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Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Moon Aborted

Moon Aborted

Recently some of my childhood heroes got together to send a letter of protest about the administration’s proposal to completely cancel our nations plans to return to the moon. These men now in old age appear as messengers from a nobler era. Neil Armstrong, Jim Lovell and Eugene Cernan were among the signatories in this rebuke of national policy that claims we are conceding our rightful place on the cutting edge of space technology to those less deserving. I remember that night of the first moon landing in July 1969, how very exciting it all was to be alive in such amazing times.
I remember how, as a youngster I felt betrayed when our national goal disappeared as our nation grew bored with it. I have secretly held resentment all these years as if a future that could have been, filled with technology’s promise, was taken away and replaced by Disco music and mood rings.

I wrote this little following snippet as an aborted blog entry last year in a failed attempt at dry humor. At the time I thought it was terrible and it’s still terrible but its kind of timely now in a way that will soon seem evident.

“In honor of the fortieth anniversary of the moon landing I would like to pay homage to that other testament to the human spirit, my summer Vacation. I can still hear the words of my wife reverberating in my ears on that chilled February morning, “We as a family should commit ourselves to achieving the goal before the end of this summer go to the Eastern shore of Maryland before and return safely to Philadelphia” I, being the family’s Werner Von Braun, was charged with implementation of these lofty goals. Immediately I began making plans for my long anticipated summer vacation. Despite having all these months to prepare the inevitable crunch time has arrived.

This coming Thursday we will pull our fully laden trailer loaded with a thousand essential things the two hundred or so miles to Maryland’s Eastern shore. Once there if all goes to plan, we will begin to reap the fruits of my labors. The fact is however that things often don’t go as planned, just as our intrepid astronauts discovered when their computer told them to land in a boulder field. Having the sense and the training they were able to adjust their landing site with just seventeen seconds of fuel remaining. To avoid such calamities, I always plan things in advance so I might have the time to bring my plans into action and run any simulations as required.

In preparations for all manner of endeavors I often will first create lists within lists. This past weekend as a hundred things filled my head I entered pre flight mode in which I began the process of fleshing out the details on the final checklists. Some of the first items on my lists were obvious needs like food, sporks and space blankets. Others like my mp3 collection and a dozen different baseball caps, although not technically necessary they are not any less essential.

The logistics involved with planning such a trip were staggering, and not unlike those labored upon by the Apollo program in their race to the moon, I attempt to anticipate every eventuality. I began this practice years ago in an effort to fight off the chaos brought on by a flurry of my own thoughts. Of late I feel however I may just be feeding the fire. If something were to go wrong out there and I were to become lost in a lifeless, chaotic wilderness I might soon crimp my air hose and be left to die in an alien landscape. Or worse, I could forget the dogs shot records. However if all goes well I may yet catch that spotted flounder on my surf rod or kayak the length of the sound without dropping my sunglasses in the drink.

And when the trip is over and we’ve returned to our cubicles we will remember those golden days of glory and how we did these things not because they were easy but because they were hard.”

I wrote this originally as a play on how our adventurous natures were somehow usurped while we slept by a culture of safety. One year out this entry now seems funny to me because in this era of cost cutting, not only is the future of space exploration in doubt so also are the tried and true rituals of summer vacation. It seems this too has become victim to budgetary short falls. There will be no planning and packing, no daylong voyage. There will no thunderstorms at sea, no watching in awe the lightning arc across the charcoal sky. The lists and tools, for at least a season, will now sit idle. Hard cuts had to be made but I wonder if the spirit can long endure the rigors of austerity.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

The culture of accountability

In the waning years of the great civilizations of the Bronze Age there was a belief among the royal and priestly classes that their fortunes and dynasties would endure the ages. Despite their wisdom, they could not see the true meaning hidden within the subtle changes that had befallen their world. There are lessons there among the heroic tales of the Iliad that describe for us a world characterized by desperate actions by ill advised and desperate leaders who would cling to a forlorn notion of honor. The realities were far more complex even for a bard of Homer’s stature to describe. What is often lost to the casual historian is the fact within a mere eighty years, the Greek culture that had launched a thousand ships for the sake of fair Helen, had ceased to exist. The cultures of the eastern Mediterranean had fallen into a Dark Age. What parallels could be drawn by an astute observer from these ancient tales to the current state of affairs in which we find ourselves. Some say to those in the past their primary enemy was their own success. By this I mean, their populations grew beyond their capacity to feed them. As the privations of an economy in turmoil made themselves evident their leaders could not look beyond the status quot for answers.

