Do Words Matter?

Do words matter?  Sometimes I feel like words are just words.  They diffuse into the air like an exhalation in winter.  The wind sweeps them away and the cold robs them of whatever warmth they carried.  And so often, only the speaker remembers what he said; the listener was never listening and never had anything to forget.

Yet I know this only to be true part of the time.  Words also harm, and their sting lingers long after they’ve been uttered or printed.  They sometimes gladden.  Not all of them disappear.  Some of them last.

Words tell stories, and when they tell stories words really are more than words.  They paint pictures.  They convey tragedy and joy.  They touch people.  When words tell stories they are life itself.  Identities, whole histories, cultures, and peoples are bound up in them.

I didn’t go to Chile.  There was a hiccup in my job search.  I don’t have adequate words to express the state I’m in.  Confusion, sadness, doubt, frustration—these speak to part of what I’m feeling inside, but they’re just words.  They don’t tell the story.  But maybe this post as a whole will succeed where they fail.  Maybe it will convey my ambivalence, this sense of not knowing what to feel or what to say, of not knowing what’s going to happen or where I’m going to be in two days, this aching worry about loved ones and the need to do right by them–and always the question: Did writing this help?  Did it matter?

Yes, it did.

This is life.  It ain’t always perfect, but it moves on anyway.

Heavenly Dreams: The End of the Shuttle Program

I will NEVER take photos as good as NASA's! That's one shortcoming I can forgive myself.

When I was a kid I dreamed of being an astronaut.  Images of space shuttles launching into the heavens, men frolicking on the moon, and fantasies of traveling to Mars pervaded my mind.  Space held such wonder for me then.  The first shuttle disaster happened when I was six years old.  I understood the tragedy.  I knew people had died and that the nation had suffered a wound.  I saw my mother shed tears at the news of the catastrophe.  Yet I persisted in my dream to one day either take my own chances in space or at least study the heavens as an earthbound astronomer.

Pale Blue Dot

As I’m sure happened to most kids of my generation, eventually I abandoned my aspiration of going into space and concluded that such a dream was unrealistic.  But I held on to my love of the star speckled dome that opened above me on every clear night of my life.  Sometimes, when I was young, I imagined the night sky to be a dark, hollow sphere surrounded by a medium of light so bright that it must be liquid in quality.  I imagined that our world was nested inside of this black sphere, that its outer shell was shot through with holes, and that through these holes the light outside leaked in little by little.  Brighter specs were bigger holes.  Our sun was the biggest of them all and gushed light aplenty like a perennial spring.  I thought that with each passing moment the hollow sphere in which we were suspended filled with more light, and that if light were the stuff of happiness, then over the eons it would fill our world with a radiance so thick that one day we would be able to run our fingers through it as through water.

Servicing the Hubble Telescope

Twice when I was a boy I remember running into the street to watch the shuttle streak across the evening sky over the Texas Hill Country en route to Cape Canaveral, leaving a trail of plasma in its wake as if it were slicing the heavens in two.  And I remember vowing one day to watch a shuttle launch.  Only one opportunity remains.  The last shuttle will lift off this Friday, July 8.  I won’t be there to see it.

Nowadays I take these Hubble photos for granted, but they're still awe-inspiring.

Is human space flight a waste of money?  I don’t know.  All I know is that as a kid I marveled at the idea of launching people into space.  I idolized the men and women who sat on top of those rockets and, as it turned out, had about a one in fifty chance of never coming home.  For all of society’s delusions about the safety and the routine nature of the shuttle program, I think the astronauts knew the stakes.  They left the comforts of earth, pushed the boundaries of human ingenuity and potential, and in doing so they gave little kids something to dream about.  Armies of scientists, engineers, and (yes) tax payers stood behind them and made the whole spectacle possible.

Hubble photo of a galaxy.

Maybe that’s what dazzled me more than anything: the space program emerged out of millions of hours of labor.  Over sixty years tens of thousands of people devised improbable ways of accomplishing the impossible.  It cheers me to think that all it takes is something like one hundred thousand clever optimists toiling for decades to pull off six manned moon landings, one hundred and thirty-three shuttle missions, the launch of a lone telescope that revealed the universe to be even more stunning and mysterious than we imagined, and dozens of missions to planets, asteroids, comets and moons throughout the solar system.  That we were able to harness the creativity of thousands and direct it to one romantic end gives me hope for the future.

The sun as photographed by NASA's Extreme Ultraviolet Imaging Telescope

Jupiter's Red Spot, which has changed significantly since I was a kid.

Saturn as photographed by the Cassini spacecraft

"Stellar Snowflake Cluster"--Hubble

*Disclaimer: I took none of the photos in this post.  I have never traveled into space, never floated above the earth, never orbited the moon.  I did build Star Trek models when I was a kid.  That’s something.  You know you did too… the one person who knows I’m talking about him or her.  You!

All photos from NASA.

*I actually searched for the official number of successful shuttle missions.  I found the numbers 123 and 119, each source dated this year.  TIME published an article today that placed the number at 133.  I guess I’m going with that one!

