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.”

 

 

1,001 Photos

I’ve started the daunting task of converting our family photos to digital. My wife and I have boxes of photos – our photos, and the photos we’ve inherited from our parents. Plus my wife was an amateur photographer for awhile and she has hundreds more photos that aren’t related to family history. If I converted them all, I’d have a hobby that would keep me busy for the next couple years. How many photos do you really need to document a life? Since digital cameras came on the scene, I’ve noticed at holidays and parties more people snapping shots to record the events.

Our niece Hillary had a birthday Saturday night with three photographers. I wonder if she will have those photos when she gets old and what she will think about them. The difference between film and digital photos is quantity. The old film photos are rare treasures. Maybe more photos were taken, and all the poor shots were thrown away over the years, but it seems like digital cameras let people take more photos by several magnitudes. Now-a-days, My Photos folder has thousands of shots, and converting the film and slides will only add to the giant digital pile. How many photos are really needed to document a life?

I have damn few photos of my life before thirty. I wish I had more. I didn’t own a camera until I was sixteen, and then I took pictures of other people. My parents had an ancient Kodak from before I was born that was used ocassionally. I often sit and think about people I knew and places I lived and wished I had a photo to help my memory. This has gotten me to think about how I wished I had documented my life. If I had one photo a week of my family and friends for my life I’d have about 3,000 photos. That’s probably too many. I don’t even have one a year of myself, which would be just 55 photos. If I had taken one a month to chronicle my life, I’d have 660 photos. That still might be too many, but I’m not sure. I think I would have liked four photos a year of myself, either alone or with family and friends just to document how we’ve all aged, and show how fashions have changed. That would be 220 photos. That’s not a bad number.

That doesn’t really cover all the people I’d like to have photos of. I’d like a photo of all my teachers, and at least group class shots of all my classesmates. Then there are the non-people photos. I would like to have had a photo of every house I lived in, and a photo of each room, and the yard and surrounding neighborhood. I’d like photos of all my schools, and photos of the classrooms. Things are adding up here. Then there are the vacations, school trips, clubs, weddings, funerals, and other special events.

Chronicling a life is adding up to a lot of photos. Wouldn’t it be great if there was a photo repository we could all share? You login and list when and where you lived and what schools you went to and then it would tell you if it had any photos of those times and places. Take for instance the photo above. That’s Patty on the left, and my sister Becky on the right, and my friend Michael Kevin Ralph from April, 1959. It was taken in the subdivision called Lake Forest, near Hollywood, Florida. Maybe Mike and Patty would like to see that photo now. Maybe their parents took photos with me and my sister in them.

Who knows how many photos are out there that would help my memory. I sure would give a lot to see photos taken of me and my classmates in our classrooms. The twelve years from grade one to grade twelve were the longest twelve years of my life, the most memorable, and the most forgotten. I have no photos of any of my teachers – not a one. I can’t remember what they looked like, except for Mrs. Travis, my twelth grade English teacher. I have a vague memory of her – but that’s because I once had a photograph of her, but it’s long lost. I only have one photograph of all my fellow students – and that’s because we’ve remained friends all these years and I have photos of him taken many years after he left school.

If you are young and reading this, my advice is to take your digital camera with you and take photos of all these things because one day you’ll become old like me and wish you had images to prompt your memory. I don’t know why, but school days are very memorable and very forgetable. Try as I might, I can’t remember any whole day. I can’t even remember a portion of a day, from my school days. All I remember are tiny events. I don’t know how people write memoirs.

I’ve taken classes in creative non-fiction that deal with writing memoirs and I’m amazed at what some people claim to remember. It’s not practical to remember everything, but I’d love to remember a few whole days – days that told a good story. I wish they had had blogs when I was growing up and I wish that on a few special days I would have chronicled with words and photographs what I did for twenty-four hours.

For instance, my dad took me and my friends Connell and George to see the Apollo 8 launch. That would have been a good day to have documented. I think when I get really old I’d like a book with 1,001 photos of my life. Too many to look at in one sitting, but enough that I could grasp the big picture of it all.

