Monday, July 23, 2007

Strange, overlapping loops...

"My future's so bright, I gotta wear shades..."
(Image from Wikipedia)

In late 1979, I moved from Waco, Texas to the San Francisco Bay Area, living first in Menlo Park and then in Atherton with my 'significant other.' Such was the politically correct expression for one's main squeeze back then, a linguistic formula that eschewed sexism and homophobia in one tongue-twisting abstraction -- though I jokingly called her my 'insignificant other' (which might be partly why that relationship didn't work out so well).

Sorry, Linda of the lovely auburn hair.

Anyway, she was pursuing her doctorate in history at Stanford, while I was working for Wells Fargo Bank in Palo Alto, where I performed each day the essential task of putting a "stop payment" on every second-thinking bank client's check. I used a manual typewriter and had to press each key extra hard to force the imprint to carry through the top sheet and two sets of carbon and paper. Facing me across the large desk sat another person doing exactly the same thing. Together, we typed out stop payments in the rhythmic stereotype of low-level clerks.

By evening, I played at being a bohemian intellectual -- visiting cafés where I got to hear a then-unknown Tuck and Patti perform jazz for free as I drank inexpensive glasses of champagne, or where I could read the newly-known Douglas Hofstadter's Pulitzer-Prize-winning Gödel, Escher, Bach over rather more expensive cappuccinos, all the while dreaming of graduate school and a future so bright that I'd have to wear shades.

My future didn't turn out quite like that.

Nor does anybody's, I guess ... neither the immensely talented Tuck and Patti nor the intellectually gifted Douglas Hofstadter.

The former appear to have spent years on the road, touring. I once saw an ad for a performance of theirs back when I was living in Germany, perhaps around 1994. They seem to have missed the big time.

Some few years later, perhaps in 1996 or 1997, a highly successful Hofstadter -- published, tenured, recognized -- lost his beloved wife Carol. I was reminded of this on Saturday as I read these words by David Brooks:
Douglas Hofstadter was a happily married man. After dinner parties, his wife Carol and he would wash the dishes together and relive the highlights of the conversation they'd just enjoyed. But then, when Carol was 42 and their children were 5 and 2, Carol died of a brain tumor.

A few months later, Hofstadter was looking at a picture of Carol.

He describes what he felt in his recent book, "I Am A Strange Loop":

"I looked at her face and looked so deeply that I felt I was behind her eyes and all at once I found myself saying, as tears flowed, 'That's me. That's me!'"

"And those simple words brought back many thoughts that I had had before, about the fusion of our souls into one higher-level entity, about the fact that at the core of both our souls lay our identical hopes and dreams for our children, about the notion that those hopes were not separate or distinct hopes but were just one hope, one clear thing that defined us both, that wielded us into a unit, the kind of unit I had but dimly imagined before being married and having children. I realized that though Carol had died, that core piece of her had not died at all, but that it had lived on very determinedly in my brain." (Brooks, "Bonded by Loops and Flares," International Herald Tribune, Saturday-Sunday, July 21-22, 2007, p. 7)
There's something both insightful and deflating about this. The part that especially lets me down, I think, is his choice of the term "brain." I would have preferred at least "mind." Why he chose that very material word when he's willing to use the loaded term "soul" remains somewhat opaque to me. I suppose it's partly because he thinks that the mind is the brain, but if so, then why not use the word "mind"?

But let that be.

Brooks likes Hofstadter's theory of the self and thinks it applicable to some of our social problems in America:
A self, he believes, is a point of view, a way of seeing the world. It emerges from the conglomeration of all the flares, loops and perceptions that have been shared and developed with others. Douglas’s and Carol's selves overlapped, and that did not stop with her passing.

I bring all this up in an Op-Ed column because most political and social disputes grow out of differing theories about the self, and I find Hofstadter's social, dynamic, overlapping theory of self very congenial.

It emphasizes how profoundly we are shaped by relationships with others, but it's not one of those stifling, collectivist theories that puts the community above the individual.

It exposes the errors of those Ayn Rand individualists who think that success is something they achieve through their own genius and willpower.

It exposes the fallacy of the New Age narcissists who believe they can find their true, authentic self by burrowing down into their inner being. There is no self that exists before society.

It explains why it's so hard to tackle concentrated poverty. Human beings are permeable. The habits that are common in underclass areas get inside the brains of those who grow up there and undermine long-range thinking and social trust. (Brooks, p. 7)
I'd need to know more about this conception of the self as a collection of overlapping perspectives, which means that I'd need to read Hofstadter's recent book, I Am A Strange Loop, but his theory is at least potentially applicable toward explaining some of the problems facing inner-city African-Americans that Barack Obama has written about.

But I'm not sure -- even if the theory is true -- how to apply it to solving our inner-city problems.

But I do see how Hofstadter's insight into the fusion of souls explains my failure with my long-ago Linda. Not sharing "identical hopes and dreams," Linda and I never grew into a fusion of shared souls. Rather the opposite. People talk about growing apart. Perhaps they lose that shared point of view, that shared way of seeing the world.

