Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas Eve 1968

Wired Science online has a brief article and the full video of the Apollo 8 Christmas Eve broadcast. This is one of those life-mark events for me: I distinctly remember watching the television broadcast as the three men circled the moon, the first humans to do so. They stuck a camera in the little window and described the view of the moonscape, and the contrast with the green and blue earth in the vast distance. They read the first chapter of Genesis as their closing.

I remember being very struck by that view, their description, and the words of Genesis as the stark landscape of the moon turned under the small window. I recorded it on a little reel-to-reel tape recorder -- a tape which is long gone.

So much has changed in 42 years. But the words of 'the beginning', and the celebration of a birthday on December 25, still ring out.

Merry Christmas.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

The Economic Oligarchy

Recent data:

  • National unemployment rate: 9.6%
  • Unemployment rate for those with bachelors degree: 4.7%
  • Unemployment rate for those with less than high school: 15%

Headline from New York Times on Tuesday:

Corporate Profits Were the Highest on Record Last Quarter”

Two lessons emerge from this information.

First, when the recession got rough, the financial sector convinced our government to spread their pain among the taxpayers rather than just their shareholders -- the former being a larger base of help than the reluctant latter, of course. So we bailed out the financial sector and a couple of manufacturing companies that made cars people weren't buying.

How does the private sector repay us when the economy climbs off the bottom of the hole? Admittedly, some of them repay the government. But as the economy improves, most corporations pour the benefits into profits rather than spread the wealth by hiring. And then the primary corporate decision-makers hide behind the curtain created by the Supreme Court, and fund candidates who promise to suppress tax rates for the highest earners.

Second lesson: stay in school. If you are not ready for a job that requires higher skills, you will be left behind, living on the fringe of the income stream. Those with bachelors degrees are employed. Those who dropped out of high school might as well be living in 1933.

Monday, November 01, 2010

The Giants Win the World Series

I was only a year old when the Giants last won the World Series in 1954, an important win to the biggest Giants fan I knew -- my Dad.

Since then, the Giants have made the Series four times, and they beat the Texas Rangers tonight for their first championship since that win over Cleveland 56 years ago. This was the most unlikely of teams, compared to the stars on the teams in 1962, 1989, and 2002.

Which makes this World Series win tonight the best of all. And what makes baseball the best of all sports.

I can now stop trying to write the perpetual angst poem about the Giants.

All Saints Day

What does it mean to be human?

Yesterday was All Saints Sunday. Our church sanctuary has 280 paper cranes hanging from the ceiling. Each crane carries the name of someone remembered, a saint. Over the past month, people were invited to inscribe a name of someone who has passed away, but whose life left an indelible mark on the individual. The fine-paper squares were transformed into many-colored cranes.

A key foundation of Christianity is that the risen Christ proves that death is not to be feared. The physical death of the corporal body is a transition, not an end. Death is another marker in our existence. As Craig said, death is a conquered enemy – a comma, not a period.

We can classify our death as a switch, like a light switch on the wall. Whether it is thrown violently, or pushed softly down, our minds cannot comprehend what occurs at the terminal point of that switch.

Death itself is no longer the literal end-all, the big mystery to our physical human life. Now the mystery is the other side of this transition.

Christianity does not hold a monopoly on faith in a post-human existence. Most religions and cultures have upheld a major life-force, or forces, that governs our life and opens the door to life after death. We just do not carry the tools to describe that image.

So, what does it mean to be human? Dunno yet. The cranes might help, though.

Each of the cranes carries a message. The message is carried in a different song, a different word, a different picture. We each hear it, see it, feel it in a different way. If we try to frame the message or give it boundaries, we constrict instead of liberate our lives. Each of the people written on the cranes was human and left footprints, or we would not be naming them. My Dad, Pam’s Mom, Don Troost, Michael Cheslosky are not just black ink that I scratched on rectangles of fine paper. They live. We carry them. They fly. And we try to fly with them.

