Volume 1: Down the Rabbit-Hole
I am writing this shortly after dawn, in May 2022, while sitting in a rocking chair that used to belong to Larry’s grandfather. Books, alphabetical by author, are spine-smoothed in shelves to my immediate left; more immediately, at my left elbow, a rougher spine has worked its way out of the cushion that is protecting my back from the space between the splats (and now I will have to ask Larry if his grandfather built this rocking chair as well as used it, because it has lasted long enough to have been crafted by hand). The down is pulled up; the feather placed in front of Raskin, Robin, and Rushdie, where it will remain until this project is complete.
“I notice from teaching,” Larry said last night, before saying “you’ll write this down, won’t you?”
“Of course,” I told him, getting my notebook. “Every word.”
“For the book.”
“For our book.”
We shared an understanding; we continued.
“I notice from teaching that the primary goal of a teacher isn’t just to communicate information. It shouldn’t ever be just to communicate information. The purpose of a teacher is to take a child and teach the child to think like an adult. It’s really important that at some point they think like an adult.”
“I agree,” I said.
“Historically, the point of most educational institutions have been to make that transfer. This goes from the original colleges down to the apprenticeship system.”
“To the parent teaching the child how to bake bread,” I said, “or how to behave.”
“The problem is that we are no longer able, as a culture, to turn our children into adults.”
“Or we’re no longer interested.”
“This is why, when we ask parents whether they believe their children will be better off than they were, they say no. It’s not an economic thing, or it isn’t just an economic thing. When children stay children, they can’t be better off.”
“And parents understand this,” I said, “even if they can’t say why they understand.”
“They can’t say it,” Larry said, “because the words have been co-opted. Responsibility, discipline, will. These words—well, if I tell anyone that I’m interested in developing the kind of discipline that will lead a person on an incremental path towards excellence, they assume I’m a conservative.”
It goes without saying that he is not.
It also goes without saying that we are not parents. We are practitioners; a duo of can-do teachers who have chosen ken over kin. For what it’s worth, our kind have always found purchase among families; we have, therefore, become keen observers.
“I should teach more,” I said. “I could take on a few teenagers, in the afternoons. I used to. Or should I focus on younger children?”
“No,” Larry said. “You need to keep your focus where it is—because you know how to teach adults.”
“This is true,” I said—because it was.
“Which means you’re going to be the one who teaches adults how to become adults,” Larry said.
“With the book,” I said.
“With everything you do,” Larry told me.
So now you know why I am doing it.
You might not yet know whether you have a reason to keep reading—so I will give you three.
The first is, of course, because you are interested in becoming an adult. At this point you may be expecting me to give a top-level summary of what to expect. I will give you not a summary but a story—and you’ll have to read the entire book to see how it ends.
The second is because you want to follow Larry and me under Ground, as we look at what we are doing and learn how to do it more efficiently. These kinds of adventures can lead to wonderland, of course—but only after revision. Whether we are able to successfully complete this re-envisioning is yet to be seen.
The third is because you simply want to follow Larry and me—because you understand, whether you brought this understanding to this book or learned it as you read, that all problems are ultimately solved by love.
They are penultimately solved by the process of going from guessing to knowing.
This book began as a guess—in fact, it began as an entirely different book.
This is where our story also begins.
In which I am invited to join a Society.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was my first real book.
This is not to say that it was the first book that was ever read to me, nor the first book I ever read myself (the latter was a Disney production involving Donald Duck and his nephews, and while I do not remember the title I do remember being conscious of having all of the tools I needed to complete the process of my own [the process of reading, that is; of compiling serialized symbols first into language and then into comprehension [[and at this point I should note that this book will include nested parentheticals [[[because Larry used them, in our earliest correspondences]]] and, if I am skillful enough, these integrated asides should in no way disrupt your understanding of the story I am telling you]] concluding with my consequent understanding, as I read the Donald Duck story, that symbols can shape your thoughts] and I ran up and down the hallway of our small Portland home expelling the energy of this discovery through heat [which, in this case, can be equated to feet times feet [[or feet times meters, which is less of a pun but can still rhyme if you’re willing to break one of the meters in half]]]).
Alice, which is to say the 1983 Puffin edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, came later.
Christmas Eve, 1985—when I was four years old.
“I was trying to push you,” my father said—and it’s important to note that it was my father who bought the book, and my mother who very nearly objected.
“I thought it was too much for you to read,” my mother told me. She had been very careful with my reading material, up to that point. “We read Little Golden Books—you loved Martha’s House.” (This was the story of a young girl who lived in a very organized house, and as you continue reading this story you will understand precisely why I loved it.) “I also made sure that every time we went to the library, you got a book about the alphabet and a book about numbers.”
The Christmas gift my father gave me could be described as a book about the alphabet and about numbers—but unlike the educational material my mother curated, the 1983 Puffin Alice was not designed as a book for children. I assume that children’s Alices were available, even in the early 1980s (and by children’s Alices [yes, that is correctly italicized and Romanized] I mean the kind of book that is sized to spread across a lap, with eye-catching illustrations and a truncated text) and am very glad that I did not receive one. Instead, my dad gave me a mass market paperback (with both print and pages sized to be held in a single adult hand) that included introductory notes by Eleanor Graham. I had no concept of what an introductory note was, nor why most readers choose to skip them—so I began on the first page, reading the story of Charles Dodgson and Alice Liddell before reading the story itself.
