449. My Parents

March 5, 2015

Surprising as it may seem, parents are people. They are who they are. They can’t be all things to all children, who tend to draw closer to one or the other. Sex hormones may be one draw, a sense of shared identity or “identification” another. I’m with him, mister active who plays catch; I’m with her, the listener and supporter who gives me a hug now and then.

I grew up under the teachings of John B. Watson’s recent (1928) book, Psychological Care of Infant and Child, which advised raising children at an emotional distance as if they were young adults, shaking hands with them, but not hugging or kissing them lest they be spoiled. Young academics were apt to accept Watson’s doctrine as the authentic voice of scientific reasoning, so got suckered in to Watson’s “method,” while more loving parents remained skeptical.

The only time I can remember my father holding me in his lap was once on the front porch when he helped tie my shoes. The incident stands out because it was a unique event. Late in her life, my mother admitted that most people in Hamilton didn’t approve of how she was raising her three boys.

However family attachments are formed, they stir our engagements much as loving hands turn a prayer wheel in Tibet, or, as in my case, dutiful hands dress a child for school to meet community standards of approval. I have always seen my childhood as Platonic in being based on ideas and not feelings. I can’t recommend such treatment to anyone.

After all, it takes only a gentle pressure now and then to keep family relationships active and alive. Like prayer wheels, family engagements are made to spin, two partners in mutual orbit. To endure, they have to spin one around the other. In most families, parents trade off in keeping things going. Both are active while doing different jobs that have to get done every day. Like working for a living, getting dinner on the table, cleaning house, or watching a movie together.

When my parents got married in 1926, my father laid down the law: this is to be a one-career family. My mother was working on her doctorate in geology, so had to switch tracks mid-course. Her father had been a granite worker in the quarries of Sullivan, Maine. It was only natural for her to follow his lead. I remember she kept a few mineral samples in a bowl on her dresser, each labeled with its scientific binomial. In 1923, she did geological research at Acadia National Park. That was the year her father died of silicosis.

In the mid-1920s, her future husband showed up on her doorstep in Sullivan, seeking a rest stop on a hike from Middlebury to Nova Scotia. That was the end of his solo journey. My mother grudgingly learned to specialize in childcare and homemaking, developing a sideline of easel painting on Sundays, her day off.

I remember her boiling the laundry in a huge copper laundry tub that fit over two burners of the coal stove in the kitchen. She was a highly visual person, with marine artists in her family background. A Maine native, she loved the outdoors. In Seattle in the 1940s, I remember her saying after a long spell in the house, “I want to go out and touch trees.” She sent many signals that childrearing was not her chosen thing. But she worked at it as best she could because that was her family role. When she got more free time as her three boys got older, she took up flower gardening as a suitable pastime for a faculty wife.

My father was a distinguished college teacher of English. As far as I could tell, his toolkit consisted of pencils, paperclips, a stapler, pads of paper, and a zinc writing board with a bent corner. His main tool was an upright Underwood typewriter that made clickety noises through the closed door of his study after dinner, starting promptly at seven o’clock.

Each of us three boys had to invent himself for lack of an explicit model to engage with. Career-wise, we each did a lot of flub-dubbing around. Both my older and younger brother had great trouble finding a way through the halls of higher education. Both of them got lost.

Suspended between science and the humanities, I, too, got lost, but as a middle child with lesser influence from both parents, in my late forties I eventually stumbled my way to a doctorate in humanistic and behavioral education from Boston University School of Education in 1982. On the secondary level, I taught English for a time, and poetry, along with creative photography, art, and the humanities. Then I moved to Maine to write my great book, became an environmentalist, made a life for myself, and discovered wayfaring as my true profession. So did I resolve the misguidance of John B. Watson’s early and longstanding influence on my life.

418. Rowing

January 29, 2015

I am a walker and hiker in nature. And also a rower. By necessity, if I want to get to Burying Island in Taunton Bay. The island my extended family used to own in undivided shares. The island I now manage for Burying Island LLC, and for the members who now own shares in that company.

I lived on the island from June 14, 1986, to December 23, 1988, so did a lot of rowing back and forth in all seasons for two-and-a-half years. In this post I will tell of four memorable trips I made in my thirteen-foot fiberglass peapod made by Eric Dow in Brooklin, Maine. It’s called a peapod because, like a canoe, it narrows to a point at both ends. Eric made a mold from one of his hand-built wooden boats, and reluctantly (he’s a wooden-boat man) turns out fiberglass copies.


Steve in his peapod.

That’s me in my peapod on an unusually calm Taunton Bay.

