Sunday, April 29, 2012

Don't sell your hair to a wig shop

As I prepare to pack up and relocate to a far off land, like 7500-miles-away far, I am trying to check items off my Bay Area bucket list. Most items on this list are tied together by a unifying thread: redwoods. One of the things that I'll miss most when I leave. Growing up in the Midwest, all I knew of redwoods was from the Discovery Channel, and to me they were on the same level as dinosaurs, the Milky Way, and the Swiss Alps. Huge. Old. Really fucking cool. And as far as I knew, no one had ever actually seen them, so I was pretty sure they didn't exist. But then I saw them. And when you see them, you definitely believe them. Even still, after spending over two decades in such staunch doubt of redwood reality, I still need to visit them regularly, smell them, touch them, obsess over them, just so I don’t forget.

Friday seemed like a great opportunity for such a reality check, so I made the two-hour drive down to Big Basin Redwoods State Park with a friend. (By the way, if you played Cruisin’ USA on N64 as much as my sister and I did as children, driving through redwood forests in real life is pretty much like it is in the game, complete with the self-righteous asshole in a Lexus obnoxiously honking and passing you on a blind curve across a double yellow line. Minus the house music and the flag-waving women in bikinis at the finish line.) Anyway, the weather was absolutely perfect, sunny and about 60 degrees, and since it was a weekday, we basically had the park to ourselves. Millipedes, banana slugs, hollowed-out-tree-womb things you can climb in. We hiked for a couple hours, and then we came to a fork in the road. Time to consult the map. Both being navigationally challenged, neither of us is really qualified to use a map. I made a convincing case that we should turn left, justifying it with all sorts of finger-pointing, map-turning, and overly confident language. Despite his intuition that we needed to turn right, he couldn’t provide a reason, so he shrugged his shoulders and we went my way.

Every time we crossed a real-life-creek, I’d identify it with a corresponding map-creek. When there was a bend in the real-life-trail, I’d point to a bend on the map-trail. Somehow, I managed to bolster my confidence that way for miles. With such a sensible theory, who needs more evidence? What kind of idiot needs to stop and look at the sun to get oriented? It didn’t occur to me to consider the topography, to check if the big hills were on our right or our left. Or to tap into that creepily accurate intuition for which way the ocean is. And maybe the most surprising: I didn’t even bother to use the compass feature on my iPhone. After hiking for an hour on a trail I was convinced would take us fifteen minutes, it was abundantly clear that I was wrong. So I swallowed my pride (maybe more like gagged and choked on it) and we turned back. Luckily, it turned out to be a great hike, though it was about 8 miles instead of the anticipated 4 or 5. My friend was gracious enough not to tease me too much at the time, but I’m sure it will be a while before I hear the end of it. 

How could I have been so wrong? Not that I have a particular problem with being wrong on occasion, or with someone else being right. Unless that person is a jerk. But on those occasions, I can usually identify where I went wrong. I can replay the scenario and find the culprit. Maybe it’s a mistaken belief or a lapse in judgment. Maybe I put in three times as much molasses as I was supposed to. The screw that was left over after I assembled my IKEA furniture by myself? Yeah, maybe that was important after all. But looking at the map after the hike, I never did figure out what trail we ended up on or how we went wrong. Often, it’s reasonable to try to figure out where you went wrong in order to avoid making the same mistake again. But when your original mistake was that you ignored obvious evidence because you thought you knew what you were doing, the way to avoid making the same mistake again is to stop trying to figure out where you went wrong and start paying attention to the obvious evidence!

This mirrors my choices in my academic career, in a nauseatingly cheesy metaphor sort of way. But that’s a long story, involving lab coats, guns, and tinker toys, and it deserves its own post. The common theme? I can be really bad at doing what I know is right if I don’t understand why it is right. In fact, I’ll keep doing the opposite, the thing I know is wrong, for a surprisingly long time, just because I can’t figure out why it’s wrong. Like a rat in a maze. But eventually, I throw up my rat hands and recognize that there’s some cosmic course-corrector and, evidently, I’m not it. Sometimes, someone else’s intuition is better than your best logic – especially when it comes to where you are going.

You know that DIRECTV commercial? “When you feel like a winner, you go to Vegas. When you go to Vegas, you lose everything. When you lose everything, you sell your hair to a wig shop.” They’re onto something. When you’re absolutely positive you’ve finally got it all figured out, that’s a great clue that you don’t. Something is about to go wrong, and it’s the cable company’s fault. Fuck the cable company. Don’t sell your hair to a wig shop.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Changing the channel

I tried to think up a nice, neat theme for my post this week, but there just isn't one. If this week had a soundtrack, it'd be a disjointed collection of thirty-second snippets. Techno, maybe Samba. Then Rachmaninov. Some elevator music. Alt rock. Clips from a Chinese news broadcast (I mean WTF, I don't know). All punctuated by static, curse words, and uncontrollable laughter. The only way to sum it up is to write an equally disjointed post:

