My wife and I recently took a 3,100 mile trip through a piece of the American Southwest: Highway 50 (“the loneliest road in America” — debatable) through the basin and range country of Nevada to Arches and Canyonlands; four days with friends near Four Corners, Mesa Verde, Canyon de Chelly, and Shiprock, to Zion by way of Monument Valley and the innards of Glen Canyon Dam and on to Las Vegas; north on US 95 (truly America's loneliest road, in my estimation) through Beatty, Nevada, and across the White Mountains to California in light snow above Death Valley to Big Pine, Bishop, and Mono Lake before dropping into the verdant Sacramento Valley and back to Leggett. Among many other impressions, such a journey forces the conclusion that sandstone is one of God's favorite toys.
We humans seem to have some sort of elemental craving to impose ordered patterns on all that we experience. For example, as Carrie and I meandered, we both noted that this balanced rock looked like a pirate, perhaps, that that rock face recalled Spiro Agnew, the declivity over there suggested a serpent, that juniper mimicked the shape of New Jersey. We humans, of course, do this all the time with clouds, dogs, candlewax, shadows, stars, patterns of pollen on water, chunks of firewood, even oil stains on the driveway; we constantly manifest a deep need to make sense and order of things, to impose meaningful patterns on the world.
This might be true because we are all congenital classicists seeking to uncover the secret order which resonates through all creation (or some such), but I doubt it. Maybe we are all Cartesian mechanists, but I doubt that even more. Perhaps God is a comedian — there is ample evidence for this, but the Holocaust, AIDS, and Dan Quayle seem to cripple this theory, too. I think this pattern-making need emanates from a sometimes tiny but ever-present knot of fear.
When the first puritans hit the beaches of what was to become New England at the dawn of the Seventeenth Century, they were appalled at the forests and at the mostly naked beasts, some human, roaming idyllically about in what must have been an earthly Paradise — for a glimpse, anchor yourself and peer over the edge at Canyon de Chelly. An exquisite balance we at the end of the 20th century can only contemplate in awe utterly bewildered the early white visitors. Speaking of the Wampanoag Indians at the time of the early settlement, a British trader noted in disbelief that “They [the Wampanoags] killed animals only in proportion as they had need of them. They never made an accumulation of skins of moose, otter, beaver, or others, but only so far as they needed them for personal use.”
Clearly, this would never do. 300 years later, we have imposed the regimen of the balance sheet over everything, and clearcuts are scrawled across the landscape like obscene and lethal graffiti and the remnant Indians are a challenged by unbeaten people. Hardly a stretch of truly wild river exists in this country outside Alaska; the once-fabled air of the Southwest is now visible, thanks to the concrete power plants running on cheap Navaho coal; on Lake Powell you can park your rented houseboat hundreds of feet directly above drowned pictographs painted unknown thousands of years ago by people known to us only as Anasazi.
None of this makes any sense. Running a two-lane asphalt road up the dead center of Zion Canyon does not make sense: actually driving on it, as Carrie and I did, makes even less; it does not make sense that in a country which remains the envy of the world, children with pustulant sores beg in the streets and sleep in color television crates beside high-rise parking garages. Clearcuts and strip mines do not make sense. There is something fundamentally wrong when a shy and tremulous increase in wages causes the stock and bond markets to plummet as though they were poleaxed. I think that we need all this somehow to make sense. When we can't convincingly accomplish this miracle, we simply impose order as easily as finding a Mickey Mouse face in a cloud. Presto! The world makes sense.
Illustrations abound. Take, for example, the New Age (“Please,” Henny Youngman might say, “take the New Age.”). Once you accept the dictum that coherent, verifiable evidence just gets in the way of the truth and a good story, and further accept that one person's experience is always as good as another's, then the field's pretty wide open. So long as you can explain it somehow, you can believe anything you want. Not only that, but such belief exhibits the kind of navel-gazing logic which makes it perfectly impervious to skepticism from the outside. And, excepting the noisome reek of condescension, passably entertaining to the rest of us.
Mind you, these are not unusually slow or witless people. Certainly, some are remarkably intelligent, and a good many have done right well financially, thank you. In my experience, they would be tough to pick out of a crowd in the Coddingtown Mall; like many of the rest of us, they drive economical Japanese cars and wear sensible shoes. Corned beef intake is low in their demographic, and, on the whole, they vastly prefer Reggae on the River to the Harley Run, Spencer Brewer to Tom Waits, Maya Angelou to Alan Ginsberg, Bali to Lithuania, Buddhism to Islam, baseball to hockey and dancing to both; agonies of self-doubt can be occasioned by a new pair of Nikes. The women are strong, and the men are not only good looking but oddly effeminate in their sober and soft-spoken way.
