Volume 4: None of the Monitors Are Asleep
I am writing this, at half past seven, in the breakfast nook that used to be a mudroom. I spent a day, when winter was at its darkest, clearing out the junk that had been allowed to accumulate when we had no specific purpose for this space. Cardboard boxes; glass bottles; a nozzle attachment for a thirty-year-old vacuum that we tried to get working again, before we bought a new one.
We kept the parts of the room that served their purpose. Muddy boots belong, so we put down a mat for them. The washer-dryer can’t be moved, so the accordion door that keeps the noise down is always kept closed. The little wooden worktable got a placemat and a fruit bowl and a teapot. We built two stools from a kit; we complained that they weren’t half as well constructed as the thirty-year-old worktable, which is now being used, for both its original and its current purpose, by me. We washed the Humpty Dumpty cookie jar that Larry’s mother bought on layaway when Larry was a baby. A dollar a week, for ten weeks, and then it was hers—and now it is ours, and I filled it with freshly baked ginger cookies just yesterday. We put up a print of the Jack Sprat illustration that had been in the Mother Goose I read as a child, since I eat my steel-cut oatmeal with nuts but no butter and Larry eats his with both butter and milk (and then he toasts a piece of homemade bread and butters that as well). We added a rug; we framed the Frank Lloyd Wright puzzle that I bought Larry to help him organize his thoughts.
Larry uses images to connect ideas. I use words. This may be why I was able to turn our mudroom into a breakfast nook, even though it seems more like a spatial-organization project than a sentence-organization project. I saw the story that could be told, after the room had been transformed. Holiday party guests, gathering around nuts and dates and chocolate and cheese, as Larry poured wine. My parents, waking up on New Year’s Day, as I baked scones and brewed coffee. Me, sitting down at the worktable to eat my oatmeal and watch the sunrise and write to you.
All of these stories have come true.
They became truth—zero to one, off to on, imagined to reality—because I programmed them into understanding.
This is where I would share a picture of the breakfast nook, if I were telling the same kind of story that I began writing at the beginning of last year. But that story has also come true—I asked Larry a question about whether a person could program themselves to understand reality, then studied logic until I was able to answer it—and so it is time to start writing a new one.
It’s also time to clear out the junk (the [nested] parentheses, the [unnecessary] clevernesses) and make enough space for a worktable.
This table will contain three statements:
To be efficient is to be mindful.
To be mindful is to be happy.
Therefore, to be efficient is to be happy.
As a logic puzzle, the solution is obvious.
Which is why I will spend the rest of this volume explaining, in words, why it is also true.
If I write a program, in and of the process, and if that program changes the way you understand reality, well—don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Say, instead, that you are happy.
In which we create a new Prime Directive.
“Do I have your permission to be happy?” I asked Larry. We were in the breakfast nook, even though it was suppertime. We spend a lot of time in this space, now that we have reconfigured it towards efficiency. It’s where we keep the bread and the wine, the tea and the coffee. Where we meet each other, at the beginning and the end of every day.
“Of course,” Larry said. “I think it’s one of our Prime Directives.”
This would be the third of the prime directives Larry and I have created, together. (I have argued that one cannot have three Prime Directives—but perhaps two can, to borrow the old joke. The word prime does not always mean primacy, after all. In our case, it often means reminder.)
Our first Prime Directive, demonstrated by the necessities of our first year together, was stay alive. Our second, established in conjunction with our Art Lab, was learn something and pass it on. Our third, as we begin our third year in our shared home, has become be happy.
I don’t like the word happy. The word is unspecific, in the sense that it can mean different things to different people, and yet its edges form an undeniable binary. One is happy. Zero is unhappy. You can tell, at any time, in which direction your switch has flipped.
You can also flip your own switch, at any time, with the right permissions—which is why I asked Larry if I could administer the system.
There was a reason for us to be unhappy, if we wanted to be. Larry’s mother was in hospice. She would have turned 94 today; she died yesterday morning.
