A Season for Everything

     Hunkered down now, I think I’m like most of us are these days: nervous, on edge, and mindful of worst case scenarios.  My own playlist seems stuck on the last days of Pompei, the last days of the dinosaurs, and the last hours of 1999 when we took one last deep breath of life before experiencing Y2K.  Each tells me a lot about the dangers of predicting the future.

    I’ve spent much more time trying to understand the past than the future, and that habit has led me here, writing how we may be wrong because, whether it’s an effort to understand what life was like in ancient Egypt or what my wife said to me just five minutes ago, I am constantly reminded how hard it is to reconstruct the past, which has a way of slipping through our fingers, being gone forever, impossible to revisit in order to test it, or measure it, or take any more photographs of it, leaving us with only the scattered few relics which somehow found their way into our attics.  I’ve often thought that in one sense, at least, it’s actually easier to predict the future.  If we say that the world will end tomorrow, that’s something we can actually test.  When tomorrow comes, we can not only agree upon, but know, with relative certainty, whether we were right or wrong.  The past is not so easy.

     But whether we’re looking forward or backward, we can’t know, now, if we’re right about the conclusions we reach.  Predictions about upcoming election results, about stock market performance, about the future course of global pandemics, can only be based on comparable situations in the past.  We extrapolate from the known we’ve experienced to the unknown that looms ahead.  But in so doing, we assume a repetitiveness that may be misleading, especially when our ideas are based on the experience of mere lifetimes (like the surprised citizens of Pompei) but even when they’re based on a broader historical record (like those among the dinosaurs who’d studied the  Cambrian explosion — I imagine them sitting around, contemplating how far and well they had come since those days, at the moment the asteroid hit.)  Predicting the future always carries with it a bias in favor of the past, and past experience is very poorly suited to predicting the unprecedented. 

     Y2K teaches us that doomsayers may be wrong.  The eruption of Vesuvius that wiped out Pompei and the Chicxulub impactor that wiped out the dinosaurs teach us that calamity may strike even when no one’s predicting it.  It’s too late to hope that COVID-19 will be the dud that Y2K turned out to be.  There’s still time to hope it won’t be the end of life as we know it.  It is, of course, a time for diligence, not panic.  But within all the precautions we take to fight this invisible enemy, I like to remember that the poor souls who died at Pompei would have been dead for nearly two thousand years now anyway, even if Vesuvius hadn’t erupted.  And even more, I like to remember that if an asteroid hadn’t wiped out the dinosaurs, Mammalia would never have thrived, Humanity never existed.  From our limited perspective, the Chicxulub disaster was the best thing ever.  And from the perspective of those who will inherit this planet from us – the ones we often say we care so much about – we just don’t know how they will view the pandemic of 2020. Perhaps they’ll see it as the beginning of great new things.

     It is in that spirit that while I hunker down at home, wiping off door handles with my sanitizer, wondering if it would do any good to start praying again, I remind myself that I will be dead two thousand years from now, one way or another, and that perhaps the demise of us baby-boomers will save the social security system for our grandchildren.  Perhaps the crisis which forces us to stay home will lead to a world of less extended travel, more stay-at-home work, more locally-sourced foods, and ultimately, a just-in-time rescue of the world from global warming.  We just don’t know, and with uncertainty comes not only bad stock markets but room for hope.

      And here it is, spring time after all.  As I hunker down, I see birds building nests, I see squirrels and rabbits in the yard, and most comforting of all, I hear people talking about “us” – about coming together for each other, about our responsibility toward each other, about the sacrifices that health care workers and others are making for us.  As Pete Seeger reminded us, there’s a season for everything. By my former calendar, this particular season should be bringing me nightly news of Republicans and Democrats insulting each other, modeling animosity and disrespect for our grandchildren. I KNOW that as a result of COVID-19, I haven’t had to listen to quite so much of that recently.  Perhaps, COVID-19 is ushering in a new season, with a new calendar. And that, my friends, strikes me as a very good thing.

Being of Two Minds

                Nearly fifty years ago, I read Julian Jaynes’ book, the one with the imposing title, The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind.  Immediately one of my favorites, it remains so to this day.  Drawing on ancient literature, archaeology, neuroscience and other sources, Jaynes focused on the nature of consciousness, theorizing (largely on the basis of evidence of “auditory hallucinations” in early mankind) that consciousness arose when the two hemispheres of the brain first started “talking to each other” across the corpus callosum.

                Jaynes’s theories were extremely popular at the time; then they were attacked and called all wrong; then they made somewhat of a comeback, with a society formed in Jaynes’ honor.  I’m not sure I want to know where his reputation stands today.  I loved the idea, and I wouldn’t want to be saddened once again to learn that his theories are all wrong, knowing that in another thirty years, they might be accepted again.  Thanks to Jaynes, I will go to my grave remembering and enjoying the image of the bicameral mind, and of the two halves of it talking to each other, as Jaynes suggested.

