PDCA

I want to talk about self control, but in a funny way.

It was two years ago that I made the decision to never eat shredded wheat again. Standing at the kitchen sink, bowl and spoon in hand, frantically trying to picture what it was I needed my esophagus to do for me. Was it a contraction and relaxation cycle that was needed? Was it like pinching a straw and pulling your fingers down its length? Or was it just to relax? And what happens when food gets stuck, exactly? The food was below the larynx, but how much internal pressure and friction could my esophagus (mine, in particular) withstand before it gave out in some way? What would that like?

What would it be like to die from shredded wheat? The shredded wheat, besides having a tendency to plug, was abrasive. I was essentially packing a scouring pad down my throat over and over, with a little milk. Was the milk helping? Isn’t Elmer’s glue made from milk? Isn’t that why the cow? And clearly it was causing the wheat to expand. Besides essentially praying, the only tactic I could think of was sipping milk and pacing.

Later, I would wonder why I didn’t try jumping up and down. Landing hard on my heels. 

I knew that high blood pressure causes the arteries to stretch. That stretching causes tearing. Gunk gets caught in those tears, restricting  flow, which causes more stretching, which leads to more tearing, which leads to more gunk getting caught, which ends in blockage and myocardial infarction. Or such is my understanding. Does that happen with the esophagus? 

My problem, I understood, was that I ate shredded wheat too quickly, and I could not rely on myself not to. If I survived this event, I had to altogether stop eating shredded wheat. I had already made this same promise twice before just this week, so this time it had to be real or else. My intuitive grasp of statistics made me certain of it. There is, in the laws of the universe, some probabilistic ratio of near-misses to terminal incidents, and, while one could not call any given roll of the dice based on the previous one, one could make a prediction about a large enough set of rolls.  So my rolling of the shredded wheat dice had to stop. It wasn’t that I was due to die next time, but I had to stop before my continued survival began to appear miraculous. 

I thought about this today while wondering if this would be that day that I die, not from a ruptured esophagus, but from a more banal choking death on pinto beans and Cholula. 

Is it even possible to stop eating pinto beans?

Ends

Cells within cells, interlinked
I want to talk about the paradox of wanting to be finished. And (I want to talk about) the scale of control. And how they relate to one another.

What we can influence
We learn that the alternative to imagining Sisyphus happy is imagining him immobile at the bottom of the slope. How can I say what I want to say? If I don’t aim to write perfect sentences, they will be mediocre. Yet, after struggling with a sentence, I want to admire it. But a writer who falls in love with their sentences is crippled. It is disloyalty to our last decision that allows us to haul the boulder. Each full stop, the boulder crashes down again.

This holds true for everything. So for example suppose you want to be organized. You want to find homes for things and put them there. But struggling to find a home for a thing, and knowing your habit of forgetting that you’ve created a home for a thing, you want to memorialize the event. You perform a small ceremony.

Ah, you say, This goes here. I love that. And now you cannot organize any longer, slave to what was, just a moment before, an improvement on its predecessor.  

Choose your poison. Haul the boulder, or languish at the bottom.

If you try to find a way to secure your position—say, to create a dimple at the top of the slope where the boulder can rest—be sure that have chosen  a popular poison indeed. All genocide and scorched-earth measures are alike in their aim to solve a problem once and for all.

This is what Schellenberg is saying in Evolutionary Religion. The appropriate picture of God, given what we know of the changes in these few millennia alone, and in the context of a deep future impossible to imagine, is sparsely detailed. Our rituals should follow that logic. Aspire without circumscribing. Most of the details might come from what we know Heaven cannot be.

What we can control
So, on the scale of control—it’s not a dichotomy or a trichotomy, but a scale, maybe a spectrum, but that’s pushing it—how do we divide our attention? What is on the dependent variable side, or what is on the independent variable side? Or, with fewer syllables, what is the ration of 0’s to 4’s in our mind’s eye?

Influence / Dependent variable
0
1
2
3
4
Control / independent variable

I had a dream in which the line dividing two cells kept being divided. I woke up tasting mustard.

So with science we add to the list of what is 4. We atheists talk of The God of the Gaps, usually referring gaps in knowledge. But that seems naive. People aren’t so interested in knowledge, but power. We put God in the places we can’t control.

Interlinked
Is it a coincidence that when I want to define what I mean when I say I, I must use the same technique as when I want to describe Heaven—in negatives? I am not my brain, I am not my spinal column, I am not my left foot. Heaven isn’t a place where we can put people in cages for offending us. Etc.

