It is only a coincidence that I have decided to talk about randomness after having mentioned John Cage in the previous post.
When I was about twelve, we used to play a deranged game in our schoolyard during the lunch break We pretended we were billiard balls, chose a direction to set out in and spent the next hour bouncing off the walls and buidings in the impossible quest to make a complete lap of the school building. If you got stuck going backwards and forwards between parallel walls, the only hope was that you could collide with another passing billiard ball and modify your trajectory. This was at least better than the other deranged game we played, which was no-rule football (soccer) in which you were allowed to commit any foul which took your fancy. I think that the reason we played deranged games was that the school was deranged. My theory is that it functioned on the mistaken theory that the British Empire still existed and that it would need young men to maintain and possibly expand it and that after a few years of violence and mindless rules any survivors would be delighted to be as far away from it as possible even if they were sent to the hottest desert, the thickest jungle or the bleakest tundra.
When I grew up, I gave up kicking people in the shins, but the bouncing-billiard-ball thing stayed with me. I kept a fascination with being a part of random events. When I was nineteen I bought an inter-rail pass and travelled round Europe for a month and one of the things which most excited me was being able to turn up at a station and get on the first train leaving without much idea of where it was going.
Later, I bought myself an Ipod, put it on random play and left it there, especially after I realised that for years I had only been listening to 10% of my music collection.
Then, when I decided that there must be better ways to start the day than waking up to bad news (and often bad reporting, especially if you watch that station that spends forty minutes every hour telling you how good it is), I began to select a poem at random every morning from my bookshelves. Some people just pick a book out without too much thinking and read the first page they open, but I believe that this means you are mainly going to choose pages in the middle of books in the middle of your shelves. Instead, I have devised my own random number generating system – which I won’t describe because it is too complicated – and I doubt you will want to devote all the time and energy I put into it.
Yesterday, I started another random activity. A random walk. The first time I did it I though I would just do left right left right, but then I realized I would take the same walk every day. Also there are some places where the choice is much more complicated than left or right. There may be three, four, five or even more choices. It made me realise that life too very seldom boils down to two choices, you can’t go very far just flipping a coin. A telephone number is so much more useful.
So the next day I set out again equipped with telephone numbers. I was going to tear a page out of the telephone directory, but I knew from experience that, if I did that, a time would come when I would desperately need a number which would be on the page I had torn out and no longer possessed. Then I considered taking the whole phone book – after all on a random walk you may end up anywhere and perhaps it would come in useful to ward off bears and wolves. In the end I realised that this was a perfect opportunity to use the leaflets they hand out to advertise chain stores, which are full of phone numbers.
What you do now is go to your front door. Usually your choice is left or right. Look at the first number and if it is odd you go left, if it is even you go right. If you come to a more complicated choice, just select your direction as if you were counting someone out. A special rule, which is useful if you live anywhere near motorways, border patrols or piers that end up in deep water is that a 0 gives you a free choice. You can either see how many years it takes you to land back home or else set yourself a time limit.
I discovered a lot of streets I had never gone down before and at least three places which I made a note of. I did go past one corner four times, but never in the same direction.
Don’t do this if you live in a one-street town and the next fork in the road is twenty miles away. Or perhaps do do it, you might end up somewhere more interesting.
You can combine this exercise with looking in random directions every now and then. Imagine the way the phone numbers are laid out on a phone and look up left for one, straight up for two, up and to the right for three, etc. I’m sure you would be surprised at all the things you have never looked at in places you thought you knew well.
I am not sure what my next stage in randomness is going to be. Here is one thing you can try (I think I may pass): set the alarm on your cell phone – give yourself 30 to 45 minutes, long enough to forget about it- and then go into town. When the alarm rings go into the nearest shop and buy something. This could spell financial ruin, but it could also change your life in ways you never expected – you might take up angling, juggling or simply cross-dressing.
Combining adjectives and nouns randomly can make you think about things differently. Just write down ten adjectives and ten nouns quickly and then look at the different ways you can combine them. Something interesting usually comes up. If you can’t be bothered to write there is a little program here which does it for you.
And how about random cooking ? Obviously, in order to really cook randomly you would need very good insurance coverage. But you could cook with random ingredients. I just extracted ten ingredients from a dictionary of food. You can see it’s a random selection because almost all of them begin with B and C – not something I would have done if I had only been pretending this was a random selection. Try (if only mentally) to devise a dish using at least seven of the ingredients. Here they are:
Olives – Capers -Basil -Bream -Cinnamon -Coleslaw -Bonito – Cauliflower -Citrus fruits -Coconut.
I have no idea how to conclude this but, since I am placing this in a category called “Uncontrolled Thought Experiments”, I don’t think I even have to bother.