                “Hey there, stranger.”

                “What?  Did somebody say something?”

                “Yeah.  It’s me.”

                “What?  Who are you?”

                “I’m you, dummy.  The other half of you, anyway… It’s really time we started recognizing each other, and thinking of ourselves as one. Dont you think?”

                Quite often, I catch myself thinking of Jaynes’s bicameral mind.  How, when a thought passes through my consciousness, it’s as if I’m both a speaker and a listener. 

                “Should I post this thought on my blog this morning?” asks the speaker.

                “Sure, why not,” answers the listener.

                To me, all thoughts seem like conversations between the two halves of my brain.

                Now, I know that all brain phenomena can’t be explained by this two-brain theory.   Memory, for example, doesn’t seem to reside on one side of the brain, the subject of a search by the other.   You’ve got the name of your fifth grade art teacher on the tip of your tongue.  (Well, of course it’s not really on the tip of your tongue; we all know that memories are stored in the brain – but where in the brain?)  It sure seems that recollections are made up of elements scattered here and there – perhaps the audio track here and the video track there, but more likely, different elements scattered like the loose pieces of construction paper always scattered around Mrs. What’s-Her-Name’s floor. Still, even if the physical location of the elements aren’t confined to one side of the brain or the other, the conversation that goes on in the effort to retrieve the name could be a conversation between the two halves. 

                R: “She was the one with the dark brown hair, right?”

                L:  “Yeah.  Auburn, maybe.  With a splash of gray above one ear.”

                R: “Did her name start with a B?”

                L: “No, I don’t think so.  Seems to me it began with an S.

                R: “S – T maybe?  Stubbs?  Staub?  Straughan?“

                From the many times we’ve been frustrated by inability to recall things, we often share a sense that even if they don’t reside on opposite sides of the corpus collosum, the things we’re searching for reside in parts of our brains that exist elsewhere, even if invisible to the part that’s on the hunt.

                AS it happens, I’m content to let the mysteries of memory remain unsolved.  For at least one more day, I can simply accept that what we call memory can be in our brains, somewhere, theoretically retrievable but temporarily unknown to the conscious mind.

                What I can’t accept, even for one more day, is the mystery of the dream state.  And I’m thinking of a particular type of dream, a particular aspect of the dream state.  I’m thinking of this aspect because of the dream I was having less than five minutes before I started this post this morning.  The origins of this morning’s dream go back to Penny, a woman I last worked with over seventeen years ago.  Last month, I happened to return to my former place of employment for a meeting with my former boss.  As I sat in the lobby waiting, Penny walked in.  I immediately recognized her and said, “Hi, Penny, how’ve you been?” There’d been several hundred people who’d worked in that building when I last did, seventeen years earlier, and having never worked with Penny closely, I was rather impressed with myself that I could pull her name right out of the air like that.

                But then, this morning, there was this dream.  In the dream, there was Penny again.  And I recognized her face, and I knew who she was, but my former boss was asking me to remember her name – and I couldn’t.  It took me a long time, and a lot of help from my boss, but in the dream, I finally remembered it.

                Now, remember that I’d remembered Penny’s name so well for seventeen years that I could retrieve it instantaneously when, unexpectedly, I saw her last month.  It didn’t seem to be hidden away in the cobwebs somewhere.  If it had been so quickly retrievable for seventeen years, is it possible that, during the dream, part of my brain was fully aware of the name, and was scripting this dream like a stage play, while another part was playing the part of a brain that couldn’t remember?  Had my brain somehow divided itself, for story-telling purposes, into a part that remembered and a part that didn’t?

              Anyone who’s ever had difficulty recalling something for a second or two may be inclined to feel that my dream this morning represented nothing more than the usual process of working to retrieve a memory, beginning with an inability to recall her name, then employing whatever processes the mind usually employs in its efforts to recall, and ending with success in the effort.   If this is what was going on in the dream, the dream could have ended the way waking efforts to remember things often do – with failure.  Nothing unusual here.  The dream state is subject to the same difficulty remember things as the waking state is, and its  efforts to remember things utilize the same or very similar strategies.

             But is it possible that my dreaming mind this morning was divided into two parts: a part that did know the name, and another part that didn’t? A story-telling part, that wanted to go on a ride through a process of remembering something, and choosing the story of Penny because it wanted wanted a successful outcome, and knew that with Penny, the outcome would be successful, because that part – the story-teller part – knew the woman’s name was Penny, and that part of my brain planned all along to end the dream with that revelation?

