Monday, January 28, 2013

Disappearing Moments: Letters Lost in a Digital Age

The clatter of a few keystrokes, the click of a mouse, the tap of  a finger on the glowing screen, are all it takes to record something in an electronic form. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, Pinterest, (as well as their forerunners like MySpace), have made sharing photos, graphics, information, events, opinions, ideas, and memories utterly simple. The time it takes to share something is immeasurable against the time it takes to write, to paint, to photograph, to create what is being shared. We, as Americans -and indeed, most of those around the world- live in the present second, for the moment is too long now, moving from one second to the next, and not looking back -and yet, we do so at our own peril.

There is nothing wrong with seeking to advance, with looking forward. There has always been a new dawn to look forward to in America. And we know this by dredging the dust-covered trail of faded letters, of the crackle of dry diary pages, of the ancient and physical mark the previous generations left behind them, with their eyes fixed toward the future. What was once written in hope by oil light is is now read beneath the bright glare of the LED bulb. What was carefully and lovingly painted on canvas is now studied in passing as a digital image on a laptop. What was once carefully set in type for print on paper is now perused with the swish of a finger on an e-reader. Yet, we have little patience for the anticipations, the ruminations, the expectations, and the aspirations of those who have passed before us, so encapsulated are we in the present and in our current conditions.

Our own experiences, which can be as fast as electric current, also largely depend upon electric current for existence. Digital art, digital images, e-books, e-mail, text messages -all of them depend upon an electrically-powered technological world for sustenance and reception, and can vanish in an instant. A video of a baby's first steps can be forever lost when a computer crashes. A blog of years of journal-like entries can be accidentally deleted with the push of a wrong button. A thousand pieces of beloved music can be lost along with an iPod.

Just as our own recordings and products of our existence can be stricken, so too could the records and products of our ancestors, by flood and by fire. But our grasp on the present is ever more so tenuous, for we do not invest ourselves in physical products of our time. The personal products of our existence can be shared as quickly and as easily as they can be destroyed.

The time it took to invest and share something -a letter to a loved one, say -also meant that what was shared -the letter- was treasured and carefully kept. Time had been spent on writing it, and time was spent on preserving it, for one reason or another. It was something to be valued, something that said what it meant; printed and transfixed, it could not be changed or edited.

When our grandchildren seek to learn about this present day and age, what will they find? What will we have to show that we were here? Certainly there will be few, if any, boxes of collected letters, diaries, and writings attesting to our experiences. A desktop computer, full of such memories, may be unusable in 2080, and might only still be operable if we are so lucky. But a physical, hand-written, typed, or printed letter, written by the light of any age, can be read by the light of any age.

In our effort to be a part of the present, we have forgotten about what will become the past. In our efforts to keep up, to keep current, to keep fresh, we have forgotten to put our feet down onto the solid earth, to leave something lasting behind -or to preserve anything. We are so obsessed with writing our own story, that we are forgetting to actually write our story. Where we do touch the ground, our footprints are as light as spring blossoms, and less likely to survive the tide of the first rainstorm.

Rightly or wrongly, we will be viewed by posterity as generation that at once both lived, and did not live. For what proof can we offer that we existed at all? Our moments are disappearing because we refuse to have anything to say about it. I sometimes wonder if there is more of a record found among scattered cave paintings from several thousand years ago, of that race of men, than being prepared by our own today.

I have concluded that one day, electronic documents such as the one which you are now reading, I shall either print out and store away, or I shall transfer them into a file for publishing in a private volume. That way, if computers cannot be operated a hundred years from now, there will still be lamplight or sunlight left to read by.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Onto the next novel. Twenty-plus pages of notes.

One May Weekend: About to be published.
A Rose in February: Next month.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Restoration: Old Trunk

Last spring, my father brought home an old trunk that his girlfriend, Cinda, was going to dispose of from her farm. I had no idea what Dad was going to do with it, so I asked him if he wouldn't mind parting with it -and he didn't. I had always wanted to restore something, and this was a perfect opportunity.

The trunk was in pretty bad shape. It was falling apart along the corners, and was warped from water damage in certain places. The bottom of the trunk was severely deteriorated. The hardware was rusted, but in good shape. The actual locking mechanism was missing, but that was no big deal to me.

The first thing I did was to secure the corners with screws, countersinking them. This allowed large gaps between the interlocking sides to be closed, and to help correct some of the warping. This was done for both the body of the trunk, and for the lid.

From there, I power-washed the entire thing, to remove dirt and dust. This was done for both the exterior and the interior of the trunk. It also stripped away some of the old stain and paint that had been applied through the years.

