Phlogiston: The Watering Hole, Observation, and Perception

phlogiston |flōˈjistän, -tən|
a substance supposed by 18th-century chemists to exist in all combustible bodies, and to be released in combustion.
ORIGIN mid 18th cent.: modern Latin, from Greek phlogizein ‘set on fire,’ from phlox, phlog- ‘flame,’ from the base of phlegein ‘to burn.’

Illustration — “Aluminium Sky,” made on an overcast October day in Columbia, South Carolina’s Congaree Vista district.

It’s hard to describe the compression of the last three months. Compression of all things, wanted or unwanted, nevertheless needing to be done in all the same allotment of time. Is that not the nature of things now? One has to question, if one is being observant of the blow-up at the end of the equation “time = contained crucible minus infinity of intent,” what role does real communication have in the face of the micro-cauldron of this sound-bite-enamored succinct and concise culture that has taken hold of our world?

One has only to watch a single episode of Ken Burn’s film “The Civil War” to have even a hankering of what I am referring to; the letters of soldiers to their loved ones—boys from the farms, workers from the factories, and their loved ones’ words in reply to them. All of which collide to give ample evidence of the breadth and scope of what once was, coming on the heels of the Age of Enlightenment, into the destruction and turmoil of the utter chaos of a nation ripped apart by hatred and distrust of even one’s own sisters and brothers. That was maybe the first step of razing the art of communication.

I am an artist. When I sit in a bar full of people, I scan the room. Then I peruse. I then begin to focus on sectors, visual closeups, if you will, and compose in my mind’s eye the illustration of that moment. I try to retain it always, when drilling down to a distillation of a moment for later thought. Moments, I have found, are far more important than minutes, or hours, or even days.

To me, observation and perception are like a necessary element to Life. They are the rudimentary components—the building blocks—of real communication.

As in, water.


Yet we have become so trained, as the good drones we are, to the artless nature of succinct and concise monosyllabic words in short sentences consisting of 12 words or less, that we are effortlessly slipping over the precipice of the last foothold of understanding.

The paragraph fell off this precipice long ago, to a messy and brutal death in the talus below.

I am an artist. When I sit in a bar full of people, I scan the room. Then I peruse. I then begin to focus on sectors, visual closeups if you will, and compose in my mind’s eye the illustration of that moment. I try to retain it always, when drilling down to a distillation of a moment for later thought. Moments, I have found, are far more important than minutes, or hours, or even days. Moments can tell us more. A simple, subtle gesture in a bar can begin a waterfall of responses. I have attended many bars in my life. I’ve always been fascinated by the panoply of human interaction, the give and take of wanting, and the back and forth of receiving. None of it is really ever inclined to interact in the way we foresee it, or wish it to conclude.

The practice of observation is something I used to try, very hard, to teach. To offer up to others a magic key of understanding just by focusing on the visual moments we are surrounded by in each and every moment of a 24-hour day. Yet, it seems that moments have only succeeded in entering our social and community consciousness in the guise of the sound bite. In the manner of succinctness. In the exclusionary vacuum of being “concise.”

I am far more a disciple of a long inhale of that which is about me, followed by the protracted exhale of consolidation. Observation, when allowed to hone down a room into it’s precious moments of interaction between people occupying that room for a few brief minutes, or hours, can yield a lifetime of discovery and at least a half-day’s worth of understanding. Conclusions aren’t welcome. At first. It’s best to switch off the engine of conclusion in your mind when engaging in deep observation. Perception, which inevitably leads to conclusions is a distraction by those practicing the pure art of observation. Conclusion is that ignored elephant in the room, but that which is still within the realm of perception.

Remember, I mentioned that word in unison with observation above. For I have come to know that observation laced with perception, then placed into a centrifuge of mind, can often offer up a very clear and pure water of understanding, much as Epona once offered the Gaels fluid wisdom from her blue crystalline bottle within her harbored and hidden spring of knowledge in the old days. We have no simple feat of finding Epona today; our culture has obliterated her from memory. She does not mix well with the culture of performance which always seethes with the addiction to profit. Wisdom comes with time, and the crucible of observation’s focus needs a clear view, to be coupled with perceptions later, when free from the heat of a moment, or the strange and alien nature of a moment observed for the first time.

Where else but a bar can one soak in such an infinity of multiplied moments? For at each table in the room there are exponential moments brought into being by not only the individuals in the room, but in the multiplication of their interactions with all others.

It is an artist’s paradise of intoxicating moments.

And then there is the art of a crafted beer.

It’s an exhilarating recipe that generally ends up fading in another equation of thirst versus capacity.

So it’s best not to imbibe as much as the other fauna at the watering hole, but to wait until afterwards to take that drink of water necessary to survive later, after you’ve resigned your seat and table to the greater cacophony of the room, or to a smaller circle of compadres.

You see things.

Sometimes, if a great investment is at stake, you see things you may not have license to see. But usually, each sighting is a gift, a gathering of that precious collection of moments into a volume rendered in a single night.

If I were to try to grapple with the best way of envisioning, or comprehending, that delicate dance of slight movements between observation and perception, I’d describe it as lucidity. For observation without perception is sterile; it is an empty vessel. Perception without observation is a surreal nightmare of flashing imagery in one’s head, with too many heated judgments skewing that which one could retain and understand more clearly that which they see in front of their eyes. In short, perceptions alone are usually only chaos. Chaos does not lead us anywhere, except into the heart of chaos. And I do not believe that the heart of chaos is still and quiet like the eye of a hurricane. I have pondered on this for decades. The heart of chaos is a torrential storm of compression, and such a storm that it must be the closest thing to a hell as anything the human race has imagined. The heart of chaos is real; we are living in it at this time. The only key to escaping the heart of chaos is lucidity, crafted by us through forging two elements into one—observation and perception. Too much perception and the observation becomes brittle and will crack. Just enough, and it will anneal into an unbreakable solidity of purpose, called lucidity. In that way, we escape the heart of chaos, by using the key of lucidity.

Lucidity in the moment is a practiced craft, like a fine beer. It is an art, like a fine painting.

Reflection, given enough time, is a patient art, a generous offer of one’s mind to just contemplate the myriad infinity of moments observed. One can form compositions from these contemplations.

They are often the only real truth we will ever see, or experience.

And that room, our watering hole, when closed down, with empty chairs which may as well be floating in the sky, for all the hubbub of moments now sheared from their place of purpose, has returned to it’s stable nature of vacuum.

We are far more fleeting than we perceive.

“Aluminium Sky,” digital composite image from the “America: Lost & Found series. All words and images Copyright/Published 2020 by Tom Ogburn.


Almost born on the hospital steps of Camden in a rush to be on time...