More Attempts to Solve The Problem

There’s a word in Danish, hygge, that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. Hygge is one of those cool words that doesn’t actually have a direct English translation, but instead, describes some abstract and complex emotion or phenomenon. The closest translation of hygge that we can come up with is the feeling of coziness and warmth, usually with food and/or good friends. If I were a linguist, I might even venture as far as to say that the fact that the Danes have a word dedicated to this feeling is indicative of the value that they put on the so-called “Good Life.”

Linguistics aside, though, I am a big fan of this hygge thing. I think of drinking hot chocolate while reading a book in bed, or playing a board game with friends on a rainy day. In high school, I reflected often on the power of contentment and taking pleasure in simplicity. My senior year, I delivered an entire monologue to my English class about how my dreams hinged more on aesthetics than success. A New York City coffee shop, I claimed, would make me far happier than achievement and recognition.

In the year that followed, I graduated from high school, got straight As at Vanderbilt, joined as many student organizations as my schedule would allow, and hunted leadership positions like they were Pokemon and I had to catch ‘em all. Letting go of ambition, I found, was not as easy a task as it seemed.

It was a lesson that Alexander Hamilton apparently learned hundreds of years ago. After becoming a Revolutionary War hero, Hamilton went back to his wife, Eliza, and his firstborn son, Philip. In a letter to a friend, he wrote, “I lose all taste for the pursuits of ambition. I sigh for nothing but the company of my wife and my baby.” Cue the collective swoon of American women in the 1780’s.

Hamilton’s biographer, Chernow, on the other hand, was quick to dismiss this as “poppycock,” as “his career would move forward with its own furious inner propulsion.”

Sometimes, I wonder if my high school classmates saw my plea for hygge as a similar breed of poppycock, like the athlete who says he’s retiring, but then can’t stay away from the game.

Objectively, I have to admit that for both Hamilton and myself, it was a bit over-the-top to suggest that we would give up our accomplishments in favor of hygge (not that my accomplishments are anywhere near the caliber of Hamilton’s). But I also think that it might be unfair and simplistic for history to reflect that ambitious people value success over the mythical Important Things.

In a lot of ways, it reminds me of The Great Problem of the Modern Woman, the tug-of-war between career and family that we keep trying to solve even though LITERALLY NO ONE EVER WINS. And when I think about the fact that Hamilton encountered this dilemma of balance, it makes me resentful that career vs. family is a feminist issue and not an everyone-in-all-of history-ever-needs-to-figure-out-a-balance-of-what’s-important-in-life problem. But that wasn’t even the point I was trying to make.

I think maybe what we could all consider is that hygge is not a lifestyle but a moment, and that the desire for success does not impair our ability to appreciate these moments. Spending every hour of every day in a coffee shop is incompatible with ambition, but spending a few hours there a week is not. If ambition and hygge share a common thread, it is that both fight complacency: they both urge us to not throw away our shot, whether it is our shot at success or our shot at contentment. Maybe together, they could be enough.

In Which I Meet Lots of Randos

The old man in the green jacket wipes the table down carefully, deliberately flicking away each piece of debris. There are already two people at the table next to his, deeply focused on their game of chess. The white pieces have crawled over the board, the game nearly at its close. In a few moves, it is finished; the two men shake hands, and one walks away. The other turns to watch the old man as he lays out a chessboard of his own.

A group gathers around the table–four other guys looking at the empty seat. The man in the green jacket waits, his back perfectly straight as he surveys the pieces laid out before him. The group surrounding him is tall, tan, and young, the kind of people you’d totally expect to see walking around Santa Monica. It’s rude to stare, I know, but I’m having a hard time looking away from something so out of the ordinary.

One of them finally sits down, and the game begins. They use a timer to play, slapping down a brass knob to begin the countdown for each move. The other three stand and watch the as the pieces slide back and forth. I don’t realize how obviously I’m watching until one of them smiles and nods at me.

