mental products of creating meaning and can then serve as a unique retrieval cue for those products.
Note that these strategies were developed more than a decade before modern smartphones existed and long before social networks like Facebook and Twitter were moaning their constant 95-decibel siren calls for our attention. Today, Boice's treatment program would no doubt also require the elimination of smartphones and any medium of social networking from the dedicated writing environment, among countless other "nonessential" forms of communication that the past, as is usually the case, could not have envisioned of the future.
Thomas Mann seems to have captured many of the principles Kellogg unveils in a single exquisite letter to the Austrian writer and journalist Viktor Polzer:
For writing I must have a roof over my head, and since I enjoy working by the sea better than anywhere else, I need a tent or a wicker beach chair. Much of my composition, as I have said, has been conceived on walks; I also regard movement in the open air as the best means of reviving my energy for work. For a longer book I usually have a heap of preliminary papers close at hand during the writing; scribbled notes, memory props, in part purely objective – external details, colorful odds and ends – or else psychological formulations, fragmentary inspirations, which I use in their proper place.
In the closing of the chapter, Kellogg considers what the wide variation of such routines and rituals reveals:
The diversity in environments chosen by writers, from Proust's cork-lined room to Sarraute's Parisian cafe, suggests the flexibility of human thought. A person can think in any environment, though some locations become habitual for certain individuals. The key is to find an environment that allows concentrated absorption in the task and maximum exposure to retrieval cues that release relevant knowledge from long-term memory.
Wendy MacNaughton for Brain Pickings
Indeed, despite all these fruitful strategies for optimizing creative flow, the bigger truth – something I wholeheartedly believe – remains: There is no ideal rotation of the chair or perfect position of the desk clock that guarantees a Pulitzer. What counts, ultimately, is putting your backside in the chair – or, if you happen to be Ernest Hemingway or Virginia Woolf, dragging your feet to your standing desk – and clocking in the hours, psychoemotional rain or shine. Showing up day in and day out, without fail, is the surest way to achieve lasting success.
Complement The Psychology of Writing – which goes on to explore such cognitive crannies as the intricacies of symbol-creation, the role of personality in writing, and the impact of drugs and daydreams on the creative process – with Anna Deavere Smith on discipline, a guided tour of the daily rituals of famous writers, and some pointers on how to hone your creative routine.
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"What is love but acceptance of the other, whatever he is," Anaïs Nin wrote in a letter to her then-lover, Henry Miller. And yet that acceptance is a "dynamic interaction" which we seem to be increasingly unwilling to acquiesce, going to excessive lengths in our stubborn quest to avoid compromising. But as crappy as compromise can feel at the moment it is made, anyone in a long-term relationship can attest that it is the fertilizer of romance.
Three years before the release of his provocative compendium American Savage: Insights, Slights, and Fights on Faith, Sex, Love, and Politics (public library), writer and It Gets Better Project creator Dan Savage answers a reader's question about romance deal-breakers and, in the process, offers some of the most important relationship advice you'll ever get:
There is no settling down without some settling for. There is no long-term relationship not just putting up with your partner's flaws, but accepting them and then pretending they aren't there. We like to call it in my house "paying the price of admission." ... You can't have a long-term relationship with someone unless you're willing to identify the prices of admission you're willing to pay – and the ones you're not. But the ones you're not – the list of things you're not willing to put up with – you really have to be able to count [them] on one hand...
People, when they're young, have this idea... "There's someone out there who's perfect for me"... "The one."
"The one" does not fucking exist. "The one" is a lie. But the beautiful part of the lie is that it's a lie you can tell yourself. Any long-term relationship that's successful is really a myth that two people create together ... and myths are built of lies, and there's usually some kernel of truth...
When you think about it, you meet somebody for the first time, and they're not presenting their warts-and-all self to you – they're presenting their idealized self to you, they're leading with their best. And then, eventually, you're farting in front of each other. Eventually, you get to see the person who is behind that facade of their best, and they get to see the person your facade, your lie-self – this lie that you presented to them about who you really are. And what's beautiful about a long-term relationship, and what can be transformative about it, is that I pretend every day that my boyfriend is the lie that I met when I first met him. And he does that same favor to me – he pretends that I'm that better person than I actually am. Even though he knows I'm not. Even though I know he's not. And we then are obligated to live up to the lies we told each other about who we are – we are then forced to be better people than we actually are, because it's expected of us by each other.
