January 28, 2011


I was, like most of my generation, raised on the power of science and engineering to achieve amazing things, and grew up with an idea of America that was largely based on my sense that once we put our minds (and wallets) to something, nothing could keep us from getting it done. As I got older, and read about the men and women of the space race, the threat posed by the Soviets, and America's response, I felt a kind of pride in the way that sound engineering and guts defined us as a nation, and kept that feeling for much of my life.

Even in the disillusioned days after 9/11, when the idiots that had always been there came out of the woodwork with their ridiculous "power of pride" bumper stickers and flag decals, I could reassure myself that despite the jingoism and feeble understanding of world politics (and America's role in them, good and shameful) we were still a country who held a special place, whose dedication to breaking through the chains of history was sacrosanct.

I may not hold with the mass of neoconservatives in the matter of the necessity of religious belief for moral soundness, and think government has done a number of great things (though alongside a number of really stupid ones), but undeniably one of the great ones is the act of putting men, American men, on the moon and in space and sending craft to the other planets and moons. I had a telescope when I was a kid, and I remember looking at the tiny crescent of Venus, the craters of the moon, distant Jupiter with its moons and Saturn with its rings. Knowing that we had sent things to those places and that they sent data and images back for science was somehow enough to keep out the creeping feeling of how small that meant we were, I was.

But on a cold day in January 1986, twenty five years ago today, I was sitting in a hallway waiting for Mrs. Thomas to unlock the classrom where we were going to watch the shuttle launch after lunch, and my friend Josh, who was an affable if somewhat goofy kid, came up to me and asked me what was up, and just to screw with his head a bit I said "didn't you hear? The shuttle blew up!" Of course, I didn't know about it yet. It hadn't happened yet. He was terribly upset and I felt bad about things, but then along came Mrs. Thomas and we went into class as usual.

And I soon watched in horror as the first real disaster of my life unfolded, my faith in science and technology started to waver and crack, and I learned that while equations are still part of a perfect world, O-rings and frost and bureaucracy and other big little things can tear a hole in the sky and fill it with smoke and dead astronauts.

At this point, all I can say is that there's a bit of that pride still there, knowing that even after Challenger was lost, and then Columbia, there are still those who are willing to throw themselves into the sky strapped to giant pillars of fire, so that we might not all be bound to scratch out our meager lives on this swirling oblate spheroid we call home.

December 29, 2009

Reflections on Toad the Wet Sprocket

Glen Phillips tweeted today that he was suddenly 39. I've been 39 for seven months or more now, but back when I was only twenty, or maybe nineteen, Glen Phillips and his band Toad the Wet Sprocket had already come to mean a great deal to me, for reasons which hopefully will become clear forthwith.

I was at Syracuse University, in the strange hinterlands between a BA in commercial design (unfinished) and a BA in Religious Studies (completed 1992, with minor in Philosophy and concentration in Cognitive Science), and it was winter. I don't recall the year, whether late 1989 or early 1990, but I had by then had a whirlwind relationship (cooled by then) with a girl from New Hampshire who now had a boyfriend in Worcester, Mass. I also had a good friend from high school who was attending Anna Maria College, a Catholic school north of the city, with the extra irony that he was more or less a scion of a lapsed Jew from New Jersey, so when she asked if I wanted to share the drive and expenses, I jumped at the chance.

I'll call her Ellen, for the sake of having a name to hang on her. I'll call him Mike, because that was his name. Ellen and I drove from Syracuse to Worcester, old friends by then, talking and laughing and driving in silence as the gray skies threatened and probably listening to music from time to time, though I forget what. We got to Worcester, she dropped me off with a promise to pick me up in two days, and Mike signed me in at the door.

The weather was all mid-winter gray promising to turn to white, so we were a bit concerned about being stranded, but Mike assured me that they had both food and plentiful if not top-quality libations so we shrugged and waved as Ellen drove off with the car to meet with the boy who we would much later protect her from, jealous and abusive and wrong, but that's a different story.

