Random Thoughts on Randomness – Part 1

“The most beautiful order is a pile of things poured out at random”
–Heraclitus
(Appropriated from Professor Metcalf’s Facebook Page)

Random Thought being a redundant phrase, of course, since all thoughts are necessarily random. For if they weren’t, you wouldn’t be able to think what you think you think.

But before I self-involvedly put out there my thoughts about that, I thought I might self-indulgently talk about this quintessential quandary:

Which came first, the chicken or the egg?

Now, we can take a look at a question like that and try to answer it as one or the other. Or declare it a circular reference without a determinate answer. Or push the answer back before  chickens or eggs onto other questions that would have to be answered first. Or we could just say “God only knows,” and mean it either literally or snarkily.

We could have debates, hold prayer meetings, and take to twitter with our views, being champions of this or that or Him.  Maybe make some Pro-Egg flyers or Believe in the Chicken posters. It would be kind of cool to see candidates trying to appease both sides, or The Trump signing an executive order declaring both eggs and chicken are fried, so there!

Yet, any such factious (or fractious) thinking would already be moving away from the most important, the most philosophically interesting, thing: The question itself.

For answers are never that interesting. They are boring in fact. And don’t even exist, for that matter, unless maybe you’re a blind faithy, fox-news-only kind of person. But then again, if that is so, you don’t so much have an answer as have simply delegated the question to someone above you (literally and snarkily).

So let’s move back from the egg-chicken details and think about what kind of question it is. Although it is phrased as “which came first”, I hear it first and foremost as a causal question rather than a temporal one. Who made who would probably be a more accurate representation of it, but so goes the idiom.

In causality questions, what’s at stake? Why does it matter? That is, why does it matter to us? Well, for starters, the stakes are a lot higher than chickens or eggs. When we assign causality, aren’t we really assigning independence to one thing and dependence to the other?

Is the chicken dependent on the egg  or is it the other way around? Independence and dependence both shade Will. I will leave out Free from that Will for now, as that four-letter word typically adds a whole level of nonsense to these kind of discussions. Right now we can think of Will as just like it sounds: the ability to make things happen, put things into motion.

By the question, are we assigning Will to one thing, and mere obedience to the other? Is hatching the willful act and the chicken coming out just obeying what was set in motion? Or is the laying where the will resides and the egg just following orders.

We see that the chicken and egg question really is about that common but oh so vacuous term freewill.

You might argue that eggs and chickens don’t have will, or that they might have will but not freewill and/or hatching and laying are instinctual not intentional or something else in a similar putting-our-bag-of-bones into some sort of privileged position where we act and do things consciously (yet another, like freewill, somewhat vacuous and frequently unhelpful term).

But such arguments take swipe at the wrong thing. The right thing is our very conception of action and reaction, of which the chicken and egg are mere props for our thinking. But if chicken and egg are too low on the food chain for consideration, we can simply replace them with Mother and Child. Or even better, how about God and humankind? Or physics and humankind?

For that’s really to where we want to roll back, isn’t it? What, if anything, came before God? What, if anything, came before the Big Bang? Like with the original chicken and egg question, the answer itself isn’t as important as what’s at stake.

And that stake of course is the meaning of life: The mattering of it all, or of any of it. We think, perhaps, that if we push things back to some assumed unmoved mover or uncaused cause we can then bring such duly clarified meaning forward. The meaning, however, hardly needs to make such a journey. Indeed, trying to do so would be a fool’s errand.

Instead, the meaning of our lives derives neither from the divine nor natural order, but in the inherent randomness each of us possesses at any given moment.

—–

Other possible Parts as I work through my thoughts on this:

Spinoza’s God and the Necessitarianism Obstacle

Reconceptualizing Randomness

Ball in Tube Analogy

Molecule of Water in Heated Pot Analogy

Abolishing Absolutes and other Phantasms

Limited Randomness: As Free as Will ever gets

The Inescapable Nevering

THE INESCAPABLE NEVERING

Close to the half-century mark
I will likely never

Climb Mount Everest
Spend a night in the International Space Station
Star in a Hollywood picture

And I’m okay with that or mostly okay
But there is another never
Far more subtle and harder to accept

Hundreds of beloved books on my bookshelf
that will never be reread
Thousands of favorite songs in my collection
that will never be heard again
And millions of pleasant thoughts in my head
that will never be thought again

Not so much forgotten or ignored
As simply not coming to mind
Buried in the vault of me

That keeps on acquiring
new books to read
new music to hear
new pleasant thoughts to cherish

iTunes tells me I need
(right now)
215.4 days to listen
(to everything)

one      time      through

Music plays while I write this
The whole of it on shuffle

Finding Our Pulse

kind

Every man is guilty of all the good he did not do.