Yes, some people have God Delusions, and some people have Self Delusions, but how many of us just find these metaphors useful?

So wanting to be finished is focusing on the lower side of the scale, where we have less control. But thinking about what it means to be finished is prerequisite to being able to even do the right work.  

I heard once that swimming is used to teach this lesson. Spend most of your time with your head down, looking up to ensure you’re headed in the right direction.

After a coaching session yesterday, I asked the Learner, “On a scale of 1 to 5, where 1 is ‘not at all’ and 5 is ‘very well,’ how well do you understand what I juste described to you.”
He replied: “one.”
I was grateful. How wonderful to have an output metric.

So, we imagine our outcome as vividly as we can. We imagine our methods for achieving them as vividly as we can. So that we can differentiate where we are from where we want to be and so we can become conscious of all of the gaps and questions in our plans. As we fills those gaps and answer those questions, we pave the way.

 

 

Processing

Branching Horrors
Their second professional anxiety dream came from the unsustainability of mopping the back room floor, with its missing baseboards, numerous cardboard boxes, and laminate tiles. Imagine them waking to moving pictures of sudsy waves breaking against the dry wall, soaking into the boxes, seeping in the gaps of the tiles and breaking down the adhesive. 

This disproportionate concern over a convenience store structure bothered them at first. They couldn’t explain it to others. But over time they realized that this was metaphorical thinking. If a large corporation couldn’t figure out the hygiene of mopping, what else? What kind of system are we working in? What of telephone polls, new roads, wastewater treatment? Is anyone thinking it through? Are they even allowed to?

 

Characters

What our heroes aim for
The internet attributes it to Confucius, but I can’t find verify that. Anyway, the sentence is “When a wise man points at the moon, the imbecile examines the finger.” Interpretations vary, but for me this evokes what it’s like to study the mannerisms of a hero such that we are distracted from their guiding principles and purposes.  

I’ve been rereading Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, watching the BBC miniseries, and watching the Smiley’s People BBC miniseries. I notice the impulse to imitate the movements and mannerisms of people that I admire, my attention on those movements and mannerisms, distracted from my aims.

Of course we mirror the mannerisms of people that we respect when we are with them. This is observed. But I’m talking about modeling our behavior after characters. Not even real people. Children do this, and adults aren’t supposed to. What is it that causes adults to continue with it?

The purpose of flaws
Critics seem to love talking about how wonderful are the flaws of a protagonist. The last thing one wants is for their hero to be insufficiently flawed. George Smiley is a modern demigod notable for his flaws. And they aren’t popular flaws for characters to have. He doesn’t drink excessively or cheat on his wife or go into rages. He isn’t a vagabond waiting for a cause. His flaws go the other way. They are timidity, patriotism, and something of an inferiority complex. He berates himself for his weaknesses early in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, listing weakness itself as the worst of them. He has just endured the company of a prying idiot, and he reflects that it wasn’t politeness that motivated him, but weakness. 

This is the kind of confession that we can only make to ourselves, because friends generously deny it. No, they will say, it was kindness.

Smiley isn’t a demigod like Hercules. His strengths don’t pertain to his body, but to his habits. He is more like Odysseus, but less dynamic. He is studious, observant, reflective, and strategic. He has an excellent memory, which could be seen as a characteristic of his body, but there’s a wrinkle: it is implied at least that his memory is a result of his habits. When he listens, he closes his eyes, as if in a trance. He asks questions to understand. He spends much of his time reading and rereading sentences, taking notes, studying them, reading more. The main action scenes of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy have George holed up in Hotel Islay, an “elderly mansion”, seated at a rickety Georgian desk, poring over secret documents.

At my own meager desk, drawing the squares of a process map, he comes to mind, and I feel an affectation creep in. I get over it, of course. I recall what is sustainable. 

 What is sustainable is looking up and seeing an unattainable point, and striving towards it. Always being below that line, so I always have something to do.

George is compared from the beginning to Bill Roach, an overweight child of divorced parents, attending the prep school Thursgood’s, where Jim Prideaux, who teaches there, befriends him. Jim Prideaux is the opposite of George Smiley in that he is physical and adventurous and only adopted intellectual discipline out of necessity, to trim his apparent weakness and improve his role in his partnership with the more analytical Bill Haydon, whom Jim admired.

