Sunday, August 26, 2012

System Architecture, System Culture

When I was a boy, I liked to build plastic models: airplanes, ships, cars. They were objects of the imagination, and I bought the model based on the picture on the box, attracted by its design, function, and purpose. Being fascinated by technology at a young age, I liked the sense of mechanism and favored models with exposed engines and landing gear, complicated standing and running rigging, wire wheels and suspensions. I was attracted to the model as a machine as much as by the fluid shape of wings, hull, or fenders. But for me, at the time, the models and the real planes and ships they represented were still objects, things, forms in isolation.

Tellingly, most of these models were designed without the corresponding people to operate them. An airplane might have the small figure of a pilot for the cockpit, although you could also build it with just the empty seat. But the sailing ships never came with sailor figures or the cars with drivers and passengers. People were secondary to the model as machine.

At about the same time, I also started reading C. S. Forester’s Hornblower novels and later in life picked up Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series of seagoing adventures.1 One thing you quickly understand about a warship in the Napoleonic era is that, without a crew to set the sails and constantly adjust them to changing wind conditions, the ship is just a hulk and its rigging is just so many miles of stretched rope. The crew is what makes this contraption of wood and hemp and canvas come alive.

As you read more of these books, you also realize that the old warships were virtually immortal. Storms would carry away sails and spars. Battle would smash woodwork, shatter masts, and punch holes in the hull. But in addition to the sailors, the ship carried a complement of artificers like sail makers and carpenters, as well as stores of replacement canvas, rope, timber, and paint. Unless the hull was crushed or the ship sank, they could rebuild her after every engagement. They were also necessary to perform the continuous maintenance like mending sails, replacing rigging, and scraping and painting the hull necessary to keep the ship in operational trim.

The old sailing ships, I realized after reading enough of these sea stories, were not simply objects. They and the people who crewed them were a system. The crew members were not idle strangers who happened to stand on the deck and sometimes climb the rigging. They were a team, in which each member had a function and fulfilled a need, responding to the orders from officers who decided where the ship would go and when it would fight. In many cases, though, the sailors and artificers did not need to be told their duties—or not more than once—but were expected to “turn to” for the good of the ship.

It wasn’t just the 19th-century sailing ships that needed crews. A warship of the First or Second World War, though powered by steam and carrying electrical systems for signaling, internal communication, fire control, and such, still needed its crew to operate the engines, manipulate and respond to those circuits, operate the weapons, and repair damage. And some future warship, where a captain and executive officer might be able to run the entire ship just by pushing buttons, will still require the cybernetic and mechanical equivalent of a crew to make things happen once the button is pushed.

If you read stories about air combat—or even about airline operations—you quickly understand that an airplane, while it has its purpose in the air, is largely a creature of the ground. The pilot is essential to operating the controls in flight and guiding the plane to its destination. But it is on the ground that people swarm about to fuel it, perform checks, and maintain the engines. An airplane is a frighteningly fragile mechanism, requiring continuous servicing and monitoring of complex systems for the engine, instruments and control surfaces, communications, and navigation. An airplane without a competent ground crew falls right out of the sky.

As a fan of elegant motorcycles,2 I take the necessity for a “ground crew” seriously. If anything goes ker-sproing! on a motorcycle at 60 miles an hour, you’re in as much trouble as in a failing airplane. I’m attracted to many motorcycle makes and models for their style and function, but a big part of the purchase equation for me is a good shop full of competent mechanics within easy travel distance. More than that, I look for a marque that has a history of supplying long-lived machines with a parts catalogue that will stretch back at least a dozen years on each model. The motorcycle is not simply an object, but a system—first, for how it responds to my inputs as a rider and provides feedback as to its internal functions and road conditions; second, for the kind of “ground support” available to keep it running in perfect condition.3 Like an old-time sailing ship, a motorcycle is virtually immortal: unless the frame is horribly bent, there isn’t a part—including the engine itself—that can’t be repaired, replaced, or repainted to keep the bike in perfect order. That’s one of the reasons I find them so attractive.

