Sunday, January 30, 2011

Alternate Universes: One is Never Enough

Any significant change in life, like retiring or falling under a bus, can leave us forsaking our early moral training in a panic to ransack our shady mental catalog of "Things We Could Pretend We Can Do Instead of Things We Actually Made a Decent Living Doing." Transition, as the "culture of therapy" reminds us, is stressful and leads to intense anxiety, mental turmoil, psychic upheaval, hives, existential dread - what Sartre aptly called "nausea" and Kierkegaard (less picturesquely) "fear and trembling."  As my grandfather would have said, with more of the Sartrean flair, it's all driving him bughouse. It causes the sober person to forsake the faithful amanuensis, Principle, for the strumpet Expediency. All this, to my ecstatic discovery, for naught. In my not-to-be-missed issue of the Manchester Guardian, I chanced upon an advertisement both timely and freighted with infinite comfort. As these works of prosody generally do, this one begins in feverish metaphysical hallucination soberly clothed as established and widely known fact:

Since the 1920's, quantum physicists have been trying to make sense of an uncomfortable and startling fact - that an infinite number of alternative universes exist. This jaw-dropping discovery was first made when, trying to pinpoint the exact location of an atomic particle, physicists found it  . . . had no single location. In other words, atomic particles have the ability to simultaneously exist in more than one place at a time.The only explanation for this is that particles don’t only exist in our universe—they can spark into existence in an infinite number of parallel universes as well. . . . But here’s where things get really interesting. Drawing on the above-mentioned scientific theory and merging it with 59 years of study into mysticism and the human mind, Burt Goldman has come to one shocking conclusion: In these alternate universes, alternate versions of YOU are living out their lives.

Alternative universes. Well, who knew? Except maybe for Max Planck and his fellow conspirators. I'll at least admit that it's jaw-dropping, uncomfortable and startling, though I can't fathom why quantum physicists should have tried to make any sense of it. Evidently they neglected making any sense of quantum physics, to its permanent detriment. As it turns out, particles, like transients, have "no single location." And like skateboarders on cobblestones, they can "simultaneously exist in more than one place at a time."

Alternative universes could be either good, or evil, I suppose How can you tell which sort of soup you might land in? And how does knowing this ease my concerns about what I'm supposed to be doing next? More to the point, will knowing this land a job or change my "skillset"?

Just because particles can exist in more than one place, Burt concludes, they must exist in infinite places, all rules being off.  Universes must be infinite because all those infinite particles need infinite places in which to vibrate about and particulate.  So . . .
 . . .  anything that can happen, does happen—in another universe. So in effect, there is a universe where Obama never won the election and another where Princess Diana is still alive. There is a universe where you are the King of Scotland and a universe where you are a tea farmer in China. A universe where you are a celebrity musician, and one where you busk on a pavement for spare change.

If that "in another universe" didn't pull the rug out from under you, then somewhere, in another universe, Republicans are not only happy but eternally vindicated by any election outcome whatever; another universe in which Princess Diana is still a princess but doesn't have to put up with the Old Bat in Buckingham Palace; another universe in which you get to be royalty and maybe even meet Diana socially. It's Something for Everyone. 

And since particles need not exist only in our universe, we needn't either. I think you'll agree with Burt Goldman, here's where things get really interesting. But for the inevitable skeptic there will be lingering questions, foremost perhaps, how do parallel universes come to be? How, if you are born in this universe, are there now an infinite number of dimensions where you exist simultaneously? This may seem the stuff of existential nightmares, but the theory, says Burt, is simple: 

Every decision you make in life causes a "split" in reality 
 [or, alternatively, every decision you make in "life" causes a split in "reality"]
. . . which in turn creates two alternate universes—one where the current version of you is today, and another with the version of you who made a different choice. Now think
about all the decisions you’ve made that led to who you are today. If all these decisions caused a split in your reality, each time creating a new version of yourself in a parallel universe who also goes on to make a certain set of choices thereby splitting their reality, you can begin to imagine the infinite versions of yourself that exist. 

This is sounding like a cosmic dating service with a large pool of candidates you can't help but like. Burt supplies a helpful graphic of such a gaggle of universes, which he calls the "Bubble Universe Theory" (not visible by the Hubble Telescope) - to paraphrase the Apostolic Creed, Hubbles within bubbles, worlds without end, Amen.

