Category Archives: Fables, myths & parables

The servant of practice

The wisest thing Yogi Berra never said was “In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice, but in practice there is.”

Those who have pushed theory to its limits, and subjected all values to critical interrogation will tell you also that in theory there is no better or worse, beautiful or ugly, good or evil. Theory debunks them. They are social, psychological, philosophical phantasms, constructs, instruments of domination.

So it seems from inside what can be theorized about.

In practice, however, values are the very heart of the matter.

Theory is — and must always be — the servant of practice. When theory tries to usurp the place of practice, theory repeats Apollo’s rape of Daphne.

If you confine yourself only to what you can objectively conceptualize, explicate, reason out, argue and defend you’ll find it impossible to take many of the most important features of human life seriously.

You will gain a comprehensive objectivity at the cost of subjectivity.

But you will not even experience the loss, because, by this point, you will have come to consider subjectivity an epiphenomenon of objective processes, a species of object, an epiphenomenon of objective processes.

A subject, however, is not an object. Subject is, among many other things, objectivity.

To make an antithetical dichotomy of subject-object is to commit a category mistake.

Subject and object are not on the same order of being. Subject is the ground of object, the objectivity within which an object appears as an object among objects.

Subjectivity is our first-person participation in reality. The antithesis of subject, that against which it is defined, is not object, but rather transcendence.

The subject-object dichotomy is a nihilistic dead-end category mistake. The subject-transcendence (Within-I, beyond-I) dichotomy opens us to participation in the world among myriad objects.

Critical theory criticizes everything except theory as final arbiter of what is really real, what is apparently real and what is unreal.

But in practical life, theory plays a minor role.

Theory plays a major role only in the skull-sized kingdom of wordworld, down in the palace dungeon where the Grand Inquisitor does his work.


In the writings of a hermit one always hears something of the echo of the wilderness, something of the murmuring tones and timid vigilance of solitude; in his strongest words, even in his cry itself, there sounds a new and more dangerous kind of silence, of concealment. … The recluse … will doubt whether a philosopher can have “ultimate and actual” opinions at all; whether behind every cave in him there is not, and must necessarily be, a still deeper cave: an ampler, stranger, richer world beyond the surface, an abyss behind every ground, beneath every “foundation”. Every philosophy is a foreground philosophy — this is a recluse’s verdict: “There is something arbitrary in the fact that he came to a stand here, took a retrospect, and looked around; that he here laid his spade aside and did not dig any deeper — there is also something suspicious in it.” Every philosophy also conceals a philosophy; every opinion is also a lurking-place, every word is also a mask.

Nietzsche again:

Into your eyes I looked recently, O life! And into the unfathomable I then seemed to be sinking. But you pulled me out with a golden fishing rod; and you laughed mockingly when I called you unfathomable.

“Thus runs the speech of all fish,” you said; “what they do not fathom is unfathomable. But I am merely changeable and wild and a woman in every way, and not virtuous — even if you men call me profound, faithful, eternal, and mysterious. But you men always present us with your own virtues, O you virtuous men!”

Thus she laughed, the incredible one; but I never believe her and her laughter when she speaks ill of herself.

And when I talked in confidence with my wild wisdom she said to me in anger, “You will, you want, you love — that is the only reason why you praise life.” Then I almost answered wickedly and told the angry woman the truth; and there is no more wicked answer than telling one’s wisdom the truth.

For thus matters stand among the three of us: Deeply I love only life — and verily, most of all when I hate life. But that I am well disposed toward wisdom, and often too well, that is because she reminds me so much of life. She has her eyes, her laugh, and even her little golden fishing rod: is it my fault that the two look so similar?

And when life once asked me, “Who is this wisdom?” I answered fervently, “Oh yes, wisdom! One thirsts after her and is never satisfied; one looks through veils, one grabs through nets. Is she beautiful? How should I know? But even the oldest carps are baited with her. She is changeable and stubborn; often I have seen her bite her lip and comb her hair against the grain. Perhaps she is evil and false and a female in every way; but just when she speaks ill of herself she is most seductive.”

When I said this to life she laughed sarcastically and closed her eyes. “Of whom are you speaking?” she asked; “no doubt, of me. And even if you are right — should that be said to my face? But now speak of your wisdom too.”

