Monday, July 28, 2008

WALL-E and the Pale Blue Dot

The moment in which I actually entered the twentieth century, despite the fact that I'd already been on the planet for 33 years by then, can be traced back to September of 1980 and the day we brought home my first color television set.

It was only a 13-incher, and I would have been happy with black and white for quite a bit longer if it hadn't been for Carl Sagan, and his series Cosmos. I just couldn't imagine watching what promised to be the best astronomy show ever, in black and white. And I was right. It was gorgeous, and well written, and had me and my kids (even though one of them was only a year old) riveted to that tiny set.

A few days ago, Beloved Spouse, who's not usually impressed by much, came home abuzz about a show he'd heard on XM radio on his way home from tennis. It was an interview with Nick Sagan, Carl's son (the one whose voice was recorded on the "golden record" sent out on Voyager I, with greetings from the children of planet Earth) in which he talked about his book You Call This the Future, and (with his mother, Linda Salzman-Sagan) about making the "record." I didn't hear the broadcast, but apparently they also played "The Pale Blue Dot" (which is floating around on YouTube with quite a number of tribute videos), in which the late Sagan reminds us of the utterly amazing nature of our planet's very existence, and the fact that it may well be unique in the universe. I for one hope not, but don't expect to stay alive long enough to find out differently.

In the usual manner in which coincidences work, we finally got to see Pixar's WALL-E on Sunday, and it's now my official all-time favorite American animated film. Of course its environmental theme and its engaging, rather gentle, but nonetheless pointed exploration of modern popular culture resonated like crazy with the Sagan video. The little pale dot that is us is, for all we know, all we have. And, unlike the folks who built WALL-E and sent the Axiom out into space, we don't have a deus-ex-machina to rescue us; nor do we have time to develop the technology at the rate we're going.

After all, we don't even have flying cars yet, as Sagan the Younger points out in his book. We're still trying to figure out how to get past the internal combustion engine, making me think that because of our insoluble bonds to Big Oil and Big Power, we're stuck with an eternal, infernal combustion engine. The fires of our own human-made hell, anyone?

What surprised me about WALL-E, though, was not the way it dealt with the trashed out-planet, or even the "Buy n Large" conglomerate that runs everything (after all, I'm a Chuck fan, and the "Buy More" jokes are already part of my vocabulary). The most telling aspect of the vision of the future represented in the film was the end product of our "plug in; tune out" culture, which is now only in its infancy. But at the rate we're going, it really isn't hard to imagine a bunch of balloon-like humanoid creatures floating around in mag-lev barcaloungers sipping frankenfood ("pizza in a cup!") through a straw.

When WALL-E accidentally bumps a couple of the Axiom's inhabitants out of their chairs, they suddenly start noticing what's around them, and it's as if a spark's been lit. Wonder happens. The same wonder I'm beginning to miss in many of my students. And we don't even have flying chairs . . . yet.

Our kids already have drastically shortened attention spans (except when they're playing video games), only read online (and what they read is really problematic), socialize as if they were attached to E. M. Forster's Machine, and are becoming obese (and developing related infirmities) at an alarming rate. Our best and brightest are becoming limited by increasingly impoverished environments, even as the amount of information they're asked to process increases exponentially.

WALL-E is a sweet, poignant movie that disturbs me in ways I never expected it to. While paying homage to our pale blue dot, and reminding us of Carl Sagan's lesson, it also pines wistfully for an awakened consciousness about over-dependence on technological toys. It makes me look back on the days when I truly appreciated my tiny color TV--my only entertainment source besides a stereo, a Victrola, and a couple of pre-schoolers--in innocent ignorance of what the future had in store, flying cars or no.

Photos: WALL-E wallpaper from Pixar; Pale Blue Dot from Wikipedia.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Being and Place

I’ve been working on The Farm, here, for a bit over a year now, and I thought it might be worth reflecting on how it—and perhaps its author—have evolved in the process of posting weekly for the last thirteen months.

