Transformatives: An Introduction

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Indeed, the attempt to live according to the notion that the fragments are really separate is, in essence, what has led to the growing series of extremely urgent crises that is confronting us today. 

David Bohm

Author’s Preface

I began this post as a placeholder for the introduction to five articles on the topic of what I have come to call in my work, Transformatives. What happened instead is worth summarizing before proceeding to the body of what turned out to be the longest and most incomplete post of my 2023 writings.

My intent for those five posts was to dive deeper into the speculative (and somewhat risky) fragmentation of the implicate order of human systems in the spirit of dividing to conquer. In doing so, I hoped to say more about what I call the five Transformatives, my made-up noun form of the adjective of the same spelling that circumscribes us as individuals, institutions, and societies. Instead, I completed some of the posts but only drafted others, for a total of seven entries. The break between completions and drafts was due to an inconvenient hospitalization that knocked me off my feet for a handful of weeks. By the time I was back on stride, I ended up publishing the last several of the posts in pretty much the same state they were in before my incident. Incomplete and not my best work, I have felt a little sheepish having so many unfinished ideas “out there” taking up a seven-week period of my 2023 goal to write every single week. Well, time to let bygones be bygones.

All seven posts, complete or not, are now contained here in this seven-part composite.

  • Prolog. Bone, Wit, Gut, Flash, & Outbreak
  • Part 1. Goldfish
  • Part 2. Boundary Objects
  • Part 3. Rock, Paper, Sisyphus!
  • Part 4. Perpetual Moment
  • Part 5. The Boys form Brazil
  • Epilog. Metanoia


Prolog. Bone, Wit, Gut, Flash, & Outbreak

Transformatives are what I call the explicate (unfolded) elements that we more easily grasp—and change—of the implicate (entangled and otherwise untouchable) identity of individuals and groups. The simplest way to illustrate the concept is to name a few of the transformatives we think of when we break down the sum of the parts that make up the whole we call us.

When we say that we love someone, “body, mind, and soul,” we mean by that comprehensive, romantic inventory of our parts that we are “all in.” When a business is for sale “lock, stock, and barrel,” that dated expression is meant to convey that once the business is purchased, nothing of it will be left to its owners, not even anything in the bottom of the barrel. Such transformatives—body, mind, and soul; lock, stock, and barrel; everything but the kitchen sink—are, of course, not intended to convey completeness, but figurative impressions of it. There is more to a company than the lock on its door, the stock in its warehouse, and the barrels containing it, just as there is more to us than our bodies, minds, souls, hearts, spirits, opinions, preferences, and what he ate for breakfast. Human systems are so robust, in fact—and to a greater extent than we realize, so indivisible—that the idea of a deconstructed inventory of each of our several transformatives can never be more than a convenient shorthand for talking about them. The holistic change of the entirety of a person, a group, an organization, or a society, is almost impossible to conceive, let alone achieve at the personal, group, organizational, or societal level. When change is desired, we must turn to the unstable, dynamic, and changeful componentry of transformatives.

As a practical matter, when I wish to change, I begin at the transformative component level: I change my mind; I change my body; I change my heart. When an organization changes, it changes its structure, its human constituents, its processes, etc. (We sometimes say that for a business to be transformed it must first change its culture But culture, just another name for identity, is too implicate to change wholesale. Like a person, group, or organization, culture must be divided to be conquered.)

Because people and organizations (and cultures) are governed by laws of principles of the human systems that underly them, to change the whole person, the whole organization (including its culture), it will be necessary first to engage with those systems. To declare that not just a part of me needs changing—my hair style, my sleep routine, my taste in music—but my entire being is to recognize that for “me” to change, every last part of me must also change, and do so ahead of, as a prerequisite to, changing “me.” Transformatives are the explicate bits that, as they individually change, collectively impact the implicate whole. (And because the implicate whole is inaccessible to us, except through its explicates occasionally unfolded to us, we must assume the presence of additional transformatives that must also be changed at some point. More about this tricky bit later.)

The posts I had in mind to write were not yet to center on the transformatives themselves. Their relation to the whole is such an entanglement that I have chosen at this stage of deconstruction to introduce them relative to one another, that is, within the entanglement before isolating them later on beneath the time-free metacognitive lens of earlier posts. (See the Time’s Gravity Trilogy for an introduction to time-free examination.) As I find myself on thin enough ice just mentioning the deconstruction of human systems, their actual fragmentation can wait a little longer.


Having learned the hard way why introductions are parsimoniously written as conclusions, I had originally intended to stop here and pick this one back up once I have wrapped the others. But before going on, I must amend my original intent to introduce all five of my favorite—and in my experience, most potent—transformatives and explain that due to circumstances arguably beyond my control, I only managed to write about three of them before being distracted by what I later hope to write about as an Inciting Incident that took my writing in a different direction. They are the three most basic transformatives and correspond to our tendency to unroll human identity as being made up of our bodies, our minds, and our hearts. To avoid some of the boundary problems of such an inventory, I prefer the more limited terms Bone, Wit, and Gut. Here, then, is a brief synopsis of the Assays I managed to complete before my incitement.

Rock, Paper, Sisyphus (Bone)—is yet only a vague notion of where to take the element of physicality. I know already, however, I will not dare lead with it. The mind-body problem being what it is—still a problem centuries after Descartes proposed it—best not to lead with the body. By ‘Bone’ I am referring to what psychologists misleadingly call behavior but which, stripped of time’s gravity, reduces, for me, to common clay. Labels like body, lock, stock, and barrel come to mind.

Goldfish(Wit)—Published first under the title Boundary Objects, this Assay is about the mind, ‘Wit’ being my working label not for the act of thinking, but its action-free objects: call them thought, intellect, intelligence, knowledge, worldview, grey matter, whatever. Again, invoking the body-mind problem only underscores the delicacy with which I will attempt to pry the two apart, figuratively, of course, and only for the purposes of analysis since, well, they are meant to form a singularity with each other.

Boundary Objects (Gut)—Not satisfied with words like feeling and emotion, I prefer ‘Gut’ over ‘Heart’ (which attaches itself to too much metaphorical power to process in one go) as the bodily center of affectation. Neurologists call the sensory network in the gut the enteric nervous system. I have a gut feeling about this post, which is not so much about our hearts as it is about the interplay between the body, the mind, and the heart.


Introductions to Transformatives four and five will come later in this blog. But let me here put them into context with their three companion entanglements.

Remembering our alchemy, Aristotle lists five basic ingredients used in every recipe from what might be called The Cookbook of All Things. Some combination of the Five Elements as they were called combined for Aristotle to form every actual or ideal object. He named these elements for four everyday substances—Earth, Air, Water, and Fire—and a fifth, ineffable substance he called the Fifth Element, or the Quinta Essentia. In a nod to the ancient’s desire to understand the complexities of nature, I have adopted the nomenclature of Aristotle’s five-ingredient recipe book to tease out the differences in the Transformatives I am seeking to understand more fully. The first three—Bone, Wit, and Gut (for Body, Mind, and Heart), I liken, as did the Ancients, to the alchemical properties of Earth (for physical), Air (for intellectual), and Water (for emotional). The fourth and fifth elements of my epistemology are not so transparent.

Flash. To the ancients, the fourth element—Fire (for energy)—represented the transformative properties of earth, air, and water that are consumed by fire. Aquinas called Flash Deliberate Will, the climactic coming together of body, mind, and heart to effect a new, intentional action.

Outbreak. Similar to Dark Matter, the name Einstein gave to the missing ingredient for some of his most important but yet-to-be proven theories, Quintessence was the Ancients’ placeholder for the cosmic ‘everything else’ in the human system of systems Aristotle did his best to chronicle. Like Dark Matter and Quintessence, Outbreak is the placeholder into which I roll up the missing bits in the human system of systems I will be writing about. And like its companion terms, Outbreak will remain just offstage, always ready to exert its masked influence.


