Sunday, November 16, 2014

Success in Circuit

Tonight, looking at the lights reflecting off the pond while I waited for our dog, Terra, to wet: The lights on poles in the parking lot of the Lofts condominium across the pond and the lights in the house windows further along the shore, when viewed directly have a harsh mechanical effect evoking parking lots, asphalt, and window treatments. But reflected in the water, softened by the water's motion and refraction and shorn of the objects they are lighting, they become scenic: natural phenomenon converting the ungraceful to the beautiful. The truth but told slant?

Sunday, August 17, 2014

An Insane Instant

 As I was washing my hands last night, the angle of the light combined with the shadow cast by the raised tendon beneath the skin of my flexed left hand to create the illusion that I had a bloody gash in my arm. In almost the same instant I noticed the gash, I realized it was an illusion, but during some number of nanoseconds it seemed quite real. What happens when that mechanism, whatever it is, fails to trigger, and such perceptions gain a foothold on the mind so that, as dreams sometimes do, they create pseudo memories so vivid that even shortly after waking we still feel they were real experiences? For a person with a crippled illusion detector, experience would require exhausting continuous sorting of perceptions into illusions or real events. It could be almost a full-time job; to get any peace, the person might need to let the distinction go.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

I was walking the dog today, mostly going with the flow of ideas in my head. At one point, I thought of something that had turned out in a disappointing way. Brain scans show that the parts of our brains that light up when we experience something also light up when we recall it vividly.Whether the light show in the brain reflects the thoughts, the strong feeling of disappointment that I did indeed generate by that thought persisted as my mind wandered on. 

Once I realized that the disappointment still echoed in my brain though the sound that produced the echo was silent, I thought to go back and deal with the disappointment, assess its validity. However, I could not remember what it was that had sparked the emotion. I have always been capable of this kind of forgetting, though now that I am aging, I am better at it, especially when I am not paying attention to my thoughts.

I felt a twinge of horror: here I was stuck with a rogue effect that I could not analyze because it no longer had a cause. Thoughts leave their emotional echoes behind to mingle sometimes with other thoughts to which they bear no significant causal relationship. An associational link is possible but there is no guarantee that the point of linkage bears on the emotion that persists. This phenomenon suggest a landscape of memory littered with the emotional ruins of buildings that never actually existed, a confused geography that never did make any sense and for which no historical map exists. A wilderness.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Composting One's Self

This past week I made our first trip to the Amesbury City compost facility to dispose of the leaves and seeds and who knows what—all of which I had shoveled out of the gutter in front of our house. I also had some one-inch-thick magnolia branches I had taken off one tree in the front and some thorny wild rose clippings from the front yard and the edge of the pond. Some of the weeds I dug up from the lower terrace further down the hill—nasty, deep rooted burdocky looking things—I had just tossed in the garbage, and the more benign clippings and rotting leaves that had come from the yard itself, I just dumped down the hill since the erosion is so bad, anything that sticks either as humus or plants will be positive.

We had gotten our compost sticker the week before and scoped out where the place was. Even so, I lost my way trying to find it without our GPS. Ultimately, however, I had to cheat and use the GPS capacity of my iPhone to find it. It is a newly opened facility, out in the middle of nowhere near the newly relocated DPW facility. Tonight, walking home from my daughter Clare’s house, I was reminded of where the old facility was when I walked by it right next to Mt. Prospect Cemetery.

What a shame that they disconnected the rotting leaves and the rotting people. The cemetery and the old composting area shared an access road so that the reminder that we are also compost, that we are dust and will return to dust, or, more hopefully, to humus was an additional benefit to composting. As it is, when you go to the Amesbury, MA website, you will find a link explaining the procedure and cost for getting a permit to place compost at the city facility, and another link explaining the procedure and cost to put a body in the Mt. Prospect Cemetery. At least in the virtual world, the access points are still contiguous. I think it is a particularly nice touch that resident senior citizens can get one free compost permit.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Ducks and What?

