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I got a call from Stuart last night. We don’t see each other in person as much as we used to, partly because of the virus, but mostly because we are old and long drives or flights are really hard on the knees. 

“I read your piece on threes,” he said (link here), “and I had a realization. In the past, you’ve written a lot about how we are all really two people — the public person, who is just one of seven billion others and of no real significance in the big scheme of things; and the interior person, who is the hero of our own story, and therefore central in existence.”

“Yes,” I said.

“And so, that is one more binary system, like hot and cold, or tall and short, or inside and outside. Our brains seem to like to divide things into pairs of opposites. Even though, as you say, hot and cold or tall and short  are really just the same thing, relative to each other.”

“Yes, that old, who is the shortest giant or the tallest dwarf. The sunspot is a cold spot on the sun, but it is still thousands of degrees Fahrenheit.”

“I think what you said was there’s the burning end of a cigar, and the cold end, but there’s really only one cigar.”

“Yes,” I acknowledged that I once said something of the sort — my gloss on the Tao. 

“But, I realized the experience of being alive can equally be seen as  made up of three parts,” Stuart said. “The experience, I say — the way we experience our lives.

“In the old days,” he continued, “we would call those three things ‘Man,’ ‘Nature,’ and ‘Soul,’ but those terms are freighted with religion and gender bias. I don’t like them. So, instead, I call them ‘humankind,’ ‘the universe,’ and  ‘the psyche.’ These three elements encompass our experience.”

“And ‘Nature’ conjures up too much flowers and trees and birds and bees,” I said. “It’s a term too cuddly for what you mean here, right?”

“Absolutely. I mean something closer to what Werner Herzog says about nature — the indifferent violence and coldness of the cosmos. 

“Let me take them one at a time,” Stuart said. “What I’m labeling as ‘Humankind’ is the societal and political mix, the way we fit into the ordering of the welter of human population. It includes such things as relationships — father and son, husband and wife, pastor and congregation, lord and serf, American and foreigner, really all of them you can name. It is what is between people. 

“This is essentially the same as your ‘just one of seven billion’ and is the public part of our existence. We are taxpayers, we are Catholics (or atheists), we are Tarheels or Mainers, we are children or senior citizens, Tory or Labor — “

“You’re getting kind of binary on me,” I said. 

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to. But these are all those interpersonal roles we have to play out daily and throughout our lives. 

“And none of any of this does the universe care a fig about. The universe is vast and operates on its own schedule and according to its own rules, none of which consider our human needs or desires. It is the universe that throws the dice as to whether we are born male or female; it is the universe that makes us work in the day and sleep at night; the universe that ends our life when it will. We think we have so much control, but in reality, we are able to nudge the universe only infinitesimally this way or that. In the last degree, the universe will do whatever it does. We don’t count.”

“It is the universe that took my Carole away from me five years ago. I had no choice.”

“Exactly,” Stuart said. “It’s something we just have to live with. The universe is an essential part of our experience of being alive and we accommodate to it. It makes no accommodation to us. 

“Then, there is the inner life we lead, as important as the other two, perhaps more important. It is not only the sense of ourselves as ourselves, but also, all the unconscious trash that we have to deal with that’s buried in the braincase, like superstition, hard-wired evolutionary neuronal structuring, the forgotten traumas of childhood that govern our choices in ways we’ll never know about, even that drive to see the world in patterns, patterns which may or may not actually be there.”

“Like constellations in the night sky,” I said. 

“Our brains force us to find patterns, it’s all part of the psyche.”

“But isn’t there some overlap in your system?” I asked. “You say, for instance, that family relationships are part of the ‘humankind’ portion of experience, but isn’t family also an archetype, a part of the built-in wiring of the psyche?” 

“In the terms I’m speaking of, I’m considering these as two separate things: the public understanding of family as a civic unit on one side; and the archetype of family as a mythic unit on the other. They may share a name, but they are very different things. There are quite a few examples of ideas that are seen differently through one of these three different lenses. There are even those who believe ‘family’ is a universal truth, although we know historically, families are constituted differently at different times in different cultures. 

“I expect you could look at most things through one of these different lenses and find quite different results. Even the ‘individual’ has a political significance that is different from its psychic significance. To say nothing of its insignificance in the wider universe.”

“But there is a significance to the universal individual,” I said. “It is the ancient problem of the one and the many. The universe may be infinite, but it is still made up of individual parts, be they people, planets, muons or quarks. Each may be observed separated from the matrix.” 