But I asked Larry, two weeks earlier, if I could be happy. I asked him this question—the one that became a new Prime Directive—because, on the previous evening, I had been unhappy. This was a choice, made as soon as I entered the kitchen, because it seemed like the correct one. One cannot remain integrated while someone else is disintegrating—and so I flipped my switch to zero. I allowed my mind to be divided, and since one cannot divide by zero I became fractious. I fussed over the butter. I fretted over the stove. I nagged at Larry about everything he did not know, about everything that had yet to happen, and I admitted that I knew exactly what was happening. Yes, my love, I spoiled the cornbread muffins, I am spoiling the evening, but it’s not my fault, I was unhappy.
Later that night I thought about Viktor Frankl. We had read Man’s Search for Meaning over Christmas, and I had written Frankl’s words on our conservatory chalkboard:
Live as if you were living already for the second time and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now.
I asked myself what kind of person I would want to be, if the man I loved were dealing with the death of his mother. What I would want to do differently, the next time we were in an uncertain situation.
The next morning I flipped my switch back to one.
“I want your permission to be happy because it’s what I want,” I told Larry, “but it’s also what you want. It’s what anybody would want, if they could be honest about what they wanted. Happiness works better than unhappiness. It gives us better evenings. It gives us better food! It gives us better sleep, because then I don’t stay up thinking about how I ruined the evening by being unhappy, and you don’t stay up thinking about how long it will take for us to have a happy home again.”
“What if I can’t be happy right now?” Larry asked. “What if I can’t focus my mind in the same way?”
“Then let me be happy for both of us,” I said. “If you don’t mind, I will—and we’ll both get the benefits.”
“I have no idea what I did to deserve you,” Larry said.
“Everything you’ve ever done, up to this moment,” I said. “That’s how reality works.”
Reality is, by its very nature, the sum of everything. The solution to the variables presented, whether you examine them as a physicist or a mathematician or a logician or an epistemologist or a programmer or a musician or a writer.
To change the present, you must change one of its variables. We will not go into a series of tedious reasons explaining why the only variable you can change is yourself; we will, instead, make a joke about how you are the only person with root access to your own, highly variable system. You start at zero—that’s your id—and begin accessing your system’s resources. Some people run with this. Other people run on programs they never consciously installed. The default, if you will—but I’ll make a point, instead, and begin working towards it.
Zero can administrate oneself.
One can administrate to another.
This can be done through delegation, assignation, or subjugation. The sudos, honey-dos, and because-I-said-sos that network a hierarchy.
It can also be done through ministry.
Ministry is a dangerous word to use, because it implies that one can be more than oneself. It also implies that one must be less than oneself. Before you can get to the root of the word, you must separate the ego from the id—if you’re programming in Latin, anyway (in which the word is by definition a subordination).
If you’ve chosen French, however, the word takes a different route. Les menistres, at the time the term was codified, included not only administrators but also musicians. Ministers and minstrels. The French program leads neither towards faith nor towards universality, as the Roman Catholics might have it, but towards a specific, skill-based proof of concept.
This word, as you may already know, means both skill and trade—which takes us back to the second of our Prime Directives.
Learn something and pass it on.
And so I will pass on what I have learned about being happy.
In which I put Practice into Practice.
January 27, 2023
Hey. So, as promised, I’m going to talk you through what I do at a piano practice session, and, you know, we’re going to say that this is going to be useful to you, but the truth is that it’s going to be very useful for me. So let’s see what happens.
“I’ve started recording my piano practice sessions,” I told Larry, that evening.
“I know,” he said.
“I don’t think anybody’s going to watch them. They’re not really for anybody to watch. They’re for me.”
“Because you learn best through words,” Larry said.
“Right,” I said. “And because it’s a way to maintain accountability.”
The thing about logic, which is to say the thing about reality, is that it works whether you think in words or in images. The answer comes out the same—as long as you are able to account for each variable, adding or subtracting it from the sum of everything. There are many different ways to solve Lewis Carroll’s “Problem of the Schoolboys,” for example—a 12-variable puzzle presented in Symbolic Logic, Vol. 2—but whether you talk through the contradictions or draw a truth tree or write a computer program, the solution is, invariably: None of the monitors are asleep.
