Counter Points

I don’t know whether every year I age past my days of formal math classes is pushing me back from calculus towards arithmetic, but for a number years now, I’ve been into counting things. Just adding things up. Before my wife, Dottie, and I left Pennsylvania, we would often take walks along a country road that runs parallel to I-81 and tally the big rigs as they rolled by in either direction. The numbers were staggering – often over a hundred in a seven-or-eight-minute stretch – but that’s not the point. The point is that we were counting things for recreation in ways we likely hadn’t since we were toddlers. She had a t-shirt made for  one of my birthdays: “Truck-counters Anonymous.” Our kids, in their twenties, showed more amusement than concern but, probably significantly, they never accepted our invitations to join us on the count. We kept at it until we moved to Florida and a house too far from I-75 to resume our ongoing census of eighteen-wheelers.

We’re still walking, though. We live on the south side of Sarasota, in a beautiful neighborhood, and our morning ritual now often involves weaving back and forth along the blocks north of our house until we get up to Hillview, a divided street lined with various trendy shops and delightful restaurants. Up and back totals a little over two miles, so we augment the exercise by climbing the stairways of one of Sarasota Memorial Hospital’s parking garages – a little “hill work” on Hillview, or as close as you can get in a town with no hills at all. There are two flights to every floor and six floors overall. The flights all have nine steps, except for the ones from the ground to the first level, which have eleven and ten steps respectively. But the steps aren’t really what we count. What we count are the cars on the various levels as we descend the drivable ramps of the interior to get back to ground level.

We don’t count all of them. That would likely cause our kids genuine concern, as though we’d started saving all our empty toothpaste tubes. We count, say, the number of Kia Souls versus the number Mini Coopers. Or the number of Honda CRVs versus the number of Toyota RAV4s. Or the number of white cars versus the number of silver cars (which is particularly exhausting, given we live in a state where folks are thermally savvy.) I like to think it keeps our brains alive—even though you may be thinking that the very fact that this is what we do proves that we’ve already lost the battle. I’d beg to differ, though, because, at the very least, it sometimes gets us thinking about bigger things. Toddler-like counting can, if you’re lucky, become the vehicle for what is at the very least adolescent rumination. Harken!

Just a couple of days ago, as we were casting around for the day’s comparative categories, I proposed that we count British cars versus red cars. “Whoa!” said Dottie. “We’ve never mixed up our categories.” “Life’s an adventure!” I boldly replied. “So, like, Minis, Range Rovers, and Jaguars all count as cars that aren’t red?” “Unless, of course, they are red.” “Don’t you think, somehow, focusing on country of origin will distract you from paying attention to color?” “We’ll see.”

Dottie, of course, was right—probably because she’s eleven years younger than I am and is still playing with a comparatively fresh deck. What I actually found was that, if I kept our traditional “X vs. Y” binary differential as my procedural focus (as in Volvo versus Cadillac or magenta versus puce), I could very readily twig on red cars and, conversely, on cars that were not red, but I was having a much harder time sorting out the Jaguars from the Buick sedans, or the Mini Countrymen from the old Mazda wagons. It felt a little like snapping my fingers very simply with my left hand but trying to plink out the notes of a Bach fugue with my right. Too much going on! My solution was to re-tune my brain so that my major focus (and I kind of pretended my only focus) was identifying and counting British cars, of whatever sort. Then, I said to myself, I’ll just depend on my eyes just happening to notice a red car simply because red cars are noticeable (ask anyone who’s ever driven one at speed through a highway radar trap) and then my brain can go, “Hey, by the way, there’s a red car mixed in with all these British rides I’m really working on.” And, I am delighted to say, it worked!

Here’s where the modest rumination comes in. What this said to us was that, if you’re operating in a simple binary mode of distinction, you may be very successful at sorting out Y from non-Y, but making useful sense of the subtly different non-Ys—as in Xa, Xb, Xc, or even Za, b, and c—will tend to elude you.  Your brain gets locked into one kind of patterning and it’s hard as hell to unlock it.