I began the effort almost under protest. Several colleagues whom I especially respect had flogged blogging as “the next big thing,” which is usually enough to chase this techno-dinosaur back into the cave. But as I said, I think well of these folk, and so began an effort that's become a kind of odyssey for me. A bit late in life, perhaps, but the entire experience has been both more enjoyable and more entertaining than I had ever expected.

Very early on (like day one) I realized that daily bleats would not be coming out of this sheep. It wasn’t until after I’d been at it for a couple of weeks that I started looking around at other blogs, and began linking the interesting ones to my own blog roll. I played around with design, managed to concoct a banner, and figured out that a more-or-less weekly posting schedule, involving short essays instead of quippy little daily bits was more my “style.” Every weekend (mine are currently four-days long) I’d spend a few hours over a couple of days and reflect on whatever was stewing around in the old noggin—usually in response to whatever was going on in the “real world” (as we call it on the Serenity forum). And because I was still working on More News From Nowhere, the musings would focus on what it was like being a utopian living in dystopia.

I recently started looking back over the early posts, and noticed a consistent theme: place. Not necessarily u-topian (“no-place”) or eu-topian (“good-place”) or even dys-topian (not-so-good place), but simply place.

And then I figured out why, and changed my blog-description to reflect what I had discovered.

Over my entire life I have formed attachments to a variety of places: Japan, Taiwan, the Owens River Valley in California, coastal Oregon, northwestern New Mexico, Greece, London, Long Island, Philadelphia, Chicago. And for the past thirty years I have been trying, sometimes painfully, to learn to love the prairie—specifically the particular part of the prairie in which I have found myself exiled.

While my children were growing up, I steeped myself in the natural history of the Texas blackland prairie where we live, and explored it and some of its surroundings (the Ouachita mountains in eastern Oklahoma, where I once owned a cabin I could never get to; the Wichita mountains in western Oklahoma; Copper Breaks and the Guadalupe mountains in west Texas) on backpacking and camping trips over a number of years. I volunteered at the Outdoor Learning Center for the Plano schools and at the Heard Natural Science Museum and Wildlife Sanctuary, near where I now live. I learned about native flora and fauna, led children on nature trails, taught home-schoolers how to dissect frogs, and even held a voluntary “environmental ethics camp” for my son’s fifth-grade chums (whom I’d met on a week-long stint as a counselor at Camp Goddard in Oklahoma).

Although I eventually established an equilibrium between my longing for the western desert and the realization that I would probably never get out of Texas, the pull toward the west drew me away every chance I got. While my father and grandmother were still alive, I made sure I got “home” at least once a year, even if it meant flying—of which I am not terribly fond. I relished the long, beautiful drive through west Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona (or the alternate route through Colorado and Utah). I even made it by myself once, the summer I had bypass surgery—blissfully unaware of what would happen to me only days after I got back to Texas.

A two-year stint in Chicago, while Beloved Spouse worked on his doctorate and I worked on my exams and dissertation proposal in a cheesy three-flat a block from Wrigley Field, had done little to help me reconcile myself to Texas. Even getting out of the suburbs didn’t help much, because we moved to east Dallas just as the tear-down era began in earnest. We bought our house in McKinney for the acreage (.5) and the preservation district that would insulate us from rampant sprawl.

The recent renovations that now allow me to gaze out onto the back .25 acre have salved my usual summer nostalgia a bit. Plans to go west over the spring break were thwarted by mis-matched teaching schedules, and the next trip lies somewhere in the dim future: perhaps next winter, perhaps the following summer. Who knows?

Toiling away on The Farm has thus provided a path toward a kind of consilience. The word has gained currency with the publication of E. O. Wilson’s book, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, in 1998. But I first learned it years ago when I was studying the philosophy of science and systems theory, and saw it as a useful metaphor to counter the prevailing notion that the sciences and the humanities amounted to separate ways of viewing the world. Consilience offered a way of using logic (inductive) to make connections among “data sets” that didn’t otherwise seem connected.