Beautiful Bassett Hound and Really Big Lobster

In my dream I was outside, in a public place. There were no buildings. I saw a few trees in planters. A man stood talking to a group of people. I was one of them. We sat on rock benches and I felt I was in a class. The man talking was a teacher, a Socrates like character. I see the last page of a book. The teacher asks us about the last scene of a book. I’m only vaguely aware of the title of the book, but throughout the dream I struggle to grasp the title. Eventually my confused mind labels it The Great Gatsby. I turn to the back of the book and read the last scene.

“Hey, I don’t remember this scene, and I’ve read this book three times!” I exclaim without hearing my voice. There are only a handful of students around the teacher and we’re all quiet. The teacher pushes us for an answer again. I make a suggestion that I know is wrong and stupid as soon as I say it and the teacher gives some wise reply that shoots me down. In the dream it almost feels like I’m saying real words, or even reading real words, but really it’s only vague concepts and squiggles that look like words. Communicating in dreams is like telepathy.

I can tell there are two characters in the scene. I reread the scene again. For some reason an image of a giant lobster interrupts the dream and I flash on this idea. “One of the characters in the scene is God.” The teacher agrees and the other students start talking excitedly. I study and study the scene but can’t figure out what’s happening. Has a character died and gone to heaven and is talking to God? Or has God come down into the world to tell him something?

Then I have an image of a beautiful bassett hound running, with its huge floppy ears flying around its head. I don’t connect any meaning and all I feel is the desire to buy a bassett hound – could this be a form of subliminal advertising? Then I return to the outdoor classroom and struggle to make something out of the last scene again. We all make suggestions but the teacher isn’t happy but I feel somewhat pleased that I discovered that the mysterious character was God. The dream fades away and I awake.

It’s fascinating to play amateur scientist and try to discover how dreams work. I think there is a mind that experiences dreams that is different from the mind of the waking me. I call it the narrator. This narrator may be a mechanism that the waking me also uses, but I see “the me” of dreams separate from “the me” who is writing this. When you are in a semi-wakeful state you can observe this narrator in action. Random images will appear and bits of meaning will pop into your mind. Dreams appear to be built on a series of still images or crude moving images that the narrator comments on. The narrator makes up meaning for the images. The dream me acts on those suggested meanings.

Take for instance the dream above. I saw a man standing and with a handful of people sitting around him. The narrator informs me without words, “a teacher and his students.” That image could have been anything. The narrator sees the last page of a book and supplies, “the teacher wants to know the meaning of the last scene in the book.” The sleeping me, that is the mechanism of self-awareness, is very dormant but I relate to one of the students. The “me” in the dream isn’t aware of the narrator – it experiences the series of images and thoughts the narrator provides as a whole story.

On rare ocassions I’ve had vivid dreams where the waking “me” is the dream “me.” However, it’s an illusion. If the waking “me” tries to guide the dream it will destroy the dream. The sleeping “me” is passive and must watch the dream like a movie. If the “waking me” tries to think and override the narrator, the dream will fall apart and I’ll awake.

I think the narrator mechanism works in waking life too. If you are at a restaurant and see a young couple sit down nearby, the narrator might tell you, “See that couple, they are on their first date. See how they act nervous…” The narrator can be very convincing, even to the point where you believe it and think what you are seeing is real. This is why cops say they saw a gun when they didn’t. The narrator can see something and tell the cop it’s a gun. The narrator can be very powerful. The narrator thinks much faster than normal self-aware thinking.

Usually dreams relate to the previous days events, but the above dream doesn’t remind me of anything that happened yesterday. I was an English major in college, so the dream does make sense to me. I’m used to trying to figure out what books mean. I’m used to the anxiety of having a professor put pressure on a class to supply an answer. The Great Gatsby is a book that is taught a lot, and last week I read an article suggesting it was the great American novel. I have no idea why the lobster and bassett hound popped into the dream, but the narrator quickly used the one image and made it fit into the story. Maybe if the bassett hound would have stayed long enough the narrator would have made up a new story for the dreamer, a new dream.

Fiction and story telling seem to be at the heart of our minds. We look out at the world and see trees and mountains. It doesn’t take long before we’re making up stories about fairies living the in the trees and gods living on the mountains. Zen masters try to break their students of this habit – to see the world as it is without the stories, but that’s a very hard habit to break. Think of the war in Iraq. Imagine all the stories created by all sides of the conflict. Just think, the Sunnis and the Shiites are killing each other over stories made up thirteen centuries ago. It’s no wonder that some people believe that even our waking real world is a dream, a nightmare.

