I’m reposting this entry from last year because I feel it’s worth sharing again. Over the last several days I have been rediscovering a side of myself I was convinced no longer existed. May this post encourage you in your efforts to discover who you really are, regardless of who the world tells you to be. Cheers!

Forest and Trees

Today, sitting outside the Cracker Barrel in Bellmead, Texas, a thought occurred to me: You don’t get many perfect breezes in this neck of the woods. Nevertheless, there it was. The perfect breeze. Not too strong, not too weak, not too cool–just absolutely, well, perfect.

I’m not one to suffer waits lightly, but in this instance I was quite happy to sit and wait to the hostess’ heart’s content. And then Mr. and Mrs. Blabbington Bitchy-Pants sat down across the patio from me, and my perfect moment vanished into thin air. “This,” proclaimed Mr. B., “is why I don’t come here. There’s always too many people.” “Yes,” responded his wife. “There’s a lot of folks here.” And so on and so forth, until they were called (well before the promised time had lapsed, I might add, and also in much better time than my own) and made their bitter way into the restaurant.

I started to judge these folks (quietly, and in my mind, of course), but I found myself hindered by a little nagging voice that said to me: “You have seen Mr. and Mrs. Blabbington Bitchy-Pants, and they are you.”

What the heck? Am I mistaken, or am I being judged by my own inner monologue?

How many times had I been the one to ruin another’s idyll with my general lack of patience and self-centered misdirection? More importantly, how many prefect breezes had I missed because I chose to focus on what was not ideal instead of appreciating what was? Perhaps there are more perfect breezes in Texas than my ego allows me to notice.

But this one, I noticed…

“Can I go outside and play, Mommy?”…”Sorry, son. GoogleMaps isn’t working right now.”

I am fascinated by GoogleMaps. And I’m terrified by it. I’m afraid it’s eating the sun…

The things that can be done with a computer these days blow my mind, partly because I just can’t understand it, and partly because I remember the games I used to play on the old green-screen gem my Dad bought to take to Costa Rica with us. One in particular stands out: a sort of choose-your-own-adventure based on the Wizard of Oz books. Two dimensions, little shaded cut-outs immobile on the tiny monitor. Do you follow the Yellow Brick Road, or do you stay and fight the flying monkeys? Either way, you’ll move on to another set of cut-outs and another static question, until the cows come home or you fall asleep.

A couple of years ago (and this demonstrates the extent to which Luddite tendencies dog my trail), I sat down to play another game, based on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, that I’d pulled out of the bargain bin on a whim. And I spent the next few weeks with my lower jaw sitting on the floor and flies moving in and out of my head. The sheer magnitude of the trajectory leading from Pac-Man and Frogger to this wonder of animation and movement left me speechless. I felt kind of like a caveman, thawed out at the height of the 20th century, and confronted with a nine-lane superhighway.

So, I’ll be the first to admit that technology can lead us to some awesome places. But here’s the rub: at the same time, it can also keep us from going to some even more awesome places…and this is what worries me.

Lately, I’ve been spending way too much time screwing around on GoogleMaps. Anyone who knows me knows I’m more than a little obsessed with the UK (or, for that matter, anyone who’s bothered to read the title of my blog); furthermore, anyone who’s seen my bank statement knows I can’t afford to hop a plane and go there at the moment. So, instead, I go by proxy. I can tool peacefully along English and Scottish highways and byways, and see some beautiful scenery, and not have to worry about those pesky extra baggage fees, or whether or not some security guard is going to see my digital outline naked. It’s all pretty impressive, and technology makes it possible.

I was so caught up in my e-exploring that I never stopped to think about the wider implications of what I was doing. Then I heard something that really made me stop and think. I heard that the Google-guys are mapping the Grand Canyon. Folks with panoramic cameras strapped to their heads are wandering the trails of the Canyon so that we don’t have to. Now, instead of the bothersome hike, we’ll be able to take in the wonders of nature from the comfort of our office chairs (complete with cup-holder and “magic fingers”).

I remember going to the Grand Canyon as a kid on a trip the family took to California. I remember the sensation of standing on the edge of emptiness, with only a strong puff of wind between myself and a better acquaintance with gravity. Such an experience brings with it two realizations very important to this art we call “being human.” First, it makes one aware of the bigger picture–some call it God, some Nature. Either way, perched on the rim of everything like that, a person tends to appreciate his or her place as part of a whole, pieces in the puzzle that adds up to the universe humanity calls home. The second realization is an extension of the first: how small are we? In the words of Shelley, I am Ozymandias, king of kings. Millions of feet have stood, and will stand, on the spot upon which I stood as a child; my footprints will blow away with the wind, to be replaced by others equally transient and, ultimately, insignificant when compared with the yawning chasm we so arrogantly call a “nature preserve.” A visit to a place like that reminds us abruptly that we do not preserve nature. Nature preserves us, and will survive us and whatever effort we make to wipe it from existence.

