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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The essential benefit of families is to give children a chance to build a store of memories that will serve to get them started in life, and perhaps see them through to the end. Love, liking, sex, companionship, respect, and cooperation help parents bond with each other as essentially different people. That bond is a gift they give their children who, born wholly naïve to the ways of the world, need early engagements with others to build memories, habits, and skills that will help them to stand on their own legs as capable adults when the time comes.

Whether heterosexual, gay, lesbian, or other, adult pairs that complement each other can provide the stimulation and stability necessary to maintain a functioning family that benefits children directly or indirectly during the restless journey to adulthood.

Couples don’t need to justify their existence by having children. They provide the same services by engaging each other so that, having a shared home to return to that restores them, they can go forth and do the work of the world in turning solar energy into deeds.

This benefit also spreads throughout the neighboring community. It takes true, skilled, generous, and reliable engagements to run the world, not the union of one man with one woman, which is only one example of a wide variety of productive human relationships.

There are as many kinds of marriages as there are couples. The essence of family is stability through mutual engagement, not any one particular kind of relationship. If we over-specify the nature of families based on a particular personal preference, morality founders on the sharp rocks of that heedless specificity.

Children don’t need orthodox beliefs to grow into competent adults, nor do any partners who already function on that level of competency. Expressions of mutual love help, along with enough healthful food to fuel the currents flowing through minds both young and adult, endowing them with coherent thoughts and meanings.

The essential thing in a family is to build a core of common experiences that stimulates the growth of all members on their respective levels of attainment. This requires a certain flexibility of expectation, not the rigidity of preordained results.

When I was two or three, the bed of an old canal that passed at the rear of our back yard in Hamilton, New York, was selected as the route of a new sewer. Big sections of concrete pipe were lined up along the banks of the canal, ready to be rolled into place. Walking unattended as a very young child along that line of pipe, I came to its end, which I immediately crawled into.

I remember the feel of the rough concrete surface on my hands and knees. My way into that tube of darkness grew ever dimmer, without any sign of light ahead. The pipe was too tight around my crawling frame to let me turn, so I tried backing up, which didn’t work. I had no choice but to keep crawling into the depths. Crawling. Crawling, scrape after scrape. I got worried that I wouldn’t be able to find a way out.

The separate sections of pipe were pieced together so tightly that only faint hints of an outside world glowed dimly here and there. I was firm in my conviction that the only way out had to lie ahead. At a slight bend, I suddenly saw a faint shimmer from a wider gap in the distance. I kept crawling, and came to two sections of pipe that had not been closely fitted together, leaving a six-inch gap flooded with daylight. This was my chance! I scraped my way through that gap, drawing blood and white scratches along my arms and legs. I wormed my way upward toward the light, and stood free in the open air, taking the coolest, freshest breaths of my life.

Only then did I admit my stupidity in crawling into that line of pipe as if the dark opening had invited me in. I recognized taking that initial move as the bad idea it had been. I remember scolding myself never to do that again.

A certain lack of parental supervision in my case as middle child led to many subsequent episodes of my learning about the world on my own. I became an independent thinker. Whenever I could, I roamed the hills around town, getting scratched, wet, tired, and cold, but never cutting back on my roving explorations. I was on the path to adventure, realizing that if I was under anyone’s supervision, it was my own.

I see those qualities now as the gift of independence that my father took from his birth mother’s not showing up when he needed her. Turning bad situations into positive outcomes is an unsought but necessary result of living through tough times. Finding that positive way is up to those who suffer neglect, abuse, bullying, cruelty, or deprivation. If others torment us, we always have the ultimate option of going it alone under our own recognizance.

Here I am today, facing into the tunnel of introspection so surely shunned by respectable science. Well, so be it. Some may regard it as a sewer pipe; I see it as my way to revelation. My path of life lies precisely into this particular darkness. I’ve already seen many faint shimmers of light, and have no intention of turning back. This Web log is the record of my adventures so far. If I don’t take this particular path, who will? The way is not obvious, but I judge it to be essentially positive. It happens to be the route I’ve followed since earliest childhood.

Thanks for checking it out.

