Saturday, November 21, 2015

My First Marathon

I'd been training for this marathon since April. I'd filled in that grid day by day with orange highlighter, and eventually the whole thing was orange. The morning of November 15th had arrived.

Grace drove us into Brooklyn while I was taping my feet and not driving into Brooklyn. Thanks, Grace.

These next few shots give you a sense of what a beautiful morning it was: chilly, with brilliant sunlight radiating through the lovely autumn foliage.

I was lucky to have not only Grace, but also some of our Brooklyn friends, cheering me on.

After my warm-up jog, I knew I'd be too hot with my second layer, so I stripped down to my base layer, pinned my bib back on and took my place at the rear of the small crowd of runners

The starting signal sounded, and I took my time approaching the timing mat. No use cramming myself into the crowd at the beginning.

50 minutes into the race. I was averaging somewhere around 8:10, which felt good but was also worrisome. I wondered if I was setting myself up for an early burnout.

1 hour and 15 minutes into the race. At this point I'd maintained an average pace of around 8:15, and was feeling strong and hopeful. My training pace indicated that I should have been capable of running a marathon in under four hours, and I had every hope of doing so.

At 2 hours and 15 minutes into the race, I was still feeling strong. I'd finished the first half in about 1:50, and at this point I still hoped to complete the marathon in under four hours, though my pace had begun to drop.

At 2 hours and 50 minutes into the race, my pace was dropping more and more. I note with some chagrin that I didn't return Grace's enthusiasm. By this time I was deep in my head, focusing all my energy on the run. Thanks again for your support, Grace.

At 3 hours and 25 minutes into the race, I entered the final lap around Prospect Park. By this time I knew I wasn't going to finish in under four hours, but I didn't particularly care, because I was approaching the point where all my energy would be devoted to keeping running. From around the time I passed Grand Army Plaza, everything in me said "Stop. Just walk it." But I didn't. My pace wasn't great, but I kept running--with the exception of a few seconds of walking at the water stations.

Headed for the finish line! Oh man, I was hurtin'.

This shot comes from the video of me crossing the finish line, which you can see on the NYCRuns race results site.

I didn't finish in under four hours, but by golly, 4:06:03 is a solid time for a first marathon, as is finishing 33rd of 58 in my age group. I'm happy with my performance!

I hobbled over to the grass, laid down and attempted to stretch. My muscles took this as an opportunity to express their profound dissatisfaction with the current administration.

My muscles began spasming and trying to cramp, so I knew I had to get up... very carefully. Eventually I was able to complete that civil engineering project and lurch woozily back to the car.

I stopped to do a bit of stretching...

...which triggered more agonizing cramps...

...but I was able, slowly, to walk it off...

...and return home with some sweet swag!

After the race I was looking for ways to improve next time. I found an article on running a sub-four-hour marathon, which indicates that my pacing during the first half was spot on. So I'm wondering if the problem was related to the food I ate during the race. The article recommends eating at most 500 calories during the first twenty miles, but when I did the math I realized I took in around 800 calories! The article talks about runners who don't take in enough carbohydrates "hitting the wall", and the symptoms of lethargy it describes sure seem like what I experienced. But there's no way I at too little. And I suspect that, if I did eat too much, the symptoms would have been similar; digestive difficulties combined with high sugar levels were probably to blame.

Another problem I had (perhaps it stems from the tiredness I already mentioned, but let's assume for the sake of argument that it's a distinct problem) was psychological. The article talks about using positive imagery to psych yourself up, but boy, that's easier said than done. I tried to do fartlek, but I just couldn't. During those last few miles, it took everything I had not to stop running; that was absolutely the most I could do. I didn't feel particularly positive. I was just determined to finish without walking.

Speaking of psychology, the most fascinating thing about the whole experience was the altered state I felt. That run did not seem like four hours. It seems that, when the mind tells the body to do something unendurable, the body steps in and alters the brain chemistry so that it becomes endurable.

So... wow. I ran a marathon. I'm still telling myself what I told myself as I crossed the finish line: "I did it. It's no longer future tense. I did it. I ran a marathon."

