(Part One here)
Before studying Zen, men are men and mountains are mountains. While studying Zen, things become confused. After studying Zen, men are men and mountains are mountains. After telling this, Dr Suzuki was asked, “What is the difference between before and after?” He said, “No difference, only the feet are a little off the ground.”
—John Cage, Silence
Ask the next question.
Part 2: What We’ve Learned
Have we learned anything? Wait, were we supposed to? Why does everything have to be a goddamn learning experience? Is it because people, all too often, value answers over questions? But if you don’t know how to ask questions, how do you expect to understand the answers? What if there aren’t any answers, not really, just more questions? On the other hand, would that be so bad? Isn’t that just another way of describing the situation we’re already in? Do you ever find yourself thinking, maybe late at night, that to stop as soon as you’ve arrived at an answer is to succumb to a curiously arrogant or even hubristic temptation: that the answer you, of all people, came up with is the actual, definitive answer? Who are you to think you’ve got it all figured out? After all, aren’t most answers predicated on whole webs of assumptions, some or even all of which could be mistaken, incomplete, misunderstood? Do you see how this means that if you change your assumptions, you might find that some of your beloved answers just evaporate? Not feeling so proud now, are you?
So what can we do about this? If how we define the “right answer” is dependent on which questions we ask, then should we take another look at what motivates us to ask a particular question in the first place? Don’t we usually ask questions when we think we’re missing some information, when something doesn’t quite make sense? Doesn’t that imply that a question is a way of filling in a gap of some kind that we think we perceive in the universe around us as we think we understand it? But what if there is no gap? What then? Would that mean the question is meaningless, like asking who’s the present King of France?
Well, have you ever noticed how the questions that people ask often tell you something about them and how they see the world? So could we say that a “question” is actually a sign of how we perceive the universe? Hey, could this be why inkblot tests can be so useful: they show us what sorts of connections we make, and what some of our assumptions about the universe are? So, what if we’ve been looking at “answers” all wrong, and that the really important thing is to become proficient at asking questions, more questions, the next questions? What if the things we call “answers” are important only insofar as they help show us that we’ve been asking good questions? Where exactly am I going with all this? How should I know? (Is he really just making this shit up as he goes along? Seriously? Who does he think he is?)
Okay, so can we say that a coincidence is just an event that we’re associating with something else, probably absent, which is personally meaningful? That is, if I walk by a car and its licence plate has the numbers “197” on it, will I even care — much less notice — unless “197” means something to me? Otherwise, isn’t it just a cluster of numerals? So, what if we were presented with a whole clump of sounds, or a hoard of words — if any of it makes sense at all, isn’t it because we expected it to hold some kind of meaning? And why else would it mean anything in the first place, if not for the fact that we were looking for meaning? In other words, for something to have meaning, don’t you have to notice it in the first place?
Part 3: Some Underlying Ideas
So this is why I’ve always been intrigued by chance operations: it’s a hack that demonstrates to me just how eagerly my brain wants to see patterns and make connections. My brain almost always finds meaning as though it should be there, even when I have consciously arranged the situation to be explicitly, deliberately meaningless.
By using chance operations, I trick myself into noticing things I might not otherwise have noticed, instead of always noticing the same old things that tend to catch my attention. If I’m already predisposed to see meaning and significance anyway, then I can let chance operations do some of the heavy lifting in my creative process. I’ll make new, strange choices instead of the usual, easy choices.
Furthermore, I know that my audience of readers or listeners will, in turn, be engaged in their own programs of pattern-seeking and meaning-making — which makes them collaborators of a sort; and they will see any surprising or ambiguous elements in the work of art as parts of a puzzle to sort out. Art that seems to have all the answers tends to feel lifeless, preachy, claustrophobic, and possibly even propagandistic. Because, of course, it’s not possible to have “all the answers,” any more than it’s possible to ask “all the questions.”