As soon as I had turned the last page, I asked my father to teach me how to play chess.
In another universe, I would have become the world’s youngest female chess grandmaster (beating Judit Polgar at her own game, as it were). In this universe, my parents had their hands full with my father’s dissertation and my younger sister’s potty training (I cannot resist coining pissertation, even though it makes me a bit of an ass[onant]). My mother, as is often the case, held everything together—which, in this case, meant giving her fractious, hyperlexic four-year-old the freedom to sit, quietly, with one knee tucked under her chin, and read the double Alice over and over.
I did the chess problem Lewis Carroll set at the beginning of the book, in the sense that I asked my mother to take down the Milton Bradley Chess, Checkers, Acey Deucey, Backgammon set that she and my father had bought shortly after getting married—“we had no TV,” my mother told me, as way of explanation—so that I could sit, quietly, for half an hour trying to make sense of the diagram.
There were two problems here—one was that Carroll set his puzzle nonsensically (“The alternation of Red and White is perhaps not so strictly observed as it might be, and the ‘castling’ of the three Queens is merely a way to saying that they entered the palace: but the ‘check’ of the White King at move 6, the capture of the Red Knight at move 7, and the final ‘checkmate’ of the Red King, will be found, by anyone who will take the trouble to set the pieces and play the moves as directed, to be strictly in accordance with the laws of the game”) and the other was that the sequence of moves was written in pre-algebraic chess notation.
I knew what looking-glass meant because I was a hyperlexic four-year-old. I knew what slithy meant because Carroll allowed Humpty Dumpty to define the portmanteau in Through the Looking-Glass, Chapter VI. I had no idea what chess notation meant, nor that it was something I needed to understand before I could work out the chess puzzle on my own.
This, by the way, may be the thesis of this book—but instead of spoiling my text in the first few pages I will simply say that I did not know at the time how carefully I would study chess, thirty years later.
In the interim I studied Alice. I cannot tell you how often I read it; my mother could tell you how often I played it, using our long hallway first as the Rabbit-Hole and then (of course) as the Long Hall. A friend of a friend gave my mother a hand-me-down dress, blue with a white pinafore, for me to play Alice in. This friend of a friend gave a matching dress to my mother’s friend’s daughter, a girl who would have been my friend even without the transitive property of playdates; she and I spent a golden afternoon jumping off a small ledge in her backyard and imagining that our skirts were billowing out like parachutes. After that I don’t recall ever wearing the dress; certainly never in public, although I must have wanted to.
“I don’t remember what happened to that dress,” Mom said. “It may have been that it was just a loan, for the afternoon. I do remember that you considered all of your clothing costumes, and would pick different outfits depending on the character you were going to play that day. I even made you a few pinafores.”
“You made my sister and me matching dresses with pinafores,” I said. “For Easter, when we were nine and seven years old.”
“I made you a pinafore before that,” my mom told me. “After you read Alice. You wanted it to play in.”
When my sister became old enough to be both desired and required as a play companion, I stopped acting out Alice on my own. It’s a story centered around a single character, after all, and my younger sister wouldn’t have fit; nor would I have cared to have her play Alice (as would have been the polite, big-sisterly thing to do) and me play all of the supporting characters! Instead we recreated texts that had enough young female characters for both of us—The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe was one of our favorites—until I discovered that it was both possible and more interesting to make up the premise ourselves, and decide what happened in the narrative together.
This, again, is the thesis of this book—not the part about making up stories, but the part about the order in which things have to happen.
If you review my 1983 Puffin Alice, which is one of the few possessions I would consider saving if our home ever caught on fire (though I would not consider it worth risking my life over [and the act of considering it would probably preclude my being able to grab it before the fire rendered the room unsafe [[or, simply, rendered the room]]]), you would immediately notice my preference for the Looking-Glass half of the text. The Wonderland half is still intact, but the Looking-Glass half has pages falling out at Chapter VI, “Humpty Dumpty;” Chapter VIII, “‘It’s My Own Invention;’” and Chapter I, “Looking-Glass House.” If you were to allow the book to fall open by itself, you would see the “Jabberwocky” poem and its corresponding illustration—and at this point I would be remiss not to include Carroll’s concerns about that particular artwork (“It has been suggested to me that it is too terrible a monster, and likely to alarm nervous and imaginative children”) and his subsequent decision to move the illustration from the frontispiece of Looking-Glass to the one place in the narrative where any young child who was fascinated by “Jabberwocky” would be obliged to encounter it over and over and over.
But I am leaving out the most important part—either the most important part of the book or the most important part from the book, in the sense that this section of my 1983 Puffin Alice has been completely separated from its binding.
It may also be the most important part of this book, which is why I am going to frame it as a puzzle for you to solve:
Which section of the double Alice did I read so often that it fell out of the text?
