The genius of organized sports is in having players and teams show their prowess by taking turns at offense and defense, attack and protection, and in the case of baseball, batting and running, pitching and fielding.

The precincts for offense and defense are strictly confined, particularly for the team on offense. Batters are restricted to a home plate and two rectangles, one on either side of the plate, to stand in and swing at the ball; three bases forming, with home plate, a diamond ninety feet on a side; batters having a right-of-way to run the bases around the sides of the diamond.

The defending team occupies the much larger precinct that includes the infield within the diamond, together with the outfield lying between two foul lines meeting in a ninety-degree angle at home plate and extending for a minimum of 250 feet beyond the infield diamond out to the fence defining the far edge of the outfield.

As attackers of the defenders’ territory, batters come up in specified order one-at-a-time until three of them have been put out of play, at which time the teams trade roles. The batting order is based on players’ records for hitting the ball or getting on base.

The defending team, however, is on duty at their respective stations for the full time they are in the field (half of each inning in a string of nine innings). The pitcher throws from the center of the diamond, sixty-and-a-half feet from home plate. The catcher crouches behind the plate to direct defensive play by giving signals with fingers held between his legs to suit the next pitch to the batter’s prowess and situation.

Three basemen stand near their respective bases, with a shortstop to back them up. Three outfielders spread themselves between right, center, and left field, at a distance governed by their expectations of where the batter is likely to hit the next ball.

The essence of baseball is the duel between the defensive pitcher on his mound and offensive batter at home plate. Pitcher and catcher form a tactical team on the axis of play trying to outwit the batter at each throw.

The batter, as lone member of the offense (unless others are on base) tries to outwit the pitcher by carefully selecting the pitches he elects to swing at. Three swings and misses and he’s out, unless he fouls the ball after two strikes, in which case he keeps on until he either gets a hit or third strike.

If the pitcher throws four balls outside of the strike zone (over the plate between the batter’s knees and shoulders), the batter gets a pass to first base, and any runner at first base gets a pass to second.

The umpire standing behind the catcher calls each pitch not swung at as a strike if it passes through the strike zone, or a ball if wide, high, or low.

The ball is in play from any given pitch until the ball is returned to the pitcher’s glove, thereby starting the next play.

The central drama of the game is played out by pitcher and catcher in setting up the play, and batter in making what he can of their efforts. They are playing to get him out; he is playing to reach first base or farther, or at least to help other runners advance around the diamond back to home plate, scoring one point for each round of the bases at the corners of the diamond.

It takes more time to write about the action than to see it happen in actual play. Pitchers these days can throw the ball at over ninety miles-an-hour, mixing fast balls with curves, sliders, knuckle-balls, balls that change pace or break one way or another, and other pitches intended to outwit the batter.

Batters are ever on the alert for balls that look like they’re headed over the plate, but take a detour in the last fraction of a second.

Fans divide their support between teams, and show strong reactions to anything that goes against their personal allegiance, particularly if it leads to a score by the “wrong” team. Hopes on both sides run high, and spirits droop when events or judgments go against the favored team. Odds seem to favor the nine defensive players strategically placed around the field facing only one offensive batter at a time, each needing only three strikes to be put out of play.

But in that small window of opportunity, batters can hit balls through the defense, over its head, or even out of the park. With a runner on base, the situation gets more intense for both sides. With two or three runners in position around the bases, a pitcher can still throw in only one direction at a time, so the odds shift to the offense, unless the next batter hits into a double- or even triple-play, the likelihood of which increases with the number of base runners spread around the diamond.

Or perhaps the next batter slams a home run over the fence, sending four runners across home plate (including himself), releasing pandemonium throughout the stadium and spreading far and wide into the radio and TV audience, echoing within millions of individual black boxes around the world.

More than a pastime, baseball is a state of consciousness to which humans as wayfarers (or base runners) are innately suited by the inherent makeup of their minds as the medium of engagement between their inner and outer worlds of awareness. That engagement between opposing teams is the issue in each game, which must be played out to determine which is the better team for the span of intense activity it takes for that particular game to play out.