Click here to read a poem by Morton Marcus.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Every book in the world, in over 20 volumes

I recently finished an intriguing book: Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages, by Ammon Shea. Shea’s day job was as a furniture mover; he dated a lexicographer with a dictionary publisher; and he has a lifelong fascination with dictionaries. His apartment is lined with homemade bookshelves laden with dictionaries; he derives most of his pleasure in life from pulling one down from the shelf and opening it to any page to read. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is the monster of all dictionaries.

Each chapter of this book was named after a letter of the alphabet. Each chapter has a short essay, usually humorous, followed by a few chosen words that start with that letter. Generally, I skipped the words and definitions (this was a filler book, between other choices), but I marked a number of interesting entries:

Kakistocracy: government by the worst citizens. Worthy of an essay all by itself, since Tuesday is election day and the vitriol seems so ramped up this year.

Misandry: hatred of men. As Shea notes, its partner, ‘misogyny’, seems to have much more currency.

Vocabularian: one who pays too much attention to words. Shea should volunteer to have a snapshot on that page.

Wine-knight: a person who drinks valiantly. “As entries occasionally are in the OED, this is wonderfully unclear. How exactly does one drink valiantly? Draw your own conclusions.”

Wonderclout: a thing that is showy but worthless. “Surgically augmented breasts and a large vocabulary are two things that come to mind…”

Yepsen: the amount that can be held in two hands cupped together; also, the two cupped hands themselves.

Scringe: to shrug the back or shoulders from cold. Finally, a word that describes Nelson’s story about what northeastern winters force us all to do, almost involuntarily. I had to tell him last night when we got together for dinner.

Shea does identify one word not listed in the OED: ‘adoxography’, meaning good writing on a trivial subject. To many readers, Shea’s book would appear adoxographic at first glance. But I found it a very entertaining description of one man’s love of reading that turns into an obsession. In the last chapter, he admits that he is going to read the OED cover-to-cover again.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Stressing with the HomeTeam

I can watch a baseball game dispassionately if the Giants are not one of the teams on the field. That makes this year’s World Series a risky venture for my nervous system.

Certainly counter-intuitive, huh? My favorite baseball team is the San Francisco Giants, something inherited from my father, who traced his love of the team back to Mel Ott and the Polo Grounds. I go back to Mays, Marichal, McCovey, and lived thru Jack Clark, Will Clark, Jeff Leonard, Bud Black, Jeff Kent, the social debacle that was Barry Bonds. So as a fan, I should be able to translate that sense into the enjoyment that comes from watching those uniforms on television.

Not so. I assume they will eventually lose -- some reliever will enter in the eighth inning, walk the first batter, give up a single, then watch the next guy put one over his shoulder into the center field stands. I still see Russ Ortiz walking off the mound in Game6 of the 2002 Series, the Giants seven outs from the championship -- and the wheels fell off in Anaheim Stadium. Game 7 was an afterthought.

Brian calls me the pessimist fan. I did survive the one-run agonies of the LDS, but the first feeling i manifested was relief when Ryan Howard watched the last strike of that series fall off at his knees.

I managed to enter both of the first two Series games when the Giants were ahead. Makes it easier to watch. No pacing.

The commercials are silly, boring, even disturbing. You see the same ones each night during the three hours that is a baseball game. Two of them are particularly strange.

Direct TV touts their ability to have a movie available a month before Netflix. The commercial depicts the projection room of a movie theater. An intruder enters and attacks the teen projectionist with a blowdart. The first one misses when the kid leans over; he stares over his shoulder, wide-eyed, at the dart stuck in the wall. The second blowdart hits him in the neck, and he keels over. The intruder then scoops the movie reels into his sack and runs off.

The second is an Old Navy commercial that uses plastic mannequins. In this one, the mannequin family is watching their 10 year old play soccer. A boy shoots the ball near the goal, and it hits the stationary plastic boy in head, which breaks off at the neck.

Rather jarring methods to sell product.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Losing Coffee Ground

The coffee shop in my village will close in December. There’s already a sign on the door with a new schedule; it is only open from noon to early evening from now until it closes.

