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.

 

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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.

Copyright 2012 by Steve Perrin.

We learn to engage the world around us in earliest childhood, starting in the womb when our mother is our environment, and then expanding on that beginning when we are born. Sooner or later we encounter nursery rhymes, which help us consolidate loops of engagement we have begun on our own. Take this one, for example:

Twinkle, twinkle, little star,
How I wonder what you are!
Up above the world so high,
Like a diamond in the sky.

Imagine engaging with the stars! But even though we haven’t a clue what they might be, we gape nonetheless at their splendor because they’re unlike anything else in our experience. In this case, that little star is probably the planet Venus, apt to be the most striking object in the western sky before bedtime. That point of light fills us with wonder and curiosity. As children, we aren’t likely to compare such a sight to a diamond in the sky. That would be be the voice of our culture speaking. But the salience of the sensory impression alone would arouse us, kindling consciousness at the same time so that both the image and the rhyme stay with us for a lifetime.

Mirror, mirror, tell me,
Am I pretty or plain?
Or am I downright ugly
And ugly to remain?

Shall I marry a gentleman?
Shall I marry a clown?
Or shall I marry old Knives-and-Scissors
Shouting through the town?

Here is youthful curiosity again, looking toward the future at the possibilities for engagement it might offer. The issue seems to be driven more by wonder than anxiety: what will be my lot in life when I grow up? The one approaching the mirror is asking what fate has in store for her, not what she can bring about for herself. Old Knives and Scissors would be every bit as worthy as clown or gentleman. Being pretty, plain, or ugly is not under her control; it is destiny’s call. The culture she is growing into is preparing her to accept her fate however it turns out. In the meantime, we all know that we all can affect our fates by how we choose to make ourselves happen as we go.

1. He loves me.
2. He don’t!
3. He’ll have me.
4. He won’t!
5. He would if he could.
6. But he can’t.
7. So he don’t.

The numbers here count petals being plucked from a flower. The issue is decided when the last petal is reached. This simple procedure of keying answers to a finite number of questions is a crude device meant as an aid to reviewing indeterminate issues. The point is not to settle the issue but to bring possible solutions to the forefront of attention. The benefit flows from playing with the engagement itself in a lighthearted manner as if it could be settled once and for all. Turning life decisions into simple routines is a means of dealing with underlying uncertainties.

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall.
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the king’s horses,
And all the king’s men,
Couldn’t put Humpty together again.

This rhyme is a reminder that some engagements come to a bad end. No matter what resources you bring into play, things will never work out. Keeping in mind an image of Humpty as an egg drives home the message: some things are best scrambled.

Jack Sprat could eat no fat,
His wife could eat no lean;
And so betwixt them both, you see,
They licked the platter clean.

The message here is that complementary engagements promote harmony amid diversity. It’s OK for people to be of different persuasions if they all fit into the big picture.

If you wish to live and thrive,
Let the spider walk alive.


This rhyme embraces the engagement between people and those of the arachnid persuasion, assuming the prescriptive weight of a proverb or aphorism. Committed to memory, it reminds us at sight of a spider that it takes many creatures to build a world, including weavers of intricate webs who happen to eat insects.

A robin redbreast in a cage
Sets all heaven in a rage.

Again, the voice of conventional wisdom aimed at little ears for rote memorization as a guide to subsequent restraint.

Solomon Grundy,
Born on a Monday,
Christened on Tuesday,
Married on Wednesday,
Took ill on Thursday,
Worse on Friday,
Died on Saturday,
Buried on Sunday,
That was the end
Of Solomon Grundy.

This rhyme reinforces recitation of the days of the week in proper sequence by linking it to the natural order of life events. This is the old mnemonist’s trick of pegging a random list of things to an order internalized through repeated experience such as a stroll along a familiar street or the arrangement of familiar body parts. The drama and fun here come from the compression of major life events into the span of a single week, making the sequence of days all the more memorable. It helps to have all the lines end with the same sound and share the same rhythm. Ever after this rhyme is learned, engagements will seem naturally to accord with the days of the week.

Mary had a little lamb,
It’s fleece was white as snow;
And everywhere that Mary went
The lamb was sure to go.


It followed her to school one day,
That was against the rule;
It made the children laugh and play,
To see a lamb in school.


And so the teacher turned it out,
But still it lingered near,
And waited patiently about
Till Mary did appear.


Why does the lamb love Mary so?
The eager children cry;
Why, Mary loves the lamb, you know,
The teacher did reply.

Engagements have rules, it turns out. Lambs are OK at home, but not at school. The tale is more about the lamb than Mary, but it is Mary’s attachment for the lamb that gives the story punch. The narrative unfolds from a brief description of the lamb to telling what it did one day, what happened next, and ends with an insight as to why things went as they did, brought home by a simple question. This rhyme is a paradigm for building a story that has characters, action, consequences, and a message. Rhyme and meter help make it memorable for use in future engagements or writing assignments.

Six little mice sat down to spin;
Pussy passed by and she peeped in.
What are you doing, my little men?
Weaving coats for gentlemen.
Shall I come in and cut off your threads?
No, no, Mistress Pussy, you’d bite off our heads.
Oh, no, I’ll not; I’ll help you to spin.
That may be so, but you can’t come in.

Another narrative based on the age-old rivalry between mice and cats. This time, the mice aren’t fooled by Pussy’s soft words, providing an example meant for children to take to heart in conducting their own engagements. How others choose to engage with you may well differ from how you would choose to deal with them, providing a model for future reference when needed. Many nursery rhymes and other early readings depict situations in which children should learn to be on their guard without someone being around to warn, “Now be careful.”

Who are you? A dirty old man
I’ve always been since the day I began,
Mother and Father were dirty before me,
Hot or cold water has never come o’er me.

This unexpected answer to an ordinary question achieves a humorous effect, but it rouses consciousness from its customary slumber, priming awareness to perk up at the thought of dirty old men (or, indeed, women). I can hear kids mouthing this rhyme as they head for a bath, reveling in the virtue of cleanliness as the rhyme advises by default.

I do not like you, Doctor Fell,
The reason why I cannot tell;
But this I know, and know full well,
I do not like thee, Doctor Fell.

This rhyme makes no forward motion at all, despite a modest show of trying. It would be humorous if it did not reveal so set a mind. The humor here is like laughing at someone stuck in the mud. It illustrates a disdain for ridicule or non-engagement. Something about you, Doctor Fell, turns me off; I can’t get started with you. There’s no telling what the problem is, or how it began. My advice to those whose engagement is blocked in this way is to look into themselves to see if they can’t identify the problem. It’s there waiting to be discovered.

I’ll end this brief review of nursery-rhyme engagements with the challenge Doctor Fell poses for us all. To engage or not engage, that is the question. Whatever the cause, a good part of it lies with each one of us. If we are to get beyond the childish level of engagement we picked up in our earliest days, we must do our share of the heavy lifting required.

I will leave it at that, As ever, y’r friend, –Steve

Copyright © 2012 by Steve Perrin

In CONSCIOUSNESS: The BOOK, I divide loops of engagement into two segments: on one hand, dimensions of consciousness devoted to perception (including arousal, expectancy, attention, sensory impression, discernment, interpretation, understanding, feeling, and values); and on the other,  dimensions of consciousness preparatory for action (including memory, judgments, decisions, goals, projects, relationships, and planning).

Perceptual dimensions of consciousness lead to consolidation of new memories. Dimensions leading to action combine memory with current values and feelings in planning and executing behaviors appropriate to the current situation as construed by the mind.

That construal (interpretation or construction) of the current situation provides the setting for our looping engagements. That’s where understanding enters the loop as the upshot of the mutual engagement of perception and interpretation. How we understand a given situation determines how we physically behave on any given occasion. Perception, interpretation, and understanding determine the climate in which events occur; action is the specific weather at a given place and time within a specific situation.

Climates of consciousness, in being largely cultural, include the great disciplines of human thought and awareness: economics, politics, theology, healthcare, science, education, military affairs, agriculture, art, fashion, literature, geography, athletics, language, and other components of the cultures we build around ourselves, and which in turn shape our identities.

These cultural influences are aspects of our personal understandings of ourselves as members of particular groups, families, races, and nations as they shape our fields of personal concern. And within those fields of concern, spur the loops of engagement by which we balance our personal awareness against the options for action we see for dealing with our concerns at the moment.