And you can, in a long-term relationship, really make your lie-self come true – if you're smart, and you demand it of them, and you're willing to give it to them... That's the only way you become "the one" – it's because somebody is willing to pretend you are. "The one" that they were waiting for, "the one" they wanted, their "one." Because you're not – nobody is. No two people are perfect for each other, ever, period – No two people are 100% sexually compatible, no two people are 100% emotionally compatible, no two people want the same things. And if you can't reconcile yourself to that, you will have no relationships that last longer than two months.
And you know what? It's not going to be their fault – it's going to be your fault.
Complement with the psychology of how "positivity resonance" shapes the way we love and Henri-Frédéric Amiel's 19th-century meditations on love and its demons.
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Charles Darwin was undoubtedly among the most significant thinkers humanity has ever produced. But he was also a man of peculiar mental habits, from his stringent daily routine to his despairingly despondent moods to his obsessive list of the pros and cons of marriage. Those, it turns out, may have been simply Darwin's best adaptation strategy for controlling a malady that dominated his life, the same one that afflicted Vincent van Gogh – a chronic anxiety, which rendered him among the legions of great minds evidencing the relationship between creativity and mental illness.
In My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread, and the Search for Peace of Mind (public library) – his sweeping mental health memoir, exploring our culture of anxiety and its costs – The Atlantic editor Scott Stossel examines Darwin's prolific diaries and letters, proposing that the reason the great scientist spent a good third of his waking hours on the Beagle in bed or sick, as well as the cause of his lifelong laundry list of medical symptoms, was his struggle with anxiety.
Observers going back to Aristotle have noted that nervous dyspepsia and intellectual accomplishment often go hand in hand. Sigmund Freud's trip to the United States in 1909, which introduced psychoanalysis to this country, was marred (as he would later frequently complain) by his nervous stomach and bouts of diarrhea. Many of the letters between William and Henry James, first-class neurotics both, consist mainly of the exchange of various remedies for their stomach trouble.
But for debilitating nervous stomach complaints, nothing compares to that which afflicted poor Charles Darwin, who spent decades of his life prostrated by his upset stomach.
That affliction of afflictions, Stossel argues, was Darwin's overpowering anxiety – something that might explain why his influential studies of human emotion were of such intense interest to him. Stossel points to a "Diary of Health" that the scientist kept for six years between the ages of 40 and 46 at the urging of his physician. He filled dozens of pages with complaints like "chronic fatigue, severe stomach pain and flatulence, frequent vomiting, dizziness ('swimming head,' as Darwin described it), trembling, insomnia, rashes, eczema, boils, heart palpitations and pain, and melancholy."
In 1865 – six years after the completion of The Origin of Species – a distraught 56-year-old Darwin wrote a letter to another physician, John Chapman, outlining the multitude of symptoms that had bedeviled him for decades:
For 25 years extreme spasmodic daily & nightly flatulence: occasional vomiting, on two occasions prolonged during months. Vomiting preceded by shivering, hysterical crying[,] dying sensations or half-faint. & copious very palid urine. Now vomiting & every passage of flatulence preceded by ringing of ears, treading on air & vision .... Nervousness when E leaves me.
"E" refers to his wife Emma, who loved Darwin dearly and who mothered his ten children – a context in which his "nervousness" does suggest anxiety's characteristic tendency to wring worries out of unlikely scenarios, not to mention being direct evidence of the very term "separation anxiety."
Illustration from The Smithsonian's Darwin: A Graphic Biography
Stossel chronicles Darwin's descent:
Darwin was frustrated that dozens of physicians, beginning with his own father, had failed to cure him. By the time he wrote to Dr. Chapman, Darwin had spent most of the past three decades – during which time he'd struggled heroically to write On the Origin of Species housebound by general invalidism. Based on his diaries and letters, it's fair to say he spent a full third of his daytime hours since the age of twenty-eight either vomiting or lying in bed.
Chapman had treated many prominent Victorian intellectuals who were "knocked up" with anxiety at one time or another; he specialized in, as he put it, those high-strung neurotics "whose minds are highly cultivated and developed, and often complicated, modified, and dominated by subtle psychical conflicts, whose intensity and bearing on the physical malady it is difficult to comprehend." He prescribed the application of ice to the spinal cord for almost all diseases of nervous origin.
Chapman came out to Darwin's country estate in late May 1865, and Darwin spent several hours each day over the next several months encased in ice; he composed crucial sections of The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication with ice bags packed around his spine.
The treatment didn't work. The "incessant vomiting" continued. So while Darwin and his family enjoyed Chapman's company ("We liked Dr. Chapman so very much we were quite sorry the ice failed for his sake as well as ours" Darwin's wife wrote), by July they had abandoned the treatment and sent the doctor back to London.
