Copyright © 2008.

In consciousness, where time is the signature of the observer, space is the signature of the actor, the doer, the mover. Both of which we are—observers and actors—often at the same time. Consciousness is the domain where these two aspects of the self work together in coordinating those sensory changes due to events in the world with those changes due to our own actions. If we don’t keep the two straight in our minds, we can’t tell ourselves from the world, and so get confused. Are you crazy, or is it me?


It’s snowing in Acadia National Park, with two feet already on the ground. I’m climbing Sargent Mountain on snowshoes. No blazes to show the way, no ruts in the snow, no familiar landmarks: I’ve mislaid the trail. Here I am in thick, sloping woods somewhere between the Hadlock Brook Trail below and Sargent South Ridge Trail above. If I keep going up, I know I’ll cross that ridge trail. Excelsior!

          Up through the storm, navigating among black stems of spruce. Rock wall; now where? Go left—blocked. Right—up and around the wall. Up, up winding between trees, making my own route. I could follow my tracks down if I had to. Being lost, I look with new eyes. Flying snow, sloping terrain, dark trees. Beauty all around me. Nature herself in ermine cape.

          After an hour, I top a ridge and see a single bare stone floating on a drift, its coat of snow blown away by the wind. I know what that is—digging down, yes, a three-foot mound of stones, a cairn marking the ridge trail. Beyond that line of spruce over there, I’ll bet the ridge falls abruptly into the Amphitheater. Past that, the western slope of Penobscot. I plunge through the trees, and there, the most awesome sight I have seen in Acadia—a ghostly mountain flank rising from a gulf seen through snow streaking horizontally, misting and mystifying the air, creating a scene of wild magnificence. Where is everybody? I’m the only one here.

          The transition from being lost to being found is so abrupt, the scene, though I’ve never seen anything like it, hits me with a rush of familiarity. I am found, indeed! Not theoretically, but in deed. Without a map, I know exactly where I am. X marks the spot on the chart I carry in my head.


Consciousness comes in handy when you are lost in the woods. When you’re turned-around and disoriented. It heightens your senses and helps you turn every sound, sight, and smell into a clue to your situation—what’s happening around you and where you are in the world. No need to panic. You’re having an adventure. That is, if you anticipated getting lost and come prepared (expectancy, judgment, and preparation are major aspects of consciousness).


Sense of place also comes into play when you know where you are, but some one (or some thing) else is missing. You can stay there and wait, or go looking for them. You start from their last known location, and, putting yourself in their state of mind, navigate from there. It isn’t easy replicating the consciousness of someone else—or of a member of another species entirely, as I discovered during the two years I spent tracking horseshoe crabs in Egypt Bay.


GPS unit and hydrophone in hand, I know exactly where I am in my boat, but where are they—the six male and seven female horseshoe crabs fitted with sonar transmitters last June when they came ashore to mate? I don’t know it yet, but I’m trying to think like one of those crabs—to enter its frame of mind in order to figure out where it might have gone after our last encounter. I go to the coordinates where I located one a few days ago, put hydrophone in the water, rotate it full circle, and listen for a faint series of clicks in my headphones to tell me it’s still in the vicinity. Total silence. Shut off the motor and listen really hard. Nothing. Scan the horizon 360 degrees. If I were a horseshoe crab, which way would I go? Novice tracker that I am, I haven’t a clue. Every heading looks the same. To me, their movements seem random.

After months of playing this game, I begin to develop a sense of horseshoe crab motivation. The first year taught me that the crabs in this bay (at the northern limit of their range) spend late November through mid-April hibernating in the mud among eelgrass beds, clams, sea worms, and mussels. Then they rouse themselves in response to increasing light and/or water temperature, eat a hearty meal, and begin their upslope climb from channel edges to gravelly shores where they gather to mate starting mid-to-late May. After mating, they stay in the warm shallows for a month, probably feeding, then make the return trip to deeper waters. Once I understand that cycle, I try to gauge the topography of the bottom, and pursue my quarry farther up or down slope, depending on the season. Slowly, I develop a sense of the routes horseshoe crabs might take at any particular time of year. Once I see that their travels are not random, finding them gets much easier. It’s no longer me alone in my boat. Now it’s me and the crabs and the wind and the waves and the current and the sun in this particular place.


Consciousness synchronizes sensory world-changes and motor self-changes, which, given the complexity of the situations we get ourselves into—like getting lost in the woods, or chasing after horseshoe crabs, or dancing for that matter—is a tall order. The cerebellum, one of the original parts of the vertebrate brain, used to be seen as fine-tuner of muscle control. But, too, it receives sensory input, so, with the prefrontal cortex at the opposite end of the brain, may well be one of the locations in our heads where world-changes and self-changes are distinguished in order that we conduct ourselves sensibly in a world we cannot control. Or put differently, that we conduct ourselves sensibly by acting in harmony with the world, not against it. We jump and catch the speeding ball in our mitt, never thinking we are performing a miracle. Never thinking of muscles and nerves and time and space. We just do it. Our consciousness at that moment is who we are.


We take it for granted we can walk through woods without crashing into trees, pursue quarry across almost any kind of terrain without losing it, or cross busy city streets at one rate of speed while cars and trucks bear down upon us at other rates. Yet these are examples of the kinds of extremely difficult feats our survival depends on day after day. More than goodness, we need to thank consciousness for such gifts, for it alone gives us the blessing of time and space which enable us to perform such complex operations again and again.



Let us count our blessings. Happy New Year, everyone.






(Copyright © 2008)


When the first astronauts looked down on the Earth from space, they were less than articulate in telling what they saw. Wow! Look at that! is how I remember their spontaneous reports. They were all but speechless. I made fun of their puny descriptions then, but now I believe they were so unprepared for the experience of looking down on Earth from space that they were almost overwhelmed by the emotions that came over them. In ordinary life, our language for strong emotions often consists of four-letter words. When under stress, we find that the language of rational thought is largely irrelevant. Emotional language is more a matter of curses, sighs, cries, and moans.


Or memorized lyrics—as in songs, hymns, anthems, and such. On stage, actors can eloquently speak their emotions because they have memorized their lines. One of the most haunting moments in music took place at the 1928 Remembrance Day Ceremony in Albert Hall when assembled veterans of World War I sang, “It’s a Long, Long Way to Tipperary,” a song they all knew by heart. No sound is bigger than those moving voices.