Is this sort of experience, tactile and immediate, to be found in the land of computerized tourism? I will not be convinced that it is. And perhaps you aren’t either. Perhaps I’m preaching a sermon no one needs to hear. Certain things cannot be duplicated, you might say: the wind in your hair, the smells and sounds of Nature, the feeling of miles flowing away beneath you as you drive. But think of the things we can do now, care of technological advancement, that we could not do just a decade or less ago. When I sat in front of the old green-screen playing my Wizard of Oz game, all of this seemed about as likely as a flying DeLorean, but nevertheless, here we are. What happens when that breeze, and those flowers, and the receding asphalt all find their way into and out of that computer screen sitting on your desk? What then? Perhaps paranoia is my name; perhaps not.

Now, this is all well and good, coming from a guy typing a blog post, yet another of the many venues provided by technological advancement. I can now communicate my thoughts and feelings with people I have never–probably will never–meet, and they with me. It is part of the Great Democratization of Information, a return to the Victorian literary ethic, when every man was a philosopher, every woman an orator, every person a published author, with the digital corpus to prove it. But is it real, or is it a bait and switch? At what point do I devote so much time communicating with people I don’t know that I forget to communicate with the people I do? Is it even real communication? Do I really know you, or you me, if we cannot see one another’s expressions, hear the tones of each other’s voices? How do I respond to you if I do not see how you respond to me? Is it dialogue if I can log off at the first sign of disagreement? All of these are important questions that have been sublimated by the rise of faceless (and consequence-less) relationships encouraged by social media. I can “friend” someone without the obligations that come with being a friend. I am an icon; I need not really even exist.

Let me leave you with a thought. (Just one.) I work in an academic library. I spend eight hours a day holding books, thumbing through them, smelling the new paper. In this line of work, we are beginning to undergo something of an identity crisis, again because of the ever-expanding information society. The “e-book” is on the move, and we face the very real possibility of the traditional library becoming not a repository of knowledge, but Ye Olde Curiosity Shoppe for those who have never experienced the physical process of print research, and for whom the ease of discovery has watered down its triumph and joy.

I face this possibility with both the nostalgia of personal experience and the pragmatism of historical sensibility. I don’t know what to make of it. I think of the medieval scriptoria and of the monks slaving over vellum and parchment by the light of a guttering candle, each letter a painstaking labor of love and devotion. These same men rebelled at the advent of Gutenberg and his press, because in their minds the automated process destroyed commitment, leached the sacral element from the very words on the page. It was easier, they asked, but was it better? Today, having accepted the printing press as routine, we are faced with the same process, digitized. In the midst of whatever gains we make through “worldwide” access, do we ever pause to think what might be lost? I do not claim any sacred status for the printed word, but what value lies in the expenditure of time and effort in dusty research libraries that disappears with the simple click of a button? Is it worth as much if it costs us nothing? Is the Great Democratization of Information merely a convenient disguise for the amelioration of experience?

We are entering a period of ubiquitous vicarious living, and we don’t even see it coming. We are ceding the experiences of life, the making of memories, to computer programmers and Web designers. Like the medieval monastics I ask: It may be easier, but is it better? Are we diluting J.B. Priestley’s “thickness of life” with the shallowness of Web-based living? What are we giving up to capitalize on our gains?

I am fascinated by GoogleMaps. And I’m terrified by it. I’m afraid it’s eating the sun…

Desmond, Can You Hear Me?

Today marks the release of the latest James Bond film, Skyfall, and with it a character remake that has thrown me into a reflective mood.

When I was growing up in Argentina, Friday nights were my favorite nights, because on Friday night, from 10:00 to midnight or 12:30, Telefe, an Argentine television network, would broadcast, dubbed into Spanish, a James Bond film of its choice…and my folks would let me stay up and watch it. And I loved it. I watched Thunderball, Goldfinger (Do you expect me to talk? No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die.), The Man with the Golden Gun, Live and Let Die (a personal favorite, which is ironic, considering the subject of this post). I met the evil Blofeld, the sinister Oddjob with his deadly bowler, and the voodoo boss Kananga. I became acquainted with the double entendre in all its untempered glory (can anyone say “Pussy Galore” like Sean Connery?). One of my first cassette tapes (yes, I know, I’m old) was a collection of Bond title songs, beginning with the unforgettably brash John Barry Orchestra theme, which stands as one of the best-known pieces of music ever to come out of the film industry, and deservedly so.