Sunday, November 1, 2015

My Analog of Prayer

The foliage was glorious today. The temperature was around 59°. The sun shone occasionally from behind silvery clouds. I felt lucky to be alive, much less running fifteen miles. Naturally, my thoughts gravitated to a topic on which I ruminate frequently: gratitude and its relationship with spirituality.

Let me preface this by saying it's not my intent to disparage agnostics and atheists. Agnostics and atheists are my people. I'm neither an apologist for the religious, nor a detractor of the areligious. I'm just musing on relative strengths and weaknesses, is all.

The greatest mistake agnostics and atheists make is to disparage notions such as prayer. To many folks, prayer is the most risible, easiest target in the world, and that strikes me as not merely mean-spirited, but myopic. In its purest form, prayer is an expression of gratitude. And boy, do we need that. We are animals who absolutely must have checks and balances for our innate sense of self-righteousness. We need periodically to see ourselves as we relate to our universe so that we understand that we are not the center of it. We need to see the gifts the universe bequeaths. We need to count our blessings.

To see what I mean, consider one common political disagreement. Conservatives tend to think that poor people choose to be poor: that anyone can claw their way up from the worst circumstances, so social cushions merely coddle and encourage laziness. Liberals tend to take the opposing view: that luck and circumstance play such a large part in success or failure that our public policy should reflect this.

And then atheists and agnostics--who are, oddly, much more likely to identify as liberal--turn around and do the exact thing they criticize conservatives for. They sneer and titter at the notion of prayer, not just dismissing the possibility that it has any value, but proudly proclaiming their own Randian superman self-sufficiency. "I'm not going to thank any forces outside myself," they say. "I got where I am through hard work, and I'll be damned if I'll give up any of the credit!" Doesn't that sound bafflingly familiar?

I'm not religious. Not only don't I believe in God in any conventional sense, I see no reason to suspect that the universe has any intent. Of course I think I'm right. We all think we're right. I'm utterly uninterested in conversations of rightness. I'm interested in conversations of efficacy. I need what they need. Whatever forces compel religious people to pray are also present in me, and whatever benefits they derive from prayer would likewise benefit me. So why in hell shouldn't I pray? Yeah, sure, I have no face in the clouds to pray to, and that's the whole damn problem. Prayer is orders of magnitude harder for me and for my people. We don't have a focal point for the prayer. But damn it, even if we don't pray in any conventional sense, we need an analog for prayer!

Don't buy it? All right. Do you buy this?

Sex is pleasurable because environmental factors during our evolution selected for a strong sex drive. Now that we are exceeding the carrying capacity of every biome on earth, that strong sex drive is obsolete: the behavioral equivalent of a vestigial organ. As rational, civilized beings, we should recognize that non-procreative sex is not only a silly remnant of primitive cultures, but actively harmful. Sex leads to abuse, violence and overpopulation. We should discourage sex. Sex is bad. Every scientist should be a militant asexual.

I'll bet you wouldn't get behind that. Yet I know folks who get behind this.

Religion comforts people because environmental factors during our evolution selected for social cohesion. Now that we have science, religion is obsolete: the cultural equivalent of a vestigial organ. As rational, civilized beings, we should recognize that religion is not only a silly remnant of primitive cultures, but actively harmful. Religion leads to abuse, violence and genocide. We should discourage religion. Religion is bad. Every scientist should be a militant atheist.

Now I agree with some of that, just like I agree with some of the paragraph about sex. But I ain't willing to throw out the baby with the bathwater in either case. I will make no apologies about continuing to enjoy sex, because I'm a member of a species which evolved to draw nourishment from sex. And I will make no apologies for seeking an analog for prayer, because I'm a member of a species which evolved to draw nourishment from questing after the numinous.

Again, I'm not an apologist for the religious. I'm a devout agnostic. I have no use for religion. I ain't never gonna do what they do. Don't mean I don't need what they need.

So here is my prayer for today.