Following power washing, I disassembled the lid and the body, as well as the old hardware. At that point, by hand and by power sanding, I sanded the entire trunk, hitting every angle, surface, and side. That took off the majority of the paint and some of the stain. I then used tack cloth to remove dust from the body and the lid.

Because rain, and with open windows and doors, I set about repairing the lid by using wood putty. Because the wood putty was oil-based, it smelled horrible -and was dangerous to inhale. Large sections of the ridge on the lid were missing entirely, and I had to completely reconstruct them by building up three layers of the putty. I also took care to fill in major dents and surface abrasions on the lid, as well as the body. This was accomplished using a paint stick.

Later the following day, after time for drying, I set about by hand to sand down most of the excess putty, using an electric sander for a few of the larger areas. From there, I marked out the line of the lid ridge with a pencil.

At this point, I used a chisel and a hammer to carefully chip away the wood putty along the line I'd traced. Following dusting, I used caulk to fill in small nail holes, cover up screws, and to smooth out smaller surface dents and abrasions. I also refitted the interior floor of the trunk by putting in a quarter-inch piece of plywood for a smooth surface, using Liquid Nails, and caulked it.

With the the trunk's body and lid secured and repaired, I set about painting. I used some old paint in the basement from work for this -and fortunately, the colors I wanted to paint the trunk were downstairs. I used Duron (now Sherwin-Williams depending on the branch location) Row House Tan (flat, in three coats) to paint the inside of the trunk, and a high gloss black (in two coats) to paint the edges, corners, and bottom of the trunk.

From there, after thorough drying, I used inch-wide Scotch Blue Painter's Tape to cordon off the black sections, and set to work hitting the exterior body with Duron's Olive Grove in flat (two coats). While waiting for each coat to dry, I set to work sanding and painting the hardware in metallic bronze paint. New hinges and a handle for the lid were also purchased, and painted the same color. Each piece of hardware received two coats.

With everything reassembled:

I'm not sure what uses this trunk saw in its previous life. I have absolutely no idea what I'll use it for in the future, but at the moment, there are blankets being kept inside. Beyond being able to transform and save something physically, I was able to salvage and preserve a little piece of American history. And that, I think, is the best part of all of it.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Ideas and Innovation

A recent documentary I saw about the life of Charles Lindbergh revealed that his transatlantic flight to Paris was the result of a reward offered by a private financier. The stunning trip was not the result of a government-sponsored contest, or the command of a governmental institution that mandated someone cross the Atlantic Ocean regardless of cost. Rather, with the conditions right -a reward, fame, and setting a record- Lindbergh took on the task by utilizing both his skill as a pilot and carefully managing the weight load of the "Spirit of St. Louis", his rugged personal aircraft.

Lindbergh was not the first pilot to attempt the dangerous crossing. Others had attempted and failed -sometimes at the expense of their lives. Yet, the conditions that made men try their souls to cross the Atlantic were adequate commensurate to the risk.

Today in the United States, critics contend that there is no more innovation, and that there are no more success stories to be written -except unless coerced. This occurs, especially, in the area of alternative and green energy.

The argument goes something like this: The United States is at least ten years behind in the green movement because it has failed to invent, innovate, and embrace anything green. Because of this, the United States is seen as backwards, antiquated, and wasteful. Critics point to the United States government as the culprit for failing to push the people in the right direction, that of green sustainability. If only, they lament, the U.S. government would pass legislation restricting the use of traditional and fossil energy, and thereby force companies to innovate, invent, and embrace, then the United States would surely be the spearhead of a green energy revolution, c.f., "necessity is the mother of all invention".

Where, one wonders, were the laws that forced Lindbergh over the Atlantic? Where, one wonders, were the laws that forced Thomas Edison to develop his incandescent light bulb? Where, one wonders, were the laws that compelled Studebaker to catch up with Ford's automobiles? Where, one wonders, were the laws that compelled the creation of the vacuum, the jet plane, the internal combustion engine, the computer, the refrigerator, the smart phone?

It isn't that the United States opposes green and alternative energy. It's that the United States is intelligent about it: what use is a car to most Americans that runs on battery for twenty-something miles on average? How can the average American citizen truly tap into wind power when a billionaire cannot even successfully invest in a windmill farm? How can Americans rely on ethanol-diluted gasoline when such gasoline is more inefficient and a greater pollutant than its purer former composition? Such green technology and alternative energy is, simply put, not cost-effective. And sometimes, it simply comes down to the fact that something costs too much money to be feasible at all.