And finally, at a meta-level, notice how I can take tiny events in my life and turn them into a narrative structure. Observe the narrator.

Heaven, Hell, and the Other Places

I died in my dreams last night. No biggie, I’ve died in my dreams several times over the years. Dying in dreamland is intense. Yesterday I was having some minor heart trouble and last night I dreamed my heart stopped. I felt myself falling. My last thought was, “Here I go” with a sense of complete acceptance, and I let go. All details around me fell away, and the final thing I was aware of was a dull gray light. Everything stopped. That’s when I woke up. It was quite a relief to wake up and be alive. I love being alive.

Dreamland is such a strange place. I’ve died before, and once came to, floating up towards heaven before waking up. My cousins and I had been riding in the back of a station wagon and we were hit by another car with a tremendous bang. Then blackness. Going to heaven was the scariest dream I ever had. I think it was my first time to die in a dream. I’ve since died a few times from endlessly falling into hell. It’s easier to die the atheist’s death where I collapse into black nothingness. It’s always a trauma to survive death and come to in again, and still be in dreamland. Sometimes the shift is to a pleasant new life but the transition is scary. Other times its overhelming and I wake up in a sweat and panic. Then there are times when I come to and I’m living again on another world or in another life. I don’t believe any of these events have real relationship with reality, but I can see how lots of wild ideas got started in the real world over the centuries.

On these other worlds I’ve been flying creatures, swimming creatures and tree swinging creatures. I’ve always assume my brain created these roles for me because I read a lot of science fiction and fantasy. I remember one time dying and ending up in bed with an attractive matronly woman in her sixties, whom I eventually realized was God. Now that was unnerving. What would Freud have made of that? I was over fifty at the time, but I still wonder if God had any age of consent laws to deal with. She had been jolly, warm and caring and when I woke up, I was reminded of when I was a kid and how I felt about big soft grandmotherly women with ample bosoms.

I wonder how many concepts have come into the world from dreams. Reincarnation feels like an idea generated by dreamland. Did people think of talking animals before they dreamed of them? I remember a beautiful dream of being a part of a troop of monkeys, and being in love with a girl monkey. I never knew if we were Earthly monkeys, or monkey-like creatures living on another world. Did we imagine aliens living on other worlds or did our dreams paint those sense of wonder creatures in our mind. I tend to believe that all mysticism comes from dreams or hallicinations, which to me are dreams that leak out into the waking world. Primative people talk much of dreamtime.

I am reminded of a title of a book about Philip K. Dick – “What If Our World Is Their Heaven.” I’ve been to many heavens and hells, to many alien worlds, in my dreams, and I’ve never visited a world that could top our world no matter how wild my imagination got. If there is a heaven, it is this world.

Super Men and Mighty Mice

During the Ozzie and Harriet years, when I was seven and people called me Jimmy, my sister Becky and our best friends Mikey and Patty, would beg old tattered terry cloth towels from our moms and pretend to be George Reeves. We’d tie those old faded pastel rags around our necks, stretch out our arms, hands flat, fingers pointing forward, tilt our heads down and run like Hanna-Barbera cartoon characters, ocassionally jumping with all our might, with the hopes of getting airborne like Superman, or at least Mighty Mouse. And when we were burnt out and our little bodies too tired to try any more, we’d go to sleep at night and have flying dreams.

My sister and I moved around a lot while growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, but wherever we lived it was kidland, either as part of a mob of kids running up and down the middle of our suburban streets, or in packs roaming the woods, or scattered in hordes over the vast plains of school playgrounds. Kidland was great. It was great because there were no adults. It was beyond fantastic because we were all fueled by our imaginations. Television rocket assisted our little minds, jazzing our kiddie dramas and kicking our dreams into orbit.

