Monday, November 28, 2005

"Your grandfather's moon shot"

A friend and I saw the Omnimax film Magnificent Desolation: Walking on the Moon narrated by Tom Hanks. The beginning and ending sandwich premise is overdone, butt the middle is wonderfully evocative of the era in which I grew up—the era of the Apollo missions.

To my parents, the Apollo missions were major events, and I remember watching at least a few of them. It didn't matter that much of the television footage was of the launcher on the pad or of the men at Mission Control monitoring grey, flickering screens. We didn't want to miss the critical moment: "10 . . . 9 . . . 8 . . . 7 . . . 6 . . . 5 . . . 4 . . . 3 . . . 2 . . . 1 . . . liftoff! We have liftoff!" We sat on the edge of our seats at home and counted along with Mission Control, trying not to get ahead in our excitement and impatience.

Liftoff, that fiery, roaring, thunderous, glowing moment that the television of the day could not do justice to, always signaled the beginning of a letdown to me. There was so much buildup to that emotionally intense moment—and then it was over. The craft would get smaller and smaller, and after the last of the launcher broke away, I felt a sense of both completion and anticlimax.

Even when Neil Armstrong took his first historic steps on the lunar surface, I didn't feel the same sense of relief, accomplishment, and pride that I think many if not most adults did. I was simply too young to understand. Countdowns and liftoffs made sense to my single-digit mind; the historical significance and the national sense of pride did not. Now I can look back and appreciate what I was privileged to witness—a daring experiment that millions of us simultaneously viewed and discussed, each launch an event that brought together people of all politics, faiths, ages, and avocations for "one brief shining moment," glued to our television sets (some of which were still black and white!).

I watched the launch of the first shuttle, but emotionally it wasn't the same experience. The space program had come under scrutiny, many wanted to cut or eliminate the expense, many didn't understand the benefits, the battle with the Soviets had changed, and I was older and perhaps a bit jaded. Maybe we all were.

I was at work when the Challenger exploded; like everyone else, I was stunned as I saw the footage replayed again and again on the news. But I wonder, at that time of day, how many people were watching the launch, how many had planned their day around it, how many would have talked of it for days afterward had it been successful, that is, a routine launch. By then, the sense of wonder had passed, and sending astronauts into space had become so commonplace that all of us began taking it for granted.

At the beginning of Magnificent Desolation: Walking on the Moon, several children are asked to name any of the Apollo astronauts. They can't (although they come up with some amusing current cultural references). As James Loewen notes in Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your High School History Textbook Got Wrong, even the most recent history can be the first forgotten. Once, Neil Armstrong's first steps on the moon inspired generations of viewers. Now, even NASA itself seems determined to downplay the achievements of the Apollo crews and to undermine our memories of wonder, just as the countdown to the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11 should be beginning. The following is from NASA's Web site:

"Before the end of the next decade, NASA astronauts will again explore the surface of the moon. And this time, we're going to stay, building outposts and paving the way for eventual journeys to Mars and beyond. There are echoes of the iconic images of the past, but it won't be your grandfather's moon shot."

There's nothing wrong with "your grandfather's moon shot." There had never been anything like it before for Americans, and may not be again for a very long time. It was a moment that helped to define us, as World War II defined my father's generation. Rather than downplaying Apollo in their marketing hype, NASA should be reveling in it, taking full advantage of its remarkable emotive and historical power to excite us about future exploration. (Note to NASA: "Building outposts" isn't exactly the most compelling goal or prose imaginable. Take a lesson from Armstrong.)

Let's never allow space or space travel to become ordinary, or NASA to transform it into another dull commodity. "Out there" may be our last repository of mystery and awe.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Gratitude

I'm thankful for my:

• wonderful parents, even if I didn't appreciate them at the time. The older I get and the more I see, the more I appreciate them.

• brother and his family. We complement each other well.

• extended family. They help me keep much in perspective.

• inspirations and everyone who has taught me something, from teachers and professors to family and friends, even some non-friends.

• job. It's not ideal, but it fuels most of my habits, like shelter, food, and books.

• shelter. Moving has brought me to life, and I need to keep up that momentum.

• health. I have my problems, some typical, some a little unusual, but none very serious.

• freedom. Love it and guard it for few have so much, and it's so easily compromised.

• books and poetry. As the song says, they protect me.

