Courtesy Ola Harström

The Tyranny of the Present

On the folly of trying to live in The Now.

Late at night I often think about what it would be like to live in the countryside. I could live in a cabin with a quiet stream just outside. There would be a long wooden bookshelf, a comfy leather chair, and candles that flicker freckled light. I think about this life not so much because it is the life I want, but because it is an example of the life I could have. There are thousands of different paths we can take, different lives we can have, and yet, of course, we can only choose one.

We could live in the countryside in northern Norway, in an abandoned atelier in Portland, in a high-rise in Los Angeles, in an artist’s commune in upstate New York, in a houseboat in Seattle, in a loft in Berlin, on a vineyard in Bordeaux, in a studio in Buenos Aires, in a yurt in a Turkish village. Not everyone is so fortunate to have choices, but those who do more often confine themselves to a single place, to a single style of life early on not because they have to but because the instability of change proves too much to bear.

Yet the real burden is the tyranny of the present: the realization that what we do today informs tomorrow and that tomorrow is one day closer to death. After all, life itself is a memento mori. Even our happiest moments only serve to remind us that one day, soon, we will not be as happy as we are now, that the highest point of happiness presages nothing but an impending descent.

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The Art of People-Watching

There are really two types of walkers: those who are just looking to get from place to place, and those who are looking while going from place to place.

Although Walter Benjamin would turn flânerie into a scholastic pursuit in the 20th-century, it was Charles Baudelaire who first established the idea of the flâneur. flâneur, literally meaning a “stroller” or “saunterer” in French, is someone who falls into the second category. He is an urban explorer, a street connoisseur, a person who walks as a means to reflect on a city’s history, and, as a writer carries his pen, the flâneur carries a deep knowledge about industrialization, architecture and urbanity with him everywhere he goes.

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Let the Body Rest, for the Sake of the Brain — The Atlantic

Sleep deprivation can take a heavy mental toll. The specifics are disturbing.

I’m sure a lot of subway riders are skilled nappers, but this car seemed to be particularly talented. Going over the Brooklyn Bridge on a recent morning, just as the sun was coming up, a row of men in nearly identical black suits held on to the straps with their eyes closed. Their necks were bent at the slightest of angles, like a row of daisies in a breeze, and as the car clanged over the tracks and the sun pierced through the grimy train windows, it finally dawned on me they were all sound asleep. Not even the bumps and the light could stop them from sneaking in 15 more minutes of shut-eye before work.

We take it for granted, but most people have to wake up for work (or school or other morning obligations) long before they want to. Sleeping in is treated as a cherished luxury—it’s somehow become normal that people wake up still exhausted, and anything but is a notable exception.

But rising before the body wants to affects not only morale and energy, but brain function as well.

“The practice of going to sleep and waking up at ‘unnatural’ times could be the most prevalent high-risk behavior in modern society,” writes Till Roenneberg, a professor of chronobiology at the Institute of Medical Psychology at Ludwig-Maximilians University in Munch.

Read the rest of the story at The Atlantic

By JH Crawford

Short Fiction: An Orphan on Rivoli

THE WORD “INSANE” is too much of a blanket characteristic – too clinical – and with it comes all sorts of negative connotations. It’s a useful word though because it’s tough to describe Alex, who lived in a tiny chambre de bonne above the rue de Rivoli, in any other way. He’d lived there ever since he was only a few years old and had been orphaned, and it was the only piece of the LePecque’s estate that hadn’t been swindled by the lawyers or fought over by his older siblings, Alize and Fréderic. Alex had dealt with the death as all children do – without great regard for its infinity – and he took what was given to him without argument. What he wished he could’ve better held on to now though were memories, and while he couldn’t much remember his parents, he had a small swatch of his father’s suit jacket and a particularly sturdy silver pendant of his mother’s that he’d found on the ground outside the house after the explosive fire.

As a 10-year-old, Alex’s remaining family had abandoned him, and he often sat at the only chair in his room by himself. It was here that he looked out through the small, ever foggy window above a sprawling garden. To any other visitor the view was pure magic, but to Alex it was void of charm, filling him only with sadness and longing. The beauty and wealth that surrounded him made him afraid, and he feared that one day he would substitute a pursuit of mere things for his pursuit of memories. He thus chose to never go out, promising never to leave his room and its intrinsic modesty.

Alex grew older in that room, but he did not leave. As a late-teenager he had an Arab man from the suburbs bring him his groceries, and it was only to him that Alex spoke. They discussed banalities – the weather, construction projects he could hear outside, or the whereabouts of Alex’s neighbors, to whom the man also delivered groceries. Yet they exchanged books each time as well. Alex drew from an immense crate of books that he had only recently found beneath a trap door just large enough for the crate. In exchange, the man brought Alex modern books and popular favorites.

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When Speaking English Isn’t Enough — The Atlantic

Learning another language can increase one’s ability to focus and multitask, and it can offset dementia and Alzheimer’s

There’s a certain sinking feeling one gets when thinking of the perfect thing to say just a moment too late. Perhaps a witty parting word could have made all the difference. There is no English word to express this feeling, but the French have the term l’esprit de l’escalier—translated, “stairwell wit”—for this very phenomenon.

Nor is there an English word to describe the binge eating that follows an emotional blow, but the Germans have kummerspeck—“grief-bacon”—to do just that. If we had the Swedish word lagom—which means something is just right—the English explanation of Goldilocks’ perfectly temperate soup could have been a lot more succinct. Or the term koi no yokan, a poetic Japanese turn of phrase that expresses the feeling of knowing that you will soon fall in love with the person you have just met. It’s not love at first sight so much as an understanding that love is inevitable. Keats and Byron could have really used a word like that.