Part 1. Goldfish

The head bone is connected to the heart bone.

—Alan Alda

In my first semester of college, I went out of my way to enroll in two courses I had no business taking. The first, its neon yellow, come hither recruiting poster reading like an invitation to join a drug trial, was History 380: Popular Culture in America. I saw it right after walking into, and then immediately out of, History 110, an introductory course required for graduation; I hadn’t lasted two minutes in its cavernous amphitheater, 300 of my closest freshman friends jammed like sardines into two stories of terraced desks that looked more like a global conference than a classroom. But what sent me running for the exit were the TV monitors–six of them dangling from the ceiling. Were the lectures taped? I had to get out of there. Catching my breath outside the U.N., I made a beeline for the neon yellow beacon that seemed to be calling my name.

This new course created by Teacher of the Year, Dr. Frank Fox, satisfies American History and Government credit. Its premise is that just as culture contextualizes history, so, too, does history contextualize culture.

The drug trial invite had me—and the seven other students that enrolled that semester—at “American History and Government credit.” Everyone I told the story to that year was convinced that bit was a typo.

The second course, Psychology 350: Social Psychology, came with strings. An upper-level course, to enroll in it, students had to demonstrate a basic understanding of each of its component subjects, psychology, and sociology, such as one might gain in two entry-level courses, neither of which had been offered in my high school. But I had an in. The course was taught by a man that lived just up the street and had been teaching me how to play rugby.

Dr. John Seggar, the once and future university rugby coach, missed playing the sport during a brief hiatus the summer I entered college. To keep in shape, he organized pick-up games with former and current players, even kids in the neighborhood who wanted to learn the game. This led somehow to my attending a fireside chat John gave about his full-time job teaching sociology. After watching him speak on the mystery and science of group dynamics and hearing him say something like, “And you’re all going to need to take a social science to graduate,” I asked how an entering freshman might manage the prerequisites for his social psychology course. A New Zealander who must not yet have adjusted to the American way of doing things, John mumbled something conspiratorial about risk, self-paced effort, and keeping a low profile in a classroom full of seniors. He then added, “But if, in the first three weeks, you find you’re not keeping up, you really must drop. It’d be a shame to have to fail you.”

Just what do pop culture and social psychology have in common, apart from my going out on two academic limbs to study each of them that first semester? To someone attempting both courses from scratch—knowing as I did next to nothing about either subject ahead of time—the answer was obvious: goldfish swallowing.

The most memorable sections of each course attempted to explain why rational people of all eras did irrational things. (My girlfriend Kari—we would marry before graduation—had played it straight and enrolled that same year in Psychology 101. Both times I dropped in on her big amphitheater course, the instructor was showing movies of rats shocked for pawing the wrong button or cats tortured the instant they fell asleep. I already knew psychologists liked boundary objects—the middle distance between awake and asleep, the borderline between body and spirit, the spot where the head bone meets the heart bone. Press on boundary objects and watch a cornucopia of weird and wonderful fireworks burst forth.

Technically, John’s class attempted to explain why rational people did anything at all, while Frank’s course held up the irrational acts of history as icons of culture that arise parallel with, in response to, or as drivers of the times. Brought together, social psychology explains history’s behaviors at the border of pop culture and group dynamics. Why does a consumer focus group, when shown dozens of colors they are not told are being considered to package Calgon Bath Oil Beads, select the 23rd color swatch every time? How had Coca-Cola become such a dominant consumer brand in America by 1900? (Cocaine, of course. It was removed from the formula at the turn of the century.) And why did college students in the 1930s sit for days atop flagpoles? Or swallow live goldfish?

To better understand the relationship between the individual and the group, consider the human systems within which they collectively operate. Each of us is made up of a system of systems. In anatomy class, we learn about our digestive system, circulatory system, respiration system, nervous system, adrenal system, and so on. In psychology, where things are a little tougher to poke and prod, we hear stories about our id and our ego, System 1 and System 2, and circadian patterns of sleep and wake. Philosophers speak of the mind-body problem, the out-of-body experience, existentialism, and transcendentalism. There are as many systems to marvel at within our individual, entangled, implicate selves as there are lenses to examine each of the explicate bits that comprise them: material, temporal, mental, emotional, and on and on.

For their part, groups are not just collectives of individuals, as if understanding the combinatorial explosions between each member’s systems of systems when bumped up against each other was not complex enough. Groups come with their own rules and customs. Think hierarchies, networks, and anarchies; formal and informal leadership systems; power and control; parent-adult-child transactions. and many more. Rub all those meta-systems together, and it’s easy to see why it’s not easy to see how everything going on inside when people get together is so difficult to juggle top of mind.

Consider Alice, a college student in the 1930s. Alice’s psychological profile has developed from birth. When her 18-year-old systems-based way of behaving is exposed to the systems of, say, a dozen other students she meets on her first day in the History 110 amphitheater, several million interactions, none of them obvious to even the most sophisticated thinkers of her time, let alone a student just entering college, are set in motion between Alice, each member of the group, and the group itself. To protect Alice from being helplessly pulled into the seething vortex, a kind of force field erects itself in defense of her identity and to some degree, that of the group. As each set of systems cautiously approaches the other, neither at first overwhelms. Gradually, semi- and unconscious compromises emerge that permit Alice to “fit in” with the group. (Reciprocally, the group’s systems could also be said to “fit in” with Alice’s in the same way each of our bodies exerts a relative tug of gravity on the much larger earth. But unless Alice, on her own, can exert a kind of dominance over the group, or she possesses what today we might call a rock-star personality, it is Alice’s mind that shifts. The lone wolf adapts to the norms and mores of the pack.) But even with compromise, as long as Alice remains in the group, the two force fields, hers and the “other,” as socialists like to call it—will continue to ebb and flow as they maintain the essential within the newly reformed group.

After history class one day, several of Alice’s systems go on high alert when Sally, one of her new “friends,” takes out of her purse a clear plastic bag filled with water and something unstable and brightly swishing around inside it. Alice looks on in horror as Sally pours water and a live goldfish into a paper cup. Then, with all the fanfare of a sword swallower, Sally downs the entire cocktail—goldfish and all—in a single gulp.

“Now, you try,” Sally says, handing her cup to Alice (whose face has just gone ashen) before refilling it with the rest of the water and the remaining fish.

At that moment, using a kind of shorthand for force field theory, Frank, the Teacher of the Year, and John, the social psychologist, tell us the following. As Alice reads the situation, she is being tested. At stake is her continued acceptance and, therefore, membership in the group. On Alice’s side of the force field, she knows better not to swallow a live animal, no matter how small or cute. But the forces pulling her towards the irrational act—in another twenty years, psychologists will name these forces peer pressure—get the best of her. At that moment, Alice suppresses, in the words of a popular children’s book of her era, “the sense she was born with,” succumbs to the forces of belonging and, closing her eyes and holding her nose, swallows the goldfish.

Into that force field of tenuous equilibrium, the ball is fed to start the play. At that moment inside the scrum there is a palpable sense of a hard but tenuous group hug on the verge of violent collapse.

There is a point in a rugby match where the opposing teams line up opposite each other in a formation that bears no more resemblance than a shared cognate with its American progeny. While a football referee would blow a whistle should opposing players deliberately and cooperatively grip each other at the line of scrimmage, head to shoulder, arms entangled in an embrace of power before the start of a play, in rugby, such a lineup, a scrummage (scrum for short), is all part of the struggle to move the ball forward once it is put in play. Inside the scrum, as the interlocked players anticipate the kicking frenzy that begins the moment the ball is fed into the darkened dome beneath them, each player counterbalances what feels like dozens of opposing forces emanating from every other player—teammates and opponents—to play their part in keeping the scrum from collapsing of its own weight before play begins. (As we clumsily interlaced our heads, shoulders, and elbows to get the hang of it under John’s tutelage that summer, the scrum fell apart more often than it hung together.) Into that force field of tenuous equilibrium, the ball is put in to start the play. At that moment inside the scrum, there is a palpable sense of a hard but tenuous group hug on the verge of violent collapse. Such is the nature of group dynamics.

