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Category: Humans

I Have No Idea
I was turning over the compost the other day, and it got me thinking. Specifically, it got me thinking about thinking.

One question that cartoonists can count on getting asked is that old chesnut “Where do you get your ideas?” This question may simply be a way for people to express their honest appreciation for your work. Still, the question is a perfectly good one, and it is entitled to more than a “thank you.” It deserves an answer.

Let’s be clear that the honest answer has to be “I don’t know,” but what fun is that? The questioners want an exposition on process, at least. At most, they want a full-bullshit theory of creativity itself.

Well, I have several varieties of bullshit to offer on that subject. Most of them involve how new, often remote, connections are made, because that is what creativity is. Those connections can be among ideas or emotions or facts or input from the senses. They can reach across disciplines of thought and across time. My theories dabble in psychology, but that’s just window dressing. Mostly, they come in the form of metaphors.

Deep sea fishing is my current favorite. In this metaphor, I’m relaxing in my little boat, and I’ve got several lines trailing behind it, all trolling for some kind of nibble. I might be thinking about anything at the time or just letting the boat wander. The work has already been done — maintaining the boat, buying bait, and researching where the fish are known to hang out. All that prep work is vital to the process of getting ideas; they‘re not going to just jump out of the water and onto your drawing board.

The prep work requires focus and concerted mental effort. That’s what the left hemisphere of my brain is for: accumulating data, applying logic, trying out different approaches. But that’s not where the ideas come from. They come from the ocean…once they are combined with the bait…sort of…and the hook is removed…and the idea is properly cleaned and gutted.

Okay, it’s not a perfect metaphor. But I have a back-up. It’s based, not on the ocean, but on the sky. Lightning bolts, sunbursts of realization, ideas that come “out of the blue” — those metaphors all feel right, too. I do have a little trouble tying this metaphor down to the creative process, though. There’s no place in the metaphor for the left brain activity to fit in. I could be in a plane, I guess, taking in the long view. But would I just switch to automatic pilot when it was time to relax and let the right brain take the over? That seems unwise.

So I’m open to something new — like that compost heap. In particular, I like the idea of turning over the metaphorical compost of my thoughts and observations and introducing the little bits of garbage to other bits of garbage they’ve never met. Every time you add new stuff and turn it over, new combinations become possible. Then you sit and wait for the whole thing to, you know, mature in some way.

I guess. I’m not sure where the ideas come in, unless a plant just sprouts out of the humus. But in that case, where did the seed come from? This metaphor is promising, but it’s still going to need a lot of work. Maybe I should drop it off the back of the boat and see if it gets struck by lightning.

Or something like that. Hope that answers your question.
Neatness Discounted
My Uncle Everett didn’t make much of a dent on my life. Maybe, if I had spent more time around him, his sardonic persona might have a bigger effect on my attitudes, but as it is my memory of our relationship is mostly two-dimensional. There was one small episode with him, however, that has stuck with me, though not in the way he intended.

My cousin, his son, was an avid reader of DC comics, and when we visited their house, I always took the chance to go through his extensive collection of Superman, Superboy, and Aquaman comic books. On one such occasion, I had finished reading and left the comics scattered across the bedroom floor. Uncle Everett collared me as I left the room.

“Aren’t you going to pick those up and put them away?” he asked.

“Why?” I responded. “I’m going to look at them again after lunch.”

A sarcastic half-smile crossed his face. “Yeah, and why make your bed? You’re just going to sleep in it again anyway.”

I picked up the comics and put them away, because generally speaking I was an obedient child. But I was puzzled by the sarcasm. I knew that it was meant to illustrate the silliness of my excuse, but it still didn’t make sense. “Why make your bed?” seemed like a perfectly legitimate question to me. It still does.

Not that I’m a slob. Like most kids, I was messy, but I’ve come a long way since then, and I have learned the value of keeping things tidy. Moreover, I did not serve in the U.S. Army as Uncle Everett had. I am quite sure that they don’t use gentle sarcasm to enforce their rules concerning tidiness, which is probably why the lesson stuck so well for him. I was never subject to that level of expectation, however. The need for a neat bed was never properly instilled in me.

I do, however, honor the need for order in other home venues. If you’re in the kitchen, it makes sense to keep the work spaces clear, the food stored, and everything in its assigned place. In the regular living areas it’s better to keep things in order so you don’t have to function amid the clutter. I even accept the wisdom of keeping a clean desktop (in theory at least). It’s more efficient, less frustrating, and just plain more pleasant to be in such a space (or so I have been told).

But what’s so bad about an unmade bed? Like the man said, you’re just going to sleep in it again anyway…that night and every night. Why not just leave it that way? When it’s time to hit the hay, you won’t even have to pull back the covers — much less deal with extra pillows and other bed decorations. Just flop down and get to it. And when you get up the next morning, it’s just one less thing to do.