Ah, and then you opened your eyes again, O beloved life. And again I seemed to myself to be sinking into the unfathomable.

The wrestling ritual

A few times a year Susan and I do a silly wrestling ritual.

To understand the ritual, it is important to know that Susan is a physical person. She strength trains most days of the week. For a woman, her strength is well above average, and she often outperforms women in their twenties. I am not a physical person. My exercise consists of cycling and walking. For a man, I am pretty damn weak. But, still, my masculine physique makes me stronger, and so far I have always managed to subdue her.

Or almost subdue her. The ritual goes as follows: Susan announces that, thanks to her new training regimen, she is now stronger than I am, and proceeds to attack me. We grapple until I gain the advantage. Just as I get her pinned and begin the count, she yells out “No fair! You can’t use strength.” At this point, I am required to loosen up my muscles. I use my longer reach to gain leverage. “No fair! You can’t use your size.” So then I just drape myself over her hold her down with my weight. “No fair! You can’t use your weight.” And “You can’t use your rough beard hair.” “You can’t use your disgustingness.”

Eventually, with enough equity adjustments, she ends up winning.

Whoever controls the terms of fairness controls all.

The Emperor’s New Proclamation

One there was a Christian emperor who enjoyed unlimited power over his dominion.

His spies had infiltrated every corner of his holy empire.

If anyone spoke against the emperor or defied his will, they would never do so again.

This Christian emperor, however, was deeply bothered.

He read in the Gospels that the first would be last and the last would be first, and that the meek would inherit the earth. He understood that the powerless were privileged in the eyes of God, even when — especially when — they were scorned by society.

The emperor, of course wanted to be first. He wanted to inherit the earth, and to pass it down to his heirs. Most of all, he wanted to bask in God’s approving gaze. But alas! He could only do so if he became last and meek and powerless.

After extensive inner work, the emperor found a solution: He renounced his power, and proclaimed himself powerless. And having renounced his power, he could now become an ally of the meek, scorned, oppressed and last in rank.

And the emperor’s spies and court also renounced their power, and joined the ranks of the powerless.

Anyone vicious or ignorant enough to defy the emperor or any of his powerless allies would be called out and brought before the tribunal to confess the corruption of their judgment and to renounce their unjust abuse of power.

In this way, the emperor empowered the marginal and powerless, and for the first time in human history created conditions of justice for all who deserved it.

Parallax anxiety

When I was young, I did a lot of life drawing. Frequently, I was anxious about the discrepancy between what I saw from my left eye and what I saw from my right eye. Each eye reported a slightly shifted perspective, which meant that forms and lines of the object related differently, depending on which eye I favored. It was impossible to reduce what I really saw to a single image on a flat page. This turned out to be a parable.

The Reformed Bully

One day, as the world’s most terrifying playground bully was applying an atomic super-wedgie to one of his favorite victims, he had a profound change of heart.

He looked at the miserable face of the poor kid he held aloft by the elastic of his tighty-whities.

Then he looked the sadistic faces of his jeering comrades.

He was overwhelmed with disgust at himself, and those who found pleasure in bullying the helpless.

He immediately released the kid he was tormenting and turned on his laughing comrades.

“What are we doing? This is WRONG!”

To everyone’s surprise, the bully grasped the waistband of his own underwear, and yanked until his eyes teared up with pain and emotion.

He then lunged violently at his shocked comrades.

“You, also, will do this work!”

With the assistance of his former victims, the ex-bully inflicted some of the most brutal and heartfelt wedgies anyone had ever seen.

The tables were now turned. With the ex-bully’s energetic assistance, the former victims were now destroying waistbands across the playground and in the school bathrooms. The tormented now had their chance to torment their tormenters.

The reformed ex-bully calculated that the former tormenters had approximately five years of suffering before them before fairness would be achieved.

He found deep gratification using his strength to restore justice to the playground. Soon equity would be achieved — all because of his heroic rejection of bullying.

Alcatraz Tour

Once the wife of a former inmate to Alcatraz decided to take a tour of the prison so she could better understand what he’d gone through in his two decades of imprisonment.

