Taking Chance.

(Though the following is not directly related to music, I think it has some relevance in it’s relation to my life, I hope you find it at least mildly amusing.)

Montague: You studied Zen Buddhism in the 1940s and ’50s, which had a great influence on you. How much does the I Ching govern your life? Do you throw the I Ching each morning?

Cage: My life, as you can imagine from what I said earlier, is not governed. And certainly not by the I Ching. I attempt to move according to circumstances. I now have 200 plants, and when I’m home, they have first priority. I spend the first two hours of each day without the I Ching taking care of them. I use the I Ching when it is useful, just as I turn on the water faucet when I want a drink. I find the I Ching useful to answer questions, and when I have questions, I use it. Then the answers, instead of coming from my likes and dislikes, come from chance operations, and that has the effect of opening me to possibilities that I hadn’t considered. Chance-determined answers will open my mind to the world around.

The above is an excerpt of an interview with John Cage by Stephen Montague. I found this recently while searching for information on the I Ching, and this portion in particular struck a chord with me. I have thought a lot about this tendency we have to run our brains needlessly in the attempt to make the simplest decisions… which restaurant to go to, what movie to watch, whether to stay or go to an event. None of these are “crucial” decisions. Sure, if I choose to go to an event, It may change the course of my life, but so can staying home. In the end I don’t really know, so my decision is arbitrary. Neither here, nor there. So why not subject it to chance?

All of us have weird little preferences that don’t have a whole lot of rationale behind them. We stay within our little area of experience and shun certain other areas for no apparent reason. For instance, I myself have weird preferences with movies. There are certain genres that I never want to see. War movies for instance. I hate violence, especially when it is done in a close-to-life manner, so due to this, I avoid movies such as war movies because I’m afraid they will be violent. Now, is violence all a war movie has to offer? Of course not. There are some very brilliant and meaningful war movies that could have the potential to expand my mind… but with my preferences unchecked, I’ll never see them.

I was talking to a close friend about this not long ago and he made the brilliant observation that in a lot of these decisions, the criteria amounts to “no data”. If I have decided to see a movie at a respectable movie watching establishment, where almost anything will be of some “literary” value at least, and yet I am not familiar with any of the movies, how then do I base my decision? In most cases I look at a website that has a small photo and a crappy review. So my decision is based on the recommendation of a person whom I do not know, (and who probably has countless prejudices of their own) and a small photo. How could this be an accurate description of my possible experience with this film? There is NO DATA! So why not subject it to chance?

I decided it was time to answer this question for myself. So with the support of a patient (but also intrigued) wife, I embarked upon what I am jokingly referring to as “chance month”. Starting this past wednesday, all of our evening entertainment options (within certain limitations) will be decided by chance. We have a real problem of plopping down in front of the tv every available night and this seems like the perfect opportunity to subvert that. Now of course as John Cage states above, it has to be within reason. For instance, I’m not going to turn down dinner with a good friend because the dice told me to watch a movie instead. I feel like that would be an infringement on one of the richer aspects of my life. But for those countless nights when my wife and I are determining the evenings plans, post work and tired and are probably going to end up veging in front of the TV, chance will be the deciding factor.

Here’s how it has worked thus far. While making dinner (I’d subject that to chance if we had the cash to go out more often) I stop for a moment and roll a dice 3 times. One for movie/tv, one for reading, one for projects… high number wins. From there on out other decisions can be made by chance as well, but are not required in our simplified model. For instance, lets say the dice says to read a book. Well, I always have the one I am currently reading, but I have many other books (art books, photo books, encyclopedias, atlases…) I could look at as well, so I may choose to flip a coin to decide if I am to read my current book or explore some of the others. The same could work for many other scenarios as well. This area isn’t strictly chance based, but chance being in the air, if a decision comes up chance is most likely how it will be solved.
Now I realize that this is a fairly narrow grouping of options. One could argue that I could add a few more things to the initial chance list. Of course! But one has to start somewhere. I am sure we will modify this as time goes on, but even if it remains this simple, I am still optimistic about it’s potential to move me into activities I may not choose otherwise. Thus far it has been a few days and I am loving it. It has helped me to be both open minded and motivated. Who knows this may last more than one month…

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