Big Rando Day

As a once-and-future free-range human, I’ve been thinking about how to shake off the commercial algorithms that have hacked into my life and are now driving it. The key, I’ve concluded, is novelty.

Whether it’s true, as the ethnobotanist and psychonaut Terence McKenna claimed, that “the pursuit of novelty is the only way to live a truly progressive life,” it’s a mighty tempting strategy to air out. “From a species perspective, the job of each individual is to be unlike anyone who’s living or has ever lived,” McKenna wrote. “To do things, and react to things, in a way no one has quite done before.”

This is of course pretty much an act of cultural treason. There’s a reason Atomic Habits was a #1 global bestseller and nobody has written Atomic Novelty. Habits are safe. Flout them and the people in charge start furrowing their brows, because now you’re likely to start breaking the rules, too. Even the rules of the universe? Many smart people claim we don’t actually have free will, even though it feels like we do. I thought it might be fun to engineer a day that tests that discouraging premise — a day where you chase free will around, trying to outfox it. The experiment wouldn’t really prove anything one way or the other. But it might some … unexpected returns.

Humans have around 60,000 thoughts every day. The bad news is that 95 per cent of them are the same thoughts we had yesterday. That’s good to know, because now you can hatch a plan. You can step down, a little, from the brute repetition, by pledging to deliberately zig when your first thought is to zag. To try to wrong-foot the universe by calling audibles at every turn. To disrupt patterns as they form. To catch yourself about to do something and instead do the opposite, like Truman Burbank exposing the charade he has discovered his life to be, maybe catching a glimpse of the stage hand who’s hanging the moon in the sky. You are basically REWILDING YOUR ATTENTION by tuning into what one aleatory argonaut called “the true essence of things.”

Now, there are people who take a formal approach to this venture. They call themselves “randonauts.” One, a former Google software engineer named Max Hawkins, pushes the conceit to an extreme. Building, a half-century later, on the minor 1970s-era craze of “dicing” (inspired by this novel, and by the “I Ching, the ancient Chinese divination text, a few thousand years earlier), Hawkins started off by using a random-number generator to choose his evening social events. Then he began turning all of his decision-making over to a randomness app he built (including the tattoo he got, and where he got it).There are a lot of benefits to living like this, among them plausible deniability if it turns out badly, well … blame the dice!

Many years ago, when I wrote for the alternative press, my wingman and I gave ourselves a challenge in the same spirit. There was a map of the city on the wall. We had to throw a dart and write a publishable story about the exact spot the dart landed. (Regretfully, we never really properly followed through on this conceit.) For today, for this Big Day, I decided the way to go is to raw-dog it. Just set out early and trust my instincts. No apps, no dice, no darts, no random-number-generator spitting out homing co-ordinates. Only the second brain in my gut, that billion-nerve knot.

“Flaneur mode,” if you will.

Remember those folks? The flaneurs were free spirits who strode the streets of Paris in the Sixties, giving themselves over to what the Situationists (an experimental performance-art movement) called “the derive.” Derive means “drift,” and that’s what you do: you simply bob about, guided by your own unconscious. You carry on, “letting the day breathe,” as the vagabonding travel writer Rolf Potts puts it, “until something interesting happens.” And because your mind is parked in the receptive and open position, it inevitably does. Random exploration seems, somehow, to seed the clouds with possibility.

In flaneur mode, as philosopher Walter Benjamin (a big-time fan of the derive) observed, you are “storing time in a battery.” Really, it’s a prescription to recharge your very soul; you are asniff for what resonates deep within you. I once had a colleague who claimed the only way to break the consumerist trance is to do things that make no sense. Jeff was channelling the Zen poet Basho, who said: ‘When you don’t know what to do … the answer is: Go climb Mt. Fuji.” Flaneuring your way through a day forces you into being surprised by what you encounter. It’s like what Proust said is the essence of travel: it isn’t really about getting from one place to another. It’s about trying to see the world with new eyes.

