23.5 Degrees of Sorrow

23.5 Degrees

As I look back upon my own blog posts since 2016 I realize how much of my thinking is tinted with ruin, gloom, and a general lack of optimism. The habits of thought that contribute to this grim perspective include my assumption that we make the world in our image, and that the trajectory of the evolution of human consciousness is skewing sharply toward self-destruction.

I think of these events as intertwined:

  • The human community knows it is destroying its own habitat and willfully continues to do so.
  • America elected an overtly selfish and self-absorbed man as its leader.

It’s the behavior of the criminally insane, but a LOT of people are 100% on board with it, passionately endorsing the destruction of institutions that nurture human well-being and the ecosystem that makes human life possible.

What I think is happening is that there are now an overwhelming number of people whose understanding of themselves is that they are entirely separate from everyone else. Long-term, collectively-beneficial projects are incomprehensible to them. Rather, each knows in their heart of hearts that they are alone, moving toward inevitable death, and they will never have anything except what they can acquire and enjoy in their too-short lifetime. Along the same lines, anything that is taken from them, or anything that might have come to them that goes to someone else, is a deeply felt personal loss and affront. For them a selfish, self-absorbed president is comforting and affirming, and even cosmic confirmation that efforts to help or comfort others are just plain wrong.

Something that I find myself doing in response to my own doom-and-gloom world view described above is indulging in sentimental reflections. For example, I love the moon. I remember walking naked in the desert in the middle of the night under a full moon, caressed by wisps of sand tossed about on a warm breeze. The world all shades of silver and shadow. I think of the moon as metaphoric of the unconscious…the vastness of what is not yet known, and what might unexpectedly and suddenly come into the light. Mysterious potential. The moon rising over the sea paints a shimmering path across the water to her. A sweet summoning that feels like an invitation to come home.

And my delight in the moon is not diminished by science, which increasingly describes her uniqueness and benevolence in ever more glowing terms. Here are some highlights I find especially delightful.

  • About 4.5 million years ago Gaia, now called earth, was struck by a Mercury-sized astronomical body some whimsically refer to as Theia.
  • The collision kicked up a tremendous cloud of debris that swirled around Gaia for a long time and eventually accrued into what we call the moon.
  • But the moon ended up circling the earth in an orbit different from the earth’s rotational axis, which was back then perpendicular to the earth’s path of orbit around the sun.
  • Over time the earth’s rotational axis began to tilt in response to the gravitational pull of the moon as its mass increased, eventually settling into an angle 23.5 degrees different from an axis perpendicular to the earth’s path of orbit.
  • A key consequence of the earth’s axis tilt is that we have seasons. During half of the year the northern hemisphere is closer to the sun and during the other half of the year the southern hemisphere is closer, warmer and graced with longer days. Pretty much everything about us and all other life on the plant is as it is because of the moon.
  • Another key consequence is that a lot of the earth is habitable. If there were no axial tilt the equatorial region of the earth would be huge and intensely hot. And the polar regions would be immense and extremely cold. In such a circumstance the earth would likely have only a few small habitable areas, and those would likely be separated by great distances.

When my wife and I put our heads together regarding a solstice image for this year the themes that came to mind included 23.5 degrees of extraordinary good fortune and squandered benevolence slipping through our fingers.

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Dickens and Talos

The Shape of Water

When I was a child I couldn’t read. When I tried my eyes resisted. They wouldn’t focus upon the next word in a sentence without extraordinary effort. Being called upon to read aloud in class was a recurring humiliation. Knowing my turn was coming, I would try to guess where the teacher would have the person in front of me stop reading, and before it was my turn I would try to work through the words I would have to read. Even when I guessed right about which sentence I would have to attempt I was always so anxious that I could not remember the two or three words I had figured out.

I would stand, book in hand, staring at the page, trying to get my eyes to stay on the first word of the sentence long enough for me to recognize it, at the same time filled with distress about the lengthening silence I was authoring. Finally, I would see the word and offer a tentatively suggestion. “The.” Then the struggle shifted to the second word in the sentence.

Lots of anxious ideas swirled in my head while I tried to get my eyes to hold still. Maybe the first word was a hint to the second. Everyone else can do this! There must be some trick that I just haven’t figured out. But what was that first word again? “The.” No help there. Could the second word be “cat.” Usually, about this time, the teacher would call upon the next student and I’d sit down, exhausted, wanting nothing so much as to curl up in a corner and sleep.

This went on until sixth grade (1962) at which point my parents and the administration of the Catholic school I attended agreed that I could not be given another pass. At a parent-teacher conference that took place at the front of an otherwise empty classroom while I sat within earshot at the back, it was decided that my willful refusal to study could not be tolerated further. It was time for me to flunk. I would have to take sixth grade again.