  And I actually think this may be closer to what really happens in at least some dreams, and my reasons are rooted in a similar, though slightly more elaborate, dream I had three or four months ago. Unlike my dream about Penny, that dream was longer, consisting of numerous scenes.  And in that dream, too, I was trying to identify something, starting from ignorance and ending up satisfied by understanding.  Early in it, I’d been told by an agent behind the counter of a rental car agency that the car I’d reserved had been taken, earlier that day, by a relative of mine.  When I asked who, he said the name had included the letter O.  I thought of names beginning with O, but there were no Ozzies or O’Briens in the family.  I thought of my cousins Joe and Lorin and Bobby, but no, said the man behind the counter, it wasn’t them.  After a while, another man told me that the name also included a G.  I had no relatives named Ogden, so I told the man it must have been one of my many cousins whose middle or last names were Logan. Once again, however, I was informed that I was wrong. Eventually, other people appeared in the dream supplying the letters N, U and Y, and by the end of the dream, I realized that the man I’d been trying to identify was a second cousin named Wendell, whose last name was Young. 

                In the dream, the revelation took me by surprise.  But what had me puzzled for days, and still has me wondering, is how the dream was even possible.  As the dreamer, I had no idea where the dream was headed when it began. Not until it ended did the clues make any sense.  Yet, as the spinner of the tale, as the “writer of the story,” so to speak, some part of my brain had to know where everything was headed from the outset.  Back when the man behind the counter was telling me it was a relative with an O in his name, the “writer of the story” knew, even if I did not.

                The reader of a mystery novel is ignorant at first, puts together clues, and finally connects the dots somewhere along the way – if not, he’s given the answer at the end, by the writer..  But mystery novels aren’t written that way.  The writer has typically known “who done it” since the first clue was inconspicuously mentioned back in Chapter One.  I understand how this workers with mystery novels, because you have two different minds at work – the mind of the writer and the mind of the reader.  But is the same true in dreams?  How was it possible, in my dream, for that man behind the counter to know that my relative’s name included a an O, at the beginning of the dream, unless he already knew the end of the dream?  And if he knew the end in advance, why didn’t I? 

                The only explanation I can think of is that the dreaming mind is really two minds, the mind of the writer and the mind of the reader.  That when we dream, we see ourselves walking (or flying?)  through a world with less than complete understanding, a world in which a lot more is known by a different mind which, though presumably also resident in our brain, knows far more than we do about the world – perhaps, even both the “real” world and the one in which the dream takes place. This “writer” ho knows more than we, the reader know, is intentionally giving us only part of what we see in the dream, the same way a mystery writer does, doling out information at the right time, to enhance the story.

                Some may think of this as evidence of God.  Part of me wonders that too. But more often, such phenomena make me think of my love for Jaynes’ theory about the Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind.

                I guess you could say I’m of two minds about it, eh?

                Yeah. I think so.

Your Daily Dilemma

You’re approaching a door. 

Not one of those modern supermarket doors with motion sensors that open automatically, but  one of those plain old doors with an old-fashioned brass knob you actually have to turn.

Cradled in your right arm, you are carrying a large bag full of groceries.

In your left hand, you are carrying a Slurpee (or a Slushee, or whatever they call them).  By whatever name, it is a large styrofoam cup (bad for the environment), with a thin plastic lid (bad for the environment) and a plastic straw (the type that kills innocent birds), the liquid contents of which you have already mostly consumed (to the detriment of your gut health).  But the styrofoam cup is still full of ice and a couple ounces of a chemical-laden soft drink which, if consumed, will only further poison you.

But enough of that.  The immediate problem facing you is how to open the door.

To open the door with your right hand you’d have to put the bag of groceries down.  At your age, given the condition of your back, this isn’t as easy as it once was.  You might strain your back, or even fall and break your hip.   And if you put the bag down, it might fall over, spilling out all that marvelous junk food you were so looking forward to.  Is the dog around?  How much of it will he get, before you can stop him?

To open the door with your left hand, you’d either have to put the soft drink on the ground – risking problems similar to those just described, though not exactly the same  – or trying to turn the knob with the drink still in hand, hoping to turn the knob without spilling the drink.  But of course, if you spill the drink, there’s a floor to clean…

Which hand do you use to open the door?

Stop.  Really.  Stop and reflect on it.  Which hand would you use?

Some people would say the correct answer is the right hand.  Others would say the left.

But these people have been raised in a different world than mine – one in which there are only two answers, right or left. 

And whether they’ve chosen the right or the left, they feel quite sure that they have made the only sensible choice.

In my world, there are many, many options available.  And even if it were a simple choice between right and left (which it hardly ever is), there are so many unknowns, ramifications, risks, possibilities and preferences to consider, that it’s really all very subjective. I mean, maybe it would be better for the dog to eat the Twinkies, rather than you…

How is it even possible to think one choice “right,” and the other “wrong”?

How is it possible to think someone who chooses differently than you is either stupid or evil?

Ya got me.  Maybe, as kids, we all just drank too much Kool-Aid.

Wrong Parking Space

Fifteen years ago, I quit taking statins for high cholesterol; I’ve been resisting doctors’ pleas to resume them ever since. For several years now, the doctors have been recommending high blood pressure medication too. Dutifully, I added that recommendation to the list of those I respectfully decline to follow.

