Grit : What our kids need to succeed

I've always struggled with the concept of success because it seems to carry the idea of money and fame. I've argued, on more than one occasion, that being successful doesn't necessarily mean money, but rather, the accomplishment of something. Yet, in a recent conversation with my little sister I found myself saying, and believing, that I haven't found success in a few of my endeavors because no one is willing to pay for them, because I'm doing them on my own time, for free. Success, apparently, is marked by the dollar sign, because, whether I like it or not, we put our money where our mouth is.

Like many of my friends I've talked with over the years, the idea of obtaining this kind of success, the kind that reaches beyond personal gratification and lives in the land of compensation, seems to dependent upon skills and talents, time and resources, and the many other factors that we don't seem to have. Which is why we haven't found success, and perhaps never will. 

Recently, though, I've been encouraged by a different notion, that talents and time and resources can aid in the acquisition of success, but they are not the greatest determiner. More than any of these, passion and perseverance (earnestness even) and the relentless pursuit of one's commitments is what determines success. 

Angela Duckworth calls this "grit."

Angela Duckworth is smarter than me, and for sure much more successful, but I'm not quit sure I believe her conclusion of "we don't know," because I think we do know, and I think it has to deal with the very idea she is presenting - grit. We teach our kids grit. 

storiesmatter-grit

As a child, I remember - often - working with my dad on tasks and projects I didn't really care to be a part of. Things like, chopping wood all Saturday, shoveling the the long driveway, raking leaves, and various other tasks. When I complained or argued, my father made me do them anyway. Before playing with friends or watching t.v.. I remember being so frustrated and angry because all I wanted to do was be with my friends, not working. I also remember, even though I would never admit it to him and only barely admitted to myself, that when the job was completed, I would look at what I had done and feel a sense of accomplishment and be proud of what I had done. 

Looking back, it was during these times that the seeds to success were being planted.

As parents, as educators, we can teach our kids grit by providing opportunities for them to struggle, sweat, and endure through difficult tasks. Tasks like overcoming difficult hikes, persevering through piano or guitar lessons, and even pulling nails from old pallets. They might complain, but if the task has purpose, if they can see that there is a reason for all their hard work, when it is over, when the bench and drawer are built, whether they admit it or not, there will be a sense of accomplishment, because they gritted through.

Duckworth ends her talk without much conclusion, but rather, a charge - to be "gritty about getting our kids grittier." I think we can do this by being purposeful about getting our kids engaged in tasks that demand hardship and difficulty and, most importantly, longevity, but that are also full of purpose. 

 

For more talks and ideas of Success, you can listen to this TED Radio Hour appropriately entitled, Success. It's a great listen and worth the 50 minutes.

 

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-N- Stuff  :  TED Talks  :  Growth Mindset  :  Creativity in Education

 

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Wendell Berry : On Poetry

How to be a Poet (to remind myself)

By, Wendell Berry

Make a place to sit down.

Sit down. Be quiet.

You must depend upon

affection, reading, knowledge, 

skill - more of each

than you have - inspiration,

work, growing older, patience,

for patience joins time

to eternity. Any readers 

who like your work,

doubt their judgement.

 

Breathe with unconditional breath

the unconditioned air.

Shun electric wire.

Communicate slowly. Live

a three-dimensioned life;

stay away from screens.

Stay away from anything

that obscures the place it is in.

There are no unsacred places;

there are only sacred places

and desecrated places. 

 

Accept what comes from silence.

Make the best you can of it.

Of the little words that come

out of the silence, like prayers

prayed back to the one who prays,

make a poem that does not disturb

the silence from which it came. 

 

From, Given Poems

 

WENDELL BERRY, writer, poet, teacher, farmer, and outspoken citizen of an endangered world, gives us a compelling vision of the good and true life. Passionate, eloquent, and painfully articulate, in more than fifty works – novels, short stories, poems and essays -- he celebrates a life lived in close communion with neighbors and the earth while addressing many of our most urgent cultural problems. A fierce and caring critic of American culture and a long-time trusted guide for those seeking a better, healthier, saner world, he has farmed a hillside in his native Henry County, Kentucky, together with his wife, for more than forty years. 
Over the years, Berry has received the highest honors including the National Medal of Arts and Humanities, a National Institute of Arts and Letters award for writing, and theAmerican Academy of Arts and Letters Jean Stein Award. Much has been said and written about his work (via).

