The clouds were spectacular, all day. It don’t get no gooder than that.
Just when I think I have things figured out about my life and about life in general, I find out I’ve got some of the stuff all wrong.
That happened to me, yet again, last week.
On Tuesday, I went to Calgary to see an allergist to whom I was referred last summer. I was absolutely convinced that canola blossoms were my worst enemy. And the canola-blossom season is just beginning, again.
I’d never met the allergist before and knew nothing about him. But when I met him I really, really liked him. He struck me as one of those amazing human beings you only bump into occasionally.
But let me put all this in context.
Decades ago I was diagnosed with allergies. A very specific diagnosis at the time. I was allergic to paper dust, for example, but not to nasal tissue. And various doctors have reaffirmed those allergies repeatedly over the years.
So for all of those decades I’ve heavily subsidized the antihistamine industries. And I’ve tried to stay indoors as much as possible in the spring and fall when I believed I was most vulnerable to allergic reactions.
I was also diagnosed a few decades ago with asthma, although it didn’t seem to interfere that much with my half-marathons and marathons. The doctors laid part of the blame for my asthma on my having worked at Fiberglas Canada in Sarnia, Ontario, where the air in my section of the plant sparkled with fiberglass dust. And back then we didn’t know we should be wearing masks.
Then last summer I was diagnosed with COPD, even though I’d quit smoking almost fifty years ago.
My family doctor took one look at the report about my COPD and immediately offered to prescribe an inhaler. But I said I wasn’t sure I needed one yet.
Now get this! Pay close attention! The allergist I saw last Tuesday in just under half an hour, under thirty minutes, that’s 3 – 0, tested me for the forty-eight things people are most often allergic to. And I don’t have allergies. None at all. I’m non-atopic.
And I don’t have asthma.
And I don’t have COPD. He gave me a copy of the printout from his blow-into-me-really-hard!-harder!!-harder!!! machine and is sending a report to my family doctor.
My lung functionality is significantly better than average.
Did that throw me? Yes. Did that alter my understanding of my life and life in general? Yes. Is canola my number-one enemy? We don’t know at this point.
Apparently, I have very sensitive skin. And they’re going to do more testing to try to figure out why I’m reacting so strongly to things such as cardboard and canola.
But I do NOT have either the allergies or the asthma that I have had for decades. And I do NOT have the COPD that I have had for a year. What I’ve believed was true for most of my life, isn’t. Thank goodness.
Am I angry with those doctors who told me I had allergies and asthma? Absolutely not. They did their best with the science available to them at the time.
Don’t forget, those doctors back then made those diagnoses decades before we learned about such things as atopic versus non-atopic, and brain plasticity, and DNA plasticity.
Recently we’ve been learning that we’re not nearly as predetermined as we thought we were. With brain plasticity and DNA plasticity, we change minute by minute. We used to think that the genes we got from our parents were fixed, and that they determined who we are. And that they probably set us up for such things as allergies, and asthma, and cravings for Tim Horton’s donuts.
But epigenesists are discovering that our environment and our activities regularly turn our genes on and off. Now particular ones are working. Now they’re not.
They’re discovering that for the most part we control our genes. They don’t control us, at least not in the way we thought they did.
That, of course, makes us responsible for who we are and who we’re going to become. Because we choose our environment and because we choose our activities, we can no longer blame our genes. No more offloading.
That takes the old existential adage “You are what you do” to a whole new level that is much more profound.
Minute by minute, our choices turn particular genes on or off, and our choices reorganize the neural networks in our brain.
Wowzer, as Randy would say.
But more of that in my next post, Post 17a, where I’ll refer to three world-class scientists and their TED TALKS.
In my novel, Randy experiences the same kind of mind-blowing epiphanies about himself and his world that I experienced last Tuesday in Calgary. What Randy and I thought was true, isn’t. And we were both thrown by that. We’d both suddenly learned that the world as we’d known it is, in a very large part, bogus.
