Author: peterellis

the con artist in your head

It seems like the main difference between reality and fantasy is omission. The mind is mad, desirous, story-spinning factory, and the less true information there is, the more coherent the story, the better the fantasy. The more details and pieces there are, the more difficult they are to assimilate and fit their jagged edges together. When all you see is a couple of things, it’s simple to draw a straight line between them.

Take an elegant example from D. Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow, which I will now abbreviate and bastardize:

Fact 1: Halifax experienced torrential downpours.

Fact 2: One month later, flood damage was so bad, many residents had to move.

The story is crystal clear. But it’s only clear because we know almost nothing, so the causal story is easy.

What if the torrential rains caused no flood damage whatsoever, but levees on the edge of town broke weeks later due to a malfunction in the type of mortar used, along with a stoppage in the dam’s drainage system? Perhaps the rains aggravated the issue but did not cause it directly. We’re not sure. It’s complicated.

There’s another reason the lack of info also spins a more compelling narrative. The mental space unpopulated by facts, theories, and information is instead crowded with emotion. The emotion is happy to fill void left by facts in order to gives the sense of a full picture. And the emotion is, of course, not the result of what is, but what one wants to be true.

Return to Halifax’s very wet fictive problems for a moment: what if I then told you that the head of the levee building company is notoriously greedy, stingy, and used a cheap mortar. Now we have a causal story motivated by a sense of injustice. That capitalist bastard.

But what I just told you doesn’t take into account that the mortar his company used is used safely and successfully in hundreds of dams all over the world. So maybe it wasn’t the mortar? But enough about dams. You see how with every additional detail, the clarity of the situation recedes and becomes murkier.

It seems that a powerful illusion of understanding is heavily reliant on a lack of information. Beware of this system— it’s one of the many resident con artists living in your head. But this one’s particularly nefarious; he’s also responsible for the most poisonous crushes and boundless professional envy.

less is more

There’s an essential problem in the transmission/communication of ideas. The formats of communication that appear to work best— the ones that are enjoyable or entertaining (and appear to be most effective) — don’t always seem to correlate with actual understanding.

Take the adage: Less is more. There’s no better way to provide others with profundity and insight than to use pithy, aphoristic phrases. This punchy format— just like good jokes— seeds an idea with artful restraint, but allows the epiphany to blossom in the mind of the reader. The reader has to make some connections of their own, rather than having everything explicitly and didactically spelled out and spoon fed to them. This structure of exformation* is essential for a joke to land or for the light bulb to flicker on in the stuttered rush of understanding that follows a great aphorism. It’s efficacy is in its collaboration with the audience. However, this is the precise quality that makes it totally ambiguous and unclear. Clarity and understanding require precision, qualifications, litanies, pedantry, and to some extent, being pretty boring. But, of course, who wants to listen to that.

* As opposed to in-formation, exformation refers to what is left out due to a shared body of knowledge. This expression was coined by Danish writer Tor Norretranders in The User Illusion. And it’s referenced and extrapolated by David Foster Wallace in a very excellent speech on Kafka and humor.

lyrics then and now

Of course I do, […] But I should never think of Spring
For that would surely break my heart in two.

Frank Sinatra, 1953

So hit me up when you passing through
I’ll give you something big enough to tear your ass in two.

T.I., 2013

Doing the Dishes

I have three pictures of my parents: one of her, one of him, one of them together. Her: she is on a European train in the 80s. She’s young and scrawling on a newspaper, reclined with her other hand resting on an invisible shelf in the air. His is a polaroid from Jersey. He’s on the beach in aviators looking down into the camera so the sky is big and blue passed his shoulders. There’s a thin weave of cirrus clouds crowding the lifeguard hut on the Philadelphia Ave in Lavallette. He’s smiling but not showing teeth. The photo of them together is pale and small — about the size of a credit card. He’s in a suit, she’s in a flowery dress and white hat. It’s their wedding day in Frankfurt, DE. They eloped and only had two guests: coworkers from the embassy there as witnesses. 