*

Confession time: I conceived the One Big Day project as a kind of efficiency hack, a way to get done something that was dragging on interminably by compressing it into a single high-octane day. It was about prioritizing, making strategic choices and being deliberate about them, all in service of fabricating an “optimized” life. Eight years in, I have serious reservations about whether the world needs more efficiency hacks. In any event, today is about the exact opposite of that. To my mind the true gift, the real jam, is in the opportunity to embrace, and relish, what we did not choose. People plan their lives to the hilt, but “uncertainty is actually much more pleasurable,” David Krakauer, the chief scientist of the Santa Fe Institute, told science writer Christie Aschwanden not long ago. Uncertainty is the great moment-to-moment thrill of science, art, all human endeavour.

And so. A day of CONCENTRATED UNCERTAINTY awaits.

Ready?

Let’s cabbage.

*

It’s not yet 9 am but traffic is already thickening near English Bay as we cut our way through the city. The girls are out of town, so it’s just Penny and me. Penny’s our golden retriever. Luckily, she had no other plans.

The trick, I have decided, is to get into a kind of Zen frame of mind from the get-go. “Set out early and never arrive,” as the writer Marty Rubin defined the ideal journey. Ideally, one has already, as Yoko Ono advised, drawn up “a map to get lost.”

We had no map, just a vague idea of heading south and following our noses.

City traffic, which can feel like a long unbroken river of steel when you’re in it, is actually just a bunch of congo lines moving from stoplight to stoplight. You can see that from the air; even at rush hour the roads are mostly uncongested, except for the places where they hellaciously are. The bicyclists didn’t worry about any of this. They breeze down Beach Avenue, around the vast wide European-style dedicated lanes the city installed during the pandemic and just left there. Something has happened to my city while I was holed up on the North Shore, waiting for the pasta to boil. It underwent a retrofit. It became a human-powered city. Maybe Copenhagen. For once it’s not the driver who feels the privilege and the human-powered folk who are put upon, but the other way around.

I spot a piece of public art on the waterfront that looks worth investigating, and start ratholing through the West End alleys, looking for parking.

There’s a cool story about the Naskapi First Nations of the far North of Eastern Canada. The Naskapi are a hunting and foraging people. Their main source of food is the caribou. When deciding where to hunt, the Naskapi use a divination ritual: they heat a caribou bone — typically a shoulder blade — over hot coals, until cracks and spots start to appear on it. “The resulting pattern is used as a map.” (This from the anthropologist Joseph Henrich in his book The Secret of our Success.)

Sounds like pure madness. A Naskapi elder had to explain to a skeptical researcher what was going on. Something you may not understand about hunting caribou, the elder said, is that if you visit one location too often, the caribou know to stay away. The best hunting strategy therefore requires complete randomization. That’s something very hard for people to voluntarily gin up. It’s hard to do something for no reason. We can’t resist imposing our ingenuity – a fatal move if you’re hunting caribou. To take hubris out of play, the Naskapi fall back on this seemingly loopy, wobbly, mindless tradition of pure chance. And that’s what saves them.

I wonder if the same logic could apply to hunting for a parking spot in downtown Vancouver. It ought not to work… but it does!

The dog and I hop out. We’ve overshot the art by quite a bit. We cross Beach Avenue and just kind of stand there. Scouting.

Penny looks at me like, What’s the plan?

We haven’t got a plan, I tell her with my eyes. That’s the point.

Everyone engages with Penny first. Because she is a babe. I am an afterthought. In the gap, I take a little intentional nonjudgmental pause, to “take the knee-jerk out of the knee-jerk,” as the neuroscientist Beau Lotto puts it. Those first thoughts and beliefs that naturally arise — psychologist Ellen Langer calls them “pre-cognitive commitments”—you just … wait out, until you are standing there with more or less a beginner’s mind, ready to think something different. This is what appealed to a lot of the early flaneurs: the derive was thought to be a creativity machine, a tool to jar loose wacky new ideas.