She walked through the stone corridors, ate a snack in the mess hall, and even experienced the cold clank of the iron door closing behind her as she was shut up in a cell for a few minutes to contemplate the horror of confinement in a nine-by-five-by-seven foot space.

Afterwards, she reflected with her husband on her experience. “It was really quite interesting. Maybe next time you will agree to go with me, so we can experience it together.”

A ludicrous fable

Two people sat down in front of a Monopoly board and had an argument.

Person A wanted to play Monopoly by the standard rules in the rulebook.

Person B argued that the rules made the game boring and that the best players were often unable to win the game — because victory was too much a matter of luck. Person B wanted to take a less rule-bound, more commonsense approach to making the game fairer and more enjoyable. Instead of leaving outcomes to chance rolls of the dice and random card selections, the players themselves would determine what should happen each round, according to what seemed best to the players.

Person A argued that tossing out the rules would cause the game to devolve into an endless, fruitless debate about fairness and fun, and that this would not be fun at all.

Person B asked: “In what way does this argument follow the rules of Monopoly?”

Person A was flummoxed, and unable to respond.

Person B continued: “If you are so committed to the rules of Monopoly, why aren’t you following those rules right now, you hypocrite? You claim that my way is so bad. But then you go and do exactly the same thing!”

Person A realized that in order to win an honorable victory, he must stick to his principles. He rolled a double-6. But even this powerful roll was insufficient to persuade Person B.

Person A ended up losing both the argument and the game.

This is a fable, and therefore has a moral: Person A would have served his principles more faithfully had he simply refused to play Person B’s game.

(Principles are not rules.)

Metamyth of Midas

In my metamyth of King Midas, Midas’s touch is only an allegorical metaphor — the power to transmute immersive, involving chaos into exteriorizing, objective truth.

In the metamythical retelling, when Midas touches his daughter’s hand, she dies, as she does in the myth — but here, not because she becomes an inert gold statue, but because her biological being loses all capacity for participation.

Instead each of her organs becomes capable only of objective comprehension.

Her heart is only able to comprehend blood, and ignores everything outside the circular logic of its circulatory system.

The brain becomes obsessed with neural signals and refuses to engage any other topic of thought, or any autonomic duties.

The stomach just dissolves whatever enters it for the sake of dissolution, and becomes preoccupied with generating increasingly powerful acids capable of breaking all matter — including itself — down into the smallest possible units.

No organ feels itself a part of a body. No organ is willing to play a part in anything it cannot first comprehend. Everything becomes mere object and objectivity: lifeless.

Dog’s-eye fiction is a very, very, very, very bad idea

In my 20s, two friends who knew me well, within a month of each other, both recommended that I read Borges. I followed their advice, and what ensued was so transcendently, life-alteringly rewarding that I adopted a new policy. If two or more insightful friends independently recommend an author or a work of fiction, I automatically read it.

But now, having finished Thurston Branch’s Immanuel, at the recommendation of not two, but three friends, I am going to have to discontinue this policy. I cannot risk reading another book like this ever again. Also, fairly or not, I blame Borges for this book’s existence. Until further notice, consider me soured on trippy fiction.

The premise is intriguing: an Australian Shepherd named Immanuel suddenly develops some doglike awareness of the limits of his own canine cognition, and drives himself insane with paranoid self-consciousness.

This much I gathered from the back flap, the only coherent writing I was able to find anywhere in or on this book. Opening it, I found myself trapped inside a postmodern Jack London nightmare of attempted dog-perspective storytelling.

Maybe the problem is that I’ve never been a “dog person”. I’ve spent very little time empathizing with dogs  or reflecting on dog psyches. This kind of exercise is probably delightful to that breed of dog owners who imagine their animals having human-like personalities, and interpret their dog’s annoying neuroses as signs of intelligence. (This, is how I account for everyone under the age of forty spontaneously melting into a puddle en masse over this book, despite the fact that they don’t read books. More on this later.) For me, it amounted an excessively lengthy and persuasive demonstration of the truth of Wittgenstein’s aphorism: “If a lion could talk, we would not understand him.”