Thank you, sun. Thank you, sky and clouds and lambent foliage. Thank you, universe, for the gift of my mere existence. Thank you for bones and muscles and blood and nerves, and for my capacity to appreciate them. Thank you for the circumstances that led me to develop a healthy relationship with my body, and then sneak past my own defenses so that I slowly came to believe I could run a marathon. Thank you for the opportunity to follow through on the necessary training.  Thank you for this day, when that training led me to run fifteen glorious miles. I see no reason to think I deserve any of these blessings any more than billions of others who aren't afforded them, and I'm grateful.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Hero Worship

Yesterday I had one of those unexpected confluences of thought that led me to an intriguing realization: some people glorify soldiers, police and firefighters in the same way that other people glorify artists.

If I went to a doctor, and that doctor's negligence caused me unnecessary pain and injury, I would be justified in taking that doctor to task because that doctor failed to uphold the standards of a doctor. No sane person would scream "How dare you! Doctors do a hard job! You wouldn't want to do that job! You don't know how to perform surgery! You live your life under the blanket of health that doctors provide! Shut up, you pathetic liberal!"

If I took my car to a mechanic for repairs, and that mechanic left the oil cap off, and my engine block cracked, I would be justified in taking that mechanic to task because that mechanic failed to uphold the standards of a mechanic. No sane person would scream "How dare you! Mechanics do a hard job! You wouldn't want to do that job! You don't know how to fix engines! You live your life under the blanket of transportation that mechanics provide! Shut up, you pathetic liberal!"

I work as a computer programmer in a hospital system. If I were negligent in processing patient records, and those patients suffered because of that negligence, the patients and my employer would be justified in taking me to task for my failure to uphold the standards of a computer programmer. No sane person would scream "How dare you! Computer programmers do a hard job! You wouldn't want to do that job! You don't know how to write code and process database records! You live your life under the blanket of efficiency that computer programmers provide! Shut up, you pathetic liberal!"

Yet whenever someone points out that a cop, or a group of cops, or a percentage of cops, are behaving in ways that reflect poorly on cops in general, some people scream "How dare you! Cops do a hard job! You wouldn't want to do that job! You don't know how to deal with criminals! You live your life under the blanket of safety that cops provide! Shut up, you pathetic liberal!"

I've long found this mystifying. To me, pointing out the bad apples in the barrel is the most sensible thing in the world, because I would hate to see that whole barrel go bad. Yet when some folks look at me doing so, all they see is someone who hates apples. And the weirdest thing is they don't do this for everyone. To them, the argument that "It's a hard job that you couldn't do" is only applicable to those professions. To them, soldiers, cops and firefighters are exempt from being held accountable to the very standards that make us idolize them in the first place! I just don't understand it.

But I do understand this: it's the same thing some people do with artists. To those people, artists exist on a pedestal that renders them unassailable to the quantifiable standards we apply to other professions. To those people, the mere act of looking at artists the same way we look at everyone else is an insult. Artists are heroes. Artists are above us.

It's hero worship. Or if it ain't, I don't know what the hell it is.

The longer I live, the more I think everybody's afraid. The way we respond to that fear defines us and separates us. But if you peel back those distinctions... it looks like none of us can stand the thought of a world where we're all accountable. It looks like we all need heroes to worship.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Slow on the Uptake

Wow. I am slow on the uptake.

As I was preparing breakfast this morning, suddenly, out of the blue, it hit me. You pro-Confederate flag people? You're not being honest.

I should've seen this weeks ago. I've wasted my time responding to you because you and I weren't pursuing remotely the same goals.

I grew up in the northeast, and I was as politically ignorant as it is possible for a kid to be. And even I knew there was something up with that flag. If I knew, then... you knew. You knew.

And now you're trying to deny what you knew. It's clear you never read the facts about the origin of the flag, or its resurgence as a segregationist symbol in the fifties and sixties, and you never will. You don't acknowledge that the white terrorist who murdered nine people in a black church in South Carolina was inspired by that flag. You don't talk about the black churches that have burned since then. And you sure don't talk about the fact that organizations have been trying to get that flag removed from the South Carolina Capitol for decades.

No, all you do is smirk, and spout some self-satisfied drivel. You obfuscate. You pretend that this is just a gout of liberal guilt that came out of nowhere. You blame Obama. You talk about the Dukes of Hazzard and throw around the word "censorship", disregarding the fact that no one is censoring you. You grab whatever nonsense is at hand and throw it back in the faces of anyone foolish enough to attempt dialogue with you.

