Thursday, January 31, 2013

Tick tock tick tock tick

This post is about a little thing I've been thinking about for a long time. It's not a story thing, it's more of a complexity thing, but I'm allowed to talk about that here because I said I would.

I spend a lot of time looking out of windows. Most of the time when I do this I'm watching the branches and leaves move around. Sometimes there are squirrels, and then it's called squirrel TV. Our dogs were big fans of squirrel TV before they lost the ability to see as far as the window. I watch it now in their memory. But the squirrels are only on the set once in a while; the leaves are 24/7. You might think there would be nothing to watch in the winter, but the beech trees keep some leaves on all winter, so I'm good. I find that when I put on the right music (physically or in my mind's ear) the experience can reach cinematic production quality, as long as I maintain the concentration to push out all other sensations. (I'm good at ignoring. It's a gift.) When I used to ride the train to the city I did the same thing: with the right music piped into my ears, and my eyes glued to the window, I could produce excellent "day in the life" montages as we sped along past people doing whatever it was they did all day.

One of the things I like to watch when I look out the window is how, when the day is mildly breezy, individual leaves will suddenly take up oscillating patterns, clean as clockwork, ticking back and forth on their little stems. Sometimes a leaf will do this for thirty seconds or a minute, and sometimes even for several minutes. I always watch to see if a leaf that stops oscillating will take it up again later, because, you know, now it knows how. They never do. What happens instead is that another leaf, on the same tree or on another tree, takes up the pattern and starts its own tick-tock movements, in perfect imitation of the leaf that came before it. I find it fascinating that in a sea of complex, erratic, unpredictable motion, these little islands of regularity appear and disappear so - I was going to say pleasantly, but that's not systemic enough. So regularly.

Those leaves remind me of a conversation I had once with a person with whom I was discussing the differences between complicated and complex patterns. He said something like, "You say a complicated pattern repeats and a complex one doesn't, right? But how do you explain the fact that complex patterns sometimes do repeat?" I said, "They repeat until they don't." What I meant was, when a leaf is oscillating, it looks like it's connected to some perfectly engineered device governed by a mechanical timer. But that's an illusion that bursts when the leaf suddenly stops. Complicated patterns repeat because somebody or something made them repeat. They stop repeating when somebody or something stops them repeating, or when they break down and need to be fixed (after which they repeat again, if somebody or something makes them). Complex patterns repeat because they started repeating, and they stop repeating because they've stopped repeating. Keep in mind, of course, that the patterns we see in our world are rarely purely complex or complicated. Even those oscillating leaves I see out of my window have been influenced by the complicated design of the house that separates us.

Patterns that repeat until they don't remind me of raising a child. Many of the patterns parents see in growing children repeat, and repeat and repeat, until suddenly, one day, they stop repeating. I remember when my son was two and three and four, he always begged to be picked up and carried instead of walking. Once my husband was giving in to one of these pleas, and I said, "Why do you keep picking him up? He can walk." My husband sagely pointed out that one day our son would stop asking and would never ask again, so he was going to enjoy the burden while he could. He was right: only a few months later the pleas to be picked up stopped, and that part of our journey together was over. I've come to expect such sudden changes to apparently infinite repetitions to happen frequently. I've also come to accept that I will never anticipate these changes sufficiently to be prepared for them to happen. It's always too much and too much and too much, right up until it's gone and you wish it was too much again.

Raising a child reminds me of ontological oscillation. This is one of my favorite concepts from Weick's writing on sensemaking. Says Weick:
If people have multiple identities and deal with multiple realities, why should we expect them to be ontological purists? To do so is to limit their capability for sensemaking.
Ontological oscillation is what happens when a person or group making sense of any topic does a tick-tock dance back and forth between views and methods and versions of reality. At some point they stop oscillating and make a decision. Then another topic, on that tree or on another tree, takes up the pattern and starts its own tick-tock movements. Is ontological oscillation complex? Sure, partly. It certainly has a lot of interacting parts, as we bounce around our lives encountering changes and viewpoints and experiences. And again, our expectations about repeating patterns don't always match what happens. People watching ontological oscillation sometimes mistake it for fickleness or "flip flopping" when it's just the way people think. I've been accused of changing my mind often. My sister once famously told me that I swing like a pendulum on any topic. But, I told her, eventually I come to rest somewhere, at least on that topic, at least for a while. The real question is not why we do this but why we think we shouldn't. You know what I think? I don't believe anybody thinks they should stop ontologically oscillating; they just wish everybody else would. It's inconvenient. People would be easier to figure out if they would stick to the same opinions.

