Dream challenge #1

I have friends who insist on interpreting dreams.  I also have very strange dreams from time to time, so I’ve decided to put the two together in an occasional Omniop feature I’m calling ‘Dream challenge.’  Go for it.

I’ve been selected to participate in an expedition to colonize a distant planet.  We file onto the spacecraft, giddy with excitement, check our bags and take our seats.  Because the planet is so far away, it will take 30 years to get there, so as soon as we’ve settled in, clear polycarbon canopies descend, sealing us off and putting us in a state of suspended animation for the duration of the flight. We don’t feel the tug of Earth as the rocket lifts off, we get no last glimpse of our erstwhile home; we are essentially comatose until we get there.

30 years pass,  The computer wakes us as we approach our new home.  The spacecraft has a wide window, through which we see the rapidly approaching terrain, green and inviting, when it hits me.

“Damn!” I say, turning to the Captain.  “I forgot my phone.  Would you mind going back to get it?”

Technology: who needs it?

First of all, let me say straight out that I am against all these new fangled ‘improvements’ on things that were working just fine.  Remember the old adage, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it?’  It seems we have long since forgotten it, in our haste to make things easier and more productive.  We may gain a second or two, or reduce energy expenditure by a point or two, or allow more people access to some particular process or commodity, but at what price?  Do we really gain anything if we have to sacrifice ancient wisdom and tradition to get it?  Or give up our long-held values, our ways of testing the worth of ourselves and our families to ‘spread the wealth?’  Whatever happened to the concept of  earning wealth?

Take, for example, the bow and arrow.  Easy as pie.  You just pick it up, insert an arrow, pull the string, and point it, and presto!  you’ve killed something.  What could be easier? Anybody can do it.

And that’s the problem.  With a spear, you had to have some skill.  You had to calculate the distance to the animal you were hunting, figure the arc to make the spear end up at the level you wanted to strike the animal at, or at which you wanted to strike .. oh, never mind.  And not only that, you had to have some strength.  It was bad enough when they came up with the atlatl (is that a dumb name or what?)  Now, with the bow and arrow, all the strength you need is to pick the damned thing up, put in the arrow, and point it at something.  Is that the kind of man we want to encourage?  Is that who’s going to get us out of a jam when we’re attacked by enormous beasts?  Or when someone makes a really stupid comment around the fire?

I will just ask you this and leave it at that: when you’ve stolen something or insulted someone, who do you want at your side, a spearman or a ‘bowman?’


When I was a kid in the third grade at St. Phillip’s school, my father decided I should take piano lessons.  The basis for this was my recent obsession with this new singer on the pop horizon by the name of Elvis Presley.  He sounded like nobody I had ever heard before, or, rather, like everybody I had ever heard before at once.  He played guitar, although as little as possible, so I wanted a guitar, too.  My father, sensible beyond all reason, thought I would be a better musician if I learned to play the piano first, and then branched out from there.  He either didn’t notice or didn’t care that what I really wanted was to be a rock and roll star, wriggling and hooting my way to popularity and fame; in my child’s mind the two were indistinguishable.  If musicianship was a requirement of that, I was happy to go along, but to a point.  Elvis, as I said, played his guitar as little as possible, leaving musicianship to the musicians in his band.  Never mind, Dad wanted me to take piano lessons.  He had played violin before the war, and loved music, but had abandoned it, along with much else of beauty, after the war spat him back out.  He didn’t understand Presley and rock music, except to acknowledge their financial potential.  “The more they wiggle, the more money they make,” he used to say.

It was his own fault, in a way.  He worked at RCA record division, at the plant that pressed the vinyl into music.  As a perk, the company let him take home six albums every couple of months, his preference.  He had no preference.  As a result, the take-homes were random, everything from Stravinski to Homer and Jethro, and whatever lay between.  In those  days, RCA pressed the records for a lot of smaller companies too, so the range was wide as the world.