There are many words that English speakers don’t have. Sometimes Anglophones take from other languages, but often, we have to explain our way around a specific feeling or emotion that doesn’t have its own word, never quite touching on it exactly.

“The reason why we borrow words like savoir faire from French is because it’s not part of the culture [in the United States] and therefore that word did not evolve as part of our language,” says George Lakoff, a professor of cognitive science and linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley.

Read the rest of the story at The Atlantic

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Take a Tour of The Gigantic, Secretive Market Where France’s Top Chefs Buy Their Food — Matter

The best food in France comes from a single place — but hardly anyone knows it (and now it could be toast).

It’s pitch-black out and we’re telling the cab driver to hurry. The moonlight draws a path in front of us as we glide through Paris at 4:30 a.m. We’re just in time to make the bus, which runs only once a month — and always leaves early. It’s almost like it wants to be missed.

After passing through two security checkpoints, we finally arrive at the center of the Rungis International Market. It’s only 30 minutes outside the French capital, and it’s the largest wholesale market in the world. But ask most Parisians if they’ve heard of it, and they’re likely to shrug and shake their heads.

Pigs hung on hook II

Three hours earlier, at around two in the morning, buyers from some of the world’s biggest restaurants, hotel chains, and grocery stores had come through to make their daily purchases of meat, fish, vegetables, and flowers. Once they were done, smaller shops and restaurants — the ones who can’t afford the “premier” pass — came in take their pick from the leftovers. I was one of a handful from outside the industry allowed in to look around.

Until 1969, France’s wholesale market was in Les Halles, a much smaller space in the center of Paris. It was centrally located but incredibly unhygienic — perhaps Émile Zola was thinking about guts when he called it“the belly of Paris.” But then, the market set up just outside the city in an area known as Rungis, near Orly airport. Now, its 573 acres are home to more than 11,000 workers, supporting more than 1,000 businesses from doctors to insurance salesmen to travel agents.

Read the rest of the story at Matter

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Love in the Time of Twitter — The Atlantic

Social media filters relationships whether we like it or not, and new neuroscience research shows we’re increasingly drawing less of a distinction between real and digital interactions.

A little more than a decade ago, a former professor of mine here in Paris was supposed to meet Jean Baudrillard at a party. The notoriously elusive French philosopher rose to fame in the early 1980s with his theory of the “simulacrum,” which says that neither reality nor history really exists anymore because consumer society and media have taken away true freedom and choice and replaced them with mere illusions. His theory was the inspirat­­ion for The Matrix films.

When Baudrillard did not show up at the party, the host rang his assistant, and it was determined that at the last moment he had decided to stay at home that night. Apparently, he had found a channel that was showing reruns of Wheel of Fortune. A few years later, when Baudrillard was giving a reading from his book The Conspiracy of Art at the Tilton Gallery in Manhattan, an audience member asked him, “What would you like to be said about you? In other words, who are you?”

Baudrillard paused, then replied: “What I am, I don’t know. I am the simulacrum of myself.”

For Baudrillard, there was no difference between his real self and his mediatized self, just as there was no difference between an interaction with friends and interacting with the television images of an American word puzzle game. We are all, according to Baudrillard’s theory, simulacrums of ourselves: fake humans living in a fake, mediatized world. In a mediatized world, the theory goes, real relationships are impossible.

Yet now, seven years after Baudrillard passed away, we have created entire personas mediated through online platforms—Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Tumblr, etcetera. But we use these mediatized personalities to connect with other people. Even if we are watching Wheel of Fortune alone at home, if we are simultaneously tweeting at a friend then the night is still a social one.

The question, then, is whether these relationships in the virtual world are still the same as relationships pursued in the real world or is there a fundamental difference, as Baudrillard would have claimed? Can we still call love “love” if it’s passing through a screen?

For the past decade, Paul J. Zak, a professor of neuro-economics at the Claremont Graduate University who sometimes goes by “Dr. Love,” has been conducting studies on how relationships maintained over social media differ from relationships in real life. What he has found is that there’s hardly any difference at all.

Continue the story at The Atlantic

"Lost in Translation." Courtesy of Focus Features.

The Eroticism of Placelessness

On the way loneliness, freedom, and romance are intertwined.

For the past few weeks, I’ve woken up unsure exactly where I am. My bed, a modest full size, looks out onto a cobblestone courtyard framed by green linden trees and an intricately decorated castle. I’m in a pocket-sized one-bedroom apartment and although it is behind the Place des Vosges in Paris, by the looks of it I could be in Normandy or Toulouse, even Vermont. For that matter, there is no real way for me to know the year is 2014: save for the circle-pronged electrical outlet tucked behind my dresser, I could be waking up in the eighteenth century. In the haze of the early morning, these things tend to meld together.

The feeling of placelessness is a bit like a dream: the heightened romance, the intense brooding, the inherently transitory nature of the whole affair. Placelessness happens when we find ourselves inhabiting “in-between” spaces like hotels or apartments in far-away places that we don’t know well and where we won’t stay long. It is in these places that we are visitors without hosts, short-term dwellers without homes, but we are also suspended in time and without the usual responsibilities of our age: the placeless 60-year-old is not thinking of his marriage and readying himself for retirement; the placeless 20-year-old is not pondering his career and studying away.

In fact, the placeless person does not have to think about doing anything or being anyone. He is so thoroughly disconnected from the reality beyond his window that he is cut off from its social norms: there is a feeling of freedom, of not having to play by the rules, of not having to put down roots or be responsible or moral in the usual ways. But with freedom of course comes loneliness. In a placeless place, as Gertrude Stein wrote in her autobiography, “There is no there there.”

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