This also gives us insight into what we mean by “bias.” Bias is the resting state of all that pattern-seeking and meaning-making. We all have a contextual framework by which we try to organize and arrange the universe as it seems to be out there, outside of our individual skulls and outside our communities’ mores. This is elemental. It is not possible to live in a world that holds no personal or communal meaning. We can’t eliminate bias in its most basic form. But we can become aware of it, and we can come to understand the extent to which it shapes how we see the world — and whether we even can see. Eventually, through asking questions and listening to answers, we can modify and shift our bias. If we want to.
But why would we want to? After all, these frameworks don’t have to be accurate, they just have to be comfortable. That is, we believe many things not necessarily because they’re “true,” but because, by believing them, we are accepted by whatever community holds us and to which we pledge allegiance. I mean, they might be true, but that’s almost never why we believe them. Beliefs, all too often, are shibboleths.
So, again: why would we want to shift our bias? Well, because if our brains are constantly working to fit observations into a preëxisting frame, then it’s sickeningly easy for us to draw wildly inaccurate conclusions, and then entrench ourselves in our comforting, familiar, sensible, but dangerously misleading webs of “meaning.”
The most fundamentally wrong thing anyone can think is: If it makes sense, then it must be true. We are dazzlingly good at making sense and dreadfully bad at finding it. Almost the only time we find sense is when it’s on our nursery floor, on our mother’s knee — long before we would ever “choose” to look for it. Sense gets baked in, and is rarely ever challenged again during the rest of our lives. Sense is what helps us decide what sort of tool or solution to reach for first when we’re confronted by a problem or puzzle. (Back to the inkblot tests…)
We will see what we look for, we will mine the data, and we will insist that the world is exactly as we have come to expect it to be. We will find it more and more difficult to imagine any other arrangement. And all this would be fine — if it weren’t for the uncomfortable fact that there is no single arrangement.
How do we break out of our hall of mirrors? By actively seeking out more details, more evidence, more perspectives, more opinions. By immersing ourselves in communities that are as rich and diverse as possible. By checking and double-checking our beliefs, to ensure we don’t mistake assumptions for conclusions. By striving to be as self-aware as we can. By constantly challenging ourselves and our communities to ask more questions. By listening to as many different sorts of answers as possible, and learning to be comfortable with the ensuing cognitive challenges to our beloved illusions. By opening ourselves to surprise. By exploring the providence of chance. By remaining watchful, and by staying awake.
Part 4: Any Questions?
Probably not. Probably, yes. We can’t help ourselves. Safe bet (but this sounds like a leading question). Maybe “understanding” is overrated. I like where you’re going with this. Define “bad.” My sources say Yes. YMMV but I’ve found this is almost never a good time to do sustained, productive thinking: dreams, yes; reveries, sure; but not discursive, linear thinking. I’m not sure I like your tone. Define “most.” I do, yes. Not really, but then, I wasn’t before, so.
You tell me, smart guy. I’m still waiting for you to define “bad” and “most.” Sometimes I ask questions just to annoy people. It also implies that I might be kind of a jerk. Oh I see, you want me to say there’s no gap, so if there is, I’m the one who looks like an idiot, not you; classy. Go on… That’s not a meaningless question, it’s a stupid one.
Look in the mirror. I think we could. Don’t tell me you just figured this out now. Define “we.” Now you’re just grandstanding. I’ve been wondering this for a few minutes. Christ, what an asshole. (Don’t put words in my mouth. Seriously. Like I said, look in the mirror.)
Just because we can say it, doesn’t mean it’s true (but in this case, it is). Right (and I’m guessing “197” means something to you). Define “just.” You’re wandering dangerously close to feedback-loop or tautology territory. It sounds like you’re saying that meaning is real, but extrinsic. Hold on, now it sounds like you’re saying that meaning is like the sound a tree makes when no one’s there to hear it fall, do I have that right? — no, don’t answer that.
22/ Week of 26 May
Over the last few weeks, I have finally managed to begin focusing on reading in a sustained way again, which allowed me to finish two books. And there are several others I’ve been nibbling at for months that I may actually manage to finish quite soon.
