The Isthmus of Prowess and the OK Plateau

In 600 B.C., construction began on a paved trackway at the Isthmus of Corinth, which became known as the Diolkos. Wheel ruts of the exact gauge of then-modern wagon wheel axles were built in to the road, so that boats and other heavy industry could be carted from Ionian Sea to the Aegean Sea without having to sail around the Peloponnese peninsula, windy as its headlands were.

Until then, wheel ruts were an annoying fact of ancient life. And would continue to be for millennia thereafter. Wheel ruts dug themselves into the Oregon Trail and other routes to the American West leaving such deep scars that it became difficult for subsequent wagon trains to travel anywhere else on these roads but exactly in these carved out trenches.

When someone feels they are “in a rut,” they are referring, knowingly or not, to this phenomenon of following a predetermined route and being carried forward as if on autopilot.

And the problem is that this is what the brain wants us to do. The Greeks got the idea for the Diolkos from the natural behavior own brains.

In 1967, research psychologists Paul Fitts and Michael Posner, who were studying Human Performance Theory at the University of Oregon, published a landmark finding in which they identified the three phases of learning a new skill.

The first is the cognitive phase, in which “it is usually necessary to attend to cues, events and responses that later go unnoticed.” Our brains are on overdrive, building new scaffolding through which to fire this new complex task. I was briefly a mediocre rock drummer in college (I couldn’t do fills or I’d end up on the wrong hand, so songs could only start… and then stop), and I noticed as I tried to learn a new groove—with each limb doing something completely different—that the beat stayed impossible day after day until, suddenly, it wasn’t, and suddenly I could sit down and do it without thinking or counting in my head. It was as if my brain was building lots of semi-complete rope bridges and then, one night, finishing them all at once while I slept. That was the threshold between the first cognitive phase into the second ‘associative’ phase.

The associative phase is for gradually eliminating mistakes, such as “grossly inappropriate subroutines, wrong sequences of acts, and responses to the wrong cues.” Learning morse code and keeping an aircraft out of the trees each take about ten solid hours in this phase before you’re off to the races. This is the point where my band-mates could say something to me on stage and I wouldn’t accidentally speed up the tempo when I tried to respond (this was never successfully achieved).

The final autonomous phase is the one in which the skill becomes so reflexive that a human can then re-deploy brain cognition to a new task at the same time. Drummers who can make both of their feet and their left hand hold a 6/8 rocking-motion pattern while tinging out a 4/4 or some sort of satanic 9/8 shit on the bell of the ride are perfect examples of the autonomous phase. Apache Helicopter pilots fly with a monocle over their right eye projecting into it dashboard readouts and radar information while the left eye looked out the windshield. Pilots complain of instant splitting headaches as their eyes and brains adjust to segregated tasks. But after a year of training—a year—the headaches go away. They can also by this point bend spoons with their minds.

Here’s the rub: our brains constantly want to usher us into the autonomous phase. It wants news skills to become automatic as quickly as possible so we can look up from clubbing wheat stalks long enough to see a tiger slinking toward our tribe. Evolutionarily, that’s a good thing for survival, and in the case of Apache pilots and Clyde Stubblefield, hot damn, but for the rest of us it means we tend to level off and stop improving at a certain point in the process of learning something new.

Fitts and Posner called this “The OK Plateau.”

As we acquire skills our brains are champing at the bit to be like, great, that’s a roger. This level of ability will do just fine. Because, of course, tigers. The human brain is basically the worst high school football coach of all time. Look, kids, just catch the thing when what’s-his-name decides to throw it at you and run away from whoever wants the ball. Does… does that guy in the parking lot look like a process server? Okay, we’re done here you guys, watch some games on Youtube this week and I’ll see you on Saturday.

Chess, piano, driving, cooking, not being an asshole, our brains move us on to the next skill as soon as our current level won’t get us killed. And it sets up our egos to be pissed off at the suggestion that there may be more to learn. Because tigers.

But then how are there virtuosos like Bernini and Maria Callas and Bill Burr?