 

A documentary on him, his work, and his farm life is coming out this fall. It's entitled "Look & See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry." You can watch the trailer here

"As I see," Wendell Berry writes, "the farmer standing in his field, is not isolated as simply a component of a production machine. He stands where lots of lines cross – cultural lines. The traditional farmer, that is the farmer who was first independent, who first fed himself off his farm and then fed other people, who farmed with his family and who passed the land on down to people who knew it and had the best reasons to take care of it... that farmer stood at the convergence of traditional values... our values" (via). 

 

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World's slowest marathon time: 54 years

Shizo Kanakuri

"To be precise, 54 years, 8 months, 6 days, 5 hours, 32 minutes and 20.3 seconds was how long it took Shiso Kanakuri to finish the race — not that the time, which was only ever recorded as a joke, matters. It’s Kanakuri himself who is important, because when he set off on that infamous run, {a little over} 100 years ago in Stockholm, he was one of just two athletes representing Japan at its very first Olympic Games"

"Sport had not been a particularly popular pastime in early 20th-century Japan. Fledgling clubs catering to various physical activities had popped up at schools and universities, but, as the historian Kazuo Sayama has written, 'there had been martial arts in Japan, but they were very different to the French idea of sport. (In the early 1900s) few Japanese had awoken to sport’s real meaning.'"

"The French reference is crucial, because it was that country’s notion of sport that informed the 1896 revival of the Olympic Games in the modern era. Part of that idea, as promoted by the International Olympic Committee’s inaugural chairman, a Frenchman named Pierre de Coubertin, was that sport was a progenitor of peace, and hence the participation of all the races was to be encouraged."

"After the London Olympics of 1908, Coubertin decided it was time for Asians to join the fray, and so he arranged for a Japanese representative to join the IOC. The man who got the nod was the well-respected judo wrestler Jigoro Kano (later known as the “father of modern judo”), who shortly set about holding athletics trials for the next Olympics, which would be held in Stockholm in 1912."

"The trials for the marathon were held on Nov. 19, 1911, and one of the competitors was a 20-year-old student from the Tokyo Higher Normal School named Shiso Kanakuri (his name is sometimes rendered Shizo Kanaguri). Originally from an area of Kumamoto Prefecture in Kyushu now known as Tamana, his initial approach to running, as reported by Sayama in a biography published last year, was indicative of the lack of experience among his countrymen."

"'There was a belief at the time that perspiration made runners tired,' Sayama explains, before noting that 'Kanakuri’s initial approach was to abstain from any drink at all, at one time making himself sick.'"

"Fortunately, by the time of the trials, Kanakuri had come to appreciate the importance of proper hydration, and he flew around a roughly 25-mile (40.2 km) course in 2 hrs. 32 min. 30 sec., well ahead of his rivals."

"Kanakuri was thus in the team, and he was soon joined by a short-distance specialist named Yahiko Mishima from Tokyo Imperial University (forerunner of the University of Tokyo). With the addition of Kano, as Chef de Mission, and also physical-education specialist Hyozo Omori, as team manager, the party that would travel to Stockholm was complete."

"On May 16, 1912, The Japan Times noted their departure with an article that both lowered and raised expectations: 'As this is the first time Japanese runners (or any Japanese athletes) have taken part in these world-contests, it is impossible to say what they will achieve. But both are full of grit and nerve, and may be counted upon for doing credit to themselves and to Japan.'"

"But lack of experience was not the only thing working against the Japanese runners. There was also the fact of the 10 days to be spent on the Trans-Siberian Railway, when opportunities to train would be at a minimum. "'Kanakuri took to running around each station that they stopped at,' Sayama writes."