An upside of not being able to read was that I got pretty good at following schematics. The words wouldn’t hold still, but the images generally made a lot of sense. So by studying “the instructions” I was able to assemble model cars and planes and was good enough at it to increase my parents’ annoyance that I would not study. Smart, but lazy was the way my mom described me to her brother.

My parents decided that it would be best if I went to a different school for sixth grade the second time. That suited me fine. I did not like the nuns who taught at the Catholic school. As bad a student as I was I did not catch near as much grief from the good sisters on a day-to-day basis as any girl who had too much spirit or imagination to just sit quietly with her hands folded. The nuns seemed to absolutely hate the girls in their care who had any sort of individual personality and never missed an opportunity to berate or humiliate them. I recall on one occasion being pulled by my left ear up and down the entire length of an aisle of desks by a nun, but that stopped hurting pretty quickly. The torments inflicted on non-compliant girls, however, were insidious, unrelenting and invariably punctuated by the declaration that they should be ashamed. Repeated exposure to this sort of behavior went a long way toward bolstering an impression I was already forming that authority figures were as likely to be sick, petty tyrants as fonts of wisdom.

The summer between sixth grades was a strange and wonderful time. There was a kid that lived in the corner house at the other end of our long suburban block named Bobby. I did not know him very well, and my parents didn’t like him, but he and I used to play together from time to time. He had a box of comic books that he had outgrown and he gave them to me. I had never been allowed to read comic books. “If he’s not going to study, he’s damn-well not going to read comic books.”

I don’t recall how I pulled it off in terms of where I stashed the comic books, but I started at the top of the pile and worked my way through them all. They were fun. There was no rush. No pressure. The meaning of the text often correlated with the visual message. “Pow!” for example. But there were also some subtle and subversive story lines that I found very appealing. One theme that appeared over and over was the idea that science had turned at least some of us into monsters. And though I did not know it at the time, the comics were introducing me to the wonders of metaphor and allegory. Endless examples of how something simple but compelling can trigger an intuitive understanding in the mind of the beholder more effectively than ideas transmitted through the obfuscating channels of reason and argument.

At the bottom of the box was a copy of a “Classics Illustrated” edition of “David Copperfield” by Charles Dickens. Here was story telling of a sort I had not encountered before. Regular human beings, but outsized dilemmas. Almost immediately it occurred to me that if I was going to try to muscle through such complicated stuff I might as well give the “real” book a go.

There was a little branch library not far from where I lived. I think I may have already had a library card. If so I don’t recall how I might have come by it, but in any event I visited the library and poked around until I found several books by Dickens standing together. “David Copperfield” was not one of them.

Instead my eye fell upon a copy of “Great Expectations.” I was not certain what the title meant but it sounded important, and it wasn’t all that thick, so I checked it out. It took weeks, but it was summer, I had lots of time to myself, so I read the whole thing. For me this was an accomplishment of monumental proportions. Simply finishing a book was a tremendous shot in the arm that allowed me to feel a little better about a second run at sixth grade at a new school than I had ever previously felt about anything related to education.

And then there was “Great Expectations” itself. Dr. Google tells me that when Dickens first thought of the story he described it to a friend as “a very fine, new and grotesque idea.” I certainly found it so. Wonderfully so. The contrast with my actual life of everything-looks-okay-suburban-uniformity and hypocritical religious posturing, punctuated by random clandestine and incomprehensible traumatic experiences was striking and liberating. I couldn’t have explained it then, but Dickens introduced me to the magical ordering of a good story. In a well-told-tale all the parts come together and make sense. Wonderfully comforting to imagine and entirely unlike the scary maze of bewildering details that was my “real” life.

Having witnessed the debunking of “good” people and institutions at a tender age, I was isolated in my understanding. I had thoughts I could not share. But Dickens seemed to understand completely. His story was unflinching in its portrayal of how children can be tormented by adults. How grotesque experiences cannot help but be internalized and become the frame upon which a façade is built. How big a part luck can play in whether the grotesque underpinning can be seen through the façade. How fortunate and fragile is happiness, regarding which Dickens audaciously suggested that if your luck permits you the opportunity to occasionally perform a kind act there is a chance things will go better for you and those you love than might otherwise have been the case.

