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Death of the Immortal

In the moment, I watched, transfixed, gut-punched, as flames colored the smoky nimbus with an infernal glow. The incandescent spire bent, toppled over, and fell, a spear of fire hurled into the breaking heart of Paris. My mind burned with the revelation:

This is how immortals die.

Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris had always been there, a fixture of wonderment, awesome, a masterpiece of stone and lead, wood and glass. She was eternal, a legend shrouded in the mists of a different age, a goddess standing tall in the world of men. It had never occurred to me that she could be harmed, that she could die.

But the sight before me said otherwise. As timbers collapsed, as The Forest of attic timbers, each as old as memory, burned hot and bright, as the conflagration spread down transept and nave, I could only think:

She is gone.

In the aftermath, we learned that not all was lost, that the stone vaults beneath the timbered roof had only failed where the spire had pierced them. The limestone of walls, columns, buttresses, and arches, though crumbling at the edges, had stood firm. Even most of the window glass had survived the heat.

I was a reluctant Roman Catholic as a child, converted to Judaism in my youth, spent decades in agnostic dilemma, and now live a religiously unfettered life as a staunch atheist, and yet . . .

And yet, the cathedral means something to me. She is more than just an icon, a symbol of Catholicism, a relic of a darker age. She is a thing of unutterable beauty. She is the embodiment of the human capacity for aspiration and genius, discipline and devotion, a reflection of the divine within us all. Though it will be decades before she is restored, we will some day be able to once more walk the cruciform aisles beneath her soaring stone.

She is immortal still.

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My father was an analog man.

Etched Limestone Lithography Block

The grandson of a charcoal burner (yes, that was a thing), the son of a cement truck driver, my father was an artist by passion and a lithographer by trade, back in the day when his trade was not far removed from actual litho-graphy, i.e., etching graphics on hunks of limestone (like the one I still have, pictured, right).

As his life progressed, the world moved from Ford’s Model T to Tesla’s Model 3, from The Great Depression to The Great Recession, from flying across the Atlantic to flying to the Moon and Mars, and from the wireless and talkies to smart phones and streaming video. Yet through it all, he managed to never use a computer, even when his industry embraced the technology of digital scanning, imagery, and on-demand printing. The closest he got to the digital world was a DVD player (which he rarely employed, preferring broadcast television) and his little clamshell phone (which he used only in emergencies, and often not even then). (more…)

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I am a child of the Space Race.

The heroes of my early youth (aside from Walt Disney and JFK) were the astronauts of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions. Without fail, I would sit down in front of our little black-and-white television to watch every launch, every splashdown. It never got old, especially during the “seven minutes of terror” during re-entry. I read every article I could find about the programs. I assembled scale models of the boosters and capsules. I used words like “gantry” and “gimbal,” and could instruct adults on the meanings of pitch, roll, yaw, and skew.

As the decade progressed, the space race gave me something to focus on, something other than missile crises, assassinations, Cold War saber-rattling, and duck-and-cover exercises. I cheered with each liftoff and exulted at each return.

Then came Apollo 11.

Apollo 11 was different. Apollo 11 was much more than a liftoff and return. It was a culmination of years of rapt attention. The prospect of a lunar landing would have been enough, but a man on the moon? A man walking on that virginal orb, that silvery fingernail lunette, that icon of the feminine, ever-constant yet ever-changing, both young and ancient at the same time? It filled me with wonder, amazement, anxiety, and the absolute knowledge that, if it happened, if tragedy stayed its hand and we succeeded, the world would never be the same.

Then, on July 21, 1969, Neil and Buzz stepped out on the grey dust of the Sea of Tranquility, and the world looked up in awe.

That year, for my birthday I was given the Revell 1/96 scale Apollo 11 Columbia and Eagle kit, which came with a bit of gold-colored foil to wrap around the base of the LEM, and it was the coolest thing ever. I did not approach this build with my usual pubescent fervor. Oh, no. This kit I assembled like a surgeon, removing parts from their runners with X-Acto precision, shaving flash and sprue from the delicate pieces, applying glue with a sparing hand, and affixing the fragile decals of flag and “UNITED STATES” with a steadiness acquired during years of model-building.