This has been a rough year — and a rough week — for my attention span…
Part 1: The Process
Apart from a cursory description on the first day, I never really went into any detail of the process for my Random Walk.
Here’s what I did.
First, I divided the library into sixty-four sections. I probably could have divided it into fewer sections with many more books in each, but I was aiming for sixty-four: the same number as I Ching hexagrams. Most of these sections were individual shelves on book cases, but others were simply areas in my home, like the stack on top of the filing cabinet in the office (Shelf 5), or the countertop in the kitchen with all the cookbooks (Shelf 64). (To get exactly sixty-four, I also divided some larger areas up. It got a little messy in the end, but is it really a mess if you know where everything is?)
Then I counted the number of books on every shelf and “shelf.” (This means, by the way, that I have a full count of how many front-facing books are in the house. There are many more backshelved, and several boxes in our storage unit.) I also made a chart, visually depicting the shelf number and the book count for each.
I threw the I Ching to generate one of the sixty-four hexagrams. If any sixes or nines came up, a single throw could, of course, generate two hexagrams. (I use the penny method, by the way. I’m all for ritual, but the yarrow stalk method is just too much.)
I checked the chart to see how many books were on the two shelves. Using random.org, I “rolled” a number to determine the book for each shelf.
I pulled the two books, took a picture, and created a draft in MarsEdit.
(Early on, I also found entries in my OED that, to my mind anyway, linked the two books for that day. This was fun at first, but it quickly became far too onerous, so I stopped.)
After the first few pairs, I rolled eight or ten days’ worth of book pairs at a time, in several sessions throughout the month. This gave me as much as a week or more to jot down any notes, retake pictures if need be, and get started on drafting a post (assuming there was anything worth saying; otherwise, it would get posted without comment).
The reason I did this was to get some of the harder parts of each post over with well ahead of time, leaving only the final touches for the morning of the particular day as I made my coffee. I did this for the pencil posts last month, and it played a key role in my being able to stick with it all month.
Two times, I re-rolled if I landed on a book that was, frankly, too personal and no one’s business. My game, my rules. But otherwise, I played it as it laid.
So that was the game.
Tomorrow or Tuesday, we’ll review.
Jorge Luis Borges:
A man sets himself the task of drawing the world. As the years pass, he fills the empty space with images of provinces and kingdoms, mountains, bays, ships, islands, fish, houses, instruments, stars, horses, and people. Just before he dies, he discovers that the patient labyrinth of lines traces the image of his own face.
The Magical Powers of a New Shirt
1: To Believe in Nothing and Dare All
I’m standing in line during the commute rush. Across the coffeeshop, I think I spot two former co-workers. I didn’t know them well, but I’m thinking about swinging by their table to say a quick hello. I’ve dropped my wife off at work, and now I’m going to sit and write here for an hour before heading home to get my own work day started. There’s a small TV on a high shelf behind the counter, with the sound off. I glance up at the screen: city skyline, crisp blue sky, a skyscraper with smoke billowing from it. They’re saying that a plane crashed into a building. Someone in line says it’s probably a small private jet or something. Nothing else makes sense. As the girl hands me my coffee, another plane enters the shot, flies behind a different building, but doesn’t emerge from the other side. No, the second plane has just flown into the building. Black smoke, flames. Someone says holy shit or oh my god. Two planes, within about twenty minutes of each other, each crashing into a building like that? What are the chances? A moment later, I’m back at my car. We just bought our first cell phones yesterday and I’m not sure how they work. I don’t seem to have any cell reception. Am I doing something wrong? I get home, call my wife from a real phone, and tell her what’s happened. She’s already heard. I turn on the TV. As I watch, one of the buildings collapses. Then the other. So this is my day: watching footage of skyscrapers collapsing after being struck by commercial jets, and watching footage of a large government building with plane wreckage, and watching footage of a field out in the countryside somewhere. Over and over.
