452. Was I Ever Young?

March 9, 2015

Looking back from the vantage of being eighty-two, I wonder, was I ever young? Was I ever! Young, that is. I have a bank of memories to prove it. Too many to count, so I will bullet a few.

  • Falling over the edge of a hayloft, hitting the floor between two pieces of heavy farm machinery, breaking my wrist.
  • My Vermont grandfather scolding me for sneaking into his workshop, messing with his woodworking tools.
  • Watching my grandmother talk through fingers screening her lips to keep her false teeth from flying out.
  • Lying in bed listening to steam locomotives pulling out of the station on wintery nights, hearing them try to gain traction on icy rails, slipping, then slowing, making another try, and another.
  • Auntie Viv giving us a dog that chased cars in Buffalo, and promptly chased cars in Hamilton, never tiring of attacking noisy tires.
  • Feeling heat from the fire in the boiler at the basket factory, hearing the machinery.
  • Crunching on broken glass, hearing whining complaints from sheets of galvanized roofing clanking in the wind at the old observatory on the hill.
  • Holding my nose among the bodies of cats pickled in formaldehyde at the gut lab, stiff legs poking under lids of their metal coffins.
  • Ogling a man’s head in a jar, donated the label said for research, skin stripped from half his face to show veins and arteries filled with blue and red rubber.
  • Watching a meteor shower with Norman Stauffer.
  • Finding fossil trilobites in layers of slate.
  • Getting stung by yellow jackets.
  • My father tapping his pipe out the car window, sparks setting tents lashed to the running board on fire.
  • My fifth-grade teacher’s heaving bosom as she sang Gilbert and Sullivan in the gym.
  • Brass spittoons among the ferns at the barber shop.
  • Crawling out over rafters holding up the tin ceiling of study hall at school, poking a balloon through a rust hole, bending down, braced between taut arms and legs, blowing it up for all to see—except nobody looked up.
  • Stealing a bike adornment with five flags from the dime store.
  • Peeing in a jug for a week to put on the neighbor’s porch.
  • Kicking a soccer ball on an icy sidewalk, legs flying out from under me, landing on the back of my head.
  • My tongue freezing to the metal steering bar of my Flexible Flyer.
  • Poking sticks into muskrat traps set in Payne Creek, the trapper yelling at me on the street.
  • Breaking into a barn, stealing an upright telephone and jewelry, wearing the pins under my sweater at school until my mother found out.
  • Mother spanking me with a canvas stretcher for yelling “I’m going to murder you” at my little brother for knocking down the tower I was building with wooden blocks.
  • My father making me give back the jackknife I stole from Dickie Wet-his-pants in second grade.

Was I ever young? Which tells you why I am now an empiricist, studying my own mind by direct observation and personal experience, shunning theories and mathematical models like dengue fever, dwelling contentedly in my subjective black box, taking full responsibility for my engagements with the world. Learning everything I know from my mistakes.

At birth, we are naïve about the ways of that world. The point of memory is to free us from our ignorance that we might have some chance of survival. Childhood is given us to learn as much as we can by trial and error in a somewhat protective environment. Now I know that pottery breaks when I drop it. Splinters lie in wait for me to rub my hand across rough wood. In the days when tires had inner-tubes, and I was old enough to drive, I was sure to get a flat tire if I didn’t carry a jack in the trunk.

It isn’t the taming of fire that gives humanity an edge on survival, spoken language, or even humor. It is memory that lets us learn from careless mistakes so, if we’re lucky, we can eventually work our way around them.

 

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So, to continue my journey in this brand-new year along the loops of engagement cycling through my mind: after perception and judgment by my situated self comes the realm of planning and action, leading to my playing my role as wayfarer making my way through the serial adventures of my life.

Once all options have been compared and judgments cast, the issue then is to make and effect a plan of action. Goals are set, decisions made how to proceed, projects designed and implemented, teams and relationships formed, tools selected, skills developed and practiced—all leading to decisive moments when I act in keeping with the judgment cast so many milliseconds, hours, days, or years ago.

By the black box image, where perception treats the energy input to my mind from my surroundings, my deeds and actions direct my life’s energy output into those same surroundings as shaped in spacetime by my mind.

The transformation of that flow of sensory energy by my experience and intelligence is situated in a set of active dimensions assembled on that particular occasion in my mind. Those dimensions might include a varied mix of memories, values, emotions, impressions, meanings, motivations, understandings, imaginings, thoughts, beliefs, and so on, all as aroused on that psychic occasion within the confines of my personal black box.

As reshaped by my situated intelligence, that transformed flow of energy is directed across the gap or discrepancy between incoming perception as realized and outgoing action as intended to meet and respond to that flow in an appropriate manner.

As the link between perception and action, my conscious mind is the seat of that discrepancy, and of the judgment intended to adjust or correct it.

