Writers are Clever Hans

Do you know the story of Clever Hans?  Clever Hans was a horse who could multiply numbers by knocking on the floor with his hoof.  But that is not really what he did.  He simply responded to the mood of the room.  When somebody asked Clever Hans “What is three times seven, Hans?” he would knock the floor with his hoof and then when he had done it twenty-one times everybody in the room would relax (they had been counting) and he would stop hitting the ground with his hoof.

Writers are like Clever Hans.  Writers write things that are much smarter than they are.  They write things that click in a certain way with their understanding of how an audience will respond and they channel the audience’s wisdom back at the audience.

Even if the audience is not there.

Maybe the human race as a whole is Clever Hans, making patterns in space-time with our collective hoof that are smarter than we can ever understand.


Doing the Right Thing Versus Doing What Feels Good

Sometimes people feel there is a conflict between doing what is right and doing what feels good.  But doing the right thing feels good.

What about people who are so set up that doing the wrong thing feels better than doing the right thing?

Is it possible to convince them to do the right thing even though it doesn’t feel good?

I suspect not, since most attempts to do so have included the supernatural promise that eventually doing the wrong thing will feel bad.

Also people who go through life doing what they think is the right thing even though it feels bad are put in a terrible mood by this approach and tend to treat other people unsympathetically, which is in fact the wrong thing to do, although it may make them feel good, because they have a feeling of power from being tough on themselves and others.

It is better to encourage everybody to enjoy the pleasures of helping people, creating works of beauty, and understanding the universe, which are right and feel good.



Conceptual Vaginal Plugs, Conceptual Anal Plugs

Some animals after copulating deposit a thick plug in their partner’s vagina to prevent her from copulating with other animals for a while, so the first animal’s sperm will have a chance to impregnate her.

Here is wikipedia:

A mating plug, also known as a copulation plug, sperm plug, vaginalplug, sement or sphragis, is gelatinous secretion used in the mating of some species.

There is a conceptual analog to this vaginal plug in charisma and other emotional and social binding mechanisms.  If I’m trying to get you to join my religion or my political party I might insert the conceptual analogy of a plug into the conceptual analogy of your vagina.  So I might make you think my religion or political party is great and we are all great and that you should feel guilty for studying other religions and political parties.  That gives my ideas a chance to fertilize your life and gives them protection against other ideas. Until such point as you remove the vaginal conceptual plug from your brain (or it falls out).

Is this a mean trick?  Well for the squirrels and aardvarks and scorpions that employ a mating plug it is not mean or not mean — it’s just nature.  The mating plug evolved like anything else — a heart, the behavior of eating ants, the eye, or the vagina itself.

Is it a mean trick conceptually?  the INDIAN GURUS argue that you can’t grow a tree by uprooting it every week and planting it in another spot. There are certainly habits of mind that take time to gestate.  Some degree of committment to a particular mode of thought or way of living may need to be nurtured, and that may involve protecting it in a CONCEPTUAL UTERUS from outside influences.

So to give an example, supposing you are trying to become a feminist.  You want to tune your mind to examine the effects of unconscious male privilege on your dealing with men and women.  If that is your goal you might want to read feminist books, hang out with feminists and try the ideas on for size, and not go running off to a meeting of your local society of pick-up artists.  Your revulsion against challenging feminism protects the metaphorical sperm of feminism within your metaphorical mind’s vagina.

However there are also creatures, a species of worm wikipedia informs me, that mate homosexually and then plug up their partner’s anus.  This biological phenomenon and its conceptual analogs is just rude.


Sad Elitist

The sad elitist says “Oh what a sad place this world is!  The masses of people follow vulgarians and demagogues and crap-artists of various stripes.  They are so stupid and vulgar and dumb they do not listen to me and my friends, who are aesthetically sensitive/moral/scientifically accurate [your self-image here].”

And the sad elitist in his heart of hearts worries “What if my aesthetic sensitivity/moral compass/scientific accuracy is a fraud and that is why nobody follows me any more.”

Listen up, sad elitist!