As Terra and I returned from a walk, I paused on the deck, and looking down at the edge of Clarks Pond, I saw a head moving through the water. We had just rediscovered an old pair of binoculars that were of dubious value, so I fetched them from the study to try them out. When I returned to the deck, the mammal was hunched over, standing on a submerged section of a fallen tree in the water, the one I had planned to remove. I had envisioned myself floating off shore, sawing sections off and dragging them to shore, so that when I was finished, the shore line would look neat and orderly; though I would have hoped that with all I know, I should have rejected that idea out of hand, but I did not. It took my watching fallen trees in the pond lure wildlife providing convenient places for turtles to sun and for beavers and muskrats to munch, to re-enlighten me. Now I plan for the log and branches to stay till they rot.

"Muskrat." Wikipedia
But as I looked through my binoculars at the surprisingly sharp image, the beaver vs. muskrat question was what occupied my mind. I could not tell whether a muskrat or beaver was hunched over its root gnawing for a bit then slipping back in the water for more. I watched carefully, but it returned to the water each time in a way that concealed its tail. It seemed much too big for a muskrat, which The Washington Post’s kids guide to beavers and muskrats, told me max out at about 4 pounds (while beavers run 35 to 60 pounds).  On the other hand, eventually I saw the whole body as the creature swam and a black tail flagellated as it swam. The Post claimed that if you see only the head (what I saw at first) it is a beaver; the whole body (what I saw later), it’s a muskrat. I don’t think I saw two different animals. I was convinced enough right after sighting it to tell a friend that I had seen a beaver.
"Male Wood Duck" Wikipedia

While I was scrutinizing the mammal, however, a male wood duck swam into the same section of the pond. This ID was positive, since the previous day Madalene had identified the small group of ducks on the pond as wood ducks. I had looked at them through another set of binoculars then, but had seen only a silhouette because of the light. The outline did, however, show the swooping helmet of feathers at the back of the male wood duck’s head. Madalene remarked on the beauty of the wood duck’s coloring, and when I actually saw the color this time, it was dazzling. Both the pattern and color were so extravagant; that natural selection selects for the beautiful suggests some element of mystery embedded in either the process or the substance being processed.

I walked into town to meet Madalene at Flatbread Pizza for supper after her Yoga class. Returning home, as we stepped back onto our deck, I saw the mammal on the log again; this time I looked at it without the binoculars. Much to my surprise, I realized it was tiny, easily no more than four pounds.  The binoculars excluded too much of the context so that my frame of reference slipped. Concentrating too much on too little can lead to errors that seem solid the more so because of the assiduousness with which the erroneous observation was performed. Muir’s comment about how everything is connected works all the way down.

Monday, June 2, 2014

This Old Man

I have come into possession of one of the souvenirs of aging: a seven chambered pill box, each chamber with its own lid marked with a letter for a day of the week. I appreciate that the makers of my pillbox acknowledge that the issue is memory not cognition because they do not hesitate to mark both Tuesday and Thursday each with just a “T.” 

On Sunday I put two pills in each chamber; that way during the week I will know whether I have taken my pills or not. This concise device engages at once my deteriorating health and memory. But it is also a calendar on which I mark off the days, like opening the doors of an advent calendar anticipating Christmas, only in this case I will open the last door and then I’ll die. In a sense it is like the first advent, waiting for the big event, but unsure of when it will happen. When I was young, the days would drag until Christmas, but as I open these doors the weeks go by quickly. The practice forces me to mark off the days and weeks, reminds me that time is passing.

As I refill the week’s supply, I think, “Didn’t I just do this?” Pill taking becomes déjà vu: as the act of taking pills everyday becomes more ingrained in my brain, it is easier for me to recall having taken the pill, whether or not I have. Each event seems like I might have done it before, but the doors tell me which I have already passed through and what has passed through me and what of me has passed.

