Hark the herald angels sing. It’s the season of hope, of birth, peace on earth and good will toward men — and angels we have heard on high.
I am a skeptic, especially about that peace on earth and good will equation. But I am no longer so quick to scoff at those angels heard from on high — even if, in my case, the angelic words were simply “Turn the ampersand into a pretzel.”
Let me tell you a little story that won’t work its way into any preacher’s sermon this Christmas Eve, but might at least keep the heathen entertained during these darkest days of winter and offer some hope that a little guiding light can sometime light the path ahead.
My story begins about two years ago when Stan Kephart, the graphic artist who had designed our covers for more than 20 years, suddenly died. The task of designing the covers fell on me, a word man, not a picture man. I was lucky in the first few weeks after Stan died. We had already commissioned photographs that would dominate page 1. All I had to do was come up with headlines and captions and figure out where best to place them. The first issue of the new year, 2008, was the annual Survival Guide issue, and we had a story on creative thinking in the workplace. A stock photo of a light bulb filled the space and got me off the hook.
But the next issue, January 9, 2008, stymied me. The cover story was on the Snack Factory, the Montgomery Knoll-based business that had nationwide success with its line of pretzel snacks. We had a nice photo of the couple who own the business, surrounded by samples of their snacks. And I had a rather obvious headline: “Pretzels & Profits.” But there was nothing to jump off the page.
I got the feeling lots of people in business get: Why the hell does this have to be so hard? Why does everything fall on me? What I needed to do, I decided, was to think like Stan, the picture guy, not like me, the word guy. I tried to put myself in Stan’s place. I turned away from the image on the computer screen. At that moment I thought I heard a voice coming from the right: “Turn the ampersand into a pretzel.”
I thought I heard a voice, but there was no one there. But sure enough, as I looked back at the screen there was that ampersand that could be replaced with a pretzel — the perfect graphic for a company built around pretzels.
I must be channeling Stan, I told my colleagues, half seriously. Channeling or not, I decided to consciously try to change my thinking patterns when I was working on covers, trying to deal in images rather than words. Even though I never did hear another voice, my “channeling” of Stan sometimes worked, and other times didn’t. But I got absorbed enough in the process that I forgot about the initial voice I heard.
The next time I heard a voice related to this subject was a real live one, over the phone from a friend who had been browsing through new releases at Barnes & Noble and had picked up “The Third Man Factor” by John Geiger. The friend, Jim Britt, has an uncanny knack for connecting dots between seemingly unrelated people. In this case, Britt discovered, Geiger had relied on my old friend Julian Jaynes for part of his discussion of the “third man” factor, the phenomenon of people under extreme duress — trapped on Mount Everest, lost at sea, pinned under rubble at the World Trade Center on 9/11 — reporting another entity joining them in their struggle, offering advice and encouragement.
You could chalk it up to angels we have heard on high — and many people do. Or it could be a psychological phenomenon or neurological aberration. Or you could consider the still startling theory of the late Princeton University professor Jaynes, explained in his controversial 1976 book, “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind.”
“Jaynes is a controversial figure because of his theory that consciousness, as we now understand it, is a late development in human evolutionary history,” Geiger writes. Jaynes postulated that “until about 3,000 years ago, the human brain was divided into a right-brain ‘god-side,’ which appeared like an omnipotent being or authority figure, dispensing admonitory advice and commands by way of visual and auditory hallucinations, and a left-brain ‘man-side,’ which appeared to be a supplicant, listening and obeying. ‘All early civilizations we know of seem to have been ruled by such hallucinations or gods,’ Jaynes argued.”
Jaynes, who died in 1997 at the age of 77 (www.julianjaynes.org), not only set an historical context for the third man factor, but he noted contemporary instances of it. “Jaynes pointed to an example in which normally conscious individuals have experienced vestiges of bicameral mentality, notably ‘shipwrecked sailors during the war who conversed with an audible God for hours until they were saved.’ In other words,” writes Geiger, the third man factor “emerges in normal people confronting high stress and stimulus reduction in extreme environments.”
Extreme environment? My office is pretty cluttered, but the heat works and the sun rises every morning. Stimulus reduction? It’s true that I don’t get out much, but I am awash in stories and pictures and headlines to be squeezed into every issue. High stress? Possibly. Deadlines are always stressful, and the holiday season is another stress factor for all of us.
So I am listening, always listening, for a voice that might lead the way out of this immediate bind I am in. But I am not counting on hearing any unaccountable voices anytime soon. Instead, I will treasure the memory of old friends and enjoy the company of current friends who help me stay connected. It’s no great miracle. But what more could my wish list contain?
Chris Christie P.S.: Our light-hearted efforts to encourage the governor-elect to lose some weight did not sit well with some readers, who communicated by E-mail and online postings. The complaints fell into three categories: 1.) My column was another example of the liberal media taking shots at conservative politicians; 2.) the governor’s personal fitness is a trivial concern compared to the pressing issues of the state; and 3.) the subject of one’s weight is off-limit in any civilized discourse.
We will print highlights of the debate in the January 6 issue. And readers are invited to weigh in (if you will pardon the phrase): firstname.lastname@example.org.