Our community engagements are not set in stone, they are ongoing processes that flow both ways in looping fashion from perception to action, action to perception. As such, they are constantly changing, depending on current circumstances and events. After several rounds, we come to count on them as if they were stable, or at least fit within our comfort range.

Trust in other people and institutions builds a sense of loyalty to them as reliable features of our community. We go out of our way not to offend them. We give them a certain consideration by holding them in our thoughts.

If we sign a contract, we are obligated to hold to its terms as a kind of commitment to duty. But communities hold together not out of duty but from a mutual sense of caring, liking, and sharing of experience. Except in extreme cases, they do not form around a set of obligations or duties.

During my basic training at Fort Ord, several of my buddies would sleep on guard duty because, as enforcers, they could excuse themselves in their own minds and get away with it. But trust and loyalty build a sense of mutual responsibility as if we were all members of the same extended family.

Communities, that is, are stabilized by networks of shared, positive engagements. They aren’t planned so much as lived in the details of everyday life. In people meeting on the street, in the drug store, the Post Office, the bank. Schools build communities around themselves because parents entrust their children to their teachers and administrators. Children become invested in schools because that’s where their friends are, and where, if lucky, they learn helpful skills.

It takes time to build a community around ourselves, often many years of engagements of all sorts. But if most of those engagements are positive, then we make a place for ourselves at the intersection of our individual traits with our larger society.

I consider myself a member of the southern Hancock County coastal community, Maine community, New England community, Eastern community, in that order. Last of all I admit to being an American with New England roots. I don’t think of the U.S. as my homeland; I reserve my loyalty for New England generally, and coastal Maine in particular. Go Red Sox; go Celtics; go Bruins; go Patriots.

I am a Yankee, a Northerner. Beyond that, I dub myself Steve from planet Earth because that identity emphasizes Earth’s claim on me. If it were not for my home planet, I wouldn’t be writing these words. First and last, I am an Earthling.

Rules, too, are essential to my sense of community. I carry three library cards, Maine driver’s license, several ID cards, Social Security card, Veterans Administration card, Medicare card, and a credit card. I do my best to take library books back on time, to obey traffic laws, pay my bills, and uphold my end of the several memberships I hold. When flush, I sometimes splurge on a ten-show Big Ticket to Reel Pizza, the local movie house. I get to meetings on time, play my part, and leave without dawdling. Towns have ordinances, companies have rules of employment, games have rules of play. Caring for our neighbor is not written down anywhere as a rule, but our communities would collapse if we didn’t do it spontaneously on our own.

One of the basic rules of any community is to give each person an opportunity to do her thing. Taking turns is the first law of community. Giving everyone a chance to have her say. That way we come to feel we have a place in, and belong to, our community, and our common community belongs to us as an extension of our caring selves.

In this sense, we are similar to one-celled creatures in establishing a stable relationship with the environments that meet our needs, becoming inhabitants of those environs in the process.

 

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(Copyright © 2009)

Recently, I attended a talk in Hancock, Maine given by William Crain, professor of psychology at CCNY. He spoke on reclaiming childhood, which has been depleted if not lost due to inroads by modern media and demands of modern education, so-called. We are depriving our children, he said, of many of the fundamental benefits of childhood on which their subsequent maturity will depend. Crain touched on childhood arts, play, and sensitivity to nature. A spirited discussion ensued, addressing issues in modern parenting and early education. At one point I found myself saying something to this effect:

What unsupervised outdoor play and exploration stimulates in young children—beyond adventure and discovery—is a sense of personal ease in being one’s self. Confidence and self-assurance flow from owning your own self-directed experience. That is, from pleasing yourself. Which is very different from what happens in schools where teachers dole out praise for desired performance, and children become fully dependent on someone else deciding when they are doing the correct thing the proper way in the right spirit. Pleasing others makes you socially acceptable; pleasing yourself makes you a real person. The two are not the same, and lead to wholly different personalities later in life.

I am reminded of what happened after the Russians lofted Sputnik on October 4, 1957. As a nation we were aghast that the Ruskies had gotten so far ahead of us in space technology. Educators panicked and vowed that the elementary school curriculum had to be juiced up with more math and more science. Set theory became the thing, along with exercises in concept formation. Grade school was given a shot of grad school ideas, and childhood itself was sloughed off as . . . well . . . childish. The result is homework and burdensome backpacks in grade one, but not children who are smarter or any more competent.

Crain’s slides took me back to Depression era days in Hamilton, New York, where I roamed springtime hills in search of runoff flowing from rainfall and melting snow. Using twigs and pebbles, I built canals and dams and boats for hours on end. I suppose it was play, but it was my job at the time—what I did for a living—for I was actively building my life by developing an intuitive sense of flow, gravity, energy, and progression of the seasons. Yes, I came home sopping and muddy—but wiser and more accomplished than when I set out. Happier, too, in being intimately engaged with my native habitat, my particular place on this Earth. My folks had no idea where I’d gone, and didn’t worry about my coming to harm. My father had grown up in rural Vermont, mother in coastal Maine. After-school surveillance wasn’t an issue. True, they didn’t know where I was, but they understood nonetheless.

