Friday, July 15, 2011

What Sort of Hat?

I’ve always resisted labeling myself, and I hate it when other people label me. Who wants to be put into a box? And it’s more than just personal revulsion — the whole business of labeling feels like shirking responsibility. Life demands that we make our own sense of a world where the terms are constantly shifting. Labels let us look at life through little windows — they limit what we see. I’d rather take it all in, even if the view makes me nauseous.

The first day I met my friend Jane, she labeled me. “You’re such a Ravenclaw!” she gushed. For anyone unfamiliar with Harry Potter, Ravenclaw is one of the four Hogwarts houses each student gets placed in by the Sorting Hat on the first day of school. Ravenclaw is for intellectual/creative types; Sytherin is for the smart, crafty, and driven; Gryffindor is righteous and brave; and Hufflepuff is the fun-loving stoner. I thought it looked like just another way of reducing people. But Jane is obsessed with the Sorting Hat, and through her I’ve started to see something strange and interesting, something changes the way I think about labels.

Most sorting mechanisms — Myers Briggs, IQ Tests, whatever — are a matter of input/output: As long as you answer the questions the same way, you’ll get the same result every time. (Who answers these crazy questions the same way every time? Not me.) But imagine a personality test that, like you, could change. That could be influenced by its mood, or your argument. (If you bomb the IQ test but manage to convince the tester to give you a high score, you probably deserve it. This is how I like to tell people the UC Berkeley Rhetoric Department was run.)

Just like a personality test, the Sorting Hat’s whole purpose is to classify. But in the world of Harry Potter, this act of classifying is a character — as alive as anyone else. The Sorting Hat fumbles and deliberates and influences and is influenced. It almost sends Harry Potter to Slytherin, seeing that he’d do well there, but Harry protests and the hat sends him to Gryffindor.

When Jane declared me a Ravenclaw, it wasn’t just an act of definition, it was the beginning of a new life — both for me and for the category of Ravenclaw. Ravenclaw had to shift a little to make room for me, and I thought of myself a little differently now that I belonged to a society of bookish magicians. The way I interact with the label of Ravenclaw is sort of like the way I interact with another person — we both move and are moved by each other; we both read and are read by the other: text on text.

The Sorting Hat takes the act of labeling from limiting and definitive to infinite and complex. It makes labeling seem a lot more exciting, and a little dizzying — which is exactly what I thought labeling was supposed to shield you from.

I suppose that Jane would say this is all very Ravenclaw of me.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Milk & Meaning

Surf is such an appropriate word for the way we consume ideas on the Internet. It’s fast and smooth, and it stays on the surface. With a few notable exceptions, what I do on the Internet isn’t reading at all; it’s surfing and it’s skimming, as if meaning could be skimmed off the surface of text like cream from milk.

For a second there, I thought I’d come up with the metaphor of milk and meaning all on my own. But duh — we call it skimming for exactly that reason: we assume that meaning in a text acts like fat in milk, in both cases the best parts rising to the top for easy removal. In the case of skimming a text, you might miss an elegant flourish, a sense of style, and you might not enjoy it as much — but you still get the meaning.

But does meaning really rise to the surface? Can you miss the tone but still get the meaning?

Well, yes — of course you can. I don’t have to suffer through a food blogger’s life story to get her recipe for quick pickles, or read more than an article’s headline to learn that “Taliban Help Hundreds Escape via Prison Tunnel.” The pyramid structure of a newspaper article is designed for skimming: put the important stuff in the first paragraph, because most people won’t stick around for much more.

But after a while, digesting meaning this way makes me physically sick, as if pure ideas, detached from language, were empty calories. A few hours of surfing the Internet and I don’t even want to look at a text. When I read something slowly and carefully, I have a much better time. A good, close read makes me want to talk to people! Write things! Read more! Close reading can’t make us enjoy everything, but it can probably help us enjoy a lot more.

