Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘How to Find Lost Objects

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

The Valley of Lost Things

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Patti Smith

Patti Smith once lost her favorite coat. As the singer-songwriter relates in her memoir M Train, it was an old black coat that had been given to her by a friend, off his own back, as a present on her fifty-seventh birthday. It was worn and riddled with holes, but whenever she put it on, she felt like herself. Then she began wearing another coat during a particularly cold winter, and the other one went missing forever:

I called out but heard nothing; crisscrossing wavelengths obscured any hope of feeling out its whereabouts. That’s the way it is sometimes with the hearing and the calling. Abraham heard the demanding call of the Lord. Jane Eyre heard the beseeching cries of Mr. Rochester. But I was deaf to my coat. Most likely it had been carelessly flung on a mound with wheels rolling far away toward the Valley of the Lost.

The Valley of the Lost, as Smith explains, is the “half-dimensional place where things just disappear,” where she imagines her coat “on a random mound being picked over by desperate urchins.” Smith concludes: “The valley is softer, more silent than purgatory, a kind of benevolent holding center.” It’s an image that first appears in Dot and Tot of Merryland by L. Frank Baum, who describes the Valley of Lost Things as “covered with thousands and thousands of pins…A great pyramid of thimbles, of all sizes and made of many different materials. Further on were piles of buttons, of all shapes and colors imaginable, and there were also vast collections of hairpins, rings, and many sorts of jewelry…A mammoth heap of lead pencils, some short and stubby and worn, and others long and almost new.”

I encountered the story of the black coat in the recent wonderful essay “When Things Go Missing” by Kathryn Schulz in The New Yorker, in which she, like Smith, uses the disappearance of physical objects as an entry point for exploring other kinds of loss. After a very funny opening in which she discusses a short period in which she lost her car keys, her wallet, and her friend’s pickup truck, she provides a roundup of the extant advice on finding lost items, including the “suspect” rule that states that most objects are less than two feet from where you think you left them. As it happens, I’m familiar with that rule, which appears in How to Find Lost Objects by Professor Solomon, which I’ve quoted here before. Personally, I like his idea of the Eureka Zone, the eighteen-inch radius that he recommends we measure with a ruler and then explore meticulously. It’s a codification of the practical insight that our mistakes rarely travel far from their point of origin. Joe Armstrong, the creator of the programming language Erlang, makes a similar point in the book Coders at Work:

Then there’s—I don’t know if I read it somewhere or if I invented it myself—Joe’s Law of Debugging, which is that all errors will be plus/minus three statements of the place where you last changed the program…It’s the same everywhere. You fix your car and it goes wrong—it’s the last thing you did. You changed something—you just have to remember what it was. It’s true with everything.

By this logic, the Valley of Lost Things is all around us, and we’re wandering through it with various degrees of incomprehension. As Daniel Boone is supposed to have said: “I have never been lost, but I will admit to being confused for several weeks.”

Charles Fort

I’ve been thinking of the loss and retrieval of objects a lot recently, in my unexpected role as biographer and amateur archivist. When I began my research for Astounding, I had to start by recovering countless scraps of information that must once have seemed obvious. Even something as basic as the number and names of John W. Campbell’s children turned out to be hard to verify, and there are equally immense facts, like how he met his first wife, that seem to have vanished into the Valley of Lost Things forever. (Not even his own daughter knows the answer to that last one.) I also have thousands of seemingly minor details that I hope to assemble into some kind of portrait, and they’re vulnerable to loss as well. I’ve spoken before about the challenge of keeping my notes straight, and how I’ve basically resorted to throwing everything into four huge text files and trusting in its searchability. Mostly, it works, but sometimes it doesn’t. During the editing process for my Longreads article on L. Ron Hubbard, a very diligent fact checker sent me questions about more than fifty individual statements, for which I had to dig up citations or revise the language for accuracy. I was able to find just about everything he mentioned, but one detail—about Hubbard’s hair, of all things—was frustratingly elusive, and it had to come out. Similarly, as I work on the book, I’ll occasionally come across a statement in my notes that I can’t find in my sources, and I have no idea where it came from. This has only happened once or twice, but whenever it does, it feels as if I’ve carelessly let something slip back into the Valley of the Lost, and I’ve let my subject down.

But as Proust knew, it’s in the search for lost things, however trivial, that we also find deeper meaning. As a biographer, I’m haunted by Borges’s devastating putdown: “One life of Poe consists of seven hundred octavo pages; the author, fascinated by changes of residence, barely manages one parenthesis for the Maelstrom or the cosmogony of ‘Eureka.’” I’ve often found myself obsessed by exactly those “changes of residence,” but it’s only in the accumulation of such material that the big picture starts to emerge, and the search often means more than the goal. If there’s one thing I’ve learned along the way, it’s that a dead end almost always turns into a doorway. Whenever I’ve had to deal with a frustrating absence of of information, it invariably becomes a blessing, because it forces me to talk to real people and leave my comfort zone to find what I need, which never would have happened if it had been there for the taking. The most beautiful description I’ve found of the Valley of Lost Objects is in The Book of the Damned by Charles Fort, who calls it the Super-Sargasso Sea:

Derelicts, rubbish, old cargoes from interplanetary wrecks; things cast out into what is called space by convulsions of other planets, things from the times of the Alexanders, Caesars and Napoleons of Mars and Jupiter and Neptune; things raised by this earth’s cyclones: horses and barns and elephants and flies and dodoes, moas, and pterodactyls; leaves from modern trees and leaves of the Carboniferous era—all, however, tending to disintegrate into homogeneous-looking muds or dusts, red or black or yellow—treasure-troves for the paleontologists and for the archaeologists—accumulations of centuries—cyclones of Egypt, Greece, and Assyria—fishes dried and hard, there a short time: others there long enough to putrefy.

As Baum notes, however, it’s mostly pins. The paleontologists, archeologists, and biographers comb through it, like “desperate urchins,” and pins are usually all we find. But occasionally there’s a jewel. Or even a beloved coat.

The Eureka Zone

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The Eureka Zone

The majority of lost objects are right where you figure—once you take a moment to stop and figure.

Others, however, are in the immediate vicinity of that place. They have undergone a displacement—a shift in location that, although minor, has served to render them invisible.

Some examples:

A pencil has rolled beneath a typewriter.
A tool has been shoved to the rear of a drawer.
A book on a shelf has gotten lodged behind other books.
A folder has been misfiled, several folders away from where it belongs.

Objects are apt to wander. I have found, though, that they tend to travel no more than eighteen inches from their original location. To the circle described by this eighteen-inch radius I have given a name. I call it the Eureka Zone.

With the aid of a ruler…determine the Eureka Zone of your lost object. Then explore it. Meticulously.

Professor Solomon, How to Find Lost Objects

Written by nevalalee

April 19, 2014 at 9:00 am

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