Burt's Bubble Universe (not actual size)

Here is a mental experiment designed to induce vertigo, which in my case always leaves me agreeing with Sartre - not a position I willingly assume. Worse than that, the rules of logic, which keep us all more or less sane and allow us to converse together, no longer include the Rule of Exclusive Disjunction, or the Principle of the Road Not Taken, which at its simplest says that if I turn right I can't turn left, if I eat my cake I can't have it. No worry, says Burt. Anything you do splits reality into infinite fractals of choices, options, possibilities and (best of all) facts (you're King/Queen of Scotland, both at once, like one of those particles.) This way lies madness - "splitting reality" is just another way of saying "creating your own reality" which is one rationale I'll buy every time for tying anyone up and driving them straight to the bughouse. 

None of this gives Burt the slightest pause. People can create "their reality," he insists, just as heat (energy) changes the physical state of water by vibrating its particles. . . . "And just like heat, our thoughts too are energy."  The argument from analogy is generally fatal (energy equals heat, our thoughts, our heated thoughts, etc. That's how we got from the watchmaker who just makes watches to "The Watchmaker" who makes Everything, remember.) And to remind us, in case we've forgotten that everything is merely illusion in this frazzled universe of oscillating neutrinos, the ad incorporates this helpful graphic of a chair as a handy reminder of what "thing" means, as in "Get that thing out of my living room."
In alternate universes, everything you desire has already taken place. "But how, might you be asking, does one access these alternate realities?" That’s where Quantum Jumping comes in. Quantum Jumping is the process of “jumping” into parallel dimensions, and gaining creativity, knowledge, wisdom, skills and inspiration from alternate versions of yourself. . . .through . . . "thought transference." . . . . Quantum Physics has proven that our physical reality is nothing but a very elaborate mirage. A super-hologram of information and energy. 

In the Burtean cosmos, an elephant can elevate as easily as an electron, a neurosurgeon is as nimble as a neutrino, a quack is as quick as a quark. It does not come without practice. Here's a helpful video to show how it works.

Thought Transference in Practice


There might be something to this business of alternate universes if all you mean is what Swami Vivekenanda said, much better, that, "All consciousness, all personalities, in fact all matter, is but a holographic projection of a super-consciousness bent on entertaining itself." 

Welcome to the Infinite You, Burt concludes. What he really means is, Welcome to the Infinite You,  you Comedian you! 

Friday, January 28, 2011

Chernobyl Ants and Twenty Inchers

Now that February is nearly upon us and the western regions are enjoying the benisons of a warming globe, I had thought to totter down to the local freestone water 

and have congress with the resident trout. The Arkansas River, from its headwaters until it reaches the plains of eastern Colorado, is a source of joy and recreation, for me and for about 2500 brown trout per mile of river. And going fishing in early spring becomes more urgent as the cold weather hatches begin and give way to the fabled mid-May "Mother's Day Caddis Hatch," an entomological donnybrook in which caddis flies emerge from the water in honor of American motherhood, and fill the river valley like a blizzard. 

What makes spring angling even more urgent, however, is the impending "rubber hatch." By the first of June the river is bobbing with a flotilla of inflatable rafts

filled with tourists wearing plastic helmets and day-glo Mae Wests, 

 Float My Boat

slathered in various unguents and sunscreens, throwing their gum into the river and behaving like 12-year-olds. The river in spring flood keeps its share of them but never in numbers quite sufficient to abate the annual traffic. Once the rubber hits the river, other quieter civilized pursuits become impossible.

Even more sinister than the rafting conspiracy is the dark plan of the infamous blackguard and professional curtain hanger, Christo, to drape the river under what the locals disparage as "Rags Over the Arkansas,"  six miles worth of silver-ized fabric festooned through a narrow stretch of canyon where the sunlight that spawns a healthy insect population can be at a minimum; the haunt in ordinary times of eagles, osprey and kingfishers. One can at least justify rafting by the profit motive, or the excitement and sense of adventure that come with the prospect of a horrible drowning. Draping a river in plastic has no such rationale beyond the fact that lovers of such spectacle generally buy hamburgers and throw the wrappers along the road. 

 "Rags Over the Arkansas"
Plastic draperies can improve the scenery when festooned from, say, the Coit Tower or the Hoover Dam or the Seagrams Building. But unless it's the Cuyahoga on fire or the Mississippi in the precincts of New Orleans' oil refineries, no river to be at its best needs help from Christo. "Ars gratis artis" doesn't mean the same as "devoid of any point or redeeming feature."  Some of Christo's earlier "temporary" industrial-scale installations remain, like old mining operations, to haunt the landscape. In 1971, he erected the "Valley Curtain" project near Rifle Gap, Colorado, an attempt to drape a heavy plastic curtain between two canyon walls. As the curtain sagged and project engineering proved inadequate, more and more structural materials were trucked in. At least one large concrete supporting bunker is still in place; other concrete formations are sliding slowly down the canyon in a litter of old steel girders and other industrial refuse. It was a Seventies thing, I guess, before Christo knew about Earth Day.