But here I am again, talking to myself about books that I haven't read because I'm not successful enough to afford them. That bright future has eluded me, it seems, but that's okay, for I've never looked especially good in shades...

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At 6:33 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

My friend Jeff,

"That bright future" has not eluded you. I know it's kinda too cute to quote John Lennon, "life's what happens while" but it applies.

Just yesterday I had the oh, how shall I even attempt to describe? A person who was a mutual friend of a friend googled me and somehow came across "Something Stinks".She allowed me a glimpse of a person whom I'd long (and still)remain remorseful for regrets/cannot name, emotional ties to. That person too was a "significant other."

But that was when the Savings and Loan Crisis was ongoing. Since civ sometimes visits your blog I shall not attempt an of allusion her. I fear a Clemson alum.

Not being the truly metaphysical kinda guy you sometimes seem, I find it somewhat easy to associate the lump of mostly fat and water between my ears easily transmuted to what he refers to as "mind", I unfortunately have had the experience of having had hopes and dreams suddenly splattered upon me when a friend became a remembrance.

But that "bright future" he dreamed of: and missed, is unlike the one both you and I enjoy. I pray I've not mystified. Today your post clarifies, out of the blue the events of yesterdays...


At 7:02 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, JK.

Mystified? Me? Oh ... a little. You do have an elliptical -- allusive and elusive -- style.

But maybe the meaning of the universe really is that "something in this room stinks."

That would explain why I never needed those sunglasses...

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:03 AM, Blogger Hathor said...

I have just bought Dreams From My Father, which I probably could have gotten from the library. Now I want to read this book and it is probably too new to find in the library.

There is no self that exists before society.

I am curious to see how Hofstadter articulates this. Its something I have been thinking about, after becoming involved in arguments with libertarians.

Musings some time ago on my blog.
I just don't have the language.

At 7:16 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Hathor, Hofstadter's new book does sound like an interesting one.

Let me know what you think of Obama's book.

As for the individual and society, you might be interested in looking at Robert Bellah's Habits of the Heart. I'll bet that it's in the library, so you could take a look and see if it's your cup of tea.

By they way, have you ever considered writing your own biography? You lived through the Civil Rights Era and the 60s, so you'd surely have interesting things to say -- since you usually say interesting things here and on your own blog.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:40 AM, Blogger Hathor said...

I don't consider my experience to be all that unique and there are long periods of my life, which I just walked thru like a zombie. No drugs or anything, though.

Writing is hard for me, the hardest part is organizing my thoughts. I re-read one of my earlier post. I didn't realize how much I had rambled. I did read it several times before I published and it took me a month to finish.

At 7:49 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Hathor, perhaps your experience isn't unique (though it might be), but your perspective probably is.

Just think of it as telling a story ... "Once upon a time in a land far away, for the past was a different country, a little girl was born..."

Jeffery Hodges

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At 8:14 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Jeffery,
He'll hardly read this but I imagine that the man's grief moved him from a materialist position that would have the brain as its express terminus in the first instance.( I associate him with 'bright' brainiac Dennett.) A lesser intellect could achieve wisdom by asking: what if everything I know is wrong? Even if one holds a strictly apophatic view of Reality, that perspective can release more into how you live the world than the materialist view which would scornfully dismiss it.

I read in the Sunday Times (Andrew Sullivan) that Oprah has endorsed Barak!!

At 8:29 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

hathor, I just linked to your blog. I shall visit and just watch a bit.

Your thoughts written on gypsy have enlightened me at times. I do not know many things but I have had sisters (one remains in the living world). Each of them married outside the realm of that which Jeff and I know as the insular world of the Ozarks.

We think, therefore we are. But sometimes our thoughts do not coalesce until sometime following pressing the "post" button.

Jeff, my experience of yesterday took me by surprise. Your post of today had the serendipitous effect of coalescing (sic) my wonderings.

Sometimes the meanings (if there are any) of a thing are unknown except without ourselves. And sometimes it helps us to remember we're wearing sunglasses inside.Even if we can't recall putting them on.


At 8:29 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Michael, thanks for the comment.

I've not read Hofstadter since the early 80s, so I don't know how much his position has altered. He used the term "mind" back then but clearly meant the brain's functioning and thought of it as an epiphenomenon upon the brain's causal mechanisms.

He's probably still trying to work his experiences into that paradigm.

I'll look into Oprah's endorsement.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 8:35 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

JK, interesting suggestion, that we might be wearing internal sunglasses.

As for the Ozarks, they were more diverse than they superficially appeared. One of my Ozark aunts used to remind people that a lot of the oldtimers were part Indian ... as was she herself.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 9:03 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

My Dad's Mom's Mother was Quapaw. I know this but when I speak of insular in the Ozarks I'm talking more of recent times.

I myself have a card which gives me "head rights."


At 9:23 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

JK, I thought that you might be part Indian because you always tanned so easily.

