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.

The attraction of what is strange

Explaining things
So the series of vignettes I’ve been writing about my history of developing the (let’s call it) dexterity of my non-dominant hand is even more depressing than I anticipated. I think it’s because I like making arguments, not implications. A story implies too much. Or, I like making implications, and inserting small stories inside of my arguments, but I don’t like making arguments inside of stories. I don’t like explanations in stories, but I do like stories in explanations.

Likely now that I’ve said that I’ll feel differently about it.

Discomfort
I heard David Sedaris read once about how he loved living in France because the language was difficult for him, and I could relate. This is clearly one reason for using my left hand. It’s as if, instead of choosing some challenging goal using my native hand (or tongue) I will do mediocre things with a foreign hand. 

Hero Worship
Another reason is that I have always felt that, for life to be good, I would have to very fundamentally change who I was. For most of my life, I did not see my challenge as one of degrees, of continuous improvement. I saw it necessarily as radical transformation. 

I have also throughout my life experienced electrical storms in my head, as if the voltage got wonky. Someone will speak, and suddenly I’m not just listening—I am tracing their words with a needle that’s located somewhere between my ear and my uvula. Or I will have a thought, and my whole body incorporates it, and I have to grind my teeth and speak nonsense for a minute to calm my head. Or I will feel as if in front of me is a low pressure zone, and behind me is a high pressure zone, and my thoughts extend out in front of me, pulling me forward.  I have experienced that while watching people perform acts with dexterity, especially when doing so sinistrally. People talk about a “tingle down the spine.” Tingle isn’t the word.

Sometimes this feeling has gone wrong, and instead of my thoughts pulling me forward through pressure differential, they form an inflexible plank, extending forward from my face, and I am unwieldy maneuvering because of this ballast. Why I must have such a figurative conception of planning I don’t know.

But anyway, seeing someone that I admire doing something so fundamentally different from the way I do it has given the politburo of my mind ammunition for dictating that the workers be left-handed.

Similarly, it sometimes seems to me that I don’t experience affection in a normal way, instead experiencing primarily envy or disgust.

Mindfulness
Still another reason is the mental concentration, and the experience of rapid development. Maybe some Dunning-Kruger. In trivial tasks, you can double your dexterity with your non-dominant hand, while the same level of practice might produce diminishing returns for the right.

And there are a lot of ways to focus. On the physical movement (the grip, the movement of the shoulder, the elbow, the wrist, the joints of the fingers), the mental model of the movement (the way the shape of a letter feels), the mental picture of a letter, trying to trace that mental picture, or simply focusing on what the tip of the pen is doing and connecting that with what your arm is doing, and relating the two. You can be an instant in the past, an instant in the future, or somehow right in between. And over time the consciousness of using the wrong hand is replaced with a feeling of pure intention, of willing a letter, a word, a sentence to be formed. 

Side-effect
And other phenomena seem to go on. Imagination seems to improve. Verbosity drops off. You find yourself thinking about square roots. 

Practice
One thing I have learned over the past few weeks is something about practice. While I have practiced on and off at this for years, it has always been with a blend of confused intentions, and always mired by very messy self-doubt. And always for surprisingly short bursts. Years of daydreaming, and maybe two weeks of sporadic practice.

This time, I accepted but didn’t dwell on the anxiety. Instead, I set some straightforward goals and rules. Practice twice per day. Don’t worry about which hand you use in daily activity. Don’t try to change anything about yourself. Just practice. Focus on objective skills: writing a sentence smoothly, consistently, shaping the letters the way that you intend to, each sentence similar to the one above it. Focus on finding a grip that is comfortable and non-fatiguing. Do this and nothing else. Breathe through the rest.

When you find a shape that’s hard to form, form it over and over. Don’t have anything distracting going on. No video or music or erratic thoughts. Focus the beam of your attention over and over and over so over time it distills your awareness into a concentration. 

That’s how you myelinate the axon sheaths.

Lean
I haven’t been having coffee for a few weeks, and hardly any any processed food for a little over a week. Mostly vegetables, meat, yogurt, and milk. I think I’m not getting enough calories and feel a bit tired. But also I feel less protected from my thoughts. My mental arousal seems more closely connected to the clarity of my intention in any given moment. I can go from feeling tired to very engaged just be visualizing a desired outcome, as if, without the stimulants of caffeine and simple carbohydrates, the accelerator has become more sensitive.