But the language of emotional consciousness, I now realize, is made more for action than sentimental songs. When it comes to expressing feelings, words are only incidental. Usually, big actions are called for, like hitting the line, running as fast as you can, or making love, not little actions like talking, knitting, or building model planes. Which gets to the core of why we have them. Emotions are tools of survival in threatening situations. The finer details of culture emerges only once we get past them and have time to simmer down and relax. Emotions are based on hormones secreted into the blood when we are under some sort of stress and need to make a quick response.


Depression, on the other hand, seems to be a squelching of emotion resulting from not being able to act because we are held back when our blood tells us to get going. Perhaps the best thing to do when we can do nothing appropriate to our situation is to shut down and wait. In such circumstances, temporary depression might make its own kind of sense. Long-term depression, however, as a symptom of long-term inaction can lead to utter hopelessness and collapse. Short term stress gets us going; long-term stress can be lethal.


All of which is a prelude to what I want to write about in this post. The aftermath of my earlier blog about music consciousness (see Reflection 38).


I am writing a blog about music consciousness. I want to dispense with program music that tells a story as something entirely different. Peter and the Wolf is a good example of the confusion we get into when words and music are mixed together, as in songs, operas, and oratorios. In those media it is hard to tell if felt responses stem from the music, the words, or both (or neither; maybe it’s the costumes and scenery). I am looking for an example of music accompanied by something other than words. Like dance. Like ballet. How about Swan Lake? What’s that dance for the four little swans? The four cygnets? Fifty-five years ago when I was at Columbia, dance had a strong hold on me. I went to performances of Ballet Theater and New York City Ballet almost every week. I met my first wife while waiting in line to get into Sadler’s Wells at the Met. I search for Swan Lake on the Web, and one of the early options comes up, Bolshoi Swan Lake – Pas de Quatre Small Swans. The very thing! I would have said Cygnets or Little Swans, but that’s Russian translators for you. I click the link—and there is a video of a Bolshoi production of the Dance of the Small Swans. I realize immediately that I can’t use ballet as an example because so much of the meaning of the piece is conveyed by the dancers—the visual impression—not the music. The video starts on its own. Suddenly I’m there, in New York watching the cygnets cavort 55 years ago. Same dark stage, same white costumes, same music, same steps—same me. I watch, transfixed. I don’t breathe for two minutes. What am I unleashing here? I clamp my lips to avoid blubbering. This is beauty, this is power. Pure grace. No, I don’t say the words—I feel the movement, the music. The magic. My rational mind is reduced to a series of clichés. Wow. Here is the world of sights, sounds, and expectancy I plunged into when I moved from Boston to New York in 1952 when I was twenty. I choke up. The video is almost too much. I am stunned. Transported. Why not let go? But I can’t. The tension is unbearable. I know the dance by heart. It’s been inside me all these years, and I never once acknowledged it. Never turned it loose. Watching the four dancers, I see myself being wholly myself, or wanting to be, but embarrassment clamps down on my emotional self. Steeling my lips so not to show my emotions. To whom? To me—I’m the only one around. I am of two minds, one rational, the other emotional. As if the two parts of me hadn’t lived together all these years and come to terms. One had to “win” and squelch the other. I see it all. When the video stops, I sit at my laptop, overwhelmed.


For me, this was a Proustian moment. But instead of regaining consciousness of the past by tasting a piece of madeleine (French almond cake) dipped in tea, as Proust’s protagonist did in Remembrance of Things Past, I found it by clicking a link on the Web—which burned a hole in my here-and-now mind through which the past leapt into the now.


I immediately felt a compelling shock of resonance between my consciousness then and my consciousness now. As if several different parts of my brain danced to the same tune. Music was involved, but sight and motion were kindled at the same time. I wasn’t just viewing the past, I was actually there. I pictured brain waves humming in resonance in every quarter of my mind, giving one another mutual feedback and support.


Reflecting on the experience, I think resonance is the key to the emotions I felt. The coordinated movements of the four dancers revealed a clear physical resonance echoing the music. Each dancer was her own person, yet was sympathetically linked to the other three. If their motions had been identical, they would have been robots. Holding hands, they moved in sympathy one with another. And I was with them the whole time, both my past and present selves, sharing in the discipline and the resonance.


Such states of resonance are a big part of consciousness. That’s how we learn, by being with others, watching, then imitating them as if reflecting their inner selves. We make fun of such imitative behavior, calling out, “monkey see, monkey do.” But we all play that game. Watch any two people in an intense conversation, each unconsciously mimicking the behavior of the other. I see it in myself. My partner crosses her arms, then so do I. I lean back in my chair, then so does she. We take turns being with others by translating their image into our posture. If we see it, we can do it. I feel sure that has a lot to do with feelings of closeness in families, friendships, and communities.


If you have doubts, take a look at the Beatles’ Hey Jude video on the internet. By the umteenth repetition of the chorus—“da, da, da, dadidada, dadidada, Hey Jude,” your brain waves will be synchronized with the band and their audience, and you will know exactly what resonance feels like. It’s O.K. to show emotions if body language tells you everybody else feels the same.



Reflection 41: Christmas Tree

December 24, 2008


(Copyright © 2008)


At rail crossings, if you stare at freight cars rolling by, all you see is a blur of colors. But if you look up the track and pick a particular car to follow, then pan with your eyes and head, you can read the lettering on the side—Lackawanna, Santa Fe, Rock Island, Denver Rio Grande, Bangor and Aroostook.


Years ago, I encountered the same effect while watching folded newspapers roll off the press at the Boston Globe. The chute to the loading dock was a blur of newsprint until I picked one paper to track down the flow—and I could read the headlines as if the paper were standing still. By mimicking the papers’ speed and direction with my eyes, I cancelled their motion.


The trick is not just paying attention; it’s how you do it that feeds into consciousness and builds your reality.


You can try this by tracking one flake in a snowstorm. One falling leaf. One wave on the ocean. One face in a crowd. One ornament on a Christmas Tree.


