Mutants, Mindfulness and Muddled Tenses 

In my line of work, it’s understandable to occasionally be confused about tenses.  Lately, when that happens, I think about Isaac Azimov. More accurately, I think of a weird French animated film from 1988, Light Years aka Gandahar , the English translation of which Azimov happened to write. The tag line in English was, ” a thousand years ago, Gandahar will be saved.” The plot involves time travel, duh. But what made the biggest impression on me as a child was the way Azimov translated the speech of the Deformed, mutant Gandaharians who aid the protagonist in the various eons of his quest. For example:

There seemed to be no present tense in their language. A thing “was-will-be.” The concept of the present is just an anomaly in the continuity of what was in the past, into what will be in the future. This tickled my nerdy little mind as a child, in between bouts of utter distraction by the cracked out synthesizer laden soundtrack. Whenever I’m feeling despondent about some quality the present lacks, I think about history and when that quality was, and the future and when that quality may reemerge.

Mindfulness, inverted.

Learning how to practice mindfulness has been a struggle for me, as my teachers seem to discount the future as a distraction from the present. The future is…well, really pretty important to me. This has caused some bouts of rebellion, against myself in my attempts to re-wire my brain into something generally more resilient.

Vivian and I used to debate whether there was such a thing as “mindful futures thinking.” We generally concluded “no.” But I think the long view of the Deformed, their fusion of acceptance and patience, is that elusive idea of mindful futures Viv and I were searching for. (Although I didn’t remember it clearly enough at the time to make my case. I’m reading Ready Player One now, so my head’s all twisted around the 80s sci-fi of my childhood. The rest of the 80s pop culture references sill allude me.)

When I started writing fiction as a child, I almost always wrote in the past tense. It was just easier that way.

When I started writing as an anthropologist, the past tense was the way to go for almost everything, except for brief vignettes or seriously highfalutin theory.

My current challenge is learning to write well in the present tense. The perpetual, perfect, perplexing, maddening present that infuses every sentence I write with a question lingering in my mind about WHEN IT TAKES PLACE. Take this meta paragraph, which describes how I have-will give scenario presentations:

I walk up on stage. I’m thinking about my first line. It’s in 2012, in the present. I’m thinking of my fifth line. It’s in 2022, in the future, and I have to bring the whole audience with me. In four sentences, we have to know we are here and now, and then agree to believe we’re some other time, some other place. I’ve done this before, many times. Sometimes it worked, others, not so much. When we talk about the future, all sorts of traps get sprung in people’s heads. We try to get around them. I’m trying to get around them. I’m trying to bring people into the future, while fooling their brains into listening to it for long enough to suspend their disbelief that the future won’t look like that and that won’t happen and just…imagine. The future is now. The future is the present.

If all the tenses in that paragraph confused you, welcome to my life. Unless you write futures, you have no idea. If we’re now in 2022, how do you talk about the now-past-then-future, say, things that happened in 2018?  If you lapse into past tense here, you’re likely to give your audience temporal whiplash, and generally lose the non-native speakers completely.  The solution here is to stay in the present tense, carefully dancing around pseudo historical land mines.

But despite all that challenge to our tense constructions, scenarios let us wrap our heads around futures. Even if they’re wrong, less likely to be accurate, less plausible, than other forms of foresight, they’re more tangible, and I think in many cases, more useful, in my opinion.  But is it the best solution to the tense problem when writing and speaking serious futures?

When I first started interning at IFTF, I discovered the challenges of writing in the future tense. Tenses. At that time, there were hardly any scenarios in the recent IFTF cannon. A vignette here and there, a lone report, but mostly there were forecasts. Descriptions of trends. Reports from the perspective of the present about future possibility.  There’s the strong forecast tense, ” this will happen.” There’s the weaker iterations, “will likely/may/might happen.” I got the hang of these pretty quickly. But there’s some really interesting evidence emerging that there may be some drawbacks to framing futures in this way, with the strong distinction between present and future.  My colleague Gabriel Harp gave this a much more thorough and nuanced treatment than I will here, under the provocative heading, “Does talking about the future make it less likely to happen?” Now this research is based in cross-cultural linguistics, which is all kinds of fascinating, and makes my muddled tense rant above seem shockingly ethnocentric.  Dr. Sohail Inayatulla has some pretty awesome lectures on his youtube channel  about cross cultural concepts of the future and how they shape thinking, which is similarly all kinds of fascinating.

In short, “what is the best tense” is totally the wrong question.  Even “how can we keep this not confusing” isn’t nearly ambitious enough.  The real question is, how do you know, based on your audience, what the most provocative, comprehensible and persuasive tense will be?  How do you develop cultural agility for futures thinking?

 

 

 

Thistle Fairy and the Seven Jewels

The re-telling below is a Chinese fairy tale I loved when I was a child, filtered through my California lens of Steinbeck, and my transcendentalist lens via Thoreau. More on that after the story. The divergent palates of the Diablo Hills, and the steep Chinese landscapes that the original story canvases inspired this story. I was driving across the Dumbarton Bridge at dawn.  You know how hard it is to behold something that beautiful while driving? So I backed into describing from my observations.  And that lead to this. Enjoy.