 I am rereading Karen Martin’s book Value Stream Mapping. I am in the thick of a lot of process design and improvement at work, but that’s difficult to talk about.

Death, etc.

Torah
I have an A5 sheet of paper that I keep in my breast pocket. It reminds me what to do when my executive function fails. 

Begats
After work today, I called my grandfather. I call him Pop. He’s 83. We talked about the Korean War, working life, my Dad’s health problems, and, briefly, death.

Death
A close friend calls me about death and whatnot. I bite my tongue, literally, talking about the pros and cons of overdosing, while eating a hamburger. It hurts but I’m drunk, and tongue and teeth are really just asking for it, so close together.

Steely Dan
You do his nine to five
Drag yourself home half alive
And there on the screen
A man with a dream.

Pragmatism
Naturally, I feel shame for producing some affectation regarding habits and rituals. And so on. The afterlife is abstract, along with a soul, god, so on. And so we (wouldn’t we?) want to find out how important this life is. If what others regarded as being somehow higher is abstract, wouldn’t we want to find out what those numinous feelings are for? Anyway, you can’t argue intelligently with any of that. Some posture or another. 

Continuous Improvement
I am coaching. Experimenting, documenting those experiments. Teaching, sending surveys, getting feedback, making adjustments. Past, present, future. As you do. Improving habits. 

Dopamine

David Foster Wallace wincing between statements in discussion with Charlie Rose.  What was he wanting? For people to think he’s smart?

You call tell that by the look on my face?

Motivational salience. There’s a term that you can picture. Somewhere about as good as valence. You can see the electron in the outer shell. The valence of an object is dependent on your context. 

Some shattering fawn, etc. Or something similar that seems to know what you were getting at, without being there.

Socrates’s dialogue with Ion, who is, not skilled, but divine. A general instructs others. It’s maybe not as easy a skill to judge as that of the charioteer? Is it easy to assess the efficacy of a doctor? 

What is the name—John Ashbery. Quick question. Doesn’t he remind you of—not the philosopher—Francis Bacon? What is it about him?

You imagine Stephen strolling along a Dublin street—epiphany!

You read and you channel, then. That’s what he was saying. It’s a spirit, an intoxication. You act in accord with another, who acts in accord with another. Massimo Pigliucci asks Epictetus a question.

You are acting with the intelligence of another, as they have transmitted it. It’s a start, anyway. Inferior to informed empiricism. But why did Santiago Ramón y  Cajal write Advice to a Young Investigator? It isn’t instructions for how to set up a lab experiment. Or is it? McGonigal says, “I think everyone needs to treat themselves like they are their own science experiment.”

Socrates, why do you think Ion treated the General differently from the Doctor, the Charioteer, the Sailor?

Anxiety or Conscience?

I’ve gone on a lot of tangents on this blog, looking for similarities between the sacred and the secular. In my mind, I’ve drawn two columns.

Religious Practice Analogous Secular Practice
Prayer Self-talk¹
Imagining the personality of God Imagining what is above and greater than the self
Reading scripture Careful reading of any text that is written with care for the benefit of the reader
Catechism FAQ
Asking God for guidance Asking the unconscious mind for guidance
Picturing heaven after death Picturing continuous improvement
Picturing hell after death Picturing hell before death

The compelling analog for this week is: anxiety = conscience.

This week I’ve been engaged in this experiment: what if I listen more closely to my “anxiety”, and what if I treat it as if it were my conscience? In other words, it is always information, or at least data, and my job is to interpret it.

Clearly we all do this. It’s how we survive. But, at some point, based on unconscious assumptions and cultural norms, we think we’re feeling too much. We think it’s unreasonable, a distraction. But are you sure? This week, I’ve been acting under the assumption that if it feels uncomfortable, it’s just my failure to interpret it and act on it adequately

I picture a Quaker sometimes when I think this way, and I know from experience to note that picture and add to it, to make more visual correlations so that when that picture fades and loses its power, as it inevitably does, my connection with the thought doesn’t follow.