As I got a little older, my experiential approach to hydrology soon led to major discoveries in paleontology. It made sense to go home by following the intermittent streams I played in as they joined other streams coming off the slopes, growing larger, cutting channels then gullies into the local bedrock, rushing toward the valley where I lived. From time to time I’d pick up a rock from the stream, turn it over, and find the shallow form or impression of a creature looking like a giant sow bug. My eyes turned from the streambed to the black walls of the gullies, which were built up in layers of shale. On Saturdays, when I had more time than I did after school, I’d pack hammer and stone chisel with me, and go at those walls of shale, and the secret life forms they held—shells, sea lilies, trilobites! My friend Norman’s father was a biologist who knew about such things.

My real schooling in those days took place outdoors, not in closed rooms with blackboards, flags, clocks that had Roman numerals, and cloakrooms in back. Earth was my classroom and teacher, aided by anybody who could put what I’d found into some kind of perspective. Sixty-five years later, I’m still the same kid in hot pursuit of horseshoe crabs, sandpipers, wildflowers. Now I think more in terms of watersheds than small streams, the progression of the seasons than fixed days of the week, but I’m the same child whose consciousness has grown large in the never-ending flood of personal adventure and experience that is my life and no other’s.

What a difference it makes to follow your own course of study instead of having to fulfill others’ ideas of what you should be doing with your life. Whatever I am, I am my own person, so respond my own way as best I can. Schools fill your head with what other people want you to know, so you become an agent for a sector of society that henceforth has dibs on your body. It’s like a credit-card debt you will never be free of because you unwittingly took it on when you were too young to realize what you were doing. Graduation is the beginning of payback time when you are expected to perform at the job for which you’ve been trained. Getting a job and supporting the economy have become so routine in our culture that we have come to believe that’s how life is meant to be lived. You are made to feel selfish and unpatriotic if you even dream of plotting your own course. To be a good citizen is to devote your life’s energy to fulfilling the dreams others lay upon you. Forget your own bliss and get on with what you have been programmed to do. It’s that simple. And that crazy.

Sanity lies in taking your own consciousness back from those who have stolen it from you. In being your own person in your own life in the place where you are. The price you pay is in being responsible for your own actions because you can’t blame your boss, your folks, your spouse, or your kids for your being who you are in doing what you do. If you aren’t comfortable with what consciousness presents to you, you can always change your ways—it’s your call, as long as you do it without inflicting harm on others in the process. This is the opposite of the jihadist way based on such a narrow under-standing that all blame for things going wrong can be cast on designated enemies you are entitled to blow up in self-righteous fury. No one in his right mind would fight in a war if he didn’t believe those he killed were lesser beings than himself, deserving of slaughter like so many ants. This requires adjusting consciousness to think in terms of the good and the evil, those deserving to live and those begging for death.

But if you are on good terms with your own mind, you know that others are striving to be on good term with theirs as well, and all face the same struggle in achieving a life that is considerate, fair, just, and the equal of all others. No one can hand you such a life, you must earn it on your own, and support others in striving to earn theirs. Do they teach that in school? They pay lip service to fair play, but the hidden agenda is always the home team’s got to win. If the umpire calls a foul against your side, he is clearly blind. The other side is always at fault—it’s their nature. But by being on your own, you realize others are too. If you take advantage of them, they will return the favor fourfold. If you treat them fairly as equals, ditto because they identify with you, as you have shown you do with them.

Give and take is the nature of a mutually beneficial society. Fixed minds and ideologies are a curse upon the collective consciousness of the whole. Schooled as a group to believe the same doctrine, we lose sight of truth itself. Educated (led out) as individuals each on our own, we share our respective excitements and learn from one another as equal participants in the adventure of life. Individuals contribute to society as they are uniquely qualified to do, enriching it by giving the gift of one self to all, which the all will reciprocate, each in his or her manner.

Reclaiming childhood means taking the risk of reclaiming consciousness for each individual. That encourages each one to be his or her unique self all the way. It means giving up the myth that under the skin all are identical. We are valuable one to another precisely because we are unique and have something to offer that no one else has. Genetically we are distinct, as we are situationally, experientially, and existentially. No one is more essential than another, all are equally valuable.

That is where this riff on reclaiming childhood for ourselves has taken me. Equality itself is attainable through our diversity, as are fair treatment and true social justice. In thinking all must be educated the same to be treated the same is a fundamental error because it cannot be true. No two of us are alike; each is unique. A true education would address our personal constellation of interests and abilities, and nurture them to find where they lead. An education that closes a person down for the sake of group unity is no education at all. We all need encouragement to open ourselves up so we can blossom in youth and come to fruition in maturity. As our individual if imperfect selves, not clones of some perfect—and wholly fictitious—ideal.

We’ve tried no child left behind and it hasn’t worked. How about moving every child to the fore of his own life and see how that goes? Children are unique individuals when they are born, and are such in school. Respecting and nurturing that individuality just may be the key to facing the growing number of problems our numbers and lifestyles are causing in today’s world. It’s time for a new take on education. I suggest we place our trust in the expansion and development of individual consciousness and see where it takes us. That is, base education on who and where our children are at the time of learning and not impose lessons despite who and where they are as we so often do now. The sandbox, playground, back yard, and stream gully are all places of learning. How about retiring the school board and trusting our children to show us what they can do on their own as their budding consciousness means them to do?

