Friday, May 27, 2011

Astromechs

As I pick the bits of grease from under my fingernails on a Monday morning, my thoughts turn from my own busted knuckles and mechanical tribulations to those of today's ultimate 'astromechs', the 'astronauts' aboard the space Shuttle.

To be clear, I have no intention of diminishing the glory of these brave and gifted individuals.  Though their professionalism makes going into space seem safe and perhaps even easy these days, we need only recall the Columbia and Challenger disasters to remember just how dangerous their undertaking inevitably is.  No matter what they are doing up there, these men and women clearly risk their lives with every breath they take in space (and on the rides up and down).  But their role has changed.  In many ways, it has actually transformed from a romantic role to a regular job.

It's no ordinary job, to be sure.  Astronauts, as those of us who have read/seen The Right Stuff will recall, are a very special breed.  But that breed is changing.  Even during the life of the space program, from Mercury through Apollo and on into the Space Shuttle era, we have seen this group--as a group--evolve.  They were originally fighter pilots, hard-drinking men with brass balls.  Now, though I would say that while still in possession of the requisite metal cojones (men and women alike) they are now more often like mechanics than pilots.

To be sure, these young men and women still have the right stuff.  It's just that the stuff has changed. If anything, these amazing people are even more amazing today than the first generation that Wolfe wrote about. They are still among the smartest, fastest and most driven people on the planet.

But now, even though many astronauts cannot pilot an airplane, they all have advanced degrees in something: engineering, physic, biology, nanotechnology.  They still perform science experiments while in space, but increasingly, instead of doing them for a team of scientists 'back home' they are themselves the lead investigators in the tests they conduct, and the data they gather is part of a career that will only begin with these couple of rides into space.  After their time is space, many of these astronauts will return to active research careers in the lab, not semi-public retirement on the links.

However, in spite of their advanced degrees, in order to advance to the further glory that awaits them on their return, while they are space, today's astronauts are often reduced--for want of a better word--to being astromechanics.  Their job, for several hours each day during a two-week mission, is to go outside with a set of tools and bolt and unbolt things.  They spend their days removing damaged/broken parts and exchanging them with new/rebuilt parts.

This is exactly what an earth-bound mechanic does, with the notable exception that an earthbound grease monkey like me doesn't have to worry about bolts frozen by space or concerned that a half-million dollar bag of tools might float away into interstellar space.  I certainly do not need more risk.  Even with gravity on my side, I've managed to lose plenty of my tools in much more conventional ways.

Grateful, too, am I for being at no more risk on a Sunday afternoon in my driveway than a busted knuckle or a blood blister on my fingertip.  Since I always find a way to hurt myself anyway with my little set of metal tools, I am thankful that the damage I can do to myself and the car is, at the end of the day, fairly limited.

Of course, there are many more differences between working on my little Karmann Ghia and the International Space Station, not the least of which is not having to face instant death with a careless mistake.  That's alright with me--master, as I am, of the careless mistake. No, I have no desire to work in space.

Oh well.  While these Astromechs are certainly smarter than me by half, there is one clear advantage I will always have over them--I can drink a beer (or two) while I work.  Cheers!

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The World is Now

Well, it's happened.  The End of the World has come and gone.  Dare I say it? We are all still here.

Notwithstanding the possibility that we are all--to a man and including the engineer-cum-prophet who used his fifteen minutes of fame on the Internet to stir up all this fervor in the past couple of weeks--not without sin and therefore all doomed to remain here on Earth, I will take the position that the End of the World is neither nigh nor not possible.  It's somewhere in between.

What would a reasonable person who actually believes in The Rapture have to say about this latest failed prediction?  Of course, it is easy to blame this particular elderly preacher as a false prophet, but such a censure really begs a larger question:  Is there such a thing as a true prophet?  Even larger is the question of what prophecy actually is and why anyone would want to engage in it.

