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15 August 2005

Examine your car for dents

“When patterns are broken, new worlds emerge. -Tuli Kupferberg

Dent2_1One interesting thing about life is that at a certain point, it all starts repeating.

Or perhaps it’s been repeating all along and it just takes a certain distance (age?) to begin seeing the patterns that emerge, again and again.

And perhaps those patterns keep emerging because we keep not seeing them, like a looping test, some sort of life exam, a great big sparkly Broadway musical of the Bill Murray film, “Groundhog Day” with all of us playing Bill playing the weatherman searching for Punxsutawney Phil and awakening every morning to the sounds of Sonny and Cher on the radio, finally recognizing with a start that we have, in fact, been here before and that, like Bill, we’ll have to keep on doing it until we get it right—an infinite regress of doing and knowing and recognizing and starting over.

Or perhaps that’s too simplistic: perhaps we don’t have to keep repeating our mistakes until we get them right, but rather must break the pattern to get to Discovery instead, that place where new worlds can emerge, looking hard with an open eye at those patterns and recognizing our way out of them rather than repeating our way out of them. Because, after all, doesn’t learning occur when we disrupt patterns? Is that what Madame Curie meant when she said that “dissymmetry causes phenomenon”?

I guess sometimes we don’t change our patterns because they’re working for us at some level, even if unconsciously and even if destructively. Like the young woman who lived in the downstairs apartment on McIver Street in Greensboro, NC, whose boyfriend used to throw her against the wall, creating a sound like big pieces of furniture being moved at some speed, the echoes of which resonated up through the heating vents. The first time, I was eating dinner upstairs with my friends Richard and Chris and as that hot flash of realization hit us—that’s not furniture, but flesh—we ran to help. The Violent Man left, we consoled the woman who refused to call the police, we went back upstairs, and at 3 a.m. as we talked on the porch about JP Sartre and Martin Buber (ah, youth), he came back, she let him in, and the cycle began again, the pattern begun.

My ruminations on patterns started with a near collision last August while driving on William T. Weaver Boulevard, sparking a recently concluded 12-month Scientific Study of Car Dents. After Exhaustive Field Research, I’m ready to reveal the Findings at long last. The executive summary is just one sentence long:

 

Nine times out of ten, when a car pulls recklessly in front of me, there is a dent in the exact spot where I would hit the car, if – of course – I weren’t so diligent in my driving habits and hadn’t braked to avoid the collision.

The first few times it happened, I didn’t think anything of it, but simply cursed the errant driver (usually someone on a cell phone, but that’s a tirade for another 37days called “Hang up and drive”). Again and again, there they were – dents that related to the exact spot that I sprang into action to avoid. How odd! How interesting! How mildly infuriating! How revealing! They’ve done this before, I realized.

It got me to thinking about patterns. And about recognitions.

What, after all, is a pattern? And when do patterns begin to shape and form our lives? When do we lose the ability to recognize and anticipate the patterns—and (when) do we regain that ability—or do we ever? How much of patterns depend on recognition? What does Recognition look like? Feel like?

And what are some of the patterns I see around me? There is the woman who constantly uses the diminutive word “little” to diminish the value of something—“oh, I heard your little program was successful,” she’ll say, one little word speaking volumes. Or the CEO who calls everyone “Kiddo.” “Hi Kiddo,” she says, “How’s it going, Kiddo?,” meaning one thing yet implying another, leaving her staff with a nagging sense that she doesn’t consider their ideas worthy of adult status. Patterns under the level of consciousness, but so much there and visible to others, heavy in their impact.

Pattern_1And what are my own patterns? Like those psychedelic holograms only recognizable from a distance, it’s so much easier for you to tell me about my patterns than it is for me to see them myself. So I need a circle of people who will do that—do I have them, do I hear them? As my friends Lora and David say, we all need someone who, when faced with our egregious behavior or bad manners or unfortunate choice of clothing or life mate—those many patterns of living—will simply say in a bright and cheerful voice, “Let’s go on a picnic!,” code words for taking you out to a lovely location near a burbling brook with high clouds and wildflowers, feeding you all manner of fantastic high-fat and satisfying picnic food, and then killing you, putting you and everyone else out of their misery.

