Wednesday, May 05, 2004

Trivial Events

May 4, 2004
Hey, buddy. How's it going at the library? That's no longer a meaningless salutation. What, literally, is going on at the Cleveland Park Branch. Since my exile to St. Helena, I genuinely wonder what's been happening in the cultural capital of Cleveland Park.
What did you do this weekend? As usual I did nothing, nothing interesting and nothing uninteresting. But I survived. Remember, I'm a survivor. A friendless survivor. For some reason I was thinking this weekend about Franz Wisner. Franz Wisner was Jesse Raben's roommate at Tufts University. I was thinking about normal people. How they just live, interact, and befriend each other. For them normal living is like breathing. They just do it. They don't think about it. I think about social relations a great deal, precisely because, for me, social relations are difficult, all-too-difficult. It's as if I suffer from the asthma of human relations. When you have asthma, you think about each breath. You attach a meaning to something that other people do without thinking--namely, breathing.
The utter vacuousness of my weekend gave me an idea for a TV show. A pilot-in-the-making. Must-see-TV at its best. "American Idle." It would be a reality show in which contestants compete for a prize for living the most idle and meaningless life. Think of it as a comedy version of Gilligan's Island.
I kept thinking this weekend of the line by Clifford Odets. "That miserable patch of event, that mélange of nothing, while you were looking ahead for something to happen, that was it! That was life! You lived it!" Yes, I've lived life--about three-quarters of it by now. But what have I done?
Whenever I tell people how I've gotten stuck in a rut, how my life seemed to come to a screeching halt at the time of my job termination 13 years ago, they will say invariably: "You need to get on with your life." I invariably respond: "This is my life. How could it be anything else? Whatever you do--whatever that happens to be--that's your life. How could it be otherwise? Can the life you live be anything other than getting on with something? And how can that "something" be anything other than your life?" What people really mean when they advise someone to get on with his life is: "You need to do something other than what you're doing." But for some reason, inscrutable to me, they don't say that. They say: "You need to get on with your life." But why the obfuscation? A question for philosophers, I suppose.
Saturday night I watched "Hannah and Her Sisters" on TV. That's a Woody Allen movie. Remember the famous line: "These pretzels are making me thirsty." No, I'm just yanking your chain. That's actually a line from Seinfeld--an episode of Seinfeld that parodied a Woody Allen movie, any Woody Allen movie. They're all really alike-all Woody Allen movies seem identical to me. At least that's my opinion.
I'm not a great fan of Woody Allen. It's as if all of Woody Allen's movies are slices of a loaf of bread. A single loaf. Each thin slice of bread is virtually identical. The size may vary to some extent, the number of caraway seeds--with Woody Allen the bread is always rye--may vary, but basically, one slice of Woody Allen is pretty much like any other slice.
Some of his movies are more entertaining than others, but they're still all alike. The masterpiece is "Annie Hall." That won an Oscar for Best Picture and Best Screenplay. "Hannah and Her Sisters" got critical acclaim too. But it didn't medal. At least not like "Annie Hall."
Woody Allen 's movies remind me of the witticism about the Vivaldi concertos. You know Vivaldi, the Venetian composer? They say he didn't write 400 concertos. He wrote one concerto 400 times. You could say the same about Bruckner. If you've heard one Bruckner symphony, you've heard them all.
Is Woody Allen a genius? Well, he is prolific. But is that a sign of genius? If he had made only one movie, say "Annie Hall," would his genius be any less than if he had made ten movies. If Beethoven had written only the ninth symphony, or Shakespeare had written only "Hamlet," would these creative people be any less a genius? I don't know.
Then there's the issue of precisely what part of a creation is the part that exemplifies the genius. Take Beethoven's Diabelli variations. Beethoven wrote a piano piece: thirty-three original variations on a waltz theme by Anton Diabelli. Fundamentally, the piece in its entirety is a collection of bagatelles. Each bagatelle lasts about 2 minutes on average. The entire piece takes about an hour to perform. It is considered one of the greatest pieces of music ever written. But what makes it great? A single bagatelle wouldn't qualify as a work of genius. But would five bagatelles? Or twenty? No. What makes the Diabelli variations a work, a creation, of the highest musical achievement was Beethoven's act of squeezing out of Diabelli's brief and commonplace waltz-theme every last drop of musical meaning.
In the case of the Diabelli variations, it's the piece as a whole that is evidence of the highest powers of musical creativity. In art, it often happens that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. If Michelangelo had painted one human hand reaching out toward another, that might be talent but not genius. But to create a fresco, such as the Sistine Chapel ceiling, which depicts a grand multiplicity of gestures, postures and figures--well, now, that's a work of genius.
In art, we can isolate fragments and appreciate them. We can take a single variation from the Diabelli variations, listen to it and say: "Ah, what a delight!" We can look at a single scene from the Sistine chapel and exclaim: "How inspired!" But that's art. In science, it's not always easy to isolate out aspects of a creation. Take Einstein's famous formulation: E=mc2. There's energy, mass and the speed of light. The whole is not suggested by the individual parts. An equation exists as a totality. You can't slice up Einstein's Theory of Relativity into segments as you can with a loaf of bread.
Be that as it may. I suppose all this rumination means only one thing. I have too much time on my hands.
But back to Woody Allen.
In one part of the movie "Hannah and her Sisters," Woody Allen decides he's going to convert to Catholicism. There's a scene where he returns home and proceeds to lay out on a table all the paraphernalia he will need as a Catholic. A crucifix, a loaf of white bread, and a jar of mayonnaise. Heaven and Hellmans, I suppose you could say.
