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Quips, queries, and querulous quibbles from the quirky mind of Don Kahle

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December 27th, 2005 by dk

The main character of a one-act play I saw at Yale visits me every day. He’s a shut-in for reasons that are never discussed, and he insists that two books are all he needs: a dictionary and a Bible. “It’s all in there” is about all he ever says. The dictionary gives him every fact and the Bible tells him what it all means. Or is it the other way around? He gets confused himself, but he rests on the comfort that “it’s all in there; it’s everything you need.”

As a life strategy, it fails him. The play ends with him leaving his basement apartment, curious about his own past and his own place: “You gotta know where you came from; you gotta know whose you are.” But even his resolve to step outside affirms the connection between fact and meaning.

Alexander Cockburn came to Eugene in 2002 for a City Club gala. When asked about the state of journalism, he demurred, playfully biting the hand that feeds him: “Facts are expensive. Opinions are cheap.” His point was that many news stories amount to dueling quotes of alternating opinions, usually attached to people with titles (cultural badges of authority) — that “there’s no there there.”

Newspapers rely on a wall between news and opinion, between facts and meaning, but also on a balance between them. If there’s not enough of one, it’ll seep under the wall to the other side.

About the time that Cockburn visited, something strange began happening to me. I found that I had opinions about things I never had paid attention to. Good, responsible, coherent opinions — they often arranged the facts that were being discussed by whatever group I was with. I had always been fascinated by strong opinions, by theories, by any rubric to organize facts into a meaningful whole. But sometime around the millennium or my 40th birthday or whatever marked the moment, I stopped collecting opinions and started manufacturing them.

We all do this, of course. We are meaning making machines. But most people forge their opinions with the heat and pressure of affection or conviction. Good for them. I have these, but also something else. I have opinions that don’t exactly include me — just playful concoctions made from the raw material of facts, hooking things together in new and curious ways. It’s as if I overhear facts talking to one another.

I can opine on almost any subject. Give me just a few points on the data map, a few stars in the sky — I can give you a constellation, a picture that holds them together. People like this. They need it. It’s useful.

There’s an old sexist story about two gents. One says, “My wife is amazing. Give her any topic and she can talk for half an hour.” The other fellow, nonplussed, replied: “That’s nothing. My wife doesn’t need a topic.”

Maybe that’s something for me to aspire to.

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