Within our respective cultures, each of us is a distinct individual subject to a unique variety of pressures, interests, and concerns. How we respond in making ourselves happen in the world is influenced by our understanding of both ourselves and our worlds in concert with our feelings and values.

What is truly remarkable about us as a species is the diversity of approaches we take in dealing with our concerns as we construe them according to our experience, understanding, faith, and belief. Some of us follow Catholic ways, some  Protestant or Jewish ways, others Buddhist or Islamic ways. Some of us are democrats, republicans, socialists, communists, fascists, or none of the above. Some make music while others make art, quilts, or batches of beer. Some have families, some have pets, some live in mansions, others in hovels. All according to the mixture of concerns governing how we engage one another and our surroundings.

There is no accounting for the combination of concerns that makes us who we are. Or more accurately, no recalling the forces that acted on us in our formative years when we were young and more helpless than we remember being at the time. Our parents ruled us via their loops of engagements much as we rule our own children, laying down the law in some cases, letting others slip by. But the structure of our understanding of ourselves and our worlds—whether science rules our hearts, religion does, our passions and appetites, or our addictions—the lives we have lived up to now seem sensible to us as the only lives we can refer to, so we live as if we are destined to go on in the same way as before.

If there is a logic to our concerns, it is the logic of precedents from days we barely remember. As we were treated, so do we treat others and call it fair, just, and deserving. Our loops and memories were forged by powerful emotional experiences, most of which we conveniently disremember. In truth, I am still the same little kid I was when I roamed the hills of central New York State in the 1930s, living now as if the conditions that prevailed in those days still apply. My engagements are just that, my engagements because that’s how I learned to make myself happen in my little world. There’s no breaking free from my formative past because it still bears on the neural network that governs my looping perceptions and actions today.

Every one of us is privileged (or condemned) to follow the dictates of our most intimate pasts. Those dictates are rarely codified in so many dos and don’ts, prescriptive formulas, or commands. That isn’t the language our concerns were received in. We duly and emotionally lived them at the time. And they are still with us in the complex neural networks that make up our brains and on which our minds are dependent to this day. We are variations on a theme we first met long ago. We hang around like old songs and poems from childhood, our lives still having the same Mother Goose lilt they did then.

Our religious, political, and cultural beliefs strive to maintain continuity with our childhoods in the deep Paleolithic period of our most intimate selves. We are today descendents of whom we were in those beginning times. We see and hear now as we learned to see and hear then. We think now as we learned to think then. We believe now as we learned to believe because we didn’t know any better in those early days.

So, yes, we look upon the world of today, but see with old eyes, hear with old ears, believe with naive wits, and in all innocence think we behold the world as it is. We are creatures of our acculturation and upbringing to this day. There is no escaping who we were and how we were introduced to the world through engagement with those whose example gave us our eyes and ears, sensitivities and tastes.

We act today by the logic of precedents received in earlier times—as if they were still valid to this day. We may outgrow our clothing but we carry our primal beliefs as if they still fit us as they did when we were brand new.

In fact, the religions, political parties, and philosophies we practice are all in our heads, carryovers from yesteryear, aided and abetted by the cultural institutions we create and maintain to insure we always have a place to go that reminds us who we were and have been ever since. But institutions have particular clout and endurance because they are dedicated to holding fast to our memberships to gain access to our minds in order to set the climate within which we act.

Think of the great temples, mosques, cathedrals, palaces, government buildings, sporting arenas, universities, theaters, and corporate headquarters whose sole purpose is to keep us in our place exactly where they want us. That is, keep our minds in place so that we behave correctly as they would have us behave. Think of the established, authoritarian governments of North Korea, China, Syria, Iran, Russia—and now the United States of America—governments that attempt to institutionalize their peoples lest they wander off track, learn to think for themselves, and risk becoming ungrateful and unruly.

The bigger such climate enforcers become, the stronger they blow on our minds to whip them into conformity. And if they blow our minds away, from the rubble a renewed people arise who are capable of making up their own minds and living their own lives. Freedom is a personal matter that cannot be imposed by force. It is always earned by exercising the creative imagination of unique individuals, and always flows from those few exemplars who show the way. They are true leaders in mapping out the routes we must follow in being truly ourselves. Routes that give glass, steel, and stone institutions a wide berth in sticking to pathways mere mortals can trend on their own.

Invention and discovery are ways to the future; dogma, ideology, and correct performance lock us into the past. The most difficult challenge we face in becoming ourselves is in freeing ourselves from utter dependence on our past histories as institutions preserve them. No one becomes free in an institution. To be free in our minds requires us to grow beyond the influence of our first cultural enforcers so that at last we discover who we are as free agents.

As always, I remain y’rs truly, –Steve

Copyright © 2012 by Steve Perrin

Last week I showed a PowerPoint featuring eagles, herons, harbor seals, and sandpipers to the afternoon program at a local grammar school. All the photos of wildlife I showed had been taken within a mile of the school. I told the kids that they had the same opportunity to see what I saw if they’d get outdoors and look around. They were a great group, paid attention to every slide, and asked excellent questions.

On my way to the school, I’d seen first one great blue heron take off from the shallows along the river river, then another right behind it. Typically, great blues arrive from the southland on the first of April, but they were early this year. Driving home afterward, I saw an adult American bald eagle fly over the road just ahead of me. My message in the talk was that in order to see such sights, you have to take the initiative to look around and engage your surroundings right where you are.

The one question that really got to me (even though I didn’t field it very well when I heard it) came during the sandpiper section from a soft-spoken boy who asked, “How can you tell the difference between all those kinds of birds?” I said something to the effect that I worked at it because knowing my wild neighbors was important to me, and I’d kept my eyes open for opportunities to get to know them better. But driving home, that boy’s question stayed with me. We learn the names and characteristics of things that are important to us—things we engage with—such as tools, super heroes, makes and models of cars, brands of ice cream, TV shows, celebrities, singers, and as in my case, birds and other forms of wildlife. I engage with every bird I see, and try to get to know it by name.

I had set up a teachable moment in that boy’s mind, and, driving along, I thought about how I could come up with an answer worthy of the question. We get good at doing things we pay attention to because they matter to us. Paying attention is the key, noticing in this case how birds are similar to one another, and how they are different. And having names for the different groups we can sort them into. The trick is to build on skills the kids already have and work from there by refining and expanding that foundation. Every student in the room knew the difference between, say, a robin, a crow, and a chickadee when they saw one, though they probably hadn’t thought about how they came to know what they already knew.

That’s what I could point out to them, how they already knew how to tell a crow was a crow and not a robin or chickadee. Size mattered, color, voice, habitat, way of moving on the ground and in the air, what they ate, who eats them, where commonly seen. Once they had grasped that, they could make a list of things they’d like to know about a bird to be able to identify it. They could move on to other common birds in the vicinity, and then to ones they saw only occasionally, like migrating warblers and hawks. Then they could pore through bird guides that set down the kinds of things we want to know in systematic order, and the kids could come to understand that order so they could make easy use of it.

I telephoned the woman who’d set up the afterschool program, and asked if we could have a follow-up session to address the question of how to provide a framework that would help kids learn more about birds on their own. She thought that was a great idea, and would speak to school administrators about how we might fit it into the schedule. Or if not that, how we could cover it in the summer camp offered by a local nonprofit. The wheels are turning, trying to build on a challenge a particular student wanted addressed.

That, to me, is how true education takes place. Adults rising to the occasion of addressing issues that students feel are important. Which requires teachers to listen to students and not strictly vice versa. Learning is a matter of give-and-take, making educated guesses, learning what the possibilities are, trial and error in the field, with as much practice as you’re willing to put into studying a guidebook and watching birds.

We learn about situations we get ourselves into, and in which we want to do better the next time. Enjoying the effort as a kind of adventure helps us improve our skills over time. Which is very different from completing homework that others assign to us. It’s the homework and fieldwork we assign to ourselves that really matters. If we want to get good at identifying birds, we first have to set that as our goal, then carry out projects and exercises that help us grow into the skills we want to learn.

If we want to learn how to use chopsticks, we have to be willing to work at learning that skill by actually eating—poorly at first—with chopsticks. It helps to eat food that comes in small chunks suited to being levered into our mouths. Learning to feed ourselves has strong survival value, so we’ll eventually catch on, particularly when we see others modeling the skills we’d like to get good at. In learning to play the guitar, it helps to admire those who can play the kind of music that we like.

