Friday, September 05, 2008

And the definition of tedious is: saying things over and over that never made sense to begin with.

Forgive me if I'm repeating myselfsomething tells me I've brought this up before?and please excuse my gift for poetry as well, but I woke up today mindful of another noxious turd from the steaming manure pile to which so much of the self-help bible reduces.

The definition of insanity is: doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

It's another one of those pseudo-brilliancies that, when properly set up and delivered at motivational seminars (as it invariably is), draws a big laugh from the crowd and then gets people nodding at one another and scribbling in those nifty little notepads that came "free" with the $249 event. Actua
lly, the reason it's on my mind this morning is that I heard it late last night in connection with politics. And just to show you what an even-handed guy I am, it happened to emanate from a Democratic mouth (Democratic mouths being the ones I generally favor in this political season, as you know). I didn't catch the name of the particular talking head in which that mouth resided, but he quoted the "truism," as he called it, in the course of explaining why it makes no sense for voters to support the GOP slate after what GWB has done to America. Don't get me wrong, I wholeheartedly endorse the underlying sentiment: that it makes no sense to vote Republican this time around. But that has nothing to do with the line about "insanity," which is absolute b.s. (Here's a newsflash: The brain trust of the SHAMscape are not to be confused with Emerson, Mencken, or Oliver Wendell Holmes.)

First of all, yes, we "know what they're trying to say" when they say that. It's a catchy way of telling you that if you're in a rut or not getting where you want to go in life, well, maybe you ought to change something. Stop living the same existence day after day by rote, just because it's familiar and comfortable. However, taken at face valuewhich is really the only way to test these thingsthe line is so broad and didactic that it loses any possible real-world relevance. Not only that, but often it's flat-out wrong.

For one thing, it doesn't allow for changes in the environment in which you're "doing the same things over and over again."
Throughout history, how many products or other innovations were poorly received at first just because their innovators were ahead of their time and it took everyone else a little while to catch up? Here I'll pull a handy example from my own frame of reference: jazz saxophonist John Coltrane. When Trane first started giving forth with his "sheets of sound" improvisations, which entailed rapid flurries of notes, some of which had only a tangential relationship to the root harmonies, many jazz traditionalists were aghast. They denounced his playing as "just a lot of noise"; some even accused him of trying to cover up for a lack of talent (!). Now, was Coltranehaving encountered this vehement resistancesupposed to abandon his revolutionary style in order to get "different results"? This is where I might surprise you: I'm not sure there's an obvious answer. We don't know whether Coltrane as a man would have been better off giving in and mimicking the more conventional playing he heard around him. (And then, of course, there are the innovators for whom vindication comes posthumously, which gives rise to all sorts of discussions about the personal cost of genius, how much an artist is expected to sacrifice for his art, etc.) We do know this: Coltrane invented a whole new approach to jazz, and his impact on all music was profound. Today, anyone playing music of almost any kind owes some debt to John Coltrane, a man who kept doing the same thing...and eventually got a different result: The world of music accommodated to him.

It seems safe to say that the process of innovation itself depends on "doing the same thing" and expecting different (which is to say, successful) results eventually. Although I grant you, it's not always the same exact thing
scientists may make slight modifications to a formula or a process as they go alongthere's still something to be said, inherently, for the process of trial and error, and for giving something a fair number of trials so that you're sure it's always going to end in error. While we're on the subject, how would the gurus reconcile that line about the definition of insanity with those other self-help maxims about "never giving up your dreams"? The point is that questions like "how do you know when to give up?" involve us in gray areas of life and human enterprise, and gray areas of life and enterprise cannot be resolved to simple declarative sentences about what's insane and what isn't.

Nor does the line allow for the incremental aptitude that one gains, even in endeavors that end at first in failure. I was 13 when I developed a fascination
—OK, it was and remains an obsessionwith the batting cages. This, by the way, is one of my staple memoir topics; I've written about "my life in the cages" variously for The Los Angeles Times Magazine, Men's Health, America West Magazine, The Missouri Review, and elsewhere. The venue in the beginning was the Brooklyn Bat-Away, which was locally famous for its Bob Feller cage: minimum speed of 95 mph, thrown from a distance of about 50 feet. That is seriously quick, folks, and let me tell you, even though I was a natural at the cages from my first swing at the Whitey Ford machine (50 mph), I was hopeless against Feller...for a couple of months. But I kept hoarding quarters, sometimes even going without lunch at school*, so I could take the bus back to that damn cage as soon as school let out (if not sooner). One day I started connectingand not long after that, I owned Bob Feller. Almost every single swing thereafter produced the batting-cage equivalent of a home run. To this day, some 45 years later, I can still get around on any fast machine anywhere within a turn or two. In fact, the first thing I do when I arrive in a new city is seek out its nearest batting cage.

But then, that's probably because I'm insane.


"Stage whisper" to Dimension Skipper (and/or any other true fan of Steely Dan/Donald Fagen): Speaking of music and innovation, or the lack of same, have you noticed the way AARP Health Plan, in its latest TV ad, pirates the melody/rhythm from "Trans-Island Skyway" on the Kamakiriad album? I mean, there are slight differences; enough to get by without a lawsuit, evidently. But in the overall, it's shameless.