Well I'm done. I'm not going to bother engaging with you any more, because I understand now that you haven't been giving me the same assumption of clean intent I've given you. Have your fun with your filthy rag. I'm going to see how I can help get it taken down from the South Carolina Capitol.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Why I Want To Share My Runs With You

Why are you reading this?

Sort of a silly way to start, but maybe the only way. Because the answer tells you why this piece has been kicking around in my head unwritten for so long, and why I'm still having such a hard time starting it.

You're reading this because I posted a link on Facebook. And I feel really, really silly writing about why I post things on Facebook. But, like it or not, Facebook is a substrate of my social life. Much as it frustrates me to say it, the act of sharing there is important. Even when I share something that seems fatuous or trivial... it's important.

That's not to say I fret about everything I post. People will either understand why my absurd remarks are important to me, or they won't. Either way, there's nothing I can do to change their reaction, and I accept that. This piece is about the exception to that rule: my posts about running.

Last summer, when I started using the Nike running app, I started posting my runs several times each week. I ran more regularly over the winter, and a few weeks ago I began a new training schedule that's got me running—and posting my run—every day. And I wonder what you must think.

This preoccupation might seem silly, but I have a good reason for it. I've noticed a trend during the last year or so: a waxing of social media crotchetiness that seems like the bitter, hyperthyroid offspring of "No one wants to hear about your workouts". Last year I read an entire article about how no one wants to hear about your vacation. It seems that to show pictures from a trip or a hike is tantamount to bragging, and no one who has ever viewed such pictures has felt anything but jealousy and rage. Someone actually took the time to draw out that sad bile and distill it into words, and he wasn't alone. Pick a topic, and there's someone ready to tell you that no one wants to hear you talk about it.

I find such paucity of spirit remarkable. I can understand someone saying "I don't want to hear about this." But no one wants to hear about it? That assertion seems statistically untenable. Even back in those sad days when I was hopelessly lost in social awkwardness, lacking even the most rudimentary grasp of why I didn't have a girlfriend, I didn't begrudge anyone else their relationship. Even when I was fat or injured, I never begrudged anyone their athleticism. And when I see evidence that some folk have more money than I, or are more together than I'll ever be, I don't begrudge them that. Yeah, sure, I get sad when I see people doing things I can't or just don't, but I don't wish ill on anyone. I don't presume to say "No one wants to hear about that." And I can't believe I'm alone.

So I post my runs, knowing that a few of you like to hear about them, and hoping that a few more of you care. But lately I've found myself yearning not just to post, but to share. I want you to know what those runs mean to me. Here goes.

On April 18th I joined my friend Benny on a nine-mile run. I'd never run that far before, so I was doubtful about whether I could do it. I had no idea how much a winter of consistent running had retooled my lungs and muscles. Those nine miles felt like nothing. I was so exhilarated that I decided to try ten miles the next day. The ten felt glorious, and I spent all the rest of that day in the most profound state of relaxation I'd ever experienced. I wasn't particularly tired; I didn't necessarily want to sleep. But you know when you're exhausted, and you lie down, and for one delicious moment you feel like you're melting into the bed? I felt that just standing up.

Those physical sensations mingled with pride in my accomplishment, and I reveled in that heady mix. Yet for all that, those feelings weren't just the culmination of a winter's worth of work. Were that the case, I wouldn't be posting my runs, and I wouldn't be writing this. No, this isn't about the previous six months. This is about the culmination of four years spent unraveling the fear and anger I'd been nursing since childhood.

I was fat before I knew the word fat. And the moment I hit kindergarten it was clear that I wasn't just a fat kid; I was the fattest kid. I had no physical coordination, no physical worth. I was good in school, but inept everywhere else. I grew up hating my body, and living in my head.

Long before puberty I knew no girl would ever want me. It went without saying. To even think otherwiseto think in any way highly of myself, for that matterwould have been to invite derision. So I got good at self-deprecating humor. To make the fat jokes before the bully could think of them felt like a victory. Preemptive attacks on myself showed them that I was smart enough to out-think them, and tough enough to handle anything they could dish out.