449. My Parents

March 5, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We acquire our genetic parents at conception, but achieve our dreaming and waking minds in the womb as distinct from those of our parents. We are each born to our most rudimentary families, such as they are, with a mind formed by a particular course of events in utero. We bring that mind with us at birth as our basic tool for engaging the hereafter as it gradually unfolds in our particular case. That unfolding may strengthen or weaken the mental pathways we are born with.

The rest is history as told in our expanding autobiography. Though there may be general milestones, there are no laws of child development. Laws are cultural, not natural, artifacts. Collectively and individually, each family is an experiment containing a mix of experiments that proceeds by trial and error as proven by developing relationships among grandparents, parents, selves, children, and grandchildren.

That haphazard process reflects evolution’s wisdom in not attempting to anticipate the conditions we will be born into, so not committing us in advance to ways of engagement which might prove ineffective or even harmful.

In truth, subjective judgment is evolution’s gift to us all in being formed in response to the specific situations we actually confront in family life, not some archaic set of Paleolithic challenges we are supposedly destined to face.

Whether nurtured by our families or not, the judgments that we ourselves make as based on our unique life experience is the crowning glory of evolutionary achievement. Evolution does not lay down the law, it allows for and opens us to the possibilities we might actually meet on our own.

I used to believe that matter obeyed Newton’s laws of motion, or that electrons heeded Ohm’s law. But the universe is not driven by obedience. In every case, the specific conditions in each situation determine the outcome of what happens next. Situations flow from one state of being into the next because conditions are right for that to happen, not by decree, but because each situation spontaneously governs itself in inventing itself on the spot in response to its state at each instant.

There is no such thing as an overall universe governed by laws; there is only the resulting configuration of matter continuously being what it must be right where it is in response to the set of conditions currently affecting its state of being.

Just as the universe is in a continual state of readjustment, so are we, its progeny. Like the Higgs boson, each family is the next state of matter that arises from the conditions that lead up to it. It appears as it does, not in response to a causative or descriptive law of physics it has never heard of, but because, under the circumstances, it balances itself in the moment as best it can.

Just as each point in the universe does as it does on its own in its unique situation, each family member is on her own in the bosom of her family. She is as she does in response to the conditions comprising her situation at each instant of her experience. She can’t help it. She is as she does from her point of view in the context she is in, which sets up a new situation, leading to the next resolution, leading on to the one after that. That’s the process we call development, which includes each individual person and the context of forces in which he or she occurs.

Our lives end up being the summation of each instant of growth as it occurs in the context of all that has happened before, both within and around us. That’s us: Works in progress. Getting it right or wrong by doing it right or wrong in an endless series of ever-changing situations.

As I said, development is not a matter of law. That’s why there are no universal guidebooks to child development. Lives are nothing more nor less than what happens in the situations leading up to conception, then as those situations further evolve after that until we wear out.

Our job as children is to deal with what comes our way the best we can, which we all manage to do more-or-less well. Put that way, it doesn’t sound very romantic. But as I keep saying, we are wayfarers by nature, and blaze our own trails. In contrast, imagine living life as a puppet on strings with a set storyline and guaranteed ending. Which would you choose, your own journey, or that as scripted by someone else?

Trust, love, play, loyalty, and relationships are all subject to rules that almost everyone concerned can agree on. I think of them as rules of engagement, of linking action to perception, self to other(s), individuals to society. Community is a web of interactions, always changing, never twice the same two days in a row, but promoting engagement nonetheless.

Reduced to a concept, community sounds like a fixed thing, but it is alive because each of its members is alive, and the exact configuration of events is unpredictable. The Fourth of July Parade comes around every year, but, too, it is different each time. Different personnel, different bands, different floats, different fireworks, different weather, different watchers along the route—but the same, enduring communal institution so that we refer to it as a fixture of communal life because subject each year to much the same rules and traditions. We are a year older each time, with another year’s experience put away, but we are the same people engaging much as we always have with others, who are also different but look much the same to us.