On a windless, sunny day in early May, 1987, I rowed ashore for some provisions, and on the trip back saw a jellyfish in the water right next to my boat. A big jellyfish. Half as long as my boat. Like an amethyst city in a bubble, with tendrils dangling into the depths. I’d never seen or imagined such a thing. But there it was. An apparition. A lion’s mane jellyfish brought from the Arctic by the Labrador Current that feeds into the Gulf of Maine and the upper reaches of Frenchman Bay into Taunton Bay.

It was the most beautiful creature I’d ever seen, and I didn’t have my camera. I quickly eyed my position relative to ledges and rocks, rowed to the island, ran to my cabin, got my camera, ran back, rowed out to the channel—and couldn’t find it again. The tide was coming in, so I rowed farther into the bay. But it was gone. Lost, except to my memory, which provides a vivid image as I write these words some twenty-seven years later.

That’s what I mean by an engagement, coordinating my senses and muscles so my whole body is focused on the same event that fills my consciousness. Not like crossing the street while talking on a cellphone or looking down at your email on a small screen.


View from Burying Island

My peapod on Burying Island with Taunton Bay waiting beyond.

Then there was the still September evening I rowed back to the island with a bright green aurora wafting to the north, arching over Burying Island, and reflecting in the calm bay, making a shimmering green eye with the black island at its center. And luminous phytoplankton in the bay itself, so my oars stirred up glowing ripples on the surface, and pale green drops dripped into the water when I readied for the next stroke.

I’ve seen Taunton Bay under all sorts of conditions, but that was the most stunning row I ever made. The sky was alive, the surface of the water was alive, and the water itself was literally alive with phytoplankton. I took it all in, turning my head to watch where I was heading while continuing to row, my perceptions and motions proving that I, too, had never felt more alive. Once on the island, I stepped off onto the line of wrack at the edge of the tide, and it, too, glowed when I trod on it, leaving a track of luminous footprints from the plankton washed up from the bay.


Frozen Taunton Bay.

In February, Taunton Bay is much different than in July and August.

In November, after a particularly delicious Thanksgiving dinner with Bob and Mary McCormick on Butler Point in Franklin, I rowed out into a northeast blizzard, in total darkness at ten o’clock at night, with no stars or shoreline lights to steer by, and navigated by the bite of ice pellets driven by the wind against my right cheek, pulling on my oars with all the strength I took from eating that meal. I sensed where I was going, and got into the rhythm of a galley slave to head a straight course through heavy seas by keeping the sting of hurtling ice fixed on my cheek.

When the wind abruptly died, I knew exactly where I was by the map in my head—in the lee of the cliff on the north end of the island I was aiming for, the rest of my course hugging the windless shore of the island, which I couldn’t see, but could sense as a presence off to port, so I could avoid every rock and jutting point in reaching the gravel beach where I could haul up my boat, and then wend my way through snowy woods to my cabin.

Despite my hosts’ pleas not to row into the storm, my expectancy after rowing through all kinds of weather, steering by hidden signs that I didn’t know I could read—those signs told me I could make it. And by believing I was a match for the risk, I made it safely, where no caring or careful person might think it possible.

We learn about nature by engaging with it up-close and personally under all manner of conditions. If we give our all to it, nature will return its all to us. If we insist on only taking from nature, as we frequently do, we’ll end up with nothing.


Deer on an iced Taunton Bay.

Deer have learned to walk single-file at a distance across thin ice.

The last row across the bay I will mention took place in mid-March when I left a board meeting of Frenchman Bay Conservancy about ten at night and headed for my island home. March is a month of transitions when the ice goes out of the bay and deer can no longer stroll single-file back and forth between island and mainland.

I’d equipped my boat with a flashlight lashed to the bow so I could see ice floes as I approached them. On this trip, halfway across I came to a barrier of ice running with an outgoing tide. I had no idea how large a chunk of Egypt Bay ice was going out, but I certainly wasn’t going to pass in front of it, so turned northwest along the barrier to get behind it. Finding no break in the ice, I rowed. And I rowed. And I rowed. The entire bay seemed to be emptying in that one chunk of ice. Way off course, I steered around the back end of the outgoing ice, and headed toward the unseen island beyond it, almost crashing into Burying Island Ledge before I saw it ahead, so rowed around it, too, and knew right where the island lay not far ahead in the dark water.

What got me about that sheet of ice was how silent it was. No creaking, groaning, splashing to announce its presence. It was just there, blocking my route where, in my recent experience, no ice had been lately. Of course the entire bay had been frozen-over all winter, but Taunton River had been carefully reaching into the bay day-by-day, and for over a week my passage had been ice free. But this particular crossing coincided with the half-hour when the bulk of the upper bay cut loose and happened to lie between me in my boat and the island I was headed for. Learning from experience, I was prepared for just that possibility, so had put fresh batteries in my flashlight, and snugged its lashing to the boat.

