(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—https://onmymynd.wordpress.com/2009/05/27/reflection-108-integrity-i/&#160; –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




(Copyright © 2009)


It is a Wednesday afternoon in April, 1973. I am taking my Humanities III class at Abbott Academy on a field trip to MIT. Each week we strike into the territory surrounding Andover, Massachusetts, for the distance of up to a one hour’s drive. We then pair up and venture into the wilderness to see what sort of place we have come to. After exploring for an hour and a half, we gather, share our discoveries, and drive back to Andover. One Wednesday we went to a crossroad in rural New Hampshire [which I can no longer find on the map] to see what life was like in that neck of the woods. Another, we went to Plumb Island on the coast of Massachusetts to explore plant and animal life among the dunes. Today we are in industrial Cambridge, enjoying the mixed scent of the Necco factory, rubber factory, and Heinz pickles from the campus of MIT in their midst. My students radiate out from under the dome of Building 10. I cross Mass Ave. to look at the chapel built since my own student days 20 years earlier. There it is, an unassuming brick cylinder off the path to the athletic field. I am surprised how small it is. A for simplicity, D- for elegance. In I go. Blackness. Radiant gold flakes falling from a light tube above. Not falling, exactly; metal shapes skewered on rods radiating downward in the column of light. The effect is of power and illumination descending, shimmering over some kind of altar. As my eyes get used to the dark, I sense concentric rows of benches echoing the contour of the wall. I sit. A shape there, just outside the beam from the skylight. Someone’s standing by the altar. A young woman. Holding something in one hand. She swings it up. Music! A Bach sonata for unaccompanied violin. She plays for what seems like eternity—which I later figure to be about 20 minutes. The light descends, the sculpture glows in its dark surround, I sit, the woman plays. The music is the medium in which, together, we exist. She ceases playing, puts her instrument in its case, and walks out. As she passes me, I tell her I’ve never met an angel before. She says nothing, and leaves. Later, I have a hard time telling my students about the experience. It has nothing to do with language. To force my vision into words is to ridicule or diminish it. You had to be there, I tell them.


When everything comes together in consciousness like that, for good or ill, we are overwhelmed. Could be 9/11, could be Obama’s inauguration. Such states of cohesion are milestones along our journeys of life discovery. We are tempted to take them as revelations of true reality, even though those alongside of us may be experiencing something totally different. At any rate, these are momentous occasions.


More often, consciousness is conflicted, opening onto a world of mixed messages. Which makes a hash of so-called reality as a kind of tumult neither good nor bad. It just is. With us being pulled this way and that so we hardly know who we are. But every now and then we take that fatal step into the dark chapel, or come across a paragraph by Thoreau that makes particularly powerful sense. We are moved by being for once of one mind. Consciousness is still as complicated as ever, but all the facets contribute to the overall effect.


We know all about love-hate relationships. Pepperoni pizza with green peppers, mushrooms, and extra cheese is a gift from heaven—except for the gastric distress it brings on, and the extra weight we carry for eating it down at one sitting. School would be fun—if it weren’t so boring. The Friday paycheck is great—if only it went far enough. Most experiences are a mixture of the good and the bad, which turns what seems at first glance to be pleasurable into drudgery, or vice versa. Vacations, for instance, are a great idea. But when it comes to making all the arrangements, and seeing what everything costs, it makes more sense to stay home and read a good book. Everyday consciousness is usually at sixes and sevens, so we grit our teeth and bear with it. That’s life, we say. So we steel ourselves and grind on.


Which sets us up for those rare times when it all (attention, feeling, expectation, percepts, concepts, memory, motive, judgment, understanding, action, etc.) comes together and we feel more alive than we have in ages. That’s what basketball mania is all about, community theater, good sex, and other peak experiences when our usually fragmented consciousness gets itself together for once.


When I was a freshman in high school, I entered the annual prize speaking contest. I loved James Thurber stories at the time, so decided to deliver “The Car We Had to Push.” It was an all-school event, putting me as a novice up against far more mature and accomplished speakers. I remember reciting myself to sleep every night for a month, haltingly at first, then smoother and smoother. On the day of the event, I didn’t know what to do with my hands, so clasped them behind me. I got through without a hitch and thought that wasn’t so bad. When the judges announced their decision, my classmate Josephine Case won first prize for girls with “The Highwayman” by Alfred Noyes, and I won for boys. We each got a ten dollar bill.


That was the first time in my life I ever got my act together. I learned it was possible, and how much work it took. Before that, I was a tinkerer who got things to take apart by breaking into barns and stealing old cars. I walked along Payne Creek springing muskrat traps I thought were cruel, getting both the trapper and town policeman on my case. As a teenager I was definitely not together.


But over time I have learned something of what it takes to manage my own consciousness. Insofar, that is, as consciousness is subject to my stewardship—which is not very far. But I do know how to stick with a job, how to work in stages or drafts, and something about the sorts of experiences that turn me on: nature photography, writing haiku, reflecting on consciousness, trying to figure how ecosystems work, and so on, none of which is easy


The main thing I have learned is to keep exploring my options. And then to be deliberate in choosing which ones to give up on, which to pursue. My personal consciousness is the medium I have been given for living a life. I much prefer having it as my friend rather than an enemy constantly catching me by surprise. It has taken me a lifetime of curiosity and exploration to learn how to work with my consciousness rather than in spite of it, which makes living each moment as rewarding as it is challenging.


What can I say? I do what I love, love what I do. Which is code for I am my consciousness, my consciousness is me.





(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.