But I made myself read the whole thing. I focused my attention on each of the words in every one of the thousands upon thousands of sentences printed on excess of four hundred densely-set narrow-margin pages. Fans of Immanuel claim that these words and sentences lead a reader through the tragic story of a dog who suffers a philosophical insight, or a dog’s approximation of one. I will rely on what I’ve learned from them to summarize the plot. Immanuel realizes, in some doglike way, that he only experiences a small sliver of what humans experience. He somehow connects this intuition he’s had to human existence. Humans have these sorts on intuitions all the time, he senses, and this is somehow connected to the weird sounds they’re always making. Immanuel is oppressed by this mute, dark and crushing hunch. He is terrified of the vast ocean of intelligibility surrounding him, permanently beyond the paw-grasp of his mind. The poor guy can no longer fart or lick his balls without a sense of being witnessed and known. He becomes immobilized with anxiety. He gets moody, destructive and aggressive. Eventually he stops eating and starves to death ruminating on the unknowable mystery of humankind.

How anyone got this from what Branch wrote, I will never know. I’ve read some gnarly books and wrung at least some sense out of them, but I went dozens — grosses — of pages without encountering a single example of recognizably English syntax. We are invited to join Immanuel in his descent into madness, and at this the author succeeds, but only because it is altogether too easy to sympathize with this dog’s terminal bafflement when you, too, are paralyzed by anxiety at how much you are missing, assuming there is some there to understand. This attempt to render a dog’s inner life produced literally — I’ll say it again — four hundred plus pages of impenetrable babble of mysterious significance, which is a lot of words to evoke a supposedly wordless intuition and its nonlinguistic mental aftermath.

After actually forcing myself read all these words — every one of them, in order — in the misplaced hope of gaining something from it, and instead getting zero, I need justice. I will take my vengeance in the form of a mean-spirited diagnosis: this book’s freakish level of acclaim and our culture’s obsession with dogs share a single root cause. Both book and beast are entirely free of humanity — purged, cleansed, disinfected, liberated. Just as there is not a scrap of human intelligence to be found between your pet dog’s adorable, shaggy doggy ears, there is also none between the covers of this book — and that is precisely the appeal. Because there is no human content, because there is featureless blankness, we are free to invent. We can dispense with the hell that is other people, but without suffering solitary confinement in our own solipsism. We can project our own fantasy content upon it like a screen, and enjoy our own imaginary characters as if they were someone who isn’t us.  We can populate the blankness with freely-invented fictional “others” — starting with our dogs, and continuing on to the entire population of the planet. Every living thing we encounter is given the Midas touch and transformed into a concept —  image, identity, self, news, brand. We then run our imaginary menagerie of inventions through dramatic scenarios and have overpowering emotional experiences. The passionate emoting we do over the fates of our fictional artifacts is what we call empathy. All from the comfort of our own skulls.

I don’t know. Maybe highlighting this allergy to real-live, independently-existing, stubborn, perplexing, disgusting first-person human beings was what Branch had in mind when he started typing. If that was his intention I salute him. In the future, however I’ll skip the reading part, and just salute him from a distance.

A postaesopian fable

A highly-educated, well-respected and successful person — a person whose race, ethnicity, sex, gender and sexual orientation is not relevant to this story — loved to travel the world and experience new places and cultures.

On a trip to some fascinating destination — the location does not matter — this person bought a genie lamp for sale in a bazaar. It was a cheap and cheesy souvenir that appealed to their ironic sentimentality.

A few weeks later, regaling some dinner guests with tales of the trip (after consuming perhaps a little too much cannabis), the person picked up the lamp and gave it a theatric rub.

To their great shock, a genie appeared and offered them three wishes.

The first wish was obvious. Long ago, in college, this person had fallen in love with with Marx, and even more in love with Marx’s poststructuralist, postcolonial, postmodern revolutionary heirs.

Without a moment’s hesitation, they made their first wish: “I wish for the Revolution to happen right now.”

Sadly, they did not survive to make the second or third wish.

Alternative Exodus

In my alternative Exodus, God gives Moses a bill of Ten Rights.

The Israelites still wander about in the wilderness for forty years, craving the relative luxury of Egyptian servitude, but they refuse to invade Canaan because they do not want to displace its indigenous people. Instead they politely settle unoccupied regions in the wilderness. Their new non-European wilderness neighbors welcome them with casseroles and pound cakes. All live together peacefully.

