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.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Support the Mistake Bank book! Right now!

Hey everybody, John Caddell's Mistake Bank project, about which I've written here before, has swung into high gear in the final days of getting it out as an awesome book, with a Kickstarter campaign. Drop everything and go get your advance copy!

The book is called The Mistake Bank: How to Succeed by Forgiving Your Mistakes and Embracing Your Failures. Here's what I like best about it.
  • The book contains more than fifty real stories John has gathered about mistakes and learning from them. Actually I think John has collected far, far more stories than that over the several years he has been working on this project. But he has selected fifty of the best, and organized them to illustrate lessons we all need to learn about benefiting from our mistakes. If the stories in the book are anything like some of the ones I've seen on his Mistake Bank blog over the years the book will be excellent.
  • This whole project is an excellent example of narrative work: real stories about real people collected and arranged in order to help real people meet real needs! It's not lectures, it's hard-won experience! This is bringing stories to where they need to go. And it's participatory too, because John has carried on correspondence with many people about the project over the years (I'm happy to count myself in that group). So this isn't just what John thinks you should know about mistakes, though that is certainly a lot; it's the product of broader experience than that.
  • I expect to learn a lot from reading the book, even though I've read a lot of the Mistake Bank blog posts. Seeing the stories selected, organized and illustrated, making up a coherent presentation makes a big difference. I can't wait to see what sorts of lessons he has in store for me in my own work and life. (At this point I've got the making of mistakes down pat, but it's that follow-up part about using them fruitfully that I'm keen to get some insight into.)
John was the first person who ever wrote to thank me for writing my book, years ago, so let me be the first to ... ooops, lots of people have already thanked John for his great work. So please, get on over there and help John's Kickstarter campaign push over that final line. It'll be a mistake if you don't!

Tuesday, January 15, 2013


My last post on this blog was nearly two months ago. That's the longest gap I've had so far in, what is it, three years? I am writing nearly every day, but it is all going into the book. The book? It's still plodding along like the dear little dogged thing it is. It says to say hello. But the issue I wanted to tell you about is, I can't seem to come up with anything to write about on the blog.

I have tried to come up with things to tell you, and I have come up with things, but they've all been the sort of everyday thing you tell the people you live with. Do you really want to hear about The Pickwick Papers (unexpectedly enjoyable), the new iPad (still in the it's-my-turn-can-I-have-it phase), the wonders of laryngitis (do not whisper; it makes it worse), circular knitting looms (anybody want a hat?), the undying love affair between cats and boxes? Of course not. At least not on this blog. It's supposed to be about something. I could start a "funny little things I think of every day" blog, but that would probably bring to an end the funny little things I think of every day. Besides, other people think of funnier little things.

There is exactly one thing I have noticed in the past two months that I think is worth mentioning here. It's about noticing things worth mentioning here. I keep a list of 30 some blogs that I skim every so often, using my ... button you push in the thing at the top of the window. The other day I was looking at one of those blogs, and the blogger said, "The other day I was looking out the window and realized this little thing that I'm going to tell you about now." When I read that, I realized this little thing that I'm going to tell you about now.

I'm not the only one running out of things to say on their blog. Lots of other people are seeking fodder for blogs and coming up with nothing but dregs, like little things you realize while looking out the window. Here's an idea. Maybe there is a limit to the number of witty yet profound observations any one person has in them about any one topic. If blogs are like serialized novels, why don't they end? And when they do end, why is it always apologetically done? Why should anyone need to apologize for being done talking?

The whole thing reminds me of marriage. In the first few days and weeks and months of a relationship (that is going well) you tend to have those long, soul-baring conversations in which you explore in detail landscapes of thought and belief and fear and aspiration, the kind of conversation where you get together over dinner and it's suddenly morning. But after a few years of married life, there is no point doing the same thing over and over, and time presses, so the ratio of reference to content increases. Sometimes I joke that after being married twenty years we can just say, "Honey, how about we have argument number twelve today?" Though in reality words never need cross the air: a gesture or glance, or even an object out of place, can say the same thing.

(And here I simply must insert a reference to Through the Looking Glass:
'We must have a bit of a fight, but I don't care about going on long,' said Tweedledum.
'What's the time now?'
Tweedledee looked at his watch, and said 'Half-past four.'
'Let's fight till six, and then have dinner,' said Tweedledum.
'Very well,' the other said...
The fight being more reference than content in that case as well.)

I'm starting to think the same thing happens on blogs. After you read fifty or a hundred essays written by anybody, you start knowing what they are going to say before they say it. Some of the blogs I used to read every word of I still look at, but I'm mostly just checking to see if they are still saying the same sort of thing they said back then. They are.

I am too. The other side of it is that, as a blogger, you start to get tired of explaining everything over and over. I've noticed that the longer people blog the more they increase their own ratio of reference to content. I do it too. Instead of spending paragraphs explaining a position, people just say something like, "Regular readers of this blog will know I advocate X." (Meaning, I don't chew my cabbage twice, so the rest of you can go look it up.) Maybe above a certain ratio of reference to content a blog has turned into ... a book. And guess what? Books end.

