Oliver Sacks’ final essays on gratitude

One of the greatest modern scientists died this August.  In the last two years of his life, Oliver Sacks wrote four essays on living well.  The essays were originally published in the New York Times, and they’re now compiled into a book that went on sale yesterday.  The book is simply titled, Gratitude.

This week, we’re all busy with the Thanksgiving holiday, so I’ll just share a quote from the book and that’ll be it.  I plan on diving into Oliver Sacks’ writing as soon as I finish my current books.

“I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers.

Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.”

–Oliver Sacks

Happy Thanksgiving.  Love you guys.


It’s the Little Things

Alexander FlemingAlexander Fleming didn’t tidy up his lab before leaving on vacation.  He left the window open, and his petri dishes full of Staphylococcus bacteria remained scattered on the tabletop.  Fleming departs on vacation, and when he retuns to his lab he decides to clean the lab.  He inspects each dish before submerging it in cleaning solution, and most are covered with a lush lawn of staph bacteria.  BUT, he comes upon a dish where the lawn of bacteria is not so lush.  There appear to be circular areas where the staph is not growing.

Like any good scientist, Fleming grabs his microscope.  He finds that the staph is dying at an unprecedented rate.  In these circles, there is virtually no living staph.  At the center of these circles are specks of mold.  They must have blown in through the window and landed in his petri dishes.  But the mold is DESTROYING the staph, savagely murdering every staph in the area.  This is great news if you’re Alexander Fleming, or if you’re a human being.  The mold Fleming found is called Penicillium, and it’s the basis for penicillin.

Welcome back to the Bulletin.  This week, all the stories I’ll share with you revolve around a theme.  The theme is, “It’s the little things.”

A little mold

Fleming published his findings on Penicillium and Staphylococcus in 1929.  He realized that when Penicillium was grown in a certain substrate, it would produce an antibiotic substance, what Fleming called penicillin.  It wasn’t until 1938, with the help of chemists, that penicillin was purified and tested, and not until 1941 that a patient received penicillin as treatment.  It took the devestation of World War II to convince governments to fund the mass production of penicillin, but once they did production skyrocketed.  As researchers and army doctors realized penicillin could be used to treat wounds, production leapt to 650 BILLION units PER MONTH by the end of the war in 1945.  It is estimated that Fleming’s discovery of a little mold saved 200 million lives to date.

Ever had strep throat, staph infection, scarlet fever, stomach ulcers, chlamydia, gangrene, tooth abscesses, lyme disease, typhoid fever, tuberculosis, pneumonia, or necrotizing fasciitis?  Still alive?  Thank Fleming.

Fleming’s story is the first of a couple cool stories on a recent Radiolab episode.  Check it out if you want to learn more.

Little aliens

This animated short film about a lazy guy in outer space is pretty funny.

Little sounds

There are certain things that once you know them about a song, you can’t unhear them.  Lemme show you what I mean with 2 examples (both great songs in their own rights btw).

In the tUnE-yArDs song, “Water Fountain,” the clanking percussion is from an aluminum water bottle Merrill Garbus found at a thrift store.

Or in The Postal Service’s, “The District Sleeps Alone Tonight,” they layered in a loop of the female vocalist singing “on and on and on and on….” right here.

Knowing about these little sounds brings me so much pleasure every time I hear them.  There’s something about the process and the extra layer of humanity it brings to the music.  These are real people making sounds with what they have.

I heard both of these sounds on Song Exploder (here and here).  Love it, highly recommend.

Little things that make your day

When dishes come out clean the first time you rinse them.  Having a gym partner.  Getting a clean, new train on the metro.  Riding your bike through 4 green lights in a row.  Anytime food/drink is “on the house.”  A message from a friend you haven’t heard from in a while.  Hearing your roommate discover that “Lando is kind of a dick!” because this is the first time he has seen Star Wars. (He also told us, “never tell me the odds!”)

(Mildly entertaining: There’s this guy who has written one awesome thing a day since 2008.  Here are the top 1000 awesome things.)

Our little world

From Carl Sagan:

“From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it’s different. Consider again that dot. That’s here, that’s home, that’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every ‘superstar,’ every ‘supreme leader,’ every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there—on the mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”

Reactions, responses, suggestions, comments, threats, entreaties, and epistles can all be sent via reply email.

Love you guys.  Have a good week!

