Experimental Fiction

The light is failing early again. A kind of death seems present. 

Essay one in Chödrön’s collection When Things Fall Apart starts with this sentence: Embarking on the spiritual journey is like getting into a very small boat and setting out on the ocean to search for unknown lands.

Later she assures us:

Nothing is what we thought. I can say that with great confidence. Emptiness is not what we thought. Neither is mindfulness or fear. Compassion—not what we thought. Love. Buddha nature. Courage. These are code words for things we don’t know in our minds, but any of us could experience them. These are words that point to what life really is when we let things fall apart and let ourselves be nailed to the present moment.

Pema Chödrön
When Things Fall  Apart

Good thing, because otherwise we might bristle at a contradiction that appears over and over in essays on Buddhism: what are we to make of stories? Yes or no? Good or bad? The explicit verdict seems to be in the negative: don’t tell them. Pay attention only to the present, drop all stories. What’s more, the self is a fiction, and you ought to stop it telling it. It’s our stories that confuse us about reality. Reality doesn’t tell stories; we do. In this same essay, Chödrön observes,
During a long retreat, I had what seemed to me the earth-shaking revelation that we cannot be in the present and run our story lines at the same time! It sounds pretty obvious, I know, but when you discover something like this for yourself, it changes you. 
But, hiding in plain sight, is another message. Stories are ubiquitous in these essays. Hardly a principle is offered that is not delivered by a clever episode. In this same essay, she tells a wonderful, vivid story about a man who sits up all night, terrorized by a cobra. It ends in what appears to be his enlightenment. Why tell it? It’s not for us to emulate the hero? Is the story not pointing towards a path? Why are we told the story of the Buddha? Each suttra, as far as I know, is framed in a narrative structure. Why is the whole tradition not simply a series of instructions, with no characters or narrative?

Besides stories, are the various Buddhist traditions opposed to critical thinking, the socratic method, reason and experimentation? What do you think? If it’s true that every time a thought comes to mind when you are meditating, you are supposed to note it and return your attention back to your breath, what’s the Buddhist attitude towards cogitation? And if throughout the day, you are to mindfully address 100% of your attention to what is right in front of you, when are you supposed to reason? What would Socrates do if he met Siddhartha? Meditating on a koan isn’t reasoning, is it? 

Of course, when we ask it this way, we are pointed to the answer: clearly it’s more complicated than this. It must be both. A place for stories, a place to drop them. Stephen Batchelor describes his experience in the Tibetan tradition studying, translating, and debating finer details of the practice. And in his recent work Secular Buddhism, he addresses this topic directly. He answers that there is more than enough time for intellectual pursuits in diligent a mindfulness practice.  But why did my reading of other authors leave such a strong impression that their diagnosis was that I was thinking too much? I was an even poorer  inquisitor then. If I were to read them again, these questions in mind, would I find answers?

If only someone were always there to remind me to inquire and to investigate, I wouldn’t be left looking back at my tracks in wonder. But what a dismal story  if only is. 

So what are we supposed to do with stories, then? If not distract ourselves by telling them to ourselves throughout the day, should we engage in experimental fiction?
Absorb the stories our parents tell us, and then we try to tell our own?
But, being the hero, we have to learn the story as we go.
We can’t be always telling it.
It’s happening.
Premeditation, meditation, and postmeditation.
Periodically, when our eyelids are getting heavy, or while we are on a familiar path to and from work, we can contrast our character with that of the hero. Is our story growing more like theirs or less? Are we living a story that will someday be worth telling? Are we even trying to?

On this Shunryu Suzuki, the Stoics, and John Dewey all share a common message: strive to develop your character, to become different than you are, but always wholly accept who you are in this instant. It’s who you are now that you have to deal with. This is the brain that has to take the next step, to ask the next question, to investigate. Attempting to reject the present self in favor of the future self probably isn’t much more effective than rejecting what you could become in favor of what you are now.

Chödrön conjures Christian imagery when she advises us to be nailed to the present moment. Earlier on, she says:

There’s not going to be much room for the arrogance that holding onto ideals can bring. The arrogance that inevitably does arise is going to be continually shot down by our own courage to step forward a little further. The kinds of discoveries that are made through practice have nothing to do with believing in anything. They have much more to do with having the courage to die, the courage to die continually.

But how do we do that? And are we sure this is the right approach? In his book The Time Paradox, the eminent psychologist and author Philip Zimbardo found in his research that those who are the happiest and most productive spend a significant amount of time in their memory. Though he explicitly states that his research of people’s perspective of time is Western-centric and does not consider the elongated present that advanced meditators experience, his battery of orientations is very similar to the negative-positive dichotomy of sensations, though his is towards temporal modes:

  • Past-negative
  • Past-positive
  • Present-fatalistic
  • Present-hedonistic
  • Future
  • Transcendental-future

Another present-oriented time zone can be called the Holistic Present. It involves training to live one’s life in the present moment and to include past and future in an expanded state of focus on the present. Such a time sense is central to Zen Buddhism, and Zen meditative practices are one means of achieving this unique state of consciousness. Because it is less common in western than eastern cultures and is rather vague in its components, we did not include it in our […] assessment.

