Persistent Curiosity and the Seemingly Mundane
Last week, on the way home from the library I saw an older man throw a snowball at the windshield of an empty semi-truck. He sauntered over from a nearby neighborhood, leaned down to form a snowball, and chucked it at the windshield of the truck backed into a bakery loading dock. I was too far away to read his face, but his body language gave no hints. He watched the snow slide down the windshield, turned around and trudged down the sidewalk in the direction from which he came.
Who was this man? Why did he do this? What were his motives?
Recently, I’ve coined a phrase for my favorite genre of media — “persistent curiosity and the seemingly mundane”. It’s a new phrase that neatly describes a growing interest in stories that involve people seeing the world differently, specifically seeing average things as potentially interesting. In my early 20’s, I didn’t think this way. I was attracted to big headlines, big problems, and big adventures. Maybe COVID is to blame for shrinking my world, but I think it would be more fair to say that my inner world has grown far richer. If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then so too is intrigue. I find my world more interesting than I once did.
Within this genre, there are two shows that have shaped my tastes and added a lens to my worldview. The first is Reply All, a podcast mostly about internet culture, with a playful exterior and low-key journalistic heart. Although no longer running (long story), I still revisit episodes from time to time.
Reply All almost always starts by knocking on a mundane looking door and subsequently whisks you away on a thrilling journey. One of the all-time great episodes, #102 - Long Distance, begins with a simple premise, “who is on the other end of this spam call?” Several episodes later the host, Alex Bloomberg, knocks on the real door of a shady warehouse in India, hoping to meet the scammer.
Typically, the topics might cover an internet meme or tech support question. The podcast seems to operate by a simple principle — keep asking questions. Every question is a key to a new door. How an episode starts is not predictive of where it will end. Undoubtedly, there are dead ends the listener doesn’t hear, but as a whole the journey feels fluid and surprising.
Rich stories unfold when persistently curious people live their questions. The signature of this quality is reaching the end of an episode and looking back with complete disbelief at the path behind you. How can something so average reveal something so exceptional?
The second show, a recent addition to my curiously mundane catalog, is the HBO TV series How to with John Wilson. Part documentary, part personal video journal, it pieces together thousands of hours of NYC street footage into topical episodes, voiced over by a faceless narrator (Wilson himself). Like Reply All, the topics are unpredictable and wide ranging, from How to Cover Your Furniture to How to Cook the Perfect Risotto.
Wilson lives in the same city as 8.4 million other people, yet his experiences and observations feel entirely unique. At times, you wonder if he is recording from underneath an invisibility cloak, as his camera focuses on a bizarre scene that hundreds of other busy New Yorkers pass without notice.
The show is persistently curious in both direct and indirect ways. Sometimes, a suggestive framing of a shot communicates the question to the viewer, without answering it directly. Why is this man hanging upside down from an awning playing the flute? And why doesn’t anyone passing on the sidewalk seem to notice?
At other times, Wilson takes a more direct path to the answer by pursuing the question and taking the viewer along. He is pathologically fearless of asking the question and pursuing it. In the episode titled, How to Put Up Scaffolding, he starts by asking the question “why is New York so full of scaffolding” and ends the episode at a scaffolding convention in Florida.
I genuinely love these shows. I find the idea that the world is buzzing with untold stories intoxicating. It’s liberating to know that you don’t have to travel far for exotic experiences and compelling narratives.
In recent years, I’ve settled into this unusual genre. I’m not globetrotting as I was from 2013 - 2019. If I maintained an Instagram, my life could be perceived as boring. To me, it’s anything but that. I look for “Wilsonian” moments around me. On a walk in Portland, I see the way an old building sags and wonder about its history. I see elderly men throw snowballs and wonder.
The world is infinitely richer than we give it credit for. There is a matrix-like quality to it. You can take the blue pill and accept the “what” at face value or you can swallow the red pill and explore the path of “who”, “what”, and “why”. I am more aware of this choice than ever before. I see the questions around me. To embrace the genre more fully I want to also pursue the questions.
Next time I pass the man with the snowball, maybe I’ll stop to ask, “excuse me sir, why did you do that?”