Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for February 7th, 2018

Losing your marbles

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Once a year or so, I catch myself thinking of the book How to Find Lost Objects by the magician Professor Solomon. It’s a quick, breezy read—you can finish the whole thing in about ten minutes—but it’s full of useful advice, and I always emerge from it refreshed. I’ve occasionally had reason here to mention its principle of the Eureka Zone, which states that most lost objects can be found eighteen inches from their last known location. Professor Solomon advises us to measure the area with a ruler and then explore it meticulously, which is really just a way of forcing us to examine the situation with fresh eyes. Otherwise, it’s easy to overlook the obvious, even when it’s right in front of us:

It is possible to look directly at a missing object and not see it. This is due to the agitated state of mind that often accompanies a misplacement. Go back and look again. It may be staring you in the face. Occasionally, our distress is such that not only do we overlook an object—we forget what we’re looking for! To avoid this, repeatedly murmur the name of the object. (“Potholder, potholder, potholder.”)

Much of the book is just the codification of common sense, but as scientists from George Darwin to John McCarthy have pointed out, that’s also true of science and mathematics. And you have no reason to train yourself to find a missing object until you’ve gone through the experience of losing it.

The best fictional account of finding a lost object appears in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Tom has left a marble in the hollow of a log, trusting in “a superstition…which he and all his comrades had always looked upon as infallible. If you buried a marble with certain necessary incantations, and left it alone a fortnight, and then opened the place with the incantation he had just used, you would find that all the marbles you had ever lost had gathered themselves together there, meantime, no matter how widely they had been separated.” When Tom checks it again, he finds that the magic has failed, and he tosses the marble into the woods in a fit of pique. Mark Twain continues:

But it occurred to him that he might as well have the marble he had just thrown away, and therefore he went and made a patient search for it. But he could not find it. Now he went back…and carefully placed himself just as he had been standing when he tossed the marble away; then he took another marble from his pocket and tossed it in the same way, saying: “Brother, go find your brother!”

Twain concludes: “He watched where it stopped, and went there and looked. But it must have fallen short or gone too far; so he tried twice more. The last repetition was successful. The two marbles lay within a foot of each other.”

I’ve never forgotten this story, which I like for two reasons. The first is that it presents a piece of practical advice—the idea that you can find a lost object by deliberately losing another in the same fashion is a sound one, and I’ve made good use of it before. It doesn’t have anything to do with the story, and Twain seems to have included it here because it was a useful piece of folk wisdom that he wanted to preserve. (Note that he makes a point of telling us that Tom looks carefully to see where the second marble stops, and that it takes him three tries before the trick works. These are signs of an authentic strategy, rather than a superstition, although the incantation that Tom speaks before he tosses it doesn’t do any harm.) Reading it over again now, I’m also struck by the fact that Tom’s successful discovery of his lost marble follows a failed attempt to use magic to recover all the marbles that he ever lost. This feels psychologically right, and not just for young boys. We have a way of placing big bets on gambits that we hope will solve all of our problems, only to find that we would have been better off approaching them one at a time. Looking for each marble as we lose it isn’t as interesting as recovering them all at once, and it’s tempting to look for quick fixes, in defiance of all available evidence. As Twain writes of the marble superstition: “This thing had actually and unquestionably failed. Tom’s whole structure of faith was shaken to its foundations. He had many a time heard of this thing succeeding but never of its failing before. It did not occur to him that he had tried it several times before, himself, but could never find the hiding places afterward.”

Finding missing objects is really a way of thinking about solving problems, and it’s closer to reality than more formalized approaches tend to be. Occasionally, the search culminates in a flash of insight, but more often, it relies on a slightly boring degree of thoroughness and meticulousness, as if we’re paying the penalty for lacking these qualities beforehand. (If we were always as careful as Professor Solomon advises us to be when looking for a lost object, we’d never lose anything in the first place.) It’s an art based on human fallibility, which recognizes that even the most organized people will sometimes misplace their keys. Fittingly enough, it’s a hodgepodge of tips, tricks, and rules of thumb, no one of which is always reliable, but which amount collectively to a body of lore that will serve us well. And a lot of it comes down to luck, like everything else in life. What I like best about How to Find Lost Objects is that its advice, while practical, offers no guarantee of success. If we fail to find what we’re seeking, Professor Solomon advises, we should take it as a larger lesson:

Occasionally, fate chooses to separate us from one of our possessions. When that seems to be the case, it’s time to call off the search. Your missing object may eventually turn up. Until then, accept that you are being offered a lesson: in patience…or humility…or nonattachment to the things of this world. And if not, so what? Lost keys, books, eyeglasses—even elephants!—can be replaced. Such losses are inconvenient and vexing. Yet surely they have their place in the inscrutable economy of the universe.

He’s right—which is no excuse for not doing our best for as long as we can. In the meantime, we check the Eureka Zone, retrace our steps, and remind ourselves, in Professor Solomon’s words: “There are no missing objects. Only unsystematic searchers.”

Written by nevalalee

February 7, 2018 at 8:40 am

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

February 7, 2018 at 7:30 am

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