 

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What does it take to play baseball? If you’re a kid in the street, it takes a friend, stick and ball, and a few chalk marks on the road. If you’re a billionaire, a city stadium is bare minimum, a corporation, the best players you can get, along with a base of dedicated fans. If you’re somewhere in-between being a kid and a billionaire, bats, balls, and gloves are readily available.

If you are seriously organized, you’ll need an infield diamond and outfield laid out to Doubleday’s specifications, bleachers, care of the grounds; uniforms; protective pads, masks, helmets; and a pool of eligible players to draw from, which may include roughly half the citizenry in Canada, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Venezuela, Japan, and the U.S. Too, you’ll need leagues big enough to maintain a full schedule of 154 games, along with playoffs between league pennant-winners held at the end of the season (early spring into fall).

But what it really takes to play baseball is acceptance of the rules, and umpires who can enforce those rules in specific situations, assuring fair play between opposing teams. Mascots, trophies, and blaring horns are optional.

Where does the drive to win come from, that we feel the urge to play competitive games in the first place? I would say part of it arises from healthy metabolisms that convert glucose to available energy in our body’s every cell, of which there are trillions. I call that drive to be active the life force. If we’re ill or poorly nourished, we don’t have enough of a margin to exert ourselves in playing or attending games.

But if we’re young, active, well nourished, and eager to prove ourselves, the life force can be extremely compelling in initiating a host of engagements, including organized sports.

Beyond that, if we feel we have a special gift for playing baseball stemming from our initial contact with the game, then our sense of personal identity may be strong enough to call forth the extra effort it takes to get really good at mastering the required skills, or at least playing as well as we can.

It helps to have models, mentors, or heroes to pattern ourselves on. And a strong sense of fun, enjoyment, and fulfillment in developing our abilities.

The urge to play ball, that is, comes from inside us in discovering who we are and what we want to do with our lives. Baseball as played-out in the field flows from the confines of our black boxes into the cultural and communal worlds in which we personally live. Without doubt, playing baseball is a way of living an admirable life, like being a policeman, nurse, teacher, or astronaut—a person to look up to as a child, and grow into as an adult. We don’t play to win so much as play to engage others at our finest moments.

Playing baseball is a way to be human in a particularly personal way. The crux of being human in just that way lies at the inner core of each player, where what you do is what you most want to do in realizing yourself to the max. In being the person you know you can be without harming others.

In watching such people play ball, I feel I am personally witnessing their situated intelligence in full public view as they respond to the urgings of their memories, feelings, emotions, values, understandings, drives, thoughts, dreams, and understanding of what life is all about.

No aspect of mind is more powerful than the urge to participate in a palpable, real-life situation with others who are equally skilled in doing the same from a different point of view. Every era offers its wayfaring members a selection of routes to self-realization. Hunter, gatherer, tool maker, farmer, warrior, craftsperson, dancer, poet, athlete—which is to be your way?

Today, whether you are batter, pitcher, catcher, baseman, fielder, umpire, manager, batboy, or spectator, the plate umpire’s “Play ball!” is a call to live exactly as you choose to live. You are present in that moment, ready to give your all as fully yourself.

 

In training, individual players build their respective skills on one level, and practice working together as a team on another. There may be individual heroes in baseball, but it takes heroic effort by all concerned to build a team that can face every possible situation with shared skill and confidence.

Each player must stand ready to play his part without advanced notice. Each is playing an inner game of expectancy before a play even starts to unfold. As is each watcher in the stands, stadium, or living room. In that sense, players and fans are engaged for the duration of the game, however long it takes for one side to win.

Baseball is all about arousal, anticipation, seeing what happens, recognizing what that means from a personal perspective. Then, of all possible responses, seizing instantly on the one judged most effective, and following through on plays that have been practiced in countless situations under a variety of different conditions.

Anything can happen, and what actually does happen comes as a spontaneous show of coordinated (or not) team skill, strength, speed, effort, and accuracy.

Baseball gives fans an endless flow of opportunities to be personally conscious. Each witnesses the game with her own eyes and ears, own sense of anticipation, own flow of perceptual, meaningful, and active engagements.