This notion of “system” extends to the biological world, too. When I worked at the biotechnology company and we began to broaden our interests into what we called “cell biology,” one of the leaders of this effort told me that cell biology is really a form of “systems biology.” That is, a cell is more than a collection of parts. You can study the nucleus, the mitochondria, the membrane, and the other parts in isolation, but you don’t really know what’s going on until you study how they work together. How the nucleus feeds out messenger-RNA that the ribosomes can catalyze into proteins. How the mitochondria convert incoming nutrients into energy-rich adenosine triphosphate that supports this process. Cell biology is as much about inputs, outputs, and feedback mechanisms as it is about organelles and molecules.

In the same way, you can’t think about the Earth’s environment as just an assembly of animals and plants. A single antelope is a lovely creature. So is a single lion. But seeing a specimen in a paddock or a cage is to miss the point. Antelopes are part of a herd structure. They also need grass to survive and thrive. A lion is part of a family structure and needs to chase and kill antelopes to survive. Taken out of context, outside of the relationships—the systems—that support them, these animals are incomprehensible. This means that you might be able to “save” some rare, endangered animal by putting it in a zoo or cryogenically freezing some cells, but without the environment for which is was genetically adapted, it’s as meaningless as a butterfly pinned in a box. Pretty, but meaningless.

In the same way, an ecology is a massive system. A whole branch of biology studies the interaction of animals and plants, water resources, free sunlight, and other factors as a system rather than a collection of parts. And, as I’ve written elsewhere,4 a market economy is a type of ecology, driven by human imagination and effort as surely as sunlight drives the life of the Amazon rain forest.

One of the fruits of the Industrial Revolution—with its focusing of the human mind on mechanisms and the interplay of gears and levers, cause and effect—has been the growth of our understanding of this mysterious property, the system relating various things into a working whole. To the antique mind, things stood alone: the horse in the field, the grass under its hooves, the clouds in the sky above. It takes a modern mind to see the clouds as bringers of rain, which makes the grass grow long, which supports the horse, whose droppings enrich the grass. The elements were there for an ancient mind to notice, but the systemic relationships—the inputs, outputs, and feedback mechanisms—were not conventionally remarked.

You can see this kind of antique thinking in the Biblical story of Genesis. God calls forth each animal in isolation, and Adam names it: “horse” over here, “cow” over there. To the eye of even the most primitive Biblical writer, the similarities of these animals in terms of basics like nutritional requirements, herd nature, and—if he or she ever visited a butcher shop—physical structure would have been apparent. To anyone who examined bones, the similarities in skeletal structure among horses, dogs, and humans should be immediately apparent. And yet the ancient mind conceived of these as wholly separate beings. It took the inventive mind of a 19th-century scientist—Darwin, of course, but also other scientists who were writing at the time—to suspect the familial ties between these separate animals through the vast systemic enterprise we call evolution.5

As I grew up from seeing a model ship as an isolated object and began to understand it as a human-mechanical system, so our machine culture has advanced from seeing objects and elements, such as individuals, companies, societies, and nations, in their splendid isolation and moved toward understanding, describing, and beginning to preserve and even manipulate the invisible forces—the inputs, outputs, and feedback mechanisms—that bind them into a working world.

We are no longer, in our technology and thinking, dealing primarily with things but with relationships.

1. If you don’t know this author, go to W. W. Norton’s Patrick O’Brian site immediately. Someone once called him “Jane Austen at sea,” and his knowledge of early 19th-century naval life is voluminous as well as entertaining.

2. See my website page The Iron Stable.

3. Unlike many motorcyclists, I’m not a “shade tree mechanic.” I will check tire pressures, add oil when indicated, make minor adjustments, and clean and polish with a fervor. But anything mechanical or safety related, I want to have handled by a competent mechanic. Besides, just changing the oil—which means disposing of or recycling the old oil and filter—has become a major environmental hassle best left to licensed practitioners.

