Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder

22 Apr 2007, 10:16 a.m.

Straw Men

Hi, reader. I wrote this in 2007 and it's now more than five years old. So it may be very out of date; the world, and I, have changed a lot since I wrote it! I'm keeping this up for historical archive purposes, but the me of today may 100% disagree with what I said then. I rarely edit posts after publishing them, but if I do, I usually leave a note in italics to mark the edit and the reason. If this post is particularly offensive or breaches someone's privacy, please contact me.

Did I ever tell you about the striped straw experiment and deciding to be happy? From a column I wrote about a year ago:

...straw fortune-telling, or bendymancy. For breakfast every school morning, I had a bagel with melted Velveeta and a cup of Carnation Instant Breakfast -- not the complete and nutritious meal that my mother would have preferred.

I drank the shake through a straw (Bendy, not Krazy -- after all, I wasn't a baby). Mom bought these straws in 500-packs from the Pak 'n' Save, which printed grocery packing directions on its brown paper bags, headlined with the educational but dismissive "Pack Your Own Savings!"

These white straws came with assorted stripe colors, one quarter of the box was red, one yellow, one blue and one green. I decided that the stripe color of the straw I randomly chose would foretell the quality of my day. Red was horrible, yellow was unpleasant, blue was good and green was great.

And if that makes sense to you, you should read Mark Haddon's "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time," in which an autistic boy decides to make up his own fortune-telling superstition.

Even if I knew it was all fake, even if I drew a red-and-white straw, at least it gave me a worldview, some resignation or confidence so I could frame the events of the day.

The things I decide to do on my own feel so much better. Learning a bit of Scheme, exercising, going to church, climbing a rock, whatever -- the very self-direction makes them taste sweeter. But I still need another person's support or company to keep doing them. So that's one balance to hit.

I learn skills best when I've created a goal that I sincerely want and that requires those skills. Until I want that goal, it's useless. But what do I want? Desire and agency feel so far away, even though I have demonstrably chosen things towards certain preferences. All I consciously own are the lower-order needs. I'll second-guess any consciousness of ambition. What makes me feel joy, just for a moment, is fulfilling the ambition that I'm too suspicious of -- and too enamored of laziness masquerading as rat-race-avoiding contentment -- to wholeheartedly chase.

The world is not finished. I'll never master things. How is it that some people find that energizing? I can understand how existentialism turns some to nihilism and some to humanism. I think I'm struggling along, finding some structures readymade and creating some, awkwardly, secretively, on my own. I feel less like an oak and more like ivy seeking a trellis, even though sometimes I dare to look down and can't quite see the scaffolding I've assumed was there.

[Update: Nothing is finished, and that is a comfort because that means we haven't permanently failed, either.]