"At Stockholm, things didn’t improve. Omori soon fell ill, and so Kanakuri, the youngest in the group, ended up spending more time looking after him than training. (Incidentally, Omori is now known as 'the father of Japanese basketball,' because, in 1908, he brought back that sport from the United States, where he had studied.)"

"The day of the Stockholm marathon, July 14, 1912, was a scorcher. A photograph of the 68 runners at the start line shows them all wearing hats or towels around their heads — a somewhat quaint attempt to deal with the 32-degree heat."

"According to Sayama, Kanakuri later recalled how the other runners had been surprised at his footwear: tabi, the two-toed canvas shoes still worn by some workers on construction sites. Although Kanakuri’s were fortified with extra canvas on their soles, they wouldn’t have afforded much protection."

"Still, they were probably better than spikes, which is what the Japanese media somehow decided Kanakuri had worn as they later tried to explain the disaster that was about to unfold."

"Somewhere around the 27-km mark, Kanakuri collapsed, probably from hyperthermia (in simple terms, extreme overheating). It is believed he briefly lost consciousness before being taken to the house of local residents who assisted him."

"Kanakuri’s withdrawal from the race was hardly unusual. After all, only half the 68 starters ended up finishing the race. What was unusual was that he didn’t notify the event officials. They duly listed him as 'missing.'"

"The Japanese runner was likely too dispirited by his failure to worry about filling in the proper paperwork. Sayama reports that in his diary Kanakuri lamented bringing 'shame' to his countrymen, but at the same time he struck an optimistic note: 'This failure will beget success,' he vowed."

"Although The Japan Times was among the media that blamed Kanakuri’s failure on an erroneous assumption about his footwear, it was nevertheless kind to both him and Mishima (who failed to get through to the finals of his 100-, 200- or 400-meter races)."

"'It will be unfair to deal harshly with these young athletes for their faults,' an unidentified scribe wrote on July 21, 1912. Instead, that same writer dealt harshly with a system that had sent unprepared athletes onto the world stage in the first place."

"Noting that the ultimate winner of the marathon, Kennedy Kane McArthur of South Africa, had spent 2½ years preparing for the race, the writer demands that no more athletes be sent abroad "'except with the most serious determination and all possible preparedness.'"

"Kanakuri seems to have agreed. On his return to Japan, he immediately began preparing for the Berlin Olympics, which were due to be held in 1916. However, World War I put paid to that athletics festival, and another four years later, at age 28, Kanakuri competed in the marathon at the Antwerp Olympics in Belgium — finishing a creditable 16th. In 1924, he competed in Paris, too, but had to retire halfway through the race."

"In the meantime, Kanakuri achieved what is now his greatest legacy: the Hakone Ekiden, the 218-km team relay contested by universities from around the nation each New Year’s. Kanakuri played a key role in establishing that race officially known as the Tokyo-Hakone Round-Trip College Ekiden Race, which ever since its inauguration in 1920 has helped popularize long-distance running among Japan’s youth."

"Then in 1967, when Kanakuri was 75 years old and no doubt reflecting on a long and illustrious career, he received an odd invitation. The Swedish National Olympic Committee wanted him to return to Stockholm to participate in the 55th anniversary celebrations of the 1912 Olympics."

"Kanakuri should have realized that 55 was an odd anniversary to celebrate. Upon his arrival in the Scandinavian country he was informed that he had become known there as 'the missing marathoner' — the man who had vanished without a trace all the way back in 1912."

"And thus, for the benefit of the local media and the Swedish NOC, which was then trying to raise funds to send athletes to the following year’s Olympic Games in Mexico, Kanakuri was asked to 'finish' the race."

"Judging by press reports of the proceedings, the elderly gent was only too happy to oblige, running jovially around the last corner before charging through a special ribbon."

"His time was promptly read out — 54 years, 8 months, 6 days, 5 hours, 32 minutes and 20.3 seconds — and, according to Sayama, the elderly racer then responded: 'It was a long trip. Along the way, I got married, had six children and 10 grandchildren.'"

