The Impediments

Today my friend observed that paragraphs were sheltering the flaws of my reasoning. I should suffer only lists and diagrams.

He also observed that he experienced contentment when with a companion. This was his reason for leaving his.

Me: Sure, but some partners spur us.
Him: Yes, but always in some direction.

Me: But what about Feynman’s parents? Didn’t they spur him without directing him?
Him: Yeah. If I found a companion like Feynman’s dad, I would stay with her.

We were standing in front of a fourteenth century painting at the Philbrook museum, on the first floor, nearish the entrance. A father blessing his son, tempera on wood. For something to do, we decided to give it more attention than seemed entirely reasonable.

The father and son are in what we assume is a house, but the painting isn’t realistic. The viewer has a cutaway view, and the house consists of one room, which is taken up almost entirely by a bed, on which the father is reclined, apparently preparing for death. The son appears to be somehow joined with an angel, which towers over him. Outside the house, to the right, a dog sits, its tail tucked and its back curved such that it appears almost to cower. Afraid of the angel? But can it see it from the outside? Surely it is looking at a wall, only made invisible by the artist? Never mind, the dog knows about the angel. Maybe it fled.

Referencing the plaque only to extract the name of the painting, we both googled it, commingling our conversation with those results.

Speaking of which, doesn’t it still seem too difficult to find the full text of psychology research papers? Here’s a good article on that topic, or actually on one a little broader. (What is that? What is it to disagree with oneself for rhetorical effect?)

Stand-up comedians get actual feedback from people. Writers picture the face of a reader, eyeing the wrinkles at the corner of her mouth as she picks her way through the ashes.

I keep meaning to go to a Toastmasters meeting, for an opportunity to receive scrutiny, like a stand-up comedian. There is a recurring reminder in my calendar, which I ignore.

It seems that some thrive at the end of feedback from others, but I have to be alone and listen to the percussive sound of my fingers tapping against one another and the faint, filmy pluck of the pads separating, my hands held up to my ears. I imagine I am playing castanets.

Clearly, I’ve given up trying to purpose this blog into a distinct theme, but I have been working on process. I’m reading Measure what Matters by John Doerr, and still reading about habits. It seems as if the whole world all at once has learned something. I know the internet caters to what we’re looking for, but it seems as if Duhigg and Clear and everyone else have found a central idea around which to frame our experience.

Of course, not quite. If you read page 34 of Practice Perfect (Lemov, Woolway, Yezzi), they list “muscle memory”, “rote” and “automatic” before getting to habit. Isn’t that strange? How much writing has been about the same thing? A self-consciously core idea of the book is “practice makes permanent.” But they hardly talk about habit by name. The whole book is about habit.

It can feel awful how central semantics is to the conversation.

Today is day 42 of 2019. It is the answer to the most important question in the universe.

After staring at the painting for over five minutes, my friend notices that the father’s hand, which we had both thought was just curved in one of those typical Christian positions, isn’t empty but holds a book. Either it is nearly the same color as the blankets, or some pigment has degraded over time, because the book isn’t obvious at first, but there is a definite outline of it, and there is an area specified by the father’s hand that is of a different shade and in the shape of a book. So that once you see it….

Speaking of which, doesn’t it still seem too difficult to read psychology journals online? Here is an interesting article on that. And so many of the books I read are carefully cited. I write notes to follow up on the papers, but I haven’t developed the habit of actually doing that. What is the obstacle?

I find Meshuggah to be the music most conducive to problem-solving because of its patterns-with-variation. It feels like approaching a problem over and over, with minor adjustments. They repeat themselves, but there are all of these adjustments. Their riffs are like algorithms they feel they can’t quite get right. Their music is frustrated, not assured. Chevelle’s music is frustrated, too, but it feels assured in its frustration. As if they know what is wrong. Meshuggah is stabbing in the dark, over and over. Chevelle’s music implies there is spiritual decay and deficit. Meshuggah’s implies there are engineering problems and temporary countermeasures and rage, and that we are fundamentally fucked.

It seems many musicians produce a song as if they have solved this problem they have set for themselves. Meshuggah’s tracks are essays. They are showing you their work, with no solution. All of their tracks are about impediments they cannot pass. One imagines them pushing with their left shoulder, then their right. Or tapping L, R, L, R, B, A over and over, and it only working 1/3 of the time.

Their tracks and riffs are the residue of their decisions, but they are also breaks from some other set of tasks that they are more involved in.

Wasn’t a major role of music to keep time for workers, for rowing and hammering, and so on? I imagine that music made of standard repetitions. It says, let’s all do precisely this for awhile. Meshuggah’s tracks say, “We’ve tried all of these things. We ache and have sores on our hands and elbows, and yet our progress is dismal. This is our fever dream, our search for some better progress.”

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