To The Moon

Posted on July 16th, 2019 in Personal | No Comments »

As I type this, today is the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 liftoff. The first moon landing holds a special place in my heart, as I grew up only a few miles from Kennedy Space Center in Florida. My uncle worked at the Cape, and many of my classmates had family who also worked there. Indeed, the main reason many of us were even there in the first place was due to the space program.

It was an exciting time, being a young boy in the heart of such an amazing location – warm, sunny Florida with astronauts and launches on a regular basis. I had many models of the Saturn V and the lunar module. I knew the details of the flight, the steps required from launch to splashdown. And now we were on the edge of the big one – the real landing.

I never had any doubts; with the total faith of childhood, I knew everything was going to be fine and soon the landing would be a reality. It was another hot, bright day; we were in the house, watching Walter Cronkite prepare us for liftoff. As with previous launches, the plan was to watch until the rocket cleared the tower, then rush outside and wait for it to come up over the trees. And that’s exactly what happened. I remember quite clearly, standing on the driveway beside my house, watching the white-hot point of light moving steadily upwards into the sky. After a minute or two, the contrail would change, the light would flicker; first-stage separation and second-stage ignition.

I stood there, a little boy watching a moment in history, and I remember saying to myself, “I must not forget this.”

The weight of a half-century has nibbled away at that memory, but the core of it remains. I was there. I saw the launch with my own eyes. When it finally faded away from view, one would take a moment to look at the exhaust plume rising up from over the horizon, slowing being pulled apart by the winds, then rush back inside to let Cronkite guide us through the rest of the launch, now invisible to the naked eye (but not quite the long-range camera view).

A few days later, the go-ahead was given and down Armstrong and Aldrin went, to a rendezvous with history. When Eagle touched down on the Sea of Tranquility, we were there, along with most of the rest of the world. I was impatient, and didn’t quite understand the delay. We’re down, open the hatch and let’s get going! But it took several hours to go through the checklist, get suited up, and all the other requirements we couldn’t see.

Finally, the external camera was deployed, and we could switch from the CBS simulation (a man in a suit crawling out of a mockup LM) to a live transmission from the moon. The fuzzy black and white image that is now so well known began to take shape. Neil made his way down the ladder, spoke to Houston, then announced he was going to step off the LM now.

And thus, we all passed into a new age. I got to stay up late that night and watch all of it. I don’t remember going to bed, but I must have been very tired. I do remember thinking how sorry I felt for everyone who would be born afterwards, how they missed this epic moment.

Many years later on another Apollo anniversary, the three astronauts came back to Florida and were in a motorcade. My aunt and I went to the mall and stood alongside the road watching as they drove past, each one being driven in their own convertible, smiling and waving yet again at the assembled throng. It was the first time I had ever seen any of them in the flesh, and as Armstrong rolled by, I yelled “Neil” so loudly that he turned and looked in my direction, still smiling and waving. But directly at me.

A few years after that, I was on my way home from work one afternoon when I heard on the radio that Buzz was in town, signing copies of his science-fiction novel. The bookstore was only one or two blocks from where I screamed at Armstrong several years before. I immediately drove to the bookstore and purchased a copy just to get a signature. Who would turn down a chance to meet Columbus or Magellan?

I waited in line and when my turn came, Mr. Aldrin asked my name. He signed and I extended my hand, which he graciously shook. Then he returned the book to me and that was it. I still have it. Between my name and his own, he wrote “Ad Astra” – To the stars.

Now of course, it is a half-century later since that one small step. Half the people who were in the room with me that night are gone, including my aunt. Walter Cronkite and Neil Armstrong are gone as well. My own wife and child were born into a world in which man has always been to the moon. I am part of the last generation to have experienced a time before that ever happened. It’s like looking in old encyclopedias at artist’s depictions of the planets, whereas now we’ve photographed them all (even Pluto!).

When I watch the old footage, the tears well up; I’m not only watching a defining moment for the Human species, I’m watching my own past. I can see a little boy who could look up at the moon before it ever had a footprint upon it. Time rolls on in its relentless way, but it can’t change the fact that I was there the night it all changed forever.

To Boldly Go

Posted on September 7th, 2016 in Personal, Politics, Religion | No Comments »

 “We work to better ourselves, and the rest of Humanity”
– Jean-Luc Picard, “First Contact”

As I write these words, we are two months and one day from history being made with the 2016 Presidential election. Two candidates who have polarized America in such a way as to lay open deep wounds, which may never heal in my lifetime. Eight years ago, I supported Hillary Clinton over Barack Obama; now I’m not so sure. Clinton’s position seems to paint her as a moderate Republican rather than a progressive Democrat. Charges of corruption and the influence of deep-pocket Wall Street donors paint a less flattering portrait of her than I saw back in 2008. Her opponent is a puffed-up tycoon who appeals to the populist vote by saying whatever he thinks will work at any given moment. The fact that he’s running neck and neck in this election speaks volumes to the depths in which both parties have lost touch with voters, and how decades of under-funding education, promotion of belief over science and the rise of jingoistic blind patriotism has finally come home to roost, with a vengeance.