Being there at the game is like inventing yourself on the spot, again and again as situations come, evolve, and lead on to the next. This is what fans live for. If baseball didn’t exist, we’d have to invent it as a rule-governed alternative to the horrors of war, revolution, strife, violence, genocide, and mass murder.

Civilized nations rely on games to ward off the inevitable slippage into violence and chaos resulting from friction between factions having different perspectives on the world. Harnessing such perspectives in orderly pursuits such as baseball, soccer, basketball, and tennis makes the world safe for civil governance that actually serves to keep people meaningfully occupied and productive.

Baseball is no frill; it is a civil necessity—along with art, music, dance, Earthcare, full employment, and a fair distribution of wealth—to maintain a healthy state of mind among peoples accustomed to different ways of engaging one another in their separate worlds. Or worse, as in boredom, not engaging at all.

 

As a team sport, baseball is all about relationships between members of two different teams playing against each other. There is a tension between the opposing teams, tension within each of them as plays unfold over time. And tensions in us as we follow along, gripped by the drama unfolding in our minds, and of which we are a big part. Without dedicated fans, baseball wouldn’t exist. It is made to carry us along with it. No wonder we watch.

Such tensions stem from uncertainty concerning what is about to happen. Our minds thrive on uncertainty because they are made to be certain in support of decisive action, so they have to stick with the challenge. From first to last inning, baseball is charged with uncertainty. As well as yearnings for a successful outcome.

What pitch will the pitcher deliver? Will the batter take the bait, and if so, will he swing for a strike, hit a fly ball, or send a bounder just past the second baseman’s glove? Will the catcher throw off his mask, crane his neck, then grab that high foul ball? Will the pitcher lob the bunted ball to first? Will the fielder reach the grounder in time to get the runner out at second? Will the shortstop cover second when the baseman shifts toward first?

The pitcher-batter confrontation can lead to so many possible situations, we are on the edge of our seats and edge of our minds much of the time, eager to find out how each play will unfold as players throw the ball from one to another: pitcher to catcher, outfield to infield, second base to first, third to home.

Each play depends on so much coordinated skill, strength, speed, and accuracy, there is hardly a moment when we dare take our eyes off the ball for fear of missing the crucial play that makes all the difference. Paying close attention to each play takes exertion on our part. We exhaust ourselves just by following along. But the adventure is worth it. There’s no other way to have such an experience than to commit to it in both body and mind.

We not only follow the game from our viewpoint, but we anticipate what will happen. And enjoy the thrill of finding out if we’re right or wrong. We live on the edge of our own excitement, thrusting this way and that, like riding a defiant bronco. Investing our minds in the game, we find ourselves being carried away. Commitment is what it takes, commitment to engage as best we can for as long as we can. Paying attention takes perseverance, dedication, stamina, and strength. Those are all forms of engagement that carry us along.

We find new dimensions of ourselves by losing our old self and giving in to the power and drama of the moment. We come out of it bigger than we were, stronger, more enduring because of the engagement.

Engagement builds strong bodies eight ways, all variations on exercising the mental skills and dimensions we bring to the game. I’ve already mentioned several of them: expectancy, imagery, feeling, values, situations, understanding, meaning, judgment—that’s eight, and I’ve just begun. The whole list adds up to a multi-dimensional engagement that takes concentration, but ends up in a generous serving of personal fulfillment by a game well-played.

Just as there is a quota of good in everyone, there is a quota of excitement in every engagement. And a quota of enlightenment if we truly put ourselves into it. When we get bored, that’s because we are not committing much energy to what we are doing. We’re not putting ourselves into it, whatever it is. So we draw back for lack of concentrating on something—anything—and that invites lethargy to descend upon us. Boredom is a declaration of our lack of curiosity, interest, concentration—in a word, engagement. Which takes a commitment of our attention before anything can happen at all.

Being bored is a comment on our own lack of reaching out to the world to invite the world to reach in to us. The world owes us nothing. It is not out there for our benefit. As individuals, all of us are in charge of that department for ourselves. Baseball offers us a release from the cell we lock ourselves into when we wistfully moan for something to do.

Watch two baseball teams in action, engage yourself, and rejoice.

Nothing seems to be played more on the surface than baseball because it’s so physical in nature—a minor tempest in a stadium under bright lights with fans sitting around drinking beer.