A few years down the timeline, during the black and white Beverly Hillbillies era, we could be seen in back yards playing astronauts pretending we were Alan Shepard or John Glenn with cheap white plastic helmets on our heads. After that most of my efforts to fly were in my head and inspired by the philosophy of science fiction, especially the grand master, Robert A. Heinlein. Then Jeannie and Bewitched magic charmed us and we all desperately wanted the skills of being able to twitch our noses or cross arms and nod our heads and make wishes come true with the flouish of a TV sound effect. Can anyone doubt why in the epic times of The Monkees and Star Trek and The Time Tunnel we turned in our terry cloth capes for grooving with micrograms? Later on into the 1970s, after growing up with Archie Bunker, we became disciples of Carlos Castaneda, studying the ancient wisdom of the New Age, or wishing for rides with little green guys of the third kind. And don’t forget our cousins the Jesus Freaks, Hari Krishnas and Moonies who chanted about the transformation of Earth into Heaven.

Is it too much to say that the Baby Boomers wanted transcendence? Why weren’t us boomer guys not satisfied with putting on our Brooks Brothers uniforms and marching in time to the nine to five? Why weren’t our sisters, the boomer gals, so unsatified with wearing stockings and bras and staying at home to be queens for a day every day with Donna Reid?

There is always reality. Meridith Grey cannot fly or make McDreamy disappear with a twitch of her nose, even though she has a nose that reminds me of Samatha. And are the post boomer generations any different from the boomers. Hiro is our kind of guy. During Christmas I listened to my nephew, an Iraqi vet, talk fondly of the golden age of television cartoons, waxing nostalgic with his brothers over favorite episodes of The Transformers. I kept my mouth shut and just listened, but I was thinking, no way man, The Flintsones and Jetsons were the golden age of cartoons. Yet, it didn’t go unnoticed that the next generation wanted to fly too.

Scientific American Questions Ethanol

Last summer brought many stories about the success of ethanol in Brazil during the times gasoline prices were peaking in the U.S. My hopes for the future were boosted by those reports, but the January, 2007 issue of Scientific American has brought me back down to reality. Matthew L. Wald reports in “Is Ethanol for the Long Haul?” that the numbers don’t add up for E85, the ethanol/gasoline mixture planned for flex fuel cars. Ethanol made from sugar cane and cheap labor may be economically sound in South America, but ethanol made from corn, expensive labor, and fossil fuels, will probably not be a practical choice. Nor is ethanol made from corn more environmental friendly than gasoline.

Ethanol made from various cellulose sources, including corn stalks, have a better chance of being an economic alternative to gasoline, but the technology has not be perfected yet. It’s a complex issue. If you grow corn just to convert it into ethanol, all the production costs have to be considered in its comparison to gasoline. If you grow corn for food, and then consider the stalks a byproduct, they can play with the books and make cellulose ethanol look like a better value. It takes a lot of fossil fuels to make and distribute ethanol, so the gain in freedom from the Middle East might be a desert mirage. If we used all the corn we grow for ethanol it will only replace seven percent of gasoline usage. There are more sources for cellulose, so it has a better chance at helping us get off the gasoline addiction.

What bothers me is the attitude that we want an alternative fuel to allow us to live in the same manner we do now. Car companies are showing flex fuel SUVs. The real reality we have to face is driving cars very different from what we drive now, and I don’t think Americans are ready for that. Just think, making cars more efficient by seven percent, which is easy enough to do, could replace the whole concept of corn based ethanol. Making cars twice as efficient would stretch oil supplies twice as long. The key immediate solution here is conservation and efficiency – not alternative fuels. Given time we should be able to perfect an alternate source of personal transportation energy, but I don’t think that time will be short.

This is the last day of 2006 and I marvel at living in the future. When I was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s I thought the 1980s was the future, and the years after 2000 would be amazingly futuristic. And there have been lots of amazing changes, but I’m also surprised how so much has stayed the same. There are more people and cars, more technology and wealth, but people and their basic habits seem the same. Our television shows, if broadcast to 1950s TV antennas, would shock the Ozzie and Harriette watching nation, but they would understand everything and recognize the common basic human motivations and instincts.

Real change to help the economy and environment will have to come from leadership at the White House. I think the President will have to ask America to make sacrifices like they did during World War II. And I think making real changes in how we live with the enviornment will eventually bring about a new kind of prosperity. Looking for energy substitutes that allow us to continue living in our energy wasteful ways that hurt the enviornment are not good solutions.

There are thinkers out there that see other solutions, like Rocky Mountain Institute. I’d like to think that by 2027 many of these ideas would be in place, and it would be the dazzling future I expected the future to be when I was a kid.