Herring in a Bucket

 

 

(Copyright © 2009)

Based in Kaiserslautern, Germany between Korean and Vietnamese Wars, I served as a still photographer for the U.S. Army Signal Corps 1956-1957. With an ear for the local idiom SP-Kaiserslautern-1957 (having studied German for two years), I was sometimes mistaken for a native speaker and, off-duty, did my best to look like one. With 30 days of leave a year, I traveled around France, Italy, Holland, and much of the wine-growing region west of the Rhine River. On foot, I roamed the hills around Kaiserslautern whenever I could, while most of my Army buddies played cards, went to the PX, or movies on base. Putting my conscious mind where my body was, I think I got more from my military experience than those of my buddies who carried on as if they were still in the States.

I bring this up because I see so many people hiking the trails of Acadia National Park jabbering away as if they were back wherever they came from. That is, their minds are anywhere but where their bodies are at the moment. Which is why I published ACADIA: The Soul of a National Park in 1998—to show some of what might be discovered by actively exploring the trails along the way instead of manfully striding to the top of the mountain and then back to the car. The point being that we have to actively reach out to the landscape if even a portion of it is to register in consciousness. Looking is the greater part of seeing; without it we are functionally blind.

Which good old Thoreau said almost 150 years ago (Henry David Thoreau, “Autumnal Tints” in Excursions, 1863):

Objects are concealed from our view, not so much because they are out of the course of our visual ray as because we do not bring our minds and eyes to bear on them; for there is no power to see in the eye itself, any more than in any other jelly. We do not realize how far and widely, or how near and narrowly, we are to look. The greater part of the phenomena of Nature are for this reason concealed from us all our lives. (Page 350f.)

I picture that visual ray shooting out of our pupils, intercepting the scene, reflecting it back into our eyes so our brains can get at it. No ray, no sightline, no reflection, no seeing. I think digital photography is a good reminder that we have to take pains in aiming our cameras (or cell phones) at something if we want to view the image on the LCD monitor. That much is obvious. What we sometimes forget is that the same is true for seeing with our own eyes. Thoreau again:

There is just as much beauty visible to us in the landscape as we are prepared to appreciate,—not a grain more. The actual objects which one man will see from a particular hill-top are just as different from those which another will see as the beholders are different. The Scarlet Oak must, in a sense, be in your eye when you go forth. We cannot see anything until we are possessed with the idea of it, take it into our heads,—and then we can hardly see anything else. (Page 351.)

That last sentence says it all: we see from the inside-out—not simply what is there waiting to be seen. We need motivation to direct attention toward that which we want to see before we see anything at all. Exceptions to that principle usually demonstrate that, as the frog is programmed to see the hawk, we come programmed to see certain things such as flesh of the opposite sex, food, threats to our children, and shiny new cars. Well, maybe not all of us appreciate the cars, or opposite sex for that matter. Aside from such salient visions, learning and effort are generally required to appreciate the sight of most things nature and culture have on display. Some of us will notice them, many will walk right by. Thoreau says, for example:

In my botanical rambles I find that, first, the idea, or image, of a plant occupies my thoughts, though it may seem very foreign to this locality,—no nearer than Hudson’s Bay,—and for some weeks or months I go thinking of it, and expecting it, unconsciously, and at length I surely see it. This is the history of my finding a score or more of rare plants, which I could name. (Page 351.)

If you don’t have a mind for rare plants, you’ll never have an eye for them, either. Thoreau’s next sentence: “A man sees only what concerns him.” (Page 351.) Expectancy is destiny. True for us all. We generally see only what we have an interest in seeing in the world around us. To see more, we have to develop an interest in seeing more. We have to be trained—or train ourselves—to see what we’re missing.

I have found that it required a different intention of the eye, in the same locality, to see different plants, even when they were closely allied. (Page 352.)

Thoreau got that right. It takes “a different intention of the eye” so see anything we are not accustomed to look for in our surroundings. Intention is the key word in using our eyes. And ears, and fingers. The nose is different. With molecules actually settling on our olfactory membranes, we smell them whether we want to or not. Where smells have their own characteristic insistence, sights and sounds are more matters of intention on our part. Which is why we generally see what we are familiar with, as long as it’s not upstaged by a more commanding presence. Parents in the audience single out their children in the chorus and have eyes only for them, even though others may be better performers. Attention is in the eye of the beholder.

Which raises the question, if we want to learn to see or hear more than we do now, how do we upgrade our intention? That, of course, is one thing schools are for. If you missed what you wanted to learn then, there are always guide books to trees, butterflies, seashells, birds, music, wines, and just about everything else you want to gaze on, taste, or listen to. Or you can get an advanced degree in intentionality in any number of disciplines such as astrophysics or restaurant management. Of course there’s always the library, bookstore, Internet, museum and any number of institutions to help you live out your desire to see more along the road of life itself. What these aids can’t do for you, however, is the work of applying their message to your particular situation. You’ve got to put in the necessary ten-thousand hours on your own (see Reflection 75: Ten-Thousand Hours).