Picnicbasket_1Do I have someone who will take me on a picnic, who will see the patterns and reveal them to me, as my friend Kichom did in a quiet and astute shock of recognition recently during breakfast at Maggie’s Buns? I’m only now beginning to see (and admit) some of those patterns to myself; I’m only recently able to actively invite and hear and recognize as true the observations of others. I only hope it’s not too late.

We constantly make and re-make our sense of the world by getting information from our sense organs and moving from those sensations to actual perception of the environment around us. But we don’t necessarily make rational logical decisions based on information input, as Dave Snowden has written, instead we “pattern match” with either our own experience or collective experience expressed as stories.

“The human brain,” he continues, “is also subject to habituation, things that we do frequently create habitual patterns which both enable rapid decision making, but also entrain behaviour in such a manner that we literally do not see things that fail to match the patterns of our expectations.” We are, in effect, constantly pulling out into oncoming traffic, not seeing the fast-moving cars headed straight for us, ready to hit the already dented spots. We see what we expect to see. The pattern is, perhaps, our life, the dents inevitable?

CowboyhatThose templates and patterns get formed very early in life. A friend recently realized that she lives in the world as an adult much as she played Monopoly as a child. Her relatives describe her as “ruthless” when playing for properties and small green houses, her money stuffed into a favorite little cowboy hat, always playing with an intense focus on winning, always going for broke, and always ending with a cowboy hat full of money and a board full of condos. And while I wouldn’t describe her as “ruthless” in her adult life, there is much of that same child in the intensity with which she approaches life now. Those patterns and dents start young.

Monopoly_manHow did I play Monopoly? How did you? I played to win, too, but with an external, sometimes aloof visage that said winning doesn’t matter, perhaps so failing didn’t hurt so much. And sometimes I didn’t even play, to avoid losing. It is still one of my patterns, if I’m awfully honest with myself, and one I’ve only started chipping away at in the past six months. And, as the nice nurse in the delivery room years ago said in response to my incessant teenaged calls when my older cousin was giving birth, “honey, these things take time.”

Why does my pattern, my template look like this? And why does your look like that, I wonder? What shaped them that way? And on such a big earth, how do we constantly find people whose patterns fit with ours, creating some wild and sometimes dangerous and sometimes amazing plaid? A pattern is only a pattern over time, after all.

Seneca once said, “The way is long if one follows precepts, but short...if one follows patterns.” So our patterns are a backward looking shorthand, revealing much in a short journey if we’re willing to look at them straight on. Yet if it’s true as Snowden says (and I believe it is) that “patterns are coherent in retrospect but not in advance,” echoing Karl Weick’s assertion that sense-making is retrospective, then can we ever really know our patterns until the pattern is already made?

Tessies_shoes_1I love seeing little shoes without the child’s feet in them. They hold the essence of the child somehow, the shape of them, the way they are in the world. Their pattern of being and walking through life is in that shape. So in addition to looking at the dents in my car, I need to look down and see what’s grounding me, too. As Isaiah Berlin said, "To understand is to perceive patterns." Even in a shoestring.

 

~*~ 37 Days: Do it Now Challenge ~*~

Take a good long look at your car, your cowboy hat, and your shoes. And as Tuli Kupferberg said in our opening quote: “When patterns are broken, new worlds emerge. What new worlds could (or must) emerge for you?

 

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Excellent, I look forward to reading your posting each time and wait expectently (a pattern?) until the next one.

The intro to "The Power of Impossible Thinking" by Yoram Wind & Colin Crook is equally impressive in revealing how we approach thinking and how perceptions lead to thought, lead to actions... If you have not read this yet, it would add to your listing of sources on this topic.

Keep up the good stuff!

thank you so much for your very kind words and the smile I got at your recognition of your own pattern! ;-)

I've never read that book, so appreciate the recommendation - it sounds fascinating and I'll definitely take a look! Many thanks....

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