Philip Zimbardo, John Boyd
The Time Paradox

Zimbardo’s research found that people who were the happiest and most successful were highly past-positive, moderately present-hedonistic, and moderately-high future-oriented.  What struck me most about this book was how much our attitude toward the past affects our success in planning and engaging in future-oriented behavior.  And isn’t a story a mode of memory? 

But what does Chödrön mean by “step forward a little” and “the courage to die continually”? I’m sure these metaphors point to innumerable phenomena, among them literally stepping forward—say, at a party, or in a confrontation—or literally risking your life. The ones that seem most apt lately have to do with inquiry and experimentation.  In that instant, you are putting a frame where there is no picture. You are stepping forward where there is no ground.  Questions are inherently future-oriented. One can end with a statement. A statement can stop a conversation. Questions carry us forward. Speakers who end with a question are, in a way, not ending. They are spinning off. Asking questions is difficult, so you must reinforce the behavior. After you ask the question, after you investigate, after you experience the frustration of facing what you don’t know and struggling to finding out, you should reflect approvingly on the behavior. Observe the whole process. See how you went from ignorance to edification. Celebrate it, and set that as your standard for future challenges. This is, of course, the PDCA cycle. It’s also storytelling. 

And it isn’t all sunny. What will we do when the aquifers run dry? We could desalinate seawater, but using what energy source? Will we effectively replace carbon fuel with renewable energy before the former run out? How hot is it going to get, and how soon? Will there be air conditioning? And when is this capitalism religion going to wane? And what will replace it?

I think the reason for the recent surge in popularity of Stoicism, besides Christianity being on the decline and people looking around for a philosophy of life to replace it, is people sense that we’re going to need some grit in the coming years. The self-indulgent dysphoria and ennui we developed in the last half of the twentieth century is going to get us killed in the twenty-first.

And even then it doesn’t completely work. Chödrön claims 

Life is a good teacher and a good friend. Things are always in transition, if we could only realize it. 

And yet how is life a good friend to the billions of humans who live short, miserable lives? What is it teaching them before it kills them? And what’s the point, when they’re dead before they had a chance to make use of the lesson? J.L. Schellenberg, in his philosophical attempt to find a way in which a religious perspective on life could be worthwhile, observes that there is no way to say that life is inherently meaningful if there is no afterlife of some sort, because of the billions of people whose life is simply too short and brutal to conceivably meet our standards of what meaning could be. If significant soteriological redemption is available to all sentient beings, there must be some kind of rebirth or afterlife, because it’s plainly not made available to every human. 

So, say Chödrön is right. Say life is a good friend. That must mean except when it isn’t, and it must mean that we are responsible for one another, because if I see people suffering in a way that prevents them from engaging in the behaviors that I think are necessary for life to be worthwhile (having meaningful work, some free time, some creature comfort, books, the ability to talk things through with friends, an understanding of the Logos) then that means I should try to intervene. Not that I can do it in time. Not that billions won’t be born and die in misery meanwhile. Some friend. Maybe I need to rethink what the word means? It’s not a human friend, after all. And if life is a good friend, what kind of story is this?


In Memoriam

The setting of this anecdote is that it was fall. And, you know, it being fall, and dark out, the tail lights of cars glowed in a certain way. And it was an apartment, with those ubiquitous blinds on the windows. He had recently purchased a used motorcycle, swimming in its parking spot. He, too, was small, and, regardless of what he was wearing, I imagined him wearing jeans and a t-shirt, etc. I mean everything but the cauliflower ears. We were in his new apartment—we had just finished moving his stuff from a storage unit—and he was saying, “Part of me loves moving, though, because I can set everything just so.

Washing dishes just now, nine years later, I recall this conversation. Relish is a condiment, I think to myself.  Meaning, what were his standards? Meaning, what did he feel like when he was doing something the same way that he always did it, because that was how it had decided he ought to do it, because it advanced him towards his aim? Because who cares how he felt when he was paying some particular attention? What does that get you?

I imagined myself meeting him on the street after he had had such a session of putting things in their place. His moral license being high, he talks to me with his chin particularly tucked back, shoulders conspicuously squared. Etc.

But then does the standard we’ve set for ourselves simply move us forward through time, or does it move us closer? Is it like a stairway? Establish some standard, then escalate it. By the time you’re dead, you’re comfortably something you could have wanted to have become. Of course it should be this way. We aren’t getting better every day in every way. Stupid. We are getting better, on most days, by being less conspicuously incompetent at some carefully identified skill, if we’re extremely lucky.

Like for example I think less about my fingers than about the words I’m writing, less about the mechanics of my eyeballs than the person I’m looking at. I actually have some intention in mind when I am scouring the burner. I don’t randomly throw things on the floor or simply hate everything. I can write a paragraph longer than five sentences. I don’t emulate the writing style, as I imagine it, of someone whose work I’ve never even read.  

I watched a lecture by Simon Schama and now want to use etc. as a flourish, even though I don’t think he even did that. It’s Žižek who does that, and why does Schama remind me of Žižek? Something about the way he holds his shoulders, probably. It’s like they’re square, but there is a looseness. Their words come so readily. Their words come from their shoulders.