But beneath that surface there is an inner game of moves, tactics, strategies, felt situations, motivating tensions, and the life force itself that gets us out of our seats and into the game, where we play, indeed, very hard.

That inner game is what baseball is all about because that’s where our engagements lie. And it is those engagements I am writing about here, not the statistical game played-out in the media and public press. We are engaged in a fundamental way with baseball because engagement is based on situations within us, and situations are not set for all time but develop, turning into wholly new situations, in turn leading on to other new situations and tensions, surprising us at every turn of events, taking us further and further into ourselves as we become more deeply committed to our involvement.

The motivating situations are in us, as well as in the players on the field. We map them onto sensory patterns passing as images in our heads, where the life they take on is sparked by how the players perform, but because of the play of tensions we find in ourselves, very quickly become colored by our emotional perspective.

Two games are being played at the same time, outer and inner. We are spectators attending the outer one, and players ourselves in the inner one. We can feel it in our muscles as well as see in in our mind while it’s being played out on the field.

The proof is in our feelings, which are in us, not on the field. Engagements are . . . well, engaging. They stimulate us to focus on the action as it develops, and at the same time inhibit us from paying attention to anything else, no matter how important it is. Ebola cannot compete with baseball, nor can ISIS, The Ukraine, Putin, or Obama. They aren’t in the same league, so get snuffed out—just like that. In our minds, that is, not the world.

Too, our values and loyalties are at stake in our engagements, as are our memories, skills, interests, and concerns insofar as they bear on our current engagement. All else is dismissed by our minds as irrelevant, so fails to register in the heat of the moment. We are aroused, stimulated, excited—our minds are shaped solely by the inner game. The field of play is nothing less than the life we are living at that very moment. We have a personal stake in the game. We give it our all. And it becomes us.

That is the nature of our engagements in general. The price we pay is to be broadly selective in simply eliminating everything else for the duration of their hold on us. By the time we locate our car in the parking lot outside the stadium, we are back in the world again. But during the game, nothing from that world matters. We watch our hopes and desires fulfilled or dashed before our eyes, as if the game were being played out directly in us, not out on the field. It bears the import and coloration we give it due to our subjective interests, which are proprietary in the extreme. Whatever we engage with becomes our personal property, and is nothing less than the claim it makes on our attention, abetted by the extent to which we sympathetically open ourselves to that claim.

Watching baseball is like watching a part of ourselves being made clear to ourselves, a great favor once you realize what is happening. Situation after situation, batter after batter, pitch after pitch, we want to find out what happens next, and next after that. We’re in for the long haul, to the end of the game. The players are good at what they do, so we’re good right along with them. We cheer them, they carry us along on every pitch, swing, hit, catch, and error.

As wayfarers, we look to the players to show us the way into the winding labyrinth of ourselves. That’s a powerful relationship, like having a mentor or guru, someone who listens and acts on our behalf.

The best thing that happened to baseball in my lifetime was not the emergence of players like Lou Gehrig or Babe Ruth, but TV coverage by cameras with sharp lenses that focus the game on the screen in our living room, literally bringing it home to us. We can watch a pitcher with glove to his chin shake off a signal from the catcher (the defense team’s tactician), spit, chew gum, go through his windup, then abruptly spin around and hurl the ball, not to the catcher, but to the first baseman in time to catch an off-base runner in the act of diving for the bag. Now fans can sit in costly stadium seats hunching over their smartphones watching the game they came to see through the well-placed lenses of TV cameras. And we can enter into the game more effectively from within our black boxes because it is brought to us so up-front and personally, even intimately.

 

During my early encounters with psychology, that word held strong connotations of either animal experimentation or pathology and mental illness. Stemming via Latin from two Greek words meaning roughly “breath” or “spirit” (Latin psyche) and “talk” or “thought” (Latin logos), the two roots add up to something like spirit talk or mind lore.

Early on, breath was taken as a sign of life, absence of breath a sign of death. Breath was what we acquired at birth, and surrendered with our last gasp—what some thought of as “spirit.” It came to stand for the non-physical element that seemingly animates our bodies.

