• Nothing is Always Something

    • Posted on Dec 03, 2017

    Sunday Essay 1 
    December 3, 2017 


                So often I hear people complaining that such and such or so and so “is” or “was” boring.  It put them to sleep, they say, or made them want to leave, or scream, or otherwise tune out. 

                We suffer through boring concerts, lectures, people, rides in cars on endless highways, feeling oppressed by the event.  We drift off, or if we’re caffeinated, conjure imaginary scenarios.  Anything to escape boredom.    

                Stories arise in our bobbing heads, offering sleepy brains some relief from the tedium. Bored out of our minds, quite literally.       

                But what is boredom, really?  Does it reside in the concert, the lecture, the person, the car ride?  Or does it lie in ourselves?  Or somewhere in between? 

                And what can we do about it?

                Boredom arises because the present moment doesn’t stimulate enough brain activity to keep us engaged.  Staring at a blank wall for a few minutes would bore most of us, as would listening to a single tone played with no variation for several minutes. 

                Yet I maintain that nothing is not boring, taking both senses of “nothing” as (1) the opposite of something or (2) a vacuum, as in outer space, where vacuums reside in great quantity, supposedly full of nothing at all. 

                In fact, nothing is always full of something, all the time and everywhere.   

                Let me dispose of the vacuum sense of “nothing” first.  Turns out vacuums, far from being empty, are indeed full of somethings—energy fluctuations, at the quantum level.  

                Consider this:  

                “In 1665, Robert Hooke and Antoni van Leeuwenhoek discovered microbes when they pointed their microscopes at "nothing." In 1964, Arno Penzias and Robert Woodrow Wilson discovered the cosmic microwave background when they pointed their telescopes at "nothing." Vacuum is perhaps the ultimate "nothing," so if history is any indication, "nothing" is an interesting place, especially if you want to look for something.”

                From:  https://www.insidescience.org/news/study-about-nothing

                So, vacuums are anything but empty.   

                Let’s return to the first definition of nothing as the lack of stimulation in certain concerts, lectures, people, and rides in cars on endless highways. If they bore us, they seem to have too much nothing.

                Yet like the outer space vacuum that’s not empty, nothing is something if we engage further.  The problem amounts to the false belief that the lack of stimulation resides in the concert, lecture, etc., rather than in response to it.

                Here’s the nub:  Meaning is co-created.  We bring our brains to an event packed with thoughts, feelings, memories, joys, angers, doubts, random little movies, images, fantasies, all firing off repeatedly and endlessly. Literally trillions of neurons stay busy with incoming perceptions, making of them what they will, depending on our shifting moods, level of fatigue, distractions, and chemicals/drugs coursing through our veins. 

                We’ve all had the strange experience of hating something that we later love.  I’m currently reading Hawthorne’s House of the Seven Gables, a novel that I was assigned to read in high school English.  I read it as best I could, but utterly despised it.

                In fact, I loathed it so much I wrote a sharp note to the hapless teacher accusing her of assigning Hawthorne only because it’s a classic, not because it was any good. She wrote back that “I didn’t understand Hawthorne.”  

                Now, 58 years later, the House of the Seven Gables makes me gasp with pleasure.  Such insights! Such a powerful set of observations on New England society and life!  Such an intelligent and utterly engaging writer!

                I can’t believe I didn’t glimpse its greatness earlier.  But I wasn’t ready for it.  

                I needed to live six more decades and have the leisure to engage it on my own time and in my own way. 

                My older and more filled brain brings a set of experiences and observations to Hawthorne’s prose that were unavailable as a teenager.

                Now I co-create an entirely different novel from The House of the Seven Gables that I once despised as worthless and—boring. The novel hadn’t changed; I had.  

                So too with everything.  Concerts, lectures, people, and rides in cars on endless highways cannot “be” boring—boringness doesn’t reside in them, any more than nothing resides in a vacuum.  Instead, we take them to be boring because we don’t bring enough experience to bear on experiencing them.

                Practically speaking, then, what can we do when we feel boredom?

                Put simply, you can decide to pay more attention. Get into the moment you’re in, sense your body’s presence, and start noticing everything.  In a concert that’s not stimulating for you, pick a single line of melody or harmony and focus on it.  Follow it as intensely as you can as it weaves its way through the surrounding sounds.  Or the rhythms and how they’re constantly shifting as the music shifts, and what makes them up—percussive beats or just pulses from the cadences in the music. 