Where Memory Counts: Bound for the Deserts, Volcanoes, and Mountains of Northern Chile

I’m going to the deserts of Northern Chile.  I’m bringing with me a small backpack with some clothes, shoes, and a few books to read.  I’m going because I want to take a break from this chaotic world where anyone can access me wherever I am at any time of day, where with a click of a mouse or a tap on a touch screen, I can find out the GDP of Turkmenistan or read about the manias of Charlie Sheen.  I’m leaving this world where memory counts for less and connectivity counts for more.  Who cares to know about the ravages of World War II when you can look them up online?  Why carry around encyclopedias of knowledge in your head when you can turn to the all-knowing hive mind for whatever bit of information you may seek?

In the digital age will the younger generations lose touch with the massive effort and commitment that went into unearthing the information they google, writing the stories they read, and filming the movies they watch on their smart phones as they sit silently with their families at the dinner table?  Will the products of human ingenuity (and stupidity) in general become detached from the monumental efforts that went into forging them?

I worry that the young live in a world in which everything is a finished product, tailored to their wants and delivered to them on demand.  I worry that the connection we once had with the earth, our understanding of the relationship between labor and survival, weakens further as our creations become separated from the long and difficult processes that yielded them: the collaborations, the face-to-face conversations, the brainstorming sessions, the trial and error and repeated failures.

If the young live in a world of finished products, how will they learn to labor toward their own goals?  How will they know that the act of creation costs, draws energy, demands toil; and how will they know that such efforts, in order to be undertaken, must be compensated?  Ideas originate in the mind.  They may benefit from access to the hive, but for them to form in the first place the mind must swell with experiences and information and wisdom, and the connections that emerge from this rich inner-world.

I’m going to Northern Chile because I want to be in a place where memory counts.  The high deserts, the snow-dusted volcanoes that ring them, the Pink Flamingos that wade in shallow turquoise lagoons and stir barely a ripple, the Andes that stretch toward infinity to the north and to the south so that one might imagine that they wrap around the entire planet and hold it together like an unbreakable chain with a million colossal links —the whole scene is a window into the earth’s memory.  It contains knowledge dating back millions of years.  Stories flow out this parched landscape as from the mouth of a planetary Shakespeare.

I want to stand atop one of these mountains and listen to the earth as it tells me its story.  Speak to me, earth, of cataclysms, asteroid impacts, floods, and eruptions.  Tell me of braids of water that flowed into this desert long ago and carved out the wrinkles of its dessicated skin, revealed its many red, yellow and white hues.  Speak to me, earth, of dinosaurs, birds, and squirrel-like mammals that frolicked and died in your hands, and of societies that found sustenance in your soil and beauty in your cracked, age-worn face.

*Note: I should say that overall I think our world is better than it was not that long ago.  We’re more tolerant, etc.  I’m not all apocalyptic.  I just think we’ll have to learn to deal with the world we’re creating, and as always, that will be a challenge and we’ll never quite get it JUST right.

Better Things to Come: On Finding Home and Finding a Job

I like to tell stories.  I used to like writing essays, but I don’t have the same confidence in my thoughts and viewpoints as I used to.  I figure that I’m more often wrong than not.  I can’t see how it could be otherwise in this complicated world.  The blog posts that have brought me the greatest pleasure are the ones I’ve written about people and encounters, the ones in which I get to use the narrative devices of fiction to speak truth and shine light on someone else’s existence and how my brush with their life enriched my own.  I’m never entirely comfortable talking about myself, even though I do it all the time and even though self-reflection is half the purpose of most blogs, including my own.  Lately, though, I’ve told fewer stories about others, and I think that my writing has fallen off a bit.  I write for myself, yes, but I blog because I want people to read what I have to say.  I have to earn your time, and lately I’ve been disappointed in my efforts to do so.

Two weeks ago I left a steady teaching job in Texas to move to Kentucky.  Soon my sister, my brother-in-law, and nephew will join me.  I took a gamble.  I moved to Kentucky with no job lined up and with only the prospect of an interview.  I inhabited this new state but I couldn’t see it as home so long as nothing anchored me here.  Since I arrived, Barnes and Noble has served as my de facto internet service provider, which is a problem because in exchange for use of B&N’s wifi I have felt obligated to gorge myself on scones and sugary coffee drinks.  These new habits may prove fatal ;).

Now for the good news: I got the job for which I interviewed.  I will teach Spanish at a local middle school.  Now I know that I’m staying here in Kentucky, and now I call home what formerly struck me as foreign.  The hills glow greener, the birds sing louder and with more feeling, and the people smile more.  Of course, the hills glowed from the beginning, the birds sang with same zest when I arrived here as they do now, and the people always welcomed me to this land that straddles the mid-west and the south and so contains elements of each region’s temperament and idiosyncrasies.  Kentucky didn’t change: I did.  I see Kentucky differently because finally I see it as home.  I belong here.

So now I feel liberated.  Liberated to write a little better and with a little more care.  Liberated to fly to Chile and vagabond for two weeks in that country’s northern deserts, where volcanoes rise out of the emptiness and lord over their realm as ancient kings who wield fire and ash.  I’ll come back with some good stories.  I promise.