What does the American edition of Roget’s Thesaurus (1933) say on the topic of irresolution?

It offers word cluster 605. Irresolution, which includes the Nouns: infirmity of purpose, indecision, indetermination, loss of willpower, unsettlement, uncertainty, demur, suspense, hesitation, vacillation, ambivalence, changeableness, fluctuation, alternation, caprice, lukewarmness, fickleness, levity, pliancy, weakness, timidity, cowardice, half measures, waverer, ass between two bundles of hay, shuttlecock, butterfly, time-server, opportunist, and turn coat.

Then he adds the following Adjectives: irresolute, infirm of purpose, double-minded, half-hearted, undecided, unresolved, undetermined, drifting, shilly-shally, fidgety, tremulous, wobbly, hesitating, off one’s balance, at a loss, vacillating, unsteady, unsteadfast, fickle, unreliable, irresponsible, unstable, without ballast, capricious, volatile, frothy, light-minded, giddy, fast and loose, weak, feeble-minded, frail, timid, cowardly, facile, pliant, unable to say ‘no,’ easy-going.

I was looking for wishy-washy, but that’s listed under headings: 160. Languid; 391. Insipid; 575. Feebleness; and 648. Unimportant.

Often the polarized pairs of headings are based on the same root with a prefix added to one of them: non-, dis-, anti-, contra-, mis-, in-, or un-, as in the following pairs of headings printed side-by-side:

17. Similarity/18. Dissimilarity

23. Agreement/24. Disagreement

27. Equality/28. Inequality

43. Junction/44. Disjunction

46. Coherence/47. Incoherence

58. Order/59. Disorder.

Many other headings are based on different roots:

50. Whole/51. Part

66. Beginning/67. End

102. Multitude/103. Fewness

123. Newness/124. Oldness

125. Morning/126. Evening

127. Youth/128. Age

140. Change/141. Permanence

159. Strength/160. Weakness

164. Producer/165. Destroyer

173. Violence/174. Moderation

210. Summit/211. Base

212. Verticality/213. Horizontality

234. Front/235. Rear

292. Arrival/293. Departure

298. Food/299. Excretion.

Roget contrasts heading 516. Meaning with 517. Unmeaningness, placing them side-by-side in two columns. Comparing the two clusters, you can feel the author’s judgment at work, awarding high approval to one list, rating the other as, well, flapdoodle. I present samplings from the two headings in serial order.

516. Meaning. Signification, significance, sense, expression, import, drift, tenor, implication, connotation, essence, force, spirit bearing, colouring, scope; matter, subject, subject matter, argument, text, sum and substance, gist; general meaning, broad meaning, substantial meaning, colloquial meaning, literal meaning, plain meaning, simple meaning, accepted meaning, natural meaning, unstrained meaning, true, etc.

517. Unmeaningness. Scrabble, scribble, scrawl, daub (painting), strumming (music); empty sound, dead letter, ‘a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,’ ‘sounding brass and a tinkling cymbal’; nonsense, jargon, gibberish, jabber, mere words, hocus-pocus, fustian, rant, bombast, balderdash, palaver, patter, flummery, verbiage, babble, platitude, insanity, rigmarole, rodomontade, truism, twaddle, twattle, fudge, trash, stuff, stuff and nonsense, bosh, rubbish, rot, drivel, moonshine, wish-wash, fiddle-faddle, flapdoodle, absurdity, vagueness, etc.

Here, I suggest, we have direct evidence of the perceptive mind at work shaping, sharpening, emphasizing, contrasting, and distinguishing the impressions it forms of the patterns of energy it receives from the world, doing its work with a deliberately (and figuratively) heavy hand, ensuring that each sensory impression conforms to the attitude of expectancy with which it is welcomed. Indeed, we recognize exactly what it is we expect to find.

To me, this is a demonstration of how our loops of engagement do their jobs in such a way to reassure us that the world we discover is the same world we seeded our attention and expectancy with in the first place.

In listing his opposing headings in adjacent columns, Roget draws attention to a quality of human thought that frames the mind’s version of the world in dualistic terms (opposing, dichotomous, polarizing, bifurcating, complementary, etc.), so suggesting the basic structure of neural systems based on the two opposing processes of activation and inhibition, which is one of the primary themes I develop in this blog.

Conflict, rivalry, and opposition, I claim, provide the underpinnings of consciousness itself for they are the very qualities that not only draw but shape our attention. And, when we are jaded and expect the worst, they are precisely the qualities that so shock us by their absence that we celebrate an unaccustomed clarity and lightness of heart.

