Thursday, September 29, 2005

How much should we memorize?

When learning any subject, it's useful to divide it up into items you should memorize, items you should access via reference materials and items you should deduce.

You should memorize the subject's foundational items. For instance, it's really hard to do even the simplest math without knowing the digits by heart.

You really need to boil down the "memorization list" to as few items as possible, because it's difficult (and time consuming) to cram many items into your brain. You’re RIGHT to complain about the teacher who forces you to memorize endless facts. But when a teacher tells you that you need to memorize a short list of crucial data, you really SHOULD memorize it before you move on.

For second-order info, you're best off working with reference materials. (I.e. memorize the primary colors; look up the secondary colors that you get when you mix them.)

Finally, there are many items that need to be deduced, because they can't be codified into memorized (or referenced) facts. When I program computers, I generally hold the common commands in my brain; I augment my brain with reference materials, which are for obscure commands. But I must DEDUCE a way to cobble these commands together into a program. No book (or brain) can hold every possible program.

It's almost impossible to deduce without first mastering the foundation. In other words, before you'll be able to do any original work -- deductions -- you first have to memorize and learn how to use references. You can't make cake without ingredients.

I found this to be true when I learned Photoshop, a famously difficult program. It’s complex for many reasons, but initially it’s complex because it contains so many tools and options. After spending six months with the program, I had pretty much learned how to use all its tools. But I would be flabbergasted each time I read a tutorial about doing performing a complex operation, like color-correcting an image. What really confused me was that though I understood each individual step of the tutorial, I couldn’t understand how the writer had cobbled all those steps together into a meaningful whole.

My problem was that though I understood all the tools, my grasp on them was shaky. I wasn’t yet feeling them in my bones. One I really memorized them -- once I knew them so well that they popped into my mind without any effort (I got to the point where I could "manipulate" them in my mind, without even starting up the program) -- they magically became simple blocks with which I could build complex structures. This process took about a year.

Obviously, people will disagree over which items should be memorized, which should be referenced and which should be deduced. But agreeing on these categories gives us a good starting point for discussion.

Unfortunately, when you attempt to learn a new subject, you will be clueless as to how to categorize its items. Which should you memorize? What reference books should you buy? Once you master the foundations, what sorts of structures can you build from them? This is where you need help from an expert. A good teacher will point you towards the items you should memorize, the references you should use, and the items you need to deduce. He will try to minimize the number of memorized items, but, such as they are, he will strongly urge that you DO memorized them.

Alas, most teachers (in my experience) don't think this through. They just throw items at you willy-nilly, asking you to memorize some (and not others) almost at random. Well, not really at random (though it may seem that way). Alas, teaching tends to be based on ritual and tradition. So if your teacher tells you to memorize something, it's probably because that's just the way his subject is traditionally taught.

SOME memorization is vital, but teachers should remember that memorizing is (for most of us) the least fun part of learning. It's also the most perplexing. We wonder why we're being asked to memorize a bunch of, seemingly, random facts. This problems is compounded by the fact that we must memorize before we can do anything fun or useful with the subject. (You have to memorize French grammar before you can speak French.)

It's vital that teachers remember to explain WHY they are asking us to memorize. And, when possible, they should give us breaks from memorization. Often, one needn't memorize all the core facts to do some useful or fun work. One can memorize some; then use those facts in context. Then one can memorize more -- adding new tools to an already useful belt. Once we feel the utility of the memorization, we'll be more willing and able to pursue it.


A simple example is language:

Memorize: all the letters, the rules of grammar, and a fairly large vocabulary of general-purpose words.

Look up (don't memorize): obscure words.

Deduce (build from memorized and looked up items): unique sentences.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Clueless

I work as a freelance designer / programmer (and as a teacher). Most of the people I work for are clueless. I don't think of this as a problem. It's my expectation. Of COURSE they are clueless. That's why they want ME to design for them, program for them or teach them.

Yes, in a perfect world, managers would understand the mechanics. But it's an imperfect world, and they're not being paid to understand; they're being paid to manage. (Yes, I know, you can only manage well if you have some understanding of what the people you're managing do. Alas, that's not the way things generally work in reality.)

It's a bad idea to just be happy that you have a "dumb boss." Sure, you'll be able to get away with some goofing-off that looks like work, but ultimately it will bite you in the butt. You'll spend 400 hours working on a project and your boss will tell you to "just make this one simple change." Of course, the "simple change" will take you another 400 hours. Had he just specified that he wanted the background to be blue instead of yellow at the beginning of the project, you could have saved yourself a lot of work.

Here's what I recommend you do:

-- Communicate often. Without sounding condescending (and without burdening your boss with techno-speak), explain AHEAD OF TIME the constraints that you'll be working under. "I'm going to make many decisions based on the form that our data is in. So if we decide later to change from a flat file to database, I'll have to rewrite a lot of the code, and that might take me weeks. So before I get started, can we make a decision about the data?"

-- Put that sort of question/statement in WRITING so that you're covered. Later, if you're asked to make a massive change quickly, you can (gently) refer to your email.

If this stuff is hashed out in face-to-face meetings, write up an email after the meeting so that you're covered: "Dear boss, based on our meeting today, this is my understanding of where our project stands..."

-- Blame software and hardware. The great thing about machines and applications is that have no feelings. Really! If you prick them, they do not bleed. So if your boss says, "WHAT? You're saying you can't instantly update every record of the database so that it magically knows all the info I have in my head???!!!", just say, "Yeah, Oracle is a really stupid program. They should really update it to make it better. It sucks that we have to work with it. Oh well..."

I'm serious about this. Most non-techies have an us-vs.-them mentality about computer people. And you DON'T want to be one of THEM. Take your bosses side and let the machine be on the other side. Be the guy who is willing to be brave and fight with the horrible ogre computer.

-- Never immediatelty say that something is impossible. If your boss asks you to program his computer to make him coffee, say, "Hmmm. What a great idea. Let me research it." Then, maybe an hour later, get back to him (preferably via email) and say, "I've researched the coffee thing and unfortunately it doesn't seem to be possible. Here's why." At this point throw a little bit of techno-speech at him (or throw in some links to a couple of technical websites). He'll tune it out.

If you immedately say, "That's not possible," he may get upset. He probably thought it was a swell idea and he doesn't want his bubble burst. So let him down gently. And agree with him that the IDEA is good. Keep his hope alive: "I'll keep looking into it. Maybe someone will develop something that will make it possible. I'll keep you in the loop!" Make him feel like you're working for his best interests.

-- GIVE YOUR BOSS CHOICES! Remember, managers are paid to manage -- to make decisions. If they aren't making decisions, they feel like they're not earning their paycheck. So they WILL make decisions. And if you're not careful, their decisions will impact you negatively.

Before I understood this, I used to be baffled by some of the things I would be asked to do. I would present a client with a web design, and he would say, "Hmmm.... I like it... I like it.... But can you just change the text color to a slightly lighter blue?"

Often these "decisions" seemed utterly random. Like my clients were deciding something just to decide it. Which is exactly what they were doing. IF YOU DON'T PRESENT THEM WITH A DECISION, THEY WILL MAKE ONE -- AT RANDOM -- AND IT WILL PROBABLY SCREW UP YOUR WORK.

So say to your boss, "Hey, can you help me out? I'm trying to choose between these three colors." Secretly, you like all three colors, and you don't care which one is used. Your boss will furrow his brow, pace back and forth, sigh deeply and say, "I'm glad you came to see me kid. Go with the green and you'll never be sorry." Thank him for his expertise and design with the green that you liked all along.

Your boss will feel like he did his job. He'll probably show the green to all his friends and say, "See that. I picked that!" And you won't have to stay late on Friday.

Monday, September 26, 2005

I have drunk and seen the spider

A "Shakespeare Meme" is spreading from blog-to-blog. If you see someone quoting Shakespeare on their blog, you're supposed to follow suit and quote him on yours. So I present the following -- one of my favorite speeches. It's from "The Winter's Tale," Act II, Scene I. The speaker, Leontes, believes that his wife has betrayed him and he is about to seek vengence:

1. How blest am I
2. In my just censure, in my true opinion!
3. Alack, for lesser knowledge! how accursed
4. In being so blest! There may be in the cup
5. A spider steep'd, and one may drink, depart,
6. And yet partake no venom, for his knowledge
7. Is not infected: but if one present
8. The abhorr'd ingredient to his eye, make known
9. How he hath drunk, he cracks his gorge, his sides,
10. With violent hefts. I have drunk,
11. and seen the spider.

In lines 1 and 2, Leontes notes that if you have to punish someone, it's good to know that you are dishing out fair punishment: How blest am I / in my just censure, in my true opinion!

But then suddenly he wishes he didn't know so many facts about the situation: Alack, for lesser knowledge!

Though he is blessed (in being a just punisher), he knows he is also cursed: how accursed / In being so blest!

Using the great metaphor of the speech, Leontes explains that buried within a cup of wine, there might be a poisonous spider: There may be in a cup / A spider steep'd. This poisonous spider, which is hidden by the murky liquid, is like the poisonous knowledge hidden inside Leontes' brain -- the knowledge that his wife was unfaithful to him. If only he didn't know about it! …and one may drink, depart,/ and yet partake no venom, for his knowledge / Is not infected. What we don't know won't hurt us.

…but if one present / The abhorr'd ingredient to the eye… If you show the drinker the spider, and if you tell him about the poison he has drunk (make known / How he hath drunk), he is doomed. …he cracks his gorge, his sides, / With violent hefts.

Finally, Leontes quits describing a general drinker and makes the metaphor personal: I have drunk, / and seen the spider.

Now, lets have a look at the rhythm. As many people know, Shakespeare's standard is iambic pentameter: ta-DUM, ta-DUM, ta-DUM, ta-DUM, ta-DUM (Oh WHAT a ROGUE and PEASant SLAVE am I…) After setting this up, he often breaks from it for effect (to BE or NOT to BE that IS the QUEST… ion). Here's the breakdown for Leontes' speech:

1. How BLEST am I [ta DUM ta DUM ta DUM]
2. In MY just CENsure, IN my TRUE opIN … ion!
3. ALACK, for lesSER knowLEDGE! HOW acCURSED
4. In BEing so BLEST! There MAY be IN the CUP
6. And YET parTAKE no VENom, FOR his KNOW … ledge
8. The abHORR'D inGREDient TO his EYE, make KNOWN
9. How HE hath DRUNK, he CRACKS his GORGE, his SIDES, [REGULAR]
10. With VIolent HEFTS. I have DRUNK, [ta DUM ta DUM]
11. and SEEN the SPIDer. [DUM ta DUM ta DUM]

The speech, like Leontes' broiling mind, is disordered and irregular. But in the middle, it calms somewhat. Leontes is able to collect his thoughts when he comes up with the spider metaphor. Though it doesn’t make his situation better, it makes it a little clearer.