He comes in a few minutes later to buy a bottle of water, and walks over to me on his way out. He’s in his mid-thirties, I think, still dressed like a college kid in jeans and a t-shirt and running shoes.

“You from the area?” he asks.

“Yeah, I go to UCLA. Are you?”

“Moved here from New York a few years back.”

We chat like old friends in the way that only total strangers can, the conversation flowing smoothly as we share the superficial details of our identities. He is retired already; worked in software development before that; has a mom who studied chemical engineering until she “did the homemaker thing.”

It’s the kind of conversation that you can have exactly once with a person, before you learn enough about them that an exchange of facts can no longer pass for conversation. When friends talk, there is an expectation of intimacy: if you already know the pieces that make up a person’s life–their job, their family, their hometown–all that remains is to get to know the pieces that make up the person themselves–their dreams, their passions, their fears; and these things are not so freely shared. Maybe this is why meeting people is so easy (“What’s your name? What’s your major? Where are you from?”) but quickly turns into me pulling aside someone else I know to introduce them as well, so that the whole thing can begin again.

He asks if I want to play chess with them. The last time I played was in fourth grade, sprawled out on the living room floor as I tried to think just a few steps ahead of my dad.

I accept, and find myself seated across from the old man in the green jacket.

“Have you ever read any books about chess?”

“No, I haven’t.”

In retrospect, this should’ve been a sign that I was going to lose even more spectacularly than I anticipated.

The game is over in five minutes, my king cornered and half my pieces removed from the board. I thank him, we shake hands, and I leave, for now finished trying to fit in. I am neither tall nor tan nor male; I am not a chess player, though not because I lack the qualities I just mentioned. I should not feel like I have failed some unfair initiation into a secret boys’ club simply because I am a girl–I am not a chess player because I know almost nothing about chess. That’s kind of how life works. But as I wait for the bus, I can’t shake off the feeling of failure, which makes no sense because to be honest setting up the pieces correctly was about as much as I could’ve hoped to accomplish. All too often, I find myself wanting to fit where I don’t belong, and sometimes it’s simple to change myself just enough to make it; but there are some things that can’t be faked. And chess, as I have been reminded, is one of them.

I Didn’t Finish Any of My Thoughts

It’s easy enough to look at a morning or an afternoon or even an entire day and to tell myself that I used it well–I’m not throwing away my shot–even if it wasn’t particularly memorable or daring or fun, because one of the many millions of things to which life could be analogized is a sum: of minutes, of days, of joy and pain and everything in between. And okay, maybe it’s oversimplifying things to say that the human condition = good stuff – bad stuff, because then that means figuring out what makes an experience good or bad or whether all of life falls completely into one category or the other (disclaimer: pretty sure it doesn’t). But the fact that we have memories and the ability to learn from experience means that on some level, we do experience life as a sum; perhaps a more sprawling and complex one than mine, but a sum nonetheless, as we collect months and years and memories in hopes of achieving that elusive critical mass required to swing and make an impact on some small piece of the world.

—-

As we roll past the city lights on the 405, I wonder what, exactly, we are. By definition, we are just friends–the “just” is very important. We enjoy spending time together; we get along well; we are comfortable. We have accepted a status quo. But as I watch the other side of the freeway fly by, headlights streaming past like beads falling from a string, I am not sure this particular state of being is meant to last. But right now, Ben Rector is singing about falling in love, and I look straight ahead because eye contact during love songs would most definitely upset the balance we are trying so hard not to.

By the time we find parking, we’re late. We order separately, and it’s not until after we’ve joined the rest of our group that I realize we’ve gotten the same damn drink.

The toilet overflowed the other night for no apparent reason, and I still don’t know what’s wrong with it. I check inside the tank, to make sure the chain connected to the little rubber flapper connected to I’m-not-quite-sure-what is still there, because that’s the only thing I know how to fix. Fortunately (or not), it’s present and working perfectly.

