A quasi-literary musing (meander) in two-and-a-half parts.
I’m an addict, and have been for as long as I can remember. I crave insight and understanding into how things work, why people believe as they do, and what the underlying truths are that connect the two. I live for the moment of epiphany, that rush of synthesis where a sequence of facts connect in a new way to reveal not only how those specific elements are connected, but also a new way to consider other elements and their meanings; frameworks for general understanding. I love the cascade of insights that come from learning to perceive in a way that recasts old knowledge in new detail.
In an accident of experience, this whole search for underlying profundities is inseparably linked in my mind to winter, snow, and the Christmas season.
I must have been six years old when we moved from the San Francisco area to Denver, Colorado where I discovered two fantastic things—reading and snow. That summer I taught myself to read, and went from a non-reader to a book fiend in a single afternoon when I finally connected memorized letters with the sounds they made and started puzzling out written words through brute force application of this new insight. As an unusually shy new kid in a new neighborhood, it seemed a lot easier to stay inside and read books all day than to go outside and play.
I had a unique connection to aural learning. My mom was a certified shorthand reporter, which means she took a little stenographic machine into court and used it to write down everything said by everyone as the official court record. The steno machine used 16 keys that could be pressed simultaneously. She used shorthand notation to write whole words with a single strike, so she could easily keep up with spoken conversation.
Because it was machine shorthand, the output looked completely alien and required a native guide to translate. My mom knew that FRBLGTS (all the keys on the left side of the keyboard) actually meant “Question” and indicated that the DA was speaking (the judge was HOHO); she knew that STKWPHR (all the keys on the right hand of the keyboard) meant “Answer” and that the witness was speaking. The effect was that normal humans couldn’t read her notes, so they had to be translated into normal English and then typed up according to a specific, standardized format.
(Apologies if those shorthand words are not spelled correctly; I’m remembering alien words from more than four decades ago. But you get the idea.)
Her standard method of translation was to dictate into a tape recorder so that pool typists at the agency could later type up the official court transcript from the tapes. That meant that she would take shorthand during the day, then dictate for much of the night in a carefully modulated, exaggeratedly enunciated way so the typists could clearly understand each word. End punctuation was called out using strange words; the only one I clearly remember was “interrog,” which meant “question mark.”
As a result, I started with a somewhat odd approach to the connection between written, printed, and spoken words. I had been exposed to an unusually large and varied spoken vocabulary that had been repeatedly enunciated in the clearest possible way—even while I slept. So when I sat down that afternoon and decided to figure out how letters and sounds were related, I had both a huge backlog of auditory experience and a substantial vocabulary to back it up. The book was called Big Ben, and it was about a purple apatosaurus (long before Barney) and his friends. Once I decoded the book title (with help from my mom), the rest of it fell into place almost immediately in a single, massive epiphany that leveraged that experiential foundation; the rest was just a matter of practice.
It was a heady moment. A whole new world had had suddenly appeared to me in a moment of intense, revelatory joy.
In December of that year I was walking the dog and feeling very put upon at having to be outside at night in the cold and snow when I noticed how snow sparkled under the light. It was a small thing, but it fully engaged my attention because I had not made the connection that snow could sparkle; it was supposed to be fluffy and a somewhat dull white. All of a sudden this horrible chore of walking the dog (every stinking night) had become interesting. I noticed that snow sparkled differently under different lights—yellow lamplight spilling from windows, brilliant blue from street lights, brittle white light from the full moon—and I wanted to understand why.
As I stood there puzzling over possible reasons, I noticed a sheaf of papers caught under the edge of a wooden fence that hedged the apartment block I lived on. I picked it up and saw that it was a hand-written report on punctuation marks by a girl in 6th grade. To my surprise and delight, the very first section was on the “interrogatory signature,” or question mark. Once again, I had that joy of epiphany as I first decoded the word, connected it to my aural experience (and countless nights of hearing my mom dictate), and learned the details of exactly what that strange word heard so many times actually meant.
The combination of sparkly snow, interrogatory signatures, and a massive synthesis that connected so much of my experience during a nightly dogwalk in the cold of winter awakened an intense hunger to know more, to experience more, and to understand ever more connections between the two. Not a Christmas story per se, but an inseparable combination of that time of year with the joy that comes of profound insight.
