The Lights in the Sky are Stars

    “Because something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?” – Bob Dylan

    I think people forget we live in a fantastically large universe. We’re bacteria living in a drop of water and imagine the few molecules we swim in are the crown of creation, the darling of God’s eye. Light polution has stolen the Milky Way from our lives and shrunk our universe. Most people never look up any more and speculate beyond the event horizon of their lives. Sense of wonder and philosophy has been replaced by gossip about Anna Nicole Smith. Is it no wonder that the uneducated of the world crave their old time gods? DVDs and iPods can’t give the young transcendence. We live in the most exciting time of all history but the only philosophers we have are ones that tell us how to cope with stress, lose weight, invest money, or quibble over left and right politics. Where are our transcendental explorers? Our population seems divided between people who want to ignore reality by partying till they die or those who ignore reality by feverishly studying ancient religious texts and praying for a rebirth in another reality – one that is simple and easy to understand.

    If you wake up to The Today Show, come home from work to the ABC World News Tonight, and go to sleep with Eyewitness News and Jay Leno, then your view of our monsterously large multiverse is rather tacky and small. Watch the Discovery Channel in High Definition – it is the Henry David Thoreau of our times. A telescope will help you learn how small you are and a microscope will teach you how big you are. Ask yourself this question: What should I be doing in this immense creation that has no guidebook or instruction manual. For most of history our philosophers have asked: “Why are we here?” Up till now people have answered that question by believing in the silly idea that we’re being judged on our behavior and assume the judgement determines our immortal life in the reality after this one. Imagine if ants thought one human judged their every action.

Get over it. There is no reason why. We’re not being judged and there is no reality after this one. This reality is our final destination – our only vacation from oblivion. We’ve all gone to Hawaii and all we do is sit in our hotel room and watch reruns of That 70’s Show. How lame is that. We need to remember every moment of our lives that the lights in the sky are stars.

    

Who Is In Control Here?

    I am reminded of the classic sci-fi novel Mindswap by Robert Sheckley where the main character, Marvin Flynn mind travels to alien worlds and ends up in a body of a giant beetle like creature who has a snout ring with a bomb in it. “On Celsus V, the giving and receiving of gifts is a cultural imperative.” Marvin our hero can not refuse the gift, which explains why the former owner of the body elected to mindswap. Marvin Flynn’s adventures in this hilarious novel illustrate life without control. We like to believe our lives are controlable, and that we are in the driver’s seat of our bodies, looking out the windows of our eyes, driving through life. What throws us is when we crash into a situation where we have no control.

    From an early age we learn to live with a lack of control. At first we just cry until we get what we want. Eventually we develop drives, skills, ambitions and we get pretty good at getting what we want. However, life sometimes parks us between a rock and a hard place and we can’t do anything about it. The most intense and intimate of these places of no control is failing health. My heart arrhythmia reminds me of that ticking snout ring. For the most part we go about our lives ignoring the obviousness of death. It’s not until some vital component in our body starts telling us knock-knock jokes that we have to whisper, “Who’s there?” to Mr. Death.

    The weird thing about health is how easy it lets you forget about disease. My heart can act nuts for several days taking me on a roller coaster ride of thrills, and then settle down for a day and I can forget all the scary lessons almost immediately. Feeling good makes the future seem bright, even if it’s just for a moment. When Mr. Death starts thumping one of your vital organs you have these amazing revelations. For instance, “Oh, that’s why we’re supposed to exercise and eat healthy,” comes to you in a Zen like clap of enlightenment. Your mind swears you’ll never eat another french fry again. But as soon as the thumping stops for a moment and you have a brief instance of feeling good, it’s “Hey, guys, let’s go to McDonald’s.”

