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Originally sent to Steven Pinker

In grade school it must have looked like I was intensely paying attention to the ideational content of what the teacher was ‘saying’. I only now realize this.

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Then as now, when hearing or paying attention to someone talking, either in person (such as the teacher at the chalk board), or impersonally (such as radio talk shows {ex: I’ve enjoyed Bill Or-Reilly’s monologues in his now-dropped radio show}), my brain ‘dissolves’ in the bath of the sounds of the language and intonations (and, when the person or his/her speaking likeness is visible {to me where I am, not invisible as such ;-)}, in the manners and facial expressions of the person). I usually can’t help but be somewhat entranced by it, such that the ideational content is just a ‘blur in the background’. I usually actually have to try, like holding up a crushing weight over my head, in order to keep much track of the ideas-and-such which they are saying.

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By third grade, my grades were dropping to mostly ‘C’’s, at most two ‘B’’s, and sometimes a ‘D’: no ‘A’’s.

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After some interviews of me by the teachers and what-not, for which my parents were in attendance, it wishfully was determined that the problem was that I was having eye strain in having to see the chalkboard clearly, and that THAT’S why I was ‘daydreaming’ in class: ‘I was unable to do anything else BUT daydream, because of being unable to see the chalkboard clearly.’ Great convenient wishful developmental hierarchy, that. As if thinking for myself, about things I gave a damn about, was something I simply had to resort to for the (supposed) lack of being able to read the menial and trivial mental chores written on the board.

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I wasn’t having eye strain, either. But, they all wishfully were convinced that I was having it, and that I just didn’t know it. But, I never did strain to see anything on the chalkboard, except maybe, at most, during a dozen separate seconds on most days. I never felt any eye strain anyway. And, I certainly had no internal motive actually to be ‘driven’ to the kind of ‘studiousness’ that would, somehow, in turn, drive me to try to clearly see every letter on the board as if the board were affixed to the end of my 27-inch-square world comprising the pleasantly cool-to-the-touch top of my school desk.

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But they ‘solved’ the problem by getting me glasses. These were just like what my voraciously literate sister wore: corrective lenses that strained my eyes in the very act of trying to see things intelligently through them. Only, my pair of such lenses were more gently straining, so that my eye muscles were thoroughly sore and distressed only by the second, and final, day of wearing them. I was immovable confident that no one could make me wear them ever again, least of all all damn day long. No one forced me, but instead saw that I was almost nonchalantly serious. I said, ‘You can’t make me wear them, because they sure ARE straining my eyes, more and more, while my eyes feel no strain at all when not wearing them.’ They had said that I might have to ‘get used to them’. But, ‘getting used to’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘getting damn eased by’, ‘getting damned comfortable in my eye muscles with’.

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I often cannot wear even non-corrective lenses, such as sun glasses. I get eye strain from having constantly to decide what my eyes are supposed to be looking at: the world out there, or the lenses which, for being intrusively so close to my eye balls, seem to be begging for my visual attention. I even sometimes have trouble looking at the multiple flickering flames in a fireplace: I can’t quite see where any one of them is in its relative distance to me and to its equally bright companions. I can partly see through any one flame to the flames that are more-or-less in-line behind it, and this confuses my brain’s focusing processes. Where is the damn thing, flickering like what I suppose ghost looks like: difficult to see because it’s not really there, your eyes somehow unable to look quite directly at it even though you know, without a doubt, that the compass direction of your gaze is spot-on.

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I even have trouble with mirrors strategically placed in stores. Those please-buy-here industrially reflective muggers jumping out at me the moment I walk passed them unawares, their translucent surfaces an assaulting fraction of an inch in front of their reflective silver backings. I actually get dizzy from them, automatically glancing at them in passing, and then having vigorously to shake my head to put my brain and eyes back to where from which they’re crying never to be taken. Like a cat shaking water onto the expensive couch the minute it is brought in from the pool into which it so rudely had been thrown by the giddy neighborhood brat.

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That reminds me of a children’s story about—what was it?—the girl and the looking glass, into which she disappears, only to find herself in another world, very different from the comfortable one from which she just came: A confusing, and, even, frustrating world, where—what was it?—cats are invisible except for their genuinely insane, grinning faces. I like my cats whole, thank you: Oh, look, there’s a cat head by itself waiting for a bowl of milk, perhaps, it’s soothing purr and hopeful mewing emanating from the empty air immediately behind it. Really, these sounds have to be at least mostly those of a real whole cat, not that of some performance magician’s feline version of cutting his beautiful human assistant in half.

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But, back to my grades.  My teachers and parents were intent on the supposed requisite value of six straight hours of academic make-work, for five days a week, for nine months out of every of the next eleven years, in order that a child not grow up ignorant and incompetent. But, I was never bored in class, never looked like I was wishing I had something to do but sit there and stare offended-ly-but-absent-mindedly at it all. So, those who noticed me never saw a bored kid who was left to having to daydream his way through school for not being able clearly to see the chalkboard.