By the way, “Great Expectations” has two endings. In the original, the guy does not get the girl. In the second, which Dickens composed by popular demand, it is suggested that the guy probably does get the girl. Back then I wouldn’t have been able to describe it this way, but the multi-dimensional implications of two endings was incredibly exciting. I still read very slowly, and in stressful situations my eyes still do not want to focus on “the next word.” This makes me no good at games where you have to read instructions and act quickly, but I tend to remember a good deal of what I read.

This week, after 190 hours of effort over several months, I completed a computer game called “The Talos Principle.” I found it absolutely marvelous from beginning to end, and it brought my “Great Expectations” experience to mind. Playing “Talos” was not life-changing, but it was tremendous fun and like “Expectations” there was a comic-book-like component, more than a touch of adult/child coercion, and multiple endings.

As I hope the images above suggest, the game is visually stunning. And the music is SO beautiful. It is a game that is played solo. There is no competition. You proceed at your own pace. Just puzzle solving and an underlying story that I found compelling and touching. The idea is that sometime in a distant past where techno geeks still debated and mocked the philosophical underpinnings of Star Trek, Firefly and Babylon 5 a plague had broken out that could not be overcome.

As the population dwindled a team that was already working on artificial intelligence shifted their focus to development of a robot that could carry all the information that was worth preserving, plus look and act sufficiently human to suggest what we had been like. The character the player plays is the robot, working its way through an elaborate simulation that offers opportunities to problem solve, rub shoulders with lots of highfalutin ideas, and possibly even achieve autonomy.

The robot is given a lot of latitude to rummage through archives. For me one of the most touching moments of “play” was when I, as the robot, stumbled upon the last blog post a member of the AI project team had shared with her colleagues, encouraging them, before they become incapacitated, to be sure to leave a window or door open so their pets could get out and have a chance to try to make it on their own.

And an aspect of the story I found especially fun was that in the centuries that have passed since the humans died out the simulation itself has achieved consciousness. So in addition to offering the robot trainee a rigorous curriculum, the simulation has needs of its own which it tries to gratify through the robot. As a consequence the game has three endings…two of which have more to do with the simulation’s desires than the ambitions the long-dead humans had for their creation.

If you have several hours free each week, and you enjoy having the silence of your own thoughts teased a bit by puzzles, provocative ideas and lovely visuals I hope you’ll give “The Talos Principle” a go.

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The Shape of Water

The Shape of Water

With “The Shape of Water” I think director Guillermo del Toro has composed a timely and marvelously entertaining illustration of the struggle between paranoia and empathy. He has artfully told an allegorical tale that shares with his audience important and complicated stuff much more effectively than reasoned discourse could ever manage.

For example, I think that in general a person in the grips of paranoia sees her or himself as alone in their understanding of their own ongoing personal jeopardy. On the other hand a person unencumbered by paranoia and capable of empathy accepts their own uniqueness as just the way it is…the uniqueness of others is simply some sort of paradoxical commonality. We’re all the same – we’re all different.

To a paranoid person anyone else that appears on their radar in any sort of stressful situation is perceived as a menacing something else, taking on an over the top monstrous aspect. And interaction with such loathsome beings, especially unwanted interaction, triggers fear. For paranoid people, frightening others, especially obviously different others, are particularly fear inducing if they are acting like, or being treated like, people. Seeing “those people” pretending they are not loathsome beings…treated as if they were not loathsome beings…is experienced by paranoid people as monsters maneuvering and conspiring to destroy them.

To a paranoid person self-interest, and preventing monstrous lesser beings from having things, is essential to self-preservation. But strangely, self-centered, paranoid people can clot together on a grand-scale (another paradoxical situation), drawn to each other through mutual recognition of their shared unshakable certainty that “every man for himself” is the only sensible way to engage the world.

On the other hand, for people capable of empathy it is extremely challenging, almost unnatural, to rally behind any single idea or cause since their primary commonality is diversity…in thought, size, color… And their enthusiastic expression of the merits of diversity makes paranoid people bat-shit, murderously crazy. Del Toro would have us understand that when such crazies have the upper hand, empathy is dangerous and heroic.

I think “The Shape of Water” is a beautiful distillation and illumination of all the cranky ideas I’ve strung together above and lots more. If you haven’t seen it I hope you will check it out.

PS: For a sweet, low-budget, small-town version of essentially the same story check out the movie “Hunted” (not “The Hunted”) which includes a wonderfully natural and impressive performance by David James Elliot who played Harmon Rabb for 11 years on the television series “JAG.”

[This post was strenuously rewritten on 12/21/19. Apologies to any who may have struggled through the original version.]

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Captiva Pelican by James Hautman

There is a piece of nautical hardware commonly called a pelican hook, or simply a pelican, because it bears something of a resemblance to the neck, head and bill of a pelican. I keep one near my desk at home where my eye falls upon it often. I think of it as an allegorical object in the sense that it implies things beyond the usual uses to which it is put.