Better flaws to have
So we like our demigods to have flaws. We like them to want too much. Gilgamesh, Sisyphus, Icarus. 

Since we get to choose them, what flaws should the modern hero have?

Personifying virtue
Clearly humans find personification a useful mental tool. I’ve heard many programmers call the object on the screen that they were discussing “guy”. “This guy grays out until you select a radio button.”

It’s easier to ask, What is George Smiley like? than to ask What is the virtue of dogged investigation? Note that this is precisely what Socrates did not do. He analyzed the virtues themselves. He exposed our illusion of explanatory depth applied to ethics.  Maybe characters are more entertaining.

But the problem for me has always been, unconsciously, I have been looking for a hero to admire, as a person. And when I find one, I adopt parts of their personality that are not essential to what makes them good. Wouldn’t it be easier if we had heroes we could imitate outright? 

Anyone who has read a book about how to write knows that you need to understand the motivation of a character to make them interesting. But doesn’t this formulation get things backwards? It assumes that the role of the writer is to make interesting characters. Why shouldn’t it be to write interestingly about characters struggling to achieve ideals? 

And isn’t assuming too much to say that characters need flaws? They need to be relatable, and flaws are a convenient way to achieve that. But it seems more important that they make mistakes and learn from them.

When Alexandra says to George, “Mother Felicity says that in every ordinary person, there is a part that is God”, he replies, after “uncharacteristic hesitation,” “I have heard it said too.”

We like to attribute personhood to the objects of our admiration. The law with corporations, doters with their cats. To be a person is to be important. The least important of us is called an unperson. George Smiley threatens Counselor Grigoriev and his family with this status in Smiley’s People. They will become unpersons, he warns. 

In Blade Runner 2049, this tendency is highlighted in societal attitudes towards replicants. As the protagonist, KD6-3.7, takes the corridor of LAPD headquarters to receive his baseline, an officer accosts him, hissing “Fuck off, skin-job,” and as he enters his apartment at the end of the day, we see that a neighbor has written  “FUCK OFF SKINNER” in bold on his door. 

So while I was staring at Socrates, I wondered about his hero. He talked about Zeus and other gods. He said that piety was his aim. That’s why he criticized, questioned, and didn’t lie.

But Socrates’s ideal wasn’t personified, was it? If it was, he couldn’t make out the face of it. That’s why the inquiry. 

Aren’t we supposed to worship the god of our hero?

Focusing on the real obstacles
I have a Tiny Habit  of facing a bust of Socrates after I set down my back pack after work. I reflect on what he was trying to achieve, and I feel gratitude for his effort and the effort of those who have continued with his aim by publishing Plato’s writings.

I ask myself what I have done to achieve those same ends. I recall moments in the day where I was not resourceful. I replay those instances differently, with that inadequate behavior replaced with an improved version

 If I recall an instance in which I felt embarrassed but was not obviously deviating from my aim, then I accept it as a sacrifice. In other words, if I feel that my behavior wasn’t well received but I was mindfully making decisions, I will think twice about revising the memory.  I’ll search the day for more obvious sins(1) and address those instead. If everything is important, nothing is. 

One reason that I like Smiley is that he is an anxious person, but, being an agent of espionage, his fears are warranted, and he is always developing countermeasures against their being realized. This is the characteristic of his I admire most. 

It is popular to preach against this practice today. We are told to live in the moment and not prepare for what horrors might come. Mindfulness writers say this. It’s strange. If devising strategies to mitigate undesirable outcomes were bad, then why write an article advocating for or against a given behavior? They should just sit and breathe.

I sometimes wonder if some folks who write about mindfulness are subconsciously aiming to neutralize their audience. Isn’t that always an end of religion, anyway?

Prometheus, known for embodying scientific advancement and its dangers, also embodies forethought

Of course, we need to choose what we plan for. Compulsive reacting won’t help. But in the fields we are knowledgeable in, we should be able to predict and prepare.

So, even though we know we shouldn’t imitate the weaknesses of our heroes, we might do it, anyway. We should try to notice when we do it and correct ourselves.  O → O → D→ A.

(1) The second sentence of the wikipedia article on sin reads
“Sin can also be viewed as any thought or action that endangers the ideal relationship between an individual and God; or as any diversion from the perceived ideal order for human living.”
While this claim lacks a citation, I think it is very accurate and is how I’m using the term. Of course, the Hebrew term hatta’h also applies. The linked article, the author observes that, while the etymology is to miss the mark, as in archery, its actual use in the Torah is “to commit an offense against someone with whom one stands in an institutionalized community relationship.” This definition makes sense, especially if you consider how much of the Hebrew Bible is procedural instruction on how to deal with personal disputes with a fellow Jew. 