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No, my mind does not even get bored. How can it? It’s its own mind.  It’s not some block of wood with neither sense nor power to carve itself into anything, or otherwise do or be or sense anything. In fact, I was completely blown away in my late twenties when my then-co-worker, who was a real human being, nevertheless had gotten bored in less than thirty seconds while waiting for a delivery that would allow us to begin working. My mind does not have a sense of listless inactivity; it’s not disadvantaged in that way; not ‘wonderment-challenged’.

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But, when my brain more-or-less effectively is conscripted actually to halfway attend to what it finds to be mostly menial mental chores, and this for six straight hours a day for five days a week for a few years, then, yes, it very occasionally became listless during summer break: two whole hours of listlessness, for two days in a row, during the summer prior to my final year of such conscription, namely, the summer after I had completed fourth grade. I have only a fifth grade formal education; but, once some ‘properly educated’ stooge gets to actually know a little of what I think and can do, they are surprised to see that there is far more behind the manners of my often timid and easily-intimidated self than what they arrogantly, patronizingly ‘educated’ neurotypicality ever can suspect.

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So, after having failed to solve the supposed problem of my ever-declining grades, my dad made a deal with me: ‘For every A you get’, he said, ‘I’ll give you a five dollar bill.’ I never got an ‘A’ again.

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What was that ‘A’ about anyway? Some teacher’s ‘expert’ estimation of how well I performed in some circus for the mind? As if I’m an animal trained to do all-but-meaningless tricks to soothe the egos of adults—adults who themselves dutifully-and-clueless-ly presume so much upon that so-called schole since they themselves in fact had not grown up to be ignorant and incompetent?

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An incident at age fourteen allowed me to get a sense, for the first time, of myself and my relation to others as ‘language’ users. (By ‘language’, I do not mean merely the sounds of speech, but even more facial affect, body language, and sense- of-self in face of mono-channel domination by other’s arrogance.) However, I didn’t retain any such sense of the incident at the time. Only by way of another, related incident, fifteen years later, did I acquire some of that sense. The first of these incidents was this:

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An older teen I had only just then met had come to town to visit his grandma. He was taking time off from his job, which was to be a ‘grunt’ on a crew that cut down trees (out in the wild forested lands of the Pacific Northwest) for lumber. He had been walking through our neighborhood’s 15-acre back lot to his gran’s house from the store, and saw us three boys trying to play football (US ‘football’, not soccer). He briefly stopped to help us with the rules and some techniques, and then continued on his way with a promise to help us some more later. As it turned out, he was a great help for the three days that he was there in town.

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We three boys enjoyed his company, and what little of actual football which only four people can play. I learned what ‘out-field’ and ‘in-field’ meant, which, to my interested discovery, was not a particular static direction: it depended on where in the field the person was who was said to be going ‘in’-field’, or, ‘out-field’. In kindergarten I had learned ‘North’, ‘South’, ‘East’, and ‘West’, only to be ‘shown’, a year later (and to my frustrated, two-day-long bafflement), that there was something called ‘left’ and ‘right’.

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Anyway, this guy, who had been in town visiting his gran, ended his stay by spending a final hour with my mom and I at our the kitchen table, talking. He did most of the talking, and she and I asked occasional questions. He told us of his job, and of some of his harrowing, or fun, or toilsome experiences. Like the time he nicked the side front of his forehead with a live chainsaw as it had bucked from a log cut in his not-so-long-ago very-novice hands. So, after his final hour of visiting with us was up, we said our goodbyes and he left.

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At that point, mom and I simply continued talking with each other. Then, maybe a minute later, she suddenly said, with a look of a little shock and horror, “Stop talking like that!”

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I said, “Talking like what?!”

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She said,” Like that guy! You’re talking just like that guy! I want you to talk like you’re my son!” She had this very worried look on her face, like she was looking at me as if I were morphing before her eyes into some kind of alien life.

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I didn’t at all get it at the time. I had no sense that I had been talking any which way, just like most any person who grows up with no sense that he himself does, in fact, have an ‘accent’. Only by way of the second, related incident, fifteen years later, did I begin to realize she had, in fact, been reacting to an actual phenomenon, and that it had been a phenomenon of which I had had no sense at the time. This second incident was this:

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I had been reading a book I had recently bought called something like ‘On the Philosophy of Jurisprudence’. It was written with a lot of ‘in-house’ jargon of which I was unfamiliar.

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But, by focusing my mind reflectively on what abstractions I initially could gather from a given passage, I enjoyed finding that I could quickly get a good sense of the broader topic of the passage such that I could then compound my understanding of what the author’s jargon meant in general terms, and, thus, what the heck was his point or his idea. After about an hour of this, which included my writing some responsive and deeply insightful notes in the margins of a dozen of its pages, I put the book away on one of my book shelves: my mind had turned to one of my own customary subjects, such as philosophy of education, or one of the few to-me-rather-esoteric subjects about which I occasionally had an inspiring new thought. What I found, upon then beginning to write, was that every angle of ‘style’ of my writing, including grammar, syntactica, etc.. was exactly like that of the Jurisprudence book. I couldn’t even get a sense of what my own customary ‘style’ was, so as to write in my own ‘style’ (not that I felt a need to).