The only way to short circuit the inevitable mediocrity our brains lock us into is to decide to deliberately fail, and to then hungrily study yourself failing. Know that it will happen, that it must if you’re ever going to get any better at something, and be hungry for feedback. I always marvel at major league pitchers, who are under massive pressure as it is, and then the whole game has to stop while the pitching coach comes out and tells him his tempo is off, or that thing he does with his hips is showing up, or he’s rushing through his early checkpoints, and the pitcher usually just takes the note, totally hungry for it. But in his position with 60,000 people staring at me waiting for me to get my shit together, I would just be like, “dude, I KNOWWW!”

But that’s the trick. The best figure skaters spend most of their practices on their ass. Chess grand masters devour their previous false moves, retroactively scrutinizing their precise moments of psycho-intellectual weakness despite not being able to go back in time and fix it. When I leave my dishes in the sink all day only to discover it’s been bothering my wife the whole time, I come unglued at not having a time machine to rectify the situation. (Okay, that was a younger me. Marriage and fatherhood have, in a very good way, broken my ego’s spirit. Now I just very lovingly tell her “that sounds like a YOU problem,” and go back to writing this sentence. Ahem. [*Cracks knuckles*])

When we start to pick up a new skill, our brains immediately start digging a diolkos, preparing for the moment where it can lock us into mediocrity, from the Ionian of noob to the Aegean of meh. But we can’t get better with the wheels locked in the tracks. Because as Vsevelod Meyerhold probably never said, “you can’t get better and look good at the same time.”

We have to fail.

We have to fail hard.

And we have to get horny for failure.

Expertise and success are then merely by-products of our new, weird masochistic fetish. So the next time you meet the world’s foremost expert in something, you can win their heart by saying, “I’m so disappointed in you.” Nine times out of then they’ll respond, “ugh, me too. Let me buy you a drink.”

Here’s the poster for Unpaid Interns

Unpaid Interns

Pace University gave me a weekend in February to make a short film with these six ridiculously talented BFA acting seniors, who are about to graduate and absolutely slay the industry. I abused the privilege as an exorcising of my 2017 political angst. The result is this dark comedy about what millennials are actually like behind closed doors.

 

How to Drink Dolphin Blood from the Skull of Irony

The Grapevine and the Wedding Ring

Two friends of mine were driving on the Grapevine, which is a braided ribbon of highway climbing over the hills one hour north of Los Angeles. They were high school sweethearts, they had just gotten engaged, and they were in the middle of a knock-down-drag-out fight over something neither of them can now remember.

At one point, the bride-to-be had had it, she rolled down the window, and she chucked her engagement ring as far as she could.

As soon as she did, they stopped fighting. They forgot all about their squabble, and they yanked the car to the shoulder to find it.

But after hours, they couldn’t.  Dusk fell and they had to give up.

They tried to laugh it off and told themselves they didn’t like that ring anyway.

But over the years that followed, on separate occasions unbeknownst to the other, they each rented metal detectors and headed back up the Grapevine in the hopes of remembering the spot and striking gold. But they both failed.

On their fifth anniversary, they once again happened to be driving up the grapevine. They laughingly confessed to each other they’d both been back with metal detectors. Then they tried to remember the spot. And they began to argue once again about exactly where it was.

Now heated, they pulled over, got out and started walking.

And there was the fucking ring…

Haecceity (hex-AY-idee) is our impulse to assign uniqueness to something despite the existence of identical copies.

It is the this-ness of things.

We gradually replace every cell in our bodies every seven years—each of us is quite literally a different person than the one we were when Obama was elected—and yet we have the sense that we are still uniquely us.

The Sistene Chapel might be restored over the centuries, but it remains in our minds the work of Michelangelo.

Despite a world where everything is duplicating itself all the time, where the very basest urge operating within every living thing is to simply procreate a copy of itself, we nevertheless have the insatiable desire for the genuine article.

“It succinctly captures most people’s intuitions about authenticity that are increasingly threatened by the development of new technologies,” says Bruce Hood, chair of psychology at the University of Bristol.