Mark Combs, a friend of mine from way back, posted the above Voltaire quote.

I like the line quite a bit, even though I consider words like “guilty” and “good” to be counterproductive and ultimately vacuous, as are their antonyms, innocent and evil. The problem with such words is that they can too easily draw people into a cycle of focusing on assignation rather than pushing them forward into personal action.

And action, really, is at the heart of Voltaire’s words. A call to action.

A call to the realization that not taking action is an action in and of itself. A realization that there is no middle ground. A realization that you have a choice to act and that “if you choose not to decide / you still have made a choice.

With the Orlando massacre, there are analyses of cause by both professional and armchair intellectuals.  There are conversations about prevention ranging from passing stricter gun laws to saying everyone in the nightclub should have been armed.

But I want to approach it a wholly different way. Approach it at the individual level; at the level I go to on a daily basis.

What part did you play in the massacre? We all should ask ourselves this question, and ask it often.

And you did play a part. Of course you did. Remember: there is no middle ground.  So, phrased another way, did you play the part of someone trying to make things better for all?

Passing bathroom bills and engaging in other forms of hate speech is the antithesis of better. And doing nothing amounts to the same.

When I hear about violence, I tell my husband how much I love him. When I hear about animal abuse, I hold my critters close. When I hear about child abuse, I think of all the kids I work with and how much I want to protect them.

And then I expand that circle: say hi to a neighbor, pet a stray animal, think of another way I can help kids.

So phrased yet another way, at this precise moment, with your finite life running out, what “good” do you have left to do.

And what are you waiting for?

Say (No) Cheese

I thought “giving up” cheese would be difficult.

Although it would be exaggeration to say I used to put cheese on everything, I certainly increased it where I could, such as: extra cheese on pizza, large dollops atop sauce-covered spaghetti, and gobs of shredded brimming over taco shell edges.

When I worked at McDonald’s (yeah, I worked there, three different ones actually, but always back in the grill…) years ago, I would add extra cheese when I made my lunch break sandwiches.

Give me a plate of crackers and cheese at a party and I’d be happier than if the cutest boy there asked me to dance. Well, that is likewise hyperbole, but after dancing I’d return to the cheese for sure. If the cute boy asked me politely, though, I just might share.

The point is, “giving up” things is supposed to be hard. Right? We give up smoking for our lungs, give up foods we love to lower our cholesterol, and give up alcohol so maybe next year at the Christmas party we don’t tell our boss “And another thing…”

We mention “giving up” things like we are an ascetic getting ready for a vision quest and the listeners around us should be simultaneously awed and filled with sympathy.

Yet “giving up” is an anemic approach to anything. It’s a half-assed, half-hearted, bleat of resignation.

Up neuters the action verb give, rendering it static: giving up smoking is NOT smoking, giving up drinking is NOT drinking, and so on. There is no action implicit in “Not”. Instead, as used here, it is the negation of action.

Since we are agents in the world, actors acting in the world, we need more robust thinking; the kind of critical thinking that encourages us to go forth and actively do, rather than lie down and passively don’t.

My own thinking about such things was willfully ignorant for many years. Don’t know about bliss, but it certainly made things easier, such as grocery shopping.

But certain questions nagged at me:

  • How do they make it so cows keep giving milk?
  • How does being perpetually kept pregnant affect the cows?
  • What happens to the calves after they are born?
  • How are the mothers affected by having their calves taken from them shortly after birth?
  • What happens to a milk-producing cow after her years of faithful service, when she no longer gives milk?

The answers are important because my consumption directly contributes to such questions coming up at all. My consumption is important because the answers I’ve since learned conflict with my own personal Hippocratic oath.

Which means I must either forget what I have learned or take action to resolve the dissonance.

Take action is the key here. I did not “give up” cheese, which, as I said before, would be a non-action. Instead, I asked questions, found out the answers, and have adjusted my actions accordingly.

Not eating cheese is simply a byproduct of new, more ethically-conscious behaviors and habits I am cultivating.

I don’t miss cheese, the presumed hole its absence left is filled, and I am already several questions and answers beyond it.

A Teaser from the Trunk

2248_be6c7b094f88532b6c6b35bbcd525ee8

Going through my trunk of completed but never submitted, came across a 23,000 word novella, Camphorville Connection. Later parts likely need revising, but I like the set-up. Enough so, I thought I’d share it here as a teaser.

