From Round to Square (and back)

For The Emperor's Teacher, scroll down (↓) to "Topics." It's the management book that will rock the world (and break the vase, as you will see). Click or paste the following link for a recent profile of the project:

A new post appears every day at 12:05* (CDT). There's more, though. Take a look at the right-hand side of the page for over four years of material (2,000 posts and growing) from Seinfeld and country music to every single day of the Chinese lunar calendar...translated. Look here ↓ and explore a little. It will take you all the way down the page...from round to square (and back again).
*Occasionally I will leave a long post up for thirty-six hours, and post a shorter entry at noon the next day.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Seinfeld Ethnography (46)—Needle's on Empty

Click here for an introduction to the Round and Square series Argonauts of the Seinfeldian Specific.
One year ago on Round and Square (4 April 2011). The first Seinfeld Ethnography post—George Eats Trash.

[a] Tentacles RF
Click below for all "Seinfeld Ethnography" posts: 
Marine Biologist         The Doorman          Opposite George   Newman's Mail   The Bootleg         Marriage
Just Dessert               Sleep Desk             Late Coffee            High Stakes        Motor Oil              Downtown 
Code Cracking           Nonfat Yogurt          Bad Boy                 It's Not You         I Can't Be...          Exploding Wallet
Elaine Flies Coach    The Close Talker     The Alliance           Broccoli               Coated Culture    Dinner Party
George's Friend        Jerry's Haircut          Face Paint             Mustachioed       Smoking              East River
Pool Man                   Dunkin' Joe              Life Lessons          Reckoning          Dog Medicine      Shower Heads
Looking Busy            George Tips             Kramer's Job          Empty Tank
Click here for the reference to the "Argonauts" title, below.
Argonauts of the Seinfeldian Specific
Kramer goes on a journey of discovery today. He's in a dealer car, and he has no fear of the red zone. It's a state of mind, a voyage toward self-knowledge topped off by a Twix bar. Jules Verne would have known exactly what lies deep within the soul of the implacable Kramer. Here we have it—the best traveling duo since Phileas Fogg and Passepartout, and it's a new adventure. Take a look at their journey to the center of the tank.

[a] Running on RF
"There's still some overlap between the needle and the slash below the E."

"How low are you gonna go?"

"Oh, I've been in the slash many times. This is nothing. You get used to it. Just...put it out of your mind."

Zen master Kramer speaks, and the vocal pop as he transmits his wisdom reverberates like a koan threatening to launch the listener into ethereal orbit. It looks like a gas tank, it sounds like a car trip, but it is something beyond ordinary experience. It is a launchpad toward self-knowledge.

[c] Social RF
What, indeed?[1]

Have you ever done it? I mean, really done it—pushed the red zone to the point where life felt just a little bit different? This isn't like seeing how long you can hold your breath...or your water (although there are parallels). This is mind-fused-with-machine; the stuff of narrative. 

Before I began driving, I paid little attention to such matters. A funny thing happens when you start driving other people's cars, though. The gas tank equation starts to rear its fearsome needle in the midst of compelling social dynamics. You see, gas tanks and fill ups are just another part of life for individuals or shared income groups (such as couples). The dynamic changes completely when you're driving on the man's nickel. Usually it is not as stark an occupy-the-dealership moment as we have in Kramer's episode. More commonly, we experience something along the lines of:
                                           [Uncle George]
    I wonder how irritated    [dad and mom]     will be if I leave the tank almost empty?
[d] Dreamy RF
There is usually a shorthand socio-economic calculus that emphasizes minute gains, letting the chips whip, fall, and twirl in various relational waves. Remember, the frontal cortices of teenage tank-watchers are not fully developed; long-term consequences do not enter consideration in quite the way they will a decade later. 

Indeed, strife between generations can boil down to something as simple as mom being late for work and finding a gas tank with only the fumes left over from last night's carousing. 

As I moved through the stages of "driver's permit," and "new licensee," to full-fledged driver, I learned to share the economic burden more readily. This was made incomparably easier when the car was mine. That first drab and fully used Toyota Corolla was mine...all mine. The whole eleven gallons were up to me. For a while, I stuck to my car-sharing ways. Not wanting to spend the enormous amount it would cost to fill the whole tank in, say, 1978, I let the needle hover in the pink, slimy, mid-zone between "low" and "now." One day, I cut it way too close(ly), and decided I had better fill'er up. I eased the little sedan into the gas station and prepared myself for the almost seven dollars this was going to cost me. I laid out the bills, one-by-one, before I noticed something that seemed strange. The gas pump read 11.3 gallons. How was that possible? It's an eleven gallon tank. Even then, I understood the dangers of literalism, yet I was intrigued.

"I wonder how far I could push this four-door envelope?", I mused.

[e] Alexandria RF
I thought about it for a whole tank of gas. Then another. I drove, ran errands, commuted, and pondered. I was The Thinker...with my head on the steering wheel.

Finally, I was determined to see just how far a tank could go. I filled the little steel bladder as full as I could make it (I cringe today to think of the damage I did that day to our ozone layer), and it lapped over the rim like frothy water in a bathtub. As I screwed on the cap, gasoline washed over my hands and shoes (I know, I know...I cringe). Behind the steering wheel (and smelling like a refinery), I began to drive. Big highway miles (it helped that I was driving to a large family gathering near Fargo). 

