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The Early Adopter

“People are afraid of the future. I can understand that. The one thing we know for sure about the future is that everything’s going to go wrong, am I right? You’re going to get older, and your marriage will fall apart, and your kids will speak a different language and listen to bad music.

“But I’m in love with the future, because while I’m getting older, and getting shaky and confused, something else is happening. Technology is accelerating so fast that even as I’m coming apart the space of what I can do gets bigger and bigger.

“I may need thicker glasses, but I can talk to somebody in China on a video phone. I may be out of shape, but I can carry a thousand books in my pocket. My hearing, maybe, isn’t as good as it used to be, but I have my own personal pocket radio station that plays all my favorites and follows me everywhere.

“So, sure, it’s true. Maybe if I wait a year the next model will be better and cheaper and they’ll have the bugs worked out and that thing everybody hates, they’ll have changed that. But I’m not getting any younger in the meantime.

“You be sensible. What’s one more year of circling the drain? Mine’s on pre-order.”

Names

To say something unusual in specialized language is easy. A few formulas may unmistakably express a new worldview. To say something unusual in everyday language is very hard. You must choose your words not only to say what you mean, but to refuse to say what the hearer expects. Names alone cannot do it; it takes sentences.

Consider how advanced ideas become basic ones. The joke goes that in 1919, when Eddington was asked whether it was true that only three people understood general relativity, he hesitated and finally excused himself: “I was wondering who the third one might be!” Now undergraduates study it. Postulate that our undergraduates are not smarter than the best minds of 1919. Consider musicians: the violinist’s vibrato, the guitarist’s tremolo, were once the distinctive techniques of particular virtuosos; now they are part of mere competence. Nobody could play Liszt but Liszt until everybody had to play Liszt. What were once expeditions are now vacations.

This is more than a pattern; it is a phenomenon. What happens is naming: giving something a name is the first step in its domestication. The wild equations of general relativity were tamed by the associations that gathered around the name: the bowling ball on the rubber sheet; the paradoxical twins; the absentminded professor; the starship Enterprise. Any whale can be handled once it has enough harpoons in it.

There is a tension between thinking in names and thinking in sentences. Math and science work with names; verbs only participate syntacitly. This is an envied state. Whenever we see a field on the make we see it embracing gerunds, copulation, and anaphor. The textbooks always show the development from sententious thinkers to name-wielding scientists as the axis of progress.

But something is suspicious here. To be useful names must be unlike other words: they must have definitions, and there must be some procedure to ascertain that two definitions refer to the same thing. Otherwise a name is not a name at all; it is just another word.

The decline of Freudianism comes to mind. Freud gave names—ego, id, repression, neurosis—with a certain drama between them. The names and the drama were then taken up by a series of schools. Each school recast the roles with new definitions, or rewrote the old roles into a new drama, until finally the names, because they meant everything, no longer meant anything in particular, and were heard no more.

This matters. How many brilliant thinkers, who might have enriched the study of the mind if only they had been content to write sentences, went to waste following a dumb faith in names? They should have been warned that mere sentences are never wasted: good writing is always good thinking. It can be translated into whatever names are current, and lasts when names fail.

On quirk

Quirkiness is what breeziness was: the style of the writer who writes not as a maker, but as a performer. It may be interesting to compare the two. Breezy and quirky are both inexhaustible. When you lay two breezy or quirky pieces by the same author end-to-end, the grain matches up where the word count cuts off. They are as reliable and predictable as utilities and readers love them for it: the breezy or quirky writer who is not absolutely incompetent can expect their following, however small, to be loyal and loud.

Breezy and quirky do the same job, but in different ways. Breezy is world-wise and wide-awake; quirky is innocent and dreamy. Breezy is suspicious and confrontational; quirky is trusting and fragile. Both are overbearing, but breezy is pushy where quirky is cloying. Breezy is cool and takes things in stride; quirky is breathless and labile. Breezy is a mover, in constant, purposeful coming and going; quirky is a dweller, a homebody. Even when quirky travels, it settles. (Corollary: breezy and quirky both value living light, but for different reasons: breezy streamlines where quirky simplifies.) Breezy and quirky are both fun, but both under false pretenses: breezy is fun because it pretends to be ignorant; quirky is fun because it pretends to be crazy. Of course since real insanity (like real ignorance) is no fun at all, the insanity is aspirational: boredom becomes ADHD, neatness becomes OCD, absentmindedness becomes Alzheimer’s.

Both are ridiculous, but neither deserves mockery. True, breezy and quirky both talk about themselves, endlessly, but neither is narcissistic or needy. They claim interest vicariously, by representing something: whenever they are an X they are just another X. True, breezy and quirky are both indiscreet; but though they are highly personal they are totally unrevealing—a sacrificial persona intervenes between merely human writer and inhuman audience like a patronus.

Of course neither is bad in itself. Archie Goodwin should be breezy; Amélie Poulain should be quirky. For the writer, breezy and quirky are both shams, but perhaps shams are not so bad: perhaps somebody who demands that you be yourself deserves the same reaction as somebody who demands that you go naked. Still, when they go wrong, breezy is very bad, but quirky is worse. Breeziness is at least an adult sham; but quirkiness is falsely childlike in the fairy-friendly way that only fools adults who have forgotten being children, when they would have caught fairies to pull their wings off.

The Miser

[New feature; the idea is something between Theophrastus and Browning, like the “letters” in the periodical essay series without the framing device.]

“I learned something very early on. I saw that you can survive without friends, and you can survive without money, but it has to be one or the other. And I turned out to be much better at making money than I was at making friends.

“I don’t have anything against people who go the other way. Everybody wants to give you a hand—great! Nobody ever gave me a hand. They wanted me to beg and I wouldn’t beg. So I did it anyway, and then—it’s true—I rubbed their noses in it. That’s only natural, if you don’t take it too far.

“I’m not happy; who’s happy? I know money isn’t happiness; I’m not stupid. But I don’t have any regrets because I never had a choice. I wish you people understood that. I wish you people didn’t look at me like I’d gone over to the dark side.

“I know what it is. It’s because you need me and you don’t want to admit it. It’s resentment. Your friends can’t do anything for you unless they have money, and when you follow the money what do you find? You find me. If I tagged my money the way they tag migrating birds, you’d be amazed how far it goes.

“Miser? I’m the most generous guy in the world. In fact I’m the only generous guy in the world, because it’s my money to start with. It doesn’t count when it’s somebody else’s money.”