It is the differences within the envelope of sameness that we pay particular attention to, and differentially respond to. We don’t want this year’s parade to resemble last year’s too closely. We want to be pleasantly surprised, excited, involved—engaged in our minds. Otherwise we lose interest and turn away, or don’t show up at all.

We need the stimulation that differences provide us or we don’t even notice what’s happening. The same-old, same-old shuts us down, turns consciousness off, fails to catch our attention. Dullsville, Inc. Change the channel; find something better to do. Make new friends. Buy a new dress. Get a new drill bit or new App. Order something new at that restaurant that just opened.

Novelty promotes engagement because it takes us beyond where we were toward where we want to go. We are wayfarers precisely because we’re en route to somewhere we’ve never been.

We hunger for novel experience to break up the essential routines we depend on in getting through the day. Finding something to wear, packing a lunch, getting the kids off to school, going to work, eating lunch, coming home.

Yes, we need the stability provided by such familiar routines, but at the same time we want those engagements to be special in being particularly noticeable because they stand out from the background of everyday routines.

So we acquire a repertory of tricks to spice things up as if they were new. This time we make our own Valentine’s Day cards, knit a new scarf, pack a surprise in the lunch box, put in a row of scarlet runner beans, eat with chop sticks, fast for a day, read a book instead of watching TV.

We don’t want to rock the boat, just shake it enough to sharpen our attention. Do enough to spark up a long-term relationship. To keep things from running down and getting dull. We do this in so many ways—getting our hair cut, trying a new stud, tattoo, or shade of lipstick, telling a joke, this time bringing flowers and a bottle of wine—it barely needs mentioning. Except these are reflections of our minds in action. Stimulating lagging relationships. Avoiding being taken for granted. Staying perky, bright, and attractive so the right people will notice and stay as engaged with us as they were in the old days.

There is a whole layer of unwritten rules beneath the familiar rules of the game to keep consciousness alive and well by being well-fed on novelty. Things our mother never taught us because she thought they were obvious and didn’t need saying. Things we missed because we weren’t ready or weren’t paying attention.

Communities are built by sustaining a host of ongoing engagements that don’t turn sour because of casual indifference. Active communities promote engagements between their members; they don’t just sit and wait for something to happen. The movers and shakers in a community take turns making it an exciting, inviting, and enjoyable place to live. A place hospitable to consciousness.

 

This post is the last installment in a series about twelve of my engagements with the culture we put between ourselves and nature.

10. Space Junk. Early in 1962, I started work at Harvard College Observatory by setting up a photo lab that eventually expanded to become worthy of the Space Age. I started my fiefdom in a one-room darkroom with walls eight feet apart, which ultimately led to a fourteen-room photo lab suite near Fresh Pond on the outskirts of Cambridge. Apparently there was money for expansion available in those days.

Early on I was handed a remnant from a fallen Russian satellite that had landed piecemeal in northern Canada. No one knew what its function was, but as a novel piece of space junk, it deserved to have its picture taken.

That was a first for me, and the beginning of Harvard’s playing an active role, along with the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, in lofting research satellites into orbit. With one click of my shutter, my mind went from a dark-wood kind of nineteenth-century awareness into a full-fledged, gold-plated, twentieth century engagement with the new world of space exploration and surveillance.

11. J.F.K. When President Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963, I was in the photo lab darkroom at Harvard College Observatory making prints with the enlarger under the glow of a red safelight. I had the radio tuned to WGBH. When the bulletin came that Kennedy had been shot in Dallas, I called my assistant on the intercom and asked if he was listening to the radio. He was. The horror of that moment was implied in neither of us commenting on what was happening. Suddenly cut adrift from my everyday assumptions, I did what was familiar, so went on with what I knew how to do without thinking, my insides churning all the while. I never felt more cut off from the culture I lived in than I did contemplating that violent act in Dallas. Doubly sealed in my darkroom and in my own thoughts, bathed in red light, I got myself set to enter the new reality under the fluorescent lights beyond my lightproof darkroom door.

12. MIT Chapel. On a Wednesday afternoon in the spring of 1973, I drove my Humanities 3 class at Abbott Academy from Andover to Cambridge to see what we could discover in two hours exploring MIT. Starting on the steps of Building 10, we headed off in different directions to see what engagements we could have and sense we could make of a cultural institution devoted to science and engineering.

