Trading fours

My friend Frank Chimero has started a new “occasional back-and-forth blog” called The Mavenist, and I am so pleased to be part of the first post, “Permutations & Loops.” The format of The Mavenist is simple, but also a welcome departure from the standard blog format. Rather than regular posts, The Mavenist will post occasionally. (This blog was founded with a similar attitude.) And rather than a single editor’s point of view, or even an interviewer/interviewee dynamic, The Mavenist will allow two people to take part in an equal exchange—or, rather, five equal exchanges, for a total of 10 parts.

Frank has done a lovely job introducing the project on his blog through the lens of gift exchange, which readers of this blog will know is a favorite topic of mine as well. There were so many parts of his introductory post that I liked that it was hard to choose just one, but I’m a sucker for a good West Wing reference:

There’s a scene in an episode of The West Wing where President Bartlet has his personal aide Charlie go on the hunt to purchase a new carving knife for the holidays. With each knife Charlie brings to the Oval Office, Bartlet shoots down his selection, citing the details he finds important. This happens several times, and finally Charlie brings the best possible knife he can find in Washington. President Bartlet inspects the knife closely while Charlie describes the finer details of what makes this knife the finest knife available. And with that, President Bartlet refuses the knife, much to Charlie’s exasperation. But then, Bartlet produces an heirloom knife of his own, apparently made by Paul Revere and in his family for generations, and gives it to Charlie as his Christmas gift.

This is what good gifts feel like.

Reading this, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Michael Bierut’s reaction to Tibor Kalman’s incredible $26 book project, one of M&Co’s annual holiday gifts. Bierut writes of receiving the book,

It was transcendent: not just a gift but an experience, combining surprise, humor, pathos, and guilt in an astonishingly controlled sequence. Everyone who received it was invited to feel not just the joy of getting but the joy of giving.

What Bierut’s observation suggests is that it is not just the exchange that makes the gift meaningful—it is also the structure surrounding and framing the exchange, as well as the careful control and use of time to allow emtions to unfold. This is why we wrap gifts, and why we unwrap them. It’s why we offer them on special occasions, and hide them at the end of treasure hunts. In shaping time with tradition in this way, the process is reminiscent of a poetic form, which both structures the verse and frees the poet to improvise within it. In this way, a poet’s creativity plays both with and against the constraints of the formal tradition. When composing a poem, the poet is in dialogue with the form itself—and the process of exchanging posts with Frank for The Mavenist didn’t feel all that different from the process of composing a poem in that sense.

Or, better still, it was a bit like the old jazz technique of “trading fours,” in which two musicians build on a melody with short four-bar improvised passages, listening and responding to one another instead of taking their solos individually. You can see Dr. Charles Limb discuss the process from a medical perspective on this TED Talk, or you can see Keith Jarrett and Jack DeJohnette go at it at around the 8:00 minute mark on this version of Sonny Rollins’s “Oleo.”

However I try to explain it, it sure was fun, and quite a gift to boot. Here’s hoping the occasion arises again soon.