The larger world

1.

How did Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters come about? In other words: how could it be possible even? That’s what I wonder, even though these kinds of inquiries are not my habit. This is maybe the only movie that seems too close to be true. He admires the bar for its rectangularity. Other than wandering with OKC with Brit, I’ve never heard someone express such a familiar appreciation for the way a building occupies space. He engages in long-distance swimming. Tim Ferriss observes that over 80% of his high-achieving interviewees engage in some kind of meditative practice daily. 

Less than one minute in, he tells us: “The whole process of making art
is an act of faith, in a way.  This idea that you’re gonna will something
into existence that means something to the larger world.”

David Foster Wallace and Gregory Crewdson were both inspired by
David Lynch’s film Blue Velvet. Wallace called Blue Velvet an epiphanic experience.  In Blue Velvet, Sandy Williams’s room is “Right above [her] father’s office.” In Brief Encounters, Crewdson describes listening, his “ear to the wall.” 

When Jeffrey Beaumont lays out his plan, what kind of friends are he and Sandy? They are sitting at the diner. Is their friendship one of Pleasure?
Utility? Or the Good? Jeffrey makes a somewhat philosophical argument:

There are opportunities in life for gaining knowledge
and experience. Sometimes, it’s necessary to take a risk.

Why isn’t he too scared? Is it courage? Is he a bad person?
No, he’s desperate to understand something.
About the world? 
No, about the world of his childhood. Just like Crewdson.

In 1997, Isabella Rossellini played Pallas Athena in a mini-series aired on NBC, May 18th. Of course Jeffrey is a very straightforward hero. He excavates and slays the beast.

What does one call those colonial houses, with the siding? Two stories, lining the streets of Dover. Back from some family trip, usually to visit family, my family back inside, in the kitchen and elsewhere, I sat in the car and listened to the engine cool, watched the signs of the fall. Pictured my family inside. My mom in the orange  incandescent light. The scene at thirty-one minutes makes my stomach ache.

2.

Edith Hamilton wrote Mythology, explaining that the Greeks put the gods in human form, drew humans in detail for the first time, and called them gods.

3.

Next month, December, I will fly into Logan Airport for business
at Cambridge, then drive down to Delaware, to see my mom and family.  I’ve watched this documentary three times and I am, each time,
astonished. Jeffrey says,

I’m seeing something that was always hidden.

Edith Hamilton calls Ovid out for impiety. He’s too playful. If Lynch is Virgil, is Tarantino Ovid? When Ben sings In Dreams at Pussy Heaven, Lynch is not Ovid, but Homer, singing hymns. It’s not ironic. It’s ceremony, ritual. Ben is donning Hercules’ Nemean lion pelt and playing the role. I asked a friend about her conscience, and she said that it’s a voice created by authority figures throughout her life. How strange. 

Inquiry, reasoning, and experimentation, each, are exploratory behaviors

What are these days where I can only stomach questions?  In other words, what causes them? I find myself asking these questions in a level pitch, without the elevation that marks inquiry. What effect does that have? Question after question in the melody of an incantation, what am I wandering off towards, what distant terrain?

Inquiry, reasoning, and experimentation—each, are exploratory behaviors.

I was talking with a friend. We were close together, my hand on her waist.  What is that wonderful feeling? How can skin feel that way? I asked her how. She told me, “I dry-brush.”

Alone again, miles away. I imagine some experiment.

Prediction
If I work for one half-hour, this anxiety will wane.

Result
I don’t know, but now it’s mixed with something else. Some grim pride and affinity for the world.

Conclusion
It’s better to work through it?

Yes. Scale of one to five. 
Five being terrified, envisioning myself being stabbed or beaten, lacerated; one being tranquility. 

In the chase over shadowy mountains and wind-swept peaks she delights,

And what was the effect of placing that there? And what was my intention? Why do I have to go through so many iterations? I don’t mind the first question being wrong, but the eleventh is worse. But we learn. We inquire further.