January 28, 2023
I think also the problem is that before I sat down to practice, I spent about three hours working on a murder mystery novel, and so the part that’s failing me is not my focus or my interest, it’s that I’m having trouble coming up with new ideas. That I’ve spent the “new ideas” part of my brain on—
So what would make me more effective as a pianist is “not having to generate a new idea of how to learn every chord, every time you come to a chord you don’t yet know.” We should be able to come up with a series of go-to formulas for learning things that you don’t know, not having to rewrite them—templates!
I was going to say heuristics, but that’s wrong. What I mean is templates.
The logicians gave us several templates—the Aristotelian syllogism, the Venn diagram, the Boolean operator—through which we can efficiently evaluate what we do not yet know. At this point we need to pause and define efficiently, since I don’t necessarily want you to think I mean quickly (at least not right away). We also need to define efficiently because efficiency is one of the three terms in the syllogism I proposed at the beginning of this volume:
To be efficient is to be mindful.
To be mindful is to be happy.
Therefore, to be efficient is to be happy.
The word efficient also takes its roots from French and Latin, and when you break down the word into its component utterances you get to set (something) outside (of yourself), but I don’t know enough to write specifically about the ex sound and the dhe sound and whether these components imply that happiness is derived, at least in part, by setting something outside of yourself. Instead, I’ll share what I currently understand about the word efficient, which is that it represents the most expedient path from 0 to 1.
The best moves.
The choices you’d make if you were living life for the second time.
Expedient, which contains the ex sound and the ped sound, implies that this path is traveled physically.
By the feet, if you’re taking it literally.
By the hands, if you’re a pianist.
By the monitor, no matter which path you choose.
January 29, 2023
I’m stuck on the idea of templates. What can you reach for, you know, when you’re tired or there’s something else going on in your life or anything like that. What can you actually do?
Templates—which we can define as systems that have been proved to work—allow you to function when you can’t generate your own ideas. A monitor that might otherwise lose focus can follow a template, for example.
A monitor can also follow a template for example.
“It really is all about mimicry,” Larry said, the other evening. “You can’t learn until you know how to mimic, and ideally you want to mimic something that’s being presented at a very high standard.”
This might sound elitist, if you’ll forgive the pun. How can a teacher expect a ten-year-old pianist learning Für Elise, or a fourteen-year-old pianist tackling Clair de Lune, to represent the ideas generated by Daniel Barenboim or Stephen Hough or Lang Lang? They don’t have the skills, for starters—and many of them want to use the skills they do have to create something new.
(I am, by the way, referring to both the students and the teachers.)
(I may even be referring to Larry and myself.)
But systems that have been proved to work, once installed (or instilled, if you prefer), allow you to achieve the highest possible standard no matter what you’re working on.
A ten-year-old who learns the most efficient motion between E2 and E3 in measure 3 of Für Elise, for example, will play those two notes as a master pianist. They’ll also be able to use what they learned the next time they encounter a left-hand octave (there’s one coming up in measure 7), and if they learn an equivalent efficiency in the right hand by mastering the E4-E5 in measure 4, then the E2-E3-E4-E4-E5 pass in measure 12 can be played without pause.
Imagine a ten-year-old who can do that—or, you know what, imagine an any-year-old who can do that. The point isn’t to match up age and repertoire, since that kind of arbitration implies that if you haven’t learned a certain repertoire at a certain age, you’ve already fallen behind. The point is that anyone can achieve mastery at the highest possible standard, as long as long as they focus on efficiency and mindfulness—no monitors asleep—and whether they’re playing Für Elise or the Rachmaninoff Third Piano Concerto or the first piece in Faber & Faber’s Piano Adventures, they’ll be happy.
They might even end up sounding a bit like Daniel Barenboim—although I’d argue that the standard they’re recreating is even higher than his.
