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18 NOVEMBER, 2014

Form, Faith, and Freedom: Wendell Berry on What Poetry Teaches Us about the Secret of Marriage

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“The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings.”

I often think that literature is the original internet, each footnote and citation and allusion a hyperlink to another text. I was reminded of this recently, while devouring Anne Lamott’s superb book on imperfection, grace, and belonging, where she quotes an instantly enchanting passage by poet and environmental activist Wendell Berry. Compelled to find its origin, I was led to a beautiful 1982 essay titled “Poetry and Marriage: The Use of Old Forms,” found in Berry’s altogether magnificent collection Standing by Words: Essays (public library | IndieBound). Berry explores the unexpected but profound parallels between poetry and marriage — or, more broadly, union — through the lens of form as both a hedge against and an embracing of the unknown. It is at once a celebration of the idea that life is not a straight line but a zig-zag and an insightful look at how form and structure — often expressed today through our fascination with daily routines and our constant quest to perfect our own — ground us into more liberated lives.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from 'I'll Be You and You Be Me' by Ruth Krauss. Click image for more.

Berry considers the essential interplay of intention and uncertainty in both marriage and the poetic practice:

The meaning of marriage begins in the giving of words. We cannot join ourselves to one another without giving our word. And this must be an unconditional giving, for in joining ourselves to one another we join ourselves to the unknown. We can join one another only by joining the unknown. We must not be misled by the procedures of experimental thought: in life, in the world, we are never given two known results to choose between, but only one result that we choose without knowing what it is.

[…]

Because the condition of marriage is worldly and its meaning communal, no one party to it can be solely in charge. What you alone think it ought to be, it is not going to be. Where you alone think you want it to go, it is not going to go. It is going where the two of you — and marriage, time, life, history, and the world — will take it. You do not know the road; you have committed your life to a way.

In marriage as in poetry, the given word implies the acceptance of a form that is never entirely of one’s own making. When understood seriously enough, a form is a way of accepting and of living within the limits of creaturely life. We live only one life, and die only one death. A marriage cannot include everybody, because the reach of responsibility is short. A poem cannot be about everything, for the reach of attention and insight is short.

These forms, Berry argues, have two aspects: One is the setting of limits and the adherence to definition that “cannot be altered to suit convenience or circumstance, any more than we can call a rabbit a squirrel because we preferred to see a squirrel.” But it is the second aspect that is more interesting, because it is more counterintuitive yet assuring. In a sentiment calling to mind Henry Miller’s assertion that “it’s only when we demand that we are hurt” and Anaïs Nin’s clarion call for inviting the unknown, Berry writes:

The second aspect of these forms is an opening, a generosity, toward possibility. The forms acknowledge that good is possible; they hope for it, await it, and prepare its welcome — though they dare not require it. These two aspects are inseparable. To forsake the way is to forsake the possibility. To give up the form is to abandon the hope.

A certain awesome futurity, then, is the inescapable condition of word-giving — as it is, in fact, of all speech — for we speak into no future that we know, much less into one that we desire, but into one that is unknown. But that it is unknown requires us to be generous toward it, and requires our generosity to be full and unconditional. The unknown is the mercy and it may be the redemption of the known. The given word may come to appear to be wrong, or wrongly given. But the unknown still lies ahead of it, and so who is finally to say? If time has apparently proved it wrong, more time may prove it right. As growth has called it into question, further growth may reaffirm it.

Illustration by Andrea Dezsö for the little-known original edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales. Click image for more.

Knowing the value of daily routines, for instance, it isn’t hard to intuit the role of form as a sensemaking and orienteering mechanism for our lives. Berry considers the deeper psychology:

To have a life or a place or a poem that is formless — into which anything at all may, or may not, enter — is to be condemned, at best, to bewilderment.

[…]

Form is the means by which error is recognized and the means by which correctness is recognized.