For those of us, who came of age during the Reagan era and were unlucky enough to live outside the sphere of the wealthiest of Americans, there is something that each has in common. This being experiential thread of being the cultural scapegoat for the perceived excesses of the baby boomers that came before us. This population boom flowered in the cultural revolutions that followed and was characterized in popular song as the dawning of a new age. This new age was however short lived as the economic realities of the 1980’s were made evident. The promise of a world free of war and disease was perhaps a long shot to begin with but what about the other things? It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when this all began to change. Sometime during the 1980’s a culture of profit at any cost was embraced by an elite cadre of the wealthiest who shunned industry as a cause unto itself for the fortune of the bottom line. In one generation the assets of our nation were liquefied to line the pockets of these privateers in gold. For these men, pride in a sense of accomplishment that comes with the production of goods and services or the welfare of workers families would no longer be a priority. Instead, the goal of increased profitability would be their rallying cry.

Since then the computer from which reams of data can be processed instantaneously has become commonplace. In their hands it would become the tool through which the institutionalized scrutiny that pervades our culture was created. This scrutiny has trickled down to a point where it is involved in virtually every facet of our every day lives. We are told what we should eat, what we should look like, how we should spend our free time and how to be safe. In this made for television fantasy land of images and fun facts, there is safety in numbers. For our short sighted and narcissistic society, it is true in both the sense of a herd and as algorithm. For those who are held accountable these numbers can be arranged to prove or disprove anything. And the subsequent finger pointing allays any collective responsibility. We can pretend then that we should expect guarantees against the ravages of crime, nature and disease even as the climate itself goes through the most dramatic changes since the ice age. In this era of terrorism, plauge and foreign war Statistics have replaced commonsense and dignity. As a result, the cooperative nature of the common good is seen as an anachronism.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Where did the time go?

My father always said that time was slipping away from him. This prediction was a forgone conclusion that was as true for him, as it is for all the rest of us. He was not talking about life’s inevitable end, but of the experience it self. I’m now middle aged and I’m beginning to understand what he was on about. What he meant was, as the length of his Days, Weeks, Months and years passed him by in comparison to the full measured length of his life, these segments became shorter and shorter. This type of experiential perspective can only be attained along the way in the fullness of life’s journey. I’m not convinced yet that this is a common experience shared among all people. But I too have watched summers float on seemingly like ages onto themselves. In comparison they now have been reduced to the twelve calendar weeks that mark their passing like a gym teachers stopwatch. Taking this thought further I would ask, would living five hundred or a thousand years further skew this perspective? And would then those punctuations on our calendars then become meaningless?
If space and time are inextricably linked as is described in modern cosmology and space is expanding at an ever-increasing rate then is time also expanding? We can easily measure the three dimensions in which we live. We are all familiar with how this works. Time however to our current understanding is a linear construction moving forever forward in one direction. If space-time is in fact one entity, then should we not be able to measure some manifestation of this expansion in time? Currently, time can only be measured in the same manner in which it always has been. If however due to some human sensory limitations we can only experience time in this one way then we may never know.
For the sake of argument I’ve begun to image time as sphere expanding outward in all directions from the big bang onward. Contained in the surface of this theoretical sphere are the infinite points representing infinite lines of temporal movement. And there within the volume of the sphere are held frozen each elapsed moment from the beginning onward. Assuming we are on the leading edge of this growing sphere the future has not yet been created. It however would be equally possible then that we exist now in someone else’s past. If these things were found to be true, it would prove what many throughout time had suspected, that time like any other dimension can be traversed. Perhaps scenarios like these have already taken place in places where the fabric of time may be worn thinner than in others, allowing for some a kind of extra sensory perception to occur. My hope is that if these moments are there frozen than we one day could float there for a while and bask in a golden moment. Or maybe even just hold it still for a while as we experience it again. If you future people happen to be reading this obscure little blog and this question were answered would you please let us know? I expect a knock on my door right about now.

Monday, March 15, 2010

The Fly

The Fly

On these cold winter days as I sit observing the sun’s warming rays creep across the room through my window, I am sometimes reminded of my pet fly. Many years ago when I was a young art student, I was allowed the temporary use of studio space by the university. Though the shared space was small, it had the benefit of exceptional natural light that streamed through the north facing windows. I was participating in an open study course work that allowed anytime access. I preferred to work early in the morning through afternoon to take full advantage of the light. Each day before I would set myself to work I would load up on hot tea with honey as my preferred caffeine kick. As the semester rolled on the Styrofoam cups containing the dregs of tea bags, backwash and honey began to accumulate, obscuring the paint stand. After taking heat for the mess one morning I set to work cleaning it up. What I discovered that morning was to me both fascinating and unusual. On top of one of the cup lids sat the soggy discarded tea bag upon which a housefly had taken for its retirement cottage. I thought it odd that the fly did not fly when approached. I was able to pick up the cup and closely examine it and still it did not budge. I proceeded to gently prod at it with a pencil tip and its only response was to slowly walk to the opposite corner. As the day wore on I periodically checked on the status of my little friend and he each time I found him more determined than ever to stay despite my periodic eviction notices.
After a long weekend I returned to the studio and was surprised to find my new friend in good health and spirit. As the days turned to weeks I sustained my teacup lodger by pouring the remainders of my tea onto the old teabag that began to resemble an old sodden futon pad on which he lounged. From it he would extend his mouthparts and drink and then perhaps take a short walk on the make shift patio. This experience in interspecies cooperation ended just as the new spring was about to arrive. I had hoped he was just wintering there and would fly off as the longest-lived housefly in history. This was not to be on a day in mid. March I found him still standing as ever. He did not come to feed that day he apparently had died in his sleep. I sometimes wonder what he took away from the experience and what strange bit of wiring made him stay in the first place.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Are you a Pack Rat like me?

