Where the Action Is, Where the Difference Is!
Whew! What a topic! Overdue here for some time now. Let’s see what I can fit into the first draft.
It’s prom night. The dance is over. You have a nip of something. You’re loose. Where do you all go to lose your cherry? To the beach. To the sea shore, the lake shore … Water!
Now it’s your honeymoon. Generations went to Niagara Falls. Water again. Torrents of it. It was the most spectacular water you could find by train ride from the major eastern cities. Nowadays you can take a cruise, fly to the Bahamas, the Virgin Islands … More water.
The water can’t be overemphasized. Life on this planet began in the water. We never crawled out of it till some hundreds of millions of years ago. Yesterday. We’re still conceived in liquid. As embryos, we develop in liquid. Out in the air, we’re still mostly water. Air and water. We can go without sex for years. We can go without food for weeks. Air and water? Short term. Continuous need.
You’re down, you’re all but out. Your wife has run off with your best friend: or with his wife. The IRS is on you. The boss (that crook!) says you’re an embezzler. You’ve already been to the bar. Liquids. Now what? This time you’re in Pittsburgh. There is no beach. You go to the river. If you’re gonna jump, you climb the bridge first. Air and water.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Does a fish see water? Do we see air? Does any creature ever really see it’s environment? If you see it, maybe it’s no longer your environment.
No, the water can’t be overemphasized. But there’s something else here as well. The one perception masks another, just as ubiquitous. (More subtle?) I’m talking about humans and human perception, but let’s consider a few not so near relatives for a moment. Use your imagination: you’re an alligator. Compress a few days into a moment or two: where do you spend those days? Well, if it’s nice, you’re likely to be lounging on the bank. Maybe your head and thorax are on mud and your belly and tail are in the water. You’re on the edge of land and water. If it’s not so nice, you’re under the bank. Even when it’s night and you’re working, hunting, cruising, you’re not far from land.
Living on the Edge
We go to the edge. We come from the edge and we go to the edge. Our sort of life formed at the edge between sea and land. The boundary. The border.
Boundaries separate. Boundaries unite. Which statement is more true? The boundary is the coupling of differences.
There are creatures that live in the ocean depths. I’m not talking about them. The gopher tortoise never needs to drink. I’m not talking about him either.
Try being a sunfish for a moment. Where do you spend your day? (Imagination doesn’t get going without at least a little bit of knowledge.) You’re in water all the time, so that’s not the answer. Are you a fisherman? Do you know where to cast? The blue gill, the bass, is at-or-near the edge of something: you’re at the border of the flowing water and the still water, the deep water and the shallow water, the open water and the weed bed. Sometimes you’re a few feet into the weeds, sometimes a few feet out into the open. Actually you might spend the whole summer in open water, but you’ll winter by the weeds. And when you mate, it’s shallow, with cover near by. Multi-edged.
Let’s re-evolve back “up” (ha ha) to Homo sapiens for a moment. Say you’re female, a woman. Where’s your greatest pleasure? On the surface? Mmm, that’s nice. Down deep? Ooo, that’s nicer. But come-country? That’s at the edges: areola and nipple, areola and breast … Edges. Lips by lips … Edges curving toward a center. Bulls eye. A center near the surface.
These are modern paradigms. Yesteryear, we were told we were in the middle: half-way between beast and god, devil and angel, good and evil … Maybe there’s something to that metaphor as well. We land at Ellis Island but we grow our bread in Iowa and Kansas. We leave Brooklyn and rush to Oklahoma, destroying everything “alien” in our path (meaning not recognizably from Europe).
Actually, there’s a way in which the modern paradigm joins the old metaphor. Reporting on the new science of Complexity, Nobel Laureate Murray Gell-Mann gives an example that weds both: We live at the edge between chaos and order. That’s as true for the gopher tortoise as it is for the Nobel Laureate. Take a crystal — a diamond, salt … — as an example of order. Life as we mean it will never occur there. Take a nuclear furnace, the center of our sun, for example. That’s high energy order: energy/order so high we can well call it chaos. Its order is beyond us. Life as we mean it will never occur there.
It’s at the boundary that life comes into being, thrives. Too much order? Sterility. Too much energy? Too high a mix of orders? Death. It burns.
Any living order must have access to disorder to survive. In politics, those thriving on any given order will hold any competing order at bay so long as they can. To those oppressed by any given order, revolution is the only hope.
Let’s take a modern look at the medieval metaphor. We’re in the middle. Let’s get a little help from George Gamow: mathematician extraordinaire of infinities. What’s that? Did I use a plural? Infinities? Yes. Gamow showed that there are an infinite number of infinities. You didn’t learn that in school? Not surprising.
Take the series of integers for example:
1, 2, 3 … 1,155,460,355 … a googol …
a googolplex … … … infinity
(Note that infinity, though a “number,” is not an integer.) How many integers are in an infinity? An infinite number of them.
Now take the series of even integers:
2, 4, 6 …
How many even numbers are there? An infinite number of them. Similarly, there will be an infinite number of odd integers.
Now try the number of possible decimals between one and two. An infinite number of them. Now try the number of possible decimals between 1.6175942 and 1.6175943. Again, infinite.
So, which infinity is bigger: the infinity of integers? or the infinity of even numbers? Well, hell: the infinity of integers has to have twice as many, right? How can it? They’re both infinite! Gamow said that the one infinity was stronger than the other.