The absolute mathematical standard.
The answer everyone would get, if they took the time to solve the puzzle.
The sum of everything.
January 29, 2023 (cont.)
At this point I feel like I have to prove to you that I know it, even though I’m proving to you that I don’t know it. And I know I can focus on this if I put my mind to it, and not get distracted by the story of how it’s going.
I told you, in the previous volume, that Louisa Dodgson and I had made the same mistake when we solved Lewis Carroll’s “Members of Parliament Problem.” Now I will explain our error.
The “Members of Parliament Problem,” often referred to as the MP Problem, is an 18-variable logic puzzle printed in Symbolic Logic, Vol. 2. Louisa Dodgson and I correctly established that the variables could be reduced to kv1w0 , which translates in words to ([Fit to be MP][well-educated[[NOT]]][woman])NO.
Or, in sentence form, “No woman who is not well-educated is fit to be a Member of Parliament.”
Both of us stopped there, assuming the solution was “Any woman who is well-educated is fit to be a Member of Parliament.” This was the story we wanted Lewis Carroll to tell.
When Carroll, aka Charles Dodgson, wrote his sister Louisa in November 1896, he explained that she had found the conclusion she wanted to find.
In fact,you’ve fallen into the trap that I am still hoping Professor Cook Wilson will fall into: but he’s taking a tremendous time over it. I’m afraid he suspects there’s something uncanny about it.
kw0 is of course a larger conclusion than yours, as it tells you, not only that kwv1 is a nullity, but also that kwv is so.
So the Complete (though unchivalrous) Conclusion is “Women are not fit to be members of Parliament”!
Carroll may have written this puzzle specifically to trap people who assumed the solution would reflect their personal beliefs (and, perhaps, his). Louisa Dodgson and I (and, perhaps, Professor Cook Wilson) fell into this trap because we got distracted by the story. We wanted to prove that women should be Members of Parliament, even though we were actually proving that women shouldn’t. We let a monitor fall asleep—and, by doing so, made the kind of error you can only make when you’re not paying attention.
January 30, 2023
All right. So what we’re going to do is continue from where we left off yesterday. So this would be the fifth etude, and what I’m working on is keeping each of these notes distinct, you know. So when you start—
[Plays first measure of Etude V.]
What you want is—
[Plays first measure again, more carefully.]
It’s not slurred and it’s not blurred and it’s not soft. It’s—
[Plays first measure again, focusing on the last two octaves in the right hand.]
I think if I ride off this B, I can land more cleanly.
[Demonstrates a hand gesture that yields the desired result, then replicates.]
[Proceeds through the etude, replicating the gesture template that worked for the first measure. Most of it goes very well.]
Something’s going weird here. It’s not that I’m distracted, it’s that there’s something that’s unresolved here. You can see my finger swirling on this note. It didn’t know what to do.
In order to logically evaluate—that is, evaluate using logic—whether any given statement is true or false, you have to ask yourself two questions.
- If this statement were true, would it contradict any existing statements that have already been proved true?
- If this statement were false, would it contradict any existing statements that have already been proved true?
Essentially, what you’re asking yourself is whether the statement under consideration is consistent with your current perception of the known universe—or, since we’re using the logical terms for things, the universe of discourse.
All universes have their boundaries, of course, especially universes of discourse. Your universe is limited to your current perception of what you know. This means that there are aspects of this universe that are currently outside of your knowledge. It also means that there are aspects of this universe that are within your knowledge but without your perception—which is to say that you are choosing, either through deliberation or anti-deliberation, to excuse at least some of what you know.
When none of the monitors are asleep, none of what you know gets excused—including what you know you don’t know.
This allows you to say, as I did: It’s not that I’m distracted, it’s that there’s something that’s unresolved.
It also allows you to proceed, undistracted by the story that you might be telling your monitors as they fall asleep, towards a logical conclusion.
WHAT IT IS, one might say, AND WHAT TO DO NEXT.
