Sunday, March 28, 2010

Time Travel

Time travel is possible.  I know this because I've just returned from a trip to the past.

For just few brief minutes the other evening, I found myself returned to my childhood. Though absent the literal proximity with the earth, and perhaps some of the acuity of vision that I enjoyed in adolescent days, in every other way it was indistinguishable from those long ago and seemingly lost forever moments.

I fell into this all-too-brief reverie while on a recent walk with Loki.  This phenomenon is actually become something of a common occurrence for me of late, and in no small way because of Loki.

Loki's ever-present 'present' state of mind is wonderfully contagious. It happens when we are just us two together on a walk in the greenbelt.  Off leash, Loki darts from one side of the path to the other, immediately as deep in smell as I have been in thought.

This is where the transformation takes place, for as I watch him--so utterly and unconsciously absorbed in the moment--I am somehow pulled--transported, literally--into that world of his where only small things happen, and they happen very close to the earth. Suddenly I am on my knees in the dirt, poking at an ant pile to see what they will do (I know) or examining a tiny yellow and white field flower to see how it is made (I still don't know).

That's what it is like to be a child (or a dog): always lost in the moment and always very close to the earth.

Children are, by nature, scientists from birth.  At first, they have no choice but to gather empirical data about the world in which they find themselves suddenly and without explanation.  Much of it has to do with proximity, for they are still physically close enough to the earth examine it closely.

And, talk though their parents will, the sounds the grownups make are just a small--even miniscule--part of what children must interpret of their own devices.  It's a literal flood of information that every child must gather, sort and make sense of from the first breath outside the womb.  So, no matter how much parents talk, children simply have lots figuring out to do on their own.

Of course, once children are capable of understanding and talking, the process of learning moves gradually away from direct observation.  This is inevitable but not necessarily a good thing, for the process of gathering and analyzing empirical information as a way of understanding the world does not end with childhood.

Or, at least, it shouldn't.  Alas, in fact, most of us give up our interest in 'basic' research shortly after puberty in favor of 'applied' research with some tangible goals, like sex and money.  Though our social interests seem to quickly supercede our empirical ones as we age, as living creatures we begin life knowing instinctively that basic knowledge is no luxury. It is about survival.  We all start off as basic researchers because our lives depend on it, literally.

We turn to applied research as soon as we are able, in most cases.  But not everyone trades in their their inner scientist at thirteen for girls (or boys, sometimes), fortunately.  Many generations of scientists have never stopped looking at the world around them as they did when they were children.

Though, as in most things, in science I am yet a dilettante, on occasion Loki and I travel back in time to the day when I took my research seriously.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Art on the Way: The Barton Barriers

Some folks are wondering what the heck this 'Art on the Way' stuff I've been talking so much about. Here's the story so far:

My brother Steve, who is about 13 years older than me, is a sculptor. He moved to Austin a few years ago to help me care for Lynda during her passing and he decided to stay. He opened up a sculpture studio, which he calls Atelier 3D, to make a living by teaching sculpting classes. He has done pretty well so far. He's managed to keep the operation going while working on his own body of work.

Over the years, he has worked in almost every medium there is, from steel, wood and particularly ceramics. He made a whole series of figurative sculptures, which he called 'Vens' (short for Venus) while he was in California.

Then when he first got here, about three years ago, he started making what he called 'book shrines' which were essentially elaborate ceramic boxes or display cases for his favorite books.

Currently, his work is with what he calls folded glass. He takes automotive glass--it has a layer of plastic sandwiched between two sheet of glass--and crushes it under the wheels of his truck. This causes the glass to crack into intricate patterns, but it doesn't fall apart because the plastic holds it together. Then, he folds the glass into abstract shapes and links the pieces together with polished aluminum bolts, buckles and ties.

Then, about a year or two ago, he came up with an idea he calls "Art on the Way". The idea behind this project is that there are many unused public spaces in and around town (Austin, but it could be anywhere). These are small bits of land that developments and streets and utilities have rendered useless for anything other than just taking up space. For example, when an intersection is enlarged, sometimes there will be a tiny triangle of land that is 'left over' when they finish with all the pavement, curbs, etc. So it just sits there. Sometimes there is a bit of grass or some scrubby trees on it, but a lot of times it's just a patch of dirt.

