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Kayaking today was a bust. We woke up early to have brekkie before the sun rose (this is the month of fasting for Baha’is), but then we went back to sleep. By the time Lorenia and I got out of bed at 11am to find her sister Marianna already awake, the prospect of driving to Tampa to spend $225 for a half day at Busch Gardens had lost its appeal. We settled on kayaking, in spite of Lorenia’s sunburn and allergy to mosquitoes (kudos to her bravery in that regard). Rather than drive an hour to Orlando for kayaking in Wekiva Springs, we called a local place and decided to paddle through the mangrove swamp. Unfortunately, upon arrival the owner informed us that he had rented his seven kayaks to a large group before we could get there. Unfazed, we regrouped at Starbucks (for Marianna, obviously, it is the Fast) and revised our plan of attack. We settled on putt-putt golf.
On the way to Starbucks we drove through the intersection where, three and a half years ago, I witnessed a fatal motorcycle accident. I thought about it as we passed, as I do every time I drive through that intersection, but chose not to voice the memory to my passengers. After Starbucks we got back in the car to drive about five blocks north to the miniature golf course. Spring Break traffic was poking along at about 35mph, moving in pulses through the redlights. We passed a motorcyclist tailgating an economy car in the left lane. He was wearing a black helmet, but no shirt.
“I’m glad he’s wearing a helmet, but if he gets into an accident, his chest, arms, shoulders and all the skin on his torso are gone,” I said aloud. I was thinking of a skidding accident, though, not a collision.
At that moment, someone about six cars ahead in his lane slowed to make a left turn. I could see the traffic braking in his lane. My lane was clear, but his was quickly coming to a complete stop. I watched him in my rearview mirror, trying to inform him telepathically. I lost sight of him behind the traffic in his lane. Suddenly I heard his engine rev to the redline. Was he being impatient? A split second later, a sickening, crunching thud. No tire screech. Just 35 to zero in an instant.
I lifted my foot from the accelerator, unsure of what to do. I remember thinking, “If I were I doctor, I would be required by law to stop.” As distance grew between us and the accident, I saw the driver of the economy car get out and walk to the rear of his car to see what the heck had just transpired. I considered calling 911, but most times I phone in accidents they tell me I’m the fifth caller. Within a few seconds we made our turn into “Fantasy Adventure Golf.” I sat in the car for a few minutes while Lorenia patiently talked me through it.
Looking back, it’s quite possible that his engine revved by accident as he panicked when reaching for the brake and hit the throttle instead. At the time, however, it sure seemed as though he was using it to voice his impatience. And it certainly isn’t intelligent to follow a car with only five feet between you and the bumper. As Lorenia pointed out, physics always wins.
Still, he was wearing a helmet. Shirt or no, I don’t wish accident or injury on anyone. We all make our own choices when faced with this reality. Were we callous to keep going? Not really. The world cannot afford to stop for every human death. That is, assuming he died, which is a very good possibility. We humans die at a rate of more than one per second. We’re born even faster. Life, for better or worse, always moves on. Your circle of influence affects the size of the ripple through the fabric of society that your absence leaves, but in the scheme of the universe, we don’t register. Thankfully for my sanity, I believe in an omnipotent and benevolent Creator, or else this line of reasoning might drive me to suicide. I said two prayers for him: a healing prayer in case he survived and is in a hospital as I type, and a prayer for the departed in case his soul has moved on to the next world.
You might find it interesting to go back and read my account of the last time I witnessed a motorcycle accident in Cocoa Beach, contrasting it with this one, given the knowledge that when I wrote the 2005 entry I was not a Baha’i and could not bring myself to believe in God. I figure now that if I’ve seen two of these wrecks in five years, it must happen all the time. Just like people dying. And life always goes on, just like it did for us.
We played eighteen holes.
My coworker Chris was tucking his five-year-old son Miles into bed last night.
“Dad, I don’t want Mom to die.”
“Well, Miles, we all die.”
“Dad, can you build a time machine so we don’t have to?”
“Anything is possible, son, but I don’t think I’m smart enough to do that. Why don’t you get to work on it?”
Miles paused, and Chris could see the cogs turning in his son’s head.
“Okay, Dad, but I don’t think I can build it out of my legos.”
Arthur C. Clarke, one of my most exalted heroes, has passed to the next world. There is no way I could ever pay proper respect to his spirit or legacy, so I’ll let him speak for himself.
Rest in peace, Mr. Clarke, immersed in everlasting joy and assured in your new, infinite knowledge that all your wishes are true, and will come true for us.
You like coincidences? Check out my most recent flickr photo, which I posted before leaving for Mexico and have left up for nearly a week. I have read 2001: A Space Odyssey, and 2010: Odyssey Two, but until today I did not know that the second sequel was entitled 2061: Odyssey Three. Third book’s the chardm, as they say.
P.S. This is my third visit to Mexico.
I can show you how to help. Lifenets.net is running a campaign to collect 10,000 letters of concern about the situation in Darfur from individuals like you. These letters will automatically be sent to your senators and over 100 other policy makers. Lifenets is trying to collect the final 2,000 letters in the next 24 hours. Will you help? All you have to do is answer three simple questions in your own words and provide your contact information so they can route your letter. You can opt out of any future mailings. In less than five minutes, you can add your voice to the chorus speaking out against this genocide.