So am I saying that skimming allows you to access meaning, only you don’t enjoy it as much? Well, no, I don’t think I am. Because if you don’t enjoy something, you don't digest it well, and you probably can't extract as much meaning from it. Skimming is quick and light — you get ideas without texture. Slow reading lets you feel the grain of language, and, to push the digestion metaphor a little more, to let all your intestinal villi work their magic. If meaning happens where reader and writer touch, you almost have to enjoy a text to understand it. I like that: enjoyment as a mode of understanding.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Swallowing the Surface

Before I had ever thought about going into advertising, I worked at a think tank. It was cool and everything, but I knew I wasn’t enough of a political junkie for it to work out for the long term. As my boss said to me, I appreciate “the surfaces of things.” I care more about choosing the right word than choosing the right side.

So now I work in advertising. But my old boss’s words never quite rang true. I do love the surface — in fact, one of my favorite pieces of prose is Edward Abbey’s celebration of the surface in the introduction to Desert Solitaire:
It will be objected that the book deals too much with mere appearances, with the surfaces of things, and fails to engage and reveal the patterns of unifying relationships which form the true underlying reality of existence. Here I must confess that I know nothing whatever about true underlying reality, having never met any. There are many people who say they have, I know, but they’ve been luckier than I.

For my own part I am pleased enough with surfaces — in fact they alone seem to me to be of much importance. Such things for example as the grasp of a child’s hand in your own, the flavor of an apple, the embrace of friend or lover, the silk of a girl’s thigh, the sunlight on rock and leaves, the feel of music, the bark of a tree, the abrasion of granite and sand, the plunge of clear water into a pool, the face of the wind — what else is there? What else do we need?

What else is there, indeed. But as for the pages that follow, I’m lukewarm. So much description of rock and sand and long days where nothing much happens — I’m a little bored by a lot of it. Could it be that I like talking about the surface more than I like the surface itself? That’s a mouthful — and it leaves a bad taste in my mouth. If I truly love the surface, why is Desert Solitaire such a hard pill to swallow?

This thought crossed my mind again the other night, just as I was poised to give up on Nicholson Baker’s essay “Clip Art.” Two pages into his examination of fingernail clippers, I was longing for his festive backyard pornography, his meditations on women’s stockings, his tracing shower water into an open mouth. Not all surfaces are equal; I’d rather read about skin on skin than chrome on nail.

But I pushed on through the boredom, and I’m glad I did, because this silly little essay surfaces surprising meaning from a superfluous device. The fingernail clipper, it turns out, can be quite meaningful. It leaves behind a sharp edge that is perfectly suited to annotating texts when no pen is available. It’s not a practice I was familiar with, but according to Baker, it’s quite common:
Even with a closely clipped and manly thumbnail, the reader can and very often does, today in America, score a visible double line to mark an interesting passage, if it appears in a book that he is prevented for one reason or another from defacing.

And then I got to this, which changed everything:
Moreover, the pressure of the reader’s nail, deformed by its momentary trenchancy, against the tender hyponychial tissues it protects, creates a transient thumbwide pleasure that is, or can be, more than literary.

Talking about a thing has never seemed closer to the thing itself. Baker conjures the whole endeavor of reading in a gesture: the gentle, pleasing pressure of the surface of a text pressing up against the surface of a fingernail. And what a sensual pleasure it is, these two surfaces touching each other, imprinting each other. On the literal surface of the text, the literal and the figurative seem to collapse on one another. Baker isn’t talking about fingernails as a metaphor for something else — he’s talking about actual fingernails, and how physical pleasure commingles with literary pleasure to create meaning that is “more than literary.”

