Category Archives: Thought of the Day

Perpetuating Reality: Time is not real

Two students in my Rhet. & Comp. class claimed on Friday that time does not exist. I’m writing this now, describing a memory as an idea, and if you’re reading this now, you’re constructing these words and sentences into your own abstract ideas.

One of my students said she’d like to discuss time’s reality for her assignment to craft a philosophical argument. So we start by defining time as that which flows along, carrying all existing things in its current (the current moment). Clocks don’t measure this time, because clocks just measure events — electric clocks measure AC cycles or quartz crystal movements; atomic clocks measure the behavior of certain atoms — and clocks do not measure time itself.

We talked about how objects degrade over time — metal left outside rusts, wood breaks down. But this “wearing down” of physical objects isn’t caused by time but by the action of other physical things on this objects — chemical reactions cause rusting, mechanical erosion causes scratches, etc.

Physical objects can only be affected by materials and energy — time, being neither of these, does not exist physically.

So perhaps time exists only in our ideas, our minds, our conscious understanding. We can look at an old building and see the rust on the door hinge and the softening brick and think that this house is old. But then, we can think anything.

But objects exist in a perpetual now — there is no past, no future, for an object. (And even this description threatens to fall into thinking of objects as having their own form of consciousness — it’s hard not to think this way.) A homeowner might look at a rusting hinge and think that it should be replaced, because the hinge no longer lives up to the homeowner’s expectation of what should be. But someone, like an artist or scientist, who just wants to see what is might just see the object in the present moment without regard to what it was or could be.

As an artist myself, I can enjoy looking at dilapidated barns, for example, and appreciate their falling-down-ness, whereas if I owned those barns, I’d see trouble and expense and a physical world that wasn’t matching my expectations. (I can recognize that feeling, though, when I have a certain class session that isn’t happening the way I’d like it to be happening.)

It’s such a part of my consciousness, of my way of understanding reality, to think of time as being an ongoing thread (or flowing river) connecting all my experiences throughout my life. I suspect that this is one of the features of the cultural software that was constructed as a framework for thinking as I grew up.

I developed in the late 1970s/early 1980s version of this software, in which certain things — TV, microwaves, nuclear arms race — already existed, and in which certain values — divorce is normal, women have careers, and it’s OK for boys to cry — were normal. I suspect that the 1930s-era software my grandparents grew up with (during which time the metaphor would not have been “software,” of course — but player piano rolls? timing gears?) had different technology and different values and so they no doubt have trouble understanding things like the satellite television remote and the value of racial and ethnic diversity. No doubt I myself will find it difficult to understand change as my system-software ages. But this is also why it’s pointless for old people to say “In MY day, we didn’t do that” — as long as one is still alive, one might as well adapt.

So, yeah — there may be no time at all. It’s so easy for me to think of the past as these experiences I remember, and the future as things I will do, that it’s easy to overlook that the only time I’m really alive is right now (see also here). I’ve got 20 years of journals — but “years of” anything is an empty idea. What I should say is that I have notebooks and print-outs (and computer files, even) that are marked with dates from 20 years ago, but these notebooks, etc., still exist now, and when I read them, I’m reading them now. I’ve long tried to figure out how to understand the writer of these past writings, which writer’s handwriting looked like mine, and some of what the writer said sounded like something I’d say, but which I don’t remember saying it. Was it Younger-Me? But Younger-Me is not Now-Me, so then, is it a different person? Well, maybe it might as well be. My old writings are just ink on paper that exists in that form today. My memory of having written a certain page (or my not-having such a memory) doesn’t really matter. Without memory, there is no past, anyway.

And probably there is no “reality,” either, other than whatever “reality”-image we construct in our minds, our mental models of the world. Even terms like “reality” and “the world” are abstractions, and what really seems to exist — matter and energy, physical things — exist without the names of “matter” and “energy” or “atoms” or any science label. We can think about the physical world — that’s what science is, thoughts about the physical world — but we don’t really know what’s there. We perpetuate reality only by perpetuating the idea of reality.

And if there’s no time-river, and no time-thread, then there’s no place for events or experiences to be saved, and so there’s no such thing as “truth” that any statement or story could correspond to. So in a criminal court, the verdict of any trial is the constructed story that the jury finds most realistic.

And if there’s no time-river, no time-thread, then there’s no time in which one could jump (it’s so easy to think of time-as-distance this way), and so there can be no time travel. Time might be how we explain change, or we extrapolate from perceiving change (which perception requires memory), but time itself doesn’t need to exist. (Though, of course, some abstract explanations for how matter-and-energy work invoke the idea of time, such as space-time).

It’s so hard for a conscious, abstracting mind to escape abstraction. Abstracting is its habit, its process; abstracting is what the mind does. It’s exhausting, sometimes. Yet, I live in a world of abstractions — following rules and curricula, teaching theories and ideas — those are what keep the physical roof over my head and the physical food coming to my body. But no ideas are real in the same way that anything I can touch is real.  That may be why I so desperately enjoy, at certain moments, letting go of thinking and lying down flat on my back and just not-abstracting (which can’t be directed by thinking but can seem to be allowed to happen) — some people might call this mediation, but I often just fall asleep. This not-thinking allows me to just be now and not think about anything else.

All gum still is

Inspired by these thoughts by poet Sparrow, I had this thought recently:

Gum is never used up; it’s just moved around. Almost all the gum that ever was, still is.

What is it that we do most of the time?

A text from my pocket notebooks, dated 19 August 1994:

What is it that we do most of the time, when we’re not distracted by something else like working, being angry, etc.?

Like, for example, the pauses between volleys of dialogue (besides thinking of either your own next point or a response to your partner), or the walk between your car and the destination building — we don’t always think of who we’re going to meet or what we’re going to say; sometimes, our minds wander.

What is it that we do, such as while driving or riding (and not doing some well-defined activity like reading)? We don’t always have thoughts running through our heads — or do we? Current observations, opinions, or some unrelated occupying thoughts (of one’s job, family, etc.). My guess is that most people do think all the time — too much. Few times do I just sit and unjudgmentally watch.

