We tend to call something an “experiment” if it satisfies either of two conditions. One, it has the properties we associate with lab science: controlled conditions, hypotheses about what might eventuate, careful observation—everything associated with “scientific method.” Two, it has none of these properties explicitly and we distance expectations from ourselves by calling something “a leap in the dark,” “a flyer,” “a long shot,” or “a throw of the dice.”
Still, everything we do is an experiment of sorts. For example, in raising children, from day one, we haven’t a clue how they’ll respond to us. We watch, perpetuate what works, go back to the drawing boards on what doesn’t. We adapt, monitor the process, attend to outcomes, adapt again when what works ceases working. The same applies getting to know anyone, including yourself; being a teacher or student; a shrink or patient. Life is a long series of experiments. They become leaps in the dark when we cease being conscious of who we are and why we’re doing things.
In summer, we went to Cape Cod. I remembered another summer when one night, after a morning of digging clams, the sky turned blood red. Would I ever see a sky like that again? We returned to the same beach, by day and by night, but not every day or every night. The old magic returned, but not solely by chance. I had to position myself to find the right angles, to watch the human actors perform against the background of moored ships and evolving sky. But, without movement, we can’t appreciate stillness. If we fail to watch for unintended changes in our ability to capture a phenomenon—in words, in pictures, in sounds—in this case, the effects of the rising and falling sun on the beach and its waters, we can’t experience surprise at the unintended. That is an essential aspect of any experiment: being alert for the unintended and, if negative, finding ways to prevent it and, if positive, capitalizing on it. Whether we engage in deliberate behavior or spend much of our lives “winging it,” we’re living a series of experiments, some more consciously than others.
After retiring in early 2015 from a career in public health research, Jim Ross experimented by using creative activities to resuscitate his long-neglected right brain. Pleased with the experience, he perpetuated, and adapted. He’s since published over 50 pieces of creative nonfiction, several poems, and 180 photographs in over 60 literary magazines in North America, Europe, and Asia. He and his wife—parents of two health professionals and grandparents of four toddlers—split their time between Maryland and West Virginia.