The Prophets are the conscience of the people, the champions of the Ten Rights. They champion the Ten Rights, not only in letter, but, more importantly, in spirit.

Guided by the spirit of the Ten Rights, the Prophets discover and condemn successively subtle infringements. When violent infringements of the Ten Rights are finally conquered, the prophets discover and condemn material infringements. When material infringements are stopped, then speech infringements are condemned. Then infringements of conscious thought are stopped.

Finally, the prophets put a stop even to infringements of unconscious thought.

In this way, God is understood to have given to the Israelites the Infinite Commandment. And now all may think, feel and behave identically, in accordance with God’s infinite tolerance.

Apprehend, comprehend, suprehend

To apprehend is to know-that.

To comprehend is to know-what.

When know-that stubbornly resists know-what, when we touch with the tips of our fingers something that cannot be grasped by the hand of our thought, we feel ourselves situated within something incomprehensible. We comprehend the fact that we are comprehended by something incomprehensible. The relation we take to that which comprehends us cannot be comprehension, but the eversion of comprehension, something which might be called suprehension.

When suprehending, we must situate ourselves and everything we comprehend and apprehend within a more-than-everything we will know primarily by radical surprise — by the irruptions into the little cognitive bubbles inside which we float within infinity, that can flood us with dread, love or both at any moment.

To suprehend is to know-why.


Wisdom is suprehension.


Each everything is a universe-size, lifetime-long oyster.

Outside the oyster’s outer shell is an infinite sea of water, salt and particles. The ocean knows the oyster as one of its myriad objects, one of its innumerable everythings — a convexity in an unbounded concavity.

The convex object in the ocean is, seen from the inside by the oyster, a concave habitat. Everything it knows, it knows from the inside of its shell.

The world the oyster knows is pearly lucre, a substance the oyster excretes so naturally it often is not aware of its origin. Anything from the ocean that enters the shell is either digested, or expelled or coated with lucre, so it cannot irritate the oyster’s delicate flesh.

The oyster’s inner-shell is also lucre.

It is essentially a mother-of-pearl bubble which the oyster has painted around its own space. It has coated the ocean itself with lucre, and this lucre bubble is now its universe — or at least that part of the universe it can apprehend.

Anything from the outside, anything indigestible that gets inside, is also painted with lucre, and is transformed into pearls.

The oyster is enworlded in pearl.

Above and around the oyster is a pearly dome, and inside the dome are scattered pearls of various size and luster. The oyster senses these pearls are of the same substance as its heaven.

The oyster continuously anoints its pearls and its dome with fresh lucre, to make the surfaces iridesce and glow, and to protect and honor something it loves and fears, its source and home, the very surrounding ground of existence.


I’ve written and rewritten this same idea for years, compulsively.

I need to sit down with everything I’ve secreted on this topic and change perspectives. I need to stop looking from the oyster’s perspective and start seeing it like a jeweler.

I want this idea to irridesce and glow.

This could be a pretty book, if I can get the language under control. It would be a chapbook, with a coarse, dark gray board outer cover, and a light pearlescent flyleaf, and  pulpy cream paper for the content.


I was sent an image of an everting sphere.

Note how the sphere becomes a shell-like torus midway through the eversion.

Note how we human beings are such that we can view reality from an inner first-person and outer third-person and experiences at once a metaphysical behind and a metaphysical beyond.

Recall that the Chinese coin was understood to be the negative space of Tao, the inner square, yin, the outer infinity, yang — but it is obvious these two are one and the same from everywhere beyond the coin.

In the creation myth this everting sphere just spawned, human being, human existence exists everywhere that the infinite sphere whose center is everywhere and periphery is nowhere forms a torus at mid-eversion, creating a unique everything, a soul, a person.

I wonder if I could make a book on images of eversions and the torus. I would make a chapbook, a second signature, to Geometric Meditations, and it would be called Everso.

Here’s the material I have so far, starting, of course with a dedication to the gorging torus, who I am now wondering is more complicated than I thought only days ago

Gorging torus,
Rolled up like an egg
Before us.

Definition of evert:

I have needed the word “evert” many times, but had to resort to flipping, reversing, inverting, turning… inside-out.

Evert – verb [with obj.]