Think about it for five minutes, if you like (it will be a useful practice, as you progress through this book) and then continue reading—
It was the chess puzzle, of course.
The one part of the story that I did not yet have enough information to understand.
It took Mark Burstein less than five minutes—or, perhaps, fewer—to invite me to join the Lewis Carroll Society of North America.
I met Burstein during a weekly Gather.town social that is best described as a virtual offshoot of Gathering4Gardner, a group of maths, bimaths, and polymaths who are interested in maintaining the spirit of Martin Gardner. Perhaps literally, if you consider the spirit less of a conscious essence and more of the essence a consciousness creates for other conscious minds to consider. You, while reading this book, are commending my spirit—and if it is a successful book, you may continue to commune with my spirit hereafter. If it is the kind of book that is so successful that it retains relevance beyond the immediate present, I may reside in your consciousness long after I have stopped presiding over my own.
The part of Martin Gardner’s spirit which had taken residence in my consciousness was, of course, his Annotated Alice. I originally read the original—the 1960 edition, with the blue cover and one knee tucked under my chin—and when I was a teenager requested and received the Definitive Annotated Alice for Christmas.
Mark Burstein’s presentation, for the Gathered, was on his contributions to the 150th Anniversary Deluxe Edition.
I asked many questions, most of which were a waste of time—not in the sense that they were not legitimate questions, but in the sense that Burstein had answered them many times already. If I had known to look, I could have easily found his answers on my own without obliging him to repeat them aloud. In fact, when I did look up recordings of Burstein speaking to other groups about Alice (since he is, perhaps, the leading [living] expert on the subject), I was embarrassed to note that my questions were precisely the sort that were always asked. At what point in Alice’s history did her dress become blue? When Tenniel’s illustrations were first colorized, it was yellow! Also, while we’re on the subject of Tenniel, what do you think about illustrations-as-text? Does Alice lose some of its meaning if Tenniel’s woodcuts are not presented alongside Carroll’s words?
This begs the question of whether attending Burstein’s presentation was more analogous to reading than conversing, in the sense that he repeated many of the same points used in previous presentations and generated many of the same responses—and since I’m using “begs the question” in its intended context, I will not answer it.
At any rate we began conversing—in the written sense—immediately afterwards. I asked him a question about canonically accurate Alice chess sets (the chess puzzle, once again) and he invited me to join the LCSNA.
“Why does he want me to join the Society?” I asked Larry, when I was recounting everything that had gone on over the course of the day. “All I did was ask a bunch of questions that I could have Googled. I don’t have anything to contribute in the way of Carrollian scholarship.”
“Well, there is Alice stuff all over the house,” Larry said, nodding his nose towards the non-canonical Alice chess set that had been a gift from my sister that previous Christmas. We were at the part of the evening that comes between supper and sleep—the part that begins with my telling Larry a story and ends with Larry telling me that he feels like the luckiest man alive.
“I’ll join if there’s a reason to,” I said—and then we talked, as Carroll once wrote, of other things.
In which I ask the Question that prompted this book.
One of the first things I learned, in my written conversations with Mark Burstein, is that he considered the 1966 Jonathan Miller-directed Alice in Wonderland to be the most cohesive film adaptation. A lot of Carrollians are fans of the Miller film, which doesn’t make any sense to me—but I say that as a person who loves the 1985 Irwin Allen Alice in Wonderland/Through the Looking-Glass television extravaganza most of all, even though it is generally (by serious Alice scholars, anyway) reviled.
Here’s an excerpt from Burstein’s correspondence, when he was trying to convince me to join the LCSNA in early 2022:
To me the only watchable one is the 1967 BBC b&w production, despite the dour lead and miscast music.
Here is my corresponding response:
I saw the Jonathan Miller version back in grad school, when I was doing a survey of the various adaptations. Watched a bit of it again this afternoon (much easier to find online than it was to find a VHS copy back in 2005); it’s remarkably specific but requires significant knowledge of the source material for you to understand exactly what Miller is being specific about. You have to be able to rattle off, without prompting, “there was a duck and a dodo, a lory and an eaglet,” even though I suppose you could show the scene to a newbie and ask them “which animals are each of these actors portraying” and see if they get it right. Even then they’d probably get stumped on dodo.
It occurred to me that the Miller and the Švankmajer and, to an extent, the Swados adaptations all require you to come in with the Alice programming language already loaded into your mind so that you can compile what they give you, if you’ll forgive the metaphor. Of course to understand the Alice language you also have to understand what a rabbit-hole is and what Victorian children would have been reading in the mid-19th century and how logic works and what it means to catch a crab (a joke I did not get until I got my first Annotated Alice) and so on.
The problem comes when you realize that most people these days think of rabbit-holes as “things Alice fell down” before they think of them as anything else, which makes Alice self-referential and implies that she may one day gain consciousness.
Which is… exactly the way the story ends.
I WILL JOIN YOUR SOCIETY
I had told Larry that I would not join unless I had a reason, and I would tell him later that evening what the reason was—but before we get to that, I have to give you one final instruction.