I mean, five. Obviously. If you use that scale.

Sisyphus

Paul wrote to the Corinthians. Epistolary literature. Are we in Corinth? Camus wrote to us.

Heck, track 2

Lonesome

This track is about whale song. It opens and begins with them. The guitar is so rich. A spare but driving bass drum. Keyboards walking amiably along with chosen lyrics. Electric guitar recalling, for me, Lyle Lovett. From the first track, spare and elemental, this track is symphonic. 

Lonesome—
Lonesome—

Always lonesome—
I have heard your lonesome song.

Round the fire, come throw your hands up;
dance with us till we can stand no more.

Though the rain crash down 
around us,

and the gale blow out the sun,
sister, when you’re feeling lonesome,

call my name—
I’ll sing along.

So the road you travel’s wanderin’,
So your worries win you nothin’,

Tell me ’bout your troubles, darlin’,
hold a mirror to the setting sun.

Though these days of joy and sorrow
wear us out—

summer dress!—
brother, when you’re feelin’ lonesome,

call my name,
I’ve got a shoulder

where you can rest.

Lonesome, lonesome—
Sister, when you’re feeling lonesome—

Call my name!
I heard your song.

Call my name:
I will sing along.

The opening electric guitar makes me think of the 90’s.

There is a delightful and mournful xylophone(?) during “though these days of joy and sorrow…”

After the second invitation to a shoulder, the guitar gets so close and strong. With headphones on, it is almost overwhelming. There is actually a rising throughout , then a drop…followed by two final, lonesome whale songs. 

 

Heck, track 1

I pause my Meshuggah playlist to listen again to track 1. I’m not a music writer, but I like this album, the musician, and writing, so it seems like a good use of my time to think about all three at once. 

I don’t know how to write about music, but I do know that writing down descriptions and facts is something people do. And maybe they should. I know that I should.

Finding multiple references to a person increases our reason for  positing that they existed, or were a popular mythic figure. 

So I’ll write about the tracks of the album Heck, by my friend Michael Huff.

No News

Clean strumming guitar. Bass and treble distinct. I recall the advice of Ted Kooser, or the gist, anyway: Don’t qualify a noun with an adjective when the picture that will most likely come to the reader’s mind is right without it. Only use adjectives to tell the reader to imagine something else.

Michael’s treble notes sparkle like icicles. The bass notes are dulcet. 

(It starts off jangly and rumbly. The vocals sweet and matter of fact, as if he were reading a personals ad. “Looking for you” rises and tapers for an instant.)

“someone worth imitating
looking for you”

(Then the notes descend, then level.)

I’ve got no news.
I got new shoes.

(As if prompted by the recollection of his new footwear, he begins walking. Bursts of staccato. Pause after each word. Each word played with a single note of the guitar.)

When I have something to to say,
It’s said,
And then I listen back.

(Return the rolling notes of the guitar.)

Someone worth not imitating,
Looking for you.

(Recall that Elmo also waxed poetic about his new shoes. This time, after “I’ve got no news”, the guitar hits a high, sad, quizzical note. And “I got new shoes” is more resigned.)

I’ve got no news.
I got new shoes.

(Here there’s a repetition of the mode used first the time, but this time it, is it more resolute?)

When I have something to say,
It’s said,
And then I listen back. 

I like this song partly because it’s procedural. I like the way “I’ve got no news” qualifies “I got new shoes.” I like the way “I got new shoes” uses the doing verb “got” rather than be verb phrase “have got.” I imagine the act. The procedure of trying them on. But, still, he hasn’t any news.

Is this absence of news in regard to what he’s looking for? (Someone to imitate, to not imitate.)

Is he walking more? With whom is he talking?

The subtle diminution of agency in “It’s said.” He is not forbearing such that he walks through it step by step. Know a thing is to be said. Deciding to say it. It’s not that cumbersome. As he knows something is there to be said, so it comes out.

And then he listens back. Listens back. To hear what is produced.

