I didn’t start my journal with the idea of recording my progress toward the ultimate truth. I was nowhere near bombastic enough to think I had anything important to say, even to my future self. It had begun, modestly enough, as typing practice, undertaken to avoid taking a typing course required for all ninth-grade girls. In my experience, any class or assembly restricted to girls was going to be in some way degrading, like the one where we’d been convened to receive the information that from now on our bodies would be producing poisons that would need to be discharged on a monthly basis, through an unspecified orifice. The restriction of the typing requirement to girls suggested some sort of connection between our festering genitals and the need to serve in a clerical-type occupation, perhaps as a punishment. So it would be safer, I figured, to learn typing on my own, without the supervision of some middle-aged woman who had long since been defeated by the buildup of toxins. But what to type? ‘I’m beginning to dread these original typing practices,’ I wrote about a month into them, a bit melodramatically, because no one was exactly forcing me. ‘I guess the trick is to write what I think as I think it and not worry about how it sounds.’
Most of the first, unpremeditated entries are desultory accounts of my first summer in Lowell, where I had few friends and no escape from the built environment unless my mother could be badgered into driving us to the beach. Aesthetically, Lowell was a tragic demotion for me – from the open spaces of Hamilton to the blocks of empty brick mills, from the frothy little Ipswich River, which a kid could almost navigate on a raft, to the dark, tired, overworked Merrimack. But Lowell had one big thing going for it – the public library, the same one, it turns out, that had been used by young Jack Kerouac just a few decades before me, where, as he wrote in one of his early novels, he’d ‘become interested in old classical looking library books, some of them falling apart and from the darkest shelf in the Lowell Public Library, found there by me in my overshoes at closing time.’
Those that did not actually fall apart in his hands probably ended up in mine, because the journal from this period is full of brief, embarrassing reports on what I was reading – Tender Is the Night, for example, which I found ‘confusing’ and ‘improbable’ since it was about ‘the love of an 18 year old girl for a 30-ish man who is already married and in love with his wife etc.’ In a similarly dimwitted way, I judged an Agatha Christie mystery to be ‘very exciting with an excellent plot and interesting characters.’ And what are we to make of this entry, which comes immediately after some gushing about the beauty and mystery of cellular mitosis, which I had also found out about in the library?
Another interesting scientific item was in the Scientific American. Namely the article on the discovery of the antiproton. The speculation concerning the meaning of this discovery was not news to me at all tho and came nowhere near my spectacular ideas in imaginativeness.
Yes, I was blown away by the discovery of antimatter, but did I actually think that the commentary in Scientific American should be judged by its ‘imaginativeness’? And what were my ‘spectacular ideas’ about physics, which are not explained in the journal? The early entries are adolescent in the full derogatory sense of the word. Or to put it more kindly: A lot happens in fifty years. You learn to spell better; you would never commit a solecism like ‘unrevocably,’ which shows up in my very first journal entry. Your writing becomes less stilted, so there is no way, for example, that you would compose the sentence, ‘I have lately been considering the utter futility of the lives of almost every living thing,’ which is also from that first entry. More importantly, you would have learned to shut up about the ‘utter futility’ and, as we like to say now, get on with your life. It’s normal to disavow your teenage self, otherwise how could we ‘grow’? Certainly in the 1950s, when I hit my teens, the ‘central developmental task’ that psychologists had devised for this phase in the lives of young humans was gradually to put away existential angst and unrealistic ambitions for the benumbed state known as ‘maturity.’
After a couple of weeks, on about the fifth entry, I abandoned my original rationale for writing and switched without comment to longhand. Typing could wait. I had discovered that writing – with whatever instrument – was a powerful aid to thinking, and thinking was what I now resolved to do. You can think without writing, of course, as most people do and have done throughout history, but if you can condense today’s thought into a few symbols preserved on a surface of some kind – paper or silicon – you don’t have to rethink it tomorrow. You can even give it a name like ‘yesterday’s thought’ or ‘the meaning of life’ and carry it along in your pocket like a token that can be traded in for ever greater abstractions. The reason I eventually became a writer is that writing makes thinking easier, and even as a verbally underdeveloped fourteen-year-old I knew that if I wanted to understand ‘the situation,’ thinking was what I had to do.