By juxtaposing opposing qualities of mind (as illustrated by his headings of Meaning and Unmeaning above), Roget’s Thesaurus reflects the inherent nature of thoughts he and the rest of us are trying to put into English, and those thoughts reveal the on or off, yes or no, go or no-go nature of our thought processes themselves.

Gridlock, conflict, and warfare are the norms toward which rigid minds tend. Resolution and compromise depend on giving way on some of our most cherished beliefs, allowing room for both inhibition and activation in our mental processes. Idealists, purists, and hard-liners are the polar opposites of pragmatists who do what they must to solve problems and get things done.

Rigid pride in our personal system of belief is the enemy of getting along in a world harboring over seven-billion independent human minds. Some of the flapdoodle we perceive in the world may well be expressions by well-meaning people raised under different conditions than we have been, and so live in different worlds of experience than our own.


(Copyright © 2010)

Categorization is a neural process connecting a concept in memory with a percept or sensory pattern; the pattern serves as an example of the category, and so takes its name. Perhaps “connecting” is the wrong word to use in describing what happens when concepts and patterns become linked in the mind; maybe “mapping” makes a better fit with the facts, the concept being mapped onto the pattern, or the pattern onto the concept. Either way, one topologically fulfills the other in some fashion, and the category label gets transferred to the pattern itself as an instance of the category. That is a coffee mug; this is a pencil; where are my glasses?; an unusual insect just landed on my sleeve. However it happens in the brain, we can’t get very far in today’s world without resorting to categorizations of the new in terms of the old, the strange in terms of the familiar, the concrete in terms of the abstract.

Think of the names we have for various things, items, objects, entities, articles, doodads, whatchamacallits, thingammies, thingamajigs, thingamabobs, etc. All floating around in our brains, waiting to be called to action when a suitable sensory pattern appears on the phenomenal horizon. Some such pattern may be familiar, but the name escapes us, so we use a term that suggests as much, like thingamajig. But such general categories are appropriate on only an extremely low level of discernment, so are on the vague end of categorizations. At the opposite extreme are categorical phrases such as “the stoneware mug with iron oxide glaze that Carole gave me on my 77th birthday,” which I can apply to only one object on Earth. Between these extremes, we have a continuum of concepts of greater or lesser specificity, including the binomial names used in classifying the biological world down to the species or varietal level (eg. Zostera marina, eelgrass), stopping short of colonies, communities, or particular organisms singled out by individual observers.

Often, we are in too great a rush to spare the time and effort required to categorize the blur of phenomena we move through in daily life, so settle for the appearance of things without feeling a need to sort them into conceptual bins. In my apartment, for instance, I am accustomed to looking at my books and papers according to their location and spatial relationships without bothering to identify them or give them a name. I know them perceptually but not conceptually. That works most of the time, until I have to look for a particular notebook or paper, when I visualize the appearance of what I’m after, and fit it with a name and conceptual meaning on a level of discernment that meets my need at the moment.

Artists typically don’t think about patterns (unless they are conceptual artists), they make and enjoy them for their dynamic sensory qualities. Sometimes critics find meaning in paintings or pieces of music, but often it is a side trip, not the heart of the piece. Sensory relationships need no conceptual explanation to justify their existence. Nothing matters but spatial and temporal interactions between elements of sensory perception as they develop in the mind of the viewer or listener. It is sensory experience in itself that counts, not rational understanding of what it might mean if it were categorized one way or another. The same is true of food, which may indeed be nutritious, but it is the relationships between, and combinations of, shapes, sheens, colors, textures, flavors, and aromas that make a dish or a meal. To some, sex may mean the making of babies, but most partners take care so that is precisely not the issue, which is, rather, a mix of pleasure, closeness, intimacy, caring, love, desire, attraction, curiosity, and a host of other ingredients that draw people together in ways without referential or categorical meaning. A huge part of life is lived aside from any formal quest to lay conceptual meanings on perceptual events.

Take numbers, for example. Numbers don’t mean anything, they just are. Perhaps whatever units are attached to them (grams per cubic centimeter, or people per square mile) calibrate numbers in order to convey meaning, but that meaning is overlaid on them and is not a property of the numbers themselves. By definition, numbers are pure gestures stripped of all meaning. You can use them to count apples or sheep, but the counting itself is inherent in the situation upon which gestures are made, so the totals are significant in relation to shopping or falling asleep, not the tally of gestures.