4. See The Economy as an Ecology from November 14, 2011.

5. Even Plato and Aristotle, reputedly the brightest minds among the Greeks, tended to see animals as static objects arising from preconceived, ideal forms—the perfect “Horse” somewhere up beyond the sky—rather than as the developmental projects of a natural world evolving in response to changing environmental conditions.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Public Mind, Private Mind

We all tell stories. It’s in our nature and the structure of our society to put facts in some kind of logical order. It’s the way we assimilate and remember those facts. The order might be chronological first-this-then-that, or hypothetical and projective if-this-then-that, or correlative because-of-this-then-that. But ultimately, we establish a flow, a sequence, and a consequence. Facts and formulas may be important news in themselves, but without some kind of narrative behind them, explaining and relating them, the human mind finds them uninteresting and unimportant.

We ask for stories when we meet family and friends. “How’s your day going?” “What was your day like?” That’s an open-ended invitation, and if the only reply is a noncommittal “Okay” or “Good,” then we’re vaguely dissatisfied. We don’t mean to pry—but we’d like to.

Journalists understand this about any event they cover. All reporting is based on the “5 W’s”—who, what, where, when, and why. But the first four simply nail the basic facts of what happened. The last one, the why, is the kicker and contains the seed of the story. Why did he do what he did? Why did she react that way? An event does not simply drop from the sky without context. Even a crashing airliner has a why behind its fall and a spreading web of what happens next? radiating from it.

History is hard for many students because some teachers and textbooks try to reduce it to simple lists: isolated dates, succession of emperors, unrelated events. But history is meant to be a narrative: because the king launched this war, he lost that battle and his crown. History is important because of the reasons that lie behind the events, the part that’s susceptible to storytelling.

By telling stories, we put events and facts in perspective. And we do it unintentionally, even when we’re not writing a history or a novel. We project ourselves, our current story, into the future. The thought in our mind follows a narrative line: “After I get home from work, I’ll go to the baseball game, then join my buddies for a beer.” We tell a future narrative on the order of the projective and hypothetical not-yet-happened-but-predictable. I challenge anyone to tell me that their internal dialogue reads like a calendar entry: “6:30 – Baseball, 9:30 – Beer.”

We also tell stories on the spot to predict events: “If this car keeps going at this speed, it will run off the road and hit that tree.” “If she smiles when I say this, then I’ll know we have a date.” That is, we make up stories all the time about the events and people around us.1

One of the tests for autism is to have the child watch a puppet show. Puppet A is playing with a toy, then puts it inside a covered basket and leaves the room. Puppet B removes the toy from the basket and puts it in a closed box. The test is to ask the child where Puppet A will look for the toy when it comes back—in the basket or the box? If the child answers “basket,” then he has projected his understanding into the situation of the puppet: the toy was in the basket when the puppet left the room, so logically the puppet will expect it to be there still. If the child answers “box,” then the child has no understanding of what the first puppet might know or assume: the child knows the toy is in the box, everyone who saw the show knows the toy is in the box. In the child’s world, the toy is in the box. Period.

As a writer, a professional creator of stories, I struggle with this problem all the time. My stories don’t just drift through my own mind in vague fragments, like so much smoke or seaweed. I have to put the story down on paper2—choosing this word, that event, this line of thinking, that bit of dialogue—in order to tell it. My story has to be discoverable by another human mind, which will apply its own understanding, its own projective and storytelling capacity, its own interpretation of events, to the formal story I’ve written. Many plots depend on a “toy in the box” situation, where one character knows something that another does not. Then I as the writer, and the reader as a storytelling mind following along my trail of words, have to keep a clear picture of who knew what, and when, and why.

Usually, the reader’s awareness never rises to an overt statement: “Ah, Clyde must have received a letter or a phone call from Emily, because otherwise he wouldn’t have known to meet her at the train station at four o’clock.” But if our hero just charges off to the station without some indication that he knows he’s supposed to meet Emily there, then the reader’s sense of story will be violated. Sometimes, however, the reader’s overt sense of knowing what a character does not know is part of the fun. “When Emily turns to open the cabinet, we know she’ll find a gun inside, because we saw Cecil put it there. But for Clyde, who’s threatening Emily, it’s going to be a real surprise.”