You’re not wrong.  You are more aesthetically sensitive/morally aware/scientifically accurate/whatever you want than the average Jane or Joe.  But you still messed up.


You had it good.  You were a member of the elite, helping yourself to the finest fruits of your society’s harvest.  Your only job was to get the masses to go along with it, promising (and who knows, maybe even delivering) some actual benefit to their lives.  That is the bargain.  You get to be an elite of the aesthetically sensitive/morally pure/scientifically well-informed and everybody else gets SOMETHING.

If you failed to provide anything you have no one to blame but yourself.


The Young Do Not Respect the Old

We give respect out of self-interest.  If I respect an axe it means I know if I handle it carelessly I could get hurt; secondarily if I learn to work with it my life is improved.

It is the same with human beings as with axes.  If a human earns my respect it means I think for my own good I had best treat what he does and says with some modicum of gravity.  If I ignore what she asks or does I risk mishap, while if I cotton to her desires I may be helped.

The young respect the old less than they used to for two reasons.

First reason: the world is changing more quickly, because of accelerations in technology, therefore the old may lack the skills necessary for success.  Their views may be dumb.  So the young can ignore them more freely; they are a dull ax.

Second reason: There are more opportunities for advancement; more zig-zagging paths to a fulfilling life.  In the old days of hierarchy the old person’s butt was in your face as you climbed a single ladder.  You had to obsequiavate him or her to gain a toe-hold and advancement, bestowing on that old face-staring butt a fine, respectful Kissing and Tongue Bath.  Now you can say “See you later, chum.”

But this lack of respect is it a Good Thing?  Or a Bad Thing?

Hush, child.  Those things worth discussing are always both.  Nobody but a fool would ever even voice the question of the goodness or badness of the unequivocally fine or ill.


Teachings on Emptiness and Fullness from Paul, a Zen Master from Ocean Parkway and Avenue P

When I was on my existential mystical quest in my mid 20s (and paying the bills with office temp work) I learned that there was a home-grown Zen master named Paul in my own backyard in Brooklyn.  He lived in one of those huge apartment buildings you pass going down to the ocean on Ocean Parkway — the kind that have ancient people in folding beach chairs in front schmoozing and playing chess or dominoes and reading newspapers in the language of their native countries and that have huge dark lobbies with a sweet dank cabbagey smell and peeling circulars from the 70s pinned on a very dimly lit announcement board.

I pulled the gate back on the elevator and walked to his corner apartment on the fourth floor.  He was an Italian American of medium height with heavy metal hair and a Kiss t-shirt.  He was not from a Zen lineage but had read some Suzuki before dropping out of high school and had achieved satori a couple of years later.  He looked to be in his mid-2os but could have been older — there was a bench press in the living room next to a poster of Boddhidharma and a zen cushion so he probably kept himself in shape.

“So what can I do for you?” he asked.

When you get time with a spiritual master it’s good, in my experience, to go right for the deep stuff, cause generally they’re so nice that if you ask them about their family they’ll tell you and ask you about yours and then you’ll exit the ride without any enlightenment.  So I took out my paper and asked him “I’m puzzled by the Dogen question.  Either I’m already enlightened in which case what should I be doing, or I’m not, but if I’m not how could I become enlightened?  I mean from a cosmic standpoint if reality is non-dual I’m already part of that non-dual reality.  But still I’m unhappy.  So…?”

“Do you want some tea?” he asked me.

“Sure.” I said.

He went to the kitchen (everything was pretty dirty — I remember that now.  It reminded me of a widowed grandpa’s apartment — maybe it had been) and took out a pitcher of iced tea and started pouring it into a plastic cup.  He kept pouring and it overflowed.

“I know this one.” I said.

“Sure.  You know that if your mind is so full of ideas the Zen master can’t give you any new ideas.  You even know that idea.”



“So I want you to empty my mind of ideas.”

He gave me an empty cup.  “Empty it out.”

“I can’t — it’s already empty.”

“Right.  You’ve got two cups.  One is empty and you want to empty it.  One is full and you want to add stuff to it.  What do you do?”