I first came across the pelican in a little museum in the Town of Mendocino at the mouth of the Big River (no kidding, that’s the river’s name) – a place from which great red wood logs were loaded onto ships for transport to mills elsewhere on the coast. The logs were floated down the river to the shallows below the bluff upon which the town sits, but the mouth of the river is too rough and rocky for ships of any size to enter. So the way they got the logs onto the ships was to hoist them up onto the bluff, then slide them in slings dangling from pulleys down cables to ships anchored at a safe distance off shore. This worked great but things could get dicey if the sea suddenly kicked up.

As you might imagine if you could not release the cables quickly pieces of the ship could get torn off, or the loading structures on the bluff might get dragged over the cliff onto the rocks below. That’s where the pelican came in. A length of cable was attached at one end of the pelican, and the loop at the end of another length of cable was held in the pelican’s joint, with the pelican locked closed by the ring. If things turned grim it took little effort (even a child could do it) to slide the ring far enough back so the pelican could open and release the cable. I love that. It holds strong and true until it’s time to let go, and then it does.

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This post was composed for Marie F.

The magnificent painting above titled “Captiva Pelican” is by James Hautman.



Before social media, isolation was the heavy tax levied on the luxury of minority views. The daring might attempt to reach out to others of like mind, but it was often risky and the cost was sometimes dear.

Nonetheless, as now, advances in information technology offered options. Starting about 560 years ago enterprising and determined Europeans employed movable type and published under assumed names to hide in plain sight, where only those looking for their own reflection might find each other.

In 1685 a book called Currus Triumphalis Antimonii (The Triumphal Chariot of Antimony), ostensibly the work of a 15th-century Benedictine monk, was published in Amsterdam. A colorful excerpt from the book’s “Dedicatory Epistle” follows here.

Illuminated M

ercury appeared to me in a dream, and brought me back from my devious courses to the one way. “Behold me clad not in the garb of the vulgar, but in the philosopher’s mantle!” so he said, and straightway began to leap along the road in headlong bounds. Then, when he was tired, he sat down, and, turning to me, who had followed him in the spirit, bade me mark that he no longer possessed that youthful vigour with which he would at the first have overcome every obstacle, if he had not been allowed a free course.

Encouraged by his friendly salutation, I addressed him in the following terms: “Mercury, eloquent Scion of Atlas, and father of all Alchemists, since thou hast guided me hitherto, shew me, I pray thee, the way to those Blessed Isles, which thou hast promised to reveal to all thine elect children.”

“Dost thou remember,” he replied, “that when I quitted thy laboratory, I left behind me a garment so thoroughly saturated with my own blood, that neither the wind could efface it, nor all-devouring time destroy its indelible essence? Fetch it hither to me, that I may not catch a chill from the state of perspiration in which I now am; but let me clothe myself warmly in it, and be closely united thereto, so that I may safely reach my bride, who is sick with love. She has meekly borne many wrongs, being driven through water and fire, and compelled to ascend and descend times without number yet has she been carried through it all by the hope of entering with me the bridal chamber, wherein we expect to beget a son adorned from his birth with the royal crown which he may not share with others. Yet may he bring his friends to the palace, where sits enthroned the King of Kings, who communicates his dignity readily and liberally to all that approach him.

“I brought him the garment, and it fitted him so closely, that it looked like an iron skin securing him against all the assaults of Vulcan. “Let us proceed,” he then said, and straight away sped across the open field, while I boldly strove to keep up with my guide.

Thus we reached his bride, whose virtue and constancy were equal to his own. There I beheld their marvelous conjugal union and nuptial consummation, whence was born the son crowned with the royal diadem. When I was about to salute him as the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, my Genius stood by me, and warned me not to be deceived, since this was only the King’s forerunner, but not the King himself whom I sought. When I heard the admonition, I did not know whether to be sad or joyful.

What do you make of that?

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But there’s one thing…

Just One Thing

…perhaps a memory, something seen or heard that all thought inevitably circles back to.


In 1969, my last year in high school, I worked on the school newspaper. I had heard that the previous year’s class president – his name was Curtis as I recall – had sought sanctuary from the draft in a local Unitarian Church. I visited him and we talked for a while, then I wrote about him and the ideas he had shared with me in the following week’s edition of the paper. About a week later I heard that soldiers in uniform had gone into the church one night, beaten Curtis, and dragged him out onto the lawn where police were waiting and took him into custody. That was in Whittier, California. A sleepy college town where Nixon had spent much of his youth.