I am assuming, at this point, that you also have the Alice program installed. If that is not the case, go read it (that is, read both Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There [and if you want to understand the program as thoroughly as any Carrollian, read The Annotated Alice: 150th Anniversary Deluxe Edition with notes by Martin Gardner and Mark Burstein]). If you’re interested in an audiobook, there is a lovely unabridged Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland read by Jim Dale and published by the Listening Library; unfortunately, Dale has not yet recorded Through the Looking-Glass (as of this writing) and you’ll miss at least half of what I am about to write if you don’t read both halves of the text.
You’ll miss a smaller (but still important) percentage of what I am about to illustrate if your Alice installation does not include the Tenniel illustrations. In print, if possible. Since both AAIW and TTLG are in the public domain, there are many free online texts available; many of these have the Tenniel images inserted, but they lack the interplay of image and text that Carroll and Tenniel worked so hard to create (to the point that the first edition of AAIW and the third edition of TTLG were recalled after failing to meet their standards [which, by the way, is the most subtle pun in this book thus far]). Get a book where you can turn the pages and see the Cheshire Cat disappear, the Looking-Glass dissolve, and the Red Queen turn into—well, I won’t spoil it for you.
Also—you understand what I mean by “AAIW” and “TTLG”?
Of course you do.
Although you probably wouldn’t have if I hadn’t spent the first half of this installment compelling you to read the words Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass over and over.
I gave you the Alice Title Function, for lack of a better term, and then I gave you an instruction that allowed you to generate value—to both recall and create—on your own.
Routine, really—and now we are ready to begin investigating the Question at the core of this book.
“I can understand this Jonathan Miller movie because I have the Alice program installed in my head,” I told Larry, as preface to the Question. “And we can read music because we have the Music Notation program installed, and we can study chess because we have the Chess Algebraic Notation program installed.” I did not say, at the time, that the two of us could not complete Robert Lang’s origami hummingbird (even after spending two days trying) because we did not yet have the Origami Folding Notation program installed—but I should have, so I hope you’ll forgive me for including it in this part of the narrative.
“And there are other programs people choose to install, or that get installed without them knowing it, or, like, get forcibly installed by authority figures. The Table Manners program, the Grievance program, the Catholicism program. The Multiplication Tables program.” The two of us were in our usual positions in the living room—he seated (with a glass of bourbon) on the sand-colored sofa, and me standing (and often pacing) in front of the gas-heated fireplace. “And I guess that last one means some programs don’t always stick, or, more likely, they weren’t completely installed.”
“Or they were written incorrectly,” Larry (who is actually a programmer) added.
“Right,” I said. “The failure is either at the coding step or at the install step, or maybe the execution step—and I still don’t know why computers fail at executing things that have been programmed correctly, I know it has something to do with the parts getting really hot and moving too fast and failing to connect, and that sounds an awful lot like the human brain and why we fail at things.”
“It’s not exactly like that,” he said (which is to say that he said something like that [since this conversation did not have the benefit of being written down [[before it was written down]]]). “But it’s not exactly not like that.”
“Well, I might need to learn how to program to answer the Question.”
“Of how computers work?”
“No, not that question. A different Question. I have not told you yet.” I stepped away from the fire to kiss him, the great love of my life, before submitting the request that could return as our quest.
“Tell me,” he said.
“What programs do we need to install into our minds before we can understand reality?” I asked. “And in what order do we need to install them?”
“That’s a good question,” he answered—because the actual answer would take an entire book to uncover.
In which I introduce you to the Great Love of My Life.
The best way—perhaps the only way—to introduce you to Larry is to share what I wrote in my diary on June 10, 1999, a few days after our own introduction:
Larry is going to be one of my favorites.
I, in turn, was one of his. Here is a subset of our continual correspondence, written when I was a freshman in college:
September 2, 2000
I’m not sure that I would define happiness as “being able to satisfy any appetite that comes along.” That’s just as wrong as attempting to repress your appetites. In fact, it almost seems worse; if people lived life with their main goal being to satisfy both their biological and acquired longings (especially biological), I don’t exactly think “society would fall apart” (we would probably create a new kind of society), but for a period of time selfish concerns would predominate. Actually, selfish concerns would probably predominate indefinitely, because by the time one generation had realized that constant, instant satisfaction wasn’t ACTUALLY satisfaction at all (unless “delayed gratification” is a myth), the new generation would still be in the process of learning this.
Unless… you mean that a happy/content person would be able to evaluate their appetites and determine which ones are worth pursuing, and thereby satiate the ones determined better left alone via psychological defense mechanisms (although I don’t think “defense mechanisms” is the right term; but you know what I’m talking about). We’ve all heard the legend of the ego/superego/id.
Concerning the set of rules that our culture establishes as part of our “morality:” I’ll field that one for you (since it’s Labor Day Weekend and all the girls in my corridor but five have gone home—which I think is insane—and there’s absolutely NOTHING going on here). It’s really easier than it looks. There are a few rules/mores common to all parts of our (we’ll stick with American) culture. Most of them have to do with “don’t kill people” and “offer assistance to those in need” and the broad, general things like that. Then, however, we get into all the little subdivisions of our culture (most of the subdivisions seem to be created by varying age and religion); and the rules change slightly between these subdivisions in such a way that one can’t truly please ALL of the people all of the time. It seems like every generation, going through school, is taught the same basic set of morals; but social events and technology and the skepticism/rejection of previous ideas that comes with every new generation shapes the rules and morals of our culture… well, young American pop-media culture, anyway. However, I’m being redundant. You know this already, probably better than I do.