Of course, my approach is not nearly as mechanical as I’ve probably made it sound. Inductive logic, in fact, is the more intuitive, common-sensical way in which human reason works (as opposed to deduction, which is the more formulaic). Consilence is even closer to what Charles Saunders Peirce called “abduction”—which allows for instructive connections, whether or not they’re “valid.” That’s a fancy way of saying that even if the connections aren’t entirely solid, the differences can still teach us something about what we’re observing.

I insist to my students constantly, whenever I have a chance, that human beings are metaphor makers: homo translator. All learning is grounded in what we already know (which is why the more we know, the more we can know). But metaphor allows us to make connections by locating similarities and differences, exploring them, and then learning from that exploration. And herein lies the beauty of blogging, for me, at least. By essaying into a question or an observation, and by following where they lead, I never know where I’m going to end up; but when I get there, I know where I’ve been, and I can usually see the path.

And now, as I look back on this essay, I see exactly how my focus has shifted; even my metaphors are spatial. The Chinese-American philosopher-geographer Yi-fu Tuan coined the term “topophilia” (Greek for “love of place”) to describe the tendency of human beings to become attached to particular places, and I guess I've been inflicted with it ever since I can remember. It might even help explain why I've had so much intellectual trouble with living in Texas.

Tuan occupies an altar in my brain next to William Morris, because his work has so significantly influenced the way I have come to see the world. As a stranger in a strange land himself, Tuan has written cogently and poetically over the years about everything from landscape to imagination to ethics to aesthetics. Recently he mused about the experience of exile an instructive letter in his “Dear Colleague” series. In it he notes that in addition to being a disaster, “it cleanses the mind and promotes fresh ways of thinking.”

I thought of him the other day, and about this remark, when a colleague of mine echoed a sentiment I had uttered years ago, after I left Chicago. She admitted that although Dallas is a hard place to live in, that’s not necessarily a bad thing—because it keeps us from becoming complacent about the condition of the world. I once noted that living in Chicago was “too easy” and that having to survive—intellectually, politically, philosophically—in Dallas could actually build character. Removal from a beloved place does, in fact, increase one’s appreciation for what’s distant; and living in a place that tries one’s philosophical patience on a daily basis can stimulate the little grey cells in ways that a more satisfied existence might not.

The Farm has thus provide me with a way of exploring life in what amounts to a self-imposed exile. It sounds a bit silly and self-serving to think of it that way, especially in comparison to what real, political exiles suffer. Although I’m pretty well stuck here, I love my job, we have a great house, my daughter’s relatively close by, and the weather isn’t always as hot and tediously damp as it’s been these last two weeks. In fact, it’s cooler today and the A/C’s back off (it’s only 85 right now, on its way to a high in the mid-90s), so I’m not confined to one or two rooms and may be able to get some work done.

Before I “leave” (another spatial metaphor that plays with the notion of cyber-space), however, I'd like to offer my gratitude to my readers—both those who post comments and offer their views, and those who discuss the topics with me in person or via e-mail. It’s been an enlightening experience, I’ve met interesting new people, reconnected with family members, and I’m learning more with every post. The conversations have also helped to change my perspective on this particular place. I still don’t “love” it; but I’ve become more interested in it, and less annoyed with the fact that I’m here. And at my age, that’s a real accomplishment.

Photo: An old postcard view of U. S. Highway 395, Main Street in Lone Pine, California, where I was born, taken in 1947, the year I was born.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Golf, Life, and Metaphor

An overhead shot of the Royal Birkdale golf course in Southport, England, looks like a post-glacial landscape: swales and valleys amid gorse-covered dunes. It's a veritable topographical map of the game of golf, and an emblem for the true nature of the game. The photo is of Annika Sorenstam at the approach to the 10th green, during the 2005 Women's Open (the only shot of the course I could obtain legally).