At the same time, the radio music scene in my city was the epitome of eclecticism.  In a single hour on the same show, you could hear Mario Lanza, Hank Snow, the Platters, and Elvis.  I had no idea until much later on that you were supposed to pick a genre and ditch the others.  I made no artistic distinction between  Ezio Pinza and Elvis.  But I knew the other kids at school and around the neighborhood were crazy for the latter, and not the former.

It didn’t hurt that Elvis had this rebel persona.  Suffocating in my staunchly religious family, I immediately identified.  When my father told me I was going to take piano lessons, like it or not, my dreams came crashing down.

First, he had effectively coopted my ambition, spun it around until it was unrecognizable, and made it his own.  I couldn’t imagine anything less rebellious than piano lessons at St. Phillip’s.  I thought I knew the terms of that, and I didn’t like them.

My friend Wayne was the only guy I knew who was doing that.  Every day at 3:00, the rest of us would line up to leave the school and enter the free world; I would see Wayne trudging across the playground to the convent to take his lessons, always after school, and, it was darkly rumored, sometimes on the weekend as well.

The convent!  The actual lair of the creatures whose lives were dedicated to stripping the joy from ours!  Who knew what torments Wayne endured there?  Many years later, he told me it wasn’t at all bad.  I’m still not sure I believe him.

I knew what had to be done.  I resisted with all my might, and discovered that my father had given me the very thing I thought he was stripping away: an opportunity to Be a Rebel.  I marshalled every argument I could think of, mostly involving how much time would be lost from my other studies (in the third grade!), or how I would have to be late for dinner a lot, a cardinal sin in our house.  I stomped and put on magnificent silences, I exiled myself to my room.  In the end, against all expectation, I prevailed.  He gave up.

I was on cloud nine.  I got my guitar eventually, and hacked away at it.  By that time I was into folk music, and regarded music lessons of any sort as too gentrifying for my tastes.  My tempo was ragged, and I was king of the 13 bar blues.  I discovered jazz about that time as well, and predictably played guitar less and less as I realized how abysmally incompetent I was compared to the musicians I admired.  I made a hash of it, like most things.

The only abiding result of all of that was a growing regret that I had talked my father out of those piano lessons.

Well, this year, I finally gave in, bought a piano, a beautiful Yamaha P-115 electronic keyboard capable of pretending to be a dozen other instruments as well.  I started online lessons, the excellent Playground series created by Quincy Jones.  So I sit at the keyboard, practicing, getting a little better, a little more musical every day.  And as I sit there, I notice a little voice in the back of my head:

“Michael, sit up straight!”

If you won’t go to the convent, it seems the convent will come to you.


Snow.  That’s what we called it, snow.  No polar vortex, no bomb cyclone, no Winter Storm Fred or anything like that.  Snow.  If it got so thick you couldn’t see past your outstretched hand, it was a blizzard; that was about the extent of our parsing of winter weather.

But wait, you say, people are suffering losses, some are even dying.  That’s true, and it’s just as lamentable now as it was before the storm of jargon came spewing out of weather centers.  I daresay the casualties were worse back then, in the mid 20th century, before forced air gas heating, heat pumps, whole house generators and hyper-insulated houses.  There were only two realistic choices: coal or oil, and both systems worked on the principle of convection.  Worse, if a winter turned out to be especially long or cold, you could run out of either, and be hard put to get more of it in a reasonable time.  People froze.  It was winter.

But for every downside there’s an upside.  The snow was a cash cow for us kids.  We’d go trundling up and down the street shoveling sidewalks for a buck a pop.  We would have charged more for driveways, but there were no such things in my neighborhood, just alleys covered with soot from the ubiquitous trash fires.  My eyes still glaze over in nostalgia whenever I smell garbage burning.

On a good snow day, you could end up with ten or fifteen bucks in your pocket by noon, a small fortune for a ten or twelve year old kid in the 1950s, and still have time to spend the rest of the day sledding down a steep hill into traffic.  I never made that much; I felt rich as soon as I hit five bucks, and went about finding ways to spend it.  But that was me.  I also collected coins in specially made books with slots for each year back to the Upper Paleolithic, but I never filled one.  I spent that, too, as soon as enough money to buy something accumulated.

