May. 22nd, 2017

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I have an absurd amount of music, and it plays a gigantic role in my mental existence. I also have quite a lot of audiobooks, and those are often broken into lots of tiny little tracks that can overwhelm the database on an iPod. I want the best of both worlds (now that I'm using an iPod with a terabyte of storage) so I'm walking through my audiobook library and zipping all those little files together into big ones.

To verify that the files are joined in the right order, I need to listen to the middle of each book, for about 30 seconds at least. Every time, I want to keep listening longer and have to tear myself away. I've got a lot of interesting books to read.

... But I can't resist commenting on the book I just dropped into. It's "The Social Animal", by David Brooks. He just made two interesting points:

1. We often consider our lives to be at their best when we have a stable, safe home, and we get to make regular excursions outside of it.

I find it interesting that both a home and travel are fundamental components. No doubt one helps to characterize the other, as well. For all the fun and relaxing time I have at home, I still have a deep need to get outside and engage with things. Sometimes I catch myself in a ridiculous cycle where I dream about traveling when I'm at home, and I dream about being home when I'm traveling. Durrr.

I think that if I'd been raised in more threatening environment, or had a less stable home, I would be a lot less inclined to travel ... and probably a lot less able to relax at home, since I'd feel like it was constantly under threat. Truly this sense of stability is a gift. I also can't help but acknowledge the very weird sense of home that comes from a bicycle trip: The bicycle becomes a kind of mobile home. Not big enough to actually go inside, but big enough to carry all the supplies that would usually be in a house.

Then there's that strange, ironic feeling one gets, when one checks into a hotel for the night. It's four walls and a roof, and a bathroom and a bed, and usually dinner as well -- but it feels far from home, because it's not the seat of the bicycle. Sometimes the only way to combat this strange feeling is to wheel the bicycle into the room and sleep next to it, like it's the family dog!!

And here's David's second point:

2. The way parents engage in dialogue with their children does more for them developmentally than any amount of flashcards, books, tutors, travel, nutrition, freedom, or punishment. With that dialogue, they teach their children how to build their identity and navigate their own mental space, and how to send signals to - and read signals from - other people. The movement of the dialogue becomes the inner voice -- the tracks beneath the train of thought.

I think there's an awful lot of truth in that idea. Many of the formative events in my young life were conversations. One little example:

I had a CD of songs by Monty Python. I was playing it on the stereo one day, half-listening while doing some schoolwork I think, and the song "Oliver Cromwell" came up. My mother wandered into the living room. The song went:

"Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of England (and his warts)
Born in 1599, died in 1658 (September)
But, alas (Oi Vay!), disagreement then broke out (between)
The Presbyterian Parliament and the military..."

My mother was intrigued. "What song is this?" she asked.

"Oh it's just some Monty Python song about a king of England," I probably said.

"Oliver Cromwell, that rings a bell," she said, and listened for a while.

"And Cromwell sent Colonel Pride
To purge the House of Commons of the Presbyterian Royalists,
Leaving behind only the Rump Parliament"

"The Rump Parliament?" she said.

"Yeah, I don't know what that is," I said.

"Hah! I bet we can figure it out," she said, and walked over to the bookcase and sat down. After a moment she said, "here we are -- European history," and she pulled out a large book with a tall black spine.

I was intrigued. I set my homework aside, and sat down next to her on the floor. She opened the book and guided me through the table of contents, then the index, then we scoured the page together. Eventually we found it, and she read aloud:

"The Rump Parliament was the English Parliament after Colonel Thomas Pride purged the Long Parliament, on 6 December 1648, ..."

We learned a little about that, and I asked some questions. I was excited to discover that a song I liked for the silly voices was actually making social commentary about real historical events. I restarted the song from the beginning, so my Mom and I could hear it together.

"The most interesting thing about King Charles the First,
Is that he was 5'6" at the start of his reign,
But only 4'8" tall at the end of it."

My Mom laughed.

"I don't get that," I said. "Why did he get shorter? Did he have some kind of disease?"

"No," she said, and laughed again. "He was beheaded."

"OOOOOh," I said.

We found a reference to that a few pages back. I was fascinated: It felt like Monty Python had somehow managed to sneak one of their skits right into the middle of an otherwise serious history book.

We chatted some more about Monty Python and eventually Mom put the book away, and I returned to my homework. But that little exchange has stuck with me for 28 years, as a template for action and interaction. It said: Curiosity about random things, and the desire to follow up that curiosity, is normal, and rewarding in itself. It said: Research tools are good for more than just school projects. It said: Curiosity can be shared, and finding answers together is more fun.

David Brooks is really on to something with point 2 there.

As an adult, I have had a strange flipside to this experience a number of times. Usually when talking to people younger than me who are having some kind of trouble. We talk, and the person calms down and starts to think, and if I've managed to make a good impression by saying something wise or helpful, the conversation enters this interesting semi-monologue state where I talk a few orbits around whatever wise thing I may have said, reenforcing it, giving it context, backing it up. I can sense that I have been given, for a brief time, the conductor's seat in their train of thought, and I am driving it for them, laying down different track than what they were on before ... so that much later when the conversation is just a dim memory they might run that track on their own.

I also remember being on the receiving end of this state when I was young and my parents or school counselors would speak to me. If they managed to get through, my perspective would be shifted. The storm clouds would be clearing, and their words would settle into my head like they were my own. I had made an emotional and subconscious decision to let them write part of my identity.

Human minds are so strange. But how does that quote go? "If the human mind were simple enough for us to understand it, we would be so simple that we couldn't."

Oh by the way; here's an illustration of Cromwell dissolving the Rump Parliament:

What the hell is up with that owl in the lower right corner??

Anyway, back to my books.


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