The Day I Stayed Home

This week I’d like to share a memory of mine.
Poplar Springs Drive

Poplar Springs Dr. – Gainesville, GA

I couldn’t have been much older than ten, and we lived in a mundane, suburban house on the edges of Gainesville, Georgia – the poultry production capital of the world. I had a normal childhood playing catch and jumping on the trampoline in the backyard. But the in-ground pool in our backyard was broken and perpetually empty.  I can remember descending to the bottom of the deep end to clean out leaves or swat carpenter bees with a tennis racquet. The pool never got fixed until the day we moved out.

The Garner kids
Dad was several years into a challenging career and a life he never really chose. He felt a malaise that comes to many of us when we aren’t very good at understanding what we want in life. Mom had loneliness from being a stay-at-home mother whose husband is despondent, whose son is not good at little league baseball, and whose 2-year-old twin daughters kept her indefinitely anxious. And me, I felt empty because I wasn’t good at baseball or video games or much except school. My best friend, Preston, lived across the street. I couldn’t visit his house without smelling like cigarette smoke, and my mom often forbade me from visiting for fear Preston’s family would be a bad influence on me.

I distinctly remember one day. It must have been a weekend or a holiday, because there was no school. I woke up and went to the computer to fly simulated helicopters around a virtual city. Mid-morning, Dad asked if I’d like to go to Atlanta with him. He had a meeting I’d have to wait through, but then we could get burgers and fries at The Varsity. I hardly hesitated. Waiting through his meeting seemed unappealing and the prospect of flying helicopters all day won out; I stayed home. As the novelty of the video game wore off, of course, regret sunk in.  My throat thickened as I realized I missed a whole day alone with my dad. I sobbed. I asked mom to call dad and have him come back, but it was too late.

That’s the first memory I have of adult-caliber regret, having ruined what would have been a memorable day. The incident was small enough that neither of my parents remember the day, but I felt a kind of guilt and self-anger at nine years old that still stays with me. And that’s not a bad thing. I have expectations of myself and who I’d like to be. When I let myself down, I should feel pain. Not shame that tears you apart, but guilt that shows you when you’ve missed your potential.

 “Regret doesn’t remind us that we did badly — it reminds us that we know we can do better.”
Kathryn Shulz

Please don’t think I’m trying to teach anybody a lesson with this story, I just notice that “no regrets” has become something of a motif in pop culture. In our world that’s so focused on being happy and fulfilled, I think we could use more thoughtful sadness and disappointment, the kind that makes you think about why you’re sad and what you truly want.  My dad sent me this note when I shared this story with him:

“I don’t have as much regret for that part of my life or the general course of my life now.  I have learned some valuable and hard lessons … Really, I guess I’m almost proud of myself for making it through. It’s peaceful.”

Thoughtful sadness reminds us of who we want to be.

I’d love to know your thoughts on sadness, disappointment, guilt and/or regret.

Also, let me know what you think of the longer format. And the personal content. Did you enjoy this?

This is Water

Welcome to another installment of Bennett‘s Bulletin.  Let’s get right down to it:

I’ve been thinking about internal dialogue this week.  There’s a little voice in my head narrating everything.  Sometimes the little voice is mean, and he says awful things about other people.  Often he is self-centered and selfish, thinking only about what’s best for me.  Unless I consciously choose what to think about, the default seems to be numb self-preservation, telling myself that I’m so important and that others are dumb or mean.

It’s hard to master thinking compassionately. There are times when I’m too tired or too preoccupied or just can’t be bothered to try to think differently about the world – to be nicer.  I have a hunch that it’s not just me.  In Washington, DC, I see people yelling into their cell phones or stomping down the street with furrowed brows everyday.  I don’t blame them; it’s hard.

I love the way David Foster Wallace tackles the issue.  His commencement speech to Kenyan College went viral a few years ago.  The title of the speech was “This is Water.”  It’s one of the most important things I’ve seen, and I revisit the speech regularly.

The audio is available here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8CrOL-ydFMI
DFW turned the speech into an essay, too, available here: http://www.metastatic.org/text/This%20is%20Water.pdf

This week, instead of spending your time reading my Bulletin, I hope you’ll either watch or read “This is Water.”  If you’ve seen it before, take the time to watch or read it again.

Let me know what you think.  Just send me your favorite quote(s) from “This is Water” and a few sentences about why.