When I tell a story as part of a novel, it becomes very public. I’m inviting others to read my handiwork, join in the adventure of linking facts and assumptions, hints and guesses, into a coherent structure. I’m aware that I’m exposing part of my mind, my storytelling capacity, for others to see, evaluate, and like or dislike. But we all do this in a less formal, but still pubic, way all the time.

When we invite someone for a beer after the game, we’re making public a line of our internal storytelling: “I’m going to the game. You’re going to the game. We’re friends—at least on the level of sharing time and alcohol together. I have the belief that you have no other plans for after the game. I assume you’ll be in an elevated mood after the game, and not too tired or otherwise indisposed to socialize.” Without an overt statement of all these assumptions, we still put them on display for the recipient of our invitation to know and examine. And if we get the story wrong in any part—with a response of “No, I actually have other plans” or “I think you’re a buffoon and wouldn’t be caught dead in a bar with you”—then we feel a subtle mixture of embarrassment and shame. We’ve put our minds, our wants, and our assumptions out on public display and have been shown to be telling a provably false internal story.

It’s almost impossible to hide our internal story from other people. If they choose to apply their own storytelling and predictive abilities to our situation, they can know a lot about us from our plainest actions. “Ah, I see you’re heading for the bathroom. I know what you’re about to do in there.” “I see you brought my daughter flowers. You must be sweet on her.” Most of us are intelligent enough to live comfortably with this sort of external inspection and assumption. Experience tells us that what we do to others, they can do to us.

We are actually treating other people as characters in our own internal story. But as sensitive human beings, we are also willing to be challenged, or at least not be completely devastated, when our internal story and our presumptions about our internal constructs of the people around us are shown to be in error. We tell that story in good faith, hoping to make invitations and offer insights that will be received pleasantly. We track the actions and intentions of others so that we may understand them and avoid conflicts and hurt feelings.

But what if we don’t? What if we align ourselves with the child who answers “box” to the puppet show? We know what we know, and we don’t care what the external subjects of our internal constructs might think about it. Then the internal story and the mind behind it is private—sometimes frighteningly so. Consider the recent spate of supposedly senseless shootings: the man in Colorado who dressed up in battle gear and gunned down people in a movie theater; the man in Arizona who shot a congresswoman and killed a number of the people around her. What are these men’s internal stories? And how closely did the characters in them—the man’s projections of the people he was actually shooting at—align with external reality?

Everyone tells a story. For these men, the fantasy of shooting blindly, of gunning down—what? enemies? extraterrestrials? demons? deer?—compels them to take action that the people around them cannot interpret, cannot fathom, cannot create a story about it that makes any kind of sense.

We depend upon our interpretations of other people’s public minds to make life sensible and predictable. And when that mind turns inward and private, we become … lost.

1. One of the reasons human memories seem to be so malleable and subject to revision is that we habitually tell stories about them. Our brains do not simply record sensory inputs the way a HAL-9000’s “holographic memory” was supposed to absorb data. We might enter into our long-term memory a sense image—a sight, sound, smell, or touch—but we also store the context, our immediate thoughts about the image, and our interpretation of the story behind and around it. After all, a thousand sights, sounds, smells, and touches impact the nervous system every minute without being remarked upon by the conscious mind—and thereby becoming the object of storage. And when we recall that image or event, we retell the story, reflect upon it in light of later events and memories, update and reinterpret the story. The human memory is not a lockbox full of exposed film but a dynamic process responding to the cascade of thoughts in the mind.

2. Or, actually, on the screen with word-processing software.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Art and Mystery

As a reader myself, I know that not every book is going to please every reader. In fact, it’s becoming more and more common for me to start—and sometimes even finish—books that just don’t “do it for me.” Lately, the balance between “hits” and “misses” is running about 50%. That doesn’t really bother me, because I read like a bear at a salmon run: pick up a book, take a bite or two, finish it or drop it, move on to the next one; the world is full of books and there’s always something else coming along.1 But that balance, which is tipping more toward “misses” as I get older, does give me pause to think about what I like. And here I’m not talking about one genre over another but within any of the genres I tend to favor.2

What I like, what “does it for me,” turns out to be quite simple: I like an air of mystery. This is not mystery of the whodunit variety—outside its proper genre—so much as a sense of the unknown and unexplained, of depths to the story that the author has not yet plumbed in so many words. The elements that are unsaid and still to be discovered and explored are so important a dimension of the storytelling art that I now use them as a kind of “pasteboard detector.”