In learning new skills, motivation is essential, close observation of others performing those skills, willingness to practice, and patience in keeping at it until our skills match theirs. Slowly, we grow into the person we’d like to become. That is, we make ourselves happen as who we’d like to be.

Self-transcendence is driven by urges inside every one of us, different in each case. The lives we create for ourselves are proof of the effort we put into being who we are moment-by-moment. Being the person others want us to be is a form of service to them. Being who we want to become fulfills the most basic freedom we are born to. We didn’t ask to be born, so can only rise to the the occasion of our birth by setting goals worthy of our human potential.

The job of educators, as I see it, is to engage with their students very closely in order to support their setting worthy life goals and choosing projects to enhance their development while, at the same time, making sure they explore the full range of their options, and become aware of possible dangers and limitations. Then to speed them on the course they set for themselves—and get out of their way.

Learning is always personal and experiential. Teachers can promote and encourage the process, but they cannot deliver it to their students via books, lectures, videos, or presentations. Teachers can be guides and models, but not passers-on or imparters of wisdom. Experience is something we reach-for and live, not get as a gift. When I was in basic training, my sergeants did their best to turn me into a killer, and I gave them an A for making the effort—but they failed. They set me up to poke my bayonet into a straw dummy while yelling, “Kill! Kill! Kill!” but I recognized the exercise as metaphorical and that I was only going through the motions. I became a still photographer in the Signal Corps and spent my days lugging a camera, not a rifle, which was the best use the Army could have made of the skills I brought with me when I was drafted.

Education by command, authority, and fear is always a failure because it entails mind control, not learning. If any vestige of understanding is achieved, it is only a thin layer that will quickly rub off. I think of all the capitals I memorized in school, the national imports and exports of every country in South America, the Presidents in serial order, the differential equations. Now gone with the wind. Since getting my first camera for a box top and a quarter when I was four, I have worked at developing my visual skills, and made a living at it. Now that kind of film photography hardly exists any longer, so I’ve had to go digital, which I’ve done on my own.

Self-directed learning always morphs into the next big challenge, and the challenge after that because we keep growing into new versions of our selves until we die. Lifelong learning is directed by our self-governing loops of engagement. Those loops serve as our primary means for following our bliss. Once we figure out what resources are available, and how to make use of them, we can learn anything we put our minds to. We don’t need teachers, schools, or colleges; we simply live our own lives.

That’s my second take on the grand topic of education. I’ve barely scratched the surface, but the essence of my argument is that schools need to teach to the inner student, not the external demands of a society built to satisfy the views of a ruling elite.

Thanks for listening. And for being yourself to the hilt. –Steve

Copyright © 2012 by Steve Perrin

Education (from Latin educare, to lead out) does not mean burdening students with homework; it means drawing-out that which is already within them. When students walk in the door on the first day of school, they are chock-full of vivid, unsorted experiences from the lives they have led up to that instant. Which so-called educators largely ignore in their rush to turn out dutiful workers, engineers, soldiers, and voters suited to the needs of businesses and corporations, ignoring the needs of the students themselves as creative members of a civil society.

Most grownups sincerely believe that the trouble with young people is that they do not yet know what their elders have learned from personal experience. Historians are convinced that students must be steeped in the study of history, scientists believe it is essential to study science, mathematicians tell us the world needs more and better mathematicians, writers argue for an essential grounding in literature. Geographers, artists, politicians, mechanics, athletes, nutritionists—all advocate for immersing students in their particular field.

Meanwhile, who advocates for students grappling with the myriad issues they bring with them to school, but which go largely unaddressed?

Education is firmly grounded in a trickle-down methodology by which what is good for the teacher is seen as being good for the student, relieving teachers of any responsibility to address the myriad issues that drive student learning and motivation.

Strange business. If students are to benefit from their education, they have to trick the system into providing engagements meaningful to them as individuals, not the system. They have to outwit their teachers by going through the motions while gleaning tidbits of personal interest and value on the side.

The upshot is that students are caught in an intense classroom conflict between their concrete personal needs and the abstract needs of a society that sincerely believes it knows what it wants, but gets it at the neglect of those it claims to help.

No wonder schools are in crisis all across the nation. With teachers and administrators looking down on their pupils as inferior beings, while students are looking up to adults for guidance and leadership, there is no meeting of minds where true engagement can occur, true education take place.

The result is unmet objectives on both sides, frustration, and a sense of conflict and enmity instead of caring and affection.

The solution? Before students can learn about the world, they must come to understand themselves and the lives they have led up to now. Then they will gradually be able to apply that inner understanding to challenges beyond the ones they have already met in their personal lives. As a result, growing larger and more competent by developing skills valued as productive in the adult world while at the same time achieving a sense of basic, personal growth and satisfaction.

The secret is that every student is previously engaged with a personal curriculum in living their lives as they do, at home, in the streets, with family and friends, now largely dominated by technologies that did not exist when their parents were young.

If student skills and needs are not addressed from the get-go, who, exactly, is being educated? No one. No one, single, unique human person. Myths and ideals cannot be educated for they are fixtures of the mind. Only real, flesh-and-blood people can undergo learning, and they do so by pursuing the urgings of their own motivations, not by being told what to do by others under the influence of motivations of their own.

To grow beyond their former selves, students need to augment the brain connections they have already formed by building upon, not denying, them. This requires suiting education to the needs of each student, not layering a Uniform Standard Curriculum upon him or her.

What we do best in our schools is domesticate children so they will be trained to the society we have built around ourselves. We turn out servants of businesses and the all-encompassing economy we believe in so profoundly as the highest of all human achievements. Our aim is clear. If we want our children to make a living so they can support a family, we make clear to them what they must do to make the same mistakes we made so they turn out like us.

A parent’s job comes down to helping with homework assigned by strangers—teachers, administrators, distant school committees, remote schools of education. Those who claim to know better than they (parents) and their children do themselves.

Yes, I know this is a gross caricature, an out-and-out cartoon. But loving teachers who know their pupils and work for, not against them—such teachers prove my point because they must be subversive in getting around the system that pays their salaries. Imagine teaching to the student and not the test! Another alternative is for parents to turn to home-schooling their own children. These teachers and parents are exceptions to the system as it is now established and argued across the land.

When I was a kid at this time of year, I learned about watersheds by climbing the hills ringing my small town and getting sopping wet playing for hours in the runoff streaming down the slopes. I made dams, channels, boats, and waterfalls with my cold, bare fingers, using twigs and stones, loving every minute, doing something I had waited all winter to do. I didn’t read about watersheds on an intellectual basis, I lived them in my most intimate experience. It was no accident that in my 50s and 60s I wrote about watersheds as nature’s water receiving, storing, and distributing systems, systems that make life of all sorts possible in myriad basins around the Earth. Terrain, water, sunlight, gravity, and photosynthesis, that’s what watersheds are about.

Writing up 60 hikes in Acadia National Park in 1998, I drew on my life experience with watersheds to portray water flowing off the hills of Acadia through the soil, high ground to low, leaving dry habitats on the summits, creating damp reservoirs in surrounding valleys. I accounted for the distribution of plants from one region to another, and the distribution of animals that fed on those plants. This was something I had lived my whole life, not something I had been taught. In my life, no one I ever met thought it a good idea to even mention watersheds, much less engage with them right where I was. I did that on my own. And that doing, that engaging, has made me the person I am today for it has shaped my mind to do more of the same wherever I find myself.

In the same way, I have always been mystified by the workings of my own mind, and have set myself on a course of investigation to learn as much as I can about my unique, personal consciousness. My method of study is empiricism of the innermost kind. What I know about consciousness, I know despite my education. In graduate school, I wanted to know why two different people standing next to each other could be drawn to different aspects of their surroundings, and have different opinions about what they experienced. The developer pictures a golf course where I see a wetland. I could find no courses dealing with human interpretation, so did independent study in getting both my so-called master’s and doctor’s degrees—in education, no less.

Writing this blog, I am my own man, opening myself to you as your own person, hoping to connect in ways I cannot imagine, to engage in ways both you and I find meaningful from our respective points of view. I don’t know any other way to live than to be myself to the hilt. A risky venture, but reflection after reflection, at least it’s my venture. And adventure.

That’s what engages me and draws me out. The question of all questions is, what engages you and draws you out of yourself? As ever, –Steve

(Copyright © 2010)

What do I mean when I say we live in our heads, or on our own private planets?