“I’m seeing it all through the psychic lens,” Stuart said. “And not through the objective lens of science. I’m talking about our experience of being alive. And looking up at the starry night sky can be understood through each of these lenses. As a societal matter, you are an astronomer in your social role, or you are a dreamer wasting time. Through the universal lens, you are an utterly insignificant speck of organic dust …”

“Or, you are the universe looking at itself.”

“Perhaps. But through the psychic lens, you are the center of the universe, and it all revolves around you, certainly out of your reach, but the psychic center of the universe is yourself — each of us his or her own center.”

“And you are knocked out of your ego-centered reverie, when you get a jury summons, throwing you back into the social web,” I said. “Or getting a traffic ticket, or punching in at work.”

“And getting knocked from that reverie when the universe sends you the message that arthritis is chaining up your knuckles, or that your once-new car is rusting out in its undercarriage.

“None of these three lenses is sufficient. We need them all out in our full selfhood, but they are each there, nonetheless, and can be teased out and thought about separately. I think a healthy personality keeps them all in balance. A juggling act.”

We talked about many other things, we usually do. It went on for about an hour. But this was the gist of the phone call, what I thought might be interesting to share. I miss Stuart and Genevieve in person. We had such good times. Isolation is not good. A curse on the universe for making us get old and for giving us viruses. 

Cartoonist Reg Manning said you could take in all of Arizona in three great bites. Manning was the Pulitzer-Prize winning political cartoonist for The Arizona Republic from 1948 to 1971. And he wrote a book, What is Arizona Really Like? (1968), a cartoon guide to the state for newcomers (he also wrote a cartoon guide to the prickly vegetation of the state, What Kinda Cactus Izzat? Both required reading for any Arizonan.) 

Anyway, his introduction to the state bites off three large chunks: the Colorado Plateau in the north; the mountainous middle; and the desert south. It is a convenient way to swallow up the whole, and works quite well. 

I spent a third of my life in Arizona and I traveled through almost every inch of the state, either on my own or for my newspaper, and I never found a better explanation of the state (and state of mind) than Manning’s book. Admittedly, the book can be a bit corny, but its basis is sound. 

But my life has been spent in other parts of the country as well, and I came to realize that Manning’s tripartite scheme could work quite as well for almost any state. 

I now live in North Carolina, which is traditionally split in three, with the Atlantic Coastal Plain in the east; the Piedmont in the middle; and the mountains in the west. The divisions are quite distinct geologically: The escarpment of the Blue Ridge just up from the Piedmont, and the coastal plain begins with the Fall Line — a series of dams, rapids and waterfalls that long ago provided the power for industry. 

But that is hardly the only example. I grew up in New Jersey, which could easily be split into the crowded suburban north, where I grew up; the almost hillbilly south, which is actually below the Mason-Dixon Line, and where the radio is full of Country-Western stations (and who can forget the “Pine Barrens” episode of The Sopranos?); and finally, the Jersey Shore, a whole distinct universe of its own. 

And when I lived in Seattle, Washington state was clearly divided into the empty, dry east; the wet, populated coast; divided by the Cascade Mountains. Oregon was the same. It divided up politically the same way: a redneck east, a progressive west, and a mountain barrier between. 

So, I began looking at other states I knew fairly well. South Carolina and Georgia follow North Carolina with its mountains (“upcountry” in South Carolina), its Piedmont and its coast. Even Alabama does, although its coastal plain borders the Gulf of Mexico. 

Florida has its east coast; its west coast; and its panhandle — all quite distinct in culture. Michigan has its urban east, its rural west and then, hardly part of the state, the UP — Upper Peninsula. There’s lakefront Ohio, riverfront Ohio and farmland Ohio. 

Maine has a southern coast that is prosperous and filled with tourists; a northern coast (“Down East”), which is sparsely populated and mostly poor; and a great interior, which is all lakes, forests and potatoes. 

Massachusetts has its pastoral western portion, with its hills and mountains; its urban east, centered on Boston; and then there’s Cape Cod, a whole different universe. 

Heck, even Delaware, as tiny as it is, has its cities in the north, its farms on the Delmarva Peninsula and its vacationland ocean shores. 

Go smaller still. Draw a line down the center of Rhode Island and everything to the west of the line might as well be Connecticut. For the rest, Providence eats up the northern part and south of that, Rhode Island consists of islands in Narraganset Bay. 

Colorado has its Rocky Mountains and its eastern farmlands, separated by the sprawling Denver metropolitan area. 

But I don’t want to go through every state. I leave that to you. Indiana has its rural south, its urban midlands with Indianapolis, and that funky post-industrial portion that is just outside Chicago. Oy. 