I have a Christmas Tree in my head. A tree decked with memories of all the special moments in my life. Emotionally-charged episodes that, collectively, make up my unpublished autobiography. Usually, I don’t pay any attention to what’s in me. Memories, I say, from the past. But they’re there for a reason. I am an emotional being, and it helps to keep that in mind so I don’t have to keep inventing myself anew every time I experience a surge of strong feeling. My autobiographical memory is one of the contexts in which I live. What I know (or think I know)—my personal encyclopedia—is another such context. Along with all the places I’ve been, all the people I’ve met, and so on.


I seldom browse through my store of memories and select one to explore and re-experience at length. Like ornaments on a balsam fir, they’re there in a mass, not individually. Which means they’re mostly ignored and their particular details might as well not be there.


But if I pick one episode in my life—one ornament on my tree of memories—for whatever reason, and savor it, then I’m being more fully myself in merging who I once was with who I am today. It’s like I’ve carried all these ornaments around for years without looking at them, regarding them more like a moving freight train or chute full of newspapers—knowing they’re there but not really seeing them because I’m not appreciating them fully. If I go about it right, I don’t have to select one, I just set the stage by being still, and a memory will rise into consciousness. For example, I was sitting quietly by myself the other day, as Quakers often do, and out of the silence came this:


Having just moved to New York from Boston in 1952, I find myself standing on the platform of the IRT subway station in Times Square, waiting for a northbound express. Trains rush in from their tunnel of darkness, stop briefly, then rush into the darkness ahead. The third rail lies in a darkness of its own. I am aware of it as a lurking presence beyond the platform. The crowd bustles around me. Where I’ve been and where I’m going are not important. I’m just there, situated in my new life in New York. Glancing to my right, I focus on the girl standing next to me, also waiting. I suddenly realize I am standing on a subway platform in New York next to the most beautiful girl in the world. Everyone else disappears. Whole trains disappear. There’s only me the silent observer, and this special person, this apparition. I look away. A train comes out of nowhere. Doors open. The most beautiful girl in the world steps as a normal person would step into the train. She moves to her right. I see her in profile, lifting her hand, grasping a hanger to steady herself. Doors close. The train pulls out of the station, carrying her on to the rest of her life. Leaving me standing on the platform, aware of myself as just one member of the crowd that suddenly engulfs me.


Even writing about this ornament stirs me today. I can feel my heart beating faster after 56 years. I wonder what life held for the girl. Probably what it holds for the rest of us, a mystery we try to find meaningful and make the best of. Knowing what I’ve made of that mystery for myself, I now treasure that encounter as a special moment of being in the presence of exceptional beauty, beauty still with me today. One in a lifelong series of beautiful moments. I hope that girl had—and is having—a good life.



At this darkest time of year for us northerners,

think on beauty, light, and peace.

Don’t let trains rush by without asking what they have

to tell you.

Don’t let headlines revert to a blur.

Hold yourself and your world in full consciousness

however you can.

Joyeux Solstice D’hiver 2008  —SP






(Copyright © 2008)

Two blogs ago, I dealt with music’s power, emotion, and immediacy in reaching into consciousness. Music doesn’t have to wait for the brain to tell consciousness what it means. Even in the case of program music, the program (meaning) is external to the music, as in Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, thunderstorm and all. The storm is in the program you know about, not the music you hear. If you don’t know the program, then the music is all.


In this blog I will make a start at dealing with sensory phenomena that elicit meanings in experience so that the being of sensory patterns is fulfilled by the meanings they intend in consciousness. Spoken and written language offer examples of experiences composed of meaningful patterns, as do common signs and symbols such as traffic lights, sirens, and pictures of celebrities and famous places. Red traffic lights mean “stop” because we were taught to put the two together at an early age. The meaning is not in the red itself; it is in our brains which interpret that color as telling us to stop.


Consciousness is the place where sensory patterns (phenomena) and meanings are coupled together. When that happens, we get it! We understand. That is, we make a connection between two very different aspects of mental life—percepts from our senses and concepts from memory. Meaning does not reside in the world. It inhabits our minds, retained as latent concepts waiting to be activated by a relevant pattern in one sensory channel or another.


Meaning emerges when summoned by sensory phenomena we have been trained (or inspired) to receive as information, just as Pavlov’s dogs learned that the ringing of a bell meant food was about to be served. Information requires a context or situation to make it meaningful; without one or the other, it’s just meaningless sensory data. We learn early on that vocal utterances (words, phrases, sentences) mean something to others, and by imitating those others in appropriate situations, those utterances come to mean somewhat the same thing to us.


The following anecdote from one of my mother’s friends, told as a childhood reminiscence cherished for almost eighty years, provides a good example of one such early attempt to connect a sensory image with its meaning:


Still vivid in my mind is the day I stayed after school in the first grade to ‘help’ the teacher. In awe I watched her make rather a clumsy sketch of a crescent moon on the blackboard. Beside it she lettered ‘moon.’ I rushed home to tell my mother that I had already learned the spelling word for the next day: ‘m-o-o-n, banana.’


To be human is to strive to put meanings to sounds and appearances, and when deceived, to try again. If we spell “banana,” “m-o-o-n,” while those around us disagree, do we not remember it all our lives, along with all the other times our judgments were found to be out of joint? Do we not learn from such occasions? Is any experience not centered upon the desire to attach meanings appropriately to the sensory patterns we pluck from our situations as we construe them? We belong to a tribe of meaning-makers. We may not always be wise, but we are ever game to try again.


“Look, out the window, dear.” “Goggie.” “And over there” “Goggie.” “And what about that one?” “Goggie.” “No, that’s not a doggie, it’s a kitty.” “Kikky.”


Slowly over time, concepts accrue in memory as categories containing common features derived from a series of experiences somewhat resembling one another. When we fit a new pattern in experience together with such a category, we see that pattern as an example extending or fulfilling the series. The coupling can be so tight, it’s almost as if the pattern exuded the meaning from its own nature—as if the phenomenon were meaningful in itself. Which someone else may intend, but the meaning is in the mind, not the phenomenon.


Meanings are always our doing. Depending on their situations and experience, different people will cast a variety of meanings onto one and the same sensory pattern of being. I cannot digest gluten, which is in everything made of wheat, rye, or barley. Donuts, pizza, seven-grain bread, and chocolate-chip cookies may appeal to the masses, but I avoid them as if made of anthrax flour. To me they mean poison, not party treats, not wholesome food.


Whether you see true-believers or infidels in front of you depends on how you regard them in light of your past experience. In themselves they are neither because each is a unique being, not a category filler. Whether a knife is a useful tool or a bloody weapon depends on which category you sort it into when you wield it at the moment.