 Throughout the United States, I see the fall of empire, the dissolution of a dream. The great experiment of a new nation is beginning to fail. A government exposed as corrupt and totalitarian,  run by career politicians who will say anything to maintain their grip on power in order to keep being fed by wealthy special-interest groups. A populace who pay lip service to the ideas but year by year lose interest in the vigilance required to maintain their liberties, distracted by glitter and sheen and vacuous indulgences. Dumbed down by a faulty education system that is continually challenged by lack of funding and under constant attack from those who wish to impose their ‘faith’ over facts. Graduates who care barely read or write, were told Moses was a historical figure, cannot make change and never taught the basics of reproduction, or how to protect themselves from the consequences of their natural urges.

We live in an Orwellian world of double-speak, where ignorance is wisdom, giving up our freedoms makes us free and to question is to be wrong. Edward Snowden languishes in Moscow instead of being hailed as someone who told us what our government is doing in our name. A football player who refuses to stand for the national anthem is treated as if he somehow offended the military who fight and die in futile wars far away for no good reason. We are not allowed to ask why we sacrifice our troops; just “honor” them. Every day, people are killed on the streets of this once-great nation and no effort is made to overrule the gun industry and limit the weapons that take so many lives and destroy so many families. Not even the slaughter of schoolchildren in their own classrooms can stop it; money can cover anything, even the blood of the innocent. An idea as logical as banning assault weapons and universal background checks is treated as an attack upon the Constitution and the second amendment; but Congress votes to increase secret surveillance of innocent Americans, violating the fourth amendment, and it’s seen as good and proper.

America was once the leader of the free world; that claim is dubious now, to say the least. Other nations have better standards of living; free health care, better education; a happier, safer populace, not dominated by the obsessive need to feed the military whatever it wants, or the need to kowtow to obsolete, nonsensical religious claptrap. Other nations don’t have a crumbling infrastructure, with bridges built nearly a century ago and failing to cope with the increased demands of more and more cars. Other nations recognize the role we play in warming the planet, making every Summer ‘the hottest on record’, year after year after year.

We expect ‘regimes’ to keep innocent people locked away, with no trial; tortured and sometimes killed. To use their armies to attack and murder women, children and babies in their own homes. To spy on their own citizens and deal harshly with anyone who opposes the official party line. With every drop of blood, the United States of America becomes that which we supposedly hate; that which we supposedly stand in contrast to; that which we thought we would never be. We are now.

Next week will mark the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. I have spoken before about how we were a different people then. So much has happened to us since that clear, blue morning. We were shocked to find that some could hate us so much that they would do such a terrible thing. It was terrorism of the worst kind, brought home from distant shores half a world away and deposited on our own doorstep. Now we look around at the hate, the shrug of the shoulders to the constant wash of violence, the nonsense and lies spouted off by our leaders and wanna-be leaders, and it’s difficult to deny that we have become a cruel, deluded people, with perhaps our best days behind us. The journey from innocence to cynicism in breathtaking speed.

I still believe that one day, we will rise up and become the people we think we are capable of being. The statement by the captain in Star Trek could ring true as a motto for us all. It is true for some people now, around the world. But there is a long, long way to go in order for it to apply to the majority, never mind the whole of Humanity. I wish I could see it, but I know I won’t. More importantly, I wish I could see it start to happen. I hold onto the hope that it already has.

Driving With The Prophet

Posted on May 20th, 2013 in Religion | No Comments »

Today I happened to find myself in a taxi driven by a happy-go-lucky Muslim man. He was enjoying the warm sunshine, and pontificating to me at great length about how as a Muslim, he believes we should all live in peace and happiness. When I pointed out that religion was a great divisive force in the world, he totally agreed. But also rejoined with the fact that (again) as a Muslim, he does not buy into dividing people, as the holy Koran tells us, etc. “We are all human; we all have one brain, one heart, two arms, two legs”, and so on (at least most of us share an equal number of various body parts. But I digress).

I was trying not to get myself drawn into an argument against someone with whom I really didn’t have a beef with. I had to consider beside the fact he’s driving me home, and now knows where I live, I’ll hopefully never see or talk to him again. He was a friendly sort of fellow, so why not live and let live? It’s not my job to have to deal with everyone’s belief systems. Anyway, I didn’t feel up to causing a fuss.