Caring and careful engagement opens the way to learning through experience. Which is how people are meant to pull themselves ahead by their own bootstraps. By turning their worries and mistakes to good use. Which we are fully equipped to do, even in wholly unfamiliar situations.

That potential for self-teaching is the heritage that evolution has equipped us with. If we know what’s good for us, we trust that heritage every chance we get. Which is how I rowed myself safely across the bay under trying conditions, and had time to enjoy whatever scenes I met along my route.


No getting around it, we learn by sensing and doing. This requires liberal doses of time, frustration, variation, imagination, refinement, experimentation, curiosity, and practice, practice, practice. If leeway for such a program is not built into our schools, then we fall back on rote learning to be fed back on the test.

Better, we let students pose their own answers, and wrestle with working them through, making a great many errors along the way. Those errors will be their own errors, which they will learn to correct in short order.

Education based on trial and error is far better than learning to mimic a paradigm from the outset. How would you go about solving this problem? How do you see this situation? What options can you think of for ways to move ahead? Which option is the fastest? Cheapest? Most enjoyable? Easiest? Hardest? In the long/short run, best?

The role of education is to unleash the promise with which each child is born to this and future worlds, not to shape that promise to the desires of a select group of strangers driven by self-serving interests.


When I read about school committees cutting music, art, sports, and skill-building programs to make room for more math and science classes, I groan inwardly at the thought of how we teach our kids to live conceptual lives in a conceptualized world, as if the world of detailed sensory-motor experience didn’t matter or even exist. As if test scores and right answers are the measures of a good education, not experience, engagement, fascination, or enjoyment.

We teach our kids to “know” what a small, select segment of the adult population already knows, not to lead their own lives and draw their own conclusions from their streams of unique experience. We train for entry-level jobs in favored industries as if we could tell the future, not for leading a life in unpredictable times, which would be closer to what is likely to happen. As once we trained farm girls to tend whirling spindles in textile mills through New England, jobs that no longer exist because we have automated them and shipped them overseas.

This is exactly parallel to our reaching out to new experience from the vantage of where we’ve already been, rather than taking pains to explore what is presently before us. Projecting our remembrances onto the now, seeing in terms of the past—how does that serve as adequate preparation for welcoming a future we cannot predict in advance?

We know that Steve Jobs would have been a misfit in the days of James Watt, Thomas Edison, or Henry Ford. We need to help our children live in a world we cannot see from where we stand today. The task facing every generation is to learn to be open to possibilities raised by novel situations, today and forever.

If we insist on clamping what we already know now onto the minds of the young, condemning them to relive the lives their teachers have already lived, how are they going to find the essential freedom, imagination, skills, and curiosity to lead lives of their own in their own times?

In truth, education must allow for a high degree of uncertainty in how it is to be put to use. Its goal must ever be teaching the young to experience and to think for themselves in the many unknown situations they will surely face. Some of those situations will be similar to the ones we have known, but they will also differ in many respects.

Heading into the unknown with resources that can be brought to bear no matter what, that is the gift of the true education we owe to our children. Making them into copies of employees we need today in our workplaces—that condemns them to a life of frustration and inadequacy in falling short of becoming their own unique selves.


Copyright © 2013 by Steve Perrin

On My Mind: A New Vision of Consciousness (Lulu.com, May 2013) by Steve Perrin

My latest book is about the structure and workings of consciousness as revealed through many years of personal self-reflection. Consciousness, I find, is aroused by a disparity between two nerve signals, much as depth perception results from a disparity between images at corresponding points on the retinas of our two eyes.

Such a disparity in signals might arise between sensory patterns as remembered in contrast to those currently perceived. That is, between expectancy and actual experience, or between the aim of a deliberate action and the effect it actually produces.

I think of that disparity as a relative “valence” such as that between right and wrong, true and false, good and bad, like and dislike, or attractive and repellant. If the valence indicates, for example, “that our impressions exceed or fall short of our expectations, then we become aroused, pay attention, and make a conscious effort to account for the difference so we can take appropriate action.” I think of a helmsman steering through fog by the deviance of his compass needle from his charted course to illustrate the idea of such a valenced signal

In this regard, I see the brain not as a computer but “as a vigilant comparator looking for the then in the now, and when not finding it, taking pains to update memory through conscious scrutiny.” That comparator is on duty whenever things, for better or worse, do not go as expected. Resulting in our streaming consciousness striving to keep up with events as they actually unfold in round after round of engagement. Our personal experience reflects those eternal rounds of engagement, much as the holding power of a screw derives from the helical course of its ramped threads through the wood into which it is turned.

