Thursday, December 21, 2017

The Seventieth Solstice

There is something quite wonderful about being born on the winter solstice. Some of those born in December rue the fact, due to the proximity of Christmas and other holidays. My sister is especially unlucky in that regard because she was born on Christmas day, although, as a devout Christian, she probably doesn't mind. But for me, having arrived on "The darkest evening of the year" (as Robert Frost so memorably put it in "Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening") has always seemed appropriate. I've long been interested in science in general, and in planetary sciences in particular, and the solstice is really what all the celebratory fuss is about anyway this time of year. In fact, according to an article in today's New York Times, were it not for the winter solstice, we probably wouldn't be here at all.

Five years ago, in 2012, I was happy to announce to my students (some of whom were alarmed by the promise of the end of days) that the only thing of any real importance happening on December 21 was my sixty-fifth birthday. The Maya did not, in fact, predict the end of the world on that day. Most cultures do celebrate the moment of "sun return" in some fashion, and others mold their calendars to include the moment, more or less. So the birth of Christ, for which there is no good information about an exact date, has traditionally been celebrated on the Roman date for the solstice, December 25.

The solstice marks the gradual return of longer days and shorter nights, leading up to the vernal equinox in March, the beginning of spring, and the path to the summer solstice. Daylight Savings Time, of course, throws a sabot into the machinery, but it's over before December, making the longer sunny minutes all the more important. I keep hoping that DST will go away eventually, as some states are trying to accomplish already, so we don't have the additional, artificial adjustment to make and can just go by seasonal changes.

My seventieth solstice celebration began last Saturday, when family gathered at my daughter's house. Her significant other shares the birthday with me, his fortieth, so we were joined by some of his family and my son, who flew in from Seattle. On Sunday, we all joined over sixty friends (including some of my favorite former students) at a local draft/movie house to watch The Last Jedi. My incomparable, amazing daughter had been planning this event for the past year, and it was quite a bash. Included in the group were the friend/colleague/teacher who inspired our interest in Continental philosophy, along with his travel writer/filmmaker wife and their amazing daughter, and my oldest friend in the world (whom I hadn't seen in over fifty years) who happened to be making a road trip from the east and whose arrival coincided with the festivities. A smaller group congregated at our house later for more conversation and conviviality, providing a pleasant end to a memorable weekend.

The year has been a good one for some of my more distant friends, and my California family managed to escape the Lilac fire in Oceanside by living just outside the mandatory evacuation area, so despite our own lack of optimism about the state of the nation, things--as old Jews like me are fond of saying--could always be worse.

I should also mention that this solstice is made even more significant by the retirement from teaching of The Beloved Spouse. What optimism we can now gather is buoyed up by the fact that the current national lack of success in fostering education will not continue to rule our lives. The last twenty years have been more trying than rewarding, and we're now looking forward to doing what we haven't had the time or energy to do until now.

It thus seems fitting that Skywatch Friday occurs at just the right time to share a photo I took on December 21, 2014 on our last trip west, near Midland, Texas. There we spent our first night in our new "old" trailer, bought in anticipation of the retirement that is here at last.

So happy holidays, everyone; have a felicitous Sun Return.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Looking Backward, Going Forward

As I begin to transform my old website Owldroppings into a more complete exploration of the concerns that show up in this blog (which will become a component of a newly realized Owl’s Farm: The Website), I keep running into questions about what I really want to think and write about.

After all, I’m about to turn seventy, an age I never thought I’d reach. So what does a seventy year-old former academic, wannabe political economist, sometime philosopher of technology, lapsed archaeologist, retired art and design history teacher, and compulsive writer do with what remains of her life?

Early on in my musings I realized that I want to stop being so grumpy. Even though I don’t have grandchildren, my siblings do, and so I do have a small genetic investment in the future. It might behoove me, therefore, to begin to consider better alternatives than seem to be available in the present political moment.

Owl’s Farm: The Blog has always been about utopia. It was inspired by two of the best utopian thinkers I ever ran across: William Morris and Yi-Fu Tuan. Morris was a celebrated designer and an early socialist, and Tuan is a humanistic geographer with a profound understanding of place. Both developed creative visions of the notion of home, which led to my explorations into its many meanings.

As I searched for a focus for the new iteration of the website, I realized that it still had to be about education, and should still embody the “teaching philosophy” I was required to articulate for my annual evaluations as a college instructor.  But it also needs to spend less time on the current state of education and more on locating what could improve it—especially since there are good models available.

In addition, instead of just complaining about current economic conditions, perhaps I should focus on locating bright spots on the horizon, like alternative energy solutions or promising community developments.

The website should also continue to provide resources for the curious, since former students still occasionally use it for the links. I’ll also archive my topical essays for courses I taught (not just art and design history, but philosophical perspectives on food, anthropology, culture, and the Arts and Crafts movement), and see if I can stay on top of issues relevant to them.   