Of course, acting as if anxiety is OK and deliberately letting go of aversion to it is counterintuitive in part because I assume that the aversion itself is part of how the brain makes the mind understand. If anxiety isn’t bad, will I be inadequately motivated to act in ways that minimize it? Reading Anders Ericsson’s book Peak brings this concern to the forefront. The discomfort of not being able to perform a specific task in a skillset that we are deliberately practicing is part of the process by which our brain rewires itself so that we can perform the task. But if we become too comfortable with this discomfort, does that interrupt the process? In Buddhism we are often, it seems, encouraged to just accept and sit with the discomfort. As I’ve talked about a lot, this troubles me for a few reasons. This is one. And that discomfort, I can describe this way: how to deal with anxiety has to be a central aim to religion. If a religious practice doesn’t alleviate anxiety, then who will practice it? And, as Viktor Frankl observes, a very effective way of making suffering tolerable is to put it in the context of a meaningful story. The Nietzschean How/Why quote. 

So, is conscience just more meaningful a concept than anxiety? Isn’t saying you’re anxious an easier out than saying your conscience is troubling you?

¹A friend observes that I should put meditation as the counterpart here. Which is interesting. In Zen meditation a question is often employed. But isn’t it a koan? A koan is paradoxical. It shows you the inadequacy of your reasoning. (Does that remind you of something? The paradox of the following the law: the wages of sin are death, and yet. The epiphany of vicarious atonement.) Also, recall the three pillars, great faith, great doubt, great determination. In the doubt, there is boundless inquiry. Or something. 

But I am thinking more of prayer as a dialogue between the self and the conscience. This is also the dialogue of a story.

What else, what else. In the Buddhist practice, you are setting up a story, clearly. The story of you and all the beings reaching enlightenment. So these are the two I keep coming back to. “Dropping the story” and controlling the story. But sometimes it strikes me that when we ask our conscience a question, the listening we do isn’t auditory. That seems obvious, doesn’t it? But for years I was literally listening.

Problems vs. Obstacles

This essay expands on the ideas introduced in its predecessor.

Per Rother,  a Target Condition is a combination of a “desired outcome” and the “desired operating attributes that achieve that outcome.” “A Target Condition includes both of these elements and is therefore more than just an outcome goal.”

The Learner moves from their Current Condition (their current outcomes, and their current operating attributes) to the Target Condition by identifying and overcoming Obstacles, using PDCA cycles.

How is an Obstacle different from a Problem?

http://www-personal.umich.edu/~mrother/Handbook/TC.pdf

You problem-solve special cause variation. You do process improvement on common cause variation. If you are simply trying to achieve an outcome one time, then all you are worried about are problems. A door is closed, you open it. The door is locked, you bust it down. The door is made of steel, you get some explosives. Common cause and special cause variation only pertain to iterative processes. The concept of unwanted variation is meaningless if you aren’t aiming for consistent outputs over time.

For example: these essays—and the sentences in them—suffer from common cause variation. The characteristics of my process cause the variation in quality. I can always go back and revise—pick over each infelicity, each fuzzy idea and inaccuracy, and improve them, but that revision process would have its own characteristics and capability. 

Maybe some improvement would result from the additional time spent identifying and removing defects. Another way of thinking of this is,  my inputs to the process of revision would be further developed than the inputs to my process of drafting the document—the vague impressions floating around in my head.

It can be challenging to see how many of our desired outcomes are the results of processes. But isn’t thought a process?

I had been mistakenly confusing the concept of Obstacles over the past few weeks. I had been thinking that one could have Obstacles to desired outcomes, and to well-formed plans. But after going back to the Practice Guide, I realized that the definition of an Obstacle is precise. It is what keeps you from achieving a Target Condition, and a Target Condition must be a combination of desired outcomes and process characteristics. Why set Target Conditions?

One reason is to reduce common cause variation. Why do you want to reduce common cause variation? Because as you reduce common cause variation—when you raise the lower limit of your variation—you are able to increase the upper limit. But there is another reason. You can reduce your variation to six sigma without developing innovation for the customer. You can produce undesirable products of the highest consistency.  Remember that you iterate through realized Target Conditions to a Challenge. A Challenge is just a description of your vision at a defined point in time. But your vision is based on what you actually want. What is actually valuable. What is actually better than reality right now. In order to move towards that, you have to have breakthroughs and discoveries, to develop in unforeseeable ways. Reducing common cause variation is a necessary component of that. If you sometimes get out of bed and sometimes don’t, you’re going to have a hard time. Even the most creative of professions require consistency. If you look into the processes of Chopin and Feynman, you won’t see them lounging about waiting for epiphanies. 