Our minds have many alternative routes from perception to action that largely sidestep consciousness. Reflexes, mimicry, rote memorization, and habitual routines, for instance, proceed unconsciously according to our expectations. But when things do not go as expected, our minds are roused to take unanticipated factors into account. Personal consciousness is situated between perception and action, where it plays the vital role of supervising our rounds of engagement for as long as we concentrate on a particular task or activity.

The take-away message of my new book is that a course of introspection is advised if we are to take responsibility for the outcomes of our personal views and actions. Since every human mind is unique, only one person on Earth has both the motive and opportunity to acquaint any given mind. Our schooling generally deals with abstractions, concepts, and generalities, leaving the particular workings of our minds for us to deal with on our own. This book provides examples of how we might do just that. “The art of introspection is in accepting whatever appears, not judging or dismissing it beforehand because it does not meet designated research criteria.” I use haiku as an example of “grappling with becoming aware of being aware” during moments that draw “us out of our everyday selves, heightening our engagement with life.”

On My Mind: A New Vision of Consciousness is available at lulu.com. Search “Books” for “Steve Perrin” and you will come to it. The cost is $17.95 plus shipping.


Reflection 330: Get a Job?

October 10, 2012

Copyright © 2012 by Steve Perrin.

U.S. corporations have gone global, and shipped their jobs overseas to be done by cheaper labor. Leaving millions unemployed here at home, wiping out the entire middle class. So when told to get a job in order to pay taxes to support government programs, where do we start? Not by scanning employment ads—compared to the old days, there aren’t any. We’re broke, the government is broke, the economy is broke. Getting ahead has become an old-fashioned idea. We appear to be stuck where we are.

This is a classical catch-22 situation: we have to, but we can’t. We can’t work for someone else for a decent wage because such jobs aren’t on offer. We have to look for service jobs that pay less than we need, or think we need. How are we going to get through school, make enough to get married and have a family, and still meet our basic needs for food, shelter, clothing, transportation, so we can even hope to lead a decent life without lugging around a killing burden of debt?

We’ve been in this situation long enough to see that the inherent risks of a capitalistic system are not borne by those with money, as is so often claimed, but by the laborers they hire to do their work—those abandoned when employers cut the cost of production by moving overseas, leaving those at home in the lurch. Profit depends on keeping labor costs low and selling-prices high, so the working class finds itself not only used, but expendable. Capitalism, by definition, creates wealth for the rich, not for those they hire to do their work. A widening gap between rich and poor is inherent in the system itself.

We discover ourselves to be living in a society set up to favor some members over others who are placed at high risk. That is, those who establish and maintain the system use their employees for personal benefit. It is the bosses who get ahead, not the workers and their families, who in these nonunionized days must fend for themselves.

When you get a job, you find yourself working for an employer who pays you money to do whatever task he assigns you. On company time, you surrender your right to engage the world on your own, so putting others’ personal goals in place of yours, which has come to be the modern way of selling our souls by assuming all the risk of employment, placing ourselves at the mercy of those who decide to hire us, or not.

In this blog I have maintained all along that how you engage the world is your business and no one else’s because it is precisely who you are. You aren’t going to become someone by and by, you are that person here and now. If your realization of who you are lags behind your deeds, then you need to catch up with yourself and not think of yourself as a child anymore—as you once were but no longer are. By placing ourselves in the care of an employer, we cling to our childhood dependence on others who may be only slightly ahead of ourselves in their personal development and self-awareness.

First we are shaped by others in this life, then we arrive at self-realization and discover who, exactly, our unique life histories have turned us into. That process of self-discovery authorizes us to make ourselves happen in the world through our own engagements, giving us the means for advancing ourselves by lifting our own bootstraps, so that we fulfill ourselves by our own efforts, to our own ends.

Quite simply, we must be ourselves to the fullest because we can’t be anyone else. If we don’t do that work, no one else can do it for us. Not our spouses, not our children, not our friends, not our employers.

I look upon this present so-called recession as an opportunity to rethink our relationship to the society we find ourselves living in. If we are devoting our life energies to the wellbeing of others, sacrificing ourselves for their profit, then now is our chance to rework that bargain so that we benefit equally from our parallel or mutual engagements (anything less amounts to enslavement).

If we don’t know how to proceed, we must educate ourselves to listen to our own inner voice, not the voice from the school, factory, or community loudspeaker telling us what to do. We are sold the idea that education prepares us to get a “good” job. The truth is that what we need to learn is how to engage effectively with whatever situation we find ourselves in—including situations we cannot even imagine—using the powers inherent in our bodies and minds to advance themselves by teaching us to engage on behalf of our personal values, interests, and formative experiences. If schools don’t help us learn how to do that, they are serving someone else’s agenda, not their students’.

