Tuesday, September 15, 2009

'Til Daddy Takes the T-Bird Away

Ingrid posted a passage on the fridge a while back from Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers. The relevant passage is quoted here. It basically makes the case that it is practice—massive amounts of practice—rather than talent, that make brilliant musicians. You of course have to have some inborn ability to fit the instrument, but the 10,000 to 20,000 hours of practice, the 20-30 hours/week, that's what does the trick.

The word "practice" came out of a continental usage meaning "striving or endeavoring" into its earliest English use as the carrying out of a profession, especially medicine and law. It quickly spread to mean "The actual application or use of an idea, belief, or method, as opposed to the theory or principles of it" (OED, definition 2a), and then "The habitual doing or carrying on of something" (OED, definition 3a). It has come to connote a regularly repeated activity which is reserved into a protected, private space in life, not subject to conventional human power structures. You don't do it for cash or your household or your family. Practice is about you and something other than you, and no-one else gets in the way.

I decided to become an art major the end of my freshman year in college wothout having taken any art classes. I did it because I looked at all the activities I had been doing that year, and the ones that I just did and did and paid no attention to time passing were mostly working on design and art projects. I figured that was a good indicator of the sort of work I could happily put a major's worth of effort into. It turns out I was right. I was happy to work—to practice—for hours on end.

Now, by the end of the next three years, I had of course come nowhere near the 20,000 hours of practice mentioned above. 3000 I might believe, but that's probably pushing it; I had other classes and activities. And I mostly gave up the disciplines of the studio arts within a couple years after graduating. Turns out I am not so good on self-motivation if there isn't someone (like a teacher or a client or an audience) I'm preparing work for. Just how I'm built. But I got into map-making, and I felt a similar sense of "I could do this forever."

I think map-making is fun.

And I think the key to getting to that 20,000 hours has to be "fun". Either that or some seriously twisted obsessive behavior combined with strong elder-pressure. But if they didn't love doing it, would they keep doing it? If they didn't at least some of the time wake up in the morning and say, "Wait, you're going to pay me to go out and do this? Cool!" I feel that way about map-making still a lot of the time. Ingrid says she feels that way about writing.

As Dr Seuss says, "If you never did, you should./These things are fun and fun is good."

But pursuit of fun also covers a kind of Peter Pan escape-from-reality way of approaching things which is the opposite of what I'm talking about. What is the difference between following the pleasure of a practice that works for you, and following sensual pleasures? The difference is whether the practice requires work from you; whether you are being held up to a standard.

Some friends were over and in the course of the evening's conversation, the question emerged, "so why do you go to Meeting if you aren't a theist?" Which is a good question, a good opening. And one of the answers, perhaps surprisingly, is "because it's fun." Or something like fun. It's fun in the sense that the practice rewards me. I come away with more than I went in with, usually.

But conversely I think of those awful grownups who try to make kids have fun, with a forced-march kind of determination—there was a gift to Roo when he was very small that was a clock that talked in a plummy, Judi Dench English accent, saying "Let's have fun!" when you turned it on, and "Goodbye!" when you turned it on, which at age 1 was about all he could do. Over and over and over. "Let's have fun! Goodbye! Let's have fun! Goodbye! Let's have fun! Goodbye!" Given who it was from, we considered it a passive-aggressive gift and "forgot" it at grandma's house...

Maybe I'm just avoiding the obvious word because it sounds so over-the-top gushy: Joy. Fun you can use up and throw away, but joy you keep. Maybe I find joy in the work I do, and the practice of Friends meeting, and really much of what I do in my life (OK, cleaning the cat box and balancing the bank statements maybe not so much), without the trumpets sounding and shafts of light from above. Maybe that's what the practice is about.

Friday, September 11, 2009

In which I ramble on about books I've never read

There's been some interesting discussion in the Quaker blogosphere around David Boulton's book The Trouble With God. Simon Haywood wrote a post arguing the book was anti-Quaker, and Charley Earp wrote a response. Full disclosure: I haven't read The Trouble With God, so in that regard I'm talking through my hat on this particular thread.

Frankly the arguments in Simon and especially Earp's posts made my head spin. It is late at night, but still...

What canst I say?

I am not a theist but continue to be mistrustful of the term "non-theist" because it focuses on what I don't believe rather than what I do believe (I would also point out that I am a non-Odinist and a non-Quetzalcoatlist, in which I expect I have a lot of company here).

I believe in stories. I believe in fiction. I trust love.

To me, God or no God is a red herring when it comes to truth. What it comes down to, is can you let the truth of a story into your heart without its being factually true? If no, then you are subject to a warped realism: you trust only what you can touch, or else you make true what is not empirically demonstrable.

We all do this. Quakers, Mormons, Catholics. Shi'ites, Zen Buddhists (OK, maybe not Zen Buddhists). Even not-theists like me.

Our world includes processes and structures that cannot be empirically seen. Some of them can be empirically demonstrated, most notably in the sciences. Others are social structures we all take for granted, and can see acting around us so clearly there is no need for demonstration. Some are frankly baffling. Death, for instance.

Earlier this week I had a bedtime where I became obsessed with 9/11. Imagining being on the planes, in the towers, on the street. It's like my son's interest in the Titanic: we humans believe if you turn a thing over and over long enough, there will be a solution. So we read the book over and over, and we form ideas in our heads and hearts about how the world works. That's one of the things stories are really good for.

