| Vol 7|No5|October|2011
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Mixing it up
By Jamie McKenzie
About Author © 2011, all rights reserved
When my old iPod Shuffle died that held 100 songs, I bought a new one — a gleaming beauty that holds 700+ songs - enough for a very slow marathon!
You can listen to the songs in a sequence that matches their order on the device, or you can decide to shuffle the songs and enjoy the impact of random selection.
Whether you shuffle songs, cards, images, words or destinations, the act can be a valuabe source of inspiration and fresh thinking.
This is Chapter 9 from Lost and Found, Jamie's new book.
There is much to be said for the purposeful mixing and shuffling of experiences to stimulate thought. This shuffling has long been enjoyed by children with books that come in three panels, encouraging combinations that might not otherwise come to mind. Listening to music served out by iTunesTM software improves upon this older model, as one may shuffle songs within playlists of one’s own making—all the songs of the Cowboy Junkies or all the Bach cello suites, for example—or may taste what is called a “Genius Mix” within a category such as jazz vocals, country, folk, etc.
There is always some danger that we will narrow our experience and miss out on the invigorating influence of variety. If one owns thousands of songs, symphonies and rhapsodies, one may go for months without tasting the lyrics of Jackson Browne or several dozen other artists whose words might prove important to us and our thinking. Fortunately, the shuffle brings us into contact with a grab bag of artists and songs that we were not thinking about.
Being stuck in a groove has its benefits from time to time, provided we are not permanently glued therein. In the world of music, the term “groove” has many positive connotations, as in “It’s got a funky groove to it.”
We must learn to switch modes, enjoying the benefits of grooves when they serve our purposes—listening to Erik Satie, for example, when we find his poignant piano notes create the mood we need for the writing and thinking we are doing. Or maybe it is Chopin? On other occasions, our thinking is provoked in exciting ways as the wheel of fortune spins and we are treated to an assortment offered up by the iTunes Genius Mix like the one below.
The software brilliantly finds music that circles around certain styles, themes and moods with often delightful resonance. These words are being typed as the above songs play, and I am sure the word “delight” came to mind, in part, because the mellow, playful tones of Melody Gardot influenced my mood as well as my thinking.
Who knows what words might have come to mind with a Genius playlist sparked by Joan Osborne’s “St. Teresa”? Perhaps the word “dissonance” would replace “resonance,” and “delight” would be pushed aside for angst? disquiet? or trepidation.
Our imagination sometimes needs awakening. Perhaps that is why Roger von Oech called his two seminal works on innovative thinking Whack on the Side of the Head and Kick in the Seat of the Pants. Shuffling experiences may shift thinking without resorting to alcohol, drugs and other stimulants. One need not sit around waiting for one of the nine muses to pay a visit.
Shaking up the words and ideas
A good thesaurus can provide shuffling much like the musical mixing mentioned above. Instead of clinging to a narrow dictionary definition, the thinker can take a word like “awaken” used earlier in this chapter and entertain related terms that may enrich the generation of ideas. Awaken implies that something is sleeping. But each of the words below suggests a slightly different meaning.
arouse, rouse, bring out, engender, evoke, incite, trig- ger, provoke, stir up, stimulate, animate, quicken, kindle; awake, revive
The thesaurus may encourage us to consider a rich stew of concepts. We are not stuck with mere hamburger. The cluster of ideas raises quite a challenge, as if our imagination is a moving target—a dancing and elusive butterfly that cannot be easily captured or ever enthralled. We need a quiver full of techniques and strategies. We must consider how to light a fire, blow on embers, stir a stew, create a sauce, shake things up and move past the obvious to the surprising and the unforeseen.
The Indigo Girls sing, “Are you on fire?” as I type the words above, a line from their song, “Kid Fears.” So often these songs play in the background without us actually listening carefully to the lyrics, but a Genius list may offer up a mix that is remarkably fruitful. The secret to harvesting these possibilities lies in the listening—taking notice of the conceptual kaleidoscope. One rotates the tube and watches for the resulting sparkles.
Reading Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, the word “innocent” takes on some unusual and quite disturbing meanings we do not usually associate with the word. The young American in the novel is guilty of some terribly destructive and lethal actions, but at some levels he is innocent—ignorant of the damage he is doing. His simple-minded approach to complex matters is innocent in the worst sense of the word. Greene makes the concept a central issue.
And so, it turns out that our reading can be a form of shuffling as a writer takes the familiar and turns it on its end, forcing us to rethink the ideas that are neatly stored away in our mind.
Matters and concepts are rarely so tidy, especially when it comes to human behavior. Writers like Greene enjoy highlighting paradox and ambiguity in ways that require the reader to consider them in all their nuance and subtlety. Ideas normally lurking somewhat below the surface are lifted into focus.