CAMPHORVILLE CONNECTION
JD Fox

1

This story is true.

Honest Injun. Swear to god. Cross my heart and hope to—

Well, I won’t hope that. Better the verse remains unfinished. The past stays incomplete anyway, all full of flotsam and jetsam.

C’est la vie.

-2-

Month and I hated Camphorville.

I almost wrote ‘with a passion’, but that would understate it. We hated it so completely there was no passion left. We were recurrently dragged there by our parents, being too young to have our votes count. Time there passed in drying coats of paint and construction of malicious sobriquets.

I came up with banal originals such as Boogerman, Zitface, and Greaseomatic.

Month likewise dipped into the oft-mined well of physical attributes, calling me Doughboy, Pudger, and — while pissing next to me in a Denver International Airport bathroom sixty-five miles outside of Camphorville — Dickless.

That last one was a bit harsh. I did have a dick. And still do. It just hadn’t seriously started doing the growing thing a couple more years would bring about.

Of course, compared to Month’s gigantic one, it did look so minuscule it might as well have been nonexistent.

Now, in retrospect, Month’s likely wasn’t any larger than your typical 14-soon-to-be-15-year-old’s, but such is perspective, time and space and mental state affecting such things as they do.

Most of those nicknames were only casual, throwaway ones anyway. Only a couple outlasted all the others and actually passed from the realm of insults to being used as, I guess, endearment of sorts.

Leaving the typical appellations behind, I came up with calling him Month.

I thought his real name, Augusten, was stupid, and the shortened form of August, which the folks favored, even stupider. So did he. I used to call him Aug, or Auggie, but then one day it just came out all sort of spontaneous, like ‘What’s up, Month?’ or “Stop it, Month” or “I don’t wanna, Month” and it stuck.

At first, he used to get mad when I called him that, since that’s what you’re supposed to do at such things, but somehow it seemed to fit better than Augusten, August, Aug, or Auggie.

Mine is harder to explain why it stuck.

Maybe it had such staying power mainly because it was Month who came up with it and I wanted to hold on to it for that purpose, like an amulet around my neck that I never took off. Or maybe like one I couldn’t take off. Such things as cause and effect blur with time and it really amounts to a fourth of one, a quarter of the other.

Month called me Bent.

In lieu of Benjamin, Ben, Benj, or Benjy, all of which my friends and family and enemies used depending on the situation, the gender, and the context.

When my folks would ask him to get me, he would say, “Oh, do you want me to get Bent?” as if that meant something. Apparently it did to him and he would laugh. Apparently it meant something to my parents, too, as they would frown. I seemed to be the only one confused.

I eventually became less confused, if not totally enlightened, thanks to the help of classmate Gary Willicker, who happened to overhear one such exchange during a sleepover at my house. He tended to have a rather cosmopolitan knowledge of slurs, body parts, and other wondrously curious things. I became less confused about other stuff that night as well.

Regardless, Bent and Month stuck and I don’t remember us calling each other anything else, except for the mean-spirited, aforementioned epithets, and ‘Month’ was actually the very last word I said to him. Before he disappeared.

Extraordinary or Extra Ordinary

leap_of_faith

I had a feeling I could be someone, be someone

Most people live ordinary lives full of unexceptional actions.

Indeed, the definitions of ordinary and unexceptional require a most, as that’s what gives their antonyms’ connotative weight. Yet I doubt most set the course of their life towards that end. Their ship – or car or soul or whatever handy metaphorical / metaphysical conveyance you wish – just gets diverted, crashes, or otherwise ends up Someplace Else.

How do we deal with this existential crisis?

I recently saw a play by Theater FOR Kids BY Kids called Pippin that dealt with this issue. The story is about a boy named Pippin who is obsessed with doing something extraordinary; something that would finally satisfy this natural, human all too human craving.

He goes to war, rules a country, has affairs and even flirts with committing suicide in a most dramatic – that is, extraordinary – way. But in the end he decides that true happiness is found in the ordinary life.

Blech.

Not the play or the performance, but the message.

The play itself was great fun to watch.

Justin Murray, who had just one month earlier played Wilbur in Charlotte’s Web, again took the lead here as Pippin and gave another solid performance that required being in most scenes, singing, and quite a bit of moving about the stage.

His fellow cast members likewise deserve accolades for their deft handling of the material.

In addition, I appreciate techniques it employs such as breaking the fourth wall, where there is both being in a story and being aware of it being a story (sidenote: the TV show Moonlighting does this somewhat paradoxical — and cool — maneuver extraordinarily well).