In writing, I mean, are people always doing or thinking something? Is there a stream of thoughts or merely watchful emptiness? Must one always be doing something?

Dialogue: Culture, media, and the generations

My former student and current friend, D., emailed recently with a thought about his reaction to watching the TV show The Goldbergs. It got us started on a discussion of how we perceive our culture and the differences between culture over the recent generations, and how we draw our ideas about these things from our media.

D.:

The Goldbergs is a reminiscence of the creator’s family when he was growing up during the 1980s.  It’s somewhat comedic; I’m not sure I care for all of the actors, but it is what it is.  I was, of course, disappointed with it overall. Why was I disappointed in it?  Because it didn’t feel as close to The Wonder Years as I wanted it to be.

Then I started thinking of the absurdity of this thought.   Its basic premise is that a show that is reminiscent of an earlier time, should be close to the reminiscence I have, which is later than the time depicted in the first show of a show that was reminiscent of an even earlier time than that depicted in the first show.  How dare someone mess with my reminiscence of someone else’s reminiscence of a time I didn’t live in!

I should mention that I didn’t really live in either time period that the shows depict — while I was alive in the 1980s, I don’t have any particular memories of the 1980s that would make me particularly nostalgic for that period.  But I suppose it’s all nostalgia that I wanted it to feel like The Wonder Years — which I do recall, if not for having re-watched it as an adult.

My EMailed response:

I’ve only watched a few minutes of Goldbergs, and my reaction was that it was almost as dumb as an ’80s sitcom (say, Who’s the Boss or Perfect Strangers), as if it were borrowing plots and/or scripts from those dumb shows. It didn’t seem to match the tone of Wonder Years, which I remember as being a little wistful, fairly intelligent, and serious, in tone.

That said, I was 14 when Wonder Years started [in 1988], so I remember watching it and it being about people who were almost my age, but 20 years earlier, so it was kinda nice. I don’t know how I’d feel watching it now — probably the way I feel about watching Girls, which is that it’s hard for me to take the characters seriously. I mean, I remember the angst I felt in my mid-20s, about career and life-purpose and ambition and what-not (and you as a student in my physics class witnessed some of what teaching came out of that angst). But now that I’m almost 40, the wisdom (of knowing more of who I am and what I really want and need out of life) of my current age more than makes up for the fact that I didn’t become whom I, in my 20s, thought I might become.

Sorry, that’s not what you were asking, but that came up.

So, I was watching Wonder Years when it was new, and it was about a time before I was born, so I had 2 perspectives on it. You were watching it in reruns, and so you had at least 3 perspectives on it — as a show about 1968, as a show made for 1988, and as a rerun (in whatever year you saw it). So I’m not sure quite what you were saying here — when you were watching Wonder Years in rerun, did you have nostalgia for 1968, 1988, or both? So I’m wondering if you’re comparing Goldbergs to how you remember the 1980s feeling to you, or if you’re comparing it to how you felt about Wonder Years, either 1968 or 1988?

P.S. I described this to my wife, and she had the thought that Wonder Years filled a role for people our age in that it kinda explained our parents’ generation’s culture to us, and this was a culture we still lived immersed in in the 1980s (with oldies radio, M.A.S.H. reruns, and just the media/cultural hangover of the 1960s hippies and 1970s Vietnam/Nixon ideas). I know that you’ve said you got a dose of 1950s culture from your parents, and I’d be interested in hearing what you think was the cultural milieu for people your age [D. graduated high school in 2003]– but my suspicion is that you did not get a constant dose of the ’80s the way we got of the 1960s/’70s — partly for the fact that the so-called Baby Boom demographic was so large that, other than the cultural blip that was grunge music, nothing from my teens/twenties has had much influence on people your age and younger. Maybe I’m wrong — I’d be interested to hear your perspective.

D. Responded:

I think you actually did understand what I was saying.  I was pointing out my own absurdity – the absurdity that I am mad about a show in 2013 that depicts the 1980s, because it doesn’t remind me enough of a show from the late ’80s / early ’90s that depicted the late ’60s / early ’70s.  And that in neither case could my reminiscing go far enough back to the period depicted in the show.  Therefore, I am nostalgic for someone else’s nostalgia, and angry that a third person’s nostalgia is not the same as the original nostalgia that I liked.

That said (and poorly clarified), you raise a really interesting point about generational cultures.

When I think of my sister J.’s kids, I think they are growing up in a relatively modern family.  J. began having children at the age of 25 (which right now seems really really young to me – though she is a natural mother).  So her kids have parents whose cultural influences are relatively contemporary.  Sure, my sister J. has a strong like for ’80s power ballads, but her actual cultural heritage is more akin to the mid-’90s (she was in high school ’93-97).  And she and her husband are relatively young compared to the other kids’ parents that her kids go to school with.

When I think of my sister L.’s kids, I think the opposite is true.  L. started having kids at 31, but her husband was 44.  L. grew up in the 1980s (high school ’84-88) and [her husband] S. grew up in the ’70s (high school ’71-75).  L. and S.’s cultural influences are from a much farther back time than J. and [her husband]. I think neither set of cultures has a real strong hold over on the kids, though.

I’ve always wondered about what happened in the 1960s and 1970s that has made it so pervasive in the minds of future generations.  Surely, they were going about their lives as you and I go about our lives.  But it seems like there is a holdover from the 1960s and 1970s that differs from other ages.  The only other time periods I sense had the same holdover effect in my time were the Great Depression and World War II eras. I seem to recall my grandfather’s cheapskate ways being explained as something he learned from the Great Depression (although he played the stock market rather than the mattress market).  I’m also not sure that’s not a bit of historical revisionism — his father owned the first gas station in McHenry County during the Great Depression, sold it twice to move to Hollywood so his wife could be an actress, and came back and re-purchased it each time.  I find it hard to believe the Great Depression was all that Great for him, but I could be wrong.