Books that don’t go anyplace but where the words take you, books in which the author explains everything and runs the well dry, books that finish too neatly and leave nothing to the imagination—these are not art. They are dead, inert, obvious … pasteboard. But books that leave me imagining there might be other stories beyond the one I’ve been told, that leave me making connections between characters and events that were never fully explained, that leave me pondering the world that the author has made—and I don’t mean a new planet or imagined future, as in science fiction, because every author creates a whole world out of words—this is the highest art of storytelling. These books are alive, active, and live forever outside their mere words … an alternate form of reality.

As a writer, I try to bring this air of mystery, this highest art form, to my own work. I can’t claim that I always succeed, and my work may not resonate with readers who like things tied up with a bow and finished with the last word. (My work may, after all, be an acquired taste.) But that sense of mystery is a lodestone that keeps me pointing toward my own magnetic north.

As an example, let me take you inside my latest science fiction novel, The Children of Possibility. It might almost be called a hyper-example, because I’m conscious of having pushed the envelope with this one.3

Children is a book about time travel, told mostly from the viewpoint of the travelers, called “Jongleurs,” who come from 10,000 years into our future—or one of our possible futures. Their own world is going to be very strange to an early 21st century reader.4 And our world of the 21st century, where most of the book’s story takes place, is going to be strange and perplexing to the Jongleur who gets stranded and must adapt to living here, since the usual job of these travelers is to make brief, disguised visits while collecting biological artifacts.5

I didn’t want this to be a “by the numbers” piece of science fiction. So I used a selection of rhetorical techniques to set it apart and create that sense of space and time beyond the mere words. These techniques are available to any author, and I reference them here to show how they may be used to create a sense of mystery.

First, the book’s opening and closing sections—posted under the simple title “Backward”6—were told in inverse chronological order. That is, the first scene the reader encounters takes place at the end of the action, the next scene is one step further into the past, and so on, until the final scene comes where most stories would start.7 Playing with the reader’s sense of order, taking some events back to front, seemed to me an obvious component of a time travel book. I worked to drop enough hints and timing devices into the story, without being pedantic and obvious about them, so that the alert reader would quickly figure out what was going on. This inverse structure was intended to make the reader sense the flow of time as something fluid, malleable, maybe even reversible.

Second, like almost all of my novels, Children is told from multiple character viewpoints.8 In this structure, the reader inhabits one character’s mind at a time—usually for the duration of the whole scene—and only sees, knows, and understands what the character is thinking and experiencing. Thus, in Children, some of the scenes are from the viewpoint of the 11th millennium traveler, reacting to the strange world around her; some are from the view of the 21st century inhabitants, reacting to the traveler and her sometimes off-kilter speech and actions; and some from characters who come from intermediate futures, for whom the 21st century is familiar territory and the traveler is a known but not quite trusted quantity.9

Third—and I can see the average reader’s objections beginning to pile up—the book introduces new words and usages out of the 11th millennium, as well as new concepts in metaphysics10 to explain my particular form of time travel. I didn’t want to bog down the story flow with technical explanations or violate character viewpoint by explaining too many concepts that, for the 11th millennium traveler, are already known and familiar. So I put these new words and ideas into two sections of “front matter”: first, definitions from an 11th millennium dictionary and, second, fragments from the opening chapters of the Jongleur’s service handbook. This seemed safer than putting the material into an appendix at the back, where the reader would only come upon it after reading the book. (Of course, I ran a risk with readers who habitually flip past all those initial pages of boring crap—prefaces, introductions, dedications, even the section title page—and go straight to Chapter 1.) With the reader’s mind already teased and stimulated with these words and concepts, the story would then flow through a half-familiar, half-strange reality.