When I started writing this essay, I thought I was going to explain a three-tiered model of Obstacles.

    1. Obstacles on just desired outcomes,
    2. Obstacles on drafting plans that can bear scrutiny, and Obstacles to implementing those plans,
    3. and true Obstacles to achieving Target Conditions.

But, as dealt with the problems as I found them, sentence by sentence, and by going back to the source material, I realized my thoughts had gone astray. Thank god for problems. 

Utility

This week, I had two of the critical conversations in the kata deployment. These were go and see experiments because my conversations were only elicitations of the impressions of my interlocutors. I wasn’t trying to see what would happen if I introduced a conversation into the process of management. I wasn’t trying to change their minds, but see how the current state of their minds reacted.

I showed the simple block diagram. It looks something like this:

Inputs Process Outputs
Difficult decisions Choose the decisions that will take the longest to answer (leave the easier ones for later).  Improved questions
Ideas of plans Draft a clear attempt at an answer, preferably a diagram with explanatory notes. Answers
Preliminary drawings Distribute it to the team members. Ask them to scrutinize it and ask questions. Plans
Impressions of obstacles Answer all of the questions that you can.  
Impressions of questions

For the questions that you can’t answer clearly, do research, or experiments, and find the answers.

Do coaching cycles on these research cycles.

 
Known hindrances Update the document with those revised answers.  
Known questions

Repeat these steps until the document can bear the scrutiny of a core set of team members. It’s not that everyone has to agree. It’s that the answers to questions must be defensible. The kata coach should be in these conversations, and look for indications that the interlocutors are making arguments and claims outside of their knowledge threshold. She should document these arguments and claims as obstacles and discuss them with the learner after the meeting. 

They should do more experiments (PDCAs) on these arguments and claims.

 
  Don’t even try having difficult technical conversations without a drawing or technical document in front of the members.  

Of course this process isn’t guaranteed to produce consensus, but lack of consensus isn’t what been plaguing us. It’s a maelstrom of vagueness. Of arguing past one another. Of groundhog day debates. Klinkenborg’s diagnosis comes to mind: people want so badly do be done, that they don’t focus properly on doing. They want the decision made. They “don’t want to argue.” They commit to an idea for a day, then the next throw their hands up, claiming indifference. 

I predicted tepid assent; instead, the idea received enthusiastic support. Why? What did I learn?

In a coaching cycle with my boss, he asked me, and we came to a different conclusion together than I had before the cycle. My conclusion had been something like bafflement. Sometimes people are excited by the same ideas that I am, sometimes they aren’t. Who knows why. His impression was clearer and probably more accurate.  

The question I’m trying to answer is not how to apply Lean principles to the work we’re doing (a question that’s interested me for years). The question I’m asking is, how can we overcome the most daunting obstacle before us? Also, at present, the team members’ descriptions of the obstacle are remarkably convergent.

My thinking, and consequently my presentation, emphasized how our problem could be addressed, instead of how my preferred technique could address our problems.

Is this learning, precisely? It seems more like the application of some general principles. Maybe it’s more like practice. I didn’t learn the principle. But maybe I’ve developed some experience in applying it. 

I think what I’m seeing is that  we (meaning, people in general) want to see precisely how a technique can help us solve our most pressing problem, not hear how, in principle, a methodology can justifiably be applied to a family of problems. Because the core team has been experiencing real grief, sitting in the same long meetings, and I have been trying specifically to reducing this suffering, the resulting ideas were more interesting to my teammates. As Rother would say, I’m focusing on the  one obstacle that we need to solve now. Not picking out the problems that I think I know how to solve. 

Sententiousness

Solomon might have asked himself, <<Am I still here?>> and, being the wisest judge, he would answer. So Solomon lived¹. Wouldn’t he have?

Prophets made predictions, and after they were realized, were called prophets. Is that what happened? Is Chödrön saying, <<If you do this, that will happen?>> Is she proposing a sort of amorphous covenant?