Maybe it’s because the current cultural landscape seems so much more diffuse right now than it would have in the ’60s and ’70s?  For example, I would bet it’s difficult to corner five random kids in the high school and have their favorite band be even within the same genre of music, let alone the same band or musician.  Back in the ’60s and ’70s, culture was more unified — not completely unified, but more singular.  Or maybe it wasn’t as unified, but certain movements of the population were more unified.  Fads may have, surprisingly, had more power than they do now.  For some reason, I’m coming up with haircuts as fads, but also maybe shoes?  I’m basing some of this on what I’ve heard older people tell me about the ’60s and ’70s.  How everyone had to have this type of hair cut, or that type of shoe.  Obviously, fads still work their magic today, but maybe not to the same degree?

I’ve always thought the unifying act of a generation was its war, whether it’s a military war or a civil war or a philosophical war. But even my generation’s war (or wars?) seems diffuse compared to Vietnam or World War II or Korea.  Even the Cold War seems more concrete than either the “War on Terrorism” or the Afghanistan / Iraq Wars. Perhaps we’re gearing up for a philosophical war about government, but even that doesn’t seem very likely or unifying.

A thought just occurred to me that my generation’s parents were probably more diverse than previous generations.  My dad was older than the Baby Boom generation, and my mother was squarely in the middle of the Baby Boomers.  But it’s not uncommon for my friends to have parents that are 10 years younger than my mom, and in some rare cases older than my dad.  That reduces any unifying element to a certain degree.

I guess, to answer your question, I don’t know the cultural milieu of my generation, other than it feels like it’s more diffuse and less unified than other generation’s seemed to be.  Of course, other generations may only seem unified in retrospect, too. Best answer: I don’t know.

Me again:

I appreciate your response here — and I agree with your closing thought, that pretty much any discussion of culture and generation and cultural generations is gonna be vague and subjective and whatnot.

But I do share your view about the ’60s and ’70s being a more singular/monolithic cultural time — in fact, I remember even the ’80s and early ’90s as being a time when there was more shared media experience, at least. There were so few TV channels, and without the Internet, radio, newspapers, and magazines were much more influential, more culturally central, than now. I also remember that, without having the Internet to allow comments and viral-fads, it was never clear back then when others liked a TV show or movie, or thought it was important, except when we talked to each other in person and asked “did you see Cheers last night?” This also meant that writers never got much feedback on their work, and a lot of stories just seemed to be published and forgotten about, as if sent into the aether. There would be a few times when some talk-show person or morning personality would praise or discuss some show or magazine article — this is back when maybe pundits/columnists were far more influential than they are today — or let’s not say “influential,” but authoritative — when David Broder or someone wrote a column in the ’80s or ’90s, there weren’t dozens/hundreds of comments saying how the column was misguided or even just wrong. I’m sure some of today’s older pundits still have this authority in mind when they speak, and they don’t want to admit that they don’t have it now.

So there was perhaps more “steering” of cultural tastes back then, in the days before Springer and cable news and reality TV — but I wonder if there always existed a market for dumb TV (TV for Dummies?) but which market wasn’t being served until there were niche outlets?

So, sure, I believe that the ’60s and ’70s were more culturally remembered because they happened during more media-monolithic times, but I also think of the ’60s-’70s culture as a reaction to and refutation of the narrowed culture of the ’50s, which was probably a reaction, a desire to return to normalcy, after the Depression and the WW2, and these two events/cultural moments were also significant, and I think we remember them as significant partly because of the mass-media that grew up in the ’20s and 30s, with radio.

Short story long, I suspect that how we think of the past decades and generations may be linked to the fact that there were mass media making us aware of both national stories and national culture (I’m thinking of, for example, how people reacted to hearing Kennedy was shot, or seeing the Beatles on Ed Sullivan’s show, both experiences nearly simultaneous for everyone in the nation — and now we only have that for big news events like the Boston bombing (and every modest-size event that gets magnified by cable news) and the Super Bowl.  I think the largest TV audience in history to this day is final M.A.S.H. episode in 1983. Not that people didn’t talk about culture and generations before 1920, but I suspect this framework was not as common as other frameworks for viewing society — say, immigrants vs. citizens, North vs. South (and other regionalisms), social class, etc. I often wonder what uneducated people did in their evenings before TV. My dad, whose farm family didn’t have TV until he was in 8th grade, said he recalls neighbors coming over for visits. My dad’s brother also has told me stories about people going on weeks-long drinking benders that makes me wonder if people drank more instead of watching TV.

I suspect you’re right about fads being more popular (and maybe being longer lasting than our current fads, such as they are) in past decades, and that the wars that were held were more influential as well — maybe because there were drafts back then, so more people were involved. An all-volunteer army isn’t going to make people get as upset or involved as a draft-army would.

It’s interesting to read you describe your own cultural experience as diffuse — that doesn’t surprise me. I feel like my generation’s experience was concentrated, but then almost immediately forgotten, which I partly blame on numbers: there was an increase in live births after WW2 — the baby boom — but the birth numbers dropped off and hit a low around my birth in mid-’70s, and then the numbers went back up as the baby boomers had kids — what I’ve heard called the Baby Boom Echo. [I actually heard or read a Realtor blame the housing crash of 2007 on this: that the average age of first-time homebuyers was 33, and it was my small birthyear that turned 33 in 2007. Of course, this was not likely the major factor…]

D.’s Response:

To be honest, I had never thought of the idea of a Baby Boom Echo, but it makes sense that the numbers ended up that way.  The idea of it affecting the 2007 crash is probably far fetched, but it probably didn’t help anything.  As a side note, I looked up some statistics on the Iraq / Afghan War and the Vietnam War. During Vietnam, roughly 1.8% of the population served in the armed forces, 0.03% of the population was killed as a result of the war, and 0.08% were wounded.  Compare to Iraq / Afghan War when 0.473% of the population served in the armed forces, 0.0024% were killed, and 0.017% were wounded.  There were much higher numbers of people affected during Vietnam, but it still seems smaller than I would have guessed. [I’m not sure the source of the above numbers. For details about military service, see here and here.]