Can you hear the fear and anger? Can you feel the dualities, and the fervor with which I clutched them? I was a fat freak who would never be anything but a fat freak. And I built my sense of identity on that rock. I knew who I was, and I knew who The Other was. The jocksthose demons in my personal hellthey were who they were, and I was who I was, and never the twain shall meet. I was nothing like them, and never would be. Arrogance indistinguishable from self-loathing simmered in my skull for decades.

And then a few years ago I started to unravel it. That unraveling was the first step on a road that led me to that weekend when I ran the nine miles I didn't know I could, and ran ten miles the next day. And there I was, feeling... even now I despair of telling you true how it felt: the wonder of it, the liberation and humility.

I imagine we have all experienced the joy of accomplishing something we never thought we'd do, yes? Well, this was an order of magnitude beyond that. This wasn't just me doing something I never thought I'd do. This was me doing something I had specifically told myself I would never do. After decades of snarling at myself and at the demons that existed only in my head about who I was, who I wasn't, and the things I would never do... here I was, being a person I told myself I'd never be.

Have you ever felt a compassionate hand settle over yours and pull gently on your clenched fingers? Have you ever felt yourself release your grip on dualities you've clutched to your breast for decades? In that moment, that's what running meant to me. It was a blessing. It was a wire flensing away one more layer of my self-imposed limitations. It was grace.

When I share my runs with you, I am sharing those feelings, that overflowing of grace. Call it bragging, if you like; we live in a time when everyone jokes about bragging, and anything positive we say about ourselves falls into that bucket. But damn it, I'm not cynical enough to believe that there's no distinction between bragging, and sharing with an open heart an accomplishment that makes one feel glorious. We can aspire to at least enough generosity of spirit to see that distinction, yes?

So I'm going to keep operating under the assumption that any statement beginning with the words "No one wants to hear about your..." is incorrect. I'm going to keep posting my runs, and I'm going to keep hoping you understand what they mean to me. Because man, I know I didn't do anything to deserve this grace, and I feel too small to contain it all, so... I gotta spread it around.

I hope you do the same. I hope you share the stuff that feels too wonderful not to share, and I hope you have faith that I'll know it ain't just braggin'. I hope we can open our hearts that much. I hope we can help each other divest ourselves of dualities.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

On Obfuscation and Clarity

Ever since I finished my second run-through of "Breaking Bad" (I'm finishing my third now), I've been pondering a particular aspect of the show: that all secrets are revealed. Every character who was lied to finds out the truth. Every moment when we felt the tension of knowing something one of the characters didn't has a corresponding moment of cathartic release. Hank finds out about Walt and Skyler. Jesse finds out about everything that Walt (and Huell) did. The cycle of setting up, maintaining and eventually releasing secrets informs the drama so conspicuously that it's clearly intentional and seemingly integral.

This aspect is interesting in light of twentieth century literature, which not only embraced confusion, but often refused to allow the characters one iota of clarity. Think "Waiting for Godot". A hell of a lot of twentieth century art is nothing but obfuscation.

Thinking over all this, it occurred to me that this attribute of revelation may be a characteristic of the western, and "Breaking Bad" certainly is one of those. Think about "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly". Think about the heroic tone of the western, and you'll probably come up with other obvious examples of characters who gravitate toward an inexorable revelation that is at least painful, and maybe deadly.

Wondering what this cycle of obfuscation and revelation implies about our storytelling impulses, I came to see it as a dialogue, a dance or a fight between modernism and its antithesis. "There are no absolutes," says modernism. "I will put the lie to clarity." And another aspect of our culture responds "There are absolutes. I will show people achieving clarity at any cost."

And then I thought about it some more. And I kept coming back to one particular pair of bookends: Jane's death, and its revelation to Jesse near the end of the show. When Walt stood there and let Jane choke, I wanted to scream "Noooooo! Jessie will never know... he has to know!" Yet three seasons later, when Walt threw the truth in Jesie's face, it was, if not the most horrifying scene, then easily the most gut-wrenching. As far as Walt knew, Jessie was about to die at his word. He had no reason to tell Jessie about Jane aside from cruelty. And yet... I wanted Jessie to know. I needed Jessie to know. And I think Jessie would have chosen to know, every time. Despite the pain, despite the consequences, Jessie wanted clarity.