This saddens me. This shop has been open a little over a year. I have not been the most regular of customers, occasionally stopping for a coffee and a muffin on my way to work. The food business is a low-margin affair, it’s tough to make much money on coffee, juices, muffins and cookies. The baked goods were made on premises, and they kept their volume low. They sold trays of muffins or cookies for events and gatherings, but they didn’t seem to publicize that very widely.

Danielle, one of the owners, is expecting their first child any day now. She was the perfect greeter and hostess – big smile, positive personality, always asked how you were doing.

They had music on many nights, even had a CD release party for a local artist. They held Open Mic a couple times a month; Danielle would encourage me to come read because it might bring in a ‘different crowd’. I assume she was referring to the number of 20-30-somethings that generally attended their music events.

Espresso Therapy becomes another mark on the loss side of the village ledger: the unique, singular purveyor that provides not just coffee and muffins, but a place to gather – a place to be a community. Those young adults had a place to come together, to support each other, to enjoy music, to celebrate success, to share experiences.

Such places get subsumed by the commoditization of our retail stores. A Dunkin Donuts is two blocks in one direction down the street, capturing any cars that enter or exit the village at the bridge. Another DD is two miles in the other direction, sitting at the end of the interstate that loops around the village. The prices are not much different from the coffee shop; but it is tough to compete with mass advertising and blunt familiarity brought about by ubiquity.

Every population center in this country begins to look the same. Home Depot and Loews build multiple stores within a few miles of each other. WalMart parking lots, if strung together, would easily be a 51st state. CostCo, Sam’s Club, Dick’s, Sears can all be found on the edge of any town in nearly every state. The mall outside Denver looks just like the mall outside Albany.

We lose our community identity, the unique elements of place that provides subtle differences in our culture and society, when our physical community starts to look the same as our neighbor’s.

This is not to say that all our suburban or village singularities are gone. My village still has a small downtown diner. We have a single-screen theatre that shows movies for a reasonable ticket, just before they hit the Netflix circuit. There are three downtown restaurants that are not part of any franchise, have no exact replica anywhere else.

I don’t intend to over-romanticize the theme. We have been told for the past dozen years that we consumers are the driver of the economy – and the major retailers are perfectly happy to provide familiar, comfortable territory in which to spend our money. We asked for this convenience.

Espresso Therapy got lost in the process.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Poetry in the Catskills

Pam and I traveled to Greene County today to participate in the All Arts Matter Poetry Read-In. I placed third in their poetry contest in the spring, and this was the opportunity for the winners – and others – to read their work.

All Arts Matter is an arts center located in a former church in Greenville, NY. The center has existed for 11 years, and holds art exhibitions, classical concerts, readings, and theatre. This was the first time that I have actually received monetary compensation for my poetry, so this arts group in the middle of the Catskills will always be special for Pam and I. My thanks to Tony DiVito and his group for their very warm welcome on a nice fall afternoon in the mountains.

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Season change day

Each year, a day arrives that signals the change in season -- regardless of the calendar. Today is that day.

We had four straight days of humidity and 90 degree temps. Last night, a western front ventured across our valleys and raced to collide with Hurricane Earl, which had lost steam as he came up the coast. The front cleansed the air. A veil was lifted, and small signs of the next season are visible. Scattered yellow and orange leaves have become stark, announcing the arrival that actually happened a week ago out our den window. We ignored them in the heat, when we foolishly believed summer was still ours

Ah, well.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

The President's Ringed Rug

The Oval Office in the White House has been redecorated. One decorator dubbed it ‘the audacity of taupe’, due to the preponderance of browns and subdued yellow in the walls and the furniture. The look is low-key, missing in any primary reds or blues – but calming, nonetheless.

The center rug is ringed with quotes selected by the President. One wag called such a decorative touch something a fifth grader would think of doing. But the selections are indicative of Obama’s view of government, and role that a chief executive of the citizenry should play:

  • Government of the people, by the people and for the people (Lincoln).
  • No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings. (Kennedy)
  • The welfare of each of us is dependent fundamentally on the welfare of all of us.(Teddy Roosevelt)
  • The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. (Martin Luther King)
  • The only thing we have to fear is fear itself. (FDRoosevelt)

These are words selected by someone who believes government is a positive force for society – who views government not as an institution separate from society, but as an integral part of society. Government is us, not them.