"The apparently modest Kanakuri could have boasted of having another 'child,' too. After all, by then he was known in his home country as 'the father of Japanese marathon'" (via).

 

I just love this story.

 

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The Creative Mind

I'm not a big fan of the word "success" because its connotations tend to deal with money and fame, which seem to be incomplete determiners of success. So, instead of "successful," creative - or perhaps even content - is a better fit. The descriptors still falling neatly into place. 

: Edit - 6/22/17 :

A good friend of mine, Eric Trauger, mentioned two additional words: progressive (as in progress - the moving advance or development toward a better, more complete, or more modern condition) and earnest.

I like these additions because they broaden the range a bit, especially earnest. Earnest, serious in intention, purpose, or effort - sincerely zealous - or, showing depth and sincerity of feeling, to me, carries more intentionality than the others. It switches the order.

If someone reads books, forgives, collaborates, etc, than they are creative, content, or progressive; they are are the effects of, not the cause. Living an earnest life, however, seems a more conscious decision - it is the cause, not the effect. 

All this, though, and perhaps most importantly, points to the idea that a "successful" life - a life marked by creativity, progress, and earnest living - is fully intentional, not accidental. It is a daily decision, a daily battle, to live with purpose and conviction, and to live outside of redundancy and monotony.  

To watch TV, or read. To encourage rather than criticize. To be thankful, not entitled. Strangely, it seems, life can be defined by these simple things. Which is encouraging, I think, and a bit terrifying. 

 

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-N- Stuff  :  Inspiration  :  Creativity

 

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Human, by Yann Arthus-Bertrand

Below is a short excerpt from a film entitled, "Human" by Yann Arthus-Bertrand.

"I am one man among seven billion others" Bertand writes. "For the past 40 years, I have been photographing our planet and its human diversity, and I have the feeling that humanity is not making any progress. We can’t always manage to live together.
Why is that?
I didn’t look for an answer in statistics or analysis, but in man himself."

Yann Arthus-Bertrand was born in 1946, and has always nurtured a passion for animals and the natural world. At a very early age, he began to use a camera to record his observations and accompany his writings.
On the occasion of the first Earth Summit in Rio in 1992, Yann decided to embark upon a major photographic project about the state of the world and its inhabitants: Earth From Above. This book enjoyed international success, selling more than three million copies. His open-air photographic exhibition was shown in around 100 countries and seen by some 200 million people.
Yann continued his commitment to the environmental cause with the creation of the GoodPlanet Foundation. Since 2005, this non-profit organization has been investing in educating people about the environment and the fight against climate change.
This commitment saw him appointed United Nations Environment Program Goodwill Ambassador in 2009. That same year, he made his first feature-length film, HOME, about the state of the planet. This movie was seen by almost 600 million spectators around the world (via).

 

You can watch the full-length movie here.

 

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-N- Stuff  :  Humanity  :  On Living

 

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The Great Wall: More than a History Lesson

"Climbing the Wall was very scary in the beginning," Judah writes in his journal, "but as we got to the fourth tower, it got a lot more fun and I got more brave." 

A little over a year ago, I mentioned to Josey (my wife) that I would like to take a small trip with Judah to the Great Wall. She thought it was a good idea too, but the conversation somewhat ended as soon as it started, because there wasn't time in our schedule - we were soon planning to have our fourth child and move back to the States. Near the halfway point of our last hundred days however, she brought it up again and suggested maybe we look into it - as a sort of last goodbye to our five years in China. 

In the coming months, the idea began to gain momentum and my journal slowly accumulated ideas and plans for the trip. Some of which would come to fruition, others would not, and that was fine because what I unexpectedly gained was the chance to watch my son, over the course of a couple hours, overcome his fears and learn foundational life-lessons. All because we made time to hike the Great Wall of China.

The Great Wall of China is long, 21,196 km (13,171 mi) long, and it holds some of the most splendid and awe-inspiring images Google can offer. But we didn't go to those places. Instead, we went further north, where the Wall has not been refurbished, where portions appear more like raised dirt paths than an ancient impenetrable barrier, and where we could stay the night without being bothered. 

