Another flaw in the human character is that everybody wants to build and nobody wants to do maintenance.
– Kurt Vonnegut, Hocus Pocus
One of my habits is to look at Wikipedia’s on-this-date page. That’s how I learned of the Arecibo Message. On November 16, 1974, the Arecibo Observatory sent a greeting to the M13 star cluster.
The message was kind of a radio version of the Golden Records on the Voyager probes. It had numbers, scientific formulas, graphics of humans and the solar system, etc.
M13 is about 25,000 light years away, so it’s unlikely we’ll be around if there’s a response. Still, I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking this was the neighborly thing to do.
Now then. You know that thing where you’ve only just learned of something, then you promptly encounter it again? Well, three days later I read this:
Arecibo, a giant radio observatory nestled in the lush mountains of Puerto Rico, did some of the dreamiest work in astronomy. But it was forced to stop operations this year after suffering unprecedented damage, and officials now believe that it is beyond repair. Instead of trying to fix it, they’re going to tear it down.
Look at the photos. It looks like a post-civilization relic. It’s a damned shame.
John Noble Wilford knew that he was writing one of the most important stories of the century: The first human landing on another world. His article — for the front page of The New York Times on July 21, 1969, needed to begin with a sentence that conveyed the immensity of the moment. And so, after the launch on July 16, but before the landing, he spent a sleepless night trying to come up with [this] opening sentence, known in the journalism business as a lede: Men have landed and walked on the moon.
I got around to reading Jill Lepore’s These Truths: a History of the United States. It’s good, but that’s not my point. My point is this: nowhere in its 933 pages will you find the moon landing. Nor the Apollo program. Nor anything, really, about America in space. I find this incredible.
(NASA is referred to briefly in describing the federal role in science research. Which… Yes…)
Obviously, if you write such a book, you’re going to have to pick and choose. Still. Alex Jones is mentioned four times. John Hinckley twice. Linda Tripp once. Neil Armstrong? Nope.
I’m an Apollo fanboy, so it’s an affront. But I’m also a history teacher, so I find it genuinely curious. Imagine the responses you’d get if you went back to July 1969 and asked historians and journalists – or hell, anyone – if it would ever be possible to write a good history of the United States with such omission.
Perhaps Mr. Wilford is to blame:
Another thing he did not want was “to have ‘historic’ in the lede,” he said. “It’s a lame way to say something is important.”
Earlier this year I volunteered for a primary campaign up in New Hampshire. On occasion I’d chat with other volunteers about the state of the race. We were, obviously, all in for our candidate, but we also were – or appeared – able to analyze the race with dispassion. The consensus was that the race was a toss-up, and it might well go down to the convention.
And whenever Joe Biden was mentioned, we’d solemnly say it was a shame he had to go out like this.
A few days after the 2016 election, I picked up an iPad and found the browser open to this:
One of my many regrets about the 2016 election is the time I spent following it. Boy, did I read a lot of articles, and listen to a lot of podcasts, about how Trump wouldn’t win. All that came to mind when I saw this the other day:
Whatever surprises await, I leave you with my favorite headline of the 2020 campaign.
There’s a French term, le rhythme scolaire. Predictably, it’s more elegant than its English translation. I like it because it sounds like a dance or something. Also, it calls to mind circadian rhythm.
Monday found me back in the classroom for the first time in six months. I’m back with a few other teachers, and students who are in the high-needs category.
It’s a strange experience. Most of the classrooms are empty. You see March dates on sign-out sheets. I keep having to ask students to speak up, what with the masks and the ventilation system.
It feels good to be back. It was really hard trying to teach remotely kids who don’t speak English. Now that we’re in the classroom together, I can solve in seconds problems that would have taken hours just to diagnose. (You try and figure out someone’s login issue when you can’t see what they’re doing, and don’t speak their language.) It’s like being a pianist allowed to face the keyboard and take off the oven mitts.
My rhythm scolaire isn’t biologically hardwired like my circadian rhythm, but it might as well be. I’ve spent almost four decades going to school, either to sit at desks or stand before them. Being away for six months really threw it out of whack.
In February I drove a friend to Portsmouth, NH so she could buy a car. The other day I drove a friend to Naugatuck, CT so he could buy a SUV. I would now like to tell all my friends that automobiles are sold in Massachusetts.
Speaking of the Commonwealth, I’ve got a story about the Registry of Motor Vehicles. This was also back in February, but my fear is that what with the subsequent pandemic, my inconvenience may have gone unremarked.
It happened like this. I bought a used car off a friend, and went in to transfer the title. But the friend had written the mileage on the wrong line. I was told that I’d have to obtain from her a notarized letter that she did so in error. So I went and got that – which was, believe me, no bagatelle – and returned that afternoon.
This time the gatekeeper asked if I had proof of insurance. I pointed to the insurance certification stamp on the paperwork. “An insurance certification stamp is not proof of insurance!” she said.
I did not know how to reply. It seemed to me this declaration would be acceptable only in a philosophy seminar. But I stood there and nodded slowly, hoping to convey both that I recognized the import of what she said, and that I was a simpleton in need of charity. Happily, instead of dismissing me again, she sent me to a computer terminal to print out the necessary proof.
Once there I was of course promptly flummoxed, and sought the assistance of another employee, who, after informing me that my previous interlocutor didn’t know what she was talking about, bade me take a number and sit. An hour later I was out with the necessary documents.
I was reminded of this passage in Joseph O’Neill’s estimable Netherland, about a trip to the Herald Square DMV that concludes less satisfactorily:
America has only three cities: New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans. Everywhere else is Cleveland.
– Tennessee Williams
I spent a few days in Cleveland in June. It really liked it, and into the bargain found the ten-hour drive each way positively restorative. That’s lockdown for you.
To my additional surprise, I found Cleveland quite beautiful. The parks, the buildings, the houses. At least where I was staying, in the University District. It’s a pretty big city. Then again, I have the Bostonian provincialism of being forever surprised at how big other cities are.
And yes, I did go to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It was… fine. I was both underwhelmed and glad I went. It was neat seeing James Jamerson’s upright bass, the receipt Elvis signed for his Army rifle, and #8 below. (“Well done, lads! You’ll go far!”)
Now and then my mailbag fills with queries à la “O! Pete! How might I, like you, increase the brotherhood of man?” Three practical steps follow.
Get a spare baseball glove. Playing catch is satisfying and socially distant amusement.
Every 15th of the month, meet up with your local friends. Everyone’s always busy, and spontaneously trying to organize a night out requires a Cray. So, instead, just pick the 15th*, and you/your friends either make it or don’t. I say from experience that after a few months you’ll have seen your friends more than you’ve seen them in the preceding year.
Ars Longa, Vita Brevis
If quarantine has shown you anything, it’s that the interior of your residence needs improvement. The estimable William Schaff can help. He’s got a new website and store: https://williamschaff.com
* Obviously the date doesn’t matter; it’s the consistency that’s important. I chose the 15th because seeing them, I told my friends, was equally dreadful to filing taxes. Funny! Anyway, I stole the idea from this article. Can’t match the proposed ‘Every Wednesday,’ but I do admire it.