The World Is Thirsting

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Things were slower, less complicated when I was a child. The noises that I heard came mostly from the hum of daily living that wafted through the open windows of my home. There was a kind of routine on my street that rarely varied, even in the summertime when school was out for three full months. The world became relaxed in June, July and August, filled with precious time that I was able to use however I wished.

The cooler mornings always lead me outside to see if anyone else had ideas for new adventures, but by noon the heat often became too much for us to bear and so we retreated back inside our houses where we were sheltered from the burning rays of the sun, if not the humidity and heat. Most homes on my street had massive attic fans that pulled hot air in through the windows, creating a kind of artificial breeze that made our climate only slightly more bearable. Afternoons were a good time for quiet play and so we engaged in marathon card games or set up never ending boardgames like Monopoly.

Without a doubt reading was my favorite pastime when summer rolled around. I positioned myself on my bed in front of an open window and forgot all about the temperature or any of my worries as I escaped into worlds brought vividly to life with words that painted pictures in my mind. It mattered little what volume lay before me. I was willing to explore new authors, new genres. The excitement was in expanding my universe from the confines of my little house, my street, my neighborhood. Through those books I traveled all around the world and learned of people and cultures. I considered new ideas and felt as adventurous as if I had actually embarked on a junket to the far corners of the universe.

I guiltlessly indulged in the stories that expanded my horizons and taught me the beauty of language. Each summer I was mesmerized by the written word and its power to transport and transform me. I read voraciously like a starved soul, and mentally catalogued my favorite authors and titles. I little understood at the time how much more complicated my life and the world would eventually become, but as the years went by and I entered my adulthood, the luxury of spending hours reading for three months out of the year would become little more than a memory. My time became ever more filled with obligations that absconded with the minutes and hours. I found myself rushing from one thing to do to another. I was lucky to find a few minutes here and there to stoke my passion for reading. I had to steal moments from my always filled calendar, and somehow my favorite thing to do became that last thing that I would do, often reading long after everyone else in the house had gone to sleep. In the quiet of the night I escaped from my own complex world to those of others.

The list of books that I have read speaks to the change in my habits. I have enjoyed most of the classics but I am sadly unfamiliar with so many of the modern authors. I simply haven’t found as much time to discover them and yet so often when I do I am enthralled. I suspect that there is a whole new world of wonder just waiting for me if only I can talk myself into slowing down. I raced through my days for so long that even in retirement I don’t seem able or willing to return to the delightfully slow pace of my childhood. I have bought into the idea that I must somehow justify the merit of each day by ticking off my accomplishments. I am still trying to justify spending three or four hours reading everyday when so many other things need to be done.

Perhaps I must teach myself once again to be more like a child, open to letting each day unfold without plans or expectations. I need to release the stresses and guilts that we adults so often carry like baggage. I must accept that giving time to myself is as important as giving to others. I try to remember that it was in the innocence of childhood that I learned so much that made me who I am today, and those hours reading were invaluable in my development.

I’ve heard that people do not read as much today as they once did. Libraries don’t see as much traffic. Bookstores sell fewer volumes. Newspapers are struggling to sell subscriptions. I know folks who blithely admit that they haven’t read a book in years. We spend time that might be better used reading in the pursuit of other activities  like playing computer games or posting on Facebook or tweeting our thoughts. We feel as though we know more about what is happening in the world, but we rarely bother to read up on the facts behind the headlines. Our knowledge is often limited to the soundbites that we accept from our favorite politicians or celebrities. We believe without going into depth on any topic, learning the history and all of the background. We rush around and rely on others to keep us informed. We have incomplete pictures of the world because even with all of the global communication at our fingertips we still operate in tiny bubbles that rarely give us the big picture. We readily believe whatever lines up with our own thinking rather than challenging ourselves by seeking to delve more deeply 

Reading challenged me when I was in my formative years. It taught me about the history of mankind and the variety of personalities that comprise the human race. I learned to think and to see the difference between a fact and an opinion. Those hours spent feeding my mind that seemed so lazy and even a bit selfish were actually some of the most important moments of my life. There is little that I might have done that would have been more valuable and truly I suspect that it is more important than ever for me and the rest of the world to set aside time to learn lessons from the past and ways to move toward the future.