Sunday, April 27, 2014


I am so tired. An inauspicious way to begin. One morning last week, I walked on the winter side of the edge of spring: though it was well into April, it was just barely 20F and during the night leading into that morning it had snowed and had been in the teens. Two days before that, however, the temperature had been in the mid-seventies, so then we had been fairly far over the spring border in the summer side that day. But I am tired. Spring is a line we draw through the chaos of weather and then cleave to it, with effort.

The calendar designation of spring is easy, and insofar as such labels go, logical. It is the time between the vernal equinox and the summer solstice. But what is spring weather? We create the concept of spring and with it comes attributes of the weather. When the weather during the actual spring is very cold or hot, then we complain that it is not spring weather. But it is spring weather because it is spring and that is the weather. What is defective is our idea of the weather. We expend energy trying to bridge the gap between our expectation of what spring is and what spring is. If we were to let go of spring, we could enjoy spring more for its gift of the expected unexpected.

Past weather Wellsboro - april 2014

Average high temperature:19.1°F (normal: 55°F)
Average low temperature:10.5°F (normal: 32°F)
Average temperature:14.8°F (normal: 44°F)
Total Precipitation:1.11 inch (normal: 2.87 inch)
Total snowfall:0 inch
Highest max temperature:64.9°F
Lowest max temperature:°F
Highest min temperature:35.1°F
Lowest min temperature:°F

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Writing out [of] the moment

To capture a moment in writing is to step out of it; to preserve that moment means to no longer be a part of it. Of course I can think back on that day at the beach after it has naturally played itself out, perhaps later that day, or the following week or decade. But it is a commonplace that memories lose their sharp edges and mix with our desire to have found that almost perfect sea urchin shell on her birthday. Surely it was then. And it was purple, her favorite color, or was it gray. I don’t know because it crumbled to dust later and is gone. If I do not attend to events almost as they happen, I do not see them well enough to write about them. To write about my life is to live it differently because stepping out of my life becomes an essential part of living it. I must give my life up to keep it, an annoying paradox because it is both facile and bleak.

But I must write. If I am not doing that, my life becomes meaningless because it is simply lived, not reflected on. And as Plato has Socrates say in the Apology, “The unexamined etc. is not worth etc.” If I walk out the back door and down the hill across the thawing, muddy surface of the driveway and down again past the wood pile with its scattered mess of sugar maple bark arcs that have detached themselves from the logs I have spilt over the winter like scabs from a healed wound, if I walk this way and do not somehow take notice of them as separate from me and worthy of notice, then they disappear into the stream of events that flow through my life and have value only insofar as they create me. That is not enough value to make those events meaningful because I am so ephemeral. But if they form the basis of discourse that can spread from mind to mind, beyond the here and the present, then the world takes on meaning beyond me and beyond the subject of that discourse.

But is that meaning necessary. Isn't being itself enough meaning.  The Prime Mover says, “I am who am.” And what is the difference between my wish to write about my life and the compulsion of someone who must share on Facebook and Twitter. In a story by Tovia Smith on All Things Considered today, she interviewed a psychologist, Joseph Burgo, about the Boston Strong Tchotchke phenomenon and the attraction of displaying your support for something. Burgo complained, I think there's a kind of a feeling that unless you share your experience with other people it isn't entirely real to you unless you announce it to other people . . . . It's just part of this narcissistic culture of ours where everything is about self-display." However, I would like to think that my desire to say something well, to use language derive meaning that can be shared may make it about more than self-display. Just because I experienced something, that does not make it interesting, but in the telling of it I can both shine and disappear in the same act.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

No Time to Blog

Photography Prints
I have not been blogging lately because I have made the excuse that I need to work on my long term project, which this blog is ostensibly an aspect of. I have not actually written anything on the large project except for three or so, brief spurts. In addition, I have been, still am way behind in responding to student papers. I need to comment on essays and correct tests and quizzes, and make up an exam. 

I do not waste great swathes of time (there might be something dissolutely grand about that); I fritter away tiny shards of time so that I need not feel guilty about the time I waste on this and the time I waste on that because no one thing occupies me for a period of time that would be useful for anything of importance. Such a practice has the effect of putting off doing student papers one paper at a time. 

