Reflection 122: Fire Alarm

June 29, 2009

(Copyright © 2009)

I’m finally getting around to linking the summaries of my posts to the actual posts themselves, making it much easier to navigate around my Blog. This wasn’t an issue when I had only a few posts, but now with well over 100, it’s hard to move around without getting lost. So here I am out in the housing authority lobby (where I can get a wireless connection) editing the summary of each post, selecting text to click on, carefully typing the link—; –I’m really concentrating so I won’t make a mis-! <daaght-daaght-daaght> <daaght-daaght-daaght> Bleepin’ fire alarm goes off <daaght-daaght-daaght> two-and-a-half feet over my head <daaght-daaght-daaght> with strobe lights firing into my brain! <daaght-daaght-daaght> Fire doors slam shut right and left. I’ve never jumped out of my skin before, but <daaght-daaght-daaght> that’s what I do. Heart pounding, I scrape back my chair, trip <daaght-daaght-daaght> on the rug, catch myself, get to my feet. Did I leave the stove on so a potholder could fall on the burner?—better check. I don’t want to abandon my computer, but there’s <daaght-daaght-daaght> nobody else around—I’ll be right back. In the hall in front of apartment 38 I find a lady fanning the smoke alarm with a dust pan. “I burnt my toast!” she says, “How do you turn this damned thing off?” “You can’t,” I say, “the police have to do it.” [Dear reader, please imagine <daaght-daaght-daaght> and strobe flashes all through this narrative.] I run to my apartment, check the stove, call 911, get connected to the police, am told they’re on their way. I go to the main entrance to wait for the police. A guy in a baseball cap fumbles with the key—must be them. Only the one guy. I tell him the lady in apartment 38 burned her toast. He goes to check. I check my computer. I can’t stand the noise, but I don’t want to abandon it. Not that I don’t love my neighbors—I just don’t trust them. Eyes closed, fingers in ears, I wait in the commons room for the noise to stop. My brain taken over by the klaxons, I can’t think. I just sit here, feeling stupid.

That’s about five minutes of a story that took over half an hour to unfold, klaxons and strobes going full bore the whole time. Problem was, the policeman’s key wouldn’t turn in the lock to open the door to the alarm system panel so he could turn it off. He radioed for another key, but the guy who had it wasn’t around. Fingers in ears, I watched baseball cap try again and again to unlock the door, with a fireman looking over his shoulder, and another guy over his other shoulder. In the movies they would have shot out the lock, or broken down the door, but this wasn’t the movies. So the three of them kept parading back and forth—baseball cap, fireman in full gear with boots, and this other guy—from the locked door to somewhere else and back again, always single file. And me watching, sitting on a sofa in the commons, fingers in ears, going crazy from the noise, not being able to think.

Back and forth, back and forth, <daaght-daaght-daaght> all the while, with the blitzing strobe—talk about torture, this was my version of hell. It was like somebody plugging my wits into the wall outlet and frying them then and there inside my skull. Here was a new kind of consciousness, being aware but not being able to think or find meaning in anything. Commotions and alarms! Confusion. Chaos. Whatever you want to call it, it felt awful. I was frazzled, with no end in sight.

But there was an end. Eventually the other key arrived, the lock turned, the klaxon ceased, and in another minute, the strobe shut off. I took my fingers out of my ears and went back to my computer. It took ten minutes for my heart to stop pounding, but I finally calmed down and was able to concentrate on what I was doing.

When had my mind ever been commandeered in that way? The infiltration course at Fort Ord during basic training comes to mind—that was 1955. Me hugging the ground, crawling along on the hardpan through barbed wire, cradling my M-1 rifle in my arms, everything raw and aching, machineguns firing live ammunition overhead. I hadn’t a thought in my brainpan then, either. It was like living the life of a scorpion, or maybe Kafka’s cockroach.

Wait! Suddenly it dawns on me—what frenetic torture really feels like. The reign of the G.W. Bush administration. When crazy things happened you couldn’t do anything about, so you stuck your fingers in your ears to block out the noise. This whole nation was stunned by irrational acts that made no sense. You’d call your senators or write letters to the editor, but nothing did any good. <Daaght-daaght-daaght>—the party line was always the same. This is for your own good, your protection. We’ll take care of it. Go shopping. Go back to sleep. But who could sleep through that terrible time? I remember Colin Powell speaking at the UN, presenting “evidence” of Sadam’s evil intentions consisting of ambiguous radio intercepts and photos of trailers equipped as bio labs—as if these justified the preemptive invasion of Iraq.

Then there are jigging pop-up ads on the Web meant to distract you from what your are trying to do—and the whole business of advertising pounding messages and images into your brain so you’re no longer in control of your own actions. Because the mindless <Daaght-daaght-daaght> became such an onslaught, I threw out my TV in 1986 so I could follow my own thoughts. But the klaxon still sounds in the person of Rush Limbaugh, to name one example, who keeps sounding the alarm over and over again like a tin horn in the wilderness.

Alarms are meant to co-opt your mind so you will switch to automatic pilot in performing some carefully rehearsed plan you’ve been told to follow. But when the key to the shut-off is lost and the noise and bright lights persist longer than they should—or you learn through other channels there is no emergency at all—then the risk is a sense of helplessness (me sitting on the couch with my fingers in my ears), total surrender of consciousness, and the inability to act in an appropriate manner to the actual situation.

Where I live, the alarm system is made by Simplex and every part is painted bright red and labeled FIRE or FIRE ALARM in bold letters. Sometimes, though, it serves as a burnt-toast alarm, and it’s hard to tell the difference. My learning from writing this post is that what’s really required in the modern world is the wit and judgment to tell the difference between true emergencies and alarms that are hyped by those with a vested interest in getting the public to respond a certain way, whether it’s appropriate to the true situation or not. It is always important to know where the key is so you can get in and turn off the system that is the real source of the trouble.

Fire Alarm




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