What Do We Really Know?

Newton used a prism to discover that light is composed of colors, first noticing five familiar colors, then upon closer inspection, seven. He wanted there to be seven colors to correspond to the seven notes of a well-tempered musical scale. Like most scientists, he was pleased by elegant solutions and unified theories.

But there really is no strict declination of colors, for light is a gradient, a spectrum of frequencies. He just felt like naming seven. He could have decided sunlight is composed of three colors, or three thousand. We create categories to simplify our observations, and sometimes we forget that our simplifications are also reductions. We end up believing our own bullshit.

The distinctions we draw and the categories we create probably say more about us than they do about the outside world.

In Russian, there are two words for the color blue. Goluboy corresponds to what we call “light blue” and siniy describes “dark blue.” Why they have chosen to delineate the color blue in this way is anybody’s guess. When asked, Russians will often say that the color represented by the word “goluboy” is more closely related to what we call green than it is to the color represented by their word “siniy.” What are we to make of that?
We are all familiar with the story about Eskimos having many different words to describe ice and snow, for frozen water forms the majority of their environment, but that doesn’t mean that Eskimos really think about or understand water any differently than the rest of us.

The act of writing, of putting thoughts on paper or the Internet, of public discourse and discussion is related to, but fundamentally different from, just thinking about stuff. Great writers tell us what we already know, but in the process they codify it succinctly, so it´s not just floating around all nebulous inside our heads.
The codification process often involves categorization, but making categories stands in the way of digging what Buddhists call the “suchness” of things, or what Thoreau called “the bloom of present moment.” The process of dissection kills the patient.

There is an indigenous language in Patagonia that contains a word which describes the moment when two people who are attracted to each other don´t know what to do or say next. In effect, it describes the moment before the kiss. We only have a word for the kiss itself, but they’re just as interested in the build-up.

So how do we know what we know and how do we talk about it with others? If you’re psychic, you’ve come across the difficulty many times before. When someone asks you “how do you know that?” you pause and then reply “I just do, that’s all.”

In academia, precious new is revealed, but there are still people writing their dissertations on the writings of Shakespeare and Jane Austin. Academia fails to reward creativity as much as it honors discourse. There are precious few full-time academic positions in the Humanities, and the downfall of many a practicing creative writer has been to leap at the offer of one only to lose his or her soul in the process.

Writers actually make terrible writing teachers because if they knew what they were doing when they were writing, the process of writing wouldn’t have been necessary in the first place. This probably holds true for painters, dancers and composers, as well. There are a million ways to make enough money to survive, and most of them aren’t as lethal to inspiration as sitting in a little room with the title of “professor” written on the door.
But getting back to the way we see and talk about the world…there’s much more out there than we give the world credit for. You can troll the Internet looking for the unusual and bizarre, or scan websites looking for celebrity news and scandals, but that process doesn’t lead to an appreciation for the complexity and majesty of the human experience. In fact, it’s counterproductive to that cause. Surf the web too long and you begin to get a bad taste in your mouth. Chronic disappointment.

There are seven billion people on this planet, and each one of them shares the same hopes and fears. What a maze of possibilities! Add to that the absolute certainty that we’re all going to die and we haven’t the faintest idea when…what a crucible within which to meld the elements of Drama!

Habituation is the enemy of discovery, and a lot of the products or forums we have created to celebrate life have developed the strange ability to demean it. Beware of institutions and second-hand access to what is important and real.

Most real learning occurs outside of an institutional setting.


Secrets Billionaires Don’t Want You To Know

Warren Buffet and Bill Gates toss and turn at night, hoping the rest of us don’t stumble across their magic formulas for success. What good would it be to be a billionaire if everyone else was a billionaire too? No, half the fun of being super-rich is watching other people struggle with problems you’ve already solved, or could eliminate entirely simply by opening your wallet.

These success secrets are as well-guarded as any on the planet. You’d have an easier time breaking into Vladimir Putin’s private torture chamber than you would sneaking a look at Bill Gates’ book of secret formulae for using his vast wealth to make even more money.

Warren Buffett, the Oracle of Omaha who made his billions investing in the stock market, smiled when asked if he planned to share his secret strategies. “Not over my dead body,” said the eighty-three year-old patriarch. “Why, if just anyone could do what I’ve done, then I’d be nobody special. I don’t think I could live with that.”


I have always wanted to be a movie star, but I have always been terrified of rejection, and of Los Angeles, which seems to be a horrible place to live if you’re not already a movie star.

In my brief forays to Los Angeles, I met several people who had moved there with the highest of hopes and the best of intentions, but after decades of trying had not realized their dreams.

A friend in Iowa City heard that I was going to Los Angeles and asked me to look up her son, who had been a fan of my comedy troupe when we used to return from San Francisco to Iowa City for yearly shows. I usually don’t like to look up total strangers for the sake of their parents, but this time I did it, and he said he was pleased that I’d called, that his mother had told him I might be calling, and he agreed to meet for coffee.

All she had told me about him was that he had been trying to break into show biz for some time. When he appeared at Starbucks, he recognized me. I was struck by how good looking he was. In fact, he was beautiful. Errol Flynn with strawberry blond hair and beard.

It turns out he had been living in LA for fourteen years, and during that time had taken many acting and improvisation workshops. During those years he had rubbed shoulders with others who had “made it,” and gotten to know a few celebrated teachers, but had never actually worked in the field of show business. In all those fourteen years he had never been paid for acting, but had been paying others.

The cars whizzed by and the homeless people stumbled down the street, having imaginary conversations with no one in particular. It appeared that an old woman was living in the bushes outside Starbucks. I looked over at his beautiful, long, reddish blond hair and his piercing blue eyes. If they ever do a remake of Captain Blood and if he had the right agent, maybe he could score an audition. I didn’t know what to say, so I tried to change the subject and talk about Iowa and his mother.

I had another friend who had moved to LA along with a whole bunch of her friends when they all grew too successful for the live theater scene in Seattle. Twenty years later, a great number of these Seattle transplants were still in LA, but none of them were actually working in show business. Those who had graduate degrees were teaching as adjuncts at multiple community and private colleges. After a couple of decades of waiting for the phone to ring, a few had earned certification as ESL teachers. In fact, I went to a backyard party and met a hundred or so unusually good-looking people in their forties, who had traded in their headshots for TESOL diplomas and were now ESL teachers. They were no longer waiting for their agents to call with the next audition.

About twenty-seven years ago I had some Hollywood success, and spent a good deal of time at the offices of 20th Century Fox. There was an aura of 1940’s deco character about the place, but mostly it felt like a factory, or a community college. I once stood at an adjacent urinal in the men’s room next to a famous TV character actor. But my promise was short-lived, and it all came to nothing when I moved back to the Midwest and went into teaching.

I still wonder if I could have really gotten somewhere if I’d just hung in there, but then I remember the ESL teachers party and the handsome not-so-young man who had spend fourteen years taking acting workshops, and I decided that I don’t have thick enough skin to put myself in that position. Never did, never will. But I never really caught on in the world of University teaching either, because I hadn’t bothered to get a doctorate, and was using teaching as a fallback position. Those who had always wanted to teach had snatched up all the permanent tenure track appointments, and an ever-increasing number of us failed actors were lurking around, willing to take part-time, adjunct positions teaching English Composition or Public Speaking.

There are no guarantees in this life, and surely none in the Entertainment Industry, but since you only have one life to live, and there is only one period when youth and beauty coincide, aspiring movie stars might do well to try whole-heartedly to break into the business, the sooner the better. Although success is not guaranteed, failure is assured for lack of trying.