It would take German social-psychologist Curt Lewin another twenty years after Alice’s bottoms-up moment to develop what he called “force field analysis.” According to his theory of why otherwise rational individuals and groups occasionally abandon reason when daring to do silly things, the equilibrium they toss away when irrational forces get the better of rational ones is restored under two conditions. If Alice’s aberrant behavior continues to be favored by the dominant forces exerted by her peer group, the equilibrium of rationality she possessed before coming into the group will be replaced by a new balance of power. Likewise, if the forces canceling out each other shift in the scrum where peer pressure only tenuously counteracts “the sense she was born with,” common sense will make a comeback, sometimes violently so. Alice will reverse her behavior and, more often than not, turn on the group or at least loathe herself for being at first so taken. Under new management, the group will leave the goldfish in their bowls.

Diving deeper into the system of systems Alice brought to the social scrum, John draws a circular, three-force diagram on the board—think clock face but with only the labeled hour markers at ten, two, and six o’clock on the imaginary dial. In the space from ten to two, he writes the word Behavior. From two to six, he adds Thought. And in the remaining gap between six and ten, Feeling. Between each word, John then inserts a single-headed arrow pointing clockwise to the word ahead of it traveling clockwise. Unfolded into a straight timeline, depending on where the eye begins, the words and arrows would look as follows:

Behavior -> Thought -> Feeling ->

Thought -> Feeling -> Behavior ->

Feeling -> Behavior -> Thought ->

John is following a common tradition in rounding down the explicate fragments of implicate identity to a triad of what I term Transformatives—in this case, Behaving, Thinking, and Feeling—as though between them, they completed an exhaustive inventory of the arbitrarily fragmented human state. (See Boundary Objects for a broader breakdown of the same whole.) “Even death is a form of behavior,” John offers, as he turns to the arrows, the boundary objects linking the transformatives, and wonders aloud, “So, which comes first, the goldfish or the egg?”

It had only been a decade since psychotherapist Albert Ellis and psychiatrist Aaron Beck began inserting boundary objects between the transformatives in the Thought->Feeling-Behavior cycle when treating patients for mental illness. Combining the by-then, well-known practices of behavioral therapy and cognitive therapy, the pair began to understand depression in terms of the Thought->Feeling->Behavior (TFB) triad John had diagramed that we now call Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). Like John’s TFB circle, CBT views thinking, feeling, and behaving as a kind of three-cog cycle. If properly interrupted a corrected version of the progression can lead the patient to break unhealthy cycles and replace them with virtuous ones.

John began with TFB (and not, say, BTF, i.e., Behavior->Thought-> Feeling) because he knew from experience it was a natural progression his students would intuitively grasp. Alice is presented with a thought, whether from within or without; her thought triggers a feeling; she responds to the feeling. It’s a day in the life. If the thought of swallowing a goldfish is triggered by her so-called friend’s example and a tabula rosa ultimatum to “fish” or cut bait, Alice might feel the urge to laugh; her body a prod to blush, increase her blood pressure, run away, or act in any number of ways. Her behavior will expose her to new thoughts, which in turn will invoke new feelings, and we’re off. Three-step cycle. Thought->Feeling-Behavior.

The discussion that followed John’s single arrow-headed drawing took a 360-degree turn when someone—it might have been me; I remember wondering as much; it’s much easier to question a new idea than an ingrained one; but John warned me to keep a low profile; my common sense talked me off that ledge—probably someone else, asked the obvious question:

“Does the cycle ever flow the other way?”

“Let’s take a look,” John answers too quickly.

As he turns back to the board, the speed with which he adds a counterclockwise arrowhead to each of the clockwise boundary objects between the keywords tells me he has been expecting the question. (I should have asked it myself.)

“Can behavior trigger emotion? Does emotion ever drive thought? Under what circumstances might thought lead to action? We’ll jump in right there next class period.”


Part 2. Boundary Objects

You keep using that word, I do not think it means what you think it means.

William Goldman, The Princess Bride

Social Psychology and Popular Culture in America were not the only avant-garde courses I managed to slink into my first year in college. The term peer pressure had by then been around for a couple of decades and my friend Tyler persuaded me to join him in the also-over-my-head course, Honors Rhetoric. “It’s not taught by grad students but a real writer; and because it’s Honors, they’ve combined both Freshman English semesters into one.” Tyler was right about the instructor. Doug Thayer was a first-rate writer from whom I would take two more courses. By the third one, he encouraged me to change my major and get something to write about–advice I initially ignored but that would eventually change the trajectory of my career.

“But Tyler, neither of us is in the Honors Program.”

“It’s at seven in the morning. They’re bound to have room. Won’t hurt to ask.”

Honors Rhetoric turned out to be the hardest and most influential course I took in college. Especially the reading. Foreshadowing Thayer’s epic advice, writers do need something to write about and in this course, it was pages and pages of essays. I was a very slow reader; always had been. I figure on average we were assigned fifty pages a night, five nights a week. Assigned, not read. I couldn’t keep up. And with the early start, I couldn’t (always) pull all-nighters to finish papers.

But the learning was irreplaceable.

Here is Thayer on craft. “Good writing calls up images (Orwell). If your reader can’t see it, she’ll miss the thousand words—give or take—of the picture you’re painting.” And, “stop using so many adjectives. The action is in action words. Verbs are like vegetables. You might not like ‘em, but your mother put ‘em on your plate for a reason.” And, “No hum-drumming. Move up and down on the ladder of abstraction (Hiakawa). Too high for too long and you’ll lose your reader. Too low and detail-laden and you’ll bore her to tears.” And, “No dead metaphors (Thayer). Who gets ‘bored to tears’, anymore? (Whoever did, for that matter? I’m being ironic, again.) Who sees ‘the face of a mountain’? The face of the moon, perhaps. If you can’t find a good telescope to prove there is no face. When I look at a mountain, I see nothing but treachery. Ever climbed Timp? Terrible business. Impersonal, hard. Loose shale a thousand feet at a time. One scrabble forward and a 20-foot backslide. From a distance, mountains might appear soft, beckoning you in blues and slate grays. (Do mountains ‘beckon’? I wonder. I’m still being ironic) Up close, they’d sooner shatter your tibia than smile at you. ‘’Face of a mountain’ is a dead metaphor. I never want to see it in your papers. So, too, is ‘dead metaphor’ for that matter.” Thayer wrote “forced” when I attempted to call up images in my first paper.

Here he is on transitions. “Good writing is all about transitions. But don’t write them. Bury them. You’d never say, ‘After the cow’s astronomical leap, it was incumbent upon the little dog to laugh’. Bury your transitions. ‘The little dog laughed to see such sport.’ Now that’s good writing. Great writing. Why do I say that? We’re still quoting it. I’m being ironic.”

Like Thayer’s transitions, boundary objects connect multiple worlds while giving you at once a concrete and abstract place to stand when straddling them. While he never rubbed the words “boundary” and “object” together (I wouldn’t hear anyone do so for 35 years) Thayer described the interstices between thought, feeling, and behavior as salient—apt to leap—but invisible. For Thayer, writing leapt off the page—a dead metaphor if ever there was one—while transitions just flowed, somehow. “Real sentences fit together on their own. In this class we don’t glue them together ex post facto like robots: Get In. Assert-Transition. Assert-Transition. Assert-Transition. Get out. In this course, we write. Glue is the regrettable artifact of equine slaughter. It is the mind, and not the words, that leap.”

“Don’t get me wrong, ‘Mate‘, I think it’s brilliant. You’ve made it muddy enough to take anywhere. I have no use for the constraints of precision.”