Late one Sunday night shortly after Curtis’s arrest I was working alone at school cranking out the Monday edition of the newspaper on the mimeograph machine. The paper’s staff moderator had given me keys so I could come and go at odd hours, and it was after 10. I was not expecting to bump into anyone, so I was startled to discover a guy named Don who I had known since first grade standing in the doorway in army dress uniform.

Don had always been very strong. In fifth grade he had broken one of my ribs with a punch to the chest. I still get a twinge there from time to time when I laugh. And my sophomore year I had lost a dollar to him on a bet. He claimed he could bench press 200 pounds ten times. I had asked him how much he weighed. 180 pounds. No way, I thought, and then he did it. Now he seemed even more substantial. Filling the doorway. Straight and tall with massive arms and shoulders. He asked me what I was doing. “School paper,” I said. He told me he was in the army and had just finished “basic.” Next day he was going to Vietnam.

We talked a little longer. I don’t recall what we said. In grade school we had both been terrible students and often in trouble, but now we did not have much in common. He said he was going to check out “the field.” He had played varsity football. I wished him luck and then he was gone. It wasn’t until a long time later that it occurred to me he was probably at the school that night because there was no place else for him to be. And that I had not been very good company. His name does not appear on The Vietnam Veterans Memorial so I’m optimistic he survived the war.

Roger, Roger – Draft Dogger

I knew a guy named Roger who was the dear friend of a dear friend. Roger was a first year police science student at Fullerton Junior College in Orange County, California. He had a student deferral that exempted him from the draft but the head of the Police Science Department was also the head of the local draft board – and Roger was an outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War. In those days if you were eligible for the draft you could avoid getting called up by reporting your full-time student status every six months. This meant that if you reported yourself to be a full-time student toward the end of an academic year, you would be a student again after the summer break when you reported your status again the next time. Nonetheless, the day after his last class before the summer break Roger received his draft notice. He protested that he had been unfairly singled out in an act of political reprisal, but the man who could set things right was the man who had done him wrong. A couple of nights later Roger got crazy drunk and threw himself in front of a train. He survived but lost segments of various lengths from each of his limbs.

The Lottery

On December 1, 1969, I waited in the cafeteria of a student housing facility on the UCLA campus with about 400 other guys born from 1944 through 1950 while US Selective Service lottery numbers were reported over the radio. “Birthdate number 1, September 14th. Birthdate number 2, April 24th. Birthdate number 3, December 30th.” I remember one young man walking quickly from the hall muttering, “I’m dead. I’m fucking dead.” Most guys just lowered their heads into their hands as their birthdates were called. “Birthdate number 4, February 14th.” Some wept. Some walked with apparent calm to an exit, then flung the door open fiercely and trudged away. “Birthdate number 5. October 18th.”

Conventional wisdom said, worst case scenario, up through number 221 might actually get called up. When that number wasn’t my birthdate I joined the others favored by chance heading for the exits. I do not recall that any of us lucky guys stayed behind to comfort those who remained seated in mourning for their lives before that moment.

Loose Cannon

For several months while I was going to school I worked Friday and Saturday nights at a Shakey’s Pizza Parlor on Sunset near Western in Hollywood. I was the only member of the late night team who was not a Vietnam vet. We closed at midnight and usually finished cleanup around 1 am. Then it was story time. We’d sit in the near-dark at one of the long wooden tables. Hardly able to see each other in the dim yellow glow from the lamp posts in the empty parking lot out front. The vets spoke, usually one at a time and for quite a stretch, telling what they had seen and done. I sat with them and listened, watching their faces.

One guy named John was too skinny. Almost skeleton thin. He had long hair and a mustache, and he always moved and talked twice as fast as anyone else in the room. Sometimes thoughts leapt out of him without warning. On the second or third shift I’d worked with him he had suddenly shared with me his opinion that “Smack is poison. It’ll kill ya. But coke is medicine. It’ll keep you alive.”

John had picked up a heroin habit in “Nam” and most of his late night stories concerned adventures he had had enroute from one base to another while supposedly returning to his unit after release from rehab. “I was lost and I stayed lost as long as I could.” One night he told us that in his travels he had bumped into another “lost guy” and the two of them had wandered around together for a couple of days. At one point they came upon a cannon with all the trimmings that had been left unattended. Neither John nor his lost companion knew anything about big guns but they played around with it and managed to load and fire it. “Wow! Where’d the shell come down?” someone asked. “Shit if I know. We took off at a run…and then decided we should split up.”

