This August, I drove with my wife and son from Chicago to St. Louis to visit our first grandchild on his first birthday.  Nils is the son of Marcia’s daughter, Katie, and her husband, Dave.  It’s a five-hour drive.  We left at a little after 6:30 a.m.

I’m a big fan of the long-distance drive.  I went to college in Florida and frequently drove straight through from Chicago.  The experience was often accompanied by an altered state characterized by elation and a making of connections.  When my son, Elia, went to college in Asheville, North Carolina, I adored the ten round trips each year bringing him down or picking him up.  I often made the 10.5 hour trip with one stop.

On this St. Louis trip, I was concentrated on the collection of patterns or shapes for the video Elia and I were about to start.  In the video, I will narrate an explanation of neotenous human evolution while connecting that to social evolution and evolution in larger scales.  Accompanying the narration will be Elia’s music and photographs, and videos and images from other sources.  Before the trip to St. Louis, I collected from free-content CDs maybe 100 images, sorted into different shapes.  Those shapes, sorted into folders, included circles, concentric circles, crosses, curves, dots, eggs, grids, layers, lines, mesh, points, S-curves, screws, spheres, webs, spirals, spires, stacks, stairways, stripes, and the letters “U” and “V.”  In the background of the video will be patterns shifting from scale to scale (i.e., microscopic > our scale > aerial photo > global > solar system > galaxy and back down again).  The shifting in scales, in the background, will accompany explanation of neoteny as neoteny operates at different scales.

I was using the drive to St. Louis as a practice run for Elia’s and my following week-long drive down the Mississippi taking photos and video for the neoteny video.

I was driving down Highway 55.  Elia and Marcia were asleep.  I was soaking up pattern.

The world displayed itself as form.  Cruising down the highway, I experienced astonishment at the complex and ever-present variation in geometric pattern.  This was quite different from my drive down from Hayward, Wisconsin, a couple weeks before, a movement through a landscape featuring personality-filled characters and voices.  Nevertheless, in both cases, Hayward with characters, Highway 57 with pattern and form, I felt accompanied.  In both cases I was surrounded by the state of wonder.

Moving through an American landscape via highway, the various patterns that accompanied the road itself established a visual, musical cadence with the specific rhythms of dividing lines, road barriers, concrete road widths and automobile- and truck-design conventions.  Music, mostly rock, gently galloped through my mind’s rear.  At the same time, almost all accoutrements of civilization exhibited shape and pattern sortable by a number of different names, as in my list of folders.  Most powerful were the patterns emerging in nature as I whizzed by at 74 mph.  Rivers evidenced lines, circles, waves, curves, etc.  Clouds lined up in columns, clumps, stripes, dots and mesh.  Pattern seemed to be everywhere I looked.

At one point, I drove past a stack of abandoned truck chassis piled high along the road.  My attention was riveted.  I didn’t notice that the road was merging from three to two lanes.  I was about to merge into the car to my right.  I veered off the road and sped up, and then I merged back on the road, missing the car.  The car that was next to me was now behind me.  I looked in my rear view mirror.  He was giving me the finger.

I then realized there is no sign symbol for “I apologize” or “I’m sorry” or “I’m a doofas.”  The Sapir Whorf hypothesis came to mind, the thesis that a language controls cultural mental and behavior outcomes by channeling thought along the unique words and grammar that are that society’s convention.  In road sign language there is a very limited number of gestures, mostly reducing communication to expressions of offense.  I could have shrugged and held up my nondriving hand in the open palm, upward facing, universal across species as a gesture of placating.  But that could have been interpreted as “What’s the big deal?” or “Out of my control.”  Or, I could have used my nondriving hand to at first point at my head and then wave my index finger around in a circle.  This would have signaled that I was crazy.  That could have been interpreted as “I’m not a responsible individual” or “Don’t monkey with me.”

For years, I’ve been fascinated by how drivers with car horns attempt to communicate to each other with a single noise device.  Conventions have emerged.  A tap suggests the person in front be aware that there is a person behind him or her that he or she may not be aware of.  A longer tap expresses consternation.  A long leaning on the horn shares the honker’s anger.  Basically, with a car horn, we are reduced to the behavior of animals in a herd using a barely flexible modality to express emotion.

In cars, with gesture, it’s not much better.

I’d be curious to know differences in conventions around the world as regards the use of horns and gestures during driving.  Are there particularly articulate societies?

Back to pattern.  I’m an old hand at getting into altered states while driving.  I’ve never got into an accident on these occasions.  It is, of course, useful to stay aware of the driving community while occupying highway space.  Whether I’m soaking up pure pattern without symbolic overtones or I’m occasionally trying to express an idea or emotion to another driver that involves overlaying meaning on a symbol, in both cases I’m driving along playing with pattern.

Arriving in St. Louis, Marcia woke up.  Elia was still sleeping.  Marcia said, “Boy, that was a boring drive.”

I had no idea what to say.


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