If I formed any opinions in Thayer’s three courses, it was that pedants make bad writers; certainty makes poor friends; and, to flip Fitzgerald, anyone who cannot hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time has no business putting words on paper.

“Never be clear when you can be ironic.”

Thayer would have applauded the composition of John’s Thought->Feeling->Behavior diagram because, while its underlying model appeared clean on the surface—Are we not just a body, a mind, a heart?—at its core it was messy, its boundary objects sloppy, their arrows inexplicably uni-directional. The hijacking—another Thayerism—of identity as thought, feeling, and behavior was rich, if misleading. Had he followed me 100 meters to Social Psychology that semester to the day of the Goldfish, the whole problem of boundary objects would have been sorted once and for all. Not with any clarity, but with certainty, the great enemy of community.

Thayer: “So, John, you’ve written these three behaviors where you hope we only see one. Tell me, where do thoughts and feelings go when they’re not behaving?”

John: “Mate, you’re looking at it sideways; it’s not that complex.”

Thayer: “Don’t get me wrong, ‘Mate‘, I think it’s brilliant. You’ve made it muddy enough to take anywhere. I have no use for the constraints of precision.”

Thayer is right, of course. Thinking and feeling are simply behaviors we engage in with the invisible parts of our bodies. This is where Bohm warns us not to be so fussy, so precise, when speaking of the implicate. Wearing my heads up metacognitive display, I go further. Stripping time away from John’s diagram, we’re left with only thoughts, feelings, and a body. There is no behavior in Nowland. Not messy enough for Thayer—or Bohm—until, sans time, boundary objects become so fluid they begin to resemble the implicate order.

The limits of my language are the limits of my world.

Ludwig Wittgenstein

Rewriting John’s template as Body-> Mind->Heart->Body still leaves out a few things. But they are missing from Thought->Feeling->Behavior as well. What of the unthought, unfelt, unseeable in ourselves? Are the imponderables that make us, of the body, the mind, the heart, or something else? Where lies mystery? Which bits of body, mind, and heart account for will? And what about coincidence, synchronicity, and magic? Does all of that, like the more expansive realm of social psychology reside somewhere out there, maybe not in the group, but in a grouping nevertheless? Back to the soul, for those who believe, where does the spirit dwell and how does it manifest itself? Whence comes belief?

As a straightforward proposition, the irrelevant flaw in the Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy model of self is that it can’t be bothered with messiness, nor should it try to do so. As a mode of therapy, such completeness would have rendered it stillborn. It’s hard enough to empty one’s thoughts onto the examination table, let alone one’s entire universe. But were time to still itself and what John was calling behavior span the entire wheel of thoughts, feelings, and bodily action, which way would John’s arrows then point? And if he were not thinking when he drew the wheel—he could have instead been emoting; what if he were just randomly scrawling—what then of cause and effect at the boundaries?

Consider the peephole Ellis and Beck were peering through when they combined cognitive and behavioral therapy to christen CBT. What ground would they have been standing on when straddling those two worlds for the decades it took to slam them together? In Time’s Gravity, I used psychology’s own term, metacognition, to name the theatre seat from whose perspective a theory like CBT might have emerged. But what if Ellis and Beck had been sitting in different seats in that day? What if, instead of thinking about thoughts, feels and behaviors, they had somehow been feeling about them, or acting them out?

A few days after the Thought->Feeling->Behavior discussion, and in contrast to the flat, uni-directional diagram he drew on the board that day, John challenges us to turn the TFB cycle into an onion and peel it. After drawing a two-dimensional projection of an arrow-less, three-dimensional TFB diagram, John cuts away three cross-sections corresponding to the same triad as before: Thoughts, Feelings, and Behaviors, each cross-section exposing the unlabeled concentric layers you see not just with your eyes, but feel in your eyes as you slice an onion perpendicular to its grain. As we peel, each new layer becomes a meta-layer to the previous one, the new set of boundary objects turning on themeselves like an ouroboros. The metacognitive stance has dissolved into a kind of meta-affective one where, instead of thoughts about thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, we are invited to explore feelings about thoughts. And if feelings about thoughts, why not feelings about feelings? And look over here: feelings about behaviors.

The foot feels the foot
When it feels the ground

Fake Buddha Quote

We are no longer sitting in the theater of our theory about whether thought leads, directly or indirectly, to action. Like my buddy from the cancellation line, who convinced me to abandon my seat at intermission in search of a better one, we have scratched off the seat numbers stamped on our tickets and are wandering freely the theories sprinkled across John’s onion. Because of their similarity to metacognition, our next exploration, feelings about thoughts, feelings about feelings, feelings about behavior, meta-affectation—affectation about affectation—or emoting about emotion.

With the curtain on the John Show still rising, we are then led in our imaginings to a point of vantage from which anything goes. The remove we have wandered into is neither a metacognitive stance, nor a meta-affective perspective. It’s a kind of metaphysical blind from which we neither think nor feel about whatever passes before our heads up display. We just act on it.

“What if our behavior is triggered neither by anything we think, anything we feel, but something else?” asks John. What if, like Sisyphus, or an addict on autopilot, or someone just asleep at life’s wheel, we just did stuff? Tripping the deeply compiled patterns of System 1’s muscle memory, what if, like action just blurted out of us like so much heart-lung-exchanged by-product of involuntarily inhaled oxygen? What would our CBT therapist make of that?

The silver lining of the metaphysical blind is that if we could become facile at exercising not just the metanoiac muscle that changes our mind and heart, but the metamorphic hack that regulates our physical responses to impulses we somehow do not seem to overtly control. Long night at the theater short, how might CBT have evolved had Ellis and Beck spliced cognitive and behavioral therapy together from a different perch?


Part 3. Rock, Paper, Sisyphus!

You’ve got to hold it right, feel the distance to the ground
Move with a touch so light until it’s rhythm you have found
Then you’ll know what I know

Dougie Maclean, The Scythe Song

In the children’s game Rock Paper Scissors, two or more players simultaneously punch their hands into the ring revealing either a rock (closed fist), a piece of paper (open hand), or a pair of scissors (first and second fingers arranged in a ‘peace’ or ‘victory’ sign). The rules are simple, the competition circular: Rock breaks Scissors; Scissors cut Paper; Paper covers Rock. Each thrust produces one or more winners, one or more losers, or when players play the same element—Rock and Rock, for example—a tie or draw is declared. The game is usually played over multiple rounds—some might call them “hands” for an easy play on words—with each player enjoying a one-in-three chance of conquering at least one other player in that round.

The spin cycle of Rock Paper Scissors is always in the same direction. Rock will always break Scissors. Scissors will always cover Paper. And so on. There can be no reprisals in the opposite direction. Paper cannot wrap Scissors, for instance. Were the one-way relationship between any of the three objects to be modified—think Scissors cutting Rocks—the game would be rendered meaningless since every player would win, and also lose, every hand.

In Part 1, Boundary Objects, I introduced the Body<->Mind<->Heart<->Body (BMHB) cycle, not by that name but by suggesting that the traditional elements of a human system—thinking, feeling, and behaving—were each behaviors in their own right, their mutual inclusivity rendering their distinctions too muddy to be meaningful. Absent time, each of those three Transformatives, as I called them (see Fingerposts), is more clearly distinct from the other, and travel counter-clockwise on the dial as readily as the reverse.