Some folks are taking a group picture in front of the giant stone Inukshuk. “Would you like to be in the picture?” I say to the picture taker. It occurs to me, while framing it up, that a very Canadian thing to have happen right now would be for something to now tap me on the shoulder and say, “Would you like to be in the picture?” and before I could explain I was a actually just a passing-by stranger, the group would smilingly go, ‘Come on, come in,’ and I’d fold into the mix, and the picture taker would ready the shot, and then someone would tap that guy on the shoulder, and so on, and so on. That’d be so Canadian.

This does not happen, though.

Penny and I futz around a bit on the beach.

We are following nobody’s footsteps. But we are on a well-trod path more generally. The ancient Greeks were all about these kinds of no-goal, Socratic walks. It didn’t matter where you were going; it only mattered where the conversation was going. More recently, Baudelaire pinballed through Paris, and Henry James through Rome, guided by accident. So, there is precedent for these shenanigans. Is there a future in it? Recently, the engineer and writer James Bridle tried to build a private self-driving car that gets as lost as he does. He trained the car to lose track of its initial co-ordinates, “to collaborate in the production of new unforseen outcomes.” Not a smart car, then, but a crazy-like-a-fox car. To Bridle’s mind, getting lost is always the more interesting option.

What actually drives … one’s behavior when there is no road map for the day? The pull of intuition? Or is it more of a deliberate suppression of first-order thoughts and acts? The neuroscientist Andrew Huberman says he tries, 20 or 30 times a day, to hit the brakes on what he was about to reflexively do – even if that thing was just answering the phone. He calls it training up the brain’s “no go” circuitry. This “active imposition of discipline” imposes a sense of control over your life. It feels good. It relieves stress. But in a way I think my experiment is the opposite of that. It’s about giving up control, releasing yourself into the flow. Which also feels good, in a different way. “I think intention and willpower are highly overrated,” June Huh, math professor at Princeton and winner of the Fields medal, told an interviewer recently. “You rarely achieve anything with those things.” Huh finds that forcing himself to do something or defining a specific goal — even for something he enjoys — “never works.”

It does seem true that each little defeat of the well-grooved neural algorithms, seems to stir up something … not so much discrete new thoughts but a new feeling, a new vibe. Maybe even a new plane of existence? In the film Everything, Everywhere, All at Once, people can only “verse jump” – skip to a different groove in the multiverse – by doing something statistically improbable, forcing themselves off the prescribed path.

Back in the car, still in this multiverse as far as I can tell, we head across the Cambie Bridge, through Cedar Cottage (cuz we like the name) and eventually fetch up in Mt. Pleasant cemetery, for no reason than I just remembered that some Titanic survivors are buried here.

I let Penny off leash so she can roll in the freshly mown grass. She soon picks up a scent, and I … just let her go. Now she is taking me for a walk. This is a dodge the French journalist Joel Henry, co-editor of The Lonely Planet Guide to Experimental Travel, called Dog’s Leg Travel: “Let yourself be led by what interests the dog.” Apparently what Penny and I are both doing now is of interest to the officer in the dog-bylaw van, who had been waiting all morning to make a collar. He strides over. Takes us in for a few seconds. Then hands me a ticket.

As he drives away, a neighbor who had been watching the whole thing go down from her porch comes over, furious about this petty-fascist application of the letter of the law. I show her the ticket. Turns out it isn’t a ticket. It’s a list of Vancouver’s off-leash parks. The cop who could have ticketed me instead has told me where to go — in the nicest possible way. The fury drains out of this woman’s face. It’s as if her whole city has been redeemed.

In the terrific Ben Lerner short story “The Ferry,” a man has dropped his son off at school and is taking the subway home. And in this mundane moment the world, or his experience of it, kind of becomes enchanted. It is as if he is in a story. Everything he encounters was carefully chosen. The ticket machine in the Metro that asks him, “Do you want more value or more time?” The cracked mirror that someone has put out on the sidewalk, offered for free (“Still works!”). The whole world has become Chekhovian. The universe has been speaking in a code; it’s still not solved but suddenly feels solvable.

We head further west. The Mazda wants to turn on Brunswick, so we do.

Something’s going on up ahead. The smell of Mexican gorditas wafting from a food truck draws us in to a crowded park.