Chapman was not the first doctor to fail to cure Darwin, and he would not be the last. To read Darwin's diaries and correspondence is to marvel at the more or less constant debilitation he endured after he returned from the famous voyage of the Beagle in 1836. The medical debate about what, exactly, was wrong with Darwin has raged for 150 years. The list proposed during his life and after his death is long: amoebic infection, appendicitis, duodenal ulcer, peptic ulcer, migraines, chronic cholecystitis, "smouldering hepatitis," malaria, catarrhal dyspepsia, arsenic poisoning, porphyria, narcolepsy, "diabetogenic hyper-insulism," gout, "suppressed gout," chronic brucellosis (endemic to Argentina, which the Beagle had visited), Chagas' disease (possibly contracted from a bug bite in Argentina), allergic reactions to the pigeons he worked with, complications from the protracted seasickness he experienced on the Beagle, and 'refractive anomaly of the eyes.' I've just read an article, "Darwin's Illness Revealed," published in a British academic journal in 2005, that attributes Darwin's ailments to lactose intolerance.
Various competing hypotheses attempted to diagnose Darwin, both during his lifetime and after. But Stossel argues that "a careful reading of Darwin's life suggests that the precipitating factor in every one of his most acute attacks of illness was anxiety." His greatest rebuttal to other medical theories is a seemingly simple, positively profound piece of evidence:
When Darwin would stop working and go walking or riding in the Scottish Highlands or North Wales, his health would be restored.
(Of course, one need not suffer from debilitating anxiety in order to reap the physical and mental benefits of walking, arguably one of the simplest yet most rewarding forms of psychic restoration and a powerful catalyst for creativity.)
My Age of Anxiety is a fascinating read in its totality. Complement it with a timeless antidote to anxiety from Alan Watts, then revisit Darwin's brighter side with his beautiful reflections on family, work, and happiness.
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One of the most extraordinary things about human beings is that we weave our lives of stories, stories woven of sentimental memories, which we can't help but attach to our physical environment – from where we walk, creating emotional place-memory maps of a city, to how smell transports us across space and time, to what we wear.
For artist and editor Emily Spivack, clothes can be an "evolving archive of experiences, adventures, and memories" and a powerful storytelling device. Since 2010, she has been meticulously curating a remarkable catalog of such wearable personal histories from the living archives of some of the most interesting minds of our time – artists and Holocaust survivors, writers and renegades, hip-hop legends and public radio personalities. In Worn Stories (public library), published by Princeton Architectural Press, Spivack shares the best of these stories – some poignant, some funny, all imbued with disarming humanity and surprising vulnerability – from an impressive roster of contributors, including performance artist Marina Abramovic, writer Susan Orlean, comedian John Hodgman, fashion designer Cynthia Rowley, Orange Is the New Black memoirist Piper Kerman, artist Maira Kalman, MoMA curator Paola Antonelli, and artist, writer, and educator Debbie Millman.
The stories span a remarkable range – a traditional Indian shirt worn during a spiritual Hindu gathering turned kidnapping; the shoes in which Marina Abramovic walked the Great Wall of China while saying farewell to a soulmate; an oddly uncharacteristic purple silk tuxedo shirt that belonged to Johnny Cash, preserved by his daughter; and, among myriad other shreds and threads of the human experience, various mementos from the "soul loss" – as one contributor puts it – of love affairs ending.
Spivack writes in the introduction:
The clothes that protect us, that make us laugh, that serve as a uniform, that help us assert our identity or aspirations, that we wear to remember someone – in all of these are encoded the stories of our lives. We all have a memoir in miniature living in a garment we’ve worn.
Piper Kerman selects an outfit she wore at a key moment in the memoir-turned-TV-hit Orange Is the New Black – a vintage suit that was among the three outfits she packed for her final court appearance and sentencing after taking a plea deal (which, she explains, 95% of criminal defendants do):
As your case wends through the system, you barely speak in court; the prosecutor and defense attorney do most of the talking. Unlike 80 percent of criminal defendants, I could afford to hire a lawyer, and I was lucky that he was a very good and experienced one. He had advocated long and hard with the prosecutor on my behalf, and then the day came where his work and my case would be decided by the judge, a Reagan appointee to the federal bench.
