Reading Notes #15

Discerning subtle patterns

“Humans are good, she knew, at discerning subtle patterns that are really there, but equally so at imagining them when they are altogether absent.”

—from Contact

So last week I said I was going to watch Contact, The Movie after finishing Contact, The Book.

It hath been done.

The movie changed some big plot points, left a lot out, and eliminated or condensed/combined some major characters but that’s kind of what you have to do when you’re smushing a 432-page book into a couple of hours of movie.

Interesting, when you realize that the book actually originated as a script — then got turned into a novel — and then back into a script. And the book was still better than the movie.

“Don’t you ever feel . . . lost in your universe? How do you know what to do, how to behave, if there’s no God? Just obey the law or get arrested?”

“You’re not worried about being lost, Palmer. You’re worried about not being central, not the reason the universe was created.”

The movie gets points for a beautiful, expansive feel, for maintaining the tone/core message of the book, and for Matthew McConaughey-hey-hey-alrightalrightalright.

I also want to point out that Ann Druyan co-wrote both Contact and the original Cosmos television series with Sagan. From now on maybe I’ll refer to Sagan as “Druyan’s husband,” just to balance things out. Imagine how many times she’s been referred to as Sagan’s widow.

Speaking of non-fiction (that’s what we’re doing now), Patrick says (and I agree):

“There are far too many non-fiction books that make their case in the introduction or first chapter, then spend the next 300 pages belaboring a point concisely and completely made in the first 25.”

Joe and I were just discussing how you can read the TOC of almost any business book and you’re good to go. The meat of it is in the headings; the rest is filler. It’s helpful to approach non-fiction reading with the idea that it’s okay to pull out the bits that matter and ignore the bits that don’t. Follow the recommendation of the guy who wrote a book about how to read books and ask: “Does this book deserve careful reading?”

Many, many, many times the answer is No.

“Perhaps it is all illusion, this life. All you have of the life you have lived are the memories you carry. You edit these memories and make them fit some scheme. …It is only when you accept your humanness and vulnerability that you can see the past clearly and gain strength.”

—from Emotional Resilience

The last third of Emotional Resilience turned into lots of repetition and examples belaboring the points already made. I skimmed it, and now I’m done. Worth reading, for me, even if some of the reading is skimming.

Perhaps it was lots of repetition through the whole book, but it took me till the last third to connect the dots, to start discerning the patterns.

That’s a tendency in life, as well: to wait until the last 3rd or 10th or 80th section of life to connect the dots, to discern the patterns. At that point, maybe it’s too late to change them, too late to do anything but become aware and accept what is.

This is okay, too.

Don’t be afraid.

Freed to be what it was, rather than what you needed it to be, the past is a beacon illuminating the fleeting moment of the present.”

Looking back too soon can keep you from looking forward.

And sometimes the patterns aren’t patterns but inventions, layers of logic we arrange carefully to cover a chaos too random and bright and scary to live with.

Or maybe the chaos itself is a pattern too great for us to comprehend.

“Much of what goes wrong in your life is supposed to go wrong. There are no mistakes.”

Up from the grave she arose

You thought you were done with me, you unlucky bastards

“This kind of thinking infused the second half of my life with a conflicted mentality: Sometimes I thought life was precious, and everything was so important; but other times I thought humans were insignificant, and nothing was worthwhile. Anyway, my life passed day after day accompanied by this strange feeling…”

—Cixin Liu, The Three-Body Problem

Fam, I’m still alive and kicking.

Sometimes alive and crying.

Sometimes alive and crying and kicking. It gets messy.

I am rereading Atomic Habits by James Clear.

Here's what he said about goals v habits:

"The purpose of setting goals is to win the game. The purpose of building systems is to continue playing the game. True long-term thinking is goal-less thinking. It's not about any single accomplishment."

We can choose what to focus on:

I’ve spent a lot of time fiddling around with the game. Adjusting, tweaking, improving, streamlining.


Not playing the game.

Usually not winning any games.

Too busy fixing to play! Too busy fixing to win!

"I don't fully understand it but it goes something like this: YOU can't fix it. You can't fix anything. YOU don't have that power. Give it up. You don't control it. None of it. So quit trying. Because that YOU doesn't even exist. We are just pretending we have found a better version of ourselves to take the wheel. More bullshit."

—a modern zen of bullshit master

Here’s what I've realized about trying to fix things, or people, or myself: I can't.

If it's broken, it's broken. Trying to fix it won't make it less broken. I'm delaying the inevitable: in the face of brokenness, acceptance is the only possible response.

If it isn't broken, trying to fix it is a waste of time.

Maybe it’s broken and it fixes itself:

“All that had seemed a tremendous problem at the time, and yet it had solved itself without difficulty. Why could he never learn to worry less about problems? Problems not infrequently solved themselves."

—George R. Stewart, Earth Abides

I like that option.

And I like knowing it’s not up to me to fix all the things, broken or unbroken.

The whole discussion gets a bit cyclical and hilarious when you ask: Am I fixing my tendency to try to fix everything? Well, maybe. I don't know.

I'm going to do something new and exciting: not overthink it.

Paradox may be the most beautiful and predictable part of life. Not taking oneself too seriously is a fine trait. So let's go with the self-deprecating paradox of fixing my tendency to fix, of setting a goal to not have goals, and be okay with it.

Being okay with it is a place I want to start living.

Being okay with it all. Acceptance. Surrender. Releasing control. It's a weird thing, the idea that I need to release control: because the truth is, I don't have control in the first place. Oh, sure, I have control over some things. That's called responsibility. But trying to take responsibility for what isn't mine, for what I can't, or shouldn't rightly, control, isn't taking responsibility. It's grasping for control. And it's no good.

What is good?

So much. So much is good.

To be completely real, there is also much that is not good.

But here, in this small point of time/space that is life, there is an even smaller slice of reality that is my life. And an even smaller piece of a piece of a piece is all that I can control in my life.

In that small point, that tiny pencil dot on infinite paper, the less I try to fix what-is-not-good, the more good I see.

🔗 Things recently written: motion versus action. Accepting yourself (always a work in progress). Becoming a subject matter expert.

Now, I suggest you listen to Joy Oladokun’s look up while you go over 22 reasons to be cheerful from the ever-cheering Nicholas Bate.

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