Sunday, October 02, 2016

Mental Associations

The gingham dog and the calico cat

Somewhere in the vicinity of 2 or 3 AM I am making my usual rounds, to and from the can, when this line of verse appears in my consciousness.  We read The Duel in school, but whether that was elementary school, junior high, or high school I really can't recall.  I'm pretty sure I haven't thought of it even once since, until early this morning.  That's a span of somewhere between 45 and 50 years.  Neither gingham nor calico are part of my working vocabulary.  When it comes to fabrics - cotton, flannel, and wool are my standbys, with some thought I might be able to come up with a few synthetic alternatives.  The point is that I don't pay attention to fabrics.  Yet that line was occupying my thoughts earlier today.  I was puzzled as to why.

After failing to go back to sleep, due partly to discomfort from arthritis and partly because I now had this challenge to grapple with and when that happens I find it very hard to let it go, I sit down at my computer and begin to retrace my steps from the evening before.

The Internet has ways to feed the narcissism that is in all of us.  In my case I use a tracking program called statcounter to monitor hits on my blog.  Once in a while somebody finds an old post I made that is seemingly unconnected to the topics of the day and yet is also not utilitarian (so it is not about some online technology).  Then I will often amuse myself by going back to the post and reading it anew, revisiting the issues I was grappling with at the time of writing.

In this case the post is called Maladies and Malaise.  It was written at an odd time for me.  The Campus had just announced a paid separation program aimed at reducing the number of staff.  There was budget hell and this was one of the more responsible ways that the Campus addressed the problem.  For a variety of reasons, I thought I was a good candidate to leave the university then.  While I had not yet signed the contract, the thought of doing so was weighing pretty heavily on my mind.  Then there was a different source of strangeness.  I was part of an online reading group called Motley Read, where we negotiated our way through James Joyce's book of short stories, Dubliners.  This was my first and so far my only experience with such a group.  And while a few of the members I was vaguely aware of ahead of time, particularly Alan Levine and Christ Lott, I really didn't know them.  Barbara Ganley was the only member of the group with whom I had substantial prior interaction.

In this post I am grappling with notions of imagery - in pictures, in writing, and in our minds.  I am reacting to the story Two Gallants, which is rather disturbing yet without being much of a story at all. And I am reacting to a postcard that Barbara had sent me about the story Eveline. There is then the question of causality between image and story.  We have a bit of an exchange on this in the comments.

This is the precursor that was already in my head.  Not that much later I went to sleep.  I really don't know whether this is an old wives tale or real science, when you have some problem that vexes you, sleep on it and let your subconscious have a hack at it.  Then when you wake up, you may find that you've solved the problem.   In this case I didn't even realize I had a problem to solve.  It seems my subconscious felt otherwise.  And it came up with - The gingham dog and the calico cat.

Now things get a little weirder.  It almost seems an act of clairvoyance.  After I get up for real and have my first cup of coffee, I start to read an Op-Ed by Ruth Bader Ginsburg, part of which sketches formative experiences in her life on her path to becoming a Supreme Court Justice.  One of those was as an undergrad at Cornell.  She studied writing with Vladimir Nabokov who taught her that effective writing constructs pictures.  Reading this was almost too much for me to bear.  I had already seen that movie, earlier in the morning.  And, by the way, I too am a Cornell grad and not that long ago read a Nabokov novel, The Defense, writing a couple of posts about it including this one entitled Optical Ill Luzhin.  The planets must be aligned to create associations like this.

One of my regular habits is to play Sudoku.  I find it relaxing, a pleasant combination of pattern recognition and deductive logic.  There is a certain reward in finding the pattern, especially when it is not immediately obvious.  It is that feeling of discovery which encourages repeated play.  So before reading other Op-Ed pieces I indulge my habit.  But my brain feels like it is operating in slow motion.  The patterns do not come quickly at all.  Often when I can't find the pattern I will cheat a little.  Doing the Sudoku online enables that, one reason I prefer that to doing it on paper.  It also times you when you do it online.  Most puzzles take me between ten and fifteen minutes to finish.  This time it takes much longer, more than 35 minutes, the longest it's ever taken, but I somehow managed to resist the temptation to cheat and instead let the patterns emerge at their own pace.  While there is always some uncertainty about whether the pattern will make itself apparent or not, this morning I seemed to feel confident it would happen though I was very slow with the pattern recognition.  That combination is unusual for me now.  It may have been more routine 25 or 30 years ago when I writing papers in economic theory.  Now I either feel mentally agile, usually that requires a good night's rest as precursor, or I lack confidence in my own capacities, which seemingly occurs with increasing frequency as of late.  This morning was different.  I was in a kind of reverie.  But eventually that broke and I returned to the glum thoughts that have been occupying me.

The last few years I've really struggled in my teaching because the students don't see it as part of their job to produce associations beyond the ones that come immediately; and yet that is what I'd like to encourage them to do.  I wrote about this in a post for the WAC@Illinois blog, Making connections via mental puttering.  I wonder if students ever have the sense of discovery that I wrote about in the previous paragraph.  Absent that, the reason to persist in thought and let subconsciousness assert itself would appear to be lacking.  But everyone dreams, right?  Does everyone daydream too?  Or does the head that is always staring at the screen live in a surface world only, where all the images are provided externally?

Let me close with this.  In my Facebook feed this morning a status update of mine from a year ago appeared.  It was about Sherry Turkle's seeming omnipresence (I linked to three different pieces she had produced) and her warning that multiprocessing is killing real learning.   This piece, which appeared in The Chronicle, is still worth the read even now.  Turkle shouts the alarm louder than I ever could.  Still, slow reflection is a tough sell.  In this market we need more buyers.  How do we get them?

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