Some local folks were also part African-American, I'm told.

And my great-grandmother claimed that the Maguffees came from Turkey (though she may have been speaking of the Ottoman Empire, which covered a lot of non-Turkish territory), but I don't know if she was right.

My half-Cherokee great-grandfather used to purchase goods from an intinerant Arab peddlar who made a circuitous route through the Ozarks -- according to my grandmother.

And my Uncle Harlin says that people ended up in the Ozarks as settlers because they were usually escaping from some sort of 'disreputable' past -- disreputable meaning just about anything that one felt the need to hide...

So ... I suspect that a lot of ethnic mixing was going on behind the scenes.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 12:59 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I will reveal a bit more, but just in case any of my family members ever come across this site I will use my (as you say) elliptical style).

One side of my family came to the White River valley in 1804. One young man of the group was hung but he had a black wife. She and their children remained for some time but then went on to Oklahoma (Indian ie lawless territory).

At least in my general family there was quite a bit of mixing, up until about the 1920's. You might know that for some time up until the '30s there were a few thriving black communities in Northern Arkansas. Marion County being perhaps the best example.

The the ugly side of man turned its face upon the world.


At 1:24 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

JK, if some of your family made it to the Arkansas Ozarks by 1804, then they sound like they might have been a mix of Scotch-Irish and Cherokee, who were already leaving the Cherokee lands back east.

I can date my own famiy in the Ozarks back to at least the 1830s, since that's when the last Cherokee groups left the east for the Arkansas Ozarks and Oklahoma. But I don't really know if my family was that late or actually earlier.

But 1804! That's early.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 3:20 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I can provide some insight perhaps. When Dad got out of the Navy and we came to Arkansas in '62, 9 leaving Salem was blacktop but from Brockwell to where the majority of my relatives lived was gravel.

In the hills the lexicon still contained a few words not much heard today. You'uns, we'uns. But one perhaps most revealing in this context was "ken."

My grandfather occasionally used it when he was giving me a life lesson. One of my most memorable times with him occurred when he took me fishing on Southfork. I don't recall the exact lesson that day but I asked him just what ken meant.

"It's a bit like understand, but there's more to it" he said. He slapped his head and said "you know it here." He placed his hands on his chest and said, "you know and feel it here." He made an arm's wide gesture and said, "and you can use it to feel the world around you."

If memory serves, and perhaps your English commentor might give a more accurate lesson, my memory seems to tell me that "ken" was of Scots origin.

And it's part of family lore that some of the stragglers from Jackson's forced migration of the Eastern Native Peoples managed to hide in the rugged Ozarks until the troops left. There's a very tall rock pillar near Union where they made a sort of community which lasted for some time. Mainly Cherokee but some Kiowa, Quapaw, and I think grandfather told me Shawnee but my own readings seem to indicate that people came from further west.


At 4:38 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

JK, that's very interesting about the word "ken," and I'll have to look into this bit about the expansive meaning of the word.

I recall the period that you mention, the gravel road south of town.

I had old connections, too, though I don't recall anyone using the word "ken," but I bet that my Grandpa Perryman would have known the word. So would my Grandpa Archie -- not really my grandpa but married to my paternal grandma after my paternal grandpa died in a tree-felling accident. Archie Dillinger, noticably Cherokee, would have said that he "knowed" the word "ken," I'll wager.

One of my aunts -- the one who's part Indian -- still says "you'uns," and even the possessive "your'uns's"!

As for me, I can recall having to learn -- when I left the Ozarks -- that "stout" didn't mean "strong." It meant "fat."

I also learned not to say "fixin' to do something."

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 9:40 PM, Blogger Hathor said...

It seems that in the mountains you have many types of people that had escaped the disabilities of race. I saw a picture of a family in Appalacia that looked really mixed, but really weren't identified as negro or native American. I had looked up a group that lives in Appalachia, the Melungeons, because of one of the diseases that run in their group is similar to the one my mother had and my sister has the Thalassemina trait. Actually all I know of is that I have some native American (don't know which) and Irish ancestry. My mothers family is from eastern Tennessee.

I noticed Hodges was one of the Melungeon surnames:)

Just from what I saw of your facial profile, you do look like we could be related.

At 10:18 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Hathor, a lot of my relatives came to the Ozarks from eastern Tennessee. With all that mixing going on, we could certainly be related. I'd guess that you might be part Cherokee if your Native American ancestry stems from that east Tennessee region.

With the Korean added in, my kids are pretty mixed ... or at least mixed up.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 1:51 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Were you to see my daughters you would certainly see that mixture.

However I am not certain that any of us "can" escape the disabilities. Some can and greatly desire to make an effort. Unfortunately there is so much baggage that history, and therefore living reality, that when one communicates sometimes that one feels as if another might harbor the suspicion that there must be an ulterior motive, or agenda.

I suppose so long as one makes the effort to lessen the "impact of sensing" and just lets the conversation proceed, that might help. You can likely sense I am somewhat unsure of myself or my place in the world.



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