Oh, and I would never say that eating chocolate—as nice as it is—makes me “happy.” ^__^
September 5, 2000
Generally a ‘good’ (not enough quotation marks exist for that one) person will suppress any appetite that cannot be satisfied within the context of their ‘morality’. (They may fail in this regard and are—for the moment—not being as good as they could be.) Remember what I said about honesty and responsibility. It is a violation to get stuff that we ourselves don’t pay for (we can’t make other people pay either).
Examples are necessary.
On the largest scale, our civilization has an appetite (a real one) that taxes the global environment but our collective morality (some of it anyway) shows (at least some) concern. In the minimum, we give lip service to the idea that we need to protect Mother Earth. (Of course our efforts are inadequate—our species will probably ultimately be deemed ‘IMMORAL’.)
On a more local scale, while people generally agree that fur coats are wonderful to wear in the wintertime, most of us have decided not to make the furry little creatures pay for this by dying in cruel traps and being hit over the head. So we abstain from wearing fur.
We question the behaviour of a smoker who considers his right to smoke more important than our right not to be subjected to second-hand smoke (and we would be correct). Of course, if the smoker truly believes HIS right should prevail, then smoking in our presence is not a moral violation, at least in the context of HIS morality.
It gets much more complicated when we get into interpersonal relationships. People want and need a lot from one another and our involvements are highly transactional. Keeping track of what we exact from one another can be very tricky, especially with family and close friends.
Here is a common moral dilemma that has become a cliche. (You will see it often in college.)
Boy meets girl. Boy thinks girl is hot. Girl really likes boy and wants to be boy’s girlfriend (you know, a meaningful relationship).
Boy is really only interested in a casual physical relationship, etc. etc.
It is not uncommon for boys (and men) in this situation to ‘exaggerate’ the extent to which they may be interested in a ‘meaningful’ relationship. In the pursuit of his appetite for sex, he may be guilty of a moral lapse because the girl’s eventual disappointment and resulting unhappiness will be the price to be paid for his satisfaction. His lying about what he really wanted could also qualify as a moral lapse.
And on and on and on………
As for rules. What you stated seems true but helps us very little. The real question is ‘which rules do we follow and which do we ignore?’ (Remember rules were made to be broken.)
Rules were created to protect. Some rules even become laws (e.g. don’t kill, don’t steal, etc.) because their protection is required universally. (Of course in a culture that had no concept of property [like a real primitive culture] they probably wouldn’t need a rule against stealing.) However, many rules are not elevated to the status of law but rather remain as ‘guidelines’—kind of a ‘swim at your own risk’ thing.
We could probably create an imaginary continuum (they’re probably ALL imaginary anyway) and on it place the entire population according to how strictly they adhered to ‘the rules’. On one end would be those who simply obey any rule they ever encounter on the off chance that the danger it warns against might indeed be imminent. On the other hand would be those who pay attention to no rules. And most of us just roam around the middle.
Following rules can keep us safe and it can make us bored (and BORING). Ignoring rules completely will probably get us into trouble eventually (I guess I really shouldn’t have used the hair dryer when I was in the bathtub). But we don’t have to follow all rules. Having certain special knowledge and/or skills can allow us to break some of the rules and survive. Example: “Don’t play with fire…” But if you’re a firefighter you can play with fire with impunity because you know how to put fire out.
This is actually a topic for a fifty page treatise and I’m not beginning to scratch the surface. Learning which rules we (as individuals) should follow and which we can break (even though everyone else follows them) is perhaps the most difficult AND important thing we learn in our lives. In doing so we define our own individual morality as well.
At the bottom of all this, I think you will find that happiness depends greatly on how well one manages—without satisfying OR suppressing—their appetites. Consider many examples from everyday life (since you have nothing else to do) and remember that I don’t consider all appetites to be strictly physical. My desire to play the piano is just that—a DESIRE.
But don’t neglect your OTHER homework. ^____^
“I always wondered if the two of you were going to run away together,” my mother told me, when I told her that I had gotten back in touch with Larry again. “I’m glad you waited.”
We didn’t wait long. We met each other, for the first time in eighteen years, in May 2020; by June I was living in his house and by August we had bought a home of our own. This meant moving back to the area of the world that I considered my hometown (even though I was born in Portland, Oregon and my dad only moved us to rural Missouri when I was eight years old [and even though Larry did not in fact live in the town where I grew up, but in the twenty-times-larger town twenty minutes away [[in Illinois, on the other side of the Mississippi]]]).
It was exactly the kind of story you would expect, if it had been told slightly differently; Joseph Campbell has proposed that it has been told at least a thousand times, though he’s also supposed that it should be the young men who leave home and travel the world before returning to share what they’ve learned, so I’m not sure how much credit we can give the monomyth. It leaves Alice out, after all—and because of that discredits itself.
