12 February 2012

On Understanding (nonfiction)

While I walked through the parking lot south of our university football stadium, a wave of tiredness came over me, and I closed my eyes. I couldn’t help but wonder how far I could go without looking (someone in class was talking about this just the other day). It turned out I was only able to go a few steps before I worried I would crash my flip-flop toes (or, worse, my shins) into one of the parked cars I knew was coming up, even though the lot was relatively empty. When I opened my eyes, I was ashamed to realize I wasn’t anywhere near the parked cars. I sized up the open part of the lot, aimed myself in that direction, closed my eyes, and started counting to a hundred. Around step thirteen, I pseudo-peeked, which means I opened my left eye just enough that I could make out shapes through the blur of my eyelash. But it was still cheating. I closed that eye and went on with more resolve, but I didn’t start my count over. Each step was a little scarier than the one before. Around step fifty five, I imagined my right pinkie toe scraping the side of the sidewalk, but I pushed the thought away, and pressed on, thinking I surely had at least a few more steps. Around step sixty seven I thought the side-walk collision was imminent, and I veered to the left, stepping more slowly. But as I did, it shortened my gait, which was also cheating, so I sped up slightly and took longer strides again.

It was October 24th, and there were crunchy leaves all over. The wind pushed calmly across the surface of the world, and the soft scraping of leaves on pavement showed my mind’s eye a plane that stretched around me in the darkness. On step eighty two, I couldn’t take it anymore and slowed more still, curling my toes defensively, but I kept my strides as long as I could. I didn’t even know what I would be crashing into, but I had gone far too far to still be in the parking lot. On step ninety two I heard roaring engines ahead of me, and I realized my veering must have brought me near the street and the rushing traffic.

But I couldn’t open my eyes: there were only eight more steps to go.

I stretched my right leg forward in a large, slow step. Ninety three. The cars whirred past.

Then my left, very slowly. Ninety four.

Weren’t there shrubs over here? Ninety five.

And yellow concrete pillars? Ninety six.

And a curb I would stumble off and fall into the speeding traffic? Ninety seven.

And was anyone watching me take these slow foolish steps? Ninety eight.

But I was too close to stop. Ninety nine.

One hundred.

I opened my eyes. I was standing in the middle of the lot—twenty-five steps from the sidewalk on my right and more than fifty steps from the road ahead. Nowhere near the dangers I had imagined.

I crossed the street, stepped into the next lot, walked till I was almost past a certain lamppost so I could be sure to steer clear, and closed my eyes again: second attempt. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven. It was around eleven that it started getting scary again—so soon. The fence I was walking toward seemed like it must be immediately in front of me, and yet... hadn’t I learned anything from the last blind walk?

Thirty five, thirty six. I could feel myself wandering slightly to the right, so I corrected a little to the left, too far, so more to the right, and then I wasn’t sure which direction was ahead anymore. (Of course, ahead was always ahead, that’s the nice thing about it.)

Forty one. Forty two. I listened again to scraping leaves, some below my soles, some nearby, and some beyond that—I sensed that plane of sound in the darkness again, that solid platform of scraping leaves. The mental picture allowed me to keep my pace strong, stride after stride after stride.

Fifty seven. Fifty eight. Fifty nine. I heard a car, slightly louder than the leaves and wind, its engine turning over and over.

The sound jumped at me.

I opened my eyes, still walking quickly. My left knee was almost touching the bumper of a parked car. I rolled sideways, but still forward—like a wide-receiver dodging a tackle in slow motion—and glanced back. The driver tapped her palms on the steering wheel anxiously, but didn’t look at me for some reason; I guess she thought it was too awkward to acknowledge. I couldn’t see her passenger’s face, but I’m sure he was amused by the strange stranger swaggering by. I looked ahead and kept walking.

On the first attempt, I was too timid. On the second attempt, I was too daring, and I almost walked into a car that had moved in my way while my eyes were closed. It nearly caused me to bang my knee and, worse, look like an idiot as I stumbled onto the hood of the only car in a giant empty parking lot.

That’s how I’m navigating life too—with my eyes closed.

I like to keep my eyes open as I shampoo. I’ve been doing this since I was eleven. But this morning, some of it trickled down into my eye, causing that burning, stabbing sensation under the eyelid. And my first reaction was to scream MOM I GOT SHAMPOO IN MY EYE! The kid part of me is still inside. I’d forgotten about him, but that brought him right back. And I felt sad that we were so out of touch.