Some things I've learned
It's really easy to revive a dormant Diet Coke addiction. You can learn something from yoga teachers that you think you hate. You can enjoy a baseball game at the Oakland Coliseum. Sometimes, the truth is simple. If what you think is a 15-minute walk turns out to be a 30-minute walk, you will realize this at the most inopportune time. It can be 75 degrees and sunny in Oakland at 3 pm, and 55 degrees, with fog at ground level, in Berkeley at 5 pm. It's possible to be relieved when someone suddenly writes you off for no apparent reason. It's okay to leave a concert before intermission, even if you'd been looking forward to the concert for months. Whatever "it" is, I'm never going to "get" it, and I never have to. For some reason, that's comforting. Running makes most things better -- unless you have knee pain, then running makes it worse. It's possible to stick to some resolutions for months, just by doing it one day at a time, even if you don't think you can do it for one hour. Everything about money sucks, all the time. It's possible to read the same thing many times over in a very short period of time, and find something new in it every time. It's possible to apply for grad school out of a twisted combination of appeasement, spite, lovesickness, and sheer boredom, without any real intention of getting accepted. It's possible to put together a semi-coherent application, even if you decide to apply for said reasons, less than three weeks before the deadline. It's apparently possible to be taken seriously if you apply to a program you have no business applying for, with close to zero experience in the relevant field. (Be careful what you apply for. You might just get accepted. And be careful where you apply. You might just end up moving to Texas.) 

Some things I don't know
Why are the things we need to hear the things we hate hearing the most? What do you do when people you love aren't taking good care of themselves? What do you do when you're on a first date, and you're a girl, dressed warmly, sitting outside in the cold with a boy who is wearing shorts, flip-flops, and a t-shirt? (I'm supposed to be the one who is cold, dammit!) Is the important thing about living near the ocean that I actually go there often, or just that I know I can go there whenever I want? Why does it seem like cancer targets the best people you know? (Why do I still ask that question when I know there is no why?) Why can I go a whole day eating nothing but chocolate and then complain that my stomach hurts and I have a sugar headache? Is Santa Fe more fun than Albuquerque? What do you do when there are two boys in the picture, and you know that if you don't play your cards right, you'll end up with zero? Why, when it's a clear night and the stars are out, does nothing else matter, in the whole universe? How do you know when people are just saying things to be polite? Is it easier to believe something but not know it, or to know something but not believe it? Why have I spent my whole adult life thinking I hate grapefruit when I don't? Why do some of the most carefully thought out plans lead to totally crappy results, but last-minute decisions made by coin-flip tend to turn out awesome? 

Deep breath. New week. 

Sunday, April 15, 2012

"I am rooted, but I flow"

I've been thinking about dialectics lately. They seem to have been trying to head-butt their way into my consciousness this week, and I've been pushing them out because, well, they're annoying. For various reasons. Some of them are cliche. Some of them I ignore because they're so damn profound that they're just bound to be useful. And some of them don't seem to make any sense at all. But I gave them some head space this week, because they're also kinda cool sometimes, and they don't have to be all that scary. 

What is a dialectic, anyway? Basically, it's a pair of concepts that seem to be mutually incompatible. Yeah, if I were feeling smarter I could talk about the Socratic method or Hegelian dialectics, but that's boring. I'm going to keep casually sipping my Diet Coke and start talking about apples. In language so imprecise that if you're a philosopher you should stop reading (Tim!). 

Here's an easy (and useless) one. A simple set of opposites: big and small. It's clear how the same object can be both big and small at the same time, right? Because size is relative. A small apple is big compared to an ant, but small compared to, say, an antelope (or a cantaloupe, or The Big Apple, you get the idea). Lots of dialectics can be resolved by shifting your frame of reference.

Here's a useful one, still pretty easy. About a year ago, I was doing a bunch of reading about dialectical behavioral therapy (but never actually did DBT). The therapy is an extension of normal cognitive behavioral therapy, but with an added component of radical self-acceptance inspired by Buddhism. Its central dialectic: acceptance and change. It's like I love you, you're perfect, now change. Okay, I can get my head around that one. I mean, part of accepting myself exactly the way I am right now is accepting the ways in which I am changing, or want to change, right? It's like accepting my current position and also its time-derivatives, of various orders, if I'm feeling sort of science-y. Or if I'm feeling philosophical, accepting myself in the moment can mean focusing my acceptance on the relevant timeslice of some Kantian complete concept, which includes past, present, and future. (Okay, "timeslice" is still kinda science-y.) Maybe a stretch, but it's one I'm flexible enough to be comfortable with.

