Sunday, September 16, 2012

Going to Aachen

Looking Eastward - St. John''s Harbour

Parent: (to 19-year old son loading clothing into backpack.) So how do you plan to survive in Europe without money?
Son: (exasperated) I told you. I'll do odd jobs as I go. Why are you so worried about this?
Parent: You're wasting a year in which you could be studying for a solid career.
Son: That's just it. I don't know what career I want. I don't even know if I want a career. I need to find myself, find out who I am.
Parent: (dismissively) Why don't you just look on your driver's license. It's got your name and a picture.
Son: I can't talk to you about this. You just don't get it.
Parent: You're right; I don't get it!

            I just listened to Jian Ghomeshi interviewing Cheryl Strayed about her best seller, Wild. I haven't read it yet, but intend to; I have read reviews.
            Apparently, it's a “finding out who you are” journal by a woman who had just failed at marriage—and at pretty much everything by which we tend to judge success—and was suffering deep grief over the untimely death of her mother. Quite serendipitously, she hit upon some writing about the Pacific Crest Trail, a strenuous backpacking trail in the USA renowned as a wilderness experience without peer. She decided quickly that she needed to hike this trail. “She turned her back on a world of experiences that had left her bereft and began to walk, in solitude, to learn how to survive alone. It took her a novel and two decades to make sense of that decision (Kirkus Reviews).”
            Coincidentally, we recently saw the movie, The Way, in which Martin Sheen plays an American father who comes to France to claim the remains of a son who's died while walking The Way of St. James. He decides to do the walk for his son, scattering his ashes on the trail and interacting with a group of eccentric pilgrims, each seeking some kind of epiphany.
            It, too, is a walk of discovery, an exercise of separating oneself from the restrictions of the ordinary and allowing a completely unique experience to speak. (Those urbanites who walk in the country know there is no solitude quite like the solitary walk away from the chaos of the town.)
            As for the son planning to tramp Europe to discover who I am, I think I'd cut him plenty of slack. At the same time, I'd want to warn him that his journey shouldn't be viewed as a solution to a problem; he may have to search for who he is time and again.
            I say this from experience: the pilgrimage to discover who I am applies as much to my age group as it does to young adults. There's a chasm that develops from time to time; on one side is me; on the other side—and so far away that one needs binoculars—is some ideal of life where things fit, where there is a satisfying wholeness to what we are and do. The urge to pilgrimage responds to the need to find a bridge across the chasm.
            The conviction at old age that one has long and consistently missed the point and that it's too late to “retool” . . . must be the most devastating experience in life.
            There are many, of course, who will tell the young son that there is no need for a pilgrimage, that they have the answers he is seeking. Sometimes, these answer machines wear one or the other political or clerical collar and claim to have found their meaning in the adherence to a one size fits all philosophy or religion. Most often, though, the who am I question gets crassly subsumed under a career title: “I know what you are; you're a botanist!” Obituaries frequently define a person as “a loving mother, wife, grandmother and great-grandmother,” and many a loving wife, mother and grandmother of the past has placed the verse, “I have learned, in whatever state I am, therewith to be content” (Philippians 4:11) at the centre of her consciousness, thereby throttling the who am I search with the only answer in apparent reach.
            But getting back to the dialogue between father and son: it seems to be a debate between pilgrimage and submission. I'm with the son in this debate, and I'd urge all young people not to submit to prevailing pressure unless they have first done the pilgrimage chore and opted by choice to one position or another. It needn't be a thousand miles of walking the Pacific Coast Trail or The Way of St. James but it must be done in solitude, away from the strictures and the pressures of the prevailing environment, away from the thousand orders, suggestions, interruptions of daily life.
            Don't resign yourself to hobbling through life in shoes that belong to someone else.
            I call it, Going to Aachen. At one point during three years of stressful MCC administrative duties in Europe, I took three days, booked into a small hotel in Aachen where I sat in a thousand year-old cathedral for hours, watched Germans perambulate while I sat on park benches, visited the tomb of Charlemagne and generally let the environment suggest the agenda, or not.
            Three days isn’t enough; it takes longer than that to break free of endlessly recirculating worries and preoccupations.          Furthermore, a bustling city isn’t the logical site for letting go of stress.
            Nevertheless, let it live as a euphemism for the pilgrimages we need to take to find ourselves from time to time.
            Going to Aachen.

