On Not Knowing

Picture credit: Katherine Plumhoff

I update my apps like I change my sheets: more infrequently than I should and rarely at a convenient time. I didn’t realize that I had invited a new wave of updates until I went to type something and saw that my Google keyboard had disappeared.

I use that keyboard because it can be configured to be in two languages at once, and while I’m not good enough at Spanish to commit to it entirely, I want to be able to dip into it without being autocorrected, nos to now.

I re-add the Gboard in Settings, but all of my saved emojis have been wiped out.


Heuristics are a concept from behavioral psychology. They’re mental shortcuts. When you see a Black man and are primed to think violence, that’s a heuristic. (And a racist one.) A 2013 study of police officers found that much of their on-the-job training reinforced an association between Black people and danger – like by having them face simulations of Black suspects who were armed with guns – which upheld and strengthened their race-based heuristics, leading them to have “a trigger-happy tendency to favor the shoot response” when it came to interacting with Black people on the job.

Heuristics are developed by our brain to save energy. To reduce cognitive load. It’s like when you drive home on familiar roads and pull into your driveway remembering not a single turn. They can be useful ways to make less active decisions by letting us rely on the forward momentum of the past to knock out some of the ambiguity of the future.

There are several types. The availability heuristic is when we overindex on information that we’ve been exposed to. When we make judgments based on the examples that rush to fill in the contours of a question.

For instance: does the average American read more than six books a year? Of course, I might answer, running through my rolodex of well-read friends with blue and gold passports.

I’d be wrong, though. (Pew says the median is four.)

There is also the anchoring and adjustment heuristic, which describes what happens when initial information colors the way we think about things later. If you meet someone and think they are a good person – or are told they are a good person – it’s harder for you to later see them as a bad person, even if all of your experience with them points to that as a fact.

There was an app that was briefly popular when I was in college. It was called Lulu, and you could go on and leave reviews of guys you had dated. Ostensibly, its purpose was to keep women safe and in community with each other – to flag guys who had a drinking problem, or who were obsessed with their exes, or who didn’t recognize that “no” meant “no.” But with little verification – any woman could post anything about any guy – it was also a place for a jilted lover to exact revenge. Did Lulu create a protected space for women to talk? Or did it unleash the anchoring and adjustment heuristic on unarbitable truth?

We’ve evolved to have heuristics because sometimes they work. But they also create false trust. They cocoon us in a surety we haven’t earned, one whose contours we haven’t tested. They let us fall back on first impressions. On what we saw at first sight and what we felt at first blush.

How do we keep our brains flexible enough to take in new information as it comes without putting ourselves in danger by ignoring the most likely outcome?

When does it make sense to match a feeling we have with something we’ve felt before, to let our gut tack towards a known end?

And when does doing so mean missing out on the best part of being human?

The not knowing?

The magic I’m chasing when traveling and living abroad is the forced reset of some of my heuristics. Here in Spain, I don’t have answers for every question. I don’t know what the average life or family or person or park or grocery store looks like. I don’t know how things should work. I don’t get to excise “should” at all, at least for a little while, at least until my brain rebuilds its scaffolding.

I moved here to embrace the not knowing.

It doesn’t come easily, though.

I went into a hard conversation my first week here, not knowing where or how it’d go, unguided by shortcuts, free and lost and learning.

And then I did it again.


It feels like a loss, the wiped-clean most-used-emojis screen. There they were, a data-based synthesis of how I showed up in the world. How I talked, how I reacted, how I wondered.

I can remember some of them. Surely the three sparkly stars, evocative of magic and mystery and the reverent silence earned by a good sentence.

Probably the smiling purple devil face, the picture of instigatory trouble and unabashed want.

Definitely the blushing smile, demure and round-cheeked, a talisman of femininity at its most easily palatable.

But none of them are there, and I have to choose them anew, which means not relying on pre-populated information, on heuristics. I can’t quickly scan a set of my usual small faces and choose from them again. I have to articulate the feelings I’m having, the feelings I want to impart.