The football stadium is right across the street from my apartment. Close enough to throw a rock at. In fact, from my apartment, I could probably throw a pigskin clean over the stadium. The other day, my little brother Jackson, who’s twelve, was in town. He and I and my roommates were watching a football game at home on the big screen while it was going on live across the street. There was a major fumble in our team’s favor, and we suddenly realized that a moment before we’d heard cheering from the stadium. Two minutes later when we heard cheering again from outside the window, we perked up and watched the play on the edges of our seats. Sure enough, we watched the gutsy second-string QB run a touchdown. It made me wonder what it would be like to get five-second prophesies in other parts of life.

After that, the game went downhill. Our team made some major blunders and fell further and further behind. It was so bad that I gave up hope by about half time. But Jackson kept his hope till the end, really, right until the last few plays. He finally threw up his hands: “Dang, there’s no way we can come back now.” As it turned out, my pessimism had been right all along. Yet I could help but wish I’d had his optimism. He saw a different game than me.

Last night Jackson and I were chatting on the phone, and he was telling me about a movie he’d just seen. “And I hated the ending because once he—”

“Wait! Don’t ruin the ending.”

“Oh. Okay. Sorry. Well, basically after he becomes king, he doesn’t feel good about it, and then they kill him.”

How was that not ruining the ending? He must have thought I meant the details of the ending. Not the concept. Thanks for not ruining the details. I laughed about it on the inside. And it reminded me of how I didn’t understand a lot of things when I was a kid. (At twenty-eight though, I can’t understand why that date I had a few weeks ago had to be so horrible, although I guess I’m mostly over it now—so maybe understanding comes at increasing speeds the older you get.)

I imagine life as a graph, the x-axis being time: As you progress from being zero to being 8 years old, the line on the graph rises, showing how much smarter you’ve become. Actually, not smarter; the y-axis is understanding. Your understanding increases over time. Now watch it continue to rise as you get to 18, and then 28. Maybe this is the wrong metaphor; not a graph, a mountain, and as you scale the mountain, the higher you get, the more you see—the greater your understanding. Of course, like walking blind, you never know what’s really ahead of you. You can imagine it, but you have no real understanding until you get there (that’s when your eyes are open—but your eyes are only ever open looking to the past).

When I was 8, I assumed that understanding plateaued around 18 or 19. So I was surprised later when I looked back on 19 and realized how much I’d learned since. Now at 28, I understand a lot more than I did at 19. And yet now I can’t help but think that I’ll plateau around 38 or so. That’s just a gut feeling, and, logically, I realize I’ll probably be surprised again once I get there—but it’s hard to imagine specifically what I’ll see and what I’ll realize from that perspective. Tearing my ACL taught me a thing or two about hope. And I think I never could have understood it by speculating. It was understanding that comes only through experience. It’s the same with the $5,000 I lost in Chile, or the being single for much, much longer than I had planned. Hard lessons to learn, but you reach a scenic overlook by paying the price.

When I look at the things I wrote as a freshman, it seems my brain must have only been running at half speed. I wonder, if someone had told me, “Your brain is only half on,” would I have believed them? Probably not. (The reason I wonder is because I was considering telling this to my freshman writing students—that they shouldn’t worry too much about their scores because their brains are only half on. I suspect they wouldn’t get it.)

They’ll understand twice as much when they’re my age, and when they’re 38 they’ll probably think 28 was pretty naive too. Which makes me wonder—what if this mountain never had a farther side? What if you knew more at 88 years, and more still at 108, and more still at 208, higher and higher, for several lifetimes? —and what if it continued forever?

Here’s another metaphor (it’s how I understand things). Say, for example, that you put your laptop on the dimmest setting. If you have sunlight coming in the room, and especially if you’re outside, the screen will be too dim to see. But use that same setting while lying in bed with the lights out after midnight, and the dimmest setting is too bright, and you wish you could somehow make it dimmer. The dimness of the dark room compared to the room in daylight, and then the direct sun outdoors—you can see the scale increasing between each of these. I try to think of something beyond the brightness of the sun—but I can’t. I understand the concept of an increasing value, but to actually picture the value in your head—I can’t do it.