I got my first camera when I was four years old for a box top and a quarter. I put in ten-thousand hours taking pictures of my brothers, dogs, friends. I became a photographer in the Army, and a photographer’s assistant on the New York scene when I got out. I worked as a photographer at Iowa State University, Harvard College Observatory—and am still at it. I have fulfilled my visual intentions many times over. Then I got into teaching photography at Phillips Academy in Andover, and had to put in another ten-thousand hours learning to be a teacher. Which I really pulled off by teaching learning-disabled students at Landmark School in Beverly, MA. By then I knew classes were a myth of convenience; each student was an individual learner on his or her own. I could spot left-handers and hook-writers and cheek-resters across the room. For any given assignment, I found ways each student could learn from it what she or he needed to learn. I felt pretty good about putting my teaching intentions into practice. Then, thinking I knew how to do it, I turned to writing—and had to start all over with yet another stint of ten-thousand hours devoted to learning how to write by writing the same thing over and over again.

And so it goes. When teacher says, “Listen up, class,” she means for every student to hear her words exactly as she intends them, with no exceptions. But that’s wishful thinking. We are who we are, no two alike. We listen according to our training, experience, motivation, and ability—and are sure to hear a different message than teacher intends. The same goes for looking at pictures, movies, videos, Websites, graffiti, or masterpieces of art. The apprenticeship never ends; there’s always more to see than our eyes can relay to our minds. Seeing is a matter of exploring the possibilities by expanding our visual intentions ad infinitum.

Living in cities as most of us do, what can we see in nature? Sometimes, very little. The story is told of a family from Philadelphia coming to Mount Desert Island for a two-week vacation—and leaving after two days because there was nothing to see. The great outdoors was wholly beyond them. As Thoreau said, “The greater part of the phenomena of Nature are . . . concealed from us all our lives”—and he was talking about rural Concord Massachusetts in the mid-nineteenth century. If we are out of touch with nature today, we are in B-I-G T-R-O-U-B-L-E because nature is what provides our toehold in the universe. My own studies show that sea level is rising on the coast of Maine even as I write these words. Looking blindly from the picture windows so dear to our hearts, we do not sense the dangers lurking off the end of the dock. We don’t feel the crosshairs lined up on our chests, the laser beams steady on our brows—because our intention is to ignore them. La, what is the North Atlantic to me, or am I to the North Atlantic? That double-ended query tells the whole story. Out of touch with nature, we are out of touch with life itself. As I said, expectancy is destiny.

11x14 Camera-72

 

(Copyright © 2009)

I’ve posted about consciousness being situational in nature (Reflection 80), about the left-brain interpreter module deciding the meaning of events (Reflection 86), about idioms of consciousness providing ways of being in the world (Reflection 124), and about elixirs of consciousness adjusting “reality” to our way of thinking (Reflection 127). What I’ve not mentioned is where such activities might be seated in the brain, for if they are aspects of consciousness as I claim, that’s where their stories would necessarily begin. It strikes me that these four modes of consciousness have something in common, but I’m not sure what that something might be. This post is about my search to find out. As usual, it points to discovery through coincidence or by accident—and beyond that, to the mind revealing itself in strange ways.

My first step was to consolidate my thoughts on situations, interpreters, idioms, and elixirs in one place to make comparison easier. How to do that? I thought of a matrix laid out with the four aspects of consciousness lined up in columns and possible functional substrates listed in rows down the side. The word matrix stems from the Latin meaning a female animal used for breeding—basically, the female principle in reproductive mode. That’s just what I needed, something to stir my creativity. I listed the functions of each aspect as briefly as I could:

  • Situations—provide the context or framework of consciousness
  • Interpreters—develop meaningful stories or narratives accounting, rightly or wrongly, for awareness
  • Idioms—are ways of being in the world according to one acquired discipline or another
  • Elixirs (fudge factors)—adjust understanding to accord with fundamental beliefs in order to produce a desired effect.

Reading what I had written, I felt a jab of anxiety. What could they possibly have in common? Nothing sprang to mind. So I went on, off the top of my head listing broad functional regions of the brain where facets of consciousness might arise or at least be involved: perception, conception, memory, expectancy, feeling, planning, judging, speaking, acting, and so on. Then I took an hour to break down each of the four aspects in terms of what I knew about different functional areas of the brain. And went to bed. This on the day before my son’s birthday.

For two hours, I lie awake in the dark, wondering what to do. Basically, worrying. It all started so innocently. Days ago, I’d left a message on my son’s answering machine, asking how he’d like to celebrate his birthday. I said Carole and I would be happy to provide a floating meal to be eaten whenever and wherever he chose. If Friday didn’t work, maybe Sunday. Just give me a call. Days rolled by with no response. His birthday is tomorrow. What to do? After installing a bilge pump in my boat, I stop by my son’s workplace. It turns out both his mom and I (long divorced) are pestering him about his birthday. He’s working toward a show on Saturday and feels cornered with no place to hide. So he disappears by not taking calls. Anyway, after encouragement from his wife, my son agrees that Monday is doable. We agree to meet at the boathouse at noon. He’ll see if his brother can come. I call Carole to ask if Monday is OK with her. It is. I will bring turkey loaf, mashed potatoes, and ice cream; she’ll bring asparagus and bake a cake. So it seems settled.

