Curiosity In The Age Of WTF
Well, *that* was a week.
Hello! This is Everything Is Amazing, a newsletter about curiosity, attention, wonder and divine messages in grilled cheese sandwiches.
Season 4 is currently underway - here’s how it works and what it’s about - so next week I’ll be diving into something I’ve wanted to have a good excuse to write about for two decades…
…which isn’t the subject of the above tweet by Massimo, but oh wow, that would make a fun newsletter sometime, perhaps? Or…book? (I’m imagining a travel adventure/geography lesson/’family geneology’ quest on an epic timescale.)
And before all that, I’m going to summarise what our recent Threadable-powered journey into Edmund Burke’s writing on the Sublime has taught us (the details are in the latter half of this newsletter.) That’s coming over in a few days.
But today: an apology. Because it’s been well over a week since you heard from me here. The reason was a nasty bout of brain-fog induced by *points at stuff in the news* - and I found I needed a few days to say “whew” a lot and cool my head again…
So I went and did something strange on the beach.
It’s Wednesday. Against all the odds for this time of year, the sun has emerged above Scotland, and my landlords are restless.
“Come on, Mike. Grab that bucket.”
I’ve agreed to help them with an errand on the beach. Problem is, I don’t know how to do it.
“I’m an idiot,” I summarise to them helpfully. “I’ll just get in the way.”
“It’s easy. We’ll show you what to do. Follow our lead!”
Well, it’s not as if I was doing anything else. Like so many folk, I’ve spent days unable to focus on anything but the nightmare unfolding in Ukraine. Attempts to rally my thoughts enough to write a newsletter on a non-Ukraine topic have been wildly unproductive. It’s been like turning the ingition and hearing nothing but ugly clanking. Come on, man. Stuff to do.
(To new readers: hi! Welcome. Uh - this kind of difficulty isn’t normal for these parts. The usual problem is getting me to shut up. Expect that to become your main complaint about future newsletters. Thanks!)
When it became clear I wasn’t in writing-mode, I tried something else. I’ve never been to Ukraine, but my friends Dan & Audrey of Uncornered Market have, and when Audrey listed their recommendations for trusted organizations to donate to, I chose the NGO People In Need and gave a donation. In Audrey’s words:
“They have been working in Ukraine already for years, so they already have strong operations, and are known for doing remarkable humanitarian work, often with limited funds.”
I’ve also been trying to share encouraging Ukraine-related news on Twitter, because the bad stuff is getting almost all the attention out there (because of negativity bias, because there’s so much of it, and because it’s sometimes just so bad). This has meant taking extra care to fact-check: social media is being flooded with misinformation originating in Russia, and as usual our haste to share a “scoop” means we’re sometimes falling for the hoaxes and negative propaganda:
It’s a really good time to double- or triple-check everything you pass along. For example, this encouraging news from this morning:
I checked, and - yep, it’s also being reported by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. All good for a retweet.
Some of my friends are doing flat-out brilliant things. For example, Kash just launched a new platform that lets hospitality businesses across Europe (hotels, hostels etc.) offer up their excess rooms to Ukrainian refugees:
Meanwhile, international guests are booking Airbnbs in Ukraine without any intention of using them, just to get money into the hands of residents as quickly as possible. And something similar is happening via Etsy, aided by this. (Hat-tip to Valorie for making me aware of it.)
So there are good things going on: sometimes vanishingly small in the wider landscape of what’s happening, but immensely meaningful to those they directly affect.
Yet since the news was all I was able to think about for much of this week, it exhausted my tiny brain. I’m a trivial man who delights in writing about far less urgent & timely things (OMG massive flood reported guys, oh wait, it was 6 million years ago, sorry) - and I gave myself no chance to recover that enthusiasm for the smaller and dafter things that power my writing. I felt overwhelmed … except unlike the Internet-shunning Paul Miller, I had no desire to get myself massively offline in order to deal with it.
I just needed….what? To take my own advice and go do something stupid?
I figured it was worth a try.
We’re on the beach now, all four of us lugging buckets. My landlord J. reaches down, grabs a piece of black rock and tosses it to me.
“What’s that, Mike?”
“It’s a piece of black rock,” I explain, bringing to bear all the knowledge I learned during two years of Geology at high school.
He stares at me for a moment, searching my blank expression for signs of sarcasm, and then turns to find something else to throw to (or perhaps at) me. “And this?”
Ah. Okay. It looks pretty much the same, but it feels much lighter. Weirdly light, like it’s made of plastic. And it has a pearlescent sheen along a recently-broken edge. That phrase stirs something in my memory from those teenage geology lessons…
“Talc! Number 1 on the Moh scale of…”
“No, you daft sod. Look with your eyes. It’s coal, isn’t it?”
