How does one know?

How does one know one is dead?

I was in the airport in Munich. My flight was scheduled to leave in about three hours. I made my way to the proper check-in area, checked my suitcase and walked to the passport check. The line was very long, and I had a small concern about making my flight. As slowly as the line seemed to move, it did move, and soon I was passing through. I was traveling with a group, but oddly, they were not in line with me. I’m not sure how I got separated, but the people around me were all strangers. Once through, we all made our way to another waiting area. There were seats, but the room was remarkably devoid of other features. No wall posters advertising vacation spots, No overhead signs showing gate numbers. After a short wait, we were led through a door to waiting buses. People jostled with their belongings and carry-on bags for room. Our bus was tightly packed and had only standing room. There was a small half-sized bench seat for a few older individuals. The bus would take us to a boarding area away from the main terminal building. It pulled out and everyone tilted backward for a moment, then righted. There was some soft chatter in the background, in languages I could not understand. It wasn’t German. After ten minutes the bus slowly came to a stop in front of a concrete building, two stories high with the part facing us all glass. There was a glass door leading in, and inside one could see an escalator. There was a small standing desk inside a few feet from the door. A man was standing at the desk. He was wearing a blue uniform-type shirt and had a reflective safety strap at an angle from right shoulder to left hip. He was looking down at the desk, and did not appear to look up when the bus arrived. The bus doors did not open. I looked around the bus, and realized I could see out the windows I was facing, but not out behind me, as there were no windows on that side. I also realized the bus got here without a driver, some kind of automatic transportation system. In the bus, we waited for something to happen.

After ten minutes when nothing had happened, people started to rustle and look perplexed. Another ten minutes went by. The man behind the desk walked to the door and stepped outside. There was a man in a wheelchair rolling up, and he went through the door held open by the man in the blue shirt. Inside, the man in the wheelchair, who did not look young, by the way, demonstrated remarkable wheelchair handling. He spun the chair around to back on to the escalator, and held it front-wheels-up as he ascended. We could only see the bottom part of the escalator and he was soon out of view. Another several minutes went by, and I started to wonder where we were and what was happening. Was this it? The end? Was this our exit from our existence? Who was the guy in the blue shirt? Why did I not know anyone on the bus? Suddenly, the middle door of the bus opened, and we were led into the building, through the glass door, and onto the escalator. The escalator seemed longer than I expected, but it did end and we streamed off. In the corridor at the top, again, with no signs, no posters, just off-white walls and a tile floor, there was the man in the blue shirt. He was directing some people to the left and some to the right down separate halls. Again, I wondered, are we being directed according to our ultimate destination? And if I died, would I know it? Would it feel different? Shouldn’t I feel nothing, and not be aware? But there is no one to tell us.

We walked a bit farther and I came to my senses. There was a waiting area which looked familiar. We had to pass through another security check to get there. My traveling companions had already made it through, and there was a loading gate manned by airline personnel. A sign above indicated our flight and time, and through a window I could see our American Airlines Airbus waiting for us to board.

For Halloween, 2018.

Deconstructing the Sounds of Silence

Last Friday evening I went out for a run on one of my usual routes.  I was running past a local pizza restaurant with outside seating.  There sat a very nice looking young couple with a partially eaten pizza for two sitting atop a little stand, and a half filled bottle of wine.  The young man and woman were both intently gazing…at their cell phones, texting, or whatever.  They did not notice as I ran by, and they were not speaking to each other.

I had the good fortune to see Paul Simon at the Mann Theater in Philadelphia a few weeks ago.  At the age of 74, he put on an amazing performance.  His backup band of ten musicians played too many instruments to count, including brass, wind, percussion, guitar and bass, and keyboard.  They all were fantastic.  Very moving, though, was his solo rendition of Sounds of Silence.

Hello darkness my old friend, I’ve come to talk with you again.

Running along, alone, I get a chance to converse with myself.  I have running (heh, heh) conversations in my head as I go along.  Passing the couple paying attention to their smart devices and not to each other, I wondered what they were looking at.  Texting?  Looking at a “social media” site?  Checking out what other people are doing?  I don’t know, but they were silent.  Not everyone is like that, and certainly not in every social gathering, but how frequent it is to see, not just a couple, but groups of people all looking at their cell phones (an anachronism, now, to call it a phone), and not connecting with each other.  This conversation I had in my head, and it kept me going for another mile.

In the naked light I saw ten thousand people maybe more.

People talking without speaking.  People hearing without listening.

When I think of these lines, I think about the disconnect between groups of people in our country and also around the world.  I want to delve into a group’s message, to see what they are really trying to say.  What are their goals, their fears, their aspirations?  Why would there be a strongly supported vote in a particular state to enforce laws about who may use a particular restroom?  Are the proponents of such a law just rigid, or do they have some fear that needs addressing?  Do people who support a law promoting “religious freedom” in fact feel their freedom is impinged if they cannot refuse service to a gay couple?  If so, is there a way to address their concerns without denying the gay couple appropriate service?  The NRA and the people wanting to carry a 9 mm Glock on their hips into their local Burger King clearly have a message they want to impart, which is completely missed by the people wanting to ban assault rifles.  And in the USA, I think our ultimate miscommunication is between members of congress on both sides of the aisle who cannot agree to discuss or compromise on anything.  World-wide, there are just too many examples to start a list….