Mathematics can be applied to anything that can be quantified, but in itself it is a collection of abstract operations performed on meaningless gestures, such as numbers arrayed in a column, row, or matrix. That is, numbers in relationship. But the essence of number is the gesture behind it, the noticing and the act of pointing at one thing after another, giving equal attention in turn to each one, then moving on. I frequently catch myself counting footsteps as I cross the street, treads on a stairway, telephone poles along a road, clouds in the sky—not for any reason other than the business of counting, of making repetitive gestures in my mind simply because I can do it. Do I know what I am talking about? No, haven’t a clue. My conscious mind makes me do it. My motive is innocence itself, I swear.

Numbers are as natural as categorizing sensory patterns in conceptual bins is natural. Categorization is a sign I’ve seen this before, I recognize it, so I know what it is. Numbers are a sign I’ve never been in precisely this situation before, so it’s important I pace it out, or register my engagement in some way. Numbers are a way of reaching out to the world on a human scale. Think how many gestures it takes a bumblebee or a chicken to cross the road. Counting accepts that things exist in themselves as noticeable phenomena; categorization recognizes that things can have meanings bestowed upon them. We have metronomes, and we have dictionaries, each reflecting different aspects of mind.

When I worked in the photo lab at Harvard College Observatory in the 1960s, I worked out a filing system for negatives based on the date a particular work order was received for which photographs were taken. A number such as 651123-6-19 would identify the 19th negative taken for the 6th work order received on November 23, 1965. If each negative was properly labeled and filed, then, knowing the date of the order, I could retrieve it almost immediately. The system worked because I usually had a sense of when I worked on a particular job, and could either browse through the negative file, or refer to the work-order book where each job was listed by date. This is a system for categorizing photographic negatives on five levels of discernment: by year, month, day, job, and individual negative. The system had meaning mainly for workers in the photo lab, and indirectly for the scientists we served, but it proved extremely useful and efficient in identifying a particular photographic image out of thousands which, in their 4×5-inch negative envelopes, all looked alike.

On a much grander scale, the Dewey Decimal System allows librarians to categorize books by subject matter and author’s last name. This system, like Roget’s original Thesaurus, is based on the 19th century ideal of fitting everything into 1,000 categories. In 1876, Melvil Dewey divided all books into 10 subject classes, each class into 10 divisions, and each division into 10 sections, providing 1,000 bins into which books were to be sorted according to their subject matter. Since Dewey’s system is difficult to adapt to new fields of knowledge that have emerged since his day, the Library of Congress uses a different system based on 21 primary categories, and relies on experts to adapt the system to the needs of new fields as they emerge. For end users, a computer search by title or author will produce the catalogue number, which points to stacks where books are shelved in numerical order. It is a library staff’s job to replace returned books in correct order along the shelves.

Such systems of categorizations are product of the human mind—usually, of one mind in particular, after whom the system is often named. The same is true of the periodic table of the 118 known chemical elements, in a previous arrangement called Mendeleev’s periodic table after an early categorizer of chemical elements by their properties, Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev (1834-1907). Arrayed in two dimensions, the periodic table ranks the elements horizontally by the number of electrons in the outermost shell of electrons, vertically by the number of electron shells they contain. In terms of their elemental properties, rows are referred to as periods, columns as groups or families. What holds the system together is the fact that the chemical properties of each element can be predicted from its position in the table. That is, each element bears a family resemblance to those above and below it, while sharing a periodic gradient of different properties with those along the same row. It was Mendeleev who first predicted the properties of elements not yet discovered, represented in his array by gaps between elements then known. This example demonstrates the power of systematic categorization, enabling us, if we’ve got it right, to anticipate what we don’t already know.

Imagine such systems of categorization emerging from human consciousness, calibrating the world we live in in terms we’ve acquired through prior experience. Once established, such systems allow subtle variations. There’s literal language, figurative language, nonsense (funny) language, the language of numbers, the language of relationships, the language of love, and so on, all conveying different kinds of meaning in different ways. There’s exaggeration, understatement, emphasis, excitement, and all the rhetorical shadings we can achieving by deliberately modifying how we choose to categorize a thing in the bin of our choosing. English is a mix of words derived from Anglo-Saxon and from French. Many of our curse words stem from Anglo-Saxon, our romantic terms from the French. We get to select which idiom suits our needs at the moment. What’ll it be, gents, liquor or schnapps? Or perhaps a bit of whiskey (Scottish Gaelic uisge beatha, water of life).

Categorization fits identifiable sensory patterns in perception with an overlay of conceptual meaning, creating phenomenal units that seem to be meaningful in themselves. When we look out on the world, we see it largely in terms of the meaningful patterns we are familiar with, not recognizing that it is organized according to a system we carry with us in our heads and project outward on the world. That is, looking onto the world, the view we take in reflects the system of categorization we carry in our heads, making it uniquely our world. The person standing next to us does exactly the same, living in the world she makes for herself.