 You see, then, the urgency of getting onto the river before it turns into a veritable gallimaufry of multiple uses.  I pulled out my flyboxes, which are generally by late winter an unsorted litter of flies left over from the fall fishing, flies in various stages of ruffled and unravelling disreputability. Hackles have loosened like a mangy fox stole on a dowager scrap metal heiress; a once immaculate Royal Wulff now resembles Leona Helmsley in a stiffish beeze. I tend to tie the classic patterns, patterns known to work where I fish - black ants and green drake and caddis, pale morning dun and blue-winged olive, serviceable flies named for exactly what they mimic. "Adams" means nothing to the uninitiated, but it's a traditional pattern recognizeable on either side of the Mississippi, named like the Hendricks, the Quill Gordon, the Cahill and the Gray Wulff, for its inventor.

But the newer generation of flies can be baffling. Once you've learned the old vernacular, it's a new country and a new language - what's a Chernobyl Ant? a Woolly Bugger? a micro-flashtail egg? a Red Pig Sticker? a Skinny Minny? Get Stoned? and why do I need to buy foam to tie flies? And is a Twenty Incher what I think it is?

Chernobyl Ant

But maybe this is the best of possible worlds. I'll be able to see a radioactive Chernobyl Ant floating along in the semi-darkness beneath six miles worth of silver-ized fabric.  And maybe Christo will be there in person, rafting downstream without a Mae West.

Update - January 17, 2012: See my newer post at

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Jimmy the Greek's Retirement Advice

My friend, Peter, discovering that I am floating (flouting) my resume publicly, has presented me with some persuasive arguments why this course of action is either unwise or unnecessary. His first consideration is a kind of Pascal's Wager with the Social Security Administraton, though I think Jimmy the Greek's Retirement Advice is closer to the spirit of the thing: it's a safe bet that anyone is either going to live for a while, or not. Social Security is a betting pool in which we are entitled to bet against the government. If we wait until we've optimized our benefits - say at age 70 - then we're betting that we live long enough to cash in the most chips we can at the window. We're also betting that we live far enough past 70 to enjoy this modest increase in winnings. But if we go for the cash early, even though it's a smaller pot, we're betting that we might crap out tomorrow. If we cash in early and survive, then of course in the longer stretch we'll come out ahead (and of course if we don't we will be beyond caring). And then there's the partisan/political wrinkle to consider: with the Grand Old Privatizers in conrol of the Congressional House, it's anyone's guess if your chips will be negotiable when you do take them up to the window. This casino may close before your roulette wheel comes up red or black. The current Republican ascendancy makes your odds better if you take the money while it's still there and run - don't worry about the break-even point, take it while you can and spend it like you stole it. This is the argument from wisdom.

Then there's the argument from necessity. The less you need, the less you need. And admittedly I don't need much (although even the little I do need seems to get harder to pay for). This is the "Simplify, simplify, simplify" argument, or as my alter ego tells me daily, "I have enough money to last me the rest of my life, unless I buy something." (This is known as the Jackie Mason School of Economic Theory.) There's something to this of course, although those who think this way and try to bring it off usually end up in the early stages looking something like this:

(Thoreau was, as it happens, an intellectual forebear of the Digital Age: "An honest man has hardly need to count more than his ten fingers, or in extreme cases he may add his ten toes, and lump the rest. . . . I say, let your affairs be as two or three . . .  and keep your accounts on your thumb nail.") 

Eventually, after years of simplicity, self-denial, staying in the front yard, buying gasoline in mason jars, making furniture out of logs, hunting the neighbors' pets after dark, and learning to think of "found objects" as "art" 

 "You'll never believe what I found!"

 the man of simplicity begins to look like

"Brother, can you spare a dhoti?"

It is evident by now that I am a Lamarckian, which is to say that I subscribe to the discredited biological theory that hereditary traits are acquired through external, environmental factors such as simplicity, abject poverty, starvation, having to walk everywhere, and so on. For example, let's imagine that, over a million years or so, lions ate every single wildebeest . . . no, that's not going to work. Well, in its simplest terms, Lamarckianism suggests that if a woman enceinte, or a mother-to-be, were startled some dark night by an oncoming motorcycle, she would bear a one-eyed offspring. Lamarck was initially thought to be discredited when his detractors pointed out that the original Homeric Cyclops was born before the era of the motorcycle. But recent archeological studies have unearthed remnants of the Stradivarius 1200, the preferred mount of the ancient Parthian marauders.