This is the core difference between the philosophy of the current President, and the philosophy of someone like Sarah Palin. Palin believes that government should be a minimalist institution that only provides groundwork or framework for society – a set of common rules and limits, primarily – and then lets the other institutions operate, whether the consequences be positive or negative.

As a country, we can do better than that. As a society, we can write the strength of Obama’s selective quotes into poetry:

No problem of human destiny

is beyond us; together we can shoulder

the welfare of the many.

The arc of the moral universe is long

and bends toward justice;

all we have to fear

is the loss of its direction.

We hold the brush, we decide the colors,

We paint the canvass.

Monday, August 02, 2010

Marrying Figaro off by the Lake

Pam and I checked 'opera' off our list last Friday.

We had spent the day in town with my brother and his wife, celebrating his birthday. They headed home in early evening, so Pam and I ventured up the west side of the lake and stopped at the Glimmerglass Opera House. We did not know what was playing, but the trolley driver had said that generally tickets are available for evening performances.

The opera that evening was Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro”. We decided to stay, ordered fruit and cheese from the concession stand, and sat in on a preview talk by the Opera’s Music Director. The latter was well worth it, as he contrasted ‘Figaro’ with other operas, talked about the flow of the music with the performance on the stage, played one of the primary aria’s and discussed its role in the play.

Available tickets ranged from $126 to $86; I caught my breath, turned down the $24 ‘obstructed view’ seats, and bought tickets in the back row on the first level. The theater is wonderful, and our seats were centered nicely. A small screen above the stage gave brief English translations of the primary theme for each song.

The problem was that it took Mozart over three hours to marry Figaro and Susanna, and far too many hijinks and mistaken identities had to be carried out first. We bolted at the first clap of the final curtain.

It was a gorgeous night, at least. The intermission happened at about 10PM, and we stood outside under the black sky littered with stars. We needed wraps and sweaters, in a mid-summer sort of way.

Sunday, August 01, 2010

Junk Cruising, 4:00AM

I was awakened at 4:00AM Thursday morning by the sound of an open car door signal – that incessant ‘ding-ding’ that occurs if you leave your door open with the keys still in the ignition. A large sedan was parked in the middle of the street with two doors and the trunk open. The headlights were still on, pointing askew into our neighbor’s yard. A guy was holding a flashlight above his head, shining it on the trunk where he appeared to be tinkering with something. I could not figure out what he was doing. My mind kept rolling back to a friend's description of cars being robbed in their neighborhood last week.

Then I noticed that the old gas grill was not sitting on the side of the street, where I had left it. I put my glasses on to clarify the view through my open window. The guy had crammed the grill, standing up, in his trunk. He was tying the trunk lid to something so it didn’t bounce around.

Junk cruising at 4:00AM. He didn’t care about the dinging door, or the headlights, or the clanking of an old grill. He did care to beat the garbage truck.

Not in our nature
to know what
is journey and what
Even if we knew
we would not admit.

From Erica Jong's poem, "You Are There".

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Winter Games

I get hooked on the Winter Olympics every four years. I am not sure why this is; some of it harks back to childhood. Winter was an important element as a kid, and my memories are full of winter activities –

Ice skating on the river overflow, a canal that formed along the perimeter of the railroad bed. All four of us kids started as pre-schoolers on two-runner skates. We had a bench and a burn barrel next to a pond that was about 10 yards-by-20 yards, and narrowed to a long canal that traveled about a mile down the valley behind our house. If we wanted to be adventurous, we walked a few blocks over and skated on a larger overflow pond. It seemed to collect many more kids.

Sledding in the open field next to the cemetery. We would hold our own mini-Olympics that included a jump over a knoll to see who could land the furthest out. It included a bump at the bottom of the jump that jolted the rider before heading down the rest of the hill. Dad used to take us even higher with the toboggan, building up speed down a chute that opened up into the wider hill.