The fuller we become ourselves in our engagements, the more we encourage those around us to be fully themselves in theirs. We can’t instruct them in what to do, but by serving as examples, we help others to figure that out for themselves.

The question is, how can we engage our surroundings so that we complement one another as we grow into ourselves? The world we have lived in up till now has stressed competition between winners and losers. In politics and economics, if you don’t win you wonder why you even try. But that’s not how an equitable society should work, one group thriving at another’s expense. If we don’t all become winners, we all are diminished to that same extent. The current income and power disparity teaches us that.

No, we can’t engage in political, economic, or educational systems that pit us against one another. We are in this life together, so all must have an equal chance to survive. The way to do that is for each to accept full responsibility for becoming his- or herself to the max. Who we become is who we already are but don’t yet recognize as ourselves. That work is a job of self-cultivation by developing skills of engagement driven from the inside, not laid upon us by others for their personal advantage.

These are metaphysical issues seldom addressed in the press. My claim is that reality is our own personal doing in interacting as we do with the world, not the reality of faces smiling upon us out of the mythological or fantasy world crafted by advertising and public relations firms, members of the same world that dictates the curriculums of our local schools. In truth, reality is in the care of each one of us as we bioenergetically engage the world around us in terms of the situations we believe ourselves to be in at the time. We build that reality through every one of the engagements we conduct in behaving as we do, situation after situation as viewed from our unique, subjective perspective.

If that operative reality is to change in our favor, we have to alter how we engage day by day. Which seems like a good topic for my next post to this blog.

Thanks for listening. I remain as ever, y’r friend, –Steve of this planet we live on, the only one we have or, indeed, that will have us

Copyright © 2012 by Steve Perrin.

In my last 20 posts I have included 138 photographs illustrating the wildness of some of my engagements this past summer. But my engagements come in many different types and styles, wildness being only one of them. In round after round of engagement, I have interacted with people (from family, friends, and relatives, to casual acquaintances, and total strangers); with a variety of locales in coastal Hancock County, Maine; and with a great many engagement accessories (tools) including my toothbrush, 18-year-old car, PC, iPad, favorite mug, books on my shelves, cribbage board, pencil now lost, rowboat, and Super Sky Hawk airplane. Without any one of those engagements with people, places, things, my life would have turned out differently than it did.

Life for all of us is a whirlwind of engagements, some pleasant, some less so. Our minds drive us to interact with one person-place-thing after another in never ending succession. Finish one, move on to the next. Even when asleep, we engage with our dreams. Even when bored, we are engaged with our boredom, driving ourselves to distraction. We take all this for granted as just how it is—how we are and how life is. But seldom do we contemplate the miracle of the whirlwind that is ourselves as powered by our spinning, conscious and unconscious minds.

Introspection is a sort of time-and-motion study of one human mind. When you start to think about thinking, there is so much happening and so much material to include that it’s far easier to go watch YouTube videos for an hour than reflect on your own inner workings. But my many bouts of self-reflection over a thirty-year period have revealed to me that my engagements are what I am all about. I am built as an engager, and operate as one every day of my life. If I weren’t and I didn’t, I’d be dead. In truth, engagements are the stuff life is made of. They are the meaning of life itself—what we do in interacting with the world around us, coupled to what the world does with us in return. Life is one spinning engagement without end until our minds give out and we realize there really is an end after all; but till then, we deny any such thing, and have our daily engagements to prove it.

Though I am sometimes uncomfortable in the face of events, I can’t recall ever being bored. The power of the mind is rooted in the ability to pay attention, and in every situation there is always something to notice and attend to, even if it is the state of one’s mind at the time. But then I’ve never been in solitary confinement for a month, or deprived of sensory impressions for even a minute (except when asleep). In my case, to live is to be awake and attentive to whatever catches my ear, nose, eye, or mind. To live is to engage; to engage is to be active; to be active is to be mindful and alert. Partly in order to survive, partly to be productive, partly to be fulfilled, partly to integrate into and get along with the rest of the world.

Engagement is no special moment and no frill. It is life itself. It is what we do with our two fundamental sources of energy, ambient sensory energy from our surroundings and bodily energy from the food we eat combined with the air we breathe. The point of our personal combustion (metabolism) is to get engaged and stay engaged. To be part of the scene around us. To be somebody. Which we do in many ways—the particular ways (types, styles) of engagement that determine our distinctive personalities.