In spite of the nonstop flurry of headlines and commentaries our world is thirsting for knowledge and information. We are falling victim to propagandizing that is everywhere. Reading is the antidote for our malaise. Just as with exercise, the more we read the better our minds will be, particularly when we don’t limit ourselves to one point of view. I’m ready to begin a journey into the world of books once again. I have a fine list of suggested titles from a friend. I can’t wait to start reading.   

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To Infinity and Beyond

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Dear Mr. President,

I hear that you want to create a Space Force as the sixth branch of the Department of Defense. I’m not sure what particulars that you have in mind, so I wanted to make a few comments and ask a few questions. First and foremost I simply wonder why such a step even seems necessary. I mean it’s not as if space is suddenly crowded with military type drills that threaten the world. The International Space Station is perhaps one of the greatest and most peaceful joint ventures ever attempted, a scientific research lab for the world if you will. It appears to be doing fine without need of defense, and I don’t see enemy nations attempting to overtake it any time soon. It takes quite a bit of public effort to get there, so we shouldn’t have to worry that there will be some sort of stealth invasion in the near future.

Does this mean that the Pentagon will have to become the Hexagon? Can we really afford to spend taxpayers funds to rebuild when we have a perfectly good space campus right here in Houston, Texas called NASA? In case nobody told you we actually have a nice layout that is already staffed with engineers and scientists and even some well trained astronauts who are tan, fit and ready to travel into outer space. The unit has been a bit neglected of late with lowered funding curtailing their activities, but they have a fairly impressive resume of accomplishments. They’ve sent men to the moon more than once and they have already managed to get live photo feeds from Mars. Would these guys become the first Space Cadets? As the originator of the Space Force might you become Space Cadet in Chief?

I hear that your generals are against this plan. It seems that they are up to their eyeballs in wartime efforts here on earth and don’t feel that they have either the manpower or the finances to begin such a daunting project. Besides, they are not totally sure about the purpose of such a grand move. They are a bit befuddled by the suddenness of the announcement and the vagueness of the details. They worry about using human and monetary resources when the need might be better met by other governmental agencies. Is there really a demand to defend space, and do you understand that the universe is a really big place. Are you willing to expand our military to infinity and beyond?

I find myself wondering if you know something that the rest of us don’t know. Is there finally proof that aliens have indeed been to visit earth? If so, are there plans to include rules for them in future immigration plans? Will we need to confer and collaborate with other nations since this would be a worldwide problem? If so, then perhaps you may want to make nice with the members of G7 since you dissed them a bit at the last conference. Then again I wonder if you are attempting to keep aliens from coming here or if your plan is to keep most of the world from going into space. Will all of this necessitate a wall? What will it look like and what are your enforcement plans?

My guess is that there may actually be young people who would like to become members of the Space Force since becoming an astronaut is so difficult. Will there be local recruiting stations or will the troops be created from those in the five branches of the military that already exist? Has anyone come up with an idea for a uniform, a song, and maybe even an academy? Will there be annual football games featuring Army vs. Space? It sounds as though there is some potential for a great deal of fun along with the hard work.

I know that our veterans are struggling in so many ways. Do you think that you will be able to improve life for them while still generating enough interest and funding for a whole new branch? Just sayin…

My understanding of the Constitution is that Congress will have to approve such a change. Have you discussed the issues and possibilities with them or was this simply one of your spur of the moment ideas that popped out of your mouth without aforethought? I’m not trying to be rude, I was just taken by surprise and I wonder if the members of the House and Senate may have felt the same way. With so many real issues to tackle does this actually appear to be the right time for something that surely can wait until things are a bit calmer? I mean, we are rather overwhelmed these days paying for seven hundred dollar a night shelters for immigrants among other things.

Finally I just have to ask because it is driving me crazy. Is it even remotely possible that you are in fact a representative from another planet? I’m a very observant person and there are times when you don’t seem to be one of us. You struggle with the English language and your ideas are often way out there. I often find myself scratching my head in wonderment that you are so disconnected to the realities right here on earth. There is a different kind of nature about you that I at first attributed to the fact that you grew up in a kind of bubble inside a wealthy home in New York City, but what if you are indeed the first of many from a world to come. After all you do have a kind of hypnotic effect on many people who are willing to support you almost mindlessly. It reminds me a bit of old sci-fi movies like The Invasion of The Body Snatchers”

Anyway, I would love to have a few more details about the Space Force as I’m sure most Americans and citizens of the rest of world would as well. Please keep us informed insofar as possible. Be aware the big moves done too quickly tend to freak us out. Also remember that you are not supposed to be singlehandedly changing the face of the nation. Your job is to manage what is already here and to work with the duly designated lawmakers in Congress. I sometimes think that you have become a bit confused in that regard.