If, like the rules of Rock Paper Scissors, the components of BMHB always progressed in the same direction—Body triggers Mind; Mind triggers Heart; Heart triggers Body—people, organizations, and societies would be as predictable as the day is long. Rationalists—think Cognitive-Behavioral Therapists—might liken the oneway-rule in Rock Paper Scissors to the singular direction of the BMHB wheel. Others—I wouldn’t want to call them “Irrationalists”–hold to less predictable but more realistic scenarios where cognitive, emotional, and physical behaviors arise from any number of combinations of the three Transformatives. Imagine for a moment what it would be like if feelings, for example, led to thoughts instead of the other way round. Unlike imagining a pair of scissors sharp enough to cut through rock, we can all of us conjure times when we, or someone we know, acted thoughtfully, felt physically, and thought emotionally. What would Doug Thayer make of such messiness? “If roads were truly lonely, they would advertise for friends. Mountain faces might appear friendly, but their deadly climbs are not to be trifled with. (I’m not being ironic.)”

The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart.

Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays

Theatre and Cinematic Arts 117R—Introduction to Film was the only course I actually looked forward to taking my freshman year without a single reservation. It’s where I first saw Jean Cocteau’s surreal adaptation of Beauty and the Beast, Steven Spielberg’s experiments with his first 8mm camera, and the film on everyone’s Top Ten List, the obligatory classic, Citizen Kane. With the possible exception of the image of a burning sled and the surprise ending of Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, Marcell Jankovics’ 1974, academy award-nominated best animated short film, Sisyphus has stayed with me for 50 years. A quick but agonizing two-minute watch, you can view it here to avoid the spoiler alert below.

As a freshman in college, I had not yet heard of the mythological character of Sisyphus, a king who incurred the wrath of Zeus for cheating death not once but twice, first by tying up Death (Thanatos) himself, and on a second occasion returning from Hell to chastise his wife for not burying him properly. Hades punished the king by forcing him to roll a large, enchanted boulder up a steep mountain. Just as Sisyphus reached the summit, the boulder would leap from his hands and roll back down. Undaunted, Sisyphus slog down the mountain and with seemingly endless strength, begin the ‘Sisyphean’ task all over again. According to the myth, he’s been performing the same task, and will continue performing it, for eternity, leading one onomatopoetic philosopher to liken the back and forth of the labor to the incessant susurrus of breath itself.

Here’s my question; and I would ask it of him if I could: Why do you keep doing it? Is it only because of the curse? Is Zeuss even still around to enforce it? What about your free will? (Did Zeuss take it from you for something as trivial—compared to free will, that is—as cheating death?) Each time that stone rolls back down the hill, what goes through your mind? That it’s getting smaller with each bang and bonk? Certainly, you’re no longer surprised each time it slips from your grasp to roll back down the mountain! Maybe you no longer even notice it. The eternal rut you are in by now is just a System 1 response.

Like the susurrus of breathing, do we always think before we act? Or first think and then feel to act? Or do we just act? Just cuz. Just … cuz.

Tyler and Alan, my two best friends from junior high school—they of my bowling ball experiments and other escapades—were a good influence on my character development as a teenager. We devised contests to see who could do something virtuous the longest without stopping. One night after dinner at the local university diner, after finishing up our usual plate of not very healthy ‘tater tots’, the three of us got to talking about how we should be eating better food. On the spot, we dared each other to stop eating candy every day, to see if we could develop some discipline. Abstaining from sweets was difficult at first—we were growing teenagers—but after a while it became second nature, literally a System 1 term where the body just acts without thinking. I forget how long Tyler and Alan denied themselves their favorite Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups; knowing their character, I am sure they both rose to the challenge–Alan was on the wrestling team and already knew how not to eat. For my part, going all in on that night’s challenge, I ate no candy whatsoever for a full year.

When I reached that milestone, almost at random, I made the decision to go another year. Because, why not? That’s the way we did things back then. Almost without thinking. But before I began my second year of what I was now calling my Candy Diet, there was something I needed to do. It was important that I somehow mark the one year anniversary, do something memorable I could look back to if ever I told myself I had already made my point. And so, on the one-year anniversary of my commitment to abstain from eating candy, whether in recognition, defiance, or an ineffable urge to exert my agency in a situation of my own making that had required me to snuff out that agency for a full year, I enjoyed a single piece of hard butterscotch toffee, the kind that comes individually wrapped in the shape of a rounded pebble. It seemed at that moment the most important act of free will I could exert was to momentarily un-harden what had been pounded, albeit by me, into an unthinking habit in order to make my choice in a fair fight. With System 1 in full control of my appetite, I needed to loosen its hold if only for a moment. In order to again choose to abstain from candy for an entire year I needed to do it with a piece of it in my mouth. I plopped in the toffee and went another year without sweets.

I wonder if in the eternal life of Sisyphus what would happen if the stone somehow did not fall back down the mountain one day. How would Sisyphus react? Would he finally just sit down and take a break? If so, then what? With the curse broken, what meaning would there be left to his life without a stone to push? If his actions had become so compiled over the years that he pushed that same stone up that same mountain without thinking, without feeling, what might happen to those same Transformatives—his mind, his heart, his body, when suddenly interrupted in their System 1 task? Would they suddenly awake from their deeply compiled state and exert themselves?

[Quick Aside: I hope one day to write about how experimental, participatory theatre is used to play act behaviors the criminally incarcerated plan to select once they have “served their time” as it were. The British term for this field of inquiry is Desistance, a loaded concept in and of itself.]

Back to Sisyhpus and that single piece of butterscotch toffee that felt on my tongue like a rolling stone as I sucked and swallowed it to nothing to mark my anniversary of “time served.” Might Sisyphus, sans curse, sans Zeuss, sans any other behavioral pattern, any other thoughts or feelings long since worn away as his boulder of life rolled up and down the eternal stony mountain, choose to exert his long-buried free will and push that stubborn stone back down the mountain so that the next time he rolls it back up, he will have done so on his own terms?


Me: Hey, that’s cool. What do you plan to do with that goldfish?

You: Swallow it.

Me: Wait, what?

You: I’m going to swallow it. It’s all the rage.

Me: You’re not going to cook it first? At least kill it?

You: Nope. It’s not a thing unless you swallow it whole.

Me: Show me.

You do.

Me: Can I try it?

You: Sure. You’re gonna love it.


You: I wouldn’t if I were you. It’s a filthy habit.


You: It’s no big deal. I swallow one every day. Have done for years.


You: Nah. It’s my last one. Go get your own.


Part 4. Perpetual Moment

The flash and outbreak of a fiery mind

William Shakespeare, Hamlet

Right up there with the attractive nuisance of the still-unsolved angle tri-section problem I took on in high school is the allure of the perpetual motion machine. In Physics 100, yet another college freshman course that shaped the way I would come to view changefulness, I attempted, against all odds (and again, in vain) to conceive a self-propelled device that produces the same or more energy than it takes to operate it. And with the help of a genius inventor, it actually got built, though not as imagined. But just as my ill-fated attempt to solve an impossible geometry problem in high school led me to unintended discoveries about higher, unknown math, fiddling with the ultimate physics challenge helped me tangibly imagine the collision properties of an unstoppable force–in my case deliberate will–on encountering an immovable object. The alchemists called the invisible boundary I attempted to cross Quintessence. Einstein dubbed the missing piece Dark Matter. Thoreau would have applauded my effort as continuing in the direction of my dreams. I call my attempt Outbreak, my full-glass reminder that even fate can be tempted to call Uncle, especially after encountering my Uncle. James John Knell. AKA Uncle Jack.

With its units on gravity and buoyancy taught back to back, Physics 100 dared me to conflate the two forces as I daydreamed my way through the first several weeks of class. Instead of doing my homework, as in high school, I spent every spare moment drawing up a perpetual motion machine. It worked on the principle of an oversized, oblong tube full of marbles, its rolling spheres alternatively rising and plunging through water and vacuum via the opposing forces of ocean and sky. Picture a large steel ball just hollow enough that it will still float when immersed in water. Solid steel would normally sink, of course, but like a giant steel ship whose empty hull displaces sufficient water to keep its deck dry, a hollow steel ball when dropped into the ocean will likewise eventually rise to the surface. Drop that ball not into water but a hollow, vertical vacuum tube whose top protrudes marginally above the ocean’s surface and whose bottom rests on the ocean floor a mile below and a new opportunity presents itself. Picture a second tube parallel to the first that rises the same distance from the ocean floor and back to the surface. In your mind—cuz that’s as far as I got—join up the two hollow tubes top and bottom with semi-circular stretches of tubing to form a complete, hollowed-out loop. Think old-fashioned hula hoop, the kind filled with noisy little balls that rattle as you whip it around your waist. But instead of plastic, the noise in my tube came only from steel balls falling and rising on gravity and buoyancy alone.