Our actions and doings are the most familiar stage of our loops of engagement because they are the culmination of our native intelligence doing its thing to find meaning in, and give direction to, the stream of consciousness that makes up what we can know of the parade of events in our surroundings.

Those actions and doings are the means of our wayfaring. Whether for pay or not, they are how we make our living, such as it is, as an expression of our response to the flow of energy passing through our minds.

Whether we receive pay or not tells whether we are acting primarily for ourselves or for our employers, furthering our own journeys or helping them along on theirs—or doing both at the same time. The art of living is to find a balance between the two that is mutually agreeable to both.

Other people have no direct way of reading our minds and intentions. They have only our deeds to go by in engaging us from a distance and forming a response. To an experienced observer, however, our mental processes may be partially told by what we do.

What we “do” includes speech acts, facial expressions, gestures, bodily postures, dress, grooming, poise, vocal rhythm, presence, style, and all the other signs we give off when we act. Which are the same signs we interpret when forming impressions of those we engage.

Our actions flow in several channels at once, many being largely unconscious, yet all originate in our mental processes nonetheless. In that sense, all human activity is to some degree expressive of the inner states within our personal black boxes, whether we send such messages deliberately or not.

 

 

(Copyright © 2010)

When I made a cribbage board as a present for my partner some years ago, I used the hand drill I bought at The Tool Barn in Hulls Cove, a place that sells recycled tools. I know the feel of that drill, its weight in my hand, its balance, the snug mesh of the gears. I’ve made it my drill now, an extension of my hands when I use it to engage the world by drilling a hole in a piece of driftwood (such as I used for the cribbage board). Tools are specific, precise, useful—in several senses, handy. As a kid I liked tools a lot. I still do. I remember my grandfather teaching me tools are not toys. I even sensed some of the difference before he firmly taught me that lesson when he caught me at his workbench in his shop in the barn.

I also have a hammer from The Tool Barn, hand brace, two sorts of pliers, and different sized clamps. I get a kick out of just citing those names as I did in that sentence. Familiar tools are parts of my body I keep ready for special projects. It is their feel and their use that makes them distinctive. Tools are sensory objects with, beyond heft, size, and utility, a certain intimate acquaintance. I know their curves and angles, the sounds they make, the smells they give off, the materials they are made of—and what they will do for me when I need them. Tools extend my consciousness beyond what I can do on my own. They solve problems, each in its particular way. They have character and temperaments, like some people I know.

The mailbox I wrote about in Reflection 174 is just a place where a very limited range of things can occur. I don’t much care about my mailbox, it’s more the contents that interest me. Hand tools affect me more strongly. When I grasp them, for instance, they grasp me right back. Working together, we make a good team. I’m talking hand tools, not power tools. Physical, personal engagement, not a bunch of hired electrons doing my work for me. My tools are friends and companions, colleagues and helpmeets, not robots.

As I’ve said, the point of consciousness is effective action in the world. That’s what evolution has tailored our Paleolithic minds and bodies to accomplish in the cause of survival. Artificial intelligence can’t do that job in our stead; it is still up to us. And hand tools can help. Spears, boomerangs, axes, pencils, chopsticks, even paperclips. They help shape us to a world that was built without people, primates, or even tree shrews in mind. The energy behind them has to come from us—from our physical bodies—as directed by consciousness with aid from careful attention and skilled physical effort. Nothing is more satisfying than doing the job right. It involves every part of our bodies and minds, our hearts and our souls. Because in making things, what we do matters in relation to our biological values. Old men sitting around whittling totems—deer, ducks, and chickadees—are doing what matters to them, as making hamburgers and cookies matters to boys and girls learning to feed themselves. Oh, I forget, these are things of the past. You can always eat out. And buy plastic toys made in China.

As tools, computers and cell phones are a different story in that we haven’t a clue how they work; just click or push a button and they do their thing, not ours. The same for computer games, CDs, and videos. Slight skill is involved, which meets no innate survival need. Everything now is cut and paste, which any preschooler can do. You can learn to use electronic gadgets in a few minutes, not months of patient practice spent schooling your body to work with and across the grain. And if these electronic wonders break, you can’t fix them. When the last battery runs down, or the power goes out, you are sunk.

Everything now is pre-packaged, even gift platters and salads at the supermarket. No preparation required, all you have to do is rip open the package and eat. No wonder we’re restless; we don’t know how to do anything with our hands guided by consciousness anymore. That is, our consciousness is on cruise-control pretty much all the time. We just keep whizzing ahead with no need to pay attention to how we whiz. With the result Google does it all for us—flicking insistent ads in front of our eyes so we’ll know what to buy. I went through that bit in my last post (Reflection 176: Heart Rot). We used to know how to make model airplanes out of tissue and balsawood, and build ships in bottles. Those days are gone. But they’ll be back; wait till the grid fails and the power goes out.