Yet, as I looked at that first state, defined by Manning’s cartoons, I realized that each third of Arizona could be subdivided into its own thirds. This was getting to be madness. 

The Colorado Plateau is one-third Indian reservation, both Navajo and Hopi; one-third marking the southern edge of northern Arizona in what might be called the I-40 corridor of cities and towns from Holbrook through Flagstaff and on through Williams to Kingman; and a final third that encompasses the Grand Canyon and the remote Arizona Strip. 

The mountainous middle third of the state includes the Mogollon Rim and its mountain retreats, such as Payson; another third that is the Verde Valley; and a finishing touch the Fort Apache and San Carlos Indian reservations.

Finally, in the south and west, there is the urban spread from just north of Phoenix and continuing south through Tucson and that nowadays continues almost to Nogales and Mexico; there is the Chihuahuan Desert portions in the southeast, from Douglas through the Wilcox Playa; and in the southwest, the almost empty desert including the Tohono O’odham Indian Reservation, the Barry Goldwater bombing range, and up to the bedraggled haven of trailer parks that is Quartzsite. And no, I’m not forgetting Yuma. 

It’s a sort of “rule of thirds” applied to geography. It seems almost any bit of land can be sliced in three. Phoenix itself, as a metro area, has the East Valley, including Mesa, Scottsdale and Tempe; central Phoenix (which itself is divided into north Phoenix, the central Phoenix downtown, and the largely Hispanic south Phoenix), and the West Valley, which nowadays perhaps goes all the way up through Sun City to Surprise. 

Here in North Carolina, the Coastal Plain runs through the loblolly pines and farmland of eastern North Carolina; into the swampy lowlands of marshy lakes and tidal rivers; and on to the Outer Banks and the ocean. Another tri-partite division. The Piedmont has its 1) Research Triangle; 2) its Tri-city area of Greensboro, High Point and Winston-Salem (extending out to Statesville and Hickory); and 3) the Charlotte metro area; and the mountains include first the northern parts of the Blue Ridge, around Boone and Linville Falls; second, the Asheville area, which is a blue city in a red state; and finally the southern mountains around the Great Smokies. Thirds, thirds, thirds. 

Even Asheville, itself, comes in three varieties: East Asheville (where I live); downtown (where the drum circle is); and West Asheville (where the hippies live). West Asheville is actually south of downtown. Why? I dunno. 

You can go too far with this and I’m sure that I have. After all, it’s really rather meaningless and just a game. But you can divide California into thirds in three completely different ways. 

First, and too easily, there is Southern California; central California; and northern California. Each has its culture and its political leanings. But you can also look at it as desert California, including Death Valley and Los Angeles; mountain California, with the Sierra Nevada running like a spine down the long banana-shaped state; and populated California north of LA and in the Central Valley. 

Finally, you can split California into rural, farming California, that feeds the nation from the Central Valley; wilderness California with deserts and mountains; and entertainment California, from Hollywood and LA up through San Francisco and Skywalker Ranch (and all the wine) that keeps America preoccupied with vino et circenses

The U.S. as a whole is often looked at as the East, the Midwest and the West. The East then subdivides as the Northeast, the Middle Atlantic States and the South; The Midwest has its Rust Belt, its Corn Belt, and its Wheat Belt. The West has its Rocky Mountain States, its Pacific Coast states and, well, Texas. 

And, I suppose if you look at the world in toto, you have the West, including Europe, North America and Australia; you have Asia, or the East, which includes China, Asian Russia, and most of the Muslim nations; and the Third World, which comprises most of the rest. You can quibble over Japan as Asian or a First World Nation; and India seems caught between, with growing prosperity and growing poverty at the same time. 

These distinctions are coarse and could well be better defined and refined. And I mean nothing profound — or even very meaningful — with this little set of observations. It is an exercise in a habit of thinking. If anything, I just mean it as a counterbalance to the binary cultural prejudice of splitting everything up into pairs. There is a countervailing cultural pattern that prefers threes to twos. I wrote about this previously in a different context (link here). 

We think in patterns, and well-worn templates. But the world doesn’t often present itself in patterns. The world lacks boundary lines and the universe is a great smear of infinite variety. The mental template allows us to organize what is not, in reality, organized. The most pervasive template is the binary one, but we are entering an increasingly non-binary culture. Of course, thirds is only one alternative pattern. Perhaps best is to ignore patterns and look fresh at evidence. 

The patterns are roadmaps for thought, and we can too easily take the easy route and fit the evidence to the pattern rather than the reverse.