Dottie recalled a time when she had spent days and days proofing final reports from the cabin counselors at the camp we help run in New Hampshire. She corrected dangling modifiers, split infinitives, and faulty tenses in the kind of writing  our colleges somehow seem to be finding acceptable these days. (“It’s the ideas that count!”) She was also, though, correcting spelling: “counselor” and not “counslur,” “their clothes” and not “they’re cloths,” “dog-eat-dog world” and not “doggy-dog world.” One evening, just for fun, our son proposed a game of  phonetic Scrabble, where every word had to be spelled incorrectly—but phonetically plausibly. You know, “nighff and phorque” with “q” on the Trippel Whirred’s Core. Now Dottie is brilliant at Words with Friends. I mean Noah Webster would probably hurl his iPhone X into the butter churn if they played each other. But, after spending close to a week correcting misspellings in letter after letter, she was totally crippled by conventional standards of lexical correctness and got her “high knee” kicked by her own offspring. It’s not what she couldn’t see paint colors and still identify British cars at the same time. She couldn’t even get into the garage.

I remember when I used to play golf (which I stopped when I could still explain Pythagoras’s theorem), I used to drive home and see everything along the road as part of an extended golf course. If my ball were next to the fire hydrant, here, I’d have to use a two iron to get into that McDonald’s parking lot, over there. Or would that give me enough backspin to stay on the pavement and not bounce into the car wash/sand trap? Maybe hit a five iron and lay up next to that guy walking his Irish setter and then a pitching wedge to the right base of the golden arch. Same thing for days when I’d cut lawns for some extra cash. Every expanse of green I’d see, from the neighbor’s yard to the college soccer pitch to that fifty-acre alfalfa field, I’d think about mowing horizontally, vertically, or diagonally—from one side to the other, or from the borders to the center—bagging or mulching. Your brain just gets locked into patterns and, as I said, it’s hard as hell to break out of them—whether it’s a good idea to be breaking out of them or not.

I said in my last blog that I’m not here to be political (even though a good friend once assured me that everything is political, even Velveeta.) I do, though, think that learning how to count red versus British cars, or how to play phonetic Scrabble, or how to distinguish between your local suburb and the Old Course as St. Andrews can make you a more adaptable, and more fun, and more reality-oriented person. Pre-established mental structures and categories are just great a lot of the time, but they can also keep us from seeing the finer points, the details, the exceptions that disprove the rule—as comfortable as that rule may be for us to deploy, enforce, and extol. Maybe the best thing to say is that This and That are really, if you look at them closely enough, These and These—less uniform in their differences than unique in their individualities. Back to the old binary distinctions, there are assuredly times, historically and still in many situations,  when sorting Friend from Foe has to be instantaneous and unquestioning. Take, say, football! Or distinguishing your tube of Aquafresh from your tube of Preparation H. But there are other times when maybe not individual survival but rather the survival of the whole lot of us depends on ignoring differentiation for the sake of inclusion. Mini, Range Rover, Jaguar. They’re all of them British cars, after all, despite all of their wonderful differences.




One of the books I never wrote was called The Book of Nature. I think I conceived of the project when I was in grad school, getting ready to spend my life teaching The Canterbury Tales and steeped in all of those medieval texts that claimed that the natural world could be “read” like a text that reveals God’s will. There was the Physiologus, and Isidore of Seville, and Bartholomew of England—all of them describing the way animals look and behave in ways that confirmed the tenets of Christian faith. Since the pelican, for example, fed its young by piercing its own breast and bleeding out for their supper, this was living (dying?) proof of the transformative power of the Crucifixion. It’s easy for you and me to stand back and quip that, say, Isidore’s commitment to empirical, field-tested data took a back seat to his Scriptural mind-set, but that’s the way it was. The trick for catching a unicorn was to find a maiden who would sit quietly under a tree until a random specimen happened by and jumped into her lap. Why? Because the unicorn is a known symbol of Jesus and Jesus was able to save humanity only through the patient offices of the Virgin Mary.