Unlike the first tube sealed top-to-bottom in a pure vacuum, the second tube was to be filled with a vertical mile of sea water. But how to marry up the water-filled side of my contraption to its opposing vacuum? At first I focused on using a series of air locks, the way submarines accommodate torpedos or divers coming in and out of the boat without flooding. But as I had no way to test such a complex contraption, I moved to “easier” solutions like goop. Imagine a permeable membrane strong enough to hold in the water at very high pressures but viscous enough to allow a steel ball plummeting a full mile at 32 feet per second, per second, to round the corner at the bottom of the vacuum and smack into the miracle-happens-here goop separating the two chambers. If the steel ball travels fast enough, and the miracle goop is swift enough, the ball travels through the goop, the goop fills in behind the ball, and the seal is maintained as the ball shoots into the tube of water to float rapidly back to the surface. My thinking was that the buoyant momentum pushing the ball back to the surface would generate sppeds fast enough to shoot the ball above the surface—think submerged beach ball that pops up when released—to then round the top loop of the tubing where it would be guided to fall back into and down the vacuum side of the device. Perpetual motion. Frictionless energy. Scott earns in an ‘A’ grade in Physics 100. Just not in this lifetime.

The thing about boundary objects4 is that so much is asked of them. Conceiving of the thought experiment was the easy bit. Doing the math, understanding the materials science, working out the air and water pressure exchange at the bottom loop—the lower the depth, the stronger the pressure, “by a mile” as it were; the requisite qualities of the goop—all of it was a perpetual motion exercise in and of itself. At one point in the semester, after abandoning the goop tactic—I hadn’t the vaguest idea where to get such flubber and my physics teacher, convinced I was a loony, would not refer me to a material scientist—I switched back to the mechanical airlock design.

“I think you’re truly onto something, but I just can’t build it to the required standards.”

When I explained my concept to my genius inventor Uncle Jack, true to a lifeline form, he dropped everything to build a scale model of my water mill in his garage. After several weeks of trying to get the hollowed out mill blades holding the steel balls to also hold water—my second generation thought experiment called for the pounding pressure of a second and third ball to incrementally rotate the entire wheel with each crashing ball—Jack reported, as I suspected, that it all came down to water pressure. He could not, in his makeshift lab, reproduce the proper conditions to maintain the integrity of both the air vacuum and the segmented, air-locked, pods.

“The water always somehow manages to leak out,” Jack apologetically acknowledged. “I think you’re truly onto something, but I just can’t build it to the required standards.” I told him that according to my calculations, the water pressure at depth could not, theoretically anyway, be overcome by the weak force of gravity. That’s why perpetual motion is a myth.


Was Thayer right? Did the boundaries between behaving, thinking, and feeling have to be watertight? Was John wrong to commingle multiple behaviors and assume that two of the three were not behaviors at all? Had anyone ever tested a real life perpetual behavior machine? Or had Beck and Ellis been rigorous (like Jack) or merely notional (like me) when setting out to prove the efficacy of CBT? Which brings us back to whether the boundary arrows in John’s TFB template can only travel clockwise.

Like Einstein who “knew” dark matter to be a force to be reckoned with but needed more math to provie it, or Darwin whose notes indicate his theories might well be challenged once a stronger microscope came along, there were just too many loose approximations Jack and I had to rely on in building what I dubbed the Perpetual Moment Machine when Jack told me he got it to work for just a moment before all the water leaked out. Air and water in a vacuum tube. The calculus of approaching angle tri-section but never quite getting there. Occam’s repeatedly halving the distance between two points yet never managing to intersect them. Zenos’ arrow’s never quite in motion; like Steamboat Willie, only ever a flip book of illusion. Behavior as both thought and emotion. Truth is only the knowledge of a thing, not the thing itself. Bohm’s supposition that the fragments will never add up to the whole. Water dripping—and sometimes gushing—onto Jack’s garage floor. Was Schrödinger’s goldfish dead before it reached his stomach?

I dropped out of Physics 100 halfway through the semester.


About 10 years ago, I aggregated every term of art I could think of to describe what Jack attempted to build and in the name of concurrent innovation asked Google whether anyone had ever succeeded where we had failed. Turns out, about a decade after Jack’s water-mill experiments, a couple of Japanese engineers patented a U-tube contraption they claimed did precisely what I had imagined as a freshman in college. They must have had the math, and most certainly the lab, to bring my thought experiment to reality by solving the boundary problem—the sealed cups that carried ball and water around the bottom curve of the loop without spilling a drop, where mine and Jack’s attempt had managed only an approximation. And good for them.

Which brings us back to the terrifying question asked at the hard curtain of previous posts: Can the boundary arrows of the physical, intellectual, and emotional travel in any direction and still culminate in deliberate will?



  1. Gut: Even BMHB is an approximation since while the Body is the same as the body, the Mind is not the same as the brain, and the Heart is nothing like the heart. In speaking of emotions, the ancients spoke of the bowel, we speak of knowing “in our gut.” We are approximating the place where we “feel” things. I choose ‘Gut’ instead of heart for purposes of disambiguation. Besides, it turns out there is a second, even larger nervous system than the central nervous system comprising the brain and spinal cord. Called the enteric nervous system, it is centered in the gut. Going back to Hippocrates, it is often argued that all health emanates from the gut. Perhaps that is also true of emotional health.
  2. CBT: In the 1960s, what I call the Body-Mind-Heart-Body cycle formed the basis of what today psychologists, psychiatrists, and therapists call Cognitive (mind) Behavioral (body) Therapy (heart). CBT is a well known and effective way to interrupt the BMHB system to produce a new behavioral outcome. For example, Alice’s therapist might help her recognize the tension between her common sense thinking abut goldfish and her desire to join the group at any cost. Removed from the system of systems she plunges into when with the group, Alice can, like the surgeon in Schrödinger’s Cat Burglar, stop the system’s flow long enough to operate on the junctures, the boundary objects, in the BMHB cycle. The hope is that like the heart awoken, Alice will behave differently when she confronts the system of systems she re-enters.
  3. TFB v. BHMB: The problem of recursion in John’s TFB (Thought->Feeling->Behavior) template, and indeed the virtuous flaw in CBT, is time’s gravity. Use instead BHMB (Body->Mind->Heart->Body) because stripped of time, all three transformatives still exist intact. In my three-post series on Time’s Gravity—begin here—I suggest that by taking time out of the change equation, even though the body, mind, and heart are still on the operating table, they are, like a sedated patient, motionless. Because time and that kind of stillness cannot exist simultaneously, behavior is motionless as we view ourselves from the perspective of our Heads Up Peephole. An intended consequence of eliminating behavior is an understanding of the basic flaw in the TFB model. It is that in pretending to isolate behavior from thoughts and feelings, we are confusedly mixing apples, oranges, and grapes. This is because thoughts and feelings are not just elements of mind and heart, they are also behaviors. In other words, the TFB cycle John wrote on the board that day, including its derivatives like Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, will always wrestle with a circular reasoning conundrum. This is not to say they are wrong-headed, just the opposite. Any attempt to pull an implicate system apart to examine its contents is like the folly of Terry Pratchett’s fictional auditors who scrape all the paint from a master work onto an examination table to get a better of understanding what makes up art. There will always be circular anomalies when systems of systems are allowed to overlap. It’s why I invented the Heads Up Peephole to function outside of time. It’s why I don’t use the word behavior in my BMHB cycle. But since time cannot be taken out of the systems of systems that form and transform us, and behavior is not limited to bodily actions that do not include thoughts and feelings—Des Cartes mind-body solution notwithstanding—neither John’s Behavior-Thoughts-Feelings cycle nor my Body-Mind-Heart-Body cycle will ever tell a complete story.
  4. Star, S.,  & Griesemer, J. (1989). “Institutional Ecology, ‘Translations’ and Boundary Objects: Amateurs and Professionals in Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, 1907-39”. Social Studies of Science, 19 (3): p. 409.