All along this blog was meant to be an adjunct to my novel, More News From Nowhere. That, too, is in the process of being revised somewhat—now that I have the time to revisit its reason for being.  As a lifelong interdisciplinarian, I want to use the novel (and others in various stages of development) and the blog(s) as outlets for the results of curiosity. It’s often difficult to compartmentalize my many interests, but occasionally I can focus on a single aspect (museums, for example) and develop lines of inquiry that can be labeled. Hence: Owl’s Cabinet of Wonders. Other attempts (like The Owl of Athena, a blog on educational concerns) kept leaking into The Farm, and so were abandoned (although they, too, will be archived on the revised site). 

The ultimate aim now is fun—as much as is possible in this moment. I’m too old to keep wasting time being a complete curmudgeon. I can’t promise that I won’t ever go off on another grumpy rant again, or that sarcasm won’t sneak into my commentary on life, the universe, and everything. I am by nature a cynic, in its original sense. I’m dog-like: suspicious, reluctant to trust without reason (see my post from The Owl of Athena on the topic). But also both faithful and curious, and willing to explore new ideas and approaches.  

And yes, I can be a cranky old bitch. But I’ll try to do more Frisbee chasing and romping around in the garden, and less pissing on the flowers. I hope what I’ll have to offer is interesting, entertaining (in a very broad sense of the word), thoughtful, and educational. I also hope it will provide a sense of hope for the future, and tools for building more of a eu-topia than an ou-topia. I’d rather that we move toward a good place than continue to imagine what can only be a no-place, a place possible only in the imagination.

Wish me luck.

PS: is “live” but practically devoid of contact. Design work will progress as I have time, depending on concurrent pursuits.

Image note: The photo is of Mount Whitney, taken in the Alabama Hills outside of Lone Pine, California, during our winter trip in 2015/16. Whenever I stayed with my Grandmother, I could see a more distant version of this image from her living room window.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Twenty Years

Having anxiously awaited Cassini's last moments for the previous week, I spent last Friday morning glued to the iPad, eavesdropping on the operations room at JPL where the folks who'd been working on the project monitored its End of Mission. As I watched the room erupt in hugs and tears after Cassini's final signal was called, I marveled at the idea of spending twenty years (as some of them had) working on a project that contributed so significantly to the sum of human knowledge. If you missed the live feed, NASA's flickr page features collection of photos that can provide a hint of the moment's emotional power. 

The combined sadness and joy expressed during the television coverage was both moving and enviable to an old space groupie like me. Ending one month shy of the twentieth anniversary of its launch, the project went out quite literally in a blaze of glory--which we'll never see because there wasn't anyone there to shoot the video. After having accomplished far more than anyone had expected when the Cassini-Huygens mission began, many more years will be required to digest all of the data gathered.

From its inception, the mission that took the probe Huygens to Titan in 2004 and enabled Cassini to continue on for several added missions made possible by a good battery and international cooperation presented us with almost incalculable benefits (partially enumerated on the nifty poster included below). But its ending also reminded me that quite a number of things have changed since the 1997 launch.

It's hard to believe that in those twenty years communications technologies have moved us from dialup computer service to wireless, from bulky mobile telephones to smartphones, and from clunky desktop computers to sleek Macs and ever skinnier, ever more powerful laptops and tablets. It was also in 1997 that I purchased my web domain from Network Solutions and developed the first faculty web pages for the use of my students--because The Institution (which had programs in web development, computer graphics, and animation) hadn't yet caught on to the value of online education. But even this cranky old technophobe saw the potential of being able to put instructional materials where they could be easily accessed at any time. And so, "Owldroppings" came into being, and served me well for the remainder of my teaching career. In honor of its twentieth anniversary, in fact, the domain is in the process of being transformed into a more complex version of Owl's Farm, where the Owldroppings materials will be archived and other concerns developed.

As rewarding as my experience with digital enhancements was, the general tenor of higher education had declined so badly by the time I retired that I found myself truly envying the level of accomplishment in evidence at the end of the Cassini mission. How good it must feel to have been a part of such an enormously rewarding experience! The emotions were obviously mixed, but even those members of the team who will themselves soon retire will have all that glory to bask in and all that experience to contribute to yet other endeavors.

So, yeah, I was jealous. But then, one of my former students texted to check up on me, and I invited her and another of those few but significant grads who are both memorable and have kept in touch to come to lunch on Saturday so we could all reconnect. Later, yet another student (who had recently texted to announce her pregnancy) stopped by. We had a lovely afternoon and a romp down Memory Lane (even though not all of those memories were pleasant), and as they were leaving I began to realize that rewarding experiences don't all have to be big, spectacular accomplishments like Cassini.

Seeing these bright, affable, creative young women again, moving toward their own futures (much as my own children have done--taking their own time, but leading rewarding lives), and realizing that I played a small part in how they've turned out, is well worth the effort that went into a teaching career that didn't always seem particularly meaningful.

In the end, my disappointment in not having the proper education to become an astronaut or a rocket scientist can be assuaged by the knowledge that there are some terrific people out there that I would never have met (or children I would never have borne) if I had made it to the space program.

Image credits: One of my favorite of Cassini's gazillion shots of Saturn and its moons (Epimetheus, Rings, and Titan, from April 2006), I pinched this from Wikimedia Commons. Many more can be found through NASA/JPL's pages, including the chart of Cassini's accomplishments (which I originally found in Wikipedia's rather nice article on the mission).