Are You a Pack Rat?

I’ve often been accused of being a “pack rat”, a person who hoards what others would consider dispensable. I admit I have a hard time saying no to free stuff. And I have been known to hold on to “mementos”. I would classify these things as objects I have assigned emotional significance to for their ability to conjure other places and times. The question is whether this is to a degree healthy and if so when does behaviors of mere collecting cross the line into the realm of obsessive. I have been enamored by pieces of art as possessing singular qualities and of antiques as time travelers. These statements for most may seem rational. Where however is the dividing line between things possessing value and those possessing none. For most a bottom line dollar value usually will act as the benchmark. These benchmarks however are created by an items rarity and desirability to collectors. So that means if you’re a collector of stamps and the perforation marks on a particular set are on the top verses the bottom, it could mean a significant difference in monetary value. These things are far more easily distinguished as valuable by long standing traditions. It is the other things I have the most trouble with. The everyday stuff that creates the backgrounds of our lives that in the end is discarded, overshadowed by the new.

While going through the shed one weekend I found some odds and ends that had lain forgotten for sometime. From in the darkness were pulled into the light of day the once prized possessions of childhood. It was unclear how these things that had once brought such joy to my children’s faces had been relegated to their lonely fate. These items seemingly had undergone a strange transmutation in their absence. Locked in the storehouse of memory, they had become mementoes of a forgotten time. Priding myself on my depth of memory, I was surprised I had not noticed these times slipping away. As I looked on these things, in their reflection I saw flashes of dormant memories that filled my head. The Pogo stick leaning inconspicuously in the corner, though slightly rusted, retained much of its lime green paint. Its molded plastic handgrips showed the well used wear of a thousand sun filled afternoons. This had belonged to my daughter Eirean: now a college junior. I thought of those days where she would distract me from what ever it was I was doing to make me watch her jump up and down the block. I remember how at first I would be annoyed by the intrusions but quickly would be made happy; drawn in by her exuberant joy.

Another item, a Hot wheels bike helmet that belonged to my son Collin. I remember how he loved to ride up and down the block on his big wheel with the image of fire emblazoned on his on his helmet. If he had to wear a helmet it would at least be the coolest one. When I showed it to Collin now a high school sophomore, he was unmoved. For him it was just such a long time ago. From my perspective only moments had passed. I asked him if he didn’t want to keep it, as he might in some future day want to see in it, what I saw. Predictably his age required the casting off of notions of childhood. Such is the transient nature of youth that it will always be ready to cast off yesterday to make ready for the next step. As for me it was sad to trash these accidental mementos for they had the ability to dredge such memories. However there was no use left to these Items beyond that, so off to the trash they went.

The persistence of memory

Many of my earliest memories of childhood are populated with imagery consisting of long lazy weekends tagging along with my parents as they ran errands or of visiting and or being visited by relatives and friends. That’s not to say these events happened often but rather they seemed significant enough to form a lasting picture in the landscape of my thoughts. Though this set of memories is fixed as my history, I can’t help but think logically that it may merely be an artifact.

Examining my past with dispassionate clarity I find I have done a good deal of editing. Edited from these memories are the long lonely days affixed before the Sears Silver tone television, and the cruel sibling rivalries that often linger into adulthood. It would not however be fitting to include these for they don’t truly define how we felt or what we aspired to be; rather these memories are hollow and lacking of the emotional wherewithal to stand the rigors time.

In contrast, through the lens of time those memories that are most prominently imprinted are the sweetest. Like the subtle flavors in wine they are condensed from a few years of ordinary experience into a vintage akin to a golden age.

The experience of the lonely and desperate hours of today will likely undergo the same editing process. This will ensure that any future retrospective will primarily reflect those images that speak of the finer moments. It’s unlikely I will recall in a future time any emotional laden memories associated with my daily train ride to and from my office. The images of my lonely journey through the wastelands of Philadelphia will surely fade to a solitary factoid, as will the memories of those embarrassing episodes of drunkenness. So this will not be a modern discourse on dysfunction or self loathing, but rather about the bricks and mortar of self-identity. For we truly the are the sum of our experience.