But this spring, a series of developments finally reduced (wore down?) my resistance. I’d felt some minor chest pains (more like muscle strain than anything serious) but after that, I began to notice that my blood pressure was way up. My wind was also down. Anyway, last week, I succumbed to an appointment with a cardiologist. The cardiologist insisted I come back for a nuclear stress test. The test was scheduled for this morning.

So I drive to the hospital. I pull into the parking garage and begin searching for an empty spot. The first level is full, so when I find an empty space on the second level, I start pulling into it – only to see a sign informing me that the space is reserved for the elderly. Dutifully, respectfully, I start to pull out of the space, until I happen to glance back at the sign.

“RESERVED – FOR SENIORS, AGE 65 AND UP.”

After a lifetime of being young, I know that reserved spaces are for other people, not me. Right?

But I’ll be 69 next month.

Humbled yet again, I pulled back into the space – apparently, the space where I belong.

– Joe

Sweatshirt Photo

Now you can judge for yourselves.

My last post recounted our domestic controversy about the color of my wife’s sweatshirt. It all began when I made a casual comment that, based on our “matching” sneakers, sweatpants, and sweatshirts, she and I were dressed alike. When she replied that my sweatshirt was gray and hers was green, I readily acknowledged that the match was not exact, and I’ll now happily submit to a judgment that Karen’s is sand, or tan, or mushroom, or any other label that simply proves I was wrong ever to think of it as being “gray” like mine.

But admitting I’m wrong is one thing. Admitting my spouse is right? That’s far, far harder. Can I manage it? Well.. NO! I’ll DIE before I call it green!!!

Still, with so much controversy, I thought it only fair to post a photograph 0f the two. My gray shirt is on the right. Karen’s shirt — call it what you will — is on the left.

P.S. If anyone else says its green, I’ll — I’ll — well, I guess I’ll just have to count it as one more proof that there’s no such thing as objective reality.

Karen’s Sweatshirt

Karen and I were about to leave for the gym when I noticed we were both wearing white sneakers, black sweat pants and gray sweat shirts.  When I casually remarked on the coincidence, she surprised me by disagreeing.  Her green sweatshirt was nothing like my gray one, she said.  Mine was a classic gray, with no color at all; we both agreed about that.  But hers, she insisted, was clearly green.

Astounded, I examined her sweatshirt in every light I could.  To my eye, her gray sweatshirt was different from mine only in that it had an extremely slight brownish tint to it.  In certain lights, I thought I might detect some blue sparkle amidst the gray, and in other lights, red or purple.  If I really stretched, I could persuade myself there were occasional flecks of yellow, the way sunlight reflecting off a field of freshly fallen snow might sparkle with microscopic pinpricks of various colors.  But as I saw it, that was it.  The sweatshirt was clearly gray, as clearly as snow is white, and the mix of other tones, each of them barely noticeable, combined to give its grayness a little more earthiness than mine – no more. It was still clearly gray.

Our respective workouts at the gym did nothing to resolve our different perspectives.  So as we were leaving, Karen asked three women behind the membership counter to tell us what color her sweatshirt was.  Sensing marital discord, one of the ladies tactfully declined to venture an opinion.  But when a second said Karen’s sweatshirt was gray, I chortled with glee to have my opinion corroborated.  Karen’s dismay was evident.  Picking up on Karen’s dismay, the third woman studied the shirt carefully and announced that it was “tan.” To my eye, there was a stronger hint of tan in the gray than green , so on the drive home, I enjoyed that heady feeling a man gets when other women agree with him, especially in disagreement with his wife.  My self-satisfaction was further enhanced when, arriving home, Karen asked our daughter Kate her opinion.  Her answer – “sand” – was music to my ears. I’ve never set foot on a green beach.

Now, we all know people can have different perceptions of the same thing.  But that’s not the point here.  At the moment Karen realized she didn’t have the support she’d expected, she blurted out, “Well.  It USED to be green!”

Aha!  For me, that explained so much.  The sweatshirt, nearly fifteen years old, had faded; Karen had clearly failed to notice the change..  In my very first WMBW blog, I’d told the story of two mistakes I’d just made on the golf course: one forming an incorrect belief about the location of my ball, and the other, more serious error, maintaining that belief thereafter, even in the face of evidence I was wrong.  If Karen’s sweatshirt had been green when she bought it, that would explain why she still thought it green.  She hadn’t noticed its gradual fading, so her once-green sweatshirt had always remained her green sweatshirt. 

I was reminded of the time, forty years ago, when I wrote on an application for a new driver’s license that my hair color was blond.  When the clerk who took my application handed it back to me, saying my hair was brown, I argued with her.  My hair had always been blond.  It wasn’t until a look in the mirror at home that I realized she was right.  Examining myself with “new eyes,” I wondered how long I’d been ignoring the evidence while continuing my long-held belief. 