Thistle Fairy and the Seven Jewels

It was very dark.  Only a few isolated cones of brightness punctuated the black. Slowly, edges started creeping into the world.  Things remembered their shapes as the night faded.  The world saw itself for the first time since yesterday, and it was all painted in shades of gray.

Sunrise Fairy stretched languorously in her resting place behind the gray hills.  Another morning, another long journey across the world returning color to all the shapes and beings. Why couldn’t everything remember its own color overnight? Why did she always have to make the rounds, whispering and tapping with her kit of colored stones?  Surely someone could share the load a bit. She needed help, she realized.  Her job required wonder, and she was all out of it.

She cast about, and she smelled, and then saw a tangle of jasmine filling out a hedge.

“Jasmine Fairy,” she said, “do you remember the colors of things in the world?”

Dainty Jasmine Fairy quivered fragrantly, but remained silent.

Sunrise Fairy went then to Crane, perching in the marsh on one long leg.  “Crane, you are very tall and fly very fast, do you remember the colors of the world? Would you help me remind things of their colors?”

Crane blinked slowly, and returned his head to its resting place beneath his wing.

Irritated, Sunrise Fairy went to Black Oak. One look at his gnarled silhouette, and she didn’t even bother asking.

As she stomped away, something stung her leg, just a little.  She looked down.

“I’m sorry, I was just trying to get your attention.  I remember the colors of things in the world. I can help get things going.”

Sunrise Fairy regarded the squat little weed fairy at her feet, barely reaching her knee, a tangle of jagged edges with a mop of deceptively soft-looking pale fur atop her head.  “What are the seven true colors?” she demanded.

“Red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet,” Thistle fairy responded, without missing a beat.

“What is the difference between inspecting and beholding?” Sunrise Fairy persisted.

“Beholding is to see with awe. And, um… seeing not only what is but also what could be?”

“Alright, Thistle Fairy.  I think I can trust you with my jewels.  But remember, they must be given without reservation, in awe, or they won’t work right. Got it?”

“Got it,” Thistle Fairy answered solemnly.  Sunrise Fairy turned away, enjoying the luxury of focusing on just one bright tile mosaic, rather than the whole world.

Thistle Fairy hefted the bag reverently. She turned and trotted down the hill, keeping her eyes open.  Wonder can come from anywhere, she reminded herself.

She was so busy looking about that she didn’t see a big hunk of granite in her path until she tripped on it. She tumbled head over heels, and found herself staring up at the sky.  Then she saw it–there above her in the sky where it met the hills.  It wasn’t a color.  It wanted to be a color. She reached into the bad and pulled out the first stone, a bright fiery red.  She threw it up into the sky, and color blossomed.

It wasn’t exactly red.  It was more like mauve.  But it was beautiful, and not bad for a first try, Thistle Fairy told herself, smiling with awe.

She continued on down the hill, and soon spied a line of poppies just starting to open. “Orange!” she said aloud in her excitement. “Here, here, take the orange stone,” she offered the poppies.

“Oh no,” said the poppies, opening hastily in the growing light. “We’re already quite orange, we remember just fine. You should give that orange to someone else.”

Just then she saw a garter snake twist from behind a hunk of serpentine.  The black and gray stripes from his head to his tail looked terribly plain.  She offered him the orange jewel.  He flicked his tail amicably, and when she had tossed it to him, he curled his long narrow body around it.  The dull spots between his dark stripes became a brilliant orange.  The scales gleamed.  He hissed his thanks, and slithered away.

Thistle Fairy then offered the serpentine the green jewel. [no thank you,] the rock rumbled. [i do green rock well enough on my own. you should give that to someone else.]

She continued on until she came to a great stand of wild mustard alongside a winding black road.  She scrutinized the riot of tiny blossoms. She liked them–they were overgrown and rambunctious, like her. She offered them the yellow stone.

“Oh, we’re already quite yellow!  See? Fit for a painting. You should give that to someone else,” the wild mustard assured her.

Thistle Fairy perched at the edge of the road.  It smelled of tar, fresh and black.  A shimmering line ran down it in ghostly silver.  She wondered where the road went.  She had never been this far away from her patches of thistles in the hills.  On a whim, she rolled the yellow stone down the line.  It became a shockingly gold ribbon, winding with the road around the hills.  Thistle fairy smiled, and followed it.

Soon she found herself in the marshes. Well, above the marshes! Her road had become a bridge, her shining yellow line stretching across the whole bay. She looked down at the swamps, crisscrossed with low levees. She spied a frog singing under the bridge.  “Good morning! Would you like this green jewel?”

“Hehe, I’m already green sweetie. You oughta give that jewel to someone else,” the frog replied.

Thistle Fairy shrugged and gazed across the swamp, muddy and crusted with salt.  It didn’t look quite right.  In fact, it was downright ugly.  She threw the green stone out into the water–and it turned a beautiful jade color.

As she looked between the jade water and the mauve sky, she saw her home, those rolling hills, from a distance for the first time.  She knew that they would be greening soon, and later they would be gold and brown. Now they were just another shade of gray.  But she also knew she could change that this morning.  With all her might, she pitched the indigo stone to the hills.  There.  Now that was fit for a painting: mauve sky, indigo foothills, jade marsh, yellow striped road.