And it’s harder to do that when the search bar prompts me to buscar, because it’s in Spanish. My brain goes through one more level of abstraction. I want to convey to my friend that I might be doing something stupid while knowing it might be stupid, that I am cognizant of my own potential self-destruction.

It is funny that I am going down this path with this man, I want to say in one emoticon. Me knowing that it could end in pain, me showcasing the bitter irony of that knowing, buys me the space to revel in the pain when it comes. If it comes.

I want to convey this with a clown face.

I know the word for clown in Spanish, I can see it, can feel the “p” on my tongue, forever stuck there by an Amazing Race episode filmed in Trujillo, Peru where the winning team had an easier time of it because they knew how to say that word in Spanish. But I can’t figure out how to spell it. Pie-aah-so. Paiaso?

Two tries later, I type payaso, which successfully cues up the little face I want. I tap it.

It sits there alone, in my barren field of most-used emojis, red and judging.


The day before I had to articulate my emotions to my Gboard, I spent the afternoon articulating my emotions to the man I was seeing.

We were sat – I would never say that, not normally; I’m saying it because it’s how he’d say it, a British inflection on the lolling vowels – we were sat on a park bench I’d seen two grandmothers hunched over on the day before. The one closest to me had a fat orange in her hand, and was thumbing her way into the peel, picking away at the pith. I’d imagined them kvelling and kvetching, catching up on their news, tucked away from the busy street in their personal sanctum, facing the warm Valencian sun together.

I saw the grandmothers as a vignette of what life in this city is. Of what long-term friendship is. Of what closeness is, of what enjoyment is, of what a series of everyday joys – blue skies and green bushes and easy companionship and bright, citrusy oranges – looks like with the clock paused.

I imagined returning there. I more than imagined it; I primed myself for it, dropping a pin at the location: 39.468695,-0.380467.

When he asked if I had a place in mind for the chat I’d requested, I immediately thought of the grandmothers.


Two days prior, the man and I were drinking in a plaza. I had a whiskey and coke in a sweaty plastic cup, which was something I hadn’t drunk in years but had asked for based on its medicinal qualities. (They gave whiskey to sick children, didn’t they, and doesn’t Coke’s high acidity line your stomach and reduce nausea? Find me a better anti-hangover talisman that still has alcohol in it, please. And one that would keep me awake, too, as I labored to stretch my sleep schedule into something that could settle over the shape of Fallas, the 3 a.m. peaks that bled into the 4-5 a.m. troughs that heralded the only three or four hours of reliable silence the city had each day.)

I asked him how his friend’s visit was.

This was Friday. We’d hooked up on Tuesday, though he didn’t spend the night; that’d happen later. That first time, after, we laid together at the foot of the bed, and he held me and answered questions about the scenes from childhood that would form the b-roll of his lightly veiled biopic. (Film’s autofiction.)

In the square, he answered me about the visit. It was nice, he said, as he’d slept with the friend on Wednesday, but then became less-than-nice on Thursday, when he drunkenly kissed her friend, setting off a conversation not about respect – that would be mine to have, later, my heuristics in a righteous tizzy – but about consent.

Our conversation fractured, but not before we’d explored the consent angle and placed a drunken kiss low on its hierarchy of wrongs.

I left to pee in the street with a new friend, then went to scope out a better pee corner for another. Hours later, my feelings having coalesced into knowable quantities – things I could’ve expressed in emojis and looked forward to expressing in words – he and I started to talk. We were interrupted by the streetlights blinking out in the five-minute warning before the fireworks began and hurried back to our friends, the words reeling themselves back in inside of me.


On Sunday afternoon, we walked to the grandmothers’ square together. I showed him the bench I’d first seen and wanted us to sit on, but one of us would’ve had to sit directly facing the old man – drunk, homeless, or both – who was pissing in the middle of the square, dick out and dripping, so we walked to the back of the garden instead, facing each other, and sat there until a teenage boy set off a petardo in the corner next to ours and sent us and our ringing eardrums back to the front.

