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Blue Highways: Fall River Mills and McArthur, California

Unfolding the Map

A little change today, Littourati!  I usually put the current map in this space in the post.  But I thought it might make more sense to put the map on one of the sidebars.  At any time, you can get to the current map by clicking on the thumbnail at the top of the left sidebar.  Today's post is about mistakes as William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) writes about the importance of error as a gateway to personal exploration, all set in the forgotten (by LHM, at least) towns of Fall River Mills and McArthur.  Remember, to see where they are, explore the map!

Book Quote

"If a man can keep alert and imaginative, an error is a possibility, a chance at something new: to him, wandering and wondering are part of the same process, and he is most mistaken, most in error, whenever he quits exploring.

"...I had driven through Fall River Mills and McArthur, and I couldn't remember a thing about them.  If I were going off on some blue highway of the mind, I should have pulled over."

Blue Highways: Part 6, Chapter 1

Fall River Mills, California. Photo by Roy Latham and hosted at City Data. Click on photo to go to site.

Fall River Mills and McArthur, California

I wrote in my last post that I was going to continue on a certain theme, but given the subject of the quote above, I'm also going to examine a couple of other things as well.  My original intent was to write about the speed at which we can take life.  My point was that, and it won't come as a surprise to most of you, if you careen headlong through life at a fast pace, you can't fully experience life and the things that give it meaning.  In essence, this is my struggle at this point in my own life, and I'm really trying to slow down and give myself the opportunity to enjoy things that I would otherwise have missed.  I feel like I've missed many things.  Like LHM, who drives through Fall River Mills and McArthur and doesn't remember them, I have taken part in various events and happenings and find myself struggling to remember what they were.  Sometimes, I might forget at the end of the week what I had done at the beginning of the week.  That is no way to appreciate life - instead, it only serves to leave one at the end of one's life with no satisfying memories to take with them as they go.

But, LHM puts out a very interesting thesis in his passage that I quote above.  He posits that only through error does humanity give itself a chance to grow.  To repeat, it is our mistakes that make us capable of becoming better people.

Think about that for a moment.  All the mistakes you have made - and I am addressing this to you, all of you Littourati who happen to be reading this - have been opportunities for self-awareness and growth.  Those mistakes include the little mistake that you made in balancing your checkbook or the small error in judgment that caused someone to be angry with you.  They also include the deep, dark mistakes that have made you ashamed, and that may have left some of you questioning at times whether you are, in fact, a good person.

There's are a couple of caveats here, of course.  The first caveat is that once the mistake has been made, you have to be willing to learn from it and act either correct the error or at least make sure it doesn't happen again.  If you balanced your checkbook wrong, then instead of saying "screw it" and living with the anomaly, you figure out what you did wrong and learn ways to avoid doing it again.  If you made an error in judgment, you gain awareness, say "I'm sorry" to the person to whom you must apologize, and recognize how to avoid such situations in the future.  If it is one of those deep dark mistakes, you must explore it, reveal to yourself what lay behind your actions and why you made the bad choice you did, and use it as a springboard to make your amends in whatever way is best.

The second caveat is that you have to recognize that errors are a part of life, that we all make them, that life would be unbalanced without them, and that you have to give yourself some slack because you're the only person capable of doing so consistently.

As a political scientist, I have been trained in the scientific method, a major component of which is being aware of and understanding error.  In science, error is a bad thing, and I'm going against my training when I suggest that errors can be positive.  There are two types of error: those introduced by the experimentor and those that are randomly occurring.  The first type of error is the one that you try to avoid.  The second type of error is deemed to be ever present and you cannot completely erase it.  A scientist tries to minimize the random errors and compensate for those that occur.  An arbitrary number that scientists often use is 95%.  If error can be reduced to plus or minus 5%, meaning that you will get the same result 95 times out of every 100 tests, then you have made your point - there is an excellent probability that you are right.  For example, let's say I theorize that daily head scratching leads to hair loss.  If I test that theory, and find that in at least 95% of cases that daily head scratching correlated with increased hair loss, then I can claim that I have discovered a probable cause of hair loss and recommend that people stop scratching their heads.  If, however, I show that hair loss is only associated with daily head scratching 60% of the time, then I have a much weaker theory. 

The errors that the scientist can control if he or she is careful are those errors that might be associated with the testing.  Using the example of the silly experiment above, perhaps people have a chemical on their fingernails that is what actually leads to the hair loss.  Or perhaps the experiment used people with a baldness gene that would have lost their hair anyway.  These are errors that come about because the scientist hasn't sufficiently thought through his or her theory or experiment.

My training has been all about ways to minimize error.  It's true that randomly occurring errors can be controlled.  We all know that there are effects of our choices and decisions that can't be anticipated.  However, we are going to make errors that had we though a little more, we might have predicted and avoided.  But does that mean errors are completely bad?  There is something to error, to mistakes, that has value.  Imagine a life without error.  It would be pretty boring.  Most of our media would have nothing to report on.  Reality TV wouldn't exist.  Tragedy and comedy would cease to lose their meaning, if they existed at all.  Without error, we would not need to try anything, because whatever we tried would succeed instantly, the first time.  It sounds great, but where's the probability for growth?

A child learns to succeed through trial and error.  We continue that process throughout our lives, discarding efforts that lead nowhere and using them to learn and create other efforts that will succeed.  The success of the human race has been built on maximizing our learning through error.  Nature uses trial and error through the evolutionary process - or if you will, in the Abrahamic traditions God cast out Adam and Eve from Eden because of their errors and we have been making mistakes and redeeming ourselves since.

Personally, I have committed many errors.  I've learned from them all, even if it has been painful to do so.  In the process, I like to think that I become a better person.  I have seen some who steadfastly refuse to learn from their errors - they may even refuse to admit they make them - and so continue making the same errors throughout life.  Such people sow discord and cause pain for families, friends, and relationships in a constantly destructive pattern.  I hope that I am not one of those people.  I believe that I possess the character and the will to admit mistakes and correct them as much as possible.  Those that I don't correct, I also will be doomed to repeat throughout my life.

As LHM observes, to explore is to allow oneself the opportunity to both make mistakes, and to correct them.  It is the ongoing cycle of life, yet another circle to add to the myriads of circles that make up our existences, and I believe it is the reason why we are here.  I can think of no better way to bow out, at the end of my life somewhere in the future, than being able to say to myself and others:  "I made mistakes, I explored why I made them, I corrected them, and I learned about myself."

Musical Interlude

I'm going to out myself.  I've never been a real Elvis Costello fan.  I guess I was never introduced to him when other people were discovering him.  I knew a couple of songs, like Alison, which didn't grab me too much.  But in searching around my collection, I ran across this song by Elvis Costello and the Attractions called Brilliant Mistake.  This YouTube version makes the key sound transposed up one from the original, but it's the lyrics that count.  Enjoy!


If you want to know more about Fall River Mills and McArthur

Fall River Valley Chamber of Commerce
Mountain Echo (Newspaper) McArthur
Wikipedia: Fall River Mills
Wikipedia: McArthur

Next up: Bieber, California

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