specialization is for insects (issue 9)

This is The Ordinary, a weekly reminder to notice the joy, value, and rigor of ordinary things. New subscribers, welcome!

I hope all you US-based readers had a relaxing Thanksgiving.

- Ammar


An Ordinary Quote:

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

Time Enough for Love, Robert A. Heinlein

Some Ordinary Reads:

“The Bus Ticket Theory of Genius” (essay): Is genius more easily understood as an obsession that is disinterested in personal gain? “One of the most striking features of Darwin's book about his voyage on the Beagle is the sheer depth of his interest in natural history. His curiosity seems infinite. Ditto for Ramanujan, sitting by the hour working out on his slate what happens to series.”

“This Radical Land: A Natural History of American Dissent” (book): Daegan Miller’s thorough history of American philosophy (and contrarianism) told from the perspective of America’s creeks, rivers, and forests.

“The Empty Brain” (essay): Robert Epstein claims that our brains are not information processors — we are not computers nor are we neural nets. Our brains are also not mechanical instruments nor are they hydraulics. We mix up metaphors and believe our brains to be like our tools, rather than the other way around.

An Ordinary Note:

A friend J* recently told me a story.

As a young lad, he traipsed around Europe and Asia with a few university buddies. Early Balearic house music in Ibiza, queercore in the UK, encounters with the Dalai Lama in Tibet, handiwork in the French countryside, barefoot experiences in India. Father a painter, mother a schoolteacher, he a philosophy student, his friends musicians.

At the time, I was hanging out with J at his house. He was building up to a larger point, or so I thought, but we continually got sidetracked in conversation, like a garden of forking paths.

“What do you think of the lard bread?” We talked about baking, sourdough, starters, flavor profiles, our favorite meals in the world as far as we know.

“You like coffee? I’ll brew you a cup.” He showed me his large collection of percolators, bunna ceramics, and local beans.

This one, not sure what to make of it, it is wonderful.” J pulled out an old 70’s Japanese funk record from its sleeve and onto the turntable.

We talked about Thomas Mann, Herman Hesse, allegorical fiction. Robert Heinlein came up. So did hypocrisy, that odd word. We hung on the topic of hypocrisy for a while, though I can’t recall whether our path kept forking back to it or if we were here on the straight and narrow for a while.

This is what we concluded. Hypocrisy is what we claim to know conceptually yet cannot verify with our own actions and experiences.

There is the idea of a fast and then there is actually fasting. There is the idea of moving a boulder and there is actually moving the boulder. There is the idea of dishwashing or team-building and there is actually washing the dishes and building a team.

How can we do anything when we know we’re just making it up as we go along? We think we know something, and then it becomes something else once we do it. We do something until we think we know it, and then the concept of it becomes something else entirely.

Hypocrisy is what differentiates us from insects. If I were more aware of my own hypocrisies, I would understand more clearly the truth of Heinlein’s quip.

Specialization is for insects. Boulders and forking paths are human.

We were not built for a single thing, we were built for as much as we can do and fathom. Also, how’s the lard bread?

The path then forked to (what I think was) the story. Or maybe it had forked here earlier in the conversation, I can’t remember.

J had a friend who traveled to Sri Lanka. There was a Zen monastery there, friendly to Westerners. What was meant by friendly, we weren’t so sure. The Western mind responds differently to spiritual challenges, we presumed. It takes much more to penetrate its fortresses.

The friend arrived at the monastery to study with a renowned master. He prepared himself for the daily rigors of sitting zazen, walking meditation, lecture, a rigid schedule, a few chores, and minimal sleep.

The master greeted the friend. After some time, maybe a few days or a few months, the teacher began his first lesson. It went something along the lines of:

“For the next twelve months, the garden is your task.

There is a heavy boulder out in the garden.

Please move it to the other side of the garden.”

The student was not prepared for this, to have come all this way for something so menial, so ordinary, so absurd.

Yet he was devoted, and so he worked day and night for a year to move the boulder from one side of the garden to the other.

Finally, after months of painstaking effort, the student had completed his task. God knows what psychological gymnastics took place in his flesh and bones during the year of his boulder trial.

“Good. Now move the boulder back to where it was.”

An Ordinary Visual:

Rehearsal footage from the Georgian national ballet: