Getting by with Binary

“Are you on the bus, or off the bus?” Ken Kesey

I have been astonished recently at the disparagement of what is called ‘binary thinking.’ You know, the sort of thinking people do when distinguishing between themselves and that other person, also on the tennis court, but on the other side of the net.

This criticism is largely used when referring to a person’s personal gender identification. It would be rude to assign such to another person, despite the obvious clues on display when a newborn baby is about to receive that first slap on its bottom. Mere physical fact is so passé. And is that sex assigned? Or just noted?

Nowadays one’s gender self-assignment is only limited by your imagination. No one has been able to annotate all the proliferating qualifiers. I cannot keep track. Color me sieve-sexual.

These days, even facts cannot be counted on to be objectively true. People declare ‘the science to be settled.’ Science doesn’t settle things, though. It asks questions incessantly and seeks to disprove. Considering the vehemence with which it is often declared, ‘settled science’ appears to be just a euphemism for ‘faith.’

BTW, sorry to be writing this on a computer. I know. So binary.

(I once asked a computer programmer if he knows of anyone who writes code comedy. Code Poetry? What rhymes with zero? Nothing.)

“Call me.”

“Oh, but I don’t have your number.”

“That’s okay. Just use one you like.”

Unlike facts, feelings have nuance – feelings shift and morph and transform. Binary thinking is so specific, either this or that. We (as opposed to ‘they’) prefer fluidity as opposed to solidity. Oops! There goes that binary thinking again.

Jungian psychology identified the male/female continuum within each of us. (For instance, I like it when my wife… oh, never mind.) But Jung isn’t being taught any longer. Do feminists resent having to share a continuum with men? They want it all. I recently read that some feminists have declared that one cannot be both a feminist and a conservative. How binary is that?

“Who are you talking about?”

“That two-spirited, non-binary, half-caff, cis-gendered, non-dairy person with a twist, over there.”

“That narrows it down, but… you mean that man?”

“Yeah, with the coffee.”

I want to ask the protester pictured holding a sign calling for ‘no more borders’ why, if borders are obsolete, they want to stay here so badly.

To be honest, binary thinking predominates because it is just so darned convenient. Yes/no.

On/off.

Us/them.

I/thou.

In/out.

Left/right.

Up/down.

Active/passive.

Cold/hot.

Male/female.

Rich/poor.

True/false.

Connected/unplugged.

Should I stop? Start?

Fall in or out of love? Oops, binary.

Slippery slope? Binary.

Non-binary? Yep. Binary.

Language is made up of distinctions. Try to define your terms without identifying what something is not.

They are descriptive words after all. Not meant to plumb the depths of your soul. And, in the spirit of privacy (remember that?) you don’t need the government in your bedroom. Nor do you need to squeeze your ever evolving sense of identity onto that tiny ID card issued by the state.

Proto-Indo-European (the Mother of all languages) only identified black, red and green as colors. Not much nuance there. Some cultures do not distinguish between green and blue. Is that unitary thinking? Or just lazy?

I am not against nuance. That would be nuance as opposed to… what?

Black/white? Ahh… but what about grey? Yes, what about grey? Is that a cool grey? Or a warm grey?

Is the world more nuanced than a one or a zero? Of course. I have eight other fingers to keep occupied holding the smart phone whilst my thumbs text.

But I think trying to get a four year old to grasp the nuances of gender fluidity, when they can barely form sentences is a bridge too far.

Interestingly, one distinction many love to make is between Fascism and Communism, which to my un-nuanced eye, seem to have more in common than not.

And is there anything more binary than agreement/racist? The best answer I’ve heard (on the radio) to the question of race is there is only the human color – melanin, in various shades.

Beige? Wheat? Some distinctions really do not have a difference.

Where would deconstruction be without construction?

Ugly/pretty obviously has the nuance of pretty ugly.