Running

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There is nothing as stunningly lovely as watching a human or an animal in the act of running, particularly when the form and the speed are nearing perfection. The mechanics of moving fast display bodies at their utmost acheivement of beauty and adaptation to the environment around them. Runners unleash energy and power that seems to overcome the very forces of gravity. We may never be able to fly without a machine, but like gazelles and cheetahs we humans have the ability to push ourselves to move like the wind. When that skill is honed to its highest level it is no less inspiring than a symphony.

Even with our best efforts those who stand erect and run on two legs have never quite found a way to outrun some of the creatures that live around us, but we have bonded with one that has carried us from place to place and in and out of life’s events. That animal is of course the horse, and it is the one creature that I find to be the most strikingly handsome in all of the animal kingdom. Of course that is just an opinion, but one to which I have returned again and again, based solely on the feeling of elation that I always experience whenever I see a horse running wild and free. It is a sight that never fails to take my breath away.

If I seek a friend, I will get a dog, but if I want aesthetic satisfaction I must watch a horse or a group of them doing the things that are so natural to them. They are indeed among God’s most incredible creations, and even though I have never had opportunities to own one or ride one more than passingly, I have had a secret adoration of them. I have been especially envious of  those whose lives have intersected with horses, because I suspect that there is a kind of spiritual union between humans and horses that must be experienced to be understood.

Growing up in Texas I have had ample time to view horses, and I have known many people who owned such animals and enjoyed a kind of oneness with them. Horses became a kind of passion for them that has enriched their lives with a bond between themselves and their animals that releases them from the stresses of daily living. Their horses do not disappoint or become disloyal. Human and horse share a kind of friendship that belies the differences between them. I have seen the faces of those lucky enough to be with horses when they speak of their steeds and the delighted light in their eyes tells me how wondrous it must be to know what they know.

I have two grandsons who are talented runners. When they are moving down the track they leave me breathless both from the realization of how fast they are moving and the loveliness of the mechanics of their bodies. So it is for me with horses, which makes me particularly happy for my granddaughter who is now learning how to ride. She hopes to one day be a veterinarian and hers is not just a childish dream. She is already studying and planning and creating goals to realize her ambition. Learning to ride a horse is part of that objective. She understands that she must become familiar and relaxed with animals if she is to one day care for them. She must know them with all of their tendencies and traits. I admire her so for following through on her passion just as my grandsons do with their running, but I am also secretly thrilled that she will ride horses regularly as I have always wished to do.

It’s too late for me to join my granddaughter on the back of a stallion. My bones are brittle and easily broken. I have been warned by my doctors to stay away from sport that may result in a fall, so have put away my skates and sold my bicycle. I have to keep my feet as firmly planted on the ground as possible, but nothing can keep me from watching and observing. I can still enjoy the sight of my grandsons running with so much grace. Nothing is stopping me from enjoying the image of a horse running with or without a rider. It is such a glorious sight that I am able to picture it in my mind, and it always makes me smile.

We humans dominate nature and its creatures. We should always remind ourselves to be stewards of the abundant blessings that have been bestowed upon us. It is incumbent that we care for what we have and never forget to appreciate what we have been given. Life is precious whether it be a a flowering garden, an animal living beside us, or a baby in a womb. We have been tasked to make the most of all of earth’s treasures, and just as we care for our own health we must be conscious of the health of our planet and all that exists on it. I would hate to think that we might one day awake to find that the trees and flowers have turned brown or the waters are clouded with debris. Even worse would be losing our animals. Like many native Americans I believe that the horses and dogs and bears and bees are our brothers and sisters. They were meant to be as much a part of our earth as are we, and so we must remind ourselves to honor them as best we can.