Isolated, we walked on the original, untainted yet weathered, Great Wall of China.  

From the beginning, the path was tough. Often, the stairs were higher than Judah's knees, a few sections required straight up climbing, and at all times, the terrain was rough and uncertain. Steep edges plunged down on either side. For a ten-year old boy carrying a fifteen-pound pack (there were no lakes or streams around, so we had to carry up all our water), it was a bit unnerving. "It's dangerous," he kept saying, hunched over, clinging to the wall with both hands, "We could fall."

At first, I was patient and tried to sooth his fears. Then, as the whining continued and the sun grew more and more hot, I wasn't. "Stop being afraid!" I barked, but it didn't help. Unsurprisingly, it made things worse. Tears came to his eyes. "Just make it to the next tower," I said, "Then we can take a break."

Inside the tower, the temperature dropped about ten degrees and a swift breeze rushed through the windows and doors. We sat, pulled out our lunches and had a talk about fear, about how it's okay to be afraid because it can act as a guide - it can protect us. But also, how it should never control us. "You need to respect the Wall, son, but not fear it. When we climb, we need to be careful and go slow, but we don't need to give in to our fear. We overcome it." 

He nodded and said, "okay," but I didn't really know what that meant or if what I'd said mattered. I wasn't sure if he heard me or not. So we finished our lunch and continued, him in the lead and me encouraging from behind, and I watched my son transform. He started attacking the Wall, embracing the harder sections and walking with a confidence and surety he hadn't shown before. The whimpering stopped, his back straightened, and our speed steadily increased. Suddenly, we were hiking the Great Wall of China.

This lesson, this time and transformation of my son, was not listed in my journal prior to the trip, but it presented itself because of the trip, and because I was fortunate enough to be there and to, literally, walk through it with him. On the Great Wall of China! (As often as I write it here, I said it there. Every time we stopped for a break, every tower we summited, and just about every ten minutes or so, I'd say, "Judah, we're on the GREAT WALL OF CHINA!")

Around five-thirty, we reached the last of the towers (there were more, of course, but this one was in the best condition). We set up camp. We rested.

"We put our bags down," Judah writes, "and went up the mountain a little bit more and found a destroyed tower. A whole side of it fell into the inside and me and my dad sat on the edge and looked at the mountains. Then we found some firewood and we started back down and I slipped but I was far from the edge but then gave my firewood to Dad because we were right at the edge."

"Me and my dad." I love that, because that is exactly what this trip was, just us. No cellphones, no computers, and no games. Just us. 

And a hammok. 

And the sunset.

When the sun went down, we crawled into the tent and read by lamplight. Birds picked at our leftover dinner, the wind shook the flaps of our tent, and Judah asked if I'd rather stay in China or move to America. "I don't know," I answered, "I love them both. What about you?"

"Same." He said. Then we talked about moving from China and leaving family and friends and school and all the things we love about China. This conversation was in my journal of things to do, but coming up this way, in the still of the night, seemed much more appropriate, more natural. And even though it didn't last that long, for Judah, it was enough. Which was enough for me.

That night, we both slept better than expected. I even set my alarm, just in case, and was surprised that I actually needed it. I rolled out of bed around 4:30 but didn't have the heart to wake Judah. The little guy was tuckered.

Right outside the tower, on the edge of the wall, was a small ledge of crumbled stones, and it was just large enough for me to read, drink some coffee, and watch the sun rise in the far, hazy distance.

Judah slept for almost another three hours, allowing me plenty of time to think and consider the last true days of China. 

In recent days, the packing and cleaning and scrambling to put the major pieces in play for this trip has stolen any chance of considering all that we're moving toward, and all that we're leaving behind. But, while sitting in the quiet and watching the sun rise, a question finally surfaced, "How can our leaving bless others?" I've been so consumed with what we'll be missing, what we'll be leaving, and how we will be struggling with the transition that I've thought very little of how our leaving could bless others.