PART 5. The Boys from Brazil

In which I prank, with nothing more than a discarded library book, an unsuspecting stranger, and, years later, myself.

Do you know?
Don’t you wonder?
What’s going on
Down under you?

David Crosby, Deja Vu

When Ira Levin’s best-selling 1976 novel The Boys from Brazil was made into a blockbuster thriller in 1978, I never got round to seeing it, and still have not done so in its entirety. So by 1984, some years after the book and movie had come and gone, I figured that for only a dollar, picking up its first edition in my local library’s used book box I would not be disappointed in finally knowing what all the fuss had been about. I would be far from disappointed, though not in the read. As it turned out, I never cracked the cover. My meager investment led instead to a priceless memory of a different sort, the kind I call Cosmic Relief, and the alchemists called simply Kismet for fate.

One Saturday afternoon after our visit to the Garden Grove Public Library, I took my two oldest children, then toddlers, to to pick up a few things at Albertsons grocery store situated just a few blocks from Disneyland in next-door Anaheim. After getting the kids out of the car, I noticed that a nearby vehicle had been left in the parking lot with its front passenger window down. Thinking that such a lapse could cost the car owner her stereo—or worse—I looked to see if the door might also be unlocked so I could do a good deed and somehow roll up the window. But when I looked inside the car, all thoughts of a good deed went out the window, so to speak. When I saw the object placed on the front passenger seat, my mind immediately, not believing its good fortune, conjured the making of a prank even better than preventing a crime. I whisked the kids back to our car and grabbed the key to my design, the used book I had just purchased from the library. Arriving back at the car open windowed-car, I cautiously opened the unlocked door, and carefully placed my first edition of The Boys from Brazil, pristine dust jacket intact, on the front passenger seat of the car, right next to an identical first edition of The Boys from Brazil, pristine dust jacket intact. Wouldn’t you, Dear Reader, have done the same? What choice would any of us have had? When I first looked through that car window, it was as though the Universe itself pointed its finger straight at Leon Uris’ former best-seller as if to ask, “Scott, what greater order could you possible bring to Me the price of a hot dog?” The deed done, I rolled up the window, closed the door, and walked the kids into Albertsons with a huge grin on my face.


As I write in Bone, Wit, Gut, Flash, and Outbreak, in their attempt to deconstruct all life into understandable causes and effects, the ancients turned to recognizable properties of everyday objects. The physical nature of life they attributed to the earth, an easy enough association. Anything to do with the mind they associated with air for some reason. This was before airhead meant the exact opposite of “filled with knowledge.” And to the ebb and flow of emotions, they ascribed water, to bring to mind the tears, spit, blood, and guile that often accompanied human passion. All three foundational elements—earth, air, and water—were themselves transformed, consumed, changed by the exercise of will, which they attributed to fire. The fifth and final element represented not things internal to life, but those that existed outside of it. It was a missing piece that imbued life with special attributes. Literally named the fifth essence (quinta essentia), fifth element, the root of our modern word quintessence, this object or force was said to be ethereal, ineffable, and even to some, divine.

Though by now we view human systems in far more elaborate ways, we still think symbolically about the same things the ancients did. More than just poets and lovers speak of body, mind, and heart to represent the physical, intellectual, and emotional in all human endeavors. That agency and choice can emanate from, consume, or even change some combination of those three human attributes is still a topic of legitimate debate. But quintessence? Well, it’s the unknown unknown, isn’t it?

In retrospect, I sometimes wonder about the odds of playing my cosmic prank on the owner of that other copy of Boys from Brazil. What exactly led me to purchase its first edition only minutes before encountering the same no longer popular book inside a car parked on the shortest path between mine and my destination, with its window down? Was my used book purchase the second of two, the first by the other car’s owner who then drove straight to a grocery store in a different city, rolled down the window, and unlocked the door as if taunting me to get the obvious joke?

Carl Jung would have called such synchronicity an artifact of the collective consciousness—his term for quintessence—that connects all of us through some cosmic Borg. Kurt Vonnegut’s science fiction hero Kilgore Trout, or Douglas Adams’ holistic detective Dirk Gently might have hypothesized that some future version of myself had traveled both backwards in time far enough to have purchased not only the same first edition but a second automobile that I could then park window down, book exposed, near enough and just ahead of the precise moment my former self would come walking by, just to see the smile on my face, instead of, as I had hoped, my seeing the smile on the face of the perplexed owner of two identical copies of the same, no longer popular book.

When I returned to my car, kids and groceries riding shotgun in the shopping cart, neither the two books, their new owner, nor her car were anywhere to be seen.


Years later, having moved our family from L.A. to Boston, Kari and I were vacationing at a friend’s condo at a resort near Killington, Vermont when the other cosmic show wold drop out of nowhere. (To have been a fly on the wall as the ancients debated whether In the alchemist’s table air should be assigned to the mind or to the mysterious!) Our two children had been joined by a third and they were in the mood to watch something on television. Unfamiliar with the TV stations in Vermont, I began flipping through channels to find something child-appropriate when I happened upon the phrase, “And now back to Gregory Peck and Laurence Olivier in The Boys From Brazil.” Time stood still as I stopped flipping through channels to let it all wash back over me again. The first edition. The car. The open window. And me completing the final piece of the puzzle by cloning the book lying so alluringly on the front passenger seat. Not for the first time, I found myself wondering what thoughts and emotions might have gone through the mind and heart of the new owner of both books. And, not for the last time, I smiled once more at the synchronicity of it all.

“Dad, I thought you said we could watch cartoons! This is boring!”

Except it wasn’t. It was exciting. After all these years, I could finally know what the movie (and by extrapolation the book) had been about. After all the fun I had with their published artifacts all those years ago, I had never learned or even wondered what the story they contained had been about. But at that moment, I felt on the cusp of solving what, for me, had been more than a great mystery.

“Dad! We wanna watch cartoons!”

And I had to see this through.

“Hold on a minute. I just need to look at something.”

And then a boy came on the screen. He looked identical to the one in the previous scene, only dressed differently. And living with a different family. Were they twins? Somehow separated at birth? Is that what The Boys from Brazil was about? In the next scene it happened all over again, but with a third boy. Triplets? Wo, wait just a minute! Having joined the movie the movie somewhere in the middle, it took a few scenes for what was happening to come into focus. There were several different boys, all identical, all living in Brazil, all being brought up in different families.

All clones of one another.


I turned the channel, found a cartoon, and haven’t stopped smiling since.


Epilog. Metanoia

A draft exploration of repentance and restoration

And to arts unknown he bends his wits, and alters nature.

Ovid, Metamorphoses

In the previous six assays, I introduced the five TransformativesBone, Wit, Gut, Flash, and Outbreak—though not in their standalone dress since that would have removed them from their important co-entanglement with each other. Instead, I introduced each one in its context as a mutual boundary object with the others. In doing so, I reflected on the moments I first encountered the foundational TransformativesBone, Wit, Gut, and Flash—in university courses I had no business enrolling in or in some cases, that I went on to fail. As it turns out, and not always following the same route, I ended up revisiting and, in some cases repeating those courses by the time I finished my degree. Since my ultimate desire is to explore in this blog any and all facets of changefulness, I record here, almost housekeeping-like, the denouement in the odyssey of those courses. Following their inciting incident, their enthusiasm building, and their climactic struggle, I now come to the inevitable “de-knot-ment” of the Gordian journey, wherein I consider the lessons I might have gained from my sins.