And the people bowed and prayed to the neon god they made.

At the Paul Simon concert, the sun had set and the audience was under the darkened cover of the outdoor theater.  There were hundreds of people holding up their cellphones capturing video of Paul Simon and his band performing.  The light from the cell phone screens reminded me of concerts past, before cell phones were invented, when people held up lighted Bic lighters as a symbol of solemnity and reverence when the song particularly moved them.  Now, the light from the phones is seen only from behind, and is a function of people capturing the performance so they can show their friends how lucky they were to be there.  In the first instance, the light from the lighters is a shared experience of people silently communicating.  In the other, it is all about the individual out of the moment.  From the back, though, I felt a sense of nostalgia.

Hear my words that I might teach you.  Take my arms that I might reach you.

One, an individual, must be receptive to be taught, or to allow an interaction.  We have opportunities to communicate, to agree, to disagree, and to blend thoughts.  Our world seems ever more dangerous and disconnected.  Whatever we can do to make it less so is an improvement.

 

 

 

 

Looking out; Looking Back

Way back in college, one of my professors, in a class in which I was a bit lost, talked about “signifier and signified”.  Hang with me on this, because it gets confusing before it gets clearer.  This professor, who was French and had an accent, said something about signifier and signified which has stuck with me, and seemed important.  He referred to these concepts as someone looking at another image, whether in a mirror, or another person or thing, and that the image changes the originator of the interaction.  That was probably a misinterpretation on my part.

It turns out, these terms, signifier and signified, are concepts in the large field known as “semiotics”.  Also, the signifier is not a person, it is a form that refers to something else, together making a meaningful sign.  An example would be a written word, like tree, referring to the object which we know as a tree.  But these signifiers are not limited to letters, or words.  They can be body language, facial expressions, clothing, grunts, color coding, and so on.

What the professor meant, and what I took from it, are too far removed from today, for me to say whether he knew what he was talking about (I bet he did), or if I just took from it what I wanted.  But I liked the idea that the message, whether a word, an expression, a gasp, a groan, a sneer, is reflected back and alters the sender, which is where I begin.

I look out from my own eyes, and if there is no one watching, I feel a certain way.  Trees, rocks, the road, my environment, will affect the way I feel or act, but they are not actively answering my message that I am either consciously or unconsciously sending out.  Still, the reflection of that message, say a groan when I see a hill coming up, or a sideways glance at a tree just starting to blossom, will reflect back at me and alter my course.  How we feel starting out on a run is almost never how we feel at the end, likely due to these interactions which change us as we run along.

Adding another person running with me is another complexity altogether in this analysis.  Now, I have someone actively receiving my message, interpreting it, and sending back a reflection with that person’s own message included.  I suppose this can happen with an animal as well, say, if one encounters a deer on the run who gets startled by one’s presence.  Or, if one happens upon a snarling dog in the road.  Or, as happened to me on a run in Wyoming, along the road bordering the National Elk Refuge, a ram in a group of big horn sheep standing in the roadway staring me down.  That was a definite direction changer.  Having a person run with me means keeping up, slowing down, talking, looking strong, looking beat, changing posture, and many other changes in direction, attitude, and feeling based on the reflection from the running partner.  This is not to include direct communication, but rather the meaning of the message sent and the reflection received.  We have these interactions with others throughout the day, but in running they take on a certain impact.

One of the most insidious, and dangerous interactions between messages sent and received, is from our own reflection.  As I mentioned earlier, when I am looking out through my own eyes at things around me, I feel a certain way.  But, seeing my own reflection is a message which can really go deep.  As I run, I can feel athletic, strong, tired, wet, dry, sore, fast, slow, or tough.  I can be distracted, angered, calm, happy, gritty or simply wondering at nature.  Almost never am I depressed or lonely, even when running alone.  One glance in a shop window, though, can change my perception immensely.  Almost always, I feel that I look younger  and more athletic than my reflection in the window.  How does one respond to that message, that you are older than you feel.  For me, it’s a great reminder to pull in the abs, straighten the shoulders, head up, and look more like I’m enjoying myself than look like I’m on a forced march.  Then there is the core of feeling, a sense of inner strength but also a minor sense of inner weakness.  These messages confront one’s sense of self, of ability, and of vulnerability.  All that from a simple reflection, one glance which may take less than a tenth of a second.

In sum, these are all messages and reflections over which we have no direct control.  They are ingrained in the way we interact with our surroundings, and we don’t take too much time to think about them or formulate a reaction.  Recognizing them, though, allows us to consider how we think and act on a basic, reflexive level, and use parts of our brain which are in the realm of the subconscious.

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