Nor can I imagine what it’s like to be 38. I understand the pattern, so I know conceptually what to expect. But I can’t imagine the details—because how can you understand something you don’t yet understand? How can you stand on a mountain ridge that’s two miles up and from there see what it’s like from ten miles up?

In high school, I was constantly anxious. But looking back, I can hardly imagine why. I wish someone would have told me to relax. Maybe they did, and I didn’t hear because I couldn’t understand.

Really, you can’t know something until it’s in your past. Right? If someone higher on the mountain gives you a call and explains what you’re going to see up ahead, you nod your head, and you imagine it, but it’s like imagining the parking lot stretched in front of you: You’re bound to imagine things wrong—disproportionate at the very least.

One of my main goals as a writer is to communicate my understanding into the head of the reader—essentially to put a thought into someone else’s brain. I think I believe that’s possible. Or I thought it was. But somehow my writing this is convincing me otherwise. Maybe I just believe that in writing I can approximate. I take the thought and put it inside your head, and once it’s there it looks a little like the thought that was in my head—there’s some resemblance. It’s a distant cousin, maybe. Anyways, they both have eyes and ears.

Reader, imagine the writer shaking his head.

A lot of writers think there’s strength in understatement—that you don’t want to insult your reader by telling it all. But part of me thinks they’re saying there’s an advantage to having people not understand, which I don’t buy. If it’s not crystal clear, it’s not good writing. (Which I suppose means I’ve never actually read good writing. But I’ve read some approximations—distant cousins of good writing. They were all written by mortals—is the problem.)

I once wrote a poem called “Traverse” that went like this:
Today, as the world completed
a revolution, I traveled from
summer into winter, from
the eye of Polaris to
the watch of Chiron.
It was one of my first poems (not that I’ve improved since). I always thought it had a lot of meaning packed into it, but chances are you didn’t really get any of it, that is, you didn’t understand—and not through any fault of your own: It’s vague. No two ways about it. But if I explained it to you, it would make more sense (and lose some of its depth?).

When I was a kid, I’d wonder why I was named Travis. I’d ask my mom, and she’d say she liked the name, and then I’d ask her if there was anyone famous I was named after, and she’d say, “Well, there was Colonel Travis of the Alamo...” (suddenly I recall my old roommate Dan shouting “Remember the Alamo!” while dancing down the hallway in his underwear), but she’d say this with uncertainty—I’m sure that’s not where she got it, but she didn’t seem to know where she did get it. I finally looked it up when I was about 14. It came from Old French, meant “from the crossroads,” and may have referred to toll collectors, which I wasn’t too proud of. That bothered me for several years, until I looked it up again; this time it said it had the same root as traverse, which I liked. I’ve since been to 10 countries outside the USA—which seems like a lot to me (though it’s certainly not enough). So the poem’s title referenced how I found identity in my name—by becoming a traveler.

I composed this “Traverse” on a flight that took me across the equator down to Santiago, Chile—literally, from summer into winter. Chiron is a constellation at the southern celestial pole, whose feet make up the Southern Cross—one of the few constellations that never rotates into the view of the northerners. (Seeing the Southern Cross had been on my bucket list. Alone (except for the stray dogs) on a steep street in Viña del Mar, I came to a corner where the lamp had gone out, and the street was especially dark—just me and the faint sound of glass tinkling in a nearby kitchen. I took a grainy photo of the Cross, and if I point to it in the picture it’s not too hard to identify. Next I want to see the northern lights.)

A poet came here to Brigham Young University for a reading early this semester. Before each poem, he’d talk about how his dad died, or what it was like to be an Asian American trying to reconnect with his fading heritage—things like that. With those preludes, the poems came alive. Without them, well, I for one wouldn’t have gotten much out of it (but I’ve already admitted my weakness in poetry).

Communication is a general problem though, something every person I’ve ever met also struggles with. It’s not easy to be clear, not easy to share understanding. Take this essay for example. You still don’t know what I’m driving at. Well, neither do I, so you’re following well.

I was sitting in class the other day, and I heard a key scraping in the lock of our classroom door (of course, it wasn’t locked). The door cracked open, halted, and shut again—apparently the classroom full of people was a surprise. We had been in the room the whole time, but the person didn’t know—couldn’t see past the barrier till he’d gone past it.