The negative connotations of psychology were laid on in the nineteenth century when attention was directed by medical doctors to what might go wrong with a mind in contrast to its right and proper functioning.

Much of my early reading in psychology was given over to discussion of mental disorders. You couldn’t read psychology texts without wondering how crazy you really were. Now, my interest in the mind is directed more toward its normal, everyday performance. I think we need to understand what’s right with the mind before we can properly deal with what’s gone wrong.

That difference itself says a great deal about how our minds work. We pay attention either if our minds seem to work exceptionally well, or if they do poorly. Idiot-savants combine those extreme states of mind. The state of normality in-between is taken for granted without comment. That’s why the connotations of psychology are so often negative, suggesting our minds need mending or healing. If they work as they should, there’s no need to seek out Dr. Freud or Dr. Jung.

The meaning of “mind lore,” then, commonly leans toward the negative polarity, as just owning a car has strong implications of a good garage being available to keep it in good running order.

My preference is to consider the human mind in its everyday mode of wellness and not sickness. For that reason, I now introduce a series of posts dealing with the mind in the context of baseball, our national pastime; Peter Mark Roget’s Thesaurus, found lying around somewhere in every writer’s workspace; and the stars above, which, remote as they may be, affect our inward lives more profoundly than any creation of mankind ever has.

And now a plug for engagement. The prevailing attitude is that mind puts a consumptive drain on the brain’s physical resources, so cannot be visualized as a kind of spiritual entity operating independently of the brain. But as I have been trying to point out in this blog, engagement is a stimulating activity that, for good or ill, arouses and focuses attention, serving as a kind of on-off switch that directs the brain’s physical resources to mental activities in an extremely efficient manner precisely because of the synchronization it enables between perceptual and physical activity.

Notice how all else falls away when we are fully engaged. Engagement isn’t just a drain, it gives the brain a needed boost as a coherent and smooth-running engine at peak performance. Engagement assures the biggest bang per unit of neurological exertion. When disengaged, the brain is at sixes and sevens without a sense of priority. Each module putts along doing its own self-maintenance chores. When engagement kicks in, the brain comes to life like a dog about to being taken for a walk. Now it can truly show its stuff and not just lie around the house. I would say the brain exists to sharply and deeply engage, as the dog exists to run, leap, and frisk.

Here I will maintain that the mind not only exists, but exists to engage in the play of baseball, of looking up words in the Thesaurus, of celebrating the lights in the sky overhead. As a hint to what lies ahead in this series of posts on baseball, Roget’s Thesaurus, and human concern with the stars, just imagine the skilled and passionate engagements of those thousands of medieval craftsmen who built Gothic Cathedrals. They might have claimed to be doing God’s bidding, but out of professional pride, they put their hearts into the work of creating the most imaginative, attractive, breath-taking, and durable structures since the fall of the Roman Empire. Those cathedrals were direct expressions of human minds working in collaborative and passionate engagement on the most important projects in a thousand years of human endeavor. We gasp when we look upon those buildings today, monuments to the men who conceived and constructed them stone by stone, window by window, with their hands and eyes engaged in precise coordination.

Baseball. Abner Doubleday (later a General at Gettysburg) is said to have invented baseball in 1839 as a means of keeping his military academy students in good physical shape. Another tradition traces the origin back to the base-running game of rounders in eighteenth-century England. Doubleday did stipulate the dimensions of the playing field, size of and distance between bases, rules governing defensive play by the team in the field and offensive play by the team at bat.

The game itself serves as a metaphor for the battles that make up a military campaign, without the killing. Its very structure flows from the polarity that underscores awareness of events good or bad, positive or negative, desirable or undesirable, won or lost. The rules of baseball impose the ideal of fairness on every contest, giving both teams an equal chance at winning the game.

We watch baseball because many of us find it thoroughly engaging. It speaks our language, and we speak its. It’s as if we are born to play and watch baseball. Or so it seems. Actually, we are born to engage with what captures our attention, and baseball is designed to do just that.

Baseball brings out our best at throwing, catching, running, sliding, leaping, batting, playing as a team, and displaying our skills at offense and defense. All of which requires extreme concentration every step of the way. Baseball does exactly what Doubleday intended it to—keep us on our toes while striving to do our best. Even if we’re in bleacher seats, we are aroused, paying attention, and on our toes nonetheless.