But later, I realized that I missed out on a good opportunity to point out that we don’t need god to be able to treat each other with peace and understanding. We should be able to throw away our bibles and korans and all the rest. Religion is a great divisive force; after all, my driver identified himself (repeatedly) as a ‘Muslim’. His appearance also suggested a link to his faith; I’m sure many of his cultural habits were also in line with Islamic thinking. Why do we need all that excess baggage  to treat each other with respect? I got a strong sense that he was unable to see himself as separate from his religious identity; what is he if he’s not a Muslim? And more importantly, can he contemplate living in peace and harmony with his fellow human beings without using the crutch of religion? Probably not. And therein lies the problem. We all separate ourselves in various ways: white/black, rich/poor, Democrat/Republican, Labour/Conservative, North/South and so on. Whether it’s clans, tribes, football teams, nations or religions, the fences go up. Some are inconsequential, some are trivial and some are serious. Serious enough for a few to die for, or to kill for.

And yes, I’m aware that I’m probably just as guilty of erecting my own fence, between believer and unbeliever. But I don’t feel it’s particularly fair to start preaching your faith to what’s essentially a captive audience. I’d like to think I could have met him halfway and had a nice chat about the weather or something; but when he started going on about “As a Muslim…”, then it becomes the elephant in the room which makes it that much harder to ignore when trying to reach across the divide. Maybe it’s just conceited and big-headed of me to think I could relate to him on an equal basis. And probably just the same to say that now we’ll never know.

In the process of rejecting religion as an outmoded system that should be abandoned to history, I don’t discriminate against any single set of beliefs. Without some real proof that a god exists (a holy book that more or less says, “Because I say so!” is not proof, sorry), then it’s just another impediment to any kind of equality between people. Conflicts about nothing are a waste of time and energy, not to say lives and property. My biggest regret about my journey today was that I was probably a bit too respectful when perhaps I shouldn’t have been. I find that when I have these sorts of encounters, I do learn a little more each time, and consequently enter into the next set of circumstances a bit better prepared. I wonder what my new friend would have said if we had been on a slightly longer journey, and I was a bit more emboldened to ask if his Muslim point of view regarding peace and understanding also extended to women.

I’ve seen many examples of Christians who also espouse this warm and fuzzy idea of “lets all just get along”, and find that they are the kind of people who don’t study their bibles very well. No doubt the same thing happens with Muslims; many parts of religion, especially the Abrahamic ones, are actually very much of a siege mentality. People with strong or rabid faith (including Ministers, Imams, etc.) don’t share this “peace & love” ideology at all. They are strongly opposed to mixing with people of differing faiths, demand that the young are indoctrinated and immersed into the holy ways as soon as possible, and for as long as possible, and generally aren’t too concerned about the fate of unbelievers. Any differing opinions (including scientific points of view that contradict holy writ) are to be suppressed, if not completely stamped out. I find my taxi driver’s remarks hard to reconcile with what I know about religious belief in general. Is he ignorant of the darker aspects of his own professed faith, or putting on a friendly face for the obvious infidel sitting next to him? Stupid or lying? Only he could say for sure.

Either way, it’s hardly a ringing endorsement. Next time I’ll take the bus.

The Non-Anonymous Future

Posted on August 18th, 2010 in Personal | No Comments »

First of all, let me say right off the bat that I’ve been wrong before. When I was first informed about the nature of email, and blogging, I thought they were ridiculous concepts. I wasn’t remotely interested. I enjoyed sitting down to write long letters. I’ve since discovered that my letters were long because they were ponderous and boring. I didn’t understand why anyone would bother writing what amounted to a diary on the Internet. Surely a personal journal is by its very nature a private matter, to be found after death and published to great posthumous fame. Or tossed out in the trash. Heck, the first time I saw a web page for a new car, I couldn’t believe it.

And yet, and yet. Here I am, compulsive emailer, sometimes blogger and owner of many websites, some a lot smaller in concept than a new car. So my track record is not good on predicting future trends. I admit that. But (and you knew there would be one, didn’t you?), I am currently drawing the line at the current craze lumped under the messy heading “social networking”. For anyone reading this (heh) who’s even more of a Luddite than I am, it’s the frantic desire to connect to everyone you know and deliver the minutiae of your life, literally moment by moment. Socal Networking takes many forms, starting with mobile phones.

I remember the first time I saw someone with a portable phone in a restaurant; a fellow in a group with a somewhat bulky bag slung under his shoulder, and a handset that looked like a walkie-talkie out of WWII, except in black instead of camouflage. And of course it rang as they were sitting at dinner, and he got to show everyone around what a trend-setter he was. It seems laughable now, when everybody walks around like zombies, talking to themselves about where they are in the mall (“I’m walking by the bookstore now, and nearly up to the shoe store. Now I’ve passed the shoe store and can see the vitamin shop off to my right…”).  Those who are not actually speaking are instead texting out into the void.