The 2008 Open Championship is also being played on this dramatic stretch of British coast, where the English sand meets the Irish Sea, and it promises to be every bit as exciting as previous tournaments where I like best to watch the game.

"Exciting? Golf? Well, maybe, but Tiger's not there this year, so what's the big deal?" scoff the scoffers.

I'm afraid I'm a bit of a purist, and although I'll watch golf played anywhere, I've been known to refer to the way it's played on municipal golf courses around here in pejorative terms ("sissy golf" is one of the more polite). Maybe it's the Scot in me, but I prefer the wild, rugged, coastal links courses in Great Britain to any of the manicured pretty-boy courses in the U.S.

The wind and rain blow, the clouds lower, the bunkers are real traps, not baby beaches, and the water hazards can pitch a leader out of the top ten in a few strokes. In today's third round, the wind is the main factor, making it difficult for players to mark their balls on some of the greens. The sun's gorgeous, but shots of the sea give you a pretty good idea of just how tough things are going to be later in the day. K. J. Choi leads at the moment, and he's the only player under par.

So why am I yapping away about a game that I don't play (I think I've actually held a golf club in my hand once or twice) in a blog that purports to explore things philosophical? Because golf, like baseball, is metaphor writ large. In fact, I've sometimes shown The Legend of Bagger Vance in humanities classes, because of what it tells us about the nature and scope of myth itself. Based on the book by Steven Pressfield (who based it on the Bhagavad Gita, one of the sacred Hindu scriptures), the film (directed by Robert Redford) pits man against himself as he strives for meaning in lfe. As Bagger Vance (played by Will Smith) says about golf, "it's the only game in which you can call a penalty on yourself."

Golf, especially on a links course, provides lessons in a variety of skills I'd love to see my students develop: tenacity, concentration, patience, physical and mental stamina, fine-tuned technique, and adaptability. Grace in competition is a hallmark of the great players (Tiger Woods, of course, comes immediately to mind), but the real competition is between the player and his or her own mind. Young and old can compete in it; among today's leaders are K. J. Choi (38) and Greg Norman (53), along with Rocco Mediate (46) and Camilo Villegas (26) in the final two pairings for the third round. It's as much a mental game as a physical one, and a tournament can be won by both skill and will.

I was highly amused the other day to notice that the story line in the comic strip Judge Parker (choose July 18 and 19 on the link) is beginning to focus on golf, and that one of the characters is touting Harvey Pennick's treatise on life and golf, his Little Red Book. I've given it to duffers more than once, and it, like Bagger Vance, has as much to say about being human as about playing golf.

But golf is also about landscape, and especially on links courses, it's about nature's interaction with human design. To me, it's silly to see green grass in the middle of the desert (as in Las Vegas or Palm Springs), but the courses in Britain symbolize the human experience of adapting to the land. At the margins of the groomed fairways and greens lie the natural scrub, heather, gorse, beach grass, and other vegetation into which the course has been carved. The bunkers are cut into the underlying sand, and dug deeply to present a real challenge to the player whose ball wanders off the green or lands in one from the fairway. The weather in Britain also changes so rapidly that the character of play can be altered in a few minutes. As I type, the clouds are moving in from the sea, and the jackets are coming on in the gallery.

Golf can, in fact, be played under almost any conditions. The tougher the course and the weather, the hardier the folk it attracts. In More News From Nowhere, my characters play a form of desert golf, and folks apparently even play golf in Greenland (see above) in circumstances that must surely test one's grit.

I've never understood people who find precision-based games like golf to be tedious and/or boring. The character and skill of the players, and the battles of wills that often ensue, are plenty exciting for me, and watching the Open Championship gives me a chance to see talented human beings matching their wits against nature. Sports, for many, are tantamount to religious experiences, and it's easier for me to see this in Britain in July than at almost any other time of year--except, perhaps, during the World Series.

Photos: Annika Sorenstam at the approach to the 10th green at Royal Birkdale during the 2005 Women's British Open Pro-Am (modified), by Cath Mudford. Golf in Greenland (modified), by Graphicos. Both from Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Everything Flows

Heraclitus said it. You can't step in the same river twice, because everything's in flux. Boy, is it.