So, am I done talking? The real question in my mind is, am I allowed to say that? Why do I feel like it's not a blog if I end it? (That would ripple back through time, of course, so that it never was a blog either.) I've tried to follow "blog etiquette" when writing this blog (respond to comments, feed the blog, include links, feed the blog, fix typos, feed the blog), but I can't find any etiquette about how to stop talking gracefully.

So off I went to see my helpful friend Google. I typed "how blogs end" and got ... not a thing. "How blogs start" gets tons of relevant links. "How many blogs get started every day" also came up (unbidden but welcome). A search for "how many blogs end every day" got, again, nada. The only relevant thing I got was an article called, "Too Many Blogs?" It reminds me of all the junk in our garage that seems destined to follow us for life.

A search for "ending a blog" was more fruitful, with all of three relevant links. An I'm-ending-the-blog post said, "I regret closing the blog and I owe readers an explanation." Another, similar: "It's been a hard decision, but I feel it's time I move on to other things. Like an even better blog!" (So, not an ending at all.) Elsewhere, a blog post gave advice on "options available to bloggers who have decided to end their blog but who don’t quite know how to do it." Why the stigma?

You've probably noticed how most people end blogs: they don't end them at all. They just post less and less frequently, with an increasing ratio of apology to content, then fall off entirely and stop trimming the spam. Eventually the whole thing ends up looking like a secret garden, abandoned and overgrown. I'll bet you've stumbled onto a few of these abandoned blogs on the web; I have. I usually back out quickly, careful not to disturb any ghostly cobwebs. In their day these blogs were happy, healthy places. Could they not have been put to rest with more respect?

And why do people consistently use the language of life and death to describe blogs? Why do we say a blog has "died"? (I just did, without meaning to, when I said "put to rest with more respect.") If a blog is over, if a person has got to the end of what they have to say about a topic, hasn't the blog succeeded rather than failed? I guess you could ask the same question about a person's life. If a person has got to the end of all the years they had to live, have they succeeded or failed?

So far the web has been all about growth, but life is never only about growth. I wonder if there are more societally healthy ways to move past the initial growth stage of the web than we are using now. Like ritual. Don't you think it's strange that we have rituals around starting blogs but none around ending them? What causes the atmosphere around blogs to be so fixated on starting and growing, but never ending? Is it some sort of collective denial that we might run out of interesting things to say? Is it fear of the ultimate drop-off in posts that is coming to us all?

I do have one hypothesis. Most books are written by one person, and we expect books to end. Magazines and newspapers, however, are rarely written by one person, and we don't expect them to end. What if the one-author blog is a misplaced confusion of writing into the space of collaborative, systemic endeavor, in which an expectation of continuance makes sense? What if two distinct species of writing have become confused?

What? You say. Do you really think nobody should write a blog unless they write it with other people? What about the opportunity blogging brings to the individual to be heard, to speak about unpopular topics, to break from tradition, to leave herd mentality behind? I'm not countering any of those things. What I'm saying is that maybe we need two sets of expectations about blogs, or two kinds of blogs, or two words for blogging. One should be for institutions populated not by individuals but by roles taken on (and then passed on) by individuals. Such a system could indeed last a very long time, and often does.

A separate word and set of expectations could then apply to the individual blog, which would be understood to come about because a specific person had some specific things to say about a specific topic. Such a blog would naturally come to an end when the person had finished saying the things they had to say (and we would no longer pretend that any one person had an infinite number of things to say, though a revolving membership certainly could). Then when the individual blog came to an end, we would not say it "died" but would say it was completed. Or that it succeeded. Why not? Think of the guilt dividend.

I will end the post with an appropriate joke.
A head walks into a bar and asks the bartender for a drink. After he is finished, bang! a torso appears. So the head asks for another drink and after he finishes, bang! arms come out of the torso. So the head asks the bartender for another drink and when he has finished, bang! legs appear.
The head is thinking, ‘Hey, this stuff is great,’ so he asks the bartender for one more drink for the road and bang! his whole body disappears.
The bartender turns to him and says, ‘You should have quit while you were a head.’
Postscript: dinner, bath, turn using the iPad, maybe not in that order. I feel a rising need to stand in the way of a probable event while I still can. For some reason I have never been able to fathom, I often have the following conversation.
Me: I'm dealing with this issue right now. Isn't it interesting? What do you think of the issue? Isn't it interesting?
Well-meaning lovely people: I'll help you, person in distress.
Me: I'm not in distress, I just think this is interesting.
Lovely people: I'll help you, person in distress.
Me: Sigh.
It's like I have this big "Save the idiot" sign stuck to my forehead. So, if your hand is poised to add a comment saying something like, "Don't stop blogging! We like you! You can do it! Have confidence in yourself!" Stop: think: then tell me what you think of blogging and how blogs end and how we talk about that and what that means about ... anything you like, really. Just not about me. (No offense intended to the lovely people, who know who they are and how lovely they are.)