A Confrontation With Consciousness
Such decorations make the building housing Starbuck's seem more somber rather than less. They are not only the commonplace insult of a de-Christianized Merry Christmas, and a de-Holidayed Happy Holidays, but also that of a de-Greetinged Seasons Greetings--leaving us all lying in a sodden puddle of Merry Happy Seasons slush--wounded casualties of the War on Christmas, with no Christian Soldier medics in hailing distance to come to our aid.
The Merry Happy Seasons tree in the glass window flanking the doorway was shivering in the 15F degree breezes that the folks hurrying to work were flipping through the revolving door. But, then, anybody who wears satin covered balls and little twinkling lights for a living has to be something of a pantywaist.
Even the honking tenor sax passages of Rockin' Around The Christmas Tree couldn't lift the spirits of the huddled, topcoated, Stormy Monday morning march. In case you hadn't guessed, things were glum. Glum.
I was sitting there having my usual Vente Cafe Americano dosed with Cinnamon and Half and Half. This is the strongest regular concoction of caffeine the good company with the crowned mermaid on its green logo openly offers--four shots of Espresso dumped into an 18 oz cup filled with hot water. It is not widely known, but if you are even more serious than this, you can go further, order a Black Eye, and replace the hot water with the Coffee of the Day. No pantywaists need apply.
I'm a regular there among the black marble walls, and by now the baristas are used to the waggishness of Joe Claus. Whenever I see a new barista behind the counter, I always make a point to put on my most deadpan George Burns face and ask them solemnly, "When you use Half and Half, which half do you use first?"
I needed my Vente Americano. It is my one vice. I hadn't started my early morning in the usual way: 8oz of chilled strong coffee cut with 8oz of chilled milk; oatmeal made with many raisins, hot tea, melted butter, and a pinch of salt; and blogs to scan on the computer screen. With such preparation, I am ready to savor my Vente Americano rather than relate to it like a strung out junkie.
Unfortunately dealing with the zany monthly avalanche of groceries the night before had left me no time to make and chill a fresh pot of coffee. When you are on food stamps, such as I am, you have to double up on the weekly meat, cheese, or egg specials in order to get a decent monthly ration of protein for no more than $2.00 a pound. This requires so much monetary outlay at once that the most effective way to bargain shop is to do one large monthly trip committing the vast majority of your funds and saving on the gasoline. So I did that Sunday.
I did get my Tibetan Oatmeal, but the computer badly needed defragging, so my screen was reduced to a mere matrix of blinking multicolored blocks. And so was I.
So I was sitting next to the furled umbrella nursing clogged sinsuses and a caffeine starvation headache. I was turned away from the brolly and the doorway, gazing toward the sour visage of Don Imus in a black cowboy hat on the plasma screens surrounding the Building Security Station.
The music had shifted to some other Christmas non-carol with scat singing in it. Then, off to my right, I heard the scuff, scuff, clop, clop, clop, clop of a fashionable set of high-heeled leather boots that had just swirled through the revolving door. I like high-heeled boots. High-heeled boots are very good things. And they are usually accompanied by things equally good, or even better. So I turned to my right and confronted a dark green canvas topcoat hanging in midair.
This was rather surprising. But it soon morphed back into the furled Starbuck's umbrella--a vision degenerating into a mere simile.
It leaves a residue of wonder in me about the experience of consciousness itself. In the flashing interstities between green-topcoat-canvas-oh-no-umbrella, lies the great mystery of our own self-aware point of view.
Most of the time, it feels like the world is something that merely happens to us. But little transformations like my umbrella show us how much we actually manufacture our own experience rather than merely perceiving it. Consciousness is a dialog with oneself, and the language of that dialog is what makes our world.
A little later in the morning I was sitting in the lobby of a different building on my morning work break. I work in a wilderness of badges. Ordinary employees wear my badge, a laminated picture like a vertical driver's license hanging on a lanyard around your neck or clipped to the belt by a retractable spring loaded pull string.
Security guards checking bags have metal badges pinned to the left chest of a white uniform shirt with black-and-yellow uniform patches on the upper arms. The uniform is a light duty one. A sports coat over top of it would disguise it completely. Metal badges also decorate that superior sort of visiting security guard, whose uniform is all one color, who totes a Ruger .357 Magnum revolver on one hip, and who carries the money bags in or out of the building to and fro from the idling armored car.
Metal badges finally grace the uniformed police officers who supervise the bag-checking security guards, and keep constantly moving eyes on the traffic in and out of the foyer--from the composition helmeted bike couriers with their flapped delivery bags to the dazed strangers trying to figure out which of the four banks of elevators will get them to the 37th floor.
These Olympian figures are the ones with the bullet-proof kevlar under their single color uniforms; with the wide black waist harness loaded with 20 lbs of gear, including a pair of Glock automatics, one right side vertical draw, the other left side crossdraw; and with the fancy, special hats.
The "threat level" signs beside the bag checking tables were once screaming bright yellow, but they have faded to a modest shade of buttermilk. The two story windows of the set back building doors face due south and the foyer gets lots of ultraviolet light washing over it.
The social signals of all these badges and their addenda are real, but arbitrary, a construction of mental consensus which our individual minds reconstruct every time we look at them. But they are arbitrary, something our minds make rather than our eyes see. All it takes is a misplaced badge to show this.
A gentleman walked through the door and past all the security while I was sitting there. He had no bag, and so was not stopped or impeded. He was wearing an expensive black wool topcoat, hand made Italian shoes, and an impossibly large and luxurious fawn colored fur flap cap. He was a slight, thin, pocket-sized man in his early fifties, dwarfed by the guards and officers, and the cap made him look like a mobile mushroom. The last thing he appeared to be was a uniformed security professional.
However, as he passed in front of me, down the escalator to the basement cafeteria, I noticed that in the middle of the front fur flap of his hat was a metal badge. I haven't a clue what it meant that he was. And, like the topcoat that turned into the umbrella, his badge brought me back to the realization of how much of our experience is actually manufactured by our minds, individually or collectively.
My headache persisted throughout my workday. If there is such a thing as primary, purely passive experience, a headache must be the archetype of it. A headache is, in a sense, even more primary than the head in which it is located. A headache has no shape, no color, no tangible texture, no smell, no taste. It barely has location. Other than the fact that you don't like it, how can you explain the difference between it and a head non-ache? "It hurts!" you say? What hurts? Your head or the headache itself?
Yet it can ruin your day. Mine did. I didn't get rid of it until I got home, took three Excedrin, and had a two hour nap.
Throughout this post I have given your mind the material to construct a world. My world. Some of the material is as doubtful as my perception of a furled umbrella as a levitating topcoat. All of it is ultimately doubtful as life, however vivid it is as literature. Not that such things didn't happen to me, but most of them were manufactured by me, for my own entertainment, without conscious thought. We think we live in a world of real life. We actually live in a world of autobiographical literature.
Others live in narratives as long and panoramic (at least to them) as War and Peace, or as lurid and violent as The Maltese Falcon, or as dense, designed, and detailed as The Golden Bowl.
Mine tends to run to the "familiar essay", as you might have already guessed.