First, The Failures.

The key to righting the ship that was the college transcript that suffered the brunt of my questionable decision to enroll in Honors Rhetoric without being formally accepted into the Honors Program was not any sort of penitence for what might be considered a learning disability, as the title of this post might suggest. Metanoia, while adopted by the authors of the Greek New Testament to suggest a change of heart, was originally meant to describe the simple change of one’s mind. In my case, the metanoia I experienced in any course having to do with reading and writing I did so quite literally as a change of brain, specifically, that after 15 years of doing it badly, I finally took the time to learn properly how to read.

At age six, as soon as I began reading, my father—an artist turned architect who could always be relied on to try out the latest gadget—brought home an early speed-reading machine. A foreshadowing of the modern Spritzing technique that can train the reading eye not to linger, the spring-loaded device could flash anywhere from a single word to full sentences through its single-line, mechanical window for anywhere from a full second to 1/100th of it. And while the word cards that could be fed into the contraption could contain a full phrase in that single line, it could not string vertically together line upon line to train the eye to move down the page. That was the bit I never properly learned as a child. I was a fast reader, alright. But like Steven Wright’s speed-reading accident, I crashed into the end of each line I quickly read.

The reading course I took following my first year of college simulated the technique of that first speed-reading device but went the distance to apply it to full sentences and paragraphs. Once broken from my repeated accidents, the trick I found most useful was to place a pencil cheek-to-cheek between my teeth to bring to consciousness the fact that as I read, my tongue silently attempted to pronounce each word and triggering my brain to do the same. Focusing on each word made sense to me. Majoring in professional writing, I was reading in the same way the writer had written—one word at a time. Doug Thayer once quipped that speed-reading was like sprinting through an art gallery, adding, as only Doug could do, that some art galleries were meant to be sprinted through. Before enrolling in the course, I crawled through each book I came across, regardless of the attention span it deserved.

The reading course ran for eight weeks. To pass the exam, I read through the hundred or so pages of Orwell’s Animal Farm in something like 45 minutes, essentially tripling my speed without reducing comprehension or retention. Having dissolved a major learning obstacle, I set out to right past wrongs and attacked all the classics I was supposed to have knocked out in high school: Grapes of Wrath; Catcher In the Rye; Gatsby; Hamlet; Scarlet Letter. I drew the line at Crime and Punishment. Even metanoia had its limits!

I remember playing tennis one Saturday in college with Loren, my high school doubles partner. A scholarship recipient, he attended my same Advanced Placement English class our senior year. Where my diminished reading skill had kept me from even finishing the AP test, his facile eye-brain coordination had allowed him to score high enough that he waived taking college English, a course I flunked not just once but twice. Twice. Doug Thayer gave me a D+ in Honors Rhetoric after I stopped turning in something like the final three essays. I flunked the second time when unable to abide a D+ permanently on my transcript; I retook the class, only to drop out halfway. Not only was I unable to keep up, but too embarrassed to repeat the same course from the same instructor; I made the mistake of opting for an alternate who bored me.

That morning on the tennis court, I was so excited to review with Loren what he thought of Fitzgerald. In high school, while we were supposed to be reading The Great Gatsby, he had confided that he viewed himself as Gatsby, and his un-possess-able girlfriend since the fifth grade as Daisy. Loren and I had actually become friends over the fact that the same girl he had fallen in love with in fifth grade—her name was not Daisy, but Cindy—had been my fourth-grade crush the year before she moved into his school. But in a miscalculation of the temporal vortex that separated our two readings of the same book, Loren’s answer to my eager question was that, five years later, he couldn’t remember much about the book.

Long story short, after learning properly how to read and revisiting all those high school misses, I was determined to fix my failing grades and to do so not by sitting through Honors Rhetoric a third time. After sitting in the testing center for four hours one afternoon, and cranking out three impromptu essays about themes from some of the books I had repentantly read, I earned an A grade for the course I had twice failed. I still had to face the department chair, my next-door neighbor, who, in signing my waiver, bemoaned the travesty that had occurred for me to attend college, without having taken a course in English composition. For him as well, metanoia had its limits.

Next, The Do-Overs.

Retaking Physics was more a question of completing the bits I had failed to finish my Freshman year. A modular course with four sections and four exams, I had passed the first two before going on my perpetual motion odyssey. Having followed Philemon’s example to do more than I was told the first round, I was fortunate to survive the repeat, whose lecturer, sadly, did not.

Even though I had managed a fine grade in History 380, I enjoyed the course so much my Freshman year that I enrolled on it again. The second version was taught by James D’Arc, a film fan who had secured for the university the personal files of vintage Hollywood staples like Vincent Price, Dean Jagger, and Jimmy Stewart. Like Dr. Fox, Dr. D’Arc was his own man, and I knew I was right to retake the course when we got through the 1930s without a single mention of goldfish.

Retaking French, which ended up not figuring in the previous five posts—my intent had been to bookend key lessons from my French instructor with learning properly how to read but that will have to wait—was more automatic. After living two years abroad in France and francophone Switzerland, and in reward for enduring on my return an advanced course in French literature, the university allowed me to sit for a 16-credit exam whose score overwrote all my previous grades.

Finally, the Real Metanoia.

Having refreshed earlier grades in French, History, Physics, and Rhetoric, there was just one more course I wanted to restore. True to the bargain I had struck with John Seggar when he allowed me to enroll on Social Psychology 350 without first satisfying its pre-requisites—survey courses in both sociology and psychology—I kept up and spared John the awkwardness of having to flunk me. But if I didn’t repeat John’s course, why do I include it in my survey of college metanoia?

A decade after graduating, my fascination with social psychology was rekindled during a routine post-mortem of a successful consulting engagement. Sitting in a presentation on force field theory disguised as a lecture on how a large organization had recently transformed itself, I began, almost instinctively, to sense a chink in the presenter’s material. Given by a professional colleague—she and I worked for the think tank that coined and later trademarked the term business process reengineering—the deep dive explained how a global bank’s operations were dramatically turned around by the application of one of our models on metanoia. But as she walked us through the details, she leap-frogged a crucial element in John’s three-step, Thoughts->Feelings->Behavior transformation wheel, asserting that once an organization got the mental model right, the desired behavior would naturally follow almost like magic. Which bit did she skip? The part where, like the joke about changing a lightbulb, the bank had really wanted to change in the first place.

As I stared at that gap on her chart, I began to ask myself if the bank had the organizational equivalent of a heart. If we pricked it, did it bleed? Had “corporate emotions” played no role in my colleague’s re-engineering work? Or had the participants in such a grand transformation just gone along for the ride?

And then I saw my mistake. She had been calling the missing bit of organizational culture. “Your transformation efforts will be for naught if you ignore the climate and forces of culture.” But as I awaited the obligatory deeper dive into what how the transformation had also penetrated the bank’s culture, it never came.

Within three months of that anticlimactic disillusionment, I enrolled in a doctoral program in transformative learning. To prepare for subsequent doctoral research on how institutions resist change, I satisfied more than John’s prerequisites by taking graduate courses in sociology and psychology. Unable to complete the program at the time, I launched a three-decades-long study of how people and institutions in transition manage to take on and complete their envisioned transformations. One purpose of writing this blog is to process all of that research.

Bone, wit, gut, flash, outbreak. Declare the past. Diagnose the present. Foretell the future. Somewhere inside our human system of systems, these eight boundary objects–five Transformatives across three Temporal Dimensions–entangle together to form and transform us. While anything can happen, I suspect that the posts that follow will almost certainly touch on one or more of what must be at least a 15-cell grid. To what end? Transformation? Metanoia? Or maybe just a few changeful indirections.


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