I’m living in Cambridge (some years ago). I wake up one night to hear someone in the street calling “fa” in a hoarse voice. Looking for his dog, I figure. Or his father. “Fa,” “fa,” he goes on. And on. Little Johnny One Note. “Fa.” “Fa.” I hear the sounds, but it holds no meaning for me. I doze off. Then it strikes me—he isn’t crying “Fa,” he’s yelling “Fire” at the top of his old lungs. I look out the window. Flames are shooting from the roof of the house across the street. I call the fire department.


Meaning-making can be a matter of survival. If we get it wrong, we may wake up dead. Our minds have evolved to do the best we can to match events with appropriate meanings in the situations we are in. What’s that noise downstairs? The wind? Noisy shutter? The cat? Burglar? Probably the furnace.


The matching works both ways: phenomena can seek meanings, and meanings can seek sensory presentations. If you’re in a hungry situation, you can start to visualize dinner. I remember a woman saying, “Men, you know how they are.” The meaning was already there; she didn’t have to spell it out. Which is like an old Quaker lady asking a friend of mine, “Is thee a member of the one true faith?” She was a particular meaning waiting to happen. More of us are like that than not. We broadcast meaningful expectations and hope the world will fill in the dotted lines.


Sometimes we don’t have either a phenomenon or a meaning to begin with. We’ve lost our bearings. What will tomorrow (the future) bring? How will our present situation develop, and what will it mean for us? There’s a lot of that around these days, what with the changing of the White House guard, the recession, global warming, wars in Africa, Iraq and Afghanistan, AIDS, the national debt. . . . In times like these, anxiety rules. Meaning keeps its distance. Stress is on the rise, which upsets consciousness. Dire or chaotic may be the best words we can come up with in describing our state of affairs. Invest in fortune tellers and astrologers; I expect them to thrive.


In the end, when we confront the full significance of our mortality, does anything remain but the tarnished spiral of our mortal coil, a shadowy track in the dust, bequeathed to those who stay behind on chance that someone will fit it to some kind of meaning?




Copyright © 2008


The day stretches ahead of me. All that time. How fill the hours?


Had breakfast, washed dishes, did laundry, made a start at my solstice card list, and it’s snowing. What next? Winter solstice on the 21st, the true New Year’s Day. A group of us usually hike up Cadillac Mountain Road, weather permitting. That’s a ways off. First, John and Seth are coming from Boothbay to talk about eelgrass in the bay. I’ve made my eelgrass PowerPoint, but haven’t run through it. Got to do that. Carole’s coming tonight and I want to buy carrots and make rice. Oh, and transfer funds from savings to checking to cover my credit card payment. And blog about consciousness of time and space. And check NOAA weather.


For now, that’s today’s to-do list. In its own way, each item is important. What’s most important? I’ll go to the bank after the post office gets the mail up—usually by 10:30. That gives me an hour and a half. First, check the weather. Make blog notes. Shop when I go to the bank. Keep my solstice card list handy to work on between times. Do the PowerPoint later. Try to get to the blog.


O.K., have at it.


Not so fast. I check my blog and find a comment from Laura, which I respond to. Then I check my stats, and find two links to porn sites. Am I linked to them or are they to me? How do I get rid of links like that? I e-mail WordPress support to find out. Then I run out of printer ink. And so it goes (“it” being this given day in my life). Planning is one thing, doing another. Things just come up and need to be dealt with. With everything changing, I find it hard to know my own mind.


One thing about time, it always runs out. If I start over, it runs out again. What is this flow we call time? As if it were so many grains of sand in an hourglass. When we run out of it, we flip the timer. Until that last hour when we can’t. The metaphor of “the arrow of time” makes it sound like some sort of trajectory, but whether meant in a thermodynamic, cosmological, or other sense, it is a misnomer. It is not time that flows over us so much as change itself. Time is an Earth-bound measure of change. Earth-bound because found only in the human mind, and, as far as we know, humans are bound to their double-planet, Earth-moon system. Time, arrow and all, is in our heads.


I think time and space together are the essence of consciousness. We are conscious at this time, in this place. In our current situation. We may be recalling past events or anticipating future ones, but we are doing so at this current moment of consciousness, here and now, the one, ever-changing moment we are allowed.


Rather than being principles of consciousness, time and space are derivatives of consciousness. I’d say change is the founding principle on which consciousness rests. Either the world (my situation) is changing in awareness, I am changing, or both are changing at the same time. Time is the signature of myself the observer (the world is changing before me); space is the signature of myself the actor (I am changing the world). When I am both observer and actor (in the ongoing feedback loop in my brain that is consciousness itself), time and space inform me as a participant (in that loop).


(Note to self: look at locations in the brain where incoming sensory phenomena are given meaning (interpreted) as a basis for appropriate action—there would be the neural substrate of this consciousness that I am.)


Time and space flow from the interaction between sensory awareness and past experiences as made available by recall. Fitting the two together is the effort after meaning we know as human consciousness. Which enables us to act appropriately (or not) in our current situation.


In my little booklet Eartheart (Addison Gallery of American Art, 1973—long out of print), I included an image based on the text, “Time is an arbitrarily designated standard of change against which other changes can be compared or measured.” The apparent motion of the sun relative to our Earthly observing station has long served as the standard by which we gauge other changes. Obelisks and sundials translate solar motions into moving shadows, which can be cast on calibrated pathways—giving us the current time of day. Rotating hands on clocks and watches mimic solar movements in different degrees of fineness. Digital timepieces are programmed to step to the same beat.


But time is not contained in such instruments. Contrary to Einstein’s famous thought experiments, a mechanical clock in space without an observer is nothing more than an assemblage of springs and gears. The seat of time is in our heads. Where it serves as a standard for calibrating changes we apprehend in the world. Time gives meaning to such changes by referring them to the apparent motions of the sun, moon, and stars. That is, to Earth’s rotation on its axis once each day as divided into practical units found useful in scheduling and measuring human affairs. 