The Simple Present

1.

The burnt cheese clung fast to the bolt heads that secured the pan to its handle. To spare the integrity of the sponge, he employed his thumbnail in separating the charred glue from the slick black pan. Still, some must have gotten stuck between the panhead bolts and the nonstick surface. He must have pushed it farther and farther in, until it formed a ring around the bolt shaft. The surface tension of the water would keep it from flushing it out, unless he were to soak it. Imagine steaming it, or a high-pressure stream. It didn’t matter, was too little to matter. The pan would do its business on its own. The heat would sterilize it. If he were to try to scrape out the gunk with a razor, he would damage the pan, defeat the integrity of the surface.
      The lights glowed a clean white overhead. He ran his tongue over the faces of his front teeth.
      “What do I do with these?” he mumbled, folding in half and laying out four ziplock bags, one halfway overlapping the halved other. He let the question do its quieting work, break up the condensing buzz of unvoiced doubt. Breathed lightly through the nostrils. Turned his attention back to scrubbing the countertop.
      
“I feel so happy,” he said.
      This was the procedure.
      Nature abhors a vacuum? 
      Does it, though? Or does it love it more than anything? Can’t leave it alone for a second?

The aim was to produce more verbal thoughts, not fewer. The aim, the immediate aim, wasn’t to produce less thinking. Call that thinking? A vague, semiconscious stream of half-seen images and half-felt impressions? And commercials are flash fiction.

He met his friend at a fair. She had a booth, selling soap. Wanting to tell her something about himself, he said, “I’ve been writing, sort of.”
      “Yeah? What about? Just random stuff?”
      Wanting to be funny, he replied, “I’m sorry, have we met?”
      She sort of laughed.

He started taping Standards up on the wall, surrounding himself with them. Because how do you know when an area is clean? He took a photo of the area in question and emailed it to himself, then opened the file on his laptop. Then, sitting in his chair, he held it, screen flat against his lap, a sheet of paper on the screen. He traced the relevant lines and planes.
      It always took several drafts. But each was a little better than before, usually. And they gave him something to look at, to reference. Something to answer to.

Because rules were otherwise impossible not to argue with, he set them for halves of hours at a time. Each an experiment. Each set free from at the end of each session with it.

Some proved so salutary, he set them more or less in stone. They could always be argued with, but only out loud. Never in quiet anxiety.

2.

They had met online. Had liked one another instantly, moved in together more or less instantly. Wondered if this had been a mistake, more or less, instantly.
      But they both powered through, in their own ways, mostly without the other  knowing the extent of it. She taught him to face discomfort foursquare. They developed a talent for holding brutal, precise conversations. 
      He described in detail what he disliked about her. She somehow reciprocated without it quite feeling that way. Or maybe she hadn’t. It couldn’t have mattered after what he had said.
      But things got better, then kept on getting better, for the only reason things ever actually get better. 
      Things got so good it didn’t make sense. But, having been present for it the whole time, they knew precisely where they were. The disorientation they sometimes felt was what comes from contrasting two abstractions against one another, or reading a book while riding in the car. Whenever they looked around, they knew where they were and that it was a real place.

3.

He moved away out of what must have been necessity. Otherwise, why would he have?

The Problem of Genre

If a plague carried off the members of a society all at once, it is obvious that the group would be permanently done for. Yet the death of each of its constituent members is as certain as if an epidemic took them all at once. But the graded difference in age, the fact that some are born as some die, makes possible through transmission of ideas and practices the constant reweaving of the social fabric. Yet this renewal is not automatic. Unless pains are taken to see that genuine and thorough transmission takes place, the most civilized group will relapse into barbarism and then into savagery. In fact, the human young are so immature that if they were left to themselves without the guidance and succor of others, they could not acquire the rudimentary abilities necessary for physical existence. The young of human beings compare so poorly in original efficiency with the young of many of the lower animals, that even the powers needed for physical sustentation have to be acquired under tuition. How much more, then, is this the case with respect to all the technological, artistic, scientific, and moral achievements of humanity!