A note: Randy uses a lot of jargon and drops letters from words. He doesn’t enunciate the final g in words ending in ing, for example. I’m trying to write down his words the way I’m hear him say them, but in the end, I might not do that. Or I might. Or not.
Back to Randy: In January ’78, he is trying to explain a couple of his mind-blowing epiphanies to Jillian. He starts out by talking about Plato’s “The Cave.”
“OK. So far, accordin ta Plato, w’re all born inta mindless slavery, and we know nothin about reality. Only shadows and illusions. But I think it goes far, far beyond that. Plato falls short cause he’s a rationalist who lives in a bullshit world of perfect forms.
“I suggest that even if we weren’t born in Plato’s cave, and even if we weren’t totally socialized, there’s still no way we could ever know if there’s such a thing as a real and objective reality. Ever.
“Rationalist, like Plato, jus make up goofy realities and then pretend they’re real.
“So here’s what’s really real, J. We can only know things through our five senses. We can only have our sense perceptions of reality, but never reality itself. Only sense perceptions. And if all our senses are flawed, which they always are, always, always, our overall perception of reality hasta be totally wacko.
“Cause if ya add a person’s flawed seein, ta his flawed tastin, ta his flawed hearin, ta his flawed touchin, ta his flawed smellin, that package of flawed perceptions creates a totally subjective reality.
“That means each person’s world is totally unique. No one else can ever live in it with him. The total population of his world is one. And the total population of my world is one. And the total population of yr world is one. You and I live in different worlds, J.”
At this point, Jillian says she doesn’t think she agrees, but asks him to explain all that in a different way to help her understand more clearly what he’s getting at. He does, and here’s her response:
“Cripes, Randy. Dump out the rest of that beer.”
“Jus listen. You don’t see things in exactly, totally exactly, the same way I do. Or hear things, or taste things, or touch things, or smell things, in exactly the same way I do. Close sometimes, but no cigars. And when we add in our perceptual filters, w’re not talkin about different worlds, J. W’re talkin about different universes.”
“No, listen. The good stuff’s jus comin up.
“OK. The first time I ever heard about things like this was from a friend I once had who was studyin ophthalmology. He told me that some scholars claim El Greco maybe painted his people tall and thin cause he had astigmatisms. They think that’s how he really saw people. Tall and thin.
“Others disagree, though. They call that the El Greco fallacy. But, from my own experience, what my friend said coulda bin right. Maybe wasn’t, but coulda bin.
“And I’ve got two great examples of how I found out that my perceptions of reality were seriously flawed. What I had assumed was an objective reality, common ta everyone, turned out ta be a fiction created by flaws in one of my senses. Namely, my eyes.
“Here’s what happened. Total proof of what I’m sayin.
“In grade twelve, I sometimes had a cuppa tea with my mom when I got home from school. One day, in the spring, I put on her glasses, which were sittin on the kitchen table, and I looked out the window at the half-dozen apple trees that were bloomin in our yard. I was totally blown away. Totally fuckin speechless. Beyond speechless. Beyond confused. I took off her glasses and looked at them. Then I looked out the window. Then I put her glasses back on.
“Up till that particular moment, at that particular table, on that particular day, everythin in my world beyond thirty or forty feet was a lot like an impressionistic watercolor paintin. A pastel wash. A tree a hundred feet away was a wash of green roundness sittin on a delicate smear of black that rose up from a wash of green flatness.
“And I assumed that was normal.
“I had no idea that others could clearly and distinctly see a tree a hundred feet away as havin a trunk with branches, and leaves, and blossoms.
“But with mom’s glasses, I could also see the details of an individual dandelion on the lawn. Not jus wet-on-wet splashes of yellow on a wash of pastel green.
“By the way, are ya noticin how much I know about art? Art’s wonderful, J. It helps us understand truth and reality.” [As an FYI – Jillian is an artist, and a few minutes earlier Randy inadvertently made a comment that suggested art was useless.]