I can imagine the sight of powerful horses running with precision, but I don’t want to imagine a world without them. I don’t believe that any of us are on the brink of extinction, but I do believe that without curbing our own hungers we might destroy far too much of our world. Our rule should be to find moderation in all things. Waste not want not is a very good motto. Turn out a light. Walk more. Eat less. Repair rather than throw away. Simplify, simplify, simplify. Keep the horses running. Keep humankind at its best.

The Other Side Of The Stars

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‘It would not be much of a universe if it wasn’t home to the people you love.’

—Stephen Hawking

On the day I was born a little six year old boy was running around in Great Britain oblivious to the amazing future that he would eventually enjoy. Stephen Hawking was a bright child who would over time stun the world with his grasp of astrophysics, but in 1948, nobody might have guessed that his story would become the stuff of movies. Not even when Stephen had demonstrated his intellect while engaged in his university studies did the full potential of his life reveal itself. The feeling that he was a kind of shooting star, rare but brief, only became more likely when he was diagnosed with ALS while in his twenties. Doctors told him that his lifespan would be short, but somehow he defied the odds and rather than spending his time worrying about his impending death he went on to become one of the world’s most respected scientists.

Stephen Hawking merged Einstein’s theories of the universe with the Big Bang theory, explaining the workings of the universe in an almost lyrical style. His best selling book A Brief History of Time while tackling topics often difficult to comprehend made his theories more accessible to ordinary souls like me who usually struggle to understand the complexities of how the vast world of space actually works. He became an icon in the scientific community and an approachable and fun loving character in popular culture, all while confined to a wheelchair and unable to speak without the aid of a computerized voice simulator. He possessed a love for life in spite of his physical difficulties and enjoyed poking fun at himself. He was a living miracle in our midst who demonstrated more than anything the power of optimism and an unwillingness to allow problems to dictate his destiny.

I first heard of Stephen Hawking when his book became a best seller. I purchased and read it with a bit of caution because its subject was not of the sort that I generally enjoyed. I love mathematics but my forays into the domain of physics and astronomy had been lackluster at best. They simply were not topics of great interest to me. That changed as I turned the pages of A Brief History of Time and began to grasp the workings of the universe in a manner that had previously been unattainable. I had to know who this brilliant individual was, and how he had managed to use words to so beautifully explain ideas that were almost beyond my human comprehension. I instantly became a fan.

Stephen Hawking was an unlikely rockstar. His shriveled body and strange robotic like voice should have made him odd, but instead they made his achievements feel even more incredible. He taught all of us that overcoming even the most difficult obstacles is possible. He ignored the naysayers who counseled him that his disease would severely limit his capabilities and his lifespan. He continued his work against all odds. His approach to life was perhaps even more remarkable than his brilliant mind, or perhaps it was because of his ability to envision a world beyond the limits of earth that he was so successful.

Stephen Hawking made it to the age of seventy six before he succumbed to his illness last week, an unheard of span of time for those afflicted with ALS to the extent that he was. Somehow it seems to me that he was one of those people who are sent to the rest of us for a very dramatic purpose. Like an Abraham Lincoln, a Leonardo da Vinci or a Martin Luther King he gave us all the gifts of his abilities, inspiring us to reconsider our own contributions to the world around us. His legacy should push us to do more with ours.

I have always believed that each of us has a purpose no matter how small it may seem. We may not ever have the reach of someone like Stephen Hawking but as long as we have breaths to take we have the capability of somehow making a difference. Ours may not be lives as mind blowing as Stephen Hawking’s but even bringing a smile to someone’s face is an accomplishment. If we multiply our goodness and our talents millions of times over this universe becomes a better place that we might call home with the people that we love.

Rest in peace, Stephen Hawking. You challenged us to think, to be stronger and to understand and appreciate our universe. Your imperfections were many but you overcame your challenges and demonstrated the kind of courage and determination that we should all seek. Enjoy your new view of the universe. We will one day see you again on the other side of the stars.