There are, it seems, two Muses: the Muse of Inspiration, who gives us inarticulate visions and desires, and the Muse of Realization, who returns again and again to say, “It is yet more difficult than you thought.” This is the muse of form. The first muse is the one mainly listened to in a cheap-energy civilization, in which “economic health” depends on the assumption that everything desirable lies within easy reach of anyone. To hear the second muse one must move outside the cheap-energy enclosure. It is the willingness to hear the second muse that keeps us cheerful in our work. To hear only the first is to live in the bitterness of disappointment.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from 'Open House for Butterflies' by Ruth Krauss. Click image for more.

As paradoxical as it may appear at first blush, and contrary to how Amelia Earhart felt about it, Berry argues that the true value of form — in poetry, in marriage, in life — is that it grants us more freedom:

It is true that any form can be applied with a stupid rigidity… But a set form can be used also to summon into a poem, or into a life, its unforeseen belongings, and thus is not rigid but freeing — an invocation to unknown possibility. Form, crudely or stupidly used, may indeed be inimical to freedom. Well used, it may be the means of earning freedom, the price of admission or permission, the enablement to be free. But the connection may be even closer, more active and interesting, than that; it may be that form, strictly kept, enforces freedom. The form can be fulfilled only by a kind of abandonment to hope and to possibility, to unexpected gifts. The argument for freedom is not an argument against form. Form, like topsoil (which is intricately formal), empowers time to do good.

He returns to the philosophical parallels between poetry and marriage, revealed by form:

Properly used, a verse form, like a marriage, creates impasses, which the will and present understanding can solve only arbitrarily and superficially. These halts and difficulties do not ask for immediate remedy; we fail them by making emergencies of them. They ask, rather, for patience, forbearance, inspiration — the gifts and graces of time, circumstance, and faith. They are, perhaps, the true occasions of the poem: occasions for surpassing what we know or have reason to expect. They are points of growth, like the axils of leaves. Writing in a set form, rightly understood, is anything but force and predetermination. One puts down the first line of the pattern in trust that life and language are abundant enough to complete it. Rightly understood, a set form prescribes its restraint to the poet, not to the subject.

Marriage too is an attempt to rhyme, to bring two different lives-within the one life of their troth and household — periodically into agreement or consent. The two lives stray apart necessarily, and by consent come together again: to “feel together,” to “be of the same mind.” Difficult virtues are again necessary. And failure, permanent failure, is possible. But it is this possibility of failure, together with the formal bounds, that turns us back from fantasy, wishful thinking, and self-pity into the real terms and occasions of our lives.

It may be, then, that form serves us best when it works as an obstruction to baffle us and deflect our intended course. It may be that when we no longer know what to do we have come to our real work and that when we no longer know which way to go we have begun our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings.

In this way the keeping of the form instructs us… The world, the truth, is more abounding, more delightful, more demanding than we thought. What appeared for a time perhaps to be mere dutifulness, that dried skull, suddenly breaks open in sweetness — and we are not where we thought we were, nowhere that we could have expected to be. It was expectation that would have kept us where we were.

Illustration by Andrea Dezsö for the little-known original edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales. Click image for more.

Echoing Nietzsche’s belief in the generative power of difficulty, Berry cautions that between the place we are and the rewarding place we never expected to be lies the place we don’t want to be — and it’s important that we stay there a while, live the unease and inhabit our resistance:

Sometimes one gets stuck, and must stay there for a while.” That necessity to “stay there for a while” is the gist of the meaning of form. Forms join us to time, to the consequences and fruitions of our own passing. The Zen student, the poet, the husband, the wife — none knows with certainty what he or she is staying for, but all know the likelihood that they will be staying “a while”: to find out what they are staying for. And it is the faith of all of these disciplines that they will not stay to find that they should not have stayed.

That faith has nothing to do with what is usually called optimism. As the traditional marriage ceremony insists, not everything that we stay to find out will make us happy. The faith, rather, is that by staying, and only by staying, we will learn something of the truth, that the truth is good to know, and that it is always both different and larger than we thought.

In much of life — as in poetry, as in marriage — that faith, Berry argues, springs from surrendering to the forms that bind us to ourselves and one another and, in doing so, grant us the freedom to be ourselves together:

The work of poetic form is coherence, joining things that need to be joined, as marriage joins them… Forms join, and this is why forms tend to be analogues of each other and to resonate with each other. Forms join the diverse things that they contain; they join their contents to their context; they join us to themselves; they join us to each other; they join writers and readers; they join the generations together, the young and the old, the living and the dead. Thus, for a couple, marriage is an entrance into a timeless community. So, for poet (or a reader), is the mastery of poetic form. Joining the form, we join all that the form has joined.