We’d also have fun “skitching” rides on the perennially unplowed streets.  That involved sneaking low behind a car at an intersection, grabbing the bumper, and getting pulled along, sliding on the packed snow.  Even getting caught was fun.  We’d pelt the furious driver with snowballs and run away.

There was one time, though, that a cop caught us putting snowballs into a mailbox.  He informed us solemnly that he was letting us go, but that tampering with the mail was a federal crime, and he couldn’t vouch for what the FBI might want to do.

I had nightmares about J. Edgar Hoover for a week after that.

A rear-view mirror is still a mirror

People say all the time that they have no regrets.  Me, I’m practically defined by them; a man with no regrets is a man with no imagination, as far as I’m concerned, and I say that all too often for people around me, I suspect.  Still, I confess I’m mystified by people who essentially admit they can’t think of anything in their past that could have gone better had they made a different decision.  Equally, I fail to understand the virtue of still being the same person you were 40 or 50 years ago.  As Muhammad Ali said, someone who has the same opinions at age 50 as they had at age 20 has wasted 30 years of life.

Maybe that’s why, now that I’m old, I have this strange compulsion to revisit my life, to retrace my steps.  I’m drawn to places, both actual and conceptual, I passed through on my way here, to physically visit them, to stand in my own footsteps to see — what?

It’s not at all clear what it is I’m looking for, certainly not a glimpse of myself as I was then; that’s a vision that’s all too clear.  Nor is it primarily an attempt to reconstruct what I was thinking, to re-find or redefine whatever it was I thought I was doing, although that would certainly be interesting.  I’m not looking for redemption, or even a rationale.

Part of it is to correct the unconscious revisions I have made to my own history.  I’m sure you’ve had the experience of reconnecting, after many years, with an old friend or acquaintance, only to find that there are at least two contradictory versions of some common experience.  These things are seldom resolved, though.  We generally each come away wondering how the other person could have gotten the memory so wrong and yet be so sure.  It needs a new term to describe these common events.  How about “memoroid?”  I think that has enough innuendo hanging from it to serve the purpose.

No doubt what I’m looking for is a lot closer to hand and a lot easier to get at than a precisely calibrated reconstruction of the past.  See, I don’t think you can have a realistic assessment of who you are without a clear picture of who you were.

That gets both more and less difficult as you get older.


Modern Living

The latest in my on-going, if informal, technology series. Or, put another way, some more whining about machines.

I have a machine that washes my clothes for me. It is a shiny new (ish) Samsung, the model which was flinging off lids awhile back, probably in frustration at having to deal with unpredictable biological organisms like us humans. As it turned out, my machine was not one of the ones with that problem, although it was the same model number. Those were specially manufactured for Sam’s Club, which had demanded a lower price. They got it.

So as not to leave ordinary, hard working machines like mine feeling ignored, Samsung sent a guy over to bolt some stuff together all the same. And (I suspect just to leave evidence he had been there) he also “installed” a new faceplate, by which I mean he pressed the pre-glued replacement on over the existing control labels. It’s a dandy, striking black and silver against the pure, Caucasian white of the machine, stunning. The only other change I could see was that the setting called Bedding had been consolidated with Delicate.  Keeps those blankets in a low-spin zone, so the machine doesn’t freak out and start stripping off its coverings.

It is a marvelous machine for sure, but it has a little quirk, not serious, but just enough to remind me who’s boss: it keeps time like a computer update status bar.

This shouldn’t be surprising, since it has been many moons since washing machines crossed the invisible line from mechanical gadgets with computers attached to computers with mechanical gadgets attached.  As such, they have their own reality.  For example, when I put in a load and close the lid and press Start, a little LED countdown timer appears with, say, 45 minutes showing.  Long experience has taught me that I need to set a timer upstairs as well, since it’s hard to hear the delicate little jingle Samsung plays to let me know it’s done.  It’s just as well; I swear it’s the same jingle the Mr. Softee truck used to play when I was a boy.  I get a strange craving for ice cream whenever I happen to be in the basement when the washing machine has finished its cycle.

