1.26.2015

You Are Pi (More or Less)


 
At some point in my schooling, they introduced the number Pi. They throw this number out there to you as a way to measure things about circles. But they don't spend very much time on how downright odd it is. How the hell can you multiply anything by a number that is infinite? My kid, who's 11, asked me this just yesterday. I stopped, thought about it, realized I've been thinking about it for 35 years, then said: "I dunno. Good question."

Math class went on without me as I stayed stymied by Pi. Here's a number that is absolutely precise, infinite, and unknown. Holy moly. That's odd and beautiful and a pedagogy unto itself. In many ways, this is all I've thought about for decades.

Since I was a little boy — like most kids, I think — I'd been interested in infinity. I used to lie in bed at night, clothed in darkness and tightie whities, and conjure infinite space until my whole, skinny, little body would shake in a kind of pre-sexual orgasm. It was sublime.

But what was giving me this exquisite sensation of vertigo was infinity in general. And what was so strange about Pi was that it wasn't the infinity of space. It was, in a way, small. It's not even four!

Infinity, then, need not be a generality. In fact, there are infinite infinities — the numbers between one and two, between three and four, between one and 1.27869, between 17 and 64,943,999,329.07. All these different shapes — and I was going to say sizes — of infinity!

Infinity is not necessarily a sprawl in all directions — which was what turned my eight year self on — but can be this tight, precise trajectory: 3.14159265358979323846264338327950.... What I'd come to learn from the calculus (although not from my dumb-as-a-doorknob calculus teacher) is that infinity is not just particular, it's bound. It has a limit — a limit that's never reached, sure, but a limit that it infinitely approaches. Limits and infinity are not opposed.

That may seem counterintuitive but that's only because we tend to think in terms of geometry, shapes in three dimensions — squares and circles and such. We tend not to think of things in terms of four dimensions which, alas, is the way of things. Things move, always and necessarily. Time and change are not added to things after the fact. Time and change are of things, immanent to them. Everything is always and already in motion, in time, being stretched along a spatial and temporal trajectory.  (This is what drives the philosophy of Henri Bergson — how to think in, and with, time.)

From geometry to calculus, from shapes to shapes in motion, from being to becoming, from Pi to you and me. Just as Pi is infinite yet bound and particular, so is a human being. We are these shapes in motion, these trajectories of becoming.

Step back for a moment and just picture yourself from inception — or even before — to now. See yourself as this thing stretching, morphing, continuously both physically and metaphysically. You are that shape in motion, bound by things such as bone and weight but also thinking and concepts. I'm a skinny ass dude; I will never be The Rock. Such is one of my limits.

And yet I am not pre-known. This is what's incredible about Pi and human beings: we are precise, bound, and yet we have no idea what's coming next. There are supercomputers around the world dedicated to figuring out the next step of Pi precisely because we don't know. And yet it has to be that next number! It is precise. It can't all of a sudden jump to four.

This is the same with human beings. Nietzsche uses the example of rolling the dice: you don't know what's going to come but whatever's going to come is, indeed, going to come. It's a matter of chance, yes, and it's a matter of necessity. Fate and chance are not opposed; on the contrary, they are one and the same. You are a continual rolling of the dice, at once absolutely necessary and absolutely unpredictable.

You are a differential equation. You are a bound infinity. Or, better, you are this bound infinity.

1.18.2015

Whatever Works For You


I was having lunch with an old friend the other day who was in in town visiting. She told me, rather hesitantly, that she'd done this three day workshop of something called Landmark, some fruitcake spin off of est. You can guess why she hesitated: she told me she kept picturing what I'd say or, more specifically, how I'd judge her.

I understand why she'd think that as I can certainly be judgmental, or at least seem judgmental (jews from New York have a tendency to speak emphatically about things that we find irrelevant, or at least I do).  And while I don't know squat about Landmark, I already kinda hate it. But here's the essential component: I hate it for me! And, no, I don't have to do it or learn about it to know I hate it. That's an absurd logic. If we had to try everything in order to know whether we liked something or not, we'd all certainly die much younger and more dramatically.

Anyway, why the fuck do I care if she did Landmark? She told me she got a lot out of it, that after three intense days, she found herself less quick to anger with her kid, more relaxed, more open about communicating difficult things — to wit, telling me she'd gone to Landmark (that is the tip of the iceberg of the things she's become more comfortable talking about, trust me).