I will not write out the transcript of how I resolved the finger issue, except to note that when I first learned the music (and we’ll come back to that idea of first learned, so pay attention to it) I ignored the fingering. Pianists often ignore the fingering, for precisely the reasons we discussed earlier—they don’t want to mimic, they don’t want to copy, they want to create.
To finger it out on their own.
Pianists also ignore the fingering because the monitor that could be paying attention to those tiny numbers next to the notes is temporarily overwhelmed. We are not trained, as pianists, to read note+number as a single unit of information. We start out learning to read notes. Later, when the music gets complicated enough to require fingering templates, these tiny numbers start to appear. Unless you’re able to integrate and incorporate B4+1—and most amateur pianists, including me, do not know how to do this—you’ll always process the B4 before you process the 1. If you are successful at playing the B4, whether you play it with your thumb or your first finger, then the monitor that could have processed the 1 may switch to zero.
Time to sleep.
IF the monitor wakes up—
THEN you can resolve the problem.
February 3, 2023
[Plays Etude II, beautifully.]
Okay, that was—
That’s all we need to say about that. That really is.
It’s not about me putting in more hours at the piano than anyone else. It’s not about me putting more repeats in than anyone else. I really think it comes down to accountability. I’m being accountable to the piece of music that I want to play, and not accepting anything less than the piece of music that—you know, not accepting anything less? That’s not true. Because, as you can see, I’m sure there’s another betterness level of this that I’m going to achieve in the next month. That would be nice! But I’m not achieving anything—I’m not letting things slide. Let’s put it that way. I am determined to root out the problems I’ve currently identified, and the fun thing is that once you identify all the problems you think you’ve identified, then suddenly you have even more nuance in your earspace with which to hear the things that are still also not as good as they could be.
But I can’t hear them right now, not necessarily, because I’m focused on “why is that one chord still blurry when it shouldn’t be blurry.”
Monitors are very good at focusing on unresolved problems. In fact, a monitor is likely to perseverate on any issue that is still severant, trying to corral its variables into conclusion. This is, by the way, why it is difficult to sleep when a monitor is still awake—and why distracting yourself through speculative media, social media, and/or streaming media only postpones the moment of reckoning (which often returns after you’ve turned off both the devices and the lights).
There are times, of course, when a monitor cannot immediately solve a specific problem. When one is practicing the piano, it makes sense to resolve the blurry chord before proceeding with the rest of the session—but what if it were time to end my practice session and begin my freelance writing workday? Would one of my monitors be required to expend resources on The Case of the Unresolved Chord until it were time to practice the piano again?
The answer is—
Or at least I believe it is—
(You were expecting me to write no, weren’t you.)
A monitor that is awake enough to identify a problem is a monitor that will remain awake until the problem is solved. There are, however, templates that allow the monitor to run efficiently in the background. Here are three of them:
- Identify when you are going to solve the problem. If you are one of those people who calendarizes your entire life (I am, Larry is not), you can create either a fungible or non-fungible timeslot during which you will put all available monitors towards the unresolved issue.
- Identify how you are going to solve the problem. Before you close out your piano practice session or your workday or your breakfast nook discussion of what to have for dinner, write down (if you’re me) the immediate next step in each unresolved process. That way, your monitors know what you’re going to do next—and if you combine what you’re going to do with when you’re going to do it, even better.
These first two templates work in parallel. The third works in paradox.
- Identify a large chunk of time—and then do nothing with it. No chores, no email, no “input from other minds,” as Cal Newport would put it. Meditate, if you want. Take a walk, without music or podcasts. Put another piece into the jigsaw puzzle. Look out the window as you sip your tea. Give your monitors an opportunity to rest and regenerate, reiterate and reintegrate.
Defragmentation is a time-consuming, resource-consuming program, so you’re probably going to put it off—but fragmentation also takes time and resources, so take all of those little moments you’re putting towards anxiety or avoidance and smush as many of them as you can into a single block of time. Then let your mind do what it has been wanting to do ever since it uncovered the problem—and see if you discover a solution.