Your point about what people did before television is an interesting one.  The perspective of your father and uncle is interesting.  I wonder if it would be different for a towns-dweller.  In my head, and purely residing there without any factual basis to back it up, people got together more often at social events.  You had community dances, not for highschoolers, but for the entire town.  People had each other over for dinner (rather than eating out).  People had each other over for tea.  But in my head, people also didn’t work as hard.  And of course, this is made up out of a bourgeois sensibility.  Industrialization and immigrant-laden poverty pockets created their own micro-cultures.  But even my dad recalled a time when immigrant ethnic groups didn’t intermingle in Chicago.  He, for example, lived in a non-Irish neighborhood (despite being very Irish) and generally associated with other ethnic Irish folk.  He also went to Irish school as a child. But he also knew which parishes (and that’s how they said where they lived – he lived in St. Gert’s, his brother now lives in St. Tar’s, etc.) were Irish, German, Polish, Russian, etc. So I guess working class folk of his childhood would have felt both more and less diffuse.  More diffuse in the sense that many clear cultural groupings existed.  Less diffuse in that you stuck to your own.

If I think about my own childhood, there was never any suggestion that I should “stick to my own” people.  Of course, growing up in Rochelle, there was really only one subset of people — white, lower-middle-class folk.  But even religion wasn’t pressed as a dividing point.  It would be interesting to see what the children of St. Pat’s right now are like in a few years.  When Father L.  was here, he was a big proponent that Catholics should only engage socially with other Catholics.  With the rise of home-schooling among the local Catholic population, and probably quite a few of those parents believing [Father L.’s] advice is good, it will be interesting to see if they have a better sense of cultural settling than I do.

I think its more than the lack of concentrated media guidance that has lead to the diffuse-nature of contemporary culture.  Certainly access to different cultural viewpoints makes the process easier. I think its more an effort to combat ethnocentrism, either purposefully or incidentally.  For example, my father went to Irish school on Saturdays, like I said earlier.  There are still Irish schools on Saturdays in Chicago (and other metropolises).  I assume my father didn’t send his kids to Irish school because of the lack of availability and/or the cost.  But it could have just as easily been that he didn’t find it valuable when he went as a kid.  I know people my age who were made to go to Irish schools when they were kids and found it very beneficial.

I wonder, too, if similarly aged individuals in other countries have this problem.  For example, it seems like the British are somewhat more culturally settled than the Americans.  But again, I don’t have anything to back that up.  It just seems that way.  British culture seems like an entity; American culture does not.

The past is not -7: Remembering to forget

I’m not sure it helps to think of time in a linear way, as if time were on a number line (with the present at zero, the past as negative numbers, and the future as positive numbers). This seems to suggest that we could time-travel by jumping to some other spot on the number line. Maybe the past is only memories, the future is only conjecture, and the present is — is the only thing that’s real but even the present can’t be defined.

Hell, time may not exist outside of one’s consciousness at all.

But what I have in the present moment is a lot of pages of writings that seem to be in my handwriting (and those things that are not in my handwriting — those things I typed — do feel a little less mine, somehow). I’m glad I have these writings. Sometimes I can look back and read about things I said I did but no longer remember doing. Sometimes I’m surprised by how wise I was years ago, or that an idea that seems recent was in my mind several years ago. (Sometimes this makes me wonder if I’m really ever doing anything new, or just refining — or spiraling back over — things I first said 20 or more years ago.)

And I’m tempted, at times, to look through these older writings and get passages to write here on the blog. There are some reasons why I don’t do this more often, namely that doing this seems boring. I don’t feel like I really wanna go back over all those old things. A dip into the past, a glimpse back, are fine, but I don’t want to spend a lot of time typing up stuff I wrote when I was not the person that I am now.

Besides, I’m tempted to not be limited creatively by what I did in the past. I want to be doing new things, not thoroughly wringing out whatever life was in an ideas I had once. Ideas come all the time when I’m open to them, and I’d rather keep having new ideas than feel some obligation to a past idea just because I’ve spent a lot of time on it. I want to do what I want to do, creatively speaking, and what I want to do is keeping having new ideas — by “ideas” here, I mean new perspectives, new understandings, new points of view. But even modest ideas are new ideas.

I’m not explaining this well (a familiar feeling: words suck, and yet, they’re what we have, unless we also have other things).

But, hells bells, that’s OK, too. Why does every explanation need to be good? Eff that. I’m alive and I do stuff and I think stuff and that’s all. I mean, my writings are, in a way, just a by-product of my consciousness, anyway. My texts are by-products of the creative process, of the mind engaged in writing, of my conscious mind seeming to take dictation from the mind-voice that is the source of the words. It’s easy to think of the writing as the product, rather than as the by-product — it’s the writing that sells, that can be shared, not the experience of writing, and yet, the libraries and used book shops give away books filled with ink all the time. Empty books would have more value than a lot of the books filled with words. It’s easy to focus on the thing, the material object, rather than on the immaterial, subjective experience, and yet, why would anyone do something just to make a dead product.

And one of my older ideas is that my completed journals feel dead to me. Once I’ve filled all the pages with my writing, the notebook goes on a shelf and I get a new one that feels more vital. Of course, the words I wrote even moments ago are already past, and dead to me. This is how we live, of course, with every moment being new; revision pretends that things can be done over, re-lived. I understand that writing is not speech, can’t always be compared to speech, and yet writing that is worried over is dead in a way that speech never is — and how weird it’d be if we went back and revised our conversations. Sure, sometimes we wish we hadn’t said a thing, but, eh, life goes on. Apologies can be good. But we don’t get to revise our lives, of course; those continue. Each moment is new.  (However one defines “moment,” which is awkward of course. I like the metaphor of a mind crystallizing, coming into focus, around a feeling, idea, or perceived pattern, say, like recognizing a face, either a real person’s face or a face in a cloud). Living is fluid, is an act, is a process — we often will talk about a life, or one’s life, as if it were a thing, an object, when of course it is nothing but an abstraction.

All is fluid, is act, is process — or I should use verbs here and say, flowing, acting, processing (and these verbs are, of course, as abstract as the nouns are). And these labels we use are, of course, our own mental shorthand — these labels are not anywhere in nature, in physical reality (unless some human has written them there).