The Collected Works of John Dewey: The Complete Works 

To summarize all of the essays I’ve placed here up to this one: I’m confused by genres. Maybe it’s my tendency to think in spectra instead of delineated categories.  Law, scripture, and fiction all appear to exist on a gamut to me. Which is fine. But maybe I haven’t properly understood the distances. Where we can, for our purposes, draw boundaries.  

In Candor and PerversionRoger Shattuck’s eighth thesis asks us,

In order to affirm literature in its full humanist sense, let us eschew the freestanding text. Its indiscriminate use today provides evidence of deadening stylistic conformity. Rather, let us take advantage of the full range of terms like book, work, poem, play, novel, essay, passage, chapter, and the like. There is no need to modify serviceable expressions like “the text of” a work, and “sacred texts.” But let us refrain from endorsing, indirectly and inadvertently, the doctrine of textuality by chanting “text” in every other line of what we say and write.

Shattuck and Camille Paglia diagnose a problem with US culture to be a failure to do what Dewey describes above. I have a friend who studies eighteenth century English novels. He knows a lot about the development of epistolary novels. He can tell you about Clarissa. But sometimes talking with him about literature, I feel very sad. He has the expertise of the specialist, but he doesn’t seem to care about the cultural significance of myth and ritual.

Isn’t it interesting how a document can affect someone’s behavior? I think that is fundamentally what compels me, and I think it’s because of something missing in my development. I’m looking for some standards. So I look at law, at procedures, at scripture. I look periodically at fiction, but I usually find that wanting. I’m rereading Klinkenborg’s novel Timothy. I’m in love with it at the moment.

For Michael

Did you know that US Supreme Court Justices give frequent interviews? Interviewers (journalists, mostly) often introduce an interview by informing the audience that Justices are famously reluctant to grant interviews. Why? I don’t know. It suits them? Adds to the prestige? As if they were granted an audience with an angel. We do call them Justices. Isn’t that strange? Doesn’t it sound celestial? While the term Judge is evocative and has the same root, it isn’t lofty the way Justice is. Judge is also a verb; Justice is also a Goddess. And if you consider this verb in its full sense, it also is wonderfully descriptive, but Justice is a Platonic ideal. You can judge the quality of borscht. Justice looks only over society. But if we follow this line of thought too far it feels cheaper. Poultry versus chicken; beef versus cow. 

Antonin Scalia gave plenty of interviews. One of his favorite topics was what Justices do not do. They don’t philosophize. They don’t navel gaze or ask deep questions about life. They don’t have constituents to consult or represent.  They do read law, and they strive to apply a set of principles to the practices of interpretation and application. That practice would sound more sober if it were singular, but it applies to both -ions. 

Angel has come to have a strange flavor, hasn’t it? Robert Price and others argue that the existence of angels in Judaism and Christianity is, in some ways, a concession to polytheism. The old gods got let back in through angelology. To me, because of childhood memories, the word angels brings to mind kitsch

Scalia was vocal that Justices should not seek to apply the spirit of the law. One reason being that bills are not adopted by individuals but by congress, and the wording of the bills is usually crafted carefully so that they will be voted in favor of, not to voice the intentions of any one person or group. They are full of compromises, and those compromises exist in the sentences written. So to imagine what the authors hoped would be the ultimate outcome is to misunderstand the genre of statute. Maybe you can do that with poetry, but not law. There is no spirit to consult. Isn’t that lonely?

Scalia, religious, has the difference between the genres of scripture and statute firmly in mind, whereas Breyer and others treat the former more like the latter, a living document that does or should embody the saecular (thinking again of roots) spirit of the polis. 