So for now, Mike and I just got started with the introductions, it being a fairly small school and me being a sort of novelty (or oddity, or both, depending on your perspective). Remember, I was a religious studies student, or was to soon be one, so this was in some eyes a natural setting - among the children of the deeply religious observant Catholics of Massachusetts. But the problem was I was of what my major professor called "the unchurched", and a pretty staunch unbeliever at that point, with an ax to grind against the whole science-denying edifice of the bureaucracy and the wide-eyed ignorance of the flock. And Mike knew this, but it didn't bother him, and half of the folks he introduced me to were pretty blasé about the whole thing, so we got along well, planned the snowstorm party, and got to chatting.

I don't recall what they called the punch they made in that trashcan, but I do recall it involved enough Mauna Loa and cheap, clear spirits to be a clear violation of both the spirit and the letter of the law and of the bylaws of the institution responsible for our safety, and I also recall that it was pretty good considering.

I have a vague recollection of a conversation about truth with a kid who earnestly pressed a handmade cassette recording of Toad the Wet Sprocket's Bread and Circus into my hands, and urged me to listen. I shook my head at a girl who hoped one day to help mentally disturbed children with "art therapy", which as far as I could understand was designed to make them forget they were depressed, or autistic, or manic, or schizoid, or whatever, for as long as she could make them draw archetypes with blunt drawing instruments, poorly. She was, of course, nearly passed out and having her hair held as she barfed into a small dorm room trash can. If I recall correctly, she was also diabetic. And, apparently, an optimist.

I also met a small, quiet, cute girl whose name I have long since forgotten, who was also betting on therapeutics as a career, only her approach involved music. I knew a bit about art, or thought I did, if nothing much about music, other than that it involved more mathematics than I had, and the really good stuff touched something deep inside.

We did get socked in that night, with drifts of snow flying into the foyer of the entrance hall every time someone went out to play and throw snowballs or whatever they were doing. And Ellen stayed in town with her boy, and I stayed in lockup with Mike and the rest of them, and I had to sleep somewhere. The music therapist and I had struck up a conversation, sharing a disdain for the "crayon girl" and her ideas, and sharing a love of music as a way to shape mood and thought and perspective.

There not being many places to stay, I stayed with her that night. My intentions were noble, and we just slept in the same bed, occasionally waking to share a thought or to look out on the dark skies with their swirling flakes in the streetlights' glare. She, I think, was shocked to find me honorable, maybe even disappointed, though I'd hazard a guess relief was more likely. She played her music, and I listened. I didn't have any music, except for the tape Earnest had pressed into my hands, so we both listened to that, in the hush that snowstorms can bring, and in the morning when the snow had died down and the sleepless plows had done their work, and Ellen could get through, I left the girl with a hug and Mike with a silent nod of thanks, and got on the road.

I asked if Ellen minded if we listened to the Toad tape again, and she said no, and so we listened all the way back to Syracuse, flipping the tape over and over again. I got back to school, and bought the CD, and Pale, and later Fear and the others. And each reminded me of that night in Worcester, though other memories were layered atop as I went through subsequent romances and failed romances. And each tracked me as I grew a little, and as they grew, and as their music grew. And I remember being surprised to find how young Glen Phillips was when we had such insights and turned them into words.

August 26, 2009

Inspiration and Bioluminescence

Prompted by Merlin's post and a too-short Advil PM-powered sleep interrupted by disruptive dreams of high school, Junior year, when Steve F. and I would ride around the hinterlands west of Bangor just before curfew in his Subaru Brat listening to the Vision Quest soundtrack ("lunatic fringe... I know you're out there!") and the Kinks ("oh, the stories/have been told/of kings and days of old/but there's no England now"), I jumped onto Facebook to see if I could remember Marty's name, the kind-hearted, good-spirited Marty with the maybe hot sister, and failed.

But in the two- and three-degrees of separation and scanning lists of friends of friends from long ago I had not yet befriended there, because I left twenty years ago and hardly looked back after college Freshman year summer, if even then, I found a memory; not necessarily a proud memory, to be sure, but a memory worth sharing.