The Stradivarius 1200

Monday, January 24, 2011

Fiction 101: Revising Your Resume

I have already adumbrated the pitfalls of fiction writing as the primary means of reinventing oneself as a self-respecting and productive ne'er-do-well in the post- or inter-employment daily routine. Why anyone might choose the well documented psychic perils of the blank page or the open and unsullied Word.doc is beyond my most febrile speculation. The tribulations of the novelist or the writer of short stories are made palpable in their portraits - a few years of willful and deliberate fiction writing and you will inevitably look like this:
Kilgore Trout

Even poetry can turn you into this:

A Pound of flesh

The perils of fiction writing are, like the alleged consequences of self-abuse, never to be trifled with. It's not something you can practice only to the point of needing spectacles. It alters the practitioner's behavior in unpredictable and often unattractive ways as well:
"Pray God, I shall never remarry, sir."

Or like this:
In Cold Blood, or a Dewey Young Truman

Strange then that I should turn my thoughts to job-seeking, knowing as I do that this will require revisions to my resume. And knowing further as I do that revising one's resume must lead to fiction writing as surely as the day must the night or as sex (in the Baptist catechism) must to dancing. Revising a resume is just another way to dirty dance, it invites the sinner to transgress in an equal degree and severity. Still, as Cheever probably said to Updike or Updike to Cheever, one must do what one must do. Or vice versa.

I was apprised, by a friend or enabler or accomplice, of a position with an influential policy nonprofit in a capacity tangentially related to my previous career track (here "tangentially related" means the same as "the free association of any two vastly distinct ideas"). So it was that, as some Victorian journalist or penny dreadful writer must have said of Dr. Crippen, naught could stay his hand. Out came the resume, a few modest edits seemed in order, a nip here and a tuck there, and then the serious work of novel phrase-making commenced.

The way it's done most simply (I feel as though I'm posting instructions for making a simple fertilizer bomb on a clandestine website) is to copy and paste the fine points of the job description for easy reference, go into a dark, quiet room and think of anything you might have ever heard about or imagined doing - or even just imagined - that might fill the bill. Admittedly that is a very general account of the technique. And I am not entirely sanguine about my prospects. For example, when the job description asks for "sound judgment and instincts, good analytical, conceptual and strategic thinking skills, the ability to develop and manage projects independently, the ability to adapt and respond quickly to change," I'm assured by those who know that "no problem" is no more an appropriate answer, even in casual conversation with an interviewer, than is "depends what you mean by 'thinking'." 

My guess is that when this is all over, I'll still be retired but you'll no longer recognize me on account of this foray into fictional prose. I will have aged as badly as Kilgore Trout, my health will be shattered, I'll be stalking the neighbors' pets, collecting coupons and dressing exclusively from the Cabela catalog.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

A Florsheim or an Ovenbird: Choose Your Weapon

The initial entry in this blog employed the 'avian conceit' - climate change is forcing birds around the globe to seek a diminishing habitat, just as I, entering geezerdom and an enforced retirement, am feeling more and more like the gray-headed bush shrike pictured here, i.e., not exactly perky, head down, wondering what shoe is next to fall.

 "Waiting for Florsheim"

Apropos of this lapse (or flight, if you prefer) into metaphysical poesy and the Donnesean conceit, a friend sent me Robert Frost's "The Ovenbird," seeing my conceit and upping me one, explaining that she'd been feeling more like her bird than like my bird. Frost's own conceit was as nothing to his avian conceit:
There is a singer everyone has heard,
Loud, a mid-summer and a mid-wood bird,
Who makes the solid tree trunks sound again.
He says that leaves are old and that for flowers
Mid-summer is to spring as one to ten.
He says the early petal-fall is past
When pear and cherry bloom went down in showers
On sunny days a moment overcast;
And comes that other fall we name the fall.
He says the highway dust is over all.
The bird would sing and be as other birds,
But that he knows in singing not to sing.
The question that he frames in all but words
is what to make of a diminished thing.

It strikes me that this bird's inquiry, by Frost's account, anticipates my own in composing these literary bijoux"The question that he frames in all but words / is what to make of a diminished thing.Or at least could be taken as anticipating the same.  I'm of two minds about it.