A philosopher named Byung-Chul Han has a theory about smell: it has a kind of superpower. It slows time. Smell, he observes, is the only sense you can’t fast-forward through. Video, audio you can capture and double-x; even touch you can hustle along in your imagination. But smell’s right here now or it’s nowhere. It’s got you. From this, for Byung-Chul, a kind of life philosophy emerges, a kind of hymn to slow: “it’s the experience of duration that counts in life, not the number of experiences.” Staccato vanishes like firecrackers; adagio sticks.

The Mount Pleasant Sunday Farmer’s Market is in full rhubarb and Penny and I make the rounds. An earnest young environmental activist asks if I’d consider signing a petition, and we’re soon in a spirited discussion about fracking (is it all the devil’s work, or is fracking for, say, geothermal energy ok?) and I end up with the organization’s card in my pocket, like a promissary note.

Nearby, a guy sitting in front of a sculpture known as “Dude Chilling” notices mid-vape that I’m about to take a photo, and obligingly moves out of the frame. (Though this is the opposite of what I was hoping for; I actually don’t want to change this moment in the park by my presence, I want to fold into it.) I remember once being given a neat piece of advice: over the next 24 hours, every time something happens within you or out in the world that could upset you, shift into expecting it to be exactly as it is. Tell yourself it is exactly as it is supposed to be.” Maybe this is what Rumi was getting at. He once proposed an experiment: for a whole day, “live as if life is rigged in your favor.”

Today is starting to feel like that.

It occurs to me that if one were to do this for long enough, this Pottsian vagabonding, this Proustian psychogeography, this strolling through life as a “passionate spectator, setting up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the fugitive and the infinite” (as Edgar Allen Poe put it), one might well, eventually, and without benefit of psychoactive drugs, pass through a door of perception into a genuinely bizarre set of circumstances.

Poe’s short story “The Man of the Crowd” begins with the narrator parked in a cafe watching folks pass by through the rain-streaked window. Each stranger is lost in thought, alone in their bubble, fighting their own private battles, but one “decripit old man” seems to carry an extra level of inscrutability. The narrator gets up and follows this man. For the rest of the evening the narrator shadows him through the streets of London. There’s no rhyme or reason to his quarry’s route or behavior; he walks into shops and leaves without ever buying anything. He seems to float, to drift. There’s a sinister air of cover-up to him. What’s he hiding? Is that a dagger under his cloak? The next day the narrator, tired and exasperated, goes looking for this man again. He finds him. And this time he stands directly in the man’s path, so as to knock him out of his mysterious groove. The man almost collides with him; he appears not to even see him. We are left to conclude that the narrator and the stranger are, somehow, the same person.

On this Big Day, the thing being shadowed is, explicitly, novelty itself. But “new” isn’t just synonymous with “recent.” Least of all that. True newness is seeing the newness in something that was there all along. And it may be you.

*

We thread our way home along the hem of the ocean, across the Burrard Bridge, dipsy-doodling along the inlet toward Stanley Park as the light turns sweet. Attention rewilded, uncertainty concentrated. Until finally we are are pulling into our own carport, no less beautiful for being familiar.

This whole day has consisted of what the measuring world would consider dead time – zero billable hours, nothing to put in the books. And yet it is the most alive time of all.

There’s another Rumi quote I like:

Live as if every single person you encounter has been sent as a guide.

Each conversation today was way more interesting because that quote was parked the back of my mind: the anti-fracking guy, the woman in the cemetery, the fellow with the canoe on his car on the outskirts of Pacific Spirit Park, where Penny and I ambled under the towering hemlocks and firs, choosing our route by the names of the paths. None of these strangers came on like Obi-Wan Kenobi (though Canoe Guy did speak eloquently of the value, at a time like this, of pursuing tranquility). But pretty much all of them left a little mark on the cave wall.

It’s that old saying: “Even when you dial the wrong number there’s someone at the other end.” You could even say, there are no wrong numbers.

All these things happened because I had nowhere else to be. When there’s nothing else you need to be doing today, that changes everything. You’re meant to be doing this, whatever it is that you’ve made the day about.

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