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As charming as these bestiary models always were, I didn’t contemplate going for any kind of religious impact in my Book of Nature. I imagined nothing much more than a bunch of detail-heavy poems about something or other in the natural world out of which I could tease something witty, or amusing, or maybe even useful. I remember working on a dozen lines inspired one summer when, morning after morning in my country cabin, I woke to find multiple sets of white moth wings laid out on the rug with no bodies left between left and right. The leavings of late-night-snacking mice, I was certain, but also . . . what? Here, surely, was a metaphor for something. For a life’s ambitions foiled by failing health? For a polarized nation, desperate to identify shared values? For a Red Sox team with great pitching but no defense? More likely, for a flighty idea about a book of poetry with insufficient guts. I swept the powdery little leavings into a dustpan and moved on to other projects. That was thirty years ago.

Lately, though, I’ve been vexed by this thing that the lizards do down here in Florida. My wife and I walk a lot, five-plus miles a day. When we’re not strolling along the Gulfcoast beaches, dodging the resurgent waves and the sandpipers working their margins, we generally walk through the leafy neighborhoods south of Sarasota city center. The streets there all sport strips of lawn between the curbs and sidewalks, prime sunbathing/feeding grounds for lizards. Once the sun is up and the temperature tops 70, the rows of grass teem with the little critters, dozens of them across the width of a single lot. I imagine them stalking tiny but tasty insects, unpaid mini-exterminators keeping the lesser local vermin under control. But, beyond their vigilance for prey, they also have a very attentive eye for walkers and, as soon as they spy us strolling along, they zip back across the sidewalks to what they must conceive to be the greater safety of the main lawn, or the picket fence, or the sidewalk-abutting hedge. The only thing is that their bolting to what they must suppose is greater safety often carries them almost under our feet as we amble by. I don’t know that I’ve actually stepped on many. I always break my stride to miss them, reminding myself of the awkward suspensions of gait that kept me from breaking my mother’s back (by stepping on a crack) when I was a kid. But if I haven’t actually trodden on any of them, other people clearly have. At least every half mile or so, you come across a flattened specimen that looks far more like dried reptile jerky than the supple gummy creature it started out as. If they only knew they were safer staying put, I always say to my wife as she hokey-pokeys humanely down the street beside me, it would be better for all of us.

And this is where my simply noticing things going on in my immediate vicinity begins to backslide into that old, rankling quest for some kind of revelation from of the natural world. I’m not at all planning on resurrecting The Book of Nature, but at times like this, I can still feel tempted. And why wouldn’t I do it? Probably because, given the way the unnatural world has gotten lately, it would all likely turn political, and I’m here to sell books not ideology. So I’ll content myself with making the obvious—and clearly non-political—point that, when the lizards bolt from the safety of a strip of grass in which, honestly, my wife and I never even see them, they’re putting themselves into completely unnecessary jeopardy. Stay put! Stay still (I say to any lizards following this blog) and you’ll be absolutely fine. Run for what you think is better cover and you’ll be the next to suffer the flat disease. The only moral we need to draw is that, sometimes, fear really is the only thing we have to fear. If, instead of just walking, my wife and I were rumbling down the curb lawns on a zero-turn Kubota or a John Deere turf aerator, then the lizards would have every reason to panic. As it happens, though, we never have been, nor do we have any such plans.

I think I’ll leave it at that. Fear’s obviously not a bad thing, in and of itself. It’s kept lots of us from doing really stupid things. The question to ask, though, is what’s making us afraid? Is it instinct, something bred into us by millennia of evolutionary accidents? And, if so, does the current situation warrant reactions that were vetted under entirely different historical and social circumstances? Or is it someone else who is making us afraid—the slightly bigger, pot-bellied lizard, maybe, just off to our right? Is he freaking us out because we were just about to nosh on a tiny grasshopper he’d kind of like to gobble himself? Of does he just relish saying “Boo!” and watching the hoi poloi scatter? Fear is a potent lever. Just be sure it’s really justified. Otherwise, you may find yourself abandoning some really prime real estate for no good reason. Otherwise, you may find yourself flattened mid-scramble—pressed into the concrete like a viscous decal. (If you see what I’m getting at.)