Sunday, October 7, 2012

Infinite Potential

I love having an autumn birthday.  A birthday is a great time for self-assessment.  And autumn is a great metaphor for inevitable decay.  Getting intimate with my own mortality at a time of year when my entire habitat is shutting down to hibernate and go numb has made me the existentialist powerhouse I am today.  Yes I did just take a couple of 8-hour courses in CPR & first aid, so yes it’s on the front burner, but even aside from that, how does one live in the Northland and not think often of death?  I don’t mean that in a morbid way, but every October I watch my garden wither, and well, I’m used to it.  And I know in the spring when new plants come they won’t be the same plants, but they will offer the same fruit by the 4th of July.  It’s not sad when they finish producing, it just means I need to get out the canning kettle.  We are tilting away from the sun, and it’s about to get cold for a while.
Sometimes on a September morning on the bus, if the sky to the east over the river has the right light and the right mixture of low Stratus and high Cirrus clouds, I begin to think about infinity.  When I look at the clouds and think of the enormity of things, I am sometimes over-awed.  I have to look away because it is just too vast to comprehend.  I look down at the skyline of the city I love, and the small scale makes sense.  I can see the building where I work from the bus, and this is a comfort.  I am headed toward a warm tower where I have created my own world.  The clouds above are not gigantic quivering pools in the infinite sky, but just a backdrop.  They are decoration behind the tangible play that is my life.  The building where I work is 792 feet tall.  I work in the basement (or concourse), about 16 feet below street level.  The parking ramp goes down three more levels, so I would guess all told that adds another sixty feet at most to the overall height.  When I walk through the dock from the tower to my office, I see these giant concrete columns, and they enclose steel beams.  Beams that are around nine-hundred feet long.  That’s .17 miles.  That’s a long piece of steel.  But I can make sense of it.  I’ve been to both ends of it.  I work at the bottom, and I’ve eaten (and served) holiday brunches at the top.  It’s a long elevator ride, but I can fit it in my head.  When I see a jet contrail against an orange sky, that’s sometimes 36,000 feet in the air.  That’s almost seven miles.  Think of something seven miles away from you on the surface of the earth, and try to imagine seeing it from where you are.  Imagine everything that exists between you and it isn’t there – that’s just space.  Seven miles is a longer distance than you think it is.  To put it differently, it takes roughly 45 seconds to get from the basement to the 50th floor, but imagine that times forty-five to get to 36K ft.  That’s a really long elevator ride.  Thirty-three and a half minutes of express elevator.  On top of this mindfuck, there are clouds that you can see up to eight times further away than that.  Not to mention the satellites blinking cheerfully as they traverse the night sky.  They are barely clinging to Earth’s gravity.  I sometimes think I’ll understand the scale of the universe better once I die.  Once I’m not trying to fathom eternity, but rather am a part of it, it may all be clearer to me.
Neil Armstrong recently died.  He is the fourth moon-walker to leave us, of twelve.  His peers were all born in the 1930’s, and soon there will be no one left alive who went to the moon.  That’s weird – it’s like old Tolkien-esque fantasy books, where there’s this mythical land that’s been mapped and explored, but no one alive has seen it, and no one can recall how to get to it.
It made me think about our collective lore a little.  What is lore?  It’s wisdom passed down generationally, or the fundamental narrative of a people, no?  A people, of course, is the collective description of a person.  It is like a school of fish or a murder of crows. More than that though, it is a tribe or a nation – it is a group of persons who all share a similar origin story.  The words, ideas, and solutions to problems may be different, debatable, or even diametrically opposed, but the frameworks in which the texts are built are the same.
Name a common exclamation of frustration when someone can’t accomplish something because of a technological shortfall.  I’d bet that by “Family Feud” rules, the phrase “we can put a man on the (God-damned) moon, but we can’t _____!” would be on the board.  The moon, and the fact that our peers have been there, is such an inherent part of our culture that I can’t even imagine someone coming back and saying, “Wait – can we put a man on the moon?”  A man on the moon is the concrete model of an abstract American Ingenuity that still exists, and still drives us to strive.  It’s the original MTV logo, for Christ’s sake.
So we went to the moon.  So what?  Well, for one thing, it is one of the oldest recurring characters in our discourse.  If you want to wax poetic about it, it has gazed down upon every moment of our history, yet it has always been out of our reach.  The very concept of flying through space to reach it is kind of absurd.  Can you blame the ancients for anthropomorphizing it as a god?
The peak of Everest is one thing.  You’re still standing on the planet where you originated.  The bottom of the ocean is one thing.  You couldn’t live there, and there are a lot of hostile conditions between you and home, but you’re still standing (submarining) on the planet where you originated.  When you stand on the moon the hostile conditions between you and home are literally nothing.  There is an actual lifeless void between you and the place that made you.  And you’re outside of its gravitational pull.
It is weird for me to think of all the moon-walkers being gone because it’s not like in my family when my mom says, “Grandpa came from Vermont,” and none of my cousins have been there.  There is a road between Vermont and me, and if I wanted to go there, all I’d need is a long weekend.  If no one remains who has been to the moon though, we actually do lose some real experience, via collective memory, that we can’t get back.  That road closes, and the moon passes into our history.  But I’ve seen enough 1960’s TV to know that the moon has always been our future, not our past.  The popculturephile in me cries out against this relegation of the moon to some musty academic “seen it,” but a certain voice in the back of my head tells me it doesn’t really matter.  On a larger scale, we can lose the voices that came back from the moon, but we can never lose the knowledge gained from the moon trips, or any other space explorations. 
Speaking of enormous distances, remember the Pale Blue Dot?  Dr. Carl Sagan’s single pixel of light is an actual photograph of our entire world in its greater context.  That is what I think of sometimes in the morning on the bus.  Because I am in that photograph.  And if you were born before 1990, so are you.  I was likely riding my bike with my friend Jon to Krinke’s Korner Grocery in New Brighton, or building one of a dozen or so tree forts in the forests of Arden Hills.  But I’m on that tiny blue speck living my life in that photo, just like the boy hustling in the streets of Santo Domingo is in that photo.  Just like the girl fishing a Norwegian fjord is in that photo, and like the old man hunting in the jungles of the Congo is in that photo.  And if you zoom out on that photo, there is no way to tell what time of year it is on Earth.  For the record, it was taken between March and June of 1990, so springtime in the northern hemisphere.  On half of that blue dot the days were getting longer.  On the other half, they were tilting away from the sun, and it was about to get cold for a while.

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