Aachen Cathedral


Sunday, September 09, 2012

Curiosity and the Red Planet

Earthly ode to a red planet

What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man that thou visitest him? (Psalm 8:4, KJV)

            I've been perusing the photos coming back from the Mars rover Curiosity lately, as you may have done as well. If you haven't and would like to, click here.
            What genius does it require to dream up and manufacture a device like Curiosity, guide it to a distant planet, drive it with radio signals from earth and cause it to send photographs back? I made a slingshot once and thought I had done something wonderful!
            Curiosity was launched 9 months ago—November 25, 2011. The Canadian Space Agency website describes the calculations necessary to “hit” another planet as follows: “It's a bit like throwing a dart at a moving target, where you extrapolate where the target will be to ensure that the projectile meets the target.” That’s really simplified, considering that Earth and Mars are both rotating and revolving in very different orbits at the same time, and that the dart in this case has 9 months to travel! Shooting a flying duck from a flatcar in a hurtling train might be more like it.
            In the course of a day, the temperature on Mars can oscillate between -128o and +27o Celsius. It's atmosphere is 90% carbon dioxide. It's windier than Saskatchewan; the CO2 tears across the surface of the red planet at an average speed of 200 KPH. After spending time on Mars, a week in Antarctica would constitute a day at the beach.
            In the grand scale of things, is Mars near or far away? When it's nearest to us—when we're both on the same side of the sun, as it were—Mars is some 56,000,000 Km away. It's considerably farther away than that at the moment; it takes 20 minutes for a command to “turn left, you stupid robot” to reach Curiosity and another 20 minutes before you know he's actually done it. That seems far.
            But considering the approximate diameter (at this moment; check it again tomorrow) of an expanding universe (an estimated 92,000,000,000 light years) Mars, earth—indeed the sun and all its planets—exist on the head of a pin, as it were. That makes Mars seem very, very close.
            As regards space travel, we may have invented the wheel but we're a long way from perfecting the automobile.
            The recent death of Neil Armstrong—first man to set foot on the moon—and the landing of Curiosity on Mars are intriguingly coincidental. It's said that Armstrong became very pensive and somewhat reclusive after his trip to the moon and I have to wonder what happens to someone who has seen the earth from a great distance, has gazed into the blackness of infinite space while standing on an alien planet and has been led thereby to reconsider whatever philosophy of life he held to that point.
            Surely one couldn't miss the tenuousness of the miracle that is conscious life in a cold, material universe. Or could one?
            I began with the Psalm, “What is man, that thou art mindful of him?” Expressed more colloquially, “My home is situated on the back of a louse on a hair of a mangy dog somewhere on the far side of nowhere?” I'm wondering if such sentiments made Armstrong pensively quiet as he grew old.
            I don't need to know; I'm just curious.

Saturday, September 01, 2012

Sitting on the rubber ring in Granny's Greenhouse

Mother Purple

Holding on to Summer

The Two Ronnies once did a skit about a man at a party trying desperately to find out from his host where an urgently-needed bathroom could be found. He phrased his request in euphemism: I need to see a man about a horse. His host introduced him to another guest who happened to be a horse breeder.
            Euphemism gentrifies situations too delicate to be dealt with outright, like passed away, or left us, instead of died. We're generally grateful that people say I need to visit your washroom, when we know a visit isn't really the need being announced.
            Frankness can be unthinkable.
            I listened to Mitt Romney's acceptance speech last night and was amazed again how much the utterance of meaningless phrases like I support family values have become politicians' pronouncements of choice. Family values is a euphemism for opposition to same-sex marriage and homosexuality, but to say what one actually means might be politically scary. The Right to Life has become another popular euphemism, this one signalling more stringent legal controls on abortion. For some reason, we voters allow the euphemisms to live without requiring that they be supported with at least some plan that can be firmly understood, evaluated and judged. The literal meaning behind political euphemism is left to be discovered after elections.
            One response to the speech on the internet asked Romney if he supports investigations in every case of miscarriage to determine if criminal negligence on the part of the mother has been a factor. I asked my Conservative MP whether or not his views on when life begins and his support of revisiting the definition could end up meaning that abortions would result in murder convictions, accessory to murder trials and life sentences. He has so far declined to answer.
            The plague of euphemism for signalling stances and embellishing credentials--as opposed to clearly stating positions-- extends to churches, schools, public dialogue generally. It's not surprising: our peers' opinions of us rank highly in consciousness and in many cases the uttering of controversial, divergent-from-prevailing thoughts can cost the speaker a job . . . or worse. Euphemism can serve to express something that is not quite, but yet; that leans toward, but not completely; that allows different hearers to interpret utterances according to their preference.
            But in the end, I need to see a man about a horse may not get you what you need, which is to urinate in a place designated for that purpose—and soon.
            Similarly, when life begins and I support family values don't necessarily say anything at all, although those who use these and similar expressions may think they communicate something specific. Biological human life doesn't begin, it is passed down from generation to generation, and in the latter case, it's clear that family values are not uniformly held at all, and certainly not across cultures. 
            If we don't begin to speak in real language, we'll never find a toilet and we'll all continue peeing our pants on a regular basis.
            So, Mitt Romney and all you politicians who elicit waves of applause just by saying, “I support family values,” I challenge you to say it for real:
            “I will do everything in my power to make same-sex marriage illegal and will also seek to make all laws that pertain to human beings applicable from conception onward, i.e. a fetus is a person and a citizen.”
            Now let some genuine debating begin.
            The American Dream. Another euphemism, and a cliché to boot. George Carlin famously said, “The reason they call it The American Dream is that you have to be asleep to believe it!”
            Perhaps we prefer to sleep through the tough stuff; the tough stuff takes work, thought, listening and talking specifics.
            Or, just utter another euphemism and doze on!