* Which was not the worst thing anyway, since I weighed about 565 pounds at the time.


Jen said...

Reminds me of Truman Capote's take on Jack Kerouac's work, which he considered as typing, not writing. Truman supposedly is a "completely horizontal author," and you'll love this, Steve. I read that yesterday in a piece by Leo Babauta titled "Learn from the Greats: 7 Writing Habits of Amazing Writers," online somewhere. (A friend sent a link to it.) He says Capote "had to write lying down, in bed or on a couch, with a cigarette and coffee ... [which would] switch to tea, then sherry, then martinis, as the day wore on." Point here being: How was his horizontal authoring different from Kerouac's mad typing?

Insanity is in the eye of the beholder.

Steve Salerno said...

Yes, and we can thank Truman--brilliant though he was--for originating that whole "new journalism" school of thought wherein the writer became more important than the story. This is why for years now, every single magazine article has begun with the author's first-person meditations on some aspect of the subject he or she is nominally writing about. ("I'm sitting in a chair in a far corner of Don Trump's office, feeling vaguely bored as he takes phone call after phone call...") Did you see the movie Capote (or maybe it was the other one; they made two, a few years ago) which has that classic scene that depicts how he came up with the famous (fabricated) quote from one of the Kansas killers? The distance from there to James Frey's "million little lies" isn't really that far.

Chad Hogg said...

If you describe what you are doing in sufficient detail, you can never do the same thing twice. (Perhaps before you did X in a situation where X had previously been done Y times, now you are doing X where X has already been done Y+1 times). Nevertheless, it seems like a fairly good heuristic to me. If this were not the case, we would need to throw out science and, indeed, all of rational thought. While human behavior is (or at least appears to be) far from deterministic, it still is generally true that if you do similar things the results will be similar.

Toots is indeed fantastic, and more remarkably so considering the limitations of his chosen instrument. Still, I wish he had just played "Straight, No Chaser" (which he quoted at the end) instead of that mushy ballad.

Steve Salerno said...

Chadd, I wondered how long it would take for someone to go all Mandelbrot/Gleick/"snowflake theory" on me. ;) I agree with you, of course: that if you tighten the lens enough, no two acts are exact repetitions. But I'm not quite sure how that knowledge factors into (or should factor into) our behavior.

It's like (since you brought it up) determinism, of which I am a diehard believer: It's nice to know (or maybe not so nice to know, if you're a humanist), but it doesn't really change much.

Steve Salerno said...

P.S. I, too, am more of a fan of straight-ahead jazz, but I think there is much to be said for nuance and subtlety, and I often find that it's on the ballads that one can discern a given artist's true mastery of his "ax": If you can play a song like Toots plays here--and still have it sound like jazz (which I believe this does; Q.J. sure seems impressed)--then you've got something. A la Trane on Naima, say?

Anonymous said...

I hate Jack Kerouac too. I had an English professor who loved him and HATED my opinions on him. The English professor in question said I was a talentless writer and should give up English as my major, because I lacked "sensitivity and insight into the human experience." When I got my Ph.D in literature and my novel published, that same professor got a lovely signed copy of the novel, my dissertation, and my Stanford review of my opinions on Kerouac. My critique of Kerouac was considered "insightful and thought provoking" at Stanford. If it was not for that mean spirited professor, I would never have come so far.

Capote was an individual and there won't be another like him. Too bad journalism schools haven't figured that out yet. Individuality is scary in our society. We all fear being kicked out of the cave. I think individuals cannot be anything else than what we are. Different.

Dimension Skipper said...

Hmmm, I see a P.S. has been tacked on (at least I didn't notice it earlier). And no, I haven't seen the AARP ad so I can't comment on it. I haven't been watching much TV of late and I'm a commercial flipper and/or muter anyway, so I often miss commercials. (I Certainly try to miss'em anyway.)

I only have regular over-the-air free TV, no cable, so if it's running on a particular cable channel a lot I'm not gonna see it anyway. I could try to look for it on YouTube, I guess, but I'm not sure it would be there. Maybe on the AARP site. As a dialup user, though, I only try to load the rare video page that I really, really, reeeeally want to see and only when I have significant time to kill. Still, I'll try to see if I can find it or catch it on the tube somehow 'cause now you've got me curious to hear for myself. Thanks for the heads up.

Mike Cane said...

Whatever happened to the adage, Practice Makes Perfect?

Steve Salerno said...

Precisely, Mike. For every adage that argues one direction of thought, there's a competing adage on the other side. Kind of like "two heads are better..." vs. "too many cooks..."

Incidentally, as an ice-breaker in a writing class, I used to hand out a sheet of fractured axioms that took various sayings and combined them in oddball ways, e.g., "A rolling stone is a penny earned." I've forgotten most of them now, but a few were funny as hell, and some even ended up with vaguely risque overtones, as I recall.