Monday, January 16, 2012

There goes the hand

It's morning, a few months ago, and I'm making coffee. First I set up the coffee mug with its ancient thing-that-holds-the-coffee on top, ready to receive the boiling water. Then I grab the empty electric tea kettle and swing it across the counter to the water faucet to fill it. In the midst of the swing I realize that the kettle will soon hit the mug and send it flying off the counter.

It just so happens that the time that remains before the crash is not enough to stop the hand's deeply rutted movement. The kettle goes to the faucet daily, and the hand knows its way there. But the time is enough to fit in several cycles of internal dialogue. The dialogue goes like this:
Look at that. There goes the hand.
The kettle is going to hit the mug and send it to the floor. No chance of catching it before --
    Nope. Too late.
Why oh why did they think slapping linoleum on a concrete floor was adequate for a kitchen in which people might actually, I don't know, handle breakable items?
    We've been over this before.
Yes, well. You see it's the yoga mug, I suppose?
    I do.
The same one we had to replace last year, after pretty much the same thing happened?
    I see it.
This has to be a judgment on the part of yoga. Do we have the right to own, let alone use, a yoga mug at the rate we've been doing yoga lately?
    I don't suppose so.
Probably a judgment then. Remember the mug that said "Beauty will save the world" and how we were sure we ordered the right size, but we got the wrong size? Didn't we decide that was a judgment?
    We did. Probably happening again.
Do we have any of those little boxes we use to keep broken things from poking the garbage guys?
    I think there is one left on the porch.
If we had put the mug on the other side of the sink this wouldn't have happened. The swing from the kettle base to the faucet is pre-programmed. We shouldn't have put anything in the way.
    Starting tomorrow we will put the mug on the other side of the sink.
You mean another mug.
    Yes. This time we should choose one immune to judgment.
The yin-yang mug?
    Probably safe.
And then the crash came.

The reason I recount this incident is not because it's funny or interesting (about which opinions may vary) but because I find it a near-perfect analogue to what has been going on as I have tried to rewrite my book. The part of me that writes books, like the hand that draws the water, has a programmed path. It has written book-length texts before, and it knows how to do what it does with or without my help. For the past two years, all attempts to change the rutted path of the book-writing apparatus have been simply swept out of the way. The only difference in the two incidents is that in the case of the hand holding the kettle I understood what was going on right away. In the case of the book, I thought I was in control of it for much longer than was healthy.

Round about October I reached the cycle of internal dialogue where I stopped trying to make rational demands on the book-writing apparatus and started observing it. The dialogue went like this:
Look at that. There goes the book-writing apparatus.
It has been writing for two years. All of our estimates have been nonsensical. All of our attempts to control it have been useless. It seems to do whatever it wants to do.
    I see it.
What the heck is it doing?
    Well, what did we tell it to do? What did we say when it started?
Let me think. We said we wanted it to go back to the original book and make it better. A lot better. We said we wanted something comprehensive, a reference work, a "bible" for story work.
    We actually said "bible"? 
We did.
That's the problem? It's writing a bible?
    It is writing a bible.
Maybe that's not all of it. Maybe the fact that it's taking so long is a judgement from story.
    All those who undertake to write bibles of story will be struck down with endless labor?
It does make sense, judgement-wise.
    Probably. So what can we do about this?
Nothing. We set it up that way. We have to let it run its course.
    But we told people it would be done a long time ago. We look stupid.
What if we release versions of the book as it goes?
    That is probably the only thing we can do.
Tell you what. After it writes the next chapter we'll start putting up what we have so far. And the next time we ask it to write, we should choose our words more carefully.
    And choose a subject immune to judgement.
Are there any subjects immune to judgement?
    I don't know.
This conversation took place in October. As a result of it I sent a copy of what I had so far (500-700 pages, depending on formatting) to a few closest confidants. Reviews were encouraging, so I planned to finish the catalysis chapter in a few more weeks, then send it to the next tier of interested parties for review.

