I have covered a lot of ground in getting this far with my blog telling the inside story of consciousness. I here offer an opportunity to see that journey not as a sequence of hesitant steps, but as an adventure entire in itself. Here are a few bulleted reminders of the stages I have passed through.

  • Consciousness is a collaborative effort between mind, body, and world. It intercedes between perception and action, and can be bypassed by reflex thinking, rote learning, mimicry, habits, routines, prejudice, and ideology.
  • Solving the world puzzle from the perspective provided by our minds is a matter of conjecture based on personal experience, not knowledge, not truth.
  • Perception provides not a glimpse of the world so much as a heightened impression of the world from a particular wayfarer’s point of view.
  • Like Plato, we all share in the common failing of mistaking our personal solution to the world puzzle for the way the world really is. Our beliefs are custom-made for true believers (that is, ourselves, who couldn’t be more earnest).
  • The more ardently we hold our beliefs, the more likely we are to be wrong.
  • Expectancy and recognition reveal the participation of memory in perception.

No matter how finely we resolve the tissues of the brain, consciousness will elude us because it is an ongoing process of engagement between our minds, actions, and the world.

  • Attention is the gateway to consciousness. It is aroused by a delta signal stemming from a sense of discrepancy between what we expect or hope for and what actually happens.
  • From the outset, all awareness is polarized as being either good or bad, desirable or undesirable, satisfying or dissatisfying, right or wrong, true or false.
  • It takes persistence and concentration to explore the forbidden middle ground between the two poles of awareness.
  • The engagements that link us to our worlds couple perception to meaningful judgment to fitting action on one or more levels of nature, culture, community, and family, which in turn affects our attention and stimulates sensory perception.
  • Our engagements are told by the situations they create in our minds as made up of various dimensions of intelligence such as memory, sensory impressions, understanding, feelings, motivations, biological values, humor, imagination, temperament, interest, thought, and available energy (what I refer to as the life force).
  • Language in the form of speech, writing, thought, and comprehension flows from the situations we find ourselves in when we experience the urge to speak or to listen.

As a writer, I have long wondered where words come from. I now feel that our situated intelligence shapes our current situation from the dimensions of personal awareness (or intelligence) aroused in a given moment of experience. In being conscious, it is just those situations that we become conscious of, and subsequently respond to.

  • All life engages its surroundings in an ongoing exchange of matter and energy. It is the job of our minds to monitor how that exchange is going, and to feed-forward to judgment a selection of options for how we might respond. For good or ill—and engagements can strike us either way—we must engage in order to find our place in the world.
  • We are linked and anchored to our worlds by a spectrum of ongoing (often simultaneous) engagements. It is essential for us to keep up with what is happening around us. Hence we live in a world of media all striving to influence and inform us from their respective points of view.
  • Time is a calibrated sense of change that is not of our doing; space is a calibrated sense of change resulting from our own actions. Spacetime is a calibrated sense of change resulting from our simultaneously doing and perceiving at once.
  • Ownership and possessiveness are attitudes toward persons and objects with which we meaningfully engage in being fully ourselves. Money is a tool we use to engage on cultural terms. The law is our culture’s effort to regulate the conduct of our engagements so that each of us enjoys equal freedom and opportunity in pursuit of our personal goals.
  • Freedom is an opportunity to engage the world with full respect for the integrity of each of its inhabitants, whether plant, animal, or human.
  • Baseball, Roget’s Thesaurus, and the stars provide examples of aspects of the world puzzle we are apt to engage with in our search for personal happiness. There is no limit to the importance we project onto such personal engagements as primary shapers of our lives.

I view my personal consciousness as culminating in the image of a wayfarer finding his way among others who are making their own ways for themselves. Our respective journeys are so varied and personal, I identify with each wayfarer in taking on the challenge of finding a way forward from wherever she or he is at any given stage of life.

The task each one of us faces is solving the world puzzle in a meaningful way for ourselves, while respecting other solutions for other wayfarers on journeys of their own.

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.

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.

 

450. Family Story

March 6, 2015

My grandmother died of a heart attack in 1896 after giving birth to her only child, so he, my father, had never know her, his own mother. He was christened at her graveside. And as it turned out, his own children never knew him, our father. To us he might well have been a cobbler hammering at his last in some distant workroom across town.