Yet, when products of any variety demonstrate themselves to be not just efficient and cost-effective, but more efficient, versatile, and cheap, Americans rally to their use. Gasoline, rather than coal-powered cars, rule the day. Provide Americans with a cheaper, more reliable, cleaner-burning, more cost-effective alternative to gasoline, and Americans will jump to it. Americans have always prided themselves on being on the cutting-edge, in terms of both innovation and consumption.

Yet this innovation and consumption are by no means the product of government regulation, intervention, or mandate. America has, technologically, medically, scientifically, and culturally, always been at the fore of invention. Americans lead, and do not follow. Across this country are financiers, businessmen, inventors, innovators, cultural aesthetes, scientists, and garage and basement-based creators with the ideas and resources to shape tomorrow. All they are awaiting are the freedom and opportunity to move forward. Yet, to do that, they must take those steps on their own, and not because the government said so.

Lindbergh risked his life in pursuit of a dream, a record, and a reward. Americans today risk much less -provided they are willing to take a risk at all. Perhaps that risk can be taken for a reward, be it notoriety or monetary. Or perhaps Americans will take those risks simply for the sake of pursuing dreams. And America is not yet finished dreaming.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Missing Pages: The Concept and Meaning of Mystery

Mystery surrounds us.

With the precision technology affords us in our affairs, and the wealth of information such technology provides, it is hard to imagine how mystery could any longer be with us. By mystery, I mean that which is unexplainable in the broadest sense of the idea. There are different subjects of mystery (from the metaphysical, such as the process of God's creation), to the historical (what ultimately happened to Amelia Earhart), to the scientific, (how human cells obtain the information used to operate), to the more popularized (intelligent life on other planets/the Mayan calendar cycle).

We see mystery at every turn in our information age-driven society, from the more fantastic, such as murder mysteries, the quest for Lazarus animals and cryptozoological creatures, to the more mundane yet equally as appealing, such as abandoned houses and overgrown cemeteries. We question why our ancestors lived where they lived and how they lived; we question the course of human events; we question the laws of nature; we question the future and that which lies beyond our understanding.

In reality, mystery can be more prevalent than certainty, yet we ascribe with great vigor to the understanding that reason, logic, and empirical evidence can answer all questions. In some circumstances, reason, logic, and empirical evidence do provide answers, though the mystery can still remain. Sometimes, reason, logic, and empiricism fall far short of understanding a mystery, thereby deepening the original mystery in the process.

We, as human beings, are curious creatures. We seek to know and we seek to understand. That is why mystery appeals to us on so deep a level than we might otherwise consider. The unexplained needs explaining. There is sometimes a sense of completeness which is absent in mystery. It is as if a book has had its center chapters, or its ending completely removed.

This idea of needing completeness is matter of consolation to the human spirit. (Roger Scruton has spoken and written about this at length.) We are not at rest if we are uncertain. There will always be a part of the human heart and soul that seeks to understand mysteries, both great and small. Yet, so too will there be part of the human soul that can find consolation in mystery. We can look up at Heaven and be assured that God has taken care of everything in the mystery of creation; or we might look up to God, understand the mystery of creation, but still ask, "How was it all done?"

And when we consider mystery, we understand that our powers of deduction and induction can simply not explain everything. That doesn't mean we should cease exploring abounding mystery, and accepting mystery as such; rather, it means that our disdain for mystery should be set aside and replaced with a certain reverence for mystery in the world. Our search for answers is in many ways a search for our own meaning in existence.

Understanding and accepting that mystery exists does provide some consolation, though a particular mystery itself may prove much more vexing and frustrating. Consider the theist, seeking proof for an everpresent God; consider the detective, seeking to solve a crime; consider the investigator, in pursuit of buried gold; consider the medical researcher, seeking a cure for cancer.

Yet accepting other mysteries -perhaps, especially, the more metaphysical- can give much more consolation to the tortured human soul. How do human beings understand and process love? How do we understand and interpret beauty? What is knowledge? How does God stand outside time? We can accept these things as mysteries which may one day be explained, or may never be answerable -and they can give us some comfort because we focus on the substance instead. For example, we take great emotional delight in something that is beautiful -a sunset, a painting, the eyes of a loved one -and focus on what is beautiful, rather than what beauty is and how the concept is understood.

Again, it is not implied or suggested that the pursuit of mystery be abandoned in lieu of accepting mystery, and deliberately not seeking to explore it. Curiosity is not necessarily a dreadful thing, for seeking to understand can improve the human condition. But so too dangerous is the idea that we have all of the answers and no longer need to seek, and that mystery -and the healthy skepticism it helps to craft- is some archaic relic of the past, like an overgrown farm field beyond a rural, suburban town. The mystery -and the field- still lay waiting beyond our reach.