I grew up in eastern Maine, with an elder neighbor as best friend and constant companion who ended up going to a different high school; we had no high school in the tiny old farming town turned bedroom community I was from, so we got to pick where we'd go from the nearby choices. Most went to Brewer, the larger town to the north, some south to Bucksport, some to Bangor and John Bapst (an old Catholic school gone secular). Steve went to Bapst. So I continued my tradition, forged in the crucible of gifted and talented programs and being a non-native in a state where it matters and being lousy at basketball in a state where little else matters in the winter, of being on a sort of fringe, a tendency to live between two worlds. I went to Brewer, and Steve went to Bapst, and so I had friends in both worlds but a home in neither.

And with friends in two worlds, you didn't tend to form deep connections; few friends but many acquaintances as you were taken into and then out of circles of closer friends; it was how I met Laura. To be honest, the specifics aren't clear now, twenty years later, but I was a friend of a friend and Laura needed a prom date, and I had a car. A blue and silver 1967 Mustang coupe with a tiny straight-six 200 and an extra leaf in the rear springs, so it didn't matter. The car looked good, and I liked to think I looked good in it, and she looked good in her dress, and so we went to the prom.

There was supposed to be a party in Bar Harbor afterwards, but as it wasn't my circle of friends, and she wasn't sure where it was either, we drove around Mount Desert Island for a few hours and eventually pulled over to sleep by the side of the road and be eaten by black flies and mosquitos. And I'm sure she thought I was, and I'm sure I was, a cad. I know we never talked much after that. Not much of a prom, anyway. I hope she had better.

But we'd changed out of our dress clothes before driving down to the Island, and when we got to Sand Beach (a misnomer, it's paved in tiny shells and shell fragments that stick to your skin and are hard to wash off even under pressure) we got to see that wonder of night beaches: bioluminescence. Every wave that crashed sent rolls of bluish-green static splashing around everywhere, giving the cloudy night a diffuse glow. We staggered out onto the beach to watch, and ran into a bunch of very drunk, and very wet, and fairly cold, Quebecois girls, one of whom grabbed and held me tight for just a moment, muttering in that broad, flat French of the north, before running off into the distance and the long flights of stairs that led to the parking lot far above.

And I don't know if she remembers that night, God knows she smelled like she'd had enough to drink to forget most everything else, but it has stayed with me, for twenty years of moving on and away, more vividly than so much else. Maybe it's because I don't have pictures, or movies, or anything but the soft light of the surf and the chill of a shivering body and the scratch of the shell-covered beach, to recall.

So, thanks, Merlin, and thanks, Laura, and thanks, anonymous Quebecois girl on the beach, and thanks to all the creatures of the sea who died and were reborn in the light of the surf so that I could see a glimpse of a face as she bumped into me and then ran by.

October 9, 2007

Good times

So, I was digging around in my filesystem on the laptop here yesterday, and stumbled upon some scary artifacts of the days when I was a bit more, um, active as a blogger (before anyone knew to call it that) and had lots of fun with an ad banner rotator I wrote; I asked some friends to submit banners for their sites and built some banners for them to stick on their sites, too. I still like the "negative forces have value" tagline. I'd completely forgotten about that. How young and brash we were, how utterly convinced that we were pioneers.

The "Boring Gallery" was this collection of Web sites that had the then-standard "colored bar down left side of screen and white content area" design. Sadly, or not, it's still there, in all its boring glory. For a while, searching on my name returned this page as the first result on Lycos/AltaVista/HotBot/whatever search engine was popular in 1997...

It's amusing to poke through some of those I didn't (and won't) upload; apparently, back then, I considered O'Reilly and Associates, Argus Associates (Lou Rosenfeld did an interview for the site), Perl, Java and the Onion worthy of free advertising on my site, along with and the now-defunct Digital Aspect (where I worked as a consultant for a year after leaving imonics) and Integrated Technical Services, a good chunk of the old imonics IT group (with whom we shared an office).


Oh, and to clear up any confusion: the big turd on the modem (yes, a 33.6Kbps US Robotics Sportster - the original animation I did as a "splash page" - remember those? actually had lights that lit up more or less the same way they did on the modem, and in the right order, for a dialup session) is a Buddha, in a position of extreme contemplation. I forget where I got it, but you could still get them (in albeit smaller version) from the Wireless catalog NPR puts out as of ten years ago or so. His head is in his lap. I used to call it the "anxiety Buddha", because he didn't seem too calm to me.