I rolled through the Twin Cities and kept time to the rhythm of eighteen wheelers blowing the little Corolla rightward with every pass. As I neared Alexandria, Minnesota (Milepost 103 on I-94), I looked at the needle. Still good. I kept things cranking, deep into the night. The needle was in the red when I turned off the interstate and onto the long, dark, fifty-mile stretch of U.S. 59 through Fergus Falls, Pelican Rapids, and Detroit Lakes

I was terrified. I never felt so alive.

Even today, reliving those red-needle miles on a moonless summer night[2], I shiver to think of how certainty turned to self-doubt and back almost like odd and even minutes on the clock. When I finally pulled into the driveway of the cabin, it was almost 3:00 a.m. The trip meter read "306," and there was still gas in the tank.

[f] Game over RF
I slept fitfully that night, as we write in bad (non-)fiction. Tossing, turning, I wondered just how much farther I could take the little enginge that coughed...and sputtered. Later the next afternoon (after eventually falling asleep like a normal teenager), I decided to find out. I picked at my lunch as I plotted my plan. Then I announced to various uncles, aunts, cousins, and grandparents:

          I'll be back

Later, this became a movie, but I digress. Bucks Mills Road forms a little loop near the cabin, and it is 3.1 miles long (exactly five kilometers, as I knew even back then). I got into the car...and looped. One, two, three, four, over. The trip meter read "321." I walked back to the cabin, exhilarated. Triumphant. That is why these lines, spoken by Cosmo Kramer, resonate for me to this day.

They went farther to the left of the slash than anyone ever dreamed...

***  ***
[g] Transformed RF
We have this little custom in our Argonauts of the Seinfeldian Specific posts of following the clip and chit-chat with some "theory"...or at least a little perspective from the world of letters. There are many ways we could proceed today, but we will once again be constrained slightly by the fact that I am in Virginia with only several dozen books.That takes out the obvious Zen mastery quotations and the central African initiation rituals I would have chosen without even thinking. Instead, I have selected three passages from different books that speak in one way or another to transformative powers of change. The first is an episode from the great historical text of the eleventh century The Comprehensive Mirror for Aid in Ruling. The selection is one of bold, and sometimes foolhardy, action, even amidst calls for relative sanity. I often imagine Kramer on these battlefields. Losing.

The second selection is an argumentative little vignette in Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind. One thing I learned from Bloom (even while arguing endlessly with him over academic matters large and petty) was that he believed—really believed—in transformation. His methods and perspectives could take readers and listeners for a spin toward the empty needle, and this is just a small example of both his passion and his ability to annoy. The last selection deals with another kind of transformation. It is an introductory essay by Raymond Carver (another challenging individual, as it turns out), reflecting upon how he got started in the writing business.

[h] Tripod PD
Chronicle of the Three Kingdoms
Sima Guang (1085)
36. In Han, Chiang Wei again proposed to make a campaign. The cheng-hsi ta chiang-chün Chang I disputed with him at court: he maintained that, as theirs was a small country and the people were toiling, it was not proper to indulge in warfare. (Chiang) Wei did not listen to him; leading the chü-chi chiang-chün Hsia-hou Pa as well as (Chang) I, he went forth.

37. Eight month. (Chiang) Wei, with tens of thousands of men, reached Fu-han and proceeded to Ti-tao. The cheng-hsi ta chiang-chün Ch'en T'ai ordered the tz'u-shih (Governor) of Yung-chou Wang Ching to advance to Ti-tao and there wait for (Ch'en) T'ai's army to arrive, intending to have them advance further when the forces from the east adn west were thus united. (Ch'en) T'ai and his army were encamped at Ch'en-ts'ang when the various troops under (Wang) Ching's command fought with the Han at the ancient pass and were defeated. Thereupon, (Wang) Ching crossed the T'ao river. (Ch'en) T'ai guessed that, since (Wang) Ching was not sticking to the defense of Ti-tao, there must have been some change in the situation; he led his troops to reinforce him. (Wang) Ching had already fought with (Chiang) Wei west of the T'ao and suffered a heavy defeat; with ten thousand odd men he returned to the city of Ti-tao, while the remainder of his troops were all dispersed...

38. Chang I spoke to (Chiang) Wei, "We may stop here but it will not do to advance any farther. By advancing we may perhaps ruin this great achievement; it would be like adding feet when one draws the picture of a snake." (Chiang) Wei was enraged at this; in the end he advanced and besieged Ti-tao.[3]

[i] Tenpins ADV
The Closing of the American Mind
Allan Bloom (1987)
When I was a young teacher at Cornell, I once had a debate about education with a professor of psychology. He said that it was his function to get rid of the prejudices of his students. He knocked them down like tenpins. I began to wonder what he replaced those prejudices with. He did not seem to have much of an idea of what the opposite of a prejudice might be. He reminded me of the little boy who gravely informed me that there is no Santa Claus, who wanted me to bathe in the brilliant light of truth. Did this professor know that what those prejudices meant for the students and what effect being deprived of them would have? Did he believe that there are truths that could guide their lives as did their prejudices? Had he considered how to give students the love of the truth necessary to seek unprejudiced beliefs, or would he render them passive, disconsolate, indifferent, and subject to authorities like himself, or the best of contemporary thought? My informant about Santa Claus was just showing off, proving his superiority to me. He had not created the Santa Claus that had to be there in order to be refuted. Think of all we learn about the world from men's belief in Santa Clauses, and all that we learn about the soul from those who believe in them. By contrast, merely methodological excision from the soul of the imagination that projects Gods and heroes onto the wall of the cave does not promote knowledge of the soul; it only lobotomizes it, cripples its powers.