A few of these folks communicate with angels and channel for being on Venus. The less spiritually adventuresome settle for excursions into rebirthing, past life regressions, dreamwork, trancework, flower essences, brain reprogramming, iridology, cranial-sacral therapy, neuromuscular reprogramming, energy balancing, aromatherapy, all types of massage and bodywork, yoga, tai chi, vibrational kinesiology, Reiki treatments, Traeger massage, Rolfing, astrology, clairvoyance, hypnotherapy, ear candling, general detoxification and, for all I know, probably hundreds of other ways of dealing with what they've decided they're suffering. (I am reminded of the wonderful Utah Phillips line, “No matter how New Age you are, old age is gonna kick your ass in the end.”)
Without doubt, all of this — hell, practically any of this — makes sense of the world. I am certain that the void in which we find ourselves made perfect sense — to take an admittedly extreme example — to the folks at Heaven's Gate. Given the fundamental view of the world which followed like the proverbial ducks in a row from their initial assumptions and from their way of filtering the evidence, it made perfect sense to transport themselves to the nether regions of (the sadly departed) Hale-Bopp. In their inimitable way, those believers were comfortable.
I think this need to make sense of the world may account for not only the New Age, perhaps mercifully limited in its attraction, but as well to a whole constellation of other patterns in the American weave. Consider, for example, the degree to which health and diet have permeated our lives over the past couple of decades. If we can't affect the world outside to any measurable degree, most of us can at least, within obvious limits, affect many of the particulars of our physical selves. In this context, not only does the world now make sense, but it also neatly divides into “good” things and “bad” things. An hour of aerobic exercise is defined as doing a person more “good” than, say, spending the same hour reading Norman Mailer; carrots are “good,” while cigars are “bad.” Neatly divided in terms of certain core definitions of health, the world in understandable, if perhaps a bit sterile and contracted.
The universe of sports provides another illuminating example. Except for sex, there is hardly another activity which seems so central to the American grain. Among men, a disinterest in sports is regarded with the same sort of suspicion which greets, say, a disinclination to drive. It is hard to account for, almost eccentric. Female football fans were made for the camera, which loves to seek them out. Watch out for them at ringside; the female fan, it often seems, is the most rabid.
Most sports with scores: hockey, football, basketball, soccer, baseball, and the like, accrete great agglomerations of statistics. The most maniacal followers can keep one another up until dawn citing arcana like the percentage of games in which a left-handed goalie made at least three cross-body saves in a Wednesday night game after a road trip of at least a thousand miles following two consecutive wins. They scour the sports sections of the paper or perhaps subscribe to on-line services which update the stats daily. Everything — or at least everything important — is quantified. A quantified world is an understandable world; just ask any stockbroker.
Not the least of the attractions of sports is the evident fact that the games or contests (or whatever) are played under knowable, known, and more-or-less strictly enforced rules; as well, we always know the winner and the loser. I can think of no sport, for example, with any ambiguity in the scoring; at the end of the game, we are never in doubt as to who won. In a world of crumbling, bloody civil wars and the lying, incompetent fools who lead people into them, the prospect of a neat, clean score at the end of the battle looks enticing, indeed.
All of these attractions come together perhaps most strongly in baseball, which even allows perfection. (Golf and tennis do also, but they are individual sports, not subject to the complexities of teams.) Against the lurid (or bland: it just depends on how you look at it) scrim of the daily news, defined perfection looks pretty good. And the white ball, the smell of the grass.
A few weeks ago I was doing my radio show during the KMUD fundraiser. After the first break, I played a tape of the last half-inning of the perfect game Sandy Koufax pitched at home in 1959; Vin Scully was the announcer. I’m not sure it led to much money, but probably ten people told me over the next couple of days how much they’d enjoyed hearing it, how odd it was to climb into a truck at the laundromat, turn the key, and hear Sandy Koufax fanning Harvey Kuenn in front of 40,000 people, striking out the last six batters he faced. Perfection.
The faculty of discerning meaning — and therefore pattern — in the world we inhabit appears unique to humans. In this special sense, it is probably not too much of a stretch to believe that this is a kind of caring. In the same sense that discerning a face in a sandstone protuberance in the northern Arizona desert is a way of somehow inhabiting the place, even if only for a moment, knowing what some Venezuelan screwballer does against left-handers with men on base is a way of inhabiting that place.
In a senseless world, all this makes eminent sense. We put patterns in things, in events, in phenomena, and perhaps we can be forgiven when we mistake the patterns for the reality, when we confuse the players with the game.