I mean, for instance: Time is a convenient fiction, a designated standard of change against which other changes can be compared or measured. Time is a construct of the human mind. Think of your watch as a miniature model of the sun’s apparent motion around the Earth each day. When we ask what time it is, we mean in reference to that model of the sun’s fictional motion through space. Time is a game we play in our heads, extending it imaginatively backward to days before Earth and its sun were formed, all the way to the alleged big bang, and forward imaginatively to days after the sun itself or any sort of timekeeper will exists.

We loosely think of the ageing process as a product of time, as if time were an agent that causes people to grow old. But in fact age is nothing other than the collective physical and mental changes that, instead of coming from time, produce the illusion of time itself as a supposed medium making change possible. If we could manage not changing from what we are right now, we would be eternal; that is, we’d have no need for time.

Space, too is such a construct of imagination. Objects do not exist in space, they exist in relationship one to another in the human mind as viewed from a particular perspective. Space is not the medium of such relationships but a designated contextual framework overlaid upon them for the purpose of calibrating and measuring them in ways meaningful to human awareness. We find meaning in the concepts of both time and space, even though in and of themselves they are figments of the mind. Changes exist; relationships exist; and both require the presence of observers such as ourselves. Without us, time and space would not exist. Even with us being present, we demonstrably exist (we can pinch ourselves to find out), but they exist only as ideas or concepts in our thoughts, speech, and writing.

Time and space are human categorizations—ways of reaching out to the world in order to find it meaningful in terms we provide and understand. They are inventions, not discoveries, artifacts of culture, not nature. They are useful mental tools, right up there with toothbrushes and toilet paper to help us shape the world to our liking.

Laws and human rights, too, are similar categorizations, ideas projected outward as if they were properties of the world itself. If human rights were features of the world, there would also be ant rights, wolf rights, bacteria rights, virus rights, tree rights, and so on. No, it is we who maintain that human rights exist as a convenient fiction, and devote a considerable amount of time and energy to reifying, objectifying, or substantiating that idea. The propertied classes have given us the idea of private property, and crafted a maze of legal opinions to “prove” it is not merely an illusion. Imagine a robin claiming the territory around its nest as its private property to do with as it pleases, referring to words written on paper in the form of a deed to support its claim. The words make it so one creature on Earth has exclusive “ownership rights” to its portion of the planet, and can justly do battle with any rival creature that thinks otherwise. 

The scale at which we project human ideas into the world is an indicator of the scale at which we imagine those ideas in our minds. We generally don’t think overly large or small, but just right—at the scale of typical human engagements such as gestures (like waving at an approaching friend, or throwing a Frisbee or a ball), activities (flying a kite, playing football, mining a hilltop for coal), everyday structures (houses, city blocks, skyscrapers, airfields), or grand undertakings (famous battles, voyages of exploration, pandemics, missions to the moon). The resolution at which we pick out the relevant details of our lives is scaled to the dimensions of the human body and how we use it. We find it difficult to think at bedbug scale, elephant or giraffe scale, ends of the Earth scale, voyages to Mars scale, or galaxy scale. That is, the world in our heads is largely scaled to norms set by everyday personal experience. Think of Saul Steinberg’s New Yorker cover from the mid-1970s depicting the view west from 9th Street in Manhattan to “Hudson River,” “Jersey,” and, much diminished, the nameless far beyond.

Our personal planets are populated by myriad creatures to which we give names, forms, characteristics, and entire resumes, even though we know they aren’t really real—just pretend real—as if there were degrees of reality. But we shift from one degree to another as easily as any child captivated by Big Bird or Oscar the Grouch. Films, plays, and literature depend on our not making distinctions between degrees of engagement or believability. Every advertisement presents a hokey view of reality, as does every cartoon, public relations campaign, vote in Congress, or wedding ceremony. Without being overly fussy, we choose to believe what fits into our general scheme of things at the time. Consciousness is peopled by Bugs Bunny, The Hulk, Paul Bunyan, Moses, Captain Nemo, Raskolnikoff, Aida, the Cowardly Lion, and Sugarplum Fairy. Yes, we tell our children, there is a Santa Clause, each supernatural (better, subnatural) being having a secure place near our hearts as well as in the depths of our minds.

We rush to demonize or lionize others in defending how we choose to characterize them, pointing our fingers with glee at those who fall short of or exceed our routine expectations for human behavior within what we consider a normal range. It doesn’t take more than one true confession to shift a saint to the opposite extreme of our personal Pantheon: witness Tiger Woods, Elliott Spitzer, Mark Sanford, John Edwards, Bernie Madoff, and Donald Rumsfeld. Men seem to have a hard time measuring up to their pretensions of virtue. In each of their minds they remain that innocent little kid who is not capable of doing wrong. From governor or attorney general to lowly two-timer in one day! Dontcha just love it! Everybody does. Where, then, does reality lie? Which persona is real? How are we to categorize the male animal?

Even members of the Supreme Court, who you’d hope would know where they reside, do not live in the real world. On one hand Justice John Paul Stevens takes his lived experience into account in interpreting the Constitution, as the framers must have taken their own experience in their day. On the other hand, Justice Antonin Scalia claims to have direct access to the intent of the framers by consulting the words they committed to paper in composing the original document, even though Earth has orbited the sun 223 times since those heady days, slaves are no longer regarded as property, women can vote, and usage of the English language has strayed far beyond the conventional bounds that prevailed in the seafaring-agrarian days of the thirteen colonies.

There is something in the human mind that loves to be fooled and to fool others. When I visit my son Michael’s grave on his birthday in February each year, I find bright blues and reds of artificial flowers with plastic greens poking from waterless jars buried in snow before other graves. Such displays always stop me in my tracks to consider the intent of placing such bouquets. Setting out real flowers at Memorial Day I can understand, but false ones out of season gives me pause. I see a show of remembrance but not remembrance itself, as if good intentions sufficed, or giving impressions was the issue. Fortunately, the dead are blind and cannot watch the little plays staged on their behalf. I am being judgmental here, a quality of mind that keeps me from adorning my son’s grave with plastic flowers from China. Usually, his grave marker is buried under snow, but I know exactly where it is in relation to the great oak overhead, and where his ashes are placed. I visit the grave to converse with the son who still lives in me, and is with me wherever I go. Where is reality, cremated and buried beneath a stone, or in my head?

We love to be fooled by slight of hand because it creates a slight of mind that is thrilling in being inexplicable. Whatever our age, magic shows make us wonder about the nature of things. How is it possible to saw a lady in half without doing violence to her body? She doesn’t seem to mind, and even wiggles her toes during the cut. Suspension of skepticism and disbelief makes children of us all. How do cars move? How do planes fly? How do pumpkins get so big? How will St. Peter react to what he reads under our name in the great ledger when we show up at the gate? Baudelaire’s characterization of genius as childhood recalled at will applies to the part of our conscious minds that defies the ageing process by staunchly staying the same throughout our lives. Or at least seems to stay the same, even if periodically updated. The child within may well be a fictional persona, but the old feeling of innocent wonder and curiosity is available to us at all times. And that feeling recalled in the face of mysterious events gives us pleasure, so once we find our way back to it, we go there as often as we can. Perhaps it is on that level that we are so taken with artificial flowers today. And read Marvel Comics as kids.

Sporting competitions bring out a similar childhood sense of right and wrong, good guys and bad. In the bleachers, we become our childhood selves once again, living solely for the moment, being fully engaged, waving our arms, jumping up, yelling with mindless abandon. When we are in that place, nothing else matters but the game being played as we see it from our childhood perspective. It is no wonder that the sports section is a fixture of the local newspaper. It invites us to release our inner child, to engage now as we did in our days of non-stop excitement and wonder. The substrate of the so-called real world is Baudelaire’s sense of genius being rooted in childhood, not to be simply recalled but relived in the moment. Meaning is there when that happens, old days mapping onto new, rejuvenating us by early concepts reaching out to sensory patterns in the now, recognizing them, making them seem familiar, and so true.

