A Little Chaos Never Hurt Anybody

I called this "Madonna of the Mutant Broccoli" when I posted it on Facebook, but those two bizarre vegetables are, in fact, romanesco. They're striking natural examples of fractal design, made up of patterns that repeat down to a very small level--though in romanesco the pattern doesn't extend into the micro-range. After spotting them at the farmers' market, Amy had a vegetable crush on romanesco for a couple of weeks. And then she had her fill. But they (and she) are something to behold!

I just looked up chaos theory, something I first heard about in the original Jurassic Park movie, only to find out I was completely wrong about what it is. Please don't ask me to define the real thing; I would need far better mathematical credentials than my miserable showing in freshman calculus 34 years ago to have a shot at it. As best I can determine, chaos theory is about how estimates at the data level lead to apparently random results at the other end of a calculation. And yet somehow it's also associated (at least, in my mind) with fractals, those amazing patterns found not just in vegetables and trees but also in the paintings of Jackson Pollock.

With these disclaimers in place, I'm now going to spin out my own personal theory of chaos (not to be confused with chaos theory--notice the transposition of subject and object in those clauses).

I'll begin with entropy, which, as I understand it, is the gradual decay of order throughout the cosmos. Over time, systems break down, energy fades, structures erode, life decays, until everything collapses in a dead heap. The end. Entropy is chaos fighting back against order. Our bodies build themselves up to a certain point, sometime in our 20s, then begin the long decline to decrepitude and death. In the arts, there is a flow from simplicity to complexity to collapse, then a reset into a new simplicity.

Human relationships experience the same ebb and flow, but with a striking difference: often the order is born of chaos.

When two people come together, their growing attachment to each other is founded on--hey, we're back in the math world!--approximations. We have vague, general ideas of each other's personalities; we project our hopes and aspirations on each other; we are quick to deny anything that contradicts the skewed data we're feeding into our brains. When we feel the pull of attraction, affinity, infatuation, we want things to work at a deep level, and we're willing to go to great lengths to ignore anything that contradicts those hopes.

Naturally, this lays the foundation for later upsets. If these approximations are allowed to go on without adjustment for long, we will inevitably find ourselves clashing with reality. The relationship heads off in a direction our hopeful innocence never could have calculated, ultimately collapsing under the weight of disappointment and rejection.

Or--and yes, after all this talk about entropy and decay and collapse, there is still a hopeful "or"--we use the amazing fractal brains we have evolved to continually make adjustments in our calculations and, with them, our expectations of each other. For relationships to live, breathe, and mature, they must be organic works in progress, rather than cathedrals which, however long they take to complete, always hew to the master plan. We're always revising this novel, and it will not be ready for publication until we're finished being together--or both dead. Relationships that grow in this way become every more complex, as we learn more about not just who we were, but who we are becoming, as our internal systems interact and change us both as individuals and as a couple.

In this way, the chaos in our lives can be a force for beauty. It's only recently that fractals were find in Pollock's paintings, which were for many years thought to be random splatters of paint. Random they may appear, and yet they have a pull for anyone who studies them long enough to see the intricacy of those splatters. The longer and closer one looks at them, the more amazing they become. So, too, with the masterpiece that is a successful relationship: the fractal complexity of it belies the apparent chaos of its overall structure.

A little chaos, even a regular dose of chaos, is a good thing. It keeps us alive, awake, active, on our toes. A steady diet of too much chaos, though, can be terribly destructive--as can too many large-scale chaotic events.

I've written at length about the difficult home lives of my students, of how chaos is a steady state for them when they are away from our building. The most important task for us teachers is to carve out a haven of order and structure for them, to teach and re-teach politeness and respect, to create a safe place for them to interact with their peers, to model adult behavior that is rational, disciplined, caring, strict, but never any of those qualities to an extreme. These children leave us to return to a heightened environment; our job is to turn things down, decrease the intensity, take everything down a notch.

At a deeper level, though, we're not just turning things down. We're helping these children learn how to have relationships that grow and mature, in which the introduction of chaotic elements creates complexity rather than collapse.

The music class is an ideal environment for this kind of learning. Up to now, most of my lessons have been about unison behavior: singing, playing, dancing identically with each other. The few times I've tried to create polyrhythms have collapsed into the clamor of random sound, intensified by the acoustics of the gymnasium in which I teach. Last week, working on the Orff instrumentarium (xylophones, metallophones, and glockenspiels), I began helping students realize that there can be two parts working simultaneously: an instrumental ostinato accompanying a vocal melody. With a very few classes, I took it up a notch and had multiple ostinatos playing simultaneously.

Most of my students are not ready for this level of complexity. Time and again, my students just couldn't hold onto the concepts I was demonstrating long enough to get the ball rolling. Just playing a simple rhythm in unison was all they could handle. With a very few of them, though, it worked, and I could see in their eyes the wonder of being part of something more intricate and more beautiful than anything they had previously done.

There is no better metaphor for complex human relationships than playing polyphonic music. To play or sing in an ensemble, one must be able to both perform one's own part rhythmically, tonally, consistently; and to harmonize and balance that part with contrasting parts. When it works, it's magic; when it almost works, it's a glimpse of perfection that generates powerful motivation; and when it fails--let me just say that, as a band director, I referred to that experience as "train wreck." Yet even that is an important experience for students to have, to realize that the collapse of a rehearsal into musical chaos does not mean the end of the ensemble, to see how picking up the pieces, carefully fitting them back together, working at making them better, can still pay off; and to know that the end result transcended the effort that went into making it happen.

That's how it is with relationships. They rarely achieve perfection, but when they come close, they are a taste of heaven. At times they may collapse into chaos, and the temptation to pack up our instruments and abandon the rehearsal. But if we take care with each other, if we spend the time really learning about ourselves and each other, fitting ourselves back together, the end result will blow our minds with its transcendent beauty.

In the light of this learning, the measurable knowledge in a standardized test pales by comparison. Yet music education at my school is one hour a week--for half the school year. And that's an hour more than students receive in many districts throughout this country. Perhaps the real chaos in this country lies with the politicians setting these priorities, cutting school funding while insisting on ever higher scores on standardized tests. If so, the order that will finally bring fractal beauty from this maelstrom resides in the hearts, minds, and votes of all of us.


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