Yet here I am at 2:00 in the morning, worrying how to pull it all together. Catsup. I don’t use it, so don’t have any. Buy catsup. Bring salt and pepper. How keep the turkey loaf and mashers warm while rowing across to the island, the ice cream cold? How many potatoes do I need? What if rains? With the battery for the bilge pump in place, how can I fit two other people in my boat? Where will I brace my feet without jarring the pump? And that’s only for starters. I progress to more serious anxieties, dwelling on times things hadn’t worked out in the past. I spend two hours reviewing my life—marriages, divorces, relationships. And in the back of my mind—the consciousness matrix and what it has to tell me. I run through the four aspects of consciousness, their possible placement in the brain. Everything is problematic—life is problematic. Eventually I get back to sleep.

When I woke up, I saw immediately that the four aspects of consciousness all deal with attention, arousal, and anxiety. They are all ways of putting energy into coping with stress. Situations are situations precisely because their parts are at odds, and so kindle anxiety. Our interpreter modules provide answers to questions that stir anxiety (I recall a write-up of Michael Gazzaniga’s work in which a split-brain patient begins his answer to a question about his interpretation of an experimental situation by saying, “Oh, that’s easy” or something to that effect, which I now see as compensating for anxiety). Idioms of consciousness focus attention on discrete topics, reducing anxiety by narrowing the field of concern. And elixirs of consciousness serve to deal with anxiety more than truth, as students are anxious to fulfill assignments by coming-up with right answers by hook or by crook. Shelley Smithson’s piece in the June 29, 2009 issue of The Nation, “Radioactive Revival in New Mexico,” provides this example of using God as a magic elixir to help things turn out as desired:

[Marita] Noon, . . . a Christian motivational speaker before becoming a self-proclaimed “advocate for energy,” says God put uranium in New Mexico so that Americans can wean themselves from Middle Eastern oil and Russian uranium.

Consciousness appears to be largely a means of dealing with situations in which doubt, uncertainty, and consequent anxiety predominate. The amygdala is involved in each of the aspects of consciousness I am focusing on, shaping relevant strategies for converting motivating stress into productive behavior. In The Emotional Brain (Simon & Schuster, 1996), Joseph LeDoux writes:

The amygdala is like the hub of a wheel. It receives low-level inputs from sensory-specific regions of the thalamus, higher level information from sensory-specific cortex, and still higher level (sensory independent) information about the general situation from the hippocampal formation. Through such connections, the amygdala is able to process the emotional significance of individual stimuli as well as complex situations. The amygdala is, in essence, involved in the appraisal of emotional meaning (page 168).

And it is certainly the emotionally meaningful aspects of consciousness we pay special attention to and, thanks to the hippocampus, remember. As I have said, consciousness is given us to solve novel problems, including those in a cultural, not natural, context. I have reached that conclusion the long way round, by using my late-night anxiety as a means of studying anxiety itself. Anxiety about loose ends hanging from my wish to celebrate my son’s birthday kept me awake. So anxiety was an integral part of my mind at the time.

Schools are hotbeds of anxiety. Every test, lesson, and assignment is a source of stress. Even sports fire people up, both players and spectators, all traceable to anxiety. What we learn is not content so much as how to deal with tensions that force us to learn how to proceed through difficult tasks that upset us at the time. Through exposure to various subject disciplines, we learn to cope with related life situations. We acquire the idioms educated people use to surmount their problems. We learn how to do research, how to listen, how to express ourselves, how to solve problems—how to accomplish tasks others assign to us. All based on suffering anxiety and applying techniques that diminish it.

Sitting down to write a post, I am nothing if not anxious. Usually I am anxious in a way shaped as curiosity about an issue I am involved with. But every creative endeavor starts with stage fright of one sort or another. Am I up to the task? Do I have the skill, energy, and desire to work this through? I remember Hector Berlioz writing in his autobiography about dreaming a piece of music in specific detail, but knowing how difficult it would be to ever get it performed, not writing it down. The music came to him in his sleep two nights in a row—then never again, scuttled by anxiety over the trouble it would cause later on.

When dirty dishes pile up in the sink, we become active in a constructive way—or else make ourselves scarce. These are two different ways of dealing with stress, by coping or refusing to cope at all, by fighting or fleeing—as I fled from the lady with the torn jaw and cheek on a street in London 50 years ago (see Reflection 119: Man and Dog). Our amygdalas help us decide which strategy to select. Schooling trains us to face into challenges directly. When we tire of that, we go to the movies—the funnier, the sexier and more violent, the better to distract us from our worries. We can learn from the emotional fixes we get into, or maybe get high or drunk. We can deal, or try to escape.

I heard Terry Gross interview Woody Allen on Fresh Air this week. His view is that life consists of one anxiety-producing situation after another. Each of his films deals with a different episode of the human condition as he sees it:

TERRY GROSS: So, may I ask, what are some of the real problems that making movies distracts you from?