How should this speech be played? When one actor is speaking to another, he is always trying to persuade the other actor to do something. Actors speak of having "goals", "intentions" or "actions," by which they are referring to what their character is trying to convince the other character (or characters) to do: The ghost may be trying to convince Hamlet to avenge his death; Lady Macbeth may be trying to convince her husband to murder the king. Dramatic conflict ensues when these goals are met with obstacles: Hamlet and Macbeth are reluctant to commit murder.

But Leontes is talking to himself. Such speeches are still most affective when tied to an actor. So the actor must try to convince HIMSELF of something. This implies that a part of him isn't (initially) convinced. Which is the obstacle. The actor needs to clarify these two parts of himself (the convincer and the unconvinced) and let them wage war on stage.

=== PERSONALITY A === (Action: convince B that we are blessed)
1. How blest am I
2. In my just censure, in my true opinion!

=== PERSONALITY B === (Obstacle: no, we are cursed!)
3. Alack, for lesser knowledge! how accursed
4. In being so blest!

=== PERSONALITY A === (Explains to B that what you don't know can't hurt you.)
There may be in the cup
5. A spider steep'd, and one may drink, depart,
6. And yet partake no venom, for his knowledge
7. Is not infected:

=== PERSONALITY B === (Explains to A that what you DO know CAN hurt you)
but if one present
8. The abhorr'd ingredient to his eye, make known
9. How he hath drunk, he cracks his gorge, his sides,
10. With violent hefts.

=== PERSONALITY A == (realizing the awful truth that B is right…)
I have drunk,
11. and seen the spider.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Track Records

Have you ever found an old journal that you'd forgotten about? Here's all the surviving text from one I kept briefly in 2000, when I had only lived in New York for a few months. This was a more innocent time -- back before 9/11. Back before Katrina. Back then, I decided to keep a journal about my adventures on the subways and buses of New York.

May 31, 2000 - Routes

I don't drive. I drove a moving van to Brooklyn when Lisa and I moved here three years ago (from Cincinnati), and since then I've never driven any kind of car or truck. Nor do I wish to. Though I never caused a serious accident, I always felt one was looming on the horizon. Once time, while driving at night, I lost myself in thought and meandered to the wrong side of the road. I had to swerve to avoid an oncoming diesel, and I wound up in a ditch.

And shortly before leaving Ohio, I was driving along a long winding road when I went through a deep puddle, which somehow stopped my breaks from working. I couldn't stop, and the road tilted downhill, so I helplessly watched as the speedometer climbed and climbed. The only other lane contained on-coming, fast moving traffic, and on my side of the road loomed a tall stone wall. Sooner or later, I knew I would come to an intersection and smash into another car. But then the road began to level out and even sloped uphill slightly, so I managed to slow down and pull into a parking lot.

I was unhurt, but from that day forward I no longer wanted to be a driver. So I sold my car, Lisa sold hers, we moved to New York, and we became PASSENGERS. Which means we traded control (or was it an illusion of control?) for fate, a.k.a. public transport.

Every weekday, I take the number two or number three train (the red line) from Brooklyn into Manhattan. If I'm worried about the time, I switch to the four or the five train (the green line), which get me to work faster. They run up Manhattan's east side, and I work on the upper east side. If I eventually switch from the four or five to the six (the local green-line train), I can get off at Lexington and 77th Street -- just a ten minute walk from work!

But so many people take the east-side trains that I try to avoid them. I like to occasionally sit down, and I'm not fond of the pushing and shoving and crunching of bodies that accompany this morning ride.

So I usually stick to the west-side two or three, which adds an extra fifteen minutes to my commute, but on which I very occasionally get a seat. Lisa also takes these trains, so we get to travel partway together.

I take the two or the three to 72nd Street, and then switch to the local one or nine for just one stop, to 79th Street. Then I have to catch the crosstown bus, which transverses central park and lets me off at 79th and First--just a few blocks from work.

Lately, I've experimented with a third route. While still in Brooklyn, I switch from the two or three to the B train (the orange line) which travels up the center of Manhattan. I get off at 84th Street--right by the Museum of Natural History--and catch the same crosstown bus, a little east of where I usually catch it.

By one of these routes, I travel every weekday. And I repeat them, in reverse, to get home. Depending on the route, it takes me an hour to an hour-and-a-half each way, which means that I spend two to three hours a day on the train or bus.

I spend a lot of time talking about trains, thinking about them, complaining about them, laughing at them and trying to ignore them. And sometimes I feel daunted at the wasted hours which I don't have the heart to add up. So I decided to keep a journal of my adventures on the Manhattan public transport system. I hope that I can transform this time into fodder for some sort of enlightenment -- or at least entertainment.

And as it unfolds, I expect to write about seats and straps, panhandlers and missionaries. Every day, I come face to face with the good, the bad, and the ugly -- the melting pot of New York City.

June 1, 2000 - Loser

I missed a train, then I missed a bus. In both cases, I arrived just as the vehicle was leaving, but too late to get aboard. And I had a slight feeling, as the door shut in my face, that all the people around me were looking at me and thinking "Loser!"

Not so much with the train. you can't see the entire train when you're standing right next to it -- only the cars closest to you, so there's no sense of a driver. The train seems like an impersonal, robotic contraption, programmed to depart at regular times.

On the other hand, you can see the bus driver clearly, so when he drives off leaving you huffing and puffing at the curb, it feels personal. Added to which, all the passengers watching you from the window seem to be thinking, "Ha! Ha!" rather than "There but for the grace of God go I."

Had I arrived at the bus-stop ten seconds earlier, I would have boarded with no trouble. I sinned by getting to the right place at the wrong time: pure chance.

Can chance make you a loser or do you have to work at it? I pondered this question as I caught the next bus, sat down, and opened the book I'm reading, "Guns, Germs, and Steel" by Jared Diamond, a terrific exploration of the winners and losers of human history.

Diamond writes about Eurasian culture and how it came to dominate (and often decimate) most other world cultures, notably native American cultures, aboriginal Australian cultures and South African cultures.

He debunks the notion that non-Eurasians "lost" due to any sort of innate inferiority, and instead paints a picture of history in which hunter/gatherer societies vied with agricultural societies, with the farmers always winning.

Farming cultures win because, unlike hunter/gatherer cultures, they produce surplus food. And surplus food means that some people can choose non-farming careers -- soldiers, politicians, craftsmen, inventors, scribes, etc. and live off the surplus the farmers produce. Whereas in hunter/gatherer societies, EVERYONE must hunt or gather full time to survive. This difference allows farming cultures to develop the tools needed to dominate: guns, steel, writing, etc.

So why do some cultures choose to remain hunter/gatherers? They don't! To farm successfully, you must obtain suitable wild plants and animals to domesticate. As it turns out, by luck of the draw, Eurasia is the ONLY area in which enough suitable flora and fauna existed. This gave Eurasians a huge head start. The rest of the world had to wait for Eurasian crops and animals to reach them -- which usually occurred when Eurasians wiped them out.

Luck chose the winners and the losers of history just as luck made me miss my train and bus. Does that make me feel any better? Sure.

Don't call me a stupid idiot. Call me an unlucky loser

June 2, 2000 - Public Address

Everyone jokes about the P.A. system on the subway, because the announcements usually sound like "Wah Wah Wah Wah" Charlie-Brown teachers. But yesterday, as Lisa and I were traveling home on the #2, the conductor clearly chastised a woman over the loudspeakers.

"Honestly, lady!" he said, "I don't know whether you're getting on or off, but you need to either get in the train or stay out of it. It's too hot to mess around."

I couldn't see the lady or the conductor, and the lady probably couldn't see the conductor. The conductor could see the lady, obviously, but probably only from a great distance --maybe several cars down from where he was stationed, otherwise he could have spoken to her quietly instead of berating her in front of hundreds of passengers. Or maybe he was standing right next to her. Maybe he could have whispered into her ear, but instead he picked up his microphone and made the broadcast -- let public humiliation punish her for holding up the train!

"Stand clear of the closing doors please!" says one of the rare non-Wah Wah announcements (recorded, not live). New Yorkers know this by heart and laugh at it or ignore it or hear it in their sleep. But about a week ago, I heard a live version. The conductor said in a loud clear voice, "Folks, I just want to point out that I see a lot of bags and backpacks blocking the doors. If you do that, I can't close the doors, and if I can't close the doors, the train can't leave the station. So please try to keep the doors free and move all the way into the cars. Unless you are just about to get off the train, you shouldn't be standing by the door." He said this as if he was expressing new ideas, as if in a Eureka! moment he had figured out a brilliant plan to ease all our transport problems. If people would just move their bags...

We couldn't explain to the conductor that we'd all heard this propaganda a million times, and that those of us who cared always stayed clear of the doors. Those didn't care, probably never would care. Of course, you can never talk back to the conductor on the subway.

But on the bus, the proximity of the driver makes dialogue possible. About a month ago, the President came to town, and his entourage blocked many of the major streets. I was riding the crosstown bus, and the driver announced that she was going to stray from her usual route in order to avoid a serious traffic jam.

At least I think she said that. But I couldn't hear her very well, because the bus was packed with noisy commuters, and she yelled her announcement instead of using the P.A. I couldn’t hear well, and I was sitting close to her. The people in the back of the bus didn't even know she had made an announcement.

But they quickly became aware that the bus was straying far from its usual route, and many of them decided that they wanted to get off the bus rather then head into unknown territory. They pulled the "stop cord," but the driver kept going. They started yelling for her to stop and let them off, but she seemed oblivious.

Finally, a man with a booming voice yelled, "would you please open the back door and let us off!" The driver heard him but still kept going, yelling back, "I told you that I was going to make a detour. The time to get off would have been THEN. Our next stop will be Central Park West!" (Miles away from where many of the passengers wanted to go.)

"We didn't hear your announcement back here, so would you please let us off!"

"As I said, our next stop will be Central Park West. If you wanted to get off, you should have done so when I gave you the chance."

"Are you a person or a ROBOT?"

"I made an announcement."


"Don't tell me you didn't hear me! My voice carries. I know my voice carries, so you MUST have heard me."

