Complications

National Poetry Month has rolled around again, and sophomores enrolled in the Poetry classes are trying to interpret poems. Somewhere along the line, people in the USA acquired the notion that teachers ought to make things simple to understand so that students can learn the material. What about diving into the material in order to learn about it? Asking it questions? Having a heart-to-heart conversation with it? Those are alternate approaches to reaching an understanding.

Truly, one aspect of teaching that frustrates me is that the majority of human beings want everything to be simple. “Simple” has become a click-bait word, an advertising slogan. Even the American embrace of mindfulness largely bases its premise on the idea that mindfulness is simplicity itself, when anyone who has seriously attempted meditation and mindful living can attest that the theory sounds simple enough but the practice is more complex than it seems.

Now, I have nothing against simplicity–I yearn for simpler ways of living in the world, myself. Nevertheless, a person does not reach her fifties without a clear recognition of how complicated life is; and no one can deny complexity has considerable value. We would not be human beings, capable of speech and abstract thought and deep love and senses of humor, if it were not for the incredibly intricate operations of neurons and synapses, nerves and hormones, rods and cones, DNA and all the rest that somehow connects us inside our physical corpus.

blood_vessels_1.jpg

blood vessels=fractals=complicated

All of these contribute to our conflicting emotional states, to our individual and, because we are group-dwelling creatures, our communal (cultural) psychologies, morphing into social structures of vast networks and multiple influences. Nothing about any of this is simple.

In an effort to assure my students that they can, indeed, become better writers, I endeavor to simplify the writing process as to structure and foundational principles as much as I can. I refuse, however, to suggest that written expression can be simple–because human expression is not simple. We desire and feel and experience in ways that are complicated, layered, multifaceted–hence not easy to put into spoken words, let alone written ones. Writing is work that requires complicated approaches to thinking and reflecting. That doesn’t necessarily make writing hard, but it does not make it simple.

Writing requires inquisitiveness, which seems to come easily to little children but which doesn’t mean inquiry is simple. One of the things my students struggle with most is asking questions. When I say, “Ask some questions about this text,” they look at me as though I have three heads. Students assigned philosophy papers feel gobsmacked by Socrates–he seems so surface-value simple, but he never answers any questions! And now their professor requires them to ask further questions, rather than asking them for the right answer to a simple question.

Oh, my darlings, if there were truly simple answers we would not have developed art or dance or music or poetry.

natural_fractals_tibet.jpg

cloud formations (Von Karman vortices) seen from space*

In other words, if everything were simple, we could say what we need to say and all other people would understand everything they needed to know about us without nuance or subtext or background or socio-cultural context, or whether we are secretly embarrassed by our slight lisp, or grouchy because we had a spat with our spouse the previous night. That sounds pleasant and easy, but that’s not how things evolved among human beings.

I would tell my students I’m sorry about all this, but I’m not. Complexity: I revel in it.

 

*from http://www.jessicacrabtree.com/journal1/wp-content/uploads/2010/09/natural_fractals_tibet.jpg

 

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House & home

Falling Water

Falling Water

I went on a trip to visit Frank Lloyd Wright’s historic Fallingwater house, which is located in a forested state park area in the southwestern region of the state where I live, Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania is a large state, and in all the years I have lived here I’ve never managed to get to Falling Water; so I was excited. The day we arrived, the weather was perfect, the water was high, and we toured two Wright houses–this one and Kentuck Knob, one of Wright’s last residential design commissions.

Millions of people tour Fallingwater, so the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy folks (who have stewardship of the property) have their hands full maintaining the place, training docents and volunteers, and just keeping crowd control working. Kudos, by the way. They do a good job. Send them donations.

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At the café (there’s always a museum café), my partner pointed out a letter reproduced on the informational wall–a note from Mrs. Kaufmann, owner of the house. She wrote that initially the home intimidated her a bit, as Wright’s designs tend to force the homeowner to live the way the house dictates, rather than the other way around. Curtains, a typical decor requirement for a 1930s residence in town, were anathema to Wright. In the middle of Bear Run forest, did Mrs. Kaufmann need curtains? No, she eventually decided–the trees provided color and changing light and privacy and were far more interesting than curtains. What initially seemed too austere for her tastes grew on her; she learned to do with less “stuff” and found that the simplicity made the things she did add to the house seem all the more valuable and aesthetically pleasing. The Kaufmanns must really have been special people to embrace the challenges of living comfortably in one of Wright’s homes, indeed, in his most unique residential design.

