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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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(Copyright © 2009)

 

NOAA Weather Radio is some of the best entertainment around. That is if you can stand the robot voices, endless repetitions, senseless scheduling, foolish long-range forecasts, and fallibility of the whole enterprise of trying to figure the weather one day in advance, much less an entire week. Here is exhibit A of trying to predict the future based on trends derived from past and current data—as if that tells the whole story.

 

I keep reminding myself the National Weather Service, like the fallen woman in the song, is more to be pitied than censured. Even so, it drives me crazy. I rely on it as little as possible. Which comes down to times when major storms are in the offing and I want all the information I can get to anticipate how it might impact my plans.

 

Take March 2nd of this year. Big snowstorm coming. I wanted to know if schools would be closed, because that would affect my adult ed class on Minding the Mind, which had already been postponed by a storm the week before. Yep, winter storm warning posted for coastal and interior Waldo County (the dire prospects repeated three times in succession in identical wording at a minute-and-a-half each), coastal and interior Hancock County, and Penobscot Valley. The Bar Harbor town horn sounded its three-blast school-cancellation notice. It was going to snow all day, with some sleet and freezing rain mixed in. I got a call that my class had been cancelled. OK, that was that.

 

Except it wasn’t. A few flakes fell in the morning, adding up to about an inch of new snow. Then it stopped. And stayed stopped. The storm must have veered away from the coast. But schools were closed, kids stayed home, parents had to make childcare arrangements if they wanted to go to work, and life went on despite the false warning.

 

Computers, like brains, can infer trends from past data and present conditions—but they cannot predict the future. They can only make an informed guess, which in this instance we call a forecast, as if computers could somehow see ahead. Which they can’t because, like the rest of us, they’re stuck in the here and now. With no sure way of knowing what they don’t know. Even if they had access to an infinite array of data points telling temperature, humidity, wind strength and direction, they still could not predict conditions at those data points based on anything but assumed probabilities, which opens the way to misjudging the amount of energy in the system one minute from now—and erroneous forecasts for any future point of interest.

 

On the other hand, weather forecasts based on an endless loop such as “Que sera, sera” wouldn’t cut it, either. “As God wills” would translate, we haven’t a clue. Maps provided by weather radar would be a big improvement in showing what’s happening around our area at the moment, leaving prognostications up to us as individuals. Tracking such images over time would provide a sense of how fast clouds are gathering, and the route they are taking across the landscape. Which is pretty much what the weather service does for us now, converting such evidence into a thoroughly annoying verbal report by a machine that has no idea what it is “talking” about, and no feedback loop for self-correction.

 

The brain works much the same way. Except it has a gazillion feedback loops within feedback loops, so it stays abreast of changing situations by updating itself every fraction of a second. Take performing or listening to music (both of which are every bit as complicated as the weather) as an example. In Music, the Brain, and Ecstasy, Robert Jourdain says the brain sorts sounds not only by tone, loudness, and duration, but by changes in tone, loudness, and duration. Auditory cortex then tracks the interrelations between sounds as they change both serially and simultaneously, integrating them to produce our subjective experience of music. Relations between simultaneous sounds (harmony) are tracked by auditory cortex in the right brain; relations between serial sounds (rhythm, melody) are tracked in the left brain, which also sequences individual speech sounds into words, phrases, and sentences (Harper Collins edition, pages 53-57).

 

In music consciousness (as in weather consciousness) what is happening now is placed in the context of what has come before. Music, that is, depends on working memory to keep the flux of individual notes “in mind” for several seconds to get the drift while, at the same time, attending to relationships between notes sounded simultaneously, integrating both dimensions to produce the melodies, harmonies, and rhythms that, in combination over space and time, produce the music we are attending to at the moment (Jourdain, p. 57).

 

In music, predictions of what is to come arise from the ongoing flow of sound itself, or, if we are familiar with the piece, from our sense of having heard it before so we anticipate the directions and characteristics of what lies ahead. Listening to music has a decided advantage over forecasting the weather because we can never experience the same weather twice—storms may be similar, but never exactly the same. Modern recording technology allows us to experience identical repetitions of the same piece, or somewhat similar renditions by other performers—or by the same performer at other stages of her career.

 

In weather as in music, expectancy is the key to predicting the future. Our sense of what is to come stems from probabilities established through repetition of more-or-less similar events in the past, creating a range (envelope) of what we might expect this time around. Such expectancies exert a powerful hold on us, creating a kind of tension between memory and current sensory perception that leads us to pay close attention to how events develop and play themselves out in consciousness.

 

Here are a few examples of conscious expectancy at work. The last time I came this way that dog chased and tried to bite me; there it is again. Some years ago, my partner tripped on an innocent-looking rock on a trail in Acadia; every time she hikes the same trail she watches for that rock. Looking for eagles, I scan areas where I have seen them before. Having developed a recipe for gluten-free bread, I can now make it without even thinking about what I am doing, or convert it into pancakes, waffles, or cake topped with yogurt and maple syrup. In the current recession, President Obama looks to the example of what FDR did in the Great Depression of the 1930s for guidance on what to do in 2009.

 

The dynamic relationship between past and current events enables us to invent the future even though we’ve never been there before. Which works fine as long as circumstances haven’t changed all that much much. But one thing for sure, situations cannot ever be identical in different locations or two times in a row. A concert by the Boston Symphony Orchestra outdoors at Tanglewood in summer with the humidity at 87% will differ significantly from the same program performed in Symphony Hall in winter with 26% humidity. Or perhaps the concert master is coming down with the flu. Novelty inevitably rears its head, so expectancy can never be borne out in exact detail.

 

So, sometimes schools are closed needlessly because storms do not materialize as predicted. Kids get a day off, and parents simply have to make ad hoc arrangements. Pity the poor weather service that called it wrong once again. But, too, in the next concert you go to the musicians may finally get it all together and pull off the greatest musical event of your life. Regardless of our expectations, consciousness is always an adventure. If we always knew what was going to happen beforehand, where’s the challenge or the fun in that?

 

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