Turn (a structure or organ) outward or inside out.


eversible – adjective.
eversion –  noun

ORIGIN mid 16th cent. (in the sense ‘upset, overthrow’): from Latin evertere, from e- (variant of ex-) ‘out’ + vertere ‘to turn.’


Now I can say things like:

  • Everything in the world is the world everted.
  • A comedy is an everted tragedy. A tragedy is an everted comedy.
  • A pearl is an everted oyster shell. An oyster coats the ocean with mother-of-pearl. Outside the shell is ocean, inside the pearl is ocean. Between inner-shell and outer-pearl is slimy oyster-flesh, which ceaselessly coats everything it isn’t with mother-of-pearl. It is as if the flesh cannot stand anything that does not have a smooth, continuous and lustrous surface. We could call the flesh’s Other — that which requires coating — “father-of-pearl”.
  • Imagine Pandora’s box as a pearl everting to an all-ensconcing shell as Pandora opened it, and Eden as an all-ensconcing shell everted to a pearl upon Adam’s eviction.
  • An object is an everted subject.


In the end:

In the end,
the trees will grow like snakes,
splitting and sloughing bark,
bending in coils of green heartwood;
and the snakes will grow like trees,
depositing skin under skin,
and in their turgid leather casings,
they will lie about on the ground
like broken branches.

Shells and Pearls (a collection of previous pearl posts):

An oyster coats the ocean with an inner-shell made of mother-of-pearl lined. Anything from the outside that gets inside is coated, too. A pearl is an everted oyster shell, and an everted pearl is a shell’s inner lining. Outside the shell is ocean, inside the pearl is ocean. Between inner-shell and outer-pearl is delicate oyster-flesh, which ceaselessly coats everything it is not with mother-of-pearl. It is as if this flesh cannot stand anything that does not have a smooth, continuous and lustrous surface. We could call the flesh’s Other — that which requires coating — father-of-pearl.


Minds secrete knowing like mother-of-pearl, coating irritant reality with lustrous likeness.



You are absurd. You defy comprehension.

That is, you defy my way of understanding. I cannot continue to understand my world as I understand it and also understand you.

That is, you do not fit inside my soul.

I am faced with the most fundamental moral choice: Do I break open my soul? or do I bury you in mother-of-pearl?



(A meditation on Levinas’s use of the term “exception” in Otherwise Than Being.)

We make category mistakes when attempting to understand metaphysics, conceiving what must be exceived.

Positive metaphysics are objectionable, in the most etymologically literal way, when they try to conceptualize what can only be exceptualized, to objectify that to which we are subject, to comprehend what comprehends — in order to achieve certainty about what is radically surprising.

In my own religious life, this category mistake is made tacitly at the practical and moral level, and then, consequentially, explicitly and consciously. Just as the retinas of our eyes see things upside-down, our mind’s eye sees things inside-out. We naturally confuse insidedness and outsidedness. By this view, human nature is less perverse than it is everse.


Imagine, with as much topological precision as you can muster, expulsion from Eden as belonging-at-home flipped inside-out.

That galut in the pit of your gut: everted Eden?


A garden is an everted fruit, and a fruit, an everted garden.

The nacre inner lining of a shell is an everted pearl, and a pearl, an everted nacre lining.

The exception is the everted conception, and the conception, the everted exception.



Pearls are inside-out oyster shells. Or are oyster shells inside-out pearls?

The oyster coats its world with layers of iridescent calcium. With the same substance it protects itself from the dangers concaving in from the outside and the irritants convexing it from the inside.


Irridescent Irritation

Some random notes on the inner topology of oysters…


A pearl is an inside-out oyster shell.


An oyster coats the ocean with mother-of-pearl.

Outside the shell is ocean, inside the pearl is ocean.

Between inner-shell and outer-pearl is slimy oyster-flesh, ceaselessly coating everything it isn’t with mother-of-pearl.

It is as if the flesh cannot stand anything that does not have a smooth, continuous and lustrous surface. We could call the flesh’s Other — that which requires coating — “father-of-pearl”.


Every pearl is an iridescent tomb with an irritant sealed inside. We love the luster of the outer coat, but inside is what was once known as filth.


We could also think of the oyster shell as the fortress walls and the pearl as a prison cell.


We make pearls of what is Other, then love what we’ve made of the Other, which is ourselves.