WOODY ALLEN: Well, they distract me from the same problems that you face or that anyone faces, you know, the uncertainty of life and inevitability of aging and death, and death of loved ones, and mass killings and starvations and holocausts, and not just the manmade carnage but the existential position that you’re in, you know, being in a world where you have no idea what’s going on, why you’re here or what possible meaning your life can have and the conclusion that you come to after a while, that there is really no meaning to it, and it’s just a random, meaningless event, and these are pretty depressing thoughts. And if you spend much time thinking about them, not only can’t you resolve them, but you sit frozen in your seat. You can’t even get up to have your lunch.

So it’s better to, you know, distract yourself, and people distract themselves creatively, you know, in the arts. They distract themselves in business or by following baseball teams and worrying over batting averages and who wins the pennant, and these are all things that you do and focus on rather than sit home and worry.

Woody Allen is a good example of someone who reduces anxiety by immersing himself in his work—adopting a way of being in the world, an idiom, that he has the drive and skill to maintain while working on exactly the same types of problems that he finds so overwhelming:

WOODY ALLEN: [M]aking a movie is a great distraction from the real agonies of the world. It’s an overwhelmingly, you know, difficult thing to do.

You’ve got to deal with actors and temperaments and scripts and second acts and third acts and camera work and costumes and sets and editing and music, and you know, there’s enough in that to keep you distracted almost all the time. And if I’m locked into what would appear to be a painful situation because half my movie works, let’s say, and the whole second half of it doesn’t work, or a character in my movie is terrible, you don’t believe the love story or something, these are all problems that are, or generally are, solvable with reshooting, with editing, with thinking, diagnosing what’s wrong. And they distract you from the real problems of life, which are unsolvable and very painful problems.

Also in the problems of moviemaking, if you don’t solve your problem, all that happens to you is that your movie bombs. So the movie is terrible. So people don’t come to see it. Critics don’t like it. The public doesn’t like it. This is hardly a terrible punishment in life compared to what you’re given out in the real world of human existence.

Working our way through anxiety-producing situations may be the essence of life if it teaches us how to accurately diagnose situations, train our interpretive facilities to identify what’s really going on, adopt idioms giving us mastery over a small slice of life, or develop cons and scams for beating the system one way or another. Consciousness offers us a range of such powerful survival techniques to apply in particular cases. Members of congress try most of them—inevitably disillusioning their constituents by the deviousness of their means for maintaining their public image while abusing the power of their office. But there are no good guys—or gals—it turns out, only those with a will to live and thrive. In the big leagues, innocents, idealists, and dreamers get eaten alive. No one is larger than life, for life is run by consciousness, and that as everyone knows can get pretty seamy.

Am I more jaded than the next person? Naive, perhaps, but not jaded. I haven’t given up on humanity just yet, thought I have my doubts. I still believe consciousness is worth studying, but it sometimes takes a strong stomach. I figure that if our record is ever to improve, we are going to have to come to terms with ourselves. Evidence points to the fact that we are selfish bastards always seeking to advance our personal cause at others’ expense. More likely, we are doing the best we can under extremely difficult circumstances to figure out what is going on in and around ourselves. In truth, I think we are half  babes in the woods, half hungry wolves—innocence and cunning wrapped in the same fleece.

Besides anxiety signaled by the amygdala, other neural-based features shared by situations, interpreter modules, and both idioms and elixirs of consciousness include: a strong sense of cohesion through time, expectancy, reliance on sensory feedback, executive judgment and decision-making, motor planning, and execution of specific behaviors. Thus the amygdala relays messages to several higher areas of cerebral cortex, which ultimately shape and execute behavior, and look to subsequent feedback from appropriate sensory areas. This is an extremely rough sketch, but to me the keystone of this activity is the potential danger or opportunity available to the conscious organism as signaled by the amygdala. The follow-up details appear to be a function of individual judgment and decision-making based on learning, prior experience, and current expectations.

Consciousness, it seems to me then, is not based on prowess and ego so much as on stress and anxiety. If that is true, it would appear to be one of our best defenders within cultural situations which natural evolution could never anticipate. In rising to consciousness, each of us is on her own, doing the best she can to cope with situations that might well undo her. Going solo, we have a great many options for dealing with such situations. Diagnosing more-or-less accurately what’s going on in a given situation is one of them. Interpreting ever-changing relationships in meaningful terms is another. Adopting the idiom and special expertise of one favored discipline is a third. And applying magic elixirs or fudge factors in order to view situations in terms of a predetermined ideology no matter what is a fourth option among others I have not considered in this post.

In dealing with personal fear and anxiety, evolution hands the choice to consciousness—namely us. Whether we deal on the basis of greed, faith, evidence, prejudice, or aesthetics is up to each of us personally. In selecting the choice we prefer, we reveal who we are. The scary part is realizing that how we choose determines the wiring of our brains by strengthening the synapses involved. We become the creatures of our prior choices. Which is why growing up is so hard—think of the child soldiers of Africa. “Survival of the fittest” is shorthand for those who make the best choices under the circumstances being more apt to make it than those who select poor choices for whatever reason. Life requires endlessly dealing with anxiety as evolution intended. If we flub-dub around, we are apt to be dead.