→ Σ →

At the office, I have been ramping up my process-mapping behavior.

I have been getting a lot of people involved. I have been sending to the print shop jobs that come out twenty feet long. The analogy I have been using is a machine shop.

We have been standing side by side facing the process maps, pointing and discussing and marking them up. We have been asking what we mean by the words, the order. We ask what happens if you remove a step, or if you perform two in parallel instead of treating one as a predecessor of the other.

In a machine shop, all of the equipment is three-dimensional. The machines are actual machines that you can see and manipulate. But in a well-run machine shop, there will be visual aids, showing pinch points, showing proper operation of the equipment, maybe listing the steps. Even when the operation is more or less obvious, when the input, the method, and the output really matter, there are job aids.

A coworker and I spent several minutes this week trying to figure out how to adjust the back-stop on a three-hole punch.

And yet when you walk through the cubicle farm, it’s just desks and computers. Every process is abstract. The software developer’s desk looks the same as the administrative assistant’s. 

So I have been hanging up process maps on people’s cubicles and discussing their work with them. We have been marking up the maps as we discuss them. Then I update it, print it out again, and hang up the new one. Then we discuss again.

This should be a standard, an absolute minimum. If your people don’t want to draw out their processes, then they shouldn’t be allowed to perform them.

Of course it’s uncomfortable. Of course some people quibble. Breathe through that. Turn every obstacle and objection into a question. Savor every good question. Revise every lousy question, making it a little more adequate, and then attempting to answer it. Use that mediocre but serviceable question as input into the process of producing a better question. Answered questions are process steps. 

There is always an input, a method, and an output. Rely on that.

Of course all of this is futile. The only justifiable job now is shutting the office down in a humane and orderly manner, making way for automation.  Yes, AI is taking over everything. I’m trying to gracefully close the shop, sweeping up behind me, nudging the humans efficiently and gracefully in their progression to obsolescence.

The only legitimate job is moving consciously towards obsolescence. Anyone who tries to keep their job is being subversive and trivial. The only sustainable method to be employed at this point is to constantly try to make yourself unnecessary. If you do that, you might make yourself useful.

We’re all likely die of dehydration, anyway.

As Klinkenborg intimated, wanting to be done is the devil. Breathing through the obstructions, the resistance, the dismal explosions of anxiety, and asking, how do I respond to this? is the only method I can find worth following.

Inquiry is a tricky skill to develop, isn’t it? Often, there are so many shitty questions to sort through before a useful one surfaces. And the utility of even that one deteriorates.

It seems as if we learn the same lessons over and over, but maybe it’s like a spiral, always returning to the same location, but a little higher, or a little lower.

Heraclitus is more relevant than he ever was.

The concept of dukka is more relevant than it ever was. Someone has observed that suffering is quite a poor translation of dukka. More like dissatisfactoriness. Was it Goldstein or Batchelor? Probably.

It’s so pathetic and poetic to say life is suffering. Clearly it isn’t. But dissatisfactory? Yes. That’s how we’re wired. That is the one necessary characteristic of a macroorganism. We want. We want it to start, and we want it to be over with. We want it to speed up or slow down. We want to do it again, or never have to.

I love the term that the Stoics used, impressions. This is so relevant when trying to be mindful. The impressions are so subtle, aren’t they? A caught breath. A snag you don’t even notice anymore, but which nonetheless affects your behavior. We have to notice all of these in order to sand them out, to level our behavior, to continue refining the process.

 

Every Effort is Inadequate, Thank God

Update
This week, I have been productive. Also, last week.

Inquiry is the Prime Virtue
This is also an update on my back in regard to Dr. Sarno’s book Healing Back Pain. My back felt pain after eleven hours at the office. In the mode of Sarno, I asked myself what precisely I was feeling. Was it pain, actually? I started a session to clean the kitchen. Right away, I had an impulse to listen to Meshuggah. Once Meshuggah was playing, I began thrashing about, jumping and hurling my torso to and fro. The pain went away. What I had been feeling was stiffness.

Note that in the past I would have rested on a heating pad for this same symptom.

The template I am using for sessions right now is to turn a sheet of paper landscape, and draw a t across it.