I would that the question how should I do this? were always on my lips.

Gregory Crewdson says that he is always trying to tell the same story over and over, and probably so is everyone. Maybe trying consciously tell that story is the only way we can avoid unconsciously trying to tell it. All I’m ever trying to do is describe the color of fall leaves caked, clotted, near my dad’s Red Wing boots. What it looks like when you peel up (let’s call it a) sheaf of clotted leaves with a metal rake, or a plastic rake. That inscrutable difference. They’re both too flexible when you’re working with leaves after the rain. You really need a rigid rake, not a leaf rake. 


What are the differences between statues and icons and toys? 
Adults set up statues and icons in fixed formations. With toys, their relationships are still flexible. 
It’s as if adults find their favorite configurations.

Internal Inquiry and Optimism

      D. Is there anything for which you are more grateful than the question? 
      S. No.
      D. Why?
      S. Because it seems to be the one indespensible tool. 
      D. Can you give an anecdote?
      S. Yes. For years, I had been unable to maintain standards around daily behavior for more than a few months. I would start some new behavior and feel good about it, but anxiety, guilt, and doubt always crept in.
      For example, using checklists. I’ve used checklists, off and on, for fifteen years. But I’ve never maintained the practice. Why? Basically, the problem was that too often I either felt bad for checking a box, because there was some doubt whether my action met the standard, or I wasted time doing some activity that really wasn’t a priority at the time. In both cases, this was dispiriting. The habit went from exciting (an opportunity to do better, to be better) to unsustainable, sometimes over the course of a week.
      When I tried to correct this problem by setting clearer standards, I either felt bad for having lax standards, or again, if I set stringent standards, I either did not always meet the standards (and so could not check the box in good conscience) or I too frequently misspent my time doing a task, so that I could check a box, that wasn’t a priority at the time.
      D. Why have the checkbox item at all if taking the time to do it could be categorized as time misspent?
      S. Because circumstances aren’t the same every day. Having an item that is useful to perform 85% of the time, and always useful to have there, as a reminder, means that about once a week, it’s not the best use of your time. 
      My vocabulary, for most of my life, was constricted to description and despair.  I could describe how things were, and I could feel guilty about them. Occasionally I could have a bout of manic enthusiasm. When I finally figured out how to inquire, this problem was tidily solved. Now, I keep three daily checklists, and numerous others others that I reference for various tasks, and I have no problem completing them daily.
      D. Why?
      S. Because the criteria of success for most of them can be met in less than a minute, and whenever I feel as if I am not doing it correctly, I ask myself a question about it.
      D. For example?
      S.  Will I correct this problem next time
Do I need to go back and perform the action again now
Is the checklist item becoming irrelevant for some reason 
What do I need to do next time to make sure I earn the benefit of having this item, even if I don’t observe it diligently at this time
What are the minimum standards for checking this box
Am I at risk of developing a bad habit
      These questions stick with me. The next day, if I was lax with an item last time, I am diligent this time. The questions reduce my anxiety. It’s as if the anxiety were an unasked question.
      D. How do you answer them?
      S. Often, I don’t. Or there is an implied yes or no. Often the question guides an action, or anticipates a mental note. For example, If I have been diligent with one item and lax with another, I swap priorities next time. The mental note I make to do that is anticipated by at least question—am I being lax in performing this task? Is that OK? I will spend longer on it tomorrow. 
      D. Why can’t those be statements? Why not, I am being lax. I will be more diligent next time.
      S. It’s as if making the statement is forcing it on myself. Meaning, one part of me is making a declaration to the rest of me. My mind has so many modules. To let one declare to the rest what is going on increases my nervousness. So instead, I ask the group, the components of myself. Because the benefit is in the long-run. Honestly struggling with time management, and investigating the best course, and failing—these are sustainable if you are curious, if this process interests you. If you instead just view these challenges, which are inherent to time management, as personal failures, and if you fail to see the questions inherent in the challenges, you’ll just feel despair. By you I mean me. The royal you.
      It is better to perform your ritual sustainably than to make it so onerous that your willpower fails you. It’s one thing to know this. But I do not know of a way of applying it without asking myself questions as I go. Making statements to myself increases the anxiety, because they are always so doubtful. I can rarely come up with a convincing statement on the spot. Trying makes it worse. But rarely does it take even three mental drafts to come up with a satisfying question. Having done so, I feel at ease to move one, knowing that my subconscious will work on it for me if it matters.
      D. Can you give me examples of questions that you find comforting?
      S. When will I stop again? What will be the reason why I stop? For how long will I stop? What will my feeling be during that time? When I pick it back up, what will that be like? Will I still be productive during the period in which I am not maintaining checklists? Will it be because I developed a better method? What will prompt me to pick it back up? Will it be guilt, inspiration, or boredom?
      D. What do you do when you feel that your habit is slipping? That your standards are eroding, or that you are not getting the benefit of the habit?
      S. I ask myself if that’s true and what I can do about it.

The larger world


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.


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.


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.

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

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

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.


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

Heck, track 2


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. 


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.