As I recall, a bunch of us first-graders were waiting for to take our turns in some kind of race. While we waited on the edge of the playground to be called, I looked at and then through the hurricane fence in front of us. I discovered that I could look through the fence and see another fence. This second fence was gigantic and far away. Yet, it was also quite close! Indeed, it seemed as though this was no ordinary fence, but a magic fence that I could place where I liked just by changing something in my head. I know I tried to share this information about the magic fence with the other kids waiting with me but I failed to get them to see the magic fence. I didn’t have long. It was my turn to race.
And race I did — but rather badly. I was amazed to discover that I was not the fastest kid in first grade. It had always seemed to me that I ran extremely fast! That’s how I felt inside. But many kids in my class ran faster than I did. Even many girls ran faster than I did which seemed at the time absolutely impossible. How could I feel so fast running and yet be slower than so many other kids? Even the fattest kid in the class ran faster!
Later in first grade, upon returning from ten days at the hospital, my parents bought me bunk beds and the bunk beds were covered with a green bedspread which had a repeating pattern of identical and quite stylized white flowers. I could lay on the bedspread, look at the pattern and then look through the bedspread to another larger bedspread father away. In fact, I could find several bedspreads at various distances. I experimented by getting closer or father away from the bedspread and by fooling with my eyes. I did not understand exactly what was happening, but one thing was clear. The world that I had thought was “out there” proved very changeable under my own actions and volitions. I could “change” the world out there — or at least how it appeared — by what I did in my own head.
My grandmother supervised the Sunday School at the Methodist church my family attended. Sunday School proved fairly neat. For instance, I memorized the most verses from the Bible and as a result, won a glow-in-the-dark cross. I was supposed to look at this at night and derive comfort from it. I don’t recall that working but what I did discover, which was really cool was this: if I put my eye right up to that cross in total darkness, I could see tiny flashes of light. The cross, like so many “glow in the dark” items back then included both phosphorescent paint and radium laced paint. Same with my “glow in the dark” watch. When the lights first went out, these items would glow quite brightly from the phosphorescence. But even hours later, when that effect had completely vanished, there was still a faint glow from the radium paint. When placed directly on the eye, however, there was an effect like looking at a blurry bout of heat lightening.
Our Sunday School teacher told us that when we prayed, we went to heaven! That certainly seemed kind of cool. I wasn’t exactly sure what heaven was like, but in at least some of the pictures, there were some beautiful angels and it would certainly be fun to meet them. So, I decided to test out our Sunday School’s promise. I would sit in the pews, close my eyes, and pray just as sincerely as I possibly could. When I was praying up a storm, I would suddenly snap my eyes open! And there I was! In Sunday School. I hadn’t even moved to a different seat. No clouds. No heaven. And worst of all, no angels. I would try it again. Same result. I wondered whether opening my eyes could somehow instantly bring me back from heaven to Akron, Ohio. That seemed unlikely. But I tried a few experiments where I would pray hard and then not open my eyes, but just notice whether I still felt the hard wooden pew, and smell the same musty curtain smell and hear the same kids breathing and fidgeting around me. Well, in case you are wondering, it didn’t matter which sense or senses I used, I never got the slightest hint that I had gone to heaven. It not only didn’t look like heaven; it didn’t sound like it, smell like it or feel like it either. This was disappointing because one of the angels pictured in my “Red Letter Testament” Bible Study book looked out of that book right at me! Her beautiful eyes seemed to invite me to join her in heaven. But how? I don’t think I had quite figured out that this was an “artist’s conception” of what a beautiful angel might look like (e.g., a girl and just my age!). No, I knew she was there and I wanted to meet her.
About this time, I began to notice that my grandfather never joined us at Church. This seemed odd. At last I asked about it and he said he didn’t go because he didn’t believe in God! What? This seemed pretty inconceivable to me because everyone else around me kept talking about God as though He were real and definite. The way people talked gave not the slightest hint that God was something only some people believed in. God was portrayed as definitely there. There were paintings of God, for instance. Some of the illustrations in my books looked almost photographic in their realism. It made no sense that people would treat God as real if He were not.
My next door neighbor on Johnson Street played all sorts of games with me. I don’t recall her name; she was cute though occasionally mean. She liked to tie up people or put tape over their moths. But I really didn’t have that many choices of people to play with. One day, on the way to Sunday School, my parents and I ran into her and her parents. We were all dressed, as they say, in our “Sunday finest.” So, I did the polite thing and greeted her warmly, “Hello, little S*** A**.” All at once everyone’s faces including the little girl’s exploded into horrified expressions. I just used one of the main greetings that she used. I had no idea what the phrase meant or even the individual words. Later, after I was punished, I still persisted to try to find out how these words could possibly have so much power. My parents couldn’t even bring themselves to tell me. My mother delegated this task to my grandfather. Perhaps looking back on it, his being an atheist meant he could say words like this or at least explain them.
He took me with him into the landing area in the stairway to the basement. Grandpa’s house had some of the coolest features including a “Root Cellar”, a “Coal Cellar” and a “Disappearing Stairway.” In addition, Grandpa had a rock garden, a vegetable garden, a staircase and the house had three doors. There was a front door into a small entry off the living room. The back door went directly into the kitchen from a passageway near the garage. And, there was a third door that led off the basement stairs onto the patio near the apple tree that my mom had planted as a kid. My grandfather kept that door locked and no-one was allowed to use it. And that seemed a shame because our house only had two doors. It seemed to me, if you had a house with three doors, you would want to use all three! Anyway, it was near that door as he was emptying some trash that he explained what those magic words referred to.
