the rule of three

February 23, 2012

Post image for the rule of three

I’m reading Adam Gopnik again. This time it’s his new book, The Table Comes First: Family, France, and the Meaning of Food. Gopnik on food and family! I’m reading it slowly, savoring it like it’s a little goat cheese crottin. Some of it is the deep-thinking Gopnik-ish stuff that has me skimming, feeling too dumb to follow–the history of the restaurant, for example, gets awfully philosophical–but much of it is simply delicious. May I share a few lines, about Gopnik looking into a beehive with a keeper?

“The beehive sits at the center of the roof. Dave opened it, cautiously, and we looked in together. It was like looking down into a New York office building from above: several thousand bad-tempered coworkers racing around and muttering.”

Yes. Exactly. I will never open a hive again without seeing secretaries.

Some of my favorite sections are the “emails” that Gopnik addresses to Elizabeth Pennell, a nineteenth-century British food writer. These sections are casual and chatty and full of Gopnik’s adventures in making the likes of butterscotch pudding and a henhouse-worth of roast chickens, including “the lemon-up-the-bum chicken beloved of British cooks.” It’s like sitting at Gopnik’s table with a glass of Rhône, and watching him simmer and yammer.

But I’m getting distracted. What I really want to focus on is an idea Gopnik writes about in one of his Pennell missives: “the rule of three.” First he uses it to summarize cooking:

“But mostly, the good things to eat take three steps. Three steps to pan sauté: the sauté, the reduction, and the finish. Three steps to make a cake: the liquids, the butters, and the dries. Three steps to stew…”

Then he starts applying his rule of three to art, and this is where it gets interesting.

“I suspect that this is so because the rule of three really expresses the three stages that are always at the base of any good thing we make, from soup to David Salle: there is first the raw thing, then there is the transformative act, and then there is the personal embroidery. The rule of three applies, because it captures an enduring truth of life, that, at best, people always have three terms to play with: what I take from nature, what I’ve learned from my tribe, what I do myself: nature, culture, me. Something borrowed, something done, something only I can do.”

Reading this, as I pedaled away on my stationary bike, had me instantly thinking of another favorite writer, Michael Chabon. The truly devoted Wonder Farm reader may remember me writing this, way back in my year of excellent essayists:

There’s something about the way Chabon combines his Pulitzer Prize-winning style with the most base cultural references that captivates me. In his essay on Legos—one that had particular resonance for me as the mother of two Lego-loving sons—Chabon writes, “Time after time, playing Legos with my kids, I would fall under the spell of the old familiar crunching. It’s the sound of creativity itself, of the inventive mind at work, making something new out of what you have been given by your culture, what you know you will need to do the job, and what you happen to stumble upon along the way.” That making something new of what you have been given by your culture is a big part of Chabon’s genius. It’s precisely what he does in these essays, again and again. (It’s the same sort of creative, culture-twisting that I love to see my kids fiddle with, that I’ve written about in my Waldorf Guilt posts.) Chabon gives hope to a woman of his age who aspires to write, but worries about the conceit of such an intellectual aspiration given the amount of time she spent watching Brady Bunch reruns as a child.

Rule of three! Chabon starts with not nature, per se, but the canon of literature. Then he adds what his culture has given him, which might be Legos, or might be (as I noted in that post) Squeeze Parkay margarine, Wacky Packages, or the Planet of the Apes television show from the 70s. Then he loops it all together as only he can, with wit and lyric.

And then, still pedaling, I suddenly thought of a third writer. (Because, of course, there must be three when writing of threes.) The third? Mr. T. Last week he struggled to come up with something new for our writer’s workshop. We bandied about lots of ideas, until he finally came up with this scenario: a Colossus shows up at the Downtown Oakland Whole Foods. Written up as a newscast. An excerpt:

Reporter: So what exactly happened in there, Mary?

Mary: It was horrifying! The Colossus fell from the ceiling from the second story elevator platform and landed on hundreds of orange boxes! Then a sample-lady offered him a chocolate heart for anyone special in his life! He threw the sample-lady into a fruit salad display and ate the chocolate! And no, Tommy, you can’t have a Popsicle just because you saw a Colossus!