But every day I watch my son grow attached to sticks and pieces of litter he brings home, and then devastate him when it’s time for the litter to go in the trash. Totaled cars, phones in puddles, and moving days demand these micro-funerals in our minds at the weigh stations of life’s relentless march forward.

Attachment to things we value, said the Buddha, and I’m paraphrasing, is an unending pain in the ass. The brutality of loss, or even loss through change, is a constant source of anxiety when we choose to assign meaning to things. But we cannot seem to stop doing it.

In my first month of grad school, I passed the dean on the street and he said, “hey Brendan, come meet Fiona Shaw with me.” Fiona Shaw is a powerhouse Irish actress of stage and screen and I leapt at the chance. At the talk, she spoke among other things about mastering accents for her screen roles, and specifically about the differences between English, Irish and American accents.

“It makes perfect sense that the British invented iambic pentameter,” she said, “because they are AB-so-LUTE-ly SURE that THEY are RIGHT.” We laughed hard. “The Irish, meanwhile, speak in D minor… wouldyoulikeacupoftea?” her voice trailed of into the distance so we could barely hear the word tea. “Americans,” she said, “emphasize possessions,” and she began pointing at imaginary things around the room, “house… car… boat…”

As Americans, nouns are our sickness. John Steinbeck explained why socialism never took root here by pointing out that we see ourselves “not as an exploited proletariat, but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” We are cursed with a compulsion to assign meaning to things, but in so doing exclude the reality that everything will change. Time, the element that allows us to recognize change, is against us.

Everything we care about is in the very urgent process of rotting into the earth.

“In the end,” writes Alan Lightman, “you cannot defeat the odds. You might beat the house for a while, but the Universe has an infinite supply of time and can outlast any player.” That thing you love, temporarily held together on a molecular level by bubble gum and prayer, has an impending appointment with atomization.

So what the fuck do we do? We can’t all become Buddhists, we’re dyed-in-the-wool capitalist pigs whether we like it or not. So if we must assign meaning to nouns, the odd verb, and maybe a quality or two, I’ve tabled out how it might go down…

The challenge, therefore, seems to be welcoming the inevitability of change into the picture. Starting from the temporary nature of all things, and assigning meaning from there, seems to be the only sane way to have a shoebox of keepsakes.

We have to eliminate our notion of time as the enemy.

This thing I’m holding is future dust, and I know that now, before I’ve committed any emotion to it, but it will be here for precisely 100% of the duration that it will. And in that window, I will love it. After that window, I will fondly remember it and know that this time that it’s gone was always on the way. And that it would arrive too soon, as it always does.

As it always does.

 

 

Let’s Murder the Moonlight

On the morning of October 15, 1908, Italian poet Filippo Tomasso Marinetti was speeding down Via Dormodossola in Milan. Rounding a sharp corner, two cyclists on penny-farthings blocked his way and he had no option but to veer into a ditch. His Runabout flipped twice and he was briefly knocked unconscious. When he awoke and was pulled to safety by the cyclists, he announced to them that having been a step away from death, he now knew we had nothing to fear from speed, that speed was the greatest thing to happen to man, and he resolved right there that his next move would be to launch an artistic movement.

Filippo Tomasso Marinetti was a nutcase.

Attending the wedding of some friends a few years prior, his toast took the form of an epic poem he’d composed for the occasion, entitled The Bleeding Mummy, which recounted, to the stupefied guests, the story of a pharaoh’s daughter waking each night to beg the moon for her dead lover’s body to be restored, so they could get it on in their crypt.

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Truth’s Appetizer

Prior to 46 BC, no one in Rome knew what day it was. The calendar was tightly controlled by the priest class. They based it on cycles of the moon, and some years would have fifteen months, others would have eleven. Sometimes different priests would tell you it was a different day depending on how it might serve them. The first of the month would roll around a little more often for landlord priests, and priests in the senate always seemed to meet their deadlines.

Finally, Julius Caesar had had enough. He named 46 BC Annus Ultimatum Confusiosis, the final year of confusion. He took the calendar away from the corrupted priest class, tasked some astronomers to create a new system, and then placed all the information into the hands of the common man.