But we loved him in spirit because he often read to us before bedtime. In the end, he pipe-smoked himself to death at age sixty-four. When he said good night, he smelled like an ashtray.

Though famous in a professional sense, he never found the engagement he missed-out on when the one person destined to be there for him never showed up. He never engaged her, his own mother, so never had a chance to respond to her personal qualities, and so never developed his own. He was a presence notable for its absence due to professional duties. Throughout my life, he was always this bemused man in the background.

In retrospect, I see him as a good provider, but, too, as a kind of silent partner, a sort of blank to be filled-in upon later reflection. That is what I see myself doing in writing this blog using the English language to write about the one mind I have to work with. And saw my two brothers doing late in life before they died, putting themselves into typing out plays and poetry, respectively. Reminding me of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, children of the John B. Watson era of child abuse by means of edicts issued from academia.

My father’s great gift to his family was Burying Island, which my mother brought to family attention as a memory from her childhood, presented to her in a dream she had in 1937 of a time she and her father had rowed to the island to pick raspberries. Talk about family engagements: I have spent almost my whole life interacting with that island on the Maine coast, and I am sure that connection explains why I moved to Maine in 1986 to become an inadvertent environmentalist.

My love for that island goes back to its meaning for both of my parents. For my mother it was a living remnant of her relationship with her father; for my father is was a fantasy remnant of a relationship with the mother he never knew. For me, it was the setting of the happiest days we enjoyed as a family before we went our separate ways into disparate worlds of our own.

I now manage Burying Island LLC for the three families that used to own it in undivided shares, but together formed an LLC to assure protection of its ecological integrity for the foreseeable future. A good part of my life’s energy has gone toward protecting that island from innocent degradation by well-meaning family members. That island is at the core of my creative life as Steve from planet Earth.

Mind, self, island, planet—I can’t keep them separate because in my experience they aren’t separate at all. They are levels of life on Earth as expressed through my lineage. I had to live my whole life to this point in order to write that sentence in the context of this reflection.

That is how my mind works. And I would now say how minds work in general. Ultimately they are expressions of the planet that bore them, their families, communities, cultures, and natural surroundings, at root based on sunlight and water joining forces with soil to create mindful life.

Our families provide a core around which our engagements are wrapped, giving shape to our actions, judgments, and perceptions. Here I am connecting the words in this blog to the situation I have created for myself by undertaking this project as an expression of my family history as kindled by my mother and father all the way back to the founding of one-celled life in ancient waters and soils pooled together and both warmed and lit by rays from the sun.

This is my story as dictated to my fingers by my mind. All told by trusting my situated intelligence to find coherent meaning in the many currents of thought and feeling that make up the mind that I am.

Can you feel it—that flow? That’s who I am in alerting you to that flow in yourself, to give you encouragement to keep your own flow flooding through your mind and activities as a vehicle for your family’s history of turning sunlight and moisture into deeds that perpetually flower in the guise of your creative engagements.

Though I didn’t know it at the time, that is why I undertook the project of writing this blog—to earn the right to say what I just did in these last few sentences and paragraphs.

 

448. Family Engagements

March 4, 2015

How do families form? How do they work? How do they stay together? How do they fall apart?

Some would say the driving force is the binding power of religious belief. Others would say, cultural tradition, civil authority, paternal or maternal consent, and so on. Still others would maintain that families are formed in response to the abiding and mutual attraction of two people in love.

Many would agree that it takes a public act or ceremony to instigate a family, attended by as large a sector of a community as can be gathered together, adding the weight of many hearers to any vows that might be exchanged. And incidentally forming a base of well-wishers right from the start.

But in fact, families form whenever and wherever conditions are present in the right proportion to support individuals in committing themselves one to another, as construed by the minds of those concerned.

Sexual engagement may be involved before, during, or after any such pledge of commitment. Women like to be wedded and bedded; men like to bed and be fed. Most agree that families require consummation at some point to become sufficiently binding to enter into the books that make families official or legal in the public mind.

But there are a great many extra-legal ways to start a family, one being a shotgun wedding enforced by the male parent of a fallen maiden, or simply by mutual consent of the people (not necessarily of different sexes) involved with no additional requirements.

From the standpoint of children within a family, we know our families from the unique perspective of our unfolding minds, never twice the same two days in a row. By definition, we are developing all the while, every hour of every day. We are not yet fully human, and have far to go before we achieve an identity worthy of that honorific title. But day by day, wayfarers that we are, we head in that direction.