I thought I might post my thoughts about this phenomenon – the way we cling to our existing beliefs despite contrary evidence – here on WMBW.  But later that day Karen came gleefully home with the report that another daughter, Jen, agreed with her that the shirt was green.  I was crestfallen. For two weeks now, I’ve been bothered by that report.   Was my theory wrong?  Was it simply a matter of differences in the rods and cones of different observers?  Whether my theory about the persistence of old beliefs had validity or not, I felt compelled to admit that Karen’s sweatshirt was not persuasive evidence of it.   I’ve already written about rods and cones. Karen’s sweatshirt, it seemed, deserved no place in WMBW.

But wait.  Alert as you are, you might now be asking yourself, “Why then is he wasting my time with these reflections about the sweatshirt?”  Great question.  The answer is that, just last night, I found out still more about the sweatshirt: namely, I learned that Karen actually has two of them, and they are identical.  Same size, same style, same brand, same color.  Bought at the same time, some ten to fifteen years ago. Bought from the same store, one by Karen and one by Jen. Jen – the only other observer to call the sweatshirt green – had worn the identical green sweatshirt for years, back in the day when it really was green, before she gave it to Karen.

So now I blog to report that of five people who’ve based their opinions only on current evidence, there’s been a single tactful abstention, one “tan,” one “sand,” and two “grays.”  In contrast, the two “greens” come from the two women who bought the same green sweatshirts over a decade ago, wore them for years, and formed their beliefs long before the sun and frequent washings had done their work. Five non-greens from people without prior beliefs,in contrast to two greens from people with prior beliefs.

Now, a sample size of only seven people may not be large enough to constitute statistical proof in support of my view.  That’s probably a good thing, because if a large sample size confirmed my theory, I might feel entitled to tell Karen I’d been proven right. (And that’s rarely a good thing for one spouse to say to another.) So this story is not one like my golfball post, about two mistakes, one the forming of an erroneous belief, the other of holding on to that belief without being willing to question it. And this is not even a story about my conviction that long-held beliefs (whether accurate or not) persist in the face of recent contrary evidence.  (There are reasons our marriage has lasted 47 years.)

Rather my point is simply that there’s always new evidence that can be brought to bear on one’s beliefs. In the case of Karen’s sweatshirt, when all I had was my own observation, that single observation was enough to persuade me that the shirt was gray. As Daniel Kahneman writes in Thinking Fast and Slow, “You cannot help dealing with the limited information you have as if it were all there is to know. You build the best possible story from the information available to you, and if it is a good story, you believe it.”  The thing is, Karen, too, had built her story years ago, and based on the information she had at the time, the shirt was green.

For me, subsequent evidence (Karen’s perception that the shirt was green) was enough to get me looking closer, to question my perception, though it didn’t change my mind.  But next came evidence of the perceptions of others – proponents of tan, and sand, and another gray – that led me to a conclusion about retinal differences (not to mention to gloating that I was in the majority).  The next piece of evidence – that Karen had bought a green shirt long ago that had apparently faded – changed my understanding from a theory of retinal difference to one of believing that Karen was suffering from confirmation bias.  Next, with the evidence that Jen, too, thought the shirt green, I was thrust back in the direction of retinal differences.  Now, the most recent information – that Jen wore the identical shirt for years – has cast yet another light on the whole matter. Currently, I’m back to attributing this “minority view” to confirmation bias. But as for the continuing parade of evidence to consider, has it ended, or is there more to come?

Kahneman could have had my initial conclusion in mind (the simply story that the sweatshirt was gray because I perceived it as gray) when he wrote, “Paradoxically, it is easier to construct a coherent story when you know little, when there are fewer pieces to fit into the puzzle.” Indeed, the more I learned, the more complicated the puzzle became. But I think Kahneman’s conclusion is profound: “Our comforting conviction that the world makes sense rests on a secure foundation: our almost unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance.”

I believe it’s natural for people to continue to believe what they’ve always believed, even in the face of contrary evidence.  And so, I suspect I’ll continue to believe that confirmation bias, aka close-mindedness, is a shared trait of our common human nature – at least until presented with contrary evidence. I only hope that I’ll be willing to consider that new evidence if it comes my way. I just don’t see any reason to believe that I already know everything about that sweatshirt that there is to know.

This morning, when I told Karen I was going to post my thoughts about all this, she looked me in the eye and said, “I STILL think it’s green.”   Well.  I still think it’s a sandy shade of gray. And I’m not calling Karen any more stubborn than I am, because she is a fantastic listener, always willing to consider new information. I only hope she feels the same way about me.

Best to all for the new year.

—Joe

The Last Word

With much sadness, I have just now changed this website’s description of one of We May Be Wrong’s founding members – from the present tense, to the past.