There’s a window above the door, and from inside the classroom you can see the gray ceiling tiles in the hall. The two spaces are right next to each other—illuminated by the same light even—part of the same continuum. Only when you’re standing on the ground, you can’t see that continuum, because the wooden door is in the way. They aren’t really separate, but they seem separate.

This is just another metaphor (I’ve used a lot in here). I’m guessing one of them will stick in your mind and the rest will fade like the vanishing dot on a CRT screen.



I wish I could write the essay after you reacted to it. We’re doing this in the wrong order, aren’t we? Like we do most things in life. If only I could see through the barrier before I opened it. If only I could act after already having understood—perhaps that’s what it’s like to be God—rather than understanding only because I have acted.

But we’re stuck inside the space-time continuum.

In high school, I heard the term renaissance man, and it was always said as a joke. I looked it up once, but the definition didn’t click (maybe because I never got the joke—some pop-culture reference maybe). I became “familiar” with the term, but, because I didn’t understand, I just imagined some funny old man, maybe someone who was a kidder. Now I finally get what it means, and it’s a concept I love—that a person can understand not just one thing really well, but many things—that he can increase his understanding continually.

I want to become one, so I’ve been reading Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. (I’m really reading it because it’s fascinating, but if I can become a renaissance man while I’m at it, all the better. Luckily there are a lot of things that strike me as interesting. Susan Sontag said, “My idea of a writer: someone interested in everything.” So maybe I’m just striving to become a writer.)

A singularity is when a mass of particles collapse until the volume is zero, which increases both the density and temperature to infinity and bends the space-time continuum infinitely too. (In astronomy textbooks they show those maps of how a planet bends space time: like a heavy bowling ball at the center of a trampoline, and gravity is that slope in space-time that pulls on nearby objects and makes them roll in toward it. Incidentally, I imagine a black hole—a singularity—also pulls the trampoline down in a sort of curving V-shape, but then it cuts a hole in the fabric, so stuff just drops out the bottom into infinity, or into the gravel below the trampoline, depending on how you imagine it.)

Sometimes his book is over my head. And yet, the more I learn from it, the more I understand other things I thought I already understood but apparently didn’t. For example, thinking about singularities—infinity multiplying by infinity and causing the rules of relativity to break down—blows my mind! Confronting this conceptual infinity, this unfathomable, perhaps paradoxical idea, made me think that maybe God is behind the singularity, this crossroads of infinities. Or maybe God is the singularity. (Who knows. I do believe he is unity, at least.)

I had this argument with a girl I was dating, Meagan, about whether Avatar was a good movie or not. (Just so you know, Meagan, I’ve relaxed my criticism a bit, and I think I can enjoy it as a lighthearted adventure.) I had it in my head that I was absolutely right in my opinion—that my understanding really was the right way to see things. And I was right. Sort of.

My mom’s apple pie is the best dessert on earth—I’ll say so till the day I die. There’s no need to argue; it’s just the truth of the matter. (And it always bothered me when my siblings would argue the matter.)

Well, Meagan helped me to realize that I was leaving something out of my rock-solid equations of truth. Here was my equation:
Best Dessert Ever = Apple Pie
But it was bad science, a poorly constructed formula. Here’s how I revised it:
Best Dessert Ever + Trav’s Tastebuds → Apple Pie
And as many times as you try this second formula, you’ll get the same results. This is rock-bottom truth. It’s not opinion—not something that wavers. Yet, when you leave the Trav’s Tastebuds factor out, you can get all sorts of unreliable results. That’s why you have crazy people who claim chocolate cheesecake is the best dessert ever (which, ironically is close to the right answer in some ways).

I’m a passionate theist, passionate about a lot of other things too. And I get kind of ticked (a flaw, I admit) when people act like “the best way” isn’t even a possibility, as if subjectivity (which I believe is a true and important principle, as we learned in the Tastebud Theorem) has canceled out truth through relativity (which I don’t believe is true—but I’m talking about moral relativism, not Einstein).

There’s truth out there. Economic truth. Truth about the best way to fuel your body. Truth about the best way to refuel your Zippo (my little brother taught me this truth). All these areas of understanding are part of what’s true. I guess you could say that that’s my religion—to believe in everything that’s true. I believe that 2+2=4 is as true as “Love your enemies.” Of course, some of these truths—like Zippos and saturated fats—aren’t as weighty as other truths—like singularity and atonement. They’re less in glory. But they’re not any less true. (I may have just wandered into the darkness of philosophy that’s beyond my understanding.)