My middle school English teacher said that meaning isn’t in the reader or the text, but somewhere in between the two. I always pictured this “in-between” as a big empty space, a vacuum. But now I’m reimagining it as the collapsing of that space, as the place where two surfaces come together.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Mad Libs & the Dimensions of Thought

A study from University College London published this week in Current Biology has discovered that there are actually differences in the brains of liberals and conservatives. Specifically, liberals' brains tend to be bigger in the area that deals with processing complex ideas and situations, while conservatives' brains are bigger in the area that processes fear.
(via GOOD)

…The study was based on 90 "healthy young adults" who reported their political views on a scale of one to five from very liberal to very conservative, then agreed to have their brains scanned.
(via AFP)


They reported their political views on a scale of one to five? I have no idea where I’d put myself on that scale. It doesn’t even make sense to me.

We take the figure of the Political Spectrum for granted, but it's just that — a figure. And a one-dimensional one, at that. If your ideas differ from mine, they can only differ in two directions: left or right. But I think we need at least four dimensions to capture the complex nature of ideas. Opinions are slippery, malleable, and always in motion. Shine a light on them, and they change.

But when we try to squeeze these exquisite and subtle creatures into the blunt figure of the Political Spectrum, they shrink and wither. This is something we have to resist, because if we don't, it will change the way we think — for the worse. If you’ve got a hammer, everything looks like a nail, and if you’ve got a powerful metaphor that claims to represent viewpoint, everything looks dumbed down.

When I tell people I don’t identify as liberal or conservative — that I object to the very notion of such labels — they usually respond in one of two ways:

1. By conceding that no, labels are not perfect, but we need some common ground to discuss things, to compare and contrast.
2. By claiming that my failure to stake out a position is a copout.

Fine. But the notion of calling myself a liberal or a conservative fills me with disgust — a personal, not a political, disgust. It’s not that I reject certain tenets of these ideologies, it’s that I reject the oversimplification that permeates our thinking, our being. Even if it would make things easier. Even if it means being annoying.

My favorite people have the ability to surprise me. Their opinions on one issue don’t give away their whole body of thought like some domino-liberal or conservative whose beliefs always fall according to plan. These people demand time and attention and are forever slipping out of grasp just when you think you’ve got a hold of them. It’s frustrating and exhilarating and there are no shortcuts.

Remember Mad Libs? You feed a list of verbs, nouns, and adjectives to your friend, who fills in the blanks and reads you back a story of delightful non-sequiturs. Sentences seem to be heading one way, but then veer off unpredictably. Grammar is intact but the rhythm of language is distorted. We’re used to sentences gathering a certain momentum and taking off in predictable ways. But with Mad Libs, it’s impossible to know where a sentence will end up. It’s ridiculous, but in its best moments, it can create a resonant, meaningful ridiculousness.

Let’s treat people — let’s treat life — more like Mad Libs.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Just Say Yes.

I’ve always been told to just say no to smoking. That whatever fleeting pleasure a cigarette offers, it subtracts minutes from our lives, plants cancers in our lungs and mouths.

The one awful puff I took of my friend’s cigarette in middle school was enough of a deterrent for me; I’ve never been tempted to go back for more. As a kid, I’d watch my uncle enjoy a cigarette and wonder how many he had to suffer through until they started tasting good. Why would anyone do that, especially when cigarettes give you cancer? To look cool? I couldn’t think of any other explanation.

But a while back, I heard an interview on NPR that made me rethink my assumptions about smoking. It was with a guy who, though not a smoker himself, had written a book in defense of smoking. Smoking, he argued, was an adult pleasure, and all adult pleasures have an element of poison, of danger, of pain. The bitterness of coffee, the sting of alcohol, the tenderness of sex: these things are not just incidental but essential to enjoyment.

When we get older, our ideas of pleasure change. I remember sneaking a sip of my dad’s coffee, and feeling perfectly mystified at the strange world I was destined for where bitter black liquid tastes good, and where it was conceivable to enter an ice cream store and not order anything.

But when I was a little older, my dad would sip scotch and pour me a taste, and we’d argue and discuss the world in a way that only a New York lawyer Jew and his daughter can. Scotch started to taste good in that context. He’d share bits of wisdom with me like “with freedom comes responsibility,” and, come to think of it, you could say the same thing about adult pleasures. Scotch and sex are more demanding pleasures than popsicles and Polly Pocket. They require knowing the size of your own stomach, as Nietzsche said.