The driver seemed personally affronted by the notion that someone hadn't heard her. She took great pride in her powers of vocal projection. Anyone claiming not to have heard her must have been lying or deaf.

"Let me off, I'm pregnant!" the man yelled. Everyone is a comedian.

"I'll let you off at Central Park West," answered the driver.

"Do I have to pull the emergency cord to get off the bus?" asked the man. "I'll do it if I have to."

At that point, some of the other passengers started arguing with the man. "Please don't pull the cord, Mister! If you do that, we'll REALLY never get off the bus!" The man didn't argue back. Instead, he pushed his way to the front of the bus and stood by the driver. I couldn't hear their argument, but apparently the man won, because after a few minutes, the bus stopped, and the driver opened the doors.

A little boy sitting with his mother said, "can you believe that man? He was so rude. Who does he think he is?"

"He got her to open the doors, didn't he?" said his mother.

Ah, a life lesson!

June 5, 2000 - Contact

Some people don't care about personal space. Me? I like to keep my shields up. My invisible force field extends two feet from my body in all directions.

But some of my fellow passengers enjoy rubbing shoulders and thighs. Or maybe they don't enjoy it -- it just doesn't bother them the way it bothers me.

Often, when I'm smushed by a passengers on both sides, someone further down the bench gets up. At this point, one of my neighbors could scoot down, giving both of us more room. But usually they stay where they are. Eventually, three fourths of the bench empties out, but there at the end we stay (me in the middle). If we were sailing in a rowboat, we'd tip over.

At that point, I usually get up and move away from my neighbors to one of the vacated spaces. I move as far away as possible, as if in protest. They don't look up from their reading.

It happened tonight as Lisa and I rode home from the city. We'd stayed late in Manhattan, avoiding the rush hour, and few people were riding with us. We had a bench to ourselves. Then a young businessman type got on and plopped down next to Lisa, almost sitting in her lap. The rest of the empty bench yawned by his side, but he HAD to sit by us.

He never glanced in our direction for the whole trip, nor did he seem nervous or uncomfortable. He seemed oblivious. Not like he wanted to sit with us. More like he always subconsciously gravitated towards other people. Just as I subconsciously gravitate away. My desire only becomes conscious when it collides head on with someone else's conflicting desire. These people who insist on breathing down my neck make me painfully aware of my misanthropy.

As I was riding, I thought about an incident in London, years ago. I was sitting in an empty movie theatre, waiting for a Woody Allen movie to start. Then a woman entered -- the only person besides me who watched the movie. AND SHE SAT IN THE SEAT RIGHT NEXT TO ME. And she never looked at me or acknowledged my existence in any way. And she enjoyed the movie, laughing often. And I hated it -- not the movie but the uncomfortable experience, sitting there, totally aware of her strange, totally comfortable-with-herself presence. I wanted desperately to move, but I thought that if I did, I would somehow offend her.

I thought about how different other people are from me. And I thought about the greatest mystery in life: someone else.

June 7, 2000 - The Artful Dodger

Lisa got a seat this morning, but I had to stand and hold a strap. I spent a long time watching the guy sitting next to her. He kept fidgeting. I also have a hard time sitting still, but nothing like this guy. He would lean forward and stiffen his body like he was about to get up and then he would relax and slump back into his seat. He kept doing this, over and over, and I kept thinking he was going to vacate his seat, so I would get all excited about my chances of sitting next to Lisa, then he would dash my hopes.

People do this all the time, and Lisa and I call it the "fake out." Sometime when I can't get a seat, I see someone near me sitting and reading. Then the train starts pulling into the station and they look up, quickly stash their book in their briefcase or handbag, lean forward and...

…nothing! They just stay where they are, sitting. What the...? WHAT? WHAT? WHAT?

But the guy this morning behaved in other strange ways. In addition to the "fake out" move, he also kept twisting around in his seat, nodding and shaking his head, and mumbling stuff to himself. On this crowded train, he was pressed right up against Lisa, and I could tell he was irritating her.

Then I saw him start to check his pockets. And this guy had a LOT of pockets. At his feet, he had some kind of bag with compartments all over the place, some with zippers, some with snaps. Many of these pockets bulged, and I could see all sorts of papers and packages peeking out.

He was wearing a light-yellow jacket, which was also festooned with pockets, also bulging. And around his waist he had strapped one of those belt-bags, and this one had at least five zippered pockets. He seemed particularly interested in these, and he kept zipping and unzipping them and rummaging inside them. All this while still jerking up and down and turning side to side.

At first, I supposed he had some sort of mental problem -- maybe Tourettes coupled with obsessive-compulsive disorder. Then he changed my mind.

From his PANTS pocket, he pulled a wallet. He opened it, and pulled out all the cards, and started looking through them. Buried between two credit cards, he found a blank check folded in half. He unfolded it and stared at it for a long time.

Now I sometimes carry a blank check in my wallet, but I never take it out and stare at it. I don't stare at it, because I KNOW what's on it: my name, address, social security number, phone number, etc.

He returned the check to his pants pocket (which involved a lot of leaning over and twisting and jerking--which annoyed Lisa), and from his other pants pocket he produced ANOTHER wallet. He opened this up and looked at the cards in it, just as he'd done with the first wallet.

Who carries two wallets?

So he morphed in my mind from a mental case to a junkie thief (the drugs causing all the fidgeting, the thievery feeding his habit). As I was pondering this, we pulled to a stop and he got up and off the train.

And I knew that I could run after him and make a citizen's arrest. Or I could sit down next to Lisa and continue my journey.

Guess which option I chose.

June 9, 2000 - Public Library

People don't read in Indiana. Well, I read and my parents and friends read too, but I'm talking about PEOPLE -- not academics and their children. Besides, my mother was born in Massachusetts and grew up in New York City. My father was born in London and held a Ph.D. in English Literature. We're Jews. Of course we read!

But no one else read. Mostly, they talked about basketball. I remember one time I walked into a drugstore and the clerk asked me who won the North/South game. He was talking about the two High Schools in our town. That much I understood, because I went to South. But I didn't follow basketball. I didn't even know that “we” had played a game. I didn't even know the rules of basketball. I still don't.

I used to think this made me superior to "those jocks." Now I think it just makes me culturally ignorant and stunted. When I was studying theatre in grad school, my directing teacher remarked that watching Michael Jordan play reminded him of watching Barishnikov dancing. But my athilliteracy (to proudly coin a new word) inures me to any possible appreciation of Jordan's artistry.

Why do some of us talk about the glories of ballet, swing dancing and ancient Roman circuses with one side of our mouth while cursing modern sports with the other? This must mean we're snobs. Or maybe it means we're nerds who got beat up in gym class.

But when I told the drugstore clerk that I didn't know anything about the game, he said "Yeah, right!" I had insulted him without meaning to. He assumed that I just didn't feel like talking to him about it. As a Hoosier, I couldn't possibly NOT KNOW about a game which involved my own high school!

But they got their revenge, those jocks and jock admirers. They wouldn't let me read! Every time I tried to find a quiet place where I could prop open a book, someone would interrupt me.

This curse followed me into my young adulthood, most of which I spent teaching daycare and kindergarten. Anyone who has tried to shepherd a room full of six-year-olds can tell you that such work wears you out over the course of a day. Sure, chasing the kids around takes its toll on your body -- but your mind gets the real workout too, as every corner of it is crammed with the screams and giggles. You long to escape to somewhere private.

For one hour each day, during my lunch break, I had the opportunity. I snuck into the teacher's lounge, sought out a shadowed corner, made myself as small as possible, opened a book and tried to lose myself in Macondo, West Egg or Middle Earth.

"You see the game last night?" some teacher would say, barging into the lounge in search of his or her own escape, good conversation.

"Mmmm," I would answer.

"It was really something. Did you see that shot Williams made? Wow!"

"Mmmm," I would answer.

"I always knew he was good, but dang! I hear they might trade him to the Lakers. I hope the hell not..."

"Mmmmm," I would answer.

It didn't matter how often I said "Mmmm." It made no difference that they could SEE that I was reading. I just COULDN'T opt out. To me, if you see someone reading, you don't disturb him unless the building's burning down. But they didn't think this way.

Now I live in New York, which is a city of readers. And I ride the subway every day, and EVERYONE reads on the subway. Of course, we use our books and newspapers as shields to protect us from the other passengers, but we're still reading.

As a kid, I would read a wonderful book and I always felt I was the only person who knew about it -- even when I read a best seller. Sure, I would notice it on the New York Times Bestseller list, but I never saw anyone else reading what I was reading.

But last year, when I carried the Harry Potter books onto the subway every day, I noticed many other passengers carrying the same books. And they noticed me (I saw their furtive glances). And this morning the woman across from me was reading "Memoirs of a Geisha." She had almost finished the novel, and I wanted to tell her that I understood the bittersweet emotions that were flowing through her veins.

But of course I stopped myself. She was reading after all, and I didn't want to disturb her.

On the subway, we're all members of a vast book club. It should be called the Misanthropes Book Club, because we DON'T want to discuss what we're reading. We don't want to talk to each other at all. We just want to bask in the knowledge that we're all readers, sitting together, all aware of the rules.

June 15, 2000 - Excuse Me

So Lisa and I are riding the Q train, crossing the Manhattan Bridge into the city this morning. We don't get seats, so we're standing, holding onto a pole. Then the train pulls into a station, and before it comes to a stop, this woman gets up from her seat and heads towards the doors. But my arm is in her way.

She stops, and stares at me. Then she starts saying, "Excuse me, excuse me, excuse me, EXCUSE ME!"

I'm about to tell her that she'll have to wait for the train to stop. I'd rather not fall over just because she wants to get to the doors quickly. But before I can speak, the train stops. I feel safe on my feet, so I let go of the pole. The woman shoots me a look and exits.

Which leads Lisa and me into a ten-minute discussion about rude people on the subway. People always try to get to the doors quickly, and they get pissed off if you're in their way. They expect you to let go of your pole or strap, even while the train is still moving. Why do they think you're holding onto it? For fun? You don't want to fall over!

"One time this guy tried the 'excuse me' routine on me," Lisa told me, "and I said, 'Listen, MISTER, you're just going to have to hold your horses until the train stops!" Then she paused for a moment. "You know what the great thing about the subway is?" she asked me.


"It's the only place you can call people MISTER or LADY. Like, 'Lady, would you mind moving your bag so I can sit down?' or 'Mister, your umbrella is poking in me the ribs.'"

June 21, 2000 - Is Chivalry Dead?

"Okay folks, It's time for a lesson in courtesy," the conductor said over the P.A. Lisa and I were riding home on the Q train, and we stopped talking, because we knew we were about to hear something out-of-the-ordinary.