Why, when and where would anyone actually believe the words of a 'prophet'?  Especially these days, when skepticism (can you say birth certificate?) about worldly issues seems to be at an all-time high, who in their right mind would, could fail to doubt the word of a single man concerning the fate of all men?  The faithful?  Really?  Is this a question of faith versus reason?   Or, as the cynics would ask, is the opposite of faith mere folly?

Prophets and the predictions they make faith--even in the profane--seem like folly at best.  For example, we are all frequent critics of the 'Weatherman'.  We happily heap scorn on his predictions of rain, sun and even ice.  To put it bluntly, our faith in Meteorology is anything but steadfast, and for good reason.  A 60% chance of rain just means that 3 out of 5 weathermen agree.  Setting aside our universal absence of faith in the predictions of such mundane matters as rain or shine, the question remains:  Does faith require the suspension of reason?  Is there a reasonable way to believe in any prophecy, let alone an apocalyptical one? This is an old debate, but as recent events demonstrate, apparently it is still relevant.

Some people look at their tea leaves (or coffee grounds) in the morning and read into them the end-of-times.  Some people read into them just another day at the spaceship/office we call Earth.  The real question is whether we see the world as worse-than-it's-ever-been and consequently on the verge of an apocalyptical collapse or whether we see it as the same old world, simply spinning round, the same-as-it-ever-was and on the verge of nothing more dramatic than another day and another night.

On the one hand, the evidence for the end-is-near folks seems to be pretty considerable, what with all the earthquakes and volcanoes and the general malaise generated by the recent economic maelstrom.  It does seem rather calamitous.  On the other hand, it might be argued that this sort of stuff seems to always and naturally occur.  And of course it does.

Prophetic enterprises are built on and embellished by dramatic scenes of death and disaster, especially on a massive scale.  Human drama is entertaining, and massive human drama is even more engaging to the eye and ear.  Consequentially, it is only natural that many people would find the possibility that the end of the world could come on a specific day in our lifetimes to be at least entertaining, if not entirely credible.

Given that entertainment always seems to trump credibility, especially in this case, is it possible for someone to have actually seen this situation for what it was--a publicity stunt at worst and a public embarrassment at best--and yet still believe in the underlying concept of The Rapture?  Or, does believing in the latter preclude the possibility that one could see a charlatan proclaiming the same for what he is?

I think this is likely to be the case, because for the faithful, seeing the emperor naked would require an ironic acknowledgment from them.  A false prophet is allegedly one of the very signs that signal the beginning of the end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it.  Don't hold your breath:  acknowledgements of fundamental ironies are not forthcoming from the faithful.

Personally, I don't see any room for reason in the circus tent known as religion, and I'm not just taking pot-shots at Christianity, tempting though this situation has made that possibility.  The whole religious arena--especially now that it is (like porn) the Internet--allows for the performance of the clowns to be taken for that of the Ringmaster Himself.  The result is to be expected: folly.  Now, many good hearted and reasonable people come to the big tent to sweat away their impurities--those inevitable sins--while pretending that so doing is in itself the proof of a good and faithful life.

I believe that there is a third way here. I don't feel compelled to make a false choice between 'doom-and-gloom' and 'whatever'. I see a middle way, one which is actually more commonly adopted than the preternatural fear at the fringes of an admittedly evangelical fundamentalist Christianity or the existential loathing at the edges of supposedly dispassionate reason.  This middle way is not new or undiscovered.  The path is well-worn, and it requires neither Christian anxiety or atheistic apathy to follow it.

It is this from this vantage point--between the two extremes--that we may see and appreciate the world differently than the radicals at the edges.  From here, we can see the world as new each day, full of calamities and virtues both large and small.  From here, we may indeed realize that things--most things--are both good and bad, in some of the places and some of the time.  But not all things, not all places and certainly, not all of the time.

Most of us don't want to disbelieve, we just know better than to make predictions based on little or no evidence.  From painful experience, we know that prophesies both good and bad seldom come true and almost never pay off.  Predictions of doom as well as boom are rightly met with a worldly and weary skepticism.  We are not so weary, however, to think that all predictions are inherently false, just experienced enough to know that things are always changing.  Things won't be--can't be--the same as they always were. Yesterday isn't the same as today.

