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interesting — to me! — conversation with a Brucist

when I was in Albany the people downstairs from me — transport engineering grad students from Iran — were Brucists, members of a small religion that believed the Infinite One took human form in the person of a seller of stamps and other collectibles from Brooklyn named Bruce Feldman, who passed on in 1930. I asked him why the infinite one would take such a particular form of finitude to express itself in.

His answer:

The infinite will always express itself by means of finite characteristics that do not do justice to the infinite, because they are finite, and how can the limited encompass the unlimited? However there are two kinds of such characteristics. The first type are those characteristics that serve as models for our search, from the finite, for the infinite. Such as the fact that Bruce sold stamps, which are a perfect symbol of starting in one place and because of having the correct semiosis or signs, traveling someplace else. The second type, are those characteristics that are random or arbitrary, for example the fact that his name is Bruce, which is a detail of the finite which bears only the marks of the finite. The second type serve simply to teach us that the finite is not the infinite, that it is limited and in a sense arbitrary, in other words, that the finite is in fact finite. Although since the purpose of learning that the finite is in fact finite is to know and seek its opposite — the Infinite — the second type of characteristic is actually just another version of the first.

I said I did not believe in Bruce.

He said, you believe in the Infinite One?

I said, sure.

He said — then you have the same problem. The human being is a creation of the Infinite. Some of his features — that he can conceive of the Infinite — bear the marks of his maker. Others — that he has ten fingers rather than eight or twelve, do not. Yet both lead us to our source.

And what about those who think the Infinite is mindless and purposeless? What is the difference between a Limtless one whose mind and purpose are unknown, because Infinite, and one that simply lacks mind and purpose.

Bruce be Praised!, he said smilingly, and took me down to his room where he and his wife made me rice with chicken and pomegranites and lit incense before a three-cent stamp.

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“Early 90s Werewolf Obsession” and “The Hunter for Options”

it’s pretty hard to explain what the whole werewolf thing was like, back in the early 90s, before we got it under control with the latest generation of treatments. It was scary man! It was really scary! I couldn’t stop thinking about it! I didn’t even want to. Then Chabby said to me “You know if you really wanted to cut the tie to the werewolves you’d stop fighting them and just move on to something else — because when you think about something –even if what you think is — I don’t want that! — even — I hate that! — it becomes a part of you.” “You’re right Chabby, but what can I do? Don’t you have the same problem with divisiveness and aggression — you’re always thinking about how to stop it, so it’s a part of you. Right? Right?” Why didn’t Chabby answer me — it was a perfectly good point. Thinking back about it it makes me think of the time I was hunting for options, and somebody, I think somebody different, though it might have been him, or even me, said to me “Isn’t the need for options hunting you — in fact, didn’t it catch you?”

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New Ways to Build Trust

In the old days it was easier to build trust, but we can’t go back to the old days, because anybody who spoke the way they did in the old days, we could not trust, because we have discovered new ways of tricking people, and once learned, these cannot be unlearned.

A long time ago if somebody cried it meant he was really upset, but then we learned to pretend to cry, and now you can’t trust it.

So what to do?

People have developed new ways of signaling their trustworthiness. It is like an arms race.

Literature is a tool in the smoking out of forms of deceit and the development of new forms of trust-signaling. For example, the romantics tried to signal trustworthiness by going on endlessly about their inner feelings. It wasn’t because they were self-indulgent. It was because at the time they were writing the fakes had not looked within enough to talk at length about their feelings, so somebody who did talk at length about his feelings was more likely to be trustworthy. Of course that is not true anymore and hasn’t been for a while — but that is why romantic literature gave way to a bracingly ironic chilly style. It was to teach people that you couldn’t trust somebody who analyzed his subjective experience to be trustworthy — he could be a self-regarding monster. And so on.

It means you can long for the simplicity of an old way of expression — eg the Bible –but must be very wary of anyone who uses that way of expression today — most likely they are a trickster who are looking for an unusally gullible audience who have not encountered that trick before. The pious fraud carries the tricks of an outmoded era into a vulnerable population that has not yet gotten the news.

It’s not something to be lamented, but something to be noticed, because every new form of deceit gives rise to a more refined and sophisticated way of building trust.