Through the looking glass of memory our experiences, each of us frames their personal outlook onto the world that is as individual as a fingerprint. This brings me to the story, I being the youngest among nine siblings, was about five years old when my Father’s employers informed him his job and soon his family would be transferred from Boston to Philadelphia. Unknown to me at the time was the full extent to how this traumatizing event had effectively ripped my family in two. Because of my youth, only through the stories told by my older siblings is this made evident. In the months that led up to the move there was a sense as if we were moving to far off Australia. During those months, being not yet able to understand complex emotions I looked upon the ordeal as an adventure. I remember on one adventure in particular while my brothers and sisters were in school my Mother, Father and I went on a trip. As I recall it during that day from place to place, into the evening we went visiting my parent’s old friends and relatives, some I had never seen before or since. The impending move felt so permanent to them, and so they were saying their last goodbyes. While doings so we entered the landscape of their youth, saw there the childhood homes, and visited upon the burial sights of my grandparents. They, who to that point had existed in my mind only as abstractions, associated only by a few warn photographs. They were now in death part of the tapestry of my life. I recall my experience of that day as a kind of unintentional ritual, an initiation into history of the family. From that day on all of those people would form a pantheon to a grounded world beyond my own experience, a portion on the yardstick to which I would later measure myself.

In the cultural context of our modern age, each generation must reinvent itself in response and in contrast to an ever-changing technological monolith that we as individuals have little effect on or control over. At the current pace to which our technology is evolving, we may soon find it has outpaced our ability to synthesize these changes. It may be that the pace of change may require another evolutionary leap. And it could be equally true that we possess the cultural wherewithal to meet any challenges that the future may bring.
In prehistoric times, how well early humans survived had much to do with how well they could mentally visualize themselves in, and as part of their environments. Shaman of these days crafted from their unique visions the beginnings of cooperative society. This variation in perspective would eventually give rise to culture. Vestiges of this evolutionary mechanism survives today in us all. Its transformative power still informs us. However, for the most part our everyday observations are nullified by an overwhelming cultural consensus that tends to squash original thought and takes from us our incentive to try. As a result of this phenomenon the breadth of our collective experience has become narrow to the point where we sometimes feel we can no longer trust our own senses. We like our ancestors before us should attempt to see ourselves as we are, as individuals baggage and all.


The Old school house

There had been a for sale sign posted upon a rusted fence for as long as I could remember. Through all those years this patch of trees remained a static part of the background until the day the logging trucks arrived. It’s hard to find clusters of such stature near populated areas anymore so; it was a sad thing to see the culling of the old trees. For several weeks the sound of the saws and trucks filled the air as the thinning continued. On one particular afternoon work had seemed to come to a stop. As the scene came closer to view there was something different. As the loggers reached the center of the grove they made an unusual discovery. Hidden within a grove of trees there stood an old school house encircled for generations behind a veil of oak and chestnut. Those who passed along the road that bordered the fifty-acre site could not see nor did they have knowledge of this hidden jewel. Its whitewashed clapboards and reaching spire stood in stark contrast to the deep brown earth and swaths of green that framed it

Work had come to in abrupt end as the workers stood confused and took pause about their discovery. The question was asked, “Was this some historic site that should not be desecrated? Or should it be felled like the trees before it?” Shortly there after for fear or reverence work continued all around the sublime structure but the old structure stood intact, untouched by the machines of destruction. The trees eventually were all removed and still the schoolhouse stood naked upon a mound within a field of stumps and debris.
There was talk among folks you’d meet, amongst even the oldest of them, of whom none could recall this old building.

Being a student of history, I became fascinated with this buildings mysterious sudden appearance. I wanted to explore the grounds and wander within to perhaps discover how it came to be what I saw as kind of time traveler. However a construction fence was soon erected which made a casual visit impossible so I made a point of driving by regularly as to admire it from a distance. In my minds eye I wandered the grounds and imagined the children playing before the school bell rang and doing their arithmetic on slate tablets. These images although not real were as close as I would get in any sense to the reality of this place.

Soon the trees were replaced with new houses. In the midst of the construction the old school held on tenuously out of step and out of time. It however was a forgone conclusion that it would in eventuality be razed. So each time I passed I would look to see if it had survived for another day. One day it was gone as if had never been there and along with it the memory of the playing children and woods that protected them.

Soon the whole of America may be from sea to sea a vast network of neatly manicured cul-de-sacs. Is it perhaps due to the fact that we have taken said transformation as a forgone conclusion as I did with the disappearance of the little white schoolhouse?
In the few years since, still I have yet to meet anyone who had seen it before the trees came down. As the memory fades its image becomes more abstract and ghost like soon I will doubt it ever existed at all