Wednesday, December 24, 2003

Too soon old, too late smart

I've been going on a daily morning run for more than ten years. For years I've struggled to take my running shoes off when I get back, especially in winter when my fingers are numb and clumsy.

I figured out a decent solution over the last couple of days. You have to make sure to have the loose ends clear of the know before pulling; then, after pulling the knot open, you keep tugging on the ends to loosen the tie across tongue; finally, grip the tongue and pull it up to loosen the threading before removing your foot.

Ten years it took me?

One could conclude that I'm just a putz. There is a little more to it, perhaps: The fact that insights, major or minor, take an indeterminate amount of time to reveal themselves. Insights can't be scheduled. They can be encouraged, but they'll show up when they're ready. A Simone Weil quote that I've been looking at for a while (from the "Little Zen Calendar 1996" that Kiko Shinoda gave me - yes, I'm in no hurry to tear off each day's saying and move on to the next one):

Even if our efforts of attention seem for years to be producing no result, one day a light that is in direct proportion to them will flood the soul.

Also: solutions to problems may just show up even when one isn't looking for them, or even realize consciously that there is a puzzle to be solved. We muddle through the tunnel of routine, not noticing problems as soluble, let alone trying to solve them.

There is so much about the world that could be better, and we just don't know it. I suddenly realized how to take off a pair of trainers - just think of the real problems that need to be solved, let alone the problems that we don't even notice we have.

Solutions probably show up unexpectedly because we ignore problems that don't seem to have solutions. This is a hallowed tradition in academic circles: why work on a problem if you can't get a paper out of it?

On the other hand, artists often take pride in "asking questions" without feeling obligated to propose answers. I would find this pose less aggravating if they occasionally highlighted problems that we didn't already know we had. As it is, the "problems" are invariably old faithfulls like "discrimination" or "the nature of representation" or "violence". Booooooooring! And not helpful...

Finding problems isn't easy, otherwise I wouldn't be writing this entry. Attentiveness, a la Ms. Weil, will help. Forcing oneself to look at the world from novel points of view is also necessary. Douglas Adams's advice for dealing with a Somebody Else's Problem Field applies:

Ford was beginning to behave rather strangely [...] Regardless of the bemused stares it was provoking from his fellow members of the crowd gathered round the pitch, he was waving his hands in sharp movements across his face, ducking down behind some people, leaping up behind others, then standing still and blinking a lot. After a moment or two of this he started to stalk forward slowly and stealthily, wearing a puzzled frown of concentration, like a lepard that is not sure whether it's just seen a half-empty tin of cat food half a mile away across a hot and dusty plain.

So that's my excuse when they come to take me away, and I'm sticking to it.

* I learned the saying "Too soon old, too late smart" from my father. He used to say that he got it from a Jewish friend, but I haven't been able to track down a source. The Omega Faith web site claims it's "an old Dutch saying". There may be something to that; I've also seen it referred to as a Pennsylvania Dutch saying.


Anonymous said...

My grandmother was Pennsylvania Dutch, and she used to say that.

Pierre de Vries said...

Thanks Judith, that's fascinating. It's probably no coincidence, since my father was an Afrikaner, which I guess one could describe as African Dutch