Whether all these techniques worked—or just created a confusing mish-mash—I’ll leave for the reader to decide. If it doesn’t work for you, well then, there are other books coming along, too.

Writing to create an air of mystery, of depths imagined but unplumbed, is in line with the only piece of bedrock philosophy I will confess to: that we are all born naked and questioning and make up the world as we go along.

The world we inhabit, the universe in which humankind finds itself, is a big and mysterious place. Each of us—from the day our minds first begin to focus and work consciously—goes along piecing together our own experiences, theorizing about what this or that event might mean, patching up and improving upon notions from our childhood that may or may not have played out. We are constantly seeking and adopting ideas from news stories, from books and articles, and from our more recent experiences. Along the way, we meet and interact with parents, teachers, friends, lovers, enemies, customers, and casual strangers. Some of them are wise and some are dull. Some know a bit more than we do about what’s going on. Some know nothing and loudly proclaim a whole load of nonsense. But no one has the final answer. Hint, hint: there is no final answer. There is only the mental architecture that we erect to explain reality as we find it—then reinforce, patch, or discard as life sends us new bits of reality.

So, with my writing, I try to capture and express this sense of ongoing development and wonder against the larger unknown. No character in my books is perfectly good or perfectly evil, but all can be understood from within his or her frame of reference. No character is all-knowing, and none is to be completely trusted. However, I do try, mostly, to play inside the heads of characters who are reasonably interesting, personally unassuming, and disposed toward being honest and even friendly. I don’t usually dwell with characters who are overtly angry and hostile, plainly psychotic, or simply stupid and careless.

The world of my imagination—including the 11th millennium of the Jongleur home world and the 21st century that the other characters (and my readers) inhabit and which the time travelers visit—stands outside both the characters in the book and the readers of the book. The whole point of my writing is to reveal this world in bald events relayed through the characters’ interpretive experiences, peeks into the characters’ internal mental architecture, and exchanges among characters who are acting and reacting out of their own guesses about what’s going on.

I try never to be an omniscient narrator. When I write in the text that something happened, I am not necessarily affirming that what is seen, heard, or experienced is some kind of absolute truth or fixed reality. Hint, hint: there is no fixed reality. Everyone is standing on a slope, sometimes with loose pebbles underfoot and sometimes slick mud, trying to figure out the pull of gravity and walk in a direction they think might be “up.”

As such, I have a horror of being obvious. Some readers may not like this. They prefer an episode of Star Trek, where the starting conditions are carefully explained in a voiceover from the “Captain’s log.” They prefer a story out of Dr. Who, where the ongoing situation of the Earthly characters gets all muddled up, until the wise Doctor pulls a trick out of his bag and explains everything. I prefer to throw the reader into a dark room, play shadows on the wall, launch glowing apparitions past your head, then give you a flashlight with faulty batteries.

Why? Not because I’m cruel. But because life is a mystery and you are born naked and questioning. This is your natural state, and I expect my readers to be sophisticated enough to know it.11 They won’t look for “the truth” but for “shades of truth,” as well as a collection of interesting and workable ideas. And if I laid out exactly what was going on in my stories, leaving no room for doubt, I would also leave no room for wonder and no opportunity for you the reader to populate that vast darkness with other events and people from your own imagination.

My business is not to present the world as a static photograph, a verifiable statement, or a mere inventory of facts. My business is to suggest a larger world of greater complexity, which you imagine having seen after gleaning only a few facts in the text and interpretations from my characters. It’s a tricky business. It doesn’t always work, because I’m not the perfect artist. But when it does work, it creates a much richer reader experience than a simple story that goes from A to B to C. And besides, it’s more fun.

1. The glory of the current book market—whose reach is extended nearly to infinity by the internet; whose supplier ranks are expanding daily with thousands of new authors experimenting with digital self-publishing; and whose buyers can access thousands of books almost instantly at prices we haven’t seen since the 1960—is that, in this environment, every reader should be able to find the kind of books he or she likes, and every book should find its ideal set of readers.