Here's an even more useful one, and more difficult. In the form of an imperative: think, and don't think. I participated in a day-long mindfulness meditation workshop yesterday, my first experience meditating with formal instruction. If you've tried it, you know. If you haven't, you might be shocked how difficult it can be to just sit still and be quiet. To be aware. To let thoughts come up, to notice them, to let them go. The classic visualization is a river, where thoughts and feelings are leaves bobbing up and down, you just watch them float by without grabbing onto them. Think about what you're thinking, but don't. If you're really good, you can do it without attaching language to the thoughts. Or, you can label them with just one word each, according to their tone, like "pleasant", "unpleasant", or "neutral". If you're me, the language you attach to each thought might eclipse the content of the thought. (This stuff is hard). 

Then there are metaphors. Virginia Woolf says "I am rooted, but I flow". (Look, it's two metaphors, it's a dialectic, it's two yoga words! And it's by my favorite author! And it spontaneously popped up on my Facebook yesterday. Good timing, universe!) Anyway. I know I'm not a tree. I'm not a river. I am a human being sitting on a couch. Okay, well maybe I'm a tree sometimes. Warrior one, or mountain pose. I do those. That's kind of tree-ish. And there's some stuff I do very consistently, some routines that are immutable, some beliefs that I hold onto pretty solidly. What about a river? We "flow" in yoga practice, that's what rivers do... I have to "go with the flow" on a daily basis, changing plans when plans need to be changed. I adapt to my surroundings, etc. So I guess I'm a river, too...

...but a tree is definitely not a river. Thinking like that has led me to subconsciously reject a lot of potentially useful metaphors. One metaphor seems to be a perfect fit for one moment in my life, but if it's incompatible with one that had seemed to be perfect the previous day, week, or year, I realize this "perfect" metaphor in this moment might not be at all useful in the next. So, metaphors are no good, and we should throw them all out. Pretty dumb, huh? Is my excuse that I'm a scientist? But what about science? Where are the numbers? What does quantum mechanics say? Actually, quantum mechanics says I am a tree and a river -- at least, when I'm not looking. When I do look at myself, I have to see one or the other (or something else entirely), but not both. Maybe more likely a tree, maybe a river. Or maybe I'm a time-dependent wavefunction, and today I'm more likely to look like a tree but tomorrow I'll certainly be a river. 

The last thing, that I'm trying to frame as a dialectic but can't do it, but I am convinced that there's one somewhere here (haha): A friend said a couple weeks ago: "A metaphor is true only if it is useful". I'd never heard anyone say that before, and it's been rattling around in my head ever since. It goes counter to intuition because the normal approach is that a metaphor is only useful if it's true. (Of course, you have to be lucky enough to have a good working definition of "useful".) But, is that the correct definition of metaphor truth? Only if it's useful! I know, what do I have to be so "meta" for...

So, sometimes two things that are true, or two things that are helpful, seem to be incompatible. Maybe in a sense, they actually are. Maybe, in another sense, they're not. But, in every sense, it just doesn't matter. It hardly matters if the opposition can be reconciled, and it matters much less whether we can figure out how to reconcile it. What lesson am I trying to learn from all this? I suppose it's an extension of my friend's comment:

If it's useful, then use it!

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Don't it always seem to go...

... that you don't know what you've got till it's gone? True story. It's amazing how much comfort I find in routine and structure. And how much it can throw me off when several components of that structure are disrupted at the same time. And how I don't even realize that's why I was thrown off until the structure is reinstated. Why am I talking about this? Last week, several of my friends took off for vacation at the same time, my teaching schedule was different than usual, my steel drum practice was cancelled, and I had to tweak my running schedule. I know, none of that is a big deal, in theory. In practice, it threw me for a loop. I realized that I had started focusing on all of the things that felt out of place, all of the things that I thought I "should" be doing that I couldn't do. Because I was so busy with that, I completely lost track of the things that were going well, and I wasn't letting myself enjoy the new things I was getting the chance to do. For instance, lately I'm getting fewer tutoring hours than I'd like, but I've been using that extra time to do more yoga, which I really do enjoy. Today, I'd basically planned my day around doing laundry (how lame is that? Happy Easter to me!) but the machines were taken. So I had to scrap that plan. I now have no clean clothes, but I ended up going on an amazing hike in Tilden Park with a friend. And a few days ago, I had to push my normal afternoon run until later in the evening. As a result, I got to watch the sun set over the Pacific:

In knitting news: after a year off, it's been refreshing to come back to Ravelry and see so many great new patterns.  Itching to cast on for my next lace project, I scoured the pattern list and found Filigrano. It was love at first sight. That perfect combination of geometrical structure and elegance. That rhythmic flow from linear body to flowery edging. It wasn't until I'd made it through most of the first chart (which took all of five days -- it's always a race to the edging) that I noticed that my version looks developmentally challenged compared to everyone else's. I squinted my eyes, tilted my head, thought maybe I was seeing things, hoped that it was fine after all, that it'd look just right once it had been blocked. But no. Turns out that I'd been doing my left-slant decreases completely WRONG! In my excitement to cast on and start a new project, I neglected to read the pattern closely enough to realize that the left-slants are skp's and NOT ssk's. Blah!