Friday Sabbatical

Whatever you’re doing this Friday, wherever you’re going or whatever box you’re checking, I invite you to take a moment, just now, and stop doing it at all.

Here are five things that stuck with me this week:

1. As Laura and I [laughs helplessly] plan what to do with our kids’ schooling this fall, it was heartening to see a conversation started in the New York Times about the incredibly difficult situation in which working parents find themselves. Laura and I have been able to make it work only, literally only, because I have been working part time (Laura calls me the busiest unemployed person she’s ever met. I’m not sure how many unemployed people she’s spent time with, but I appreciate being at the top). The vast majority of working parents can’t do that. I don’t see a solution, but the only way one will appear is if the topic becomes a part of the conversation nationally, so count me as an interested party.

2. David Perell, online writing guru, said this week that “Great art happens when an artist feels something 10x more than the average person. Here’s what happens: artists can only express a little of what they feel, which is why they’re tortured. Consumers get a small taste of the artist’s feelings, and are moved by the beauty.” This perspective, to which I can relate wholly, is a fairly direct mirror of what is in my opinion David Foster Wallace’s best work, a short story called “Good Old Neon,” which appeared in his 2004 book Oblivion. Dear reader you should drop everything and read this story immediately (warning: it’s not a happy one, but it’s breathtaking, and will hit you hard), so I won’t spoil it apart from including this one relevant passage:

“You already know the difference between the size and speed of everything that flashes through you and the tiny inadequate bit of it all you can ever let anyone know. As though inside you is this enormous room full of what seems like everything in the whole universe at one time or another and yet the only parts that get out have to somehow squeeze out through one of those tiny keyholes you see under the knob in older doors. As if we are all trying to see each other through these tiny keyholes.”

My heart is talking, my soul is silent space.

3. I’ve been frustrated by the phenomenon of “Alternative Facts” since the inauguration crowd. I always imagined them as a bastardization, an unholy mutation of reality that should never have been born. But I don’t think I understood quantum mechanics, really understood the bleeding edge of where science is right now, until I read this article last week, about the rebel scientist steadily grinding away trying to one-up quantum mechanics. To do to the 100-year old science what it did to Einstein (side note, even if he’s successful the pay will still be shitty, which is maybe a microcosm of what’s wrong with humanity’s priorities).

Short version, quantum mechanics posits (albeit indirectly) that there is no alternative to Alternative Facts. They are an inevitability. So says science.

Longer version is that quantum mechanics is batting 1.000 predicting reality in the lab, in effect rendering it unassailable as to its veracity. But quantum mechanics, all the way back to Schrodinger’s Cat, says that things don’t exist in solid form until someone observes them, until that point only existing in a quantum state of probabilities (the cat is 50% alive and 50% dead until you open the box, at which point the probabilites resolve and the cat either goes on to drink a saucer of milk or you get a shovel). What I didn’t appreciate until this article was that the majority of physicists view this as the literal, no shit, end of the road for physics. Their view is that because we are observers there is no way for us to measure reality without observing it, so while we have dove all the way down to the very limit of what reality looks like to an observer (quantum physics), we will never be able to view true reality, absent the observer. As in, it’s impossible. It’s a compelling perspective, and makes me sad and amazed at the same time.

Brief nerd-out completed, the takeaway here is that quantum physics proves that there is no such thing (at least accessible to humans) as a fact. There are only, forever and always, alternative facts interpreted through the lens of the interpreter.

No wonder we can’t agree on crowd size.

Also, incidentally, you would be correct to interpret this as yet another finger (physics/science) pointing at the same moon.

4. Somehow I haven’t read The War of Art until now. But as tends to be the case, the right book showed up at the right time for the specific phase of life I find myself in. Best described as, maybe, the transition from success to meaning. From doing the work that people will pay and applaud you for, to doing the work that your soul needs to do. The end of the life you had planned, and the beginning of the life that is waiting for you. The task that is only yours in this one exotic and precious life.

If you find yourself in this space, Dear Reader, and particularly if you find yourself unable to fully let go of what you were supposed to want out of life and wander off into the fog, pick up The War of Art. It’s your book, too.

5. Laura and I had dinner on a patio last night, tucked behind a bush somewhere between 6-20 feet away from the next nearest diner. We had to talk about it, whether it was safe, whether we were being stupid. The logic always says stay home, but we’re firmly in the grey area now, trying to settle into a sustainable life in between extremes, constantly cooking in the soup of risk-analysis.

We’re bad at analyzing risks. Laura and I, but you and everyone you know, too. Empirically bad. From the Atlantic:

The cognitive-science canon is replete with uncanny predictions relevant to the coronavirus era. Researchers have studied the human tendency to discount preventable harms that arise from nature and to overreact to harms that arise from human action. The literature predicts that people will take comfort when a coronavirus fatality is attributed to “underlying conditions”—for instance, a patient’s age or chronic maladies—that they do not share, and they will be tempted by the quick dopamine hit associated with shaming those who fail at social distancing. Cognitive scientists even have experiments to explain the “declining marginal disutility” that people associate with others’ deaths—the feeling that the difference between no deaths and one death is really bad, but the difference between 110,000 and 111,000 deaths is negligible. Evocatively termed “psychophysical numbing,” this confounding juxtaposition of the mathematical and the existential is where Americans live now.

The “confounding juxtaposition of the mathematical and the existential” seems to me to be where we’ve always lived, only the equipment we have is insufficient to grasp the truth of that juxtaposition, trapped as we are within the prism of our own alternative facts.

At the end of the day we’re all just trying our best.

As always, let me know your thoughts in the comments. Or if I missed something interesting. Thanks for reading!

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