And sure, I do get the message, just like I got the similar message in It’s a Wonderful Life.

And that getting part of me even feels good about their happiness at home message.

Yet…

A larger part of me cringes as contentment is equated — intentionally or unintentionally — with settling.

At least in Pippin’s case he tried a variety of things first before ending up thus; poor old George Bailey never got to be the one thing, the only thing, he wanted to be: an explorer.

At only thirteen, Justin Murray gave the kind of performance that makes me think of Dr. Seuss’s Oh the Places You’ll Go. If he so chooses and continues to pursue this particular craft, extraordinary things are likely in his future; should be in his future.

But there is what we want to be, what we end up being, and the gap between them.

I’ve always taken issues like this seriously and as I get older – just turned 47 – the gap looms depressingly wide; a yawning chasm of Ordinary.

How far can I leap?

How much longer will I be able to leap at all?

The Whelming

1100-2

Spur yourself to muster the power of faith. Regard your survival as wondrous. Employ the strategy of the Lotus Sutra before any other.

Many things in my current slice of Vermont life are overwhelming. Underwhelming, too, as those two words are more collusive than opposing.

All the concrete biggies are in play: Finances, Health, and Security. The existential ones too: Purpose, Meaning, and Creativity.

I am anxious about being able to provide for my family, my dangerous drop in weight, and the uncertainty of the future. I worry about not doing what I was born to do, finding less attached too often to meaning, and words unwritten dying with me.

I take action of course: applying for better, more-suitable employment, like with the Vermont Humanities Council; creating work and putting it out there, like with this post; and continuing my volunteer activities, like with reading submissions for the Mud Season Review.

I take more actions than the above and try to think of what further things I can do, what other steps I can take, to create a life that is something other than “nasty, brutish and short.”

Lately, in addition to chanting, I’ve been reading and rereading Strategy of the Lotus Sutra. It is a short letter, just a page or so, Nichiren wrote to his devout follower Shijō Kingo. It is a reply to a letter Kingo had sent about being ambushed by some of his fellow samurai, encouraging him to remain strong in faith; indeed, for him to become even more resolute.

Faith is difficult for me to muster.

Ribs clearly visible in my gaunt body, I envision the formidable obstacles in any potential roads taken and doubt my abilities. Yet I am still alive to have or not have faith, time passing either way.

“Regard your survival as wondrous” seems to have two meanings. The first as in thinking wow, I survived this horrible attack. How amazing! But also, life in general is a constant struggle to survive, and us being around at any given moment is something quite extraordinary.

The “strategy” of the Lotus Sutra is faith; not just having it but understanding its relation to other things. Faith is not something to be added later, but should come first. It is the foundation upon which all other actions – strategies – are built.

I’ve been trying to chant – and take action – with such thoughts in mind.

Nichiren ends the letter with “A coward cannot have any of his prayers answered.”

I think of this line, too, as I take determined steps forward, despite being very much afraid.

Death of a Cat

Christopher, 2015

Christopher, 2015

Life continues until it doesn’t.

Obvious, huh? So much so, why bother writing it? Maybe because I’m not sure what it means.

Christopher died on Tuesday. We had been expecting his death, but it still felt unexpected. The timing was definitely…

I half want to write “inconvenient” here as there is a certain amount of accuracy to it. But there is an unintentional coldness present, too, with using such a word; an uncaring to it that is as far from the truth as one can ever get.

Maybe I can substitute “awkward” instead.

Gary called me at work. Already stressfully behind on bills, including rent, and with little food in the house, Christopher died: on Tuesday, two days before a future paycheck already devoured by red. I borrowed $85 cash from the store director to cover the cost (deepest thanks to him), clocked out, and, along with Gary, took Christopher to Kingston Funeral Home and paid for him to be cremated.

Afterwards, I went back to work.

Life continues.

We had him since he was a little black dot of 7 weeks. An integral part of our lives, his 19 ½ years saw us in three states, various apartments, and up and down circumstances. He woke us up on our 1996 Wedding Day with his “turbo tongue” full of kittenly affection. He was still around for our 2013 Marriage Redux.

Over the years, cat habits formed.

Evenings, he’d patrol our home like a security guard, checking off each room and being annoyed at us if we got up during the night; he’d have to recheck that room. Affectionate in his own way, he’d make a beeline for our heads, wanting — needing — to touch noses before settling on our laps. Later in his life, after we introduced moist food to help with constipation, he developed a clockwork habit of waking me up by standing on me and screaming to be fed.