Actually, I've been thinking of converting. Not religion. It's hard to convert when you're a half-Jew. It's a painful decision when only part of you is Jewish. Which part exactly is the Jewish part, and thus, which part is in need of conversion. It's like trying to separate Siamese twins. The outcome can be fatal.
I have a theory that all people are fundamentally Jewish. It's our cultural upbringing that modifies that essentially Jewish character to something else. How could it be otherwise? Who would eat white bread, for instance, out of free choice. Any sane, rational person would sooner eat pumpernickel or rye. No sane person, as an act of free will, would choose to put mayonnaise on a corned-beef sandwich. People are born with an instinct to put mustard on a corned-beef sandwich. It's the process of acculturation that perverts the human being's normal tendencies.
There is a belief in traditional Judaism--a rabbinic belief from the middle ages--that if you take an infant and raise him without any language, he will naturally speak Hebrew. The human's normal affinity is to speak Hebrew. Hebrew, so the mediaeval rabbis believed--is the language of God, the language by which God spoke to Adam and Eve and Moses, the whole cast of characters that Michelangelo painted on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. But since most people grow up learning English, French, or Chinese, or whatever, they assimilate the language they hear around them. So much for the linguistic sophistication of the mediaeval rabbis.
But back to the issue of conversion. No. I'm not thinking of converting to another religion. I'm thinking of converting to normality. In terms of the dialectic Normal/Abnormal, I'm genuinely, 100% abnormal. Unlike my religion I'm not half abnormal. Believe me, I'm totally abnormal. So it's not a question of precisely what part of me needs to convert. Any change in the direction of normality would be a step forward for me.
Actually one of the highlights of this weekend was that I read an article in the June 2004 issue of the magazine "Psychology Today." The article was titled "Snap Judgments" by Carlin Flora. The article says that everybody makes snap judgments of other people. We all tend to form an impression of other people upon first meeting them. It's not necessarily sexual. Like, for example, when I saw my buddy Glenn Fine for the first time, I just knew he was a great guy--no, more! A Great Guy. So much for the chastisement directed at me in Group therapy that I have no right to judge a person based on only a few trivial observations about the other person. Related to that is the accusation that I attach a negative meaning to trivial events. We all do. We all attach a negative meaning--or at least some meaning, negative or positive-to trivial events. It's just that I was stupid enough--or ingenuous enough--to tell the managing partners of a law firm what I thought.
What separates me from normal people is not that I attach a negative meaning to trivial events, or that I make snap judgments about people. It's the fact that I have awareness of what I'm doing, and I'm up-front and honest about what I do.
The June 2004 "Psychology Today" article, at page 60, says:
Just three seconds are sufficient to make a conclusion about fresh acquaintances. Nalini Ambady, professor of psychology at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, studies first impressions carved from brief exposure to another person's behavior, what she calls "thin slices" of experiences. She says humans have developed the ability to quickly decide whether a new person will hurt or enrich us--judgments that had lifesaving ramifications in an earlier era. She believes that thin slices are generated in the most primitive area of the brain, where feelings are also processed, which accounts for the emotional punch of some first encounters. Immediate distrust of a certain car salesman or affinity for a prospective roommate originates in the deepest corners of the mind. The ability to interpret thin slices evolved as a way for our ancestors to protect themselves in an eat-or-be-eaten world, whereas modern-day threats to survival often come in the form of paperwork (dwindling stock portfolios) or intricate social rituals (impending divorce). The degree to which thin slices of experience help us to navigate modern encounters--from hitchhikers to blind dates--is up for debate.
So what is it precisely that makes me abnormal? Is it my tendency to attach a negative meaning to trivial events? Well, "Psychology Today" would say--resoundingly--"No!" Is it my tendency to judge whether I like a person--whether that person will hurt me or enrich me--after only a brief encounter? Again, a resounding "No!"
According to "Psychology Today," we all attach a meaning (positive or negative) to trivial events. We all make snap judgments about other people.
So what makes me different? It's my sincerity, my lack of shame, and my cognitive ability to understand and describe--and elaborate--the trivial that distinguishes me from others. A person might say: "I don't like him. Why? Because. Just because." Or a person may say: "I don't really like him. But I have no right to judge, so I'll repress my dislike." Or a person will say: "One shouldn't over-analyze things." Well, I do none of that!
I am a shameless over-analyzer. I will elaborate a detail--squeezing out every last piece of juice out of a detail. I believe that I have a right to do that. I'm sincere in my feelings about people. I don't pretend to like people I don't like. I'm unusually open about expressing my positive feelings about people I like; or the converse, speaking openly about the negative in people. These are the things that make me abnormal. Yes. I'm abnormal and proud to be so.
On second thought, maybe I'd better just stick with the religion I was born with. I'll stick with my slices of rye. The hell with the white bread! If I want to count every last caraway seed on a slice of rye, I'll do it. If I choose to attach a negative meaning to each trivial seed, I'll do that! I don't care what Ellen and J. Alfred Prufrock think!!
Check you out later, buddy.
P.S. I've changed all the light bulbs in my apartment. I've upped the wattage from 40 to 60. I know how my being in a dark place is threatening to you. Believe me, I don't want to threaten you. I now live in a clean, well-lighted place.

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