In 1960, a 24 year old Dr. Paul Clement Czaja (January 9, 1936 – May 8, 2018) had just earned his Ph.D. in philosophy when he persuaded Nancy Rambush (then headmaster of the Whitby School and founder of the American Montessori Association) to let him teach existential philosophy to children.  She was impressed with his enthusiasm and his willingness to work for practically nothing, but since she thought parents might not understand the importance of teaching philosophy to children, she asked if he wouldn’t mind teaching other things as well.  So Paul “officially” taught creative writing, Latin and various other subjects not often taught to ten year olds.  But philosophy was his first love, and it found its way into everything.

Only fourteen years older than me, Paul was more an older brother than a teacher.  He showed me how to love the world around me; introduced me to the joy of learning everything I could about it.  The way a magnifying glass could make fire; the way Latin could turn language on its head yet still come out as modern English; the thrill of catching butterflies in nets; the way the Greek Alphabet could be painted with Japanese brushes and jet-black ink; the vital inner parts of dissected foetal pigs; the wonders of the Trachtenberg system of mathematical calculation; the wiggling of microscopic paramecia in pond water; the thrill of catching people and their stories with a 35 millimeter still camera, that of making our own stories with  a 16 millimeter movie camera, and then, the even weirder thrill of telling stories with frame-by-frame, stop-motion photography; the writings of Gertrude Stein, William Carlos Williams, and James Baldwin; the power of telling stories of our own  with just pen and ink.  We spliced and edited rolls of movie film we’d made and, somehow, we even enjoyed diagramming sentences, rummaging through grammar the way we searched for the Indo-European roots of words. Though I was not yet a teenager, Paul introduced me to Ingmar Bergman movies, to Van Gogh’s Starry Night, to Rodin’s The Thinker, and to Edward Steichen’s photographic exhibition,  The Family of Man.

To say the least, it was not your typical middle-school education.

They say that when a butterfly flaps its wings, it can have profound effects on the other side of the world – a concept I first heard from Paul, I’m sure.  If I hadn’t met him, he wouldn’t have written the recommendation that got me into Phillips Exeter, and I wouldn’t have… well, if a single butterfly flapping its wings can have a profound impact, having Paul as a teacher every day (winter and summer) for four impressionable years was like being borne to Mexico by millions of Monarchs.  We stayed in touch during my later school years, and then persisted in friendship as the difference in our ages seemed to vanish with the passage of time.  And so, I was pleased that he joined We May Be Wrong in 2016 as one of our founding members.

But now, it’s time for a confession.  As we tried to get our new website off the ground, Paul proposed that WMBW publish a poem he had written.  Being a man of great faith, Paul wrote a lot about God – prayers, poems, meditations.  When he proposed that WMBW publish his poem, I disagreed on the ground that I didn’t want the brand new website to come across as “pro” or “anti” anything controversial.  I didn’t want to risk alienating potential followers, be they liberal or conservative, Republican or Democrat, believers or non-believers, by implying some sort of hidden agenda.  (The ONLY agenda was to be the benefit of listening to others with an open mind.)  Holding the keys to the publishing platform, I declined to publish his poem lest it be misunderstood to evangelize about God, rather than fallibility.  But even then, I told him, once the website has been up for a while, we might be able to publish that sort of thing.

Well, the time has come.  I wish I’d published it before he left the earth he loved for the better one he yearned for.  For Paul,  I can only say a prayer of thanks for all he did for me, and for so many other children, and now, share his wonderful poem.  (It seems only right that he should have the last word.)

Fire in the Soup: A Creation Story

It happened

when

this earth

had just cooled down

from

being molten magna

to being

simmering

and steaming

rock,

and

when

the vaporous skies

had emptied

eons of towering cumulus

clouds of rain

making oceans

which

were so great

that

the whole sphere

became

much more a watery world,

and

the rocky land

was

but one large

continental island

there

in the middle

of a now

beautiful blue planet.

 

And then

when the heavens

were no longer

veiled

by that thick

envelope

of sulphurous cloud cover,

and

the earth’s atmosphere

became

pure and clear

and

allowed

the stars of the universe

to shine

so brightly

that

the night sky

seemed to be

white

with black peppery dots,

it

happened

that a flame

came streaking

through the sky

down

to earth

sizzling

the warm soup

of the sea

somewhere

changing

and

charging

that chemical mineral ooze

into

the very first

protozoa

that ever was

on this

so singular planet.

 

Later

when that protozoa

eventually became

thinking,

questioning,

wondering

man,

the idea

arose

that perhaps

that life causing

flame

which

once upon a time

sizzled

the oceanic soup

could be

the pure energy

that is

love,

and

if

that were

so,

then

all life

that

ever evolved

from

that first protozoa

would be

somehow

spiritual

and

of the eternal God —

for

philosophers

and

theologians

say

that

God is love.

Such a thought

seems to be

a happy,

hope filled,

heuristic

kind of

thinking.

–Paul Clement Czaja

 

Love and Long Life

I just got back from a foray into the unfamiliar.  The unfamiliar nearly always gets me thinking (which is why I love it so).  And sometimes, you get another WMBW post as a result.