"If you see a lady standing and you have a seat, you should get up and give her your seat. That's called Being a Gentleman. I know it's the 21st Century, but we can still be gentlemen. And gentlemen always give their seats to ladies -- especially if the ladies are traveling with small children. So be a gentleman and give up your seat.

"And there's another good reason to do this: it makes a very good impression! You see what I'm saying?

"Yes. It's true. You CAN find love on the Q train."

June 23, 2000 - Get Over It

This woman sitting next to me committed the two cardinal sins.

Of course, everyone complains about other people on the subway -- like those guys who sit with their legs spread wide open like they're auditioning for a porno film. I've seen two of these guys render an empty seat between them useless. A couple of days ago, I saw a guy plop his briefcase down on the seat next to him. Everyone else on his bench was scrunched, but he never thought to hold his stuff or put it on the floor. And why do people ALWAYS want to stand by the door? Even if they're wedged together like sardines, they'd rather stay by the door than move into the center of the car. Which makes it incredibly hard to get on or off the train.

Oh! Oh! I don't want to forget the people who lean against the poles! The train is packed, and you have to stand, and you need something to hold onto. So the MTA provides these poles, which run from floor to ceiling. And five or six people can hold onto one pole -- unless some ASSHOLE decides to LEAN against it. These people infuriate my friend Jenn, who is too short to comfortably reach the straps. She told me that when someone leans against a pole, she jabs her hand between pole and person's back and sticks her thumb out, poking the offender as hard as she can. And she prides herself on her long, sharp fingernails.

But the woman next to me didn't commit any of these crimes. She was quietly sitting next to me, reading a newspaper. She looked like most of the women on the train: portly, black, middle-aged, unassuming. These women, most of whom work as receptionists in upper Manhattan, commute daily to and from their Brooklyn homes, clutching their purses to their chests, minding their own business.

But she was doing "the elbow thing." Let me explain: she was reading, and when people read, they tend to splay their elbows out, like chicken wings. I never read this way. I hold my book in front of me, making sure my elbows are resting on my stomach -- because I DON'T want to poke them into the sides of the people sitting next to me.

I don't want to give you the impression that this woman was stabbing me. Her elbows were lightly brushing against my waist. AND IT DROVE ME CRAZY! This always drives me crazy. Why? I don't know. I can only tell you that when I first feel an elbow, I get a little uncomfortable. Imagine someone tapping you lightly on the head, over and over, and you'll get a good idea how I feel. It doesn't hurt -- it's just annoying. I try to ignore it, but I can't. It irritates me more and more. Then it DOES start to hurt! How can it hurt? She's not pressing hard enough to hurt me. My mind must be playing tricks on me. But it DOES hurt.

Then she starts humming "negro spirituals." I'm sorry -- that sounds really racist, but I'm not sure what else to call it. These older black women love to hum to themselves, and they always hum what sound to me like simple "negro spirituals" from some old movie starring Hattie McDaniel.

If these women belted out a song, many people would complain. But I would PREFER this to their barely audible humming. I should explain that I have a very finicky relationship to sound. When Lisa turns on the TV, I'm constantly asking her to turn the volume up or down. Down she can understand, because most people hate loud noises, but she can't understand why I demand she turn the volume UP when I'm not even watching the show.

I can't explain it, but I HATE mumbling and whispering. There's a narrow threshold of volume that sounds "right" to me, and anything above it or below it drives me nuts -- especially anything below it. If Lisa sets the volume right, I can ignore the television, but if it's too low, I can't concentrate on anything else. Most people would prefer the sound turned down if they're not watching, I know, but not me. Sometimes I play music, and Lisa wants to talk to me, so she turns the stereo down. Suddenly, I can't hear what she's saying -- the mumbly sound distracts me -- so I just turn it off altogether.

So this woman next to me was committing the horrible crimes of reading and humming. I couldn't stop the humming, but I have a trick that I use to combat the elbow problem. Basically, I wait for the perpetrator to turn the page of her book or newspaper. To turn the page, she has to move her elbow for a second. As soon as she does, I quickly place my arm at my side, like I'm holding onto an invisible armrest. Then, when her elbow comes back down, it can't stick into my side, because my arm is in the way.

At this point, the perpetrator pauses. She senses something is wrong. She was enjoying a perfectly comfortable read -- now suddenly there's no place for her to rest her elbow. She realizes that it's because the asshole next to her has moved his arm into her way. She tenses up to confront him. But she realizes that she has no case. What can she say? You arm is where I want to put my elbow? So she stops herself. She suffers in silence. She knows she has no right to complain -- the guy next to her isn't breaking any laws -- BUT IT FEELS SO UNFAIR!

Meanwhile, I have won a tiny victory, but I have lost the war against my own eccentricity. I mean, ELBOWS and HUMMING????? Rapists and child molesters roam the streets, and I'm worried about elbows and humming. I imagine a big sign hanging over my head, saying "GET OVER IT!"

How DOES one get over it, anyway?

July 20, 2000 - Move!

Riding on the M79 crosstown bus, I looked up from my book and noticed we hadn't moved for a long time. And the driver was saying something.

"Everybody move to the other side," he said. "I need all of yous to move to the other side."

We paused and looked at each other, wondering what he was talking about. Then this woman at the front of the bus -- a passenger like us -- in great exasperation, shrieked, "MOVE TO THE OTHER SIDE!" and she accompanied her shrieking with hand gestures, quick slaps in the air from right to left, which made her command a little clearer than the driver's.

Apparently, the driver wanted all those who were standing to stand towards the left of the bus, not the right. Finally getting it, they began moving to the left, shifting all of two inches, because they didn't really have much room to move in the aisle between the two rows of seats.

I stayed in my seat and watched as the driver and the woman kept yelling. The driver said "I can't start the bus until you move!" and the woman just kept yelling, "Move, move, MOVE!" and I noticed that the whole bus tilted slightly to the right. Did the diver think that the passengers caused our list by standing two far to the right? Would it really help if people shifted to the left? Could a bus tip over?

Then the woman addressed the passengers SEATED on the left side of the bus. "Get up," she commanded. "Get up. Get up! GET UP! Get up and move! GET UP AND MOVE!"

Once again we looked at each other? Did she seriously want us to give up our seats? If we followed orders, where should we go? Should we scrunch into the aisle with the standers? Should we sit on the laps of the passengers on the other side?

Slowly, we started to rise. Then the bus driver looked in his rearview mirror and noticed what we were doing. "Naw," he chuckled, "Yous don't have to stand."

We sat back down again. The woman frowned. Then the driver told us to rock. He demonstrated by leaning to the left. We all rocked to the left. He was laughing. Was he joking? We didn't know, but the bus started moving.

And that's all we cared about anyway.

Monday, September 19, 2005

What Does Art Mean?

Many of the things people say and write about art do not make sense, because they talk about meaning. They explain the meaning of a poem by Emily Dickenson; or they reveal the theme of "Macbeth." Theme is a kind of meaning. Whether you're talking about theme, meaning or subtext, you're talking about something other than the poem itself. The poem isn't its meaning. If it was, then why would we need two words, "poem" and "meaning"? The meaning is something you derive FROM the poem.

Do poems (stories, plays, paintings, etc.) really have meanings? That depends. It depends on what you mean by "meanings." Which is exactly the problem. When you tell me that a poem has a meaning, you may mean something very different by that statement than what I think you mean. We both may mean different things by meaning, but we may think we mean the same thing. So we might be like two guys talking about "M*A*S*H". We might think we're talking about the same thing. In fact, you are talking about the Robert Altman movie and I am talking about the TV Show.

Art itself is fiendishly difficult to talk about (what IS art?). So to figure out the meaning of meaning, let's start with something much simpler. Let's start with this symbol: 7. What does it mean?

Most people will say that it means the number seven. Suppose a weirdo says it means a horse. Is he wrong? My gut tells me that he is wrong. EVERYONE knows that 7 means seven. But why? Why should it mean seven and not horse? How can I prove to the weirdo that he is wrong? Where's the secret book where I can look up 7 and see what it means? The dictionary? Okay, I look it up, discover that -- yup -- 7 means seven and, triumphantly, I thrust the dictionary in front of the weirdo's eyes.

"So what?" he says. "Just because it's in the dictionary; that doesn't make it right."

"Of course it does," I say. "That's the whole point of dictionaries. They tell us what words and symbols mean."

"No," he says, "they tell you what the writers of the dictionary think they mean. I disagree with them."

"Oh, come on," I say, "We ALL trust dictionaries." But I realize that I've said something foolish. Saying "We all trust dictionaries" is just like saying, "EVERYONE knows that 7 means seven." I'm still saying that 7 means whatever MOST people say it means. Or I'm arguing my point by saying that 7 means what important people say it means -- like the scholars who write dictionaries. But if someone asks, "Why should I care what most people -- or what important people -- mean?" I have no answer. Other than to stammer, "You just SHOULD!"

After all, the symbol 7 wasn't handed down to us by God. At some point, some person made it up. He decided that it meant something to him, and maybe he explained that meaning to other people. "When I write 7, I mean…" or "Hey, let's all use the symbol 7 to mean…" In other words, he was setting up a rule and asking other people to play by it. But he couldn't force people to play by it. And he couldn't claim that his rule proved that 7 meant anything in particular.

Mathematicians do this all the time. They set up rules for variables. They say x equals three. They are not saying that x MEANS three in any permanent sense. They can't prove to you that x means three. Rather, they are saying, let's all agree to a rule that (in this math problem), the symbol x stands for the number three. If you refuse to follow this rule, that's fine. But you won't get the same results in that particular problem as the people who DO follow the rule. So it's USEFUL to play by the rule. But a rule is just a rule. It may be useful, but it's nothing more than useful.

In chess, there's a rule that states the king can only move one square each turn. Does this mean that it’s physically impossible to pick up the king and move him three squares? Of course not. It's just a rule of the game. And it's useful to follow that rule if you want to play that game that most people call chess.

We tend to agree on rules for symbol meanings because it's useful to do so. If we all agree that 7 means seven, we can get all sorts of work done. (I know what I'm going to get when I ask you for 7 dollars.) By agreeing to follow certain rules, we can communicate more effectively.

All this is fine, but many people feel uncomfortable leaving it at that. Surely when we're saying 7 means seven, we're not just agreeing to follow some rule. Surely 7 MEANS seven in some cosmic sense. Surely when someone says it means horse, I can tell them that they are WRONG -- not merely eccentric. Surely I can PROVE to them that they are wrong.