 Reporter: Sounds intense! So Mary, what did the Colossus look like exactly?

Mary: It was almost sixty feet high so that it was skimming the roof! It was made entirely out of metal!

Tommy: Mom, it wasn’t just metal it was bronze! It was AWESOME!

Mary: I just hope there aren’t any more Colossuses!

Tommy: Colossi! Mom, honestly!

I’ll spare you the part in which the Colossus starts eating shopping carts, including one with a strapped-in baby. (Never fear: The baby shoots back into its mother’s arms from a hatch in the Colossus’ stomach.) I will tell you that Mr. T had a splendid time writing this story. And you know where this lane in the grocery store is heading, don’t you? Rule of Three. Mr. T started with the canon: Greek mythology and tales of the Colossus of Rhodes. Then he added something given to him by his culture: shopping at Whole Foods (curse of the privileged urban child.) And then he shook it all up into his very own concoction.

It’s a light, fluffy concoction, yes. A fun trifle to write and read aloud to his friends. But I think it’s more than that, too. T. is making art on his own terms, as Gopnik does, as Chabon does. He’s reflecting on the canon, applying modern life and twisting it all in his own way. When we simply ask kids to write straightforward, formulaic responses to literature, or to nonfiction topics, we’re forcing them to skip a step. We don’t allow them to reflect on how the original material relates to their own worlds, and their own ideas, and the resulting writing is typically flat. It lacks the inspiration of art.

Which is why kids should be allowed to write about the banal trappings of their culture, if that’s what inspires them. Whether that be Plants Vs. Zombies or Quentin Tarantino films or Littlest Pet Shop figurines. Teenagers writing about Romeo and Juliet should be allowed to reflect on gangs and Facebook-official relationships. If you doubt that this sort of writing is valuable, allow me to direct you back to Daniel Pink’s book A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future. Do you remember those aptitudes that Pink says we’ll need in the future, specifically the aptitudes of symphony and story? (If not, my synopsis is here.) Those are the aptitudes that kids will develop, if allowed to romp in the playgrounds of culture and their imaginations.

Mr. T is planning a whole series of tales of Greek monsters in modern-day locations. I can’t wait to read his spin. It’s fun, but it’s important too. After all, as my man Gopnik writes, “The rule of three is the rule of making.”

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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Carrie Pomeroy February 24, 2012 at 7:48 am

Creative spin cycle! My son has been using a computer program called Scratch to create a video game based on the book series Warriors, about clans of cats fending for themselves in a forest. It involves design and game issues, writing instructions and scripts for the game, and is a wonderful way for him to “inhabit” the stories he loves. Not exactly your “high culture plus popular culture” equation, but another three: computer programming/game design plus popular literature plus his own touch.

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patricia February 24, 2012 at 9:02 am

Oh yeah, same idea, definitely!

I tried working with T. on Scratch, which I was sure he’d love. But he didn’t. I think it takes a certain kind of personality to program, and that sort of task doesn’t appeal to T. He doesn’t want to dwell in the details that way. (He’s also a kid who has never liked building with Legos, which is a very similar skill. My older son *loved* Lego constructing.) I was a little disappointed, because there’s so much potential in Scratch! But every kid is different. So glad that B. is enjoying it.

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Just Peaches February 24, 2012 at 10:04 am

Kudos to Mr. T. What a great piece! He has such a mature sense of humour. I love how the sample lady is non-plussed by the Colossus breaking through the ceiling and offers him a chocolate heart. I also like how Tommy corrects his mom’s grammar. Really fun.

I’m intrigued by the idea of the rule of three. I’ve been taking a photography course at a local community arts centre in order to wean myself off of the automatic settings on my camera. Each week we are given a topic to explore. What is exciting, I think, is how varied the output is. There is one woman in my class who has an incredible sense of colour; another whose photos are imbued with humour. Just like anyone can write a generic essay or story, what makes the output exciting for me is the originality of the voice or, in this case, the vision. Mr. Ts newscast is great because it could only have been thought up by him. Maybe he’ll write screenplays for his brother someday.