Happy Thanksgiving. May we gain more in all things than we lose.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Popularity

Every time something happens like at Columbine, a distraught, shaken society returns to the same questions—about adolescence, about high school, about cliques and social class, and about a sense of disenfranchisement that some kids feel. Some teenagers (and, in some contexts, adults) believe they are so alienated that they must resort to a type of violence that will either end or ruin their own lives. Afterward, hands are wrung, task forces formed, "at risk" kids identified, etc., etc.—but ultimately how much changes? What about the large group in the middle—the kids who are neither popular nor shunned. How many are on the fringe, craving attention? How many will come to view high school as a happy memory?

I suspect that the answer is few, based admittedly on my own conversations. Most people I know don't have fond recollections of high school, and those were on the fringe loathed it. Yet few cite those things that seem most hateful to kids at the time: boring classes, homework, difficult teachers, dull routine, and so on. For those who didn't like high school, the sense of "not belonging," "not fitting in," "not having lots of friends," or "not having a girl-/boyfriend" left bitter memories. For those on the fringe, it was blatant ostracism. It seems that, for a lot of these people, favorite classes, teachers, and assignments were the highlights of their school experience.

I remember not having a lot of friends and feeling that there was something wrong with me because I didn't. Now I'm aware of that this is part of being an introvert—introverts focus on a few close relationships, while extroverts establish a far-reaching network of friends and acquaintances. Neither type is right or wrong, good or bad, although we do seem to live in a dichotomous society with a distinct "us vs. them" mentality. Yet both "us" and "them" are necessary. Introverts (the minority) and extroverts both contribute to their world, the former more as advisers, the latter more as leaders and implementers. We're all interconnected and interdependent.

I didn't know all of that at the time, nor that my personality type, INFP, was the rarest and most difficult for others to understand. I continued to wonder what was wrong with me, why I was not well liked, why at best I was ignored and at worst tormented. At some point, I stopped worrying so much about it, probably because I understood that I was powerless to change the perception. Noting I could do would let me slip into the mainstream. This was confirmed for me in college, where at first I was completely unknown and where I could reinvent myself (I thought). The problem was—I didn't know how to.

I couldn't figure out what separated me from kids who were generally liked (I didn't aspire to be popular). It wasn't an economic issue; there were others worse off (although they probably dressed better!). It wasn't weight or looks; there were others were fat and unattractive. It wasn't intelligence or grades; there were others who were smarter and who received better grades. It wasn't living in or coming from a trailer park; while that may have been a factor in high school, no one at college knew that. Now I think it was primarily my INFP, highly sensitive personality, combined with a high level of insecurity and overcompensation and all the other factors, none of which helped my cause. I won't say I was unpopular; I was mostly, as I felt, invisible.

I also didn't understand the opposite—why certain kids were very popular, attracting others to them to the point where they could hold mini-courts. Most of these were not the stereotype of the handsome football player/pretty cheerleader. Many of the most popular were not particularly attractive physically, and I always found them a little hard to approach, a little hard to talk to, even a little phony at times. I didn't understand the appeal.

The odd thing is that, at high school reunions, the same people are still popular; they still hold court. Some of them have not accomplished all that much, let alone anything noteworthy, yet there always seems to be a crowd hanging onto their every word. Their appeal still escapes me. What elevates them above the people who are treated as though they are more ordinary? Yet some of the more "ordinary" are far more interesting—they've traveled, earned advanced degrees, and held either high-level or unusual jobs, sometimes in relatively exotic locales.

In the end, and especially at my age, I don't want hangers-on; I don't need superficial friends or popularity. I'm happy with who I know, although I wish some of them lived nearby so we could do more together. I simply remain curious—how does it all work? I may never understand.

Dream: Rich, powerful, and suspect

I was a rich and powerful man, and I was hosting an importance conference about something that did not pertain to me. I knew all the participants (government? U.N.? business?), but their meeting did not concern me.

During a session in a particular room, someone was shot, and a pall fell over the concert. I became like a private investigator, freely looking into what happened. It was very mysterious. Then, when it seemed the same thing could not happen again, during another session, there was a smokescreen that hid the killing of someone else. They were taking more sophisticated measures to obscure the killing, although the first still remained utterly mysterious. No one had seen or heard anything; the victim had simply been shot and died.

I went to investigate the second murder; I was not a suspect, and until now everyone had treated me with great deference. But even though I was allowed into the room, there was a wooden bar across the doorway that made it too small for me to fit through. It was one of those moments when you realize bitterly that your status has changed.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Dream: The vampire and the oubliette

My sleeping brain turns my need to wake up and go to the bathroom into a nightmare.