If the question could be put to us early on, “Eat and poop, poop and eat, when are you going to stop being such an animal?,” our behavior would answer for us: “Bear with me, I’m working on it.” By the time we are thirty, forty, fifty, or eighty, all will be revealed.

As children, our repertory of developing gifts is influenced by a number of factors: genetic heritage, diet, skills we work on, engagements we strike up, character traits of those around us—parents, siblings, relatives, friends, pets, and neighbors. We’re all working on it by providing a stimulating and supportive (and somewhat stressful) family setting matched to (and a little ahead of) our respective levels of competence.

Think of the young Mozart, Tiger Woods, Serena and Venus Williams, following the examples provided by attentive, encouraging, and often demanding parents. Prodigies are made, not born, by seizing the occasions they are given for grappling to achieve what they see others doing with polish and ease.

Infants thrive on repeated awareness of warmth, tenderness, milk, and sonorous engagements suited to their needs and abilities. Reassured by their initial contacts, they seek a greater range of challenges through more demanding engagements. Cooing sounds become hummed tunes become lullabies become rousing songs. Babbled syllables become recognizable words; words in a row become sentences. Eyes open, heads lift, arms reach, legs push, ta da—we’re crawling, and about to rear up on our hind legs and really get moving so we won’t be late for our first speech.

Five factors are crucial to our childhood development: our unique genome, the ages of our parents, spacing and birth-order of all siblings, and the sexual identity or preference of all concerned. Volumes have been written about the details of each. Relative not only to our brothers and sisters, but to our parents, whether they be nurturing, encouraging, challenging, preoccupied, overprotective—whatever.

Father is often the active one who physically challenges us; mother the caregiver who supports (while shaping) our every endeavor. It could be the other way around, or neither, or both. We respond to the adults we are born to, or acquire thereafter, whatever their gifts and limitations at the time, however we are able to engage them.

We respond differentially to their example according to our needs, interests, desires, and abilities. These first mutual interactions set the tone for all that follow. We bask in the attention, and strive to keep up by doing our best. The bar rises higher and higher each time, the effort goes up, the satisfaction climbs. We grow into ourselves through personal exertion, putting ourselves out to become who we strive to be. No one can do it for us.

Every step is earned through hard work and determination. Given time enough and stamina, there’s no limit to how far the life force might take us once we achieve lift-off within our families and our flightpath is subject to personal control.

But our families can engage us so that we keep striving on our own with their help. Together, we can make it happen. Apart, we can only get so far on our own because engagements take two or more players, and it is the flow of ongoing interaction that counts, not merely token glances, smiles, or frowns. They are for later once we’ve learned to meet our own standards through disciplined practice again and again.

We get good at what we actually do, not what we promise but only half-heartedly try.

In coming posts I will speak largely from the perspective I have on my own family, since that is the only one I can address with the authority of personal experience.

I will conclude these posts on cultural engagements with twelve episodes illustrating a few of my personal engagements as divided among four successive posts. Here are the first three.

1. Rush Week. In 1951, I was living in a fraternity in Boston as a sophomore at MIT. Early in the term, fraternities entertained prospective pledges from among the incoming freshman class. I was particularly struck by the mental acuity and good nature of a student from India. I took him around the house, played Ping-Pong with him, sat with him at lunch, and thought he made an excellent candidate.

After lunch, the president of the fraternity took me aside and told me I was doing a great job stringing the boy along, making him feel welcome, while there wasn’t a chance in hell we would pledge a dark foreigner.

My response to that news was to find an apartment near Kenmore Square and to quit the fraternity I could no longer belong to because of its Whites-only policy, which I naively hadn’t realized was part of its deep-South traditions from post-Civil-War days. I haven’t stepped into a fraternity house for sixty-four years.

2. Pierre Monteux conducting Berlioz. In a recent post I mentioned coming upon a Boston Symphony performance led by Pierre Monteux conducting Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique. That was one of the most moving experiences of my college life, which I stumbled into during a Wednesday afternoon walk when I found the door open at Symphony Hall. A sandwich-board on the sidewalk announced an open rehearsal, so, out of curiosity, I went in and sat in the back row. I knew Berlioz from WGBH broadcasts, but had never been present at a live performance. Monteux raised his baton just as I took my seat.