We engage the world by acting out of the situations we get ourselves into by making ourselves happen as we do. The meaning of our actions flow from those situations as seen from our personal perspective. We aren’t engaging the world so much as engaging our view of the world—the world as it seems to us. Our preferred styles of interaction—our personalities—reflect our outlooks on specific situations as seen inside-out in creating a reality for ourselves that springs from the unique set of life conditions we have become used to and cannot imagine otherwise.

Common types or styles of engagement might be suggested by clusters of terms such as:

  • assertive, dominant, aggressive, authoritarian
  • accepting, submissive, peaceful, tolerant
  • playful, lighthearted, open, humorous, joyful
  • rigid, set, closed, unyielding, fearful
  • loving, caring, compassionate, generous
  • hostile, callous, unforgiving, self-serving
  • adventurous, risky, courageous, creative
  • collaborative, collegial, cooperative, friendly
  • competitive, self-centered, grudging, conflictive
  • composed, orderly, organized, constructive, concerted
  • wild, unruly, careless, unthinking, haphazard
  • and so on.

By my way of thinking, two of the most prominent engagement styles reflect minds that are either open or closed to discovery. That is, minds either looking for answers or set upon imposing preconceived solutions. Here is a sample of what I have written in contrasting the two styles:

The hallowed field of education is based on assumptions concerning the nature of learning, teaching, knowing, truth, inquiry, experiment, language, and other fundamental matters of great importance. In some quarters, questions are regarded as tokens of heresy, so education is reduced to rote memorization of orthodox texts, accurate recitation being taken as proof of wisdom and understanding. With a quotation at hand for every issue, the truth becomes self-evident to all who have undergone proper indoctrination. Again, answers are known before any questions are asked. Reciting the words of ancient masters, pupils build a future for themselves that is meant to be a replica of the distant past. Back to the future; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen. (Consciousness: The Book, page 239.)

Voices rising from Wall Street insist that there is no need for more vigilant governmental oversight—even as those same speakers inflict yet another economic calamity on the nation—while a chorus in Washington insists that government, taxes, and entitlements need to be abolished as evils in themselves. Self-serving opinion is rampant in today’s media, while knowledge won through practical and costly experience is dismissed as a fascist, communist, or Islamic terrorist plot, whichever is the flavor of the day. The conflict is not about preserving the primacy of Western-Capitalist Civilization but is an example of warfare between minds—open on one side and closed on the other, or worse—closed on both sides.

Military conflicts arise from failed engagements between minds that have been reared-taught-trained and armed by members of different cultures and belief systems. Wars are never solutions to world problems because they inevitably spawn further problems that are even worse when the next generation comes to face them. On the intercultural scene, passionate speeches in different languages are no substitute for the experience of actually getting together in an atmosphere of mutual respect while working things out—of actively engaging to a common purpose.

I offer loops of engagement as a means for implementing the golden rule because such loops bring up both the self and the other for due consideration at the same time. It’s not one “me” against the other, but start to finish a consorting “we.” In a world of over seven billion unique individuals, styles of engagement make all the difference in getting along as good neighbors. How we reach out to one another determines the responses we get back. Blame becomes obsolete because it only widens the gap between us when what we need is an effectively united humanity that can relieve the pain we are inflicting on our ourselves and on the natural world we claim to praise while mindlessly rendering uninhabitable.

That is my message for today and forever. Y’s truly, ––Steve from Planet Earth

Reflection 295: Judgment

July 20, 2012

Copyright © 2012 by Steve Perrin. (Six photos included.)

If it weren’t for our judgment, we’d all be dead. At least we get some things right, no matter what situation we’re in. Our day-to-day survival is proof that we possess a smattering of judgment at least. But for that smattering, we’d be dead.

That is, things are not necessarily as dire as I presented them in my last post—everything up in the air because we are trapped in situations of our own doing, so can’t watch ourselves as we make ourselves happen, like a helmsman on the open ocean without a compass.

But we do have a kind of compass to steer by, our own hard-won judgment. Not inherited, not bought off the shelf (like a college curriculum), but earned through the trial-and-error method of making every mistake in the book until we finally get the message. With all that experience behind us, if we paid attention as we went, then the residue of our prior mistakes will remind us what we want to avoid now, so we slowly advance on a course between the submerged ledges we know from experience lie all around us.

As near as I can tell, our word judgment stems from the Latin iudicare, meaning, basically, to point the index finger. That gesture is an outward and visible sign of what happens in our minds when we come to a clear realization. Whether we point up into the air or at a specific person, we have come to clarity about the way ahead. The process by which we reach that point is called judgment. We have found a way out of our situation of perplexity, so are ready in our minds to move on to the next stage toward decisive action.