Then I hit another snag: the rutted path encountered another rutted path. Writing about narrative catalysis has been like pulling teeth -- my own teeth. My guess is that I am asking yet another "hand" -- the part of me that does catalysis work -- to describe its rutted path. Its reply, constantly, is "I know the path, get out of the way." (And then some curse words you don't want to hear.) It has taken daily cajoling to get the catalytic agent to tell me anything I can write down. And even when it does tell me things, when I reread them later many of them make sense only to myself and the catalytic agent. I have to keep rewriting sections to make them make sense outside the rutted path. So the catalysis chapter is being written, but very slowly. I am lucky if it advances (without retreating) by a page a day. I do think it will be useful when it is done (indeed it may be the best part of the book), but it cannot be rushed.

Hence my plan to let the book out of its confinement when the catalysis chapter is done has also failed. Meanwhile the book has stopped begging to be let out and has started work with a hacksaw. It has forced itself into several emails and threatens to break out of my control entirely. Worse, as I work on the catalysis chapter the other trapped chapters keep up a steady chant of "let us out, let us out" -- all of which hampers my already glacial progress.

So, powerless, I relinquish control. The book will now and always reside in its rightful place at I will put up new versions as the chapters become complete. If you told me I could send you a copy of the book to read, please do read the book and please do help me make it better; I would appreciate it just as much now as I said I would before. If you told me no such thing, you will find the book where it wants to be regardless.

Now we can get back to writing.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

You stand now at the bottom of this blog.

As I woke up this morning I realized two things: (a) if I do not feed the blog something soon it will wither away into nothingness, and (b) I have nothing at all to say. This is a desperate situation that calls for desperate measures. Therefore you are about to see me stoop to something low, far lower than I have ever stooped before. I am going to write about pet peeves.

Yes, it's that bad. Still, I seem to be writing, don't I, and I'll bet when I finish writing I'll push that big button that says "publish post." Oh dear. Here we go.

The meek.

Whoever said "the meek shall inherit the earth" was not meek. If they had been meek, they would have known that if the meek did inherit the earth we would say "No, no, you take it" and hand it right back. Or maybe they weren't meek and they did know that.

I am genetically meek, and as a child I loved it when they said this in church. I thought it was a promise. It was only a few years ago that I realized the whole thing was a colossal bait and switch, a trick, a lie.

It's like the trick I used to play on my son when he was two and we had been in the toy store for longer than I could stand. I would say politely, "How many more minutes do you need before we go?" I said this knowing full well that the biggest number he knew existed at that time was eight. So he would say he needed eight minutes, which is to say an infinite span of time. I would then carefully mark out eight minutes on my cell phone, then show him that the requested eight minutes had passed, at which time he would reluctantly go along with what had after all been his own choice. The thing is, I only asked him how long he needed because I knew he would always say "eight." Later when he learned about bigger numbers and could have kept me in the toy store for longer, I stopped asking that particular question.

Similarly, the trick of the you-get-the-earth deal is that they only offer it to you if they are pretty sure you will give it back. There was never really a plan to hand it over, not for real. If you are meek, now you know about this too. Plan accordingly.

Birthday cards.

Are you old enough to have received any of those funny-but-not-really birthday cards that tell you how horrible it is that you are a year older? Do you find, as I do, that they get more irritating every year?

All mid-life crises rest on the critical and sometimes erroneous assumption that they are situated in the middle of one's life. I made the opposite mistake. In my early twenties I developed the idea that I would probably not live past thirty, not because I was doomed but because I was too wonderful for this sub-par world. (Oh yes I did.) When I turned thirty I had to figure out what to do next. The only logical thing was to see every extra year as a bonus. Today when people ask how old I am and I'm part of the way through a year, I round up, just like I did when I was eight and three quarters. It's all extra.

This must be what irks me about the "poor you, you lived another year" cards. When we are children everyone congratulates us on our birthdays and helps us round up, but later everyone pities us and helps us round down. But shouldn't the congratulations get bigger and bigger? If you flipped a coin and it came up heads a hundred times, wouldn't that get more and more amazing? It's only if you knew it was going to come up heads a hundred times that you would count how many times were left. My advice is: don't pretend you know, and it's all extra.

Social network analysis.