 

I took C. Kenneth Meese’s Theory of the Photographic Process with me into the Army when I was drafted. I’ll bet no other draftee has ever chosen that particular book to take with him into the service. But the choice made sense to me because I wanted to know how light striking a light-sensitive emulsion could produce a photographic image.

Kodak made emulsions out of cheek pieces of cattle obtained from slaughterhouses. The makeup of those cheek pieces depended on what the cattle had eaten in the fields they had lived in. The sensitivity of the photographic emulsions invented by George Eastman depended on the amount of sulfur from mustard weed the cows had ingested.

Kodak film came to depend on very strict quality control of the diets of cows whose cheek pieces went into the gelatin from which that film was made. Who could have known, or even suspected? I loved it, reading that book by flashlight after taps during basic training. The Army didn’t own me completely; by clinging to such idiosyncratic engagements, I was still my own man.

So here I am today, writing about the exploration of my own mind, trying to finish this project before I die, continuing a tradition begun so long ago under the influence of the family I was born to as middle male child out of three. I loved my parents, but felt distant from them. My older brother had my father’s attention; my younger brother was my mother’s chief concern. I turned my engagements into the world of nature and discovery. Given the family I was born to, I didn’t know what else to do.

Here I am, still at it, but with a twist. Looking inward because so few others have taken that path, and among all choices, that is the one that intrigues me the most. The real action is not in the world or its universe. It is in the miracle of our own minds that dare entertain such mysteries.

Einstein’s famous thought experiments were all in his mind, as current theories of how the universe works are in the minds of modern cosmologists, astrophysicists, and astrobiologists. I can’t understand taking on the universe with an incomplete grasp of the primary tool I use to observe its features. Talk about carts before horses, that strikes me as insane, employing a mind you don’t understand to probe the biggest mystery of all. The blind leading the blind. Trapped in worlds of conjecture and opinion.

All going back to the families we were raised in, to our primal engagements, and the lifelong habits we build around them. To the situations we found ourselves in early on and tried to understand. And to explain, often mainly to ourselves. The very selves we have to understand in getting beyond our limitations to a true appreciation of our place in the cosmos.

The development of our minds begins in our families where we catch on to the trick of linking perception to judgment to acting on purpose, then extending our reach into nature, culture community, and back to us in our families. Taking full responsibility for such loops of engagement, we can begin to understand features of the universe beyond our true grasp.

This post concludes my series not only on family engagements, but engagements with nature, culture, and community as well. I now switch to considering three examples of engagements that distinguish us as a people: our engagements with baseball as our national pastime, Roget’s Thesaurus as a reference on every writer’s bookshelf, and with the stars which serve as a luminous slate for projecting our deepest needs into the mystery of the night sky.

To play the speech game you have to take turns. There’s a beat to it. You have to enter the rhythm. Say something, wait for a response. Pulses of meaning going both ways. Your turn, my turn, your turn, my turn. Incoming, outgoing, incoming, outgoing. Perception alternating with action again and again.

I am with you; you are with me. We are together. Two worlds as one in alternation. Subject and object combined as one. Agent and recipient forming a unity. Acting, being acted upon. Speaking, listening. I hear you; you hear me. I see you listening to me; you see me listening to you. All joined by a thread of meaning without end.

Your words spark something in me; my words spark something in you. Together, we create something new. Something different from either of us alone. We expand each other. Our mutual understanding grows larger. You build me; I build you. We are a dynamic duo in a relationship. That relationship is bigger than me, bigger than you. It is the two of us being bigger than ourselves. Creating a world we can both live in. A world of our own making and to our own liking. A world of shared understanding we can’t live without.

Families create spaces where such things can happen. People can get to know themselves in the company of others whom they trust. That company and those spaces are powerful. Like traveling through space to visit another planet. If you learn such ways in your family, you can try the same method outside with others.

I have a family behind me; you have a family behind you. Let’s get together to see what happens. See if we can make it work for the two of us. We’ll start slowly, taking turns. You go first. Then I’ll go, then you again. We’ll compare families. Compare worlds. Discover new planets. Off into the universe of possibilities before us. Whooee, this is fun. I’m having an adventure. How about you?