...which leads me to the most striking example of Jessie wanting clarity. He was on his way to being disappeared, and he threw it away when he realized that Walt had poisoned Brock. He could have chosen to ignore the truth, to let it melt into the recesses of his mind as he melted away into Alaska. But he went back. Not only did he need to face the truth, he needed Walter to know that he knew: to look him in the eye and make him face the consequences of his actions and his lies.

When it comes to needing clarity, Walt is no slouch either. There's no better example in the whole show than Walt telling Hank that he didn't think Gale was Heisenberg. All Walt had to do was keep his mouth shut, let Hank believe he'd cracked the case, and live out his days happily with his family. But he couldn't let it go. He couldn't stand to see someone else get credit for his expertise. At that moment, he resembled nothing so much as Dustin Hoffman's character in "Wag the Dog"; he wanted the credit. He wanted it more than he wanted to live.

Those choices are striking in the moment. But from the point of view of having seen the entire story through to its completion, they're even more so. If Walt would have kept his mouth shut, he might have lived happily ever after, and Hank and Steve wouldn't have died. If Jessie had just done the easy thing and gone away, not only wouldn't he have been beaten and imprisoned, but Andrea wouldn't have died, leaving Brock an orphan. But in the universe of the show, it seems clear that this needed to happen. There's a sort of inexorable tone, and we're on-board with it; we needed all that death, all that pain, to happen. We needed the characters to know the truth: to achieve clarity at all costs.

That desire on the part of the audience is crucial. Without it, there would be little separating "Breaking Bad" from Shakespearean tragedy. The body count is similar. But in Shakespeare, we have a sense of impotent horror at the bloodshed. "If only they had known..." we lament. We see the tragedy as a manifestation of human flaws. But in "Breaking Bad", as in the broader western genre, tragedy lacks that regretful tone. We don't lament because we recognize the deaths as a necessary cost. Tuco died, Gustavo died, Hank died, Walt died... but it did not have a sense of grim inevitability. There was always an element of choice, and for all the darkness, for all the grimness—for all their foolishness and all their flaws—their final choices were virtuous. Because they chose clarity. They, and we, wouldn't have had it any other way. In the western, tragedy is not just heroic; it's chivalric.

I thought of all this--all these examples of characters shouldering aside easy opportunities for happiness in favor of clarity, and a word popped into my head: "enlightenment". That's a pretty good synonym for clarity, right? And it suddenly hit me: "Breaking Bad", and the western genre, have Buddhist overtones.

I know it's a stretch, and I'm the first to admit what little I know about Buddhism I know from my wife. But hear me out. In the Buddhist model, the world is pain. Pain cannot be avoided. On the contrary, attempting to avoid pain can extend one's journey through the cycle. The very best one can hope for is to achieve enlightenment, which is not a state of elevated being; it is un-being. Enlightenment means getting off the carousel onto which we are all born, and you can't get there except by riding.

In "Breaking Bad", and westerns in general, we're along for the ride not as rubberneckers wincing at pain that should have been avoided, but as solemn witnesses to pain willingly chosen. We know that avoiding pain is a fool's game. Pain isn't merely the cost of enlightenment; enlightenment is the only destination, and pain the only path to it.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Gratitude For Getting To Play

Lately I've been feeling a delight in my professional life for which I want to convey gratitude. It's a difficult feeling to describe, yet I imagine everyone experiences it at one time or another.

I've spent eighteen years as a computer programmer, slowly broadening and deepening my tool belt. During most of that time I felt pleasure at building upon my skills, and there's no question that I became more capable as time passed. But I can't recall feeling a perceptual sea change until about two years ago.

I would look at the code, and feel as though I was no longer seeing it as an assemblage of lines; I was seeing it as a shape in my mind's eye. I'd become familiar enough with its microscopic properties that I no longer had to think about them. Debugging or enhancing the code felt like playing with Tinkertoys.