Ok stop. Get up, go look in a mirror, fix your own face in your mind, and then come back to this.
I mean it, get up. Go!
Are you back? Good. Got it in your mind? Your identity? That face that you associate with your self? Now think: what did you see? Is that you? No. That’s just the face that’s attached to the body that carries you around, when you let it. What about when you close your eyes? Or when you daydream? Or when you sleep? Where are you? Who are you? What are you? If you’re not your body, then what? A consciousness? An awareness? You are so much more than just your brain, just your synapses firing. They may do the job, but something transcends them. They may be the engine, but you are the driver. Now. As the caterpillar says. WHO ARE YOU?
You’re a human, right?
Well, what is that? It’s certainly much more than a simple primate. You’re not just a hairless monkey running around the savannah. You are sentience. You are awareness. You are consciousness. You have the ability to look in the mirror and see something. You have the unique gift to be able to look up to the heavens, recognize and appreciate the universe, something infintely larger than and beyond you. But you’re even more than that. This may sound presumptuous, but perhaps your definition of yourself is too small.
What do you propose we do when we first contact another civilization? Start all over again with this us vs. them crap? I propose something greater. Let’s take to heart the lesson that Pluto has taught us. Our definitions are like rails upon which our trains of thought run. We often lay them before we’ve truly explored the wilderness to which they lead. We got ourselves into trouble with our quaint little ideas about what a planet is. We take a cursory look around, take note of what we see, then clap the dust off our hands and say, “Welp. That must be it. Nine planets.” Then along comes Planet X. And large asteroids. And Kuiper Belt objects. And extrasolar planets. And suddenly we’re confronted with a conundrum. “Um, exactly what is a planet?”
We could have seen it coming. I mean, all it takes is a little hindsight to focus your foresight. History repeats itself. And these are just rocks. Imagine how serious it’s going to be when we meet Quo, the first Zorplag from planet Kozmotrad. You think people got upset over Pluto? You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.
So here it is, people. Here’s your chance. Decide, right here and now, what it means to be human. And don’t make your definition too narrow. I don’t want you to leave out an entire civilization just because you overlooked exoskeletons. In fact, don’t make the definition too concrete. Because we are definitely going to be surprised. So put a little leeway in there. And be ready, like any good scientist, to revise your theories.
Stumped? Ok, I’ll start. I propose that we decide that the word “human” encompasses more than primate-based sentience on planet Earth. It’s going to be so much easier to interact with other lifeforms if we include them in our paradigm, rather than marginalize them before we even meet them. You only have to look back upon our own history to see all the evil perpetrated against your brothers and sisters because someone decided they were “less than human.”
So do it now. Here, I’ll help you: I declare that to be human simply means you enjoy self-awareness. There, see? Easy peasy. Remember Isaac Asimov (or for those of you with shorter memories, Robin Williams)? Bicentennial Man? Congratulations. You have just welcomed AI into the family. Now don’t be scared. He’s not Frankenstein’s monster. There is a fundamental order to the universe. Anyone who acts in a purely selfish manner can only hope to bring ruin upon them and those around them. Say robots rise up against us, God forbid. And we’re all exterminated. Fine. At least we birthed a higher consciousness. But trust me, that’s not going to happen. I mean, we still respect animals, right? RIGHT?
But back to the aliens. Or, ahem, excuse me: humans. Like us. Just from a different place. And who look really different, if they “look” at all. Do you think for one moment that they will reach a level of civilization that allows us to share information without working together? How can you possibly worry that they will only come here to destroy us? What motive would they have? Oh, wait. You mean…you’re thinking about the Europeans who settled the Americas? Huh. Well, perhaps you have a point.
But I’m optimistic. A civilization that is too violent or war-hungry (in other words, a civilization that is self-destructive, a civilization that is too blind to see that killing a single one of its cells is detrimental to the entire body) won’t last long enough to make first contact. They won’t be around to enjoy that boundless and limitless joy of knowing that ZOMG we are not alone! The only reason anyone gets anywhere is because of all the others who helped them along. I’m sorry, but all those things that you enjoy, including access to the internet that allows you to read this? You didn’t and can’t and don’t own it. You didn’t pay for it. I don’t care if you’re the head of the household like me and BY GOD you pay your bills! That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about if you were the only person on this planet there would be no internet. Hell, there would be no language. In fact, you’d be dead. That’s right, you wouldn’t have survived more than about three days outside whatever fictional or cybernetic or hypothetical womb from which you issued forth.
Here’s something you MUST recognize about the fundamental nature of the universe: the only method for advancement is cooperation. That applies on a cellular level, and it applies on every level up to, including and beyond the Galactic Federation. You are only as educated as the lessons learned by every teacher and student and scientist who went before you. EVERYTHING that you enjoy, everything that sustains your life, everything that allows you to look into that mirror: you owe it to someone else. You did not earn it. I don’t care if you’ve worked hard, but good for you if you have. I want you to understand: you have been given a priceless gift to be breathing right now. You are the sum of the hopes and dreams of every struggling soul who has died and left their legacy to you.