No. I can't. I can appeal to dictionaries, but dictionaries are just catalogues of they way symbols are commonly used. Dictionary definitions claim, "This is how most people use this word."

We know that words and symbols don't have set meanings, because we've seen meanings change. "Awful" used to mean "full of awe." So at one time, "Your cake made me feel aweful," was not necessarily an insult. The common meaning changed when the majority of speakers decided to change it. They changed the rule. So we're back to the majority again. And if someone chooses not to follow the majority's rule, he isn't wrong. He's just eccentric. (Unless we define "wrong" as "not following the rule of the majority." We'd better think really carefully about the consequences of such a decision. Were the Germans who resisted Hitler wrong to do so?)

I am not arguing in favor of eccentricity. I highly recommend that we all use 7 to mean seven. I am simply saying that when someone challenges us by asking why, we can only answer, "Because it's useful to do so." We can't claim "because that's what 7 MEANS" unless "what it means" and "the most useful way to use it" mean the same thing. In which case, why have both phrases? I don't think we want use and meaning to mean the same thing. We want to be able to say, "I know what x means, but I'm using it to stand for three."

Let's say we all agree to play by the rules: 7 means seven; 3 means three. How do we know the rules? When someone writes 7, do we have to flip through a book to work out what they mean? No. We've internalized the rules. We instantly know what they mean, because we learned and memorized the rules years ago. In this same sense, a chess master doesn't have to think about the fact that the king can only move one square per turn. He KNOWS that the king can only more one square per turn. That rule seems natural to him -- almost like the law of gravity -- because he internalized it so long ago.

I think this is why we get upset when someone claims that 7 means horse. It SEEMS like 7 means seven because we don't have to look up its meaning, we instantly KNOW its meaning. At one point, when we were very small, we did need to look it up (or be told it over and over). But we've long since internalized this rule. So it just seems right. It seems like the meaning just comes to us. In fact, we don't even have a sense of meaning. For us, 7 just IS seven. Except it isn't. We're just responding to our training.

Still, it might be useful to say define meaning as "common associations." 7 means seven because most people will instantly (and without effort or even awareness) associate it with seven. We haven't made meaning any more profound. It's still not cosmic. It's still based on majority rules. But it's based on rules of a game that most people play without thinking about it.

Furthermore, most people can't stop playing by these rules. I've been thinking of 7 as seven for so many years that I can't help making this association. It's not under my control. If you write a 7, I AM going to think of seven.

Meaning in art works along similar lines. A poem, play or painting can't MEAN anything in some provable, cosmic sense. All it can do is suggest associations. If a poem makes 99% of the people who read it think of "racism," we can say it's ABOUT racism -- or that its THEME is racism -- but we just mean that most people who read it (or maybe most people who read it carefully) will probably think of racism. They will probably all think of the same theme, because (a) they are all reading the same words and (b) they all (being human) have similar brains.

Let's examine those two points more closely: yes, we all read the same words when we read the same poem. But note that words and sentences are much more complex than numerical symbols. 7 is relatively simple. It's a small figure and, for most of us, it maps onto a single concept: seven.

Or does it? Seven is the lucky number. There are seven days of the week. There are Seven Wonders of the World. Do you think of these things when you see the symbol 7? Maybe. But you probably don't think about the fact that my grandmother had seven sisters. But I DO think about that. So even the simple symbol 7 doesn't conjure up quite the same associations in my mind as it does in yours.

Let's take a more complex thought: "Ed went to the store." What do those words mean? On a literal level, they mean that some person named Ed started out somewhere other than at-the-store and eventually arrived at-the-store. But when we talk about meaning or theme in art, we generally don't mean this literal level. So what does that sentence MEAN?

When I was a child, I was friends with an Ed. When we were 19, he died in a car accident. I can't really see the word "Ed" without thinking about that, so when I read "Ed went to the store," that IS an association that gets conjured up for me. On a less dramatic level, when I think of "store," I think of the little family grocery down the street from my apartment in Brooklyn. What do you think of? Sears? Macy's? Barnes and Noble? Is one of us right? Is one of us wrong?

The point here is that though 7 may conjure up different associations for different people, all of these associations (except for those of the most eccentric among us) will connect somehow to the number seven. But as our symbols get more complex, the possible associations quickly become more and more varied and complicated.

Here's a poem by the 17th Century poet, Matsuo Basho:

The first cold shower;
Even the monkey seems to want
A little coat of straw.

What does it MEAN? What is it ABOUT? What is its THEME? If you asked me these questions, I might say something like, "it's about being cold" or "the need for security." I can't prove that these are the themes of this poem. All I can say is that these ideas appear in my head when I read it. And I can assume that they -- or similar thoughts -- appear in your head. Because you are human too, and we are similar.

Which leads me to my second point, above. How similar are we? Yes, as humans we have many things in common. If you prick us, do we not bleed? But we're also a highly malleable species. We differ from each other genetically. We differ from each other via our backgrounds and upbringing. So while I connect Falstaff's drinking with a general theme of loving-life-and-living-it-to-the-fullest, you (having been beaten by your drunkard father when you were six) may connect it to a theme of immoral living. Is one of us right? Is one of us wrong? On what basis other than an appeal to the majority?

Many critics try to break the stalemate by invoking intent: what did Shakespeare intend us to think of when he wrote about Falstaff? If he intended a lesson on temperance, then you are right and I am wrong. If he intended a Bacchanalian revel, than I am right and you are wrong. So which is it, William? Come on: tell us the CORRECT theme!

In "The Intentional Fallacy," M. K. Wimsatt, Jr. and Monroe C. Beardsley debunked the idea that the author's intentions matter when examining that author's work. I agree with them, but I won't take the time to duplicate their whole argument here. But I will say that if you'd like to judge meaning by intent, you have a tough road ahead of you.

Here are some things to think about:

1) What if the author is dead and never published a statement of his intentions?
2) What if the author published two contradictory statements about his intentions?
3) What if the author published something nonsensical about his intentions (not all artists understand their own work)?
4) What if we don't know who the author is?
5) What if two clever critics are trying to mine an author's intentions from clues in his writings and biography? What if these critics come to two different and contradictory conclusions?

But all of these fascinating questions are really beside the point. For the sake of argument, say that Shakespeare pops into the present day and tells you that you are wrong about Falstaff. And let's say that we disagree with "The Intentional Fallacy." Okay, then you're wrong. But that doesn't change the fact that your father beat you. And it doesn't change the fact that when you read about Falstaff, you think about your father.

Let's not forget, we're talking about art here, not math problems. Why do we consume art? For many reasons. But surely we chiefly consume art for its sensual and emotional impact on us. You can tell me until next Sunday that my feelings about a work of art are "wrong," but I don't care. My feelings are my feelings. My feelings are why I care about art in the first place.

Another dodge is to say that while meanings are relative to a particular person, some meanings are more beautiful than others. This is true. Thinking back to "Ed went to the store," I will admit that the store is more beautiful if it's Crate and Barrel than if it's Ace Hardware. So I'll run with Crate and Barrel. But, as the saying goes, "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder." So we're back to relativism again.

On a cruder level, we can ask "Was Audrey Hepburn beautiful?" Most people would say yes. But what about the guy who likes "fat chicks"? He says, "No way! She was too skinny." Is he wrong or just odd?

Let's look at that poem one more time:

The first cold shower;
Even the monkey seems to want
A little coat of straw.

The poem is comparing a person to a monkey, saying that it's natural to resent a cold shower. A human doesn't like it. And a human SHOULDN'T like it. Even a monkey -- even something less-than-human yet almost human -- doesn't like to be cold.

Is that really what the poem is saying? Look at the literal words. There's no mention of a human. The phrase "Even the monkey…" implies that the preceding line is about some creature OTHER than a monkey. But why a human? Why not an elephant or panda?

Still, most of us will assume "human." But that assumption is NOT in the poem itself. It's in our brains. No where in the poem is the word "human" mentioned. But most of us think of "human" when we read the poem. The poem has the same effect on most of us. But if one guy out there doesn't think of human, he isn't wrong. He's just unusual. He can't be wrong, because the poem doesn't mention humans.

If we discard the notion of right and wrong meanings, then we are left with an art world that is necessarily relativistic. There ARE no absolute themes. There is no absolute meaning. So what? This may lead to some trouble when grading a paper in Art Appreciation 101, but other than that, what's the big deal?

Robbed of absolute meaning, art becomes like most of the other things we love best in life. Our spouses, our family, our friends and the food we eat. They don't have the same meanings to everybody, but they have deep, personal meaning for us.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

The Party In Your Head

"I was talking to Fred the other day, and he said everyone in his family has a cold."

"Who is Fred?"

"Oh, he's a guy I chat with on the web."

Some people seem to have trouble remembering what the person they are talking to knows and what he doesn't. Is there a name for this "syndrome"? Has anyone researched it?

Everyone does this at times, but with some people it's constant. It's as if, in their minds, everyone they know is all at one big party together. They forget that Fred and Mary are from totally different parts of their life and have never met each other. And I've noticed that when you bring this up, they don't seem fazed. I would expect them to say, "Oh, how STUPID of me! Of course you don't know him." But they just casually explain who Fred is and then move on.

I don't know if this is related, but I also know people who send emails like "Can you send it to me?"

I respond with "Send what to you?"

Then they respond with something like, "The red one."

Still confused, I say, "The red what?"

They say, "You know, the red one -- not the green one."

I say, "Red or green WHAT?!?"

And finally they say, "The book with the red cover that I loaned you last year."

Why didn't they say this in the first place? If they loaned it to me last year, how is it reasonable to assume I'd still be holding an image of it in my mind that could easily be attached to a pronoun?

I am NOT saying people like this are stupid. In fact, I know many smart people who do this sort of thing. But since I am the exact opposite, I don't understand it. I'm SO much the opposite, that I tend to go overboard the other way: "Could you please return that Stephen King book to me that I loaned you in April, last year? It's called 'Carrie' and it has a red cover with blue lettering. I think I saw it on the third shelf from the left when I was last over at your house. You know, your house in New Jersey. That's in the United States of America on planet Earth -- the third planet that orbits Sol, a star in the Milky Way Galaxy..."

Okay, I'm not that bad, but you get my point. Why am I that way? Why are other people extremely the other way? I know that when I think of a person, it's like they are connected to tags. I think of Bill, and instantly the tags "California" and "junior high school" come into my mind. I don't have to think about it. The tags enter my mind the same time Bill enters my mind. So if I'm talking to Charles, a guy I met in Ohio when I was in college, I will instantly know that he doesn't know Bill.This conclusion,which seems obvious, is actually quite remarkable.