On the front I write If in the top left shoulder of the t, and Then in the top right. Beneath the Then, I write my intended outcome, my expectation, my prediction…whatever–the future–maybe the standard by which I will inspect the outcome–how I’ll know it worked.

For example:

If Then

I do such and such…
Here, if I have a standard process, I name it, otherwise just describe the steps or method I intend to perform.

This is the independent variable. In the dichotomy of control, this is what I can control.

…such and such will be the outcome. I often write this section before writing the If section.

This is the dependent variable. In the dichotomy of control, this is what I can’t. I can only influence it.

Of course, I’m looking for causation.

 

On the back, I write a t, and write Inspect on the top left shoulder of the t, and Reflect on the top write shoulder of it.

For example:

Inspect Reflect
What actually happened. Did I learn anything?

The square denotes a session. This is a standard method, so I don’t consider it an experiment. It’s just a time box with some inquisitiveness to it because I felt demotivated. I had felt very demotivated right before starting it. I was also trying to decide whether to drive to OKC to visit friends. I was lethargic and did not even want to think about that decision.

Stand-up Meetings, working in teams
At work, we have been using Microsoft Teams. It accepts copy-pasted tables from Word very well. For working with people remotely, I have been using a daily standup format like this:

Goal 1 Goal 2 Goal 3

Aim: what is this task in service of, at a high level?  Is there a defined project? Is there a principle you’re attempting to adhere to? This can be a direction, a vision, or a summary task. 

Whatever this is, it’s big and distant.

Aim: Aim:

Objective: what is the desired outcome or output of this task. This is the dependent variable, the thing you can influence but not directly control.

If this is a standard process (say, a meeting), what is the standard by which you judge the output? If this is more experimental, what is your prediction?

Whatever this is, it’s smaller and closer than the Aim, and it is aligned with it.

Objective: Objective:
Method: what will you be doing? This is the independent variable, what you can control, or at least relatively. Is there a standard method, or is this experimental? If it’s an experiment, what, precisely, is the testing procedure? Method: Method:
Inspect: what actually happened? If you used a standard method, did it produce the intended outcome? If this was experimental, what was the result, contrasted with your prediction? Inspect: Inspect:
Reflect: did you learn anything? What does this imply for next steps? If you used a standard method, does it still seem to work fine, or does the output indicate the method needs improved? Reflect: Reflect:

I have been using three priority goals per week, and three priority goals per day. This doesn’t account for all of my work, obviously. It’s just what I choose as the priority and what I choose to report on.

I leave the Reflect field blank sometimes.

Everything is Unsatisfactory
In this cycle of hypomania, what grounds me is to not love any process, any method, any form, any piece of paper, any session, any experience. All anything is worth is its relative effectiveness at aligning our behavior with an aim. 

What is my aim? I don’t want us to go extinct. I don’t want us to use up our fossil fuel before developing adequate renewable energy to run the desalinization units we will need when we drain and contaminate all of the aquifers. I don’t want us to already have created an AI arms race. I don’t want for us to be so stupid as to act as if we can care about and be effective in multiple causes at once, talking about every fucking gossipy social or political concern that crosses our awareness, never mind our imminent extinction. 

So, yes, I enjoyed cleaning my kitchen, but I am able to hold some perspective.

But what is my aim, actually? Something like aligning my efforts with increasing critical thinking and continuous improvement so that people’s individual lives (the microcosm) create, from the ground up, a sustainable system. 

Clearly I don’t know how. But thinking this way takes the edge off the hypomania. I keeps me inquiring – what can I do in regards to us being about to collectively kill ourselves?

So I am looking into changing industries and continuing to make moves towards coaching individuals to be more effective in their daily lives.

The why is what I have had a hard time with, still, but I am not avoiding it now.

The Unconsoled

Kazuo Ishiguro speaks clearly in interviews. The sentences of his novels are clear. The Unconsoled has some sixteen thousand sentences, and none of them need read twice, though some are beautiful and reward a second reading. In his interviews, he states that his motive in writing novels is to evoke a feeling in the reader so that he can then say to them, 
I feel like this sometimes,
and then ask,
do you as well
?

I’ve read The Unconsoled two and a half times. The last time, I could not imagine reading anything else. Before beginning it again, I lay on my living room floor for several nights and  tried to imagine reading other books and could not.