2: To Be Poets
All summer, I’ve been taping reruns of a TV show I started watching last winter. It’s called The West Wing, about the senior staff in a fictional White House. My wife discovered it first, and tried to introduce me to it. But this took a while, since I almost always have something better to do than watch TV. But she insisted, and I surprised myself by how quickly and deeply I became engaged in the show. The planes and the buildings will delay the autumn TV schedule, so this is my day all month: dropping my wife at work, stopping in at a coffeeshop to write, going home, watching a West Wing rerun on VHS, then sitting down at my laptop to work. The new season finally airs, like most shows, nearly a month late. We tape the new episode as we watch it, then we watch it again four or five more times that week, then tape the next episode. And so on. Soon, the US government will begin undermining most of the goodwill it found on September 12th, forgetting that this was not a crime against America but a crime against humanity. And I will cling desperately to that show, constantly turning to it for solace, probably expecting too much of it. But the show’s appeal for me is not that it offers a sort of idealized alternate political universe from the one I’m trapped in. I don’t see it as a show about politics. It is, of course, yes. In a way. But not principally. (At least not until the fifth season onwards.) In fact, when my wife first called me in and insisted I watch an episode of this new show she had just discovered, she didn’t say it was a cool new show about politics. She told me to sit down and “just listen.” By the time Air Force One touched down after the Portland trip, I realized: language itself was the main character.
3: “You’re Lying” “Yes I Am, But Hear Me Out”
This, then, was what I found comforting about The West Wing during those grim years: not its politics, but its fidelity to language. But what does it mean to be faithful to language? To use it fluently, with skill and care? To speak clearly and truthfully? No, because language isn’t just about communicating — much less communicating truthful statements, specifically. Language can be informative (“My dog does not bite,” “it will rain this afternoon,” etc), performative (“I now pronounce you husband and wife,” etc), and manipulative (“make me a sandwich,” “watch out!” etc). Language is also social: we constantly evaluate each other based on our pronunciation and word choice, which often reveal our backgrounds, ethnicities, education level, and so on. (You drop your aitches and I think that makes you sound low-class; I use double-negatives for emphasis but you don’t, and you treat me as somehow less-educated; etc). Language can also, of course, be musical. And it can be several of these at once, and often is. Let me be clear: none of these modes have anything to do with morality or innate goodness. That is, language is a tool, a technology in the most ancient sense, and is inherently amoral. Who uses the tool and why: this is where morality enters the conversation. A mendacious shyster and an honorable, compassionate teacher both must use language with equal skill. Beautiful language can be persuasive in a way that merely truthful language almost never is.
4: After Hoc Therefore Something Else Hoc
Now, just because The West Wing had a somewhat left-leaning slant, and was known for rich, rhetorical language does not imply a connection between the two. Rhetoric itself is not necessarily an indication of either trustworthiness or duplicity (whatever Plato may have thought of the Sophists). So I’m talking about something more than mere skill or finesse. There is a profound difference between someone who uses language skillfully to do great evil, and someone who uses it carelessly to do great damage. This is, apparently, something we as a species need to learn over and over again: that, in our ongoing story, the inarticulate slobs and careless dopes, bumbling around knocking things over, ruining things for everybody else in a thousand small ways, are the most ubiquitous and toxic villains.
5: How’s That for “Clever with Words”?
Rhetoric only works when the speaker and listener already have a lot in common. That is, if you see someone as too radically different from yourself, you may think that trying to talk to them is a waste of time, because they’ll never get it. They’re not like you; they talk funny and don’t have proper table manners. They’re not civilized people, and you can’t talk to them as though they were. Indeed, you may come to the conclusion that if you want them to do something, only brute force and fear of violence will work. It’s the only language these animals understand. This is why fundamentalists of all stripes so quickly decide that language is pointless. And it’s only a few more steps before you’re flying airplanes into buildings.
Six Zoom Meetings Before Lunch
I watched a few episodes of The West Wing a couple of days ago. (Oh, it was two weeks ago? Okay.) I joked that I was playing a West Wing drinking game.