Elon, Larry, Mike and More

Starman_SpaceXIt’s been a very long time since I have felt the rush of excitement that I used to get whenever a new space mission was televised. I grew up in an era of rocketry firsts that literally took my breath away when they were happening. I saw Alan Shepard become the first American to go into space. I watched John Glenn make history with his orbits around the earth. I was tuned in when Neil Armstrong uttered his famous words as he stepped onto the surface of the moon and worried with the rest of world when the crew of Apollo 13 announced to Houston that they had a problem. I marveled at the Space Shuttle and the very idea that there might be a vehicle that could return from a journey to be used again and again. I was watching in horror when the Challenger blew up just after launching. I enjoyed the advances that allowed astronauts to make repairs and live for weeks in a space station. I believed that the most wonderful qualities of humans were encapsulated in the space program and as it all seemed to fade away I felt a sadness that was difficult to explain. Then seemingly from out of nowhere came a most remarkable feat that has reawakened my belief that one day in the future we will be able to journey across the universe.

The launch of Falcon Heavy by SpaceX last week was so stunning that I literally found myself crying tears of sheer joy and excitement. Everything about the event was spectacular from the music by David Bowie that accompanied the liftoff to the glorious humor that sent a cherry red Tesla into orbit with its Starman passenger gleefully hitching a ride. Perhaps even more stunning, however, was watching the booster rockets return to earth and land precisely on target to be used again, a triumph that at one time seemed impossible. Elon Musk, the innovator and maestro of the flight is surely a pure genius, who like Da Vinci and Einstein before him has an ability to see the world in ways that move all of mankind forward in our quest for knowledge. He is one of those people who does the impossible. He has managed to make America and humanity great again in ways that no politician has enjoyed.

Progress has always depended on those who are unafraid to gaze into the future. They are the dreamers and risk takers among us. Sometimes we scratch our heads as they announce their ideas, thinking them foolish or worse. We can’t always comprehend the seeming silliness of their notions, but they believe nonetheless and are compelled to move forward in spite of the negativity that often surrounds them.

I have a friend named Larry who long ago announced that he wanted to start a business selling t-shirts with messages and illustrations on them. This was at least fifty years ago at a time when shirts of all sorts were generally plain and of all one color save for stripes or plaids. The very concept of clothing with more personality seemed strange to those of us with whom he shared his proposal. He wanted to set up a kiosk inside a mall to sell his wares. He had heard of a machine that would place a decal on a shirt using heat. He imagined people flocking to personalize their clothing, We instead insisted that he would be wasting his money and his talents to pursue such a bizarre notion. How were we to know that he was indeed on to something very, very big? He was a seer of sorts, while we were too tethered to thoughts of how things had always been to be willing to accept his out of the box thinking.

On another occasion when we visited Larry he proudly showed us a huge box near his television. He explained that the machine would record any program that he wished to keep for the future. We were polite as he explained how it worked and what its uses might be. Inside our heads, however, we felt that his had been a ridiculous purchase. After all,  we wondered, who would ever want to make a recording of a show? Once you watched it why would you want to see it again? We simply did not have the vision that Larry had. Our ability to see ahead was far too limited. Unlike Larry we were not willing to think of the world as it might be.

My brother Mike was very much like Elon Musk and Larry from the time that he was only three or four years old. He walked around with a book written by Werner von Braun that told a tale of man one day  going to the moon. He tucked it under his tiny arm like a treasured toy and gazed at the illustrations of rockets and living quarters in space vehicles as though he was enjoying the characters of a little Golden Book. He told everyone who would listen that one day a man would go to the moon and that he was going to be a mathematician so that he might help to design systems for building the craft. Adults laughed good-naturedly at his assertions, but he was totally serious, and he built his life around those goals. He created a marble computer when he was in high school that won him the Grand Prize at the Houston Science and Engineering Fair. He went to Rice University and studied mathematics and Electrical Engineering. In time he went to work for Boeing Aerospace in conjunction with NASA and eventually authored the computer program for the navigation system of the International Space Station. He too was someone who was always able to envision a future that was far more exciting and complex than most of us are capable of realizing and he sustained the confidence to follow his journey.

Now I have a grandson named Jack who is imagining the possibilities of one day being part of the SpaceX team designing software. A granddaughter named Abigail is already recording ideas for making the care of animals more humane. Grandson William is writing stories about the future. The odyssey of the mind continues with amazing individuals who see a box of junk as a source of possibilities. These kinds of people turn problems into magical creations. They are the thinkers and dreamers who move us ever forward. They are the future and instead of chuckling at their imaginations we would do well to encourage them to propel us forward.