The reason I write at dawn, by the way, is not because I am necessarily a “morning person.” The reason I write at dawn is because that’s when I have the fewest unresolved problems taking up monitor resources. The reason I practice the piano nearly as soon as I am done writing—after a 20-minute yoga break, to let myself process the work I’ve just done—is because I’ve solved the problem of “how am I going to write The Larkin Day Mysteries today?”
That is the second-biggest problem in my life, right now.
The first is our incremental progress towards integration.
February 4, 2023
[Plays Etude III, slowly and accurately.]
That was better, actually. I gave it my full attention, and it yielded accurate playing.
Now I’m getting to the stage where I’m telling myself, “Why don’t I play it again, three more times, exactly like that?” And I know that’s not going to work because my brain is going to be distracted. It’s going to say “You just did that, and you don’t actually know what you’re going to do with it next, and because of that I don’t care.”
Brains are very good at not caring about things that we’ve decided are unimportant, and so if I cannot decide what to do next with this—
And part of me says “Well, let’s go back and put all the things together, put it all together,” and I don’t think that’s correct. I mean, I don’t think it will yield anything. We will see. If the only thing I’ve got is “Let’s put it all together,” then let’s see what happens.
[Puts it all together, at a faster tempo. It yields.]
Okay, that worked!
I wasn’t expecting that. I was expecting it to fall apart.
All right, then what we’re going to do, ummmm. I guess we have to do it again. We have to make sure it works, consistently, twice in a row, because it has a repeat at the end.
What worked about that? What actually worked? I mean, I suppose again it was because I gave it my full attention, but also because I put in the foundation to do all of this stuff. I talked about it for half-an-hour, at least.
[Plays Etude III, as if mimicking what just worked.]
Well, the first pass was better than the repeat, and I sensed that—when I came back to the repeat, I would try to recreate what I had just done successfully, twice, and I was a little bit, you know, less aware of what I was doing and more aware of my opinion of what I was doing? What you would all think of what I was doing?
This is what we talk about when we talk about expectations and things. “What are people going to think of what I’m doing?” Most of all they won’t, really. Sometimes. If they are prepared to pay as much attention to your performance as you are prepared to give it, then yes, but most of the time they are not. Doesn’t that sound depressing? Doesn’t that sound like a challenge that we could achieve, together? Good gracious, Nicole. If there’s one thing that we could all do—
The thing is, about a really good performance, is that you don’t have to have that discernment to appreciate how good of a performance it is. It’s the medium ones, where—it’s like I said, not just ten minutes ago. Brains are very good at not paying attention to things that we’ve decided are not important. So if the pianist has decided for themselves that this little bit is not important enough to make important, then the brain that is listening to this performance is going to think the same thing. And that is also why people don’t necessarily pay attention, which is actually less depressing, because there’s a reason for it.
That just about sums it up. There’s very little left for me to add.
(When people say that, they mean we may be very close to understanding reality.)
(They also mean there may be something about this that is inconsistent or incomplete.)
February 8, 2023
[Plays Etude III, faster.]
All right. If I were to play that in front of people, and if you were to ask me afterwards what I thought of it, I would say it was mostly garbage. It’s certainly better than it was yesterday, I suppose. It suffers from a lack of specificity, and it suffers from a lack of actual work. There’s a lot of work that’s been done, but still.
So if I were teaching someone, I would say—
[Plays right hand slowly, distinctly, repeatedly.]
And they might hesitate. Not because it’s boring, because it isn’t actually boring! The reason I’m hesitating is because I’m not sure this will actually solve the problem. This might be just drilling for the sake of drilling.
My monitors have not let me forget that I am supposed to be solving the problem of efficiency, mindfulness, and happiness. Thus far we have defined happiness and efficiency, which means it is time to examine the third term in our Aristotelian template.
To be mindful is—
It almost goes without saying—
To be fully mind.
(This is not to imply that the body is left out. I am not a mind-body dualist; I’d like to say “and you’re not, either,” but that would be presumptuous. I will ask you to assume, for the purposes of this exercise and the length of this volume, that the mind incorporates the body.)