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My husband and I designed our current home 17 years ago and have some idea of the compromises owners have to make, most commonly for financial reasons (that was not an issue for the Kaufmanns, who were department-store magnates). As we toured Fallingwater and Kentuck Knob, one thing that hit us is that building codes have changed the way Americans build; you couldn’t get a Wright home design past most local zoning commissions in Pennsylvania nowadays.

For example, 19″ hallways? Nope. 6′ ceilings? I don’t think so. Some of the tight interior stair turns would be disallowed. And, let’s face it, the whole cantilevered balcony situation would set off a hundred bureaucratic red flags.

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house 2009

My house in snow, 2009.

My own house had to agree with the local building code. There was also a budget we really could not exceed. Over the years, we have added to the deck, improved the porch railing, completed building interior doors ourselves, worked extensively on landscaping (first adding to it, then pruning back, then…well, there’s been a bit of mostly benign neglect recently). But we have generally lived comfortably in the house and adapted it to fit our needs, the way most people live in a home. As our living situation changes, with children growing into adulthood and moving away, with fewer pets and no more chickens, with less need for a large vegetable garden, we’re thinking of ways to alter the house. Or even to move out of it, and let some other family have a go at its joys and responsibilities.

Its sensibility leans toward a meadow-type or agricultural feel. That suits the region in which we have settled. Which may be the only way our house parallels Fallingwater: it suits the environment and the region in which it is situated. To me, that is one of the main purposes of good architecture, and the rule most frequently ignored by homebuilders.

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Our home can boast an improvement over Wright’s houses: it doesn’t leak (I lived in one in Grand Rapids Michigan in the 1970s, and can attest to the leaking factor).  🙂

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For a 3-D computer-animated “flyby” of Falling Water and a half-hour documentary on its history, see this page (Mental Floss). Pretty interesting!

Complexity & simplicity

I revel in complexity. Yet I seek simplicity.

Are the two incompatible?

I think not, if one is comfortable with paradox and ambiguity and remains willing to view experiences from various perspectives.

Anyway, if a person is not willing to encounter complexity, that person is essentially trying (hopelessly) to escape life. Exhibit A, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s delicious entry on “Life,” by Bruce Weber:

Living entities metabolize, grow, die, reproduce, respond, move, have complex organized functional structures, heritable variability, and have lineages which can evolve over generational time, producing new and emergent functional structures that provide increased adaptive fitness in changing environments. Reproduction involves not only the replication of the nucleic acids that carry the genetic information but the epigenetic building of the organism through a sequence of developmental steps. Such reproduction through development occurs within a larger life-cycle of the organism, which includes its senescence and death. Something that is alive has organized, complex structures that carry out these functions as well as sensing and responding to interior states and to the external environment and engaging in movement within that environment.

Interior, exterior, replication, variability…a look at computational complexity models shows us that the possibilities are indeed endless.

No matter how complicated the specifics become, however, there are these simple phenomena: birth, death; with (usually) some sort of transformation/transition or action occurring in the gaps. While I do not think that most of the questions human beings ask are “simple”–indeed, even the process of asking “do you want cake?” is more complicated at the physiological and cognitive levels than most of us would care to explore–it may be possible to quiet the mind and heart a bit to a level closer to simplicity.

The moment of awe offers, to my way of thinking, a kind of simplicity we can access on even the most ordinary days, even as we relish the amazing complexity of the phenomena of the physical world with its fractal tree branchings, its crystalline-structured cloud formations, and the elements in the atmosphere that, through the processing of light (about 4400 angstroms) through the rods and cones of human eyes, make up the quality we call sky blue.

Simply beautiful. Breathe in. Breathe out.

May Moon Ann E. Michael