    Who is in control here? I’d like to think I was, but I’m learning what a silly notion that is. If I was in control I should have become a health fanatic the first time I over ate and puked up as a kid. Or at least the first time I drank too much and puked up. Or, one of the other zillion times I got sick or hurt. But I didn’t. When my heart dances like I’m jogging when I’m reclining in my La-Z-Boy I know I should have lost that extra fifty pounds decades ago, but that doesn’t put me in control. I can pop a beta-blocker my doctor gave me and get my heart to beat to the time I want, but is that being in control? I can pretend I’m healthy, but inside my heart is like a cartoon character, boinking around. I know it wants to get out of its chemical straight-jacket so it can sing and dance again to its own tune.

    What I learned from conversing with my body parts is there’s a vast divide between body and mind, and the trouble is, the body is in control, not me. In fact, you end up pleading and begging with your organs to behave by swearing you’ll do anything they want if they’ll just be nice for a little while longer. This does open up a whole can of philosophical worms. In this bag of flesh there are countless components with their own drives and desires, so which one is the one who wants to eat Ben & Jerry’s every night with Oreos? Egotistically, I’d like to say it’s me, the mind, that makes all the choices, but I know there is some chemical process that I can’t name working with cells I can’t identify that talk to other cells and organs that shanghai me, the mind, to buy and eat the B&J.

    I do have some control. The more I know how the body works the more I can consciously try to influence it. I’ve read studies that say only 1 person in 20 can lose weight and keep it off. Does that mean five percent of the population has will power or that five percent have a body with a variable set point for weight? I know I can make my heart happier if I lose weight, eat right and exercise every day, but do I have the control to do that? I consider myself trying to do all that for thirty years and I’m still fifty pounds overweight. Who is in control here?

    

What Happened to My Future?

    In 1965, at the age of thirteen, I was confident that long before the 21st century rolled around I’d be living on Mars. It wasn’t a fantasy, but faith in the future. At twelve I had given up Christianity and God, exchanging that belief system for science and the acceptance in my heart of hearts that the manifest destiny of humankind was in traveling to the stars. During my junior high school years I acquired a sense of existentialism that told me there was absolutely no meaning in the universe. Our job was to go forth make our own meaning – with the silly understanding that we’d find it light-years away. It wasn’t a bleak nihilistic headspace, but one freeing me from the past burden of superstition and theological brain washing. I was a skinny geek who discovered science fiction.

    This was a couple years before Star Trek when there were few science fiction fans. 1965 was a transitional period between the fading out of the Happy Days 1950s and the Psychedelic 1960s. The Vietnam War had begun in earnest, the Great Society was the political keyword of the day, battles for civil rights were in full swing and the race for the Moon was well underway with the Gemini rockets taking men into space for two week trips. Science books of 1965 painted a panoramic future unfolding step-by-step that would take men to the planets. Was I so wrong to believe I could be walking on Mars by the 1990s?

    What went wrong? I’m not the only person who took up these beliefs. There were millions like myself. In 1965 the Earth had three billion commuters riding around the sun. One percent would have been thirty million people. I doubt the hard-core believers in science fiction ever numbered more than three million. One tenth of one percent of the population doesn’t make critical mass to change the future. Today, I would guess there are far more people calling themselves science fiction fans in the United States, but all that means is they like Star Wars and Spielberg movies. I don’t think the percentage of science fiction fans that are true believers of space exploration ever grew greater than it was back in 1965.

    In 1965 science fiction meant you believed in space travel. All the other tropes of the genre were just gee-whiz sense of wonder roller coaster riding. No true fan believed in time travel, psychic powers, supermen or immortality – those ideas were just repackaged myths. Serious speculation was spent on robotics and artificial intelligence but no one even dreamed of the Internet. All the hard core believers thought about two things: traveling to the stars and meeting intelligent aliens.

    Space travel never took off and for all our efforts to find little green men we find ourselves alone in this universe. Forty years later science fiction has woven a baroque wealth of fantasies but we’re still all living on Earth and the future seems no more than waiting for next fall’s TV season or maybe the next generation iPod.