I watched a bunch of YouTube bits from New York, 9/11/01. It helped, oddly, to see the actual events, horrifying though it was. I remembered what actually happened; it went from a movie script in my head to a horrible thing that actually happened. Probably reading Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close would have helped, or In the Shadow of Two Towers, both still on my to-read list.

We are so... so... what's the word? neurotic? uptight? obsessed? whatever it is, we are so "that way" about fact and fiction, making sure we are clear which is on which side. "Sacred" is on the non-fiction shelves. "Funny" is on the fiction shelves. Me, I love stories that, even if only for a little while, confuse me as to which is which: conspiracy theories, metafiction, stories within stories...

To me, that's where I get a glimpse of really experiencing truth.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The New Champion

I have a new winner in the Best Book About Maps category. It's called The Map Addict (you can also view a preview of the book from that link). It is written by Mike Parker, and it is very very good.

Mike Parker is English, and his personal obsession is Ordnance Survey mapping, but the way he describes life inside a map works just as well for those of us who grew up in America. He begins with the kind of obsessive map-travel many of us practised as children, wending our way through road and street maps. In Parker's case, it was the 1:50,000 Landranger Series, but I was picturing an 11-year-old me with my family's Hagstrom and Texaco road maps and a Goode's World Atlas. Parker was obsessed enough to shoplift nearly a complete set of Landrangers in his teens, and he acted as the family's (heck, the neighborhood's) navigator for his young adult life.

The book includes the requisite descriptions of recent cartographic history—the origins of the Ordnance Survey, Bartholomew's, and the A-Z maps—but it all comes back to what it is like to be a map person. He carefully takes down the old canard about men, women and maps ("men read maps, women follow along"). He takes on the dangers of satellite navigation with great good humor. And in the end he turns on his own map addiction, describing what it is like as a map obsessive to wander without a map, to be freed of knowing ahead of time exactly where you are.

A description of the book sounds like a random collection of interesting waypoints: the solar alignment of Milton Keynes, the most boring sheet of Ordnance Survey mapping, the sensuousness of raised-relief mapping, but throughout it, Mike inserts himself and reflects on how his relationship with maps informed and changed his relationship with the world as a whole. As a gay, pagan travel writer and TV commentator, many conventional Englishmen and women would see him as weird, but his relationship with maps is tied to a quite normal English domestic way of being: Enid Blyton stories and a nice cup of tea, and the world laid out comfortably surveyed. All adventures contained.

He talks about how a mappy way of thinking about the world can and does lead to a kind of cranky, even dangerous, sense of normality. Many of his heroes turned into cranks in their old age, and he alludes to a kind of proto-fascist mentality lurking in any well-settled society.

The book is witty, and it reminded me how important humor is in discussing the things I like to talk about here. Humor is a way of pointing sideways to uncomfortable things, and Parker does it so well, you may not even recognize the discomforts he is talking about. We would all do well to pay attention to that.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Trompe l'oueil

First off, I have a warm spot in my hearts for the Mormons. In all seriousness, I do. I love a religion that consciously provides a sense of our continent as sacred space. I really like Orson Scott Card's writing, though I find his expressed political views a little disconcerting. LDS folks I've worked with or run into are generally intensely focused on whatever they are doing, have secure family lives (assuming they are not closeted), and generally nice people. Take it as snide if you will, but I really like a religion that takes wildly tall tales as seriously as they do.

We toured Temple Square this afternoon, on the last full day of visiting my in-laws, who moved here last fall. And I had a revelation of sorts sitting in the Assembly Hall while the tour-guide missionary from Canada blithely went on about the deep love of God that led the early settlers to painstakingly paint the white pine columns as faux marble and the white pine pews as oak...

I suddenly realized I was listening to someone telling me about the movie business. The dream factory.

We Americans have a cultural sense of being realists, hard-headed, plain-speaking, no-nonsense pioneers. And in some ways we are—I'm a big fan of John Kouwenhoven's work, in which he makes a pretty good case for independent, practical thought as a basis for American cultural identity. But we are also a nation that loves to be given a rosier view of things than they really are. More than that, we are a nation that reinvents itself over and over out of whole cloth, then persuades ourselves that we have always been what we have reinvented ourselves as.

Thus we can straight-facedly talk about "traditional family values" while sending wives out to earn a substantial part of family income in the marketplace. We can talk about "traditional marriage" as if women have always enjoyed equal status in our marriages. We can talk about "American health care" as if our network of hospitals and labs and insurance had been with us since the dawn of the Republic, instead of slightly over half a century.

We are a nation of scriptwriters and set decorators.

I was struck by how this observation resonated with Paul Krugman's recent post on horse-race reporting. He blames bad reporting, but I think the public audience for news reporting is also to blame. We want the story, not the analysis and discussion. We want a plot, a narrative.

I observe this, not to say, "Hey, America, get your act and your brain in gear and stop living in Fantasyland!" Though that may be tempting, it misses the point. We're not going to change America's habit of making things up as it goes along, just by wishing it to be so. But we need to be aware of the dream-making, if we are to be good scriptwriters ourselves, and we need to be good scriptwriters if we are going to be part of any real American debate.