In fact, for some of us, today is actually better than yesterday.  The number of people for whom this is the case is certain to be small when compared, say, with the number of people alive (or who have lived) but I will argue that that number is both significant and growing.  I, for one, am still optimistic.

If anything is 'as it ever was', it is this.  The line that describes us--people, humans, souls--is an upward bending arc, always changing and potentially, without end.

So no, the world is not about to end.  And no, it's not the same as it ever was.  The world is now.  It is new.  And it's a great time to be here.


Monday, May 23, 2011

The Silver Bullet

These days, it seems, everyone is looking for the answer. Never mind the question. It is the answer we want. And lately, that answer seems to be a 'silver bullet.'

Yes, whether it is the economy or the war in Afghanistan or the Gulf oil spill, everyone is looking for a silver bullet.

The economy? The Washington Post said, "Pass the silver bullet."

Iraq? "Iraq Elections: No Silver Bullet" says The Century Foundation.

Iran? "US admits no silver bullet in US-led drive against Iran" says the AFP.

Afghanistan? "No silver bullet for Afghanistan" says the Guardian.

Gulf oil spill? "...dispersants are not a silver bullet." says BP.

Besides the obvious disagreement in syntax, I have a more basic question: Does anyone have any idea what they are talking about?

What exactly is a silver bullet? Why do journalists, speech and copy writers invoke it every time they don't have a simple, immediate solution to a very complicated, long-standing problem?

Well, the answer to the first of my rhetorical questions is no: most writers have no idea what they are talking about when they say that "there is no silver bullet."

While it is facile to conflate real-world bad things like a failing economy or a useless war with fictional bad things like vampires and werewolves, its simply a lazy way of summing up something so complicated and obviously bad that it can only be compared to a evil and bloodthirsty creature that comes in the night to kill people and steal their souls.

More frustrating than the over-use of this cliche is its mis-use. I have heard people say, "there is no silver bullet that will rebuild the economy." Well, of course there isn't. Bullets, even silver ones, are not the sort of thing that one uses to build anything, economies, houses or relationships.

Or,"there is no silver bullet that will cure cancer." Again, this is a not just another real misunderstanding of the metaphor but its another case in which it doesn't even come close to describing the intent. If bullets cured cancer, we'd all pack heat.

It sounds like a intelligent--dare I say literate--way of saying something akin to "there is no single solution to this very complicated problem/war/situation," but in fact, they are simply being the opposite of intelligent by parroting a false metaphor. Even the image of a silver bullet does nothing to combat economic problems, or ideological problems that are at the root of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, but it does offer up an easy and easily misconstrued image of a solution.

As if a single shot could solve what a million words, images and rounds of real lead ammunition have so far failed to do: end it all.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Brother's Day

Now that Lynda is gone, it's easy to count Mother's Day out as one of those artificial 'Hallmark' holidays, especially because it's also one of those days when I always have to work at the restaurant.  Now, on this day I am quite naturally thinking of Lynda, but I am also thinking of my brothers.

I think of Lynda often.  I think of her when I see my hands, when I hear my sigh, when I look in the mirror. I talk to myself the way that she did, knowing, now, what that conversation is about.  My blue eyes seem to have faded just a shade of late, now more than ever resembling Lynda's soft grey-blue eyes.

What's missing, though, is the contact, the talk, the reassurance that it--whatever it happened to be at the moment--would be alright.  I think it's safe to say that we never grow too old to be reassured by our mothers, and if there is any one single thing that makes us regret their absence it would be that.

It's a complicated emotion.  I miss her taking care of me long after I needed taking care of, but I also miss taking care of her, long after that care was needed.  I try to substitute for this with my Hospice work, but it is to be expected that it is just--not the same.  My contact with Mr. B. has been limited of late, not just by my schedule, but also by his reluctance to interact.  Then again, the volunteer work was never intended to be anything like what I shared with Lynda.