Steve's idea is to use these discarded and unnoticed spaces as places to put art, specifically sculpture. Now, we do indeed have a good bit of public sculpture, but it's just the sort of thing you would expect, like a monumental sculpture of a local musician and another one of a giant abstract bat. The musician was Stevie Ray Vaughn, by the way, and he was indeed one of the greatest blues guitarists ever (he died in a helicopter crash a number of years ago), so his sculpture is very naturalistic. The bat came to Austin because we have one of the largest Mexican Freetail Bat colonies anywhere in the world living right under a central bridge here in town called the Congress Avenue Bridge.

All that is to say that sculpture in Austin is and has been so far a relative uninteresting affair. Steve's idea is to change all that. So, his first project was something completely different. He decided to make a monumental sculpture out of something we see so much of here in the US that we really don't 'see' it at all any more: the street. Specifically, he hit on the idea of using traffic barriers, something so ubiquitous that we almost never really notice them other than to avoid running into them. Now, there are a lot of varieties of traffic barriers, ranging from cones to barrels to Yodocks.


These are a particular type of traffic barrier, made entirely of that nearly-indestructible plastic that they make the cones and barrels out of, but in a rectangular shape, and hollow so that it can be filled with water or sand for stability. The advantage to these is that they are cheap to make and easy to put in place. They are not too hard, so if someone runs into them, the damage to their vehicle is minimized. They are often linked in miles-long chains on the highway, dividing two lanes in construction zones. Again, we see them all the time. So much that we no longer really see them.

Steve's idea was to put these Yodocks up off the road in a sort of whimsical arrangement that is reminiscent of Christo's many works. He envisioned a long strip of them, sprinkled, as if by a giant, along a bit of unused and unnoticed land on a street in South Austin called Barton Skyway.

Here is the location: Barton Skyway & South Lamar

He needed more than just a few of these Yodocks to pull this off, however, so he called the compnay to see if they would be interested in loaning him a few of the barriers for his art project. He suggested that it could be a great public relations opportunity for the compnay, and they agreed! In fact, they loaned him 37 of the barriers. Ordinarily, the company rents them for like $50 apiece per day, so this was a pretty generous contribution. Of course, they saw it as a publicity stunt and even had a reporter from the 'Construction Times' (or something like that) on site taking pictures and making notes for a trade mag story.

Speaking of contributions, Steve also planned to raise money for the project by applying for funding from the City of Austin. The City has a special fund set aside by ordinance to provide for art in public places. The money comes from the construction permits, and is intended to provide arts funding for new buildings in particular, but it is available to fund public art anywhere in the city. The two sculptures I mentioned above were also funded in part by the City.

There's a complicated application process and the projects have to be reviewed and approved by some kind of supervisory board, but Steve navigated the entire process and emerged with $4,300 grant. Of course, he had to turn around and pay the City about $700 of that for the necessary permits, but at least he got something.

He also raised money from other people, nearly $5000 in total. He went to the neighborhood association to get their approval and did. They even agreed to help with the installation, volunteering to help build it and provide the water that went to fill all those barriers. Steve went to the businesses around the site and got them involved as well. With all that support and a corps of willing volunteers, he set about making it a reality.

About a week ago, Steve, his girlfriend and collaborator Heather, and about forty or so volunteers, of which I was one, went to the site early in the morning and toiled all day to push, place, stack, strap and fill all 37 of the Yodocks, creating a monumental work of art:

As you might imagine, it was not universally well received. Many people who stopped to watch us work siad in no uncertain terms that they didn't like it and thought it was a waste of time. Well, fair enough, but at least it was our time that we were wasting.

And, it seemed like the discussion would stay in this area--that is, maybe it's a bit nutty but harmless all the same--until a local newspaper columnist picked up on it and wrote a 'review' that ran in the paper and appear online the following Monday.

John Kelso writes a kind of humor/local flavor column three times a week for the Austin American Statesman. For years he's written about 'good ol boy' sorts of things, like ugly trucks and old dogs. To be fair, he does often write about local art and happenings, especially if they are of the pseudo-weired variety.

Steve's piece, which bears the title "Barton Barriers" by the way, fit right squarely into Kelso's sweet spot, so to speak. Kelso made no bones of the fact that he didn't like it, which was a fair appraisal, since not everyone can be expected to get the joke, even humor columnists.