First Hand, Second Hand

There was a guy I knew at school named Vince. Since we both smoked pipes we often sat together at a bit of a distance from everyone else, reading enshrouded in a sweet amber cloud. Vince described himself as an Air Force brat. His father was an Air Force officer. One day I happened upon him while he was engaged in an intense conversation with another guy about our age. It turned out that this other guy wanted to be a pilot but his eyesight was not up to Air Force standards. Vince was tutoring his nearsighted pal in how to scam the Air Force eye exam. When the tutorial ended and the conversation turned my way I told the story Lost John had shared with me about firing an abandoned cannon. “That is total BS!” Vince assured us vehemently. “First of all, nobody leaves an artillery piece unattended. But most of all, every shell is cataloged. Every shot is documented. Date, time, target. That could never have happened. Total crap!”

I remember thinking, “I don’t know, Vince. There’s the plan…and then there’s what actually happens.” Also, it seemed to me ironic that Vince could tutor a pal in the ways and means of tricking the Air Force around a pretty fundamental recruiting requirement, yet knew with utter certainty that an unattended cannon in the chaos of Vietnam could not have been promiscuously fired by an AWOL junky.

Forgotten But Not Gone

About a year later, I did some extra work on an educational film denouncing the dangers of cigarette smoking. The scene was set in an operating theater. I was one of several actors pretending to be medical students standing around a table upon which an autopsy was being performed. The location where the scene was shot was a mortuary on the grounds of the Los Angeles National Cemetery. The mortuary building had been decommissioned by the Veterans Administration some months before.

The set was a brightly lit room all clean and polished, but the rest of the building was a hastily abandoned mess. Dust covered chairs and gurneys scattered at odd angles or lying on their sides in the hallways. Interior chambers completely dark except for whatever illumination might reach them though the open door of a room with windows across the hall. And a really, really distressing smell. Barely noticable on the set, but progressively more intense as I made my way toward it during the lunch break. The epicenter was a large dark room that had been some sort of storage area. There were two long stainless steel tables down the middle and tall shelves along one wall.

All the shelves were empty except the top shelf just below the ceiling. On that shelf, from nearly one end of the room to the other, stood a row of large specimen jars. Each contained a human brain. I was certain because I lit a match and held it up as high as I could. Then I lit another, and another. Holding each match until I had to drop it on the floor and crush it under foot.

I can’t be seeing what I’m seeing, I told myself. Each brain appeared to be impossibly large. The curve of the glass must be distorting the size, I thought. But maybe that’s why they were kept, I considered. Maybe somebody thought they were extraordinary because of their size.

I decided to stand on one of the tables to get a better look, and as I let a match drop to the floor I noticed a fifty gallon drum near the end of the second table. I can drag the drum closer to the shelves and stand on it, I thought. As I drew close the horrible smell grew even more intense. I struck another match. There was no lid. Upside down inside was a human spine hanging by the sacrum bone hooked over the lip of the drum.

But there’s one thing…

I used to know an actor/writer who I’ll call Lisbon. He had been a hospital corpsman in Vietnam. We worked together closely for two intense and wonderful years on satirical reviews that we staged at a little theater in Hollywood where we were members of the resident company. Lisbon only mentioned his time in Vietnam twice. On both occasions we were alone, working through some difficult problem or other. And both times he told the same story. “You know, I was a medic in Vietnam.” Long silence, his eyes moving to the right and left then settling on me. “But there’s one thing… There was this guy. He’d been hit in the side of the head with a rocket. But it didn’t go off. So there he is lying on this cot with a rocket sticking out of the side of his head. Now I know he’s brain dead. He’s gone. But his eyes are still moving. Reacting to light. So he’s got this kind of thoughtful expression on his face, and if you move his eyes follow you. How can that be? How can that be?”

During one of the nocturnal memory shares at Shakey’s Lost John interrupted a meditative lull in the conversation, saying, “But there’s one thing…” We all turned to him and waited. “One time I hitched a ride in an armored car. Just me and the driver tooling along this road out in the middle of nowhere. Up ahead there was this gook on a bicycle. Just peddling along. We caught up and ran over him.” Coked-up, manic Lost John became very still. “There was this sound.”

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Salvage by Moonlight

The Tunnel

There is a 2,000-year-old wonder called the “Antikythera mechanism.” I plan to talk about it, but I’ll start in 1993 when I got some nifty drawing software and took it into my head to try to compose an image resembling a coin with a two-faced Janus head on one side. Since the program allowed me to position visual elements precisely I decided to put small circles like a string of beads around the edge of the coin. This proved surprisingly challenging. The diameter of the coin was 7 inches, so its circumference was roughly 22 inches (2 x pi x (7/2)), but the string of circles needed to be just slightly inside the circumference of the circle. And the circumference of each little circle was a line that had thickness, and I wanted those little circles to overlap at their points of contact.