Lying in bed last night, I realized that in language, art, and music alike, patterns of relationship are everything. The brain is a seeker of relationships between patterns, and when it finds such relationships through any combination of the senses—whether simultaneous or sequential, visual or auditory, linguistic or experiential—the mind bestows meaning on those patterns in the sense of understanding what is taking place in terms it has encountered before. To understand is to wrap the now in the then, the here in the there, the new in the old, the concrete in the abstract and conceptual. All made possible by signals in the brain, wherever located, that share a recognizable rhythm. Where such neural rhythms can be appreciated in relation one to another, that is where we live because we are made to make just such connections. Learning to read is an exercise in pattern recognition and relationship. Ditto for listening to music and looking at art. Recognizing a face as familiar underwrites that face with a history, which makes it meaningful in a personal way. Discovering a familiar feel to a situation conveys meaning from memory onto that situation, even though we have never been in precisely that one before. With the result we know who we are in that place, and assume the persona of our old selves again.

Where and what is reality? It is not waiting for us to discover behind closed doors, but comes with us when we walk into a situation buzzing with patterns of stimulation we can put a familiar feel to and a name. Reality is within us as a sense of the trusted and familiar, qualities with which we reach into the unknown in hopes we will find something meaningful because recognizable. If we find no such patterns, we are not in our element, and so feel uncomfortable or out of our depth.

Cultures are known by the distinctive patterns of their ways of dressing, eating, speaking, praying, greeting, and going about the business of everyday life. They are flagrant in making themselves know to all comers. Dark pinstripe suits generally do not consort with bright colored dashikis. There is no doubt whether our familiar patterns of recognition are in keeping with those here on display or not. We know intuitively and immediately if we belong here or not—if this is our sort of place, where we know who we are because our inner and outer patterns of relationship match up without discord.

Reality is within us as a replica of patterns we acquired in childhood by being immersed in a world that danced to a certain rhythm from our earliest days. Our caregivers set the beat and the tone, joined by our siblings and relatives, neighbors and acquaintances. Those primal patterns are stamped into connections and disconnections between neurons in our brains established in our formative days, months, and years, giving familiar patterns an edge over unfamiliar ones, recognizable sensory patterns an advantage over the novel or strange. Reaching into the world, we are ever sensitive to those same patterns that calibrated our young minds. As pattern recognizers go, it takes one to know one.

So, as I say, the real world is within, waiting to be released into an external world that would be a formless cacophony without our being there to put it in order. Reality is our doing. We are the ones responsible for recognizing its patterns on sight, smell, hearing, and touch. Which is why, to study the world, we must first study ourselves to discover in what sort of world we truly belong. On that basis, we can then make deliberate efforts to adapt to the world we find ourselves in—to accommodate to its rhythms, dances, and ways of being—so that we belong there as well as to the world we bring with us in our heads.

NASA Reality--Eagle flying where there is no air

 

(Copyright © 2010)

I’ve been posting this blog since early October 2008. My original plan was to update my thinking about consciousness, which I’d first explored when writing my dissertation in 1980-1982 at Boston University’s School of Education. In the interim, I had moved to Maine from the Boston area, and revitalized my relationship with the natural world. In the process, I learned a great deal about my natural self, and about natural consciousness as opposed to the more scholarly, culturally-approved variety taught in schools. It has taken me over twenty-five years to strip academic mannerisms and bad habits from my thinking. That done, feeling human again, I took up blogging to gain a fresh perspective on consciousness, not as it is supposed to be, but as it actually reveals itself in my mind.

When I began blogging, I knew very little about how to go about it. I haven’t learned much about blogging along the way because I haven’t really been blogging. I consider myself a terrible blogger because I’m long-winded and far from topical. I don’t pick up on events in Washington so much as in my head—whatever occurs to me. Which is the point of my blog—to serve as a kind of diary for my life reflections. One post leading to another (or not leading anywhere), I follow what comes to my mind—which reveals the irrational connections and associations my mind actually makes when I sit down to write. I blog about things few others see because that is the nature of my mind in particular, and the human mind in general. Each of us abides on her own private planet.

My initial aim in blogging was to update thoughts I’d had in writing my dissertation twenty-eight years ago, but I quickly found I wasn’t in that place any more. I was more interested in discovering what I didn’t know than rehashing what I already did. Nothing is more tiresome than going over the same old ground again and again, trying to find new ways to say the same old thing. Speaking of death watches, that’s a sure sign you’re watching over your own demise. If I’m not making new discoveries every day, what’s the point of my using up Earth’s precious resources just to stay alive so I can play solitaire?

I converted this blog into a voyage of discovery, and posted whatever I found exciting and challenging at the time I sat down to write. I didn’t resort to an outline because that would imply I knew where I was going. Instead, I wanted to get wherever my series of reflections would take me, then look around to find out where I was.

That’s an apt description of how I lead my life. I’ve just finished a 70-slide PowerPoint on the 90% eelgrass dieback in Taunton Bay in 2001. It took me eight years to put it together because I used it as a vehicle of discovery—my personal spaceship headed into the future toward planet Wherever. Well, that’s just where I found myself when I opened the hatch. After reflecting on the various aspects of the dieback, and the details fit a coherent pattern, I knew I was there. Here’s what I wrote about my methodology in the abstract of my presentation at the New England Estuarine Research Society’s upcoming meeting in St. Andrews, New Brunswick:

This is not a scientific study in the traditional sense so much as an experiential exploration relying heavily on human consciousness to match its characterizations and understanding to patterns it perceives in sensory phenomena. When the balance in awareness is judged to be appropriate to the problematic situation, the resulting conclusion about the cause of the dieback is more a product of aesthetic approval of cohesiveness than rigorous statistical analysis.

Some people might say I am talking nonsense, but that’s a good example of my private planet sending signals into space to see if there’s anybody out there. Which is a pretty fair description of how we go about trying to reach people who might understand us so we feel we’re not just talking to ourselves. Otherwise, what’s the point of having tongues, teeth, and lips, and making all this noise?

Or of typing away at computers and posting blogs? What is it, exactly, the Internet allows us to do that we couldn’t do in the old days B.C.—before computers? These days we certainly do more of it faster—whatever it is. It’s whatever all those folks walking and driving along are doing with their whole minds devoted to not being where their bodies are because they’re so busy twittering or gabbing on cell phones. They’re doing what I’m doing writing this blog—living in their heads where the action is. We can’t tell the difference between physical and mental reality, so come to think that whatever crosses our minds is as real as it gets. It’s not that we’re crazy, it’s that everybody’s crazy and always has been since the first ape walked upright. We think of our personal planet as terra firma, and all those extraterrestrials from other planets are misguided pretenders, wild beasts, or infidels.

Which is pretty much the message my life has impressed upon me, and I’m trying to deal with in this blog that I’ve made the central focus of my life. I’ve got to have a little talk with myself, just between me and me. Here I am in my 193rd post trying to pull it all together as a coherent project to see what I’ve learned. That’s what life is, an opportunity to learn what’s going on, and the role I play in the process. I am none other than Peter Mark Roget determined to get his thesaurus in order as his contribution to posterity before he dies.

I just now came across a sentence I wrote at the head of a yellow pad while working on Reflection 183: Orthodox Consciousness: “We characterize situations in such a way that we relate to them by preserving our sense of self.” That way, we stay who we are, no matter what. Consciousness is all about self-preservation, about inventing a future to ensure we stay the same no matter how much our surroundings may change. A Post-it note stuck on the pad says “family, preschool, early childhood education.” That’s where we start. Exploring who I am, I keep coming across who I was as the leading character of my early life. My belly button hints at an even earlier life in the womb. Those formative months in my original matrix was the slow-motion big bang that led not only to my own conscious sense of self, but to the imaginary planet I wrap myself in as the so-called real world.

At the end of last night’s meeting, a frustrated fisherman looked like she was going to cry, then said through taut lips something to the effect, ‘I just realized that I’m the only one here trying to make a living and every one in this room is trying to keep me from doing that.’ Looking into her face, I saw her child self (in me) accusing her elder brothers (in me) of picking on the essential her (in me).

She was sending signals from her planet, which I interpreted in such a way to preserve my self-identity on my own planet. So do we relate one to another.

That’s what this blog is about, interplanetary communication. There’s no escaping it. To be heard, we all must address it—me on my planet, you on yours, Peter Mark Roget on his, Emily Dickinson on hers. The notion of “free speech” makes it sound easy—all we have to do is open our mouths and say whatever comes to mind. But if we want to count ourselves in the same solar system, there’s way more to it than that. I now see that “way more” as the point of our respectively being here with, and reaching out to, one another. Making that extra effort is the topic of this blog.