Peregrine-72

 

 

 

 

(Copyright © 2009)

 

Everybody knows that schools are for educating our children. Very well, what does that mean—educating? The word stems from Latin educare, to lead out (e-, out; ducare, to lead or draw). Education, then, suggests a process of leading our children into the (adult) world. Which is pretty much how it works, adults setting the curriculum and walking children through it stage by stage, supervising development of relevant skills as they progress. The process is a bit like running a steeplechase with ever-higher hurdles and broader water jumps.

 

This view of education rests on a great many assumptions. For instance, that adults know what is good for children in general and each child in particular at every stage of development. That adults can anticipate what sort of world their children will grow into. That all children should strive toward the same goals. That the understanding and skills valued by adults are exactly the sort their children will require when they mature. And above all, that children need to be taught by adults and can’t be trusted on their own to learn about the world they are growing into. That is, education is a top-down (or outside-in) rather than a bottom-up (or inside-out) process. The basic fear is that left to develop their own resources, children will turn feral and become too wild for civil society.

 

Yet every child learns to talk within a language-speaking community without being taught how to do it. She acquires language through imitating the speech she hears around her without requiring instruction in syntax or grammar. And to walk-skip-jump-run within an ambulatory community, and be social within a sociable community, and play games and exhibit curiosity and have fun and observe her surroundings—driven by her own motives and curiosity in company with peers and adults, all without reference to any syllabus or curriculum, all shaped by examples but not taught by instruction. On their own, children are born learners. What they require to develop skills is clear examples of others using their bodies in disciplined ways. Those others could be dogs running, birds building nests, people living their lives.

 

An alternative to education (leading out) is introduction (leading in; intro-, within; ducere, to lead). Introduce a child to new experiences and he will incorporate their features on his own according to his interests, abilities, and readiness. Will he get what he is supposed to get from such experiences—that is, what adults want him to get? Perhaps not. But by considering phenomena within his own consciousness (and not that of his teachers), he is likely to get what excites him and he is ready for. The world he grows into will prove to be an outward expression of his personhood. Nobody’s minion, he is his own man.

 

What I am suggesting here is a course of introduction to the many facets of consciousness as an alternative to cognitive (subject-matter) education as it has evolved in today’s world. Mothers encourage their children’s development by interacting with them—by introducing them to activities that each can enjoy on her own level of challenge. Such participatory learning is mutually exploratory and engaging on all sides. It’s not the subject matter external to themselves that children must learn but the processes necessary to living a life.

 

What I recall from my own schooling is counting holes in ceiling tiles over and over, or looking out the window waiting for the day to be done. Teachers instructed from the front of the room; students did as they were told while sitting in their seats. Whether mental or physical, there was very little mutual engagement. If there was joy or excitement in the classroom, it was discovered apart from and despite the daily lesson plan.

 

Consciousness has many rewards, one of which is behavior judged appropriate to the situation that arouses it. Consciousness, that is, is participatory in shaping behavior in light of sensory feedback through a series of successive approximations until the desired level of performance is achieved. That loop is partly internal, partly external, and the reward is a sense of self-satisfaction at having met a challenge on the desired level of performance. It is not the teacher’s job to hand out gold stars because she is external to students’ loops of consciousness. What counts is each student evaluating her own performance by her own standards, and keeping on until those standards are met. Then raising them still higher.

 

In the schools I attended, power was reserved to the teacher at the front of the room. This disempowered students from the first day of classes to the last, sending the message that education was something done to students, not something they did for themselves through active participation. Classroom situations in such cases become a kind of dare. Teacher says, “Be quiet and do your work;” those in her charge reply in effect, “Make me learn if you can.” This dynamic is played out year after year until graduation day, when students think they are being set free, only to enter the workforce and encounter supervisors who control their performance much as teachers did in the classroom.

 

The most important thing children need to learn is how to manage the left-brain interpreter lodged in their brains and from which there can be no escape. That is, they need to base their judgments and self-accountability on convincing evidence, not opinion, prejudice, whimsy, dogma, or a factoid or two. Not partial evidence selected to support preexisting opinions, but sufficient evidence on which to base informed courses of action.

 

On whose authority should that course be adopted? The only authority consciousness heeds is personal authority—the authority inherent in each person as a unique individual. Citing external authorities is only the beginning. The issue is not what they thought then (courtesy of their left-brain interpreter) but what I think now (courtesy of my own interpreter) because I am the actor in every instance of my own behavior. If I pass the buck to Galileo, Newton, or Einstein, then I am acting on their behalf and am not my own person. Which is unwise in light of the fact that my survival is at issue, not theirs.

 

The key thing for us all to learn is to question what our left-brain interpreter is trying to tell us. Its motives are always suspect because it is operating within a larger situation that may well corrupt its narrative, resulting in spin, not truth. Are we trying to please someone? To undercut someone? To be outrageous? To take the easy way out? To appear to know more than we do? We can’t trust anyone else to guide us but our own judgment based on our cumulative life experience. Every action we take in the world is a product of that judgment. More than any other facet of consciousness, it makes us who we are.