    Would my life have been that much better if I was living on Mars? Is the failure of a childhood fantasy all that tragic? If I had made it to Mars, the reality of such a life would be harsh beyond anything I can comprehend. Was it the challenge that I miss? Living on Mars would have meant living underground, struggling with limited resources to survive in an enviornment of rusty rocks and little to breathe. And even if mankind had gone to Mars, it’s doubtful that I had the right stuff required to get there. I think why I’m really disappointed is because no one lives on Mars! In the future of my thirteen year old self, people were heading to the stars – whatever that meant. My life has been one of work and watching humans destroy their environment and kill each other in endless petty wars. Maybe I’m disappointed in the human race.

    The other transcending fantasies of my sixties upbringing was sex, drugs and rock and roll. I still listen to the old music, but drugs and free sex never panned out because of their cousins: death and disease. Stranger in a Strange Land, the epic wish-fulfilling sci-fi novel of the hippie sixties, is a pathetic story advocating nudity, wife swapping and an endless supply of subserviant nubile young women for old men. Sure it promised life after death, pantheism and the unlimited power of thought, but so has a bunch of other religions. I remember being kids in the sixties waiting for the school bus and discussing the coming revolution – so many of us expected to grow up in a brave new world. At least I got computers and the Internet.

Strangely enough, many of the young Internet billionaires are putting their money into space travel. The dream doesn’t die. However, there is still no critical mass that wants humans to colonize space. President Bush advocated returning to the Moon in his plans for NASA two years ago, but the new Congress is already planning to remove that money from the budget. Most young people seem content with science fiction movies, books and video games – preferring fantasy over reality. I doubt if I wait another forty years if the future will ever catch up with my childhood dreams.

 

    

The Religion that Failed to Achieve Orbit

    For seventy-five years during the 20th century there flourished a minor religion called science fiction. Most religions speculate about life in the heavens after death – this radical religion promoted life in the heavens during life – a startling proposition for its prophets. By advocating the power of mankind over the power of God it attracted millions of believers. Sadly, this unique religion was short lived because the miracles promised by science fiction were undermined by gritty details of reality. The priests of science fiction failed to observe that any religion that makes promises about the here and now fail quickly.

    Science fiction held that applied science would lead to transcending everyday life on Earth. This was science fiction’s major appeal because most of the 20th century aptly demonstrated the success of applied technology. Science fiction suffered its ironic collapse due to the success of space travel. Six manned trips to the Moon quashed all desire for further explorations of the heavens by the general public. It was rocks, more rocks and icy rocks all the way to the stars. Mars the most romantic of science fiction’s destinations turned out to be paradise that only geologists could love.

    The tenets of science fiction were often similar to older religions, and it eventually parried the promise of everlasting life after death with immortal life on Earth. Science fiction told its adherents not to seek to be the children of God, but instead told them to bury God and become the creators of their own destiny. Science fiction even named its rockets after gods – Mercury, Atlas, Saturn and Apollo.

    Why did this remarkable religion fail? Did it promise miracles it could not deliver? Could it be resurrected with a new testament? Is it possible to satisfy humans with a transcendental experience based in the physical world? Why do the majority of humans prefer the promises of the next world over the reality of this world?

    Science fiction like many failed religions before it has become the providence of fanciful mythic tales. Years from now, such as the distance in time from the ancient Greeks to our times, humans will marvel at the fantastic beliefs of the people from the twentieth century.     

Time Travel

Looking at photos is time traveling. They say a picture is worth a thousand words – I think that’s underestimating the value of a photo. I’m the kid in the cowboy hat and my sister is dressed as a cowgirl. I had just turned seven. Before looking at this photo I could not have told you anything about Christmas 1958. Seeing this photo is triggering all kinds of memories. However, this photo has more details than any of my memories. I don’t know about people with photographic/mnemonic memories, but my memories are vague hazy affairs – more words than images. For example, I vaguely remember getting those cowboy outfits for Christmas. I remember playing quickdraw with my sister. I remember one time she invented a move that blew me away. We went to draw and she dropped to the floor and shot looking up. I thought at the time what a brilliant move for a girl. What a brilliant move for anyone thinking about it now. On TV cowboys always stood up to shoot at each other. What a radical idea to make yourself small and hard to shoot. Maybe it was a bit cowardly looking in terms of gunfighting ethics, but who cares, you’re trying to kill the other guy and stay alive.