Why did I love these movies so much? Some may assume it was the ridiculousy overdone testosterone blast of it all. My wife assumes it was because of the ladies (and there were plenty of those, to be sure). Maybe at heart, like all boys at some point in their lives, I just wanted to be a spy. Maybe. But I don’t think any of these reasons really explain my affection for the Bond franchise. When it comes down to it, I adore gadgets. I like cigarettes that fire poison darts and pen-bombs that arm with a double-click, or key-chains that release gas when one whistles Rule Britannia. And because I love the gadgets, my love for the films boils down to one word (one letter, really): Q.

Desmond Llewelyn, ladies and gentlemen. A tinkerer like no other. If M was the boss, then Q was the father figure, chiding, bantering, providing the humanity in the MI-6 organization. “Don’t be stupid, 007!” The eye rolls, the weary sighs, and the obvious devotion to our hero made his portrayal of the character one of a kind, and the films have suffered since his departure. Llewelyn died in an auto accident in 1999, at age 85, but not before filling Q’s inventive shoes over a dozen times.

As the new Q debuts today, my memory is filled with scenes from movies I watched as a child and teenager, and my heart with hopes that this incarnation will do justice to the original. But Llewelyn will (can) never be replaced. And he has lived up to his character’s final line, delivered with the twinkling grin so well known to Bond fans: “Always leave them wanting more.”

Indeed.

Surviving the Morning After (Redux)

There is something to be said for social media. I’m just not sure what it is.

I signed back on to Facebook yesterday, hoping against hope that the tenor of all those political squabbles because of which I signed off in the first place might have changed. I discovered (sadly, as I feared) that some things never change. But if you watched President Obama’s victory speech on Tuesday/Wednesday, you too might have heard a statement that’s stuck with me. (And, by the way, for all those folks out there who’ve been going on and on about the “inspirational” nature of the speech: Go back and check out the one from 2008. It’s pretty much the same speech. Which is a tad worrisome. But I digress.)

The president noted that, while at times our national conversation may experience what might be called a discursive breakdown, that is in itself a sign of democracy at work, and a privilege which should be cherished. There are, he reminded us, people around the world laying down their lives “just for a chance to argue.” This is a sobering thought.

So, my Facebook friends…Fire away.

Meanwhile, let’s turn our attention to Mitt Romney’s concession speech. I’ve also been hearing heart-wrenching things about this speech. For Pete’s sake…Chris Matthews, with tears in his eyes and a cowlick on his head, called it a “moment of wonder,” a great act of statesmanship. Well, okay then. For my part, I thought it was a fairly standard piece of political pleasantry. He conceded, which in itself is to be admired, given the tendency of presidential elections since 2000 to degenerate into litigious circus-acts. But the speech–sorry, nothing special.

But in the midst of the speech, he too said something which caught my ear (and which I hope was truly sincere). He said: “The nation, as you know, is at a critical point. At a time like this, we can’t risk partisan bickering and political posturing. Our leaders have to reach across the aisle to do the people’s work.” Now, given the partisan gridlock of the last several years, the combative nature of pretty much every congressional statement made on any news network by anyone anywhere, and the fact that the exact same folks–with a few important exceptions–are back in the capitol, I find it hard to take that comment with anything but a giant grain of salt. Especially coming from the figurehead of the party that stated its purpose explicitly, not as governing the nation, but as preventing Obama from scoring a second term. But, cynical as I tend to be, I really, really, REALLY hope he meant what he was saying. Even more importantly, I hope his party, leadership and constituency, was listening when he said it. Beyond that, I hope all the Democrats out there quit their cheering and jeering long enough to hear him, too.

Over the coming days, weeks, months, and years, as our political discourse ebbs and flows, as we trade digital punches and counterpunches on Facebook and Twitter, I hope we all strive to balance these two vital features of a healthy democracy in action: the freedom to argue, and the willingness to listen. I hope that the arguments we have are on the important issues facing us all, each one of us as American citizens, and not over whether or not the president’s accent changed when he went down South. I hope we remember (myself included) that at the end of the day, when all is said and done, counting on each other must trump counting coup, that all the insults in the world never fixed an economy or got anyone a job. What moves us forward is us, plain and simple, not I but we, not my needs but yours. The US of A.

Surviving the Morning After

Election day is at hand, and the question on everyone’s mind (at least insofar as my television tells me so) seems to be “What’s going to happen today”? Meanwhile, the question foremost in my mind is “What’s going to happen tomorrow”? Because that’s when we really find out what lies in store for the American polity over the next four years (and beyond). And, to my mind, this has very little to do with who wins the popular vote (or the electoral one), because I’m convinced, cynic that I am, that either way, we stand a good chance of losing.