Caught up with the scene, she was nearly back to the hills before she noticed moving at all.  She stopped short against a plant that was almost as spiny as she was, but much, much taller.  Agave, she thought.  She looked in the Sunrise Fairy’s bag.  She drew the blue stone, and the agave, now a subtle blue, smiled quietly.

Thistle Fairy was heading up the hill when Sunrise Fairy caught up with her.  “How are you doing? I can take over soon, I feel so much better! What do you have left there?”

“Just violet,” said Thistle Fairy, holding up the stone.  “I just haven’t seen anything that needed to be violet.”

“Why don’t you keep that one for yourself?”

California Purple Thistle

Photo: Flickr CC/blueturbanphoto

Thistle Fairy shrugged bashfully, and stared at the ground around her.  The she saw the most familiar thing in her world.  “You know, I would rather give it to these Thistles.  After all, we have the same name.” She tossed the stone down into the patch of thistles, and their pale choking blossoms became a stunning violet.  Thistle Fairy’s own shock of fluff reflected them.

Sunrise Fairy nodded. “It suits you both.  Thank you for helping me this morning.  You payed close attention, and colored the world in a good light.  I hope all little children and seedlings can grow to be a little more like you.”

And as the Sunrise Fairy sped off, coloring the rest of the world as the sun rose, and everything else regained color for another day.

THE END

The original story centered on Rainbow Fairy and Morning Glory Fairy, with very blatant moral lessons: modesty, generosity, piety, and intelligence.  I think I kept most of those, with the addition of mindfulness, spunkiness, and renewal.  And the violet transformation was in the original: there is absolutely nothing autobiographical about the purple hair.  Really.

So, why Steinbeck and Thoreau?

Steinbeck taught me to see California.  When I travel I bring a section of East of Eden with me. It’s near the beginning:  the hills, the droughts, the rivers and their floodplains, the rhythm of the brown hills and the green hills across the years and across the decades.  I attribute the fact that I identify as a Californian to Steinbeck, for although I was born and partially raised around the Puget Sound, no writer from that area has instilled such a vivid and nostalgia-inducing picture in my mind of Washington, or taught me to truly see the land anew. (With the possible exception of Tom Robbins, and the house consumed by blackberry brambles.) I also love Steinbeck’s voice: I learned a lot from the solemn realism of his writing, and the painful empathy his era wrought in him.

Thoreau is another matter, not California related.  From him I get sheer transcendental awe.  I can’t really describe how important a force this is in my life.  To behold nature, to fully participate in perceiving the natural world, is to be more conscious; in other words, to see more perfectly.

*embarassingly, I had to change the title and character of this story when I realized my botanical confusion between thistles and nettles.  Thistles are the pretty ones. Drat.

Emotional Networking (Crosspost)

Here’s the piece I wrote over the weekend for the Health Horizons blog.  I didn’t get to meet them, but on Friday I listened rapt and gawked at the webex of Emota.net, our neighbors in Palo Alto who are doing some seriously cool stuff. It’s on the HH and Future Now blogs HERE.

I just got a note in my email.  My aunt is busy with her own appointment, and nobody had yet volunteered to pick my uncle up from the VA hospital tomorrow, after he recovers from surgery.  Hey, it’s a Friday.  I can take off a little early to pick him up, and get him to my cousin’s place over the hill.  I respond to the email, volunteering. In a grocery store across town, my aunt’s phone chimes in her purse.  On the tray attached to my uncle’s hospital bed, a digital picture frame brightens, and my little bobble head avatar floats forward and let’s him know he can expect me when it’s time for him to check out.

I could live with this future. A couple years ago, the same arrangement would have taken at least a dozen stressed-out calls between my aunt and my mom, my mom and me, me and my five cousins, me and my aunt, and finally me at the VA with my mom, trying to find my uncle’s room in the biggest dead-cell zone in the valley.  At the end of the day, while everyone’s relieved when the surgery goes well, everyone has a headache.

This streamlined future of ambient, collaborative caregiving isn’t quite here yet, but today at IFTF we heard a fantastic talk from one of our neighbors, Emota.net. They’re bringing this future to life. They’ve coined their discipline “emotional networking, which complements existing telehealth solutions to address not just clinical health, but emotional and social aspects of elder care.” They’re building a platform that can operate across numerous devices, and facilitate the convergence of multiple communications media to bring different generations together.

The purpose is to distribute caregiving practices among a support network of family, friends and care professionals, while giving this network a tangible presence in a person’s everyday environment.  It takes “ambient co-presence” to a functional extreme, creating a gentle convergence of email, updating services, and virtual worlds. Image that you’re hanging out on your grandma’s kitchen table, tossing her hearts and flowers on a break while she reads your status updates (if she’s so inclined). And she bobs around in an app on your desktop, or phone, or tablet. If she needs help, you’ll get a notice, or if she’s really sick, her nurse will get a notice.  Otherwise, you’re just there: framed on the table with her other family, friends, caregivers.

This all sounded awfully familiar.

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