She stuck her finger in her mouth and pretended to gag. He faked a scowl.
“Anyway, later that evenin, I became totally upset when I suddenly realized the implications of what’d happened. The world as I’d known it was, in part, in a very large part, bogus. It was simply a fiction that had bin created by a defect in one of my senses. One. And I have five senses. All flawed. They’d hafta be.
“I felt disoriented, even betrayed. Strange, right?”
“That is a little scary, Randy. If, as you say, your world went from a watercolor wash to a hard-lined photograph in a nanosecond, what other surprises might there be?”
“Well, here’s another little surprise for ya. As a project in a third-year psychology class, I tested my classmates, about sixty of them, for color blindness. Instead of usin the answer key for the test plates, though, I simply eyeballed everythin. And I was shocked ta learn that mosta the class was color-blind.
“I assumed, of course, that the numbers I’d seen amongst those colored dots were the correct ones, and that my classmates had seen the wrong ones. But when I showed my test results ta Harvey, my roommate, he suggested maybe I oughta go get the answer key.
“I did. And in a matter of seconds, I learned that yet another chunk of my reality was bogus. I was color-blind, blue-yellow. That meant the colors I saw were not the colors most other people saw. And given the different degrees and kinds of color blindness, and given that each color has an almost infinite range of tints and shades and tones, probly my colors were totally unique ta me and ta me alone.
“Hoy, J. Are ya noticin the art terms I’m still tossin off?” He wasn’t sure what they meant, but he’d heard Roz use them and hoped they fit in somehow.
“Anyway, the point I’m makin is that if all five of a person’s sense are flawed, and if each is flawed in a slightly different way from everyone else’s, then no two people ever perceive reality in exactly the same way. And remember, J, perception of reality is all we’ve got. We can never know reality itself, if there even is such a thing.
“Ergo, we all do live alone in our own unique worlds. We hafta.
“But that made me start wonderin if each person’s understandin of truth is unique. It would hafta be. Wouldn’t it? My truths in my world would hafta be unique ta me.
“But when I told Harvey how I was feelin about all this, he told me not ta worry about it. He said I was havin an ontological nightmare, whatever that meant.
“I jus nodded and pretended I knew.
“Up till those two revelations, I’d never thought much about reality. And if people said things that didn’t make sense ta me, I simply ignored them. But myopia and color blindness have made me much more cautious and much humbler when I talk about things with other people. I realized that what I think is true might very well not be for them.
“What makes a wise man wise, Socrates says, is that he knows he knows nothin. Maybe, J, I’ve become a bit wiser cause of all this. Maybe. I hope so.”
Some of you who know me might have said up above, “Hey! Harvey? He was your roommate in residence at Western. I thought you were Charlie.”
And I am Charlie. But I’m also Randy, and Jillian, and Roz, and Wayne, and BJ. And I am all of the minor characters, as well.
I suspect that many of the people who write literature, as opposed to airport novels, would say that they, too, are every one of their characters. They’d have to be because their characters come to them from their unconscious minds.
When Flaubert, as one example, was asked about Madame Bovary, who’s the central character in his novel Madame Bovary, he simply said, “Madame Bovary, c’est moi.” She is me.
That knowing-I’m-all-my-characters has been one of the most interesting things about my writing. As each of the characters came to me from my unconscious, I learned more and more and more about who I am, and what I believe, and who I want to become.
So the storal of this mory is, if YOU are curious about yourself, who you are and who you want to become, then . . ..
PS If you questioned what Randy was saying about each of us living alone, not only in different worlds but in different universes, you might want to check out the following 2016 TED TALK “What reality are you creating for yourself?” by Isaac Lindsky. It’s only ten minutes.
He goes well beyond what Randy is saying about the physical flaws in our sense perceptions.
It’s one of the more popular talks. Two-and-a-half-million people have watched it: https://www.ted.com/talks/isaac_lidsky_what_reality_are_you_creating_for_yourself#
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