I have a love/hate relationship with social network analysis. I like the idea of studying social networks in principle, but every time I read a SNA paper I end up feeling insulted and misrepresented. I now understand why.

What happened was, I went to a meeting several months ago. It was about social network analysis. On getting to the meeting place at the required time, I entered the room and found about thirty or forty people milling around. I did what I always do at meetings: I hugged the wall and watched people. (If you want to invite me to a meeting, make it a three-day meeting. On the third day I will talk.) As I stood there clutching my protective coffee cup, my first thought was, "Wow, all these people know each other already! Am I the only one here who doesn't know everybody? How strange." People were engaged in lively chatter in small groups all over the room. After a few more minutes of watching I suddenly realized that nobody actually knew anybody. All the conversations consisted of people saying, "Hi, I'm so-and-so from such-and-such, who are you?" These people weren't at ease because they knew each other; they were at ease because they liked talking to strangers. They were social.

It was at this moment that I understood why I love yet hate SNA. The people who study social networks are social. They have to be, because if you are not social SNA is a continual insult. My social networks are the size of spiders, not webs. Every SNA paper says one thing to me: failure. The strength of weak ties: the weakness of my life. The importance of hubs: I will never be one. The importance of tipping points: I miss them all. Measures of connectedness: guaranteed low. Failure.

But I also realized another thing: this cannot be good for SNA. People use SNA to try to understand and predict the behavior of everyone, not just the social people. If only social people study social networks, SNA can never be completely useful because it will always contain a limiting bias. It would be as if only men studied women (which was once true, come to think of it).

What SNA needs is a complement: NSNA, or the study of the social networks of the non-social. If there were a NSNA it would contain many elements of interest to the non-social, elements invisible to the social. To begin with, it would not map only human networks: it would map networks of meaning.

For example, take my pond. I love my pond. Year round, I try to visit my pond at least once a week. In the summers (after bug season) I lie next to my pond, and we have long intense conversations about life, the universe and everything. I consider it a family-level obligation to watch its tadpoles hatch in the spring, clear out post-storm debris, and slide on its ice in the winter. I take pictures of my pond in all its moods. In some respects my pond is one of my best friends. It is a hub in my network of meaning. Many other elements of my social network are not people (or not people anymore): they are dead authors, ancient heroes, fictional characters, dogs, trees, gardens, streams, sculptures. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City was my best friend for a few years in my twenties.

No SNA survey would ever map any of these connections, because they would only ask me about people. To the non-social this is a ludicrous exercise, like trying to understand people by cataloguing their socks. We non-social people don't connect to people much, but we still connect, and it's still social. People who say they want to study social connections and only ask about connections to people seem to me to be looking for their keys under the lamp-post, where the light seems to be -- to them. We see by the light of a different moon.

Why does this matter? Why should anybody care what the non-social do? Because we non-social people still do things, and those things still impact other people. If your work is about understanding how and why people do things that impact other people, maybe you should think about that.

Upward social comparison.

Social comparison theory studies how people evaluate their own lives by comparing themselves to others. Everyone knows that one of the reasons people keep spending too much and getting themselves into debt situations is that they are trying to "keep up with the Joneses." One of the problems today, as everyone also knows, is that due to television the Joneses are fictional creations that can never be kept up with.

So I was thinking, why don't the television people create a lot of shows about poor people, and we'll all compare ourselves with them, and we'll look around and see all the great stuff we have, and be less inclined to buy more? And that will help us all prosper more, because as everyone knows there are two ways to be rich: to have more and to want less.

But then I realized: if people stopped buying more, the advertisers who fund the television shows would be unhappy. And then there could be no more television shows. So television has a built-in requirement to induce people to socially compare up rather than down. It's a perceived-needs-amplification device. If we compare television to the storytelling of old, I don't think it had that upward-comparison bias to it. At least it doesn't seem to in the historical reenactments of the storytelling of old I've seen on television.

The question I end up with is: is there any way to flip the switch on the thing? Don't worry, I don't expect an answer.

There. The blog has been fed. We must now wait and see whether the pet peeves have killed the blog or revived it. Even poison can heal in the correct proportion.