I have nothing to say to anyone that’s so important. I don’t have a mobile, which sends people who try to get me to change my mobile service into paroxysms. I suspect they don’t believe me. After going on about how they can save me money, and how concerned they are that I’m spending so much, their concern evaporates when  I suggest that they pay for me to have a mobile, so I can save a lot more.

The next step in the social networking universe was sites to share information, such as Digg. I still don’t understand how this works. If I like a website for whatever reason, I click a button. Somehow this informs other people, who I assume are just clueless, and a site can be more or less put into a bottle and cast adrift on a great social network ocean. Who actually goes to these sites, other than spammers? Hmm, I wonder if there are any good movie review websites? I’ll surf over to Digg and find out. Why not go to a search engine and type “movie reviews”? The system just seems cumbersome and over-complex.

After that, the world went nuts for Twitter. You can tweet, or type a 150-character message which other people can be informed about. People can subscribe to your tweets, so every time you announce that you’ve gone to the bathroom, or espied a bodacious babe, someone on the other side of the world can keep abreast of it. How dull is your life that you have to get up-to-the-minute bulletins about someone else like this? The most common tweet would seem to be: I am tweeting. The content may be different, but the message is the same. And I don’t care. I do have a Twitter account, but mainly to reserve the name. I’ve never sent a tweet, nor am I subscribed to receive any.

Finally, the nadir of social networking is now Facebook. When the Internet first became popular, there were great concerns about being tracked by legions of faceless Big Brothers. The privacy of the populace must be protected at all costs! The privacy was of course, mainly to look at online porn, which is no doubt why lawmakers were so eager to embrace privacy restrictions. But now you have Facebook, where people rush in a great mania to proclaim their private information in excruciating detail. Can websites of banking and medical details that are open to anyone be far behind? Why would anybody want a Facebook account? The irony is that in giving up their anonymity, people may be just another commodity, where any individual is shielded from glare by the overwheming crush of sheer numbers.

This idea of course, is utter nonsense. Computers can effortlessly weed any single person out of the chaos of the multitude. Governments have computers, and so do criminals. And with laptops full of personal information being lost almost daily on some street somewhere, we are probably already in an age where nobody can hide. Centuries ago, the idea of privacy was unheard of. Even the rich and noble lived surrounded by entourages. The poor simply huddled together for warmth like they always do.  The Internet is a true revolution in our lifetimes. I use it daily, and have come to depend on it for many things. But not social networking. In the great march of progress for our species after a million years, the concept of ‘privacy’ may be one day seen as just a passing conceit, put paid by the Internet.

But I still won’t get a Facebook page.

Raising the Dead

Posted on March 7th, 2009 in Personal | No Comments »

It’s been nearly 10 months since my last post, which is probably not important since nobody reads this blog anyway. But I’ve been off doing a number of things, one of which has been genealogy. I’ve had quite the fun time turning myself into a busy researcher, hunting online for records, links and photographs of grave stones. Even as a child, I always had a fascination with the dead; it’s much more personal when it’s the dead you’re descended from.

It has been a totally fascinating journey into the past, a history of farmers, shoemakers, blacksmiths, housewives and more. I discovered my Great-Great-Great Grandmother, who died when the pipe she was smoking caught her clothes on fire. She was around 100 at the time. Or the Great-Great Grandfather who lost two daughters, ages 6 and 12, in the same month to scarlet fever. The photograph of a Great-Great-Great Grandfather taken when he was probably in his late 20’s. He looks amazingly like me. Or vice-versa. How strange to see my own face staring back at me from a century or more. I also discovered the Grandfather I never knew, who divorced my Grandmother fifteen years before I was born. He died in 1978 and it wasn’t until late last year I finally saw a photograph of him.

As a boy, I always wondered where I came from. What were my ancestors like? My family never really talked much about the distant past, so I had a lot of questions. I know so much more now to pass on to my own child, when she’s ready to ask the questions. When you pore over census records, chronicling the children lost, the long and successful marriages, the wives who died young, the men who lived through terrible wars, it’s hard not to see yourself as nothing more than the current link. Their blood all flows through my veins, so I’m the part of them that has survived. I feel responsible in a way, to carry those bloodlines forward, to try and remember the centuries of laughter and tears for those who can no longer do so. If they were up there somewhere watching me, those lines of Grandparents, I wonder what they would think of the world today.

A hundred years from now, will someone carry on the history I’ve started, with my own name concisely summing up in a little box all that I’ve lived and experienced? Two dates neatly bookending a life; is that all at the end? At least I know that despite their certain flaws, on the whole they were a group of people I’m proud of, and when I’m a tidy footnote in the pages of history, I will be in good company. I hope those that follow me will be equally proud.