I was in a house with a woman I thought to be my mother and children I thought to be my siblings. One of the boys, or one of his friends (strange I couldn't tell), was mocking his friend (or my brother, depending on who he was (strange I couldn't tell). I was eating something when it occurred to me I was being held captive by a vampire and that the food could be poisoned. If I stopped eating, I would be letting him know I was onto him (wherever he was); if I kept eating, I was ensuring my own death. I found a bathroom, which was all brushed stainless steel and had no mirrors. It was very high-ceilinged and long and at the end was a toilet, but it was in at ground level, not raised. There was no mirror over the sink, just brushed stainless steel. That horrified me, as did the toilet, which I was sure was really the entry to a bottomless pit, an oubliette, down which I would be flung (alive or dead?) at some point.

Then I found a normal bathroom, small, tiled, with mirror. He had read my mind and provided me with what I expected to throw me off . . .

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Dream: Rescue and resuscitation

My dad was sitting by the edge of a pond and asked me and my aunt to go and bring back some paper. He made it clear he wanted regular sized sheets of paper, something that could be written clearly on as he wanted to say something important. I started to explain computers to him but turned around to get the paper. My aunt was ahead of me when I heard a noise. I turned to face the pond and no longer saw my dad. After a second or two, I realized he must have fallen in and ran back. I looked into the water, not knowing how deep it was, and saw his hand somewhat below the surface, but nothing else. I grabbed it without thinking about how I could fall in and effortlessly pulled him out of the water onto the bank. He started to say something but then his voice weakened, and I called to my aunt for help, but I don't think she heard. I started to push on his chest, but I don't know CPR, and my cries to her became more panic-stricken. At that moment, when I didn't know what would happen, I woke up—feeling that it would have turned out well, although he looked terrible. I also wondered how he stayed in a vertical position in the water and didn't sink.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Colette and Mansfield

Old photos and paintings fascinate and disturb me. They fascinate me because they are often the only visual recored that remains of historical, literary, and other notable figures. They disturb me because they reveal the face of the person at a certain point in his or her story, when I, the viewer, know the ending.

Based on my recent reading, I've been looking up biographies of Colette and Katherine Mansfield. I don't know much about Mansfield, but I do know that both she and Colette were sensualists who devoted themselves to living life to the fullest. They each had a wealth of experiences, not to mention lovers. Yet, invariably, all of each writer's photos show an unsmiling woman with expressions ranging from serious to glum. There is no joie de vivre in the countenances of either Colette or Mansfield. Even the 10-year-old bespectacled Mansfield looks grim, with lips tightened and teeth clenched, as though she were acting out a scene from a particularly dreary Dickensian childhood. Even the young Colette, wearing breastplates in a theatrical production, looks as though she has had enough of this earthly life. It's not just Colette and Mansfield. Especially at the turn of the century, women seemed unable to smile, at least for the camera, even on their wedding day. What message are they trying to send us across time?

Looking at the young Colette, whether in a portrait pose or in theatrical costume, it's difficult to reconcile the pagan country girl so clearly defined in the Claudine novels with the urbanite haunter of opium dens and the demimonde of Paris. The older Colette looks more like the worn woman of the world that she was, although her expressions are even harsher and more forbidding. While the author Colette is judgmental, she is also approachable in her knowledge and understanding of human weaknesses, especially those of the flesh and heart, including her own. The pictured Colette does not invite the viewer to come closer; her eyes suggest that distance is preferable to intimacy. Yet this may reflect Colette as she was; for all her understanding of the heart, her public face is dispassionate, even when troubled.

In Mansfield's photos, limited by the brevity of her life, you can see the evolution in style from old-fashioned to modern. In her childhood photos, she could be Laura from The Little House on the Prairie books. Her hair is long and soft, her dress conservative and feminine. Only the look of determination hints at her future as a thoroughly modern woman, and nothing reveals a predilection for a life of sensuality. By the time she is an adult, however, her hair is shorn and her clothes naturally reflect more modern, more urban—and less charming—fashions. Like Thea Kronborg from Willa Cather's The Song of the Lark, she appears to have been transformed by her new world, status, companions, and opportunities into a weary artist. In some ways, the adult Thea seems different from the child Thea; I wonder how much Katherine Mansfield changed over the 24 years between her serious childhood portrait and her death.