Instead, I’ll give the credit to Larry (where it belongs) for learning just as much during those years as I did, and for coining the credo that has taken us away from the power of myth and towards the realm of reality.
He calls it what-it-is-ism.
I will write more about this, later on.
First—or last, since we are nearing the end of this section—I must tell you precisely why I love this man. The truth is that when I saw Larry for the first time, at the piano, I thought to myself “I will do everything I can to spend as much time as possible with this person for the rest of my life.” I did, to the extent allowed, and then I moved on (Oxford, Ohio; Minneapolis; Bloomington, Illinois; Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh; Washington, DC; Los Angeles; Seattle; Cedar Rapids, Iowa). After the first year I barely thought of Larry at all. We each had our own adventures, with loves and losses and false starts and true stories, for nearly a quarter of a lifetime. Then I had a dream that he and I were standing together next to his piano. I wrote him the next day, and now we share a home.
He is my love at first sight. He is the man of my dreams. He is the most fully integrated person I’ve ever known—this I discovered when I was re-reading our correspondence, trying to remember if what I remembered was real. What I found was that everything Larry said he would do, he actually did. Everything he said he felt was equally demonstrated through action.
“You’re true-blue,” I told him. “I could say that I love you for your intelligence, or your curiosity, or your philosophy, or the way we seemed to understand each other, right from the beginning—but I might love you the most because of your integration.”
“I don’t understand,” Larry said. “Not that I mind, you can love me for whatever reasons you want and I’ll still think I’m the luckiest man alive—but why would it be that, of everything else it could be?”
“Because integration is everything,” I said—and it would be, as we would learn.
A brief digression on brief digressions:
If you are a youngish person who is reading this book because you heard it included the story of a May-December relationship that actually worked out, well—first of all, the difference between our birthdays is actually May-November (Larry is the Taurus, I’m the Scorpio), and second of all, you already know whether the situation you’re in is currently working.
If you don’t know, or if you are pretending not to know, let me install the following program into your head:
IF YOU ARE ANALYZING HIS ACTIONS (PHYSICAL, VERBAL, WRITTEN) FOR PROOF THAT HE REALLY-TRULY LOVES YOU, THEN IT IS NOT WORKING. Love is very difficult to hide. Anyone who sees Larry and me together (in physical, verbal, and written form) understands that we love each other, and anyone who sees a person attempting to pull major meanings out of minor messages (or vice versa) understands what is missing.
IF YOU ARE BEING PRESSURED, IN ANY WAY, THEN IT IS NOT WORKING. This goes for all relationships, by the way.
IF HE IS MARRIED, THEN IT IS NOT WORKING. Married men are avoiding a complicated problem by answering an easier question—and in this case, the answer is shaped like you. Go read Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow and then tell him where he can stick his System One.
IF YOU ARE HOPING THAT HE WILL NOTICE YOUR UNRECIPROCATED CRUSH AND REMOVE ITS PREFIX, THEN IT IS NOT WORKING. Crushes are also very difficult to hide. He is well aware of how you think you feel about him. He is probably also aware that what you are thinking about has less to do with him than with some kind of idea you have about how you want your idealized interactions to go. Relationships never work if they are only one person’s idea, which is why your actual interactions with this person are no doubt coming out quite differently.
Or, as I told Larry when we realized that we were going to finally make a go of it—and I use the word realized deliberately—“The only thing that is real is what you and I make together.”
That quote is now framed, on the westernmost wall of our conservatory.
In which we establish the Art Lab.
The first thing Larry and I did, after deciding to build a shared reality, was ask ourselves what kind of reality we wanted to share.
I do mean this literally, by the way. It was the first conversation we had after the conversation in which I told Larry that the only thing that was real between two people was what they created together. The fact that we immediately began discussing what it was we were to create was a very good sign.
“It’ll be like grad school,” Larry said.
“No,” I said. “It’ll be like what grad school wishes it could be.”
I’ve been to grad school (and if you read the previous paragraphs carefully, you can figure out where). I do not recommend it. I went for two reasons—one being that I wanted to see what kind of knowledge had been kept hidden from me so far, reserved only for the terminal students; the other being that every time I interviewed for an entry-level position in a career path I actually wanted to pursue, they told me they were really hoping to hire someone with an advanced degree.
This means, of course, that the real reason I went to grad school was because I couldn’t find a decent job. I was a telemarketer (and very good at it) and worked in retail (much less good at it) and got temp work stuffing envelopes in a windowless room. During those hours I kept my mind active by reciting to myself—first Dylan Thomas’s “Fern Hill,” because I had recently discovered the poem through John Corigliano’s choral setting, and then sections from Alice. Carroll was actually much easier to memorize than Thomas, although that may have been because I had read it so often already; it may also have been because I had recently found a copy of Elizabeth Swados’ Alice at the Palace in a bargain bin at a record store, and could call Swados’ rhythms when I wanted to recall Carroll’s words.
