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.