My Pattern with Patterns: A Kind of Love Story

by Jack Glynn

I’ve always been oriented toward patterns. In elementary school, for example, I was fascinated by flights of stairs that possessed an even number of steps. If one leads with his or her[1] right foot in beginning to climb that flight of stairs, then his or her right foot will be the foot that reaches the landing first. The outcome stays the same if the flight of stairs has an odd number of steps and one leads with his or her left foot. At some point, I arbitrarily decided that it was best to reach a flight of stairs’ landing with one’s right foot first, and so I started to estimate the number of steps possessed of each and every flight of stairs that I encountered. Then I’d record this for future reference so I could determine which foot I ought to lead with in order to achieve my desired outcome. Though I was aware of my ritual’s utter pointlessness, I couldn’t resist Symmetry, which insistently called out to me, “That’s 19 steps there, left foot first! Oh, and there’s another two right after, remember?”

And I answered its call. I’m not one to crack my knuckles by pressing the palms of my interlocked fingers outward. No, I’ve always preferred yanking each finger individually, starting with my pinkies, followed by my ring fingers, middle fingers, index fingers, and, finally, my thumbs. In restaurants, I feel most at peace when I see that my fork rests 1) in the center of my napkin, and 2) parallel to the longer edges of my napkin.[2] It’s also nice when the knife is parallel to the fork, and it’s even nicer when the fork and knife are equidistant from the plate. Something—Symmetry, as I put it earlier—begs me to sand away the hills and valleys that roll along the right side of this paragraph.[3] One summer’s day, procrastinating with pencil in hand, I found myself face-to-face with it for the first time: at the center of the paper was a circle pierced by four lines from each of which sprouted a triangle containing an inscribed circle doubly bisected (tetrasected?) by two lines that extended outward to bisect the two adjacent circles and form an inscribed square contained within a circle. I had started with a circle, then drew a line, then drew the mirror image of that line, then drew another line, then drew the mirror image that other line, and, before I knew what I was doing, I was off. Symmetry revealed itself to me in this doodle, I think, this homage to all things symmetrical—but maybe I’m taking the personification of symmetry too far here.

***

Music is all about patterns, the relations between things. If one plunks a solitary note on the piano, for example,[4] that means nothing. If one plunks a triad, whether major, minor, augmented, or diminished, that doesn’t mean much—but it means something. That evokes a feeling, albeit vague and fleeting. Now, if one plunks an A minor triad, an F major triad, a C major triad, and a G major triad, respectively, then he or she has planted the seed of a hit song.[5] There is no escaping this timeworn pattern when one looks back through the annals of pop history, and, as much as I turn my nose up at its simplicity, I can’t help but appreciate the fact that it is so ubiquitous. I mean, isn’t it just crazy, to think that people never tire of hearing this one pattern played by Bruce Springsteen or Red Hot Chili Peppers or whoever, their hearts stirred anew every time?

I think it is crazy—and yet it is a matter of fact. Does this not vindicate my passion for patterns, then? I myself might be crazy—and yet I might just be acutely aware of the forces that sway us all. Maybe those two ideas aren’t mutually exclusive? Yes, I reckon: I am crazy because I am acutely aware of the forces that sway us all. It is one thing to answer the call of Symmetry and another thing to comprehend it; as far as I can tell, most people do the former alone, and even then, they receive only the most basic instructions. Symmetry recognizes that I however am capable of comprehending its orders, which is why it sends me more arcane directives, such as “stand with your feet perpendicular to each other and see what happens,” or “write this footnote in the same format as you wrote that other footnote on the previous page.” Sometimes, when I’m fiddling with chord progressions on a piano, I will hear Symmetry urging me to voice chords in such a way that there are no repeating pitches. Every chord voiced this way contains nothing but unique pitches, and they tend to sound good, in my opinion. But they don’t sound good because of Symmetry, no, they sound good because I know how to voice chords properly. In this situation and in many others, Symmetry brings no real benefits to the table, and by following its directives, I miss out on creative avenues that happen to be less symmetrical.

In the second sentence of the previous paragraph, I used a word—“vindicate”—a word that implies a judgment, or possibly a condemnation. I didn’t think much of it as I typed that sentence out, but I now realize the significance of my usage of “vindicate:” at that moment, I had the notion in my head that I was being condemned for my strange, pattern-oriented behaviors, several of which I have listed throughout this essay. Who condemns me? Why, I condemn myself, because I fear that society would condemn me. I can’t be sure that society would condemn me, of course, but I still believe that most people upon learning of my behaviors would privately view me as a weirdo at the very least and try to edit me into something more conventional.

On the one hand, there is a part of me that wants to ignore the weirdness of my affinity for patterns, to just leave it alone, accept it, to continue to indulge Symmetry’s whims. But, on the other hand, there is a part of me that wants to strangle Symmetry—not to death, but to within an inch of its life, just to prove that I can. Symmetry seems to bring me satisfaction, if not always benefits, but is it worth appeasing, if my hunch about Symmetry’s too-tight grip on my life is true?

***

That last paragraph before those three asterisks right there felt like a mess. I’ll try to boil things down here: I am a deeply pattern-oriented individual; symmetry pleases me; symmetry may also restrict me, I fear; patterns are part of who I am, for better or for worse. There.

[1] I freely admit that the repetition of “one does [X]” and “he or she does [X]” can be a little grating, but it’s the price one must pay if he or she doesn’t want to get too colloquial by using the hypothetical “you.”

[2] The napkin is folded in the typical rectangular fashion, in case this wasn’t obvious.

[3] Ah – I found out how to make paragraphs adhere to the margins. Try it now, in Word: go to Format, then Paragraph, Alignment, choose Justify, No more unevenness!

[4] My instinct was to write “for instance” here, but I think it’s ultimately better to keep things consistent and use “for example” like I did in the first paragraph.

[5] Again, it pains me to write “one does [X]” repetitiously, but at least I am being consistent.