I got the idea from my father; at least he was the most insistent about it. What do you do when confronted with an inexplicable and alarming situation? Well, you can panic or give in to some other tyrannical emotion, like dread. Or you can escape into a book or a puzzle or, judging from the adults around me, a bottle of gin. But there is another possible response to the unknown and potentially menacing, and that is thinking. I suspect my father first came across it as a child, because he was exceptionally good at it, and it can be one of those little things, like being able to wiggle your ears, that gets you attention in a group. He had a photographic memory, among other superhuman capacities, and even the blurry version of it that I inherited was enough to make me stand out in games like ‘movie star’ that I played with other kids on my grandparents’ block in Butte. The idea was to see who could list the most names in that category, and although I had seen hardly any movies outside of the Disney genre, I could keep producing candidates – Tyrone Power, Elizabeth Taylor – long after the other kids had exhausted their cinematic memories. No doubt my father could perform similar or much better tricks as a child, and maybe these helped him hold his own against the big boys, especially his brothers.
If he wasn’t already an experienced thinker, he would certainly have had to become one in the mines. You may think of mining as the application of brute muscle to mountains and rock – and it is that too, of course. Long after he had left the mines for laboratories and eventually offices, the mining experience was still recorded in the muscles of his back and etched into his left arm as a blue skull and crossbones tattoo, a dermatological remnant, as I saw it, of the rough world we had left behind in Butte, where death was not to be flinched at and sometimes even sought out. But mining is also an intellectual exercise, requiring the combined skills of a plumber, a carpenter, and an electrician as well as an explosives expert. You had to be able to judge the load strength of a beam or the friability of rock at a glance and do instant calculations in your head, because one false step or misplaced stick of dynamite could blow you into body parts or at least send a few digits flying off on their own. So this was the mental procedure, which even a little girl could learn: First, size up the situation. Make sure you have all the facts, and nothing but the facts – no folklore, no conventional wisdom, no lazy assumptions. Then examine the facts for patterns and connections. Make a prediction. See if it works. And if it doesn’t work, start all over again.
This, in the most rudimentary sense, is what science is about, and it was science that saved my father from the mines. He won a scholarship, possibly from the Anaconda Copper Mining Company itself, to attend the Butte School of Mines during the day, while continuing to work in the mines at night. There was no question of studying literature or astronomy in Butte; all the school had to offer was metallurgy and mining-related technology. Within metallurgy, what intrigued him was the crystal structure of minerals, the way the atoms stack up to form a tight-knit community, so intricately and multiply bonded to each other that the whole is almost impenetrable to a pick or other cutting device. I think he wanted to know what he was up against there in the mines – what it was that accounted for the hardness of matter and the difficulty of turning rocks into usable ore. On a good day, he would go through his mineral collection with me, pointing out the scaliness of mica, the greenish hue of copper-based rocks, the redness of iron oxides. Or he would bring home specimens from the lab, some benign, like a little chunk of bright yellow sulfur in a vial, and some not so benign, like a ball of liquid mercury I could roll around in my hand, blithely unaware of its toxicity. The lesson of all this was that every visible, palpable object, every rock or grain of sand, is a clue in the larger mystery of how the universe is organized and put together – a mystery that it was our job, as thinking beings, to solve. I was flattered to be included in this enterprise, but always on guard lest one dumb question or halting answer elicit a burst of biting contempt.
For me, never having had to swing a pick at a wall of rock or anything else, the original lure of thinking was only in part as a tool for problem-solving. The main thing was that it beat the alternatives – panic, for example, and terror. Way before puberty, before the journal, before the formulation of my life’s mission, when I must have been eight or younger, I had a rule: ‘Think in complete sentences.’ No giving way to inner screams or sobs – just keep stringing out words in grammatical order. This was a way to keep from going under when the waters were rising, for example, on one of those pale winter Sunday afternoons that my father spent ‘resting’ on the couch, drinking until the rest deepened into what we euphemized as sleep. Then my mother, who had absorbed the novel idea of ‘companionate marriage’ from the women’s magazines, would start looking for a fight with anyone who was around and sentient. If I attempted to rebut her accusations or evade her demands – ’but I did the dishes this morning’ or ‘he hit me first’ – I would then be liable to the charge of ‘sassing,’ which was a speech crime punishable by slapping and invective, as in ‘you goddamned little brat.’ It was at times like this that the complete-sentences rule proved its usefulness, so long as the sentences were silent.
You can think of it this way: Thought is electrical activity – a bunch of neurons firing up and connecting to each other – but all this mental circuitry has to function in a liquid environment that swarms with hormones and other small molecules whose levels can register in the mind as emotions. When the liquid starts turning into tar – or worse, going into whirlpool mode and threatening to- tal disintegration – the only way out is to strengthen the neuronal scaffolding and try to keep the circuits dry. From ‘think in complete sentences’ the rule evolved into ‘think.’