So, after she told me all that — and after spending several hours in her decidedly relaxed company — I found I did care that she went to Landmark. Or, better, I still didn't give a shit whether she'd gone to Landmark or not. What I cared about is that she did something to make her day to day life a better experience. What she did is irrelevant to me. Whatever works, works.

Yes, indeed: Whatever works for you. That may seem trite but, the more I think about it, the more profound it becomes. First of all, I love this idea of working — not capitalist (or communist!) working but working in terms of operating. As I get older, I see life as mechanical, all these moving parts, many of which are invisible (ideas, memories, moods, notions, inklings, and the such). We take in all kinds of things — words, ideas, sights, sounds, stinging nettles, Ambien, food, gin. We then process it through various interwoven systems — digestion, thought, and others we don't have agreed to names for.  All together, I'd call them metabolism. And then we play it back as other thoughts, words, sights, sounds, pictures, moods, shit, sweat, caresses. 

We do slight systems maintenance all the time. We eat, drink water, have a cocktail, pop a pill, make a call. That is, we usually address what we take in and, sometimes, try to control what we play back. Rarely, we address the processing systems. And this is what my friend seemed to be telling me: she'd gone for a processing adjustment and it seemed to work, to make her system more healthy and vital.

This systems approach to life — which is radically different than a mechanistic or labor-productive view of life — enjoys a logic refreshingly free of truth, morality, and their attending affect, sanctimony. This is, of course, nothing new. This approach to life has an ancient name: rhetoric.

Rhetoric is not indifferent to the truth; it's just not beholden to the truth. Truth can come in mighty handy when you're arguing, especially with yourself. I know I've been in the madness of anxiety and found comfort in the truth that that brown spot on my leg is not a malignant lesion. As we all know, this doesn't always work. More often than not, other and stranger kinds of arguments take the day. It must be a lesion because I also have a sore throat! 

How, alas, does one excavate oneself from such careening thoughts in which truth is temporary, suspect, and often useless? Well, a stiff drink works. I've heard there are strains of something people call medical marijuana that can shift one's thought patterns. Meditation works for many; distraction, too — flip on The Wire reruns. Which is all to say, whatever works for you.

Does this open us up to rampant disregard for morality? Thankfully, yes it does. But does it yield unbridled sodomy and murder, selfishness and theft? Well, hopefully yes on the sodomy and selfishness. But the fact is morality has been the spur to rampant violence throughout history, from the executions of those nudges, Socrates and Jesus, to the Crusades and Inquisition, to the bombings of large buildings and cartoonist offices to the destruction of entire nations in the name of democracy.

"Whatever works for you" shifts the focus from always and up on high to right here and now. Rather than assessing circumstance, other people, as well as oneself by some abstract code —Thou shalt not bugger your neighbor's wife! — it forces you to focus on the here and now, on the people around you, on your own physical and emotional state. Does hanging out with this woman make me feel strong and vital and healthy? Does it work for me? Or should I just head on home and strum my guitar, however poorly?

This is all to say, "whatever works for you" is amoral as well as distinctly ethical. As it inaugurates a certain systems thinking, it's a proposition that considers the big, albeit local, picture. It makes us ask ourselves: What does, indeed, work for me? How can I adjust this system? How will doing this or that affect my in-take, processing, and playback? It has us look about and see how we fit into the flow of things, to how things operate together.

1.12.2015

The Madness of Thought


It all begins with a number. As part of a doctor's physical, I get blood work done and one of the numbers comes back abnormally high — not freakishly high, not imminent death high, but peculiarly high. So there sits this number on a screen (of my laptop, from home, a benefit of the electronic medical record). What does it mean? And who, or what, determines this meaning?

Next to the number is a set of other numbers, a range of what is officially — whatever that means — considered normal. This is no doubt useful information as it's presumably an aggregate of lots of numbers from lots of people. Of course, in many ways I am not a normal person. If we look at the aggregate of how people lead their lives, I don't lead a normal life. So why should this be normal?

Yes, I realize that the body is different. At least I think I realize that. Are our bodies in fact so similar that we can offer what is normal and what is not normal? I suppose so; I suppose we are machines and, sure, there are deviations but for the most part, we are mechanically pretty much the same.

Still, there's that number on a screen and what it means. My doctor-mechanic doesn't know. I sit with him and offer theory after theory — maybe I eat too much rice and it's the arsenic; maybe I don't drink enough water; maybe I drink too much booze. He doesn't look at me; he vaguely nods along to my nervous theorizing. And then he orders more tests.