                Or notice one performer and how he/she seems to be interpreting the music, and how that compares with your own interpreting.  That musician is not bored, guaranteed.

                Or take that boring person who never stops talking about himself, boring you to distraction. What are they saying, really?  What’s underneath their words?  What does their body language say along with their words? Does their body language conflict with or support what they’re saying?  Are they essentially sad under their happy talk?  Or happy under their sad talk?

                Anybody and anything is capable of stimulating you into paying attention.  They don’t have to do anything differently from what they always do.  But you have to respond differently. 

                That’s the crux of never feeling bored, and it grows out of recognizing that nothing “is” boring. 

                After all, nothing is always something. 




    Go comment!
  • Boorish, Predatory, and Al Franken

    • Posted on Nov 26, 2017
    Today's Waterloo/Cedar Falls Courier column--submitted last Tuesday, and the news about Al Franken may have changed my judgement--is he really a predator after all? 

    I don't think so, but he certainly carries on like a  lifelong boor.  

     Breathes there a soul anywhere who hasn’t behaved boorishly?  Doesn’t growing up mean outgrowing boorish behavior?  

     Let’s be sure we agree on “boorish.”  The dictionary defines it as “rough and bad-mannered, coarse,” and adds as synonyms “uncouth, rude, ill-bred, ill-mannered, uncivilized, unrefined, thuggish, loutish, oafish, lubberly, lumpen, vulgar, unsavory, gross, brutish, Neanderthal, cloddish.”   That pretty much covers it, though I wonder about “lubberly.”  

     How well I remember my own and others’ occasional boorish behavior, starting in junior high and running through early college and beyond.  We blurted and bumbled through bottomless insecurities, seeking distracting breaks from growing up. Those who never grew up remained locked in boorhood, not to be confused with boyhood.  

     Yes, males are more susceptible to boorishness, but females aren’t exempt. We can all remind female friends about their cringeworthy behavior.  Granted, male boors likely outnumber females by a good ten to one, and at least that much for predators.  As a former bar musician, I can testify that female boors, after a few drinks, are louder than males and just as boorish.  

     These days if we were to run for office, we’d experience a pang of fear of being exposed for the boors we were, if only rarely. This fear could well stop otherwise solid candidates from running.  

     So, let’s give us all a break.  Yes, Al Frankin behaved boorishly. I would guess that a huge percentage of those who are offended by Frankin’s grinning grab have behaved similarly, though translated a thousand different ways for each gender. 

    So, hypocrites, lay off.  

    If we were to learn that Al Franken acted in a predatory manner, his political career would likely tank. He deserves scorn, which he admits, and of which he’s gotten plenty. However, reverting to childish behavior at times hardly makes him a predator.  

     Boorishness can be offensive and downright hurtful, for sure.  But it can’t be prosecuted, since we’d have to arrest thousands, from Trump to troll.  And maybe we should, but we don’t yet live in a society where boorish behavior can get you arrested.  

    Now, predatory behavior is different in kind. All predators are boors, but not all boors are predators. Predators are on the hunt, disregarding personal space in favor of their own gratification.  Predators undertake all manner of perverse behavior, from voyeurism to indecent exposure to sexual assault. Many predators are likely also sociopaths, and operate without concern for anyone but themselves.  

     When predatory acts are newly exposed they’ve caused major falls from the heights to the depths. Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, and Charlie Rose serve as prime examples, but more are crashing daily. 

     In contrast, Judge Roy Moore behaved like a predator, according to at least nine women, whose consistent stories stand the truth test.  Mainstream Republicans agree that he deserves oblivion, if not eventual legal action.  And what of President Trump, who behaved more like a predator than a mere boor?   

     Moore and Trump are cut from the same bolt of dark cloth.    

    Go comment!
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“Even before the advent of the Internet, Cawelti’s columns went 'viral' in the Cedar Valley… the role of a columnist is to be thought provoking, to take tacks that shed a different light on an issue or possibly cause a reader to reevaluate a position. At the very least, it should bring clarity to a particular perspective, whether you buy into the commentator’s worldview or not.

Scott's work does just that.  Enjoy this collection of his writing.”

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