A chapel had been added to the campus since my days at the school, so I was curious about what sort of building could acknowledge the ineffabilities of faith in those stark surroundings. On the outside it resembled a red brick pillbox much smaller than I thought it would be. Without windows, which surprised me. Entrance was through a curved archway.

Passing into the interior, I left Cambridge, Mass., behind and entered another world. It was dark, almost black. I left my pupils to adjust at their own rate. Arcs of chairs spread across a circular floor. A larger space than I expected in a pillbox, almost infinite—like the darkness outdoors on a moonless night. Beautifully lit from above by a gentle shower of light descending from an off-center light tube onto a table below. Golden rectangles like leaves hung suspended in the glow as if falling through eternity. I was stunned by the aura of the place.

I sat and savored the ambience. Everything faded except for those golden leaves. I had not a thought in my head. Unlike the granite institution on the far side of Mass. Ave., here was no place for thought. Awe, comfort, and wonder were the currency in this space. Whatever I needed at that moment, there it was. Released inside, not outside of my body.

As my eyes adapted to the shadows, I sensed movement in front of me to the right of the table. I was not alone. A silent figure removing something from a case. Raising it up. Suddenly a burst of music. A violin. Bach. A solo sonata. The voice of that place on that day. Exactly what I needed to hear. What I had come for and didn’t know it. At MIT of all places.

I just sat, wholly open to the dark, the music, the falling golden leaves. I knew exactly where I was, who I was. I was meant for this experience. Nothing else mattered. There was nothing else.

After a time, the music stopped, the figure of a woman carrying a violin case passed up the aisle. Who could she be? Why had she begun playing in the dark after I sat down? But I already knew. She was kin. A fellow wayfarer. Making sense of her brief stay on Earth by doing what she had to do. As I had had to take my class on yet one last voyage of discovery before Abbott (oldest girls’ school in the U.S.) shut for good in a few weeks, to be swallowed by the boys’ school up the street, leaving me out of a job.

What these twelve cultural engagements share in common is that I remember them from the years between 1951 and 1973, each having made its mark on my mind and memory so that it is still available to me today in 2015. Available, I now believe, because of an element of surprise in that things turned out other than I had expected them to.

Each incident of engagement is based on a discrepancy between my expectancy on that occasion and what actually happened. The combination of discrepancy and surprise heightened the engagement itself, making it memorable, for either its positive or negative polarity in comparison to what I was ready for at the time.

These incidents are the stuff of my personal consciousness. The emotionally-charged high points between long hours of my flying on automatic pilot, between routine engagements leading up to the peak occasions marked by disparities such as these.

Why do I call myself a wayfarer? Because I love going beyond where I’ve been before. Exceeding my own expectations. For good or ill, trial-and-error is the name of my game. Taking the next step, and the step after that. Some would call it empiricism. Or experimentation. I call it being a wayfarer driven by heartfelt curiosity, and the conviction that wonders surely lie around the next bend in the trail.

Now, onward to the community level of engagement.

 

Living in a small village is one thing; you know everyone by name, know their children, what they do for a living, when they are sick. You can afford to give them the benefit of the doubt, assume they are good people, and help them when they have a setback. By helping a neighbor in a village, you are likely helping one of your relatives who shares some of your genes.

But when an entire culture intrudes into our safety zone by mail, phone, TV, newspaper, magazine, internet, email, cellphone, connecting us to everything that’s happening every minute of our lives—culture is no longer our friend or relative but is clearly out to get at us in our homes and other places where we used to feel safe and snug.

It’s not our culture so much as theirs, whoever all those people are who commandeer our personal engagements for purposes of their own. I know they are out there; I get emails, letters, and phone calls from them every day trying to convince me to follow their agenda.

Perhaps in some far and mythical past, cultures were built and maintained by groups for the mutual benefit of all members. When people got sick, others took care of them. When they needed help, others lent a hand.