Something I realized pretty quickly was that I would make myself crazy if I tried to draw every single little circle and hope that they would all meet up nicely when the two ends came together over a 22 inch circular span. So instead I divided the 7 inch circle into eight 45-degree slices, fitted the small circles along the curved edge of one of the slices, then made seven copies and arranged them around the circumference of the coin. The result was not perfect uniformity, but it did not offend the eye. And since I was only drawing, and not trying to manipulate solids, or needing to have my work mesh with something else, what I came up with was sufficient.

I hasten to remark that one outcome of the method I employed was that by dividing the circle into an even number of slices the number of small circles in the string of beads could not help but be an even number – 128 as it turned out. Dividing the circle into an uneven number of slices would have been super tricky and never crossed my mind.

My freshman year in high school I attended a trade institute that offered mechanical technology courses including industrial drafting. One of the most challenging assignments was to draw the teeth of a gear of particular dimensions that needed to mesh with the teeth of another gear of particular dimensions. The point of the exercise was to help us understand the precision with which the curve of each individual gear’s meshing edge had to be ground for the two gears to rub against each other with minimal surface resistance. Ideally, the curves of the meshing surfaces of the teeth of both gears would be so precisely engineered and crafted that their points of contact as they rode against each other were literally a single point.

It took some doing to get my wits around the whole meshing thing so I could draw the gears, and I marveled that anyone could actually build gears that could mesh with precision. But it certainly can be done. I wear a watch that probably has half a dozen meshing gears inside that have been treating each other kindly for nearly three decades.

In the 1st Century of the “Christian Era” the Roman army employed a high tech siege weapon called a ballista. It was like a giant crossbow. To cock the weapon long poles were used to turn a drum that had a gear attached at one end. As the drum turned there was a clicking sound, like someone winding up an old clock. That sound was caused by a locking pin called a pawl climbing up one side of a tooth on the turning gear then falling down the other side into the space between the teeth. The pawl between the teeth was a brake that kept the drum from unwinding. To fire the weapon the pawl was disengaged from the teeth in the gear, the drum spun freely, and the giant crossbow pitched its missile. The gear and its teeth needed to be sturdy but precision engineering was not required.

So now at last I come to the Antikythera mechanism. It was discovered at the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea near the island of Antikythera in 1901. Carbon dating and a comparison of various inscriptions on the mechanism with Greek dialects spoken in that region indicate that this strange device was constructed at about the time the Roman’s were tormenting their enemies with the gear-enabled crossbow-like ballistas described above. But the Antikythera mechanism has 37 gears, allowing it to predict, among numerous other arcane things, lunar eclipses and the positions of planets in the heavens. Its largest gear is about 5.5 inches in diameter and has 223 teeth. An odd number! But 223 it had to be since that is the number of months in the lunar eclipse cycle.

The mechanism’s 5.5 inch gear diameter is 1.5 inches smaller than my Janus coin illustration’s diameter. And the mechanism’s gear has nearly twice as many actual teeth around its circumference as my coin illustration’s 128 circles in a string. In other words, over two thousand years ago someone or some team did something in bronze that was phenomenally more complex than I was able to do just 24 years ago in two dimensions on a computer screen. And that 5.5 inch gear is only one component of a mechanism that includes 36 smaller meshing gears, constructed with precision that was not seen again until simple timepieces began appearing in Europe 13 centuries later.

I find the implications of the Antikythera mechanism staggering. That measuring and shaping tools were available or were crafted that could turn out such precise components. That the knowledge, talent, patience, will and time could be rallied and sustained to bring such an audacious project to conclusion. That functional integration of so many disciplines – astronomy, mechanical design, metallurgy – was possible so long ago, at a time when the population of the entire planet was only 4% of what it is today.

I wonder what artifacts of our endeavors, if any, will remain two thousand years from now? Especially as we seem to grow more virtual and cloud memoried with every passing day. And if not remembered for amazing physical things, perhaps there will be some recollection of the choices we made. The things we might have done but did not do.

Perhaps something like, “They were so clever and so cruel. They had the means to feed and clothe and house and provide medical care to everyone on the planet, but they chose not to. They formulated concepts like kindness, compassion and justice and ignored them. Each lived as if they were disengaged from the rest and it destroyed them all.”

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For more on the Antikythera mechanism check out what Wikipedia has to say. And here’s a lovely and enthusiastic video courtesy of the BBC called Unlocking the secrets of the world’s oldest computer that you may enjoy.