If you don’t pay proper attention to adult pleasures, they will hurt you. But the dark side of a thing needn’t be its refutation. We should teach our children to avoid risk, yes, but we should also teach them to use discretion, to savor. I think that method would go a long way in reducing smoking deaths — because the worst part about addiction is that you don’t enjoy your poison as much. You can’t taste nuance when you reach for something by rote.

So instead of a just say no campaign, why not a just say yes campaign? Say yes to enjoyment, say yes to your own limits. Smoke Well. Don't remove danger; heed it. Be present. Smoke a cigarette like you’re in yoga class. Inhale, taste the smoke as it dances down your throat, hold it in your lungs and enjoy its...well, I don’t know. I’m no smoker. But I can appreciate it from afar.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Image & Context

One of my favorite blogs is LeslieMILES. Each post is a succession of images, curated according to loose interpretation of a theme. The themes are something between snippets of overheard conversation and aphorisms — not enough meaning for the latter, but too much for the former. Things like: "It was time to stir." "Keep Curious." "Little to no distance between us. Please?"

These themes, along with a soundtrack and a quotation, are the only context offered. Everything to be known is contained in the particular post’s succession of images. There is fame and anonymity, innocence and experience, portrait and landscape: just images, one after another. Their relationship to one another is tenuous, and it always gives me a little anxiety. Am I missing the point? But no, I don’t think that’s what’s being asked of me here: to identify a fixed point. The images create a pattern as they go, with sense emerging and shifting as I scroll through the series. What I like about this is that it’s active; it requires much of me.

If you follow the blog, it doesn't take long to pick up on the curator’s interests, his obsessions. Whatever the theme, certain kinds of images repeat. This curator, whoever he is, loves girls, preferably young, thin, and naked, and preferably Kate Moss. She shows up again and again, as kind of muse, or a god, presiding over the constellation of images. Even when she's absent, you can sense her presence, informing everything.

And it’s not just general themes that repeat — individual images repeat too, weeks or months after they first appear. I can't tell if the repetition is intentional or just curator oversight, but the effect is uncanny. Many of the images have an air of familiarity, but I’m never sure if it’s intrinsic to the image, or if I’ve actually seen it somewhere before—and if I have, is it because it’s a famous image? Or just a repeat on this blog? There is no way to know; none of the images are attributed to anything. They refuse to have back stories. The only story is the one being told here and now, in their convergence.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

On precision, briefly.

The other night, I was thinking about good writing, and I decided that it came down to two things: precision and surprise. The surprise will be a topic for another time; today I want to focus on precision.

Precise writing inspires the kind of appreciation one might have for a well-tailored garment. It’s the triumph of a slippery idea, cut from the fray along its contours. It says exactly what it wants to say with just the right words. This justrightness is what separates good writing from bad; the latter can’t quite hit on the idea, so it just keeps shooting. And missing.

Precision means “exactness and accuracy of expression or detail,” but it’s more than this — it’s also an enactment of the aesthetic pleasure it describes. It leaves the mouth like a blown kiss, with lips pursed for the pre. Then comes the chomp of cise, ruthless and exact, claiming its prey before going in for the kill. It’s pure confidence.

It makes me think of incisors, and how trap is another name for mouth, which seems particularly apt here. What is conveyed through the mouth is sensual.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Chess & Infinity

The New Yorker ran a great profile last week of Magnus Carlsen, the 20-year-old from Norway who rose to No. 1 in the global chess rankings last year. It made me think some cool thoughts about the intersection between creativity and the infinite, but it will take me a minute to get there, so bear with me for a few paragraphs while I summarize the article.

Carlsen’s playing style is unusual; most master chess players rely heavily on computers for their training, but Carlsen finds them annoying. “It’s like playing someone who is extremely stupid but who beats you anyway,” he says.