We hold in our brains not only Person A and Person B (and all sorts of info about their jobs, families, etc.), but also the meta-information that Person A does-not-know Person B. This fact is not immediately connected to either person. When we think of Person B by himself, we don't think, "He doesn't know Person A." We only have this rather complex thought when we think of A and B at the same time. Yet we are able to generate this thought in a fraction of a second.

It seems very unlikely that we store thousands of does-not-know connections for every person we know. My guess is that we store facts about person A (works-with-me, is-from-Denmark, has-a-cat) and other facts about person B (goes-to-my-gym, is-attractive). When we think of both of them at the same time, out minds must run through all of the facts and see if any of them are the same for both A and B.

Clearly, not everyone's mind works this way, which is why I came up with that (wrong? dumb?) idea of some people's minds being like a big party at which everyone they ever met is a guest. That's actually a sort of attractive idea. My mindset stops my thinking from being fluid. It's possible to come up with really interesting ideas if everything in your brain is allowed to jumble together.

Discussing this with people, some of the "Fred" folks said they didn't get why it was so important to me to know who Fred is. Clearly, he's not the main point of whatever they're saying. So why can't I just assume he's someone they know and then pay attention to their main point.

Fred is important (to me) because my mind hates mysteries. And mysteries -- even mundane ones -- get assigned higher priority than other info. So I have trouble following the main point of what you're saying, because I'm trying to figure out who Fred is. I'm not 100% sure he's just some guy you know. Because you referred to him as if I knew who he was, I realize he might be a common friend. So I'm going through my mental rolodex, trying to figure out who his is.

My guess is that everyone does this -- maybe with less mundane stuff. Supposed I told you, "I had a terrible day at work because my boss made me hounoun for three hours. So I came home, drank some flifftex and watched a couple of hours of Gnant. Then I felt better." Clearly, the gist of what I'm saying is that my boss abused me and made me feel bad, so I came home and pampered myself. But can you really pay attention to that? Aren't you wondering what all those weird words mean?

Different people have different thresholds for mystery. Some people (me) need to know the answer to everything (or they have trouble concentrating); others only need some mysteries solved. Some probably don't care about mysteries at all -- as-long-as they aren't immediately important to the topic being discussed.

Getting back to the "Fred" people, what is going on in their minds? Do they realize that they are leaving out details? Do they figure that these details are unimportant and not worth the effort of speech? Or do they forget that I don't know who they are talking about?

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Atheist vs. Atheist

It is difficult for me to show any respect whatsoever for the belief that there is some sort of immortal space-alien Superman who hears your thoughts and grants your wishes. It's ridiculous on its face.
-- posted to an online forum.

I'm an atheist, but I take strong issue with your claim that Christian cosmology is patently ridiculous. Have you seriously studied Christianity or are you simply saying, "I know a bunch of people with absurd beliefs"? I certainly know plenty of people with absurd beliefs. I know people who believe that science has proven that ESP exists. This doesn't mean science itself it absurd. It just means that some people are ill-informed about science.

Let's examine your claims more closely:

1) It's absurd that God is immortal. Why? Mortality isn't a physical law, like the speed of light or gravity. We die because things go wrong with our body. It should be possible, at least in principal, to construct an immortal being. So why is the very notion of an immortal being absurd?

2) It's absurd that God is a space alien. I don't know any Christians who claim that God is a space alien. Most Christians that I know -- unless they are very small children -- don't locate God "up in the sky." Perhaps you meant "space alien" as a metaphor for non-human. Well, there are plenty of non-human creatures on Earth, so clearly the idea of non-human isn't absurd. Do you think non-terrestrial intelligence is totally out of the question? If so, you're in a tiny minority. Most scientists believe extra-terrestrial intelligence is at least possible.

3) It's absurd that God is a Superman. A Superman is a being that is similar to a human but who has special powers that normal humans don't have, right? I don't think this is exactly the Christian conception of God, but what is absurd about this possibility? If we one day discover alien life, surely it will be different from human life -- with different abilities. Some of these abilities might be superior (super) to human abilities.

4) It's absurd that God hears your thoughts. Why? Thinking is a physical process. We are starting to develop machines that can tap into the brain and perform a crude kind of mind reading. Why couldn't a more advanced "creature" have refined this process?

5) It's absurd that God grants wishes. DOES God grant wishes? I know very few Christians who believe that if you ask God for a new car, he'll give it to you. Sure, SOME Christians believe this, but they may not be very educated about their own religion. Most Christians do pray to God, but prayer != wishing. Praying is talking to God. The chief point of Christianity is forming a relationship with God.

It DOES make sense to ask Christians, "Why do you believe in all that stuff?" Their beliefs aren't patently absurd, but just because something isn't absurd, that doesn't make it true or even likely. There's nothing absurd about claiming that there's a small island in the Pacific called Farmer's Island, but why should I believe in it?

Many Christians would say that they believe in God because (a) they FEEL that He exists and (b) believing in Him makes their lives better.

Well, I don't think feelings are a good basis for judging facts about the natural world, but if you force me to ground all my factual knowledge in first principals, at some point I have to admit that I base my knowledge on my senses. And sensory data is -- like feelings -- untrustworthy. (Yes, I base my knowledge on scientific findings, but how do I KNOW about those findings? By reading about them and hearing about them. Reading and hearing are things that I do via my unreliable senses.)

And I'm happy for them that believing makes their lives better. Unfortunately for me, I can't force belief on myself. Too bad. I would like to be happier.

My friend John, an observant Christian, read all this and wrote me the following email:

The only one of your responses I'd qualify a bit is #5.
If someone claims Christians believe that every request they might make will be granted, that is obviously untrue. By logic alone, if Christian A asks that P come to pass, and at the same time Christian B prays that not-P comes to pass, it is certain that at least one of them will be disappointed.
What you go on to faintly imply, however, is that no serious Christian really asks God for concrete things, but rather prays only as a means of communion. That would be misleading. Petitionary prayer is an essential part of Christian life. Our Lord specifically instructs us to do this. He does it Himself (and is at one point refused by the Father).
But you are right that, even when we don't (apparently) get what we believe we have asked for, that does not necessarily phase a Christian, for two reasons. One is the reason you said: that prayer is not a shopping expedition. Even when we our petitions go ungranted, the very act of praying brought us close to the Lord which we discover each time was more important than getting what we want. The other reason is faith. If a child and parent are in perfect relationship at a particular moment, the child will have faith in him. Faith = trust. So ideally we trust that God has some reason for this, a reason that is not simply abstract or intellectual or removed, but a reason rooted in infinite and tender solicitude for me in particular.

Fine! Ignore me!

In an online forum, a teacher complained that some of his students were bringing laptops to his classes and surfing the web. He claimed this was distracting other students who were trying to pay attention.

I have been a professional teacher for almost 20 years. I have taught children, college-aged people and older adults. I currently teach computer classes (Photoshop, etc.), but I've taught plenty of loftier subjects (dramatic literature, writing, etc.).

When I teach, I offer a SERVICE. People PAY for that service and they are free to do whatever they want with the service they've paid for. If they want to come to one of my Photoshop classes and then spend the whole time surfing the web, they have the right to do so. I am not paying THEM. THEY are paying ME. If I were paying them, I could demand that they perform the service of hanging-on-my-every-word. But I'm not paying them.

I also don't judge them. I don't think, "Hey, that guy's an asshole because he's more interested in surfing the web than he is in listening to me talk about layer masks." Maybe the web IS more interesting than I am. And maybe he IS listening to me. Maybe his learning style involves multitasking.

Mine does. If I have to sit an listen to a lecture without any distractions, I zone out. I have tried for DECADES not to do this, and if there's a way, I haven't discovered it. But if I can do something else with my hands and eyes -- doodle, surf the web, etc. -- I CAN pay attention. In high school (pre web), I doodled. Some of my teachers didn't care. I did well in those classes. Some of my teachers stopped me from doodling. My grades suffered.

One might suggest that I should have learned to pay attention without doodling. Maybe. But those teachers who stopped me from doodling didn't help me do that. They just made me stop doodling. And I couldn't pay attention. As a teacher, I don't want to do that to my students. I want them to be HAPPY in my classes. I want them to be interested in SOMETHING -- even if it's not me. If their mind is active and interested, there is a better chance they will learn than if they are bored and disgruntled.

I DO agree that one student shouldn't disrupt other students. But one needs to strike a balance of fairness here. Should female students be forbidden to wear miniskirts to class because some of the men might be distracted by them? Should students be forbidden to bring garishly-colored notebooks to class?

I, for one, am REALLY easily distracted, almost to a pathological level. If a person next to me is abscent-mindedly swinging their foot around, I have trouble paying attention. If someone next to me is chewing gum, I have trouble paying attention. Once, I couldn't pay attention because the person next to me was wearing a bright yellow jacket.

This is regrettable, but it's MY problem. If someone is playing a loud videogame in class, that's THEIR problem. If someone is quietly reading something on their screen and it distracts me, that's MY problem.

Most teachers that I've talked to who get offended by this sort of thing don't really care about the students. They care about their own egos. They are offended that someone would rather play tetris than listen to them talk about Milton.

We say "teaching is the noblest profession," and that may be true. I am very proud to be a teacher. I would also be proud if I was a doctor. Doctors also provide a service. But if a doctor tells me that I need a triple-bypass, I am free to decline. The SERVICE he provided (which I paid him for) was to offer an expert opinion. I may be foolish to disregard his opinion, but I am not rude to do so.

Teachers should try to be as noble as their profession.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Dirty Water in the Fountain of Youth

I keep reading about scientists trying to prolong human life. They are recasting old age as a disease and trying to cure it. Assuming they succeed, we'll face some big problems. (And I'm going to ignore political/economic issues, like the fact that probably only rich people would wind up with 3000 year lifespans.)

I don't know what your chances are of dying in a horrible, painful accident (as opposed to dying of natural causes), but obviously you take a small risk every time you cross a street, drive a car, etc. Currently you have a fairly good chance of dying naturally, but that's just because you're "only" going to live 70 - 90 years. With each year you add, your chances of dying from UNnatural causes goes up. My guess is that if we all had a 5000 year life-span, most of us would wind up eventually being hit by a car (or whatever people ride around in thousands of years from now), eaten by a shark, murdered, etc. It's only the decay of our bodies that saves most of us from these fates.