I am happy to keep everything else shipshape. All dirty clothes go in the hamper, the top of the dresser clean and neat, and there are no piles on the nightstand. But the bed? — as long as the sheets are laundered regularly and kept tucked in at the bottom, as long as the blankets are distributed in a rough approximation of equality between the two sides, why not just leave it be?

Without knowing it, Uncle Everett gave me the courage to stand up to the madness. He did not know it at the time, but his words have freed me from the tyranny of mindless neatness. Why make your bed indeed! Strike a blow for reason, I say, and just leave it that way.
Manopause
In these days of aging baby boomers flooding the media with all their nagging medical problems, we were bound to have this sad affliction shoved in our faces sooner or later. Male menopause, they’re calling it (or andropause if you’re a doctor who needs the business). These are the fancy names that boomers use to describe what used to be an inability to cut the mustard.

Let’s be clear from the start that nobody is certain that this malady even exists. There is some evidence that “low T” (for testosterone, hormone of the gods) can contribute to non-manliness, although no real man should ever admit that. Privately, I will concede that, as you get older, everything gets lower, T included. That, however, is not a medical condition. It’s old age, my friend, and a sign that you won’t be living forever.

That said, I do believe there is another condition, similar to menopause, that is visited on men once they turn 70. Let’s call it manopause. As with women undergoing menopause, it involves a shift in state of mind. (Yes, I know there’s more to menopause than that, but it’s pretty unpleasant, so let’s skip it.)

With women, the shift seems to include the sudden realization that they’re in their 50s, childbearing is out of the picture, and that there is no time left to be patient anymore about anything — particularly clueless men. Often, their view of life becomes broader and more practical, and they’re less willing to put up with any foolishness that gets in their way. (I should report here, in the interest of scientific inquiry, that my wife tells me I have my head up my ass, but that assertion on her part only confirms my hypothesis.) Anyway, I find these traits admirable, which is why I think we need more women, and possibly only women, in charge of running our government.

But what about men? Do we ever attain this praiseworthy clarity of mind? In my opinion, no. We do, however, undergo a similar transition — manopause. I have no doubt that low T is somehow involved, but once again I don’t want to dwell on unpleasantness. Symptoms are what is important, not root causes.

As I have said, the onset of manopause most often occurs in the 70s. It produces the same impatience, the same we-haven’t-got-time-for-this attitude we see in women. But for men, it’s different. At the same moment we are feeling the pressure to get things done, we’re also realizing that, hey dude, there’s no rush. I’m old, you tell yourself. Why should I rush anywhere at this point? This is the time to kick back.

In other words, we arrive at the same place that menopause delivers women, but by the time we get there, it’s too late to be bothered. We’re down for all that no-nonsense practicality, but also perfectly content to leave it to the young folks.

Manopause, more than anything else, means freedom, my brothers.
Doubtless
I do like robots. Really I do. They have been getting some bad press in recent years, but as I have said, I am willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. I’m only human, however, and now some doubts have crept in about granting that benefit of the doubt.

Robots are only tools, of course, like hammers and pencils. If properly designed and made they do exactly what they are supposed to do. That certitude is their destiny. For machines, including robots, it is their strength…and their weakness. Unlike me, they simply do what they do and never have a second thought about it. That may be okay with pencils and hammers, but when it comes to robots, I’m starting to worry.

You may have heard the warnings from Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk about the possibly lethal dangers in the rise of artificial intelligence. And perhaps you noticed that IBM’s Deep Blue has opened several cans of digital whupass on mere human chess grandmasters. Steve and Elon are now wondering whether that kind of wicked smarts might someday turn into a genuinely wicked smarts and eventually push aside all of us poor, self-doubting humans. Their alarm had already got me looking sideways at robots, but now I see that the ‘bots have taken that superiority one step further.

This week, a couple of other smart dudes unveiled a robot that solves a Rubik’s Cube — complete with all the appropriate twists and spins required — in just over a second. A second! This little device somehow combines the braininess required to decide how to manipulate the puzzle with the lightning-fast dexterity to carry it out. It is an amazing thing to see. Simply place your cube carefully in the robot’s clutches and press the button. The machine executes its task in one graceless spasm. It is utterly sure in its movements and way too fast for the naked eye.

I think it is that sureness that spooks me most, especially when it is matched with all that speed and smarts. The robot functioned completely without hesitation. And why shouldn’t it? A machine has no reason to have second thoughts, no cause to worry about consequences. If it fails, the reason will always be human error because humans designed and built it…even if it is smarter and stronger and faster than its makers.

Humans, obviously, are less perfect than their machines. We make mistakes all the time. That is our nature, perhaps even our destiny. With that kind of track record, is it any wonder that I am hobbled now by doubts?

The doubt here is whether we might make a very big mistake by creating a machine that is better than us in every way and absolutely certain that it is doing the right thing. I sincerely doubt that I would like that robot.
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No "new normal" for me, this shit ain't normal.
~ MS, Truckee