Chess is mind-bogglingly complex; the number of possible moves in a chess game exceeds the number of atoms in the universe. It's easy to see the draw of a computer program that could turn this labyrinth into an algorithm.

But computers’ eagle-eye focus on checkmate offends Carlsen's sensibilities about chess. He loves to win, but chess to him isn't just about winning, it’s also about how you play the game. There are competing schools of thought about how to play chess, but Carlsen’s approach isn’t grounded in any of them; he plays by a logic that is immanent to the game before him. He says he likes to have an "all-over sense of the board," heeding the situation, the mood of his opponent, the temptation of whim. It's an emergent strategy, based on feeling things out.

Computers aren't affected by affect, which is what Carlsen seems to enjoy most about chess. One of his proudest moments comes during a game he didn't even win — near death, he executes a series of moves that closes the game in a draw:
"I just thought I'd never seen this combination before, this theme. There’s no better feeling than discovering something new." ...He had 'created something special,' a small legacy of intuition and feeling that no computer or trainer had forecast for him.

This singular feeling of discovery isn’t limited to chess, of course. What Carlsen is describing is creativity — and the anxiety and thrill of finding a solution where there is no guarantee that one exists. I feel the same thing when I’m writing: what if there’s no answer? There isn’t one. You have to make it up, and when you do, it’s with the pleasure of having created “something special” — something truly new.

But you can't make up just anything. As my middle school English teacher told me, you can say anything you want about a text so long as you back it up with evidence. The possibilities are literally — and limitedly — infinite. An argument can't be random — it has to heed the demands of the text, to feel out the confines of the limited infinity dwelling between the covers.

Chess offers a similar infinity. Each game shapes itself as it plays out by a multiplicity of forces: yes, the possible moves already outnumber the atoms of the universe, but Carlsen has so much more to consider: how many games into the tournament is he? Is his opponent fatigued? Is Carlsen himself bored, and if so, would playing poorly for a few rounds revive him? The article even mentions that during one key game, Carlsen sips orange juice while his opponent drinks tea — as if this, too, mattered.

Being creative feels like sipping from infinite, which sounds like some kind of drug. One that we should all do more of.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Rice Reversal

In my last post, I thought about the part of a person that never changes (the word “part” somehow diminishes my point, but I won’t linger on it). This week, a bowl of rice shifted my attention to the part that does.

Monday night I came home after work and made myself dinner. I didn’t have much food in the house so I made my fallback meal: a bowl of rice. There’s hardly anything I find more comforting than a big bowl of grain topped with plenty of olive oil and salt. And I can put away a surprising amount of rice for my size. At dinner I’m the last one fingering sticky globs of it from the rice cooker, long after I’ve abandoned the half-eaten steak on my plate. It’s not that I don’t like steak—nothing could be further from the truth—it’s just that rice is so easy to eat. I could eat rice forever. I’m a bottomless pit, and a happy one.

But on this particular night, something wasn’t right in my bowl of rice, something that no amount of fancy olive oil or salt could remedy. The rice tasted dirty, it tasted empty, it tasted sour. It tasted like a premonition of itself sitting in my stomach, poorly digested. I poured more oil, sprinkled more salt, but by some black magic the rice refused to accept any flavor. Still, I finished it all, and all night I could taste it from the inside out.

The next morning, stomach still reeling from the aching betrayal of my old standby, I had another problem: what to pack for lunch? I’m a runner; carbs are a mainstay. I felt lost; I longed to fall back on a tried-and-true rice-based meal, something I could assemble by rote. But no—the memory and the sensation of the rice persisted persuasively.

I made bacon and eggs. At the office, I dipped the crispy shards of pork fat into the oozing globes of yolks, and all was well. I made it again the next day, and enjoyed it just as much. And when the bacon ran out, I fried chard in its leftover fat, and poured some heavy cream on top for good measure.

