Three Against Two

You'd think that after spending over four decades thinking about the way I think, I'd be more familiar with the whole process, but every so often, I still surprise myself.

I've noticed, over the past week, how much of my thinking falls into parallel lines.

What do I mean by that? Well, I mean I tend to think of things in two ways at once--two tracks, hopefully in stereo. For example, I'll often try to think of both a literal track and a metaphorical track; my habitual way to understand something (or explain something) is to seek out a useful analogy of some kind. Sometimes it's just an attempt to produce a concrete example of an abstract idea, and sometimes it's an attempt to find a second example of something so that the abstract qualities in both examples can be compared.

I noticed this the other day in the middle of an online argument about big-time college football programs; noticing that both involve short-term agreements where young people agree to forgo monetary compensation and work for more experienced persons/institutions while the persons/institutions agree to provide instruction, experience, and eventually certification of the young people in exchange for their labor, I opined that such programs were analogous to indentured servitude. When someone objected to the comparison, pointing out that the two were not the same, I responded that the two things in an analogy CANNOT be the same; if they are, you don't have an analogy--you have a tautology. "Big-time college football is like big-time college football" doesn't say anything interesting or useful or offer any new perspective on either side of the analogy. The whole power of an analogy stems from the twoness.

The word "twoness," I should note, is not my own; it was coined by W.E.B. DuBois to describe his feelings about being, simultaneously, an American and an Other. He put it better:

One ever feels his twoness - an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.

Twoness, to me, is a natural state. I've occupied two sides of a lot of lines in my lifetime, being a nominal Jew raised in a Christian church, a nerd whose athletic skill gave him entree to the world of jocks, a Southerner raised in a place of political and social liberalism, a male raised as an unrepentant feminist, you name it. In some ways, thinking in twos is much like seeing in twos--stereoscopically, using two views of the subject to gain a greater understanding of its overall appearance and its position relative to the viewer. Without that second view, you don't really have a good fix on anything.

It's also helpful to think of things as having twoness in another way--as wholes and as parts, or if you prefer, as forests and as trees. I often find myself thinking about such matters when I'm putting together a poem, something I do rather casually when the opportunity comes up--typically as a joke. I don't usually start a poem unless provoked, but the slightest provocation can get me thinking about ways to fit words (trees) into patterns (forests). Last week it happened when I mentioned on Facebook that I had snaked the bathtub drain to no effect. One online friend, Evan, offered a suggestion (one that worked beautifully, I should note: snaking not just the drain itself but the overflow hole ABOVE the drain), and that suggestion inspired another friend, Edward, to compliment Evan on his Renaissance Man status: "Go compose me a Petrarchan sonnet," Edward commanded him.

Evan did not compose one, but by way of thanks, I did:

Across a sea of dingy water, lo!
The Maelstrom maketh sea and ships depart,
Yet in mine own abode, I see no start
To any such descent to realms below

The iron law of gravity? Ah, no,
A law of tin, a metal with no heart,
Commands my drain, and I possess no art,
No skill to move the judge to bid it flow.

But soft! What's here upon my Book of Face
To grant me wisdom in my time of trial?
O Evan! Grant me half thy plumber's guile!

I set my snake into the upper space
And pull it forth festooned with substance vile!
O whirlpool sweet, be ever mine own Nile!


I don't know why it is, but when someone gives me two things--a topic and a constraint, or two dissimilar topics--I can then happily spend time trying to fit those things into a single poem. SF writer and longtime blogger John Scalzi recently held a haiku contest in which the poem had to be told from the point of view of a person being killed by one or more of the following: spider monkeys, lasers, poor GPS directions, or spontaneous human combustion. Naturally I entered:

At least I took that
Damn spider monkey with me
When I combusted...


Apparently, my brain needs that parallel track to work properly; if it's provided at the outset, great, but if not, it will attempt to build one for itself.

But I didn't really get how odd this is until I was thinking about band practice the other night. The band, dubbed "Poor Judgment" after one of our school's less specific demerit offenses, is a loose confederation of faculty members and occasional students, and we met Thursday night to work out a few songs for our upcoming performance at the winter Informal Music Night. While we were tuning up, our drummer began beating out a three-against-two beat, just for the heck of it, and our backup singer looked somewhat amazed, claiming she couldn't do that.

I was surprised; the ability to keep two different beats with two different hands (or feet, or one of each) is one I've had for years. I usually have to let my left hand handle the simpler beat--the two or four, typically--while my right hand does the counterbeat (three or five, say), but it's entirely doable.

And then I thought: why can I do this? I've never taken a drum lesson in my life. I can barely read music at all, and reading rhythm is the thing I'm worst at. Guitar playing does not require any such facility--you pretty much HAVE to have both hands hitting the string(s) at the same time--and even piano doesn't force you to develop such a skill. Why is it that I can do two things at once?

Ah. Of course. When you accept twoness in one area of your life, apparently it works in other areas as well; learn how to think two things at once and you'll be able to count two beats at once. Get a set of constraints and you can begin filling them with words.

Or at least that's the analogy I'm drawing.

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This page contains a single entry by Peter Cashwell published on February 5, 2011 1:08 PM.

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