What caught my attention was actually witnessing the different instruments and sections playing the music that I heard with my ears. It was the simultaneous presence of hearing the music and seeing its lively performance at the same time that astonished me. My eyes and ears reinforced each other, adding to an experience I had never had until that day.

It was the seeing that sticks with me, the actual display of sounds being produced through human effort. Violins, cellos, bases, brass, woodwinds, tympani—I can see them all. The standing percussionist striking the suspended chimes with a small mallet produced sounds I had never fully appreciated until then. He is with me today as I write these words, making a guest appearance in my mind, reminding me of my discovery of what “in concert” actually means.

3. Tripping on the Long Island Railroad. In Seattle’s Roosevelt High School, I took all the physics, chemistry, and math classes that were offered. By my senior year, there were no more to take. Back in Hamilton, my ninth-grade science teacher had sent home a note telling my parents that he thought I had a knack for science, and might pursue it as a career. In Seattle, I took an aptitude test to see if that was really the case. In disbelief, I looked over the bar graph of the results: I was high in arts and humanities, low in science. Stupid test! I instantly dismissed it. As a senior I went all-or-nothing, applying to MIT and no other school. For good or ill, I got in.

The first year was made up solely of meeting core requirements, with one token humanities course. In my second year I took differential equations, heading toward a major in physics—I thought acoustics sounded nice. But I ran out of steam, and decided to quit school. My mother got on my case and convinced me to see out the year. Which I grudgingly did. I went to a counsellor, and applied to Columbia in New York as a transfer student. I was scheduled for an interview on the Columbia campus, so arranged to stay with friends of my parents on Long Island the night before, and took the bus from Boston to New York, then the LIRR to Port Washington.

A memorable trip under heavy skies. I spent most of my time staring out the rain-spattered window at heavy wires strung next to the tracks on what I still think of as telegraph poles. From my perspective looking out the window, the wires rose to the level of the crossbars on successive poles, then fell in great swoops in between, rising and falling like waves mile-after-mile, putting me into a kind of hypnotic trance. I wasn’t thinking about anything—then the truth burst upon me: There is no God! There can’t be any God because I can’t square God with those wires, which are absolutely real. I was totally engaged with the rhythm of the wires strung along the tracks; there was no room for God in that experience. He was superfluous. Irrelevant. God, I saw, was a vain conceit of ancient peoples in all their innocence. It was not a rational thought, it simply came to me as a bolt out of gray skies and those up-and-down wires.

It was one of the most powerful realizations of my life. Transformative. Everything up to then culminated in those lilting wires along the Long Island Railroad. It was like a dam had burst inside me as a declaration of undoubted truth. Farewell, creator, ruler, judge, and confessor. Banished by clarity. Blessed clarity washing over and through me. Had I been that wishy-washy all those years? I abruptly discovered I was capable of independent thought. Well, not thought, really, but profound insight. I knew I was right; my entire life until then added up to that moment. Childhood fell away; everything would be different from now on.

Our brains are too puny to account for the fullness of, and variations between, our minds. We can study the brain forever and not find diamonds, electricity, tartans, boomerangs, umlauts, or inhabitable planets in far galaxies.

When we die as individuals, such things persist in our cultural repository. When all people die, then only the mind of nature will be left, and nature’s brain, which is the whole Earth itself from whose waters and soils we have risen into sunlight.

Nature and culture are unnamed lobes of the brain. We participate in them as much as we do our own thoughts. Without them, we wayfarers in our black-box vessels would not float on life’s currents. Nature and culture (including art, science, politics, economics, literature, and religion) are concepts in our minds, and memes in our cultures. We become imaginable only in their fields of influence. The initiative to engage them is up to us.

We find ourselves simply thrown here at birth by forces we do not understand any more than we do gravity. We know only that we have to stack dishes bottom to top, and that when we trip we will fall down. If we are wise, we will learn to live in gravitational fields, natural fields, cultural fields, subjective fields.

Simply put, that is both our heritage and our destiny if we are to fulfill the promise we are born to. Pitch-in and engage the best we can, that is the way. Start by opening our eyes, focusing, lifting our heads, paying attention, looking at and listening to the sights and sounds around us. Opening ourselves to the great ambient that is ours by birth, whether we discover ourselves in Mongolia, Tibet, Syria, Tierra del Fuego, Tahiti, Finland, or the south side of Chicago.