If you are fully mind—a word that takes its origins from both the Proto-Indo-European to think and the Old German to love, Minne in the German and men, in nearly all recorded languages, since we began—then you are fully present at your present task.
One might say that to be mindful is to be of one mind.
There are two ways you can drill a piece of piano music: mindfully and not mindfully.
(If you’re using the Carrollian template, these would be m and m1.)
When you drill—and we all understand what I mean by drill, right? Over and over and over and over and over and over and over and sometimes it’s right and sometimes it’s wrong and over and over and over and over—and when it’s mindful, it isn’t necessarily boring. It can be frustrating, especially if you suspect there’s another problem you need to solve before you can achieve the goal of “playing over and over and over and over accurately,” but it’s not boring. It’s all-encompassing. The instrument becomes an extension of the body, which means it also becomes an extension of the mind.
But when it isn’t mindful, or when it starts out mindful and becomes not-mindful because your mind recognizes that you aren’t actually solving the problem in front of you, it’s so boring that most people turn off their monitors.
They start daydreaming.
They keep playing, of course—over and over and over and over and sometimes it’s right and sometimes it’s wrong.
And sometimes it’s right and sometimes it’s wrong.
And sometimes it’s right and sometimes it’s wrong.
And the next day it’s exactly the same.
February 8, 2023 (cont.)
That sounded better. If I played it for somebody, you would pay more attention, because, again, it’s really about importance. It’s about—it is about making things important. That first time I played it, it wasn’t important. It was just fast, you know. I’m going to come back to this one too.
[Begins next etude.]
You can tell that sort of what I’m doing today is trying to get a measure of what all is going on, and what I can fix without, you know, never playing some of these etudes because I get stuck on some tiny problem in one of the first ones.
And you can also tell that I’m getting a tiny bit tired because I’m running out of ideas. I don’t know what to do next with this bit.
When a monitor starts falling asleep, you can either let it sleep or wake it up.
Sometimes sleep is the right answer—whether you literally take a nap or figuratively make yourself a cup of tea.
Other times, you can refocus a monitor through a template. Pick something that has been proved to work and do it. This requires you to have a working knowledge of what works and what doesn’t work—which is why it’s often hard for kids, who don’t yet have that body of experience, to stay focused (in fact, it’s why it’s often hard for people of any age to stay focused) and why we all need ministers, administrators, and musicians.
People who have learned, through experience—
How to stay alive (to be fully oneself, to be mindful).
How to pass something on (to set something outside of oneself, to be efficient).
How to be happy (to be fully oneself, to set something outside of oneself).
External monitors, who can teach a student to manage their monitors internally.
February 9, 2023
See, and now, again, you go from that frustration of not knowing what to do next to actually having picked something, I mean, anything, and I started with “slower,” and I continued, and then I figured out that I actually needed to say what “slower” was, and I did, and that was great, and then suddenly it got better!
I picked a specific thing, and then I did the thing, and the thing actually happened, and something changed.
At this point, in my piano practice, I begin to name the reality I want to create before I try to create it. There are enough sci-fi and speculative fiction books centered on the power of naming that I won’t reiterate why spelling out what you intend to do is so closely associated with magic.
Instead, I’ll pass on the next iteration of what I learned.
February 10, 2023
[Sets the [[very slow]] tempo for Etude V.]
We can do this. I don’t see any world in which we can’t.
[Plays Etude V, at the [[very slow]] tempo.]
Remember how I said yesterday that I set out what I was going to do and then I did it, and then I thought, well, what if that is actually the definition of a miracle? Which is kind of, a bit—it’s playing a bit fast and loose with a few things that people do not care to play fast and loose with, but the idea that you can set an intention and then achieve it, you know.
I just said to myself before I played this, um, there is no world in which I do not achieve this. And I thought to myself, maybe that means five days from now or five minutes from now.
It happened in that pass.
Once again, I have very little to add.
Which means it’s time to check our work and summarize our results.