In the mailbox story, I started from the abstract end and worked toward the concrete, like boring a tunnel from one side of a mountain. Now I’m working my way around to the concrete, sensory side, boring in the other direction, hoping both tunnels will connect in the middle. Today it’s tools as hands-on aids to existential, sensory experience, not mailboxes as empty placeholders or containers. OK, I’m mixing my metaphors. Never the twain shall meet in the middle. But say I ordered a wood plane or set of carving chisels from The Tool Barn and they sent them by mail. Now my expectancy can picture both mailbox and tools in the same image, mailbox as placeholder being fulfilled in this instance by a box containing tools so sharp you can cut your finger and draw blood if not careful. I intend that sort of image to illustrate what happens when concepts and percepts come together in mutual fulfillment, memory reaching from one side of the mountain, perception from the other, the two coming together in the middle of the mountain, uniting, forming a single item in consciousness—a coupling of both sensory and conceptual aspects of meaning. Ta-da, lived experience as we know and love it every day of our lives!

I know what I mean, even though I can’t say it without resorting to imagery and metaphor. You know what I mean, too, because the two aspects of consciousness come together in mutual fulfillment in your mind as surely as mine. I didn’t make this up, I merely take pains to keep track of the workings of my own mind. Here is categorization in action, recognizing things as what we know them to be, even though they are no such thing in and of themselves—it’s just that for us they go together so naturally we think of them as one. Think of an animal—say, sheep. A sheep is an animal; an animal can be a sheep, an ostrich, or a kangaroo. We know which one when we see it, even though it doesn’t bear a label. The label is in our conceptual memory, tied to an empty (uninstantiated) placeholder, both ready to leap out when perception presents us with a suitable pattern. We put the two together so naturally, we don’t even appreciate the wonder of it all. Or that we are responsible for making it happen. Where we see a flock of sheep, others might recognize die Schafen (Germany), les moutons (France), le pecore (Italy), or las ovejas (Spain). Different category labels, same animals. In childhood, we learn to put them together by imitating what others in our language group do.

So are sheep the same as die Schafen and les moutons? Yes, and no. The same, but different. It all depends on who is putting percept and concept together in a particular instance of categorization. In each case, the concept with the best fit might differ a little, or a lot. Even if we use the same term, that does not necessarily mean our concepts are identical. That depends on our cumulative life experience with sheep, whether we know them only from books, saw a movie about them once, or perhaps grew up on a sheep ranch and herded them with our father in the mountains. But I stray from the tools I began with. That’s easy to do with concepts, one keeps leading on to others. I don’t know how sheep got into the picture, but there they are—purebred conceptual sheep out of nowhere. That is, out of my conceptual memory. No, not nowhere. In North Blue Hill, Maine. The last animals I took pictures of were sheep on a farm that had a lot of farm tools and machinery lying around. Which reminded me of my grandfather’s farm in Vermont. Not farm, really, but house in farm country where he had an old barn. That, I believe, is the connecting link between tools and sheep in my mind. You had to have been there, to have lived my little life.

Tricky, this mind of ours. Hard to keep up with. But easy, once you put in your ten-thousand hours of self-study. If, every time we put a sentence together, we are balancing concepts with percepts, percepts with concepts, you’d think after a time we’d get a sense of what we were doing and develop a sense of responsibility so we could do the job better, that is, more truthfully. Not so with the mind. It likes to keep us dumb and happy. Or, more accurately, we like to keep ourselves dumb and happy precisely so we can avoid being responsible for what we say and do. With results such as that politicians, say, along with economists, lawyers, and priests are all irrepressible liars. To be a pro is to lie the party line. That is, to commit category errors as a matter of principle. Because talking nonsense is safe: you can say anything to anybody at all, and they will hear your words and almost believe you if you keep a straight face. Words, too, are tools, mouth tools if not hand tools.

I will end this post by quoting the letter I wrote today to the editor of Newsweek in response to the January 25 issue on the earthquake in Haiti. I never saw so much categorical gibberish as is packed between the covers of that issue. Here Haiti lies in ruins after a devastating earthquake, and the media—together with the president himself—fumble for a conceptual or rhetorical framework within which to make it all seem fitting that so many people lie concretely and demonstrably dead or dying in the streets. This underscores the importance of categorization—giving character to a given situation—in deciding how to make an appropriate response:

Is it me, or these times? Newsweek, your cloying smugness astounds me. First I read Jon Meacham cynically reducing Haiti to a character in a historical novel. Then Lisa Miller resorts to the will of a stock God in attempting to explain a natural disaster. And Obama himself gets up on his high horse to proclaim the greatness of a country that for years supported a series of dictators in Haiti, as if we were caring beyond any other nation. “Life can be unimaginably cruel,” he intones, as if life, like Miller’s God, were a bad actor. When I got to David Rothkopf’s “I told you this was going to happen” piece, I wanted to throw my shoe at you. As Gertrude said to Polonius, “More matter, less art.” And if it isn’t matter but personal opinion, then chuck it, get the facts, and start over.

 Sheep, pecora, mouton?