In this case, the experience wasn’t entirely unfamiliar.  It was my fiftieth high school reunion.  But as familiar as some of the attendees were, I encountered people different than the ones I had known fifty years before. Older, of course.  And wiser, I should hope.

There was a meeting of former classmates, a discussion session, planned as an exchange of ideas.  I was scheduled to speak briefly on the subject of We May Be Wrong.  The moderator who kicked off the session – now a well-known author and psychiatrist – began with the assertion that it is Love – along with the treasured relationships that bind us together on account of Love – that is the single best predictor of having a long life.  In study after study, said the moderator, the correlation between a long life and a life that includes friendships and social relationships with loved ones and friends is strong – stronger, in fact, than with any other predictor.  By returning to campus because of our bonding, we had self-identified as people who, on average, would lead a long life.

I do not doubt such research results.  I instinctively feel that the proposition is true.  It resonates with my WMBW perspective.  I immediately bonded with the speaker, sensing we had much in common.  And as I waited for my turn at the podium, I hoped my message would be well received.  I looked forward, in other words, to increasing the bond between my audience and myself.  I wanted to feel more of that love, even if it didn’t add a few more hours to my life.

But then, the assertion was made that one reason we classmates had so bonded as to travel from across the country, and even from some other countries, to reassemble fifty years later, was that our common enemies had created an especially strong bond among us.  The school’s Dean during our years in school was identified as one of them; when a class member suggested we take time to share stories about the man, there was no shortage of volunteers.  (Needless to say, all the stories were about how inhuman and unfeeling he was, and every one was welcomed with nods, and laughter, and more love.) President Lyndon Johnson was another target, and the Vietnam war: both were identified as things we all opposed, things that brought us together in love and portended well for our future longevity.

The moderator then said we ought to be proud, describing us children of the sixties as the generation that had changed the course of America by championing love, peace, and understanding.

In fact, between 1964 and 1968, I and a few other nerds had been members of the Young Americans for Freedom.  If you’re too young to remember it, the YAF was a student group that supported the war in Vietnam and other conservative political positions.  What’s more, I’d never had a run-in with our dean.  While in school, I had had a problem identifying with all the “bonding love” my classmates felt; during my years there, I’d felt shunned and ridiculed by them on account of my minority beliefs.  The ridicule led me, in those vulnerable years, to withdraw from my politically-charged peers.  To keep my political views to myself.

As I recalled these teenage experiences, I found myself contemplating something that had been said at breakfast that morning by a different attendee.  She had cited recent scientific research to the effect that the electro-chemical activity in the brain that occurs when we are with loved ones, feeling the bonds of strong community, is precisely the same as the activity occurring when we come together and hate (or at least disapprove of) those not within our group.

This, too, struck me as all but self-evident.  After all, why is it that having a common enemy causes us to unite, to feel comfort,  security, and all the ties that bind?

A few minutes later, when I got up to speak about We May Be Wrong, I found that some things hadn’t changed from fifty years earlier.  I still hoped my thoughts would be well received.  I still wanted to feel some of that love.  To belong to the tribe.

The world is a lonely place, from the outside, looking in.

– Joe

Thanks to F. Lee Bailey – Part Two

Last time out, I was discussing F. Lee Bailey’s effort to identify various reasons a witness can be mistaken.  Bailey’s thesis was that juries don’t want to believe that witnesses lie, so the wisest and most effective way for a lawyer to discredit a witness is to point out for the jury other reasons – other than bold-faced lies – that a witness might not be telling the truth.  Attempting to come up with my own list, I offered examples that involved lack of information, interpretation of information, forgetfulness, the making of assumptions, the lack of focus, and unconscious force of habit.  Today, I continue that survey of reasons for error.

One common reason witnesses can seem to have diametrically opposed versions of reality, when neither is lying, has to do with language.  When my son was four years old, he was being particularly cranky one evening, whining out loud while I was trying to watch television.  I told him to behave himself or I’d put him to bed.  He quieted a bit, but only momentarily.  So I repeated my threat.  “Behave,” I said in a louder and sterner voice than the first time, “or you’re going to bed!”  Once again, the threat worked only briefly, so his whining began again and I repeated my threat a third time, even more sternly than before.  Again it worked, but when the whining returned only seconds later, at the limit of my patience, I cried out “Daniel, behave!!” in the fiercest tone I could muster.   Frightened nearly to death by my obvious anger, his chin trembled in fear.

“I’m haive,” he assured me.  “I’m haive.

The point is, words mean different things to different people.  Language can get in the way.  To my four year old son, I might as well have been babbling.  Was it his mistake, to misunderstand, or mine, to assume he understood what it meant to be have?  It was, in either case, a failure of communication.  And failure of communication consistently ranks high on lists of reasons for mistake.