Standing by Words: Essays is a sublime read in its totality, featuring Berry’s meditations on land and community, the power of the unspecialized mind, what personhood means, and more.

For a wholly different but no less illuminating take on form, see the psychology of the perfect daily routine; for a wholly different but no less heartening take on marriage, see Darwin’s endearing list of the pros and cons of marriage.

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13 OCTOBER, 2014

The Curse of Meh: Why Being Extraordinary Is Not a Matter of Being Universally Liked but of Being Polarizing

By:

“To be universally liked is to be relatively ignored.”

After spending the entirety of my adult life as a noncitizen immigrant in America, perpetually toiling at the mercy of various visas, I am currently applying for something known as an “extraordinary ability green card” — a document granted to people whose contributions to culture the government deems valuable enough to offer them a slice of the American Dream or, at the very least, to make their lives a little easier by letting them stay in the country and continue to make said contributions with a little more dignity and peace of mind.

“Currently,” of course, is a relative term in any government system — it has been more than two years since I got on this hamster wheel of violent and violating bureaucracy. In the meantime, I have grown intimately familiar with the phrase itself — extraordinary ability. Any phrase turned over and over in one’s mind eventually becomes a sort of semantic puree vacant of meaning, almost nonsensical. As cognitive scientist Alexandra Horowitz elegantly put it, “when you look closely at anything familiar, it transmogrifies into something unfamiliar.”

I’ve become particularly fascinated by the extraordinary part of “extraordinary ability.” At first glance, it implies exceptional, above-and-beyond-the-ordinary ability. But it seems to also mean, rather, the very opposite — extra-ordinary as in possessing an extra helping of ordinary.

The two most important components of the “extraordinary ability green card” application are a body of articles by and about the applicant in the “popular press” and a pile of reference letters from people whose names and respective letterhead-organizations are, as my lawyer put it, “household names.” Household names, of course, are by definition people and entities well known by the populace — and, in this context, they ought to be well known and esteemed, even beloved by the populace. It’s suddenly striking how being extraordinary becomes a matter of being maximally endorsed by popular opinion — by the norm, the average, the most ordinary bulk of society.

To qualify as extraordinary, it seems that you’re required to be diligently, verifiably ordinary.

This would be little more than a personally frustrating curiosity if it only applied to the limited case of “extraordinary ability green card” aspirants — but we also apply this paradoxical understanding of “extraordinary” to just about every aspect of life, from work to life.

Why that happens and how it limits our potential for truly extraordinary lives is one of the many revelatory insights writer, musician, and entrepreneur Christian Rudder explores in Dataclysm: Who We Are (When We Think No One’s Looking) (public library | IndieBound) — a remarkable look at how person-to-person interaction from just about every major online data source of our time reveal human truths “deeper and more varied than anything held by any other private individual,” and how the tension “between the continuity of the human condition and the fracture of the database” actually sheds light on some of humanity’s most immutable mysteries.

Rudder is the co-founder of the dating site OKCupid and the data scientist behind its now-legendary trend analyses, but he is also — as it becomes immediately clear from his elegant writing and wildly cross-disciplinary references — a lover of literature, philosophy, anthropology, and all the other humanities that make us human and that, importantly in this case, enhance and ennoble the hard data with dimensional insight into the richness of the human experience. Rudder writes:

I don’t come here with more hype or reportage on the data phenomenon. I come with the thing itself: the data, phenomenon stripped away. I come with a large store of the actual information that’s being collected, which luck, work, wheedling, and more luck have put me in the unique position to possess and analyze.