I’ve ended up having a number of fairly wild oscillations in my search for the profound.
Like most kids, the first hundred books I read were illustrated stories about anthropomorphized animals in fantastic situations. They were interesting, engaging, and of limited utility value. They were fun and I read a lot of them, but none of them stuck with me for more than a day.
After the interrog incident I switched from illustrated fictions directly to explanatory nonfictions. If I could just learn more facts, I could continue to have moments of stunning insight where facts came together in new meanings. I understood that facts without experience were irrelevant (it was the synthesis of the two that was interesting, after all), so I gravitated toward subjects that I could either directly observe or that facilitated hands-on experimentation (I spent the entire summer of 1972 making electromagnets of increasing strength, and eventually built my own speaker out of materials salvaged from a local construction site).
I still read fiction at the time, but for me it was largely a diversion from learning, not a worthy activity in and of itself—until I discovered the Hardy Boys mysteries that integrated fact, intuition, and experience when I was ten. Suddenly fiction was useful, and the idea of interpreted experience was positively fascinating. I read all the mysteries in my school library, then moved on to science fiction.
And that’s when it all changed. Science fiction combined everything that interested me—problems to be solved, real (or at least plausible) application of fact to derive those solutions, discovery of the new, and stories built around the explicit integration and interpretation of all of those elements. I tended to look up the ideas raised in those books (science and history), and learned that I preferred those stories that stayed closer to the real, or at least the defensibly realistic.
Interestingly, it was science fiction that introduced me to philosophy. A huge number of those stories dealt with the irrelevance of science without humanity, so when I came across Robert Heinlein who theorized a lot on societal roles and responsibilities as well as the dynamics of power, I was entranced. I became as interested in why as how, and sought to understand more about schools of thought, religion, folklore, and mythology.
In other words, it was the ideas that were interesting, and sf was founded on the exploration of an idea taken both at face value and to its conceptual and logical extremes. Story was now less about learning new facts than being exposed to new ideas and viewpoints, which I then researched through supplementary journalistic or descriptive materials.
As I read more on both sides of the fiction/nonfiction divide, I found that I disagreed with quite a few of the assumptions that authors were presenting. Still, I believed in the power of story to dramatize and interpret the straight explanatory texts I was reading, and I sought variations on themes to help see and understand more of the whole. It was viewpoint that mattered more than how the idea itself was presented or justified. Story was the catalyst, even if it functioned less and less as reagent.
Then came the boredom. The ideas were recycling, so the best I could hope for was an exceptional handling of the idea that (ideally) might spur a new synthesis. If not, then I at least expected a sparkling presentation that used excellent craftsmanship or strong technique to dramatize the already familiar. I could still be surprised by a new idea, but less often and less powerfully than before.
In my search for the profound, literature had finally failed me. Not because it had changed, but because I had. I kept waiting for the blinding light of insight to come from the story itself as an interpretation of its own ideas, which ultimately proved to be a foolish pursuit. I had forgotten the first rule of epiphany—the rule that had been so vividly clear when I was six years old and learned to read in an afternoon, or when sparkly snow catalyzed with both new information and old experience to create passion and understanding.
Experience matters. Where understanding fails one needs to fill not only the knowledge hopper gleaned from other peoples’ work, but one’s own interpretive depth of personal experience that creates the deeply personal and individual place where profound insight happens. We cannot truly understand from a distance; we must know from both within and without. Literature can function as primary source or as catalyst of other experience. Both uses are valuable, and both require that we both create and consume story. But beside that we also need to create new experience if we expect new insight.
It’s easy to get cynical at the holidays, to see the bad behavior of so many and to wonder at the real value of celebrating Christmas with the same tired, wasted practices and cliched concepts that we unpack from dusty boxes year after year. To read yet another overwrought tale or see another sentimental clip that trivially rehashes very old ideas without adding anything new or interesting or fresh.
Except that the idea itself is just as powerful as it ever was, and profound insight comes not from the idea itself but from how we have learned to see it—through experience, observation, and thoughtful consideration. If the holiday seem trivial, then it’s to our advantage to do something ourselves to change that. And having gained that experience, it’s just as important to share it so it can help catalyze someone else’s moment of profound insight.