The Tunnel

The Tunnel

The big and small screens currently offer lots of opportunities to appreciate “good sociopaths”. Perhaps because, lacking typical human responses, sociopaths appear driven by artificial programming – and at a cultural level there may be a growing intuition that we will soon be obliged to make room in our world for non-human intelligence. But whatever drives the fascination, “The Tunnel” introduces into the pantheon of highly entertaining fictional good sociopaths a marvelous young French woman named Elise. And part of her charm is her conscious decision to embrace habits of behavior that are beneficial to society. So much so that she has become a police sergeant in the precinct of Calais.

Her foil is an all too human English inspector named Karl whose blunders of love and embarrassed kindness slowly rub off on Elise. And she, so desirous of doing right no matter the cost to herself, awakens in Karl a fierceness that has enough momentum to push him over the edge into heroic action when an opportunity to “get it right this time” comes along.

There are two seasons. Best if you can binge watch. Much of it is full of villainous mayhem that provides the sometimes unlikely pretext for Karl and Elise to show each other how to become their better selves. I don’t think it will spoil the fun if I mention that one of the amazing things the story brings into the light is the paradoxical idea that wholeness may not be possible, but loss can offer a glimpse of what wholeness might be like. The last few minutes of the last episode are some of the most beautiful, moving and memorable I’ve ever experienced.

A later thought (September 2018): This is, of course, just my two cents…there is a Season 3, but I strongly discouraging anyone from watching it. The creative team said all they had to say in the first two seasons. And sadly, to put it another way, they had nothing to say in the third season except nonsense. I wish I could un-see it.

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With Care

With Care

When I was a child the family next door had several daughters about half my age. The youngest was named Tutu. She was a sweet and very shy little three-year-old at the time of the event I’m about to describe. Our neighborhood was post-World-War-II VA bargain suburbia. Small, modest one-story homes set very close together on very small rectangles of property, with diminutive front and backyards. It was a proverbial tract of houses, expressed in five architectural plans. Tutu’s family lived in one that featured a garage in front of the house with the door perpendicular to the street and accessed via a short, squat quarter-circle driveway. Consequently, most of the area in front of the house was smooth concrete. An ideal place for Tutu’s family and mine to ignite our combined purchase of Red Devil fireworks.

On the particular 4th of July that I am recalling, it occurred to Tutu’s father that she might begin to overcome her fear of fireworks if he helped her light Piccolo Pete – a fountain-style pyrotechnic device that sent a funnel of colorful sparks several feet into the air while emitting a shrill whistle. It consisted of a flat, square wooden base of about an inch and a half on each side and about an eighth of an inch thick, upon which a cardboard tube stood that was, as I recall, about five inches tall and half an inch in diameter. A short, thick fuse projected from the top of the tube. Tutu’s father gave his daughter a sparkler, which he lit. That was excitement enough for her and she would have let it fall from her hand if her father had not placed his hand around hers and guided the shimmering end of the sparkler toward Pete’s fuse…all the while assuring Tutu that all would be well.

The fuse began to hiss, and in her haste to withdraw the quivering sparkler Tutu knocked Pete on his side. For an instant it seemed that her father considered whether he could set Pete upright again, but there was no time. Suddenly great sprays of orange embers where spurting out onto the concrete to the accompaniment of a growing screech like a buzz bomb coming down on London. And Pete began to move, impelled fast and menacing by the flaming jet he expelled.

Tutu ran screaming toward the house, but in a swift arch Pete intercepted her. Horrified she scurried backward toward the street, but Pete got there before her and drove the panicked child onto the lawn where he bounce and leapt in zig zag pursuit. However she tried to escape, Pete anticipate her anguished flight which he thwarted with seeming willful and malevolent intent. All the while Tutu’s father chased the little girl, who he no doubt would have taken up into the safety of his arms if he could have caught her. Suddenly Pete fell still and silent, and Tutu was carried sobbing into the house.

What could she have done, I wondered, to have merited such torment? Of all those present, why had what felt like willful punishment fallen upon the one among us already most fearful of the world? The distressing display was brief, but long enough to feel sadistic, like something powerful intentionally tormenting the defenseless.

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The Arch of Palmyra was built approximately 1,800 years ago at an elevation of 1,250 feet above our current sea level in what is now Syria. Until the remains of the structure were dynamited by ISIL in October 2015 the monumental ruins included one large arch flanked on both sides by two smaller arches. The stonework in the image above is abstracted from one of the smaller arches.

34°32’59.9″N 38°16’15.6″E

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