Coldness, callousness, indifference, and unmerited self-aggrandizement amid the confines of science and reason are more dangerous to the human condition than the unhappy consequences of refusing to at least understand the broad idea of mystery. To believe that we have mastered our world is an error of inestimable proportions. To assume we can answer every question is a grave mistake. To believe that mystery does not exist in the twenty-first century is simply wrong.

Whether we choose to acknowledge it or not, we are eternally seeking something. Perhaps a rootedness, a place to call home ; perhaps love, and a family; perhaps understanding one's place in the world; perhaps a natural marvel or historical incident -it is all mystery. Recognizing that we are seeking at all is a matter of understanding and consolation which can limited or overwhelming.

Mystery, despite our methods and our technology, still surrounds us in every possible way. The seeking of consolation, the quest for understanding, and the knowledge that mystery will always be with us in some form is, taken altogether in one breath, a journey seeking to find the missing pages.

Monday, May 2, 2011

An End, and a Beginning

Osama Bin Laden is dead. Almost a decade after the terrorist attacks that slaughtered 3,000 innocent Americans on September 11, 2001, Osama Bin Laden –the founder of the Islamic terrorist group Al Qaida –is dead. Although all the details may never be clear, mostly for security purposes, what we do know is that the United States military –the Navy SEALs –and United States intelligence –especially the CIA –acted together to bring about his demise: a bullet in the head.

The move is, at the very least, a major psychological blow to Al Qaida, the Taliban, Hamas, and various other terrorist groups operating in the world that looked to Bin Laden as a symbolic figure of global jihad against America and those affiliated with the Western World. How fitting and proper that such a blow should come as a result of actions undertaken by the United States of America.

Our leaders, journalists, and analysts –on all sides –are quick to remind us that Bin Laden’s death does not mean the end of the Global War on Terror. They are right. The war will go on. But this stunning victory should not go unnoticed, or unheralded. It should, and will strengthen America’s resolve. There is nothing this nation –that We, the People –cannot do. Nothing worth achieving, no victory, is ever without its cost. In terms of war, the cost is measured in blood. Bin Laden caused too much blood to be spilt, and paid with his own. And somewhere along the way –and what exactly happened is still unclear –some terrorist in Bin Laden’s compound used a woman as a shield in the firefight that killed him.

President George W. Bush united us after September 11 by declaring that the people who knocked down the Twin Towers in New York –and slammed a plane into the Pentagon, and attempted to turn Flight 93 into a weapon –that they would hear from all of us, that justice would be done. We invaded Afghanistan, freed its citizens, dislodged the Taliban and scattered Al Qaida like rats under bright light, and set out to disrupt, destroy, and defeat their terrorist networks globally.

Last night, President Barack Obama united us when he brought us a major victory by telling us Bin Laden’s lifeless body had been dumped into the sea, and by preparing us for the continuation of the war against terrorist-fueled jihad. Getting Bin Laden was something many thought impossible. For those who thought it was impossible, and for Americans concerned about the future of our nation, this is a monumental reminder that we are unlike anything ever seen in the history of the world. We do not fail. And countries, hedging on our own national demise –like Iran and North Korea –are reminded of the deadly efficacy of our martial prowess.

Now, the questions, and the policy implications from the stunning attack on Bin Laden will become the stuff of debate. How could Bin Laden have lived so close to a major military academy in Pakistan without the Pakistanis ever knowing? Do we continue to offer the Pakistanis financial assistance? Should we stop cutting defense funding, and increase our military and intelligence efforts against Al Qaida? Do we draw greater international cooperation from this action? Where do we go next?

Eternal vigilance is the price of peace. We must be eternally vigilant against those that seek our destruction. We, as American citizens, must sustain and grow a culture and nation worthy of defending. And our military –God Bless them –will find it worth defending. Both citizen and soldier have their role. And both must be prepared for the long haul in the struggle against jihad. There will indeed be difficult years ahead. This is an end, and a beginning.

But, at the very least tonight, Americans can go to sleep with the knowledge that Osama Bin Laden is dead.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Carnival Week Wins Award

My book Carnival Week was entered in the 2011 Royal Dragonfly Awards where it took Second Place in the Young Adult Category.

Among the praise it received from the judges includes:
"Plot was pertinent and interesting; conflicts were well-defined; teen characters were believable and teen readers will self-identify . . ."

". . . interspersing the song lyrics from the band worked to reinforce the deep emotions that young adults go through; very appropriate for young adults, definitely would read another book by this author."
-Sheila Donnelly, Royal Dragonfly Official Contest Judge

I want to take this moment to say thank you to the judges, to the contest, and to Cheryl Haynes, head of Future Word Publishing, who made the five year journey that became Carnival Week a reality.