We have a plunger, so I find it–and realize that I don’t actually know how to use it. I understand the physics of creating negative pressure, but now there’s a plunger in my hand and I’m suddenly uncertain; do you just use it once? Do you keep plunging and hope for the best? I Google it. More than ever, it feels like I’m playing at adulthood.

Enzymes catalyze reactions by positioning substrates in a favorable configuration. This is typically illustrated by two models–lock and key, and induced fit. The lock and key model suggests that the enzyme’s active site is precisely shaped to accept its substrate, while the induced fit model instead suggests that the active site changes shape upon coming into contact with a substrate, in order to bind it securely. So basically, enzymes echo all my unanswered questions about identity and relationships–are relationships based on a lock and key model, in which two people click just so and are locked into place, or on an induced fit model, in which upon coming into contact, two people mold each other–pushing back and giving in just enough to create a perfect fit? I know that I have been bent and molded and grown by others, in the same way that I see scraps of my own identity woven into the people I love.

A common tumblr factoid (thanks, I think it’s a great source, too) says you are the average of the five people with whom you spend the most time. I imagine it as a giant Venn diagram–circles of five people intertwined and overlapping, life on life on life, pressing in just the right places to bind themselves together. 

 

I Don’t Even Like Running Though

Alright I pulled myself together and am actually going to write this now.

Every so often, I think about that paradox where if you move half of the distance between your location and your destination an infinite number of times, you’ll technically never make it to your destination. According to Google, it’s called “Zeno’s Paradox,” and it was created by some dude named Zeno who wanted to prove that motion is a complete and utter sham.

At first, it kind of trips you out because it makes sense, almost. But the truth of the matter is that when you test it out in real life, and you really put your mind to it, or even if you don’t, you can probably overcome the paradox and get to the other side of the room.

I refuse to diss math, so I’ve gotta tell you the truth first. The truth is that all infinite converging series eventually sum to a finite number; that is, ½ + ¼ +1/8 + 1/16 … = 1. For some people, that is enough. The jury is still out on whether or not it’s enough for me, but that may just be because it’s been over two years since I’ve touched a series.

Math never hurts, but for me, Zeno’s paradox will always be disproven by a simple act of magic – The Final Step.

Zeno’s paradox is visualized in many different ways, including the original Zeno’s impossible tortoise race, Daniel Tammet’s lamp posts, and Hazel Grace Lancaster’s some-infinities-are-bigger-that-other-infinities. Personally, I’ve always imagined a race – specifically, one of those big-league races where the winner gets to break the ribbon at the end. The runner gets closer and closer and closer to the finish line until suddenly, the ribbon is broken and he’s won the race. And before math and the Internet explained to me why this worked, I justified this convergence through the magic of The Final Step

It is an explanation full of logical fallacies, but I think I’m okay with it. The way I imagine it, the runner can get fractions of millimeters away from the finish line through pure physics, and he makes up the rest of the distance through some combination of determination, grit, and agency that allows him to break through that threshold. Imagine a literal breakthrough, complete with shattering glass.

I’m well aware that this explanation makes even less sense than this blog has so far, but the reason I’m telling you this is that The Final Step is a purely human contribution of agency. If distance between A and B were a variable, and I programmed a robot with an infinite loop to move according to Zeno’s paradox, it would just get closer and closer and closer until the software crashed, as is typical of programs written with poor programming style. And the reason this would happen is that the robot doesn’t know how to decide for itself when to take The Final Step and reach the destination.

As a human, on the other hand, I can choose to take The Final Step when I’m 1/32 away, or 1/164 away, or 1/656 away, or… The number is arbitrary, and it makes virtually no difference on my finishing time because it takes fractions of seconds to travel those distances, but I have to choose one of them. Only then do I break the glass, and only then do I win the race.

But the funny thing is, it’s not that decision that allows me to beat all of the other runners. The outcome of that was decided long ago, and it was based upon an entirely different variable – how long it takes me to move a certain amount of distance.

It’s a sad thing to think about, to have beat all of the other runners, and yet still be stuck in the limbo of infinity.