2. Okay, for the record: science fiction, historical fiction, mystery, literary, and military fiction, as well as nonfiction in support of these genres.

3. As an English major I was trained in the New Criticism, one of whose tenets is that the book, poem, or other artwork is a “found object.” The reader is expected to interact with it in the same way a beachcomber interacts with an interesting pebble or shell, exploring it with all senses and a keen imagination. In this model, the author is not the “expert” on the thing he or she has created or more knowledgeable about it than the reader. The author’s intentions, personal views, and protestations about “What I really meant …” are all out of court. The reader either gets it or doesn’t. I’ll try not to violate—or not too much—that critical position as this meditation proceeds.

4. One of my circle of pre-publication readers commented that he found at least one aspect of my far-future world—the names of my travelers—too similar to 21st century naming conventions. So I had to invent names for them that would be different and sound exotic without falling into the science fiction trap of being incomprehensible as personal names or unpronounceable in the reader’s mind.

5. Another pre-pub reader found my central character, the stranded traveler, too cold and unfeeling and therefore not likeable and—a supposed sin in modern storytelling—not someone to whom this reader could relate. In response, in the final draft I tried to give this character a bit less casual incivility and make her do a good deed or two. But the situation remained that the Jongleurs must be loners by choice, operating in hostile territory, living by their wits, and surviving because of their suspicious natures. They don’t come here to make friends with the locals or settle down.

6. As other sections were titled “Sideways” and “Forward.”

7. All right, it does sound outlandish, when told in this fashion. But the inverse chronological structure is not unprecedented. Harold Pinter used it in his play Betrayal. That was an experimental play, and I’m fascinated by experimental works.

8. See Writing for Point of View from April 22, 2012.

9. Is there a time war in the future? Oh, yeah!

10. I won’t call it “physics,” because the physicists would have a fit.

11. In a way, I’m the author for the anti-“young adult.” Because they are still trying to piece the cosmos together in their heads, children and young people want—and cling to—certainty. They want stories to be just so. They want life to be simple and obvious. Adults and sophisticates of all ages expect that everything they see and experience will be just part of the answer, subject to interpretation, and not a solid peg on which to trustingly hang your hat—let alone your head.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Gautama and the Godfather

We were sitting around the table recently discussing a problem we had with one of our members. She was experiencing what anyone else would consider a minor problem that could easily be fixed in a day, yet she had let it drag on for several years, and then fought all attempts at a reasonable resolution. She found minor faults in the way she was being treated and turned them into great wrongs, and then fought for the most exaggerated forms of compensation. When she didn’t get what she wanted, she screamed at people and made wild accusations. None of this was forced on her by poverty or lack of resources—or, at least, material resources—because she was apparently quite wealthy.

Someone at the table then leaned forward and said, “With her, it isn’t about the money. It’s about winning.

My immediate reaction was, “That’s a waste.” And then I paused and wondered, because I knew I had heard that thought before. Two names came immediately to mind, a surprising conjunction: Gautama Buddha and the Godfather.

In Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, there is a scene in which the family is planning for war after Vito Corleone has been shot. Sonny, the new acting don, is calling for revenge on a personal level and doesn’t care who gets hurt. Tom Hagen, the consigliere, reminds him that the Godfather always said such personal reactions were a waste. He’s not against taking revenge itself, but the action should be taken for strategic and business reasons—to secure your position, discourage your enemies, and protect your greater enterprise. Reacting out of anger and hurt feelings achieves nothing.

I’m not sure the Buddha ever used the exact phrase “that’s a waste” in any of his teachings, but the thought is certainly present, and it permeates the traditions of Buddhism and Zen. Both teach mindfulness of what’s important. The gratification of ego, the feeding of anger, the natural human reaction to perceive offense in any hurtful action, and the unreasoning rush to strike back—all of these the Buddha would discourage. They represent the ungoverned feelings of a person tossed on the waves of samsara, the ebb and flow of living in the world, of pleasures and pains, receiving and giving suffering, succumbing to agitation and distress. The unsettled mind, focused on immediate losses or gains, cannot see the world and its true nature clearly.