Last summer I posted an item on the wild fires in the Owens Valley, and during the last two days I've learned yet another lesson about how nature works.

The area lies between the Sierras on the west, and the Inyos on the east, forming the deepest valley in the lower 48 states (Deepest Valley is also the name of a definitive book on the region, originally written by Genny Smith). The rain shadow effect, which causes most precipitation to fall on the western side of the Sierras, creates a high desert climate with annual rainfall at about 4 to 6 inches. Except for dwindling snow cover and receding glaciers, things have looked pretty much the same in this part of California for as long as I can remember. But when stuff happens in this place, it really happens.

The combination of burned-out land and a torrential rain in the mountains produced this last Sunday a mudslide of proportions big enough to cut a swath through the valley north of Independence, destroying parts of the historic Mt. Whitney Fish Hatchery. The building itself was spared, but homes in the area (including those of hatchery personnel) were damaged or destroyed. No human lives appear to have been lost, but a couple of cats didn't make it--nor did 3,000 rainbow trout. The hatchery, according to the Fish & Game people, is the "sole source for Golden trout eggs in California," so the impact could be more far-reaching than its immediate devastation. I'm not sure yet whether the eggs and fry were damaged (I seem to remember some in the main building), but losing several thousand pounds of rainbows isn't exactly small . . . well, you get the drift.

The slide covered a segment of the main north-south transportation artery, U. S. 395, causing delays of several hours for people bent on returning to LA from their cool weekends in the mountains. But it spared the L. A. aqueduct, which carries a good deal of the valley's water south, much as the highway carries the cars. This is the same aqueduct that's partly (although not completely) responsible for the very dryness that made last summer's fires as extensive as they were. In the interest of full disclosure, however, I must mention that my blissful childhood visits to this same valley were made possible by the fact that my grandfather managed the Cottonwood power station for the City of Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, and I grew up next to this same aqueduct. My feelings about the whole issue are, therefore, complex.

For more complete accounts of the event itself, a semi-local account (from Mammoth Lakes) is available through Sierra Wave television, and here's the LA Times story.

My interest in this event rests not only in my attachment for the area (we often stay in the Winnedumah Hotel in Independence, and some of the photos I've featured in this blog have been taken nearby), but in particular in my family's fondness for the fish hatchery itself. If my archives were more organized, and my scanner working, I'd include here photos taken of my grandfather holding me on the steps of the main building, and a similar shot of my father holding my son. We like generational symmetry in this family. At any rate, I loved to take my kids there when they were little, and only a lack of time prevented me from taking Beloved Spouse the last time we drove by the road that leads up to the complex.

For visual background, here's a Flickr page on the aftermath of last summer's fire by an ichthyologist who calls himself "oncorhynchus," (there's something wonderfully coincidental about the fish connection here--maybe that's why he'd been in the valley) and a nice VR panorama of the hatchery grounds, before the slide.

So this is the lesson: some things that seem always to have been there, may not always be there, so we'd best not postpone visiting places (and people) we love. Nature has a way of knocking us on our kiesters every now and then, and not all of the messes that get made are made by us (both the fire and the mud-flood were caused primarily by natural phenomena; I say "primarily" because the real damage occurred to human-made structures, and the abnormal rainfall itself may reflect larger, human-augmented, climate conditions).

There does seem to be some irony to my writing this account on the day that the All Star game will be played in Yankee Stadium for the last time. Beloved edifices are hard to come by these days, and I hate to see any of them go. At least the fish hatchery's still standing. Maybe it'll be there long enough for me to get a photo with a grandchild--but I'm not counting on it.

Photo credits: Denise Flynn, from her Flickr photostream. Limited use Creative Commons license. Denise: you should visit your parents more often and take more pictures!