I can look in The Old farmer’s Almanac and find out when the sun is predicted to set in my locale. Then I can drive up Cadillac Mountain (when the road is open) to Blue Hill Overlook and watch the sunset from there at that time. A surprising number of visitors do just that when they come to Acadia National Park each summer. Then as soon as the sun drops below the horizon (or the horizon rises to cover the sun), people seem to think the event is over so they drive off to dinner. But the best part of the sunset experience is ahead as the clouds change in turn from gold to orange to red to deep crimson to blue to black.


That progression of colors reflects the essence of time in human consciousness. In them time is not just a series of numbers on a clock—which is merely one way of calibrating human awareness of changes in our environment—but it is the sequence of changing phenomena in our minds that is the point. We watch sunsets to have such experiences. Acquired through experience, time is a tool for enabling us to be in the right place at the right time.


Or by a different time scale, we can climb Cadillac Mountain on the winter solstice to see the sun, on its trek along the horizon, at its southernmost limit, which serves as the experiential turning point between the old year and the new. With the sun at its lowest arc in the sky (because Earth’s northern hemisphere is turned farthest away from it on this day), days are short and nights long. But exactly at that time, hope wells up in consciousness because from then till the beginning of summer there’s only one way to go and that’s up as sunrise inches its way northward along the horizon toward—first colder—then warmer days ahead.


Winter may be a time of hardship and scarcity, but it is the road we must take if we want to make it to spring and summer beyond. Much as to reach those promised tomorrows, we must give today our best shot. Which is why time is our greatest invention and most valuable asset. It is possibility itself. Possibility for careful attention. Possibility for discovering meaning, for effective and rewarding action, for reflecting on the outcome, and then for trying again.


The second most important question we can ask ourselves is: What’s happening in my world today? The most important question is: What am I going to do to help things along? Hour by hour, day by day, we mind our situations, then act out the stories of our lives.



(Copyright © 2008)

I experience music as a kind of speech with the consonants stripped out of it. Made up of notes in relationship, not words. Both music and speech have tempo, rhythm, pitch, loudness, and qualia (subjective qualities, such as timbre or emotional color).


Music can be variously produced by singing, humming, whistling, blowing through mouthpieces or vibrating reeds, plucking or bowing strings, among other means of vibrating the air. One person can create music, or a group—chorus, band, ensemble, or full orchestra. Lyrics set to music have meaning, but music itself, without consonants to open or close the sound, lacks meaning in the same sense.


What music does have that speech lacks is a limited set of specific situations suited to its performance. Everyday cell-phone conversations proves that people feel no restrictions on where or when they can talk to one another. Music is different; it generally arises within situations where it can be listened to without distraction or interruption. It’s like you have to be in a place where you can listen to yourself, to hear your own mind.


CD players and iPods extend the range of such situations to include private pursuits like walking the dog, running, pushing the twins in a stroller, and so on. People have always hummed or whistled to themselves, so this is not new. It’s just that now you can take along Louis Armstrong or the Boston Symphony to do the humming for you.


Think of situations in your own life where music is appropriate. Like when you are taking a shower and burst into song because the acoustics make your voice so magnificent (usually with no one else around). Cruising along in the car provides much the same opportunity. Riding in an elevator; there are people around, but no one is talking, just music from nowhere. Shopping; you are in your own head, and the store is stirring your blood so you’ll buy more stuff. Watching parades, you expect marching bands. Attending weddings and graduations you want processional music suited to serious transitions. Dancing, your body craves to move with the music. Watching movies, music underscores your emotions. Attending concerts, you sit in the dark and let music fill your soul; you contain your gratification until it’s over. Sipping martinis in cocktail bars, you burble sweet nothings to a show-tune accompaniment.


In such situations, music strongly influences conscious life. It takes over your mind. Music isn’t outside you, it’s in you. You become attentive, aroused, and full of life. Your neurons flow to its tempo and beat. As if someone were telling you something really important, something beautiful. But nobody’s there. It’s just you and the sound. A very human sound. Made for you alone. As if only you could connect with and appreciate it.


Just because music doesn’t communicate the way words do doesn’t mean we can’t connect with it. Music is all about relations between sounds as they develop through time. Consciousness is made for that kind of communication—whether via sound, sight, touch, taste, smell, or motion. Humans dig sensory relationships. What else is life all about? But the nuances and gradations of relations between musical sounds affect us particularly. That is because music speaks directly and immediately to the very brain cells that rouse us to consciousness in the first place. When our neurons dance, we can’t help ourselves; we gotta join in.


That is powerful magic. No wonder teens want to sing and play the guitar or the sax. Their brain cells and hormones urge them to do it. To develop the vocal or finger dexterity to make their personal music as it needs to be made. You don’t learn that skill in the classroom; you’ve got to pick it up on your own. Schools are about nations and governments and grammar and theorems. Music is about me. The emotional me. And everybody like me. Music is on the inside crying to get out. Everything else just gets in the way.


Music connects with us on that level. It’s about the inside order of personal life worlds. About consciousness itself. Because it flows from consciousness and is directed toward consciousness. Immediately, without waiting for meaning to catch up. It’s your nerves and body talking to my body and nerves. Know what I mean? Yeah, you can feel when it happens.


To hear music is to feel excitement in your body. Consciousness flows from excitation in your nerves, and one thing music can do is excite nerves by the millions. You can feel it when you hear it. It commands your attention. You follow along, anticipating what happens next. Sometimes you’re right, sometimes the music surprises you. You like that kind of surprise because it helps you get into somebody else’s head. They’re talking to you. And you hear them. It’s me and Billie Holiday, me and Woody Guthrie, me and Basie, me and Mozart. Two great souls joined into one.


That’s what music can do for us. That’s its meaning. It connects us without concepts and ideas getting in the way. Just us. The sound of you, the sound of me. The real you, the real me. Joined in shared consciousness. Our brains firing together, sharing the journey.









(Copyright © 2008) 

In naming loved ones, babies, pets, boats, towns, mountains, and constellations in the sky, we give meaning to particular phenomena in our experience, while, at the same time, giving concrete form to values which are important to us. Naming is a simultaneous giving and taking within consciousness, a giving of ourselves and a taking-in of the world, claiming it as our world.