And I’ve said this before. But that’s OK, too. It’s a funny thing to be alive. I’ve long thought that there can be no statement of a meaning of life — statements are inadequate. We experience. We can think about what we see, and then we can think about it again. We do things whether we understand what we do or not. Maybe we never know why we do a particular thing. Maybe that’s OK.

And I think it’s fine that we try to understand things through words and labels and concepts and models and such, just so long as we remember that all of this has very little purchase on or intersection with our experiences, our bodies, and the things our bodies interact with. So long as we remember to forget all we think we know.

Indecipherable metaphorical palimpsest: Letting go of past ideas

I’ve been here, writing at the top of a blank screen, three or four times already. You, reader, wouldn’t know that.  (Even if many people read this post, we read it one mind at a time. Each mind’s on its own, reading-wise, right?)

And I put an idea out there — that I write my journals so I can get ideas out of my mind, so my thinking doesn’t burden others by me telling them all of my ideas — and that’s an idea I had earlier today, and it’s sorta inert. By inert, I mean, it’s … it’s sorta done already. I don’t want to deal in done-ideas; I wanna have new ideas.

I want to write what I don’t know about already (even that’s an old idea). I had an idea a few minutes (and at least one start-over) ago that I don’t have to know where I’m going as I write, that I could really just be as open as possible to new ideas and whatnot. And then that thought seemed worth holding onto, until I realized I was holding onto it and by do doing, I was not being open and fresh and ready to receive new ideas — sitting on the cusp of a new idea.

Metaphors are inept, but then, so are all words. Words are not ept.

But I’ve been critical of words before, too. It’s New Year’s Eve now and I don’t feel very much like looking back or looking forward — I will say this idea that comes to mind from when I thought it yesterday: that I’ll complete my 40th year of living this year, and I had a feeling yesterday, as a salesman at the electronic store explained Windows 8’s “charms” to me (not the program’s charm, but its actual usable features uncharmingly called “charms,” apparently), that I am …

See, it doesn’t matter what I thought, because it was just a thought and it was fleeting, and so I can let it fleet. Also, a charms criticism reference made in 2013 is probably dumb, and so I’ll probably take it out, and if I leave this line in, this text will be hard to read — that revisability aspect of writing can make it some indecipherable metaphorical palimpsest …

And I’m now spiraling into meta-writing and personal self-criticism. Moving on.

So, you know, or should I say, just so you know, I reminded myself today that I don’t really need to feel old as I approach 40. It’s a cliche to think that turning 40 matters.

Someone recently asked me why I write things down — this was at our local diner and I had a piece of paper out and was noting things I heard — for instance, an older lady actually, unironically, used “crick” instead of “creek,” a typical Midwesternism — I felt I was documenting some actual usage. I told my questioner that it’s interesting to pay attention to overhearing others and noting some things, because it makes me realize how much cliche people use (myself not excepted).

And we use cliches and familiar expressions because these things can facilitate communication of meaning. An older man at the diner last week said, “I can’t say enough good things about” a local hospital, where (I’m presuming) he was recently treated, and treated well. I imagine this man trying to say enough good things … standing at a street corner and uttering praises, maybe as someone utters prayers. But that’s me, and I have a tendency to be what some call a “smart-ass,” and I take words apart as if words meant nothing, as if communication were impossible, but of course I’m aware of language weirdness but I also write as if language could convey stuff.

Eh, what are ya gonna do? I’ve also thought lately that it was … I don’t remember what it was that I thought lately. At any rate, it’s past, no? And I’m trying to stay present. I’m carrying on this monologue, straight from my brain-parts to your brain parts. Oh, here is my idea from a day ago: that there can be sentences whose meanings can’t both be true — say, “This stapler is made of metal” and “This stapler is not made of metal” and these two statements don’t try to resolve their discrepancy — it’s only within a reader’s mind that these two statements would feel/seem discrepant, and then we may feel we need to discern which statement is real (and if we’re gonna get technical, which, why not?, we might examine the definitions of the nouns and verbs above — what does it mean to be “made of” something?).

And yeah … I don’t know. I don’t know. It’s damned freeing to not know. To not-know may mean to let go. Writing piles up in books or online, or wherever, and nobody really needs it, probably. Sartre’s dead, my dad’s dead, and I’ll be dead one day. But those too are just ideas — hell, Sartre’s just an idea.

And now I’m boring myself. I’m at 800-some words. I could edit this down to make that last sentence a lie. I could take out every other word as a sort of avant-garde experiment. I could just publish this post in the middle of this sentence. But I didn’t.

 

Disenchanting Santa

An Illinois winter

An Illinois winter

As I was writing the previous post, it started becoming this post, and it seemed best to separate them. But this post does build on the idea of outgrowing the belief in magic that fiction may require.

As I’ve grown up, I don’t really feel a need to believe in magic — I don’t often feel enchanted, and I don’t feel like the loss of magic is a bad thing. I read something this week that said children pass through a developmental stage of thinking magically, and I’ve been pondering this idea as I’ve been thinking about Christmas and how much the stories around Christmas (the Biblical story of Jesus’s birth, but also the stories of Santa, Frosty, the Grinch, etc.) require magic. I don’t know, I guess, why we need to believe in magic. I don’t want to disillusion the children I know — perhaps I’m a little bitter about having been disillusioned about the holiday years ago.

In my memory, there’s this connection: The Christmas Eve I was 9, as I was carrying the garbage to our farm’s burn barrel (I was trying to be good so that I deserved our family’s holiday celebration), I got the idea that I should ask for a Bible for Christmas. Somehow I was going to become A Good Person by asking for a Bible and living by it (whatever that actually meant, I’m not sure, and I probably wasn’t sure at the time. My family wasn’t particularly religious, and maybe I just had an impulse toward purity or self-control or something. I was 9 — what did I know?). I somehow made this into a test of the Divine: my last-minute request would be fulfilled, if Santa, and by extension, God, were real enough to read my mind, as they must be able to, if indeed they are Santa and God. But I didn’t get a Bible. Unwrapped under the tree the next day — the first Christmas in the apartment we had moved into after my parents’ divorce — were a baseball bat and helmet that I recognized as having come from a store’s going-out-of-business sale months earlier. I knew right away that these things couldn’t have come from Santa, but I questioned my mother about this later that day (even then, I was intense — obsessive — enough to need an answer. I have never been one to privately hold a doubt that could be shared publicly.) My poor mother, who was trying to do the best she could that first Christmas, on a reduced income and without parenting help, admitted that she was the source of the gifts from Santa.