 

So what are schools for? Nothing less than taking our budding judgments through their paces. That is, introducing us to different sorts of challenges, letting us evaluate and try to meet them, letting us fall short, letting us pick ourselves up and try again. In brief, letting us find our way by exercising and developing our personal judgments, along with the skills necessary to turn them into effective behaviors. That requires paying close attention to the interpreters of events in our heads, which are fully capable of waylaying us at every turn, causing us to base our actions on less than a full grasp of the facts of our current situation.

 

Only by doubting our own motives, opinions, and actions can we surpass our childhood selves and become reliable contributors to meeting the many challenges before us. Doubt, not accepted knowledge, is the key to exercising good judgment in the world of today, which is far different from the world our teachers’ knew in their day. This requires us to exercise our most basic piece of equipment—the individual consciousness through which we view so-called reality, but really serves as the seat of our interpreter, our judgment, our authority, our convictions, and our expectations—the inner reality we project outward in reinventing the world to suit ourselves.

 

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(Copyright © 2008)

I experience music as a kind of speech with the consonants stripped out of it. Made up of notes in relationship, not words. Both music and speech have tempo, rhythm, pitch, loudness, and qualia (subjective qualities, such as timbre or emotional color).

 

Music can be variously produced by singing, humming, whistling, blowing through mouthpieces or vibrating reeds, plucking or bowing strings, among other means of vibrating the air. One person can create music, or a group—chorus, band, ensemble, or full orchestra. Lyrics set to music have meaning, but music itself, without consonants to open or close the sound, lacks meaning in the same sense.

 

What music does have that speech lacks is a limited set of specific situations suited to its performance. Everyday cell-phone conversations proves that people feel no restrictions on where or when they can talk to one another. Music is different; it generally arises within situations where it can be listened to without distraction or interruption. It’s like you have to be in a place where you can listen to yourself, to hear your own mind.

 

CD players and iPods extend the range of such situations to include private pursuits like walking the dog, running, pushing the twins in a stroller, and so on. People have always hummed or whistled to themselves, so this is not new. It’s just that now you can take along Louis Armstrong or the Boston Symphony to do the humming for you.

 

Think of situations in your own life where music is appropriate. Like when you are taking a shower and burst into song because the acoustics make your voice so magnificent (usually with no one else around). Cruising along in the car provides much the same opportunity. Riding in an elevator; there are people around, but no one is talking, just music from nowhere. Shopping; you are in your own head, and the store is stirring your blood so you’ll buy more stuff. Watching parades, you expect marching bands. Attending weddings and graduations you want processional music suited to serious transitions. Dancing, your body craves to move with the music. Watching movies, music underscores your emotions. Attending concerts, you sit in the dark and let music fill your soul; you contain your gratification until it’s over. Sipping martinis in cocktail bars, you burble sweet nothings to a show-tune accompaniment.

 

In such situations, music strongly influences conscious life. It takes over your mind. Music isn’t outside you, it’s in you. You become attentive, aroused, and full of life. Your neurons flow to its tempo and beat. As if someone were telling you something really important, something beautiful. But nobody’s there. It’s just you and the sound. A very human sound. Made for you alone. As if only you could connect with and appreciate it.

 

Just because music doesn’t communicate the way words do doesn’t mean we can’t connect with it. Music is all about relations between sounds as they develop through time. Consciousness is made for that kind of communication—whether via sound, sight, touch, taste, smell, or motion. Humans dig sensory relationships. What else is life all about? But the nuances and gradations of relations between musical sounds affect us particularly. That is because music speaks directly and immediately to the very brain cells that rouse us to consciousness in the first place. When our neurons dance, we can’t help ourselves; we gotta join in.

 

That is powerful magic. No wonder teens want to sing and play the guitar or the sax. Their brain cells and hormones urge them to do it. To develop the vocal or finger dexterity to make their personal music as it needs to be made. You don’t learn that skill in the classroom; you’ve got to pick it up on your own. Schools are about nations and governments and grammar and theorems. Music is about me. The emotional me. And everybody like me. Music is on the inside crying to get out. Everything else just gets in the way.

 

Music connects with us on that level. It’s about the inside order of personal life worlds. About consciousness itself. Because it flows from consciousness and is directed toward consciousness. Immediately, without waiting for meaning to catch up. It’s your nerves and body talking to my body and nerves. Know what I mean? Yeah, you can feel when it happens.

 

To hear music is to feel excitement in your body. Consciousness flows from excitation in your nerves, and one thing music can do is excite nerves by the millions. You can feel it when you hear it. It commands your attention. You follow along, anticipating what happens next. Sometimes you’re right, sometimes the music surprises you. You like that kind of surprise because it helps you get into somebody else’s head. They’re talking to you. And you hear them. It’s me and Billie Holiday, me and Woody Guthrie, me and Basie, me and Mozart. Two great souls joined into one.

 

That’s what music can do for us. That’s its meaning. It connects us without concepts and ideas getting in the way. Just us. The sound of you, the sound of me. The real you, the real me. Joined in shared consciousness. Our brains firing together, sharing the journey.

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