We will come into selfhood by starting where we are, when we are there, then moving on through nature and culture while always being true to ourselves, building on that genetic and cultural platform. How far can we go in a single lifetime? That is the question. All we can do is start out and see where our legs carry us on our great, unforeseen journey.

Culture can be as much an impediment as it is a way to the future. We have to be selective in how we follow the advice and example of our family, friends, and elders. Pick and choose, that is the way of engagement. As guided by our personal judgment acquired through years of proceeding by trial and error.

Take a step and see where it gets us. Then retreat or move ahead, or bound like a knight in a game of chess. Or even stay put where we are. We all have choices, all the time, wherever we are.

Ever rethinking, we revise and adjust our engagements. That is called growth. Learning through experience. Blazing our own trails. Being ourselves. Not who we were, but who we are on the way to becoming who we will turn out to be.

No, we can’t know in advance; we have to find out through a process of self-discovery. That is the adventure of a lifetime, the very reason we are here. Our survival depends upon it.

407. Three Cheers for Sex

January 16, 2015

Sex is our ultimate activity. Without it, none of us would be here. Generation after generation, our ancestors have engaged in it, as our descendants will after us. Sex is a big deal. The biggest of all possible deals. The single most important of all human engagements. We are born of it and to it.

At the same time, we seldom talk about it. Why is that? Sex is in a class by itself that exists beyond words. Sex is more a matter of urges and emotions than it is an intellectual concept. It is certainly pre-verbal. Our progenitors had sex long before they had words. Words come after sex. Before sex, we talk about anything but, as if it never entered our minds.

We may not put it into so many words, but we think about it all the time and see it all around us. And lay plans with sex at the heart of the evening’s activities. All those candle-lit dinners, moonlight cruises, shared entertainments, shopping sprees, exotic vacations, new cars, engagement rings—what do they share in common if not an allusion to sex?

Each in our own way, we are all sexual beings, taking a particular place somewhere along the sexual spectrum of desire and fulfillment, appetite and release, as our parents took theirs, and their parents theirs. Even if childless couples, gays, and lesbians may not raise youngsters of their own, they contribute more than their share to communities that do, fairly meeting their generation’s obligation to its children.

Our sexuality is driven by the same life force that fuels our metabolism. Beyond that, it is a response to hormones that drive formation of the specific organs, body shapes, and urges we all exhibit in one way or another. Not that sex acts are consciously grounded on reproduction, which is often the last thing on partners’ minds when engaging in sexual behavior.

In fact, most of the time, we are trying our best to make sure that not one sperm reaches the egg it aims to hook-up with. Even without some form of birth control, the odds of a sperm’s being successful in meeting up with the egg of its dreams are inversely astronomical, that is, hugely minute.

A sexual engagement may be aimed at reproduction, but much more commonly that is not on the mind of either partner. Sexuality is more often aimed at gratification of passions, the sooner the better. The mind is thinking: soon, sooner, and now!.

If things work out to mutual satisfaction, particular pairs will want to stay together to make the passionate moments last not for seconds but for days, weeks, or a lifetime.

If they make a contractual agreement to do so, that’s what we call marriage, meaning our families and communities respect their intentions, and so back them up for the long term. At one remove, a community shares the joys of its members’ passions. Engaging on the deepest levels of physical intimacy, those members enable others to imagine and then perhaps realize their children and their grandchildren.

So do sexual engagements spiral through the decades like propellers driving ships ahead through vast oceans. Attraction and affection are one dimension of life, love and desire another, enduring passion and release a third. This is equally true for heterosexual couples, gay and lesbian couples, transsexual couples. The commitment to caring engagements is the essential ingredient that resolves the tension of being alone and unattached. Caring engagement, along with creativity and adventure, seems to be a good part of the meaning of life.

I remember watching young solo snowsledders race around turns that blocked their view of any machine that might be coming against them. With a lady riding tandem, that same turn was invariably negotiated slowly and cautiously. Which is it to be, devil-may-care, or we’re-in-this-for-the long haul? That depends on our age, and our committed engagements.

The art of life is in surviving reckless youth to reach the promised land of mature relationships.

