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.

 

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

4. Walking Down Broadway. At the end of my sophomore year, I transferred from MIT to Columbia College, where I took up the study of the humanities in earnest during the last year in which that major was being offered. I studied cultural events in the city as extensively as books at the college. I needed a big dose of what the city had to offer.

On a spring night at a little past one o’clock, I was reading in my room, when suddenly I decided to walk the length of Broadway from 113th Street to the ferry terminal in lower Manhattan. Just me and my shadow, my solo wayfarer.

The signs, curbs, venting manhole covers, streetlights, water-towers, few cars, buildings, and people I met have now blended into an impressionistic collage of that walk, all of Broadway compacted into a single image distilled from my moving perspective, largely visual, partly made of sounds and smells wafting my way as I went. That and a sense of great adventure is what I have left. And of belonging right where I was. I can’t recall specific details—they’ve faded away. I must have passed through Columbus Circle, Times Square, Union Square. I can’t remember how long it took. I know I got to South Ferry at dawn, and took the subway to 113th Street. When I got back, I thought of doing it again in daylight, but went off to class instead.

5. Walking to Concord. Thinking about my walk down Broadway reminds me of another walk I made with my younger brother, Peter, a few years later, a cultural walk of a different color because largely rural, not urban. I met him at his apartment near Kenmore Square in Boston at noon on a Saturday, and together we headed west to place stones on the cairn at the site of Thoreau’s cabin twenty miles west in Walden Woods near the famous pond.

Once past Cambridge, we walked back roads the rest of the way, immersing ourselves in the region as we imagined it had been a hundred years ago, and in some stretches still was in the 1960s. Narrow roads, stone walls, farm ponds, and apple trees, which went on for miles, are what I remember. Our feet may have trod the modern ways of Lincoln and Lexington, but our thoughts were with Hawthorne, Emerson, and Thoreau in the Concord of their day. Time warps are available for the doing if you set your mind to it.

We got to Walden Pond at dusk, and I remember scrambling for stones to add to the cairn at Rolly Robbins’ reconstruction on the site of Thoreau’s cabin just back from the pond. Walking twenty miles to add a few stones to a humble monument in the woods seemed a sensible thing to do. We walked into Concord in the dark, sure we would find a bus stop somewhere along the way. Luck was with us, and we just caught the ten-o’clock bus back to Boston. Now that Peter is dead, that walk stands out as one of the highlights of our brotherhood.

6. Routine Engagement. In 1955, I worked as an engineering aide in the servomechanisms group at Boeing Aircraft in Renton just south of Seattle. I had a desk in a giant hangar of a building filled wall-to-wall with similar desks, an engineer seated at each one. That was in the days before cubicles and sound-absorbing tiles, just one big room with a sky-high ceiling. The only thing on my desk was a lever-operated mechanical calculator.

I spent six months making charts and plots on graph paper, a task I was used to from my year of mechanical drawing at MIT. One day my supervisor explained that one of two prototype B-52 airplanes was showing a tendency to veer (his term was yaw) to the side, and he wanted me to plot fuel consumption of all four engines to see if one engine was burning more or less fuel than the others.

The fuel consumption records consisted of a series of actual photos of dials taken during each test flight. I was told which flight to check, and sent to the large hangar where the records were kept. I got the photos in a thick file, read the dials for all four engines during that particular flight, went back to my desk and plotted the hundreds of points I had read from the dials. My graphs showed that all engines were burning the same amount of fuel.

What I remember is the bleakness of the days I spent on that job. Doing the duty I was assigned in a mechanical frame of mind. I was engaged to the extent of doing what I had been asked to do, being sure of my accuracy in reading, writing down, figuring, and plotting long series of numbers. But beyond that I was not personally engaged, just pulling the lever on my calculator again and again. I set up a routine to get through the day, effectively renting out my brain to help solve someone else’s problem. I was in a room full of people, but hardly talked with anyone all day, punching my time card when I left.

At the end of six months, I was drafted into the Army, and left Seattle for basic training at Fort Ord near Salinas, California. Ever since, wayfarer that I am, I have made sure to choose my engagements from among those that appealed to me as much as walking down Broadway at night.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

(Copyright © 2009)

 