Most criminal defendants wear whatever they are given by their attorney or family to their sentencing ; a lot of people are too poor to afford bail, and so they have been wearing jailhouse orange for many months before ever getting their day in court. I was much more fortunate; when I flew to Chicago to be sentenced to prison, I had three choices of court attire in my suitcase. A cadet-blue pantsuit, a very severe navy coatdress, and a wild card I had packed at the last minute: a vintage fifties pencil-skirt suit I had bought on eBay, in a coffee and cream tweed with a subtle sky blue check. It looked like something a Hitchcock heroine would have worn.
“That’s the one,” said my lawyer, pointing to the skirt suit. “We want the judge to be reminded of his own daughter or niece or neighbor when he looks at you.”
For someone standing for judgment, the importance of being seen as a complete human being, someone who is more than just the contents of the file folders that rest on the bench in front of His or Her Honor, cannot be overstated.
Despite the dramatic circumstances, Kerman's experience captures something central to Spivack's project – something fundamental about how we use clothing as this paradoxical combination of camouflage and self-revelation, a shield for and a stripping to our basic humanity.
Simon Doonan selects a pair of decidedly eighties Lycra cycle tights with orange-and-black graffiti writing and shares the touching story behind the seemingly silly garment:
One by one my roommates, friends, and boyfriends in Los Angeles started getting sick from AIDS. It was very early on in the epidemic and when you went to the doctor, they couldn’t refer you to an expert. They asked you if you were religious, meaning, you were going to die.
I decided to join a gym with a friend who had been diagnosed with AIDS. At least we could be healthy, we thought... I went every day. In an attempt to do “healthy” things, I became addicted to the lights, the music, the endorphins. It was a very showbiz-y way to keep in shape, and many actresses would go to the class, like Madonna when she was starting to become well known.
The cult of aerobics was waning by the time I moved to New York in 1985, but with so many people getting sick, for a couple of years it was an antidote to this incredible malaise of melancholy that had been blanketing L.A.
Debbie Millman recounts the story of a peculiar yellow coat from the era in her life when she was standing on the precipice of her creative journey, long before she was a successful artist, prolific author, and award-winning interviewer. She recounts one July afternoon in her late twenties when she, broke and lusting after a glamorous life, ended up at the Hermès store on Madison Avenue after a months-long quest to track down the mysterious, enchanting perfume she had smelled on an exceptionally elegant woman. A uniformed man opened the gates to an unfamiliar world, "the most elegantly expensive environment" she had ever entered, where people very much unlike her – people "very, very rich" – were browsing $200 scarves.
Just then, a kindly saleslady – one imagines a character like Cinderella's fairy godmother – took pity on Millman and whispered in her ear a thrilling secret: they were having a sale upstairs. Millman was thrilled, but it didn't take her long to realize that, even with the markdowns, she couldn't afford anything – until she spotted "the softest, most luxurious, ultra-bright lemony-yellow cashmere coat ever made." Certain it would cost thousands of dollars, she apprehensively searched for the price, which revealed itself like a miracle – the original $2,200 was crossed out, and a hopeful $400 was written in its place.
I calculated what the expense would mean to my budget. Undeterred, I tried the coat on. It was at least one size too big. None of this mattered to me. I felt glamorous and beautiful. As the clerk wrapped up the coat in the biggest orange box I had ever seen, I knew this wasn’t a mistake. I would wear this coat forever.
And wear it I did! I wore it every day from September until March. I wore it to work, I wore it every weekend, I wore it on vacation in Vermont, and I wore it traveling to the West Coast. The only time I wished for a warmer coat was en route to a client’s office on Fifth Avenue one blustery subzero February afternoon. I was chewing a large piece of purple bubble gum and realized I’d have to get rid of it before my meeting. It was so cold I didn’t want to take my gloves off to take the gum out of my mouth. Perhaps the temperature affected my judgment, or perhaps I was lazy, but suddenly I did something I had never, ever done before: I raised my chin, puckered up my lips, and let my gum fly. As it descended onto the sidewalk, I saw that a man walking toward me was about to collide with the arc of its fall. I made eye contact with him as the sticky mass fell at his feet. Horrified, I instantly realized I was face-to-face with Woody Allen. Mercifully, he sidestepped the gum. But his outrage was palpable. He shook his head in disgust and passed me by. I was too embarrassed and frightened to even say I was sorry.
Two days later I went out with my friend Ellen. She had snagged a reservation at the newly reopened Le Cirque and we got all dolled up for the occasion. I, of course, wore my yellow coat. We were seated between the coat check and the front door, and since New York City was still in a deep freeze, I decided to keep my coat wrapped around me.
Then I saw him. He was approaching the coat check with his wife, fumbling for his ticket. Wildly, I looked around for a place to hide. Ellen asked me if I was okay and I hissed, no. I motioned with my eyes. Ellen squealed in delight, and he looked over at us. Once again, in the span of forty-eight hours, I was face-to-face with Woody Allen.