Sometimes, we have trouble communicating even with ourselves, and when this happens, it suggests different reasons for error.  A couple of years before we left Florida, on a winter day Karen had invited two guests to the house to paint for the afternoon, I agreed to cook them a meal.  A wall of sliding glass doors that looked out to the swimming pool gave the kitchen the best light for painting, and because of the light, it was the ladies’ chosen spot, as well as my work area for the day.   The meal included  a spiced chutney for which the ingredients  included coriander, cumin, and a little cayenne pepper.  Soon after preparing the chutney I felt a burning sensation in my right eye.  I rubbed the eye with the back of my hand, and then with a wet cloth, but rubbing the eye seemed only to increase the burning sensation.   My tear ducts went into high gear, but despite this natural defense, the burning did not abate.

I’d just recently started wearing contact lenses, and fearing that a lens could be trapping the offensive powder against my cornea, I worried it might be the reason my tear ducts were being ineffective.  The worry was heightened when I went to the sink and flushed my eye with a glass of water, with no consequent reduction in pain.

The urgency of removing the spices became an urgency to remove the contact lens – but I realized quickly that I was having great difficulty even locating the darn thing.   When I tried to squeeze it off and out, my fingers came up empty.  My inability to feel it suggested two possible explanations.  As had happened before, it might have become so closely fitted to the cornea that underlying suction was simply preventing its removal.  Alternatively, all that tearing (or the water from the sink)  had washed the lens down into the eyelid where (having assumed the shape of a folded burrito packed with spicy powder) it was making elimination of the powder impossible.  With the burning sensation getting stronger by the second, I raced from the kitchen to the closest mirror – in our bedroom upstairs – and pulled the lower eyelid down in a search for the offensive lens.  But what with hyperactive tear ducts, pain, and the lack of a functioning lens, my poor eyes couldn’t tell whether the lens was in the eyelid or not.  I couldn’t feel it there, or folded into the upper eyelid, or stuck stubbornly to the cornea itself.  Ever more determined to remove it, I kept pinching at the lens with my fingertips from everywhere in the eye socket it might possibly be.

Unsuccessful, I ran back downstairs, flung open the sliding glass doors and crouched at poolside, dunking my head into the winter-cold water, thrashing my head to generate as much flow as possible, convinced that this, at least, would flush out the offending lens.  But when I lifted my head from the water the pain only increased.  The ladies were laughing now, asking what in the heck I was doing.  But caring only about the pain, I shut my eyes.  The pain increased.  Again and again, I tried to fish for the offending lens, sure that it was to blame, wherever it was

In time, the pain eventually stopped – but not until the ladies suggested I thoroughly wash my hands.  As soon as I did, I realized I could use my fingers to pinch around for the missing lens without adding more spice to the mix.  But even then, I couldn’t locate the lens.

Able at last to see well and think straight again, I found my glasses on the kitchen counter.  Only then did I realize the depths of my folly.  Removing the glasses had been the first thing I’d done, even before rubbing my eyes with the kitchen cloth.  I hadn’t been wearing my contact lenses that day at all.

How does one classify such an error?  You could ascribe it to my inexperience in the kitchen and consequent failure to wash the spices off my hands.  You could ascribe it to my inexperience with contact lenses.  You could ascribe it to my bad decision-making when under pressure, or to forgetfulness, or to lack of focus.  You might say that habit was to blame, as the removal of my glasses at the first sign of irritation was one of those unconscious habits that are so automatic we forget about them.  (In that case, lack of self-awareness about my own habits was also to blame.)  Finally, you might ascribe it to the  presence of an idea – a false idea, but an idea nevertheless – that once in command of my attention, made all the other reasons irrelevant.  The idea that a contact lens had trapped the powder had  supplanting the powder itself as the culprit in need of ferreting out.  I’d entirely made up the story of the folded contact lens, but it was so graphic, so real, so painfully compelling, that it became the thing I focused on; it took command of my world.

One conclusion I draw is that it’s hard to classify reasons for error neatly into distinct types, because any one error may result from all sorts of factors.  But being human, I’m prone to think in terms of types and classifications; they help me think I better understand the world.  And when I do, I’m especially fond of this last-mentioned cause for error – the false stories we tell ourselves.   False as my story about the contact lens  was, IT was the story playing out in my head; IT created the entire world with which my conscious self interacted.  For all intents and purposes, it became my reality.

I’ve enjoyed reading psychologists, philosophers and story-tellers share thoughts about the stories we tell ourselves.  I’ve especially enjoyed reading opinions about whether it’s possible for the human brain to know whether the world it perceives is “real” in any sense distinguishable from the stories we tell ourselves.  Ultimately, I don’t know if creating these stories is the most common reason for our errors or not, but I think they’re among the most interesting.

Finally, to F. Lee Bailey, in addition to conveying my thanks for getting me to think about the reasons people may be wrong, I’d like to convey a suggestion: that, possibly, people lie more often than he supposed.  Possibly, they just do it, most often, to themselves.

— Joe