Since the last election, we have lost an important element in our political process: our minds, collectively and individually. It might be argued that, between 2008 and the present, a greater percentage of the American electorate has found a voice, but I’m not convinced that this is a good thing. It should be, mind you. It should be the greatest thing about a democratic system. It should be resoundingly wonderful that, in this country, groups like the Tea Party and other grassroots start-ups have the freedom to come together and have their collective say on the state of our Union. But the benefits of that freedom tend to be drowned out by the language used to express it. And I don’t mean profanity–I have a great fondness for certain four-letter words judiciously applied–or issues vocabulary. I’m referring to the languages of fear, hatred, prejudice, closed-mindedness–in short, the languages we’ve all been increasingly guilty of using lately. Let me be clear: this is a non-partisan observation. Neither side of the proverbial aisle is in any position to throw that first stone, unless they do it straight up in the air so that it hits them first.

Our “dialogue” has been co-opted into guerrilla sideshows (the Birther movement, the “secret Muslim” brigade, etc.) and a do-nothing Congress in which victory goes to him what don’t cry Uncle. One side finds itself compelled to ramrod legislation that the other side then finds itself compelled to block in whatever way works. We don’t talk to each other anymore; we talk at each other, about each other, at each other’s expense. I’m a little surprised I haven’t seen groups of rogue voters roaming the streets, beating each other with campaign paraphernalia (but, hey, Election Day is young). We have descended into a Mad Max politics that threatens to divide us as a nation to the point of total impotence, a nation in which a broken financial system and a growing debt are weapons to be used rather than problems to be solved. And this is only Tuesday…

Tomorrow, we will wake up–hopefully–to discover that one candidate or the other has won in a decisive fashion (so as to avoid the kangaroo solution), and when that happens, we have a choice: we can dig our heels in, throw ourselves on the floor in a grown-up temper tantrum, and spend the next two to four years rubbing it in or cussing it out; or, like mature, intelligent people deserving of the democracy we supposedly honor and cherish, we can reach across the ideological divide and embrace those who oppose us, try and actually carry on a conversation that doesn’t involve insults or invective. You know, actually, like, get something useful done.

What will it be: the land of the free, or the home of the deranged?

Ripping Van Winkle a New One

Last night, 2 AM, November 4, 2012. Daylight Savings Time ended. And I tripped on my way to the top of the hill.

Tammy and I spent the day in Austin yesterday, a quickie outing, the only kind we really get anymore. These trips are almost preordained, timeline-wise. We head down in the morning, get an early lunch (eating is pretty much the only reason I go to Austin), do some vintage store browsing, basically piddle around until enough time has passed since lunch that we can justify eating again, and then, the crowning event of all trips to the capital, a final stop at Central Market to load up on the necessary extravagances of life (tea, in Tammy’s case; beer and coffee, in mine). But yesterday was different; it was special. There was an extra hour built into our day by the backsliding clock. We could party until our socks fell off. Hip Freakin’ Hooray!

Every year since I’ve been able to make my own decisions, there has been a ritual I have performed on the day Daylight Savings comes to an end. This was especially true when I was working in the church: Sunday was my main workday, so I could use (in theory) all the rest I could get. So, every year I swore to myself, tonight would be the night. I would finally take advantage of the extra hour and get a really good night’s sleep, be nice and refreshed for a hard day’s work. And, every year (predictably), that extra hour would instead become one more hour to stay up and accomplish the night owl’s usual nothing…and then spend the next morning yawning my head in two.

Why should this year be any different?

I woke up this morning to a harsh reality. I had turned, like a zombie at a fruitarian convention. From an hour and a half away, in one of the few places in Texas we can actually call enjoyable without triggering the gag reflex, Tammy and I had made it home and gone to bed by (time change considered) 9:30 at night. The argument I’d been having with myself for over a decade had been won, apparently by my aged self. Because that’s what it comes down to: I’m old enough now that the need for sleep trumps my nocturnal tendencies. I haven’t quite made it over the hill yet, but the hill’s getting steeper as I go.

Suspicions have been circling in the back of my mind for a while now. I turned thirty-five just one short month ago, and you might protest that this does not actually constitute old age as it is classically known. Granted. But tell that to the guy who tried to pull an all-nighter about two weeks before his birthday and discovered he was literally physically incapable of doing out of necessity now what he used to do for kicks in college. All the coffee in the world (or at least in my kitchen) wasn’t enough to keep me from collapsing under my own weight in the wee hours; super glue could not have kept my eyes open; rigor mortis would have failed to keep me upright.

So, fine, thirty-five is not “old.” It’s barely even middle age. But before all you sept- and octogenarians roll your eyes and tell me I’m exaggerating, stop for a second and remember how you felt when you were in my shoes–the day you realized you could not remain young forever. At least not by the clock.

It comes for us all, at different times and in different places. For me, it came at 7:45 on a Sunday morning, after a really good night’s rest. And the sad thing is, it made perfect sense. Maybe that’s the weirdest element of all.

It’s all sleepy-time from here…