In the old days you could just write a religious parable. But nowadays to have the simplicity of a religious parable you must have the deliberate ambiguity of Kafka.

It’s not something to be lamented because the new forms of signaling trust are more sophisticated. But nor is it something to be celebrated as the new ways to build trust do not lead to people trusting each other more than they once did. They trust each other exactly as much. And that’s, give or take, and for the most part, exactly as much as they should.

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A Passover Joke

David and Herschel were two apple peddlers in a small shtetl in Galicia called, depending upon who you ask either “Schwini Gorodka” or “Shwenney Gorodka” — it doesn’t matter because it hasn’t existed since world war two. One day as they were pushing their carts they spied a 10 kopek piece at the same time. “Let’s get two tickets to Belgium.” said David. “I think we could make money trading on the Bourse. I have a cousin who is set up there.” Herschel was afraid to leave his town and said “No, you go.” And David went to Belgium.

Years passed. Herschel got married. He now had a small fruit store, but life was hard. Passover came around and he wasn’t sure if he’d be able to even afford a seder dinner. Two weeks before the day a coach in four arrived in Schwini Gorodka. It was an invitation to seder in Bruges at home of a prosperous trader — David Handelman. An invitation for one. For Herschel! Herschel’s wife said go. And he went.

A week after the Seder, Herschel came back. It was if somebody had hit him on the head with a rock. He was so stunned. His wife asked him “What was it like?” Herschel could say nothing. But he went “Ahh.” And she asked “Is David rich? Does he have a nice house?” and her husband would say “Ah.”

In the middle of the night Herschel’s wife was trying to sleep. Herschel kept her awake. He kept saying “Ohh!” and “Ahh!” Finally she got so annoyed she pulled him by the nose and said “Tell me what happened at the house in Bruges? Was he rich or not?”

“Was he rich?” said Herschel. “At the end of the seder the song Chad Gadya? You know?”

“Of course I know!” snapped his wife.

“Well in the house of my old friend, David Handelman, the prosperous trader on the Bourse, late of Schwini Gorodka and now of Bruges…the father bought the kid for three zuzim!”

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The Father of Electricity

The very first short story I wrote made my father very unhappy with me, because it was pro-suicide. It posited a science fiction world where spores from outer space infected people and if you were infected the only thing to do to save the human race was to throw yourself into a fire in the middle of every town called The Saving Fire. The sign you’re infected is your skin gets blue. In my story there was a sort of fire drill. The main character, a boy named Hug has a blue dye dripped on him by his father. His father wants to see if he will be brave enough to throw himself into The Saving Fire. Secretly the father has turned off the fire. He just wants to know if his kids is brave. But the kid is not brave — he fails the test — when the father drips blue ink on him he just runs to his mother. The story ends with everybody being ashamed of the kid and not wanting to play with him.

As I said my father was very unhappy with me for writing this short story and I felt very ashamed. That first moment when I was ten years old introduced an element of shame and hiding into my relationship with my father. I never showed him any of my short stories any more, and I when I became a writer I moved away to California.

I started to write a series of stories about a boy who loses his father and meets a new father: the Father of Electricity. This new father is, unlike my father who was a fairly unsuccessful storefront attorney, a Wizard of the Electron. The boy in my stories thinks his actual father — who was if i remember correctly a typewriter salesman who became unemployed by the introduction of the personal computer — is his father but in the middle of the night the Father of Electricity reveals to him that he is his true father and takes him to the middle of a lightning storm in the Nevada desert in a veloci-gurdy where they are struck by lightning and in a beautiful scene they both learn the importance of the imagination.

I have a son who much prefers the Electric Father to me — he is my Electric Son.

I found my bravery just not where I expected it. Day follows day and I am less and less while the Electric Father blazes like a bolt of lightning that never stops flashing but stands permanent in the night sky, like a whiter and superior sun.

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What is Funny?

I wrote this in response to Professor Rachel Barney but I kind of like it, so I thought I’d put it up here:

The funny is a bit like the rational part of us in the process of wrestling with the irrational part of us, but feeling good about it as opposed to bad (which would the horrific or the tragic). If we win it’s not funny and if we lose it’s not funny. But in the midst of it, it can be funny. But we don’t know ahead of time how it will be play out — if it’ll be funny or not — because if we knew ahead of time, we would not be wrestling with anything — we would have already won.