You'd have to get used to your loved ones dying horribly, too. So when you got married or had kids, you'd have to resign yourself to the fact that (if you don't go first), you are probably going to see your family die in a plane crash or earthquake.

Also, there's the problem of "hard drive space." Once you cure cancer, stop body-parts from decaying, etc., what are you going to do about memory? Our storage space is vast, but it's not infinite. When we're 3525 years old, will we remember anything from when we were 15? Or will we remember EVERYTHING from when we were 15 but nothing from five minutes ago?

I must admit, though -- as a childless atheist, who doesn't believe in any sort of afterlife and won't be leaving any of his genes behind -- I would LOVE to stick around for a few more hundred years. Just to see how things turn out.


I don't remember writing this. I was going through some files, and I found it. It's several years old. Is it a dream?

The lady next to me exploded. I was riding the train to work as usual, reading the sports section (the Canadians were ahead again) when it happened. Kaboom! Blood and organs and hair rained down on us passengers, and you might think I got the worst of the deluge since I was sitting next to the lady, but the force of the explosion was so great that most of her bits and pieces flew to the far end of the car. I do remember brushing a tooth or two off my lapel.

It wasn't until I got to work later that I noticed a toe stuck to the top of my shoe. I thought I had worn a hole in my shoe at first. I thought it was one of my toes poking through. Then I realized my mistake, and I shook my shoe over the trash until the toe fell off and mingled with all the coffee lids and tissues.

After that, I didn't think much about the exploding lady. Mr. Edgers was after me about the Seattle report and Smith and Billington kept nagging me about preparing for this three o'clock meeting with one of our top clients. It was a killer of a day altogether, so I didn't think about the exploding lady until I was riding home.

Being back on the train again put her in my mind. And I wondered why she had exploded. Did she do it on purpose? If you're trying to get attention on the train, it's really difficult. No one ever looks up from their paper or book, or if they do it's just to check the map or stare out the window to see if it's their stop. So you almost have to do something like explode if you want anyone to remember you.

Or had someone done something to her? Maybe someone planted an explosive inside her. Maybe one of her kids had played prank. You know how kids are. Or some kind of bug was going around. First you get a vague feeling of unwellness. Your head hurts or you feel really tired even though it's only six-thirty. You can't even stay up for your favorite program. Then the sniffles start and the coughing and sneezing, and soon you're swimming in Kleenexes and menthol candies, and next thing you know you're exploding on a train.

Or maybe she was just angry. Really really angry. And she couldn't hold the anger inside any longer, so she blew up like an angry person in a cartoon.

As I walked home from the station I realized that I'd never know which one of these possibilities came closest to the truth. Maybe none of them did. In any case, I'd never know. That's the problem with commuting. You get these little hints of things, these little teasers. Then life carries you away before you can investigate. You never learn anything about anybody.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Bullies, Part II: The Bad Girls

My life as a geek reached its pinnacle in Jr. High School. Many times a day, jocks knocked me over in the hall so that I splatted to the floor--and the stacks of books I always carried (sci-fi, comics, and an occasional class text) went flying in every direction; they also enjoyed pushing me into the girls' bathroom; and it amazes me to this day that they only managed to pull my shorts down once in co-ed gym class.

But worse than the jocks were the jockettes. Sometime in sixth grade, the girls invented a game in which they would "flirt" with me. They would wink at me, say my name in their sexiest voices, try to kiss me, touch me, grab me, etc. Of course, they took me for the stereotypical geek: assuming I would believe that their advances were real and then somehow embarrass myself by making a pass at one of them or asking one of them out on a date. I wasn't that stupid. Still, the constant mock-flirting kept me aware that I was the opposite of the kind of guy they would REALLY want to go out with.

Soon this past-time spread throughout the entire school, and virtually every girl joined in. They started calling my house, and it was especially humiliating for me when my mom would answer the phone. "There's a girl who wants to talk to you," she would say. I would try to explain to her that she should hang up, that the girl was just making fun of me. But my mother didn't believe me. "It's rude to hang up on people," she said. "How do you know she doesn't really like you?" I wanted to say, "MOM! Why would the head cheerleader like a 5'5'' skinny guy with pimples all over his face." But I was her "baby," and to her any girl would be lucky to have me.

The whole thing reached a climax at lunch one day. When the weather was nice, we were allowed to have lunch outside, which I loved, because our school grounds were large enough that I could escape to some secluded area with my few geeky friends, and the girls couldn't bother me. But when it rained, the whole school was supposed to hang out in the gym for the entire lunch hour.

One rainy day, when I was trying as best I could to hide in a corner behind the bleachers, a bunch of the girls found me and started the game. "Hi baby," "Wanna go out with me tonight?" "Come here and let me give you a big kiss…" I was cornered and a crowd started gathering to watch. More and more girls joined in, grabbing at my hair, hugging me, pulling me down into their laps, and the jocks started laughing hysterically.

Suddenly, I made a run for it, pushing through the crowd and bounding away to … where? There was nowhere to go, so I started running round and round the gym, and the girls chased after me. I ran and ran, and more and more girls joined the chase. Soon every kid in the school was involved. All the girls were chasing me. All the boys were watching and laughing.

Then something in me snapped. I stopped running and sat down on one of the bleachers. Immediately, I was surrounded by a huge number of girls. I remember my panic and humiliation draining away. Now that the whole school had witnessed my humiliation, there was no lower point I could sink to. I felt free. Then I felt a surge of power.

Calmly, I reached towards the girl nearest to me. I remember she was pretty, with blonde hair and freckles. She wasn't the worst of the girls. She was just a follower, following a trend. But she was doomed, because she was the closest to me, and she had glasses -- the one trapping of geekiness that I didn't have. She must have wondered what I was going to do. Was I going to stroke her cheek? Touch her lips? Try to kiss her?

Instead, I touched the nose-bridge of her glasses ever so gently. The crowd went into hysterics. Then I snatched the glasses off her face, and with all my might, hurled them across the gym. I remember the crowd going completely silent, and I remember the beautiful sight of her glasses flying through the air and landing yards and yards away. I had always been hopeless in sports, but if hockey was glasses-throwing, I'd have scored a goal.

There were a few murmurs of "Those better not be broken" and "You're going to have to pay for those," but the crowd pretty dispersed. And no one bothered me much after that. I'm not sure why they didn't. As it turned out, the glasses weren't even scratched. But I had never reacted before to the taunts -- other than cowering, fleeing or making lame remarks. The glasses-throwing was such a strange act of sudden violence (even though no one was hurt), and I think it frightened some of the kids. It certainly frightened me. I wasn't sure where it came from. But after that day, I found a new sort of confidence.

I learned how to hurt people. Especially girls. I stopped hurling glasses and started hurling words instead. "Boy, you're fat," I told the chubby girl. "Does it bother you that you're the least attractive of all your friends?" I asked the girl who was only popular because her parents were rich. "Of COURSE they didn't pick you for the cheerleading squad," I told the depressed girl, "You're completely uncoordinated!" Some other favorites included, "I'm sure it's your fault your parents got divorced," "Don't you think it's funny how your boyfriend keeps flirting with other girls?" and "You'd be almost pretty if you didn't have such bad skin." I learned exactly where to stick the knife and I stuck it. I was most happy when I made a girl cry. The power felt so good. I wanted more and more of it. I no longer wanted to be bullied. I wanted to be the bully. I WAS the bully.

Thankfully, I grew out of this horrible phase. I realized that the girls had matured. They no longer wanted to pick on me and make fun of me. So there was no need to continually take revenge. I felt bad about the way I had acted and vowed to be friendly to girls. And when I was friendly, I was surprised to find they were friendly to me. I eventually met a girl that I liked so much that I married her. Like many women (and men), she's needs her confidence boosted at times. So I tell her, "You're not fat," and "You're the prettiest girl I know," and "Your skin looks lovely." It feels like I'm undoing all the bullying from my past.

Bullies, Part I: The Bad Boys

The first bullies I ever knew were "the bad boys," and they were also the first gang I ever knew that had a name. Did they call themselves "the bad boys," or is that the name that we, their victims, gave them? I don't recall. We were all four or five at the time. The setting was nursery school. And several times a day, the teachers would gather us into "the octagon," an area on the floor marked with red tape, and we'd sit "Indian style" and discuss business. Sometimes we'd play games. For instance, we played this guessing game in which the child who was "it" would cover his eyes while another child, picked by the teacher, would introduce himself and try to disguise his voice. "It" was supposed to guess the identity of the speaker.

The first time we played this game, the teacher picked me to be "it". She was sitting in a chair. We kids were on the floor. I remember she called me over and told me to kneel in front of her and bury my face in her lap so I wouldn't be able to see the speaker. This was the 60s, and miniskirts were in. And I remember the feel of her pantyhose on my face -- I was surprised by their roughness -- and the slight give of her thighs under the weight of my head. This was my first erotic experience, or at least the first I remember. Did I somehow show my juvenile arousal? After my turn was over, the rest of the kids were told to simply stand with their back to the speaker and cover their eyes with their hands.

But it wasn't unusual for my experience to be different from that of the other children. I was an eccentric child, and as with all eccentrics, some differences were brought on by outside forces (I didn't ASK to bury my head in my teacher's lap) while others were purposeful, evoked from within. Some seemed in-between. For instance, why did I grow my hair long throughout my childhood? All the other boys had short hair, and I was horribly taunted. In third grade, Dawn Wilbur made up a song about me. I forget most of the lyrics, but one couplet rhymed, "his hair, it goes in a curl/which makes him look like a girl." Dawn was my best friend at the time, so I wonder why she made this up. In any case, the worst thing you could say about a boy back then was that he looked like a girl. I guess this was an ur-version of calling someone a faggot. We were more innocent back then.

In addition to my long hair, I wore orthopedic shoes. Do kids still wear orthopedic shoes? If they do, I bet nowadays they're stylish. But back then, they were shiny and black. Girls wore shiny black shoes. Boys wore sneakers. So in addition to "Why do you have such long hair?" I also got a lot of "Why do you wear those girl shoes?"

I guess there wasn't much I could have done about the shoes. But I could have gotten a hair cut. In fact, my mother offered to take me to the barber whenever I came home crying (another girly trait) over the names my schoolmates called me. But I always refused. I don't know why I refused. Some obstinacy deep inside me that I couldn't explain or fathom. Some sort of childish pride. It has stayed with me over the years, getting me into a lot of trouble -- but also saving my self-esteem.