That turning point is the pivot about which our loops of engagement redirect the attentive and perceptual side of our consciousness toward taking physical action. Toward behavior; doing something in the world. That is the ah-ha moment when the mists rise and our situation becomes clear. We know what to do, and are free to set about doing it. The only way to get to that point is through the trial of personal judgment.

I’m going to join the Navy. I’m going to marry the guy. I’m going to quit school and ride my bike around the world. Whatever we decide, we have to gather the evidence, ponder it, and judge what we think is best for us. Individually, we are the deciders who turn sensory impressions into situations into courses of action through exercise of our personal judgment, or not, as may be the case.

Many decisions to act are grounded on personal fears, impulses, or whims, not considered judgments. The essence of an education is learning to convert the former into the latter through realization that actions have consequences, some desirable, some not. We don’t know that when young, so have to find our way between (or be steered away from) dangerous situations in which we, unwittingly, can become our own enemies. Judgment, not knowledge, is the true aim of education.

We earn judgment through personal experience, so it becomes ours for life; so-called knowledge is time-sensitive, forgettable, and often based more on opinion than fact. Schools teaching doctrine or ideology can do more harm than good. Schools based on developing personal judgment through having students discover where their personal decisions take them—such schools deliver an education for a lifetime of application.

The art of converting situations into solutions through applied judgment is in developing the skill to rise above your limited experience of yourself and your world to obtain a larger view of the issues and terrain that surround you. By broadening the horizon within which you live, you come to appreciate the ways of the world beyond what you are already familiar with.

The flight I recently made in a small plane to photograph the watershed of Taunton Bay provided me just such an educational experience. I was intimately familiar with an island in the bay, and somewhat familiar with the bay itself through years of research and discovery, but the watershed was largely a mystery to me until I made a deliberate effort to transcend my traditional, earthly perspective so I could look down with the eyes of an eagle. It wasn’t that the watershed hadn’t been there all along, it’s that I had to go beyond myself in becoming a new person who could appreciate what was there.

To end this post, I will include six images from that flight focused on the flow of fresh water into the bay, photos that greatly expand the range of sensory impressions and situations over which I feel my judgment can be trusted.


What a ride! I am a larger person than I was because my judgment concerning watershed affairs now applies within a wider horizon than it did before the flight. For me, land uses within that horizon now include: forestry, sand pits, blueberry barrens, agriculture, transmission lines, roadways, cemeteries, residential and commercial development, ball fields, bogs and other wetlands, great ponds, mountain slopes, and conservation lands. I have been there and seen them. Thank you, Friends of Taunton Bay, and B. D.-B. (who helped pay for the ride).

In one 48-minute flight, by studying the lay of the land, I saw how the bay was situated, an island in that bay was situated, and I was situated when on that island. Childhood is usually the time for growing into our homelands. Here I am at 79, still growing, still widening my horizons, still striving to improve my judgments on things that matter—such as my inner life, even my mind itself. I call that lifelong learning. What shocks me is how early in life some people stop learning and start telling others what they should do and how they should live.

Sensory impressions, situations, judgments, action—that’s why I have a mind to help me navigate through life. My one, particular life. My guess is that the same is true for you. As ever, I remain y’r friend, –Steve

Copyright © 2012 by Steve Perrin

Situations, as I use the term, refer to models in our heads of what is going on in the world around us constructed on the basis of sensory impressions derived from energy impinging on our sense organs at the time. They range from wild guesses based on whims to carefully considered hypotheses derived from sensory evidence and experience. One thing situations are not is accurate representations of physical events in the world. Every situation is a conjecture signed and dated by its author.

Our senses convert energy in the world to nerve signals in our brains. The impressions we have of what is going on in the world are just that—impressions—because signals flowing from one nerve cell to another are very unlike energy transmission through the air, to be subsequently converted by eye or ear to electrically charged ions flowing across membranes along nerve fibers in the most complex organic system in the known universe, the human brain, and the mind emerging from its concerted activity.

Situations are what we think is happening in the world from our singular point of view. That’s why we have to test them through trial and error to see if we’re right, or revise and augment them if (as is so often the case) we are wrong. At best, our conjectures are subjective, partial (both biased and incomplete), and inconclusive in themselves. They are probes in the dark, seldom to be trusted in full.

Movies and soap operas derive drama while cartoons derive humor from the mix-ups we get into by trusting our sense of a situation overmuch. In a recent New Yorker cartoon, the bird lately come to heaven inquires of a resident angel, “You run into a window, too?” Or the Scrabble-playing cat tells the dog on the opposite side of the board, “‘Woof’ isn’t a word.”

