Category: Uncategorized

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.

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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.

standup sittingdown

i found an old video of standup from one of those bitchin’ Hoot’s in Cambridge. Excuse the poor video quality.

Before you say it: i know the first joke is a rip-off of a Steven Wright joke. I swear i didn’t know that at the time. Or maybe i knew it, but i didn’t know that i knew it. When i can’t remember the origin of things sometimes i think i made them up.

a radically condensed history of postindustrial life parallel to the one david foster wallace wrote

And then he wanted to seem smart to everyone. At first he wanted to seem smart to everyone because then he could be himself. Then he realized it was because if he seemed smart to everyone then she would also think he was smart and then he could be himself. He started to do things he thought would make him seem smart because he thought he wanted to do them. He wanted to go to the place where everyone who is smart goes because then he would seem smart to everyone who wasn’t there. So he went to the place where the smart people go and his palms sweated in the room where they show each other how smart they all are. He changed the way he talked because he wanted to seem smart because they had also changed the way they talked because they had also wanted to seem smart. Then he didn’t think that everyone at the smart place seemed very smart but he started to think that maybe he was the one who was not very smart. He asked her if he seemed smart and she said yes but he thought she wasn’t smart enough to know whether he was smart or not.

 

dust

I just found a short story I’d written for 9th grade English. I think it was our first assignment. I have no memory of writing it, which makes it seem like it was written by a different person.  In a sense, I guess it was. I’ve often wondered what was truly on my mind at fourteen. The answer is: the Dust Bowl. Apparently, the Dust Bowl was on my mind.  When I was fourteen, before I had ever kissed a girl, I spent time thinking about the Dust Bowl.

So, here it is:

Peter Lang-Stanton

9C English

Miss Bishop

Sometimes…I thinks about jus’ pickin’ up an’ leavin’ this here place. I thinks about leavin’ the dustbowl, an’ livin’ somewhere that dust don’t control every aspect of my life. My whole world revolves around dirt. An’ if that ain’t sad I don’ know what is.

This mornin’ I went to take a shower, but all that came out of the faucet was thin mud…that don’t bother me though, not even eatin’ dust-caked food at every meal will bother me. What gives me a bother it that my four-year-old brother, Joey, is sick, he has worms—at least tha’s what Mr. McDuffie said. Mr. McDuffie ain’t a doctor but he is pretty darn close. Mr. McDuffie says that Joey probably got worms from falling down the hole in the out-house. I say he got them from sharing a water bowl with T-Bone, our sheepdog.

I on’y goes to school two times a week. My teacher is Mrs. Lesher, she don’t know that both of my parents is past away. Mrs. Lesher believes we’s is in for a big dust storm pretty soon. She is a real smart lady, Mrs. Lesher, and she is probably right, I don’t want to believe ‘er, even though I do. All this talk about a monster dust storm reminds me of what happened just over a year ago.

I remember the weatherman said it was gonna be big, the biggest. Pa said it was gonna be bad, the baddest.  How is you supposed to prepare for something like this? That’s how we was thinkin’. Board up the door an’ all the windows? Well, we did, but that didn’t help any one bit. The entire town was supposed to go to the church for the dust storm, but we didn’t make it in time, an’ then we was afraid to go to the church ‘cause we thought we might get trapped in the storm while we was travellin’ to the church. So we ended up takin’ refuge in our tiny, creakin’ wooden cottage that we called home. The storm came in like a lion, an’ left like a…lion. The storm had the unearthly screech of fifty locomotives. The whole house moaned and whined while the dust tore at its sides. We was all scared, especially Joey, who didn’t quite know what was goin’ on. Then Pa stood up an’ he started to get on his coat.

“Where are you goin’ Dylan?” Mama asked.

“I’ve got to secure the cattle,” Pa said back.

“I’m gonna come with you,” said Mama.

“No, Marie, it’s not safe.”

“I know that. Tha’s why I gotta come,” insisted Mama.

I begged both of ‘em not to go. Before I knew it, though, they were both out the door, an’ I was covered by a wave o’ dirt. We waited, Joey and me, huddled in a corner for hours an’ hours on end for my parents to return… I think Joey might still be waitin’.

 

Dirt
Dirt. South Dakotan, Bad Landian Dirt.