In the years since she's been gone, sharing time with my brother Stephen has helped close the gap considerably.  Our (nearly) weekly lunches give us the time and opportunity to talk about life at the pace it develops, slowly, instead of in big gulps at rare moments.  I see in his hands, feel in his eyes, and hear in his sighs the same vision of Lynda as my own.

It is, of course, a variation on a highly personal theme. David is another important manifestation of  this phenomenon.  Though he is more distant physically, our almost daily interaction via the net has drawn us closer than we've been since we were boys.  I know that he--like Stephen and me--thinks of her a lot and that sees her regularly in his daily life.

So, while I mourn the absence of Lynda and hold fast to the hope that Billie will be here for another year, I have to come to terms with what this day might mean for me in the future.  It's not an artificial holiday unless we make it so.  In fact, since I need look no further than either of my brothers for my reassurance and that sense of continuity that I need, I guess I ought to start calling it Brother's Day. 

Friday, May 6, 2011

Big City Blues

Lest either reader think that my previous post is evidence that I am angry or depressed, you may be assured that I am merely exorcising some demon words from my hand written journal of late.  It's the sort of thing you have to put up with, as does the other Reader.  By way of explanation, sometimes, it seems to help when I transform the ink into pixels.  But like the rest of this endeavor, it is essentially a self-centered exercise, so my advice is to simply skip it and read on.

More immediate in my consciousness is my recent trip to Chicago.  This week, I went to Holland, Michigan to visit Billie and John.  My path led me through the Windy City once again.  I have to say I never tire of it.

Granted, I haven't really seen Chicago in 'full-on' winter, at least not for the months of biting and bitter cold.  That small fact aside,  I have to say that every time I go downtown, I am exhilarated by the experience.  The energy and intensity of the city is apparent even on a deserted Sunday afternoon, but on a 'regular' weekday afternoon, it reaches a level that I find powerful, exciting and almost addicting.

This is how I found myself thinking about what it would be like to live there once again, as I was riding the 'L' as it carves through the concrete and steel canyons.  While they resemble those of New York or San Francisco, these spaces are different.  They have a character and feeling all their own.  Where New York can be gritty and oppressive, and San Francisco can be narrow and confining, Chicago is open and liberating.  It is welcoming in a way that is uniquely midwestern and yet it is a genuine 'big' city.

My imagination runs riot as I ride.  How thrilling it would be to live somewhere where there is not one or two but many museums, each with it's own special show (or two) each year!  I think of all the restaurants there are to discover.  How many parks are to be explored, how many interesting people are to be uncovered?

It's not as if we live in some cultural and physical backwater here in Austin.  Well, so we would like to think.  Alas, in spite of our big-city dreams, this town is just that: a town.  Dallas and Houston, bless 'em, are no better.  They may have the large populations required to define them as a city, and even some of the accoutrements of the same--an orchestra, a ballet and a museum (or two)--but it's just not the same as a 'real' big city.

Someday, health and my Bride permitting, I resolve to live for a year in Chicago, or near enough (like Holland) that we could visit it regularly.  Now, whether or not I can take a true winter remains to be seen, but I think I could.  It would be nice to give it a go someday.

Grendel

Rage
if you will
You must know
why mouths are left agape.

She comes in silk and satin
You know
Blood red robes
That twist like a rope
Whipping up lust for
Erections until after.

Go
if you can
Don't wait for a sign.
You are
too close to the edge
to remain
but
still too far away to fall.

Run
if you must
Trapped in a pitiless gaze
Your legs will
freeze
Your lungs will
burst
Your brain will
bleed.

All around you
the hate will coil
You will reap that harvest
long laying fallow in the
field.

Weep
if you should
but not for the thunderstorm of your soul
that never came.
Did you think your story tragic?
Did you forget to drink your full measure of blood today?

Run
if you dare
Back to your lair bitch.
The smell of hate
can only hide your fear for so long.
Then
you must boil your own bones
for the oil to light
my lamp.
As I descend into darkness
the light of your rage will guide me
to you.

Turn
if you want
but it's too late.
I will suck you from the earth
draw you up from the deep
past my fears
and
spit you into the stars.