I taught Alice, in grad school—one of the few good things about completing the program was the number of teaching-hours I was required to provide in exchange for attending for free—and came out of grad school disillusioned of the entire educational enterprise. Whatever it might have been, it no longer was; whomever it might have led me to become, I no longer wanted to be. In the last weeks of the semester I set up a table in the student lounge and sold seven years’ worth of accumulated academic texts to undergraduates who were more than happy to buy a book for a buck; I did the minimum work required to pass my comps and left without attending my own graduation.
What I had hoped, from grad school, was that it would teach me how to be excellent.
Luckily—and this is why I am the luckiest person in the world just as much as he is—Larry was hoping to learn the exact same thing.
We called it our Art Lab, bought ourselves a pair of matching lab coats (technically bathrobes), and learned two different things, very quickly:
- Our initial curriculum was much too broad. We set out to study piano; chess; go; bridge; drawing; origami; mathematics; theater; philosophy; literature; any history that wasn’t already included in our study of theater, philosophy and literature; and the art songs of William Bolcom. I created a schedule that allowed us to cycle through these subjects weekly; it took us two weeks to fall behind. In the end we settled on piano, chess, mathematics, and literature (I also began a private study of good home cooking that Larry did not realize I was undertaking until I told him, specifically, that I treated our dinners exactly the same way I treated our piano practice [at first he argued that I was wasting my mental energy; now he tells me that our meals are better than anything he’s ever eaten [[including last month’s meals]]]).
- Excellence cannot be taught, or at least it can’t be taught in the way we thought it could. A person can seek out the tools they need to take their work from good enough to excellent, and in some cases those tools are shaped like human teachers—but it’s the seeking that’s the determining factor here, not the teaching. A person who does not want to be excellent will not, no matter who is instructing them; a person who wants to pursue excellence will, regardless of whether a teacher can be found.
The remainder of our education will be covered in subsequent chapters of this book—and, since it is a repetend, will continue long after the book is complete. If we produce truly excellent work, our education will continue long after us—the antecedent for this entire Lab being not our own self-reference but what Larry considers the reason why humans became self-referential in the first place: “We were put here to learn something and pass it on.”
The word that best describes this process is technology.
Before we continue, I will tell you how our Lab is structured—I made reference to a conservatory previously, and at least some of you may be wondering if it is the type of room that contains a secret passage and a Lead Pipe. We live in a 1930s cottage that has been both expanded and renovated with what a good Realtor might call a “Frank Lloyd Wright influence” but in actuality means a lot of horizontal lines. I picked the home (the minute we walked in) for its integration (there’s that word again)—the balustrades matched the mullions which matched the sconces and so on. This is consistent throughout the home, as is the color scheme; the Realtor joked that they must have gotten a sale on paint, but the decision to unify the entire space feels much more deliberate. In many ways I picked the house because it was a space in which one could deliberate, without being distracted by disunity.
Larry let me pick first because this was one of just two houses that I did not instantly reject on sight (I originally typed “on site,” by the way [which may be the more appropriate homophone]) and second because he was already the luckiest man in the world and it didn’t really matter. It turned out to matter more than anything. The structure of the house shaped the structure of our day, which shaped the structure of our thoughts. In many ways this house helped us become who we are.
What is it, then, about this home? On the ground floor is my office (with ensuite half-bath), a living room, a dining room, a kitchen, and a mudroom leading to the back patio and yard. If you follow the other door out of the living room you enter the conservatory, which was originally built as a “hot tub party room” and then used as a children’s playspace. At that point one of the walls was painted with chalkboard paint, which our Realtor told us would be very easy to paint over.
“Oh, we’re never painting over that,” I said. It was, at that moment, one of the biggest reasons why I wanted to buy the house.
The other was the room itself, which was larger than any apartment I’d ever lived in and suitable not only for the grand piano, but also for thirty or maybe even forty folding chairs. For chess games. For cocktail parties. For Chautauquas.
I had originally wanted it to look like a recital hall, with a lot of horizontal lines and very little clutter; Larry had argued that it would be better as a working space, and since I was already the luckiest woman in the world I let him add cords and microphones and bookshelves and books (some of them actually on the bookshelves) and computers and an entire wall devoted to printed-off photographs of people we admire. There is other art in the room, of course—Sofonisba Anguissola’s The Game of Chess, Joseph Danhauser’s Liszt at the Piano, Lyonel Feininger’s The Church of the Minorities II, Franz Marc’s The Foxes, Luigi Mussini’s Leonardo da Cutro and Ruy Lopez Play Chess at the Spanish Court, and Raphael’s The School of Athens—but there is also the hummingbird wall hanging my mother made and the quilt Larry helped his grandmother make when he was five years old and the paintings Larry’s mother brought back from her trip to Kenya. There are the origami cicadas Larry and I made, when we were trying to make time to study origami. There is our quote about the only reality between two people being what they create together.
Everyone who spends time in our conservatory comments on how comfortable they feel there. Much more comfortable than they would have been on a row of folding chairs.
Upstairs there are two wings; the original, which Larry has taken for his office and bedroom (with a full bath), and the addition, which is my bedroom (also with a full bath, and a closet and shower that can both be walked into). We keep separate bedrooms because Larry does his best work after midnight and I do mine at dawn. We also keep separate bedrooms because both of us made the deliberate decision to live alone for the previous majority of our lives; in both cases, so we could do our work without interference or interruption.