Engagements aren’t only with people. They can be between people and animals, animals and animals, people and things, people and places, people and weather, people and music, people and art, people and games, people and ideas, people and fantasies, people and dreams.

The common thread is a flow of action unto perception, perception unto action, again and again, for as long as it lasts. Each round sets the stage for the next, and the next after that. As each day leads to the next, each week, each month, each season, each year, each life leads to the next. The flow is the essence of engagement, the moving ahead. The wayfaring, the adventure, the prospect of discovery. Anything but the same old, same old. Orthodoxy is the death of engagement.

Under the spell of a biography of Charles Proteus Steinmetz, as a kid I unwound countless transformers to see how they were put together to solve the problem of electrical energy being wasted as heat in the magnets that stored that energy from cycle to cycle. The solution was to build transformers out of thin insulated layers of iron to break up the currents stealing energy out of the system.

I was entranced to find how such an idea itself could be transformed into a design that solved a problem. In a word, I was engaged. As I have been with one thing after another my whole life. One discovery after another, one project after another, one challenge after another. Each discovery leading to a new challenge. The flow never stops. One engagement leads to the next. As one footstep moves us ahead on our wayfaring journey. Who know where it will take us?

Once the process of engagement is discovered in childhood, there’s no telling where it will lead. To the knitting of mittens. The baking of apple pies. The washing of cars to look like new. The repair of roofs. The discovery of vacuum tubes. The discovery of transistors. The discovery of planetary disks around stars throughout the Milky Way galaxy.

Like footsteps one after another, our engagements lead us on and on. Once the process of engagement is discovered in childhood, there’s no telling where a given thread will lead. Our families give us a start, the rest is up to us on our own. Forming ongoing relationships, raising families, working on projects, making discoveries—being ourselves all the while.

What else are we here to do but discover who we are and the range of engagements we are suited to? The rest—doing the work—is up to each of us individually. Together, we will build the new world our children will grow up in. As generation by generation, our ancestors once built the world we inherited at birth.

Memory is at the heart of learning through trial and error. We are born knowing very little; it’s all uphill from there. Families give us a leg-up by not having to be feral children dependent on instinct. They give us enough leeway to own what we learn.

And what we learn is what to expect next time. Expectancy, recognition, identification, meaning, and understanding are gifts our sheltering families make available to us. Leading to judgment, which opens the way to appropriate behavior.

All courtesy of the families that give us room to fall on our face, pick ourselves up, and have at it again. Getting that one more chance makes all the difference because we remember the last time, and vow to do better. Our efforts add up as we go. Practice makes, if not perfect, at least for improvement.

Families give us the chance to engage through successive approximation, so that what we aim at, we eventually attain. Not trial and error just once, but again and again, showing incremental improvement each time. If we put in our ten-thousand hours of consciously appreciating those decreasing increments, we find ourselves right where we wanted to be two years ago. Courtesy of memory, room for experiment, the wisdom of patience, and the willingness to try.

Join all of the above to the life force that urges us on from every one of our cells because we need to do something with all that energy our mitochondria provide, and we have the formula for success via one earnest attempt after another.

Knowing almost nothing in particular at birth opens the door to the possibility of adapting to unanticipated conditions and situations. If we were born fully equipped with everything we needed to know, the first surprising change we encountered would throw us off our stride. We’d have no way of coping with novelty, and it would be our downfall in the end, which would come sooner rather than later.

No matter how trying family life can be, real life is far worse. Family life is a trial run for the time when we must face every challenge on our own by standing on the two feet we were born with and that our families have encouraged us to develop into an asset. Thanks, Mom; thanks, Dad; we owe it all to you. Oh, yes, and to the kids who grew up alongside us, no matter what pains they were to us at the time, or we to them.

Families are our first schools. In that sense, we all start out being home schooled. What do we learn? To be ourselves. To speak our native language. To engage. To babble, then invent our own patter. To discover meaningful speech. To understand others. To understand ourselves.