For the reflexively skeptical, Rudder offers assurance by way of his own self-professed “luddite sympathies”:

I’ve never been on an online date in my life and neither have any of the other founders, and if it’s not for you, believe me, I get that. Tech evangelism is one of my least favorite things, and I’m not here to trade my blinking digital beads for anyone’s precious island. I still subscribe to magazines. I get the Times on the weekend. Tweeting embarrasses me. I can’t convince you to use, respect, or “believe in” the Internet or social media any more than you already do—or don’t. By all means, keep right on thinking what you’ve been thinking about the online universe. But if there’s one thing I sincerely hope this book might get you to reconsider, it’s what you think about yourself. Because that’s what this book is really about. OkCupid is just how I arrived at the story.

Part of that story is our paradoxical relationship with the notion of the “extraordinary.” Unlike hot-or-not evaluations or Facebook’s unimodal “Like” function, OKCupid asks its users to rank one another based on a five-star rating system. (In one of his many perceptive asides, Rudder notes: “Websites ask you to vote because that vote turns something fluid and idiosyncratic — your opinion — into something they can understand and use.”) With five points of reference, there are suddenly degrees of opinion, which offer far more depth and dimension than a simple “yes”/”no” rating. To get three stars, it would seem, is to be rated “average.”

But this is where it gets interesting.

It is a simple mathematical reality that there are two ways of getting an average rating — either most people give you an average rating, or some people rate you really high and others rate you really low, yielding a cumulative middle ground. In mathematics, this concept is known as variance — the more spread out a set of numbers, the greater the variance.

What Rudder and his team found was that not all averages are created equal in terms of actual romantic opportunities — greater variance means greater opportunity. Based on the data on heterosexual females, women who were rated average overall but arrived there via polarizing rankings — lots of 1’s, lots of 5’s — got exponentially more messages (“the precursor to outcomes like in-depth conversations, the exchange of contact information, and eventually in-person meetings”) than women whom most men rated a 3.

Noting that OKCupid doesn’t publish these raw attractiveness scores and so no one’s ratings are being influenced by how others perceive the person being rated, Rudder writes:

In any group of women who are all equally good-looking, the number of messages they get is highly correlated to the variance: from the pageant queens to the most homely women to the people right in between, the individuals who get the most affection will be the polarizing ones. And the effect isn’t small—being highly polarizing will in fact get you about 70 percent more messages. That means variance allows you to effectively jump several “leagues” up in the dating pecking order— for example, a very low-rated woman (20th percentile) with high variance in her votes gets hit on about as much as a typical woman in the 70th percentile.

[…]

Having haters somehow induces everyone else to want you more. People not liking you somehow brings you more attention entirely on its own.

In other words, being extraordinarily attractive is a matter of receiving, as Rudder puts it, “lots of Yes, lots of No, but very little Meh.”

This pattern recurs in a more subtle way in another chapter, poetically titled “The Beauty Myth in Apotheosis” (after Naomi Wolf’s seminal book). Though Rudder discusses the below graph in a different context, I couldn’t help noticing the palpable “Meh” dip around the middle:

Men and women might experience beauty differently, but this “Meh” dip holds up even when the above data is broken down by gender:

The tyranny of “Meh,” it seems, is a counterintuitive curse — those whose appearance is slightly below average are equally attractive as those of slightly above-average beauty, and both groups are more attractive than the people of average appearance.

Rudder poignantly captures the deeper repercussions:

Even at the person-to-person level, to be universally liked is to be relatively ignored. To be disliked by some is to be loved all the more by others. And, specifically, a woman’s overall sex appeal is enhanced when some men find her ugly.

A man interested in such a polarizing woman is, as Rudder puts it, “into her for her quirks, not in spite of them” — another manifestation of Chris Anderson’s Long Tail Theory.

Indeed, the implications extend far beyond online dating and touch on the broader trap of public opinion. To play to public opinion or seek to please everyone is to aim at precisely that uncontested average, the undisputed and indisputable 3, obtaining which is a matter of being extra-ordinary rather than extraordinary. As soon as you aspire to be truly extraordinary, you begin aiming for those extremes of opinion, the coveted 5’s, and implicitly invite the opposite extremes, the burning 1’s — you make a tacit contract to be polarizing and must bear that cross.

The bitter irony of the human experience is that while most of us celebrate nonconformity, we tend to conform even in our nonconformity. In order to succeed in a mass-market business — perhaps the ultimate enterprise of catering to popular opinion — we’re encouraged to be “ambiverts,” smack in the middle of the introversion-extraversion spectrum.