Yet there are various ways in which Justices can glean the intent of the law. One must be familiar with related laws and decisions. A popular principles of jurisprudence is stare decisisstand by previous decisions. English Common Law was built by stare decisis, through Judges trying to make the outcomes of trials more rather than less predictable, by following rather than constantly deviating from existing judicial reasoning. And as for gathering insight into what the lawmakers intended, besides reading the text, Justices have few alternatives to looking at how the law was actually applied at the time that it was adopted. In other words, looking at what it appears to have meant to them at the time.  Scalia gives the example of cruel and unusual punishment. He argues that we know the legislators did not think they were abolishing capital punishment when they ratified the Bill of Rights because “when the cruel and unusual punishments clause was adopted, the death penalty was the only penalty for a felony.” It doesn’t, in other words, matter what a poll would show to be citizens’ take on the meaning of the phrase cruel and unusual today.

A friend once related to me that Justice Thomas had purportedly been consulting a dictionary. (This friend had ambitions to be a lawyer at the time. She thought it showed his lack qualification. To think that a dictionary would have any bearing on the interpretation of a statute!) Others have made this criticism. I think it’s a strange complaint.  Legislators (or the people actually doing the writing) are not writing in Python. The legislators who vote aren’t reading in Python. While there are terms of art, there aren’t only those. It’s not as if they had a glossary on hand when the yeas and nays were being counted. By ridiculing the use of a lexical, it’s as if we’re asking the legislators to read using only context clues. Sometimes you need to check and see that the meaning of a word is what you think it is, amirite? He hadn’t, by the way, been reading a current dictionary, but one contemporaneous with the adoption of the Constitution. It was the Commerce Clause in question. (Recall that the meaning of the phrase well-regulated has been notoriously problematic.) Our language is well-regulated in one sense but not in the other. 

But isn’t this a lovely phrase from Learned Hand (quote from the above-linked article):

“It is one of the surest indexes of a mature and developed jurisprudence not to make a fortress out of the dictionary,” Judge Hand wrote in a 1945 decision, “but to remember that statutes always have some purpose or object to accomplish, whose sympathetic and imaginative discovery is the surest guide to their meaning.”

The mundane is transcendent

In this essay I don’t provide context for my assertions. That is provided in my essays on Peterson and Rother.

Spirituality is an intuitive substitute for the ambition to improve the world tangibly. It’s like depression. It keeps us from getting killed by going back and challenging the alpha too soon. We know, somehow, that we have to aim very high, to be roused, and to provide context to our mundane efforts. Mediocrity isn’t motivating.

The patterns that Peterson illustrates in Maps of Meaning are essentially the same, minus important details, as Rother’s Improvement Kata illustration. Peterson’s illustrate the structure of our most enduring religious myths. They are abstract and spiritual. Rother’s is the meta-pattern that guides the lower-level patterns. It is pragmatic, a training tool, a pragmatic ritual. It is an infinitely scalable pattern. It rouses and provides context.

From Maps of Meaning, one of many illustrations of the ascent from the unbearable present towards an ideal vision of the future, iteratively. 

 

Rother’s Improvement Kata, his model that makes explicit what he inferred to be happening organically at Toyota. 

These models are vital. We need them. 

“The world is too complex to be represented and acted upon without radical functional simplification.”

I’ve been working this pattern with five Learners for two weeks. Each session, I ask them the coaching questions. 

Spirituality aligns one’s actions with a transcendent objective. Heaven and hell are intuitive concepts. Yuval Noah Harari observes that spirituality is trailblazing. It is the elements of religion without the rules, without the precedent. It’s exploratory.

Harari defines religion this way:

Religion is anything that confers superhuman legitimacy on human social structures. It legitimises human norms and values by arguing that they reflect superhuman laws.

In spirituality, you are working without the norms, in some way. Obviously, you are operating inside some set of norms, insofar as you must or are inclined to.

Persisting in spirituality (exploring) without striving to orient to both a zenith and a nadir primes the mind for hedonism and ennui or worse. Attaining a goal for which you have strived is depressing unless that goal is only a milestone.