It suddenly occurred to me that I've been rather selfish in my final days. That I've been thinking of me and my family, not others. Not how I could bless them and love them, but how they might help me, how they could bless me. Many people did, graciously, but what did I do for them? 

Not much.

Before leaving for Beijing, I grabbed a few cards and stuffed them in my backpack, not sure what I might use them for but pretty confident I would need them for something. I snatched them from my bag and pulled the permanent marker from Judah's. Then, I sat and wrote a note. I knew how our leaving could possibly bless someone - even if it was too little  too late.

It was time to wake up Judah.

"What are you doing?" he asked after everything was packed. "I'm leaving these here," I said.

"Why?"

"Because it might bless someone."

He was warming his hands by the fire, but then stopped and walked over, "But don't we need them?"

"Need them? No. We could still use them for sure, but don't you think it would be pretty cool to hike all this way and find these nice things?"

"Yeah."

"Well, that's why we're gonna do it. To leave a blessing for someone."

A small smile crept in, "We should leave a note with your email address."

I smiled too, "Already done."

"I have learned two lessons," Judah writes at the end of his journal, "but my dad says I learned three. He says I learned that it's okay to be afraid but fear cannot overcome you, and that dads know everything. I also learned that video games won't teach you anything but physical work can teach you to endure even when you're tired."

Like any other kid, Judah loves playing video games. He's playing one now, as I write, and it is a constant discussion of when and for how long he is allowed to play. Near the end of our journey, at the place where Judah was initially afraid and wanted to stop for the night, I asked him, "Aren't you glad we didn't stop when you wanted? That we kept going to the top."

He laughed a bit, "Yeah. We wouldn't have made it very far."

"Nope," I said.

"I don't know why I was so scared, it really isn't that big of a deal," and we both walked, with ease, over the section that challenged his heart so deeply the day before. Something a video game could never have taught him.

 

To paraphrase and steal from Thoreau, we went to the Wall because I wished to live deliberately, to suck out all the marrow of our last days in China, and to see if we could not learn what it had to teach. At the end, all my thoughts and emotions are reduce it to its lowest terms...

A night on the Great Wall of China, with my first-born son, to cap off five years living in this beautiful country. I can think of no better way to say goodbye.

 

For more on . . .

-N- Stuff  :  Fatherhood  :  On Parenting

 

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Boxed in : life inside the 'coffin cubicles' of Hong Kong

Photographer Benny Lam has documented the suffocating living conditions in Hong Kong’s subdivided flats, recording the lives of these hidden communities.

Benny Lam : Wednesday 7 June 2017 07.15 BST

 

‘I’m still alive and yet I am already surrounded by four coffin planks!’ … Hong Kong’s cage home tenants. All photographs : Benny Lam

‘I’m still alive and yet I am already surrounded by four coffin planks!’ … Hong Kong’s cage home tenants. All photographs : Benny Lam

Cage homes are minuscule rooms lived in by the poorest people in the city. Over the last 10 years, the number of cage homes made of wire mesh has decreased, but they’ve been replaced by beds sealed with wooden planks

Cage homes are minuscule rooms lived in by the poorest people in the city. Over the last 10 years, the number of cage homes made of wire mesh has decreased, but they’ve been replaced by beds sealed with wooden planks

These small, wooden boxes of 15 sq ft, are known as ‘coffin cubicles’

These small, wooden boxes of 15 sq ft, are known as ‘coffin cubicles’

A 400 sq ft flat can be subdivided to accommodate nearly 20 double-decker sealed bed spaces

A 400 sq ft flat can be subdivided to accommodate nearly 20 double-decker sealed bed spaces

The tenants are different ages and sexes – all unable to afford a small cubicle, which would allow more room to stand up

The tenants are different ages and sexes – all unable to afford a small cubicle, which would allow more room to stand up

A kitchen-toilet complex in a cage home

A kitchen-toilet complex in a cage home

The photographs highlight the reality of Hong Kong’s housing crisis, where tens of thousands of people live in these cramped conditions because they can’t afford anything else

The photographs highlight the reality of Hong Kong’s housing crisis, where tens of thousands of people live in these cramped conditions because they can’t afford anything else

