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Douglas Hofstadter
Stanford Humanities Center

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Autoportrait with Constraint

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Vita in Form of a Lipogram



Autumn, MMVIII.

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I was born in midtown Manhattan right as World War Two was drawing to a, uhmm… to a conclusion.  My Dad was a physics prof at an august institution roughly an hour south by train, and until I was two or so, my Dad did “wrong-way commuting” to work and back.  Finally our family found a flat and had a short stint living in that most Ivy of Ivy towns, but around my fifth birthday, my Dad got an alluring invitation to work way out in California, and so my folks, my baby sis Laura, and I all got into our car, took off on a cross-country jaunt, and soon wound up at Stanford.  I did most of my growing-up on campus, going to junior high and high school in Palo Alto, and so it was natural that I should go to Stanford (as did most of my cohorts, in fact).

      Our folks’ third and last child, Molly, born in Palo Alto, was, sadly, not what anybody had thought.  By four or so, Molly was visibly abnormal — not saying any words at all, nor absorbing any.  It wasn’t autism; it was a profound brain malfunction, probably dating from birth or prior to birth, but what was wrong, nobody could say — no diagnosis.  Molly just didn’t pick up any words, who knows why, and our Mom and Dad had such anguish for so long on Molly’s account, as did Laura and I.  What bad luck.

      I, loving math from childhood, took as much of it as I could at Stanford (calculus, groups, topology, and such topics), but I also got into studying Italian, Latin, Spanish, Hindi, bits of Russian and Tamil, and so on — but most of all, I must say, a strong and idiomatic command of français was my goal.  Our family’s prior Swiss sabbatical, during which I was in “third form” in a British-run school (similar to ninth in a junior high) and had a fun francophonic pal (our voisin), did a lot toward bringing this about.  Although I found linguistics intriguing from afar, upon actually taking a class in it at Stanford, I found it too formalistic and artificial, but luckily, that didn’t diminish my captivation with words, sounds, grammars, and symbols, which still had a fantastic magic, pushing and pulling my young mind to its limits.  I was curious about how brains (or minds, if you will!) think, and thus I found symbolic logic’s rigid simulacrum of cognition fascinating; programming, too, was an important part of my multifarious mind-pursuits.

      Though constantly musing about all sorts of abstract topics, I wasn’t just a lump on a log — not by a long shot.  In fact, I did sports — in fact, “sports of all sorts” (as Lucky says in Waiting for Godot):  running, jumping, vaulting, tossing, bowling, swimming, skating, skiing, ping-ponging, mini-golfing (plus a bit of maxi-golfing), occasional hoop-shooting, and loads of biking.  Oh — how could I omit this? — a droll local adaptation of that cutthroat British sport of hitting colorful wood balls through hoops on lawns, and knocking your rivals as far away as you can.  Most jolly!  Of all things, though, I’d say music was my most constant companion — Chopin, Bach, Rachmaninoff, Scriabin, and on and on — plus lots of old jazz — Louis, Bix, Hoagy, Fats, Zutty…  Also, I did a bit of piano-playing, but not a lot — mostly just absorbing music off of spinning vinyl, coming to know so many works.

      As is probably obvious, I had a highly romantic soul, but sad to say, I struck out with girls; that was always a puzzling, troubling fact.  Looking back at it all now, I think that Stanford’s pitifully low girl/boy ratio was probably a big part of it.  (It’s fifty–fifty nowadays, but fat lot of good that’ll do for yours truly!)  Also, I was a bit young to go to Stanford — a nontrivial handicap.  Anyway, my major at Stanford was math and I had basically no difficulty with it, pulling down mostly A’s and also making lots of original findings.  Blazing my own idiosyncratic pathways, though of minor import and mostly just in quaint, oldish nooks of math, was wildly intoxicating.