February 11, 2023
[Plays the second half of Etude V, very well.]
Okay. That was what I wanted to do. Great great great. This [chord] was just a little bit unsure, in that I could feel an unnecessary tension, an unnecessary inefficiency, an unnecessary anything going on in there, okay, that’s, blaaaaaaaah, okay, again, we want to remove that tension, we want this to be [plays chord] ah [plays chord again] the happiest little chord. It’s thrilled to be here.
[Plays sequence again, perfectly.]
Oh, that was nice, actually!
Why was this chord thrilled to be here? I just, I mean, saying that—and having that happen after I said that, rather than oh-my-goodness-I-don’t-know-what-this-is, this chord is awwwwww, this chord is happy to be here, that’s great.
I’m working on this project, about—I’m exploring the idea of happiness, actually. The practice of happiness, actually.
[Looks at monitor, becomes self-aware.]
Also my hair looks great, just so you know.
[Looks back at keyboard.]
But the practice of happiness. I mean, it is. It is in the same way as you practice this chord. [Plays chord.] I swear it. [Plays chord again.] I’m writing 5,000 words on it. [Plays chord again.] The practice of happiness is the same as the practice of playing this chord. The practice of anything else.
[Plays sequence again, perfectly.]
Well, isn’t that exactly what it ought to be! That’s really nice.
The process of happiness is the removal of anything that makes it difficult to pay attention.
That is it! I don’t need to write the other, uh, four thousand eight, or, four thousand, nine hundred eighty-eight words, or whatever it was. Because I just said it.
The practice of happiness, or the process of happiness—they’re the same thing—is the process, or the practice, of removing the obstacles that are preventing you from paying attention.
In which we come to a Conclusion.
It took a week for me to cry for Larry’s mother.
By this I mean it took a full week to clear out the other obstacles. The meal prep, the household management, the freelance work. The Larkin Day Mysteries, 3.923 newly-drafted words in five days. The piano in the morning, the stories shared every evening, both of which gave Larry’s monitors the opportunity to rest. The ministry and music I could provide as Larry dealt with administration.
That weekend I vacuumed the entire house. Then I booked myself 90 minutes in a sensory deprivation tank—no, seriously, I actually did this—and when I was done we ran an errand and cooked a meal and Larry sat down to eat and I sat down and cried.
“Is everything all right?” Larry asked.
“Of course it is,” I said. “This is exactly what is supposed to happen.”
We held each other.
“I was thinking about your mother, while I was in the tank,” I said. “All of the times we walked with her around the garden at the nursing home. How she held our hands and said she loved us. That was the last word to leave her. Love.”
“I know,” Larry said.
“And then I fell asleep,” I said. “I’ve never fallen asleep in the tank before. And then—”
I was crying.
I was smiling.
“This is what it is,” Larry said.
“It’s what I needed to do next,” I said.
And that is all you need to know.
Thank you for reading.
Thank you, also, for thinking.
If you would like to pass on what you learned—or propose a different solution to any of the problems presented—you can write me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In addition to the works cited directly in the text, the following
volumes served both as source and resource:
- Stuart Dodgson Collingswood, The Life and Letters of Lewis Carroll
- Garry Kasparov, How Life Imitates Chess
- Maxwell King, The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers
- Ichiro Kishimi and Fumitake Koga, The Courage to Be Disliked (an analysis of Adlerian philosophy presented as Socratic dialogue, very highly recommended)
- Charlie Lovett, Lewis Carroll: Formed by Faith
- Elyse Mach, Great Contemporary Pianists Speak for Themselves
All etymological details come from the Online Etymology Dictionary. Any errors in interpretation are mine.
This four-volume narrative was originally sold as a series of print zines designed by Alan Lastufka and published through Shortwave Publishing. Thank you, Alan, for helping me test this project’s capacity as a quarterly perzine—and thank you for allowing me to retain the copyright and publish the text online.
You are reading WHAT IT IS and WHAT TO DO NEXT by Nicole Dieker.
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