This kind of reading can be disturbing and unsettling, so some might limit their reading to writers who are more simply devoted to plot and events rather than ideas. In doing so, they would miss out on at least one source of the mental shuffling proposed in this chapter.
If someone does not know what they are doing, are they innocent of the crime they have committed? Are they responsible? Irresponsible? Innocence and ignorance can be more closely linked than one might normally realize.
The Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus explores five different aspects of the word “innocent”—two of which are reproduced below. The dissonance between these two creates much of the moral tension that fuels the drama of The Quiet American as a word that usually arouses sympathy and approval turns a bit sour in the context of a land struggling to cast off a colonial regime.
guiltless, blameless, in the clear, unimpeachable, irreproachable, above suspicion, faultless; honorable, honest, upright, law-abiding; squeaky clean ingenuous, trusting, credulous, unsuspicious, unwary, unguarded; impressionable, gullible, easily led; inexperienced, unworldly, unsophisticated, green; simple, artless, guileless, wide-eyed; informal wet behind the ears
Shuffling images will also spark insights much as the music and the words mentioned earlier. Flickr offers a prime example of this experience at flickr.com/explore. You can pick one day of one month at Explore and set the collection on slide show. Next thing you know, several dozen large images appear in sequence on your viewing screen. They are quite remarkable on most days, and while there is no guarantee that they will be the inspiration you sought, they are likely to enrich your thinking and appreciation of life.
On one day in December of 2010, I took a look at photos uploaded on the first day of the month and was especially taken by one with the title, “I Read The News Today, Oh Boy!” by Jim Skea at http://www.flickr.com/photos/jimsk/5225087464/
Jim’s photograph shows an older gentleman in Brazil sitting alone amidst several rows of chairs on the ferry to Paquetá near Rio. The mood is quite striking, for he reads the paper with one hand on his forehead as if he is deeply disturbed.
Once I settled into viewing the image with focus I recognized that my own mood on hearing that day’s news matched what I saw portrayed. Much of my morning was spent trying to understand a tax compromise reached by President Obama with his Republican opposition.
Once I had tasted Jim’s news-related photograph, I moved on to view several dozen items in his extensive collection, admiring his portraits of people and cats as well as street scenes from across South America and the Caribbean.
These visual excursions do not always result in dramatic rewards directly related to the thinking we are doing, but the act of shifting our visual framework is like adding spice to a sauce. The impact of the images may not surface for days, as some will live on for weeks, months and even years once they have taken up room in our subconscious. So much discovery emerges from the work our brain does while we are asleep, dreaming or in some state of reverie like that explored in the next chapter. Feeding our imagination a diet of images that contrasts with those from our immediate, normal surroundings helps to kindle more than embers.
Once we find a photographer we admire, we can add them to our list of contacts on Flickr and then each day when we open our stream, we can take a quick look at the images posted by several dozen or several hundred such artists. There is no way to predict the focus of the new shots that will come our way, but if we have chosen well, we can count on artistry and some degree of productive dissonance.
Serendipity is usually thought of as the surprising arrival of good tidings, insights and inspiration—something like an apple falling from a tree, bouncing off the thinker’s head and inspiring some remarkable new idea. “Aha!” announces the thinker, rubbing her head. Illumination arrives in sometimes astonishing ways.
This view pays too little attention to the attitude and the inferential skills involved in making serendipity occur with frequency.
There is disagreement about advancing serendipity from mere chance and good luck to a somewhat reliable stream of discoveries that are intended and purposefully cultivated.
According to the New Oxford American Dictionary, the term was first coined in 1754 by Horace Walpole, suggested by The Three Princes of Serendip, the title of a Persian fairy tale in which the heroes (three princes) “were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of.”
The mention back then by Walpole of “sagacity” in conjunction with serendipity suggests that the princes’ discoveries were mindful and purposeful—not aimless or completely accidental.
It is difficult to resolve the paradoxical and ambiguous meaning of this term, since serendipity does involve considerable luck and chance as well as some magic, but it is obvious that some thinkers and explorers enjoy better fortune than others with their discovering; and it is apparent that their results are a consequence of conscious, sagacious effort combining a hungry attitude with an incisive battery of skills.
In the original story, the three princes use quite powerful inferential skills to identify a blind and lame camel carrying a pregnant woman even though they have not met or seen the camel. They base their prediction on clues they have noticed along the road. At first they are accused of stealing the camel by the merchant who has lost the animal, but after they explain their thinking to the emperor who is asked to punish them, a stranger appears who announces that he has found just such a camel wandering in the desert. Their process of deduction has been validated.
This version of the story illustrates the importance of sagacity in their discovery process. While their encountering the clues left by the camel along the road was a matter of chance, their noticing these clues and pondering their meaning was a matter of attitude and skill — sagacity. They are richly rewarded for their skills by the emperor.