It turns out that you do better work when you are working alongside someone you love—though we still do our best to avoid interrupting or interfering with each other’s individual projects. I could catalog the ways in which Larry and I have become better artists, since the Art Lab began; it would be more interesting to catalog the ways in which we have become better people. Both of us could have been described, accurately, as handfuls (techne). Now we are also thoughtfuls (logos).
What we really want is for our hands and our thoughts to become so sufficiently advanced that—as Arthur C. Clarke might put it—we become magicians.
In which we discuss the fundamentals of Magic.
Once we understood that what we wanted to become could be most efficiently called magic, we began to evaluate nearly all of our activities against a simple—and obvious—binary.
Was it magic, or was it not?
It helps that we understood what magic was, almost immediately.
So will you, once you think about it—
Magic is one.
Magic is integration—the mind and the body and the task in perfect alignment.
Magic is Quality and arete and goodness and God, to borrow from Robert M. Pirsig. The Big Good Thing, to borrow from Frances Hodgson Burnett. The Force, if you must (although Star Wars lost its magic a long time ago [“not for everyone!” my mother argued])). Burstein, in an essay on Carroll that began as an undergraduate thesis and became his life’s work, described magic as “the principle of metaphor, of synergy, of illumination, or, simply, that the whole qualitatively exceeds the sum of its parts.” Magic has as many names as Campbell’s hero has faces, but magic always correlates with excellence, to the point at which they are—to borrow from Arthur C. Clarke again—indistinguishable.
Magic dispels illusion. You might assume that magic creates illusion, but the true magician, whether executing a card trick or a Chopin scherzo, can only ever demonstrate reality. Whether the work has been done; whether the audience is compelled; whether the movement of each hand is slight enough to create a seamless transition. A unified experience. An integral series of digital actions, one after one after one after one.
All of those ones add up, which is why magicians are often polymaths by default—and why many polymaths, including Martin Gardner, are also magicians.
Magic requires intention. This is the one aspect of modern witchcraft—of any transformative belief system, really—that is legitimately correct. To create magic, you must have the intent to create magic; and if that sounds too recursive to lead you out of the circle you’ve just cast, keep in mind that you must also know how to turn your intent into action. Which herbs to use; which cards to draw. Which symbols, and in which order. Remember how I began this book—by telling you a story that ended with my (and your) understanding that symbols can shape your thoughts.
Magic is also mastery. The Magician, in the tarot deck, represents the person who has mastered the four elements of daily living: coins (earth [basic needs]), cups (water [interpersonal relationships]), wands (fire [added value]), and swords (air [self-control]). It’s worth noting that in the Major Arcana, the Magician is One—which means that mastering these four elements is the first step on the path towards understanding the world.
Most of us remain Fools—either Zero or Null, depending on how old your tarot deck is. In nearly all modern linguistic systems, including contemporary tarot, null has been absorbed into zero (trinities being extremely hard to sustain, no matter how much faith you have). Zero is the prefix state; the unactivated state; in many cases, the false state.
This is appropriate, since becoming a Magician involves eliminating falsehood. That, too, has many names—in our home, we call it problem-solving, or the process of going from guessing to knowing.
The Fool is 0.
The Magician is 1.
How do you get from 0 to 1?
Logic, as Lewis Carroll might say.
Practice, as the cab driver might joke.
Programming, as the great love of my life would tell me.
In which we return to the Question.
In reality, when I asked Larry how to change 0 into 1, he said this: “Wow. If you’re talking about… just… telling a computer this number is zero and now it is one, that’s easy. But when you’re thinking metaphorically, when zero represents an enormous amount of stuff and one represents an enormous amount of stuff… hmmm.”
I am writing this right after I read everything I’d written thus far—everything you just read—aloud to Larry. He is speaking this in real time, as I type, at about the same speed at which you are currently reading.
“The important thing is to define what one is. To know what one is. To be able to see what one is,” he continued (or continues, since this is happening right now [for us]). “I would say the first thing, if you said how would you turn zero into one, is that you have to define zero and you have to define one in terms of an immediately attainable goal. Something that can be attained with a specific execution that has specific definable steps.”
This we can do—in fact, this is work we’ve already done. But it brings us back to the Question.
“My answer to the question cannot be understood without a full explanation of horizon-hopping,” Larry told me.
“We’ll get to that,” I said. “It’s already in the outline.”
“And it would probably need a dissertation on incrementalism.”
“That’ll be part of it,” I said. “I’m going to share everything I learn, how I work my way through chess and piano and logic and the rest of it, even though those are all just processes that I’m hoping will help me with what I really want to figure out, which is what a person needs to know to understand reality. To go from false to true.”
“Right,” Larry said—and I saw, at that moment, that he understood everything this book could become.
“Can it be done through programming?” I asked.
Larry answered immediately. “Can it be done any other way?”
The next day we began our study of Symbolic Logic.
You are reading WHAT IT IS and WHAT TO DO NEXT by Nicole Dieker.
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