But the notion that variance is a good thing holds out across nearly every field of endeavor as well as in science. (Smell, the most direct of our senses, is best triggered by dissonant input.) In social science, it is known as “the pratfall effect.” Rudder explains:

As long as you’re generally competent, making a small, occasional mistake makes people think you’re more competent. Flaws call out the good stuff all the more.

In a sentiment that calls to mind Anne Lamott’s beautifully argued case against perfection, Rudder adds:

This need for imperfection might just be how our brains are put together.

Rudder’s conclusion might come off as a platitude, were it not for the hard data and profound insight behind it:

At the end of it, given that everyone on Earth has some kind of flaw, the real moral here is: be yourself and be brave about it. Certainly trying to fit in, just for its own sake, is counterproductive… It also sounds a lot like the advice a mother gives, along with a pat on the head, to her big-nosed and brace-faced son when he’s fourteen and can’t figure out why he isn’t more popular. But either way, there it is, in the numbers.

Rudder’s numbers shed invaluable insight on the original conundrum of “extraordinary.”

To be in the middle by consensus is to be mediocre, verifiably extra-ordinary; to be in the middle by polarization is to be exceptional, truly extraordinary.

Dataclysm is a trove of insight in its entirety, equal parts intelligent and irreverent — an extraordinarily unusual and dimensional lens on what Carl Sagan memorably called “the aggregate of our joy and suffering,” shedding light on such delicate questions as the psychological underbelly of anger, why some gay people stay in the closet, how writing has changed in the past decade, and what your social network reveals about the stability of your primary romantic relationship.

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11 SEPTEMBER, 2014

The World’s First Children’s Book about a Two-Mom Family

By:

A pioneering picture-book with an enduring message of equality.

“Many homosexuals live together in stable relationships. The time will come when homosexual marriages are recognized,” two Danish psychologists predicted in their honest, controversial, and now-iconic guide to teenage sexuality in 1969. But decades would pass before their prognosis would slowly, painfully begin to come true. In the meantime, those “stable relationships” were denied the dignity of being called a family and forced to conform to the mainstream-normative narratives of what a family actually is.

In the 1980s, writer Lesléa Newman began noticing that same-sex couples were having kids like everybody else, but had no children’s books to read to them portraying non-traditional family units. At that point, women had been “marrying” one another for ages, but true marriage equality in the eyes of the law and the general public was still two decades away, as were children’s books offering alternate narratives on what makes a family. So Newman enacted the idea that the best way to complain is to make things and penned Heather Has Two Mommies (public library) — a sweet, straightforward picture-book illustrated by Diana Souza, telling the story of a warm and accepting playground discussion of little Heather’s life with Mama Kate, a doctor, and Mama Jane, a carpenter.

Heather’s favorite number is two. She has two arms, two legs, two eyes, two ears, two hands, and two feet. She also has two pets: a ginger-colored cat named Gingersnap and a big black dog named Midnight.

Heather also has two mommies: Mama Jane and Mama Kate.

The book, which predated even Maurice Sendak’s controversial children’s story grazing the subject, was unflinchingly pioneering — with the proper social outrage to attest to this status. Not only did it rank number 11 on the American Library Association’s chart of America’s most frequently challenged books in the 1990s, but its impact continued for decades — comedian Bill Hicks, an eloquent champion of free speech, paid homage to it in his final act on Letterman in October of 1993 and it was even parodied in a 2006 episode of The Simpsons titled “Bart Has Two Mommies.”

Despite that, or perhaps precisely because of it, the book lives on as a bold embodiment of Bertrand Russell’s famous proclamation: “Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.”

Twenty years later, Newman followed up with the board books Mommy, Mama, and Me and Daddy, Papa, and Me, affectionately illustrated by artist Carol Thompson.

Complement Heather Has Two Mommies with Andrew Solomon’s remarkable Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity, a moving meditation on how love both changes us and makes us more ourselves, and the impossibly charming And Tango Makes Three, an allegorical marriage equality primer telling the true story of Central Park Zoo’s gay penguin family.

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