We smile at early engravings showing beams of sight reaching out from the eye, intending an object, reflecting an image into awareness—but time and again that is an apt depiction of how we see the world. We reach for the world in a certain way—and discover exactly what we set out to find. If we saw the world differently we would be someone else. We have no choice but to be ourselves and see through our own eyes. It is no accident the world we find every day bears close resemblance to the one we lost yesterday. It is not the world that is the same so much as our outlook on the world. Expectancy is destiny. As I wrote in an unpublished manuscript titled Mind and Planet:


We see new things in terms of the trusted and familiar. No wonder early settlers founded New France, New England, New Amsterdam, New York, and New London. Maine has its Bangor, Bath, Belfast, Calais, China, Denmark, Egypt, Ghent, Gilead, Hebron, Limerick, Madrid, Naples, New Sweden, Norway, Palermo, Paris, Poland, Rome, Salem, Scotland, Sorrento, Sweden, Troy, Verona, Windsor, and Yarmouth, to mention a few recycled place names. The old seed folk tamed the wilderness by seeing it as an extension of the world they knew by heart.

          Looking for, seeing as, consciousness of—this is how we fit the world to preconceived plans. We take those plans with us wherever we go. We bring the world into being as a variation on the intentional order we carry in our heads.


In The Songlines (Viking, 1987), Bruce Chatwin traces the story of Aboriginal Peoples trekking the landscapes of (what we now call) Australia, singing landforms into being, telling their stories in the same words the First People used in deciphering the geological notation which made those landscapes significant to them. Chatwin recounts a conversation with Arkady Volchok, a Russian “who was mapping the sacred sites of the Aboriginals”:


The Aboriginals had an earthbound philosophy. The earth gave life to a man; gave him his food, language and intelligence; and the earth took him back when he died. A man’s ‘own country’ . . . was itself a sacred ikon that must remain unscarred. . . .

To wound the earth . . . is to wound yourself, and if others wound the earth, they are wounding you. The land should be left untouched: as it was in the Dreamtime when the ancestors sang the world into existence.


Which is what naming does for us in our own Dreamtime—sing the world into conscious existence. As an old German saying informs us, “A well-loved child has many names.” Our caring for that child overflows in those names, each an aspect of the loving consciousness in which we hold that other being. Those names say more about us than the child.


My father was given the name of his father’s grandfather. My elder brother was named after his great-grandfather’s youngest brother, who was a family hero for fighting in the Civil War.


My first name is that of my mother’s great-great-grandfather, a man who rode out the Revolutionary War in Nova Scotia, and was the first of his line to settle in Maine; he was later shipwrecked in the great storm of 1798 and died on the shoals off Truro on Cape Cod. My middle name is the family name of my father’s mother. She died of a weak heart the day after she gave birth to her son—who was to become my father. As reported in the local newspaper:


Despite the rain of Saturday, the funeral of Mrs. Rev. J. N. Perrin, Jr., was largely attended. . . . The sad and tender services of the hour were closed with the baptism, beside the open casket, of the son born two days before, to whom was given the name Porter Gale. At the age of a little more than thirty-three years, the body of Mrs. Perrin was laid to rest in our village cemetery, her short life a long one, having so nobly ‘answered life’s great end.’

          Our community was exceedingly shocked and saddened, on Friday morning last, by the news that Mrs. Laura Gale, wife of Rev. J. N. Perrin, Jr., had died about eight o’clock the evening before. On the morning previous (Thursday), she had given birth to a son and her many friends were cheered by the report—though it proved not well grounded—throughout the day, that “she was doing well.” Only a few moments before she died, heart failure became apparent, and her life went out quickly. . . . If one thing more than another could be called her ‘forte,’ it would seem to be work with, and for, the young.


Laura’s husband, my grandfather, gave his eldest son his deceased wife’s family name. My middle name is the same, as is my eldest son’s. My younger brother’s name is meaningful by an entirely different scheme. He was born on June 21, a date between the name days of St. Peter and St. Anthony. Guess what he was named. Apparently, he was named—if not for the day—for the time of year he was born. Had a name been associated with the summer solstice, he probably would have been given that one.


In 1982, I wrote: “By placing old names on new people we try to establish continuities of meaning during times of evident transition.” Which are also likely to be times of excitation, and often stress. In such situations we consciously strive for meaning in our lives. Which we achieve by mapping familiar meanings onto novel events, thereby welcoming them into our life worlds of consciousness. This gives us a handle on the new by establishing a meaningful relationship with it from the start.


Think of our terms of endearment: Honey, Sweetheart, Sweetie, Sugar, Darling, My Love. These are not as frivolous as they may sound. Declaring endearment is a meaningful act. That is a good part of what consciousness is about—establishing meaningful relationships.



(Copyright © 2008) 

We’ve all had our trial run at the scientific method, usually in grammar or middle school. We’ve duly partnered up, signed-out supplies and equipment, controlled for variable conditions, followed procedures, made observations, recorded data, presented results, and learned whether we’d supported the teacher’s hypothesis or done it all wrong.


In other words, we were trained to create a situation for producing meaningful results. Which at the time meant coming up with the right answer, but beyond that, we disciplined ourselves to behave in certain ways so that our results would agree with what was already common knowledge. We weren’t finding out anything new; we were calibrating ourselves so we could sometimes claim to act objectively. That is, to avoid wittingly imposing our personal assumptions, views, and emotions on what we were doing.


The point of the “experiment” was to get us to act as if we were scientists. To become a scientist, you must act like a scientist. The teacher walked us through a model of the scientific method so we could find out what that might feel like. Some of us took to this strange way of doing things, others sat back and let our partners do the walking for the two of us.


My point here is that scientific results are primarily meaningful in situations that scientists would approve of because they conform to agreed-upon conditions set by the scientific community.


Most of us are not scientists and do not act like scientists. The situations in which we thrive are not governed by scientists. We cook, paint, hum along, daydream, go bowling—and are perfectly happy to lead our nonscientific lives without once thinking of data or procedures.


The funny thing is, many scientists would claim that the findings coming out of situations that make their conscious lives meaningful apply to us as well because they are universally valid and true (until proven otherwise). Which is odd because we nonscientists do not make the counterclaim that the situations in which we are disciplined and creative are meant to benefit scientists (or followers of other, equally exacting, disciplines).