We love our misunderstandings. We never cut into what we love with critique. Inside is just a grain or a fragment, of interest only to other grains and fragments.


Sometimes an alien bit of beyond gets inside one’s horizon, but it can always be explained.


Imagine Pandora’s box as a pearl turned outside-side in upon its being opened, and Eden as an oyster’s interior turned inside-out into a pearl with Adam’s eviction.

Joseph Campbell (and some weird rambling)

Joseph Campbell’s most famous quote, “follow your bliss”, might really have been a careless remark of an old man well past his prime. For years I refused to take Campbell seriously, and even posed him against an antithetical motto, “follow your angst.” But reading The Hero With a Thousand Faces, I do not see any hint of facile hedonism, and substantial evidence of tragic insight. He’s another of those thinkers whose Nietzschean inspiration shows through in every sentence he wrote.

If I’d read this book back in 2004, at the height of my mandala obsession, he would have been one of my heroes, because his theme of the hero’s journey is just looping and relooping the path from West to North to East to South and back again to West (or, alternatively, as discussed in the chapter I’m on currently, “refusing the call” and trying to loop back from West to South and paying the steep price for exalting base things over higher destinies. “One is harassed, both day and night, by the divine being that is the image of the living self within the locked labyrinth of one’s own disoriented psyche. The ways to the gates have all been lost: there is no exit. One can only cling, like Satan, furiously, to one­ self and be in hell; or else break, and be annihilated at last, in God.”)

I don’t think it is any accident that my thoughts are returning to the themes of the early-aughts, because events in my life are feeling like they are rounding a circle and bringing me back to where I was. For one thing, my company has relocated to the same neighborhood where I worked from 2003-2007, and I have returned to cycling the same path to work. Seeing the same scenes has recalled vivid images and I’m accessing memories of thoughts and feelings from that time. Another thing: A generous gift of tea a friend brought home from her travels to the East has inspired me to replace a broken teapot I’d purchased in one of the Chinatowns North of Toronto on a very dark, dry-frozen winter day at the tail-end of 2002. I remember the drive, looking out at myriad identical gray brutalist apartments standing in gray slush under a gray sky against gray air. The gloomy glory of this memory was condensed for me into a yellow, speckled teapot we bought in the tiny tea shop we’d set out that day to find. When the pot was smashed exactly three years later on the way out the door to visit family on Christmas, it had acquired a ruddy glaze from the accumulated layers of tea that had been poured over it in the course of gongfu tea service. The taste of Alishan oolong, and thinking about this legendary lost teapot places me in 2002 and 2003, which was the pivot-point of my life. There are other things, too. Susan has had an awakening of her own, and I am finally having the kind of conversation I’ve desperately needed (begged for, on occasion) for the last sixteen years. Finally — and maybe most crucially — I feel a work-induced crisis nearing. The same weight, the same claustrophobia, the same profound boredom mixed with intense anxiety of the least productive kind, impending soul-balk… I can feel it: there is going to be a summons.

Reading Campbell and John Hick’s An Interpretation of Religion, I’m gaining some still inchoate insight into what is common and what differs between my understanding of religion and other attempts at viewing religion from a non-superstitious angle. Campbell is typical of his times in that he wants to explain the force of religious insight in psychological terms. Hick is less obvious at this point, but I’m detecting an opportunity to “replatform” his comparisons and contrasts of varying religious traditions on a material-turn-informed metaphysics, which I find incredibly difficult to doubt, and only slightly challenging as more nourishing ground for religious faith and practice. I’m sure when I’m done I’ll discover that I’ve only rethought Whitehead and reinstaurated Process Theology, but that’s just how the humiliating method of philosophy works.

I’ve said this a zillion times, and they might even be my own words: Philosophy is an exercise in humiliation.

Philosophical insights can only be known firsthand. Whatever symbols are used in an attempt to convey an insight, they remain incomprehensible until the epiphany comes and insight breathes life into the forms. But when epiphany comes — and it comes only when it decides to, perhaps long after words are heard — you are always the original discoverer of the insight, the first to really understand. If you like that feeling, to the degree you are impervious to loneliness, you are perfectly free to bask in singular, solitary genius forever.

That’s what’s on my mind today.


