rhyme, reason, and rationality

Today I hiked to work. I live in an enviable place where I can stomp up a couple of blocks and find myself at a trailhead facing narrow canyons, rock walls, and now in October, a full palette of colors. This morning, blue skies contrasted with white peaks, and pouring down the mountainside the greens of the fir trees in the canyons gave way to the yellows and oranges, occasionally punctuated with a burst of red. My route took me up and through all of this, an hour later arriving at the library and office #2.

Partway through the trek I thought to pull out my camera. It’s always an exercise of futility to try to record these kinds of things, but I had to try anyway. “Change the batteries,” was the response I got from the device, quickly flashing this message on the screen before it faded to black. I thought the directive was good for me. The hike was exactly that kind of recharging.

Without the camera, I was left to stop and just take things in on my own. The walk is amazing for lots of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that most of the path is on the “shoreline.” It’s a shore in every respect: flat and wide, giving way to a dropoff on one side, a steep upward incline on the other. The only thing this shore is missing is water. Off in the distance is the only remaining piece of this body of water, the Great Salt Lake. As I walked in and out of narrow canyons that relieved the mountains of their excess water, I imagined these as inlets, spilling out into the valley. Below me there was a rumble of the town, all of which would have been under the water a few thousand years ago, but a geological chuckle in the past.

In each of these narrow canyons, a south facing slope stared at a north facing one. As I approached, I noticed that the old, scraggly walls of the north facing rock was coated in green moss, still holding onto water from a few days ago. Across the way just a few steps on south facing slopes were cactus plants. The mosses and cacti faced each other, holding their ground, sometimes finding themselves intermingled as they each clung to the rock.

And all about there were those colors, and that’s what really always gets me. I used to wonder how the leaves on the trees know when to change color. What’s the exact flip of switches that takes place with light and temperature and elevation and frost? But since then I’ve come to realize that I’ve been asking the wrong question: I should have been asking how the leaves feel when it’s the right time to change color.

Okay, I know it isn’t really correct to ask either question. Leaves and their trees don’t really think nor feel. But they do something. The lake changes level, the layers of rock I step on move from horizontal to a frightening verticalness, the moss and the cactus coexist. All that just happens. But the leaves need to change, so the change is particularly interesting. Somehow, every year, the trees find a way to change their own batteries, and they do this without thinking about it. Somehow, though, they take the right cues and do this all at the right time.

Much of this summer I’d been plagued with health issues that I couldn’t figure out. Things avalanched at times so that I’d lay awake wondering what was going on. And then I’d go to the doctor, who could check things and reassure me, but at the same time the nurse would take my blood pressure and then say, “Your blood pressure is a little high … Do you have a headache?” Later, I’d wonder if she asked about a headache because it could cause high blood pressure or if it was a coindication of some other terrible prognosis, such as a brain devouring larvae of some sort. Or, since I didn’t have a headache, does this mean that I simply have a heart condition that would be the end of me before the week’s end? These things occurred to me, generally, in the dark of night as I could feel my heart beating slowly but throbbingly. At about the same time I had done something to my shoulder — yes, my left one — so the fear and the heart beating and the chest pains (that I’d gone to the doctor about in the first place) and the shoulder pain were all happening at the same time — a sure sign I wouldn’t be alive in the morning.

But now I’m feeling much better. I’ve learned that my body does things in spite of itself, and I’m blaming my own head. To say, “it’s all in my head” is not something I take lightly anymore. It turns out that when “it” is in my head, the rest of me does stuff because my head tells it to. It’s not rational, and it’s not supposed to be. Something beyond my own rational consciousness tightens my chest. Just like something beyond rationality makes the leaves change. So we change the batteries.

In the business, I’ve called this an “extrarational” process. Sometimes we think more with our gut/heart/soul than with our head, at least not the rational part of our head. To call this “irrational” seems a bit inappropriate, because the rational is fighting with all this, it’s all in there. It’s just that there’s other stuff in their as well. In my research I’ve used the “extrarational” to describe the kinds of things that my poor research case studies use to explain science when they aren’t doing it especially scientifically. Funny thing: I hadn’t turned that extrarational lens on myself before.

Here’s the thing, the part that’s important, besides the part about the walk and the cactus and the moss and the shoreline and the leaves: We need the extrarational. It’s mildly useful in creating a panic attack and telling me to go backpacking. It’s even more useful in telling me other things to initiate. We started a conference not because it was rational, and thinking “we should go visit some parks where there are kids getting free lunch” isn’t something that logically deduces from some other rule. Other statements like, “will you marry me” or “I bought concert tickets” or “I’ll fix this” or even “yes” — you don’t get to these places from logic. There’s a leap, a risk, and an instigator that doesn’t have a clear path in mind.

The other night I was finishing a book with the girls, and this passage smacked me. Milo is reconsidering his quest to rescue Rhyme and Reason and restore a connection between lands of numbers and words, logic and creativity:

“But I could never have done it,” he objected, “without everyone else’s help.”

That may be true,” said Reason gravely, “but you had the courage to try; and what you can do is often simply a matter of what you will do.”

“That’s why,” said Azaz, “there was one very important thing about your quest that we couldn’t discuss until you returned.”

“I remember,” said Milo eagerly. “Tell me now.”

“It was impossible,” said the king looking at the Mathemagician.

“Completely impossible,” said the Mathemagician, looking at the king. . . . “but if we’d told you then, you might not have gone — and, as you’ve discovered, so many things are possible just as long as you don’t know they’re impossible.”

from The Phantom Tollbooth, “The Return of Rhyme and Reason”

Each year I’m amazed by the leaves, the color, and the daily change that flows down from the mountains to the valley. It’s impossible, but it happens. I suspect and hope that there are more impossibilities I have yet to make happen.


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