So I would get to the answers by thinking – not by dreaming or imagining and of course not by praying or pleading to imaginary others. ‘The situation’ would yield to sheer force of mind. As I wrote to myself, I had decided on ‘an orderly plan of attack, systematic, geometrical.’ If A, then B, and so forth. I was so confident that this method would work that when I raised the question of how we ‘can live happily knowing or thinking that our existence as individuals is so brief and futile,’ I could go on to promise in the same journal entry that ‘I shall try and write the answer to that question when my present ideas are straightened out.’
The first problem was to identify the minimum of bare, incontestable facts that any philosophical inquiry has to begin with, and this brought me up immediately against the problem of the reliability of other people. Did they have anything useful to say, anything that could be built upon? All in all, school was not proving to be a reliable source of information. There was, for example, the science teacher who drew his biology lessons from the book of Genesis and exhibited a sneering contempt for anyone who imagined that rocks had been around for more than six thousand years. I entertained myself in his class by concentrating on developing an empathic relationship with the trash can that sat between his desk and my seat. It was gray and squat and humble, not a cylinder but a slice of a cone, hinting at the existence of an invisible person or people whose job was to empty it every night. Just as I could intuit the subjective state of every person I encountered, there was noth- ing to stop me from imagining that, in their own way, even objects were alive. What did it feel like, assuming that a trash can could feel, to be a receptacle for every bit of garbage that came your way? Did it choke on each piece of refuse that came flying into it, or did it take an austere pride in its silent self-abnegation?
Or I might mention the eighth-grade English teacher who kept me after class to accuse me of plagiarizing my paper on The Iliad, since it was obviously something I could not have written myself. Perhaps in an attempt to make me feel the wrath of Achilles pounding in my temples, right then and there, she announced that my grade for the paper would be F. Also in the eighth grade, Mr Cummings, the kindly martinet who served as principal – or as he liked to put it, headmaster – of Moody Junior High School in Lowell, intercepted me in the corridor one day to inform me gravely that my IQ, so stellar a year ago, had taken a sudden dive. This was not surprising to me, given the other mutilations being inflicted by puberty. If my body was going to get all leaky and mossy, why not my mind? Although it occurred to me after a few days of reflection that the real sign of mental deterioration was that I had allowed myself to be dismayed even briefly by the news, because it was not my intelligence but the very idea of ‘IQ’ that had been discredited by the latest test result.
Math, which had been a source of consolation when the subject was geometry or algebra, offered a fresh reason for wariness when the topic turned to imaginary numbers. Imaginary numbers? How could anyone introduce the concept with a straight face? Would a history teacher who’d been lecturing about generals and kings suddenly announce that the next topic would be pixies and elves? As it happened, I already knew about these odd creatures, probably from the science writer Isaac Asimov, and knew that they were an affront to human reason. Think about it: Imaginary numbers are defined as multiples of the square root of −1, but there can be no number corresponding to the ‘square root of −1,’ because if you multiply −1 by −1, you get, of course, +1, which is why Descartes in the seventeenth century had derided them as ‘imaginary’ and refused to accept their existence. And who could be more respectable than Descartes, the discoverer, or so it seemed, of the ‘Cartesian plane’ – that infinite flatland on which abstract equations took physical form as lines and curves, soaring and diving across the paper like living creatures?
But for my teacher, a dowdy white-haired woman whose tired eyes suggested she went home by bus to an even more elderly mother, it was just another day at the blackboard, without the slightest threat of paradox. So I raised my hand, more or less as a public service, and pointed out the absurdity of ‘the square root of −1,’ at least relative to everything we had learned so far in math. She blinked, I’ll say that, but just barely – acknowledging that it was an interesting point and moving right along. At least I had tried to warn my classmates, not that any of them appeared to be listening. If you accept imaginary numbers without raising a question, you’ll swallow any goddamn thing they decide to stuff down your throat.
I wanted to believe, and perhaps had believed when I was younger, that my parents were trustworthy sources. They both read copiously, after all, and liked to argue, discuss, and point out the multiple failings of the people outside our family, a dangerously high proportion of whom they classified as zombies, cult members, or morons coasting along on their sinecures. There were the young nuns, for example, novitiates actually, whom I walked past every morning on my way to school – girls not much older than myself wearing long gray habits, eyes downcast as they marched up the hill in chain gang formation, to what dark ritual I do not know. If there hadn’t been so many of them, and if they hadn’t been followed by two huge mothlike grown-up nuns, I might have attempted a conversation or at least a nod, but I never even succeeded in making eye contact. I just walked on by, thanking God or fate or whatever spirits arrange these things, for giving me the parents I had, who, whatever their faults, which were legion, would never think of offering a child up to God.
photograph © Internet Archive Book Images
The above is taken from Barbara Ehrenreich’s Living With a Wild God. Order your copy here.