By the time she was in her mid- to late twenties, Mansfield looked much older. Her face, still grim in expression, seems worn and shadowed, and she looks like a woman to whom life has been difficult. She does not look like life, warm, inviting, enticing, but like death, cold, forbidding, and distant. She suffered from tuberculosis and, according to some biographies, gonorrhea—similar to the ailments that plagued a bon vivant like Errol Flynn.

While I read the words of Colette and Mansfield, sometimes I gaze into the eyes of their images and wonder what they knew—about themselves, about their world, about their futures. I wonder what they told and what they kept secret. There seems to be more in the eyes than can be told in words. What more could they have said?

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Dream: Castles into silos

I had a dream about being in a computer class; at a critical moment I asked if learning something—Java, CSS, or something—was very much like coding or mathematics. The room went dead. The instructor was dumbfounded. Then I woke up because I heard Hodge trying to chew up a box.

The earlier dream was also more involved than I can remember, but I was at home, and something happened (trees or houses removed, perhaps), and suddenly we were surrounded mostly by forested hills. There must have been water, because I could see clearly things in the water. One of them was a curved, L-shaped island with red stairs leading up the peak of it to the top. Then I found myself floating over the sparkling water toward it, as though to realise a dream. It appeared to be a castle perched on top.

Then the sky changed to grey and rain or snow appeared, and I suddenly saw that the hilly, forested island with the castle was two grim, metal industrial silos.

Blackness.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

The Edmund Fitzgerald

I'm reposting this from 20 October on this, the 30th anniversary of the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. Please take a moment to think about the men who died and their families, and all who die or are injured performing their work.

I was listening to one of my favourite songs from my adolescence, the eerie, haunting "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald." I think I've always assumed Gordon Lightfoot's 1976 tune was about a shipwreck that had happened long ago, but today I decided to find out more. To my surprise, two of the best sites dedicated to the Fitzgerald have been developed by young people who weren't yet born in 1975, which I learned is the year in which the Fitzgerald sank in Lake Superior, killing all 29 members of her crew.

The first site, S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald Online, has information about the ship, the crew, and the wreck. The second site, 3D Edmund Fitzgerald, features 3D drawings, meticulously detailed and with documentation where details are missing, for example, the hole for the ladder to the crow's nest. I give these kids a lot of credit for their thoughtful interest in an event that is minor in the scheme of history and that most remember primarily because of Lightfoot's tribute. Both sites are well done and worth bookmarking.

I won't get into the details of the Edmund Fitzgerald or the wreck—just visit S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald Online. What the tragedy of the Edmund Fitzgerald reminds me of, though, is what all of us too often forget—the work of those who keep us comfortable and in comfort. The Fitzgerald was carrying iron ore in her hold for the auto industry. Who mined the ore? Who loaded the Fitzgerald? Who would have unloaded her? Who would have hauled the ore to the plant? Who would have processed it? People—people who risk their lives so that we can have heat, food, necessities, comforts, and conveniences. People who may like danger and risk and who are often fatalistic about it. People who work on farms, in mines, in processing plants, in rail yards, in dockyards—and on freighters. How many farmers killed or maimed, miners buried, rail men crushed, how many injured, amputations a testament to the risks of the machine age? How easy it is not to think of the essential work we've never seen or experienced, like that performed by stagehands behind the scenes at a theatrical production.

The men of the Edmund Fitzgerald experienced bitter cold, howling winds, and crashing waves—and the knowledge of wrecks that "the gales of November remembered"—November, one of the stormiest and deadliest months for shipping on the Great Lakes.

This November 10 will mark the 30th anniversary of the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald and the deaths of all her hands. No one knows what caused the wreck itself. But we do know a great deal about her crew. For the most part, they were seasoned seamen, as well as family men. One had survived Iwo Jima, while another pursued a passion for learning cooking and baking. A couple, including the captain, were looking forward to retirement. They were ordinary men who knew they could die on the job but probably never expected to, or to be memorialized in one of the decade's hit singles—or online.

When you take a look around you, at your food, at your clothes, at your appliances, at your furniture, at virtually everything you own, remember the men of the Edmund Fitzgerald—and everyone else who, sight unseen, keeps you warm, fed, clothed, and comfortable. They deserve to be recognized for all they are willing to do—and all they are willing to risk.