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I think it was later that day or next, that a memory for the first incident entered my mind. Then it began to dawn on me as to what my mom had seen and heard for which she had been so worriedly shocked at me.

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After several more of these types of incidences (wink, incidents), over a few more years, my brain finally had begun reflectively putting this not-so-small ‘module’ of itself together.

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What my mom had seen and heard was that of her familiar son looking and sounding for-all-the-world actually to have morphed into some person who was not only not her son, but whom she had only just met for the first time an hour earlier. It was as if she was looking at the mere physical shape of her son while that shape was being inhabited by that other guy. She had never before seen her son like this, and it horrified her to feel as if it actually was what it looked and sounded to her to be: either her son was being ‘possessed’ by someone else’s soul, or her son had just then begun to be genuinely and most horribly insane.

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But, partly from the kind of mild person my mom is, she ever has been both ‘globally’ very naïve and somewhat for-ill exposed to some of the horror fictions produced by some people in the movie industry (a genre of movie into which, to my surprise, Netflix has including such movies as Jaws and the Broderick/Reno/Spielberg version of Godzilla).

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A bit about my mom’s ‘global’ naivety. Back when I was sixteen months old, so she told me, I had begun what she had back then assumed were typical sixteen-month-old scribbles. I made so many of these ‘typical’ ‘scribbles’ over weeks and months that she had been keeping only the current week’s-worth, and then throwing them out to save space and to cut down their contribution to my clutter. She had had no clue that the average sixteen-month-old child did not, and could not, draw anatomically correct likenesses of people like what one sees on charts in doctors’ exam rooms. The most recent that she told me this story, which was one of only about five times since I was ten, was when I was nineteen (I’m forty-five now, having been living out-of-contact with her since I was thirty-six). Each time she told it to me, I have found it to be one of the most hilarious stories I have ever heard. I had, and have, no sense of tragedy or other emotional negativity about that story. And, the mild way in which she told it only added to the hilarity I felt in hearing it. I told her it was so funny to me, but she did not respond with either a smile or a laugh. She ever only avoided looking at me when I said it was so funny, she attending to some trivial task at angle to my location. I now suppose she may have felt I was only saying it and looking it and sounding it, though now I also think I may not have had the purely humorous facial expression that I thought I had.

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I would like to know the exact appearance of at least the first few of those drawings. I’m certain that being able actually to see them would compound on all the perspectives I currently have about myself, my brain, and why people ever have looked and behaved towards, or otherwise in regard to, me in the ways that I remember them looking and behaving. Baby one more time.

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Gresham Oregon,

Sunday, June 16, 2013, 3:42 PM PST*

*(except for the third-thru-tenth group of paragraphs, which I’ve added after-the-‘fact’, like an in-text Post Script, but which I actually had been getting to by the time of writing the second paragraph and had forgot in the maelstrom of the act of thinking of what was to be presented after that group)

The Raw Physical Power of the Social Mind

Imagine you’re coming down with pneumonia. When you interact with people, they have an impact on you no less than the microbes that make you sick. What I mean is, you live in two different environments: chemical (the purely physical) and social (the emotional); and each environment exerts a powerful force on you. If you don’t believe me, try counting a large pile of pennies one-by-one while someone whispers random numbers in your ear.

 

You have a sense of other people as conscious beings, just like yourself. And, you sense that they sense that you, too, are a conscious being. And, they really do sense…that you sense…that they sense…that you are a conscious being. So, they expect you to act like it. And, you sense that they expect you to act like it.

 

Aha! Caught you in the act! (Most of you.) You assumed I was talking about friendly interaction. Why do you assume that even I am friendly? Maybe I’m just a con-man and a pick-pocket.

 

And how little your mind attends to Certain Necessary Things while in private. —-And how much your mind can’t help but attend to those Certain Necessary Things while under potential scrutiny in public. Test anxiety. Stage fright. All the Social Mind’s cruel version of biofeedback.

 

Like jumping out of a parachute with a perfectly good airplane (you have to jump out of the airplane first).

 

—-And did I mention that everyone is naked underneath their clothes? (Nothing anyone can do about it.)

 

…unless you fall for ‘disguising’ your good clothes as patched-up ones by cutting holes in them before applying patches. (You resort to wearing a set of clothes underneath your clothes, or to painting your bare skin to look like a tuxedo.)

 

What I’m talking about is autonomy. Dynamic, personal self-possession, as a differentiated (and otherwise distinct) biological life form. (DON”T THINK ABOUT YAWNING!)

 

Wheeeee!

 

…and…

 

Quick! Turn around! There’s someone sneaking up behind you!

 

…Oh, wait, that’s me. —-Hey, have you seen my mirror? I put it down somewhere.

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