He loved office chairs, catnip, and shredding nice furniture. He had a talent for opening doors and cabinets. He liked butter, which we learned to keep covered on the table. He had a strange fixation with tape that made wrapping presents – and keeping them wrapped — challenging.

He was lovable, insufferable, and all the adjectives in-between. Then those adjectives started losing their hold except for lovable, being replaced by the new ones old age and sickness bring. Yet it felt like love alone would be a powerful enough word to contradict fate…

Yet, here I am, Sunday, several days later and still trying to properly mourn the loss of our beloved cat.

Sunday, my day off, with a committee meeting and board meeting coming up this afternoon. Grocery shopping somehow needs to be done, as we have nothing for dinner. I have submissions to read for the Mud Season Review, author bios to compile for the Burlington Book Festival website, and I should probably read Go Down Moses for the event I’m hosting at the Kellogg Hubbard Library come this Tuesday.

I have a resume and cover letter, too, that need revised, as they both must be absolutely perfect as I apply for my dream job at the Vermont Humanities Council.

And, of course, my in-progress fiction and poetry awaits my focused attention, along with markets to be researched for submitting completed works…

Life continues until it doesn’t.

Is that a nihilistic expression of the meaningless of life? The ache in my heart feels like it is, wanting me to throw in the towel at the banal absurdity of it all.

Or is it a seize-the-day cry emphasizing the first part and beseeching us to pick the towel back up, dry our eyes, and make the most of this limited time?

I think it just might be both.

 

Peacocking

peacock-raise-his-feathers-19036647

I’m a lousy peacock.

I’m trying to be a better one as self-promotion, branding, and otherwise best showcasing one’s attributes is the name of the competitive game. But I tend to forget what feathers I have let alone think to puff them out at appropriate moments.

Instead, I tend to dwell in the What next? moment, all too much aware of my lackings, what I would like to accomplish, and obsessing-compulsing about things like whether or not “is” in the sentence above should be “are”.

After all, a series, therefore plural, is indicated. Yet, “otherwise” separates “one’s attributes”, giving the series a different flow. But if “are” is used, wouldn’t “name” have to be changed to “names”, which doesn’t sound right at all. And should the sentence before this one end with a question mark or a period?

It should probably be rewritten altogether, but I will leave it; won’t dwell on it or the semicolon in this one.

Instead I’ll talk about excel.

I’ll proclaim proficiency, because that’s what one does on resumes, and I reckon it’s true. But I don’t think in such terms, as that word and its smug brethren are at their core meaningless. What matters most is the case by case:

Gary asking me if I can help him format his spreadsheet and my having the ability to do so; my wanting to better organize my writing submissions and being able to use pivot tables to do so; needing to add a drop down list and doing so.

I’ll talk about revamping my resume.

I now go into more detail about my current – and numerous — non-paid activities, which involve “work” and “skills” and other feathery things. But here, too, my presentation sometimes suffers from omission.

I added this non-paid to my resume:

Copy Editor, Flynn Center for the Performing Arts
– Proof and edit submissions for the Flynn’s show blog, which typically features a preview of an upcoming show and a follow-up review.

True enough. But I had forgotten another component – another workforce skill – involved, until today, when I had to employ it. Afterwards, I added a simple, yet important, sentence, making it:

Copy Editor, Flynn Center for the Performing Arts
– Actively solicit and schedule writers. Proof and edit submissions for the Flynn’s show blog, which typically features a preview of an upcoming show and a follow-up review.

Lastly, I’ll talk about my job at Shaw’s.

I never know how to best respond – think peacock here — to my director’s questions.

The other day he said/asked something like: “You’ll fly through today’s backstock, right?”

I should have just said “sure” or maybe even “Sure, of course!”

After all, I work hard, am efficient, and tend to be project-minded. Although I dislike the term “fly”, I certainly would get through it at a decent enough clip.

But I took the subtext as, “You’ll be able to get done with X in time to do Y.” This makes it less a question and more asking for some guarantee.

Although highly capable, I don’t make promises lightly. And when I make them, like committing to writing deadlines, I keep them. But here X is variable and its completion made all the more challenging by retail curtailing hours.

I ended up saying something anemic like “I’ll do my best,” which is hardly peacock speak, even though my best is actually pretty darn good.

And certainly worth a feather or two.

New Poem

sunset, Lake Champlain

sunset, Lake Champlain

Visitation

It comes to me while stocking shelves
by rote, neurons idle.

It comes to me while losing weight
from missed meals, hunger overrated.

It comes to me while stacking bills
against means, tower leaning.

It comes to me while taking pills
for AIDS, or forgetting.

It comes to me while writing poetry
at dawn, before dusk.