Skiing at Penguin Peak, a cooperative hill built and maintained by members. Parents cut trails in the summer months, and installed a small rope tow. Eventually, our school offered a ski club, and all of us traveled to ‘the big hills’ near Cortland – lessons mandatory.

Another reason for this Olympic affinity was the year I spent in Finland (sorry, bad alliteration), where winter dominates the landscape for six months. I have vivid memories of ice ball games with one of my host families – hockey without the skates, using a tennis ball. We also attended a World Cup ski jump competition in Lahti, which included fireworks under a winter starlit sky, reflecting off the stark white snow cover.

Naturally, I silently root for the Finnish hockey teams, no matter who they play. And I cringe when some announcer calls them ‘the Suomi’s’, as if the name emblazoned on their jerseys refers to some animal they use as their team name.

Speaking of the Olympics, and hockey, and the Finns, here’s a novel proposal for a medal sport. Note the flags worn by some of the athletes.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Winter, Halfway

Snow falls this morning. The prognosticators predict from 3-6 inches by late tonight, which would be the first significant snowcover since mid-December. Winter has passed the halfway point. Its only contribution has been steady cold weather from an arctic high that took up residence. It pushed all the nor’easter storms out to sea by the time they reached the Hudson River, trailing their 50 inches of white from North Carolina through Pennsylvania.

Meanwhile, the sky fills with light starting when I rise each morning at about 6:50. The light is still pale when we drive home at 5:30PM. The sun is stretching its arms in our part of the world, and regardless of these large lazy flakes of white, spring is still scheduled at the usual date.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Content and Delivery

Google has announced plans to go into the broadband delivery business. They already laid fiber in their own California community, and claim that they will bring fiber-delivered ultra-highspeed broadband as demonstrations of the poor capacity of current broadband providers.

Another reason, of course, is that broadband pipes are a good revenue generator. Content may be king, but the pipelayers get the monthly payment receipts.

Think of that. The creators of information, of content – book authors, journalists, essayists, poets, writers of all ilk, filmmakers, musicians – are getting an ever-smaller piece of the pie. Digital music is the best example of this transformation. When a song becomes digital, it is easily transmitted and copied, limiting its business value as a unique item to be sold in hardened form such as tape or plastic CD. Its value is reduced. Apple, Amazon, Rhaposody can sell it over and over. iTunes becomes the delivery mechanism, and broadband providers become the transmitter. The artist is squeezed. I pay for access to that song through my monthly bill to TimeWarner, and I purchase it by giving Apple my credit card number.

At the same time, I read the New York Times for free. Thirty years ago, I bought the paper at the corner store. Today I pay TimeWarner to bring it to my screen. Netflix not only gets me to pay a monthly fee to have movies come to my mailbox, but I can have them delivered directly over my internet connection – some for free.

As long as I pay for the pipeline.

Another example of the devaluation of content: Demand Media, one of the largest producers of content on the internet. They have produced five times as many videos on YouTube than any other source, and millions of their articles are available from many sources electronically – many of them ‘how-to’ and ‘gosh-isn’t-this-neat’ articles and videos on how to lose weight, get a job, take care of a cat. Demand Media signs up nearly anyone who raises their hand to write or edit copy, at incredibly cheap rates – the ultimate work-at-home job. Outfits such as this have taken advantage of the new business model, where it is much easier to convert anything to electronic form and push it out over the pipeline, where millions of people will fill their search fields and find this content.

Of course, I am another example with this blog. Anyone can create content for free, and throw it into the electronic traffic lanes. We don’t need a million readers to gain satisfaction from the work. Just a few friends, and maybe a few strangers that strayed in this direction.

And they all paid somebody for the pipeline to their screen.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Five Months

A Gap in Time

According to some readers,
I am a broken link, or
at least, a stale one.
Click on my name, and
old words and pictures appear,
framing a story from last summer
as if it were the last stellar event,
important as it was to me at the time.

I suppose my history becomes inadequate
when five minutes ago is old news, untold.
But the totality of these posts still
frame a picture of me in a certain
unbordered chunk of time:
these pages are only broken based upon
a date and time stamp on your screen.