Plus ça Change

Growing old can be rather confusing, you know. The weight of years is supposed to leave a readable imprint on the mind: identifiable traces of where you have been -the pattern that emerges, reliable. Predictive. In the pre-agonal autumn, when all your personal leaves have yellowed, friends and relatives should be able to confidently list the characteristics that have defined your life; we all need to leave something of ourselves to talk about when we have wandered off.

The thought occurred to me one day in the Tim Horton’s section of a Food Court in a downtown mall. I had sought solace there after a disappointing search in a nearby bookstore for a manual on computer programming -on Coding. I discovered that, although I’d found a fairly broad selection of choices there for beginners, I could understand none of them. The introductions to each had promised clarity and progress for those who were computer naive as one of them had rather haughtily declared. But failing to qualify for even the null hypothesis left me devastated -wondering about what I’d become. About where the years had abandoned me…

I like to be led through any complex labyrinth with a trail of bread crumbs like Hansel and Gretel used in the forest; I want to be able to retrace my steps. Sadly, each time I turned back to the page I’d just perused, the crumbs were gone -or at least swept into the interstices that line my mental vault. The scaffolding I’d craved was no longer there, and I was left staring at the edifice from down on the street where I’d started.

So, I wandered away and decided to comfort myself with my usual order of a coffee and a 12 grain bagel at the only table still free in a forest of identical plastic clones. Anonymity, coupled with a small stock of nourishment, sometimes helps to defuse a crisis, I told myself. There is something emotionally restorative about a slowly-filling stomach; we all need structure to lean on, don’t we? Something we can count on from day to day. Something we can anticipate: stability is trust.

I sat back in the chair after a few bites of the bagel -it wasn’t as tasty as I remembered- so I waited for my coffee to cool. And as my angst slowly began to slip away, an excited conversation nearby caught my ear.

“That’s ridiculous, Harry,” said a rather high-pitched voice that carried like the whining of a saw on a Sunday morning.

Harry, a balding, meek-looking soul in a blue cotton shirt with a loosened, reddish necktie sat at the table across from me, listening unconcernedly. He stared at the speaker and then shrugged.

“You’re so undiscerning, you know,” the voice continued accusatorially. I could only see the back of a head, but it belonged to a small, neatly dressed woman in a bulky black sweater, with neatly coiffed short, dark hair. “What didn’t you like about my book, for god’s sake?”

“Too predictable,” he answered putting down his coffee and leaning across the table to make his point.

The woman threw her arms up in a theatrical gesture to register her frustration and scraped her chair towards the table with her legs. “It’s a detective story, Harry! My character was supposed to add up the clues and discover the truth…” She lowered one arm enough to snatch her coffee cup off the table and deliver it to her mouth. “It’s what people expect,” she added as soon as she’d had a short, impatient sip.

A tired smile appeared on Harry’s face; it was a stock smile, ingenuous at best. I could see him take a deep breath. “Exactly, Joan…” He left his words trailing for effect. “Exactly.”

Joan shook her head slowly, then sat back in her chair. “But…”

“Rework the character a little, Joan. Surprise your readers -surprise me!” His smile warmed, and he glanced at his watch. “Your last one was much better.” He mounted a conciliatory expression and pushed his chair back. “I have to get back to the office now,” he explained. “Let me see what you can come up with in a few weeks.”

She hastily gulped down the rest of her coffee and left a few seconds after his head had disappeared into the crowd.

My coffee had cooled considerably, so I tried a large sip and contented myself with another bite from my bagel. Interesting, I thought: two people so different. Joan offering structure, Harry asking for unpredictability. Wanting not to know how the next page would read. It wouldn’t so much destroy the story, as make him have to work at it a little harder -engage him in figuring it out.

And yet, I suppose it didn’t really come as a surprise to me. We all wear two hats: no matter how much we enjoy a pattern, too much of the same becomes as boring as wallpaper. Sometimes you need a little confusion -detail you haven’t come across before to make you pay attention to what you’re looking at. After all, probing around in novelty, sorting the seeming chaos into new patterns is the only way we can learn something new.

For some reason, it brought to mind a long, but deliciously inspiring essay I’d read in Aeon by the always thoughtful writer Alan Lightman, a professor at MIT:

‘Somewhat surprisingly, nature not only requires disorder but thrives on it. Planets, stars, life, even the direction of time all depend on disorder… Disorder isn’t just present in the minutiae of how matter organises itself. It also runs deep within the structures of life itself… Our primeval attraction to both order and disorder [also] shows up in modern aesthetics…  ‘However we analyse the difference between the regular and the irregular,’ [The British art historian Ernst Gombrich] wrote in The Sense of Order (1979), ‘we must ultimately be able to account for the most basic fact of aesthetic experience, the fact that delight lies somewhere between boredom and confusion.’ Too much order, we lose interest. Too much disorder, and there’s nothing to be interested in.’

What had made me curious about Coding anyway, I wondered between bites of my somewhat disappointing bagel? Perhaps it was that, unlike producing a narrative of recognizable words on a page, even the idea of coding, not to mention its language and rules, was completely alien to me. And it wasn’t so much boredom with the writing I do, as the excitement of learning a new skill that was only peripherally related.

Maybe what I’d interpreted as disorder in those coding books was really only confusion at being presented with a new paradigm -discomfort at being momentarily out of my depth. It had merely caught me off guard -as had the inadvertent philosophy lesson in the Tim Horton’s Food Court. It came to me that there is much to be said in favour of trying something new -expanding your horizons, seeing novelty as a challenge, not a danger. Smiling at the unknown, unravelling the strange. I mean, how hard can it be?

I’m going to try the Sesame Seed bagel at Timmy’s the next time…


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