This is an obvious example of nonsymmetrical consciousness. What’s true for me is true for you, but not vice versa. Maybe you have to have a certain chutzpah to be a scientist. When humanoids are all extinct, it won’t make any difference; our planet will go its own way—as it always has. But right now we are caught up in our versions of that planet as represented in consciousness. Some representations, it turns out, are truer than others. And some former scientific truths have been put aside. Phlogiston, for instance was once thought to make the air we breathe combustible. That’s where flames came from. You don’t hear it mentioned anymore. Doctors don’t still apply leeches, either, because science no longer believes in the four temperaments or four humors (leeching got rid of “excess” blood). Was the Manhattan Project (in which a team of scientists made the atom bomb possible) a good idea? Even some scientists would now say it wasn’t. What about arms merchant Alfred Nobel on his death bed agreeing to fund a peace prize with the profits he’d made? Which is truer, high explosives or world peace? Then there are all those chemicals (pesticides, dioxins, PCBs, PBDEs, toxic metals) showing up in mothers’ milk around the globe; without scientists, they wouldn’t be there. Which is it to be, breast feeding or the march of progress? In my mind, one is truth itself, the other a self-serving conceit.


If truth is to be found on planet Earth; it lives in the human mind. It is the product of conscious minds exercising themselves in particular ways in certain situations. The military made, tested, and dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. As a result, 220 thousand people died by the end of that year, followed by many others who died slower deaths from radiation poisoning. Ever since, nations have sought to guarantee such weapons would never be used again (while maintaining stockpiles of nuclear weapons just in case). Which is truer, the scientific triumph of the bomb, or the slaughter in its wake?


As a thought experiment (an exercise in just-pretend consciousness), put yourself in Harry Truman’s shoes (his situation) as he weighed arguments for and against dropping those two bombs. First, do it based on the information Truman had available to him in August 1945; then do it knowing what you know today. Clearly, dropping the first bomb was a terrible experiment because no one knew what would happen. But why drop the second after the first proved so devastating? Was it just because the Japanese were so slow to surrender? Or was it similar to the case of a murderer killing his victim with one stab, then killing him again and again in a rage?


What is the common element uniting the situations within which scientists ply their skills? As with businessmen, doctors, and soldiers, it must be the salary received for the work. Consciousness can be applied many ways, but in each case it has its price. That aspect of the scientific method is not much discussed.


Which makes me wonder whether truth has any meaning at all, even in the most conscious of minds. I now think Luigi Pirandello was right: it’s true if you think so. Time for full disclosure. I am a low-ranking science buff. I subscribed to Popular Science in the 1940s, and was the first person to subscribe to McGraw-Hill’s (then) new science magazine (name long forgotten). I did well in physics and chemistry in high school, and, logically enough, went off to MIT. Where I discovered science appealed to certain kinds of minds—minds that liked to speak with great authority while avoiding displays of emotion. I saw that as a macho kind of mind (there were nine female students in my day) which did not appeal to my more exploratory kind of mind. After two years, I transferred to Columbia in New York City, where I majored in the humanities.


MIT in those days was a situation unto itself, a haven for men who didn’t like asking for directions because it made them feel weak and submissive. It attracted students who thrived more by telling, not asking questions. We sat dutifully through lecture after lecture, taking notes, memorizing them, feeding them back on weekly quizzes. The first two years were largely the same for all students: physics, calculus, chemistry, mechanical drawing, engineering, with a token humanities course. You had to be committed to such a situation from the start. I leaked out of the mold I was poured into, so I left. Subsequently, I leaked out of other molds as well. Truth, for me, has always been elsewhere.


Here’s the irony: truth has to be a truth you can believe in. It has to flow naturally from your situation at the time. Which is why scientists stick by their approved methods. For myself, I pursue the elusive truth of consciousness because the situated mind is one place I have yet to fully explore. Novelty, not sameness, turns me on. So far my research has shown that my consciousness is highly fallible. On the fringe of awareness, I see things that aren’t there, and don’t see things that demonstrably are. At the center, I’m often on autopilot and am conscious only when forced into it by a novel turn of events. Now I’m interested in times when I’m fully alert and awake, and know I am—usually when I have a question to ask, or a new puzzle to solve.


What kind of situation is it that sets my consciousness going? Not one based on statistics or prescribed methods. I’m after one-of-a-kind events that are meaningful nonetheless, such as the episodes I’ve shared in earlier posts. I’ll be on this course for a long while yet, sharing bulletins from time to time via this blog.


If you’d like to share such episodes from your own experience, I’d be glad to hear from you.



(Copyright © 2008) 

Regarding consciousness, I keep making the same discovery: Invariably—even in dreams—it is situational in nature. My particular consciousness—which is all I can blog about—is centered on my awareness of what’s happening in a particular situation.


Right now I am sitting at my computer starting a blog to be posted on December 10 on the topic of situation consciousness. I have eaten breakfast, washed dishes, brushed my teeth, made a list of terms people use to talk about situations. And am now addressing the issue of what my mind wants me to say.


I will go so far as to say my current situation defines who I am. I am he who creates a blog by putting himself in one situation after another. I cannot imagine myself apart from my sense of what’s going on at the time, which gives me the particular point of view I hold on that occasion. Otherwise, I am a formless Will-o’-the-wisp—some kind of phantom waiting to be roused from my stupor and given shape and consciousness of one kind or another.


If I want to be fully conscious, I need to find a situation I can throw myself into. My life depends on it. I need a challenge to feel creative and alive. My consciousness is built around a tide of challenges as it ebbs and flows in my mind. Read a mystery; you always want to find out whodunit, so you plunge from one chapter to the next. Read a comic strip; you always want to know what happens in the next frame. Go to a game—any game—and you are who you are by participating in the event as it unfolds. Every game is played one play (pitch, turn, down, throw of the dice, deal) at a time, each shaping your mind. Consciousness pulls itself up by its own bootstraps. We are who we are because of the circumstances we seek and engage.


I am on a small island, building a cabin with hand tools. Six years ago, one of my students spent the summer helping me dig the foundation. Now I have time and means to build the actual structure. I cut every plank by hand. Drive every nail, frame and sheathe every wall, hoist every rafter, line up every shingle. My muscles adjust to the work. My fingers take on a permanent curl to fit the shape of my tools. I become a builder, with the consciousness of a builder. Rain or shine, every morning I take up where I left off the night before, doing what needs to be done. I enlist volunteers to help with the heavy lifting, painting, staining of shingles. I am driven to finish the job in three months. At least make it tight for the winter. Get the roof on, doors and windows in, shutters in place. I practice what I call on-site design, letting the place speak to me, tell me how to proceed when my imagination is out of its depth. I have never felt more productive and alive. This is what I am meant to be doing. For three months, this is who I am.


