“If your life is like my life, there are within it brief stretches, usually a week to ten days long, when your mind achieves a polished and freestanding coherence.
The chanting tapeloops of poetry anthologies, the crumbly pieces of philosophy, the unsmelted barbarisms, the litter torn from huge collisions of abandoned theories – all this nomadic suborbital junk suddenly, like a milling street crowd in a movie-musical, re?forms itself into a proud, pinstriped, top-hatted commonwealth. Your opinions become neat and unruffleable. Every new toy design, every abuse of privilege or gesture of philanthropy, every witnessed squabble at the supermarket checkout counter, is smoothly remade into evidence for five or six sociological truths. Puffed up enough to he charitable, you stop urging your point with twisting jabs of your fork; you happily concede winnable arguments to avoid injuring the feelings of your friends; your stock of proverbs from Samuel Johnson seems elegant and apt in every context; you are firm, you think fast, you offer delicately phrased advice.
Then one Thursday, out on a minor errand, you inexplicably come to a new conclusion (“Keynesian economics is spent”), and it – like the fetching plastic egg that cruel experimenters have discovered will cause a mother bird to thrust her own warm, speckled ones from the nest – upsets your equilibrium. The community of convictions flies apart, you sense unguessed contradictions, there are disavowals, frictions, second thoughts, pleas for further study; you stare in renewed perplexity out the laundromat’s plate-glass window, while your pulped library card dries in a tumbling shirt pocket behind you.
Such alert intermissions happen only infrequently: most of the time we are in some inconclusive phase of changing our minds about many, if not all, things. We have no choice. Our opinions, gently nudged by circumstance, revise themselves under cover of inattention. We tell them, in a steady voice, No, I’m not interested in a change at present. But there is no stopping opinions. They don’t care about whether we want to hold them or not; they do what they have to do.
And graver still, we are sometimes only minimally aware of just which new beliefs we have adopted. If one of the wire services were able to supply each subscriber with a Personal Opinion Printout, delivered with the paper every morning, it would be a real help: then we could monitor our feelings about Pre-Raphaelite furniture, or the influences of urbanization on politeness, or the wearing of sunglasses indoors, or the effect of tort language on traditions of trust, as we adjusted our thoughts about them week by week, the way we keep an eye on lightly traded over-the-counter stocks. Instead, we stride into a discussion with our squads of unexamined opinions innocently at our heels
and, discovering that, yes, we do feel strongly about water-table rights, or unmanned space exploration, or the harvesting of undersea sponges, say, we grab the relevant opinion and, without dress rehearsals, fling it out into audibility (“Fly, you mother”), only to discover, seconds later, its radical inadequacy. the effect of which has been to leave me with a disinclination to apply heavy machinery to interior design.
Let me now share with you something about which I changed my mind. Once I was riding the bus between New York City and Rochester. At the Bingharaton stop, the driver noticed a shoe sitting on the ledge below the front windshield The sight of it bothered him. He held it up to us and said, “Is this anybody’s?” There was no response, so he left the bus for a moment and threw the shoe in a nearby trash can. We drove on toward Rochester. Idle, I became caught up in a little plan to furnish my future apartment: I would buy yellow for~ and orange backhoes, rows of -them, upholstered so that my guests might sit if they wished in the scoops or on the slings slung between the forks. I had begun to calculate how many forklifts a typical floor would sustain when a man with disorderly hair walked to the front of the bus wearing two socks and one shoe. “Did you by any chance see a shoe?” he asked the driver. The driver said: “I asked about that shoe in Binghamton. It’s gone now.” The man apologized for having been asleep and returned to his seat.
Since that bus trip, five years ago, I find that, without my knowledge, I have changed my mind. I no longer want to live in an apartment furnished with forklifts and backhoes. Somewhere I jettisoned that interest as irrevocably as the bus driver tossed out the strange sad man’s right shoe. Yet I did not experience during the intervening time a single uncertainty or pensive moment in regard to a backhoe. Five years of walking around cities, flipping through seed catalogs, and saying “Oho!” to statements I disagreed with
Multiply this example by a thousand, a hundred thousand, unannounced reversals: a mad flux is splashing around the pilings of our personalities. For a while I tried to make home movies of my opinions in their native element, undisturbed, as they grazed and romped in fields of inquiry, gradually altering in emphasis and coloration, mating, burrowing, and dying, like prairie dogs, but the presence of my camera made their behavior stilted and self-conscious – which brings us to what I can’t help thinking is a relevant point about the passage of time.
Changes of mind should be distinguished from decisions, for decisions seem to reside pertly in the present, while changes of mind imply habits of thought, a slow settling-out of truth, a partially felt, dense past. I may decide, for instance, that when I take off my pants I should not leave them draped over the loudspeakers, as I normally do, but contrive to suspend them on some sort of hook or hanger. I may decide to ask that person sitting across from me at the table to refrain from ripping out the spongy inside of her dinner roll and working it into small balls between her palms.