It all begins at mother’s breast while we are fed, warm, and safe. She smiles; we smile. She laughs; we laugh. She oohs; we ooh in response. Then we ooh meaningfully at the sight of her smile. She giggles; we giggle. Peek-a-boo!

We sense we’re onto something. We play off against her; she plays the same game. Back and forth; forth and back. There’s no stopping the banter. Then the flow of talk. Her turn, our turn. Then the full exchange, the loop of engagement of perception and action at the same time. She playing her part; we playing ours. Equally engaged. Paying attention. Watching, listening. Being watched; being listened to. Taking turns. Conversing. Being ourselves with each other. Not alone anymore. The biggest discovery of our lives. Or not, if there’s nobody to play the game with to get us started.

 

452. Was I Ever Young?

March 9, 2015

Looking back from the vantage of being eighty-two, I wonder, was I ever young? Was I ever! Young, that is. I have a bank of memories to prove it. Too many to count, so I will bullet a few.

  • Falling over the edge of a hayloft, hitting the floor between two pieces of heavy farm machinery, breaking my wrist.
  • My Vermont grandfather scolding me for sneaking into his workshop, messing with his woodworking tools.
  • Watching my grandmother talk through fingers screening her lips to keep her false teeth from flying out.
  • Lying in bed listening to steam locomotives pulling out of the station on wintery nights, hearing them try to gain traction on icy rails, slipping, then slowing, making another try, and another.
  • Auntie Viv giving us a dog that chased cars in Buffalo, and promptly chased cars in Hamilton, never tiring of attacking noisy tires.
  • Feeling heat from the fire in the boiler at the basket factory, hearing the machinery.
  • Crunching on broken glass, hearing whining complaints from sheets of galvanized roofing clanking in the wind at the old observatory on the hill.
  • Holding my nose among the bodies of cats pickled in formaldehyde at the gut lab, stiff legs poking under lids of their metal coffins.
  • Ogling a man’s head in a jar, donated the label said for research, skin stripped from half his face to show veins and arteries filled with blue and red rubber.
  • Watching a meteor shower with Norman Stauffer.
  • Finding fossil trilobites in layers of slate.
  • Getting stung by yellow jackets.
  • My father tapping his pipe out the car window, sparks setting tents lashed to the running board on fire.
  • My fifth-grade teacher’s heaving bosom as she sang Gilbert and Sullivan in the gym.
  • Brass spittoons among the ferns at the barber shop.
  • Crawling out over rafters holding up the tin ceiling of study hall at school, poking a balloon through a rust hole, bending down, braced between taut arms and legs, blowing it up for all to see—except nobody looked up.
  • Stealing a bike adornment with five flags from the dime store.
  • Peeing in a jug for a week to put on the neighbor’s porch.
  • Kicking a soccer ball on an icy sidewalk, legs flying out from under me, landing on the back of my head.
  • My tongue freezing to the metal steering bar of my Flexible Flyer.
  • Poking sticks into muskrat traps set in Payne Creek, the trapper yelling at me on the street.
  • Breaking into a barn, stealing an upright telephone and jewelry, wearing the pins under my sweater at school until my mother found out.
  • Mother spanking me with a canvas stretcher for yelling “I’m going to murder you” at my little brother for knocking down the tower I was building with wooden blocks.
  • My father making me give back the jackknife I stole from Dickie Wet-his-pants in second grade.

Was I ever young? Which tells you why I am now an empiricist, studying my own mind by direct observation and personal experience, shunning theories and mathematical models like dengue fever, dwelling contentedly in my subjective black box, taking full responsibility for my engagements with the world. Learning everything I know from my mistakes.

At birth, we are naïve about the ways of that world. The point of memory is to free us from our ignorance that we might have some chance of survival. Childhood is given us to learn as much as we can by trial and error in a somewhat protective environment. Now I know that pottery breaks when I drop it. Splinters lie in wait for me to rub my hand across rough wood. In the days when tires had inner-tubes, and I was old enough to drive, I was sure to get a flat tire if I didn’t carry a jack in the trunk.

It isn’t the taming of fire that gives humanity an edge on survival, spoken language, or even humor. It is memory that lets us learn from careless mistakes so, if we’re lucky, we can eventually work our way around them.