It is composed of 535 pages and 38 chapters, so each chapter is an average of 14 pages. This is a gentleness that more than counterbalances its challenges, the primary of which is its irrationality.

Nothing I will say about the novel is precisely true, but all of it is true in a way.

Each chapter evokes a mood or an emotion, or at least an impression. They are impressionistic. Many critics have emphasized their dreamlike quality, but they don’t wastefully detail unreality. They don’t lay on strangeness. It is more like how in old stories characters go from one dramatic scene to the next. This is according to Northrop Frye in Secular Scripture. I can’t produce examples of it. I say it because Frye is an expert and it seems relevant. 

In The Unconsoled, few sentences are wasted trying to produce a realistic effect, but nor are many used to the opposite end. In other words, Ishiguro seems free of realism and magic realism and absurdism. He just aims for his stated effect: evoking precise feelings in the reader.

That effect is served by having it unclear whether the boy, named Boris (who is the son a woman, Sophie, who seems to be something like Ryder’s wife) is quite his son or is somehow a younger version of himself, perhaps tagging along mentally. And it doesn’t matter for the apparent purposes of the novel. For example, in chapter 15, there are speeches. The first speech, made by the man on the bus, consoling Boris in a manner done many times throughout the book (Ryder does it , Sophie does it, an old school friend does it) doesn’t count. That’s just a lullaby that characters perform for one another, detailing future comfort. Does the lake, known to be used for suicides, set the tone? The speeches in this chapter are indignant, grandiose, self-righteous. Ryder tells off a stranger who is describing domestic abuse to Ryder while Boris is within earshot. A stocky woman tells Ryder to “cut the crap”. Boris and his grandfather Gustav give a dramatic speech to a gang of imaginary thugs, offering them one last chance to disperse, or face the consequences. All of this is leading up to chapter 16, in which a woman whom Ryder had met on a bus expects him to help her put her tormentors to shame by revealing that he, the world-famous pianist, is indeed her childhood friend. 

“I’ll terminate this conversation!” Ryder shouts repeatedly, threatening the describer of domestic abuse. 

Boris addresses the thugs: “We’ve fought you many times. There are even more of you this time , I can see. But you must each of you know in your hearts you cannot win. And this time my Grandfather and I can’t guarantee you some of you won’t get seriously hurt. There’s no sense in this fighting. You must all have had homes once. Mothers and fathers. Perhaps brothers and sisters. I want you to understand what’s happening. These attacks of yours, your continual terrorising of our apartment, this has meant that my mother is crying all the time. She’s always tense and irritable, and this means she often tells me off for no reason. It also means Papa has to go away for long periods, sometimes abroad, which Mother doesn’t like. This is all the result of your terrorising the apartment. Perhaps you’re simply doing it because you’re high-spirited, because you come from broken homes and you know no better. This is why I’m trying to get you to understand what’s really happening, the real effects of your inconsiderate behavior. What it could come to sooner or later is that Papa won’t come back home at all. We might even have to move out of the apartment altogether. This is why I’ve had to bring Grandfather here, away from his important work in charge of a big hotel. We can’t allow you to continue with you’ve been doing. And this is why we’ve been fighting you. Now that I’ve explained things to you, you have a chance to think it all over and go back. If you don’t, then Grandfather and I will have no choice but to fight you again. We’ll do our best to kick you unconscious without doing any long-lasting damage, but in a large fight, even with our level of skill, we can’t guarantee some of you won’t end up with bad bruises, even broken bones. So take your chances and go back.”

In some ways this scene is more lucid than most of the story. 

The radio said: “It’s the rainbow hologram that gives this credit card a marketing intrigue.”

What is superficial?
What is the spiritual significance in the opening chapter of White Noise?  Is it DeLillo’s most visual novel? The musicality of the language works in service of its visual appeal. DeLillo  focuses on lines and color. The scenes pop.

Do the concepts that Northrop Frye develops in Secular Scripture apply to modern novels? 

I type rather than write longhand because I like the way words and letters look when they come off the hammers onto the page–finished, printed, beautifully formed. 

I don’t remember when I first read that, but it took hold of me, and I struggled against it for months. Reading Alan Ryan’s eleven hundred page On Politics, part of my attention was absorbed by the ink on the page. It was just another mode of obsession with the superficial, with the shape of things.

This also happened with Ishiguro’s qualifiers. 