      My Dad, at forty-six, won a fantastic physics award, as grand an award as our world knows, involving a trip for all our family to Stockholm in wintry snow, donning formal tails and chic gowns, strolling through classic palatial halls, hobnobbing with royalty (tricky protocol!), chit-chatting with many world-class minds, and savoring our VIP status.  It was all much as in a fairy story, practically magical.  And I got to bask in my Dad’s honor, not just vanish in his shadow, as many might think.  Ah, glory days!

      Although unlucky with girls, I had many pals at Stanford from many lands, not just my own — India, Britain, South Africa, Italy, and so on — and for many vacations, a handful of my pals and I would go up with Laura and my folks to our family’s ranch in Flournoy, in north California, not far from Corning, in softly rolling hills with lots of oaks.  Laura had fun riding Chico, my folks had fun rounding up and branding cows and bulls, and all of us had fun chatting, hiking, skipping rocks, playing darts and “foot carroms”, arranging and lighting kindling and logs, fixing roofs, tossing hay to always-hungry cows, and so on.  Ski trips to Mount Shasta would also start out in crack-of-dawn dark and finish up in post-sundown dark at our cozy ranch.  I miss all of that today — such nostalgia…

      But from our cows, back now to our moutons.  Post-graduation, I took a long vacation from school: four months in London plus a six-month stint in Scandinavia (half in Lund, half in Stockholm). Lots of longing for a fair young flickvän, but no such luck — and oh, such angst!  Anyway, following that Nordic saga, back in my old stomping grounds, I took up grad school in math at Stanford’s traditional cross-Bay rival, Cal.  Although I thought I would do a bang-up job, I soon saw I was wrong — in fact, math grad school was a crushing fiasco.  All that fancy-shmancy ultra-abstract stuff was just too arid and confining, affording my highly visual mind nothing at all to grab onto.  ¡Ay ay ay!  I had hit a tough crossroads.  What to do?

      At this point, I was practicing piano many hours a day (contrapuntal intricacy, Slavic poignancy, Gallic sublimity, a touch of polytonality, but nothing atonal!), and also I was composing a bit, imitating my idols, and so I naturally thought of music — composition in particular — as a pathway I might follow, but by light of day, that was just too iffy.  My only option, so I thought, was to drop out of math and jump into physics — a daring foray, as I had found physics horribly difficult, though inspiring, at Stanford.  And, in fact, studying physics in grad school (U of O in “Duckburg”, as it was known, up north) was no picnic, to put it mildly.  At first I found it thrilling, I admit, but bit by bit it got turgid and confusing, and finally I wound up finding it as ugly as sin.  My spirits sank low, low, low.  I’d blown it in math; was I now going to fail in physics, too?

      Pausing for a short bit in my mostly chronological narration, I’ll talk just a tad about what kinds of non-physics things I was doing during my days of physics turmoil.  Still tons of music, first of all — playing piano on a daily basis, plus lots of small piano compositions, of which I was proud.  Also, studying Russian (but I didn’t go far).  And lastly, political activism.

      Having grown up with a highly political Mom and Dad (hardly right-wing, mind you!), I wound up political, too, highly conscious of moral topics.  A typical outgrowth of that is this: during my grad-school days, on a trip to Italy with our folks, my sis Laura and I both put a halt to our carnivorous habits, as it was too troubling to us to play any part in killing animals, and I still hold to that philosophy today.  Also during my grad-school days, with inspiration coming from such pacifistic paragons as Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. M. L. King, I did political work to aid folk not as lucky as I was.  Awful assassinations — JFK, RFK, MLK — had crucial impacts, strongly sparking my political and social activism, including such things as fighting starvation in Biafra, organizing boycotts in support of a farm-labor union, participating in day camps for minority kids, saving wild parts of our national parks from mining, crusading against atomic arms, opposing that insanity known as “Star Wars”, plus working towards linguistic and social parity for woman and man.  I thank my family for this all-important gift of altruism.