It is a Wednesday afternoon in April, 1973. I am taking my Humanities III class at Abbott Academy on a field trip to MIT. Each week we strike into the territory surrounding Andover, Massachusetts, for the distance of up to a one hour’s drive. We then pair up and venture into the wilderness to see what sort of place we have come to. After exploring for an hour and a half, we gather, share our discoveries, and drive back to Andover. One Wednesday we went to a crossroad in rural New Hampshire [which I can no longer find on the map] to see what life was like in that neck of the woods. Another, we went to Plumb Island on the coast of Massachusetts to explore plant and animal life among the dunes. Today we are in industrial Cambridge, enjoying the mixed scent of the Necco factory, rubber factory, and Heinz pickles from the campus of MIT in their midst. My students radiate out from under the dome of Building 10. I cross Mass Ave. to look at the chapel built since my own student days 20 years earlier. There it is, an unassuming brick cylinder off the path to the athletic field. I am surprised how small it is. A for simplicity, D- for elegance. In I go. Blackness. Radiant gold flakes falling from a light tube above. Not falling, exactly; metal shapes skewered on rods radiating downward in the column of light. The effect is of power and illumination descending, shimmering over some kind of altar. As my eyes get used to the dark, I sense concentric rows of benches echoing the contour of the wall. I sit. A shape there, just outside the beam from the skylight. Someone’s standing by the altar. A young woman. Holding something in one hand. She swings it up. Music! A Bach sonata for unaccompanied violin. She plays for what seems like eternity—which I later figure to be about 20 minutes. The light descends, the sculpture glows in its dark surround, I sit, the woman plays. The music is the medium in which, together, we exist. She ceases playing, puts her instrument in its case, and walks out. As she passes me, I tell her I’ve never met an angel before. She says nothing, and leaves. Later, I have a hard time telling my students about the experience. It has nothing to do with language. To force my vision into words is to ridicule or diminish it. You had to be there, I tell them.

 

When everything comes together in consciousness like that, for good or ill, we are overwhelmed. Could be 9/11, could be Obama’s inauguration. Such states of cohesion are milestones along our journeys of life discovery. We are tempted to take them as revelations of true reality, even though those alongside of us may be experiencing something totally different. At any rate, these are momentous occasions.

 

More often, consciousness is conflicted, opening onto a world of mixed messages. Which makes a hash of so-called reality as a kind of tumult neither good nor bad. It just is. With us being pulled this way and that so we hardly know who we are. But every now and then we take that fatal step into the dark chapel, or come across a paragraph by Thoreau that makes particularly powerful sense. We are moved by being for once of one mind. Consciousness is still as complicated as ever, but all the facets contribute to the overall effect.

 

We know all about love-hate relationships. Pepperoni pizza with green peppers, mushrooms, and extra cheese is a gift from heaven—except for the gastric distress it brings on, and the extra weight we carry for eating it down at one sitting. School would be fun—if it weren’t so boring. The Friday paycheck is great—if only it went far enough. Most experiences are a mixture of the good and the bad, which turns what seems at first glance to be pleasurable into drudgery, or vice versa. Vacations, for instance, are a great idea. But when it comes to making all the arrangements, and seeing what everything costs, it makes more sense to stay home and read a good book. Everyday consciousness is usually at sixes and sevens, so we grit our teeth and bear with it. That’s life, we say. So we steel ourselves and grind on.

 

Which sets us up for those rare times when it all (attention, feeling, expectation, percepts, concepts, memory, motive, judgment, understanding, action, etc.) comes together and we feel more alive than we have in ages. That’s what basketball mania is all about, community theater, good sex, and other peak experiences when our usually fragmented consciousness gets itself together for once.

 

When I was a freshman in high school, I entered the annual prize speaking contest. I loved James Thurber stories at the time, so decided to deliver “The Car We Had to Push.” It was an all-school event, putting me as a novice up against far more mature and accomplished speakers. I remember reciting myself to sleep every night for a month, haltingly at first, then smoother and smoother. On the day of the event, I didn’t know what to do with my hands, so clasped them behind me. I got through without a hitch and thought that wasn’t so bad. When the judges announced their decision, my classmate Josephine Case won first prize for girls with “The Highwayman” by Alfred Noyes, and I won for boys. We each got a ten dollar bill.

 

That was the first time in my life I ever got my act together. I learned it was possible, and how much work it took. Before that, I was a tinkerer who got things to take apart by breaking into barns and stealing old cars. I walked along Payne Creek springing muskrat traps I thought were cruel, getting both the trapper and town policeman on my case. As a teenager I was definitely not together.

 

But over time I have learned something of what it takes to manage my own consciousness. Insofar, that is, as consciousness is subject to my stewardship—which is not very far. But I do know how to stick with a job, how to work in stages or drafts, and something about the sorts of experiences that turn me on: nature photography, writing haiku, reflecting on consciousness, trying to figure how ecosystems work, and so on, none of which is easy

 

The main thing I have learned is to keep exploring my options. And then to be deliberate in choosing which ones to give up on, which to pursue. My personal consciousness is the medium I have been given for living a life. I much prefer having it as my friend rather than an enemy constantly catching me by surprise. It has taken me a lifetime of curiosity and exploration to learn how to work with my consciousness rather than in spite of it, which makes living each moment as rewarding as it is challenging.

 

What can I say? I do what I love, love what I do. Which is code for I am my consciousness, my consciousness is me.

 

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