Tuesday, November 8, 2005

The art of politeness

Whoever one is, and wherever one is, one is always in the wrong if one is rude. —Maurice Baring

Politeness is to human nature what warmth is to wax. —Arthur Schopenhauer

Good manners are made up of petty sacrifices. —Ralph Waldo Emerson

Politeness is the art of choosing among one's real thoughts. —Abel Stevens

There can be no defence like elaborate courtesy. —E.V. Lucas

I was about to walk into a busy chain store one Friday evening after work, opening the right-hand door of the double doors, when a herd of college-age people burst through both doors, nearly knocking me and everyone behind me over. They were oblivious to everyone around them and the unspoken assumption that you keep to the right and not take up the whole road, so to speak.

I was very tired after the week and also still recovering from 'flu, so my first cranky thought was, "RUDE, SELF-CENTERED BRATS." And, unconsciously, unaware of what I was doing, I started thinking about how rude young people are nowadays. In other words, at some point in the past few years, I've turned into my parents.

Once aware of what I was doing, I asked myself why I would think that. Why do so many young people seem rude to me, especially lately? Part of it is because some are. Some people in any age group are self-centered and domineering, which can lead to what appears to be rude behavior. It's possible that some young people, not yet quashed by life, exhibit these attitudes to a greater extent than some of their more muted, experienced elders.

In this case, part of it was the herd effect. A group is more likely to exert the power of its numbers, and seldom do middle-aged people gather in groups as the young do.

Some of my perception is based on my expectations. My parents were a generation older than the parents of my peers. This is was a generation that believed in instilling respect and politeness in every child—and also in controlling children. For example, I was taught to call every adult "Mr.," "Mrs.," or "Miss"—even if the person preferred to be called by their first name. This was during the 1960s, when some 25- and 30-year-old parents were dismissive of the old-fashioned "Mom" and "Dad," encouraging their own children to call them by their first names.

When anyone sent me a gift, I was expected to send them a handwritten thank you note promptly, which mean within a week. How often do you receive handwritten thank you notes from five-year-old children?

I also understood that children were to be seen, not heard. This sounds absurdly strict today, but this is an example of what it once meant to be polite. In a way, I skipped a generation, going from one that was very firm in its ideas to the current one, which is quite relaxed in its rules, especially when it comes to children.

Mostly, though, I think it's because of my age. In 44 years, a lot of people have been knowingly and unknowingly rude to me. I've also seen a lot of rude behavior that has made me cringe. I've become painfully aware of the effects of rude behavior, of how it can ruin your day, affect your attitudes, even influence your own behavior. I'm more aware of the benefits of seemingly insignificant little gestures, like holding the door open for someone, even when there's no reason to, and how that can make both giver and recipient feel happy and positive about their fellow travelers. I doubt I noticed such things in my youth, and I'm sure I didn't appreciate them. Now they can make all the difference in how I feel.

I won't be surprised if, in 20 years, that young man who led the herd out both doors finds himself thinking of a passing group of youths, "SELF-CENTERED BRATS." I'd like to think most of us catch on. Sooner or later.

Saturday, November 5, 2005

Dream: Movie set

I was on a movie set in a hilly area, like the Alleghenies. I wasn't being used and tried to leave. The path down was narrow and rocky, and suddenly a boulder appeared in front of me. I was trying to decide how to get around it when I realized there was one behind me now. I turned around to return, but then pushed a boulder down the hillside. For a long time afterward, I heard a lot of loud, booming noises and tried not to think about how I'd started a rock slide. I looked around and the area was now mountainous, making me think of the Grand Tetons.

On the movie set, a man was threatening a young blonde star for not doing something. Using a knife, he traced a cut down and across her face, probably in the shape of a cross. Meanwhile, the person who'd gotten me into this was saying something about this, was telling me that she'd wanted to leave, too, even though she was being used. I think that's what happened. To my shock and horror, the next time he actually did cut her face. Not deeply, but enough to leave a faint red mark.

I also learned that this movie was set in Florida. I looked around at the snow-topped mountain peaks and could not think of how any of it looked like Florida.

I continued to wait.

Tuesday, November 1, 2005

Dream: Venomous snakes

I was about to jump in a body of water filled with reptiles when someone pointed out that two small snakes with triangular heads that had just come to the edge were venomous. Then I noticed two more larger ones that looked just like them. There was also an alligator with its face half rotted off. The part that was rotted looked like grey petrified wood.

I don't know if I ever did go in the water. I think so.