So that’s why I’m looking for a vocabulary that will allow my consciousness to speak with your consciousness. The words we inherit from our respective cultures are based on the assumption that we live in—and have equal access to—the same physical world. Which I don’t think accurately describes our true situation. If, from the outset, we don’t account for our unique personal identities and outlooks on what is real, then we will never be able to account for or address the true source of the general discord and unhappiness so rampant in what we experience of today’s world. Which makes it far easier to blame everyone other than ourselves for contributing to the problem.

We need new ways of looking at and talking about world situations from inside personal consciousness itself, not as we do now as if they were somehow external to ourselves. John Weir gave us percept language—the “you in me” and the “me in you”—to help us deal with personal relationships. That is, to create a framework for reporting on situations from our disparate perspectives. But we need a complete overhaul of the language we learned at our mother’s breast if we are to deal with people who learned other languages at other breasts. Is such a universal language of consciousness possible? Having come this far in 193 posts, I believe it is. For starters, here are thirty-seven words I have tried (or intended) to use meaningfully in this blog:

  1. Attention—the act of reaching out with full awareness
  2. Arousal—one’s level of biological excitation
  3. Expectancy—the view ahead of what might happen
  4. Action—engaging the world, the upshot of consciousness
  5. Acting in the world—an ongoing sequence of action
  6. Making ourselves happen—inventing the future
  7. Engagement—a flow of behavioral give and sensory take
  8. Loop of Engagement—acting and perceiving in the now
  9. Planning—figuring how to reach a desired goal
  10. Perception—the parade of patterns in sensory awareness
  11. Salience—the quality of being noticeable
  12. Perspective—one’s outlook within a particular situation
  13. Memory—residue of living a life
  14. Conceptual memory—ideas useful in many situations
  15. Episodic memory—mental replay of life-changing events
  16. Categorization—fitting concepts to percepts, & vice versa
  17. Integrity—Consciousness as a functional system
  18. Coherence—All of consciousness working together
  19. Judgment—what seems appropriate in a given situation
  20. Intentionality—habitual categorizations
  21. Meaning—achieving parity of percept with concept
  22. Idiom of being in the world—system of cultural belief
  23. Self—seat of biological values; the basic unit of survival
  24. Values—sex, food, sleep, health, shelter, safety, etc.
  25. Valence—positive, negative, or neutral regard
  26. Reflexive consciousness—introspection
  27. Assumption—unexamined belief
  28. Attitude—bias or emotional coloring of behavior
  29. Dream—consciousness without action or perception
  30. Aesthetic—whole consciousness in all its parts
  31. Emotion—hormonal coloring of awareness
  32. Feeling—self-awareness of attitude
  33. Motivation—driving urge to deliberate action
  34. Project—consciousness dedicated to achieving a goal
  35. Situation—an occasion for active consciousness
  36. Culture—the fitting of individuals to their surroundings
  37. Future-building—the point of consciousness

If there were to be a final exam for this blog, it might consist of identifying instances in which a few such terms are found to be meaningful to or relevant in your own inner life. That would be a test of the usefulness of what I have been blogging about. If they—such terms—are not applicable to your case, then I have been writing more for myself than for you. Leaving you free, as always, to create your own blog and live your own life.

I have had enough of living in a world where Israelis and Palestinians, Republicans and Democrats, rich and poor make a display of not being able to talk, work, or live with one another. Which requires me to critique the way we do business as usual in today’s world. I sincerely believe that throwing grenades, stones, or epithets at each other is a sure sign we are not taking responsibility for our own ignorance of how the world really works. My conceit is that I am onto something in writing about consciousness inside-out. Something profoundly important in providing a new perspective for viewing our relationship with a world that is unknowable in and of itself apart from our personal outlook upon it. I want fishermen and eaters of fish to be able to carry on a sensible discussion that is meaningful to both sides in more-or-less the same way. That’s why I am working on this project week by week, post after post. I thought you ought to know. Particularly if you live in somewhat the same world on a planet similar to mine.

We might as well fly as high as we can

 

(Copyright © 2010)

“God,” “heaven,” “the night sky,” and “the universe” are four different characterizations for a sensory phenomenon that looks something like this:

One TurningOur sense of the motion of the stars at night is one of the most powerful and enduring wonders of human experience. Because we can have that experience again and again throughout a lifetime, we know it is true. Yet it isn’t true. The apparent wheeling of the stars is an illusion. The stars are not moving in unison—Earth is turning on its axis, carrying us with it, making the stars appear to be rotating overhead while all the time it is we who are rotating. We have names for the rising and setting of the sun and the moon—two heavenly bodies closer to home—yet, again, sunrise, sunset, moonrise, moonset are illusions created by the dipping of the eastern or rising of the western horizon against the background of the solar system and stars beyond. Projecting our Earthly motion onto the sun and the moon, as we do on the stars, we stake our claim to being the center of the universe, even though that concept is a convenient fiction in the human mind.

Earthrise experienced as sunset Universe means “one turning” or “turning oneness,” reflecting the sense of unity we feel when all about us shares the same motion. The concepts of God and heaven arise in the sighted consciousness of every human who has ever stood in the dark after the western horizon has swallowed the sun and celebrated the stately dance of the stars overhead against the background  of eternity and infinity. There is no escaping the feeling of awe and reverence which that ceremony kindles within us. Projected onto the scene, we categorize our feeling as being in the presence of the gods or of deities, which is what the words signify—the shining ones, from the Indo-European root, deiw-, to shine (and in such derivatives as sky, heaven, god, deity, divine, divinity, dios, Jove, and Jupiter).* Halos about the Heads of sacred figures reveal the cosmic origin of their holiness—and of the awe we bestow upon them. 

Early shepherds and other night folk noticed that seven great lights moved against the cyclical pattern apparently set by the stars, and we still dedicate the days of our week to those lights.

  • Sunday to the sun;
  • Monday to the moon;
  • Tuesday to planet Mars personified as Tiu, Germanic god of war;
  • Wednesday to planet Mercury personified as Odin, Woden, or Wotan, chief Teutonic god;
  • Thursday to planet Jupiter personified as Thor, related to Late Latin thunor or thunder;
  • Friday to planet Venus personified as Old Norse Frigg, wife to Odin, goddess of love and of heaven;
  • Saturday to planet Saturn personified as the rustic Roman god of agriculture.

This seven-day week is an amalgam made from several different cultural systems:

This system was brought into Hellenistic Egypt from Mesopotamia, where astrology had been practiced for millenniums and where seven had always been a propitious number. In A.D. 321 the emperor Constantine the Great grafted this astrological system onto the Roman calendar (The American Heritage Dictionary, Word History for Wednesday).

Distancing themselves, various religions dismiss these categorizations as pagan, that is, being of the country where uncultured peasants dwell, but the characterizations linking planets and gods in the human mind have stuck for thousands of years, suggesting the true power of such primal images and associations. In themselves, these images are neutral aspects of our placement in Earthly surroundings, but consciousness endows them with a salience of grandeur and significance, requiring the categories we project upon them be of the very highest order.

The four quarter days of the year demark the four seasons, summer and winter solstices when the sun “stands still” at the extreme turning points on its journey along the horizon, and spring and fall equinoxes when the sun rises and sets due east and west, respectively, and night and day are of equal length. Our compass of 360 degrees (reflecting an early approximation of the seasonal cycle repeating after that many days) is based on the normal (right-angle) alignment of Earth’s axis pointing due north toward the Pole Star and the east-west line between sunrise and sunset on the equinoxes. A great many pyramids, temples, basilicas, cathedrals, and city plans are oriented in time and place to harmonize with the evident plan of the universe as early observers interpreted it in light of their understanding and experience. As Earthlings, humans have had no other choice. Sensitivity to the cosmos is built into consciousness, calibrating our senses of orientation, correctness, and wonder.

Since 1994, I have joined a group of friends in observing theVernal equinox vigil “sunrise” at 5:35 a.m. on the day of the spring equinox as viewed from Ocean Drive in Acadia National Park. Equinox It strikes me still as the right thing to do—make a personal effort to celebrate the  ending of winter and coming ofEquinox potluck breakfast spring as one of the most decisive events of the year. Following the vigil, we retire to the home of a couple living nearby for a potluck  breakfast. After orienting our lives to the seasons, by 7:45 a.m. we are ready to walk into our days heartened to be in synch with the cosmos.