Thus I say that no matter where you are in any infinite series, you’re in themiddle!
Let me rephrase that:In any indeterminate series, there is no middle. Just as there is no end at either end.
Let me rephrase that again:Any point in an infinite spectrum is infinitely far from either end.
(But again, there’s no “end” in an infinity. Finite ideas don’t apply.)
So, are the medievals right after all? Well: god & devil, right & wrong … are any of those infinite series? The number series the mathematicians find to be infinite are abstractions, wholly intensional. What about the universe we actually exist as part of? Einstein (remodeling Voltaire’s joke) said, “Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I’m not sure about the former.” The oldest light we can see with a big telescope is some fourteen billion “years” old. Maybe the universe is big, maybe it’s old (compared to what?), but it’s hardly infinite. So let’s substitute the photographers’ meaning of infinity: further away than several feet. Further away than you’re up to measuring. (For most people that would be almost anything.) OK, let’s just take it to mean “beyond sight.”
I say we are in the “middle” of any evolutionary series. I see civilization not as any pinnacle that we’ve amazingly achieved, but merely as where we are: midway between good (and bad) order and good (and bad) chaos. I see us as “just as” far from significant achievement as we are from being single celled.
I’ll come back to this section. Meantime, try some of your own.
(I’ve plenty more to say about middles, centers … too: bear with me.)
Let’s home in on what I hope you will come to see as the same business from another angle. Gather a bunch of kids, students, adults, CEOs, anybody … Show them a picture of a robin. (That’s an “American trush” in the United Staes. We have no European robins.) Ask them what it is. In less than a second you’ll start hearing a chorus of “robin”s. Parts of the chorus may come in a bit past that first second, but by the end of the second second you’re likely to have heard, and heard correctly, from everyone in the group, provided they’re all native English speaking.
Now hold up a picture of an ostrich. Again, everyone will answer and answer correctly. But both times your audio has been graphing your recording. The time of answer is not equal.
To stick with our two examples, let’s restart with another group. Hold up the picture of the robin and ask what kind of animal it is. You’ll hear a wave of bird overlapping the sound waves of your question. They’ll answer bird with the ostrich too, but the answer will come back more slowly.
This is science. Go. Confirm it. It ain’t so if your experiment, properly conducted, doesn’t match results. Satisfied?
Now. There is a set of animals we classify as “birds.” The robin is deep in the core of that set; the ostrich is in the set but not in its core.
What, you say the “robin” is really an American thrush? I don’t care. This isn’t avian vertebrate zoology. It isn’t math either. It’s epistemology. Epistemology bordering on cosmology and theology. And on a bunch of other -ologies. And on maybe an -osophy or two.
Now let’s do something with these perceptions. In the core of a culture you’re sure you know what that culture is. You’re from Kansas. You’re an American. You know what an American is. You send your kid to college. Ivy League is what you want for him, the best. The kid gets into Columbia. Columbia College in the City of New York. You drive him for Freshman Orientation. Whoops! Where did these Jews come from? Blacks that speak better than you do? One sounds like Oxford? You actually meet a dissident!
Back home you live in a county that’s solid one party or another. Everyone votes whatever. You watch the election returns. Where did all those other votes come from? The people in California or Florida or wherever must be crazy!
You live in Kansas. Smack in the middle of the continent. You know what land is. Solid. Eternal. You’re safe from the commies here. You go back to New York for graduation. You go early enough to take in the theater. You even go to the beach. You stand on the shore. Wavelets wash your calves with sand. You feel the undertow erode the sand from between you toes. You’re at the edge. Did you really know what land is, what a continent is? No wonder continental drift was such a hard sell.
The lubber is rubber legged at sea. The sailor is rubber legged ashore. At first. Only at first.
This module was my first online jotting on this subject: 1998. Like many of my files, it’s grown over the years, still without being “complete” or “finished.”
Major Eastern Cities:
Why is New York the Empire State? Why is New York City the Big Apple? Why are the biggest banks still there rather than in Philadelphia, Baltimore, or Boston? Because New York was the first American port to look inward as well as across the sea to Europe. It built the canals. Now it could monopolize financing of the railroads. And practically everything else.
(Asked, Oscar Wilde said that by morning light, Niagara Falls would have to be a bride’s “second greatest disappointment.”
Very witty, but screw him: what did that Edwardian faggot know?)
Even astronomy is so geocentric it’s ridiculous. A “year” is the length of time it takes our planet to revolve around our star. Our star, this system, is some 4.6 billion years old. Therefore, how can anything older than the sun and earth be measured in “years”?
One more example: we measure the earth’s dimensions — diameter, circumference, etc — crust-to-crust. We measure Jupiter visible-atmosphere to visible-atmosphere. What gives? If we ignored the atmosphere both places, and measured just crust, Jupiter would shrink enormously.
I can’t resist throwing in a perception from a conversation with my son of decades ago. It’s possible that this business about sets and cores had come up on Johnny Carson. I was pointing out that Carson, from Nebraska, was perceived by the audience to be core American. Indeed, Johnny made it his business, his study, to appear to be core American. But Johnny had a Ph.D. in comedy, rare from any university. Johnny wasn’t in the core. Johnny was supervising while milking the core. Johnny was an “ostrich” garbed as a “robin.”
I’ll also add that however much I acknowledged Carson’s genius, I never warmed up to him as a fan. I still loved Steve Allen.