      But back to my physics turmoil.  As it turns out, although down, I wasn’t out.  I stuck with it, hanging onto this wildly bucking Brahma bull, and at last, truly by luck, I hit a glorious jackpot, stumbling across a rich topic during a six-month stay in Bavaria with my Swiss doctoral advisor (during which I taught — schön!).  Thus at thirty, I got my Ph.D. thanks to “Gplot”, a stunning graph I’d found, involving rational and irrational Bloch/Landau functions in a crystal.  Gplot had, in fact, a fractal form (zooming in on any part of it, you’ll find a small copy of it, again and again, ad infinitum) — a first in physics!  This visually amazing diagram was so intriguing to so many physicists that, frankly, I was probably a shoo-in for a physics faculty slot at almost any top-notch school, had I sought such a job, but I didn’t.

      Ironically, by that point I had truly had it with physics and its always-growing list of disappointing, arbitrary complications, such as quarks and gluons (too many “colors” and “flavors”); “charm” (distinctly uncharming); a most grungy rabbit-out-of-a-hat trick by Higgs and company (making mass from nothing); plus that Cabibbo–Kobayashi–Maskawa quark-mixing matrix (its long, gawky CaKo-phonic tag hints at my discomfort).  In a word, I was so off-put that I quit, going out in Gplot’s small, happy flash of fractal glory.

      Luckily, though, my mind, always curious about its surroundings, rapidly found stimulation in grappling with minds, brains, souls, computation, AI, and that loopy conundrum of what an “I” is —  all still abstract stuff, no doubt, but not so much so as physics or math.  In fact, soon I was busy writing a highly idiosyncratic book which I thought of as my own way of “braiding” that odd batch of far-flung topics about mind into a natural unity.

      At thirty-two, with my book on its way but still not out, I took a job at Indiana U. in Bloomington, thanks in part to its famous music school, and also to its florid, woodsy campus, but most of all to its warmth and cordiality.  “Go for folks who go for you!”, was my Dad’s simplistic but catchy motto (I’m paraphrasing his words to adapt to this situation, naturally, but that was its gist) — and I took his tip, for though it was corny, it was sagacious, too.

      At IU, my goal was to work in AI, most of all trying to mimic faithfully, in programs, how thought actually works.  Crucial to my philosophy of computationally mimicking a mind was my constant focus on how humans think — which is to say, fluidly but also fallibly — that is, not logically, but analogically.  Also, I was scrambling madly to finish up my big book — a most unusual book, flip-flopping back and forth from fanciful contrapuntal dialogs — canonical and fugal — to fairly straightforward monographical writings, and also chock-full of mind-twisting prints by an almost unknown paradox-loving Dutch graphic artist.  Upon publication, my book was a surprisingly big hit and won a major national book award, assuring my job stability.  I was thirty-four (or so), and still high and dry.

      But I’d had a hunch that IU was promising in that most chancy of all domains, and in fact, I was right.  I was oh-so-lucky to bump fortuitously into Carol Ann Brush in an auditorium lobby during a film.  Carol was an Italian and art-history major doing grad work in librarianship.  My oh my!  Although our liaison had a bit of a bumpy start, Carol and I had a lot in common and soon hit it off in grand fashion.  Thus, at long last — at thirty-six — I had a most happy romantic affair.  What a turning point!

      Soon I got an invitation to go to Michigan — so good that I couldn’t turn it down, actually — and thus I sadly forsook Bloomington for Ann Arbor.  It was in that unflappably tooting-its-own-horn town, in fact, that Carol and I wound up marrying (Carol was thirty-four, yours truly was forty); it was in Ann Arbor, too, that Carol and I took a ballroom dancing class, and that our first child, Danny, was born.  Slowly, slowly, I was adapting to Michigan, but Indiana was hoping I still had a soft spot for it, and in fact I did.  Upon our old school’s making an outstanding job proposal, Carol and I found it most fitting to go back to IU.  This was a big joy for us — no if’s, and’s, or but’s.