Ontological oscillation reminds me of ice ages. My son and I were reading something about ice ages once, and it said something like this: "Small, or minor, ice ages have occurred fairly regularly about every ten thousand years, that is, up until about ten thousand years ago, when they stopped happening." We laughed; but actually, there is no way of knowing whether that statement is correct or incorrect. It is impossible to say whether an oscillating leaf is in fact oscillating when it is between oscillations, unless you know and can control why and how it is oscillating. It becomes a matter of habit to say whether something will continue to repeat.

Ice ages remind me of rocking chairs. I love doing anything that has a tick-tock beat to it: swinging, rocking, gliding, pacing, tapping. Some people say this is self-soothing, but that's not what it feels like to me. It feels more like participation. When I rock it feels like my tick-tock heartbeat has expanded out into and through my whole body, through the chair, and into the universe ticking all around me. It's not turning in; it's reaching out. My husband, on the other hand, never tick-tocks. When he sits on any of our rocking chairs or gliders or swings, he just sits on them. And he never paces, and he always thinks repeating patterns will stop repeating. I usually think whatever has been happening will keep happening for a while longer, because it's been happening, hasn't it? I used to think I was right and he was wrong, because, you know, we're married, but eventually I realized that we're both right. He's always right eventually, and I'm always right for a while. So here's my idea: Maybe if you enjoy regularity you find it in the world around you, and if you don't you don't. Or maybe it goes the other way around. Maybe the more you see regularity all around you, the more you want to participate in it. Maybe this is just another one of the many fascinating ways in which people can complement each other.

Rocking chairs remind me of Cloisterham. Actually, that one's more like, in the middle of writing this blog post I picked up The Mystery of Edwin Drood and read:
A drowsy city, Cloisterham, whose inhabitants seem to suppose, with an inconsistency more strange than rare, that all its changes lie behind it, and that there are no more to come. A queer moral to derive from antiquity, yet older than any traceable antiquity.
So there you go, a whole city that prefers repetition. Would it have more rocking chairs than a city with different expectations? Maybe.

Cloisterham reminds me of fads. Fads set up a pattern for a while and then mysteriously disappear. You might say fads don't oscillate, but I tell you they do, because every fad oscillates with its own anti-fad. I realized this the other night while my son and I were watching Cars for the twentieth time. When we reached the scene where the punks put on a Kenny G. song to lull the Mack truck to sleep, I paused the video, like I always do, to explain that this is funny to adults because that particular Kenny G. song was both loved and hated when it came out in 1986. Fads ricochet all around society, probably with a tick-tock pattern if you were able to map it but let's not, until they stop bouncing and fade away. Take the pet rock fad, which started bouncing around when I was nine. I remember going through my own private oscillations on this, alternately ridiculing the idea's lack of substance, wishing I could buy a pet rock myself, carrying around a real rock in my pocket pretending it was a real pet rock, throwing out the rock because the whole thing was stupid, then finding another rock that seemed even more like a real pet rock. By the time I had enough money to buy a real pet rock, there were no more pet rocks to be had.

Fads remind me of an iPad game called Slingshot Racing. What you do is, there are these tiny cars that run around a tiny oval racetrack, and you have to click on the screen (tech faux pas! tap on the screen) to tether the cars to tiny towers that slingshot them around the corners (ends? short sides?) of the oval. It sounds easy but in fact it's devastatingly hard to tap and release at exactly the right times to start the tether and stop it without smashing your tiny car into a tiny wall. That's kind of like catching and riding a fad. You have to discover that the potential for a fad exists, and not just any fad; one you can make money on, say by selling rocks or playing the saxophone in a particular way. You have to tether the fad to you at just the right moment, then hold onto it just up until the moment when it's about to fade, at which point you release it before you start looking stupid. Few succeed at this game. Some tap too early and suffer ridicule, that is, until after they're dead and gone and suddenly on the tip of everyone's tongue. Some tap too late and, say, put out Scrabble for the iPad at the out-of-touch price of ten dollars, only to reduce the price after being scooped by every programmer with half a brain. Some release too early and sell their rights to the next big whatever for a hundred dollars, then die in flop houses. Some release too late and become parodies of their own former successes. Riding the wave of a fad depends on predicting accurately when the leaf will start tick-tocking and when it will stop.

Slingshot Racing reminds me of blogs. Blogs are repeating patterns that repeat until they stop. They are to some extent under the conscious control of their creators; but then again, there are complex forces at work in them as well. Readerships change, lives change, fields change, media change, methods of communication change. When to tap, when to release? Or maybe tapping and releasing doesn't matter. Maybe what matters is finding a rhythm that feels good and not worrying too much about how long it will go on. That's what the leaves do. I like it.


Unknown said...


Cynthia Kurtz said...

Thank you! Heartening! Comments make the world go round.