The woods, Ralph Lauren, and outer space selfies

Welcome to another installment of Bennett’s Bulletin!  Apologies for the delay this week. This Bulletin is different, because it’s the first Bulletin sent with TinyLetter. Please let me know if y’all have problems with formatting, readability, or anything else.
Let’s get down to it.  Here’s your weekly dose of interesting stuff:

  1. The head of Ralph Lauren vintage: This is tangential to my point two weeks ago about fashion, but I thought this post on The Sartorialist was so cool I had to share it. A reader sent it to me this week. This guy’s job is to travel the world looking for cool vintage stuff for Ralph Lauren’s stores. Reminds me of Keith Johnson who became semi-famous as Anthropologie’s buyer and host of a show on Sundance TV. Finding clothing/décor that is unique and meaningful is a full-time job, and expensive. No wonder I’m having a hard time of it.
  2. Music: This week I relistened to John Legend’s whole Get Lifted album for the first time in a long time. As a teaser, listen to Used to Love U. Then, go listen to the whole album. I can’t help be disappointed in his latest album, especially “All of Me.”

    I’ve also been enjoying Young Fathers. Check out “Shame” from their 2015 album White Men are Black Men Too. Their 2014 album, Dead, won Britain’s Mercury Prize (the same prize that launched Alt-J to fame in 2012). The band is from Edinburgh, Scotland, and they’re at the intersection of rock, pop, and hip hop.

  3. Book I’m reading: As a kid, I remember reading Ender’s Game with my dad. I definitely recommend it if you like sci-fi, or politics, or military strategy, or psychology. Anyway, it turns out Ender’s Game is part of a whole collection of books about the Ender universe. I just finished Ender in Exile and now I’m starting Speaker for the Dead (along with Sean). These seem to be the perfect books to turn my mind off at the end of a long day and decompress. They’re easy to digest. The story moves along, and I blow through pages quickly. It’s helpful to have something to occupy my mind and let stress/fatigue take a back seat. (That link has fiction recommendations if you’re looking to get into reading for pleasure/release.)
  4. Spacewalk selfie: Spacewalk selfieCommander Scott Kelly took a selfie on his first spacewalk. He’ll be spending a year on the ISS. Blows my mind that somebody can be in outer space and tweet about it. For those interested the hashtags are #SpaceWalkSelfie and #YearInSpace.

    I get NASA’s image of the day everyday, so that’s how I found this. The universe is amazing.

  5. Nature and the mind: I went home to the mountains of North Carolina two weekends ago. The fall foliage was on point.
    Asheville Fall FoliageEden and I drove on the Blue Ridge Parkway, spent a night camping by a stream, and hiked the next morning. It felt great to be out in the woods, and coming back to Washington I felt better than when I left (even though I destroyed my left ankle on the hike down – we’re talking softball-sized ankle swelling).

    The day I got back, I read an article on working and thinking outdoors from one of my favorite authors. Being in the woods facilitates deep creative thinking, and for me at least it also has the effect of mental housekeeping. My thoughts feel tidier and stress seems more manageable after time spent outdoors. What impressed me most about the article, though, was how quickly the author got results from the outdoors. Just a few hours in a park with no distractions was enough to help him break through a tough creative problem.

    As I dug deeper into this idea of the woods being creative/restorative, I found that this effect has actually been studied scientifically (here, here, and here for those interested in some journal articles). This is where I geeked out a little, the process is known as Attention Restoration Therapy. The mechanism by which nature impacts the mind isn’t entirely understood, some think it has evolutionary roots, but the effects of nature are measurable and statistically significant. In the first and most famous experiment, Roger Ulrich compared recovery times for gall bladder surgery patients. Some had views of nature through their windows in the recovery rooms. Others did not. On average, those with a view of nature spent fewer days in the hospital (7.96 vs 8.70 days [z=1.965 p=.025]) and they had fewer complaints while in the hospital (3.96 vs 1.13 avg negative notes [z=3.49 p=<0.001]). The results seem to indicate that merely seeing nature is restorative and calming. The Atlantic has a great primer that goes into more depth so I’ll stop geeking out now. Suffice it to say that nature is awesome.
    John MuirMichael reminded me that I would be dumb not to quote John Muir (the BAMF in the picture). He’s been preaching this stuff since he founded the Sierra Club in 1892:

    “Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.”

    I can’t say much more than that.

    I’d love to hear your thoughts and stories about nature. Also, I wonder how you like these longer bullet points. I enjoy writing them, and I hope you enjoy reading them.

Finally, now that the Bulletin is on TinyLetter, new people can join. Here’s the link if you know somebody who would like to receive it: http://tinyletter.com/bgarner
That does it for this week’s Bulletin. If something in here made you think of something cool (link, photo, idea, memory) or if you have questions send them to me!

As always, let me know your suggestions!  Do you want more or less of something?  You can just reply directly to this email.

Have a great week!