I believe she also said that Santa may not be an actually existing person, but that I could think of Santa as the spirit of generosity. It’s a nice thought as far as it goes, but it’s hard to be satisfied with an abstraction substituted for a being of simple magic.

And I don’t even know why I have held onto this story for, well, 30 years now. Was I really that devastated — I mean, was this the single biggest moment of disillusionment in my life? I admit that I’ve led a pretty lucky life, if finding out about Santa is my biggest let-down. Am I trotting out this story as an explanation for why I still don’t feel I can trust in magic or, for that matter, God? I seldom find that such facile tales can be a complete explanation.

And yet, just now as I write this, I’m realizing what I couldn’t have understood at age 9 — that maybe finding out that Santa wasn’t real only months after finding out that my stable family life wasn’t real, either, was just a bit too much for me to take.

I have never really thought about this in this way before. My parents’ divorce was amicable, was relatively easy, and there was never any abuse or loud fighting — there was no need to be upset. Yet maybe I was upset but couldn’t quite admit it.

Of course, I was a weird kid at that age — I started reading “1984” the next year, because the next year was THE 1984, and I must’ve heard about Orwell’s book in the news or from a teacher or something, and wanted to prove that I could read such an adult book. (I didn’t read more than about a hundred pages, which is probably for the best — I didn’t need to find out about rat-torture when I was 10.) But with the divorce, and the move, and the new school, new friends, and then new world-without-Santa that year, I was probably under a lot of what I would now call stress and then didn’t know what to call it at all.

And again, I hesitate to pinpoint one moment in my past, one story, as determinative, mostly because to do so is bullshit. (One of my high school students, having recently read my blog piece about the Grinch, said she liked the Grinch’s backstory that’s in the Jim Carrey movie but not in the Seuss original. I generally find “backstory” worthless — let’s not oversimplify every character’s  action to a simple cause-and-effect from a childhood trauma.) There are many reasons — or no reasons at all — why a person is who he is and does what he does: biology, genetics, social influences, unconscious learning, etc.

But for some reason, I have been thinking a lot lately about this finding-out-about-Santa moment, and the part of who I am that I have access to is my past, and this past (faulty though I know memory to be) is something I can and do re-evaluate and continue to learn from over time. I don’t tell the story above to be maudlin, though I acknowledge that it may strike some readers that way. I guess I want to explain to myself why I’m not keen on Santa or on “Christmas magic,” and maybe this explanation above does hold insight.

Most of the year, of course, I don’t think too much about magic. I dismiss magic or Divine Will — these are not useful explanations. When others tell ghost stories, I remind myself that identifying something as a ghost is merely a subjective jump-to-conclusion after some unverifiable experience. I prefer evidence and reason and even non-answers (open questions) to bullshit answers.

Maybe my lack of faith is connected to my lack of desire to read fiction. Maybe not. Most of the time, I don’t value either faith or fiction. And even an explanation about my past is itself just a story, perhaps useful and perhaps not. But I feel a need to summarize at this point in the post — or, rather, I feel a need to reach out to some higher truth, some insight that feels right. Maybe none is forthcoming now. Perhaps later.

Beyond genres, writing as a way to live

I earned twelve dollars and fifty cents this week for explicating Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” when I substituted in a high school colleague’s literature class for 25 minutes. I made my money by discussing the ornate crassness of lines such as “worms shall try/That long-preserved virginity.” I wondered aloud to the students why anyone would attempt to argue, to logically reason, someone into bed — has such a thing ever worked?

The next morning, the poem came back to mind, and I wondered if perhaps Marvell had been playing a joke — if the whole poem were some clever attempt to state in high style what is essentially a pick-up line.

Lately I’ve been wondering if all writings, maybe even all artworks, that are made intentionally for unknown others to read (as opposed, say, to writings done in a journal or letters written to a particular friend) are, in some sense, made to impress others, to show off, to build the writer’s reputation.

An assertion: All writings that are created in order to be published are written self-consciously; that is, these texts are written with the author’s own reputation in mind. Even as I write this blog post, I’m aware that it will give readers a sense of who I am as a writer, how competent, how interesting I am.  (Yes, I suppose that I sometimes write poems without intending to publish them, and if they turn out well, then I’ll publish — but before I decide to publish, I think about how the poem will make me look — pedantic? loony? genius?) So writers are always “on” in their published works in the way that actors or politicians or other professionals are “on” whenever they’re in public.

But being aware of, and wanting to build and protect, our reputations can make it hard to be honest, hard to be our most-authentic selves. When writers only publish their final drafts, they seem unapproachably perfect to novice writers. Perhaps writers want to seem perfectly brilliant and not like the flawed and/or boringly normal people we are. Certainly, not every thought that comes into my mind is worth telling others. (I’ve had to block certain Facebook friends who commit this artistic and anti-social sin.) But when we can let go of our self-control as writers and be spontaneous, we may also write things that are beautiful and that are wiser than we normally are.

I’m reminded of a st0ry Natalie Goldberg told in one of her books (I’m not sure which, perhaps “Wild Mind”) about giving a public reading of a text that she had written just a few hours earlier, a text that was basically a first draft, a freewrite.

Now, I don’t mean to say that all writings should be first drafts, either. This is a concept I struggle with, though. If I write for publication only things I already know, I risk lecturing others/being pedantic, or just as bad, being merely clever in an attempt to entertain. As amusing as The Onion is (and this story gets a little too close to my truth), it also strikes me as the mental-nourishment equivalent of eating frosting. And while the idea of writing Onion stories seems fun at first, it later comes to seem like some level of hell where everything one writes must be snarky. (My own Onion story suggestion: “Onion writer would just honestly like to be taken seriously.”)

Of course, I’ve set up yet another distinction — writing for oneself vs. writing for others — and most distinctions are arbitrary, temporary — are tools for thinking, left behind when no longer needed.