  Using the simplest tools, early astronomers projected lines and angles onto the night sky in mapping the positions of stars and planets, giving birth to geometry, navigation, and astrology at the same time. A friend once had my horoscope done, informing me my rising sign is in 03 degrees Scorpio:

You tend to be quiet, reserved, secretive and, at times, quite difficult to understand. Others notice your deep emotions and feelings and wonder how to draw you out. Stubborn and tough, you fight for any position you believe in. You are very resourceful and formidable when you become angered or upset about something. You enjoy living life at the cutting edge—for you life must be experienced intensely and totally. Quite courageous, you are willing to take calculated risks. Easily hurt by others, you often strike back with bitter sarcasm. Sensitive and curious, you are concerned with the deeper mysteries of human psychology. Once you have become interested in any subject, you pursue it with total fanaticism (Astrolabe @ alabe.com, 2001).

As a characterization of myself, that’s about as accurate as any resume I might concoct on my own. All based on heavenly alignments and relationships bearing on the date, time, and place of my birth. Those who devised and refined the system were conscious and observant Earthlings determined to conduct their lives in keeping with the order of the heavens as they perceived it. Perhaps subtle planetary alignments actually do affect the epigenetic connections of our brains as we lie deep within the refuge of our mother’s womb. I think it more likely that our placement in time and locale on the Earth sets the conditions of our formative development. We become creatures of that particular era and place, adopting or reacting to the ways of family and community as exemplars we ourselves would do well to follow.

In Reflection 183: Orthodox Consciousness, I wrote of my young self discovering fossils as a vital part of my early life, and splashing about the springtime hills surrounding my native haunts:

Since then, I’ve always felt there is more to existence than the surface reveals. My approach has been to probe everything to find out what secret life is trapped within—now including my own brain. Here I am, still tapping away, longing to reveal more of Earth’s secrets.

Which, for me, captures the essence of who I am in engaging the specific circumstances of my placement on Earth, forging interests and attitudes to last a lifetime. I detect that same essence in the horoscope fragment quoted above, and in the image of early peoples enrapt by the slow dance of stars and planets across the night sky. Consciousness aligns us with the turning of the universe we are born to, committing us early on to lead the lives we fulfill as we age. For me, spiritual guidance is found not in churches so much as in open spaces—estuaries, mountain ridges, shores, bogs, deserts, and wild areas of every sort where natural processes flourish today as they have since beginning times. If I can resonate with those processes without disturbing them, then I am more likely to thrive than those who degrade or deplete them.

Joining the dance of stars and planets in the night sky is a bit like hopping onto a moving freight train or spinning carousel. You have to get up to speed before making the leap. But when you do leap, you are already with the program, so have a better chance of furthering the general order than upsetting it, of adding your weight to the one turning than stumbling and being flung aside as disruptive or irrelevant. How we characterize the dance determines how we live—in or out of harmony with Earth and its cosmos.

 __________

* “Indo-European Roots,” Appendix to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 3rd edition, (Houghton Mifflin, 1992).

Earthfall, March 20, 2006

(Copyright © 2010)

In certain situations, each of us acts as if his personal views were absolute truth, not mortal opinion. On such occasions, we pass ourselves off as more certain than our life experiences warrant. But we plunge ahead on the basis of unsupportable enthusiasms nonetheless. What we mean by “I know this for a fact” is “Let me tell you what I think,” as if truth were in the telling itself. Which is exactly the impression we want to give. The more we doubt, the louder we spout our views. If we see no humor in doing so, we fail to recognize our own zealotry.

It is easy to see pride in others, but not ourselves because it is none other than our selves who gauge the earnestness of our assertions. If we didn’t make such judgments, we wouldn’t be able to act. The actor must feel he is standing on bedrock and not a cloud (think of the skywriting pilot whose jottings are wisps of smoke) to assert anything. He must act as if he were right or not act at all. Imagine a president making a State of the Union Address, modestly declaring, “Well, folks, I kinda’, sorta’ think maybe this might be the pickle we’re in.” Congress would not only shout him down, they’d run for the door. The nation would go into cardiac arrest.

Sacred cows are sacred cows because they give us an excuse to insert at least some sense of order in our lives. Tradition is better than . . . well, nothing. Take Lamarckian inheritance of acquired traits, for example. In Darwinian circles, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck has been an inside joke for 150 years. Evolution is run at a snail’s pace by selection for the rare mutation that gives a particular genotype a better chance to reproduce, spread, and survive than another. Everyone who is anyone knows that. But the brand-new field of epigenetics recognizes that our genes are influenced by other factors (besides mutations) that affect conditions under which real, live babies are conceived in real time and real places, and subsequently grow to sexual maturity. Factors like diet, for instance, sanitation, maternal anxiety, smoking, or disease. This is hot stuff—making a lot of smart people reevaluate the conditions under which they have any right to claim they are as smart as they claim. It’s back to the drawing board for the staunchest of Darwinians.

Orthodoxy is a plague upon us, like smoking cigarettes or overeating. It chokes the mind, forcing it to suck in the same stale thoughts over and over again, desiccating consciousness, making it dry and listless. Taking shelter behind accepted opinion makes us feel safe, or agreeable to the powers that be who have control of our lives. It puts us on the “right” side of the issues that drive us apart, such as abortion, religious practice and dogma, social conventions, fads or anti-fads, displays of allegiance, and so on. We acquire many of our views before we are old enough to be exposed to alternatives, so they become set in our brains. We miss the point that if we’d been born in a different household or culture, we might be the very person we rail against today. Inconceivable! Impossible! Yet a sure sign we rely on traditional pathways burned into our brains when we were young and naive.

Where there is a divide between peoples, there are orthodoxies on either hand. Rich/poor, old/young/ male/female, red/blue, black/white, straight/gay, them/us, out/in, familiar/strange. Stereotypes are rigid kinds of categorizations—seen one, seen ‘em all. Which help us think we know more than we do, be bigger and wiser than we are—immediately, with very little effort. How sad that we shun, beat up, or kill one another simply because of the categories we carelessly project onto those who differ from ourselves. In the saying, there is safety in numbers, “numbers” suggests like-thinking others, the known world, as it were. Unknown others are expendable. And if you make yourself an agent of that world, you become a hero in its eyes, or even a martyr if you sacrifice yourself for the common cause.

These dramas take place in our minds, our acts only reflecting the state of our ossified brains as education, indoctrination, training, and belief have made them rigid. As we are led to categorize others, so do we follow those who lead us as if in a dream. And for all we can tell, that dream is real. We are overtaken by missionary zeal and self-righteousness. Instead of flub-dubbing around, we know what we are doing at last. All is perfectly clear. There are only true believers and infidels, Catholics and protestants, Aryans and Jews, Jews and Arabs, Pashtuns and Indians, Turks and Greeks, Home and Away, Them and Us. We cling to our schisms in spite of all evidence that things aren’t that simple, that the facts point to each person being unique, and for that reason deserving of respect as a complement to ourselves, who are but seeds blowing in the wind.

In the abstract, we know all this, and claim to believe it. But in practice we invariably excuse our own actions as the only course open to us. I couldn’t help it; she asked for it; he made me do it. Overwhelmed by circumstances, we do what we do. But it isn’t world circumstances, it’s the circumstances in our minds that drive us. It is consciousness that pulls the trigger, thrusts the sword, throws the grenade—because that’s how we’ve been trained. Be a man, not a weakling. Stand up for your beliefs. Show ‘em they can’t mess with us. Throw the rock; give the finger; hit them before they hit you. Shock and awe, that’s the stuff. Catch ‘em off-guard. You’re in the right; if they complain, it’s because they’re prejudiced. Infidels!

One of the most interesting articles I’ve read this week is David Margolick’s piece, “The Return of the Neocons,” in Newsweek (Feb. 1). He points out the differences between them, yet what unites their views is their orthodoxy in being outsiders who have infiltrated the system, so to a man they see themselves as performing heroic service. Eternal underdogs, double agents, they thrive in their culture of orthodoxy in which one side can do no wrong, the other no right. They make defensiveness on behalf of their cause a primal virtue requiring no justification.

As historians note, the impulses the neocons represent—the Manichaean world view, the missionary zeal, the near-jingoistic view of America, the can-do spirit and impatience with nuance—are as old as the country itself. . . . [They hold] that the United States occupies a higher moral plane than any other nation, and should act accordingly. . . . [favoring] a muscular, aggressive foreign policy, anticipating and preempting problems worldwide (by military means if necessary), unencumbered by corrupt or pusillanimous international organizations like the United Nations (pages 34-35).