The problem that I had with his 'review' had to do with the fact that he made mention of the money Steve had gotten from the City as a reason for disliking the piece. Though he didn't actually do make the claim himself, Kelso left the door open for the 'wingnuts' to claim that this art was just another waste of taxpayer money. A boondoggle, they called it.

I couldn't let this go, so I wrote Kelso directly. And to my surprise, he wrote back! Not just once, but a couple of times. He was nice enough about it and, darn it, right about the money.
I took umbrage but I really needn't have. Kelso gently pointed out that the first rule of journalism is to mention the money, and that the wingnuts will come out no matter what you say or do. "It's what they live for" he observed sagely. Alas. Heavy sigh.

Even though I know that the real first rule of journalism is to spell the names right, I have to agree with Kelso about our common goals, journalists and artists: more readers/viewers.

Not everyone was as observant of human nature as Kelso. Others played it straight, missing the joke and playing into our hand simultaneously, thankfully with no hint of the irony.

Really? A $4.3K boondoggle? When senators and representatives routinely waste hundreds of thousands and even millions or billions (that's M & B!) of taxpayer money, now that's a boondoggle! This was just a little joke.

Except that the wingnuts don't 'do' jokes. Everything is serious and everything is political. It started with the comments to Kelso's story, then moved to the blogs, then the TV and Dallas radio stations all jumped on the bandwagon, each with the same 'fraud busting' theme. Even if we happen to live a fairly liberal city, it is still Texas after all.

Silly stuff. But as it turns out a lot of people are actually taking notice of the work.

Any publicity is good publicity, right?

Monday, March 15, 2010

The Great and the Small

Last night as my head hit the pillow, I could the the far-off cry of a train whistle. The cliche, of course, is that the sound is a lonely one, but to me it was quite comforting. As I relished this small pleasure, I began to wonder where it was, this train and this sound that made me feel like this.

From how far away, I wondered, can I be comforted by a mere sound?

Mere is meant as an incendiary because we all know how deep sound cuts into our hearts and minds, past, present and future. Not just music--perhaps especially so--but all sound is primordial.

I've been on a train at night, and I've heard that damn whistle from close up. It's a sound you learn to block out, especially if you have designs on sleep, but there it is, comforting all the same.

Now, when I'm in the upper berth in a car just behind the locomotive, I have no doubts about from whence comes that sound. But in bed, late at night, I started wondering. Today, at work, I started searching for the answer. It took a few milliseconds. Thanks Google.

That train goes by about mile and a half away to the east of our house, just past Manchaca Road. I'll bet it's at the Ditmar Road crossing where the engineer blows the whistle. I've crossed the tracks hundreds of times over there and have never given it a second thought till last night.

So, what of knowledge? Does it help or hurt the experience?

I am not a fair judge. The train whistle has sentimental, nostalgic meaning to me, so it helps; it moves me. Someone who lives closer to the tracks might also be moved, but perhaps to write a letter of complaint instead of waxing romantic about it in a blog. Distance as well as sentiment has something to do with it.

Right, but how far? What is the extent of this capacity?

A mile and half seems like a fair distance from which one can be moved, till I realize that I am also similarly moved by the sight of the sunset over Lake Michigan, a golden harvest moon hanging low at the end of the our street, or the sight of Venus in the early evening sky anywhere on Earth.

The capacity of the mind to measure the great--the vast Unknown--with the small--a tiny bit of Knowledge--is indeed one of our greatest gifts.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Life at the Top

One fate befalls the self assured.
Some just believe their every word.
They'll deny it. Say it's absurd.
Though ne'er to others have they deferred.

Oh, they began with good intents
Fueled by passion (in their defense)
But all that sycophancy most intense
Obliterated their common sense.

Friday, March 5, 2010

A Long Ride B.C.

I had a very cranky bus driver this morning. I almost got kicked off for drinking coffee!

It started when I got on and took my seat. The driver played a message over the speakers:

"Passengers may not eat or drink aboard the bus."

So I look around. There's a girl in the seat next to me eating some cereal out of a ziploc bag. He must mean her, I think.

She's also drinking water out of a reusable, closeable bottle but I figure it's the cereal he doesn't like. She grabs a couple of bits, and puts the bag back in her backpack. She takes a drink of water. At the next stop, the driver stops the bus, jumps out of his seat and storms back to confront her.