And so I write. I don’t want to write to meet a publishing purpose, so many of which seem needlessly restrictive. It may help marketers to establish genres and categories of art, and it may even help some readers to orient themselves, but dividing up the magazine rack by topics, and the bookshelves by genre, suggests limits on what counts as “real writing” that I accepted for many years.

I thought that what I wrote was valuable only as long as others would find it interesting — that is, I thought I had to carve out of my writings only those short bits that would fit into established, marketable categories. It has taken many years for me to see the arbitrariness of these things, and to understand that an artist is free to (and maybe ought to) challenge the common ideas of categories, of purposes, of value. Realizing that the standards against which so many things are judged are also arbitrary helps in that when we are creating something new, there can be no standard against which to judge a new thing, so there’s no wrong way to do it. Standards, forms, and genres melt as the confections that they are when exposed to the cleansing rain of creativity — to use an overwrought image, but eh, why not? Part of the fun of writing is the chance to use language fancifully sometimes.

I’m also aware that this is the second reference in this blog post to a sugary substance — this was not intended, but when these images (of the frosting, the confection) came to mind, I went with them. Perhaps this reveals something about my mind — but maybe all writing that is not intentionally-and-arbitrarily limited does reveal the writer’s mind.

But it takes a mind to tell stories — things and events do not tell their own stories. Every written thing is the product of someone’s mind, someone’s consciousness, someone’s mental voice (however one wishes to conceive of this). I had an experience of seeing students moving down a hallway yesterday, and my interpretation of their walk was that it was more of a shamble, almost as if they were cattle being herded ahead of the cowherd-teacher driving them. Of course, all of what I’ve just described was a mental phenomenon — I’m not lying, but I’m telling a story that exists only because I’m telling it. Nothing in the world outside my mind compared these students to cattle. But perhaps my description communicates to readers and perhaps interests and/or amuses them — and the reader can’t share my experience, but only my words.

And my words, too, must be interpreted by readers before they’ve communicated anything — and I hope my words and ideas could benefit others. But I know that I write to benefit myself. I write because thinking and writing are how my mind operates in my life. Some people craft furniture, some dance, and some of us write. Some of us see students walking like cattle and feel a need to say that, and then we are amused by the description alone.

Whether or not anything I write ever becomes widely known doesn’t really matter to me. But I write what I want to write, when I want to write it, and somehow this satisfies my mind’s need.

The Iliad, consciousness, reality: How I get tired this evening

I’m tired tonight, so I’m not sure how coherent this post will be, but I’ve been waiting for a chance to post some things, so here goes:

I’m reading selections from Homer’s Iliad (in a recent translation, though the translator’s name escapes me just now) and as we’re reading, I’m finding lots of weird and wonderful things that I point out to my students, and things I’d also love to talk to other adults about. For instance, there are moments in this serious work about war and grief that seem to me to be just plain funny, as when Hector says he will fight Achilles and kill him, or he will die an honorable death — and then when they meet, Hector turns and runs around the city of Troy, three whole laps.

It occurs to me that discussing artworks is one of the few things in life where many people can share the same experience and then discuss it. We can all read or watch the same book or movie, and then compare our experiences of reading or viewing. In much the rest of our lives, we have experiences separately (for example, even if two friends are each parents, they are parenting distinct children, in different houses, etc.), and while we can discuss our separate experiences, we cannot directly compare our experiences, the way we can when we experience artworks.

I experience subjectively — that is, even if you are standing next to me, you do not know what I experience. At best, I can communicate through words what I experience, but of course, that’s not direct experience. You can get my symbolic interpretation/representation of my experience, but you do not see through my eyes, or sense my mind.

So, when we experience, we are sensing (seeing, touching, etc.) and we are processing/interpreting what we sense. Much of what we experience, we forget. We may remember certain sights and smells, etc., but what links those senses to meaning is the stories we form from our experiences. For me, at least, much of what I know about my past is in the form of stories — that is, abstracted experiences, ideas of connected interpretations that often describe not the experience that was had but the world itself. These stories tend to compress time and ignore the moment-by-moment nature of our lived experience.

These stories may help us to structure and remember our experiences, but these stories may also be complete bullshit. Our memories are often faulty, but even if they are not, our stories edit out moments from continuous time. It’s so easy to look back at our own lives and think that all we were thinking about was the experience at hand — but I don’t seem to experience my waking moments that way; I’m often doing one thing now but also aware of what I should do, or would like to do, next.

I realize it’s sorta futile to discuss, in words and ideas, the limitations of words and ideas, and how words and ideas are always at best a kind of (what physical metaphor to use here?) layer, a kind of overlay, on top of physical reality.

Another of my classes is discussing the definition of “real,” and so far we have “something that exists or is proven to exist” and so far we’ve spend many minutes discussing what a “thing” is and what we’ve come up with is that a thing is a boundary we imagine around a piece of matter so that we can talk about the physical realm one piece at a time. We notice that a certain piece of matter, a fork, can be separated from another, a table. To simply be able to see pieces of matter as separate is an abstraction — and of course even words like “matter” and “physical realm” are abstractions.

No words exist outside human consciousness (or so it seems — it’s quite a generalization to make there). Or, perhaps some animals — like apes who use sign-language — can think symbolically. But the point remains — a fork can never declare itself to be a fork.

But to see how arbitrary the label of fork is, is also to see how hard it is to keep talking about the physical realm without the help of differentiating labels. We revert to “object” and “thing” and “this thing” and “that thing.”

So maybe we can’t escape words, but we can, through the ongoing process of thinking, become aware how loosely our ideas about the world are connected to the world itself (even such a loose term as “the world” starts to feel like bullshit and the word wilts, somehow — “wilting” is a pretty good metaphor).

And I asked my students how we can talk about things we don’t have labels for, and they suggested we talk about relative terms, and that we make comparisons — a platypus has a beak like a duck’s, but a body like a beaver’s, for example. So our ideas connect one to another, from these we can build whole systems of ideas, and yet, …

And yet, it seems to me lately that whole systems of ideas — Hegel’s metaphysics, histories of World War II, mathematics — start to seem deflated, as if they were held up by hot air that, once it escapes, leaves the idea-systems flat on the ground, unimpressive, step-on-able.