(It may have occurred to you, in a random moment or a feverish attempt to orient yourself, that reading a blog about birds and poetry is a little bit like watching replays of Ernie Kovacs' poet laureate and proto-homosexual Percy Dovetonsils. What, you may well ask, am I letting myself in for? I assure you, nothing further from my mind.)
 Percy Dovetonsils, Poet Inebriate

There is inevitably a diminishment in such change, the passing of what was in itself good and pleasurable. Leaves fall, pear blossoms perish, summer becomes autumn, the passage of everything fragile and ethereal, including life for that matter. It's the Heraclitean eye, but only by half. You can't step into the same river twice. But that's half-true really, because it is the same river, just with different water in it. It's important to see what Heraclitus saw, that change is a cycle that comes around, that there are wheels within wheels. We see it as diminishment because sometimes we just don't have the time allotted to see what comes around, to appreciate the continuity in it.  The change itself, as Heraclitus understood it, was the continuity of things, the tension of opposite forces that makes everything collapse and reconvene. So the ovenbird sees only half the picture. It's the poor sod waiting for the Florsheim to drop on him who probably won't be disappointed.  But he's only half right as well, since if he gets beaned it's only because he didn't get out of the way. Waiting isn't what he should have been doing.

No, rather than taking things as diminished, there is the other approach as instanced in the post-Romantic raving of Dylan Thomas which I will not quote at length ("wise men, wild men, good men, grave men, etc.") except  the immortal choral postlude:
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light .

Or, throw the shoe back. 

Shoes Worth the Wait

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Heading for High Ground

Today the New York Times carries a story about climate change and the growing threat of wildlife extinctions, around the globe but particularly in the tropics, where animals like birds just can’t move a few hundred miles north, or a few hundred yards up the diminishing habitat on mountaintops, to escape the mounting heat.  The article quotes an evolutionary biologist: “It’s a really simple story that at some point you can’t go further north or higher up, so there’s no doubt that species will go extinct.” 
(I'm feeling like a) Grayheaded Bush Shrike

I am familiar with the sentiment. Yesterday was my last day on the job, a job that I happened (uncharacteristically) to like a lot and that paid me well. Yesterday, as it also happened, I went to the doctor under some duress and learned that I have pneumonia. None of this is really about global warming, nor about my pneumonia, nor about whether global warming might cure my pneumonia, nor even, for all of that, about me losing my job. It’s about change, adaptation, about just having to go further north or higher up yet again.  And does it have to be so . . . well, is 'traumatic' too strong? Couldn’t I just leave my job behind without all the stress and fanfare of respiratory trauma? There comes a point in everyone’s days, I suspect, when personal extinction looks like a promise of improvement; when one heartily wishes that extinction would just get it over with and make life easier, if you see what I mean.  

But not moving, refusing to adapt (or being too tired to), means you’re dead or will be soon; and no one will talk to you when you’re dead – at least no one you’d want to be talking to you if you weren’t already dead. So you start moving higher up again, whether you want to or not. The classic Darwinian view of adaptation is that it's a mechanism to insure the survival of a species, not just an individual. But even the remotest exposure to human behavior, not to mention all the empirical data in biology, prove this view to be completely fatheaded: the only thing that counts in anyone's day-to-day calculations is the ability of the individual to save his or her own bacon, the species be damned. What happens, after all, when ornate and complicated behavior which may have worked out just fine for, say, a million years or so (like Larry King's television show), just stops working and everyone walks away? 

Why should unemployment be so existentially disorienting rather than devoutly to be wished? Partly it's because we just can't carry on any more doing what we need to do to live, like growing rice and beans, or taking the boat out and bringing back catfish, or slaughtering buffalo from the Suburban. Life has grown complicated and technologically swamped, and we need so much now to survive, like Kindles or bicycles that shift electronically. (And a little New Zealand sea bass would be nice on those occasions that call for something special, like being mistaken for someone of the same name with an income above a quarter of a million and accidentally getting a tax break.)

I find that some of my calculations are both unrealistic and piecemeal - if, for example, my 15-year-old pickup with 200,000 miles will only wait to die until I do, that's a major bullet I'll have . . . . that's a major expense I'll have been spared. Or I'll be fine if I just stop eating altogether. But clearly these are merely stopgaps and not longterm solutions. Well, the part about the pickup isn't longterm, anyway. It quickly becomes apparent that this is the retirement equivalent of dicing with Death, trying to strike a fool's bargain with the Grim Reaper. No, one needs a plan.

One doesn't have to reinvent the wheel, and besides, the wheel has already been invented. Rather reinvent all those little cogs and radial gears and worm gears and rack-and-pinion arrangements that pass for the human brain.