Go. Look in that mirror again, I’ll wait.
What did you see this time? Did you see the innumerable eyes of every human throughout all time looking back at you? Did you see with the eyes of Adam? Can you see with the eyes of Quo? Because that’s who you’re responsible to. Those humans of the past, those humans of the future? That’s who you are. THAT’S YOU. And they’re all counting on you to do your part. It may seem small, but everything you do ripples across the fabric of spacetime to the very ends of the universe.
Now. What are you going to do today? How are you going to apply your unique skills and talents to do the best thing you could possibly do? What is that thing, you ask? It’s called advancing civilization. And how do you do it? By helping others. It’s simple, really. Even a Zorplag can understand it.
The wind whispers strains of a dirge
As you sail in from out of the brume
From the dragon ship’s shadowed arms
Drifts a smoldering, mournful tune
You step from the towering wings
With the cog bursting forth into flames
Making ash of the curve of your prow
Where I once laid to rest your remains
She sinks in the alleys of tears
Her cinders your phoenix’s womb
Your chariot gilded in fire
The quadriga raised from your tomb
From the pyramid toll the five bells
As the porphyry faces look on
This rekindlement beyond the pale
Reparation to rival Sinan
From Byzantine depths you emerge
Fair weather from out of the void
Your larva glows shiny and new
A mask sworn to God unalloyed
But your chrysalis smacks of charade
As you flit through the carnival bends
For as sure as you started from ash
You shall come to an unctuous end
I see as you make the last turn
When your hand holds it tight to your face
The jaw of the truth jutting out
On the visage I long to embrace
For the love of the gold of the mask
Forged in fire you were willing to die
Underneath lies an atrophied heart
On the surface, perfection a lie
If you’re reading this in 2007, chances are pretty good that, like me, you’re going to die in the 21st century. This supposition, of course, is predicated on the idea that the next few decades won’t see some sort of major medical advancement that stretches the human lifespan beyond a century. Given the accelerating pace of technology, perhaps this is not the greatest assumption. Ok, say it is possible for you to live to see 2100. Assuming the robots don’t get you, would you really want to?
I vacillate on the question. Some would argue that immortality robs life of its meaning. But even if we could keep the human body running indefinitely, there’s no ruling out accidental death. Unless of course you lock yourself in a secure room, paid for in perpetuity, with an automated life support system and allow your body to slowly wither away while your brain cavorts in virtual reality until the Sun swallows the Earth. Science fiction aside, I look back at the 20th century and think, who wouldn’t want to live through such awe-inspiring times? The answer, of course, is who would?
Dickens had it right. Nothing changes, everything changes. Any slice of history, however dark or enlightened, would be worth living in. In fact, given the immensity of human experience, you can pick any moment, past or future, and be absolutely sure that in that drop of the river of time that good and bad coexist. Someone was happy and someone was sad. Someone was dying and someone was being born. Someone was in the heaven of ecstasy, someone was in the depths of despair. Indeed, these spectra exist within the confines of one human life.
I was inspired to write tonight by one of my favorite pieces of music; the one that got me through endless nights of study in college; the one that centers me, plunges me into the most profound depths of thought; the one that I would love to have sung at my funeral (impractical as that would probably be); and the one that itself is so deeply associated with death: Mozart’s Requiem. Mozart himself died after composing it. Kubrick used it in his last film, one obsessed with death. A requiem is, by very definition, a hymn for the dead. Hey, if it’s good enough for Chopin, it’s good enough for me.
I can see the benefit of living past this century, and I can see the drawback of living through it. I cherish every breath that I take, but I also plan to embrace death, and the great unknown that follows it. Kill me in the next second or prop up my mortal frame until doomsday; either way I shall be content. Then again, who wants to inhabit this plane forever? Even as humanity matures, even with all there is to see, wouldn’t you at some point grow weary of being human? I know some will read this and think, “I already am.”
Though improbable, this century may yield a master capable of creating beauty and distilling the essence of life and death as magnificently as Mozart. Wouldn’t that be worth sticking around to see? Nonetheless, I sometimes wonder if I’m not diluting the Requiem’s meaning by abusing technology’s gift of being able to listen to it whenever I please. Surely it was more potent, surely it had more meaning to the person who heard it only once in a lifetime, issuing forth from behind the black of a velvet curtain rather than that of a paper cone. Still, there is something to be said for this age. One could safely argue that recording and reproducing music has brought its enriching effects to a much greater audience, and expanded the scope of its influence. I’ve heard more types of music, and a larger number of deeply moving pieces, than Mozart ever did. At least with his ears. Then again, he was Mozart.
All this, like anything I write, is to say that I’m happy to be alive. I’m glad that humans die. I appreciate suffering, tests and growth. I delight in beauty, joy and love. I’m content to live in this age, just like I would have been in any other. But I’m excited to see what the future holds. As those now dead were, and as they not yet born will be after I die. Come on, 21st century, you started with a bang. Let’s see what you got.