I would drink whenever:
- Josh has his backpack over one shoulder
- any reference to a musical
- “Just saying”
- Walk and Talk
- Donna asks Josh to explain something
- someone repeats verbatim what someone else just said
And I would take a double drink for:
- any Latin phrase
- Mrs Bartlet’s terms of endearment
- Someone refers to their SAT score
- The Jackal!
The implication here was that I’d be drinking pretty much constantly — which was the point, because it was that kind of night. I could just as easily have said I was playing a Stare At The Wall drinking game. You drink whenever you stare at the wall. Double for blinking.
I knew it was likely, after my post appeared in the Micro.blog timeline, that people would say something about how it’s too painful to watch a show like The West Wing now. Of course it is. But then, everything — even self-care — can seem too painful now. So I figured: if joy is laced with pain anyway, I might as well take comfort anywhere I can. And some of that comfort comes from watching escapist TV.
Where I’m escaping to is, of course, jarringly different from the world as it is now. But this, too, has been oddly helpful. It has let me practice the transition back and forth between these two worlds, the comfort world and the Covid world. That moment of reëntry is, I think, what we actually find most painful: when we look away from the screen and see, out on the sidewalk, people walking by with face masks on. Oh, that, we think. I’d forgotten.
I’ve worked from home partly or completely for many of the last twenty-two years. One thing I learned early on was how important it is to set clear boundaries at the beginning and the end of the work day or else everything might start to blur together. So, in March, I thought this quarantine wouldn’t be too unfamiliar, or too challenging. I was wrong.
Working from home is, of course, vastly different from living in quarantine. The numbers on the clock almost never seem to line up with my sense of what time it is. If an event isn’t on the calendar, if a to-do isn’t pinging me with a repeating notification, it simply doesn’t happen. I keep hearing Ford Prefect saying, Time is an illusion, lunchtime doubly so. (I’ve been trying to write this blog post for nearly two weeks and I just haven’t been able to get my shit together to finish it.)
One reason for this is that many of the normal boundaries around different activities and emotional spaces have broken down or disappeared (for instance, commutes). I have found that I need to be far more conscious than usual of what sorts of routines and rituals demarcate different activities for me.
When I have good days, it’s at least partly because I’ve managed to maintain strong borders. And when I have better days, it’s at least partly because I’ve been able to cross back and forth over those borders somewhat smoothly, with as little stumbling as possible (by which I mean, a lot of stumbling but not as much as on other days…).
And by letting (or making) myself drift away into truly escapist activities like old beloved TV shows, I am slowly learning, and practicing, how to cope with the shock of returning, again and again, to this world.
Fifteen days down, fifteen to go.
Day 1: Some Japanese pencils
Day 2: Too many words about Blackwings
Day 3: Viking Skjoldungen and Skoleblyanten
Day 4: Koh-I-Noor Hardtmuth
Day 5: Bohemia Works Blacksun
Day 6: Viarco Desenho
Day 7: Caran d’Ache Eidelweiss
Day 8: Castell 9000
Day 9: Staedtler Noris
Day 10: Derwent
Day 11: Palomino Forest Choice
Day 12: Field Notes
Day 13: Musgrave Newspaper
Day 14: Musgrave Harvest and Ceres
Day 15: Musgrave Bugle
15/ Week of 6 Apr
I haven’t managed to finish reading anything since mid-March. My concentration is shot, and so I have been drifting through easy books while rewatching TV shows. I’m trying to make a virtue out of my short attention span by concentrating on distracting things.
Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow:
Don’t forget the real business of war is buying and selling. The murdering and violence are self-policing, and can be entrusted to non-professionals. The mass nature of wartime death is useful in many ways. It serves as spectacle, as diversion from the real movements of the War. It provides raw material to be recorded into History, so that children may be taught History as sequences of violence, battle after battle, and be more prepared for the adult world. Best of all, mass death’s a stimulous to just ordinary folks, little fellows, to try ’n’ grab a piece of that Pie while they’re still here to gobble it up. The true war is a celebration of markets.