Oh. Seriously? This is coal? But - it’s everywhere. This shoreline is absolutely littered with the stuff…
How much coal is actually out there?
A hundred years ago, the view of the Firth of Clyde from this stretch of coastline would have been swarming with ships.
Some would have been the lovely, versatile Clyde Puffers - and others would have been great, ugly slabs of metal that’d make you wince when you saw them. Up and down they’d go, sailing into the mouth of the river in search of a terminal to unload at, or going the other way to supply somewhere further afield - while carrying in their holds quite unbelievable quantities of shattered, ripped-up coal.
Coal mining in Scotland reached its peak in 1913 (43 million tons that year) - but it wasn’t until the 1990s that coal stopped being the country’s primary mineral resource for export, with the last deep-pit coal mine closing in 2002.
It’s almost gone now as a national industry - and certainly not too soon, considering the projections of the latest IPCC report on the future impact of climate change. (Fossil fuels are also the bargaining chips of authoritarian regimes, so the quicker we can jettison our reliance on them, the better.)
But in that century of hauling coal from land to sea and back again, people did what people do: they made mistakes. Coal spilled off the back of ships, or tumbled into the gaps between ship and dockside…just a little, here and there. Perhaps not enough to be called a toxic coal spill, just a protracted clumsiness that, over decades, added up to a scattered underwater mountain of the stuff.
Then the Scottish weather did its bit. With every storm, the roiling waves churned the coal off the sea bed and carried it far and wide - it’s relatively light, so I’m guessing it can carry a surprisingly long way - and, if the tide was high enough, flung it ashore once more.
And then one cold, sunny day in early March, some idiot found it on the beach and put it into his bucket.
It’s over half-full now. I’m delighted!
(I feel very clever.)
In the distance, my two landlords (J. & A.), plus A.’s son, are in search of the richest bands of pebbles, shells, seaweed and human-made marine litter. They’ve found a couple of really huge chunks of coal, which they wave cheerfully at me. I think: Yes yes. You got lucky. So what? Luck isn’t skill. Mine are smaller but there’s far more of them. EAT MY BUCKET OF TINY PERFECT WINS, YOU LOSERS.
The joy of this kind of foolish competitiveness is how completely it takes you out of yourself. When I've finally collected enough sea-coal to make the bucket almost too heavy to carry, it’s an hour later and I’m about a mile from where we set out. Nobody else is in sight, the sun’s much lower, and I haven’t thought of anything except picking up bits of black rock for the last hour.
That feels great. I’m refreshed. Physically a bit tired, but mentally perked up.
I’m feeling ready to get back to my laptop and get writing again - and if it wasn’t for the fact that I’m now a mile from home with a bucket heavy enough to wrench my arms out their sockets, that’s exactly what I would have done.
I get back sometime later, a sweaty mess, shoulder strained, knees wobbly, cursing the whole venture. Stupid bloody idea, dragging coal around like this, what am I, Thomas the Tank Engine?
But then I realise, yet again - I’d forgotten about everything except the (awful) task at hand. It had given my thoughts a chance to stop juggling a hundred current-affairsy things and focus on just the one local thing. It was 90 minutes of not wanting to check BBC News compulsively, not doomscrolling through Twitter, not drinking too much coffee in an increasingly failed attempt to wake my brain up…
It’d been - a proper rest. One that I now feel I needed, so I could get back to it all.
As I write this days later, our buckets of foraged sea-coal are lined up against the back garden wall.
(I was very happy to see that mine is the fullest.)
They’ll stay out there over summer with a rain-proof sheet over them, waiting for the colder months - and sometime next December or January, my landlords will light up the coal-burning stove and have a few warm days of not having to use the electric central heating, a tiny easing of their energy bills that keep going higher and higher right now…
And me? Well, I’m back to writing again. Stuff to do, and all that.
Sometimes it’s the little things.
I don’t have any advice on current affairs right now. No analysis, no insightful commentary. Not a single sound-bite.
But I do think it’s possible that after the last 9 days of watching what’s happening in Ukraine, you need to take a break. Just a short one. And not a guilty one either. This isn’t “ignoring Ukraine” - this is “making sure you’re physically and mentally capable of keeping paying attention to everything in the near future”. (Who exactly does it help if you’re completely exhausted?)
And if that’s the case, maybe your own curiosity can be of service.
You could pick one of the challenges I set in previous newsletters and go try it out - or adapt it into something that works for you. Or you could invent one yourself, from something you’ve been curious about for a while - a place nearby which you could explore for the first time, perhaps…
Whatever it is, let it completely consume your attention for ten minutes, half an hour, an hour. Go there fully - and maybe, just maybe, you’ll discover you’re feeling a lot clearer-headed when you come back.
Worth a try?
Thanks for reading. See you in a few days.
Images: Tina Hartung; Mike Sowden