The last photo sits on a sallow plastic shelf above the sink. They’re kissing and they fill the entire frame. When do dishes, the picture is eighteen inches from my face–direct eyeline. I almost never look at it— or rather, I look but don’t see— which is the reason I never put up posters or pictures in the places I live. There is no surer way to take something special and normalize it to the point of obscenity. This is why I don’t like to say ‘I love you.’ Not because I don’t feel it or want to, but so the phrase doesn’t become invisible like the objects we surround ourselves with for comfort.

some language quotes i didn’t make up

“Language was given to man so they could conceal their thoughts from each other.” –  Talleyrand

“Talking much about oneself can also be a means to conceal oneself.” – Nietzsche

“The limits of my language are the limits of my world.” – Wittgenstein

 

word.

 

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that light in the fridge

When i was really little, maybe 6 or 7, i used to leave a room, then pivot and shuttle back in, trying to catch some sort of static flicker of its non-existence while i was gone. I eventually realized the circular impasse that if the room only reassembled itself when i looked at it, there was no way i could ever see it without seeing it. Much much later, i found out that this was sort of like a hypothesis of conscious experience called the Refrigerator Light Illusion. Doing this room-peek-a-boo thing is my first memory of the profound narcissistic delusion that the world pivoted around me–that i was a painter throwing color and form onto dark shapeless spaces. I created the world.

 

Under Construction

Hope Gardens (Part III of IV)

The following is a four part non-fiction short story about moving to Brooklyn, NY.

Most days it was back and forth from the Quintana’s, biking through Brooklyn sweating from the hot breath of bus exhaust and the Autumn light that smoothed dented streets. I’d pass the Hasidic women all pushing strollers with a freshly baked baby. The little Hasidic girls made monkey bars out of sidewalk scaffolds. Clambering up those beams, they looked like miniature demure 19th century housewife ninjas. Most days, I was almost hit by a Honda Odyssey, or what some call the “Hasid-mobile.”

For those unfamiliar with Radical Orthodox Jewish culture, particularly in Brooklyn, read this. I have read about total fertility rates for Hasidic Jewish populations anywhere from 6.6 to 7.9 babies per woman. This gives you some idea of the demand put on a Hasidic woman’s hips. (For comparison, the CIA World Factbook ranked Niger as the country with the highest birth rate in 2012, at 7.16. For further comparison, at risk of being inflammatory, the United Nations’ Human Development Index (HDI) ranked Niger second to last in the world in 2012. Make of that what you will.) Anyway, Honda Odysseys. Why are they the Hasidic vehicle of choice? Only a minivan can accommodate the heavy flow of children. Why Honda Odysseys rather than any other minivan? Beats me. But I’m sure it has nothing to do with hive-mind and the fact that their religious doctrine dictates that they all dress exactly the same and have the same haircut.

One day, while I was trying to explain transversals to Gordy, Pookie came home and sloughed off his Toy Story backpack and doll-sized jacket. It was his first day of preschool. I felt a misplaced proud feeling. Pookie smiled showing the deep dimples in his cheeks. His head looked huge and bulbous. He galloped down the hall. There was something bothering me that I should have addressed long ago.

“Is his name really Pookie?” I asked Gordy.

“No, it’s Jeremiah,” he said.

“…are you kidding?”

“No, it’s Jeremiah.”

“Does anyone ever call him that?” I asked.

“No.”

“Why not?”

“He’s Pookie,” he said.

“How is he ever going to learn his name if everyone calls him Pookie?” I asked. Gordy paused.

“When he’s old enough, we’ll just tell him.”

Illiana, the matriarch, had picked Pookie up from school. She told us he wouldn’t respond to the teacher. He kept saying his name wasn’t Jeremiah, it was Pookie. I looked at Gordy.

Pookie hopped around, high on the excitement from his first day of school. He jumped onto the couch, landing on his back and flailing his legs in the air. He crawled through chair legs under our feet, letting out squeals and non-sense words. My session with Gordy was over. We hadn’t made much headway editing a practice essay I had him write on Othello, which he was reading in English class. His copy had the original Shakespeare on the left page and the 2012 vernacular translation on the right. I had him write it on Othello because when I asked him to tell me about the play, he was animated. That pale stare was gone.

“—and Iago’s like real sick. He’s awesome. He’s like an evil mastermind.” Gordy was talking with his hands.

I sat forward, too. Much of the time, tutoring sessions with Gordy digressed into how writing was arguably the greatest human invention, and reading it, the greatest gift. Instead of limiting your learning to the generation preceding you, you can plug into the river of human history and knowledge. But it never came out like that. I always degenerated into sounding like an adult who forgot what it was like to be a kid who thought adults only gave valid advice if you wanted to become like them, but you didn’t want to become like them.