Many cage home residents awake to the cruel reality that all the shimmer and prosperity of Hong Kong is out of reach

Many cage home residents awake to the cruel reality that all the shimmer and prosperity of Hong Kong is out of reach

An estimated 100,000 people in Hong Kong live in inadequate housing, according to the Society for Community Organisation (SoCO)

An estimated 100,000 people in Hong Kong live in inadequate housing, according to the Society for Community Organisation (SoCO)

These photographs were taken for SoCO, an NGO fighting for policy changes and decent living standards in the city

These photographs were taken for SoCO, an NGO fighting for policy changes and decent living standards in the city

Benny Lam’s series Trapped was shortlisted for the Prix Pictet 2017

Benny Lam’s series Trapped was shortlisted for the Prix Pictet 2017

 

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-N- Stuff  :  Photography  :  100x100 Living in Hong Kong

 

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With a severed head, Radiohead makes a point.

OK Computer is 20 years old. To mark the occasion, Radiohead is reissuing the album with three previously unreleased songs from that era (as well as eight B-sides). The album is now available for pre-order and will be released on June 23, but one of the unreleased songs, I Promise, is out now on Spotify, YouTube (see above) and elsewhere (via).

Lyrics:

[Verse 1]
I won't run away no more, I promise
Even when I get bored, I promise
Even when you lock me out, I promise
I say my prayers every night, I promise

[Verse 2]
I don't wish that I'm spread, I promise
The tantrums and the chilling chats, I promise

[Refrain]
Even when the ship is wrecked, I promise
Tie me to the rotten deck, I promise

[Verse 3]
I won't run away no more, I promise
Even when I get bored, I promise

[Refrain]
Even when the ship is wrecked, I promise
Tie me to the rotten deck, I promise

[Outro]
I won't run away no more, I promise

 

At first, I was drawn to this video - even before I knew the lyrics - because the sense of loneliness, isolation, and lost in deep thought was palpable. I was struck too, by the thought, "None of them are on their devices. No one is texting, watching a movie, or listening to music. Everyone is there, fully, and fully alone."

Then came the severed head, and I it lost me.

"In 'I Promise,' commuters are shown numbly staring out bus windows at night." This, from a recent Rolling Stone article. "Eventually, it's revealed that one of the commuters is nothing more than an animatronic head propped up against the window, where it views and processes what it's witnessing."

There are no electronics, because they are electronic. The commuters have become machines.

"When the android attempts to drift off to sleep," the article continues, "memories and dreams of a crying woman stir it awake. In an unsettling conclusion, it causes the android to have an emotional response to his thoughts. The video ends with the robot head weeping on the bus seat."

According to Rolling StoneThom Yorke was partly inspired by how the singer felt he was "living in orbit" while on the long tour in support of The Bends. "The paranoia I felt at the time was much more related to how people related to each other," Yorke said (via).

"But I was using the terminology of technology to express it. Everything I was writing was actually a way of trying to reconnect with other human beings when you're always in transit. That's what I had to write about because that's what was going on, which in itself instilled a kind of loneliness and disconnection."

The severed head means everything now. 

I commute to work and navigate most of the city through public transportation - subways and buses mostly. And like the many millions of people around me, I tend to plug in my headphones and checkout. I innocently bump into others, shuffle seats and awkwardly smile at people, but nothing any deeper than that - there is for sure a strong disconnect. Like a severed head.

And like Thom Yorke, this bothers me. A lot. So, a few months back, I stopped. For fifty days straight, instead of listening to a Podcast or some new album, I tried to connect with people. 

Then, the strangest thing happened. People began opening up to me and talking about their struggles, their simple thoughts and desires, and their plans for the future. Or, simply, just about life. Suddenly, strangers became people with various stories; they became regular, just like me.

Yorke was trying to reconnect with other human beings who are always in transit, lonely and disconnected. So he made a promise. To stay connected.

But very much unlike computers and very much like people.

 

For more on . . .

-N- Stuff  :  Real People  :  Music

 

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