Yin/yang carries the seed of its opposite within it. This implies change over time. Life is not static. Even stasis is not static. And thankfully, an entity as complicated as a person cannot be reduced to mere ones and zeros. Yet.

But by way of a short hand reference to a quality or behavior, there may be nothing better. Or worse?

Some philosophies attempt to embrace the unity of all things. I’m told one cannot achieve Nirvana without sloughing off binary thinking. Of course, achieving Nirvana is impossible if one wants to ‘achieve’ anything. And to even consider ‘binary thinking’ at all, ensures you will never achieve Nirvana. Pity the poor enlightened soul who remembers there are those who are not enlightened.

In my 3rd grade class was my first introduction to New Math – my first exposure to binary thinking as a concept. I had never heard of computers. Why would anyone want to use only ones and zeros? It made little sense to me. Such a limited palette. I have come to appreciate just how dependent we all are on it. Is binary thinking so pervasive, it is the ultimate unitary mode of thought?

“War is peace.” George Orwell

Must one be in denial to think all things are unified and undifferentiated? Embrace the denial.

I’ve tried to be clear. Perhaps you see it differently.

I’m going to turn up the stereo and celebrate. Viva la difference!

Sing the Body Electric

Imagine you lived your life in a cloud. You think you see clearly, as well as anyone else. But nothing is vivid. Shadows dominate.

Then one day you awaken to clarity. You have never seen a mountain. After several days of driving, one looms on the horizon. “Ahh,” you think. “Now I’ve seen a mountain. I know what a mountain is.” But after another full day’s drive, that mountain seems barely larger and hardly closer. The magnitude of what a mountain actually is begins to dawn. When you finally approach the mountain and it takes hours to drive past it, illusions evaporate.

We experience the world in abstractions, removed from stark reality. Our brains average things into a generalized caricature. Even at our most attentive, we approximate the world. When actual reality slaps us, it is startling.

No one has the acuity of vision to see things as they truly are.

The world teams with bacteria which ubiquitous presence was only recently discovered. What if we could see atomic structure?

I was a materialist. I judged things based on the tangible, the visual and that which exists. What I thought of as ‘the real’. Then, in Science 101 I learned atoms are anything but solid. In fact they are more than 99% empty, airless space. Electromagnetic forces bind the particles together. Solid ‘matter’ and ‘mass’ are an illusion, just terms of equivalence to varied forms of ‘energy’.

I walked out of class expecting to sink into the pavement. My sense of the world was transformed but the world just spun around like always. I was a walking sponge, a materialist with no place to stand.

The tangible is actually an electromagnetic field. My energy field resists the electromagnetic field making up the apple I juggle or the friend I embrace. My chair, or my street, or a tree are no more solid than I am in the conventional sense, as the atoms composing everything are primarily empty space, surrounded by whirling knots of energy. Electromagnetism is your friend.

But from where that energy emanates, or how it sustains itself is a mystery. So that Big Mac I ate for lunch sustains all this whirling energy? That Big Mac, which is also made up of whirling energy, empty space and not much else? Hold the pickle.

And anyway, my lunch sustains my living body chemically but does not serve to preserve the gazillions of atoms, making up the trillions of molecules, making up the innumerable cells in my body. All that spinning makes me dizzy.

And my 2000 Corolla? The gasoline it carries is also a store of chemical energy that propels it forward. But the steel frame? The tires? The windshield? What sustains the integrity of their composition?

Living or dead, everything we call matter, the whole universe is made of an infinite number of perpetual motion devices. How can I get in on that action? Oh, I am.

Within any atom, the strong forces overcome the weak forces, but both are necessary to maintain the structure of each individual atom, keeping its component parts, protons, neutrons, etc. from spinning away.

In short, we are composed of energy. And we are immersed in a ‘soup’ of ebbing and flowing energy. That is the cloud we live in. Different elements have varying frequencies of electromagnetic force.