See, that memory is really all words. I remember the gunfight took place across the street where a girlfriend of my sister lived. I can’t remember her name or what she looked like – I didn’t remember her at all until I recalled this memory. And I just remembered something else. The doors on our houses opened out, and that girl taught us how to break in by sliding a thin blade between the door and jam and forcing the curved end lock bolt to spring back. Pretty cool for little kids – and we went around the neighborhood trying it on on different doors. I don’t think we met any grown-ups. They might have been around but they obviously fear not from our gang of five to seven year olds.

That memory is also words – and words inspired by a photograph. If I wanted to I could study the photo above and conjure up even more details and incidents – all adding up to a lot more than a thousand words.

What I’m fascinated by is the clarity of the photo in terms of representing reality. Memories are dark cloudy things compared to this photo. Recording reality is one of my favorite topics. High definition video is the ultimate tool for recreating reality. Imagine if we were all given tiny HD cameras that we wore our whole life. Then anytime we wanted we could check back on any event in time. How would that change the world? Video has sound and that really adds more than one dimension to capturing reality. If only that photo above was a video and the camera man had taken time to interview us four kids. I have no memory of who took that photo. I have no memory of what I was thinking at that moment. This was before I read books, magazines or newspapers, so my sense of the world was rather limited. I watched a lot of TV, especially cartoons and kid shows.

If I had had a blog back then I’d probably be comparing Zorro and Paladin, from Have Gun Will Travel, or philosophising about which show had the cooler parents, Donna Reed, Ozzie and Harriet, Danny Thomas or Leave it to Beaver by comparing which kids got to have the most fun. I didn’t watch the news so my blog wouldn’t have had any comments about politics, world affairs or even the beginning of the space race which captured my attention in 1961.

TV was my life at age seven – I mean I don’t remember much about second grade, other than I had a crush on my teacher, Miss Huling. I even pretended to not print my letters correctly so she’d keep me after class for extra lessons. For the most part I lived in kidland. My father was in the Air Force and spent most of his time away from home. I don’t remember what my mother did. Sometimes she worked and we had baby sitters. I have very few memories of either parents from that time – most of my memories deal with the kids in the photo above – from kidland. That house and neighborhood was the key site of my childhood.

You see, the more time I spend with this photo, the more things I can dredge up from 1958. In the creative non-fiction writing class I took a couple years ago, my teacher Kristen Iversen told me that when you start working with writing memoirs you can train yourself to recover lost memories. They are there, you just have to find the links to snag them. Photos are one key for that. Another is books. I use The Complete Directory To Prime Time Network TV Shows to find clues to my early days. Since television was the dominant source of external information for a seven year old in 1958, it’s a vital tool. To a lesser extent information about current events of the time may trigger a memory. I usually start with Wikipedia’s Year listing. The only 1958 clue here is the reference to the F-104 Starfighter, my favorite jet plane as a kid, however I doubt if I knew about this plane at age seven, the year it was introduced, but it’s possible I had seen it on TV. They used to close out TV at night showing a F-104, if memory serves me correctly, and reading a poem about a pilot touching the face of god. I’d love to see that film clip now. Maybe it would trigger additional memories.

As a kid growing up in the middle of the twentieth century I was obsessed with science fiction. I really wanted to travel in space and time. Most people who dream of time travel dream of jumping to historical times and meeting up with famous people. I think I would rather go back and visit myself and ask, “Why the hell are you wasting so much goddamn time watching TV. Do something to give us better memories for the future.”