The Columbia and the Eagle hung from my bedroom ceiling, a place of honor where, at night, the LEM’s gold foil glinted in the light from the moon their namesakes had visited. Over time, they were joined by the Orion and Moebius (2001: A Space Odyssey), the Hawk (Space: 1999), X-Wings and TIE fighters (do I really need to tell you where they’re from?) until, dusty and cobwebbed, I finally gave them to my kid brothers to enjoy.

With this as prologue, you can imagine my squee-ful reaction when I learned that I could actually own a piece of Apollo history. It took a nanosecond to make the decision.

The item is not impressive. It’s not a moon rock or a dial or a vintage mission patch. But it is special to me.

Pictured above, encased in a Lucite box, it is a tiny square of the kapton thermal protection blanket that covered Columbia, the Apollo 11 command module. This little square has been to the moon and back. Half a million miles. Pretty damned amazing.

And it makes me very, very happy.

k

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Leonardo da Vinci has fascinated me for a very long time, so when I learned of Walter Isaacson’s biography of the quintessential Renaissance Man, I snapped it up. The hardcover edition is a hefty tome, not merely by virtue of its 624 pages, but also because of the heavy coated paper, employed to better display the many color plates and illustrations that are scattered throughout the book.

Isaacson’s analysis of Leonardo’s life, personality, virtues, and faults, is engagingly warm and human, bringing the deified icon of the Italian Renaissance back down to earth. That Leonardo was a genius is not in dispute—his wide-ranging expertise on everything from anatomy to optics to engineering to painting to architecture provide ample proof of his genius—but he was a flawed one, given to bouts of vanity, arrogance, self-doubt, and impatience. His reputation as a master of science and art was matched by his reputation for failure: commissions repeatedly went unfinished, and projects dragged on and on until patrons found someone else to fulfill their needs. (more…)

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I had a bit of a contretemps this week because . . . the internet. The subject was introverts living in an extrovert world. And because it was . . . the internet, naturally, it all began with a meme.

A friend posted a bold-lettered graphic which, in essence, asked the question, “Why does society expect introverts to be talkative and all friendly-like, but never expects extroverts to shut the hell up?” In fairness, it was a bit more acerbic and snarky than my paraphrase, but like I said . . . the internet.

Most folks liked or laughed or commented with the equivalent of a knowing head-nod, but one person took umbrage. “You guys are describing obnoxious people, not extroverts.”

Well . . . no. Not in my experience, anyway. (more…)

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A bit of cross-pollination, this week.

I was intrigued by a blog post from the always-interesting candidkay, in which she detailed the selection for her word for the year: “wonder.”

Wonder—as in “sense of wonder” rather than “Hmm . . . I wonder . . .”—has long been a thing encouraged in my household. We love it. I mean, there are phenomena in this world that are just so . . . wonderful . . . that they make me glad to be alive.

I have some tried-and-true sources for “sensawunda.” Watching a cephalopod change the color and texture of its skin in the blink of an eye. Standing in the middle of a Gothic cathedral and looking up at tons of stone that hang above me, all lifted by human hands, all suspended by the power of physics. Seeing the spirals amid the seeds of a sunflower or embedded in a sectioned nautilus shell, and recognizing the mathematics (which I poorly understand) that predict each rank, each row, each curve.

Recently, though, I hadn’t experienced that sensawunda—life has been filled with too much of the pedestrian and mundane of late—and I had actually forgotten how lovely a few moments of wonderment can be.

And then, just as I was ruing that lack, I was struck by a thing I hadn’t thought before, a thing that made me go ooooh, that is so cool. (more…)

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Regular readers know that I battle with perfectionism. It chides me for what I’m not doing, and berates me for what I have done. Perfectionism is both a goad and a hindrance, in equal measure, and believe me, it’s bloody exhausting.

One of my recently acquired mantras is, “If you’re not changing something, then your essentially okay with it,” and since I’m definitely not okay with my perfectionism, I’ve been working to find ways to suppress it altogether, circumvent the hurdles it places in my way, or at least ameliorate its nastier effects.

Enter the Shakers. (more…)

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