Suddenly Joeius Blowius on the Appian Way didn’t need to curry favor with a cleric just to find out what day it was. Meetings could be planned far in advance. Annual events became commonplace.

Caesar took what was seen as a massive risk disseminating power over information to the populace, but the Roman economy exploded in the century that followed. Ice cores in Greenland show that lead production would nearly double by 50 AD. It’s difficult to know if the calendar had anything to do with this burst of industry, but the difference between giving a man a fish and teaching him how to Filofax is quite clear.

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The Ballad of Minoru Yamasaki

The Federal Housing Act of 1949 allowed, finally, for the eradication of tenement slums. Until then, generations of underprivileged Americans would memorize the annual date and time of the sun’s only brief appearance in their cramped, basement homes. Children would stay home from school to see it, and watch as the family pet stretched in the yearly rectangle of brilliance on their broken, chipped floors. Leaky tin roofs, dark passageways and rampant garbage-born illness had melted even the most conservative congressional hearts into legislating a chance for a new post-war life for the poorest Americans.

As these tenements were torn down, the wooden windowsills would often be found with two smooth depressions which had come from generations of women’s elbows leaning out to enjoy the passing street life, exchange gossip across the way, and mete out verbal justice to the children below.

Now, federal money created the opportunity for new forms of urban housing that would bring prosperity to all levels of society.

Enter the Congrès Internationale d’Architecture Moderne.

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Johann Chrysostomus and the Beautiful Incomplete

Leopold and Anna Maria Mozart were determined to have family, with a daughter named Maria and a son named Johann.

It took them seven tries.

Johann Leopold was born in August of 1748 and lived almost six months. Maria Cordula was born the following June but lived less than a week. Maria Nepomucena was born the next May, and lived two-and-a-half months. One year later Maria Anna was born, became known as Nannerl, and emerged from the biological gauntlet of 18th century childhood to live to 78 years old. A son, Johann Karl, and a daughter named Maria Crescentia followed, but neither would live beyond three months. Their seventh child and final child was born on January 27, 1756 and they named him Johann Chrysostomus Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. He would live 35 years.

Leopold and Maria determined themselves to push past the world’s most unimaginable pain five times to finish the family they started. The Mozarts were finishers. The Mozarts could close the deal.

Maria was irrepressible and funny. She encouraged little Johann Chrysostomus’s love of scatological humor. So much so that when he composed his 1788 canon Difficile Lectu in F Major, he included the quasi-Latin lyric “lectu mihi mars,” which, when perceived phonetically in German, became “Leck du mich im Arsch,” or lick my ass.

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Concatenation

On our honeymoon in Oaxaca, Emily and I rode the bus with an Australian pharmacist.

She told us of a shellshocked young couple that came to her shop early one Saturday asking for a morning after pill.

The dosage required two different pills to be taken at the same time.

“Take both of these right now,” she told them.

They nodded, looked at each other… and each took one.

Concatenation is the order in which we experience events through linear time.

Simultaneity is the relationship between events that we perceive are happening at the same time.

Our anal retentive left brains organize time in a linear fashion to fit it through the keyhole of our consciousness.

Our tripping balls hippie right brains, meanwhile, seem to know that every event in history is still happening right now, somewhere in the universe.

I can’t say for sure that I wouldn’t have done the same thing as the stricken couple in the Australian pharmacy. Two pills. Take ’em now. Divide them up. Down the hatch. The past: erased.

When I’ve watched a glass spill, my brain has revved to 5,000 frames a second, watching the teeter the tip and the splash of every drop I had planned to enjoy. And I have felt, in the same moment, the sudden funeral for my next ten minutes that now will be spent cleaning it up.

It’s as if the more you don’t want something to be true, the less you perceive the concatenation of time. Or perhaps the more emotional you are, the more simultaneous life feels.

Great movies whizz by. Funerals and burials are a rich mind cocktail of an un-had future and a bygone past, and go by in kind of a blur. A morning at the DMV takes weeks.

Breathing hard, desperate for a solution to last night’s youthful indiscretion, relieved at the clear instructions of an authoritative pharmacist, I think I too would have taken that pill.

Down the hatch. The past: erased.