In May 2006 when I wrote the lines below I worked downtown and bike commuted along Edgewood every day. Since my company moved to the same neighborhood, I’ve returned to my old bike route, and pass the location where I witnessed this scene:

The helmeted surgeons
Transplanting the heart of the street
Did not return my greeting.
Mirrors shielded their eyes.
The hearts were laid out
beside the hole they’d opened
in the sun-softened asphalt;
The old one, chipped and orange,
and the new one, burnished and gray:
Cast-iron conches I could pick up
and hold in my hands.


Reasons to love design research

Some people love design research for purely functional reasons: it helps designers do a much better job. Others just love the process itself, finding the conversations intrinsically pleasant and interesting.

These reasons matter to me, too, to some extent, but they never quite leave the range of liking and cross over into loving.

Here are my three main reasons for loving design research, listed in the order in which I experienced them:

  1. Design research makes business more liberal-democratic. — Instead of asking who has deeper knowledge, superior judgment or more brilliant ingenuity (and therefore is entitled to make the decisions), members of the team propose possibilities and argue on the basis of directly observed empirically-grounded truths, why those possibilities deserve to be taken seriously, then submit the ideas to testing, where they succeed or fail based on their own merit. This change from ad hominem judgment to scientific method judgment means  that everyone looks together at a common problem and collaborates on solving it, and this palpably transforms team culture in the best way. This reminds me of a beautiful quote of Saint-Exuperie: “Love does not consist in gazing at each other, but in looking outward together in the same direction.”
  2. Design research reliably produces philosophical problems. — Of all the definitions of philosophy I have seen, my favorite is Ludwig Wittgenstein’s “A philosophical problem has the form: ‘I don’t know my way about.'” When we invite our informants to teach us about their experiences and how they interpret them (which is what generative research ought to be) we are often unprepared for what we learn, and often teams must struggle to make clear, cohesive and shared sense of what we have been taught. The struggle is not just a matter of pouring forth effort, or of following the method extra-rigorously, or of being harmonious and considerate — in fact, all these moves work against resolution of what, in fact, is a philosophical perplexity, where the team must grope for the means to make sense of what was really learned. It is a harrowing process, and teams nearly always experience angst and conflict, but moving through this limbo state and crossing over to a new clarity is transformative for every individual courageous, trusting, flexible and benevolent enough to undertake it. It is a genuine hero’s journey. The opportunity to embark on a hero’s journey multiple times a year is a privilege.
  3. Design research is an act of kindness. — In normal life, “being a good listener” is an act of generosity. If we are honest with ourselves, in our hearts we know that when we force ourselves to listen, the talker is the true beneficiary. But paradoxically, this makes us shitty listeners. We are not listening with urgency, and it is really the urgent interest, the living curiosity, that makes us feel heard. Even when we hire a therapist, it is clear who the real beneficiary is: the one who writes the check for services rendered. But in design research, we give a person significant sums of money to teach us something we desperately want to understand. We hang on their words, and then we pay them. People love it, and it feels amazing to be a part of making someone feel that way. In a Unitarian Church on the edge of Central Park in Manhattan there is a huge mosaic of Jesus washing someone’s feet, and this is the image that comes to mind when I see the face of an informant who needed to be heard. (By the way, if anyone knows how to get a photo of this mosaic, I’ve looked for it for years and have never found it.)


African Frog

I really thought I’d written up my story of the African Frog. I was just looking for it, and it’s not here. I will rewrite it now, because this is one of the key mythical tales of my life.

When I was a young boy living in Brockway, Pennsylvania I had a beautiful tank of tropical fish. My folks would occasionally take me to the pet store over in Dubois and let me pick out a new fish to add to my tank. On one of our trips I spotted an African Frog, and I instantly knew I could no longer settle for some ordinary fish. We brought the African Frog home in a plastic bag and placed it in the aquarium overnight to acclimate. The next day we  released him into the tank. He seemed pretty happy swimming around in there with the angelfish, swordtails and neon tetras. A few days later, though, we noticed one of the guppies was missing. And the next day, another. Each day another fish disappeared. Eventually, the only thing left in the tank was the African Frog. Then the African Frog disappeared, too. A few weeks later, we found him under the bed, mummified in a ball of lint.