If survival isn’t a challenge, then we can be hedonistic. If we’ve learned better than that, we can be spiritual or religious. If we’re disillusioned, we can revert back to some variety of hedonism. If we continue beyond our disillusionment, we can set unattainable mundane direction, and challenges that force us to change our minds.

The intuitive understanding is important and has to come first. Steps don’t get skipped only delayed. But to stop at the step of spirituality without developing a vision and a plan to move towards the ideal in this life is a to misunderstand the path. We encourage each step along the path so that we can continue making steps. 

So it’s tricky. We have to be empirical and objective and follow nature on our path. Our path must be terrestrial. But it must lead to heaven, which also must be terrestrial. And if we cause violence, we’ve set our fate. We’ve ruined everything.

Complacency is deceptive. It seems bad but is much worse. No one is harmless. This is the basis for Maps of Meaning. Peterson is known for talking about how to live a meaningful life, but his impetus for his research was to understand why people commit atrocities. You can’t understand one without understanding the other. 

Stoic philosophy emphasizes virtue ethics. Virtue ethics is pragmatic because one’s virtue is one’s destiny. When we talk about virtue, we are talking about the characteristics of the agent. We’re talking about habits and habit formation—myelination of the axon.  

So while a Stoic would advocate focusing on what you can control and detaching yourself from the outcome, in Rother’s method, the application of the scientific method to daily activities, we use the Deming Cycle: 

  • plan and make a prediction, focusing on what you can control,
  • execute your plan faithfully (do),
  • study the results,
  • reflect on the meaning of those results and attempt to draw conclusions, or rather, material for a revised theory and a new prediction, on which you act, and
  • formulate a new plan again.

It’s not the essayification of everything. It’s continual experimentation. It isn’t revelatory, either. Or reading about it isn’t. You already know about it. It’s been embedded in our culture for thousands of years.

If we understand Buddhism, Stoicism, and Pragmatism in our bones, then we’ll understand that religion and spirituality are stepping stones. Not bad, just inferior.

The Ionian philosophers were using pure reason, were essayifying everything. The next step is to develop an experiment. Document everything. And experiment again.

But what happened with Buddhism is happening with science. The call to study what is in order to learn what can be is giving way to dogmatism. Research is being preached instead of questioned and demonstrated. 

A trap that I see my peers fall in is to treat published papers like scripture, to overestimate the value of others’ research as it pertains to them. There is no substitute for direct experimentation. And our experimentation should emulate the quality of those that pass peer review, but, failing that, we shouldn’t fail to experiment. Instead, the poorer the quality of the experiment, the more modest our conclusion should be. Which is fine. Even a very good experiment on only yourself may only tell you about yourself. That’s an admirable start.

If we design the experiment to our utmost, then our job is to identify the  limitations of what conclusions we can draw from it. Then perform another experiment.

Worshipping published research is maybe better than worshipping an idol, but maybe worse than worshipping an imaginary character who lives in and knows your heart and always gives you heaven-sent advice. The imagined personal savior is at least abstract and amorphous. It can grow with you. The meaning of research can only grow and expand with additional research. We can’t shirk our own flawed experiments.

The method for detaching yourself from the outcome is to treat all efforts to achieve an aim as an experiment. Every time you do an experiment, make a prediction (a description and a metric), execute faithfully, and gather the results. Study the results. Day dream. What did you learn. Be parsimonious. What did you learn? Be ruthless. What did you learn? Are you sure?

Use those results in the planning and prediction phase of your next experiment.

Imagine if prayer were replaced with meditation, and meditation on the breath were supplemented with meditation on the results of the last experiment and what the next experiment should be. Instead of attachment to outcomes, holding fast to this iterative process.

A Buddhist would have you detach yourself from all outcomes, actually stop outcomes. That’s the goal.

Outsourcing our experiments to others is unethical, because it deprives our soul of direct experience. 

“As long as our brain is a mystery, the universe, the reflection of the structure of the brain, will also be a mystery.”

Santiago Ramón y Cajal