During the last few weeks I've had a glorious opportunity to go back to the type of programming that I'm best at, and I'm getting that feeling more often than ever now. In my best moments, I feel as though I'm barely conscious of the details of what I'm doing; my hands are moving, and I'm pruning this and splicing that and extending the other and milling a new gear to pop in there. And the coolest thing is that I have a sense of what I don't need to look at. When I make a change, whether it's a fix or an enhancement, I see the flow of logic through that point and I know what that change will affect and what it won't. I imagine a mechanic with eighteen years of experience must feel like this. If she has enough experience with the qualities of the specific parts—how different engines behave and how the microscopic properties inform the macroscopic behavior—then she must reach a point where she doesn't really see the engine, yes? She sees what she needs to change and knows "Oh, yeah, I'll have to adjust this, that and the other thing." And she makes those adjustments not only without conscious thought, but without looking at the unaffected parts of the engine.

I'm smiling inwardly at all these metaphors, which feel a bit beside the point because the mental shift I'm trying to describe is metaphor. My brain has achieved a new level of abstraction, and it feels lovely. It feels joyous. It feels like a privilege.

I get to play. I'm a lucky guy.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

A Whiff of Teleology

The plane arced up over Lake Michigan and I looked down, tingling with wonder at the enormous sheets of dull white spanning the slate waters. I'd just spent days watching ice hummocking on the shore. Maybe it was that dramatic perspective shift, combined with the exhilaration of takeoff, that cast me into a peculiar lucidity.

I saw massive sheets of ice: a jumbled mosaic with tiles the size of city blocks, of neighborhoods and small towns. I saw the shear planes: how those gigantic tiles had separated along north-south lines and slid against each other along east-west lines. I saw how they had drifted—were drifting.

As I imagined the process, I saw my mind spin it into something more: a narrative. Here's a rough translation of the images and feelings that flowed through my mind.

The ice was forming a sheet over the whole lake, but the wind kept pushing against it, and broke it off before it could finish.

To understand why that strikes me as hilariously odd, you have to understand my core conceit: that I am a rational person. I love to think of myself as empirically-minded. "I'm a reductionist," I tell myself. "I have a mechanistic view of the universe. I don't believe in boggarts and spirits. I don't believe the objects around me have animus."

This informs how I think of religious and superstitious people. My inner face sneers at the thought of their sky bully, and bursts into braying laughter at their absurd notion that the universe cares one way or the other about our arbitrary numerology. I bathe in the ideation of what they are, and what I am not. I separate myself. I tell myself that teleology is anathema to me—that I'm all about the etiology.

And then my mind runs for teleology like a child for an ice cream truck.

Cold air blew over the lake, cooling the water and pushing on it. As the water froze, the ice broke up and moved west. That is what happened. But that's not what my mind saw. My mind saw intent. My mind saw drama. My mind anticipated the freezing-over of the lake as though it were a goal; the ice was longing for that moment when it joined into a continuous sheet, and the wind worked to thwart it. There was a good guy and a bad guy. In that single burst of images and feelings in my mind, there was heroism and villainy, mustache twirling and victimhood.

I wish I could convey this better. I feel like I'm painting a picture of me tripping my way through my life without the need for acid. I'm not. I don't think my mind works particularly differently than anyone else's; that's the point. I'm talking about the gap between my explicated mind—the me that works in the light of the world and tells itself what it is—and the real conceptual landscape that exists prior to, independently of and despite any explication. I don't see that gap very often; the meat is usually too good at functioning in the world to see it. But once in a while I catch a glimpse—a particularly vivid flash of thought—and it's as though the fingertips of my intellect brush against that conceptual landscape, and I feel the true shape of it. That landscape is nothing like what I usually think it is. It's a landscape of teleology. And seeing that helps me to hold onto empathy.

I pride myself on the mental constructs that help me interpret the world. But that process of interpretation happens long and long after the objects have formed, cooled and hardened within my conceptual landscape. That landscape is the ur-layer of my self. It is there to lick up the photons entering my eyes, the bearing and shearing stresses entering my fingertips, the temperature gradients sweeping over skin. It's the forge from which I draw the atomic-level building blocks of my existence and it is bursting with teleology.

I am a primate who weaves stories of intent and animus into its reality at the basement level. And if I, with all my hubris in thinking otherwise, can do this, then I must have empathy for my fellow primates who do it.