Friday, July 11, 2008

Adventures in Rehab: Or, The Recycled House, Part 2

Have I mentioned that I'm getting old? If I had ever doubted the fact, or had ever held on to illusions of my eternal youth (don't we all feel 16 somewhere in our psyches?), I am now fully disabused of them.

After two weeks of down-on-knees and up-on-ladder efforts, we finally finished (more or less) one of the two rooms we had planned to complete over my two-week break from teaching and prep. On Monday, a new quarter begins for me, and Beloved Spouse begins a five-week stint of teaching two summer session classes, and we won't have much time for these shenanigans.

But we will have a nice, sunny (read: warm) study, with newly refinished floors, newly painted walls and baseboards, and newly installed and painted crown molding. Still to complete: the former study/potential guest room (or Sitting Room, as he wants to call it), which still needs all of the above done to it, except for installing crown molding.

The necessity for all the fixing-up stems from a really bad job of updating begun by the previous owners, but never completed. Extensive work had been done on the living and dining rooms (glazing the beaver-board walls, stuccoing the fireplace, and installing gold shag carpeting throughout), but somebody decided to take out the beaver-board in the rest of the house and install wallboard--badly. They never seem to have finished it out, and the taping and bedding that was done, was carried out haphazardly and incompletely. I'm not sure when this all happened (evidence suggests that the glazing and carpeting was a '70s effort, but the rest may have happened later). The photos above are of the crown molding on top of the glazed beaver-board in the living room, contrasted with the equivalents in the re-painted dining room (accomplished a couple of years ago, before we installed a wall of bookcases in there). The living room re-do will involve somebody who knows what he or she is doing, because the ceiling panels are damaged and/or sagging, and will require professional help.

At any rate, we set aside two weeks to shift our lives around a bit, and to take care of problems that had been bugging us since we moved in. We began by sanding the floors in what we have been calling the sunroom (because it's at the southwest corner of the house, with expanses of windows in both those directions). The red pine had originally been varnished, but the '70s up-dating had included the removal of the shoe-molding, the laying down of crappy carpet pads, and the installation of the shag carpet. The first thing we did when we moved into the house was to rip up all of the carpeting everywhere (including the astroturf on the front porch!) and strip the varnish from the floors in the living and dining rooms. We threw down rugs everywhere else, planning to get to it all eventually.

What we forgot is that we're now eight years older than we were when we moved in, and the weather is not exactly cool. Nonetheless, we rented sanders (which helped, but not as much as we had hoped), bought spackling compound and molding and paint, and got to work. What the drum-sander didn't get, we removed with citrus stripper and hand-sanding, and then we went on the Great Floor-Finish Hunt, which became a problem because we were running out of time and our options were narrowing. We settled on Velvit Oil, a penetrating wood stain that binds with the wood molecules and seals the floor. Thus began a three-day ordeal, which left me with blisters on my knees and the worst back ache I've ever had. But the floor looks pretty good, and nicely rustic (we didn't apply anything to make it shiny, but it is smooth, and there are no traces of the rug padding). It's a rich deep red color (the result of blending a light blond shade with a cherry) that's satisfying enough to use on the hallway and in the breakfast room, when we finally undertake those.

We had to re-think our original plans for where the Ikea "Billy" bookcases would go, but what we ended up with avoided our having to saw holes in the backing to accommodate light switches. We need to put in another one where the TV is still ensconced (until we can get the cable switched--something that can't happen until the other room is finished). But after moving a thousand books (I'm not exaggerating) into the room, along with two desks, we're pretty happy with how it turned out. The few changes left can wait, and we'll be taking it much more slowly from here on in.

I have to wait until my knees heal, and I can walk fully upright again. But now I can sit here at my desk and watch the squirrels run around the pecan tree outside the west window, and enjoy the cool morning breeze. Life in an old house can be really good--if you're not too old to make it work.

Photos: View of my view from my desk; living room and dining room crown molding contrasted; study floor stripped (left) and being stained (right); east wall bookcase view (see The Recycled House post for "before").