Anyway, Gordy liked Othello. And there you have the inconceivable universality of Shakespeare’s plays. That guy tapped into some occult reservoir of shared human experience. Everyone can relate. Even people hundreds of years later living in circumstances as divorced from Elizabethan England as Elizabethan England was from the feudalist baronies hundreds of years before Elizabeth. Even Puerto Rican teenagers on the sixth floor of a housing project in Brooklyn can relate. Even gangsters.

Naturally, Iago, the shrewd insubordinate who makes marionettes of Othello, Cassio, and the other characters, was his essay topic. It was about Iago’s shortcomings as a villain. The premise was retrospective advice to prevent Iago’s wicked plan from collapsing. Gordy’s ideas, with coaxing, were borderline cogent. But getting them on paper was like translating it into a language he didn’t know.

Right then, Pookie emerged from under the table with a mouse glue trap stuck to his hand. His pupils were dilated with panic. His scleras were getting wet.

“We caughta Pookie!” Angel said as he scooped him up. Of course, Pookie cried hard.  Harder than usual. The household was attuned to the pecking order of Pookie cries and this order of cry made the whole household to show up one by one to investigate. Pookie sat in the kitchen sink and screamed while Angel ran his hand under warm water, gently peeling off the trap. The rest of the family shouted about who had left the glue trap under the table, presumably. No habla español.

I packed up my binders. It seemed inopportune to get the required parent signature confirming that I had, in fact, been there tutoring their child. But that signature was how I got paid.

I looked at Illiana, the matriarch, shouting and gyrating her head with abundant sass, then over to Angel holding a distraught child in a sink.

“Angel,” I said. “I know this is a bad time, but when you’re ready.” I held up the sign-in sheet and he knew what I meant. Pookie had bloodhound eyes from crying. “Or maybe you can just sign it next time…” I walked out of the kitchen and slipped on my backpack.

“Hey, Papi!” Angel called. “You hungry?”

“Oh. No, thanks.” It’s not that I necessarily didn’t like being there, but I usually wanted to leave as soon as possible. It was work, after all.

“Don’t want some food?” He shucked the last corner of glue trap off Pookie’s hand. I looked at the bickering family.

I was in a rush to go nowhere. I always am. I think that when you have somewhere to get so much of the time, you retain that agitated momentum even when you have nowhere to get. There is a resistance to deviate from that imaginary plan you sketched in your head. But the moments when you scrap that compulsive plan, when you ward off that rush to get nowhere, that agitated momentum that compels you to get where you thought you were going, those are the fond ruptures in your otherwise placid memory. They are the things you remember. These ruptures age into nostalgia and provide you with value when you ask yourself the question: what have I even done in all this time? This is why traveling is so fulfilling, I think. It is a concentrated dosage of these very moments, uncontaminated by routine and obligation. I took off my backpack.

“Sure,” I said.

I helped Angel make dinner. He showed me how to tell when rice is done. He stuck a wooden spoon into the pot. “When it stick straight up, ees ready,” he said. Then he leaned in and whispered. “Like a—“ he pointed at the floor and shrugged his eyebrows, “—bicho.”

We both laughed a hearty laugh. I had no idea what he said. I do now.

The family ate together. There was a shortage of dishes and silverware. I wasn’t allowed to finish completely eating or drinking. My fork was taken out of my hand. When I lingered on straggling grains of rice or the swill of my grape soda, the 250lbs Angel swooped in and fluttered off to the kitchen with my dish, glass, and fork. He washed it for the next in line. Dinner incorporated a staggered start system so that the last eaters ate on the same plates as the first.

Ish, the dark-haired 16 year old, was to my left with the glow of a Nintendo DS on his face and a plastic Country Crock container as a bowl. Pookie was at the opposite end of the table chanting “chi-ken, chi-ken” continuously until his sister, Angie, tore a strip of chicken off the bone and put it in his mouth. Jose, an old family friend who had just arrived, sat to my right. He had an amiable face and lenient smile. He told me, with great difficulty, that he had moved here in 2002 from the Dominican Republic. In a decade he managed to hardly acquire more than a handful of words. The Quintana’s all vied for my attention, mostly by harping on Jose’s poor command of English. Everyone shouted Spanish to and fro. I laughed when they laughed. I tried to decipher words but couldn’t understand anything. All I knew is that they were interrupting each other.