“I don’t know.  Pour from one into the other?”


“I don’t know.”

“Think about it.  You’ve got two yous — one of them is too full and one is too empty.  Make sure you put stuff in the right one and take stuff out of the right one.  Listen I gotta go but just think about that.”

“Wait” I said as he hustled me into the elevator.  “There’s also me, the person with the two cups.  So I have three “mes”?  Right?”

“What?  Oh sure.  Three.  Call me if you need anything.”

He was a good guy and a pretty good Zen Master.



Frosty Fran

Not actually emotionally cold at all.  She has a lot of anger and a lot of love.  She doesn’t express it because she doesn’t want to manipulate people.  She keeps pretty cheery.  She just doesn’t want to share the depths with those who are not ready to share the depths.

Sometimes she dreams that Goofy is a real person, an intelligent southern dog who walks on two feet and takes her on adventures.

If there were a war and she had to kill an enemy soldier to keep from revealing the position of her own troops, Fran is convinced she would do it, but she wouldn’t be happy about it.

Sometimes in the forest she sees the moss and imagines what it would be like to be the moss.  Sometimes she imagines what it would like to be the sun.  And laughs!



“From Tight Spaces We Construct Immensities”

One night I was pressed down with anxiety and when I finally found sleep Shlomo Alkabetz visited me in a dream.  “It’s so hard to say what I want to ask, Rabbi Shlomo.” I said.  “Don’t try to say it the way you think you ought to say it.” said the presence who was Shlomo Alkabetz on the other side.  “Just say it.”

“Why does it have to be so difficult?”

“Our job is to build  the next universe  and every tile, every door knob every pipe and every wire is constructed of the moments that make up your lives.  From your tight spaces we construct immensities.  From your fleeting moments we build eternity. ”

“Only the pain?” I asked him.

“No, no, no, no, no.” he said, hugging me.  “From the joy too.  Not even just the deep joys ; also the ones you don’t notice, that flit by.  We are building you a home.”



Books I Like Versus Books I Think I Ought to Like

Back in junior high school and high school we had to read books, but there were also books I read because I wanted to read them.  I think this distinction has seeped into my unconscious and surfaced as a feeling that there are certain books that are actually Good and Good For Me, and others that are just enjoyable.   The books I think I ought to like are:

  • about realistic limited characters with boring jobs who struggle with their families and their powerlessness
  • realistic
  • old
  • long
  • hard to read
  • make you aware of language as language — they have prose that is beautiful and self-conscious
  • are in favor of social change
  • serious
  • depressing — they castigate us for our hopes and strip us of our illusions
  • they are unpopular — they make me feel smart and special for liking them while most people would not like them.
  • morally complex

Examples: Jude the Obscure, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, The Magic Mountain

In contrast the books I like to read

  • are titillating
  • take me to amazing fantastic worlds
  • are funny
  • are violent
  • language does the job but doesn’t annoy me or call attention to itself.
  • were written recently
  • full of wish fulfillment
  • have cool ideas but don’t take them seriously.
  • the characters are extreme — geniuses, morons, femme vitales, weirdos

Example: Gone Girl, Harry Potter, The Shadow of the Torturer.



Time Traveling Moods

I awoke last night to see the time traveller in my bedroom peeking from his orb of nacreous flux.   “You laugh at measles and mumps in your world.  Your forget the Age of the Great Plagues when those germs felled millions.  So it is in our world with emotional pain and psychological illness.  We look at your time, the 21st century as the time of the great psychological plagues that blight the lives of billions.”

“And what do you do about it?”

“It is impossible for us to travel back in time physically or to send information back in time, because of the paradoxes.  But we are able to send moods.  When one of you feels a sense of a Presence in the room with you that somehow provides comfort, that is us.  When you lack all hope and the drizzly street you look on is suddenly transfigured by an invisible but cheering light, that is a traveler from our world, lightening your burden, easing your fear.”

“But this conversation belies your claim.  You are communicating to me in words.”

“Not so.  What I am communicating to you is simply a mood. When you awake you will try to put it into words.”