      My job back in Bloomington was, shall I say, “cushy”, to put it slightly slangily.  That is to say, I had no particular disciplinary affiliation (a fantastic luxury!), and thus could work on all sorts of things, ranging from AI to ambigrams (an odd kind of ambiguous calligraphy), from translation to triangular math (both passions), and also Mandarin (I was gung-ho (ho ho!)).  And to top it all off, Monica, our baby girl, was born in Bloomington.  Rich days!  Carol and I ran a lot in Bryan Park, saw many films, on occasion had lunch chatting it up in Italian, and, whilst comparing two translations from Russian, got caught up in Pushkin’s magically lilting, rhythmic, rhyming writings.  All was going smoothly for our family of four.

      But alas, on our first sabbatical away from IU, in an idyllic mountain-clad town in Italy’s far north, as Christmas was drawing nigh, Carol was struck without any warning by a malignant brain tumor, and in but a day or two was in a profound coma.  Our kids and I lost Carol that awful month.  In a flash, Danny (still shy of six) and Monica (just two-and-a-half) and I had to adjust to living without a woman in our midst, without a Mom.  It was tragic for Carol, and cataclysmic for our small family, now just a trio.  But this ill wind notwithstanding, I didn’t abort our sabbatical, as Carol had had such high aspirations for what it could bring us all.  Many kind Italian folks, knowing our plight, warmly took our family in, adopting Danny and Monica with amazing compassion, most of all at Cognola’s asilo (that is, school for tots).  This was our salvation.

      Post-sabbatical, back in Bloomington, my kids and I didn’t curtail our habit of talking Italian, thanks in part to a long string of wondrous and caring Italian au-pair girls — six in all!  That was a fantastic boon for us in all ways, not just linguistic.  And today, in fact, Italian is still our family’s standard way of communicating, still part of our daily fabric — and thus a posthumous fashion of honoring Carol.  Danny and Monica did primary school primarily in Bloomington but also a bit in California, and at that point (just short of 2002) our family took off for a sabbatical in Bologna, Italy (a non-touristy town that Carol was so fond of), during which both kids got to swim nonstop in Italian.  What lucky dogs, growing up bilingual!

      Today Danny is as tall as I am, has a sporty Audi TT (wow!), and is majoring in biology and Italian at IU.  His fascination is big cats — lions, jaguars, cougars, and such — scary, but who am I to worry about it?  Monica, too, has grown as tall as I (Carol wasn’t tall, nor am I a giant, so this is a curious twist!), and is finishing up high school and planning on working in fashion, concocting wild, flashy, and dashing things to don.  Also, Danny snowboards with gusto and Monica skis with flair.  I’m a bit gray, sad to say, but I won’t complain — still got my hair!  Anyway, I’m in fairly good form, and I still run and do sporadic skiing and biking (plus almost-daily chinups and/or pushups).  Lastly, our gold and shaggy dog Olly (sorry for using a “y”, but I had to!), now six (or forty-two in dog units), is a darling.  If only Carol could know all this!

      As for my own focus nowadays, it is, as always, broad and a bit wild and woolly, including translating (I did an anglicization of Pushkin’s most famous book, a lugubrious story told wholly in sparkling rhyming stanzas), studying human cognition through various colorful windows (such as analogy-making, linguistic slips, and bon mots), musing philosophically (what is this “I”-thing, anyway?), stubbornly going back and banging my skull against math and physics (think of a moth drawn to a flaming torch), dipping and diving into many forms of art (such as ambigrams, gridfonts, and jazz-scribbling — of which a crowning point, anno domini MIIIM, was my solo show at IU’s Art School, lasting for two months), critiquing today’s ubiquitous cool mantra “you guys” and its unconsciously macho halo (which I abhor — but that’s a long story, not for now), writing down my sundry thoughts, and particularly savoring doing so with unusual constraints on form — tough hoops to jump through, as I am wont to say — such as crafting lipograms that flow naturally (if you catch my drift, although not too many folks do), and God knows what-all.  It’s kind of a crazy quilt, I must admit.  But that’s how I am.

      I’d say that that about sums it up.  And so now, as I draw to a mildly humorous conclusion, I shall at last bid my tight linguistic constraint — and also you, my forgiving companions — a warm and at last unbound good-bye!

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©2006-2008 D.R.H.


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