His phone started buzzing. He is old enough to have a phone with a cover that you flip back like a book, and I looked at the ground while he did so. I saw an overripe orange, mottled with dark amber spots, tucked under the hedge in front of us. Too far gone to hold in my hands and peel.

“It’s Persian New Year,” he said, gesturing towards the well wishes coming in from his friends in Iran. “Right now, exactly. Because it goes by the solar calendar, it’s a slightly different time and date each year. It’s the official first day of spring – and the only new year I know that makes astronomical sense.”

I looked it up just now. Our conversation happened at the exact moment of the equinox, at 16:32 on March 20th. It feels good and right to be able to yoke this story to reality like that, to stitch them together irrefutably. Everything else – what I think I saw, what I think I heard, what I think it meant – has to be rearticulated from stenographer’s shorthand, from memories, which, like so much of what my brain produces, cannot always be counted on. But this, the time and date of this conversation: this can.

“How do you celebrate it?” I asked.

“With family and friends and food. You have seven things, all of which begin with ‘s,’” he said. (You have haft-seen, هفت‌سین, I know now, whose names start with is “س,” pronounced as “seen.”) “White fish and herbs, and green things, and apples.”

It’s said, he went on to explain, that what you’re doing when the new year strikes sets the tone for the next year. “This is a good thing to be doing,” he added gently.

“Sitting on a bench, talking about our feelings?”

“Yes,” he said.

We’d been doing that – the talking about feelings – for a bit.

I knew we would be casual, I’d said; it was impossible to imagine any other way to be, considering the state of his life and the state of my goals for the partnership I’ve recently identified my hunger for. But it had hurt to see so little respect for my feelings, or my intelligence in understanding what we were and were not. So I said so.

I’m better at talking about my feelings than he is. Later we’d talk more about why that’s true. But then, on the bench, we sorted through my box of topics, giving each its chance to be handled in the fading light: boundaries, friendship expectations, communication preferences. We held them gently, considered them honestly, put them back after their examination.

I didn’t know how the conversation would go. Only that I wanted to have it. I didn’t know how I would feel afterward. Only that I felt enough to make it worth having.

In this new life in this new city on this new continent, I am practicing giving my heuristics a break. Practicing breathing space into my cognition, stripping some of its daily load away to create the clearance to wonder and take in and connect. Jumping not to conclusions but to questions, and asking them out loud, and weighing the responses they garner by a scale that I’m making up on the spot. One guided by feelings but not hemmed in by them.

After all, everything I’ve ever gained and been grateful for has come from stories I’ve started without prewriting their end.

Even knowing that, it is harder than you might think to keep myself on the blank page.

To not rush ahead.

To not be overtaken by my representative heuristic – my (and our) brain’s desire to match experiences to existing prototypes, to constantly categorize myself and others into known quantities.

To not take any emotion I feel – cheeky and content and gassed and grateful and miffed and alive and longing and lonely and capable and cruel and egotistical and open and sated and dozens of others today alone – and do the equivalent, in cognitive terms, of reducing it to one of 30 160-pixel approximations of human objects and feelings.

But as the new year began, I was not matching stimuli to their place, not in my brain and not in the world. I was not categorizing: this is what friendship looks like, this is what love looks like, this is good, this is bad, this is healthy, this is problematic.

Instead, I was sat on a bench, surrounded by the smells of oranges and gunpowder and piss, speaking out loud all that I knew. Holding space for all that I didn’t.

About the author:

Katherine Plumhoff lives in Valencia, Spain. She was a 2021 Foundation House fellow in creative nonfiction, and she’s currently working on a short story collection.  

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Katherine Plumhoff

Katherine Plumhoff lives in Valencia, Spain and is often covered in sand. She was a 2021 Foundation House fellow in creative nonfiction. Her essays have been published by Fodor's and Slate. She's currently working on a set of linked short stories.

Katherine Plumhoff lives in Valencia, Spain and is often covered in sand. She was a 2021 Foundation House fellow in creative nonfiction. Her essays have been published by Fodor's and Slate. She's currently working on a set of linked short stories.

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