But now there are so many of us, and we come in so many varieties, we can’t identify with the whole, so tend to defend ourselves by reducing our decisions to yes-or-no choices, stay or flee, love or hate, pass or fail.

As it turns out, this is exactly how our minds work on the most basic level. Neurons either fire or they don’t, send signals forward or not, excite or inhibit, engage or stand pat. Our minds are made to reduce complex issues to simple choices so that we can act decisively in short order.

Which holds as true in cultural as in natural settings. Culture exists for our personal benefit so that our needs can be met with minimal fuss, delay, and expense. When it gets out of hand and causes more trouble than we can bear, it consumes us as so much fodder for the benefit of aggressive others, not as individuals worthy in themselves.

In the end, cultures are governed by nested layers of laws, ordinances, rules, edicts, ignorance, and hearsay. With culture serving as a buffer between humans and nature, we thrive on obeying the rules, such as they are. That way we can coordinate our efforts, take turns, play our parts in synchrony with others, practice, rehearse, and improve our performance so that we eventually get it right—either that, or are proven wrong once again.

Rules of one sort or another are what make cultures work for a wide diversity of people looking out from the relative calm and shelter of their subjective states. And if they don’t work all that well, they can always be improved.

Along with rules come the enforcers. The leaders, teachers, trainers, coaches, managers, directors, supervisors, inspectors, umpires, referees, timekeepers, linesmen, hall patrollers, quality controllers, and all the rest.

Their job is to make sure the rules are obeyed, which challenges us to do our best within tight constraints. We can harmonize our efforts, play our parts, go solo, work in unison, or in duets, trios, quartets . . . unto nonets and beyond. Which takes training, practice, rehearsal, anxiety, adrenalin, and giving our all.

Being under direction the whole way assures coordination of specialized efforts to achieve maximum effect by smoothing and synchronizing our individual performances as they issue from the passionate core of our respective black boxes.

Culture, then, is the great stabilizer that balances and coordinates our myriad individual efforts for the common good (or ill). Pierre Monteux conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra in a performance of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique at Symphony Hall is one cultural event at which I was present in my little black box back in 1951. It was, well, fantastique.

Others have watched or run in the Boston Marathon; cheered Harvard on against Yale; attended Red Sox, Celtics, and Patriots games; taken flights from Logan Airport; cruised among the islands in Boston Harbor; visited the Science Museum and Massachusetts General Hospital; read the Boston Globe; and borrowed books from Boston Public Library.

Such coordinated events and institutions are not generally possible in nature. It is human culture that sponsors them, and human individuals that support the opportunities for engagement they offer. Without culture, we wouldn’t be anything like who we are. Imagine being born in the Neo- or Paleolithic Era.

Whether we are deferential or assertive personality types, culture forms, stirs, provokes, instructs, and challenges us to grow into the people we become. And that profound influence is not so much in our brains as in our cultural experience as enabled by our brains. You can take the boy out of the country, but you can’t take country culture out of the boy. Country culture isn’t so much in the boy’s brain as it is in the integrated style of his engagements, in his way of being himself. Through years of engagement, it resides in his eyes, ears, muscles, clothing, vocabulary, and neural pathways, ready to be activated on demand.

Music is a branch of culture that makes it possible for people to gather for the purpose of making noise. The art is in the integrity of the noise, how it all fits together. What string quartets and jazz ensembles release in me is a sensitivity to and appreciation for the interplay between separate voices weaving in and out among their companions.

I find musical chords boring. I like polyphony, each voice playing its part. It’s the difference, not the sameness that gets me. The playful gap between voices, the delta, the dichotomy, the discrepancy, the polarity, the disparity. In brief, the close encounter, engagement, relationship, interaction. Moving in, then away, then back again by a different route.

It’s the wayfaring. Playfully finding the way in easy company. I turn off the switch on jazz that blows the loudest, highest, longest. That’s for the Olympics. So what? I say to myself. It’s not individual prowess in itself I want to hear but deftness in relating to others. The more spontaneously the better and more engaging. That is my preference. I am not a rational or reasonable person. I’m out for adventure. That’s what I seek and pay attention to. The lilt and surprise, not the pure form. Not the logic.