Toby Lichting observes: 

The language his first-person narrators use to sustain this world is necessarily inhibited, hesitant. Artless. Ishiguro is a master of the linguistic hedge, the modifier, the qualifier, the conditional modal and passive tense: “Naturally”, say his characters, when they mean nothing of the sort; “of course”, “that is to say”, “indeed”, “perhaps”, “I would have thought”, “it was to be expected that”. Their behaviour hinges on a disjointed, or out­moded, understanding of the world around them; they are often the last to twig: things that should have been patently obvious for years “suddenly occur” to them. Their inability to express themselves is most acute in dialogue. “How odd” they say when they really mean “I love you” or “You have betrayed me”. At moments of high tension they are most likely to “give a little laugh”.

I fell in love with this style for its politeness. The hedges soften everything, and I sometimes tend toward the overly emphatic, the artificially precise.

Does the chapter serve as a warning, an antidote, a consolation? Since Milton, has the incautious reader risked modeling their behavior just a little after Lucifer the next day at the office, affecting a grandiloquence in an unnecessary email exchange?

I love Cat Power’s albums Dear Sir, Myra Lee, What Would the Community Think, Moon Pix, and You are Free. I like The Greatest.

I dislike Sun, but it has the most beautiful album cover.

How it feels

A friend of mine has started writing vignettes. He told me about them in a recent conversation. I asked to read one, and he agreed. We met at a park between his apartment and mine, beneath a tree, though it was cloudy. He had decided to print it on 5 ½” x 8 ½” sheets of paper, with ½”  margins, in Calibri typeface.  He had elected to laminate them, so that the effect, as I read beneath a sweet gum tree, was of flipping through a stack of photographs, or rather of oversized photographic plates. 

It was particularly windy, and, in one of the gusts, a torrent of spiky sweet gum seeds fell around me, a few striking me. Rain clouds gathered, and the air developed a verdant glow.

I was dismayed. With curious efficiency he had made characters and scenes so evocative that I suspected part of the effect had been caused by his curious printing choices. In my own writing, the characters were burdened with autobiographical detail. 

After I had finished reading the plates of text, I handed them back to him and asked why he had started writing vignettes in this way. He explained that two months prior he had had a dream in which a paler copy of himself was floating a short distance in front of him, the whites of its eyes minutely rippling as if submerged in a shallow pool. He had felt in this dream a hollowness in the air in front of him, which gave walking a curious buoyancy, yet also a slowness. In this way he chased the figure, which eventually floated away, its one hand pocketed, its eyes wide, its blonde hair tossing mutely in the thin atmosphere, its other hand reaching for him.

Waking up the following morning, he had perfect recollection, not only of the images in the dream, but of the feeling of it, which was unlike any he had experienced before. He explained that he wanted to know whether anyone else had also felt that way,  so he tried to write something that would evoke the feeling in the reader, so he could ask them whether it was familiar to them or strange.

I thanked him for the opportunity to read his vignette and told him I had to be getting back. As I covered the few blocks to my apartment, I interrogated myself concerning my own writing decisions. Why did I burden the characters in my stories with my own personality?

Three answers came readily to mind.

The first was that, since I had only ever experienced emotions as myself, I had inferred that I could not describe an emotion with fidelity without putting it in the context of my personality.

Second, watching movies and television throughout my life, I had found it uncomfortable how the characters were so straight forward, as if each were a token for a class of personality. Being prone to self-loathing, I found myself alternately envying one archetype one week and an apparently incompatible one the next. This made their incompatible experiences inaccessible, as if each person had their own pure, vital essence, whereas mine was mercurial and exhausting.

Or, worse, a story that prides itself on defying expectations—a motivational speaker who spends his nights carefully planning suicide, or a behemoth that loves cuddles. Ah yes. People aren’t what they at first seem. I felt that this trick, so ubiquitous and stupid, was somehow evidence that stories produced few fruits. The scarcity made me fearful and, like the slave with but one talent, I chose to hold onto what I had, deploying tiny and simplistic versions of myself  onto the page, hoping that they might at least be evocative in tiny and simple ways.

Third, it seemed that I had somewhere along the way allowed the motivation to evoke in the reader a certain feeling to be outweighed by the motivation to make the reader understand what it felt like to be me, or at least to have lived through particular experiences I had found impactful. 

But here my friend had been so much cleverer. He created strikingly muted characters, characters that hardly existed, and in the way that they did exist, it was primarily through setting and their interactions with one another. In this way the feeling of the story was held out close to the reader.