Part of the problem is that focusing attention for even a brief while can sometimes produce something of value, especially if it crystallizes a network of moments into something more than a list. So is this one of those crystallizing events or is it another shard in the heap by the door. 

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Brochen Spectre

"Brochen Spectre" (Wikipedia)
I could write about the cold: it is unusually as cold as it usually used to be. However, the span of one life it not enough to prove that the climate is changing. The scale of a planet’s time is so large that the span of one life in it is essentially invisible, but only nothing is invisible. An accumulation of essentially invisible things can certainly have an impact.

 I could write about how satisfying it is to read passages from Thoreau’s journals to students who don’t quite get him, but could. That “could” fires my enthusiasm because his is a voice full of carefully observed and considered ambiguity. I always (or like to think it is always) read the whole of the passage from his journals that the anthology titles “Seeing.” In it, he references the Brochen Spectre, the obscure optical phenomenon of observing your shadow contained in a rainbow and reflected back in the water droplets of fog or cloud. It is apt because observing nature is a constant battle between self and other: the proper balance is essential. And what is proper? In a mobile the balance point is not always the center, so it is possible that under some circumstances, perhaps a little less of me is called for, though in my little world I will never be able to approach invisibility.

Friday, January 24, 2014

I drove in possibility

Driving in imaginary snow is demanding.

When we left Amesbury, MA for the 440 mile trip to Wellsboro, PA early Sunday morning with four or five inches of new snow on the ground, it was snowing and in the thirties (F). Our street had been plowed in a way that increased its treacherousness—not quite clearing the street and compressing the wet snow undersurface into ice. Elm Street, an important artery in the city of 16,000 , was essentially clear with some snow in the gutters, but it was very wet. A percentage probability of rain predicted for that morning had been long ago proved wrong and silently changed.

The route we were taking, angling down through central New York, is notorious for snow, and a 50% probability of snow showers through there (Oneonta, NY was our metonymic location) seemed like a slim chance for a smooth trip. I was gripping the wheel tightly, anticipating a Buddhist-nightmare drive where the ambiguity of the road surface would require me to be alert for danger that more than likely did not exist except in my head.

We went from icy and snowy on our street, to very wet and slightly slushy on Elm Street to wet on I 495. As the miles on the wet-but-possibly-icy-at-anytime interstate (driven at closer to the speed limit) passed under us, the wetness of the road became less puddled until light strips of dry pavement showed where vehicle tires had gradually peeled off the moisture in the right lane. Eventually, the road dried completely, and the sun shone intermittently. On a dry road, I let go of the threats posed by the road and settled back into the threats posed by the drivers on the road, me included. The dangers posed by sentient beings seem more manageable, primarily because there is a chance that the negative effect will be softened by rational motivation. The probability of that characteristic in the weather is zero.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Owl Be There

Photo by Madalene Murphy
On our way home from walking (and in the case of our dog Terra running) along in the sand of Salisbury beach along the shore of the Atlantic Ocean, we drove through the fjorded salt marshes lining the road where we saw an SUV pulled over to the side, and standing behind it a man looking through a telescope out into the marsh. We knew there were Snowy Owls in the area, driven south of their usual range in search of food. 

Friends of ours had seen (and photographed) one back in Pennsylvania, and we were frankly a bit jealous. We stopped and asked the man along the road what he was looking at; he gestured toward a white spot in the distance and offered to let us look through his scope at the Snowy Owl. As we looked, he noted that this was the purest white one he had seen. While we looked and talked, cars began to arrive and disgorged people with tripods and cameras with lenses as big as their arms. 

When we left there must have been ten cars parked along this stretch of the road with people looking at and photographing the distant Snowy Owl, who was serenely combing the ground for rodents. The next day that we came, a Snowy Owl on a lump of snow quite close to the road also attracted a seeing frenzy. The group photographing the owl was the subject of the front-page picture on today’s paper: "Snowy Owl Draws Crowd." Who was the big news?