Wednesday, November 15, 2023


In days of yore, say 2,500 years ago when Socrates was a pup and Marty Sorrell wasn't yet knee-high to a cockroach, what we would recognize as modern alphabets were invented and ordinary people, people like you and me, started writing things down.

Writing had existed for millennia. But writing was an esoteric skill used only by a small group of experts, something like how coding might have been in 1960. The earliest clay tablets that have survived centuries of seismic events, wars, plagues and ancient cleaning women, were written in Cuneiform. The were usually accountings of debt, expenses and how many goats you were owed. 

Writing wasn't widespread. Until about 2,500 years ago, things like Gilgamesh, and the Iliad and the Odyssey, and even the Jewish Bible were transmitted orally, like Herpes. When the alphabet started using symbols of letters to convey phonemes and morphemes, we started writing words down. Then sentences, stories, and shopping lists.

In the early years of writing, it was decried by the cognoscenti. That means the smart people.

They thought the very act of writing would have nasty side-effects. Mostly, it would destroy our memories. We'd lose what we no longer had to use.

You hear a lot of that today, from people like me, who decry those who google everything and therefore never learn memory tricks like I grew up with. For me, beaten into me by my mother, HOMES was how I remembered the Great Lakes (Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, Superior) and VIBGYOR, the colors of the rainbow. 

When I was a budding scholar studying Chaucer, on the top of every test booklet I had to fill in, I'd write a 24-word sentence that I made up. It was something like, "Please know my ribbon can label white fish supper..." Which helped me remember the order of the tales: Prologue, Knight, Miller, Reeve, Cook, Lawyer, Wife of Bath, Friar, Summoner. It was easier for me to remember one silly sentence, or one made up word than eight or twenty-four separate words. From memorizing the streets of Tribeca to Chaucer, I've always relied on tricks like this.

On my hard drive as its terabytes currently sit, I have one folder stupidly called "Good Things." There must be 500 separate files in there. Hundreds of New York Times and Wall Street Journal book reviews of books that I want to but probably won't have the time to read before I die.

Hundreds of smart reminders like this.

Hundreds of dumb jokes like this, which I find funny and so they help me make it through the gloom of day and night.

And probably thousands of pieces I've written about how to get new business and attract new clients and differentiate myself from everyone who doesn't write 24-word sentences so they can remember all of Chaucer's Pilgrims' tales, in order.

Many of these little blips of value, or amusement, or inklings are well-labeled and well-filed. But many more are not. 

It's good to sometimes be disorganized. It's good to rely on an unreliable memory. It's good to turn a corner and see the ground in the sky and the sky in the ground and the world upside-down. It's good to mis-remember something, a joke, or a lyric, or an ad or a quip. It's good to get lost. 

But culturally and spiritually, we are all-too GPS'd to wander and discover. To worry about the wrong way then find the right way even if it wasn't the original way. Most human progress, if we've had any over our 200,000 years or 5 billion years on our pale blue dot comes from finding things that hadn't been encountered before. Progess comes from sea-places and port towns, entrepots, where cultures, ideas and peoples mix and god alone, though she hardly exists, knows what will result.

Like most people, whether they know it or not, I'm a big believer in the everything drawer. One of the beauties of the everything drawer is that it has everything in it. The real beauty of the everything drawer is that you have to search to find things. And of all the joys in this darkening world, the most joyous might be finding something with serendipity. If you make the world your everything drawer, if you regard each moment and each day as a present to be opened, your present and your future will be more tumultuous, and therefore, fruitful.

In other words, and the point today, is that organization and order are beautiful--emanations devoutly to be wished. But they call the little boxes in spreadsheets "cells" for a reason. They are imprisoning. Chaos and happenstance are where invention lay. As Keats wrote in "Ode to a Grecian Urn," "Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard Are sweeter;." 

The things you find that you weren't looking for are usually better than finding the things you were looking for.

That belief is why a messy bookstore is better than an orderly one. A haphazard workspace with piles of stuff is better than neat for neat's sake, and a room of crazy, entropic stimulus is better than reading a how-to guide or a step-by-step set of instructions on how to make a speech, write a piece of copy, make a presentation, fall off a bike or fall in love.

Jean Renoir, son of the painter Auguste, and probably the greatest film director of all time, once wrote, "the foundation of all civilization is loitering." 

I read loitering not as standing on the corner watching all the girls go by. But rather as a recognition (something that the modern world doesn't understand) that when it comes to finding answers, the shortest distance between two points is never a straight line. 

There are no straight lines in nature, someone once told me. I believe that.

The Greeks reminded themselves in virtually every one of their public and private spaces of the virtue of circuitousness. Think of how many buildings and coffee cups you've seen decorated with this design. A ever-present reminder.

In Turkey, there's a river the Greeks called the Büyük-Menderes. To quote Wikipedia, "the river was well-known for its sinuous, curving pattern." That's where we get our word meander.

Let's do the twist.

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