About This Site
The Story of the Train Stamps
Full of Atomic Nuclei
A Visit to Japan
On Being Different
The Spider Web
The Story of My Room
> The Fire
Once in a Lifetime
My Super Power
The New Sound
In case you're wondering, I don't think the construction guys were neglecting their work when they helped me. If they hadn't helped, I wouldn't have gotten everything back, but they would still have had to move it … just at a different time, and to a different place: the trash.
Now that the story's done, I'd like to pass along some thoughts I had during the experience.
First, most of what I own is nearly useless. For example, I have a lot of books, twenty-six boxes full that I just finished repacking. They're good books, too; one day I'll index them here so you can browse the collection for yourself. So what's the problem? Well, in theory, I might want to look at any book at any time, but in practice, there probably aren't more than ten or twenty that I've looked at in the past year. What's the point of having all those books if I don't use them?
In terms of my classification of functions, the books have a very tenuous potential function. Probably the main reason I keep them is that they have a sentimental function too … they're all incredibly familiar to me. When I was cleaning them up, I noticed that it wasn't just the sizes and shapes and covers that were familiar, it was also the textures and smells of the different kinds of paper. Often I'd see a book and remember before I opened it what it would smell like!
I think of my books collectively as “the library”, and that's a large part of what I own. Another large part is what I call “the archives”. As you'd expect, that's where I keep things from my past … letters, photographs, and all kinds of other random artifacts. The things have an archival function (of course), but, again, it's very tenuous … I basically never look at any of them. So, as useless as the library is, the archives are even more useless … they have less function, and are meaningless junk to anyone but me.
The one exception is my journal, which I do sometimes refer back to. However, I rarely look back more than a month or two, and almost never more than a year, so most of the journal is really quite useless too. Maybe I should have taken the comment I made in that essay more literally.
… it would be worthwhile even if I threw it all out the next day.
That's hardly a complete inventory of what I own, but it should give you some idea what I mean when I say most of it is useless. Of course I do own some practical things, notably clothes and appliances and a few pieces of furniture, but the nearly-useless things are definitely in the majority.
By the way, if you really want to understand the problem of classification, I highly recommend the exercise of taking a complete inventory of what you own and trying to organize everything into categories. The method of domains and glue will just jump right out at you: there will be some obvious categories, and most things will fit nicely into one of them, but there will always be a few things at the boundaries that are neither fish nor fowl. Actually, you can't even take inventory without getting into trouble. Is that a pile of bicycle equipment, or is it a helmet, a pair of gloves, and some tools? Words are categories, but words are not reality.
Speaking of practical things, until recently I never really appreciated how much what I have determines what I can do. In the first few days after the fire, I didn't have anything, and, surprise, I couldn't do much of anything, either. Without my familiar computing environment, I couldn't work effectively; without my heavy coat, I couldn't stay outside in the cold; without my recipes, I couldn't cook my favorite foods. The situation didn't bother me as much as you might think, but it sure felt strange.
That train of thought leads to an idea that I've been meaning to write about for several years. It's really just a simple variation on the idea of the extended phenotype. Spiders are distinct from their webs, and yet for some purposes it's more useful and compelling to think of the two as a single organism. For example, spiders can have genes that determine web shape, by way of behavior. In just the same way, sometimes it's more useful and compelling to think of people and their houses as a single organism. I'll have much more to say about that later on.
From that perspective, the combined “me” suffered a terrible accident. First the people part was ripped out, then the house part was damaged by fire and water and blown to pieces by the subsequent move. Fortunately the house part isn't biological, so I'm going to be able to put the pieces back together with only a few little holes here and there; but it still takes a lot of time and effort to restore the original capabilities … to heal, if you will.
To put it another way, in the first few days I felt sort of like a disembodied brain. That overstates the case a little, because I can still do things without my house, but it also understates the case, because my mind extends into parts of my house. What is a journal, if not an improved memory?
Well … that's an interesting thought, but I don't have time to explore it properly either. Here's a little something to get you started, though. My journal and other records are long-term memory; my calendar and to-do lists are short-term memory; books I've read are the assimilated knowledge and memories of other people; books I haven't read are knowledge available on demand, as are reference articles on the internet. News on the internet lets me sense (imperfectly) what's happening all over the world; email lets me communicate almost telepathically. (Instant messages are more telepathic, but also more distracting.)
Remember what I said about the apartment, that when I finally got to see it, it was such a mess that it no longer felt like my place? My lovely apartment was just suddenly and unexpectedly gone … and that reminded me of Stoppard's view of death in Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, that it's not an event, a thing you see happen, it's an absence. You know someone, and see ver all the time, and then one day you reach out and ve's not there, and is never going to be there again. I don't mean to compare the loss of my apartment to the loss of a person, it was far less serious than that; but it did have the same quality.
That moment also reminded me of the fact that you can't go home again, because home exists in the past. The only difference here is, my home moved into the past a little more quickly than usual.
When I was watching the fire, I couldn't help but think of the movie Fight Club. If my apartment had burned down, I would have had a chance to become someone else … if not a Zen master, then at least someone a little less attached to things. I'm still tempted to throw everything away, just to see what it would be like, but I'm not capable of that; for the combined organism, it would be suicide.
As a less destructive substitute, I've been thinking about how many things I really need, or rather how few. On the first night after the fire, when all I had was my wallet and keys and some clothes, I could have lived with just that. I could have treated it like an extended business trip … drive a rental car, spend the day at work, eat at restaurants and diners, and live in a hotel. Of course, that's not very efficient; but I could buy or rent an apartment, and buy a nice used car, and it'd be almost the same thing. The only things I'd need to get would be the things one finds in a hotel room. Or, to be slightly more efficient, I could furnish a kitchen and cook my own meals; that's still very simple. Why would anyone want to have more than that?
@ December (2007)