He waggles his finger the girl, telling her he "done told you twice!"

She looks shocked but apparently, he has warned her before, because she says something like, "You only warned me once."

"Next time," he says, "I won't even let you on."

This is lame, but I'm now thinking, "Does he mean coffee in closed containers too? Does he mean me?"

So I take a sip, to test this hypothesis.

I can see him glaring at me in the rearview mirror. He plays the damn message again:

"Passengers may not eat or drink aboard the bus."

So I become more discrete, sipping when he has to drive. I am sure he sees me out of the corner of his eye, but he can either be a driver or an enforcer, not both at the same time.

Then someone else gets on with a closed coffee cup. She sits down. He plays the damn message again:

"Passengers may not eat or drink aboard the bus."

She isn't listening. It is 7.45 am for crying out loud!

As he pulls away from the curb, he slams on the brakes in a pique and looks back at the new culprit. She is oblivious, so he waves his arms and says, "Nuh-uh"

She gets the message, and even though I can't see her expression, I am sure she's shocked too.

I don't know what the actual rule is. A friend of mine who rides the bus a lot more than I do tells me this is probably within the driver's rights, but I have to say it makes for a long ride BC (Before Coffee).

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Odd Old Habits and Global Change

Years ago, when I was a kid, I developed what some would consider to be an odd habit. I picked up litter.

I don't remember exactly when I started doing it, but it was likely when we lived in San Antonio, because that's where I have my first clear memory of it. Abilene, where we lived before moving to the city, was relatively rural and litter, while present, was a less common sight.

On my walk to school from the Seven Pines Apartments however, it was a very common sight, and I began to pick up litter I found along the way. There was big dumpster at the corner of the parking lot where I entered the school yard. I would toss the stuff I collected. Usually this amounted to just paper, because in those days, pop bottles had a deposit so people seldom threw them away, and cans, believe it or not, were relatively new.

So it was mostly newspapers and bits of metal and plastic that caught my eye. It was never so much that I couldn't carry it; always just a piece or two. I didn't pick up cigarette butts because, well, they were (still are) gross. But for the rest of it, within reason (I didn't go into or cross the street or pick up old washing machines and spare tires) I just made a game of picking up litter.

The motivation was from several directions. For one thing, I am something of a neat freak, so I enjoy the sight of a litter free landscape. And, when I got started, the logic seemed simple to me. And, as a sixth grader whose other pastime was dumpster diving, I kind of enjoyed picking up junk. So I did, much to Lynda's chagrin.

I believe that I was also motivated by the idea that if everyone would not only pick up most of what they accidentally dropped (life happens, right?), but if they would pick up just a bit of what others dropped, we might keep things picked up. I was so young that it seemed like a simple equation.

Lest you think, Dear Reader, that I imagine that I was some sort of special gifted child, I assure you this was not the case. Consider that it I wasn't being driven by an altogether altruistic motive but was merely attracted by junk. Having said that, though, I do think that there was an element of emerging community concern in my actions if only as a reaction to the nascent field of environmental marketing.

Back in the Sixties, when I came to this consciousness, anti-litter and anti-pollution campaigns were just getting started, and the roots of todays suddenly-chic environmentalism were taking hold. I did this for many many years, right through college and grad school and the births of my children.

At some point, however, I stopped.

I don't know if this had to do with getting older and/or busier, but I am more likely to ascribe it to a general loss of optimism and resignation to a fate I had no control over. This mindset was far from overt, as I simply managed to not think about it, even as it became more obvious that I could and should still be doing it. See no evil...

In a recent talk in a class called Perspectives of the Future, a professor recalled the memory of noted UT astronomer and futurist Harlan Smith. He had the habit of picking up newspapers off the ground whenever he walked across campus.

When asked why he would attempt to keep up with what it seemed to be obviously a futile effort, Dr. Smith replied that as far as he was concerned, the effort wasn't in vain. He was a mathematician, after all. He noted that statistically, it only takes one person out of a thousand who will pick up the newspapers to keep the campus free of waste papers.

That is a powerful thought. Not everyone has to contribute to environmental remediation--or, for that matter any serious problem facing mankind--in order to effect change. The actions of a few can and do affect the many.

It's a simple fact. We don't all have to be convinced that change is necessary in order for change to happen. We just have be willing to do it ourselves.

I'm going back to my old habit.