I’ve read Chabon and Pink…I may just have to download Gopnik onto my Kobo.

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patricia February 27, 2012 at 8:57 am

I feel just as you do, Peaches. I’m always fascinated and inspired by the way different people approach a creative task. It makes you realize that art isn’t about being “the best”; it’s about finding your unique voice and vision. One of my favorite parts of parenting is watching my kids develop their own views on the world, and seeing how that inspires their creativity.

Your photography class sounds fantastic!

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Carrie Pomeroy February 24, 2012 at 10:47 am

I agree, Legos and Scratch have a lot in common–even the way the components of the scripts fit together like Lego bricks. Good stuff.

I agree with Just Peaches–Mr. T.’s piece sounds amazingly fun and witty. I would love to adapt that idea for our writing group–to have them try the idea of taking a figure from myth or fairy tales and bringing them into a modern situation to see what fireworks might erupt. But I know it probably wouldn’t have nearly the zing as an assignment as Mr. T. coming up with the idea himself. Thank you for the fun post.

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patricia February 27, 2012 at 9:02 am

It’s pretty much impossible to come up with writing prompts that fire them up as much as their own ideas, isn’t it? But you’re right: this one is worth a try. It leaves a lot of room for interpretation.

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Kristin February 27, 2012 at 7:16 am

First, I would like to commend this poignant paragraph about kids and writing.

“When we simply ask kids to write straightforward, formulaic responses to literature, or to nonfiction topics, we’re forcing them to skip a step. We don’t allow them to reflect on how the original material relates to their own worlds, and their own ideas, and the resulting writing is typically flat. It lacks the inspiration of art. (And,) …kids should be allowed to write about the banal trappings of their culture, if that’s what inspires them.”

BRAVO! Well put.

On another note, in my museum education background, when dealing with interpretation, we always tried to relate objects to what we thought would be most familiar to individuals. The possibilities for applying “…what I take from nature, what I’ve learned from my tribe, what I do myself: nature, culture, me. Something borrowed, something done, something only I can do.” may be used to make connections with other people not only in writing but in museum interpretation, films, advertising, etc., and person to person. It’s compelling for me to think about how to apply this concept of three in various ways.

Thanks for sharing and I like how you crafted the info. as well.

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patricia February 27, 2012 at 9:12 am

It is a neat way to think about art, isn’t it? All art would be pretty flat and shallow if not processed through an individual’s filters. It’s interesting: the artist creates art by taking something existing and then looking at it in a unique way, and then viewers engage with that art through their own filters. It’s what makes art alive.

Thanks for opening up the metaphor, Kristin!

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amy February 28, 2012 at 12:50 pm

I like this idea of threes. I was just writing in my journal about how my son’s interest in PVZ led to a serious and deep interest in botany – you never know where these things will lead. As an American Studies major we were trained to read “C”ulture through any artifact – snow, ice cream, comics, fashion, you name it. It is all worthy of serious thought – and it is all connected. The separations of subjects or “high” and “low” culture are so contrived and cut us off from great material or inspiration.

And,
I loved the Chabon book – all those essays had me nodding my head and reading out loud.

Thanks for the mention on my 100 ideas. Let me know if any of them spark something new!
Have a great day!

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patricia February 29, 2012 at 9:13 am

I love that Capital C Culture through any artifact idea, Amy! I agree with you all the way. And hooray for Plants Vs. Zombies inspiration! Mr. T’s biggest video game inspiration has come from Age of Mythology and Age of Empires. (His older brother was also highly inspired by the two games, back in the day.) T is digging deep into the Age of Exploration right now, urged on by AOE: he’s reading deeply and sat transfixed through the documentary Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond. We had many intense discussions based on the program. Thinky stuff for a ten-year-old, which we would have completely missed if we didn’t give value to the video games.

Thinking that since today is an extra day, being Leap Day and all, we should take out that 100 ideas list and see where it leads us!

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