Taking a bit of a leap here, but it makes sense in my head to do this (and what are all writings, all texts, if not signs that there was a consciousness that produced them?), to say that fiction works and nonfiction works have in common that they are both ideas. Sure, nonfiction purports to be about the real world, but if the “real world” is itself an idea, a construct … and further, there are no facts in nature — there is no tree or rock on which facts are discovered. Facts are made by people, in the form of words, ideas, symbols, and these are what we are comparing nonfiction or fiction to.

But we have a notion of what the real world looks like. As my class has read The Iliad, I’ve become aware of how careful the story is to make most of the human-god interactions believably subjective, so that the story could be read in two different ways: as a fantasy-tale featuring personified gods who intervene directly in human activities, or as a realistic tale of human-only activities (and where the gods speak to only one person at a time, or in the guise of a human, so that the gods could be said to be the product of a particular person’s subjective experience).

That The Iliad can be approached in two ways, or as two distinct stories, seems very subtle, very wise, and it suggests that we can approach any text and decide whether it’s fiction or not based on what the text contains. I mean, if there is no truth “out there” — and where, exactly, would that be if there were? — but all ideas are products of human minds, then what exactly are we asking for in a distinction between fiction and nonfiction (or in any distinction, really — guilty/not guilty, here/there, up/down, etc.)

I’m not quite sure what I’m getting at, which to me is the beauty of the writing process — if I knew what I was saying, I wouldn’t need to say it. Sometimes I have ideas, and they seem cool, and I start to think I should write them up — but then I think that maybe they are just so much inert deflated ideas (as described above). But then I think, eh, what I write is just the byproduct of my mind’s ongoing function, and perhaps somebody else will have some of their own ideas provoked by something here.

One of the earlier discussions my class of sophomores had before we started The Iliad was about where the world began, where everything came from. I gave the case from science, that there was a Big Bang from which all matter and energy and life descend, and we also discussed the Bible’s Creation story in the first chapter of Genesis, in which God creates the world. But science can’t know what came before the Big Bang (because how could there ever be evidence before there could have been evidence?), and Judaism and Christianity can’t explain how God came to exist, and so both the religion and science accounts are just stories, are sets of ideas. Yes, the science account has more physical evidence to explain the physical realm, and religion can go beyond what has evidence, but both science, in its generalizations called facts and theories, and religion, in its formal structure of creeds and theology, have little to say to inform my personal, particular, subjective experiences.

After all, my mind contains ideas from many external sources, but whatever it is that gives rise to my mind, to my thoughts, my words, my experiences — whatever it is that is me feels like its beyond explanation, beyond theory, beyond labeling. I am complete in every moment, in every thought, continuously the same through the years I’ve been alive but I experience my consciousness discontinuously, leaping from crystallized thought to the next crystallized thought, each thought whole-born. I exist only and wholly now. And now. And now again. (And even talking about “now” or “the present moment” feels inadequately abstract.)

But in my thinking, I’m attracted to discovering the limits of ideas, the boundaries of what can be known. I’m not sure why this feels more important and interesting to me than other sorts of thinking. This, too, is part of the mystery of where ideas come from. (See here for related post.)

And now, I really am getting tired, and I’m feeling that in my attempt to distance myself from abstraction, I’ve gotten quite abstract. Ah, well. Such is a mind and its chatter. The ideas come and go but the thinking goes on.  Living is more than merely figuring stuff out abstractly, of course. Living is also falling asleep in my comfy bed.

So this post may not satisfy — but writing it felt good.

Notes from last Friday

My mind lets go at sleep time. One’s ugly opinions vanish. We’re sweet as just bodies sleeping.

Me-deprived. What I give the world is just ideas. These are not a big deal. And many different people can provide physical services. Make ideas–let the computer make the copies (via the blog serving multiple readers). My writings [can be widely shared, can be experienced after I’m gone], but not my presence.

My intensity [as a writer, as a person]–I’m not easy-going. You may not want me around all the time. Even my wife says I’m too intense for her at times. Like Lewis Black–I like his comedy but wouldn’t want to be around it all the time. We don’t even want to be around ourselves all the time?

I don’t even want to read all my own thoughts–I’d rather think new ones. And maybe sharing my work isn’t just that big a deal. You like it or don’t, you maybe like it now and not later. It just doesn’t have to be that complex a decision–a relief!

Don’t get distracted by my own beliefs/stereotypes/theories.

Go deeper into your work, not wider to think other jobs have meaning.

The beauty of a world where nothing transcends, where nothing lasts. Just throw work out there, move on.

I could publish my emails, my journals, but nah–no need to. Keep writing anew!

There’s no need for nostalgia or myths when we keep moving forward.

Many ideas in recent days have felt like they had the power of revelation.

Instead of being given a topic to analyze, finding “topics” is my point, as if the seeking were way more important than any finding. The seeking is the openness.

These thoughts come through-out the day over recent days, like mini-bursts of revelation. I note them, want to save them and get them out of my brain, but once the ideas are written down, I don’t feel like elaborating. I don’t really feel like writing this now. Partly I think these are some neat ideas, ideas that feel important, feel like a valid part of what I am learning, yet I don’t know how to write these for others to read. Then I think that I don’t need to. Then I also think that maybe I’m getting a bit obsessive/pushy about the whole thing–ha! But then, eh. It probably doesn’t need to be written down. As I said today, the writings may not matter. The world may be beautifully non-transcendent, beautifully impermanent. Maybe it doesn’t need to be commented on as if it were special.

And I really seem to love the idea [ha–I forgot! I was just gonna repeat an idea from earlier and then I got distracted by TV!] oh, yes–the idea that I need to follow the new ideas, the openness, not get distracted by analyzing stories, etc. etc. Don’t blog about pop culture and philosophy, etc. — like my close reading of “The Emperor’s New Clothes”–don’t bother. Focus on own ideas, own openness.

I’m making a new form. I mean, of course I don’t know what I’m doing, and I don’t have to follow other forms. I’m cut loose from those.