We give Dmitri Mendeleev credit for inventing the periodic table of the elements as a system of categorization, and Melvil Dewey credit for inventing the Dewey Decimal System of library classification—but we stop short of crediting ourselves with the invention of the worlds we have devised for ourselves according to systems based on our prior experience. We say the world is the world, as if it were the same for everyone, while all evidence points to the fact that the worlds we inhabit are highly subjective and are clearly of our own making.

Similarly, we find great meaning in numbers, not thinking that the significance we find is the significance we project onto numbers in the very act of looking upon them. In themselves they are neutral, empty, ameaningful. Numbers do not convey the meaning of the universe, as scientists claim; they are vehicles for the systems of mind by which we broadcast meaning onto the universe. When we die, the nature of the universe will die with us. The ability to predict the properties of chemical elements is built into the periodic table by the mind that built it in conformity with his own knowledge and observations. Interpolation is not discovery; it is filling a gap between points in an orderly system. Properties revealed by the system are dependent on the gradients we have built into the system by devising it as we did.

A squirrel’s periodic table would account for where the most and best acorns are to be found in the woods. A heron’s system of categorization will map the direction and distance it has to fly to reach the most reliable supply of frogs and small fish. Creatures of all species lay their biological needs on the world, and plot the coordinates of sites that hold interest for them. Mendeleev had a feel for chemical properties; Dewey was interested in locating books on a wide variety of subjects. We categorize our worlds according to our vital interests, because those are the interests that, by definition, have meaning for us. Consciousness is the highly adaptable system that allows each of us to map her concerns onto the world so that she can find what she needs in order to keep going.

Lies are deliberate miscategorizations meant to mislead others. If we don’t want our rivals to discover what we know, we will distort our true categorizations to lead them astray. Metaphors—and figurative language in general—are deliberate miscategorizations for the purpose of emphasizing the true character of a thing as we see it at the moment. I love chocolate ice cream. Well, no, not as I love my children or my partner; I don’t mean that kind of love. I mean that on the scale of how much I like different kinds of ice cream, chocolate is at the top. I didn’t tell an untruth, I was merely exaggerating to give you an indication of how I feel about chocolate ice cream.

Categorizations are a means for laying our values onto the world around us. For seeing the world in terms of who we are at the core. Every act of categorization declares who we are as systematic bestowers of meaning. We make our worlds to suit ourselves, then live in those worlds. When Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina blurted out, “You lie!” as Obama told a joint session of Congress his health care bill didn’t cover undocumented immigrants at no cost, Wilson called Obama a liar because, by his system of categorization, illegal aliens would be eligible for subsidized coverage. That was his understanding, and hearing Obama publically declare otherwise, he suffered an episode of cognitive dissonance on the spot. Wilson later apologized for (in my terms) getting his worlds crossed.

This almost trivial episode points to why the world is in the sorry state that it is. Basically, in laying our meanings upon the world, we find ourselves at cross purposes with other layers of meaning on what seems to be the same world. Inevitably, we are the truth seekers, they are the liars. Creating situations that can lead to disagreements, angry gestures, bloodshed, and even to war.

Given the subjective nature of our categorizations, and the serious consequences which false or erroneous categorizations often have, I wonder why meaning-making isn’t at the core of the curriculum in every public and private school on Earth. Our basic assumption—that the home team always represents the good guys who stand for family, justice, and truth—lacks humility at best, and is frequently grounds for perpetrating all manner of skullduggery. At base, the problem comes down to different individuals taking excessive pride in how they cast meaning upon their respective worlds. But teachers don’t deal with that problem any more than parents or influential corporate bodies deal with it. With the result that throughout the world it remains the problem of all problems. Walking in one another’s shoes is no solution because it can’t be done. Our genes, ontogeny, childhoods, rearing, education, jobs, and life experience give us the eyes we turn toward the world. To see through another’s eyes we must become another person. That is the challenge our respective categorizations present to the world.

The only solution I can think of is to pull back from excessive categorizations in order to let glorious sensory patterns rule the day. It is a beautiful world, don’t you think? If we don’t speak the same language, we can at least dance together to the same music. Why must our personal meanings always have the last say? Again, I see this sensory approach leading to a radically different system of education based more on appreciative aesthetics than always being right. Just a thought, but I think it  worth pursuing.

The stuff of which categorizations are made. Periodic table of the elements showing where the various elements that make up Earth and ourselves originated in the universe. Image courtesy of NASA.

(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.