The three princes in the story did not set off looking for a camel or any rewards, but they were open to reading the clues along the road, looking for threads that might tie them together in some way, thinking of them as leads in a hidden story. Most travellers would have ignored the details they noticed and would not have bothered with the task of deciphering the meaning of the traces left by the camel.
Discovery, then, is a matter of noticing and then deducing the significance of information encountered along the way. It requires spirit as well as skill.
Many quotation sites offer randomly generated quotations that may arrive by email for those who subscribe or may be generated on- site. In testing out this kind of shuffling while writing this section, my second request from http://quotes.dictionary.com led to the following quotation from Mason Cooley:
Learned researches lead to headaches, constipation, and befuddled quarreling.
The idea expressed fits this book and chapter surprisingly well, and the unexpected discovery of a professional aphorist like Cooley is something like finding a gold or diamond mine.
In an aphorism, aptness counts for more than truth.
If I had found the words I was looking for, I would not have read so much.
Cooley is not just an aphorist. He has a clever sense of irony, respect for truth and a conscience. James Geary offers 200 pages of his quotations at http://jamesgeary.com/blog/aphorisms-by-mason-cooley/ Reading through this listing is another way to shuffle quotations, since they are not organized in any special topical fashion.
Wisdom is dead. Long live information.
Returning to Dictionary.com for more surprising quotations, I enjoyed several dozen that were interesting enough but not worth mentioning until the following appeared from Shakespeare:
Fortune is merry,
And in this mood will give us anything.
Having written earlier in this chapter about fortune, luck and happenstance, this quotation intrigued me, in part because Shakespeare is offering an unusual view of fortune in this line from Julius Caesar. It took a quick reading of the context to realize that it is Anthony speaking in Julius Caesar, act 3, sc. 2 making a prediction about Fortune’s mood, as if Fortune is a god. He has just finished urging the citizens of Rome to avenge Caesar’s murder by Brutus and is pleased with their response. He sees Fortune now smiling on him, just as he mentioned, a few lines earlier, his expectations for Mischief:
Now let it work. Mischief, thou art afoot, Take thou what course thou wilt!
Taken alone, the quotation is difficult to fathom, but the context shows that events may be shaped by men. Fortune in this sense is not mere luck, but an outcome carefully crafted by Anthony’s oratory and cunning. This view of fortune resonates with the story of the three princes mentioned in the section on serendipity, where sagacity was required to transform fortune into opportunity.
Being new to these surprise quotations at Dictionary.com, I was not at first aware that related quotation topics will appear as a list to the right of the surprise. In the case of the Shakespeare quotation, the following list was offered:
fate (10) misfortune (9) luck (7) destiny (4) risk (3) moderation (3) virtue (3) change (3) maxims (3) proverbs (3)
Exploring these subjects was much less random than clicking on the “surprise me” button, but the variety is rich and inspiring:
The saying goes that the gods leave a town once it is captured. Aeschylus
What do I know of man’s destiny? I could tell you more about radishes. Samuel Beckett
Destiny. A tyrant’s authority for crime and a fool’s excus for failure. Ambrose Bierce
I do not believe in a fate that falls on men however they act; but I do believe in a fate that falls on them unless they act. Gilbert Keith Chesterton
The vulgar call good fortune that which really is produced by the calculations of genius. Ralph Waldo Emerson
When visiting cities in other countries, a way to step out of the guide book and explore neighborhoods one might never otherwise experience is to take a subway line and step off at every third stop to wander that neighborhood and see what it has to offer.
Line 9 of the Paris Metro offers the following (partial) list of stops, many of which the typical visitor will never select when doing the usual Paris visit:
- Pont de Sèvres Billancourt
- Marcel Sembat
- Porte de Saint-Cloud
- Michel-Ange—Auteuil Jasmin
- La Muette
- Rue de la Pompe
- Franklin D. Roosevelt
- Saint-Philippe du Roule
- RER E
- Transilien Saint-Lazare
- Gare Saint-Lazare
- Chaussée d’Antin
- The Parmentier
- Grands Boulevards
- Bonne Nouvelle
With this approach to visiting Paris, while time-consuming and quite random, the visitor would taste many neighborhoods rarely experienced by tourists so often captive of the bubble mentioned in Chapter 7 of this book.
A similar result can be achieved by taking a bus on the surface from one end of the city to the other, stepping off to enjoy a neighborhood when the sights are appealing and intriguing.
And a marathon works quite well to introduce the visitor to neighborhoods and sights that would not usually show up in the guide books. The photograph on the right was shot with an iPhone while running the Paris Marathon in 2009 and because of that run, I realized I had never explored the Bois de Vincennes. On my next visit to Paris, I made this a priority, my appetite having been awakened by the run through major sections of the park.
This method of shuffling the visual opportunities while visiting a city is quite similar to the techniques outlined in Chapter 3 of this book—Off the Beaten Path.
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