Think by comparison with being hexed.

You might be hexed.

You might not be hexed.

But if you’re afraid you’re hexed and you’re not sure if you’re hexed you can feel pretty hexed.

If you know for a fact you’re not hexed, you might not be hexed.

If you’re the one being hexed, that’s pretty different than if you are the one casting the hex.

If you get rid of the hex you know that you WERE hexed but you’re not currently hexed.

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Touch that Works

For a few years I had a job where I was basically teaching people to use their hands. (Sometimes again, sometimes at all.). So, like, imagine you are going to carry two glasses in one hand — you know, or you can — I’m not sure if it’s “knowledge” exactly — to put a finger on the inside of each glass and push both against your thumb, and keep up the pressure hard enough that you can carry the glasses where you want to take them. But my clients didn’t know that or couldn’t do that. We’d have to do practice drills with two pieces of paper between thumb and forefinger and they’d have to learn what the pressure should be, how to use those three meat sticks so they stopped being meat sticks and became a hand, that could apply pressure in the right way so they could — I’m not sure the word here. Live? Be a person? Get through life?

I’m a very impatient person. Or I can be. Or I was in this instance. And I would start to have an edge in my voice when the piece of red construction paper would come fluttering down for the umpteenth time! I never scolded them but these were people who were already up against it pretty hard. They already felt failures, losers, and freaks. They felt shame, which is basically the fear that you are so unlovable your Mom will let you die. Or whoever is judging you in your culture. The tribe maybe.

I said something I shouldn’t have, the client yelled at me and I yelled back.

I thought about it later. I think what happened was the following. For me the failure to help effectively brings shame, because it reminds me of not being able to take care of my mother. It brings back a feeling that I am not good enough for her. Specifically it brings back a feeling that my mother needs my help to feel happy and if I fail to touch her — meaning touch in the most general sense — if I fail to use my self in a way that makes her happier — I have failed, and I’m not worthy. Not worthy in a deep, primal unconscious sense. Life unworthy of life.

My own pain made me less effective at touching my client and helping my client to touch.

Little by little, with lots of failures, including holding the glasses so tightly my thumb mound cramped and letting them fall to shatter in pieces on the floor, I learned to use my hands.

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An Unclassy Joke, Well-Delivered

When I went to see the family my advisor advised me to only make classy jokes. Yes, they are interested in learning whether you are funny, and that is perhaps the most important requirement for the job you are gong to do for them, but make sure you are funny in a classy way, because, if you are funny but in an unclassy way, they may well laugh and laugh and make as if to enjoy your authenticity and genuineness, but behind their social facade they will judge and classify you, and you will never be accepted, not if you work for them faithfully for forty years.

I went to see the family, everything was going perfectly, the conversation lagged and I made an unclassy joke, delivering it well and graciously.

And everything has happened as he foresaw.

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Mister Deep Wanted to Know

Which part of the tree I was, if I thought I was a tree

the root, the bud (a modified leaf) the chloroplast

the stamen of the flower. I get it — if I can imagine part of it

I can imagine all of it — I might as well be the tip of the branch

Seeking the sun, as the place the two branches dissect, each seeking

its Own, or maybe the whole pattern, what’s wrong, Mr. Deep?

He was gone. I think I disappointed him. I think he wanted me to say

That I was both the thought that I was part of the tree, and also

the thought I was the whole thing? Maybe?

Not sure.

These days I disappoint everybody.

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A Model for Creativity

Take the Joni Mitchell line:

Late last night I heard a screen door slam

and a big yellow taxi took away my old man

Now let your mind generate a variant:

Late last night I heard a GREEN door slam

And a big yellow taxi brought me a GREAT BIG CLAM.

And see if that variant is any good.

The model of creativity this presents us with is that our unconscious mind is constantly coming up with variations according to some formal restraints (in this case English with rhyme and meter) and presenting them to consciousness, and then we figure out if they are any good.

It’s a pretty good model of creativity except it doesn’t tell us:

(i)where the original constraints come from

(ii)where the variations come from

and

(iii)what it means for some versions to be good and others not and how we decide that.

Which, of course, are the only things we want to know.

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