Who can explain this constant, inexhaustible source of energy? Scientists assure us. ”Trust us. It just is.” And, of course, all this (atoms, the universe, and all the interconnected systems) just randomly organized itself after the big bang. No designer, no programmer here. Move along.

Boy, did we luck out!

Some websites actually point to the mystical, that ineffable reality beyond any language’s ability to describe. Others ignore the pivotal, unanswered question and dazzle us with math. The scientific debate rages, round and round, anything but fixed or settled. One site assures us “energy is not itself stuff; it is something that all stuff has.” Now I get it. Why didn’t you say so?

It is not a case though, of “what’s behind the curtain?” where we are duped. Because it isn’t a conspiracy of silence or misdirection. The real question is “what paradise awaits unveiling?” We merely lack the ability to discern and have only yardsticks with which to measure electrons.

“How do I feel today?” said the particle to the wave. Our part, what we can bring to it, is our attitude.

How do we recapture that sense of being an integral part of the larger scheme, like when a child first grasps marking time with a song?

With all this static and kinetic energy in the air, one must ask, “How should I spend my energy today?” How do I connect? Stay grounded? Close the circuit?

Sins of the Father

Can any son live up to his father’s expectations? Can any father live up to his son’s? We are bound to disappoint in this life.

What compels us to resist, to make our own mistakes, instead of doing as told by those who know best? Is defying authority in our genes? Do we merely take off the training wheels to see what happens? My Dad didn’t believe in training wheels, to become dependent on ‘a crutch’.

However, when I was a kid my Dad gave my dog away, without warning. He had his reasons, I guess. But it was my dog. I came home one day and my dog was gone – “given to a farmer.” I never saw her again. Nothing was said. Ever.

Yet, the unwritten rules within my family did not allow for the open and candid airing of differences. He died, decades later, without my ever confronting him. I never heard one word of explanation, let alone an apology for this assault on me, and my sense of self. He probably never knew how affected I was. And how injured.

I reacted. I stole and did things that, had I been caught, would have deeply embarrassed him. He was a respected business man in our town. Had events played out differently, I wouldn’t have survived to write about them. That would have shown him.

I doubt my Dad was an angel in his youth. What process draws us to maturity? What causes ‘youthful indiscretion’? What have my children done only to lay their justifications at my feet?

Dad’s simple, thoughtless act affected everything between us for the rest of his life. As solid and dependable as he was in every other way, I never trusted him after that. Or anyone.

My Mom would suggest I ride with him on errands. We rode in silence.

Decades later, I would call to talk. He would pass the phone to Mom.

Is each parent a falling domino in an endless succession? Everyone knows the Trojan War was caused by the Trojans stealing Helen from Greece. But before that, the Greeks kidnapped… However, they were only reacting to the Trojan’s barbaric… We are told to begin at the beginning. Can someone please point me in that direction?

In the story of the Prodigal Son the title character, a wayward son, returns to his father’s embrace, as returned from the dead, his honor restored. The father insists his elder brother follow suit. But did the prodigal himself entertain doubts of his own worthiness? Did he accept his acceptance? Could he forgive his own flaws and betrayals? We are never told.

He is us. What do you think?

My Dad’s casket was the heaviest thing I ever carried. Do I carry it still? How does one slough off those very burdens by which we define ourselves?

Letting go of old wounds is difficult. After all, I paid a premium for them. I should discard them?

“Rest in peace” is wishful thinking if we haven’t resolved the issues which haunt us. Spoken in hope, it is ultimately ourselves to whom we speak. Incapable of following their own advice, the living command the dead, who neither need nor heed us.

Unfinished business haunts our days. The living must attend to it. The dead have reached their conclusions.

If forgiveness is withheld, how can unhealed wounds not be perpetuated as the sins of fathers visited on their children? Pain echoes down the generations. How to break the cycle? Could history be changed by forgiving not only our young, and our dead, but ourselves?

Does the beginning begin with us?