Experience has also taught me that I need to set the upstairs timer to 50 minutes instead of 45, since it works on the same basis in reality as I do.  Usually, this does the trick.  The wash cycle usually lasts anywhere from 45 to 50 minutes.  All’s well that ends well.

Except that now and then it takes appreciably more time.  Or less, but that’s very rare.  It seems that it sometimes transpires that it isn’t quite satisfied with the level of cleanliness it has achieved  for my clothes, and runs them through an extra rinse cycle.  When it does this, all bets are off as to when it will actually get done.  My upstairs timer goes off, and I go down to change the laundry, and the washer is chugging merrily away.  Almost smugly sometimes, I swear.  I look at the LED.  It says 15.  Or 8, or some other such number.  Ok, fine, I think, be that way.  I go back upstairs set the time to the new time, and wait.  Now and then, if I’m close enough to the basement door, I hear the little jingle a couple of minutes early, as if to say “Ha ha, just kidding!”  More often, I go down at the appointed time, and there’s still a minute or two left.  I use that time productively.  I stand there and stare at the washer until it stops.

When it finally gets tired of the game and stops, I transfer the clothes to the (somewhat) matching dryer and the little dance starts all over.

Well, ok, you might call this a first-world problem, especially if you’re given to especially trite catch phrases, but it’s symptomatic of what I call Global Robo-Creep.  Everywhere you go in the world except the most destitute reaches of the outermost hinterlands of civilization, more and more computers are doing what used to require humans.  Even simpler machines like parking meters have no job security anymore, replaced by touchscreens and credit card slots featuring arcane instructions designed to use up your allotted parking time before you even get properly started.  And cellphones?  Don’t ask!  Even the !Kung-san of the Kalahari have better 4G availability than you do.  Yes, this is all making life more … interesting, some might say better.  Certainly, in the case of washers and dryers, life is made both easier and more convenient.  But here’s the rub: it’s all done on the machines’ terms.

Yes, yes, of course, I know it’s a cabal of coders who actually animate the machines, and they’re undeniably human, but so was Faust.

How would you like to be on a help line with Faust?  Who do you think would come out ahead?  Hint: it’s not human.

It’s going to be all right

I have always found history fascinating, perhaps because I thought I had so little of it personally. My favorite writers growing up were Shelby Foote and Stephen Ambrose, and even in fiction, I preferred novelists like Michener and Uris. I read Bradbury, but I think he was as much a historical writer as the rest in his own way, despite his genre. Throw in a bit of Mickey Spillane and Ellery Queen just for fun, and you’ve got the picture.

Discounting military service, virtually all my adult life has been spent as an archaeologist. In short, you might say I’ve been obsessed with the past. I’ve seen it all come and go: war and peace, wealth and poverty, nations rising and falling, cultures great and profane, cemeteries full of lives cut short, of crises forgotten or remembered, but either way, good for nothing better than allegory now. Through it all, one thing stands out, clear and cold.

It’s going to be all right. Not in the sense of world peace, the brotherhood of man, and all that, but it is going to be all right. In time, no one will remember any of the this. What we’re going through is serious, yes, and will cause a great deal of pain to people who deserve better. The same was true of whatever it was those people in the cemeteries of the world were enduring, those things we either can’t remember or experience only as intellectual abstractions today. The same will be true of whatever traumas and crises future generations will face, if there are any future generations.

Nor will anyone remember all the joy, the love and human companionship we are also experiencing, the intensity of compassion and purpose that fill the struggle against all the adversity I mention above, but that too, will continue beyond us, as it has these millennia.

You know the old joke: an optimist is one who believes this is the best of all possible worlds, and a pessimist is one who’s afraid that’s true.

One way or the other, this is the world we’ve got, and we are the humanity we’ve got. It could be that we have broken the earth as a habitable place for us beyond repair, and it could be the death of us, of our species. If that happens, the earth will continue to spin on its axis and hurl itself around the sun; other living things will thrive, and possibly evolve to wonder about the remains we leave behind.

We’ll be just one more of the billions of species to disappear, just one more bag of remains in the vast cemetery we live on.

It’s going to be all right.