Even when the grownups abused me, I refused to give in. Teachers would suggest, sometimes politely, sometimes not, that I should get a haircut. And I remember one time this old man came to our school to explain taxidermy. It must have been "Career Day," because he wasn't one of our regular teachers. Did someone really think many of us would one day be stuffing birds and squirrels? Probably the guy was one of the teacher's uncles or something. I imagine he was retired and someone had suggested that this might be a fun activity for him. Get him out of the house; let him share his knowledge with budding minds.

So there he was, seriously explaining how he stuffed the carcasses with sawdust and mounted them on little stands. I was fascinated with the glass eyes. He had a box full of hundreds of little glass eyes, all different colors and sizes for all the different kinds of animals. I couldn't imagine where he got these from. Was there actually a factory somewhere that manufactures fake eyes? I had to know, so when question and answer time came, I raised my hand high.

The old man looked at me, pausing for a second before speaking, and then said, "Yes? Boy? Girl? I don't know WHAT you are!" And the entire class burst into uproarious laughter. I don't remember what happened next. I must have blanked it out of my mind. But I hate that old man. To this day, thirty-some years later, I hate him, and I'd like to hunt him down in hell. "Why did you have to SAY that?" I would demand. "It was totally GRATUITOUS! What difference did it make what sex I was? Why couldn't you have just answered my QUESTION?"

By Junior High School, no one said I looked like a girl anymore. By then I had other, much worse problems. But the "girl" thing haunted me for years in elementary school. It started back in nursery school. Back in the days of the teacher's lap and "the bad boys." It started because I always sat on the girls' side of the octagon. Yes, the octagon had a girl's side and a boy's side. This segregation was created solely by the students. The teachers never suggested that we should divide ourselves up by gender; neither did they encourage us to mix. I don't remember them ever mentioning it one way or the other. But it was very important to us kids. On one side sat all the boys, "the bad boys" sitting together, surrounded on either side by regular (good?) boys. On the other side, sat the girls -- and me.

Why did I sit with the girls? It wasn't due to any gender confusion on my part. I've always known I was a boy. Just as years later, in college, when I had so many gay friends -- when my best friend was gay -- and everyone assumed I was gay too, I knew I was straight. Once, this girl asked me to write an article for the college student newspaper. I replied that I was flattered by the suggestion, but I wouldn't know what to write about. She suggested that I write about "being a gay student." I said that this would be an odd article for me to write, since I'm not gay. She flushed and apologized. Then she suggested that I write the article anyway. I almost took her up on the offer. It would have been unique. "Being A Gay Student -- The Straight Perspective."

We didn't know about such things in nursery school. But there I sat on the girls' side. This was partly due to the obstinate streak I mentioned. But mostly, it was because I wanted to sit next to Kate Justin, my best friend at the time. I liked her so much that I was willing to put up with all manner of taunts just so I could sit by her. Which has pretty much been my pattern in relationships. Even now, I take the subway to meet my wife after work every day. Even though this means going out of my way. It would be much easier to simply go home and meet her there, but then we wouldn't be able to ride the subway together. Back when I met her in college, before we were dating but when I was already smitten by her, I used to meet her after most of her classes. I knew I was a laughing stock -- "that guy who's always mooning around" -- but it was where I wanted to be, so it was where I was.

One day in nursery school, after an octagon session in which I'd been teased even more harshly than usual, I hid in the bathroom. And being in the bathroom made me have to pee for real, so I lifted the toilet seat and stood there, watching my urine create an arc. All of the sudden the door opened and "the bad boys" crowded into the bathroom with me, shutting the door behind them. One of them pushed me, and I remember being terrified that I would fall into the toilet bowl. I was always scared of this happening, even when no one was pushing me, and now it was really going to happen! Then they stopped pushing, and the sort of leader of "the bad boys," this pug-faced kid named Adam, said "watch this." Then he kneeled down behind me, grabbed my ass and tried to pry my ass-cheeks apart. God knows what he planned to do next, but he stopped because I screamed in pain and a teacher burst in. She shouted at them to get out and then picked me up in her arms and comforted me. This is the only time I ever remember a grownup being really helpful about the bully problem. My father tried to help a few years later when I was in elementary school and John Hollingsworth and Blake Simmons terrorized me every day. He tried, but it was too late. My childhood world had become too political by this time, and as with adult politics, there were no easy solutions.

But I'd like to pause now and remember that teacher carrying me in her arms. I think it was the same teacher who gave me an erotic thrill in the octagon. She was the answer to my every Oedipal prayer. She was lover; she was mother. And I wept as she carried me, as she held me. I wept there before the entire class, and I didn't care. I wasn't embarrassed to cry and be held by a teacher. I was five.

When I was eight, we moved to a new house just a few blocks from my school, so I could walk there by myself, lunchbox in hand, which made me feel like a grownup. But when I reached the halfway point, I would revert back to my true childish nature and balance on a high and narrow stretch of concrete that ran for a whole block, like a tiny wall. To one side lay the gutter, to the other the grass of several front yards – there was no sidewalk -- and it was easy to pretend that one was perched above an abyss; the slightest misstep meaning a plummet to instant death. I would pretend to be a tightrope walker or a pirate walking the plank. This ledge was a small, simple joy. It was a bridge from the comforting world of home, oatmeal or scrambled eggs in my mother's kitchen, to the more rigid world of school, arithmetic, desks, and cafeterias. Most important, it was mine. It was my bridge. It was my secret.

Until the day John Hollingsworth crept up behind me and pushed me off my wall. I had no idea he was there. One moment I was deep in reverie, my arms out at my sides like airplane wings, my eyes glassy, and the next moment I was toppled over on someone's lawn -- at least he didn't push me into the street! -- the corner of my lunchbox painfully jabbing into my leg. Then I saw John Hollingsworth run past me, laughing, and I realized he had pushed me. If the reader wishes, he may think of this action -- my plummet after John's push -- as a symbol of the fall from a childhood heaven into the hell of adult life, or it might be a shift from the soft glow of imagination to the harsh glare of reality.

At the time, I was puzzled. "The bad boys" were buried in my past, and the idea of "bully" was foreign to me. I stood up, brushed the grass of my pants, shrugged and went home. I probably wouldn't have given it another thought if John Hollingsworth hadn't spent the rest of the year terrorizing me. First John by himself; then he was joined by his larger, older, scarier friend, Blake Simmons. John and Blake used to wait for me every day after school. They rarely touched me -- they rarely actually "beat me up" -- but they threatened me with beatings, and I believed them capable of delivering on their threats. They taunted me; they teased me. Every once in a while, they would get physical. Once Blake punched me in the stomach. John picked me up and stuffed me in a garbage can. When I encountered them at the public pool, they dunked me and held my head under water just long enough to make me panic.

But the taunting was worse that the occasional push and shove. "We're going to beat the shit out of you," they would promise. And if case it's unclear why no grownup ever rescued me, I should explain that they always added "And if you tell your dad, if you tell ANYONE, we'll REALLY beat the shit out of you." I didn't know the difference between having the shit beaten out of me and REALLY having the shit beaten out of me, but both sounded bad, and the latter sounded worse. I wanted to keep the shit inside me. So I never told a soul.

I knew that every school day was bound to end in this torment. John and Blake never grew tired of it. Eventually it seemed like my fate. And as many fools have done in the past, I tried to cheat fate. I learned all my school's exits, and I tried to vary the one I took each day. I also learned several routes home, and I would take a different one, at random, each day, hoping to elude my tormentors. Sometimes I succeeded, arriving home with a final glance backward and a nervous slam of the screen door, but there were only so many exits and so many routes. Just as bacteria evolve adaptations to antibiotics, so John and Blake -- the viruses that had attached themselves to my life -- adapted to my tricks and the torment continued.

Then it got worse. They started violating our property. On Halloween, they kicked in the face of my Jack-o-lantern. They smashed a small window at the side of our house. They defaced my father's car with puerile, misspelled graffiti. I knew John and Blake committed these crimes, because they told me so themselves. They told me as boasts, not confessions. "And if you tell on us, we'll beat the shit out of you!"

But I did tell on them at last. I don't remember what final deed prompted this, but they did something that crossed a threshold, that toppled something over in my brain. Perhaps it wasn't a specific act. Perhaps it was merely that the accumulated suffering had reached a point where I could no longer control it, where I had to speak out, tell someone, damn the consequences. So I told my dad, and in a fury he called Mr. and Mrs. Hollinsworth and Mr. and Mrs. Simmons and demanded that their sons appear at our front door in twenty minutes or less. I think the Hollingsworths and the Simmons were used to these phone calls. In any case, they didn't object, and a few minutes later John and Blake were standing sheepishly in our living room, being lectured by my father.

Or at least that's how I imaged it. I didn't actually see it, because I was so scared of getting the shit beaten out me that I hid in the downstairs bathroom, where any dislodged shit would feel at home. Back in nursery school, the bathroom had left me vulnerable to "the bad boy's" attack. Now it saved me from these older bad boys. It was a home bathroom, not a school bathroom, and I was able to lock the door from within. To this day, when I visit my parents (who still live in that same house), that little cramped bathroom is a place of comfort for me.

Perched on the toilet, I was able to hear my father grilling the boys. "Marcus says you hit him, Blake," my father would say. And Blake would deny it. So my father would leave them in the living room and walk towards me. Then, standing outside the bathroom door, he would tell me to repeat my accusation. "He DID hit me," I would say. Then he would walk back to the bullies and confront them with, "He also says you stuffed him into garbage cans," and when they denied this charge, he would have to leave them again to check the facts with me. This back-and-forth got tiring eventually, so he just started yelling to me from the living room, and I started yelling back. Only I wasn't only yelling, I was sobbing. "Did they REALLY kick in our pumpkin, Marcus?" my dad would ask. "Y-y-y-yes!" I would stutter, "They DID! They D-d-d-DID! They TOLD me so themSELVES!" And then John and Blake got into the act, yelling back at me, "NO WE DIDN'T. YOU'RE LYING!"

What worried me the most was not being able to stop crying. All the time they had been tormenting me, I hadn't shed a single tear. Now I couldn't stop. I bawled and howled and choked for twenty minutes, while my father's interview with the boys continued. And I knew it would be all over the school tomorrow. I was at the age when boys were no longer supposed to be crybabies, and I was proving myself the biggest, blubberiest crybaby of them all.

John and Blake stopped bothering me after school. Of course, they did tell all the other kids how I had cried and refused to come out of the bathroom, and I was laughed at and called a crybaby for the next few years. So I learned to control my crying. And I didn't cry for years. And by the time I got to college, I found that I was unable to cry, not even when my grandmother died.