As I entered the building, my mind wandered to scenes in Charlie Kaufman movies and to some remarks that Kazuo Ishiguro had made about Marcel Proust. It struck me that both of these artists (Kaufman and Proust) had made decisions like my own—they had felt that they had to rely on biographical accuracy in order to achieve emotional accuracy—while Ishiguro had made a decision like the one my friend had made.

In particular I found myself contrasting The Unconsoled with Synecdoche, New York. Both are in a way exhaustive. Both appear to be works of a completist. Yet while The Unconsoled efficiently cycles through frame after frame of experience,  sharing a lifetime with the reader through ingenious metaphorical devices, Synecdoche, New York seems to do something less.  It depicts the construction of an awful, gargantuan movie set by a director who  believes that adding details somehow adds life. Yes, the movie mocks this idea, but it also exaggerates and amplifies it, minimizing its own availability to evoke more than a few contrived and complicated emotions, which, because of their specificity, seem specific to its characters. 

Arriving back at my apartment, I felt queasy, and I had to lie down. My phone vibrated. It was my friend. He had forgotten to ask me: had it—had reading the story—felt that I was looking back over periods of my life? Had it felt like distilled recollections of what it had been like to live through what at the time hadn’t felt like any notable kind of experience but in retrospect did feel like a kind of experience? Had it felt like vistas? 

I told him it had.

customers

Basically we have two methods to survive. We can kill something. Or we can pay someone to kill something for us. In modern society, most of us choose the latter, and so we have capitalism, the religion of outsourcing.

It seems that in preliterate societies, there was a general assumption that everything is real. Then we got clever and thought some things were real and some were stories. Now we know that, while there is likely a reality, it’s inaccessible to us. We interact with it, but all of our perceptions of it are mediated by our own psyches.  We will only ever have second-hand knowledge of reality. We will only ever have stories.

Likely you saw the flaw in my reasoning above.  I said “we” interact with it. But what does that mean? When you say, “I”, do you mean your body? How even could you, if it’s yours? Whose? Your body interacts with reality. Your body is part of reality. But you? Your self?

Some people convincingly argue that the self is an illusion. There is only your body and the phenomena it produces. There are neurochemical phenomena, experiencesthoughts. But where is the you there? And then when you look at matter, you just find more phenomena. Waves in fields, manifesting the illusion of particles. It’s just activity all the way down. It doesn’t exist, it just becomes. But this is just another kind of mistake. While it doesn’t exist, just like stories don’t exist, yet it does exist in the way that stories do also.

So I don’t exist, and you don’t exist. Only processes exist. And you and I exist insofar as we are processes.

So then we have these complex macroorganisms. We kill them and eat them. Or we pay someone to.

Capitalism is the story of how these payments take place. In the 20th century, we started getting some good ideas about this story. Provide the customer value so that they will buy your product instead of someone else’s, as cheaply as possible. Be as honest with yourself as you can be, in service of this aim. Be as empirical as you can be, in service of this aim. In other words, perform experiments and learn. Be as responsive to the apparent demands and vicissitudes of reality as is conducive to providing more value at less cost.

There have been some strange ideas about the customer in the 20th century. Most of the discussion of customers is condescending and trite. We talk about making them happy, pleasing them—delighting them, even. It’s distasteful. In capitalism, every customer has customers. Every process has outputs.
Every output has paying customers, or the process that produces it dies through some variety of predation.

The purpose of a supplier is to understand the value that its customer provides to that customer’s customers. You should be an expert in your customer’s value proposition to its customers. That’s how you can provide it the most value. That is how you will cultivate loyalty. Not by delighting it.

Most discussion of customers in the 20th century is parasitic. This discussion is how we got ourselves into this situation. This unsustainable mess.

Note how I’m using customer here. I mean a customer in a SIPOC. I am not trying to be cute with the word customer. I am not trying to liken all interactions to transactions between a shopkeeper and a patron. But typically if a microorganism is expending calories engaged in a process, it is doing so with some expectation of a return, and that return is rarely monetary. Think of the processes that you perform daily. How many of them result directly in remuneration?

Many of them result in a surge in dopamine, which is a kind of promissory from the universe saying, “If you do more of that type of behavior, you may increase your likelihood of procreating.”

The old model is, understand your business, and sell a product to a customer. A better model is, understand your customer’s business, and sell them a product or service that enables them to provide more value to their customers.

That’s virtue. Everything else is a variety of predation.