I thanked them and wheeled my bike out the apartment door. I spiraled down the staircase which seemed to get smaller and smaller. It was dark. Not fully dark, more like inside-of-a-Hollister dark. I carried my bike on my shoulder until the second floor where there was a blockage. Six guys clumped in the stairwell. I squeezed through and stepped over a blunt-in-progress, lying open-booked on the landing. I passed through the group and continued down. Just as I was out of sight I heard one of them call.

“Hey! Where you going, blanquito?”

“Yeah, why you running, blanquito?”

“Come back, Papi, where you think you going?”

The laughter faded as I continued down the stairwell. I got on my bike and rode homeward.

I was pedaling through Bedstuy when a black blur flashed against the dark street a few inches in front of my face. Then there was loud shrill pang from the parked car beside me. It was a rock. I looked back and scanned the sidewalk. It was full of people. There was no way to tell who had thrown it. And what would I have done if I could tell who had thrown it. I kept riding.

Weeks of tutoring at the Quintana’s passed. Clouds held color earlier each day. We rounded the half-way point of the thirty hours of tutoring, then the home stretch. There were days it seemed progress had been made. Then the next day would wash it all away. It occurred to me that my clichéd fantasy of playing out the movie Dangerous Minds would not be realized. There was an impotence now. How am I supposed to make up for four years of high school in thirty hours?

On a Monday afternoon, I rode to Hope Gardens. The air was gray and viscous. I waited for a half-hour at the dining/everything table for Gordy as usual. Gordy came through the door and sat down. He folded his hands on the dining table. They were streaked with sutures from the screwdriver he was stabbed with several days before.

To be continued…

 

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practice

Practice is the exchange between two ages of the brain.

Let me elaborate.

The cerebellum sits at the base of your skull like a walnut the size of a giant walnut. It is the command center for motor function. It is a very old and primal part of the brain, shared by most, if not all, animal species. It is commonly referred to as the reptilian brain. It is thought that this is where muscle memory is stored (primarily, at least).

We don’t have a conscious relationship with this part of the brain. We don’t have deliberate access to it the way we have a access to our thoughts or memories. We can’t communicate with it directly–in this sense, it seems to have a certain autonomy. When you walk, you don’t have to “think” about it. All you have to do is decide to walk, then your muscle memory comes online and requires very little chaperoning–intervention is only required for things like adjusting speeds so you don’t have to walk shoulder to shoulder with a stranger and say something because for a moment you are walking as if you were friends. Imagine trying to carry on that insincere conversation while you had to micromanage all of the hundreds of synchronous movements that it requires to take a step. Lift leg slightly, compensate for balance with other leg, swing shin forward, smile, start controlled fall forward with upper body, gauge distance to pavement, scan for obstruction, laugh too hard at something they say in order to seem agreeable, square ankle with pavement, prepare heel for impact, etc. This is describing what it is like for a toddler to learn how to walk. There is a very precarious calibration involved, which why they fall so damn much. It’s not just hard for them to use their muscles in a new way, it’s computationally hard to coordinate all of the muscles involved. It’s a lot of information.

The neocortex, which sits like a wrinkly hat on top of other brain structures including the cerebellum, is much more recently evolved than our reptilian brain. Neo=new. The neocortex is uniquely mammalian. This part of the part is thought to be responsible for higher cognition such as planning, language, abstract thinking, and conscious decision-making.

When you make a conscious decision to practice an action over and over, it is sort of like your neocortex programming your cerebellum. It is tediously hammering the instructions into it until they are deeply imprinted–so deeply that you can’t access it consciously anymore. The control of the action has trickled from the conscious neocortex to unconscious cerebellar muscle memory. This is what I meant by two ages of the brain. It is as if the newly evolved part of your brain is tediously teaching the formerly evolved part–tediously teaching it just like your dad teaching you to play Für Elise and audibly sighing with deep disappointment until you finally play without any mistakes, at which point, he leaves you and finally goes to make dinner.

 

Crap Market

 

I know my explanation of brain functions was crudely oversimplified and also probably wrong. If you can educate me or have a different opinion, please leave a comment. Let’s talk about it.