Now, I should stop here for a minute, because I don’t want to sound like one of those nutritional naysayers waxing poetic about deep-fried pork belly in a show of challenging the low-fat dogma. That’s all well and good, but it’s not what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about knowing what serves you—in the Nietzschean sense—and enacting it.

This is not always a simple thing. Rice served me quite well until a distinct moment on Monday night when, suddenly, it didn’t. Perhaps it will serve me well again tomorrow. But I’m not content to just leave it at that, at listen to your body, and it will all work out.

Listen to your body. I’ve always had trouble with this maxim. For one thing, I’ve listened to my body all the way to a couple of stress fractures. Of course, each time I ended up in the MRI tube I berated myself for not listening to my body: why did I go on that long run when my shins were sore? Why did I do that race when I was tired? But there have been plenty of other times when I indulged the urge to run as much as I pleased, and nothing broke.

But the even larger problem with listening to your body is this: how can I listen to what I am? Wouldn’t that make me separate from myself? Isn’t that like saying: listen to the listening?

Listen to the listening. I’m not sure if I mean that as a way to prove that listening to your body is preposterous, or as a kind of zen koan, something that sounds impossible but makes sense on some deeper level.

And that’s all I got.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Some Thoughts on Souls

The awakened and knowing say: body I am entirely, and nothing else—and the soul is just a word for something about the body.

The first time I encountered Nietzsche was in this quote, printed as a chapter heading to an anorexia memoir I read when I was 13. I was instantly smitten.

Years later, I’ve still never read the quote in its original context, so forgive me if I’m missing something, but here’s how I read it: The body is limited, yet vast. It’s all that I am entirely, and in case that wasn’t clear: and nothing else. And the soul? Just a word. It makes me think of another beloved quote, this one from Frida Kahlo: “I hope the exit is joyful, and I hope I never come back.” What devotion! What bravery!

It’s possible that the memoirist meant the Nietzsche quote to be a bitter reminder of the warped anorexic reality where body is everything—but I don’t think so. I think she saw in it what I did: a beautiful idea, made even more beautiful for its terrifying consequences.

So for a while, I was very anti-soul: souls are for pussies, I thought. For people who need to believe in something that lives behind and beyond the body—something without the cumbersome limitations of weight and mortality, that goes on forever without memory or desire. I don’t want to live like that: with a body as mere baggage. I prefer a body that I inhabit fully, even if it means I have nothing left when it’s all over.

I remember that the New York Times criticized the memoir for being too bleak, for not offering enough hope. And it wasn’t really offering hope—it was offering reality, which in this case meant exquisitely rendered suffering. But I didn’t find her story bleak, and I don’t find the idea of a soulless body bleak either. Of course, when I think too hard about death, I end up with the same existential nausea as everyone else. But there’s something exciting about embracing that emptiness, so I take my stand with Frida and with Friedrich.

But something I heard on NPR the other day made me reconsider my reading of the word soul. They were interviewing an expert on aging. She said that when people get older, they don’t change—they become more of what they are. If you’re wise at 27, you’ll be wiser at 97. And if you’re a bitter young man, you’ll be a bitter old one, too.

That resonated. I thought of a body drying out as it aged, losing the lubrication of youth and becoming not just more wrinkled, but more saturated. Tasting more strongly of itself.

And I thought of my friend Lexi, an artist in New York who I’ve known since kindergarten. Everything about her shares some common thread of Lexiness. I recognize it in her work, her handwriting, her voice, her walk, in every room she’s lived in, and it hasn’t changed in the 20 years I’ve known her.

People do change. They grow up, get religion, get jaded, get married. But there’s also something that doesn’t change, and personality isn’t a strong enough word to describe it. It’s more physical than that.

What is the thing that doesn't change? Looking back to the Nietzsche quote, I see now that it’s not dismissing the soul so much as offering a different way to use the word. Instead of the soul being a life raft to something beyond the body, it’s a word for something of the body. What about the body? The way it coheres.