He did not explain why they were powerful. He did not explain why my companion acted shocked when I used the words when I had learned them from her and she often referred to me and other playmates with this phrase. He did not explain why everyone had been upset. Once he explained what it referred to, I could kind of understand why she might not want to be called that although that was what she called everyone else. But why had her parents been so upset and why had my parents been so upset? It was one of those “explanations” that only explained the surface of a complex tangle of issues.
With a longer perspective, I can say that most so-called explanations are like that. They tell you why someone picked a particular color to paint their car. They don’t explain how cars work or why we have so many cars in this country and such limited public transportation. When it comes to religion, most explanations seem very much about the color of the paint. It’s very hard to dig beneath that to find out how people really relate to their religion. And, this too always struck me as odd, especially for people who claim that their religion is a central part of who they are. Perhaps, it is not so much that people are unwilling to explain how religion works for them as they are unable to explain it.
After all, I was able to alter my perception of the hurricane fence and the repeating pattern bedspread long before I understood how I was doing it. In fact, I never found anyone else who either could or wanted to use this technique until much much later. In college, I read a book (I think by John Dewey but I’m not sure) and discovered that this author had also learned this same trick at an early age. Indeed, I still find it a useful skill many years later. For example, if I am sitting somewhere across from people at a table, I can “merge” the images of their heads to make a composite image. That’s kind of fun. In grad school, before “COMP” functions, I found it useful to compare hexadecimal disk dumps by putting them side to side and crossing my eyes until the two dumps overlapped character by character. Anything that changed from one disk dump to another popped out instantly. While I thought it might be a useful skill for others and explained how to do it when asked, I never felt the slightest urge to make everyone learn this skill. I never claimed it was the only way to look at the world or even the best way to look at the world.
I never seemed to get into an argument with people about forming clear double images. If I decided to see two apples — one image with each eye — instead of converging my views to see one image, it never seemed much of a big deal to me or to anyone else. If I said, “It looks to me right now like there are two apples” and someone said, “Yes, but there is really only one” then I would just say, “Yeah, I know. But it’s kind of fun to see double sometimes.” If they didn’t feel like doing that, why would that bother me?
Of course, one could argue that seeing double is just a private exercise but that religion comes into play when it comes to cooperative endeavors. For example, in a complex society like ours, there are laws, rules, customs, taxes, and all sorts of systems that require cooperation. If there are going to be taxes, there have to be some rules about the taxes. If some people believe that cigarettes and booze are “evil”, then they might argue to tax these things more heavily than say, a health club membership. This makes a certain amount of sense in the abstract, but specifically, it does not seem to explain much. For example, though America has never been nor is it a “Christian” nation in the sense of a state sponsored religion, 70% of the population identify themselves as “Christian.” Although I have forgotten the many Bible verses that won me my radium painted glow in the dark cross, I still know that a main message of the New Testament is to love your neighbor as yourself; to turn the other cheek; to do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Yet, the United States has more billionaires than any other country. And the highest incarceration rate. Odd. Meanwhile, China purports to be a “Communist” country and one of the main tenets of Communism is “from each according to their abilities and to each according to their needs.” And China has the second highest number of billionaires. So, in the very places where coordination is necessary, there is a huge disconnect between what people claim are central principles guiding their lives and what they actually chose to do.
The mystery behind seeing double clearly is basically this. Our eyes adapt as we look at something near or far. When we look at something far away, our eyes are pointed at infinity. At the same time, we allow our lens to “thin” and the eyes are also focused at infinity. (There isn’t much difference in either of these beyond forty feet. When I look out my office window at the ocean, I can tell the ocean is father away than the palm trees because of other cues such as interposition (the palm trees partly obscure my view of the ocean so they are closer than the ocean) and aerial perspective (the ocean is slightly “fuzzier” than the palm trees because there is more distortion due to the air). If we look at something close, normally our eyes converge (point inward slightly toward the object) and we focus at the same time; that is, we make the lens thicker. However, it is possible to “train” oneself to separate these two actions. For example, I can converge (“cross”) my eyes to look at my nose but accommodate (to the extent I still can) to distance so that objects in the distance look “sharp” — it’s just that there are two of them. Even though I am capable of seeing double, I don’t walk around seeing double all the time. It would be very impractical and inconvenient.
So, perhaps religion is like that for some people. Looking at things from a “Christian” perspective is, for some, something one learns to do at church, but it is too inconvenient or too impractical to keep doing it when it comes to actually interacting with other people. When you meet someone dressed in their “Sunday Finest” and they call you a S*** A**, you act really offended and shocked. But that doesn’t mean you can’t call them that the other six days of the week. And, if you own a factory where you hire young girls to paint the dials on glow in the dark watches, you encourage them to use their tongue and lips to repoint the little camel hair brushes that they use. And after a few years, they may not look much like angels any more. But you can still deny that your radioactive paint had anything to do with it. Because, apparently, although Jesus may have said, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” that has nothing to do with killing actual human beings in order to maximize profit. After all, “Business is business” trumps the Golden Rule. If you’re having trouble understanding that, maybe it will help if you learn to cross your eyes. Don’t learn to see too clearly though. No, we wouldn’t want that.
Radium Girls (in Wikipedia)
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