Consciousness begs to be active and useful. To fit us to the task at hand. If no task presents itself, then to seek out a situation in which a task will emerge. Need shelter?—build (rent, buy) a place. Hungry?—procure food and fix dinner. Lonely?—seek companions. Want a family?—find a partner, have a baby. Worn out?—engage in restful pursuits. Stuck in your job?—go to school. Need something to do?—build a ship in a bottle. If you give yourself to the situation, consciousness will show you the way.


All our organizational talk about strategies, tactics, jobs, projects, objectives, goals, intentions, and plans is really about framing our life worlds in personal consciousness. We are meant to involve ourselves in life situations that will meet our needs and desires. If an appropriate situation doesn’t exist, we have to invent it. Look at the Obama campaign, first the primary contest, then the run for president. The Obama team made it happen. They created the situation in which it could happen. They worked out the dynamics beforehand, then did the leg work. Day by day, they pulled America together behind their man. All consciously through the power of the focused mind.


Nobody said it would be easy. Each situations comprises a cast of participants together with their drives, attitudes, talents, levels of understanding, expectancies, personal goals, feelings, motivations, judgments, prior experiences, skillful behaviors tailored to specific occasions, and other aspects of consciousness—all backed by financial resources and coordinated to bring about the desired end result. Thousands of people worked together for two years. The political situation defined the consciousness of the campaign workers, and they put their life’s energy into their work. They did what they set out to do—which was nothing less than change the world one day at a time. Their coordinated consciousness made it happen.


Now Obama faces a new situation. A series of new situations. Which will define who he will be from now on. He has to coordinate an executive team that (with legislative and judicial branches) can govern the nation for up to eight years, all the while engaging the novel situations each moment will bring. Which is all any of us can hope to do—apply our unique gifts of consciousness to the challenges we face.


In being situational, consciousness defines who we are. If we opt to tune out because the work is so hard, we effectively put ourselves in a stupor and become nonentities. Our culture offers all manner of aids to help us escape (because there is money to be made): drugs, alcohol, entertainments and diversions, induced states of oblivion. Taken in excess, these can make us dull, witless, and mentally un-conscious.


To be fully human requires all the wits we can muster. We need to be wholly conscious. Which requires us to be as alive as we can be to ourselves, to others, and to the life situations that call us into being. Nothing can be more productive and satisfying than living on that plane of existence.



(Copyright © 2008)

Hallelujah, the Bush Era is winding down. The aftermath will linger like the smell of something rotting beneath the porch, but a fresh breeze is coming up. Imagine, taking a terrible situation like 9/11—and kindling it into a firestorm a thousand times worse! The Bush Era inflicted the warped consciousness of very few men onto the nation and its world by going to war in Iraq, wreaking havoc in every quarter. Headlines in the U.S. played up American deaths, but behind those headlines hundreds of thousands of anonymous others were assaulted, injured, and killed. A lot was said about putting our troops in harm’s way, but it was forbidden to point out that the preemptive initiative had been ours—we ourselves were the harm. The doctrine of preemption requires luminous intelligence. We flailed in the dark. Our executive consciousness met no standard at all. It was based on false assumptions, wishful thinking, denial, prejudice, and a sense of urgency that something had to be done. Something was done, and start to finish it was the wrong thing. Our troops ended up defending their civilian leaders’ arrogance, ignorance, and poor judgment.


Which is not what I’d planned to write about in this blog. It just bubbled up when I thought about eras coming to an end. I had to plow through the middle to get to the other side. Such is consciousness. One thought leads to another.


My intent is to write about the end of black-and-white photography, the end of film photography, the end of photo processing. All brought to mind by Ellsworth Photo closing its doors after eighteen years of service in Hancock County processing countless miles of color negatives for local customers. Of which I was one. Eric, Mary, and their co-workers processed several hundred rolls of film for me when I was illustrating three books about Mount Desert Island where I live on the Maine coast.


It was the current recession, on top of the advent of digital photography, that did them in. People like me fled film photography in droves. After starting out as a black-and-white photographer in the 1940s, I switched to color film and slides in the 1980s, and went digital in 2004. I do everything in Photoshop now, and so does everyone else. Collectively, we former customers are the reason Ellsworth Photo is closing today.


Mary calls to ask if I want the aerial photo negatives I left with them years ago. They are shutting down, she says. Yes, I’ll come by to pick them up. After a doctor’s appointment following cataract surgery, I drive to Ellsworth Photo on High Street. My three albums and negatives are on the counter. Right next to an Epson printer for sale. “Combination Printer and Scanner, unused, but has no ink cartridges. $11.11.” What’s this about? Eric says they ordered two identical printers, but used only one. I’ll take it, I say. Most things are half-off. Some are free. People come, sort through boxes, pay, leave. I pick up three free binders. A couple of single-lens reflex cameras lie in a box. What are they good for? I ask. Paper weights, says Eric. I already have several of those. What about your machines? Useless, now, he says. He plans to keep working in digital media, but in a different location. Hopefully on the main drag. I walk out with two packs of archival slide preservers, and the printer-scanner. Watching the end of this particular era—my era—I feel depressed. George Eastman invented celluloid negatives in 1885, opening the way for roll film, movies, and 35mm photography. Why wouldn’t I be depressed? This is a big part of my life.


People who don’t upgrade to the latest version of consciousness are stuck in the past. Trouble is, we get so invested in our personal perspectives, we have a hard time moving on to the next thing. What’s wrong with these glasses frames? These shoes really fit my feet. I like stick shifts. I prefer to see how things work; electronics aren’t my medium. I’ve never played a computer game in my life.


Eras are eras of consciousness when the world is seen a certain way, and things get done a certain way. We come to expect more of the same. We lurch from one era to the next, always having trouble making the adjustment to a new way of seizing the world. Always feeling things are slipping away. Always feeling sad and a little lost. You know you’re over the hill when you find yourself preferring the familiar to the excitement of the new. Which is how I felt on the eighteen-mile drive to Bar Harbor from Ellsworth.


I suppose somewhere there may be people sorry to see the Bush era implode of its own gross tonnage. Not me. My consciousness is not that stuck. Good riddance, I say. Bring on the Era of Obama.