I notice that a Learner has a habit of saying <<I told you so>> to coworkers. This is so interesting. To imagine this motivation for a minute. To see the world as someone who is continuously yearning to prove, not a particular skill, but her foresight in general.  Her message, as I hear it, is, <<Look, I was right, and I will continue to be right, so follow my advice.>>

I don’t know how to discourage her for from continuing down this path, because I can’t say, precisely, where it leads, but it seems misguided to call others’ attention to your predictions instead of your reasons—outcomes instead of means—because then all they have to do is watch you and look for instances of your being wrong? I’m sure I’ve seen at least one marriage that was made up of this: each struggling for decades to prove to the other that they themselves were the more prophetic, that theirs was the truer covenant. Like gambling addicts, they want, finally, to come out on top in the game of predicting the future.

So Solomon would conjure himself into existence³. How? 

Solomon gave into idolatry, and Rabbi Akiva Tatz explains why prophets no longer exist. It is as a result of the Sanhedrin having excised that which leads to idolatry from the human soul. Why did they do it? Because the impulse toward idolatry “so tormented and stressed” even the most pious, that the Sanhedrin “decided to do something active about it.” Tatz says that, “It was, in fact, the most powerful temptation that there was.” People were losing their struggle against it. They couldn’t stop themselves from bowing down to idols. Why? Tatz says that it was their desire to connect with the transcendent, the divine, and I’m sure he’s right. But what else? And why that? Was it only the search for meaning? Is the mundane so meaningless? Well, we know, from the direct and clear account from Epicurus and others, that it wasn’t when it was moderately pleasurable. Epicurus was after Malachi (the last prophet), but was he living in such a different reality? When one had enough food and drink and friendship, when one had a bit of safety and a bit of beauty, couldn’t they enjoy life? So was the impulse to connect with the divine purely spiritual, or was it also practical? Or in other words, was the impulse as overwhelming when one wasn’t in the sort turmoil that was brought on by more mundane causes? Wasn’t this connection with god thought to be the independent variable, the imagined lever of control over nature and the outcomes of battles? Wasn’t a lot of it rain dances?

Maybe, but not all of it. Why? Because of foresight. In any torrent, one can imagine a drought, and their immortal soul. The impulse to petition a god wasn’t purely practical, because we didn’t evolve to perceive the actual valence of phenomena in relation to the fate of our genes. We don’t, most of us, obsessively seek the optimal caloric intake; we seek tasty food. We don’t want more than anything to have as many kids as possible, and then grandkids. And, we do least of all when we have the Epicurean fruits around us. We evolved by the correlation of impulses to survival and reproduction. This is Darwin’s often confused fitness. And the fittest, in the long run, are the most adaptable, the most versatile. (The core principles of Lean, have the effect of exposing to the operators and engineers the fitness of the operation, of exposing the independent variables.)

“The book raises questions, ” says Roth, “and you answer it. Sentence by sentence, really. Phrase by phrase. Then chapter by chapter, etc. Then draft by draft. And when you’ve answered all the questions, the book is done.” 

The Sanhedrin performed an excision on the source of the impulse to bow down before idols, removing it from the human soul, but along with the temptation went the insatiable desire to connect with god, and with that went the talent of prophecy. 

Tatz: “What is the drive to idolatry? Isn’t it to go beyond the self and to worship that which is beyond? The faculty that wants to do that is the same faculty that worships Hashem.  Only it’s misdirected. But it’s the same organ…. There is a desire to transcend and melt into that which is greater…. As soon as they killed the drive to idolatry, do you know what died with it? Prophecy. What is prophecy? The ability to communicate directly with the transcendent reality². And if you take the organ out of the mind that does that, you lose the drive to idolatry, but you lose prophecy, too.”

Later he says, when describing a subsequent excision, this time on the drive to immoral sensuality, “…again, if you’re thinking, you should ask me a question.”

¹This is a very different maneuver from Descartes’s, by the way. And for a very entertaining history of the interactions of Hobbes and Descartes, read George Hakari’s Soul Machine.

²His voice enters into song at this point in his lecture, and at others. 

³For a beautiful example of a character writing herself into existence, read Ursula K. Le Guin’s novel Lavinia.