Some people become so bent on winning—whether it’s a minor argument or major dispute, or advantage in a commercial or social exchange, or any amount in a poker pot—that they willingly distort the truth. Impersonal perception and reporting of the truth, of reality as it exists outside your own needs and wants, hopes and fears, is the kernel of all right thinking. Once a person, consciously or otherwise, decides to ignore that impersonal perception of reality, they tend to replace an existential appraisal of what might constitute equity and justice with their own needs and wants. In that situation, one freely undertakes to deceive others, to trick or cheat them, to damage a reputation one might otherwise believe to be clean, to engage in accusations and name-calling, to flail at them with raw emotion rather than reason.

The Godfather, of course, never cared about existential questions of equity and justice. He was always about protecting his own family, those who swore loyalty to him, and those who could do him some future service. The Godfather didn’t put any faith in the greater society around him and his family. He didn’t rely on the justice, protection, or good intentions of the civil authority or the church. To him, all politicians and churchmen were simply pezzonovante or big shots, competitors for his own carefully constructed personal authority, who have no more legitimacy than he does in the community.

This is not an unreasonable position to take, in the context of 19th century Sicily. That island had been a crossroads of the Mediterranean for the past 1,500 years, if not longer, and was trampled by Arab invaders, Crusaders, pirates, and brigands. The governors and bishops in the larger cities were far removed from village life, and the authority of Rome even farther. Often as not, the local magistrate and priest would be as much wolf as shepherd. And everybody was, at some level, tainted with corruption. In the benevolent view of the Godfather, who else would protect the average person, if not the man who has seized and wielded power on his own authority?

But neither is the Buddha a believer in the benevolence and disinterested goodness of civil and religious authority or of society as a whole. Of course, any person who would live according to the Noble Eightfold Path1 does not live as a gangster or disrupter of civic order, as the Godfather and his family felt they had to be. The Buddhist respects tradition and authority when he possibly can, and quietly goes his own way when he cannot. But the Buddhist does not rely on a king, politician, or priest to tell him how to act, how to think, and how to know what is right. It is the responsibility of an adult to consider and meditate on these things, to inquire and learn, and to determine what is the true and right thing to do in any situation. Kings, politicians, and priests may be people to respect, but one does not hand over one’s personal responsibility or the necessity of salvation to such people. Despite all tradition and trappings, they are only struggling human beings themselves.

Both Gautama and the Godfather realize that, in an uncertain and storm-tossed world, each of us must make our own way. They may differ on exactly how a person is to know what the right way might be: loyalty to the family vs. loyalty to a well-reasoned intellectual tradition. But neither would advocate personal surrender to any kind of higher power, whether to the authority and protection of the state, or the righteousness and teachings of a priestly class,2 or the perceived injunctions and demands of an all-powerful and supernatural god.

But both have a world view broad enough to see that devoting oneself to petty and selfish things—disputes over trifles, argument pursued for its own sake, anger and fury as a habitual response to the trials of living—is a waste of both personal energy and personal potential.

To be alive is to grow and expand, to look beyond the ground right at your feet. The human mind was designed by evolution to think ahead and think around, to look beyond the next meal, the next fight, the next bend in the trail. The human mind is an engine for appraising any new situation, predicting and detecting its dangers, seeing and resolving its conflicts, seeking new goals, and constructing plans to reach them.

To become ensnared in the backwaters of anger and jealousy is truly “a waste.”

1. Eight practices encompassing wisdom (right view, right intention), ethical conduct (right speech, right action, right livelihood), and concentration (right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration).

2. This might seem like a contradiction: that Buddhist teaching would urge a person not to put his or her ultimate faith in the teachings of the Buddha and his followers. But Buddhism, unlike most other human religions, lacks any sense of apostasy and heresy. If the path of the Buddha contains anything offensive to an individual’s unique (or Buddha) nature, and if the teachings prescribe anything that the person finds to be in conflict with reality as he or she perceives it after sufficient thought and reflection—then the individual is free to walk away and seek a different path. There is no forced conversion, no dogma, no heaven or hell—only liberation.