 

 

 

389. Fish or Cut Bait

December 26, 2014

The life we are born into is only a beginning where the major decisions are made by grownups and the culture they live in. We as children go along because we don’t have a choice. We are too inexperienced to know any better.

But we are fast learners. As we gradually come into our own through hard-won experience, we learn to grapple with situations as we come to them, striving for freedom and independence in living as we choose to live for ourselves, not as somebody’s child.

As a matter of course, being ourselves in our earliest days gradually comes to us while we are somebody’s child, so we become who we are through a long series of trials, errors, corrections, retrials, and eventually morph into young selves whose judgments we can live by and with.

Examples of the exercise of judgment include parental decision-making as expressed in such terms as “Good girl,” or “Naughty boy, “Try harder,” “You can do it.” The world we are born to includes courts of law where judges, tribunals, and juries weigh the evidence pointing one way or the others towards either guilt or innocence; playing fields where umpires call strikes or balls, safe or out; and debaters randomly assigned a thesis to defend or disprove, pro or con.

Judgment comes down to an either-or decision: yes or no, go or no-go, true or false, wise or foolish, freedom or captivity, change it or lump it, fish or cut bait. Which means the situation at issue has to be structured as a duality to simplify the job of making a polarized decision.

This structure is not arbitrary. It flows from the workings of a human mind that frames situations in black or white. Nerve cells either fire or they don’t. They resolve the various activating and inhibiting signals they receive. If the activation threshold is reached, the nerve cell fires; if it fails to reach that level, it does nothing. End of signal in that branch of the network.

True, if the threshold is crossed, then variations in signal strength are reflected in the frequency of firing. But if the threshold is not reached, that signal is dead in that neuron.

Which is why so many of the concepts with which we compose our thoughts come in pairs of opposites: pro or con, assertion or negation, promotion or opposition, with or without, fight or flight, and on and on.

The essence of consciousness is found in sharpening perception, increasing contrast, heightening discernment, making thoughts and judgments that much clearer and unambiguous.

We are wayfarers made to be judicious in choosing our pathways through a succession of either-or decisions. Our choices have serious consequences: win or lose, succeed or fail, live or die. The wisdom of our heritage, genome, intelligence, and judgment all comes down to the quintessential difference between positive or negative outcomes. We make it or we fall short.  Eat or go hungry. Survive or perish.

From our earliest days, life is a matter of learning to make the right choices in one situation after another. Success means we win the right to make future decisions. Failure means we have gone as far as we can go and have come to the end of the line.

 

We live by setting goals and striving to achieve them.

Roughly speaking, our first life goal is to grow into competent human beings. Our second is to discover who we are and what we hope to accomplish. Our third to make a livelihood for ourselves by developing and practicing our skills. Our fourth to find a partner and establish a family. Our fifth to support the community that in turn supports us. Our sixth to reinvent ourselves in our maturity to fill the gaps we may have missed. Our seventh to go beyond what we have achieved to see just how far we can go before we die.

To live such a life, we set a series of goals, then strive to achieve them through a course of successive approximations. We probably won’t end each stage where we thought we would, but we’ll reach some equivalent we had not imagined for ourselves. We pull ourselves up and ahead by working as hard as we can, stage after stage, always within the situations we meet along the way. The steepness of our climb may vary, but we advance in proportion to the attention we focus on our personal journeys, and the effort we put into our daily engagements.

To achieve our grand life goals, we work toward lesser goals day-by-week-by-month-by-year-by-decade. Our days are largely consumed in setting and trying to meet the expectations we impose upon ourselves from morning to night: getting out of bed, taking a shower, getting dressed, fixing breakfast, getting kids off to school, going to work, making appointments, attending meetings, shopping, and so on.

Our daily routines are based on deciding on and then attaining the goals we set for ourselves on any given day as a matter of course. In this, we are primarily responsible to ourselves in conducting our life activities according to the master route map we have drawn up for living our lives, which in practical terms we live one step at a time.

Our life is our life, the one we have imagined for ourselves and then work to achieve. Lived not on some grand, idealistic scale, but worked out detail-by-detail in one project after another, all adding up to the life we actually live through a series of engagements to which we devote our attention and effort as best we can, hope after worry after wish after bias after desire after want after need after duty after whim after commitment after question after doubt after whatever motivates us at a  particular time and place.

So do we invent ourselves one step at a time, each slip, stride, leap, or shuffle adding to the journey of a lifetime.