Our eyes locked and I saw him recognize my unmistakable ultra-bright yellow coat and the same frightened face. He grimaced. “You!” he said, as his wife pulled on his arm. I felt myself turn white and then red, as everyone turned to stare.
Two and a half decades later, I still have my beloved coat. It’s lost its belt and much of its lemony sheen, and it hasn’t left its special place in my closet in a long time. Maybe I’ll wear it again one day. As Woody Allen famously said, “Eternal nothingness is fine if you happen to be dressed for it.” I’ll remind him of that if I ever bump into him again.
MoMA curator extraordinaire Paola Antonelli selects a pair of aviator glasses that capture the strange blend of terror and optimism of growing up amidst Milan's political unrest in the 1970s. Class was often interrupted by bomb threats. Her daily morning walk to school took her, always scared, through a contentious urban borderland that divided the peacoat-clad, anti-authoritarian leftists and the Sanbabilini – the "gun-toting neo-fascists from wealthy Milanese families who shared responsibility for much of the violence around Italy at that time" – whose distinctive look included fitted shirts, trench coats, and Ray-Ban aviator glasses. She tells Spivack:
Sometime in the late 1970s, during this time of upheaval, my father came home from his first trip to the United States with a pair of Ray-Ban Aviators he’d bought for me. He had not thought of the political implications; he had just wanted a gift that embodied “America.” Even though it was only a pair of sunglasses, it was like holding a bomb in my hands. I couldn’t wear them.
Along the way, the first pair of Aviators disappeared, and I decided to buy myself another pair. They never looked good on me, but it was a sort of exorcism. Even then, years later, it felt almost like they were burning in my hands; they transport me to a moment that was formative, but one that I also want to forget.
I compare notes with friends who grew up in Israel or Beirut, for example, and I realize we all went through something similar – living despite the bombs going off, despite the fact that it was almost a war zone. Little details, like scents or sounds or a piece of clothing, bring back the violence, and that’s what these Aviators do for me.
Maira Kalman, a woman of unparalleled creative vision and extraordinary wisdom, selects an apple-green sweater that belonged to her mother. She writes:
It is my lucky sweater because I always need luck. And the feeling of being lucky, which is ridiculous and elusive, is still a pleasant one.
Tucked midway through the book is Spivack's own story about a pair of cheap black flip-flops her grandmother bought for her nearly twenty years ago off the Delaware boardwalk. In a way, these unassuming essentials capture the essence of the project – a seemingly ordinary object of clothing imbued with immeasurable sentimental value, amplified over a lifetime. Spivack writes:
Over time, these flip-flops – plain, pulled from a rack without a thought, manufactured to be disposable but apparently indestructible – have become such a lasting fixture in my life. Precisely, perhaps, because they are so ordinary: you don’t even notice them casually accumulating the years, like the shops along Rehoboth Avenue, like grandmothers, like everything.
Susan Orlean, sage of the written word, recounts her "uniform fixation" – the lifelong quest to find the ideal, and as it turns out mythic, outfit that would capture her personality perfectly and be therefore bought in multiples to be worn forever. She captures this cyclical infatuation elegantly:
It’s a temporary delusion that comes over me with regularity – a belief that by wearing this perfect thing, I will look right and feel good no matter what. Like, “How did I not know that I’m an agnes b. T-shirt and denim skirt kind of person? Now, I’m going to order ten of each and I never have to buy clothes again.” When I’m in it, I totally believe I have found my look, my personal style.
It’s cultish and my own particular mania. Each time I start over again, I think, “those were false gods – I have now found the true God.” I even observe myself doing it. I understand that fashion, by definition, is a changing thing, and so is one’s body. I try to talk myself out of my own crazy conviction that I’ve finally solved the puzzle – and yet I can’t do it.
I guess it’s probably safer to be this way about clothing than men or religion or something that could be really dangerous.
Ross Intelisano picks a tie once made by his beloved immigrant grandmother, Anna, who tailored all of his clothes growing up, worked until she was 78, and lived to be 95. Two weeks after her death, Hurricane Sandy devastated the Rockaways, where Intelisano's family lived. The house was condemned and all access was denied, but a family friend bravely ventured in to retrieve a few surviving valuables, including Anna's ties. Intelisano writes:
That day, my father came over to my house, smiling for what seemed like the first time since the storm. He proudly presented me with two of Anna’s ties. I wear them all the time. I like handling the silk as I knot the...
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