To him, as a doctor, I am an aggregate of mostly discrete numbers, some of which can be taken together. He doesn't consider my mood, which is a tad manic. He doesn't look at my skin, my ass, my balls; he doesn't ask about my sexual appetite or my sleep or what I've been eating, what I've been craving. No, to him, I am a set of numbers within a model of the body and its attending decision tree. It's an elaborate economy of signification: if this, then that, unless there's this, then it's that.

I am not suggesting he's wrong or right; I am suggesting that the way he finds meaning and the way I find meaning are quite different. And that both are premised on a certain madness — his, the madness of numbers; me, the madness of, well, madness.

I see that number and my mind goes in multiple directions at once. At first, feeling good and go lucky, I think nothing of it. Who's the medical industrial complex to tell me what's normal and what's not? I like my kidneys functioning like this! This nonchalance, however, quickly gives way to a careening horror: I am dying. Suddenly, I start noticing all the tics and pains in my body. Everything becomes a symptom — how I shit, my appetite, my sleep (or lack thereof), bumps, bruises, tastes.

All of my thinking is run through with the horrific images of my sister's death. She went from diagnosis — basically no real symptoms prior to a massive one — to death in five months. I remember being at Sloan Kettering and the doctor popping film into the light box and pointing to these little white dots — one in this lung, one in that lung, one in the liver, others I can't remember. Those little white dots on a screen — a very strange photograph, for sure — was a death sentence.

So now that's all I see: little white dots where there shouldn't be. Of course, I can't see these dots — they're in my organs. And they're not just little white dots; they're animated, moving maliciously, mercilessly. Mind you, I haven't seen any pictures of my innards. All I see is a number on a screen and my thoughts take me to little white dots of death.

I remember once, maybe 15 years ago, playing frisbee (I refuse to capitalize my f) golf in Golden Gate Park with my brilliant friend. We never played a course. The joy was to move through the park and pick 'holes' as we went. See that tree there? The crazy one? No, the one next to it. Ah, yes. There's something beautiful about seeing together. Anyway, one time we're making our way through the park and let's just say we're feeling good, as it were, and my friend says: See that rock there? And I reply: The tombstone?

He sees a rock; I see a tombstone.

All thinking is metaphoric, a movement from here to there. That is what metaphor means, movement, transfer, transport: going from a rock to a tombstone, a number on a screen to death. Nothing presents itself in some unadulterated being. Everything is enmeshed in economies of power and desire. Everything is historical.

This is the beauty and hilarity of thought. It's rarely a direct line. It zigs and zags; it careens, makes surprising detours. Deleuze and Guattari give us a different image of the body, a different metaphor: a body without organs. Their body is one of diverse and varied flows, not one of organs and functions. The body with organs seem so, well, industrial. The body without organs is exquisitely psychedelic.

Clearly, our structures of thought — our categories and logics, our truths — serve different kinds of power. Usually, we think with fear — fear of the little white dots, of the darker skin, of losing a job, of dying, of being alone. Nietzsche tries to offer us something else entirely, what he calls a gay science, a knowledge of joy. 

Meanwhile, my shrink says to let all thinking go, to enjoy my thinking, in whatever form it takes, but never to take it seriously for all thinking is historical, transient, all-too-human. And the world could care less if I live, if I die, if I'm sick or stupid or happy. So I might as well be happy, numbers be damned.

1.05.2015

Passionate Indifference




My sister died about 14 months ago. On some days, I am gutted by this reality. I picture her not just gone but gone for good, gone forever — I'll never hear her sweet, cheerful little voice, see her face, hug her close. On days like this, I spiral into a pit of horror and malaise. I am a weeping,  screaming, inconsolable mess. 

And then there are days when I don't think about her at all. I'm almost ashamed to write this but it's true and perhaps inevitable. I forget that she was alive and that she's dead. I simply go about my day with all its triviality and drama. Maybe I think of her somewhere deep down in there but it doesn't matter: I am indifferent. 

And then there are other days when I feel something else completely, when I feel neither totally distraught nor casually indifferent. On these days, while I know her body is gone forever, I know she is not. Even if I can't call her on the phone, I can still hear her voice. I can sense her. She lives in everyone who met her — in her parents, in my brother, in me, in her kids. But she also just lives on as the world will never be the same after her; she shaped it all just so, like everything and everyone does. I don't feel devastated or indifferent. I feel enormous, unbounded love. And I feel the beauty, the inevitability, of her passing. 