Margolick paints the neocons as an ad hoc cadre of Israeli sympathesizers within the Republican Party, doing their best to steer American policy abroad without drawing attention to themselves as un-elected officials pushing a stealth agenda of their own. In that sense, they serve as lobbyists without having to bother with credentials—missionaries doing God’s work in the guise of laymen without common cause.

Life is a test to see whether our habitual characterizations—the way we see the world—stand up or not. As the bow is drawn, so flies the arrow; whether it hits the target or not is almost irrelevant. Being true to hardened beliefs takes precedence over getting it right. That is, posturing is all, accomplishment not worth considering. Such is a good portion of consciousness, the timed-release of routines stored from childhood. Come what may, the self stands true to the circumstances that prevailed during its earliest formation. Events are merely the fuels that feed the flames within to keep us moving ahead—that is, familiar to ourselves, no matter what. Orthodoxy allows us to recognize ourselves in changing times because we strike the same pose in each situation as it arises. Self-preservation is the name of that game, the primary business of mental life. Reacting to the strange as if it were perfectly familiar, we see ourselves as masters of every occasion. The world may turn, but we refuse to turn with it. That is the essence of dogma, fundamentalism, and ideology. No thinking is required because every idea is prepackaged for ready consumption.

Here there is a close connection between categorization, the storylines we live out, and the situations we get ourselves into again and again. Michael Gazzaniga finds an interpretive module in the lift side of the brain which makes sense of ongoing events no matter how senseless they seem. Who is this interpreter? None other than our self of old, all the way back to our days of language acquisition. What did we know then? How critical were we in applying our judgment? Not much; not very. Yet we are still the same creature, always a little off base, trying to understand what’s going on. So we hazard a guess in keeping with who we were then. Creativity is painful because it means moving away from who we once were into the uncharted territory of the now. Staying sane in novel situations is best done by remaining the same as we were then. We all mimic the Pope in believing in our personal infallibility. He is the eternal child, young at heart, supposedly wise as the hills of Rome in always coming up with a ready answer. A great gig if you can pull it off with a straight face.

I see signs of this back-tugging force all around me. The old ways were better because we were comfortable then and knew whose child we were, while today’s world is fearsome and dangerous, and we’re not sure how we fit in. Fundamentalists read from that script every day of their lives. We survived childhood; the message is clear: More childhood is better. Long live the child within. What worked then is a good bet for what might work now. Formative episodes of experience at a young age set the course of a lifetime.

In my own case, I am definitely the same kid I was at age ten when I was chiseling trilobites out of the damp, black walls of gullies in Hamilton, New York. The thrill of those discoveries is still with me, translated into the idiom of Taunton Bay, Maine. Tracking horseshoe crabs at the northern edge of their range, as I did from 2003 to 2005, put me on the leading edge of my personal curiosity and wonder. Studying the antics of herons, eagles, loons, harbor seals, and wildlife in general, I reach from the depths of my personal history and project that old, familiar feeling of adventure onto the world of today. What conservationists protect may not be the Earth itself so much as their longing to restore Earth as they knew it.

When I was six or seven, my father got a truckload of pebbles to firm up the driveway. I was in the garage, idly playing with a hammer. I placed one of the smooth pebbles on a cinderblock and gave it a sharp tap. Amid the smell of rock dust, the stone split neatly apart, revealing a fossil shell sharply sculpted in high relief. Not sculpted, molded; it was the creature itself turned to stone. Why I picked just that pebble, and hit it just as I did, I’ll never understand. But there it was, a major discovery of my dawning life. Since then, I’ve always felt there is more to existence than the surface reveals. My approach has been to probe everything to find out what secret life is trapped within—now including my own brain. Here I am, still tapping away, longing to reveal more of Earth’s secrets.

As a kid, I loved the month of March when snow on the hills around Hamilton melted into rivulets rushing for the valleys below. I’ve told this story before, but I’ll replay it again because it shows how orthodox I am at the core of my being. I launched boats made of bark and twigs into the flow, and ran with them as they coursed toward the valley. I built dams by pushing rows of twigs into the mud at various angles to the flood, learning about hydrodynamics experientially, not conceptually. The only notes I took were recorded in the mud on my knees, and the sopping pants I wore home. That early learning is with me today as I row across the salty currents of Taunton Bay on an incoming tide. I can visualize the forces acting on my little boat, and choose my heading accordingly.

I worry a good deal about the state of childhood education as we’ve formalized it today. We’ve taken muddy pants out of the curriculum and replaced them with the concept of muddy pants. That way we stay clean and acceptable to our care givers, who seem not to know that concepts gained through physical experience driven by personal motivation outlast the abstractions foist on us by others. Horseshoe crabs and trilobite fossils are existentially real to me because I have a history of hands-on experience with them. Learning about them through books, they start out as ideas in the mind. That is, as in Monopoly, they go straight to jail (memory) without passing go (the senses), creating a kind of half-baked experience wholly dependent on the cards we draw from the stack, cards telling us what we are to do in the world. If The Cat in the Hat, say, or the Lorax, becomes a stock character in my orthodox beliefs—along with mermaids, angels, and unicorns—I will swear to the collective existence of such creatures based on first-hand experience, not suspecting how fanciful my bookish acquaintance really is. Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Clause. But a Santa in the mind is not the same as the “Santa” who eats cookies left on a plate by the fireplace.

In each instance, behavior justified on the basis of orthodoxy, belief, or ideology is always of questionable authority. Even in John Weir’s percept language, the concept of self is of doubtful origin, so does not necessarily represent the real “me,” if there can be such a thing. That is to say, even the self is a construct or characterization, and as such, is a product of complex mental operations and influences. Because experience comes with a valence either positive or negative, good or bad (for me), the first-person singular “I” is more apt to be the good guy than the bad guy. As George W. Bush—and the male animal in general—amply illustrate, it is often hard to acknowledge errors of personal categorization and judgment. Self-criticism is an oxymoron because the self makes the rules. If we dutifully rock back and forth memorizing the Qur’an as children, then truth is on our lips ever after. We become cocky in our beliefs because all doubt and uncertainty are effectively suppressed. We live out our lives as stock characters in a drama fulfilling the dreams of an author living in another time and another place. Because that author dwells within us, not before us, we do not see it directing our actions ever after.

Consciousness by the book—orthodox consciousness—makes us commit crazy (inappropriate) acts while feeling perfectly sane and rational. On cue, we become that innocent child again, wobbling about and asserting ourselves like so many mechanical toys driven by coiled springs. Which I offer as an apt depiction of the Republican phalanx in Congress lock-stepping the party line, bent on destroying our elected system of government from within. And of the neocon cell in Washington awaiting another golden opportunity such as the felling of the Twin Towers to further its covert agenda for proper deployment of America’s might in securing Israel’s toehold in what used to be called Palestine.

And me, I’m just here doing my thing—digging trilobites from gully walls. Characterizing the world around me in terms I learned through early engagements with my environment. Writing a blog is like looking for fossils—I never know what I’ll find. I have a word or a hunch or an idea to begin with, and see where it leads me. Discovery is the issue, coming up with something to fill the gaps in my understanding. That’s my agenda, more-or-less focused on my personal consciousness, which is the vehicle I use in these serial reflections. I can’t help myself; I am a creature of my own making, clinging to the only childhood I know inside-out because I lived it with my very own brain, which dutifully took note of what was happening along the way, and established the original connections that keep reinforcing themselves through everyday use. In being me, I am fulfilling the dream of the child who set the course of my life without knowing that’s what he was doing at the time.

So, I submit, are we all driven by the fundamentalist within because we have no comparable exemplar to follow. Claiming to be reasonable and rational, yet staunchly orthodox at the core, it is wrenching to discover the child we were still rules the day. The art of the possible, as politics is sometimes characterized, inevitably stands against the art of the ideal, the way things should be if orthodoxy had its way. Like you, I could have been the littlest neocon, jahadi, or zionist, but that wasn’t to be. The circumstances of my birth were otherwise. I was the son of a man whose mother’s giving birth to her first child was her last act on Earth. He was baptized at graveside during her burial. He never knew her, his own mother. Because he was remote and inaccessible, I never knew him, my father. Like him, I am a project-oriented, free-thinking loner, more by social inheritance than by choice. Will my sons ever know me? Perhaps, at a distance, if they follow this blog.

UNIFORM