As I said in my last post, situations are always posed from our personal points-of-view, so our unstated assumptions feature prominently in our behavior. Given the phenomenological nature of human awareness and understanding, it cannot be otherwise. Our renditions of the world are always seen from a first-person singular perspective.

The culture we grow up in has a huge influence on the situations by which we approach the world. Be nice, be brave, be modest, be strong we are told, and we are—as we interpret such advice in light of our personal feelings at the time. Parents, siblings, cousins, grandparents—all influence how we engage the world by our own lights. “You can take a boy out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of a boy” precisely because the situations in which a boy knows who he is are country situations, and he carries them with him to the grave.

Training a boy to be a killer in the service of his country cannot simply be countermanded by making him a civilian again. He can be separated from the service, but the disciplined training and battlefield trauma are his for life, and are ever-present in the situations he imagines himself to be in so-called civilian life.

Our loops of engagement are centered on the situations we conjure to justify our actions. Emotionally deprived of love, comfort, and warmth as infants (when we become who we are), we include that deprivation in each situation we engage with, perpetuating our childhood predicaments in every adult act. If a loving engagement is not available to us, we fall back on the next survival value in line—on food, drink, sex, sense of place, money, possessions, position, power, fast cars, big houses, and so on. We see reenactments of such engagements performed on the public stage every day. What else is a presidential primary campaign than a free-for-all for the neediest among us? The needier the candidate for what he missed in childhood, the stronger he comes across as knowing what’s good for everyone in the nation.

“Good” advice is what we give other people to make up for what we lacked as children; our own style of engagement is at the heart of that advice because it is what present situations call up within us. Since that voice calls so loudly and persistently to us, it is all we can hear and all we have to give others. Consider the financial services industry that thrives on turning public debt into personal profit, converting the wealth of a nation into bonuses for taking (and hedging) risks with other people’s money. All the while feeling the nation should be grateful for being bilked of its assets.

That is how situations work. I project my primal situation onto you in your current world, and do unto you as was done unto me a long time ago. If my childhood was loving and joyful, I spread love and joy wherever I go. If it was neglectful or abusive, ditto, I spread that around because it’s what I know best.

We live in a time when collusion between the deprived and needy is rampant because ungoverned, and ungoverned because unrecognized for what it is—a crisis of childhood needs left unmet. The film Inside Job makes clear that the banks are in cahoots with rating agencies, with insurance companies, with the media, with grad schools, with regulatory agencies, with public officials in creating schemes to divert the nation’s collective wealth to themselves at public expense. From the perspective of the moneyed elite, it all makes perfectly good sense to subvert the nation for their benefit so they can get what they want at others’ expense. That’s a fair portrait of the world situation from their point of view because it’s built into each of their personal situations and has been from the beginning.

How we engage one another is a function of the world situation as each of us constructs it for him or herself, and carries for life. Education is laid upon us when it should be drawn out of us from the first day of school, based on who we are when we enter the room instead of who we are supposed to become when we graduate. The question to ask is not, What do you want to be when you grow up?, but Who were you as a young child?, and Who are you now? That is the basis for every situation we will build ourselves around in reaching into the world, either to spread love or to get the gratification we were denied in our formative days, months, years. If we need to be held in loving embrace, then that is a school’s job to make us secure enough to get on with the world’s work. We need to be attended to and made to feel special, not treated as so many standard units of ignorance to be molded into entrepreneurs and engineers.

A schoolroom can be a model situation where everyone in it belongs to the tribe in her own way because she is who she is and has lived the life that she has. Accepted in that way, students feel like themselves and not hollow imposters having to pull the wool over other eyes to avoid having their secrets revealed.

Childhood situations make the man and the woman. Learning how to engage by nuzzling our mother’s breast and being read to in our father’s lap, we go on to find our place at the bosom of our tribe or neighborhood. The situations we are used to form the basis of our personal mythology. The financial services industry—and prisons—are full of those who may not have had that route available to them, so came to rely on surrogate engagements to get them through the day. When money (because with it you can buy anything you want) and brute strength come to stand in for love and respect, the nature of our most fundamental life situations degrades into extracting from others what they don’t want to share. With the results we see all around us in the form of war, corruption, greed, and criminality.

Do I have any right to make such a claim? Indeed, I speak from the depths of the life I have lived and discover in situations spread before me in every direction. Situations reveal where we are coming from, where we are situated in our own lives. They are always centered on personal concerns and aspirations. Situations are the mental territories where we live out our lives, the respective standpoints from which we seek to further our wellbeing and accomplishments. The situations we have lived through up to now endure at our core like the rings of a tree. They hold us up as we face the next storm.

One tree to another, I remain y’r friend, –Steve