OK, OK. This is an extreme example. Let's take it down a notch or two. Let's say one day, a woman breaks up with me. And let's say that I have loved her or, in any case, been quite close to her, leaned on her, counted on her, cried with and for her. She has been the focus of my attention — emotionally, physically, practically. Suddenly, there is a chasm — no more activity partner, no more lover, no more friend. I am devastated. Distraught. Heartbroken.

And yet, to state the obvious, life goes on. Everywhere around me, things proceed as they will: the sun rises, dogs bark, ants swarm, cars collide. The world is in flux, relentlessly and necessarily. Everything gives way, even love, even life. So, if that's the case, how can I be so devastated? How can I have this one tiny moment rock my world? Isn't it, finally, truly irrelevant? 

There's something about watching a person get so worked up by worldly shenanigans. We see it all the time — the guy cursing in the traffic jam he's in every day; the idiot on line at the airport, irate because a storm has delayed his flight; the parent who snaps at his kid's badgering. It's embarrassing to see and even more embarrassing to be that person. How could this someone — that version of me — not know that this is irrelevant?  

At the same time, there's something disturbing about the person who feels nothing — who doesn't cry when his girlfriend breaks up with him, who doesn't love, who's detached from the everydayness of life. I know I've often felt this way, seen the world from a remove, felt equally incapable of love and hate. I've been numb and blind.

Day to day, I'm often blown away by how much we face, how much we negotiate — the demands of work, lovers, children, parents; the promise and temptation of imagined futures seen in glances, the gestures of strangers, in dreams; the often unbearable burden of what's come before; all the anguish, violence, fear, and guilt of childhood, college, marriage. So much has gone into bringing us to this moment, this state of affairs, this mood, this body, this condition. Sometimes, for me at least, it all seems so overwhelming. It's as if I’m drowning, being smothered to death by life. 

And then I get a glimpse of the transience and infinite expanse of it all. How can I get stressed about some client when the universe is in relentless flux? How can I get worried about whether some girl likes me when it's just one microscopic moment within a cosmos that is both eternal and infinite? If I am more than just this skinny, bald, hebe — if I am an integral part of this universe, as necessary as any sun, pebble, or flea — then all my worrying, all my intellectual and existential attention, suddenly seems so absurd.

Kierkegaard says we live in two worlds at once: the finite world of the social, the ethical, the human-all-too-human (to borrow from Nietzsche); and the infinite, eternal world of divinity. For Kierkegaard, this is what Jesus presents us with — the simultaneity and, alas, incompatibility of the finite and the infinite, the mortal and the eternal, the human and the divine co-existing within us. They don't need to be reconciled or united, as they are in Hegel. It is our task to live as humans and gods at the same time, with every step, every breath, every word. This is why Kierkegaard relied so much on irony (the topic of his dissertation): it lets us speak in two registers at the same time, to express our human selves while, in the same breath, effacing our human selves as we point to the divine. 

As I try to live in the infinite, I often find myself leaning away from the human world. I don't care, is what I utter to my kid, my lovers, my mother. Why and how could care about all this silliness? After all, we are stardust, billion year old carbon. Who cares about an infidelity, a fight, a client presentation?

But not caring is equally absurd. After all, I am human. I live in this world. I want the love and attention of my girlfriend and when she dumps me, it hurts me. When my boy is feeling bad, sick, anxious sad, what else could matter? I am his father and this is our life, right here right now. And sure, work is just work, but I need my clients to like me, to think I do good work so they'll hire me again, so I can get paid in order to buy food, pay rent, drink gin, support my boy. To dismiss it all as human nonsense seems negligent and, well, just plain wrong.


I've returned to this phrase — passionate indifference — over and over for the past 20-odd years. I think I first uttered it after seeing Pulp Fiction. Here is a film that seems so detached from its characters, that's willing to inflict such cruelty on them. And yet, at the same time, it is a film of tremendous love — love of film, of life, of the audience. It is at once passionate and indifferent. I don't know much about Buddhism but this is how I read that fat, laughing version: thoroughly engaged, thoroughly detached. 

This, I believe, is our challenge: to be at once passionate about life and indifferent to its silliness or, in any case, its transience. This means not just being indifferent, not caring, but being passionately indifferent, engagingly indifferent, embracing the exquisite indifferent becoming of life (and death). It means being passionate about this life, about women and children and books, about art, ideas, and words while, at the same time, not binding all of ourselves to these human-all-too-human concerns. I want to be lit up by life but not tethered to it.