I don’t know all the truth, and a lot of things I thought were true I realized later weren’t true at all. But shouldn’t we be striving to figure things out? Shouldn’t we be trying to understand as much as we can?

Twice now Stephen Hawking has mentioned that he was invited to a conference at the Vatican to discuss Big Bang theory, and, while he was there, the Pope congratulated the scientists for the work they’d done. But then he asked them not to search beyond the Big Bang for whatever happened before, as it was the realm of God’s creation—it was God’s turf and man shouldn’t go poking his nose around. This frustrated me a great deal. I’m a Christian, and I find, like the Pope, that modern science confirms the greatness of God. But if God is real, then wouldn’t whatever scientists find next also confirm his greatness? I wish I could explain this to the Pope.

On the other hand, I’m not so sure I could make Stephen Hawking understand what I know about Christianity—that a man who was unjustly executed in Jerusalem was really half-god. Stephen has mentioned God a few times, and he seems to have a healthy agnostic view (which I think is pretty sensible—in fact, under different circumstances, I’d feel the same way. See, I respect agnostics, as they are, after all, right—there is no empirical data that proves the existence of God. On the other hand, the lack of evidence doesn’t prove there is no God. You’ve heard of the black swan fallacy, right?) And yet, I feel almost certain that he would never believe my religious beliefs, no matter how hard I tried explaining.

In my mind, Stephen lacks imagination: He focuses too much on what we know—what we understand—and focuses too little on those things we don’t understand, which is weird, because I know he knows the ratio of what we know to what we don’t know is ridiculously lopsided (for example, 73% of the universe is made up of dark energy, which remains mysterious for the most part). Of course, this is a child (child—at least as far as understanding cosmology goes) speaking to an adult (Stephen). And, as usual, the child’s imagination is greater. The child hasn’t opened his eyes yet, so he has to imagine everything—like walking blind through a parking lot.

This brings me to a thought I hadn’t considered. Is there value in the naivete of a child—value in not understanding and so imagining instead?

And if there is, is it worth giving up understanding in order to have imagination?—because it can’t be both ways. You either stay in Neverland, or you come home to Mrs. Darling. But you can’t have both. That’s what Peter never understood.

There’s a scene in A Christmas Carol where Scrooge and the first ghost see the woman Scrooge might have married but did not, and the narrator becomes fixed on the beauty of her daughter who also may have been Scrooge’s but was not:
“Yet I should have dearly liked, I own, to have touched her lips; to have questioned her, that she might have opened them; to have looked upon the lashes of her downcast eyes, and never raised a blush; to have let loose waves of hair, an inch of which would be a keepsake beyond price:”
And then the narrator says,
“In short, I should have liked, I do confess, to have had the lightest license of a child, and yet to have been man enough to know its value.”

There’s a person sitting in front of me. She has arms and legs, a torso and long hair, and, most importantly, eyes. What I don’t see is that there’s another level below (just like Inception). (But not below, and not beneath, nor under, nor inside. I don’t know the word I’m looking for. I guess I’ll have to use below because I don’t know the preposition for when you zoom in to smaller and smaller particles.)

The parts I can see are made up of smaller cells that I can’t see—keratin and other proteins (though I know basically nothing about biology). But what if I could see them? And understand them?

And there’s more, below that—molecules made up of hydrogen and oxygen. And below that, protons and electrons, spinning around in almost infinite empty space. And below that, quarks and neutrinos and positrons. All of these smaller organisms and (solar) systems, spinning around in their ordered patterns, stacked up one level on another to create the miracle of a human—of a being. And some people (like me) believe that there’s a soul in there too, though I don’t know which level it’s on, or under, or through, or around. But what if there was a mind that could perceive all those levels—to comprehend them and understand them all at once?

I’ve written a lot, and I’m certainly not certain as to whether I’ve made any sense, even to myself. I still don’t know what’s going to happen next. I still don’t know whether I’m about to crash into a parked car. Nor do I know if I’ll turn into a decent writer.


  1. Travis, this is fantastic. ...that doesn't seem to convey how much I enjoyed reading this, but it's the best I can do for now.

  2. ha ha. thanks, sam. it means a lot.


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