I found myself responding to the professor of psychology that I personally tried to teach my students prejudices, since nowadays—with the general success of his method—they had learned to doubt beliefs even before they believed in anything. Without people like me, he would be out of business. Descartes had a whole wonderful world of old beliefs, of prescientific experience and articulations of the order of things, beliefs firmly and even fanatically held, before he even began his systematic radical doubt. One has to have the experience of really believing before one can have the thrill of liberation. So I proposed a division of labor in which I would help to grow the flowers in the field and he could mow them down.[4]

[j] Learning ADV
Learning to Write
Raymond Carver (1983)
A long time ago—it was the summer of 1958—my wife and I and our two baby children moved from Yakima, Washington to a little town outside of Chico, California. There we found an old house and paid twenty-five dollars a month rent. In order to finance this move, I'd had to borrow a hundred and twenty-five dollars from a druggist I'd delivered prescriptions for, a man named Bill Barton.

This is by way of saying that in those days my wife and I were stone broke. We had to eke out a living, but the plan was that I would take classes at what was then called Chico State College. But for as far back as I can remember, long before we moved to California in search of a different life and our slice of the American pie, I'd wanted to be a writer. I wanted to write, and I wanted to write anything—fiction, of course, but also poetry, plays, scripts, articles for Sports Afield, True, Argosy, and Rogue (some of the magazines I was then reading), pieces for the local newspaper—anything that involved putting words together to make something coherent and of interest to someone besides myself. But at the time of our move, I felt in my bones that I had to get some education in order to go along with being a writer. I put a very high premium on eduction then—much higher in those days than now, I'm sure, but that's because I'm older and have an education. Understand that nobody in my family had ever gone to college or for that matter had got beyond the mandatory eighth grade of high school. I didn't know anything, but I knew that I didn't know anything.

So along with this desire to get an education, I had this very strong desire to write; it was a desire so strong that, with the encouragement I was given in college, and the insight acquired, I kept on writing long after "good sense" and the "cold facts"—the "realities" of my life told me, time and again, that I ought to quit, stop the dreaming, quietly go ahead and do something else.[5]

[1] These two English words are useful if you ever find yourself in a situation where you don't have anything important to say, yet would prefer to sound profound.
[2] Even a teenager with a still-developing frontal cortex knows better than to try this in winter. At least if the teenager is from the Midwest.
[3] Ssu-ma Kuang, The Chronicle of the Three Kingdoms Volume II (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1965), 199.
[4] Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987), 42-43.
[5] John Gardner, On Becoming a Novelist [Foreword by Raymond Carver] (New York: Harper & Row, 1983), xi-xii.

Bloom, Allan. The Closing of the American Mind. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987.
Gardner, John. On Becoming a Novelist [Foreword by Raymond Carver]. New York: Harper 
     & Row, 1983.
Ssu-ma Kuang, The Chronicle of the Three Kingdoms Volume II. Cambridge: Harvard 
     University Press, 1965).

Wednesday, April 18th
George's Toilet Book
Yup, no misprint here. George takes a book (he's at a full-service bookstore) into the men's room. The social, economic, and cultural implications swirl downward from there.


  1. heh no way rob... I was driving a 1984 Toyota Corolla Tercel in high school... same color as in that picture too! Unfortunately after I let him sit in my grandma's pasture since he broke down about when I graduated in 2004, in the past year or so she finally had him taken to a junkyard somewhere I guess (now that I think of it I can probably get him back, there only being a couple of places in northwest Wyoming they could have taken the car...).

    My brother and I were out driving around in the desert, and thought that we had just gone too far below the slash when the car died. Unfortunately after we walked a couple miles back home (that very night I had to accept a scholarship at the senior awards ceremony and barely made it) and got the car hauled back, turned out that the shifter fork was broken off in the trannie. And to replace the transmission, you actually have to take the whole chassis off the car... I'm not going to give up hope yet though. Though part of me feels so terrible and guilty for taking the transmission beyond the slash, as it were, so many times out there on the alkali flats and redbeds, I know that it's such a large part of why I'm about to call my brother to find our little falcon... Though if I got him back as something to drive in Wyoming, I would compromise my relationship with my grandma's 1976 Beetle, who only I can only give 2-3 gallons of gas with him smelling like Laurel (the huge refinery on the Yellowstone River you have to drive through when you go to Billings).

  2. There is something terrifying and releasing about it. Gotta give it a shot.